I wake up to the silent afternoon breeze and lead myself out of the hut as quietly as I can. Stopping at the porch, I start to wear my shoes rather absentmindedly – they’re almost a part of my body now, what with 12 hours of continuous accompaniment. The silence is only broken by the distant clattering of vessels in the kitchen and the heavy breathing of the weary trekkers slumbering inside the hut. It is a warm and sunny afternoon – A stark difference from our encounters of the last five days. Sunlight is good, I tell myself, stretching my numb limbs and making my way towards a big rock across the hut. I am basking in this glorious sunshine and looking over the huts that lay ahead of me, amidst the vast expanse of snowy terrain that is outlined by towering mountains. The mules are busy grazing whatever little vegetation they can find below the snow, and I find myself slipping into a recollection of the events of the last twelve hours…

PC: Raylene Monteiro

As we stood gazing into the velvety sky, our campsite was bustling with activity – Trekkers busy with last minute prepping,  micro-spikes clinking, kitchen staff hustling with packed food, the guides instructing each other in Nepali and the mules whinnying away. I remember thinking to myself how odd it was that while I was here, waiting to kick-start this adventure at 1 in the morning, all my family and friends were probably already asleep, oblivious to all the adrenalin rushing through my veins!
We collectively prayed to the mountain gods to support our endeavor with clear weather, and started off towards Lamuney which was another 4 km of pretty much flat walk. We walked silently, pausing frequently to sip some water but largely following our guides who had now reduced to mere torch-lights in the far. ‘This is the thing about trekking in the night’, I thought to myself, ‘It is probably nature’s way of showing us that we will always find light at the end of the tunnel’. We soon reached Lamuney (well in time), eager to continue to View Point 1 (VP1) to catch the sun rise over the glorious Kanchenjunga range.

Ita Sing in his element
PC: Jude Rayen

My pleasant reminiscing is interrupted by the sound of Sancha bhaiya and Ita Sing (our guides) giggling their way out of the kitchen tent. I smile to them and they smirk shyly and giggle away towards the mules. I dawdle my way around the flat land facing Pandim and realise that the melting snow has rendered the terrain mucky as soon as my foot slips into one of those mucky patches. I lift my foot, only to find the shoe dripping in different shades of brown. Hopping over to a drier spot, I take the shoe off and slip into a recollection of the events of the morning, together with cleaning the shoe…

Snow plume

The hike from Lamuney to VP1 was arduous. Under normal circumstances, we would have started for VP1 from the Lamuney campsite – but we had to cover this distance on the summit day itself, having had missed a day’s time on account of bad weather at Dzongri. What sounded like a measly 3.5kms was turning out to be the most hardcore thing any of us had done and rightly so – 15,200 ft was no mean feat! Sancha bhaiya had told us that 5.45 am was the perfect time to witness sunrise from VP1 and honestly, that was our only motivation to keep going. It was a test of endurance and patience, for the gradients were extremely steep and every time I felt like I was there, Sancha bhaiya would shout to say “thoda aur aage hai (it is a bit further away)”. At 5.30 am, I realised that I was still far away from VP1. Andi was marching ahead, breaking trail for the rest of us while Raylene and Jude were catching up to Sancha bhaiya and me. I kept asking Sancha bhaiya if I’d be able to make it in time for sunrise and he responded each time with an “araam se (easily)” and an impish smirk. We were 15 minutes away from being the first batch to summit Goecha La that season and of course our 19 year old guide was as excited as us!

The last leg was legitimately formidable, and we were ascending through knee-deep snow. Each step took herculean effort, and it was only then that Sancha shouted “Jaldi aajao abhi speed badhao..sunrise hone waala hai! (Come quick, speed up.. the sun is going to rise!)”. I pulled in all effort to move ahead as quickly as I could, walking along the treacherous trail – one mis-step in the deep snowy track, and a big fall down the valley eagerly awaited me. I had barely reached the end of the trail when Sancha bhaiya shouted, “Yehi hai View Point 1… welcome! (This is View Point 1… welcome!)”. I looked up to witness the first rays of sun falling on the illustrious Mt. Kabru and then slowly reflecting on the whole of the Kanchenjunga range. It felt like magic – to be standing there, barely 2kms from the world’s third highest peak, and watch this phenomenon. It felt like nature had placed those glimmering rays on the range, just like a veil over a bride’s head. If there was a quantifiable way to express gratitude, then it had to be this… and here.

Crowning glory

I am swiftly pulled out of my dream world by the animated conversation between Raylene and Andi. They are walking around deep in discussion about what sounds like college… or music. I begin to wear my now not-so-wet shoe and see Jude walking towards us. Even from a distance, it is easy to tell that he is playing some of his favourite Trishna Gurung Nepali folk songs. I start to hum Asaar in my head as I walk towards the group. I think for now and forever, Asaar is only going to remind me of the summit and the tears…

जिन्दगी कहिले घाम कहिले पानी, लै बरी लै
Life is sometimes like the sun and sometimes rain

माया नै सबै भन्दा ठुलो कुरो रैछ नि है
Love is the greatest thing in the world

चारैतिर निला निला आकाश नै छायो है
Big Blue clouds surround us   

वरिपरि लागेको यो कुहिरो हरायो है
The fog surrounding us gets dispersed

मनलाई साँचो राखी हिँडिरहेछु
I keep my heart pure and walking

म तिम्रो साहारामै बाँचिरहेछु, मायालु
I am living for you, Darling….

Asaar… and tears.
PC: Raylene Monteiro

All of us soon re-group and mull over the happenings of the day with renewed vigour. The fatigue from our noteworthy 14.5km long hike seems to have faded away like the green on autumn leaves. We are happily gupshupping about the day that was and how lucky we are to have been able to get out of Dzongri and finally made it to the summit.

