October 12, 2010

Leh'ed Again (contd)

After spending 2 days acclimatizing in Leh town, on the third day of our trip, we decided to go to Alchi, a thousand years old monastery in the north of Leh. It's about 2 hours drive away from Leh, with many other attractions on the way, including Hall of fame (a museum), Magnetic Hill and the confluence of Zanskar and Indus river - a beautiful site. Hall of fame came first. It's a nice museum with lot of exciting stuff like arms captured from the Pakistani army during Kargil war and the picture of a soldier launching a shell to the other side of the border with "From Raveena Tandon to Nawaj Sharif, with Love" written on it :)

Next on the way was Magnetic Hill which we skipped for the later. We were going by Indus river all the time and soon we were at the confluence of two major rivers of the region - Zanskar river and Indus river. It's a beautiful site actually. Zanskar meets Indus almost perpendicularly. Difference in the color of two rivers is so obvious here. Zanskar water is greenish, while Indus is brownish. We basked in the beauty of this place for some time, took some photographs and moved on.

Confluence of Zanskar and Indus rivers
We reached Alchi about an hour drive later. It was all deserted there. No tourist except two of us (three more people - two Germans and one Indian - came later while we were there). We went around the monastery and discovered that Indus flows just in the backyard of the monastery. Huh, Interesting. We entered the first temple of the monastery and instantly felt the sacredness of this thousand years old place. It was dim inside, to protect the wall-paintings made so long ago. There were some wood structures to support the roof and pillars of the temple which seemed weary now after so many years of existence. There were large, 2-3 floors high statues of various incarnations of Buddha. There were 3 more temples like that. We spent relaxing time there in this peaceful monastery.

We had maggie for lunch on our way back. This time we also stopped at Magnetic Hill. Our driver stopped the car on a down slope and released the brakes, and bravo! the car started moving backward, by itself. Wikipedia says that it's some sort of optical illusion. Whatever it is, I could not make it out. We enjoyed the phenomenon :) We returned to Leh well in time but didn't do anything much for the rest of the day as Disha was pretty exhausted already by the car travel in the hilly region.

Next day, at around 9:45 a.m., we started our 2 days excursion to Pangong Tso(Lake) - one of the most beautiful places in the world. This time I realized that the road to Panong Tso is quite difficult or may be the recent flash flood had made it worse. The road passes around some jaw-droppingly deep gorges looking into which makes your heart come to your mouth. About half way, we were met by Chang La - world's third highest motorable pass. It had snowed there (actually it snows pretty much every night there) and it was milky white all around with bright sun up in the sky. Beautiful site. It was very chilly out there with temperatures around -4 C. Thankfully, good folks of army have set up a small shelter here where they have put up a heater and offer tea to frozen and chilled tourists :) We also made use of the facility and came back to our senses.

A pass is the point on the road where you cross over the mountain and get to the other side of it. Technically it's more than that, but to a traveller, a pass means the highest and the most difficult point on the road, after conquering which the travel becomes easier. The road on the other side of Chang La was in bad shape because of snow and ice, but it was still easier than going up to Chang La.

We reached Pangong Lake at around 2:15 pm. I always run out of words to describe the beauty of this lake. We're dumbfounded when we saw it. Shades of blue and green that we never imagined could exist. Mountains of various colors standing on either side of this lake as if they were Gods themselves who had converted themselves to mountains to be able to keep looking at this eternal beauty. The water so clean that you can see stones in the bottom of the lake for a long long distance. And then there is interplay of sun rays and clouds, or it's just the wish of the Gods because there were very few clouds, that the colors of the lake keep changing. There was no sound except of the water and the wind. This place is eternally peaceful in all ways. We cherished our time there. As the sun started to set down, it became very cold there. It was time to go back. We bade our farewell to Pangong. Until next time.

