Tag Archives: Solo travel

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

To Spiti valley- The journey

So… I headed straight from office to Bengaluru Airport to catch a late-night flight. Just so that I could make it to the railway station to catch the early morning ‘Himalayan Queen’ on time. Just so that I could reach Kalka on time. My friend in Delhi helped me in my commutation juggle between the airport and the railway station. Then, the Himalayan Queen chugged off from Delhi. Apart from seeing a hazy sunrise through the windows, I slept through most of the journey until I reached my first destination in my 10-day long tour, that afternoon. I ran to the special platform in the other end of the station at Kalka to board the ‘Himalayan Queen’ that ran on a narrow-gauge thereafter. Only to realise that it was delayed by an hour.

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The Himalayan Queen Trains. Top: The narrow gauge train between Kalka & Shimla; Bottom: The broad gauge train between Delhi & Kalka

Anyway, the ride in this train which is a part of UNESCO Heritage was a different experience. The 1st class bogie had old cushioned wooden adjustable chairs like you would have at old single screen cinemas, an unfamiliar thing for those familiar with the regular compartments of Indian Railways. The route was scenic as the train passed through hills, forests, tunnels and cliffs. It stops at several stations that allows ample time for photography and for exploration for passengers who are mostly foreigners. One such stop was the halt at the Railway museum at Barog. But yeah, the initial excitement of experiencing a narrow-gauge waned down soon as the journey got monotonous and long having none of the co-passengers to talk to. It was dark and cold by the time I alighted at Shimla. That’s where my real trip began…

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The Barog railway station and museum

After searching multiple online sites and walking around in the unknown city in search of a suitable place to stay, I was still clueless of where to go. I finally settled down at a rather shady looking place when I realized that the backpack was quite heavy, and the cold was becoming unbearable for me. The guest house was old and the things in the room were unkempt too… Anyway, I had settled there as the caretaker seemed okay to believe in. I locked myself up in the room, used my sleeping bag inside the warm blankets that were provided and tried to sleep (although I didn’t!).

I checked out of the place at 05.00.a.m. on the following morning and started to walk towards the HSRTC bus-stand based on directions given by the caretaker. I took the wrong deviation and lost my way. I saw that I was reaching the city central area and continued to walk as I hoped to find someone. I heaved a sigh when I saw the army command building. I stopped by to enquire the guard outside for directions. Since I was carrying a large backpack, walking with a face covered with a balaclava, all alone on the empty dark roads, he began to question me suspiciously. Once he heard the girl’s voice and I told him that I was traveling from South India, he introduced himself as a Tamilian who had been posted there just a couple of days ago. He was of little help and I proceeded. Google maps didn’t seem to be of any help either, as the distance only increased every time I walked ahead. I then came across a man on his morning walk who guided me through what he called was the shortest walk path. It was long, dark and scary initially. Although there didn’t exist an official road, the distance (may be aerial) on google map kept shortening. It was a descent downhill and I did back and forth when I had my doubts. Finally, it had dawned when I reached the bus stand and relieved when I saw a few newspaper distributors sorting their dispatches. I had missed the first bus that was heading towards Sangla. They introduced me to a man in a tea stall, whom they said was the driver of the next bus which was scheduled an hour later. The driver offered me chai and asked me to stay around.

Finally, the bus started. It would drop me until Karccham from where I had to board another one. The journey to my destination was going to be a long one. Amidst the early morning rays, the verdant hills looked amazing and I was excited about the road. The bus conductor and the driver were both nice people who kept checking on me every now and then as I was alone and new. They even bought me peanuts to munch along for my journey. An hour on the road, our bus halted. There was a massive traffic jam due to an accident on the highway. A car had gone almost completely under a lorry that came from the opposite side. It was over an hour by the time the police arrived and cleared the spot after inspection. Meanwhile, the hospitable people in the hills obliged to allow me inside their house when I wanted to use a washroom. Would you allow a random person on the road enter your house? I’m certainly not sure if I’d do that myself.

By around noon, the bus that I was travelling in broke down. Given that Rampur Bushar was the nearest town where he could find a mechanic, our driver somehow managed to negotiate the ride till there. Also, the passengers could board another bus from the large terminus in the town. He ensured that I sat in a spot, informed the bus station master to keep an eye on my safety and to guide me to the right bus when it arrived. These are the kind of interactions that make you feel confident about having a safe journey ahead. isn’t it?

