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Making Christmas in India

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It was necessary to go via Delhi in order to reach Shimla in the mountains, where we planned to spend Christmas, though we weren’t particularly looking forward to Delhi, having heard it is hectic and not very exciting. First impressions were - it was cold! After a few weeks in the desert, the 16C of Delhi was a shock, plus it was incredibly foggy and we could barely see a thing. The fog lasted the whole time we were there too. (Although, having read reports of the weather troubles back in the UK right now, shouldn’t think we’ll get much sympathy for this from readers there…)

Despite the fog, we found Delhi to be a lot less chaotic than anticipated, probably the folks that told us it was so have never been to Kolkata. We arrived into Old Delhi an hour late (of course, despite the train being sat in Jaisalmer station when we arrived to get on it, there was still an announcement that it would leave an hour later than scheduled… Sure, it was nice to see they were cleaning the train before the next journey but really everyone waiting on the platform would’ve agreed that we were happier for it not to be hosed on the outside, but to leave on time). Anyway, from the station we needed to find our way to New Delhi and the area where we were planning to stay; we negotiated our way to the metro station and there to greet us was our German friend Erhard! He had checked train times and had decided to come and greet us and show us around. So we jumped onto the tube (which was surprisingly clean & efficient, and even had separate ladies’ carriages so we didn’t have to crush in the busy carriages with loads of men) and checked into the hotel he was staying at, saving us the trouble of trudging around looking for a reasonable room.

We managed to go to the key sights of Delhi including India Gate, Lotus Temple and Raj Ghat, the memorial marking the spot of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation, but we couldn’t really see any of them due to the persistent fog. More impressed were we that we found a Marks & Spencers! (We went in for a browse and to squirt ourselves with the perfume testers…) There was also a very impressive temple complex that we had to queue up theme park style and go through many security checks for, also no cameras were allowed inside so alas we have no photos; it was good though, and we’ve seen loads of temples!

We spent the two evenings with Erhard, one night going for local beers with live music – Erhard really enjoyed the music, we were not totally convinced – and the following evening we went for local Thali (a popular meal which includes rice, lentil curry, veg curry, chapatti and pickles – all for a bargainous 70 pence). Despite Erhard speaking very limited English and us only embarrassingly few words of German, we managed to communicate considerably well with our German friend.

We left Delhi on the early 7.40am train (actually 8.40am due to the usual delays – Indian Time) heading north for Kalka with Erhard seeing us off at the station – he even carried R’s big rucksack all the way onto the train. We liked Erhard, what a lovely man.

Arriving at Kalka after a very comfortable train ride (we got free newspapers, tea and breakfast – what luxury!), we got off the train and in our usual stubborn way refused all offers of tuk-tuk rides, deciding that surely we can find the bus station and the bus for Shimla, it must be obvious, it’s a small town, it must be just around the corner... 25 minutes later and getting annoyed at not being able to find the damn bus, even after asking numerous people, we had to jump in a tuk-tuk… which then took us all of 200m from where we had been to where we could pick up the bus; but it was worth the 20p ride for us not to get even grumpier!

The bus to the famous hill station of Shimla was rickety and the hairpin road seemed never ending, but the 3 hour journey passed surprisingly well, eased by the lovely mountain views. At Shimla bus stand we were picked up by Shivi who runs the homestay we had booked to stay. He drove us to his lovely place and we were very happy with our decision to stay there. It was around 8kms out of Shimla itself, but it was huge, a family home but with two floors of self-contained rooms and apartments, all leading out to large terrace areas with glorious mountain views. We had decided to treat ourselves for Christmas and had booked one of the luxury ‘apartment’ rooms, with a living room, walk in wardrobe, kitchen area, complete with and amazing views and a fairly private balcony area. Way over our usual budget but a very suitable place to spend Christmas time. We also planned to take the opportunity of staying in cool climbs with quiet roads among the pine trees to do some runs, as we have not had so many opportunities to keep up the running since arriving in India.

