Shimla's main 'sight'.
If my last entry had a basic theme of camel-related excitement, I'd say that the theme of this one is going to have to be public transport-related discomfort. =/ Over the course of the week that this entry covers, I spent roughly 45 hours on public transport, all of it in the cheapest possible class. But before becoming intimately acquainted with India's public transport system, I took a couple of days in Delhi to relax after my mad dash through Rajasthan and the day out in the desert. To understand the two days I spent in Delhi, you could basically say that I just took a 'break' from India. I watched a few English-language movies in the air-conditioned cinemas, drank lots of good cappucinos at the new coffee bars, ate at KFC a couple of times, caught up on emails and blog entries, etc. I didn't visit a single 'sight' or take a single photo. It was a very relaxing time and just what I needed before the next week's long and tiring trips, but not particularly interesting for you - so I'll move right along... =)
The first of my long journeys was the 14.5 hour train ride from
Delhi to Shimla, (a former British hill-station in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya). Wading across New Delhi station's floor at 5am, through a shifting sea of sleeping bodies, I tried to work out where my train left from. I'd anticipated this would take a while, so had arrived with plenty of time to spare. But to my great surprise, I soon found a huge board, listing all the departing trains and which platform they left from. Very impressed by this, I made my way to Platform 2 and settled down to wait next to a stoned saddhu, (Hindu holy men whose path to enlightenment often seems to be lined with copious amounts of marijuana). With ten minutes to go there was still no sign of my train, so I hunted down a TC (ticket-collector) to doublecheck. "No no, platform 10" he told me, so I set off quickly in that direction. On the way, I saw another TC so thought I'd check it again, just in case: "No sir, it's platform 6 you want!" Spinning around and jogging to Platform 6, I still couldn't find my train, so asked yet another TC - who directed me back to Platform
Kinnaur Kailash (3050m)
In Hindu mythology, Kailash is the home of the god Shiva and the centre of the universe.
10. Aargh! I hurried through the thick crowd with only a couple of minutes left, finally found my bogie and clawed my way on board. I'd made it with about 30 seconds to spare!... An hour later, after a number of false starts, the train pulled slowly out of the station. =P
If any of you ever take an early morning train from New Delhi station, be prepared for something of a spectacle. Hundreds & hundreds of people pour out of the slums that line the tracks to take their morning dump, with total disregard for the trains passing just metres away from them. Some enjoy a morning smoke as they squat there, others read the paper, small groups squat close together so they can have a leisurely chat. The kids wave happily to watching passengers. Particularly surreal was when the train passed a huge park, shrubs lovingly pruned and green grass carefully mowed. Dotted across it were literally hundreds of squatting figures, as well as innumerable small, steaming piles left by the particularly early risers. =P Quite a sight.
The train journey to Shimla involves a change to a narrow-gauge line at Kalka, after which you wind
Looking towards Tibet from Sangla village
The slate roof in the foreground is typical of the homes in Sangla.
up through the mountains in a so-called 'toy train'. Sounds romantic and a little magical doesn't it? In reality, it turns out that 'toy train' is just a euphemism for 'very small and uncomfortable train' and I was very glad when we finally pulled into Shimla station late that night. Finding myself in similar situations in Europe, I had occasionally just spent the night in the train station... or a car-park... or a well-concealed flower-bed. =P But it didn't seem smart to try this in India, so I headed for the YMCA to get a dorm bed for the night. Unfortunately they were full but the kindly YWCA lady, (who also, a little strangely I thought, offered tarot card reading on the side), agreed to put me up.
Shimla was a very nice little town - not particularly exciting for a lone traveller but the sort of place ideal for a family holiday. And the families were there in force, from all over India - filling the hotels, restaurants and the Mall (Shimla's central, pedestrian-only street) to over-flowing. The town was packed! During the afternoon and evening, everyone seemed to come down to walk along the Mall, dressed in
their Sunday best, (not sure if that reference applies in India, but you know what I mean). The Mall was very much the place to 'see and be seen'. Nervous groups of teenaged Indian guys, hair carefully slicked back, took surreptious sips from cans of imported beer and equally surreptious looks at the girls on the street. Young families of harassed-looking parents & loud children moved slowly along the long line of ice-cream shops and sugar-cane juicers that line the street. Bent-backed porters made their steady way through the crowds, carrying anything from luggage to fridges or building materials. (Shimla's built on a number of often steep hills and many places are difficult to reach by truck or car.)
