The Kerala recipe for instant love!

What happens when 30 travel bloggers from across the globe sign up for one crazy road-trip in Kerala? It’s what you call the “Trip of a Lifetime”!

 

30 travel bloggers, 25 countries, 1 amazing adventure! Picture Credits – Jinson Abraham Kerala Tourism

And when, as the only Indian blogger in the bunch, you get a chance to see your own country through the eyes of 29 foreigners, you return home feeling nothing but immense gratitude and pride! India is such an enchanting amalgamation of culture and chaos, it’s hard to not fall in love with this place even as a foreigner (more so as a foreigner!) What with our “little spicy” food and deceiving head-nods – being a part of Kerala Blog Express with all these amazing travel bloggers made me see India for what it really is – a melting pot of beautiful traditions – a country that can mesmerize you as much as it can drive you towards the edge of insanity – the perfect recipe for instant love 🙂

Most of what I point out below might sound very redundant or cliche to my Indian readers, but I will do so anyway because I think we need a constant reminder of how beautiful such “cliches” are and why we should be grateful for our lovely country! On the last few days of our trip, I went around with my camera, asking each blogger three things that they will remember India for, and the answers were quite unanimous.

On going through those videos again, I noticed these are the 5 things that made all the heads turn, cameras click and pens scribble during the Kerala Blog Express 2016!

  1. Colors

    Kayaking at Kumarakom backwaters with bloggers Janet Newenham from Ireland, Céline Simon from France, Els Mahieu from Belgium, Tsvetelina Tsankova from Bulgaria! Picture credits – Jinson Abraham and Kerala Tourism

Even before I stepped foot on the coast, a birds-eye view of Trivandrum, looking absolutely glorious and unabashedly GREEN no matter where your eyes turn, made my heart leap with joy!

Kerala is so photogenic and colorful, and I’m not speaking only of the hill-stations like Munnar that are filled with tea plantations – even commercial cities like Cochin had much to offer. My fondest memory of Kerala will be of the Kumarakom backwaters, where we went kayaking, and even the water was lush green covered in water plants! Colors follow you everywhere you go – whether it is the breathtaking sunsets of Alleppey, endless lines of palm trees at Kumarakom, scenic tea plantations along winding road of Munnar, the stunning wall murals on the Cochin streets, or the traditional outfits of dancers at the Kerala Kalamandalam – that’s a blessing only a few places in India can boast about!

  1. FOOD!
Blogger Janet Newenham from Ireland enjoying a “sadya” meal at Wayanad, Kerala. Picture credits – Jinson Abraham and Kerala Tourism

“Is this spicy?”

“Little spicy”

(After one bite) “OMG this is too spicy!!!”

EVERY-SINGLE-TIME!

No, that wasn’t me! But that was every other blogger on this trip, and it was so amusing to watch these reactions! A quick visit to the spice plantations of Kerala gave us all a fleeting taste of how many spices actually go into a simple Indian curry, and most of the westerners had never heard of them before! While the 29 bloggers had a love-hate relationship with Kerala’s spicy food, the best part was seeing them asking for more by the end of the trip. Even more amusing was seeing pictures of biryani’s and curries being shared after they returned to their own country, and went scouting for authentic Indian restaurants!

  1. Animals
Blogger Patricia Schussel Gomes from Brazil admiring the mighty wonder in God’s own country. Picture credits – Jinson Abraham & Kerala Tourism

Cattle in the middle of the street, elephants leading religious processions, monkeys scaring the living hell out of you by popping up from nowhere – it’s amazing how animals are just about EVERYWHERE! As much as I dislike the domestication of elephants, I can’t deny being awestruck every time I saw one – whether it was in the wild at Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, or on the streets during religious processions! Watching an elephant in the wild is one experience every single person in the world should add to their bucket-list; the sheer magnanimity and glory of the sight cannot be explained in words!

  1. Culture
Blogger Raul Armando V. Cruz from Mexico getting a taste of the rural culture. Picture Credits – Jinson Abraham & Kerala Tourism

Ladies dressed in colorful sarees, men walking on the streets in lungis, young girls in bindis, people eating “sadya” with their hands – a reflection of how the locals take pride in their traditions! The streets of India are always bright with colors and celebrations! In our short 2 weeks, we witnessed multiple religious processions, carnivals, traditional dances, and musical performances! People at these functions will invite you to be a part of the festivities, join in the dance or take over the drums. Call me sentimental – but when I saw fellow bloggers give up the comfort of our air-conditioned bus and luxury suites, to stay back in Kochi on an excruciatingly hot afternoon just to get their hands painted with henna – I realized how we as Indians take our own culture so much for granted!

  1. Smiles
Blogger Carla Boechet from Brazil all smiles at a religious gathering! Picture Credits – Jinson Abraham & Kerala Tourism

Easily the one thing almost every blogger definitely took back with them! It could be because we stood out naturally being a huge bunch of 30, but it’s fantastic how we were greeted with smiling faces no matter where we went! It was nice to see how curious people were, to know where we’re coming from, what we’re up to! It was also funny to see how locals would be so excited about taking selfies with the bloggers, not knowing that the bloggers were actually more delighted about doing the same! People in Kerala know how to treat their guests – and this is one thing each and every blogger cherished the most during their stay here! “Atithi Devo Bhavah”, or the age-old Indian tradition of treating your guests as equal to your Gods, is a practice we should all be very proud of!

 

Vote for Kerala Blog Express 4:

You still have 2 more days to vote for contestants competing for this years’ KBE! Visit their website and make your vote count 😉

 

PS: Thank you Jinson Abraham for letting me use these amazing pictures for the article!

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Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat (and LOTS of crying) – Inside a traditional Gaddi wedding!

Growing up in India, one does know that we love our overly-extravagant weddings. For those who don’t, here’s a small insight: the wedding industry in India is over Rs 100,000 crore and a regular person spends one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on his/her wedding ceremony. Decorators, caterers, make-up artists, costume designers, choreographers, henna artists, hair stylists, it’s all so crazy! I saw my older sister organizing her wedding a year ago, and just the craziness of it all made me make a not-at-all-grand-wedding pact (I’d much rather splurge on traveling!)

And then I attended a traditional Gaddi-style wedding in Himachal earlier this year, which easily was the most beautiful, life-altering experience for me! The sheer simplicity and amount of love I observed at this one wedding, made me see more clearly how fickle and pretentious everything at our regular wedding functions back home is.

Minni Di, as she is known to everyone in the tiny hamlet named Khirku, is one of the most beautiful Himachali women I’ve met. She’s an independent young woman, working odd jobs to look after herself and her brother, while also saving for her own marriage. The first thing I noticed about her was her relentless love for animals, ALL kinds for animals! She can just naturally sense their fears and needs, like a psychologist of sorts for animals, and this positive vibe always attracted them towards her.

Minni Di - The bride-to-be! Ooo rhymes :D
Minni Di – The bride-to-be! Ooo rhymes 😀

Gaddi’s are a tribe in Himachal, essentially the shepherd tribe, people who move from one settlement to another with their families and flock of sheep. Things have changed for them over the years, and so you shouldn’t be surprised that most Gaddi men are not wandering shepherds anymore, but have settled in villages like Khirku to bring a little stability to their lives. Minni Di belongs to one such Gaddi family.

My connection to Khirku - friends beautiful little haven up in the mountains!
My connection to Khirku – friends beautiful little haven up in the mountains!

 

Minni Di ki “Chhayi”…

The excitement of attending her wedding began in April, when I was living in Khirku for a good fortnight, which was also when her first wedding function took place and got me hooked to the beauty of it all.

It was Minni Di ki "chhayi", a simple function that marks the beginning of wedding preparations, wherein all the men (and boys) of the village go into the forest to collect wood for the wedding cooking and ceremonies (hawan). 
It was Minni Di ki “chhayi”, a simple function that marks the beginning of wedding preparations, wherein all the men (and boys) of the village go into the forest to collect wood for the wedding cooking and ceremonies (hawan).

 

Chai and food being prepared over gossip!
Chhayi ki chai pe charcha!

