Travelogue

A brief description of my interesting facts from my travels…

 
 

California Zephyr – A Cross-Country Train Ride

Its been a while since I’ve written about my travel experiences since I didn’t find any trip in US deserving of being categorized as a true adventure worth sharing on my blog. However, my cross country train ride from Baltimore, MD to San Francisco, CA is an exception that urged me to share my experiences and highly encourage you try it out. (I solemnly swear that I am no agent of Amtrak, nor have I received any  sponsorship or benefit from them). This is the story of my 3270 mile (5232 km), 78 hour solo train journey through  sun, rain and snow, covering 13 states, 4 time zones, farmlands, Rocky mountains, the Great plains, canyons, gorges, deserts, snow capped Sierra Nevada, forests, cities, historic towns, gold rush… In other words,  One Heck of a Ride.

Reading is the journey of those who cannot take the train – Francis de Croisset”

Before I begin, let me clarify that California Zephyr is not a cross country train, as it takes you from the windy city of Chicago to the City by the Golden Gate, San Francisco through stunning Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the airy deserts of Utah and the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains. My cross country ride commenced from Baltimore Penn Station on the sunny afternoon of Nov 19th 2016, with the first train to Union Station in DC followed by the acclaimed Capitol Limited to Chicago.  Although this train follows the historic B&O line, Harpers Ferry and Alleghany mountains, I must confess, I did not get to see anything even though I had a window seat, owing to the early sunset of the fall. However, I did get to see the light snowfall in Pittsburg, and the white snow with a radiant golden tinge thanks to the illumination on the streets.

After the 17 hour ride, I spend a few hours walking around the Millennium Park in Chicago before I boarded the legendary California Zephyr at 1.30 pm. Just a tip, legacy pass in Chicago station ($20) will give you access to the lounge and preferential boarding (Don’t miss the window seats) if you’re travelling on the coach car.

The best part about Amtrak superliners, is that they have no Wi-Fi (Trust me, its a good thing). The coach car that was empty initially, slowly filled up as the journey began. That’s when I met Darrell, a retired accountant and train lover. The highlight of any solo journey is the people you meet en voyage. Even though I befriended a few people in Capitol Limited, Darrell was special. We had a great time chatting and enjoying the vast fields of Illinois, Sunset over Iowa and the Mississippi river. I made it a point to get off the train at least once per state (of course, its to add to my state tally). After walking around Omaha Station at Nebraska (there’s absolutely nothing around), I decided to call it a day at 11 pm. Since I took a coach class ticket, all I had was my reclining seat to sleep on. If unlike me, you have a problem sleeping on a reclining chair (for 2 nights), you better take a roomette or a sleeper car (It might put a hole in your wallet).

Do you know why its better to take a westbound train rather than an eastbound one? When you wake up in the morning, you get to turn back your watch by an hour and sleep for another hour! (Sweet!! Is it not?). Looking forward to the highlight of my trip, I found myself in the sightseer car with a cup of coffee from the cafe. Oh yeah, if you don’t wanna spend big bucks in the diner car (free if you’re on roomette or sleeper class),  there a small cafe in the lower deck of the sightseer car. A tip for the initiated : make sure you get yourself a seat in the observation deck before the train departs Denver. (I’d recommend left side for westbound train- you can thank me later). Something interesting about Denver station is that the train backs into the station, and crew clean the windows of sightseer car, to give you a clear and unobstructed view of breathtaking beauty awaiting your arrival. Darrell got off at Denver after enlightening me as to what to watch out for in this trip.

Following the departure from Denver at 8 am, the train slowly entered the tunnel district. This is one of the highlights of the journey, with a total of 43 tunnels including the renowned Moffat tunnel , of which 27 tunnels are traversed in 30 minutes. The train climbs to an altitude of over 9000ft while crossing the Rockies. Since it is early winter, the hills were covered in golden brown grass peppered with snow. The loco pilot gave a pretty good commentary about the sights and a brief history of the bygone golden era of American railroads.  On the left, you get to see the Gross reservoir dam. After a while you reach the South Boulder Canyon, with the Boulder Creek flowing by the tracks. The view changes considerably after every tunnel in the tunnel district from half frozen brooks, small mountain villages, snow capped pine trees. Delightful!  Since the journey is uphill, the train travels pretty slow (around 30mph) which is ideal for sightseeing. The Moffat tunnel is 6.2 miles long and takes 10 minutes to cross. Immediately after  the dark tunnel,  are the slopes of ski resort in Winter Park to the right. After Winter Park,  the route isn’t uphill. If you don’t have the patience for the entire journey, you can get a ticket from Denver and get off at Glennwood Springs which’d allow you to enjoy the best of Rockies in a day.  Red and brown bushes, frozen streams, golden rocks with snow capped mountains as backdrop can bewitch anyone. If you’re a keen observer, you’d see that the direction of the brook changed to West ensuing the South Boulder Canyon, instead of East as seen earlier.

The view keeps changing every minute, reminding me of a slideshow of portraying the indescribable allure of nature. Early winter weather gives it an ethereal feel.  If you’re a Steven Seagal fan, you’d recognize this route from the movie Under Siege 2 (Yeah, that is the route followed by the hijacked train).  Watch out for bald eagles gliding gracefully with the train and don’t miss the notorious Deadman’s curve (9 car crashes, and you can see some wreckage as well).Colorado river flows parallel to the route and the canyon walls are covered with rocks of various colors and I-70 runs along the tracks (Definitely an excellent road trip option). After lunch in the dining car (~$15-20), I took a nap for 2 hours. When I woke up,I found that the terrain changed significantly to flatlands with black bushes with huge red rock formations like walls. The drawback of traveling in winter is that the sun sets at around 4-4.30 pm. You don’t get to see anything except dark wilderness following the sunset. In the evening I had a good time chatting with Atri a Chicago based insurance employee and Yorgi, from LA, a Chemistry/accounts graduate with a passion for stock market and vlogs. The train stopped for about 30 mins in Salt Lake city and I took this opportunity to take a sneak peak at the station only to be disappointed and drenched in the light rain. At 12, its good night!

6:15 am, rise and shine!! Guess what, turn back the watch by another hour (hurray!!). The vast deserts of Utah with a few mountains gleam in the hue of morning sun with the ground shielded by fog, the I-80 and the tiny towns scattered around the vast expanse is an exciting view to wake up to. The temperature was around 20F (Snow covered Rockies were in 40s). Following the stop at Reno, NV, began the next focal point of the journey – Sierra Nevada!! And to make things better, few volunteers from Sacramento Railroad Museum boarded the train and took charge as the tourist guides, reciting the history of the great Gold rush that tamed the wild West, reminiscing the sacrifice and hardwork of thousands of workers who contributed to the golden age of American railroad – A bygone era. The sweat and blood of hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers accomplished the formidable task of laying rail tracks on the hostile, cold and rugged mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s. As the train train passed through the snow covered pine trees and dozens of tunnels, I was reminded of the idiom “where there is a will, there is a way!” Or rather where there is money and strong motive (with cheap labor), human resilience knows no bounds.

The central pacific railroad goes through some of the coldest parts of California (with over 35ft annual snow) and over 7000ft altitude. The pine trees cloaked in snow that surrounds the slopes of the valley gave me a sublime appreciation of the beauty of the Golden State. The famous (or infamous) Donner lake along with the Summit Tunnel, is another one of the highlights of the journey, a vestige of the Gold Rush and a testament of perseverance of the explorers and immigrants hoping for a new life in California. After Donner lake, the tracks goes downhill through dense pine forests. During the last part of Sierra Nevada, Jimmy, a graduate student from University of Delaware kept me company. Following the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, the terrain transforms into an urban landscape with a few farmlands and orchards. This incredible journey is almost coming to an end after Sacramento, where the train goes along marshlands and subsequently follows the coast as it enters into San Francisco.  The last stop of my train pilgrimage is Emeryville (that’s the station in SF) and the Amtrak shuttle bus took me to my quarters at Fisherman’s Wharf. I spent 3 more days in SF before flying back to Baltimore.

