Claire McCrum, Specialised Travel Consultant recently travelled with her family on a group trip to India, after her husband and kids headed back home Claire continued her trip with a short Tailormade extension to Shimla and Amritsar. Read on to hear what she thought:
After finishing my Explore tour I headed to New Delhi train station where I boarded the train to Kalka. The journey took about five hours, I then changed to the Toy Train up the mountain. The Kalka to Shimla railway was built in 1898 to connect Shimla to the rest of the Indian railway network. It is a narrow gauge track that is a feat of engineering in itself, winding its way up the mountains, passing through small towns and long tunnels, as well as over large stone bridges. As the train climbs, the views get more and more spectacular. The journey is a long one, about six hours, but the views and the people make up for it. The atmosphere on the train was wonderful, locals and Indians on holiday were all enjoying themselves, chatting and being very friendly. We stopped at small stations for refreshments and finally arrived in Shimla as it was getting dark.
Today I visited the Viceregal Lodge. Once the summer residence of the Viceroy of India, it was built in 1888 by Sir Henry Irwin and is a mock Tudor building that looks like it would be more at home in the Scottish highlands than in India. We were allowed to visit three central rooms, all full of photographs depicting life as it was under the Viceroy and showing the history of the lodge between 1888 and 1946. From the Woodville Palace Heritage Hotel I walked through the forest to Jakhu Hill to visit Jakhu Temple, the highest point in Shimla with breathtaking views all around. Dedicated to the Hindu god, Hanuman, an enormous (108ft), bright orange statue of the Monkey God, stands at 2455m guarding the city. Leaving the intimidating monkeys behind I walked down the hill to the Mall, a large open pedestrianised area where the locals and tourists come to walk, admire the view and visit Christ Church and Scandal Point. This is so named because an English lady eloped with an Indian Maharaja many years ago. This is also the site of the Gaiety Theatre, designed by Sir Henry Irwin and built in 1881; it is a beautiful example of Victorian architecture and has been used for performances from then until now.
In the evening the narrow lanes of Shimla are buzzing with people bartering at the shops and stalls selling traditional and colourful clothes, hats and ponchos. With the sun setting and the lights twinkling, the backdrop of the city nestled in the Himalayan foothills is simply stunning.
Leaving Shimla after breakfast I began the long descent down the mountain admiring the spectacular views and at Ambala station boarded the Paschim Express to Amritsar. I spent a comfortable journey on the train, it was useful to have bed, as the train was delayed, and so the opportunity to sleep distracted from the 13 hours spent travelling today. Arriving in Amritsar and met by my guide, Anish, I was escorted to my hotel.
Todays itinerary took me to the Golden Temple in Amritsar - the largest and holiest Gurdwara in Sikhism. It was founded in 1577 and has been a place of pilgrimage for Sikhs ever since. Open to everyone, from every religion, caste or creed it spreads the message of egalitarianism and humility. The temple itself is gold, both on the inside and outside, and it houses the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, which is carried from its sacred house to the Golden Temple, in the centre of the holy lake every morning, where it is placed on a throne to be worshipped by pilgrims. With a minimum of 100,000 visitors to the temple every day, it also houses the world’s largest soup kitchen, offering food to anyone. Up to two million people pass through here each day for food. The scale of the operation is incredible and the kitchen is manned, purely, by volunteers - it is very inspiring.
From here I continued on to Jalianwala Bagh, the site of the Amritsar massacre in April 1919 when a large group of protestors, including men, women and children, had gathered to demonstrate on the day of Baisakhi, a Sikh festival and were gunned down by the British Indian Army. 379 people lost their lives and there were over a 1000 casualties. It is a sobering visit to this peaceful garden where such violence happened. The bushes are in the shape of soldiers crouching and firing guns and there is a statue showing the tortured faces of the victims. As the sun was setting I approached the Wagah Border for the closing of the border ceremony with Pakistan. This fascinating ceremony has been carried out on the India – Pakistan border since 1959. It is supposedly a show of rivalry and brotherhood between the two countries and it takes place every evening just before sunset. It is a colourful and entertaining display of patriotism that is carefully choreographed but has a hint of aggression. The guards on either side goose step up and down in a ‘Basil Fawlty’ style and, despite much posturing towards each other, it ends with them taking down the flags and shaking hands. The large crowds on either side cheer them along with chanting (Long Live India). It was a fitting end to a colourful and inspirational journey to some of India’s most fascinating places.