The Last Resort

Shimla – Manali, 24th-25th April 2013

One of the intriguing things about what is essentially a rather small resort set in a sea of foothills, is that the British administration decided to move the entire seat of government every year from Delhi to Shimla with the onset of the hot season. It’s intriguing because it is so improbable a place – it would be like the government of the UK relocating every winter to Aberystwyth or something. There was the usual form of discrimination, in that ‘natives’ couldn’t set foot on the Ridge, along which the Mall runs, and where you can find Scandal Point – essentially just a viewpoint overlooking the hills where young ladies would walk demurely with an assortment of eligible young bachelors, and consequently get gossiped about. A series of staircases lead downwards from the Ridge to the native quarter – which I subconsciously dub the LFD, or Lower Fucking Depths – a jumble of bazaars and small shops which is more like the usual chaos one expects in an Indian town: wandering sadhus, hill people bent double under enormous loads fastened by a strap around their forehead, beggars, vendors, everything. It’s like a physical imposition of the social strata that formed the mental map of the Raj – and of course it still exists to an extent today. I imagine some pukka young English memsahib fresh off the boat inadvertently taking a wrong turn one day and finding herself in the lower fucking depths; the consequent flustered panic at having actually found herself in India would be worth recording. In fact it’s not an entirely unknown phenomenon today – I met a young guy travelling here who explained that he’d had to check his friend into hospital for a psychiatric examination. He was suffering from ‘India Syndrome’, apparently. Total mental meltdown. I suspect it is usually brought about by too much powerful hash, but I’ve heard of it before – people go to pieces. Of course this would be old news for the colonials: the expression “to go doolally”, meaning to go crazy, comes from the town of Deolali, where there was a mental asylum specifically for British officers who had gone off the rails.

Shimla’s been a good place to recover a bit. Mountain air, I suppose. Although down in the LFD it’s still pretty filthy. Himachal Pradesh is one of the best governed states in India: highest literacy rate after Kerala, most girls in school, low infant mortality, etc. and it shows: the women you see are gloriously independent, outgoing and self-possessed – quite different to the hidden away ladies of Afghanistan, trying to gain a modicum of independence despite a crushingly patriarchal system. The owner of one hotel I was staying in said that he had never once had to pay off the police in 40 years of living there – something that would be unheard of in Goa. There’s also a restriction on non-Himachalis owning property, so you get none of the enormous hotels disfiguring beauty spots put up with black money from Mumbai or even Moscow. The downside to this is that it’s like trying to impose a Swiss civic code on what is still essentially India. They’ve banned smoking in public places. So smokers convene furtively in the reeking alleys that lead into the Lower Fucking Depths. There’s a certain irony, in Shimla, to the fact that you can’t have a cigarette (200rs fine, apparently), and yet people still piss against walls, hoick and flob profusely in the streets, and chuck their garbage off balconies.

I’ve become a regular in certain places, so small is the town – and I’ve lost track of the number of times people have come over to admire the wireless keyboard that I am typing on, connected via Bluetooth to my iPhone. It is with some satisfaction that I tell them I am borrowing it from a friend in Afghanistan. I also get asked to take an awful lot of photos – I’m wondering if this is some sort of twee ‘capturing the moment’ experience of the kind that plasters the walls in Cafe Coffee Day: “Sit down over a coffee and have great times!” And they actually do it. Lol.

I’d had a cold since arriving, which meant that getting anywhere in Shimla was a struggle, since everywhere is uphill. I would totter gasping and wheezing into a place and collapse, trying to get my breath back for the next few minutes. I had booked a bus ticket on to Manali, which left at 8am from the New Bus Stand, some 4km out of town. Realising that I was in no condition to walk this with my large backpack, I enquired about a taxi to the hotel in the morning. Certainly, taxi no problem sar. It will come at 7am.
And how much will this taxi cost, I enquired?
“600 rupees, sar.” He pulled the kind of humourless grin that weighed up my banging head, dripping nose and heavy backpack, and came to the conclusion that I had no option but to pay what he demanded.
“600 rupees to take me 4km to the bus station? The bus ticket to Manali only cost 450rs. And that’s a ten hour trip!”
“Yes sar, but the taxi has to go around the town.”
“What, three bloody times? Forget it. Cancel taxi.”
I got an indifferent headwaggle. Grotty little ripoff merchant. So the upshot was that at 6am the next morning I loaded up like a mule and set off along the ridge, heading for the LFD. Steep staircases led downwards into the bazaars, all shuttered and deserted at this time of the morning. Only the occasional monkey was about, furtively sifting through garbage. I saw a couple of figures approaching: a local porter and a white tourist. “Good morning sar, how are you?” called the porter. I greeted him in return, and then said “good morning” to the tourist. The tourist looked away without speaking. “It’s alright, don’t be scared,” I told him as I passed. “You’ll get into it soon.” The slope curved sharply downwards, round a few switchbacks. It’s been a while since I did a steep descent with backpack, and I suffered a little from what the Japanese alpinists call ‘laughing knees’ – as well as the usual right hip doing its grinding thing. Not really cut out for trekking any more; too much, too young.

