Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Unexplored Himachal - Jibhi, Tirthan and Kasol

A post that's late. Again.

This is about a trip that happened last October, during the Diwali holidays to be precise. We were dilly-dallying around Dalhousie-Khajjar but owing to the lack of impressive pet-friendly stay options, we decided to go off-beat - traverse the less explored valleys of Himachal, pitch a tent on the banks of the gurgling river and go trout-fishing in the Himalayan waters. Our plan looked like this:

Day 1: Start early from Noida and arrive in Mandi before sundown. It was Azal's birthday the next day and we wanted to have our little party in the night. 
Day 2: Mandi to Jibhi. Drive to Jalori Pass. Hike to Serolsar lake. Spend the night in a wooden cottage in the rustic village
Day 3: Jibhi to Tirthan Valley: Camp by the river and go fishing
Day 4: Tirthan Valley to Kasol: Explore the hippie town and visit the hot springs in Manikaran. Stay by the banks of the Parvati river in a quaint little cottage with a private sit-out
Day 5: Drive back from Kasol to Noida

So, as per the plan, we arrived in Mandi by 3 pm when the Diwali festivities were in full spring. Our stay was booked at the Royal Palace Hotel tucked away in a secluded corner of the buzzing town. The beautiful garden restaurant and the chic ambience of the hotel came as a surprise. Right outside the gates of the palace was the most sought-after sweets shop in Mandi - I couldn't stop myself from getting a box of gulab jamuns packed for my midnight feast. We bought some beer and vodka for the birthday eve celebration and headed back to the hotel for a lavish dinner in the garden lit up with dewy yellow lights. I must say, that the restaurant served one of the best kebab platters I've had till date. 

The distance from Mandi to Jibhi is not much but the road gets narrower and winding as it nears Jibhi, with the scenery getting a facelift every few kilometers. Green Alpine Resort, one of the newer homestays in the area, has beautiful rooms finished entirely in wood and even an endearingly quirky treehouse with the giant growth jutting right through its center. After checking in, we drove to Jalori pass - the mountain pass closest to Delhi and the first pass to open up after getting snow-clogged every winter. The abundance of deodars and rhododendrons rocketing into the clear blue sky painted a fairy-tale-ish picture for our tired eyes to feast on. The route is so incredibly scenic that you get drawn into a world where nothing but beauty exists. Even the ruggedness of the tattered path cannot get to you when you are encompassed by such rich imagery. 

We parked the jeep at the top, hogged on some masala omelet from the roadside shacks and set out on our first long hike with Sammy (our pug). Even though we have traveled all around India with her, this was the first time we felt confident that she could handle a 10 kilometer trek through the forest. The weather was favorable and Sammy was at her fittest. So why not? We carried water and biscuits and took frequent rest stops to make sure she was fine. And she fared excellently well. I wouldn't be wrong if I said she enjoyed the trail more than us though it wasn't easy on her. We had her back and she knew it - whether it was guarding against bulls or getting across steep rocks or giving her a lift when she simply needed a piggyback. Two hours into the hike, we got to a fenced-in lake at the foot of a temple. The hills behind offered panoramic views of snow-clad mountains. Talking about chance encounters along the way - an old lady taught us how to share the narrow trail with a herd of bulls without intimidating them, a boisterous group of Malayali boys showed us that you ain't far from home wherever you go, and the uber-cool college kids rolling a joint in the middle of nowhere reminded us that the quest for meaning never ends. 

