Tag Archives: Backpacking

365 days around the state- Wild Karnataka

03-Mar-19: I was extremely sad that I had missed the premiere screening of this much anticipated documentary. All I knew was it was a project based on wildlife and had not much idea about what to expect apart from the Tigers which grab the limelight in almost every other content made on conservation. But still it was the first time a government organization had come forward with an ambitious project as this, that too pioneered by my home state. I was excited! Luck came knocking at my door again when British council, Bengaluru center decided to screen it in their premises on 08-Jun-19. It was a Saturday, a workday for me. I registered, took leave and finally there I was… I was going to watch a movie, solo 😀

Buckle up my dear readers, I’m taking you on a new journey through my ‘TRAVEL’ article. You can call it a movie review if you wish to. But for me, it is a journey across my home state, through the eyes of a wildlife enthusiast. Yeah, I thanked my previous travels for I was able to travel with the ‘team Wild Karnataka’ exactly the way they wanted its audience to travel along the storyline of its documentary. It is the story of the monsoons… It is the story of one year… It is the story of traveling from South to the north and then coming back along the coastline to where it all begins, in my home state- Wild Karnataka. It is a Travel movie! (Click here for the trailer!

The movie opened with aerial shots of the western Ghats, the breathtaking greenery and the mighty waterfalls these hills hold in them. And then, the story pierced right through these dense evergreen forests of the western Ghats. Welcome to South Karnataka! Location undisclosed, I assumed it was my hometown at the southern tip of the state. Somewhere, his majesty wandered with his family on their familiar trail in search of a watering hole. His familiar face with probably the longest tusks in India reminded me that he is an Instagram celebrity from the woods of Kabini. Not before the first drops of the monsoon reached his skin, his highness, the Royal Bengal tiger roared in a distant deciduous forest probably at Bandipur or Nagarhole. Karnataka has the largest population of the Asiatic elephants and the Royal Bengal tigers in the world! No, they didn’t grab the limelight and they silently disappeared into the mysterious jungle making way for the newer celebrities to grab their screen space.

The plot traveled slightly north, giving the Dholes their share of the screen space along the way. A yawning baby King Cobra emerging from its nest and the frog stretching its limbs to grab the attention of its mate were clearly the stars ruling the rainforests of the second wettest place in the country, Agumbe. A family of the smooth-coated otters somewhere along the riverbanks of Cauvery or the Tungabhadra didn’t fail me to wonder where they had been hiding until then. The river terns from the Bhadra backwaters came in with a fresh breeze of air from across the borders.

The camera then traveled along with the langurs who were joyfully jumping across the rocky outcrops of the deccan plateau. A hundred times that I have travelled through this rocky terrain, I had never given it a thought that these scattered lifeless rocks could hold up so much life in them. Be it the peacocks who fought each other to woo their potential mate or the playful sloth bear cubs that were piggy backing on their mother at the Daroji sanctuary, they stole my heartbeats. As if these thieves weren’t enough, there was more awaiting in the grasslands of Koppala. The jungle cat mother was teaching her kittens to hone up their life skills in confronting a venomous spectacled cobra- my heart was taken!

Giving due credits to the wolves and the blackbucks along the way, the familiar voice of the narrator visually transported me further north over to the western Ghats again, this time in Uttara Kannada. It was the season of love making and the great Indian hornbills had gathered for their mud bathing ritual with each one trying to win their mate. These high canopy forests are perhaps the only place where all 4 main species of the hornbills are found. Meanwhile in a nearby farm, there was another superhero marking his territory by gliding across tree trunks. Draco or the gliding lizards are like feathers on the crown of the wild heritage of Karnataka.

While the winter was over and the forests had bloomed in spring, the voice guided the audience under the water. The corals spawned and schools of fishes swam around freely along the 320kms long coastline of the state. Not many know that the Netrani island is one of the best dive spots in the country. By swimming through the Karavali, I didn’t realize that I had reached back safely to where I had begun. The elephant family joyfully welcomed the first rain of the next cycle!

After the unspoken celebrities of wildlife ruled the screen for the 52 minutes, it was as if god himself appeared before the audience in the end. Sir David Attenborough greeted the audience in Kannada. None of us present there could have asked for a better finish! A first for any Indian film, he has lent his voice for this movie accompanied with a heart thumping music score by Grammy award winning composer, Ricky Kej.

While justice is done with the team attempting to throw light to as many permanent residents of the state as possible, hopefully the dwindling numbers of Vultures at Ramnagara and Great Indian Bustard of Siruguppa along with the innumerable visitors who cross borders like flamingoes of Raichur, the pelicans and the spoonbills from Srirangapatna and so many others from the woods too find their screen space someday! A wildlife documentary, as the team may wish to call it, it is perhaps one of the best travel movies I have ever watched. It is that one which got closer to my heart because it took me time travelling around my home state with a new perspective and is all documented with a talented bunch of home bred filmmakers.

 

Smitten by the Ajanta of the Himalayas- Tabo

So, have you read the story from my previous stop? (Click here to read) If yes, then this post is starting from Hurling, where I had alighted last. It was cold and I was the only non-localite at a small dhaba from where I was hoping to get a ride uphill to Tabo. The person making parathas at the dhaba instantly recognized me telling he had seen me at the wedding last evening. Although I found it very sweet of him, I felt embarrassed about not recognizing him and apologized to him telling that everyone looked same to me with their caps and mufflers. Not only did he refuse to take money from me for the cup of chai I had there, he ensured he got me a ride in the car of a fellow customer at his dhaba. This drive is indeed close to my heart, even today… So, what made it special?