 

Watching all neighbors come together, taking an off from their work, to manually cut and collect huge wooden logs from the mountains, made me realize how beautiful the sentiment of a community belonging is. A wedding for them wasn't just about dressing up and showing up for 2 days, but they were all a part of it in spirit and soul, and isn't that a memory you would cherish all your life?
Watching all neighbors come together, taking an off from their work, to manually cut and collect huge wooden logs from the mountains, made me realize how beautiful the sentiment of a community belonging is. A wedding for them wasn’t just about dressing up and showing up for 2 days, but they were all a part of it in spirit and soul, and isn’t that a memory you would cherish all your life?

 

This was going to be a wedding where neighbors were family, men of the house were decorators, chefs and servers, women were makeup, hair and henna artists, and almost every person at the wedding was sans-makeup & jewelry – the true and purest emotions of a union came to the fore! And I wasn’t going to miss it for my life…

 

(A month later) First ceremonial shower!

Day 1: Food being prepared for the bride. So the wedding functions begin 2 days before the actual ceremony, by giving the bride a ceremonial shower. Here, the bride is made to stand between a circle of women in the kitchen / verandah, and everyone puts water over her head to help her "cleanse". This marks the beginning of festivities, and the bride must not step out of the house after this first shower!
So the wedding functions begin a month after the chhayi. 2 days before the actual wedding, the bride is given a ceremonial shower. Here, the bride is made to stand between a circle of women in the kitchen / verandah, and everyone puts water over her head to help her “cleanse”. This marks the beginning of festivities, and the bride must not step out of the house after this first shower!

 

After the shower, the bride is made to eat her food, because she won't be able to for the rest of the night (Mehendi ceremony begins right after!) Here, it was interesting to see little kids come to the bride and ask her to offer them food (like asking for prasad at a temple).

After the shower, the bride is made to eat her food, because she won’t be able to for the rest of the night (Mehendi ceremony begins right after!) Here, it was interesting to see little kids come to the bride and ask her to offer them food (like asking for prasad at a temple).

 

So, about the crying!

Now one thing I have to mention here, while the bride is being “made to shower” by the women, the brides only task is to cry! YES, to CRY HER EYES OUT! It is considered as some kind of a ritual almost, wherein the bride is intimated 2 mins before any ceremony begins, so that she can get into the mood and begin to bawl. I will be honest, the first time I actually saw this I was so taken aback (which explains why I have no pics of the showering ceremony). Ladies around me didn’t find this odd at all and no one tried stopping the poor bawling bride. In fact, I could overhear stories of women boasting about how they cried louder, or “almost fainted”, when it was their turn! And mind you, this continued before EVERY SINGLE FUNCTION until the wedding, and then there was the bidaai which was even more disturbing to watch.

So I tried asking everyone why is crying so important for the bride. No one could answer reasonably. And I was convinced that just like any regular Indian tradition, the original reason for the tradition has been twisted manifold over the years, and no one now knows what the actual reason is anymore! But one of the more sensible friend of mine offered the argument that maybe (and I kinda like the sound of it) the crying tradition began as a means of catharsis to allow the bride to enter her new life with a clean slate. What d’you think?

Ok, now back to the wedding…

 

Mehendi ceremony:

Cousin sisters and neighbors of the bride moonlighting as mehendi artistes, and doing a very good job at it! Also note here, the bride didn't wear a single new piece of clothing until the main wedding function (which is also a part of the many Gaddi beliefs)
Cousin sisters and neighbors of the bride moonlighting as mehendi artistes, and doing a very good job at it! Also note here, the bride didn’t wear a single new piece of clothing until the main wedding function (which is also a part of the many Gaddi beliefs)

 

Happy kids with happy painted hands!
Happy kids with happy hands!

 

Dulhan ki Sakhiyaan
Dulhan ki Sakhiyaan

 

Day 1: Mehendi - Done and done!
Day 1: Mehendi – Done and done!

 

Haldi…

Day 2: Haldi ceremony during the day. While the tiny house was choker-blocked with more guests than it could practically accommodate, panditji came in the initiate the haldi preparations. He collected all the havan samagri, hand-decorated the place with powdered inscriptions, and ordered for the bride to be brought down for the ceremony.
Day 2: Haldi ceremony during the day.
While the tiny house was choker-blocked with more guests than it could practically accommodate, panditji came in the initiate the haldi preparations. He collected all the havan samagri, hand-decorated the place with powdered inscriptions, and ordered for the bride to be brought down for the ceremony.

 

When I went to pass the message to the bride, she was happily chatting with her cousins, but like I knew would happen - the moment she heard that she has been called - she started crying again. Her friend helped her put on the traditional luan-chhari (which was passed down from the brides grandmother), and we took the crying, bawling bride to the puja.
When I went to pass the message to the bride, she was happily chatting with her cousins, but like I knew would happen – the moment she heard that she has been called – she started crying again. Her friend helped her put on the traditional luan-chhari (the gown) – which was passed down from the brides grandmother – and we took the crying, bawling bride to the puja.

 

The puja to initiate the haldi ceremony
The puja to initiate the haldi ceremony

 

Haldi is an important ceremony in our tradition, wherein the bride (and the groom over at his place) are caked with turmeric paste on their bodies. This helps add a tinge of pre-wedding glow to the stars in focus!
Haldi is an important ceremony in our tradition, wherein the bride (and the groom over at his place) are caked with turmeric paste on their bodies. This helps add a tinge of pre-wedding glow to the stars of the moment!

 

The haldi ceremony was about an hour long, and my heart went out to the bride who kept crying throughout! At one point, a lady actually came next to her and asked her to stop by saying "Itna kaafi hai" (This much is enough) I was like WHAAAA?
The haldi ceremony was about an hour long, and my heart went out to the bride who kept crying throughout! At one point, a lady actually came next to her and asked her to stop by saying “Itna kaafi hai” (This much is enough) I was like WHAAAA?

 

Preparing for the feast!

While the haldi ceremony was happening inside, the men of the household were busy in the verandah, chopping and cooking for the big evening feast! I found this so fascinating, as all the women at this moment were, well, you'll see in the next picture.
While the haldi ceremony was happening inside, the men of the household were busy in the verandah, chopping and cooking for the big evening feast! I found this so fascinating, as all the women at this moment were, well, you’ll know soon.

 

Work work work work work...
Work work work work work…

 

Some women helped!
Some women helped!

 

This sight made me so happy...but not as happy as the next...
This sight made me so happy…but not as happy as the next…

 

Ladies party!

So, as I was saying, while the men worked and chopped and stirred the kadhais for the evening feast - the women sat in the balcony upstairs, drinking whiskey with chhole! Oh yeah!
So, as I was saying, while the men worked and chopped and stirred the kadhais for the evening feast – the women sat in the balcony upstairs, drinking whiskey with chhole! Oh yeah!

 

You go, girls (Um, ladies)!

 

The super pyaari (and only person who was supposed to be dressed up) maami-ji!
The super pyaari (and only person who was supposed to be dressed up) maami-ji!

 

Day 2: Ladies party

 

I told you there was no space!

 

Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat!

Day 2: Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat! The mandap is up, the food is ready, the baraat is enroute, and we're all set for the wedding to commence!
Day 2: Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat!
The mandap is up, the food is ready, the baraat is enroute, and we’re all set for the wedding to commence!

 

Preparing welcome snacks for the baraatis!
This is exactly 5 minutes before the wedding started. Everyone is busy making welcome snacks for the baraatis who will be tired after dancing their way up the mountain!

 

Swagat nahi karenge humara?

Oh, I had to look twice to make sure I was right. Yes, the groom is dressed with lightning from head to toe. Quite a sight, I must say! The stupid halogen light killed my thunder and I just couldn't get a shot of the heavily lighted attire!
The groom arrives! Oh, I had to look twice to make sure I was right. Yes, the groom is literally covered with trippy lights from head to toe. Quite a sight, I must say! The stupid halogen light killed my thunder and I just couldn’t get a shot of the heavily lighted attire! PS: He also had nail-polish on his feet and mehendi on his palms!

 

Would you look at that gorgeous, gorgeous outfit? Yes, it's a kurta with an embroidered ghaghra / skirt, and a beautiful sehra / headdress!

Would you look at that gorgeous, gorgeous outfit? Yes, it’s a shirt with an embroidered ghaghra / skirt, and a beautiful sehra / headdress!

