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Khirganga. Trek through apple blossoms, waterfalls and hot spring heaven

Khirganga. Trek through apple blossoms, waterfalls and hot spring heaven

It is that season again. When the snow melts enough to let the green grass sprout but still glistens in the distant peaks. And Parvati Valley springs to spring with long stretches of apple blossoms. In short, the best time to do that trek to Khirganga. A slightly steep, slightly slushy but much mushy 7-8 hours of up hill through some stunning valley views and a few thunderous waterfalls.

Start your trip in Kasol. A deviation from the Bhuntar airport, near Kullu, Kasol takes around 12 hours from Delhi by road. Spend the day doing the Manikaran Gurdwara, the many little shops, and of course the eclectic cafes. This used to be a haunt by many Israeli tourists at one time, but with the crowd discovering this over the last decade or so, they seemed to have moved up to smaller villages called Chalal, or Tosh. Still they have left some good food behind. Do the Jim Morrison cafe for some taste of the Bohemia that they left behind.

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Manikaran Gurdwara

If you do not wish to stay in the many hotels in Kasol before the trek, then a good place to camp is in the village of Barshiani. Just near the river, from the base of where the climb to the trek starts.

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Barshiani village. A good place to camp

Starting from Barshiani, the trek is around 9 to 10 kilometers. The last village you will come across on this trek is Sagar Nakthan. Ask the locals around. There is a slightly off track path for about a kilometer or so, just before this village. It has some stunning apple blossoms this time of the year. I caught it by chance as I followed a shepherd with his bleating force, on my way down. And I kicked myself for missing this on my way up.

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Apple blossoms and a view

Till Rudra Nag, which is almost half way up,  the trek is fairly easy. Strenuous only because you are still climbing up, but it is not really steep. One comes across a temple, a gorgeous waterfall, and a food stall. Make sure to catch your breath, snatch a snack or Maggi and some solitude at this point, because the next lot of climb is going to get very steep. And if it has rained, as it did during my climb, be sure to get some skids and slush on your way up.

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View of the steep climb from a tent in Rudra Nag, as we waited for the rain to stop.

After this point, there will be around 3 to 4 food and tea halts, till you reach Khirganga. There are times when the path suddenly gives way to a very narrow ledge. At such points, the best way to cross is to continue looking forward. Because looking sideways or down is only going to make you stop. Having said that, I did see a couple, in slippers, with a 5 year old girl, carry on, without a worry.

Once on the top, there are a few food shops and places to stay or plonk your sleeping bag in. With some beyond -grand views and the famous hot springs.  While many choose to stay at the shops, a great alternative is camping. You can pitch it away from whatever crowd has decide to stay back for the night, pick up on some easily available driftwood, make a small fire outside, and drop all baggage.

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My little big tent at Khirganga and me

And then, carry your little swim wear to the hot springs, and get yourself an evening to remember.To be able to go and soak up the sulphur springs after this long walk, while you stare at the snow clad peaks surrounding you, is an experience that no blog would be able to do justice. In one word, it is priceless.I was too busy splashing around, to remember to click. While the men’s section has open sides, the women’s section is nicely covered, just enough for privacy. But not as much to block the view. Just remember to carry spare clothes and a handy towel.

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Hot springs, Khirganga. Image courtesy- Google.

Start early the next day, if you want to get back by early afternoon. Or spend the morning grabbing some more of the sights. We had rain predicted, so we grabbed a hearty breakfast and started quite early. Even with post rain slush, way down is way easier. Find your pace, and stop by some views and some humor.

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Many shades of spring. On way to Khirganga

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Hear hear

And last of all, do not forget to take a bright selfie in the tent, as the wind freezes your little fire outside.

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Tent-fie

 

 

 

 

Trek to Malana

Trek to Malana

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This is a fabled Himalayan village living in denial of it’s current sad state.

March of 2016, I happened to trek up to the much- hyped and much- hushed ancient village of Malana. Nestled among big daunting hills deep inside Parvati Valley in the Kullu region, this village at one time was completely cut away from civilization. Now, thanks to the dam project Malana Hydro Power station, the village has some access and more regular ins and outs. Shrouded in many fascinating stories the village has gained notoriety among the weed lovers for it’s superior quality and superbly expensive Malana cream, and among the curious trekkers for it’s snobbish arrogance, aloof behavior and fabled progeny. And while I will touch upon all the fables and the snob that one would find in the air, this blog post is mostly about something else. It is about the disappointment I carried back with me. Of what I felt and saw while walking through the village. That this once beautiful village is now living in the past and its perceived glory, with little or no motivation to make any progress. And carrying on living amidst a demonic and growing plastic filth everywhere the eye can see.

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View from a distance, as one climbs up

But let’s start with what is beautiful. From a distance, it is a beautiful little village with a beautiful little climb. On a semi- cloudy day, it is a pleasant sight during the short but steep trek. It will take about an hour or a bit more, from the last gate  [ which is quite a drive in, from the Malana Hydro project gate]. Once you get down to the river and cross it, be prepared to take the big, small, steep steps in, one at a time. And be sure to keep looking up and around, for some lovely views.

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Seems like a stairway to heaven

The other beautiful thing about Malana is the view from the top, once you reach cross the village and make it to the top. It is totally worth the climb.

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View from Malana

The next beautiful or rather fascinating thing about this village, is the story that goes around. One story goes thus- that the village was founded by remnants of Alexander the great’s army. Hence all the descendants are Greek. Another fable suggests that the village was established by Jamlu Rishi, and they are all decedents of the Aryans. Jamblu devta is still the residing god of the village and outsiders are not allowed to even touch the temple walls. The deity still controls the village administration through a village council, who are believed to be the delegates of Jamblu.

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The ancient Jamblu devta temple

The temple stands as the prime attraction in the village center where most of the village functions- like marriage, or festivals take place. It looks like the ancient structures one would find in Bhaktapur Nepal. On an uneventful day, one can see the men of the village, old and young,  lazing around in what seems like a sweet hash haze, soaking up the sun. While the women go about chopping woods, washing clothes, carrying water or chasing after children.

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Village center, Malana

The village does have a very different and distinct dialect. It is called Kanashi [ or the dialect of the devils, who resided there long ago]. The language is understood only by the villagers and is not similar to the languages spoken by the neighbors. The village also happens to be an independent democratic republic and they do not abide by the  Indian constitution. It is believed to have received the independent status by emperor Akbar, who found a cure for a certain disease he was suffering from, and since then, has been a separate democracy.

