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Visiting the last Indian village in Baspa valley- Chitkul

As I arrived at Sangla, the setting sun had already laid a golden welcome… I started to walk around the town looking for a homestay. After walking here and there, up and down, I decided to settle down at a homestay, which seemed like a pretty big bungalow. The owner of the house was away, and it was let to the caretaker’s responsibility. I was the only guest. However, this seemed to be better than all the properties I had seen thus far. I freshened up, unpacked and unwound myself while watching the daily evening procession of the deity of the ‘Chandi Mata’ temple from the homestay itself.

Post sunset, I wore all the thermals I needed and ventured out to explore the town. The commercial area seemed just like any other small town I had been before and didn’t want to get too adventurous on my first day in the valley. In the entire town, I was drawn towards a very small restaurant called ’The Buddhist Café’. I was being just one of those typical Indian tourists in the Himalayas; I was tempted to eat momos 😛 The place rather looked dinghy with dim lights and no customers in their main dining area. On enquiry if the restaurant was closed, I was greeted by an old Buddhist lady who guided me to follow her to the kitchen inside. Despite being a little suspicious of her gesture and given the shady looking walkway, I continued to follow her. She made me sit at a table where she served me steaming hot momos and black coffee after taking my orders.

There were a couple of people who came in and out whom the lady attended to but did not take any money from. It seemed to me that they were mostly labour who helped her in fetching supplies to her kitchen and she retuned their favour by providing them free meals. She was speaking very gently to them as if one would talk to their family members. I felt so much positivity emanating from this lady. Eventually, she pulled a chair next to me and settled down to have a long conversation with me. She enquired about my journey and said a few things about herself and her family. We both were so engrossed in our conversation that it was 09.00.p.m. by the time I realized that I had quite a distance to walk back in the darkness to reach my place of stay. The lady took my hand in hers and asked me to promise that I would visit her daily for as long as I was in Sangla. “Tumse baat karke bahut accha laga mujhe. Kal Aajao, gappe maarenge. Zaroor aana, mein intezaar karoongi”, she said. Amused, I left by promising her that I would return.

I was an early riser on the following morning in order to make it to the bus stand on time. There was only one bus that ferried passengers to and from the last village in this part of the Indian borders. It ran twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Chitkul is a tiny settlement beyond which, the mountains belong to Tibet & China. After having read enough articles on the internet, I wanted to check this off from my list of places to visit in Himachal. I however de-boarded the bus at a village called Rakcham, a few kilometers ahead of Chitkul. I was standing on the rear side of the famous Kinnaur Kailash mountains. With curious villagers staring at me as if I was a lost alien wandering alone and children walking to school posing for photos looking at my DSLR, with a beautiful sunrise over the mist laden valley and the gushing Baspa river on the other side, the morning walk on the empty road felt magical. Although I had seen apple trees earlier, it was the first time I was seeing apple orchards. The houses in the settlements on the slopes were unique to the area. I spent good amount of time exploring the village perched on hilltop and down in the cold waters of the Baspa before settling down with a cup of sea-buck thorn juice at a campsite that was being disassembled.

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The view of Rakcham

I had read that Rakcham valley looked vibrant with pink flowers of a native millet during its season. But I seemed to have arrived late to see the famous pink fields of Rakcham. Anyway, the orchards had turned the valley equally vibrant, in myriad shades of golden. But, honestly, there was nothing specific to see or do there, apart from the solitude that I had found thus far in my trip. I walked back to the main road and enquired with the shopkeepers about getting to Chitkul. A few localites who overheard my enquiries tried to pitch in their suggestions. Going by their suggestions, I waited by the roadside engaging myself in answering the enquiries about my solo travel. It was well over half an-hour as a shared jeep arrived, which they asked me to board to reach Chitkul. Just as the jeep cranked to start, one of the men talking to me asked the driver to wait. The man ran to a shop and returned with a bag. “It was nice talking to you; this is for your way.” he said while dumping a bag full of apples into my hand… I picked two from the bag (not wanting to disappoint him), thanked him warmly for his gesture and convinced him that I couldn’t carry so much luggage with me and bid him goodbye.

