She stood up straight, her hand stretched high, palm flat. “The city stands like this. Straight”, was my cousin’s description of Shimla. It was around ’98, I was still in school and beginning to develop an interest in travel. I was dying to witness such a phenomenon. The years only fanned that flame: the toy train in Bollywood films, the tall cedar and spruce trees in magazines, the beauty of the hills and the Raj nostalgia from history books. I knew I had to visit it.
More than a decade later I finally drove to Shimla from Delhi. As the hills came into view, the excitement I had cradled for long spilled forth. Just as we navigated a bend I saw it… the vertical city! Buildings that seemed to grow from behind each other covering an entire hill!
Shimla felt beautiful but much had changed. The old-world charm remained, but there were crowds, ice-cream vans and constant patrolling. Shimla’s popularity had made it go out on a limb to cater to every pocket, resulting in a town that jostles for space and has heavy traffic even at midday.
There was a serpentine queue for the lift to the Mall Road, which was bursting with newly married couples pumped with amorous mischief. There was much to shop and drink, but we had travelled all the way to Shimla for the quintessential hill station experience. What we really wanted was a little bonfire, a symphony from the crickets, some wine, food and a clear night sky to go with the chilly evening, without having to shell out big bucks for it. The Shimla we wanted wasn’t in Shimla anymore. It was, we discovered, actually some 20 kilometres away, in Fagu.
It took a bit of Google-Map sleuthing and frantic calls to hotels, but we arrived at our destination: a stone-faced moonlit homestay facing the valley. I couldn’t see much then, but my intuition said it was the right place. So we tucked in for the night.
A world apart
What a glorious morning we woke up to! Sunny, with a basket of apples at the doorstep, surrounded by apple orchards and terraced fields. For breakfast, our pahari house lady served us a home-cooked meal of parathas with local pickles, curd and masala chai. Our itinerary for the day was packed, but the unmatched views had us transfixed. The many restaurants on Mall road, the attractions in and around Shimla, Kufri, Theog and a trek to a Devi temple would have to wait. We didn’t have the heart to part with the charming scenery, scattered with villages, orchards, green hills, and snow-clad peaks beneath a brilliant blue sky, with swirling clouds of misty vapour from the melting snow.
We spent all morning and afternoon soaking in the autumn sun, relishing the clean mountain air, walking through the orchards taking stock of the apples that hadn’t matured yet, taking in the view and pursuing some writing, painting and photography.
We didn’t have to plan the evening as Fagu was playing host to an annual fete and kushti match. An hour into the match our stomachs were growling and we decided to splurge on a meal at the opulent Wildflower Hall. The beautiful evening was followed by one of the coldest nights in Fagu. But the house lady helped us with hot-water bags and a heater. We fell asleep immediately.
Out of the box
We didn’t let Shimla’s hustle and bustle discourage us, and neither should you. Plan that trip, go to Shimla for the sights, walk down Mall Road in your urban rags, head to Baljees for fried Indian food or make your way to Sol for a wider range of cuisines. However, Fagu is where you should fall asleep and wake up so that you can gift yourself the hill station experience. It comes replete with the piercing stillness and silence of a night sky dotted with a gazillion stars and lets you wake up to a morning in an apple orchard, dipped in dew and warmed by a resplendent sunbeam.
From HT Brunch, December 20
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