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While that was the fancy past let’s look at the present day Malana. And it gives me no pleasure in featuring this side of this otherwise pretty little place perched on top of a handsome hill. There is plastic filth everywhere. As you approach the village, and cross the gorgeous waterfall into the start of the village, the first dump hits your senses.  And then it is an assault. It hits your eyes, your nose, the beautiful picture that you had built in your head about the greek/aryan/snooty village carrying on from time immemorial. All of this comes to a screeching halt. As a familiar Lays wrapper, or a Coca Cola bottle bounces into your footstep. The interesting thing is, the village is perfectly carrying on with their daily chores with all the filth lying around. No adult tries to pick up anything. No child is chided for throwing things right where they are eating or standing, and no dustbins are found.

Add to this the smugness of the villagers. They believe that people who do not belong to Malana are inferior to the people of the village. Which is why, they do not like being touched by outsiders, nor do they let them touch the village walls, huts, or serve people any food in non-disposable utensils. It is almost like the people here do not know the concept of progress, evolution or better living. While I did IMG_0678spot quite a few satellite television antennas, and healthy mobile phone penetration, the village has a ramshackle school, where apparently children go and come as they please. A teacher comes from an outside village, and barely manages to do the basics. There are a few shops selling sweets and other packaged goods like the popular brands that the outside world munches on – from chocolates to chips to carbonated drinks-but they seem to be run mostly by people from other villages. Who make the journey in and out of the village everyday.

I happened to chat up with the guy who owns and runs the only cafe- located right at the top of the village- just outside the village boundary. This man hails from Haryana, and has been doing business there during the season. According to him, the people are happy the way things are, living with the feeling of superiority, learning things like ‘ don’t touch our walls’ and protecting the hash heritage. It is like they are in denial of the fact that there can be anything better than hanging onto their own fables.

After spending a few blissful hours at the cafe, watching the spectacular views from the top, I made my way back down, through the village and the filth. And again felt the familiar pang. Of seeing a beautiful jewel rot away due to the neglect of humans. Of letting nature bear the burden of our ignorance and greed. This could have been a beautiful protected site of  mystery and history,  but is now a den of disappointments.

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Malana village from the top

I hope people keep trekking up to this village. And people keep creating content and awareness about this place, till legitimate and genuine bodies can talk and negotiate their way in, to be able to strike a balance between protecting what the villagers want to protect, and the natural habitat.  As for me, while I was carrying my heavy heart down, I happened to walk past a few village girls on their way up. And as I flashed a tentative smile, I did notice a pair of blue eyes [Aryan/Greek?] crinkle up and flash a smile back.

That was all I needed, to feel a little bit of hope.

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View from the top, after crossing the village border

 

 

The Valley of Flowers trek

The Valley of Flowers trek

the-valley-of-adventure-6 Till my early adulthood, I had no clue that Valley of Flowers existed.

I was 8. Maybe 9. My father gave me an Enid Blyton on my birthday. The Valley of Adventure. My first maybe. I was a slow child. When the fast ones were already reading Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, I was happily lounging around the Noddy and Fairy Tales aisle in the library hour. So Enid Blyton’s novels were quite the upgrade for me. I took to it skeptically. And I got addicted to it without a warning.

As I stayed glued to the pages, through school and homework, I read about this amazing adventure in a valley in Austria. That traveled across some abandoned villages that had been burnt down, during war. That stretched across a valley with gigantic waterfalls, acres of green, many patches of wild flowers and undulating hills. And about hidden treasures deep inside the mountain. That could be reached through fascinating caves. The ice caves. Where there were stalagmites and stalactites. One that formed from the roof of the caves, and the others that came up from the floor. Like beautiful sculptures, crafted with a fine hand and eternal patience.

This book gave birth to my bucket list, even before I knew the meaning of such a thing. And not just one. But two. The Valley of flowers. And the Ice caves. While the latter I did a few years ago, during my trip to Austria [ to be covered, somewhere in my blog], I just recently ticked off my first ever travel desire- the Valley of Flowers.

As I mentioned, till very late in my life, I did not know that such a place existed. And then a decade back, as the Internet was opening up things, a friend of mine had happened to make it to the valley. As he told me stories about the place, I knew that if there was a place that could look anything like I had imagined while reading the Valley of Adventure, it had to be this. And oh- so- right I was.

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Me and the Valley

The trek comes after a long journey to this place called Govindghat, in Uttaranchal. I had made my way from Delhi to Haridwar on a Saturday. And spent the day tucking in great food, watching Ganga aarti [ it was Janamashtami- Lord Krishna’s birthday] and doing some light shopping for the day.

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Ganga aarti. Haridwar

Sunday, early morning, at 6 am, I started my way up, towards Govindghat. It is a good 10 to 12 hours from Haridwar and can be quite exhausting. One can take shared taxis to Chamoli, and then change from there for Joshimath or Govindghat. I had booked myself with a trek operator, so I got picked up in a tempo traveler. With some merry strangers, coming all the way from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune.

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Devprayag

After various Aloo parantha and nimboo soda stops, we reached Govindghat around 5.30 in the evening. There are a few hotels in the small town, along with a Gurdwara. Most mobile operators fail to operate there. My troop and I stayed 2 kilometers further up, near a small village called Pandukeshwar- a village that has an ancient temple dedicated to the Pandavas. The hotel was right next to a thunderous river, and had good rooms. But the most delightful thing was running hot water. A good bath was like magic after the back- breaking 11 hour journey.

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Pandukeshwar

Next morning, we were to cover a sturdy 14 km from Govindghat to Ghangharia. out of which 4 had become car friendly. So we got ready for the 10 km trek, and started off around 7 am. There is also a helipad that operates a cute little helicopter. That ferries passengers from Govindghat to Ghangharia in just about 2 minutes.

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Govindghat to Ghangharia

So while we went about our long trek [ that took us approximately 7 hours], wesaw the chopper make busy trips every 10 minutes. The trek was tough in bits, but fulfilling.

The last 4 kilometers were quite steep, but I had kept myself well fueled with bananas and dates- high-octane fuel for treks. On top of that, I had tanked up on Maggi, as soon as I reached the heart of Bhyundar valley. There are shops in frequent intervals. So it is pointless to lug a large lunch pack, or a big water bottle. Mountain springs have been channelized in taps that gushed the tastiest freshest water ever. Needless to say, the view was breathtaking and the route was quite busy. Because Ghangharia is also the last stop before Hemkund Saheb- the holy place for Sikhs. So, one tends to encounter a lot of pilgrims, and yes, a lot of horse/pony dung.

 

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Thirsty trekker

As I reached Ghangharia around late afternoon, it started to drizzle. I met many merry sikhs, old and young, carrying on with “ wahe guru “ and big bright smiles. The drizzle had set a chill in, and I was thankful to reach the tiny hotel I was to stay for the next few days. A bucket of hot water and a hot meal later I was ready to explore the little town of Ghangharia.

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Ghangharia, from end of village

Ghangharia – nestled among gigantic mountains, is quite the small base camp, with tiny hotels, sweet shops, a medical store or two, a big Gurdwara, and some other amenity stores. Since the place had no mobile connection, the PCO booths do good business as travelers line up to call home. Electricity has reached this village a few years back.

