Our trekking adventures begin!
From Delhi we headed to Shimla. To get there, we caught a train from Delhi to Kalka and then managed to hop in a shared taxi (450 rupees per person) from there to Shimla. This was the most hair-raising journey so far. Speeding round corners with sheer drops and overtaking buses and lorries on blind bends were just part of this fun fuelled ride.
Shimla was significantly larger than we had imagined. Set in a breathtaking location, Shimla is an eclectic mix of coloured houses spread across a numerous series of hills covered in lush green trees and foliage. A welcome change from Delhi’s hectic atmosphere, Shimla is serene and tranquil in contrast. As one of the most popular tourist destinations for Indians, it is far more tourist friendly and is completely chockablock with hotels. We stayed in Hotel White on Lakar Bazaar which was a great central location and one of the cheapest hotels (2100 rupees, including tax) in the area.
Having had a mooch around the little quintessential shops filled with the usual shawls, Hindu deity miniatures and cooking implements before stopping to eat at Ashiana. A circular, wooden building with a view out over the square on one side and one of the valleys on the other, Ashiana was the best restaurant we found in Shimla – if you are wanting a meal you can have a drink with! It has a good and consistent selection of curries and some western food, should you desire a break from curry, and all at a reasonable price (maximum of 1500 rupees for two, including alcohol). I highly advise this as a place to eat if you visit Shimla.
The following day we were met by our Max’s family friend’s sister Neeta. Neeta lives in Shimla and was a complete bundle of joy, we absolutely loved hanging out with her for a day! She gave us a mini tour of Shimla on foot, ending up at the School of Advanced Studies. Shimla itself is quite a recent development. Established in the early 1960s it has some quite impressive history to go with it. The School of Advanced Studies from 1964 till this current day, is a place for people to come and work on their own personal, further research. In addition, it is the location of the first discussion and agreement for the independence of India from the British Empire. The building itself is a very English build – grand stone walls, surrounded by manicured gardens. Inside, it is constructed mainly of teak and walnut wood which resulted in the most remarkable ‘sprinkler system’. Above the wooden hall there is a large glass roof which holds around 24 water tanks and pipes sealed with wax and filled with nitrogen. If a fire should arise within the hall below, the heat should melt the wax, cause the nitrogen to expand and break the glass so the water can cascade over the flames below – pretty ingenious stuff!
Touring of Shimla complete, we reluctantly said goodbye to Neeta and headed to the town of Naldhera (about an hour outside of Shimla). Naldhera is a small town which looks like very little but actually, amazingly, is home to India’s highest golf course! The locals are particularly proud of this fact and we were instantly recommended that we visit upon our arrival. As neither Max or I are any good at golf and it was late afternoon by the time we arrived, we decided to opt for a 45 minute pony trek through the hills instead! This was relatively pleasant, it was somewhat cloudy by the time we reached the highest point and so we could see very little but I assume it would have been lovely should the mist have disappeared! We found out that India has a law in place which only allows horse owners to have two horses at a time – a system put in place I presume to try and decrease and prevent animal cruelty. A comforting notion but we did notice on our return that a few of the horses we saw were, unfortunately, definitely more underweight than they should have been.
The little guesthouse we stayed at in Naldhera was a family holiday house of Neeta’s and we were welcomed there by Munish, her brother – they are 2 out of 11 siblings! It is a quaint little house in the middle of the fields of Naldhera and is incredibly peaceful and tranquil. It has two bathrooms, a living area, kitchen, four bedrooms and a terrace to watch the sunset from. The only downside was the extra guests who were residing in our room; some flat, kind of clear, spider friends. Max did not react so well to these new acquaintances and so had a slightly restless night before our first days trek!
Trekking the following day was fantastic and a great first days walking experience. Munish guided us dressed in a blue shirt, suit trousers and some snazzy leather loafers (he had forgotten his walking gear) and yet still he sweated less than both of us and was significantly more sure footed! We were able to see some phenomenal views on either side of the hill, all covered in greenery, wildlife and more. The weather was a good temperature and we successfully avoided getting horrifically burnt! Overall, we covered 10k in 2 hours and 30 minutes, which included a stop for a lunch (parantha, crisps and chutney). We were then collected by Munish’s friend who had our big bags and driven the rest of the way to Munish’s family farmhouse.
Shimla Farmhouse was like a slice of heaven. Max and I never wanted to leave! Nestled within the Shimla hills surrounding the little town of Suni, you feel completely isolated from the noise and chaos found elsewhere in India. The Farmhouse itself has been in Munish’s family for over 100 years and is their combined family home. They welcomed an spoiled us completely! We spent most of our time sitting on the roof, under a wooden and grass gazebo, relaxing in woven chairs reading; eating; and enjoying the spectacular views. Munish gave us a yoga lesson on the terrace on our fist morning and we just felt as though all our problems had fallen away! Home cooked food made by Geeta (Munish’s sister-in-law) was tasty, vegetarian and traditional. We had the staple diet of North India on most nights – dal, chapatti and rice – which was also hearty and delicious. Breakfast consisted of paranthas and a never-ending supply of chai.
Our final trekking experience was Shikari Peak. A 3000 metre climb with a temple at the top. It is seen as a very spiritual place and as we walked up to the base camp and highest village on the mountain, it did have a very etherial quality. Completely silent and covered in trees, our fat little pack horse plodded along happily in front of us munching on anything he could grab on his way. I was near to passing out from the steep incline and my severe lack of fitness, so my panting probably killed the serene atmosphere somewhat but the beauty around us could not be ignored. It was like stepping into Lord of the Rings. Mist hovered dreamily over an incredibly lush green hill top at base camp, crops of boulders and trees cocooned us, whilst two other fat horses chomped contentedly on grass. A little further on, you could see the tops of the villager’s houses that poked over the trees in the distance. Completely and utterly dreamlike. Gorgeous.
Unfortunately, we never made it to the very top of Shikari Peak due to illness the following day – great timing as usual! We did however, get to enjoy a lovely meal cooked for us by one of the village families, they were as hospitable as ever and eager to feed us as much as humanly possible. They had a little boy who walked every morning and evening up and down the hill in order to get to school (an ascent/descent of 600m) and was sat quietly finishing his homework while we ate. So, although we were disappointed we didn’t quite make it to the top of Shikari Peak, we still experienced and witnessed some unforgettable things. We shall have to return to complete it properly in the future instead!
N.B. Should anyone want to stay with Munish and his lovely family or at any of their guesthouse retreats – you can! Our room at Shimla Farmhouse is rented out all year round and costs only 1500 rupees per night, including all your meals. The Naldhera Guesthouse is also available to rent as a whole property or just by room. Munich is a trained trekking guide and Puran, his brother, owns expeditionleaders.com and who can plan all of your itinerary etc. for an extra price. They really are a special group of people and I cannot recommend them enough!