Masai Mara National Reserve – All The Practical Stuff!

When we began our research for the Masai Mara National Reserve, we found information to be scattered across the Internet. Climate information at one place, visa at another, what to carry at yet another… We made a mental note then itself that we would list down the useful bits at one place when we got back!

So, without much preamble, listing down the top 10 things you need to keep in mind if you are planning a trip to the beautiful Masai Mara.

‘Spotted Land’

1. Best Time to Go – We will not get into what the Great Migration is. But just suffice to say that it is the BEST time to visit the Mara if you want to see thousands of animals. July – September is the time when the wild beasts move from Tanzania to Kenya; they return to Tanzania in January – March.

Jul – Sep is the busiest time of the year for the National Reserve. So, make your bookings well in advance. The costs will be inflated in this quarter, but if you delay, there is a likelihood of not getting accommodation/ vehicles at all. We finalized our trip in June to travel in August! <facepalm>

2. Getting There – There is no direct connectivity to the Reserve. The closest international airport is Nairobi. For Indians, while there are direct flights from Mumbai to Nairobi, this does not hold for New Delhi. There are innumerable options available for hopping – either through Mumbai or to one of the many cities in the middle east.

big 5, cape buffalo
Our first Big 5 sighting! The Cape Buffalo, a distant cousin of our very own Bhainsa!

We chose the route of New Delhi – Muscat – Nairobi by Oman Air.

3. Visa for Indians – Kenya has a convenient e-visa system. Go to the visa website, create an account, fill out the application form, & pay the visa fee online. Once your e-visa is approved, you can download the PDF on your handheld device to use during immigration.

As a tourist, you will be eligible for a Single-Entry Visa.

african bush elephant
It’s said the African Bush Elephant has ears resembling the map of Africa. We can see why it’s so…

4. Yellow Fever Vaccination – The Yellow Fever Vaccine is needed by those traveling to certain African countries. There are specific places that are authorized to give this vaccination – a simple google search will throw up the names. However, note that each of these places have either a booking system or a specific day/ time when they give this vaccine. So, it is not like you can simply walk in & get this done.

We got ours done at Public Health Lab Building, Delhi. There is a registration window lasting till 10:30 AM; the vaccination begins at 11 AM. If you are aware of your allergies (especially egg – related allergies), please let the officer-in-charge know upfront.

Please note – you have to carry your passport for the vaccination.

sunset
Suckers for sunsets – that’s what we are!

5. Weather – Being close to the Equator, the weather is cooler from July to September. It is cold in early morning & late evening. For our sunrise & sunset safaris, & for our dinners, we would step out with a jacket.

We recommend carrying a light jacket at least; it will be useful in the Savannah (the temperatures can be even lower there). Typically, these months also see a bit of rainfall but we were lucky to have avoided it.

The Jacuzzi looked inviting as the Sun shone overhead. But the moment we got in, we froze to our bones & emerged promptly with chattering teeth.

african hoopoe
The African Hoopoe asked us to say ‘hi’ to the Eurasian Hoopoe found in India.

6. The Sun – The weather is pleasant but the direct Sun is strong. Walking in the Sun made us sweat like pigs. But the moment we entered the shade, it became nippy. Also, the wind was never hot. We recommend carrying a cap/ hat & sunglasses.

7. Travel Agency – As it was our first trip to Africa, we were unsure of what to expect. We felt it practical to use a travel agency. We found agencies ranging from INR 3L to INR 10L! So, irrespective of your budget, you will be able to find an agency.

We availed the services of Kiboko Kenya Safaris; read our review here.

masai giraffe
“Where are you going sister?” “Don’t you know? There’s a sale going on in Zara!”

8. Accommodation – There is no dearth of accommodation in & around the Masai Mara National Reserve. Unlike India, where staying inside forest reserves is not allowed, the Masai Mara has plenty of options inside the reserve itself. In terms of quality, there is no difference. However, the camps/ resorts within the national reserve come with an added bonus of animal noises at night!

We stayed at Sentrim Mara -& had a great time there.

9. Food – A complete nonissue! Many people are wary of traveling to Africa as they have preconceived notions about the food. If you have any such notions, dispel them immediately. We did not have any problem of finding food suitable to our palate. African, European & Indian foods are available aplenty.

rhinoceros
A rhinoceros crossed the road & attempted to climb back up on the other side. It was a struggle for the rhino, but for us, it made an amusing sight…

Kenya has a sizable Indian diaspora; thus, Indian food is extremely common. Plenty of vegetarian options available too!

