Category Archives: Jammu & Kashmir

Enraptured on my way- at Sarthal

Talk about beautiful places in India- my mind will take me to this untouched valley in the lower Himalayas tucked away from the maddening frenzy of the tourists in the Kathua district, located in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thanks to snowfall in the winters, this region will be cut off from civilization for almost 6months and when the snow disappears, it does not fail to mesmerize every passerby with a different landscape each time.

So, my journey here started on a rainy morning as a part of the Himalayan expedition from Basohli towards Sarthal. In a bid to keep myself warm (like duh!!) I opted a seat in the comfort of the tempo-traveler over a pillion seat of a bike. Although I regretted my choice later, I had my share of fun getting to stop the vehicle almost everywhere and capture the beauty of the landscape all along. The consistent rains over the past couple of days had brought in greenery for as long as the eyes could see. With winding roads, I was accompanied by the tributary of river Ravi on one side and vibrant hills on the other for most part of the road. There was even a magnificent stretch of the dam backwaters and dotting waterfalls by the roadside that added their charm to the beautiful landscape. We stopped over at one of the small rivulets where we relished the packed lunch we had carried for ourselves. The drive along the curvaceous roads almost until the town of Bani is definitely a delight for every passionate rider. Bani is the last major town one arrives until the next destination on this stretch where we all stopped by for a cup of tea. The roads beyond Bani gets a little treacherous with poor roads, deep valley and possible landslides. I remember how we had missed a landslide by a whisker!! But, the beauty of the mountains did not let us down even a bit and continued to fascinate us all the way. It was dark by the time we arrived at the ‘Tourist Reception Centre’ where we were hosted by the Jammu tourism for the night’s stay. Comfortable tents were pitched in with bon-fire to keep us warm through a cold night under a clear starry night’s sky that I had been longing for a long time…

Enroute to Bani from Basohli

When I came out of my tent at the break of dawn- I was blown away with the beauty of the place. Our camp site was surrounded by the beautiful mountain on all sides which we barely knew of while sleeping through the freezing night! The tranquil atmosphere was filled with fragrant air that carried perfumes of wildflowers from the distant mountains. While the other fellow travelers seemed to be snoring still, I decided to venture out to explore the place on my own… After a small stroll amidst the livestock including buffaloes, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys etc. outside the camp, I was warmly greeted by a Gujjar family for a cup of ‘Desi Chai’ with them. The life of these Bakarwals (the shepherd community) was a good motivation for the nomad in me. They are continuously on the move with their makeshift tents who earn their livelihood purely through diary and wool. Meanwhile, I was joined by my brothers who then decided to walk further towards the Gujjar settlements on the slopes. The beautiful setting with rock-laden plains, flat-roofed clay/rock houses, the sturdy wooden bridges across the murmuring stream hoaxed us to get into its ice-cold water. It was a wonderful morning!!

Livestock at Sarthal

We then decided to rush on the bikes to soak in the views of the Lawang valley that we had missed out on the previous evening, since we had travelled after sunset. For the pious ones, there are several temples around the valley that can be done by foot all of which have Chandi mata as the presiding deity. We were looking out for an adventurous trail. We were fascinated by the beauty of the seven waterfalls at around 3kms behind our campsite. The stream that probably originates from the molten glaciers, gushed down in seven tiers making it a surreal place. We wished we had more time with us to hike down the valley and spend a couple of peaceful hours by the water, alas! A quick breakfast post this short ride and we had to pack-up for the road ahead towards Baderwah… Since, the TT I was travelling in was the backup vehicle, we had to drive behind the last rider… So when a rider stayed back with more than 10 punctures in a single tyre, it meant that we had over 2 hours of time to kill… Meanwhile, I hiked up a small hillock from where I got a good view of the Gujjar valley below… Along with a couple of unicorns that had strayed down from nowhere, the local flora was another thing that caught my attention up there!! After spending a couple of peaceful hours, the silence of the atmosphere was broken by the roaring beasts (bikes) that hinted us to get ready to continue our onward journey…

The Gujjar settlements at the Sarthal valley

The roads that we traversed ahead came as a stunner… The drive through the loose gravel laid roads flanked by tall pine trees, snaking through virgin hills which was abundantly blessed with wild flowers of different colours seemed nothing less than traveling in a fairyland. I enjoyed every bit of this road all the way up to Chattargala top, the highest point in this area. We shared a cup of tea and a nice conversation with the soldiers of the Indian army posted up there. Bidding a warm goodbye to them, I then hopped on to the pillion seat of brother’s bike and got set to pull down the valley to our next destination- Baderwah!

