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!

What We Like About…

It may still be a bad time to talk about travel as India has emerged from the second COVID-19 wave only two months’ back. However, there is a post idea that has been on our minds for weeks now & we felt this would be the perfect time to write it down.

So, we have travelled to 21 states & 6 union territories of India. Not all of them for sightseeing but nonetheless… & something or the other has always caught our eye!

Now, even in states, a lot changes between districts. Thus, this is not a generalization but just an account of the things we have experienced & liked about a place.

So, here we go with what we like about…

Andhra Pradesh

P visited Andhra Pradesh as a child. The memories are faint but if we had to choose, it would be the beaches of Vishakhapatnam.

Bihar

What to say about the state that has been home? Yet, Biharis’ zeal to achieve stands out spectacularly.

Chandigarh

The planned sectors & the bungalows… Retiring here would not be a bad idea!

Chhattisgarh

Limited exposure that too in childhood & not from a sightseeing POV

Dadra Nagar Haveli and Daman Diu

We have been to Daman. Loved its laidback vibe. Also, what we coined “poor (wo)man’s Goa”!

Moti Daman Fort

Delhi

Heritage, history, more heritage, more history!

Goa

The lush greenery & the intimidating Arabian Sea during monsoon

Gujarat

The farsan!!!

Sabarmati Riverfront

Haryana

Dhabas & dhaba food!

Himachal Pradesh

The far Himachal of Lahaul, Spiti & Kinnaur… the dangerous Hindustan – Tibet Road… the friendliness of locals…

Jammu & Kashmir

Without a doubt, the valleys. & The dried berries & fruits!

  • kashmir, shikara

Jharkhand

Limited exposure not from a sightseeing POV

Karnataka

The backwaters! (Yes! Unknown compared to the Kerala ones but quite pretty.)

Kerala

How we can go from hills to seas in less than five hours! & The Malabar cuisine.

Between Karnataka & Kerala can be a competition for the best backwaters. We weren’t complaining though…

Ladakh

The sheer grit of the locals! It is a difficult terrain to live in; yet we never found a single person without a smile!

Madhya Pradesh

That fact that it is SO underrated! It has everything – hills, water bodies, geographical formations, indigenous cultures, heritage – & yet it is not the first name that pops up when we speak of ‘Incredible India’.

From the hills of Pachmarhi to the river of Orchha…
Sunset on River Betwa

Maharashtra

The Western Ghat undoubtedly! & Konkani food!!

A pink sky on the Western Ghats

Odisha

P visited Odisha as a child. But she remembers the Chilka Lake vividly…

Puducherry

Favourite beach town in all of India! Great food, colourful buildings, heritage, & max – chill vibe!

Punjab

Mustard fields. Sarson ka saag & makke ki roti. & Harmandir Sahib.

Rajasthan

The fact that when all north India shuts down in winter, this state comes alive! Also, the folk music! & The royalty!

Sikkim

How clean! How safe! How pristine!

Tamil Nadu

The headshake to start with… & Mysore Pak (We know Mysore Park originated in Karnataka, but we have always eaten Mysore Pak in TN ☹)

Telangana

P visited Telangana as a child. She remembers the musical clock at the Salar Jung Museum…

Uttar Pradesh

Home. & Kashi.

Mustard fields, Eternal favorite, uttar pradesh, india

Uttarakhand

The difference between Garhwal & Kumaon. The omnipresence of rhododendrons.

West Bengal

The romanticism. Many movies & series are made with WB as the backdrop. & The outcome is nothing short of beautiful…

There is still a lot to be seen. We hope to cover at least all the states & union territories in our lifetime even if we are unable to see them in entirety. Frankly, one lifetime is inadequate to experience all of Incredible India!

Please Do Not Judge!

When the second COVID wave hit, we saw multiple posts on social media admonishing travel bloggers (& other kinds of influencers) for blogging & posting while the country was going through a catastrophe. The blogging/ influencing/ vlogging community was called ‘heartless’ & ‘selfish’.

Now, we are not influencers by any stretch of imagination, nor do we blog/ post on an everyday basis. But we found it odd that people were quick to belittle & chide without even asking why the person was doing what s/ he was.

Judge less, love more…

  1. People have different coping mechanisms for crisis situations. A few find solace in getting support, a few try to solve the problem, a few take to physical activity amongst others. There are maladaptive coping mechanisms too, but we will not get into those.

Similarly, for a few people, a way to cope could be sticking to their routine. Doing the familiar is the hardest thing to do when the environment is so unfamiliar. If the influencers did not judge you on taking up meditation, why did you condemn them for following their routine?

  • Even in the middle of the COVID calamity, work went on. Those who could work logged in diligently at 9 AM, worked through the day & logged out when their work finished. We are not speaking about the healthcare & administrative sectors.

People worked because that is what brings their salaries. Similarly, bloggers/ influencers earn from their blogs/ social media. It is their WORK! Is it because it is in the public eye that it is deemed unimportant? Or is it because it appears frivolous?

Many of the content creators out there put in more hard work than we have seen office – goers put in. Fashion or photography or styling is anything but frivolous. So, if you did not rebuke the office – goers for continuing their work, why did you reprimand the bloggers/ influencers?

  • Travel was impossible during the second wave. So was going out to eat or party or shop. News added to the already depressing situation. People found respite from the negativity by reading travel blogs, looking at images of beautiful locales, and watching travel videos.

With your judgement, you robbed people of this brief relief.

“Be curious, not judgmental”

Walt Whitman

To the bloggers/ influencers/ vloggers, I hope this criticism & warning did not affect your mental health. In our case, while N swung into action providing relief, P coped by providing moral support to those affected. However, both benefited by sticking to their routine of WORK.

We thank the content creation community for continuing to create happy, meaningful content. Your content may not have changed the world, but it brought relief to at least one person. That is enough, is it not?

Strawberry Overdose

A Couple of Days in Mahabaleshwar

It was the summer of 2019. We had to visit Mumbai for a family obligation. But a long weekend lay just a few days later. We packed our bags for a week-long trip with a couple of days thrown in for sightseeing around Mumbai.

Now, it was May. Most of India sizzles this time of the year. If there was any scope for a cooler climate, it was in the Western Ghats. (Back in 2017, we cruised on these Ghats during monsoon. Read about our splendid experience here.)

Mahabaleshwar is a hill station tucked away in these Ghats. It is not too far from Mumbai either. So, we rented a self-drive Jeep Compass from MyChoize & left for the Strawberry Town.

Mahabaleshwar may be unknown to many in India but it is an oft-frequented paradise for Mumbai & Pune dwellers. We hoped the weather would be pleasant if not cool. Having visited Panchgani earlier, we knew the hill station would be enchanting – green hills, sunsets & juicy strawberries.

