Posts Tagged With: Travel

Salar de Uyuni – The World’s Mirror

The awe-inspiring, untamed breathtakingly white wilderness of salt lakes – that is Salar de Uyuni for you.  Located at an altitude of 12,000ft (3,600m), the largest salt flat in the world covers a whopping 12,000 sq.km (that’s larger than smaller 20+ countries in the world), and so flat and dazzling that its attracts a plethora of tourists, adventure seekers and photographers. The strange-looking islands in this dried up prehistoric lake and the volcanic mountains serving as border to this natural wonder bestows a memorable experience to every visitor. As if these virtues were not enough, the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni transforms into the largest mirror in the world during rainy season when a thin layer of water cover the slat flats. However, I was not lucky enough to witness the mesmerizing scene where the land and sky merges into one, as it wasn’t rainy season when I visited.

 

On November the 23th, 2017, Prateek Jay and I took the overnight local bus to Salar de Uyuni from La Paz bus terminal. If you’re taking a bus, I’d recommend the local bus over tourist bus, because the seats are wider, more comfy and cheaper, but lack the extra services (which are not useful anyway, but no worries, there’s wifi). We reached Salar de Uyuni at 6 am on the 24th, and found it to be pretty cold and deserted dusty town. First thing we did was to go to a coffee shop to freshen up and charge our phones (And have breakfast – secondary priority). At around 9.30 we went to Perla de Bolivia tours were we had booked a single day trip for $70, At 10.30 along with D’Angela from Houston and Victor (Guide) and Abraham (driver), we started our trip on a 4×4 land cruiser. While driving through he city, my first impression was that of some Small Iraqi city (the ones you see on TV and movies). First destination was the Train Cemetery.  Its a paradise for photographers and for amateurs to get good Instagram pics. The rusty old UK made steam engines serve a reminder of a bygone era. Imagine, a rusty old Hogwarts express trains lying in the middle of a dusty desert. Quite eerie, isn’t it. Nonetheless, the abandoned presence of the “great train graveyard”, finds solace in the presence of curious visitors.

 

After spending 20 minutes at the train graveyard, we went to a settlement near the salt flats. They have a few shops there and they gave a quick tour of the slat making process. that includes heating to remove the water content followed by grinding and packaging.you can even buy authentic Bolivian slat flat salt from there (Before you do that, remember, you’d be carrying a plastic bag with a white powder from Bolivia across the Customs and Immigration officers of your next destination outside South America – Yeah! exactly. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you). Now, its finally time to experience this unreal landscape for myself.

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Tight rope

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Help! T-Rex in Uyuni

Behold! The great slat flats of Salar de Uyuni! White and flat, with cloudless blue skies as far as you’re eye can see. Luckily there are some mountains on on side or else you’d be lost without any reference. The presence of mountains is the major difference I found between the salt flats of Rann of Kutch in India, and unlike the Rann of Kutch, you won’t end up in Pakistan if you get lost in Salar de Uyuni (Phew! That’s a relief). The slat flats looks brownish close to the town due to dust bowls, but becomes white as we move further. The cracks on the slat forms a hexagonal pattern that makes the ground look like paved tiles. The tour included a picnic lunch in the middle of the salt flats (you can add more salt if you like). Next we drove to the only salt hotel in Salar de Uyuni, the Palacio de Sal and the huge Dakar statue near it. Make sure you bring your countries flag, so that you can hang it on the flag posts. Too bad there wasn’t a single Indian flag there and we didn’t have one with us either. Bolivia uses the Dakar rally to promote tourism at Salar de Uyuni. After wandering around the hotel for a while, we left to the middle of nowhere. Now for the star attraction. Photo time!!

 

The white and flat salt beds provide an excellent setting for perspective photography. Victor had all the required props and he was an excellent photographer. All the perspective photos and gifs in this blog post were taken by Victor! We spent close to 1.5 hours taking incredible photos and then decided to head to our final stop of the day – the Incahausi island. There are numerous islands in Salar de Uyuni and Icahausi is the largest and one of the most visited one. This outherworldly and spectacular former island is a hilly outpost covered with massive hundreds of years old cactii. There are a few that is over 1000s of years old. Climbing to the topmost point of the island offers a stunning view of the white sea of salt with huge cactii in the foreground and mountains in the backdrop. Just magnificent! At 5.30 we started back to Uyuni.

