Saturday, 20 August 2016

Ladakh- Jullay from Mumbai

Ladakh had been a dream destination of mine for a long while. I finally got to make the trip about a month ago.

Ladakh is a serene, beautiful and almost unspoiled region. It is not a place to have wild parties- Leh city shuts at around 9-10 pm and barely any alcohol can be found anywhere. However, it is the perfect place to disconnect from the world and recharge. Phone connectivity is patchy (or non-existent in a lot of areas) and there is no internet on your phone (though some places have wifi).

Ladakh is famous for its trekking and river rafting. We were however recovering from a few hectic weeks (and are by nature lazy travelers) and hence, decided to drive around.

The first thing that you notice when you get out of Leh is that the mountains change colours. I saw pink mountains, orange mountains, green, blue and what we jokingly called tiger stipped hills. You drive along Indus river which was in full flow in August. Yaks graze in fields near the river and you can see some campers here and there.

On the way

The way to Tso Moriri is through the highest civil motorable pass in the world - Khardung La (though the claim is said to be disputes, the locals claim it is the highest pass). I was lucky enough that it snowed a day before I left for Tso Moriri. Making snowballs at 18,000 feet while the wind blows in your face was an unbelievable experience.
Snowballs at 18,000 feet

The lakes

Tso Moriri and Pangong Tso both are beautiful blue lakes surrounded by mountains. Pangong Tso was made famous of "Three Idiots" and hence, tends to be more crowed. Once you move away from the "Three Idiots" spot, you have the lake almost entirely to yourself.

The perfect way to spend an evening at a lake in Ladakh is to take a walk, find a rock and watch the sunset- which is what we did. We also got to watch an impromptu game of cricket at 10,000 feet.

Sunset at Tso Moriri

Pangong Tso
The camels

After having been to Tso Moriri already, I did not find Nubra valley very impressive. The drive itself was beautiful and we saw some pretty monasteries on the way.

However, as soon as I was ready to write-off the trip to Nubra, we saw a small desert with silver sand and the famous double humped camels which are not found anywhere else. A ride on the camel in Nubra valley is substantially expensive compare to a similar ride in Rajasthan, but perhaps the only extraordinary element of this place.

The sangam

A few kms out of Leh is the valley where Indus meets Zanskar river. The valley is beautiful and the distinct colours of the two rivers can be seen very clearly. It is also the hot spot for river rafting.
The sangam
Food and culture 

Ladakhi culture is substantially influenced by the Tibetan culture. While the food has become quite cosmopolitan due to tourism, you can see Tibetan influence in form of butter tea, momos, thukpas etc. Yak cheese and local berries are unique to this region and definitely worth trying.

I was in Ladakh only for ten days and could not see or do everything I wanted to. I don't know when, but I will be back- this time to with a bike to drive off the beaten track.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The days spent in the Blue City- Jodhpur

I recently did a trip of Rajasthan and Jodhpur turned out to be my favourite place. I will write about Jaipur and Jaisalmer some other day, but today is about Jodhpur. 

Old Jodhpur city is all about blue houses, havelis and dusty street. Majority of the houses are still painted blue, streets are narrow and traffic is insane. However, you can see the Mehrangarh fort from the terrace of almost all of these houses. There are of course newer parts of the city which are much better organised and developed. However, we mostly stuck to the old city.

Mehrangarh fort is the biggest attraction in the city and is an absolutely stunning example of Rajputana architecture. Mehrangarh, in the local language, means the "fort of the sun". It was originally built during the time of Rao Jodha, who established the city of Jodhpur after moving his capital from Mandore. Most of the structure that stands now was completed by the time of Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Marwar. It has a number of beautifully built palaces and like all other Rajasthani forts, a separate janana for the queens.

Mehrangarh Fort

Takhat Vilas, Meharangarh fort
The fort museum also holds a collection of artifacts, such as palenquins, armours, cannons and paintings from the Rajputana times. 

Close to the fort is Jaswant Thada, a memorial built for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II. The main memorial building is a beautiful marble structure. Since then, it has serves as the burial group for the rulers of Marwar and has a number of small marble cenotaphs. 

Entrance to Jaswant Thada

Main cenotaph, Jaswant Thada
Mandore, the old capital of Rao Jodha, is not visited much by tourist these days. However, remnants of the old fort are still there. Mandore Garden, a part of the old fort which contains various temple-like structures, built as memorials of Marwar kings. Most of these temples contain to idols and are built of red stones. While the garden looks a little worn-out, Mandore is a trip worth making on any given day. The drive to Mandore itself is beautiful and goes through a protected area. We saw a number of local animals and birds, including peacocks during the drive. 

