Friday, September 14, 2012

Day 12, 13 & 14 - Adieu Kashmir!!

Day 12, 13 & 14 - Adieu Kashmir!!

It would be an understatement if i were to claim that barring few aberrations it's been an absolutely memorable journey. i had a coveted dream of seeing this trip the light of day since long and i am glad it eventually came good.

The last few days at the fag end of this trip could actually have sprinkled some icing on the cake but for some mismanagement /miscommunication by my travel solution provider who (un)intentionally goofed up.

Tso Moriri is another beautiful lake but for some reasons Indians find it a poor second cousin of Pangong as one could see that almost 90% of its visitors are foreigners. After reaching there it paid rich dividends when i decided to climb up the hill right behind the tents we were booked at. Though for a person like me who is not used to exercising at all it felt like climbing the great Mount Everest, when after reaching the summit i realized that suddenly a beautiful rainbow has emerged from the lake after a small drizzle it alleviated all the pains & my 2-stroke bike cylinder like heart beats got nicely settled.

It was a shocker for us to find that we would have to spend the night once again in a tent. Though i personally wouldn't have minded if we didn't get a room, having my Pa in my company made me conscious. And now despite of repeated assurances by our tour operator only few hours back we had to forcibly stay in a tent as the local camp administrator had received the confirmation voucher for "tent" only by the camp owners. Predictably, dad had a tough time in the freezing tent as he developed some common medical symptoms.

Thankfully, the night passed without any major hassles & we started early next morning to reach our next pit stop i.e., Sarchu.

Tso Moriri to Sarchu is a laborious journey of 7-8 hours but the entire stretch is very rich in flora n fauna to gently force you into keep forgetting the residual distance to Sarchu.

For all its (Sarchu's) widespread popularity as a stop-over it won't be a bad idea to keep yourself motivated & do another 110 Km to reach Keylong in 4 hours. Sarchu doesn't have too many good camping facilities and after having already experienced camp stays elsewhere (in Hunder, Pangong, Tso Moriri, etc.) it's not exactly worth to expose yourself to some more precarious weather conditions and end your Kashmir sojourn on a rather disappoiting note.

Keylong is a good town with better lodging facilities and it indeed redeemed our expectation from it.

Only the next day while on our way to Manali via the Rohtang Pass did we realize another advantage of staying overnight in Keylong. Though distance between Keylong & Manali is slightly over 100 Km, due to enormously challenging road condition for a good part of it with immediately preceding & succeeding 5-6 Kms stretches on either sides of Rohtang getting heavily muddy even in the thinnest of rains it won't ever take anything less than 5 hours to reach Manali from Keylong itself! Personally, it seemed to be the most intimidating single stretch in my little over three decades of existence.

Even for its tricky nature Keylong-Manali is an insanely beautiful track with very few other mainland roads giving it a real run for its money.

I saw even the bikers getting stranded in the long marsh-like stretches and to see small cars needing a push from no less than 4-5 passersby was a sorry sight. People shouldn't venture on this track unless they are traveling in heavy vehicles or SUVs with better ground clearance & sturdy engines. Somebody's misfound adventure (or even oignorance) could easily turn into miserably frustrating experience for scores of others.

Manali is a hill station with not too many sight seeing options apart from few temples with ancient significance. Of course there are some adventure activities to indulge into but their availability / relevance is entirely a function of complimenting weather conditions.

i have consciouly refrained from either endorsing or criticising any of my nine places of stay during this fortnight long vacation but as they say, "keep best for the last". This is what precisely happened when i checked-in Manali Holiday Cottages today. Let me share that during the entire vacation this was the most elegant looking & well managed / maintained property under the personal supervision of its proprietor Mr. Roshan Thakur. I chose to neglect the malfunctioning TV in my room which couldn't get corrected despite the best efforts of the hotel staff.

So this was the culmination of our two week long siesta in Kashmir n Ladakh. I do look forward to visit this heaven on earth again soon. i am truly glad & humbled that some of my non-Indian readers have got encouraged to rethink on their apprehensions about visiting this region. Let me assure one & all that contrary to what many would like to believe (and what some sections of media would also portray) today the law & order in Kashmir is no less than any other state of the country. As a matter of fact, in some ways it is actually stricter than anywhere else. A case in point is restricted network connectivity with complete ban on "roaming" prepaid mobile connections. Also, the fact that in any part if the state, especially the Ladakh region, army's presence is more than significant makes one feel secure, even when during your road trip on many occasions you won't find a single human being for miles. Army has done its bid for the holistic development of surroundings by actively collaborating with the locales. A case in point is that the army has opened many "Army Welfare Schools" in some of the remotest areas to support the society's underprivileged kids' education.

