Travel

Wondering where to travel? Check out our first hand reviews of places and people, and what to expect where.

Posted by Ila Tyagi in Travel

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By Ila Tyagi:

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Leh. Source: Flickr.

Situated at an altitude of 11,000 feet in the middle of the Himalayas, Leh is both a peaceful and a dangerous place to be. It is a place for the disturbed soul to relax in the tranquility of Himalayan life and a place for the adventurous seeking to take a chance with life. Leh gets all kinds of visitors from mountaineers, mountain bikers, light trekkers, family tourists, spiritual and religious tourists, honeymooners etc. My trip to Leh lasted just over a week and I stumbled across many interesting characters on this vacation.

Leh is a retreat for the romantic. With its snow-capped mountains and sand covered valleys, it is a charming mountainous desert. Honeymooners and the adventurers can camp in the dunes of the Nubra Valley in colourful and ‘Bukhari’ warmed tents. While on the dunes, my family interacted with a newly-wed couple from New Delhi. The conversation soon escalated to the topic of marriage and they were surprised to find that my parents belonged to two different communities in India. Even though India is progressing towards the values of liberalism and embracing modernity, inter-community marriages are still considered a taboo in certain sections of society.

They told me that I am blessed to have such forward thinking parents as they had struggled to convince their parents to marry the partner of their choice because arranged marriages are still common in our society. Once the camping experience was complete, we moved to experience the spiritual side of Leh.

People take pictures of two monks play traditional bugle during the opening ceremony on the first day of two-day festival in Hemis Gompa, 45 km (28 miles) southeast of Leh July 10, 2011. The Hemis Gompa is the oldest and biggest monastery in Ladakh. The annual festival celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Lamaism (an off-shoot of Buddhism) in the eighth century. The two-day festival is marked by ritual dancing in which dancers wear masks representing deities and evil spirits. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli (INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY) - RTR2OPFO
Inside a Gompa. Representation only. Credit: Reuters.

Leh with its Tibetan Buddhist monasteries is the ideal place to rediscover yourself. I remember interacting with a British traveller who had lodged at the hotel for over three months. While I never really found out what were the personal issues that brought him to Leh, I realised that the engaging with Buddhism and meditation had lessened the sadness that his eyes betrayed. Our interactions mostly took place during dinnertime where he approached me upon spotting my University of Nottingham sweatshirt in the crowd. The discussions ranged from my life in the UK to his life in India. He recommended visiting the monasteries in Sheh, Thiksey, Diskit and Likir.

Sitting in the Diskit Monastery, I felt a unique sense of calm take over me. We were waiting for the monk’s lunch break to end in order to enter the temples and see the beautiful murals and frescoes. Most monasteries have fine paintings on their walls depicting Buddhist mythology and tales from Buddha’s life. Once the doors opened, we went around the temple admiring the vivid paintings. Looking at the paintings, I could draw the connection between Hinduism and Buddhism. Both religions believe in the existence of four gates to earth. In Buddhism, a ‘Mandala‘ painting depicts these gates. They represent the four boundless emotions of kindness, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. The monastery also runs a school for the young monks called Gompa.

A Gompa is a spiritual community and an educational institution. We were presented with the unique opportunity of gaining an insight into the functioning of a Gompa. We visited the dormitories of the young monks. Upon interacting with the young monks we learnt that they are sent to the Gompas by their families to receive training for becoming a Lama. They are taught the conventional school subjects along with teachings in Buddhism. They are ordained at a young age of eight to ten years and expected to lead an austere and simple life different to that of an ordinary follower of Buddhism. Celibacy is an important distinguishing factor between the monk and a lay follower of Buddhism.

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Pangong Tso. Source: Flickr.

Our next visit was to the breathtakingly beautiful Pangong Tso lake. It has been an attractive spot for shooting many Bollywood films. The lake is a three-hour drive from the Leh city and the roads are steep, narrow and dangerous. Many fatal accidents are reported every year on this route. It is located at an altitude of 4,250 meters and strong winds are experienced in this area. Our taxi driver was exceptionally courageous and skilled to drive us through tapering paths blocked by mountain rocks. I have utmost respect for the man because every time I peeked down from the car window, I would see a ‘Valley of Death’ that consumes hundreds of motorcyclists and car passengers every year.

Upon reaching the lakeside we ate food at the makeshift restaurants supported by tin sheets. There were many motorcyclists at the restaurant and a large Gujarati family busy ordering the children to eat the food available as they were being fussy. I ordered Kahwah tea, a unique blend of cinnamon, saffron, cardamom and Kashmiri roses. It is a popular local drink and is credited with making you feel relaxed and happy. For the main course, I ordered Chow mein that is markedly different from the one that originated in China. The Chow mein was customised to include many Indian masalas and was spicier than usual. The bikers struck up a conversation with my father upon seeing that he was from the military and enquired whether he was ever posted up in the mountains. My father replied in the affirmative and so began a detailed discussion of his adventures as an Army Officer stationed in Leh in the late 1980s.

When my father was stationed in Leh, their camp was based near the lake. They did not have concrete or wooden rooms to live in and camped in movable fibreglass establishments. There was no television or the internet to entertain them. In order to battle the winter depression, the troops usually took long walks around the valley that was untouched by civilisation. Their role was to guard the borders as a major part of the lake stretches into China. The soldiers were not allowed to bring their families to these camps and spent a chunk of their days battling loneliness and the extreme weather that hits minus twelve degrees Celsius. The only mode of heating available was a Bukhari (a stove that burns charcoal to generate heat).

Much has changed since those times in terms of entertainment due to the advent of cellphones, availability of television and 3G data in these areas but accommodation, heating and food remain a problem for these brave soldiers.

After lunch, we walked around the lake and marveled at this wonder of nature. The lake completely freezes in winters and was a famous spot for driving on the ice until a fatal accident occurred in which four officers died after falling in the frozen lake. On the return journey, we offered a ride to one of the motorcyclists back to Leh town, as he was experiencing breathing difficulties, a common problem due to lack of oxygen in high altitudes of the Himalayas. We learnt that he was an engineering student at the University of Chicago on a break before he started his job in the USA.

People play in an open area near Leh Palace in Leh June 16, 2007. The World Monuments Fund (WMF) reported on its website that the Buddhist dominated district of Ladakh is in the watch list of "100 Most Endangered Sites" across the world for 2008. The list intends to raise international attention to the challenges and threats that cultural heritage sites in Leh and adjoining areas face. REUTERS/Amit Gupta (INDIAN ADMINISTERED KASHMIR) - RTR1QX3F
Leh Palace. Credit: Reuters/Amit Gupta.

I asked him why he chose to ride to Leh on a motorbike. He told me that it was to have one last shot at adventure before he settles in his boring job as an engineer. He believed that riding a motorcycle up to the mountain is a remarkable experience as it gives you more time to explore and appreciate the unconventional sights that commercial tourists don’t know about. We dropped him off at his hotel and proceeded to rest at ours.

I visited the Leh Palace on my last day in Leh. The palace was abandoned in the 19th century when the Dogras attacked the Namgyal dynasty in Leh. Sitting atop a mountain, the palace offers a spectacular view of the Leh city and is a paradise for professional photographers. It also has a good museum, which displays jewellery, ceremonial dresses, ornaments and paintings from the Tibetan heritage. My last stop in Leh was the Tibetan Market. This vibrant market sells local handicrafts and jewellery. I purchased a copper Buddha as a memoir. Although it is not as ornate and colourful as the Bodhisattvas (Buddha statues) we saw at the various monasteries, it still fills my room with a positive vibe.

Many Ladakhis are moving to the plains and cities for better job opportunities. Most join the army or work in the tourism industry to earn a stable income in this region. Some return from their chaotic lives in the city to retire amidst the majestic and peaceful Himalayas. Reflecting on the experience, I would not pass an opportunity to visit this heavenly place again. It is the perfect escape from the noise and stress of the large metropolitan cities. You can breathe in the fresh air and see a star-studded sky at night; experiences that are now luxuries in heavily polluted cities like Delhi. Life moves at a leisurely pace here. But most of all, the people seem happy and content with what they have. I guess they fully comprehend and know how to bask in the splendour of nature. With its smoky ochre themed landscape, simple lifestyle, secluded location and welcoming people, Leh is the ideal place to relax and escape the complexities of life.

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By Gitanjali Maria:

IndiaTv11897d_zooJim Corbett National Park is known for its majestic tigers and the rich flora and fauna that adorns the forests. It lets visitors enjoy the jungle experience and appreciate the free-living of animals. I was glad to be able to do a safari of the jungle reserve area recently. Though unluckily, we couldn’t spot a tiger, we were happy to see quite a few deer and elephants.

But a major cause for alarm is the way people expect animals to behave. We were watching a huge Monitor Lizard take a nap in the morning sun, when another group, two families with kids, joined us. Seeing the reptile immobile, some of the elders in the group started making noise and throwing tiny stones. The children followed suit. It took some stern warning from our driver and us to make them stop the barbarism they were indulging in. You come to the jungle to appreciate wildlife and to teach your children to do the same. Not to disturb the local habitation to derive entertainment out of it.

I have witnessed similar behaviour in zoos as well. The tiger would be sleeping peacefully in a corner after a meal and the crowd gathered around it would be jeering and shouting, just so that they can see it walk or hear it growl. What nasty selfish beings we are. I overheard an elderly lady ask the guard, “Why is the animal sleeping? Why can’t you wake it up so that we have a better photograph?” Such stupid questions! How would you behave if someone does the same with you when you are sleeping and that too for a picture?

Tourism should not thrive at the cost of the natural habitat that’s put on display. A responsible tourist is one who likes to see things as they are and can derive pleasure and enjoyment without damaging or altering everything.

It is important to appreciate nature without destroying it, especially when you are in ecologically sensitive areas like hill stations, forests, beaches, lakes, and riversides. These areas are already facing precarious circumstances, and it would be a great catastrophe if man tries to alter them further in his greed to derive more pleasure and enjoyment.

Moreover, the people of hill stations are very protective of their land and natural heritage. It would be a huge disgrace and disservice if, as tourists, we destroy their lands and their homes by callously stomping about as though their world was created to show ‘us’ a ‘good’ time during vacation. Carelessly throwing plastic waste on the beaches; throwing left-over food into the lake while boating; using loud motor vehicles when options of walking or cycling are conducive and easily available; teasing animals and birds that are natural to these areas are all acts of an irresponsible tourist. Such tourists do not deserve to be in such a naturally beautiful and divine place as they hardly hold any respect in their hearts.

While it is important to be aware of one’s action when visiting ecologically fragile locations and terrains, it is also important to remain responsible when visiting historical places. Today, very few historical monuments in India have been left untouched; with no scribbles defiling its walls. Parents do not bother (or in some cases even encourage) when their children deface monument walls. The lack of cameras and security guards in many places of archaeological significance encourage people to profess their love or their anger on these beautiful walls that have withstood time and seen much better days. Would these morons have dared touch the walls or scrape of the gemstones from it had the King been alive and ruling? Anil Yadav_farrukhnagar 021

Historical monuments like natural resources need to be preserved for the enjoyment and learning of posterity. Tourism – ecological, natural, historical, or otherwise, should be looked at from the same perspective as that of sustainable development. While they can be admired and enjoyed by the current generation, it also needs to be preserved for future generations. They too have a right to this inheritance.

Travel 1

By YKA Staff:

The summer is here and you’re probably already looking for places you can travel to, and escape the heat. And while you’re at it, might as well make it cost effective or stir up the backpacker in you. We found this super useful Quora thread with some of the most beautiful (and budget-friendly) places you can travel to with friends, family or even solo. Take a look (try and resist the temptation of just packing your bag and setting off), and let us know which places you’d add to this list in the comments below.