Enroute Kokchurang
PC: Jude Rayen

We hiked from Dzongri to Thansing via Kokchurang, which is usually a preferred campsite among trekkers (not to mention the number of ghost stories about this place). But we decided to give it a miss and camp at Thansing instead, thanks to the snow. The route from Dzongri to Kokchurang was carpeted with snow and needless to say, we were breaking the trail through most of the route. It was a beautiful day and the sky was slowly clearing to reveal its perfect blue shade. We marched along the route, having received ample warning from Jude that the descent to Kokchurang was going to be steeper than we imagined, and our knees were going to take quite a beating. 

Panoramic views
PC: Jude Rayen

When we finally descended to Kokchurang – after a lot of puffing and panting, knee-jerking and micro-spiking – we were greeted by the utterly gorgeous Prek Chu river that flowed in all its force and glory. We quickly ran towards the river to touch its ice cold waters that were gushing through snow-laden boulders. The exuberant Prek Chu along with the pine and oak trees sprinkled with snow along its bed made for an unforgettable sight! The place was so scenic and calm, but we had to start towards Thansing, albeit reluctantly…

The gorgeous Prek Chu
PC: Raylene Monteiro

Our reminiscing is interrupted by Ita Sing and the big bowl of popcorn in his hand. Amidst all our dialogue, we had forgotten how hungry we were, and the popcorn only makes us aware of this reality. Just as we begin to grab the popcorn, Sancha bhaiya waltzes in with hot chai for us. We are gorging on the hot chai and popcorn, and of course fully intend to continue our walk down our recently walked memory lane. We realise that none of this conversation is complete with an elaborate discussion on our 3 day long stay at Dzongri…

Popping away
PC: Andi Duttagupta

We ended up spending a good 3 days in Dzongri, as against the initial two day plan – snow played truant to our plans. We were positively confined to the four walls of our trek hut for most of the time (except the mandatory pee-breaks) as it snowed away to glory. The visual outside our hut changed from barren brown to whirly white in no time. And even though the outdoors looked mesmerizing and a few of us experienced our first snow-fall, the enthusiastic trekkers were exasperated with staying indoors in this newly christened ‘hell-hole’.

When Dzongri was covered in snow..
PC: Raylene Monteiro

We kept stepping outside to play some games and do the ‘thermal dance’ to keep ourselves active, but the snow fall kept pushing us back indoors. The weather on all three days was pretty dull and the skies were filled with the darkest clouds, making us feel like we had caused some major upset up in the heavens. Our visit up Dzongri top was also mired in thunder and rain, and we rushed back down with no views of the gorgeous Kanchenjunga range.

Dzongri Top – All and nothing 🙂

Even though Andi merrily networked with the other trekkers who were stuck with us in Dzongri, we were collectively worried about our prospects for the summit and started to make alternate plans. The next day was going to be our make or break day. We were going to move out of Dzongri anyway – either back to base or towards Thansing. We were pretty much blank about what lay ahead of us.

A loud knock on the door awoke us on the next morning at 5 – One of guides walked in and declared that the sky had cleared! We rushed to pack ourselves and head to Thansing! I’d like to call it providence… 

Overlooking the gorgeous Pandim
PC: Jude Rayen

Our engaging discussion is abruptly paused with the realisation of sunset that is heavenly unfolding before us. We are gazing at the palette of colours as it dissolves into the endless sky, blissfully aware that time has no meaning in this moment. Just as the sun sets behind the Pandim, into the Kanchenjunga range, a bunch of clouds lumber in and cover themselves over the beautiful mountains… just like curtains closing over the stage after the final encore.

We silently walk back towards the hut, content and deeply grateful – knowing in our hearts that this was nature’s gift to us and us only 🙂

The “A” team!
PC: Sancha Bhaiya

PS: Thankyou Jude and Tour de Outdoors, for giving us the experience of a lifetime. Forever grateful 🙂

Shikara and sunrise

To visit Kashmir had been my dream of many years. Needless to say, I was thrilled beyond measure when the coveted Kashmiri sojourn finally materialised this year. The beautiful Dal lake, idyllic meadows, tallest pine and chinar trees, countless hidden lakes, majestic mountains, charming houses, handsome horses, raging rivers and the most hospitable people – I was finally going to be witnessing heaven on earth!

A good beginning sets the tempo for the rest of the trip. Hence, while more posts detailing my adventures in the valley are pretty much in order, I would like to recount my experiences at my first touch-point in Kashmir – Srinagar.
For most, Srinagar is symbolic of the alluring Dal lake. The many interesting stories of the Dal that I heard from friends and read over various blogs had left me curious to know how this seemingly ordinary body of water had left everyone enticed. So I excitedly decided to stay at a houseboat to experience the Dal in its truest form.

Lalarukh houseboat, one of the many houseboats that dotted the circumference of the lake, was my chosen place of stay. The enormity of the Dal lake was such, that various entry-points or ghats had been marked at regular intervals as landmarks and indicators. I was slightly confused initially, when my host informed me that I would have to come to the houseboat via ghat number 9. However, the mystery finally unfolded itself once I reached the ghat and I was left in awe of the modus operandi to get to the houseboat – Each houseboat had dedicated shikaras (traditional small Kashmiri boats) to ferry passengers from the ghat to the accommodation. I settled myself in the shikara, absolutely delighted by the fact that I was having my own Venetian experience right in the middle of Kashmir! I was joined in the shikara by a fellow trekker (Kashmir is quite popular among trekkers, so one is sure to find them aplenty) and as the driver rowed us into the interiors, away from the shikara-swamped ghats, our hands automatically reached for our cameras to captured the unhindered beauty of the Dal.

Introduction to Dal

Introduction to Dal – first impression

The enormity of the lake was surreal and its glimmering waters were bordered by innumerable colourful houseboats, and opened into the endless blue sky overlooking the glorious Zabarwan range. My enthusiastic shikara driver – Dhoni ji, as he was fondly called – ferried me to the houseboat where I relaxed for some time before finally dashing out to the ghat again. I was to be joined here by a couple of fellow trekkers who I had met at the airport earlier in the day. During the wait for my new-found friends, Dhoni ji promptly filled me in with anecdotes about his family and life in Kashmir – how he had worked in Goa for nearly half his life, his travels across most of Europe and Australia, his brother’s fancy job in Switzerland, playing football over a frozen Dal lake in the winters, the ever increasing pollution of the lake, how unquestionably safe Srinagar was for women – I had heard it all. I tried to get his opinion on what would be the best time to go for a shikara ride across the lake – morning or evening. But he nonchalantly proclaimed that he would take me to the best of places, irrespective of what time of the day it was. However, as my fellow travellers slowly appeared in sight, Dhoni ji quietly divulged that a floating market was set up every morning in a particular part of the lake. In that moment, I made up my mind to go rowing across the Dal early next morning!

