Indian summer: Shimla 0



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Without an organised driver, finding the right platform and more importantly the right train at Delhi station would have an exercise fraught with frustration and eventually, exhaustion. For a start the car can’t actually drop you at the station. Why I don’t know. Consequently you have to drag your bags 150 yards down the road before entering the confusion. But within that outward confusion lies an ordered system where trains always leave on time and tickets are checked against you ID. The British may have left a frustrating bureaucracy but they also left an ordered bureaucracy. We’re travelling coach class, there’s no first class on this train and to be fair it’s reasonably clean. You can’t compare it to a Swiss train but heck the Swiss may be clean and efficient but you’ve got to delve deep to find a sense of humour.

Heading out of Delhi, the amount of rubbish strewn on the tracks is beyond belief. They say that if all the plastic in India was piled up it would be higher than MT Everest. I’d say three Mt Everests! Along the way people are eking a living out of organised dumps where the rubbish lies smoking in the early morning mist. In Manila they have Smokey Mountain where close to 10,000 Filipinos live, sleep, go to school and eventually die on a gigantic rubbish dump. These dumps aren’t as big but the peoples existence is equally horrendous.

We’re heading for Chandigarh (I thought we were getting off at Kalka but the taxi drivers now won’t permit private hire cars at the station), which is four hours down the track. From there we’ll be met by two cars and make the journey up the lower Himalaya mountains to Shimla, the former summer capital of the British Raj.

As I said in my last epistle India is not for everyone. If you  haven’t spent much time driving in Asia or Africa then the journey up the mountains will be an eye opener to put it mildly. Brightly painted trucks and buses compete with cars, scooters and local villagers on steep, winding roads with drops of hundreds of feet. But somehow it works.

Shimla itself sprawls gracefully (actually haphazardly is probably more accurate), across several mountain peaks. The scenery is stunning and I mean stunning! You can well understand how the British aristocracy and bureaucracy decided to abandon the stifling heat of summer in Bombay and Delhi for the peaceful, cool tranquility of Shimla.

Apart from the scenery, the other thing you first notice about Shimla is the cleanliness. I mean  it’s not pristine, but compared to Delhi it’s like a hospital ward.For a start there are no cigarette butts and there’s a reason for that. Smoking is prohibited in any public place and on the spot fines apply. 200 rupees to be exact which is about five dollars. This is not the ideal habitat for moi and I’m forced to hide behind walls like a wayward school kid.

Everyone in Shimla is either very,very fit or drives a car. The roads wind up, down and around the mountains and the traffic congestion is a nightmare. All of the roads would be classified as one way in Australia but here buses, cars and pedestrians fight for centimetres of space and it’s two and occasionally three way traffic. If you’re not a good driver here you’ll either end up landing on the roof of a house below the road or you and your car will be embedded in the cliff face. oh yes and there’s no road rage. If a car has to reverse half a kilometre then c’est la vie. Thats’s life.

Now when I said pedestrians I forgot to add animal pedestrians. Namely monkeys. There are two types of monkeys in Shimla, Macaques and Black Faced Langurs. Both species are pretty powerful monkeys and they roam the streets at will, totally accepted by the locals. An early morning stroll is the best time to catch the interaction between the monkeys and the street dogs. It’s all bluff on either side and only occasionally is any real injury inflicted. But the stand off’s are a hoot! The Langurs are slightly bigger and a troop leading male is the undisputed king of the streets. This is yet another example of how animals have adapted to cities and happily co-exist with the local populace.

The exception to this peaceful co-existence is at the monkey temple which sits on top of the highest peak in Shimla, Hanuman, the half man, half monkey god is worshiped throughout India and in Shimla a 60 foot statue gazes down on the city below. The temple e is “guarded” by a large troop of very mischievous and extremely agile Macaques.  The locals say they’re “naughty” and that’s putting it mildly. In a tenth of a second they’ll strip you of sunglasses, purses, cameras and anything else you might be carrying. They don’t really want them of course,after all your average Macaque wouldn’t be seen dead in a pair of Ray Bans,but they’ve learnt to bargain. Give them some food and you get your valuables back. No food and the monkey and your valuables disappear into the pine forest. So common is this that temple employees are scattered along the path leading up to the temple with bags of nuts and kibble. An Indian man following us had his sunglasses ripped from his ears in a flash. The recalcitrant male Macaque leapt to a safe distance and then sat down holding the sunglasses in the air like a prize fighter. Out came the nuts back came the sunglasses. They really are very naughty monkeys!

Apart from the monkey temple, another place worth a visit is the old residence of the British Governor or Vice Regal lodge as it’s called. It was built in true Elizabethan style for Lord Dufferien  in 1844. It has 360 degree panoramic views and the interior takes you back to some of the great country houses of England, You can only imagine the shenanigans and intrigue that went on here. Part of the BBC series Indian Summers was filmed here although the exterior of another mansion was used for the majority of the scenes. Here too Langurs and Macaques roam the grounds and you can only imagine the squeals of displeasure if a monkey pinched earrings of a female member of the aristocracy. Mind you the British would have probably shot the monkey. They shot most of the  other animal species in India.

The Mall In Shimla is where you shop and eat. You can buy anything here and one section is full of the top designer shops from the western world. Timberland and Bata stand beside a local clothing shop specialising in saris and multi coloured scarfs.

In the large square that is the centre of the mall are seven of the most beautiful horses II’ve seen outside a show arena. They’re in immaculate condition and of course are used for people to have hand led rides. I spoke to the owners and there was no doubt they loved those horses. The white ones and there were two, were evidently in high demand for weddings, (The groom arrives on its back, resplendent and oozing ancient masculinity.)

It’s been a fascinating day and a half but you know what I enjoyed most? The monkeys. But that’s probably the RSPCA in me talking.

Have you ever been to India? Would you go?

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Michael Beatty

A former reporter-writer and host for a number of BBC Radio programmes including Scene and Heard (A rock magazine programme on Radio 1), Jack de Manio Precisely (Radio 2), First Night and Top of the Pops (BBC World Service.). Artists interviewed included Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman. Also wrote a regular column for Record Mirror and was a regular contributor to Disc and New Musical Express. Michael came to Australia with the Elton John tour and returned a month later to work as reporter and producer for ABC radio. Michael has also reported for This Day Tonight and Today Tonight, was state executive producer for Good Morning Australia and State Affair and has been a senior reporter for the 7:30 report, among many other achievements. During his career Michael has been under fire on the Thai- Burmese border, stoned and knifed in London’s Brixton riots, had chalk shot from his mouth by bush legend Larry Delhunty and once was persuaded to sit on the back of a 3.6 metre crocodile with The Barefoot Bushman. Over the years he has written and produced corporate films and videos for a variety of clients that include the Queensland Government and numerous hotels and resorts. He left Today Tonight at the end of 2002 and freelanced in South East Asia and China before agreeing to help out the RSPCA for six weeks in 2004. He’s still there!

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