10. Clothing – Like with any wildlife safari, it is better to wear earthy, muted tones. Wear fully-covered clothing to prevent insect bites & sunburn/ tan. We wore full-legged pants on all the days, yet got bitten by microscopic insects.

11. Bio Breaks During Game Drives – We were worried about the loo aspect as we are high water drinkers. The sunrise/ sunset safaris last for two hours typically. That is a manageable time for not using a loo. In a full day game drive, the driver makes two stops, at intervals of about three hours.

migration, wildebeest, zebra, tanzania, kenya
Wildebeest & zebras had started making their way from Tanzania to Kenya. Zebras are the smart/ opportunistic ones in this scheme… They follow the wildebeest’s lead to get to Kenya, & once here, abandon the wildebeest (who have the memory of a goldfish & sometimes end up going back the way they came)!

For us, one of the stops was in a lodge where the loo was clean & easy to use. The other stop was in a public facility, which was basically a hole in the ground! We dehydrated ourselves a bit to avoid getting our bladders full.

But we will advise against not drinking water at all, because the Sun will compel you to. Drink in moderation, so that you do not end up uncomfortable.

12. Safety – We traveled during daylight hours. Our driver stopped at respectable places. Safety was not a challenge for us, neither should it be for you.

cheetah, grassland
See the cheetahs lazing in the grassland…

In the reserve & the camp, pay heed to security warnings issued by the guide/ management. You are in wildlife territory. Leopards & hyenas are known to wander into human areas. Maybe they are as curious about us as we are about them!

13. Game Drive – Drives are carried out in two kinds of vehicles – vans & Land Cruisers. While both are customized for game watching, we feel the Land Cruiser is a more comfortable, more spacious, & thus, a better option.

Also, you can opt for a dedicated vehicle or a shared one. The dedicated vehicle is expensive undoubtedly, but it is value for money. We had a dedicated vehicle with just the two of us in it! It made our movement within the vehicle to take photos from different angles extremely easy.

There’s no bigger source of GK than travel! We figured how a Land Cruiser could be converted into a safari vehicle, with a detachable top.

There are three kinds of safaris – sunrise, full day & sunset. The sunrise & sunset game drives last for a couple of hours. The full day drive is from 8 AM to 3 PM.

a. Sunrise Safari – You enter the Masai Mara National Reserve a little before the sun rises. Witness the sunrise against a backdrop of wildlife & acacia trees. The hot air balloon rides take place at this hour, & make for pretty photographs.

The sunrise game drive is the best time to see the big cats in action, as well as nocturnal animals heading home. We saw a hyena, a jackal & a serval cat slinking away after a night of notoriety. We then saw a display of ‘Might Is Right’ between a honeymooning lion & lioness, and a cheetah. Read this story here.

african pied wagtail
An African Pied Wagtail refuses to turn its head.

i. Birds Spotted – Common Ostrich, Yellow-Fronted Canary

ii. Mammals Spotted – Plains Zebra, Cape Buffalo, Thomson’s Gazelle, East African jackal, African Bush Elephant, Cheetah, East African Lion, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest

b. Full Day Drive – Alfred got our lunch packed & we headed out for a day of wildlife spotting. This safari is great to see the most number & variety of animals.

lion, lioness, grassland, camouflage
Quite difficult to ascertain lions & lionesses in the grasslands, so perfect was the camouflage

i. Birds Spotted – African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-billed Ox-pecker, Common Ostrich, Rufous – Naped Lark, African Wattled Lapwing, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Yellow-Fronted Canary, Slate – Coloured Boubou, Hildebrandt’s Starling, Egyptian Goose, White-Bellied Bustard, Scaly Francolin, White-Backed Vulture, Lilac Breasted Roller, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Superb Starling, Abbott’s Starling, White-Faced Whistling Ducks, Yellow-Billed Stork, Maribou Stork, Lappet-Faced Vulture

ii. Mammals Spotted – Thomson’s Gazelle, Black Rhinoceros, Impala, Plains Zebra, Wildebeest, Hippopotamus, Common Eland, African Bush Elephant, Olive Baboon, East African Defassa Waterbuck, Warthog, Coke’s Hartebeest, Masai Giraffe, East African Lion

iii. Reptiles Spotted – Agama Lizard, Nile Crocodile

yellow billed ox pecker
Yellow-billed Ox-pecker neighbors look on enviously

c. Sunset Game Drive – This afternoon/ early evening drive is the time when birds are returning to their nests & herbivores have stuffed themselves full! The afternoon Sun is not conducive for the Big Cats; you find them hidden under bushes (lion), hidden in the tall grass (cheetah), or plain hidden (leopard)! So, do not expect to see great action from the Big Cats now. However, the sunset hour is a good time to see raptors.