I was soon joined by my fellow trek-mates and we decided to spend the evening in being touristy and visiting the Nishat garden and Shankaracharya Hill. The lazy Sunday afternoon resulted in the extensive garden being thronged by school children who were busy enjoying themselves on picnic. Flocks of school kids were savouring their day out, running across the colourful landscape, idling in the shade of trees and merrily diving into the canal that ran through the middle of the garden. We spent some time at the garden, envisioning what the 7 days ahead had in store for us and then quickly got on our way to the Shankaracharya Hill (the entry to which would close at 5.30pm). Once we reached the hill, our driver informed us that vehicles would not be allowed beyond a point and we’d have to do a short hike up to the temple. He also suggested that we left our electronic gadgets, mobile phones and all food items in the car since these were not allowed within the temple premises. We quickly hiked up to the temple and paid obeisance to the giant shivalinga that stood in the middle of the shrine, as a number of devotees sang their prayers to the deity. Once we made our way out of the shrine, we sat in silence basking in magnetic vibes of the temple, relishing the glorious aerial view of the city from atop the hill.

A splash here and a splash there

A splash here and a splash there – school kids at Nishat garden

As we descended from the hill, we were once again by the side of the Dal lake, the waters of which were now being used by the rays of the setting sun as a backdrop for its goodbye dance. We collectively decided to spend some time at an empty spot on the promenade to witness this captivating vista. The enchanting view of countless shikaras drifting across the shimmering waters of the Dal, flocks of birds flying back to their sacred abode and the cinnamon sky bidding the sun goodbye – made for a picture-perfect spectacle. Truly overwhelmed by the beauty of nature that we had just witnessed, we made our way to dinner and treated ourselves to a sumptuous meal of authentic Kashmiri pulao and shorba. As we reached Ghat number 9 to head back to our respective houseboats, we confirmed our shikara ride with Dhoni ji for the next morning (we negotiated a deal with him at INR 500 for an hour). I was now truly looking forward to the 5am shikara ride, ready to witness the tranquil waters of the Dal at daybreak!

Sunset shades

Sunset shades

I was awoken by the chanting of morning prayers reverberating through the cool waters of the lake. It was past 4.30, and I walked up to the window to observe a couple of flickering lights here and there, on an otherwise dark and desolate lake. Quickly dressing up, I whizzed out of my room – waiting for Dhoni ji, all set to start my shikara ride. I wandered around the houseboat in my waiting time, illuminating the dark corridors with torchlight. The houseboat appeared to be huge in size and seemed to be connected with the others from the back. Before I could continue with my pointless adventure, I was distracted by the sound of water lapping against the boat and rushed to the front porch again. Except for the prayers (which were still in continuance), it was so quiet that even the creaking sound I made while walking up and down the gallery could have woken half the neighbourhood up.

Breaking dawn

Breaking dawn

I was joined on this 5am escapade by my three newly found trekker friends. As we kick-started our morning tour of the Dal, we couldn’t help but immerse ourselves in the serene setting. Ours was a solitary shikara across the lake, which gave us ample time and space to blissfully soak in all of nature’s activities around us – the endless chirping of the birds, the first rays of the sun slipping through the clouds and crowning them in gold, the cool morning breeze and the sound of water lapping against the boat. We continued to cruise along various water-alleys across lily-swamped corridors and an isolated Meena Bazaar for another 30 minutes. Vegetable vendors with elongated shikaras suddenly started to emerge around us as we began to approach the market place. As we continued our journey towards the market place and scores of other vendors started appearing in sight, Dhoni ji pointed at the vegetables and began to tell us how and where these were grown. We soon reached the market place which was packed with all sorts of vendors – vegetable and fruit sellers, craftsmen, sellers of flowers and seeds, kahwa traders, handloom and souvenir merchants. Dhoni ji further enlightened us on how the locals cultivated water-growing vegetables and herbs in the lake. He also mentioned that the floating market was a highlight of the Dal lake, which was visited primarily by tourists. The locals apparently made their own daily purchases from the common Srinagar bazaars.

The floating market

The floating market

After spending another 20 minutes in the market indulging in sundry shopping, we embarked on our journey back to the base. The return was filled a more clear view of the houses that were perched across the lake and Dhoni ji was now showing us lettuce and onion plantations in the water. Now that the sun was out and it was bright and clear, we noticed how quaint the route was and took turns to sit at the front of the shikara to enjoy the divinity of the Dal. A myriad trees gracefully posing on the edges of the meandering lake making crystal clear reflections along the gleaming waters, young children squinting out of their windows and gushing at the site of the young travellers visiting their homeland, the cool morning breeze caressing our hair – all made for the most picturesque return sail. As we crossed a still sleepy Meena Bazaar yet again, Dhoni ji probably sensed my disappointment at seeing the closed shops and presented us with yet another piece of trivia – Each of the seemingly closed shops had a salesman sleeping inside to cater to potentially interested tourists wanting to purchase local products after the shikara ride. We were running out of time and halfheartedly decided to continue our journey back. Our glorious shikara ride soon came to an end (we were out for almost an hour and a half) and we thanked Dhoni ji, exchanged good byes and headed back to our respective houseboats.