Of course, the road beyond and the views as we drove further up was INCREDIBLE! And hey, there were unicorn farms enroute and we saw a few of them straying on the highway. But let me not deviate from my story… There were 3 occupants including the driver in this Alto car. The rear seat was reserved entirely for one of them. He had a plaster of Paris on his right leg which he rested on the seat. They were on the way back from Peo to their home in Kaza. The nearest hospital to get the guy’s broken leg fixed was at Peo. It took them a one-way travel of nearly 3 days, given the roadblocks on their way down the valley. Peo being THE one stop trading destination for the whole of Lahaul and Spiti region, all you can expect from anyone traveling there, is to have their vehicles stuffed with as many goods as possible. It was the same case with this car which spared no space other than the seats. So how did I manage my drive? The person driving shotgun made place for himself in the rear seat asking the patient to manage with his leg for a while. Not just that, he forcibly grabbed my big backpack so that I was comfortable in the front seat. He carried my bag on his lap all the way. I must tell you, it was a super cramped car already and they pushed themselves into great lengths just to ensure that I had a comfortable drive! I was an absolute stranger to them until that moment and I would have considered myself fortunate if I had just got myself dropped. But, just based on a localite’s (Dhabawala) recommendation, they ensured my safety and comfort till I had reached my destination. Before taking my leave, they also handed me their phone number to call them if I had any trouble finding a place to stay at Tabo. No, these are NOT the people one gets to see in the urban place where I call home.Bidding a warm bye to them, I walked down the road to the Tabo monastery. It was not too far as I reached the monastery and the old guest house run by the monastery. This is where I wanted to stay for all that I had heard about it. As I opened the main door leading to the staircase, I felt like I was climbing up a dreamland. The entire guesthouse is built in a traditional style with only mud and wood that is unique to Tabo. The staircase, walkways, balconies and the roof bars are all wood. And it is all naturally lit with glass sheets placed between the wooden beams through which I could see the mountains and the blue skies. The place had so much positivity. Since it was off season, I was the only traveler living in the guesthouse where it is usually very hard to get a room during the peak tourist season.

The corridor inside the Tabo monastery run guesthouse

After freshening up in my room, I was supposed to head out to the monastery’s lunch hall. Talk about a matter of few minutes… by the time I came out of the guesthouse, it was snowing outside. At first, I couldn’t understand what it was. within seconds, I started to scream with joy… It was least expected and right there, I was experiencing my first ever snowfall in ages. The last and the only other time I felt snow was atthe top of Kardungla, way back in 2014. The muddy walls and the red apples I saw in the orchard right in front of my door, just minutes ago were all disappearing behind a blanket of snow. I clapped hands, I didn’t know whom to share it with. Damn the network, damn me travelling solo, I felt. That was one moment I missed home, deeply. The kid in me was dancing like no one was watching…

The view in front of the guesthouse- Before and during snowfall

I watched the snowfall for a while before heading to the lunch hall. Believe me when I say, that was a simple meal, yet the most sumptuous ever! I spent the rest of the afternoon inside the old monastery. I was finally at where my entire backpack was set for, since the time I left home, almost 10 days ago. The oldest running Buddhist monastery in the world- ‘The Ajanta of the Himalayas!’ The old monastery has nine temples, each lit up naturally, depending on the sun’s position at different time of the day. The head priest took me around the central prayer hall and explained the story behind each of the painting that adorned the wall. As there was no one else dropping in, we both had a long conversation that involved everything ranging from religion, politics, art restoration, environmental conservation, sustainable travel et all. He asked me to return the next morning when the sun lit up a different portion of the hall. It was time for the last prayer of the day and I sat down there, sinking in the aura of another level. The Buddhist chants have always transported me to a different world (since the time I was a child who first visited the monastery that is closer back home in South Karnataka). In here, that infinite silence and soothing ambience that smelled of juniper within an enclosure of mud walls, the holy chants in a dimly lit room, I was clearly experiencing the vastness of outer space. After the priest got ready to close the doors, I headed towards the guesthouse to find my resting place, quite literally! Post dinner, I only remember sneaking inside and snuggling inside the warm quilts provided in my room until I woke up the next morning.

Next morning, late by the mountain standards, I came out of my room and looked out of the glass ceiling in the corridor. I felt like the mountains had suddenly moved closer to my room. It took me a few seconds to realize that it had snowed all night and the entire village was now painted white. When I stepped out, it was still snowing. I was silently enjoying my snow affair as I walked up the distance to the kitchen. After breakfast, I headed out for a walk to explore the snow laden streets of Tabo. The backyard of the monastery, the helipad and the famous apple trees of Tabo looked so alien and picturesque with snow all over them. I strolled across the by lanes, the apple mandi, through the farms and finally settled down by the bank of river Spiti.
After sometime, I hiked up the hill to see the meditating caves and grab a view of the entire village from the top. As I walked through the village, every random person whom I came across greeted me with an apple. Some wouldn’t know how to make a conversation with me and would simply handover an apple with a huge smile. Oh my god! Those apples were the juiciest in the entire universe and all the love from the mountain people added to its sweetness. By the time I reached back to my room, I had removed my jacket just so that I could hold all the collected apples in it. They would feel bad if I rejected what they gave me and my intention was never that. But yeah, I had no idea as to what to do with so many apples.