Eventually I came to the bus station. The ticket booths were all unmanned, there were no signs to anything anywhere, and I was immediately latched onto by a couple of young men who wanted me to go to ‘their’ hotel. I must say that you’d have to be pretty bloody stupid to choose a hotel based on a shifty tout in a bus station, but there we are. In fact all the touts I met in Shimla claimed to be Kashmiri, although how true this was I couldn’t say. And all developed the same whining sense of entitlement when I failed to take advantage of their services. And simultaneously failed to show any appreciation of my sense of humour: when one told me he had just signed up a foreign couple for a 12 day trek taking in all sorts of temples and points of tourist interest, I casually enquired whether it was their first time abroad. While this conversation was going on, buses were coming and going around us – all of them the kind of clapped out Tatas that do local runs. I asked one tout which was the bus I needed, and he said “not coming for one hour”. Had this been true it would have spelled disaster, as my Manali bus was due to leave from 4km away in the next 30 minutes. At that moment I spotted a lime green bus limping in to the station in a cloud of black smoke. The sign on the front was in Hindi, but I could read it well enough to make out the letters: “Nyu Bas Stend” – New Bus Stand. Shaking off the touts I leapt aboard and found a seat at the back. Ten minutes later it dropped me at a futuristic concrete terminal which was clearly still under construction. And the total fee for this trip? Five rupees. I mentally stuck two fingers up at the hotel and their 600 rupee taxi service. Although I was soaked in sweat from my backpack-laden descent into the LFD, and my nose was running like a tap once again, I hadn’t gone for the easy option. All I had to do now was find the right bus to Manali and sit on the damn thing for the next 10 hours or so.

In fact finding the bus proved surprisingly easy, as it was the only one with “Krishna” emblazoned across the front. The driver was just lighting some incense on the dashboard as I got on, and we chatted for a while about road conditions, the weather further north and suchlike. Having established his general competence, sobriety, sanity and so on, I took my seat. A few moments later a local woman carrying a baby girl got on, and took the seat next to me, plonking the baby on my knee as she arranged herself. The little girl looked around herself for a while, then slowly turned her head and looked at me. Despite being barely able to sit upright herself, I saw that she was wearing eyeliner and little earrings. She goggled at me with enormous brown eyes for 30 seconds or so, then a small pucker of concern appeared on her forehead, and she let out a tremendous wail. This did not bode well for the next ten hours. Any attempt by the mother, or grandmother, to shush her, failed. After five minutes or so, mercifully she decided to pick up the child and get off the bus again. Her place was immediately taken by an old man in tank top with a beige scarf wrapped around his head. Despite being only about five feet tall, he sat with his legs splayed so far apart that he took up half my leg space. I put up with this for a minute or two and then rather unambiguously pushed back. Having established my European standard comfort zone I was untroubled by him again for the next four hours. Another couple took the seat opposite, she in a gorgeous green sari, he in a blazer, stonewashed jeans and white trainers. It’s such an odd look, and has often mystified me – why so many perfectly straight Indian men choose to dress like Freddie Mercury impersonators off to a gay bar for the night. The moustaches don’t help, I suppose. In fact there’s a billboard I keep seeing which features a couple of moustaches on a beach, both wearing the kind of porkpie hats made famous by Popeye Doyle in French Connection, and one of the gents in question appears to be trying to tear the clothes off the other, who is managing to look shocked and rather coy at the same time. The other look, which is marginally more het but not much, features a sort of short-back-and-sides haircut, grey flannel trousers, hideous clumpy sandals and a tank top, inevitably with a diamond-shaped Argyll pattern. If you ever wondered what happened to all those hand-knitted tank tops that aunties kept giving as Christmas gifts in the 1970s, the answer is they all ended up in India.

Other random billboards I happened to see on the trip included an anorexic-looking westerner in skinny jeans and skinnier jacket, set to the backdrop of skyscrapers: the logo said “Get New Yorked”. This billboard was set overlooking an apple orchard through which a small brook trickled, a lush green scene idyllic in its pastoral perfection, with a ring of white summits in the background. Get New Yorked? No, please don’t. Really. Not when you are in a Himalayan paradise. This was topped, but only just, by a completely incomprehensible billboard featuring C3P0, the metallic robot from Star Wars, except he’d been artificially inflated to become impressively muscular, like he’d been pumping iron in the gym. I wonder whether he’d had his voice dubbed to speak a low, gravelly kind of Hindi too. Surely only a matter or time before he starts sporting a moustache as well. Cultural contexts. It’s all quite unintentionally hilarious.