Postcard views from the front

I sat myself at the porch of the houseboat, sipping on the delicious kahwa that my host had prepared for me and silently revelling in the experience of my first ever shikara ride. It had indeed been an extraordinarily beautiful morning!
The idiosyncrasies of life at the Dal lake were unfolding before me, as I sat there still ruminating over all the gratifying events from my stay in Srinagar – a multitude of hawkers hopping in and out of houseboats and calling from their shikaras to present their products, countless birds flitting in and out of the cool waters of the Dal, the lake embracing the glimmering sunrays like a necklace of its own, and a host of locals heading towards the ghats on their way to work.
In that moment, I felt a stillness and calm inside me like never before. I felt like I had been placed in the middle of the most perfect postcard and experienced a sense of absolute joy. Taking the final few sips of what was left of my kahwa, I wondered why people said that peace was hard to find in this beautiful place.

Rain and Ravangla

It is 7.20 in the morning and I quickly gulp down my coffee and start trotting towards the taxi stand which is right outside MG Marg. Glancing back, I bid adieu to New Modern Central Lodge – the lovely place that housed me during the first two days of my travel. Even as I walk across the near empty MG Marg, trying to grasp as much of its beauty as I can for the last time, I cannot help but wonder what my next destination Ravangla is going to be like. I hurriedly buy my shared jeep ticket to Ravangla upon reaching the taxi stand (= share jeep tickets to Ravangla could be booked in advance on the previous day as well) and head to the cab.

The gorgeous mountains as they play with the Sun!

The gorgeous mountains as they play with the Sun!

The cab starts off at 7.45 am sharp and the drive to Ravangla is magnificent, to say the least – Winding roads across the gigantic Himalayas, the cold breeze, tallest trees, unending farmlands, the most exquisite birds and wonderful co-passengers. It feels like a dream. There is a visible change in climate and environment as we move away from the commercial hub of Gangtok. (= My co-passengers Simmi, Bishey and her mother are the most enthusiastic company I could have asked for. Even as they intently listen to all my stories of Bombay, they animatedly point out to the mountains outside the window and keep me updated with our geographical location. They share details of their life in Sikkim, and constantly keep checking if I am comfortable. All this in a shared-cab! These lovely ladies already make me look forward to Ravangla and I can’t wait to get there!)(= One more thing that I could not help but notice, was the availability of clean and hygienic public toilets on the route. I instantly drew comparisons with my visit to Himachal Pradesh a couple of years back, where availability of public toilets was one of the bigger challenges we faced during our road trip. Thumbs up, Sikkim!)

We reach Ravangla by 10.30 am, and even as Simmi continues her homeward journey to Kewzing (which is approximately 10 kms away), Bishey and her mother continue with me, till I manage to locate my hotel – Hotel Melody. They bid adieu with the warmest smile and wish me the best of luck for my journey ahead. I am welcomed into the cottage-like hotel by the owner / manager, Bobbit Das, and my room offers me a brilliant view of the town. It is such a pleasant day and the sun rays beaming through the window make me wonder why everyone kept telling me about how cold Ravangla is! After getting some rest, I head to a restaurant called ‘Kookay’ for lunch (Bobbit sir’s recommendation). (=Now I need to mention that at this moment, a million thoughts are bouncing all over my head! Firstly, during my conversation with Bobbit sir, I learnt that I was the only guest at the hotel during my stay in Ravangla. I don’t know how to say it, but I am scared. This is probably the first time I am experiencing the true meaning of solo travel, but I just cannot put my apprehensions to rest. My solo-traveller instincts have obviously taken over, and I have got my guard up… but I don’t know if it’s a good idea to stay here – all alone. Sigh. Maybe I should just move to some other place that is not as deserted as this one? But the reviews on tripadvisor were very positive. What other option do I even have? From what I gather, there isn’t much to do in Ravangla anyway. Maybe I should just leave tomorrow? Sigh. Maybe I should just go and have lunch first? A whirlwind of thoughts).

At Kookay!

At Kookay!

Veg thali. Slurrrp!

Veg thali. Slurrrp!

I walk to Kookay which is barely 5 minutes away from the hotel, where I meet Norzang, who is meticulously redecorating a wall with post-it notes left by the many visitors at the restaurant. The restaurant is beautiful and exudes a lovely vibe. I request Norzang to suggest a local delicacy for lunch and he gladly recommends the thali. ‘It is not a local dish, but it is cooked in the local way. Maybe you can try it’, he says. So thali, it is! Given that I am the only guest at the restaurant (again!), we end up making small talk on why I am travelling alone and what my folks think of all the photos that I keep sending across to them. Soon, my meal arrives and my appetite takes me by a big surprise as I gobble the food down. To call it delicious, would be gross injustice to the food! After my meal, I randomly ask Norzang to help me with off-beat places to visit at Ravangla. What happens next, is something I will always remember. He tears off a couple of pages from his diary, and begins to draw miniature maps to help me with directions to what he suggests are the places worth visiting. Another brush with the affectionate Sikkimese hospitality!

Kookay maps

My favourite souvenirs from Sikkim 🙂

I thank Norzang, collect my bag from the hotel and merrily start walking to Tathagata Tsal (=more famously known as Buddha Park – Yes, that is the first destination!). It is easily a 15 minute walk, to say the least. As I stride away from the dreamy town, I am left walking alone along the empty road (again!), even as a number of tourist vehicles zoom past me. However, as I near Buddha Park, the Buddha emerges through the mountains and its sheer size leaves me captivated. I purchase my entry ticket (=which costs Rs. 50) and make my way through security. The guard collects my ticket and asks me if I am alone (=First emotion: fear. Is he a creep? Why should he ask me this? What has it got to do with him? Should I tell him the truth or lie? Why am I stuck in Ravangla? So many thoughts in a fraction of a second. Funny how the human mind is so quick). I reply in the affirmative, and he politely shows me directions to the Buddha, the souvenir stores and the washrooms before welcoming me with a smile. I am completely taken aback. (=Next thought: this place is beginning to shatter all my opinions on sixth sense and intuition). 

