MUSKURAIYE, AAP LUCKNOW MEIN HAI!

Lucknow in 24 hours

There are some places you can never get enough of. Lucknow always brings a sense of belonging. It feels like home. Tunde kebab & kulfi at Aminabad, walk at Hazratganj, sightseeing at Bada & Chota Imambargahs, crossing Cantt, mutton nihari at Rahim’s, kulfi at Chhappan Bhog, chikankari & zari shopping at Chowk, walk in Ambedkar Park, galauti kebab at Dastarkhwan, & kulfi (again!) at Nishatganj – spread over just a few days. That pretty much summaries our two visits to Lucknow.

Emergency airstrip, Agra Lucknow Expressway, uttar pradesh, india
Emergency airstrip on the Agra – Lucknow Expressway

We chose to spend our sixth anniversary in the Awadhi city. We usually make elaborate travel plans, but work commitments forbade us this time. A road trip came to the rescue. Leaving from Noida, using the Yamuna Expressway, eating breakfast at Jewar, & then using the Agra – Lucknow Expressway, we made good time & reached Lucknow by evening.

The Agra – Lucknow Expressway was a breeze to drive on. An empty six – lane highway, with high toll fees (no wonder it is empty), & with almost no stops, the expressway allowed us to cover a large distance in a short span of time.

A highlight of the Agra – Lucknow Expressway is an emergency airstrip built on the expressway itself. The airstrip stretches for a little more than three kilometers. If an emergency landing of IAF combat jets is needed, this can be used.

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A little thing, but thrilled us to bits!

Caution: Do not get tempted into exceeding speed limits on the Agra – Lucknow Expressway. Like all Indian highways, it can be unpredictable. Also, Indian cars are not made for extremely high speeds. There are enough & more cases of tires bursting on the Expressway.

The First Evening

Our first evening in Lucknow was our anniversary itself. We chose to spend it in a relaxed manner, dressing up, lounging on the rooftop bar of our hotel, raising a toast, coming down to the in house restaurant, hogging on Awadhi cuisine, & retiring early.

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Splurging on our anniversary!

At times, a little thing like sitting under the stars can bring immense happiness. As the night got colder, our souls became warmer. We thanked our gods for all the good things bestowed on us…

Saraca, the open-air bar overlooking the lawns, is just what the doctor ordered. Here, it was quite cold but, luckily, they had heaters placed around tables. The dim lighting of Saraca & the twinkling lights of the surrounding buildings created a romantic ambience. We sipped on colorful Long Island Iced Tea & Mojito, both well made. To accompany the drinks, we had Galawat Kebab, which was good too.

Saraca was perfect to relax. Exotic drinks, Awadhi starters, & music under the stars…

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Cheers to 6 years of sightseeing!

Time to call it a night after some more yummy in our tummy. Azrak, the restaurant at lebua, serves Awadhi food. If Awadhi cuisine isn’t well made, it can turn the dishes oily. But we did not face any such challenge here. We had Awadh Dum Murgh Biryani, Bakarkhani, Dum Murgh, & Ulte Tave Ka Paratha. We are fans of Bakarkhani, & this one lived up to our expectations too.

Azrak is one of those laid-back places; do not hurry through your meal here.

The Next Day

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When we saw these, we went berserk!

We had traveled over a December long weekend. Fresh after a restful night, we were ready to explore Lucknow. While we waited for our Uber, we posed & clicked with the vintage cars in the lebua premises. The best way to get around old Lucknow is by public transport.

Our first stop was the Bara Imam Bara. An imam bara is a hall for Shia Muslim ceremonies, especially Muharram. The Bara Imam Bara is an imam bara complex built by the Awadh Nawab in 1784. This was the year famine had hit Awadh. Through the Imam Bara construction, the Nawab wanted to provide employment for people. The construction & the consequent employment lasted for 10 years, same as the famine duration.

As we entered the compound, we were struck by the imposing gateways. We entered one, came across a circular garden, & then chanced upon the second gateway. The second is the main gateway where we purchased tickets. As we walked further, the Asfi Masjid came up on our right. It is the last monument to be constructed without using iron.

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Large vaulted central chamber of Bara Imam Bara

Moving on to the main imam bara, we got ourselves a guide & entered a large vaulted central chamber (largest in the world). In the center of the chamber is the tomb of the Nawab of Awadh, Asaf-Ud-Daula. On the upper floor is a labyrinth, famously known as the Bhool Bhulaiya.

When we emerged from the passages onto the hall balcony, we could not help but be amazed at such a large structure being built without beams/ pillars. Caution – Walking on the narrow terrace is not for the fainthearted! Or for those with acrophobia or vertigo!