 

Incahausi pano 1On the way, at 6.45, we stopped to watch the colorful and vibrant Uyuni sunset. A solemn end to a beautiful day what projected the triviality of our existence, when compared to the grandeur of nature. At 7.30 we reach back at Uyuni. My travel partners Prateek and Jay were pure vegetarians, and they couldn’t find a single place to eat and had to finally resort to chips and biscuits. For vegetarians and vegans, Bolivia isn’t very accommodating. So, I’d advise you to make arrangements beforehand, if you’re a vegetarian. Our return bus to La Paz was at 8.30 pm.                The leapFor Salar de Uyuni, if you have more time, you can take a 3 day trip across the salt flats, that takes you to the border of Chile and Argentina. Also, if it rains too much, its hard to drive and the trips are cancelled. So, to see the mirror like sat flats, the weather should be in your favor.

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Lake Titicaca – Across the Borders

The highest navigable lake in the world!

Located at an altitude of  3800 m (12,500 ft) in the Andes, Lake Titicaca with its archipelago of around 40  islands serves as the border between Peru and Bolivia. Considered sacred by the ancient Inca civilization, Lake Titicaca now serves as a popular tourist destination for both Bolivia and Peru with the latter being more commercialized. The shimmering deep blue lake, crowned the largest South American lake, is considered the birthplace of the Sun in ancient Andean beliefs. This post is about my bus journey along the shores of this majestic body of water, stopping over at Puno and Copacabana and crossing the international border between Peru and Bolivia by foot. (Yeah! We walked across the border).

After a good nap in the comfy double-decker Bolivia Hop bus, we reached Puno at 5:30 am on the 22nd of November. After an abysmal breakfast, we walked towards the harbor and and took a boat to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. These 70 man made islands are home to the Uros tribe, that predate even the Incas. Made of totora reed, the floating islands and the Caballitos de totora (boats) serve as a major tourist attraction. The boat took us to one of the islands and my first impression, “way too touristy and commercialized”. Each island is home to a few families and they re-enact their lifestyle and offer rides on the reed boats. Even though I wasn’t impressed, tourism has become their livelihood nowadays, may be even more than fishing. We spent about an hour there and the seal for Lake Titicaca on my passport was smudged (Talk about bad luck). We then took the boat back to the harbor and boarded the bus.

A while later, we arrived at the Peru – Bolivia border. Not the fancy kinda border I was expecting. Our guide Roger stayed back in Peruvian side along with the comfy bus (Oh no!). After getting my exit stamp, our group walked towards the unattractive archway that separates the two countries. It doesn’t even feel as if you entered another country. There is a small immigration office with just a single officer ahead and the procedure was easy and quick as I had my visa. If you’re an american, even though you can get a visa on arrival, let me warn you, you might get into trouble. Except a couple of Americans without visa in our group, everyone cleared the immigration quickly and had to wait for about 30 minutes in out new small and rickety bus. An hour in that wobbly bus, we reached Copacabana, the largest city by the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Tranquility and solace! That’s Copacabana. There were hardly any tourists and the whole place looked like a laid back sleepy town located by the  glistening azure lake. I just fell in love with the place at first sight. In my opinion, there is a difference of heaven and earth between this place and Puno. After grabbing a quick Llama sandwich (yummy), we took a 1:15 hour boat ride to Isla del Sol. Considered the birthplace of the Sun god by Incas, Isla del Sol is one of the largest islands on lake Titicaca and is home to over hundreds of ruins. A 30 minute easy hike (really taxiing due to altitude) to a high point on the island offered breathtaking views of the lake and the snow caped Bolivian Andes. There were few resorts and small buildings under construction on the island, showing early signs of commercialization. I really liked the serene atmosphere in the island and I’d say its a good location if you’re a writer and wanna stay a while for inspiration. (I’d love to do that, but alas!). After spending 4 hours at Copacabana, we were ready for the final leg of the day  – to La Paz.

