A Memorable Trip to Shimla during Christmas
Shimla is nestled in the mountains at the foot of the Himalayas. During the British colonial era it was a retreat site for soldiers and officials with days off. The British families during the hot summer in Delhi went to Shimla looking for the cool breeze from the mountains. In 1864 the authorities of the Raj declared it the summer capital.
I wanted to travel during Christmas in a narrow-gauge toy train that leads to the city of Shimla. I have always liked trains and I always enjoyed traveling by train anywhere, and if it is narrow gauge, so much the better!
We are not in Delhi yet? Is the train delayed? The train stops and we hear how people knock on the door from the platform. Someone manages to open the door and I see the porters. We asked if it is Delhi. The porters have already assaulted the coach. We pick up the packages and between a tide, we left the train. They want to take our backpacks but we answer no.
What hustle and bustle in this season. The mass of people who go up and down the stairs to access the different roads do not think it ever ceases. This station does not sleep. A driver tries to hook us on one of the ramps, but, as usual, he asks for a lot of money for the journey. We keep moving forward. We take the step fast and firm.
We do not hesitate to go out into the street. We know where we are going. We get a good price and we even guide the driver to the market. We go back through the gloomy and narrow alley that leads to our hotel. Although it is early we are already given the room. We left the backpacks, cleaned a little and we get on the street again!
The chaos of Delhi no longer intimidates us. After breakfast we bought the tickets and visited the Red Fort. We come back to eat at a place in Connaught place, a large circular plaza with lots of shops and restaurants.
In the afternoon we have to prepare the backpack, take a shower and have dinner, before taking the night train to Kalka. From here we will transfer to the narrow gauge railway for Shimla. The old Delhi station is a tumult of travelers, porters, vendors, policemen, railway employees and animals who fight for a piece of their own space.
We travel in the second class sleeper and although the bunk is not especially comfortable the fatigue makes me fall asleep right away.
Day 1 in Shimla
In the early morning we reach Kalka. The platform is almost deserted with only few men sitting. We go out and enjoy the typical breakfast of butter toast accompanied by a good milk chai. We pay with card without problems. It did not take us long to get back to the Kalka station. We unload the backpacks on the empty seats.
I see narrow gauge trains standing on the platform. One of those will be ours, I imagine. It look like we are in an amusement park. We take the narrow gauge train that will climb the slopes of the mountains. The train is a piece of well preserved history. The details in wood, the upholstery of the seats, and the curtains make me imagine that I am traveling in the middle of the colonial era.
The views are great, with endless forests cover as far as the eye can see. After the aridity, the lack of vegetation of the state of Rajasthan and the Thar desert, being surrounded by mountains full of vegetation is truly like a mirage. We cross small towns whose houses are arranged step by step taking advantage of the slope of the mountain.
The weather accompanies us because there shines a splendid sun. I was hoping that it would snow, but it seems to me that the snow will still appear. The food is included in the price of the ticket. A nice employee attends with care to all the passengers of the car under his charge. We are getting closer. Gradually we reach almost to 2500m altitude.
On the way to the hotel we passed the bus station. We arrived at the hotel that is just at the other end of the town. We get a well priced hotel with tour included, since it is not tourist season. It is the old house of a Maharaja that retain the essence and furniture of the time. As Christmas coincides the prices are a little high.
We do the check-in, and keep the things. Our room looks like a small country villa that overlooks a terrace from which we see all the mountains that surround the place. I remember the comments about the monkeys of Shimla. I have not seen any yet. It's time to eat and we go out for a walk. We have to go down a great slope!
At the moment we see a historic restaurant on the left! The place is also from the time of the English. Everything around us is vintage, and even the curtains (well, what is left of them) has that decadent charm of old things. I do not remember the name of the restaurant. I eat the biggest, cheapest and richest samosa in my life.
We left to walk to the center. They show us the way and now we have a steep climb! The walk is very nice. We are surrounded by trees. We look for monkeys but they must be hidden. It will not be long before they manifest themselves. I am surprised by the cleanliness of the place, being able to walk calmly.
This place is really another India, totally different from the one seen so far. Now we see the monkeys jumping from roof to roof, from one tree to another. As we reach the main street, the first houses begin. I am struck by several men who carry boxes behind them. At first I think they are empty but then I see one with green apples!