Tathagata Tsal

Tathagata Tsal

As I set foot into the park, the view of it leaves me enthralled – the strong wind, manicured lawns, the prayer flags and the enchanting Buddha statue with the mountains acting as a perfect background. I climb down the stairs and walk along the path only to be left mesmerized by the ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ prayer playing in the park. Wow! (=I can’t stop thinking about the powerful vibes that Buddha Park exudes. It is undoubtedly one of the most serene places I have visited). In all my excitement, I make a mental note to stick around the place for at least a couple of hours more, and explore every corner that I possibly can. However, the bright sun-rays are slowly beginning to vanish, and a cloud-army is marching towards us in the sky. I am quite enjoying my walk along the elaborate path-way, but silently praying for it to not rain. As I reach the foot of the statue, I can hear loud thunders from some place far away in the mountains. I quickly take my shoes off, and enter inside the statue. I am welcomed to the sight of a magnificent stupa at the centre of the hall! To the left is a museum with 1,000 Buddha statues and straight up is the route to walk what feels like 3 floors up inside the statue. This circular-walkway runs through various wall-paintings of the story of Buddhism – its origin, how it got to India, the story of Buddha, etc. Just when I am about to exit from the statue after completing my tour of the inside, a group of approximately 50 South-Asian tourists walks in with 5 monks and they start chanting prayers and do a parikrama of the shrine. Almost as a reflex action, I step back inside the statue and sit down in a corner to watch them pray. (=It feels so powerful, almost hypnotic). Having lost track of the amount of time I have spent here, I slowly move out of the statue after a while.

Prayer Flags

Prayer Flags

My worst fears come true as I step outside – It had been pouring. The strong winds are making whistling sounds and causing the prayer flags fly – which is a vista I want to remember forever. The bright sunny day that had welcomed me into the town has now disappeared and all that is visible now, is the grey sky. The thundering has gotten louder and closer and even more vicious. (=Honestly, I love rain. A part of me was actually even wanting to get drenched. But I had my phone, camera, diary, story book, map, wallet and tickets with me in the bag… with no plastic to cover these things up. Hence, the caution). I quickly trot along the path-way, on my way back to the gate. I am contemplating hitch-hiking my way down to the town, but then decide to just make a run for it instead. As luck would have it, only a minute into my exit from the park, it starts to drizzle. I am too far away from the parking lot to ask for a lift, so going back is not an option. I then notice the other gate to the park (which has a roof) and run to seek refuge. All this while, I can feel small pebbles hitting my back. I look around to see who is throwing these at me, but not a soul in sight. It is now pouring heavily, and I am safely under the shade of the roof at the gate. It is only then that I realise that nobody was throwing pebbles at me – it was raining hailstones!! HAILSTONES! I am just standing there, at the gate, with no other human being in sight – awestruck – as the rain lashes the ground and as the hailstones fall with a force like never before, as if it was never going to stop. (=Even though I am alone and stranded, in this moment I feel happy like never before. I think I am the happiest I have been. It feels like every cell in my body is feeling the joy of experiencing a hailstone shower. It feels so wonderful to feel so vulnerable to nature. I want to absorb every bit of the beauty that I am witnessing – the falling hailstones, the clouded mountains, the roaring thunder and my feeling of infinite happiness. In this moment, I am the happiest I can be 🙂 )

In a short while, it stops raining, and I dash back to the hotel. I get to my room and the anxiety of being the only guest at the hotel floods my head again. I call a friend to pour out my concerns… and after immense pacification, I finally decide to go ahead with my stay and enjoy the beauty of Ravangla. Just as I finish my call, it starts thundering and raining hailstones again – almost as if the rain gods want me to stay 🙂



Solo-tripping across Sikkim!


Earlier this year, I decided to embark upon a new adventure – a solo trip to Sikkim!
My 15 day journey involved hopping in and out of shared jeeps, switching multiple trains, living in home-stays and budget accommodations, experiencing nature in all its glory, meeting the most amazing people and gorging on the most delicious food! To call the experience exhilarating would be an understatement.

I would be lying if I said that I was not apprehensive about travelling alone. But having successfully managed to complete the trip all by myself, I am filled with a sense of liberty and independence! Travelling alone has filled me with a sense of empowerment and also helped me connect with myself in so many ways. I took so many decisions that I never thought I could take, and discovered the courage that I never thought I could possess. Most importantly, travelling alone helped me truly appreciate the significance and culture of the place.

Needless to say, I will be writing extensively about my experiences in Sikkim. However, to begin with, I would like to share with you a brief interview that Breakfree Journeys conducted with me to know more about my experience as a female solo-traveller. It gave me a great platform to share (a part of) my experience, apprehensions, preparation and thoughts at the time of travel; And I would love to share it with you!
So here’s the link:

Will soon update this space with more stories from visit to Sikkim 🙂


Road-tripping to Ratnagiri!

Destination: Ratnagiri, Maharashtra
Distance from Mumbai: 339 km (approx. 8 hrs by road)
No. of days: 3
No. of persons: 5 (3 adults + 2 kids)

After immense discussion and 4-destination-changes, we finally zeroed in on Ganpatipule for a short family vacation this Diwali. Having read and heard rave reviews of the Konkan region, this trip sure had me in high spirits!
Well, after some initial apprehension about the distance to be covered and the road to be taken, we finally decided to drive down to Ratnagiri (the various travel blogs on Ganpatipule and Ratnagiri were of immense help and major confidence boosters). Google maps on, we finally took off for the pristine Konkan at around 7.30 am from Mumbai (=Personally, the earlier you leave, the better. The route is beautiful and can be enjoyed during the early hours of the day. Also, lesser the traffic, quicker will you reach!)
We took the following route from Bombay: Mumbai Pune expressway – Khopoli Pali road – Right turn at Wadhkal Naka for NH 66 – Mangaon – Mahad – Chiplun – Sangameshwar.
Having had no previous experience of driving on a National Highway, I was a bit nervous about taking the wheel. However, a few kilometers into the drive, all was good. The roads are excellent and the route was pretty straight. There were a couple of places where we got stuck on account of inaccurate Google Map directions, but some local help later, we were back on track! NH 66 (Mumbai – Goa road) does have some tricky spots and long ghats, but it’s all manageable if you exercise caution while driving. Contrary to various blog posts that suggested the lack of eateries on the route, I found that there were plenty of options to eat and rest at regular intervals. Fresh juices, fruits, snacks and rest-rooms were pretty accessible in the villages scattered across NH 66. (=Recommendation: Do try the delicious Solkadi at Hotel Hindavi just after Adlabs Imagica).