 

Sister of the bride performing the rituals with the groom. The bride is sitting with her friends in a different room at this time.
Sister of the bride performing the rituals with the groom. The bride is sitting with her friends in a different room at this time.

 

So at this time, while the ceremony was taking place downstairs, I went to check how the bride is doing. And my first reaction was, why is she not dressing up!!! At any other Indian wedding (atleast the ones in our cities), the bride starts dressing hours in advance, and by this time is already too tired of the makeup and jewelry. Well, not in this one. This is exactly how the bride walked to her wedding. Isn't that amazing!
So at this time, while the ceremony was taking place downstairs, I went to check how the bride is doing. And my first reaction was, why is she not dressing up!!! At any other Indian wedding (atleast the ones in our cities), the bride starts dressing hours in advance, and by this time is already too tired of the makeup and jewelry. Well, not in this one. This is exactly how the bride walked to her wedding. Isn’t that amazing!

 

And well, while the groom is in the mandap, and the bride is busy waiting for her turn to be called in, of course everyone else was busy hogging on the delicious homecooked dhaam / feast!
And well, while the groom is in the mandap, and the bride is busy waiting for her turn to be called in, of course everyone else was busy hogging on the delicious home-cooked dhaam / feast!

 

The bride was finally called to join the party, and it was a good thing her face was covered, because, guess what, she was crying all through the ceremony! The panditji actually had to keep up to be louder than her.
The bride was finally called to join the party, and it was a good thing her face was covered, because, guess what, she was crying all through the ceremony! The panditji actually had to keep up to be louder than her.

 

Bidaai…

Goodbye's are always the hardest, and this was no different! It was nice to see the entire village come together to say goodbye to Minni Di, but it was equally heartbreaking to know that she won't be around the next time I'm visiting.
Goodbye’s are always the hardest, and this was no different! It was nice to see the entire village come together to say goodbye to Minni Di, but it was equally heartbreaking to know that she won’t be around the next time I’m visiting.

 

This picture speaks for itself.
This picture speaks for itself.

 

By this time I was hoping this should be the last time I see this woman cry!
By this time I was hoping this should be the last time I see this woman cry!

 

And it actually came true! Minni Di's doli left the village 15 minutes before we did, and by the time we reached the caravan, she was surrounded by all her friends, smiling and looking so happy, for the first time in the last 3 days!!!!
And it actually came true! Minni Di’s doli left the village 15 minutes before we did, and by the time we reached the caravan, she was surrounded by all her friends, smiling and looking so happy, for the first time in the last 3 days!!!!

 

And so was everyone else!
And so was everyone else!

 

Over at the grooms’…

As is tradition, some members of the brides family accompany the procession back to the grooms and join the festivities there!
As is tradition, some members of the brides family accompany the procession back to the grooms and join the festivities there!

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Back at the grooms house, Minni Di was welcomed with another ceremony, another feast, lots and lots of dancing, and no more crying!
Back at the grooms house, Minni Di was welcomed with another ceremony, another feast, lots and lots of dancing, and no more crying!

 

 

Laada-Laadi! <3

Laada Laadi (Husband-Wife) - Never crying again! :)
To the happy couple, for a happily ever after 🙂

 

PS: I thought I should add that this is a love-marriage. So please don’t think that she’s crying because she was forced to marry someone she didn’t approve of!

Also, this post is nothing but my observation of a Gaddi wedding, as a total outsider, and someone who was witnessing the culture for the first time. So if I have made some errors, feel free to write to me and I’ll be happy to edit (and learn!)

 

STORIES FROM SPITI – Lama Kanpo: The Gyu Mummy – TRAVEL PHOTO ESSAY

The view from the starting point of the Gyu Village in Spiti. You can see the yellow speck on the mountain where the Gyu Mummy resides.
The view from the Gyu Village in Spiti. You can see the yellow speck on the mountain where the Mummy resides.

 

The quaint little village of Gyu does not attract many tourists. Being the village closest to the India-Tibet border, foreigners require a special inner-line permit to visit Gyu. Should you take the effort? Definitely, because this village is home not just to the living, for eere resides, since centuries, Lama Kanpo aka The Gyu Mummy, which brings with it a very interesting story.

The residence / temple of Lama Kanpo - The Gyu Mummy

The residence / temple of Lama Kanpo – The Gyu Mummy

 

So let me take you through my journey to Gyu…

Probably the most exciting part of my hitch-hiking experience in Spiti – my journey from Tabo to Gyu in a truck, and back on an Indian Army water tanker!

I woke up at the crack of dawn, I was out by the main street at 5 AM, and it was deserted barring the one truck that was just getting ready to leave. A little hesitant at first, the Alia fever in me caught up quite easily, and I ran to get what I had, and well – luckily for me they were heading in the right direction. The fact that the truck driver is still stalking me even after almost a month since that ride, is a story for another time.

My Highway experience, tinted brown when the truck driver started stalking me!
My Highway experience, tinted brown when the truck driver started stalking me!

 

The truck dropped me off at the junction marking the start of Gyu village, where stood before me the haunting 8 km uphill walk to the village.

The 8 km walk to Gyu, although tiresome, is insanely beautiful!
The 8 km walk to Gyu, although tiresome, is insanely beautiful!

 

Touch-base: the Indian-Tibet Border Police camp, where the cops directed me to the trek route to the Gyu Mummy! And what a beautiful walk this was.

While you can directly take your car / jeep right to the doorstep of the Gyu Mummy, walking up from the ITBP post is another alternative. Hardly a 10 minute walk, mainly steps.
While you can directly take your car / jeep right to the doorstep of the Gyu Mummy, walking up from the ITBP post is another alternative. Hardly a 10 minute walk, mainly steps.

 

I didn’t know what to expect from this visit, I just knew my trip would’ve been incomplete if I didn’t. What should you expect from a mummy? Maybe a dark dingy room that smells of the dead? But I was surprised at entering the room, the sight of the mummy was anything but creepy. The room was very nicely maintained, well lit with butter lamps lining up the walls and incense sticks working their magic. However, you won’t notice any of this at first, because the moment you step inside, the first thing that greets you is a withered cadaver, neatly tucked inside a glass case.

Lama Kanpo - The Gyu Mummy, Spiti
Lama Kanpo – The Gyu Mummy, Spiti

 

A shriveled torso with blackened skin, said to still be in meditating position though you can’t see the whole body as it’s covered with yellow silk, hollow eye sockets that hauntingly stare back at you, and one visible hand, with bony fingers curled as if rolling invisible prayer beads of a rosary.

The skin blackened over time and exposure to burning candles, the eye sockets of the Gyu Mummy stare back at you.
The skin blackened over time and exposure to burning lamps.

 

Fingers curled around invisible prayer beads.
Fingers of the corpse curled around invisible prayer beads.

 

I stopped over at the ITBP (India-Tibet Border Police) camp later, where the officer in charge – Nanak Chand Thakur went all out with his hospitality, too surprised to meet an Indian girl traveling alone! We sat together for almost an hour, he sipping chai and me having aaloo gobhi and paranthas very graciously cooked by the jawans, when he started reciting local tales about the mummy – some facts, some fiction.

So as the story goes, back in 1976 during an excavation project by the ITBP, an axe hit something that wasn’t earth and drew out blood. On further digging, the body of a Lama was discovered, still sitting in meditation position, in monk clothes, long hair and nails.

The site where Lama Kanpo's corpse was found by ITBP, under the white chhorten you see in the distance. These have been reconstructed after the earthquake of 1975.
The site where Lama Kanpo’s corpse was found by ITBP, under the white chhorten you see in the distance. These have been reconstructed after the earthquake of 1975.

 

Guessing from the maroon color of robes and yellow belt that was found on the body during excavation, it is believed that Lama Kanpo was a monk of the Gelugpa order. Recent reports have confirmed that the body is easily 400-500 years old. The mummy was shifted to the newly constructed temple later in 2006, where it now peacefully meditates, albeit a few noisy visitors with cameras, some even trying to take selfies 🙂

Meditate in Peace, Lama Kanpo!
Meditate in peace, Lama Kanpo!

