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!

10 Reasons Why We Love The Mountains

Thanks to the lousy day we had yesterday, we have been trying to escape mentally to the mountains. If you know us, we feel ourselves at home in the mountains. 2021 has been difficult for all of us but we have managed to cope on most of the days. However, occasionally, like yesterday, it gets tough.

As we process our thoughts, we seek solace in travelling back through memories. Why we dreamt of the mountains when inundated with sad emotions is something that made us curious. We narrowed down to 10 reasons why we love the mountains so much.

Tso Moriri, Ladakh, India

1. Memories

The mountains were a part of our childhoods, from road trips on the winding roads of Nepal to scaling gravity defying inclines in Darjeeling to trying yak cheese in Gangtok. As young adults, we remember freezing in the chilly winds of Chail & viewing surreal sights in the Scottish Highlands.

Our honeymoon was in Italy, but the standout memory is of viewing the Alps as we flew from Paris to Venice. We are lucky to have visited some amazing places & will continue to make more such memories.

Kyagar Tso, Ladakh

2. Delight

We are not keen on adventure sports, but walking & hiking are a part of us. When a hike takes us to a vantage spot, the adrenaline rush is exceptional. We get drunk by that sense of achievement. Physically we may say ‘no more’ but in our hearts, we know we will do it again.

3. Food

Chicken Thenthuk at The Tibetan Kitchen, Leh, Ladakh

Oh dear! This is triggering a major nostalgia. Mountain food is dainty! We always opt for the local cuisine & have seldom been disappointed. The steaming thukpa of the Tibetan – influence regions to the rajma – chawal (Indian style kidney beans with rice) of the lower Himalayas, we have always had a plethora of options when we visit the mountains.

& how can we not mention the freshly baked goods of hill stations which were home to British colonists!

4. Freedom

Dawn at Leh

When we have stood on the top of a mountain, freedom has been our dominant emotion. For those of us who live in the Indian plains, the warm Sun on our cheeks is welcome for a change. As we inhale the fresh air, with every breath, we exhale the word ‘freedom’.

5. Inactivity

There can be much to do in the mountains but there is always an option to relax. We love the fact that there is no pressure to dress up & complete a checklist of sights to see. There have been mountain trips when we have just lazed in the gardens of our accommodations, looked at the sky change colours, & listened to the birds chirp.

Spotting Indian Bisons at Dhupgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India

The pace of life for the locals is easy-going too & that can be infectious!

6. Landscapes

For those of us who live in Delhi NCR, the Himalayas are our chance of awesome panoramas. There is no better way to escape reality in our opinion. When we are in the mountains for a break, we are in awe of life every single day.

A misty morning at Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh

If dramatic scenes do not make us believe in the beauty of life, we doubt anything else can.

7. People

OMG! We could write pages on this. We have met such beautiful people in the mountains. Their life outlook is different from ours & something to take inspiration from. They know the value of life & they do not take anything for granted.

A dramatic sunset at Lodwick Point, Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra, India

We cannot forget the ladies we met in Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh – the friendliest people we have ever come across.

8. Seasons

Be it any season, the mountains remain extraordinary. The breeze of spring, the rivers of summer, the yellowing leaves of autumn, the bone chilling cold of winter – each season has a distinctive vibe & must be experienced.

Mashobra, Himachal Pradesh, India

9. Travel

Our appetite for the mountains has taken us to impressive places – high altitude deserts of Ladakh, lush green hills of Satpura, rainfed forests of Western Ghats, umpteen hamlets of Himachal, warm hospitality of Bhutan, birds of Uttarakhand, Rift Valley of Kenya, safety of Sikkim, rice fields & volcanos of Bali, spooky Scottish Highlands, Great Wall in China, mountainous island of Kauai, undulating streets of Hong Kong, breath-taking valleys of Kashmir, cable car rides of Langkawi, vineyards of Chianti, Blue Mountains of Australia

To each of these places, we have said, ‘we will be back’ & we do dream of returning but we also realise life is too short to keep seeing the same places. So, we continue to revisit these places in our hearts!

Punakha, Bhutan

10. Ambition

Every day we dream of the mountains. Every day we envisage our forever home in the mountains. This becomes more pronounced in the summer when we feel ourselves melting under the Sun. & also in winter because the very thought of snow surrounding us is delicious (even if inconvenient).

We do not know if & when our forever mountain home will materialise but that does not stop us from daydreaming.

Rift Valley, Kenya

It may take a while, but we will be back in the mountains at the first safe opportunity. Breathe in that fresh air & make those memories again. Till then, we are staying home, staying safe, & hope you are too!

Strawberry Overdose Let's Go Sightseeing!

How can you spend a couple of days in Mahabaleshwar? This episode tells you how. Also available as a blog post: https://letsgosightseeing.blog/2021/06/03/strawberry-overdose/
  1. Strawberry Overdose
  2. 10 Reasons Why We Love The Mountains

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.

Nathdwara

A Quick Halt at The Shrinathji Mandir

On our Jaipur to Udaipur stretch of the Rajasthan road trip, Nathdwara (351 KMS from Jaipur) turned out to be an impromptu halt. On a whim, we turned inside from the highway to bow our heads to Shrinathji (a form of Lord Krishna). We write the key points from our visit here.

1     But First – What’s Unique About The Temple?

Shrinathji Temple is known as Haveli (mansion) of Shrinathji. The haveli itself is fortified & was the Mewar royalty’s palace at one point of time. Interestingly, the haveli has amenities/ rooms for different purposes – chariot, betel storeroom, flower storeroom, jewelry chamber, horse stable, gold & silver grinding wheel etc.

statue of belief, nathdwara, rajasthan, india
Statue of Belief under construction

Shrinathji is not seen as a God but as the Lord of the Mansion. So, the form of worship is unusual – service to the living image. The Lord is attended with daily functions like bathing, meals etc. Moreover, as He is a form of Lord Krishna as a child, special care is taken. (Shrinathji has a nap time, play time etc.)