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Documentary house

And the hotels thrive for like 6-8 months. Till it is time to shut down the village and go back to Govindghat or Joshimath, or even further down. There is a small documentary one can watch on Valley of flowers, run by a local NGO, that takes care of cleanliness in the region. After exploring a bit, I was ready to hit the bed by 8 pm. Next day, I was starting at 6 am.

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As you enter the valley

After a good meal of porridge and poha, my day started at 6. 30 am. And I came back tired and happy by 6 in the evening. In those 11-12 hours, I got lost in a world right out of the pages of Enid Blyton.

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Bright and beautiful

No words or pictures can do real justice. The place is so vast and sprinkled with bounties of nature that it is almost meditative. In early September, we managed to catch around 25 kinds of bloom. It wasn’t enough for a greedy botanist I am sure, but for a tired city- heart like me, it was paradise.

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The white bloom

I climbed steep incline, rested under a big rock, crossed many rushing waterfalls and streams, walked for ages through dense beds of flowers and foliage, without seeing a single person till as far as eyes can see. Stopped million times, to click or just take in the view, or sniff the fragrant air.

IMG_8516Lazed around on a green patch looking at white tufts of cotton clouds drift by, before further continuing towards the river bed. The point where every trekker soaks their tired feet in the ice cold water, and takes in the magnitude of nature in some much needed rest. This was my lunch point.

IMG_8749I rested, ate the picnic lunch and start heading back towards Ghangharia [ the gates to the valley close by 6 pm]. Tired, dirty and with a mind fresh with nothing but pretty images, that day, I felt like a child.

Broad itinerary:

Day 1: Dehli to Haridwar

Day 2: Haridwar to Govindghat: 10-12 hour by road

Day 3: Govindghat to Ghangharia- 10 km trek [ with 4-6 km moderate incline] 4 km by car.

Day 5: Ghangharia to Valley of flowers and back- 14 km- with 4-5 km steep incline

I went on to stay for Hemkund, Badrinath and Mana. But if one wants to get back immediately, then by day 5 they need to trek back to Govindghat. And by day 6, reach Haridwar, to carry on further.

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Romancing the rains

Romancing the rains

I grew up walking through the mist. On lucky days, navigating through thick clouds. Now, when I think about those days I get copious dose of nostalgia with a dash of goosebumps.

But at the tender age of 8, I was busy complaining about the rains than romancing it. Because growing up in Himachal and going to school in monsoons meant ugly gumboots to start with. And then there were the snails and slugs that would inevitably get squashed under the uglies leaving behind a trail of gooey innards. Lastly and most annoyingly, the soggy notebooks. It seemed like any amount of raincoats and umbrellas could not keep the drench away from my school bag, and muck away from me.

But even then, while grumbling through it I distinctly remember the rush of glee when a hot cup of delicious something would appear to cheer the blues away. Or an extra helping of pocket money to feast on the roasted bhutta. Or the little shed under which friends would gather half drenched. With stocks of comics and scrabbles pretending to be caved in and stranded on an island, with just a few chocolate bars to keep us alive. With monsoon came fresh new shades of experience that neither summer nor winter could sign up for.

Making most of monsoons

Making most of monsoons

There is a certain romance to the rains that almost tangibly washes away dust from our lives. All we need to do is allow ourselves to rejoice in it more than revolt it. Now as an adult, I crave to walk through the mist. It clears the cobwebs in my head gathered through the corporate routine. I let my dog roll in slush and while I must do the customary yell, I feel her pleasure. I hit the highway and drive 10 hours one way for a 24- hour weekend halt. And stop as many times as possible for fresh fruits, pakoda and steaming tea. I come back tired but happy. Because I have become the adult that does not let the fear of muck, traffic jam, bending roads, landslides become bigger than the beauty of the season.

Misty mornings

Misty mornings

I have done Goa, Pondicherry, parts of Himachal, Uttaranchal & Rajasthan in rain, amongst others. And it has felt like a whole new place than before. So try it, if you haven’t already. Get out of town and go back to a favorite place or haunt that you haven’t visited in monsoons. And allow it to leave its mist on you.

 
White and gold journeys.

White and gold journeys.

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It’s been an intense, beautiful and long winter this time.  What could it mean for the travel happy?  That on one hand there is still snow in north India. On the other,  the desert regions have kept scorching heat at bay are still visit friendly. What with another long weekend approaching at the top of April, it might be the last chance to make a dash for the two seasonal beauties-the rolling hills of snow or the magic of desert dunes.
The Thar dessert:
I have been lucky to catch quite a bit of the desert this year. While you can enter the  dessert from many places, one of the popular routes is a few hours away from Jaisalmer. If you have at least 2 days to do a camel safari, then try out the Desert National Park. Permissions will be needed to explore and camp, but all is easily available. The locals are lined up to help. If time and inclination is of concern but you still want a quick shot of the unadulterated experience, then try it out for a day. You will get only as far away from the sound lights and highway as the camel carries you in that much time. But you will still make a unique memory.
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If you approach Sam from Jaisalmer, you will see  many large camps. Running in full swing with luxury tents, bathrooms, music, DJ, buffet and the works. 10 years back when I did this, it was still a novelty. There were only few camps and the crowd was just about discovering this. But now, Sam in season and sunset time is almost as crowded as the VT station in peak hour. So this time I tried the solitude route.  A camel owner and his helper, few camels, very few people, and in the middle of nowhere.
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And what a night. Once the safari is done, you can settle down to a peaceful walk around the dunes. Watch the sunset. Chat with the camel owner and some villagers who might cross by. And then its about sleeping under the stars. This time of the year the weather might be perfect for it.  They will give you mats and blankets. But it is best to carry your own sleeping bag if you are finicky about sparkling cleanliness.  I visited in the peak of winter and I was grateful that my  travel partner happened to also carry a tent. Boy, did I enjoy pitching it!
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The food is cooked fresh as you gather around the fire, chatting with the locals and like-minded others who might have come along for the safari. The quiet crackle of the wood, the clank clank of the pots and pans, rustic weather- beaten stories all add up to make it a night to remember. And the food. All of it. Dinner, tea & breakfast. Organic. Earthy. Delicious.
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I would highly recommend this for an off beat experience. The locals call it the non-touristy safari. And surely there aren’t many doing this circuit as of now. It is an experience where nature calls truly means finding your spot in the nature. No beds. No bathrooms. No showers. No establishment. And no boundaries. All you have is golden silence, your own loud thoughts and a good campfire under a star lit sky.
The snow valleys:
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I haven’t caught the snow this year. Hopefully will catch it in the coming long weekend. But around this time of the year, I have frequently run towards the white lands. Because this is the time when you can enjoy the snow without running into a storm or a blizzard.
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There are so many places one can go, to get a good dose. Himachal, Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Ladakh. See whichever suits you. For me, I would love it to be a good drive away. Road trips are always my weakness. And I would love a place that would give me options of both solitude and a little bit of activity. These are images from Auli. A ski destination right at the top in Uttarakhand along the Badrinath route. I had last visited it in wee end of March a year or so back.
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It is a long distance up from Rishikesh. But it is worth it. Once you are there and done with gazing at the vast beauty, there are beautiful walks to take. Nature is in full abundance and the camera friendly folks might just go slightly crazy. The ski lift, specially the open -seat ones are a pure adrenalin rush. And of course, learning to ski  is always an option there. The gears are easily available on rent, and also helps the local youth  earn a buck. Try it out.  The fun part is the harder you fall, the better the Maggi tastes afterwards from the make shift shacks.
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 And if you have more time on your hands, trek up in the forests. Carry water. Carry good health. Carry stamina. Because a few hours in the snow is as tiring as it is fascinating. You will eventually come to a flat land with sheets of snow till your eyes can travel. And no sign of any human being. And that is where you can open your snow boots, get on top of a rock, and feel that tingling feeling.
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 I precisely did that. Took off my wet snow boots, stretched and whisked out my DSLR. Before letting out a big happy sigh.
Do write to me in case you need any more details on either the white valley or the gold. Have a happy long weekend.
The jewels of Jaisalmer

