Singsor Ani Gompa: My Home For A Day In The Eastern Himalayas

It’s 9:00 am. I sit on my desk, writing about a trek that I did 5 months back in Himachal when suddenly my Whatsapp buzzes with a video call. Irritated at the loud ringtone obstructing my thoughts, I stare at My phone screen flashing ‘Yeshi calling’! Surprisingly, I find myself grinning ear to ear.

Where faith and mountains meet!
where faith and mountains meet

A minute or two of usual greetings later, Yeshi speaks in a rather worried tone ‘Ma’am, Ani bol raha hai, aap Delhi mat jaana. CoronaVirus fael raha hai. Yahin rehna aap. Travel mat karna!’ I am still smiling while typing this. Friendships that my mountain sojourns give me are priceless. And the ones made in this secluded Gompa on the Eastern Himalayas of Arunachal, with these simple souls in maroon robes are even more special.

Singsor Ani Gompa, Tawang, Khirmu, Nunnery, Offbeat Places In Tawang
Singsor Ani Gompa…saw all shades of sky in my two days of stay and visit there.

REWIND….February seemed to work its magic. Spring was around the corner. While walking in those narrow bylanes of Khirmu ( a small town 25kms short of Tawang), I couldn’t help but stare at this quaint little Gompa perched on a hill top. While buying Parle G for some dogs sitting on the roadside, I asked the shopkeeper what that Gompa was called. He uttered a name that I couldn’t get a hang of but I caught the word ‘ANI’. When I repeated after him ‘Ani Gompa?’ to make sure if i said it right, the man next to him said, ‘Yes.. Ani matlab Ladies Monk.’ Did I just hear that right? A buddhist Nunnery on a mountaintop in the eastern Himalayas. That was my moment of Deja Vu. All those hikes and bike rides to Kila Gompa in Bhutan flashed back. I knew what I was going to do today. I picked up some extra parle Gs, because I was going to hike up to the Gompa right away. Little did I know then that the hike would not just lead me to the Gompa but also turn out to be a stay over with these enlightened souls who choose the road less taken.

Singsor Gompa, Tawang, Ani Gompa, Eastern Himalayas
First look when I landed on top…

It was a straight road up from Khirmu towards Geshila. I hitch hiked up to Lhou Gompa and decided to walk from here. Though the main road that laid unpaved and rarely taken by visitors except the villagers who stayed on top was as quiet as any hidden path, the sign of a narrow trail going up through the forest and meadows screamed and called me out. And so the tale of the hidden trail to Singsor Gompa began. I deliberately walked on the fallen leaves, hearing them crunch. The winds and cow bells jammed together. The Rhododendrons buds signaled the onset of Spring.

Spring, Flowers, Rhododendrons, buds
Rhododendron Buds on the hiking trail  

The mighty Himalayas looked elusive, hiding in the sheets of clouds and prayer flags fluttered by. I was alone yet surrounded by these comforting elements of nature. The sun charred me in no time and I regretted not carrying my sipper. On reaching this meadow patch, I turned around to find a small white Chorten, a memorial made by one of the local families for the deceased. I decided to go check it out and guess what I found there. A jug of water. How does nature hear every conversation of mine with myself? I blessed the soul who kept it for tired and weary hikers/ passerby like me.

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Can you see the jug of water kept on the left..Chorten in the middle of the forest

Gemreteng Village

As I climbed further ahead, a trail diverged into multiple trails.making a puzzle of sorts. I wondered what if I got lost in the jungle, with no network on my phone. I would have been happily stranded though. Half an hour later, I found myself at a dead end with a stone boundary wall of a lone house on the hill top. Trying not to panic, I decided to catch another trail going on the right, when I saw the Gompa a little far away, beckoning me. While a tiny cluster of houses, about 5 or 6 stood below on a downhill, that village looked surreal. A monastery on top watching over it, while a few scanty mud and stone walled houses, interspersed with farms stood in harmony around each other, far farrrr away from the maddening world.

Gemreteng Village, Arunachal, West Tawang, Eastern Himalayas
Gemreteng Village..The Singsor Gompa on the left top, watching over the hamlet and the snow clad Himalayas in the backdrop

I decided to visit this insanely quiet village called Gemreteng. A flight of cemented steps took me down to a makeshift gate that opened to these 6 Monpa households. A lady, donning a red hat  sat outside the first house, who gave me a rather stern glare. I hesitatingly quipped ‘Hi! Paani milega?’ That’s like my go to line when in doubt. She asked this little kid, sitting next to her to go fetch a glass of water for me. Finding the awkward silence a little uncomfortable, I asked her another question ‘ aapke gaon mein ek gompa hai na?’ She sternly replied ‘ yahaan koi gompa nahi hai!’. Okay this isn’t going too well. I didn’t see myself sitting with her like most of my rendezvous with villagers. But I loved this hamlet way too much to let it go. So I tried once again, with a huge smile and a little enthusiasm in my voice ‘ aapka topi bahut accha hai’ . Did I finally see her smiling? Though it was for a nano second, she did smile. I finally sat down next to her, almost throwing myself at her ‘what a creep’ she must have thought ! I learnt the local nomenclature of the rice ( thip) and wheat (nhai) grains (  that she sieved on the dallah made of bamboo. Looking at her house in awe, I told her how pretty it was. Stoned walls painted white with tiny green windows in the middle. She remarked ‘Kya sundar hai isme? Ye hum gareeb logo ka ghar hai, purana tuta hua’. I learnt she had been to Bangalore and that she loved the city life there.

Monpas, Monpas of Tawang, Monpa architecture, Gemreteng
A traditional Monpa house

Here we were, two women from different corners of India, wishing we lived each other’s life. She wasn’t as stuck up as I thought her to be initially. Lessons learnt while travelling…not to judge a book by its cover. In Fact we laughed a lot, clicking selfies. She even showed me the biggest radish and turnips I’ve ever seen in her farms. Small lil prayer flags were placed on toothpicks in her farms, probably to protect the crops from any harm.. She sold the veggies in Khirmu town and to the army troops. She told me about this Gompa 300 mtrs away from her village where a lone monk meditated. I left with the little kid sent by her to go meet this monk, before I finally headed to the Singsor Gompa.

Monpa Tribes, Tribes of Arunachal, Monpa Villages
The lady who gave me company in the village. She’s wearing the red Monpa Hat
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The lone monk at Aryadung Gompa
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My lil co hiker who guided me to Aryadung Gompa

SINGSOR ANI GOMPA

Singsor Gompa, also known as Jangchub Choeling Nunnery Gompa was founded way back in 1960 by His Eminence, the 12th Tsona Lama Thupten Jampel Wangchuk with a vision to flourish Buddhism among the nuns of the Mon Region. What started with a simple one building extended later with time. There are about 40 to 50 nuns residing here, Anis as young as 7 with mentors as old as 60 plus.

Singsor Gompa, Monasteries in Tawang, Ani Gompa
Singsor Ani Gompa

Leaving Gemreteng and Aryadung Gompa far behind, I now stood at the entrance of Singsor. The winds wailed here the loudest, the kinds I heard while staying at the Phajoding Monastery in Bhutan. Two huge prayer flags danced to the tunes of the boisterous wind while bells in the monastery chimed breaking the stillness in air. Though excited to get inside and meet the nuns, a part of me wanted to keep standing here, staring into the oblivion, across the snow clad mountains, deep valleys, and the haze that engulfed it. Nothing! Just nothing comes close to the tranquility felt at places like these.

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When i finally reached the gompa..Welcomed by the fluttering prayer flags
Buddhism, monks, buddhist nuns
Ani Thupten, leading me to her room.

I looked around to see a nun standing there, staring at me, probably out of curiosity. They aren’t used to seeing visitors here. I hesitatingly waved at her and smiled. That was when I first met Ani Thupten who later turned out to be my host at the nunnery and eventually the oldest friend I currently have in my life.‘Kahaan se aaya?’ She asked. I told her about how I got to know about their Nunnery this morning at Khirmu and how impromptu the hike was. She animatedly spoke ‘ Khirmuuu se!  Itna dur chalke aaya. Aao ..andar aao. Chai peeyega?’ She walked ahead, her hands covered in soiled gloves,holding a sickle. She was farming in her kitchen garden and I probably disturbed her routine but her inexpiable warmth never let me feel like an intruder.

life of buddhist nuns, gompas of Tawang
Ani Thupten, melting Dalda for butter lamps

Her cabin was a humble abode with just the basic essentials. A huge bukhari took the center space with one or two floor cushions around it. Kitchen formed a part of the same room. I can never get over the enthusiasm and warmth with which she moved around, laying the rug for me, stacking cushions on top of each other so that I felt comfortable. She just wont let me sit on the floor. While Ani made tea and popcorn for me, my eyes ran around her cabin, curious to find, what defined life here. The bare walls had one or two shelves with rations etc, a tiny room where she slept and meditated while there was another room in the cabin where a young nun aged 16 lived, who was Ani’s niece and was away right now, to see her family in town.

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Ani Thupten’s room..space where we sat around the bukhari, having endless conversations
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Such grace…such warmth!

Ani got the puffed rice that she called Nupoh and butter tea, and once again expressed her amusement ‘ Itna dur se akele chalke aaya, koi aadmi log utha lega toh?’ She sounded concerned about this stranger she just met

Ani Thupten joined the gompa when she was 30 and belonged to Khirmu. She was the only one amongst her five siblings who chose this path. Her wrinkled smile expressed her contentment in the solitude and spirituality that defined her life. And though their life may look simple and easy but not everyone can withstand this road less taken. In her 30 years of living here, there have been some who lived and left, never returning back. Her tone was not judgemental. One of the many reasons why I love Buddhism. I told her how I loved visiting gompas and had lived in one such nunnery in Bhutan. She was thrilled to see my pictures from there and stunned to know how I knew about Guru Padmasambhava and Alokeshwara Goddess. While skimming through my pictures, she asked me ‘ Aap rehega yahan?’ My day was going well, with the conversations in my head not just heard, but granting my wishes the moment I wished for them in my head.

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This little Kitty sat around the entire time, giving us company

The aluminium kettle whistled as the bukhari over boiled the water,making some of it spill around. Ani opened the bukhari lid, threw some greyish looking powder inside and closed it. She handed the powder container to me asking me to sniff it. On seeing the smell overpowering my senses ani remarked ‘ ye dhoop hai. Ooncha mein milta hai ye. Yahaan pahaadon mein mahi milega. Sela ke bhi uppar jaana padega.’ This particular incense powder called Poeh. is made out of local herbs found in very high altitude, quite Tibetan in nature. Talking about tibetan influences, Ani asked me if i’d like to have momos for dinner. Shit. am i lucky or am I lucky! Momos is my second favorite after gol gappas 😛 She called Yeshi to give us company in the evening and a few other elderly nuns for tea. She kept telling me ‘ Yeshi young hai aapke jaisa. Usko Hindi or English bhi accha aata hai. Aap bore nahi hoga’. Little did she know, she was the best company I had had in a long time.

Singsor Ani Gompa, Nunneries in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh
My warmest host…Ani Thupten

In the evening while taking a walk around the Nunnery, I came across other nuns, some of them washing their clothes in the fresh but icy cold spring water, some sat at the temple praying, while some as young as 8 sat along with their mentors, collecting cabbage and pumpkins from their farms. There were cabins for two or three nuns each, where mostly a senior or old nun stayed with younger ones. I looked at Tashi, the 8 year old, wondering if she knew why she was here, what that maroon robe meant to her, about the path she’s chosen or rather her folks have chosen for her. Standing with a steel bucket full of vegetables, she blushed as I waved at her.

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This little Nun stole my heart!
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Nuns doing their daily chores. Ani dragging a pile of bush to use as an obstruction barrier in her farm in order to prevent the crops from animals
life in Tawang
Next day early morning, i found this nun, sieving the rice and feeding grains to the birds around

While walking with Ani towards the Sangbum ( an incense house)  to light the evening incense, I asked her about the aids and funds and how they all got by. Apart from the lil funding by the govt, the local villages of the respective nuns help them with rations etc and they are often called to address or conduct sacred religious gatherings on auspicious occasions. Plus they don’t need much for they never own much. I realized the difference between living and hoarding during my stay here at the Gompa. In my one and a half days of stay here, i didn’t look at myself in the mirror because there wasn’t one around. surprisingly i never missed it.

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Lighting the evening incense at the Gompa

The young nuns are free to study outside in English medium schools and join the nunnery in their summer vacations, practicing meditation and learning scripts from the old ones. Aren’t  there chances of the Gompa running short of seats I asked. ‘Aajkal ke zamaane mein koi Ani ban na nahi chahta.’ And at times people do come and enroll themselves, but quite a few leave, not being able to cope up with the simple minimal life out here. As the sun drowned behind the Himalayas, Ani lit the incense inside the Sangbum giving rise to the white rings of smoke engulfing the Gompa. This was a daily ritual when the day commenced and ended.

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Anis gearing up for Lossar… I have a huge plate of Pohri Paapad in my hands

Later in the evening four other Anis came over along with Yeshi. I sat down listening to their folklore about the Holy Waterfall,  a place with a religious significance called Chummi Kautsar where monks and nuns often visit in monsoons. One of the Ani’s got Pohri paapad and Khupsey, made out of rice and wheat  snacks made for Losar preparations. They all laughed on my flawed use of local language. I picked up a few words from Ani in the afternoon. Ani Thupten had been feeding me all day long so when in the evening she served me a bowl of snacks, I uttered ‘ Mo Koh…Ke Paingeran’ . It means.’.No Thank You..I am too full.’ I felt like a foreigner trying to speak in Hindi, cracking up every one around.

Yeshi made the best yet healthiest momos I’ve ever had. Wheat flour and Lai patta, a local leaf added some extra flavor to the dimsums. I had almost 12 of them. I asked Yeshi what made a young girl like her join the nunnery at 18. She said it was her childhood dream. Her parents didn’t approve of it earlier but are now proud  of her decisions. She’s currently studying in Tenga and comes here on vacation. After her 12th she’d be here for good. After hours of chatting, Yeshi said ‘Madam, kya aap mujhe or Pema ko whatsapp pe English padhaayega?..Hamara English kamzor hai’. I quipped, yahaan Eng teacher ka vacancy nahi hai kya? 😉 I chuckled as I said that but how ideal would have that been.

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Dinner time…Yeshi, preparing momos

While lying down in my bed at night in Pema’s room, I couldn’t help but notice a pile of Tinkle comics on her bedside and a broken 2 inch piece of mirror and a rosary. She was all of this. A little child, naive in her adolescence yet enlightened unlike others at her age. The winds wailed. The bells chimed to its tunes yet again. And I, once again, wrote a thank you mail to an anonymous recipient that remains stowed in my drafts. For I’d look back at it one day and smile reading the stories from Singsor, that I was lucky to call home for a day and for times to come, every time I visit Tawang.

Monasteries, Tawang, Ani Gompa, Nunneries In Arunachal
Reluctant Goodbyes…the morning I left was all packed up..

TRAVEL AND STAY INFO

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  • Singsor Gompa is situated in Khirmu. Khirmu falls enroute to Tawang while driving up from Jung.
  • Drive up from Khirmu on Geshila road towards Lhou Gompa. Though you can drive up all the way to the nunnery, the hike up from village Lungku Dung is short, easy and breath taking.
  • As a kind gesture, do think of carrying a little something, may be fruits or ration that can come in handy for nuns who live in this cut off region. i was charged nothing for my stay here. Bought some maggie and biscuit packets in bulk for the Anis residing here. just a token of gratitude.
  • Please do not litter here while hiking or travelling. If you happen to interact with nuns and wish to take their pictures or record them, make sure you take their permission.
  • for short stories check out
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View from Ani’s cabin

Tales From The Remotest Villages In The Great Himalayan National Park: Shagwar, Shakti and Marore

Raktisar Bound

Ever desired to follow the river up to its mouth or origin? There’s this song that I’d often hum while hiking, by Lord Huron, that goes like this

‘Oh there’s a river that winds on forever, I wanna see where it leads

Oh there’s a mountain that no man has mounted, I wanna stand on its peak”

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I took the lyrics a bit too seriously for I was so tempted to see the glacier that gave birth to the ever brimming Sainj River…I wanted to see Raktisar/Raktisaur!

Few months ago, the husband gifted me a book called ‘The Great Himalayan National Park’ by Sanjeeva Pandey and Anthony Gaston. Though the struggle to read books has always been my vice, with time, I find myself hooked on it. I owe this trip to this book and to my ever so thoughtful husband who isn’t only super supportive but always gives me that extra push whenever I’m in doubt ( why won’t he …his hidden motive is to have his own free time when I am not around and play golf and his Playstation like there were no tomorrow! Hmph!)

Like I mentioned in my previous blog post, Mahi ( the homestay owner in Sainj) helped me contact Sharad, the founder of HMRA ( Himalayan Monk Riders Association) who planned to go on this hike with three other local men from Shangarh. Before I start narrating My Tales of Tintin Adventures, here’s a little about GHNP.

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 The Great Himalayan National Park

The Great Himalayan National Park is in the midst of the Western Himalayas. There are only trails to travel within the park. The remoteness of the area, low grazing pressure within forests, super low level of tourist activity and dependence on traditional lifestyles were the main reasons to establish the park in the given location. GHNP is also listed now as a part of the world heritage site.

Four rivers, Tirthan, Sainj, Jiwanal and Parvati originate in the park itself fed by the melting glaciers and monsoon rains. The marking of boundaries for GHNP was such that the entire 620 sq kms of Tirthan, Sainj, Jiwanal Valleys were without any human habitation except for the three villages of Shagwar, Shakti and Marore (with a total of justttt 120 odd people) all these three in Sainj Valley. And so I was lucky to have visited these special villages, which are still devoid of electricity and roads while hiking up to The Raktisaur Glacier.

It’s 9:00 am. The sky is packed up and there’s a slight drizzle in the air but my spirits are on an all new high . No that’s not because i’m too strong or anything but because i’m too used to Himachal’s mood swings by now. I finally meet Sharad and we do a little bit of socializing while he’s driving his SUV. The plan was to drive up to Niharani, the last village from where the trek begins. There are three guys in the backseat and we pick up the fourth one named Rohit from Neuli. I say an awkward Hi to everyone. They’re all young local boys in their early 20s while I and Sharad are the oldies here 😛

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The barrage at Niharini.

Niharini boasts of being home to The Sainj Hydro Power Project barrage. It’s a tiny sleepy hamlet with Majaan village above,watching over it. It’s October time and the villages are in their splendid greens. We are already walking along Sainj. She’s brimming with joy, shining turquoise green, undisturbed by humans. This is her habitat, she thrives here like nowhere else, she’s born here, all pure in the wild, leaving for villages, farms and towns. She might have destinations a many, but her source is one and only Raktisar. I kept wondering how she’d get quieter , a tad more docile, as I’d hike further ahead, closing towards her birthplace.

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Sainj…at the very outset of her long, never ending journey
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The hidden trails

My deep reverie was obstructed by Kishori and Rohit, contemplating whether they should climb the rock and fetch those massive white mushrooms. I’ve seen plenty in the Himalayan region so far, but never had I come across mushrooms as huge as these. The boys told me that these were locally called ‘Chechi’ and are quite edible.After crossing the bridge in Chenga, we were now hiking on the left bank of Sainj, nearing Jaangla. I sat with Rohit and Kishori waiting for Sharad and Biju. They talked among themselves in their heavy Himachali accent. Pointing at this particular tree branch tied up with saffron cloth, I asked Rohit what it meant. It’s locally called The Panchasara Devta Tree and is said to protect people in this jungle. He told me how the local people celebrate interdependence between nature and humans through sacred groves and traditional practices like digging of herbs in the meadows only after October time locally called Bees Bhadon.

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Kishori plucking mushrooms called Chechi, from the wild. These are pretty edible.
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This huge mushroom that barely fit my hand
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Birds eye view of Shagwar from The Guguna Top

A steep climb up to Guguna top and one could now see the first out of the only three villages that were allowed inside the GHNP. Shagwar shone bright on the green steps of the mountains, basking in the faint rainbow. Another delight that remains constant in most of my Himachal trips.While the boys decided to roll a joint out of the freshly plucked leaves( how rich is this place :)) i decided to hike further ahead. Hiking alone at such places feels therapeutic. The trails were pure wild. Endless mushrooms clothed laden woods, stupendous cascades, birds that I’d never heard before and the most vibrant butterflies that gave me company( the dogs ditched me this time for there were nowhere to be seen around). A little short of the village, while climbing up, in a dense jungle, I had a moment of self doubt. I was intimidated by a rather strange looking man, who hurried down towards me, running without brakes, staring at me incessantly as though he was drunk. I frantically dug my pockets for a Swiss knife and looked at my mobile..It had no network. The man suddenly stopped a few steps away from me, just standing and staring. I sternly asked him what he wanted, when he yelled at his cows from a distance. I realized he was slightly disoriented and breathed a sigh of relief. The sign of a blue house some meters away calmed me down. It’s then that I realized, solitude in places like these can be as intimidating as comforting at times.

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First House that i came across after entering the park zone…Shagwar Village…17kms from the road head

Shagwar Village

Shagwar took my breath away. A village with just 15 odd houses, running only on solar electricity. Snow clad mountains surrounded it while Sainj gushing down, created the only sound apart from the chirping of birds. I decided to sip on some water from the outside tap in the blue house. A lady sat there with her daughter, shearing her lamb. This was the first time I saw a sheep without its coat. I cringed as the lamb resisted. When I asked the lady if it were hurting her, she laughed and said “ No! She just feels tickled” . My last two years of hiking in the mountains have changed my life in many ways, out of which one conscious change that I’ve made is to turn into a vegetarian. Having spent time with the shepherds, yak herders, horsemen etc in different Himalayan regions, I got to see the animals up close and found them as human as us. It feels strange to bring up a certain living being only to be slaughtered and served on your dish or skinned off to be flaunted on your dress or bags. I’ve got sloppy kisses from calves in Uttarakhand on being fed grass, just the way my pets would do and nudged by a lamb at Kareri for more scratching on his head. I often think about animal racism. A dog is treated like family and might even find a place in our bed. But a lamb with an equally warm heart and face only finds a place on our palate and plate! Strange are the ways of humans.No?

