Shimla’s mountain air: cool at last

For the past 90 days, we have sweltered and sweated our way through India; our faces dripping and our clothes sticky.  Three days ago, after five hours of bus travel, we climbed 2200 metres into the foothills of the Himalayas and left the heat and humidity behind.

Our last week in India will be spent in India’s oldest hill station – the former summer playground of the British upper crust and the current favourite of newlyweds and Indian families fleeing the spring and summer heat. Today in Delhi it was 38 degrees; in Shimla, it was 23 degrees with a light breeze. Once night falls, we  will need coats and hoodies. We’ve been sleeping under two heavy blankets and no air conditioning – heaven.

Shimla, with the snowy peaks of the Himalayas on the horizon.

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We have been putting our legs and lungs to the test – the town is built on seven steep hills, and the inclines can be brutal. Some of the smaller staircases are a little heartstopping – a fall down these stairs and you would be airborne.

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We’ve been able to soften our ascents and descents by sticking to the broader roads, most of them pedestrian-only. The main part of Shimla’s centre core is defined by The Ridge, a large open area ringed with small greenspaces, monuments to Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, and vistas of the town and mountains. This is where everyone gathers- Ground Zero for  the millions of selfies that threaten to drive me mad. I’m trying to sidestep fogey attitudes, but  for some reason, selfie-nation gets under my skin in a big way. There is no background too innocuous for a selfie; no opportunity wasted for yet another shot of me, glorious me.

Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful. (at some point I may look around and appreciate the scenery, or…maybe not.)

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Selfies aside, without cars and motorbikes and tuk-tuks dominating the landscape, the people-watching becomes far more interesting.

Stephen has been collecting photos of mannequins – this started last year in SE Asia, where the mannequins were bizarre and downright scary. He’s found a few in India and noticed this one – her hair cut with pinking shears by a stoned best friend who also gave her really bad advice on eyeglasses. The gorgeous girls in front of the mannequin wanted us to take a photo of them as well.

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We stopped in a square for a break from our mountaineering, and almost immediately these two little brothers began tearing around in front of us – trying to get our attention and showing off outrageously.  Of course, we were encouraging them until their mother scolded them to behave properly, and on her instruction, they came over to practice their English.  “Are you from America?” “Do you like India?” “Thank-you for speaking to us.”
There are a number of very good schools in Shimla, and these two boys are attending one of them – learning their subjects in English.

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Shimla is different from much of India in a number of ways. Due to the steep terrain, traffic is confined to lower roads,  which means much of the city core is like a walk in the park –  peaceful and stress-free. There are very few beggars here, so hopefully that means there is a little more money to go around for more people. There is very little garbage on the streets. There are do-not-litter signs up everywhere, and plenty of garbage cans. Shimla has declared itself a smoke-free city and smoking inside and outside is punishable by fine. We did not see a single smoker – amazing. And – hallelujah – spitting is another civic misdemeanour.  We did see a few spitters, but it’s a hard habit to break.

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I marvelled at this store. Does this mean anyone could kit themselves out in full uniform and pass themselves off as police officers? Think of the revenue possibilities.

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Two of Shimla’s police officers in ceremonial garb – patrolling the streets.

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Due to the incredibly steep inclines on many of the streets, moving goods is done by sheer brute human force. You can imagine what four cases of pop weighs, held in place by heavy nylon straps. We saw many such amazing feats of strength – including incredibly, a full-sized refrigerator.

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The main shopping street, called The Mall, weaves around the Ridge on either side and runs for seven km. This is where tourists and locals congregate, and where some of the town’s main attractions and interesting architecture are found.

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One very curious business enterprise in Shimla are bathroom scales. Vendors set up blankets on the ground with the scales in front (and mysteriously, there are often horseshoes set up alongside – perhaps a token of good luck for the weigh-ee?) The cost is 10 rupees – about 20 cents. I passed by a number of decrepit scales until I came to this lady, with her bright shiny digital scale, unadorned with horseshoes – just the scale.  I liked her style, plus she charged double her competitor’s prices – 20 rupees, so with the logic of “you get what you pay for”, I removed my shoes, and hopped on. Aha! I’ve lost at least 10 pounds  – worth every rupee.

