The list starts from 2015, a religious celebration of the festival of love and lights- Deepawali. Well, I’m not a religious person who would indulge in ritualistic prayers and pooja on any festival. But what started as travelling during this season to utilise my unused leaves combined with maintenance shutdown period at my workplace, has somehow religiously stuck on as a ritual of travelling to a new place, every year.
Circa 2015- Tamil Nadu: My brother and I ventured out on our backpacking roadtrip to Tamil Nadu, Kumbakonam to Pondicherry. Well, this was an adventurous start I guess, we had to cut short our trip due to a cyclone that had battered the east coast. Result: Crazy floods and crazy drive through the flooded areas. On the main festival day, we had reached Chidambaram- a must read post about our experience. A bad one then, a memorable one now.
Circa 2017- Karnataka: After a crazy long year of travelling across India, my friends and I decided to have a simple deepawali roadtrip, closer home in the western ghats. We drove to the famous Agumbe ghats and the places around.
Circa 2018- Himachal Pradesh: One of THE best solo trips of my life, where I couldn’t find a single traveller to tag along through the entire trip. This thus, became a thorough personal and local experience in the Spiti valley. On the day of Deepawali, I was on my way back with a brief stopover at Shimla. A trip that made an impact on me, perhaps forever.
Circa 2020- Karnataka: Fears of travelling afar due to Covid-19, personal commitments and taking advantage of working from home, this was the longest duration I spent in my hometown in the last 15 years. Quite unlikely to mention the highlights, but the Deepawali of 2020 indeed tops all the above from the list.
Visiting the Saurashtran region of India was a last-minute inclusion in the itinerary of our trip which was otherwise planned only to ‘The Rann of Kutch’. It was noon by the time my friend and I arrived at Junagadh, by a train from Ahmedabad. After checking into a hotel at a walkable distance from the station and freshening up, we relished a sumptuous ‘Gujarati Thali’ at a nearby restaurant. After a while, we set out to explore this historical city of Junagadh, a place lesser known on a typical backpacker’s circuit.
With a short autorickshaw ride, we reached the entrance of the Uparkot fort. This place is what gives its name to the city. ‘Juna-Gadh’ in local language means ‘Ancient Fort’. This fort dates to 3rd century BC, to the Mauryan Era. It must have been a massive structure back then. With several dynasties ruling this region over time, there are many historical remnants of structures that were eventually added. However, all are in bad shape now. The Buddhist cave, the Jumma Masjid, the tomb of Nuri Shah, the Naghan Kuvo stepwell are among the few that have stood in time. But Adi-Kadi Vav and Nawabi lake are the structures that I found interesting among all. Adi-Kadi Vav is a stepwell facing the Girnar hills, to which we had to descend a flight of stairs to reach water (mind you! The water is extremely dirty with all the trash). Whereas the Nawabi lake is an artificial pond that required an ascend of a spiraling staircase where the reflection of the Girnar hills looked beautiful in its water. This spot also had a dozen peacocks walking around the pond. Our walk tour ended in a couple of hours and we decided to walk back to the town.
This gave us ample opportunity to photograph the rustic, old world and yet vibrant streets of the old city. Almost every corner of the lanes and its doors seemed like they had stories to narrate. As planned, we arrived at ‘Mahabat ka Maqbara’ at sunset time. These twin tombs of the past rulers are very beautiful, and it is only enhanced by the shades of the setting sun. We were very particular to photograph this place at the golden hour and were happy souls towards the day’s end for capturing those amazing silhouettes.
After a long walk further in the quest to explore the market area of the old city, we kind of came to realize that we were lost in the cramped streets of a place that seemed like Namma Bengaluru’s Pete area. Google maps was of very little help so much so that we reached the same spot after walking around in multiple directions. Finally, we hopped into an autorickshaw to get us to the hotel, not minding the short walkable distance that was indicated by Google. We wanted to get some rest as our night was going to be long. We set the alarm to wake up by 10.00.p.m. so that we could start to hike by 11.00.p.m.
