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Resurrection of mind and soul – Kashmir

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What’s a vacation ?….. A relaxing break from the routine at an idyllic place or soaking oneself in the beauty and culture of the place or involving oneself in activities and maybe adventures that are off-beat.
Well, our vacation in the month of March ’18 was a potpourri of all of the above.
Planning a holiday ? Kashmir should be well up on your list and no blog on Kashmir could be complete without the popular lines,
“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.”
“If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.”

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Unrivalled beauty of the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas

The unspoilt natural beauty of Kashmir was obvious practically at all places we visited during our 7 day soujourn to Jammu and Kashmir which is not only paradise for nature lovers but for adventurers, food lovers (Wazwan, a multi course meat-based Kashmiri meal for non-veg lovers), shoppers and all alike.
No sooner does one get a glimpse of the empowering Himalayas en route to Srinagar by air, the beauty in store for you can be supposed.

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The first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas which flank the Kashmir Valley

Amongst the many other places Kashmir has to offer Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam were the three valleys which are the most popular ones in addition to Sonmarg (weather/season permitting)
Srinagar– The summer capital of J&K, is situated on the banks of River Jhelum & known as Venice of the east, is one of the oldest cities in India dating as far as 3rd century BC. Srinagar city is located at an average elevation of 5400 meters above mean sea level and  is spread over in the heart of the oval shaped Valley of Kashmir.
Laced by artistic wooden houseboats and beautiful Mughal Gardens along the Boulevard surrounding the Dal lake, it is spread over 18 kms and is a part of the natural wetlands with floating gardens which cover around 21 sq kms.
The most enticing mode of transport here is via shikaras – one can travel almost the whole city through these, the lake is divided by causeways into 4 basins : Gagribal, Lokut dal, Bod dal and Nageen, where Nageen is considered as an independent lake in itself.

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The breezy ‘shikara ride’ and a floating stationary houseboat

The breezy ‘shikara’ ride on Dal lake that we took was about an hour and a half for about 1500/-Rs and we were taken around the lake by a talkative, well learnt guide Mr.Mohsin (contact- 09086497152). The waters of the lake were so still and it was getting colder by passing of the hour into a beautiful sunset. We talked a lot about the life in Dal lake and discussions about their self-sufficiency and about how they grow their greens on floating islands and how the kids at an very early age are ready for a dive in the lake even in sub-zero temperatures. He kept reiterating that the tourist places of Kashmir are safe and any skirmishes that happen are only limited close to the borders which are although in Srinagar district but are miles away from the tourist destinations. He had a complain that it is the media that hypes up any little fracas and thus face eschewal from the travel industry. He said tourism was their main means of livelihood and the locals would not do any harm to tourists.  He then got a little upbeat and didn’t miss an opportunity to show us the houseboats where a few movies were shot. The floating markets of the lake were a sight whilst we were warned that the saffron sold by the shikara shops was not original. But some shikaras offered some beautiful silver jewellery which we got sold into. We had our first round of Kashmiri ‘Kehawa’ here (made of kashmiri green tea leaves, saffron (kesar) strands, cinnamon, cardamoms & cloves, sugar, finely chopped almonds) on the shikara at a floating restaurant and that was our drink for the trip.

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Can’t miss the sunset from the banks of the Dal Lake

Although Srinagar like any other city is a busy one, one gets the glimpse of Indian Army and CRPF at every short distances. Shuffling of troops across the highway is a common sight en route to either Pahalgam or Gulmarg, that’s cos you would be crossing the National highway 1A.
But this sight didn’t bother me as a tourist cause we knew that these postings are merely for safety and prevention of any untowardly incidents. It may sadden a few who would have seen Kashmir at its best in earlier years but for me it was a revisit after about 30 years.
Our early sunrise drive up the meandering road of the Shankaracharya mountain – a siva temple located on Gopadari Hill 1100 feet above the city of Srinagar, was the most blissful since one captures a panoramic view of the whole of the city and the lake from the temple. This temple dated back to 200 B.C. is built on a 20 feet tall Octagonal Plinth and can be accessed after climbing a flight of about 243 steps and an additional 10 steps right to the top is named after Adi Shankaracharya. No cars are allowed beyond a point and also not beyond 5 pm too. (carry jackets as it can get very windy and chilly at the temple top.)
Note– This temple is often not a part of the regular itinerary, but a must visit place for the views at least.
One could also take a walking tour around the old city of Srinagar – weather permitting. Craft tours also offered around here can give you a feel of the how the most loved Pashmina shawls are made.

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Srinagar is home to the most beautiful – Chashme Shahi gardens, Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh which constitute the Mughal Gardens. Pari Mahal and Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip gardens (season permitting – March and April) not to be missed either. Late evening we visited the Huzratbal Dargah and offered prayers at this beautiful serene lakeside mosque.
From Pherans (Kashmiri woollen attire to keep men warm) to fruits to dry fruits to papier mâché to Pashminas, Kashmir’s capital had way too much to offer.
Shopping was great in Srinagar. One must just hone his/her bargaining skills before a visit to the market. We went to Polo View Road and there were plenty of stores lined by the sidewalks of the street, with plenty of walnut wood objects to lots of handmade fabric articles – we picked quite few rugs and table runners as well as Aari work pillow covers to wall hangings.
Kashmir’s embroidery work is influenced by many of cultures- The Moors, Persians , Turks influenced it all. Aari (Hook ) embroidery is the speciality of Kashmiri artisans.
Suffering Moses is a place where one can find finest papier mâché products, just below that place was small quaint little café where we spent a couple of hours post shopping.
Saklain’s coterie is a place by the Polo View Road which sells some amazing smelling essential oils from local products like walnut, lavender.
To carry back home some Kashmiri essence, powdered version of the Kashmiri kehawa( kawa) can also be bought here. Packs of 250gms, 500 gms (could make around 30-40 cups)
Also picked up walnut kernels from Amin Bin Khalik (ABK) trustworthy name for dry-fruits. Although this place was priced slightly higher than its competitors, at least we were sure of what we were buying, since we had been warned that many places would sell saffron which would not be original saffron but maize leftovers which have been dyed red .
Saffron, we also picked from Government authorised store at Lal Chowk and we also preferred to pick the original Pashmina from the Kashmir Government Arts Emporium itself. To avoid being cheated for Chandigarh/Amritsar made Pashminas.
Although more famous for non- vegetarian food, vegetarians too find plenty of options at dhabas as well quaint cafes which are also lined by the main streets – Books and Bricks one of the popular ones.

Gulmarg‘Meadow of Flowers’ is a heartland of Winter sports in India. It’s legendary beauty, location and proximity to Srinagar makes Gulmarg one of Asia’s prime hill/ski resorts.

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Snowfall at Gulmarg – A dream come true for nature lovers

Gulmarg lies in the notified area committee of the Baramula district of the State of J&K not too far from the LOC, is a cup shaped valley in the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas at a height of 2,650 m (8,694 ft). At a distance of 56 kms. from Srinagar via the Srinagar – Tanmarg road, we reached Tanmarg soon and were flanked by a dozen tourist guides to hire gum-boats and snow jackets, the taxi drivers do have a cut here and insisted on taking to place from where we could rent, but we didn’t want to rush through this and were told there would be options up there in Gulmarg.
The last lap from Tanmarg to Gulmarg is a pleasant 12 kms. drive through a forest of Pine and Fir trees symbolical to most romantic film shots.
On reaching Gulmarg, one has to pay a visitor fee at the entrance and our vehicles were asked to drop us at the resort and we could not use any vehicles from Srinagar. The taxi union in Gulmarg has set a rule that no vehicle other than the ones from Gulmarg could ply within hence we had to use local cabs for any Gulmarg travel. We had hired an Innova for our stay in Kashmir but for the three days in Gulmarg, we weren’t allowed to use our rented vehicle instead rent a local vehicle from the area.( hence the additional taxi expense – not envisaged.)
Gulmarg is heaven for skiers and alike. It has amazing ski slopes and ski-lift facilities placing it at a comparable position to any other ski slope in the world.
Whilst we understand that the only means of living for the locals is tourism (state needs development in terms of offering job opportunities other than tourism), the pestering tourist guides can get too annoying and they are in plenty hovering around you all the while till finally you hire one. I am sure you enjoy and know a new place better if you see it the way a local shows it to you. So we too hired an authorised guide in Gulmarg and he did his bit and he did it well. Tip – Hire an authorised tourist guide if you need one, they are well informed.
Our stay at ‘The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa’ was one memorable one, the location of which can be rated good, and services par excellence.

