Solo Trip May 2014 - Shimla, Kinnaur and Spiti by HRTC bus


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My first travelogue on bcmt - please be gentle :)

This trip came out of nowhere- really. And boy did that feel good!

Prologue -

In February 2014, I had resigned from my job in Delhi NCR and accepted a position in Hyderabad. I was going to move in May. In between the two jobs, I wanted to go somewhere a little less visited and tried to make a plan to visit either Cambodia or Iran. I spent well over a month researching both options, speaking with people who had been to these countries. I even created a profile on couch surfing and found hosts in remote parts of Iran such as Rasht, near the Caspian Sea.

All this effort came to naught when towards the last week of March; Iran changed its visa policy towards Indian nationals. Thus, on Friday 25th of April, my last working day, I had nowhere to go but back to my apartment in Delhi. In fact, I was so dejected by the turn of events that I even contemplated joining my next job early! Clearly, I was in a disturbed frame of mind.

On Saturday morning, with still no plan at all, I figured that a short escape to Shimla wouldn’t hurt. Despite living in Delhi area for six years, I had never been to Shimla. At such a short notice, the narrow gauge train was out of the question and it would have to be a bus. I booked an HRTC Volvo leaving on Sunday night (27th) from ISBT and spent the remaining weekend packing, cleaning the apartment and emptying out the refrigerator.

I then called my parents that I’ve booked a ticket to Shimla and I should be back in couple days tops.

Instead, twelve days later, I found myself in Pin Valley, amongst the first tourists of the season, chasing a couple of ibexes through waist deep snow.

This report is a recollection of what happened in-between. A view over spiti river is below -

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Shimla is ugly, shockingly so. This is my first memory of the summer capital of the British Raj – a city that many have described in glowing terms. After I got off the bus at the new bus stand (near the railway station) it was several minutes before I reconciled with the fact that I had reached the town I had read so much about over the years. The urban sprawl spread beyond what my gaze could capture. Decaying façades of old buildings lined paths that rose steeply to the ridge above – paths made narrower by open drains full of dirty water and stray garbage. It was still early and the dogs that bark all night hadn’t gone to rest. The city looked so enervated to me that there were not even enough touts approaching me for a hotel room.

A single coolie asked me politely if I wanted a hotel and after I declined, there were no more. It was all so uniformly disappointing.

After I asked a young boy where the YMCA was and was pointed to that direction, I dragged my bag on the path that curved steeply ahead and after twenty feet or so, dropped it to the ground, gasping for breath. I turned around and looked if the coolie was around. He wasn’t, but another one was coming down the same path. He was a Kashmiri, a migrant labourer and carried a piece of bicycle tube around his waist with which to strap the load on his back. He asked for one hundred and fifty rupees and I agreed without bargain.

A good twenty minutes of hard walking brought us to the YMCA premises. It is well hidden behind the Christ church on the ridge, several steep stairs on a dark alley need be climbed to reach its gate. Had it not been the lonely planet’s top recommendation for stay in Simla, I doubt anyone would have found the place at all. The place was dead quiet when I reached at a half past six in the morning and the heavy channel gates though not locked were shut.

To top that, the caretaker cum receptionist, Anil, was sound asleep. Several loud knocks on the glass pane made him wake up but he asked that I come back after nine in the morning when the person in-charge will be available. This is your vacation (I said to myself) and stayed as calm as I could.

After several minutes of explaining the situation to him, he gave me a key to a room. It was the family room priced at rupees 1500 and had an ensuite bathroom. I liked it at first glance – it had a frayed Kashmiri carpet, a fireplace for display purposes but it was very quiet. I clambered onto the old wooden bed and fell asleep betwixt the linen jacketed quilts.

Around 11 am, a hot shower followed – I had to use the common bath room for that – which turned out to be much better maintained. With no agenda still, I walked out of the YMCA to grab something to eat and do a bit of sightseeing.

My first stop was the Christ church. The church sits at one end of the ridge -the place is now called Gandhi chowk - and is painted pale yellow. It is an inviting building and I entered from the small doorway on its right side. The inside, though not very large, is imposing due to the double-height vaulted ceiling that is supported by wooden beams.

