I’m not really sure where I got it in my head to go to Shimla. In retrospect, it’s a pretty random choice. When I met with the balian (psychic) in Ubud, one of the first things she said to me, without knowing anything about me was, “You feel at home in the mountains.” I smiled, thinking of my dear green mountains, and then she added, “I’m seeing a vision of you in the Himalayas.”
My flight to India was the following day.
Besides being a little freaked out about her seeing me in the Himalayas without me having mentioned anything about India, I had to agree she was right. I got it in my head then and there that before leaving India, I would go to the mountains.
Shimla is probably the closest mountain town to Delhi and makes for a twelve-hour train ride through the hills. The whole area basically consisted of forest until a Scottish civil servant named Charles Kennedy built a summer house here in 1822. Twenty years after that, Shimla became the official summer capital for the Raj. Every summer until 1939, the entire government of India came here to escape the heat. In 1903 the Kalka-Shimla railway was constructed and Shimla became India’s “premier hill station.” Today, the town is still a sleepy place, filled with a few prestigious boarding schools and honeymooners. It’s also become a backpackers’ haven for people trekking in the Himalayas to come stock up on toilet paper and chocolate bars.
Spending my last four days in India in Shimla was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I was a little apprehensive about my decision after all of the traveling around I’ve done, and the long train ride it would take, and the fact that on Sunday I’m going straight back to Delhi and then boarding a plane to Morocco that night.
But then, I got on the train. One of the charms of Shimla (I think) is the fact that you have to travel to Kalka, and then from there, take what’s called the “toy train.” It’s kind of a famous rail line because it’s tiny and goes through the Himalayas and passes through 103 tunnels. It honestly does feel like you’re riding the tracks and tunnels and hills that little kids build from wooden sets.
In an impulsive shopping decision, I bought a coat in Jaipur. Besides one fleece, I hadn’t packed anything warm for my year, figuring that it would be silly to pack something as bulky as a jacket that I wouldn’t be wearing for months. And then I saw a coat at a shop in Jaipur and fell in love, and realized that I might want it in the mountains, and, more importantly for the coming Moroccan and German winters. I bought it, and eagerly held it on my lap for the entire train ride to Shimla.
The train crept higher and higher into the mountains and other people started bundling up, because, for most Indian people, it was getting freezing. People looked on in disbelief as I opened my window wider. I stuck my head out the window like a dog, and gulped down cold, fresh air and watched the Himalayas pass by, relishing in the feeling of being, for the first time in months, cold. There was no burning trash. There was no pollution that turned everything in my nose pitch black. There was no sound of traffic. There were only the mountains. I stayed like that for two hours, and then, finally, sat back and buttoned up my new coat.
When we arrived, the first thing that hit me was the quiet. The only way to get around central Shimla is on foot. It feels entirely different from any other place I’ve been to in India. I’m staying at a place that looks like a ski lodge that you hike up an intense hill to arrive at. It has a tin roof that monkeys scamper across. It is bright and airy and reasonably priced with this amazing café that serves fresh local trout from the base of the Himalayas. They have a laundry service but told me it might take a few days for my clothes to come back because there was snow a few towns away. They have red comforters and a friendly elderly woman who manages everything, and frankly, I don’t think it could be any more adorable.
And did I mention what I get to look at while eating breakfast?
Put quite simply, I just love it here, and I love that I have this transitional time of quiet and solitude and a comfortable space to recover from a nasty cold and bed bug bites before trying to adapt to yet another new country. I’ve been wandering around the narrow pathways wearing clothes I had yet to pull out of my suitcase, and eating hot fresh French fries and tomato soup served in paper cups on the side of the road.
I could be sightseeing or trekking, but in reality, what I really want to spend the next few days doing is this:
Minus the monkeys and Indian food, I could almost be in a small town in New England. Wandering these hills gives me the gut-wrenching feeling of being extremely homesick, while feeling, simultaneously, extremely at home.
Here’s to new coats and the weather to wear them in.