Guide books and people we met told us that the north of India has the finest tourist hotspots. As we arrived in the western foothills of the Himalayas we discovered they were right. We saw many more foreign travelers and a lot of Indian tourists as well. We spent about a week in each of our favorite northern cities, Shimla and Rishikesh.
Getting to Shimla was not easy. We took a first-class bus (called Volvo A/C here) part of the way and then discovered that only “normal” buses traveled the rest of the way. Normal buses are tired, broken down, non air-conditioned buses typically packed with people standing in the aisle. Shortly out of town the bus broke down and then we were crowded and sweaty but after about an hour the driver got the bus restarted. As we began to climb we were soon in bumper to bumper traffic of buses, tourist vans and big trucks navigating the switchbacks. Next our bus got in a fender bender as a car tried to pass us as we passed a slow truck on a curve. The police came but because the two drivers could not come to agreement, both vehicles had to stay. We all unloaded off the bus and stood by the roadside until another bus stopped to pick us up. Luckily for us there were some very friendly, English speaking students to explain what was going on. After about 18 hours on the road we finally arrived in Shimla.
The next morning we were awed by the view out our door. Shimla is strung out along an eight mile ridge, with steep forested hillsides falling away in all directions. It is one of India’s most popular hill resorts, busy with happy Indian vacationers. The architecture reveals its past role in British India. The long, winding main street called “the Mall” is a pedestrian’s delight because no motorized vehicles are allowed. It was a pleasure to walk without dodging taxis and motorcycles. Notice the monkey on the lamp post behind us. There are a lot of monkeys roaming the woods and streets of Shimla. They can be pretty naughty as they scare tourists to steal their ice cream.
A Scottish civil servant built a summer home in Shimla in 1822 and nothing was ever the same again as the well-to-do British flooded the area. In 1864, Shimla was declared as the summer capital of British India. For half of each year the British government relocated to the Viceregal Palace to enjoy the cool summer air. As the summer capital, Shimla hosted many important political meetings including the Simla Conference of 1945 in which the British and Indians signed the agreement for the British to leave India. We saw the very table where the agreement was signed.
Next stop Rishikesh on the Ganges river. It’s a little lower in elevation but because it is on the river it has a nice cooling breeze. Rishikesh is a magnet for spiritual seekers. It styles itself as the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’, with many ashrams and all kinds of yoga and meditation classes. There are two riverside communities Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula separated by the jhulas (suspension bridges) that cross the river. The view from our hotel balcony was stunning. We took walks crossing the bridge most every day. One day a monkey photo bombed the picture of me and the temple. Another day Mike was carrying a bag of fruit across the bridge and a monkey tried to steal it. Luckily Mike had a walking stick to fend him off.
In February 1968, Rishikesh hit world headlines when the Beatles and their partners stayed at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram. They relaxed and wrote tons of songs, many of which ended up on their White Album. The Ashram has been deserted and incorporated into a tiger preserve but we walked out to see it anyway. It is a piece of pop culture in an out of the way location.
We enjoyed soaking up the cooler weather and meditative spirit of Rishikesh before heading to Agra to see the Taj M ahal.