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A lady shearing her lamb at Shagwar Village…Gearing up for winters

Shagwar, Raktisar
Some four legged company in Shagwar

Shakti Village (Shaktee)…Where time stands still!

Shakti village Raktisar
 A tiny cluster of houses at Shakti Village scattered on the hills and by the riverside
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Rohit and Kishori setting up the camp near Shakti…The village also has a trekkers hut

The dusk lit the sky in evening shades and we were almost there at Shakti. After crossing a massive waterfall, a forest department office, few grasslands and quite a bit of walking, we finally landed at Shakti. While Sharad and Biju were yet to reach, Rohit and Kishori sat down to fix the tents and light fire. I was finally at the village that I had read so much about. The village had three or four houses downhill while few sparkled on top. They sparkled with dim solar lights in the darkness that engulfed this quietest Himalayan alley. My head torch showed me the trail adorned with the weeping willows, leading me to the hamlet. I heard the kids yelling around, stealing the last few minutes of evening light before they were called back home by their mothers. While everyone had the same age or same species company, there was one kid who showed traits like me. She ran around with a dog, giggling away to glory,with a plastic sheet turned into a leash that she tried putting around the dog’s neck. The game was something like this..she was supposed to lock him up with the leash and run around while the dog was to escape the horror he was subjected to :P. I sipped on some water from the outside tap. This was probably the first hike where I wasn’t carrying my sipper at all. The water here was the cleanest and there was plenty of it. Every bend and corner had some fresh water springs. The cherry on the cake was that it was icy cold.

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The same little kid who played with her dog the previous evening… Caught up with her and her mother before leaving for the next base camp

While an old rustic house with muddy walls stood there all abandoned, a brand new cemented house with bright colored walls stood right beside it. Both though had contrasting structures and life span, made in different eras, but they witnessed no change. Time stood still in this village. Shakti was still cut off from the world. The nearest road head was 17 km away at Niharini. It’s 2019 and there’s still no sign of electricity or medical aid here. I asked a lady ‘ Light nahi hai aapke gaon mein?’ She stretched her hand pointing towards the moon in the sky ‘ woh hai hamaara light!” Lights here in this world, that’s insulated to outside influences, work on the mercy of Sun God. Getting by is not easy in monsoons and winters. 

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The traditional Katha Kuni architecture of Himachal

What about their culture? I asked Rohit, later that evening, while staring at those dim lights on the mountain top that were put off by 7 pm. ‘ Since they are isolated for a long time, they exhibit a distinct culture. Devta or the local deity is given utmost importance and governs all the aspects of the life of the villagers.’

In Fact when the park was in making, these three villages were given a separate space outside the boundary for habitations are never allowed inside national parks. But the belief in Devtas is so rigid that the villagers explained about their undying faith to the government and how the local deity would be displeased on displacing the sacred hamlet. Both Shakti and Marore have temples dedicated to Lord Brahma Rishi Guru Vashishth. Apart from that, villagers also worship the spiritual life of natural elements or objects. One gets to see open air temples of iron tridents ( trishul) and scrap metal of used household items with red prayer flags.

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Early Mornings At Shakti Village…Spirals of smoke rise from the chimney while stacks of hay adorn the house floor…
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Holy Cow!!

I sat around the bonfire with four Himachali men sharing stories from this alien world that forms a part of the country we all belong to yet is so distant and distinct that one feels you’ve entered a different planet. The village boasts of being home to the oldest voter in Himachal, a 108 year old lady named Shari, who recently passed away. Oh and BTW it also happens to be the farthest polling station in the state. Imagine the election official trekking almost 22 km through steep terrain amidst forests of the Himalayan National Park ( couldn’t they just hire me ;))

‘Shari’s house is 200 meters away from the polling station and she’s carried in a palanquin for voting.’ said Rohit.

‘Palanquin…really’? I scoffed! How do they manage that? ‘ So a chair is fitted between two huge wooden poles and the person is carried in that. While this is just 200 meters,patients and sometimes even pregnant women are carried this way for miles. In a recent incident, last month in February 2020, a pregnant woman was carried in one such makeshift cart for over 30 km , taking about 8 hours to reach the nearest hospital in Sainj Valley.’

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The following morning at Shakti..while hiking up to the village, i found this old man sitting outside his room, washing his bowl. look at his beautiful humble abode led by those makeshift rocky steps.

I told the boys about the famous story of Hari Datt Sharma, popularly known as Shastriji, that I read in the GHNP book. In 1989, he was appointed as a teacher at Shakti village for 20 households of Shagwar Shakti and Marore but there was no school building at that time. Shakti was then 22 kms away from the road head. So Shastriji chose a cave that was half a km away from the Shakti temple and 200 m above the Sainj river. The first batch was of 13 children at this cave school. He continued to teach for the next 13 years till 2002. Shakti now has a school till 8th grade and kids from Marore and Shagwar village daily trek up to Shakti.

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Children of Shakti Village excited to find outsiders in their land…and of course the over excited me to be around these beautiful souls

It felt strange to be in this alien world left far behind. Strangely happy. That probably because I was just a passerby. Camping in a hamlet which doesn’t know what a television looks like or hasn’t experienced the comforts of electricity sure feels incredibly unreal. Moreover a road inside the national park would mean easy accessibility, coming in of mobile towers and electric poles thus affecting the wildlife preserved so beautifully till date! But then again, wasn’t I being selfish? How about if i were to live here for good?This, in no way, was an easy thought. Yes the water is the cleanest, the air as pure as snow, there’s ample of weed that grows like wild grass and there is harmony among the meager few humans but somewhere in that beautiful simple life lies the urge to live with basic needs that you and I often take for granted. Imagine no sun for days together, battling those nasty winters in darkness.

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Women Folk Of Shakti Village…This particular shepherdess was very kind to invite me to her place!

And probably some secret force heard this conversation that i had with myself for just three days later, while hiking back from the glacier, a misadventure of sorts happened that made me realize how easily, what’s basic becomes a luxury, making one feel crippled and helpless.

More about Murphy startling me at the most unexpected of places…in the next blog.

Trek Info And Itinerary

The trek was organised by HMRA ( Himalayan Monk Riders Association). The company is based out of Shangarh in Sainj Valley, Kullu and knows the area in and out. They carry out many other off beat treks in the region.

Here’s Sharad’s contact 9717110658

DAY1 : Niharani Village (1710 amsl) to Gadaparni Village to Shagwar Village to finally Shakti Village (2270 amsl)

DAY 2: Shakti Village to Marore Village (2540 amsl and the last village inside the park) to Karechar Thatch ( 2830 amsl)

DAY 3: Karechar Thatch to Parkachi Thatch (3080 amsl) ..camped at Parkachi itself this day for it poured cats and dogs.

DAY4: Parkachi Thatch to Jogini Parkachi (3110 amsl) to Raktisar Camp (4000 amsl)

Day 5: Raktisar Camp to Jogini to Parkachi  Thatch (Meadow)

DAY 6: Parkachi Thatch to Kharechar Thatch to Marore Village

DAY 7: Marore to Shakti to Shagwar to Niharani Village

The trek can be graded between Moderate to Difficult. Definitely needs tremendous amount of physical stamina. The trek after Parkachi Thatch is not for the faint-hearted. Details about that in the next blog.

Solo Backpacking In The Land Of The Monpas…Zemithang/Zimithang

Swinging along with my co travelers who happen to be all Monpas, in a jam packed trundling Sumo, i find myself in a constant dilemma of uttering Ouch or Wow! The driver is huddled in a corner, sitting one person away from the gear. Trust the public transport and the roads less taken in the northeast to give that much needed adrenaline rush. What more? A TSeries song from the 90s plays on the drivers pen drive “ Mai Deewani Apne Saajan ki, the chorus repeats ‘Deewani three times..Deewani Deewani Deewani”! I think of the lyricist who came up with such interesting lyrics, just when a giant statue of Tara Devi ( The Durjen Lumpa) emerges in the backdrop,on a mountain top, interrupting my thoughts! I’m instantly reminded of the famous quote ‘difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations’!

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We enter a no network zone but hey ‘Tashi Cell’ constantly shows up on my mobile screen. I am thisss close to Bhutan!

Zemithang ( locally pronounced as Zimithang) is a small cut off hamlet, sandwiched between Bhutan and Tibet. Zemi means Sand and Thang is a place.It literally means the land washed away by river. The natives here are known as Pangchen meaning ‘a person free from all sins’. A place called Khinzemame, a little ahead of Zimithang is where the present Dalai Lama crossed into India from China in 1959.

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Small villages perched on the mountains bask in the last rays of the day. Namjang Chu (the river) hustles around breaking the monotony in the air. The man sitting next to me suddenly joins his hands and bows his head out of respect as the sumo whizzes past this massive White Chortan, almost 100 ft tall,called the Gorsam Chorten,a replica of Boudhanath in Nepal. I am told by the man that the chortan has a huge religious significance and opens up once in 12 years when Buddhists from all around India, Nepal, Bhutan and even Tibet come offer their prayers. It is said to have taken 13 years to build. Also a big 3 day mela takes place every year in March where Buddhists from different parts of India come display their stalls selling home made products and handicrafts as well as hand looms.

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The Gorsem Chortan
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Jowa serving me the local butter tea in the traditional wooden bowl

I landed at my home stay in a village called Kharman. I was going to spend a day here living with a local Monpa family, seeing this part of my country that never existed in my knowledge, doing things their way. Its pitch dark and there’s a power cut. Luckily the solar lights are on. I sit with Rinchin along with his daughter Jowa around the bukhari, sipping on the local butter tea! ( I’ve probably had more tea than ever in my entire life in this one week of travelling in Arunachal).Tea always acts as an ice breaker and conversations overflow with time. Rinchin is a cook at a local office while Jowa runs the home stay along with her younger sister. They are five siblings, the youngest being a 4 year old boy! Looks like the preference for a male child is a universal norm.

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My hosts…the mother and the youngest member of the family

Rinchin tells me how WWF people make frequent visits to their villages,to make documentaries on wildlife. Red Panda, which also happens to be the local mascot, is often spotted by him while he’s in the upper reaches finding greener pastures for his cattle. His cow shed has a tree which bears a local fruit called ‘Lejzu’ which happens to be Pandas favorite feast apart from Bamboos. The other wildlife includes Blue Sheep Takin, Black Bear, Pheasants, the gorgeous Rhododendrons and some rare medicinal plants( like Yarchagumba) that are locally called ‘Jadibutis’ which are sold worth lakh a kilo to other countries. He speaks in a rather sad tone “ Is saal black necked cranes ek bhi nahi aaya’ This rare species of bird which usually migrates to this side in winters was not found at the river banks for there’s heavy machine work going due to construction of a hydro electric project( a 780MW Nyamjang Chu HEP of the Bhilwara Group is coming up). I sigh thinking of us humans taking away their habitat…little by little..day by day!

Ps: The Black Necked Crane is not only a threatened bird but also revered as the incarnation of the 6th Dalai Lama for the Monpas.

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While hiking up to the Lumpo Gompa

I woke up the next morning to yak bells outside my room. Jowa and I decided to hike up to Lumpo and Muchet, villages on hilltop with beautiful monasteries. On my way up trailing behind Jowa who climbed so briskly I asked her about the local farming. I was quite taken aback to know that farming is no longer done professionally. The Pangchen community believes in preserving wildlife and the villagers would suffer huge losses for the wild pigs and deer would harm their crops. Since they don’t believe in hurting animals, it became difficult to maintain their crops. Most of the locals work for either GREF or as private laborers, collecting and selling sand and stones. ‘And what about homestay?’ I asked? She scoffed ‘ Homestay! Madam, the last guest came five months before you, no one knows about Zemithang. People only come till Tawang and head back.’ I was now determined more than ever to write on this piece of heaven for it deserved much more love!

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The magnificent Guru Rimpoches statue at Lumpo

Namjangchu sparkled in the sun deep down in the valley as i stood at the Lumpo Gompa under the mighty Guru Rimpoche statue looking down at the valley like a guardian angel. Jowa tells me how one gets to see all Chinese garbage in the monsoons for Namjangchu starts flowing from China, to Arunachal then to Bhutan and finally lands at Assam. I joked, ‘So Assam bears the brunt of undisciplined garbage disposal of all the three countries eh!?’

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One of the Private Gompas at Muchut

We hiked from Lumpo to Muchet, a tiny village that turned out to be my favorite with a spectacular three storeyed bright colorful gompa. A quick bite back at Zemithang and we further hiked up to the Gorsam Chorten. It had been eight hours of constant hiking and walking around the villages but never did i feel tired for every hamlet offered a new surprise. Huge houses made of stones and wood dotted the landscape in Kelektang and upper Kharman villages. They stood like sentinels of time etched with stories from eons ago. An exceptionally humongous stoned wall house stood at the farthest end of the village. The legend has it that it belonged to the Queen of Tawang, centuries ago. She was the second wife of the king who possessed the powers of demon and wooed the king while he came to this side for hunting while the first wife was considered to be an angel who hailed from the Bomdila region.These stone houses are locally called Sikpa Khem and the three storeyed ones are known as Zangduperi. ( not sure if i spelled it right..written on the basis of my host’s pronunciation)

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The traditional architecture…houses made of stones and wood…The huge big house on the right is where the queen of Tawang lived once…centuries ago

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Monpa kids…they are 8 siblings..with 6 girls and two boys!

Seeing me huffing and puffing my way up the steps made of stones in the village, Jowa asked me, ‘Madam paani peeyega’ I nodded, ‘Yes Please’! We decided to stop at this lady’s house for water which turned out to be a long chit chat session over a cup of namkeen chai with murmuras( white puffed rice) dipped in it along with freshly cooked Khupsey ( a sweet snack made for Losar). I asked the host lady if I could borrow the red hat donned by her called SIRJZA. She said ‘aapka juuda kholna padega’ I quipped ‘kholega but darna mat since my hair would have been all over the place” and when i finally left it loose, she went like “Madam kahaan se khareeda itna saara baal?’ We all cracked up at that moment. Apart from her great sense of humor, I was mighty impressed with her impeccable Hindi. Her many relatives had come over for Losar preparations which was just a week away. I asked them if they all got together and performed their folk dance called Aji Lhamu. Sadly the present generation doesn’t practice the traditional rituals much and in order to learn the dance, they call people from Lumpo where villagers are more into the old traditions. She said ‘ hum toh Aara and Chang peeyega aur dost log ke ghar jaayega.’ (Aara and Chang are the local wines made out of fermented rice and corn.)

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My butter tea with murmuras ( puffed rice dipped in it) And the Radio Gaga! this part of the world still listens to the radio..only that it works after 5:30pm
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Monpa women all happy preparing for Lossar!

While leaving her place, she asked me to come visit her again and told me to show her pictures to Ajay Devgan if i ever go to Bombay! That explained a lot about her flawless Hindi. People in this remote area love Bollywood and often pick up cds like 10 movies for 100 bucks in Tawang. So what if there are no cinema halls!

After reaching the home stay,Jowa made the most delish momos and I also tried their local cuisine called Churpi and Zann. We were exhausted with almost ten hours of constant hiking but weren’t done for the day.The girls were excited to show me their dresses that they planned to wear on Losar. I so wanted to try their traditional dress before hitting the bed. Jowa and I both wore the Shingka along with Dojzu( the black hat made of yak hair) and we posed with tired faces but genuine happy smiles  😛

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The traditional Monpa dress has 5 parts.. The cap which is of two kinds called ..The black one is called Dojzu made of yak hair while the red one is made of wool called Sirjza the dress is called Shingka and the jacket is known as Tatuong A black woolen thing is worn behind called Tengnemgakjima
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was way too exhausted yet thrilled to try the local dress

Later that night,while writing my diary,my pen scribbled the words in synchrony with the chimes of the prayer wheel outside my window. My heart was full,content and filled with gratitude. Over the last five years, I’ve traveled around the countryside, meeting incredible tribes from different regions, at times camping in a cave at 4200amsl with local Himachalis, living with yak herders in Bhutan, staying with the Gaddi Shepherds of Dhauladhars, introspecting while living with the nuns at a gompa in Arunachal and calling innumerable homestays my home, each of them weaving new stories that folks like you and i might have never known.The simplicity of people and their unconditional love for a random traveler awes me every single time. The places might change, people might differ but the warmth and love i receive every single time is the same …same old!

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My host and her cattle

TRAVEL and HOMESTAY INFO

  • Zemithang is a small town/hamlet located 70 kms ahead of Tawang on the Lumla axis. Its surrounded by Bhutan and Tibet.
  • There are two ways to get to Zemithang. You could either catch a bus from the Tawang bus stand. The bus ticket would cost you  Rs 170. PS: the buses do not operate on Sundays. Other option which is mostly preferred is the shared sumos charging Rs 250 for a ride till Zemithang. Try grabbing the front or the middle seat to avoid bumps and motion sickness. The Sumos are available at the bus stand itself.
  • In case you want to book the sumo in advance, here’s the contact. 9402404085. Because at times it isnt easy to get one.
  • Lumla is half way Zemithang and is famous for the huge Tara Devi statue on a mountain top called The Durjan Lumpa. ps: the sumos dont stop there though. one has to take a detour from the break point.
  • One will find Tashi cell network( Bhutanese service provider) here for Bhutan is just 30kms away. No other network works beyond Lumla except BSNL.
  •  I stayed at Rinchin Tsewang Homestay in a village called Kharman, a kilometre ahead of Zimithang. The family is extremely warm and helpful. Jowa guided me around the villages and hiked along to the gompas. She also makes the best momos everr!
  • Here’s Rinchin’s contact…9402030387. The homestay is comfortable with clean bedrooms. The washroom is in the household premises but not attached. Remember you are in a cut off world where basic amenities are a luxury. They charge Rs 750 as rent with complimentary dinner.
  • Mr Dorjee, a very kind gentleman who helped me with Rinchins contact is also coming up with his own homestay ( its almost done). Here’s his contact 9402859651.
  • Every season has a different charm here. If you wish to see snow then winters is a good time though it was pretty hazy when i went. I believe the place is at its prettiest best during the monsoons in July and August though the roads are in a pathetic state due to landslides and i’m not sure if you’d be able to hike around much. March to April and Sep to October seems ideal.

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Things To See In and Around Zemithang/Zimithang

  • Just as you enter you’d come across the huge Gorsam Chorten. Built by Sangay Pradhar( a lama), its 7 centuries old and holds a big religious significance. The locals host a mela here every year in March and it opens up once in 12 years.
  • Hike/ Ride up to T Gompa also called the Taktsang Gompa which is 30 something kms from here. It is considered as one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in Arunachal. Guru Padmasambhavas footprints are  said to be imprinted in this shine as he meditated here in the 8th century.This place is also famous for Red Panda sightings.
  • T Gompa is just 2 kms from the very famous Sangetsar/ Madhuri lake. one can plan on doing both these places together. Though you do need a vehicle going up to this place for a taxi would charge a bomb for the same. i couldn’t find any locals going that way for every one was caught up preparing for Lossar, making trips to Tawang instead.
  • Black Necked Cranes migrate to this side in winters. If you are lucky, you can spot them at Namjang Chu river.
  • Hike up to Gompas at Muchut and Lumpo. I hiked up to Psamdamcheling Gompa at Muchut and Lumpo Gompa (further ahead on top with a huge Guru Rimpoche statue).One can further hike up to Lumpo Village from the gompa. The village is just a stones throw away from Tibet border.
  • Must do a village tour of the upper Kharmen and Kalakteng villages in order to witness the old traditional monpa houses made of stones, mud wood and bamboo.

 

Shangarh Beckoning…..Yet Again!

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The oh so beautiful homestay at Shangarh!
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This picture was taken after the hike got over…hence quite a few bandaids on my toes 😛

Folding my cargos, i literally thrusted them into my backpack. My mind isn’t at ease. Its 12:30 am and i’m just back from one of the formal dinner nights that fail to satiate my tummy!  ( Army Wife Duties are for real) and I have a bus to catch for Aut at 4:30 am. Groggily I talk to Tee, “ Tee ya, I’m not sure about this trek. The book on GHNP says it’s not easy plus i’d be hiking with four men who are absolute strangers. I’ll be in pure wilderness with no network. What if someone tries to act funny. There won’t  be even dogs to save me Tee?!” 

My ever so supportive husband pacifies me in ways you’d never believe! ‘Carry your pepper spray and knife and just sleep it off” Clearly, my husband is a man of few words :P! Welllll! Sleep i did that night, for those meager two hours until the alarm pushed me out of my bed. I had never been so unsure of a trip before. I had probably read the book on GHNP a little too more than required.

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HRTC rides…clicked at Pandoh.

HRTC almost feels like home now. After traveling in the same bus for a year now, one’s gotten used to all the state transport melodrama. Guess what? I immediately recognized the bus conductor and the driver. The driver’s yanko hat was hard to forget and he sported the same even today. While the bus conductor smiled at me, i thought he too recognised me. When he asked me for the ticket, I frantically dug my pockets but couldn’t find it. He said ‘Chalo jaane do” I quipped, ‘Bhaiya hum last time miley the, Mandi jaate hue! Yaad hai aapko?” He immediately retorted “ Hum toh Mandi roz jaate hai, hum aapko yaad honge par aap humko nahi!” I sheepishly smiled and answered in my head “ Well Thanks mate! That was very flattering!”

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The happy cows grazing before the winters dry up the green grass galore.

