Shimla: Rain and Why Expedia Sucks

Good morning everyone,

Shimla!  Finally!  We made it to the Himalayas safe and sound.  Entering Himachal Pradesh (the state that Shimla is in) we immediately began to climb the “foothills” of the Himalayas.  Foothills me arse!  The Yukon has nothing on these.  We climbed to 1000 m within the first 5 or 10 minutes and kept climbing from there.

By the time we reached Himachal Pradesh, the sun was beginning to set and we had 61 km of narrow, switchback NH (National Highway) 22 to climb, with traffic coming the other way.  It has also started to rain for the first time since my arrival in India.  The rain slowed some of the vehicles down but not many.  It was insane how fast the vehicles from Himachal Pradesh would go on those roads given that but for a few hundred metres here and there, the highway edges cliff faces.

How do I know they were Himachali cars?  Nice segue and good question.  License plates are are of the format NN XX N XXXX.  The N’s are letters and the X’s are numbers.  The first two letters tell you what state the car is registered in, the next two tell you which town in that state the car is registered in and the remainder make the plate unique.  The exceptions are Delhi and Chandigarh, both cities but both of which have their own plates as special administrative areas (Delhi being the capital of the country and Chandigarh being the capital of both Haryana state and Punjab state).  The states go something like:

PB , Punjab
UP, Uttar Pradesh
DL, Delhi
CH, Chandigarh
JK, Jammu and Kashmir
HP, Himachal Pradesh

The next number is (for Punjab)

01 for taxis and other carriage vehicles
02 for Amritsar
10 for Ludhiana

I haven’t yet figured out the rest of the numbers for Punjab.

As I write this, I am getting yet another look at what a geek I am!  Bwahahaha

Back to Shimla, which is also spelled Simla.

It did not take long for the dark, rainy roads to present another danger.  Cloud.  By the time we reached 1200 m off of the plains, we were in thick cloud cover.  The little sister thought it was fog and was amazed when we explained to her that we were in the clouds and not fog at all.  The cloud was very thick, slowing our drive substantially.  That didn’t stop the Himachali vehicles though – they still went too fast and even overtook other vehicles around blind curves (which is just about every curve on all 61 km to Shimla).

We told the driver that when we returned, we would return during the day time so that we could pull off on a few of the market stall areas to get pictures of the stunning valleyscapes and the mountains that we got glimpses of whenever the cloud let up.  Didn’t happen.  It rained the entire time except for about an hour in the early morning in Shimla.  Next trip.

This is the part where I tell you why Expedia sucks.  I had booked a room in advance at a nice hotel about 4 km from the centre of Shimla (which is spread out over 3 or 4 mountain ridges).  We got to the hotel and we were told that they had no rooms for us.  I told them I have a confirmation email from Expedia when they showed me a chain of emails between them and Expedia.  The first asked the hotel to confirm the reservation (several hours after I received a confirmation).  The hotel responded quickly telling them there are no rooms for the two nights I had reserved.  Expedia did not get back to them until about two hours before I arrived, asking them again to confirm the reservation.  The hotel email back, referring to their response 5 days previous, saying that there were no rooms.

The owner of the hotel helped me call Expedia (we couldn’t access the internet and the phone number at that time).  The guy who answered was worse than useless.  He asked the hotel owner to call around and find another room for us.  That is not the hotel owner’s job and the hotel owner was busy with other paying guests.  I took the phone and the guy asked me to call back.  I asked for a direct line and he gave me the 1-888 number.  I explained to him that this was not a direct line, that it was the main line and that I would have to explain the situation again, which I was not willing to do.  He claimed that at the Expedia call centre there are no direct lines (B.S.) and that he had no way to call me back on my mobile phone (more B.S.).  I told him that I would for sure call back to speak to his supervisor.  Suddenly, he had a way to call me back on my mobile phone.

He wasted 40 minutes of my time (and it was now very dark in Shimla) before patching me through to someone else with a heavy Texas drawl, who wasted 45 more minutes of my time.  Her greeting to me said “I understand the hotel overbooked.”  My response was “Quit lying to me.  You know and I know that Expedia screwed up.  I’ve read the emails.”  She actually told me that the hotel owner should know better than to respond to emails because it was too hard for Expedia to keep up with them.  WHAT THE FRACK?!?  Then why are you sending me a confirmation that is NOT confirmed?

