By ROBERT J. FRY
Shimla is the perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of Indiaâ€™s many metro centres and tourist hotspots, not to mention the insufferable heat of the plains â€“ after all, thatâ€™s how Shimla came to be. Rediscovered by the British in 1819, it was used as a summer getaway. With a cool mountain breeze, hills blanketed by pine trees thick and green, and a town centre dotted with crumbling colonial charm – itâ€™s not hard to imagine why.
The air is fresh, reminiscent of Christmas trees and remarkably free of pollution, no doubt due to the cityâ€™s refusal to allow vehicles in â€˜the mallâ€™ – Shimlaâ€™s main street. An Indian city without honking horns, screeching sirens, terrifying traffic jams or predatory tuk-tuk drivers doesnâ€™t feel quite real, but it manages to work quite well nonetheless.
The people are friendly, the vultures are few and the surrounding landscape is breathtaking. Shimla is a hill station, meaning that instead of being situated at the base of the mountain or in a valley â€“ it is carved into the mountaintop! Iâ€™m used to towns being built in the vicinity of mountains, but this is something else. You can appreciate the sheer altitude on any walk in and around town; this place is steep! Try to arrange a hotel thatâ€™s closer to the bus station, as a long walk uphill with all your luggage gets old quick. Although it can be a physically draining place, youâ€™ll soon find that things here move at a pleasant pace. Shops and restaurants sleep in too, so donâ€™t bother setting an alarm. Relax, catch your breath, and youâ€™ll enjoy your surroundings and appreciate the scenery a whole lot more â€“ I promise.
Whether scurrying on rooftops, or shuffling across balcony banisters, stay in town for many than five minutes and youâ€™re sure to meet some resident macaques. Resist the urge to smile at them though, as baring your teeth is a sign of aggression. Many locals clutch a stick at all times, which also comes in handy when a stray dog dislikes your scent. Expect a few strange looks though, as the majority of people in town are either honeymooners or tourists. Youâ€™ll thank yourself when you encounter some of Shimlaâ€™s more wolf-like stray dogs, stalking the alleyways late at night.
Shimlaâ€™s main shopping avenue, the mall, is a collection of restaurants and retail vendors. As the name suggests, this shopping arcade has a more western feel than your average Indian bazaar. Itâ€™s a welcome relief from weary travelers who have lost the will to bargain.
Bookstores are popular throughout India, and reading is a hobby that reigns supreme. Iâ€™ve noticed more than a few television shows devoted entirely to book discussions and new releases. I picked up a copy of Ernest Hemingwayâ€™s â€˜The Old Man and the Seaâ€™ at a local bookstore for about 50 cents. I was ecstatic, having wanted to read this particular story for a very long time. I found a local watering hole that I hoped would do the tale justice. Instead of a gloomy bar stifled with smoke, as Hemingway himself would have frequented, I found an open-air rooftop bar with mountain views and clean fresh air. I sat in a corner booth, ordered a beer with chaser, and let the long awaited journey begin. I had barely got to the 85th day of Santiagoâ€™s unlucky streak, before I was set upon by two excited youths.
â€œAwes-tray-lee-haa?â€ they inquired, loudly enough to stir a grumpy bar dweller by the restroom.
â€œYes,â€ I admitted. What happened next was strange, as the taller of the two looked left and right, as if watching a tennis match only he could see, before letting out an almighty bellow.
â€œRICKKKYYY PAWNTEN!â€ he shouted excitedly, clearly having learned the name of the Australian Cricket Captain from the over excited commentators that are so popular in this part of the world. They sound and act in an exaggerated manner, much like a televangelist would, but remember that this is India – cricket is religion.
Channing is the shorter of the pair, an established tattoo artist in town and hardcore Buddhist. Deepak is his apprentice, and both are proud vegetarians. At this point in time, I have been in India for over six weeks and am used to some of the locals pretending to be friendly in order to score a few beers. Iâ€™m pleasantly surprised though, as not only do they pay for their own drinks, but shout mine and refuse to even let me pay for ordered snacks.
â€œPlease. You are our friend, very good friend. It is a gift to you,â€ says Deepak, rolling his head from side to side, as a smile slowly spread across his face – the classic Indian head wobble 🙂
While it may feel like a world away from the hustle and bustle of big city life, the hot dusty plains or the Hindu heartbeat of Uttar Pradesh, Shimla is still very much India. Itâ€™s also clean, safe, ridiculously picturesque and a welcome retreat for many chaos and clutter weary ex-pats whoâ€™ve come to call the subcontinent home.