That said, I had lunch and went towards the monastery. A couple had lit up a bonfire on the monastery’s portico to warm themselves from the snow and I joined them for a warm conversation. The couple went home after a while and I walked into the monastery to have a look at the paintings which I couldn’t see the previous day. The priest then walked me through explaining more details on the history and art of this beautiful place. The monastery is home to probably the only manuscript that is written on gold. This monastery is a treasure vault!

The old monastery premises- Before and during snowfall

It is a daily custom to light a lamp in all the nine temples of the monastery and I got a rare opportunity to seem them all, which is otherwise closed for visitors. There is a statue of Buddha inside each temple, from small to large that I hadn’t expected in a small looking monastery like that. All the walls and roofs are adorned with various frescoes, Thangpa paintings, murals etc. depicting various events in the life of the Buddha. An earthquake in the late 90s has caused immense damage to the monastery and its clay walls making them lean on support. He handed me the prasad (read apples) from the main sanctum before he shut the final doors of the old monastery. He then walked me into the new monastery where he lit the last lamp of the day. I know my article doesn’t talk much about my day in the monastery today, but let me summarize it in one sentence. “I consider myself to be the most fortunate tourist ever to get a peek into so much art, so much tradition and history of Tabo.” I’m in no wonder when the 14th Dalai Llama declared that if only there was an option for him to retire from service, he would choose this UNESCO world heritage site!

I had started to fall in love with this place and wanted to stay here for the rest of my holidays that I had in hand. But It had been snowing without a break since last night and I had to ensure that I was heading out of this valley before I got stuck there for many more days. Yeah, my story does not end here though… If you want to read further, you will have to wait for my book 😉 I’m working on it….
Summary:

Must eat/drink:
• The sea buckthorn juice also is a must try (locally known as Drilbu or Chharma juice).
• The Tsirku tea made from the dried peels of sea buckthorn berries
• Don’t forget- A box full of handpicked Tabo apples for home!!

Must buy:
• A prayer Mandala can be bought from the souvenir shop at the monastery. This is to be hung at the entrance of your house that wards off evil
• Thangpa paintings and few other knick-knacks also can be bought from the monasteries for a more authentic gift.

Other things you should know:

  • Photography, torches and any other form of artificial lights are strictly prohibited inside d monastery. You need to deposit it before entering.
  • There is a library inside the guesthouse if you wish to stay and Tabo lake is nearby for a short trek or a drive.

Five travel essentials nobody tells you about

These are my top 5 tips I want to talk about which probably you wouldn’t have given a thought about. You don’t have to be a “Traveller” to use these tips and these are applicable to pretty much anyone who leaves home for a short time or on a vacation.

  1. NEVER flash your boarding passes on social media: I know it seems cool to flash your boarding pass and tell your followers/friends that you are heading to your next destination. But what most of us are unaware is that the QR code printed on our boarding passes contained very confidential information about that individual encrypted to it. It contains details of the transaction you have carried out in the process of buying that ticket. This in turn will be linked to your bank accounts, Aadhar, number of times you have travelled, places etc. It is an easy way to get to all your personal data which is otherwise supposed to remain confidential. So next time remember not to post it on social media and ensure you shred it or store it securely once your trip is completed.
  2. ALWAYS carry a candy or a sachet of sugar with you: Low sugar levels can happen to anyone anytime. I have experienced this twice during my travel. Once, I screamed out of panic when a bus conductor fell unconscious holding my hand while he was issuing my tickets. Some passengers travelling in the same bus came to his first aid by feeding him some chocolates. That’s the day I started to keep a sugar sachet in my wallet. It is probably the FIRST aid that should run through your head if someone is fallen unconscious. So, I make sure it is kept in the most easily accessible spot of my luggage or my wallet.
  3. ALWAYS sanitise your washroom faucets before use: I have always been haunted by the fear of getting a urinary tract infection by using washrooms outside my home. While on the road, there are times when I haven’t consumed a drop of liquid for many days just to avoid going to a washroom. These days, there are several toilet seat sanitizing products in the market to help me in this area. Try the ‘Toilet Seat Sanitizer’ by PeeSafe (Click here to buy). Now, I comfortably spray it on doorknobs, faucets and toilet seats before using it and relieve myself of my fears… quite literally!
  4. ALWAYS carry your own cutlery set: There is enough said and done about reducing one-time usage plastic cutlery everywhere. Carrying my own set of re-usable cutlery set is my way of doing my bit. Carrying a Swiss knife set or a kit with individual metal spoon, fork and knife would be ideal (Click here to buy these amazing foldable cutlery kit), but these are not allowed in check-in luggage if you’re taking a flight. So, you can use wooden substitutes for these which can be carried in your handbag/ backpack irrespective of the type of travel you are choosing.
  5. NEVER compromise on comfortable footwear: Shoes, shoes, shoes… is something I swear by! Since I’m a slow traveller who does a LOT of walking and running around, I always wear a comfortable pair of SHOES- trainers, joggers, sneakers whatever you call it, I mean SHOES that are flat, light and breathable. This is one thing I don’t compromise for low cost because the effects of poor shoes are long lasting. Along with this, I carry a waterproof sandals or floaters to let my feet breathe if I’m staying somewhere. Also, I have major issues of getting cramps if I walk with wet shoes, so that’s why these waterproof chappals come in handy!