The Bhool Bhulaiya legend says there are 1,024 ways to get inside the maze, but only two to come out! The network of passageways winds its way inside the monument, & eventually leads to the roof. The roof was meant to give a panoramic view of the Awadhi city. In the 21st century, however, this is not easily possible.

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The Bara Imam Bara roof

We were thrilled with the Bhool Bhulaiya. For the first time, we got a chance to see a heritage monument by actively participating in it. Namely, finding our way out of the incredible maze! The architecture is worth a mention, specially of echoing walls, & hidden cloisters.

A flight of stairs leads down to the Shahi Baoli (royal stepwell). Around the Baoli is a multi- storey structure with arched windows & inter-connected galleries. Apparently, the Baoli still has running water. Rumors of the Baoli being connected to River Gomti, & of treasures/ treasure maps/ keys to some hidden treasure underneath are quite rife. Exceptional architecture here!

Before we left the Bara Imam Bara, we found another trivia – Ordinary people built the edifice during the day. At night, noblemen broke down whatever was raised that day. This was by the order of the Nawab, to ensure continuing employment for the masses.

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The Shahi Baoli in the Bara Imam Bara complex

Through the Bara Imambargah complex, we caught ourselves gaping at the architecture! For a heritage lover, the Bara Imam Bara scores not only on the heritage but also on the maintenance of its premises, and the easy & fair availability of authorized guides who explain the history behind the monument. To enjoy the monument fully, do take a guide.

Out of the Bara Imam Bara, we hopped onto a tanga (horse carriage). Our first carriage ride! To double the excitement, we spotted the Rumi Darwaza coming up ahead. It is a gateway built under the patronage of Nawab Asaf-Ud-Daula, in the same year as the Bara Imam Bara.

The front facade of the Rumi Darwaza is a fine example of Awadhi architecture! There’s no ticket to see it. Caution – As the Rumi Darwaza is an operational gateway, you must be careful of traffic.

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The Rumi Darwaza

The Husainabad Clock Tower is a 19th century marvel. It was constructed in 1881 to mark Sir George Couper’s arrival, the first LG of United Province of Avadh. You can spot the Clock Tower from kilometers, but as you come closer, you can also see a large step-well next to it.

The Satkhanda is a watchtower from the 1800s. The iconic tower has an octagonal base, arched windows & Islamic design details. It is located next to the Husainabad Clock Tower; so, if you are in the area, you cannot miss it. A reminder of Lucknow’s Awadhi & colonial past.

The Husainabad Picture Gallery houses portraits of the erstwhile nawabs of Awadh. The portraits are quite fine, with intricate details. The caretaker pointed out to us a few amazing bits here & there. Like how the nawab’s shoes seem to move!

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View from the Husainabad Picture Gallery

Our minds were also blown off by the view that the Picture Gallery offered. The Clock Tower to the left, Chota Imam Bara straight ahead, & the Satkhanda to the right. Photography is prohibited at the Gallery. It does not seem to be frequented by tourists; we had the place almost to ourselves.

There is no dearth of darwazas in Lucknow. The Husainabad Darwaza is an outer gateway to the Chota Imam Bara. Passing under arched gateways will remain high points of our lives.

Chota Imam Bara is the popular name of the monument; its actual name is Imam Bara Husainabad Mubarak. It was built under the patronage of Muhammad Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in 1838. Today, it serves as a mausoleum for him & his mother.

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The Chota Imam Bara entrance

Indian heritage buildings are nothing short of fascinating. Not just architecturally, but from an engineering POV too:

  1. We noticed a goldfish at the entrance. It is an anemometer. One of the earliest ones in India.
  2. A golden statue at the entrance holds a chain that is connected to a spire. This works as earthing.
  3. A Shahi Hammam (royal bath) houses stained glass windows, an elaborate hot water system & a jacuzzi setup. Apparently, when the nawabs would visit the Imam Bara, they would first complete their ablutions in the Shahi Hammam.

The Tomb of Princess Zinat Asiya is supposed to be a replica of the Taj Mahal. We, however, did not see the likeness.

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The Chota Imam Bara

Moving ahead, photography inside the main Imam Bara hall is prohibited. But the inside is worth seeing – chandeliers & crystal glass lampstands!

Looking back from the main Imam Bara hall, we saw the ceremonial gate reflected in the rectangular pond.

Caution – Women are required to cover their heads here.

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The Naubat Khana

Opposite the Chota Imam Bara is the Naubat Khana. A Naubat Khana was the orchestra pit of buildings, i.e., musicians would play their instruments sitting in the Naubat Khana so that their music could be heard far & wide.

In the context of the Chota Imam Bara, the Naubat Khana was more of a place from where the hour of the day was announced by beating drums.