The road ahead was bumpy, yet interesting. It passes through forest area that was in bloom, opened to large meadows and then, the snowcapped peaks appeared rather suddenly. Foreigners need to register at the check post that falls enroute as Chitkul is a sensitive area guarded by the ITBP. On reaching Chitkul, I started to walk towards the viewpoint. Yes, no doubt it looked beautiful and I could walk right into the river below that demarks the border. But my heart skipped a beat when I saw the solitary Indian national tricolor waving in the middle of nowhere. Apart from taking a walk along the valley and exploring the tiny hamlet, there seemed nothing much to do. There are quite a few options to stay at both Chitkul and Rakcham, but for a moment, I feared the temperature that I was warned about. The temperatures in Chitkul are colder than anywhere else in Kinnaur. That’s why I changed my mind to return to Sangla for the night. As there was still lot of time left before the bus started, I decided to walk towards Rakcham so that I could click some good landscape photographs along my way. Anyway, the bus arrived in a while and I returned to Sangla.

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The Chinese / Tibet border at Chitkul

There was still enough daylight time left, and I decided to explore Sangla that evening. I climbed up the Kamru fort from where I could see the magnificent view of the town and the golden sunset that had welcomed me last evening. An ancient wooden temple stands strong on top of the fort and looks brilliant with its detailed sculptures and friezes. There is a dress-code to follow (a head gear and a waist band needs to be worn) to enter inside. Since most of us there didn’t have it, we had to wait for the priest to provide the same to us, and go inside, in turns. The priest also gave me a peak into the history of the fort and how the temple came into existence. It felt very peaceful and I sat back there until the sun had gone down completely.

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Temple atop Kamru fort

I had decided to leave Sangla on the following morning to continue my journey ahead. I had also not forgotten that I had promised someone that I would visit her. I wanted to inform her before leaving. That’s why I then headed towards her café for that evening. It is hard to explain how excited she was at seeing me. “I wasn’t sure that you would return. But I was looking for your way”, she exclaimed! She served me noodles and black tea, introduced me to her son whom she had called to talk to me and found good company in talking to me. After a couple of hours had passed, I informed her that I was going to take her leave. Guess what? She gave me a rucksack full of apples which she had specially bought and kept for me. She didn’t own any orchard and hence, she ensured she bought the best apples as souvenirs for me. When I say BEST, I mean THE BEST…. Kinnauri Golden apples! Can you imagine me carrying a rucksack full of apples (souvenirs!!) along with 10kgs of additional backpack that I already had. for the rest of my journey??? 😀 I convinced her that I was sorry, and I couldn’t accommodate so many apples in my luggage. And she still managed to squeeze in a good few kilos telling 2 apples for each member in my family, back in Bangalore…!! She had tears as she saw me off and I cried as I was missing my mom! Sometimes, you never understand how connections work with strangers…

Next day, there I was… Inside the bus, chattering in the cold morning… on my way to my next destination in this sojourn: Kalpa

A detailed guide to the Rann of Kutch

With winter, comes in the dry cold winds over the great Indian Thar desert region. The great Rann of Kutch is a part of the Thar desert and is shared between India and Pakistan. The cold winds carry the surface water along with it and dry up the salt marsh. Thus, the entire marshland looks like this phenomenal never-ending stretch of white salt flatland. Rann of Kutch is one of the largest salt marshes in the world and the amazing sunsets over the white salt flats has made it to the bucket list of every traveler and rider.

With all my backpacking experience in other places of India, I wanted to explore ROK too… But when I landed there with a rough idea about the places to visit, I was in for a surprise. Backpacking in Kutch was not as easy as it seemed to me. Firstly, the connectivity through public transportation wasn’t reliable and accommodation options were very few and expensive. It is close to a year since I did this trip and I think I should post this before the ROK travel season starts for this year.

So to begin with, let me tell you the transportation options for getting around Kutch.
1. Pre-book a taxi for your entire trip if you are flying down to Bhuj (The option which I chose).
2. Get a self-drive car or bike from Ahmedabad if that is where you are starting your trip from.
3. There are government buses connecting each place. However, as on date there is only one bus plying each day with long to very long traveling time.