Mandore Garden

Jodhpur is a brilliant city to shop. Sardar market is a great place to start with. Other than local artifacts and clothing, Jodhpur is famous for its antiques.  

The fun of shopping for antiques is in hunting. There are a number of antique shops in Jodhpur, pretty much one in every corner in and around Sardar market. A number of these shops carry fake but cheap antiques. If you are looking for real antiques, you will need to be very careful while browsing in these shops. Bargaining hard is recommended highly. Alternatively, there are a number of Rajasthan government showrooms in Jodhpur for antiques and artifacts.

Jodhpur is also a great place to eat. All sort of local cuisine can be found in various restaurants here. I would definitely recommend a dinner of Laal Maans (a Rajasthani mutton preparation) and Kair Sangri (a dish of desert beans) at Indique which has a brilliant view of the fort. Rajasthani thali at Gypsy and lunch at Balsamnad at Umaid Bhavan are also quite good.  

The only kill-joy in Jodhpur is public transport. If you do not have your own vehicle, taking taxis or auto-rickshaws to travel around the city can turn out to be expensive (much more expensive than Mumbai). It has nothing to do with the distance but the monopoly of the drivers. We found it easier and more cost efficient to hire a taxi or an auto for the entire day of duration through your hotel.

Enjoy your trip, bargain hard and try not to kill your auto-rickshaw driver.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Solo living/traveling for the first time

I have been recommending living alone or travelling alone to almost everyone for last some time. I learnt, not in an exactly subtle way, that it can change you as a person.

I have not lived at home for more than a decade and a half. I have wandered around the country for this long, first for studies and then for my job. Living away, without your parents, causes you to grow up fast. And yet, I don't think I grew up and understood myself till I landed in firangland (London to be precise) for 4 months in 2014 and realised that I hardly knew a soul there.

I moved to London for a secondment. Before that, wherever I had lived, there was extended family or a structured system of college and hostel or just friends. I had always traveled with friends or family. In London however, I knew some people - old friends that I had not met in years and looked forward to meeting. There was work, well structured system, good mentors and nice colleagues. Again some new, some I knew from before. And there was also a sense of immense loneliness. 

I had left my home, friends and hubby behind and first few days in a new office are always boring. I missed the cats. 

I felt lost for a while, and then slowly, one day at a time, I found myself.   

Since there wasn't always someone to join me, I traveled alone. First I went to the well known places (being an Indian girl and having been taught to tread carefully everywhere) and then I went to the not so well-known. I spent days walking in the parks and colourful markets of London and discovering.

I realised I was not shy.
I learnt that I liked crazy jewelry, food from almost everywhere, wine and cheese and street art. 

I made new friends who knew nothing about old me and never bothered suggesting that I should not do something, or that a thing or act is so unlike me. Without the preconceived notions of who I should be and what I should behave like, I learnt to go with the flow and just whatever pleased me. I lived for myself and learnt to be alone without being lonely.

Beyond that, I learnt to love myself, all over again. Hence, travel alone, live alone, at least once when no once can check on you or suggest that you should not do something or not be somewhere. 

Be new. Live a little again.

How I reached Tawang

This post has been in the making for a long while. I did a road trip to Tawang close to an year ago (in August, 2015) and never got around writing about it.

First off, August is not a great time to visit Arunachal. It pours heavily, making it almost impossible to travel by road. However, I was supposed to go to Dibrugarh for a family function and decided to take a chance. Our luck held and the weather did co-operate for the duration of our trip (heard it started pouring just after we left). 

We set off early morning from Dibrugarh via Tejpur to Tawang. It is almost a 17 hours drive which we decided to break in parts. We did the return journey in one stretch and would not recommend doing it.

The drive takes you through Kaziranga National Park which would make a great stop for at least a couple of days. Though the national park was shut, we had a great time driving along the greenery and even happened to see some one horned Rhinoceroses lazying in the sun. As I said, our luck was holding up!
Rhino spotted!
Entry point from Assam to Arunachal is Bhalukpong where you need to show your inner line permit (ILP) for entry into Arunachal. ILP can be obtained at Arunachal tourism officers in Delhi, Guwahati, Kolkata, Dibrugarh and a couple of other places and gives you access to most of the parts of Arunachal. However, to go to areas which are closer to the China border, you need to get a protected area permit which you can get in Tawang.

