Lose your way to find it!

 

On a hot sweltering afternoon, at the end of our trip to Gokarn, my travel weary bones and a near empty growling stomach made me google the nearest food joint. The search coughed up a few names, among which a French sounding “Chez Christophe” showed up as the closest. We put on the GPS and followed the lady obediently only to end up in a small village with a handful of houses. We had lost our way!

Feeling hopeless, but hungry, we got down and walked up to a group of people asking for the restaurant. The “Krishnappanna hotla?, gottu, ille munde hogi, sigatte!” (Oh Krishnappa’s hotel? It’s right beyond here, just keep going) of the skinny man in a lungi made us feel all the more hopeless. Where was the French guy, we wondered. Or had he sold the hotel to an Indian counterpart? Unfortunately, there seemed to be no place around which could serve a near decent meal, so we decided on taking up the man’s offer to go in search of Krishnappa.

We got off the road, and started walking in through the lanes between the thatched roof houses, separated from each other by makeshift bramble walls. On the narrow foot roads where we had to walk single file, we were occasionally mauled by hens and growling dogs who were disturbed out of their afternoon siesta.

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The picture just does not do justice to how it actually looked!

Often in the center of the hustle and the bustle of the cities, the silence of the village in the afternoon seemed eerie at first. But then we began to take in the sights. Of the villagers working their way through their chores, contentedly, house after house.

One backyard had a lady who had set up an outdoor makeshift stove which contained a pot full of bubbling fragrant curry, while she on the other side, was cutting up fresh fish to put into the pot. There were a few cats purring on the side, waiting for any stray morsel coming their way. She stopped, surprised to see us, then waved us on, when we asked her about the hotel.

Another house had a small porch lined up with parrots of a vibrant green, which were being fed by a grandfather and his grandson. The grandfather was explaining something to the child, who was excitedly nodding his head.

A sudden spread of green burst forth, between the houses, where a lone farmer was quietly going about his work. Walking through a stretch of field which was ripe with the produce of sweet potatoes, cowpeas, beans and marigolds made for a great experience for the kids.

A blonde guy was lying peacefully on his hammock humming a small tune, in a hut with graffiti painted walls. But strangely, he did not seem out of place in the middle of a typically Indian village. He blended well with the peace it was emanating.

It was a trek to remember. The peace, the quiet and the sense of zen that prevailed, all but made us forget what we were there for. It felt as though we could go on and on. We felt the “ichigyo zammai” that afternoon. This basically means,(in Japanese) finding happiness in concentrating on the small pleasures of life, one at a time. Without distraction. Without the hurry that we might run out of time.

Our pace slowed, we breathed the air more deeply and even the kids quietly walked down the road. Just experiencing. And assimilating the awesome feeling into our beings. For once, I stopped clicking photographs like a woman on a mission, and just looked around.

At the end of the road was a beautiful beach, unspoiled and clean. And finally Krishnappa’s hotel (which was actually Christophe’s café by the way). And that, was an even more pleasurable experience.

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The place is a shack which is probably frequented more at night, and hence was completely ours at that time. The floor is covered with mattresses and cushions, which serve as seating. You can sit and stare at the endless expanse of the sea and hear the rhythmic sound of the waves. A wooden swing sways for the breeze as you munch on yum French food.

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Borrowed the photograph, but wanted badly to show the swing!

We finally found the right, motorable road to reach the place. But decided to walk back the same way we came. For the pleasure of walking down the road, which taught us the happiness of just being. Sometimes, you have to lose your way to find it!

Thank you Chez Christophe, and thanks GPS lady!

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Six unique indulgences in Delhi

 

Our capital city,has always evoked in me a picture of the mughal grandeur. Of beautiful landscaped gardens, old bungalows, relics of the bygone era sprinkled between the buildings of today and a huge dollop of history to go with it.

That Delhi has got a Nirbhaya side to it, horrible summers, the famous, or rather infamous Delhi belly and reports about being one of the unsafe cities in India, dents the halo a bit. But in my opinion, it still manages to rise above this.

It is said that Delhi is a city which has been rebuilt eight times! Each time it got looted and destroyed, it rose again like a phoenix from the ashes. For someone who has gone through so much gore, the city looked calm and composed when we visited it in the winter.

Apart from the amazing monuments which I never get bored of seeing repeatedly, this time through, I had the oppurtunity of tasting some of the most mouthwatering food that I have had in recent times.

  1. The famous Moolchand paranthas.

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I have no idea whether the Moolchand metro station got named after the paranthewalla or vice versa, but any which way, it’s a good thing, as it is easy to find. Sometimes, when you keep your expectations high, the actual food can be a big let down. We had heard so much about this joint that somewhere in the corner of my mind, I had expected it to be a let down. Especially when I saw what the size of the joint. The only encouraging sign was the number of people queing up near the counter. By the time I reached the counter to place the order, the aroma of the paranthas and the heat of the tawa was making me really hungry.And what a meal it proved to be! Each parantha we tasted was amazing. The food is served on very simple plates with a satchet of amul butter and a side salad of onions and mint. But each morsel is a bite of heaven! The best among the lot being the paneer onion one, and the weirdest was badam parantha. Do try!

