Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Old Silk Route, Sikkim

There is a lot to explore in Sikkim than a few popular tourist destinations that are always spoken about. I recently did a road trip from Siliguri to Gangtok via Rongli and Zuluk that turned out to be one of my best road trips in India. Zigzag road snaking up the hill with a spectacular view of Kanchenjunga peak, beautiful waterfalls, serene mountain lakes, quaint monasteries and temples – I was amazed to see the beauty of this little state. This route is a part of the Old Silk Route. The great explorers in the ancient times had set up this silk route that connected Tibet to some important Indian towns for trading purpose. The route passed through Lhasa, Nathu La and Jelep La and through the port of Tamluk in West Bengal from where through the sea it reached Far East. Travelling on this route exposed me to the unmatched beauty of unexplored Sikkim.

The trail I followed is: Siliguri - Aritar – Zuluk - Nathang valley – Gangtok. Below are the points of interest on this route.

This whole circuit can be done in 8-10 days. Best time to explore this region is October - November and Feb – March. Since it passes from near the sensitive border areas, you need permit that can be obtained either from Gangtok or from Rongli.

#1. Zuluk Loops

Driving up the Zuluk loops

Driving on the old silk route from Rongli towards Nathula there is a beautifully located small village Zuluk. It was a transit point on the old silk route that connected Lhasa to Kalimpong and was in use even a few decades ago until the Chinese invaded Tibet. It was an overnight base for traders travelling to Tibet through Jelep-la. Now Nathula is the official corridor between India and China.
Located at an altitude of 10,100ft in lower Himalayas in east Sikkim, the village has a population of just around 700 people who are primarily the immigrants from Nepal who settled here in the hope of a better future. The main source of livelihood till recent times for these people was construction and maintenance of border roads, but now with the tourism boom along the silk route Sikkim circuit they are prospering. In addition to the mesmerising sunrise that can be witnessed from sunrise point (10,600ft), there is a Nag Temple at Lungthung (13000 ft.) which is the habitat of rare species of like Monal, Blood Pheasant, Snow Pheasant and The Great Red Panda.
August and September are good months to visit Zuluk for during these months the whole region is covered in wild flowers. Accommodation options at Zuluk are limited to a few home-stays.


#2. Rongli 
River Rangpo

Rongli is a quaint little town situated on the banks of river Rangpo in the Himalayan foot hills in East Sikkim. It is a beautiful drive of 4-5 hrs along the river Teesta from the New Jalpaiguri railway station or the Bagdogra airport. Lush greenery, smiling people and colorful flowers welcome you to this little heaven. Take a stroll along the river or the lush green hilly pathways, chat with locals over a cup of tea to get an insight into the life of people in the foothills of Himalayas, gorge on amazingly yummy momos in a small town market or just sit back and enjoy the nature. Rongli is the place to relax specially for city tired people. It’s the trade hub of the east Sikkim region and the market is worth a visit. At night, request your hotel people to arrange for a bonfire by the banks of Rongpo. Nothing can beat sitting by the river side listening to the thunderous sound of water and watching star studded sky. I had the best time sitting by the river side at night listening to local songs sung by our guide, Sunil. There are not many options to stay. It’s advisable to pre-book your stay here.


#3. Lampokhari 
Lampokhari, Aritar

My second visit to Sikkim was in April during Lampokhari tourism festival. It is held in Aritar during March end or early April around Ramnavmi. The main attractions of the festival are horse riding around the lake, traditional archery competition, flower shows and cultural evenings. Locals from surrounding villages visit the place during this time to participate in the festival. You can also enjoy local cuisine and shop for some amazing local stuff here.
Lampokhri is one of the oldest natural lakes of Sikkim located at an altitude of 4600 feet. The lake is 1120 feet long and 240 feet wide and is surrounded by dense pine forest. A path is constructed around the lake where you can take a walk. Boating can also be done here. To get the bird’s eye view of this beautiful emerald green lake, drive further to Mankhim also called Aritar view point and climb up to the temple. You can trek down from here till the lake through the forest. It’s a beautiful downhill walk of around 2kms through pines. Many rare birds can be spotted here during morning and evening hours and therefore this trail is very popular amongst the birders. There are many options to stay in Aritar from hotels to homestays.

#4. Aritar Gumpa 
Quaint Monastery in the middle of Pine Forest at Aritar

While we were strolling in the pine forest around Mankhim top, the sound of ringing bells and drum beats attracted us to the Gumpa. The main prayer hall was locked. We followed the sound that was coming from the first floor. It led us a to a small prayer room where 3 lamas were performing their evening prayers. The elder one could easily ignore our presence while 2 younger ones smiled at us and continued chanting. We spent some time there totally engrossed in the prayer hymns. In the outside room were some carved & painted murals, treasure of rare manuscripts and artifacts. It is worth a visit while visiting Aritar especially for the monastic art that is reflected in its traditional architecture and the artifacts. The monastery nestled in the dense pine forest is often missed by tourists on their visit to Aritar. The Gumpa lies at a small diversion on the left while on the way to Mankhim Top from Lampokhari on road. The monastery is of the Kagyuapa order and is considered as one of the holiest and oldest in Sikkim.

