Mashobra

& Beyond To Chail, Fagu, Kufri & Theog

March is that time of the year when the bitter cold has ended but the merciless Delhi Sun is still at least a month away. Being the winter lovers that we are, we wanted to hold back a slice of the frost & this made us think of Himachal Pradesh over the 2019 Holi long weekend. Mashobra had been on our radar for ages. So, why not?

Not a marked trail. Finding our own path. Guessing which turns to take…

We took the Shatabdi to Chandigarh. After road, train is our preferred transport mode. From Delhi, places like Ajmer, Bhopal, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh, & Uttarakhand get good connectivity.

It took us barely four hours to reach Chandigarh. We had booked a MyChoize self-drive from Chandigarh. Over the last couple of years, our best discovery & adoption have been of self-drive car rentals in India.

Rather than abandoning destinations because they are too far or because they do not have proper connectivity or rather than depending on local taxis, this is a much better alternative.

MyChoize self-drive car in magical, snowy Theog!

We have tried many self-drive service providers till now but MyChoize & Revv have come up tops among all. The company guy delivered the car to us at the Chandigarh railway station, checked our papers, completed the formalities & handed over the car to us. The entire process would have taken 15 minutes at most.

We then drove from Chandigarh from Mashobra halting at HPTDC The Pinewood, Barog for lunch. The hotel was on the highway with ample parking available. It had a nice garden. The building was reminiscent of the British Raj.

It was drizzling which added to the ambience. The Chicken Masala & Mutton Biryani were delectable & adequate in portion.

Step out for a walk through a forest trail…

We then continued to Mashobra. We had booked Khanabadosh for our stay; more on it later.

The First Evening

It was evening by the time we reached. As we were in a village called Purani Koti in Mashobra, there was not much to do once the Sun set. Moreover, we had had an early start to the day; so, we were happy to lounge in the cosy living room of our home-stay.

Our kind of place!

We had not expected the chill to hit us; so, we were happy to sit next to a blower & sip on warm tea. Geetika, the friendly owner of Khanabadosh had kept her home & hearth warm. Blankets, blowers & shawls strewn here & there helped us ward off the chill.

We scoured the well-stocked library to find something suitable to read. A house with books is a house we love! Geetika gave us company in the evening. We chatted away until the real owners turned up – Sultan & Gabbar. Being dog lovers, we were pleased as punch to greet the two Golden Retrievers.

The evening culminated in a dainty dinner served by the warm Kalam Singh, fondly called Pen Singh.

Fascinating bit about mountains – difference in temperature between Sun & shade

The First Full Day

The cold did not go away in the morning but became bearable. We stepped out of the warm cottage gingerly. The garden was full of colorful flowers, a Buddha statue & knickknacks. A wreath donned the front door. Christmas feels!

Geetika shared with us the concept of Khanabadosh. It is a wandering house. Every three years, she packs up her bags & moves to a new destination. Our dream life… Sigh!

Weeping Willows have been a part of our childhoods, thanks to them featuring in umpteen stories. We’d a vague image of a willow in our minds… Finally a chance to see it!

We basked in the Sun while cuddling with the two pooches but soon managed to tear ourselves away from them & stepped out for a walk. There are umpteen forest trails near Khanabadosh but be ready to huff & puff.

Those who know us know well that we’re dog people. These two gentle giants were absolutely cuddly…

We chose a trail that took us through an unforgettable pine forest. It was not really marked; more of finding our own paths & guessing which turns to take. Clearings in the forests brought spectacular vistas which made the huffing & puffing worthwhile.

We spotted a blue sky, a cat, birds, children playing cricket, lots of greenery, our first Weeping Willow, village folks at work, & wildflowers! We have heard people ask – “What’s there to do in the mountains?” We agree. The whole point of mountains is you do nothing; just surrender yourself to nature…

Happiness is… A blue sky!

On turning back, we opted for the road instead of the forest trail. Purani Koti was exactly our kind of place! Few people, more animals… But we are cognizant of the problems remote areas bring.