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Luxury at its best – heated swimming pool with a view of snow-capped mountains

Since we were there in March all outdoor activities would practically seize by sunset since the temperatures touched a 0 degree Celsius every evening or even ran into minus towards late nights , thereby we truly enjoyed our stay at a place which is probably the only one which is centrally heated. The heated swimming pool was the highlight which we made use of practically every evening that we stayed there. Not to miss the lovely Kashmiri sit-out in their lobby area with soothing Kashmiri music playing in the background. Priced a little too much for what they are providing, if one has a budget to spend it is a must stay place.
There are enough accommodation options ranging from budget to mid-range to luxury hotels which also serve delicious food as well are very hospitable.
Our days were booked for Skiing through this gentleman called Ayaz, who had very good helpers for us who were very naïve at skiing, a couple from our group who had been to skiing programmes earlier were taken to Gondola level two for skiing, the ski slopes which are used by professional skiers and the experience was stunning.
We decided not to get ourselves bound to the hotel every evening hence we ventured out for dinner to Hotel Highlands Park one evening (hotel where ‘Bobby’ film was shot), amazing food. Another evening we went to Nedou’s Hotel – the oldest in Gulmarg.
Since we went there mid-March , most of the snow had melted but the chill in the air was still there awaiting us and last but not the least it was a dream come true when it snowed.
Tip: If one has to travel any place post evening you would need a car which you must book from the hotel concierge which could be a loot, but since the Gulmarg tourism (may be the Taxi Union) has set rules that no car other than the locals can run their taxis in this place, you are left with little choice but to shuff out that extra buck to step out of your hotel premise.

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Market view of Gulmarg

Gulmarg must to do’s are the cable car ride – world’s second highest operating since 2008. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulmarg_Gondola
The ‘Gulmarg Gondola’ a French technology is one of the highest in the world reaching 3,979 metres. and largest ropeways in Asia having a total aerial distance of 5 kms. (approx.)
It’s a two-stage cable car ferries about 600 people per hour to and from Gulmarg to Mt. Apharwat peak 4,200 m (13,780 ft)). The first ride ferries visitors to the 8,530 ft height to Kongdoori. The first stage is a more commercial place.
Dirty, muddy snow slush ( since it was mid- March) where most of the tourists were getting awed by the 500 Rs/- sledge ride as well as snow bike rides polluting the sereneness of the mountains. But I guess people who were here just to beat the city heat had this on their bucket list too; to add to the mess were small dhabas serving Maggie and hot tea, kehawas and it was more of a market place at level 1 of the Gondola ride. To its stark contrast was the second and last stop of the Gondola.
The second stage takes visitors to a height of 3,950 m (12,959 ft) on the Apharwat Peak (4,200 m (13,780 ft)). A chair lift system connects Kongdoori with Mary’s shoulder for taking skiers to higher altitude. My recommendation would be to definitely give half a day for the whole trip to Gulmarg- Apharwat- Gulmarg the mountain top – two levels . We spent almost an hour sitting atop the peak from where our guide showed us the border across the Shark fin.( it is a range in the Pir Panjal which resembles a fin and hence the name)
Most people go up only the first level and come back disappointed.
http://gulmarggondola.com/ticket_tc.php

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A view from the Gulmarg Gondola – a must -do in Kashmir

If I were to go back to this place again I would now do it in summers and do a wonderful frozen lake trek which is done from level 2 of the gondola and is about 1.5 hours trek to a serene lake is too close to the LOC. (off-beat trek-not included in any standardised itinerary.)
http://www.jktourism.org/frozen-lake.html
A walk around Gulmarg is an evening spent by itself , a good three hour walk around the oval valley past sunset can be an adventure, we walked right from the Gondola ticket booth across the market and snow fields well past sunset with our torch lights from right upto Hotel Highlands park to a yum wholesome meal.

Pahalgam – Pahalgam means “A Village of Shepherds” is situated on the banks of the Lidder river. Pahalgam at an altitude of 7,000 feet is a picturesque township. The Amarnath Yatra is undertaken by more than 30,000 pilgrims every year and it is best approached from Pahalgam over a pass at 14,000 feet.

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Lush yellow green mustard farms on our way to Pampore

Three main places of interest in Pahalgam are : Chandanwari, Betaab Valley, (so called because the Hindi film ‘Betaab’ was shot there) and Aru valley. You can again only hire local taxies maybe from the hotel concierge since rented vehicles from Srinagar or Jammu are not allowed in the region for sightseeing (similar in  Gulmarg). Pahalgam was not going to be too many activities and sightseeing for us, we were here to chill and enjoy the weather. We stayed at ‘Pine n Peak’ hotel, again there are many options( budget, mid-range, luxury) available along the banks of the river. But mid – March was kind of an off-season, we really enjoyed the peace of the valley here with not many co-tourists. Although spring was just breaking, the otherwise picturesque Lidder Valley had barren trees which were just turning green. We got only barren apple orchards to see, which otherwise in summers are full bloom and the best are to be seen en route to Pahalgam.
Pahalgam is encompassed by lush pine backwoods, stunning vistas of knolls and the snow-clad Himalayan mountains in the backdrop are a reaffirmation of the title ‘Paradise on earth’. Deodar and Pine trees standing tall imparting the dark green hew on the meadows create stunning views casting magic spells and leave you soaked up in nature.
En route we also passed by Pampore – place where most saffron fields lay and on both sides of the highway one can find plenty of local shops selling saffron @ 250 Rs per gram. But since we were made aware of fake saffron we preferred buying saffron from Srinagar-Government Art Emporium @ 350 Rs. per gram

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Cricket Bat Factory on our way to Pahalgam – Cricket bats made out of Willow Wood are exported worldwide

Pony rides are a way to commute through scenic meadows, 5 kms from Pahalgam lies Baisaran or ‘Mini Switzerland’ so called because of its resemblance to the green pastures in Switzerland, one must take a pony ride for about Rs. 1000 per person, but in March we were offered a whopping 50% discount.
Aru valley is a pristine place and a base camp for trekkers to Kolhoi glacier and Tarsar river. Lakes, mountain peaks, valleys and pine forests set up a picturesque Aru Valley for tourists and all alike. March was not the time for many activities the place otherwise has to offer, albeit when the Lidder river is at its best and flowing – rafting, fishing, trekking and many other activities create a hustle bustle in the otherwise silent town in the month of February and March.

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Baisaran Valley – a picture postcard (gone are the days of picture postcards) , but no other words to exhibit the serenity of this place

On our way to the base point of the Amarnath YatraChandanwadi, we drove past Hagan Valley also nick-named ‘Betaab’ valley, since the movie was shot here. Again, no good words can explain the exotic beauty the place and the valley offers.

One wonders and re-iterates if there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.

