Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Travel and more...: Lost & Found: An exciting trip to Mani Mahesh

Travel and more...: Lost & Found: An exciting trip to Mani Mahesh: I picked up an Outlook Lounge magazine during one of my flight journey and read about a beautiful place in Himachal Pradesh called Mani Ma...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Lost & Found: An exciting trip to Mani Mahesh

I picked up an Outlook Lounge magazine during one of my flight journey and read about a beautiful place in Himachal Pradesh called Mani Mahesh. I have extensively travelled in Himachal but somehow missed visiting this place. Mani Mahesh is at an altitude of 4080m or 13,390ft and there is no permanent settlement out there. It becomes accessible during the period starting from Janmashtami to Radha Asthami, when the Mani Mahesh Yatra takes place and therefore, temporary tents and bhandaras are set up for the convenience of the travelers. The name Manimahesh stands for a jewel (Mani) on Lord Shiva's (Mahesh's) crown. 

Chaurasi Temple
The pilgrimage to Mani Mahesh is considered sacred and its significance is considered next to that of Mansarovar in Tibet. According to one of the legends, it is believed that Lord Shiva created Mani Mahesh after he married Goddess Parvati. It is said to be the heaven (Kaliasa) of Lord Shiva. Mani Mahesh is also considered as the abode of the three Lords of the universe namely, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma

Nandi @ Chaurasi Temple
Day 1: We boarded the Dhauladhar Express from Delhi on August 15th and reached Pathankot at 9am the next day. The railway station and the bus stand are quite thereby. We took a cycle-rickshaw from the railway station and after having breakfast on the way, we reached the Bus Stand. It started raining heavily, however, we did manage to get bus tickets to go to Bharmour.

Bus route: Pathankot – Chamba (912m / 118kms / 4-5 hours) – Bharmour (2150m / 68kms / 3 hours)

We boarded the bus at 11.30am but took a longer time to reach Bharmour (reached at 10pm) as there was a Punjabi family in the bus who halted the bus every now and then for a Patiala peg (alcohol) break and the Himachali bus driver quietly obliged. We have been to Chamba before but this time, I guess because of the monsoon season, the route from Pathankot to Bharmour looked beautiful.

The bus dropped all the passengers 2kms before Bharmour as there was lot of traffic within the city due to the yatra. We walked with our luggage and along the way, enquired about availability of hotel room but all were booked. We reached “Chaurasi (84) Temple” complex and asked a shopkeeper to help us with accommodation (almost all houses get converted into a homestay during the yatra). He guided us to a house whose entrance was so narrow and steep that we were wondering where we were heading towards but at the end, the house was very nice and the lady of the house took good care of us. There were two more lady fellow bus travelers who were without accommodation, so we asked them to join us. (Home stay charges: INR 500 for 12 hours). We were glad that we found an accommodation by 11.30pm.

Day 2: We paid extra for a bucket of hot water to bathe and morning tea and were ready to move on. First, we visited the ancient Chaurasi Temple, a Shiva temple and then, we went to the main market area and boarded a cab to go to Bharmani Mata Mandir at a distance of 4 kms. The temple is located on a steep uphill climb and on the way, apple trees are a common yet delightful sight. Since there was lot of rush in the temple, we took about 2 hours to do the darshan and have prasad at the bhandara. Lot of people have a snan/bath at the temple but we did not. 
Mani Mahesh trek

According to the legend, the journey to the sacred Mani Mahesh peak is incomplete unless one visits Bharmani Devi temple first.

Mani Mahesh trek
We took another cab from the main market to go to Hadsar (14 kms away). The cab dropped us midway as there was a traffic jam. We were forced to walk uphill 6-7kms with luggage. Had I known that I was supposed to walk so many kilometers with luggage, I probably would not have been able to but I guess all of us at some point of time have heard locals say in a hilly region that “it’s just there”. After a two-hour long walk along with weight lifting session, we reached the entrance of the Mahi Mahesh trek. It was really hot and sunny, so we had gol-gappas and ice-cream at one of the bhandaras. Just before the trek, there are cloak rooms where you can leave your luggage. We left behind our stroller in the cloak room and decided to leave the umbrella as well as rain-coats as I was tired of my weight-lifting session. 