During our return, we stayed in the Tangse village for the night. It's about 35 kilometers from Pangong and the nearest human habitation. As luck will have it, we stayed in the same guest house that all the actors of "3 Idiots" stayed in for 5 days. Moreover, we were in the same room in which Amir Khan stayed. Disha was all smiles hearing this :) There was another group staying there - a study group from the Pune university who were doing geological research of the Ladakh region. Interesting job, I'd say :) Guest house lady cooked a lovely dinner for us. We had a good sleep. When we got up next day, we were well rested and ready to conquer Chang La again.

We reached Leh by the lunch time. It was our last day. We were flying back home next day early morning. In the evening, we settled our bills for the stay and the food. Phuntsok didn't let us pay for the numerous teas we had. Stubborn girl :) Dawa's father gave us the stoles that are offered to the Ladakhi couples as a blessing, and a beautiful gift from the whole family. Those gifts, and his reassuring and loving smile touched deep in our hearts. What a lovely end to our first Ladakh trip after our marriage.

Next day, early morning, we flew back.

October 8, 2010

Leh'ed Again

Finally I made it to Leh again. This time with Disha. It was my third time in last 4 years. I could not go last year because I was busy doing other things e.g. my engagement and marriage :) This year also I was almost about to miss it - first already quite a bit of holidaying - New York in May and home in July, and then cloud burst in Leh on Aug 6 which caused lot of devastation there. But then somehow I managed to get in touch with Dawa (a friend in Leh) and came to know that things were really fine in Leh. That was very relieving and encouraging. I decided to not let it go this time, and booked our air tickets for Leh for the last week of September, just before our marriage anniversary :)

Disha was super excited when she saw Himalayas from the top, in our Delhi to Leh flight. It's an amazing sight actually. Mountains feel so close, and then you realize some of these peaks are 7k+ meters high, which doesn't leave a lot of gap if your plane is flying at around 9-10k meters altitude. From the top, snow looks like as if someone has spilled milk over these mountains and the sun seems powerless as it cannot melt the snow even though there are no clouds, of water vapor or pollution, standing between its fury and the snow.

I have kind of gotten used to Leh's landscape. But if it's your first time and you're flying to Leh, the moment you reach there, it feels like you have landed on a different planet altogether. You see mountains of all different colors all around you - all made of different types of rock with some of them donning a white cap of snow. A huge plain at an altitude of 3500m, supporting these mountains. Lots of empty spaces. Dry winds. Disha was awe-inspired and even more excited :-)

We took a cab to Oriental Guest House in Changspa - a place run by Dawa and his family. Dawa and his family have become an essential part of my Ladakh trips now. They are amazing people. Very hard working, still always cheerful, warm, no pretense and always smiling. I love staying with this family. I feel at home. I can connect to anyone and have a hearty discussion about simple things in life. The guest house is also placed well - far enough from the main market to ensure peaceful stay, but still not very far - just 15-20 min walk. Also, it's located just below Shanti Stup, a place I cherish a lot.

A short drive of 15-20 min from the airport and I was in that familiar house once again. Always cheerful Phuntsok, Dawa's sister who pretty much manages everything in the guest house, was very happy to see us. She immediately offered us the tea. Dawa's father greeted us with his warm smile and asked about our wellness. We felt at home. We were taken to our room directly with no formalities (we did them later at our own convenience). Disha liked the room and was pleasantly surprised actually. She thought I was taking her to some old house with mud walls and old cots :) On the contrary the room was tastefully decorated and featured wooden flooring, warm bedding and amazing views.

We took first 2 days easy as is advised when you go 3500 m up directly, to avoid AMS. First day we went to the main market in the evening, an easy stroll. Next day evening we visited Shanti Stupa - 500 stairs up. Believe me 500 stairs at an altitude of 3.5k are much harder than 500 stairs at normal altitude. But Shanti Stupa is definitely worth those 500 stairs or even more. It embodies the spirit of Ladakh, peace, Buddhism, and brotherhood. It's hard to explain. You feel all alone there no matter how many people are there. All alone, but still close to everyone - close to humanity. It looks ethereal in the evening, when the sun is dim and the wind is flowing - just before the sunset. We had utterly gratifying time there. Only thing that I disliked this time was the railings that they have put around the platform there. I liked the earlier arrangement better, with no walls around.
Shanti Stupa

Rest of the story and the pics to follow soon.