i. Birds Spotted – Lilac – Breasted Roller, Superb Starling, African Hoopoe, Tawny Eagle, Ruppell’s Vulture, Bateleur, African White-backed Vultures, Ring-Necked Dove, Anteater Chat, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Bare-Faced Go-Away-Bird, African Wattled Lapwing, Little Bee-Eater

ii. Mammals Spotted – African Bush Elephant, Plains Zebra, Masai Giraffe, Wildebeest, Common Eland, Cape Buffalo, East African Lion

rufous naped lark
A Rufous – Naped Lark ready to take off

14. Road Condition – From Nairobi, if you take the road to the Masai Mara National Reserve (the alternative is an aircraft), be prepared for bad roads. When we say bad, we mean ‘India of the 80s’ bad. The last 50 kms to reach the Masai Mara are nightmarish.

Kenya is sparsely populated. So, you do not see many human beings, but certainly Chinese trucks. Thanks to the rapid construction, trucks ferrying goods can be seen. You can spot under construction highways, railway lines etc.

While we did not see any animals on our way to the Mara, but the day we left from there, in the early morning hours, we kept spotting wild animals for many kilometers, even after we had exited the reserve area.

cinnamon chested bee eater
A Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater had to be clicked!

15. Tipping – Kenyans expect a tip, & can be blunt about asking for it. Ensure you have adequate change on you.

Phew! We believe we have covered all the practical aspects that we wished we knew before going. If there is anything more you would like to know, please feel free to leave a comment; we will answer it to the best of our knowledge.

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The Land of Happiness – Part I

Ever since Bhutan opened itself to the world, there has been a certain aura around it. Proximity to India and the much-acclaimed natural beauty are added incentives. We have now been to Bhutan twice – once during the monsoon and then during winter.

Before we get into the describing the magical kingdom, a few essentials:

Travel Agent – We realize online bookings are difficult. So, we opt for a travel agency. We go with Wow Bhutan Travels which we also highly recommend. We also come to understand that a guide & a driver are mandatory for tourists. Thus, you may consider this option for ease & peace 😊

civilization, city, town, bhutan, river
Like all civilizations, all the major cities & towns of Bhutan are situated alongside rivers

Visa –Indians do not need a visa but do need to carry either the passport or the voter identity card. Our travel agent gets an e-permit issued for us which entitles us to visit beyond Paro/ Thimphu. The e-permit saves us time at the Paro immigration too. Find more details here.

Flights – If you are flying, there are only two airlines to Bhutan – Druk Air & Bhutan Airlines. We recommend Druk Air – More reliable as it is the national carrier & has been operating for many years now.

Hotels– Hotels are available for every budget. Bhutanese have a high service orientation; even basic hotels are clean & comfortable.

Bhutan--2
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Accessibility – If you are a sedentary person, it will be good to start physical activity if you intend to visit Bhutan. There is a considerable amount of walking required. Even within structures, you will encounter stairs & inclines.

F&B – The most common dishes are Sewo Marp (steamed Punakha red rice), Josha Maaroo (minced chicken and peas), Ema Datsi (cheese chili), Doma (betel leaf), & mixed vegetable curry. Bhutanese like their food SPICY!

If you plan to have food outside your hotel, ensure you make it early; restaurants close by 9 PM.

Bhutan also has local whiskey and wine brands. Try them out.

Glossary of Terms – To ease your reading:

  1. Dzong – A fortress that now houses administrative offices & religious seats
  2. Lhakhang – A temple
  3. Chhu – A river
  4. Gonpa – A Buddhist monastery or temple

authentic, Bhutanese meal, Spinach, Pork, Rice
Our first authentic Bhutanese meal – Dry Fried Spinach, Kewa Datshi, Mixed Veg, Pork Ribs, Seekam Paa, Spinach Soup, and Sticky Rice. Delish is an understatement!

Weather – In the rains, the mountains are lush green. August is called the ‘summer-monsoon’ month; the maximum temperature is 25℃! In contrast, in our January visit, the land looks bereft of greenery but has a natural arid beauty. Be ready to shiver any time of the day or night.