What we also sought was some quiet & peace with maybe a wee bit of hiking thrown in. This blog post is an attempt to see if Mahabaleshwar lived up to our expectations.

Affair with self-drive continued

Day 1

En route Mahabaleshwar, we halted at Pune for lunch at a restaurant called Dhonewada. A wada is a traditional mansion; the restaurants with the names ‘wada’ serve the local food in a setting reminding you of an old house. Here, despite the heat, we hogged on Malvani cuisine.

Food is such an integral part of travel. & it is a good teacher too. Now, we know, when traveling in Maharashtra, if we crave for Marathi cuisine, we need to look out for a ‘wada’.

As we entered Mahabaleshwar, we crossed the Venna Lake. The Lake is surrounded by hills & trees. It is dotted with boats called shikaras. We saw hordes of tourists taking boat tours & enjoying the breathtaking views.

There was an equal number of tourists thronging the eating joints lining up the lakeside. We did not stop here as the Sun had already begun its downward journey & we still had to locate our resort, Forest County Resort.

Our accommodation was inside a forest. By the time we reached, it was dark. Driving through the forest with no streetlights & without a soul in sight made delicious shivers run down our spines. Anyhow, we reached safe & sound (boring!) and called it a night.

The road to Forest County Resort

Day 2

The day of our Strawberry Overdose!

N had a few work calls but there was no cellular network in our resort. So, we made our way to the Mahableshwar main market after breakfast, parked in a designated spot, & while he attended his calls, P took in the daily humdrum of locals.

Strawberry OD begins!

Travel is possibly the only thing that teaches us that we are not so different from each other. We wake up, scramble to find roti, kapda & makaan (food, clothing & shelter), spend time with loved ones, & sleep.

All of us experience happiness & sadness, pleasure & pain, magnanimity & pettiness, kindness & cruelty etc. It is just that the degree varies & so does our audience.

N broke P’s reverie & we made our way to Mapro Garden.

Green gardens of Mapro Garden

Mapro Garden

This Garden is known for its strawberry produce. It was founded in 1959 & has grown manifold since then. One of the things we loved seeing there was the family – like feeling amongst the employees. Mapro also supports the education of their employees’ children.

Behind the visitor areas are large farms where one can do strawberry picking in season. It was not really the strawberry season when we visited. So, instead of picking strawberries, we roamed around & watched an AV on strawberries.

Fresh Strawberry Icecream

Strawberries are not the only berries produced in Mapro Garden. You can eat your way through blueberries, mulberries & raspberries too. The food park stocks delicious berry products – jams, marmalades, sauces etc.

All that talk about strawberries & seeing so many strawberry products & cutouts made us crave for something strawberry. We headed to the deli & picked a strawberry ice-cream. It was different from the ice cream we get usually – so creamy & fresh! What could be a better way to chill?!

That reminds us of the weather.

Braving oppressive heat

It was quite hot during the daytime. We had not expected this. We knew it would be warmer compared to monsoon, but this time of the year was oppressive! The nights remained pleasant though.

The Western Ghats are delightful in the rains. That is also the time when it sees the maximum influx of sightseers. If you do not mind the crowds (after 2020, this seems unlikely for some time to come), then visit during the rainy season. If you do mind, choose the winter months. & if you are crazy like us, anytime of the year is good!

Coming back to our trip, we wanted to capture a beautiful sunset. We left the strawberry paradise & headed to Lodwick Point.

Drama In The Sky

Lodwick Point

It is not far from the main Mahabaleshwar market. We drove to the Point, parked our car & started walking to the actual point & to the Elephant’s Head Point beyond. This is about a KM long but easy walk through a forested trail.

Domeshwar was rechristened Sydney Point & further renamed Lodwick Point. General Lodwick was the first British officer to climb the hill in 1824. The Sun had started its descent & there was literally a drama in the sky.

The Elephant’s Head Point gets its name from its resemblance to an elephant’s head. Here, we were at the end of the mountain range – a perfect spot to take in a 360-degree view. But the Sun soon captured our attention. It worked its magic as it set.

No Caption Needed

The mist began to rise too. In the valley below, we could spot terraced farms. The serenity of that moment & of the scenery was such that a nature lover could not help appreciating its charm. There were a handful of other sightseers here & they seemed to be in awe too!

We soon realized we should leave before it got dark as the hiking trail might become unsafe. It being a forested trail, there was always a chance of wild animals. & it went from romantic to eerie in minutes. On the hiking note, it is a little bit of an uphill climb. So, wear comfortable shoes & have a bottle of water handy.

The Forested Trail
Going from romantic to eerie in minutes…

Just before complete darkness, the sky turned magenta. Like it was in as much love with us as we were with it…

The Sky Was Magenta!

We then arrived at Le Meridien for our drinks & dinner fix.

Le Meridien

Strawberry Margarita

Longitude 73

We continued our strawberry fixation at Longitude 73 with a Strawberry Margarita which was delicious. We also opted for a Cucumber Wave Cocktail which was refreshing. The ambience was perfect for a sundowner while the decor was chic.

Our server ensured we never felt unattended to.

Chingari

A delicious prawn biryani dinner followed at Chingari, the Indian restaurant in Le Meridien. We loved the ambience. Nice music added to the dim lighting. Our server made us feel at home & was a pleasant fellow to chat with.

We left Le Meridien feeling impressed by it – quiet location, ample parking, lush green compound, the grand staircase, beautiful architecture, & dim lighting.

Last Day

The morning we left Mahabaleshwar, we sighed a last time at the hot but blue sky. We spent a little time admiring the flowers at our resort.

On our way out of Mahabaleshwar, we stopped at Wilson Chikki, Fudge and Baba Chana.

Wilson Chikki, Fudge and Baba Chana

While this shop is known for its chikki, we picked up Chocolate Walnut Fudge & Garlic Chana from here. Best decision ever! The Fudge was absolutely melt – in – mouth. & the Chana was tangy. We have become fans of the unbeatable fudge. The store is large & you will be spoilt for choice.

We then stopped at Bagicha Corner.

Bagicha Corner

We first bought Strawberry Crush & Strawberry No – Sugar Jam at the shop & then got a Mulberry with Ice – Cream made at the restaurant. The Ice – Cream was a perfect way to re-live childhood. Take a glass, layer the bottom with a large helping of fresh mulberries, add a scoop of mulberry ice-cream, repeat the mulberries & the ice-cream layers, & top it off with a 🍓 syrup. Yum!

Once home, we used the Strawberry Crush in our shakes & they tasted divine.

We stayed a night in Pune on our way back at JW Marriott Hotel. We had carried a bottle of Strawberry Wine from Mahabaleshwar & continued our strawberry fixation.

