On The Road To Shimla
Published: August 2006
India must be one of the most written about, talked about, photographed, and televised countries in the world. In fact here at Travel Channel we're devoting an hour every night this month to programmes on India. It's definitely my favourite country and the place I chose to set out on my 40th Birthday Challenge.
Anniversaries and birthdays are always a good hook for that extra special trip or holiday, and a milestone like a 40th Birthday warrants a bit of an adventure. For years, my idea had been to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania but since reading that the majority of people don't make it and suffer severe altitude sickness (apparently disillusioned climbers have carved "Turn back now, it's not worth it" into the bed posts in the huts that scatter the route), I opted instead for a low altitude but still physically challenging trek from Kullu to Shimla in the Indian Himalayas. Inspired by Michael Palin's Himalaya, four friends, all approaching a similar age and all India virgins, were coerced into joining me.
Sixteen years ago on my first visit to Delhi, I set off with a backpack and a stay at the infamous Ringo's Guest House - on the roof. By the way, I still don't possess a suitcase, but this time I had a pull-along barrel bag and a stay at the much more salubrious Metropolitan Nikko Hotel. The hotel is ideally located in the centre of Delhi and a perfect base for exploring the city’s main attractions. But Delhi was only ever going to be a jumping-off point en route to Kullu, an hour and a half's flight to the north. The name Kullu is derived from “Kulantapith” or 'the end of the habitable world’. It’s also the name of the bestseller by Penelope Chetwode on which our trek was based.
Penelope Chetwode was the daughter of Field Marshal Lord Chetwode, who commanded the Indian Army 1930-34, and later wife of the Poet Laureate John Betjeman. In 1936 she trekked from Shimla to Kullu with her mother and then chose to return regularly, leading groups every year. Penelope died in the area she loved so much in 1986 and this April, Paddy Singh of Hindoostan Tours who accompanied her on her last trek will be leading a special anniversary trek.
Our trek was going to transport us to a bygone era, camping in the gardens of rest houses, built an age ago and long since abandoned. We were to walk about 6 - 8 hours every day with the added luxury of a guide and 6 ponies to carry our bags, camping equipment and all our food. I've trekked in China, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Nepal but the highlight of this trail was its isolation. Over 7 days we didn't come across another Westerner, we were never asked for a single rupee or a biro, not asked to buy a post card or eat the ubiquitous banana cake at a backpackers’ cafe. It really was the end of the habitable world but all we encountered was warmth, curiosity and genuine smiles.
We arrived at Kullu, which is famous in India as a centre of apple growing and for its unique local woollen shawls. However, there’s little to occupy you here, so after one night, we drove to Banjaar to start our trek, a 3 hour steep and at times very hot climb to the Chani Temple at 6,500 feet. The temple is 500 years old and 250 feet tall, and from here there are magnificent views of the distant Himalayas.
For the next seven days we trekked through terraced fields, passing curious villagers and dining by candlelight under starlit skies. I'd like to be able to say that at night the chirruping crickets lulled us to sleep while the music of the birds woke us each morning. However, we weren’t “natural campers”. Two friends were immediately nicknamed the "chemical sisters" due to the amount of sleeping tablets they took each night. In the morning we were actually woken with "bed tea". Exactly what it means, tea brought to you in bed by the porters and chefs. A special mention should go to the latter who somehow managed to prepare a feast of at least 5 courses every night, including a home-made welcome cake, all with ingredients carried on the ponies.
The trail was stunning (the Kullu Valley is justifiably considered one of the most picturesque valleys in the West Himalaya), peaceful, unspoilt and challenging. Ok, challenging if like me you spend your life stuck behind a desk. It was relatively easy for several of the others, the kinds who run marathons and go to the gym. The trek was largely un-eventful although momentarily worrying when I asked one of the porters what one large paw print was. "From a baloo" came the reply. Well, I've seen The Jungle Book and know what a baloo is! I of course spent the next few hours on the look out for bears.
My trekking companions have suggested this article be called "all bladders and bowels", a reference to our two main topics of conversation. Is it just the Brits who become obsessed with bowel movements on holiday? Bladders are plastic water containers with a hose and mouthpiece that take several litres of water and can be inserted into your daypack. Filling these and purifying the water was a daily ritual. I, being the "hard-core" traveller, drank from mountain streams where the water could not have been more pure or delicious. However, I'd still recommend buying a mini rucksack with a bladder inside. I'd also not stint on socks. In the early morning the dew is fairly heavy and clothes are unlikely to dry if you wash them. Trekking socks are best.
The only shops you come across along the way are tiny village ones, normally about the size of a cupboard and selling a few local supplies. Serious shoppers needn't worry, as there are still opportunities to come back with some original souvenirs; a pair of gloves knitted by the wife of one of the porters or traditional Kullu scarves worn by all the women, or the Kullu hats worn by the men.
The trek ended at Shimla, the former summer capital of the British Raj. Mock Tudor and Gothic buildings, churches, schools and the Gaiety, Asia's oldest theatre, all bear testimony to a long gone Edwardian world. Here we stayed in a Maharaja's summer resort (Chapslee), still run by members of his family.
No tour in India can be complete without paying a visit to the Taj Mahal and although I've visited Agra before it would have been churlish to deny my friends a side trip to see the world's most famous building. The Taj Mahal in Agra, stands on the banks of the Yamuna River, a monument of love built by Shahjahan the great Mughal monarch in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Begum. Constructed entirely of white marble and inlaid with semi-precious stones, it took 22 years to build and remains one of India's most enduring symbols. Even visiting it a second time, you can't help but be impressed and I thought the best thing about visiting Agra was going to be a stay in a 5 star hotel, the Mughal Sheraton! Well, let’s face it, we had after all camped out for 7 nights with no bathroom facilities. The plumbing at Chapslee was as historic and as charming as the house itself. Sadly the power shower we'd spent nights dreaming about eluded us.
From Agra, it's an easy day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, known as the "deserted city". Between 1570 and 1585, during the reign of Emperor Akbar, Fatephur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire. As well as being noted for his religious tolerance, Emperor Akbar was known for his elephant which acted as both judge and executioner. Anyone suspected of a crime was placed in front of the elephant; if he was guilty the elephant would gore him and if he was innocent the elephant would let him go free. Fatehpur Sikri is one of the most perfectly preserved ghost towns in the world and along with the Taj in Agra one of the highlights and must sees of our trip.
What makes India different from any other destination is the myriad experiences it offers; a trek in the Himalayan Foothills and the requisite visit to Agra to see the Taj are two such experiences. To quote Mark Twain, "India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India". India is one of those "don't miss / must return" countries and once discovered you'll want to return again and again. This was my 6th visit. The seven wonders of the region can be listed as follows: The Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), Goa, Kerala, Rajasthan, Mumbai, the Andaman Islands and the Himalayas. I've only the Andaman Islands left to visit, so India should expect a 7th visit very soon.
If you've visited Shimla, I'd like to HEAR FOM YOU
On The Road To Shimla
Petra joined Travel Channel for its launch back in 1994. She looks after our research and works on all original productions. Petra’s one of the most recognisable faces in the travel industry and when she’s not on the canapé circuit promoting the channel, she spends every free moment travelling. She’s visited over 70 countries and prefers back packing to 5 * luxury, unless of course it’s in the name of research!