On the day we left Shimla, we woke up in plenty of time to check out and get our taxi at 8:30. Hotel Dreamland gave us one final round of hassle when they tried to charge us for breakfasts we had not ordered. The ‘bill’ they showed us was from days before we checked in. When we protested that we hadn’t eaten there, they tried to argue that breakfast was ‘included,’ which made no sense at all. First of all, our room rate was supposed to be inclusive of a continental breakfast anyway, and doesn’t ‘included,’ by definition, mean that there’s not an additional charge? Rather than argue, I just gave them the amount we had agreed to in the email booking and we got into the taxi. Suffice it to say, I don’t recommend this place!
The ride to the airport was one of the most insane car journeys I have ever taken in my life. We had barely left the hotel when we rounded a bend and missed a head on collision by no more than four feet. The mountain roads around Shimla are barely more than single track, with very uneven road surfaces, and endless twists, turns, hairpin bends, and switchbacks. Our driver was quite aggressive, which we were coming to realize was the norm for India, particularly in the north. The trip consisted of an endless series of near misses, often around blind curves, accompanied by almost continuous honking by our driver and the others on the road.
At one point, we came around a bend into a small village and were brought to a standstill by a herd of 300 goats being driven through town. This at least provided comic relief; what else can you possibly do but laugh when you’re surrounded by hundreds of goats? The other bright side of this drive was the chance to see more of the town of Shimla, and a number of the smaller villages and beautiful valleys in the area. After about an hour and a half of driving, we saw signs telling us we were nearing the airport, and I started thinking how glad I was going to be to get out of the car.
As we approached the airport entrance, we could tell immediately that something was wrong because the gate was closed and locked, with an armed soldier standing guard. (This in itself was not unusual. All of the airports we traveled through in India were guarded by army soldiers with large guns. They are very serious about their security, and for good reason.) Our driver spoke to the guard, who told him, ‘flights today not possible.’ We weren’t entirely surprised by this, because our guidebook mentioned that flights out of Shimla were often cancelled due to weather. But that was clearly not the present issue – it was a beautiful sunny day. The guard agreed to let us inside to see what we could do about making other arrangements.
The airport was minuscule; I think the terminal was probably smaller than my house. This was not too surprising, since we could hardly believe they had found enough flat space in the hills to build a runway. Our flight was on Kingfisher, and the staff on duty at the desk were very helpful. They told us that the Shimla-Delhi flight (the one and only flight leaving Shimla each day) had been cancelled from March 8th-25th. Wait a sec, we left home more than a week after March 8th. Hadn’t we received a notification, asked the friendly agent? No, we hadn’t. Well, nothing to do but see what our options were.
We were originally supposed to arrive in Delhi by early afternoon, then head to the Old Delhi train station to catch our train to Kathgodam for our next destination further into the Himalayas. These were the train tickets I’d fought so hard to get, agonizing over our wait list status before we left home, and that we’d braved the Tourist Desk in the New Delhi station to confirm. There was no way we could drive back to Delhi in time to catch this train. Our best option was to get to the nearest airport in Chandigarh to catch the 4pm flight back to Delhi, then see if we could get on the later overnight train to Kathgodam. The drive to Chandigarh would take about 3-1/2 hours, so we had enough time to make the flight. After a brief huddle, Dan and I agreed that getting back to Delhi was our best bet, no matter what our next step ended up being. We booked our tickets from Chandigarh.
Despite the fact that the airport was closed, there was a driver hanging around and available to take us to Chandigarh. Our driver from the hotel stayed to make sure we were not left stranded, which was decent of him. I almost forgave him for nearly killing us several times over. And so we embarked on 3-1/2 more hours of harrowing mountain driving, this time with no working seatbelts. I think this ride took a year or two off my life. On the plus side, when I wasn’t white-knuckling the armrest or closing my eyes in sheer terror, it was incredibly scenic. We wound through tiny villages with people clustered around hand-pumped wells, down through amazingly picturesque valleys, and over wide rock-lined river beds. Most of the hillsides were cut into terraced gardens, with lush green crops just starting to come up. We noted many, many ads for cement companies on the walls and roll-up doors of village shops, even in the tiniest of hamlets.
As we descended a bit further past Kalka, and neared Chandigarh, the terrain leveled out a bit and the streets got wider. We got to see more urban scenes of markets and shops,with many cows and dogs roaming freely around. Women were carrying enormous cloth-wrapped bundles of twigs and wood on top of their heads. We passed many roadside stands selling fresh sugar cane juice, with heaps of cut sugar cane and shredded stalks on either side of fairly large mechanical presses. Our driver didn’t know quite where the airport was, but after asking a small boy selling cloth from car to car at a stop light, he was able to find it. With great relief, we got out of the cab, tipped the driver, and headed into the airport.
Our flight was short and mercifully uneventful. By 5:30 we were in Terminal 3 of Indira Ghandi International Airport and considering our next move. Our first thought was to get to the New Delhi station to see about getting tickets on the sleeper train to Kathgodam so we could continue on to Kausani the next day, in keeping with our original itinerary. We also considered skipping the trip into the Himalayas altogether, but this would have been a big disappointment to me, since getting to see some of this range was one of my major goals for the trip. However, at this point I was hardly keen on the prospect of getting on a train at 11 p.m., arriving in Kathgodam at 5 a.m. completely wrecked with exhaustion, and then facing another four hours of mountain driving to get to Kausani. Dan, bless him, was game to do this, but I just didn’t have it in me.