Summary: 

Must do:

* Spot a white vulture at the Chattargala top. These birds are critically endangered.

* Participate in the 3-day Bani festival and enjoy the Shinj- the wrestling competition.

Must have:

* Sip on a cup of piping hot ‘Desi Chai’, a pink coloured drink prepared with tea twigs boiled in sheep milk. It can be consumed either with salt or sugar.

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Giving a new perspective to my travels- a biking expedition in the Himalayas

When my name was included in the list, I had a bag of mixed feelings. I was glad to have got an all sponsored trip to one of the least explored parts of the country. But at the same time, I had my apprehensions about being a part of an organized trip. I was excited to travel on one of the deadliest roads in the world and then the fear of being a misfit as a pillion among what was supposed to be a biking event with professional riders from across the country kept flashing frequent thoughts of pulling-out of the event! And finally the evening arrived, where we had to start our journey towards Jammu Tawi- The start-point of all the action filled seven-memorable days of my life!!!

No one knew the other fellow rider at the start, but during the course of time- each one ensured they stopped, waited and helped the next one in times of need. Reaching the destination on time did not matter to anyone; they would halt and wait when the rider behind went out of sight in the rear view mirrors. Whether it was running to lift up a rider who slipped on the slush pool or to push one up the steep valley roads when the machine refused to move… whether it was picking up a fallen silencer of a rider who has gone way ahead without noticing or going back to get tools from the back-up vehicle to fix a broken bike.. Whether it was escorting a rider whose headlamps and brakes had given way while riding at night on the treacherous Paddar Valley or towing a halted biker all the way on a militant infested highway… And then, on the last day when I had a miraculous escape from death while trying to avoid overriding on a biker who slipped off-his-course, the entire battalion of riders had stopped by to check on my sprained leg! No fights, no misunderstandings, no quarrels- It ain’t a common thing while you are traveling with a group of over 80 riders from across India who were all strangers. But, they were all united and stood by each other at every turn (literally!!) of life during these 7 days…

Doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers were all just educational qualifications. While some made it after a nasty tiff with their bosses, yet a few had quit jobs to do this trip. While some rode to satiate their hunger for travel, some rode to earn livelihood for their towns through promotion of tourism. While some came to make few quick bucks with their photos and videos, yet a few came to love the mountains… Yet, a few rode to spread the good word of beautiful landscapes, safety to travelers and cultural wealth of their hometown which otherwise is perceived with horror and poverty. Every rider had a purpose to travel and a story to tell that’s associated with this trip. Irrespective of the geographical, cultural and educational differences- Travelling was the common religion and riding was the only God… No one big, no one small. No one to judge who you are… For a person that I am who otherwise likes to go slow, walk and take in things and places at my own pace- riding only meant whizzing past things with speed… What I realized during these 7 days is that there lies a whole new perspective to life out there- Biking binds people like brothers… Cheers to all the wonderful friends I made here, who helped me to create truck loads of wonderful memories that I can cherish for several years to come…

The route we covered over the week was Jammu-Mansar-Basholi-Sarthal-Baderwah-Kishtwar-Gulabgarh-Sansari-Gulabgarh-Patnitop-Udhampur-Jammu. It was a complete package with picturesque landscapes accompanied with art, history, culture, religion, natural resources, adventure, offbeat traveling. It had something for every kind of traveler. I strongly recommend this trip for every person who wants to travel but do not like going to the commercialized and overly crowded places that are so done and dusted. This stretch is a must-do once in a lifetime thing!