After hours of staring outside the window, being humored well by the passenger on the same seat who happened to be a young college pass out from Mandi anddd who was rather curious to find out what made me travel alone, I finally reached Aut at 1:30 PM. P from HMRA was waiting to pick me up from the bus stand. He had a warm infectious smile and spoke to me as though we were friends since long. No inhibitions at all. He raced the car like he were a Ferrari driver and suddenly paced down on seeing the cops around. I asked him if they were strict about the speed limits and seat belts here. He muttered ‘ Ye log yahaan sirf maal pakadne ke liye baithe hai! Abhi aut aate samay pakda tha mujhe aur puri gaadi khulwa di in search of weed’! Aha! Welcome to Kullu. Weed is organic and we wouldn’t know how to work without it. I found it strange for the first time when men around me smoked up publicly but this was my 9th trip and I knew this was the norm.

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The makeshift cafe at Shangarh.

Back in March I was on the same road, lugging my way through, in the bus to Deori village. Mahi, my then homestay owner who even helped me with this trip messaged ‘ hike ke baad pakka ghar aana”. While I was tempted to leave the hike and run away to his place right away. Never was I so unsure of any of the treks before. On our way to Shangarh we gave lift to many locals who missed their bus. The Manu temple, one of the few Pagoda style temples in Kullu Valley stood their on the mountain top, looking as splendid as ever. I wondered if I could check it out this time.Its said that the walk from Neuli Village,along the Sainj river is extremely rewarding especially for the bird watchers looking for Blue Whistling Thrush, Chestnut Capped Tesia, Blue Magpies, Kestral and Shikra.

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one of the many rustic houses with hay hung outside to dry.

 An hour later we were at Shangarh. It lies in the ecozone of GHNP and people belonging to this belt take pride in their roots and call themselves Shangharis. 

We reached a tiny makeshift cafe right at the entrance of Shangarh. The homestay that Mahi had arranged for me was still farther ahead. We decided to grab a cup of tea before driving up to the village I would be staying at tonight before finally starting the hike, the following day. The view outside the window looked surreal. What a massive transition in just a couple of hours. I could see blue greens and yellow while no vehicles honked. Dry hay hung by the rustic cobbled roofs outside. Shangarh looked different this time. I was lucky to have witnessed the last snowfall back in March. A little later I was at the meadow that looked somewhat green. Being a weekend, a relatively good number of people sat around, though very few of them were tourists. A flock of sheep grazed while the shepherdess stared into the deep oblivion. I sat down behind her, scribbling a few lines in my head;.[p

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The temple frames!

She sat there with an empty mind

Her flock of sheep, some 8 or nine

Wandered around like fleeting clouds

Just me and her made the crowd

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The Shangarh Meadows with the famous devta temple in the backdrop.

Just then my homestay uncle called up. ‘Beta have you reached! We look forward to see you soon’! I didn’t expect my homestay owner to be so proficient in English for people settled in the villages mostly spoke in their native lanuage. I was taken aback. I honestly had no idea about how the place was. I’d blindly believed Mahi. but i’m glad i went with less hopes because when i saw my abode, I was in seventh heaven. It was probably one of the most beautiful stays i had in Himachal.

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Auntie makes the best aaloo paratha ever and my bedroom porch was so gorgeous that i never wanted to move in!

My personal definition of a perfect homestay would be, a wooden house in the mountains, away from the mainstream village, a small balcony where i could sip on my coffee while staring at the mountains, basking in the sun andddddd some doggie love would be a cherry on the cake. Well i got all of that and the doggie love doubled with Shaina and Rambo, the two GSDs at the Lord Shiva Snowline Homestay. The house had sprawling apple trees all around in its compound and I was lucky enough to witness the last lot of apples of the season. 

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Shaina and Rambo! all hearts for these two!
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Reflections of the view outside on my bedroom window!

Personally not so much into fruits ( rarely do I indulge in good habits) it was one enlightening talk with Uncle who told me how the apple cultivation started back in the day in Shimla district ( Mashobra, Kothkai, Jubbal etc) and was introduced by Samuel Evan Stokes from America. While Capt RC Scott had introduced apple cultivation in the Kullu Valley but the ones that they introduced were sourish and not the sweet kinds that us Indians prefer.

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Apples galore! The golden licious

Till now, i could only classify apples on the basis of their color that is green or red but they actually have varieties which are mainly The Royal Delicious, The Red Delicious and The Golden Delicious! Well Uncle was very sweet and kind to pluck all of these for me and for once I actually enjoyed eating fruits! Now that’s what I love about travelling. It makes you do things that you’d never do otherwise and of course adds a little more GK  to your bank of faint knowledge,

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The Red Delicious!

The last rays of the sun was yet to greet us and i asked uncle if i could join him and Shaina on a walk to his hut close to the homestay. He has a beautiful wooden cabin that he rents out to people who intend to stay for a longer time and some camping place around it. We walked through some more apple orchards while Shaina roamed around like a free child sniffing around the countryside leaving her mark ( peeing ) at every nook and bend! Dasher and Haachu (my pets) must really envy this kind of life.

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Corn kept on the rooftop to dry to eventually make flour out of it!
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Evening coffee in my balcony!

Rest of the evening was spent in my balcony, sipping on endless green teas and fighting those nervous butterflies in my stomach for the following day was the first day of the hike. I was going with three Himachali boys and Sharad, the founder of HMRA but i’d not met them even once. I was desperate to do GHNP and Mahi ( one of the previous homestay owners helped me with their contact). The sky was packing up. That night lying down in my bed, the words I read in the book kept haunting me ‘ rudimentary landslide trails not easy to negotiate and a tough tough stamina’.Who knew there were bigger hurdles coming my way. Well , misadventures often make the best adventures…and the hike up to Raktisaur Glacier was all about that.

So much to write and so lil time…Untill next time 🙂 The Raktisaur adventures shall follow up soon!

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How kind was uncle to climb up the tree and pluck apples from his orchard to gift me for my journey!
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My sweetest hosts…Uncle and Auntie!
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While leaving, bidding goodbye to Shaina!

 

TRAVEL AND HOMESTAY INFO

  • Shangarh lies in the ecozone of Sainj Valley in Kullu region and boasts of housing many local deity temples of different architecture.
  • It can be considered as a base for many hikes in Great Himalayan National Park since Niharani , which is the base village to GHNP hikes is a stones throw away and doesnt have any homestay.
  • I caught a bus from Sec 43 ISBT Chandigarh for Aut ( the famous tunnel) that leads to Kullu Manali. After getting down here you may catch a bus to Neuli and further ahead to Shangarh from there. There is an option of shared cabs as well.
  • I stayed at the uppermost village in Shangarh. The homestay is situated very close to the forest rest house and offers undisturbed views of the Himalayas. It is called Lord Shiva Snowline Adventures.
  • The room is beautifully done with wood work and has comfortable beds and blankets. It has huge glass windows offering one with incredible views and a balcony to die for.
  • The washroom is located downstairs and though not attached with the bedroom but is tiled and  neat and clean with geyser etc.
  • The charges are Rs 750 per day which includes all your three meals as well as tea and coffee ( isn’t that so cool)
  • Contact Info : 9805454430
  • There are tons of hikes around Shangarh. the serious hikers can trek up to Lapah, Dhel Meadow and Raktisaur Glacier in GHNP. Shakti and Marore Villages in GHNP can also be hiked up to.
  • Easy day hikes could also be done to near by waterfalls, Manu Temple, Upper Nahi Village etc.

Phularidhar : A tiny hamlet in the lap of Dhauladhars that will take your breath away!

The best trips often turn out to be the unplanned ones. While doing a solo trip to Barot Valley, the idea was to explore Rajgundha Valley and Lohardi as well for it made sense to tick them off since they’re just a stone’s throw away. But Phuladhar or Phularidhar was nowhere in my knowing. It was a pure accident and an impulsive unplanned one day trip.

So while catching the third bus on that tiring day of 14th May, when i was up since 4 am and every part of my body ‘ouched’ so bad, a very kind gentleman named Roshanlal figured how exhausted I was standing in a jam packed Himachal Roadways bus in Ghatasani. ‘Ma’am please sit down”! He spoke to me in a rather strange accent, the ones that the locals use with foreigners. I politely declined his kind gesture and insisted that he kept sitting but he wouldn’t listen and my tired legs eventually gave in to his kindness.

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From my HRTC bus window!

We had probably half an hour before he reached his village and those few minutes were spent talking about his hamlet and the surprises it had to offer. He gave me his number and told me to drop by whenever i planned my next trip.

Fast forward to four days later, after having roamed around Barot and Chota Bhangal region, I caught an early morning bus from Lohardi back to Mandi. Sitting on my seat, I thought of how I could spend another day in the mountains but somewhere i hadn’t been in the last four days. I decided to call Roshanlal but disconnected the call before it rang. I thought I’d give him a surprise and drop by without letting him know. And so i got down at Jhatingri and hiked up 6 kms with a not so light bag, often getting tempted to call him and tell him to pick me up.

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Phuladhar on a bright sunny day. Pic taken from my hosts.

But somehow I didn’t want to stop walking/ sweating or getting burnt. There was this ‘hard to describe’ kind of excitement of doing an impromptu trip to an unknown villager’s place. I remembered Roshanlal telling me that his camp was on the topmost point of the mountain and  had a 360 degree view of the place around. That was my reward and it kept me going without complaining.

After about an hour’s drive in the HRTC, i got down at the Jhatingri bus stop. I asked this old Auntie at a Dhaaba by the road if the track on the right went up to Phuladhar. She nodded and invited me for breakfast. While having a not so good maggie and a super milky tea, she asked why I traveled alone even when I had a husband and why my nose wasn’t adorned with a nath like other married women. I simply smiled at her and told her that the husband likes his bike rides way too much and I loved my mountains more than anything and that it was okay to do our own things. Auntie was left a tad bit amused but I was used to these questions followed by the much animated reactions 🙂

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At the outset of the hike…since i had no one to click me.

I unzipped my wallet to check how much money i was left with and hoped I could afford this one extra date with the mountains of Phuladhar. 1400 bucks! I had no idea how much Roshanlal would charge me but I had no plans of heading back home today. And so I started the hike up to Phuladhar, in the ever so confusing weather. The sun was menacingly hot and a mini truck passing by tempted me bad to hitchhike but walking 5 to 6 kms uphill would have gifted me umpteen more surprises than going on a four wheeler. So I constantly did some Oohs and Aahs ( I now know why Maria Sharapova grunts so much while playing). Screaming out the pain helps quite a bit 🙂 Such insightful discoveries on a solo hike are bound to happen! No? 😉

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Boundless farms en route and snowy Dhauladhars in the backdrop. (Pic taken from the hosts)

The hike started from the PWD guest room at the base of Jhatingri, a steep track going uphill on its left. The road isn’t tarred and there are quite a few shortcuts in between through the Pine and Deodar trails. But I choose to walk more and longer, for the initial part at least. It was strange how I found myself the only one hiking up to the village with not a soul or a vehicle around. While Barot was just a few km away from Jhatingri, there was a stark difference between the two. Barot was swamped with guest houses home stays and resorts while the hamlets here, enjoyed the solitude and absence of human jam.

I learnt after my trip that Jhatingri was once the summer capital of Barot and was renowned for its palaces of Raja and Rani which are now in ruins. Its situated at 6600ft amsl at Ghoghar Dhar and lies just 5 kms ahead of Ghatasani ( from where I caught the bus for Barot Valley on day 1 of my trip)

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some more farms!

The sun only got meaner and the trails through the dense Blue Pines invited me to take some shelter. I sat down, listening to the alien sounds of crickets and toads. A boy came sliding down from the top, and disappeared into the lower trails. I wondered what i’d do in two hours, would probably take him 20 mins! Mountain folks are forever giving you some fitness complex. The mud on the trail was wet and loose yet i decided to take the short cut. While climbing up, the stones started falling off and the soil under my feet lost its ground. I had a huge tree root right in front of me and I caught hold of it like a child would catch hold of his father’s hand. While the nature tried to push me down, another part of it came to my rescue, saving me from some more scars.

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At Devdhar Village

I reached a relatively flatter land with green farms around me. A hut or two stood by the farms and there was finally a sign of civilization. I decided to go ask its occupants for water and that’s when I got to know that this hamlet was called Devdhar. I was told that Phuladhar was another km and a half away. The fields were neon green and yellow with Jawaar almost ready for the harvest. A little further ahead, stood a green house with the most beautiful backdrop. It was nestled amidst the lush green farms and Dhauladhars peeped out of the clouds behind. I decided to go across the farm fence just when this not so social fur baby tied under a tiny shed on the farms,barked rambunctiously and dared me not to move ahead. Throwing few Parle Gs at him helped us bonding to some extent. His folks worked in the farms while he like a good boy watched over the house.

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The little Furry Pal, guarding his house!

The path from Devdhar village to Phularidhar had many rustic houses, some abandoned while some still occupied. They screamed of old age traditions with mud ceilings and stone walls, complementing the surreal village backdrop so beautifully.

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One of the abandoned houses in Phuladhar!

 It had started to rain now and i was a KM away from Roshanlal’s abode. His place is called CAMP 360 and it truly lives up to its name, standing on the topmost hillock with astounding views from every angle. I reached a track with a wired fence on either sides. Two towers and potato farms laid on my right while two huge buildings with red roofs, a private guest house stood on my left. The road was definitely less taken for it narrowed as I went further with grass and gravel. I spotted a cottage on the left while another one further ahead with a gazebo kind of look with red slanting roofs. I finally called Roshanlal and told him that I was outside his place but didn’t know which one of the cottages was his. 

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Potato farms ( pic taken from the hosts)

The one on the left is called Robins cottage owned by a French man. Roshanlal stood on a ladder painting one of the walls of his camp along with a volunteer , a student from Bangalore. 

Roshanlal exclaimed rather excitedly ‘Mujhe pata tha aap aaoge” Welcome Ma’am”! He took me to the dining cabin which had huge glass windows, watching over the valley below. The space was done up so beautifully with DIY driftwood lamps and seating arrangements. He then got me and the student boy some tea. While catching up over that cup of chai, the young guy told me about these sites where in one can volunteer to work with homestays or lodges in the mountains and while you don’t get paid but your food and accommodation is taken care of. Why didn’t I know of such things while studying in college. Well i never even loved mountains then ( how i’d disown that part of me now).

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Rains and all the magic they create! (pic taken from the hosts)

This was his first trip to the mountains ever…in fact first to the North India. He belonged to Kerala and was pursuing his bachelors in Bangalore. I asked him about Bir since the take off point 360 was just a stone’s throw away and he revealed some rather startling facts about paragliding. Or probably it was startling for me for I didn’t really know much about the sport. The longest flight ever made from Bir Billing was 253 kms by a guy called Deby Choudhary.

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My cosy cabin with astounding views!

Later that afternoon, i moved to my cosy cabin with undisturbed views all around me. The weather deteriorated and the winds rattled the windows so bad that i thought i would fly away with the wooden walls. The clouds engulfed the camp and i saw nothing and heard only thunderstorms. The fact that there were glass windows all around made me feel like i was sitting in the open, vulnerable to the wrath of the mountain showers. Fast forward by an hour or two, the clouds started to lift up and my room windows gifted me the best views ever. I ran out like an excited child.

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That furious downpour!

 

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After rains!

Didi sat in the kitchen asking me to join her for tea. Their sons were back from school which was 6 kms away, and while the elder one sat around the bukhari, the younger one slept like a log under a layer of blankets. Moving closer to bukhari, i sat down next to the young boy trying to break the ice. ‘So how long does it take to hike up from your school’?  He quipped ‘Half an hour” I exclaimed ‘ Means two hours for me eh’! He giggled. And then the conversations overflowed itself. He told me how he wanted to join the army after 12th and that became the epicenter of our talks. He was thrilled to know that i’m from an army background. Later I asked Gauri Di if she would accompany me for a walk outside. She readily agreed and showed me around. We walked up to the 360degree paragliding take off point. There was a hike that went all the way up to Bir Billing but required a day or two.

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Hypnotic sunsets!

 

Later that night while feasting on the yummiest Lingdu pickle, we sat down at the dining hall chatting up, Roshanlal revealing a side of him that I fell in love with. We happened to talk about how difficult it is to make people see and think beyond religion and caste in small villages like his. He so comfortably talked about how he told his mom that there was nothing wrong with his wife while she was on periods and that she too could go to temple or do the normal chores of the house, quite contrary to the belief of the village folks. He had a certain pride in his tone when he said ‘Meri wife mujh se zyaada ghoomi hai, Bombay bhi gayi hai mere dosto ke saath’! They made such an adorable couple, chopping veggies together and running their camp with equal responsibilities.

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The dining cabin with driftwood lamps!

That night while sleeping in my moonlit cabin with blue mountains guarding me, i told myself ‘Good Decision Akanksha, glad i came here’! I had never done such a random trip before. Sitting in the roadways, peeping into my wallet and still not sure if I’d be able to pay for my tickets back home. But then what is life without risks. What are adventures made of? That day hiking up to an unknown village, staying with a family i never knew but making conversations like we were long lost buds, sleeping while watching the mountains change its colours and hiking back the next day to Jhatingri to board a bus with a spectacular sunrise over the snowy Dhauladhars, convinced me that best trips are made of no plans and countless uncertainties. For what are good stories made of?!

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If only everyday started this way!

TRAVEL AND CAMP INFO

Phuladhar also called Phularidhar is a small hamlet on a mountaintop (8500ft)  in Mandi district.

One needs to catch a bus from Mandi to Ghatasani or any bus that is Kangra or Palmpur bound. Ghatasani has a junction point where in if you go straight on the main highway, you’d be heading to Palampur whereas if you go on the right, you’d be traveling towards Barot Valley.

From Ghatasani, catch any bus that goes towards Barot. Get down at Jhatingri bus stop and take the track on the left side of the road that goes up, leaving behind the PWD guest house.

It’s a 5 to 6 kms hike up to Roshanlal’s camp called Camp 360 Fularidhar. It is located on the highest point and has a 360 degree view of the valley. The camp is very close to one of the take off points for Paragliding in Bir Billing.

One can do day hikes or even longer ones from the camp. There’s a long trek that goes up to Bir with spellbinding views to offer. It’s one of the rare treks, almost the entire way on the ridge, giving you a glimpse of two valleys at the same time ie Joginder Nagar and Barot Valley.

Roshan Lal’s camp offers good home cooked food, tents for camping and an indoor neat and clean common washroom and toilet. There is also a glass cabin room available for those who do not wish to camp.

Phuladhar has other stay options too but this one being on the topmost location offers the best views and solitude for people looking for peace and solitude. If you’re looking for a quiet getaway, this place is your haven.

Roshanlal’s Contact Details :97365.87471 and 76499.08848

Here is their websdite http://www.camp-360.in

Bhaba Valley: You’ve Got To See It To Believe It!

Unexpected…unplanned…you’d always find the sweetest serendipity! Bhaba was one such bitter sweet accident! A tad bitter and a whole lot sweeter!

While I had already made 7 trips to Himachal in the past few months, the urge was to explore something new. The plan though still revolved around hiking around the mountains but centered around  at my pseudo native place i.e The Kumaon Himalayas of Uttarakhand! And after a week long research of the whereabouts, booking homestays and almost doing my travel reservations, I put my wise head into checking the weather…and what did I find…Voila! Thunderstorms and incessant rains! The monsoons had marked their arrival!

Heartbroken, I cancelled my home stay booking and sat down all dejected in my reading room, staring at the Himachal Pradesh Map! My eyes hopelessly running over the map set on Muling. Where had I heard about it or seen it before? I then remembered watching IndianInMotion and his incredible documentary on Bhaba Valley. I owe this trip to Sarvana!

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An eventful 12 hour long journey in Himachal Roadways!

Like most of the trips by HRTC, this bus ride too kick started on a pretty amusing note. The guys at the HRTC counter weren’t ready to give the tickets before 6am, not even ten mins in advance. On finally going to the him for the third time, he told me the fare for two people would be 1100 something! I remember doing my homework very well and the ticket fare given online said 450 per head! When I tried to clear my doubt, the guy at the counter took it as an offense and wouldn’t clear out the confusion. I later sent my friend Tripti, to whom he finally gave the tickets after all the melodrama! Wonder what he was up to in an HRTC bus doing a conductor’s job! He could have easily bagged a role for a villain in our dramatic Bollywood flicks!

PS: The ticket fares were a tad more expensive for this was a deluxe HRTC, which we weren’t aware of before we boarded the bus!

It was a long ride till Wangtoo and then an hour’s drive further up to Kaafnu! The bus started late as we waited for some porters who were going up to Peo! Meanwhile the rains unleashed their wrath, all growling & menacing,  at the very outset of our journey! It kind of deterred my spirits initially but as the bus moved further, the rain drops on my window glass and the drifting clouds that accompanied me,made it all okay! I and Tripti caught up on each other’s life stories and reminisced the beautiful days gone by that we spent in Bhutan together! We hoped that this hike would be as memorable as those we did back then!

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Narkanda and its apple orchards!

The bus ride was a memory down the lane of sorts! Just last year, around the same time I and the husband were tripping on the same route, while biking to Spiti Valley from Chandigarh. My favorite town, Narkanda looked splendid with apple orchards looking green like never before, veiled in nets in order to be secure from rains. The calm was suddenly broken by this mad passenger yelling at the top of his voice…’Kya hai ye sab…ek toh bus late chali in aadmiyon ke vajah se aur ab ye sab gandh falah rahein hai..chal kya rahan hai yahaan..ye bus Rekong Peo ja rahi hai ya Karachi?!” ( ‘the bus got late because of these wretched porters and now theyre spilling all the dirt around. Is this bus going to Rekong Peo or Karachi’?)

