…it is this, it is this, it is this.”
A persian poet used these words to describe Kashmir, and then Mughal emperor Jehangir nicked the phrase and had it inscribed on the Red Fort in Delhi, so it is a pretty unoriginal way of describing a place but I think I can live with that. Until I see Kashmir to assess it personally I think I am allowed to plagiarise if I feel I have good reason!
For now I think I do have good reason: Jenna and I have just returned from a blissful few days in Shimla in the foothills of the Himalaya. We had spent about 4 days in Delhi and decided to get away from the heat and general hustle bustle of the capital. Initially we had planned also to go to Amritsar until we realised the exorbitant ‘English’ style price tag – it costs about 695r one way which is about a tenner which seems a little steep to me.
Our stay in Pahaganj has been quite nice. It is a place called Hotel Star Palace. It’s not palatial and generally I like to steer clear of places that call themselves Paradise Guesthouse or whatever but we were so dead by the end of the train journey we sort of settled for the first place we could find. You might remember the place was described as seedy but I reckon its just hippy. There are a lot of dreadlocks and clothes in red green and yellow but apart from being asked whether we were from the ashram in Pune (see the entry on Osho) and being offered beer with breakfast it’s been cool. After two roasting days in a room that seemed to have ceiling fan solely as an adornment we transferred to an A/C room which has been like a piece of heaven compared to the sahara style conditions we have endured up until now. We had taken to having cold showers in our pyjamas just to stay cool throughout the night! 🙂
The guy at the hotel reception swears that he has met me before. I thought this was a really cheesy, really bad chat up line but the fact that he carries on as if he has known me forever is a bit creepy. He keeps on saying, “No, reeeally…Are you sure you haven’t stayed here before?” as if on the third interrogation I might suddenly say “Oh yes, I remember…way back when in ‘ 97, silly me!” or something.
Delhi has been quite nice. It isn’t quite as big and scary as remember it but I was considerably smaller and marginally more prone to intimidation back then. It is quite developed and feels very cosmopolitan. We were reticent to do the whole tourist thing because to be frank it is getting a little bit monotonous, but we couldn’t go to Delhi and not see the Red Fort etc etc. In the morning we went to the Jama Masjid, which is the biggest mosque in India and was built by Shah Jahan, he of Taj Mahal fame. Our poor English feet were not accustomed to the searing sandstone underfoot so we left with our feet feeling ever so slightly tender. We met a sweet little old man there who drew a few stares when he sparked up a conversation with a pair of girls. He told us something about the Moghul empire and how much he loves Kashmir but his accent was pretty thick and so I just tried to smile and nod in the right places. We left for the Red Fort and ended up strolling through Delhi’s muslim quarter which felt a bit like Pakistaniville.
The Red Fort was pretty cool. It was the fifth (maybe sixth?) fort we have seen in the space of a few weeks so apart from being generally fortlike I can’t really remember much that marked it out! A lot of the decoration was looted during the various sackings Delhi has been subject to over the centuries so it was probably only a shadow of its former glory but there was some nice pietra dura (the same inlay as is found at the Taj Mahal) and it was so serene in contrast to the frenetic chaos that characterises Delhi. On the way back after failing to find a rickshaw wallah who wasn’t on a mission to rip off tourists a policeman who was eavesdropping suggested we took the metro. The Delhi Metro is still under construction and we hadn’t realised that it was partly operational.
Wow, it was totally amazing. It was like the London underground (replete with ripped off Tube style signs) but without the noise and with air conditioning. It was more proof that India has the ability to constantly surprise. It gets some things so right, and some things so wrong. It was clean, smooth and there wasn’t a chewing tobacco stain to be found anywhere in sight. I took a photo to prove that it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination!
The next day we went to Shimla which is a hill station in the Himalaya at about 2200m. When the British ruled India (and about 1/5 of the whole planet I think) they would come up here in summer when the Delhi heat got too much to handle. It took about 12 hours to get there in total. When the guy joked about the narrow gauge train being like a toy train he wasn’t far off from the truth. The train goes so slowly you feel as though you could walk quicker but it means you have all the more time to take in and digest the sumptuous views. The vistas across the valleys are absolutely spectacular. We spent a good part of the journey hanging out of the door… literally, until my feet scraped along the side of a rather narrow tunnel and I realised how much I valued them and kept them within the carriage. We also shared the carriage with a lovely Goan family who recommended that we visit Panaji, and someday I would love to do the south of India. They had two children and their two cousins. The four year old boy, Anthony was possibly one of the cutest kids I have ever seen and he and his six year old cousin entertained us with their impressions of the chai’allahs (garam tea, coffee!) and other foodsellers. When his mum suggested I took him back home with me, I thought Okay, lemme have him!
We got into Shimla at about 5.30pm that evening and we were instantly pursued by a Kashmiri guy who implored us to stay at his hotel. After visiting the hotel and several others I suppose owned by his relatives/friends we were still unable to find anything suitable. Jenna and I are really rubbish at turning people down. No, I haven’t suddenly gone all soft – rather we both find it hard (read impossible) to disguise the look of horror on our faces and simulataneously think of a tactful way of turning down a room. Let’s face it, you can hardly say, ‘Well sir it looks like damp and smells of urine’ can you?
