Of all the ways to die, the eye-rolling, slow, terror-driven expiration from rabies must be one of the worst. For this reason every mammal I see is a potential threat to my children, none more so than my arch nemesis (Satan’s familiar) the macaque. Second only to those evil little bastards is the street dog, and in particular the Indian street dog. Now, it was my belief that pretty much all Indian street dogs are descended from the same nasty individual. They all look the same and not one of them can be trusted; when they move in packs they are frankly terrifying and they have snarled at me for no reason enough times that I give them the sort of super-wide berth normally reserved for those bib-wearing high-street charity mugging arses, who I hold in similar high regard.
When we got to Shimla, I was delighted to find out that, although there were plenty of street dogs about, the clear air and relaxed atmosphere had combined to work a marvellous transformative effect on them. Instead of the standard skinny, threatening bags of anxious, twitching bones; they were well-fed, longhaired laid-back creatures, completely unrelated to the miserable beasts of Delhi or Jaipur. So relaxed that they were, dare I say it, almost pet-like. After a few days in Shimla I even developed a kind of warmth towards them for two reasons. The first was their habit of just collapsing across busy thoroughfares in groups like they had all just died en masse, and the second was that they only really roused themselves to do the essential business of chasing away the big gangs of bastard macaques that plague the place.
I am happy to say that having non-threatening narcoleptic street dogs is only one of the many nice things about Shimla. We travelled there directly from Jaipur where we had spent three busy days and most of our energy reserves, and so the mild climate and lack of traffic was really welcome. Although the traffic below the town is an absolute nightmare, there are no vehicles allowed on Shimla’s mall, so apart from the odd emergency vehicle, it is pedestrians only. I rediscovered the simple pleasure of just walking about without gripping onto my kids for dear life, or risking permanent hearing loss from the sudden tooting of an auto horn 50cm from my ear. We did a lot of walking; we went looking for graveyards and old houses, we dawdled around the markets and we found places to just admire the lovely views. All of this walking is greatly assisted by the fact that nobody bothers you. No one is that fussed about selling stuff to you, so you can really enjoy poking around the shops and stalls without any of the high-pressure sales techniques that are so off-putting in Rajasthan or Delhi.
Perhaps the loveliest thing about Shimla is the almost palpable sense of happiness that pervades the place. It is chock full of young honeymooners and holidaying Indians, which, along with the dampness and general old-fashioned air of the place, combines to give it a kind of jolly holiday-camp kind of atmosphere, like Butlins but without the Strongbow or pound shop feather boas.
Really Useful Tips for Shimla
- If you are looking for somewhere cheap to stay within spitting distance of the Mall, the YMCA is the place for you. It was built in the 1930s and I am sure it hasn’t changed much since. Although you may find the multiple pictures of Jesus watching you eat your complementary breakfast slightly off-putting, there is a ping-pong table and an impressive view to make up for it. To find it, walk down the right-hand side of St Andrew’s church (which is easy to find) and then go up the set of steps on the left that take you to the cinema, the entrance is at the top.
- Whatever you do, stop for something at the Indian Coffee House. We went every day for the kids to have a banana milkshake and their food is also great. It is slightly unnerving when you look in the door and it is full of middle-aged men in grey shirts, but when you get in it is really friendly and the waiters have the best uniforms in town.
- Take the time to visit the Tibetan market if you are looking for any clothes, and the middle bazaar if you are looking for anything else a human being might possibly want, ever. The Tibetan market is on the road behind the tourist office; and take any of the treacherously steep steps down off the mall for the middle bazaar. We squeezed into a gloriously overstocked stationery shop to get the kids some jotters and it was like stepping into a museum. I am pretty sure they sold exactly the same type of leather-bound ledger that Bob Cratchitt would have used; it was a Victorian bookkeepers dream.