Were these hacks useful?

 

Want to help your country’s economy? TRAVEL!

Indian economy is in a downturn. Everyone is complaining..

The automobile sector is seeing its worst crisis in 2 decades. If automobiles don’t sell, it not only puts my job at a car manufacturing OEM at risk, but has a cascading effect to hundreds of related industries. The steel, the large chain of vendors and sub-suppliers, sales, marketing, advertising agents, dealers to local garages, accessories, insurances, the indirectly dependant canteen, cleaners, gardeners, drivers, IT, so much so that even fuel station workers will lose their jobs. Why am I telling you this? I am no economist, I am no business man, I am no social activist…. I am a Travel blogger and influencer. So why this rant???, one may ask! It is because I want all of you to travel! Explore! Contribute your tiny bit to help our country’s economy.. by TRAVELLING!

It was a causal conversation with a colleague when we discussed about a meeting of his with one of the top management members of a vendor company, a septuagenerian with over 40 years of experience in the automobile industry.. 4 decades..!! From the day of tariff commissioning to date where it is more about survival than competition in the industry, he’s probably seen the entire cycle of the “Auto revolution” in India.. His experience and insights were commendable! Most of his qualms with the strategies to boost the sector was to do with the Indian mindset in general. Here is a brief of his insights into what can be done and further elaboration with my own thoughts based on my experience of Thai culture during my maiden trip outside of India!

We Indians have been raised with a mindset to save money. Stash up either in cash or in gold. By doing so, we are pausing the currency from circulation. A country needs monetary circulation for the economy to sustain. There should be buying and selling, both. One way to do that is to travel.

Ofcourse, there is an endless list of intangible benefits of travelling. From strengthening existing relationships to creating newer contacts, from exposing newer cultures and landscapes to trying new food and meeting new people, travel teaches newer lessons everytime you step out. But the tangible benefit it reflects is that by helping the economy.

Let us start from planning your trip. You browse! So many people out there make up the content on the internet, develop softwares, manage them.. Agents for all your booking needs.. There is a whole lot of people working behind the scenes.

Okay, now you have a plan sorted and are stepping outside your house. You either drive your own car or use public transport. You are in the process, using your automobile.
1. This automobile would need to run. So, you go to a fuel station.
2. Either before, during or after the travel, this mode of transport would need a checkup- you visit a service station.
3. You get some funky accessories for your car/bike if you are using your own mode of transport, or the owner/driver does this incase of a public transport.

Now, you decide to take a pitstop on your journey. You have a cup of chai and some biscuits or let us say hot pakoras by the roadside. You just helped a small business flourish! Oh wait, not one business. He in turn buys the biscuits, milk and the ingredients for the pakoras from several other vendors!

Then, assume you have reached destination ‘X’. You dine at a local restaurant. You stay in a hotel or a homestay. You buy souvenirs. You pay entry fees to so many places of visits. Voila! You helped so businesses  survive during your trip. Do you see how many others depend on him for indirect employment?

Now, you tell me, you are not in a mood to travel to a different place. It’s okay! Take your family out for a dinner. Or even better, go shopping. Go to a spa. Go for a walk and eat Pani-puri. Sign up for a course, buy a book, watch a movie. Don’t stash up the money by staying indoors. Go out and do something! Your contribution to the economy is pretty much explained already.

The Thai people are probably the only ones in the world, who spend so much time with family or friends outside their houses. For most of the household don’t even have a functional kitchen. They mostly have food outside,  because not only does that allow them to explore newer restaurants, it also saves them the time spent on cooking and money on setting up and managing a kitchen. Their personal life is healthier than we Indians. Even a country as small as Bhutan, measures not the GDP(Gross Donestic Product) but the GNH (Gross National Happiness) index for the country’s progress.

When there is consumption, there is demand and supply! With that, the currency flows, in and out. Businesses start, grow, flourish and sustain. This empowers them with money. Money allows them to buy an automobile of their own. They start travelling. And one fine day, the poor vehicle grows old. What do you do? You buy a new one. The cycle continues… In the process helping the sustenance of hundreds of jobs and stabilizing the country’s economy at large.

By stepping outside your four walls, you only grow, you learn, you evolve. I make it a point to spend atleast 30% of my earnings on my travel needs. I feel rejuvenated, more confident and mentally sound every time I get NEW air away from home.

What is your take on this view point?

 

Celebrating a mountain wedding in the Himalayas at Geu

The weather had gotten colder and windier when I woke up that morning at the Nako homestay. The met department had issued an alert for a possible snowfall in the next 48hours. After finishing my breakfast, I decided to head further up the highway. My intention was to drop by a village named Geu, enroute and reach Tabo for the night’s stay. Geu is a small deviation from the highway with no direct connectivity of public transportation. I enquired with a couple of people at Nako for a taxi and I was offered a round trip for Rs.4000. I didn’t want to return and having to pay that amount even for a drop seemed more since I was on a budget trip. I decided to take a chance and go there by myself. I boarded the next public bus until Geu cross and hoped to hitch a ride to Geu or hike up the 8kms road leading to the village. ‘Why so much adventure?’, one may ask curiously. “I wanted to see a mummy in India, the unknown, for which Indians travel to afar countries.” Not many people know that there are about five mummies in India itself, out of which the one I was going to see is of a Buddhist Llama. It is believed to be over 500 years old and has been there in the open without any preservatives.