The road to Ladakh opens from Pahalgam, and that trip could be one in itself : Leh-Ladakh ( will surely talk about my experiences here soon.)
Nathu Rasoi, Dana Pani, Punjabi Rasoi are budget options for food other than the hotels serving the yummiest food. Pahalgam and Gulmarg shops sell similar stuff that is available in Srinagar but at a much higher rate than there. But that’s the way the locals earn. So if you can afford it and you like it – I’d say buy it.
Promote Indian Tourism, Promote Indian Artisans, Promote Indian Art.

https://www.jammu.com/jammu/shopping-bazars.php

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No words can describe this picture – Tree of life, Good-bye Autumn, Spring it up !!! My favorite shot. (Special thanks to Vikram, my friend for this one)

Pahalgam was our last destination, the misty surroundings, empowering pines, conifer forests and lush green meadows – this valley left captivating moments for us. That’s when we left for Srinagar. Pahalgam – Srinagar was approx. 100 kms and travel time of around 2.5 hours with food stops and our flight back home to Mumbai.

I am pondering….
Is it worthwhile spending thousands on Schengen visas, airfares, exorbitant hotel accomodations, European cuisines and long days of planning ???
This place really set me thinking, we have it all here in our country – no visas, no permits, no long distance flights, no foreign currency transactions. You decide – you need a vacation, pack your bags to this land of great heritage and culture – snow-capped peaks, valley of sparkling rivers, bustling waterways, magnificent Chinar trees and you are in a place that is no less than Paradise on Earth.Aviary Photo_131688495310880601

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Serene Sikkim – Regain your composure

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In the laps of Himalayas – Gurudongmar Lake

A gem state of India nestled in the Himalayas is Sikkim poised on the eastern arm on the Map of India. North Eastern India has an intriguing map-line and the small protrusion just at the narrowest part of land connecting to the mainland India is the only  100 % Organic state in India. I am indeed so proud to state this fact that most of us are unaware of.

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Facts : Due to its location, Sikkim is of a great political & strategic importance to India, it shares borders with Tibet – Autonomous Region of China in the north & northeast, Bhutan in the east, Nepal in the west and West Bengal in the south.  Also is close to India’s Siliguri Corridor near Bangladesh and is the least populous and second smallest among the Indian states ….. Interesting isn’t it ?? The kingdom of Sikkim was founded by the Namgyal Dynasty in the 17 century, ruled by a Buddhist priest King, became a princely state of India in 1890, maintaining its character. In 1975, monarchy was deposed by the people and Sikkim merged  into India as its 22nd state. Roughly three-fourths of Sikkim’s residents are Nepalese in origin; most speak a Nepali(Gorkhali) dialect and are Hindu in religion and culture but the indigenous people are the Lepchas and Bhutias. Gangtok is Sikkim’s largest settlement; the capital city is nearly 75 miles (120 km) from the nearest airport, at Bagdogra, and 70 miles (110 km) from the railhead at Siliguri,both in West Bengal. Sikkim’s only newly built airport at Pakyong is going to help flourish the place which will cut down considerable road travel.*One more interesting fact about this place is that it has the only three land casinos in India.

7 day Itinerary : 

  • Day 1 – Arrive into Bagdogra (West Bengal) – No direct flight connection yet from Mumbai to Pakyong. Tip: Must take early morning flights to Bagdogra, since the road to Gangtok is stunning with River Teesta flowing all along your side, you’d miss the scenic drive since the sun here sets pretty early.  Explore Gangtok by the evening .
  • Day 2 – Gangtok – Lachen ( 6 hours drive -107 kms. )
  • Day 3 – Lachen – Gurudongmar lake (2.5 hours drive – 60 kms.)  – Lachung .
  • Day 4 – Lachung – Yumthang Valley / Zero Point – Gangtok
  • Day 5 – Gangtok – Tsomgo Lake – Gangtok
  • Day 6 – Gangtok – explore – local sightseeing or just chill by the valley
  • Day 7 – Gangtok – Home

Commute – The lack of infrastructure makes travel within North Sikkim an arduous,  back-breaking but an adventurous one. Any apprehensions on a rough road travel then one must consider West Sikkim as an option and do a Gangtok – Namchi – Pelling – Ravangla tour. Self- drive is never an option here, since no rental cars are permitted entry to North Sikkim. There are multiple taxi unions and hence it is advisable to book your tours through a reliable Travel Agent to ensure a well planned trip. We booked through http://www.mehervacations.com/  (Sameer Chettri  9933376601). They went out of their way to provide us with the newest well maintained cars through our journey and didn’t have to worry at all about any permits anywhere. Highly recommend them.IMG_1868

Gangtok –  a city built and developed on the hills has narrow roads cut past the mountains. Traffic is immense during peak working hours, cars lining up bumper to bumper is a common sight. We were warned early enough that once we are approaching Gangtok there could be a traffic snarl-up and could take us anything from 30 mins to an hour just to pass through the city. The main Market place in Gangtok is the M.G.Marg which is a car free street lined with shops,  eateries, coffee shops. You can roam the street aimlessly. 

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M.G.Marg Market – Gangtok

The  aimless walk on M.G.Road lands you up in Lall Market – busy bazaar, where locals shop. Plenty of shops selling brassware, woolen clothes to rugs and carpets to organic fruits and vegetables. The hustle bustle here can make you forget that you are on an hill station to enjoy the serenity of the mountains, the commotion no less but the dip in the night temperature and early sunsets turn the whole  place into a night bazaar kind of a feel.

Scrumptious momos ( meat or veggie dumplings) at Taste of Tibet are to die for whereas Baker’s Café serves some excellent coffee and pastries, there are a few ‘all vegetarian’ options to , ‘must have’ is a fancy green tea joint Golden Tips- a perfect setting to end a day. Roll House – a take away place – no space to sit but serves some amazing rolls and momos. The other touristy places not at all off beat are here :

  • Tashi View Point : To get the panoramic view of Mount Siniolchu(tallest mountain in Sikkim ) and the Kanchenjunga range there is no better place than this view point.
  • Ganesh Tok : Close to Tashi View point is a temple of Lord Ganesha. It’s located at an altitude of 6,500 ft. Tourists come here not only to offer prayers to Ganesh, but also to soak in the views from the viewing lounge and the circular balcony around it. No entry fee, however donations are welcome.
  • Hanuman Tok : A Hindu temple of lord Hanuman at an altitude of 7200 ft. and just about 11 kms. from Gangtok. This shrine is maintained by the Army.
  • Banjhakhri falls – is situated at a distance of 12 kms. from Gangtok, these waterfalls have now become a commercial place with a nominal entry fee . Though the waterfalls are a great sight the play zone constructed right in front of it kills the beauty of the spot. Avoidable.
  • Namgyal Institute of Tibetology – Museum promotes cultural research and boasts of collection of artefacts related to Buddhism.
  • Rumtek monastery & Do Drul Monastery-Sacred places for Buddhists.
  •  Flower Exhibition Centre – Is a place where flowers from all parts of Sikkim are showcased under one roof.  Heaven for botanists.

En Route to Lachen

A mesmerizing but an arduous long road trip begins post breakfast from Gangtok. Distance to be covered a 107 kms. of hilly terrain and winding, never-ending roads. Mountains over mountains is the way of life for the day. Drive for about 5- 6 hours depending on number of stops you make. Set deep in the heart of Sikkim lie two Himalayan Gems – Lachen and Lachung –  sister villages of  North Sikkim and they serve as base points to the Gurudongmar lake and the Chopta valley respectively .

Once you hit North Sikkim highway you’d  be driving past comparatively bigger towns like Mangan, Tong and Chungthang from where the roads fork out to Lachen and Lachung. From Mangan (that’s half way through Gangtok and Lachen), river Teesta flows side by side all the way up to Chungthang.  At Chungthang, Teesta actually becomes a river although its source lies far above in glacial lakes. On your way from Gangtok to Lachen, make photo-halts at Seven Sisters waterfalls is a pristine cascade and Shinghik view point to get a splendid view of the Lachen valley and the Teesta River.  Few other places of interest could be the Phodong Gompa, Labrang Gompa.