#5. Mankhim Dara 
Mankim Dara beautifully located on top of a hill with an amazing view of Lampokhri

A little ahead of Aritar Gompa is Mankhim Dara. It’s an uphill climb of around ten minutes from the parking. The walk takes you to the hilltop from where you get an amazing view of the lake Lampokhri and the panoramic view of the valley covered in forest. You can also trek up to Mankhim Dara from Lampokhri. It is a lovely trek of around an hour through pine forest.
On the hill top there’s a temple of Rai community. I was amazed to hear the singing from a modest Nepalese family staying in the temple. Their melodious voice along with simple instrument that looked like iktara created magic in the temple and the surroundings.
The Rai is one of Nepal's ancient ethno-linguistic groups who worship nature. Twice every year, usually in the months of April/ May, they assemble here for celebration of Sakewa puja. This puja is performed when the seeds sown by the tribes bloom and the wild-life start moving up to the high hills. The colorful dance called silli is performed in the temple premises as a part of celebration. The dance mimics the movements of birds and animals during their migration. After Sakewa Puja, the community is barred from playing musical instruments until after August/ September when they have performed the harvest festival, udhowli. At this time the birds and the animals return from the high hills to the low lands and puja is completed.

#6. Thambi Viewpoint 
Beautiful view of Mt Kanchenjunga from Thambi

While driving on the the loops of Zuluk and the view, all of sudden I found myself above the clouds. My driver, a local guy informs me we are at Thambi view point. To my surprise I could see the range of sparkling mountain ranges beyond the clouds that seemed to be at my eye level. This is the best vintage point on the silk route to view the whole range of Mt Kanchenjunga as well as the Zuluk loops. This was when I visited the region in November. The beauty of the place was altogether different when I visited it again in April. The whole valley was covered in snow and we had to drive cutting through the dense fog. Thambi again was a highlight of the trip for the excellent view it offers of the Zuluk loops and Mt Kanchajunga.
It is 14 kms from Zuluk towards Nathang valley located at an altitude of 11,200ft above sea level. It can be reached through the zig zag road known as bhulbhulaiya that has more than 30 hairpin bends. Visit Thambi view point early morning for the mesmerizing sunrise. You can do that by staying either at Zuluk (14kms) or at Nathang (10kms).

#7. Nathang Valley 
Gorgeous view from Nathang

A picturesque drive from Zuluk will bring you to this small valley. Located at an altitude of 13,500 feet, Nathang is the highest place to stay in the Indian part of the Old Silk Route. Nathang was the home to traditional yak herders who came from Tibet and now is the most remote Tibetan habitations in Himalayas. Once you go into the village and interact with locals you get to know the simplicity in living and thoughts of people here. Not noticing any hospital in the area, I asked a girl how they manage when they get ill. “We do not get ill like you city people who survive on bad food like chips and burgers” she replies. Life is tough no doubt in high Himalayas, but she was right - the pure air and the pure food keeps them going.
The best time to visit Nathang is Sept –Oct just after monsoons when the valley looks gorgeous and is covered in wild flowers and the migratory birds visit the valley just before the onset of winters. During winter months, November – mid April, it’s covered in more than 5ft snow, and is extremely cold. There are a few home-stays and guest houses that offer comfortable stay and homemade delicious meals. And do not miss on experiencing the sunrise from Eagle's nest bunker, just a 20min drive from Nathang

#8. Eagle's Nest Bunker 

It is an abandoned army bunker just 5 kilometres away from Nathang valley. Located on a strategic point at an altitude of 13700ft., it gives a 360 degree view of eastern Himalayas. You need to walk uphill for around 10 min to reach the bunker to get the view. Whole range of the Mt. Kanchenjunga and some other peaks of Tibetan plateau and China, western Bhutan, plains of Bengal and River Brahmaputra can be viewed from here. The best time of the day to visit is morning hours when the sun rises. It’s very tempting to just keep cuddling inside your blanket in the chilling cold of morning at Nathang but watching the sunrise over the Mt Kanchenjunga is an out-of-the-world experience that you should not miss for anything. The sun rises from the horizon over Tsangpo River (as Brahmaputra is called in China) illuminating the horizon and spreading its golden magic over region and the snow covered Kanchenjunga peaks.
If you are getting your trip planned through an operator, make sure they take you to this point. They might charge a nominal extra amount for this but it’s totally worth it.

#9. Old Baba Mandir 

The baba mandir is built in the memory of an Indian soldier, Major Harbhajan Singh, who died in 1967 at the age of 26yrs while posted at Nathu la pass. It is said that Harbhajan Singh lost his life while carrying supplies to some remote post during wartime when he slipped on the difficult terrain he was walking on. His body went missing and was found after one of his fellow soldiers dreamt about the whereabouts of the body. Later he has said to have helped the army also by warning in advance about the enemy attacks in dreams of fellow soldiers. A shrine was then built near the place where his body was found. It looks like a replica of the bunker the soldier lived in. Many of his personal belongings have been preserved in the shrine. Another shrine was built at a lower altitude for the convenience of the devotees and is called new baba mandir. Today army men from across regiments come here to visit the shrine and pay homage to the holy soul and he is treated as an active soldier. His family gets his salary and a seat is booked every year in train to his home town that goes empty. It is located near the site where his body was found and looks like a replica of the bunker the soldier lived in. Many of his personal belongings have been preserved in the shrine. Another shrine was built at a lower altitude for the convenience of the devotees and is called new baba mandir.

#10. Memencho Lake 

As you go further ahead on the silk route, around 25kms from Zuluk is this gorgeous lake embraced by the dense pine forest. It is situated at an altitude of 12,500ft and stays frozen from January to August. It can be viewed from the road side while on the way from Zuluk to Gangtok. A picturesque trek of 4 kms through pine forest and mountain stream takes you to the lake. This high altitude lake is fed by the glacial water and is the source of the river Rangpo chu, a tributary of the Teesta River. The lake is also known for its trout cultivation center. Fishing can be done in the lake with prior permission. Though the lake can be visited while staying at Zuluk or Nathang, I would recommend staying in the forest department dak Bungalow near the lake and experience staying in the heart of jungle that inhabits rare Himalayan birds, bears and fox. You can also spot some migratory birds around November. The banks of the lake are covered in white sand and the lake changes colours with the changing time of the day. No wonder it is considered to be the second most beautiful lake in Sikkim after Gurudongmar.

