Thursday, 28 April 2016

Kodaikanal - ‘Princess of Hill Stations’

We made it to Kodaikanal, a small hill station in Tamil Nadu, a little after lunchtime. The owner of our guesthouse, B’s Hive, sent a taxi to pick us up, and we were dropped off and shown to our room. Not only did only did our room give us a wonderful view of the hills and valley, but, since it wasn’t occupied, we were upgraded to a bigger room with a bay window and a veranda for free! Unfortunately, this turned out to be pretty much the only form of “service” we received during our stay. We never officially met the owner, and the staff was rarely anywhere to be found; therefore, whenever we needed anything, like laundry, food or a taxi, we had to call the owner who would then track somebody down to help us. When we finally were able to send out our laundry, it took forever and wasn’t ready when they said it would be, and when Scott needed change after paying for the room, it took them until our last day to give itto him. In any case, the room itself was very nice, clean and big (and even had hot water, since it was actually cold there), despite the slight annoyances of people playing loud music at night and dogs howling all night long. 

Steep AlleySteep Alley

Steep Alley
Being in a small town with less traffic and pollution, not to mention nice, cool weather, has been a welcomed change, which is why we extended our stay from the initial two nights to almost a week. We found some good restaurants with Indian and Tibetan food (though their hours seemed to be ever changing), and we browsed several of the local handicraft shops, a few of which supported good causes, such as helping disadvantaged children and empowering women from rural areas. 

During our stay in the mountains, we got some good exercise by taking walks into town, which was quite a hike from our guesthouse and ALL uphill, and we enjoyed walking around the lake and spending some time taking in the natural beauty of the area. One day, we even took a long hike up to a nice lookout point called Green Valley View, but, after pushing our way through a tunnel of sales 
Our Bay WindowOur Bay WindowOur Bay Window
people and braving the monkeys lining the railing, we decided not to stay long. Afterwards, we continued our hike to see some neat rock formations called Pillar Rocks. It was a really long walk, but very beautiful, and we were happy to be out of the city for the first time in awhile. On our way, we passed a few schools, some nice little cottages, and an interesting golf course unlike any I’ve ever seen in the states. Not only were there several people crowded around a hole at a time, but the hole was surrounded by netting, making us wonder how exactly one is supposed to go about putting…Dad, if you have any insight, let us know! 

Once we’d made it to Pillar Rocks, we were exhausted from walking, so we tried to catch a cab back into town. The man refused to give us a fair price – a problem we’ve encountered often in this country, as all drivers refuse to use their meters – but when a local saw us struggling, he offered to give us a lift on his motorcycle. We were a little wary to (a) accept a ride from a total stranger and 
View near Pillar RocksView near Pillar RocksView near Pillar Rocks
(b) attempt to fit the three of us on the bike, but the sun was about to set and we didn’t want to get stranded, so we went for it. The man was very nice and took us all the way to town for free, but when he dropped us off, a policeman reprimanded us for “triple riding,” which is apparently illegal even though we’ve seen entire families on motorcycles here. We thought he was going to give us a ticket (in which case we planned to plead ignorance), but luckily he just gave us a warning. 

One day we ventured over to Coaker’s Walk, a path that we’d been told had some great mountain views, but it turned out to be very short and cost money, deeming it slightly underwhelming. We also paid to walk through Bryant’s Park. This was a nice area with a cool greenhouse, but it didn’t appear to be very well kept up…the fountain in the pond was broken, and the water looked gross. And there was trash everywhere. We decided the lake was the best place to go for a walk, even if it did mean being frequently pestered by strangers to have 

our pictures made with them. Aside from eating, shopping and reading, we spent a lot of time just relaxing and enjoying our surroundings. All the shop owners we talked to were very nice and hospitable.

Kodaikanal was pleasant. Hill stations are generally quite similar from one another, but this is a great place for a short weekend trip. Head out and relax in the surroundings.