Stories from Spiti – Chai at Key Monastery! – Travel Photo Essay

View from our lodging facility at Key Monastery.
View from our room at Key Monastery. Which, by the way, is also the best place for star-gazing!

The one place that single-handedly kept Spiti on the very top of my travel bucketlist! This will probably sound silly, but then most of the things I end up doing are silly so what the hell. Remember Highway, the scene where Alia is sitting and staring at the mountains on the other side. “Aisa lag raha hai ki woh mujhe bula raha hai, kaash hum waha jaa paate”, and Randeep Hooda very lovingly agrees to take her across. I’m not talking about those mountains, but the monastery in the background – that’s Key Monastery.

"Tumhe pahad pasand hia ya samundar?" Alia Bhatt and Randeep Huda at Key Monastery in the movie Highway.
“Tumhe pahad pasand hia ya samundar?” Alia Bhatt and Randeep Huda at Key Monastery in the movie Highway.

I have been lusting over that sight ever since I saw the movie, and I had never imagined that the actual place could be thousand times more spectacular!

The majestic Key Monastery in Spiti Valley that reminds me of a white balloon afloat a high mountain.
The majestic Key Monastery in Spiti Valley that reminds me of a white balloon afloat a high mountain.

Key Gonpa!!! The crown jewel of my entire trip to Spiti. I ended up staying here more than at any other village, and given a choice I wouldn’t have ever left! Technically, all the monasteries in Spiti have lodging facilities for travelers, but none come even close to the experience you’ll have at Key. For one thing, at Key you’re not put up in a guest house, you live in the existing Lama quarters, at Rs. 200 per night, including meals that will be cooked by and for the resident monks. The kitchen at Key Monastery beats every café, anywhere in the world, because here’s where conversations flow over endless cups of butter tea. When I visited, the Lama incharge of the cooking duties was Kunga ji, and he is the most adorable Lama I have ever met. Always smiling, always up for a chat (over a cup of chai, mind you!).

Time: 5:30 AM Place: Kitchen - Key Monastery. Pic: Lama Kunga preparing chai for us, always the first to be up and going!
Time: 5:30 AM
Place: Kitchen – Key Monastery.
Pic: Lama Kunga preparing chai for us, always the first to be up and going!

The evening I reached the monastery, I entered the kitchen to try and meet someone who could tell me what are the lodging facilities, and I met Kunga ji running around, serving all the monks. It was only 7 pm, but that’s regular dinner time at the monastery, and the tiny kitchen was bustling with more monks than it could accommodate, and one tiny traveler who looked utterly lost. Kunga ji noticed this and immediately came over with a plate of piping hot rajma and tingmu (Tibetan bread), “baitho baitho, pehle khana khao (sit sit, eat first!)”, and immediately 2 monks got up from the only bench in the kitchen to offer me a seat. I resisted,  but I was overpowered by 5-6 monks “aap humare guest hai, aap baitho! (You are our guest, you should have a seat!”).

And I knew in that moment that this place would steal a piece of my heart forever.

The bus to Key Monastery leaves from Kaza everyday at 5 PM, and returns the next morning at 9 AM.
The bus to Key Monastery leaves from Kaza everyday at 5 PM, and returns the next morning at 9 AM.

 

School-time for the young monks at Key Gonpa!
School-time for the young monks at Key Gonpa!

 

A Buddhist native who walks up to the temple every morning despite his old age, and is a regular face at the monastery.
A Buddhist native who walks up to the temple every morning despite his old age, and is a regular face at the monastery.

 

I was lucky to be at the monastery on one of their most important days. It was the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye (Khetol), – a tradition of the Gelugpa religion of Buddhism, wherein all the 300 monks from Key Monastery visited each and every house in the village to conduct prayers and offer blessings. I was lucky to accompany them through this pilgrimage, visiting houses, indulging in the lovely hospitality of the locals, and chai – lots and lots of chai.

 

Don't have count of how many chocolates I ended up having in lieu of the Yenne Gaaye celebrations.
Don’t have count of how many chocolates I ended up having in lieu of the Yenne Gaaye celebrations.

 

Monks from the temple, walking towards the Key Village to begin the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye.
Monks from the temple, walking towards the Key Village to begin the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye.

 

Young monks share a light moment.
Young monks share a light moment.

 

Prayers offered in the fields of Key Village.
Prayers offered in the fields of Key Village.

 

Followed by chai of course! There's always time for chai.
Followed by chai of course! There’s always time for chai.

 

Families welcoming the monks into their home for the traditional prayer ceremony.
Families welcoming the monks into their home for the traditional prayer ceremony.

 

Giving the entourage of 300 monks and us 4 travelers some company, this couples joined us throughout, playing some lovely music.
Giving the entourage of 300 monks and us 4 travelers some company, this couple joined us throughout, playing some lovely music.

 

Lunch scenes on the terrace, under sun so bright & cruel, I kept awkwardly jumping while eating and pulling at my clothes. I'm sure the kids had a great laugh later.
Lunch scenes on the terrace, under sun so bright & cruel, I kept awkwardly jumping while eating and pulling at my clothes. I’m sure the kids had a great laugh later.

 

Lunch prepared for us by the villagers. By far the yummiest and most fulfilling meal I've had on my travels.
Lunch prepared for us by the villagers. By far the yummiest and most fulfilling meal I’ve had on my travels.

 

 

After almost 3 hours of walking around with the monks, I legs gave up on me and I decided to stay back at the village, where the villagers didn't let me be without a second helping of lunch.
After almost 3 hours of walking around with the monks, my legs gave up on me and I decided to stay back at the village, where the villagers didn’t let me be without a second helping of lunch.

 

I couldn't have left without learning to make butter-tea from Kunga ji. This is me preparing butter tea for the early morning prayer.
I couldn’t leave without learning to make butter-tea from Kunga ji. This is me preparing butter tea for the early morning prayer.

 

Didn't feel like leaving the monastery. Farewell pictures taken with Lama Kunga, Lama Gompo and the rest of us.
Didn’t feel like leaving the monastery. Farewell pictures taken with Lama Kunga, Lama Gompo and the rest of us.

5 ways to untravel Spiti Valley!

The valley of Spiti isi full of many incredible sights like this one!
The valley of Spiti isi full of many incredible sights like this one!

My fascination with Spiti Valley began when I saw Alia Bhatt pointing at a mountain and asking Randeep Hooda, her knight in shining armor, if there was any way they could go there! It wasn’t so much the scene than was the gorgeous monastery in the background that caught my attention, and I’ve wanted to visit the tantalizing valley of Lahaul-Spiti ever since! But what I didn’t expect is, not only will I get to see this monastery, but also live there… cooking, laughing and living with the monks.

Well, no points for guessing who is the over-elated city girl who just returned from Spiti!

Rudyard Kipling couldn’t have been more accurate when he called Spiti “a world within a world”. The valley has the most incredible landscape that’s green and blue and brown at the same time! You encounter a new sight at every turn, and every sight makes you wanna sit and stare in silence, until the end of eternity! But the real charm of the valley begins when you get over its exterior beauty (which is not so easy to do, I mean just look at that place!!!) and notice the exceptional purity the locals live with. Being low on budget, I opted for hitch-hiking (Dad if you’re reading this, it’s not as bad as it sounds), in cabs, in jeeps, in trucks – behind trucks, in buses – on buses… and not once did I have an unpleasant experience (which being a solo female traveler came as quite a surprise!). The people in Spiti literally open their homes and hearts for you, they all want to hear your story and share their own, and more often than not – they go out of their way to make sure you feel at home.

