A JOURNEY THROUGH THE HIMALAYAN MOUNTAINS AROUND SPITI
(With grateful acknowledgement to Graham Woodhouse for his introduction and meticulous planning)
Spiti is in the remote north-west of India, in that corner of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh where, amidst steep and soaring mountains, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Tibet come together. The people of Spiti are Indian by birth and nationality but they are followers of the Dalai Lama of Tibet and their culture and language has much in common with the Tibetan people of the roof of the world. The frontier region of Spiti remained isolated and undeveloped for long, difficult of access, cut off by high mountain ramparts. The first effective programme to bring a decent modern education to the people of Spiti was an initiative of the Rinchen Zangpo Society for Spiti Development. Given the difficulties of a new organization starting a school in remote Spiti itself at that time, the Society brought the children on a long journey out of Spiti to a hostel in Yol from where they could attend schools in the Dharamsala area. Dharamsala is the place of Dalai Lama’s residence in exile. Five years ago supporters of Aid For Himalayan Education visited the children they sponsored at the hostel in Yol.
Meanwhile the Rinchen Zangpo Society has now built a very successful school with hostels in Spiti itself, enabling the children to be educated nearer home and retain their cultural heritage. This has been made possible by donations, helpers from all over the world (students, teachers, medics & etc.) and sponsorship of individual children via the Rinchen Zangpo Society For Spiti Development. Please visit www.rinchenzangpo.org for further information. Our journey took us to Munsel-ling school at Rangrik where “our children” were based and thereafter a trek for some and a trip to Leh in Ladakh before returning home four weeks later.
New Delhi – Shimla
New Delhi is a jarring juxtaposition of poverty and wealth with the oldest architecture being Muslim, The Red Fort and The Jami Masjid Mosque. Rickshaws, pedal and motorised, are the most popular form of transport, the latter being transformed into ice-cream vans at India Gate. The occasional ox and cow may still be seen, oblivious to the motorised mayhem around.
The Red Fort Jami Masjid Mosque
Typical Delhi Street Scene Ox Cart
Ice-cream Vendors at India Gate
Having spent two nights in the capital we boarded “The Himalayan Queen” express bound for Kalka (6 hours) and our connection with (the not so express but wonderful!) “Toy Train." This narrow-gauge railway, built by the British between 1897 and 1903, involved the construction of 103 tunnels, 24 bridges and 18 stations over 96km from the railhead at Kalka to Shimla, and takes another 5 hours.
En Route Diesel engine at Kandaghat
Kandaghat Station Shimla from the train at Tara Deni
Named after its patron goddess, Shamla Devi (a manifestation of Kali), Shimla is situated deep in the foothills of the Himalayas. The hill station is approached via an unfeasibly sinuous route that winds from the plains at Kalka across nearly 100km of precipitous valleys, pine forests and mountainsides swathed in maize terraces and apple orchards. It's not hard to see why the British chose this inaccessible site as their summer capital. At an altitude of 2159m, the crescent-shaped ridge over which it spills is blessed with perennially cool air, crisp light, and superb panoramas across verdant, undulating country to the snowy peaks of the Great Himalayan range. With the completion of the Kalka-Shimla railway, Shimla lay only two days by train from Delhi. Its meteoric rise continued after Independence, when, following the reorganisation of the Punjab in 1966, Shimla became the state capital of Himachal Pradesh.
Today, Shimla is still a major holiday resort, popular mainly with Indians but its jaded colonial charm also appeals to foreigners looking for a taste of the Raj. This fusion of cultures which India supports so well is reflected in neatly turned-out school children scuttling past mock-Tudor shop-fronts and houses with names like "Braeside," while, at the same time, the dense, chaotic mass of corrugated iron rooftops immediately below the ridge, Shimla's bazaar, lends an unmistakably Indian aspect to the town, an active market and gateway to the Northwestern Himalayan region.
Making pourris in Shimla bazaar Christ Church on The Ridge, Shimla
The bazaar Looking west from The Mall, Shimla
Shimla's single most impressive colonial monument, the old Viceregal Lodge, summer seat of the British government until the 1940s, is perfectly placed on the flattened wooded top of Observatory Hill. Here is Shimla at its most British. The solid grey mansion, built in Elizabethan style with a lion and unicorn set above the entrance porch, surveys trimmed lawns trimmed by healthy pines and kaleidoscopic flower beds. Inside, the lodge is just as ostentatious, though only sections of the ground floor are open to the public: a vast teak-panelled entrance hall, an impressive library (formerly the ballroom), and the guest room, notable for its intricately carved walnut ceiling and period furniture. The conference room, hung with photos of Nehru, Jinnah and Ghandi, was the scene of crucial talks in the run-up to Independence.
The Viceregal Lodge Looking north from The Ridge