Strawberry Wine

In the evening, we went to Paasha for a round of drinks.

Paasha

We were mesmerized with the view the lounge offered. We sat inside but next to the windows & soaked in the city view. We drank Mojito & Pina Colada, both made well. The service was equally good. Perfect for a date night!

We then went to J1 for dinner.

J1

A small parking is available. The exterior itself made us feel we were in for a good time. We luckily got a table without hassle. The service was exemplary. We had Chicken Rassa, Ghadichi Poli & Mutton Sukka washed down with Kokam Sharbat.

It is difficult to decide which was the best dish. Everything was finger-licking good. The Rassa was quite aromatic while the Poli was a different take on the usual flatbread. We would love to dine here again.

& this brought our Mahabaleshwar trip to an end.

Accommodation

Upside Down Flowers

Mahabaleshwar

Forest County Resort

True to its name, the Resort was inside a forest. By the time we reached, it was night & the route had seemed a little scary. But the Resort itself was well – lit & seemed welcoming. The room was a cottage. It was sparsely furnished – just the basics. But the AC worked fine which was a relief.

For dinner, the first night, it seemed nothing was available except Dal Khichdi. The breakfast buffet was decent however – Chhole Bhature, Fried Egg, Omelet, Sabudana Khichdi, Uthapam. But the breakfast area was quite cramped.

The location may be a consideration for many, especially if you do not have your own vehicle. The resort is almost half an hour away from the Mahabaleshwar town & public conveyance may not be easily available.

Also, we did not get a cellular network in the resort.

View from our cottage

We give it

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pune

JW Marriott Hotel

Breakfast Buffet Love

We stayed for one night, but the hospitality & luxury made us wish we were staying longer. The check in was smooth. Our room was superb with a panoramic city view. It was comfortable & had all the amenities we would need for our stay (& more).

The hotel had pleasing interiors. All the staff members greeted us with a smile. We absolutely loved the breakfast buffet at JW Marriott. It was a finger licking, substantial breakfast.

We give it –

Rating: 5 out of 5.
A short video of all the driving that we did!

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

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

Doors of Rajasthan

So we’ve been wanting to do this for a LONG time but something or the other made us put it off. Finally, the Holi post of Incredible India made us bite the bullet!

Isn’t that a treat to the eyes? So, here we go, with our version of ‘Doors of Rajasthan’!!

Doors of Rajasthan… Or colors of Rajasthan!

Do you like it? Do you’ve a version of ‘Doors of Rajasthan’ too? Please let us know in the comments.

P. S. This has to be our shortest blog post EVER!

Mashobra

& Beyond To Chail, Fagu, Kufri & Theog

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

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

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

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

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

MyChoize self-drive car in magical, snowy Theog!

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

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

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

Step out for a walk through a forest trail…

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

The First Evening

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

Our kind of place!

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

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

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

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

The First Full Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happiness is… A blue sky!

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

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

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

Opt for roads through forests…

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

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

An expedition to Fagu & Theog

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

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

The Second Full Day

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

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

These little ones were up & about even before sunrise.

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

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

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

Time travel!

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accommodation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips For Visiting

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

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Pali

A Brief Halt at a Unique Indian Temple

On our Udaipur to Jodhpur stretch of the Rajasthan road trip, Pali (92 KMS from Ranakpur) turned out to be a spontaneous halt. We had known about a unique temple existing in Pali but when we found it right on the highway, we had to stop.

The motorcycle that kept returning…

The temple is called Om Banna Dham and/ or Bullet Baba Mandir. We write the key points from our visit here.

About Pali

Pali is situated on the banks of the river Bandi. Since the 11th century, it was part of one or the other kingdom – Guhilas, Songara Chauhans, Champavata Rathores & more & finally Marwar. Pali has the distinction of being Maharana Pratap’s birthplace. During India’s struggle for independence, its ‘thakurs’ had confrontations with the British.

Read about this unique temple in Pali!

Pali is famous for a sweet called ‘Gulab Halwa’ & for its kulfi & ice-cream. It also has many industries. & like any other industrial city, Pali has been struggling with a pollution problem.

What’s Unique About the Temple?

The temple is dedicated to a local youth called Om Singh Rathore. What makes the temple unique is the legend behind it. In 1970, Om Rathore died in a road accident at this spot. The police hauled his motorcycle, a Royal Enfield Bullet 350, away to the police station.

A permanent place for the bike

But the next morning, it was mysteriously discovered back at the accident site. The police again hauled the bike to the station. The next morning, it was again found at the accident site. The police watched the motorbike one night.

The fable goes that it started on its own & stopped at the accident site. After this ghostly happening, the police returned the motor bike to Om Banna’s family. A shrine was erected at the accident site. Since then, Om Singh Rathore’s spirit is said to protect other riders.

The motor bike is the idol at this temple. It draws huge crowds specially the local population. It is almost a rite of passage for bikers. Ironically, Bullet Baba is offered alcohol. We wonder how he manages to protect his drunk devotees!

Om Singh Rathore’s spirit protects other riders.

We Recommend –

  1. Photography is allowed inside the temple.
  2. It can become crowded. Keep your wits about you.

Getting Out

An aarti for Om Rathore

All around the temple, there are ‘dhabas’ (roadside eating joints). Hop into one, chat up with the locals & find out more about the legend of Om Banna.

India – A Land of Temples – & Unique Ones at That

We doubt you can travel even a kilometer in India without coming across a temple. Many of them are ancient while others will, nonetheless, carry ‘ancient’ in their names. Each temple, however, has its distinct belief system.

A popular pilgrimage spot for locals

It is rare to find one devoid of devotees asking for their wishes to be fulfilled or thanking the deity for fulfilled wishes. However, there are a few that are totally unique.

  • Congress President Sonia Gandhi Temple in Telangana
  • Devji Maharaj Mandir (exorcism & ghost fair) in Madhya Pradesh
  • Devaragattu Temple (devotees hit each with sticks) in Andhra Pradesh
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi Temple in Tamil Nadu
  • Stambheshwar Mahadev (vanishing temple) in Gujarat

& so many more…

Ironically, Bullet Baba is offered alcohol. Wonder how he manages to protect his drunk devotees!

Have you visited Pali?

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.

Buddham Saranam Gacchami

A half-day excursion to Sarnath

“Buddham Saranam Gacchami. Dhammam Saranam Gacchami. Sangham Saranam Gacchami.”

(“I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.”)

parikrama, bodhi tree, mulagandha kuti vihara, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree.

We have been drawn towards Buddhism for a long time now. As we visited places like Bhutan, Ladakh & Spiti, we came to know more about Gautama Buddha & His teachings. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse further increased our fascination.