Taking a train, in my opinion, is the safest, cheapest and the most comfortable way to do a cross country ride since the great visionaries of  the country paved the tracks through the most beautiful location of the country. If I had more time, I would’ve taken a day or two in Denver and Salt Lake city. And the important part – the cost of the train ticket was $232 (From Baltimore to SF). Its a tad bit higher than flight fares, but its totally worth it.

route

The one is red is the route I took

PS: The pics of the train taken from outside were sent to me by Darrell.

PPS: This blog post is dedicated to the all the men and women, especially the Chinese and Irish immigrants,and the civil war veterans, immortalized by the legacy of Union and Central Pacific railroads.

 

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Rann of Kutch – The White Desert

The Great Rann of Kutch or “salty desert” is a surreal destination that charms even the stone-hearted. Adorning the crown as the world’s largest salt desert, the White Deserts at Rann of Kutch could offer a plethora of surprises. This marshy and bewitching place Sunset at The White Desertis like no other place you would’ve ever seen as they flaunt a cornucopia of rare flora and fauna. The Gujarat tourism aptly describes this ethereal, out of the world as “a symphony of salt and stones cuddled on one side by the sea and the other by desert”. If you still think that this place is not worth you’re time, even after my aureate description of this place, you better reconsider your self-proclaimed title as a traveler.Tropic of Cancer crossing

Kalo Dungar

16th March 2014 (Full moon Night)

Since Rann of Kutch was the star attraction in my Gujarat trip, I think its fair to start of from the middle of the itinerary.  So, its me and my school classmate Don, who just landed in Bhuj after an interesting train journey from Ahmedabad (I’ll leave that for the next post). As usual, I had absolutely no idea about what I should do in Bhuj, apart from go to Rann of Kutch. But this time, I had a friend in Bhuj to help me out. Mr. Jenson, the branch manager at South Indian Bank Bhuj branch was our cordial host. Initially, he was hesitant to join us to the white desert, but finally we convinced him and a friend of his, Mr. Rajeesh also agreed to come along. So, at 11 pm, we set out to explore great Rann of Kutch, in Jenson’s car.  Trust me, if you don’t get yourself a car or a taxi, you’ll be a sitting duck under the scorching sun.

Kalo Dungar

Kalo Dungar

If you look out through the window, all you see is barren wilderness and a straight road passing through the middle of it. A few kilometers into the journey, we noticed an interesting board which marked the crossing of “Tropic of Cancer”. In fact, I have crossed this imaginary line countless times, but never have I seen a board that said it. As you’d have probably guessed, we did take a lot of pictures near the board. Everyone loves good Facebook profile pics. Enroute, we stopped near a small village shop and tried maava, a kutch special milk item. It tastes kinda like peda, but better. And you should have some of it before you leave as chances are, you’ll be starving till you get back to Bhuj. Yepp!! You heard me. Again, back to the road. Straight, barren, hot air rising above the heated tarmac causing mirages. Finally, we reached our first destination – The Kalo Dungar or the Black hills.

Kalo Dungar

At an altitude of 458m, it is the highest point in Rann and offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the Great Rann. It’s quite windy up there and the view rendered us speechless. An incomprehensible vastness spreading into infinity. The salt lake looked extremely beautiful and looked like a she shore. You could spend hours savoring the beauty of the natural wonder. Well, we didn’t have all the time in the world, so we came back down. Now on your way down, there is a 50m stretch which is a magnetic hill. The road is almost flat, but our car kept moving in neutral, gaining speed.  Unfortunately, our car didn’t hurdle down at speeds of over 80 kmph as some people claimed.  You are welcome to test it and let me know if I got it wrong.  On our way down, we saw a small hut, its owner, his camel and a goat.  Siddhique Raza of Drobana was a very courteous and welcomed us to his tiny, but clean hut. We took a few pics with him and bade farewell.

Siddhique Raza

Kalo Dungar is close to the Indo – Pak border. So, we wanted to visit the border. Since we had no permit, the military stopped us at India Bridge. Well, if you’re thinking that its close to the border, then think again. If you go by road (rather long) it’s about 80 km away. I guess that should tell you the level of security at the border. The military did sell some water bottles and biscuits for the wary travelers.

Bakh Mulukhdhu

Rann Utsav

Rann of Kutch

On our way back from the India bridge, we noticed a rather unusual crowd in a ground. There were people standing on top on every vehicle, staring into the middle of the crowd. We were so curious as to see what it was and we went in there. It was a local wrestling competition and the people in the crowd were so tall that I couldn’t see anything. But then, my mobile came to my rescue. The locals told me that it was a friendly “Ghusti” known as “Bakh – Mulukhdhu” (It’s not my spelling). The background score for the match was also interesting. Since none of us were good in wrestling, we decided not to give it a shot. The opponents did look scary.

Photo fun @ Rann of Kutch

Photo fun @ Rann of Kutch

The White Desert

Our last stop, was the great white desert. It was our last stop as we wanted to wait till the scorching sun was about to set. Also, we wanted to see the sunset and the moon rise from the vast flat white expanse of salt crystals. The entry fee to this white rann is Rs.100 per head and Rs.50 for the car.  First we reached the venue of the Rann Utsav. It was almost the end of it, and still it was very expensive. So, the alternative, just go to the desert directly. Before we reached the white desert, we took a detour through a dirt road. Totally flat and barren. And it was a wonderful sight to see the dust storm unleashed by the wheels of our Wagon R. We did take our time, clicking interesting and innovative photographs.

Salt Crystals

The White Desert

Sunset at The White Desert

Finally, we arrived the at the white desert. Crowded, but an otherworldly experience. Hard white salt crystals that crumble as you step over them. I’d recommend wearing a good shoe or so, as the deliquescent salty marsh nearly damaged my shoe.  The 7 pm sunset as seen from the Rann is a sight to cherish forever. Its unique and marvelous.  It is a photographer’s paradise. The full moon that replaced the bright orange sun, illuminated the white desert with its radiance. Words cannot describe that beauty that I saw before me. Since I did not have an SLR camera, I was not able to capture the essence of this beauty in silicon chips. If you are going to Rann on a full moon day, I’d suggest taking a good SLR camera and a tripod (Provided you know how to take decent pictures using an SLR camera).

Photo fun @ White Rann

Photo fun @ White Rann

White Desert

And then I drove all the way back to Bhuj. We nearly starved all day, except for a few biscuits and tea, as we couldn’t find a single hotel during this entire trip.  As I said in the beginning, better take some food or snacks with you or else, you can starve like we did. The choice is all yours.  We reached back in Bhuj by around 9:30 pm and had a heavy dinner at a hotel there. And I we went back to Jenson’s place for a well deserved good night sleep.

Sunset at The White Desert

Full Moon

End of the Rann of Kutch Post. I’ll also be writing about Bhuj/Mandvi and then about Ahmedabad/Baroda.

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Udaipur – The City of Lakes

The Jewel of Mewar, The Kashmir of Rajasthan, The Venice of the East, Oasis in the Desert… Sunset over Pichola LakeAll these sobriquet aptly refers to Udaipur, one of the most romantic cities in India. With a plethora of palaces, temples and other royal buildings that narrate the story of gallantry, valor and Pichola Lakesacrifice, this Rajput city of three lakes located amidst the picturesque lush green hills of the Aravalli range, would provide a mesmerizing and memorable experience to any tourist. A trip to Rajasthan would be incomplete without a visit to this beautiful city.

Udaipur was the last destination in my Rajasthan trip. So, it started of at 9:30 am on the 11th of October from the bus stand at Mt.Abu. The down hill route provide some interesting views of the Aravalli range and the valleys. The bus halted at Abu road for over 45 minutes and it was really boring, as far as I can say. The highway to Udaipur is very good and has a number of tunnels and Gulab Gardensmall green hills by the side, to keep you Lake Palace and City Palacecompany. I don’t know, what got into the bus driver; may be he wanted to show me the countryside when he took us for a little off-roading. Even though it added an extra 40 minutes into the trip, it gave me a glimpse of the villages and life of the people around these places. Finally after over 5 hours, I arrived at Udaipur at 3 pm. My dad’s colleague Mr. Noble was there to pick me up and he took me to a good Mallu restaurant  – The Kerala Hotel by Ashokan chettan.

