An Alternative Winter Wonderland.
It’s a beautiful night: you walk across the courtyard to the old
stone church, your feet crunching the snow underfoot. The air is crisp, and
snow hangs heavy on the boughs of pine trees. Families walk past, their kids
throwing snowballs at each other under the yellow light of street lamps.
So where is this place? Scotland? Haute Savoie? Colorado?
Nope – it’s India. More specifically, it’s the fantastic city of Simla
(pronounced ‘Shimla’, and sometimes spelled that way, too), the capital of
Himachal Pradesh State high in the foothills of the Himalaya. Simla isn’t an
ancient city at all. It was founded only 150 years ago by the British, who
ruled India until 1947. The site was chosen for its altitude. On average, Simla
is over 2000m above sea level – so even in summer the temperature never climbs
too high. The city grew quickly towards the end of the nineteenth century.
British administrators found the roasting heat of the regular capital, Delhi,
overpowering in the summer months. Simla became the governments’ summer
capital. Towards the end of spring when the weather began to really warm up
whole government departments would pack up shop and north by train. They would
only leave Simla again well into the fall when the temperatures on the plains
became bearable once more.
Simla’s a thoroughly modern place today. But it’s also the foremost example of
a certain type of Indian city: it’s uniquely, bizarrely British. This has
little to do with the fact that everyone speaks English, though they do – Simla
has more English-speakers than many cities in this Anglophile country - it’s
the layout and the architecture. The sheer style of the place makes it feel, at
times, like an English town frozen forever in 1935.
Take, for example, the vice-regal lodge. ‘Lodge’ isn’t really
the right word to describe this building: ‘palace’ might be better. It looks as
if a tornado has sucked up an English country mansion and stuck it down again
on an Indian hillside. It’s a university now, but serves as a reminder of
India’s imperial past. Similar in style are the city library – a mock Tudor
house – and the elegant sandstone mass of Christ Church.
Simla is built on a long, crescent shaped ridge. There aren’t
many flat spots in the whole city. One of the best and biggest is the long road
that runs along the top of the hill, and is itself known as ‘The Ridge’. It’s
closed to traffic now, and walking over its smooth warm stones you can really
get a sense of what India was like in the days of the Raj. Simla’s a great
place for shopping – have a wander around the Mall, or any of the stalls you’ll
find in the centre of town and around Scandal Point. Interesting items can be
picked up for not very much at all – it’s a good idea to check, however, that
it’s legal to take your purchases out of the country. India’s laws on exporting
antiques and artefacts aren’t as strong as they are in some countries, but it’s
always wise to be sure.
As attractive as Simla itself is the city’s surrounding area.
All around are fantastic cool meadows and valleys full of oak, pine and
rhododendron. If you feel like an adventure take the narrow-gauge railway to
Kalka, which runs through fantastic scenery and across precipitous gorges. It’s
a five-hour trip each way, so if you’re going to make the most of it an
overnight stay in Kalka is probably a good bet. The railway, built between 1898
and 1903, offers some of the best views and experiences to be had in the whole
subcontinent, so the extra arrangements are worth the hassle.
Simla is also great, believe it or not, for skiing. The nearby ski resort of
Kufri is one of the oldest established in Asia. It’s only ten miles or so from
Simla, and feels rather more like a French alpine resort than a north Indian
hill station. Kufri’s also a wonderful base if you enjoy hill walking and
hiking. There are several good guided walks and treks available – you’ll find
that signing up for one of them is much easier and safer than trying to make
your own way in the hills. These may only be the ‘foothills’ of the Himalaya,
but anywhere else they would be called mountains!
If you travel to Simla you’ll learn one of the great lessons of India: that it
is as culturally, geographically and climatically diverse as North America or
Western Europe. There is far more to India than the baking summer heat of the
plains, the Taj Mahal and people riding on the roof of trains. If you’ve never
been to India before, Simla is a great place to start. It has enough of the
West about it to be comforting and home-like, and enough of the East to be
exotic and wonderful.