The jewels of Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer Fort on a sunny winter day

As the train chugged into the station while  I rolled up my sleeping bag, I caught a quick glance of the fabled yellow stone. And felt the familiar little flutter. This wasn’t my first time in Jaisalmer. And this wouldn’t be my last. What keeps bringing me back to this glitter of a tiny fort town, I wondered.  Even though it is quite the way out. Folklore? Fable? Fascination with the bustling life inside the fort? Melodious street musicians? The vast magical desert surrounding the city? The simple people in the tiny villages around Jaisalmer? Hardened by the harsh sun and the lack of water yet smiling warm and welcoming? I think maybe more. Even if you keep aside the bengali & Sonar Kella factor[ yes, all bengalis have been dreaming of Jaisalmer since Satyajit Ray cracked it open in his movie in the 70s], there is much more to Jaisalmer than just another fort town.
The city has the facade of a jewel, the heartbeat of a holiday, and the hazy happiness of bhang [ cannabis]


The bustle of the city

On way to Patwon ki Haveli

Winter is busy. Four months of in and around winter are the only months that people throng to this town in the heart of the Thar desert. There is a tiny city inside the fort with narrow lanes, medieval havelis, colorful shops and friendly brahmins. And then there is the city that spreads out and surrounds the fort. With more bustling market lanes, yellow stone havelis with  generous amounts of the gorgeous filigree work [ fine, intricate stone carvings], a busy and friendly bhang shop and many tasty treats in nooks and corners.
The best way to discover Jaisalmer is on foot. Inside the fort, make your way to the palace museum. Take the audio guide if you can, because it is more authentic than the local guides. Visit the Jain temples. Walk around the lanes and browse through the antique jewels, leather products, old bookshops jutting out of a sudden turn, colorful patchwork hanging from walls in clothes, sheets, bags and the works. Eat a bite in the little Tibet eatery. It’s got a good rooftop view of the city and some decent chicken momo. Stop at the German bakery on your way up into the fort. I found it warm and fulfilling, specially late in the night when the town is packing up. To sit with travel buddies, a slice of  lemon cake, some peanut cookies and big glass of tea, is a perfect way to wind up the day. Once you step out, try and catch at least one haveli. The most magnificent out of the lot is Patwon ki Haveli– a lavish ancient structure that takes you into the prosperous lifestyle of the moneyed Jain traders of ancient Jaisalmer. Another place to spend a couple of hours would be the shimmering Gadsisar lake. You could pack some lunch and make a picnic out of it. Sitting in the bright sun, staring at the lake, it is easy to imagine how this was a sight for sore eyes for the caravans and travelers in old times in the scorching heat. Jaisalmer was a strategic town in the silk route connecting India with Persia, Egypt and farther west. And many a long and difficult journey through the arid desert found solace at this lake.

The glitter and the sounds

Smiles and silver

Jaisalmer is a color explosion. Everything is in deep saturation mode. From the golden sandstone, to the bright patchwork hanging around. Glittering jewels, flashing silver, lots of fake metals too, and the bright signature turbans. And then there is the music. Not so out there as the color, but more blended  into the fabric of the town.The sounds of ravanhatta [ a folk music instrument] will float into your ears at strategic places. Like when you are walking uphill into the fort.Whilet getting in and out of the palace museum. Or near the shimmering Gadsisar lake. And almost all of them seem to be only playing ‘ kesaria balam, padharo humare desh. Not because they do not know anything else, but because it is probably the most popular folk song catapulted into nationwide fame by Bollywood. Bound to stop a few visitors in their tracks. Taking them closer to a penny or two. Some voices are sweet and piercing at the same time. High on talent, they too look for some encouragement as most artists do. This is their only stage and if you spend as little as 5 minutes and 50 bucks with them, the tune seems to get sweeter. The smiles wider.

The magic of the desert

One hour of a jeep ride will take you closer to the scant desert. The  Sam sand dunes have become quite the hot spot on the tourist line, with big crowds landing up to catch the sunset or spend a night at one of the elaborate tented settlements. And while the people running these camps try their best to give everyone a good time, with folk music and dance, buffet, bonfire and the whole paraphernalia, I think the soul of the desert is best felt far away from the noise and the lights. Riding into the sunset, a camel ride will take you further away from the highway and the camps,closer to the nomads of this region. A night under the bright stars on the sand dunes, with a crude fire for warmth, few people for a close conversation, and a meal cooked in a thatched open hut is what memories are made of, this part of the country.

The little fables and folklore

Patwon ki haveli

All you have to do is start talking. And there are so many stories floating around. Jaisalmer is the home of the Bhati clan of Rajputs. Also known as descendants of Lord Krishna. Who happened to be chandravanshi [descendants of the moon].There are stories of valor. Of the art of war and great strategy. And trade. Between cities, countries, dynasties. And then there are stories of tragic love. With treachery, jealousy and death. The Palace museum audio guide will tell you the story of  Princess Soomal and how she messed up her sister Princess Moomal’s love life, just because she wanted to get a glance at her secret lover.  Or then there is the story of Kuldhara, indulgently told by the old man sitting at the  gateway to this deserted village. About how a villainous ruler who cast his dirty glance upon the head priest’s daughter caused a mass disappearance overnight, of 84 villages, leaving the land cursed. Even though now the deserted village has become a must tourist stop, it still deserves a touch and go. And maybe even a bit of wandering away into the stretch. Of course there are more stories of ghosts and haunted trails. Best to consume after special lassi and with a pinch of salt.


