This is probably not the blog post you were hoping for regarding Shimla. I will preface it by saying that during the winter I can understand it may be a majestic escape from the cities, and for those who never really experience a winter otherwise there must be a novelty-factor to it, but on my visit during apple season in September I found it to be congested: with people, with diesel fumes, and with desperate over-development.
I had seen photographs of Shimla that show it as a winter wonderland, snow-capped and green, filled with fir trees and warmly hugged by the yesteryear charm of the British Raj era. I pictured a few adorable B&B’s, some sturdy, stately British buildings leftover from years past, and, since it looks pretty remote on a map, only a few tourists. Unfortunately with increased demand, Shimla has adapted to accommodate and the integrity of the environment and natural charm has deteriorated.
It’s not all bad, however, I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t go. In fact, I spent a day there and took a fantastic walking tour with a guide named Mohiddin from Hotel Dreamland. He took me around to the Hanuman Temple, the Vice Regal Palace, and the Mall where I saw the charm of Shimla. There was the British architecture I had been looking for, and we nipped into one of the street shops for some delicious chana bhatura with puri, and local specialty.
If you are planning to go to Shimla, I have some recommendations:
1. Bring Comfortable Shoes! This is first and foremost. You will walk, a lot, up and down and all around…do NOT underestimate the amount you'll walk and don't take shiny new shoes or else you'll get blisters! In one day, I walked 21,000 steps according to the Pacer app on my iPhone. Shimla is a true hill station and you will miss a lot if you limit yourself due to your choice of footwear!
2. Take the Toy Train from Kalka. You can make a nice long weekend out of Shimla by flying into Chandigarh; it’s a 3.5 hour journey on traffic-y, mountain roads by car or you can take the toy train from Kalka (max price I think is Rs. 600), a 1 hour drive from Chandigarh. Friends have recommended NOT staying overnight in Kalka. Chandigarh is a better option and you can do sightseeing there in a day. I paid Rs. 3500/- for an Innova to get to Shimla. I’ve heard the toy train gives awesome views, and unfortunately I didn’t have time to do this, but I hope you do!
3. Stay at the Radisson. I stayed in the Radisson for a night and if you’re looking for a 5-star, this will do nicely. They have beautiful, well-appointed rooms, and some excellent local items on the menu. Also, there is no walking required to reach the hotel, unlike many others in Shimla that require some rigorous uphill trekking.
4. Leave Shimla if You Have Time. I was offered a 4night/5day tour package out east to the Kalpa and Sangla Valleys by the tour guide I had from Hotel Dreamland (a cute budget hotel at the top of the hill – walking required). This ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of all my world travels. Mountain roads, villages I’d never have heard of otherwise, cool weather, and the unspoiled beauty of the Himalayas; a truly excellent adventure.
5. Take a Walking Tour. As I mentioned, the walking tour was a great way to see Shimla and burn off some of the yummy Himachal food I had at the Radisson. I recommend calling Hotel Dreamland and inquiring if they have a guide. Mohiddin is great, if he’s around.
6. Eat Chana Bhatura/Chole Bhature. This is a Punjabi dish, popular in Shimla and perfect for cool weather. Chickpeas stewed in a huge wok, served with puffy bread. Can be eaten anytime of day.
7. Carry a big stick if you go to the Hanuman Temple (Jakhoo). The monkeys are cute but they don’t play around...they can be real jerks and having a stick to wave at them is a good deterrent.
8. Keep a hanky with you. Because…diesel fumes.
9. Take your own toilet paper. Most restrooms don't have any. I may have had to wipe with my hand and the sprayer once or twice.
10. Pack Woolens/Sweaters. Even if you think you won't need them. At least pack a sweater or light coat.
My university degree is in Urban Studies and Sociology, which means I spent my time analyzing cultures, problems in inner cities, urban planning concepts, and the various leaders of thought therein. One of those was Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect and the brain behind the layout of Chandigarh, also known as “The City Beautiful”. He created a grid-system for streets and relied on almost Marx-ist style principles of community policing in his construction of the inward-facing buildings within the city blocks, or what are called “sectors” on the map.
Naturally, I was excited to see it in person before heading north to Shimla. I flew in on Sunday evening and had only one day before leaving. I slept in a super budget hotel for Rs. 1800 per night, and this was easily the shittiest hotel I’ve slept in…ever. The cold water came not out of the tap but from the hose below the sink, there were no windows, and the air conditioner smelled like a damp dog.
After a sleepless night, I got out of bed at 7am and left the hotel as soon as possible. I got an Uber cab to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf on the ground floor of Hotel Aroma (Sector 22, this is a great hotel) and spent two hours toggling between mindless clickbait and Trip Advisor to see about sites in the city. I think I was probably a little delirious from not sleeping the night before.