Trek route
Hadsar is the starting point for the trek. I wanted to walk and my mother could not walk so much, so she opted for the horse ride. Horses were available at the entrance. We decided that we will meet at the first bhandara at Dhancho. I started my trek at 2pm. My aim was to reach Dhancho before sunset. The trek route is extremely narrow (if you have been to Amarnath, then the last 3 km of narrow stretch is what, is the norm in Mani Mahesh). The route is picturesque with greenery and Mani Mahesh river flowing along with the trek. It so happened that the sacred day of Janmashtami had started from August 17th noon time and there was a lot of rush. Travelers descending down the track were not giving enough space and climbing up the mountain from the rocky edge was not easy, considering that there was abyss on the other end. I had to look hard for a place to rest as most of the time, it was occupied by men. But whenever I halted, I enjoyed the scenic beauty of the place. I just concentrated on looking at the footwork as looking on the side meant visualizing how bad the last fall of life can possibly be and looking up meant seeing the endless uphill climb. During the entire trek, there is not a single downhill climb or a levelled climb. There were lots of bhandaras on the way. I just choose to have water all along the way and at 4pm I had a tikki and the sevaks at the bhandara insisted that I try a chatpata (spicy) kale chane (black gram) which I did and it turned out to be very good. 

After crossing numerous mountains, I came across a trek where the glacier water was flowing with a strong enough force to wet ones shoes (which can making climbing very difficult and the possibility of falling ill). Thanks to my fellow travelers at Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand, who taught me how to cross waterfalls and small/shallow river without wetting one’s shoes, I managed this patch without any slip-up.

After a 4 hour long trek from Hadsar, I reached Dhancho at 6pm. I looked for my mom at the first bhandara but could not find her. I heard them (bhandara) make an announcement regarding availability of medicines if case any traveler is ill. This made me realize that I could use this announcement system to contact my mother. I tried and then waited for half an hour but there was no response. I was very hungry and it was becoming quite cold. I pulled out a jacket from my bag and thought there might have been some communication gap between me and my mother. I found out that Dhancho was spread out between two mountains and there were number of bhandaras out there. I figured out that it’s going to be another long day, so I had an early dinner to be able to withstand the challenge. I went to each and every bhandara and enquired about my mother but nobody had any clue. I was exhausted and it was getting dark. On further enquiring, I came to know that the Police Information cum announcement centre is just after crossing Dhancho. It just seemed too far for me to climb again but I thought it’s my last resort to find my mother. I crossed the river and a very uneven rocky uphill climb to reach to the Police camp. They made announcement to trace my mother but there was no response. In the meantime, lot of people came to make announcement for their missing family members. The terrain is so tough and there were so many travelers, that family members who were walking together got separated on the way. Initially, I had a flurry of negative thoughts but then suddenly I knew that in the land of Lord Shiva nothing can go wrong. I waited patiently and then, there came a wireless message from the Kangra bhandara asking for me and said that my mother is with them. I was relieved to hear that she has been located but I went to all the bhandaras in Dhancho but I did not come across the Kangra bhandara. The Police asked them to send someone to come to the Police Info Centre and take me along. Two sevaks came from the bhandara after a waiting time of half an hour and after their verification, the Police allowed me to go along with them. I was really thankful to the Police and they were pleased that I have found my mother. It was post 8pm and all three of us had a light conversation which made the return journey of climbing two mountains seem a lot easier. Had they not come to fetch me, walking such a long distance under torch light would have been a nightmare (Kangra bhandara was before Dhancho). I and my mother were delighted to be re-united. All this while, you have heard my version of the story but in brief, my mother’s version is as follows: She did not find a horse till 5pm and reached Kangra bhandara by 8pm. My mother came across a person (who happened to be the organizer) to whom she narrated her story. He had wireless communication with which he communicated with the Police. So for the 2 hours I was searching for my mother, she had not even reached the destination.
The white patch in the pic represents glaciers and one has to cross them to reach Mani Mahesh
Day 3: The sevaks at Kangra bhandara had told me that my mother had lost interest in completing the yatra. This was the first time in all our trips that she gave up (and our trips haven’t been all that easy). Well, I decided to give her company for round two of the horse ride. Again, it was an uphill climb all along and there was a patch of glacier that had to be crossed on foot. I thought this might be tough but thankfully, this was a cakewalk (Even though it looked tough from a distance. The glacier at Mansarovar and Amarnath are tougher to cross). We left at 6.30am and reached Gauri Kund by 9.30am. Ladies bathe at Gauri Kund but we did not find the kund particularly clean, so we skipped the bath and headed towards Mani Mahesh (13,501 ft or 4115 metres). We reached at 11.00am. Coincidentally, it was  Janmashtami and that too on a Monday. The place had a certain kind of aura around it, so I decided that we should do a night halt out here. It was freezing cold but it was a different kind of experience. I did see the ‘mani’ shine along with other travelers but I feel the mountain shines/reflects light when the rays of the sun or the stars/moon comes in contact. Even the loudness of Punjabis (most of the travelers were from Punjab) could not dampen the serenity of the place. I did the parikarma of the Mani Mahesh Lake in the night and gazed the star studded skyline for a very long time. I have been at 18,000ft but the stay at Mani Mahesh was the coldest night I have so far encountered. Even with 6 blankets, one could still feel the chill (considering I was also wearing a sweater and a jacket). 