#11. Kupup Lake 

Little ahead of Nathang valley on the old silk route is Kupup Lake locally known as Hathipokhari owing to its shape like an elephant. This sparkling blue lake has crystal clear water that remains frozen from January to April. It can be visited any time of the year except July to Sept due to monsoons. From April to July the valley surrounding the lake covers with colourful flowers and looks mesmerizingly beautiful. October to December is very cold. A thin layer of ice covers the lake. Very near to the lake is “Yak golf course” a challenging 18 hole course managed by the Indian Army. It is located at an altitude of 13,025ft above sea level and is apparently world’s highest golf course. It was started in 1972 and was redesigned in 1979. During winters, Ice Hockey, Ice Skating and Skiing can be done at the golf course. To visit Kupup you need to stay either at Zuluk or at Nathang. The local drivers and tour agents have the tendency to just show you the lake and golf course from distance, but take some time to spend at the lake and observe little birds that visit the lake. I visited in April and got to meet a beautiful pair of the ruddy shelduck also known as the Brahminy duck.

#12. Tsangmo Lake 
The Sparkling Tsongmo                                          Pic downloaded from net

Tsangmo is a glacial lake situated at an altitude of around 12,400ft. It is located around 40kms from the capital city Gangtok. Tsongmo means source of the water in Bhutia language. It can be visited from either side - Gangtok or Zuluk. Tsomgo lake is open for both Indian and foreign nationals and a visitors permit through a registered travel agency is required to visit the lake and Nathu La pass.
A picturesque drive on rough hilly terrain with mountain streams and waterfalls on the way takes you to this beautiful lake that is positioned in the rift between two peaks and has crystal clear water. A hike up the hill gives a better view of the lake. It is said that the lake changes colour every season. You can enjoy the yak ride and Tibetan food here apart from the natural beauty. The lake is associated with many legends and is considered sacred by the locals. It is believed that Buddhist monks could forecast the future by studying the colour of the water of the lake. The lake also holds special significance for the Jhakris who gather here annually from all over the state to offer prayers on Guru Purnima.
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Friday, June 15, 2018

MEGHALAYA - The land of Green Hills, Blue Lagoons and Gushing Waterfalls

When I close my eyes and think of my time in Meghalaya, I see myself sitting on a huge boulder looking at the sprawling hills covered in velvety green sheet; I see a milky white waterfall pouring down and disappearing somewhere in the gorgeous greens; I hear the sound gushing water stream while I sit and watch fireflies dance and I feel the soft kiss of the cool breeze flowing over me.

In this post I am not going to tell you about must-dos in Meghalayathat everyone talks about but will take you through the collection of unique experiences that I had on my incredible trip to Meghalaya.

Trekking down to Nongriat through amazing flora...

Trek to Nongriat
Walking down the concrete steps, that I was almost sure I will not be able to due to my back problem, all I could do was appreciate the beauty of nature. Variety of wild flowers and pines on the way made the walk incredibly beautiful. It was fun crossing the suspension bridge and a living root bridge on the way.
The trek starts at a small village Lumsohphie near Tyrna. You will get a shared taxi in Rs40 from Cherrapunji to Tyrna. There are a few shops at the start of the trek that sell basic confectionery. Here you can also get a guide and bamboo stick to trek down if you need. There are approximately 3500+ steps that you need to climb down to reach Nongriat. My suggestion is to start the trek in the morning and walk down at your own leisurely pace enjoying the surroundings. Stay overnight at a homestay in Nongriat. Spend the starry night sitting near the river listening to the gurgling water and watching fireflies play.

Also read: Assam - The Land of Unique Culture

Experiencing the life around Living Root Bridges, Lagoons and Waterfalls...

Walk around the Living Root Bridge, Nongriat
Down there at Nongriat life is magical. The moment I crossed the living root bridge I knew I have made the right decision to stay overnight here. I had booked a community run homestay nearest to the double decker root bridge. Most of our time here was spent sitting on the boulders by the side of the stream dipping our feet in the water. This was like our living room. Some my most memorable moments included the quiet night walk in the woods while hearing the silence of the jungle; Playing with fireflies at a small field that is probably used by the local kids as a cricket ground in the day; Taking a dip in the natural pools of River Umshiang; Walking enthusiastically from one end to the other and from one deck to the other on the Double Decker Root Bridge; Early morning walk to the rainbow falls; and talking to the locals in the morning.

I would advice to stay 2 nights here to fully enjoy nature. Keep one day for the short trails around including the rainbow fall trek.

Also read: Hidden Beauty of Himachal - Kinnaur

Water sports and Boat Ride on clear waters of Umngot River at Village Shnongpdeng...

Boating on Umangot at Shnongpdeng
Driving through the beautiful landscapes we reached Dawki by evening. and it was night by the time we reached Shnongpdeng. It was the dead end. We chose to stay in the camps here. Enjoyed chatting with other travelers at dinner by the banks of river. Morning boat ride on Umangot was the highlight. Sailing on the clear waters through out-of-world landscape was surreal. The only voice to be heard was that of our Chappu.
Shnongpdeng is a small village by the banks of river Umngot around 10kms farther form Dawki. If you like little adventure go for river side camping and indulge in sports like scuba diving, boating, kayaking, cliff jumping etc. Not just water sports you can also enjoy  angling, rock climbing and trekking. There are many big and small camps that have mushroomed recently, make sure you book a professional one with all facilities and a good location. If you want to experience village life there are a few homestays as well.

Also read: The Calm in the Chaos - VARANASI

Staying in a Bamboo hut at Mawlynnong, the cleanest village in Asia...

