Thanks to the lousy day we had yesterday, we have been trying to escape mentally to the mountains. If you know us, we feel ourselves at home in the mountains. 2021 has been difficult for all of us but we have managed to cope on most of the days. However, occasionally, like yesterday, it gets tough.
As we process our thoughts, we seek solace in travelling back through memories. Why we dreamt of the mountains when inundated with sad emotions is something that made us curious. We narrowed down to 10 reasons why we love the mountains so much.
The mountains were a part of our childhoods, from road trips on the winding roads of Nepal to scaling gravity defying inclines in Darjeeling to trying yak cheese in Gangtok. As young adults, we remember freezing in the chilly winds of Chail & viewing surreal sights in the Scottish Highlands.
Our honeymoon was in Italy, but the standout memory is of viewing the Alps as we flew from Paris to Venice. We are lucky to have visited some amazing places & will continue to make more such memories.
We are not keen on adventure sports, but walking & hiking are a part of us. When a hike takes us to a vantage spot, the adrenaline rush is exceptional. We get drunk by that sense of achievement. Physically we may say ‘no more’ but in our hearts, we know we will do it again.
Oh dear! This is triggering a major nostalgia. Mountain food is dainty! We always opt for the local cuisine & have seldom been disappointed. The steaming thukpa of the Tibetan – influence regions to the rajma – chawal (Indian style kidney beans with rice) of the lower Himalayas, we have always had a plethora of options when we visit the mountains.
& how can we not mention the freshly baked goods of hill stations which were home to British colonists!
When we have stood on the top of a mountain, freedom has been our dominant emotion. For those of us who live in the Indian plains, the warm Sun on our cheeks is welcome for a change. As we inhale the fresh air, with every breath, we exhale the word ‘freedom’.
There can be much to do in the mountains but there is always an option to relax. We love the fact that there is no pressure to dress up & complete a checklist of sights to see. There have been mountain trips when we have just lazed in the gardens of our accommodations, looked at the sky change colours, & listened to the birds chirp.
The pace of life for the locals is easy-going too & that can be infectious!
For those of us who live in Delhi NCR, the Himalayas are our chance of awesome panoramas. There is no better way to escape reality in our opinion. When we are in the mountains for a break, we are in awe of life every single day.
If dramatic scenes do not make us believe in the beauty of life, we doubt anything else can.
OMG! We could write pages on this. We have met such beautiful people in the mountains. Their life outlook is different from ours & something to take inspiration from. They know the value of life & they do not take anything for granted.
We cannot forget the ladies we met in Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh – the friendliest people we have ever come across.
Be it any season, the mountains remain extraordinary. The breeze of spring, the rivers of summer, the yellowing leaves of autumn, the bone chilling cold of winter – each season has a distinctive vibe & must be experienced.
Our appetite for the mountains has taken us to impressive places – high altitude deserts of Ladakh, lush green hills of Satpura, rainfed forests of Western Ghats, umpteen hamlets of Himachal, warm hospitality of Bhutan, birds of Uttarakhand, Rift Valley of Kenya, safety of Sikkim, rice fields & volcanos of Bali, spooky Scottish Highlands, Great Wall in China, mountainous island of Kauai, undulating streets of Hong Kong, breath-taking valleys of Kashmir, cable car rides of Langkawi, vineyards of Chianti, Blue Mountains of Australia…
To each of these places, we have said, ‘we will be back’ & we do dream of returning but we also realise life is too short to keep seeing the same places. So, we continue to revisit these places in our hearts!
Every day we dream of the mountains. Every day we envisage our forever home in the mountains. This becomes more pronounced in the summer when we feel ourselves melting under the Sun. & also in winter because the very thought of snow surrounding us is delicious (even if inconvenient).
We do not know if & when our forever mountain home will materialise but that does not stop us from daydreaming.
It may take a while, but we will be back in the mountains at the first safe opportunity. Breathe in that fresh air & make those memories again. Till then, we are staying home, staying safe, & hope you are too!
We had been to Jodhpur earlier but never together. When we were drawing up our itinerary for the Rajasthan road trip, we knew we had to include the blue city. It was our third destination.
We left our Udaipur home stay after breakfast. Our first halt was Ranakpur (94 KMS from Udaipur). You can read about our visit to this Jain temple village here. Post lunch, we continued towards Jodhpur. Udaipur to Jodhpur was close to 250 KMS. Google Maps insisted we take a state highway which was a mix of good & bad.