Now, as Shrinathji is a living image, He can be met (seen) only a finite number of times a day. Thus, devotees & visitors can do the darshan only eight times a day when His aarti & shringar (dressing up & beautifying) take place. The darshan timings, according to the official website, are:

AartiTimings
Mangal Aarti5:15 am to 6:00 am
Shringar Aarti7:15 am to 7:45 am
Gwal Aarti9:15 am to 9:30 am
Rajbhog Aarti11:15 am to 12:05 pm
Uthapan Aarti3:30 pm to 3:45 pm
Bhog Aarti4:45 pm to 5:00 pm
Sandhya Aarti5:15 pm to 6:00 pm
Shayan6:50 pm to 7:30 pm

1.1   We Recommend –

  1. Plan to spend a night at Nathdwara. The different darshans have different meanings. Try to see more than one.
  2. If you cannot spend a night, time your visit appropriately. It would be heartbreaking to reach all the way here only to find out that you cannot see the Lord.
  3. As mentioned above, there are multiple parts in the haveli. Try to see them all.
Photography outside the temple as it is prohibited inside!

2     Finding The Temple

Once we turned in from the highway, we kept going around in circles trying to find the temple. GPS was of no help. We must have maneuvered through multiple narrow alleys before a kind traffic policeman advised us to ditch the car & run as it was almost time for the Shayan, our last chance to see Shrinathji.

Unfortunately, there was no parking in sight. We did not want to leave our vehicle on the road either. Finally, another kind soul told us the way to a gaushala (cow shelter). There was space to park & a shortcut through the gaushala to the temple, though uphill.

2.1   We Recommend –

  1. If you are staying at Nathdwara, take local transport to the temple.
  2. If you are just visiting, there is a parking lot on the highway itself. Park your vehicle there & use public transport to get to the temple.
  3. If, like us, you are lost in the lanes, ask locals. Do not rely on GPS.
Running up the incline to be in time for Shayan!

3     Darshan

We literally ran up the incline to be just in time for the last darshan of the day. Like mentioned above, the idol of Shrinathji is open for public viewing only eight times a day. As we did not have a plan to stay in Nathdwara, we had to make it to the last viewing.

Luckily, we reached in time, even after depositing our cameras, phones, shoes & wallets at the storeroom. People were still scattered around.

The curtains were drawn within a few minutes. It seems the entire place came alive as soon as that happened. The crowd thronged towards the viewing queue, separate for men & women. We did not have to make any effort to move forward; the crowd carried us along! 😀

The darshan time is small as all the devotees need to be accommodated in the 45-minute window. So, do not expect to get a leisurely time to pray. And, do not even think of getting distracted, as it could be a blink-and-you-miss-it situation. 😊

Sunset on our way down…

The atmosphere was emotionally charged with devotees getting overwhelmed. We believe people from far & wide come to catch a glimpse of the Lord.

3.1   We Recommend –

  1. Keep time available for the security checks & for depositing your belongings.
  2. Photography is prohibited inside the temple. Leave your camera behind.
  3. Keep your balance in the crowd. You would not want to fall down & be trampled upon, would you?
  4. Keep your eyes focused to see the Shrinathji idol. It is a small time-frame. Do not get distracted.
  5. It is, after all, a crowded place. Keep your wits about you. Do not hesitate to ask for help if you feel the need.

4     Getting Out

Outside the temple, there are scores of small shops selling idols & photographs of Shrinathji as well as material for worship. We bought a few memorabilia & had cups of tea.

We then used the earlier route & climbed down the incline towards our vehicle. It was now that we realized we were essentially walking between houses. At one spot, we saw the sun going down. At another, we came across a group of men huddled around a fire, right under a sign that read – “Do not idle around”! 😀

(As we clicked the signboard, the men began to laugh. We turned out, grinned & clicked them as well. Nothing breaks barriers as humor does. Do not leave your sense of humor behind when you go sightseeing!)

We made our way back to the highway & started towards Udaipur. Just then, we spotted a large Shiva statue, under construction, by the highway. A little googling told us it is called Statue of Belief. It was expected to complete in August 2019. We, unfortunately, do not have an update if it is open to public now. But, once it is, it will be worth visiting as it will be the second tallest statue in India.

HAVE YOU VISITED NATHDWARA?

Jaipur

The Pink City In 36 Hours

We had been to Jaipur earlier but never as a tourist. One time for work, the other time to shop. So, when we were drawing up our itinerary for the Rajasthan road trip, we knew we had to include the pink city. It was our first destination.

The First Evening

Laghu Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar
Laghu Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar

Stopping just for a brunch in Behror (146 KMS from our starting point), we were at our home stay in Jaipur (143 KMS from Behror) by early evening. A cup of tea later, we were out shopping & dining.

Our shopping spots for the evening were Gulab Chand Prints & Neerja International.

Gulab Chand Prints

Rajasthan has a Geographical Indication tag for Bagru & Sanganeri block prints. Gulab Chand was an excellent place to pick the same. We picked stuff up not just for ourselves but also to carry home as mementos.

Mubarak Mahal, City Palace
Mubarak Mahal, City Palace

The prices were economical, thus sparing us the need to bargain. We picked Bagru print sarees, a Sanganeri print dress material, & a printed men’s half-shirt. The shirt had peacocks block printed on it – so cute!

The collection at Gulab Chand Prints stretches to home linen & upholstery too. We got adequate attention from the salesmen. Must visit & must buy!

Neerja International

It’s easy to go crazy here. The blue pottery artifacts are colorful & extremely attractive. We were oohing & aahing at all the wares on display. A pity we couldn’t pick the big pots & vases, as taking them back would have been a challenge, but they were gorgeous. Everything was!

blue pottery
Blue pottery love!

The prices were on the higher side, but the quality was great. We picked up an earrings & necklace set in blue pottery as a memento.

We’d been recommended Spice Court by our hosts for our dinner.

Spice Court

The restaurant had quite a waiting. Luckily, there was a seating area in their cafe (Dzurt) where we’d a cold coffee while we waited. Dzurt seemed quite a hit with the locals. Our cold coffee was delectable. A glass was as good as a light meal for one person. The cafe had a nice, chill vibe, with a soothing white decor.

Keema Baati, Missi Roti, Safed Maas, Spice Court, Jaipur
Keema Baati, Missi Roti, Safed Maas

Once we were seated in Spice Court, we couldn’t help noticing the interiors; they resembled a colonial dining room, with mellow lighting & quite elegant in appearance. The service was quick; the servers were courteous & did a great job of recommending dishes to us.

We’d Keema Baati & Safed Maas with Missi Roti. Both the items were delicious but quite heavy. Between the two of us, we couldn’t finish. (Our desire of sampling the tasty – looking desserts at Dzurt went for a toss too.)

By the end of our meal, we could figure out why Spice Court is highly recommended.