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Thus encouraged, we continued on to our destination – The Oberoi Cecil Hotel.

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Built 130 years ago on the site of Tendril Cottage, where Rudyard Kipling lived and wrote his novels, The Oberoi Cecil played a large role in the social life of the British Raj era and was the scene of many balls and galas. As Kipling noted, Shimla at the height of British rule had a reputation for ” frivolity, gossip and intrigue.” The Cecil no doubt added to that reputation.

It was completely refurbished in 1997, in the  original understated old money style and while we could not afford $400 a night to stay there, we decided to stop for lunch in the atrium, just to absorb the atmosphere.

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Our delightful waiter would have noticed our less-than-polished appearance and our consternation over the menu prices. When we decided to forego lunch and share the least expensive item on the menu, he nodded as approvingly as though we had just chosen the Himalayan trout, paired with a crisp white wine.

Our coffee, served with tea cakes and complimentary biscuits. Coffee was excellent, cakes were a touch dry.  Our bill was just over $30. (Lunch would have been just under $100). Nonetheless, a wonderful experience.

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The main dining room of the Oberoi Cecil. Can you not imagine the glasses of sherry and the poached fish and the dinner conversations?

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Shimla still has many buildings from its heyday as the summer capital. From 1864 to 1939, the entire government of India would flee the heat of Calcutta and transport all the files and documents of government to Shimla. It became not just the centre of government, but also the stage for the social life of the British elite.  Picnics, balls, galas, hunting, and amateur theatre at the Gaiety Theatre became the focus of each Season.

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The Gaiety Theatre has been beautifully restored, and on-site historian Mr. Gautam gave us a very animated and interesting tour of the theatre and explanation of its history. He modestly shook his head when I ask him if he was also an actor, and acknowledged that I was not the first to come to that conclusion.

The theatre was a huge diversion, and each summer plays by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw would be staged by amateur  British actors to a British-only audience. No Indians allowed – neither on stage nor in the audience.

Today, about 15 local theatre groups still perform on the well-worn stage.

View from the stage.

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Restoration projects are happening all over Shimla – so many grand mansions that have sadly been left to ruin.  This one – Bantony Castle – is almost impossible to imagine that it can be reclaimed. It has deteriorated to the point where the roof has collapsed in spots, so interior damage must be severe. However, restoration is in the works – it would be so interesting to see when the work is completed.

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The simple, elegant Christ Church Cathedral is another landmark from the British era. Built in 1846, it is one of the oldest churches in northern India.  We walked around the side to the manse, where they were serving Good Friday hot cross buns and coffee.

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Shopping in Shimla is a curious mix of Western knock-offs (Puma, Adidas), carved wooden toys and keychains and embroidered clothing and wool shawls. We bought a large shawl made of yak wool from Tibet, (which we will likely use as a lap blanket) – our only purchase so far, other than light clothing. There were many beautiful things along the way, but we didn’t want to have to carry stuff along with us as we travelled, so we’ve bought nothing. We may end up spending our remaining rupees at the Delhi airport.

Fancy gold jewellery is a huge thing in India – for weddings and for everyday use. While this jewellery is far too ornate for me, it is perfectly suited to Indian women, with their beautiful saris, their white teeth and red lipstick and their dark colouring.

There are a number of very good jewellery stores in Shimla – here is an example of some typical Indian gold jewellery.

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This has nothing to do with shopping, but is an interesting fact of life in Shimla.  Since vehicles are limited to the lower roads, traffic is horrendous and parking is at a premium. Most of the roads have limited shoulders and/or are on very steep inclines. Many hotels have just a handful of parking spaces for their guests and this is what they look like. Can you imagine the nerves required to park cars on this rooftop?

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Sunset at Shimla.

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We’re in Shimla for another four days and have lots more to tell you about.  I’ll be sending out another posting before we leave.

