The bus ride to Simla was not nearly as comfortable as I’d hoped, nor as uncomfortable as I feared. I got a classically Indian bus: pretty grubby, but otherwise comfortable enough. I was happy to ride with average Indians around me, sharing stories about their travels, and the seats reclined so we all slept snuggled deep in blankets, heavy coats and touques (Indians in Himachal Pradesh, land of altitude induced cold are no stranger to touques- they are not a solely Canadian phenomenon!) I got at least 6.5 hours “travel sleep” feeling the bus rise and fall and sway with the mountain road, and then woke a good 40 minutes before dawn. The stars above the mountain peaks were stunningly bright and thick in the black sky, and the area is generally pretty sparsely populated, so there wasn’t a lot of light pollution coming from the little villages outside Shimla. I caught sight of my traveling companion (from childhood road trips) Orion for a while. I definitely got suckered by the taxi driver that took me up to “Spars Lodge”, a mere 5 minutes from the bus station but live and learn! I was initially weirded out when he let me out in front of a gated property with two armed security guards (one of them sweeping the sidewalk) in front. It turns out there is an official ministerial residence of some sort directly across from the Lodge. I doubt they have to worry about robberies around here…
Spars Lodge is pretty tiny with only about 6 or 7 rooms for visitors, and the single room I had on the lowest story was very simple, with a rooftop of a building on a lower terrace blocking any view down the mountainside, and in need of a bit of a sweep. However, the common area/reception area/dining room (like I said, this is a small place) has a magnificent panoramic view. After a shower, disappointing breakfast (instant oatmeal and Nescafe), nice conversation with a fellow lodger named Bete from Luzerne, Switzerland, and visit from a local monkey wondering why there was glass between himself and my breakfast I headed out for the historic Viceregal Lodge.
I got myself lost taking the wrong fork of a road, and wandered down into the valley of Annadale. A military vehicle went by (what is with all the military here?) and let me know I was headed the wrong way- but it was an interesting diversion. Simla is a seriously beautiful alpine town with lots of gorgeous views. I came back to the same fork of the road and still wasn’t sure which way to go (I had 4 choices), so I ducked into the nearby bird sanctuary to admire some Indian species of pheasant, fancy chickens, peacocks and geese… and consult my map. Upon exiting the sanctuary, having read the Lonely Planet entry for the Viceregal Lodge, it made sense to me that the large gatehouse directly across from the sanctuary had the sign “Indian Institute of Advanced Study”- housed in the Viceregal Lodge. The grounds of the Institute are pretty extensive and, charmingly, the ticket office, gift shop and cafeteria for the Lodge are in what used to be a fire station. After wandering around the grounds waiting for the next tour group to be let in, I sat down inside for a coffee (“please put a big scoop of it (Nescafe) into my cup”), chatted with a nice man from Delhi guiding a tour group around Simla himself, and rested. Simla is at even higher elevation than McLeod Ganj, so walking uphill for any amount of time is serious business.
On a somewhat frivolous aside, I was grateful every day since arriving in India that I impulse-bought a bottle of “Liquid Oxygen” from the Skymall shopping on my Air Canada flight. It was a serious lifesaver in dealing with the jet lag and altitude, when taking it about 3 times a day. I can’t imagine how I would have felt without it- life saving product for travelers!
The Viceregal Lodge building itself was beautiful outside and in, and also intriguing! The huge main hall paneled completely in teak from Java was very impressive, and the Victorian technologies built into it equally so: the building has a still functioning sprinkler system fed with collected rainwater (also used to water the grounds)- the sprinkler heads are all sealed with wax, so if there is a fire the wax melts and the water is released- also the water is released if the multiple thermostats filled with solid nitrogen evaporates. The surrounding gardened grounds were also lovely, and I was struck by how many of the flower species there are commonly seen in Canada. It must be because the British brought the local flowers back to England, and then from England to Canada. I wonder whether some of them, like nasturtium, started off in England or in India. That would be a fun little research project- the history of decorative flora. Yup, I’m a nerd.
It turns out that Spars Lodge really is “on the other side of town”, for I walked a good 20 minutes before finding the beginnings of “The Mall” and Scandal Point. Simla is truly interesting and eclectic place with all this British architecture on the crest of the mountain ridge overlooking a very Indian bazaar and city. I went into it via a downwards forking from the Ridge end of Scandal point, closer to where the cable lift operates (very handy if one takes a hotel further down the mountainside- no cars are allowed into the Mall and Scandal Point Ridge area, which makes for really pleasant walking and relative quiet). Going through the winding, narrow streets of the Middle Bazaar I realized I had better get used to being bumped gently and physically brushing past people continuously, because there’s not a lot of room to spare, and people don’t pause to apologize or even bat an eyelid. Like most markets and bazaars around the world, there’s a lot of “same same, but different” and I wondered at the profusion of corner store type places. I stopped for some pretty, fresh barfi (a kind of cross between baked square and fudge, more fudge-like than pastry- the texture closest to coconut lemon squares) decorated with silver foil, shaved pistachio or rose petals in coconut and “regular” flavour, which is pretty much an explosion of “leche” like sweetness.
A note on the Indian’s love of sweets- there is no exaggeration. Cake slathered in buttercream icing, ice cream, barfi, and candy shops abound- and then the corner store type places then also stock a profusion of name brand cookies and biscuits, ice creams and kulfi. Watch out- it’s all seriously awesome. There was even a lunch spot chain called “The Honey Hut” that added honey to every single one of its curries! That I refrained from- honeyed curry did not sound appetizing.
Instead of backtracking through the bazaar, I decided to use of the steep stairways connecting it back up to the Mall, and was humbled by how slowly I had to take it. The way is so steep, little shops are situated at the terrace levels as well, just as much to give people a break from climbing as much as to put every available space to use. By the time I got back up to the top level, I arrived a bit too late to the beautiful Gaiety Theatre for a tour. As the sun was beginning to sink towards the mountains, a decided chill crept into the breeze, and my walk home in the shadowed area was a blessed cool relief from the scorching heat when the sun was full.
So far I have visited Tibetan India (Little Tibet) and British India (Little England)…
Dinner at Spas Lodge proved to be more than satisfactory. The proprietor makes delicious everything. My scramble of tomato, onion and egg dish was excellent, as was the sabzi (lightly stewed and curried mixed vegetables). It was hard to keep my eyes open even as The Swiss visitor, Bete, fascinated me with tales of his amazing bicycle trip through the remote mountain areas of Himachal Pradesh, the “foothills” to the Himalayas (to ensure that he can travel just as much as he wants for as long as he wants, he has only 3 cardboard boxes worth of personal belongings- ONLY 3- AMAZING!!! INSPIRING!!!). I excused myself early and after taking only enough time to brush my teeth and stretch my sore leg muscles (and take a dose of arnica montana) after all that hill and stair climbing (owies), I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.