I only stayed in Shimla for a couple of days before catching a bus to the north-east, into the Kinnaur and Sangla valleys of the Indian Himalaya. LP (aka The Book) calls this road "truly one of the most hair-raising in India". It wasn't too bad for the first half of the 10-hour ride, even if the driver did seem to be under the very vivid impression that he was trying out for a dramatic Bollywood chase scene. But then
a cold wind sprung up, blowing in dark, rolling clouds and then a torrential downpour. The narrow roads, which wind around the mountains, hundreds of metres above the valley floor, started to get quite muddy and slippery. Sometimes, when we inched right up to the edge to let an oncoming bus or truck pass, I would peer out the window and not even be able to see the road anymore - just the long, long drop into the valley below. At one point we almost collided head-on with an oncoming truck but luckily managed to stop with just a few inches to spare. For the next five minutes, both drivers just sat and stared into space, as if they had all the time in the world. Our driver cracked first, and started the tricky process of reversing back up the slippery road to a point where the truck could squeeze past. Another time we had to stop and wait for a small land-slide to subside and then be cleared away. Quite an exciting road! And fantastic scenery - wet-green valleys, rocky ridges, the frothy-brown Sutlej River below, and occasional glimpses of lofty, ice-capped peaks as we pushed deeper into the
Despite the fact that it basically took a whole day to reach Sangla, and another whole day's travel to get back to Shimla, I was only able to spend one day in Sangla, (the largest village in the valley of the same name). Some early English explorers called the Sangla "the most beautiful valley in the Himalaya", and it was certainly very picturesque. However, its beauty was more of a green-Swiss-valley type of beauty, rather than the stark & forbidding Himalayan-beauty I'd been hoping for. Having said that, ice-capped peaks did loom over the valley on both sides, including one of particular significance in Hindu mythology. Kinnaur Kailash (3050m) is supposedly the home of the god Shiva and also the centre of the universe. (Interestingly, it's also the same mountain represented by the Kailasa Temple, Ellora, which I visited a couple of months ago.)
I spent most of my day in Sangla just wandering around the small town and surrounding area. Built on a ridge above the Baspa River, Sangla is a disorganised but cosy jumble of traditional slate-roofed wooden cottages. White prayer flags flutter over many of the homes, (Tibet is only about 40km away and
the Buddhist influence is strong). Making your way downhill from the town to the bubbly-green Baspa river is a pleasant stroll through lush green apple orchards, although you do have to clamber over the numerous rough-stone walls that separate the orchards.
One of the things that really struck me during my day in Sangla was the genuine friendliness of the locals. I've never been made to feel so welcome, and had so little expected or asked of me, during my time in India. Here, more than anywhere else, my faltering Hindi phrases were greeted by enormous smiles and energetic hand-shakes. I could have happily spent a week there, drinking chai with the locals and going on some short treks, but I had to keep moving.
The ride back to Shimla the next day was fairly uneventful, except for when we squeezed too close to a truck while passing, and shattered two side windows. The people sitting beneath them didn't even move. They just brushed the jagged shards of glass from their jackets, and picked little slivers out of their hair, grinning wryly and shaking their heads. Throughout the rest of the journey, (at least another 7 hours), pieces
of glass would shower down at each big bump or pothole - but noone ever moved or made the least complaint! This epitomised for me the stoic Indian attitude to discomfort, which I've been impressed by, (but generally failed to adopt myself), on all of my train or bus rides here.
Back in Shimla once more, I steeled myself and then booked a seat on an overnight bus south to Rishikesh. Known as the 'yoga capital of the world', I'd heard that Rishikesh also offered some excellent white-water rafting down the Ganges. So I'd decided to brave the crowds of hippies, Babas and temple beggars and make Rishikesh my last stop before heading on to Delhi for my flight to Bangkok. Less than a week left in India now!
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