What adds to the serenity of the space is the light that forms beautiful beams thanks to the stained glass windows. The windows themselves are works of art – depicting scenes from the nativity and other events in the life of Christ. Left of the altar is dominated a very large organ – said to be the largest in India when it was dedicated.

I don’t know enough about the life of Jesus to make out exactly which event was depicted and there was no one at hand to explain either. I think the one below shows ‘Christ the king’ but any help is appreciated regards the explanation.

This one apparently represents the virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Patience and Humility – all of which I had either lost or would lose at some point of time during the course of this trip.

After a few customary photos, I walked out into the strong sunlight of the mountains that by then flooded the ridge. Under that light, the ridge appeared wider than it actually is and I thought one could drive perhaps four cars abreast on that tarmac (six if you learnt driving in Delhi). It was still delightfully free of the throngs that I had heard invade Shimla once school vacations begin in the plains.

On the right side of the church as I exited, stood a fine example of neo-tudor architecture of the Raj. This is the municipal library building – a small squat two storied building that one sees on picture postcards from europe. The inside proved to be a bit disappointing as they allow members only and the staff was not particularly welcoming (I suppose they see too many camera toting tourists).

A short walk along, and down a flight of stairs that connect the ridge with the mall road, stood the Gaiety theater on my left. Disappointed that it was closed for renovations and that the tours that show off this 1880s building were temporarily suspended, I continued to waltz along the mall road – savoring in the mish-mash of nineteenth century European architecture that the homesick British recreated here, two thousand meters above sea level, in this country far away from their home. Some of these buildings are important and marked in most maps that one can obtain in Shimla. I had obtained one such map book from the HPTDC office at the mall road. The map doesn’t talk about the architecture of individual buildings but at-least it tells you where what is. I looked up towards the GPO building (seen at the far end in this frame) – turned out later that it is fashioned after a Swiss chalet.

At that moment, of far greater importance was the building to my left – it housed the restaurant where I’d have my lunch. Baljees is an old Shimla establishment frequented by locals – and it was packed to the gills at one in the afternoon on this sunny day. Back in Delhi, a friend and I, both outsiders living in the city, often joked that the second favourite sport of delhiites is shopping – the top spot taken by eating. Here at lunch, I could see the residents of Shimla did not lack the spirit of competition.

The shady environs were a welcome respite from the direct sun. I ordered a pizza and a fresh lime soda. Sadly, the pizza turned out to be made of thick papier-mache and flour-glue.


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Remains of the Raj - part 1
I came out to face the centerpiece of the mall – the Town hall building. Now used by the municipal corporation and hence called the Nagar Nigam. This Tudor style building was designed by the noted Indo-Sarcenic architect Henry Irwin for the usage of the Viceroy to hold meetings. The current structure dates back to 1908 and though most of the wooden frames are clearly showing their age, the façade doesn’t fail to impress.

I started to walk down in the general direction of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), which was recommended to me by the tourism guys as the most impressive Raj era building in Simla. The map indicated that somewhere on the side of the mall, after a turn should be St Michael’s church. The map of course makes no mention of whether it was worth seeing or otherwise. The church is reached after a dual flight of stairs shortly after the road broadens near the Indian coffee house on the mall road.

St Michael’s church is a complete contrast from the Christ Church. For example, it is hidden from plain view unlike the latter that can be seen from a very long way off due to its imposing position on the ridge. It has a dull grey exterior made of dressed stone as opposed to the welcoming yellow paint on the other. The interior is dissimilar as well – it is lined with columns that are topped by arches and the walls are pale, cream in colour.

There are two beautiful stained glass windows though – I think they far surpasses anything the Christ Church has – it shows St Michael in the centre with St Edward on the right but I can’t identify the one on the left.

This other stained glass panel shows the crucifixion of Christ flanked by St Francis of Assisi and St Josephus.

This church was built in 1885 under the auspices of the then viceroy, Lord Ripon, who was a catholic. The grounds provide a good view of the hills below and the church itself was devoid of many visitors that day save a few college students who were flirting with each other under the pretext of discussing their academics. This dried tree provided a scenic foreground element for the shot.