1. Sikkim

We just recently went on a trip to Sikkim and it has everything for you. Snow capped mountains to lush greenery. Pristine and cheap. We went for a 2 week trip, from the south and it cost us only 20k. M.g marg is one amazing place and it makes Gangtok serene. If you would like to visit places unexplored with human intervention, I would suggest you to pay a visit to north Sikkim. This place has some of the most spectacular places like Gurudongmar lake , @17800 feet , and a freezing temperature of -10°c. And ofcourse, it was frozen.

Also Darjeeling is just a 3 hour drive away from Gangtok. Another hillstation, which is relatively cooler than Gangtok. River teesta flows beside you en route to Darjeeling. The best time to visit Sikkim would be from mid march – June and from october-december. During monsoons, landslides may happen and during decemeber-february there would be snow all around.

This is how a random landslide would look like :p.

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​Photos and text by Robin S. Kishore

2. Araku Valley

If you are looking for hill stations in summer, that are off the beaten track, not too expensive, I would recommend the following options. Most of them are down South, not that crowded, pretty much quiet, and have decent accommodation. Avoid Ooty, Kodaikanal, Munnar, which have become too touristy. Though becoming popular or late, it (Araku Valley) is still less crowded, compared to other hill stations. Many decent hotels out here, and accessibility is good from Vizag. And if not for anything just for the 2 things, one the train route from Vizag to Araku, one of the best ever rail routes. And the breathtaking Borra Caves.

Araku to use

Photos and text by Ratnakar Sadasyula

3. Vagamon

I would recommend Vagamon hill-station located in Kottayam-Idukki border of Idukki district of Kerala, India. It has a cool climate with the temperature between 10 and 23 °C even during a summer midday.

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Last November, I went on a Solo trip to this place for few days and would highly recommend this place because,

Vagamon is not commercialised yet (thank god), so you will not find many tourists here. That makes it one of the quietest places

The stay is very cheap here (I stayed in a youth hostel which costed me around 300 Rs/night)

Vagamon is highly safe for any kind of travelers.

Food is very cheap and good , since they are all prepared by local homemakers.

Text and photo by Mari Subramanian

4. Uttarakhand

The 4 dham yatra Gangotri-Yamunotri-Kedarnath-Badrinath

Haridwar

We stayed at the Bharat Sevashram Sangha guest houses where you can stay for 20-30 rupees per day. It is not only cheap,but peaceful,secluded from the rest of the town.You can sit there in there meditation room for hours and pray to God or listen to Maharajas singing.The people there are very friendly so,you won’t have any problem while travelling.

You will get only vegetarian food in this state so that’s the only thing that you need to consider.

The Kedarnath dham yatra is on foot,14 kms from Gauri Kund(people worship Gauri Maata there).

Text and photo by Souravi Sarkar

5. Yelagiri

Yelagiri is a hill station located near Vellore at altitude of 1110 m above sea level. This place is not as commercialized as other popular hills stations. Sparsely populated villages , where you can either be a paying guest or in a cheap, good quality resort. This place is good during May as well as Oct/Nov.

Yel to use

Text and photos by Venkatesh Balaji

6. Katagla Village

Quietest – Katagla Village in Kasol. It is 3.5 Kms short of noisy and crowded Kasol town and is across the River Parvati. Set amidst a jungle that runs along the river, lower Katagla is a heaven.

Cheapest – guesthouses are cheap. Katagla Forest Retreat is a Himachali house and if you want to stay for long, they can offer you very good discounts. Food is available in the cafe called Mari Vanna. Reaching Kasol is also cheap- Rs 400 by Govt bus from Delhi or 1000 by Volvo (get down at Bhuntar).

Katagla

Summers – you always need a windcheater kind of jacket during mornings and evenings while days are pleasant during summers. It snows only in late December onwards and October is cool.

Photo and text by Lay Pubs

7. Thachi, Himachal Pradesh

I won’t say this is the most beautiful place, but this is most beautiful place for me. It might as well be the most beautiful place for you, if are looking for peace, want to take a break from the crowd and/or looking for some nature.

Basic Information:

  • Thachi  is situated near the Great Himalayan National Park.
  • District: Mandi (3 hours from Manali)
  • Google Maps Link: Google Maps

Thachi is calm and peaceful, People are good at hospitality. Nothing to worry about at all, no crimes ever,  at-least I have not heard of any.

Thachi

chhatedi bhuj gujarat

By Polomi Mandal:

While I searched for must-visit places in Bhuj for my Kutch trip, I had no idea about Chhatedi.

On reaching Bhuj, my travel mate asked a rickshaw to take us to Chhatedi. I did not even catch the name properly and kept asking him what it was several times. I then asked the rickshawala what the place is and he told me it’s a historical place near the Hamirsar lake.

Chhatedi is known for its architectural excellence. One shot in the movie ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ was also filmed here. Unfortunately, a major part of it was damaged in the 2001 earthquake.

I tried searching but not much has been written about this place. A local friend who accompanied us told that this place used to be the funeral place for Maharajas of Kutch.

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By Polomi Mondal:

Some places, no matter how amazing the pictures you manage to click are, can never be captured through a lens. The beauty of such places can be captured only when you see them yourself.

The white desert of Kutch is one such surreal place. You must have seen the most amazing pictures, heard the best stories, but nothing comes close to seeing it for yourself. The full moon experience in the desert is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Soon after sunset, the colour of the sand and the sky looks exactly the same and there appears to be no horizon. As far as I could see, it was white and only white.

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After sunset. Rann Utsav, Dhordo

The “Khusboo Gujarat Ki” ads of Amitabh Bachchan always fascinated me. You must have heard Mr. Bachchan saying “Kutch nahi dekha to kuch nahi dekha” (If you haven’t seen kutch, then you haven’t seen anything).

The Rann of Kutch is a large area of salt marshes located partly in Gujarat and partly in Sindh (Pakistan). The Great Rann of Kutch is a seasonal salt marsh located in the Thar Desert and is reputed to be one of the largest salt deserts in the world.

During my 3-day trip to Kutch, I spent one evening at the Dhordo Rann. I preferred to stay at Bhuj to keep my budget minimal and travel to the Rann Utsav with a Local tour Operator whose advertisement ‘my travel mate’ I had spotted in a local newspaper a day earlier when I wasn’t quite sure whether to go to Ekal ka Rann or the Dhordo Rann. The deal offered by the tour operator was a good one. Rs 550/per person only, inclusive of the Border charges. It turned out to be the best deal for us as it was a full moon night.

These are the sites we visited:

1) Black Hill, known as Kala Dungar
2) India Bridge
3) Lunch at the Toran Resort
4) Rann Utsav at Dhordo (reached around 4 p.m. and spent the entire evening there)

While we were asked to come back at 6:30 p.m., we made sure we got a good view of the full moon. We came back at around 7:45-8:00 p.m. and had to face other angry travelers waiting for us in the bus but it was worth it. Sometimes it’s okay to make people wait, for example, when you have to get the full moon view at the White Sand desert.

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The entrance to the Rann Utsav.
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Just arrived.
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Musicians performing.
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At your service.

You can opt to walk as far as you can in the desert or try these horse rides or camel rides.

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Camel cart at the Rann Utsav.
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Posing for a photograph.

We spotted this very popular transport medium used in Kutch known as a ‘chakda’ in the local language. This was only available for clicking pictures.

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A gang of kids playing a game.
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Let the shadows do the talking.
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Yes. Pease, no littering.

Soon after the sunset, you see different shades of colour at the Rann. When we arrived, the sky was white. Then slowly, close to sunset, it started turning yellow, then orange, then red, blue and at the end white again.

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As the sun goes down.
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The full moon at night.

I wish I could have clicked a better picture of the full moon, but this is what I was able to capture with my lens (I had an 18mm-55mm).

All pictures were taken with a Nikon D3200.

Visited Rann Utsav on January 23-25th January 2016.

All images provided by Polomi Mondal.

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By Polomi Mondal:

On the way to Mandvi from Bhuj, is a Jain pilgrimage, a home to 72 deris of Lord Mahavira, at Koday Village known as Bauter Jinalay (72 Temples). It is also known as “Adishwar Bauter Jinalay Mahatirth”.

Spread over 80 acres of land, the temple has a residence facility at a dharamshala and a dining facility at a bhojanalaya. After spending the day at Mandvi and visiting various places, we planned to check out this temple. It was quite tiring, and I was not very interested in visiting the temple at that time. But my friend, who accompanied me to the Kutch trip, insisted that we see it.

We reached the temple in the evening, around 6:30-7:00 pm. I was happy to see very few people, and happier to get the first look at the temple. It looked incredible. It was very peaceful, and the serenity of the temple amazed me. It looked even more beautiful, once the lights were lit up in the evening. The temple was so mesmerising and I visited it again, in my 3-day-trip to Kutch.

 

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Address
: 72 Jinalaya, Gunnagar, Talwana Village, Mandvi Taluka, Kutch, Gujarat, 370460.

Distance : 11 kms from Mandvi and 51 kms from Bhuj

ST buses and jeeps depart from Bhuj about every 30 minutes. If you are in a group of four to five people, better hire rickshaws/cabs that fit in to your budget. Local buses are always the easier option. Ask the driver/conductor to stop at the temple as its on the highway.

rajashtan tourism

By Lipi Mehta

It feels refreshing to see the government try out new things, and reach out to the public in creative ways. Whether it be through social media or innovative speeches or even TV ad campaigns. In its latest effort, the Rajasthan Government has tried out a zany approach to showcase the beauty and warmth of the state and promote tourism. A series of groundbreaking new ads, all from the tourists’ perspective show how there is something unique to explore for every traveller in Rajasthan.

Unlike ‘Incredible India’, that takes a more emotional approach and goes by ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ or how every guest in the country is akin to god (treated with utmost hospitality), this campaign has a more free-spirited approach, with equally fun music to boot! These ads could also remind you of Madhya Pradesh government’s ‘Hindustan Ka Dil Dekho’ campaign, a popular series that remains fresh in the minds of many, even though it was first launched in 2006. However, the Rajasthan ads are unique as they allow for the viewer to discover the state’s beauty on their own, without necessarily telling them what they’re looking at or giving recommendations of where they must go.

Well hopefully, all of these efforts should be able to present the better and more ‘palatable’ side of India, in comparison to the dark, ‘inedible‘ reality that exists in most places.

Watch the ads here and if you feel like travelling to Rajasthan at the end of these, tell us in the comments below!

All in ONE Rajasthan Tourism ads. I am a fan of the music at the end of each video. I am sure you'll love it too. Good to see the Government doing new things. :)Like ➡ Oye Teri ✅

Posted by Oye Teri on Tuesday, 19 January 2016

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By Hitesh Bhatt

hitch hiking hitesh bhattIn last five odd months, I have hitch-hiked in almost all the places I have gone to, including Nepal. I have hitched on the back of a bullock-cart; travelled with truckers; spent kilometers talking to tractor-drivers while hitching with them; hitched a sedan and bicycles. Of all the places I have hitched to, there is one place worth talking about: Punjab.

I started from Delhi to Punjab on the third week of October last year. I stood on the NH1 where I was dropped by a trucker. There were a number of trucks pulled over in a row. Papers were being checked by police. I passed the checkpoint and found that a couple of trucks were parked near a tea stall. It almost had to beg to get a ride from one trucker. Later, while riding with him, he said that people in Delhi were not good and he wasn’t sure if I wasn’t a thug. He said had he been in Punjab he would have stopped his truck without asking. He was so true about that! He drove the truck to a vegetable market in Ambala. We chatted the whole night. He told me about his village, about his wife, about how studious his kids were. He even invited me to his house.