The sense of humor

Well, what do I say, when pictures like these say a million words. Since one of the main sources of livelihood for the locals come from the tourists, they have their sharp wit and a catch phrase handy, just in case it hooks up a conversation. If you head to a shop called Shiva bike rental, the owner is a garrulous man and calls himself Al Pacino. Urging people to Google him as ‘Al Pacino Jaisalmer’, just in case they didn’t believe him. And damn right he shows up. So take to the people. They are friendly, polite and extremely welcoming.

Rajasthani thali

The tingling taste buds:
It did take me a while to find the real stuff here. There are many a tourist haunts with the Indian-ized Italian, Mexican and other global fare. The usual Indian thali is also around in plenty. But the special yet simple Rajasthani thali, with their vegetables- ker sangri, gatte ki sabzi, and a few more names that I cannot recall, is best served with a lot of love and authenticity in Swadan. A simple terrace restaurant that gets unanimous recommendation across the city from all locals.  Try the Rajasthani thali there [ the sweet bajra choorma was delicious] and the Dal baati choorma. A satisfied burp is almost a guarantee. My search for good Lal maans however remains. Though I was told by my camel rider that next time I should make it to his little village very close to the Pakistan border. And his wife would make the most delicious Lal Maans ever. Good enough reason for my hungry soul to start plotting the next when and how.

There is still a month  of winter left. All you need is one long weekend. See if you can catch these jewels before a whole year passes by.

Stay tips: If you are not too fussed about great luxury, try and stay inside the fort in a haveli. It is quite the experience that another city may not be able to offer.And if you want the top notch luxury, do look up Suryagarh, followed by Fort Rajwada.

Gadsisar lake
Travelling through 2 faiths

Travelling through 2 faiths

 

When a weekend gets you the opportunity to travel through time, in the by-lanes of history, mythology, and a chance to soak in diverse faiths back to back, you run for it. Pack a few things and run. Pick up a few friends along the way, if you are the lucky sorts and get onto that train. In a whirlwind weekend  trip, 3 friends packed in the Ajmer Dargah, the Pushkar temple circuit, many encounters with amusing strangers, gastronomical delights, timeless banter, gluttonous shopping and laughter to last us the whole month.  Whoever said weekends aren’t enough hasn’t felt the pleasure of plenty in 30 hours.

The speeding train. The slow sunset

While I have written about Pushkar before and visited the place quite a few times earlier, this visit had a different flavor. This is the first time I saw the little holy town sans the famous fair. And was pleasantly surprised. Without the crowd and the blare of the fair, it is still a vibrant little town with plenty to do, see and just be, in beautiful little spaces.  But the main difference in this visit was that I packed in this most ancient of Hindu pilgrim sites with the Supreme court of Islamic faith, in quick succession. And what did I discover? That even in such close proximity, they are quite different worlds of belief systems. But whichever way you pray, faith feels just the same.

Dargah sharif

Faith
Ajmer Sharif or Dargah Sharif , as our very articulate and efficient guide Farid bhai told us, is the Supreme court of god. The shrine of the famous sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti. Where people from far and near come to offer prayers on this express highway to the divine ear. Prayers, that many are hopeful, get heard loud and clear above the din of the world. The saint was also known as Gharib Nawaz [ the benefactor of poor].

Dargah Sharif

And this lives on right outside the dargah. In the many by lanes and in their delectable food shops there is a simple mechanism to feed the poor. After you have eaten, just leave some cash behind. You can buy a poor person a meal just for Rs 20. And the moment you do so, they  start handing out Sheermal roti with packed gravy. This promptness of ‘do good’ is by itself a feeling none less than a moving prayer. We went to the dargah, did the rounds, tied the ‘dhaga’ [ red threads for wish fulfillment] sat for a bit waiting for the qawali [ sufi devotional music], watched people sit there and pray, and then got completely distracted with some mouth watering sweets. I guess foodies will be foodies. Anywhere and everywhere.

Way to the ghat, Pushkar

Fervor
And then there was this other flavor not even 15 hours before. Where bells ring to the melodious plenty across many temples. Where pilgrims old and young, rich and poor dip into the holy lake to redeem their souls. Where young brahmins hang around hoping to enlighten the not-so-serious pilgrims like us, with stories that start as early as the 4th century BC.  Pushkar, the vibrant little lakeside settlement has never failed to throw up a new anecdote, each time I have been there.  From the famous Brahma temple and the picturesque ghats, to the Savitri temple situated at a pleasant trek up a hill, to the eclectic little cafes where people of different nationalities sit and chatter exchanging notes on yoga, music, religion. This place has an easy vigor. Not out there. Not competing. But very palpable.

Fellows
There are two kinds of youngsters in Pushkar. One that has embraced the infusion of multiple nationalities, and the one that stays rooted in the religious history. One local youth is looking forward to visiting Spain as he has a girlfriend there [ for sure a tourist who had stayed a while, looking for some learning], while another  17 year old chides me for being a Brahmin’s daughter and yet not knowing that Brahma had two wives- Savitri and Gayatri. One that looks suitably hazy at day time because he ‘needs’ the hazy stuff to make music later [ he is a sort of a DJ at some private party], while another waits outside the temple to help and initiate people into the right kind of Puja that will redeem the soul. The dichotomy is fascinating to watch from outside. And might just be a little bit glaring and worrisome for the town elderly.

To the colourful cafe- Pushkar

So next time you are there, mix a little. It’s quite easy. Do look up Mengo, the very talkative and pleasant young boy at the Hard Rock restaurant. Bump into Mahesh, the young guide, who waits right outside the Brahma temple. Have some earthy tea at the little shop run by the smiling mother daughter, as you start your walk towards the Savitri temple. Ask for help to be taken around the dargah, and there will be many willing members from the trustee committee of the Dargah Sharif to take you around.

And definitely look up the Mouni baba [ the silent hermit]. An old sadhu [ who could be anything between 45 and 95 or more] belonging to the Juna akhara [ a sect of holy men known to be formed by the 8th century philosopher Adi Sankaracharya]. Who hasn’t spoken a word in 12 years. He sits near the main ghat at Pushkar, smiling at everyone with the most compassionate face that one could imagine. With whatever money one leaves behind for him, he feeds the pigeons and the stray dogs. So fascinated were we with him that around 10 in the night we found ourselves drawn to his little hut. His smile warmed our hearts in the cold night. Our incessant chatter and questions about him to his disciples amused him enough to  get up, get his little jar of goodies, and hand out a candy each, to the three of us.
For me, that was the only prasad [holy food]  I carried back with me from the trip.