  1. The daulat ka chaat.

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Long long ago, in an old book called “Endless feasts”, which is a collection of food essays, I had read a bit by celebrity chef Madhur Jaffrey about her childhood in Delhi. She reminiscied the taste of daulat ka chaat sold by an old lady in the cold Delhi winters.Years later, I read about it in another book called “Kheer, Korma and Kismet”.The author had traced the people who make this and explained the arduous process of its making.

This chaat is unique for two reasons. One it is sweet, and two, it is only available in the winters. Apparentely, it is made by whisking sweetened milk for long hours on full moon nights and allowing it to ferment on the roof of old houses in Chandni chowk for the dew to settle on it. It is then layered with saffron and silver warq and served with  a topping of pistachhios,kurchan and powdered sugar.

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Armed with loads of roadside shopping(chandni chowk is indeed irresistible, just like it always was for Shahjahan’s daughter, for whom it was built—though horribly crowded), and two kids, I ploughed on trying to find alleys where I could find this treasure.

Right in the center of a crowded intersection, I found it. The morsel was so light and so incredibly fluffy,that it would have given any masterchef a complex. It tastes sweet, light and crunchy at the same time.It is so light, that the afternoon heat is enough to collapse it! And delicious. No. Other. Word.can explain it. So, now you know which season to visit Delhi in!

  1. Chur chur naan.

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The name itself was so funny, that it caught my attention. The naan was anything but chur chur (which means “little” in kannada!).It consists of bread with various stuffings of vegetables, paneer and kheema, fresh out of the tandoor and crushed to serve. Usually, it is served with dal and a salad and dollops of butter on top. A cholesterol attack, no doubt, but worth every penny. You really wouldn’t mind having a heart attack after this!!:)

 

  1. Chole kulche.

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This ever green dish, which seems to be the staple of Delhi, I tasted , on our way to Agra. The kulche are fried and served with a curry of chickpeas. On a cold winter morning, when you are shivering under your warmest clothes, this is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The Taj seems more beautiful on a tummy filled with this breakfast!

  1. The flavoured matka lassis.

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I always associated lassi with the Punjab. But Delhi has special matka lassis.Having cold lassi in cold weather has a charm of its own. Especially when the lassi come in multiple flavours. From plain sugared and strawberry to exotic ones like litchi, blueberry and kiwi, served in mud pots, and topped with a sprig of mint. Forgive me for the horrible pic. It is difficult to concentrate on a good angle when all you can think of is the taste!

  1. Chaat.

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On the road leading to Jamma masjid, there are many shops which sell chaat and actually make you scared of the Delhi belly.The surroundings are so filthy and crowded, that you are left wondering whether you made the right choice. Each and every shop selling chaat seemed to have a huge crowd around it. This bolstered our confidence to wade our way through the crowd and eat! As they say, victory goes to those who persevere.  The dahi ballas, the alu tikki, fruit chaat, the ram laddoo and of course the gol gappa were mouth watering and thankfully safe on the tummy!

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Many of these foods may have had their origin in one of the eight cities that Delhi was before. And been concieved and executed by the khansamas of the royal kitchen. And through the chaos and the destruction, they survived to make Delhi what it is today. Fascinating, steeped in history and amazingly delicious!

A monsoon day in Agumbe.

 

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Early in the morning

 

Visiting a rainforest has always been on my wish list. One of my childhood fantasies  (fueled by Robin Cook’s Congo), was to discover something unique and useful, like some magic herb or a new species of animal, watching giant man eating plants in their gory splendor, living off fresh forest produce, finding beautiful waterfalls and living in handmade tree houses or old forgotten log cabins. Sort of Tarzan, Anaconda and Robinhood rolled into one. Of course as age and logic grew, (or so I would like to assume, atleast in the case of logic), the fantasies sobered down to real ones of camping in the wilds keeping as much distance as possible from the reptile species!

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Most of these ideas used to float around in my brain when we would be travelling between destinations and all that was available to see out the car or bus window would be dark, unpenetrable forests for miles on end. Those were times when cars had rudimentary stereos, buses were basic and we did not have the luxury of earphones!

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can you spot the waterfall far far away

Travelling from Mangalore to Shimoga entailed crossing the Western ghats from Agumbe. This was one leg of the journey which was considered with a bit of apprehension. We would make sure to climb down the mountains when there was broad daylight, and kids would be asked to sit quiet for the fear of disturbing the driver. We would suddenly see some animals in the wild, darting across the road in a blink and you miss kind of way, probably as startled by us, as we were of them.  Over  years of deforestation, the stretch became infamous more for the Naxal movement rather than the wild animals crossing our paths.