THE NEXT DAY

Naqqar Darwaza

Fresh after a restful night, we were ready to explore Jaipur. After breakfast, we drove to the City Palace & parked our car in the parking available in the courtyard behind Naqqar Darwaza.

After the City Palace, we visited the Jantar Mantar & then strolled through the Johri Bazar to reach Hawa Mahal & Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar (for lunch). We then drove to Amber (8 KMS from Jaipur) to see the fort and for the light & sound show.

We ended the day at Jammie’s Kitchen.

City Palace

Rajendra Pol/ Sarhad Ki Deohri, City Palace, Jaipur
Rajendra Pol/ Sarhad Ki Deohri, City Palace

One may feel the City Palace ticket is expensive but it’s worth it. This Palace is not as well-known as its Udaipur counterpart but is grand, nonetheless. A buggy is available to visitors, for a fee, to take a round of the premises.

The City Palace has many courtyards & buildings. So, don’t rush your visit. A few parts we loved:

  • The Mubarak Mahal facade has a hanging balcony; the carving gives an illusion of a decoupage.
  • All the gates (Pol) have beautiful marble inlay work.
  • The Greek design on the marble floor of the Sarvato Bhadra is eye-catching.
  • The Chandra Mahal is the residence of the royal family.
  • The Peacock Gate in the Pritam Niwas Chowk is outstanding.

Jantar Mantar

Vrihat Samrat Yantra, Chakra Yantra, Jantar Mantar, Jaipur
Vrihat Samrat Yantra on the left. Chakra Yantra on the right.

The Jantar Mantar is across the road from the City Palace. We purchased a composite ticket that included entries to both Jantar Mantar & Amber Fort (& also to Albert Hall, Hawa Mahal, Isarlat, Nahargarh Fort, Sisodia Rani Garden, & Vidhyadhar Garden). (You can book these tickets online too.)

The innovative architectural instruments are designed to observe astronomical positions with the naked eye. It’s quite pointless to come here without a guide as you can’t understand the instruments on your own.

We were awestruck with the masonry of the instruments! Noteworthy were the:

  • Digamsha Yantra which calculates sunrise & sunset timings & the solar azimuth angle
  • Laghu Samrat Yantra (small sundial)
  • Vrihat Samrat Yantra (‘great king of instruments’) – It’s the largest sundial ever built.
  • Chakra Yantra
Digamsha Yantra, Jantar Mantar, Jaipur
Digamsha Yantra

Hawa Mahal

The Hawa Mahal is at a walking distance from the City Palace/ Jantar Mantar. It’s in the shape of Lord Krishna’s crown. The Mahal has jharokhas (windows) on its decorated facade. Do note that it’s almost impossible to find this place sans people.

You can buy a ticket & go inside too; we chose not to.

Johri Bazar

Johri Bazar
Johri Bazar

This market is a great place to buy anything & everything. If you’re looking for traditional Rajasthani items, you’ll be spoilt for choice here. If you’re looking for wedding – related finery, this is the place.

The entire market has been made in a consistent color scheme of ‘Pink City’ giving it a charming look. Do note there’s no parking available here. So, leave your car behind & catch a public transport.

Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar

It was our second visit here after more than five years. But nothing seems to have changed. They have a shop in the front & seating space at the back. We hogged on Dal Kachori, Mirchi Vada, Pyaz Kachori, Samosa, Stuffed Paratha, Sweet Lassi, & Virgin Toddy. Oh, the kachoris are delectable!

Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar
Where delicious magic happens…

The restaurant is always crowded but the service is quick.

Amber Fort

After that kind of a lunch, we were just too full to scale a fort. Also, there seemed to be hordes of visitors. So, we parked in the Amber Fort parking & promptly dozed off! Of course, the winter afternoon sun helped!! Around 4 PM, the crowds started thinning. That’s when we took our car up from the back alleys right to the top of the hillock on which the fort is built.

Inside the Amber Fort, all the structures are captivating & have immense history behind them – Suraj Pol, Jaleb Chowk, Diwan – i – Aam, Shri Shila Devi Ji Mandir, Ganesh Pol (awe-inspiring), Sukh Niwas, Diwan – i – Khaas (beautiful glass work), & Chand Pol.

Fresco, Amber Fort
Fresco at Amber Fort

The architecture is a blend of the Mughal & Rajput styles. The fort base is made up of the Maota Lake, which was sadly almost dry when we visited. The Amber Fort wall is the third longest wall in the world.

We recommend taking a guide (though the guide is sure to take you to one of the commission shops).

Amber Fort Light & Sound Show

Post sunset, we headed to the Kesar Kyari for the Light & Sound Show. A good way to grasp the history of the Kachwaha Rajput royalty & understand it in relation to the Mughals! The Rajput royals’ lifestyle, story & tradition is enamoring.

Amber Fort, Light & Sound Show
Amber Fort lit up during the Light & Sound Show

The narration was good, the lighting average. In the winter months, it can get cold to sit in the open; so, ensure you wear enough warm clothes. There is no parking around the amphitheater; you must park in the main lot & then either walk or take a gypsy ride for a fee.

On our way back from Amber, we took a detour to Albert Hall Museum. You cannot possibly miss this piece de resistance… A fine example of Indo – Saracenic architecture! It was made prettier with the colorful lighting.

Jammie’s Kitchen

Jammie’s Kitchen is cozy & feels like you’re eating in someone’s home. The butter chicken was highly recommended at this restaurant; unfortunately, it came out as average to us.

Bacon Wrapped Chicken, Jammie's Kitchen, Jaipur
Bacon Wrapped Chicken

We had Bacon Wrapped Chicken, Butter Chicken, Chicken Clear Soup & Plain Tandoori Roti. All the dishes (& the service) were average.

The Last Morning

It was time to head to our next destination but only after a hearty breakfast & selfies with our hosts!

Accommodation

Jaipur Friendly Villa, home stay
Warmth at the Jaipur Friendly Villa

At Jaipur Friendly Villa, it didn’t seem we were meeting the Mehras for the first time. Sir & Ma’am have built a cozy home that they open with warmth to tourists. We reached here by early evening & were welcomed with hot tea. Over tea, the Mehras recommended to us the eating, seeing & shopping spots of Jaipur. & all their suggestions turned out to be on-point!

Our room was adequately sized with all amenities (including a kitchenette). It was January & there was no dearth of warm water. Across our room was a large balcony where we could dry our towels etc. & sun ourselves – though we never got the time.