Post mid night, I fell ill and went to the doctor who gave me three pills. It was freezing cold and I did not even bother to ask what these three medicines were for. I realized that the glacier water used for drinking (which tastes so good) did not suit me. I could hardly sleep in the night. I have to say that the sevaks at the bhandaras were always willing to help. 

Gauri Kund
Day 4: We started the downhill trek to Gauri Kund at 6.30am and reached the helipad by 7.15am. I bought the chopper tickets to go to Bharmour (INR 3275 each) and immediately, the helicopter arrived (The decision to take a chopper arouse from the fact that downhill climb on a horse back is not safe and I had also injured my right knee during the search operation, so walking was also not an option and to top it all, was not feeling well) . An advantage of being fit is that you get to sit next to the pilot and get a fabulous aerial view. Within minutes, we were in Bharmour. From there we went to Hadsar to pick our luggage (that’s when we realized how much we had walked to reach Hadsar). Agaain, we went to Bharmour to catch a bus to Chamba. We reached Chamba by 1.30pm and then booked tickets to a bus which was heading towards Delhi at 3pm. After two days, I realized the pain in my right arm due to the weight lifting which I had to undertake for 6-7kms to reach Hadsar.
Mt Kailash during sunset

Mani Mahesh


Day 5: We reached Delhi at 8am.

This trip was a great learning. We (me and my mom) have done several trips together be it Kailash Mansarovar, Amarnath, Valley of Flowers, Kedarnath, Maha Kumbh amongst others but we had never lost each other. My take is that never take any trip lightly. Any challenge can crop up, regardless of your experience. Put in your heart and soul to solve a situation and you will find your way. And make use of the support system of Police/Army/ Organisers, in case of an unfortunate incident of getting separated from your family/friends. And then, leave it to God to spell his magic. 

More info:
a)    You will hear a lot of rumours regarding landslides in that area. Hear it with a pinch of salt and be patient, you will get conveyance regardless of these rumours
b)    Buy apples from Bharmour and Aam papad at Baniket/ Dunera
c)    Mobile network does not work in Hadsar and Mani Mahesh
d)    Vodafone network does not work in Bharmour
e)    Tented accommodation is available at Dhancho, Gauri Kund and Mani Mahesh. You can book it once you reach the place. Advance booking is not required
f)     The information about hotels in Bharmour is misleading. The hotels don’t look the way they do on a website. Better to book the PWD guest house or any other government run accommodation, if there is availability. Home stay becomes the only option for most travelers during the yatra time
g)    Availability of horses at Hadsar can be problematic, so have a Plan B in place

Mt Kailash @ sunrise

Travel and more...: An extended weekend getaway: Srisailam & Hyderabad...

Travel and more...: An extended weekend getaway: Srisailam & Hyderabad...: One of the Jyotirlinga as well as a Shakti Peeth is located in Srisailam which is situated in the scenic Nallamala Hills of the Kurnool ...

An extended weekend getaway: Srisailam & Hyderabad

One of the Jyotirlinga as well as a Shakti Peeth is located in Srisailam which is situated in the scenic Nallamala Hills of the Kurnool district, Andhra Pradesh. Distance between Hyderabad and Srisailam is 213 kms and takes about 3-4 hours.
On the way to Srisailam

In Hyderabad

We decided to go to Ramoji Film Studio. This place holds the Guinness World Record for being the largest film studio in the world that is spread across 1,666 acres.
Ramoji Film Studio

The moment we entered Ramoji, I realized that so many times I felt that a certain movie has been shot abroad (be it series of colourful houses, graffiti painted walls, European statues and so forth) but in reality it was right here in Hyderabad. One of their sessions also demonstrated how movie making is actually done. 

A guided bus ride took us around the Film Studio. We were shown how a single independent bungalow can be showcased as hero’s, heroine as well as villian’s house. They have constructed airport, railway station, prisons, houses, palaces, temples, mosques and historical monuments where shooting can take place. There are numerous well-maintained themed parks which gives a flavour of the nationality they represent. 

I particularly liked the Bird Park. There is also a small Amusement Park. We might have spent some more time at Ramoji but in the evening, it started raining heavily and we decided to go back to our hotel.

Bird Park @ Ramoji
Next day, went to Hussainsagar Lake and Charminar.

A four-day trip during Eid seemed short for travelling across Srisailam and Hyderabad. Would come back again to Hyderabad to explore the city.

Below are some pictorial glimpses of the places we visited in Hyderabad.

Hussainsagar Lake
Mecca Masjid, near Charminar

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Think of Tehzeeb and sumptuous food, then, Lucknow is the place to be

White Peacock at the Zoo
The long weekend of Good Friday was well utilized as we managed to make timely arrangements to visit Lucknow, (Capital of Uttar Pradesh, India). Considering that April 17th was a working day, we opted for a train (Garib Nawaj Express) that halted in Gurgaon (at 6.40pm). It reached Lucknow at 7am (two hours late from the scheduled arrival time). From the Lucknow station, we took a pre-paid auto to go to Aliganj, where we had made our stay arrangements.

