Western travellers to India often follow one of several well-trodden routes. Some fly into Delhi, visit Agra and the cities of Rajasthan, and leave thinking that India is a country of narrow, dusty streets and imperial palaces. Others travel south to the beaches of Goa and Kerala, and leave thinking India it is a country of palm trees and fishing villages. Others come on and see only the big, busy port cities of Chennai and Mumbai. Up, away from the heat of the cities and the plains, is an India many travellers never think to go to: the snow-capped peaks and wildflower meadows of the Himalayas.
Into the hills
From Delhi, buses take around nine hours to reach the colonial hill-station of Shimla, once the summer capital of the British Raj. The entire administration would move operations to Shimla for months every summer, as the heat in Delhi began to burn. The town perches on the peak of a hill, and from the bottom of the valley its buildings look as if they might start to wobble and drop at any time. Cars cannot get through its layers of steep, narrow streets, but eager porters wait at the bottom of the hill, scurrying up and down with ease, while others pant behind them.
The climb is worth it. From Shimla’s central square, you can look down its main street, lined with half-timbered houses, and think you are in an English village. One of India’s oldest churches, the gorgeous lemon-painted Christ Church dominates the view at the other end. The streets drop away down the hillside, becoming a busy, noisy bazaar, with everything from cobblers’ shops to sweet shops. Walking out of town along the ridge of the hill, there are old colonial mansions and administration buildings, chipped and faded, bored-looking officials playing crickets on the front lawns. All around, rocky hills climb out of the green.
Into the Mountains
Shimla is a charming warm-up to the proper mountains further north. From Shimla, Manali is another nine hour bus journey away. The bus winds through mountain villages, busy with women wrapped in thick shawls against the cold, and their rosy-cheeked children. Manali seems disappointing at first, a slightly drab, modern town centred on a bus station. Beyond it, huge snow-capped peaks dominate the skyline. Exploring past the town centre, through the pine trees and rhododendrons, you find Old Manali, with its pretty stone houses. A couple of miles away is the little village of Vashisht, with it thermal pools, ornate wooden temples and happy, friendly feel.
Wherever you are around Manali, you cannot help but be drawn to the mountains on the skyline. In winter the streets are covered in snow, giving the whole place a magical, winter-wonderland feel. In summer, Manali is the starting point for road journeys to Ladakh, across a dry, lunar desert that is impassable for half the year; and for treks up into the clouds along the breathtaking Rohtang Pass. To the west the road leads to the Buddhist enclave of Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj.
Dharamsala is a typical busy Indian mountain town, at the foot of a hill. At the top of the hill is McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and a mainly Tibetan community. Elderly Tibetan men sit smoking and chatting in coffee shops, and Buddhist prayer flags are strung out over the trees and down into the valley below the town. The steep streets are lined with cheap guesthouses, souvenir shops and yoga schools. Quiet mountain roads lead out of the village and up through the hills beyond. Friendly children play by their ramshackle wooden homes, and old women smile from their verandas. The whole place feels calm and happy, as if the mountains are working to keep everyone settled. It is hard for even the least religious of people not to feel some kind of spiritual awe. Everest and K2 may be the real roof of the world, but everywhere in the Himalayas feels pretty close to it. Sitting in a McLeod Ganj cafe, nibbling Tibetan flatbread and watching the colourful prayer flags fly over the rocks, the busy streets of Delhi and the hot beaches of Goa feel very far away.