We bid adieu to the Chota Imam Bara & hopped back on our tanga. It brought us to the Jama Masjid. The construction was started in 1839 under the patronage of Mohammad Ali Shah Bahadur. Apparently, he wanted this mosque to surpass the Delhi Jama Masjid in size. But, unfortunately, he died before its completion.

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The Jama Masjid

His wife, Malika Jahan Sahiba, got it completed, but the size could not be matched.

After all the sightseeing, we attacked what Lucknow is famous for – the Awadhi cuisine. If you are a non vegetarian visiting Lucknow, you MUST try the nihari with Qulcha at Raheem’s Qulcha Nihari. Tucked in one of the lanes of Chowk, the restaurant may appear a little dingy but do not let that deter you.

We walked in for lunch & had Mutton Biryani, Mutton Nihari & Qulcha. Each dish was mouthwatering. Portion size was adequate for two. Service was quick. Raheem’s can get quite crowded; you may have to wait your turn. But it is worth it. Families & women can easily go here; nothing to get intimidated about.

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Mutton Nahari & Qulcha

Stepping out of Raheem Qulcha Nihari with big smiles on our faces, we found ourselves in Phool Wali Gali. The flower mandi is 200-year-old. If we close our eyes, we still remember the fragrance!

It is not just heritage structures that lend an appeal to a place; it is also the traditional markets, cuisines, & culture. Chowk contributes majorly to Lucknow’s history! This market area is heaven for foodies & shoppers. The best way to get around is on foot. Do not hesitate to explore the tiny gullies!

We had heard a lot about the Malai Gilori at Ram Asrey. We had to check it out. Ram Asrey was in another gully of Chowk. We walked here from Raheem’s, taking in the sights & sounds of this centuries’ old market. Ram Asrey is a large sweetmeat shop & goes back hundreds of years.

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Phool Wali Gali

The Malai Paan was a little different from what we expected but delicious, nonetheless. Go ahead & try other mithais too. A heaven for those with a sweet tooth.

We wanted to explore the British Residency post this, but, for some reason, we could not get any public transport to the place. Uber cabs were taking too long to arrive, & rickshaw pullers did not seem to know where the Residency was. After waiting for almost half an hour, we got an Uber cab ready to take us to our hotel.

In the evening, we decided to visit Khadi Weavers, a store we had (again) heard a lot about. It has all Khadi products under one roof. Men’s wear, women’s wear, personal care products, you name it! Khadi Weavers is amazing. The store is compact, neat & well laid out. The clothes are to-die-for & so reasonably priced!

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Galawat Kebab at The Mughals Dastarkhwan

We came out with a bag full of garments. This was after we had to stop our greed from taking over our senses.

We ended our day at The Mughals Dastarkhwan. We were advised to try this restaurant over Tunde Kebabi. Glad we did! Dastarkhwan had a large waiting time, which indicated to us that it was, indeed, popular. It has a proper waiting area outside, where the smell of the tandoori dishes’ wafts in, & gives a boost to your appetite.

Finally, when we were seated inside, we had Dhania Roti, Galawat Kebab, Mutton Rogan Josh, Plain Rice, Shahi Tukda, & Ulte Tawe Ka Paratha. The Dhania Roti (chapati with coriander filling) was a first for us. The Galawat Kebab was, truly, melt-in-the-mouth. The service was quick. The Mughals Dastarkhwan is a family-friendly place.

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The Lucknow Charbagh Railway Station

We cannot wait to go back!

A post – meal drive took us to the Lucknow Charbagh Railway Station. In a place like Lucknow, you cannot possibly escape heritage. Designed by J.H. Hornimen, the Charbagh Railway Station construction began in 1914. It is a fabulous mix of Awadhi, Mughal & Rajput architecture!

If you are up for it, step out in the cold night to have a kulhad chai. It will fill you with warmth…

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Streets of Lucknow

The Last Morning

It was time to head back home but only after a hearty breakfast & a photo shoot! (P.S. The Azrak breakfast spread was great.)

As we crossed our favorite mustard fields on our way back home, we made up our minds to return to Lucknow. After all, still lots to see & eat.

Mustard fields, Eternal favorite, uttar pradesh, india
Mustard fields – Eternal favorite!

Accommodation

For the frugal us, our sixth anniversary was a time to splurge. The least we could do was stay at a fantastic place — the lebua Lucknow.

A boutique property, in the heart of Lucknow, is housed in an old, traditional bungalow with a lush green lawn. Almost entirely white in color, lebua exudes calm. An aangan (courtyard) is surrounded by beautiful rooms. On the grounds you can find vintage cars & two-wheeler, & a garden full of flowering plants & trees. Large, colorful bougainvillea! The hotel had a few Awadh/ Lucknow books on sale at the reception.