It is easy to get enchanted as a sightseer, but different to live there!

After the tiring walk, we recharged our batteries with an expedition to Fagu & Theog. We drove on till Theog, turned back & halted at Fagu for lunch. We were first surprised, then thrilled to see snow on the mountainsides in March – end!

Opt for roads through forests…

Charles Dickens has captured March well – “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” Anyhow, the snow transformed Fagu into a magical world.

The crisp spring air did us good. We stopped at HPTDC The Apple Blossom, Fagu for tea. It had an excellent location & ample parking. The hotel gave a ~360-degree view of the Himalayas.

An expedition to Fagu & Theog

While we waited for tea, we walked around taking in the snowy sights. The tea was good too! We chose to have lunch at a roadside kiosk & returned to Khanabadosh for more doggo love!

King of this jungle! It watched us curiously for a while & then stealthily moved away…

The Second Full Day

For a change, we woke up to see the sunrise. Purani Koti was yet to come to life but little birds were up & about. The feathered creatures were proving the saying ‘The early bird catches the worm’.

Sultan & Gabbar had stirred too & were off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

These little ones were up & about even before sunrise.

Later in the day, we headed to Chail. Kufri, as usual, was a mess. Dirty & overcrowded! We still do not understand what fun tourists derive from riding mules!

Once we crossed Kufri, we began to spot the snow-capped Himalayas. This mountain range has been our source of happiness for decades. Every time we visit the Himalayas, we understand better how people become spiritually enlightened here.

Our first stop was HPTDC The Chail Palace – a childhood favorite! The humble Palace holds its charm. The green lawn outside is a perfect spot for tea while sunbathing. The opulent interiors are full of artifacts of the bygone era. Time travel!

Time travel!

We had Hot Buttered Rum in the Royal Bar followed by lunch at the palace restaurant. The Fruit Cream & Saag Mutton were appetizing. The service was great. Lunch time is crowded as day visitors drop in. Plan your day/ time accordingly.

In the past, we have stayed in the Maharani Suite & in the log huts. The Maharani Suite, of course, was exceptional. We would love to return for another stay.

Our next stop was the Chail Cricket Ground. It is the highest cricket ground in the world, but we doubt regular matches are played here. It is inside a cantonment area; you’ve to fill in your details in a register to enter. & the moment you step inside the cantonment, smooth roads appear. The Cricket Ground, unfortunately, can be seen only from its gate.

Just so you know we’re not fibbing!
Rhododendron – synonymous with Himalayas…

On our way back to Mashobra, we spotted snowy peaks & rhododendrons. The Himalayas are our happy place! The drive to Theog & Chail had been appealing. Soulful music added to the allure!

The Last Morning

Morning scenes made our hearts grow fonder of Mashobra. Sultan came up to say a sad goodbye while Gabbar showed his anger by keeping his back towards us. I so miss these beautiful doggies… Sadly, Sultan died this February. Now, Bruce Lee gives company to Gabbar.

Wildflowers… Enid Blyton books would be full of their mention.

We drove back to Chandigarh stopping at Falcon Cafe Lounge, Panchkula for lunch. The lounge had a relaxed vibe. There was a birthday party going on but because it was a separate area, it did not trouble us.

The Arabic Hummus Chicken Sandwich, Juicy Chicken Burger, Paan Ice cream & The Great Chocolate Shake were good. The service was great too.

At the Chandigarh Railway Station, we returned our MyChoize vehicle & caught the Shatabdi to come back to Delhi NCR.

Maybe it was spring, maybe it was winter. If the weather hadn’t confused me enough already, the trees complicated the matter further…

Accommodation

When researching accommodation options for Mashobra, we were torn between Khanabadosh & Mahasu House. The latter was tried & tested by friends, & highly recommended, but the former had doggies! That clinched the deal for us.

Being frequent travelers, Khanabadosh was out of our budget, but Geetika was generous & gave us a discount; we adjusted some too. We knew then that we had made the right choice as things started falling in place.

Bird lovers, please help identify. Is it a Brown Thrasher?