Then I remember that when preparing the trip I read that Shimla is pedestrian and everything has to be carried by hand or back. I remember that they warned of the existence of porters at the station to carry luggage to hotel or house. We continue walking and I distinguish a known building. The name of the hotel is also familiar to me.
We went to ask for a budget. We lower the price a little more and ask if we can see the room. It really is very good. After a while we entered another hotel that also looks very good, but is somewhat more expensive. Walking, we walk along the Shimla promenade known as the Mall. We cross the very lively commercial area, and pass under the Christ Church that crowns the summit and the Tibetan market.
Very close a Gandhi statue stands with the Himalayas in the background. We decided to walk to another hotel to see how it is. The walk is pleasant. There are people but it is not annoying. We can walk calmly, breathe fresh, uncontaminated air and even hear our steps as we walk. I no longer remembered that feeling after so long listening to beeps, engines and people.
Maybe we walked half an hour to the hotel. We asked them for room price. Of course the hall is beautiful and the place where it is located spectacular. We say that we will think about it. I almost feel ashamed to enter there with the beer pints we carry. We can see them all so elegant and neat.
Now we are the ones who seem shabby in comparison to the people who swarm through the halls and the restaurant. Back to the center, we discuss the hotel choice in a reasonable way. Finally, we opted for the first as it is the cheapest and looks good. He also told us that they have a special holiday program on Christmas day.
I am curious to see what a Christmas eve party looks like in Shimla. So we go back into the same hotel, get a bit lower and we make the reservation. We already have a place to sleep in! We returned to the earlier hotel, showered, called the restaurant to prepare dinner and we waited to be notified.
The dining room is small. The waiter brings everything we have requested over phone that they have in the menu. They take out the tray of naan and I cannot but congratulate the waiter. I tell him it's the best naan I've tasted in India and I've had a few! The food is also finger-licking!
During the dinner a bhangra group gives the musical show of the evening. It's a free buffet. A very lively punjabi family goes on to the dance floor. Unconsciously I move my head to the beat of the music. Someone sees it and when I realize it, I'm dancing with the family too. Even the cooks look out the kitchen door to watch the show. I look at the daughter and imitate her movements. I do not know how I get it but I have a great time.
Now I feel like being in a Bollywood movie. The manager of the hotel looks out a moment and I greet him from the dance floor. We chatted for a while with the punjabi family and we retired to the room. For today it is enough. We sat on the terrace next to our little room to see the stars.
The night is starry and the blue stars shiver in the distance. The night wind spins in the sky and sings. Nothing prevents us from enjoying the tireless flutter of thousands of luminous bodies. It's cool, but we take out a blanket and enjoy for a while the peace of Shimla, the tranquility and loneliness that the mountain gives us. Tomorrow, it is Christmas Eve!
Day 2 in Shimla
We woke up early. A new relaxing day begins in Shimla, although today it is time to change hotels. The monkeys run through the roofs of the room, but that is still the only noise. They also like to sunbathe on the terrace. They are monkeys, but not stupid. There are some views of the mountains that surround Shimla and the terraced houses that deserve to stop and rest a little.
We take our phone charger and backpack, while we get ready before breakfast and half an hour later we appear smiling by the dining room. When we arrive at the reception, we see several English newspapers in a rack. Our last a la carte breakfast here is served with exquisite elegance and courtesy by our favorite waiter. After breakfast the taxi awaits us to take us for the days excursion.
We pick up the backpacks and abandon our piece of heaven. We prefer to walk. We take strength before tackling the steep slope upwards. We were about to hire a porter but finally decided that going slowly, the hotel is not far away either.
The first climb is the worst, and then the rest of the way we go quietly and in a relaxed way so that we do not go breathless. We arrived at the hotel. It is not necessary to give many explanations because the man is there and he remembers us. We check-in and settle in the room. The hotel is very good, and decent. We went out to gossip a bit about the facilities. They have gym and spa. We ask the price of the ayurvedic massages in case we decide to give us a tribute to celebrate Christmas.