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Is it not a great place for a tree house? 

 

 

As kids, the half hour journey down the ghats would seem twice as long and scary. This was probably why I failed to appreciate the wonder existing right before my eyes, all the while fantasizing about something way beyond.

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a hair pin bend
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Agumbe lake

Now the forests are threadbare, and there seem to be noisy people and plastic strewn around everywhere. But come monsoon, every year, the Western ghats become a sight of abundant lush green beauty. I now understand at least a bit of the anxiety with which the environmentalists rue the the loss the natural habitats. To lose such beauty to deforestation seems a crime deserving life imprisonment. And paradoxically, this makes Agumbe more beautiful for me. I feel that I should savor its beauty for as long as we allow it to be, and try in any possible way to help preserve a gem existing literally in our backyards before we lose it forever.

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Agumbe is a small village nestled in the midst of the Western ghats in Shimoga district of Karnataka. Till recently, it owned the unique distinction of being called the “Chirapunji of the south”, because it received the highest rainfall in the whole of South India. A title it seems to be fast losing, due to declining rainfall in this region.

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Agumbe village

The forest is home to about  150 species of frogs and 85 of snakes  (who knew there were so many types) and still counting. Apart from these, it is home to other animals like monkeys, langurs , hornbills, leopards and flying lizards.

The village has a rustic charm and seems to be stuck in a time warp, only broken by the addition of kurkure packets of varied colors hanging from most tiny shops! This charm made for its choice as the famous “Malgudi” in R.K.Narayan’s famous serial Malgudi days.

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The house where Malgudi days was shot

This time, when I got a chance to go to Mangalore, I was prepared. To enjoy the green and the charm that is Agumbe. And enjoy I did.  I now wish for a log cabin in Agumbe, where I am doing some ecological conservation work. Me and my day dreams!

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Fun things to know about Ladakh.

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Three months after I took a trip to Ladakh, I had a serious  case of nostalgia over the weekend. I have discovered that after any holiday, there are a few special things which stick around in my mind. The rest of the memories slowly, lazily, fade away leaving behind these interesting bits and pieces which turn into symbols of that holiday. Sort of, like watching the highlights of a cricket match and remembering only that exact ball and wicket that led to the win!

So also, in the case of our holiday to Ladakh, where well wishers fed us with stories about the difficult terrain and people dying because of the all too famous mountain sickness! When we actually reached, half scared half excited, it was an anticlimax. We found the place welcoming, beautiful, safe, chilly (which was welcome because it was blistering hot back home) and luckily, experienced very little ill health or wooziness!

Seven days disappeared before we knew it, and the land and its people embraced us so warmly that we felt a wee little bit Ladakhi at heart, by the time we returned. Though remote in a lot of ways and sans the most traditional (pun intended) forms of entertainment like malls, fast internet and cinemas, we happened to have most fun exploring Ladakh and learning her ways like….

Julley.

The ladakhi are known to be a very friendly race and the friendship starts with a “Julley”, which is a blanket term for  “Hi, Whats up?, How are you doing ?, How’s life ?” and anything else that falls into the category of a greeting. The meaning is circumstance based, rather than rigid. So simple, yet so beautiful. Importantly, easy for us toursists, who find it difficult to run our tongues around difficult, lispy tibetian words. Learn one word, and work miracles as a conversation starter! In a span of seven days, I said ‘Julley’ more times than I did ‘Namaste’ in the past year of my life! To the driver, our guide,the shopkeeper, the vendor on the road, my tour mates(till the novelty wore off) and to any stranger! No one found it strange and returned the greeting with grace and a warm smile!

This made me want to try harder to learn some more, and ended up with “Thuk che che”, which is thank you. Not much more! The people and the language make a nice contrast, as the language sounds harsh but the people look friendly!

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The unpredictable weather.

There is a saying in ladakhi which goes “Never trust a vendor’s promise, a girl’s mind and the ladakhi weather- all three change colors fast”. Though the feminist in me wants to snip off the “girl” part, I can mostly agree on the other two! Especially the weather! You never know what to wear when you tour Ladakh. I browsed through books and websites telling me what to carry, before I packed. Half of my luggage was filled with sweaters and caps of various sizes and shapes- one for little cold, one for moderate and one for really cold! Armed with this arsenal, I felt pretty confident that I could conquer the weather and its whimsies! Little did I know that the weather would beat me to it! What started off as a warm day suddenly turned very windy, and vice versa. Heck, just walking out from direct sunlight into the shade would lower the temperature by significant degrees! Well, to make the long story short, I landed up wearing atleast three layers of clothing and repeatedly peeling them off or putting them on – and looking a minimum of three sizes too big in all the photographs! I learnt the hard way that “layering” only looks good in fashion magazines and is not meant for mere mortals like us!