Did we just hear that uncouth comment! The porters were carrying huge sacks of ration and some grains inadvertently spilled out! They did delay the bus by half an hour at least but this didn’t mean that the man could talk nonsensical crap! A little later when he tried to open his mouth again, both I and Tripti decided to give him a shut up call and this time two old ladies too spoke up. This so called educated retard was sitting in the wrong bus, using his fickle tongue passing racist comments. How would we everrr thrive as a nation with such communal hatred I wondered! 

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Apple trees covered with nets in order to be secure from rains!

The bus halted at Kumarsain for a lunch break. We had the yummiest thaali ever on a roadside dhaaba and it cost us just 50 bucks! While most of the passengers were locals, there was a couple who was travelling all the way from Bangalore with a toddler! All three of them fought for the window occasionally while throwing up. Motion sickness can be really evil sometimes. The streets of Rampur were clogged with vehicles and human jam like the arteries of an obese heart patient . It isn’t a very attractive valley but has a huge bus stand and acts as a nodal point for buses plying towards Kinnaur, Spiti etc.

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Finally at the Wangtoo Bridge

We reached Wangtoo at around 6:30pm. One could see the Kharcham Wangtoo Hydro Electric Power Station from the bridge where we waited for our guide to come pick us up. The road to Katgaon ( our base for tonight) was narrow & snaked across the gorges with our car precariously navigating its way avoiding cattle & sudden dashes across the roads by mongooses. Snowy peaks glistening in the moonlight and one could see the faint silhouette of the mountains now!

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The Electricity Board Rest House! We were the only occupants.

Katgaon is a small village with just two or three homestays and an Electricity Board Rest House. We choose the latter which though was situated at a scenic location, bang on the Bhaba Khud but wasn’t so pleasant from inside. There were about 8 rooms and we were the only occupants. As if it wasn’t any less eerie, the caretaker before leaving the premises warned us not to open the door if someone knocked. Though kinda jittery initially, the tiredness made it easy to fall asleep! We traveled almost 14 hrs and our bums were numb. But we knew that the following morning would take care of that. We were finally going to hike up to Kara!

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Kick starting the hike on a bright sunny day! View from the terrace

The next morning was bright and sunny. Thank Heavens! We drove up to Homtey village (a little ahead of Kafnu) and started our hike from the bridge over the Bhaba Khud river. While walking along the brimming river on our left, I couldn’t help but notice the snow laden slopes that were struck by an avalanche in winters. Small little ice caves formed at their base and one could see humans and machines at the farther end of it! A tunnel was being constructed to generate hydroelectricity. I wasn’t surprised as the water flow in Bhaba Khud was immense already, even before the onset of monsoons! The Bhaba Hydro Project is India’s first underground Dam.

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Tripti walking along the Bhaba Khud.

We walked on the dirt track meant for vehicles going to and fro for the construction work, that finally gave way to the narrow trail climbing up to the forest. The sun was harsh and a mini truck passing by tempted us to hitchhike till the trail..As always I hopped onto the open load compartment, trying not to fall while standing whilst  watching a trolley transporting cement sacks and stones from the other side towards our end of the mountains.

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You see a man in that ice cave down below?

A landslide trail marked the starting point of our hike. The river was still on our left with glacial mountains hanging over it. Dense trees hugged the slushy trails and the initial climb was steep. As we trotted along ahead, the river was on our right now and men working at the tunnel appeared like tiny specks on ice.

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Finally on the trail! Leaving Bhaba Khud behind

A rocky path lead us to a grassland where a stone wall adorned the space with one or two huts inside. Heavy wooden planks were strewn around. We climbed along the huts and the trail lead to an open grassland with boulders scattered everywhere. The sun even though scorching, now felt comforting for the air was a tad colder. 600 metres ahead, lofty Deodar trees greeted us making another short forest trail. Bhaba valley trek had this peculiar pattern of trails. You’d walk through forests opening up to huge open meadows, hike down to negotiate some glacial streams which would again lead you to forests! Also the trails are pretty well defined ( atleast till Kara) and from Mulling onwards I and my friend Tripti did the hike all by ourselves with our Sherpa Dog Blacky who turned out to be a million times more reliable than our guide! But a word of caution here, Bhaba Valley is infamous for its wild bears and animals and one should rather try avoiding solo hikes.

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At Champoria, while taking a break!

The river hummed in the background after a long break. As the forest trail lead to a vast open expanse of green carpeted grass with mighty boulders thrown around. Bhaba Khud was on our left now. The valley looked unreal with the green mountains changing its shades from light to dark in nanoseconds as the clouds reflected over them. This location is called Champoria.

I saw a stone wall nearby, A sign of a shepherds hut. While everyone laid around, i decided to go fill my sipper with some chilled spring water. A rather friendly ‘Hello’ echoed in the backdrop. A man, probably in his late 40s adorning a blue jacket, waved at me. ‘Kahaan ja rahe ho aap’? I yelled from a distance ‘KARA!’ He invited me for a cup of tea and I happily obliged. Birmachand was a shepherd from Kalpa, who was here with his wife and sheep. He was feeding his goats with salt for its high nutrients content. He would leave back for Kalpa in October. I asked him if all these sheep belonged to him. He had a certain pride in his tone when he said ‘Hum toh government employee hai’! I told him that my mom belonged to the Kumaon Himalayas and that she too shared the same surname ‘Chand’! A little puzzled he asks me, so papa Chandigarh se hai aur mom Pahaadi! I laughed and explained that it was my husband who’s posted presently at Chandi and that is why Chandi is home. A little more surprised he exclaimed dramatically with a volley of questions  ‘Aap shaadi shuda ho?! Aapke husband ne aapko akele aane de diya? Par aapka mangal sutra ya angoothi kahaan hai?” I told him I didn’t like to wear one and how inconvenient it would be to hike around with a chain lashing around your neck! A few more startling conversations and a selfie later, I decided to fall back to join Tripti and the guides.

PS: Shephards in Kinnaur are called Baeraale!

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Descending down and now walking along Gyaare Khad!

We were now descending down from the valley, and walking along the Gyaare Khad ( the river). Yet another short forest trail followed up with greenest moss and vibrant yellow flowers thriving in the comforting shades of coniferous jungles. An open grassland ahead awaited us where all of us took a super short break with Tiger ( a handsome Black Husky looking dog) one of the guide’s pet chasing the birds around.Crossing some roaring streams, rocky trails and fairyland like meadows with breathtaking cascades at every bend and corner, Bhaba changed it’s landscapes with every new mile covered.

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Negotiating with one out of many streams enroute!
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Good days are made of mountains and girlfriends!

We reached Mulling, covering the last bit of distance in a heavy downpour. There was a tad bit of steep climb before Mulling, but once we landed on top (The Mulling Meadow also called The Jhandi Top) the trail eased down to a flat path, parallel to the Mulling stream.

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At Jhandi Top..Another 1.5Km to Mulling Campsite. Look at those ferns!

The mountains were adorned in fresh snow and ferns as high as 5 feet. Our campsite was bang on the river. I won’t be exaggerating if I called this place a heaven incarnate!

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Tripti teaching Blacky how to shake hands 🙂

The shed at Mulling made by the forest department was occupied by a group of boys from one of the IITs who were leaving for Kara in a bit. While fixing the tent with the guide, I saw a wagtail hovering around the boys, catching biscuits in the air when thrown at her. Meanwhile the clouds decided to put on a show for us, racing over the landscape in magical ways I’d never seen before. I and Tripti sat inside the tent for it started to pour and the winds got gusty. Blacky came and sat down with us, while Tiger ( the guide’s dog) quickly got inside their tent. We tried putting her inside the shed but she would come back running to our tent, sleeping the entire night outside barking intermittently every time she sensed some noise or smell! The rain got worse at night but even that didn’t budge her.

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Blacky…Lil More than a Sherpa..A whole lot more than a Dog!

Next morning we unzipped the tent only to be greeted by sunshine and Blacky’s warm face & a wagging tail. While we got ready to leave for Kara, cleaning up and washing our faces at the nearby stream, Blacky would be busy chasing horses, cows and birds around. She ran around like a wild child on her land. This was her home! The rivers, the flower carpeted meadows, the daunting mountains, she knew them in and out!

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Endless avalanche snow around..on our way to Kara

That morning we left for Kara around 8am, telling our guides to follow us later for they were yet to get ready. We asked him about the route and figured the well defined trail that lead to Kara. Blacky didn’t let us do this on our own. She was our Sherpa of the day. The route to Kara was rather easy and gorgeous beyond words. I, Tripti and Blacky were the only ones hiking around which made it even more beautiful. Array of wildflowers of different colors bloomed throughout the way while just in the beginning we negotiated our way through frozen avalanche snow that almost felt like a glacier. The river had snow walls caved around them and the Mulling valley looked splendid in its emerald green blanket.

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The only beings around were the cows, horses and birds!

Just before crossing an icy bed over the river to get across on the other side of the valley, a rocky climb with a rather eerie surroundings kind of tested our brave spirits. The trail was laden with huge boulders and the mountain cliffs on our right looked mysterious with eagles gliding on top. Blacky would stop, tilt her neck and stare into the thin air as though she sensed something abnormal! While I and Tripti paused along wondering why the guides had not reached us yet for they walked way faster! But somehow having Blacky around comforted our nerves. One moment she would be quiet, staring at the valley while the very next second, she would see snow and roll herself playfully like a wildflower.

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Blacky leading the way!

At this point, after crossing over to the other side of the mountain over a river that flowed under the ice ground ( this phenomenon is also called the SUBTERRANEAN river) we had lost the trail. There were huge rocks and we couldn’t figure out how to climb up. While I was hopping on to a rock, Blacky on the other end moved in an opposite direction, pausing, looking behind at me as though telling me to follow her. She led us to Kara from here on. It had been an hour and a half and our guides were nowhere to be seen! Blacky came to our rescue. As we climbed higher, the rampaging stream furiously flowed down below on our right. Green mountains with snowy peaks shone under the occasional rays of sunlight that peeped out of the heavy veil of clouds.

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After crossing over to the other side of the valley…What you see is Mulling left far behind.
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sprawling blanket of flowers!

And just like that, while following Blacky we reached Kara in no time. The vistas were so spellbinding that one never felt tired. We met this really old shepherd in his 60s coming back from Phutsirang with his convoy of mules. He did this for a living and I couldn’t help but admire his grace and stamina as he walked swiftly with a stick without a slouch!

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A lil rendezvous with the highlander!

As we descended down and walked a kilometer ahead, we saw a shimmering body of water reflecting the blue heavens above! A red flag was tied on a pole around it marking the venue..Kara Lake. we were finally there and so were our guides.

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Nomads of Himachal!

Blacky gulped down a million sips of water and we finally took our shoes off and laid on the green grass around the lake. The sun was scorching but it never felt so good. This place screamed happiness. Our guide showed us the mountains on the left that led to Futsirang and eventually to Bhaba Pass. I remember watching it on a IndiaInMotion documentary and it looked surreal. He asked me” Chalna hai kya? You can easily hike up to Mudh ( a village in Spiti and the last point of the hike) If only it were that easy! 

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Kara Lake in all its glory!

The weather in valleys is like a woman on her periods! Nasty and forever dealing with mood swings :P. Just now the sun reflected the clouds and mountains on the lake and the very next second, the winds carried along the mist with them. We shifted to a cave where the guys cooked a delicious kinnauri meal. Out of our ten bites every 6 went to Blacky for she filled our hearts with immense gratitude. We decided to head back to Mulling today and camp there for the evening and eventually fall back to Kaafnu the following morning.

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Kara campsite was gorgeous beyond words! Wish i had the time to go till Mudh though!

While wearing my socks I noticed a dark tan line around my ankle. The colours across it were as stark as the landscapes we saw in one day today!

And while I write this story almost two months later..the tan line is pretty much intact..deeply and strongly etched..just like Bhaba and Blacky in my jar of Kinnaur Memories!

TRAVEL AND STAY INFO ON BHABA VALLEY

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  1. Bhaba is a pristine valley, situated in the east of Sutlej river in Kinnaur district. Bhaba Khud that flows along the hike is a tributary of Sutlej. While Kinnaur is about 306Kms from Chandigarh. A small hamlet called Chshora is the gateway to Kinnaur.
  2. For Bhaba one needs to catch any bus going towards Rekong Peo. Incase you are not able to get a direct bus, then get down at Rampur and you would surely get a bus to Waangtu.
  3. Waangtu falls enroute Rekong PEO and is close to Kharcham. The bus will drop you nextto a bridge which has an overview of the Wangtoo Kharcham Hydro Power Plant. ( Chandigarh ISBT Sec43→ Waangtu→Katgaon→Kaafnu)
  4. From here, it would take you another 45mins or so to reach Katgaon and then eventually to Kaafnu. You should preferably stay at Kaafnu for it’ll save you time the following day when you leave for the hike. Kaafnu has a small hotel and some homestays.
  5. We stayed at the electricity rest house in Katgaon and paid 500Rs for a night halt ( no meals)
  6. Bhaba valley is a gateway to Pin Valley in Spiti (east) and leads to Parvati Valley, Kullu (west). The hike is called Pin Bhaba trek for it starts from Kaafnu village in Bhaba and finishes at Mudh Village in Spiti. 
  7. The landscapes are phenomenal and ever changing. The campsites on the hikes would be like this 
  8. Kafnu(2400amsl)→Mulling(3242amsl)→Kara(3552amsl)→Phutsirang(4107amsl)→ Bhaba Pass(4900amsl)and then to Mangrungse(4168amsl)→Mudh(3744amsl)
  9. The route is given in the story and can help you plan your hike. There’s a well defined trail almost through the entire way. But try avoiding solo hikes for Bhaba is infamous for its wild bears and animals. Its okay to go in a group without a guide.
  10. We paid 3k per day per person but if there’s a bigger group, you could be charged lesser. If you’re into hiking and camping, then you don’t really need a guide here. Take a dog instead ;)PS : we did the hike up to Kara lake only.
  11. Here are some of the guides contacts i found out…Rajdeep Negi 7018572399 Dev Negi 08580410469 Billu Negi 7018799950 Out of all of them Billu Negi is well known amongst the trekkers.
  12. The ideal time to do this hike would be July to September.
  13. Bhaba Valley is a must do and shouldn’t be missed. Please feel free to ping me here or on Instagram if you have any queries regarding the hike. 

Swaar/ Swad Village…Where The British Legacy Lingers On!

She adds greener to the greens

She fills drama in the sky

A tad bit of aroma to the earth

And savor to my warm cuppa Chai!!

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While climbing up to Swaar, leaving lumbadug & lohardi behind

You know who that she’d be! Rains in Himachal have been my forever companion and somehow i love the idea of fleeting clouds prancing around while I climb my much loved mountains. The valley suddenly appears greener and the streams sound even more boisterous,adding colors and vigour to the afternoon! After getting back from my hike to Puling/Poling village and Pashakot Mandir( read the previous blogpost) and having a hearty lunch thereafter, i decided to hike up to Swar/Swad Village. It had started to rain yet again and a hike all by myself to this dreamy hamlet was something i’d been wanting to do ever since I got here in Lohardi!

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Lohardi mela at its best : A snake charmer weaving his magic over a spellbound audience

It was 4 PM and by now the Lohardi Mela was in its full swing. Countless eating and game stalls adorned the village alleys while men like snake charmers and monkey tricks caught everyone’s attention. While crossing the main bridge over Lamba Dug in Lohardi, I saw a huge group of people gathered around with this snake charmer in the middle, entertaining everyone with his beautiful reptiles displaying their antics! I somehow made way through them and a little ahead found this guy who didn’t look like a local, sitting at a bend with his three monkeys and a local guy chatting with him! The Monkey guy turned out to be from Delhi who had come all the way to Himachal for Lohardi Mela to show his monkeys around and indulge in some sinful pleasure ( read smoking up weed)! I saw him preparing his smoke and out of curiosity asked him like a naive child, ‘Bhaiya aap kya bana rahe ho?’ to which he said ‘madam maal hai!’ What world was this again! I sat down for a bit watching his monkeys follow his instructions and behaving like humans! I left a 10Rs note which the male monkey quickly picked up and bowed his head to say Thank You! 

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Monkeying around the country side

Left a little amused by the monkey guy, I carried on with my hike, leaving Lamba Dug farther behind and the Mela hustle bustle of Lohardi fading into oblivion. The road to Swaar was kaccha(unpaved) and the rains had made it a tad bit slushy. The air got cooler and soothed my nerves. A huge boulder lay on the right side of the track, looking down upon Lamba Dug and Lohardi and surrounding villages. I decided to lie down here for a bit with my headphones on and my current read in my hands “Into Thin Air!” All those moments of yearning for peace and tranquility, turned out just how I imagined, right here at this moment! One of the village school girls passed by, staring at me, wondering what I was up to lying down on the green velvet grass in the middle of nowhere! I simply smiled and let her judge me for if there’s one thing that the mountains have taught me is to let my guards down! I wish it was this easy back in my city too! Phew!

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My Kinda Time!!

I decided to walk further for the sky turned only greyer! Somehow this lesser walked track took me back to Pajekha village that I hiked up to in Haa Valley in Bhutan. Every time i’m in the Dhauladhars or Himalayas, there’s always some Dejavu moment reaffirming my faith in the homogeneity of these giants for no matter where they stand, their tribes and the euphoria they create is the same old…same old!

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Stopping by enroute

While almost nearing the village, I encountered my deepest fear! A trail washed away by landslide! A massive tree had fallen off and huge boulders were strewn around. A super narrow trail went over the boulders ( made out of villagers walking over it…wait not walking..they run over it) while I planned to take baby steps with my legs trembling for a little left or right and i’d slide down into the stream joining the Lamba Dug. If there’s one fear that I haven’t been able to battle all this while in the mountains, it would be Acrophobia! I CANNOT look down for my head spins and my legs tend to tremble, faltering around like an electrocuted frog! The thought of heading back cropped up in my head, but the desire to check out Swaar was even stronger! So i put my headphones inside my pocket, started muttering Hanuman Chalisa and with over dramatic Ooohhh and Aaaaahs managed to cross over! Sweet Triumph! Though I was already worried about heading back the same way 😀

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Rains & its aftermath
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The trail I was petrified of

Just when I was entering the village, a young man asked me where I was off to. I told him I had come to check Swad. He asked me if I were all alone. I asked him why? He said simply…and that it was going to pour any moment and that i must head back soon! A little more conversation later I learnt that he was a teacher in a primary school in Swad and was going down to Lohardi to see the mela. I asked him for the directions for the Forest Rest House in Swad that exists since the British Times and told him that i’d see him later at Lohardi Mela. The village school stood right there at the entrance of the village and a turquoise green colored hut with a rather different architecture stood out in the background!

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Forest resthouse of Swaar

Turquoise wooden walls with white framed windows and a slanting roof, a tad bit British and somewhat Scandinavian in architecture, the Forest Rest House stood there like the sentinels of time while snow clad Dhauladhars loomed across in the backdrop. A certain familiar sound of bird echoed in this unusually quiet village. I saw an old man and a lady working on the outside lawn in the rest house cottage. I opened the gate and asked him if i could enter and speak with him for a bit. He smiled and let me in!

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Mr Pradeep; the caretaker

Vegetables and flowers were arrayed outside in the huge lawn and apparently the fresh organic veggies were plucked and cooked right there in the kitchen. The old man, Mr Pradeep was the caretaker of the rest house and showed me around. The rooms were huge with a British era fireplace though it was kind of dark inside but this rest house in this quaint little village with snow mountains hugging it on either side, came across as one of those huts from snow white in deep dark fairy woods! ( not exaggerating one bit). Mr Pradeep  was so good for my ego as he thought that I was a college girl who was here on a trip with friends. He later told me that i should get The Husband along on my next trip and gave me his number even though the rooms are to be booked through forest department in Palampur. But he did mention that if the rooms are vacant and there are no previous bookings, he does allow visitors to stay in such cases.

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Dreamy ….sighh

 

And while I was earlier keen on checking out the Lohardi Mela, my loyalties changed to Swaar instantly, a part of me wanting to stay back here for the evening. But i had to head back to my homestay for it was almost dark and the rains didn’t look so forgiving! 

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Remanants of a bygone Era

I got back to Lohardi an hour later, all drenched, bumping into the same school teacher from Swaar and gobbling down some piping hot jalebis from one of the Mela stalls. I decided to meet the village sarpanch who sat on a big sofa, arranged on the stage for the evening function. He told me how the mela lasted for three days and started almost 35 years back by one of the village school headmaster. It was intentionally kept in the month of May for everyone would get back after the winter break and it was a reunion of sorts! Later it went on to become famous not only in Barot and Mandi but people from Kullu also come and attend the function. The rains were still on but somehow it didn’t deter people from coming out and enjoy the mela. 

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Hustle bustle of the lohardi mela
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Lohardi mela itinerary
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Colored threads being weaved at one of the shops in the market

This was my last evening here and i somehow just wanted to sit by the river and revel in its symphony. I bade goodbye to the stall owners and walked back to my balcony where I loved sitting while i was in my room! Last day in the mountains is never easy!

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The last evening while walking on the rain kissed streets

I walked the rain kissed streets of this Himalayan village

A part of me completely drenched

If only i could stow this day for good

In the grasp of my fingers, as my wrists i so tightly clenched!

TRAVEL/ STAY INFO ON SWAAR/SWAD VILLAGE

  1. Swaar is a quaint little village located on top of Lohardi.
  2. One can easily hike up to the village in 45mins time as its just 3 to 4kms away.
  3. The village has around 40 to 50 houses and a Primary Sec School
  4. Famous for its British era Forest Rest House, it makes a perfect getaway in Barot Valley.
  5. The rooms have to be booked in advance though from the forest department office in Palampur.
  6. Mr Pradeep is the caretaker and his contact number is 9459146647
  7. There are no homestays available in this village but one can stay in Lohardi.
  8. Thakur Ji Homestay in Lohardi is bang on the Lamba Dug river and offers some spectacular views.
  9. Contact Details of Shyam Thakur…9418770108
  10. Cemented steps on the right at the village enterance leads you to Chena Village.