While Ranakpur was a planned halt, Pali (99 KMS from Ranakpur) turned out to be an impromptu one. On a whim, we stopped at the Bullet Baba Temple. We promise to write a super short blog post on this separately. For now, let us continue onto Jodhpur.
The First Evening
We were at our hotel in Jodhpur (72 KMS from Pali) by evening. A cup of tea & stretch of legs later, we were out dining. Zomato recommended Khaas Bagh to us for dinner.
The first word that struck us was ‘heritage’. Khaas Bagh is built incorporating Colonial, Indo, & Islamic architectural styles. A heritage property, the haveli is decorated with European & Indian art objects, paintings & wall pieces.
It was refurbished to bring back its stunning architecture. Its USP – a large collection of British – Raj vintage cars. What our dreams are made of… The garden restaurant overlooks the regal structure & the cars on display.
We settled down to a romantic dinner with mellow lights & heaters to give us company. Despite the restaurant being full, there was never any disturbance. Service was great. Of all the dishes we had, Brooke Swan’s Bailey’s Ice Cream & Travancore’s Pepper Chicken Rasam, were outstanding!
It was a great place to have a candlelit dinner. One that we will remember forever. The restaurant can seem to be expensive, but it is worth it. After the delectable meal, we toured the grands, oohing & aahing at the dazzling cars.
Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth, Rolls Royce & more. Alluring colors. Robust builds. Intriguing details. Splendor. After visiting Khaas Bagh, we were left fully convinced that it deserved the high ratings it had! Ample parking available.
THE NEXT DAY
Fresh after a restful night, we were ready to explore Jodhpur. After breakfast, we were picked up by a Jodhpur Village Safari driver/ guide & jeep. After the safari, the vehicle dropped us to Gypsy Restaurant.
We had an hour to spare before we headed to Mehrangarh Fort. We used this time to return to our hotel by Uber & take a nap! Mehrangarh in the evening was followed by a sundowner at Indique.
We had done a last-minute booking but luckily got it. Our driver/ guide first took us to the Guda Bishnoiyan where we met a Bishnoi family, saw their traditional house, & participated in their opium ceremony.
At the ceremony, our guide first showed us all the ingredients that go into making an opium drink. The head of the household then brewed an opium water. He is ~100, our guide said, & yet, he has no ailments. They credited it to regular opium consumption.
We expected to swing as soon as we sipped the opium drink. But, sadly, nothing of the sort happened. It just felt like bitter water! However, we would never criticize a hospitality gesture.
We knew the Bishnois are animal lovers because of the black buck – Salman Khan episode. Our guide told us more stories about their love for animals. The lady of the house was known for breastfeeding orphan fawn in her younger days. This is a common practice now with Bishnoi women.
Also, the Bishnoi filter their water at least twice before putting the cooking pot on the fire. This is so that tiny bugs can escape into the red earth.
Two young girls were sitting behind the old couple. Our hearts fluttered to know that both attended school & to see that they were studying.
We then headed out to see wildlife & weren’t disappointed – peacocks, antelopes, demoiselle cranes, green winged teals, black winged stilts, chinkaras, green bee eaters, red-Wattled lapwings, chousinghas, black bucks, Eurasian collared doves, & Indian rollers.
Antelopes peeped out from the undergrowth, as curious about us as we were about them. There were herds of playful but shy deer. We watched them bound behind the shrubs. Alarmed by the sound of our vehicle, the deer leapt for cover. It was a sight to see them leap high in the air & cover wide distances in one go.
Blackbucks proved to be shyer. While we briefly glimpsed a couple behind the bushes/ in the distance, our guide scouted the area thoroughly to get us a good sighting. The male blackbuck is gorgeous!
The white fur on the chin & around the eyes makes for a striking contrast with the overall black color!! Not just for the Bishnoi, the black buck has significance for many Hindus. In many villages in India, and even Nepal, villagers do not harm the antelope.
Jodhpur has not been considered a traditional bird watching spot, but we were grateful to see many bird varieties. Within the Guda Bishnoi village, a manmade lake has been created to provide water for black bucks & migratory birds.
As Marwar cools down in winter, migratory birds make their way here, with their numbers increasing each year. We were thrilled to spot Demoiselle Cranes. It is estimated that more than 5,000 demoiselle cranes migrate to India in a season.
With such deep love from the Bishnoi community, it is but natural that animals & birds have no qualms in living freely in this area. It respects cows & deer the most & protects them from hunters.