In a world of extremes, we find Buddhism to be a balanced religion. The basic premise of ‘looking within’ & ‘introspecting’ appeals to us. It was, thus, only natural for us to visit Sarnath on our travel to Varanasi.

After spending a couple of days in Banaras, we hired a cab to take us to Sarnath. We had a flight to catch later in the evening; so, we wanted to utilize the few hours we had in an effective manner.

Dhamek Stupa, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Dhamek Stupa

Sarnath is located ~10 KMS from Varanasi. It is the place where Buddha first taught the Dharma. Thus, it is an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists. After the chaos of Varanasi, Sarnath is a sea of peace.

Once you reach the deer park, most of the sightseeing spots are at a walking distance of each other. Engage a guide in Sarnath who can brief you on its history.

Archaeological Museum

We started our Sarnath sightseeing at the Archaeological Museum. You need to buy a ticket from across the road. There is a locker room to deposit all your things, including cellphone.

In the museum, there are stunning artifacts dug up from excavations. Fine Buddhist art is housed. You can see the Asoka Pillar as well as a Buddha sculpture where He sits with eyes downcast, and with a halo around His head.

The Asoka Pillar is, of course, from where the Indian National Emblem is adopted. Four Indian Lions sit back to back on a circular base; a Horse on the left, the Asoka Chakra in the center, and a Bull on the right on the base.

If, like us, you are a history aficionado, you will love the Archaeological Museum. It houses figures from Gupta, Kushana & Mauryan periods.

Chinese Buddhist Temple

Our next stop was the Chinese Buddhist Temple. It is located a little away from the other sightseeing spots. The temple is beautifully painted in red and yellow in the Chinese architectural style. You can see Chinese lanterns hanging on the walls. The surroundings are calm.

Beautiful, paint, red and yellow, chinese buddhist temple, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Beautifully painted in red & yellow…

The outer wall has a painting depicting the route taken by Huein Tsang to come to India. Interestingly, the land on which the Chinese Buddhist Temple stands used to be a mangrove. You can see a lot of Chinese/ Japanese pilgrims/ tourists here.

Dhamek Stupa

The huge campus is a delight for history & heritage lovers. The Dhamek Stupa was built in 500 CE to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath. It is a thick, solid & tall cylinder of bricks and stone. The wall of the Dhamek Stupa is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds.

commemorate, Buddha, Sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Built to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath…

Legend has it that if you manage to fling a white prayer cloth atop the stupa, your wishes will be fulfilled. While it may seem impossible to passersby, there are lads here who do that for a fee.

Apart from the main structure, there are innumerable small but significant ones. The Asoka pillar with an edict engraved on it stands nearby. The excavations do not even seem to be complete & yet, the magnitude stuns you.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

Shakyamuni Buddha, relics, Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics at the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a monastery & temple surrounded by gardens. It is enshrined with Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics. The Buddhist architecture is worth gaping at, specially the frescoes. The frescoes depict scenes from Buddha’s life & are quite pretty. There is, thus, little doubt why Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a tourist attraction.

You can hear the chants which bring about serenity. The well-maintained precincts are lined with Buddhist prayer flags. You can do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree. Legend has it that this tree is a descendant of the tree under which Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment.

As we were short on time, our Sarnath visit was for just half-a-day. But, if you are a history buff or are spiritual, you can spend days here.

A Girl Who Travels

I was nine when I went on my first school trip. More such school/ college trips happened when I was 15 & then 20. I traveled alone to attend my friends’ weddings in Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Uttar Pradesh when I was 25-26. Those same years, I visited Thailand & to Bordi with just my girlfriend.

I went on a solo trip to Australia when I was 27, to Gangtok when I was 32, & to Ladakh when 33. I visited Beijing with my girlfriends when I was 29, Bhagalpur with my mother when 31, & Goa with my niece at 32.

sightseeing, ibrahim shah tomb, bhagalpur, bihar, india
I go sightseeing at the Ibrahim Shah Tomb, Bhagalpur.

I roam around my city all the time for sightseeing, either alone or with my mother. Lastly, from the time I began my post-graduation till my early retirement from the corporate sector, I traveled alone for work.

Why do I list these? Because, I acknowledge that a female traveling, in India, is still a big deal. A female traveling solo, an even bigger one! An older male friend recently asked, “Why do women prefix their trips with ‘solo’? Why can’t they just say that they are going on a trip? Like men do!”

I had not come across this question earlier, but the answer hit me in a split second. It was because every time I have mentioned – ‘I am going on a trip.’, the first response is a question – ‘with whom?’ I guess so is the case with most girls, which makes us want to #SoloTrip.

nathu la, furry, dog, sikkim, india
On the way to Nathu La (Sikkim), I met this brat. Like it happens with all furry creatures, I befriended this pocket sized terror…

Women are brought up to believe that the world is a dangerous place. That they are better off within the confines of their homes, or only when accompanied by men. I have rebelled against this for as long as I remember. The world is only as bad or as good as we want it to be.

In all my solo travels, I have been treated with curiosity (sure) but also with awe & respect. Despite being an introvert, I have got into more conversations with strangers when traveling alone, than when in company. I have felt freer on my journeys alone. More introspective. More at peace!

And I wish more girls experience these moments of exhilaration for themselves.

sightseeing, Beijing
Fresh & raring to go sightseeing in Beijing

P.S. I thank my parents for instilling this independent spirit from an early age. They never stopped me from undertaking any kind of travel. Also, my spouse who encourages (not ‘allows’) me to travel solo every now & then.

What & Where We Loved Eating In Bali

How can travel be complete without food? Now that you know where to stay in Bali, & what to see/ do, it’s time for the restaurants we loved. As before, the below eateries are tried & tested!

Breeze at The Samaya Seminyak

Breeze, ambience, overpower, sense
Not many pics of Breeze as the ambience overpowered our senses…

The Samaya is a resort in Seminyak. Breeze is its beach side restaurant overlooking the Petitenget Beach. The beachfront setting means lunch with a view/ dinner with a breeze.

We’d dinner here. Soft fairy lights lit up the perimeter of the restaurant while tealights at the table ensured we could see our visually – appealing dishes too. Plus, our meal was accompanied by the sound of the waves!

We experimented with a variety of meat dishes. All turned out to be delicious, specially the Bebek Goreng (a classic Balinese ceremonial dish).

Our server was courteous & helpful. A great meal in a nutshell! Even if you’re not staying here, Breeze is worth visiting for a meal.

D’Joglo Beach Bar & Restaurant

D’Joglo Beach Bar is located on the Double Six Beach in the Seminyak – Kuta area. After chilling at the Double Six Beach, we were casually walking around when we noticed this restaurant, & thought of giving it a try for lunch.

nourishment
All that walking on the beach & sunning ourselves made us seek nourishment.

