Shimla on the side: Brain-frozen in the Summer Capital of British India

“SEE… THERE… YAKS!” Tuni, the driver/guide, blurts out in his tentative English. He is clearly excited. But he doesn’t slow down and the moment is too quickly gone. Seeing me crestfallen, he says assuringly, “Others coming now.”

The next two “others” are not getting away from me, no. Within the minute, we are pulling over to the side of the road where Tipsu and Batel stand passively, their handlers manning a small tent nearby. Fifty rupees (less than US$1) for a photograph with the animals, one of them says; 200 if I want to get into a Himachal costume.

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I may never pass this way again. My first, maybe my last, yaks. Tipsu lets me stroke his neck, but Batel is determined to ignore me. 

Day 1

I am not thinking at this point; I am in love. Or brain-frozen at 7,238 feet above sea level. The handler could have said 500 rupees and still I would have jumped. I may never pass this way again and never see another yak. Batel, the younger one at 5 years, is a little grouchy, but Tipsu, 8, seems docile, almost friendly. Then again, what do I know about yaks? Only that they are traditional beasts of burden in these parts. But because they are displayed along the tourist strip, these “others” are very clean, their coats well-trimmed and brushed.

Eagerly, I step into the costume, which looks a lot like Ifugao gear in my country, the Philippines. I start hugging Tipsu around the neck and can’t stop. (See the resulting photo here. That is certainly 200 rupees well spent.)

My first sight-seeing day in faraway Shimla is off to a good start. I have made the side trip to this hill station, Summer Capital of British India, on my way to Mount Abu in Rajasthan.

(“On my way to…” may not be accurate. From New Delhi, our port of entry, three companions and I have hired a van to drive up north for eight hours. We are returning to Delhi two days from now to take the overnight train going in the opposite direction to Abu Road.)

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At last, a glimpse of the Himalayan mountain range, which eluded me on a previous quest.

From Tipsu and Batel’s bend, we proceed to Kufri Snow Point. Tess, one of the girls, is determined to be photographed in the snow. The Himalayan mountain ranges, peaks softly glistening in the distance like vanilla cake frosting, is the bigger thrill for me. Five years ago, this sight eluded two friends and myself from a viewing deck in Bhutan, somewhere between Paro and Thimpu. So many ascending steps, and only thick clouds awaited us at the top!

But Tess is very distracted, disturbed by the muddy 25-day-old ice on the hillsides. At last we find a snapshot-worthy spot, she gets her fix, and we call it a day.

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Tess’ snapshot against a backdrop of  25-day-old snow.

Day 2

It is the end of winter, but still extremely cold for us Manila natives. Ellen has brought disposable time-release heat pads, the ones that come in paper packs, and they are proving to be lifesavers. We have had to devise a way to take quick bucket-and-dipper showers because the hot water turns cold in literally five breaths. Nette takes a shower every day at 2 a.m. I know why but I dare not ask how. I myself have resorted to laying under the sheets at night the clothes that I will wear the next day, so they don’t feel moist and chilled in the morning. Sometimes it works. As for my warmers, I have no intention of removing them at all.

We are staying in a six-story meditation center carved into the hillside as all the buildings here seem to be, one on top of another. Our room has a balcony from which we can watch the sunrise but only briefly, no matter that it is very picturesque. It is that cold.

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Our freezer-balcony at the six-level Raja Yoga Center, carved into the hillside like majority of the buildings here.
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View from the other side of the yoga center: Multi-level structures stacked like Lego pieces on the hillsides. I am very curious about the building code. 

Yesterday, my travel buddies, fellow Raja Yoga students, agreed to read study materials out on the balcony. To arrive at that decision, I thought, rolling my eyes, they must have been stricken with altitude sickness. There was no way I could get out there, thank you. I sat near the door. This morning is about two degrees colder than when we retired last night. We are all staying inside for the reading.

Today we’re off to the famous square whose image always came up when I Googled “Shimla, Himachal Pradesh” prior to booking all travel arrangements. A souvenir photograph in Christ Church Square is the main thing I want from this trip.

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Approaching the tourist district, a denser housing area

The square is upwards of another Shimla landmark, Mall Road. To reach Mall Road from the parking lots—motor vehicles are not allowed beyond this level—everyone takes two outdoor lifts. This, it turns out, is just rational, considering how narrow the roads are and how many visitors come here all year round.

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Construction sites are everywhere. No motor vehicles are allowed beyond this level, Everyone takes two lifts up to Mall Road and the famous Christ Church square. 

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Mall Road starts here. Souvenir shops galore. Best reserve a whole day for this. Below, a street musician. He had some trouble walking, but straightened up when I asked for this shot. 

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The colorful, buzzing Mall Road. Haggling is a little more challenging these days because the rupee has taken a dip at 65 to a dollar. But still…the bargains!
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My prize. This is what I came here for. Tipsu , my yak, is a bonus.

I keep thinking how the Philippines’ own Summer Capital, Baguio City, looked this magical, too, in the early 1960s when I first saw it, when everything and everyone, vehicles and pedestrians, stopped for the Angelus at sundown upon hearing the bells clanging from the Cathedral that is also atop a hill.

It is a busy square, with the Christ Church, a public library, and a monument to Mohandas Gandhi plus, today, an arts-and-crafts fair, but the quiet cheer with which the people are milling about is noteworthy. This level of calm in the square is something I have not experienced elsewhere in India (except the Raja Yoga main campus in Abu, but that is not a public place like this) and I have come to this sub-continent at least eight times in the past. I remember reading somewhere that Shimla, formerly Simla, used to be a part of Nepal, whose name could be derived from the Tibetan word niyampal, which means “holy land.” Maybe there’s something in the air.