Mountain Stories from Puling!

I woke up around 6:30 AM to Shyam knocking at my door with a piping hot glass of tea. Groggily i wished him Good Morning when he told me to get out on the balcony and look around for the early morning magic! The mountains looming across the balcony had turned white overnight. It rained heavily but since Lamba Dug bickered so loud, everything around seemed to go mute! The streets were all glistening due to early morning drizzle and the sky was still packing up. My agenda for the day was to explore the villages on top. Swar Puling and Bhujling! ( how many ever i could explore)

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The early morning calm at Lohardi

 

Shyam asked me if i were going to be ok hiking alone? Finding it rather lame, I retorted “Of Course”! After beating around the bush he finally came to the point. ‘Akanksha Madam, why don’t you go along with these three men( my new neighbors who arrived the previous night) since they have a vehicle too. You can go up to Chena village and thereafter to Pulling and then further ahead to this hidden temple in the mountains where only Papa can take you all. He too is tagging along with them!” For me hiking has always been an experience of solitude. I wasn’t sure of doing it with these strangers with whom my last night conversation didn’t go so well’! But the rains outside kind of enticed me to give in to this kind offer and I was tempted to hike along with Uncle and listen to his stories from his  Bakkarwal (Shephard) Days. While the other three men had an old officer from the state revenue and tax services, a lower rank official and a young driver. All three hailed from different parts of Himachal.I had met them the previous night and found one of them a little too social or friendly for my liking. He offered me to join them to sip on some locally brewed wine to which I politely declined! They had a big influence over the villagers for the locals who run their shops without authentic official documents were intimidated by their power and authority. Thinking of the power they had, i asked them if they could exercise a strict law in the village when it came to discarding waste and garbage for there were many who dumped it in the river right in front of me. With the power plant coming up at Lamba Dug, the river and the surrounding area had started to experience the consequences already and I feared this jewel losing its sanctity because of human greed and recklessness. I wasn’t given a very affirmative response!

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While hiking up to Puling…Lamba Dug flowing with all her exuberance!

We set out after breakfast for Chena Village as the men whom I was accompanying had work at the Power Plant Project. A massive tunnel was being made to divert the water from Lamba Dug to generate electricity. I decided to tag along the men instead of waiting in the car, to find out more about the upcoming power plant. I was zapped to learn that the project was sanctioned in 2006 and some 19 crores were invested while the project is still under construction in 2019 and almost 35 crores have already been spent! The electricity generated from here would be for export use and not for the state, for Himachal is pretty wealthy when it comes to its own resources! But Lamba Dug won’t be half as hearty as it is now and the towers and cables have had their own effects on the flora and fauna around. With the advances in technology and the increase of human needs, comes a heavy price that’s paid by nature! It just didn’t feel right!

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First Look At Puling!

While the road to Pulling was washed out at few bends, we decided to hike up to the village and then further ahead to the Pashakot Temple ( the last inhabited area in this part of Chota Bhanghal). While two of them sulked, I uttered ‘Thank You God” in my head! I know not everyone would agree with me on this but hiking in the rain in the mountains is just so hypnotic! We walked along the brimming river, crossing a bridge to get on the other side, to Pulling. The track was slushy but i loved the fleeting clouds that hovered around, making it pleasant to hike up. Pulling village houses almost 80 homes with mostly traditional architecture unlike Lohardi. The village even has a primary and secondary school. Most of the houses had a mandir in their courtyard with stacks of wood stocked up for later use, while mountain goats loitered around.This hamlet like most of the others too seemed to be influenced by the caste system. I asked Uncle if there was any demarcation of the area with respect to caste. He whispered softly and told me how the upper lanes in the village were inhabited by the higher castes ie The Rajputs and the lower lanes by the Scheduled Castes. My reaction was a tad bit less dramatic for this wasn’t the first time i’d heard something like this on my trip to Himachal.

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An old man smiling when asked to pose for the picture!
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A mountain goat resting on a bench at her veranda!

While walking through the village lanes, i came across my favorite auntie from yesterday who was collecting fodder at Lohardi. She was carrying some wood on her head and walking towards us just when i screamed Hi with full exuberance. She smiled at me, looked down and just passed by in a rush. It took me awhile to understand why she wouldn’t recognize me! A little later I realized, perhaps it was the company of Thakurs that i was walking in! Though Uncle seemed really kind but the villagers are so loyal to their belief that the so called lower caste would himself won’t try to mingle around with the higher one. I walked ahead, feeling confused and pondering over the age old beliefs that were beyond my comprehension. Little did i know, some minutes later, there was some more in store for me!

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Bhujling as seen from Puling!

We had now left the habitation behind and Lamba Dug hurried along with us, flowing on our left now. The rain had almost stopped and the clouds gently lifted up off the snowy peaks. One could see fire billowing out of a lone hut on the mountain on the other side of the river while tiny white dots specked the green patches. Uncle told me ‘You see, the bakkarwaal there is cooking his lunch and the tiny white dots were the white sheep grazing around” Uncle himself was a shepherd for almost 15 years and he humored me with his tales from then…how he would sell one goat for almost 20k and how he has lived in wilderness in Bada Banghal or even Danasur lake. We bumped into a woman who was looking for a goat. Uncle and her blabbered something in Himachali. I later got to know that she was looking for a goat to be offered as a giving at one of the temples! I wish I could show that woman the articles and videos that lead me to turn into a vegetarian this year! I cringed at the thought of the innocent animal being beheaded to please the local deity! But i guess somethings are best not questioned!

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These women walking in the forests to get wood for the evening!

We were now bang on Lamba Dug. One or two shacks stood in the middle of nowhere. Uncle told me how women stayed in those to watch their crops from wild animals or monkeys! Just when i was thinking of how these hamlets are still in the grip of old age unpragmatic norms, this kind of made me smile! Women in the mountains are always so inspiring. Leading the way, fearless and independent. People who glorify female solo traveling should come see how things work here.

I was famished and Lamba Dug decided to be my savior.

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While sipping on some water from Lamba Dug, Uncle decides to strike a pose!

She quenched my thirst and gave that kick to climb the last bit of the uphill. Just when you hit the bridge, a trail goes right which leads to Danasur lake and the Bada Banghal region.We crossed the bridge and took a trail on the left to Pashakot. On our way i helped uncle plucking Lingdu for tonight’s dinner. After climbing some more slushy steps, we reached a meadow facing the snow clad mountains that boasts of bordering the Kullu Valley. Sitting there a few steps away from the temple, Uncle shared the folklore about Pashakot Temple.

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Plucking Lingdu for dinner!

The local deity Pashakot was actually regarded to be The God Of Bakkarwals or Shepherds. Pashu means animals and i’m guessing hence the name Pashakot! There was once a shepherd who lost one of his goats. He looked for it everywhere but was unable to find. Few days later he’d find her, shot up, ten times her size and there were days when he’d find her to be as small as a lamb. One day he walked up to the local deity and prayed to get his goat back, eventually leading to his wish getting fulfilled. The locals have deep rooted faith in the deity and many come walking from different parts of Himachal to give their offerings. Uncle gave his own example when Shyam was to get married and the rains played havoc the entire week. There were no signs of the weather becoming better and Uncle along with his family prayed at the temple and offered two goats for the same. The very next day the sun showed up until the wedding was done!

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After rwaching the meadow near the temple! Uncle in deep thoughts!

Guess what, it had stopped raining by now and the sun showed up again! I told Uncle, ‘ Pashakot Devta has been listening to your wish even today eh”!!

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Of Their Vs My Faith!

While taking my shoes off ( in order to enter the temple), the young driver murmured…’Ma’am Uncle is saying, ladies aren’t allowed inside’!! Did I just hear that right! I couldn’t have trekked up all that distance to just stand at the door and watch these three men sit inside while I stood outside like an outcast! Meanwhile Uncle trying to avoid eye contact ( as though the ritual was his brainchild) I told them, with no iota of fear of being judged…:” Arey par mere date nahi hai abhi…I am not chumming”! Uncle clearly wasn’t comfortable on hearing that but somehow managed to tell me..’ Beta, Pashakot Devta is a brahmachari ( bachelor) therefore women are not allowed in his temple’! I retorted but only in my head this time “ But HanumanJi is a brahmachari too’!!

I didn’t want to argue..It was their belief..their deep rooted faith..I was an outsider visiting their village for just two days! Plus it was funny that i was fighting to get inside the temple! I, who rarely visits religious institutions! Why did i seem to care so much! Uncle told me to burn an incense stick and give it to him so that he could offer it on my behalf! I sat outside reflecting on this just when i saw two local couples sitting on the outside meadow, offering prayers and placing their incense sticks on a rock nearby!

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The two couples praying outside on the meadow!

Just when they were leaving, Uncle told them ‘ Wait up! Take some prasad and go!’ He walked up to them and distributed sweets to all four and they walked away! Finding this abnormal again, i asked the driver this time “ I understand those two women not coming inside, but why did the guys not get in the temple?” He whispered ‘ They are scheduled castes!’ This time around, the dramatic expression of WTF couldn’t help but show on my face”! Sadly the faith is so strong that sometimes even when the so called higher castes want to let them in, the SC’s themselves decline for the fear of being punished by the deity. In my heart, I quietly thanked Hanuman, the only God I am loyal to for being a tad bit reasonable or at least the rishi or devta who made us believe so!

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Pashakot Devta and the incense sticks of us lesser mortals!

It was an astonishing coincidence that it started pouring the moment we reached the homestay and while we justtt started hiking, the rain had sobered to a slight drizzle in the morning to eventually wearing off and all that while we trekked, it remained so pleasant! While to some like me it was nothing more than the unpredictable erratic weather of Himachal for i were used to it by now but for many like Uncle, it was the magical powers of Pashakot Devta!

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Vistas Like These! Chota Banghal in all its glory!

Well, whatever it might have been, the weather gods displaying their kindness or the local deity exercising his magical powers, in the end what mattered was the serene rains, soothing our frazzled nerves and the steaming hot cup of soup with spicy momos in this hamlet that was hustling with all the Mela vibes! Lohardi Mela had just begun and we probably were the first ones to inaugurate this eating stall!

I bade goodbye to the three men who gave me company for the hike and decided to take an umbrella and hike up to Swad Village. I hate the idea of going back to the room while i’m in the mountains. Romancing the village alleys and hopping from one hamlet to another has always been the agenda! And so I set out for Swad!

That beautiful hike in the rain all by myself deserves another post! So until next week 🙂

TRAVEL TIPS TO PULING

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While heading back home!
  1. Puling is a small village, some four kms ahead of Lohardi. There is an untarred road that goes up till the village but was blocked due to landslides during my trip. Nonetheless a short hike up from Lohardi to Puling is worth it.
  2. Puling has almost 80 to 100 houses and a primary school as well. There are no homestays available here.
  3. The village is at a height and is also the gateway to Chhota Bhangal region that leads to hikes like Danasur Lake and Bada Bhangal trek. These are long treks that can be done over 3 to 4 days.
  4. A hike up to Pashakot Temple makes a good day hike. The views around the temple are simply breathtaking. Once you cross the village, keep walking along the river ( river would be on your left hand side) until you see a bridge. A well defined trail that goes on the right, just when you hit the bridge, takes you further up to Danasur Lake and Bada Banghal region.
  5. While after crossing the bridge, there’s a small trail going on left, climbing up to a meadow. That’s where you’d find the temple.
  6. One can hike up from Lohardi to Swar to Chena to Bhujling and end up in Puling thereafter for a wholesome experience.
  7. Homestay at Lohardi…ThakurJi Homestay 9418770108
  8. While I have mentioned about my personal experiences with locals about their beliefs regarding the caste and religion, it would be unfair to judge them or the place in a negative light. Each and every person I met was extremely warm and helpful and the societal vices that I’ve talked about don’t only exist in this area but the majority of the places in Himachal and Uttarakhand and of course many more places in India. I have only shared my story without any filters but it doesn’t change the fact that i as a solo traveler felt the safest in bus, village, during hikes or anywhere during my trip! There are times when you have to let go of certain things and look beyond things that we cannot relate to for we all come from different backgrounds!

SOLO BACKPACKING TO HIMACHAL’S HIDDEN GEM….LOHARDI

How does one define offbeat? Cut off from the world? No network? Places that can be reached only on foot? And wellll, how could you miss out the criteria that tops everyone’s list these days…The least number of hashtags on Instagram!!

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Good days are made of Mountains and my pen and diary!

May! The month of sweltering heat was here! The boy was away on the call of duty and I! I like forever was itching to pack my bags for a couple of days and explore my current favorite state…Himachal! And so the map was out, the routes were read and re read a countless times to beat my nervousness. I was doing a solo trip after the longest time and to a place that had no coverage! I wanted to be sure of things before i landed at the disconnected world! And then along with the map of Himachal, my travel partner, My Diary was out where i scribble all my Pre Trip Notes and On Trip notes! Call me old school, but somehow maintaining google docs is so mainstream 😛 . I’d still prefer doing diary entries! Probably it fits in well with the whole idea of the mountains, the streams meandering by and me sitting on the velvet grass, documenting my tales with my ink pen on the pages that id love to read later in life! Somehow the unadulterated inked words have so much more magic in them than the ones typed in here!

While my plan started with hiking up to Rajgundha and Kukkargundha Valleys, it surely evolved with time. I gradually shifted my itinerary to Barot Valley as well. While reading on Barot, I realized it’s been long since it became a tourist attraction! Though gorgeous with her Uhl river flowing with white daisies blooming around, the concrete mass kind of repelled me! Nonetheless Barot was rich in history and splendor but the idea was to explore it in a day while i stayed in a village close by, devoid of tourists and hotels! And that’s how Lohardi happened to me!

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Rains and Mountains…The lil hamlet of Lohardi!

While Barot falls in Mandi, Lohardi, the last motor able village, 6kms ahead of Barot takes pride in being a part of the mystical Kangra Valley. Lohardi has three more villages ahead, thereafter making a boundary for the Chota Bnaghal and Kullu region! Finding home stays here wasn’t easy! I saw just one blog on Barot while a couple of Vlogs on Youtube but no one mentioned any details of the stay! I called up random homestay owners at Barot who’s number was available online( such a stalker)! Most of them were kind enough to help me with contacts in Lohardi! After speaking to three of them, i went for the cheapest one…Thakur Ji Homestay.( strict budget trip goals!) Remember…The more you save, the longer’s your vacation)

I was told to catch a direct bus to JoginderNagar. Early that  morning at 6AM, while sitting at the hustling ISBT, i would only find buses to Mandi. There were volvos going to Baijnath but i wanted to board a state transport for somehow i didn’t feel motion sick traveling in it and its any day more feasible! I caught the earliest Mandi bus and grabbed a seat next to this Himachali girl.The early morning lull was suddenly broken by the Sardarjis fighting over the seats! I’d hear one say’ Pehla Seat ahh…Pehla Hakka..ahhh’ while the other one flaunted his ticket and told this man to get out! My groginess took a backseat and I quickly checked my wallet for the ticket before i’d be thrown out too! A thing to note here would be that always buy your tickets before getting into the bus to make sure you get good seats plus the one with a ticket already would obviously be given a preference.

The sky was packing up! It looked like yet another rainy affair with Himachal! 7th trip in the last one year and what’s remained  constant on all my trips is The Rains! Lumineers sang ‘Stubborn Child’ on the headphones and my seatmate humored me other times! She was a young girl from the rural parts of Banjaar in Kullu Valley, studying optometry in Chandigarh! I was elated to know another young village girl, getting out of her restricted village life and trying to make herself independent and self sufficient!

Couple of hours later, i was at the Mandi Bus Stand. I asked the locals standing there if there were buses that ply from here to Ghattasani. The Old man burst out laughing! Clearly i sounded like a foreigner when i pronounced Ghattasani as Ghatsenii! He was kind to direct me towards the bus going to Kangra and Palampur. The bus was half empty and i could easily fetch a seat. The engine along with my hungry stomach roared and grumbled as it took to the road to Ghattasani. I got down on the main route where the road bifurcates for Barot. The bus went ahead to Palampur. While waiting at the Ghattasani market for the bus to Lohardi, i grabbed a bite at a local shop just when a woman threw up beside me in the other bus! I kind of lost my appetite and remembered those horrible days when i too suffered from motion sickness! Probabaly the last three years of my relationship with the mountains has helped me get out of the cruel grip of mountain sickness.( I almost collapsed at Guru Dongmar Lake in 2010 for i puked out everything possible in my body) And here i am today with HRTC almost becoming my second home!

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The golden Jwaar fields spammed the landscape

The bus to Lohardi was jam packed and i was pleasantly surprised when a very kind villager named Roshan offered me his seat. I insisted he continues sitting and that i was fine standing! But he wouldn’t listen and told me that he’d be getting down in another half an hour at Jhatingiri. He had an American accompanying him, who because of his white skin and green eyes gained a lot of attention from the young local girl students travelling in bus!. On asking Roshan about his village, i got to know that he hailed from Phuladhar and that he owned a camping place on a mountain top. He showed me the pictures of his place and it was no less than heaven incarnate. We exchanged our numbers and i told him that i’d try dropping by on my way back home!

The road slowly changed to lesser traffic and the landscape turned golden with boundless Jawaar fields and the bickering Uhl river meandering by. I was now sharing my seat with one old uncle and a jovial old auntie. For couple of minutes, i was interrogated with most of the queries being about ‘why i traveled alone and why my husband wasn’t tagging along with me ( literally giving me the vibe as though i came running away from home after a quarrel with my bitter half :D)

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countless neon terrace fields!

While both Uncle and Auntie were veryyy kind to me, i couldn’t help but fall in love with Auntie’s infectious smile and her stunning traditional silver necklace. It looked straight out of Fab India Jewelry brochure! Now we know where these brands find their inspiration!

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This old lady and her silver necklace! fell in love with both of them!

The landscape got only more surreal as we closed towards Lohardi. A bunch of women and school students got into the bus from Barot. This was the last bus and probably the best ride ever! Even though we all sat huddled around, cramped up with two massive school bags on my lap, the sudden euphony created by the village women, singing Himachali folk songs in chorus made everyone forget their misery! The calm Uhl was now replaced by the much more furious Lamba Dug and a deserted track lead to the lesser known hamlets of Chota Banghal. We finally arrived at Lohardi around 5ish.

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The stream…cosway from where the steps go up to Kharimalhan

The entry to the village was over a gushing co-sway,with endless cacophony of streams around. The village had a peculiar festive vibe on and i got to learn of the upcoming Lohardi Mela! Now this trip wasn’t quite planned by me,but seemed to be falling in place for it turned out to be even prettier than i’d imagined, the live folk music in the HRTC bus that id never heard before and the Mela starting the very next day…The Mountain Gods sure were planning it all for me eh!

I met Shyam Bhaiya at the makeshift bus stop of the village. He could easily identify me for i was the only outsider in the crowd. We walked to the homestay which was a few steps away, right in the center of the market! At first he came across as a simple timid young man but we eventually bonded well. The homestay was bang on the Lamba Dug,with freshly snow kissed Dhauladhars looming right across the balcony. I was home finally, disconnected from my other world. The world of chaos, of my mobile buzzing every now and then, of compulsive Instagramming and networking. Nonetheless i missed my wagtails! Sigh!

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Chai with a view!

After savoring a cup of tea with Shyam, i decided to go explore the village before the sun made its way to the other side of the globe. I walked towards the gushing cos way that we crossed while entering the village. A flight of huge cemented never ending steps seemed to go up on the left. I was curious where it lead and decided to go hiking up. Last bit of bright red Rhododendrons bloomed around and in a few minutes, the village stared back at me down below from the valley. The Lambadug curved and bent across Lohardi, further going up towards Bhujling and other interiors of  Chota Bhangal. The steps were plenty and the sun was in a rush. I found an apple orchard and a tiny green meadow along this farm. It called me out and I laid there, without being wary of being seen by anyone. The sun turned the sky orange and all i heard was the Lamba Dug blabbering at a distance, the clouds lifting their heavy veil over the Dhauladhars and the snow glistening in the last rays of the sun.

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Leaving Lohardi behind!

The steps finally concluded at the Kharimalahn Village famous for its Narayan Mandir. Karimalhan has its twin village on the other side of the river ( while you take a left from the bridge while starting the hike, for Anderli Malhan one takes a right. The village stands famous for its yearly religious procession of Devtas. The local Pandits come perform some rituals amidst the loud banter of drums and pipes. A couple of villagers, mostly women stand in the center and hysterically move their bodies as though possessed with some demons! When i was told this by the villagers i kind of laughed it off and thought of talking about it in length with my hosts once back at the homestay.

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Kharimalhan!

On my way back to Lohardi, i met these three beautiful souls, all from three different villages…Polling, Kharimalahn and Anderlimalhan. All of them adorned a warm contagious smile and talked to me like i were a part of their own tribe. Also i could clearly tell, one out of them was from the so called High Caste( The Rajputs) and my favorite was from the much looked down upon schedule caste! She collected fodder for her cattle with this hugeee wooden makeshift tongs kind of equipment! She effortlessly picked up crazy amount of grass and carried it for almost 4kms till her village, with me giving her company till Lohardi. She kind of suddenly fell quiet when my Homestay was around and i wonder if it was due to the fact that i was living with Thakurs! She invited me for some trout in dinner. I told her i’d look her up some other time while hiking up to Polling.

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The wrinkled smile!
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My favorite Auntie from Puling!
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Auntie from Kharimalhan!