All our interaction took place on email. Geetika was prompt & clear in her answers. She kept in touch with us till the day we traveled. On our actual travel day, we used Google Maps without any hassle to reach Khanabadosh.

Geetika’s home was a ground + 2 expansive yet cosy building made of stones, reminding you of the English countryside mansions you read about in childhood. A quick tour, a warm chai, & scores of conversations quickly made us feel at ease.

Of course, we were dying to meet the pooches – Gabbar & Sultan. What affectionate rascals they turned out to be! Gabbar, the naughty one, kept us regaled throughout with its antics. While Sultan taught us the meaning of love all over again.

Bird feeders! Geetika has made her home welcome not just for people, but for animals & birds too.

Over the next couple of days, Geetika gave us great ideas on where to go & what to eat.

Our post would be incomplete without a mention of Kalam Singh – the pocket-sized dynamite who fed us till we exploded, & still had a long face we did not eat enough. Isn’t that the feeling you’ve at home? Not for a moment we felt we were in a stranger’s house.

Nothing we say about Kalam Singh’s culinary skills (or managing skills) would do justice. We hogged on parathas, omelettes, chicken, fish, & myriad kinds of vegetables.

Sultan & Gabbar off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

If you like bird watching, you can keep an eye out in the garden of Khanabadosh around sunrise. We saw many little feathered creatures. The decor was outstanding. Geetika has painstakingly collected artifacts from her travels. These gave a richness to her home without ever seeming ‘too much’.

Shawls were kept here & there if you suddenly felt a chill. A bowl full of chocolates at the door ensured we gained a few pounds, as if Kalam Singh’s food were not enough.

Our room was comfortable with enough blankets & a heater. Khanabadosh is a home-stay in the truest sense. It is Geetika’s home & she has opened it to strangers. Moreover, Khanabadosh welcomes animals & birds too. Yes, it is pet-friendly!

Feathered things proving the saying – The early bird catches the worm.

We cannot wait to visit Khanabadosh again at its new location.

Tips For Visiting

  1. Chandigarh to Mashobra is 122 KMS & took us ~five hours with stopovers.
  2. Mashobra is barely 10 KMS away from Shimla yet has a completely different character. Instead of staying in the bustling Shimla city, make Mashobra your base. You can easily visit Chail, Fagu, Naldera, Shimla, Shoghi & Theog from here.
  3. Mashobra is a sleepy little town. Please do not expect ‘touristy’ activities here. Instead, expect a lot of calm & nature.
  4. If you like hiking/ walking & bird watching, then Mashobra is the place for you.
  5. Mashobra gets snowfall in winter. For the winter chill & snowy magic, go from October to March. But even during the rest of the year, the weather is pleasant.
  6. Mashobra can be reached via –
    1. Jubbarhatti airport, Shimla
    1. Kalka Railway Station
    1. Shimla bus stand
    1. Well connected by National Highway 5
  7. Please be prepared for patchy connectivity. Disconnect!
  8. Do not feed the wild animals & birds.
Linesmen at work!

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MANDAWA

The ‘Open Air Museum’ In 12 Hours

We had been to Churu earlier. When we were drawing up our itinerary for the Rajasthan road trip, we knew we had to include another Shekhawati town. Mandawa was our fourth & last destination.

We left our Jodhpur hotel after breakfast. Jodhpur to Mandawa was close to 330 KMS. We did not halt anywhere except when needed. The road was terrible; it affected our mood negatively. But we found our solace in spotting birds along the way. We managed to click an Indian Roller & a Black Drongo.

Here is a blogpost on Mandawa.

The Evening

Art Worthy of a Museum

We were at our hotel in Mandawa by early evening. Tired from our journey, we sat under a tree & sipped on steaming masala chai. Then, we were out sightseeing. Our hotel provided us with a guide who took us around the town.

It is not just Marwar & Mewar that are rich with history; Shekhawati has its fair share too. The region is unique. Shekhawati towns are full of havelis that once were homes to rich business families. The businessmen constructed their havelis & baolis with painting on the walls, called frescoes.

