Along the Away

travel, dream, create, inspire, appreciate

Now that summer has well and truly hit North India and the temperature languishes in the mid-forties everyday, I’m going to join the migration to the mountains where it’s cooler. The travel distances are long and the trains and buses notoriously unpredictable the further north you go so I decided to travel with a group on the Intrepid tour Mountains and Mystics.

From Delhi we traveled by train through the state of Punjab to the state of Himachal Pradesh where my first stop was Shimla. This town is a former British Hill Station where the entire British Government would relocate during the heat of the summer monsoon. As a result there are plenty of quaint British buildings, including the stately Viceregal Lodge where the Government operated from. The town is breathtaking; it staggers down the sides of the mountain so that looking across it’s a brilliant cluster of buildings that seem to tumble down the slope. Only by looking closely you can see the alleys and roads that shape the cluster into a town.

The Lodge is across the mountain from where I’m staying but easily accessible by taking a leisurely 40 min stroll along the hilly pedestrian road ‘the Mall’ which forms the backbone of the town and is lined with shops, bakeries and cafes.

These are broken up by the Town Hall in the middle on the hill side and interspersed on the other side with narrow alleys that feed into the bazaars criss-crossing down the hillside below, offering quick peeks at the brilliant mountain vista.

Another Shimla must-see is the Jakhu Temple, a ‘monkey temple’ dedicated to the Hindu monkey God Hanuman, situated right at the top of the mountain, accessible by a steep 30 minute hike. It was tough going after three months of inactivity, but worth it to feel my muscles pumping again and to breathe the crisp mountain air in the forest.

Like all monkey temples in Asia, you’ve got to be on your guard from the hundreds of monkeys that hang around the temple being fed offerings each day; they get a little greedy and will take anything from you including food, sunglasses and cameras. They’re smart too, they’ll return your item in exchange for food! Cheeky! There aren’t that many around when I went though, probably because we walked up at 5.30am at the tail end of a thunderstorm, assured by our leader ‘oh it’ll stop in a minute’. True, it had stopped by the time we reached the top :-)

The night before we left we enjoyed dinner on the rooftop of our hotel, complete with a bonfire and bottles of local made rhodium flower wine and yummy yummy Indian food. The best thing about a town built on the side of a mountain is that you have a fabulous view wherever you are. The sun was setting and the misty clouds rolled across the hills against the changing colours of the sky, breathtaking! The diversity of the Indian landscape is amazing, it’s hard to believe everything I’ve seen belongs to the same country.

Following Shimla we traveled a winding six hour drive around the hills to Mandi. We stretched our legs walking around this rural town checking out a number of colourful temples.

Walking around absorbing the local sounds and smells is the best way to experience a place. You are bound the bump into some interesting locals along the way too.

In the evening we stayed the night in the Palace of the former Raja of Mandi – in fact the 80-something Maharaja himself joined us for dinner and breakfast! Did you know that Maharaja means Great (or High) King? Neither did I, I looked it up. Prior to India’s independence in 1947, one third of India was under the rule of state rulers – Maharajas and Princes (the other two thirds were ruled by the British). After independence the titles did not hold the status that they used to; our dinner host told us that many of the former rulers had to sell their palaces and estates because they were left with no money to look after them. Some – like his family – turned them into hotels to be able to afford their maintenance. It was very interesting – he was also quite the joker and showed us little tricks on paper that he was chuffed to baffle us with. It was a lovely experience, he was a gentlemen from an era that will soon be only in the history books.

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A traveler, dreamer, designer and optimist sharing all of the above.

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