Update: Next part.

July 13, 2010

Comfort and Bliss, In the lap of Himalayas

I've got to write about our honeymoon trip in October last year. This place was so amazing that not writing about is outright unfair. But, writing about the honeymoon trip can be very difficult, as you can imagine :) We went to this very beautiful resort, Kalmatia Sangam Himalaya Resort or just Kalmatia, perched on a mountain in Himalayas, at least 10 kms from any town or village and 100s of kms away from any metro. There were just about a dozen cottages there with no swimming pool, no tvs in the cottages and no multi-cuisine restaurants nearby - all the features to keep cities' clubbing noise loving crowd away.

Mornings in Kalmatia
Kalmatia resort and the estate surrounding it are owned and managed by a couple - Dieter Reeb (a german photographer) and Geeta Reeb - who live here for the love of the valley and the mountains. No rich Delhiite running a business remotely to milk the tourists. I guess that makes lot of difference. You can see and feel the passion and love that has gone into running this place in a beautiful, "organic" and environment friendly manner.

View from our breakfast table
We could not have gone to a better place for the honeymoon, I guess. It had everything - comfort, nature, beautiful views of the mightiest peaks in the world from the huge 6 windows of our octagonal shaped cottage, bird chirping in the mornings and evenings just outside our door, and full privacy. In fact so much privacy that each cottage had its own access (no passers by ;). There was a porch outside our cottage overlooking the himalayan peaks where we used to have our morning and evening teas. It was just beautiful staying there. Food was awesome too. Carefully cooked food to go easy on your stomach and invigorate your taste buds at the same time. My wife Disha loved the food which was a great relief as she is little choosy about the food and you don't want your wife to not be happy on your honeymoon :)

We were there for 6 days. We made three day (or half-a-day) trips from there. First one was to the Jageshwar temple - one of the only 12 jyotirlings. We had hired a car from our hometown Hasanpur for the whole trip. We took the same car to the Jageswar temple. It was a serene place (except for the annoying Pandas who incessantly kept asking for money - to illuminate the ever alight lamp there). We had the food that we had got packed from Kalmatia - aloo n gobhi parathas with pickle and curd, and some fruits, along with some hot chai.

Next we went to Binsar. My old love. I had gone there before, in Dec 2006, with Pankaj. I absolutely loved that place and always wanted to go back. I loved that place for the great unobstructed himalayan views that you get there, and the lack of any kind of pollution including light pollution - yes, there was no power supply there so no lights for a long long distance.

My wife and I decided to do a small hike, of about 5 kms, in Binsar wildlife sanctuary. It was the very first hike for Disha :) The plan was to do a circuit (or rather half circuit) - starting from KMVN resort to zero point (highest point there) and from zero point, by another trail, to the twin temples on the Kalmatia-Binsar road. We saw few people on the trail, till zero point. But after zero point it was just us and the forest. We didn't see any human or animal (thankfully so) except few birds. We sure heard some animal sounds though. Trail got ambiguous at places and we had to make guesses based on the direction we were supposed to go in. It was a little scary to be honest but it was fun too :)  Luckily, we reached our destination just fine. Our driver was already waiting there. We had our lunch in the green meadow by the twin temples before leaving back for Kalmatia.

