Tuesday, December 08, 2015

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Queen of the Hills

Shimla is ugly, shockingly so. This is my first memory of the summer capital of the British Raj – a city that many have described in glowing terms. After I got off the bus at the new bus stand (near the railway station) it was several minutes before I reconciled with the fact that I had reached the town I had read so much about over the years. The urban sprawl spread beyond what my gaze could capture. Decaying fa├žades of old buildings lined paths that rose steeply to the ridge above – paths made narrower by open drains full of dirty water and stray garbage. It was still early and the dogs that bark all night hadn’t gone to rest. The city looked so enervated to me that there were not even enough touts approaching me for a hotel room.

A single coolie asked me politely if I wanted a hotel and after I declined, there were no more. It was all so uniformly disappointing.

After I asked a young boy where the YMCA was and was pointed to that direction, I dragged my bag on the path that curved steeply ahead and after twenty feet or so, dropped it to the ground, gasping for breath. I turned around and looked if the coolie was around. He wasn’t, but another one was coming down the same path. He was a Kashmiri, a migrant labourer and carried a piece of bicycle tube around his waist with which to strap the load on his back. He asked for one hundred and fifty rupees and I agreed without bargain.

A good twenty minutes of hard walking brought us to the YMCA premises. It is well hidden behind the Christ church on the ridge, several steep stairs on a dark alley need be climbed to reach its gate. Had it not been the lonely planet’s top recommendation for stay in Simla, I doubt anyone would have found the place at all. The place was dead quiet when I reached at a half past six in the morning and the heavy channel gates though not locked were shut.

To top that, the caretaker cum receptionist, Anil, was sound asleep. Several loud knocks on the glass pane made him wake up but he asked that I come back after nine in the morning when the person in-charge will be available. This is your vacation (I said to myself) and stayed as calm as I could.

After several minutes of explaining the situation to him, he gave me a key to a room. It was the family room priced at rupees 1500 and had an ensuite bathroom. I liked it at first glance – it had a frayed Kashmiri carpet, a fireplace for display purposes but it was very quiet. I clambered onto the old wooden bed and fell asleep betwixt the linen jacketed quilts.

Around 11 am, a hot shower followed – I had to use the common bath room for that – which turned out to be much better maintained. With no agenda still, I walked out of the YMCA to grab something to eat and do a bit of sightseeing.

My first stop was the Christ church. The church sits at one end of the ridge -the place is now called Gandhi chowk - and is painted pale yellow. It is an inviting building and I entered from the small doorway on its right side. The inside, though not very large, is imposing due to the double-height vaulted ceiling that is supported by wooden beams.

What adds to the serenity of the space is the light that forms beautiful beams thanks to the stained glass windows. The windows themselves are works of art – depicting scenes from the nativity and other events in the life of Christ. Left of the altar is dominated a very large organ – said to be the largest in India when it was dedicated.

I don’t know enough about the life of Jesus to make out exactly which event was depicted and there was no one at hand to explain either. I think the one below shows ‘Christ the king’ but any help is appreciated regards the explanation.

This one apparently represents the virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Patience and Humility – all of which I had either lost or would lose at some point of time during the course of this trip.

After a few customary photos, I walked out into the strong sunlight of the mountains that by then flooded the ridge. Under that light, the ridge appeared wider than it actually is and I thought one could drive perhaps four cars abreast on that tarmac (six if you learnt driving in Delhi). It was still delightfully free of the throngs that I had heard invade Shimla once school vacations begin in the plains.

On the right side of the church as I exited, stood a fine example of neo-tudor architecture of the Raj. This is the municipal library building – a small squat two storied building that one sees on picture postcards from europe. The inside proved to be a bit disappointing as they allow members only and the staff was not particularly welcoming (I suppose they see too many camera toting tourists).

A short walk along, and down a flight of stairs that connect the ridge with the mall road, stood the Gaiety theater on my left. Disappointed that it was closed for renovations and that the tours that show off this 1880s building were temporarily suspended, I continued to waltz along the mall road – savoring in the mish-mash of nineteenth century European architecture that the homesick British recreated here, two thousand meters above sea level, in this country far away from their home. Some of these buildings are important and marked in most maps that one can obtain in Shimla. I had obtained one such map book from the HPTDC office at the mall road. The map doesn’t talk about the architecture of individual buildings but at-least it tells you where what is. I looked up towards the GPO building (seen at the far end in this frame) – turned out later that it is fashioned after a Swiss chalet.