That said, I sat in the next bus a good 2 hours later. It was a direct bus to my destination: Sangla. But I had a carry-over ticket from the previous bus only until Karccham. The conductor of that bus was fussy about considering the carry-over ticket until Karccham. But I stuck to what I was instructed by the previous driver. A good argument later, I got my ticket extended by paying only for the journey between Karccham to Sangla. The sun was slowly coming down as I approached my destination.

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Sunset view from Sangla bus stand

Finally, when I alighted at the Sangla bus stand, it was by far the most magical sunset I had witnessed all my life until that day. Right in front of me lied the snow-capped Kinnaur Kailash mountains and the peaks had turned golden. The rest is for another story!

A town in the foothills of Kinnaur Kailash- Kalpa

That morning, I had arrived at Reckong Peo and already done 4 rounds of the main road in the town with my heavy backpack, an uphill climb and down. I was searching for a hotel or a homestay. The only one that I found near the bus stand was out of my budget. I enquired with a few in the town and they suggested me to go to Kalpa. Kalpa is around where, all sightseeing places are situated and has a range of options to stay at. Accordingly, I sat in a local tempo traveler and started my ride towards Kalpa.

A narrow winding road, lined with apple trees on both sides with golden foliage, finally took me to a seemingly small town. The conductor announced: “Kalpa, last stop!” with narrow cluttered lanes, shops and eateries inside small sheet moulds, houses tucked behind high rise stone walls- the town looked very old school. Imagine a quaint town overlooked by the beautiful mighty mountains.. for me, it was a moment of ‘awe’ at first sight. I enquired with a few shops at the bus-stop for my stay and they guided me to walk further inside the village. I found a good one and the hotel was very new. So, the clean room, warm blankets and 24×7 hot water were just perfect for me to settle in there. But what lured me the most to the hotel room was the view from the window. Kalpa is very famous for its apple orchards. I was there towards the end of the apple season and so all the leaves were just about to shed their golden leaves. So, imagine a golden stretch against a background of white Himalayan mountains? I was mind blown!

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A view of the Kalpa apple orchards with the Kinnaur Kailash mountains in the backdrop

My stomach was growling, and I fed it with Paratha at a small restaurant opposite my hotel. The lady running the eatery was quite amused to see a lone girl who had travelled so far. She enquired about myself and asked me to return in the evening after I had finished my sightseeing. “I am busy attending to customers, come in the evening when both of us are free, let us chat up and spend some time”, she said.
I walked down the alley to the only Buddhist monastery I had seen in the entire trip thus far. It was a very small one compared to all the other ones I had seen in Ladakh or back home in Karnataka. But irrespective of their size, Buddhist monasteries always have their own charm and pull. I lit a couple of incense sticks, rolled a few prayer drums and sat there for a few moments watching the mountains in silence before continuing my walk further, randomly through the alley.

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A street in Kothi village, Kalpa

I stopped along my way to ask a man across a fence, for directions to Roughi village. He was working in his apple orchard, busy getting the fruits harvested. He called me inside his farm and enquired where I wanted to go. He told me that my destination was 6+kms away. It would be difficult for me to get a vehicle at that time. I said I was Ok to walk the way as I was more curious in exploring the place. He was quite surprised when I asked him if I could help in plucking the pome. After a while, he handed over a packet full of apricots when I began my hike towards Roughi.

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A walkway past an apple orchard at Kalpa

The walk and the scenery are best, only when witnessed and cannot be expressed in words. Only little would my limited photography skills help. I quickly made friends with a dog at a random house along my way. The dog accompanied me, and the owner let it come. Re-iterating again, the view was unbelievable. The stretch of road happens to be one of the steepest and I tried to take a peep down the deadly valley below. I pulled myself back after my head went into a tizzy. The dog continued to walk when I walked and stopped when I paused for a photo. There was a point when he was tired and panting and I had to make a bowl out of a plastic sachet from my bag for him to have some water. That said, we together reached Roughi village just after noon 😊

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A bus passes the suicide point, enroute Roughi village

Beautifully groomed orchards, the suicide point, a quaint village in the foothills- Roughi was a warm tiny settlement with nothing very specific to do. After wandering around for a while, I made friends with a few kids who were returning from school, ate a few fresh apples from my bag that I had been received from random passersby on the road and finally settled down at the village entrance, hoping to find a ride back. I was all alone on the road. I spent almost an hour waiting and I was losing my patience as well as fearing the cold that would be brought in by the setting sun. There was no way I could stay there because I had dropped off all my essentials in the hotel in Kalpa itself. I started to walk rather than waiting there. After covering almost a mile, I heard an engine from behind. I turned back and waved them to stop. It was a couple in an Alto car, heading towards Reckong Peo. They obliged to drop me off along their way.