Isla del Sol PanoramaLuckily for us, our rickety bus had 1 seat lesser than required and Frank managed to convince the manager to get us another ride. I’d like to commend the exceptional service by Bolivia Hop (I’ll rate them 5 stars), as they offered the 4 of us our own 14-seater with a driver. It was quite a pleasant ride and we managed to catch a glimpse of the sunset on lake Titicaca and it was beguiling. About an hour later, we reached a point where we had to take a ferry. The bus and the van got on a ferry while we got on a small boat reeking of kerosene. The waves in the lake were quite rough following the sunset.  About 45 mins later, we got back in our van and left for La Paz.  At 9:30 pm, as we came around the mountains we got the first glimpse of the lights of La Paz and it was mesmerizing. There’s hardly any skyline, but the hills surrounding city and the valley were filled with yellow lights creating a natural skyline and looked amazing. We reached Loki Hostel at around 10 and after check in joined the UV light party at the rooftop cafe. The next day we spent around La Paz. I’ll write about La Paz in my last post in this series after my post about Salar de Uyuni.

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Machu Picchu – In Pursuit of the Inca Legacy

Discovered in 1911, Machu Picchu is an apotheosis of the great Incan Empire that dictated the western part of South America in the 14-16th century. Believed to be a royal estate or a religious site, this majestic citadel located on the Vilcanota mountain range northwest of Cusco, serves as a mausoleum to a glorious Incan past that met its demise under the Spanish conquest. This World Wonder, visited by thousands of tourists everyday, embodies the undying spirit of the Incan legacy and pay homage to the once great civilization. Our main destination in Peru is indeed this empyrean stony ruins perched on a mountain top. And for Peru, its a national pride and a goose that lays golden eggs. (Seriously, the entry ticket was lot more expensive that I expected).

 

The closest city (and international airport) to Machu Picchu is Cusco.  From Bogota, I went to Lima and then took an early morning flight to Cusco. The fight offered some beautiful views of the Peruvian Andes and make sure you look outside when the airplane is about to land, as the view is amazing. On arriving at the tiny Cusco airport at 8 am I took a cab to the Pariwana hostel. A buoyant and spirited atmosphere and since the check in was after 2 pm, I slept on a couch in the internet room. My fellow travelers, Prateek and Jay arrived by noon and we decided to take a walk around the town. A small cozy historic town with numerous churches, narrow cobbled streets and beautiful squares. The largest and most vibrant of the squares is Plaza de Armas. Prateek and Jay (both vegetarians) tricked me into having lunch at an amazing vegan restaurant named Green Point (should try Coca khabura and tacu tacu) where we met Carlos, a French costume designer from LA.  After some alpaca wool shopping and wandering around the squares, we returned to hostel at around 7 pm and joined their BBQ night accompanied by Ruan and Jordan from Canada and Diego and Gabriel from Peru.

 

At 6 am on 20th November, we took a cab to Poroy train station. Yes, we’re too lazy (and no time) to take the 4 day Inca train hike to Machu Picchu. Its a luxury tourist train called the Perurail Vistadome (of course, it was expensive ~$85 one-way). The 3.5 hour journey through fields, valleys and mountains is quite fascinating. However, what intrigued me the most was that the train took  wrong turn and had to reverse to correct the course (I know, I was surprised too). On reaching Machu Picchu, after grabbing a alpaca meat lunch, took the $24 bus ride to the top of citadel. The weather didn’t look very promising when we got off the train as it was cloudy and drizzling . But it got better by the time we had our lunch. Its an interesting drive through dozens of hairpin bends, and don’t bother struggling to get good pics, because its gonna get much better when you reach the top. Piece of advise, make sure you book the entry ticked way in advance as they get sold out pretty quickly. At 1:15 we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. And this time, the weather Gods didn’t let us down.

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Ethereal! Serene! Sacred!