The beautiful road :)

The beautiful road 🙂

A number of short breaks and food-stops later, we finally reached our destination at around 5.30 pm – Kotawade. (= Thanks to the peak season, we were unable to find a decent accommodation within Ganpatipule. After unending online research, I had stumbled upon a homestay called Atithi Parinay, and immediately checked tripadvisor and their website for details.. and one call later, our booking was done! The only glitch was that Atithi Parinay (AP) is located in Kotawade village, which is around 15 km from Ganpatipule. However, all the tripadvisor reviews and photos on their website really had my heart set on AP 🙂 ).



On checking into AP, we were received by the owner, Medha and her dog Renne (super adorable). On entering the house, we were lovingly served with fresh kokam sharbat (slurrrp) and guided to our room by Medha. We were provided with a large air-conditioned Bungalow room on the first floor to accommodate all 5 of us. The interiors were so tastefully done and exuded a very rustic vibe. The stone walls, dung floors, windows were so rustic and yet so sophisticated. The tents and cottages were designed wonderfully and felt comfortable – just like home. The rest of the day was spent in wandering around the property and relaxing amidst nature, after which we were treated to a finger-licking home-made dinner at AP. We also made friends with another family that was there on vacation and enthusiastically made plans to visit the beaches with them on the next day! (Perks of living in a home stay 😉 )

The bungalow at Atithi Parinay - Shrameva

The bungalow at Atithi Parinay – Shrameva

The cottages are a must-visit!

The cottages are a must-visit!

We were very fortunate to have the terrace right outside  our room. The chirping of the birds and beautiful vistas of sunrise & the exceptionally maintained estate were just the perfect start to our next day! By 7 am, we quickly headed to visit the Aare-Ware and Malgund beaches. Aare- Ware beach was a 5km drive from AP and was, without exaggeration, the most beautiful beach I have seen. Blue waters, clear skies, green patches of palm trees and the unwavering mountains – The place was straight out of a dream. We were the only ones around that area, with no other soul in sight! We halted there for a while (for an endless photo session) and then drove ahead to another point up the hill that offered a panoramic view of the sea. It was here, that we spotted innumerable dolphins diving in and out of the endless ocean. The vista was so magnificent, that it made me want to stay there and keep gazing into the gorgeous ocean.

The gorgoeus Aare-Waare beach!

The gorgeous Aare-Ware beach!

But like all good things come to an end, so did my brief spell of enchantment. We hopped back into the car and headed to Malgund (another 11 km away) beach for water sports! Malgund beach was another beauty. Although there were a few tourists who were there for water sports, the beach was clean and the waters, crystal clear. We spent another hour at Malgund – trying our hand at kayaking, jet skiing and a host of other water sports (which were quite reasonable priced, and could be negotiated). Once we were done with the water sports, we played around in the beautiful waters of Malgund… thoroughly enjoying every time the waves came rushing into our open arms and hugged us 🙂 (=Malgund is a very safe beach with fairly shallow waters. We had our life jackets on even as we played in the water, and were under the supervision of a life guard).

The water sports gear at Malgund

The water sports gear at Malgund

We returned to our home stay by 10.15 am, only to be served with steaming hot breakfast (poha and cheelas)with chai. Post all the gluttony, we headed to our room for some rest and freshening up. The rest of the day was spent in chit-chatting, relaxing on the terrace and playing countless games of  badminton and UNO. Not to mention, savoring the delicious home-made fare at AP!

Stairway to heaven ;)

Stairway to heaven 😉

The perfect to laze around on the terrace!

Perfect way to laze around on the terrace!

Terrace view :)

Terrace view 🙂

The next morning was welcomed with a morning walk across Kotawade. It indeed is a beautiful, quaint village. We realized that most of the houses in Konkan were built with red ‘chira’ stones. These simple abodes only added to the beauty of the place! We returned to AP, only to be served with a scrumptious breakfast, which we gobbled down in no time! We treated ourselves with multiple games of badminton, UNO and tree climbing after lunch. However, by 3.30 pm, we hit the road again, to visit the Ratnagiri lighthouse (= Strict  timing: 4 pm to 5 pm). Our estimation that the lighthouse was around 10-12km away from our home stay was soon proved wrong, as we drove through numerous villages, seeking directions from locals. On our way, we missed a turn and reached the monumental Ratnadurg fort instead. The fort proudly stood there, in all its grandeur, overlooking the endless Arabian sea – what a sight it was! Due to shortage of time, we decided not to climb up the fort, but visit the lighthouse instead. We reached in the nick of time to visit the lighthouse (they were closing entry for the day) (= Entry fee is Rs. 10 per person) and quickly climbed up to see the view. The breathtaking view more than made up for all the wrong routes and long drives! We stood there, enamored, letting the wind play around with our hair. Needless to say, plenty of photos were clicked, but none of them can capture the beauty of what we saw from the lighthouse 🙂 (= The road to the lighthouse is narrow and extremely steep, so it would help to drive steadily there. Saying it out of the experience of my car getting stuck midway 😛 )

The lighthouse standing tall.

The lighthouse standing tall.

