When I originally cobbled together a loose idea of what I wanted my excursion to look like, Shimla (or Simla, depending on your spelling) was designated as a key stage of the trip. Why I wanted to go to Shimla has its genesis in my obsession with the travels of Anthony Bourdain. When I saw the Parts Unknown episode set in the Punjab, I knew that I had to mimic his itinerary and take the stunning Kalka-Shimla Railway that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Additionally, Shimla is a unique little city in Himachal Pradesh, because during the days of the British Raj it was the summer capital of India and Burma. 1/5th of the human population was governed by a tiny hill station in the Himalayan foothills. My love of history simply compelled me to visit Shimla.
Anyway, the journey began by trying to get from Chandigarh to Kalka, which was 30 kilometers away. As was becoming typical, this proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. My plan to simply hire a taxi from Chandigarh to Kalka was thwarted when I learned that it would cost 1,500 rupees in cash. I had 900 on me so that was not an option.
I figured that there must be a bus to Kalka so I spent some precious cash on a taxi to the bus terminal. There I found people that knew there was a bus to Kalka but none seemed sure of which one I should actually get on. Perhaps because I was unable to hide my exasperation, a fellow traveler a year younger than me offered to help as it turned out that he was planning on taking the same train as I. His name was Rohit and he would prove to be a great help in getting me to Shimla.
The train ride to Shimla was just as special as it looked on TV. Locally referred to as a toy train, it has tiny cars and slowly snakes it’s way up the Himalayan foothills stopping every 10 km or so at stations. The frequent stops were welcome because the train wasn’t particularly comfortable. Designed for a time when people were smaller, the seats were rigid and barely afforded the space necessary for two people to sit beside one another comfortably. It should also be said that, while I enjoyed the leisurely pace, the train is almost painfully slow and it makes what should be a 1.5 hour drive into a 6 hour expedition. My advice would be to download some good music and secure yourself a window seat.
After finally reaching Shimla, Rohit introduced me to his former professor and his family. All together they were a mother, father, son, daughter, and grandmother. They asked me what plans I had compiled for Shimla and, after informing them that I didn’t really have any, they invited me to spend the following day with them as they had hired a drive to give them the express tour. Grateful for their offer, I accepted and said that I would find them the next morning.
The family that adopted me for that day could not have been kinder and more hospitable towards me. They continuously offered me food and would reject any attempt I made at paying for the various activities were did. I enjoyed playing with the kids and seeing the sights of Shimla and the surrounding villages. I owe them profound gratitude for how they took me in after only meeting me hours before. It was above and beyond the hospitality usually afforded to foreigners.
The second full day in Shimla was devoted to securing more cash, finding some food, and hiking up the hilly streets. Because of the lack of cash and broader gastrointestinal issues concerning Indian food, I ate more fast-food than I typically do in the U.S. on this trip. Western fast-food chains reliably accepted card and it was easy to consume a large meal knowing that it would likely be the only one I would have for the day. In Shimla, I found a Domino’s on the Ridge and devoured a medium pizza by myself. Though slightly ashamed of neglecting to attempt more Indian cuisine, my hunger was satisfied and I was granted the energy to sustain myself for another day.
With regards to the cash situation, Shimla was the site of my biggest success. Due in part to Shimla’s small population of 150,000, the lines for the ATM were usually only about a dozen people long. I seized on the opportunity and withdrew 10,000 rupees. This was enough to fuel my last week in India and from there on, cash ceased to be the extreme issue it was.
Finally, it must be said that Shimla was just so radically different from the other parts of India that I had seen. Obviously, being up in the mountains, the air was clear and clean and the citizens took more pride in keeping their city clean. Shimla lacked the profound pollution that was characteristic in Delhi, Agra, and later Amritsar. I truly enjoyed my time in Shimla (except for the lack of heating in my hotel but that’s a different story) and it marked what would be the beginning of my best week in India.