It takes two more interminable bus journeys to reach McLeod Gunj in the foothills of the Himalayas. We travel through precipitous river valleys, pine forests and mountainsides swathed in maize terraces and apple orchards
Well shaken, we stop overnight in Shimla. Once a major British hill station it is now a popular tourist town for the noveau riche Indians from the Punjab and Delhi. The capital of Himachal Pradesh since 1966, the city has become an overgrown sprawl across the mountainside – but the old bazaar is a pleasant surprise to us. Built on a steep incline, everything that comes in and out has to be carried up by porters. Bent over almost double they carry three crates of soft drinks…100 kg flour…or three or four heavy suitcases. We manage to drag our own cases up the hill into the bazaar and find a little guesthouse in the midst of the small shops. Immediately opposite is a fascinating double purpose “dentist and goggles” (optician) shop. The painted sign displays a pair of dentures at one end and glasses at the other, and lists the provider as the LATE Dr Kushwant Singh. He not only services both your teeth and your eyes, but while deceased!
Above the bazaar is the mall – a pedestrian thoroughfare. I enjoy the still visible remnants of the Raj – Gothic churches, elegant tea rooms, half timber and Victorian mansions with British names, But the bazaar is unmistakably Indian, with a chaotic mass of corrugated iron rooftops and roaming monkeys. Shimla has become exorbitantly expensive, but in the bazaar you can still find a small dhaba serving alu parathas, curd and chai for two for less than a dollar. There’s nothing like a good bargain to make me happy!