We are the only Asians, as far as I can see, and we are ogled, smiled at a lot, and occasionally fussed over. A local TV crew tries to convince me to go on-cam for a street interview about Women’s Day. I decline; I am just a tourist.

 Day 3

It is our last day in Shimla, and by now I am certain that Tuni is not a very experienced tour guide. I have a list of things to do here and I’m not even halfway through it. Fortunately for him and for me, unexpected aspects of the experience have kept impatience at bay:

  • Two yoginis in charge of the center, much younger than I, practically nuns and who in fact have the Hindi word bhen (for “sweet sister” affixed to their names, are inexplicably happy to have us around. Sunita bhen and Durga bhen whip up authentic and delicious Indian vegetarian meals and are always ready to serve sweets and spicy hot chai. In white sarees and woolen jackets and shawls, they start and finish their daily chores silently and smiling all the while, as though lost in prayer or, in their case, meditation. Occasionally, they dissolve into giggles as they watch us devour platefuls of food. Their English is more limited than Tuni’s but we never wonder what’s on their minds; we’re sure they are good thoughts.
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    Girls’ night in–in the kitchen. From left: Sunita, Ritu, Nette, Durga, Tess, myself and Ellen.
  • Sunita and Durga make jam out of fresh apples, too, and chapati on demand.
  • A third yogi who lives out of the center is an intense 30-year-old lawyer named Ritu. She’s the only one within a 10-meter radius at any time who speaks English that sounds closest to ours and, as such, is constantly initiating and directing conversations. On the brink of being intimidated, however, we are treated one evening in the kitchen to Ritu’s spirited demonstration of the bangra dance (this is on my list!), flailing her hips like a high school girl on her first night out with friends.
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    Shyam and “Mom.” See some striking similarities?
  • The only male center resident, Shyam, has taken to calling me “Mother.” I let him. Yesterday, he brought us to a Buddhist temple nearby. Along the way, he spoke to a lot of people and dogs. Seriously, dogs. I said he could run for local public office, having so many friends. He said they were not his friends; he didn’t have friends. He is stranger than he is funny.
  • The intermittent sight of beaded teddy bears in toy kiosks along the roads. Only in India, I’ll wager.
  • The mercifully one-time-only encounter with a hungry oversized monkey helping itself to Ellen’s tray-full of grapes in the middle of our room. We all stand there transfixed, just eyeballing the rascal.

Also yesterday, I asked Tuni to bring us to the bird park. When we got there after a long drive, the park was closed. We saw a sign that said, “Open everyday except Tuesday.” Guess what day it was? Can’t be brain freeze. This is his hometown. To his credit, he is an excellent driver–very sharp reflexes–and the connections that led us to him are a hundred and ten percent safe, which is very important especially for an all-female tour group anywhere.

Day 3

Today, he attempts to redeem himself in our eyes (well, at least in mine). He is bringing us to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, former palace of the British Viceroy Lord Dufferin, and then of the succeeding viceroys and governors-general.

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The Indian Institute of Advanced Study. There are much better pictures in their website, I promise.

From outside, the 19th century palace looks straight out of a “Harry Potter” movie. I am immediately awed. Many historic meetings were held here during the Indian Independence Movement. (The decision to carve out Pakistan from India was also arrived at here.) Inside are numerous blown-up photographs showing British officials welcoming Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi to what is also known as the Viceregal Lodge. As I cross the threshold, the hairs behind my neck stand on ends.

I stay within two feet of the palace tour guide, listening, taking notes that I may find useful later, asking questions. How much of the Lodge has been successfully preserved? Ninety percent. Are these ceiling lamps original? Yes, those in the hallway, too and the ceilings, all the woodwork, etc.

What used to be the ballroom is now a library for a handful of scholars. Tourists are not allowed inside the library. My head spins just thinking about the wealth of knowledge in those precious volumes. The institute gives six-month study grants in the Humanities to applicants who pass stringent requirements. The good news is, there is no age limit. I find this out after asking, only half in jest, if I can work here. Mr. Tour Guide says, “Better to come as a scholar. (Myanmar’s most famous political personality) Aung San Suu Kyi studied here. Just visit our website!”

On account of this last outing, Tuni is officially redeemed in my eyes. For good measure, he takes pains to drive higher up in the mountain to a temple for the monkey god Hanuman. It is anti-climactic but earns him a few more brownie points just the same. In any case, if I ever come back here, maybe in another 66 years (hey, it’s not easy), I’ll be sure to get a professional guide plus Tuni as driver, and possibly stay two weeks. In the spring.

The drive back

Last year, to mark my 66th birthday, I went trekking on Mt. Pulag with an equally audacious friend to see for myself its celebrated “sea of clouds.” Of course I didn’t reach the summit and the sea of clouds that I got to view was another mountain range away, too far to take a selfie and fool anyone with it. I wondered why there were no stories anywhere about Pulag stormers who don’t even make it to Camp 2?

I remember this now as we drive down near-zero-visibility roads from Shimla. I am in a sea of clouds. And then, emerging from the first, I am eased into another, and then another, and yet another. I don’t have to pitch a tent, walk 50 meters to the toilet/bath or start climbing at midnight. In fact, I don’t have to step out of the van!

These pictures are taken from inside Tuni’s Toyota Innova.

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Post Script

Tess catches up with me in yoga class today, exactly a month after the drive down. “Did you know that it snowed in Shimla the day after we left?” She is showing me a video on her tablet, of people at Christ Church Square dancing in a fuzzy shower. Indeed! The first time in decades, the report says, that anything like it happened at the tail end of winter, leaving behind 26 cm of snow.

I’m quite sure that Tess is going back. Meanwhile, I can’t help provoking her, “Had Tuni done his homework, he’d have known about that and we could have stayed another day.” She doesn’t seem to hear me. She’s probably plotting that return trip already.

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