Delhi: Captain Alex, once again a Singaporean. Do all Singaporen pilots come to India solely for the purpose of flying me to Delhi and making me circle it while my train leaves? But I outsmarted them this time. While they were pretending to lose my luggage, I booked a cab, freaked out my girlfriend by pretending to be in dire jeopardy of missing train, losing luggage and freezing to death while simultaneously getting run over, kidnapped and forcibly married off in a west UP village, freshened up, produced gigantic alpine jacket from hand baggage and proceeded to don it, raising eyebrows all around and imparting an additional chill to those who forgot there's at least a fifteen-degree difference between a Cal and a Delhi winter and were in thin shawls. Heheh.
What is mere airline staff in the face of such preparation?
Admitting defeat, they trundled my bag out onto the conveyer in the first batch itself.
Ah, train loos. They’re an exercise in acrobatics, juggling, organizational skills, and split-second timing. Getting your pants off and keeping your balance while the loo shakes and heaves around you is just the beginning. There’s also usually at least an inch of water sloshing around on the floor, and if you’re really unlucky, an incontinent child with poor aim has visited the loo before you, and the light will be dim, or flickering, or alternating between all three states. And when you’ve done your business, there’s the Coming Together Of The Four. Mug, Water, Hand, and Ass. Miss any one, and… well, use your imagination.
Hungry. Search for omelette stall. Find it, but the owner is fast asleep on top of the cart. Have unhealthy high-fat botulism-laden puri instead, and it’s delicious, steamin’ hot and drippingly juicy.
Kalka: Early morning. Fog, mist, condensation. Damp, cold air. Sleepy heads. Empty stations. And then find a guy selling chai. There’s a phrase in hindi, ‘rongte khade ho jate hain…’ That first sip makes you feel the words physically. Try it. Rrroll off your tongue. Rrrrongte. You can feel those chills running down your spine, as the hot tea slides down through your chilled body…
What else did you expect? Bong Family. Bring out the monkey caps! Europeans, in silent pairs in the corners. Boisterously excited students bouncing around, singing, yelling. Exposed skin so cold it hurts. Toasty warm in the jacket, exhaling thick white vapor. Omelette, cutlet, and bread while zipping through 103 tunnels, over roman-style bridges, under clear blue sky past misty valleys. Clicking snaps like a maniac.
Think of the 8:19 slow to Churchgate pulling out of Andheri station at this very minute back in Bombay, and it feels lifetimes away. Ha ha ha ha ha…
Peeing in a toy train
Is even more problematic than a regular train. To begin with, you need four arms. Two to hold the jacket open. One to hold down the jockeys from snapping back and collapsing you in an agonized heap on the floor. And one to actually direct flows in a epileptically shaking WC.
A little history
The Kalka-Simla toy train is one of the world’s recognized narrow-gauge engineering feats. The 103 tunnels it travels through were constructed using giant mirrors for lighting, and they’re still used today for repair work. Build by an Englishman named Barod, after whom they have a station named, where we had our first pitstop and took on supplies. The toy train driver – a chappie called Suresh Varma – was convinced by Doc to let him see the engine cabin.
Cab up to Shilonbagh, where we’re going to be staying… around 25 km out of Simla, a resort in the middle of nowhere with a couple of shops, a taxi union, and another resort for company on an otherwise uninhabited wilderness. A bus goes by every hour or so, otherwise you walk.
Except this time round, it was sleet season. Ice cold drizzle whipping around. Ears going cold, frozen, then numb. Fingers refusing to work. Situation desperate. Doc decides enough is enough, and stops at the first desi daru theka and picks up a bottle of the local stuff, entitled, appropriately enough, Suroor. It has similarities to its’ musical namesake, too- it’s ubiquitous, not very healthy in the long run or in large doses, but does its’ job of giving temporary warmth and comfort at a very cheap price.
Stop at Khufri where we pick up gloves and pictures of Yaks.
Take Doc & Praddy for a walk in the evening, downhill 3 km to a village called Kag. At the end of it, we turn around and look at the long, long way back and the fading light… and right on cue, a taxi arrives. Someone else was coming down to here. Talk about luck.
Bitterly cold. We find out later it’s a cold wave, and the whole of Himachal is shivering under icy winds and falling temperatures. It was 5 degrees in Simla; Shilonbagh must have been easily 2 or 3. So cold it hurts.
