Sunday, 14 January 2018

Nepal - Snow Above, Dust Below

Nepal always sounded exotic to me because my impressions about the country were shaped by the Bollywood classic Hare Rama Hare Krishna, textbook images of Mount Everest and the thrilling narratives of trekking enthusiasts. But I was in for a shock when I finally landed in Kathmandu. Despite the snow-laced mountains towering above the pandemonium of traffic, dust and chaos had driven me insane by the time I arrived at my hotel situated in the heart of Thamel, the immensely popular tourist market in Kathmandu valley. When I entered Thamel, there was a distinct change of scene from what looked like a tier-three Indian city to a hip and happy backpackers' quarter adorned with prayer flags and gleefully lost travelers. Packed with live music bars, watering holes and quaint cafes, Thamel personifies the hippie haven Nepal has always been. The walking streets defined by colorful stalls displaying Tibetan merchandise, Khukhuri knives, Yak wool shawls, thangka paintings, Buddha heads and singing bowls gave a euphoric lift from the starkly contrasting and awfully grubby lanes leading to it. 

The three durbar squares situated a few miles apart from each other, are marked by riveting architectural masterpieces that transport unwary tourists like me to a time and place disconnected from all things familiar. Within minutes you start identifying with that world steeped in antiquity and royal hegemony, even as it seems paradoxical in this day and age. Pashupatinath, the widely revered Hindu temple and the seat of the national deity Shiva, sits quietly on the banks of the Bagmati river as fervent devotees go about performing rites of passage for the deceased. Once you get to Boudhanath Stupa and the guide delivers an enlightening speech on the philosophical premise of Buddhism, you remember that Hinduism and Buddhism have coexisted for centuries in the valley.

An excruciating bus drive away from Kathmandu lies Pokhara - the archetypal party place, the city of lakes and the tourist capital of the nation that serves as a base for trekkers taking the Annapurna circuit. Standing atop Sarangkot hill in Pokhara and watching the first rays of the sun cast a fiery glow to the rugged and snowy sierra, you realize what it is that draws many an adventurous soul to this mystic land. To appreciate the true essence of Nepal, one should set out on one of those grueling yet extremely rewarding treks people rave about - there's no other way to experience the stupefying terrain and the nuanced ethnic diversity. And of course, you have the whole gamut of adventure sports from bungee jumping to paragliding that can stir awake every sleeping cell in the body. The highlight of my trip has to be that moment when I was sinking into my high chair floating above Phewa Lake, teased by the wind about the frivolous lives we lead as humans, as the veteran hands of my trainer tugged at the strings of our glider. 

I have often heard that westerners love India because of its ability to excite all bodily senses at the same time by its exuberant colors, energy and spontaneity. Even though I felt a lot of spillover effect in this neighbor country, especially in the cultural and culinary aspects, there was something about it that went beyond the sentient factor. The country is still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake of 2015 and its extended period of political instability. It was a mixed bag of surprises for me and I must admit that it evoked one of those inexplicable feels of travel. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Shimla - Tidbits for First-timers

Last Christmas, we went on a short trip to Shimla - the summer capital of British India still flaunting its past glory through its characteristic colonial architecture and European vibes; where heritage buildings and age-old business establishments are stacked together like cardboard boxes on the hills. This post is not about those though. Our trip was quite relaxed and unlike other times, all we wanted to do was laze around in the chill of winter and soak in the vibes of a happy place. So I'm going to pen down some useful information for first-timers - quick tips and recommendations on where to stay and what to eat. As is famously known, Shimla is a madhouse of traffic during peak season. Since we zeroed in on Shimla for our Christmas break knowing all too well that we'd be crawling in a sea of people and vehicles, we came prepared for it. Unfortunately, it hadn't snowed yet when we arrived. So we chose to skip Kufri and Narkanda, opting instead to spend the wintry nights in the quiet and forested hills of Mashobra, and the festive daylight hours in the zippy streets of Shimla. 

First off, if you are not staying on Mall road, you need to get moving in the morning to skip the traffic n find a safe parking spot. We parked our jeep at the parking lot bang opposite the entrance to the lifts leading up to Mall road. They charge a flat rate of Rs. 100 for the first 0-8 hours. If you plan to stay at one of the hotels on Mall road, then you needn't worry too much about parking - just walk out from the top floor and you are there. We couldn't do that because we were traveling with our pet and also, we preferred the calm of Mashobra to the chaos of Shimla to ease into the evenings.

