For a place that has so much reputation and fame, there is a lot of expectation. Unfortunately, finding the charm of Shimla is trying to find a piece of diamond in a heap of coal. From the very first impressions, it is a disappointment. I guess one imagines so much of a hill station – fresh air, cool hill breeze, clean and uncrowded streets, an unspoilt landscape of forests, a touch of colonial romance and a quietness that is usually not found in cities. All that I got when I entered Shimla were a couple of touts trying sell me a room.
It turns out that Shimla was a place of summer retreat during colonial times. Since then the crowds have come in and in great numbers. It has very little of its supposed charm. The town itself has expanded quite a bit and this is apparent in the way the town sprawls on the deforested slopes. Streets are not clean but cleaner I suppose than in bigger cities. Open drains flow down the slopes taking with them the garbage of tourists. There is an awful filthy tunnel from Lakkad Bazaar.
What defines Shimla for me is the architecture, the sole representative of Shimla’s cultural legacy and historical context. Most are period buildings from the time of the British Raj. Architecturally they come under different names – mock-Tudor, Victorian or Gothic revival. Most of these are of wood, something commonly available in these parts. The Town Hall and Municipal Office are lovely buildings but they are not all that well maintained. Where I stayed, the room has a colonial touch – high ceiling, large bathroom and a balcony with a great view.
Built on the slopes, every hotel room seems to have a view. To experience the town more personally, it’s a good idea to walk through the streets. Narrow roads without footpaths are a problem and one has to be careful. Wandering alone in the late evening or early morning hours can be dangerous. Monkeys are a menace. Hoteliers are careful to remind all tourists to shut and lock their windows before leaving their rooms. It is common to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of footsteps followed by the chattering of a troupe of monkeys. Stray dogs join in the fray towards the cause of men rather than monkeys.
The Mall and the Ridge are good places for generally strolling around or shopping. They are reminiscent of many English towns. If people define culture, architecture goes a long way in defining mood. Shimla is an interesting mix of Indian and English. It is not a jumbled mix but a carefully evolved synthesis. Perhaps, this is why I like Shimla a little bit.
Shimla could have remained a beautiful place. If it is not today, only we are to be blamed as individuals and governments. Like everywhere else in India, we Indians do not seem to care about public places. We do not afford them the same indulgence as our private places.
I took a flight from Bangalore to Delhi, stopped at Delhi for a few hours before catching a Kalka bus from ISBT. The next morning I took a bus to Shimla. Coming to Shimla by train from Kalka is also an option.
Right above Kalka bus station are some dorm beds for Rs. 50 a bed. At Shimla, I stayed at a place right opposite the bus station ISBT.
There is a rather inconspicious restaurant named Sher-e-Punjab at the Ridge. This was earlier recommended to me on the bus by a resident of Chandigarh. Good food of roti and sabji for about Rs. 50. I also tried Mirch Masala for dinner, vegetable pulao and tomato soup costing Rs. 109. On the whole, food is mediocre and nothing to get terribly excited about.
Personally nothing spectacular but one can walk all the hills that define Shimla by road and footpaths.