I just cant describe how beautiful it is. The photos don’t do justice to this place, to be honest. What we did first (after the photo session, obviously) was to hike up to Sun Gate. It takes about 50 mins to get there and was quite strenuous due to high altitude. The view from there is totally worth the effort. Following the sun gate, we walked down through the ruins and took the obligatory selfie with the Llamas. Though in ruins, the stone walls and stepped terraces remind us of the architectural and aesthetic acuity of Incans. Surrounded by lush green mountains and sheer cliffs, it would’ve made for an excellent (and super fancy) hotel, had it been build this century. If you have time and energy (good stamina and endurance), you can hike up the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu provided you purchase the tickets in advance.  After spending 4 hours (and super thirsty) we got back to the bus stop. Do not forget to get a souvenir Machu Picchu stampon your passport (I’m not lying and yes, you can get stamps on your passport other than immigration control).

 

On our way back to the station, we walked through the market and did some minor shopping (They accept US dollars at 1:3). We took the Perurail Vistadome back and there was a fashion show on board. We took a cab back to the main square and grabbed dinner. Try Ceviche if you like seafood (Heavy lime flavor). Subsequently, we retired into our dorms at 11, as tomorrow was gonna be a long day.

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Colombia – 7 hours at Bogota

I’ve always loved visiting new places and it is even better when its a new country. So, when Prateek suggested a trip to Peru and Bolivia I was all in. Who knew, I was in for an even better surprise. When I booked my flights, as always, cheapest flights are the priority (Not to sound racist or anything, but Indians love cheap stuff). And guess what, the airline me a bargain and top it off with a 10 hour transit at Bogota, Columbia. First thing I checked was whether I had visa free access to Columbia, and guess what, I do. So, our 2 country trip suddenly expanded to 3, courtesy Avianca Airlines. For my travel partners, it was 4 instead of 2 as they had a much longer transit on return at El Salvador. So, this is the story of how I spent my 7 hours at Bogota before taking the flight to Cusco.

It all began at JFK airport on the 18th of November 2017, when Prateek, Jay and I boarded the 6.30 am Avianca flight to Cusco with a few layovers. Even though I slept at the couch in the Wingtips lounge at JFK, I dozed off the moment I boarded the flight. We reached El Dorado airport at Bogota at 12 noon (same time zone as Baltimore). Its a huge and impressive airport. First thing we did was to get Colombian Pesos, ($1 = ~3000 pesos). If you wanna feel rich, check your bank balance at Columbia and guess what, the symbol for Colombian pesos is also $. Try not to have a panic attack when you see that a decent meal would cost you $10,000 (Relax, its pesos ~ 3 USD). We cashed in USD 50 and got 135,000 pesos. After clearing the immigration, we left the airport at 2 pm. I left my backpack at the cloak room. First destination was Bolivar Plaza which is more like the town center.

First impression about Bogota, its just like India. Similar cars, motor cycles and terrible traffic.  However, you drive on the right, unlike India. The roads are pretty good with special lanes for buses in center and metro like bus stations every kilometer or so with over bridges. And there are awesome graffiti all around. We went to an upscale restaurant near Plaza de Bolivar for lunch. The weather Gods didn’t seem to favor us much as it was quite a cloudy day. When we reached the Bolivar plaza, there was a prayer service at the Cathedral and they released a big rosary beads made of hydrogen balloons into the air.  Around the Bolivar square, you have the Cathedral, the City hall, the National Capitol and the Court. Walking on the cobbled pavements towards the heart of the city, we found crowded streets with amazing street performers staging mimes, dances, songs, instruments, cosplay and even posing as statues. Quite a lively and beautiful place. Further down, the path is paved in red bricks with stepped fountains in the middle and lined with trees.

If you have very little time, the must visit place in Bogota is Monserrate. Its a hill near the city which offers breathtaking views of the entire city. It was indeed our main destination in Bogota. There are 2 options to go up; Cable car and a train. We decided to take the cable car up and train down. The cable car ride up is quite steep and if you have fear of heights, you might wanna stay away from the windows. As we moved up, the magnificence of Bogota revealed itself to us. On top of Monserrate is a church and a small park. However, the highlight is the stunning view of the city. Even though it was cloudy, the sight was majestic.  Unfortunately, after a while it started to rain. We took shelter near a coffee shop. Another stroke of misfortune was that the train down to the city closed before we got there. So, we had no choice but to take the cable car back down again. The train goes through some really steep tracks and tunnels, so I’d urge you to take it if you get a chance. Another trivia, I thought restrooms in Iceland were expensive,  but here, its $600-800 (Just kidding, its in pesos).