Looking back, I noticed I had had quite a walk, the yellow crown of the bell tower of Christ church could scarcely be noticed amidst the urban sprawl around it. The hill top statue of Hanuman of the Jakhoo temple rose above the trees.

It was quarter past three in the afternoon when I reached a fork in the road where Mall road and Cart road merged (or diverged – depending on where you were coming from) and gazed at a board that read ‘Gorton Castle’. An imposing structure, the building was designed in the neo gothic style by the renowned architect Sir Swinton Jacob – who I remember best for designing the Albert Hall Museum at Jaipur.

Today, however, it is under a terrible state of disrepair though the board out front states that the building was completely repaired in 2003. The wood of most of the Rajasthani lattice windows has decayed and the roof of the second floor has fallen off completely. The ground floor houses the AG’s office and hence is out of bounds for tourists. The board out front marks it as a spot for the Shimla heritage trail, but the board itself requires repainting. Quite a sordid state for a building that cost over a million rupees back in 1904!

Continuing from there on the Chaura Maidan road, I walked past the Governor’s house on the left and the Cecil oberoi (again on my left) to come to a crossroads and then continued forth another kilometre to reach the wide wooden gate of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. I had (I reckoned) walked over two kilometres non-stop and given how little sleep I had had the previous night, was happy to have reached.

‘Sahab, aaj band hai’ (Sahib, it is closed today) – the Bihari chowkidaar said sweetly, smiling. ‘It is a Monday, so…’

I wanted to run to suicide point to bring the trip to a swift conclusion.
Better sense prevailed and after waiving futilely at some of the passing taxis, I ambled back. The walk to the Railway board building was two and a half kilometres, it seemed like twenty. I momentarily considered stopping at the Peterhof for tea but then just went forward anyways.
I stopped briefly to read the details of the railway board building and photographing the curious structure. The history and survivability of the building is impressive as seen in the photo below.

The painted cast iron pipes that envelope the strawberry red façade resembled an exoskeleton of some sort. They reminded me faintly of photographs I had seen of the Pompidou centre in Paris but of little else in India. We like to conceal our plumbing (perhaps because so little of it works).

Nourishment was provided in the form of tea and baked samosas by a bihari vendor who mans the tea stall at the state bank of india building at the edge of the busy part of mall road. For a samosa, It was unusual, but it was good. It also helped me sustain my aimless meandering for quite a while longer.

As I walked back towards the mall, I noticed that the sunlight had become much gentler and shadows were longer. Back onto the ridge, dozens upon dozens of people were walking from hither to thither. The temperatures were lower and there was a certain poetic beauty to the whole scene despite the crowds that milled around.

At Gandhi chowk, the Christ church bathed in the light of the setting sun and further above, the hanuman statue looked so tiny.

I was back at YMCA where a Canadian girl of Indian descent who had checked in the same day was complaining loudly about the city and asking Anil, the man Friday whether she should go to Manali. He asked her to stay and started strumming on his guitar. That was a nice touch and I could sense that he was being nice to me as well.

I had walked about seven kilometers already that day, but I didn’t feel like eating near the YMCA. So, camera in hand, I walked out again past the Town hall that was lit like it was Diwali night.

Young fashionable crowds thronged the eateries at the mall.

I made my way to the Indian Coffee house. The waiter outside looked at my camera and posed (!). The ICH is an old favourite but the one in Simla dishes out very sorry stuff.

After dinner, I walked back to YMCA, to my cold silent room and curled under two layers of quilts, thought about whether I wanted to stay another day. Maybe this was the queen of the hills, after all, after the caked layers of decades of rampant urbanization and neglect were peeled away. I didn’t have an answer as I slept.


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Remains of the Raj- Part 2

The overnight bus journey the night before and the traipsing around town all through Monday resulted in a very sound sleep. I slept nearly eleven hours and was at Cakes and Bakes, a bakery cum café at the Town hall square only at ten AM. Well, clearly I wasn’t leaving town that day. The weather in Simla on the morning of the 29th of April can be best described as crisp and thankfully the boys at C&B know how to make a good cappuccino. They’d compete with a Costa any day.