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Charming lebua!

Our room was more than comfortable. With a four-poster bed, we felt we had been transported back in time.

Thank goodness for the folks who restored this heritage bungalow! When you travel to Lucknow, & if you can, please stay at lebua. Its modern hospitality blended with traditional ethos will impress you.

As The Steam Blows

We are travel addicts; and clearly road trip aficionados. But, when another long weekend struck, there was an urge to do something different. So browsing through yet another travel magazine, we chanced upon the must-do rides on heritage trains in India.

Mostly found in the hilly regions, these narrow gauge trains have been running since the colonial times. The British did have a way with finding idyllic spots & connecting them to the heartland. Can’t blame them there!

The closest to Delhi, of course, is Shimla or as the British spelt it, Simla, their summer capital. Thus started the search for a suitable train on the Kalka – Shimla route. There are a number of trains but the best in terms of looks is the Shivalik Deluxe Express while the best in terms of performance is the Himalayan Queen. A train with a twist is the Rail Motor Car which looks & sounds more like a jeep than a train.

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Our home for a couple of days

We booked ourselves for the onward journey on the Shivalik Deluxe Express and the return on the Himalayan Queen. With that, the Kalka – Shimla route was covered. But, now came the challenge of the Delhi – Kalka stretch. This was an insipid route; all we had to do was to commute.

The main train on this route, the Howrah Kalka Mail, is seldom punctual. We did not want to take our car to Kalka as we would have trouble finding a parking spot for it for three days.

We grudgingly booked the Howrah Kalka Mail for the onward journey and the Kalka Shatabdi for the return. And we waited, impatiently, for the weekend to arrive. A couple of days before our journey, we began checking if the Howrah Kalka was running on time. To our horror, we realized that it had been running with an average delay of 10-12 hours!

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Surrounded by pine trees

We panicked & started thinking about Plan B. Then it struck us, ever the typical middle-income-group couple, that we could take the bus. Himachal Tourism runs a cool fleet of buses from Delhi to the main cities in Himachal Pradesh.

For Shimla, there is almost a bus an hour. We scrambled to the Himachal Tourism website and heft a sigh of relief when we managed to find a bus at a suitable time on our designated date and booked it quickly.

The website turns out to be quite efficient even though it looks as government – ish as it can. We can select our seats and pay by credit card. Wow! This, of course, was followed by the process of cancelling both our onward tickets.

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Built by a British engineer sometime in the 1800s

Finally, the wait was over. We headed to Himachal Bhavan near Mandi House to board our bus. Our seat was at the far end with a rowdy bunch of young boys right behind us. A peaceful sleep seemed unlikely. Sigh!

Before we boarded, we wanted to have our favorite food-samosa. Right across the road is a snack shop which serves all kinds of greasy & spicy Indian snacks. We were drawn to it like bees to flowers.

Did you know that samosa is not Indian? It’s a take on a middle-eastern snack called ‘sambusak’. Well! Once we were satiated, we grabbed our seats. A quick checking of tickets took place, & we started moving. Yay!

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Trust our army to make just anything better!

Getting out of Delhi was, of course, the biggest challenge, especially it being a weekday. It was compounded with the ‘kaawariyas’ & their entourages. Truly, one can do anything in the name of religion. The ‘kaawar yatra’ now is more about occupying the streets, playing LOUD music and creating nuisance, than it is about worshiping Lord Shiva.

We stopped at the Haryana Tourism guest house in Rai for dinner. Just outside the gate, a bike with two riders unfortunately got a little scare by our bus. While we had dinner, our bus driver & conductor tried to provide comfort to them. Nothing had happened to either them or to the bike. But they had a minor heart attack when our big bus and their tiny bike were millimeters apart. Chuckle!

Dinner was a simple fare. We did not want to delay the bus. We observed other families who are carrying their own food. They spread out the food on sheets in the garden. This took us back to school days. The annual picnic, invariably to the botanical garden, was an occasion we looked forward to, though there was barely anything new that we could see year after year.

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When we walked among clouds

Coming back, we were on our way and soon nodding off as the bus met the highway. The bus itself was in a great condition and there was not an iota of rash driving on the part of the driver.

The seats were comfortable, we were given bottles of water and shown a movie too! Do you support reclining seats? Aren’t they unnecessary and an inconvenience to fellow travelers? The manufacturers think only of the passenger who is going to use the reclining feature. They do not envisage the trouble that the person behind faces.