What a view !! – Shinghik View point
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Beautiful cascades all the way along

Every mountain we pass and cross over we must cross the metal  cantilever bridges lined with prayer flags. The prayer flags are ubiquitous in Sikkim, Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space.

Plentiful of bridges lined with prayer flags

We ate at Tong – a really tiny place – a small home restaurant run by three women. Very friendly girls – Sushila served us some very homely basic but tasty food. This is the place we discarded  our ‘Bisleri’ bottles to carry up only pet bottles. The traditional governing village body ‘Dzumsa’ – decided to ban bottled water to be carried to further places, since one can have fresh spring water freely.

Home run restaurant served some delicious, basic food – Tong

Lachen at a height of about 9000 ft. above sea level and is a very small picturesque  hamlet  with merely 250 families and their Tibetan styled  house , few hotels and fewer convenience shops. We reached  Lachen  around 4.30 pm and had our room reserved at Himalayan Residency, very basic hotel with clean room. Well, make note that we arrived into almost 5 degree Celsius temperature and learnt that no heaters were allowed in any hotels in Lachen (couldn’t figure out why? As yet). All  tourists visiting Gurudongmar must stay at Lachen since no accomodations are available thereafter.

 Tip : Prebook your stay, Lachen is a small place few hotels  and can get fully occupied during peak season. Options of stay range from Apple orchard Resort  http://theappleorchardresort.com/  to Lachen View point to an average Himalayan Residency Hotel.

The Nyudrup Choeling Gompa is a 20-minute walk ahead of the town and is best visited either early morning or late afternoon. It gets dark rather say by 5.30 p.m. and Lachen is put to sleep early. We snuggled into thick warm blankets getting comfortable enough to wake up at 4.30 am to leave for the long awaited Gurudongmar lake ……

GURUDONGMAR LAKE –  A bewitching beauty …..

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Sublimity at 17800 feet – Gurudongmar

No descriptions can justify the serenity and calmness the lake has to offer.

Facts : One of the highest freshwater lakes of India – Altitude 17800 ft. (5430 m) is considered sacred by Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs (source:wikipedia). The lake remains frozen from the months of November to March. It is located only 5 kms. away from the south Chinese (Tibetan) border. While Indian tourists are allowed to visit the lake, foreigners need to get a special permit from the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi.

Tip : Get assurance from your driver about all permits before you start. Permits are checked at all check posts.

We started the splendid most awaited drive from Lachen at 5 a.m. and took around 5 hours to get there. While we drove past mountains, arboreal valleys, glacial rivers, topography started to show different hues – colours changed from dark green to scantier lighter green to browns. We were there nearing autumn time and hence got to see a riot of shades of greens and oranges scattered instead of the rhododendrons’ show of colours.

IMG_2887At Thangu (13000 ft ) our first check post and the last civilian settlement along the route, we stopped for some hot tea to rejuvenate our numb, cold fingers sitting by the fireside in a small restaurant while the driver got the permits verified. The road up makes way through rugged terrain with moraine(glacial debris),  gravel paths of stones and mud as well as pastures covered with rhododendron trees,

I wouldn’t blink a bit to miss any dance of nature around.

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Cutting through the mountains are glacial rivers in plenty.

Gaigong (15000 ft), is the highest  army check post, we got the feel of the lightness  and chill in the air. To fetch yourself a cup of hot chocolate was Café 15000.  Stepping out of the car was a task by itself, the wind just hits your face. Beyond this was only the ruggedness of the mighty Himalayas – never have appreciated more shades of browns in my life (set aside the Pangong lake journey – although noticed a striking similarity between Ladakh terrain and here).

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We made our reach to the 17100 ft about a drive of 10 kms. from the Gaigong check post beyond which no foreigners are allowed.

I’d like to make some comparison notes here on altitudes.

  • Jungfraujoch – Switzerland  – 4,158 mts. (13,641 ft. )
  • Matterhorn peak – Switzerland – 4,478 mts. (14,690 ft. )
  • Pangong tso –India – 4250 mts. ( 13,900 ft.)
  • Gurudongmar lake – India – 5,183 mts. ( 17,000 ft. )

Although achieving high altitudes in European countries is just matter of a cable car ride or a cogwheel ride to the mountain-top, here in India its different you got to take the effort to be able to reach such heights and I would say it’s well worth every painstaking moment of the journey you take, and capture the breathtaking moments.

Holy steps to Gurudongmar Lake

You feel a sense of achievement when you sit by the lakeside with prayer flags fluttering around you makes the place so serene, surreal and mythical. At 10 a.m. by the lake, sun was right over head and the clear weather came as a bonus, to see the sparkling sun creating an imagery on the pristine lake waters.

I was alerted by my guide to go slow since the air is too thin at this altitude and oxygen levels low. Being a meticulous person by nature I paid heed and went down the stairs to sit by the banks of the lake and added one more to the many heaps of stones ( Cairns  are Tibetan stone stacks placed alongside rivers, lakes , roads).

Man-made heap of stones – ‘Cairns’ by the Lake

Encompassed by perennial snow clad mountains, this emerald coloured lake impresses any visitor with its breathtaking environs

Tip: Spend no more than 30 mins. at the lake, altitude can get you dizzy and nauseous.

Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller” – Ibn Battuta

My affairs with lakes goes way back to my trip to the Pangong Lake and thereafter lakes somewhat  fascinate me, specially ones nestled in scenic environs. Friends who have travelled with me wouldn’t agree more.

Way back may get a little too treacherous for ones who don’t enjoy road travel as much since the 5 hour rough road travel up to the lake was already  a task . Leaving behind all the visual scenic pleasures, we reached back Lachen for a sumptuous vegetarian Lunch and ready for another 3 hour drive to Lachung. A long day on the wheels it was.

Hit the road.  Never Look back.  Explore the new.

Note : You can visit Lachen and Gurudongmar lake only with  registered travel agents from Gangtok. Hence make sure you get in touch with reliable travel agents .

  • Tip : It may not be advisable to take along children below 5 years and senior citizens alike due to low levels of oxygen.
  • April, May could be a good time to visit Lachen to see the rhododendrons in full bloom, but could well be a peak tourist season. To avoid the rush you could visit in October or November , you may not get the splash of colours but definitely will appreciate the ruggedness the mountains have to offer . I am a fan of brown rugged mountain ranges.
  • No ATMs, so carry necessary cash , although you wouldn’t need much to pay since you would have prepaid for the car and permits etc.
  • Will need to carry good woollens since it may get windy and the chill is numbing sometimes. Also carry some snacks to munch on the way.

Lachung : Altitude 8600 ft.

At the fork in the road at Chungthang, the one to the right climbs to another quaint Himalayan village – Lachung, or ‘the big pass’, Epitome of scenic beauty with dark mountains, gushing waterfalls, glacial rivers definitely makes its space in any Sikkim itinerary.

The residents of Lachung are Bhutias and call themselves Lachungpas

Once in Lachung , across the Yumthang river you may visit the Lachung Monastery, en route – but if you are too dizzy with the day long travel, you might want to give it amiss. It is a 2 storey Gompa built in 1880, murals adorning the walls are stunning. In addition to the Gompa you could also stop at Bhim Nala (Amitabh waterfalls as the locals call it). Take a 10 minute break here to unwind yourself from the winding roads and just sit on a wet rock and listen to music the gushing waters ….

By sunset you reach the picturesque Lachung to get astounding views of the snow clad mountain peaks as well as the vast valleys. Rest through the night for another long drive the day after. Lachung is quaint stay-over village for tourists visiting Yumthang Valley the following day as well as base camp for trekkers to the Chopta Valley trek.