I used the time over coffee to pore over the map book and make some rough calculations as to how far places such as Narkanda were and the time I need to distribute to Kinnaur and possibly Spiti. The previous day I had enquired about buses leaving for Recong Peo and that it would be an eight to ten hour ride subject to road closures. That seemed long and I contemplated breaking the journey in Sarahan.

After the croissant and coffee, I got onto a shared taxi (where were they yesterday??) for ten rupees all the way to the Ambedakar statue (near the Cecil Oberoi) – a cool two kilometre ride. My first stop was the Archaeological museum. Photography is not permitted unless one buys a ticket and as it turned out, my fifty rupees were well saved as I didn’t plumb for a ticket up front. I was out the door in less than twenty minutes and on my way to the IIAS (Indian Institute of Advanced Studies).

The IIAS has to be, hands down, the single most impressive Raj era building in Simla and appears to be something air lifted from the UK and dropped here.

I was so impressed by the building that I pranced around the garden taking shot after shot – from the front and the corners such as the one below.

Above the entrance is the Royal British seal carved in grey stone – I recognized it immediately as English cricket team players wear it on their uniform (and I’ve always wondered why the lion didn’t eat the horse already). (Because it's a unicorn, silly, it's not real!)

Built by Lord Duffrein (with later additions by Lord Irwin) as the Viceregal lodge in the 1880s, it was used as the residence when the heat of the plains got too much for the British to bear. The second president of India, Dr Radhakrishnan thought the building would be used better as an institution for higher learning and in the 1960s established the IIAS here.

Today, most of the building is out of bounds as the government runs residential scholar programs for the chosen few in areas as diverse as religion and science and technology. Entry to the building is by way a tour where groups are escorted inside along with a guide leading the front and a guard at the rear bringing back the wayward to the path of the righteous (and also from indulging in photography as it is not permitted).

Our tour began a bit past noon and lasted a short half hour. Our guide was very well informed and did a good job keeping the group interested and answered almost all questions. The first stop was the impressive hall. It is three storeys high from the inside and wood panelled from ground to ceiling and then the ceiling itself is panelled with genuine teak. The library has small chandeliers as it was formerly used as the ballroom. The bulbs here were lit with electricity back in the 1880s. The most memorable room was where a round table is housed upon which the decision to partition India was taken in 1947. We were left towards the end of the half hour tour to view some photographs of the British residents of this building and of notable conferences held here.

At quarter to one, I was wandering around in the expansive and immaculately maintained gardens of the Viceregal lodge / IIAS. I walked around the gardens for another half hour, admiring the pebble strewn pathways lined with tall trees on either side.

The flower beds were in full bloom with antirrhinums, zinnias, calendulas, anthuriums, poppies, asters and gerberas.

The gardens provided a soothing ambience and I just sat down on a bench for a while and did absolutely nothing. It felt very good and I was beginning to feel better about the visit to Simla. As I walked back towards the wing that now houses the cafeteria and bookshop (formerly the fire station), the same chowkidaar from yesterday pointed me to an annexe building behind the wing. It housed old photographs – Wah!

The sun can be quite harsh in the hills and I relaxed a while longer than I should have inside the cafeteria. This building was formerly where they housed the fire engines and it still contains some firefighting equipment. The place was chock a block with visitors, children running all over and a couple arguing over something inconsequential the way only a couple can do.

On the way back, I could not find a ride and had to walk the two and a half kilometres back to the strawberry red façade of railway board building. I was surprised to find gorgeous red strawberries being sold close to the building and bought a box. They were delicious!

Back at the YMCA I slept another couple of hours, waking up at six and went out for a completely forgettable dinner. I have almost no memory of where I ate that night. I must have photographed Simla from the ridge though, as I have that photo with me. It looked sublime under the cover of a blue-black sky with only little lights spread all over the hills. I slept again early, a little past nine after making the payment to Anil for the two nights as I would not see him the next morning.