Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Monday 20th - Shivaratri in Shimla

Is it really only 2 weeks since we left home? We've only got 3 weeks left. We thought that we had a lie in this morning but arriving in the dining room we found ourselves breakfasting in splendid isolation. The staff were very helpful and we were told that the form of head-dress they wear is a Rajasthani puggaree. Here we see our waiter delivering the porridge, yet another part of the Raj legacy. R thought that it needed more salt but still scoffed the lot. Her boiled egg turned out to be two eggs in a double-decker egg cup. Shame about D's omelette which was a bit rubbery. Our waiter (a Sikh) spoke of his love of Wordsworth and also explained that today was a major Hindu festival called Shivaratri which guarantees that it will rain - a sort of North Indian August bank holiday.

We had decided to take a stroll through the local markets today on the way to visiting the station and also having tea in the rather grand Oberoi Cecil hotel. It would appear that the beggars take Sunday off as they were out in force today. One of them makes a request for 100 rupees and receives some Yorkshire wisdom in return. He was relatively young, looked able bodied and clearly did not lack ambition. The bazaars were just starting to open up as we walked through. This part of Shimla, built on the side of a hill below The Mall, must be very like the Edinburgh Old Town was in the 1700's. There are narrow streets full of shops and workplaces connected by vertiginous stairs. All that is missing are the cries of "Gardez-Loo!" from above.

As we leave the town centre and look down into the valley R spots a large bird perched at the top of a tree far below. Possibly a Tawny Eagle? A bit further along the road and there is another huge bird at the top of a tree much closer to us. No doubt this time - the facepaint means it's a Steppe Eagle.

At the station we watch today's Shivalik coaches being shunted as well as seeing the "Galloping Goose" railcar that is still in regular use. It is overcast and there is a chilly wind from the Himalayas forcing D to don a sweater for the second day in a row. As we leave the station to walk to the Cecil it starts to drizzle gently. Shivaratri one - Watsons nil.

"Rain is the blessing of the gods" - tell that to the population of West Lothian.

After getting only slightly lost, and as the rain gets a bit heavier, we arrive at the Cecil. We find seats in the rather splendid atrium lounge and order tea. This time we are not sent packing although the free wifi promised in LP is no longer available. I expect that they found that it attracted too many cheap Yorkshiremen.

We had three cups of excellent tea each as well as macaroons and cinammon shortbread. Rs 400/- sounds like a lot but it was quite good value for a peek at how the other half live.

While we were living the high life the rain had stopped and there was some sunshine. We walked back up The Mall into town and then took a second swing through the bazaars which were now going full tilt. A walk down one street full of fruit and veg sellers was just amazing. Watch out for the forthcoming video.

We eventually got to the bottom of the market where we were able to catch the Lift back up to The Mall. This is a peculiar two stage affair with a covered walkway connecting the top of the lower lift with the bottom of the upper one. The single fare is Rs 8/- - they would not stand for expensive transport like this in Kolkata but it did save climbing several hundred stairs.

Back towards the top of the hill we took the opportunity to visit the inside of Christ Church which has a very cold floor. We know this because like the temples, mosques and gurwaras one is required to remove footwear before entering. Inside there are many memorials to people with Shimla connections but nae for Pte J.C. Smith RASC (Retd). The front two pews still have brass plates reserving them for the Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief. On the way back to the hotel we looked for a suitable spot for tonight's supper. We decided on the restaurant at the Combermere, partly because they have a glazed external lift.

When we get to the restaurant we are the only diners and we wonder if we have drawn a dud. This feeling is reinforced when our papads arrive. One each, teaplate sized and no pickles or raita cost Rs 25 each. Last night's were dinner plate sized and covered with chopped onion and tomato cost Rs 8 each. Then 2 more papads arrive. Then our meal arrives and it is delicious - chicken in cashew nut gravy, rice, house special daal and a butter naan. With drinks the bill was £13 - expensive by local standards but an excellent meal. By the time that we left the place was filling up.

We had a post dinner stroll up to the Ridge to photograph the church and the monkey god temple - both floodlit before calling it a night. As we were dropping off the rain started really hammering down. Shivaratri 2-0.

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