I slept in his truck until dawn. When I woke up, he got me tea and bread. Upon seeing sunlight, I decided to move as I had to reach Barnala which was still 170km away. I walked up to the highway and within five minutes, a tractor stopped. He offered me a ride up to Rajpura Road. He told me that he and his brothers are farmers and they all live together, happily. Wishing me luck, he dropped me and headed home.

It was merely 6 in the morning. I was standing right where a flyover ends. Within 10 minutes, a truck crossed me in a good speed and pulled over more than a 100mtr ahead. Much to my surprise, by the time I reached the truck, he had already taken out a bottle and glasses and was pouring a drink for himself and his cleaning man. I wondered if I should hop on to a drunkard’s truck but decided to anyway. I realised he was pretty drunk but he was funny as well. He drove me up to Ludhiana and the whole journey was hilarious. He was around 37 and the cleaning man was a 76-year-old veteran ex-trucker. The driver would tell me that the old man was a godfather to him as he taught him everything about trucks and driving. But when high on alcohol, he would swear at him saying, “This motherfucker is a useless old chap, he just feeds on my earnings; he is a parasite.”

IMG_6073The driver drove the truck the way many ride their motorcycles. At the speed of 80, he was able to make pegs for himself. I got off at Ludhiana and hitched another truck to Barnala.

I met a friend of mine in Barnala and we decided to go all the way back to Chandigarh to spend some time with his friends. But to reach Chandigarh, it involved a hitch with a truck, on a tractor, on a bullock-cart, and on an all-new sedan!

While coming back to Delhi, Punjab was going through a huge social unrest due to the desecration of the holy book by some hatemongering group. All the roads were blocked and a lot of people and police were injured, few of them even killed. In such atmosphere, I was rescued by a Mother-Dairy tanker. We drove through the villages, broken roads and he dropped me at Karnal. I took a bus from there to Delhi.

Punjab overwhelmed me with its hospitality. I can’t thank all the people enough who made me feel like the part of a world where goodness still overshadows evil. I have made friends with a few truckers who still call me to know how my journey is going on and when I would visit Punjab again. I learnt a good deal about lives of truckers.

A piece of advice: Hitch-hiking is one of the most common ways in which budget travellers commute throughout the world. In case of India, it is not so popular yet and it makes me sad to say that one needs to keep in mind many factors before opting for a hitch-hike here. It is all the more challenging for a solo woman to try hitch-hiking. Though I know a few brave Indian female travellers who do that, I wouldn’t personally recommend this to any woman. All I can say is follow your gut instincts before doing so, assess the situation you are in, and keep your safety the priority.

solo travel 1

By Hitesh Bhatt

It is the fifth month of my solo travelling. In these months, I have received a lot of messages asking me why I travel alone. Don’t I get bored? They say they like the concept of travelling but don’t understand how it is fun travelling solo.

There was a time when I won’t even go to a grocery store alone. I used to call my roommate to accompany me as I would get bored alone. Our society is also constructed in a way that fosters companionship. Watching a movie, shopping, and dining: these are things if someone does alone, is looked down upon in the society. The conditioning of our minds have become such that there remain less opportunities for us to spend a single minute with ourselves, peacefully. At times of catharsis, people are explicitly suggested to spend a few minutes alone with themselves. Meditation is promoted to those who lack peace of mind. While we all know and have experienced the power of togetherness, there are only a few who have experienced the power of being alone. There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. Alone is a choice while lonely is a forced/unwanted situation.

Let’s get into the material and non-material benefits of travelling solo:

solo travel 1Expense Control: I travel with a shoestring budget of Rs.300 a day. If I travel with someone else, two things happen. Either I end up spending more than 300 or the other person bears my expense. While the former happens more than the latter, I don’t appreciate the latter as well. Hence, I travel solo to the far and wide places in this country. In other words, if you travel solo, you will always be economical the way you had planned.

New Friends: When you travel with someone else, you are confined in your own two-person territory. You will spend more time talking and having fun with each other. In contrast, if travelling alone, the whole world will be your possible companion if you look for it. You will force yourself to talk to new people, take interest in the conversations, listen deeply, speak limited and learn more. If travelling is only fun for you, travel with a friend but if travelling is a way of life, there is no better teacher than solo travels. I have made so many friends from all over the world through my travels. My cross-cultural understanding has improved and I have, now, some of the great new friends in my life.

Control On Your Life: When you are out there trekking through dense forests and mountains, lost in your own thoughts, or sitting on a hill top watching a sun setting into the lap of mother nature or when you are awake at 5 in the morning to go to the beach and take a plunge to experience how it feels to swim and freeze: there is no one to tell you otherwise. You decide which destination you go next, how long you stay there, how much you travel on a particular day or how much you sleep. You feel like a free bird/bull and trust me that you will fall in love with this feeling and yourself.

Fearless: Everyone knows what fear is. It is something that stops us from doing so many things we could have done in our lives were we not fearful. That girl/boy we wanted to propose to in high school, that competition we wanted to take part in but didn’t due to the fear of losing, that entrance exam we didn’t prepare for due to the fear of not qualifying it, the jobs we didn’t apply due to the feeling of being under-qualified and fear of not getting it. Not only that, there is a fear which tops the chart of fears and that’s the fear of unknown. The fear of ‘what-if’ is our roadblock.

Before I started travelling, I was a person with all these fears in my mind. What if I lose my job, what if my girlfriend breaks up with me, what if I never am able to buy my dream car and so on. In these months of travelling, at times with consciousness and most of the times without realizing, I have overcome my fears. I am not scared of death, not even a painful one because I have started seeing everything as a life experience. I have learned to detach ‘I’ from any good or bad that happens with me and I don’t feel too happy or too sad. I am poised, calm, and fearless. All the credit goes to solo travelling. Had I been travelling with a companion and these changes would have occurred, I would think the other person is a big reason for these changes. Since, I know I have been alone; I give all the credits to myself for showing courage to change myself.

More Confidence: Once you see yourself doing things you had never imagined doing alone, you become more confident about your capabilities. When you overcome your fear of heights, fear of initiating a conversation with a stranger in a café, fear of spending a dark night alone on top of a mountain and so on, you become confident about yourself. You know that you have achieved something without an external help. And you know you can do more things all by yourself. That feeling is liberating.

Time For Introspection: Travelling solo will leave you to have ample time with yourself. You will have enough time to think about your past, your present, your future, your people, your friends and your foes. You’ll think about things you could have done and things you shouldn’t have done. You’ll understand yourself better and try to become an improved version of yourself.

Appreciate The People In Your Life: I’m a people person yet I travel solo. When I see a group of people having fun during a trek or a couple engrossed in a deep conversation in a crowded street, I, at times, miss my people. It makes me sad for a while and then I look at the other benefits of travelling alone and I let this feeling go by. But this teaches me to appreciate and take care of my people who have been with me through thick and thin. We realize the value of something when we don’t have it. When we don’t have friends and family when we want them the most, we know how important are them. Travelling solo fosters that feeling.

Anonymity: You are in an unknown place. You are alone. You are anonymous. You want to do something crazy that you have never done. You don’t have a known person around you to make you feel uncomfortable. You lie down in a busy street for 30 seconds. You get up. Everything feels different. You are still anonymous. You feel great. You are mad. You overheard someone calling you ‘abnormal’. You smile. You reply within, “I have had it with normalcy, anyway.”

In the End, We Are All Alone: Many a times when our heart breaks or something else that terribly goes wrong; we feel lonely. We think about all the people in our life and realise that in the end, we are the only friend we have that will remain till the end. If you are someone who has travelled solo at least once, you will be able to bear the pain of loneliness. You’ll be much appreciative of your loneliness than ever. You’ll become a stronger person.

Know Who We Are: In the end, the most important problem of our life. Who are we? What do we want to become? What are my strengths and weaknesses (not those you write in your job application resume)? What are my interest areas? You might not get an answer but you will definitely get an idea as to who you are and what your limits are and who do you want to be.

I found my peace while travelling solo. You might find yours. I have conquered my fears. I live freely, happily, and adventurously. What are you waiting for? If you are not a full time traveller, this weekend, pick up your backpack and go somewhere solo. It is liberating. Trust me.

If you are a solo traveller, already, please do add on to the above points and share with me why you prefer to travel solo.

Note: This post has also been published on the author’s personal blog. All images in this post have been provided by the author.

IMG_2969

By Aswati Anand

Flat sand banks embrace Indus as it curves and disappears into the gorge. My friend sits with his cigarette and lets the evening light the barren landscape of Ladakh. With his other hand, he fiddles with a radio, crackling with Radio Kashmir. But the three of us continue to listen to the sound of the river jumping over stones.

 He switches channels and we are listening to Radio Pakistan.

“Whoaaa..” he looks at both of us in wonder and tunes the device again only to get a channel in an entirely foreign language.

“Is that Radio China?”

IMG_2932You get enough reminders that this is a border area- through the hilariously pithy Border Roads Organisation signs (“Be gentle on my curves”), the jokes Ladakhi kids make, the army bunkers, the occasional Air Force planes going overhead and the check posts. Yet, it is difficult to orient yourself geographically in Ladakh when all you see is the sky bowing down to the majesty of these snow-flecked ochre mountains.

Among many a wonder this strange ‘moonland’ has to offer, where the idyllic haze takes over the acute awareness of being at the border, is Pangong Tso (Tibetan for “enchanted lake”).

Pangong lake is in Changthang plateau where the firoza stones Ladakhis wear on their perak (headdress) are found. The region is part of the Tibetan plateau with its dry grasslands, nomads who herd Pashmina goats, the occasional appearances of the Tibetan wild ass and the coy marmots.

After our descent from the massive snow walls of Chang La pass, where the altitude is so high that birds glide past our car like an auto-rickshaw cutting ahead in traffic, Changthang plateau is an entrance to a rugged version of Grimms Fairytale. Wild horses, yaks and pashmina goats drink from melting snow streams meandering through the dry green grasslands. Small stone houses occasionally pass you by. And at the end of this 5-hour-long drive from Leh is this endorheic saltwater lake made famous by Bollywood blockbuster ‘3 Idiots’ – which straddles the India-China border. About 70 percent of the lake sprawls in China – a hard fact that snatches away pleasures of boating on the lake.

IMG_2969In mid-March, we are greeted with a white sheet nestled between the red mountains instead of seven shades of blue that had become part of the lake’s myth. It is as if the saltwater itself is hibernating under the snow. However, a frozen Pangong Tso has other enchantments – a chance to walk on the lake or even better, make snow angels near Line of Actual Control.

But the lake wasn’t always divided.

When Ladakh was ruled by kings from Namgyal line, there was a war between Tibet and Bhutan.

The then ruler, Delden Namgyal, supported Bhutan. Angered, the 5th Dalai Lama sent an army to attack Ladakh in the 1680s. Ladakhis were defeated at Chang La pass and were chased down to Indus valley. The Ladakhi leaders and army hid inside the famed Basgo fort. The Tibetans confined them in the fort for three years.

Desperate, Delden Namgyal asked the Mughal rulers for help. Their help came with a price: that pashmina from Ladakh and Western Tibet be sold only to Kashmir and he must  convert to Islam. After this, Delden Namgyal was known as Aqibat Mahmud Khan in Kashmir. Tibetans, upset with this development, sent a representative to meet the king and signed a treaty in 1684 with the present borders cutting through the Pangong lake. The Ladakhis had to send tributes for Tibetan kings and monasteries every three years and Tibetans agreed to sell the pashmina from western Tibet to Kashmir. Ladakh was never truly independent after this. Subservient to both Kashmir and Tibet after this siege, the kings never tried to expand Ladakh’s borders.

ladakh 1My friends start to make a snowman by the lake’s edge as I stagger around with my camera, listening to the fluttering of prayer flags, sounds of laughter as my friends’ snowman-making exercise devolved into a snow fight, clicking pictures of this expanse of white contrasted starkly by the red mountains hemming the lake in.

