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The Queen of the Hills

Ever wondered that why, of all places, it is Shimla that is known as the queen of the hills.

As I sat on a bench at the Platform no.1 of Kalka Railway Station, I had just one question in my head – Why of all places was Shimla called the ‘Queen of the Hills’

Kalka is a station in Haryana that lies at the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. It was a rather misty morning as my ride to Shimla, the Himalayan Queen, slowly chugged into the platform. It is a “Toy Train” or a narrow gauge as it is technically called. The glass-roofed train runs on the Kalka- Shimla railway line which is now a UNESCO heritage route. The reason for this is simple, the mountain train route which was built way back in 1903 has some stunning and unparalleled views that are courtesy of the roughly 850 bridges and more than 900 turns that take the train to an elevation of 2000 metres. Having boarded the train around 6 in the morning, I was in for a treat of some amazing sunrise views and the cool mountain breeze. The journey comprises of 18 stations, the destination being Shimla.

One of the key landmarks of this route is the station of Barog. The beauty isn’t what makes the place special, instead, it’s the stories about the older Tunnel 33 that is now closed. Legend has it that the tunnel is the residence of the Late Mr Barog, the engineer commissioned to design the tunnel. It is said that unable to complete the task successfully, he committed suicide during a morning walk. Many say that the fear of fines and humiliation compelled him to take the step. The tunnel since then has been the place of many a sighting of Mr Barog until the tunnel was shut down. The trains today use a newer tunnel which leads to the beautiful Barog station. Naturally, I got off the train with the urge to check the tunnel out and started walking towards the tunnel. Little did I know that it is the older one that was haunted and not the one I was treading towards. It was only after a conversation with a passer-by, I realized that the real Tunnel 33 lies a little above and is now closed. He also pointed out the fact that many bloggers and vloggers do the common mistake of visiting the wrong tunnel.

I fell asleep once I reboarded the train, only to wake up at Tara Devi Station. The station is just outside Shimla and is the entrance to numerous resorts. As a result, quite a lot of passengers get down here. The key highlight of the station is a rather spectacularly placed public toilet. The set up gives you some magnificent views as you do your business and believe me, it has to be visited. Tara Devi is a famous and extremely beautiful temple that is situated atop a hill and provides some amazing views of Shimla and the adjoining areas. More about the temple later.

The last stop was Shimla. As I got off the train, I started walking towards the parking lot of the Shimla Railway Station. It was at that moment that the beauty of Shimla started to unravel itself. The soft sunlight paired with amazing mountain views does magic to a tired soul. Soon after reaching the parking lot, I was awestruck. I had expected the place to be filled with 4X4s given that the place is a mountain region. Instead, it was laden with compact cars that have virtually zero mountain capabilities. I admit it was one of my scariest rides…sitting in a 12-year-old Alto along the edges of the mountain roads. It does make one realize the importance of seatbelts and life in general. After an adrenaline-filled ride, I reached my hotel, GroomsBridge Manor. The property is an old renovated mansion from the times of the British Raj, after taking a short nap I set off for the Mall.

The Mall road is a kilometre or so long stretch of road that houses cafes, eateries, and shops. It is the heart of most of the action and a major tourist magnet. Ask anyone who has been to the region and they will say that is the must-visit place for shopping and eating. So, it was where I was headed to catch my evening snacks. I got a ride from my hotel to Lakkar Bazaar from where I walked till the Mall. After a roughly 5-minute walk, I stood opposite the Christ Church. It’s quite a sight to see especially during the evening because of its amazing lighting. As I kept walking, I crossed hordes of tourists and vendors, and I finally reached the Mall. The first place that I visited was a restaurant by the name of Honey Hut. One rather interesting thing about this eatery is that all of its dishes contain honey as a major flavour. I ordered the apple pie and soymilk. It was hands down amazing and the reason was quite simple – The use of Honey in the correct proportion to maintain the balance of sweetness and other flavours. Plus, the ambience and mountain facing views of the place. They all just add up to give an unforgettable experience.

After a filling sweet snack, I decided to walk down the mall road for a while. As I kept walking rather aimlessly, I came across shoppers and sellers all haggling to get the best price, vendors trying to sell their food, kids pulling their moms to buy them stuff….it is just as chaotic as it is peaceful. Something hits differently when you walk the busy streets with no thoughts but only pure admiration for the moment and the place that engulfs you. I soon found myself back near the church. Since it was getting late, many of the attractions nearby had closed I decided to head back to the hotel. I asked for directions to the hotel which was in the Kelston area roughly 5 km from where I was. The first reply which I received was to not tread those roads at night, even with a group. I felt it was because of robberies or something. When I asked why, I received a one-word answer, “Churail”. Shimla is one city that is known for its numerous hauntings. Almost all places right from schools to hospitals to the Mall to random roads, all have been a site of ghostly misadventures according to the locals. A bit intrigued, I walked towards the taxi stand at the end of Lakkar Bazaar.