Anyway eventually a guy on the street saw two forlorn looking tourists and led us to a nice hotel called Le Royale. As we walked through the door it as evident it was way beyond our stingy student price bracket but after bargaining, and later pleading we managed to negotiate a price that was more than 50% less than the room tariff displayed. Even so, by our usual standards it broke the bank at a whopping four pounds and fifty pence pppn! It is situtions like this that make you realise the virtues of being a girl – a similar entreaty from a man would probably be regarded as feeble and unmasculine.
After assessing the luxuries that a fiver buys you (cable tv, HOT running water, small sachets of moisturiser) we went out to explore Shimla. The architecture is heavily influenced by the British. In fact it sort of feels like a seaside town at the top of a mountain for want of a better description. There is a promenade with lookout points across the valleys, Christ Church and something reminiscent of Cambridge high street. Even the place names are distinctly British: The Mall, Cart Road, Scandal Point etc. This together with the heightened friendliness of Shimla inhabitants made me feel really at home.
We were only there for two full days, and for both days there was a low lying mist that gave the place an eerie yet magical feel. On Tuesday after a late start due to sleep deprivation we consulted Lonely Planet and then went in pursuit of a place called the Viceregal Lodge. Well either we are exquisitely bad map readers or Lonely Planet is officially rubbish, because it took us much longer than planned to get there. And of course when you accidently walk down a steep hill you have to scale up it again when you realise you are utterly lost! In the end we found it but after several hours I think we had built it up in our mind’s eye to be a place of exceptional wonder and beauty and were a bit dismayed… but it was nice enough. The lodge looked spookily like Reed Hall on Streatham Campus so suddenly I felt like I was in Exeter on the top of a mountain!
We woke up the next day and walked another crazy distance to the highest point which can be found at Jakhu temple. It is dedicted to Hanuman, so inevitably there is a bunch of ‘sacred’ monkeys who like to force people to surrender their crisps and such like. Well I have already been the victim of a monkey attack on Elephanta island (it was the crisps again!!) so together we made a 2-man army complete with pebble artillery. They must have been driven away by the sheer menace in our stares because apart from an attempted robbery by one opportunist chimp we escaped unscathed!
The last time we were in Shimla there were beautiful views of the snowcapped Himalayas in the distance but visibility was limited on account of all the mist so we missed the opportunity unfortunately. We went back down the hill and sought refuge in Baristas (Indian style Starbucks) where we rested our weary legs. To all intents and purposes we ought to have thighs of steel by now but alas, signs of such a transformation are minimal. Over coffee we read about riots in Amritsar (so it was probably a good job we didn’t go) and of Tony Blair’s visit to Shimla. That would be cool if we had bumped into Tony on the top of a mountain but in the end he couldn’t get there because the fog and I seriously doubt he would be found in the budget basement style places we frequent anyway! We didn’t do that much for the rest of the day apart from see how long you could draw out one cup of coffee (answer: about an hour) and browse Indian fiction in the bookshops. In true English style it poured with rain so most of the time we were quite cold but it was welcome relief from the sweltering temperature of Delhi. Then we went in search of a beauty parlour so we could get henna done. I had my eyebrows done whilst the women were preparing to apply mehndi to Jen. Anyway, it turned out that it was the woman’s first attempt at henna (my own reckoning!) and then another woman started on me but it looked reaally bad (she was worse than the other woman!) so I politely asked her to stop. It was so funny because we ought to have seen sense when we initially walked in. The conversation that took place was something like this: me: do you do henna? woman: nooaayyeaah no problem! She either didn’t want to disappoint or saw it as a way to earn a quick buck but either way it was a little bit disastrous. We had our second attempt at Mehndi today and although the guys were infinitely more skilled the colour bled quite a lot . Jen and I laughed when we looked in the mirror because we look like a pair of gangstas/convicts complete with intimidating tattoos. Nice!
Anyway it was a bit of a shame to leave Shimla. It really has such a magical quality about it, and its got a multicultural feel on account of all the Kashmiris and Tibetans in amongst the Indians. The return journey was possibly the slowest 12 hours of our lives to date. The carriage was comprised of an inordinate number of pervy guys one of whom took the opportunity to stroke my legs when I walked by despite the fact I only had about 3 inches of leg on display. At the stations Jen and I felt a bit like exhibits and we were regarded with the same curiousity small child regards a new toy. Strange!
Now we are back in Delhi and the Indian Sweat Syndome has returned. ISS is characterised by profuse perspiration, clothes moulding to the countours of your body and a lovely aroma not unlike spicy chicken korma. Mum, you might like to bring some deodourisor to the airport and/or wear one of those astronaut style fumigation suits.
Today, we went to the National Museum of Modern Art which was quite nice, and then when we had finished our tour we discovered that meanwhile the heavens had opened. A huge storm was just what we needed so it was really refreshing although I’m not sure Jenna agreed because she was wearing light colours haha. It was near India gate which is also really cool. We also ran into Tim and Sara again today which is just another event in a long line of coindences! They have just come back from Manali, but the bridge to Leh was down so they had to come across by basket! Tim pretended to be married to Sara so he could get in the female queue but even so the female officials decided to have a laugh at his expense and demanded he wear a veil and disguise himself as a woman. Poor guy!
Well I have talked for long enough as per usual. I have lots to do – in no particular order: sleep, arrange and rearrange luggage, prepare for reverse culture shock. I think the last point will be the hardest. I have got so used to being able to eat, watch a movie, have my eyebrows done and my shoes shined ALL for less than one pound that I dunno how I am gonna cope. Any suggestions, please send in on a postcard! See you in London baby!