The following day it was Christmas Eve and after a hilly morning run it was off to town to see the sights. Although us Brits were rightly kicked out of India over 60 years ago, there are still remnants of the old Raj era in Shimla, since it acted as the British summer capital (Brits couldn’t take the heat of the plains) – the Catholic St Martins Church, Tudor style buildings and places serving G&T! As Shimla had had its first snowfall quite early this winter, we even saw some snow around town to really make us feel festive. There was quite a bit of snow especially on the hill going up to Jakhu Temple overlooking the town and it was fun to watch Indian holiday-makers (who come here from the plains to see things like snow, maybe for the first time) enjoying the snow with snowball fights etc. At the bottom of said hill to the temple there was a board with a fitness challenge stating that if you are under 30 (which both R and T are of course, cough cough) and can summit the hill in under 30 minutes then you are ‘absolutely fit’, with other gradings for different times, so that was us off on a mission (no admiring the views, photo taking, stopping to scratch an itch or anything allowed until we had reached the top!)… We did it in 20min 11 secs. Get in! (and were only a little bit red and sweaty, honest)!

We spent the rest of the day getting into the festive spirit, which had alluded us until now as we were in places so very different to home, although 3 of us crossing a desert on camels does have some similarities to the Nativity story, no? We bought bits of xmas tat (tinsel, santa hats, a small fake tree complete with decorations and the like) and sipped G&Ts, Baileys and Bloody Marys, just to help with the merry-making. We then had a challenge to split up for an hour and buy each other Christmas presents to a maximum value of 500 rupees (a very generous £5), which was a challenge indeed on the market of, well, tat, as it turned out.

What with the decorations we bought, plus borrowing anything vaguely festive looking from around the rest of Shivi’s family home (i.e. anything red, green or glittery) and the few bottles of booze we had bought, our little apartment started to look a lot like Christmas… we had even found Ferrero Rocher in a sweet shop in town - that really did the job!

But the dream of a relaxing mountain Christmas was not to be, as poor old Tess became poorly in the night and spent much of Christmas day in bed (or in the loo!). We did have a nice pressie opening session in the morning, but otherwise Rach spent the day watching films on Sky and drinking the nice wine we had bought as a treat for the day, plus eating all the nuts, chocs etc, as Tess recuperated in bed. Fortunately T was feeling mostly better by Boxing Day and we spent that day relaxing in the apartment and watching yet more festive films on tv with a stroll in the afternoon sun, so we were well-rested ahead of journey the next day to Mumbai (Rachel did manage to fit in some more hilly runs each day, and a little suspicion did creep in that Tess feigned the whole illness to get out of the daily runs we’d promised to do once she remembered how much she hates hill running!)

Mumbai, good old Bombay, what to say..? It was, fairly ok but not that interesting really. We didn’t find it hectic as expected, the roads are fairly orderly even. It was interesting to see its skyline with sky-scrapers against the backdrop of a beach, it felt more like Miami than India (the beach was pretty filthy though when you got close up and the water looked v polluted, there were still folk jet skiing though, eugh). We enjoyed a boat trip to Elephanta Island to see the cave sculptures there, this was really nice except for Rachel getting into two fights with men who pushed in to queues… Other than that not much to say about it, it was notably ‘western’ but with an Indian core, such as the bustling, colourful street markets. Parts of Mumbai actually reminded us of Spain…

After this we went on ‘holiday’ for a week, to spend New Year in Goa. In case you’re sat in the UK right now in this grim winter, we’ll spare you the details of this week, in summary we went swimming, drank cocktails and danced around fires on the beach at midnight for New Year. More interestingly we rented kayaks and addled round to the next beach around a rocky headland and we hired mopeds for a couple of days. The moped riding was largely a success except when retrieving our bike from the parking area we tried to take the wrong one and wondered why it wouldn’t start… Turns out there is more than one green scooter in Goa!

So that sees us into 2014, our next stop was to be Hampi via another overnight bus journey, (but in a sleeper again so not too bad).

Posted by TessAndRach 07:31 Archived in India

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