At that moment, of far greater importance was the building to my left – it housed the restaurant where I’d have my lunch. Baljees is an old Shimla establishment frequented by locals – and it was packed to the gills at one in the afternoon on this sunny day. Back in Delhi, a friend and I, both outsiders living in the city, often joked that the second favourite sport of delhiites is shopping – the top spot taken by eating. Here at lunch, I could see the residents of Shimla did not lack the spirit of competition.

The shady environs were a welcome respite from the direct sun. I ordered a pizza and a fresh lime soda. Sadly, the pizza turned out to be made of thick papier-mache and flour-glue.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Solo Trip to Shimla, Kinnaur and Spiti Valley by Ordinary bus

This trip came out of nowhere- really. And boy did that feel good!

Prologue -

In February 2014, I had resigned from my job in Delhi NCR and accepted a position in Hyderabad. I was going to move in May. In between the two jobs, I wanted to go somewhere a little less visited and tried to make a plan to visit either Cambodia or Iran. I spent well over a month researching both options, speaking with people who had been to these countries. I even created a profile on couch surfing and found hosts in remote parts of Iran such as Rasht, near the Caspian Sea.

All this effort came to naught when towards the last week of March; Iran changed its visa policy towards Indian nationals. Thus, on Friday 25th of April, my last working day, I had nowhere to go but back to my apartment in Delhi. In fact, I was so dejected by the turn of events that I even contemplated joining my next job early! Clearly, I was in a disturbed frame of mind.

On Saturday morning, with still no plan at all, I figured that a short escape to Shimla wouldn’t hurt. Despite living in Delhi area for six years, I had never been to Shimla. At such a short notice, the narrow gauge train was out of the question and it would have to be a bus. I booked an HRTC Volvo leaving on Sunday night (27th) from ISBT and spent the remaining weekend packing, cleaning the apartment and emptying out the refrigerator.

I then called my parents that I’ve booked a ticket to Shimla and I should be back in couple days tops.

Instead, twelve days later, I found myself in Pin Valley, amongst the first tourists of the season, chasing a couple of ibexes through waist deep snow.

This report is a recollection of what happened in-between. A view over spiti river is below -

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A bird in the bush ...

Why this post?

This December, as a part of a 12 day train / bus / bike and car drive solo winter vacation, I visited the village of Mangalajodi on the shores of Lake Chilika, Odisha. I'm writing this note to let all bird enthusiasts know what awaits them if they can make the trip (I have not seen many web references to this excellent spot nor did I meet too many birders even though it was December 30th when I visited).

A bollywood story

The story of Mangalajodi is nothing short of what many a Bollywood movie (especially those from the 70s and earlier) depicted – the bad guys turn good. The entire village a decade or so ago was inhabited by bird-hunters. These poachers used to hunt, capture alive or dead the many migratory birds that visited India's largest lagoon and sell them to people nearby to keep as pets or simply use as food (shudder). Then, (I forget the exact date – it was about 10 years ago), a good samaritan and conservationist - Mr Bujabal started advising this band of poachers the on the possible downsides of the dwindling bird population. A change of heart occurred and under the aegis of Sri Sri Mahavir Pakshi Surakshya Samiti ( lit : Sri Sri Mahavir bird protection council), a registered NGO, the poachers of Mangalajodi turned into guides for the visiting tourist. It was through them that I was able to reach this unique place and enjoy an excellent morning (3 hours +) of lovely birding through the reed filled waters of the Mangalajodi creek. Also, thanks to their background (they hunted birds for the money), the guides know exactly in which spot one can expect what species …

A Unique position

My guide (Mr Sadhu Behara) as well as the person who helped arrange my stay for the night (Mr Subhash) were unanimous in their opinion that it’s the unique geographical position (its surrounded on one side by small hills and about 6 kms off the NH 5 that connects BBSR with Vizag) as well as ecology of the creek (depth no more than 3-5 feet tops – usually just about 2 feet of water and mud; plenty of reeds and algae that provide bird fodder) attract a large number of resident, resident-migratory and migratory birds.