However, I slept a wee bit longer and had been shaken up neither by the alarm nor by the panic-stricken friend’s endless calls from outside my closed room doors. When I woke up from deep slumber, it was 01.00.am and my friend was almost in the verge of fainting to know that I was not responding inside a closed room 😀 We then got an auto ride to the base of the Girnar hills, the climb of 10,000 stairs had to be done before sunrise. The plan was to ascend at night, catch the sunrise from the peak and descend back before the harsh sun rose up during the day. Post breakfast, we would leave for our next destination. We were already running behind schedule.
We commenced our hike and there was barely anyone else with us. The winds were very strong and the rustle of the trees as we passed through the initial stretch of forest was creepy in the moonless night. The Girnar hills is believed to be older than the Himalayas and a pilgrimage site for people across faiths. Several structures like emperor Ashoka’s rock edict, Jain temples, ancient inscriptions etc. are things that kindle the history buffs if they are not interested in the pilgrimage including the Jain tonks or several other temples from across time in history. However, after climbing about 5,000 stairs, my legs were tired and couldn’t catch up with my friend’s pace. I could have completed it though, only at a slower pace. But, we wouldn’t have been able to make it back in time if we had to catch a morning bus to our next destination. Fearing which, I decided to sit back and let my friend go ahead and complete the hike. However, he was not okay with the idea to let me sit alone all night (it was bloody dark and windy with NO ONE around) and decided to head back to the hotel with me. So, the descent of 5000 odd stairs on our way back wasn’t easy either. I was unprepared for this long hike and I guess it was a wise decision for me not to continue the ascent. It would’ve taken a real toll on my legs and the rest of the trip would’ve been screwed up. But what makes this a memorable trip is the fact that this was the first EVER hike that I gave up halfway, without completing.
Then, we telephoned the same rickshaw guy to give us a ride back to the hotel. It was a short but a nice ride. The proximity of the Gir National park had herds of Nilghais, boars and other wild animals on the highway that we were travelling on. A stay in the ‘Gir National Park’ is a dream for another day. Perhaps when I have more days in my itinerary and more money in my wallet. Maybe that time, I will have more stamina to reach the peak of Girnar too. But for now, we were reaching our hotel for some more sleep.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
* 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.
* 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.
When you feel things are not going right, life has its own ways to heal its kids, you see? While I was feeling morally weak, an unexpected trip to Gokarna was awaiting my way. This time, I was going to lead a group of people, or at least assist a leader with ‘Plan The Unplanned’. With many firsts of experiences in its kitty, I was looking forward for this weekend trip.
So, after braving the outbound traffic on a Friday evening, the group of 25 of us left Bangalore and alighted at Gokarna the next morning. Blame it on the bus driver or the roads, 11.30.a.m. was late by all standards to reach Gokarna for the team that left GGpalya at 11.00.p.m. on the previous night. Anyway, that’s where the leadership aspects began to be tested. Considering that we were 3+hrs behind schedule and all 25 in the group were first time hikers, controlling the overall time to cover all that was mentioned in the itinerary was crucial.
That said, we checked-in to the campsite where our tents were pitched by the seashore. Without wasting much time, the team freshened up and started the hike quickly after a filling breakfast. A minibus took us to the start point of our hike- the Belekan beach. From there, the actual weekend started to unfold. Since the internet is filled with itineraries for a Gokarna trip, I will not add another one to them. Unlike my usual style of writing long detailed posts, I’d like to keep this short and to the point.
For the experienced trekkers, this was merely a walk along the coastline. But even for them, the small stretches of forests opening to amazing views of the blue sea now and then made the walk worthwhile.
Despite being late, we caught up with the schedule and spent ample time to take a swim in each of the beaches along the trail. Paradise beach for a snack break (fresh tender-coconut water and cut-pineapple with masala are a mandate on any Indian beach), Half-moon beach for a filling lunch (The beachside shacks serve an array of cuisines catering to its large visitors’ base from across the globe), Om beach for chasing the most mesmerizing sunset of the year, Kudle beach for a sumptuous dinner and finally walking along the Gokarna main beach to reach our campsite on a moonlit night… We spotted dolphins from the rock of peace, something that I had been wanting to see for the longest time. And then, I got that long pending hair braid done by a beachside vendor (Click here to read about it in detail). These were the highlights of my beach walk. Until then, I thought my day was GREAT!
