Travel India

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Many shades of spring. On way to Khirganga


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.







Trek to Malana

Trek to Malana


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


White and gold journeys.

White and gold journeys.

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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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

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

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.

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

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.

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
Heritage house- hotels in the hills.

Heritage house- hotels in the hills.


 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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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
The best rafting camp in Rishikesh

The best rafting camp in Rishikesh

When you set_01

When you set out to do nothing, is actually when you end up getting the most. Call it the power of empty spaces, fluidity or no expectations, you know you are coming back with more than you planned or bargained for. I just came back from one of those breaks. When you say “we’ll see once we get there”. From Shivpuri.  And you arm yourself with music, pets, books and other things that can consume the time and space. But in the end do not even feel the need to touch much of them. Because these kind of getaways work like meditation. These are technically called the rafting camps, but these perfectly work as recuperation camps as well. Sitting and staring at the gorgeous view, listening to the deafening sound of the rushing Ganges, feeling the nurturing bright sun on the onset of winter, feeding yourself fresh food off the vegetation, you begin to slow down. In your head, your body language and your speech. It’s almost like a lyrical haze.

When you set_02

Getting there :
5 friends and a dog packed themselves in an Innova and left early morning [ 4 am] the day after Diwali, to escape the din and the speed of the city. Yes, we thought some rafting would be good. But what all of us wanted was to just get away. So we did. And by easy lunch time, we were at the camp in Shivpuri. We could have taken the night train to Haridwar and the camp would have sent a cab. But then if you want to travel with a dog, the highway is the best way. We stayed in one of the few camps that is on the other side of the river. So you have to get there in a raft itself, once you get off the car. But it is totally worth it. Because on the other side lies pristine uncrowded beaches. Against the backdrop of the thick foliage of the Rajaji National park that extends from Haridwar.

When you set_03

What do you do:
I was happy with nothing, for once. Though there is always plenty to do in places like these. There is the now popular white water rafting. And while you are at it, jump off the raft and body surf[ it is perfectly safe, with life jackets, and an expert following you closely] in the gorgeous fresh waters of the Ganges. This time of the year, the water still isn’t freezing. It is just about right to wake you up, and send tingling feelings down your spine. Once you are done with the many rounds of rafting over a couple of days, and you know the rapid names by heart [ which are very creative and appropriate], you can settle in for a good game of beach volleyball, or badminton. Or try the flying fox and the bungee jump in that area. There is also plenty of scope to go for tiny treks. Into the villages. Up the hill. To a waterfall. So, the place is packed with activities, for the adrenalin oriented.

When you set_04

What did I do:
I sank into the sand. I played with my dog. I did one set of rapids one morning, and body surfed in the water. Played some badminton. And pranced around the trampoline trying some photography tricks. But mostly, I ate copious amounts of fresh food, stared endlessly at the beauty right under the nose, sunned myself in a hammock, read a little, walked and chatted up with friends and strangers around a bonfire. And woke up fresh each morning, feeling the dead layer of the city peel off me. And allowed myself to be taken in by the very little somethings that we completely miss, while running around in the concrete. Little birds and their incessant chatter. The riot of colors that these birds can be, beyond the shades you know. The brightness of the stars on a dark night. A faint automobile sound in the night, passing above on the highway. The light pattern it’s headlight makes on the dark foliage. Simple things, actually. But with the nudge to open up sight sound and other sensory perceptions that a TV or a smart phone won’t do.

We came back a happy relaxed bunch. Not quite happy to be back in the rat race. But also knowing that we can always race back to the place, since this is THE season to max it. Hope some of you make it.

I have stayed in many camps on the shores, but I keep going back to this one. Try MHE Beach camp [ Mercury Himalayan Exploration]. It is not only reasonable, but very hygienic, systematic, with a fantastic staff running the place, and a great cook. The pleasure of a hot water bath in a cobbled stones tent is as invigorating if not luxurious as a bubble bath in a fancy tub. Their tents are spacious, with firm comfortable beds. And they also add the soft touch of a hot water bag on really cold nights, tucked into the warm quilt. There is a beautiful sprawling beach to bum around in. And it is situated right next to one of the rapids called ‘Return to the Sender’, so the noise of the water is loud enough to drown out the cacophony in your head. They also have very good guides for rafting, treks and other physical activities.–ganga-rafting-combos.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Looking_for_a_safe_and_quiet_family_Diwali?