After alighting at the Geu Cross, I waited at the small bridge for about half an hour, hoping for a ride. As the cold winds were getting harder to stand, I decided to start walking up the trodden road with my backpack. Just then, a pick-up truck came in honking behind me. I put my hand forward signalling them to stop. The driver told me that he was sorry as the seats were filled with more people than what it could accommodate. It seemed to me like they were a large family, all dressed up in their ethnic Kinnauri attire. I told them it was Ok for me if they let me sit in the trailer. “The weather isn’t good outside. You will feel cold.” He politely said out of concern. I told them I’d be fine and hopped on after he nodded an approval.

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The Buddhist shrine atop the hill at Geu

The drive along the next 7kms to Geu was as insane as it could get. The super bumpy road runs parallel to a river in a scenic yet landslide prone barren land. Hence, there is no tarmac and is filled with rocks and gravel all the way. If not the thick layer of thermals and my balaclava, I would look like a zombie doused in south-Indian sambar. I mean, there was a thick layer of dust all over me from head to toe, all thanks to the open trailer and dry winds. It was already noon when I reached Geu. The family with whom I had got a lift until there, invited me to join them for lunch. They had come there to attend the wedding of a family member, they said. It was a small hamlet with about 15 households and no hotels or restaurants. When I turned down their invitation telling I had to head back asap after seeing the mummy, they insisted me to join them in the celebrations and that something can be managed for the night’s stay. I nodded an unsure okay!

Next thing I saw myself doing was being guided into the dining hall with a grand welcome alongside a traditional Kinnauri Band baaja. The meal served mainly comprising of wheat bread, dry fruits and nuts was healthy and simple as per the norms of rest of India where a wedding food is usually heavy on ghee, oil and sweets. The welcome drink too was a subtle namak wali chai, being served from a centrally placed firewood oven in the dining hall. I was force-fed and taken care of as if I were a part of their family (and the village itself). There is always this special thing about the people in the hills, their hospitality would have no match. After the meal, the Bride’s village got ready to welcome the groom to Geu. He belonged to Hurling village. It was an evening of colour, music, dance and fun. I got to experience a tradition which I had never heard of until that evening… Just a couple of hours ago, it was not even in my faintest thoughts that I’d be dancing in the mountains along with the baraatis (the wedding convoy, as it is called in India). What an unbelievable experience!

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The Kinnauri women in their traditional ceremonial costume

After the baraatis were taken inside the house, A few villagers and I walked up the small hill where exists a Buddhist shrine. The mummy is housed in a small room alongside the shrine whose key was taken from one of the caretakers at Geu. When I got there, I was rather surprised to see this mummy comfortably sitting in the open room…. With no preservatives, no wrapped fabric and just a small glass case to keep it away from direct human touch of the visitors, it is still very much intact. Its hair and nails are believed to be still growing. While the locals with me offered their prayers to this mummy Llama, I was watching this INCREDIBLE piece of science and faith!

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The mummy Llama

With the setting sun and dropping temperature, the winds were getting stronger and we all headed back to the house. Each house was filled with so much chit-chatting and laughter going on, around the central fireplace where the guests were munching on the local snacks and hot brews. I was accommodated in a large warm room at the village’s only guesthouse. My stay was sorted for the day and I heaved a sigh of relief for the faint doubt I had until I had a confirmed place to stay.

Very unusual to a regular day in the mountains where all villages sleep early, the celebrations had only begun at 07.00.p.m. to say the least. The evening faded into night and the night became morning… The wedding was an all-night affair. There was food, drinks, dance, songs and so much fun as in any wedding. Everyone had lost sense of the freezing temperatures outside the hall. What was surprising? While there was so much fun and frolic inside the wedding hall, the men in uniform from the Border Security Force continued to perform their duties outside, walking around the village keeping vigil on infiltrators. “The Chinese territory lies just behind this hill”, a localite explained. “We have our kith and kin who are married off there. They are all Kinnauri and share exactly same culture as us. Sadly, they can’t come here to join the festivities because they are Chinese. It is not that we don’t meet, Chup-Chup-ke koi climbs the hill and comes here and goes off there occasionally. That’s why the BSF is here”, he said. It was 02.00.a.m. when I returned to the guest house with a few others to get some sleep before a long day that followed.