We decided to do some trekking on the trails that surround the city and wandered for several hours among trees, lights and shadows. We climb to a nearby hill that houses the Jakhoo temple dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman. The road is very steep with endless stairs, and near the end a woman sells food for the monkeys. She warns us that we would do well to take off our glasses as the monkeys snatch them as soon as they can.
The temple does not leave us open-mouthed, but the views from this point are fantastic. The dense forests cover everything we can see in the background of the Himalayas mountain range. After coming down to the center we hire a car and opted to go to Naldhera to be a little closer to the Himalayas.
The road has holes that look like bull rings, but the driver raffles them without any problem. We cross small mountain villages and finally we reach our destination. We started up the mountain. Again we appreciate the peace, and especially the pure air. We went through what is one of the oldest golf courses in the world, following the path marked by those who have walked the path before us.
There are also donkey droppings! We are on the right way! At the top there is a kind of picnic area. We reached the end of the road and sat down to observe the largest and highest mountain range on earth. For the moment it is the closest we will see it, but maybe in the future we can see it better. Hundreds of white, majestic, unreachable needles stand erect in the distance.
We return to the parking lot and walk back to Shimla. We ask the driver if he can drop us off at the center instead of taking us to the hotel. I try my luck in a traditional clothing store. I also take advantage to chat with my family. We eat at a restaurant on the main street. I enjoy a nice Indian lunch with rice, dal and butter chicken and go back to the hotel to rest a little.
After the siesta we dedicate the evening to wander around the Mall and do some shopping, postcards and cashmere shawls for the women of the family from the Tibetan flea market. The hours go by fast. In one of the stores we see the first Santa Claus of the season. We find it curious to see the red man up here. We find fruit stalls with mainly kiwis and persimmon.
When night falls the temperature drops a lot, so much so that our sweaters and jackets are not enough and we shiver with cold. When passing through a Tibetan store we see some very colorful blankets that we like. We negotiate the price and we wrap them up quickly. We return to the hotel to enjoy our exquisite and abundant dinner again.
As it is still early, we go to the disco to have some cocktails. The album seems out of the Saturday Night Fever movie. We are the only ones, apart from the bartender. After so many days surrounded by crowds, a little loneliness is appreciated. On time we arrived at the decorated room for the event. We are the first.
Several employees wait at the door. We see the manager who greets us and accompany us to our table. They serve us drinks. Slowly the rest start coming. At our table also sits a honeymoon couple on vacation. A Santa Claus goes around the tables dancing to the beat of the bhangra music that plays in the background. The waiters begin with trays of food for people to serve themselves.
A musical group starts the first notes accompanied by the singer. Of course they are not carols, but we clap and move the head and feet. Santa Claus continues dancing and throwing confetti. The manager takes the microphone and after a brief speech of gratitude, invites people to go out on the dance floor.
We do not think twice and there we go. The Bollywood night begins. The couple hold hands and go around. Someone grabs me and when I realize that, everyone on the track is rolling me. It must be funny to dance because they take turns. So I dance with everyone. I feel like in the period movies when the women took out the little dance book and wrote down the list of men with whom to dance.
I think it's the most surreal Christmas Eve I've lived so far. We enjoy the party so much that even the manager thanks us for being so participative and courageous. And one more night, we see in silence the starry sky that falls like a cloak over the cool and calm Shimla and the shadow of Jesus Christ.
Day 3 in Shimla
After the party the previous night, we lazed a bit more. We prepare the backpacks and leave the room. Although when I planned the trip I was hoping to find some snow for a white christmas and days before the weather forecast snowed, the sun continues to make an appearance. We have seen a panoramic restaurant in the center of the walk that looks very good. So we decided that the Christmas meal will be celebrated there. We go through the Church that is full of faithful listening to mass.
There is not a free bench to sit and sunbathe on the entire walk. I do not know where they come from but there are always people. As the restaurant also has a terrace by the back we sit down to have an aperitif. We observe a man who is hooked to the few Westerners here. Nobody is paying attention to him. We follow with our diet of chicken butter masala and naan.
We took the last look at the Himalayan range that shines brightly in the rays of the sun of the day and we returned to the hotel to take our backpacks. Right next to it is the elevator.At the bottom, taxis wait for their potential customers. As I wanted to do some trekking in the morning we take the bus to Manali.