When I came back home from our trip to Himachal Pradesh State of India, I have been mostly asked two questions. One was about the food, and another one was about my experience being stuck in Shimla during heavy snowfall. So before I’m telling you about food and the rest of the trip, and before I share with you the recipes of delicious Gyathuk and Grilled Trout; let me tell you about our crazy experience in Shimla. Now, make a cup of coffee and get cozy because this post is quite a story.
We reached Shimla around 5.30pm after a long excruciating bus ride from Manali. As soon as we stepped out of the bus, I had a second thought about this trip. First of all, I told Sadik to skip Shimla in the first place because everyone warned me about the crowds and the traffic here. Also, it’s not an apple season. All trees were dried and sad. Sadik insisted that we made it our last stop because he wanted to ride a toy train to Kalka and then take an express train to Delhi. Since our family is running on Democracy, we let Yaseen decide whether we should add Shimla in our itinerary or not. And as I suspected, the word “toy” in “toy train” persuaded him to take Sadik’s side.
I was cranky. The air was dusty, and the car honking took over the mountains. I didn’t like this kind of busy atmosphere. Now we’re on a taxi from the bus station to our hotel which was only 5km away. The traffic made it seemed like 20km. The taxi moved like a snail, and my body was aching. I gave up being sour about the trip, sinking in the seat and realizing that I should just enjoy the moment.
At 6 pm, we’re still in the taxi, and it started to hail. It was crazy. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the tiny pellets of ice started falling on the road. They spluttered on the roof of the taxi, hitting the windows and side rear views. Ice water was also raining down from the dark sky. A solid sheet of ice started to plaster on the windshield, and the driver kept wiping it off with his handkerchief. Rain and hail slowly turned into snow, and the driver told us that this was the first snow of Shimla this season.
The sky was now brilliant black. White flakes of snow were falling down persistently. We got closer to the hotel, and we could see hundreds of colorful dots of light blinking on the other side of the mountain. It was like we had discovered a pirate’s hidden treasure. Yaseen said it looked like Tokyo. I preferred to think of it like the mountain bleeding out jewelries.
The taxi dropped us at the Tourist Lift of Shimla. Okay, Sadik already told me that our hotel, Bridge View Regency, wasn’t accessible by car. I knew that. But I didn’t realize that we had to use the public lift to get to it. The snow became really fierce as we hurried toward the lift. There were two long lines in front of the elevators, and after 15 minutes of waiting, we rode it up the hill.
The lift led us up to Mall Road of Shimla, and our hotel was slightly opposite to it. We took another elevator up to the reception and checked in. I remembered three of us broke out laughing as soon as we were left in the privacy of our room. What just happened? The lift thing was one of the strangest experiences we had ever come across. There is nothing like it in other cities that we have been to. Anyway, the boys were super excited. Actually, I was, too, but I didn’t want to admit that Sadik was right about coming here. It snowed more than any other places we had been, and the fall was getting stronger every minute. “It’s kind of beautiful”, I secretly whispered.
We went down to Mall Road for a nice dinner. The strong snow somehow swept us inside a gorgeous restaurant, Café Sol, where we had Mexican and Italian food. To be honest, we’re looking for something traditional and local, but in the weather like that, we couldn’t venture far from the hotel.
The food was amazing, and we were really happy. I finally agreed that Shimla was worth visiting despite the crowds and the traffic. We went back to the hotel which was nice and warm. It was the warmest room we’d ever gotten in this trip. The floor wasn’t cold, and the bathroom was really toasty for some reason. I was glad. We slept early because we’re heading home tomorrow in a toy train.
I woke up at 6 and started packing. I reminded the boys that our train was at 10.30 so we should leave right after breakfast. As the boys were stretching in the bed, I thought I would go for a small walk by myself in a huge balcony of the hotel. But as I made it across the hallway, I saw the desert of snow. The balcony was covered in a few feet of snow. The fluffy white flakes pile up of the tables, chairs and everywhere. The whole town was white, and the sky didn’t seem to be done with this town just yet.
I walked back to the room and told the boys that they would scream if they saw the outside. From here, it was where everything went downhill.