D’Joglo has both indoor & outdoor seating. We sat inside as it was quite warm. It’d a decently-functioning WiFi.

The highlight of our time here was the melee of colorful drinks that arrived at our table. Bali Beauty, Lime Crushed, Long Island Iced Tea, Strawberry Crushed, Tequila Sunrise, & Watermelon Crushed made for a pretty picture.

The food was scrumptious too. Our mouths are watering thinking of Ayam Sambal Matah, Grilled Prawn, & Grilled Snapper. Certainly, a place to have a good time.

The ocean a stone's throw away
The ocean a stone’s throw away

Caution – D’Joglo may not accept cards/ dollars.

Jimbaran Bay Seafood

Jimbaran Bay is a cluster of restaurants situated right on the white sand beach. You eat your meal looking out to the Indian Ocean.

It’s a haven for seafood lovers. As you enter any of the restaurants, you notice counters stocking fresh fish & seafood. You can choose which exact fish/ seafood you want prepared for you. Once you select, the fresh catch is prepared on a live counter, typically grilled. while waiting for your fish is ready be served.

Barakuda, Baronang, Garupa, King River Prawn, Mubble, Sea Prawn, Super Crab are just a few of the kinds of sea food you can choose from.

Caution:

  1. Don’t expect anything else on the menu apart from seafood.
  2. The service is kind of slow; so, ensure you are well spaced on time.
  3. Vegetarians & those who don’t fancy seafood can get queasy here.

La Favela

La Favela is located in the busy Seminyak area. We came here to celebrate a friend’s birthday. It was also our last night in Bali. Glad we chose this bar as it made our night memorable.

Mediterranean
Mediterranean – style

La Favela has really cool interiors, in line with its Mediterranean theme. Even though we were a big group, we got a table readily, & had a good time with the F&B. The staff ensured we were in good spirits. A good thing is – you don’t need to be in a defined dress code here. Just walk in & enjoy!

Made’s Warung

A ‘warung’ is a small family-owned café/ restaurant. Made’s Warung is one of the older restaurants in Bali. It has outlets spread across the island but our experience is of the Ngurah Rai one.

We’d breakfast here before boarding our flight. It serves both Balinese & International cuisines. The food was scrumptious, specially the Cheese Omelet.

The service was efficient & quick. This is all the more critical when you’ve a flight to catch. We were a large group but the servers managed us effortlessly.

Revolver Espresso

cinnamon roll
A cinnamon roll to-die-for!

Revolver has got its basics right – amazing atmosphere, delectable food, exceptional service, & good coffee.

The café is tucked away in a lane off the main Seminyak street. The look & feel will remind you of a bar, rather than a café. But don’t let that fool you. Its coffee (& coffee – based drinks) is fantastic. Of course, to keep up with the times, it now does transform into a bar post 6 PM.

We were here on our last evening for a round of coffee. Its Cinnamon Roll was absolutely melt-in-mouth. The ambience is what you’ll call kitschy! Our server was friendly & ensured we’d a good time. Cool place!

sisterfields
upside-down

Sisterfields

Sisterfields, in Seminyak, is a place where you can eat at any time of the day in a completely relaxed, café – style setting.

We were here for breakfast on our last morning. The place was teeming with patrons. & we soon realized why. The beverages were refreshing. Still remembering the Strawberry Milkshake… The food was appetizing too – Eggs Your Way, Omelette, Tacos etc. – sigh!

breakfast, Seminyak
The last breakfast at a famous breakfast spot in Seminyak

The place was buzzing with activity. So good!

Caution:

  1. You may have to wait for a table.
  2. Service may be slow due to heavy footfall.
local cuisine, the paon
There’s something about local cuisines.

The Paon

The Paon seemed like an unassuming restaurant on the main Ubud street. We walked in with growling tummies & had a good time here trying different dishes. Luckily, there weren’t too many other patrons which meant we got great service.

The Chicken Mie Goreng was yummy. Crispy Hash Brown, Grilled King Prawn, & Pelalah were good too.

ultimo
Cheers!

Ultimo

A large group of us were here for dinner on our first night in Bali. While the ambience was kept soft & soothing, the buzz from the patrons overpowered it. For us, it was a testimony of Ultimo being good. The service was good.

We have to mention Bruschetta Bread, Panacota, & Ultimo Pizza – these were absolutely tasty.

food, Orson Welles
“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” ― Orson Welles

Now that you know where to stay, what to see, & what/ where to eat, do you want to know how we spent a day on a yacht in Bali? Stay tuned!

Bali Basics

Before we headed to Bali, we had a lot of confusion about its geography & location. Was it an island? Was it a part of Indonesia? How big was it? Blame it on ignorance. And, there’s no better antidote for ignorance than travel.

Once we’d been there, many contacted us when they were planning their own trip. We realized then that we’d not been alone in our confusion & ignorance. Everyone who reached out to us knew Bali was a place to visit, but how’s Bali further divided, which are the areas to stay in/ visit, no one had a clue.

It was almost déjà vu for us, for we’d been equally clueless. After helping a few folks with a better picture of how to place their Bali holiday, we thought we should just put it down in a blog post.

First Up…

Indonesia is a country in Southeast Asia. It’s made up of volcanic islands. Beaches & Komodo dragons are just two of the many things Indonesia is known for. Out of the 18,000+ islands that this nation has, the largest is Sumatra. (Technically, it’s New Guinea, but it doesn’t belong to Indonesia exclusively.)

indonesia, map
Bali vis-a-vis Rest of Indonesia

Bali is the 13th biggest, just about 1.14% the size of Sumatra. And yet, it’s made such a name for itself in the travel world. Bali is a great way to remind ourselves that we mustn’t underestimate anybody/ anything!

Coming to Bali Now…

Bali is a province of Indonesia, & is divided into regencies. Each regency has a capital.

Regency Capital
Denpasar City Denpasar
Badung Regency Mangupura
Bangli Regency Bangli
Buleleng Regency Singaraja
Gianyar Regency Gianyar
Jembrana Regency Negara
Karangasem Regency Amlapura
Klungkung Regency Semarapura
Tabanan Regency Tabanan

Source: Wikipedia

bali, map
Bali Bali

The above map clears it out right away that it’s South Bali that has the most tourism. South is where the beaches are, along with the nightlife. As you travel north, the forests of Bali start emerging. But before that is the place where you get a taste of the culture of Bali. Further north are the regions you would visit if you’re keen to see volcanoes.

Okay, let’s take it one at a time.