View of the Ratnadurg fort from the lighthouse

View of the Ratnadurg fort from the lighthouse

Sunset from the lighthouse :)

Sunset from the lighthouse 🙂

We quickly exited the lighthouse as it had to be closed for the day and took off to visit the Ganpatipule temple. The temple was a long drive from there, and we eagerly wanted to reach before it turned dark (the roads are pitch dark at night, so it’s always a risk to drive on the winding roads). We soon reached the temple entrance, where an entry of Rs. 20 is levied for entry of vehicles. The temple was located at a distance of around 1km from the entry point. We parked the car at an empty spot and walked towards the temple. a good number of people had come to offer their prayers at this famous temple. As we neared the temple, we noticed that it was beautifully located right next to the beach. It was beautifully done up in the local red stone, and was quite well maintained and well-secured. The grand MTDC resort stood on our right, overlooking the beach and temple. We queued up to pay obeisance to the deity. Thanks to the smooth administration, we were out within 10 minutes. We had been informed by our newly made friends that the temple also offers delicious prasad (food offerings made to the deity) to the visitors. But due to dearth of time, we decided to give it a skip. (However, we’ve been told that the pasad is a must have here. So do try it!). Quickly, we headed to our car (by which time it was already dark), and drove back to AP, where another mouth-watering meal awaited us! The rest of the evening was spent relaxing and packing to leave on the next day!

Ganpatipule temple. Source: Wikipedia

Ganpatipule temple. Source: Wikipedia

Departure day soon arrived and we decided to make the most of it by exploiting the terrace to the fullest. After spending a good hour and half on the terrace, we freshened & packed up, and headed downstairs for breakfast. Needless to say, breakfast (uttapams and sabudaana khichdi, served with chutney and dahi/ curd) was delicious and thoroughly enjoyed by all! Having stuffed ourselves with copious amounts of food, we quickly took off for the cashew factory that was just 2 minutes from AP. Special Konkani cashews were then purchased for ourselves and the family, after which we headed back to AP for our final checkout. We then bade adieu to all our newly made friends there, and took off for our long drive back to the concrete city with heavy, yet happy hearts! 🙂

Back on the road!

Back on the road!

I realised that Ganpatipule/ Konkan is a great place to have a relaxing vacation. The drive, beautiful vistas, scenic beaches and lovely weather are so de-stressing. It’s not one of those destinations where you just keep ticking places off your checklist. It’s a great place to spend some quality time with yourself and your family and just not have anything to worry about. I would highly recommend a visit to the Konkan to everybody… so much so, that I’m planning my next road trip already 😉

PS: For alternate budget accommodation in Kotawade, you contact call Mr. Gajanan Sahasrabuddhe (+91 94224 30779)

Cycling around Hampi!

Destination: Hampi, Karnataka            Distance: 740km             Number of days: 5               Number of travelers: 2 Hampi had been on my travel wish-list for a while. So what better chance could have I got to visit this scenic temple town, other than to relieve some post exam stress? The December-January period felt like a good time to visit (it’s the peak tourist season here) and I was raring to go! Unfortunately for me, most of my friends had already visited Hampi, which meant that I had nobody to go with. Even as I was gearing myself to make a solo trip (AND convince my parents to let me travel alone), I found a travel-mate in my friend Lizann, who was as kicked about visiting Hampi as I was! After some serious planning, R&D and parent-convincing later, December 29 was fixed as the departure date (yes, this is a late post). Come December 29, and we were ready to hop into our semi-sleeper VRL bus to Hospet (one way tickets cost us around Rs. 1200 per person). VRL is one of the safest and most comfortable means of transport. They have plenty of VRL offices throughout the 727 km Bombay-Hospet stretch, which makes bus-breakdowns and emergencies easy to handle (our bus broke down at around 2am on our way to Hospet, but we were promptly shifted to another VRL bus). We arrived at Hospet by 10.30am on the next day (which was after a delay of approximately 2.5 hrs) and immediately headed to the Hospet bus depot, which is just one street away from teh VRL drop-off point. A number of auto rickshaw drivers (costing Rs. 200 per seat) hounded us, but we were on an economy trip, so decided to take the ST bus to Hampi instead (costing Rs. 15 per person). What caught my attention was the female bus conductor in our ST bus. A true example of gender equality in south India! After a comfortable journey of around 20 minutes (approx 13km from Hospet), there we were! Even as the bus halted outside the Hampi Bazaar area, a chill ran down my spine to actually see the iconic Virupaksha temple that I had only seen on my laptop screen until then! For a few seconds, we were stunned and didn’t know exactly where to go. Soon, we collected ourselves and decided to follow the path to the temple. Our phones were whipped out to call Mr. Bobby, owner of Bobby guest-house, which was recommended to us by Rushikesh – the Man in-charge at Breakfree Journeys (we were indeed an adventurous lot. In spite of warnings that it was going to be peak season and finding an accommodation would be difficult, we decided to venture out and find some decent accommodation only after arriving at Hampi). Even as we spoke to Mr. Bobby over the phone, we made our way to the boat to transport us across the river to Virupapur gadde, where most of the guest-houses are located (One way boat-ride costs Rs. 20 per person, extra ticket for luggage. Boat service functions from 7am to 5.30pm. The coracle service starts after 5.30pm, costing Rs. 50 per person one way. Cycles/bikes can also be transported across the river through the boat/coracle).

The Virupaksha temple overlooking Krishna river.

The Virupaksha temple overlooking Krishna river.

Bobby guest-house was barely at a minute’s distance from the river bank. Luckily, they had a couple of vacant rooms, so we sorted our accommodation and headed to our room to freshen up (at Rs. 850 per day, we may have shelved out a large amount for accommodation. But we decided to go for it anyway, since it was peak time, and as two female travelers, safety was of prime concern). Soon, we set out to grab a quick bite and explore our side of the river. We bought a map of Hampi from one of the local stores and inquired about cycles. Unfortunately, the all the cycles had been hired out for the day, so we decided to walk it up to Anjaneya hill, in Anegondi village (in retrospection, walking down a nearly empty road is not exactly the safest idea for solo travelers. So do try to get a bike/hire an auto in case the cycles are not available). Dinners were usually simple affairs at Bobby’s and German bakery (delicious desserts at extremely affordable prices). The village area was not very well lit at night, so we preferred to stay indoors and not venture out too far post sunset.

View from atop Anjaneya Hill.

View from atop Anjaneya Hill.