And we were finally in Shimla! It was early morning, was drizzling and ah, such a beautiful weather! When you are not getting stuck in traffic due to rains or when muddy water is not staining your clothes, then monsoons are just beautiful.

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Flowers of various colors in gardens

We were soon at the Shimla British Resort, another one of the offbeat places we had come across and booked. History has it that the Resort was the residence of a British engineer.

It got handed down to various people before resting with the current owner, who used to give it out for movie and advertisement shootings. Finally, about five years back, he opened it as a Resort for the public.

The Resort is a set of cottages in themes like British, Danish, & Scottish. Each of the rooms is tastefully done with the decor reminding of the colonial times. Lots of woodwork, lots of English paintings, lots of artifacts dating back to the Raj.

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The iconic Viceregal Lodge

We needed some sleep on a proper bed. So we hid ourselves in our Danish Imperial Room and slipped into dreamland. It was noon by the time we were refreshed. It was time to hit Shimla. We felt like tourists.

A quick peek into Trip Advisor showed the Viceregal House (or now known as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies) as the #1 attraction. Our Resort arranged a cab for us. The cabbie turned out to be a friendly, simple chap. He told us more about Shimla.

The Viceregal House turned out to be more charming than we imagined. It is a Scottish building and was used by the erstwhile British government as their Viceroy’s retreat. A number of historic meetings have taken place here, particularly related to the Indian independence and the partition.

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What happens when you book a honeymoon package

There is a short guided tour for the ground floor. It was completely worth it.  After independence, the House became the President’s summer retreat. Later, the President donated it to set up the institute. The Indian flag flies high.

We could not have been happier & more excited- a lovely weather with temperature around 18° C, a colonial building, greenery all around, & lots of history!

Next stop- the Mall Road. Obviously. Duh! Actually, not that obvious; we were hungry and wanted to settle down somewhere to grab a bite. We took a walk on the Mall Road till the Scandal Point. It was foggy; we deserved a cup of something warm.

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The erstwhile little outhouse

We narrowed down on Wake & Bake Café. Right opposite the police headquarters, is the small, unassuming café. We were famished; Cappuccino, Cold coffee, Chicken, peppers, chilies & rosemary pizza, Hummus & pita, and Carrot cake hardly seemed adequate. Burp!

The rain did not look like it was done with its daily target, but surprisingly, we quite enjoyed it. Perhaps returning to the warmth of the Resort was what the Gods intend for us. & we had no idea about the surprise waiting for us there.

We had booked a honeymoon package with the Resort. One of the inclusions was a romantic room decoration. Our room looked more wild than romantic. There was an interesting mix of balloons, flowers and leaves.

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Trying to catch the mist in our fists

We could neither stop giggling nor stop shaking our heads. We loved the cheesiness of it. For the decoration, we would give them 5/ 10 but for the effort, full marks! There were also fresh fruits & cookies. We did a little dance around the room.

Marriage indeed brings excitement & happiness to life, in the form of honeymoon packages! The poor Resort staff were disappointed when we asked them to clear the decoration within 15 minutes. But well, there was no place to sit. What could we have done? But guys, loved the enthusiasm. Thank you!

Day 2 started with Annandale. It was Kargil Vijay Diwas – the day India won the Kargil War. It was an absolutely fantastic day to visit the Army Museum. We had asked our friendly cabbie to take us around. He willingly obliged.

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Crossing almost 100 tunnels

We hold the defense forces in high esteem, especially the Indian Army. India is handicapped without them. Those days, there was a flash flood in J&K. The army carried out the rescue operations. J&K citizens, who have called the army all sorts of names & forced them to be withdrawn, now sought its help. It was an eye-opener how the army serves the nation without expecting anything.

The area around the Army Museum is a sight to behold. A greenhouse, a golf course, gardens, and vantage seating points- trust the army to do a great job at whatever they do.

So where was Sharma ji taking us next? (Psst, Sharma ji was our friendly cabbie.) We planned to head to Mashobra & Naldehra. The destinations were unimportant; it was the journey that held value.

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Difficult to imagine this when we live in metros

Winding roads, picturesque play of the mountains and valleys- it seemed we were in a picture postcard. We have come to Shimla earlier, but have never felt so contented with this region.

The Mashobra apple orchard was completely covered in clouds. The walk up to the Naldehra golf course did not seem too appealing, especially with the drizzle. But we were more than satisfied with the journey to the two places.

We headed back to our Resort for the second offering of the honeymoon package- a candlelit dinner. They arranged it for us in the small outhouse cottage. This was NICE!

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Pride of the Indian railways

& here was the last day. The day which was the reason for this trip. We were set to experience the UNESCO heritage train ride from Shimla to Kalka. The station is a stone’s throw from the Resort.