Bamboo Hut, Mawlynnong
The impression I had of the village Mawlynnong, supposedly the cleanest village in Asia, was that it will be full of tourists and will be very commercial with many shops etc around. But I was pleasantly surprised. I was there on a Sunday so as expected there was a lots of tourist crowd, but what amazed me was the efficiency with which the crowd was being handled. The parking was outside the village, there were public toilets just in the beginning that were very well maintained and there was a single community restaurant that was catering to all the inflow of hungry visitors. After having a delicious sumptuous meal served by enthusiastic local boys and girls I went out to explore the village. It was more like I was roaming around in a garden which was neatly lined with well constructed houses and there was a church in the heart of the village. Staying in a traditional bamboo hut here was an experience in itself. Warm host in our homestay here made our visit even more memorable.

Also read: Common Myths About Homestays

A memorable walk in the lanes of Saitsohpen, Lower Cherrapunji...

Cute Kids of Cherrapuniji
Another fond memory from the trip is the evening walk around the residential area of lower Cherrapunji. Small kids were playing around and ladies gossiping in the varandah while the round ball of fire bade us goodbye. The cleanliness was worth appreciating. There were dusbins all around the locality and I could not see even a single Though we didn't have a common language to interact, I felt connected to each one of them. The eye contact along with a warm smile did not make me realize I am on a land where no one understand my language.

Also read:Following the Old Silk Route, Sikkim

Picking tea leaves at tea-gardens in Shillong...

Tea leaf plucking at Shillong
During all the research I did before going to Meghalaya, not even once did I read about tea gardens in Shillong. While we were driving back from Shillong peak and going towards the elephant falls we saw a very well maintained tea gardens. ladies were picking up the tea and there was a stall as well where we could buy local juices, pickles and tea. A small break there turned out be one of the best experiences of the trip. Initially the ladies picking tea were very shy and were not willing to get clicked, but after a while and a small conversation we had great time chatting and clicking with them.

Also read: In the shadow of Dhauladhars

A Visit to the local Bazar...

Bara Bazar, Shillong
The real feel of being in Meghalaya came when I was running around the bara bazar in Shillong with my local friend, who calls himself a 'morning star' as he is born very early in the morning. The narrow lanes decked beautifully with fruits and vegetables, spices, local snacks, fish and meat; lively people selling and buying stuff; the smiles and the gossips being shared - all of this was worth the effort.  Most interesting for me were the variety of fruits and green vegetables, some of them I have never even heard about. I was also amazed to see the variety of dried fish on the display.

Local Market, Cherrapunji
 Also read: Pushkar Holi - Festival of Colors in True Sense

Riding a local Taxi

Ride in local cab from Sohra to Tyrna
Riding jam packed small cars while chatting with locals, mostly moms and kids, is something I will always remember about Shillong and Cherrapunji. The best way to travel in budget in Meghalaya are these small black Maruti 800 cars that play locally. They usually cost between Rs 10 to 50 per person depending on the distance. You might find them overcrowded but believe me you must experience this. Its amazing to see how comfortably and big-heartedly more than 8 people fit in this small car and without any resistance. You can use them while doing local site seeing in Shillong and Cherrapunji. For long routes also like Shillong to Cherrapunji or Shillong to Dawki you get shared cabs.

Have you ever been to Meghalaya? How was your experience?


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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Destinations You Must Visit This Summer

It's the time of the year we all are looking for options to spend a cool holiday with family and friends during summer vacations. Here are a few off-beat destinations you will love to be at.


LACHUNG, SIKKIM

Gift your family a holiday in the land of  pristine beauty. The breathtaking view of Mount Kanchendzonga, the quietness of sparkling lakes and the gurgling of rivers make North Sikkim a destination that no one should miss. The best time to visit are the months April and May when the rhododendrons are full in bloom at Lachung and in the Yumthang Valley.



Things to do: Visit Lachung Monastary, Lachung chu, involve yourself in local farming activities, go for a village walk or just sit with locals and chat.
Excursions nearby - Yumthang Valley, Chopta Valley,  Gurudongmar lake, Katao, Zero point

How to reach:
By Air. The nearest airport is at Bagdogra which is about 196 kms away.
By Train. The closest railway station is New Jalpaigulri which is around 190 kms.
On Road: You can take a cab from Gangtok (116kms)

Where to stay: There are many homestay options available in Lachung. Stay with locals to experience the traditional life and culture of Sikkim and also get enriched by the knowledge of the host.  Recommended stay: http://www.homestaysofindia.com/properties/lachung-homestay-north-sikkim/


MUKTESHWAR, UTTARAKHAND

Mukteshwar is a quaint little hill town in Nainital district of Uttarakhand. A kiss of crisp mountain air laden with the fragrance of oak and pines welcomes you to this sleepy hamlet. Stunning views of snow clad Himalayas, fruit orchards, mountain streams and waterfalls - it's dreamland you must visit with your loved ones.



Things to do: Visit Mukteshwar Dham Temple; Try adventure Sports like rock climbing and zip lining at Chauli ki Jali; Go on a nature trail to Bhalugaad falls; It is paradise for the bird watchers; Go on a village walk.
Excursions nearby: Do day trips to Nainital, Naukuchiatal, Bhimtal, Sattal and Almora

How to reach:
On Road: Mukteshwar is 350 kms from Delhi.
Route: Delhi – Gajraula - Moradabad - Rampur - Rudrapur - Haldwani - Bhowali – Mukteshwar.
By Air: Pantnagar is the nearest Airport and is 94kms from Mukteshwar. Cabs are available from here.
By Rail: Kathgodam is the nearest railway station and is 62kms from Mukteshwar. Cabs are easily available from here.

