Having reluctantly cancelled our Sri Lanka trip, we had to reschedule our onward flights, which turned out to be much more difficult than expected, but the result was that we ended up with 5 extra days in India before we fly out to Hong Kong.
We spent one night in Delhi, at the Taj Palace (we got a good last minute deal and then were upgraded to a club room). The hotel is luxurious with marble and chandeliers and staff galore. Our room was lovely, a glamourous bathroom and the fluffiest bathrobe I have ever seen, yet still only a spot for one suitcase – what is that about? We decided to have dinner in one of the five restaurants at the hotel. One of these, The Orient Express sounded pretty amazing, decorated like its namesake and offering European food including 3 types of caviar, lobster and other delicacies shipped in from around the world. We couldn’t eat there however, as it had a semi formal dress code, and we had no such clothes. So, we opted for the Spicy Duck Chinese restaurant, billed as one of the best in Delhi. The décor was opulent with booths around circular tables, with what can only be described as a huge fibre optic chandelier over each table. We had to climb up a step into the booth and the seating design meant you needed a cushion behind you so you could reach the table. Ok. Our waiter smiled and gave us the menu. We ordered two glasses of French wine at ludicrous prices, but we were there and went with the flow. The food menu was extensive with many choices of meats and seafood the likes of which we had not seen in India; Canadian scallops, Chilean fish, pork dishes and plenty more with serious food miles. We enjoyed our meal of BBQ pork buns, a duck dish and Kung Poo chicken with steamed rice, though they were nothing special and I have enjoyed similar at far less salubrious establishments, at a tenth of the price. To give you an idea of the prices here, a small bowl of steamed rice cost 800 rupees or $16 AUD. We ate everything on the plate, as we didn’t want to waste a speck of this gold, then waited over 40 minutes with dirty dishes in front of us, in the end we had to ask the waiter to clear the plates. (Alert – customer service rant coming)
Why is it that people think smiling is customer service? Ok, smiling is good, I like people to smile at me, but what I really want is for people to DO THEIR DAMN JOB PROPERLY. While we were waiting for our plates to be cleared away, several waiters were clearing and resetting tables where patrons had already left. While doing this they focussed on things like flinging the napkin in a flourish as they cleared them away- what? Get the basics right first people, then you can be fancy.
We then waited 15 minutes after asking for the bill twice. When we complained to the obsequious maître de, he just smiled and bowed like an idiot, then offered us complimentary ice cream. We declined and left in disgust.
We weren’t sure what to do with the extra days, but decided that 41 degrees in Delhi was too much to bear, so we headed for the hills again, this time to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. We organised a driver through Mr Sharma and off we went to Shimla.
We stayed in a heritage hotel, Clarkes, which was built in 1898 and is located on the Mall. What we didn’t realise is that you can only bring a car to the ‘downside’ and reception and the hotel entrance is on the ‘upside’. ( These amusing expressions, along with frontside and backside are common across India) The way to get from the downside to the upside of the hotel is to climb a steep flight of about 50 stairs, which felt more like a million, as the air is thinner up here, so breathing was hard. By about halfway the Wise One and I were huffing and puffing terribly. We looked back to see the porter carrying both our suitcases hanging from his head, Sherpa style, up the same stairs. Sherpas are remarkable in what they can carry on their head using a sort of head band. I saw one man carrying two large gas cylinders this way, but the cord was around his neck, and across his shoulders, with the cylinders hanging on his back; I have no idea how he could breathe, let alone walk and carry that load.
Neil felt pretty bad for a couple of hours afterwards, probably due to the altitude. I was ok, but had already walked at a similar altitude when we were in Tumling, so I may have already acclimatised. What we did discover is that Shimla has a lift, from downside where the road is to upside on the pedestrian mall about 100 metres from our hotel, so thereafter whenever we drove anywhere, we had our driver drop us at the lift; 10 rupees per person, well worth every razoo.
Shimla is very picturesque set high up in the mountains, like Darjeeling, but cleaner. The traffic here is insane, with really only one narrow road in and cars haphazardly parked on the side of the road, it’s chaos. The mall and the ridge which are the top section of the town are all off limits to cars and motorbikes, except for emergency vehicles, so parking is at a premium, with large multistorey parking garages and costly parking places which are packed. You hear the constant whistling of the parking attendants guiding cars into and out of tight parking spots. (not sure if I have mentioned the whistles before, but it’s a thing here. Parking attendants in restaurant and hotel carparks, especially, have a whistle, which they blow to help customers park…continuous short whistles mean keep going, slowly; sharp single whistle means stop, now.) When you have to park cars so close that you need to fold the mirrors, it helps to have someone guiding you; it’s a system that works.
While here we visited, the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, with beautiful gardens. It was built by Lord Dufferin as the Viceroy lodge. This building happens to be the place where the decision to carve up Pakistan and India into two countries (partition) was made. It later became the Indian Institute of Advanced studies. The building is quite imposing and the gardens very peaceful, with views across the valleys to the mountains beyond and lots of cheeky monkeys.