The locals have truly imbibed a "visitor as a state guest" culture and it reflects in all their (in)direct actions. I have never experienced more affable local residents anywhere else, within or outside India. They go that extra mile to make you confortable.

The ever increasing population of foreign tourists of all age, both males n females on bicycles & motor cycles, outnumbering even the locales / Indians at times is a laudable sight & their faith in our country's hospitality is so much self-confidence inspiring.

Dear George Brown, i absolutely do not have any problem in you re-publishing my blog to any one if you find it appropriate to let me know details of your intended audience in advance. Also, it would be great to know your own country of residence. Lastly, it would be my pleasure to help address any residual concern you still might have and/or any requitement to plan your trip to this absolutely adorable creation of God.

1. Never, ever rely on your tour operator blindly and make the full payment in advance, more so when a third party is involved critically. i did both and had to pay for it, both materially & otherwise.
2. Do not go just by the words of your tour operator and take even the miniscule of details like itinerary, place & type of accomodation, vehicle type, etc. in writing to avoid any last minute surprises.
3. Always have some quick snakes handy as on any section in Ladakh restaurants are a luxury.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Day 9, 10 & 11 - More of Spirituality & Natural Wonders

Day 9, 10 & 11 - More of Spirituality & Natural Wonders

Hunder has something unique in this part of the world viz. double humped camels. An early morning, timed ride on one of them in their superbly chosen playfield may not exactly fill you with a "yet to experience" kind of euphoria as they are quite unassuming creatures with the least of aggression towards even a stranger. Yet, the ideal panoramic setting is something to die for. Vast and open fields covered all around by mountains with low hanging clouds could so very easily ignite poetic thoughts in you. If you miss it you would have to visit Mangolia which is the only other place in the world where these beautiful creatures are found. I was particularly impressed with the way their masters/trainers had an agreed upon understanding among themselves as to whose turn would it be to entertain the next customer. Simplistic, as it may sound, it actually helps in ensuring that there is no bargaining on the "union rate" & everybody gets to earn equitably.

Deskit monastery is one of the major places of worship for the Buddhists. It is just 7 Kms from Hunder on the way to Leh. This monastery also has a huge 100 feet high statue of the Great Buddha and it independently sits on a hill with a lower height vis-a-vis the main monastery premises.

Any Ladakh sojourn, especially if it's the maiden one for the protagonist(s), would be considered incomplete without visiting the Pangong lake. From Leh to reach this beauteous piece of natural wonder is not a mean task when you pass through the bone crushing terrains & negotiate Changla Pass, the third highest motorable pass in the world at 17,586 feet. But as soon as you get the first glimpse of the lake from few Kms away you forget all your miseries & start anticipating a sweet, endearing encounter with one of the most elegant yet colourful splash on a water canvas one could ever imagine. I lost the count of the shades of green, blue, purple, turquioise, etc. I could decipher from the pot-pouri on display. It was the most soothing sight i have ever come across. The real fun started after the sun set when it became windy. Gradually, speed of the chilling winds must have touched 80-100 Kms/Hr & only strong-willed could hold their nerves.

On planning the Leh-Pangong return trip few of the attractions near Leh could be suitably interjected viz. Thiksey & Hemis monastries, Shey & Stok palaces, etc. I had an accidental discovery when a beautiful looking building behind the famous Druk school caught my attention. I tried to explore & was casually informed that it was just another monastry but was being managed by all lady monks. I patiently waited for its gates to be opened. When a monk saw me waiting she brought the keys herself & i could sense that she would lock it again on my exit which later she did. It was the most aesthetically planned, modern central prayer hall which had on its huge walls oil painted illustrations. In the middle were beautiful looking statues of Gods with their glittering ornaments. I am clueless why this monastery is not in the "recommended" sight-seeing by any tour operators!!

Before finally bidding Leh good bye it would certainly be worth the effort (and money) to spare at least 3-4 hours of the last evening of your stay to visit the local market. Indulge yourself in getting some good bargain deals on the world's best apricots (both dried & fresh), Ladakhi handicraft, Kashmiri woolen clothes, etc. Those with a liking for local food can of course treat their taste buds at a restaurant or at the road-side eateries.