Hot Stone Bath – Something that is a must-do in Bhutan is to get a hot stone bath. It is a traditional Bhutanese therapy, aimed at a number of medical benefits. Water, traditionally taken from a river, is heated using hot stones.

The stones come from the rivers/ streams too and are roasted over open fire/ kilns. You will lie down in a wooden tub filled with this hot water. Your host will adjust the temperature based on your comfort, adding more hot stones or cold water. S/ he will add medicinal herbs to the water to help you relax.

You can opt for both private & public experiences of the hot stone bath. If opting for a public experience, take a bathing suit with you. The temperature outside is freezing but we do not feel it as long as we are soaked in the bath.

 

With the facts out-of-the-way, how about insights?

Bhutan is for nature lovers. If you are one, take your backpack; start moving on the streets (or ‘Lam’s). If you are a driving buff, drive into Bhutan & keep driving within. You will not be disappointed.

Bhutan--4
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

We speak with all the locals we come across. They tell us interesting facts about Buddhism & Bhutan. Did you know – according to Buddhism, India is considered the center of the earth? Is it because Buddha attained Nirvana here or did Buddha attain Nirvana here because it is the center of the earth? The hierarchy of the holiest places for Buddhism is India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.

Something that surprises us is the harmony in which all living beings co-exist here. Pigeons are unafraid of cats; cats of dogs; dogs of cows; & all of these of human beings. What brings this symbiosis? Is it due to the respect that Buddhism propagates towards all living creatures? Animals are docile & quiet. We can understand human beings treating the animals well but animals also treating each other well? It is a mystery.

The overwhelming women employment stands out. The hospitality sector majorly has women, who also work late into the night. They are given the respect they deserve and treated as equals.

notice, sad, urban, spare
We notice, with sadness, that urbanization doesn’t spare anyone…

The cities & towns are seeking modernity while not discarding traditions. Thanks to the mandate on architecture conforming to the Bhutanese style, the country looks as if you have stepped back a century.

Bhutan is a cleaner, colder, healthier, prettier, and quieter version of India. With Tata, Eicher, Ashok Leyland, Bharat Petroleum, Indian Oil, Maruti cars, we feel we have not left India but still have left India.

 

Getting to the specifics of our visits, we have visited Bumthang, Paro, Phobjikha Valley, Punakha, Thimphu, Trongsa, & Wangdue. We hope to transport you to the Magical Kingdom through this blog, as well as provide a few helpful tips. We rank each of these places in our order of preference.

Bhutan--12
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

For each place, we further provide the attractions and our accommodation picks. Here we go!

 

1.    Phobjikha Valley

Phobjikha is a glacial valley in the center of Bhutan. It is famous for the Black-Necked Cranes that migrate here during winter from Tibet. We love how the valley shape refreshes our geography lessons. In January-end, the land is arid but has a haunting beauty.

The Phobjikha Valley is the only place where we encounter snow & bitter cold; our vehicles refuse to start in the morning. Compared to the rest of Bhutan, it comes across as undeveloped; but that just adds to its appeal.

January, shade, brown, green, dominate
In January, shades of brown & green dominate.

Visit the Phobjikha Valley during winter to see the graceful cranes & the crane festival, but even without the birds, you will love it. It has an idyllic setting; you can see the Sun rise behind the mountains, the village slowly coming to life, unpaved roads, greenery, calm & tranquil… There is nothing not to love.

If there is one place you should cover in Bhutan, it is this.

Black-Necked Cranes – They come in hundreds after spending their summer in Tibet. The Cranes arrive in September/ October & fly back in February/ March. If you are a bird watcher, you must visit the Phobjikha Valley.

crane, gangtey, perform, imitate, grace, move
There’s also a Crane Festival at the Gangtey Gompa, where performers imitate the graceful movements of the cranes.

The Bhutanese consider the Black-Necked Cranes (‘Birds of Heaven’) sacred. They are so particular about conservation that this entire area is devoid of overhead electric transmission lines.

The Black Necked Crane Visitor Center overlooks the protected area. This marshy land is the natural habitat of the Cranes. At the Center, you can use powerful binoculars to spot the birds. Tall & slender, they are no less than runway models!

Karma, a juvenile Black-Necked Crane who got injured and cannot fly again, is cared for at the Center.

karma, break, wing, rescue, dog, recover, friend, valley
Karma broke a wing & had to be rescued lest it be attacked & eaten by feral dogs. It is yet to recover fully, spending its days seeing its friends scattered around the valley.