For the stay, I would recommend making Bhuj your central location as it is easy to travel to each place if you choose to follow my itinerary and the stay would be relatively cheaper. The Tent city is extremely expensive and overly commercialized. If you want to experience the tent stay in the salt flats like the way it is portrayed everywhere on the internet, I would advise you to spend your last night at Dholavira.

The roads in Kutch I must tell you are something that will amaze you with. They rip right into the horizon, they are super straight, and one would want to just stop by every other time and get the photos of the road with their car/ bike parked by the side.

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The Tropic of cancer passes across the road

Then comes the itinerary. This is what a typical itinerary for anyone traveling to Kutch looks like if the start and end point of your trip is Bhuj.

Day 1: Koteshwar + Lakhpat + Mata no Madh 

  • You will be traveling to the western-most tip of Indian Sub-continent, Koteshwar. The Koteshwar Mahadev temple is of religious importance. Right after it is located the Narayan Sarovar which is popular for spotting Flamingoes if you are going there in the right season. You can have free lunch at the Narayan ashram located nearby.
  • You can then drive to Lakhpat. You will be welcomed by the large walls of an erstwhile fortress as you enter this town which is now a religiously important place for the Sikh community which maintains the Gurudwara Sahib that houses some of the relics of Sri.Guru Nanak.
  • Lakhpat, once used to be a buzzing port town and the economic center of the state until it was hit by a major famine. The entire town was abandoned for what it is today popularly known to be a haunted village. Anyway, it is guarded by the navy and the coast guards and with their permission, I enjoyed my walk there with some nice photos of the abandoned village, its houses and temples.
  • The deity at the Ashapura Devi temple located at Mata no Madh is believed to be a powerful goddess and hence visited by everyone traveling here. There really wasn’t much for me to do there and I preferred my 2kms drive up to the hill temple over this. We had reached there at sunset time and I decided to spend the remaining time watching the golden skies from there before heading back to Bhuj for the night.

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Enroute the Narayan Sarovar

Day 2: Dhordo + Kala Dhungar + Hodka + Dhorbana + Banni

  • Dhordo: For me, the photos of this exact place was what brought me here even before I knew what Rann of Kutch was. Popularly known as the tent city, it is a commercialized patch developed by the Gujarat government to promote tourism. You can spend some time enjoying the various folk dances, camel rides etc. along with various stalls put-up there.
  • Drive up to Kala Dungar. This is the highest point in the entire Kutch region and the view of 360deg salt flat is something you will not forget. There is a small temple on the top associated with a folklore.
  • Hodka, Dhrobana, Bhirandiyara, Ludiya, Kavda and Banni are some of the several villages along the edge of the Great Rann of Kutch where there are settlements of specific artisans and you can interact with these communities. Although the famous Kutchi embroidery is a generalized term, the patterns used in their stitching, their apparel and jewellery are unique to each community and thus is a representation of individual village. Each of their Bhungas (as the huts are called in Kutch) are uniquely painted and walking in these villages are experiences in themselves. This day trip is highly promoted by the Gujarat government as part of rural tourism.

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The fossils scattered around the fossil park and the great Rann in the backdrop

Day 3: Mandvi and Vijay Vilas palace

  • You can take the route via Nalia to reach Mandvi. This route offers amazing views and a stretch with windmills might even blow your mind 😛
  • Stop by at the Vijay Vilas palace
  • Spend some time chilling by the Mandvi beach

Day 4: Bhuj Local sightseeing (Every place has an entry fee and specific open days and timings)

  • Aina Mahal and Parag Mahal are both old palaces of the erstwhile royalty located within the same premises. A visit here is worth your time because it offers a lot of insights into history and photo spots to the shutterbugs.
  • The biggest Swaminarayan temple in India is located in Bhuj. For those of you who don’t know, it is the same organization that manages the Akshardham temple in Delhi.
  • This is a dedicated day for shopping all your Kutchi embroidered souvenirs. You can buy all the handicrafts directly from the artisans and get good deals either at Bhujodi handloom village or Bhuj Haat.
  • Take a walk around the Bhuj Haat premises. A replica of the Parliament building is made here and houses stories from the lives of several leaders who lead India to freedom.
  • A small hike up the Bhujio Dungar fort offers you a panoramic view of the entire Bhuj town, an early morning or evening visit is advised to avoid the harsh sun.
  • Befriend a local and there are some offbeat spots in the town that you would not find on the internet. The Kutchi museum, the Khari Nadi canyon, Paddhargadh ruins, Chattardi ruins, Tapkeshwari caves are among a few of those unexplored gems.