The region reminds of cultural amalgamations with fresco themes ranging from Hindu motifs to Rajasthani women to Europeans wearing hats. Religion is an extremely common fresco theme. Scenes depicting Lord Krishna, His childhood antics, His Leela with Radha etc. are found commonly in the frescoes.

Frescoes depicting Lord Krishna are common.

On the other hand, when the Mandawa merchants returned from their Europe travels, they would get these frescoes made to give an idea to the local populace about life abroad.

Today, the havelis lay abandoned as the business families are now settled in Kolkata & Mumbai. A few havelis have been converted into hotels. A few others have been restored with caretakers allowing sightseers to visit. Sadly, we saw only a few caretakers take active interest in care taking.

Sightseeing is now the only way to ensure that the havelis do not remain abandoned. But, even with sightseeing, most havelis need TLC. We wished the owners would take charge. We call all Agarwal’s, Birla’s, Chokhanis, Goenkas, Jhunjhunuwalas, Ladias, Nemanis, Saraf’s to please restore their ancestral residences in Shekhawati.

The unique Shekhawati region!

A little love, a little renovation & a whole lot of old-world charm.

Now, there are no specific sightseeing ‘spots’ in Mandawa though Chokhani Haveli, Ladia Haveli & Saraf Haveli are a few of the splendid ones. The havelis are located close to each other & in narrow alleys. The best way to see the town is on foot.

So just walk around the town & see the havelis & the frescoes. You can enter a few of the havelis to see brightly colored rooms.

Look up!

Our first stop was a water well. Mandawa & its surrounding areas have several open & tube wells, highlighting the scarcity of water in this region. We could imagine the importance of the wells by seeing how beautifully the well was constructed.

Next, we explored the havelis. We discovered something new at every turn.

We climbed to a haveli rooftop & saw Mandawa Fort in the distance. It is now run as Hotel Castle Mandawa by Rajasthan Tourism.

Cultural Amalgamations

At one haveli, a bright green & yellow door caught our eyes. The door was a tourist magnet; it gave us decor goals. We saw more such beautiful doors.

Given that many havelis are neglected by their owners, it was heartening to see Saraf Haveli in good shape. It is a great example of Shekhawati art.

At one haveli, we came across evidence of Mandawa’s trading past. The town was once important, lying on the route between Delhi and Gujarat, and China and the Middle East. How did a Burmah-Shell Oil Storage & Distributing Co. of India Ltd. board find its way here?

In need of a little TLC

An enterprising caretaker had taken to selling goods (which we believed come from the haveli) to tourists.

The Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli is called ‘Golden Haveli’. It has a golden painted room which was a result of competitions to build the most opulent Havelis. Even the main gate leading inside is grand. It is fair to call the Golden Haveli a one-room museum.

A form of stained glass greeted us. This was another exquisite part of the Shekhawati havelis. Belgian Glass was embedded in the doors. We saw scenes from Indian scriptures come alive on the walls. Little gold remains on the golden room frescoes, but colors make the room lively.

Each fresco stood out in its own way.

The ‘gold’ paint has peeled off in places. But it gave us an idea how the room would have looked when it was intact.

In a few havelis, the frescoes date back to the 18th century. & naturally, these transported us to the days of yore. Mandawa is 360 degrees of art. Decoration exists on every conceivable part of the walls. Do not forget to look up as even the underside of arches have art on them. The attention to detail is astounding.

Ceiling frescoes seemed like carpets above our heads. How did people manage to paint entire tapestries on the ceiling? The outer walls have fine decoration. The inner walls are equally attractive.

A Ceiling Carpet

An interesting bit is that only the rooms in which visitors were entertained were painted. The private quarters would be kept plain.

If architecture/ art/ heritage/ history interest you, you will enjoy the havelis & kothis. The lapse of time has not taken away the grandeur. We were out of words to keep describing the frescoes. Each stood out in its own way.