  1. Stay at Key Monastery – Undoubtedly the most beautiful experience from all my travels – staying at Key Monastery! Spiti boasts of a purely homogenous Buddhist society belonging to the Mahayana sect of Vajrayana Buddhism, and is home to numerous monasteries with history dating back more than 1000 years. While each one of these monasteries is worth a visit and is glorious in its own way, Key monastery holds a special place for how incredibly inviting it is! You walk into the kitchen at the monastery and are invited by monks for a cup of chai, no matter what time of the day it is, you can live in the Lama quarters of the monastery (at just Rs. 200 per night, including meals!), indulge in their irrefutable hospitality, sleep under the gorgeous starlit skies in the veranda, and I was lucky to also attend the annual Gaaye celebration of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism! I may always recommend things on my blog, but never before have I been this confident about my recommendation. Take my word on this – this is an experience you shouldn’t miss!
  2. Go country with lovely homestays – I met this incredible lady from Mane village, who welcomes travelers to live at her house, and shares the finer way of living the Mane life! You can learn weaving, making chhang (Local beer prepared with semi-fermented barley), or simply experience the country life with her assistance. Similarly, you will be able to find humble homestays at Lhangza, Gomik, Demul, Dhankar, Lhalung, Cyoto or Tashi Gang, and I personally feel this will be the best way to discover the charm of Spiti!
  3. Finding Fossils – The Spiti we see today is an incredible sight of monstrous mountains with rock formations made by the force of wind and water over epochs, and the serpentine Spiti river adding a touch of elegance to the rather rugged landscape! It is also a known fact that the Tethys Sea ran through this mountain desert till about 60 million years ago, and in Spiti you can still find proof of this geological past. Step into Lhangza village and you will see kids running to you with stones in their hands. Look closely and you’ll realize they’re not stones, but actually fossils of maritime life, that probably died 100 million years ago. Innumerable such fossils can be found with a short walk to the Lhangza naala, all you have to do is walk 🙂
  4. Meditate in Caves – A visit to Spiti will be incomplete if you don’t visit Tabo, which has the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monument of India, famous for its wall paintings and murals. In its millennium of existence, the gonpa boasts of not having seen a day without prayer. But that’s not the only treasure Tabo holds, walk across the mountains adjacent to the tiny village and you’ll come across many meditation caves, some with interesting artwork inside.
  5. Rent a bike – One thing about Spiti, traveling locally can be quite expensive if you don’t have your own car. Cabs charge approximately Rs. 1000+ for 10kms, and while that pricing is totally justified considering the wear and tear these vehicles are subjected to on really difficult (or at times, non-existent) roads, not everyone can afford the luxury. So what do the rest of us do? While I chose to hitch-hike as I didn’t feel fit enough to do this, I came across a few people who rented a bike (which are easily available in Kaza), mounted it on a local bus while going uphill, and cycled their way back to Kaza on the descent. I can only imagine how exhilarating and challenging that experience must be, adrenaline rush max!

So that’s about interesting activities in Spiti. You can also go on an wild-life exploration trip, but for that you have to visit later in the winters. The best person to guide you with this will be Karan Bedi, who owns Hotel Deyzor (which, btw, is also the best hotel recco I can give even though I didn’t stay there myself). Just go to the cafe and ask for him, he organizes many culture & adventure tours in and around Spiti that you can easily be a part of.

I have so many stories to share from my short affair with Spiti. Working on a few photo-essays to take you through my journey, stay tuned 🙂

 

 

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How traveling made me an entrepreneur!

Flashback – May 2014: I visited McLeod Ganj immensely intoxicated by a supreme Highway and Queen overdose. It was my first solo trip as a traveler- my affair with the Himalayas! 2 months of living in McLeod Ganj, and backpacking around Himachal, the only thing I prayed for, every single day, was for one more day. Little did I know this in-between-jobs’ visit to the mountains will change my career graph forever!

I returned to Mumbai only in July, when I got an interview call from a company I had always dreamt of working for. I was to meet one of the owners of the company for the position of a celebrity manager. Having worked in entertainment and lifestyle PR for 3 years, and television production for 1, this job sounded like just the thing I should be doing next! Cracking the interview was not so difficult, but that’s when the tricky part began – the mountains had spoilt me, I wanted to return – I couldn’t chain myself to a 9-5 job again, no matter if it was with my dream company!

So despite numerous warnings from friends, family and my own mind – I turned it down, knowing very well that I was being a fool. It’s easy to fantasize about travel, the difficult part is making it work. I couldn’t travel if I didn’t have a job, but I couldn’t travel the way I wanted if I took up a job either. At the same time, I didn’t want to do something I didn’t love just for the sake of making money. Exactly a year ago, today, after weeks of planning, innumerable meetings and multiple rejections, I started my own PR and communications agency – The Owl Post. In just one year, we’ve grown from a one-person-venture to a 6 member team. I no longer live in Mumbai – I shifted to the very place that inspired the birth of this company, to McLeod Ganj. We have some great clients on-board, some of them congratulated me when I decided to shift to Dharamsala and said they were proud of me (Dream clients, right?). And above all, we have a team that has grown so much in the last year, which is one thing I will always be proud of! The journey hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies, but I’m not complaining. As I reflect upon the year gone by, I can only thank that first solo trip to McLeod Ganj for changing my life, for making me an entrepreneur, for making me independent not only in terms of career and location, but also in spirit! Had it not been for the will to travel, I don’t think I would have ever mustered the courage to start up on my own. I would have taken up that job, and would probably be running around trying to make some overpaid celebrity’s career work while getting underpaid by some other entrepreneur. Being able to do what you love, and being able to do it your own way, is the best feeling ever. Today, my dream to travel and that of a perfect work life are working so much in harmony, each trying to not come in the way of the other, each complimenting and completing the quest for the other, just like Yin and Yang, opposites but incomplete without the latter.

Today, when people ask me how I manage to live such a life, telling me “it’s not possible”, I tell them this story and ask them to sit back and think what they can do. Not everyone can be a travel writer, not everyone can be a travel photographer, not everyone can get a job as a tour guide, not everyone can start a backpacking company. So what do the rest of us who want to travel do? I have been in your place, and now I am here – I have seen and touched the grass on both the sides, and the only thing I can say is there are no rules and nothing is impossible. If you want to travel, find a way to make it happen, and not by following what I did, or what your favorite travel blogger chose to do. Do what you think you’re best at! A person who saves for months to travel once in 6 months is as legit a traveler as the one who makes money on the road. Give yourself some time, jot down your strengths, look into our skill sets, figure what you can do, and then go do it! If I could do it, I believe anyone can. The only trick is to never let your love for travel die, that flame will guide you through the tough times and lead you to your destination. Keep traveling, keep dreaming, keep living!

PS: Happy birthday to my baby venture – www.theowlpost.in ! 🙂

Never stop dreaming!
Never stop dreaming!

Why I prefer slow travel, and why you should try it too!

I’d like to know you better, let’s take it slow?

National Geographic Traveler India recently conducted a travel meet about slow travel, of which my friend Natasha was a panelist. She asked me if I’ll be in Mumbai for the session, but that was the week I moved to Dharamsala. She said she would love to use my example in her talk, and that – for the first time – made me realize how much I enjoy slow traveling!

When I made the decision of moving to McLeod Ganj, some of my friends and everyone in my family instantly reacted – “AGAIN?” I don’t blame them. I first visited this place exactly a year ago. What started as a volunteering trip for a month, ended up being a two month stay during which I hardly worked. For the sight-seeing and travel I did in those 2 months, I could’ve easily completed the trip in 15 days. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, and given a choice I’d still go back and do the same thing again. I came back to the same place again within 3 months to stay for a fortnight. And 9 months later, when I made a conscious choice to live in the mountains, I didn’t have to think twice about the place I wanted to call home! I wonder why that is?

Some think it’s weird that I go back to the same place, meet the same people, spend days and weeks at stretch eating at the same café. Some would say this isn’t travel. But what really is travel, I ask? Very simply put, isn’t it just a way to relax, unwind, and experience life in a different way than you have? Isn’t it about meeting new people, gathering new experiences, learning about new cultures? Isn’t the main reason we travel, to step out of our comfort zone and live life the easier, healthier way? Isn’t it about the journey, and not about the destination? “Sight-seeing” as we popularly know it in today’s world, can’t possibly be the parameter for travel. If it were, I wouldn’t ever feel the need to leave the ever-changing city of Mumbai that offers unique sites and experiences on a daily basis! For the longest time I thought I enjoyed traveling alone as opposed to traveling with a group of friends. But then I have enjoyed the company of my friends when we backpacked around North-East India in a short span of 15 days, or a short weekend trip to Pondicherry with my Bangalorean colleagues. No, it’s not as simple as being alone or with a bunch of friends. It’s about the time you invest in really “knowing” your destination.