Sibtainabad Ka Imambara
Day 1: We went to Madhu Milan (an old eating joint which uses desi ghee in all its preparations) in Aminabagh to have breakfast. The poori-subzi and jalebi was very tasty. The lassi (buttermilk), though, was quite sweet and heavy. From there, we headed to Sibtainabad ka Imambara in Hazratganj. Nawab Amzad Ali Shah, who established Hazratganj, was buried here. If the maintenance of the place was better, the experience would be superior. The locals suggested us to visit the Lucknow Zoo as it was nearby. After a very long time, we were going to a zoo but to our surprise we thoroughly liked it. The zoo has a cute open-air train called ‘Bal Train’ which takes the visitors around the zoo. Thereafter, we walked inside the zoo to have a closer view of the birds as well as the animals. I saw a white peacock for the very first time, a playful baby bear entertained us with his acts, the lost-in-thoughts giraffe, munching zebras and the lion who realized late that so many people were waiting to catch a glimpse of his majestic face were the key highlights.

Bada Imambara
Then, we walked to reach Hazratganj market. I really liked the old-world charm of the place. In fact, I would rate it as the best market that I have seen in India in terms of ambience. Apart from branded stores, there are lots of shops that sell the famed Lucknavi chickan (embroidery). My cousin had suggested that I should visit Sugandhico- a shop that sells genuine itar and other related products. The shop owner is knowledgeable and spoke with the distinct Lucknavi tehzeeb (Lucknavi accent that reflects respect) that comes naturally to the residents. He applied a few itars on my hand and by the end of it I was confused. He recommended that we spend more time in the market and then come back as the fragrance of itar takes some time to emerge (so unlike the Delhi experience where the shopkeeper will usually sell you things- whether you want them or not). Some locals in the market told us to have lunch at Durgama. After having lunch, I would rate it as average. While having lunch, I realized which itar I liked the most. So, we went to Sugandhico and placed the order. While I was making the payment, a customer walked in and said, “Give me any perfume.” The shop assistant mixed up my order with his and after he left the shop, we realized that he took away the last bottle of perfume which I had liked. Well, then I thought to myself that if its mine it will come to me or else I should forget about it. The next day, we happened to visit the market once again, and I finally got ‘mera wala’ itar.
Bhool Bhulaiya
Then, we headed towards Chowk to see more chickan (embroidery) work. This place also has a very old sweet shop called Ram Asrey. It is tucked away in one of the bylanes but locals help you find the way. We tried some traditional sweet dishes of Lucknow. I don’t remember their names but they were really good. We had some street food - mattha (buttermilk) and creamy kulfi and they were really yummy.

Shahi Bawli
Day 2: We went to see the famous monuments of Lucknow. You would find Bada Imambara, Shahi Bawli and Bhool Bhulaiya in one complex. Bada Imambara has an imposing structure. We hired a Guide to find our way through the Bhool Bhulaiya. Undoubtedly, it’s an architectural marvel. The building has natural air-conditioning (remains cool even in peak summers) and whoever conceptualized the building seems to be a genius in solving puzzles. I really liked Shahi Bawli. One can watch anyone entering through the main gate of the Bawli by looking at the water in the well. It is simply outstanding that one sees colored image (reflection) in the water. The image is so clear that it is as good as looking in the mirror. Asifi Masjid is located at some distance but is visible from the complex. It is a beautiful building.
Then, we hired a rickshaw to see Rumi Darwaja, Clock Tower, Hussainbad Picture Gallery, Satkhanda (it resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and finally Chhota Imambara. It was lunch time and we headed to Aminabad to taste the famous Tundey Kebab. The fragrance of biryani and kebab hits you, the moment you enter the restaurant. The the melt-in-your-mouth kebabs truly live up to their fame. There was a paan wala outside Tundey Kebab and his metha paan was also excellent.

Bada Imambara Complex- entrance
The vegetarians in the group had lunch at Royal Café in Hazrat Ganj. It is a decent restaurant. Across the road is a movie hall and balcony tickets for “2 States”, the latest Bollywood flick, were available, so we decided to experience it. The entry to the balcony is separate and the seating for balcony viewers is on a different floor. The theatre has a ’60s feel to it but has all the modern amenities. 