After the visual extravaganza, back at our hotel, we found tourists gazing at frescoes & restoration here. We lounged by the pool enjoying a local shisha & ended the day with a homely dinner.

City – life Frescoes

The Morning

It was time to head home but only after a hearty breakfast at our hotel. Mandawa to NCR was ~290 KMS. We halted at Indulgence, Manesar for lunch. It is a food court having multiple restaurants inside its campus. Even though the campus is big, the parking is inadequate. We had to park on the side of the road itself, which is not ideal as NH8 is a heavy – traffic, high – speed highway.

Having said this, the inside is made quite well. There are food joints for every kind of palate. It is a family – friendly place. Washrooms are available & were clean. We filled our stomachs at Berco’s, Burger King & Giani’s.

So attractive!

Painted havelis & carts pulled by miniature donkeys were just a couple of sights that made Shekhawati a tourist’s paradise. The entire Rajasthan road trip was about experiencing calm in different ways. Every time we visit small cities, life magically seems to become simpler.

After an art & heritage filled road trip, we knew we would sleep easy for some time to come. Before the travel bug infected us again.

Accommodation

The Mirror of Our Dreams at Mandawa Kothi

After the bumpy ride, our accommodation in Mandawa sprang a surprise on us. Knowing that it is a small town, we were not expecting much in terms of hotel quality. But our minds were blown off by the Mandawa Kothi. Everywhere we looked, we saw art.

We thanked God for the person who decided to restore this century – old ‘Kothi’. It would have been heartbreaking to lose such art. This boutique hotel has old world charm coupled with modern amenities. Living in places that echo with history is always an enchanting experience. By staying at Mandawa Kothi for a night, we became a part of its history.

Walking under its arched gates was memorable. We had to cross three gates/ doors to get to the main living area. (We love how old houses had the concept of multiple sections.) Mandawa has been a favored location for Bollywood. A gate in the Mandawa Kothi featured in a prominent scene in the movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Tourists gazing at the frescoes & restoration at Mandawa Kothi

The parking is right in front of the entrance. Mandawa Kothi has just six rooms but all have been carefully restored & upgraded with modern amenities. Our room was beautiful & spacious. There seemed to be just a handful of young men managing the hotel but ever so efficiently.

Sad, we stayed only for a night; wish we had more time at Mandawa Kothi! It felt like a home away from home.

Recommendations

Such attention to detail!
  1. Getting to Mandawa
    1. You can easily do a long weekend road trip from Delhi NCR.
    1. A train to Churu is available from Delhi. Churu to Mandawa can then be done by bus/ cab.
  2. Make your way to Mandawa between November & February. You will not be disappointed.
  3. If you visit Mandawa in winter, do remember the nights can be cold. Do not forget your woolens.
  4. Take a guide with you for the fresco sightseeing as s/ he will be able to point out details you would not notice otherwise.

Jodhpur

The Blue City In 36 Hours

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.

Fresco at Mehrangarh Fort

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

Relaxed dinner at Khaas Bagh

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.

Khaas Bagh

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.

A forever experience

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.

Vintage 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.

Guda Bishnoiyan surroundings

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 strolled around the Ghanta Ghar & in the Sardar Market & ended the day with an early dinner at Janta Sweet Home.

Village Safari

Peeping Tom

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.

Bishnoi lady in traditional attire

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.

Bishnoi patriarch conducting opium ceremony

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!

A gorgeous blackbuck

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.

Demoiselle cranes

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.”

Elated to see the granddaughter studying

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 Restaurant

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.

Tummy full

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.

Mehrangarh Fort

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.

Complete with natural defenses

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.

Delight

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.

Thoughts of jaalis & purdah system

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.

Jaswant Thada from the Fort top

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

A picturesque sundown

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!

Ghanta Ghar – day & night

Ghanta Ghar

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.

Sardar Market

Arched gate of Sardar Market

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

Sigh!

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 wee tea stall

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.

Beautiful & luxurious Ratan Vilas

Accommodation

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.

Boom!

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.