The smiling owners of the little tea shop, Pushkar

Food
How could I not have a few special mentions, when the 30 hours had such lip smacking highs?
While Pushkar would have the usual flair of multinational cuisines along side the rajasthani delights, let me mention the few Ajmer highs. When in the Dargah, ask for the Makkhan Bade [ they are melt in your mouth Balushahi sweets]. If you can wait till the evening, then you also get to taste the sweet kheer [rice pudding] that is made without milk, in a cauldron bigger than my apartment.
Get out of the dargah, stop in the adjoining lanes, and join the chaos in the small shops. If you are a non vegetarian, this would be an absolute must stop. The mutton korma, sheermal roti and the biryani is a perfect tuck in before you rush for the station

Mutton Korma, Sheermal roti, Biryani, in the lane outside the dargah- Ajmer

Fact files:

Kanhaia haveli

How to get there: Overnight sleeper buses from Delhi or Gurgaon to Pushkar, that will reach by morning. Or early morning Shatabdi that would be in Ajmer by noon.

Where to stay : If staying in Pushkar, try this Haveli [ old heritage home] this time. Kanhaia haveli is in the thick of things, and yet charming, with a pretty rooftop restaurant. Satish, the man at the reception is helpful and hungry for a good review.
http://pushkarhotelkanhaia.com/

 
Shopping : Clothes, Bandhni prints [ I picked up a stunning saree for just 500 Rs], ceramics, leather products- bags, shoes belts. Jewellery- silver and bronze j with really unique designs [ and quite the steal].

3 friends, 30 hours and lots of magic. Ajmer & Pushkar
The moodswings of an itchy feet

The moodswings of an itchy feet

There is this fancy word ennui [ pronounced onwee]. Look it up if you will. Whatever you get out of the meaning, in a nutshell it feels like “damn nothing is moving”. For me, more than a place in life, it is being in a place for too long, without heading out. And it is not a good feeling. It is like how Captain Haddock feels without his poison. Thousands of blue blistering barnacles.  Or a serial relationship person feels being single. That time is slipping away. And he or she is growing old and will never find anyone. Or a workaholic being jobless… you get the picture am sure.


When I was growing up, a juicy pack of orange cream biscuits and an Amar Chitra Katha every week from the good parents kept any form of ennui away. Also the fact that that is not the age this dreaded word strikes. And even if it does, you think you must be just hungry and raid the cake box. With adulthood came the pleasure of free will, freedom and travel. Which fast become the antidote to ennui. But also came jobs, responsibility, leaking pipes, car breakdowns and plumbing weekends. And the ease with which a pack of orange cream or a comic book appeared on my lap every Friday, is not the ease with which I found myself on the highway.

The feeling of being trapped or any form of shackle  tends to play havoc with the sense of well-being. And hence the mood swings. And no, just because am a woman, it’s not PMS. It is more of  EMS. Ennui mental syndrome. It can strike anyone, and is normally characterized by a feeling of listlessness towards life. But if it strikes a travel happy itchy feet, the world suddenly feels moving in slow-mo, or hanging in suspended animation.

For crabby periods like these [ pun intended], I have a few handy tips. If I can drag myself out of the sloth this feeling brings and get on with these, they work fine enough for me to not want to bite people’s head off.

Plan. 
Plan a trip. If you are the breed who likes to delegate it to others, or a breed that likes to just pick up the bag and go without any planning, try this once, if the ennui bug has bitten you. It can be like comfort food. Reassuring, filling of the void, and nostalgic of good times. At the least, it will give you browsing and musings of places you desire to go to. And a hopeful surge of spirits. You will also have a solid plan, that  is raring to go as soon as schedule, pockets and company aligns together.

Discover your own city.
We tend to take the city we live in so much for granted. A classic relationship syndrome. We stop discovering new things. Are quite nonchalant about the easy beauty that outsiders get excited about. Stop attaching the word ‘exploring’ to stepping out, and literally stop digging around.  I remember making a day trip to the famous prison of Alcatraz, in the bay area, from San Francisco. A prison known to house the famous american gangster, the much dreaded Al Capone. A prison featured in many famous Hollywood flicks, with an audio guide so touching that it would leave you feeling wistful about life and lucky to have your freedom. And yet, many of my friends and family in the area who have been there for years, still haven’t taken a ferry across to the island. I grunted at their lack of excitement with this little piece of jewel. But I am yet to visit the Delhi National Museum myself after spending many years in this city. While I have lined up in front of many museums across the world. Guilty as blogged.

The next best thing:
This totally depends on you and what you like. What is almost as enjoyable, if not exactly. The only two rules should be that it should be a longish project [ or else it would be less absorbing], and it should be fulfilling. I find a strange energy flow in getting rid of old clothes, hoarded junk, emptying out piles of redundant paper, refurbishing old furniture or a dowdy looking corner of the house. It is also therapeutic. And takes up a lot of time. And most importantly, productive.

While I do realize in my limited wisdom that any form of restlessness or EMS requires a solution more from within, I also know that a slow learner like me will take my time getting to that state of mind. Till then  am happy counting time with my temporary solution. And as I stuff my backpack for a quick trip to Ajmer I can feel the antidote kicking in. Looking forward to the dargah, sunset over the Pushkar lake, 3 friends and a train ride, life seems the right kind of meaningful again.

Destinations for the heartbroken

Destinations for the heartbroken


Soho, New York

When you are traveling with a heavy heart, you need a place that can lift the weight. If you have a bunch of friends or a good travel companion you can travel with, then any destination is good. Because you will have each other, camaraderie and enough distractions through the dynamics of group travel. But if you want to take off on your own when nursing a broken heart, you may need to choose a little wisely. Some may prefer the neon lights and the heady cocktail called Las Vegas. While some may seek out the solitude of Leh for some soul searching. You will have to figure what works for you. The first time I could afford a proper heartbreak run, I think I was around 25. The grief made me bold. The lack of clarity gave me a quest. And the fog all around my head made me seek out music and sunshine. And I reached Paris. Alone. On my way to Scandinavia. And while I spent more time discovering the utterly beautiful Scandinavia, my heart found a strange soar in Paris. Which is when I figured. For me, what works most are places where throngs of people are out on the streets. Laughing. Loving…living.

Theater district, NYC

New York
This tops my list. For the city’s joie de vivre.
New York is bursting at it’s seams with life, pace and the right kind of attitude. People here do not have time. And yet, they have plenty of time for a bagful. Think about it like a roller-coaster. You get in, strap in tight, get ready for a heart racing ride. And you shriek your heart out, knowing that that’s what everybody else is doing.  And that is liberating. The rush of Manhattan, the buzz of the Meatpacking district, the walk across the Brooklyn bridge, the amusement park at Coney Island, the iconic statue of liberty or the Chrysler building, being boho at Soho, the crowd walking at Times Square, the Met museum, the many musicals, and of course, hours and hours of Central Park. And these are just a few of my favorite things. Another week [ a month would be even better] and I would have managed a lot more.
People are friendly and very colorful. I would have said chic, inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany. Or the more recent Sex and the City, but I found them more pro life and pro funk, than just pro fashion. I stayed in Soho, fed myself on a variety of food ranging from Mexican to Ethiopian and went on a heavy dose of musicals. If you are an ABBA and a sing along fan, definitely catch Mama Mia. The crowd bursts into a chorus with every song. Like one big happy family. This energy is infectious.  It is the much needed distraction to pull your soggy heart out of the little puddle of pain. If traveling solo, try to stay in a dorm. They do not come so cheap really, but you will get a great crowd to hang around with, and make some new friends.