The cool thing about Uber is that once you’re in the cab, if you like the driver, you can hire him for the day. The particular driver I had, Harry, charged me Rs. 1800 for 8 hours of driving (his number is +91 99 88 929420 if you need a driver!) I highly suggest going this route instead of hiring a guide in the city since most of the tourist sites are self-explanatory and all you really need is someone to take you to and from.
My big takeaways from my trip here:
Here’s what I would suggest for a day-long itinerary based on my experience. You can split it into two if you want to really savor each site.
Capitol Complex – this is the iconic building by Le Corbusier. I wasn’t able to see it because I didn’t get there in time. Apparently, they have special timings for visitors and you need to register at the office with your passport before going to see it…so, check with them before going.
Rock Garden – you won’t want to miss this. It only costs Rs. 20 for entry and will provide you (and your family, if you have one of those) with at least a full hour of entertainment. It’s a labyrinth of Gaudi-style art made from found objects with a few big water features and a giant set of swings toward the end.
Le Corbusier Center - this is a museum dedicated to Le Corbusier, mastermind of the City Beautiful. It is closed on Mondays so I wasn’t able to see it. They had an interesting art gallery that was open however, and on their regular days there are several exhibits that highlight Corbusier’s achievements.
Pal Dhaba, Sector 28D – there is some great northern Indian food here and I highly suggest that you stop for lunch or dinner. It’s popular with celebrities and tourists, and is hygienic. I ordered the Boneless Mutton Rogan Josh and Chicken Masala. The mutton was falling off the bone and the gravy was perfect.
Sukhna Lake – go here in the evening for a stroll before dinner as the sun sets. The lake is beautiful and they’ve done an impeccable job at keeping it clean and maintained.
Garg Chaat, Sector 35 – this is a super yummy Punjabi chaat stand in a cute market market. I had the dahi chaat – in American-speak, this is an awesome snack that plays with textures and flavors. There are savory, crunchy wafers and little spongy cakes that are doused with yogurt and tamarind sauce. It’s a sour, sweet, salty, crunchy, creamy combination that can’t be beat.
Elante Mall – go here. Great brands, big mall, the latest fashions. It’s a fun way to spend a few hours.
Topiary Garden – this is a small, tidy park, but if you’re feeling cramped on time, don’t bother yourself with it. The topiaries are in poor shape and it’s underwhelming especially when compared to the Rose Garden and Lake Sukhna.
Rose Garden – September is NOT the season for roses. Though I can see that it must be beautiful during the season, most of the plants were not in their prime state. I’d suggest trying to be there in February or March. While the roses were still alive, they weren’t in full bloom, and it was 36C out so I found it hard to enjoy.
Three and a half hours south of Mysore is Mavanalla and The Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, located in the state of Tamil Nadu. If you are into safaris and wildlife, exploring the lush environs of tea country in Ooty and the surrounding areas, and driving adventurously on 36 hairpin turns, go here, you won’t be disappointed!
I visited in September and was told there had been rain issues, so the landscape I saw was arid and desert-like, with peasant temperatures in the mid to high 80’s during the day which dropped to the low 70’s in the evenings. We had a few showers as well in the late afternoons that cooled things off.
This current travel stint of mine was spontaneous and necessary, but not something I had planned at all, so in the interest of saving as much money as I can, I’ve been cutting corners wherever possible. Instead of compromising my safety by trimming transportation, I have been tapping into Couchsurfing to a.) save on lodging, and b.) make friends along the way. It’s a site that allows registered members all over the world to stay with one another. This was my first Couchsurfing experience, and my host John, who lives within the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, couldn’t have been a better choice.
After picking me up in Mysore, John and I left for Mavanalla. We learned the next day that they had shut the borders between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, so we were lucky. Ongoing water disputes make this an annual situation and the violent bandh that ensues is a days-long pain in the ass for tourists and residents alike hoping to leave or enter either state.This year it has been particularly volatile. If you’re planning to visit during this time of year, I’d give a look into the local situation first.
I stayed in Mavanalla for a week, and I think that this was a perfect amount of time given the variety of things to do in the area. If you need some recommendations, here’s what I’ve got after my time there:
Just outside of Mysore is Srirangapatna, or Seringapatam, depending on whom you ask. It’s an important town rich in military history and has a natural beauty due to the Kaveri River that flanks it on either side. I had no intention of stopping at this town and, in fact, I had just planned to go to Mysore itself where I thought I’d relax after visiting the Mysore Palace but after looking back on all the pictures I’ve realized it is probably one of the highlights of my trip so far. The town itself is quite small and if you’re staying in Mysore, it would be a perfect day-trip from there since it’s only about 30 minutes away.
Instead of describing everything in detail, I’ve put two maps above. Everything is pretty much in the same area with the exception of Thomas Inman’s dungeon and the Jumma Masjid mosque. These are located on the same road and are near to one another. Also, Daria Daulat Bagh, which sits a little outside the village.