There was still time for sunset, and I thought I could use the daylight to explore the lanes of Kothi village. Although I aint a trained architect, the structure of the ancient Kalpa fort was something that I loved. I walked down through the villages, spoke up with inquisitive villagers, visited the chandika temple and finally settled down at the viewpoint to grab the golden hour of the setting sun over the Kinnaur Kailash mountains. I had seen the mountain from the rear side at Sangla. Now here I was, experiencing the moments of tranquility, in front of one of the holiest destinations of Lord Shiva. Believers who cannot make it to the Kailash mountains in China come here. Hence, Kinnaur Kailash is believed to be the alternate abode of the Lord.

As I was admiring the sight and capturing it in my DSLR, an old Bengali couple identified me as the one who had taken some nice photographs of them at the Kamru fort in Sangla, a couple of days ago. They asked me for a favour. They asked me to zoom into the peaks of the mountains with my camera and show them their deity… I was perplexed and asked them what it was. They explained……. “To the left side of the mountain was the Shiva Linga and right side was his consort- Parvati”. I was quite amused at hearing this and tried to capture images of both the manifestations with my camera. When I showed the images to them, to my utter surprise- they both started jumping and screaming and clapping with joy. They both folded their hands in front of my camera screen and chanted their prayers. Next thing I saw was the lady kept her palm on my head and saying, “We were saddened that we couldn’t get a closer view of his manifestation even after travelling this far. You showed us our lord! May he bless you with all the best and happiness in the world”, they wished me a good future. For me, it was quite an experience. I was unsure if I had to call it their innocence of praying the camera or admire their faith that had brought them this far. But I was feeling very good about myself that I was able to bring so much joy to someone. I was feeling an inexpressible emotion from within.

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Top: Sunset over Kinnaur Kailash; Below: magnified view of the manifestation of Shiva and Parvati

As the sun went down, my jaws started to chatter in the biting cold. I rushed to my room, warmed up myself with the thermals I had and stayed indoors until I felt comfortable. Around 7.00.p.m., I decided to step out to meet the aunty running the restaurant just outside. She said she would be free after closing the shutters at 07.00.p.m. I had carried millet Rotis from home which I thought I will share with her while buying some curds from her to make a dip for my rotis. She was excited at seeing me and called her family members to meet me. The restaurant was only an extension of her house, separated by a closed wooden door. Hence, she took me in and showed me around how traditional Kinnauri houses looked in Kalpa. We were back in the restaurant, chatting up over a hot glass of chai that she made for me. I gave her my rotis for tasting and she made me pulkas for supper. I returned to my hotel after a good couple of hours with her.

The next morning, I woke up early to catch the bus to my next destination, Nako. I grabbed a quick bite of bread omlette at the restaurant before saying a goodbye to my new friend at Kalpa.

The coldest place with the warmest hospitality- Pfutsero

More often than always, the stories we carry back from our travel are about the people we meet and less about the places we see. Our definition of whether our trip is good or bad is defined by the way we are made to feel by the people we come across. My experience in Pfutsero too has been one of those, where the warmth of the people made me fall in love with Nagaland. All I knew about Pfutsero was that it is the largest town in Phek district, and it is the highest inhabited place in the state of Nagaland. High altitude also means that it is the coldest place in the entire state. Having very little information available on the internet only meant that the place is still off the radar of mainstream tourism. This is what got me inquisitive and itched me to visit Pfutsero which would give ample scope to explore and experience something so raw and unknown to the outside world.

