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An Alternative Winter Wonderland.

Simla, India

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?

Himalayas 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.

Ganga Man 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.

Himalayas 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!

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal 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.

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