1. Start your day even earlier for Pangong to ensure you reach there by 3 pm. If you reach late & the weather is not playing to your tunes you might have to prolong your wait for a full, unspoiled view until the next day's sunrise. At the same time if any of your group members are vulnerable/sensitive to some of the probable extreme conditions in camp stay but can sustain a same day return journey make sure you hit the road before 6 am.
2. Do not lose heart if doors of the monastry in the Druk school compound are closed. Request a passing by monk to help you with a visit & she would get the keys herself.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Day 7 & 8 - Khardungla calling to Nubra n Turtuk

Day 7 & 8 - Khardungla calling to Nubra n Turtuk

What strikes you first when in your wildest of dreams you see yourself scaling a height of 18,380 feet or 5,602 metres? Loads of snow, milky white mountains, breathlessness, Oxygen cylinder clutched firmy in your hands with your nosetrills vying for every atom of the gas oozing out of the cylinder? Some of you who are hardcore movie buffs would probably fancy themselves surrounded by a battery of villains as you strive to get your lady love released from their den. Barring the last i had all of the earlier speculated scenarios shadow rehearsed already as we took off for the mighty, the highest motorable road in the world, the Khardungla Pass.

As our SUV started climbing the "upward only" kachcha road i heard our driver getting the update that it has snowed today on the heights. What more auspious start to the thrill ride! There came numerous mountains having their own unique identity but today was not their day probably as i just wanted to be air-lifted to the TOP without wasting any more time on lesser immortals. As the fate would have it we found that there were many tricky road blocks along the way which were being cleared by the ever so reliable BRO (Boarder Roads Organization) at a break neck speed.

I tried to capture few of the most tempting dessert offerings in my MoCam but wouldn't get satiated. I got my taste buds rolling vigorously when i first got the glimpse of snow peaked mountains even as there still was lot of ground to be covered before we claimed the summit. In the subdued sun rays the half-melted snow would sit pretty like a jewel in the crowns of these blessed timeless beauties. I tried to create some masterpieces of my own by making use of some amazing features of my MoCam & i didn't have much to do as the naturally gifted wonders provided for the perfect picturesque settings.

There were few cyclists & motor cyclists who crossed us and it was a telling testament on human endeavour.

After crossing the Khardungla ranges we entered the Nubra Valley. Here we had the first (& possibly last) let down of the entire trip as we visited the Pamanik "Hot Springs". Though it had a stream of near boiling hot water coming from some unknown natural resource & it was claimed that it could cure some illnesses the cure came with certain preconditions which definitely could put ice cold water on the visitor's enthusiasm. Given that i won't very highly recommend this nondescript & isolated spot which if included, could jeopardize your day's plan by 4 hours & your trip by one full day.

Hunder (in Nubra Valley) offers several choices suiting different tastes. It has some naturally developed options offering overnight stay to the nature lover in you. They are in the form of both tents n home stays.

Visit to Turtuk is recommended for someone with absolutely in no hurry. From Hunder it takes roughly 3 hours to reach the army check post in Turtuk which is 7 Kms short of the actual border with Pakistan. Special permission is needed to go those few extra miles.

After this disappointment (of not getting to see the real border), thanks to the driver's young son who took over the vehicle for 2 days & his friend, i could see the Turtuk village which is around 200 metres of steep hike on an actualy hilly terrain and let me tell you that no tour operator would include this awesome nature trail in their itinerary for you. One has to first know it him/herself. These kids goaded me & i am glad i took their recommendation positively. From the hill top the view of the down was just so magnificent. Even the most aesthetically shot aerial scene of a Chopra romantic won't be able to hold a candle to it. I passed through some of the lush fields & loved the experience. I also set on the cliff, which directly overlooked the base of the valley, dangerously to pose for a couple of all time gems of my own even as a massive stroke of vertigo was surging in.

I met few local residents to understand what changes they have felt ever since 1971 when Turtuk became a part of sovereign India. It sounded pleasing to ears that since there was lot of cultural & social influence between people living on the two sides already not much has changed ever since even as some of them had to vacate their homes in 1999 when Pakistan fired shells heavily on this peaceful town.

All those pleasant memories from Turtuk came looking to get crashed when all of a sudden our vehicle wavered violently on a concrete road. I realized that there was a mild avalanche the moment we were supposed to cross a particular juncture. For all his youth our driver's son handled it very maturely without getting panicked. It could have been a real close shave.

Day 6 - Of Spirituality & Adventure

Day 6 - Of Spirituality & Adventure

Alchi monastery has in its proud possession murals & carvings which are hundreds of years old. It has few temples dedicated to different menifestations of The Great Buddha. The moment you enter any of these places of worship your head involuntarily bows down & you try to infer what teachings each of these masterpieces created scores of generations ago intended to pass on. So subtle is the message that unless one has undertaken at least a refresher's course in Buddhism it would be next to impossible to even make an educated attempt of decoding.