The breakfast spreads were more than we expected from a home stay – Banana bread (yum), Bread omelet, Cornflakes with milk, Samosa, Tea, Upma, & Uthappam.

They had a foreign couple staying at the same time. All of us had a nice time around the breakfast table, sharing cultural stories.

Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur
Albert Hall Museum

The location is excellent. JFV is nestled in a residential area but the old city is hardly 15 minutes’ drive from here. Parking is available right in front of the house. It sounds cliched, but this was truly a home away from home.

ROAD TRIPPING THROUGH RAJASTHAN

Living in Delhi NCR, a trip to Rajasthan becomes almost compulsory every winter. In the past, we’ve made short trips to Churu, to Jaipur, to Kishangarh, to Pushkar, to Ranthambhore, & to Sariska.

City Palace, Jaipur
City Palace, Jaipur

However, in 2019, we decided to do a proper, week long road trip of the desert state, flitting from place to place. Why a Rajasthan road trip you ask? Well, where else can you get a combination of culture, heritage, history, good food, an arid landscape, & tonnes of color?

We’d nine days to spare around Republic Day. We also have a principle of not driving more than 300 kilometers in a day. We feel it’s an optimal distance – covering fair ground, not too tiring, & gives scope to sight see on the way.

With these points in mind, we chose the route of NCR – Jaipur – Udaipur – Jodhpur – Mandawa – NCR. A few of these places were repetitive for us, but we’d not visited these as a couple. So, our itinerary looked something like this –

Amer Fort, Amer
Amer Fort, Amer

Saturday, 26 January 2019 – NCR to Jaipur (289 KMS)

We left on time, had brunch in Behror (146 KMS), & were in Jaipur by afternoon. A cup of tea later, we were out shopping & dining. Overnight in Jaipur.

Sunday, 27 January 2019 – Jaipur & Amer sightseeing

Jagdish Temple, Udaipur
Jagdish Temple, Udaipur

After breakfast, we visited City Palace & Jantar Mantar, strolled through Johari Bazar to reach Hawa Mahal & Laxmi Mishthan Bhandaar (where we’d lunch), & then to Amer (8 KMS from Jaipur) for seeing the fort and the light & sound show.

Back to Jaipur for dinner & overnight stay.

Monday, 28 January 2019 – Jaipur to Udaipur (391 KMS)

Ranakpur Jain Temple, Ranakpur
Jain Temple, Ranakpur

We began after breakfast & halted at Kishangarh (102 KMS) to buy marble products in its famed marble market. We’d made an exception today & chosen ~400 KMS. So, today was going to be a long drive. We stopped for lunch at a dhaba in Kishanpura.

We were crossing Nathdwara (248 KMS from Kishangarh) in the evening when we spontaneously took a break to visit Shrinathji. We finally reached Udaipur by late evening. After refreshing, we headed out for dinner. Overnight in Udaipur.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019 – Udaipur sightseeing

Guda Bishnoi Wildlife Safari, Jodhpur
Guda Bishnoi Wildlife Safari, Jodhpur

Done with breakfast, we visited City Palace Museum, Jagdish Mandir & Bagore Ki Haveli. We ate lunch at a lakefront, rooftop restaurant. We made our way to Chetak Smarak & were back in time for sunset watching at The Sunset Terrace.

We ended the night with the light & sound show at the City Palace, & then dinner. Overnight in Udaipur.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019 – Udaipur to Jodhpur (253 KMS)

Jhunjhunuwala Haveli, Mandawa
Jhunjhunuwala Haveli, Mandawa

We started for Jodhpur after breakfast & a little before lunchtime, we were at Ranakpur (84 KMS). We visited the Jain temple & then lunched at Ranakpur itself. We were at our Jodhpur hotel by early evening. We just went out for dinner tonight.

Overnight in Jodhpur.

Thursday, 31 January 2019 – Jodhpur sightseeing

Mubarak Mahal, Welcome Palace, City Palace, Jaipur
Mubarak Mahal (Welcome Palace), City Palace, Jaipur

We began our day with a safari in the Guda Bishnoi village areas (24 KMS). The first half of the day was spent in visiting a traditional Bishnoi household & spotting wildlife in the surrounding areas. We returned to the city for lunch & then visited the Mehrangarh Fort.

The Fort visit was followed by a sun downer, a walk in the Sardar market, seeing Ghanta Ghar, & an early dinner consisting of local specialties. Overnight in Jodhpur.

Friday, 1 February 2019 – Jodhpur to Mandawa (320 KMS)

town of 365 temples, Amer
The town of 365 temples – Amer

This stretch of the road was horrible. We reached Mandawa by afternoon & went for a walking tour of the town in the evening. Back to hotel for dinner & overnight stay.

Saturday, 2 February 2019 – Mandawa to NCR (275 KMS)

We’d kept this day open, thinking if we needed more time in Mandawa, we’ll stick around for a day more. But we managed to see a fair number of havelis on our first evening itself, & thus, decided to head home today.

Mohan Mandir, Lake Pichola, Udaipur
Mohan Mandir on Lake Pichola, Udaipur

Wondering why we’ve made such a brief post? 😀 It’s because we intend to write detailed posts for each of these four destinations. This blog post was to give an overview of how a week long road trip can be planned for Rajasthan.

Stay tuned for our post on Jaipur!

P. S. There can be endless variations of this road trip. E.g.

Clean & quiet temple, Ranakpur
Clean & quiet temple, Ranakpur

NCR – Churu – Pushkar – Udaipur – Kishangarh – Surajgarh – NCR

NCR – Jaipur – Ajmer – Churu – Surajgarh – NCR

NCR – Mandawa – Ajmer – Surajgarh – NCR etc.

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.

thrill, emergency airstrip, agra lucknow expressway, uttar pradesh, india
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.

splurge, anniversary, lebua, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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…

cheers, sightseeing, saraca, lebua, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india, long island iced tea, mojito
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

berserk, vintage, lebua, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

large, vault, center, chamber, bara imam bara, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

Bara Imam Bara, roof, uttar pradesh, lucknow, india
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.

shahi baoli, bara imam bara complex, royal stepwell, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

Rumi Darwaza, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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!

View, Husainabad Picture Gallery, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

Chota Imam Bara, entrance, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

Chota Imam Bara, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

naubat khana, chota imam bara, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

jama masjid, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

Mutton Nahari, Qulcha. raheem qulcha nahari, chowk, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

phool wali gali, chowk, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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!