As the day breaks you are out driving up 10 kms north of Lachung soon on your way to the riveting Yumthang Valley bypassing the Shingba Rhododendron sanctuary.  A mesmerizing 1.5 hours drive leaves you spellbound

Yumthang Valley (13800 ft) is about 25 kms. from Lachung also known as Valley of Flowers. One visit and it can leave you with an enchanting imagery in your mind forever. Mesmerizing road with the mountains on one side of the road and the Lachung river running by your side most of the time. Though we didn’t get to see the riot of colours as would have expected in bloom season, but we were dumbstruck with the autumn colours of reds, oranges and browns. I run of short of words to express all that nature had to offer here. Since this is the ‘Tree-line’, you cease to see huge, tall trees anymore further but you sight rhododendron groves all the way to the valley. At a short distance from the Yumthang Valley are the hot water geysers which are known to possess healing powers due to high sulphur content. It’s about a few thousand yards.

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Herd of Yaks at Yumthang Valley

We seemed to be trolling on empty roads showered with rain clouds that almost touched down besides us. The road seemed to be never ending. The imposing valley, herds of yaks crossing the rolling meadows, the flickering riverside and a bit of snowfall added a touch of exoticism. We sat by the riverside for almost an hour just gasping and filling our lungs with the freshest air.

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The grand, treeless Yumthang valley

You’ll find small Tibetan market in the valley sold warm clothes and refreshments .

Zero Point –  Altitude 15748 ft img_1626.jpg

Lying further north at a distance of 16 km is Yumesamdong where the rocky vegetation- free mountains present a beautiful view. Yumesamdong – Zero point from where the flat Tibetan plateau becomes visible is nature personified and takes about an hour and a half from the Yumthang Valley. At this place civilian road ends no cars can go beyond the Zero point (other than the army) again only registered vehicles are allowed to travel to Zero Point.

Note : Since the weather can get  eccentric in terms of wind  at Zero point , it is better that you don’t stop at Yumthang but go to Zero point first for clear visibility and then make a stop at Yumthang Valley.

We returned to Lachung by lunch time again and post lunch we left for Gangtok. A long drive again. (5 hours )

Tsomgo Lake and Nathu La Pass –Most popular day trip from Gangtok

A very popular tourist destination, this one is a day trip which begins typically at 8.30 am, to avoid the rush at the 3 mile check post and so on further since many cars tend to line up for the permit check.  Hence to beat the rush, start early. Permits are obtained by travel agents or even the hotel reception desks often help out.

A little about the lake – Tsomgo/Tsongo/Changu as the locals call it are the names that often appear on google search. Altitude 12313 ft (3753 m). This glacial lake falls in east Sikkim district of the state of Sikkim .

During summer the snow from surrounding steep snow clad mountains melt and feeds the lake..

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Time and Distance chart – a quick reckoner

The pristine view that the lake has to offer can be fed by a short cable car ride to the top of the mountain alongside a small Shiv Mandir. There is a pathway surrounding the lake where tourists stop for photo ops and refreshments. Do not fall for the Yak rides. Instead a short walk over a wooden bridge will get you capture stunning views of this ethereally beautiful lake. There is no provision for lodging here, every tourist has to return back .

Cable car ride can be skipped  for the ones who are going further up to the Nathu La Pass since the route equally promises unobstructed views of the lake and the valley. The roads are well maintained up there, and no words can again describe the valley view while you are treading more mountains to reach the famous Nathu La pass.

Prior to 1962, this road was part of the old trade route between India and China. Mules used to carry loads along this route. Some parts of the route below Karponang (which is 15 kms. away from Gangtok) used to be very treacherous and dangerous.

  •  Tips : Must leave early to reach there in time since it gets too windy post noon.
  •  This lake falls in the restricted area due to its proximity to the border (just about 11 kms. away ) hence requires  protected area permits.
  •  You have to provide for two photographs and government id to obtain permits.
  • Must carry heavy woollens .

Nathula –Pass  is  a mountain pass in the Himalayas in East Sikkim district. Altitude of 14790 ft ( 4508 m). It connects the Indian State of Sikkim with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Nathu means “listening ears” and La means “pass” in Tibetan. On the Indian side, the pass is 54 km east of Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. Only citizens of India can visit the pass after obtaining a permit in Gangtok. Nathu La is located on the Old Silk Route, an offshoot of the historic silk route.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathu_La   read here to get more on the Pass.

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That’s what you call a zig-zag mountainous route

The pass is opened on specific days of the week to ease the travel distance  to Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sites( Kailash Mansarovar yatra) as well for Sino- Indian trade to specific types of goods.

The zigzag roads could be an endurance test for ones with travel sickness, fruits of which can be very fulfilling.  The route was so scenic and seemed as if we were in a race with the clouds chasing us. This is the place where you can see one of the highest Indian army posts and the Army cantonments can be seen all through the route to the pass .  We met up with a few jawaans only to find out how they combat the harsh weather conditions up in the region. To reach the border you are required to climb a few steps and there is viewing gallery to see the border gates with the ‘No Man’s’ land in between . The army jawaans are very helpful and are happy to interact.

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The army checkpost – Nathu La Pass
  • At Nathu La no photography is allowed .

There  is a border trade market at Sherathang where tourists who are interested in indulging in some shopping for Tibetan products. Most people combine their Nathula pass trip with Baba Mandir. Baba Mandir is a shrine dedicated to “Baba” Harbhajan Singh, who was a soldier of the Indian Army. He died near the Nathu La Pass. Two shrines have been built to show reverence to Baba Harbhajan Singh.  People consider him as a saint who guards lives of his fellow jawaans at the border. It is about 10 kms from the pass. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baba_Harbhajan_Singhmore reading here.

  • Tip : Nathula Pass is not open to public on Mondays and Tuesdays. Plan your day trip accordingly.
  •  Again since the altitude is much, weak may feel breathless and are required to walk slowly and deep breathe often.
  • It’s very windy up there hence heavy woollens are suggested.

Offbeat Places –  Memencho lake – falls on the silk route and is at an altitude of 13000 ft. Surrounded by untouched pine forests and deep slopes, Memencho Lake is said to change colours every minute. The lake is fed by the waters of the surrounding mountains of Jelep La Pass and stays frozen from January to May. A narrow 4 kms. winding road beside Baba Mandir would take you to Memencho Lake. A newly built rough motorable road through high mountains and untouched forests crisscrossed by streams would take you to the banks of Memencho Lake.

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Note – this requires additional hours and the stamina for more road travel. If you have an additional day and if you are a lake lover like me, you could plan an overnight stay here in advance since very few accommodation options available here. June to December are the months to visit here, rest of the months roads are closed due to snow.

Jelep La pass –You could visit Jelep La pass which is located few kms. from the Memencho Lake. It’s at an altitude of 13,999 ft.

Clean, Green and Organic is this place with nature at its best and bestowed upon by the Himalayas with snow clad peaks , steep valleys with rhododendron groves,  snow fed rivers and surreal scenic lakes.

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HAPPINESS IS A JOURNEY, NOT A DESTINATION..

“Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.” – Lisa St. Aubin de Terán . If this quote resonates then leave comments/views on this quote.

Ethereal McLeodganj

WHAT is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?— No time to stand beneath the boughs, And stare as long as sheep and cows: No time to see, when woods we pass, Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass: No time to see, in broad daylight, Streams full of stars, like skies at night: No time to turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, how they can dance: No time to wait till her mouth can Enrich that smile her eyes began? A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. 

Haven’t most of us at one point read this short but thought provoking poem by William Davies ? Surreal it sounds ..to ‘Stand and Stare’.

