Tag Archives: Border dispute

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…

I’m supposed to tell you this

While I write this post today, it’s obvious for one to think that I’m venting it out because of all the drama happening between India and it’s neighbour. But, why I choose to do it now is the video of an Indian warrior has kept my heart pounding with anxiety over the last 2days. The video released by the Pakistan army shows that the enemy captors interrogate a severely wounded Indian soldier, his hands tied, blindfolded and there.. with all poise, dignity and calmness in his voice and posture, the captive soldier replies, “Sorry Sir, I’m not supposed to tell you that!”

So here is what I want to tell you all..

My earliest connections with the uniform are mainly two. First is being born in a community which has given some of India’s most decorated defence officers and that had its own regiment in the Indian army. Seconly, being raised in a family of strong women with one of them going on to becoming the first women cop in the state. Yeah! I had quite a lot of stories to listen to while growing up, of both men and women in uniform… Can I say uniform runs in my blood? Stories of heroics of the officers from my hometown and the adventures of my aunt in her pursuit of a job in a male-dominated area has fuelled my curiosity, inspiration and motivation to pursue a life of adventure. Admiration for the #MenInUniform (and the women) had come naturally to me. But these instances take me back in time on how I have always been inspired as a growing up kid to pursue a career in the Indian Military Services.

Growing up in a small town meant limited access to things. So the only ‘Air Force’ thing we could see were occasional choppers that flew in with VVIPs visiting the hilltown (These could have never been the IAF choppers if I guess). Like all kids of the 90s did, we waived at the choppers hoping someone waived back at us.

I now travel to some other faint memories from childhood. It was my week long stay with a relative at Hyderabad. They were an army family living in their army bungalow somewhere in the viscinity of the Golconda fort. That was my closest meeting with defence personnel and the army way of life until then. The discipline, etiquette, mannerisms and all those were something that really caught my fascination. Until then, I had only heard stories and now, I was seeing them all.

But the most fanciest days of my life were my summer vacations spent at our house in Pune. The Sukhoi 30s were newly inducted in the Indian pride back then. And our house being in the proximity of the airbase, ‘The Hunting Hawks’ as they were called, flew past during their sorties all day long. The various formations and the thunder that rattled almost everything in the house were an eye candy and feast for the ears. It is something that really caught my fancy for fighter planes and more so for the adventure that the defence forces had to offer if I happened to join them ever! I am FOREVER grateful to my folks for having a home there… cuz that’s where a spark for the forces was ignited and a fancy for fighters struck me. And then were my share of stories I got to hear from my uncle (a veteran officer from the British Army during the world war) and his many colleagues at their army society at Salunke Vihar in Pune. I used to be a curious cat listening to them all. Year on year, the travels during my summer vacations were eagerly awaited!

Growing up, I got some insights into the way of life through my participation in the NCC (National Cadet Corps) while in high school. With a continuous pursuit of adventure and curiosity to understand how things worked, I think signing up for a course in Mechanical Engineering was inevitable. Sometimes, it is really okay if you don’t get the best. You get what is best for you. With that, I mean the real deal of life that came to me in the form of an admission at Nitte Meenakshi Institute of Technology, Bangalore. This is where I really got the whole Indian airforce thing into me. It’s beyond just an explanation of how fascinated and excited I used to be on just seeing a fighter plane. With almost all the planes from India’s might being there, it really opened up another world to me to learn about the airforce and its strength. I started to get back and google more to learn about each plane, the technology, its background, its history with India, what it takes to be a pilot in IAF and all those associated stories you find hyperlinked online. The more I read, the more I got thrilled. Ok, so a long story short- I too tried my hands at getting into the forces and failed a couple of times, if you asked me that question. So, yeah! Corporate world has me here by chance and not by choice. So if not here, you know where I would rather be!

Why am I telling you all these things today? Cuz, I’m hooked to the news channels along with a million other Indians praying for the safe return of our brave pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan’s release from the captivity of Pakistan Army. It’s an expression of anxiety I’m not able to get out of myself over the last couple of days. With extreme courage and poise, this brave son of my nation has stood by the motto of the MIG-21 squadron: “Siddhirvasti Sahase” which in Sanskrit translates to: “Success lies in courage”. Like literally! What more defines courage than his encounter with the Pakistan fleet? Can you imagine a Bison (that’s the nickname of MIG21) hunting down a Cheetah? (A F16 Falcon in this case) It rarely happens, and this brave warrior has done it! Chased death by the enemy back into its territory! Isn’t this what makes a true warrior? And our country divides its people based on caste and age-old professions…

Be it the Army, Navy, Airforce, BSF, CRPF, coast guards or anybody out there… with the kind of passion, selflessness, skill, precision our brave hearts at the forces keep vigil of our nation… A million million THANK YOU to each one of you guarding us all and enabling us live this happy life in our so called ‘Safe Havens’. As one of my friends rightly points out, with Wg. Cmdr.Abhi, what all of us have seen is just a tiny glimpse of what our forces holds. There are a thousand other equally skilled warriors in our forces who are all waiting for a chance to strike back. They are collectively an epitome of what India Truly is!

Image credits & patch designed by: Saurav Chordia

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