Galawat Kebab, The Mughals Dastarkhwan, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

lucknow charbagh railway station, uttar pradesh, india
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…

Street, Lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

Charm, lebua, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
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.

Masai Mara National Reserve – All The Practical Stuff!

When we began our research for the Masai Mara National Reserve, we found information to be scattered across the Internet. Climate information at one place, visa at another, what to carry at yet another… We made a mental note then itself that we would list down the useful bits at one place when we got back!

So, without much preamble, listing down the top 10 things you need to keep in mind if you are planning a trip to the beautiful Masai Mara.

‘Spotted Land’

1. Best Time to Go – We will not get into what the Great Migration is. But just suffice to say that it is the BEST time to visit the Mara if you want to see thousands of animals. July – September is the time when the wild beasts move from Tanzania to Kenya; they return to Tanzania in January – March.

Jul – Sep is the busiest time of the year for the National Reserve. So, make your bookings well in advance. The costs will be inflated in this quarter, but if you delay, there is a likelihood of not getting accommodation/ vehicles at all. We finalized our trip in June to travel in August! <facepalm>

2. Getting There – There is no direct connectivity to the Reserve. The closest international airport is Nairobi. For Indians, while there are direct flights from Mumbai to Nairobi, this does not hold for New Delhi. There are innumerable options available for hopping – either through Mumbai or to one of the many cities in the middle east.

big 5, cape buffalo
Our first Big 5 sighting! The Cape Buffalo, a distant cousin of our very own Bhainsa!

We chose the route of New Delhi – Muscat – Nairobi by Oman Air.

3. Visa for Indians – Kenya has a convenient e-visa system. Go to the visa website, create an account, fill out the application form, & pay the visa fee online. Once your e-visa is approved, you can download the PDF on your handheld device to use during immigration.

As a tourist, you will be eligible for a Single-Entry Visa.

african bush elephant
It’s said the African Bush Elephant has ears resembling the map of Africa. We can see why it’s so…

4. Yellow Fever Vaccination – The Yellow Fever Vaccine is needed by those traveling to certain African countries. There are specific places that are authorized to give this vaccination – a simple google search will throw up the names. However, note that each of these places have either a booking system or a specific day/ time when they give this vaccine. So, it is not like you can simply walk in & get this done.

We got ours done at Public Health Lab Building, Delhi. There is a registration window lasting till 10:30 AM; the vaccination begins at 11 AM. If you are aware of your allergies (especially egg – related allergies), please let the officer-in-charge know upfront.

Please note – you have to carry your passport for the vaccination.

sunset
Suckers for sunsets – that’s what we are!

5. Weather – Being close to the Equator, the weather is cooler from July to September. It is cold in early morning & late evening. For our sunrise & sunset safaris, & for our dinners, we would step out with a jacket.

We recommend carrying a light jacket at least; it will be useful in the Savannah (the temperatures can be even lower there). Typically, these months also see a bit of rainfall but we were lucky to have avoided it.

The Jacuzzi looked inviting as the Sun shone overhead. But the moment we got in, we froze to our bones & emerged promptly with chattering teeth.

african hoopoe
The African Hoopoe asked us to say ‘hi’ to the Eurasian Hoopoe found in India.

6. The Sun – The weather is pleasant but the direct Sun is strong. Walking in the Sun made us sweat like pigs. But the moment we entered the shade, it became nippy. Also, the wind was never hot. We recommend carrying a cap/ hat & sunglasses.

7. Travel Agency – As it was our first trip to Africa, we were unsure of what to expect. We felt it practical to use a travel agency. We found agencies ranging from INR 3L to INR 10L! So, irrespective of your budget, you will be able to find an agency.

We availed the services of Kiboko Kenya Safaris; read our review here.

masai giraffe
“Where are you going sister?” “Don’t you know? There’s a sale going on in Zara!”

8. Accommodation – There is no dearth of accommodation in & around the Masai Mara National Reserve. Unlike India, where staying inside forest reserves is not allowed, the Masai Mara has plenty of options inside the reserve itself. In terms of quality, there is no difference. However, the camps/ resorts within the national reserve come with an added bonus of animal noises at night!

We stayed at Sentrim Mara -& had a great time there.

9. Food – A complete nonissue! Many people are wary of traveling to Africa as they have preconceived notions about the food. If you have any such notions, dispel them immediately. We did not have any problem of finding food suitable to our palate. African, European & Indian foods are available aplenty.

rhinoceros
A rhinoceros crossed the road & attempted to climb back up on the other side. It was a struggle for the rhino, but for us, it made an amusing sight…

Kenya has a sizable Indian diaspora; thus, Indian food is extremely common. Plenty of vegetarian options available too!

10. Clothing – Like with any wildlife safari, it is better to wear earthy, muted tones. Wear fully-covered clothing to prevent insect bites & sunburn/ tan. We wore full-legged pants on all the days, yet got bitten by microscopic insects.

11. Bio Breaks During Game Drives – We were worried about the loo aspect as we are high water drinkers. The sunrise/ sunset safaris last for two hours typically. That is a manageable time for not using a loo. In a full day game drive, the driver makes two stops, at intervals of about three hours.

migration, wildebeest, zebra, tanzania, kenya
Wildebeest & zebras had started making their way from Tanzania to Kenya. Zebras are the smart/ opportunistic ones in this scheme… They follow the wildebeest’s lead to get to Kenya, & once here, abandon the wildebeest (who have the memory of a goldfish & sometimes end up going back the way they came)!

For us, one of the stops was in a lodge where the loo was clean & easy to use. The other stop was in a public facility, which was basically a hole in the ground! We dehydrated ourselves a bit to avoid getting our bladders full.

But we will advise against not drinking water at all, because the Sun will compel you to. Drink in moderation, so that you do not end up uncomfortable.

12. Safety – We traveled during daylight hours. Our driver stopped at respectable places. Safety was not a challenge for us, neither should it be for you.

cheetah, grassland
See the cheetahs lazing in the grassland…

In the reserve & the camp, pay heed to security warnings issued by the guide/ management. You are in wildlife territory. Leopards & hyenas are known to wander into human areas. Maybe they are as curious about us as we are about them!