Paris, a view from the Eiffel tower
Paris on a World cup weekend

Paris
Ironical, isn’t’ it? A city that is known to be romantic, one would think should be avoided like a plague. Especially when one is picking up the pieces. But it is the very same reason that it makes your heart soar. Because it builds hope through its beauty and romance.
The first time I did Paris, I did it solo and a little tight on budget. I stayed in the very bold and colorful red light district called Pigalle [ which many might consider unsafe for a single girl]. But it kept me in walking distance from the Moulin Rouge, so that I could walk back after a late night show. And the place was surrounded by revelry and party goers, cheap maybe, but not sleazy. After a day of figuring out how to cope with the language challenge, I sunk into its beauty and started discovering the art, starting from Louvre’s fantastic collection to the magnificent palace of the Versailles. Music almost wafted into your presence in any corner of the city. Culture and intellectualism is in abundance in the alive Latin Quarters, St Germain and in & around Sorbonne university. And even if you are the kind of person who just wants to soak up the atmosphere, your feet will drag you to the usual list like the Cathedral Notre Dame de paris, Eiffel tower, Pantheon etc. All these will keep you greedy and busy. The second time I went to Paris, I was with a friend. A keen observer of love, romance and all things that ruffle the heart. And with her I also discovered the stretch near the river Seine. Where many a heart musings hang around.
I would suggest stay near the Latin Quarters for the buzz. And let the beauty of the city work it’s magic on you.

Charles Bridge, at sunrise Prague. Photo courtesy : Valerii Tkachenko 
Old town centre, Prague

Prague
The land that popped out of tales of pointed castles, huge clock towers, cobbled squares, and palaces of the past. And yet, managed to throw in a rocking night life, throbbing taverns and a vibrant countryside. That’s Prague. Or Praha, As it is fondly known. First it will completely distract you with it’s fairy tale beauty. Then it will win you over with the fun it offers on a platter. A walk across the Charles Bridge will take forever. Watching the painters, musicians, and artists of all sorts hawking, laughing and engaging with the people walking by. I stopped and let a whole bunch of minutes, maybe more, go by, waiting for a set of Jazz players to finish their piece. Before I could gather my senses and head towards the utterly beautiful Prague  Castle. In the old town square, try the Bombay Cocktail Bar, or the Bugsy’s bar. A favorite with both the locals and the tourists, the place is high in spirits. And not just literally.. The square itself is a great place to just hang out and watch happy people, with happy shopping, ordering food and drinks from happy menus. In and around the place, there is also some art to find. I just happened to walk into a display of Dali’s best. Quite the bonus. Old town square is also a good place to stay. Though I stayed in a small ship called Boatel Albatros, now docked on the river, and serving as a small lodge. It was quite the experience staying in a small cabin, overlooking the water. Just a short walk away from the old town square.
If Paris was beautiful, Prague is enchanting. Just make sure you walk around a lot, and take in as much of the visual delight as you can.

The art of Gaudi,, Barcelona
A Tapas bar, Barcelona

Barcelona
Hola! Pass the Sangria. Yes, even at 11 am.
If you ever wanted to see what the other kind of fairy tale houses, like the gingerbread house, or the house made of treats in Hansel and Gretel looked like in real life, you have to head to the candyland of Gaudi. Barcelona is sun, shine and sangria. The people are loud, the music is booming, the language is robust and the food is dished out in tiny samples of many. Tapas bars mushroom the city, with one in every 20 steps. Feeding variety of small quantities of delight. And an assortment of different kinds of Sangria and local beer. La Rambla, the pulse of the city, is a sight in the night. With many restaurants popping up, with beautiful lights, pitchers of fruity wines and live music.
One of the major reasons why Barcelona works on the heart is because of Antoni Gaudi. A catalan architect, he worked more than a 100 years back, designing some of the most mind blowing buildings, parks, and giving birth to a style unknown to the world at that time. Thought to be quite radical, I have been quite taken in by how he changed the face of rooftops

Chimneys on rooftops, Gaudi architechture

by making something as mundane as a chimney look funky. The fabulous Sagrada Familia Basilica, the large Roman Catholic Church in the heart of the city, even though under renovation most of the time, will still leave you speechless. An evening of live music and flamenco dance performance is a must. And while walking around the city, you will realize the mad spirited fire of the city is captured very well in the street art in almost every wall and corner. And as if so much of art wasn’t enough,  the city is also the home of Picasso’s early years. Head to Museu Picasso to see his work from his formative years. And by chance if you manage to land in Barcelona during a festival, be sure to be greeted with a riot of colours and the sound of music floating in the atmosphere. There is nothing subtle and quiet about Barcelona. Just what you need to knock that silly pain right out of your mooning mind.

Istanbul
A view of the Bosphorus, Istanbul

Istanbul
The melting pot of east and west. Asia and Europe. Hub of the Ottoman empire. And a fabulous display of the Byzantine architecture. Istanbul is mellifluous of a different kind. A walk around the shores of the Bosphorus is a must. Let your sorrow dissolve with one street food at a time. Oysters. Fresh fish in big buns. Squids. Doner kebabs. All lined up for sampling while you shop, look at the sunset or just soak in. A visit is the Topkapi palace and it’s beautiful gardens. armed with a doner kebab, a book, and some little tidbits from the city, is the perfect place to while away an afternoon. Watching the fresh flowers, green grass, little fountains, and packs of friends and family doing the same. While the sun plays patterns on you through the thick foliage. The Blue mosque and the Hagia Sofia are landmark

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

sites. A place of reverence and a place of  architectural splendor. The Grand bazaar is like Aladdin’s cave, only much bigger. Full of little finds, vintage jewellery  sparkling lamps, weaves and pottery,  enter if you have the art to haggle. A walk around the old town and it’s cobbled streets, multitudes of shops displaying the beautiful Iznik pottery, souvenirs, generous amounts of beautiful turquoise splash, kitsch art on display, and flirtatious men all around, are all good for the heartbreak. The nightlife is no less than rocking. Istiklal street, by day a mad long stretch of shopping with all brands that one can find, turns into a stretch of pulsating party place till wee hours of the morning. Nightclubs are churning out the latest everything, including bollywood. And if you want to party by the sea, Ortokoy is the perfect place. But I think it’s not the rush and the mish- mah that works ultimately. There is so much to know about the history of the world, the invasions in this region, the rule under the legendary Ataturk, that suddenly whatever you are grieving looks really really small. That moment when you realize that the world out there is quite big and beautiful. And still mostly unexplored by you.