Similar to Darjeeling, Shimla has a pedestrian mall and an area called the ridge, which is an open square right on the ridge of the mountain, so you can see views in both directions. Lots of people congregate here, especially in the evenings to view the sunset. There are stalls and horse rides as well. Adjacent to the square is the Christ Church, built in 1857 for the English Christians; it is a landmark which can be seen from all over Shimla.
High up on the hill above the church you can see the pink statue on Jakhoo hill, which is of Hanuman (the monkey god) and temple. This can be reached by walking up the very steep hill, or you can take a cable car, known as the Jakhu ropeway, which suited us much better.
We had been told that the toy train ride that runs from Kalka up to Shimla was worth doing, particularly for the lovely views along the way. The trip from Kalka to Shimla takes about five hours, which seemed a bit long, so we went to the station in Shimla to try and work out how we might buy a ticket for part of the journey, then have our driver pick us up. We were advised that the train from Shimla was fully booked, and that we could wait for a chance to buy last minute unreserved seats, but our driver Yasvinder, though perhaps we could drive down the line and catch the train back to Shimla, where he would meet us. So we went to a station called Kathleeghat, and the station master sold us two tickets for 20 rupees, total about 40 cents AUD. (that should have been the clue). After being delayed nearly two hours, during which we had some lunch at a nearby restaurant, the train finally pulled into the station. To say it was packed, would be failing to adequately describe the way the people were jammed into this train. Now, had we been sensible people, given we had a driver waiting for us in an air con car, we would have just decided against the train, however, sensible we are not. So, on the train we climb into a carriage that quite a few people got down from, so we assumed that meant there would be some space; ha, little did we know those people were just getting out to stretch their legs, and promptly got back on the train. We were the only tourists on the train that was literally packed to the rafters; seats designed to hold two people, held four or five; all floor space was filled with standing people up close and personal; and others were sitting up on the ledges that were the backs of the chairs. As the train took off one of the young lads offered me a seat; well, actually there was only enough room for me to get one bum cheek on, but I was grateful for that. After staring at us for a while they gathered up courage to ask us where we were from, and then decided they needed selfies with us, one would take one, then another would want one, and so it went on. They were very funny, all quite young men, and as we found out after talking to them throughout the one and a half hour trip, they were mostly army recruits going to the camp for basic training. Most of them were about 17 or 18, and were probably away from home for the first time, they were just big kids, jumping around, climbing out of the train windows when we stopped at stations, and climbing back in the same way as the train started moving. They screamed and shouted whenever we went through a tunnel, sometimes turning out the lights, and when Neil took out his big camera to try and take some pictures of the view, that we could barely see because of the crowd, they all oohed and ahhed, and wanted to check out the pictures, and try taking pictures themselves, and swapping Whats App addresses with us so we could send them through. It was quite an experience, and despite being physically uncomfortable, it was a lot of fun.
The next day we left Shimla for our last night in India, to stay at a place called Chail, about 45 klms from Shimla, but less developed, and with a palace that Yasvinder said we should see. There was also another temple built for Hanuman on the way, built right on the summit of a hill, which had some amazing 360 degree views. We did have to walk up about 1 klm to reach the top as the road was being repaired. I took a panorama. Not easy to see, but there were snowed capped Himalayan peaks way out in the distance.
We also went to see the highest cricket ground in the world, built in 1893 at Chail, however, it is now used by the army, and we were not allowed to go onto the ground, some soldiers were playing basket ball there and told us off. It was disappointing that this is billed as a tourist attraction, and that India had played Australia here back in the 1970’s, but the army is not to be argued with. So here is a picture of the sign. 🙂
We stayed the night in a hotel on the top of a hill, some way out of town, got ourselves packed up ready to head for Delhi in the morning to catch our flight to Hong Kong.
The road trip from Chail to Delhi is about 8 to 9 hours, so we left in the morning, spending a couple of hours just getting out of the mountains, and navigating the endless roadworks on the major highway through the mountains that they are in the process of duplicating. It is a mammoth project with hug cuttings into the mountainside and massive retaining walls to control erosion, especially during the wet season when rainfall here can be intense (average annual rainfall here can be up to 1500 mm). Along the way we also saw our first yaks. We headed down to Delhi, and said goodbye to Yasvinder and goodbye to India.
It has been an amazing trip over the past five weeks and we have had an awesome time, lots of fun, some great food, a few frustrations, but on the whole a rewarding experience. India has been everything I expected and more. I have been in awe of the women here, many of whom do extraordinarily hard physical work; we saw many on the rock breaking crews along the roadworks, heaving picks and shovels with the men, carrying loads of stones in baskets on their heads, and at the brick-works, in the fields on farms; they are just amazing and always beautiful in their colourful saris. And of course, kids. Kids are great wherever you go, I just love watching them play, or heading off to school so neat in their uniforms, or helping their parents, or just clowning around, they are always a source of delight.
India is crazy, noisy, dirty, busy, crowded, smelly, colourful, vibrant, poignant, quiet, beautiful, sad, surprising and wonderful. Thank you India. Namaste.
I will write one more post from Hong Kong, and will also add some more photos to the India gallery page once I sort them out. If you have been reading this blog along the way, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please post comments at the bottom of the page.