Travel

Enchanting Dharamsala

In the Winter of 2010, we set out to show India off to a group of friends from Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, Sri Lanka. Out travels took us to the usual places like Agra and Jaipur but we also decide to visit Dharamsala inspired by the mystery of this Himalayan getaway. We are welcomed by cold and crisp air here, a pleasant departure from the foggy and dark plains of Delhi. The sprawling army cantonment with its serious faced jawans keeps us company from Pathankot from where we have driven up. We keep climbing up the winding roads until the edge of the army accommodation announces “Cloud’s End” for the highest village in the area, Naddi. Naddi is 4km away from the bustle of the town and from our charming round hotel rooms here we have a panoramic view of the Dhauladhars. And it is some view: jagged snow streaked peaks give way to rolling brown-green slopes dotted with the occasional house. Our hotel staff is friendly and eager to give us as much information as possible. This has been my experience with mountainfolk in India, their enthusiasm and inclusive nature makes you think that this is the way around here, a stark contrast for all of us who have lived in cities for a large part of our lives.

Sound carries far here and soon you can hear the laughter of school children from the Tibetan school below. Because while this could pass for any other Himalayan retreat, it is a rather different place. Dharamsala is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and also home to the revered Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. He was forced to take refuge here in 1959 escaping Chinese persecution and several Tibetans followed him to Dharamsala braving a treacherous journey across the Himalayas.

Walking through McLeodGanj, the main street you soon arrive at the unassuming Buddhist temple gates which belie its importance. The temple complex walls abound with pamphlets about saving Tibet and the Panchen Lama. These obvious displays highlight the importance of this little hamlet refuge in the Tibetan struggle that is a constant source of political tension in Sino-Indian relations. The entrance to the temple even talks about a deep Indian-Tibetan bond since Buddhism originated in India and several Hindu holy places like the Mansarovar lie in Tibet. Inside however is almost a different world, one on which the temple has cast a spell of spirituality and calm. Monks in saffron robes clutching prayer beads walk around unhurriedly while tourists look on slightly bewildered.

Dusk in Dharamsala is heavenly, an indigo sky brocaded by orange, gold and grey. McLeodGanj basks in this soft glow and its unique assortment of Tibetan and Indian shops are even more inviting. We had momos, thukpa and fried rice in a place called Tibetan Kitchen that left us craving for more. Yet, despite being a tourist destination its possible to be anonymous in McLeodGanj. Our blond, blue-eyed friend attracted curious stares and pushy vendors in Delhi and Agra but in Dharamsala she gazes at many a local behind the lens of her camera.

Dharamsala enchants and captivates you and while several have been here before we feel like first explorers since at every nook, a different charm awaits.

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Travel

Hai Van

The top gear boys have clocked some insane trips but the 1000mile Vietnam journey was always one we wanted to replicate. If Jeremy Clarkson could learn how to ride a bike and then traverse a country then surely it was possible. We settled on the Hai Van pass for it’s fantastic views and relatively short distance. And like all happy endings it was okay save for the drama at the end.

We stayed at Danang which wasn’t the smartest idea since it is simply a sleepy port town with nothing much to do. We plotted on leaving Danang on the morning of the 2nd, stopping at Hue for the night and then being back on 3rd evening for our flight from Danang to Saigon. Our hotel staff tried to dissuade us from attempting the trip since we were a bunch of not so smart foreigners who didn’t speak Vietnamese and with threats of big trucks on small roads. In reality we only saw these monster trucks on the road back and most of these used the new tunnel road anyway so Hai Van was quite deserted.  We rented our bikes from the hotel : generally of Japanese-make there are geared and automatic ones available although the automatics are more difficult to find. For an overnight bike rental we paid 200,000vnd for the geared and 350,000vnd for the automatic per day. Make sure you get fairly new ones for the ride so they are less likely to break down after years of rental abuse. Also with the automatics it helps to get a more powerful one (150cc) so you can rock the uphill portions of the drive. There is no concept of insurance, registration or driving license requirement and we were never stopped in the cities or in the countryside.

The ride itself is spectacular – roads weaving through mountains, paddy fields and little seaside villages. There are stretches where you want to stop and just stare at the incredible colours for ages and urge the rest of the traffic to do the same. At the Hai Van peak there are a few roadside stalls selling more of Vietnam’s incredible coffee and ruins perched on a hillock that give you a fabulous look-out point. You can see the road – a perfect ribbon of tarmac with signature vehicle glints disappearing into the mountains. Definitely much better than roads in both Indonesia and Thailand.

On our ride back to Danang, we spotted clouds passing over the mountains and it was a stunning sight. Little did we realise that it would turn into a thick fog with very low visibility. We ploughed through it and the lack of traffic was a blessing since you could barely see even five metres ahead. As we hit the Hai Van peak, the fog became even worse and after stopping for a quick coffee break we decided to keep going since otherwise we wouldn’t make our flight. We made it safely albeit very slowly out of the mist and at this point my bike decided to give up. Luckily we found a mechanic not too far away who took another 1.5 hours to mend it. Panic set in since we had to get back to return the bikes and then make it through to our flight. Our other friends had decided to take the safe option of the bus ride, I received a call from them with the news that one of them had a broken leg. They were in a hospital and trying to get treatment from docs and nurses who didn’t speak any English whatsoever. We set off again and after another hour’s ride back floundering around in the traffic of Danang city we reached our hotel and made it to the airport 20minutes before the flight. We were not only told that we could check in but were even put on another flight that got us to Saigon earlier. We walked past the security check and our two friends were also there so as mentioned earlier in the end it all went well!