Back in the room, Sammy munched on pedigree kibbles after a gap of almost one year and suffered a severe bout of diarrhoea. We realized early on during the trip that she should stay away from packaged dog food and go natural like us. So we fed her a bowl of wholesome homemade yoghurt and she went to sleep in peace. Less than a kilometre from our cottage, there was a secret waterfall - so called because it is hidden from sight by a tantalizing approach road laden with tiny bridges and dense vegetation. We managed to get a quick glimpse of that surreal surprise of nature before the night fell and darkness swept over. Green Alpine served us some amazing dinner, hot and fresh from the kitchen before we called it a day. The next morning, we drove to Cheni Kothi or Cheni Fort - antiquated twin towers made of stone and wood, looming over an other-worldly village filled with apple orchards and walnut trees somewhere up in the hills. We parked near the Sringa Rishi Temple and climbed up. Though we lost our way a few times, we made it to the top in an hour's time. Clicking away with not much of an interference from the handful inhabitants of the village, we could not help but notice their aloofness and cold demeanour. Just then, a shabbily dressed old woman who looked like the poorest soul in the village, beamed at us through her wrinkles. "Would you like some apples?", she asked in Hindi and we nodded a yes. She disappeared into the house behind us which was still under construction and came out with a bunch of apples in her saree fold. She told us her story. Someone burnt their house down, she and her daughter were building a new one all on their own. Azal being Azal, asked her how much he had to pay for the apples. She smiled and refused, "No, I don't want money for the apples. This season was good, we got plenty of apples. Who knows if it would be the same next year!". She asked us to wait and went out of sight again. I looked around and found her in the lower chamber of a run-down house, digging out from her stash of walnuts and persimmons. She was embarrassed because I glanced at the insides of the dingy chamber which was occupied by buffaloes on one side. She signalled that I should stay outside. A few minutes later, she handed those walnuts and persimmons to us, saying those were gifted by her family. We had to give her something and all we had was money. We forced her to take it saying it was 'Shagun ka Paisa' (good luck charm).

We drove back to Green Alpine just in time for some freshly prepared Aloo-Parathas. I loved their food so much that I went into the kitchen and commended the cook. We checked out and headed towards Tirthan Valley, 45 km away from Jibhi. In spite of getting stuck in the election rally en-route, we managed to get to our campsite by noon. Our luxury tent pitched in the shade of a flourishing persimmon tree overlooking the Himalayan waters, was arranged by a homestay in the region. We had to cross the river in a dangling carriage to reach the tent. The rest of the day was spent in leisure, fishing and eating and drinking. Angling in the Tirthan river was an interesting experience indeed - call it beginner's luck, Azal managed to catch one Himalayan trout right at the start of the guided session but nothing after that. Sammy, on the other hand, had turned into a total maverick, going away on her own little expeditions and refusing to come to us when called. We moved to Kasol the morning after and checked into Parvati Kuteer, a delightfully pleasant string of cottages situated by the banks of the Parvati river. 

Kasol was unlike anything I had expected it to be. For long, Kasol has been iconized as the epitome of the hippie culture feeding on the lull of the crystalline Himalayan waters and the headiness of the most potent marijuana grown in its untainted valleys. When we arrived there, I realized that Kasol in itself was nothing mindblowing. Don't get me wrong, the town was lively with cosy little cafes, shopping alleys and breathtaking views far beyond - but we had been feeding on the charm of Himachal for four days and Kasol didn't strike me as extraordinary. There are picturesque places like Kheer Ganga beyond Kasol which are accessible only by foot. We did not have enough time to accommodate a two-day trek into out itinerary; so we decided to just hang around Kasol. Before checking in, we had some sandwiches and waffles at Moondance Cafe - the eat-out best known for its crunchy waffle corner. Later in the day, we drove to Manikaran about 5 km away to visit the hot springs watering the religiosity of the Gurudwara and the Shiv temple in its vicinity. We walked around, bought walnuts and raisins for half the price we pay otherwise and savoured hot pakoda and chai at a Punjabi shack. On the way back we stopped at the flea market in Kasol to buy warm clothes for the coming season. While relishing almond cookies and yak cheese at the German bakery, we got acquainted with a German lady who remarked that the bakery was more American than German in its offerings. We left her to enjoy an early dinner at Evergreen Cafe, one of the best restaurants in Kasol with ample space, both indoor and outdoor. It was a pleasure to be back in our wooden cottage at Parvati Kuteer for the night. They lit up a bonfire in our private courtyard where we drank to the joys of love and life. After an early morning hike to the river gushing below, we bid goodbye to our little haven, biting wistfully into the apple crumble and cinnamon cookies packed from the German bakery in the heart of Kasol. 

This one - this offbeat Himachal trip that almost caught us unawares - was definitely one of our best outings of 2017. 

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 in the valley for centuries.

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 for 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 simultaneously excite all bodily senses by its exuberant bursts of color, 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 this trip managed to evoke 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!