Sunday, 10 January 2010

Carnal desire in Shimla and other tales

Shimla is a glittering jewelbox of a town, cleaved into the side of a steep hill in the foothills of the Himalayas. The former summer capital of the British Raj has long been on my India must-see list, and we finally got the chance to take a three-day trip up between Christmas and New Years. It marked my third trip to the "hills", as locals refer to the sprawling Himalayan mountain range, and certainly won't be my last.

First stop was a small cantonment town, so clean and well-maintained I'm loath to divulge the name of it. We stayed here for just 24 hours, but managed to fit in two long walks, The Golden Compass and a couple of delicious rooftop meals. The air here was so clean: after six months in dusty, polluted Delhi I'd actually forgotten how nice it is to fill up your lungs with deep breaths of fresh, unadulterated air. Not a rickshaw in sight, and views like this:

The town is very hilly and full of retired military types (I know this because residents carve their name and status into their gates). Consequently, there are a number of rest stops along the walking paths:

Oh okay, the town is called Kasauli. It's an hour's drive from Kalka train station, which is connected to Delhi by the super-fast Shatabdi Express train.

Next up was Shimla, a little piece of Surrey transplated into India, built with British military needs and aesthetics in mind. Some buildings are well maintained:

Others, not so much.

One of the highlights of this little trip was a tour of the 100-year-old Gaiety Theatre, made famous by Michael Palin in Himalaya. I got chatting to a girl selling tickets out the front, she turned out to be an actor in that night's play and offered to show us around. It is a fairly small theatre, seating about 250 people, but complex is vaster than it appears: there are corridors and rehearsal rooms and even a whole other auditorium on the upper floors.

In the orchestra pit, there is a locked door. Sanam, our beaming guide, pointed to it and said "torture chamber". Apparently that was where the British rulers took Indian miscreants to instruct them in the ways of the Raj (relations between the rulers and the ruled decidedly soured after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny), Alas, the door was locked and no amount of fist-hammering by me would dislodge it. Sanam said there are still instruments down there.

Palin, you missed the lead on that one.

If we could afford it, we would have happily holed up at Wildflower Hall. Unfortunately we had to make do with the lesser of Shimla's three Oberoi properties, Clarkes (actually the very first hotel ever owned by Mr Oberoi, bought by him in the 20s when he'd been working there as a concierge. How did he afford it on a concierge salary?) Clarkes is lovely but in urgent need of a makeover and a decent breakfast buffet.

Wildflower, on the other hand, is grand in a silk-rugged, hand-blown glass chandeliered, pine-cone scented, Venetian mirrored kind of way. Staff waft around on their toes, speaking in hushed tones, and there is no muzak, just quiet. We did go there for a couple of martinis in the Cavalry Bar, whispering as the empty bar was deathly quiet, and the grandeur made me exceedingly conscious of the missing buttons on my coat and smudge of dirt on my jeans.

But oh, what a view from the bar's window:

In Himalaya, Palin recounts staying at the Cecil in Shimla, opening his window to take in some of the glorious mountain air, and promptly receiving a call from reception instructing him to close the window to stave off monkey attacks. Monkeys are everywhere in Shimla: picking nits out of each other on the side of the road, cavorting in rubbish bins, racing across the road in search of a dropped crust of bread, copulating in trees.

Despite the cold, I stopped for an ice-cream at Shimla's main - only? - ice cream stall, Swirls. Swirls offers a range of lasciviously-named ice creams: Luscious Lychee, Vicked Vanilla, Exotic Desire, and so on. Naturally, my flavour of choice - vanilla with chocolate and caramel swirls - had the most suggestive name of all, plus an empty carton.

"Do you have any Carnal Desire?" I asked the ice cream server.

He looked suitably crestfallen. "No, Carnal Desire is finished. We have no Carnal Desire left."

"None at all?" I pressed.

"Wait, maybe there's some in the back."

There was none, so I had to be happy with merely a French Kiss: mocha chocolate that is, not a juicy smooch from Mr Swirls.


Ramit Grover said...

No way! You must be kidding me!

When you said Roof Top restaurants, the first thought that came to my mind was the Kasauli Inn in Kasauli! I was there on the 1st of Jan and spent a day there. Yeah and I was too chicken to brave the cold and have dinner on the roof top restaurant actually! I ordered it in the room!

It was way too cold for me!

We drove around Kasauli and took loads of pictures, then the cold got the better of us!

What a coincidence!

Did you go to Chail as well?

Ariana said...

Wow, that looks so pretty, on my list of places to visit. Please Suggest places to stay too. It almost looks like New England.
The hubby cannot stand the heat in India, loves the cool (read Cold) places.