I found Mysore to be adorable. There is no shortage of beautiful (but dilapidated, mostly) architecture from the British Raj era, a few good food spots, temples, a monastery, and one of the most beautiful palaces I’ve seen in India so far. I highly suggest you visit the Mysore Palace twice. Once during the day time to take the tours, and once in the evenings on Sunday evening when it turns into a lit up wonderland.
The place where I stayed, Park Lane Hotel, is a great budget-friendly option at about Rs. 1300 per night, and is only a ten-minute walk to the Mysore Palace. They rooms are simple but clean, and the hotel provides its guests with a nifty kit of toiletries, including the famous Mysore Sandalwood Soap. You can get a rickshaw just outside of the hotel, or download Uber or Ola to hail a cab through your mobile phone if you have a SIM card or WiFi.
For great food, try the restaurant at the Park Lane Hotel or The Old House, a trendy place that serves excellent coffee and wood-fired pizzas (they open early for breakfast as well).
During a recent walking tour through old Bangalore, my guide Ameen led me down an alleyway and into this unassuming restaurant, Akshmi Natraj Refreshment. It's not a fancy or expensive place, and its one that I would probably pass if I were on my own, but I've learned, especially where food is considered, that it is unfair to judge a book by its cover, so to speak.
Here what I ate:
Idli w Masala Vada (above) - The white fluffy idlis are a quickly fermented mixture of rice and dal flours, steamed in trays. This plate was served with a masala vada and tomato and coconut chutneys.
Masala Dosa w chutneys - A thin and crispy pancake made from quick-fermented rice flour. It is cooked on a flat pan with ghee and filled with a mixture of onions, potato, coriander, and turmeric. Served alongside tomato and coconut chutneys.
Obbattu - We have this in Pune and know it as "puran poli". It's a sweet dish of maida roti filled with a mixture of chana dal, jaggery, and elaichi. It's cooked with ghee on a tawa (flat pan).
Filter Coffee - I have been consistently pleased with the quality of the coffee in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is strong and flavorful. I guess to be expected though considering this is tea and coffee country!
A while after breakfast, I stumbled across a street vendor selling sweets. My belly was full but it looked too good to pass up so I grabbed a slice of this beautiful coconut dilpasand (below), a pastry filled with shredded coconut, sugar, and cardamom.
My time in Bangalore was short, barely a day. I was using it as a jump-off point to get further south to Mysore, but I wanted to make sure I got out and explored a little bit so I booked a walking tour with Ameen at Bengaluru By Foot because I had no idea where to start and the city is spread out. Also, I wasn’t really paying attention to proximity when I booked my hotel and ended up staying too far south, about 25 minutes away from the Botanical Garden.
My first tip about Bangalore is this -- stay near the Botanical Garden. It will be much easier to access the rest of the city from there.
If you’ve used tour guides before, you know they come in “types”. There’s the verbatim, wrote tour guides who do it for the extra cash, spew out some general knowledge (which is sometimes right and sometimes wrong), and take you through the major picture points. Then there are the touristy tour guides who, especially in India, use the tour as more of an accompaniment to the shopping stops at their “friends” places along the way. Finally, there are the guides who are in it for the sake of being in it. My tour guide, Ameen, was one of those. He’s passionate about history and it showed in the way he presented the oldest section of Bangalore to me.
We started at KR Market, which operates as a flower and green market in the old city. It’s a super crowded place, and he said due to the upcoming Ganesh Chaturthi festival, which marks the birthday of Lord Ganesha, it was extra busy. The flowers here are beautiful and I highly suggest if you’re heading to Bangalore that you stop by. Take the stairs also to the second level so you can look from above at all the vendors. It’s a colorful scene and nice to watch from above.
Following the market I was shown the old armory belonging to Tipu Sultan, the old ruler, where all the rockets were kept during the Third Mysore War in the late 1700’s. It is hidden behind a school and one does need a guide to locate it, but to see it in person is exciting because of the sheer stoutness of it. Its set into the ground about twelve feet and the walls are at least two feet thick.
Next stops were the old Bangalore Fort, where the massive gate was stormed by the British East India Company in 1791, and Tipu Sultan’s summer palace, a delightful blend of Islamic and Indian architecture. There are massive pillars made of teak, intricately painted walls that are still intact, an attached temple, and a beautiful collection of lawns and plants.
My time here was short, and this morning I am off again today. While I did cover some important locations, a few things I didn’t get a chance to do here were: The Bangalore Palace, Grasshopper restaurant (they apparently do an amazing 7-course tasting menu), The Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, and the Art of Living International Center…hopefully I’ll get a chance to explore Bengaluru some other time and finish off my to-do list!