Happy Easter from India!

Munnar: our first Indian hill station

Our five-hour bus trip to Munnar was entertaining (non-stop Bollywood dance sequences), comfortable (clean seats, A/C) and calm (our driver drove the twisty, winding roads in a safe and gentle manner; allowing the impatient masses behind him to pass on blind corners without challenging them to a game of chicken). We left behind blistering heat in Cochi to reach the cool, serene heights of hill station Munnar, former resort to the British Raj elite. Our final ascent to our guesthouse in the hills was by tuk-tuk.

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The entrance to Green Magic Hotel.

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The view from our hotel balcony.

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Green Magic Hotel was a perfect choice for us – just five rooms and run by the sweet and hospitable Robin, who also happens to be a professional chef. Each breakfast and dinner guests met around a table groaning with food. Robin explained the dishes and left us to chat. So far we have met guests from England, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and India. Last night we had three mother-daughter groups, two friends who had left kids and husbands behind and us.

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Our guesthouse is set high in the hills about 6 km. from the town of Munnar. At night, it is silent – the stars come out, the temperature drops and we sleep with windows wide open to cool mountain air. We wake in the early morning to raucous birdsong. If this was the turn of the century, we would be in the mountains “taking a cure”.

The area around Munnar is the largest tea-growing region in south India, and the oldest; plantations date back to the late 19th century and plants like this are 75 years old. As you can see, they thrive on poor soil – the gnarly roots appear to grow right into the rock.

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From a photographic point of view, our timing was off – the tea pickers were in another area the day we went hiking and they don’t work on Sundays. Picking tea has not been mechanized – each leaf is still picked by hand. Just the shiny light green top leaves are picked – the rest are left behind.

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The rows of tea plants are trimmed like miniature ornamental hedges – immaculate and glossy – they stretch for as far as the eye can see.

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Munnar is well-known for its “soft trekking” – unlike the Himalayas, the Western Ghat Mountain range is rounded and more gentle for hiking. It is possible (but not advisable) to head out for the hills without a guide. The paths are wide and easy to navigate and the incline is gentle and gradual enough for beginners. There are 25- 30 km. treks, but we opted for a five-hour, 15 km. hike.  Our guide Ramish met us at our guesthouse at 7:30 am, and within 15 minutes we had reached the trail, bitterly regretting not having brought a coat or hoodie. There was frost on the plants and ice on the ground. Munnar frequently gets below-zero overnight temperatures in December and early January, but as is the case in the rest of the world, Munnar is experiencing climate change and unseasonable weather. We don’t stay cold for long, and soon the rewards of the hike begin to unfold.

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The mountain range layers away in all directions, from deep purple to forest green to the palest lavender. For the first time since we’ve arrived in India, the air is pure and the sky is bright blue.

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We walked past a group of people resting on a boulder. Some of them were sitting right on the edge, with feet dangling over the abyss.

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A rare sight at this elevation – a high tree and some shade.

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We stopped for a water break and to admire the view. A long line of blue uniforms began to appear – the Navy cadets were heading toward us in full force. About 50 young men trooped by and settled in on another rock just in front of us. The drill began and so did the push-ups. We had a great laugh watching some of the guys trying to fake it after about 10 push-ups – they have a way to go yet in their training.  We found out they were from Delhi – an exuberant group of 20-year-olds down for a weekend camp.

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Ramish points out Anamudi Mountain – at 2695 m., it is South India’s highest mountain peak.  The mountain is in the background – that’s Ramish in the foreground; a little the worse for wear for having helped an old lady down a steep incline. After I slipped and nearly fell a couple of times, he became alarmed. He stepped in front of me, grabbed my left hand over his shoulder and performed a cross between a fireman’s carry and a human shield to bring me to safety. My trusty Keen sandals are normally solid, but they would not grab the talcum powder surface of the dusty slope.