The hotel informed us that the road was now shut until the Cutter came to clear the two feet snow off the road. Since there was no taxi in service, we were suggested to walk to the train station which was about 1.5km away from the hotel. There were rumors circulating in the town saying that the train was cancelled and the road would remain shut for days in this condition. We got kind of worried so we made some calls to our airline and hotel in Delhi to inform them about our situation. Our calls didn’t get through so we kept trying. We also called Indian Railway Helpline to check on our train status, and we were told that everything was on schedule. Our only and biggest concern was to trek through the blizzard for 1.5 km on the road covered with two feet snow to the train station. We needed to dress well.
After breakfast, we put on thick layers of clothes and checked out of the hotel. Luckily, the public lifts weren’t crowded right now so we made it down to the main road pretty quickly. We hurried along the route. Our feet sank deep in the dirty snow and ice water. There were hundreds of people on the road like us, making their ways to the train station and bus station. Yaseen fell down many times, but we pulled him up, trying our best to get to the station as fast as we could.
The snowfall was getting stronger and stronger as we trekked down to the train tracks. There were fewer people here, and the trail wasn’t quite wet and muddy. Fresh snow covered the tracks, and it was quite pleasant to walk on, except when you stepped on the metal slaps, you slipped and fell. Carefully, we made it to the train station, and we were so happy to see a train ready to leave. People were already packed in the compartments, and the engine was on and warming up. It wasn’t our train. The next one would be our turn. We sat on the bench and waited patiently, keeping warm and getting ready to go home.
An hour passed by, the first train hadn’t left the station. It snowed heavily so there’s going to be a delay, we understood. So we waited. Then, Yaseen complained that his feet hurt, and he was shivering. I pulled out the blanket and covered him. Meanwhile, we tried to contact our airline, but we couldn’t get in touch with them. The snow continued to fall harder.
Two hours passed, the station master announced the cancellation of all trains. Everybody was shocked. Now, what? The road was blocked, too, so no taxi and no bus either. The snow made it impossible to leave the station, and we wouldn’t go out without a solid plan. Dozens of families and hundreds of tourists like us were stranded. Yaseen was shivering really bad so I held him tight in my arms while Sadik went to find a way to get us out of Shimla.
There were so many assumptions, rumors and plans spreading in this paralyzed, frozen town. Someone told us we could trek to the bus station, and the buses might be running. Nobody knew for sure. Someone said there was no way out, and we would be stuck for days. Some people told us that the train might be leaving in the afternoon which we’re counting on. I suggested that we waited in the train station while Sadik went out to look for a taxi or anything, even a horse, to get us to Delhi somehow. Meanwhile, Yaseen was struggling with the freezing temperature. We had to find some place warm.
Yaseen and I went inside a waiting room of the train station which was nice and warm, but it was already packed. We sat on the floor in front of the restroom. A nice lady offered us some newspapers to sit on. Gladly, Yaseen felt better right away in that room. Everyone here was in the same situation. Our trains got cancelled, and there was no way out of town. There were families, teenagers, kids, senior citizens, and every walk of life. We just waited there and hoped that our train would reschedule in a couple of hours.
Sadik was still out looking for a taxi and any updates really. Yaseen and I sat in that small, warm room. Every 30 minutes, Sadik would come back to check on us and give us snack and water. Yaseen took out some sheets of paper and crayons from his backpack, and then he started drawing something. From then, it seemed like he forgot about everything. He was humming songs and drawing stuff, and he didn’t care about the weather and the fact that we might be stuck here for a long while.
Here was one of the most frequent asked questions I got about this trip: Was I scared or panic? The fact is it was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced recently, but I was certainly not scared. Someone once told me “You should not be scared when your feet are still on the ground.” I believed that we still had control over the situation. My feet weren’t in the air or under water. We should be fine. The worst that could happen was we got to extend our vacation for a couple of days. That didn’t sound so bad at all. My only worry in this entire experience was my kid’s health. My heart sank when I saw him shiver and when my hug couldn’t make him feel better. Now that he was all right and humming songs, I was totally ready for anything.
Now you might want to know why we didn’t just go back to the hotel. The answer is it wasn’t that easy, and everything was so uncertain at that point. The hotels in Shimla were full. No rooms were available as per our enquiry. And even if we got a room, the idea of walking back to the hotel in the muddy, snow-covered road didn’t seem fun this time.