On our second day in Hampi, we decided to do a group cycle tour with a Karnataka State Tourism Department authorised guide, Hanumantha (it cost Rs. 500 per person, including cycle rent. I don’t know if we overpaid, but it was a fairly decent experience). The following places were covered by the tour: Hemakuta Hill, Kadalekalu Ganesh, Sasivekalu Ganesh, Krishna temple, Lakshmi Narasimha temple (which is a brilliant piece of architecture), Badavilinga temple, the Underground Siva temple, Hazararama temple, the Royal enclosure and the Zenana enclosure. The tour ended at the Elephant stables in Zenana enclosure. However, we took the cycles with us and also visited the Queen’s Bath, Mohammaden Watchtower, Band Tower and the Archaeological Museum in Kamalapur. Hanumantha filled us in with stories of the various places that we visited. You can find more information about these places on After a tiring, but adventurous day we retired to our room at Bobby’s and geared ourselves for the next day!

The Mahanavami dibba.

The Mahanavami dibba.

On our third day in Hampi, we explored the Achyutraya temple ruins, the Monolithic bull, the King’s balance and the iconic Vitthala temple. We covered all these places on foot, as we had to park our cycles in the parking area at the base of the hill. On our way back, we relished some aloo bondas (a local delicacy prepared with potatoes) and sukha bhel. After returning our cycles, we rushed to the river bank so as to not miss the last boat to Bobby’s! A traditional South Indian breakfast comprising of delicious appams and melt-in-your-mouth idlis kick-started day four! We were very keen on visiting the Pattabhirama temple, Jain temples and Mohammad’s tomb in Kamalapur (where the Archaeological Museum is also located). We quickly rented our cycles and set out for Kamalapur. Riding past beautiful banana fields and rice plantations, we reached Kamalapur in about 30 minutes. After seeking some local help with directions, we finally reached Pattabhirama temple. We were very surprised to find no one, except the two of us, in the temple! Excitedly, yet cautiously, we stuck around together to click as many photos as we could! We then headed out to visit the Domed Gateway, which was another place not frequented by tourists. The ride to the gateway was magnificent, to say the least! The banana plantations on either side of the road, the cow-herd walking the cattle home, the fresh air and the empty street made for a beautiful vista! The Domed Gateway was a beautiful and unexplored place, adjoining which was a forest route, which we were craving to explore! Honestly, that was the only time when I wished that I was with a group, for it was very risky for the two of us to cycle through the deserted route by ourselves! A lot of photos later, we made our way out to visit the Jain temples. However, a sari shop on the main road caught our fancy and some major sari (window) shopping later, we were left with no time for anything else. So we made our way to the gushing waters of the Krishna river and freshened up before cycling out of Kamalapur.

A part of the Pattabhirama temple.

A part of the Pattabhirama temple.

Back at Hampi, we decided to explore the area adjoining the river-crossing. Luckily, we bumped into a couple of local girls who were out on their evening walk and joined them on their way uphill to view the sunset from atop the hill. It was already 7pm by the time we returned to the boat crossing. Obviously we missed the last boat, and took the coracle instead (expensive, but yaay).

Evenings in Hampi :)

Evenings in Hampi 🙂

We started our fifth (and last) day with an early morning walk along the river bank. After spending some quality time in solitude, we headed to Matanga Hill. We (rather unknowingly) took the tougher route up, but every bit of the effort we put to climb uphill was completely worth it! The picturesque aerial view of Hampi more than made up for the toil! One of my favourite moments of the trip: Sitting atop Matanga hill even as the wind brushed across my face. Gazing, awestruck, at the lush green banana plantations, the Achyutraya temple that we had just visited a day back, the Virupaksha temple that stood tall in the distance and a road that ran amid the ruins. Perfect. We soon found our way down through the stairs (the easier route) and decided to grab a quick bite before heading to Virupaksha temple, which is a functional temple. The Virupaksha temple is usually the first stop-point for most tourists, but us being us, we decided to visit it in the end! After spending a good 40 minutes looking around the temple, we headed straight for Bobby’s – from where we collected our luggage – and made our way to the bus stand for a bus to Hospet. A short wait later, we boarded our VRL bus to Mumbai, thus marking the end to our very adventurous visit to the temple town!

Sitting atop Matanga Hill. Like a boss!

Sitting atop Matanga Hill. Like a boss!

General suggestions for those who are planning to visit Hampi:

  1. Carry plenty of sunscreen lotion with you at any given time! It is always hot and sunny, and the concept of winter does not exist here.
  2. The Virupaksha temple area houses the Karnataka State Tourism Department Office. You could get yourself a detailed map of Hampi from the office to help you with planning your itinerary. It is also recommended to hire the services of a department-authorised guide only, if at all you want a guided tour.
  3. Good news for (solo) lady travelers: Hampi is certainly safe for women. However, do remain alert and exercise caution. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend walking around alone after the sun goes down, or in deserted areas, no matter how safe it is. Walking around in groups is always recommended.
  4. You can bargain for almost everything! From room rent to yoga mats to shopping in the bazaar to cycle rent. You’ll be surprised at how much  you end up saving after all the bargaining.
  5. Cycles are available on rent on either side of the river. So you could rent the cycles depending on which of the river you will be exploring (it will save you the cost of transporting your cycles across the river).
  6. Most of the guest-houses have a check out time of 10am. If your bus/train departs later in the evening, you can check out of your room by 10am, and request the management to let you keep your luggage in a safe place. Of course, at your own risk, but this works for most!
  7. We weren’t very fussy about the food, but there are plenty of options available as far as restaurants are concerned! I won’t make any recommendations here, but will just nudge you to go and explore the well known as well as local food joints with an open mind!
  8. But….do try the curd-rice at Mowgli guest-house, if possible. Divine!

PS: Thank you Shreedhar (my brother) and Rushikesh for all your help and suggestions!

And the sun decided to shower us with blessings even as it set!

And the sun decided to shower us with blessings even as it set!

Lost my heart in Himachal Pradesh!

This gallery contains 40 photos.

Caution: Long blog post ahead! Well, travel is an enriching experience. For me, travel is meditation. It is the best kind of therapy. Travel is not about going away from home. It is about making another one! Which is why, I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to the mystic land […]