45 minutes later she claims to have found another hotel, 24 some odd km from Shimla in a mountain valley with no road access when it snows.  It called for heavy snowfall that evening.  She then told me that was only 15 minutes away.  So she expected us to drive some 150 km/h to get to this place.  I asked her if she understood that we were in the same mountains that Mount Everest was in and that these are not rolling hills that we are driving in but seriously dangerous mountain roads.  She said “Google Maps says…” Oh my…

I finally get off the phone with her with a promise that I would have a voucher for travel for their error (did not appear in my email by the way) and before I ask the driver to risk our lives and limb getting to this “resort”, I found the phone number and called the resort.  No booking.  NO FREAKING BOOKING.  So they wanted a lot of cash for two rooms.  And now, no battery left on my phone.

Rather than call Expedia and have my head explode at their incompetence, I talked to the driver and we agreed to stop at the less seedy looking hotels along the way to the resort (maybe Expedia will have sorted it out by the time we get there) to see if they had rooms.  Enter Asia The Dawn Hotel.  It was a little seedy looking from the outside but only because it was having it’s tiny parking lot redone.  We go inside.  They had two rooms at 1/4 the price I paid to Expedia, hot water, internet, a restaurant in the hotel (we were starved by then) and a crew room for the driver.  Get the bags, we’re staying here!  And what a God-send!

The staff were great, the rooms were beautiful and adjoining so we could let the girls enjoy a room of their own with the door between them slightly open.  The showers were pristine with plenty of hot water, the beds so comfortable, the food in the restaurant was reasonably priced and so good.  Also the views?  Outstanding!!

So take that Expedia.  I don’t want your ridiculous travel voucher.  I will NEVER use you again.  This is the third bad experience I’ve had with you.  It was worth the stupid amount of money I paid for a hotel I never got just to be rid of you for good.

Anyway, back to Shimla.  Many of the pics are the views from the balcony below my room, in the hour or so that it wasn’t pouring rain.  The girls and I quickly made a plan for things to do given that it was likely to rain all day and turn to snow.  We decided to go into Old Simla and then to hike up to the Jakhu Temple at the highest peak overlooking the valley.  The Temple is a temple to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god and had an big red statute to Hanuman at the top of the peak.

After an awesome breakfast, we packed the bags into the car (we were not sure whether we would stay the night again given the weather or whether we would make our way into Chandigarh and continue to Anandpur Sahib from there).  The driver took us to the bottom of the lift to begin our hike up the mountain.

The lift.  Let me explain this thing because it is genius.  All of the roads in Simla are steep and switchbacked.  To get about 60 m in height requires walking up these steep roads, stairs and alleyways, for about 1 kilometre.  We had to get up about 300 m, or 5 kilometres or so worth of steep hiking.

I wasn’t bothered by that idea and neither was little sister.  But the cousin unit had never hiked before and the host unit has a bum leg and a slight limp that is exacerbated by climbing either up or down (i.e. she takes stairs one at a time, with both feet landing on the same step before moving to the next step).

The lift is a series of two elevators that take about 120 m total (2 kilometres of hiking) off the trip.  It costs 10 rupees each whether you use one elevator to get halfway up to some residences and hotels or both elevators to get all the way up to a market area.  We used both.

When we got to the top we bought some fresh fruit in the market, including kiwis, strawberries and bir.  Bir is a fruit that is sort of a cross between an apple and a pear and is very musky.  I hated it.  The girls really liked them though.

I also noticed a marijuana shop!  Yeap, in India where even smoking is not something that is done, a marijuana shop complete with hookas, marijuana, shisha tobacco… wow.  Also there was a food stall called Sher-E Punjab or Lion of Punjab (a reference to Maharaja Ranjit Singh who was one of the leaders of the Sikh Empire).