While we’re waiting in the room, a group of teenagers decided to trek to the bus station in the roaring blizzard. We asked them for their phone numbers so we could call them for the updates once they reached there. (Update: The bus services didn’t operate that day. They got stuck in the bus station.)
I also managed to contact my airline through twitter. They’re helpful, and they helped us clear our ticket. At this point, a lot of people saw our updates on social media, and people started sending messages. Then, my phone was about to die.
At 3.00pm, the station master informed us that the train wouldn’t be leaving at all and the station would be closed by six. He couldn’t keep the station opened to accommodate the passengers due to security reason. Sadik held us up from the cold floor and told us that we’re going back to the same hotel. Somehow he had managed to get us a room for tonight. We said goodbye to our fellow travelers in the room and headed out of the station.
Sadik hired a gentleman to carry our backpacks to the hotel so it would be easier for us to walk through the snow. The man suggested we took Mall Road. The Tourism Lift might be packed, and ice water had clogged the main road. The man was really old, but he took our backpacks and led us up to the hill. He was fast, and we hurried after him in the harsh snowfall. I was out of breath. But this walk was much better than the one we did in the morning.
We reached the hotel, and we got the same room. How excellent! Problems? There was no electricity and internet connection. At least the room was warm, and we found out later that it was warm because we’re next to the kitchen. My phone was dead. There was no hot water. However, I was glad that the room was really comfortable.
We had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Moti Mahal. It was buffet, and I ate a lot because we basically only had potato chips and cookies all day. At night, the generator started so we got electricity. I charged my phone and went to bed.
I woke up at 7 the next morning. It stopped snowing, but the town was still white. There was no water because the pipe was frozen. I suggested Sadik going to get a bucket of snow because I had to go to the bathroom real bad. Yaseen suggested that we could squeeze the water from our socks and collect it in the bucket instead. That was kind of funny. Anyway, before we got any more creative ideas, the hotel managed to get the water running again. Sadik went to check on the main road which now had cars slowly moved between the lines of people walking. It was a good sign. We could leave today.
After breakfast, we had to trek to the bus station 5km away from the hotel. At this point, our shoes were wet so we had to put plastic bags between our shoes and our socks. We didn’t use the lift this time because walking through Mall Road was much nicer than the main road. Actually, we enjoyed it a little too much that we were on the verge of postponing the trip for another day.
Walking through town in the morning made us realize how fierce the nature force can be. The snow knocked down branches and trees. It crushed electrical poles. The soft white flakes froze many businesses and services here. We saw the trees fell onto cars and properties. We heard about people stuck in rooms without electricity, water and food. I immediately felt humble, and in fact, I appreciated this experience better because in spite of all these everybody was okay.
Mall Road joins the main road just before the train station. There were a lot of people walking between the slow moving cars on the partially melted snow-covered path. It was chaotic and quite scary actually. I was worried that the cars would slip and hit us.
We took a shortcut through the forest because we didn’t want to stay on the main road. People warned us that this trail could be dangerous, but we didn’t have any choice. We carefully made our way down the mountain, and I did enjoy walking on this route. In the end, it took us over 2.5 hours from the hotel to the bus station.
At the bus station, we wanted to hire a taxi to Delhi, but we found out that the price had hiked up way too high. So we took a bus. Oh my God, this bus! The bus took us from Shimla to Chandigarh. During the 6 hours ride, I wish I could walk instead. It was packed, and I couldn’t breathe. We only had two seats so Yaseen was sitting on my lap. He kept falling off my legs, and I got really tired and dizzy. Then, he moved to sit with Sadik which helped me feel a lot better.
So, guys, the rest of the travel went without hassle so I will leave the rest of the story in the series of the Himalayas Trip posts and videos. This is only one side of the story, the chaos and the drama of our Shimla Experience, but I also want to show you the other side of it which is beautiful and exciting. I take this experience as an adventure. We rarely take a risk so an opportunity to face this kind of challenge is considered a gift from nature.
We met a lot of people along the way. The people in the railway station, the people at the bus station, the people in the bus, the people at the hotel, the people on the road, and the local community in Shimla who was working to get the town back on its feet. I loved seeing that. We admired seeing the kindness and unity that gradually and instinctually blossom in the time of need.