Denpasar

Denpasar is the capital of Bali. The city can easily be called the gateway to Bali due to its proximity to the Ngurah Rai International Airport.

Denpasar has a close association with history. In 1906, almost a thousand Balinese committed suicide to avoid surrendering to the invading Dutch troops. The Taman Puputan square is a memorial for the Balinese who laid down their lives.

Denpasar is home to the Turtle Conservation & Education Center, & the Bali Wake Park (wake-boarding anyone?).

Serangan

Serangan is a part of Denpasar. It is an island known for its turtles. Serangan is connected with the mainland by a road bridge.

There are numerous yacht operators here that conduct day trips/ cruises.

Serangan is also home to the Serangan Beach (secluded).

Seminyak

Let’s begin traveling south from Denpasar. The first town you will hit is Seminyak, a suburb of Kuta in the Badung Regency. You can find luxury hotels, spas, high-end restaurants etc. here. Sunsets are a busy time here with bars offering sun-downers on the beaches.

This is also where you will find gorgeous villas for your accommodation needs. We stayed at a heavenly villa called Villa Teman Eden. It was love at first sight! The pool is the highlight but the rooms were spacious with all amenities available. The prettiest bathrooms! Fantastic location! (Also read our piece on our Airbnb experiences featuring Teman Eden.)

Airbnb, Villa, Bali, Teman Eden
Villa Teman Eden

Seminyak is home to the Double Six Beach & the Kayu Aya Beach.

Color, kite, Double Six Beach
Colorful kites at the Kayu Aya Beach

Kuta

Moving further south, you will hit Kuta (Badung Regency), the nightlife hub of Bali. At any time of the day or night, the atmosphere here can only be called electric.

Kuta used to be a fishing village, but also one of the first to start developing for tourism. The Kuta Beach is the most well-known (& thus the most frequented). Being on the west coast, it’s a great spot for sunset watching (& sun-downers!).

You can find luxury resorts, clubs & the like located along the Kuta Beach. And, surfers! (Do you know that surfers massively helped in restarting tourism in Bali post the bombings?)

Sightseers prefer to stay at Kuta (or its suburb, Seminyak) as this is where the action is! Consequently, a few of the best accommodation options can be found here, specifically villas.

Kuta is home to the Satria Gatotkaca Statue & the Waterbom Bali (water slides anyone?).

Jimbaran

Further south is Jimbaran (Badung Regency), a fishing village. Its Bay has calm waters.

Terrorism is an ugly part of the world today. In 2005, suicide bombers attacked a couple of popular restaurants in Jimbaran. But, the wonderful part about the world also is, it bounces back! Bali is a great example of that.

Jimbaran is lined with live seafood counter restaurants. At these restaurants, you can select the live seafood you wish to eat. It will be immediately prepared (generally grilled) & served.

If you’re seeking affordable accommodation options, Jimbaran is the place to try.

Jimbaran is home to the Samasta Lifestyle Village (lots of entertainment) & the Tegal Wangi Beach (hidden beach).

Pecatu

We’re now at almost the south western end of Bali. Pecatu (Badung Regency) is where you’ll find a hilly landscape. The hills shield the beaches, making this area popular with nudists. Pecatu is also the area that’s almost exclusively developed by the private sector.

Pecatu is home to the Uluwatu Temple (a spiritual pillar of Bali) & the Suluban Beach (exotic!).

Kecak dance, Uluwatu Temple
Kecak dance at the Uluwatu Temple

Nusa Dua

Let’s travel east from Pecatu to Nusa Dua (Badung Regency), the water sports area. On the southeast coast of Bali, the sandy beaches are a great backdrop for different water sports like banana boat, parasailing, sea walking & snorkeling.

A sub-district of Nusa Dua is Tanjung Benoa. A peninsula with beaches on three sides – dreamy enough?

Nusa Dua is home to the Nusa Dua Beach & the Museum Pasifika (all things artsy).

Kerobokan

Start moving northwest now. Beyond Denpasar is Kerobokan village (Badung Regency).

The Kerobokan Prison is the stuff legends are made of. Thrill seekers find ways to spend a night in the prison, to experience the notoriety first-hand. For the non-thrill seekers, there are night markets to explore.

Kerobokan is home to the Batu Belig Beach (whattay calm) & the Petitenget Temple (wards off dark forest spirits).

Beraban

Moving further northwest, & closer to the west coast of Bali, you will arrive at Beraban, a village in the Tabanan Regency.

Beraban is home to the Tanah Lot Temple (you can’t not have seen a photo of this place) & the One Bali Agrowisata (chocolate & coffee plantation).

Tanah Lot Temple
The Tanah Lot Temple

Gianyar

Let’s head a little northeast now & come to Gianyar, the seat of the Gianyar regency. It is a town that has preserved its natural & traditional heritage well. Once you’re done with the heritage sightseeing, you can relax on the beach.

Gianyar is home to the Cantik Agriculture (coffee anyone?) & the Bali Bird Park (bird-watching alert).

Coffee, tea, Cantik Agriculture
Coffee & tea tasting at the Cantik Agriculture

Ubud

In the Gianyar Regency itself, towards the northwest, is the cultural center of Bali, called Ubud. The town is located in the uplands. Anything that has to do with Balinese tradition can be found here.

Rain-forests and terraced rice paddies surround Ubud while Hindu temples form the main attractions of the town.

Ubud is home to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Balinese Long – Tailed Monkeys. Squee!) & the Puri Saren Palace (erstwhile official residence of the royal family).

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

Kintamani

Moving far north from Ubud, you will come to Kintamani (Bangli Regency). You can view the Mount Batur from the village. It is the place from where the breed ‘Kintamani dog’ (only official breed in Bali) originates.

Lake Batur
Lake Batur

Kintamani is home to the Mount Batur (active volcano) & the Lake Batur (crater lake located along the Ring of Fire of Mount Batur).

Nusa Lembongan

Southeast of Bali is the island of Nusa Lembongan (Klungkung Regency). It is famous as a side destination for mainland Bali visitors. Nusa Lembongan is surrounded by coral reefs with white sand beaches. Day cruises from the mainland to the island are worth opting for.

Clear ocean, coral reef, Nusa Lembongan
Clear ocean & coral reef at Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan is home to the Devil’s Tear (cliff jumping anyone?) & the Mangrove Forest (canoe ride).

With this, we end our short guide to the way Bali is structured from a sightseer’s viewpoint. By no means is this list exhaustive. We’ve tried to cover the areas that we’ve personally experienced.

Other Bali Basics…

  • Bali traffic is quite bad. We stayed at Seminyak, & chose to spend a day in Ubud. The traffic from Seminyak to Ubud was awful. This is the reason sightseers choose to break their stay into two places – Seminyak/ Kuta & Ubud.
  • Bali is economical for Indians. Except for the airline fares, all our expenses were similar or even less than what we would spend in, let’s say, Goa, on a similar kind of holiday.