NH-15, a four-lane Amritsar-Pathankot highway was the road that took me to a place with bewitching and riveting beauty – MCLEODGANJ, to just ‘Stand and Stare’

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McLeodganj

Little Lhasa’ as it is also called because of being occupied by a lot many of Tibetans who moved here after China’s invasion of their homeland. The exiled government of Tibet is also based here. The foreign name to this place is attributed to Sir Donald Friell McLeod, a Lieutenant Governor of Punjab; the suffix ‘ganj’ is a common Hindi word for “neighbourhood”. (Source: Wikipedia)

Elevation of McLeodganj is 2082 mts, in the Dhauladhar range which is a part of the Lesser Himalayan / Lower Himalayan Range. Home to numerous famous hill-stations, Himachal has a charm that is hard to miss and nestled amongst acres of forests lies the famous McLeodganj – a mesmerizing place in the mountains.

Amritsar – McLeodganj : 205kms; approximate of 4.5/5 hours drive. National Highway 15  is a good road with smooth flow of traffic and the verdant fields that we passed by seemed straight out of ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” sets. Luscious green farms, tractors, ‘sarson ke khet’ got me the Punjabi feel already, men with colourful headgears on bikes with not one, not two but three pillion riders was also a not-to-miss sight. As we drove past the fields scattered with brick kilns and bullock carts we enjoyed some local Punjabi music, within 2 hours we were at Pathankot – a stopover place for tourists heading further towards more destinations like Dharamshala, Dalhousie, Dharamkot, Palampur, Manali and so on.

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NH-15 en route to McLeodganj

Here we halted at a local dhaba, not so great nothing to comment on – more of a loo-break and we were soon heading towards the Punjab-Himachal boundary and in almost an hour we were in the India’s northern state with most scenic mountain towns and resorts – Himachal Pradesh. The winding roads were well-maintained, though it could get a little nauseous for a few. Sharp blind turns, narrow sections on the way where two buses come face to face can get a little unnerving for the weak though was exciting for me. What amazes me the most in these hilly regions is the skills the tourist bus drivers possess, the way they manoeuver the steering wheel allowing each crossing bus to move away in their respective directions when they come face to face on narrower sections of the roads that plunge to abysmal depths.

In about another 2.5 hrs we were in a small, cute little hamlet which can be accessed all around on foot. The essence of the place can be got only if you explore it yourself walking across the streets and by-lanes, striking conversations with the locals. Every street has similar essence with small quaint shops selling most touristy things like handicrafts from Kashmir (Jammu not being too far), little obscure shops have most amazing things that you would love to carry back home. You would find plenty of Tibetan stuff like the mini Tibetan prayer wheels, thankas (religious scroll paintings on silk), plentiful of brass idols and wooden masks to shawls to stoles.

Walking out of one of the streets on your way from the Dalai Lama temple towards the main ‘chowk’ (square) as the locals call it, you find yourself suddenly in the car traffic lock which happens at the ‘chowk’ due to 7 by-lanes merging into one unmanned junction.

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The main centre of the town – ‘Chowk’

Then evading the jam you tend to turn into another by-lane and yet another one coming to more, similar kind of shops none in a mood to bargain since they have plentiful of foreigners who are ready to pay them their price. The incense sticks and aroma diffusers to aroma oils to shops selling herbs – aphrodisiacs to nerve soothers to balms alluring foreigners and  domestic tourists alike. Slightly wider streets have a line full of roadside artisans selling some amazing artistic jewellery – some silver, some white metal most with tibetan beads and a variety of stones. Waddling through small lanes was experimental and we landed up to a small food joint called Nick’s Italian Café (on Bhagsu road).

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A sit-out at Nick’s Cafe

We went there on suggestion of a friend and that was the place where we had our three meals out of six. This joint is not only a restaurant but also a place where you can hold your table up for hours by the valley – either admiring the enticing view  or ‘gupshupping’ with your friends. An unpretentious place, they serve some best Kombucha (a fermented tea drink – slightly alcoholic and effervescent to be had for health benefits). It being a trend these days I tried my cup of Kombucha and let me be very upfront about the taste, was too pungent ( I couldn’t even finish 50 percent of the serving) but the vegetarian pizzas were to die for. Tibetan gyathuk (noodle-soup) also a popular dish here. They serve some delicious gnocchi, ravioli, Lasagna – ***an all veg place. Beware – the billing that happened at Nick’s is completely manual which includes manually listing out all that you ate / drank. Fortunately we checked the bills and guess what we found???? We ate pizza -1 in number we were charged for 2, we had sizzling brownies -2 we were billed for 3, we ordered gyathuk -1 and  were charged for 2. On bringing it to their notice they apologised and promised not to repeat. And we were repeat visitors to the awesome food and some amazing brownies they served.

Also note most places prefer cash and not credit or debit cards.

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Gyathuk-Tibetan noodle soup

1 more traveller tip is to definitely try some roadside ‘momos’ from outside the local temple near the main ‘chowk’ they have some veg and non-veg variety in two layers of their local momos maker and not to miss dipping in some lipsmacking, lip burning sauce they serve with. Walking on the streets till late evening is an experience in itself since the temperatures then drop chilling your feet and hands and wanting to have a hot coffee. There is a small ice-cream & coffee vendor right at the centre of a busy chaotic illuminated ‘chowk’ (square). The likes of me would love to have an ice-cream in the chill. There are other good eateries like Jim’s Italian Kitchen, Crêpe Pancake Hut, Woeser Bakery, Carpé diem.

Sunrises in hilly terrains are a must must, but to peep out of a snuggly bed in the cold weather makes it difficult nevertheless worthwhile. The hotel receptionists are pretty laid back and things start moving a little later than expected. Post breakfast we set out in our rented car with Soniji (our driver), to a variety of places of interest around, our first stop :

St. John in the Wilderness Church – The church lies in a forest between McLeodganj and Forsythganj and was built in memory of to Lord Elgin, one of the viceroys of India, who was buried here in 1863 A.D.

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Welcoming doors to the sanctum

The stony cathedral has a Christian cemetery surrounding it. It has beautifully etched, colourful Belgian stained-glass windows and imparts peaceful vibes. I spent around an hour admiring the architecture and this masterpiece hidden in the jungles of the Dhauladhar range of Deodar forests.

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St.John in the wilderness church

Not to forget to make some wonderful memories in form of awesome photo-shots. Hence a justifiable  name – St.John’s in the Wilderness church

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Rays of hope & blessings

Dal lake – Sitting in the one of the folds of the deodar forests is a placid lake called the Dal Lake. Mind you ! I am not talking about the Dal Lake in Srinagar – Kashmir. This namesake is home to calm, greenish waters and a small Shiva Temple. Tourists throng this place either for a nice long walk encircling the lake or definitely to take some ‘selfies’ amidst the tall, handsome foliage around. A picturesque forest and a wonderful location for photo-shoots – mountains, water, trees and no hustle bustle – what more can one ask for. It serves as a base camp for several trekking expeditions.

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Mesmerizing beauty of a peaceful Dal Lake

His Holiness Temple – Dalai Lama Temple – En route to Bhagsunath we stopped at this famous temple called Tsuglakhang Temple. His holiness – Dalai Lama visits this temple few times each year to preach and bless. You can seek appointment to get blessed, much prior to your visit via their office. If you are blessed enough then it could be your day of visit for his preachings to be heard. His residence minus the pomp is symbolic to his simplicity.IMG_0599

It is a seat for Tibetan Buddhism in the country. A common sight here is  his followers meditating, chanting, performing asanas. Some just sitting on benches and enjoying the chatter of the whistling trees.

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The first prompt as soon as you are at a Buddhist temple is to turn the prayer wheels – a very interesting aspect of any Tibetan templePrayer wheels are rotating cylindrical wheels with Tibetan prayers inscribed on it. As people walk around the temple, they push the wheels to rotate it. It is a part of the rituals of this temple. Rotation of the prayer wheel is as meritorious as the recitation of the mantras filled inside this wheel. Each wheel is filled with thousands of Avakiteshvara mantras “ OM MANI PADME HUM”

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Meritorious prayer wheels 

When you visit the temple –

  • You don’t have your footwear on.
  • You respect fellow people meditating or chanting.
  • You don’t pay any entrance fee.
  • You don’t use your mobile phones or camera within the main temple.
  • You wear modest clothing since it is a spiritual centre.