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The Kinnauri men in their traditional ceremonial costume

I woke up at sunrise the next morning and got myself ready with my backpack. I had to find transportation and hence wait until someone was heading out of the village. From 07.00.a.m., I was walking up and down the village street because I had to keep burning calories to keep myself warm. The villagers noticed me and insisted me to have breakfast with them. Just as I was washing my plate, I heard a car. The Maruti 800 was already carrying more than its capacity. As I continued to wait, another pickup truck ignited its engine. It too was full. Yet, I found another pickup. The driver said he would go only after all the members came. I said I will wait with him for them to come. A good half an hour and three cups of tea later, the members finally arrived. I was again seated in the trailer with a couple of others on our way out. This time, the cold windy, dusty and bumpy drive was accompanied with some nice warm conversations with the mountain people. We arrived at Hurling; the groom’s house was a short hike up the hill from the main road. The family insisted me to tag along with them for the second day too. “You have seen only half of the ceremonies at the Bride’s village. Now, the convoy with the couple will arrive here to continue the celebrations at the groom’s house. We came early to see that all arrangements are in place before the rest arrive. Please join us.” They insisted. Hurling was halfway to my next destination- Tabo. As tempting as the invitation sounded to experience a complete mountain wedding, the fear of getting stranded in a snowfall made me decide to find a way to reach Tabo asap!

Thus, ended an experience of a lifetime- A wedding in the mountains! There is always magic in these mountains and its people that will keep calling me back again and again!

A Land where Art is Divine- Pathanamthitta

Dense canopy of trees, swaying coconut palms, houseboats cruising through the pristine backwaters, wooden canoes of the locals fishing in narrow canals- Well, does this paint a picture of Gods own country? When opportunity struck, I decided to give the usual things a miss and explore a region that is least spoken about in the tourist circuit. A land where art is considered divine and celebrated in all its form- Pathanamthitta.

First thing I did while approaching Pathanamthitta was lowering all the windows of my car, to breathe in some clean air. With almost two third of the district comprising of forest cover, it is no wonder that Pathanamthitta is the least polluted city in India. The remaining one third is a combination of the city and plantations. We were heading to the homestay we had booked, not very far from the city centre. It was nestled in what the locals call as a residential area that was far from imagination of a city soul. The narrow roads were flanked by rubber, tapioca and banana plantations for most stretch and marsh lands for the rest. Bunches of jackfruits hung down from tall trees among several other tropical trees like litchi, rambutan etc. that had the fruit lover in me all drooling. My stay was at a traditional Kerala house nestled amidst a huge garden. Its wooden portico with clay tiled roof had me fancy struck.

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Enroute to the homestay

Surprisingly for me, Pathanamthitta hosts some of the largest annual religious congregations in the world. The Sabarimala yatra and Maramon convention are next only to the Haj. Giving a pass to the famous backwaters of Kerala, I had driven this far to explore its vibrant and divine culture and art. My plan for the first day was to visit two of the 108 Divyadesams, both located in Pathanamthitta. I had arrived at the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple, particularly for a tour of a foundry that makes the historical ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ (Click to watch the video). This GI tagged handicraft is culturally important in the state of Kerala. The know-how of making it is endemic to Aranmula and limited to the descendants of only one family who now live around this temple. Unlike the familiar glass mirrors, these are finely polished metal sheets. Watching these men toiling in their workshop to bring an alloy to life, which is integral in all Malayali celebrations was like living a dream for me.

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Left: moulded metal sheet before polishing; Right: Polished & finished mirror

A short drive away from there was my next destination: Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple. With its ancient wooden architecture, this beautiful temple sprawls on a huge area. Here, the prayers are offered five times a day and the last prayer was specifically that interested me the most to visit here. Kathakali is performed inside the temple premises everyday as a form of prayer to put the deity to sleep. I was like a little child in wonderland who lost track of time watching this performance that went late into the night.

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A traditional Kathakali setup at the Kochi international airport

An early morning drive to Gavi or Konni elephant camp is what I was recommended for finding a piece of nature. Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls are few of the other nearby places that tourists usually visit. But I decided against it all and while away some time exploring the neighbourhood of my homestay before checkout. It was as calm and peaceful as anywhere else. While sipping a cup of Kattan chai, I was reminded of my previous trip to Alleppey. Hundreds of wooden canoes measuring over 100 feet, long enough to be called snake boats, gather from across Kerala to compete for the coveted title. Each boat carries at least hundred oarsmen, all singing the Vanchipattu in chorus. Breathing the heavy air filled with anxiety of the spectators, it was a lifetime experience. Like Alleppey, Aranmula too hosts one of the largest boat races in Kerala. The Aranmula race is held on the last day of Onam as a celebration of Lord Krishna crossing river Pampa.

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The oarsmen ‘”Women” from Alleppey

I had planned my return route to Kochi such that I could cover some of the interesting landmarks along the way. The first stop was at Kalloppara, where an ancient Hindu inscription exists inside a church. I had read about how two faiths co-exist under the same roof that houses a Bhagavati temple and a Mary’s church. But my drive through the streets of a residential area ended at a bridge that connected Kalloppara. It had collapsed during the floods that ravaged Kerala last year. Having three rivers flowing through it, Pathanamthitta was one of the worst affected.

I hit the main road again and headed to Thiruvalla. Since it was dark the previous night, I was there again to have a look at the famed mural paintings on the altar of the Paliakkara Church. The church at Paliakkara and Niranam (my next destination) both have their history dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India in 54.A.D. This trip was all about an amalgamation of art and tradition. Be it wildlife, religion, architecture, history, art or culture, I believe Pathanamthitta has something for everyone.