Where to stay: Stay in the midst of thick Oak forest in a farm stay and get a glimpse of traditional village life, try your hand at farming, participate in cow milking and adopt their organic way of life for a few days. Visit in the months of June July to taste garden fresh Peach, Plum, Apricot and Apple.
http://www.farmershomestay.in/p/about.html

PIN VALLEY, SPITI, HIMACHAL

If you want your vacation to be adventure filled go to Pin Valley in Spiti. Pin Valley is the most picturesque valley in Spiti. It is formed by Pin River that runs throughout its length, before merging with Spiti River. 'Pin Valley National Park' which is the natural habitat of the Snow Leopard and Himalayan Ibex is located in Pin Valley. The valley is covered in carpets of green with mountains in the backdrop. Miles and miles of isolation, stunning vast landscapes and complete silence - that's what will welcome you to the Pin Valley.



Things to do:   
The prime attraction of Pin Valley is it's wildlife that includes Ibex, Bharal, Red Fox, Marten, Weasel, Pika, Snow Cock, Beareded Vulture, Chukor, Golden Eagle, Griffon, Himalayan Chough, Raven etc. It is also home to snow leopard.
You may go for various treks:
Mudh to Barshaini via Pin Parvati Pass. Duration: 1 week
Mudh to Kaphnoo via Bhaba Pass (4850m). Duration: 4 days
Sagnam to Laurang and back to Mudh. Duration: 4 days
Other attractions:
Spiti and Pin River Confluence, Kungri Monastery and small villages.
Stay in one of the villages to get the feel of the life in Himalayas. Have long conversations with simple village people, learn how to cook local delicacies or Chang - a local liquor made from Barley, or spend time with kids.

How to reach:
Since its a remote village in Himalayas there is no airport or railway station nearby. The only way to reach the valley is on road. It is 789kms from the capital city of Delhi and 558 kms from Chandigarh. Follow this trail: Delhi-Chandigarh-Shimla-Sangla-Nako-Pin Valley
You can do a trip exclusively to Pin valley and do some treks or you can visit Pin valley on your trip to Spiti.

Where to stay: Mudh is the last village in Pin Valley that is accessible by motor-able road. There are a couple of homestays in the village, this is the one with all amenities you can think of in the high altitude village - http://www.homestaysofindia.com/properties/mudh-spiti-himachal/


RAISON, HIMACHAL

Located on the banks of River Bias, Raison is a hidden around 12 km from Kullu on the way to Manali and is one of the top adventure destinations in Himachal that not many people know about.


What to do: There's a lot that can done while you are in Raison. Adventure activities include River Rafting, Trout Fishing, Mountain Biking, Paragliding and Trekking. You may also do fruit Plucking if you go during the harvest season - August/ Sept. If you are not an adventure person just enjoy chirping of the birds, blue skies, butterflies in the garden and relaxing in the lap of nature.
Excursions nearby: Visit Manali, Rohtang pass and Solang vally

How to reach:
On Road - Delhi 550 kms; Chandigarh 285 kms; Mandi 85 kms.
By Train - Chandigarh is the nearest railway station which is around 260 kms.
By Air - Bhuntar is the nearest airport which about 23 kms from Raison.

Where to stay: Consider staying in heritage home made in Himachali style of architecture just a few meters away from the River Bias for a perfect summer holiday - http://www.homestaysofindia.com/properties/raison-homestay/

SHILLONG, MEGHALAYA

Shillong, the capital city of Meghalaya is tucked away in East Khasi Hills and is home to several waterfalls. It is also known as the Scotland of the East. It has the old world charm with beautiful houses having slanting roofs, large number of windows and wooden floors. The British legacy is still visible in the architecture and food habits of the population. Shillong receives heavy rainfalls during monsoon and the rainy season usually lasts longer than in the rest of India.



Things to do: Visit Don Bosco Museum, Ward’s Lake, Shillong Golf Course, Wankhar Entomology Museum, Anglican Church, Cathedral Catholic Church, Lady Hydari Park, Spread Eagle Falls, State Museum, Elephant falls and Shillpong peak to get the bird's eye view of the city. Go to Barra bazar to shop.
Excursions nearby - Trek to stunning Waterfalls and the Living Root Bridges, Visit Mawlynnong – Asia’s Cleanest Village, Trip to  Cherrapunji and visit Mowsmai caves and Dawki.

How to reach:
By Air. The nearest airport is the Umroi Airport near Barapani, which is about 25 kms away.
By Train. The closest railway station from Shillong is in Guwahati which is around 100 kms.
On Road: You can self drive or take a cab or bus from Guwahati to Shillong.

Where to stay: Have a relaxed time with your family in some quiet homestay. We recomend staying at http://www.homestaysofindia.com/properties/shillong-homestay/. It is located in the residential area of Shillong away from the city noise yet within 7 minute walking distance from the local market, convenience stores, cafes and restaurants.

HAPPY VACATIONS!

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Friday, February 9, 2018

ASSAM - The Land of Unique Culture

I got introduced to the land of 'red rivers and blue hills' during my recent visit to Rongali tourism festival that was held from January 19 to 21 2018 at Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra, Guwahati.
RONGALI means amalgamation of varied colors of Assam explained Shyamkanu Mahanta, the chief organizer of the festival. It was undoubtedly a perfect platform for all tribes to come together and display their culture and talent. The highlights of the festival were music and folk dance performances, Bhaona, local food stalls and fashion shows by talented designers of Assam. After experiencing a small slice of Assam at this festival I was excited to visit this beautiful land of tribal people.

Below are a few things that caught my attention during my exploration of Assam. The exclusive art of making homespun masks and of weaving gorgeous silk Mekhlas; the simple yet delicious healthy food; it's natural heritage of one-horned Rhinos and Assam tea; and the neo-vaisvanite culture and the tradition of satras - all these things are unique to Assam and cannot be experienced elsewhere in the whole world.