Apart from being animal lovers, Bishnois are also environmentalists. In the 1700s, many of them laid down their lives by hugging trees to stop them being felled by the Jodhpur Maharaja’s army!
The concern the Bishnoi have for the environment is way above normal – almost Godly. As we left the lake, we spotted a melange of colors formed by flowers, sand, sky, & almost barren trees. David Hockney said well, “I prefer living in color.”
Once we had had our fill of fauna, our guide dropped us to Gypsy Restaurant for lunch. If traditions and/ or wildlife interest you, this safari is highly recommended.
Gypsy came highly recommended. It has two sections – downstairs is a fast food restaurant while upstairs is the thali place. The thali is famous here. The restaurant was fully occupied but due to the quick nature of thali service, we did not have to wait much.
Once served, the number of items stumped us. The tastes tickled our taste buds. Every dish was delicious, be it Ker Sangri Ki Sabzi or Hari Mirchi Ka Achaar or Daal Baati.
All that food had to be worked off! What better than sightseeing?! As we pulled into the Mehrangarh Fort parking, its grandeur made our jaws drop for the second time. For more than five centuries, the Fort has been the headquarters of the senior branch of the Rajput clan known as Rathore.
We could see why Rao Jodha (the founder of Jodhpur & the one who commissioned the Mehrangarh Fort) chose this site to build a new fort. Spread over 5 KMS. Isolated rock. Higher elevation. Better natural defenses.
A 500 yards long, 120 feet high & 70 feet thick delight. We bought tickets to view the Mehrangarh Fort inclusive of the elevator. There are two ways to explore it – you start climbing on foot or you take the elevator up & then make your way down on foot.
At the entrance, frescoes depicting Hindu gods caught our attention. From the top, we saw a panoramic view of Jodhpur. It seemed a blue carpet was laid at the foot of a hill. The ramparts house preserved old cannons. Our imagination made us think of them booming to safeguard from enemies. But legend says the canons never had to be used in conflict.
Up the stairs from Suraj Pol, we came to the Shangar Chowk (Coronation Courtyard). Apart from Rao Jodha, all other Jodhpur rulers have been crowned here. The Shringar Chowki at the Shangar Chowk makes for a pretty picture with its marble, peacock armrests, & gilded elephants.
The Fort interiors are a visual delight. Dancing Room, Toran & Maud, Elephant Howdah, Phool Mahal, King’s Howdah, ceilings that look like carpets, Sheesh Mahal, & Moti Mahal. The Moti Mahal Chowk is especially noteworthy for the 18th century apartments around it.
We mused how visiting forts always seems like homecoming to us. At the Jhanki Mahal, we got reminded of our love for latticed windows & of the purdah system. Jaalis & small windows allowed the women to observe the proceedings without being seen themselves.
Rao Jodha brought goddess Chamunda Devi idol from Mandore. Since then, the Chamunda Devi Mandir holds significance for the locals. As we moved to other parts of the Mehrangarh Fort, we saw vermilion palm prints on a few walls. These are jauhar prints imprinted by princesses & queens who committed ‘jauhar’ for their husbands.
The Fort is aptly called the Citadel of the Sun. Much has been written about it; it is, after all, impressive. Do not rush your visit at the Mehrangarh Fort. There is a lot of walking & climbing involved; so, wear comfortable shoes.
Good idea to hire a guide so that you understand the place well. (We always hire a guide but this time, we did not. & we still regret it.) Apparently, there is a night tour of the Mehrangarh Fort too. If we return, it will be for the night tour.
From the Fort top, we spotted the Jaswant Thada in the distance. We could see how sunlight illuminated this monument. A beauty of Rajputana & Mughal fusion architecture! We missed Jaswant Thada on this trip. Hope to return to Jodhpur to see it.
We also saw the Umaid Bhawan Palace from the Mehrangarh Fort. Another of those ridiculously – priced hotels we will not have the heart of staying in. But, perched on Chittar Hill, we are sure the hotel offers views of the blue city & the sand dunes!
Indique was an open-air museum. View of the setting sun, Mehrangarh Fort, Ghanta Ghar, Jaswant Thada, Gulab Sagar, city lights… The mix of Rajasthani food with exotic beverages in a stately ambiance claimed our hearts.
If sundown were so picturesque, we could imagine the gastronomical experience under the moon. However, the service disappointed us a bit. The servers seemed to prefer foreigners over Indians. Indique will be an indulgent affair if they can reduce their bias.