There are quite a few interesting places to eat - from purely local eat-outs to plush, modern cafes. Himachali Rasoi, a little wooden hole in one of the by-lanes serves truly authentic cuisine from Himachal Pradesh. The festive thali meal is called 'Dham' and it comes with an assortment of curries - all made using familiar ingredients but tasting delightfully different from what we are used to in the other parts of the country. There is Embassy bakery, one of the oldest and prettiest bakeries in the city, popular for their apple almond cakes, lamb chops and ice creams. Though overpriced and unconventional in their service, we loved the old man at the counter and his freshly baked cakes. If you fancy a hot plate of gulab jamuns to sweeten your day, head to Baljee's and if you crave for some idli-dosa-vada comfort to beat the cold, try the Indian Coffee House or Nalini. Sher-e-Punjab dishes out scrumptious non-veg delicacies, Dim Sum serves exquisite Chinese and the string of bakeries like Krishna and Trishul have an array of cheap eats for a quick bite. On the other hand, if you want to relish some great continental/Italian food in a chic and classy set-up overlooking the hills, you must visit Cafe Shimla Times, Cafe Sol (Hotel Combermere) or Eighteen71. And while at it, do not forget to grab some local kiwi and strawberries abundantly displayed by the roadside. 

Lastly, on your way back, stop at one of the HPMC stalls and stock up on your hand-crafted fruit preserves, wines, juices and pickles. We got apple juice, peach and strawberry preserves and wild pomegranate mint chutney - all locally produced and just as delicious as their foreign counterparts. And if you still haven't finished shopping for winter wear, try the Monte Carlo factory outlet next to the HPMC booth. Guess what, we totally cashed in on the Buy One Get One offer!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

When in Vijayawada

What hit me upfront when I drove into Vijayawada was its complex network of lanes and by-lanes with its walls hand-painted in rich floral motifs and the generous tarred roads completely taken over by hordes of men and vehicles. It was late afternoon when I checked into Hotel Fortune Murali Park on MG Road. By the oh-so-familiar moniker of the street, I knew that I was in the quintessential centre of commerce and city living. Being a foodie with a thing or two for the tantalizing aroma of spices, I was looking forward to the gastronomic delights that awaited me in the second biggest city of Andhra Pradesh. Sweet Magic, a popular chain of restaurants with a fourteen-year legacy, has an outlet bang in the middle of MG Road. I walked across the street to sample the Ulavacharu Dosa, a local specialty made from horsegram lentils, and Ghee Pongal, the South’s answer to a soul-warming plate of khichdi. Both were served with an assortment of chutneys, sambar and beetroot rasam. With a grateful tummy, I rambled in tandem with the weekend reverie, occasionally stopping to take a good look at the saree heavens looming over me. 

I started my tour of Vijayawada the next morning with a visit to Bhavani island, an islet formed by river Krishna, on the banks of which the city stands. The expanse assumed silvery tones of morning glory as it pushed the steamers towards the shore. Multiple flags of APTDC perched on the metal fencing proclaimed the ethereal beauty of the state as a mixed group of tourists and daily commuters occupied their seats on the boat. Life went on as usual for those getting their daily chores of washing and bathing done by the riverside. A reposeful calm filled my senses as they feasted on the slow breeze stroking the waters. 

From island to forest, I pressed on in search of the lesser known jewels of a land that boasts of the historic Hazratbal mosque, Victoria Museum and the archaic caves of Undavalli. The quest led me on to Bommala Colony or Toys Colony, an unassuming village on the outskirts of the Kondapalli reserve forest that has an abundance of softwood trees known as Tella Poniki. The sight that hailed me in was that of artisans deeply engrossed in their craft of carving miniature representations of familiar local scenes, keeping a 400-year old tradition alive. Kondapalli toys have obtained geographical indication status from the government as a recognition and certification of its cultural roots. I bought some souvenirs from the craftsmen before proceeding to the fort lying on a forested hill to the west of the village. Constructed by the Musunuri Nayaks - warrior kings from the 14th century, Kondapalli fort passed hands before coming under the custody of the British East India Company who used it as a military training base. Mostly in ruins today, the site is reminiscent of the many battles it survived throughout the ages. I entered through the Dargah Darwaza and clicked away as young couples shared sweet nothings between the rickety stone pillars. 

For my lunch-time indulgence, I chose the crowd favourite RR Durbar because it would have been a shame to leave the city without getting my hands on their dum biriyani. I spent the evening watching the sun disappearing in the mighty embrace of the Krishna as the majestic Prakasam Barrage stood sentry to the cacophony of traffic on one side and the tranquillity of the river on the other. Meanwhile, devotees thronged to the Kanaka Durga Temple situated atop the hills of Indrakeeladri beside the Krishna. 

I ended the day with an overdose of Chilli Prawns and Natukodi Chicken (country chicken) from a popular haunt known as Rasoie. My taste-buds were deliriously overjoyed by the homey concoction of masala and herbs that everything until then was rendered ablur. If you were to ask what I love about Vijayawada, I’d simply say ‘Natukodi’ all the way!

Friday, 29 December 2017

Rajahmundry - Beyond the City Streets

If you want to discover the true essence of a city, you need to look beyond its urban fa├žade of premium brands and elite coffee shops. I wanted to dive right into the cultural oasis which fuels the identity of Rajahmundry, painting its face in a motley of shades. So, I made the conscious choice of approaching the city from its outer fringes, unraveling little nuggets of history and tradition as I arrived at its center.