Panoramic View of UdaipurAfter a good meal, I started my Udaipur exploration taking the advise from Nishith from South Indian Bank. The first destination was the Gulab Bagh.Sunset over Pichola Lake Even though its named as Rose Garden, I didn’t see many roses. City of UdaipurBut it was a good place to spend an evening as its covered with big trees and even has a zoo inside it. Well, I didn’t come to Udaipur to see a zoo. Sorry!! After spending about an hour at the garden, I walked to Pichola lake. As I said in the ridiculously gasconade introduction, this city has 3 lakes which are interconnected and I’m hoping it justifies my title for this blog. Anyway, it is indeed a beautiful lake. I took a Rs.75 ropeway to Karnimatha Temple.  It offered a pulchritudinous and astonishing view of Udaipur. Shear awesomeness!! There I met Vincent Kreose from Holland. We had a little chat and walked around enjoying the Night View of Pichola Lakestupefying view. I’d recommend you to go there in the evening as you Night view of Udaipurcould revel one of the most beautiful sunsets you could see in India. I really enjoyed watching the sun go down shining over the glossy waters of the Pichola and Fateh Sagar lake.  Stay there for another 30 minutes if you want to get an aerial view of the illuminated city of Udaipur. Absolutely gorgeous! Also, it’s quite windy up there. Taking about the wind, when I got to the cable car point, I saw a long queue of disgruntled tourist waiting for their ride back down. The strong winds had put the service on hold for obvious safety concerns. I waited for over 30 minutes and then walked down. It took me about 15 minutes to walk down through the Nehru Park - Fateh Sagar lakemoderately illuminated, yet deserted pathway. As you could guess, I called it a day and spent the night at Noble uncle’s apartment.

In the morning I set out to Fateh Sagar lake, the 2nd oneSajjan Ghar and Fateh Sagar Lake and took a boat to Nehru Park. It’s a small island in the middle of the lake and has a small yet beautiful garden. My next destination was the famous City Palace of Udaipur. The first observation – even the ticket has a royal touch. It’s just ordinary paper, but it is very expensive. Rs.115 entry, Rs.225 for camera and still you can’t enter more than half the places. There is a crystal museum with an entry fee of Rs.525 and the best part – No Camera. You’ve gotta be kidding me. This is the problem if you City Palace Udaipurvisit a highly popular tourist destination for the rich and the famous. Note that ASI charges a mere Rs.10 for entry into majority of the monuments in India (for Indian’s of course). Coming back to the palace, the museum there was pretty good, but crowded. There are some good mirror works in there along with interesting paintings. It took me about 2 hours to cover the palace and personal City Palace Udaipuropinion – Not worth the entry fee and hype as I’ve seen much better palaces and forts. As I mentioned earlier, since you need extra tickets to visit half the places, you find ticket counters at every nook and corner. Convenient if you change your mind about not visiting those places. Isn’t it quite obvious, that it didn’t change my mind? Luckily my entry ticket allowed me to City Palace Udaipurvisit the lake, The Pichola lake.  From the lake shore, I stared at the famous Lake Palace. You must’ve seen it in the James Bond film Octopussy. Since I’m not a millionaire, I decided against having a tea there. On my way back, I saw the Royal procession and caught a glimpse of the Royal family. Even thought I thought the palace was not worth the hype,City Palace Udaipur the procession changed my mind. Unfortunately, you won’t be lucky enough to see it unless you visit the place on some special days  (It was Dussera that day)

My next destination was the Bagore ki Haveli which was a lot less crowded and had a pretty Taj Lake Palace Udaipurgood museum and a much cheaper entry fee. If you are wondering why I keep whining about the entry fees, let me remind you that I’m a budget traveler funded by my research stipend. The interesting thing about this museum is the amazing collection of puppets. I became friends with Ravi – the master puppeteer.  As a result he gave a Royal Processionpersonal puppet show with 2 of his best puppets. It was awesome! He also taught me how to control the strings, but I must confess, I sucked at it.

After a lunch at my earlier Mallu hotel, I convinced Noble uncle to come with me Sajjan Ghar. It’s on the hill opposite to the Karnimatha Temple and it offers a view the city of Udaipur from a different Puppet Museumperspective. It was very hard for us to find the road to the Sajjan Ghar or the monsoon palace. Reason – its under the control of government and hence poorly maintained. It is located atop a hill inside the Sajjan wildlife sanctuary. The road up there has 10 hair pin bend  in 1 kilometer. We reached on top of the hill by about 4 pm. Forget what I said about the view from Karnimatha earlier. That is nothing compared to the view here. This place offers a Sajjan Ghar360 degree view. I could see the entire city and the lush green Aravalli mountain ranges. The palace is in a pathetic condition and it would’ve Maharana Sajjan Singh had he been alive today. You must’ve seen it again in Octopussy as the palace of villain. The view is totally worth the effort going up there. I didn’t find any Auto’s taking people there. The only way to get up there is private vehicle or a taxi.

Finally, I bade farewell to Udaipur with pleasant memories at 6:15 pm when my train left the Udaipur railway station towards New Delhi. This concluded my 6 day trip to Rajasthan.

Panoramic View of Udaipur form Sajjan Ghar

Panoramic View of Aravalli ranges  form Sajjan Ghar It was not just about seeing places, the experiences from this journey are bound to stay with me throughout my life. With every trip I make, I learn a lot about the people and the world around me. It also gives us a glimpse of the past, guiding us towards a better future. The beauty and diversity of nature reminded me how little we appreciate and know of the natural world. And that’s it. Oh yeah, the map. And the total expense was about Rs.8800 (~$145).

Rajasthan Map

The End of Rajasthan Series.

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Mt.Abu – The Oasis in the Hills

The only hill station in North – Western India, Mount Abu is truly the oasis in the hills. Lush green forests with beautiful granite Guru Shikharpeaks of the Aravalli flaunting a cornucopia of pristine flora and Guru Shikharfauna compliments the cool and soothing ambiance of the hill station. The serene natural beauty and the architecture marvels of the Dilwara Jain Temples make it a must visit place in any tourists itinerary. And if you are coming from the desert, get ready for a pleasant surprise.

10th October 2013

After my visit to Jaisalmer, I arrived in back in Jodhpur to catch the next train to Abu Road. I reached the station just 10 minute before my next train. What I saw in the station really surprised me. There was a passenger train Guru Shikharwhich was so crowded that people where sitting on the roofs. If I had time, I’d have gotten on to the roof of that train and taken a ride to the next station, just for an Guru Shikharexperience. But unfortunately, my train arrived at the next platform. “Some other time”, I sighed as I boarded the Jammu Tawi – Ahmadabad Express. The train departed at 6:30 am and  I could see the sun rise in the backdrop of the rugged Rajasthani terrain. May be I was tired, I could feel my eye lids getting heavier. After a short nap, I reached Abu Road railway station at 10:45 am. I was expecting a big station as it is the closest station to Mt.Abu. Well, I was disappointed to see a small and poorly maintained station. First thing I searched for was a tourist information and I was disheartened yet again. I couldn’t get any information from the Police aid post and they were very hostile. So, I decided to try my Guru Shikharluck outside the station.  I found share taxis calling out for Mt. Abu. Guru ShikharI boarded a jeep and waited till it was full. It was jam-packed and luckily, I got myself a comparatively better seat in the front.

