Tag Archives: Buddhism

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.

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!

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

The geographical centre of India before partition- Vidarbha

Vidarbha- the region consisting of Nagpur and Amravati derives its name from the epic city of Mahabharata. With several references made in Ramayana and Mahabharatha, it is not just historically important but a mineral rich region in Central India. And a region that offers its own delectable cuisine to its guests.. Vidarbha is extremely important with its strong influence in culture, history and geography.

When opportunity knocks at your door, grab it! That’s what I did.. A friend was getting hitched at Amravati and the nearest airport for me to fly down was at Nagpur. So this time, it was an opportunity to explore the Vidarbha region. But that came with its set of challenges. It is one of the hottest places in India and hence, a self-drive car was hired to ease the travel hassles of local transport. The itinerary was planned such that all major landmarks around Nagpur were covered on a single stretch before hitting the highway for the night’s stay at Amravati.

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The zero milestone of undivided India

Although poorly maintained for all hype around our first stop- It is a must see for anyone visiting Nagpur, the geographical centre of India before partition. The ‘zero’ milestone from where all distances were measured and highways originated in India before Pakistan was formed, stands in a corner of a busy main road. The DeekshaBhoomi meditation centre is around the place where Dr.B.R.Ambedkar is said to have given his first sermon after he converted to Buddhism. The Dragon palace temple, Ramdham Park are some other places within the city if you are in more leisure. The lakes in the city can easily be given a miss. However, some heritage structures like churches, schools and the railway station lend an old-world charm to the city.

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Swaminarayan Mandir

The Swaminarayan temple was a beautiful place and the ‘Adasa Ganesh temple’ that can be done by taking a small deviation before hitting back the same highway. ‘Mansar’ is an archaeologically important site, believed to be of Pravarapura, an erstwhile capital of the Vakataka kingdom that ruled the Vidarbha region. 5kms from there is Ramtek, the holy hill to people of all faiths. ‘Gad Mandir’, an old beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Ram is situated atop a hillock. Solitude is available in abundance here with a great view of the entire area. It is also believed to be a place where the mythological King, Kalidas wrote his epic poem- ‘Meghdoot’ at Ramtek hills. There are several places that are significant among the Jains and Buddhists too that are located in the vicinity. The Ambala Lake with its beautiful structures lining the Ghats at the base of the hills was my favourite place of the trip. Get yourself cooled with some water sports at Khindsi Lake or soak in history at the Nagerdhan fort, the primary capital town of Vakatakas if you have some more time for leisure. It is a further 10kms drive from Ramtek.

And… Don’t miss an opportunity to stay over at ‘Pench National park and do some tiger sighting’ in the land of ‘The Jungle Book’- The story of Mowgli and Bhageera that we have all grown up listening and watching. There are a lot of scenic places around Pench that I can help you with if you are planning to stay over at one of the jungle lodges. We did not have the luxury of time as we had to drive back all the way as our stay was booked at Amravati. The Amravati region is home to several wildlife sanctuaries and temples that can be accommodated if you’re traveling on a luxury of time and an own vehicle, we gave it a miss. Chikaldhara, the highest point of Vidarbha region and the only hill station is located here. For a person like me hailing from the coffee hills, it was quite exciting to know that Amravati is the only coffee growing region of Maharashtra state.

Now… coming to the highlight of the trip…. FOOD!! The Varadi and Saoji are the two popular cuisines of the Vidarbha region. So, it was a culinary treat for our taste buds to experiment on something fiercely spicy and so rustic in taste. While our day started with delicious plates of ‘Poha with Tarri’ and ‘Samosa Tarri’ for breakfast at one of the several roadside tapris, lunch was a simple delectable Varadi thali at the ‘Gad Mandir Bhojanalay’. We managed to find space in our tummies for street food with several pit stops along the way that tasted heavenly and ended our day with a grand non-veg varadi menu for supper at a star hotel where we were put up for the night.

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The Varadi food that kept us going!

Nagpur is synonymous with the orange fruit and the brand ‘Haldirams’. So, the visit would have been incomplete without trying the ‘Orange Burfi’ at one of the Haldirams outlets spread across the city. Do pick up a box of ‘Mango soan rolls’ from Heera sweets to please your sweet tooth along your return trip!