Nearly halfway through the Lakkar Bazaar, I felt a sudden urge to have soup and pakoras. As a result, I stopped to have some at Sharma’s Burger and Tikki Corner. Placed right on the main Lakkar Bazaar road, the place hosts a generous crowd that drops by to have a taste of the fast-food sold by Sharma Ji. I received a serving of soup and tried out some delicious soya sticks topped with chutney and sauce. Kukrez is what the snack is called. It was my first experience with it and not going to lie; I was addicted. Hot meals in the chilly December evenings can satisfy one’s hunger but never the soul.

I went straight to my hotel, where I had a chat with the owner about the eerie stories surrounding the Shimla hills. He was new but had heard a lot of these stories. He suggested a few book stores where I could find books, papers and stories about the same. The two names he suggested were Minerva Book House and Maria brothers, both situated on the Mall road.

The next day, I woke up and had designated targets – the two bookstores, Jakhu temple, and Christ Church. The day was bright and sunny, and my first stop was Christ Church. The church is situated in an area called the Ridge. The ridge is like the central square of Shimla with ways leading to Jakhu, Mall, Lakkar Bazaar, and Scandal Point. The church is one of the oldest churches in North India and is beautiful both on the inside and outside. The arches, the painted glass, all combined with the serene atmosphere provide an ambience like no other place. It has been that way since its consecration in 1857. Do visit the church, light a candle, and spend some time as it will help you connect to your inner self. Then I proceeded to the Jakhu ropeway.  The ropeway leads to the temple that is on the summit of a hill that overlooks the Shimla city. The temple is devoted to the Hindu deity Hanuman. The unique architecture of the temple is the first of a kind that I have seen for a Hindu temple. To top it off, there is a 108-feet tall statue of Hanuman that adorns the hill. The mantra chanting and the aroma of incense bundle up to create a very soothing and spiritual aura around the area. The monkeys of the area, I must warn, are a big menace. They gang up on unsuspecting visitors often fleeing with food and valuables. My recommendation, if using the walkways, carrying a stick is always handy.

While returning, I decided to take the walkway from Jakhu to the Scandal Point via the Ridge. The route is quite beautiful, making its way downhill first through the woods and then through old houses. It leads straight to the Ridge. The ridge is lined with restaurants and shopping outlets to cater to tourists and it is a place that is surely very enjoyable provided the crowd isn’t too much. I had some snacks and tea following which I decided to check out the Hawa Ghar built on top of the Ridge. It is, in essence, an observation deck that provides some amazing views of the Heart of the Shimla City. Enjoying the breeze and clicking multiple snaps from the Hawa Ghar had me energised for my walk towards the Scandal Point. A 250-metre walk from the Ridge, the Scandal Point is the intersection of the Ridge and the Mall Road. The naming of the place is still shrouded in mystery. There are some stories though, that point to the fact that the Viceroy’s Daughter had been kidnapped by the Maharaj of Patiala from this very spot leading to the name. The area is filled with heritage buildings that remind of the fact that Shimla was once the Summer Capital of India. The sloping roofs complement the wooden outsides of these timeless buildings and create an effect of time running backwards by a few centuries.

I was once again on the mall road as I walked towards the Minerva Book World. The place is a treasure trove for book lovers and information seekers alike. Name the genre and the author and I’m pretty sure they will have it. I got 2 books about the paranormal history of Shimla. Apart from that, the man over the counter also told me about the famous hauntings of the area. These include the Headless horseman from the Convent of Jesus and Mary, and the infamous Chudail Bauri. Next, I proceeded to Maria Brothers Store which is opposite the Gaiety theatre. The theatre has now been converted into a museum and a cultural centre. Maria brothers is a store just in name. It is a museum with a wide-ranging collection of relics, old books and priceless maps. Artefacts and antiquities surround you as you set foot in the store. The place is a heaven for those who love history. The outlet also boasts of some really old lithographs and paintings. A purchase here may be pricey but will surely be a worthy addition to any collection. The rest of my day was spent sitting in a park nearby and reading the books I had purchased. It was this soothing and peaceful experience for which I had come to the Mountains of Shimla.

The following day, I left for Kalka but this time via road. On the way comes the Tara Devi temple. The temple is built on a hilltop and provides some breathtaking views of the hills surrounding Shimla and the main city as well. The temple complex is a wooden building with intricate carving and amazing glasswork. The prasad offered at the temple includes a full course meal which is filling. In all, it was the perfected of an incomparable and one of a kind trip.

The key thing that sets this journey apart from my previous ones is the fact that rather than the exploration of a place, this involved exploration of the inner self.

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