I will be posting details of each day and each place that I visited in separate posts in days to come. Do subscribe and get updates 🙂

This trip was sponsored by Jammu tourism and We thank you @lovenature_rahul and trippin_on_life for giving us this wonderful opportunity.

 

My hotel nightmares in India.

The long list of places I’ve travelled to and stayed at have given me a new insight to life and a new outlook at seeing life through.. The journeys have been enriching and the stays have added a new dimension to the travel. From five-star luxury to shoe-string budget hostels- I’ve stayed there all. While the pleasant ones were many, there is its own share of hopelessly aweful places. So here are a few ghastly and horrendous stays I have opted for during the course of my Indian discovery.

1. It being a pleasant season in the holy town of Rameshwaram, we had checked into a decent non-AC lodge at noon. After freshening up, we went out for sightseeing and returned to our room post dinner. We unpacked all our girly goods and let most of our wet lingerie strewn out for drying. It was around mid-night and I was just about to fall asleep and my friend Madhu screamed out loud. HECK! I jumped out asking what had happened. She switched the light on and started to pick up 1,2,3.. Bedbugs! She was allergic to them and the rashes had spread across her body. We spoke to the hotel manager and he arranged for an alternate room which he claimed would be good due to A/C facility. While we moved in our luggage and shut the doors, my friend lifted the bed to just reconfirm that everything was alright. Alas! More bedbugs were partying around the hemline.. We ran to the reception and asked them to give a permanent solution. They somehow managed to arrange a room in a nearby hotel after having themselves confirmed the room quality. So the next thing we were found doing was- Two girls walking the empty streets of Rameshwaram at well past midnight with half zipped backpacks, untied shoes in our feet, wet lingerie hanging out of the luggage, random plastic bags on both hands and anxious faces searching for a place to spend the night.. It was almost dawn by the time we settled down in the alternate accommodation provided.

2. We can’t blame anyone for this one- there was nothing else for us to expect while being stranded in the middle of a winter trek and the night temperature at 25 below zero!! We were at Leh town in Ladakh. No plumbing would work in that part of the world in that season for obvious reasons. We found ourselves in a homestay where we had to fetch water to do our daily chores. We had to break through the frozen layer of ice just so, that we could get half a bucket of hot (warm) water from the bottom of the same drum placed on fire. The bathroom waste was collected in containers which would overflow now and then making us want to throw-up very often.

3. The overly broken plumbing of the Chidambaram lodge is something that tops the list. It was a place that changed my mind to cutting-short my week long trip on just the 2nd day and making me want to go back home ASAP.. As if the stench from the nearby gutter, the smell of alcohol from the adjacent rooms and the super dirty bed covers weren’t enough, the washroom was moss covered and the faucet rusted as if it would break if operated… And to top it all, We stepped on someone’s barf that was spewed up on the stairs.. YUCK!! This has really given me strong reasons to have apprehensions towards online hotel booking based on guest reviews..

4. This one was a highly recommended budget stay option at Panchgani. It used to be a school hostel until being converted to a hotel which has hosted several movie shoots in the past. After hearing positive reviews, we two girls were surprised to find that the property seemed rather deserted when we arrived there. We were the only guests and that too on a weekend.. Although the room seemed decent for the tariff quoted, we still had some apprehensions for being the only people and our safety.. Just when we were in the process of decision making, both our eyes were caught by some strange thing just a little outside our hostel room.. Some white fur like stuff hung out of a large boiler sort of an equipment. We kind of panicked and asked the warden what that was. He told us it was a water boiler and the hard water had deposited along with some insulating material on the top. It definitely looked strange and scary. We did feel that it was a dog inside the boiler and it was their long furry tail hanging out of the barrel.. If it was our imagination, it is so not possible that both of us had the same thought.. We stared at each other and rushed out of the place without any further discussion..

5. So after a nightmare-ish pursuit of an accommodation, we finally checked into a hotel that evening at Panchgani. Everything was fine until my friend came out running from the bathroom. When asked what happened, she anxiously pointed out at the bucket placed under a running tap with a blood red liquid! The bucket was half full already with what seemed like blood.. I ran down to the reception and they came upstairs to check for facts from our bathroom :p They realized that it was rust particles from the overhead metal tank and pipes due to hardwater being constantly heated. We were somehow convinced with the explanation given, but I had no courage to continue to bathe in that water. However, to our rescue the water from other taps seemed to have a normal colour and we completed our basic chores…!!