FOOD



Assamese cuisine is known for its simplicity and is best represented by various tribes who dwell in this beautiful land. Rice is the staple food and sides are cooked with lot of herbs, green vegetables, fish and poultry most of which is produced at home. A general Assamese meal starts with khar. It is alkaline in nature and cleanses the palate. There are a variety of lentils and fishes cooked with herbs and green veg. Another main dish is meat that varies from chicken and duck to mutton and pigeon to pork depending on the which part of Assam you are at. You must try Bodo and Mishing thali.

Also read: Pangong Lake: Out-of-the-world Destination

ASSAM SILK AND MEKHLA CHADAR




A quick visit to Sualkuchi, situated on the north bank of the river Brahmaputra, will introduce you to the art of weaving silk. Beautiful mekhla chadar is something every women would love to have in her wardrobe. There are three major types of indigenous silks produced in Assam—golden Muga, white Pat and warm Eri silk. Muga is known for its glossy fine texture and durability. This silk can be hand-washed with its luster increasing after every wash. Pat is usually brilliant white or off-white in colour while Eri silk is soft and warm and is primarily used to make shawls and quilts.

Also Read: A Day With Gaddi Family In Himachal

SATRAS




Assam witnessed a great movement of Vaishnavism under guru Sankardeva in the Middle Ages. The Satra were then established by the gurus where single minded vaisnavas resided. The satras consist of a large prayer hall facing a simple shrine, surrounded by dormitories for monks. And each satra specialize in certain craft and also acts as a cultural centre for its locality. Today, there are over five hundred satras and numerous vaisnava households are affiliated to one or the other Satra. Satras are treasure troves of cultural artifacts, manuscripts and antiques.

I visited a few sattras in Majuli and found them ultimately peaceful. The prayers echoing in the huge central halls; the display of ancient artifacts, old utensils, jewelry and handicrafts; the smiling bhakats all of this transported me to a different world all together.

Also Read: Reasons You Must Visit Pushkar

HOMESPUN MASK CRAFT



Maskmaking is a well known traditional craft of Majuli mainly practiced by Chamaguri sattra. Masks are made out of bamboo, cloth, clay and colors and are used for the religious dance drams mainly raas leela festival and bhaona.

MAJULI - WORLD'S LARGEST RIVER ISLAND



A ferry from Nimatighat, Jorhat will take you to this river island formed due to course changes by River Brahmputra and its tributaries. It is supposedly the largest River island of the world. It is the hub of neo-Vaishnavite culture and spirituality, spread by 15th century social-reformer Sankardev. But it is disappearing fast. From the area of 1,200 square kilometres at the beginning of the 20th century now it just covers around 300 square kilometres. Studies predict that the island might disappear in another 20 yrs. So you must plan to visit Majuli before it disappears.

Also Read: In The Shadow of Dhauladhars

ONE HORNED RHINO



The visit to Assam is incomplete without having seen the pride of Assam - One horned Rhino. It is one of the rarest mammal in the world and Kaziranga National park has the world's largest population of them. Go on early morning safari to witness this majestic animal in its natural habitat.

Also Read: In the Wilderness of Dudhwa

ASSAM TEA



Do try the strong Assam black tea while you are there and do not forget to buy some as you won't get this quality anywhere else in the world. It is known for its strong, bold, brisk, malty flavor. The state of Assam is the world's largest tea-growing region.


TRIBAL STILTED HOUSES



I was amazed to see the traditional mishing houses known as 'Chang Ghar' that are constructed on a raised platform. Floor, ceiling and walls are made of bamboo and have thatched top. They stand on four pillars to prevent flooding in the house during monsoon. High precipitation and moisture content both in the air and in the soil is another reason to design houses on stilts. The lower part of the house is used to rear animals. You will be welcomed by a warm smile and will be offered tea and sweets.

Also Read: How to Prepare Yourself for a Memorable Homestay Experience

THE RICE BEER



Your journey to Assam will be incomplete without tasting home-brewed rice beer. It is traditionally prepared by fermenting rice and is a day to day drink for local people. It is prepared in every household of the tribe. Folklore says that people of the Mishing tribe came together to drink the ceremonial beer (Apong) to put an end to all their communal conflicts and restore peace and harmony. Apong is considered a cultural heritage of this indigenous tribe of Assam. There is another variety of beer called Xaj which is made of fermented rice and a mix of rare species of herbs. Xaj is the drink of the ‘Ahoms’. It is told in the folktales that a newborn is dipped in this beer to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the child. Guests are often welcomed with Xaj served in copper vessels.

Also Read: 5 Best Himalayan Road Trip Destinations

Have you ever been to Assam? How was your experience?


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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Chandrashila - Where the Magic Starts

I woke up to a knock at the door of my room from a fellow traveler Lalima at 4.30AM. Excited she was to announce that the sky is clear. We took no time to get up and start trekking towards Chandrashila. It was biting cold sub zero temperature. The hands, nose, cheeks and lips were all red with cold and the heart was thumping not sure from the rush of blood due to trekking or from the anticipation of what awaits us.

It was a steep climb of around a kilometer with no specific path to follow. Cold and darkness made it even more tough. But as they say, "no pain no gain". Just when our stamina was shaking after around two-third of the climb, we took a turn and got a glimpse of what awaits us. The sky was deep orange and there were layers of mountain ranges visible. There was no looking back after that. Every second was precious. Our speed doubled and excitement increased many fold.  

 I was surrounded by layers and layers of mountain ranges all around placed beautifully in different shades 
We were on the top point in less than half an hour. I couldn't believe what I saw. I was surrounded by layers and layers of mountain ranges all around placed beautifully in different shades. In front were snow covered Himalayan peaks like Nanda devi, Chaukhamba and Trisul standing tall acknowledging our efforts.

