SHIMLA, THE “QUEEN OF HILLS”

SHIMLA – June 18, 2012  -  After leaving Chandigarh at 5 a.m., I soon began the gradual, winding ascent to Shimla, about four hours away. Shimla is the gateway to the Himalayan region and was the favorite summer refuge for the British Viceroy, his family and entire staff during the 140 years of British rule in India.

The “Viceroy’s Lodge”, a suitably grand affair for the crown jewel of the British Empire, is considered the finest example of British colonial architecture in northern India.  It is in use today as the Indian Institute for Advanced Studies, a post-doc think tank with about 80 researchers in residence here, subsidized by the Indian government.  The British connection to the Lodge, as with other remnants of the Empire throughout India, is conspicuously down-played.  In fact, the photos the Indians have chosen to display on the walls of the drawing room seem intended more to draw attention to the vanity and goofy pomposity of the whole English colonial crowd here – ermine robes, bejeweled mitres, crisply-uniformed servants and all.  Two side-by-side photos of a particularly foppish-looking couple, not even framed, have handwritten cards beneath them, saying merely “Count” and “Countess”.  I was half-expecting to find a photo that said simply “Whatever” but I came up empty.

The weather in Shimla was cool, pleasant and a welcome relief from the stultifying heat of Delhi and the plains.  My guest house was ideal (and cheap), so I stayed for four days touring the area before continuing further up the mountains.  The Spars Lodge is operated like a bed and breakfast with a rooftop dining and meeting area, and plenty of opportunity to socialize and compare notes with fellow travelers.  One extraordinary fellow I met was Bart deVries, a 38-year-old native of Holland who spoke fluent English and seemed to live on adventure.  Also a solo traveler, he was in the middle of a 10-month bicycle tour of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. Knowing what the ride from Delhi was like on a motorcycle, I just couldn’t see how it was possible to do that on a heavily-laden bicycle.  He showed me around the fine details of his rugged and high-tech bike (“German, of course”, he grinned) and I couldn’t get enough of the details of his adventure.  “It has actually been a lot easier than the Philippines” he said modestly.  “You’re my hero”, I told him, and I meant it.

[To get more details of this remarkable ubermensch, check out Bart’s website at www.thefundracer.com.]

After he rode off, pedaling smoothly under all that gear, I resolved never to let any upcoming misfortunes or difficulties discourage me.  That is, until I nearly met my maker at the Jalori Pass a few days later.

Click the link below for a brief slideshow of the road to Shimlahttp://www.flickr.com/photos/markrenshaw/sets/72157630276049148/show/

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SHIMLA TO NARKANDA, A SPLENDID RIDE

NARKANDA ROAD – June 20, 2012  –  I was gaining more confidence in my motorcycle now and was eager to get away from the diesel-belching trucks and the tourist traffic streaming north from the sweltering plains of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers.  “No problem”, lodge-owner Arindam told me as he pointed along my map.  “Go to Narkanda here, then go north over the Jalori Pass to Bhuntar, then along the Beas River to Naggar,and you’ll have a very beautiful ride.  When you get to Naggar, you can call my friend Raju.  He has a nice homestay there.”

“How about traffic?” I asked. “Virtually none”, he replied, “much of it is one-lane but with a small motorbike, you should have no problem.  “One lane?” I asked a little incredulously. “How can you have two-way traffic on a one-lane road?”  “Only in some parts”, he laughed.  “People pull over, you know, you just go slow.”

“Is it all paved?” I asked hopefully. Arindam shrugged his shoulders and said “You’ll have, maybe, 20 kilometers going over the top that’s dirt, but it’s solid and a good road.”  “Many switchbacks?” I asked, making a serpentine motion with my hand in case “switchback” didn’t register.  “Oh, yes” he replied. What a dumb question, I thought later. How else are you going to get up a steep mountain?

Lots of red flags there, but I fell into the “hear what you want to hear” trap.  I was so eager to get off the beaten path and into more isolated and remote villages, I decided to go for it.  I packed up that night and left just before dawn the following morning.  Shimla was blessedly free of traffic at that hour and I easily found my way to the Narkanda road.

The next three hours were the most beautiful I’ve experienced on a motorcycle in years.  I was starting to get glimpses of the distant snowy peaks of the Himalayas and I was thrilled to finally have a solitary road to travel on.  The black granite cliffs sheltering the swift-running Sutlej River and the wind-bent stands of Himalayan cedar were breath-taking.  The changing aromas of peppermint deodars, orchards of plum and Indian mango, the freshly-tilled earth, filled me with a sense of complete serenity and well-being.  I thought – This is it, this is the good stuff, this is what I was looking for.  I stopped frequently just to listen to the quiet wind stirring the purple meadowgrass and fix in my aging memory the stunning glory of these sacred peaks pushing insistently to the heavens.

Click the link for some photos along the Narkanda road: http://www.flickr.com/photos/markrenshaw/sets/72157630295068718/show/

NEXT:  REALITY AT THE JALORI PASS

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