Back in the city, we are so time-bound, that every time we get a chance to step out and explore, we try cramming our itineraries with every possible “must-visit” site, not realizing that we’re involuntarily planning an even more hectic schedule than the one we’re trying to escape. We try putting everything on the map, 4 days in Cherrapunjee, visiting so and so site in a stop-over at Shillong, 3 days for north Sikkim, 2 days for West, 4 days for Darjeeling, a quickie with Kolkata on our way back. You end up coming back home with more pictures in your DSLR, than memories in your heart.

Haven’t you ever imagined what it would be like to not care about which day of the week it is? Monday morning blues, mid-week inspirations, TGIF, Saturday brunch, Sunday hangovers?

No morning alarm, no weekend plans, no agenda, no schedule, no “dressing up”, no formalities! Waking up at crack of dawn, to the sound of chirping birds, and the sun peeking through your window pane.

Staring at the same mountain ranges every morning and noticing how different they look by the passing hour.

Walking back home in a lane with no lights, with fireflies lighting up the way and the moon shining down the street.

Like-minded people you met here, that understand what you’re trying to find without you having to explain it to them!

Spending days at your favorite café, chatting and playing card games with the owner and his friends, not a single worry in the world!

The Café staff knowing exactly how much food you usually have, and packing it for you if you miss a meal.

Meeting new people from across the world every day and marveling over how incredibly unique each and every person is!

Lifting your bag any time and going away for the weekend with a random stranger.

Walking 2 kms to eat that perfect chocolate mousse at Kunga, and walking 4 for seeing the sunset at your favorite resort in Naddi.

Shared cabs, state buses, and asking bikers for a lift to the city!

Knowing most people by face and not by profession.

Bird-watching, star-gazing, finding faces in the clouds, walk in the forests, trekking in the mountains, photowalks.

Learning macramé, reading books, yoga in the morning, street jams at night, and maggi by the waterfall.

Soaking your feet in the river and listening to the Highway soundtrack.

Judging people on first appearances, then talking to them and realizing how fickle city life really makes you!

Above all, I love how I can do nothing all day and not feeling guilty about it!

Slow travel is all about discovering the discovered. About spending some quality time with a place you’ve given your heart to. It’s about marriage, and not about dating. It’s about a career, and not about a job. It’s about family, and not about relatives. It’s about soulmates, and not about infatuation. Slow travel is about companionship, and not about company.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but maybe you should try it too?

Sit back, relax, get to know your destination better! Picture credits – Abhinav Chandel

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Untraveling Hampi – Yabba-Dabba-Doo!

Untraveling Hampi
Untraveling Hampi!

I spent the last weekend (the Easter weekend), doing absolutely nothing in the humble little village of Hampi, and I can’t wait to go back! Having done my research, I traveled to Hampi prepared to be amazed by the “Land of boulders”, as it is popularly known. Once there, feeling ant-like in front of those giant, enormous, life-size, ancient boulders – here there and everywhere – where every rock, every boulder, and every ruined structure has a story to tell; Hampi took me back to my childhood days when I would be glued to my TV screen watching Fred and Wilma in their caveman outfits, riding in that tiny car with stone wheels, living in the cute little boulder’ish houses, taking pictures with the camera that had a hidden pecking ‘Da-Vinci’ bird. Is there any way to be sure Flintstones wasn’t shot in Hampi?

Hampi - The land of boulders
Hampi – The land of boulders

I won’t talk about the 500+ monuments Hampi is most famous for, because A) I’m not much of a sight-seeing person and you can easily read the zillion articles about it’s history online, and B) Hampi has much more character than just being a land of rock structures, and that’s what pulls me back! Situated in north Karnataka, a trip to Hampi – which is an overnight affair for Mumbaikars and Goans and just a 7 hour business from Bangalore – has something to offer to every traveler. Seekers of adventure may indulge in bouldering, cliff-diving, cycling on the treacherous hill-slopes, or taking a swim in the Tungabhadra (while being constantly alerted about the presence of crocodiles). It wins over off-beat travelers with its old-school charm maintained by preserving the flavor of a regular Indian village, and keeps history buffs entertained with centuries’ worth of stories. While on one hand it is a hippies’ paradise, filled with backpackers from around the globe, on the other it’s safe enough for you to travel with your family without feeling uncomfortable or out of place. If you’re bored of people suggesting Goa as a place to unwind (really guys, PLEASE be bored of Goa already!), I suggest you give Hampi a try!

Kids in Hampi posing for the shutterbugs!
Kids in Hampi posing for the shutterbugs!

Just throwing in a mythological fact here, Hampi is also known as the land of the Vanara Sena (Planet of the Apes) – a significant part of the Ramayana.

People here have very strong religious roots. The annual Rath Yatra of Hampi drew participation from each and every village in and around Hospet.
People here have very strong religious roots. The annual Rath Yatra of Hampi drew participation from each and every village in and around Hospet.

Oh, and did I mention it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Just a small, very insignificant detail.

Hampi - A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hampi – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

I made the mistake of visiting Hampi in the scorching summer heat. Be warned, it really is the worst time to visit, unless you’re chasing an easy sun-tan. You can’t cycle, sight-seeing will test all your patience, you don’t feel like eating because you just want to keep drinking lime juice ALL the time, and walking on the boulders is like walking on red hot iron. But even despite the heat, my 30 hour journey to reach Hampi due to a bus break-down, my ego-crushing attempt at cycling, and my phobia of water – I came back to Mumbai with a resolve to revisit Hampi after summers. Here’s why:

  • Read to your heart’s content – So one thing unique about Hampi is that this village has absolutely no network. And I’m not speaking about 3G, but general cellular network. Being a heritage site, Hampi can apparently not allow cellular companies to set-up mobile towers in the village, which though annoying at times, can really be a boon once you welcome the change. No calls, no msgs, no whatsapp, no twitter, no instagram! And if you’re lucky enough to be traveling alone, this means spending some genuine undisturbed quality time with books! Step into a Café, order a nice glass of banana coconut milkshake, dive into your novel and just don’t come out.
  • Perfect place for solo travelers – While meeting fellow travelers always tops my bucket-list while traveling to any place, doing so in Hampi was all the more treasured. With absolutely zero connection with the world outside this village, it’s very easy to go out of your way and join tables, or hitch rides with other backpackers. Add to that, the locals, who are so friendly and welcoming, that you won’t miss home in their presence! From a guesthouse owner who offered to let me stay for free, to a kind family that opened their home for a famished me after cycling in the heat, to people at a make-shift refugee camp who let me have lunch with them because they were so excited about seeing a solo Indian female traveler – I had the best experience with locals over my short stay.