Mid-way enroute to Leh is another magnificent monastery of Likir which lets its presence known from miles away as you approach it. It is slightly more elaborate in work as compared to its Alchi couterpart but what makes it stand out is a gigantic 90 feet high Gold plated statue of Buddha which incidentally is not in a closed premises. For its sheer size this work of art underlines the message of humility for the visitors.

After the early morning tryst with spirituality it was time for some adrenaline junkies as we reached "Sangam", the meeting point of two or more rivers. What a heady cocktail i had on menu for the day! Water rafting in the Zanskar river had me excited the most from among all the activities i had planned in the entire 15 day long vacation but when i got to know that we'll raft a length of full 28 Kms, to be covered in nearly 2.5 hours, my sense of the anticipated thrill scaled a new peak. I discovered that since my Pa opted out of the fun, in the 9 member team i was the only Indian flag bearer! 2 persons each from Germany, Italy, Holland & Chillie completed the formation. We had 2 Nepali guides, one in the raft & the other one in a micro small rescue dingy.

We all were so excited about this adventurous ride that when we were told that today the difficulty level was 3, representing a medium level from a maximum of 6 many of us got slightly disappointed with me being the one with the most beaten up expression.

After changing into the mandatory gear we started our expedition in relatively calmer water body but when the stretch to be covered is so enormous the unexpected could always visit. That's precisely what happened on many occasions when huge water waves riding on spoilt rapids would splash us with more than handfuls of chilled chemical composition of Hydrogen n Oxygen. The ones who had worn an oversized wet shoe, including this poor soul, had a tough time from the word go as the near freezing water would seep in generously & even in my jubiliant mood i feared my feet might just get amputed once i am back on shore again.

All of a sudden i heard the Chiilian sitting right opposite me shouting, "My Jokey, i had just one." Only moments later i could emphatize with him. I felt better off though as i could successfully preserve a couple of them for a rainy day :)

For the entire duration of our sojourn on Zanskar i kept getting amazed on the way this river was so unsuspectingly perched between some mighty rocky mountains (all along its length) which were chiselled in every possible way your imagination can wildly think of and many times over. On quite many occasions we felt that our raft was ferociously heading into one of the crushing rocks & on as many times just when one of us was to let go his/her vocal chords with hitherto unexplored hysterical throttle we would be off the collision just in the nick of time!! How? Our guide would know each next movement of the raft like the back of his palm.

I do not have any twin thoughts on filming the climax scene of the next generation 707 thriller in these imposing heights & depths should its franchise reading this piece finds me a worthy candidate to direct the Bond, James Bond.

While paddling i saw that in the concrete n rock filled mountain there was a yellow object moving at a height of not less than 100 metres above the river level. On looking closely i identified that it was a dozer heavy duty vehicle trying to do what it always does i.e., clearing the mountain terrain. With a bemused look i asked the guide why was it needed in the first place & quick came the clarification. He pointed at a remote house perched precariously on one of the rocky mountains & told that for even one house the road gets made. For all my sensitivity I felt jealous of the royalty the house owner was accorded to.

The thrill hungry lunatic inside me was getting desperately restless before signing off in style & i decided to do something crazy. I don't even know that when hard prssed if i would be able to float up the aquarium of a certain Mr. Ambani at all (to save myself from drowning, what else?)!! But that couldn't deter my confidence in the life jacket i was wearing as i took the strides of a triple jumper on the raft only & took the leap of faith while fancying my chances to break the olympic reward. I don't know what hit me then (and once again later) but as i rose above the water surface from the freezing depths of Zanskar i felt as if i had conquered every fear. It was such an inspiring & humbling experience to even make efforts to put words to. I just loved it though not before scaring our country's guests who had their eyes wide open when they got to know i didn't know any swimming at all.

As i still was feeling on top of the roof of the world it warranted the divine intervention of the Holy Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji at his abode so aptly named "Gurudwara Pathar Sahib". Legend has it that 500 years back He had humbled a man-eating demon at this place. This shrine is right on the main highway & is being served/managed by the ever smiling community members.

Our driver made a customery halt in the middle of road & asked us to get down to see what's going to happen. For some moments i didn't realize anything & was wondering what this otherwise amazing guy was up to. Then he explained that even after his switching the car's engine off it was rolling back, upwards!! I couldn't believe my eyes & thought it to be gimmick to promote the "Magnetic Hill" as a tourist spot. But when i observed that in fact this miracle was officially endorsed by the Indian army all my doubts died their natural death.

Last on the day's menu was paying a homage to our country's fighters who laid their lives unrepentently in the service of the nation as we visited "The Hall of Fame" in Leh. It depicted in great details the challenges our armed forces face 24x7 in their bid to ensure that the integrity of their mother land is not compromised by any nafarious elements. Some of the galleries take the viewer away to the battle field and we salute all our real heroes.