But wait, my co-leads took it up a notch higher. It was late into the night by the time the team had settled down in their tents. And I too was settling down to call it a day. By that time, my co-leads asked me to ditch my tent for the night and join them with my sleeping bag on the beach. The beaches of Gokarna are infamously known only next to Goa for having some badass drunken hippies strolling around. I did not want any misadventures on my first assignment as a lead. Although I was a little hesitant to do something wacky, I soon hit the sands with my co-leads and a fellow traveler.
Just in a bit and even before I realized it, I was sleeping under a clear sky, watching the stars. Well… watching a meteor shower! It was that night when the Geminids meteor shower was at its peak. We laid on the beach counting the number of shooting stars. When only one of us saw the meteor, the others would pull her leg telling that she was hallucinating. When all of us saw it together, we would shout in unison scaring away a few drunken people loitering around the beach. They would wonder who was drunk 😀
Eight… Nine… Ten… We counted the number of stars until we fell asleep to the lullaby sound of the waves. When I opened my eyes again, I was lying on the beach and seeing the white lights from the distant ships disappear into the light of the breaking dawn. This beach experience is something that killed it for the mountain girl in me!!! Only because I could strike a similar chord of interests with an awesome pair of co-leads and I can’t thank them enough for the night!
Yeah, managing a large group comes with its own set of challenges. Managing medical emergencies in the middle of the trail, accommodating quick changes in the itineraries and finding alternate destinations when abnormality struck were the unexpected things which I believe we handled with diligence. All said and done, the trip has been a memorable one in more than one way and a thumbs up to my new journey with Plan The Unplanned 😊
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- Rakcham- Chitkul- Sangla- Reckong Peo- Kalpa- Nako- Geu- Tabo- Rampur- Sarahan- Shimla- Delhi. Some of the key destinations enroute and things I did were:
• 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 have asked 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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!
Time has been kind on me yet again bringing me to the right place when the time was right! And this time it was to Ajmer during the holy month of Ramadan. Ajmer-Marwar region was a separate state until it was merged with Rajasthan. At a distance of 130kms by road from Jaipur, it is believed to be the second holiest place in Islam after Mecca. I managed to squeeze in sufficient time from my business trip to venture out in this city and explore most of whatever it has to offer for the traveller in me.
Needless to say that no visit is complete without heading to the Ajmer Sharif Dargah dedicated to the Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. We were fortunate to have contacted one of the trustees of the Dargah who managed our entire visit and made it one of envy for most people who struggle to get past the crowds in other seasons. Also, our visit coincided with the 27th day of the Holy month- revered as the ‘Night of Destiny’ in the Islam faith. The Dargah is located at the base of the Taragarh hill atop of which a fort is situated. The view of the entire hill is so beautiful with a township constructed on the steep slopes overlooking the Dargarh. Photography is prohibited inside the Dargarh premises and hence, I wasn’t able to capture most of the things. It’s a welcome move in some places like these and respect the sanctity of the place. Enough is said and written about this place and I wish to cover about the other things this historic town has to offer.
We were right there on the premises at the time of breaking the day’s fast. After that, we walked the by lanes around the Dargah to explore the best of Ajmer. Not in terms of places but in terms of its lip-smacking street food. With a lot of Mughalai and Nawabi influence and it being the Ramadan season, the best of the spread was available- Needless to say, it is a haven for food lovers. By the time the last ray of the day’s sun had vanished, we were stuffed until our glottis. If you are a history buff and want to find something to feed your wanderlust, you can take a walk to Adhai-Din-Ka-Jhonpra and the Akbar Palace and museum that are located closer to the Dargah. Soniji-ki-Nasiyan is a nice two-storeyed wooden Jain temple that can be visited enroute to Dargah Sharif. If you are at the luxury of time, a quick ride to quick ride to the Mayo college campus can be ended with some peaceful sunset time spent by the banks of the Ana Sagar Lake. But, for me- something else was awaiting!