 

The funky Tees

Well, one of the most important assignments on any trip is the shopping for the extended family that we have left behind in the pursuit of satisfying our travel lust! Aargh,the apparent selfishness of this act makes me want to buy some more, to appease them and beg forgiveness!

T shirts with “My mom/brother/uncle…went to so and so place and only got me this t shirt” which were cute about a century ago, never much appealed to me. But Leh has something unique to offer in this respect. The market place is strewn with shops which actually embroider funky stuff on to t shirts of different sizes! Their savvies lie in the fact that they take orders by the day and deliver them the next, with the embroidery that you want! No prizes for guessing what I got for my entire family!

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Thanks Punegetaways for the click which I did not remember to take!

The jewellery.

Through the week, there was not one time that I saw people wearing anything made of gold. The traditional tibetian jewellery uses silver, wood, bronze and bark inlaid with semi precious stones, corals and beads. From roadside flea markets to shops which store the more valuable pieces, we saw some of the most exquisite craftmanship. Turquoise, which is found in the mountain ranges of Tibet- is one of the most common stone used- in the making of filigree ornaments, earrings, necklaces, and jewellery boxes with intricate inlay.

The experience of shopping in stores is also unique. Most traders are nostalgic Kashmiris, who have difficulty in adjusting their mindscape to the barrenness of Leh after growing up in the lush pastures of Kashmir. They work for six months of the tourist season and migrate back home for the winters.

Once the trader realizes that the buyer is serious, he offers hot kahwa and a chat, till the customer finishes deliberating. By the time you are through with the free kahwa, the hole in your pocket is threatening to grow to enormous proportions!

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The whole brouhaha about altitude sickness.

Exactly opposite to Voldemort and in equal proportion, is the scare about Mountain sickness. For the uninitiated,’ Acute mountain sickness’ is a syndrome caused by the thinning oxygen levels in the atmosphere when at high altitudes. The symptoms range anything from shortness of breath to no breath at all! It takes some amount of acclimatizing to withstand it.

Now, before we set foot into Ladakh, the travel company gave us so many pointers to start diuretics (as a preventive measure) that we started to wonder if the pharmaceutical company was working hand in glove with the travel one, to promote their product. Each one of us had atleast three strips of the drug!

Then came the pro travelers with horror stories of people dying on the trip.

Followed by the Leh airport authorities- who play the symptoms and warning signs of mountain sickness on a loop,religiously, on loudspeakers , in between flight announcements.

We almost developed psychological breathlessness, because we thought that we had live up to their expectations!

Jokes apart, yes, mountain sickness did exist. We got exhausted faster and found ourselves gasping for breath after climbing a single flight of stairs,but that was about it. Over two days, we managed to conquer most of it.

The trick is to drink a lot of water, pop in the diuretic and take as many toilet breaks as you want into basic but functional pit toilets, with your breath held and eyes closed ! A feat which you will no doubt learn over time! After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

Ladakh in many ways, is not the ideal luxury destination for a break. It is harsh, barren and basic. But when the holiday includes fresh mountain air (though scantily), clear skies with a gazillion stars and the company of amazing friends, the whole holiday becomes priceless.

These are my memories from Ladakh. Have you learnt anything fun there?

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Monsoon, yet again!

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It is that time of the year again. This morning, I opened my eyes my eyes to heavy grey skies. Granted that the monsoon has officially entered India about a month ago. But just like a painting whose beauty cannot be appreciated at the beginning, and develops gradually over time, so also the monsoon!

After one wave of heavy rains, its fury had abated for sometime. Giving room for the green to bloom.

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I feel that the rains have moods and feelings. And so also, the place where it rains. For example, I have experienced the rain in London. (Thinking about it, that’s the only country apart from India,where I have experienced the rain). London looks gloomy, upset and sort of ill when it rains. As if it is in a surly mood.

But in India, it is a different story. The rain positively makes everything bloom. And glow. And happy. And Vibrant. I could go on. The green seems to materialize from anywhere and everywhere. Like the cracks between the road and in the walls of dilapidated buildings. Like the green layer of moss that grows on the zinc sheet roofing. Entwined, on the electric poles. On the barks of half dead rotting tree trunks.

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Different shades of green. Literally like a “habba” as they say in kannada. A festival of sorts. Celebrating the arrival of the rains.

Granted that persistent rains have some associated nuisance value too. Especially in a city.Think dirty pavements, dengue ridden puddles, the wet smell of clothes which refuse to dry and muddy footprints on your just mopped floor.

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But just getting out of the city, you experience a seachange in the way you enjoy the rain. Pristine green countryside, green expanse of farms and fields extending into the horizon and waterfalls abound.

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All you feel like is to cycle to some place far far away, settle down under some random tree, listen to good music and watch the rain kiss the earth. Bliss!

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Enjoy the pics and have a great weekend!

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Picture perfect- a photo blog of Ladakh.