13. Game Drive – Drives are carried out in two kinds of vehicles – vans & Land Cruisers. While both are customized for game watching, we feel the Land Cruiser is a more comfortable, more spacious, & thus, a better option.

Also, you can opt for a dedicated vehicle or a shared one. The dedicated vehicle is expensive undoubtedly, but it is value for money. We had a dedicated vehicle with just the two of us in it! It made our movement within the vehicle to take photos from different angles extremely easy.

There’s no bigger source of GK than travel! We figured how a Land Cruiser could be converted into a safari vehicle, with a detachable top.

There are three kinds of safaris – sunrise, full day & sunset. The sunrise & sunset game drives last for a couple of hours. The full day drive is from 8 AM to 3 PM.

a. Sunrise Safari – You enter the Masai Mara National Reserve a little before the sun rises. Witness the sunrise against a backdrop of wildlife & acacia trees. The hot air balloon rides take place at this hour, & make for pretty photographs.

The sunrise game drive is the best time to see the big cats in action, as well as nocturnal animals heading home. We saw a hyena, a jackal & a serval cat slinking away after a night of notoriety. We then saw a display of ‘Might Is Right’ between a honeymooning lion & lioness, and a cheetah. Read this story here.

african pied wagtail
An African Pied Wagtail refuses to turn its head.

i. Birds Spotted – Common Ostrich, Yellow-Fronted Canary

ii. Mammals Spotted – Plains Zebra, Cape Buffalo, Thomson’s Gazelle, East African jackal, African Bush Elephant, Cheetah, East African Lion, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest

b. Full Day Drive – Alfred got our lunch packed & we headed out for a day of wildlife spotting. This safari is great to see the most number & variety of animals.

lion, lioness, grassland, camouflage
Quite difficult to ascertain lions & lionesses in the grasslands, so perfect was the camouflage

i. Birds Spotted – African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-billed Ox-pecker, Common Ostrich, Rufous – Naped Lark, African Wattled Lapwing, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Yellow-Fronted Canary, Slate – Coloured Boubou, Hildebrandt’s Starling, Egyptian Goose, White-Bellied Bustard, Scaly Francolin, White-Backed Vulture, Lilac Breasted Roller, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Superb Starling, Abbott’s Starling, White-Faced Whistling Ducks, Yellow-Billed Stork, Maribou Stork, Lappet-Faced Vulture

ii. Mammals Spotted – Thomson’s Gazelle, Black Rhinoceros, Impala, Plains Zebra, Wildebeest, Hippopotamus, Common Eland, African Bush Elephant, Olive Baboon, East African Defassa Waterbuck, Warthog, Coke’s Hartebeest, Masai Giraffe, East African Lion

iii. Reptiles Spotted – Agama Lizard, Nile Crocodile

yellow billed ox pecker
Yellow-billed Ox-pecker neighbors look on enviously

c. Sunset Game Drive – This afternoon/ early evening drive is the time when birds are returning to their nests & herbivores have stuffed themselves full! The afternoon Sun is not conducive for the Big Cats; you find them hidden under bushes (lion), hidden in the tall grass (cheetah), or plain hidden (leopard)! So, do not expect to see great action from the Big Cats now. However, the sunset hour is a good time to see raptors.

i. Birds Spotted – Lilac – Breasted Roller, Superb Starling, African Hoopoe, Tawny Eagle, Ruppell’s Vulture, Bateleur, African White-backed Vultures, Ring-Necked Dove, Anteater Chat, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Bare-Faced Go-Away-Bird, African Wattled Lapwing, Little Bee-Eater

ii. Mammals Spotted – African Bush Elephant, Plains Zebra, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest, Common Eland, Cape Buffalo, East African Lion

rufous naped lark
A Rufous – Naped Lark ready to take off

14. Road Condition – From Nairobi, if you take the road to the Masai Mara National Reserve (the alternative is an aircraft), be prepared for bad roads. When we say bad, we mean ‘India of the 80s’ bad. The last 50 kms to reach the Masai Mara are nightmarish.

Kenya is sparsely populated. So, you do not see many human beings, but certainly Chinese trucks. Thanks to the rapid construction, trucks ferrying goods can be seen. You can spot under construction highways, railway lines etc.

While we did not see any animals on our way to the Mara, but the day we left from there, in the early morning hours, we kept spotting wild animals for many kilometers, even after we had exited the reserve area.

cinnamon chested bee eater
A Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater had to be clicked!

15. Tipping – Kenyans expect a tip, & can be blunt about asking for it. Ensure you have adequate change on you.

Phew! We believe we have covered all the practical aspects that we wished we knew before going. If there is anything more you would like to know, please feel free to leave a comment; we will answer it to the best of our knowledge.

Cruising Along The Indian West Coast

The 2009 edition of Outlook Traveler spoke of the Mumbai to Goa drive enjoying cult status. The NH17, fondly remembered as NH66, ran along the western coast of India. At a few places, it came at a stone’s throw distance from the Arabian Sea. It sounded exciting.

Arabian Sea, Maravanthe
This is how close to the sea we would drive at times…

So, for our 2017 annual domestic trip, we chose the Western Ghats & the Indian west coast. It was in line with our lets-see-the-country-at-least-before-we-die plan. When we started studying about the NH66, we found that it ran from Panvel to Kanyakumari. We were thrilled! We had ~10 days to spare. We could do a longer stretch than just Mumbai to Goa.

After extensive research & iterations, we narrowed down to a return trip of ~2,100 kilometers: Mumbai- Ganpati Phule- Gokarna- Kannur- Karwar- Panchgani- Mumbai.

The only reason we could not go till Kanyakumari: we had to return to Mumbai to drop off the rented self-drive car. Self-drive car rentals in India do not have the feature of different pick & drop points yet. & 10 days were inadequate to go till Kanyakumari AND return to Mumbai. So, the remaining stretch in maybe another trip!

Karnataka, Kerala, backwater, NH66
In South Karnataka & North Kerala, we crossed many backwater channels…

 

maravanthe beach, unknown, people, frolic, water, truck driver, punjab, bihar, northeast
Maravanthe Beach… unknown… where the only people who stop to frolic in the waters are truck drivers hailing all the way from Punjab, Bihar & the Northeast.