We stopped for the day at Bomdilla, a small sleepy town with a beautiful monastery. We stayed the night at the monastery guest house and woke-up to the view of the Himalayas. The monastery itself is quite big and schools a number of monks-in-training. Watching the naughty kids prepare for their exams would never lead you to believe that they would one day become calm and adult monks!
Bomdilla Monstery
We drove from Bomdilla to Tawang the next morning and spent a couple of days in Tawang. On the way, we saw snow-peaked mountains, red rivers and beautiful waterfalls. 

Somewhere along the way
Tawang is a well travelled area and tourist spots are quite well know. You will not want to miss spending time at Sela Pass (the highest motorable road in the world), Tawang monatery, Nuranang waterfalls, Ptso lake, Jaswant Garh war memorial etc. 

Just after Sela Pass

Nuranang waterfall

I will not go into the entire trip and every place we went to, or stopped at, but would suggest a few things in general. 

Arunachal is stunning and a little rough. You do not have places to stay every few KMs, nor are the roads the best. You will need to brave the cold, the fog and sometimes, the rain (braving the rain probably is not the brightest idea, since you know, hills and all). Hence, plan your trip, know that you have to get to a certain town by the nightfall in order to find a place to stay. Amenities are usually limited, but people are great and maggi and momos are plentiful. We stayed at this small place called Dolma cottage in Tawang where we had warm soupy noodles for dinner and woke up to the view of Himalayas. 

Beyond that, be flexible. You don't have to reach that one tourist destination in the next 10 minutes and spend only 30 minutes there. Stop and admire if something catches your attention. Stop and admire because the world hasn't felt this green or this cold in a while. Stop and admire just to remember the feeling of being there.   

I left Tawang close to an year ago, and I am not done admiring it yet. 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Snippets of Darjeeling

I made my maiden voyage into Darjeeling in May 2015 with S and some of her friends who soon became my friends. We left Kolkata in the night by train and reached New Jalpaiguri early in the morning.

You can either book a taxi or take a shared taxi to Darjeeling from NJP. The shared taxi costs around Rs. 200 per person. We received a number of offers for transport at lower rates, each of which turned out to be a scam. They offered to take us to Darjeeling for a lesser amount if we hire their transport service for our travel in and around Darjeeling. A quick calculation suggested that it would be cheaper to take the standard shared taxi and to hire a taxi for travelling  inside Darjeeling once we get there.

The drive up was a beautiful introduction to Darjeeling. We drove through hills, watching the toy train go by. We could not travel in the toy train in this trip because of lack of time. Lack of time was something that I felt multiple times during the trip. Darjeeling is a city that needs to be seen at its own pace, with time to stop, smell, taste and savour it. The next time I go, I will pace myself.

Anyway, I reached Darjeeling around late afternoon and checked into Pineridge Hotel. It is an old colonial building right at Mall Road with big rooms, great view and a haunted feeling. There are big mirrors on the staircases and big balconies on each floor which give the place an eerie feeling in the night. It also has a lovely restaurant called Foodsteps that serves great waffles and pork sausages. If fact, I would recommend a breakfast here over the more commonly known places such as Keventer's and Glenary's.  However, the hotel needs some TLC. In one of the rooms, the carpet was slightly burnt while in the other room, charging points were not working.
Pineridge hotel
Since S had been to Darjeeling before, we took her recommendation and had lunch at Dekeling which is famous for its thukpa. Lightly spiced egg thukpa was perfect for the cold afternoon though their momos were just about okay. Before we left Darjeeling, we found the perfect momos at Kunga, which is next door to Dekeling.

We spent the rest of the day just walking around Mall Road and beyond. Darjeeling was cold, full of clouds and a welcome break from the heat of Bombay. I could feel the clouds walking by us.

Clouds in Darjeeling
As I mentioned earlier, we were short of time in this trip and therefore, hired a taxi to take us around Darjeeling and Ghum in one day. Since we wanted to see the sunrise at Tiger Hill, the day started at 3 a.m. On a clear day, the sunrise at Tiger Hill is stunning and you can see the first rays of sun falling on Kanchenjunga. If you are lucky, you can even see Mount Everest. It was about 4.30 am when we reached Tiger Hill. The crowd and the energy at Tiger Hill was surprising for that time of the day. However, because of the clouds, we got to see glimpses of the sunrise but not much else.

On the way back to Darjeeling, we stopped at the Ghum monastery. It has beautiful paintings on the wall. However, after having seen the lavish Buddhist temples at Bodhgaya since childhood, the monastery failed to make much of an impact at me. The quiet and peace inside the monastery was was destroyed by flashes of cameras and tourists who do not know the concept of keeping quiet in a monastery.