Columbia (2)_FotorAfter spending about an hour at Monserrate we came down and went to a coffee shop. If you miss the American food, fret not. There are plenty of Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks etc. However, we went to a Colombian coffee house. Main objective was to get WiFi. After grabbing a coffee, I decided to head back to the airport as I had my next flight at 10.30 pm. My friends however had an early morning flight next day. I called an Uber using WiFi (and had a hard time finding the driver, because WiFi doesn’t work once you leave the coffee shop). I had a chat with him using google translate ( You hard me right; All hail Google). While I went back to airport, Prateek and Jay wandered around the city to try the authentic Colombian coffee.

I reached the airport at around 8:15 and wandered around till I boarded my flight to Lima. The only place I regret not being able to visit was the Gold Museum at Bogota. Before Colombia gained an infamous reputation with drug cartels, it was known for gold. With this, I conclude the day 1 of our South American Odyssey.  If you have 10 hours, I think you can cover most of what Bogota has to offer.

Next stop: Cusco, Peru.

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Iceland – Road Trip to the Land of Fire and Ice (Part 2)

Most tourists to Iceland are content with the Southern Iceland and area near Reykjavik. However, to get a feel for the true bonhomie of volcanic wilderness and the glaciers, you need to experience the East and the rest of Iceland. The adventure part of an Icelandic road trip begins at this point. However, keep in mind that the routes get harder, and you’ll pass through lesser number of towns. But if you go during peak tourist season, you’ll be able to meet fellow drivers occasionally. And if you’re a camping/ hiking enthusiast, you better start planning a trip here.  Also, make sure you download offline maps on your phone, if you’re not using a car GPS.

Once we left Hof, our first destination was a glacier lake. Afterall, its the namesake of Iceland. For the adventurer in you (with a heavy wallet), you could even try a 1 day glacier hike at Jökulsárlón Glacier or could take a boat ride in the lagoon. Unfortunately, we did neither, but savor the stunning view.  Close to lagoon is the Diamond beach where you can watch small icebergs drift into the ocean. The black sand beach is littered with small chunks of glittering clear ice with a light blue hue, giving a feast to the eyes. I can assure you, you’d have no doubts why the beach is called Diamond beach. Regrettably, the weather Gods weren’t quite benevolent with us that day as it was quite cloudy and gloomy.  But we still kept going, through the sheer cliffs of eastern seaboard of Iceland. After Djúpivogur, we decided to take a detour from the route 1. A wise decision indeed. 

However, if you’re not very comfortable driving a manual transmission car on steep climbs with sharp turns, I’d urge you not to attempt it. This unpaved route is quite dangerous and hard, but the view it offers its totally worth the effort. You’ll be driving through green grass covered mountains and sharp cliffs. Some 30 mins into this road, the weather became so foggy that I could hardly see anything. It was a real test of my driving skills as a second of carelessness could cause serious accidents. This route 939 is much shorter, but takes more or less the same time to drive due to the hilly road. By evening we arrived at the next big town, Egilsstaðir. As always, first things first; go to tourist info center, and access Wi-Fi! ( Come on, who can wait for a week to post about these amazing places on social media ). Before we called it a day, we decided to go further ahead. And we found another big beautiful nameless (I don’t know the name) waterfall. We then decided to go off the main road looking for a place to camp. We found a secluded meadow few kilometers off the highway and decided to set up camp. It was quite windy and foggy, but we used the car as a wind shade and set up our tents. It was quite interesting at night as we had uninvited guests “knocking” on our tents; Sheep!! About 10 km from our campsite, we found a paid campsite with a pool and showers. The owners were generous enough to allow us to use the showers for free.