A mind numbing experience of winter in Ladakh

What was supposed to be an once in a lifetime experience of trekking on a frozen river- ‘The chadar trek’, rather turned out to be a wonderful experience in its own way.. Thanks to a landslide on the Zanskar, a natural dam had been formed stocking up water for over 5 kms. If incase this natural dam collapsed due to the built up pressure, the stored water would wash away the nearby areas causing flash floods. Hence, citing safety reasons, the goverment had issued ‘section 144 – Shoot at sight’ to anyone attempting to go anywhere close to the river.

We decided to break away from the trek organiser and explore Ladakh on our own.. Oh yeah, before I forget to mention- None of our phones were working(No connectivity via phone or internet)- Thanks to all our pre-paid connections. Only postpaid connections work in this part of the country due to security reasons (given its proximity to disputed border areas). Thus started our lifetime experience of the mind-numbing winters in Ladakh.

Day 1: It was noon by the time our early morning flight took off from Delhi airport, thanks to bad weather conditions. Just 20minutes after take off, a small but prominent layer of cloud seemed to appear at the horizon.. But within no time, we realised that we were approaching the Himalayas. In just few minutes, the GPS indicated Shimla on the map in the TV infront of our seats. A never-ending stretch of deep gorges, ravines, formed the beautiful landscape below. Few minutes further up.. Yes..!!! we couldn’t contain our excitement of flying over the snow covered mighty Himalayan peaks, we were jumping for a spot at the windows taking turns.. It was the first time we were seeing snow! Click click click…. The cameras went on and on… It was as if we were in an enclosure which was floating up in heaven.. It was absolute FEAST to the senses.. all the way… till touch down🙂

You are flying over the Himalayas...
You are flying over the Himalayas…

Inspite of the glaring bright sun, it was 6 below zero degrees when our flight landed at Leh- one of the highest airstrips in the world. We took a cab to the hotel that we were informed by the trek organiser.

The day went by just making an alternative plan for the trek that could not happen. Also, it was necessary to get acclimatized to a scary combo of High altitude + low temperature(It went upto -25deg on some days of our trip). So we just had to stay bummed to our rooms(without heaters..!!) and warmup ourselves 😛 We shopped for a lot of thermals in Leh market (we got cheap & good quality stuff..)

Day 2: It was the last day of the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery– Enroute we visited the ‘Hall of fame‘- the war museum. We happened to be there at the right time when an Indian airforce carrier was about to land. With the Sham valley & other mountain ranges all around the airstrip, it called for the exact photo that had inspired me to visit Ladakh more than a year ago.. We later headed to the monastery where the day long festivities and mask dance was going on.. We walked up the stairs to the holy abode of Kali(which is open for public viewing only during Gustor festival) before we comforted ourselves by finding a seat amid the chaotic crowd that had assembled. After the event, we did a bit of souvenir shopping at the mela that was put up and a lot of binging on Ladakhi food. We took a cab to Shanti Stupa which is best for sunset viewing. After the sun was down, we took the stairs down which we were told was a shortcut to reach Leh town by foot.

Mask dance at the Gustor festival - the annual fair at the Spituk monastary
Mask dance at the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery

Day 3: Drive through Changla pass(the 3rd highest pass in the world) at a nerve freezing temperature: Get a quick grab of food at Karu town. Here one needs to get the Inner Line Permit to proceed towards Pangong Tso- the controversial border between India & China. The lake was partially frozen- where we could drive over most part of it and experience the chadar partially 😛 If one has an extra day, they could head to Tso Moriri, a salt water lake and camp there overnight before returning to Leh. But, we took back the same route so we could cover the Shey Palace, Thikse monastery & got a glimpse of the Rancho school of the ‘3 Idiots’ fame. Hemis monastery- the wealthiest monastery in India remained unreachable by road since it was winter.