Most of our road trip was on the NH66. Here & there, we touched SH92 (in Maharashtra), SH34 (Karnataka), NH48 (Maharashtra), & the Mumbai- Pune Expressway (Maharashtra). SH92 connects the NH48 to the NH66, traversing through villages to give you a view of rural Maharashtra. SH34 is a beautiful, well-maintained hilly stretch running through the Kali Tiger Reserve & Dandeli, the river rafting paradise of west India. NH48 & Mumbai- Pune Expressway are typical highways: wide roads, straight-line driving & limited scenery.

kali tiger reserve, wonder, green belt, smooth road
SH34 | Crossing the Kali Tiger Reserve – A wonderful green belt with smooth roads

nh66, nh48, turn, scenery
After NH66, NH48 was boring. Not many turns, not much scenery…

But this post is about the NH66. On our first stretch (Mumbai to Ganpati Phule), the highway zigzagged through the Western Ghats. It being the monsoon season, the Ghats were lush. We saw more shades of green than we thought existed. So much so, that after a while, our eyes sought colors other than green.

green
green green everywhere

Once we started from Ganpati Phule (till Kannur), we encountered the reason NH66 is considered so highly. We drove parallel to the Indian west coast. We felt the sea breeze.

At places, the Arabian Sea was right beside us. One such place was Maravanthe: to our right was the Arabian Sea & to our left, the Suparnika River. Essentially, we drove on a thin strip of land.

river suparnika, arabian sea
Left: River Suparnika. Right: Arabian Sea

All along the highway were fishing hamlets. We halted just about anywhere & asked for the day’s catch to be cooked for us.

prawn, fish, hamlet, food, gobble, quick, drift
Not really the fishing hamlet food (as we would gobble that up quickly) but you get the drift…

Also pleasing to the eye were the intricately carved & colorfully painted temples. The gopuram of each of them carried gods & goddesses of all kinds, & of more colors than found in a child’s box of crayons.

ornate, design, temple, gopuram, art
Ornate designs on temple gopurams… Hats off to the artist!

There cannot be words better than photographs. So, leaving you with our captures of NH66.

sun, green
We spotted the Sun going down behind a stretch of green…

 

merge, palm frond, rocks, sea, stand out, architecture, splendor, church, school, temple
Merging like the palm fronds do with the rocks do with the sea Or standing out with our architectural splendor, be it a church, a school or a temple…

 

contrast, strike, tar, road, shade, green
The contrast could not be more striking The tarred roads Against the many shades of green…

All Hail the Hail Stones!

Less than three weeks after our road trip to Nathuakhan, we hit the road again! The One above was being kind. So where to this time? The weather was turning warmer; we needed to escape to the mountains. But we had just been to Kumaon. Driving on the same roads and seeing the same region was not exciting.

The fact that even the hills were sweating made the search more excruciating. Apart from Kumaon, we had either Garhwal or Himachal. Garhwal still brought back memories of the devastating landslides & floods that hit it. Himachal, of course, was a tad too far away.

After days of Googling, we chanced upon a place called Kanatal. Sounded suspiciously like Nainital, Bhimtal etc. However, surprisingly, it was neither in Kumaon nor had a ‘tal’ (lake). It was located in Garhwal, quite close to the Tehri dam.

Kanatal-50
All of it had been painstakingly painted…

The weather here seemed salubrious; it seemed away from the hustle-bustle of the typical hill stations. With a belief in what Paulo Coelho said, “Everything that happens once can never happen again”, we opted for Kanatal.

Three of our friends were keen to head out too. It was a long weekend for all; well, there was no reason needed to holiday. But now we had to find a place to stay – something that fit in with my love for home stays. There were not too many options in Kanatal. The most appealing property, The Terraces, was quite expensive. We did not have the inclination to splurge. When you travel as much as we do, you do need to keep it frugal.

The other options we got were of camps. A big no! The ninth or tenth search result threw up the name of Saur Cottages. Sounded interesting! So Saur Cottages are a home stay – like accommodation run by DueNorth, a group promoting tourism adventure in Uttarakhand. They aim to foster rural development, heritage communities and local crafts in the natural environment.

Kanatal-103
There’s no greater joy than to be able to distinguish…

The Cottages are located in Saur Village, which is about five kilometers from Chamba on the road that leads to Tehri dam. The cottages themselves are restored ‘pahari’ (mountain) houses with extensive use of bamboo, mud, stone & wood.

When we saw the pictures online, we knew this was where we wanted to stay. We left Delhi NCR in a Mahindra XUV 500 at almost 9 am. The roads were buzzing with activity already; we knew it was going to be a long day, long drive.

We drove amongst buses, bullock carts and cycle rickshaws. It was only the promise of what awaited us in Uttarakhand that kept us energized. We looked out of the window to the children playing in the mud, the village elders having their ‘chaupal’ under the banyan tree, the village women going about their daily chores. In the midst of this, a few brand names dominated the semi-urban and rural landscapes – Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Airtel, Idea and Vodafone.

Kanatal-109
Reflecting on the day gone by…

Entering Uttarakhand always brings a smile on our faces. We crossed the Ganges at Haridwar with a silent prayer on our lips. We saw hundreds of vehicles parked – folks were washing away their sins.

The road till Rishikesh had been jam-packed. It seemed a whole section of NCR was off river-rafting. It eased up after Rishikesh. Three of our passengers had their Google Maps open. All three gave contradictory directions. It was quite amusing.

Once we crossed Chamba, we kept our eyes open as a narrow road took us to the Saur Village. If we continued on the main road, we would end up in Badrinath. Not sure if we were feeling so religious then!

Kanatal-122
Wisps of yellow radiated even amidst showers

The narrow road came under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. About 12 kilometers on this road brought us to the very pit of the valley. Nestled amongst lush green terrace farms & protected by mountains on all sides, sat pretty the picturesque village of Saur.

It was a forgotten village, abandoned by its inhabitants and dying a slow death, before DueNorth took it up and started the restoration work. DueNorth had restored one of the village homes to a set of cottages where tourists could stay. Additionally, it works to improve the livelihood of the village people, specifically women, through local produce & handicraft.

At almost the end of the road, we left the car and walked down to the cottages. This was a descent through vegetable gardens; we could already feel a part of the place. We peeped into the cottage that was to be our home for the next two days. It was rustic in every sense and in a good way.

Kanatal-131
I may not be pretty but I stand out…

Orange-colored with wooden frames supporting it and a roof thatched with bamboo, the cottage had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a sit out. Descending to the basement brought us to a large bathroom, the size of which was comparable to a flat in Mumbai!