Rumi Darwaja
Day 3: We had chaat at Royal Café in Hazrat Ganj and then went to Moti Mahal to have some delicious kulfi. As an afterthought, Moti Mahal had better chaat and sweet dishes. Then, it was time to catch the Shatabdi. The food of Shatabdi was surprisingly good and the train was clean, don’t know whether it had anything to do with the fact that we were in the first class boogie or it was sheer good luck but it was a befitting end to a nice short trip.
Additional info:

a)    Public transport system is quite efficient in Lucknow
b)    Most markets open at 12 noon
c)    Sometimes the auto as well as rickshaw pullers can misguide tourists
d)     You may skip visiting the Hussainbad Picture Gallery

Asifi Masjid as visible from Bada Imambara

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Happy Nation: Bhutan

We planned a trip to Bhutan partly because of its scenic beauty and partly as Indians don’t need a visa. Bhutan enjoys the highest Gross National Happiness in Asia and is also the eight happiest in the world and we were inquisitive to know what makes it a happy nation.

Buddha Point, Thimpu
We met our travel buddies at Alipur Dwar (West Bengal, India) at 10am and from there travelled to Phunentsholing. We filled up a form and attached a passport size photograph along with a photocopy of ID proof. The authorities at Bhutan also took a snap of ours and we were asked to wait for more than an hour before we get our permit. Phunentsholing has a Sarojini Nagar/Fashion Street kind of a market which we explored while we were waiting. In the meanwhile, our documents got processed and we got into the mini bus to go to our first destination- Thimpu (capital of Bhutan). Thimpu is approximately 150 kms from Phunentsholing and we reached by 8.30pm.

On the way, Indian Border Forces has set up a nice cafeteria where we snacked. The travel route is scenic and there is lots of greenery.

We checked-in at Hotel Bhutan Centennial. The hotel is very good and the staff is friendly and helpful.

On the next day, I went on a morning walk and realized that there is hardly any vehicular traffic. I
typically saw SUVs but one car would pass by at a time. It made me think if Delhi- NCR’s traffic scene becomes like this, then life would become so much better and surely India will also go a few notches up in the Global Happiness Index.

Also, the locals (both men & women) wear their traditional attire. In that sense, there is equality amongst both the genders. Their school uniform is also their traditional dress, so they get groomed to wear it since the beginning.

All buildings have been constructed in a traditional manner. This has also given uniformity to the place.

We left the hotel at 9.30 am and went to see Memorial Chorten (stupa) and Nunnery, Buddha Point. The sun was very strong and we took a break in the afternoon. First, we checked into a new hotel in the center of the city (Hotel Bhutan Centennial was booked only for 1 night stay as it was totally booked for the rest of the days) called Hotel Taksan. We had lunch at the hotel and then went to the Changokha Lhakhang temple and Takin Zoo. The national animal of Bhutan is Takin which is a strange looking animal and seems to be a hybrid of dog, cow and goat. Then we visited the Handicraft Emporium. The Emporium had a good collection of their traditional attire and dress material but it was expensive. The next stop was the beautiful Fort. The Fort is manned by numerous security officers and as I entered a garden of roses captured my attention. Small and clean river flows along the Fort and the home of the King is also in the vicinity. Inside the Fort there is a monastery and few other interesting buildings. The guards don’t let you peek into the complex where the King resides but by the sheer size of the place I can say that it represents modest living.

Since it was a Sunday, the Museum was closed. So we went around the market which was close to our hotel and tried to explore it.

Memorial Chorten

And suddenly we realized that one of my family members’ left her purse in the Fort which had two driving licenses and substantial money. We anxiously went back to the Fort and the flag ceremony was happening at that time. And as I was about to enter the Fort, the guards stopped me and asked whether I had come looking for the purse to which I said a yes. They asked me what all is there in the purse. I knew what all was there but did not know exactly how much money was there. Since my driving license was inside the purse I was sure that it was enough for identification. The guards told us that they found the purse and had informed the guards at the parking lot but by that time we had left. They also said that it belonged to the group of Indians who had come here. We gladly rewarded them for returning the purse in an intact condition and this speaks volumes about the honesty of the locals. Our driver later told us that another tourist had left behind their camera in the hotel reception area and realized it after a day but the hotel staff had safely kept the camera for them to collect. I was very impressed and it made by feel that maybe they are content, happy and ethically strong community, so no (or hardly any) thefts take place. If the purse would have got lost /stolen, it would have been a mood dampener.

On the third day, we got our permits processed for Punakha and Paro. We went to Dochula Pass (3,080m) that gives a good view of Bhutan. However, when we reached it was cloudy, so we could not see the Valley. Then, we drove to Punakha and on the spur of the moment, all of us decided to stop our bus and play in the clean river that was flowing. All of us felt like kids once again.

Fort, Punakha
The main attraction of Punakha is the fort (Punakha Dzong). The fort is simply beautiful and has been built in the middle of two converging rivers (Pho Chu & Mo Chu rivers, one is a male river and another is a female one) in 1963. Since the fort was so beautiful we landed up spending a lot of time seeing it. From there we drove all the way to Paro and reached in the evening around 8pm.