(P.S.: I’m against the idea of taking photos inside any place of worship, as a form of respect to its sanctity. Hence, I do not have any pictures from the interiors of any place of worship)

Fact File:

  • How to reach: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Trivandrum. Kottayam and Alleppey are the nearest Railway stations. KSRTC buses and taxis are available from these places to reach Pathanamthitta by road.
  • Get around: local buses are quite frequent; Taxis can be easily availed.
  • Best time to visit: September to May (Anytime apart from monsoon)
  • Stay: Luxury hotels are sparse. Cheap and Budget hotels are available in plenty considering the pilgrims who come here for Sabarimala yatra. Homestays are available to experience the true essence of Kerala.
  • Must do: Attend a Kathakali performance, visit a mirror foundry, Bathe elephants at Konni.

The Mountains beckon in the Apple valley of India- Kinnaur

I wasn’t sure if solo-traveling would be safe in Chhattisgarh, the campsite wasn’t ready yet for a Gujarat trip, Rajasthan had the election around the corner albeit having the perfect weather, the public transportation system wasn’t convenient in Arunachal, Uttarakhand had unpredictable weather of late, Jammu was done just last year, Dharamshala stretch would be too mainstream, Lakshadweep was too short a trip for the time I had. Maybe I should just settle down with the Sahyadris in Maharashtra or sign up for a fortnight long yoga session at Rishikesh or a Yakshagana course at Mangalore perhaps! I had tele-travelled almost the whole of India to decide where I wanted to go. And then, this happened! Just 4 days before departure, the mountains beckoned and I had finally decided to visit the Kinnaur valley in Himachal Pradesh.

Nothing was clear to me apart from the to & fro flights to Delhi. People around me were busy and my vacations couldn’t wait, lest they be lapsed without pay or without use. Although not very keen on solo travelling, I think that’s how life threw itself upon me when I longed to go to the mountains! The mountains have always been kind to me and have had me meeting them regularly over the last 4 years. I don’t know the reason for this special bond I share with the mountains. May be because I come from a nature worshipping community, that my connection with them is so instant and strong. The mountains had me amidst them yet again. From being a shy kid at ice breaking in public gatherings to having done a complete solo backpacking in an off-season, to meeting and hanging out with strangers and making new friends from travels, my journeys have brought me a long way! The mountains have been kind and have protected me all the way…

Given that I would be alone and I get muscle cramps when the temperature drops, the one thing I had to make sure while planning my trip was to not push myself too hard to see too many places or do anything that could drain me out. Hence, I decided to do it one place at a time, plan my next destination only after reaching a place and move only when I felt like I had sunk in well in the current place. So that said and Kinnaur had me there! After I had reached Himachal, there was absolutely no fear of being a solo-women traveller and no worries over safety concerns at any point of time. The people were amazing who derive their strength from their deep values… From being stopped by random locals on the road and being offered the juiciest apples from the valley to eating local food and getting invited to houses for coffees, from befriending the locals and then to being invited to attend a traditional Kinnauri wedding, from waiting for the day’s only public bus or hitch a ride to having stuck in a place for 3 days without any electricity or transportation due to snowfall, from meditating in the millennium old monastery to confronting a mummified Llama in the mountains, from driving past a valley of green-rock-and-sand onward to having returned through the same valley painted white in snow, from being seen-off by a close friend at the trip start to I seeing-off a stranger at the end of the trip: Whoa! What a journey it was!

So, the route taken by me was: Delhi-Kalka-Shimla- Sangla-Rakchim-Chitkul-Sangla- Reckong Peo-Kalpa- Nako- Geu- Tabo- Rampur- Sarahan- Shimla- Delhi. Some of the key destinations enroute and things I did were:

• The trip started with the ‘Himalayan queen’ train from Delhi and then I connected to the mountain railways from Kalka to Shimla, a part of the UNESCO World heritage. Stopping at several stations enroute, a ride in the loco thugging along the narrow-gauge through in-numerous tunnels and winding pathways in between the green pine laden cliffs and verdant hills was worth an experience.

• The hustle of the desi music blasting at full volume had filled the atmosphere as the HPSRTC bus I boarded at Shimla cruised through thickets of sweet smelling Juniper and deodar. A solo snow laden peak emerged from amidst the green mountains. Call it layers of dew laden and mist covered hills, they sparkled as the sun’s early rays found their way forming several vibrant spectrums as the morning ride gave me the first glimpse of a horizon that had a never-ending line of snow-capped mountains.

• When the bus alighted at Sangla after making its way through steep gradient, blind corners and breath-takingly scary heights of the snaking roads, the sun was calling it a day. It had cast a golden red glow to the entire range of Kinnaur Kailash mountains. I couldn’t have asked for more as I stood there to be welcomed by this magnificent view right in front of the bus stand. The hike up the Kamru fort to catch the golden peaks up close was a cherry on the icing.

• The next day was an exhilarating bus ride through the Sangla valley, overlooked by the Kailash mountains on one side and the beloved untamed Baspa river flowing below. The ride was adventurous with waterfall and river crossing, cliff-hangers, landslides and occasional sightings of mountain goats or yaks. Quick stop-over at Batseri village painted in shades of crimson, chrome to ochre with the trees of apples, apricots and walnuts was a feast to the eyes. A walk down to the river at Rackcham helped me to connect with the Kinnauris with very warm conversations. They offered me a ride through apple orchards and buck wheat farms before meeting the sole Indian tricolour waving at Chitkul, a village bordering China & Tibet.

