Appreciation Post

When N & I got married, we promised each other we would never stop wondering. We felt it was a coincidence that the words ‘wondering’ & ‘wandering’ were so similar… Over the last eight years, we have explored much of India!

We pick up our car & drive away at the drop of the hat. Yet, there’s much left to be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, felt & experienced, for India is truly incredible… Travel has given us a chance to experience new cultures, heritage, and food!

The steering wheel of my vehicle called ‘life‘…

More importantly, it’s reinstated our faith in humanity when we have been warmly welcomed by strangers.

We have completed road trips in Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Daman & Diu…

Road trips bring about a heightened sense of experience. They are our preferred mode of travel! Any road trip opportunity excites us. An affection for vehicles, a steadfastness for traffic rules, a sense of amazement, and a flair for writing & storytelling make us perfect for undertaking road journeys…

We document our travelogues in our humble effort to popularise even further the behemoth that Incredible India is! Having said all of this, none of this would have been possible without a partner who seldom says no.

So, N, thank you for being my fellow hodophile!

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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Udaipur In Three Days

Recently, a classmate reached out to get a three-day itinerary for Udaipur. As we dug through our emails, photographs, and memories, we couldn’t help compiling an itinerary of the city of lakes…

Day 1 – City Palace Museum, Jagdish Mandir, Bagore Ki Haveli & Lake Pichola

  1. Start at the City Palace Museum. It opens at 9:30 AM. Get here as early as you can as it tends to get crowded as the day progresses. Also, this is the most time taking activity today. Take a guide as it may be difficult to understand things on your own.
The Mor Chowk below us

The best parts about the Museum are Mor Chowk & Zenana Mahal.

  • Exit from the Tripolia Dwar of the City Palace Museum & walk to the Jagdish Mandir via the Hathipol Bazar. Jagdish Mandir has amazing carvings in its architecture. It’s a small temple; so, you’ll not take much time here.

Note – it involves climbing about 30-40 steep steps.

A Night At The Museum!
  • If you entered the City Palace Museum at 9:30 AM, you’ll be done there by noon (if you see each part properly). Walking till Jagdish Mandir & darshan will take another 30-45 minutes. We suggest lunch now.

The area is full of rooftop restaurants with Lake Pichola views.

  • Post lunch visit Bagore Ki Haveli Museum. This was the residence of the prime minister of the Mewar dynasty. It was falling to pieces but has been painstakingly restored. See the before & after of restoration.
The meeting room with the kerosene – operated fan

Plus, this museum has made galleries of traditional Mewari life. Lastly, it has a collection of turbans worn in different cultures. This museum isn’t crowded, mostly foreigners. So, you can be done here in an hour.

  • If the sun isn’t too strong, boat on Lake Pichola.
  • For the evening, you’re spoilt for choice. Sunset boating at Lake Pichola is a popular activity. & once the sun sets, the City Palace Museum has its Light & Sound Show (L&SS). The Bagore Ki Haveli Museum has a dance show – Dharohar. Watch the sunset from The Sunset Terrace.
  • End your day with dinner at one of the lake – facing restaurants.

Day 2 – Monsoon Palace, Fateh Sagar Lake, Sukhadia Circle Fountain, Shilpgram

Our Little Joy
  1. Start day two at the Monsoon Palace. It was the hilltop residence of the Mewar royal family. The Palace has great views of the lakes & countryside. It opens at 9 AM. Vehicles go up the hill; so, getting there wouldn’t be a problem.

You’ll typically take an hour or so to see this (modest) palace. But the drive up the hill is nice.

  • Head to the Fateh Sagar Lake. If the sun isn’t strong, opt for either boating or a tanga ride around the lake or just walk around it. There are ample food stalls around the lake. Cold coffee with ice cream, served in kulhad, is a visitor’s favourite here.
“If the Venetian, owned the Pichola Lake, he might say with justice, see it and die.” – Rudyard Kipling

Fateh Sagar has two parks on two of its islands, a solar observatory & an aquarium. See either of these.

  • Another place for boating (when you go to the City of Lakes, boating is unavoidable :D) is the Sukhadia Circle. It’s a roundabout but has a garden & a pond (in which boating takes place). Quite a few street foods options here.
  • Go to Shilpgram next. It is a village created to give visitors a taste of Rajasthani art, craft, culture, folk dance, food etc. Camel riding, puppet show, pottery etc. Pick souvenirs from here – ceramic, pottery items, oxidized jewellery etc. Spend a good amount of time here, if interested.
  • In the evening, you’re again spoilt for choice. Sunset views from Monsoon Palace are excellent. (There is a dedicated sunset point.) So, maybe you can opt to go to the Monsoon Palace towards evening, rather than morning. See the palace, catch the sunset & return.

Else, sunset boating at Fateh Sagar Lake is hot. Or catch City Palace L&SS or Bagore Ki Haveli Museum Dharohar Dance, whichever you missed the first evening.

Taj Lake Palace
  • End with a lake – side dinner.

Day 3 – Day Trip

  1. Done with the main attractions, you can either relax & just walk around today. Or catch up on anything you missed from the above. The third option is to take a day trip from Udaipur. A few options:
  2. Start early & go to Haldighati (about 45 KMS from Udaipur). The drive is through the Aravalli mountains. At Haldighati is the Maharana Pratap Museum. A good place to learn more about Maharana Pratap’s life & the battle of Haldighati.
Surya Choupar, The City Palace Museum

They show a good small film. The museum is conceptualized & run by a history – loving individual. Just passing through Haldighati gives goose bumps. There is a place called Rakht Talai a little ahead of the Museum which is where the actual battle took place.