The rooms had mellow lighting and furniture made of bamboo and pine. Innumerable blankets were plopped on the beds; so we knew it was going to get cold.

We ended up chatting with the cottage in charge about our travels to Uttarakhand. She told us about her work with the village women, teaching them to use pine needles in crafting products. After our chat, we pulled out our woolens, and settled in.

Kanatal-132
Stop & smell the flowers while there are any

It was getting quite cold; we were enjoying it. After a hearty dinner, blissful sleep followed!

Day two, we headed to the Tehri dam. We had heard a lot about it, especially how it saved lives during the floods of June 2013. And prior to that, the extensive debate on it being a threat to the environment and it displacing people from their homes.

Well, there will always be two sides to any story. We do not have an opinion. We just wanted to see the architectural marvel that it was. The dam is on the Badrinath road and 45 minutes away from Saur Village.

Kanatal-137
The gentle reminder of our insignificance

Close to the site, we started seeing the sparkling blue water. It reminded of our first glimpse of Pangong Tso. Our excitement had known no limit. It was almost the same this time. Turning around curves, we inched closer to the dam.

At the same time, the temperature was dropping furiously; it had started drizzling. None of us had rain coats and at best, flimsy sweaters. At the gate of the dam, we were stopped. We did not have the permit to go inside. Such a dampener!

But there were other tourists; they pleaded their way in. We were happy to follow suit. We were told by security to go till the bridge and return. We were almost freezing. The wind was harsh; the rain was soaking through our sweaters to chill our bones.

Kanatal-43
She toiled away trying to make ends meet…

At the bridge, unfortunately, the dam gates were closed. So, on one side was the water filled to the brim, and, on the other side, was the machinery visible for us to see how the water ran its course.

After shivering for a few minutes and being scolded by the security guard at the second check post, we headed back. It had been a good visit. We were assured of the good work being done by Tehri.

In the past, the dam had stopped the river from unleashing its fury on Rishikesh and Haridwar. At least, some damage was prevented. We shuddered getting reminded of those images on television. But we do not blame nature.

Kanatal-101
Geography lessons came alive

It was wholly and solely the folly of human beings. If you usurp what belongs rightfully to Mother Nature, She will stake Her claim sooner or later.

What was the plan for lunch? The thought of The Terraces came to our minds. We could not stay there due to it being prohibitively expensive but we could certainly have lunch there. So we found The Terraces on Google Maps and drove on.

About 20 kilometers from Tehri dam but in a different direction is the town called Kanatal. It is high up in the mountains and experiences snowfall in winters. The legend says there used to be a ‘tal’ (lake) but it is dried up.

Kanatal-113
The road led to Saur & ended its purpose there…

The Terraces was certainly a beautiful property. Perched high on the mountain, it commanded a view of many peaks. Unfortunately, it was clouded and raining. A sumptuous lunch in the warm restaurant warded off the cold for us.

The best was yet to happen. We could feel it, though it was impossible to feel anything beyond the cold. On our way back to Saur, we saw vehicles covered in a layer of white. We were excited. Just a little ahead, we discovered the secret.

It was raining hailstones. Or should we say it was hailing cats and dogs? Hail stones as big as pebbles hit our car, making a metallic sound. Hail stones as small as grains of rice fluttered into our outstretched palms. We had not seen a more spectacular scene.

Kanatal-45
The laws of attraction spare none…

The road was covered in sheets of white, making the path a tad slippery. We had felt this excited when we encountered snow for the first time, en route Khardungla. We sensed the same flutter of excitement. The road covered in white brought about a sense of awe.

There was a renewed respect for nature. How easily nature transforms water to ice, to snow, to vapor, to mist-each with its own beauty! Moreover, how easily we plain – walas get excited seeing snow and ice. The mountain folk are probably sick and tired of these but we transform into kids.

We slowed down and took in the spectacle. We clicked photos to capture this for eternity. However, more than the pictures, it is the memory that will keep us company.

Kanatal-105
Diamonds might adorn a neck but they would never be this beautiful…

As we descended into the valley to get to our cottage, the hail stones converted to a drizzle. The sky had opened up; the valley was a mix of green and white – green where the water had washed off the dust, and white where the hail stones had settled. This was a brilliant time to click photographs.

The temperature was dropping rapidly. By night, it was 3 degrees Celsius. We were unprepared for this kind of cold. We snuggled into the bed under two layers of blankets. It was our last night here; the shower of hail stones had made our holiday worthwhile.

We also shopped! The small room beneath our cottage had the handicraft goods created by the village women. Pine needles earrings, baskets, table mats, table runners, cloth dolls, cloth key chains – it was an interesting assortment but was clearly the work of people who were still learning. The finish was not that great but given the softies we are, we ended up buying quite a few things.

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We might be broken but we were not shattered…

Morning gave no hint of the weather the night before. It was bright, sunny and warm! It was time to return – to monotony, to the daily grind, to the banal existence. Holidays should be the rule, not the exception. Well, we should not complain. We take holidays at every opportunity we get.

One last magic awaited us before the road ended. On our way back, with the sky completely devoid of clouds, we saw an entire Himalayan range, sparkling a brilliant white. We had murmured that sitting in the valley, we had missed out on ‘views’. But here they were – tall, grand, gleaming, white, covered with layers and layers of snow, and inviting. Sigh!

 

We recommend an itinerary for five days, four nights to Garhwal:

Delhi – Mussoorie – Saur Village – Delhi

Day 1: Depart from Delhi early and arrive at Mussoorie by tea time. Spend the night at Pine Hill exploring the premises, specially the club, reading at the library or sipping a local brew in the sit out

Day 2: Spend the day sightseeing or trekking. Mussoorie may be overrated but once in a while, it is okay to be a part of the hype!

Day 3: Checkout and head to Saur. Check in at Saur Cottages. Take a walk around and experience village life at its best

Day 4: After breakfast, head to Tehri dam. Good to get a permit beforehand. Head to Kanatal from Tehri and spend the day soaking in the beauty of the yet-undiscovered hill station. Back to Saur for dinner

Day 5: Checkout and head back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It snows during winter in Mussoorie and Kanatal, so be prepared for the cold!

Recommended eats: Thukpa soup at Mussoorie; Rhododendron juice anywhere

Recommended buys: Shawls from Mussoorie, pine needle decorations from Saur

 

We are planning our next holiday in Himachal Pradesh. Any recommendations?

 

Images courtesy our talented friend TB

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!

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