1. Don't take the schedule shared by your local tour advisor / driver for granted. If s/he asks you to leave your hotel in Alchi by 8 AM make sure you do so if you also wish to visit Likir on way to rafting. You might just miss the boat if you don't reach in time. It takes 90 minutes from Alchi to Sangam.
2. If you can back yourself without forcing your near n dear ones to get jitters please do not miss the full length water rafting on Zanskar & also the fun of plunging in the depths of the river. For all legal complications (for me) arising out of this unsolicited inducement just keep in mind that your life jacket n helmet are tightly hugging you & that your trip guide / fellow passengers are supportive of your exuberance.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Day 5 - The fun continues! Err, it actually gets magnified!!

Day 5 - The fun continues! Err, it actually gets magnified!!

No words are enough to articulate what the eyes have seen. No photographs taken from the best camera phone available in the market can tag the soul which can be found in every single pixel on the nature's absolutely royal canvas. If yesterday's starter served in the form of exactly half way length of Srinagar - Leh highway couldn't satiate this vagabond's voracious appetite today served more than a seven course meal.

During the entire stretch from Kargil to Alchi we got treated with some of the most beautiful delicacies served by the kitchen of mother nature that human eyes are privileged to relish for now and cherish forever. Vivid landscapes thetrically presented themselves in all possible hues n colours. The pleasant atmosphere all along the journey just so very well complimented the scenery & acted like the perfect garnishing. I felt like "Deena ka Lal" only that i couldn't fixate my sight on a single object-de-desire & keep wailing with "Main to loonga wohi khilauna" as literally every passing moment presented a challenge to the photographer inside me if i dared close the shutter! I had to, very regularly, as even the most generously horse powered battery of my SGS-3 would also threaten me with a drain rate better than what BMC's over-flowing nullah could boast about in the ongoing monsoon season. I tried my hands on few new functionalities like "Burst Shot" & "Panorama Mode" which actually gave pretty cool results but everything comes at a cost. These smart features eat more than double calories of the normal and that ebbed my enthusiasm to some extent.

Due to the (probably ever) ongoing construction/repair activity on the treacherous highway we got stranded on at least five occasions (to get the right of way) for a duration ranging from ten minutes to ninety minutes with the last one evidencing in no less detail that for all progress the (wo)mankind has made we still have to bow our head when the forces of nature decide to take us on. Not so surprisingly i took all such opportunities in my stride & like a shameless begger grabbed every bite of such doles with both hands and a twinkle in my eyes. Mumbai traffic conspirators can take a clue from it & do something about the dull n dead city roads to instill some life to them to make their own lives easy as then they won't hear the routine expletives they are so used to in their daily lives.

Lamayuru monastery is at a distance of 106 Km from Kargil & once again, if you start your daily early, say take off from Kargil sharp at 8 AM, it gives you that much extra bandwidth to soak yourself with the abundant self-induced halts enroute besides leaving ample room for some unforeseen road blockages. If not already done so i take this opportunity to sensitize the readers that unlike what your usual vacationing experience elsewhere Ladakh as a region could best be enjoyed by devoting much of your time on road. Use your hotels just for dinner & an early morning breakfast. My limited experience thus far any way doesn't inspire too much of an excitement about my carefully chosen hotels'/resorts'/cottages'/camps' self-sustenance if i were to indulge myself in their property. I had my expectations toned down considerably by my travel operator who got immediately concerned when i narrated my luxurious stay at some of India's finest leisure properties in Sikkim & West Bengal at around the same time last year.

Apologies for that slightly emotional digression from the agenda. Lamayuru is very strategicsllu situated amidst some of the most enthralling hills which render it an imposing facade. As you enter in the tranquil structure you hear chants of monks in the central prayer hall. Such is the impact of this atmosphere that one immediately gets at complete ease forgetting all wordly anxieties. After paying respect to all the deities i got suddenly stuck when i read a humbly written note behind a glass pane, "This is the cave which Naropa (1016-1100) used as his place of meditation". It was an out of body experience to visualize a hermit praying at the same place almost thousand years back!

I didn't have any idea & it entirely was a chance discovery to find that Lamayuru has an amazingly well managed restaurant offering full menu a vegetarian can even think of in such a remote location. Price was also reasonable for all your truly's chosen dishes including a banana cake which turned out to be a crepe when served but was indeed more tasteful than any cake.

Barely 2 Kms from the monastery is the "Moon Land" which i do not have any doubt would replicate what Mr. Armstrong narrated about man's first rendezvous with the Moon some 43 years back. It had an exclusively chosen colour for its mysterious & crater looking like arrangement of mammoth carvings. It indeed was a sight to be hold.