The 1 hour journey was all uphill and the twists and turns provided a really amazing view. I must say, it reminded me of the road to Ooty in Tamil Nadu. The cool breeze was a refreshing change from the hot desert whiffs that I endured for the last 2 days. After some walking around I found a room in Hotel Kapil for Rs.350. It was OK, but not so great. I’ve stayed in better rooms for cheaper rates. I should have searched a little more for a better room. But since it’s just 1 night, I decided to go with it. After talking to the hotel owner I realized that the public transport system is really poor in Mt.Abu and most of the tourist spots are spread around a 20km Guru Shikharradius. So, I decided to hire a motor bike Guru Shikharand I saw a number of bike for hire shops. I rented a Honda Twister for Rs.250 and filled it with Rs.100 worth of petrol. It’s just over a liter, but I’m hoping it should get me at least 60km. After a Gujrati lunch, I set out to explore the Oasis in the Hills.

First stop – the famous Dilwara Jain Temple. I had learned about this place and its architectural grandeur in the History classes in school. But I must say, the text failed to do justice to this marvelous creation.  The intricately carved white marble that adorned the temple walls, the ornate doorways and ceilings would captivate and impress even the cold-hearted.  They are simply majestic and I did spend a lot of time enjoying the hard work and craftsmanship of the temple architects. The onlyAchal Garh issue is that they don’t allow Road to Guru Shikharcamera or mobile into the temple complex. I would’ve taken at least a 100 images if they had permitted me. Nonetheless, I bought a tourist book that contained some good photos of the temple. If you ask me, I’d say its worth visiting Mt.Abu just for the Dilwara Temples.

I next went to Guru Shikar – the highest point in Rajasthan. It’s just 1220m above MSL, but to Rajasthani standards, it’s quite high. However the view it offers is splendid and breathtaking. The most importantly, everything around you looks green and not the sandy yellow of the desert. This place offers a stunning 360 degree view of the valley below and the cool air currents rejuvenated my spirits. By the way, I could see only bikes or taxis at the parking, which means that had I not rented one,I wouldn’t have Achal Garhreached here.  Oh yeah, and there’s a Achal Garhtemple there. On the way down through the poorly maintained road, I saw a few small waterfalls too. And all the way down, I had put my bike in neutral and let gravity do its thing – fuel saving, you know.  On the way down I visited the Peace Park. It’s a beautiful garden that’s surprisingly silent and peaceful. I don’t know whats wrong with the people here – NO photography! Again!!

I then went to Achal Garh. Frankly I had no idea what that was till I got there. It was an old fort and a temple. It had a very deserted feel and on climbing up the stairs, I had an eerie feeling. The background music was some hymns from the temple and all I saw around me were a few villagers moving around with their day-to-day life. It was almost sunset and I could see that it was getting dark under the tree canopy and cute monkeys were jumping round. I went to the temple and even Achal Garhthough it was closed, the security allowed me to go around it.Achal Garh No Photography yet again!! It too was a small but beautiful marble temple. But later I realised that the main temple is still further up – the Achaleshwar Mahadev Temple. It was a small temple and had statue of Nandi and 3 stone buffaloes.

I wanted to visit the sunset point, but I guess I was too late. Half way through I watched the golden sun go behind the pinnacle of a granite peak. It was as good as any sunset point, in my opinion. My last stop on the road was Adhar Devi Temple. Stairs again! I climbed the 360 odd steep steps in less than 10 minutes and I nearly ran out of breath.  It was a small cave temple dedicated to Goddess Durga.

Sunset

Back in Mt.Abu town, I went to the Nakki Lake in the Nakki Lakemiddle of the town. I should’ve visited it earlier but it doesn’t matter. I could see the silhouette of the famous toad rock to the south of the lake. I just walked around the lake for a while and sat down looking at the dark lake with the reflection of the city lights, recharging myself. Time to call it a day. I returned the bike and then walked into the bazaar. 10 minutes later I realized that I was lost and I was walking in circles. Finally, I figured out the way myself and walked to the hotel after a Punjabi dinner. I had half more day in Mt.Abu, but I decided to cut it short and head to Udaipur the next morning. By 8:30pm I was back in my room and the cool climate made me jump on to the bed.

Tomorrow, I’m going to Udaipur. But how?

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Jaisalmer – The Golden City

Golden City – A name that reverberates the epitome of natural and historic beauty; A citadel of exotic gateways, massive forts and ornate temples, ushering the ethereal charm and hostility of the Great Indian Desert.The golden hue of the fort guarding the city Jaisalmer Fortamidst the golden sands of the Thar desert with the golden hue of the sun Jaisalmer Fort - Cannon Pointshining down makes it a magical and unforgettable experience to any visitor. And unlike most forts you see around the world, the Sonar Quila or the Golden Fort of Jaisalmer is a living fort that caters to a quarter of the inhabitants of Jaisalmer. This is the story of my solo expedition to Jaisalmer – The Golden City.

I arrived at Jaisalmer railway station at 6 am on 9th October 2013 from Jodhpur. As usual, my first thought was to freshen up at the railway Jain Templewaiting room, but its condition was so pathetic that I had to find myself a hotel room. With a little help from the station master, I took a room at Hotel Pushp Mahal Jain Templefor Rs.100 to freshen up and take rest. (I’m sure the hotel gives some kinda commission to the station master). After getting ready, the 1st priority was to get the itinerary planned for Jaisalmer. Yup, I don’t plan such things in advance, but I have done a good background study about the place. In the evening, the plan was to go for a desert Safari. It was one hell of a bargaining. I’ll get back to that shortly. Guess what, being a travel blogger sure has its perks. The hotel owner (Mr.Rathore) offered me a free ride to the fort and told me about the places to see.

Jaisalmer FortSo, here I am standing in front of the massive 850 year old Sonar Quila astounded by its magnificence. I don’t think it’s as big as the Mehrangarh fort I visited Jaisalmer Fortyesterday, but this fort has a charm of its own. It’s a living fort – It has houses, shops and hotels inside the fortified walls apart from the usual palaces and temples. And you can even find auto-rickshaws, bikes and cars negotiating the narrow cobbled roads inside the fort. Whats a great trip without a satisfying breakfast. The cheese  Macaroni from the Little Tibet hotel atop the fort wall offered me a breathtaking view of the city of Jaisalmer. The cannon point also offered a great view of the city below the fort. Making my way through the narrow Patwa Haveliand cramped pathways of the fort, I arrived at the Jain Temples. There a re 5 such temples there and they are over 550 years old. The carvings inside the temples are quite intricate and ornate. And the best part is that there is no restriction for photography, though its chargeable. After spending some time marveling the beauty Patwa Haveliof the Jain temples, I walked across the whole fort. Alive!! That’d summarize the whole thing. I could see children in school uniforms walking through the alleys, grandmothers saying the morning prayers, kitchens bustling with activity – It’s a different feel altogether. A fusion of the past and the present in hopes of a better future.

What is a fort without a museum? Well, Jaisalmer fort too flaunts a museum narrating the storyPatwa Haveli of its rich history. Personal opinion, not as good as the Mehrangarh fort museum and but the entry fee and camera rates are at par. May be because it was Patwa Havelimorning, the museum was kinda deserted except for the guards at every nook and corner. (They are not good photographers as most of the pics they took for me were out of focus). Next stop were the Havelis, or the palaces of the wealthy noblemen. The first one was the well maintained Kothari Patwa Haveli and the entry and camera fee was Rs.50 each. But lemme assure you, its well spent.  Ostentatious and extravagant! Adored with beautiful paintings and glass work, these Haveli’s portray the luxurious lifestyle of the nobles who once lived here. Next to this is another jaisalmer FortHaveli which is maintained by the Government. Deplorable and Pathetic! Very poorly maintained and is scary and stinky due to the thousands of bats that made claimed this Haveli. If you are scared of bats, do not enter this Haveli as it may contain more bats than Batman’s Batcave. And there is nothing to see here except the emptyGadsisar Lake house, but the consolation is that it offers a good view from the roof.