Summary:

Do not suggest hotels, places and dishes/food to anybody. The choices and preferences vary from each person based on their character, mood, budget etc. Avoid being blamed later!

A mind numbing experience of winter in Ladakh

What was supposed to be once in a lifetime experience of trekking on a frozen river- The chadar trek – turned out to be a wonderful experience in its own way.. Thanks to a landslide on the Zanskar, a natural dam had been formed stocking up water for over 5 kms. Due to pressure build up, the stored water would wash away the nearby areas causing flash floods. The goverment had issued ‘section 144 – Shoot at sight’ to anyone attempting to go anywhere close to the river.

We decided to break away from the trek organiser and explore Ladakh on our own.. Oh yeah – None of our phones were working (No connectivity via phone or internet)- Thanks to all our pre-paid connections: Only postpaid works there. Thus started our lifetime experience in the mind-numbing winters of Ladakh.

Day 1: It was noon by the time our early morning flight took off from the Delhi airport, thanks to bad weather conditions. Just 20min after take off, a small but a prominent layer of cloud seemed to appear at the horizon.. But within no time, we realised that we were approaching the Himalayas. In few minutes, the GPS indicated Shimla on the map. A neverending stretch of deep gorges, ravines, formed the beautiful landscape below. Few minutes further up.. Yes..!!! we couldnt contain our excitement of flying over the snow covered mighty Himalayan peaks, we were jumping for a spot at the windows taking turns.. Click click click…. The cameras went on and on…It was as if we were in an enclosure that was floating up in heaven.. FEAST to the senses.. all the way… till touch down 🙂

You are flying over the Himalayas...
You are flying over the Himalayas…

Inspite of the glaring bright sun, it was 6 below zero deg when our flight landed at Leh- one of the highest airstrips in the world. We took a cab to the hotel that we were informed by the trek organiser.

The day went by just making an alternative plan for the trek that could not happen. Also, acclimatization to a scary combo of High altitude + low temperature was important (It went upto -25deg on some days of our trip). So we just had to stay bummed to our rooms(without heaters..!!) and warmup ourselves 😛 We shopped for a lot of thermals in the Leh market (we got cheap & good quality stuff..)

Day 2: It was the last day of the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery– Enroute we visited the ‘Hall of fame‘- the war museum. We happened to be there at the right time- an airforce carrier was about to land. With the Sham valley & other mountain ranges all around the airstrip, it called for the exact photo that had inspired me more than a year ago.. We then headed to the monastery where the mask dance was happening all day long.. We visited the holy abode of Kali(which is open for viewing only during this festival) at the top before we comforted ourselves by finding a seat amid the chaotic crowd that had assembled. After the event, we did a bit of souvenir shopping at the mela that was put up and a lot of binging on Ladakhi food. We took a cab to Shanti Stupa which is best for sunset viewing. After the sun was down, we took the stairs which we were told was a shortcut to reach Leh town by foot.

Mask dance at the Gustor festival - the annual fair at the Spituk monastary
Mask dance at the Gustor festival – the annual fair at the Spituk monastery

Day 3: Drive through the Changla pass(the 3rd highest pass in the world) at a nerve freezing temperature: Get a quick grab of food at Karu town. Here one needs to get the Inner Line Permit to proceed to Pangong Tso- the controversial border between India & China. The lake was partially frozen- where we could drive over most part of the lake and experience the chadar partially :P- If one has an extra day, they could head to Tso Moriri, a salt water lake and stay there overnight and return through…. back to Leh. But, we took back the same route where we covered the Shey Palace, Thikse monastery & got a glimpse of the Rancho school of the ‘3 Idiots’ fame. Hemis monastery- the wealthiest monastery in India remained unreachable by road since it was winter.