Try a little phone sex but it doesn’t work out; there’s poor network inside the room, and 3 very curious pairs of ears, and outside means putting on your thermals, t-shirt, sweater, and double-layered alpine jacket and shoes, cap, and gloves, and then stand with whole-body shudders and chattering teeth.
Watch the moon set at night. Completely still now, completely dark.
Take a walk in the morning. Lots of monkeys, but all of them remarkably peaceful and well-behaved. Ignore me completely.
Fix up a cab for 4 days, head off to The Mall. It’s a vehicle-free zone with old English architecture; lovely place. You can only move around on foot, on horses, or in a pram, if you are in a certain age bracket with accommodating parents.
Indian Coffee House. Stuff myself with the softest, thickest, most delicious, golden buttered toast and scrambled eggs. I swear I haven’t tasted those toast anywhere outside the hills. Worth the trip just for that.
Lounge around on park benches in the sun, watch the crowds, write, read, chat.
Everyone goes gaga over the Himachali women but I find the reports a little suspect, and the results doubtful. They’re too sharp-featured… but then again, maybe I was looking at a biased sample. At that time, all the college kids would be in, and these would be the housewives / working women… but definitely incredibly fit. It's the air that does it, I guess.
Find a Tibetan Handloom shop, where I pick up assorted gifts for far and dear ones… bone bracelets, and for me, finally, I manage to lay my hands on a CD of Tibetan chants. I’ve been looking for that since MacLeodganj. But you know something? It needs cold weather to be appreciated. Down here, in the plains… it felt like something was missing, somehow.
Nail-biting ride back on the dark mountain road, with Gangster remixed playing, the cab swaying all over the place, including off the road on occasion.
For some unfathomable reason, the Shilon Resort has a large plaster statue of a virulent green dragon. The rest of the resort is a fairly dignified, traditional resort, with no trace whatsoever of any dragon themes.
The next morning is brilliantly clear, crystalline air. You can see all the way to the peaks of Rohtang Pass, gleaming white in the morning sun, while we sit in the garden of the ABC Sher-e-Punjab and pig out on aloo parathas.
Why ABC? Well, it used to be a single dhaba called Sher-e-Punjab run by two brothers, but jealousy, greed and sibling rivalry reared it's ugly head and they had a fight and divided it. One promptly named his half the Zenstha Sher-e-Punjab. The other, I assume in a fit of hasty renaming, cried "Um - ehh - Om Sai, nonono - Khufri dh- no, that's taken - abe mera bheja nahin chalta, fuckit!" and named his pride and joy ‘ABC’.
Naldehra. The scenic site of many a dozen seventies bollywood romances. Riding around on horseback between the tall pines, stopping at little clearings for a cig-and-chai break. I keep expecting to see Rajesh Khanna pop out from behind a tree with soulful expression, while Asha Parekh or Sharmila Tagore flit hither and thither. Although, more recently, some bits of LoC had been shot here…
One the tea-stall people was from Lucknow. (I seem to find my roots wherever I go!) He runs his biz here, and goes home during January, during the storms season. He remembered the times when movies used to be shot all the time… now it’s tapered off. Directors prefer the foreign locales. :(
This is my somewhat skittish steed, Rani. Say hi.
And while we’re talking animals, you have to see the dogs they have out here… healthiest bloody creatures ever seen. Huge. Obviously because of the extra layers of bushy fur, but a lot of the retired colonels’ and brigadiers’ Alsatians and Dobermanns have been enjoying themselves amidst the local canine populace; the place is crawling with mongrels that are almost, but not quite, alsatians, obermanns, spaniels, retrievers, Labradors, and even great danes. Add a healthy component of bhutia in the mix and you have a classic Himachal street dog – bushy, large, well-kept and well-fed, and generally having such an indolent expression on his face you want to jump off the nearest cliff in shame at the thought of your own life.
After a while, a group of Indian tourists arrive and begin to bathe enthusiastically in the hot sulfur springs, as Indian tourists are wont to do at the drop of a hat near any water body, and we move on. Pass a major flock of ghurals and several women carrying gigantic bundles of sticks – this is when they gather the firewood for the season when it’s too cold to go out – and later, in a deserted patch of the road, the Black Bear marked territory. Buddha was about to as well, until he saw me clicking, and changed his mind.