In our next blog post, we’ll share our favorite Bali attractions.

Beat the Heat!

Come April & the Sun starts its mercilessness on the hapless souls of the National Capital Region. Right till September, it becomes a matter of hot, very hot & unbearably hot. In these six months, at least one getaway is needed to cooler environs.

Aren’t we thankful that the Himalayas are a stone’s throw away? So, to help you tolerate the weather, we bring three relatively unknown, long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in Uttarakhand, in the Nainital district, yet are as different from Nainital as chalk from cheese!

Jeolikot: It was a never-heard-of-before village for us till we made our way here. Jeolikot is located close to Nainital, & yet, is far removed from the chaos that Nainital can be during the tourist season. It is a great place for flower lovers & lepidopterists.

jeolikot, mist
Misty Jeolikot

Visit Jeolikot for a picturesque view of the Himalayas. It is not a place where you rush around to ‘see’ spots. Rather, grab a book, or put on your favorite music, or carry a board game, sit facing the mountains, grab a cup of ‘chai’ & life is sorted.

outside, cozy, morning tea, sitout
Outside our room, a cozy spot to sip the morning tea

Located a little down the hill from the main road, The Cottage is a cozy home stay reminiscent of the bygone colonial era. Its red roof exudes an old-world charm. The shimmery blue & white porcelain crockery make up a large part of the decor. A decor you will be tempted to take home!

To top it, Ms. Bhuvan Kumari’s impeccable hospitality & warmth. Over mugs of tea, she regaled us with stories ranging from leopards to winter soirees. The best part – dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

greet, dog
Greeted by ‘Nanhi Bai’

We tried to get to Nainital but, being an extended weekend, we could not get past the traffic jam. Instead, we turned towards Bhimtal, had lunch at a dhaba from where the Bhimtal Lake was faintly visible, & returned to the calmness of Jeolikot.

bhimtal
Spot Bhimtal in the distance

We recommend – do not bother with Nainital & the like. Head out for a stroll in Jeolikot itself. You will come across giggling kids, grazing horses, plenty of flora, & wild berries. Try the Chicken Roast at The Cottage, and pick up souvenirs from Kilmora.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Jeolikot in about seven hours, nine if there is traffic.

Sattal, little known, picturesque
Sattal – So little known, & thus so picturesque!

Sattal: A village deriving its name from the lake it encircles, Sattal is near Bhimtal, but is less known. True to its name, the ‘lake’ is actually a combination of seven lakes, each quite pristine. Forests surround the lakes.

mind, reel, gorgeous
Our minds reeled with all the gorgeousness.

Given the ecosystem, birds thrive here, making Sattal a paradise for ornithophiles. We spent our time birding. Ask for directions to get to the bird watching spot, the Studio. It is a downhill walk, with no restrooms in the vicinity. As birding is a time-consuming activity, this is something you need to be aware of. Also, note that bird watching needs a lot of patience & silence. You make one movement/ sound, & the bird would have flown off.

It was our first birding experience; we were lucky to spot jungle myna, blue whistling thrush, grey wagtail, red-Wattled lapwing, oriental turtle dove, orange flanked bush robin, grey-headed canary flycatcher, black bulbul, verditer flycatcher, white throated laughing thrush, slaty-headed parakeet, ultramarine flycatcher, Himalayan bulbul, & black headed jay.

Located in a nearby village called Suriyagaon is Naveen’s Glen, an estate comprising apartments, cottages & villas. It is run by Ms. Nitya Budharaja & her family. The rooms have been done up warmly. A personal touch is evident in every aspect of Naveen’s Glen.

Naveen's Glen, garden, bloom
Naveen’s Glen garden in full bloom!

To top it, there is an absolutely stunning view of the sunset from the garden. We spent many minutes chatting with Ms. Budharaja, getting recommendations from her for bird watching & for food.

sunrise, sunset, Jo Walton
“There’s a sunrise & a sunset every single day, & they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.” – Jo Walton

The best part – again dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

It does not snow in Sattal; so, it is accessible throughout the year. You can get from Delhi NCR to Sattal in about six hours, eight in case of traffic. Naveen’s Glen is located off the main road, the last few kilometers are devoid of human habitation. But, do not worry – you are on the right track.

Nathuakhan, Dusk, changing colors, amaze
Nathuakhan Dusk – The changing colors amazed us.

Nathuakhan: Falling under the Ramgarh block, Nathuakhan is essentially a village. & therein lies its beauty. It offers appealing views of the sun caressed Himalayan ranges which are dotted with soaring trees of pine, birch & many others.

clear day, snow-capped mountain, entice
On clear days, the snow-capped mountains entice…

The mountainous terrains, fertile valley and dense cover of abundant forest make Nathuakhan a place to rest and enjoy solitude away from the city buzz. The mountains may get your creative juices flowing; so, whatever your artistic inclination, carry it along.

Summer, Flower, wilt
Summer had arrived. Flowers had started wilting.

If you like to work your limbs, there are a number of walking trails nearby. Keep a lookout for members of the feline family. 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, we suggest you carry your alcohol.

Country wood cottages augment the beauty of Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place is one such. It is nestled away from crowds, provides comforting food, and does not compel one to do anything. Bob’s Place has standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones command a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones have sit-out areas but the view gets diminished by the foliage.

Our cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater. The food we ate 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 identify how good this would taste. 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.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Nathuakhan in about nine hours, eleven in case of traffic. Do not forget to pick up shawls, stoles, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora, and fruit spreads from Himjoli.

(You can read our full blog post on Nathuakhan here.)

So, go ahead & beat the heat!

KHAJURAHO – A PHOTO-LOG

Madhya Pradesh must be the most underrated tourist destination in India. The centrally-located state has nature, heritage, & art. Yet, we neither hear much about it nor see family & friends visiting MP. We ourselves were oblivious of all that the state has to offer till we made our way there.

temple, story
Each of the temples has a story behind it.

On our maiden trip, we spent a little less than a week exploring three destinations – Khajuraho, Panna Tiger Reserve & Orchha. Here, we take you through Khajuraho with our photo-blog.

wonder, temple, construct, modern technology
We wonder how the temples were constructed then, when no modern technological marvel was available…

Khajuraho was a seat of the Chandela rulers’ authority. They built numerous temples in the town in the 9th and 10th centuries. Today, the group of temples is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

logo, UNESCO, group of temples
The logo made by UNESCO for the Group of Temples
scene, battle, daily life, shringar, meditation
Scenes from battles, from daily life, from shringar, from meditation to many more…
temple, back, craftsmen
Make it a point to go around the temple to the back; you will realize the craftsmen did not neglect the backside either!
khajuraho, erotica, hype
Khajuraho being only about erotica is a hype!