Batasia loop however was a pleasant surprise. Famous for the beautiful view from the toy train, it also has a beautiful park which was in full bloom.

Flowers at Batasia Loop
Darjeeling has a long list of places to visit and things to do. A walk through the tea gardens, view of the city from the rope-way and para-gliding (which we did not do) are some to be mentioned. It was full of clouds which obscured the hills around us but also gave a beautiful feeling of walking through the clouds. Three places that stayed in my memory are the Japanese temple/ pagoda, the Victoria waterfall and the Darjeeling zoo

The Japanese temple/pagoda is beautiful, peaceful and extends its acceptance to everyone. We reached the temple during their prayers and were invited to join them. While I am not a very spiritual person, the energy inside the temple was very calm.
Japanese Pagoda
Victoria waterfall provides a beautiful viewpoint from the top. The walk to the top is fun, especially if you stop at the waterfall to get wet. We did and thoroughly enjoyed it. Rocks under the water were a little slippery but nothing dangerous. Water at the bottom of the waterfall is generally clean though could do with a bit of help. The tourists have been throwing water bottles and other garbage in the water and the water may become very polluted in the next few years. Has anyone wondered why a large number of Indian tourists visit a place because its clean and unpolluted and immediately start polluting it?
Victoria Waterfall
View from the top of Victoria waterfall

The biggest adventure of the day was the Dajreeling zoo. We saw a royal bengal tiger, a bear, a black panther, a jackal, various types of leopards, Himalayan wolves, yaks, snakes, birds and numerous other animals. On the top of the list however is the red panda. These furry, red, cute beings are just perfect to visit on a cold Darjeeling day.

Bear and Red Panda at the Darjeeling zoo
Darjeeling is also a heaven for shopping. Apart from the standard tea and woollens, we saw lovely pieces of art, silk scarves, jewellery or other nick-knacks. S found a beautiful antique snuff-box at throw-away prices (which, if she ever reads this, I am willing to steal or buy any time).

We returned to Kolkata via bus from Siliguri. While waiting for the bus, someone at the stop suddenly screamed "earthquake" and everyone ran outside. I am as yet not sure, if there was an earthquake or not.

P.S.- Never take a bus from Siliguri to Kolkata. When I did, I did not know that instead of the promised 11 hours, it always takes 17 hours to finish the journey. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Memoirs of Kerala- Part 3 (Varkala and Trivandrum)

We continued our journey through Kerala and reached Varkala one late afternoon. Varkala is a small town with a beautiful beach right next the cliffs.

The first thing we noticed was the heli-pad right in the middle of town (being used as a taxi stand at that moment). The second thing that we noticed was the beach.

We stayed at the Varkala Marine Palace. The hotel has everything going for it. It is located on the cliffs overlooking the beach and has beautiful wooden cottages. The room had a very ethnic and slightly antique feeling to it and had a bed big enough to swim. 

After spending a week in beautiful, but conservative Kerala, Varkala was a bliss. The presence of a lot of foreigners gives it a feel of Goa and freedom. The locales are used to people sitting on the beach and getting in the water. In fact, this was the only beach in Kerala where I felt comfortable getting down to my beach clothes and getting in the water.

The first day however we just walked on the beach since it was already late in the evening. The water is cold and very clean. Small crabs and other sea animals come out to the beach once its cold and we had make sure that we don't step on any, or for that matter, get bitten by a crab. 

We decided to have dinner at Varkala Marine Palace's restaurant and never regretted it. The restaurant is right at the beach, have a lovely view and serve beautifully prepared seafood in local flavours. A cat decided to join us for dinner every day. By the time we headed to the bed, we were fully relaxed and super happy. 

The next day we headed to the busy parts of the cliffs which are dotted with lots of restaurants, shops and hotels. It is like a mini Goa. We tried the food at Clafouti Beach Resort for lunch. While I don't remember the details of the lunch, both Avi and I agreed that I was good.

In the evening, we walked back to the cliffs to watch the sunset. The beauty of the sun setting into the sea has somehow never ceased to amaze me. 

After a week of travelling and running around, we spent our days reading books on the beach, walking on the beach or the cliffs or just eating at the Varkala Marine Palace's restaurant. If you want a peaceful and beautiful place to destress, Varkala would me my first choice. We loved Varkala so much that we extended our stay by a couple of days.

