By the time we arrive at Shimla, it’s late, and I’m a wreck. My palor is ashen from the hair-raising bus ride and I look like something the cat dragged in. I can’t believe we actually made it here in one piece and mouth a silent prayer to the Big Guy. Yael, Nir and I scramble off the bus and prepare to catch our dusty backpacks, as they’re thrown off the roof in chaotic style. Frankly, I’m just glad they’re still there, after the hairpin bends. OK, three passengers plus luggage intact, mission accomplished.
I look at my watch. It’s late by Indian standards, after 9pm, and we’ve been on the road for what seems like forever. A place to rest our heads is needed – pronto. At this point, we’re all willing to pay through the nose for a clean bed and some hot water, only there’s a small problem – it’s high season in this adored vacation spot with every middle class Indian family (plus auntie) in town. And, of course, we haven’t booked ahead. Shimla’s on a series of seven hills too and quickly it dawns on me that we’re not going to be able to take a rickshaw anywhere, because the entire city centre is pedestrianised. I’ve spent my life telling people to walk instead of pollute the planet and now my principles are finally biting me in the bum…
Trudging up the hill, predictably, it’s not long before we’re surrounded by a group of young men, all ready and eager to find us a hotel, and give us “best possible price.” We’re all too tired to argue, and who knows who can be trusted anyway? So after a quick discussion, we decide to go with the guys who’ll carry Yael and Nir’s weighty packs. Being a seasoned traveller, and having hitched through the most lawless parts of East Africa, where robbery is rife, I’m taking no chances. Much like the Israeli soldier in boot camp, who is told “your gun is like your wife – you never leave it,” I’m not letting mine out of my sight. Up that hill I carry it, every step of the way.
But my cynicism is unfounded. The guys are decent enough and seem to have no plans on decamping with Nir’s dirty laundry and Yael’s eight weighty books. They’re more interested in the commission they’ll get from the manager of the fine establishment we end up in. Only as we walk in, I see it’s not particularly fine, simply ramshackle with a strange smell that I think might be damp emanating from the corridor. Yael shoots me a look that I know means “Oh god, what a dump.” We plonk ourselves down in reception, sending our third muskateer off to check it out.
I gaze at the faded picture of Krishna on the hotel wall. I ache and I feel slightly nauseous (a result of the high altitude, arduous journey and lack of real food for 16 hours no doubt). As far as I’m concerned, as long as it’s not a total dive, I’ll say yes. I simply don’t have the energy to rise from the chair. Nir returns. They’ve one room left (it’s high season, remember?) with a double bed but a single mattress can be brought in. There will be hot water – in the morning. And they’ll bring us extra blankets, as its chilly now. It’ll have to do, he tells us and I nod and pick up pens, to sign in . I am dead on my feet.
As I pick up my bag, there’s a part of me that wants to curse myself for being a “wing it” kinda gal. If I were more organised, I scold myself, I’d have booked tickets for the “civilised” bus ride via Chandrigah, and found us some charming, comfortable place. Instead, we’re stuck with a lumpy mattress, what I’m now sure is the smell of damp and a generator blasting away outside the room, loud enough to wake the dead. I sluice my face with water, strip down to my underwear and crawl into bed. I’ve got a sore throat, a cough, my head aches. It feels like the beginning of a cold, so Yael has kindly volunteered for mattress duty. My eyes are heavy. Still, I know that after a good night’s sleep and some fruit for breakfast (plenty of vitamin C to get me fighting fit) tomorrow will probably be a better day. And having survived that bus ride, I feel I can endure anything – torture in the Lubyanka, dhal and rice for six months…even an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I made it to the jewel in the crown of Himachal. I only hope it’s as good as it’s cracked up to be.