Gorgeous sunset, clean air, biting cold. Lights of Simla like sparks on a dark hill.
Sometimes I wonder if this is the way life is really supposed to be, and we in Bombay are stuck in some ghastly life-gone-wrong horror
Talk to R again. Most of our conversations begin with me telling her what I ate that day, which completely horrifies her. Actually, it horrifies me too, if I think about it too long.
Doc is so in love with here that he has made his plans to settle here for a few months. He is a man on a contact-making mission with each and every local he meets, getting addresses, names, numbers, and discussing plans. Buddha, slightly uncharitably, endows him with a future himachali wife and kids, developing it into a modern-day Ram Teri Ganga Maili story.
Chail has the highest cricket ground in India, a statement that seems a little familiar from hearing it being claimed by Dharamsala as well. It definitely has the highest basketball court, and a historic tree.
The Himachal taxi drivers are extremely unionized, with clear territories and rules. Each driver is doing his job only part-time; the rest goes in farming, or other businesses, or hobbies. It’s also on a rotation basis, so we get a different driver each time.
The best part of winter- more than the breath vapor in the mornings, more the hot food and hotter coffee, more than the snuggling under the quilts, is the snoozing in the sun on the grass. Buddha was woken up finally by an ant crawling up his ear, or he’d have remained there till now.
Watch the first innings of a local match, then head off to the Chail Palace Hotel.
Temperature dropped so sharply that when you take a leak, the steam from the bowl practically hides it.
Make it to the famous Chanderu dhaba, run by a Nepali family, the favorite of all taxi drivers of Simla. With good reason. It’s the single most delicious meal I’ve had in years. And healthy. Home food cooked on a wood fire. Makke di roti, sarson da saag, paratha, rajma, dal, kadhi, and finally topped up with gur-roti as a sweet dish.
Play a couple of games of pool back at the resort, in the evening after a hot shower. Is this luxury or is this luxury?
Back to Simla then next day, for more lazing around. Go through Lakkar Bazaar, the wood market, this time round… taking a shortcut through a long, dark, dank tunnel. We are already starting to feel the first twinges of familiarity, of becoming localized here. Buy lots of gifts to be taken back home.
Head up to the Jakhoo Temple in a fit of enthusiasm. Forty five minutes of a forty five degree slope later, we’re gasping at every level patch of ground, swearing to, really, really this time, quit cigarettes. Good thing Doc and Praddy didn't try it, or, as Buddha so succintly puts it, we would have had to cancel their tickets back.
The monkeys here are the local gundas of the himachal monkey, the Macca mulatta mafia. Not so well-behaved and shy, this lot! At regular intervals, the locals are selling sticks to tourists to ward off the monkeys. We don’t realize why until, halfway up, I feel a gentle tug on my jeans and look down into a pair of wide-open, soft brown eyes attached to a hairy body and little black paws gently yanking at my pants.
Jakhoo Temple is a Hanuman Temple, and the monkeys swarm like piranha here, and are as aggressive. But it’s still a nice place, with nice carvings, peaceful.
Finally, at 4 AM,it’s time to leave; catch a cab back to Kalka, and onto the Paschim Express back to Bombay. At Chandigarh, we see a classic case of the inability of the average Indian train-traveller to understand the mechanics of train-boarding; gigantic groups of portly travelers with gargantuan luggage will burst in at each end of the coach and charge towards the opposite ends, clashing in the center like some cosmic force, each with his own attendant solar system of relatives, well-wishers, porters, and luggage, with cries of ‘Side do! Side do! Zara shift karo ji!’ and pushing each other into to laps of those already seated.
Kids on a Train
Oh, the Horror. One crapped in the compartment. One couldn’t keep still and romped end-to-end for the entire journey, trailed by a lanky minder with a cell surgically attached to his ear. One demanded everything from every attendant who passed by, and shrieked in rage at every denial, every attempt of his parents to sleep, read, talk, or do anything not directly involving him. One had a grandmother who would cough alarmingly, tongue protruding, eyes bulging, and phlegm spraying in all directions.
Beautiful winter weather… cool, overcast, slightly drizzly, and best of all, seen from behind a pane of glass while wrapped up in a warm blanket.
And so it ends.
See the Photos here