We stayed at Hotel Galinka and had dinner there. In the morning, we visited Drukgyel Dzong, the ruined fortress from where the Bhutanese repelled several invasions by Tibetan armies. It was a short trek but I will skip this place, if I visit Paro again.

Fort, Paro
Then, we went to Tiger’s Nest. This was not a part of the itinerary but I realized later that it is the best place within Paro. Tiger’s Nest is a monastery perched on a hill top and makes for an excellent trek. I trekked continuously for one and an half hours and had only reached mid-way. If time had permitted, I would have completed the trek.

We had lunch in a restaurant in the main city. The food was tasty and in the end had home-made lassi (I was surprised to read Lassi on the menu and it was good).

Thereafter, we visited Ta Dzong (National Museum) and Rinpung Dzong. We stayed the night over at Paro and left for Phunentsholing the next day in the morning and reached by 4pm. We halted there and from there hired a cab to go to Sikkim.

In Paro, there was a restaurant near our hotel and we saw that he had poori-subzi on his menu. We ordered for it but he was taking too much time to cook, so the ladies of the group decided to help him and the food turned out to be good. So, we asked him to make aloo parathas for breakfast. We told us that he did not know how to cook it but if we teach him he was willing to serve it. So next day, he was taught to make parathas. He asked us how much he should charge us and we told him what his pricing should be. It was good fun and felt nice that next time an Indian traveler is in Paro, then he/she will not miss Indian food.


Punakha Fort
Punakha Fort
More info:
a)      There is a direct Druk Air flight from Delhi to Paro
b)      Druk Air is the only airlines in Bhutan
c)       If the flight gets cancelled due to some reason, then your travel fare is not returned
d)      New Alipur Dwar has a fabulous food joint called Pagla Baba Dhaba
e)      You can book a cab from Jaigaon and travel within Bhutan
f)       Indian currency works in Bhutan (only Re 100 notes; 500 & 1000 notes don’t work here)
g)      Locals understand and speak Hindi and English
h)      Bhutan is ahead of Indian Standard Time by 30 minutes
i)        Dzong means fortress / monastery
j)        Museums are closed on Sundays and close by 5pm on other days
k)   While visiting a fort, do not wear round neck (half sleeves) T-shirts as they are not allowed. Instead wear a collared T-shirt or shirt.

Paro City

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Sikkim: The Hidden Paradise

My family visited North-East (India) a decade ago and since then I have been hearing stories from them that it is uniquely beautiful. And just recently, I got an opportunity to explore Sikkim.

Rumtek Monastery
We boarded the flight from Delhi to Bagdogra and reached by afternoon. A pre-paid cab from the airport took us to Gangtok (124 kms away). It had started raining by the time we reached (at 8.30pm). Our cab stopped in front of Namdul Residency Hotel and we decided to stay there.

Day 2: It had been pouring since night and after waking up, we were questioning our decision of coming to Sikkim. We all knew that if it kept raining the way it had been, then we would not be able to venture out. Thankfully, the Sun God appeared by 9am and we were all so relieved.
We went to the MG Road (which I have to say is very well-maintained as well as nice and has a Victorian feel to it) and spotted the Sikkim Tourist Information Centre. We went in and enquired about the various places we should visit. The staff was very helpful and guided us on how to proceed.
M.G Road, Gangtok

We had hired a cab from the hotel (INR 1700) for local sightseeing and visited the following: 

a)    Flower Show Complex- Sikkim is home to various exotic varieties of flowers including orchids, tulips, amongst others (refer to my previous blog for pics) and this place was blossoming with flowers.

b)    Enchey Monastery- Built in 1910 on the site of the hermitage of the great tantric saint, Lama Drutob Karpo.

c) Ganesh Tok- It is a small and well-maintained Ganesh temple situated at an altitude of 6,500 ft.

d)    Lhasa Waterfalls

e)   Tashi View Point- is about 8 kms from Gangtok and the cab driver claimed that on a clear day one can see Mount Kanchanjunga. It was cloudy so we did not stand a chance to catch a glimpse of the world’s third highest peak.

f)     Gonjang Monastery

g)    Directorate of Handloom and Handicrafts is also good as you can purchase items and also see the artisans at work (Sunday is off for the artisans).

h)   Bakthang Falls- We did rappelling for the first time out here. It was good fun.

i)     Do Drul Chorten- It is a stupa built to commemorate the victory of good over evil.

j)  Namgyal Institute of Tibetology- Built in 1958, the Institute has one of the world’s largest collections of rare books and manuscripts on Mahayana Buddhism. It has interesting artifacts. I recollect seeing items made out of human skull.

k)  Rumtek Monastery- It is a definite must visit. Located 24 kms away from Gangtok, the monastery is beautiful. They also have a small yet nice café that serves excellent tea. They have other items on their menu like noodles, etc but we were not hungry so we did not try it.

