Memories of India: Part Four

Claire Armstrong

Up into the Himalayas – to Shimla and beyond…

After the exotic temples and forts of Rajasthan, our last “must-see” in Northern India was Shimla and Dharamsala – up in the foothills of the Himalayas.  We didn’t hire a car for this bit, because the little mountain train was an attraction in its own right – a small, rickety train that wound its way up into the hills, over viaducts and through cuttings, with the most spectacular views.

The little mountain train to Shimla

The train was small and crowded, and part way there, it stopped at a station and everyone just got out and wandered off!  It was a planned stop for snacks, drinks, toilet breaks, etc, but we were a bit nervous about leaving the train for too long!  When it was due to set off again, everyone just seemed to know when to get back on.  It wasn’t quite like railway stations over here!

The first port of call for us was Shimla, an unusually British-looking town, due to its colonial past. There are churches that look very British, along with Tudor-style buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in Stratford on Avon. It was quite hard to imagine we were still in India!

It’s a popular tourist destination with Indian and foreign tourists alike, and it had a definite “holidayish” feel to it – music playing in the square, flags and banners waving, people picnicking on benches and so on.  And the views were quite something, with the sun setting over the hills.

Shimla at sunset, when we arrived
Shimla the following day – mock-Tudor buildings
and a really holidayish atmosphere

The Monkey Incident

Whenever you’re travelling, especially in far-flung places, one of the things you’re always worried about (well, I am) is having your belongings stolen.  All through my 6-month trip I was paranoid about keeping my valuables close to me – and had so far managed to not have anything pinched.

Until this day. We decided to visit the Temple of Hanuman (the monkey god) in Shimla. It was a pleasant uphill walk through trees, to a temple right at the top.  There were monkeys running everywhere, and it was really lovely.

But then, half way up the hill, I suddenly felt my shoulders pushed downwards, and when I stood up, I couldn’t see anything – my glasses must have fallen off, I thought. I called to my friends, and when they’d managed to stop laughing they explained that they’d turned round to see a monkey on my shoulders!  But my glasses were nowhere to be found, so we soon realised that they hadn’t just fallen off – the monkey had deliberately stolen – stolen! – my glasses! Unfortunately, I’m very short sighted, and I was getting quite worried now – how could I get my glasses back?

But then, as if by magic, a man and his son appeared, looking very sympathetic. I told them my plight and they just happened to know how to get my glasses back… Here’s the deal, they said: we can get the glasses back if you buy a bag of peanuts from us – the monkey will drop your glasses and take the nuts instead. It worked, of course it did – I got my glasses back, the monkey got some peanuts, and the man and his son earned a couple of Rupees out of it. Everyone’s a winner, except for me being 2 Rupees worse off and having had the fright of my life!  I suppose there are worse ways to earn a living…

I was much more wary of monkeys after that though!

After Shimla, we carried on up to a place called McLeod Ganj, just outside Dharamsala, home to the exiled Dalai Lama and a large Tibetan community.  It felt like a different country again – there were Tibetan prayer flags everywhere, Buddhist temples, prayer wheels… and the food in the cafés was all Tibetan rather than Indian.  It was lovely and the Tibetan people we met were really friendly and welcoming.

Tibetan culture in Dharamsala

My favourite part of this place was the walk we did up a nearby mountain. It was a hot day, not ideal for climbing, and we were absolutely exhausted by the end of it, but the view was worth it all. From the top we could see the snow line of the Himalayan foothills, and they were as spectacular, steep and pointy as I had imagined. We even saw eagles soaring below us – it was incredible.

Pointy, snowy Himalayas!

While we were up this big hill (mountain!), we managed to miss the Dalai Lama himself, who was in residence at his temple back at Dharamsala… which was a bit of a shame.  Ah well, you can’t win them all.

Sadly this was almost the end of our trip together – Lisa and Sue were flying back to Britain the following day.  Soon it would be time for me to travel on to Chennai, where I’d be spending the next couple of months working in an orphanage – and I’ll tell you a little bit about that tomorrow.

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