The sky was all red, ready to welcome the Sun. And the hills were ready to embrace the day with open arms. Slowly the rays of the sun started appearing from behind the Nanda devi peak, lighting it and creating a golden outline... It looked like some magic was about to happen. The divine ball of fire, the source of every possible energy, the core of our creation appeared slowly from behind Nanda Devi leaving us spellbound. The love of God was all over in the form of fresh warm golden rays that lit the whole valley and the mountains.

The sun was up in its full glory in no time. It was the sign of a new beginning!  

P.S. - I was so engrossed in the magic happening in front of me that I forgot to take pictures. And I am glad I did, it is now all engraved so well in my memory disk. Below are the 2 mobile pictures I could manage while in the trance...

The rays of the sun appearing from behind the Nanda devi peak creating the golden magic  

Chaukhamba lit by the morning rays of Sun























Connect with me on Instagram and Facebook for more responsible travel adventures.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Tungnath - Nature's Playground

I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—sky, clouds, mountains, trees. I thought, "This is what it is to be happy"

Standing on a cliff at an altitude of 3,680 m (12,073 ft), this is exactly what my feeling was. All the tiredness of 3hrs trek disappeared immediately. All I could feel was the happiness... happiness of being there at that moment. Nothing else mattered, how I reached, what I have come for, what I have left behind... all this was meaningless. All that mattered was I WAS THERE, I was there to witness the magnificent beauty of nature!

HAPPINESS
The sight of deep valley spread below, the onrush of cool breeze from those lands faraway, the misty smell and the sound of silence up there.. overwhelmed me.

Himalayan griffon chasing their prey 

Tea shop owner on the way to Tungnath
An easy trek of around 4kms on a well paved path through oak and rhododendron forest brought me to this heaven called Tungnath, the highest of the panchkedars. On the way were a few tea shops that were such a respite for the trekkers. It was not just the refreshing tea or the rhododendron juice but also the sweet simple smile and the innocence of these pahadi people that refreshed us from time to time.

Being there on the top of the hill witnessing the nature unfolding its marvels is one the best experiences of my life. When we reached, it was sunny, clouds playing hide and seek with the sun. We lied down on the cliffs basking. The sun rays never felt so soothing in the city. After a few hours as the time of sunset approached, the sky turned into a canvas and the evening colors started spreading all over, making beautiful painting like patterns. The dark clouds covered the sun and the rays trickled through, lighting the valley golden while we could see the sky above clouds still untouched by the golden hues. Far away was one lonely cloud, so blue, wandering alone... as if looking for a partner to color it red. And in no time others realized and merged with it turning it pink. Slowly the evening colors started spreading all over... golden, orange, pink, purple... can't say when the colors changed and darkness took over the whole valley and the sky.  We were mesmerized by this whole play.

Witnessing the divine sunset from the cliffs at Tungnath
Night was no less dramatic. We found ourselves standing in the middle of clouds when suddenly a breeze came and took away all the clouds exposing the star studded sky. We could now clearly see the twinkling stars big and small, in clusters and alone, bright and light... all together making the sky look amazingly gorgeous. While we were lost in this beautiful vista, another cloud came hovering over from nowhere covering it all again... As if saying that's all for the day folks. Good Night..!

I woke up to a knock at the door of my room from a fellow traveler Lalima at 4.30AM. Excited she was to announce that the sky is clear. We took no time to get up and start trekking towards the Chandrashila. It was biting cold sub zero temperature. The hands, nose, cheeks and lips were red with cold and the heart was thumping not sure from the rush of blood due to trekking or from the anticipation of what awaits us...!

To be continued... 


*This trip was done with ChaloLetsGo travel group
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Sunday, November 26, 2017

How to Prepare Yourself for a Memorable Homestay Experience

Homestays these days are getting quite popular; while home-stays can provide you with an amazing local experience, you must go with a right set of expectations. Here are a few pointers based on my travels and stays with host families that will help you get the best of your vacation at a homestay.



FOOD
  1. Homestays are the best place to stay if you like to try local cuisine. For instance if you are staying in a homestay somewhere in south India be open to eat idly, upma, dosa or puttu. Expecting paranthas, butter chicken or shahi paneer will not work.
  2. Come prepared to adapt to the menu set by the host. Mostly in home-stays there is a day’s fixed menu. Unlike hotels, home-stays won’t have an elaborate menu to choose from. It is a good idea to discuss with your host in case you have any food allergies or if you don’t eat something.
  3. Also, If you like to eat non vegetarian food please clarify in advance with the host if non vegetarian food is served in the house and if it is included in the cost or not.

SERVICES
  1. Book a home-stay if you want to know more about the place you are visiting. I have spent hours talking to the families and got to know about many hidden places and cultural information that is not available anywhere on internet.
  2. While hotels can provide you 24*7 room-service they lack the personal touch and care that the host can provide in a home-stay. Once on a trip I lost the keys to my baggage; my host was kind enough to take my baggage to the nearest key maker and got it fixed by the time I had my tea.
  3. Don’t talk to the host like you talk to (read order) the house-keeping staff in a hotel. He is the owner of the place and deserves respect.

SAFETY AND SECURITY
Home-stays are run by the families and limited staff personally appointed by the host so you can be sure of your safety and security. The host himself, being a part of the locality, will never do anything that can harm his reputation. While staying in home-stays I have never felt the need of locking my room when I am around and I have always ended up being a part of the family.


FACILITIES

Home stays may be not be as luxurious as five-star hotels, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be as comfortable. In fact, in some ways they beat five-stars by offering amenities like kitchens and truly personalized service. You will not have to run to the market for small things you might need in emergency. Your host will be happy to get it for you from his place. For instance once I had cut my finger and the host immediately came with his first aid kit, another time I got my clothes wet and the lady of the house dried them in her drier.