From the day I arrived at Nagaland, I had started to talk to a lot of people to get information about getting from Kohima to Pfutseru. With lack of clear information and high cost of travel, I had almost dropped the plan until the end of my 10-day trip in the state. One last try at finding a cheaper travel to Pfutsero, landed me in a small grocery store at Kezekie taxi stand in Kohima. My friend and I realised that we were at the right place. The courteous owner of the store guided us with all the required information and got our seats booked in the shared taxi that plied from Kohima to Pfutsero the next morning.

As instructed, we had reached Kezekie by 07.00.am. the following morning to be assured of a seat. But thanks to the traffic, it was 10.30.a.m. by the time we left Kohima. However, there was one ambiguity before leaving for Pfutsero- We hadn’t booked a hotel at Pfutsero for our stay yet. Despite several failed attempts of calling the mini-tourist lodge at Pfutsero, their phone continued to remain switched off. But my friend and I were up for some adventure and decided to travel without a confirmed stay, go there and find one.

Watch the video of my roadtrip to Pfutsero:

Phek district is inhabited by the members of the Chakesang tribes in majority. With the friendliness of the grocery store owner, we had already started to feel the positive vibes of the place we were going to. She had given the contact information of her family who lives in Kezakeno, another village in Phek. She had not just shared the contact info, in fact forced us to stay with her family. We were feeling grateful and partially sorted in the eventuality of not finding a hotel at Pfutsero.

There were both good roads and no roads, all adding up to a patchy drive to Pfutsero. Apart from the mountainous roads that seemed charming outside, the people with whom we shared our drive made our trip indeed a memorable one. One of them helped us to contact the tourist lodge and confirmed our stay at Pfutsero even before we reached. I had clearly started to feel overwhelmed with the hospitality of the people in this part of the country where the locals wanted to make all visitors feel at home. Almost everyone whom we got talking to, was excited to invite us over for a meal with them. Finally, it was 02.00.p.m. when we reached Pfutsero and a cup of hot tea was what we relished at our co-passenger’s house before checking-in at the tourist lodge. A colourful garden welcomed us into her wooden house that was perched on the slope of the hill. Its windows opened out into a majestic view of the entire town and overlooked a lake surrounded by green lawn. The dreamy house seemed to be no less than out of a Bollywood flick. We soon bid her a warm goodbye and headed to the tourist lodge, freshened up and proceeded to the target destination, before the sun called it a day!

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View from Glory peak, Pfutsero

Glory peak is the highest point in Pfutsero. A short taxi ride of 3kms through an under-construction road, jaw-dropping view of the surrounding valleys and a climb on a watch tower got us to the top of the town. Mt. Saramati is the highest peak in Nagaland and Mt. Everest needs no introduction. On a clear, bright afternoon, both the mountains can be seen from Glory peak. Since, we had reached there before sunset, the distant mountains were partially hidden by the haze and hence we could get a clear view of only Mt. Saramati. Nevertheless, the 360deg view of verdant hills from the glory peak was something to die for.

For those who have an additional day at hand, a day hike to the frozen lake from the glory peak is highly recommended by the locals. We decided to explore the town a little bit, before it was dark. A hike down the peak was fun as the staircase leading to the town passed through thick forests, strange creepers and colourful butterflies. We spent time exploring the town until sunset. It seemed dusty with poor roads. Apart from a few local snacks, we couldn’t find anything interesting. However, there is one souvenir shop run by an NGO that supports local artisans. One can buy some traditional Chakesang tribal jewellery, textile and food products as souvenirs from here.

The dropping Pfutsero temperature had started to numb our fingers and we decided to head back to the lodge. The lodge is situated on top of a hill and the setting sun looked glorious from the corridor. After wearing my thermals and gloves, I decided to take a stroll around the lodge. It is located adjacent to defence property and that gave me a sense of confidence to venture alone after dark. All the people from the neighbourhood were busy in decorating a nearby church for Christmas. They got me talking to them and eventually I joined them in their chore of setting up the wreaths and light bulbs. It was a fun evening until I decided to head back for the warmth of my room. The lodge was a HUGE property, but we were only two girls staying there that night. Although it was a little scary at the first thought to be the only guests, we were soon occupied in long conversation with the caretaker family of the property living in the same building, later to be joined by the owners. The conversation covered a range of topics and ran into the night. Given the lesser crowd of the cliched tourists, company of comforting hosts and warm conversations, we couldn’t have asked for a safer and a better place to be!