I was hosted at the Taj- Ajmer gateway for the night, a world in itself to visit and hang around. The drive from Ajmer city towards it outskirts on Pushkar road, through winding roads with the backdrop of the setting golden sun was a picturesque treat after a tiring day of work and toil. All this seemed like only a grand welcome to the beautiful Taj property that’s nestled in the midst of nowhere in the lap of the Aravalis. The sky was dark, when we arrived at this palatial hotel. The entire driveway was lit with dim sodium lamps from the gate through the lounge. A faint outline of the Aravalli hills standing calmly on the backdrop only enhanced its grandeur. It was a warm welcome as the live Rajasthani folk music with the timbre of the Morchang and Khartal resonated from the courtyard. It was a pleasant check-in when the host personally lead me to the room while explaining the delicately chosen wall murals and paintings as we walked through the elegant corridor. Though I was stuffed with Ajmer’s street food, I did manage to make some space for the delectable dinner that I was hosted at the restaurant. With all items seasoned and cooked to perfection, each dish seemed better than the other. With a refreshing dip in the pool, a day was called!
I looked forward for the morning as much as I did for the previous evening! I had set the alarm for sunrise but was woken up rather early by the calls of dozens of feral peacocks that had come from the forest/hills just behind the pool. I opened my balcony doors and voila! It was a magical morning with peacocks dancing in the courtyard and a modestly calm sun peeping out of shadowy grey clouds with the glorious green Aravalis forming a backdrop… I soaked in this special moment as much as I could from my balcony before I realised that it was time for me to pack-up. Finishing up the morning chores and ending my stay with the Taj with a wonderful breakfast spread, it was time for me to say good bye to this beautiful city of Ajmer and this beautiful Taj property- the Ajmer gateway!
Must-do: Make a wish by offering the Chadar or the decorated shawl to the deity/tomb at the Dargah Sharif. Must eats: while the street food and the never-ending list of non-veg dishes are to die for in the month of Ramadan, Kadi Kachori and Soan-Halwa are an all-season recommendations. Must buys: variety of prayer caps and incense.
Being abundantly blessed with natural beauty, Anshi National park and Dandeli Tiger reserve is one of the first hotspots of the elusive black panthers in India. Apart from its paper mills, Dandeli is also known as the ‘Rishikesh of the South’ for its river rafting in the waters of River Kali. As if these weren’t reasons enough for me to backpack, I got invited to stay at the ‘Dandeli Jungle Camp’. What better way to reconnect the lost bond with nature than camping in the woods? I jumped to grab-in when opportunity struck! This was a Solo trip that was long due, and I had alighted for sunrise at the Dandeli bus stand on a Saturday morning.
Itinerary: Friday: Overnight journey from Bangalore Saturday: Alight at Dandeli town, Drive to ‘Dandeli Jungle Camp’, Visit backwaters of Supa dam, Shop for some forest produces at the tribal shop, Visit Syntheri rocks, sunset hike at the homestay Sunday: Birdwatching at timber depot, river rafting & coracle ride, (Visit Kavala caves or the Siddi tribal village if you have more time), Leave for Bangalore by evening (direct bus from Dandeli or by train from Hubli)
After a 30mins drive through the forests to Pradhani, a further off-roading of 2kms from the main road lead me to this simple homestay and camp run in the lap of nature amid the woods. The eerie silence of the elusive woods and the stridulations of the crickets instantly calmed my soul by responding to the deep calls of nature. A basic cottage with all the essential and neat amenities was awaiting me in the midst of the jungle overlooking a farm of areca and mangoes. I couldn’t ask for a better place to be, to feed the wanderlust and nomad in me for the weekend. I was excited to be greeted by Malabar giant squirrels and sambar deer at my doorstep to say the least. One can also avail their tenting facilities with bon-fire if it’s a bunch of friends traveling together. Mr. Dharmesh, the ever smiling owner of the property says that the camp was started by a French lady 3 decades ago from whom he has taken over so that he could settle down in the woods after he quit his well-paying job at one of the top-star hotels in Bangalore. He had planned a detailed itinerary for me, and I can’t thank him enough for his warm hospitality. After dumping my luggage and a nice lunch, I set out for some exploration.