The Gulab Sagar was built as a water storage replacing an old Bawdi. As dusk turned to twilight, the tranquil Sagar underwent a color change too! What a fabulous sight!
We had spotted the Ghanta Ghar from the Mehrangarh Fort. It is a Jodhpur landmark, has a market by its name, but is also an architectural delight. After Indique, we walked up to the Ghanta Ghar which was lit up in a burst of colors.
A market that dates back centuries, everything that is sold here is exquisite. After all, it is made with unparalleled energy & time devotion. Most of the shopkeepers have been in this for generations. Have a chat with these simple people but also do not hesitate to bargain if you buy anything.
We did not buy anything but loved roaming around in Sardar Market.
Janta Sweet Home
We always prefer street food over fancy cuisines. To relish Jodhpur’s famous street food, we made our way to Janta Sweet Home. Walking in the old city lanes helped us in building an appetite. We hogged on Mirchi Vada, Onion Kachori, Rabri Ghevar & Samosa.
A Mirchi Vada is a thick, less spicy green pepper stuffed with tangy potato stuffing, dipped in a gram flour batter & deep fried until crispy. An Onion Kachori is a whole meal. While Ghevar is famous during festivals, a Rabri Ghevar on a regular day can transport you to another plane. & Samosa, there is absolutely no need to say anything about this snack!
Just writing about this meal makes us salivate…
The Last Morning
It was time to head to our next destination but only after a hearty breakfast at our hotel & a hot cup of tea at the famous Bhati Tea Stall! Even in the early morning hours, the small stall was crowded.
It seemed the locals were quite fond of the place too, not just for the tea but also for the gossip. The parking was on the road itself. We had masala chai & it was delicious! There seemed to be a few food items available too, but we did not try those.
After two home stays, Ratan Vilas was practically luxury. The most lavish hotel of our entire road-trip. This architectural beauty was built in 1920. It is beautifully made with ample parking, outdoor seating in its restaurant, & a swimming pool.
Our room was nothing short of grand. It had a pool view along with its own balcony seating. It was tastefully furnished & had portraits of the royalty as decor. The bathroom was worth seeing. We truly felt regal.
The surroundings of Ratan Vilas were quiet. We had our breakfasts at the hotel. The food was delicious. The buffet breakfast had a good spread. The service was spot-on. Because of the intensive sightseeing we were doing, we could not enjoy the hotel fully; hope to return to just relax here.
(“I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.”)
We have been drawn towards Buddhism for a long time now. As we visited places like Bhutan, Ladakh & Spiti, we came to know more about Gautama Buddha & His teachings. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse further increased our fascination.
In a world of extremes, we find Buddhism to be a balanced religion. The basic premise of ‘looking within’ & ‘introspecting’ appeals to us. It was, thus, only natural for us to visit Sarnath on our travel to Varanasi.
After spending a couple of days in Banaras, we hired a cab to take us to Sarnath. We had a flight to catch later in the evening; so, we wanted to utilize the few hours we had in an effective manner.
Sarnath is located ~10 KMS from Varanasi. It is the place where Buddha first taught the Dharma. Thus, it is an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists. After the chaos of Varanasi, Sarnath is a sea of peace.
Once you reach the deer park, most of the sightseeing spots are at a walking distance of each other. Engage a guide in Sarnath who can brief you on its history.
We started our Sarnath sightseeing at the Archaeological Museum. You need to buy a ticket from across the road. There is a locker room to deposit all your things, including cellphone.
In the museum, there are stunning artifacts dug up from excavations. Fine Buddhist art is housed. You can see the Asoka Pillar as well as a Buddha sculpture where He sits with eyes downcast, and with a halo around His head.
The Asoka Pillar is, of course, from where the Indian National Emblem is adopted. Four Indian Lions sit back to back on a circular base; a Horse on the left, the Asoka Chakra in the center, and a Bull on the right on the base.
If, like us, you are a history aficionado, you will love the Archaeological Museum. It houses figures from Gupta, Kushana & Mauryan periods.
Chinese Buddhist Temple
Our next stop was the Chinese Buddhist Temple. It is located a little away from the other sightseeing spots. The temple is beautifully painted in red and yellow in the Chinese architectural style. You can see Chinese lanterns hanging on the walls. The surroundings are calm.
The outer wall has a painting depicting the route taken by Huein Tsang to come to India. Interestingly, the land on which the Chinese Buddhist Temple stands used to be a mangrove. You can see a lot of Chinese/ Japanese pilgrims/ tourists here.