Next day, we set off again, this time towards Northern Iceland. The road is quite flat and you can see mountains around you, far far away. Truly mesmerizing sight. Even when you’re going at 100 kmph, it still fells as if you’re stationary. The next big stop is Dettifoss, a majestic waterfall. A word of advice, you can see the falls from both sides. Its like Niagara falls, American side and Canadian side. If you wanna try both, be ready to drive some extra 100+ km. So, if you’re pressed for time, make a choice. We went to the “American” (or falls side) of Dettifoss after driving 30km on the gravel road called route 864. If you wanna see the falls from the front (“Canadian view”), you should take route 862 which is a few km further from route 864. This waterfall is quite famous thanks to the movie Prometheus. Yep, its the waterfall shown in the beginning of the movie. 

Take the next detour as you wouldn’t wanna miss aquamarine blue Krafla crater lake and the geothermal power plant near it. the Next stop is Námafjall Hverir boiling mud pits. It truly looks extraterrestrial and with boiling black mud pits and vapor bellowing out of rocks. And its smells of strong sulfur. No worries, you’ll ignore the smell after you see how unreal the place is. This place would legitimately convince you why Iceland is aptly called the land of Fire and Ice (I wouldn’t wanna the there when there is an actual volcanic eruption, so this is as close as I get). There is also Grjótagjá cave, which has a hot (really hot) spring inside it, nearby. 

There, you reach the next town, Reykjahlíð situated near the beautiful Lake Mývatn. You can drive around the lake and there are a few viewpoints near it as well. Moving further, we encountered the horseshoe shaped Goðafoss waterfalls. Not a high falls, but we were fortunate enough to see a group of daredevils kayaking down the falls. Driving further, we reached the gorgeous town of Akureyri, the second largest town in Iceland. After dinner and Wi-Fi hunt, we decided to camp north of Sauðárkrókur. On the way, we passed by a small museum (closed though) that showed old viking architecture. Camping near a farmland, we were reprimanded by an old lady driving by and asked us to find a hotel. While we were confused, a gentleman farmer assured us that its perfectly legal for us to spend a night there as long as its not a private property. He also pointed out that while farmers are not happy about it, all they can do is complain to you.

The next day, we decided to drive quite longer as we were behind schedule. We didnt stop anywhere except for a few scenic points along the way. Near Staður, we decided to take the longer route along the Western Fjords. Its a meadering road along the cliff side and its about a days drive, We took route 68, but due to lack of time, we turned to route 61 and 60 near Hólmavík.  Though short, we managed to drive through thick fog along the coastal cliffs and rocky beaches. On our way we got a flat tire, and luckily our car had a full size spare tire. (You’d better learn how to change tires before you drive in Iceland). Next stop was the lovely Kirkjufellfoss Waterfalls with the sublime fin shaped Kirkjufell at the backdrop. Its one of the classic Icelandic photo location. We camped near Eyja- og Miklaholtshreppur, on a small road off the route 54.

This the last day of our roadtrip and our destination was Reykjavik. There was much more traffic along this route as we were closer to the capital. After passing trough the 5.7km long Hvalfjörður Tunnel (toll is 1000 Kr) we reached Reykjavik by noon. After spending the rest of the day at the city (and getting the tire fixed), we drove to the most famous (and overrated) attraction of Iceland – Blue Lagoon. This pale blue volcanic hot water (salty) spring was the most expenive part of our journey. Though relaxing, I found it quite exaggerated, unless you’re a fan of beauty products and spa. At around 11, After dropping Avara and Bryan at the Airport, I dropped Luisa at her hostel in Reykjavik and I drove to the Western tip of Reykjavik and slept in the car. The next day, Luisa and I returned our car and stayed at the airport waiting for our flights to the US. With this, came the conclusion of our epic 2277km roadtrip around Iceland. I’d would love to express my heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to my fellow travel mates  Bryan, Luisa and Avara. You guys were Awesome!! Cheers!! Oh and here’s the route map.

Iceland Roadtrip map p2

The groupP.S.: This post is dedicated to Luisa, Bryan, and Avara for being Awesome travel companions!

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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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