If you are short of time, then my picks of must visit will include Flower Show Complex, Directorate of Handloom, Tibetology and Rumtek Monastery. 

During the day, we ate at Oven in the Mountain which is a good bakery. And at MG Road, Aggarwal Sweets and Marwari Bhojnalaya are also good options. 
On the way to Gurudongmar Lake

Day 3: On the basis of the information provided by Sikkim Tourism, we contacted a travel operator on MG Road to book a shared cab so that we could go to North Sikkim for a 3 Days 2 Nights tour to cover Gurudongmar Lake and Yumthang. To visit these places, you require a permit which the travel operator will obtain for you once you provide two photocopies of any ID proof that has your address along with it. You need to give three passport sized photographs (and these have to be given at least a day before undertaking the journey).

On the way to Gurudongmar Lake
We were asked to come to the operator’s MG Road office at 9 am and from there we went to the taxi stand. We were scheduled to depart at 10 am, however we were able to leave only by 12 noon. This is because the other co-passengers were arguing with their travel operator regarding the seats that had been allocated to them. Basically, there is no public transport available to travel to these places, so you have to hire a cab. Since you are a tourist you would not know any taxi driver (taxis to travel within Gangtok are separate from the ones that take you to other parts of Sikkim. In fact, they are not allowed inside the city and you can find them on designated taxi stands which are away from the main town- MG Road area and its periphery) and would have to use the services of a travel agent to get permit and book a cab. And the travel operators are usually not fair and transparent. In our trip, whenever we hired a cab through the travel agent, we saw the day beginning with the co-passengers arguing with the agents and finally the co-travelers made adjustments. It would be nice if the Sikkim Government introduced pre-paid cabs for such sight-seeing, so that unnecessary intermediaries can be avoided. 

For this trip, we were charged INR 2800 per person (includes cab fare, hotel as well as meals for 3 D 2 N). We booked a shared cab for the very reason that if there are more people then psychologically you have a better bargaining power with the cab driver in case you are short-charged.

We reached Namok at 3 pm for lunch and on our way further up saw the Seven Sisters Waterfall and Naga Falls. We reached Lachen at 7.40 pm and did a night halt. The rooms were basic but were clean. I can’t even classify them as hotels, even though they may have fancy names. The food was hygienic but lacked taste (you don’t get rotis during the entire trip, rice-dal and vegetable is the only menu, though you have the option of having a non-veg dish). 

Also, you will find some travel agent who will tell you that there is a standard, budget and premium packages but I feel that there is no difference between the standard and budget as the so-called hotels are almost the same and they do not tell you the names of the hotels where you will be staying and even if they tell, I am sure that they don’t even have a website. Also, I had met a traveler who had returned from North Sikkim and he had told that the accommodation is basic but is clean and by the time you reach the hotel, you are so tired that it does not matter where you are. In the days to come, I couldn't agree more with him.
Gurudongmar Lake

Day 4: Gurudongmar Lake is 51 kms away from Lachen and we had to leave at 3 am in the morning. During the course of the journey, we had breakfast and reached the lake at 7.30 am (distance and time taken to travel is an important aspect to be taken into consideration while planning a trip to Sikkim).

Gurudongmar Lake
Gurudongmar Lake is simply spectacular. It is considered as a sacred lake and its waters are believed to possess miraculous powers. The lake freezes during winter except at one spot that is believed to be blessed by Guru Rinpoche in 8th century AD. Since it is at an altitude of 17,100 feet, kids and elderly usually don’t get permits to travel here as the oxygen level is less. We faced no oxygen issue as we have been to higher altitudes in the past. We spent an hour at the lake and drank the sweet water of the lake as well. I didn’t feel like leaving the place but had to move on.

On the way, the Army personnel treated us with fruit juices, biscuits and chocolates. We had a conversation with them and were touched by their hospitality.

Zero Point
We reached Lachen at 11.25 am and then had our lunch. At 1 pm we left Lachen and reached Lachung at 4 pm for a night halt. There was no electricity in the night, so had a candle-light dinner.

Day 5: Left at 5 am to go to Yumthang (11,800 ft) - also known as the Valley of Flowers as the rhododendron groves covers the landscape. Thereafter, we went to Zero Point and experienced snow fall. We came back to Lachung by 11.25 am and reached Gangtok by 6pm.

Day 6: Before leaving for Gurudongmar Lake, we had given ID proof and photograph to the travel agent to obtain permit for Nathu-La. We left at 8.30am and we charged INR 750 per head. Just before Tsomgo Lake (commonly called Changu Lake), the steering of the jeep developed some problem but soon other cab drivers came to help. It was really good to see that in Sikkim, the cab drivers share good camaraderie and always help each other.