And its me,

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Darjeeling 'The Queen of Hills' (My Peace Journey)

It was just past 8am. Siliguri was waking up. Through the chaos of the town,the intermittent stench, and the tea gardens,we started our drive up hill. The narrow roads to the foothills of Shivalik were intertwined all along by railway lines(Darjeeling Himalayan Railway). Roads on the rail or rails on the road? They seemed like a series of mating serpents.The roads were typical of any hilly area. Green on either sides, steep curves, uphills almost right,streams, rivulets, culverts, ravines and many gorges that seemed endless.
These narrow roads were punctuated by villages. Kids in their winter wear were on their way to school. Many had their books open, brushing up that last bit before that day’s exam. Presenting a clear picture of their want for a separate state,the Gorkhaland boards ushered us into Darjeeling. The message was loud and clear. Every single door had this board,be it a shop or a house. The writings on the walls spoke about allegiance to India but separation from West Bengal. Vehicles with GL registration surprised me initially, then I came to terms with a novel form of protest. The blue colored train just meandered past us joyfully spitting tonnes of smoke,oblivious of the Al Gores and Copenhagens of the world.
We were soon in Darjeeling.The quaint town discovered by two British agents, with its cobbled streets and bungalows lets you experience remnants of the Victorian past. The streets in the market take their own turns and go up hill at their whims. Selling mostly winter wear and memorabilia, this market closes way early that one could imagine. Just past 5 and it’s late and dark in Darjeeling. Don’t miss to walk in to to a bakery and have some out of the world pastries. The weather has made shop keepers nonchalant and disinterested in selling- I noticed this.
First a little chilly and soon it is gives you a frozen experience. At 6pm, you are left with no option but reach your hotel room and surf channels.
Early in the morning we were off to watch the sunrise at Tiger Hills. Bah! Sunrise, what’s so invigorating about a sunrise, this was my first reaction. A detour from Ghum/Ghoom railway station takes you uphill to Tiger Hills. 4:15am. It’s pitch dark. You are approached(No,leave your dirty thoughts aside) by women selling coffee/tea at this hour. They trudge all the way uphill to sell coffee /tea to tourists. Give them money for the effort,even more for the tea.
A large crowd waiting on the ground and many waiting a level above. All waiting to see a sunrise. From the enclosure(a level above),all you can hear is a crowd singing what seemed like folk songs; you are blinded by the innumerable flashes clicked. Reaching early helped us get a window for a perfect window for the sunrise. But,still I was sure of this exercise being a dull , waste of time created to fool tourists. I was wrong as usual. :)
Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling
Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling, minutes after the above pic
On your right, the sun slowly appears above the horizon. The golden rays slyly sneaking out. The darkness was giving way to many shades of orange. Though unwillingly,the blue sky was accepting the unwelcome golden rays. Within minutes, a glow appears on a mountain range on your left. The Sun beaming in glory on your right, mercilessly outshone by the sheen of the Kanchenjunga on your left. The Kanchenjunga that appeared drab in those black and white pictures in my school Geography text book,was vivid and resplendent here, enjoying every moment of the attention she got. Unfazed by the clouds’ attempts to mask her brilliance,this white beauty’s radiant smile left us in love with her.
That was my first visit to any Buddhist Monastery,the visit to Samten Choling. Buddha inside was showing some displeasure over his photographs being clicked. Irreverence that is,right? I used the opportunity to rotate the prayer cylinders(?) assuming that would wipe out all my sins; have seen monks doing this on Discovery Channel though I don’t know the reason.
The Batasia Loop where the Darjeeling trains take a U turn and the Gurkha Memorial are situated on a hillock that promises a panoramic view of the town. Isn’t it a sacrilege to miss the visit to a tea estate when in Darjeeling? A foggy morning.A gentle breeze.The golden rays of the sun.A whole valley covered with tea plantations.The leaves are just freshening up,trying to clear the mist on them. The intoxicating aroma of a cup of tea takes your senses to a newer high. The taste is heavenly.The whole experience is suddenly a notch above bliss.
The Tibetan Refugee camp resonates the hope of an oppressed community,living away from their homeland. An old printing press which printed their voices of angst and anger,of freedom and liberation lies as a testimony to an eventful past. Many items made by these refugees were for sale at the camp.
We easily skipped the Darjeeling zoo as we did not expect much there. Trivandrum zoo is awesome,you know! :) The famous rope-way was in disuse after an accident some years back,we were told. The St Paul’s school,North Point where Main Hoo Na was shot looked like a picture post card silhouetted against the Kanchenjunga.
It was time to move on from Gorkhaland. Those flags in green,white and yellow had to be bade adieu.
The roads were much better. BRO’s Project Swastik was doing a great job. The life line of Sikkim,Teesta was spotted already. We were just entering Sikkim. The Teesta river was gushing at her full might on our side. The ravines were deep,scary to look into. Oblivious of her surroundings,unmitigated by the rocks,she was flowing as if she would get late for her date with the Brahmaputra. On our way,deep down under we saw her being joined by Rangeet. Two shades of green merging to form a different shade of green. The greens interrupted by the rocks and froth did not reduce her beauty even by a bit. On one side, the river deep in a gorge, taking it’s own course, on the other the rocks sniggering at the river in a show of dominance. Was she green in envy? at whom? the mighty Himalayas that fathered her?
Road to Gantok
Beautiful Teesta at the Sangam
The Teesta