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The Kari nadi canyon, Bhuj

Day 5: Dholavira
For me, this was the highlight of my trip. (Click here to read the detailed itinerary and my story in a separate post). An archaeological site from the Indus Valley civilization era, a fossil park from the dinosaur era, tribal settlements and the enormous stretch of salt flats- You need to time your stay here on a full moon night to get the best experience of the great Rann of Kutch.

Day 6: Head back to Bhuj for your return flight or proceed towards your next destination.

I assume this article was of some use if you were planning your trip to the Rann. Was it helpful? Is there something that I missed out? Tell me in the comments below…

You are not a Bengalurean if you don’t know this

Do you google for offbeat things to do in Bengaluru or Offbeat places to visit in Bangalore? When friends visit you in Bengaluru, what do show them in the city?

Click here for your list to plan your weekends in Bengaluru

With the city growing into being popularly called as the IT city, Silicon city and the Pub city of India, a pub-crawl to one of the hundreds of breweries and restaurants in the city is a must on every visitor’s list to do in Bangalore. But these are for the millennials of Bengaluru. If your visitor is someone from the 90s or perhaps older, the pubs might be of little interest to them. They have probably grown up hearing about the garden city’s rich green and red canopies of Gulmohars, filter coffees and pleasant weather. They perhaps had relatives from yester years either working or studying in Bangalore as it was reckoned with talented people, better job opportunities, some of the premier organisations of the country, rich cultural heritage, polite and soft-spoken folks etc. In either case, anybody who has lived in this city for a little over a couple of years likes to call him/herself as a ‘Bengalurean’. That’s like adding a price-tag, it kind of gives them a sense of pride!

Talking about the second category of visitors, often when friends and relatives visited Bangalore with 2-3 days in hand and asked me to take them around, I used to wonder as to what’s there to show them around for so many days. The hugely popular Vidhana Soudha and high court complexes, the Lalbagh and Glasshouse, Tippu’s summer palace and the Bangalore palace are landmarks and historical monuments that can all be done in a day. The old charm of Cubbon park and the famous Boulevard of MG Road that boasted of being the city’s lung-space and shopping hubs aren’t the same any longer.

So, this led me to exploring the city and what I found is something that EVERYONE who claims to be a Bengalurean must know! What’s the use of associating with a place or thing when you don’t have enough knowledge of what you proudly brag about in your social circle? Isn’t it?

Bangalore (as every someone from the Old Bengaluru likes to still call it) is a city that has witnessed its growth through harmony between technology and rich history. It is one of the earliest technical hubs and home to some of the premier institutions of the country. The museums in Bengaluru are proof of its association with science and the heritage buildings scattered across the city are testimony to it’s history. You are not a true-blooded Bengalurean if you haven’t been to these places in the city!

NOTE:
• These places are picked from across categories and hence are listed in no specific order or choice. Rating them against each other would not mean any justice.
• All these places have been personally visited, studied and documented by me. However, these are places of certain confidentiality and hence, photography is prohibited.

ƥ What if dinosaurs were replaced by aeroplanes in Jurassic park?
HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited), Asia’s largest and India’s first aerospace establishment was founded and is headquartered in Bangalore. If you want to walk down this journey of how aviation industry has evolved in India, a visit to the HAL Aerospace Museum, India’s first aviation museum located at the HAL premises is highly recommended. Get yourself amused in another world by taking a walk between vintage planes, flight simulators, mock ATC and all the things associated in this subject of fantasy. Now, this place leads me to my next destination: The IISc (Indian Institute of Science).

>• How about a meal cooked in a Hydrogen plant?
Well, I didn’t even know this thing all the while as I feasted on the sumptuous plate of idlis for 5Rs. every morning for breakfast during my fellowship at the Indian Institute of Science. Interestingly, I used to be surrounded by the best scientists of India and abroad discussing new experiments over a plate of food cooked at the same place where a bunch of people discussed a war plot in history. What is now the top-of-the-notch science and technology institution in India, served as a hub for maintenance and repairs of US aircrafts during World-War II. And, the kitchen of this tiny vegetarian restaurant on campus made hydrogen gas to supply for the US fighters during their battle with the Japanese. Eventually, the need for skilled personnel in aeronautics by the HAL workforce at this facility to help the US forces, lead to the establishment of what is today known as the Aeronautical engineering department at IISc campus.