I then walked over a kilometer to the Gadsisar lake which has a number of small temples nearby. It’s a pretty place to spend and evening, but unfortunately, I was there at noon. The scorching sun was taking its toll on me and I decided not to take a boat ride in this Gadsisar Lakelake or explore the farther ends of it. Back in hotel, I took a 3 hour rest and then set out to the Sam Sand Dunes. The 42 km ride took us through the barren wilderness with few shrubs, windmills and occasionally, resorts. From Camel point, I got on a camel named Shah Rukh Khan (seems they are all named after Bollywood stars) with 11-year-old Sanjana from Delhi. The one hour ride (5 km) through the desert offered me a stunning view of the sunset in Sam Sand Dunesthe backdrop of the golden sand dunes of the Thar desert. The camel ride was too shaky and I couldn’t get good pics of the sunset as the camera refused to focus. After playing in the sand dunes for about 40 minutes, I walked Sam Sand Dunesto the desert camp nearby. I had so much sand in my shoes that it felt like some creature crawling under my feet. At the camp resort, I got myself a diwan type bed and welcome drinks. The traditional songs and dances were good but the insects were a nuisance. The stunts performed by the dancers were pretty amazing. After the program, I had dinner in desert cuisine. Frankly, I didn’t understand what each curry was and this sure is not my favorite cuisine.

I got back in the hotel by 10 pm. Now, about the bargaining I said earlier. Desert Camp PerformancesThe amount Sam Sand Dunesstarted from Rs. 3000 plus tip and finally settles at Rs.1900 including tip to the driver Peeru. I was not very happy as I wanted it to come down to Rs.1500. But a Rs.1100 reduction is not bad and a notable part is that my blogger status helped me gain some additional discount. So, I’d like to extend my gratitude to Mr. Rathore, Raju and Peeru of Hotel Pushp Mahal on behalf of me and my blog.

Sam Sand Dunes Desert Camp

At 11:45, I boarded the same train I arrived in the morning back to Jodhpur. Next stop, Mount Abu!!

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Jodhpur – The Blue City

Guarded by the colossal Mehrangarh Fort, Mehrangarh Fortthe former capital and citadel of Marwar earned its sobriquet as the blue city due to the bluish hue of uniformly whitewashed houses in the town.  Remember the fort shown in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Umaid Bhavan Palacewhen Bruce Wayne comes out of Bane’s prison? You guessed it right – That’s the Mehrangarh Fort one of the largest forts in India.

Lemme be frank, ever since I watched The Dark Knight Rises, I wanted to visit this magnificent fort. And since I don’t mind travelling alone, all i had to do was to find the time. Being a student sure has its advantage in the form of vacations. And there I was, lying on a sleeper berth on a train from Delhi to Jodhpur in the hot night of the 8th day Umaid Bhavanof October. First thing I did after arriving Jodhpur Railway station was to refill my medical kit. And that’s where I met Shyam, a chemist at the railway station. After a 5 minutes chat with him, I realized that he was no ordinary chemist. I was really impressed with his knowledge and wisdom. Umaid Bhavan MuseumI was dumbstruck when he spoke to me about aerospace industries and advanced aircraft technologies as I’m not sure if even my Aerospace classmates would know so much about the industry. He urged me use my knowledge and intellect to solve the Indian common mans problem rather than concentrating on filling my bank balance by working for some Western country. He then gave me all the required information about Jodhpur city. After freshening up at the waiting room, I left my backpack at the cloak room and set out to explore the blue city. The first stop was the Umaid Bhavan – an imposing palace with 90% of it Mehrangarh Fortconverted into a hotel. The museum is adorned with expensive royal artifacts and vintage car collection. Guess what, you could hire those royal vintage cars for a “mere Rs.50,000 for 2 persons for an hour”. Pretty cheap ha? And there are about a dozen of them to choose from.

My next stop was the iconic Mehrangarh Fort.  Mehrangarh FortMassive, majestic and monumental! Oozing the charm and grandeur of a bygone era, this gargantuan remnant of  Marwar empire reciprocates its magnificent view from the city by offering a breathtakingly beautiful panoramic view of the city. Built on a perpendicular cliff at a height of 400ft above the skyline of Jodhpur city, this 100ft tall behemoth flaunts the title “the work of giants” conferred by Rudyard Kipling.  Now coming back to my story, I found the ticket rates a bit too high for Indian standards. The camera fee is quite high but I can assure you, its worth every rupee. The museum offers a glimpse of Mehrangarh Fortthe royal splendor that once ruled and thrived within the walls of the fort.  After the museum, I visited the Chamunda Devi temple inside the fort. Being the Dussera season, there were 2 queues for men and women, and the mens queue offered no view of the city. The security guards told me that only women and foreigners were allowed up the top wall and that got me furious. After 10 minutes of argument with the guards and their superiors, they agreed to let me go up there. Trust me, even if you have to Mehrangarh Fortargue for over an hour, the view is totally worth it. After a milkshake in the royal cafe (just the bill is royal) within the fort, I decided to walk to the fabled blue city. But the scorching sun did not allow me to explore the entire blue city as I was nearly wasted by the time I got to the blue city.

I took an auto from the fort to the town via Jaswant Thada. Jaswant Thada is a beautiful cenotaph built-in intricately carved white marble. Located at a few hundred metres from the fort, it offers a splendid view of the fort. After I got out of Jaswant Thada, I could not find my auto anywhere. So I walked down Blue Citythe steps through the narrow alleys with small houses on either side. It reminded me of the Brazilian favelas I saw in movies except that there wasn’t anyone chasing me with AK 47s.  I walked over a kilometer through these indian favelas to the clock tower. Since it was under maintenance, I could climb only up to the 1st floor. Jodhpur CityAfter walking for about 30 minutes through the famous old and new markets, I arrived at the railway station.

Since I had plenty of time before my next train, I decide to go to Kailana lake. It took 2 buses to get close to it and then it was a 3 km walk. The whole road looked deserted and I kinda felt stranded. Luckily an old man gave me a lift to the lake. And what I saw over there frustrated me. A  very small lake with hardly any water and a puny garden. I just Jaswant Thadasat there watching the sun hide below the plains. And there was not a single auto or bus or taxi available. Awesome!! Walk walk and walk through the unlit deserted road looking for some vehicle that’d offer me a lift. Finally after some 250 metres, a Jeep offered me a lift to the main road. I made a friend in that jeep who helped me get back to the railway station. The irony is that Jaswant and me had no languages in common. I spoke broken Hindi and he spoke Rajasthani. But as it seems, you don’t need language to communicate ideas.

Jodhpur CityAfter dinner I reached back in my waiting room by 8:30 pm. My next train was scheduled for 11:45 pm. Shyam offered me a few Kailana Lakanovels (He keeps surprising me) which I thankfully turned down. I had a Clock Towernovel with me and I delved into the world of Frederick Forsyth. On my way to board the train at 11:30, I glanced at Shyam’s chemist cum buttermilk shop and found it closed. After wishing him a silent thank you, I boarded the train to Jaisalmer. The red sand stoned fort gleamed in the moonlight guarding the city and its inhabitants as it had done for the last 500 years.

Next stop : Jaisalmer !!

Traditional Music Time

And that’s me trying some Rajasthani music.

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Badrinath – The Char Dham

Set in the backdrop of the majestic Neelkanth peak, Badrinath Temple is one of the most revered pilgrimage in the Indian sub-continent. As the abode of Lord Badri, Badrinath offers an ethereal ambiance of effervescent spirituality and proffers the dazzling beauty of snow capped Rudraprayag Sangammountains adorned with sparkling waterfalls. The largest of the Char Dham and bestowed with unparalleled natural beauty of the Garhwal Himalayas, Badrinath was my last stop in my solo backpacking expedition to Uttarkhand.

At 6 am on the 5th day of June, I left Guptkashi to Badrinath on a The road to BadrinathGMVN tour group bus. I was not a member of the group, but the driver and the tour operator offered me a ride with them the previous night which I had gladly accepted. If it weren’t for this offer, I’d have had to change 3 vehicles during this long journey to the abode of Lord Badri. Not that it was a free ride, but the bus was pretty good. And they had a few vacant spots and I took a good window seat. After a 2 hour ride, we had our breakfast at a place called Nagrasu and it was the usual Aloo Paratha.