My first stop was Dindi, located 80 km away from Rajahmundry. A picturesque hamlet snuggling in the lap of the Godavari backwaters and abundantly bestowed with streams and canals rimmed by coconut palms, Dindi is a popular riverside holiday destination sans the cosmetic frills. Sterling Dindi, the resort I stayed at, looked almost mystical with water lilies and palm trees gelling together to create a transcendental aura. I was so famished when I got to this arcane land away from the fallacies of city dwelling that all I needed was a hearty lunch to whisk away my travel woes.  The chef delighted me with two different versions of locally sourced curried fish, namely Chepala Iguru and Chepala Pulusu. Smug and satiated by the exotic flavours of Andhra cuisine, I began my afternoon tour of the region. 


At a distance of 20 km from Dindi, in the sacred precincts of Antarvedi, I witnessed the poetic confluence of Vashishta Godavari and the Bay of Bengal. As romantic as the Elvis Presley track, the merging of the river with the sea indeed seemed like the esoteric handiwork of cosmic powers. Antarvedi, home to the highly regarded Lord Sri Lakshminarasimha Swamy temple, is considered as ‘the second Varanasi by the grace of God’. What enticed me more though, was the narrow lane leading to Antarvedi with little fish farms separated by bunds on either side. Antarvedi also has a lighthouse and a vast stretch of pristine beach perfect for a private getaway.  

The general manager at Sterling encouraged me to visit Bandarulanka, a village near Dindi where the locals are involved in the trade of saree weaving. I was amused to find a whole community religiously at work on the loom in their front porches, producing yards of silk and cotton by adept finger movements. A magnanimous resident of the area guided me through the entire process of saree manufacturing, right from weaving and dyeing to pressing and folding. Handloom sector is only second to agriculture in terms of its contribution to the economy. I walked out of Bandarulanka with a handful of exclusive handloom sarees, each narrating a story of unmatched craftsmanship.

From Bandarulanka, I made my way past rice fields and coconut groves to the bewitching jungles of Maredumilli, 80 odd kilometres from Rajahmundry. An eco-tourism destination set against the backdrop of the Eastern Ghats with placid water bodies, bamboo forests and cryptic falls, Maredumilli is for those looking for an untainted nature escapade. For dinner, I tried the famous bamboo chicken prepared the tribal way by stuffing bamboo shoots with oil-less marinated chicken and shoving them into charcoal flames. The smoky flavour was as rustic as the place itself, blending in well with the chilly air and the whispering woods. I spent the night at Vanavihari community resort and headed straight to Rajahmundry at daybreak. As I sped past huge tracts of paddy fields flushed alive in the afterglow of the rising sun, I tried to imagine what Rajahmundry looked like.

Rajahmundry - The Tale of a River

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~ Marcel Proust

Little did I know of the treasure trove that lies at the heart of Rajahmahendravaram aka Rajamundry until Indigo Airlines decided to send me there on my first 6E Explorer trip. Though I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect of delving deeper into the cultural fabric of Andhra Pradesh, a feeble inner voice wheedled me into it and I’m only glad I listened! 

Labelled as the Cultural Capital of Andhra Pradesh, Rajahmundry resonates the true identity of the state on many different levels – history, arts, tradition, religion and economy. Named after the erstwhile king Raja Raja Narendra and home to the first Telugu poet Nannayya, Rajamahendravaram is considered to be the birthplace of the Telugu language. Cradling in the arms of the Godavari, the city is characterized by intricately carved and brightly painted temples spiralling to the merciful skies. With the aftertaste of the mini tiffin and filter coffee from Udupi Akshaya still lingering on my taste-buds, I walked down to Pushkar Ghat to find devotees ardently washing away their sins in the holy waters of the river and temple priests orchestrating various rituals alongside. I was told that in every twelve years, the city hosts Pushkaram when millions of devotees come there to partake in the celebrations. 

My attention was diverted to the bridges stretching into the infinite reaches of the horizon. Easily one of the most sublime feats of human intelligence, the Godavari Barrage is the third longest rail-cum-road bridge in Asia. The city is forever indebted to Sir Arthur Cotton, the British General credited with revolutionizing the irrigation channels across the country, for harnessing the powers of Godavari. Adjacent to the barrage in Dowleswaram, lies a museum dedicated to Cotton with more than a hundred exhibits narrating the inspirational story of his life. 

A few blocks down the street embellished with colourful artwork, stands the Rallabandi Subbarao Government Museum housing archaeological gems ranging from terracotta figurines and stone sculptures revealing the influence of Jainism to palm-leaf manuscripts, ancient coins and pottery. From there, I headed to Damerla Rama Rao Art Gallery which displays some of the original masterpieces produced by the artist in his pitiably short life span of 28 years. One of the most renowned and revolutionary artists of his time, D. Rama Rao’s century-old works depict nudes and grandiose scenes from mythology. 

By the end of the day, I was just beginning to fathom the depth and intensity of Rajahmundry’s cultural heritage. I was starting to see the city in a new light. As I stared longer at the changing hues of sundown mirroring in the tranquil waters under the Godavari barrage, I knew why fate had brought me here.