It’s been over a month since I went to Ladakh, but its spell does not seem to show signs of abating anytime soon. The minute I get some time on my own, I end up closing my eyes and reliving its beauty.Dragging the memories out from the crevices of my brain and savouring it, repeatedly,like a cow chewing cud! Ladakh is a phenomenally photogenic place. Even the most basic camera can capture frames so amazing that you end with a false sense of pride as a photographer. Sharing with you, a few of my favorite sights.

  1. The view of the Sangam.
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The sangam of the Indus and Zanskar.

The sight of the River Indus converging with the River Zanskar is breathtaking. The Indus coming from China,a bright turquoise green ribbon, abruptly merges with the muddy brown of the Zanskar. Every sangam that I have seen has been replete with a temple, priests and is invariably polluted. What makes this sangam special, is that it is free of all trappings. Absolutely. There is nothing around save a small building which doubles up as a canteen and a ticket counter for rafting.

  1. Each and every view during the one hour rafting.

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Though most people sign up for the more exciting and adventurous wild water rafting, I totally recommend the slower variety. Just gliding over the Zanskar listening to the rhythmic splish splash of the oars, gazing at the huge mountains, maneuvering the sharp turns between the crevices of the mountains and experiencing the otherwise absolute silence is an unforgettable experience.

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Gliding away along the Zanskar

 

  1. Nubra valley.
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The dunes of Nubra.
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An ice cold and picturesque stream in the heart of the valley.

Descending from the Khardungla Pass, is a place akin to the mythical Shangri-La. You are suddenly witness to a valley which is breathtakingly beautiful and full of natural treasures as well as manmade ones! The grey sand dunes of Nubra are home to the Bactrian camels (or the double humped ones) which were a part of the famous Silk Route.

The accommodation at Nubra is given in luxury tents. Having never camped before, this makes for an interesting experience, though the tents were actually more luxurious than many hotels! What makes the stay great is the view that greets you at any time of the day or night. The view of the huge hundred foot Buddha atop the mountains or the view of a million stars in the inky black of the night, it seems as though you are caught in some wonderful dream which you do not ever want to wake up from.

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My first experience of camping.

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  1. The Diskit monastery.

The travel brochures often show a picture of the Diskit monastery covered in snow. What they do not show is the fact that the monastery is perched atop a huge cliff edge,which seems near impossible to climb up on.And appears quite forbidding. As though the monks meant for us mere mortals, to stay away from its hallowed portals. Home to thousands of monks,it also gives a view of the huge Future Buddha who can be seen in his full splendor right across from its windows. What a sight it must be to wake up to!

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Wonder how they even built this place!
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To get things in perspective,the tiny Budha on top is actually a hundred foot tall, and the tiny yellow you spot across, is the beginning of the Diskit monastery!
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Another view of Diskit

Already, tourism in Ladakh has increased exponentially over the years. Unfortunately, the concept of responsible tourism has not. Hope people visiting this pristine land realize the importance of leaving it exactly the way it is, for others to enjoy its beauty!

Have a beautiful weekend.

Describing the indescribable- Pangong Tso

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There are times in our life, when we are left searching for words to fill in a near adequate description. And failing. Pangong Tso, is one such experience. Whether to call it a lake or an experience is confusion enough. No adjective is adequate enough to describe the sight of it or the over whelming feeling that goes with it. Yet, let me try my best to tempt everyone to get rid of any inhibitions and get going on the next flight to Leh, before you get too old to combat the altitude sickness!

Not a journey meant for the queasy or soft bummed, a five hour drive on one of the scariest and weirdest roads lead you to Pangong Tso (by the way, ‘tso’ is lake in Ladakhi- and I really love the way it sounds, so Tso it is!). Weirdest because, the landscape changes from one extreme to the other within the span of a few kilometers.

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You just get used to seeing endless barren brown mountains, when with the sudden flick of nature’s fingers, you see really rocky ones (the kind that scare you of an avalanche). This is followed by snow capped peaks near the Changla pass, which is then replaced by dusty ones which blow sand storms. Suddenly, from nowhere are green closed valleys with boggy streams, which are home to handsome, sleek stallions –right in the middle of nowhere leading to nowhere! The valley then turns into a grey sandy desert followed by another green stretch filled with half mongoose half dog like creatures called marmots!Phew!

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Marmots!

 

 

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Boggy streams, with the horses far away!

 

The weather is equally quirky- as if playing with us! One moment you are huddled in sweaters with the windows of the car drawn up to the next, when you are fanning yourself hard with the sleeve of your sweater and then suddenly you are wishing fervently that you have not left your windcheater behind in the hotel!

The only solace all through the journey is provided by the driver stopping over at a small joint for some very much needed and equally yummy honey ginger tea near the Paagal Naala bridge( apparently called so, owing to the difficulty in assessing  the moods of the stream!).

Just when you are resigned to watching the whole spectrum of browns around you-BAM-you are zapped with a sudden sparkle of vibrant blue visible from between the mountains. A blue that is so dazzling that it blinds- the first sight of Pangong between the mountains.

