Tag Archives: UNESCO

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!

Five ways to experience travel during lockdown

Continuing my posts on managing anxiety and keeping up self-morale during the lockdown, here’s some more on self help..

Binge-watching on Netflix, Hotstar or other OTT platforms, reading books, Cooking, meditation are so cliched. Doing these things daily too can get monotonous. Doing something for 21 days can lead to a habit. So, by the end of this lockdown period, we all don’t want to become couch potatoes..

Yes, every Sunday evening of our lockdown period has been made interesting by our Honorable Prime Minister. His tasks have made sure that we all came out to our balconies to get some fresh air and break the monotony. The clapping, clanging of plates, bells and blowing the conches from the confines of our balconies with an aim to Thank the frontline warriors of the Covid-19 Pandemic on 22-Mar-20 was a nice exercise to come out of our couches. Similarly, I’m sure the nation showed its unity and solidarity in hard times by switching off lights and lighting up lamps, candles, torches and flashlights on the evening of 05-Apr-20.

But, what about the other days of being locked down at home? Do your itchy feet rare to travel? And oh, those with little kids must be having the hardest time to keep them indoors. So, if you are looking for an offbeat travel experience to break your routine, while being locked up inside your house, here are five handpicked DIY ideas for you 😊

  1. Have your own bedroom rave party: An endless playlist is available either in your collection or on the OTT platform. Use the apps that also provide disco flashlights. Place your mobile screen between two mirrors that are placed at a distance away, facing each other. Switch off all the lights at home and let your playlist take the center table. Voila, you have your own dance floor! Make some drink or look online for some cocktail ideas with whatever ingredients are available in your kitchen and your party is good to go!
  2. Pitch your own tent or pillow fortress: For those of you who are frequent hikers, chances are that you have your own tent. You can pitch it in your own balcony or terrace and experience the outdoors in your own little campsite. For the others who don’t have a tent, fret not. Remember the ‘Pillow fortresses’ we made as kids? Why not let that kid out of yourselves now? Fold up your beds and stack up you pillows. You can even tie a string across your room and hang down a bedsheet from it. You have your very own DIY tent.
  3. Set-up your travel corner: Re-living old memories by digging up the old photo albums itself can be a great way to time-travel. You can pick up some of your favorite photos and hang-it up with lights in a DIY corner of your house. All you need is some strings and clips to hold your photos in place. You can also draw a huge map and mark the places you have been to and have it in your travel corner. Arranging your collection of souvenirs from your travels around this place too is a great idea.
  4. Star gazing from your balcony or terrace: Now that the skies have cleared, it’s a good activity to hone up your skills of star gazing. There are several apps and websites that can help you in identifying the stars and constellations. It’s a great idea to go out to your balcony and admire the vast expanse of the night’s sky. Who knows, you might even get a glimpse of the ISS (International Space Station) which is believed to be going around the earth- 16 times a day! There is usually one major meteor shower every month. Look up on the dates and catch the shooting stars 🙂
  5. Celebrate a festival: Light up your house as if you would do it for Diwali or for Christmas. Make up a mock festival at home. Festivals have always been a great way to bring in fresh energy and pep up the mood. I’m a sucker for diyas and candle lights and totally in love with the positive vibes it brings with it. No mood for festival décor? Why not cook up a nice meal and have a candle lit dinner?

Sounds fair? Let me know how you are dealing with the lockdown…. What ideas do you have to experience travel without leaving your doorstep?

The Mountains beckon in the Apple valley of India- Kinnaur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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