∆• Ever wondered how you could touch someone’s heart and tickle a human brain?
A visit to India’s first ‘Human Brain Museum’ located on the premises of NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences) can help you do just that. NIMHANS is India’s premier and apex medical institution for mental health. The museum has a large collection of brain samples of several animals and human beings suffering from various forms of mental and neurological disorders. Not just that, the visitors taking a guided tour of the museum get to hold and feel various human body parts, ranging from brain, spinal cord, heart, lungs and the like. It was indeed an experience of a lifetime for me to hold it in my palms (without a degree in medicine :P). Another information centre on the same campus gave me a walk through the history of NIMHANS thus leading me to my next destination: The Mysore Bank building.

>• What if you were counting coins at a Lunatic Asylum?
Don’t be surprised! Mysore Bank is a popular landmark located at Bank circle in Gandhinagar and is one of those few places in the city where a vending machine dispenses coins of various denominations if you fed it with currency notes. While you were busy at it, you might not have taken note of the fact that the very building where the bank functions today used to be the first mental hospital in India, established in the 1800s by the Mysore Kings. Country’s first institution for Post-graduation in Psychiatry was started here eventually leading to the establishment of NIMHANS.

ƥ How does a ticking clock look if all characters from fairy tales danced around it?
People from far and near flocked to Lalbagh as the word about ‘The Garden clock’ spread wide back in those days without YouTube and WhatsApp. That scientific marvel was a seven-meter-wide solar powered clock ticking on a dial made with flowering plants and popular characters from fairy tales like snow-white and the dwarfs dancing around it. This is a functional clock till date and speaks volume of our country’s strength in technological evolution. The creator of this unique time-machine pulls me down to my next destination: HMT watch factory.

>• Have you stacked up your ‘time-machine’ to go back in time?
While I spent a couple of years living in this locality surrounded by the HMT(Hindustan Machine Tools) properties like the HMT officers’ quarters, HMT sports club, HMT theatre etc., I also remember the time when I was brought back to time (read it- ‘Back to life’) by the doctors at the HMT hospital when I had once gone into coma or my blood pressure plummeted down or whatever that was! All the memories aside, HMT has opened their museum in the locality to showcase the journey of the company. HMT watches are those perfect souvenirs that truly represent Old-Bengaluru as they say it was the country’s timekeeper (Read complete article). Since the original manufacturing company of these watches has shut its functions at their facility at Jalahalli, the last few pieces are being assembled at their factory outlet/showroom itself. Go, grab your piece of old times from Bengaluru before stocks last.

ƥ How often do you come across a Military museum?
Well… Bangalore’s association with Indian Military system dates to centuries and what’s of my particular interest is that India’s oldest regiment of the Corps of army engineers is headquartered in Bangalore. The Madras Engineer Group (affectionately called as the ‘Thambis’ of the Indian Army) have their regiment’s history and achievements chronicled at the ‘Madras Sappers Museum’ located within the premises of MEG centre. However, it is not open to general public and special permission from the Army is required for entry. Once an opportunity had struck me to participate in a city walk tour to this area and the army blood inside me had this Bengalurean beaming high in pride. So, here is one thing from MEG centre walk tour that led me to my last but most important bits of Bengaluru’s history: The Kempegowda towers.

>• So, that brings me to my last question: How big is Bengaluru?
It is believed that Kempegowda, the founder of Bengaluru had got four watch towers installed to mark the four corners of the original Bengaluru. These towers were located at elevated places so that he could get a good view of the entire city from these points. One is installed within the MEG premises near Ulsoor, one at Mahakali temple near Hanumanthanagar, one atop the Gneiss rock inside the Lalbagh gardens and the last one inside the Ramana Maharshi ashram near Palace Orchards. Well, it is unimaginable how this city has grown beyond these corners today, but our pride of ‘Namma Bengaluru’ knows no boundaries…

Do you agree?