A stroll along the dwindling lonely road on the backwaters of Supa dam offered a panoramic view of the distant hills, only if there was good rainfall- it would have been a gorgeous sight. After a quick stop-over at the tribal shop to relish a glass of kokum juice and buy some jackfruit chips and papads to take back home, I was taken to Syntheri rocks. This is a very beautiful little place located deep in the woods and formed by rich mineral ores that have formed beautiful rock patterns by standing the test of time. A drive to the Kavala caves, A coracle ride in the ferocious rapids of the Kali river, a dip in the natural Jacuzzi, crocodile walk is some of the other activities included in the package that kept me busy through the day. An evening walk in the woods around the property with a personal guide was a memorable time spent identifying the calls of various birds and inhabitants of the forest. The large number of hornbills that fly into their nests in this forest with a small hike into the jungle at sunset or catching the sunrise from my window are only some of the fancy things that my stay offered to me.
The next day, Mr.Dharmesh personally dropped me off for the early morning bird watching walk that was arranged at the Dandeli timber depot. This first time experience of birding is something that I will cherish for a long time and is written about as a separate post. A bird watching tour around the depot where over 150 bird species could be spotted on any given day- was the highlight of my trip to Dandeli!
So, the next big agenda was meeting the Siddhis- The tribal community endemic to the Kali reserve region who are believed to be of the African origin. Be it chilling with them over some rustic music or trying their favourite delicacy- the red ant/ termite chutney, the experience is sure to leave one amused and feel time travelled.
With so many activities included in the package that kept me on toes through the 2 days I stayed at this property, it is a high recommendation from me. If you wish to extend your stay by another day, you have no dearth of things to do- from river rafting, to a canopy walk and visit to Dudhsagar falls, all can be arranged by the camp guys themselves. After freshening up at the camp, I started my journey back to Bangalore. I took a KSRTC bus from Dandeli to Hubli from where I had booked my train. Whoa! Such a wonderful trip!
‘Dandeli Jungle Camp’ is an offbeat stay which does not have its own webpage or have direction boards to keep commercialization at check. From the time I alighted at the bus stand till the time I boarded for return, my entire trip was managed by www.dandeli.com through whom my package was booked. The connectivity of public transport within the reserve area is scarce and being a solo traveler, all my travel hassles were taken care by these wonderful organizers.
The weekend trip turned into certainty only when Madhu had the confirmed tatkal tickets in her hands after over an hour long wait in the queue at the station.. So the next day evening, the all girls’ trip started from cantonment station. We just had a small chit with a list up of places to see.. No room reservations, no other tickets booked.. Totally unplanned.. We wanted to explore 🙂
The train reached Madurai by 7.20.a.m and we freshened up at the station itself.. Left for Rameshwaram by TNSRTC bus which are quite frequent.. 3.5 hrs through and we passed Ramanathapuram- the last stretch of mainland India. We entered Mandapam, the entry point of the island town of Rameshwaram.. 15min further, we couldn’t contain our excitement as our bus was cruising over the bow shaped road bridge overseeing the infamous Pamban rail bridge 🙂 A very very warm welcome to the town that would host 100s of stories from the Ramayana in the next couple of days.. Once, we had safe landed at the bus stand, we registered ourselves at the tourist office that stood right opposite. We wanted to try our chance to get permission to the Kurusudai island. Our visit there did help us BIG time(indirectly though 😉 )
We walked towards the temple road, checked into a decent hotel, freshened up and headed to Sri Ramanathaswamy temple. Lord Sri.Ram is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Then, why is the city’s named after Eshwar? It is important to know atleast this while you are there in Rameswaram. Here goes the story.. Ravana, (a Brahmin) was a devotee of Lord Shiva(aka Eshwar). On performing prayers, he was blessed by Shiva such that- anyone who tried to harm Ravana would face Brahma dosha. During the war between Ram & Ravana, Ram(a Kshatriya) killed Ravana and happened to face the wrath of the dosha. He had to perform pooja to Shiva, the only one who could help him out of it. Here, Eshwar helped Ram. Thus, the name to the town- Rameshwar. There’s a similar story for a town called Ravaneshwar in Lanka 🙂 The world’s fifth largest monolithic Nandi statue guards the entrance of this temple.. Ok, thus said- We were overwhelmed to walk across the longest temple corridor in the world and felt blessed after bathing in the water from the 22 sacred wells on the temple. It was quite a tiring day due to a lot of traveling. We decided to sleep early as we had a long day tomorrow.