The comfort of the heater, cosy blankets and carpeted floors let us sleep like logs, unaware of the freaded freezing sub-zero Pfutsero temperature outside. We were woken up by the alarm next morning, only to be mind-blown by the view of the rising sun over the clouds from our balcony. We packed up and prepared to leave as that was our last day in Nagaland and we had to make it to Dimapur for the night’s train. Meanwhile, we had booked a personal taxi for our return, since we wanted to explore Kezakeno on our way back.

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Top: Sunset view from Tourist lodge corridor, Pfutsero; Below: Sunrise view from Tourist lodge room, Pfutsero

The first stop was at- Chida lake. Locally called as Lowho, this off-road destination is a favourite hangout among the locals who come here for games like fishing and boating. Some enjoy a trekking trail from glory peak to Chida along the Kapamedzu range as well. There is a Border Security Force camp at Chida and hence, it is also referred as Chida Post at times. Since we had reached very early, we were the only tourists there and the place looked absolutely calm and serene.

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Lowho lake at Chida, Kezakeno

From there, we headed to Lazami village. This tiny village is of very high historical importance as it is the site from where the various Naga tribes are believed to have migrated to different parts of the state. A veteran from the village was excited to narrate the legend of Tsotawo, the spirited stone in the village. We were warmly invited by almost every person in this village into their house. We finally settled down at a little traditional house for breakfast and a large cup of tea. We carried back love in the form of guavas and local walnuts given by our hosts from this village. Seeing so much affection in these hills was a wonderful feeling that cannot be expressed, for which a city soul in me would want to come back again.

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The spirit stone

While continuing our journey from there, we did have a stop at Kami village view point to admire the terraced paddy fields of Lekhromi village, the view looked magnificent under the oblique rays of the early sun.

Making our way through the maddening traffic jam of Kohima is for another story to be written about, some other day! Thus, ended our 2 days of amazement and overwhelming hospitality in the Land of the Chakesang Nagas- Phek district.

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Terraced farms at Lekhromi village, Phek

Summary:

Must eats:
* Pfutsero is famous for its organic farming and terrace cultivation. We bought fruits (some known and some new) from the local shops that we could eat once we were back in our room.
* One would find a lot of bakeries in the town selling local cookies and muffins. Sticky rice cake, banana cake and banana chips are few of the things I recommend.

Getting around:
* Daily shared taxis ply between Kohima and Pfutsero. There are limited seats and the taxis leave immediately when filled. The taxi leaves Pfutsero around 6.00.a.m to Kohima and the same returns to Pfutsero on the same day on a first-cum-first serve basis. So, if one is not early enough to get a seat, he will have to hire a full taxi for him/herself or stay back until the next morning to share it. A one-way shared taxi seat costs 300Rs. Per head and a personal taxi would cost 5-6000rs. irrespective of whether it is a 1 or a 2-way journey.
* Within Pfutsero, most places are at walkable distances. But internal taxis are available for local commute. Talk to one of the shopkeepers in the town and they must be able to help in finding one.

Stay:
* A very well-maintained tourist lodge and a government run mini lodge are available at a very affordable price.
* There are a few homestays available for a more local experience.

Visiting Asia’s first green village- Khonoma

Before planning my visit to Nagaland, I had followed a few bloggers who had posted encaptivating photos of what they called the ‘Greenest village in India’. My friend and I had our stay booked at a homestay in this little-known village and were supposed to head there on the first day of our arrival in Nagaland. It was past noon by the time our shared taxi from Dimapur reached Kohima and the temperature had started to drop. Khonoma village, our destination was 20kms away and we stood on the highway, clueless about how we were supposed to get there. The connectivity through public transportation across Nagaland is something that needs the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, without being able to find an honest taxi driver among all those who were quoting higher than what I had read about, we had started to feel stranded.

We finally managed to get a taxi and the courteous driver ensured our ride on the roadless path was comfortable and entertaining. On our request, the best Nagamese songs from his playlist were streamed and he made humble efforts to explain the meaning of each song and its relevance in Naga culture. It was a long ride considering that we took over an hour to cover the short distance. In Nagaland, each district is inhabited by a particular Tribe in majority and each village represents a particular clan within the tribe. Every tribe has its own language and surprisingly, each village has its own dialect which another clan might struggle to understand. ‘Khonoma is inhabited by the Kuthotsu clan of the Angami Tribe’, we were told.