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Pangong means “High Grassland Lake” in Tibetian. Situated between three lands, India, China and Tibet, we get only one third of the lake which then flows into Chinese territory. The line of Control runs somewhere in between the 134 kilometer long lake which is almost five kilometers at its broadest and situated about 14270 feet above sea level.

Seeing Pangong lake can turn an atheist into a staunch believer in God. I say this because, though most things appear to have a scientific backing, there are things which are so extra ordinary that they almost seem impossible.

Take for instance the fact that it is a SALT water lake! Apparently because there is no outlet for the water,  and so salt deposits have built up over the years.

Or the fact that though there are almost NO fish or aquatic creatures in the lake, there are hordes of Brahminy ducks, geese and sea gulls cackling around  looking extremely well fed and healthy! What do they even eat???

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Or the fact that the lake even got formed, because Ladakh gets almost no rain! So how did so much water happen to be?

And the best  lies in the changing colors of the lake which very much looks like the shade card of asian paints. Suddenly vibrant blue to suddenly green to turquoise and then a moody angry grey in a span of two hours –a visual feast.

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I can count atleast five shades of blue in this pic!

You suddenly realize that you are really miniscule in nature’s scheme of things, and begin to understand the vastness of the universe! Though there were a minimum of two hundred tourists around, there was such a sense of tranquility. The others seem so far away and no sound reaches you apart from the soft lapping of the crystal clear waters on the shore.

The only regret about the trip was that we could not stay back to see the sunrise or the sunset, which are supposed to be spectacular! And the fact that, at the beginning of the summer, the lake is still frozen enough that you can have dinner sitting on it (if you are willing to risk a frost bitten back side).

Nevertheless, Pangong Tso, seems as close to heaven as it gets…or probably is actually a small piece of heaven that God sent for us as a sample! Truly, the indescribable!

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A lesson in simplicity from the land of Julley-Leh.

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The first sight of the mountains from the plane-close enough to touch!

Nestled in the midst of a ring of mountains, belonging to the Kunlun region of the Greater Himalayas, is a land whose landscape and ethos are startling different from what we are.-Ladakh.Watching these people makes me feel a tad jealous- because they have mastered the art of living in the most barren and difficult of places without a complaint. Infact, with a smile and a julley(which is hello).

To say that the landscape is barren, would be an understatement. There are barely any trees or water bodies around. For around six months of the year, there is hardly anything to do, but bear the brunt of the weather. Children do not have school for almost four months, in lieu of the winter. Travel is tedious and fraught with the danger of avalanches and bad weather.

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But once you set foot into Leh, you are swept away by the magic that Ladakh is. I have always been a conformist –my idea of nature has been green, lush and abundant. Never in the wildest of my dreams had I imagined that I would include barren, rugged, and stark under the list marked beauty! But then, Ladakh does that to you.

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A place where monasteries dot craggy peaks, the sun shines blindingly bright and all you can see are mountains in varied hues of brown!

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Monasteries right on top of the mountains
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Higher than the monasteries are the living quarteres of the monks

Amidst all this, are the people who are so unassuming, simple and endearing. Going around, we found that there are no glamorous displays of wealth that we are so used to seeing around. All houses looked the same-boxed with wooden windows-basic and minimalistic.

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Most food is barley, cooked in different forms-as bread, stew and beer! Most people rely on tourism for their livelihood. There are no mobile networks for large stretches of land and hardly any hospitals around. But going by the happy pink cheeked faces, you would hardly guess that people lived in such hardship.

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We had the opportunity to visit a Ladakhi home for dinner. The hosts had kept their ancestral home intact-built of mud, stone and wood. The house was three storied, but mainly because of necessity. One floor for living, the one below for storing (you guessed right-barley) and the one above for praying! Apart from the rudimentary but sturdy apparatus for cooking, there was hardly any furniture around.

The only excess was seen in the prayer room which was filled with huge masks, head gear, cymbals and conches- as though the simplicity of their life was compensated for, by their extravagance in praying. Maybe because they have to live at the mercy of nature, they tend to invoke the Gods with as much vigour as possible.

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Apart from this world of difference, the basic concerns of the people seem the same. The lady of the house was taking in tourists to support her children’s education. Huddled in her living room, with hot cups of butter tea, we watched, as her daughter performed a traditional dance for us (albeit in her PJs).Her face glowed when we clapped and praised her child’s performance. She spoke about the long commute her children had to undertake to reach school, and how despite this, her daughter comes first in class.

Experiencing Ladakh does many things to you at a visceral level. You come back changed imperceptibly outside, rather deep inside. You learn to be comfortable with silence. You learn to accept life, as it is without frills and fancy. You learn to calm down. You lose the unnecessary sense of urgency cultivated with years of hurried living. Mostly, you learn a lesson in simplicity. That come what may, you can be happy with the bare minimum that life gives you, and the happy sound of Julley.