Next morning- it was Holi day- The festival of colours. We were sitting at the Agnitheertham beach at 4.30.a.m watching hundreds of devotees taking a holy dip in the sea. But, we were waiting for something else… We were waiting to welcome a day that would unfold with a palette of the best colours that nature could show.. We witnessed what is by far one of the best sunrises we had seen till date.
We boarded a bus from there to Dhanushkodi- The ghost city. Though this part was the most awaited part of the trip, it was a let down by the end.. 100Rs per head for a round trip of the deserted city can be done in 3hrs for a tourist. But, we wanted to explore.. This can be best done if you can drive down in a jeep all for yourself without having to abide by other fellow traveler’s convenience. The road stretch upto Dhanushkodi is to die for.. It is BEAUTIFUL….!! You can do and explore LOT MORE if you have a vehicle at YOUR own disposal..
A walk through the waters of the Bay of Bengal till the Kodandaramasamy temple is a must do.. The water level never goes above your knees. The Sethusamudram can only be visualised if you have a proper guide with you. On your way back, you can also cover Jada Theertham & Nambu Nayagiamman temple which are just a couple of kms before Dhanushkodi..
One hour down line the timeline.. We were back in the main town.. an auto guy charged us Rs.250 for a quick round of the places around the town. Gandaparvatham / Rama paadam is the highest point in the island town from where one can catch a good view of the scenery around. Also cover Sugreevar theertham(a small pond), Satchi Hanuman temple, Bhadrakaliamman temple, Rama theertham, Krishna temple, Lakshmana theertham, 5-faced Hanuman temple(The floating stones used for the construction of Rama Sethu can be seen here) are the other places of interest. Except the main temple, rest of the temples are all typically North-Indian in architecture.
And we enquired where Sita theertham was.. And to our dismay, the auto driver stopped at a small tank with stagnant green mosquito breeding water body.. “Damn..!! Male dominated Indian soceity…!!” I exclaimed. It was followed by a quick visit to former President, his honour; A.P.J.Abdul Kalam’s house which is now converted into a museum. We were done with local sight seeing by early evening. And we had a LOT of time till sunset.
We headed towards Pamban. Standing on the road bridge and peeking down at the train tug over the century old engineering marvel- Pamban is a sight not to be missed. Once done, we decided to stroll around the fishermen’s village just across. We got some good clicks of the Pamban from the boat jetty. My eyes fell on the light house a few mts across the village. We asked for directions and reached there in less than half and hour’s time while we tagged along some new friends- from the fishermen’s cove. The kids were excited to converse in English with us as we did look foreign to the. Once near the lighthouse, we further walked down to the sea shore from where we got a sight to behold. We settled down there under the shade of a mangrove tree until sunset.
It was soon dark and we had to head back to the temple road for a safer crowd. We bought some peanuts masala from the vendor on the seahsore and found a comfortable seat for ourself to catch some peaceful time. It was a full moon night.
We saw the faint horizon emerge out from the pitch darkness of the sky that brightened into broad daylight with a series of colour change and then the white sky fade into the black of the night’s sky… And again the night’s sky being lit up by the beautiful full moon… Yes.. We witnessed one COMPLETE day… 🙂
Day 3: We had to check out early and catch the 8.00.a.m bus from Akka Madang to Vivekananda memorial hall. Our boat was waiting for us with the guide to take us to totally another world- World of exotic marine animals- ‘the Kurusudai island‘. This place needs a more elaborate presentation and hence, will be done in my next post. to sum up here- “A MUST VISIT”. From there, we got dropped at the Pamban boat jetty.. Our motor boat was anchored somewhere amid hundred other boats and hence, we had to walk across to the shore. This walking experience was unique in its own way as you don’t get such a sight in any other boat jetty. Also, every step had to be placed carefully so that you may not accidentally step on the in-numerous star fishes or sea cucumbers and kill them.