After a pause over a cup of tea and the guidebooks, I came up with an alternate plan to go to Mussoorie, another pretty hill town that was a bit more accessible than Kausani. We could catch a flight from Delhi to Dehra Dun, then it would be a much shorter car ride, about an hour and a half, to Mussoorie. We decided to do this, and headed up to the Kingfisher ticket counter to see about booking tickets. The agent at the counter was once again very helpful and got us on the next day’s flight up to Dehra Dun. He did express some doubt about the return flight, encouraging us to book the earliest of the three scheduled daily flights,’in case it didn’t go, so we would have options.’ By now, we had gotten a bit more savvy about the rather understated Indian style for communicating problems, and knew that this meant we’d better come up with a backup plan for getting back from Mussoorie. With our next step settled, we set about getting a taxi to the hotel we had booked, Shanti Home. This place got top marks in our Lonely Planet guides, but it was about three times the rate of most of the hotels we had been staying at. At this point, we were so traumatized by the day we had just had that we agreed it was worth it. We picked up a prepaid taxi from the stand outside the terminal, and had one final harrowing hour-long drive through Delhi rush hour traffic.
At the airport, I had declared that I wanted a soft bed, a hot shower, and a glass of wine, not necessarily in that order. I got all three at Shanti Home, along with terrific service and beautiful surroundings. We were greeted with marigold garlands, dabs of sandalwood paste on our foreheads, and glasses of fresh mango juice. We were also met with great sympathy by the night manager when we gave him a brief summary of our day’s journey. He told us that Kingfisher had been all over the news recently, due to serious financial difficulties, and appeared to be on the brink of collapse. They had recently laid off a large portion of their workforce and had cut back their flight schedules substantially. That shed some light on why we had gotten stranded in Shimla, and made it very clear we needed a Plan B for our return from Mussoorie. But, that was going to be tomorrow’a problem.
We headed up to the rooftop restaurant to have some dinner. I had a nice kofta in spinach gravy, some naan, and a very generously sized ‘personal’ bottle of white wine. Dan got some chicken tikka and a large bottle of Kingfisher beer. The roof terrace was a nice place to dine and relax, an oasis after a very long day.
After dinner, we went down to our room to shower and get some sleep. It was lovely, with a soft bed, a nice bathroom, and free wireless, which came in handy for sending email to our folks to let them know of our change in plans. The day had been so frightening that I was seriously tempted to call my mother just to tell her that I loved her, but I had the presence of mind to realize that she might not appreciate hearing about near-death travel experiences when I was still going to be abroad for two more weeks.
We were able to take our time getting ready in the morning since our flight to Dehra Dun didn’t depart until 2:40 p.m. I woke up before Dan, and spent some time checking out the train schedules online to see what might work for our return trip, and to start the process of getting a refund for our cancelled Shimla flight. After Dan got up we had a late breakfast on the terrace , then showered, packed up, and went down to settle our bill. The woman at the desk helped us book some train tickets from Dehra Dun back to Delhi, and since the India Rail site was predictably slow, we had time for a nice chat with a Nigerian couple who were also checking out. The midday ride back to the airport was mellower, and we got there with lots of time to spare. Happily, our flight was still on, so we checked in, got through security, and enjoyed the relative peace and quiet at the gate. During our short flight to Dehra Dun, our sweet and perfectly adorable flight attendant encouraged us to go to the nearby head of the Ganges and bathe in it to wash away our sins.
The Jolly Grant Airport (that really is its name) in Dehra Dun appeared to be even tinier than Shimla’s airport, and we paused there briefly after getting our bags to call around to some hotels to find a room. We were arriving a bit before the tourist season really began, so we had to make a few calls before finding a place. We chose the Hotel Kasmanda Place, which looked promising in the guidebook and had a very enthusiastic manager who took our call. We hit the prepaid taxi stand to find our ride to Mussoorie, and ended up with a not very talkative but smartly dressed older man as our driver. He had on purple and grey striped trousers, a glen plaid vest, and a burgundy and tan striped fedora. He was a rather impatient fellow, so our ride included lots of honking and attempts to pass on blind curves.
The exit from the airport was quite pretty, starting with a long, wide road through a sparse forest, opening up into a large area of rice paddies dotted with soft pastel buildings. As we got up into the city of Dehra Dun, the scenery changed to fairly prosperous market streets and lots of schools. Once we passed through the town, we began to climb, and the roads got narrower and more twisty. Much of the road up to Mussoorie was under construction. This gave us a close-up look at a lot of manual labor, especially hauling and mixing cement, and breaking rocks by hand with a sledgehammer in the hot sun. The construction made the already narrow roads very constrained indeed. For one stretch up to town, only one lane was open, so we got stuck in a traffic jam for a while. When we reached Gandhi Chowk in Mussoorie, the taxi driver handed us off to a porter and took off before we even had a chance to offer him a tip.
The porter was a tiny, wiry man, Nepali I think, who attached Dan’s bag to a strap that he put around his forehead, then put my bag on top of his head. We had to have a couple of guys help him to his feet. The two bags together must have weighed as much or more than he did. We were glad for his help, even though the walk up the hill to our hotel was fairly short. A driver from the hotel met us at the foot of the short but incredibly steep driveway up to Kasmanda Palace and took us the rest of the way. In the hotel, we were greeted with numerous and attentive staff, who showed us several rooms. We settled on a ‘royal’ room, bright and spacious, with incredibly tall ceilings and a cozy sitting area with a nice view into the Dun valley. By now it was after 8, and we were quite hungry and weary. We ate a decent though not spectacular dinner at the hotel’s Magnolia restaurant, and then settled into our room for the next few days of chilling out in Mussoorie.