Since it is off-season, there are only a few tourists apart from us – eating Maggi, clicking pictures and much to our amusement, asking their bewildered Ladakhi driver for the ‘3 Idiots point’. It can be argued that the movie has brought a lot of tourists to an otherwise isolated region, but I end up chuckling when my friend muttered under her breath, “Well I can see one idiot.”

As we head back to the school we were volunteering in, trying to process the beauty we saw, one of our students broke the spell: “Aap logon ne Pangong nahi dekha, aap ne barf dekha (you didn’t see Pangong, you saw snow).”

Kee_monastery_Spiti_Valley (1)

By Anchit Thukral:

You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions. Our lions are the two massive 200-plus feet frozen waterfalls of Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh. Welcome to ‘The Fall’. In January 2016, a team of passionate filmmakers and mountain climbers will come together to film a first of its kind ascent of two uncharted and never before conquered waterfalls and this is how it came into being.

How It All Started

Kee_monastery_Spiti_Valley (1)Almost two years back, Abhijeet, pro mountaineer and photographer, learned (well, realized) that nobody in India had ever climbed a frozen waterfall in the country. Why? Most likely because it is too dangerous. But to Abhijeet, the idea and the challenge were too exhilarating to let go without a fight. He not only wanted to make the climb but he also wanted to film it. He shared the idea with me and, just like him, I was blown away by it. But as the adrenaline receded, my mind was clouded with questions. For example, how will we get the crew competent enough for the project, are people ready to take such risks in our country, does a country like India care about adventure sports and many more such thoughts kept me awake at nights. But, as the saying goes, ‘I didn’t say no because between safety and adventure, I choose adventure.’ And that was it. I decided to take a leap of faith and we started ideating on the campaign. The past few months have taught me that it is not only about the right people being in the right place at the right time, but it is also about knowing what to do when you find yourself there. Fast forward 18 months… that moment has turned into ‘The Fall’.

About The Climb

Spiti Valley is a desert mountain valley located in the heart of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh. There are two frozen waterfalls above 200 feet in the valley. To give you some perspective, the waterfalls are as big as a 20 storey building. It is for the first time that any Indian is attempting the climb of a frozen waterfall in India. And it is cold out there… very cold, in fact. The temperature in January can go down to as low as -20 degrees Celsius.

Preparations

This one of a kind adventure gives us goosebumps, but also makes us excited at the same time. Each member of the team has been going through intense physical, mental and emotional training to make this happen because the terrain is deadly and one mistake can lead to death. There really are no second chances. Are we crazy? Perhaps. But the idea behind this project is to make an attempt to let common people like us understand and feel the emotion that goes behind every experience and every triumph by conquering extreme physical, emotional and psychological barriers that we meet along the way. It is mind over matter in the truest sense.

The Team

The project is very close to the heart of each and every team member. The team includes 9 members and an independent rock band called ‘The Local Train’. Though the band won’t be travelling with the team, they are giving the soundtrack for the official film, ‘The Fall’.

Our core team includes:
Abhijeet Singh: Mountaineer/Photographer
Pranav Rawat: Mountaineer/Instructor/Apple Farmer
Anchit Thukral: Filmmaker
Ankur Phougat: Director of Photography
Shubhranshu Chaudhary: Mountaineer

Every step has been a challenge. For each of us, this project is very special. For the past few months, we have fought innumerable challenges to make this happen. And this project is a little contribution from our side towards securing Mother Nature and its greatest keeper, the mountains.

We invite you to join this exciting journey and make a small contribution towards our crowdfunding campaign.

budget traveller featured

By Hitesh Bhatt

Two months ago when I decided to travel full-time, I had very limited money in my bank account. I had no other option but to travel cheap. Two months later when I have travelled to quite a few places in the northern part of India, I have realised the immense benefits of being a budget traveller.

1. Less Money, More People

FB_IMG_1441105457285If we have limited money, we’ll need people more than anything else: to hitchhike, to feed ourselves, to sleep in a cheap place or in our own tents, to know the directions, to travel. Money can buy any material for us, it can inflate our ego and it will definitely distant us from people because we won’t need them for our survival. A leisure/luxury traveller misses out on everyday-trivial-yet-important conversations that revolve around peoples’ lives. At least for people like me who see conversations as a must-have ingredient of travelling, low-budget really helps.

When I was in a village called Kalga in Himachal, I stayed at a place for Rs.50 per night. The hosts were such amazing people, that I can’t compare it with any hospitality offered to me by five-star hotel staffs. The reason is simple: The former were natural hosts while the latter were professionals. You get the point.

2. Test Your Limits

I read somewhere, “When you reach your limits, your limits expand.” In the consumerist world, there is no place for a poor person. Everyone needs to earn money to sustain a life. How much ever sad this is, this is the reality. When our pockets are empty, we go beyond our limits to fulfill our basic needs. From finding the cheapest place to have that afternoon meal to finding that reliable place where we can keep our bags without paying a penny to walking those extra miles out of the city to reach the highway; a budget traveller always tests their limits. I have walked many miles with 15 kg of luggage on me. Now I don’t even feel the pain in my shoulders. I can eat once a day and not feel weak or hungry. We are more than what we know of ourselves.

3. Kill Your Ego

DSC_0481We have an enormous amount of ego stored safely in us to make us miserable. The ego which we believe to be our self-respect (who accepts that they have an ego issue?) is doing more harm than any good. The ignorance of self, I, me, and mine makes us an egoistic person. In reality, we never try to observe our existence independent of our possessions. We are all the same people without our possessions. Without air, water, and food we all will die. We realize this when we travel with a very low-budget (INR 300 a day is mine). When we are out there in a far away place with no worldly possession and everything is at risk of being lost, we find ourselves. We happily and gracefully kill our ego and come out as a better person who values everything and everyone in life. What best could travel offer than this! I have found people mean to me, mocking me, judging me and I have realized that it is not my problem, it is theirs. I do not feel bad anymore, I just do not take the unnecessary offense which helps me focus on my work and move on.

4. Learn New Skills

IMG_20151106_082332When we are testing our limits and killing our ego every day, we become less judgmental. The real learning starts. We learn how to hitchhike, how to talk to anyone, how to convince a total stranger in a village to let you camp in their premise, how to cook food and enjoy it and what not. Since we are willing to do anything, all the strings in our mind loosen and we tighten them again like a new-born baby. We are aware, empty, and always ready. These skills, I believe, will help us in a long run as well. These are survival skills. (I am learning how to cook and enjoying it.)

5. Food Tastes Better

When we realize that life is more than satisfying our taste buds, we accept anything that comes on our plates. And surprisingly it tastes so good (better than KFC’s ‘soo goood’). We get to eat local food from different places that we enjoy with total strangers in their premises. And the conversations over food, Ah! inexplicable; tastier than the food. I make friends every day. I love the stories I hear during the meal. I love the sense of humor and simplicity with which people in the rural India live.Know Ground Realities: Apart from knowing who we are, what are our limits, what is our reality; we get to know the ground realities that are prevailing in peoples’ lives. We experience life situations at the bottom of the pyramid. When people share with us their stories, their struggles, their happiness, their tales, folklore; we learn how limited our problems are and also how limited our happiness is.

6. Know Ground Realities

Apart from knowing who we are, what are our limits, what is our reality; we get to know the ground realities that are prevailing in peoples’ lives. We experience life situations at the bottom of the pyramid. When people share with us their stories, their struggles, their happiness, their tales, folklore; we learn how limited our problems are and also how limited our happiness is.

7. A Better Person

IMG_20151213_112200563_HDRThe more we travel; the more we break our stereotypes. We become less judgmental. We see humans as one species and learn that religion can be more dividing than uniting. It sometimes creates more problems than solving them. We find one in all and all in one. It is debatable and so I claim is true at least to me.

Life is more than what we will ever know. Travelling is one way of getting closer to its meaning and purpose. Travelling for me and many like me is just not an escape from the world, it is rather a journey of self-exploration. Travelling is adventure, travelling is for that adrenaline rush that makes me feel I am alive. It is to evolve and empathize and live: live beautifully.

This article was originally published here on the author’s blog.

beatles in rishikesh

By Parul Doshi

As my friend and I landed at the Jolly Grant airport in the city of Dehradun around noon, it occurred to me that she presented the perfect picture of an Indian-American tourist; with her hat, sunglasses and backpack at the ready. When I first suggested this trip to her, I was sceptical of her response. Her travels in India had started and ended with the two Tajs – the hotel in Mumbai and the spectacular structure in Agra.

So when she finally agreed to come to India and “explore” the interiors with me, I was jubilant. It was easy booking tickets to Dehradun via Delhi. We exited the tiny airport and she quickly took out a small planner which had a list of things to do in Dehradun. As we left the airport vicinity, the crisp morning air greeted us. Fresh smells of magnolia and greenery soothed us after our days in hot summery Bombay. On our way from Dehradun to Rishikesh, tree-lined roads with thick deodar forests greeted us. The wind brought with it an earthy fragrance mingled with the scent of flowers.

Soon, we started climbing the hills of the Shivalik – a range in the Himalayas that boasts of bearing the Gangotri and the Yamnotri in its womb. Our car passed through clouds and the whole landscape resembled a Monet painting. Far away, we could see the flow of the Ganges. The river accompanied us – at times parallel and at other times, distant like a sulking bride.

The moment we entered Rishikesh, we could feel the tranquillity and quietness of the surroundings. As one experiences the sheer poetry of the Ganges, one feels it ricochet within.

We had decided to explore the untouched and offbeat parts of Rishikesh, besides taking a dip in the Ganges. The next day, as we walked around the small lanes and by-lanes of Rishikesh, we came to the Parmarth Niketan, a popular Hindu temple and ashram that hosts the famous Ganga aarti every day. Further down, the lanes were crowded with pilgrims wearing saffron and chanting loudly, some of them wet from the dip in the holy river, small children running helter-skelter and sadhus asking for bhiksha in their quiet way. It indeed was a colourful sight. Shops selling gemstones, sweet shops selling local sweets and vegetarian fare and heavily crowded bookshops selling books on religion and spirituality along with loud honking of the scooters lend these small lanes of Rishikesh a unique dimension. In a whim of fancy, I felt the need to explore the end of that lane assuming it to be the end of the whole city. Completely overpowered by the sensual influx, we finally reached the end of that lane, only to reach a small cafe named, The Last Chance Cafe. Ironically, it shared its boundary wall with a Hindu crematorium (Smashan Bhoomi)!

In our quest for exploration, we moved further down and found a group of sadhus sitting below a huge mango tree, playing cards and smoking bidis. Out of curiosity, I went and asked them if anything lay beyond this place for us to see. At first, they completely ignored us. When I pestered them again and asked, “Baba, is there anything ahead?” Irritated by my enquiries, one Sadhu without looking up replied nonchalantly, “Nothing except the Beatles Ashram.”

“The Beatles Ashram?” my friend and I simultaneously squealed, creating a dramatic effect. The sadhu looked up at us, not moved by our reaction and said lazily, moving his hand as if he were swatting a fly, “Those singers from Amrika.” (Maybe for them all the foreigners were from the U.S.A.) My curiosity knew no bounds. I started walking ahead and suddenly came across an entrance with three conical structures decorated with round pebbles from the Ganges and a huge board hanging on its gate with the sign, ‘This property belongs to Rajaji National Park. Entry is prohibited.’ I knew a little bit about the Beatles’ visit to India and Rishikesh and their stay with Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, who had established his ashram there.