Like Kargil, Alchi also is a sleepy town at a 2 hour drive from Lomayuru covering another blissful 58 Kms of breathtaking landscapes with a slight (4-5 Kms) detour from the main highway. Nearby town of Ule could be a better option as it's close to the highway if visiting Alchi monastery is not your priority. Alchi has a peculiar challenge for its visitors. Power (electricity) supply is ensured only between 7 PM & 11 PM. For the rest 20 hours of the day you have a candle placed in advance in your hotel rooms! If you do not get jitters with this idea of living in a near pre-historic era do try this unique experience. A handful of foreigners gave us the company & they also for sure liked the place with some compromised privileges.

Day 4 - The God's own Highway: Srinagar to Kargil

Our houseboat's otherwise affable caretaker gets off the hook if you ask him to give you an early morning tea. So when i sensitized him last night that we would check-out at 5 he threw his usual tantrums but we didn't really have a choice & i could finally motivate him.

Barely half hour into our 8 hr 216 km journey the great nature started unfolding layers of its magnifisence. It was truly a treat to watch gentle yet pure greeny white water streams giving us their healing company for most part of our trip. The hills along the tricky road would challenge you for any colour blindness as you end up testing your cognitive skills to identify how many colours in different shades of Revlon are actually there on a single piece of rock!! You bow your head in respect when you see what precise chisel work is on display in the nature's workshop. I could hardly decide what to capture & what to leave! Such was my helplessnes in my effort to do justice to the sheer regality & elegance of this road (which at times i thought was teasing me) that my Pa had to gently remind me that we had some unfinished business.

Sonamarg disappointed as there was absolutely nothing to write home anything about it but we got the icing on our cake when we halted at the Drass Memorial. I went 13 years back in time when giving our final year engineering exam we got to know about the challenge our enemy had posed for us by intruding these vary heights which are so strategically located. Blood would run then when we would hear about the ongoing developments on war thru media. I once again had goose bumps as memories of the war & the war heroes who fought so valiantly in enormously challenging circomstances to save our Mother Nation's pride & honour. Meeting some of the soldiers was indeed a surreal experience.

There was nothing to do in Kargil & after landing at 1:30 pm we kept ourselves confined to the hotel room for the rest of the day.

Day 3 - The one & only - Pahalgam

I heard that the greatest dream merchant of them all Mr. Yash Chopra was in town to direct a new project after over a decade. Giving him company was the usual suspect, the big ego Khan & the sweet, lovely, adorable, HUMANE beauty, the Gorgeous Katrina Kaif who i already had an opportunity to share adjoining flight seats on 5th Jan. this year & she was graceful while signing my boarding card. Though i personally not the greatest admirer of these celebs it would be an understatement to say that i anticipated bumping into the picturization of a song n dance sequence & hence i sort of got slightly disappointed when on reaching Pahalgam i got to know that the shooting got over early today ONLY! Heck, who cares.. After some negotiation i hired a ponny & no sooner it started traversing its formal path i got jittery with some subdued fear on what's gonna be like the full course if the start wad so scary. Nevermind, i held tight & the 16 year old ponny driver gently kept motivating me (whenever i fell short on self motivation). His name wad Mohd. Rafi but he didn't like singing. Soon, we became good pals & i realized what hardships these people have to face to make good for two times of meals!

The entire stretch covered on ponny itself was insanely adventurous & on many occasions i felt as if my life was in the feet of this poor, deaf animal who is risking his/her life as per the want of his/her master and on his/her own volition. One smallest error of judgment in wrongly putting his/her foot by hair's breath and i wouldn't be there to see what's the visitor counter on my blog!! Along the way i saw some of the most breathtaking locales & i wondered at the marvel of our mother nature. I just can't describe the sheer beauty my eyes were privileged to have treated them with & to appreciste that yourself i would request you to wait till i am able to upload some rvidence of the visual extravagenza.

Tips: 1. Bargain hard with the ponny owner but please, for nature's sake & for all your ego don't let this experience go out of your hand if the deal doesn't go your way. 2. Don't forget to tip the poor, affable ponny driver generously, at least the amount you saved from the clutches of the owner.

Lastly, we visited the majestic The Lalit before calling it quits to wake early the next morning as our Ladakh driver had already landed in town & advised us to take off for Kargil sharp at 5.