    Goat curry with rice offered by the people at the camp set-up by villagers traveling for the Rath Yatra in Hampi.
    Goat curry with rice offered by the people at the camp set-up by villagers traveling for the Rath Yatra in Hampi.
  • Cycling trails – If, like me, you come from a city where cycling is only an activity you’ve left for the time you travel to Amsterdam – say Hello Hampi! You can go rent a cycle for a day for as cheap as Rs. 100. Full dislosure: Let me add here, the only reason I went to Hampi was because I read an itinerary that said you could cycle everyday, and despite all that excitement I failed miserably, as I couldn’t cycle to save my life. While I can blame the Hampi heat for my tragic attempt to re-ignite my love for cycling, I’m actually taking this up as a challenge. Next time I return, I’ll be fit enough to cycle around the village. Or at least I’ll try.
My rented ride parked at someone's house after I finally gave up trying to cycle
My rented ride parked at someone’s house after I finally gave up trying to cycle
    • Light on that wallet! – Rooms for Rs. 300 – 500 (will be highly hiked up during season time i.e. October onwards), cycle for Rs. 100, a plate of idli for Rs. 20, a large glass-full of mango milkshake for Rs. 90, a complete meal for under Rs. 150 – Hampi is a budget travelers heaven! If you’re traveling from Mumbai, you can take the bus for Rs. 1000 all the way to Hospet, a bus from Hospet to Hampi for Rs. 20 (or a rickshaw for Rs. 200), rent a cycle for Rs. 100 or a moped for Rs. 150 (goes up to Rs. 250 in season)­­­, cross the river by boat for Rs. 7 to the other side of Hampi, find a cheap guest-house / hut for yourself, and spend the weekend being absolutely lazy. A solo traveler can easily spend a weekend in Hampi in less than Rs. 4000, inclusive of travel; but if you really want to soak in the experience, I’d suggest you extend your trip to at least ten days!
Ancient yet modern, soaked in history, culture and travel tales – there’s a lot to see in Hampi!
  • Hippie heaven – As I mentioned earlier, Hampi is divided into two parts by a tiny lake, which can be crossed by a ferry ride which is shorter than the one between Versova and Madh Island. While on one side is the Hampi Bazaar, the Virupaksha Temple and all the possible major ruins of Hampi, the other side of the reservoir houses the quaint Anegundi village, endearingly known as the “hippie island”. You won’t see the Goa nonsense that’s usually associated to hippie’ness among Indian tourists, but a genuine, laid-back, peaceful life, underlined by the perfect co-existence of locals and backpackers. Anegundi has good roads (a singular road actually), perfect for taking your biking lessons, and view points where you can sit-back with coconut water and relish a perfect sunset. Indulge in activities like dread-lock making, lend a hand to the rural women making baskets and other handicrafts, take part in drum circles and impromptu jam sessions, or enjoy quiet evenings by the rice paddy fields. Café’s here let you smoke (not just cigarettes), and the music scene is not just playing music on speakers. It’s also common to come across foreigners who have been staying here for decades at stretch, which again speaks about how very comfortable this place really is. Meera the Belgian nun, staying here since 30 years, or the Italian baba – Ceaser – these foreigners are now Hampi locals, and so famous that travelers from across the world take appointments to meet them. Unfortunately, owing to my advance bookings, I had to stick to the bazaar side of Hampi, but my second visit will surely be an extended stay by the rice fields of Anegundi!
Trees, farms and perfect sunsets! Hampi – a land not just of boulders.

 

Notes:

  • The Land Out There organizes great weekend as well as extended backpacking trips to Hampi. If you don’t want to make the trip alone, I would highly recommend you get in touch with them!
  • Season time in Hampi is actually winters, i.e. post October, but I think monsoons here will be really beautiful. I will be basking in the glorious Himalayas this monsoon season, so I’ll give that experience a pass for this year. But if you’re looking for a monsoon escape, give Hampi a try!
  • The one guest house that stole my heart was the Shanthi Guest House, even though it’s slightly on the more expensive side.
  • The Hampi Festival, that takes place in January every year, seems to be a great time to visit this place, especially if you’re into travel photography.
  • To be honest, I didn’t make any efforts to try out the many food joints on both sides of the river. But from whatever I tried, and heard of, Mango Tree Cafe hands down wins the title for the best place to be.

 

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Gurudongmar Lake – The crown jewel of Sikkim! – Travel Photo Essay

Basking in the glorious enchantment of the gorgeous Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim!
Basking in the glorious enchantment of the gorgeous Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim! Picture credits: Nishit Gupta

Sleepy-eyed, tortured by the harsh temperatures, shivering to the bone despite four layers of clothing and 2 blankets – that would be me through the first half of the drive. But once I saw the sun rising in the mountains, leaving a shimmery gold trail all across the snow-capped peaks, and sprinkling peach pixie-dust over the clouds, sleeping was not an option anymore. You read it in the travel blogs and see it in a few movies, but it’s only when you see it yourself that you realize how magically overpowering a sunrise in the mountains really is!

The clouds waking up for the sunrise!
The clouds waking up for the sunrise!

We were driving towards the sole motivation behind my entire trip to Sikkim – The Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! Situated in the northern-most part of the state, Gurudongmar is one of the highest lakes in the world, and the second highest lake in India. At an altitude of 17000 ft, this place is a MUST bucket-list site for all Indian travelers!

Our journey had started just a day earlier from Gangtok, where we had to acquire our permits to visit the lake (being extremely close to the Indo-Tibetan border, tourists can’t go here without permits and have to go via authorized tour operators). Our driver, Arun, was the most rocking chap you can ever come across. He rapped to Yo Yo Honey Singh songs and kept us entertained throughout with interesting stories about Sikkim and his experiences with various travelers. This was a huge blessing, considering the 8 hour odd drive from Gangtok to Lachen, though very scenic and beautiful, did take a toll on us!

We reached our guest house at Lachen right in time for dinner! Our guest house was a small little home-stay of sorts, with the most beautiful arrangement for meals. We devoured on the humble feast served to us, and ran to our rooms, getting ready to wake up at 3 am the next morning!

Loved the interiors of our guesthouse at Lachen, Sikkim
Loved the interiors of our guesthouse at Lachen, Sikkim

Now, while waking up at 3 AM on any regular day is a task in itself, when you’re sleeping cuddled under 2 blankets, waking up at 3 AM is next to impossible! Had it not been for the unavoidable lure of the lake, we would have never managed to drag ourselves out of the comfort of our beds. After putting on as many layers of clothing as we possibly could, and packing the blankets from our guest house – we were finally ready for our Gurudongmar adventure!

We made a quick stopover at a small food joint, run by a sweet and ever-smiling guy named Rikjung with his Mom and younger sister. These were the most hospitable and friendly chaps! They cooked for us, helped us to servings of a local mixture called tumba – made from rice and taken with a bamboo pipe – effective to fight the cold, and lit up a fire to relieve us from our misery. This place won’t be difficult to find, as it’s one of the only places you come across on the way, approximately 8 kms before Thangu, at Yatang.

The family that runs the food joint enroute Gurudongmar! Do make time for a chat!
The family that runs the food joint enroute Gurudongmar! Do make time for a chat! Picture credits: Saloni Saraf
After fighting all that cold, a humble cup of tea brought all our senses back alive!
After fighting all that cold, a humble cup of tea brought all our senses back alive! Picture credits: Saloni Saraf

What started as a sleepy to-do journey, turned into the most scenic road-trip of my life! Be prepared to crane your neck left, right, to the front and back, all within a seconds notice, because there’s just so much to see all around, that you can’t help but act like an over-excited 5 year old in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory! Even though you won’t come across any kind of vegetation or human settlements that are usually a regular sight up in the mountains, the barren and cold landscapes with occasional spotting of Yaks holds a different charm to itself. This wasn’t my first encounter with the mountains, having had my fair share of adventure in Himachal. But there’s something about the untouched magnanimity and beauty of the mountains in North-East India, which is so exotic and mesmerizing, that captures you in its inviting embrace instantly! Have tried to put together a visual journey for you below:

Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim
The road to Gurudongmar Lake, while barren and dusty, is the most beautiful drive you’ll encounter!
Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim
Those black dots are actually Yaks. Loads of them! My camera could only zoom in so far!

Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim

Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim

After 4 odd hours of driving, including a stopover at an army camp, we finally reached our destination! One look at the snow-fed crystal blue water of the lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides, dressed with Buddhist prayer flags across its breadth, the texture of the water perfectly matching the pristine blue  of the sky above – and you stop right in your tracks, losing all sense of time, place… and existence. There really isn’t much I can say that can justify how stunning this site is, I’ll let you decide for yourself:

Touchdown - Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim!

Touchdown – Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim!

The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim!

 

PS: We made this trip in November first week, so the pictures above represent what the lake looks like in November. However this view may vary from month to month depending on the weather. My friend just visited the lake (only two days ago actually). So I thought I should share his pictures too, to give you an idea of how unreal the frozen lake looks in March.

A frozen Gurudongmar Lake in March- North Sikkim. Picture courtesy: Abhishek Gupta

 

Trivia about Gurudongmar Lake: Gurudongmar Lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, who is said to have visited this holy lake during the 8th century AD. Gurudongmar Lake is listed among the 108 saccred laked of Sikkim and is regarded as the northern door for entry into Demojong (Sikkim). This sacred lake is said to have divine powers to fulfill the wishes of devotees who visit the lake. It has been notified as one of the most sacred Buddhist places of worship in Sikkim.