• The following morning, I started early to Kalpa- a quaint tiny village with old traditional houses amid the Kinnaur apple farms. A solo hike through the suicidal roads to Roughi village turned out to be special when a random dog decided to accompany me all the way. Again, the setting crimson sun cast its magical spell over the manifestations of Shiva and Parvathi seated conveniently in the Kinnaur Kailash mountains overlooking the village. With the chants from the Buddhist monastery next door and swaying prayer flags as I looked out of my window the next morning, I couldn’t ask for a better start for my day.

• That day, I did a bit of shopping and grooving to traditional Kinnauri music with the locals at Reckong Peo, the ‘Gateway to Kinnaur valley’. It was the annual fair where people from all over the state had congregated to buy and sell local Agri-products and handicrafts apart from sipping the local apple brew. Packets of pine-nuts, dried apples and apricots along with the traditional Kinnauri hats were perfect souvenirs to take back before boarding the bus to my next destination.

• This road is when the landscape starts to surprise you. The green canopies make way to steep rocky cliff-hangers. The on-going construction of the Karcham Wangtoo dam only warns you to be aware of shooting stones where landslides are as common as confronting vehicles from the opposite direction on the single-track road. And then, the Rocky mountains disappears suddenly making way for barren landscapes with sand and loose rock laden cliffs. The blue Sutlej river snaked between the valley and the view of the treacherous roads winding around the steep gradient hills was indeed a sight to behold! It was pitch dark and biting cold when I alighted at Nako, to check into a homestay under the clearest star-studded night’s sky.

• Although the weather had gotten more colder, it was one of the finest mornings so far. A walk around the village of Nako, with mud-smeared walls of houses built of wood and clay is one of the highlights of my entire trip. While strolling through those narrow walkways of the village, I felt as if I was exploring a maze. With the early morning vibes of a typical village with cattle roaming around, children walking down to schools, chants and incense from the ancient monastery rising in the dew laden air, it was an altogether different world there. The view of the distant snow-capped mountains and the barren winding landscape around had me spellbound for the rest of the day.

Next destination was Geu, a village that can be reached only if luck be by one’s side. Having no direct connectivity through public transportation, I waited on the highway hoping to hitch a ride to a place that is often cut-off due to landslides. It was wedding bells chiming in this tiny hamlet that day… I was fortunate, to say the least! A large family heading towards Geu not only obliged to offer me a ride in the trailer of their crowded goods carrier, they also invited me to be part of the celebrations. From being treated with the finest Kinnauri delicacies to dancing with the baraathies in a traditional mountain wedding, I could not ask for more. It was an all day and all night affair!

• I woke up in the biting cold next morning to hike up the hill and pay a visit to the mummy of a Buddhist monk, believed to be over a 500yrs old. Strangely, it has been there in open atmosphere without any chemicals and among the only few mummies available in India. Quick breakfast at the wedding house and I was good to head out by hitching another ride until Hurling.

• The weather had gotten worse that day with a forecast of precipitation by day end. As I waited at Hurling for my next ride, the guy making rotis at a hotel offered me a cup of free chai and got me a free drive with his customer to my next destination. With a loaded car and a person with a broken leg hanging out of the rear seat, the people who agreed to drop me were more than sweet to accommodate me in the front seat and they carry my backpack on their lap all the way in the rear seat.

• So then… Tabo happened! This was the place I had been looking forward to all the way. Considered to be one of the holiest places for the Tibetan Buddhists, I sunk into meditation mode for good few hours with the soothing fragrance of the Juniper interiors of this millennium old monastery constructed out of clay. It was BLISS and I can’t explain it further. The millennium old paintings all over its inner walls and roofs, the golden manuscripts were something incredible. Since artificial light sources are believed to damage the organic colours, I eagerly waited for specific time of the day for the sun to light up specific rooms to see this wonder. It is called the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’ for a reason, you see!

• The morning when I woke up, the mountains had moved closer to me with a heavy overnight snowfall. This was a sight to which the heart of a snow-deprived-south-Indian-city girl in me had skipped a beat. I had to extend my stay at this monastery due to heavy snowfall for next 2 days and with no electricity, phone connectivity and no plumbing that worked whatsoever, it was ‘THE” time! Amid all this, I had the rare opportunity to relish the Tabo apples (one of the best in the world) every day of what was being offered to the deity at the monastery.

• Finally, after getting my drive back to Shimla- I had plans to stop by at Rampur Bussahr to see the erstwhile palace and stay at Sarahan, one of the Shakthi peethas in the foothills of the Himalayas. But, the mountains had an altogether different itinerary for me for the last 3 days! So, thus was my sojourn in the Himalayas, the mighty incredible Himalayas!

Since Rohtang pass had closed by end of monsoon, I did only Kinnaur and half Spiti and returned the same way back (Although a little hectic with 3 days required only for travel, on the same route). If you are traveling in the summers, then you can start from Shimla and complete Spiti & Lahaul via Kaza and exit from Manali, thereby not repeating your route.

Summary: With the changing landscape throwing surprises at the wink of an eye, each mile was magic. The valleys were overwhelmingly beautiful! When the mountains beckon, just pack your junk and head out! The destination doesn’t count, the journey is worthwhile!

This article is featured in Deccan Herald’s Travel supplement: ‘DH Travel’ on 25-May-2019