We clicked photographs with the train in the backdrop. We made a spectacle of ourselves; people gaped at us, but we were too excited to care. We realized that the seat which is supposed to be for two is really just one & a half. Well, two thin people maybe! It was good in a way as we sat cozily with each other.

The rowdy boys from our bus were on the adjacent seat. We rolled our eyes. The train was choc-a-bloc full. It was a tiny thing with almost no space for luggage. So do ensure you do not board the train with either large bags or with too many bags.

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Bringing our little journey to an end

The train pulled out from the station. Thus started a beautiful journey. We traveled through lush-green mountains, through almost 900 bridges and 100 tunnels in a weather that was pleasant.

It rained; we hurriedly closed our windows, but the water found its way in anyhow. People opened their umbrellas. Yes. In the train. The family behind us was lamenting throughout. But we found it amusing, rather than annoying.

The train brought us closer to nature. There were tiny stations along the way, with white cottages & blue roofs for stations, leaping right out of Malgudi Days. This was surely going to remain etched in our memories for as long as we lived…

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Its charm intact

The train has a decent speed, about 40 kmph. It halts at Kalka from where the broad gauge starts. We boarded the Kalka Shatabdi which fascinated us in another manner. The train was spotless, the air-conditioning worked marvelously, the seats were comfortable, the food was good, and the service was impeccable.

Soon, we were home. Our first heritage train ride had been memorable in more ways than one. Spotting & counting tunnels, a beautiful resort, soothing greenery all around, a salubrious weather, patriotic emotions, a candlelit dinner, & for the first time, liking Shimla…

We recommend an itinerary for four days, three nights:

Delhi – Shimla – Chail – Delhi

Day 0: Depart from Delhi by bus/ train.

Day 1: Arrive early morning at Shimla. Spend the day sightseeing specially Annandale, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, & The Ridge. Spend the night at Shimla British Resort.

Day 2: Hire a vehicle to take you to Mashobra/ Naldehra. Enjoy the journey! Night at Shimla British Resort.

Day 3: Checkout and head to Chail (a 2-hour drive). Check in at HPTDC The Chail Palace. Take a walk around and experience the former summer capital of the princely state of Patiala at its best.

Day 4: After an early breakfast, head to the Shimla railway station (2 hours again) to catch the trains back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It may snow during winter; so be prepared for the cold!

Recommended eats: Fruit chaat, Butter bun & Tea, Gol gappa

Recommended buys: Woolens, Handcrafted antiques, Tibetan floor coverings

P.S. The train bookings were done almost 3 months in advance. We kept a lookout on the ARS.

My Balcony in the Mountains

How we want our life to be – being able to hit the road every alternate weekend. And it has happened in the past; so why not cross our fingers for the future too? Soon after we returned from Kishangarh, we prepared to head to Nathuakhan, a small borough near Nainital in Uttarakhand, India.

Barely two weeks had passed. We had not even unpacked. (We brought ‘living out of a suitcase’ to life.) But it was sheer luck that we were getting long weekends in such quick succession. We wanted to make the best of it.

Going through yet another backdated issue of Outlook Traveler, the name of Bob’s Place sprung up. We Googled it. It fell completely in line with our idea of a holiday. A cottage in a small village, views of the Himalayas, away from crowds, home-cooked food, and no compulsion to do anything. So we got going.

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Sloped Roofs, Bricked Masonry, Well-Built Cottages

We had been to Kumaon quite a few times in the last one year. We knew which turn to take, which road to avoid, where to stop for bio breaks etc. We left on time but could not ditch the Ghaziabad – Hapur traffic.

We cursed our way to the highway which was a mix of gliding & bumping over potholes. Oh the things we do for travel! During our previous trip, we found out about a road via Camry that traversed villages but was at least pothole-free. We gave it a shot.

It was definitely better. It was still relatively unknown. There was less traffic. The roads had managed to stay in good condition. To take this route, first-timers will most definitely have to ask around.

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Not Nipping It In The Bud! Announcing The Arrival Of Spring…

Once we entered Uttarakhand, Rudrapur onwards, the roads were in good condition. Soon, we had a narrow road, flanked by trees on both sides, giving a natural shade. It was on these roads that we could finally put our guard down.

We noticed pink guavas by the roadside and bought a few. I had never eaten a pink guava. I was thrilled. Then I was disappointed; because the pink guavas were tasteless. They would taste fine with salt I guessed.

We alternated between the radio, CD and phone. We could not sit in a car without listening to music. We read the slogans and couplets written behind trucks and admired the profound wisdom our countrymen could share with us.