When we had climbed about another 30 m, the host unit’s leg was giving her problems and she was very tired.  We still had another 2.5 km of steep hiking to do but we found a small park to rest in.  We rested again 10 m up near a church when hawkers beset us.  We finally agreed to take a reasonably priced car tour to Kufri with the agreement that the same car would take us up the other side of the mountain to Jakhu Temple on our return.

Kufri is a winter playground, substantially higher than even Simla (at 2800m total for Kufri and 2100 for Simla).  So the little sister got her wish to see snow.  We also decided to take horses up to the peak at Kufri, so she got her first horseback ride as well.  I ride so they let me go on my own up the mountain on a horse that was a little less experienced so needed a rider who understood how to handle him.  A guide led the host unit and the girls were on horses trained to walk behind the horse that the host unit was on.  So all was good, until the freezing rain began about halfway up.  Then the wet snow.  Then more freezing rain.  What a mess but such fun.

It was thick cloud all the way up to the peak.  But there we found food stalls, yaks, places to go sliding and skiing.  Sliding and skiing were out because of the danger posed by the very low visibility, so we ate at the food stalls and enjoyed some chai to help us get warm again.  I got some pictures of the yaks for free (they wanted rupees to have people sit on the yaks for pictures but seriously?  No.)

Little sister was terrified of her horse because it sometimes walked very close to the cliff edge.  I explained to her that the horse was not going to do anything that would hurt itself (on purpose) and that it was trained to walk in a chain of horses, sometimes near the edge but it would not just walk off the side.  She was not comforted by that.  So on the way down, I rode another lead horse while the guide made a train of horses for the others, leading little sister down at the front of the train so that she could see that others were in control and everything was good.  She was going to walk, she was very intent on walking but she did it and we’re all really proud of her for conquering her fear like that.

When we got back to Simla, it was time to drive up to the Jakhu temple on even more narrow, steeper roads.  What we were told was 5 km from the base of the lift was actually more like 11 km, so we were very happy with the decision to take a car.

The entire way we had rain and then freezing rain and the red statue was in thick cloud so we got to the top but did bother climbing the last 10 m or so to the statue.  We would not have got decent pictures of it in any event and we were cold, tired and hungry.  So instead we had burgers (veg patties between a bun that only slightly resembles a burger) at the top, stood around the food stall’s fire and enjoyed the macaques pestering people for food.  On the next trip, hopefully we’ll have better weather for the trip up to the temple and we’ll try again.

At the end of the afternoon, we decided that since the weather forecast was worsening we would simply make our way back to Chandigarh, stay there overnight and travel to Anandpur Sahib and Chamkaur Sahib the next day.

I found a family sized room for the girls and the host unit, another room for me and a third for the driver, who by the time we descended back to the plains, was exhausted (but not complaining at all).  At the hotel, they were surprised that I would get a room for the driver but every third night is fair I think, for having a well rested driver.  Besides he had just driven through treacherous mountain roads and brought us out safely.  Given the number of accidents we saw and the number of memorials on the sides of those mountain roads, he deserved a proper room to rest in.

We stayed at the Best Western Maryland, which is so much nicer than any Best Western I’ve ever been in.  The staff were great (again) and the food was good (though not as good as the Asian The Dawn Hotel in Shimla).  The beds were so comfortable but the showers were slightly problematic in that only one worked properly.  The views as well left something to be desired after Shimla but it’s a hotel for people coming to Chandigarh on business so… other than that the hotel was great and very reasonably priced (again… Expedia you suck).

Despite the unexpected guest, the problems with Expedia, the weather and the hawkers, I would do this trip again in a heartbeat.  I would take a little more time though, maybe three or four days and really visit, hopefully in better weather so I can get pictures of how beautiful this place really is.

Next trip.  I’m already planning the next trip in my head you see.

Which reminds me.  I like this driver.  He’s safe and honest so I think maybe Agra and Jaipur are next on the list of road trips to take… or maybe Varanasi and Bhodgaya?  We’ll see.  He won’t go to Srinagar but I’ll wait for warmer weather for that part of the trip anyway.

Until next time, when we’ll visit Chamkaur Sahib and talk more about the food here…

Peace and love all,
– Himmatpreet

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