Never in my wildest dreams, had I ever thought of encountering the ashram where Beatles spent their time in 1968. The Maharishi was already well-known among Britain’s hippie circles and had made numerous public appearances in the UK by the time he met the Beatles in London in 1967. It appears that in February 1968, highly fascinated by spirituality and Indian culture, the Beatles travelled to India to attend an advanced Transcendental Meditation (TM) training session at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Amid widespread media attention and all the hype, their visit was one of the band’s most productive periods. Led by George Harrison’s commitment, their interest in the Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation changed Western attitudes about Indian spirituality and encouraged the study of Transcendental Meditation all over the world. As we all know, the Beatles already had a huge fan following. Their stay in Rishikesh became a huge incentive for a lot of foreigners and spiritual pursuers to visit the Ashram.

Feeling all excited, I asked the sadhus again if I could go inside and see the ashram. “Please go away. There is nothing to see. It is all over. The ashram is dilapidated with its glory gone. Please go away,” one of them, visibly annoyed, snapped. Disappointed, we came back to our hotel room. But somehow, the place struck a chord within me. I couldn’t forget that place and its solitude. I decided to visit again. The next day, I went alone – cautious yet determined. It was 11 a.m. and the sun brightly spread its halo over me, even as it played hide and seek with the clouds. When I reached the ashram, I found it quiet and lonely. No sadhus flocking under the mango tree to play cards. Taking a deep breath, I approached the gate – entry was prohibited. I could hear the rhythmic sound of the Ganges in the distance, enveloping my senses with its musicality.

Ten or fifteen minutes must have passed like this, when I suddenly saw an old sadhu with a long white, beard and a thick turban of tangled hair, wearing a white dhoti approaching the gate. I requested him to open the door and allow me to go inside. In a thick Garhwali accent, he asked me whether I was from the media. I said I was just a curious traveller and a huge fan of the Beatles. He said thickly, “OK beta, I can let you enter this place but promise me that you will come out within ten minutes.” I promised as requested and, with a spring in my feet, finally entered the Maharshi Mahesh Yogi ashram aka the Beatles ashram.

As soon as I went inside the creaky doors, everything exuded a sense of calm. Eerily quiet and completely secluded, this place must have seen better days for sure. As I started walking on my right, I could see single small cubicles scattered all over the place. They were conical shaped and the outer wall was decorated with pebbled stones from the Ganges just like the cubicles at the entrance. Upon enquiring, the gentle elderly sadhu – my guide – told me, “There are 84 such kutikas (cubicles) scattered all over the ashram. They were mainly used for an individual to meditate and dwell in.” He also said that the conical shape would transfer the energies in a concentrated form which would be helpful in increasing the vibrations of the person sitting within.

Climbing further through the winding stairs, we passed by a small house that belonged to the bank, where all financial transactions used to take place. A little ahead lay a community mess, cottages for the guests, cottages for the regular staff and a huge hall for meditators and practitioners. As I walked along, I could feel the whole tree-lined lane becoming quiet and heavy with thick air. I could hear my guide’s heavy breathing as we climbed up. I thought of the glorified past of this beautiful and tranquil place and the slice of heaven it must have been, back then.

Walking further down, we came to the huge meditation hall. At times, the Beatles used to host their concerts here with yogis sitting on the elevated altar. But the space was mainly used for quiet meditation and satsang, I was informed by the sadhu. Reaching the old dilapidated green moss-covered building, he pushed the creaky door slightly. To my surprise, a large hall with all the four sides painted with fancy texts and photos of the Beatles and also Mahesh Yogi opened up like a magic box! The paintings appeared well worn but still in their essence. The entrance to the hall was painted with colourful graffiti. One side had the Maharshi’s profile, and the opposite that of the Beatles. A few poetic sentences here and there along with scattered drawings and paintings amongst the tattered walls made for a unique sensory experience. I stood staring at it all in awe. On seeing my expression, my guide, by now a friend, said, “It’s all been done by the Beatles fans who come from all over the world.”

Suddenly, out of the blue, he said almost incoherently, “If you know their famous white album, it was all conceptualised and also played here. All on the land of this Ashram. The Beatles along with others used to meditate, give concerts, and ask questions to the Yogi.” I was completely captivated and in a state of trance, overwhelmed by the place.

Out of nowhere, the sadhu started humming a song I couldn’t decipher. I looked at him and with blank eyes, he looked at me saying, “Everything is over. The past has gone, the present is here. I don’t know where everybody else is. I miss those days, those moments, those people.”

This article was originally published here

chandertal lake himachal pradesh

By Abhishek Bhati

Note: This article was originally published on Down To Earth

On my journey to Chandertal Lake in Himachal Pradesh this summer, I found how the pristine beauty of the Himalayas was marred by pollution and heaps of garbage.

The lake, which is situated at a height of 4,200 metres from the sea level, is a popular trekking destination. My first stopover was at the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation’s (HPTDC) hotel in Swarghat.

Though the stay was comfortable and I got hot water for bathing, it was disappointing to find the use of plastic water bottles at the place. Just behind the hotel, garbage mixed with rainwater was making its way towards the Sutlej river.

himalayas mountains hills

Despite my initial disappointment, I continued on my journey to Chandertal via Manali. After spending a night there, I tried to get a permit to cross the Rohtang Pass.

The recent law passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) allows only 1,000 vehicles to cross the Pass daily. Though it is a welcome step designed to protect the fragile environment, the current process is cumbersome and time-consuming.

One has to stand in a queue for hours at the sub-divisional magistrate’s (SDM) office to get the permit. The bureaucratic red tape can be smoothened by introducing e-permission.

If the process of getting permission to visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan is so efficient, I don’t see why the permission to cross the Rohtang Pass is still based on archaic procedures of submitting documents a day before to obtain the permit.

The entire process is not only inefficient and frustrating, but also opens up the possibility of corruption and harassment of tourists by middlemen.

As I crossed the Rohtang Pass to go to Gramphu (a point of diversion for going to Keylong Valley and Lahaul/Spiti Valley), potholes on the road greeted me. I had to climb out of the vehicle several times so that it can easily pass along the places dotted by waterfalls.

Finally, after a tiresome journey of around 150 kilometres (12 hours), I reached the meadow of Chandertal. Initially, I was glad to hear that nobody was allowed to camp near the Chandertal Lake for fear of polluting the environment.

Having trekked to Roopkund Lake two years ago where I witnessed environmental damages due to over-commercialisation of trekking (read Wrong Trek), I was surprised to see clear blue water and no sign of plastics in and around the lake.

After spending some time in the lake area, I climbed a small hill and saw the peaks of the mesmerising Chandra Bhaga mountain range in the distance.

Though at that moment, I felt it was “worth it” to come to Chandertal, I got a rude shock when I decided to head back towards the meadow.

When I reached there, the number of tents and vehicles parked at the site disturbed me. There were at least 40 tents erected in an area of only four square kilometres and around 100 people camped there at night.

It would take years for the human excreta of these tourists to decompose at such a high altitude. Further, it will contaminate the nearby water sources and spread water-borne diseases among the locals.

As food was being prepared in the tent around 6.30 pm in the evening, I heard loud music in the meadow. The tranquility of the place was broken and it seemed like a marriage ceremony with a DJ playing Bacchanalian songs.

chandertal lake himachal pradesh
Image source: vijay_v82/Flickr

The anchor was shouting at the top of his voice, “Aaj ki raat, Chandertal ke naam” (Let us dedicate the night to Chandertal).

As if loud music was not enough, some of the tourists expected food similar to the kind served in a Punjabi dhaba. The expectation of having a similar kind food served in the plains in high altitude areas also gradually leads to environmental damage.

Instead of cooking, tourists should be encouraged to eat processed food so that the amount of cargo carried from plains to the hills can be reduced.

The music continued till midnight and disturbed the tranquility of the place. I wondered how disturbing high decibels can be to animals living in the meadow or whether they have all gone deaf!

As more and more I trek in the Himalayas, I think about how tourists can enjoy the beauty of the mountains while at the same time preserving the fragile environment.

Obviously, restricting trekking or travelling in not a solution. Rather, I think the answer lies in restricting the use of vehicles and promoting trekking on foot.

On my way to Chandertal, I noticed several taxis carrying only two to three passengers. If the vehicles carry five to six tourists, it will reduce the number of cars plying in the area.

When it comes to fees, it should be charged per person rather than per car and foreign tourists should pay at least three times higher than Indian citizens as they have higher purchasing power than Indians.

When it comes to Indians, many do not keep the environment clean and spreading awareness about environmental degradation, especially in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, becomes important.

Coming back to fees, whatever is collected should be handed over to environmental groups so that they can ensure the protection of the environment.

While entering Manali, tourists have to pay green tax, but there is no clarity on how the money is used. Tourists, who visit the higher reaches of the Himalayas, will be ready to pay higher amounts if they know that their money will be used for a right cause.

The Himachal Pradesh government can set up an online monitoring system and ensure transparency regarding what happens to the so-called green tax. To tackle noise pollution, a complete ban should be announced on the use of loudspeakers in the higher regions and meadows.

The government should announce a helpline number where tourists can complain if other visitors or tent owners break the rules.

Local taxi drivers and tent owners should be educated how in long run commercialisation of trekking routes will be detrimental to their growth, as they are the ones who depend on the beautiful mountains to earn their livelihood.

dolanji himachal monastry 13

By Chintan Malhotra:

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A journey through the hills always unfolds some mysteries. You are numb, cold and your eyes wander the sides as if reading the blues of a black & white text.

These frames were captured in one such small journey taken through the hills. The place is Menri Monastery, situated in Dolanji, almost 28 km down the hill from Solan. In July this year, the peak summer season when people from all around India stuff up their bags and come visit the beautiful hill stations, my friends and I mutually decided to settle down in a place that is away from the crowded ones and since we had the short period of three days, Barog was thus finalized for the trip. Exploring the places around the hill station by foot and wheels took up the first two days.

So the third morning I woke up, went for a calm walk around. And as soon as I came back, started searching for other known places around. Google would have given me a list of places being walked by many daily, so I decided to ask the locals instead. Menri Monastery in Dolanji was the one commonly mentioned.

In 1967, Menri was re-founded at Dolanji in Himachal Pradesh, India by Lungtok Tenpai Nyima and Lopön Tenzin Namdak. This monastery has recreated the Geshe training program and is home to over 200 monks. Menri in India and Triten Norbutse Monastery in Nepal now host the only two Geshe programs in the Bon lineage.

The drive to that place was beautiful in itself, very less one-way traffic, amazing sights on the way, and small schools from where some tiny kids walked a long stretch to their homes every day, without any sign of distress at all! We asked a few kids if we could drop them back home, but all they did was smile, giggle and then happily wave at us as we drove ahead.

After finally reaching the place after 2 hours, it was an amazing sight. Amidst all the greens and browns of nature, there lay a very colourful, beautiful, and calm kingdom. It was so pure and untouched. After entering the main area, we could not find even a single person, or any sign of human presence either.

We went ahead and walked a few more steps, and gradually explored the marvellous architecture, vibrantly coloured buildings, huge golden gates, and the aged locks on them. We were totally mesmerized with all the artefacts around, and at the same time we were equally curious to see who would be the first one to welcome us. And there he was, a nicely dressed monk who just came in front of us with a gentle smile, nodded and spoke in a very tender and indo-Tibetan accent that he would open the gates of the main hall in a while for us to see it, and went away. The monastery was beautifully situated, far away from the traffic noises, and human interferences. The monk came back with the keys to the hall and we went in to experience a silence that actually sang. We sat there for some time and meditated. After coming out, there were a few more monks quietly walking around the main hall in its circumference chanting with beads in hand. They showed no sign of surprise on seeing us. If we happened to make eye contact, there was a faint smile from both sides. There were some younger monks too who were seen running and playing around. Besides them, there were a few foreigners who had been staying in the monastery for quite some time.