Our next day trip was to the one of the only two sun temples in India - Katarmal sun temple near Almora. This place was rather unique. It's as old as 12th century (or 9th, I am not sure any more. But it was at least as old as 12th century). It was being renovated and as a result not all of the temple is that old - some parts have been constructed recently. We saw some very very old statues there - none of them very intact of course. It was an awesome feeling to be at a historic site, almost hidden from the world. We had to track for about 4 kms to get there (and same to come back). Disha was not very keen to trek again (come on, who takes his wife for back to back trekking - first Binsar, now this - on their honeymoon). But it was not entirely my fault :) We were told that we'll have to trek only for 2 kms. But the road that goes till a little closer to the temple was in a bad shape and we had to start much earlier. Anyway, once we reached she was glad that she came there. That place had some power in it - effect of centuries of existence and reverence, I guess. We felt soothed after reaching there. All our weariness was gone. We had our food on the way back to Kalmatia.

Our days at Kalmatia were really blessed. We enjoyed being there. May be we'll go there again.

April 5, 2010

Trip to Ireland

It's been long, very long, since I last wrote. Not that I didn't have anything to write about. I was just being lazy. In fact there are quite a few things that I should write about - trip to Ireland, honeymoon trip to Himalayas, some other random topics. Well, I'll start with trip to Ireland. That's where I was when I wrote the last post.

I went to Dublin in Aug. Not particularly good or bad time to go, as weather in Dublin is not anyway something to write home about. It's either cloudy or raining. I think that's the reason most of the Dubliners hit the bar pretty much every evening :-) Being in Dublin, and being the comrade that I am :), I had to do the same.

There were lots of good moments shared with the colleagues including drinking wine till 4 in the morning and then going straight to the airport for flight back home. But, highlight of the trip was a weekend excursion to Glendalaugh, a historical town in Wicklow county in Ireland. I went alone. Yes, I can do things like these. Once I took a bus in San Francisco to its last stop, which thankfully was a beautiful beach away from the city, and came back after strolling on the beach and some light hiking. All alone.

The trail that I picked up for walking in the greens of Ireland is called the wicklow way. I didn't do the whole circuit because that takes time and also because I was scared of getting bored. I walked from Roundwood to Glendalaugh. Fairly easy trail of 12 km, with an ascent of merely 350m (1200 ft). To reach Roundwood, I took the Glendalaugh bus service (aka St Kevin bus service) from Dublin. I had lunch in Roundwood. The scary part was that locals didn't even know about this trail. One guy confirmed that the correct path to the trail was what I was thinking it was, and so I started.

Man, I didn't see anyone else going on that trail, for a long long time. It was all deserted, with few farms on either side of the road. I wasn't even sure that I was on the correct trail. After walking for about 3 km, I saw a man going somewhere in his SUV. I asked him and he confirmed that I was on the right track. Sigh of relief for me. By the way, it was a lovely day. For a change it was not raining and the sun was shining. It was really beautiful all round -- beautiful green farms for long long distance, cattle grazing in the farms, green grass all around and clean air to top it all.

I reached Glendalaugh after a hike of 3.5 hrs. Had some coffee and snacks, and went straight for some sightseeing. Now, I had to take a decision to either stay, or go back by the bus in the evening. I decided to stay and checked into a hotel. First time I met a hotel guy who didn't know where in the world India is. See, I go to offbeat places.

I found Glendalaugh beautiful, mesmerizing in the beginning. It was little haunting too with all the quietness and a huge graveyard marking most of the town. Soon loneliness took over me and it seemed pretty depressing to me. Thankfully the waitress in the hotel was very charming. Had a little chat with her. She was a student from Malaysia, studying in Dublin and working in Glendalaugh on the weekends. Anyway that was it. I hit the sack rather early that day as I was quite tired after walking for 12 kms.

Next day morning was lovely. Weather gods were being gracious to me. I met a guy in his older years, by the canal. We chatted a bit in the sun. He had come back to live in the Wicklow county, after working in various parts of the world. It was a light, interesting chat. After having my breakfast and spending some more time there I took the bus back to Dublin. So ended my weekend trip to Wicklow.