Day 2, Part 2 - The understated charm of the Garden City

While scripting my itinerary for diffetent locales I would always get stuck in Sri Nagar city. For whatever impression i had about it i never expected it to offer something of its own beyond the shikaras n houseboats but some how the image i was shown by different channels didn't put for a very exciting showing by this pristine town. For instance the revered Hazratbal mosque might find its mention in just one of the dozens of popular travelogues / websites! I personally liked the place very much. Of course, it may not be as overwhelming as Khwaza Moiuddin Chisti's in Ajmer Sharif it has a presence & religious significance of its own. Don't forget to spend 30 minutes in the serene, quaint, Dal facing lawns of the mosque. I bet my money that you will forget all your miseries & would want to take more than a power nap here.

Which city comes to your mind when you recall "Mughal Garden"? I am sure some would try to instinctively say, "Delhi". I don't fault them for Sri Nagar hasn't let the world properly know it has not just one but actually three such jewels!! Here also, your tour operator might (unknowingly / unintentionally) want to guide you that "Chashma Shahi" is also called THE Mughal Garden. He is right!! Just one third of it if doesn't tell you that "Shalimar Garden" & "Nishaat Garden" complete the mindblowingly awesome trimverate of what was intended to be known as Kashmir's Mughal Gardens. Our cab driver revealed this & i got my money's worth there itself.

Shalimar is an imposing structure which makes you fall in love with it the moment you enter its modest entrance which grossly belies on what it is protecting!  Its lush red n green facia reminds of all those Hindi movie songs which have made certain Chopras n Johars what they are today. I, the solo flying bird, for once regretted having missed the ethereal feeling of being in love with the concept of love. Excuse my gibberish treatment, i am getting overwhelmed by the great artistry. It being a Sunday, the place is thronged by the locals who have come in droves. Did i actually see a bunch of 30 odd free spirits sipping a cuppa tea, served pipping hot from a large vessle, with biscuits??!! My-o-my!! I felt like shamelessly asking a cup for my thirsty soul but my forcibly imbibed civic sense didn't allow me this privilege :(
There i passed by this careless Indo-firang couple engrossed in their own world of literary debate (i just overheard "Othello" by the graceful lady). There were mom's who came with their nursery going kids while their husbands would be deliberating about Dhoni's jibe on Tendulkar.
I realized that i had to keep an evening excusive for this beauteous creation of man. Alas, i had to move to the next one. For all my stay i had this strange feeling that something was amiss. I could sense that even as this Master could give any Mahi a run for his  money on any given day perhaps it was not at its charming best! Could it be put on to the weather which possibly was not the best now? But who is complaining?? I actually am motivated to make sure that the Champ returns to its full glory when i seek my next appointment with the royalty.

Next on menu was Nishaat garden. Like Shalimar it is also crafted under the foot hills of a gigantic hill. Its tall boundry walls conceal what's gonna be revealed. On entry my immediate reaction was, "Thank my good heavens, it's not going to sap me of all my pluck". Trust me you guys truth couldn't be any closer to my poor imagination. Barely did i end up relishing the breathtaking beauty of the mazzanine floor i realized there were some stairs meant to take me to the next level. To cut the story short, it was a multi story beauty with each level (there were at least seven i vouch) trying to attract the penthouse premium from the other! Yes, each level had its own infiniti pool & a centrally liberating waterfall!! The size of all of them was at least that of Wembley and some of them could indeed aspire to beat the biggest olympics stadium hollow! I particulary got impressed with the way children & elders had UNRESTRICTED access to the pools. Every body just seemed to have forgotten that they were in a public place as they enjoyed with gay abandon. Kudos to J&K tourism for being so open & considerate on this largesse to its patrons. What a master stroke!! Even as by now i was literally dragging every single bone of me to the next higher level i finally gave up on the second last (and for which i won't forgive myself). What a visual treat it had been! I cursed myself for not researching well before coming here or i could have managed my stay more judiciously.

The last one was Chashme Shaahi & i got relieved when i realized that it was a poor second cousin to its more decorated siblings, both in sheer size & maintenance. I quickly winded up in just over five minutes & came down with (medically) heavy head wanting to hit the sack immediately. Then came the shocker! "Haven't you brought the water with you?" On my dead zombie like reaction the shopkeeper giving company to my Pa all this while educated me that there is a continuous stream of water coming out of a fish eye opening and that it had some medicinal properties to keep your digestion in order. So much so that the legend has it that Nehru Ji would get his daily dose shipped to him DAILY. I couldn't say no to the silent curiosity my Pa had & went up again first to drink myself besides filling in a bottle. As they say, "Every Chashma has its Shahi day".

1. To be able to do justice to the royal gardens don't pack them back to back on the same day. Trust me you'll end up missing all the fun & your limbs also won't shower praise upon you.