The Approach

Due to a miscalculation on my part while driving from Konark via Raghurajpur (the village famous for pattachitras) I reached Mangalajodi after a grueling 5 hour drive. I should have taken the road via pipli but some locals mis-directed me into going via Nirakarpur and Rameshwar – that road had potholes large enough to contain an entire maruti car. That ride wasn’t without it’s high-points though – such as this flock of Asian open billed storks in the field (about 50 feet from the road) and the part that was good – was very scenic indeed (below)

Thanks to this misadventure, it was about 6 pm when I reached. I ended up in the Samiti office only to learn that the nearest hotel (in Barkul) was a 42 km drive – 7 of those to get to the main NH5 and then another 35 driving towards Vizag. Due to the warm hospitality of Mr Subhash and their welcoming attitude I agreed to spend the night in their office with only a mattress and two extra-power mosquito coils burning on either side of this makeshift bed. This is a shot of the room with my beds heaped on some plastic chairs.

The hardships faced during the night didn’t go completely unrewarded – I had a headstart in the morning ahead of any visitors by an hour. A quick cup of tea and some biscuits later, guide and I were off driving on the nature trail (1.5 kms approx) till the first jetty where the small fishing boats are parked.

The photograph taken below shows the trail and a car in the far horizon. On either side are the reeds with plenty of bird life.

The first hour or so was taken up by walking around the trail and a kind of introduction to many species (I’m not very good with bird names so this part helped and any of the experts who visit this blog please do add the correct names). Here we saw a great snipe (below)

And a pair of beautiful brahminy ducks (ruddy shelduck) – these lovely creatures were to totally grab my attention for next couple hours.

Since I have only a basic zoom and the day was cloudy plus there’s plenty of grass, most of these images didn’t come out right – I’ve cropped them to show the birds as far as possible.
The trail itself is rather scenic with some lotus flowers that grow naturally in the area:

After this, by 8:00 we were off in our boat – at this time, I noticed the first batch of tourists driving down the trail. Anyways, the boats don’t make for comfortable seating but do make for great viewing as one sits on water level (the bottom of the boat actually goes a foot or so below water level) – this also allows better bird watching and photography. Finally, I was able to get some better shots. Seen below is a black tailed godwit (?)

Ok, after that confusion, this is most likely a purple heron and the one below is certainly a black ibis.

Well, the birding kept getting better and better though I should have noted down the names earlier (I was too focused on getting the shots right despite the light and the challenges with my lens)

…and I could see my beautiful brahminy duck at closer quarters ….

A pair of gorgeous black glossy ibis birds ….

Even our nearly silent boat (its human powered by a man who simply pushes the ground below to take the boat forward with a pole – its not even rowing) was enough to send many birds flying away – including this pair of brahminys ….

Mercifully the sun came out giving me some better lit shots ….. here’re some great egrets:

…and an open billed stork at closer quarters too:

The hyacinth and the reeds were mostly behind us and quickly we were into the open water – and proportionately, I could see birds only at a much greater distance – and then Subhash’s words flashed in my mind (sir, without plants the birds can’t live … so more birds here than in open Chilika lake). All I could see on this stretch was a fisherman’s boat and the tourists that had come behind us and went in another boat.

So I asked the guide and the boatman to turn around and was promptly rewarded with some better shots … including another godwit shot (and a smaller visitor below that I cant recall the name of …)

Further closer to the grassy area, we spotted a Ruff, plenty of moorhens and many bronze winged Jacanas (given below is a photo of each in the same order). I’m told the Ruffs come from Eurasian regions while the Jacana is a resident wetland bird in India …

By now, it was almost 10 am and the previous night’s erratic sleep, the drive and the early morning had all left me somewhat tired – the 3 hour guided tour window was over as well. Hence I politely declined the offer to do another 3 hour tour with the guide and we headed back for the trail. The last shots were the best as I could get very close to a great egret – he did look at me as if something was ‘fishy’ but decided I wasn’t lunch and hurried away …

We drove back to the visitor’s centre cum office of the Pakshi Suraksha Samiti for payment of fees etc (its Rs 600/- for a boat ride) and a goodbye to them. The guides cum office bearers came across as very genuine people (I think I asked for the black tailed godwit like 11 times and I still cant remember a few small birds that I extensively shot ….). As seen below the facility where the office-bearers conduct their business is very basic and I’m sure if more people visit this wonderful place it will keep the Samiti going on the mission that they started off with. I am inclined to think this way as when the villagers were poachers they made many more times what they make now as guides.

Facts for the visitor:

How to reach:

(by road) Drive towards Balugaon via Khurda from Bhubaneswar or Cuttack end and take a turn (left) at Tangi. A metalled road leads you to Chandipur. After crossing Chandipur, a left turn at the sign for the UCO bank ATM will lead you to Mangalajodi after couple more kilometers.

