Shimla: Full of History and Natural Beauty
Shimla is the biggest hill station in India. It’s no surprise because it was the summer capital of British India. Post-independence Shimla has been the Honeymooner’s Paradise in north India.
For my first trip to Shimla, I took Kalka Mail from Delhi to Kalka. After an overnight journey, I reached the sleepy little station of Kalka around 5.30 in the morning. From Kalka I had one of the most beautiful train journeys one can have. The journey, some 90-KM long, was done in a toy train. It was November 8, 2003, just a day before that railway line was about to complete its 100 years. I was travelling in the same train, which was supposed to make the historic journey next day, marking the hundred years of this wonderful gift of British India. You can blame them for a lot of bad things they did to India during their rule here but you have to give it the firangs (As British rulers were called then), they took the trains to the kind of places where Indians have not been able to even 60 years after getting independence. The toy train passes through some 103 tunnels, one of them, at Barog, is more than a kilometer long. That’s not all. It uses more than 800 bridges to reach Shimla!
My train, Shivalik Deluxe Express, stopped at Barog - a beautiful little station. The stop was for 10 minute where most of the passengers got down while catering staff collected breakfast to be served on the train. It was a lovely experience; early morning sunshine made me feel in a different world.
The train was full of honeymooners, as it was marriage season in India. Some of the couples seemed in a hurry to get lost in each other’s arms. Since it was a toy train that has small coaches, people were seated pretty close to each other.
I arrived at the Shimla station around 10.30 am. Starting from 660 mts at Kalka, I was now about 2000 mts above sea level. Immediately I was surrounded by Kashmiri potters. I negotiated with one of them and he helped me climb out of the station where I was met by the cab drivers. After bargaining, one of them drove me to my hotel. After checking into the hotel, a Raj-era building, I took shower and had brunch. I checked with the hotel manager about the places I could see in the remaining day. He suggested I walk up to the Mall Road that quintessential Raj left-over. Acting on his advice I decided to walk to the Mall. I was surprised to see so many tall deodar trees on both sides of the road before I reached the actual hustle and bustle of the Mall. It was same as the other Mall Roads. It feels as if all eateries asking you to ‘come and try’ the delicious fare. I went inside a restaurant, which served north Indian, south Indian, Chinese food and whatever you can think of. To be frank, it was awful. I ordered a pizza and that did not look like the pizzas one had seen or eaten before! After that misadventure with food I walked up to the Ridge. It has, for years, been used for all kinds of functions. During British rule, it was used to hold military parades. Sahebs and memsahebs used to enjoy the romantic evenings. There, you even have a place called Scandal Point, thus named because it is said that some officer’s wife had run away with an Indian prince from that very point!
I walked back to my hotel as it became dark and cold. The mountain air was having its effect.
Next day I visited Kufri, came back to The Mall Road, and did some roaming around.
On my last day in Shimla I went to see Viceregal Lodge from where British Viceroy ruled all over India for six months during summer. The Lodge now houses IIAS (Indian Institute of Advanced Studies). It was a magnificent building with a well-maintained and beautiful lawn in front of it. It was in this building that India’s destiny was decided by the Britishers. The tables and chairs have been kept as it is and every half an hour a tour is conducted with a guide to give you a glimpse of the history.
The visit to Viceregal Lodge was worth it. I am now better informed about the goings on in the final hours before India got its independence.
How to Reach: The best way to visit Shimla is train journey. Take Howrah-Kalka Mail to Kalka. From here you may take either ordinary toy train or a faster one called Shivalik Deluxe for a lifetime experience. The train takes you to Shimla. Other good option is overnight Volvo buses to Shimla.
Where to Stay: Shimla is full of hotels. In fact there are too many of them. Depending on your budget, you can choose any of them. Most of them are near the Mall road. The Cecil, Wildflower Hall, Woodville Palace and Springfields are some of the hotels worth trying.