Erotic sculptures do not make up even 5% of the total. The guides will ask you if you are okay seeing & knowing more about them before they point them out to you.

temple, visit, sunrise, sunset
The temples are best visited at the time of sunrise/ sunset.

The golden hour is a good time for photography too.

excavation, old temple, unearth
There are excavations still going on & new old temples (!) are being unearthed.
jain temple
Jain Temples

Since the Jain Temples were built around the same time, their architecture is strikingly similar to that of the Hindu temples.

Chaturbhuj Temple
Chaturbhuj Temple

The standalone Chaturbhuj Temple has a well – preserved idol of Lord Vishnu.

sun rays, temple, light, ethereal glow
When the sun rays fall on the temples, they light up with an ethereal glow.

Western Group of Temples

lord ganesha, sculpture, mesmerize, eye for detail, craftsmanship
Look for a Lord Ganesha sculpture to be mesmerized with the eye for detail & the craftsmanship.

Even the roll of His tummy fat has been sculpted with precision!

lakshmana temple, well preserved, exquisite sculpture
The Lakshmana Temple is well-preserved & has exquisite sculptures.
Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, Lord Shiva, grand
The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, is easily the grandest!

It is built in the shape of Mount Meru, the source of creation of the world.

parvati temple, relatively new
The Parvati Temple (in the foreground) is a relatively new one.

It was built by one of the last Bundelkhand kings when the British were instigating religions against each other. To promote harmony, the king built this temple adopting the styles of architecture from Hinduism, Islam & Buddhism. The leftmost is a Hindu ‘shikhar’, the middle one is a Buddhist style pagoda, & the rightmost is an Islamic style dome.

temple, unique
Each of the temples has a uniqueness about it.

A light & sound show takes place in the evening at the Western Group of Temples. You can opt to see that to understand the regional history better.

temple, architecture, beauty, awe
Each of the temples has an architectural beauty that left us in awe.

Tips:

love, silhouette, sculpture
We loved the silhouettes the external sculptures made.
  1. Khajuraho is best visited in the winter months – October to March. The weather is salubrious to walk around the temples. The temples become even more radiant when the winter sun rays fall on them!
  2. Khajuraho has air connectivity. Delhi – Khajuraho – Varanasi is a preferred route by tourists. We, however, opted for a train to Jhansi – road to Orchha – road to Khajuraho – flight to Delhi.
  3. Khajuraho is a paradise for architecture/ art/ history/ photography enthusiasts. However, if you are someone who yawns at heritage, pass!
khajuraho, paradise, architecture, art, history, photography, enthuse
Khajuraho is a paradise for architecture/ art/ history/ photography enthusiasts.

Khajuraho left an indelible mark on us…

worship
Note: Apart from one temple, worship is not permitted in any of the others.

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!

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

 

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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.

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SH34 | Crossing the Kali Tiger Reserve – A wonderful green belt with smooth roads

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

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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…

 

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The contrast could not be more striking The tarred roads Against the many shades of green…

The Journey, The Traveler

What is it about travel that entices me so? Be it global or national; by air or rail; long or short; with family or friends; official or personal – every single time, my eyes light up. It is not just about travel; it is also about the thoughts that rush to me when I travel. This dawned on me during my travel for an engagement to the hinterlands of UP.

When I tumbled my way in the Bolero from Jagdishpur to Lucknow at sunset, there was a smile on my lips. ‘Riding into the sunset’ was the theme in my mind. The roads were neither great nor poor; yet, I was at peace. I had seen rural youth learning skills to become employable. Their sincere faces were etched in my mind. When I closed my eyes, I could visualize them toiling under the hot asbestos roof, trying to make themselves productive. I thought of us, the privileged ones, how we still curse our lives…

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symmetry to my liking

When I traveled from Raebareli to Lucknow, my thoughts wandered to the video I had seen of the poorest of poor. They strove to make a better life. They fought to overcome the odds. In a land where women are still exploited, harassed and oppressed, it was heartening to see groups of women come together to rise from the ashes. Even at a towering 5’8″, I felt small in front of them.

In Amethi, I stayed at a guesthouse which was austere but the hospitality freaked me out. The cook stuffed us with the tastiest food possible. The tehzeeb, I realized, was not limited to Lucknow alone.

Lucknow brought back a sense of belonging, though, frankly, I did not remember a thing from my childhood. Still, it felt like home. Tunde kebab and kulfi at Aminabad, walk at Hazratganj, sightseeing at Bada Imambargah, crossing Cantt, kulfi at Chhappan Bhog, Chikankari shopping at Chowk, Walk in Ambedkar Park, and kulfi (again!) at Nishatganj – spread over 5 days. Courtesy from the most unexpected of quarters. Masha-Allah! Being disappointed with the ‘sandstonification’ of Lucknow. And still being enchanted with how Laxman ka Teela became Teele wali Masjid!

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much needed restoration work going on…

I had thought that the beauty of Bhutan brought out the poetess and thinker in me. But I realize it happens to me every time I travel somewhere.

 

History comes alive, Battles of yore resound

The walls conceal mysteries infinite, I realize as I walk up the stone steps;

The India of today, not very different

Similar battles, similar mysteries, I realize as I walk down the stone steps.

As The Steam Blows

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

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

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

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Our home for a couple of days

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

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

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

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Surrounded by pine trees

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

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

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

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Built by a British engineer sometime in the 1800s

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

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

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

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Trust our army to make just anything better!

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

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

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

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When we walked among clouds

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

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

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

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Flowers of various colors in gardens

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

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

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

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The iconic Viceregal Lodge

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

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

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

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What happens when you book a honeymoon package

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

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

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

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The erstwhile little outhouse

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

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

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

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Trying to catch the mist in our fists

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

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

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

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Crossing almost 100 tunnels

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

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

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

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Difficult to imagine this when we live in metros

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

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

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

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Pride of the Indian railways

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

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

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

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Bringing our little journey to an end

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

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

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

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Its charm intact

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

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

We recommend an itinerary for four days, three nights:

Delhi – Shimla – Chail – Delhi

Day 0: Depart from Delhi by bus/ train.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended buys: Woolens, Handcrafted antiques, Tibetan floor coverings

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

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I loved how the mountains seem to fade away…

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Chandratal Cleared My Muddled Head – Part III

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

Part III

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

Cannot help falling in love
Cannot help falling in love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rugged rugged Spitian terrain
The rugged Spitian terrain

Now the practical part – what to do near Chandratal?

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

 

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