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Five special things about Gangtok.

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After the muggy heat of Kolkatta, the anticipation of climbing through the mountains for a glimpse of the Himalayas is tantalising. As a prelude to its beauty, we see beautiful tea estates just outside the airport of Bagdogra, the closest airport to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim.

Twisty, winding, uphill roads and a slowly changing landscape from the flat plains crowded with villages, to the mountains awash with fresh rains and a chill wind, increase my anticipation. More so because, I have been told by trip advisor that the hotel that we have booked into, gives us a direct view of the “Kanchendzonga” , as she is called locally. I am waiting for an uninhibited view of the mighty mountain, which caught my fancy when I saw it in Darjeeling long long ago.

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Our visit to Gangtok, though a very short one left indelible memories. This was one of the first times that we had ventured into a North Eastern state, and had no idea of what to expect.Not only was our holiday enjoyable, we ended up learning very new things about the people and place, so different from us in culture, but still bound by a common country.

Five of the most unique things which made Gangtok special for me were:

1.The churpi.

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As we entered Gangtok, the first thing that struck me was the amazing capacity of the drivers (some as young as eighteen, but look younger still) who manouvered  with ease, huge vehicles, on almost ninety degree inclines. Narrow roads, which are two way streets and also double up as pedestrian walks, make for slightly scary viewing. Our driver, a sprightly eighteen year old revealed to us the secret of his alertness- apparantely, a weird kind of chew called Churpi. Made of yak milk, it can be chewed on for hours together, and works the way betel nut works for us, people down south! Unfortunately, the taste of it, is not something that you can get used to, and one tiny cube of churpi lasted me about two hours of trying to analyse the flavours and failing! I had to rest my poor mouth for atleast an hour from all the chewing!

2. The cleanliness

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Gangtok is a quaint town with a population of about a lakh of people. The whole town is built on the incline of a hill. Apart from being the only state which has adopted organic farming, it also appears to be a state which takes its cleanliness pretty seriously. Even the back alleys of the the town have barely any trash lying abandoned on the roads.

Where else would you find quaintly painted bus shelters, roads lined religiously with flowers and parks hidden in the middle of two mountain roads?

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3. The profusion of flowers.

Though Sikkim is famous for orchids, there are other flowers which bloom in gay abandon and look so pretty, that they almost look fake. None of the pictures have filters, and  though hard to believe, all the pics are of real flowers. Even the roads are lined with flower pots!

 

4. A new kind of market

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The M G market is the hub of most activity, situated at the center of the town. But, a chance discovery led us to the Lal Market – which is a huge shopping mall cum cinema cum vegetable market cum parking place. It seemed like everything under the sun including a whole floor dedicated to rows and rows of tailors who stitch up almost anything, was available! The grocery stores lined up an interesting array of stuff- rows of stringy spaghetti, churpi, different kinds of lentils, noodles and sweets lined up in neat rows.

5. The elusive Kanchenjunga

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Over the next few days, though we saw the Himalayas up close and personal, the Kanchenjunga remained elusive. Staring hard could only give me a faint glimpse of it, and in a flash even that would dissappear! When you wake up to the Himalayas every day, maybe, just maybe, you get so used to it that it ceases to be a wonder, but I really envied the people of Gangtok their view, if nothing else! If you get used to the view of the mountains, and find it non exciting, then watching the city at night is yet another experience you get to compensate for the loss. The whole hill looks lit up with fairy lights and smells of thukpa and momos being cooked. The warm smells of the food wafting from tiny windows of closely lined homes, the biting chill in the air and silence leaves you in a state of stupor that you never want to break! Ah, for the peace!

 

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A walk down the lanes of history – Kolkata

I have always loved history. Somehow, it has the power to enthrall, excite and make me humble all at once. I think the interest developed because we had a teacher in school who had immense talent for making history interesting. It wasn’t only about battle dates and mugging. It was more like watching a“Troy” or “Gladiator” or “Jodha Akbar”every day in school. Hence, I have always loved places which have history entwined in their existence, much more than shiny new skyscrapers and state of the art technology.

I had been to Kolkata; then Calcutta, when in school. The only images that stayed in my mind out of that trip were ones of intense heat, grime, people washing themselves nonchalantly on the roadside in the middle of busy midday traffic and hordes of people trampling over my feet in the temples. Little wonder then, that I was not so keen on Kolkata as a holiday destination.

Summer holidays bring out the wanderlust in me. It’s a time when I can take off and wander with a legitimate excuse that I need to take my kids out for a holiday. So this year, when we decided to see Sikkim, our transit halt had to be Kolkata. This time though,I was blown away- both by the heat and the place;).