It’s said the color of the soil changed with all the blood that was spilled. Also, at the museum, there is a special kind of rose water available for purchase. It’s made from cheti Gulab, a species brought by Akbar to this region.

On your way back from Haldighati, take a slightly different route to visit Eklingji. It’s a temple dedicated to Eklingji (a form of Lord Shiva), the ruling deity of the Mewar dynasty. (In fact, Eklingji is considered the king, & the ruling Maharana is considered His dewan.)

Mohan Mandir

The temple has suffered repetitive attacks from the Islamic invaders but the Mewaris rebuilt it every time. It’s an 8th century temple!

From Eklingji, return to Udaipur. Make a stopover at Forum Celebration Mall to grab a bite.

  • Another day trip option is Kesariyaji Rishabhdev Mandir. However, it’s in a different direction altogether & can’t be combined with any of the above. It’s about 75 KMS from Udaipur. It opens at 6:30 AM. The temple is worshiped both by Bhils & Jains.
We had walked these corridors during the day. They looked different at night…

The Mewar dynasty followed four religious’ institutions; this is one of them. Like all Jain temples, this one is artistic.

While we like to maximize our trips with as much sightseeing as we can, we don’t believe in overdoing it. & we recommend the same – don’t treat sightseeing as a competition or a checklist. So, even if you don’t manage to see a few of the above, it’s okay. It’s more important to enjoy yourself. Happy sightseeing!

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 2

Continuing from Chapter 1, landing in Bagdogra was a visual delight. As we descended, I spotted neat squares and rectangles that served as farms. Almost every shade of green was discernible. Then onward, I was in for a wonderful time.

I had booked an Innova for myself; I can trust the reliability of this vehicle blindly. My driver, KN, was a Sikkimese and pointed out that we would have to go slow on the hills in the dark. I knew then that I was in safe hands. My relief was not shared by my parents who were worrying themselves sick. They got their peace of mind when I reached Gangtok.

Along the way, crossing Bagdogra/ Siliguri was a headache with the annoying auto and rickshaw traffic. Perhaps I had had a bad day which made me more irritable. NH10 was patchy. Traffic was dense till the turn for Darjeeling. There on, it became a breeze. The roads drastically improved once we entered Sikkim at Rangpo.

IMG_2795
Stunning vistas- Sikkim can easily be called the Land of Lakes

It was 9 PM by the time we reached the hotel. The day had been wasted. My plans of roaming on the streets of Gangtok went down the drain. I was exhausted. I wanted a hot meal and a warm bed. Thankfully, my hotel provided both.

New Orchid Hotel was not fancy but its basics were in place. I was welcomed with the traditional ‘khada’, the white silk scarf. They upgraded me from an Executive Room to a Suite. Yay! Not a bad end to a lousy day.

On the first real day of my travel, the initial plan was to undertake local sightseeing in Gangtok. But as I feasted on my breakfast, my cab agent informed that my permit for Nathu La had come. I thus needed to leave for the daylong excursion to Nathu La, Baba Mandir & Tsomgo Lake.

IMG_2831
I wish I could have reached out & touched the clear water…

Excitement would be an understatement to describe my state of mind. Nathu La, of course, is the stuff legends are made of. At 14,200 feet, it is an international boundary between India and China where civilians are allowed. However, the rarefied air and the extreme temperatures deter most tourists. Also, the number of cars (and consequently the number of tourists) to Nathu La has a daily capping. This meant that I had to club with someone in one car for the last 3-4 kilometers. I did not mind this.

I have been to Dochu La, Khardung La, Chang La, Rohtang La and Kunzum La. I knew what to expect from a pass in terms of oxygen and temperature. I was, however, a little anxious about the amount of walking involved. Well, I will cross the bridge when we come to it.

I am a lover of long drives. The terrain reminded me, happily, of Ladakh and Spiti. The sky was blue; the Kangchenjunga beamed at me. I sighed with contentment but I postponed clicking its photos to the next day. I soaked in the sights as we ascended.

IMG_2849
I loved how the mountains seem to fade away…

Once the army-controlled area began, mobile connectivity dropped. Tiny lakes started appearing which looked like infinity pools. Furry dogs sunbathed; I wish I could take one home.

We stopped at Kyangnosla for a bio break. Surprisingly, in the family-run shop/ café, the toilets were clean, though without a light bulb. It struck me that Sikkim had taken the Swachh Bharat Mission seriously. Every few meters in Gangtok, I found posters extolling the virtues of cleanliness. Dustbins were a common feature. There was hardly any litter to be found on the streets.

I knew Sikkim was one of the most developed states in India but now I was getting to see it first-hand. Center-state cooperative federalism is something that Sikkim can teach to the other Indian states.

The blue sky made my day even better!
The blue sky made my day even better!

The ethnicity, the cleanliness, the discipline, the safety – all made me feel I was not in an Indian city. Only the presence of Mr. Narendra Modi’s posters every few hundred meters (put up by the non- BJP state government) and the presence of the Indian army brought me back to reality.

But I digress; let me continue with my Nathu La story.

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