A milestone at the Pangong tso
A milestone at the Pangong tso

Day 4: It was a lonng day.. A wonderful drive on a roadless route which seemed to have been carved all out of ice and sprinkled with snow.. A small slip of tyre could get deadly as beautiful as the valley seemed to appear. We couldn’t ask for more when it began to snow just when we alighted at the end of the highest motorable road in the world- the Khardungla pass. Continue on the road that leads to the cold desert of Ladakh- The Nubra valley. With minimal vegetation, and sand dunes all around, you should not be missing out the ride on the Bactrian camels which are endemic to this region and is a critically endangered species. Visit the Diskit monastary- where a 32 feet statue of Maitreya Buddha looks upon Pakistan. Towards the end of the valley is the Siachen glacier- the highest battleground in the world and the glacier forms the source to the biggest irrigation system in the world-The Indus. Catch a good night’s sleep at a traditional homestay there and experience authentic Ladakhi hospitality.

View from a monastary
View from a monastery

Day 5: Start early cuz the day will be short with too many places to cover on a single stretch from Leh. We took the Kargil road- a drive through Sham valley. First stop was at Nimmoo where we filled our fasting tummies. The next quick stopover was at Pattar Sahib Gurudwara. The straight stretch of road looked as if it was peircing right through the horizon. We were driving through the magnetic hill. The road which is believed to have defied gravity where a car with ignition off and neutral gear moves uphill- against gravity..!! We were not quite convinced with our experience though, which made us agree to the scientific explanation of it being an optical illusion. We arrived at Chilling- The confluence of the Indus and Zanskar. The partially frozen stretch was intimidating to walk over.. But we were warned by a cop not to go near the banks.. all thanks to section 144 😛

The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

We continued our journey through rustic Ladakhi villages, monasteries dotting the distant hillocks, frozen waterfalls, bare poplar trees, narrow truss bridges, army barracks, hot water springs, ice hockey fields, etc. We came across wild deers, yaks, pashmina sheep, wild horses and other fauna endemic to this high altitude region.. Likir monastery was beautiful with the Buddha statue smiling in between the snow clad mountains all around. Our last destination was Lamayuru monastery– The start point for many treks in this region.

Unfortunately, we did not have the luxury of a few more hours and safe conditions at the border to go further upto the Kargil border. We wanted to drive back through Drass valley- The coldest inhabited place in India and the second coldest in the world. Again, If I had an additional day in hand, I would have loved to get an inner line permit to spend a day at DhaHanu valley: home to the endangered community of the Dard people. I would love to go back ASAP atleast to document their customs, traditions, photograph their intricate jewellery and costumes before their numbers further deplete. Had I been blessed with a couple more days, I would want to do the Markha valley trek andand experience the tribal life in its raw & purest form.. And spot a snow leopard in its natural habitat at the Hemis national park- the largest national park in India and the highest national park in the world.

During winters, most of the town is shut for the season. The few places that are up, open after 11.00.a.m and close by 5~6.p.m. We missed out on some fine shopping of souvenirs, local handicrafts and dry fruits.. Probably, some form of connectivity of phone or internet could have helped us to cover more places and organise our trip in possibly a better way.. But, NO REGRETS..!! We’ve still done what most people don’t dare to- Experience the bitter winter of Ladakh. That’s all the time we had for.. We had to pack our bags with a super heavy heart to carry back home..

Day 6: It was a rare phenomenon that we had woken up with that day, early at 6.a.m. It was snowing in Leh. There usually is no snowfall at Leh town… But that day I guess the town had started to miss us… the sky was crying heavily.. We reached the airport by 07.30.a.m. The security measures are very stringent for those leaving Leh which easily needs about 2hrs. 2 rounds of passengers’ frisking and 2 rounds of baggage screening. And then, you have to individually identify your baggage until which it will not be loaded to the flight..!! Quite a strenuous task for the security personnel… While it is considered as a fun trip for the touristy people like us.. It’s a salute to the bravehearts : The Indian army.. Who bare all odds like extreme climatic conditions and unpredictable threats to their lives, strive day and night to ensure that we are safe.. The flight took off over the mountainthat said ‘Touch the sky with glory’.. in the true sense…

I will come back ASAP for more..

Julley Leh..!!