We walked further up to the Pamban railway station and bought our tickets to the 12.00.O’clock train to Madurai. And soon the train arrived. We boarded and our hearts were pounding hard with excitement.. And MY My… An experience of a lifetime.. the train journey over the historical Pamban bridge on its 100th year of existence.. couldn’t ask for more..!!!
In 4 hrs, we alighted at Madurai junction… But, yeah I was wondering how everything went so fine through the entire trip.. And the surprise was waiting for us at the station- our train to Bangalore would arrive 3hrs late.. and what followed is.. history.. 🙂
May be the coconut trees lining the coastal line abundantly and the rhythmic beats of the famous drums resonating in the air…. And maybe the SUVs & MUVs that underwent the brutal checkup by me during my so called ‘Business trip’….. All these surely made my visit to this little silent capital city an AWESOME one.. A city of Trees & Vans & Drums put together…… Trivandrum it was..!!
A morning flight from Bangalore landed us at the Trivandrum airport by 09.30 a.m. The car was waiting for us outside, which drove us past a fishing hamlet enroute to our workplace.. Fishing dories anchored, fishermen carrying their day’s catch, the blue sea water reaching to the horizon and a lovely lady’s figurine sculptured by the Shangamughan beach side… Further, as we crossed the toll road and drove across a bridge through the by-pass road, we were greeted by the backwaters dotted by the houseboats.. It was indeed a warm welcome to the city.. 🙂
And ofcourse, we began working without wasting much time… And definitely did not miss a chance to drive around the city as a part of the check-up routine 😉 In the evening, was the much anticipated part of the trip- A visit to what is called the richest temple in the country: Sri Padmanabhaswamy. For all the hype and media space grabbed by this temple, I had expected a BIG crowd of tourists(Not Pilgrims), fussy Godmen, lot of petty shops dotting the walkway selling pooja items etc.- A common sight at any of the famous temples in India.. But, totally contrary to what I had imagined, this has been one of the BEST temples I have visited till date. According to me- ‘A temple is a place where one has to feel GOD with PEACE’. And this place stands out for just that..!! A strict dress code and prohibited entry for non-hindus, a stringent adherence to the temple rules, limited crowd, silent ambience, an eyeful of the darshan of the massive idol lit by mere oil fed lamps- The place has not given up its sanctity to all the attention grabbed by it’s hidden chambers of gold.. I’m not a pious or a temple person- But this place has truly stood apart 🙂
Later, we visited the old wooden museum inside the Puthenmalika / Kuthiramalika Palace just outside the temple premises.. This was built by the erstwhile Travancore kings.. A damn nice place for the art lovers 🙂
Day 2 : We started work early, hoping to finish it early so that we could do a little bit of city trotting before boarding our return flight.. And as per schedule, we were done with work by afternoon.. We shopped for some local crafts at SMSM institute crafts emporium.. We walked through the narrow lanes to one of the biggest shops that is all for ‘CHIPS’ – ‘The Mahachips store’.. Chips of different varieties made to order and packed just then.. I picked up about 10kgs of banana chips & jackfruit chips- something that will be much awaited for back home in Bangalore, even more than my safe return 😉
Just before sunset, we reached Covalam beach.. We walked upto the Vizhinjam lighthouse for a good view of the beach- it turned out to be a treat to the senses 🙂
A stroll along the crowded beach, beautiful view of the sunset, some yummy local chaats to munch on.. Indeed an awesome end to an eventful business trip 🙂
Don’t miss to try 3 things while you are in Trivandrum:
1. Fresh banana & jackfruit chips and halwa
2. Hot palam puri with a cup of burning hot Kerala tea
3. Frog thigh fry (available only in select places).
If not a business trip, one could cover all these places in a day and combine it with a day trip to Kanyakumari- the southern-most tip of mainland India.
I cannot make justice, but will sum up the entire trip with as less words as possible.. “White sand, Blue sea, crystal clear waters, lashing waves, spotting the flying fishes, sunset from the ship’s deck, diverse deep sea, ever mesmerising beaches, if ever I had a choice to choose my death, I’d love to get washed away by the waves right there.. @ the Andaman sea.”