Shyam bhaiya, sat in his shop editing one of the wedding videos. Though everyone in the village knew each other, Shyam was a little more popular for he helped people with their money transactions in PNB and he of course was the sole photo and videographer in the village. His latest coverage of a local wedding and a religious procession  looked right out of the 90s Bollywood movies with loud music mismatched with the over zoomed faces! Says the technologically backward me!! I asked him if he had the coverage of the Anderlimalhan religious function that happened every year in Feb and August. And the procession did look like every bit of what i’d heard. I asked Thakur Uncle( Shyams dad) “ Uncle ye ladies fake acting kar rahein hai na”? It was a genuine reaction that came out without thinking twice( i need to learn the art of putting filters). Uncle’s eyes opened up wide and he quipped “ Nahi beta! Ye sach mein hota hai! Inke andar devi maa prakat hoti hai”! Shyam added weight to his justification by showing me the man in that video who made strange noises! They then went on to tell me about this another man who lived in Kullu, whose daughter had been sick for months and no doctor could help her and how his crops and apples were all infested and he suffered a massive loss. When he got to know of his roots being from Kangra, the local priest told him to attend this Devi Maa Puja in August which changed everything for good! He’s been attending this procession every year since then. I could see their eyes gleam while they talked about their local deities. I was zapped at their immense dedication when i saw how the entire village would trek up to Lolar, ahead of Bhujling ( the last village) and reconstructed the entire Ajiapal Mandir in just one day. All the men of the seven villages carried humongous logs of wood and machines that would help them resurrect the temple in less than 24 hours. Meanwhile a man from one of the villages even suffered a heart attack but that didn’t stop the others from constructing their concrete symbol of faith.

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Lambadug….while taking an evening walk in the village

Similarly, a high altitude mountain lake called Dinosaur Lake is said to have a hugeeee religious significance and is mostly trekked up to by locals who haven’t been able to conceive.

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The Rhododendron Flower Chutney! it was absolutely yum!

Later that night while listening to Lamba Dug hum her own tunes, i pondered over the conversations on faith, how these folks had tremendous amount of faith in their creators and how most of the social gatherings were based on a religious foundation. And i just uttered ‘Thank You’  Lord Hanuman, the only God i’m loyal to! Thank You for being so kind for i never go out of my way to express my faith or gratitude and I’d like to believe that he understands!

Well my faith in my favorite God only grew stronger when the next day i encountered a funny tryst ( or not) with a local deity, Pashkot Devta and the belief he’s said to have! 

To Be Contd ( Sward and Polling Village stories to follow up soon)

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The Routes for higher passes around Lohardi

TIPS TO PLAN YOUR TRIP TO LOHARDI

  1. While Lohardi is only 6kms ahead of Barot, but the two fall in separate districts and valleys. Barot is a part of Mandi while Lohardi falls in Kangra region.
  2. The most feasible means of transport is the HRTC or any local bus that plys from Delhi or Chandigarh towards Mandi or Jogindernagar.
  3. I caught a bus to Mandi from Chandigarh ISBT 43. Any bus that goes to Kullu Manali would stop at Mandi. From Mnadi onwards, one needs to board a bus that is Kngra bound. Which means you board a bus that goes towards Baijnath, Jogindernagar, Palampur, Billing etc. You need to get down at Ghattasani ( the bifurcation on the maain road)
  4. The bus from Mandi shall take an hour and a half to reach Ghattasani. From Ghattasani there are two or three buses that go directly to Lohardi. One in the morning around 8ish i think and other that i caught, around 2;45PM if i remember clearly.
  5. If you dont get a direct bus to Lohardi, get on the one that goes to Barot and then catch a bus from Barot or a shared cab!
  6. The total amount i spent on traveling one way from Chandigarh to Lohardi is Rs 450…Chandigarh to Mandi. Mandi to Ghattasani. Ghattasani to Lohardi.
  7. I was looking for a budget homestay and Thakur Ji Homestay fitted my criteria. The hosts are extremely warm and helpful. Shyam even took me around and charged me nominal rates for guiding me around the trails/hikes. The room tariff is Rs 600 while they would charge 60 or 70 Rs for a good home cooked meal.
  8. The homestay is bang in the Lumba Dug river and has amazing views of the Dhauladhar as well. Also since its located right in the middle of the tiny market, things are readily available.
  9. Shyams Contact Number…09418770108
  10. Other than BSNL no other sim works here. BSNL too stands true to its name here most of the times…BHAI SAHAB NAI LAGTA!!
  11. Other homestays available there are…Anand Homestay 7807408918…Monty Homestay 9459581485, Vandana Homestay 9736009245
  12. The nearest ATM available here would be in Barot.
  13. The direct bus to Mandi leaves at 6;15AM from here in the morning.
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Selfies aint my thing but what option do you have while traveling solo!

Things to do in Lohardi….

  1. Lohardi Mela is organised by the villagers in Mid May where in a lot of people come from other parts of Himachal as well. It’s a four day celebration. Details about the Mela will be given on the next blogpost!
  2. One can hike up to nearby villages, Kharimalhan, Sward, Chena, Polling and Bhujling.
  3. If you have enough days with you, two high altitude treks can be done…Bada Banghal Pass ( 5 days) and Dinosaur Lake ( 2 days) These open up only by end of June or first week of July.
  4. A short day trek to Pashkot Temple via Polling village can be done which falls in the last area of Chota Bhangal.
  5. Another trek goes up to the Sarinalha  Pass that connects this side to Kullu.

HAPPILY NOMADIC….The Wellington Chapter!

 

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The view from my home

While we generally get to know of our next destination just about a month or two in advance….Wellington was an exception!! This time around I knew six months beforehand that we were headed to the Blue Mountains..The Nilgiris!

I remember when the boy called me up three years back…before moving out to Bhutan…he excitedly yelled over the phone ‘start packingggg…we’re moving to Haa!’

Haa!!!? Was that a bewildered exclamatory reaction or a PROPER NOUN!! I googled the entire night though there wasn’t much given on it and it took me six months to make it my home…and once I did ,there was no looking back….but here in our Ullusthan aka Wellington I didn’t have the luxury of time…for all I had were eleven months…I didn’t have the time to dislike and then develop feelings for the new place..i had no time to waste months, for before I knew our tenure was already over…11 months just zoomed by! Sigh! Why I’m writing this is because if you too are hung over your previous place(because of good friendships or life or whatever reason might be)) drop that off right now…it’s only when you’ve moved out of this heaven of a place you’d realize what a fool you’d been wasting away your time, sulking or getting to like this one! There are definitely lots of hang-ups…water crisis..no help..hubsters away for long hours Butttt Hey! You’re in for the best 10 months and 21 days.. to be super precise:P

 

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YOUR GUIDE TO MAKING MOST OF ULLUSTAN!!

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10 months of bliss in this lil haven!

 

So let’s begin with making an itinerary …here’s the list of places things and people that complete the picture of W in my head at least! I would have missed out on lots…do enlighten, if you get to explore more places! I have listed these as the main categories for your itineraries. Details follow up below…

1.Quaint and quirky cafes and resorts with breathtaking views in and around Coonoor

2.Picnic and barbecue spots

3.Hikes/rides/drives

4.Tut break getaways

5.Shopping/ things to pick up

6.The 8 market Haul

7.Tailors aka humble fashion designers of W

8.Functions like SCADS/ LINEN FETE/ WINTER CARNIVAL

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Warm inviting havens

Nestled in the lap of nature, amidst the blue mountains lies a quaint little town flaunting some age old British charm called Wellington! It boasts of it’s salubrious climes with sprawling tea gardens and endangered wildlife which ain’t so wild anymore, for you’d spot Bisons on the roads and if lucky even leopards or bears galavanting on streets at night! Cafes where one could chill for hours, sipping over coffee..reading your favorite book..or just brunching with your girl friends while the pati devs are busy romancing their books, could be the best thing to happen to one! So here’s a list of my favorite ones (in the order of my liking)

CAFES And Eateries..

1.Non Such Retreat ( 9626226157)

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Non such is just so much 🙂

I personally like this place a lotttt while some of you might find it overrated…but if you’re a sucker for solace and calm and quiet surroundings with stunning views this one’s your place to be..Cut off from the city and surrounded by the prettiest tea gardens lies the non such retreat..they serve delicious south Indian meal, just that you’d have to inform them a day in advance! There are couple of hikes around the retreat too! Details in the hiking paragraph!

2.La Belle Café and Resort (04232233222)

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La belle

Now this one surely doesn’t need an intro( a famous shooting spot for many movies ( Student of the Year was shot here too!)..us girls would crash this place almost every second day…I love their cute kettles and chicken cheese sandwiches with cold coffee of course! The restaurant inside offers a huge variety in menu along with the best sunset view

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My fav spot at LA Belle!

 

3) Café Diem (09845001111)

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Cafe Diem be like

Gorgeous ambiance…quirkiest décor and decent food (only for vegetarians though) ..this café has all my heart…their flavored teas n desserts sure are scrumptious!

4) Open Kitchen

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Open Kitchen happens to be the first cafe i visited in Coonoor! We reached Wellington on my Birthday and here was my treat 😀

This quaint cosy café is known for its pizzas and recently burgers too! The café has a cool vibe with yellow dim lights and pictures on our favorite shows and cycling love! My personal favorite here was their chilli cheese toast and ginger squash! The Café has one branch in Ooty as well.

5) The Culinarium

True to its name this place boasts of its wide variety in different cusines..perfect for a weekend brunch. This place also offers you a venue to host high tea for your friends or guests with a fancy spread that’s absolutely prettiness personified! Oh and their Pot Pies would never disappoint you!

6) ABABA(9952994964)

I’d keep it simple…this place was My dose of Coffee/Hot Chocolate…a recently opened café, it’s yet to catch up but their potato stuffed buns and hot coffee are a delight on one of those misty rainy days in The Nilgiris!

7) Café Coffee Bean

With an open sit out, this place has simple warm hosts and a basic menu! Takes you back to one of those Tapri kind of cafes during college times…a good place to hang out in the evenings!

8) Eats Café

Situated next to Sims Park,a simple café with good food…my personal favorite here was Oreo Shake n Chicken Burgers!

Ps: the sims park gate has some stalls that sell yummiest boiled bhuttas or sweet corn! If youre a corn lover do try these!

9)Khaana Khazana

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filter kaapi

Very easy on your pockets and good food! Its ideal for the end of the month binging 😛 oh and if you’re looking for the authentic southern flavored filter coffee…here’s your brewery!

10) Jharoka(04232237444)

My all time favorite, this restaurant offers you the best north Indian food in town…my life saver for all the times I wanted to sham it out in the kitchen for they are open to home delivery on all days…their garlic naan and kolhapuri chicken is to die for!

11) The Little Coonoor Bakery(9566290465)

Love Momos? Who doesn’t! The bakery is yet to come up with a place of its own but does offer a take away….Their cheese and chicken momos are outa the world!

12) Frugal Gourmet Lovedale

A pop up dining destination at the hosts home itself, the place not only offers great food but also a beautiful homely ambience with artistic touch to it! Its open for lunch, afternoon tea or early dinner…

Following places don’t need an intro for these are pretty famous

13) Hopscotch

14) WGC

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Girlie time at WGC

15) Tandoori Hut Kotagiri (for rolls)

16) Taj Gateway Coonoor

17) Orchid Square

WEEKEND GETAWAYS

Weekend is the time to unwind! After all, the boys too need a break from the study rut..With Kotagiri and Ooty on either sides, just a stone’s throw away, one has ample of choices to spend the weekend blissfully cut off from the elusive owl…Here are some of them…

1) La Maison

2) Fuschia

3) Tea Nest

4) Fernhill

5) Redhills resort

6) Destiny farmstay

7) Pykara guest house

8) Kurumba village resort

9) Glyngarth Resorts

10) Kings Cliff

11) Gems Park Ooty

12) Lymond

So, I haven’t been to all these places but some are done by friends while few by acquaintances…I shall only write about the ones I’ve visited..

1) Fuschia Kotagiri

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travelling soles

Located in the interiors of Kotagiri, amidst the tea gardens Fuschia is a haven for nature craving nuts! Serene environs, breathtaking views, a hustling brook flowing nearby and a drive through the Jacaranda kissed streets surely makes this place a perfect getaway…Apart from having 7 rooms, they offer meals just for visitors as well provided you inform them a day in advance…Their authentic south Indian spread is a treat to one’s palette!

2) La Maison

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La Masion is a must visit! A tiny open bath space with these spectacular views and incredible French Vibes! Love the aesthetics of this place!

A super gorgeous boutique and heritage homestay that teleports you to the French Riviera…Perched on a hilltop, this pet friendly resort gives shelter to some exotic flora n fauna…A relaxed luncheon with friends or a rejuvenating dip in the valley facing bath tub, this one sure knows how to let you DISCONNECT!!

3) Fernhill Palace Ooty

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Haunted stories anyone??

An erstwhile palace of Maharaja of Mysore, the resort is studded with sprawling green lawns, beautiful gardens and stunning views overlooking lush green valleys…Famous for being a hotspot for all horror movie shoots, you’d find certain eeriness in the place, though I find it too pretty to be eerie!

4) RedHill Resorts Ooty

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Redhill Resort overlooking the pristine Emerald Lake

Best known for its splendid view, overlooking the Emerald Lake, this place offers a wide range of activities like trekking, fishing, riding, bird watching etc. as well as arrangement of barbecue and bonfires.. A rather long and bumpy ride from Wellington but a must visit!

5) Glyngarth Resorts Ooty

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That infinity pool at Glyngarth Resort

Overlooking the Masinagudi Valley, this one is a perfect soul retreat…Apart from being located in a pristine location, one thing that makes this place stand apart is their infinity pool facing the Blue Mountains….Good Food…Great Ambience and a perfect location away from the touristy locales of Ooty makes it one of the best weekend getaways out there…

LEISURE ACTIVITIES/HIKES/RIDES/PICNICS

I Climb Therefore I Am!

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The endless tea gardens

There’s no better way to explore the contours of a place in and out than on foot!

While I absolutely love exploring the hidden trails and offbeat locations, due to certain unavoidable reasons, I couldn’t explore this gem as much as I did in Bhutan. There are two hikes that are close to my heart for the places are cut off from the mainstream town and civilization…The Gundada and Aravukadu Villages and The Kurumba Tribe Village. The other two hikes that I’d recommend would be the waterfalls close to Fuschia and further ahead the trail to Bibin Village…another one would be the Toda Village next to Ralia Dam a hike which Dssc also organizes….A walk along the Nilgiris railway track can be equally rewarding!

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My thing for brit styled railway stations

Kurumba Village

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Views from the village
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Kurumba hut made of mud walls & thatched with a slate roof

Some nagging and couple of emotional blackmails later, the hubster was finally convinced to tag along for the hike that I’d otherwise planned to do solo…Just a cautionary advice….Try not doing this hike alone for the track though isn’t an arduous one but has a whole lot of humongous Bisons enroute…The Non Such Retreat also provides a guide for this hike but charges a bomb for it…So you might as well do it by yourself…The route is simple..start walking towards the factory n after about a km take the first prominent right turn…you’d see a lot of workers at the tea garden and could ask anyone for the village…it’s just a 3 kms walk one way but the route is absolutely spellbinding! The village boasts of being a home to one of the most primitive tribes of Nilgiris called Kurumbas. Its nestled in the forest away from the city chaos and has a total of 21 houses…Here are some pictures from my hike…

Gundada Village and further up to Aruvankadu

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Gundada village

 

Here’s a detailed story of my hike to Gundada…its my favorite getaway in Wellington..Easily doable and close to the Dssc complex, this place can and should not be missed! You could either start hiking from Jagathala or drive up from Circle Quarters to Jagathala, vordanity village and then park your vehicles at this village and climb up to Gundada and further up to Aruvankadu…My very own Neverland in the Nilgiris!

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Hike to Aravukadu village

Toda Village next to Ralliah Dam

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Landsacape enroute toda village close to Ralia Dam
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a temple of the indigenous Toda tribes

A small walk through a copse would lead you to the tranquil waters of Ralia…Keep walking along the ban and you would reach the Toda tribe settlement…..Most of the times there’s a guard around who could help you out with the route….The jungle trail is absolutely calm and peaceful,revitalizing your mind and soul! One could even spot exotic Malabar Squirrel…oh and once you reach the village, you could even place an order for toda shawls, bags or even customize things with their embroidery and work…

Kodanadu View Point And The Drive Through Kotagiri

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Kodanadu viewpoint at Kotagiri
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One of my favorite villages in Kotagiri enroute to Kodanadu view point
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The sprawling green meadows of 9th Mile In Ooty make a perfect place for picnics! But avoid going over the weekends!

A Cycle Ride To Dolphins Nose

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Out of the five cycle rides organised by the college, i went for two! This ones enroute Dolphins Nose!

Fuschia Waterfall, Catherine Falls, Pykara Falls and Elk Falls are best to hike around this time in monsoons…

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Fuschia Falls!

 

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Catherine Falls!
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Pykara Falls In Ooty!

Upper Bhavani Lake and Avalanche

To reach the Upper Bhavani lake you will have to reach the forest department which is near the famous four road crossing of Ooty..This place is around 24 kms downhill from ooty and will take you an hour to reach…From the checkpost there are guided tours..Vehicles of different sizes will be available..The trips operate from 9am to 5pm on first come first serve basis…Mostly, the vehicle tours have three spots…The Sholas….The Bhavani Temple and The Upper Bhavani Lake…a one hour drive on rough road but totally worth it!

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The upper bhavani lake!

 

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For Picnics and barbecues, Glenmorgan, Emerald Lake, Ninth Mile, Pine Forest Ooty make some of the best bets!

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Camping at Pykara!

Tut Break Getaways

With three to four days of break in hand we have ample of places to explore around Coonoor…I shall spam you with the pictures of the ones we covered

Tirupur and Karur

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godowns of linen!

If you’re a sucker for pretty home linen and clothes as well, these two aren’t to be missed…Tirupur is a hub for garments..some even branded ones..i got my levis denims all for 500 bucks…one needs to have patience and time to hunt for things in the godowns where clothes are strewn all over the place…These are all brand new and ready to be shipped to their brand outlets.

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At the linen hub…Karur…a tip here…please try doing this trip in winters! i went here in march and suffered a heat stroke! what you see in the backdrop are all table covers! that much variety!
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At Tirupur! My reaction says it all!

While Karur is the home linen haven..All your 8 market stuff comes from this town…Curtains..Sheers..Blinds..Table Covers..quirky cushion covers..dining mats and runners..bedspreads..you name it and you shall find it here…

Pondicherry

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The White Town and its bright colored walls!

The French Riviera, with beautiful beaches…some fort ruins and quirkiest cafes…A days trip from Pondy would take you to the beautiful Pichavaram forest and Tranquebar Port Town which are equally astounding!

Varkala

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Boat rides in Varkala backwaters!

 

A coastal town near Trivandrum, this place is a perfect sun and sand getaway…One could enjoy boat rides in backwaters as well..There is also an old British fort and a boat ride from the lighthouse to a small little island with temple in Anjengo…

Hampi

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The hypnotic sunsets of Hampi!

Hampi with her gigantic boulders scattered across the countryside, greenest paddy fields with southern palms dotting their boundaries, peaceful coracle ride in the calm waters of Shanapur Lake, the ancient ruins strewn all over the town takes you back to the long forgotten Vijayanagar Empire.. Her sunsets are absolutely hypnotic!

Coorg, Mysore, Alleppey and Alappuzha are other spots that can be covered. Meanwhile The Bandipur National Park and Mudumalai National Parks can be easily covered since these are just a stone’s throw away from Ooty! The route Gundlupet is breathtaking with endless blossoms in Summer and Spring season.

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Enroute Mysore! Highways like these!

Shopping Retreats!

1) Leather Stuff

Marigold and Skins are two such shops in Ooty that provide a range of products in leather…From smart leather boots to jackets n bags…I hoarded many boots for i never get my size for the huge manly feet I have..Don’t be surprised to find brands like Hush Puppies, Buggatti and  likes for very reasonable prices!

2) Toda Jewellery

Tulsi Mall in Coonoor and Big Shop in Ooty have some beautiful silver antiques and jewelry. One could even pick up just the pendants…I personally have a hugeeee thing for silver jewelry and therefore picked up a a toda tribe necklace and a pair of jhumkas! Whoever said money can’t buy happiness was truly lying eh!

3) Ketty Embroidery

Sister Keerthan in Ketti Village deals with the embroidery work…I didn’t get one for myself but here is the contact if required….9486801352

4) Tea Leaves and Chocolates

Being in the Nilgiris how can one not collect tea….one will find a huge variety of flavors..right from chocolate to peppermint…Nilgiris Store in Coonoor has it all…oh and do try their Brinjal Pickle! Its absolute heaven!

5) Silk Saree Shopping From Coimbatore and Mysore

THE 8 MARKET HAUL

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the 8 market madness!

Coming to my favorite part….This market never disappoints! Never everrr! Falling on every second Sunday of the month ( I know it’s such a longgg wait for passionate shopaholics like me:” this market starts at 5am and goes on till the sunset….Floor Cushions…cushion covers..home linen…spices…just anything and everything sold here makes a good buy…Sarees for like 100 bucks are not only great for gifting the maids but also can be used as a fabric for suits n dresses…and if they turn out to be flawless then why not even drape it! Here’s some of the picks from my 8 market haul

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Look who would chill like a boss with all my 8 market cushions!! ps: those blue ones were all of 100 bucks ( the cushion and the cover)
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The 8 market haul! the picture says it all 😛 Women reach the ground as early as 5 am with their head torches!

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those vibrant cushion covers picked up from 8 market giving a colorful makeover to my balcony!
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I absolutely loved these shibori floor cushions! By the end of the course, my friends gave me a title ” Cushion Queen”! Buttt how could one not pick up those!

THE SABYASACHI’S OF WELLINGTON

Now while these guys are loaded with hell lot of work, but their work is pretty impressive! My personal favorite is Bombay Tailor who’s not only stitched blouses but also dresses, crop tops and palazzos for me….

