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!

Masai Mara National Reserve – All The Practical Stuff!

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

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

‘Spotted Land’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cheetah, grassland
See the cheetahs lazing in the grassland…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iii. Reptiles Spotted – Agama Lizard, Nile Crocodile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 3

Continuing from Chapter 2, a few kilometers before Nathu La, I switched to the other car. I was in for making new friends. A group of Rajasthani couples was on holiday to Guwahati, Shillong and Gangtok.

When I say Rajasthani, I mean ‘proper’ Rajasthani. The men wore dhoti – kurta with pagdis; the women were in ghoonghat. All middle-aged folks, they first assumed I did not know Hindi. I hastened to correct them, and we got chatting.

One of the gentlemen was an ex-farmer, now a linesman with the electricity board. He had educated his children who were now doctors and engineers. The pride was evident in his voice. And then, of course, my interview followed.

My Rajasthani friends
My Rajasthani friends

Indians are such a curious bunch. They wanted to know if I worked, if I was married, if I had children, why I had moved to their car etc. but, surprisingly, they did not seem astonished that I was traveling alone. I loved interacting with them. N calls me antisocial, but I am pretty social when not overshadowed by his incessant chatter!

The tourists from Rajasthan were also proud of the fact that they had traveled to Guwahati in a ‘plane’. It made me realize how badly we take for granted the things that are still luxuries for millions.

They asked me about the pollution in Delhi; I bared my heart to them – my wish of not returning to Delhi but of settling down in Gangtok itself. Maybe, take up organic farming. I wish it was as easy as talking about it…

Sikkim can be called Land of Colors too!
Sikkim can be called Land of Colors too!

Chatting and laughing, we were at Nathu La. From the drop-off point, the climb was not too much but the lack of oxygen made every step difficult. I am unsure where I found my courage from. I marched ahead of others and was soon at the top. And I was stunned!

A rope marks the international boundary. It is easy to crossover to China, except that the Chinese would dislike it. The building on the left belongs to India, the one on the right to China. Even neighbors in the posh colonies of Delhi have higher fences & boundaries.

A Chinese soldier walked out to click a photograph. He looked like a teenager in front of our tall and strong Dogra regiment jawaans. But, underestimating them would be suicidal.

Nathu La
The temperature was still a bearable 10 degrees at the pass but the winds would penetrate the strongest of defenses. The smaller building is India while the taller one is China…

Having contented my heart soaking in this piece of my personal history, and having saluted the Indian tricolor, I started my descent.

Let me not make you think the climb was easy. Everyone struggled. A few senior citizens abandoned their plan of going all the way to the top. Walk slowly, take deep breaths, and travel light. In any case, camera, mobile phones and handbags are prohibited. Sip frequently on water. If you feel faint, do not proceed.

A 15-minute visit causes such tribulation to us; imagine how our soldiers man their posts 365 days of the year, in any weather. They are definitely made of superhuman elements.

I see empty roads &amp; want to move here.
I see empty roads & want to move here.

On my way down, I picked up a warrior certificate; one that says I was brave enough to visit Nathu La. Yay!

Once back down, I realized my co-passengers were still making their way down. I had some time to click photographs. While doing so, the cab driver paid me a rare compliment – that I was the first Dilliwala he had liked. He wanted me to stay back in Gangtok and was ready to lease his land to me for organic farming. I smile every time I think of this.

It is uncommon for the people of the plains to extend innocent friendships; anything remotely friendly seems creepy to us. This cabbie was not the last person to become friendly; I was to encounter this again and again in Gangtok. I realized that it was just openness towards a guest but the cynic in me questioned their motive, even if my demeanor remained friendly. It is sad that the people of the metropolitan cities have completely lost their goodness. For us, everything seems to have an underlying agenda.

Another Friendly Encounter
Another Friendly Encounter

Coming back, a last note on Nathu La – carry an identification card (any government – issued one except a PAN card).

We made our way to the Baba Mandir where my own cab awaited. I bid a hearty goodbye to the Rajasthani tourists but I was to bump into them again.

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 1

I’ve been on a sabbatical for almost six months now. One of my sabbatical dreams was to travel. & I did – to Bali & to the Indian West Coast. I had one more desire which I wanted to fulfill but was unable to draw adequate courage for. I wanted to travel solo.

I had done this once before but somehow, I felt intimidated. I guess I’d got used to traveling in company; venturing out alone seemed a daunting task. With these thoughts in mind, I got reminded again why N is my soulmate.

He not just encouraged me to plan my trip but also booked it for me before I could change my mind. After evaluating options like Kashmir, the northeast & Tamil Nadu, we narrowed down on Sikkim. Good weather, not too difficult to access, pretty & safe – it ticked all the relevant boxes.

The little red thing at Rumtek Monastery
The little red thing at Rumtek Monastery

I browsed a number of travel websites before I narrowed down on a 4 days-3 nights package by Make My Trip. Being the travel control freak that I am, I made the lives of the MMT holiday experts hell with my queries & requests.

But by the end of these calls, I was relaxed & looking forward to my trip. My departure day began quite badly, unfortunately. Google Maps pushed me to a route to the airport which was unusual & I was caught in the morning office traffic.

I’m one of those who prefer to bide time at the airport rather than running at the last minute. I was terribly anxious by the time I reached the airport. The chaotic check-in counters of Jet Airways didn’t help matters.

Time for blossoms at Flower Show Centre
Time for blossoms at Flower Show Centre

There are just three pieces of advice I would give to Jet Airways: 1) Please streamline your check-in counters; 2) Please fly your flights on time; and 3) Please drop the cocky attitude you have towards passengers.

The chaos at the counter gave me minor panic attacks about missing my flight but I needn’t have worried. The flight was delayed. It began with 10 minutes, then 15, and then a solid three hours, out of which two were spent sitting in the aircraft.

The excuses varied: smog, only one runway being operational, and VIP movement taking place. The two hours in the aircraft were almost a hostage situation. The crew served water bottles only when many passengers asked for it.

Ekla cholo re...
Ekla cholo re…

Food requests were summarily shot down saying they can serve only once the flight takes off. I had to plead for at least a bun mentioning that I’d not even had breakfast given that it was supposed to be a 1025 flight. If the two hours of waiting had been at the airport, passengers could at least have eaten something. Mercifully, the crew member gave me a pack of cookies.

My folks were getting more & more worried with every delay as from Bagdogra, it was a 4-5-hour drive to Gangtok. Driving in the hills & crossing west Bengal – both seemed ominous at night. To assuage their fears, I’d to keep my own morale high.

I kept telling myself that the worst was behind me. & I was right.

To be continued…

(This is the first of the six chapters of the 500-words-a-chapter chronicle of my Gangtok trip. Back with Chapter 2 soon!)

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