This place can leave one spiritually elevated.

The street leading to the temple is lined with many small shops selling things of a vivid variety ranging from spiritual stuff to jewellery to incenses to momos. Next point of interest could be the pristine waterfalls set amidst lush greenery and breathtaking beauty, that one just cannot miss.

Bhagsu Nag waterfalls – One gets off the car to walk few metres to the white Bhagsu temple and after darshan, we walk up the stairs to the falls.

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Far away view of the not so full Bhagsu falls

Though the place was very scenic, but in my opinion it was an overrated place in terms of the number of people thronging the falls. To add to the chaos, tourists who enjoyed the waters added up to the food commotion in the place. Small eateries have popped catering to tourists and kind of ruining the splendour of the place.

Although to trek up the mountain could be inviting. The Bhagsu or Bhagsunag Falls are situated 2 kms away from Mcleodganj. Note – there is also a famous Shiva Café (synonymous to McLeodganj specially for the young) near the falls, you would love to relax after a short trek up the mountain you relax to a nice cup of hot chocolate or coffee.

Naddi point – By the time you have your lunch either at Jimmy’s Italian or Nick’s Italian or Woeser bakery for some amazing carrot-cake. It would be time to either walk or drive to reach Naddi point at sunset. Again in India any place be named as sunset or sunrise points are flocked by tourists and we know we are always plentiful to make the spot chaotic, crowded, selfie-spots, eateries and so on. So was this point. So there is a short walk from the point a wee-bit away from the crowd and you can truly enjoy the sun set at its best and see the ball of fire set into the mountain ranges leaving behind a riot of oranges and reds in the sky.

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A typical hue of the yellow-orange – Sunset from Naddi Point

Not to miss…. By the time the sun sets and the crowd disperses its dark and time for some good meal again. Then you head to the hamlets centrepoint again – the ‘Chowk’ – look for more food options. Its galore for non-vegetarians too, on which I cannot comment(I am a vegetarian)

Triund Trek – Situated in the laps of the Dhauladhar range, it has the picture perfect views of the mountains as well the Kangra valley. Triund trek is one of the very popular Himachal treks. It attracts domestic and foreign tourists alike. It is an easy doable trek for people of most age groups with basic fitness levels. The trek is an interesting one with the first 5 kms labelled easy and the last one with 22 curves  and voila…. You are at Triund. A well planned trek to Triund can be exhilarating with a camping experience overnight at the hilltop.

Other places of interest :

Namgyal Monastery– Also known as Namgyal Dratsang (Victorious Monastery) in local language, built in 1575 in Tibet originally, later shifted and currently the Dharamsala town in Himachal Pradesh. Namgyal monks practice their prayers & rituals. Young monks come here to study major texts of Buddhist Sutra and Tantra.

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You can also visit its cafe, bookshop and guesthouse, situated next to the Tsuglag Khang.

Note: Want to make your trip to McLeodganj worthwhile, plan your trip considering Dalai Lamas preaching dates.

After the Red Chinese invasion on Tibet in 1959, many Tibetan monks fled to India, Nepal and Bhutan. Those who fled to India stayed at Dharamshala and neighbouring areas. The residence of Dalai Lama was then shifted to McLeodganj and that was when the site of original monastery shifted outside the residence of His Holiness. The monastery complex consists of an institute, monastery and small temples. (Source : Wikipedia)

 Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan Arts and Culture – None of the typical itineraries would have a visit to this institute on it.

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Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan art & culture

But believe me, this place should find place in your itinerary. Stroll through this serene place with zen gardens, a koi pond, a restaurant, not to beat the coffee we had here under a tree cover. As the name suggests it is an institute which preserves as well trains in Tibetan art and culture. Their studios produce museum-quality artwork using methods that have been practiced and passed down for many centuries. They invite visitors to explore their serene campus and witness first hand the splendor of Tibetan arts and Culture. Look up dates for workshops if you want to attend any ranging from wood carving workshops to doll-making to applique work. To book one visit https://www.norbulingka.org/book-workshop.html. Open all days a week – 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.

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Stone-temple at the institute

HPCA Cricket Stadium: Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium is a picturesque one of its kind. The uniqueness of this stadium lies in the fact that it has the Himalayan range set up as its background, and is often said that when a bowler sets his run up here, it seems as if he is running in from the mountains to the pitch.

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HPCA cricket ground

Kangra Art Museum: located in Kotwali Bazaar which is about 13 kms. away from McLeodganj. Those interested in artifacts, art, sculpture and history dating back to 5th century can definitely make a trip here. Entrance to this museum is at a nominal fee.

A place that is deeply spiritual and that helps soothen your nerves, calm your worried mind, slows your breath, deepens it & makes you want for more of this sensation.

McLeodganj it is !!!

Short getaways like this are a way to keep up with the fast pace of urban living. Travel with travelista136.

GREECE IN A WEEK

I’d call it an Island and  Beach hopping holiday

2 nights – Athens
3 nights – Mykonos
2 nights – Santorini

Athens : It was noon already  and we landed in Athens. ‘Hop-on Hop-off’ is the way I like to get introduced to any new city and so did I for two days .. I pretty much like the concept of the open bus that takes you around the city, having done it in other countries as well. Easy transportation at your own pace, switching between offered routes, experience essential things in a short time, see historical and modern sites with audio commentary by the side are all the benefits that come along. For someone who has only 2 days in a city and wants to see all important tourist places, this could be the best option. And you have the choice of selecting your stops and time you wish to spend at each place. Although, it may not give you the very feel of the city but for someone who is short of time, I think it’s a good bet rather than struggling for taxis/uber (very few uber cabs in Athens) or any other public transport.

 

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Typical graffiti laden bylane in Athens

We spent the evening around the Plaka , the Monastiraki Square. Monastiraki square was a bustling place with a lot of activity and noise. Street side performances, plenty of music and lots of local fruit sellers coloured the square in addition to the hustle-bustle of shoppers.
Athens Flea market – a small street with shops selling about anything from souvenirs to jewellery to locally made leather shoes, sandals, handbags and much more is not to be missed and is a shoppers delight.
The fruit stall right in the middle of the square had some amazingly sweet cherries and strawberries – our part dinner was the fruits the Mediterranean had to offer. We then grabbed Gyros (a greek wrap laden with veggies) made to our taste at a quaint restaurant facing the lit Acropolis by the night, the magnanimous monument which was going to be our next days visit.
Acropolis – The name suggests “The Upper city”. A citadel located on a rocky hill, dedicated to goddess Athena – the goddess of wisdom is the main tourist attraction in Athens. The display of masterpieces (remnants) of ancient architecture from the 5th century B.C. leaves one awestruck . Though the heat and the overhead sun left us drenched in sweat , we were impressed by the imposing stories of the monuments. Follow the link to get more information on the Acropolis.
http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2384

 

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The Odeon of Herodes Atticus – Acropolis

Tip : must carry hats , water and don’t forget sunscreen .
The sun is going to be right over your head all through this uphill trek.

