Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions

Journal

Shimla

April 9, 2012 by Richard Wright in Journal, Life

I’m just back from a long weekend in Shimla, which nestles among the foothills of the Himalayas. That doesn’t quite do the altitude justice. It sits over seven thousand feet above sea level – a Ben Nevis and a half (and a little bit more), to give you an idea. When the British were ruling India (not a period to declaim with pride, but history nonetheless), they weren’t able to function in the brutal mid-year heat of Delhi, and so every summer the entire parliament relocated hundreds of miles to Shimla.

It’s easy to see why. Not only is the climate better suited to Europeans, but there’s an eerie familiarity to the landscape too. The occasional examples of mock Tudor architecture enhance the oddness, being cut straight from the UK heartland, but the chill on the air and the pine forests on the slopes would ring of home to anybody from the UK.

That said, there’s not actually much to do in Shimla except wander round. A weekend is exactly long enough to spend doing so, unless you plan on using it as a base for some serious hiking. Pick the right routes, and you’ll spend most of your time tripping over the views. They’re vast, spectacular mountain vistas, the sort that fill you with peace in an agreeably passive-aggressive way. They’re so big that they don’t leave any space in your head for turbulence and troubles. It was the perfect mini-break for us, right now.

Shimla looks like it’s sliding down the mountain, and it will surprise nobody that it’s made up mostly of hill. For the broken-footed, it presents something of a challenge, but I staggered through somehow. Yesterday even featured a three hour hike. Granted, it wasn’t supposed to be a three hour hike (we got a bit lost on the outskirts), but hills were suitably conquered. Hurts a bit now though.

Other than hilly bits, Shimla is defined mostly by wildlife. There are hundreds of brazen Rhesus monkeys all over the place, which are delightful and charming until the exact moment they bare their teeth and lunge at you. We saw a couple of incidents like that. One involved a monkey and a toddler. To be fair to the monkey, the toddler charged it, trying to “playfully” scare it into the trees, and thus learned a Valuable Lesson about the natural world.

We also bore witness to some very pretty biblical style plagues. On Saturday, we were beset by thousands of ladybirds. They were on our clothes, in our hair, and underfoot (alas, in the form of a squishy pulp at that stage). Thousands of them. I’ve no idea where they came from, but by Sunday they’d somehow all transformed into pale butterflies. Very pretty. Possibly a miracle from the bearded sky fairy, but probably not. If anybody knows what those two swarms, one after the other, were about, and whether they’re regular, I’d love to know (without having to bother Googling, of course).

Before I move on from Shimla, I have to mention the Chapslee, our hotel. It’s bloody expensive, but strangely amazing. It’s a British style baronial mansion, owned and run by the great-grandnephew of the last Maharaja in the region (a splendid chap, with a moustache befitting his heritage). When you step inside, you discover a grand, broken down cornucopia of bric-a-brac collected through the years. Some of it appears to be genuinely antique. Some of it looks like it was just picked up from a second-hand store specialising in tacky ornaments like your gran used to collect. It’s bewildering, but a proper treasure trove. On a side note, the declaration of war against the Afghanistan (the first one the British got carried away with) was signed there.

Plus, there were bells we could pull or push in every room, which brought awesomely behatted staff running up with silver trays of coffee whenever we wanted a cup. Which was nice.

As you can imagine, our twin loves of novelty and buttons have left us incredibly wired…

Right, I have emails to catch up with, and caffeine to expel from my system. I’ll pop back tomorrow. In the meantime, check out this interview with my World’s Collider cohort Megan Moore. Be gentle with her. We need her back in good condition to finish the book.

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