GorgeDuring the course of the journey I came across 2 sangams, or the union of 2 rivers. One was at Rudraprayag, where river Ganga united with Alakananda. The second was between rivers Alakananda and Pindar at Karnaprayag. The Sangam points have a distinct boundary at the interface of union owing to the different colours of the water. Now, if you ask me about the roads, I can confirm your suspicion. They are horrible. But on the bright side, the view they offer is unparalleled. Riding by the edge of deep gorges, the adventurer in me could feelThe road to Badrinath the surge of the adrenaline. At some points, the bus went so close to the edge that I could look straight down at the 1000+ ft canyon and the aggressive Alakananda, through the bus window. If you are a novice or a careless driver, this is definitely not a place you should be driving. I don’t have words to describe the artistry of nature.  The coexistence of good roads and lack or roads make it a memorable ride for a travel enthusiast. If you have high BP or acrophobia, take my advise and stay away from any window in your vehicle.  As per the driver, being a local person and highly experienced, the bus driver did an amazing job negotiating this treacherous stretch of roads. I could see the tensed faces of fellow Govindghatpassengers who believed that one small error and they were going to meet the Creator.

After lunch we arrived at Joshimath. It is the nearest town to Badrinath and if you are a skiing enthusiast take a note of Auli which is one of the best skiing slopes in India. Even though Auli was just 16km from Joshimath, I didn’t visit it as it was off season due to lack ofThe road to Badrinath snow. My sole destination was Badrinath. As if the road till Joshimath wasn’t beautiful enough, the rest of the road was even better. Too good! Let me just leave it there. The gushing Alakananda river and the huge undulating mountains that run aside the twisting and wining 40 km road to Badrinath. Well, challenges do come wrapped in good-looking covers – they lure you, tempt you and promise you a smooth ride. They hide any hint of what you’d come across as you venture ahead. Since I wasn’t behind the wheel, I decided to just leave it to the driver and enjoy the The road to Badrinathnature’s bounty.  I could also see the Vishuprayag Hydel Project by the road side. Half way through, I reached Govindghat, the starting point to the 17 km trek to Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Saheb. If it weren’t for the deadly flood that devastated Uttarakhand and Govindghat about a week later, I’d have come again in a month or two to visit the Valley of Flowers National Park. Guess, that’ll have to wait for a few years. After driving through 3 waterfalls, the bus finally arrived at Badrinath at 4.30 pm. The good news is, the Badrinath templeBadrinath Temple is just a few 100 meters from the road and no trekking is required.

“Houston, we have a problem!”

Where am I gonna stay? Before I break my head over that basic question, I decided to visit the temple. Colorful, pretty and small, the Badrinath temple radiates an aura of spiritual energy around it. Since the queue to enter into the temple was too long, i just walked around it and decided to call it a day.There was a waterfall nearby, but it was not natural. But who cares, when it offers a good view.  The small town of Badrinath itself is a sight to cherish. The beautiful high snow covered peaks guarding the city of Lord Badri made my trip worthwhile. I walked around the city, through the lesser known alleys and streets, getting a feel of the life at this remote town. I did spend some time Badrinathshopping too. But, the million dollar problem still remained. Where am I gonna stay. I asked for a room in over a dozen hotels, and the only room I got had a tariff of Rs.1600. Pricey!! There were even 2 hotels that asked me for my caste!  Anyway, by 6.30 pm I was sure that I’m inBadrinath deep trouble. So plan B. Go to Joshimath: 40km away. But the problem, no bus. The last one left at 6 pm. Now, if i tell u that I wasn’t worried, I’d be lying. I was seriously concerned. N the temperature dropped below 5 degrees and it was freezing.  But then luck came to my rescue. I managed to get a share taxi making its return to Joshimath.

Luck favored me again, when I met Praduman from Delhi, a retired senior military auditor who was also an English – Hindi translator.  We had a really interesting chat during the 2 hour ride to Joshimath.  With his help, I searched for dorms in Joshimath. I did get a few, but they didn’t Badrinathappear safe to me. So finally, I took a room in the hotel he was staying and I got a bath attached double bed at hotel Deepshika for just Rs.250. After settling in my room, I took a small stroll around Joshimath town and after dinner, settled for a much deserved sleep. The next morning at 5:30 am, I caught an Uttarakhand Roadways bus to Dehradun right in front of my hotel.

Even though my trip still extended to Mussoorie, my blog would end here. And if it weren’t for the helping hands of numerous people I met on the way, I wouldn’t have made it back safe and sound. I’d like to extend my sincere gratitude to all the friends I made in Uttarakhand and all the people who guided and helped me trough the way.  With this I conclude my Uttarkhand expedition. Can’t wait to go on the next trip.

Badrinath

As usual with all the series,I’d like to post my route map.

The Map

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Kedarnath – The Char Dham

Kedarnath, one of the most important Shiva Temple in India, grabbed widespread attention when the Himalayan Floods of June 2013, Road to Rudraprayagwitnessed the total devastation on the holy pilgrimage of the Char Dham. Located at an altitude of 3900 m above sea level, Kedarnath is only accessible after a grueling 14 km trek. Before I begin the story of my visit to Kedarnath about a week before the floods,Kedarnath Trek I’d like to pay my respects and homage to the pilgrims and everyone who perished at the fury of nature.

Now, the obvious question anyone could ask me is, why would I visit Kedarnath as I’m not a pilgrim. My answer is simple, I just wanted to explore the unparalleled beauty of the Himalayas and I wanted to understand and experience the Char Dham Pilgrimage.  So, here I am, sitting in my room and telling you how beautiful and vibrant Kedarnath really is.  Trust me, it was one heck of a trip.

It all began at 5 am at Dehradun when I set out to Parade grounds and got myself a Jeep to take me to Rudraprayag. It cost me Rs.350 and was a 7 hour ride through the twisting and turning hill road with the Kedarnath Trekmighty brown Ganges spurting parallel to it. I befriended my fellow traveler Ritu Rana and being a native of Uttarakhand, she told me about the do’s and don’ts and I did take her advice seriously. After breakfast at Theen Dhara, the the journey took me through Srinagar (there’s a Srinagar in Uttarakhand as well) and finally to Rudraprayag. Being the peak pilgrim season, the traffic was horrible and I did get stuck in occasional traffic jams.  12 pm, and I’m in Rudraprayag! But it was not time to cheer yet. I still had some 85 km to go before I reach Gaurikund.  After lunch, I had to walk all around Rudraprayag, carrying my heavy rucksack to find a working ATM.Kedarnath Trek

I then took another Jeep to Guptkashi which is a Rs.70 ride. The Ganges changed color to deep green and was gushing down with tremendous energy and what made this trip adventurous was that, half the roads were missing due to landslides. I’d think twice before driving on these roads. From Guptkashi bus stand, I boarded another jeep to take me to Gaurikund. It was uphill route and the progress was slow, technically, there was no road and just puddles. But on the bright side, the view outside was very beautiful. Nearly 7 km before Gaurikund there was a 2 km long traffic block. Since there is only limited space available in  Gaurikund, there is a gate 5 km before it and they let in a vehicle only if another returns from Gaurikund. My driver told me it could be Remains of the glacierabout 3 hours wait, and so everyone got out of the Jeep. I joined a Marathi father and son and walked 2 km to the gate where we crossed it and hoped on to a bus that just passed the gate. Gaurikund was awfully crowded and I had a hard time finding the GMVN guest house. I reached there keeping my fingers crossed, as I had not booked a room in advance. I was lucky and  I got myself a bed in the dorm. It was nearly 7 pm and it was pretty cold up there. After tea and dinner, I settled in my bed. Little did I know, I was going to have one of my greatest adventures till date.