(by train) The Puri Gunupur passenger will stop at Mukteshwarpuri Ph (the closest train station to Mangalajodi – literally a hop step away). There are a total of 4 passenger trains from the BBSR or Puri railway stations that all stop at Mukteshwarpuri. Please use erail.in or other website to see exact connections that work for you.

Where to stay:

If you’re adventurous and don’t mind roughing it out a bit, ask the samiti and they will place a bed for you (a knitted one with an iron frame). The other option is to stay in Balugaon or Barkul but you basically lose the morning hours. I met 4 carload full of people all arriving at nearly ten AM when I was done already asking me if the birding was any good – I had a big grin on my face and said ‘yup!’ I did ask them where they came in from and when I heard barkul I had to ask if they saw any birds. This question was answered with a huge side to side shake of the head that I took to be a ‘no’ !

Last words:

Mangalajodi’s economy has taken a huge hit after all the poachers converted to tour guides. Currently, they have a tie up with Wild Orissa but I felt the people weren’t doing terribly well (apparently what they used to make in a month was several thousand rupees through killing /trapping these birds and selling them). Despite these hardships, the people aren’t wanting for anything from the visitors and it was such a refreshing change from the ‘hard sell’ that so often greets me in cities across Rajasthan – my home state. If you choose to visit, please do tip your guide as best as you can.

So, I turned around and asked Sadhu what keeps him going. His face lit up instantly and he said ‘I do this so that people know the name of my family and my village’ ….. I left the place with a spring in my step.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Diwali Break trip - Log of Day 1 - October 22nd - Jaipur to Nakodaji

This was my much awaited diwali break trip. Here's the trip log for day 1:

Three of us (parents and I) started from home at 7:40 am and reached the ajmer highway in 30 minutes. Highway was the usual well maintained stretch and devoid of much traffic at that hour..Paid first toll and continued. Shortly before kishangarh took the diversion towards nasirabad, etc. Realized quickly that this isn't where we should be heading (road was too good and we had used it in 05 for chittor trip). Stopped, asked for directions and were given conflicting advice by truckers and a shopkeeper. One suggested we should continue till nasirabad and take a right turn from inside the bus stand , continue onto mangliawas and rejoin the NH at beawar.. We chose to follow the safer route of heading back to the kishangarh byepass and onto NH8. This detour cost approx 35 minutes. Kishangarh byepass was really bad - thanks to the thriving marble business and the road widening work currently underway. Trailer after long trailer slowed us down and very soon were 1 hour behind schedule. The highway didn't improve much at ajmer byepass either. From barr, the road was a two lane highway (112) and devoid of heavy traffic which was great for the drive. Gave the car to papa from here onwards till Jodhpur. Missed the dangiawas turn towards balotra which was to prove propitious later.

Entered Jodhpur city and stopped at hotel chadra inn - pavan sagar restaurant for lunch. food good though - cost about 300+ for three.

Met the very helpful driver mr shambhu dutt( retd from air-force and now has two cabs) who intimated that road to balotra and Barmer has been closed since two months by angry villagers at village doli about 100 km from Jodhpur on the Barmer highway. Thanked him profusely but he refused any tip/ offers of cup of tea, etc. He's a good person who has two good cars and knows the entire area very well....... If anyone requires his number to rent a car, I can share. We managed to shape the the rest of the trip more comfortably thanks to his good advice about which roads to take. Left at 3:30 after lunch from Jodhpur via boranada industrial area - onto the village newri - on a single lane road that was often covered only with grit.

We were soon joined by two taxi number innovas and two buses headed to Barmer and to sanchore, respectively. all doubts about the veracity of the information given by mr dutt were laid to rest. The dusty roads join the mega highway running from phalodi to ramji ki gol at thob. V Smooth ride from thob till balotra on the highway. Reached the temple at nakodaji (13 km from balotra) around 5:40. Went straight for darshan. Photography inside the temple is strictly prohibited at all times (outside permitted and some night shots will follow).

Missed dinner at bhojanshala as it serves only prior to sunset and we had had reached at closing time....... Wasted about an hour checking out nearby cottages built by a developer as resort. Its called arham kutir by himmada developer - avoidable. Found aircon room inside the temple complex for just rs 500/-. rooms sleep two on the bed and two on floor. Dinner outside was disappointing. Spoke with a few helpful cab drivers on various routes possible to jaisalmer and slept early.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Trip log 23rd October - Nakodaji-Jaisalmer

After the shower this morning, we all went for darshan at nakodaji again. Felt that the statue of nakoda bhairav was perhaps modelled after a real person - the eyes are colored and made to look natural giving an added effect. Went for breakfast at the bhojanshala. Its an all you can eat for rs 20- given the quality and service levels would put any restaurant to shame. The spread was fresh khaman, khakhra with peanut chutney(dry), sweet kadhi with upma, gathiya, as much tea or milk as you liked. The hall seats 400. A stranger was distributing fresh milkcake as prasad - ate up quickly as the prayed distributed in the temple precinct cannot be taken outside(folklore). Forgot to take a snap of the kalpvriksha.