If there was Satyajit Ray’s house at one corner of the street, Mirza Ghalib stayed at the other when he came to seek his pension. We saw the first newspaper printing press of India, the place where Ronald Ross first discovered the life cycle of the malarial parasite, the first office of the East India Company, The first supreme Court of India, the town hall where J C Bose displayed his experiments to the world, Swami Vivekananda’s room ,the Eden gardens and much more in just one day!

It was as if I was taking a walking tour through India’s turbulent past, albeit in much more calmer circumstances! Every road, every lane and every building reeked history. It looked as if the youngest building was almost a hundred years old. And had some great name associated with it!

There is a laid back vibe to the place, which is endearing. No one seems much bothered by the fact that there is so much history lying around.They just go about doing their work. It’s all so matter of fact.Like our driver who says “ Oh, we’ll just take the turn on the road near Netaji bhavan” kind. Takes you a moment to realize that the Netaji is Subhash Chandra Bose!

There is no way I can capture what I saw and imbibed in Kolkata in one blog post. There is so much I want to share about the place, which is an amazing amalgamation of history, mythology,revolution,sport and culture. Hence, I thought I will share my best six experiences of Kolkata.

  1. Visiting the Mother House.

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This is a given, as I have idolized Mother Teresa ever since I was a kid. Her ideology of offering “Death with Dignity” was a major influence on me wanting to get into a profession which involved caring for the diseased. When in school, I was a huge fan of the Tinkle comic. The address of Mother house was mentioned in one of the issues. On a whim, I wrote a letter to Mother Teresa indicating my desire to become a nurse (well, that was my first ambition!). It was written in the spirit of the summer holidays when I had nothing better to do and there was no cable tv, and I completely forgot about it, till one day a letter arrived for me from the Mother herself, encouraging me to take up the profession of caring! I was over the moon, and a mini celebrity for a while at home.

When I saw her spartan room with a writing desk and a small neatly made bed, I imagined her writing that letter to me sitting in that room! It was a transcendental experience.

We got to meet Sister Prema, who is in charge of Mother house now, after Sister Nirmala’s death. A nun from Germany, she gamely obliged when we asked for photographs with her. Definitely, the highlight of my day!

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  1. The Netaji Bhavan

During our struggle for independence,one of , if not the most controversial freedom fighters was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His death and the mystery surrounding it has always fascinated me. With the furore regarding the declassification of his files in  recent times, I was intrigued as to why he was so very important.

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Well, as an answer to my questions, and to add fuel my craving for the romantic, we saw the Netaji Bhavan, aka Subhash Chandra Bose’s home before he fled from India. The two floors of his house have been preserved intact. The bed chambers of the two brothers with their slippers, umbrellas and pristine white dhotis lying just so,give you goosebumps. The museum contains documents and photographs of his times. I was surprised to know that he was extremely widely traveled and hobnobbed with most dignitaries of those times. The British Government’s letter which gave permission for his assassination by two British officers and his escape route from the house in his car have been well depicted. With his speeches playing in the background, and seeing the house intact as it were in those days, would definitely bring out the patriot in any one of us!

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  1. A ride along the River Hoogly

Thanks to road repair work, we took the boat (called the Bhutbhuti)to ferry us from  Belur Math to the Dakshineshwar temple. This, in fact turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. I would go so far as to recommend it, even if the road was functioning well! It was a half hour ride, watching the people on the river bank go about their business of living, taking bath right in the open, praying, smoking beedies and swimming. Seeing the room in which Swami Vivekananda lived on one bank of the river and the small room in which Ramakrishna Paramahamsa stayed at the other is inspiring.With the Howrah bridge in the background, many temples dotting the shoreline, the wind in your hair and sudden splashes of the waters of Hoogly, it is a great experience!

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  1. The institute of Tropical medicine.

I had recently read The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, and so this place came alive for me. In small letters , on the side walls are names of bigwigs including Ronald Ross. This was the place where the life cycle of the malarial parasite was discovered and where Robert Koch discovered that the bacteria causing cholera was comma shaped!

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  1. A stroll along Park Street

Any holiday of mine is incomplete without good food and books. Everyone from the hotel staff to our tour guide to the driver to a passerby recommended Park street for food.The street is a vision at night. There are hotels from one end to the other, starting with “Trincas”, a bar where the famous Usha Uthup started her career. The street is brightly lit, the atmosphere is festive,and  each time any door opens onto the street, heavenly aromas of food waft through and tempt you to go in. Huge long waiting lines outside each restaurant are the only hitch. But you will definitely not mind as each bylane has an amazing array of street foods like puchkas, kathi rolls and biryanis. There are famous places for savory deserts as well like Flurys, Mio Amore etc.

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And the icing on the cake is the Oxford book house, which has a café on the second floor where you can browse and watch the world going by while sipping on a cuppa. Must do for all food and book lovers!

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There were many more things to do and see, but as I had not anticipated falling in love with Kolkata, I had kept very little time to spend. Back home, I’m repenting it and eagerly awaiting my next visit to the City Of Joy!