Watch the video here:

On reaching Khonoma, we registered our entry at the tourism office from where we took directions to our homestay. As a first impression, it felt like it was just another settlement on the hills, something similar to my hometown. But as I began to walk towards the homestay along the narrow lanes and past the tourism office- a new world started to unfold. The entire village is built on a slope, overlooking the paddy fields. The slope makes it a requirement to climb winding stairs to get from one house to another, from one street to another. As you do this, you will not just pass by umpteen number of morungs but also walk through gardens full of colourful flowers and traditional Angami Naga gates. All this, while you are being mind-blown by the gorgeous view of the never-ending terraced fields of paddy and vegetables. If not the same, I bet this is far better and untouched than the terraced farms of Bali that has flooded the Instagram feeds. The guava trees around every corner of the village and the widely covered creepers of the Chayote squash added a vibrant hue of green to the entire valley. The extremely warm and obliging villagers allowed me to pluck a few guavas that tasted like nectar. Those were definitely the best guavas I had in my life till date. We then walked down the streets to our homestay, a cozy simple house that stood overlooking the terraced fields. Since we had little time before sunset (The sun sets by 04.00.p.m.), we dropped our luggage, freshened up quickly and ventured out to explore the village and make the most of the daylight.

Naga Heritage museum at Khonoma

As we strolled around the lanes, we were intrigued by the several morungs and the traditional Angami houses that we passed by. Morungs are Naga structures that are comparable to Gurukuls of olden days. The elders of the village would pass on their knowledge about life skills and tradition to the younger generations here, usually in the evenings after finishing their day’s chores. Although the Morung system is slowly passing into oblivion in modern days, Khonoma is one of the few places where these structures are conserved in their entirety. Every Morung and house had animal skulls (ranging from one to hundreds in number) hanging around their roofs and walls. We were quite fascinated with the collection that ranged from Mithuns and mountains goats to boars and other cattle. As we stood there, watching a few women who were busy with their job of de-husking paddy with a large pestle and stone, we were greeted by them with warm smiles to have a cup of tea in their house. I instantly accepted their invitation, jumping into the idea of seeing how a traditional Angami Naga house looked like inside.

The different skulls inside a traditional Naga house

Basic mud-smeared walls with knitted bamboo doors and their wooden roofs adorned with hundreds of skulls all around. “These skulls are prized possessions that represent the heroics of our ancestors. The Nagas are primarily hunters and our forefathers saved up the skulls of all their kills. The larger the collection, higher was his societal stature until the government brought a ban on hunting. Given the history of Nagas being head-hunters before the coming of missionaries, don’t be surprised if you bump into human skulls in some of the remote villages elsewhere”, explained a member of that house. Although the other members in that family couldn’t speak English or Hindi, they continued to smile at us for as long as we were there. However, communication is never a problem in Nagaland with almost 90% being proficient in either English or Hindi.

We visited the Naga heritage museum and then walked up to a small hill where the church stands at a vantage point, outside the village entrance, overlooking the entire hill range. From there, we walked back to the village and climbed up a few stairs to reach the highest point of the village. The setting sun let the hills in the background cast their shadow on the undulating green paddy terrace. The view of the range of hills and the entire village from there was a sight to behold for which, we had lost our senses and not to the dropping temperatures that had started to numb our skin 😃 After the sun had called it a day behind the hills, we munched on some local snacks like sticky rice roti, pakora at a café at the village entrance. We grabbed a few packets of Puffed sticky rice and Naga chilli smeared channa from a small shop before heading to the homestay. We hurried up to warm ourselves in the comfort of our homestay’s kitchen where firewood was setup to cook the night’s supper. Sips of hot tea and long conversations with our Angami host and other guests culminated with a delicious Angami meal that comprised of boiled vegetables and steamed rice with vegetable stew- all grown organically in our host’s backyard. The country chicken curry was a bonus for the non-vegetarian in me 😊

The plan for the next morning was to catch the sunrise from the paddy fields by walking along the stream that flowed down the valley. However, the freezing temperature made it impossible for us to get out of our cozy layers of blankets. The plan that had to follow our breakfast was a visit to Dzuleke, a quaint little village located 10kms away. It consists of merely 32 houses and the residents are also from Kuthotsu clan who decided to move out from Khonoma to a more secluded place when the land on the outskirts were open for new settlements. Today, it is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages that is promoted by the state’s tourism board and accessible only by foot or one’s own vehicle. Since a one-way ride was costing us 1500Rs., we dropped our plan of a day trip to Dzuleke.