Travel

Sungai Yong

Pristine waterfalls are hard to come by so we were thrilled when we found one this weekend. Sungai Yong, off Gunung Belumut offers up a good campsite after a relatively straightforward two hour trek. A series of seven waterfalls await you, each with an inviting emerald pool. The highlight of the trip however is the final waterfall. It is a stunning sight, cascading from over 75m and flanked by rock facades and equatorial forest. Trekking there is quite tricky though and after a morning shower, it was slippery and infested with leeches. We also had several tubes of insect repellant, salt and lighters to tackle leeches but being the smart people we are, we ended up leaving all of it at the campsite.

Highly recommended for a weekend trip – if you are lucky then you will be the only campers there. We did meet some interesting people on the trek upto the campsite though, an old man with a machete the size of a tree and carrying a fresh kill : porcupine.

Travel

Tadoba Tiger Trails

Six months ago, “Weekend getaways from Hyderabad” urged us to visit Tadoba, a wonderful place to see wildlife and particularly tigers in the wild. We still approached the trip with little faith since everything we had heard so far suggested long waits and loads of luck to be able to see wild animals. The friend I went with is also a bit of nature freak and in fifteen trips to Indian nature reserves had only notched up two tiger viewings.

What we saw in Tadoba was beyond our wildest imaginations. My memories tend to playback in glorious technicolour often glossing over the patchy bits but for these, I am sure they are right. For fifteen minutes in the late evening, we followed a tigress in plain sight in an open gypsy. At times, she was as close as five-six feet from us and we could hardly believe the nonchalance with which she strode towards us. She was in no hurry, methodically smelling each tree and then marking her scent always ensuring beforehand that she wasn’t intruding on other tiger terriroty. Her manner did not suggest fear of her followers, in fact it felt like she couldnt really be bothered by the intruders.This was the same tigress we had caught basking in the waterhole in the mid morning trying to avoid the scorching Indian summer. This was the same tigress who in an attempt to hunt an Indian gaur gave us a set of photographs that could probably make a dozen nature magazines.

In two and a half days in Tadoba, we had no less than eight tiger viewings of four different tigers. We also saw wild dogs, bears, herds of gaur, wild boars, monkeys galore, atleast five different kinds of deer and several species of birds. The birds ranged from jet black jungle crows to breasted and black shoulder hawks, owls and pretty kingfishers and paradise birds. The deer were aplenty with sambhar, spotted deer, barking deer, chaursingha (antelope), neelgaai (different kind of antelope).

We were ofcourse lucky but the fact that we had pretty much three guides with us made a huge difference. The tracking, spotting and hustling abilities of the guys with us was invaluable for the trip. I am sure that I will visit Tadoba again and when I do, it will be with the same people.

PS: I’m far from a wildlife expert so I might have misquoted or misspelled some of the animals.

PPS: If you are interested in visiting tadoba, drop me a line and I can put you in touch with the people who made it possible for us. There isnt much information about Tadoba available and the infrastructure is stunningly inadequate (deliberate perhaps?) for such a brilliant place.

Travel

Exploring Goa

I remember receiving the call from my friend earlier this year saying “I’d really like you to come to Goa in the next couple of years”. Clueless as I usually am, I assumed that her inner craziness had finally taken over only to realise later that she was infact going to school there for a while.

So, it was a relatively easy choice for a short trip this time. We took a bus from Hyderabad to Goa for a weekend getaway in between ‘mas and the new year. We expected Goa to be full of crazy rastas, happy foreigners and wannabes. Instead, we stumbled onto a rather sleepy town with a penchant for colourful houses (bright purple and orange!) and shady palm trees. Liberal expanses of river and the unique Portugese architecture just make you want to quit your job and settle down here with a shack on a small patch of land, drink toddy and be happy.

We made a conscious choice to stay away from the stereotypical which probably explains the lack of encounters with hippies. The body searches, strict security and ban on beach parties this year was also probably a big factor though. So, we ended up with a very chilled out trip the highlight of which was Chapora fort of Dil Chahta Hai  fame. We made the short, steep climb up the hill relatively easily and were treated to a scintillating view and sunrise. It was just the three of us for most part which sets it apart from overcrowded, overhyped sunrise/sunset points around the world. This was simply special.

Cricket, Travel

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

I wrote this in April 2007 and didnt post it for some reason. Somehow all the things I’ve said here are still relevant.

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Back from another training trip. This one was much better than the first in every way. Its got to do with expectations I think, when you’ve been there done that, you end up doing just what you want to do, not what is expected of you.

While I’ve been away the Indian cricket team has managed to crawl itself into quicksand once again. It seems to be a process of reinstating hope in the cricket fan – when you’re so low, you can only head in one direction from there.

Gummy bears are brilliant. Recommend them as wonderful additions to ten hours of classes per day. Weekends included.

The beach is beayoootiful. Whether its during the day or by moonlight, the sound of the sea is a calming influence.

I will swear eternal loyalty to anyone who is willing to make sambhar for me twice a week.