It was a beautiful experience altogether, observing the calmness in that place, its people, objects and even the animals there.

travel

By YKA Staff:

Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta

Travelling can be a great opportunity to open up your mind, and it gives you great life experiences. It gives you stories to tell and photographs to show. But planning for a trip can be a hassle, whether you’re traveling alone or with people, or if you’re intolerant to the noise of aeroplanes, or can’t sleep without listening to your favorite playlist. But technology comes to the rescue of everyone, including travelers.

Here are 10 hacks to your travel problems.

Image source: Nerdgraph.com
Image source: Nerdgraph.com

Image source: Rajesh Sharma

By Rajesh Verma:

Keylong is small city in the district of Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal. It took time for me and my team mates to pronounce it right. If you go with its spelling, you’ll pronounce it as ‘kiilong’, but as we proceeded with our journey, we came to know that it is actually – ‘kelaang’ (केलांग).

Image source: Rajesh Sharma
Image source: Rajesh Sharma

Keylong is a place of untouched beauty. Surrounded with green trees and white snow. Due to its nearness to the Indo-Tibetian border, the culture and traditions of Tibet are still nurtured here.

Sneak peek into the Past

As we covered our distance towards Keylong, we found that people were somewhat like Tibetans – in dress, language, livelihood, architecture- everything reminded us of the Buddhist culture. When we took a halt for tea break at a ‘chai ki thadi’ (a roadside tea dhaba), the ‘chai wala’ told us that Keylong was associated with the Vajrayana Buddhism during the 10th century, and used to be under the Guge Kingdom. This is why you get a reflection of Buddhist culture here.

People also have a mythological belief here, that during the exile of the Pandavas, they spent a few days in the Lahaul valley, where Bheem kicked the hills, to make a passage, which came to be known as the pass for Keylong.

In the home of the Pahadis

They call themselves as “pahadi” here. And as heard, they are really kind and generous. Communicating might be a little confusing but not hard, people speak Tibetan here mostly, along with little Hindi.

image source: rajesh sharma
image source: rajesh sharma

I like the way houses are built here, different from what we see in other cities. You won’t find cottages, mansions or skyscrapers, rather the houses are simple, utilitarian, 2-3 storey buildings with flat roof. Also, the houses are constructed close to each other, for security purpose in heavy winters, as told to us by ‘Mandru’- a native. We found him on reaching Keylong, when we were looking for some hotel to stay. He insisted that we stay in his home, but we didn’t want to trouble anybody. However, he became our unofficial guide.

Image source: Rajesh Sharma
Image source: Rajesh Sharma

Some of the houses were also made of mud walls and flat roofs, each having an animal pen and fencing made of wooden longs.

Thultan is a woollen mat filled with straw on which people usually sleep here. They place a low wooden table- Solchong in front of Thultans. Woolen blankets and bedsheets made up of goat-hair called Thobies are also common. Houses are usually whitewashed and properly ventilated. People don’t decorate their houses much, but mythological paintings of Buddha are there in almost every house.

Colorful yet simple attires

Pahadis here live a very simple life. People mostly wear woolens, for obvious reasons. Men wear loose trousers with a woolen coat and a ‘Kinnauri topi’ on the head. You will find numerous beautiful variations of topis, here. Women are dressed in tight-fitting pyzama and ‘dugpo’ (ladies gown). A shirt like Punjabi kurta is worn, as an undercloth, and a sash is worn round the waist. The color combinations are bright and unique. Gold and Silver jewelry during ceremonies and festivals are common in both among men and women.

image source: Rajesh Sharma
image source: Rajesh Sharma

Soupy Food and Drinks

When we went to Mandru’s home, he offered us lunch. My curiosity forced me to ask him about their food habits. He told us that they have three meals a day –Tshema in the morning, Chikken in the noon and Gongal at night.

One interesting thing about their food is that pahadis believe that the taste of the meat gets better with time. As such, they keep the meat of goats and rams before the beginning of winter and dried it to use, in the winter.

Image source: Rajesh Sharma
Image source: Rajesh Sharma

Before lunch, Mandru prepared ‘butter tea’ for us – tea prepared by adding and stirring butter and salt. Trust me, it was amazing. Momos made of meat or cheese is also loved here.

Image source: Rajesh Sharma
Image source: Rajesh Sharma

For lunch, we were offered ‘Thukpa’ and ‘Tangtur’. Thukpa is a noodle soup, which is prepared by mixing noodles with chicken and vegetables. Being a non-vegetarian, I loved it..really!! Tangtur is made up of butter milk mixed with wild vegetables. It is assumed to be good for health.

keylong7

To relish and celebrate, people here prepare their own local brew – ‘Chhang’. It is made by fermenting miller with yeast. Other than Chhang, ‘Arak/arah’- local distilled liquor is taken occasionally.

Image source: Rajesh Sharma
Image source: Rajesh Sharma

We stayed here for 3 days, away from tall buildings, screaming traffic and rushed life of the city, in the retreat of hills with blue skies, greenery and calmness all round.

ranthambore

By Tanmay Sharma

With more than 450 wildlife sanctuaries, 100 national parks, and 40 tiger reserves, India is deemed as an abode of world’s highest number of animals. Whether it’s the luscious Western Ghats or sparse marshes of Sundarban, every nook and corner of India clinches wildlife. So, friends, relatives, and countrymen, have your cameras ready and hit these parks for the best chance to see the elusive wildlife.

Here are some of the places in India where an exhilarating safari experience is waiting for you.

Jim Corbett National Park

jim corbettPossibly the oldest, safest and diverse national park in India, Jim Corbett lures millions of people from across India just to catch sight of the wild cat. Surroundings of the park make me feel Numinous, it’s terrifying yet fascinating. I have been to this place many times and every time I visit, there is something unique to see. You can explore Corbett by either hopping in a jeep or riding on the back of the elephant. While spotting a tiger is one of the biggest draw of this national park, there is so much to explore here. So make sure you take your time.

Ranthambore National Park

ranthamboreYour trip to India will be incomplete if you don’t see any fort and wildlife reserve. One such place in India that serves both the purposes is the Ranthambore National Park. Once the hunting ground of the Indian emperors, Ranthambore is considered as a famous heritage sites. Many years ago, I went there to see the famed tigress, Machli. 3 hours later, I spotted Suraj (T 65). The majestic beast not only posed wisely for my camera but also walked right behind my jeep.

Kaziranga National Park

Long yet, luscious grasslands and wet plains of the Kaziranga National Park lure hundreds of unknown migratory birds from all across the globe. Personally, I have never been to Kaziranga but I am planning to go there in near future. The more I read and learn about it, the more excited I get.

Sundarban National Park

sunderbansWhen I was in my 20s, I went to Sunderbans for the first time. It was this place where I saw the jaw-dropping sight of a crocodile while he was waiting for his prey. Sunderbans, the largest delta in the world is home to hundreds of Royal Bengal tigers. Apart from them, tourists can spot animals like Hermit Crabs, Red Fiddlers, Ridley Sea Turtle, King Cobra, Water Monitor, and Rock Python. Getting inside the nature park is its self an adventure, since you will not be traveling in jeeps but on boats.

Tadoba National Park

All thanks to its unique landscapes and variety of wildlife species, the national park is nothing less than a shutterbug’s paradise. Whenever, I go to Maharashtra for some official work, Tadoba is something I just can’t afford to miss. The size of the park is relatively small as compared to othersin India; so the chances of spotting a tiger here are good. The national park offers the best wildlife viewing throughout the year.

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

When I landed in Kerala for the first time, I didn’t know that there is also a wildlife sanctuary to explore here. For me, Kerala was all about backwaters and beaches. Perhaps the largest wildlife reserve in Kerala, Periyar National Park is a mixture of wildlife and serene beauty. An elephant safari and the cruise ride are probably the charming way to indulge in the wilderness. The national park houses an unbelievable number of unique flora and fauna- Gaurs, Lion-Tailed Macaques, Nilgiri Langurs and Sambar.

Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

When I talk about lions, a diminishing image of Simba from Lion King comes to my mind. But the reality is quite modulated and arousing. In the year 2014, when Gujarat tourism was in full swing with ‘kuch din to guzaro Gujarat me,‘ I immediately left to explore the golden hues of the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary.The forest is sprawled over the hilly region of Gujarat, halfway between Veraval and Junagarh. The moment I entered the park, I had goosebumps all over my hand. I not only saw well groomed and ferocious lions, but many migratory birds as well. Just make sure you don’t make last minute plans, especially during the peak season – December to April.

Kanha National Park

kanha national parkThis territory is one of those places where every traveller should visit, not because it’s an abode for wildlife, it’s scenic, beautiful and enchanting. The sanctuary is home to more than 1000 species of plants including the Indian ghost tree inside the dense forest. Bamni Dadar, a sunset point is the main attraction of the national park. Set amidst the lush green landscapes, here you can spot deer, sambhar, gaurs and herds of elephants strolling here and there. While Gypsy safari is the best mode to explore the different hues of this vivacious national park, there is an option of a hot air balloon ride as well.

Bandhavgarh National Park

The sanctuary is home to the largest number of photogenic wild cats who have even appeared on the cover page of National Geographic. Sita, one of the most photogenic tigresses in the world was a part of this sanctuary. My trip to Bandhavgarh National Park was peaceful and enchanting. No doubt, the sanctuary is the photographers’ paradise. For the first time in my life, I saw animals posing for the camera. Yes, this is right, animals in Bandhavgarh are used to human interference.

Pench National Park

pench national parkOne of the best-kept secrets of the Madhya Pradesh is Pench National Park. It is assumed that Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ is based on the natural surroundings of this national park. Pench is an ideal destination for wildlife enthusiast who is looking for an easy-going jungle tour.

cambodia angkor vat

By Siddharth Kapila

Sir, a taxee vee be de ad aaepo to pi you ub“, our prospective tour-guide, said over the phone. “Da ca numba e 4-1-9-7. OK?

Ya, thanks, Johnny,” I said, “I’ll be on the look out.

As we snailed forward in the queue terminating at the immigration desk I was struck by a mural displayed on the far side of the hall: a scene of tug-of-war between two mythical factions, the rope taut and serpentine.

That’s a painting of the Samudra Manthan, isn’t it?” I nudged my mother. A pleased nod.

A half hour later, passports-stamped and a total of eight bags trollied up, my mother, her sisters (my aunts), and I trundled out of the wood-panelled oriental-palace-like airport.

Wekkum! Wekkum to Anko!” I heard a warm voice. A stout man, roughly my age, was smiling and holding a placard bearing my name.

Hi Johnny.

Haro, Haro! You cuddan fin da ca? It e der, in frun ov you!

Huh. Where? You said the car number was 4197. This is 4971.”

Bu e same-same na!” Johnny beamed.

An annual pilgrimage is a compulsion for my mother’s side of the family, with my mother acting as the perennial group-leader. I usually end up as the compliant tag-along. But this year, I took charge and decided to take her to some place new and foreign.

Owing to my tepid but enduring interest in Indian mythology, the Khmer relics had been on my bucket-list for a long time. “Enough with poojas,” I tried to persuade them. “It’ll be nice to look at monuments purely for their aesthetics.” My mother, ever-keen to add a place of worship to her credentials, never least the one listed as the largest Hindu temple, wouldn’t turn down the opportunity. I’d expected that my aunts, too, though nowhere near as idolatrous as my mother, would be agreeable to coming along. I wasn’t let down.