So, save up for the heart-beak fund. These places aren’t really cheap, but will make your world soar a little bit above the broken pieces of the heart, leaving the toxic pain behind.

An afternoon in a New York library
Heritage house- hotels in the hills.

Heritage house- hotels in the hills.

IMG_1056

 Dak Bunglow, Peora

 

In between a running hotel and an organic simple home- stay, is this breed of a different kind. The house hotels. Or more like up- furbished guest houses. Where an old property or sometimes a large sprawling estate [ also old] have been converted into a welcome stay for travelers. You will get all the amenities and comfort of a hotel, like the good linen, soft blankets and stocked toilets, and as a big bonus you will also get  the personal touch. And a piece of the lives that were lived in these houses. It may not be as grounded as a home stay. But it gets pretty close, with a touch of its own flair and a display of the history. While a lot of these are coming up all across the country, our hills have some really ancient buildings that are running these house hotels. And for that authentic house-hotel feel, I definitely need a touch of vintage.

Dak Bunglow

Dak Bunglow, Peora
Nestled in a small kumaoni hamlet called Peora, this place is as cosy and personal as it can get. It is more a home stay and less a hotel. There are probably 3 large rooms that are available to guests. It is more than a 100 years old, and that only reflects in its charm. There are large chairs to sink in, and take in the tranquility of the area. Wild flowers fill the green around, while their aroma fill in the fresh mountain air. The host and hostess Pradeep and Shubha are easy going and comforting to spend time with. The food is fresh out of the kitchen, and sometimes fresh out of the kitchen garden.  I remember drinking large quantities of fresh lemon grass tea, while gaping at the spectacular views of the Kumaon Himalayas, specially the Nanda devi, Trishul and Panchuli peaks. Right across the hill, one can see

Dak Bunglow_03

the hill station of Almora and it’s many shining lights in the night. A short ride away is Satoli, another small village with a throbbing NGO called Aarohi, run by Pradeep. The soaps, apricort jams, and other cosmetic and food products add a delightful  touch of shopping bonus to the area. Further around is the town of Mukteshwar. And for a day’s outing,  Nainital, Sattal, Naukuchiatal are all perfectly within reach and merrymaking. But I would suggest long walks, bird watching, some photography, maybe even some cooking in the kitchen, and chatting up with the very friendly locals.
The nearest rail head is Kathgodam. And from there this bliss is just a couple of hours up.
http://indiauntravelled.com/dak-bungalow-Peora.html

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Alasia, Kasauli
That feeling of stumbling upon a gem, just 5 minutes away from the hub of the town. That’s Alasia. In the small cantonment town of Kasauli. Barely 6 hours away from Delhi.  A heritage property, the place reflects the way the town itself displays old relics of the British raj. The rooms come with a good amount of space and a fire place. Which may, by now, be more of a memento than really functional. The place now also features an extension, right across the road. Overlooking a stretch of a garden, that hangs over the valley.  Alasia has a lovely old bar, where one can sit and down a few after a good walk around the small but throbbing market area. And while the food is really good, I particularly remember the delightful cheese toasts along with the plentiful plate of pakoras that is a perfect companion to a long sit out session. And what I remember doing most here is walk, eat, chill, repeat.
http://www.alasiahotel.co.in/

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Silverton estate, Dalhousie
I grew up in Dalhousie. Went to school there. Watched my mother teach in another school while my father was posted in the cantonment. I remember maxing out on this gorgeous little hill station. But I never discovered this place then. And it stood there. Silently. Majestically. Quite enchantingly. Now, when I went back, looking for childhood memories, I stumbled upon this hideout.  A little steep walk up on the road that connects the now noisy Subhash Chowk and Ghandi Chowk, just above the popular landmark circuit house, stands Silverton estate. The owner Vickram has kept the charm intact, along with the much vintage furniture. Even the bathroom fittings were a delight, with a wash basin that looks like it has been picked right out of an officer’s den from the East India company. Vickram also has an old library with vintage maps of the place, along with a very helpful  hand drawn one, marking out the treks and nature walks around town. The dinner was quite an experience. With candles and silverware stretched out on a homely dining table, while a kitchen help solemnly served delicious helpings of home cooked food. Against a backdrop of old school jazz playing. I did go to bed with an air of the raj. And woke up fresh, ready to max the many corners of the well kept garden, and the lovely treks in and around Dalhousie
http://www.heritagehotels.com/silverton/

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Woodville Palace, Shimla
As we get to the end of the list, we are getting a little grand. And this one surely has its share of grandiose. 10 minutes walk from the bustling and bursting Shimla mall, is the still secluded Woodville palace. Covered with ivy, and very well maintained, this picturesque property dates back to 1866. It now belongs to the royal family of Jubbal and boasts of really pretty rose gardens and multi level lawns. Surrounded by lush greens, pines and deodar, the place has two watering holes to gather in the evening- the Tiger lounge and the Hollywood bar. The hallways and the dining halls are museums in their own right. With ancient pictures, family heirloom and acquisitions on display. If one wants to find a patch of privacy in this crowded hill station, Woodville Palace has many levels of gardens, with manicured as well as unkempt stretches of greens, with inviting park benches. Featured in quite a few bollywood movies and ad films, the place still manages to not explode within the grandiose and keep the personal touch alive.
http://www.woodvillepalacehotel.com/

Dak Bunglow_07

Balrampur house, Nainital
And this last one is grand. More than grand, its truly a mammoth estate, sitting against a looming hill that surrounds it tightly on two sides. If you let your imagination run a little here, this could have been out of an ancient Bollywood movie. And you could have been the Zamindar, who would listen to the woes of the farmers in one corner of the estate, and display the ample hunting spoils in another. In reality, the place was the summer palace of the former maharajas of Balrampur. The rooms are huge. The bathrooms come in the size of a complete Bombay apartment, and the expanse has a silence that can be very soothing. And for the wicked imagination, very spooky. Riot of flowers run in abundance in the large gardens. One can catch the majestic views of the surrounding Naina peak and the Ayarpata hill. The fact that it is located on top of a bit of a steep climb from the main noisy mall area in Nainital, added yet another dimension of charm for me. A good 15 minutes of cardio exercise, and you are there ready to dig into the delicious spread cooked by experts trained by the royal family. Ideal for large group of friends or family, this place has the capacity to pack in much and yet not look or feel crowded.
http://balrampurhousenainital.com/

So, next time you head out for the hills, look up these heritage house hotels. There will definitely be something to write home about.

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Balrampur house gardens

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