Here are the contact details

1) Bombay Tailors 9487966302

2) Krishna Tailors 9788578635

3) Rao Tailors Coonoor ( opposite ABABA)

PS: Out of the many tea factories, The High Field Tea Factory on walkers hill road offers a guided tour and a glimpse into the process of tea manufacturing.

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At The Highfield Tea Factory after the tour….One even gets to taste different flavors of tea here…The White Tea happens to be the most expensive of all owing to its health benefits

MISCELLANEOUS

If you want to showcase your talent or just learn new things and forge new friendships do participate in Scads…Linen Fete and Winter Carnival are great platforms to display your art and creativity and at the same time get paid for it!

I think i’m done jotting down the basics! Feel free to ping me on Instagram or Facebook if you have any queries…I would be glad to help! Have a fantastic tenure….You are in one of the most beautiful places and I am sure each one of you shall have incredible times and happy memories to take! Cheerio!

Shangarh…Her Meadows and Mountains!

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The early morning view at Upper Nahi Village!

It was Day 3 already! Last two days just zoomed by in a jiffy and today was the day of reluctant retreat! We woke up to zero visibility with the clouds spamming the landscape. I wished it rained harder so that we had a genuine reason to stay back. But Mahi anyway had some guests coming to Shangarh and therefore we decided to move today itself. Also the picture he and the other bloggers painted of Shangarh, got us even more curious to explore the place. I am  forever battling dilemmas to see new places or spend time at the ones already stayed at and loved with all my heart! But then again one must give a fair chance to all the unseen ones too! Right?

After bidding a not so keen goodbye to the entire family, we trekked down to Lower Nahi Village to catch an SUV, for the road to Shangarh, didn’t really define roads too well! And guess who loyally accompanied us till the lower village? Whitey! It broke my heart to bid goodbye to him! I might have been a Doggie Mommy( biologically) in some alter life!

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Bidding Goodbyes to Our warmest hosts at Aastha Homestay!
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Whitey Boy coming along with us till Lower Nahi Village!

While getting into the mini truck, i asked the driver if it were okay to sit in the open backspace. Mahi didn’t approve of the idea but then A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do! So me and Tripti hopped into the back carrier, fell here and there a million times, laughed like maniacs, screamed our guts out every time the vehicle slid a bit in the slush, got goosebumps not only because the cold air kissed us gently but also because the views were no less than a picture of a dreamland turning into life!

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Clicked while sitting in the back open space of the mini truck!

En route while driving along the hustling Sainj river, we crossed the Ropa Complex where the Gate of the GHNP lies. The complex also provides guest rooms at reasonable charges. The non existent roads were extremely slushy and made it difficult for the driver to maneuver along the hairpin bends. Traffic jams here were made of tons of sheep flocking by. This place didn’t know of mob and noise. We could now see the Upper Nahi village far away on the mountain. A little farther a beautiful 5 tiered temple caught my eye! It stood away from civilization in Shanshar. There were villages wayyy high up on the mountains. I told myself in my head that id come explore them someday!

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Anjaani Raahon mein, Tu Kya Dhoond Firrey Dur jisko samjha woh toh pass hai tere!

The famed meadows of Shangarh lived up to its name! The school kids played cricket there and fleeting clouds danced around. Two wooden temples rested on the meadows and were apparently known as resting place for the Devtas. The main temple however rested in the middle of the village dedicated to the local deity called Shungchul Mahadev. A new house like structure was being built right next to it, probably a place dedicated to the temple priests. It is said that the the temple caught fire a few years back, which led to a visit of some ministers who gave funds for construction of the same. Shangarh also gained fame since then.

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I could lie down here and roll till eternity!

The meadows are considered so sacred that even high level dignitaries, police officials etc enter temple leaving their caps and belts outside and those who disobey are cursed eventually. One of the locals gave an instance where a man drank alcohol on the meadows and was struck by lightning the very same day! Faith and folklores have a perennial bond! Don’t they! This particular village is also known to be kind towards people who elope for marriages due to societal vices! Isn’t it amazing how these remote corners of our country at times are rigid on certain beliefs and then there are some who know no disparities and go against what’s called A NORM!!

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The famous temple of Shungchul Mahadev! in Kath Kuni architecture!

The Shungchul Mahadev reminds many of the Chaini Kothi Temple in Banjaar near Jibhi. The wooden Katth Kuni structure is a marvel of architecture with grand carvings and multiple storeys.

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The intricate work on wood!
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The Meadows have surprises only if you see!

 

We moved forward and walked around the lower village, the slush making it uneasy to run around yet the urge to see more didn’t seem to cease. The cows grazing outside in the slight drizzle with clouds rising up over the slanting roofs, appeared like the smoke billowing out of the chimneys. We climbed up to our homestay where Naresh, Mahis cousin welcomed us to his abode with a shy smile. Mahi and Naresh were poles apart. He and his family had just started with the homestay service and we were their first guests. The washrooms were not even done up yet, but the stay was comfortable. I’ve learnt to be a tad less fussy about my stays over the last few months. I think the hosts and their warmth make all the difference.

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A school kid heading back home, taking careful steps on the slushy paths!

The weather was all packed up by afternoon and the sky began to turn grey. The cold wind got meaner and Mahi I and Tripti huddled around the heater while Naresh, another PUBG addict, was glued to his phone screen. By around 4:30, my feet itched to get out and walk the village bylanes. While these three decided to light the fire outside,i set out for my evening walk. The village lanes were all slushy and tiny riverlets gushed by. Many pipes had burst and the water flowed with heavy cascades as though it were some waterfall. The clouds had engulfed the lower hamlets of Shangarh. I decided to take random trails winding through the deodar forests. The paths were adorned with the brown winter leaves shed around and stones and rocks that slid down the hill due to heavy rains. A little far away i saw a house ;like many others throwing smoke out of its chimney. A girl and two boys played cricket outside in its grassy courtyard. I decided to go down and ask them if i could be their audience, promising them that i’d cheer them on, on hitting sixes and fours.

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The tiny little streamlets!
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Cricket matches aint that easy in the mountains!

So this was an all new cricket i watched here! Every time the batsman hit the ball, it went rolling downhill and the bowler who was also the fielder would run all the way down to grab the ball while the batsman would go on making runs! The grass was wet and slippery and the girl whose turn was to bowl would every time throw the ball high in the air and her brother at the wicket would hit it harder, throwing the ball farther than farthest. The sister while climbing back to the pitch, tried to catch hold of her breath, when i decided to give her my tiny bit of bowling knowledge! ‘Pinky, agar is baar bhi bhaagna hai then ball ko hawa mein udaana but agar out karna hai, ball ground ke bilkul pass wicket pe nazar rakh ke marna” Well, it didn’t get her a wicket but it surely helped her sticking around the pitch and not running after the ball!

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Winter leaves adorning the paths!

Just when i decided to join them on the pitch, the grey clouds metamorphosed into rain drops that got only heavier. Luckily i was carrying my rain jacket. I bid the kids goodbye and decided to go back uphill,taking the forest trail. The riverlets got louder and the clouds rose up from the hamlets below, dressing up the mountains like never before. Walking all alone in these trails in rain is all that my heart yearned for! Little did i know that an hour later, another beautiful surprise awaited me!

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After getting wet in the rain, i joined Trips Mahi and Naresh at the bonfire!

I got back to Mahi. Naresh and Trips warming up their hands around the fire that was struggling to stay on under the tree cover. After moving inside for a cup of tea, the rain later seemed to sober down. While peeping outside the window, i realized that the rain had fallen quiet only to give way to the fairy tale snowflakes! The nature Gods were being more than kind to us and i couldn’t thank them enough for we were lucky to have witnessed this season’s last snowfall in Shangarh!

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Porch with a view!

Later that night while it snowed outside our glass windows, we sat down talking about life, how enriching travel is, Mahi telling us about his experiences with the travelers from all over India and some famous travel bloggers! While the snow didn’t seem to be in a mood to stop, our conversations too lasted till midnight. Our plan of trekking up to a nearby waterfall and the village rest house wouldn’t have worked out the following day for the snowfall made the paths even more slippery and the water pipes in the forest rest house burst due to cold. We hated to go to sleep with the idea of leaving tomorrow already, but like they say ‘ All good things must come to an end’!

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Tales of this snowy morning!

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The next morning, the landscape looked surreal, as though the snow gods had sprinkled white powder all over the mountains, trees, roads, houses, lampposts….just anything and everything that met our eyes! Shangarh lived up to its name and left me wanting to explore it more and more.. But i knew, this had to wait…may be even for a couple of months. Till then i decided to leave a tiny lil piece of me with her temples and mountains and cricket pitches.

Until next time!

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i have a hugeee thing for streams and brooks!
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Trips trying not to slip, followed by Nresh wheile heading back to the lower village!
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One last visit to the meadow!

 

TRAVEL INFO AND THINGS TO DO IN SHANGARH

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And finally Me posing with Shangarh Board! I hate goodbyes!
  1. Shangarh is located in Sainj Valley in Himachal Pradesh at about 6300ft amsl. It’s famous for its celestial meadows, majestic temples with kath kuni architecture and offers a plethora of untamed trails for hikes. It hugs the GHNP ( great himalayan national park) and the valley is often called the valley of birds.
  2. The ideal weather to visit Shangarh would be March to June, Sep end to November
  3. Catch a bus going on the mandi or manali route and get down at Aut tunnel. From here take a bus to Ropa if you get one or catch a bus to Sainj bus stop and thereafter take a shared cab to Shangarh. A daily HRTC bus plies from Kullu to Shangarh.
  4. There is a beautiful hiking trail from Upper Nahi Village to Shangarh crossing untouched meadows and hidden temples ( read about Upper Nahi here https://wordpress.com/view/talesofthehiddentrails.wordpress.com) that offers incredible views.Must do if one has no time constraints.
  5. Shangarh being so close to GHNP in itself has various hikes to offer. A short hike to a local waterfall can be done.
  6. Apart from visiting the meadows and the famous Shangarh temple, one can even trek up to the Forest Rest House where the room charges are Rs 500 per day. The rest house is made of wooden walls and even has the old age British charm of fireplace etc.
  7. Homestays Available
  8. The homestay we stayed at was not even completed yet but one can call up Mahi to arrange one. His contact details…8679139227( whatsapp number)
  9. Snowline HomeStay 7807607331,  9816425422, 8894820083
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The Team!

And Then I Finally Met You Sainj!

As the indistinct chatter in the Himachal Roadways bus persisted, the sun sneaked up behind the serene Shivaliks highlighting its contours. As dawn broke I found myself withdrawn from the unbridled motion, going back to that day, a year ago, while going through Shubham Mansingka’s travel blog post on Sainj, when  I couldn’t stop obsessing over this place. You know how you see something spectacular and can’t stop thinking about it! The fact that he used the phrase ‘Secret Homestay in a Secret Village’ piqued my interest to find out where this stunning piece of jewel hid itself in the mountains. And like they say ‘Mystery creates wonder’!! Exactly a year later, I just returned that mysterious hamlet that I often dreamt of and it was even prettier than how I had imagined!

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Early Morning Hour of Dawn…closing towards Kiratpur!

To be honest, initially I was in two minds, whether to continue keeping this gem a secret or share it with folks like me, who craved for peace and serenity. I am writing this, with a tad bit of faith in my tiny bunch of readers that they respect the sanctity of this place and don’t turn it into yet another Kasol or Dalhousie, swamped with filth and irresponsible loud tourists.

I wanted to do a budget stay and like always, a friend I made on Instagram, Rajeshwar Thakur, came to my rescue. The trip was planned in a way that I spend minimum and see maximum. Budget traveling and a homestay was the idea! Like many of my day hikes in Bhutan, my friend Tripti agreed to tag along this time as well. At a ghoulish time of 4am did we reach the bus stand to begin our adventure. The fields near Kiratpur had metamorphosed into greener grains and the landscape flaunted the arrival of spring. Seasons are the best makeup artists when it comes to giving a makeover to the landscapes!

The omnipresent silence was only interrupted by the conversations between the bus driver and conductor. The passengers who had a long way to go till Aut were in their deep slumber while the ones who boarded the bus to get down at the nearby spots seemed familiar with the driver and conductor. One such man was a village school master who sat down in the drivers cabin, telling the conductor about board exams, how kids tend to cheat at an all new level during exams. Later the conversation drifted to some local rich man who adopted a girl, for the wife was working and there was no one at home and he needed someone for domestic help! That’s all i could decipher for they spoke in Himachali. A part of me wanted to believe in that rich man’s goodness, in the fact that he adopted a girl child and ignore the latter half. The driver was really chatty and described many road accidents and how government aids should be increased for betterment of roads in some parts of Himachal. The conductor often filled a steel glass with tea and served the driver on regular intervals! I was in the process of developing a new found respect for this lesser known being, at the steering wheel.

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Dhaaba with a View!

Short of Bilaspur, we stopped at a Dhaba while we waiting for a bus change as the one we were travelling in broke down. As we waited, the calm waters of the Koldam Dam glistened a dreamy green. It reminded me of my times in Ooty when we used to chill beside the Avalanche Lake. for all those who haven’t visited Avalanche lake, you must include it in your itinerary if you’re passing by Ooty. I was hoping to not encounter traffic jam ahead on the Aut road and luckily this time around the bus sped its way from Mandi to Aut. The Aut tunnel is almost 3 kms long running along the Sainj river. Last time around, we didn’t see it for we took a right just before turning for Jibhi and Tirthan. Well one takes the same turn for Sainj as well but in order to catch the bus from the Aut bus stand, one needs to cross the tunnel. This tunnel is apparently the second longest in India.

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While waiting for the bus At Aut Bus Stand!

I spoke to Mahi after reaching Aut and he informed us that he was waiting at the Sainj Town. Sainj was an additional hours drive. We however booked our ticket all the way up till Deori Village as our destination was another 2 to 3 kms hike up from Deori. Deori is the last place connected by a so called motorable road (read muddy track that was then loaded with slush) and made our ride the bumpiest one ever!

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Straight from the desk of HRTC Driver! The lesser known Heroes!

My head screamed with joy “ Welcome to the bluest skies, the cherry blossoms and the roads so shy”! I saw a young guy standing at the bus stop, running towards my window. Mahi’s smile was infectious and he instantly gave me a high five! That was nothing like a first time greeting! His aura and zeal told me that I’d have to let go of this asocial being inside me and it came easy with company like him and Tripti. A horde boarded the bus from Sainj for Deori as there was no other way to travel up. The roads were non existent and there were just a few buses in a day. The drive from Sainj was another 45mins to Deori. The apple blossoms and green fields gave way to drier lands with enormous giants called Dhauladhars looming outside our windows. The path defined offbeat in its true essence being the slushiest and narrowest but the views were simply breathtaking. I was in a constant uttering either Ouch or Wow! The paranoid me dug my nails into Tripti’s arms leaving the pretty Himachali lady beside me royally amused. I badgered her with my forever ‘Deori Kab Aayega’ and every time she smirked and said ‘thoda aur time hai’! By now my head was spinning! We were on the bus for almost 12 hours now! Things I do for my beloved…The Mountains!

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The Himachali lady whom i badgered my lame queries with!
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Last stop at Deori! We now had to walk from here!

The bus journey finally concluded at Deori. Tons of people made a queue and headed towards their village, some who had their homes just a few away while few like us who had to walk a little more till Upper Nahi. Like most of the villages, this one too had a temple right in the beginning A white building adorned with bright green colored roof with purple window frames that turned out to be a Post Office stood right next to Mahi’s Uncle’s place where we halted to grab a bite as our tummies were growling with hunger! Who would mind being a postman working at this gorgeous Daak Khaana ( like they call it in the villages)!

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Post Office At Deori!

Half an hour of climb through Deodar forests and some green fields by our side, we finally landed at our home for two days. Upper Deori..the secret village I had read about was now right here! I was living my dream. Shubham is Mahi’s good friend and I therefore asked him to show me all the places he had written about in his blog. I remember him mentioning about this Swiss Couple’s cottage which now has no one staying. It stood in the middle of apple orchards, looking bereft of company and love!

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The Swiss Couple Cottage!

Just as you enter the village, the sacred Pundrik Rishi Lake, though bereft of water graced the landscape along with green meadows bearing tall pines and deodars. The fields had just started to turn green but I could well imagine how insanely gorgeous would it be in the monsoons. Colorful houses with slanting slated roofs dotted the village landscape. Most of the houses followed the KATHA KUNI architecture, made of wood mud and slates. No cement or modern material is used for building these structures. My favorite part about most of these houses is the outside balcony with huge wooden frames with no glass as such, so one has non obstructed views for miles galore.

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One of the Many Houses with Kathakuni Architecture!

A village primary secondary school stood there in the middle of the field with two temples around. Children played cricket when we arrived and the sun was almost on its way to call it a day! Plumes of smoke spiralled out of the houses and the last rays of the sun kissed the snowy peaks around. The secret homestay actually seemed to be mysterious for we had crossed half the village and still not reached our home for tonight. Mahi’s is the last house in the village with spectacular views and happy vibes.The outside porch was my love at first sight and I knew where I’d be chilling for the next two days.

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Tripti and I would sit here, sipping on our tea, talking endlessly to Mahi and cuddling up with Whitey Boy for hours!

Huge wooden framed windows gifted one with spellbinding views of endless green sprawling farms and the snow covered Dhauladhar Mountains and in case you’re lucky enough to have a clear day then a stunning sunrise too! There were last few minutes of sunlight outside and we decided to drop our bags and get out to see the village before it would get dark.

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Uff this Village and the landscape that puts ya in trance state!

Just like old times in Bhutan, me and Tripti wandered around in the hamlet with a furry pal whom we named Browny( we always end up naming dogs on the basis of their colors and that must sound so racist right ;\) this time with Mahi too giving us company. He wanted to play cricket with the kids and so tagged along till the school meadow. I’ve often noticed how friendships based in these little hamlets are never based on age, caste or community. Well, it turned out what I’d observed wasn’t true completely. Certain societal vices still existed in the hinterland. Can’t blame the people though. Our country has miles to go probably because of illiteracy and archaic beliefs. Shall tell you about my tryst with that in Himachal later in this post. While walking around we saw many hidden facets of the culture, for instance this knitting and weaving machine used by the village ladies to make the famous Himachali shawls and dresses like Pattu.  Vibrant colored wool were entangled around the frame. On asking one of the village women, how soon she’d complete one shawl, we got to know it took eight to ten days and at least a kilo or two of wool for one shawl, depending on the work! Browny ran around the green fields like a liberated soul! All that dull headache and fatigue dissipated into the thin cold air leaving only warmth and happiness behind.

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The weaving frame outside one of the houses!

While Mahi continued playing cricket with kids, we decided to venture out further into the village, curious to know the folks and their stories. A pretty green house stood quiet and lonesome looking down at the valley and the mountains around. Its attic had undisturbing views and we decided to find out who lived in this dreamy abode. A thumping sound came from one of the rooms on top and a flight of huge wooden steps took us up to the attic. We knocked on the door couple of times but there were no response. An old man came out in a bit and said hello. We asked him if it were okay to sit in his attic and chit chat with him and his family and he smiled and said ‘of course’! He even asked us for tea and we politely declined for we didn’t want to trouble them too much.While sitting outside at the porch staring at the hills, the calm silence in the air was interrupted by a heavy voice of certain someone who told us to come out of the house. On being asked why, the person said to come down immediately and that she’d tell us the reason later. We were apparently pulled out of the house for the inhabitants were of low caste! Did I seriously hear that!?

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At one of the porch of the village houses!

I was flabbergasted then and somehow contained my feelings within. Though I did try explaining to this certain woman how senseless her ideas about caste were but who was I to lecture. They’ve grown up hearing folklores where mostly the sinful things were committed by lower caste folks and how unhappy the almighty was with that. I remembered how my homestay auntie in Kareri felt apologetic on getting to know how we were just two sisters in the family with no brother. Also why I hadn’t planned a kid even after six years of marriage. That too wasn’t acceptable to me. But there are times and places when we have to let go! When I sit down and think about it, who am i to judge their thoughts. We in the cities bound to be cl-assist. We don’t approve of our maids sitting on the fancy couch in our drawing room or eat in those bone china crockery. So even though I lectured for a bit and kept thinking about the same whole night, i knew in the heart of hearts how impossible it were to bring about that change in a day or two!

Mahi being an excellent host made it sure to fill our tummies well before we called it a night. He too ate along sitting around the heater, cracking jokes that sounded the lamest yet got us laughing our guts out.

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Love how the clouds make their mark on the mountains in the form of those grey shadows!

Tripti and I went to bed discussing how it felt like homecoming for the place might have changed from Haa Valley in Bhutan to Sainj Valley in Himachal but we were the same mad women, wandering around hungry for mountain love. And then again those Mighty Giants, The Mountains and its people were the same old..same old!

DAY2…

I woke up at 6;30 am  to Mahi snoring in the next room and Tripti in deep slumber next to me. Like always I was up early in the mountains, wishing to catch a glimpse of the sunrise.  But the clouds seemed to have their way today. It wasn’t even seven and I see a lady sitting on her knitting machine, weaving a shawl early morning. Bright red with black wool flung across the machine frame and she worked diligently on it. And here I was still groggy, taking pride in the fact that I woke up early. The mountain folks sure know how to keep yourself grounded!

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Early Morning Scenes at Upper Nahi…A lady is up and about at her job at 6;45 AM! Howwww?

A little later I was joined by Whitey and he walked along every step. I sat down around these mustard fields with him staring at the village houses beneath my feet just when a pretty bright blue birdie flew by. I sighed for having missed seeing it clearly and just then a flock of them fluttered by! The pretty dainty Magpies! My genie was somewhere close by listening to my wishes! I won’t be surprised if it was Whitey The Furry Boy! The early morning is always my favorite time in the mountain villages. The stillness in the air is broken by the chirping birds and every house seems to add a little drama by belching out spirals of smoke through chimneys while women are already at work, walking across the fields, their backs hunched with the weight of wooden baskets behind.