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The Tiny Dining Room Lit Up In Yellow – Very, Very Inviting

We found WelcomHeritage Bob’s Place on GPS and followed it till the point where we felt compelled to ask. We were told we had come to an alternate route. We could return about 20 kms and then take the correct route or we could continue on the alternate route.

The alternate route was ‘full of stones’ for 4 kms, and could scrape the bottom of the car, but we were assured we could manage. So we carried on. And it turned out to be an adventure of a trip.

The first few kms were fine. We thought we had been scared unnecessarily. Then, it hit us. For a good 4 kms, there was no road. ‘Full of stones’ was a generous description. It was a dust path covered by rocks and pebbles.

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Cobbled Steps, Shrubs & Vines – Isn’t It Right Out Of An English Classic?

It was maneuverable as we were going downhill. The rocks did not scrape the bottom but they did cut our tires. For the 4 kms, we were silent, taking long breaths, and praying for this to end quickly. Mercifully, it was 4 kms, neither more nor less.

After this stretch, the road returned. What we advise – once you reach Bhowali, ask around for the route to be taken for Nathuakhan. Do not follow the GPS blindly. On hilly terrains, GPS proved to be inaccurate for the second time for us.

The good old GPS-the rickshaw guy, the vegetable vendor, the traffic police personnel – still worked, irrespective of the surroundings! Remember you would need to cross Ramgarh to get to Nathuakhan. If you have not crossed Ramgarh, you are on the wrong road buddy!

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According To The Locals, Summer Had Arrived. Flowers Had Started Wilting!

After our mini adventure, we reached Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place was just a little ahead of the village ‘chowk’. It was on the road that led to Almora, Ranikhet, Kausani and Binsar, and had large red iron gates to welcome you.

A courteous staff member welcomed us and offered us a selection of rooms. Visiting places off-season gives us the benefit of being the only guests, and the luxury of choosing any room we desire.

Bob’s Place had standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones commanded a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones had sit-out areas but the view got diminished by the foliage.

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Who Wouldn’t Like To Have A Breakfast With Such A View?

We chose one of the higher rooms. It had a balcony which gave us breathtaking views and was especially delightful during sunrises and sunsets. The wooden cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater-we knew we were in good hands.

Oh! I did not mention the cold that greeted us. By March-end, most of north India starts burning. We, thus, did not expect it to be cold at the end of March but there was a definite need for light woolens. We were glad we carried the same.

Cold weather adds a tremendous amount of beauty to any place. When you are not sweating and protecting your eyes from the sun, you can enjoy your surroundings much more. When you are not looking for water every five minutes, you can soak in the calm and quiet better. Ah! Winters, come back soon!

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Did I see a face in that window? Naah! It’s just us here. Wait! What? 😀

This holiday was more for us to relax. So all we did in these two days was eat, sleep, read, write, listen to music and watch the sky change colors.

The food was prepared at the cottage and did not taste any different from what we eat at home. The ‘poha’ we had for breakfast was quite different though, and wonderfully so. It was made with ‘khada garam masala’. People who have eaten the Indian-style meat can imagine how good this tastes. The ‘masala chai’ was free-flowing too. Special mention of the chicken fry we got as our finale dinner. Do ask for it when you head to Bob’s Place.

For those who like their poison on-the-go, Nathuakhan has a country liquor store with few English brands available. So, if you have superior tastes or are fussy, I suggest you carry your alcohol.

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Being The Only Guest Meant We Could Trespass Freely…

On our first night here, we were shivering. The fireplace in the room looked inviting. Soon after it was lit, we were sweating. We had covered ourselves with a quilt. The fire was proving too hot to handle!

On top of that, we were apprehensive that we were breathing carbon monoxide. We might not survive to see the morning. If that did not happen, then something in the room would catch fire. It being made of wood, we would be roasted alive.

We laid awake for long staring at the fire, then threw open the door to let the CO out. The fire died soon after. We finally slept…

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We Found Ourselves Not So Alone…

Just before dawn, we crept to the door hoping to find a leopard/ panther sprawled on the balcony. We did find something; something from the feline family itself. A fat golden cat! It was lounging on the sofa to ward off the cold. We wish we get to see a leopard/ panther up close and personal soon.

The mountains got our creative juices flowing. We sat in the balcony, took a long look at the Himalayas, sighed at the sky that turned from orange to pink to purple to black, and got started on our post about Kishangarh.

We were both hooked onto our Bose SoundLink Mini. That tiny thing is as good as a home theater system. It is perfect for travel. The SoundLink fits into the palm of a hand. Once fully charged, it can play for almost two days. And the sound quality is fantastic – clarity & volume both. The SoundLink gets connected via both Bluetooth and USB. It has surely been a worthy purchase!