There is one NST bus (Nagaland State Transport) that connects Khonoma to Kohima every morning. But the state is largely shut on a Sunday and it is an important note to consider if you are planning your travel/stay in Nagaland. After the day got a bit warmer, we packed our bags and headed out in a personal taxi to our next destination- Naga heritage village at Kisama, the main arena of the Hornbill festival.

Meanwhile, some interesting things I found in this village:

  1. Large bird feathers are made into a garland and hung high around the farms. “It is just for decoration purpose”, I was told on asking what it signified.
  2. There a large stone erected which signifies the previous rift between the Nagas and the Indians on the mainland (It is quite an interesting read how the Nagas fought the Indian army)

Who am I?

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We are who we are because of the type of experiences we have had in life. The experiences mould us into the personality that we grow into, with age. Some of these experiences (small and big) come once in a lifetime and yet a few- reoccur. Sometimes, in a different avatar. When they do, the first time always sets the bar. If it was bad, we accept anything that is a little better the next time. If it was good, we wouldn’t settle for anything lesser.

I often find it difficult to break the ice with the urban souls. I’m not really sure why, but travel is perhaps the way I connect with the others. I don’t mean I need to travel with them to connect; that’s an expensive strategy. But rake up a topic that is remotely related to travel- You have me there! I will be able to navigate our conversation into a diverse range of topics and things that exist under the sun.

I am an outbound person. Even if that means just stepping onto my portico or the front yard of my house; Or feeding a few squirrels or finding a bird nest in my granny’s attic, it is travel for me! For me travel is seeing things, both same and new with a new perspective each time. It gives me an opportunity to learn and gain a different experience. If not physical travel, I time travel to the glorious days of my childhood by doing little things that are outside a couch. I believe growing old in age shouldn’t stop one from doing what made them happy as kids. The purpose of life is to do whatever makes you happy.

So, Cinema and TV have had the largest influence on me while growing up. They were shot in exotic places and the people danced amidst crazy ass landscapes and that made me want to go there. And then, the cable TV gave me access to jaw-dropping documentaries on everything that is in space, land and underwater. Adventure, wildlife, machines, technology, aeroplanes, rockets, history, art…. Nat-geo and Discovery channel: You sure now know where I have picked my diverse flavors of interests from. Having said that, today as an adult- TV is the last thing that I would ever get myself into, if I were ever bored. That is because I see movies as just a way of slouching on the couch with inactivity.

Physical inactivity grows me restless. And so is with a game of cricket for me. As a child, I wondered that the cricketers always travelled to the Eden gardens or the Lords or the Caribbean for tournaments and after parties. As an audience, I can now only see it as one to five days full of inactivity in front of the “Idiot Box” based on whatever format the game is played in.

My political views too are largely based on my personal experiences from my travel and interactions with people across boundaries. I have grown with a pedigree feed of Toyota concepts of Genchi-Gembutsu. So, it isn’t easy for someone to sell me their opinions about places and people they have not seen.

It is a difficult connection to make with me… In short: I’m not the regular make-up-mascara girl you have seen elsewhere. You will really have to figure your way out to connect with me…!!

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…

Bhaderwah- the Mini Kashmir in the state of Jammu & Kashmir

It has been over a year since this trip has been past and yet remains one of the best so far. I have written about ‘the Peace ride’ to the lesser known places that we explored as part of the expedition organized by Jammu & Kashmir tourism. So here goes another throwback to that wonderful ride to Bhaderwah.

Snow-capped mountains, lush green meadows, pine trees, tulip gardens, skis and snow boards… Do these things paint a perfect picture of a state known for its valleys? If you guessed it to be J&K, Yeah, you’re right! To be more precise, did you guess it to be Kashmir valley? If you did, then you can’t be more wrong. I’m talking about the least talked region of the state (now union territory)- Jammu.