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My Pets …Tripti and Whitey 🙂
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The Gorgeous Magpie flying with her open wings and free spirit!

An hour or two later we were ready for our hike to Sarikanda.Leaving the greener pastures behind we made way to rockier climbs and trails made of slush and pine cones. Sarikanda was a meadow on top and was most probably snowed out today. Old habits are hard to die and Tripti just like old times in Bhutan, started with her ‘ Aur kitna time hai or how far is it now?’ And i like always kept telling her ‘ we are almost there!’ That’s how we hiked three years back and that’s how we were managing now too 🙂 Enroute Mahi showed us the place where, back in the day his ancestors would stay. After the earthquake of 1905, they relocated to lower areas. A small little temple with a local deity like Shiva stood around that patch and red flags fluttered in the air. The trail eventually gave way to rocks, demanding us to climb the rocky steps but as we went higher, the views only got more and more magical. The clouds unveiled the Snow clad mountains as if it were a trophy being unveiled for trekking up to this place.

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Trekking Up To Sarikanda!

Enroute the trail up we were greeted by some coal black scarred trees reminiscing of an age prior to being struck by the purity of lightning. These remnants were a stoic reminder of how nature can be violent & raging even in lightning which is signified by our symbol of purity i.e. white. As we trekked higher the snow mat got denser until a point wherein our boots were no longer visible. In those two feet of white powder with cool mountain breeze flirting with us did we truly realise that the beauty of the trek lay in its remoteness & wilderness. Upon reaching a shepherd’s ‘Dhok’, we took some time off admiring the views around us while Tripti was engrossed in drying her feet as she hadn’t got any trekking shoes on this trip. I offered her my socks for the meantime & i blissfully wandered around the meadow allowing my sensory receptacles in my feet to soak in the purity & trueness of mother nature.

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Sitting at one of the abandaoned sheds with that view! This was just so hypnotic!

Sometimes all you need to connect with your roots to this planet is to let go of the hesitation to digress into the path less travelled. After a short break, dark angry clouds laden with moisture started to approach our location and we decided to scamper back to the safety of our homestay. On our descent as luck would have it, we were driven away by an impromptu snowfall which added wings to our feet as we rushed to the warm licks & wagging tail of Whitey.

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Mahi, like a good guide, leaving a trail behind for us! All hearts for this Boy!

Raajma Chaawal and fuzzy blankets around Bukhari are all that you need after hiking in that beautiful yet challenging snowy weather. We had the evening free for us and Tripti decided to ask the family help us dress up in their Himachali attire called Pattu. I had never imagined getting dolled up on a backpacking trip but then that’s what girlfriends do right..add a whole lot of drama and excitement to your trip. Deepa, one of the family members helped us drape the Pattu. She was kind enough to share her dresses with us and man they were absolutely gorgeous. Such intricate embroidery over beautiful woolen shawls. We later went gallivanting the entire village,catching the limelight.

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Look at us in Pattus and look at that view behind!

The villagers giggled looking at these two female travellers dressed up like them and were kind enough to compliment us even though i know i looked quite funny. Infact in my head i thought i could easily pass off as ‘A Black Magic Woman’! 😀 Whitey like always wandered around with us, through fields and meadows.

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Pose Pose Poseee

A little later that evening, we sat down next to the heater listening to Mahi’s tales. There was never a dull moment around this boy. He had named us Bhaangdi and Chirkundi and we had no idea what that meant but in return we called him Bhaangdu! He’s probably one of the warmest hosts i know and literally took care of us like we were his family. He’d often tell me that i am the serious kinds and that he had to think before saying anything to me and how Tripti was a chirpy bird 😛 but i absolutely loved his brutally honest nature! We’d never get tired of his stories.

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One With Mahi!
People like him make me want to travel more, makes me want to trust in the strangers more than ever and continue finding joy in the unknown!

Because The Blog Post would have been incomplete without this Boys Picture!

What waited for us in Shangarh was yet another fairytale! ( To be Contd)

TRAVEL AND HOMESTAY INFO

  1. There are enough buses that ply from Chandigarh ( Sector 43 ISBT) for Aut. You could catch any bus that goes towards Manali and get down at the Aut Bus Stand. The bus stand is located right after crossing the Aut Tunnel and is on the right side of the road. One has to get down via steps as its not on the main road itself.
  2. Try catching an early morning bus from Chandigarh to avoid jams. I caught the 4 am bus and reached Aut by 2PM.
  3. From Aut obe has to catch a bus for Sainj. Incase you happen to get a bus for Deori, it’s even better. Deori is another 45mins of drive up from Sainj. The road is pretty rough and avoid driving in your own vehicle.
  4. Upper Nahi is 2kms up from Deori. One has to hike from here as there is no motorable road to Upper Nahi Village.
  5. This gorgeous homestay we stayed at is called Aastha Homestay named on the little girl of the family. Each and every member of the family is extremely warm and helpful and you’re in for a terrific time.
  6. Aastha Homestay is a budget homestay. The washrooms are not attached to your room and our built outside, in the home compound but are well kept and clean with hot water available.
  7. The rooms are basic but have all the essential things like heater and enough blankets to keep you warm and comfortable.
  8. They charge you per head, Rs 700 for a day which not only includes your rent but all the three meals and yes the meals are absolutely delish and filling.
  9. Mahi, the host is such a livewire who would not only keep you comfortable but also guide you with hikes and places to explore in and around the village.
  10. Sai Ropa and Shangarh are must visit places and if you have enough time, you could ask him to guide you for hikes in GHNP ( additional charges may apply for that)
  11. The internet connectivity is poor but that’s the best part no? I have a Jio sim and therefore had no coverage while my friends vodafone was working well.
  12. Mahi’s Contact Number…8679139227.

The Potter’s Wheel….Khurja!

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One of the stalls in Dilli Haat!

While standing at one of the pottery stalls, haggling my way through with the vendors at Dilli Haat, i couldn’t stop drooling over everything my eyes met! A hugeeee sucker for pottery and ceramic art, i find it difficult to maintain my fiscal discipline at such places! But the prices did seem exorbitant! On asking the sales boy where he got all that gorgeous stuff from, i learnt of this haven that happens to be a stone’s throw away from my home ( Noida) and justtt 80 odd kms from New Delhi! And thus the urge to visit Khurja sprang up which was so bad that it lead me to this city of pottery the very next day itself!! ( Call me a pottery maniac but i don’t care :P)

Route

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The Eastern Peripheral Expressway…making the drive easy and beautiful!

Khurja is about 72 kms from the IGI Airport in Delhi and 120 kms from the Agra airport by road. One could hire a cab which would take about two and a half hours from either of the places.

Nearest bus stands are Bulandshahar ( 18 kms) and Dadri (42 kms). Ghaziabad, Noida and Greater Noida are other main cities nearby.

It is well connected to New Delhi by train on Delhi-Kolkata route. The train takes about an hour and a half.

In case you’re looking for a place to stop by for lunch, there is one decent restaurant called Highway Chaupal. They even have their own shop of ceramics and pottery.

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Sprawling fields along NH34…And spectacular sunsets!

If you’re driving in your own car, take the Delhi- Eastern Peripheral Expressway- exit at Bulandshahr – take NH34 to Khurja. It took us an hour and 15 minutes to reach Khurja from Greater Noida.

Khurja Pottery and Its Interesting Origin

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ITS Raining potteries in Khurja

Khurja Pottery is a traditional Indian pottery, made in Khurja, in Bulandshahr district of UP. For the starters it enjoys the reputation of being a part of the Geographical Indication. There are almost 400 odd factories, employing a good about 15000 people officially and 20000 unofficial employees. ( according to Wikipedia) generating not only employment in this region of UP but also contributing to the financial and trade benefits of the country.

While reading up on Khurja that night before making a trip, i learnt that this clay pottery found its essence in India when King Taimur Lung of Afghanistan brought along artisans and potters all the way from Egypt Syria Turkey and Persia ( countries ruled by him once). After he and his army left, many artisans stayed back in India who later relocated to places like Khurja, Jaipur, Delhi etc.

A very interesting fact stated in the book ‘ Pottery making cultures and Indian Civilisation’ says that ‘ Khurja in Bulandshahr is one of the oldest centers of glazed pottery in India.’ and that ‘ These potters often call themselves as Multani Kumhars, coming from Multan, now located in Punjab Pakistan.

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A riot of colors!

How Its Made

The raw materials used are Quartz stone, feldspar and China Clay also called Chini Mitti in Hindi.The clay used is local one available in Up while the stones are brought from Rajasthan.

We were lucky enough to get a glimpse of this interesting process. Here are the steps followed to manufacture the pottery/ crockery.

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After the designing! Look at all that hard work!
  • Mixing…All the raw materials are mixed together along with water, followed by getting dehydrated in a hybrid machine which sucks the liquid out of the paste.
  • Moulding… Different moulds ( in the shape of cups, mugs, bowls etc) of POP are made to give the shape to the softened mixture.
  • Drying….   The output is then kept at a normal room temperature. It takes around a day or more to dry completely.
  • Designing… The product is designed differently, painted, glazed etc according to the customer demands.
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Artisans at work!
  • Baking…. The stuff is then finally put into a huge furnace for baking at about 650 degree Celsius and eventually put into a cooling chamber to avoid cracks.
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The furnace behind where the mixture is heated!

 My Khurja Haul

 

I would like to share some pictures of the stuff i picked up for what i felt like was for pittence. Huge brands that are even internationally famous procure their products from small towns like Khurja, Sanganer etc and sell it at enormous rates! High time we recognise the effort and talent of these artisans and potters hailing from humble backgrounds carrying the pottery legacy forward since eons!

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My Fav Coffee Mug…A set of 4 for 240 Only! Saw exactly similar ones at Fab India!
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A hoarder of plants…picked up a lot of planters..This Rabbit one was for 60Rs
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These lil boots were for Rs 40 each
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A white kettle with a dash of green for my kettle love…Rs 100 only..
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Microwave friendly Ceramic Kadais..A set of 3 for 250 Rs only
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These three tiny little curios…for 120 Rs only
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A Huge Mug Planter…Rs 80
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This giant beauty…Rs 2000
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Glossy Maroon Kettle…Rs 250 Only

The two shops i visited were located on the GT Road called Fancy Emporium and Chabra Emporium.

Some of the other shops are as follows..

  1. Dadoos Ceramic Group-7895506593
  2. Crockery Mart – 9152307189
  3. Nawal Ceramics -9152612610
  4. Bright Crockery India- 9368689332
  5. Chuni Lal and Sons- 8899224433

 

Kalka in Haryana, near Chandigarh too has couple of shops selling Khurja stuff, though the prices are relatively much higher and lesser variety. If you are around, do go have a look. The shops closest to the temple on the right hand side have the best stuff available.

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Shops at Kalka

 Khurja is definitely worth a visit. The highway running along the green sprawling fields of UP not only takes you to one of the biggest and oldest pottery hubs of India but also discloses the tales of the hard work of these lesser known artisans, contributing to the country’s economy in their own little ways! Lets empower them by directly purchasing from their small cottage industries, giving them the much deserved due!

A Beachyyy Little Fling With Kumta!

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Prettiest Sunset at Kumta Beach!

It was that  Christmas Month of December in Pune when my in laws house smelt of freshly baked plum cakes and exuded all the warm Xmas Cheer! Tee and I were making the most of this vacation ( read eating all that Pune street food and Christmas goodies). We were to plan a two day trip that involved wee bit of trekking for we’ve always loved exploring places on foot and also because how could we justify all that sinful indulgence in Vada Pavs, Dhabelis and what nott! So we planned this really offbeat trek in Maharashtra and were shit excited about it buttttt like always found something else that seemed to be kind of new and justtttt a little more attractive than the itinerary we’d made.

Tees reaction was like…’Beach Trek’?!! Why on earth would one consider the idea of hiking in a coastal town?

‘Why Not?’ I retorted! And so began stalking of random Instagrammers and bloggers who had visited the places and done the Kumta Gokarna trek! It didn’t come as a surprise to Tee though for he knew i love the ‘self Inflicted Pain Theory’ a bit too much for his liking.The trek wasn’t as offbeat as the one we had planned earlier yet it was something that we’d never done before. And so we set out on a volvo bus to Kumta, carrying just a backpack but truck loads of excitement with us!

Day 1 : Kumta

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A poor fisherman who knows the beauties of the misty mornings is much richer than a wealthy man who sleeps till noon in his palace!

10 hours later,the coconut trees dotted along the roads greeted us with the sun rising over the Aghanashini River. Fishermen boats pranced around on its still waters and i wished to tell the driver to drop me off there itself. A little later we were at the bus stop in Kumta, welcomed by this cutest little furry fellow who stretched his hand out to say Hello! Could the trip start off in any better way?!

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Welcomed to Kumta by this little furry fellow! The trip that starts with Doggo Love shall definitely turn out to be AWESOME!

Sucker for all quaint and quiet places, Tee did an excellent job in finding out The Five Mile Beach Resort, for our one day stay at Kumta. This gorgeous tent by the beach side had both the comfort and basic luxuries and at the same time gave one the camping feels for it was perched on the shimmering white sand of the Kadle Beach.

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Our home at Kumta…The tent at 5 mile beach resort at Kadle Beach…facing the ocean.

The bed faced the ocean that roared a little far away and one could listen to the humming of waves all day long. We ordered breakfast and decided to go lie down at the beach till it arrived. Fishermen were returning to their homes from an all night fishing work and many had their dogs accompanying them. Countryside struggles were quite real!

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My frame of happiness

We booked a scooter for 500 bucks for today as we wanted to drive around and explore the contours of this side of the country. The plan was to drive up to Yana ( about 30kms away from the Kumta town) and stop by at one of the fishermen villages around Aghanashini River. We raced along the pristine palms, the coastal sun charring us with all its might but we never complained for the drive around the countryside was so therapeutic. On our way to Yana Caves, we stopped at this fishermen village called Tandakuli.

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Men at work at Tandakuli village…by the Aghanashinni River!

One could see the fishermen on the middle of the river with their boats, digging the riverbed for mud. An old man stood under the comforting shade of Palms and cooked in his open kitchen. I was surprised to know that he belonged to Jharkhand and was here with many others in the village from his state for labor work. Lack of job opportunities and paucity of money displaced him and many others to a state that they now call their home. Lakshman Chaudhary might have been broken financially but he like most of the villagers I’ve come across in the country was very kind and warm and asked us to have lunch with them! I was tempted to sit back in his open kitchen and indulge in their simple feast but we had a long way to go. We took an hour and a half to reach the caves.

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Lakshman Choudhary …building his home in a state that was once alien to him!

The route offered some beautiful vistas of a coastal countryside. The villages this side of the town were spic and span and the roads hugged by forests on either sides,unusually quiet that didn’t know of traffic were flawlessly maintained. It was only towards the end of the drive, the climb up to the caves after turning left from the Mattighatta Road that the tarred road gave way to some ditches and potholes making the last part of the ride bumpy and swingy! It actually makes a good route to hike as well with fresh air of the forests along with the natures melody.

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Into the forest i go to loose my senses! The road to Yana!

YANA CAVES And VIBHUTI FALLS

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Bhaireshwara Shikhara

Yana Caves are located at the Yana Village in the Sahyadri Mountain ranges of Kumta district. The two rock outcrops known as Bhairaveshwara Shikhara (Shiva) and Mohini Shikhara (the female avatar of Vishnu) respectively are made up of black Karst Limestone. The legend has a very interesting story about how the rocks turned black after Bhasmasura who was granted a boon from Lord Shiva was burnt by his own hand. There’s a temple at the entrance of the caves. Owing to its religious significance, the pilgrims visit this place on Maha Shivratri. While this place was devoid of tourists but due to the weekend, a whole lot of students hung around that day. Small stream-lets gushed around as you descended from the second caves. One would find more locals than tourists here for the place has both geographical and religious significance.

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Mohini Shikhara!

Now if only i’d visited places like these back in the day in seventh grade, stalactites and stalagmites would have been much easier to comprehend.

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Happily getting lost in the caves!
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Monkeying around these rocky beauties!

It is said that the water that flows from these caves goes on to become VIBHUTI FALLS and later merges with Aghanashini river downstream. Vibhuti Falls is yet another scenic destination and would take an hour and a half drive from Yana Caves. Vibhuti has now found its way on popular Instagram feeds and tags but little do we all know that the north Kannada district is known as The Waterfalls Paradise with almost ten to twenty falls in a span of 30kms. I shall write about them all at the end of the post.

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My own lil oasis just when i needed it!

The Beach Trek….Starting from Kumta Beach

We decided to walk through the beaches of Kumta on the other half of the day for we had a long trek to do tomorrow as well. So the agenda for the early evening, after getting back from Yana was to cover up beaches that laid before Kadle Beach….which would be Kumta Beach…Vannalli Beach and Mangodlu beach.

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It was difficult to decide which one of them had a better sunset but the Kumta Beach offered one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever witnessed( even in Andamans, Pondicherry or Goa). Kumta is a Muslim dominated town with most of the people being fishermen and farmers.

So the thing about Kumta beach is that when you get there, you’d find the waves all receded and the sun hiding behind this small little hillock. Climb up to that hillock right away to watch the sun drown into the ocean. It looked hugeee and the ocean breeze on the top felt soothing. The sky was a pretty pink and orange and crimson…a blend of all my favorite colors at once. A little further ahead on another small raised piece of land is a viewpoint with benches which seemed to be swamped with people who had come to see the sunset. I found our spot much more peaceful where we sat for almost an hour listening to my favorite Coldplay song….Till Kingdom Come!

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That fiery ball of fire! The picture doesnt do justice to it!

A few mins of walk from here would take you to the Vannalli Beach which is quite neat and clean and has tons of boats docked along the shore…probably one of the cleanest in Kumta. Here again one would find benches along the roadside..makes an ideal place to sit after your evening walk. Climb the hill at the end of the beach here to proceed further up to Mangodlu beach, a virgin beach cut off as compared to others. Perfect for a dip after that tiring walk. Yet another climb to a hilltop shall get you to Kadle Beach that was our home for the evening.

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Best Konkan food ever! Also Last time i had non veg!

We had the best dinner on this trip at 5th mile resort with a typical Konkan preparation. The following morning awaited some misadventures and an early morning start of the hike to Gokarna through some forest gump and hurricane trails!

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Ride Away!

Day 2…KUMTA TO GOKARNA TREK

For the first time in my life i was up and ready before Tee. This walking along the beaches and climbing the hillocks around was a good trailer for the rest of the hike. We started of around 6 am, the air had a slight nip in it and the only sound we heard from our room was of the cascading waves kissing the shore. It was still dark but we decided to leave nonetheless for the plan was to cover up as much distance as possible before the sun showed up. Beach Hopping found an all new meaning today! Never did we think of hiking through umpteen virgin as well as touristy beaches.

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Starting our hike at 6 am from Kadle Beach!

The cool breeze courtesy the ocean waves felt so comforting! Colorful boats dawned the shore, crabs crawled their way through the wet shimmering sand and the sun, struggled to rise up, changing the hues of the sky, creating all the orange magic. While we walked soaking in all this beauty around us, there was one not so pretty sight that i must mention of! This ritual seemed to be peculiar to this place for i had never witnessed it in Andamans or even Goa. A row of fishermen were often seen pooping on the beach, calculatively placing themselves in such a way that the waves do the necessary cleaning up for them! One had to be careful of not walking into them or even stepping on to the pile of not so pleasant human dung 😛

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The Tide is High but i’m holding on!

Walking on the dry sand wasn’t easy. We walked a total of about 6 kms until we reached The Nirvana Beach. We decided to stop by at one of the lodgings by the beach for our breakfast, called Nirvana Nature.This place screamed QUIRK! Bright colorful tree houses, hammocks and beach beds laid under the thick cover of trees, thatched and mud walled huts for stays and small lil ponds adorned with lotus and tiny boats! Though most of them had no ACs and one had to use common washrooms but the place exuded the warmth and magic that would instantly make you fall in love with it. We gobbled down two heavy parathas, listening to constant chattering of these young college kids on the side, a trailer of the  GOSSIP GIRL SEASON 8 😉 Not judging..all in good humor though.

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This pretty lodge at Nirvana Nature!

Nirvana was the last beach on this stretch and one now had to start climbing the Nirvana Cliff, a small hillock again which flaunts these old fort ruins of Kagal Fort. A road down below ran parallel to the hillock and is a shorter and easier route to the River Jetty. But the trails always seemed more tempting and so we stuck around the road less taken for how could we avoid the adventure that awaited us( read taking wrong trails)

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After crossing the turn for Heaven Beach!

After climbing quite some distance, a trail descended down on right towards The Heaven Beach. We decided to carry on straight for the map we followed showed no route from Heaven beach to the Aghanashini River Jetty. Dense bushes guarded the trail from either sides but there were no tall trees to give us a respite from the sun. One could now see the river on the left and Gokarna on its other side. Then why were we going towards right. Not just going…climbing!

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Aghannashinni river jetty on the left…while getting lost on the hike!

We decided to get down and go in the direction of the river until we reached this stone boundary wall that was being built there. The sun was fierce by now and i was bathing in my own sweat! I told Tee to go find out the trail ahead for i needed a break from the sun! I crashed under a tree, lying down on the mud, listening to the birds chirping and just nothingness around. The silence was often interrupted by the sound of the jetty somewhere in the distance. It seemed so close yet we couldn’t find a trail that went down towards it. Tee came back asking me to follow him in the same direction. He had apparently found out the trail which was actually a washed out piece of land that eventually disappeared into a steep downfall!