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The Changing Colors Never Fail To Amaze Us

Our favorites were songs from Queen and Highway. We curled up on the couch and listened to Sooha SA and Kinaare…

There were a number of walking trails nearby. The staff offered to guide us but we were not in a mood to move our limbs. We tried throwing darts on the dartboard. It looked like a simple thing but after three throws, none of which even hit the board, our arms hurt. We have respect for this seemingly simple sport.

The staff was plentiful, courteous and ready to help with pretty much anything. We had a dedicated guy who we found out was from Madhubani. He had worked at Bob’s Place for almost eight years then. He liked it here. The weather was good 🙂 All of us who live in the plains would never think twice about saying yes to the hills. He was soft-spoken and told us quite a bit about the surrounding regions.

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A Little Bit of This & That

Holidays always end sooner than anticipated. And it was time for us to head back. But so we did with our mind, body and soul rejuvenated. We think we can recommend an itinerary for five days, four nights for Kumaon:

Delhi- Dhanachuli- Nathuakhan- Delhi

Day 1: Depart from Delhi early and arrive at Dhanachuli by tea time. Spend the night at Te Aroha exploring the premises, specially the library, playing the piano and sipping ‘something’ on the balcony

Day 2: Have a day excursion/ trek to Mukteshwar. On a clear day, a lot of peaks are visible. If you are the religious kinds, say a quick prayer at the Shiva temple; it is one of the ‘Shakti peeths’.

Day 3: Checkout late and head to Nathuakhan. Check in at Bob’s Place. Get the fireplace going in the lounge and browse the innumerable books kept there

Day 4: After breakfast, head to Almora and/ or Ranikhet and spend the day soaking in the beauty of the British-established hill stations. Or go for one of the hill walks. Back to Bob’s for a chicken fry dinner

Day 5: Checkout and head back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It snows during winter, so be prepared to get trapped and enjoy more days of vacation!

Recommended eats: Poha & Chicken Fry at Bob’s Place

Recommended buys: Shawls, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora; Fruit spreads from Himjoli; Rhododendron juice

Soon back with a Garhwali taste. Till then, sip the rhododendron you folks!

How Chandratal Cleared My Muddled Head – Part III

This three-part series is my attempt to describe how the holy Moon Lake ‘Chandratal’ affected me. You can read Parts I & II here & here.

Part III

At my Chandratal camp, we were assisted by a cheerful & talkative lad called Santu. It has been more than a year since I met him, & yet I have been unable to forget him. As he served us piping hot tea, he narrated his story.

Cannot help falling in love
Cannot help falling in love

Hailing from the nearby village, Santu was neither the schooling kinds nor was he keen to follow what his forefathers did. He dropped out of school after class 8 & moved to Goa to do odd jobs. Soon, his adventurous (& undoubtedly Himachali) spirit beckoned.

Santu took up camping & hiking. Through training & practice, he mastered both. Now, in the inhospitable terrain of Spiti, he leads groups on treks, & waits at the various camps. He was the youngest in his family; I am pretty sure he had his own parental & peer pressures to deal with.

Still, the boy followed his heart & is now doing something he enjoys, and something which helps him support his family too. Most importantly, something constructive!

Woke up to this sight on Independence Day
Woke up to this on Independence Day

My lesson no. 3 from Chandratal – This was the time the stone pelting had started to gain momentum in the Kashmir valley. I could not help but compare Santu to the misguided youth of the valley.

One the one hand was a boy who charted his own path while still in school, and was today making money legally. On the other were those kids who had been brainwashed so easily to put their lives in jeopardy.

Santu made me believe that our destiny is what we want it to be – either to be seen in a negative light by an entire nation or to be remembered as an inspiration by a girl sitting miles away.

The rugged rugged Spitian terrain
The rugged Spitian terrain

Now the practical part – what to do near Chandratal?

  1. Well, the simplest option is to visit the Moon Lake. A day trip from Batal/ Losar/ Kaza is feasible.
  2. Do I recommend option 1? Not really. Camping at the Lake is far more fulfilling. If you prefer setting up your own tent, you can also hike your way to Chandratal from Batal (& pitch your tent wherever you feel tired!)
  3. The Baralacha La trek starts from Chandratal. So, if you are capable & willing to trek, go for it! Do remember – it’s not an easy one.
  4. For an absorbent soul like mine, the best way to spend time near the Lake is to soak in the sights & sounds, pay homage to the Indian Army and gape at the Chandrabhaga mountain range!

 

My trip extended beyond Chandratal to other parts of the Spiti Valley too, and each day brought in more learning, and yes, more memories. I humbly recommend to everyone – enjoy the journey too. Enjoy every moment, for you never know how your life may change!

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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