A milestone at the Pangong tso
A milestone at the Pangong tso

Day 4: It was a lonng day.. A wonderful drive on a roadless route which seemed to have been carved all out of ice and sprinkled with snow.. A small slip of tyre could get deadly as beautiful as the valley seemed to appear. We couldnt ask for more when the snow fall began just as we alighted at the end of the highest motorable road in the world- the Khardungla pass. Continue on the road that leads to the cold desert of Ladakh- The Nubra valley. With minimal vegetation, and sand dunes all around, you should not be missing out the ride on the Bactrian camels which are endemic to this region and is a critically endangered species. Visit the Diskit monastary- where a 32 feet statue of Maitreya Buddha looks upon Pakistan. Towards the end of the valley is the Siachen glacier- the highest battleground in the world and the glacier forms the source to the biggest irrigation system in the world-The Indus. Catch a good night’s sleep at a traditional homestay there and experience authentic Ladakhi hospitality.

View from a monastary
View from a monastery

Day 5: Start early cuz the day will be short with too many places to cover on a single stretch from Leh. We took the Kargil road- The sham valley drive. First stop was at Nimmoo where we filled our fasting tummies. There on, the next quick stopover was at Pattar Sahib Gurudwara. The straight stretch of road looked as if it was peircing right through the horizon. We were driving through the magnetic hill. The road which is believed to have defied gravity where a car with ignition off and neutral gear moves uphill- against gravity..!! We were not quite convinced with our experince though, which made us agree to the scientific explanation of an optical illusion. We arrived at Chilling- The confluence of the Indus and Zanskar. The partially frozen stretch was intimidating to walk over.. But we were warned by a cop not to go near the banks.. all thanks to section 144 😛

The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar
The confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar

We continued our journey through rustic Ladakhi villages, monasteries dotting the distant hillocks, frozen waterfalls, bare poplar trees, narrow truss bridges, army barracks, hot water springs, ice hockey fields, etc. We came across wild deers, yaks, the pashmina sheep, wild horses and other fauna endemic to this high altitude region.. Likir monastery was beautiful with the Buddha statue smiling in between the snow clad mountains all around. Our last destination was Lamayuru monastery– The start point for many treks in this region.

Unfortunately, we did not have a few more hours in hand and safe conditions at the border to go further upto the Kargil border and drive back through the Drass valley- The coldest inhabited place in India and the second coldest in the world. Again, If I had an additional day in hand, I’d love to get an inner line permit to spend a day at DhaHanu valley: home to the endangered community of the Dard people. I’d love to go back ASAP atleast to document their customs, traditions, photograph their intricate jewellery and costumes before their numbers further deplete. Had I been blessed with a couple more days in hand, I’d love to do the Markha valley trek to experience the tribal life in its raw & purest form.. And spot a snow leopard in its natural habitat, at the Hemis national park- the largest national park in India and the highest national park in the world.

Since it was winter, most of the town is shut for the season. The few places that are up, open after 11.00.a.m and close by 5~6.p.m. We missed out on some fine shopping of souvenirs, local handicrafts and dry fruits.. Probably, if we had some form of connectivity of phone or internet, we could cover more places and organise our trip in possibly a better way.. But, NO REGRETS..!! We’ve still done what most people don’t dare to- Experience the bitter winter of Ladakh. That’s all the time we had for.. We had to pack our bags with a super heavy heart to carry back home..

Day 6: It was a rare phenomenon that we woke up with early at 6.a.m. It was snowing in Leh. There usually is no snowfall at Leh town… But that day I guess the town had started to miss us… the sky was crying heavily.. We reached the airport by 07.30.a.m. The security measures are very stringent for those leaving Leh which easily needs about 2hrs. 2 rounds of passengers’ frisking and 2 rounds of baggage screening. And then, you have to individually identify your baggage until which it will not be loaded to the flight..!! Quite a strenuous task for the security personnel… While it is considered as a fun trip for the touristy people like us.. It’s a salute to the bravehearts : The Indian army.. Who bare all odds like extreme climatic conditions and unpredictable threats to their lives, strive day and night to ensure that we are safe.. The flight took off over the mountain that said ‘Touch the sky with glory’.. in the true sense…

I will come back ASAP for more..

Julley Leh..!!