For those who have heard little about Jammu, the mention of scenic or adventure hotspots comes as a surprise for all they know is only its religious places, the most popular being the Vaishno Devi shrine. For tourists visiting this region, there are several lesser-known destinations around Jammu city that are as beautiful as its popular counterpart in the Kashmir region. But, continue to remain unexplored and Bhaderwah being one among them. Bhaderwah is a town located in the Doda district and is called as ‘Mini Kashmir’ by the locals. This nickname itself gives a fair picture of the beauty of this place.

There are several attractions in Bhaderwah to mesmerise all genre of travellers who visit here during any time of the year. Bhaderwah is also called as ‘Nagon ki bhoomi’ (land of snakes) giving one a sense of its connection with mythology. Vasuki Nag is believed to be the keeper of Bhaderwah and hence the temple dedicated to this snake lord holds significance in the local culture. Thousands of pilgrims participate in the annual ‘Kailash Kund’ yatra that starts from the Vasuki Nag temple. The highlight of the temple is the idol of the presiding deity that is carved out of a black stone and is standing at an inclination. The temple is nestled within the narrow lanes of the town that snakes through ancient and traditional wooden houses from the time when the valley was ruled by the kings of Bhaderwah and Chamba. The town’s association with Mahabharata too can be felt at the ‘Gupt Ganga’ temple, on the banks of river Neru. The Pandavas are believed to have lived here during their exile. The Bhaderwah fort situated atop the town gives a good view of the entire region.

The annual Tulip festival, Tilligarh rose garden and Gatha lake resort are some nice places for a day’s outing. Trekkers seeking to explore some breath-taking vistas can hike up the Jai Valley, Sonbain glacier, Kailash Kund, Peer ki pindi (camps of Akbar) or Seoj Dhar Meadow and connect with nature. If you are an adventure buff, the Jammu tourism has put in great efforts to cater to this segment with various outdoor activities like rafting in the Chenab river, rappelling, rock climbing, parasailing etc. Since Bhaderwah witnesses high snowfall, its high valleys are a great place for winter sports like skiing and snow-boarding too. It is slowly catching up as an alternate to Gulmarg in the state.

Dirt roads and numerous water crossings in the region don’t fail to keep the adrenaline rushing for bikers who choose to ride here. The biking enthusiasts can opt the road through Padri, the highest motorable road in this region. Chattargala Pass is the highest motorable road and the most untouched point in Bhaderwah and offers a 360-degree spellbinding view of the entire region. It connects Bhaderwah with Basohli, another town of historical importance. One might be lucky to spot the endangered white vultures at this point or even some musk deer or Asian bears after a short hike up the hills.

The road to Basohli is picturesque with meadows, streams and typical pine trees all along the way. Sarthal valley is one of my favourite pit-stops along the way. With nothing much to do, it is beautiful with its laid-back scenery with Bakarwals (Shepherds) settlements amid green meadows and gushing streams from the glaciers. The seven-tiered waterfall located here is worth a short trek before riding up the treacherous road towards Basohli town. Basohli town itself is beautifully located on the backwaters of the Ranjit Sagar dam flanking it.

With political unrest being rampant in Kashmir, the main source of income through tourism has taken a huge toll in the state in the last couple of years. Jammu is very safe for all kinds of travellers and the tourism department is putting their best efforts to familiarize tourists with the other unexplored areas of the state. If visiting this state has long been on your bucket list and the unrest at the borders has kept you away, I think it is time you relook into your plan to visit the Mini Kashmir instead!

Fact file:

  • Getting there: Jammu is well connected by airport, rail and road. You can hire a self-drive car or a taxi from the city to visit the other sightseeing places. Bhaderwah is 280kms(about 5hrs) by road from Jammu city.
  • Stay: TRC (Tourist Reception Centre) guesthouses run by the J&K tourism dept., several homestays and budget hotels are available. Tilligarh tourist complex is a great place for one seeking luxury in nature.
  • Must try: Sip a cup of ‘Desi Chai’, a pink coloured tea that can be consumed either with salt or sugar.
  • Must buy: Basohli miniature paintings.

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 no much idea about what to expect apart from the Tigers which grab the limelight in almost every other content made on conservation. ‘Even then, 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 thought. 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 camera then traveled slightly north, 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- and 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!

As the evergreen watering hole of the Kabini began to revive with the monsoon showers, the plot went around the western ghats again, 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 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.

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 at the 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!

Watch the video of the monastery: Before and After 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.