The huge campus is a delight for history & heritage lovers. The Dhamek Stupa was built in 500 CE to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath. It is a thick, solid & tall cylinder of bricks and stone. The wall of the Dhamek Stupa is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds.
Legend has it that if you manage to fling a white prayer cloth atop the stupa, your wishes will be fulfilled. While it may seem impossible to passersby, there are lads here who do that for a fee.
Apart from the main structure, there are innumerable small but significant ones. The Asoka pillar with an edict engraved on it stands nearby. The excavations do not even seem to be complete & yet, the magnitude stuns you.
Mulagandha Kuti Vihara
The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a monastery & temple surrounded by gardens. It is enshrined with Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics. The Buddhist architecture is worth gaping at, specially the frescoes. The frescoes depict scenes from Buddha’s life & are quite pretty. There is, thus, little doubt why Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a tourist attraction.
You can hear the chants which bring about serenity. The well-maintained precincts are lined with Buddhist prayer flags. You can do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree. Legend has it that this tree is a descendant of the tree under which Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment.
As we were short on time, our Sarnath visit was for just half-a-day. But, if you are a history buff or are spiritual, you can spend days here.
Continuing from Chapter 5, the last stop of the day beckoned – the Rumtek Monastery. This is an important shrine for Buddhists as it’s the seat-in-exile of the Kagyu Karmapa. However, as there’s controversy around the 17th Karmapa, the monastery’s currently under the Indo- Tibetan Border Police to prevent any sectarian violence. Don’t forget to carry your identity card as you’ll not be allowed in without it.
Now a funny bit happened – the monastery underwhelmed me. I’d expected more grandeur from one so famous. Back at the hotel, I looked up the monastery on Google. I found something different to what I saw. I became glum, thinking I’d not seen the actual monastery, perhaps seen the outer wing & now I can’t even go back. But then I looked at the pictures closely. I realized that the open-air courtyard that I saw in the photos was currently covered with tarpaulin for the two-month long Kangyur Oral Transmission. & that’s why it looked different. Attention to detail madam!
But what is worth gaping at here are the lifelike frescoes. Walls after walls are lined with beautiful, vivid paintings from Buddhist mythology. I wondered at the preservation effort that would have gone into this. And for someone as inartistic as I’m, the frescoes were an epitome of creativity and finesse.
A word of caution about Rumtek Monastery though – it’s a long climb to get there. Vehicles are prohibited. Therefore, ensure you really have the willingness to visit the monastery; else you may feel cheated.
I loved the monks & nuns there. They were the embodiment of happiness & contentment. Easy with their smiles & eager to pose – they were any photographer’s delight. But do ask before clicking!
By the end of this, I was exhausted & desperately wanted my bed. I’d an early start the next day too, to catch my flight from Bagdogra. I wanted to attempt the Kanchenjunga again & hoped the clouds would give way. My wishes were to come true.
When we started the next morning, the clouds parted just enough for me to capture the peak. I thanked the Almighty. Subconsciously, I’ve begun to be grateful for my blessings. I strive to see the positive in everything.
I dreaded returning to Delhi NCR because of the pollution there but I knew I’d to go back to be able to step out again. I love the Himalayas; Sikkim, with its cleanliness, discipline, simplicity & friendliness, appealed a lot to me. I can’t wait to return there for a longer trip. & I’m pleased as punch that the new airport is opening soon in Pakyong which will make Sikkim more accessible. So long Sikkim! You were good to this solo woman traveler.
To end the blog, for the women hesitating to take that solo trip, my top tips:
If it’s your first trip or if you’re anxious, go with a travel agency who’ll take care of all your needs. Even among those, opt for the bigger names; credibility will be a nonissue then.
Choose an easy destination to begin with. Don’t make it Ladakh or Spiti at the first instance. These are difficult terrains & going in company (or at least if you’re a seasoned traveler) will be better. Ensure mobile connectivity isn’t a concern; the last thing you would want’s you being stranded & your folks worried to death.
Don’t hesitate to demand changes to the itinerary, flights, hotels, cabs, transfers etc. if you’re spending money on it, it better be according to your taste.
Enjoy your alone time. Don’t feel awkward in sightseeing alone, eating alone etc. the world’s becoming more receptive to solo travelers.
Ensure you stay alert at all times even when you’re having fun. Trust your instinct! At the same time, don’t hesitate to talk to locals.
Prepare yourself for surprised remarks. My cabbie, KN, remarked “Madam ji, you’re a brave girl. You’ve done something that only boys do!”