Day 2, Part 1 - The Awesome Gulmarg Gondola

Wow! Had quite an engaging day unlike y'day. Enjoyed a lovely morning weather on way to Gulmarg with cool, pleasant breeze gently massaging every single pore of my body n soul. Ah, sitting beside a driver was never so carefree n relaxing!! Gulmarg treated us with downpour while on way to the Gondola from taxi stand. This is something deliberately done to favour the pony-wallahs as the long 1.5-2.0 km stretch can actually be demotivating for someone not used to casual, brisk walking even as motorable roads are available!! Then i had to negotiate my way thru the unrelenting touts who make it a point to prove that for riding "Pushpak Vimaan" all such efforts n pain are worth. Gondola itself was truly awesome as it takes u to an elevation of 3,950 mtrs. Getting out of our Gondola itself was an enthralling experience. In the company of some state sponsored VIP's you also feel privileged. I made up for the missing 50 mtrs (from the psychologically ego boosting 4k mark) by climbing to the snow point which shouldn't be anything less than 250 mtrs above from where Gondola leaves us. It was a surreal experience to feel the real "snow" in hands & get myself clicked in 4 different poses on a ski at a measly 50 bucks. Coffee n maggi at that remote place were always meant to be worth every cent spent. It's a real pity i couldn't climb up to the ULTIMATE heights as we had to go down within 3 hrs!! On our way back to the taxi stand we hired ponnies & saw the lush 21 holes Gulmarg golf course, probably the most decorated one in the country.

Tips: 1. Always carry one umbrella each for all the group members. 2. Don't get frustrated with the forgettable Gondola booking experience. The management is hands-in-glove with the unscruplous touts but keep your spirits high for what's in store ahead. 3. On reaching stage 1, don't just stop there. It would be a good idea to immediately proceed to the stage 2 which is worth all the time u can spend (or are allowed to spend).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Enjoying a lovely morning weather on way to Gulmarg with cool, pleasant breeze gently massaging every single pore of my body n soul. Ah, sitting beside a driver's seat was never so carefree n relaxing!!

Had a routine Satday "at office" at a home away from home. Just watched the legendary Asha Ji's unbelievably rocking performance on idiot box. Some of her timeless renditions recreated the "Junglee" era so vividly while sitting amidst virtually countless houseboats n shikaras. Will have an early start tom for Gulmarg. Expecting some snow n chill.

And the show begins....

Kashmir welcomed us with not the greatest weather it can boast about but i am as excited as Vicky "The Small Wonder"!!! Our houseboat owner has a wedding in family on 3rd eve. so before we leave on 4th we might just get obliged with dekko of a Kashmiri marriage extravagenza...

Take off for "Good Times"

Yeah!! Half way to "Dharti ka Swarg"!! Can't wait for this wait to get over in another 80 odd minutes...

Monday, August 27, 2012

Journey of a Life Time


I am going to Kashmir n Ladakh for a 15 day road trip with my dad from 1st Sep. We will land in Sri Nagar and after covering Kashmir for 4-5 days we'll head to Ladakh which incidentally will be celebrating its annual festival from 1st to 15th Sep. We'll cover most of Ladakh and would take the beauteous Leh-Manali highway on our way back to end the trip on 15th Sep. 

I would strive to make this one of the most memorable trips ever & I can't even explain what all (vague) ideas i have in mind. Just to give you a flavour of my scheme of things, I wish to share every worthwhile passing moment of my entire trip with everyone (provided i have network connectivity in real time). It starts with my idea to create a blog (or anything you feel could be more interesting). Any ideas are most welcome & i promise everybody a gr8 time sitting at their homes / offices (me sort of trying to enact "Sanjay" of Mahabharata).

Plz Inbox me your inputs. I so very badly need them to structure my ideas around this ambitious plan as I have to freeze on the concept, tools, thought process, etc. in the next 2 days ONLY and do a dry run also!!

This surely should be a memorable trip not only for me but my friends, family members & future travelers also who (i wish) could rely on the quality inputs (without any bias) to put their faith in my guidance.

I can take help from my Dropbox, S3 or iPad (just to give you some food for thought if you could advise me as to how best to make use of the limited gadgetry I have at my disposal). I have installed few applications from Android market place as well viz. Thumb, Instagram, Foursquare, Pinterest, Google Currents, Flipboard, etc. and let me tell you that while using them I might just feel like “Alice in Wonderland” ;-) so if you have come across any of these utilities please guide me how best I can make use of them (or others you might have used / heard about already).

If successful, I might also be looking for few sponsors (like Samsung, Dropbox, a travel solutions provider) and I fancy it to be eventually a business proposition with VESTED interest but no WASTED information.

Do share your inputs quickly and I might just put you on hall of fame on my public AVATAR.