Before I start, I’d like to make a disclaimer! The place is so amazing that I might run out of adjectives in describing its beauty. So kindly bear with me. I started off at 4.30 am after a morning tea. The air was a bit icy and I wore a sweatshirt and a shawl and carried a bottle of water and a packet of biscuit with me.The glacier Since I’m a young guy, bubbling with energy and enthusiasm,  I decided to walk all the way up. Even though it was dark, the road was very crowded with pilgrims, both on foot and on horses and the road was kinda soggy and dirty, though pebble paved. The interaction between cool breeze and the sweat trickling Kedarnath Trekdown my body gave me jitters. The entire 14 km stretch is a gradual uphill path stretch and the view of the waterfalls, the river and the snow-capped mountain is so refreshing that you tend to push forward despite aching muscles. I took intermittent rests and never raced anyone. There are kiosks and resting places all throughout the road. The waterfalls are huge and its like a silver thread running from the top of a mountain. After 7 km (2 hours or so), I reached Rambhara, a small village bustling with horses, shops and pilgrims taking a well deserved break.

During the entire climb, I could see helicopters criss-cross every minute. After some 8-9 km or so, i got really tired that i could hardly take a step. But I still kept going, but my progress was painstakingly slower. But the closer I got to Kedarnath, my destination, I felt the stamina and valor return. Kedarnath Trek

Kedarnath TrekThe lush green meadows were dotted with snow and ice. Accompanying me was the gushing Mandakini river smashing on the rocks with bone crushing force.  Finally after an epic 5 hour and 15 minutes trek, I arrived at Kedarnath Temple which I must say is a pretty good Kedarnath Trektiming for an amateur like me (Average time is 6 hrs). The majestic Garhwal Himalayas on the backdrop boasted of the resplendent bounty of nature and the serene atmosphere of the place offered me a mesmerizing and captivating view. Kedarnath Temple The stone temple, though small, was one of the most important Shiva temples in the country and a devout center and I could see numerous Shiva sages around it. After visiting the temple, I stopped by to get a few souvenirs  and after a tea, I started the arduous trek back down. Initially, the trek was much faster compared to the uphill one. I took every available shortcuts, jumping over rocks and wading dangerously close to the river.  After about 7 kms (1.5 hrs), I could hardly feel my legs, my knee shivering with exhaustion and my calf muscles were about to rip out.  The last 7 km took over 2.5 hrs The sagesand my whole body ached. The horses were reckless as they’d literally hit n run. It was saddening to see the people carrying pilgrims on their shoulders and on palanquins. Man!! They sure have superhuman strength and they even take 2 or 3 up and down trip a day!!  Finally I reached back in Gaurikund by 3 pm Kedarnath Trek(Downhill took about 4 hrs) and a shocking news awaited me – NO ROOMS AVAILABLE!! That’s the last thing you wanna hear after you are so dead tired. I consulted with a few friends I made in GMVN the previous day and they suggested going to the next town and trying my luck.

So there I was, sitting in a jeep, covered in thick layers of dust (thanks to the amazingly dusty roads), keeping my fingers crossed.  Finally at 6, I reached GMVN guest house in Guptkashi and I was lucky to get the last available bed in the dorm. The bed felt so soft and smooth, even though in reality it was not even close. After a shower, I felt a slight fever and headache. After a quick dinner, I was about the get some sleep when my luck favored me again. My roommates were GMVN tour operators and they were about to leave to Badrinath the next day. They offered me a ride with their group which I gladly accepted. With all the physical exertion taking its toll on my body, I took a paracetamol and  slipped into a deep sleep.

Rambhara Kedarnath Trek

Kedarnath Trek Kedarnath Trek

Kedarnath Trek Gaurikund

Tomorrow was going to be another big day. And of course, I felt all refreshed and healthy the next morning.  Badrinath, here I come!!

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Dehradun/Mussoorie – Queen of Hills

Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand is a sprawling city in the lap of the Himalayas,  that’d allure any traveler with the charisma and the charm of the impeccably picturesque Garhwal  Himalayas. Located at around 35kms from Dehradun, Mussourie is paradise Clock Towerspread over a vast carpet of greenery coupled with a rich variety of flora and fauna offering breathtaking views of the snow capped mountains and a town buzzing with activity marks a perfect destination for a memorable holiday.

Ok! time to cut short the pleasantries and get down to journal part.Robbers Cave Infact I did not visit both these places at a stretch,  as there was a gap of about 4 days between my trips to Dehradun and Mussoorie. This journey was a part of my solo expedition to Uttarakhand which commenced on 1st of June (about 10 days before the floods that destroyed this beautiful state).

The Plan was to have no Plans!!

It all began on a Saturday night in Lucknow bus stand, where I caught a volvo (That I booked the previous day) to Haridwar. Expensive, but comfortable, the bus was late by 3 hours by the time it reached Haridwar and so I extended my ticket to Dehradun on an impulse. In Dehradun, I made the 1st mistake of relying on auto drivers to get me a room, as I did not see the Rs.100 dorms available on top of the ISBT, till I went to the stand again. A Rs.500 mistake, but I got a single room with a TV!! The sight seeing started off with the iconic Robbers Caveclock tower in Dehradun.

There I was standing in the heart of the city, with no clue as to where to go. I had taken note of a few tourist places around Dehradun and I set out in a quest to find them. Thanks to Haan who gave me a lift and Kuldeep, who walked with me for over a kilometer, I boarded a bus to the “Robbers Cave” (But locals call it Guchu Pani and since I didn’t know this name, it gave me a hard time) . Being Sunday, this place was bustling with tourists, who came to explore the beauty of this natural ravine. The water was only ankle deep and I trekked for over a kilometer wading through the brook bordered by narrow caves, climbing over the Sahradharaslippery rocks and finally, I reached the place where the cave ended. But since I had no idea that I had to walk through water, I didn’t bring my slippers and hence I had to leave my shoe and walk bare foot. Not a comfortable prospect as the stream was covered in pebbles and not so smooth rocks, but then, pain was a part of this adventure.

After a few hours there, I caught a bus from Parade stand to Sahasradhara. Even after arriving there, I did not understand what is it that I was looking for. I just took a stroll around the place and found that the entire stream was divided into numerous swimming pools, and it reminded me off an amusement park. One could hire swimming clothes and floats and take a jump. I walked about 500m Mussoorieall the way up till the very 1st pool. The whole place is speckled with small but beautiful waterfalls. There was also a natural spring on the hill nearby, and  rather than flowing in a small channel, they where kinda showering in and around a cave. Since I had some expensive not waterproof gadgets with me, I decided not to try my luck going into these caves. There are plenty of hotels and kiosks all around this place and I must say, even though I liked the concept of turning a river into multilevel swimming pools, the increasing number of tourists Sahasradharawhere hurting this fragile ecosystem.

By 9.30, I was back in my room and I had a bus to catch at 4.30 am to Kedarnath/ Badrinath (I still hadn’t decided where to go). But I’ll leave that part of the adventure to another post. I reached back in Dehradun, by dusk on 6th June. Though I initially thought about returning to Lucknow that night, the lack of tickets forced me to stay for 1 more day. This time, I took a Rs.300 double room offered by the ISBT (I didn’t find the Mall Roaddorm so safe). I also got an opportunity to meet Vaisakh, a school classmate of mine who worked in Dehradun. After a good night sleep on the 1st floor room of the bus stand, here I am in Mussoorie, the next morning.

Mussoorie was not a part of my initial tour plan. But then again, remember what I said in the beginning about the no-plan-thingy? Now, I’d like to offer a disclaimer : Since I visited Mussoorie after returning from Kedarnath and Badrinath (which by the way are some of the most beautiful and stunning places I’ve ever seen), I did not find Mussoorie very appealing. May be I should have visited it before I left to Kedarnath and Badrinath and it’d definitely have changed my views on the “Queen of Hills”.

Like most colonial Hill stations, Mussoorie too boasts a Christ ChurchMall Road and that was my first destination. I walked all the way to the end, enjoying the scenery censored with buildings, electric posts, cables and what not. I then took a rope way to Gun Hill, which offered a good view as well. The whole place was littered with shops and game corners. Retracing my path around the Mall road, I reached the Christ Church, the oldest church in Himalayas. It was about time that I visited a church. After a talk with the Kempty fallspastor, he opened the church for me, and I admired the stained glass windows and best of all, a huge pipe organ which unfortunately wasn’t in a working condition.