Beat The Heat! – 2

A few folks reached out to us to know more about the three destinations we recommended in Part I to escape the Indian summer. Glad we could be of help! But, three destinations are inadequate for six months of the intense north Indian summer. So, we bring three more long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in the Himalayas, yet are quite different from each other!

Dharamshala

The home of the Dalai Lama & the Tibetan Government in exile is technically not a long weekend destination, i.e., three days will be insufficient to do justice to it. But something is better than nothing!

Fly to Gaggal, or take a train to Pathankot, or drive down to Dharamshala, the serene Himalayan town is more accessible than ever before.

We have a soft spot for all things Buddhist. Thus, liking Dharamshala came naturally to us. If you are of a spiritual bent, you will benefit from a visit to the Namgyal Monastery, the largest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet.

If, instead, you are one who prefers the outdoors, you can take the long but picturesque walk to the Bhagsu Waterfall. But, let us caution you – the waterfall & the Bhagsu Nag Temple can get crowded.

And then, there is always the option of sit back & sigh at the stunning views of the Himalayas.

We stayed at Sterling Dharamshala but we believe there are better options available like Hotel Norbu House and The Divine Hima. We drove from New Delhi to Dharamshala which became a little tiring as the distance is >500 KMS.

Our original trip of fours days had to be cut short by a day due to an accident. It only makes us determined to return to Dharamshala soon!

Jim Corbett National Park

OK, this is an uncommon choice to ‘beat the heat’ as the Jim Corbett National Park itself attains temperatures of 40+ degrees Celsius. But this is the best time to spot the big cat. Thanks to the extreme heat, many watering holes dry up, forcing the animals to congregate at the few that remain. Thus, summer turns out to be a great time to spot most animals near water bodies, including the tiger.

If you are like us (hate summer), let us reassure you that because of the greenery, the Park still remains bearable. Safaris take place in mornings & early evenings. So, take out the broad brimmed hat, slather on the sunscreen, put on the glares & head to Corbett.

And, again, if, like us, you dislike crowds, fewer tourists visit the Jim Corbett National Park in the summer, making it a more private experience for those who do.

You can get from Delhi NCR to the Park in about six hours, eight in case of traffic.

In our two visits, we stayed at Kanwhizz HUM TUM Resort (yes, that was its name but now it is called La Perle River Resorts), and The Riverview Retreat. Both are on the banks of the River Kosi but we recommend The Riverview Retreat. You can walk to the river and spend time in solitude, listening to the sounds of nature.

Kanwhizz HUM TUM had cabanas next to the Kosi. We enjoyed a candlelit dinner in one of the cabanas.

candlelit dinner, river kosi, kanwhizz
Great way to end day – Candlelit dinner by River Kosi at Kanwhizz

Be careful of the scams operating in Jim Corbett National Park in the name of safaris. Agencies like Travel Tiger Track can cheat you by showing you zones like Sitabani (hardly a wildlife reserve) in the name of tiger safaris. No permit is needed for this ‘zone’. Private vehicles are allowed. There is a tea stall inside where visitors can not just have tea but biscuits, mixtures & instant noodles. Smoking is allowed too. No guide is needed to visit Sitabani.

Around sunset, visit the Garjiya Devi Temple, located on the other side of the Kosi. You cross a foot over bridge to get to it. To get to the shrine, you will climb steep steps. The shrine is small but the idol is beautiful.

Little Bambi
Little Bambi

Pangot

Falling under the Nainital district & the Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve, Pangot (or Pangoot) is a village known for its bird watching. Its beauty lies in its picturesqueness. The village, though barely 15 KMS from Nainital, is fairly remote.

Pangot is a birdwatcher’s paradise, courtesy the hundreds of bird types found here. Oak & rhododendron forests attract the eye. If you like all-weather destinations, this is the place. Like most of our other recommendations, please do not expect a list of things to do/ see in Pangot. It is a place of calm & quiet. So, if you love nature, make your way to this village which, along with birding, offers scope for activities like mountain biking too.