When you set_05
One night in Pushkar.

One night in Pushkar.

One night in Pushkar_01
Pushkar mela

It’s that time of the year. The world famous animal fair is just round the corner. From 30th October to the 6th of November. And if you haven’t done it already, then one must make it there, at least once. To get the taste of a cacophony and celebration of a different kind. While the place will be generously sprinkled with global travelers wanting to catch the exotic and spiritual east, this is one place where the core India gathers to have their share of fun. A mela more than a fair, it still has ‘maut ka kuan’ [ the well of death], strange puppet shows, exotic magic corners, and camel race at the backdrop of all the selling and barter of livestock.

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The golden eye

The fair
While this town is called the holy city, with the only temple in the world dedicated to lord Brahma [ the Hindu God of creation], and many mentions across  Kalidas’s classics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the prime attraction otherwise is the animal trade fair. When the whole town is buzzing from early morning to much late in the night. With pilgrims, revelers, photographers and spiritual seekers. From humble farmer and cattle rearing homes to ostentatious stud farms from Punjab, people from far and near come with their livestock. With their animals brushed and cleaned and dressed in finery. Hoping to make a good deal. And

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Sunset over the lake

while the business goes about it’s own way, there is place for fun. Rides, tricks, tents with village art, shopping, camel race, village music and an indescribable haze that seems to have come out of all the Indian heartland movies.

If you think you will get only bajre ki roti [ bread made with black millet] and sabzi [ vegetables], think again. Yes, you will find the rustic thali in many tents, along with lip smacking flavors. But the holy city has many small eclectic joints which serve quite the international array. There is even a hard rock cafe [ not THE hrc please], and the french onion soup and the enchiladas there are quite yummy. In the midst of the market place, in a thandai shop, one can even find some bhang.  Snacking options range from fried delicacies to decadent sweets.

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Frequent flier

The place has many holy sites. Quite a few temples. The most popular out of the lot is the Brahma temple, followed by the Savitri temple situated on top of a hill. The  Mahadeva temple is also a beautiful one built in the 19th century, with a while marble Mahadeva. Sages throng the crowd with their colorful ensemble. All chilled out in their disposition, with ‘live and let live’ air about them. People go about offering prayers and taking a holy dip in the large lake. In the evening the place lights up with little jewels shining on the banks. And the effect is quite magical.



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On way to Savitri temple


And while you are there, try hiking to the Savitri temple, built on a hill top. The sunrise or sunset is quite spectacular from there. And one can see the whole city and beyond. It is vast and refreshing, and the line up of monkeys on the way is quite entertaining. Many pilgrims make their sturdy way up, with breathing and refreshment breaks. It is best to be aware that it is a bit of a breathless, around 60 minutes climb but totally worth it.




The other reason this place is a sheer delight is because it is such a treasure trove for beautiful clicks. The place is colorful. The people are colorful. The fair is full of things that are begging to be captured. The streets are far removed from clinical and boring. And

One night in Pushkar_06even when you are not looking, you will find an easy frame. A pile of vermilion, colorful notebooks, leather products in vibrant dye, a neon turban.  The list is endless. Even if you are just operating with a phone camera, you will have plenty to play with.

For the weekend traveler, between 30th October and 6th November, you will get only one weekend. If it has been on the list, I would say now would be just about the right time to get going. All you need is two days and one night.