Villages came one after the other. The terrain was slowly changing. The breathtaking views continued. Marigolds,sunflowers and many other flowers lead me through the land of Teesta.Lush green paddy fields enjoyed the beauty and adorned her banks. We were crossing Rangpo. Indian Army presence could be spotted at irregular intervals. From the foothills,we were on our way up the Himalayas. On the banks of Teesta and even little upwards, I was surprised to find Banana plants and other vegetation seen in tropics.
On the foot hills of the Shivalik ranges, Gangtok welcomes you with it’s pleasant weather,peaceful roads and drool worthy chicken momos. Like I had tweeted, chicken momos were one of the reasons why Sikkim was annexed to the Indian union. :D  The spotless capital city wins hands down for the cleanliness. The MG Marg can easily pass off as a European street with its cobbled streets ,flowers,Victorian street lamps and those ornate benches. Most parts of this road is exclusively for pedestrians. The lights make the fountain and the Gandhiji statue look magnificent after sunset. The Lall Marg adjacent to it reminds you of the Darjeeling market, with the same ups and downs minus a little chaos. We walked into a building off MG Marg,that housed a vegetable market. The cleanliness that we saw outside was missing here. It was like any other vegetable market and the paan stains on the stairs affirmed the fact that order and chaos can exist next to each other. :| The buildings in Gantok were strikingly similar in shape,cuboidal. The easiest job here could be that of an architect,probably.
Gangtok-MG Marg
Nathula(14200 FT) is 52 Km from Gangtok. The earlier roads were narrow. Roads barely existed on the JN Marg that connected Nathula to Gantok. A stretch full of stones and boulders,rubble and dust, dotted with villages and Army establishments. We were on a pathway interrupted by landslides at nature’s whims and fancies. Ravines on the right were so deep that looking into it was enough for your heart to skip not one but a dozen beats. On the left, the mountain walls displayed many textures,patterns and shapes-all signs of human intervention. Work under BRO’s Swastik project was in full swing. Army convoys and JCBs appeared to create traffic jams.
Kanchenjunga,near Nathula
The road to Nathula
The road to Nathula
Clouds had decided to shed their beauty and be shapeless. The confused clouds cozily placed themselves next to each other. These are the times when you realize that white and blue are siblings.The sky was painted with not just one,but many hues of blue. Those coniferous trees high school geography taught me were now here,or it was now easier to realize that the vegetation was coniferous. Those long white patches on the greens were streams and rivulets mellowed down by the freezing cold.
A few km up and we were at about 12600 feet above the sea level. We took a detour from what seemed like a base camp and headed to Baba Harbhajan Sigh’s bunker. The base camp had a Baba Mandir which apparently was built for the convenience of the visitors(“duplicate” as per our driver). The original one and the bunker were about 6km away from here.
We saw her again. The same Kanchenjunga that gleamed in glory two mornings before was at her stunning best. She was trying to shoo away the clouds that tried to mask her beauty. The ravishing beauty,majestic in her demeanor was standing tall to touch the skies. What? Did I just spot snow on the rocks? I grabbed a lump of snow from the rocks. The only other place I did this was from the refrigerator’s freezer.
After visiting Baba’s bunker that had his belongings and the original Baba Mandir there, we headed back to 12600 feet base camp. This place had an ATM(yes!) and a few shops. From here, we started our journey to a place that mattered much in history, a point on the Old Silk Route. Nathula.
Through the gate that said “Nathula”,we walked up the stairs. On the right side was a photography prohibited area,a few metres from there was the Indian Army post. We were at a place that looked more like the portico of one of the two buildings. Behind me was a building with the tricolor proudly fluttering,bringing out the Indian in each one of us.
I was standing in front of a building with excess of red,golden pillars and a star on its forehead,something that took my mind straight to the Birla centre,hyderabad. I walked close to it and hey! what am I seeing? There is a fence. Err, so that is C-H-I-N-A. That was China! Within minutes,three nattily dressed young Chinese soldiers came close to the fence, one of them smoking and clicking his camera nonstop. He had decided to get pictures of every single young lady on the Indian side. None of our rules apply to him, he is on the other side. Different rules,different time zones,different language,all together a different world. How much can a small fence do.
Soon,the Chinese soldiers shed their initial indifference and started posing for photos with the Indian tourists. Camaraderie was evident in the air in the way the Indian and Chinese soldiers interacted. How different was it was for them than working in two different teams? The soldiers on either side of the fence were ready to pose for photos, but refused to shake hands. A trip to Nathula was never complete without breaking a piece of rock from the memorabilia stone. And boy!, that hammer was HEAVY.
In the midst of all these photographs, I managed to sneak my hand to the other side of the fence. ;-) Yes, I did that. That was touching Chinese soil. What else can give you a high when you are on the border? :)
Outside Baba's bunker
Outside Baba's bunker
At Nathula
At Nathula
We left the BRO slogans, the Army’s Hum Hi Jitenge | Mera Bharat Mahaan lines and started our drive down hill to Gangtok. Passing many snow capped buildings behind us,we were coming down from a high point in our lives. We passed the Sherathang market, about 5 km from Nathula. I spotted Dongfeng trucks in the market;may be they came in with goods from across the border. The Tsongmo Lake (also called Changu Lake or Tsomgo Lake) was calm and beautiful. The Yak owners were shouting to strike a deal to take us for a ride on those animals. Yaks, to my surprise seemed so harmless.
Visibility was almost zilch. Sun suffered from a bout of inferiority complex and hid himself. Our driver seemed undaunted with the zero visibility. The headlights pierced through the darkness. The nonstop horn seemed to show him the road. We were soon in Gangtok for our next round of  momos. It would be unfair not to mention those hundreds of smiles I got back for every eye contact that I made, irrespective of gender or age; immensely friendly and pleasant locals bring in a smile on our faces. :-)
          And its me,