But at the same time be aware that you might not get some facilities like power back-up, attached bathrooms, AC, geyser, laundry etc if you are choosing a home-stay in remote area. So you must talk to the host in advance about the facilities available. Also check for its accessibility. Some home-stays are away from the main tourist area and you might have to walk a bit to reach the place. So check that in advance if you have older people who have issues with walking. Also, as already mentioned do not expect the room service in a home-stay.


HOME DECORUM
Home-stay is a family run place. Unlike hotels, every house has some rules. So when you choose to stay with a family you become a part of the family and same rules apply to you too. It’s a good idea to understand that and behave accordingly.
Here are a few things to be kept in mind for a happy memorable experience:
  1. Please check if there are any house timings and follow that. Inform the host in case you intend to come late or stay outside any particular day. Your safety and security is a big concern for the host.
  2. Please take permission before smoking or drinking. And dispose of the leftovers carefully.
  3. Make sure you use the amenities provided to you wisely and leave them in working condition. When using water and electricity, make sure you don’t leave taps running or appliances switched on when you don’t need them.
  4. Most of the home stays unlike hotels do not have a huge housekeeping staff. So, please maintain hygiene and do not litter in your room or common areas.

BE A GUEST NOT A CUSTOMER..!

This article has also been published on blog of Homestays of India
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Saturday, November 11, 2017

An Appeal From a Responsible Human Being

"I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as our defense abroad. Otherwise what is there to defend."
Read it somewhere and I so agree to it.

It's time we wake up, realize and  understand where are we heading. Our wrong habits have done some alarming damages to the environment and if we do not change it today we will leave a bad bad world behind for our coming generations.

I understand some tough decisions are required to be taken by authorities, so leaving the larger things to them and hoping they will do their best to safeguard environment. But let us not just wait and watch. Let us do our little bit and at least start making a difference. I am putting down some small changes that we can make in our life for the better. Feel free to add on to the list.

Say Complete No to Plastic

Check the video below... Do I need to say more? 

Slight changes in our lifestyle can reduce the amount of garbage we are filling our earth with.
  • Stop using bottled water. This is especially when we are travelling. In most hotels there is an RO or a filter, let's refill a big bottle with filtered water rather than buying a small plastic bottle every time we are thirsty.
  • Don't use plastic bags. Our parents had a very nice way of carrying a cloth bag with them along with the list of things to be purchased. Lets us start doing that again. 
  • Minimize the consumption of packed food. We can't stop having plastic packed junk food all of sudden, but let us not buy many small packets for every member but a huge one and share from that. This way atleast we can lessen our contribution to this huge mass of plastic that is accumulating.
  • Try alternate environment friendly options. Dear ladies, do we realize have much plastic we dispose every month? Let's try some environmental friendly methods. Have you tried menstrual cups? Learn more about it and be inspired.
  • Please do not use plastic disposable utensils. Its easy and convenient to use them but anything that can'e be recycled is hazardous. 
Save Fuel Save Air

Smog in Delhi
  • We all love to have an independent vehicle to commute but why is travelling with others so difficult for us (including me). It was some time back but not anymore. Now the time I spend in metro is one of my favorite time of the day. I get to see so many people, know the latest fashion trends, make friends, and get some business also. Have closed a few deals chatting to people around while traveling in metro.  Using public transport is not that bad after all.
  •  Not a public vehicle person, how about sharing your vehicle with others and reduce your car cost? 
  • Be careful of what you throw in your garbage bin as it will add on to the heap outside your community and might get burnt one day adding to toxic fumes you are breathing.

Plant More

This we have read and heard so many times. What have we done?  How many trees each one of us has planted? And come to think of it.. how many trees might have been cut to fulfill my everyday needs? Do I see a balance there? Definitely no. 

Read stories of individuals who have made some difference by planting trees to get some inspiration.


Today seeing the smog, the bad air that we and our kids are breathing we feel angry and alarmed. But soon after things get a little better, we forget and get into same behavior. We again start choosing comfort and convenience over environment. 

Here's an appeal from a responsible human being... Please make your choices well. Leave the habits that spoil the air that your coming generations will breathe in.
Would love to hear from you all what changes have you made in your life  to leave a cleaner earth and breathable air to your kids?

P.S. - The post is different from what I usually write but the severity of the issue compelled me to write this. Hope we all will be able to make a difference.
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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Thar Experience


Suddenly in the middle of night I opened my eyes to a "Moon Halo". I had no idea what I was watching at that time but was mesmerized by the sight of it. The moon, in its full silvery glow, was surrounded by a rainbow like circle and two tiny bright stars were playfully twinkling inside the halo as if teasing the moon. I was sleeping on the dunes of the Thar desert under the sparkling star studded sky.

The evening was no less magical. After sailing on camels for an hour we had reached in the middle of nowhere. The golden ball was dipping behind the sand dunes creating a magic on the sky. Our excited souls were transported back to our childhood and we were jumping around and playing in the sand... at times making the dipping sun our ball and at times swimming in the sand. That one hour of craziness seemed too short. But anyhow what followed was no less.



After witnessing this gorgeous sunset and being a kid again, we feasted on simple dal roti made on the fire lit by the side of a bush in the desert. Dal never tasted better. After a while the darkness started to take over. The gorgeous sun disappeared on one side and the stunning moon showed its face on the other. Standing at a point I could see both at the same time.

It is one of the most memorable moments of my travels. Even today when I think of it I get transported to a different world.

I am curating a trip to Thar this Dec. Check the details here.


Image Credits: Vinod Verma
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