Leaving Varkala late meant that our schedule for Trivandrum was slightly messed. We could not go to the Trivandrum Zoo and a couple of other places because they were closed and decided to enjoy the beaches instead.

We stayed at the Travancore Heritage, a seaside resort with lush greens. Since we were staying on the upper side of the resort, we had to take a lift through coconut trees to get to the beach. Even in the heat of Trivandrum, beach was perfect. The water was clean, blue and the most beautiful that I had ever seen, before Cambodia.

 We spent one evening at the Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam. It is supremely crowded, perhaps due to being the most famous tourist spot in the city. The view from the lighthouse was quite good and so was the sunset. However, the crowd and noise take away from the place.

All in all though, beautiful glimpses of Kerala. We bid adieu to Kerala the next day with some really fond memories.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Memoirs of Kerala- Part 2 (Cochin and Alleppey)

I had left Munnar in 2010 with a promise to come back and made good on it in 2012. Since we had seen some of the hills already, Avi and I chose the beaches and the backwaters this time. We had planned to go to Cochin, Alleppey, Varkala and return via Trivandrum. It was our first holiday since we started working and we were super excited.

We landed in Cochin in a balmy August morning and headed to Cherai beach which is 30 kms from Cochin. The drive from the airport to Cherai was beautiful as we crossed the backwaters and saw fishermen casting their nets.

We were staying at the Cherai beach resort which is perfectly located with the beach on one side and the backwaters on the other. Thus my first introduction to the beautiful Kerala backwaters was sitting on a hammock outside our cottage. We stayed in a fisherman villa, modeled after Kerala style tribal houses. It was a different feeling from a standard hotel room where we stay often enough.

Cherai beach is beautiful, clean and not very touristy. It is a perfect place to spend an evening at after a day of hectic travel. However, Kerala is a conservative state and therefore, unlike Goa, it is not always possible to swim in the beaches.

After relaxing a bit, we chalked out our plan for the next few days in Cochin. One the next day, we headed to Fort Kochi. The promenade makes for a great walk. The Chinese fishing nets at Fort Kochi are said to be a beautiful sight though I was not very impressed by them. We walked from Fort Kochi to Santa Cruz Basilica and St. Francis church. Santa Cruz Basilica is built in old Portuguese style and is famous for its stain-glass work and paintings.

If you are a history buff, do visit St. Francis church as Vasco Da Gama was buried there for 14 years. It also contains artefacts and relics including candlesticks, banners, chalices etc crafted in European style which give a glimpse into the history of Cochin.

The next day we headed to Athirappilly and Vazhachal waterfalls which are approximately 60 kms from Cochin. Athirappilly waterfall originates from Anamudi mountains from the height of 25 meters. The drive up to the hills is beautiful. It got cooler as we got to closer to the waterfall. After buying the entrance tickets, we walked through the forest to get to the top of the Athirappilly waterfall. We could hear birds on our way to the waterfall and enjoy the fresh air. The waterfall feels massive and the roaring sound appears to call you to nature. The forest is supposed to be great for trekking though we were not geared for it on that day.

A small pathway from the entrance leads to the base of the waterfall where you suddenly get and idea of the height and size of the waterfall. The rocks are uneven and slippery though it is worth getting closer to the waterfall as the sound of water is mesmerising. Due to high current, we did not get into the water though a number of enthusiastic souls did try.

Small restaurants near the waterfalls serve local delicacies such as beef roast and chicken stew. We had a lunch of beef roast and Kerala parathas before heading back to our hotel.

The next day we headed to Alleppey in a cab. Like always, I fell asleep during the drive and woke up only when we arrived. We stayed at Citrus resort which is cut off from the mainland by the backwaters and can be reached by ferries run by the hotel. The resort was beautiful. with open green areas. We watched boathouses pass by and locals catching their daily meal in the backwaters. The next day we took a boat on the backwaters and went through a route of canals, trees and greens.

However, I did not really enjoy Alleppey much. The backwaters are good for a couple of hours but after that it is an endless maze of water. The natural beauty has been destroyed by the developments around the backwaters- for the longest while you see just a series of hotels or houses. The water is also not very clean.

We also visited Alappuzha beach. The water is clean but the beach has no life of its own. It was awfully quite and the scenery was not great either. We walked across to Indian coffee house for some snacks as there are not too many places to eat near the beach. Unlike our experience of the coffee house in Kolkata, this was not very great.

In general, if you are planning a Kerala trip, I would recommend not spending more than one day in Alleppey.

More on Varkala and Trivandrum later!