As to the bus journey itself, let’s just say it was an ordeal that had to be undergone to get out of Shimla. I don’t think we encountered more that a couple of hundred metres of straight road the entire ten hour trip. It was one hairpin after another, crawling up long ascents in a convoy of the bright orange trucks that are the long distance workhorses of India, always with lavishly decorated porticos over the cab emblazoned with gaudy artwork, usually featuring some kind of bird, and assorted religious slogans in Hindi. Many have the kind of tasselled lengths of brocade flying from the wingmirrors that one sees swaying and dangling beneath the saddles of Bedouin camels. One had mudflaps above the tyres that carried the words: “Good” and “OK” – although that was just the nearside; perhaps the offside had “Not so good” and “Very bad”. We headed over a mountain range and dropped down into a subtropical valley lined from one side to the other with fields of crops in small strips; banana trees sporadically dotted the hillsides, and the temperature rose considerably. The uncle in the seat next to me made a small concession to the sultry heat by unwinding the scarf from around his head, but still retained his tank top – a rather fetching number in a colour I can only describe as dung brown. We passed through small towns where the streets were full of schoolgirls wearing the traditional local dress – tapering trousers, a long kurta blouse and a kind of stole draped over the shoulders and hanging down in twin tails at the back. They were extraordinarily colourful, each outfit in two colours that looked as if it had been tie-dyed: pink and lime green, purple and peacock blue, glorious yellow and a deep scarlet red. At one nondescript little town my tank-top sporting uncle got off, and his place was taken by a large man who resembled a rather dim labrador, since his jaw hung gormlessly open and his tongue hung out. I decided to retreat into my own filter bubble and plugged in my headphones, stuck on my shades and looked out the window. The labrador got off again soon afterwards, his place taken by a local girl in a pink and white ensemble who anxiously fiddled with her mobile phone the whole time. Soon she departed too and I had the seat to myself for a while.

We stopped for lunch at a kind of roadhouse where half the passengers headed into the restaurant and ordered all manner of complicated items with the air of people who were used to far higher standards than the ones they were currently encountering. The remainder stayed on the bus and unwrapped bits of newspaper containing mysterious and malodorous items, some of which resembled substances which had passed through the digestive system already. I decided to take my chances in the restaurant, and ordered a Pepsi, a couple of rotis and some achaar pickle. Another bus pulled in and a small man waited at the steps. One of the passengers – another elderly man – was helped along the bus and then down the steps to where the other was waiting, who then turned round and picked him up on his back. He gave him a piggyback all the way into the restaurant, where the invalid was deposited in a chair and his legs arranged in front of him; the right one tremored uncontrollably. The sight of this little old man carrying another on his back affected me quite powerfully. No disability access here, no wheelchair ramps, and no wheelchairs either – you just hire a man to carry you on his back.

The afternoon wore on, the bus interminably winding its way north. We gained altitude again and the first flash of snow-capped peaks appeared in the distance. We ran alongside a tumbling mountain river for a while, gigantic white boulders worn smooth at its centre. Periodically there were large boulders in the road as well, the result of landslides. The local people outside looked different to where we began: gone were the tank tops and grey flannels. People here instead wore colourful kullu caps, like a brimless kepi (which immediately gave me a flashback to Kabul police) and a kind of shawl, often with a cummerbund – which I believe is another Hindi word originally, much like pyjamas. In fact you could walk around here in your pyjamas with a blanket wrapped round your shoulders and look perfectly at home. In the UK anyone wearing a blanket is either homeless or on their way to a waiting ambulance. The valley grew progressively wilder, the surrounding peaks still higher. It looked a bit like the road to Glenorchy in New Zealand’s Fiordland, except that the mountains here were considerably larger. The first few concrete monstrosities started to appear – the hotels on the outskirts of modern Manali – as opposed to the town of Old Manali further along the valley. We nosed into the bus station all slumped in our seats, exhausted by ten hours of hairpins. A veteran now of big city India I knew what to do, pushing my way ruthlessly off the bus, grabbing my backpack from the luggage space before any porter could get their hands on it, and smartly marching off in the first direction that came to mind, shaking off a couple of touts who were trying to get me to go to some fleapit of a hotel that were plugging for a ludicrous price. I found an autorickshaw and was temporarily taken aback when he quoted me a perfectly reasonable price. I was going to chuck my cigarette, but he said “smoking no problem sar”. I decided immediately that I liked the place. And as we roared over a narrow bridge above the gorge and then made our way up a hill, stopping briefly for a procession coming the other way – the driver accepting two scarves which he draped over the wing mirrors, and taking a pinch of salt which he then sprinkled over his bowed head in blessing – I decided that I liked it even more. We found a nice little hotel with windows that close and a shower that works, and has hot water, and I walked out onto the balcony to be confronted with the most beautiful Alpine view – pine-covered hillsides, the dramatic black rock and white-streaked pinnacles above them, the sun shining on the snowfields of the Rohtang Pass in the distance, and far down in the valley the rushing of the river like the sound of wind in the trees. I leaned back in the chair thinking of the purgatorial journey to get here: Kabul, Delhi, Kalka, Shimla, and said to myself: Yes. I’m finally here.