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Vishakhapatnam - The bay city of Andhra Pradesh

I had only a day to spare at visakhapatnam (also called Vizag) so decided to find best ways to utilize my time in this beautiful coastal city of South India. I reached Vizag on a Sunday morning which to me was a surprisingly lazy day with not many people on the road, despite a pleasant morning in this beach city. I had to take care of something personal after which I got a ride to RK beach by a gentleman. RK beach is named after Ramakrishna ( who was the Guru of Swami Vivekananda. 

I was excited to be near the water but was not planning to get wet as I wanted to soak into the natures warmth. I was happy to take pictures using my mobile and relaxed watching the small and big waves crash into the coast and stones on the shore. 

Dolphin Nose is one beautiful craft of the nature you will never miss in this beach and you will appreciate nature at its best form. 

In the background you will see the Vizag port, big ships and small fishing boats venturing the ocean which is a great site indeed. I wanted to stay for
Submarine museumSubmarine museumSubmarine museum
some more time but my thought of having some seafood made me step out of the beach area. On the way, I stopped by the mini aquarium which has good collection of marine life that should excite everyone. 

My search for food finally ended after some fair distance of walking. Unlike many other beaches, Vizag beach road has less restaurants so options are limited if you want to have your food and also have the sea view. On the way, I could still see impacts of natures fury and the effect of Hudhud cyclone to this beautiful city. Good thing is, people have moved on and life is getting normal here. 

For lunch, I had gobi masala which is of different kind as it was a green peas and prawn dish. It has a unique taste and goes well with steamed rice. It was a slow lunch for me as I was also enjoying the sea view. I relaxed for a short time and then headed towards the Submarine museum. You should definitely visit that as it has historical significance. I spent some relaxation time again in the museum area watching the nature. 

After that, I headed 

towards Vuda park from where you get a great view of the Ocean and a good part of extended Vizag. During afternoon and evening, its awesome to the core. I sat there watching the sea from a hill top, reading a journal and added some more boost to my nature dosage. I was conscious of my return to railway station so got into an auto and headed towards it. 

Its definitely a day I cherished as a lonely traveler. I also felt, I should make more such visits in the future and share my experience. I hope this will help people to make short trips to a place like Vizag where one could do many things even in a day and I guarantee that you will make effort to visit more often. 

Thank you for reading my blog


Thursday, 14 April 2016

Mahabalipuram - An UNESCO heritage spot in TAMILNADU

I spent many hours over several days wandering among the 7th century wonders at Mamallapuram. Carved from single large boulders, stories burst from their surfaces in astonishing detail, rooms chiseled deep into the guts of the rocks appear like naturally occurring symmetrical caves. 
Tiger Cave
Tiger Cave

Tiger cave Temple

 The first day I explored, a rock carver tagged along, despite my saying several times "goodbye" and "I want to be alone." When I realized he was not going away until I visited his "shop," I detoured from my tour for five minutes, followed him on stones rising from a cesspool of muck-which I nearly teetered into, entered his shop, and surveyed his quite ordinary inventory. He expressed indignation that I didn't buy, then shouted at me as I walked away. This was my first day touring in this small town. I sighed, knowing he would be the first of many very assertive vendors I would encounter in the days ahead. 

