On Sunday my learned colleague Rob & I elected to get the hell out of Shimla and see some of the surrounding countryside. To wit, we forked over the hefty sum of 1125 Rupees each (about 12 pounds) and hired ourselves a 4WD, driver and tour guide for the day, and set off to the mystically named Narkandar, and from there to Hatu Peak.

Even though it's only 64km from Shimla, the drive took us about 3 and a half hours, for a variety of reasons – partially due to congested traffic getting out of Shimla, which in turn is due to the narrow hillside roads. Once we hit the open road however the reality of Himalayan transit kicked in, and it becomes quite obvious that you can't just get from point to point as the crow flies – there's all kinds of twists, turns, switchbacks, uphills, downhills, blind corners (none of these seemed to slow our driver down), and the like. Further to that there are non-geographical obstructions such as patches of sharply rocked unsealed roads, roadworks, cattle… it's a bit of a wonder anyone ever gets anywhere in this country.

One moderately concerning factor I'd thought of before coming here was the proximity of Himachal Pradesh (the state which Shimla is capital of) to the hotly contested and often terrorised Jammu & Kashmir province – they're located adjacent, and for a person who's lived in peacetime their entire lives I tend to get a little wary of centres of explosive and violent activity. Looking at the terrain however it's quite apparent that were anyone from Kashmir decide for whatever reason to start something in Shimla they'd have quite a hefty trek ahead of them. QUITE hefty indeed.

During the drive we climbed from 2400m above mean sea level (Shimla's elevation) to our eventual highpoint on Hatu Peak, 3400m ! I suspect this is the highest I've been so far, and from up that high you can see for MIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILES ! We were extremely fortunate to have a non foggy, non hazy day, and we could see all the way to what I describe as the “proper” Himalayas – them big ones off in the distance that have snow on them all the time and peaks poking up into the clouds. We stayed up there for ages staring at them – things like that command a genuine sense of wonderment in me, and kind of elicit a mix of feelings: awe, insignificance (a bit like the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchiker's Guide books), admiration (for people who pioneered the area, and adventurers like Hillary, who made their way through this region without the ease of roads), and an overarching sense of “Whoa, holy shit !” in general.

Lamentably, my camera suck major donkey arse, and my photos weren't so good, but luckily Rob had a slightly better model and I was able to get some shots more reminiscent of the reality of it. If only we'd had a polarising filter.

We're toying with the idea of going to Shali Peak this weekend, because that one will involve some walking – we understood the Hatu Peak trip to involve some trekking, however it turned out to be one big adventurous taxi ride. I'm not 100% convinced I'll go though, as the course is getting bloody intense, and we're gearing up for an exam on Monday.

Oh and finally, on the way back we popped in to Jahku Temple – the “Monkey Temple” devoted to Lord Hanuman here in Shimla. I understood the monkeys to be more numerous there than they were, however the ones we did see weren't at all shy, and didn't mind rummaging around in some girls' handbags that we saw. Amazing stuff.

As I had very little idea what I was looking at, and I was starting to get a headache from what I presume to be the rarefied air up in the peaks, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves rather than trying to explain them.

Monkey piss everywhere.

2006-10-18 : From the mezzanine of the world