Pangot is a village; expect limited number of accommodation options. We stayed at The Nest Cottages which we liked for its location. Away from ‘civilization’, you can enjoy solitude. Your neighbors are birds, dogs & monkeys.

The cottages are standalone, reminding of English novels with their slanting roofs & wooden interiors. Excellent service, home style vegetarian food. The owner is a sweet old man, lovely to converse with.

We did not have to step out of the property to see birds; many kinds greeted us right in the common area. Hardly any network & an erratic TV meant tranquility. Did we mention they have a well-stocked library?

Another accommodation you can consider is Jungle Lore Birding Lodge.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Pangot in about seven hours, nine in case of traffic. Do not forget to halt at Nainital to do some boating at the Naini Lake or to have a delectable meal at Sakley’s Restaurant & Pastry Shop.

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 6

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.

Frescoes amaze me
Frescoes amaze me

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.

IMG_2985
Kanchenjunga clearly visible on a gorgeous sunny day

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Enjoy your alone time. Don’t feel awkward in sightseeing alone, eating alone etc. the world’s becoming more receptive to solo travelers.
  5. 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.
  6. Prepare yourself for surprised remarks. My cabbie, KN, remarked “Madam ji, you’re a brave girl. You’ve done something that only boys do!”

How Chandratal Cleared My Muddled Head – Part I

I see people around me exclaim before traveling, “Oh let’s get there! Then we’ll have so much fun.” The focus is commonly on the destination. Then, do I sound crazy if I say that I enjoy my time getting to the destination more than the destination itself? Maybe it sounds cliched but, for me, it is about the journey. Over the years, each of my journeys has given me a food for thought, a reason to smile, and innumerable memories to carry back home. One such journey for me was to the hallowed Chandratal (Moon Lake).

So, August the last year, after I had been amply scared by all and sundry that monsoon was hardly the time to visit Himachal Pradesh, I set off, with three other travel companions. I knew I was in for stunning vistas and cool climes, but I had not expected that I will get a few life lessons along my way. While there are many ways Chandratal affected my life, I choose three that really drove home a few truths. Moments of realization – ta ding!

Part 1

1
Oh, poor truck!

When I left the charm of Manali behind & started ascending the forbidding roads to Chandratal, probably everything my well-wishers had said started coming true. At the same time, it filled me with a strength I never felt before. The mountains humbled me & seemed to be questioning me – Who are you? What have you achieved that you hold your life so dear? When death comes to you, would you not rather it did in the lap of the Himalayas, rather than in a cooped-up room in a city?

As these thoughts churned in my head, my vehicle came to a halt. There was a ‘nala’ in which a mini-truck had got stuck. Now, a ‘nala’ in this part of the country can mean road blockades for days, sleeping in the car, running out of food etc. It is not the calmly flowing trickle of Yamuna; it is a surge of water tumbling down the mountain, washing away parts of it as it goes. The poor truck driver tried his level best to rev up the vehicle; alas, like all else man made, this failed too in front of nature.

When it seemed that we would be stuck here too till a JCB arrived, a group of bikers entered the scene. They got down from their bikes, strode into the water, put up rocks to anchor the truck & pushed with all their might. A couple of tries later, the truck lunged forward – it was free! Fist pumps in the air & in my little heart!

2
Must – Visit – Spiti

My lesson no. 1 from Chandratal – Do not be afraid to take help. It does not matter if the person who is trying to help you is, according to you, incapable to do so; you never know what may click. And if it was not working in the first place any which way, would seeking help make things worse?

 

Now for the practical part – how to reach Chandratal?

  1. Take an early morning flight to Kullu – Take a taxi to Chandratal (~170 kms)

Minimum no. of days you will need – Three

(Disclaimer One – Flights to Kullu are weather-dependent. Disclaimer Two – Keep a spare day because in Spiti, you never know!)

  1. Take an early morning flight to Chandigarh – Taxi to Manali (night halt) – Taxi to Chandratal (~130 kms)

Minimum no. of days you will need – Five

(Disclaimer Two applies here too.)

 

Back with Part II soon…

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