I was able to shake off the aggressive vendor. The exquisite carvings captivated me. I lingered as the sun set, marveling at the immensity of the work depicting various deities and moments in their existence. Other tourists, mostly Indians, happily snapped selfies and used the rock surfaces for climbing challenges.
Arjuna's Penance
Arjuna's Penance
 A small child and his father pushed on "Krishna's Butterball", a lonesome giant boulder perched on a slippery rock slope where joyous youngsters used their backsides as temporary sleds. Young couples crept into rock crevices for artful photography work, and perhaps a private space where they could hold each other's hand for a brief moment. 

I realized I would never capture photos without human presence at these popular monoliths. So I started to enjoy the human show, and watched and photographed as people climbed upon Nandi the bull, or posed in front of one of the Five Rathas, or sought the perfect selfie with friends, or composed an engaging family portrait. After snapping a family's portrait, they invited me to join them. Me, with my comfortable traveling pants and shirt, amidst Indian women in their gorgeous saris. I heard one of them musing about looking at the photo later and saying "Yaaru?" Which essentially means, "who is that?" 

One of my friend took me to the Tiger Cave just outside of town,an unfinished temple with a
Shore TEmple
SHORE  Temple
frame of giant "tiger" faces around the alcove carved into a huge boulder. I was alone, save for Sanjay and a lone guide waiting for an unlucky tourist. I felt fortunate to have beaten the bus loads of people. Sanjay showed me a nearby smaller temple, and then a building that had been uncovered by the 2004 tsunami. A later temple of granite had been built over an earlier one of bricks, and made for a curious jumble of structures, only recently discovered and excavated from its overburden of sand. 

One should visit the temples of Mamallapuram. Capturing a selfie with these remarkable structures is more or less an expected and effortless activity these days. More elusive is capturing the intent, the purposeful rendering of story and life and exquisite structure in huge, once smooth boulders that waited silently for the chisels.


Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Once Indraprastha - now its New Delhi

Jama Masjid
It was Delhi when we were coming back from Manali.It was nit difficult to adjust with the climate but i had a good day out there in Delhi.

First up on our tour, we visited the Qutb Minar Stone Tower, which was quite a large place and very popular with the local tourists. Lots of stone carvings and pretty surroundings. Our very enthusiastic guide shared with us the story of the tower, and the best photo angles! 

Next up was Humayun's Tomb which was quite impressive, and has similarities to the Taj Mahal with a similar layout and design. We spent a short time walking around in the heat. As the name would suggest, it is a tomb that holds a number of family members. 
Jama MasjidJama MasjidJama Masjid
The Isa Khan Tomb Enclosure was nearby and quite pretty. These attractions took thousands of labourers, and years of work to build. 

Possibly the most interesting part of the day for me was the driving (or crawling) through Delhi. As we got into Old Town, there was simply a gridlock of cars, rickshaws, bikes and pedestrians with little coordination. People hanging off buses, transporting huge quantities of belongings, a market nearby and lots of yelling and horns of course. From my sheltered window I could happily observe it all! Colourful and lively that's for sure! 

Finally after all the traffic, we arrived at Jama Masjid just before prayers, so it was a quick visit. At sunset it was beautiful as the light changed and the sun filtered through. There were crowds and crowds of people milling around, sharing food and children playing. It seemed to be a very social place. We left shortly before prayers began as we were not allowed to stay. 

Our final stop on our quick Delhi tour was a drive-by of Parliament. It literally was a drive-by as cars are not allowed to stop. It was reminiscent of other grand Parliament buildings, with the Presidential Palace looking rather enormous!
Humayun's TombHumayun's TombHumayun's Tomb

I was grateful for the rise in temperature from Manali, but the city itself and the amount of traffic was overwhelming. It was good to see a different side of India and the way life went about in Delhi. There was something to look at on every single corner with people going about their business! Not to mention the architecture, the hints of British influence and the crazy overhead wires! 

It was all an experience, and I was happy to visit, but for me Manali will always win over Delhi. I did however enjoy snapping away in Delhi as there was so much going on! 

And I quote Amelia Earhart...."Adventure is worthwhile"!