Notes:

  • If you have an extra day, choose to stay at Lachung after your Gurudongmar trip, and opt for a drive to Yumthang valley and Zero Point the next morning! There is also a famous hot water spring enroute Yumthang that you can stop at.
  • Unfortunately for our overseas friends, the proximity of the lake to the Indo-Tibetan (Chinese) border renders this site out-of-bounds for all foreign travelers. Even Indian travelers can travel here only through packaged tours organized by local operators in Sikkim, and everyone needs an Inner Line Permit from Gangtok.
  • Under normal circumstances, I would share the number of the travel agent who fixed our tour, but we had a really bad experience with him and wouldn’t suggest him to anyone. For reference (and warning) sake, his name was Tashi Thendup – Anoop, he owns a hotel in Gangtok (which is too costly for the horrible service they provide) and he tricked us into staying there despite our repeated refusals.
  • Our driver was a superstar! You should call him whenever you’re going for this trip. He can organize the trip too, cheaper than others. Arun – +919475715570
  • Note for people with breathing issues: The drive to Gurudongmar from Lachen starts at over 8000 feet altitude, and you keep driving constantly till 17,000 feet. Breathing here gets difficult for even regular people. We were strictly advised by the army officials to not run / walk fast near the lake, and keep drinking water regularly. You also have to make sure you reach the lake early in the morning, and drive out before noon.
  • Make sure you keep your permit and photo id proofs handy on this trip, as you will be stopped and checked at the army check-posts. Also, for safety, carry dry fruits with you.
  • The water of the lake is considered sacred. We were advised by one and all to fill bottles from the lake to carry back to Mumbai. 
  • The lake also has a small temple which is revered by Hindus as well as Buddhists, and attracts many pilgrims and monks.
  • Important: Just trust me and stop for a coffee with our jawans at the army camp enroute!!!

 

Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!

A living wonder – Living Root Bridges of India!

The Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Nongriat in Cherrapunjee - Meghalaya, India.
The Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Nongriat in Cherrapunjee – Meghalaya, India.

Nestled in the North Eastern state of Meghalaya, is the humble little treasure of waterfalls called Cherrapunjee. A quick google image search of the city is enough to win you over with its incredible waterfalls and mind-blowing natural beauty.

But while the waterbodies of Cherrapunjee are the obvious attraction for tourists, I visited the city after monsoons when most of these water bodies were dry, and I still bought back memories for life! Why? Because hidden deep in the heart of Cherrapunjee, in a tiny little village of Nongriat, is a UNESCO heritage site, the single and double decker living root bridges!

Now a disclaimer before you read any further, visiting these bridges is not for the lazy/ casual tourists. It’s not a very difficult trek in the technical way, but it does need you to climb a lot of steps which will put your will-power and stamina to test, and I would not advise it for people with weak knees. But what I will promise, is once you make the resolve and go for it, all the effort will be totally worth it! Not just for the novelty of the destination, but also for the lovely sights and surprises the entire trek beholds. And the experience of walking on live root bridges that are grown – not built, is a memory that will always stay fresh in my mind, just like these bridges that grow stronger with age!

So, it was a fine Sunday morning when we started our trek from Tyrna village entrance, which was a 30-40 mins drive from our guesthouse (highly recommend this guesthouse too, warm hospitality and calm surroundings). I wish someone had warned us, but no one did, and we didn’t carry any food with us hoping to buy something on the way. But Cherrapunjee is completely cut-off on Sundays and we couldn’t find a single shop. Excited as we were, we still went ahead with the daunting trek.

Our lovely cottage at Sai Mika Resort, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya
Our lovely cottage at Sai Mika Resort, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya

Now I can possibly divide this trek into three parts: Reaching the first bridge, finding the others, crawling our way back home. Reaching the first living root bridge was comparatively the easiest, as we were going down the steps and we were all so eager to see this natural wonder that we really didn’t care about anything else. Throughout the trek, walking steeper and deeper inside the forests of Nongriat, trying to spot the elusive bridges at every turn we made, we were accompanied by interesting spotting of exotic birds and butterflies, giant spiders even, and water bodies that just take your breath away!

Giant Aragog-ish spiders enroute the living route bridges.
Giant Aragog-ish spiders enroute the living route bridges.
One of the many beautiful sights you encounter on the trek to the double-decker living root bridge.
One of the many beautiful sights you encounter on the trek to the double-decker living root bridge.

After walking for about 45 mins, we finally saw it! The longest root bridge, Ritymmen – beautiful as it was, it was also intimidating. The sheer length of the bridge and how strong it looked, with those roots all tangled up with each other to form the most trippy bridge you can expect, this is definitely a sight to behold.

The longest living root bridge - Ritymmen Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
The longest living root bridge – Ritymmen Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.

We chose to relax by the rocks near the lake here for some time, for a much needed break for photography and other important things, like giving our calf muscles some rest. After we thought we had soaked enough of the beauty in our minds, we made our way back through the same route to go find the famous double-decker bridge!

Now, if given a choice to do things differently, I would surely choose to not do this trek on a Sunday as we felt more and more demoralized each time we crossed a tea/food stall that was on a Sunday break, and we literally had to pull off the whole trek on an empty stomach, surviving only on Electral water. Enroute the double-decker bridge, we crossed a few smaller root bridges, but this time we didn’t stop for photographs, having already seen Ritymmen. But what is worth mentioning about this part of the trek, is the few steel suspension bridges over gorgeous waterbodies, which can sweep you off your feet and make you forget about the double-decker bridge and just set camp right here! Watching the pristine blue water of the lake flowing below your feet at a lightning speed, while you try walking on the bridge so many feet above, I must admit the experience can be a little nauseating and scary, but very overwhelming and adventurous at the same time.

Even though I'm not afraid of heights, walking on this bridge did make my head spin!
Even though I’m not afraid of heights, walking on this bridge did make my head spin!

After walking for what felt like 4 hours, but actually was only two, we finally finally found a food stall that was open (yayy!) Stopping for a quick maggi, we stocked up on biscuits and chips for our return trek, and just 5 mins from there was the gorgeous double-decker bridge – one of its kind the world over! We walked across both the levels of the bridge, and then took refuge by the side of the lake below, just sitting and admiring how gorgeous this place was. Unfortunately a few drunks around us were totally spoiling my moment of tranquility, so we chose to leave sooner than I would’ve liked.

Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Umshiang Double Decker Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Shot from the second level of the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Shot from the second level of the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Shot from the lower level of the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Shot from the lower level of the Umshiang Double Decker Living Root Bridge at Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.

Now it was time to go back and this has to be the worst part, and not because I wanted to stay and camp. Trekking onward to your destination is always easier as you’re excited about the adventure and experience, but the return trek is what kills you. This has to be the toughest trek I have ever done, trekking down a 2500 odd descent and back up, with around 7000 steps to cover back and forth, is no easy task. But once you complete it – there’s no happier feeling in the whole wide world!

The steps that kept magically increasing after every turn. Enroute the trek back from the living root bridges of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
The steps that kept magically increasing after every turn. Enroute the trek back from the living root bridges of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.

A little intel on the living-root bridges: These natural root bridges were such guided by the early-war Khasis to serve them for crossing massive streams. They are made from the roots of an ancient rubber tree – Ficus Elastica – that is native to the rivers and streams of North East India. They take 10-15 yrs to develop, and are so strong that some of them can carry 50+ people at one time. They are said to have a life span of around 500-600 years, and in fact, become stronger over time as they are live bridges.

 

Notes:

  • One can choose to visit the living root bridge in the village of Mawlynnong too. Now I couldn’t go there, but that place is also famous as the cleanest village in Asia. So it’s surely worth a trip! Also, for people who choose not to take the deathly trek, this one is your best bet as it’s easily accessible from the village. However, you won’t find a double-decker bridge here, that one’s only in Cherra!
  • If you’re staying at SaiMika Resort too, don’t forget to ask the manager Ataanu, to show you the secret waterfall at the back of the resort. It’s quite small, but it’s really beautiful and calming.
  • We hired a cab from Guwahati to Cherrapunjee, for Rs. 3000 per day. I wouldn’t recommend our driver, but what you can do is visit the Guwahati market in the morning from where you easily get shared cabs for Shillong. You can  then hire a car from Shillong to Cherrapunjee, as Shillong drivers are better acquainted with the place.

The entire North Eastern stretch of India is known for how well its people stay in harmony with nature, and they strive to preserve its cleanliness. If you’re traveling here, please make sure you respect their efforts, do not litter, and motivate your friends to do the same.