We first went to Nathu-La (56 kms from Gangtok) at an altitude of 14,200 ft bordering between India and China. There was snow all around but it was too crowded with tourists.                                               Then, we visited the Baba Harbhajan Singh Temple that has been built in the memory of Harbhajan Singh, a sepoy in the 23rd regiment. Baba Harbhajan was born on 30 August 1946 at Sadrana village (presently in Pakistan). He joined the Army in 1966 as a Sepoy. He expired on 4 October, 1968 while escorting a mule column from Tuku La to Dongchui La. The death occurred when he slipped and fell into a nullah. Legend has it that Sepoy Harbhajan appeared in the dreams of a colleague (post his death) and requested for a Samadhi to be constructed in his memory.

It is interesting to see that the Samadhi has Baba’s office and his bedroom. Over the years, he has risen from the ranks of being a Sepoy to become a Captain. His train ticket is booked when he goes to his home-town. Those in the Army who get a posting in this area, first come to the Samadhi to pay their homage. It is interesting that some people continue to live on……even after they have left. No wonder India is considered mystical.
Tsogmo Lake

We halted for a while at Tsomgo Lake (3780 meters) which means the ‘source of the lake’ in Bhutia language. It is considered as a sacred lake and fishing is prohibited. It derives its waters from the melting snow of the surrounding mountains. It had started raining heavily and we left the place and reached Gangtok by 6 pm.

Day 7 & 8: We left for Bhutan (via Siliguri- New Jalpaiguri- Alipur dwar Road- Jaigaon) and stayed there for a couple of days (my next blog post is about Bhutan trip).

Day 9: After the Bhutan trip, we reached Pelling, West Sikkim from Jaigaon and had hired a cab (INR 4800) to reach as soon as possible. On the way, we saw Coronation Bridge which looks nice.

You can directly come from Gangtok to Pelling and ideally we should have taken this route (you save precious time and money) but we had to meet our travel buddies in Bhutan. 

Mountain ranges at Pelling
The specialty Of Pelling is that it offers a good view of the Khangchendzonga (Mount Kanchanjunga – the third highest peak in the world) and its surrounding ranges. We reached Pelling by 12 noon and then I went around looking for a hotel to stay. Most hotels were booked and I finally found a place in Hotel Green Valley. In general, hotels in Gangtok are more clean and well-maintained than in Pelling. We had lunch at a restaurant and then walked to reach Pemayangste monastery which is 2 kms away from Pelling. It is a nice and one of the oldest monasteries in the State. Inside the monastery, there is a wooden structure depicting the Maha Guru’s heavenly palace which is considered a masterpiece created by Late Dungzin Rimpoche. It started raining and we reached our hotel and retired for the day. 

Khecheodpalri Lake
Day 10: We went for a day long local sightseeing (INR 300 per person). They covered some eight tourist points. The good ones among them were double-pronged Kanchenjungha Falls, Khecheodpalri Lake and the archaic quaint Singshore Bridge (second highest bridge in Asia).
Singshore Bridge

Khecheodpalri means mountains of blissful heavens. According to the legend, this place was once a grazing ground abounds with stinging nettles. One day, a Lepcha couple saw a pair of conch shells coming from the sky and entering onto the ground. After that the ground underneath shook violently and a huge lake was formed. This lake is also known as the wish fulfilling lake and it is believed that those who visit the lake are blessed with health and happiness.

Day 11: We booked tickets for the first bus (7am) going to Jorthang and from there hired a cab to go to Namchi, South Sikkim. We hired a cab (INR 900) to see Rabongla, Sai Dham and Char Dham (Siddesvara Dham). We had lunch and then hired a cab to go to Siliguri. 

Day 12: From Silguri we went to Bagdogra and took the morning flight.

Considering that this was a very last minute trip and after reaching Gangtok is when we decided where next we should head, it went off well. Though it rained almost every day, yet it did not interfere with our travel schedule. Given a chance, I would like to re-visit Sikkim. 

Previous blog post on Sikkim: 


More info:

a)    Carry woolens and umbrella while travelling
b)    Carry photo-copies of ID proof and photographs for obtaining permits
c)  Nathu-la is open for Indian Nationals on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Entry is allowed only till 1 pm
d)    There are lots of trekking routes in Sikkim. Explore then if you have the time
e)    Traffic rules are strictly followed in Sikkim and as a community they like to keep the city clean
f)    Gangtok (East Sikkim), Gurudongmar Lake (North Sikkim), Pelling (West Sikkim) and Namchi (South Sikkim)
g)  From Gangtok- Bagdogra in North Bengal (123 kms) is the nearest airport; closest railway stations are Siliguri (114 kms) and New Jalpaiguri (125 kms).
Rabongla in Namchi