Now comes the best part. I booked a Government tourism bus ticket to Kempti falls and the bus was scheduled to depart at 12.45. Since I had 2 hours left, I decided to visit Company Bagh. Since the rickshaw guys didnot go down on the rates, I decided to walk. A big blunder! I walked and walked and walked. After walking for about 30 minutes, I saw the most heart wrenching sign – Company Bagh 3kms!! Should I or should I not? I’m not gonna quit and I’m going to walk. Finally, at 11.45 I was there, phew!! The garden was Company Baghsmall and had pretty flowers and it took me about 30 minutes to enjoy them all. 30 minutes to go before my bus. I bargained with a rickshaw walla and took a ride to the bus stop which was about 5 kms away. I reached the stand and hey presto, there came the GMVN tourist bus.

The half an hour ride ride to Kempty took me downhill and the road offered a splendid view of the valley. Kempty falls was a stunningly beautiful and frigging huge mutilevel waterfall, which is converted into swimming pools. So typical of Kempty FallsUttarakhand Tourism (GMVN)!! I would say, its worth visiting Mussoorie for just this waterfall. The ethereal waterfall, gamboling over the golden rocks is a mesmerizing sight. I walked up and up and up for over 400m to the last point I could go without getting my shoe wet. After about 100m,  there was not a single soul in sight and I spent nearly half an hour relaxing Kempty Fallson a in the middle of the brook  imbibing the grandeur of nature. After walking down to main road, I went down hill negotiating about 500 steps. The whole place was astir with hundreds of shops and tourists. In a whole, the place reminded me of a natural water theme park.  The whole place was well developed and the traffic was horrible. My return bus was late by 45 minutes, so much for me running up 500 steps in 15 mins.

Back in town at 5 pm, I decided to head back to Dehradun before it was too late as I had a bus to Volvo scheduled at 8 pm. I had had enough of close calls for a day. I stood all the way for my 1.5 hour journey back to Dehradun and guess what, the conductor never gave me a ticket (I did ask him twice, okay). At 8 pm, I settled down on the “Royal Cruiser” volvo of uttarakhand tourism and officially concluded my Uttarakhand trip.

But this post, is just the beginning. The true adventure is yet to come. Kedarnath and Badrinath!! About a week after my visit there, these unbelievable beautiful and pristine landscape was ravaged by flash floods.

Up next : Kedarnath

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Dharamshala/Mcleodganj – The Little Lhasa

Known to the world as the holy abode of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dharamshala is synonymous with the Tibetan Government Dalai Lama Residencein exile and is perched on the higher slopes of Kangra valley in the back drop of the snow-capped majestic Dhauladhar mountain ranges.  The city is dominated by the Tibetan populace while still retaining the British fervor and English lifestyles. Divided into two Mcleodganjdistinct sections known as lower and upper (Mcleodganj) Dharamshala,  this colourful city is surrounded by thick woods of oak and coniferous trees and the snow line, which offers  a splendid ambience.

Heads or Tails!! 

I don’t remember whether it was heads or tails, but the choice was obvious : Dharamshala. I had 2 choices with the second being Dalhousie. Having started my journey from Jalandhar to Pathankot on 29th April morning, I found myself looking at 2 buses (One to Dalhousie and the other to Dharamshala) at Pathankot bus stand. Due to lack of time, I had to decide between these, and what is better than the good old tossing the coin? So, there Dhauladhar mountain rangesI was, sitting in a local Himachal Government bus, gazing out through the picturesque landscape swishing past me. After a 3 hour journey from Pathankot, I reached Dharamshala, the lower part of it. The bus stand looked nothing like a tourist stand I expected. I made  a split second decision to go to Mcleodganj (Upper Dharamshala) which was 10 km uphill. I had to race a bus uphill, and even though I nearly ran out of breath, I caught it. After reaching Mcleodganj, I took a double bedroom in a quiet part of the town for Rs.300 (I bargained and bought it down from 500). The mercury levels were at pretty comfortable readings with the cool breeze rejuvenating me.

It was evening, and I decided to take a stroll in the streets. It looked like Naddi VillageI reached another country as most of the people were Tibetan refugees and spiritual seekers from all around the world flocked to this abode of Buddhism. After getting a map from the tourist office, I went to the Dalai Lama Temple, adjoining the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Too bad, the Dalai Lama was in Dalhousie that day. I played football with 2 Tibetan kids in the temple compound, and I must confess, they were much better than me in the game. After strolling around the market, bustling with International tourists and having thanthuk with tofu and egg for dinner, I decide to call it a day.

The next morning, I went to the Tibet Museum that described the life and freedom struggle of the peace-loving Tibetan people. My next destination was the Bhagsunag temple devoted to Lord Shiva. About 1km walk from the temple led me to the Bhagsunag waterfalls. It was a pretty good one, though there wasn’t much water in it. That’s where I met, Bhagsunag WaterfallsAlexei, a Russian youth who didn’t know English. After a refreshing walk back, I hired an auto to take me to Naddi Village. The village offered splendid view of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountains, but half the view was censored by the clouds. After a tea, I set out to Dal Lake, but was disappointed to find the lake practically dry. The pine trees around the lake was a consolation and I walked around this small lake before heading down to the church of St.John in the Wilderness. St. John of the Wilderness ChurchBuilt in 1852, this small church with its beautiful stained glass windows, is one of the oldest cathedrals in North India.

A bus took me from Mcleodganj to Dharamshala. Though the part of same town, there is an altitude difference of nearly 1000m between the upper and lower Dharamshala. After consulting the tourist office in Dharamshala, I walked through the Kotwali Bazaar and went to the War Memorial. Situated amidst a pine forest, it is a reminiscence of the great sacrifices of soldiers from Himachal. I then walked to Dharamshala Cricket Stadium, often called the most beautiful stadium in the world. I think, I’d agree with that. With the snow clad mountains in backdrop, and lush green fields, this field could still be worth view, even if your team doesn’t play the match well. One thing I liked about Dharamshala is that, the buses are so cheap, just Rs.2 for 2 kms. The Kangra Art museum is a good place for art lovers. I must confess, I’m not a big fan of art, but this museum was pretty good.

By evening, I found myself back in Mcleodganj and I had an interesting conversation with Robert, a German masseur. An evening walk Dharamshala Cricket stadiumin the cool breeze soothed my body, that was feeling tired after a long day. The rays of the setting Sun illuminated the snow-line in a golden hue. I bought a trekking backpack and had a tasty dinner with Chicken soutsemen. After settling all my room bills, I feel asleep in the cozy bed.

Are you out of your mind? Going trekking alone?

Trekking! That was my plan for the next day. After taking an auto to Dharamkot, I started walking through the pine forest to the Galu

Forest trail to Naddi

Temple. After an hour and a half, I reached the Galu temple. Located high aboveForest trail to Galu temple Mcleodganj, this trek offered me breathtaking views of the town and the solo walk through the forest was a memorable experience. I met a few people in near Galu temple, who said, I could either go to Triund or Naddi Village. Since Triund was longer and had higher probability of getting lost, I decided to settle with Naddi. It was a proper rocky forest trail with dried leaves all around me. To my side, I could see the mountains guiding me. It was very calm, peaceful and quiet except for the rustling of the leaves and the chirping of birds. The trail was quite narrow and I saw a lot of birds that I had never seen before. But unfortunately, they weren’t very interested in modelling. After one of the best 1.5 hrs in my life, I found myself standing on a rock overlooking the Naddi Village. Priceless!!

From Naddi I walked for another kilometer and reached the Dal Lake again. There I met Roberto, a Swiss Engineer. Naddi & Dhauladhar mountain rangesWe had a good conversation while I rested near the Lake. I took an auto back to Mcleodganj. After having Alberto Chicken Mushroom Pasta at an Italian restaurant, I caught my 6 pm volvo to New Delhi.

This concludes my 6 day solo backpacker trip to Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.  My Tour MapHere is the map of the 2250 kms (1400 miles) I covered during this journey and my total expenditure was about Rs. 6k (abt $110).

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