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Aerial view of the city from Acropolis

https://www.greeka.com/attica/athens/athens-excursions/athens-herodion-theatre.htm

After a very tiring but historically stimulating trek , we hopped on to the open bus and headed towards Glyfada also known as ‘Beverly Hills’ of Greece, an upmarket southern suburb of Athens, home to Greece’s millionaires, ministers and celebrities. We walked past the streets hemlined with high-end stores, nice ice – cream parlours so on and so forth. The last open bus on the route along the coast, we picked was around 5 p.m.
It was beautiful breezy ride on an open roof bus after a tiring sun stroked day.
The next morning was our ferry from the Piraeus port, our sea-jet to Mykonos.
Travelling by ferries is the best option to hop between islands in the Cyclades during the summer with multiple itineraries. Prebooking the ferry tickets may not be a must; but we did it to avoid disappointments. Booking may be done from one of the options below
http://www.greekferries.gr
http://www.ferriesingreece.com
http://www.ferries.gr
http://www.letsferry.gr
http://www.greeceferries.com
http://www.ferryconnection.com
We chose the high-speed ferries to get the islands, cutting down travel time considerably as against the slower ferries.
Mykonos :
The most exquisite island in the Cyclades is Mykonos making its place between the islands of Tinos, Syros, Paros and Naxos, measures only about 85 sq.kms and is also known as ‘The island of winds.’
Getting lost in the narrow, cobbled bylanes leading to rows of white houses of the town was fun, too much fun !! Every time it was a new bylane merging into another one and was like a maze to get to one location from another. That’s what I think was the highlight and charm of the Chora – main town ( hora) as they call it.

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Beautiful cobble-stoned by-lanes of Mykonos

And that beautifully lit cruise ship that docked at night at the port added to the vibrancy of the place. Quaint little high-end boutiques to small souvenir shops left the streets hustling until midnight. Plenty of jewellery shops selling exquisite, handmade, byzantine style jewellery attracted me and most tourists alike.For shoppers and window-shoppers mystical lanes of Mykonos is paradise. One gets a better deals with cash over debit or credit cards, hence though we carried a travel card , we encashed it at regular intervals from ATM machines and used Euros.
Having Gyros and greek frozen yogurt was the best palatable experience ever – Jimmy’s served one of the best gyros – heaven for vegetarians like me . There are multiple eating options right from chic beach bars to a bohemian-style setting to beach-side restaurants.

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Thanks http://www.airbnb.com for our cave-house stay in Mykonos Hora !! which kept us very well-connected even late nights. Though the Sun Suites was a small place, the location with the old windmill on a hilltop opening into the wide Aegean Sea and to the stars at night as an extension of our room made up for all the inconvenience due to size.
Renting a bike or an ATV or a smart car are options for tourists and we chose ATV; which was a smart choice since we could move around the Mykonos island at our own pace and moods.
Helmets , sunglasses (days are much longer and sun strikes really harsh), google maps on our phones and ATV ‘s were our companions for next three days in Mykonos.

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Our companions through our days in Mykonos

Beach hopping was the best experience ever . Mykonos known for its golden sandy beaches which get windy often . The array of beaches range from ‘party all night’ beaches like the Paradise , Super paradise or nudist beaches like the Elia beach, or family friendly beach like the Ornos; wind surfers favourite – the Ftelia beach where we landed up spending a good amount of time. Last but not the least was the Kalafati beach with a lot of water based activities . The ATV ride to and fro Kalafati – Hora was stunning.

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Wind – surfers paradise : Kalafati Beach

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Sunset partly captured at the Paradise Beach

Not to forget the majestic windmills – a defining feature of the Mykonian Landscape , reminded me of few famous SRK (for my Indian friends) shots. The little Venice – considered the most romantic spot attracts artists and tourists to capture the sunset, was a little too hyped , the view to die for from there could be very well experienced from the mountain top right near the windmills .

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Iconic wind-mills of Mykonos

The sunset from there is one of the most photographed and sitting and watching it over and again for all the three days was not satiating enough!

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A soothing sunset from end of the island

The last day we shifted to a boutique resort near Agios Stefanos not to miss our on the beach resort experience as well. The bar-tender and attendant there was so friendly and helpful ,we couldn’t have thanked him enough , he made our short stay a pleasant one at Flaskos.

Santorini :
They say : On Santorini – ‘there are more donkeys than inhabitants , more churches than houses , more wine than water’
Our sea-jet arrived into the island of Santorini at around 12 noon . And as we headed towards our hotel , we got a beautiful view of the Aegean Sea. We were picked by hotel pick-up and soon we were at our hotel .Were well ready to leave and look for our next means of travel on the island of Santorini.
Multiple car hiring options being available, we had to look for one since we had not pre booked: but that’s absolutely okay cause there are so many available all along Fira. We chose to rent a car this time over ATV, because of the heat.

Some amazing vegetarian – vegan joint called ‘Falafeland’ with some lip smacking greek/ mayo/ original falafel .

We headed towards the most organised beach they say – called Perissa beach; 15 kms south-east of Fira – black sand and crystalline calm waters were the most alluring.

 

Perissa Beach
Perissa Beach – black volcanic sand

The main feature of the beach is an enormous, towering, shiny rock called Mesa Vouno which added to the beauty of the beach .

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Mesa vouno

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The Venetian castle on a hilltop was our next stop where we watched a musical performance at La Ponta – ‘Odysseus Returns’. The show which ran for an hour or so started at 9 pm around sunset and ran well into darkness. The musical experience was very unique.

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La Ponta

Since it got late up there we chose to eat at a family tavern and picked again on some delicious greek salad and some tzatziki with bread ( ‘tzatziki ‘ has been my favourite through the trip. It is greek yoghurt flavoured with garlic, dill and more…. it was delicious )
Renting a car or any vehicle gives you the freedom to explore the place at your own pace and does not restrict you to timings and pit-stops that you would like to make .
The Caldera – volcano – hot springs trip was our next days agenda.
I came to the conclusion that the day you land in a particular city , you must explore that place and get the feel of the town. We did feel the vibrancy of Mykonos but not as much in Santorini.
A caique took us to the active volcano site – about a twenty-minute sail from the old port which could be reached either by foot (a 20 minute downhill walk) or a donkey ride or by a scenic cable-car.(6 euro one way)

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Caldera Caique

To shield from the sun we had our hats on and we hopped on our caldera boat and up onto the volcano after around 45 minute moderately difficult trek to find active volcano spots with visible sulphur fumes.

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Tip: carry enough water and snacks and sunscreen and hats of course .
We spend sometime on the top enjoying the view and the breeze.
After our descent we were led to the hot water springs which are not really hot only a few degrees more than the sea water .
Nothing really too great , but worth the dive from your boat into the sea and swim around 200 metres to the hot springs . Leaves you very tired due the heat .
That was it and we were dropped back to the old port .
We grabbed a bite at tripadvisor rated Salt and Pepper restaurant . Veg food decent – not too much choice though, the restaurant owner was very sweet and offered some lip smacking chocolate soufflé.
Freshened up, and then drove down to Oia ( pronounced – iya ) a small town by itself on the island of Santorini. Oia is carved out of the mountains making space for houses and restaurants and churches. Pure white buildings with colourful roofs that are typical of greek architecture are most seen here. Most visited for its sunset from the iconic white and blue domed churches but in my opinion too hyped much because of too many tourists and overcrowded small alleys just about 2.5 to 3 feet wide laced with plenty of jewellery, clothes & shoe shops.

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We did not wait for the Oia sunset though and drove down the curved road around the sunset time and caught some magnificent views which we wouldn’t have been able to from the popular Oia ( could have seen only heads of people ) .We drove down to the Ammoudi Bay for a photo shoot.

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Could have driven to Kamari beach – also known as the Red beach. But since we were pretty tired from the morning volcano tour and decided to spend the late evening at Fira town. And one last time had the amazing frozen yoghurt the town had to offer.

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In all these days we have been running around catching the sunsets , today was the day for the sunrise . Right from the balcony of our room we witnessed our first sunrise in all these days – not to be disappointed .

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And that was the one last time in Santorini for the time being – unless there is a another trip to the island in store for me !
And then it was our flight back home .. not wanting to leave behind any vibrancy of the two islands of Greece ..