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We spent two days with Ramish and got to know him a little. His English is not great, but he tries very hard and really wants to improve to become a qualified tour guide. Our host Robin recommended him (they are good friends), and we were happy with his services, but we got a bit of an insight into the challenges of his life.

Ramish is 31 years old, has a wife and two young children and has lived in Munnar his whole life. He has a night job with the tea factory; he works from 10 pm to 7 am and he and a friend switch off duties during the night so they can take turns napping (probably not an encouraged practice.) He earns 300 rupees each shift – about $6 Canadian dollars. His company also pays his health care, his children’s school costs and gives him a house to live in until he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 58. Hopefully in the intervening years he will have made other arrangements for a home. To supplement his income, he bought a tuk-tuk and drives during the day. Three to four times a week during tourist season,  people like us pay him 1200 rupees ($25) for five hours touring – four times his salary at the tea factory. By many Indian standards, he is doing fine. The challenge for Ramish is that he is bright and ambitious but he only has Grade Nine education. When we stopped for lunch, we sat by a guide and his Italian guests and we watched Ramish observe them. That guide was obviously educated, fluent in English, and polished in dress and demeanour. How does our Ramish find the time and the opportunity to improve his lot? Both Stephen and I felt his longing for more – it was palpable. Ramish is charming, decent, very hard-working and bright – in Canada that would be his ticket to a comfortable life. Still, he seems to be a happy man – young, strong, self-sufficient, surrounded by community and living in a beautiful place.

Heading down the mountain and through the tea plantation; Ramish walks this almost every day and never gets tired of the view.

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Ramish took us out in his tuk-tuk on another day for a tour of the area. The draw to Munnar is the natural beauty, the trekking, the cool, clean air and the escape from the chaos of urban India. Munnar’s tourism board feels the need to gild the lily by marketing a raft of unappealing and pointless attractions, such as a garden centre with a couple of acres of parched dahlias and listless roses. We passed on that, so Ramish headed for Mattupetty Dam.  He instructed us to walk over the dam and “come back in 10 minutes.” Dutifully we obliged, wondering why we were staring through a chain-link fence to garbage and murky green water. We walked along the lake for a bit and headed back to the tuk-tuk.

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There are bison and wild elephants in the area, and although we saw dried-up evidence of animal visits on the pathways, we did not see so much as a squirrel while we were driving and hiking. As luck would have it, a mum and her baby elephant appeared, but sadly too far away from us to get a closer view. They were way down on the beach while we were way up in the hills. But still, it was a squinty-eyed thrill to see them.

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Ramish pointed out a low shrub called Kurinji that blooms just once every 12 years, and 2018 is the magic year for the next mass blooming. Apparently the area around Munnar has the best viewing, but I’m hoping we will be able to see this flower in other parts of India as well – they are due to bloom in March and April.
In the meantime, the hills were filled with giant colourful flowers – red, blue, yellow – names unknown.
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Munnar’s town market is quite lovely – filled with such exotica as banana flowers.

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Just a few stalls down, we watched fresh banana chips being made – scraped from a mandolin into boiling oil. We couldn’t resist this perfect Indian snack.

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Today, we went for a six-km. walk into the plantations and hills around our guesthouse. We ran into these characters – here on holiday from Toronto. The gentleman with the Blue Jays cap has lived in Toronto for six years and works as a chef with Aramark – the company that provides food for Rogers Stadium. He is originally from this area, and obviously could not resist doing what you can’t do in Canada – sit on the top of a Jeep while driving down a steep mountainside.

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One of the many viewpoints from the winding paths leading to the village below.

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And again…

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Our time in Munnar has been picture-perfect.  We had planned to visit Periyar Reserve, and nearby Thekkady, but learned from our host that the 900 elephants there are no longer easy to view. Three years ago, a couple was trampled to death by an elephant when the flash on their camera startled him. After that tragedy, the park closed trekking into certain areas of the park, and elephant sightings are now very rare.

Disappointing, but there are a number of other great animal reserves in India, which we will hopefully visit. Tomorrow we head for Alleppey, which is the hub of Kerala’s backwaters.