I once stayed at this place called The third eye. It is usually quite reasonable but during the fair the prices are hiked up. The sit out area is gorgeous. They have a few friendly dogs. And the pancakes and most of the menu card is quite awesome and reasonable. It is a short 10 minutes walk from the Pushkar lake and all the other important sites like the Brahma temple, market place and the fair grounds.
If you are leaving from Delhi, there are overnight volvo and sleeper buses that leave at midnight and reach by breakfast time. From anywhere else, the nearest rail head is Ajmer. From there it is barely half hour away. All in all, very easy to get there. And very fulfilling an experience

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The holy Pushkar lake
Travel Quickies :  5 weekend camps from Delhi

Travel Quickies : 5 weekend camps from Delhi

Travel Quickies_01
That perfect sunday. Shivpuri

Travel quickie is not dependent on a long weekend, leave application or large planning.  Overnight buses. Or around 6 hours drive will get you there. You will get to spend one night and two whole days to explore or chill. And if you do want to get out of the concrete, then might as well leave all forms of large structures behind, to get the most out of the short time. And that is what this list is about. Get out of Delhi, and get straight into another world. The tented world.

Travel Quickies_02
Camping at Shivpuri

This is by far the most popular tented destination from Delhi. Winding upwards on the road from Rishikesh is the beginning of the white sandy beaches alongside this clean and gurgling avatar of the river Ganga. And all along the beach one can see little dotted lines of colorful tents. Many a camp offer stay, rafting and a weekend of great food and lounging around. A perfect place for friends to do nothing or that little something that city malls will just not provide. I have gone there more than a dozen times and stayed in across many camps. Whichever camp you choose, the crispy air, the free spirited ganges, the nurturing sun and  fresh delicious camp food would be on everyone’s menu. I will suggest choose one which has a large sandy beach and not too many tents.

Rajaji National Park
The sad part is that most people pass this by in a hurry to get to Musoorie, Rishikesh, and the other prime attractions in that part of the country. The good part is that it is uncrowded, green and a perfect hideout for the loner, a family, or a large group of friends wanting to do their own thing. Rajaji National park is bang opposite Haridwar. You cross the bridge and almost immediately reach one of the gates. This place boasts of around 500 elephants, 12 tigers and around 250 panthers. along with 400 species of birds. And there are plenty of delightful water bodies around, for a picnic. There are not too many options to stay around here. Try Camp King Elephant or the Wild Brook retreat for a memorable weekend.

Travel Quickies_03
If you leave at 4 am, Kasauli is just a 6 hour drive down. You would be there by 10 for a hearty breakfast and a good stretch. And this destination is just a little bit before Kasauli. The Sanawar nature camp. A collection of log huts and tents. On a lush green hill. A very short distance from Kasauli town centre. And with a delicious kitchen, two friendly dogs and the lap of nature. While the place has enough games and physical activities for the high adrenalin family member, for the rest this is just what the hectic week ordered. Wind down with a book, a long walk, your music and just about anything you like to do.

Around 345 kms from Delhi, this place might just take a little above 6 hours, depending on traffic. One could also take the night train to Kalka, or the early morning Shatabdi, and then cab it up. Around 13 km before Shimla is this tiny little Hamlet called Shoghi. And while here, if you do not want to run away to the usual Shimla and the mall road, you will find plenty of time to connect back with yourself. A nice easy trek to a water stream, or a campfire at night is just what the shrink would prescribe, for a power recharge.

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Pushkar lake

In case you cannot grab the train to Ajmer, this is an overnight bus away from Delhi.  You get volvos, sleeper bus and just about any type at midnight. They promise to get you in by 7 in the morning, and normally make it by 8.30 or so. There will be many budget and kitsch places to pick from in this colorful town dedicated to Lord Brahma. But for an off centre experience, there are also many tented options that spring up at the end of the year starting with the famous Pushkar fair. Right out of the main town centre but just a short walk or camel ride away from the fair grounds, they might be on the steeper side for the budget traveller, but quite the experience. For a reasonable rate try the Foothills camps and resort.
So pick a friday night and get out. Sunday night/early monday morning, get back in. You might walk in a little tired. But you will also walk in with that big quickie smile.

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Sanawar Nature Camp

Coming soon: ‘One night in Pushkar’. To help you make the most out of this time of the year and the grand Pushkar mela

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