On the way out went up the steps of the temple of tirthankar shantinathji. (see pic

Proved to be the best of the lot in terms of carvings so far....... Each pillar shows atleast 40 nayikas none alike and the temple has 24 pillars perhaps more. The past lives of sri santinathji and sri parshvanathji are depicted as a series of 3d paintings. there are close to 50 paintings running along the courtyard walls. Stuff loaded in the car left for jaisalmer via pachpadra and onto the mega highway. The higway is smooth as silk - not too well advertised(thank god) and connects us to Jodhpur jaisalmer highway at dechu. (pic attached)

5 km past village thob on the mega highway, in a field to the left of the road, spotted a flock of 200+ cranes. They were feeding on something in the field that I couldn't identify - perhaps a wild gourd that grows abundantly in the fields in this area - time was 9:45 am.

We left the mega highway at dechu, 130 kms from balotra, having paid toll of rs 45 at kelam kot. Just as we turned narrowly avoided running over a medium sized desert lizard. At 11:30 we were in lava gaon, about 14 km before Pokaran. On the right side was a waterbody that was the rest stop for a flock of about 150 demoiselle cranes or kurja as the birds are called locally. Got a snap of the cormorants on the tree (attached)

From there a fairly uneventful drive to jaisalmer except for my father who had the time of his life by driving at 120 kmph. Entered jaisalmer at 1:00 pm.

Now the hunt for a good hotel began. The first call was to the rtdc hotel moomal. Not only had their charges gone higher than the published rate on the web, they didn't have any availability for the next night.......another hotelier seemed more promising, he sent a guy on a bike to lead us to his hotel that promised lcd tv, tub bath and other needless mod-cons just half km from where we were!. So, short of a place to stay and already weary from the half day drive, we followed him.

He took us past the bus stand and continued to take us further till about a km and a half. The road got narrower and dusty till we decided his hotel's location wasn't going to be as good and stopped to turn back. To our surprise he not only followed us but kept circling our car on his bike asking us to come back. Finally he got quite loud and overly insistent. We were happy to get rid of him. Then I just called manoj of desert boys only to learn there's no one by that name - his real name was Mehrab - and met him at his restaurant. Leaving our car there, our luggage was taken in an auto to the museum area and then by hand through couple of really narrow lanes to the hotel that’s located in Vyas Para in the fort area (pic of the guest house)

The fort is definitely overgrown and reeling under population pressure, roads are choked and in several parts and people are constructing extensions to the houses and guest houses. The first look at the fort as one enters left me a bit undewhelemed compared to the grand entry of gwalior or mehrangarh, Jodhpur

In this time that had elapsed checking out the other hotel - the first room I had seen was gone - it turned out to be for the better - It was very nicely decorated with Rajasthani mirror work and the bedcovers and curtains were all made of traditional sarees. There was a charkha too :).

The room was located under the burj and had a beautiful view of the city from the windows.

The owner arvind vyas is quite knowledgeable about the jaisalmer area and could make several suggestions about what to visit and what to avoid. Hence after some rest first stop was at the havelis. The Patwa havelis has to be seen to be believed - see the stunning facade.

The rooms are very well preserved, properly labeled and described. The ladies' dressing room, Kitchen (Seen below) and the munim's room are especially interesting and give us peep into the objects used one hundred years ago by a rich indian family while the drawing rooms (below) are testimony to the regal standard of living of the patwas.

Some of the most interesting artifacts are weights and measures (including one ser and a chatank), an opium measure and a video camera. Nathmal havelis facade is the only place left now and one can visit upto the atrium. Spent some more time taking shots of streets and the main fort gate before moving to gadisar lake for the sunset.

The lake is pleasant and quiet from a distance though on closer inspection is full of very aggressive looking catfish and a bit dirty so didn't feel like boating.

Went back to the city past sunset via lakshminarayan temple in the city. Dinner was at the burj that gets wonderfully pleasant and afforded a nice view of the city. City was well lit though diwali decorations not a patch on jaipur.