Johnny slid the door open to van number 4971. I chuckled as my aunt grinned in a manner that seemed to say, ‘these guys are like us only. Same-same.’

We had landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

cambodia angkor vat
As a boy I spent my Sunday mornings much like everybody else I knew – at home, transfixed to what in my planet was universally regarded as the thing to watch on Sundays – the televised renditions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For one godly hour, shops shuttered down and road traffic hummed to a lull. Servants gathered all agog and grandparents’ features matured yet to wholesome glows.

In those guileless and imaginative years, before the unstoppable flood of Cable TV and 3D effects and other such happening things had begun, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were considered ‘The Most Happening Thing of All Time’. Even then, my six year old self had a sense that he was witness to something bigger than mere drama; for not only did these classics open portals to worlds at once surreal and too-real, they were also believed by those around me to be the very manuals to living life. Indeed, these were the primordial – bearded Banyan trees, I imagined laden with fruits of meaning.

For me, though, it was always about the Super-Powers.

The galaxy of god-powers, the curses liberally dished out by quick-tempered sages, and the herby potions vied for by all were the sorts of things that drew me to that fabled fold. The Sudarshan Chakra – the disk that spun fiercely on Vishnu’s index finger, was the most exciting choice of weapon; the shapeshifters, avatars of the ever-mounting wickedness, frightened me more than anything. Mumbling half-memorized mantras, eyes closed, I’d perform the bow-and-arrow scenes of Ram and his brother Laxman fighting evil, praying I could in some way conjure onto myself their talents. Only then would I be able to vanquish some bully I’d decided looked just like a Rakshasa.

Growing up, I imbibed from my mother a great many stories on the continually colliding constellations of Hindu avatars. Parables that wove into me a skein of honourable battles and justifiable deceptions and petty conceits playing out between the Asuras (Demons) and the Devas (Gods), not to mention the tussles among the Gods themselves.

Once, as a 10 year old, I breezed into the Shemaroo video rental store near our home and asked to rent the Mahabharata series.

The salesman’s eyes widened. “Ya there are 94 episodes. Which one you want?

The one with the most magic!

So it is perhaps understandable when years later, as a Sci Fi-obsessed adult, while watching the X-Men movie, I felt something in my mind ricochet – a memory cobwebbed to a stored-away alcove. Where before had I observed this same situation, in which two opposing forces had come together for a common objective before going their own separate ways? Was I imagining a link where none existed? But the echo lingered. It dogged and gnashed until it untangled and rose to clarity.

Yes, the same thing had occurred in the Samudra Manthan, or in “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk“. In that account the Devas and the Asuras had for once, joined hands in pursuit of a single quest – the obtainment from the deepest depths of the ocean, Amrit, ambrosia, or the nectar of immortality.

And it was this affair that I was to find depicted on its grandest, most intricate canvas in the architecture and imagery of the once Hindu and now Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

***

This place feels like India only,” my aunt said. “Like South India. No difference only.

A better description I thought might be India-like. For one thing, Cambodia was home to fewer people than just Delhi and its environs.

We should get going,” I said. “Johnny is waiting for us in the lobby.

The previous evening we’d dawdled down the tourist-brimming and justly named Pub Street—my jeans amid the tri-flutter of salwars—pausing for dinner at a barbecue joint. I marvelled at the choices of meat my aunt sought certain essential clarifications for from the waiter.

We are vegetarians. We are looking for something totally vegetarian. No meat and no stock-shock or anything.

You hab no mee? Fee you hab?” came the baffled response.

No. No meat, no fish. We are pure vegetarian.

We do for you. Can-can.

But please, no stock. We want vegetarian. To-tallee pure.

OK. OK. No probrem. We pu mirral votta.

Three bowls of steaming vegetable noodle soup placed beside a platter of raw chicken, shrimp, pork, shark and crocodile landed on our table. Additionally available were kangaroo and frog, but seeing as my aunt said between meagre gulps and watery eyes, “Beta, I don’t know how you can put that in your mouth!” I thought it practical to refrain from further gastronomic misconduct.

I hope the smell isn’t bothering you,” I said, feebly apologetic, the aroma of smouldering meat about us. My mother said she loved her broth, and my aunt reminded me she’d long since lost her sense of smell.

***

Johnny had been a guide for six years. He flaunted a picture of his wife and son, which he said he kept with him in his wallet.

Da Khmer Empire,” he said seriously, craning his neck to face us, “wa biggit in whore South Eet Asia.”

The morning was bright and the air warm. A scent heavy with sodden leaves blew through the windows leaving a sweet trail. Clear of the thick-trunked trees edging the road, rice fields opened out for miles upon miles under the cloud-puffed skies.

We were on our way to the temple city, Angkor Thom.

Burma, Tailan, Veenam, all came under Khmers,” Johnny waved his hand, gesturing the countryside passing by.

Though our guide was proud of his country, he was not exaggerating. At its peak, the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire had ruled over most of mainland South East Asia. Angkor (or city)—a vernacular form of the word ‘nokor’, whose origin lies in the Sanskrit ‘nagar’—is the supreme legacy of that period, satellite imaging having revealed it to be the largest pre-industrial urban centre of the world.

cambodia bridge

We stood on a bridge leading up to an arched stone gate, one of many, to the Angkor Thom. Below, a moat encircled the 9 square kilometre sprawl of ruins; and on its bottle-green shore, not three feet away from us, barefooted kids leapt in and out of the water, cackling, snorting. Railings to either side wore the form of a rock-hewn naga (serpent). To the right, a row of Gods strenuously pulled the length of its tail, on the left side Demons tugged the reptilian stretch controlled by an upright and engorged head.

The story went that Vishnu, using his wiles, positioned the Demons on the fanged-end so that the Gods would be kept safely distant from the venomous fire-jets spouted by Vasuki, the king of serpents – a sure side-effect of the bodily stress he was to undergo. Accordingly, throughout the joint exercise of ocean churning, the Demons’ hair and vitality scorched and singed, and were by the end of it all but shorn off, while the clouds driven downward to the snake’s tail by the breath of his mouth refreshed the Gods with invigorating showers.

As the Gods and Demons started to pull back and forth on the snake hugging Mount Meru – the centre of all physical and metaphysical universes which had taken on the role of the churning rod – they felt themselves being dragged to the ocean bed by the weight of the rapidly sinking mountain.

It was then that the Universe’s Preserver, Lord Vishnu, came to their rescue. Adopting the avatar of a turtle he supported the mountain on his impregnable back.

We made our way past the immortally-strained boulders, and on through the gateway. I’d just entered what looked like a craggy and foliaged compound, and was waiting for the next cue from our guide when a concerned, vaguely out-of-breath-voice from far back chimed in,

Johnny, bhai, can you please make sure that we get pure vegetarian South Indian food for lunch?

***

cambodia statueAt first glance, the Khmer temple Bayon appeared a muddle of stacked up boulders, a wild sprouting of rubble that was withdrawing into the jungle. It was a structure barren of its function, but seemed also to have been robbed of its allure.

It was only when you lifted your gaze that the eyes came to rest on the temple’s majesty: the multitude of stone-faceted Buddha countenances, thick-lipped and thin eyed, each as placid as they were expressive, and every one haloed by a nimbus sky. It was remarkable: the way in which a face could bring focus to the beauty of an everyday thing.

Lore says King Jayavarman VII built the Bayon in the late 12th or early 13th century as an exhibition of his own likeness – himself in the incarnation of Devraja or God-king, an avatar of the Buddha represented in the 216 faces etched on the temple’s towers. Illuminations in such vein were consistent with the royal order of the day, as they can still sometimes occur today, but where the king departed from custom was in adapting his persona to the Buddha rather than with Shiva.

Following his death nevertheless, the temple was modified by succeeding rulers in keeping with each one’s persuasion, a number pulling towards chaste Buddhism, others tugging to the Khmer kingdom’s Hindu past.

Incised on the hardened grey walls were hundreds of dancing apsaras, nymphs of the waters, the enticing portents to the elixir of life that was to finally surface.

Afterwards, mother and I climbed up and then went down some prohibitively steep stairs creeping to a tomb while the aunts relaxed on a couple of the embellished stones studding the surrounding lawns below.

Descending, our ears caught a tempo of beats, a lilting cadence, chants and singing, a clapping of cymbals. And predictably, my mother melted into a stream in search of its fount, my legs wading behind.

A pulsating Buddha temple. White-robed female priests, their heads shaved, sat on the floor in concert with a huddle of kids enfolded in prayer. Some palms clasped, some held incense sticks, but all minds present called on the powers that be.

Except for the difference in the language employed—Pali, not Sanskrit—and the God(s) inveigled, mother was at home. I could tell she was eager to join the energy, but alas she knew nothing of the tongue.

cambodia female monksShe decided to seek the advice of the astrologer sitting in the corner, a wizened face with wrinkled hands thumbing through a flaking papyrus scroll enshrouding a wad of promise. Unfortunately again, the man spoke no English either.

Even so, he beckoned, finger pointing at my right hand and I trod near. I extended my arm.

Benignly the old man tied a red string on my wrist as his lips quivered to formulate, “You gib me dorra?

Read the full story here.

Photo Credit

By Elita Almeida:

“So you’re here on your own?” asked the more curious of the two.
“Yeah” I replied, shrugging shoulders.

I had recently solo’d my way to the Sundarbans with a little help from a tour operator in Kolkata. I thought I was doing a fine job of blending into the background, being almost unnoticeable. But that was before I found myself talking to two women – about the same age as I (if not older).

She paused before adding, “We didn’t realise you were travelling alone. We thought you are with that family behind us”. I thought she sounded apologetic for my sake, so I hurried to add, “This isn’t the first time I’m travelling by myself”. Their eyes widened with surprise, so I said, “I’ve travelled around India by myself before as well. It’s quite nice”.

Was I trying to justify myself?
No.

Just like it wasn’t my first time as a solo traveller, it wasn’t my first time at being questioned as a solo traveller either. When I hear “Why do you travel solo?” “Aren’t you scared?” “Isn’t it risky and unsafe?”, I’m reminded of this quote by Jules Renard – On earth there is no heaven but there are pieces of it.

And this, sums up every reason why I chose travel.

So for the many more curious souls out there, here’s my modest attempt at decoding solo travel a little.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit

To travel solo is to realise that people read the same newspapers as you do. So you will be a spectacle to behold. Relax, because if you’re not going to be at ease with yourself, neither will the people around you.
When I was in Madhya Pradesh a few months ago, I was asked by a local shopkeeper – “Aren’t you afraid of travelling alone?” And when I replied, “I have met helpful people on the road wherever I have travelled within India. No one’s given me reason to be afraid”, he simply said, “Let me assure you that people in this town are also very approachable.”

To travel solo includes taking the opportunity of traveling with groups to find like-minded and the not-so-like-minded people.
I was wary the first time I (solo) travelled with a group and went to Ladakh. Luckily enough, I met 10 other like-minded people who had also solo’d their way in. We had not only come from different parts of the country, but also diverse backgrounds. Interestingly enough, that’s what drew us closer together. We egged each other to not only overcome fears- be it cycling down from Khardung La at 18000 feet or bracing ourselves as the glacial waters brushed against our faces while rafting on the Zanskar –but I have also had them as my sounding board, learnt fun things like graphology, attended weddings and have had a familiar face to see when I’m in other parts of the country.

That we continue to be in touch with each other more than two years since that trip, is proof that this was destined, just like the ‘difficult people’ I have encountered on my travels. From them I’ve learned patience and tolerance (to say the least). In turn, I’ve come to accept that it does take all kinds of people to make this world!

To travel solo is to plan and execute budget travels reasonably well.
“Travel is expensive”. This is an oft heard statement. But that does not hold true all the time. Not even when you’re planning it at the eleventh hour. I could make it on the train from Kolkata to Bolpur for Holi in Santiniketan only because of a travel hack I have come to rely on. I am referring to the 6 seats under the Ladies Quota in the Sleeper Class (SL). These often remain vacant even less than a day prior to the journey – in other words, it is as good as a guaranteed seat at no extra Tatkal cost!

To travel solo is to feel fear and overcome it.
No matter how many times I travel and travel solo specifically, I still continue to battle the tingle of apprehension every time I am about to take to the road. Bihar, accentuated by its location in India’s notorious north, wasn’t an easy trip to start. To claim that I was a bundle of nerves is an understatement. And to have mapped my way around the state at the back of my hand is to have conquered my own prejudice. I didn’t land up in Bihar with a guidebook and Google Maps can only help you so much. So my ability to map routes wouldn’t have been possible without the helpful inputs I received from the locals.

So what happened when I walked up to a local to seek directions?
a. They’d direct me on exactly how I needed to get there, or
b. They’d smile sheepishly (mostly men) or apologize (mostly women) if they are unable to help out.

To travel solo is not about feeling lonely because home stays have several advantages.
Travelling has helped me emerge as a more culturally sensitive person, not because of my educational qualifications, but because of the insight into the lives of the local people I have stayed with during my journeys. They have taught me trust and ingenuousness.

I wouldn’t have been able to explore the beauty that is Kutch if it weren’t for my home stay host. I’d merely booked my train tickets and arrived at his doorstep. It was he who helped me draw out an itinerary, which besides the Rann of Kutch included visiting the craft villages of Bhujodi, Khamir and Ajrakhpur, as well as immersing myself at the Harappan site in Dholavira. Oh and did I mention the sumptuous home-cooked meals?

To travel solo is to take full ownership of who you are – even when you’re not travelling.
If to travel is to step out of your comfort zone, then to travel solo is a leap of faith of a different kind. I have had my travel plans get tossed in the air more than once – courtesy delays or just bad decisions. And I’ve learned how to stick it out and think on my feet without having to give into the temptation to make that SOS call home.

To travel solo is to find the strength to quit routine in favour of an adventure.
To have continued down this path has translated into bidding adieu to the 9-6 in exchange for something more enriching. A development sector professional with a Masters in Social Work and five years of experience, I quit my desk-bound job in December 2014 to pursue a new mission: to write about experiencing humanity at the crossroad where social good meets travel. Luckily for me, I chanced upon the Himsagar Fellowship because of which I’ve travelled through Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Odisha in the past four months, meeting and working with more than a hundred NGOs.

Each place I’ve ventured into – whether solo or not – has left me more self-assured than before; not just about myself, but also about the world around me.
Note:  SocialCops is accepting applications for the next cohorts of its Himsagar Fellowship. If travelling far and wide to meet local organisations in remote parts of the country and creating a voice for communities that have never been heard before sounds like something you’d be interested in – application details are here.

About the Author: Elita is an avid traveller and blogger who is more keen on experiencing humanity than striking a pose next to a monument. She recently quit her 9-6 job and aspires to be a writer at the confluence where travel meets social good. She blogs here. Follow her on Twitter @NomadicThunker.

3

By Sanghamitra Aich:

If you have been to Varkala, you will know it is one of the topmost beach destinations in the world. It promises economic international cafes, free WiFi, and a good swim. To me, it was all that, and more. It introduced me to a community that is striving for sustenance as storms, both literal and metaphorical, ravage their lives.

I had come face to face with fishermen previously as well – it was when I was in Cochin, I saw them using traditional Chinese nets; I remember being enthralled by the extensive manual labour; and I remember the silver catch. But it was only in Varkala where I understood the real problems these fishing communities face today. It was perhaps Raman’s friendly smile which started it all; which beckoned me to come and get a closer look at their work and become a part of their morning ritual.

Raman, a 48-year-old fisherman, said he had been to Mumbai, and even Kolkata, and could speak a scatter of Hindi and Bengali interspersed with English. He and his friend Babu stood on the shore, waiting for the pull to begin and calmly recounted the many flaws of modern day development using words and often frantic hand action – logging, development, pollution, dams water diversions – and the list was going on when I finally said the fateful word – “global warming”. They nodded their heads vigorously. Raman sighed, “āgēāḷatāpanaṁ”. A later search on Google pointed out that this was the Malayalam word for global warming.

Yes, one of the major threats to the environment in the 21st century is of course that of global warming. One only needs to go back to their school textbooks to remember how the water affects the temperature of the earth and vice versa. In view of increasing global warming, coastal communities are doubly disadvantaged. First, the fractured aquatic ecosystem impacts their livelihoods. Secondly, the effect of a rise in sea level means that coastal fishing communities are in the front line of climate change, frequented by storms and heavy rainfall. Babu, a 33-year-old fisherman voiced the very same concern. He told me that his sons feel fishing is a cursed trade in today’s world. The income is dwindling for traditional fishermen in the light of commercial fishing trawlers, and increased export. And moreover, the expenditure on daily maintenance is on the rise, as they have no catch to spare for meals, or money to repair their shanties after every monsoon. Raman pointed out that his generation could not refute the youngsters’ argument. This is why they are desperately trying to educate them well enough, so that they can get jobs in the cities, deep in the mainland.

Artisanal fishing provides a critical source of food and income to thousands of Indians, but the ever-increasing local and international demand for fish, combined with rapidly depleting stocks, is increasing strain on their way of life. Lack of modern equipments and skills has left thousands of small-scale fishermen, who provide directly for their families, unable to access deep-water species or make the best of diminishing coastal stocks. Raman’s group of fishermen use simple methods of nets stuck on stumps at mid-sea. This promises a regular catch of few small fishes that helps them earn around 900-1400 rupees at the local market, depending on the quality. The fish is shared among 13-14 fishermen, thus each earns around 100 rupees, or even less. The catch of the day is only worth around 1000 rupees. I was touched by their generosity when they offered me a few fishes despite their dire economic condition, as I had given company during their endeavour.

Locals eat 3-4 of those fishes, fried for lunch; people in well-to-do households that is. Some of the fishermen saved the black or spotted ones for home, tying them in their lungi, because these don’t sell well. Their wives will return home after working on the fields, or making pickle, to cook these for the entire family. They stood around the boats, laughing and teasing, while some others mended the nets where they had snags, and the fish- some blue, some silver, others a beautiful green, shined like jewels in the sunlight.

People assume there must be certain fatalism in continuing the early morning rise and reign. But quite the contrary is true. Amidst howling waves, and sparkling fins, groups of men continue to make a life for themselves and their families on the shores of India…and they do this with a smile on their face. This is a real struggle for conservatism of nature, culture and an older way of life.

sydney

By Susmita Abani:

Fifteen years ago, at the age of 9, I migrated to Sydney from Auckland, New Zealand. Life here was more dynamic than what I was accustomed to, but I immediately fell in love with this aspect and never looked back. This beautiful, bustling city is capable of hosting both intimate and special moments, as well as communal celebrations that unite its multicultural population. Despite being quite detached from Sydney’s night scene, there’s an abundance of notes that I’d like to share through a list of carefully selected places I’ve been repeatedly drawn to over the years.

The Bliss:

Parks, Beaches and Bays: Brighton Le Sands, Coogee, La Perouse, Royal National Park and More
What could be more Australian than spending your warm summer afternoons sitting at the beach or laying in a park? Even if you’re not a strong swimmer like myself, the beaches and bays in Sydney are just as pleasant for a gentle stroll along the shoreline, for dipping your feet in their shallow pools and for watching the calming stillness of their moist rocks, being endlessly lapped by undulating water.

Coogee Beach

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Encircled by the Royal Botanic Gardens, away from the city humdrum, this gallery was first introduced to me by a beloved high school visual arts teacher on an educational class excursion. Since then I’ve held it quite close to my heart. In addition to the usual Indigenous and European pieces, it exhibits collections of contemporary and interactive artworks, imported artefacts from around the world, and a yearly showcase of the best final projects submitted by Year 12 Visual Arts students.

Kinokuniya
What’s so special about a bookshop? This Japanese store stocks a splendid collection of Manga and graphic novels that I’ve grown to love. Browsing through its shelves of vibrant comics filled with an infusion of cartooning styles and genres often has me transfixed for hours, flicking through the stories or images.

Spit Bridge to Manly – And then Returning by Ferry!
Last year I triumphantly trekked the 10 kilometres from Spit Bridge to Manly, albeit with a struggle, and the photos below provide a glimpse of why each minute of the 3.5 hours it took me, was worthwhile.

The Festivities:

Darling Harbour:
When there’s nothing on elsewhere in town, Darling Harbour is a celebration of its own. Fireworks string its skyline on the evenings of Valentine’s Day, Australia Day and on every Saturday leading up to New Year’s Eve – and in the absence of such airborne sparkles, there are plenty of restaurants and activities to keep you busy. Visit celebrities made of wax at Madame Tussauds, immerse yourself in an underwater sea life at Sydney Aquarium, meditate in tranquillity at the Chinese Garden of Friendship, watch your children frolic in a giant interactive playground or soak in the views of the shimmering harbour ripples. Darling Harbour simply never fails to please.

Chinese Garden
Darling Harbour on Valentine’s Day
Madame Tussauds

Vivid
An artistic display of dancing lights, luminous sculptures and projected images that decorate the city every year, attracting large crowds of over a million viewers in total. Although all the creative pieces at the festival aren’t equally spectacular, the picturesque slideshow on the Opera House made famous by many postcards of Sydney is always worth a visit for even the most moderate photography enthusiasts!

Crave Sydney International Food Festival – Night Noodle Markets
Rows and rows of stalls, a canopy of Chinese lanterns and Asian food galore – need I say more? Every October, Sydney city brings us a culinary ride to die for. The biggest downside to this event is the unbelievably long queues of people waiting hungrily at nearly every stall, but by being intelligently picky about the timing of your attendance, you can beat the crowds and enjoy the tasty food without delay!

Newtown and its Annual Festival
Newtown is our hipster suburb with unique and exclusive stores. Whether you’re after art equipments, antiques, hilarious and offensive gifts, retro attire or vegan dining, Newtown owns all the quirks. Walking through the main street of this town gives me a liberating sensation from witnessing the diversity of personalities represented in its inhabitants and guests, and in particular it’s large and proud LBGT community. Attending Newtown Festival is also a tradition for my friends and me, an annual outdoor marketplace selling all things Newtown from live music and entertainment, to incredible food, fervent political views, and a mixture of crafts.

Circular Quay – New Year Fireworks
The Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House fireworks on New Year’s Day are beyond words.

Photo Credit

The Bites:

Lal Quila Pakistani and Indian Restaurant
A taste of home against a foreign backdrop, dimly-lit with red walls adorned in Islamic inspired ornaments; by now I’ve returned so often that the friendly staff members miss me when I’m not visiting!

Menya Noodle Bar
Due to my Muslim upbringing, learning that most ramen dishes consist of a pork-based broth was a huge disappointment for me – until I discovered Menya! Their spicy beef ramen is my default order, featuring a light, flavoursome; chilli flecked chicken-based soup – unlike the thicker ramen broths I’ve previously come across.

Hilltop Phoenix Yum Cha
Tinkering tea cups and the sound of steamers full of dumplings rattling atop rolling trolleys – yum cha has become one of my preferred lunchtime choices. I mostly enjoy the suspense of not knowing what the next trolley passing by my table will hold – and the surge of delight that results from finding what I want (usually some flaky egg tarts!)

Chinatown’s Emperor Puffs
Food and culture are an explosive combination in Sydney’s Chinatown, and one of its major allures is its tiny, but delicious cream puffs – globules of creamy custard encased in soft golden pastry.

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