Gangtey Gonpa – We love hearing the stories behind sacred sites. The fascinating bit about the Gonpa is that on arrival in the Phobjikha Valley, the Black-Necked Cranes circle it three times before settling down. They repeat the process while returning to Tibet.

To see this phenomenon, the footfall increases in September/ October. It almost seems like a pilgrimage but there can be a scientific explanation. The Gangtey Gonpa is the highest point in the Phobjikha Valley. The Black-Necked Cranes use it to do an aerial survey & choose the area they want to descend into.

The pilgrimage story sounds infinitely better, does it not?

architecture, colour
The architecture, the colors… Uff!

Our Accommodation Pick – At a walking distance from the Crane Center is the Gakiling Guest House. It commands a view of the Phobjikha Valley & has a good sunrise view. Do not expect a TV or any other mode of artificial entertainment.

The Valley, & so the guesthouse, are meant for people who want to immerse themselves in nature. The rooms & bathrooms are basic but adequately furnished, with ample heaters & blankets to keep off the cold. The balcony faces East; you can get sunrise shots.

You will find an old-school heater in the dining room, & hot stones to warm your hands. The F&B and service are decent.

evening, scene
Evening scenes

2.    Bumthang

Bumthang houses the highest number of ancient temples and sacred sites. But if, for a moment, we disregard the sites, the sights are enough to enthrall! It is a beautiful land; pine trees, open meadows, and animals grazing on the meadows remind one of Switzerland.

Bumthang, being fertile, you can find ample organic products here. Try visiting the breweries & cheese factories. It is one of the rare places in Bhutan with a domestic airport. We drive down from Trongsa; not a good decision as the east west highway is being broadened. But the drive is certainly scenic.

ascend, bumthang, drop, temperature, obvious
As we ascend towards Bumthang, the drop in temperature becomes all too obvious!

Jakar Dzong – If you go by the picturesqueness of Dzongs, this will be almost on top. ‘Jakar’ means ‘white bird’ which relates to its legend. When the building of this Dzong was being considered, a white bird flew high in the sky and settled on this piece of land, signaling that this was the location for the Dzong.

We love Bhutanese legends!

Jambay Lhakhang – The legend pertains to an ogress who was terrorizing the Himalayan regions. To pin her down, the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built 108 temples on a single day. This is one of them! The Lhakhang has been repaired and rebuilt several times. It is a must – visit due to its antiquity.

You can see the elderly doing ‘parikrama’ of the small, unassuming Jambay Lhakhang. The Lhakhang & the neighboring areas are so silent that the only sound you will hear is of the giant prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

Kurjey Lhakhang – Compared to the other Lhakhangs we visit, this is large in size. It is considered as incredibly important as the main shrine houses the body imprint of Guru Rinpoche. A tall cypress tree beside the Lhakhang is regarded as His ‘walking stick’.

The aura in the entire temple complex is mystic when we visit. Dusk & chilly winds contribute to the mysticism. When you visit, keep your ears tuned for a wind chime outside the window of the main shrine. Its music will make you think someone is playing a flute. Do tell us if it does not amaze you!

jambay lhakhang, 108, temple, tibet, songtsen goenpo, day, ogress, earth, forever, love, legend
Jambay Lhakhang – one of the 108 temples built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Goenpo in 659 AD in a single day to pin down an ogress to earth forever. #WeLoveLegend

Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake) – According to legend, Terton Pema Lingpa (Treasure Discoverer) jumped into the lake with a butter lamp in his hand. He emerged holding a chest and a scroll of paper with the butter lamp still burning in his hand! The Lake is a sacred site.

The access to the Burning Lake involves a climb down uneven stone steps. Coming back up can be exhausting. Also, the boulders near the Lake are slippery; there have been accidents here. Be careful!

Our Accommodation Pick –We were originally booked for December but our trip got postponed to January. Despite remaining closed in January, the Jakar Village Lodge opened for a couple of days only for us, to honor our booking. That stole our hearts!

The Jakar Village Lodge is located a little away from the town. The approach is scary, but once inside, the hospitality will warm you. Rooms are well furnished with the deal maker being the heater in the bathroom! F&B are good.

You will have a good time sitting by the radiator & chatting with the friendly staff.

hotel, movie
When your hotel looks like it’s popped out of an old movie!

Back with Part II soon!

Kem Chho Gujarat?

When Gujarat was afresh in our minds, we had planned to write a long post singing praises of the state. However, now, a considerable amount of time has passed. The detailed memories have started fading.

A few aspects stand out, & will continue to do so, till a contradictory experience occurs. Listing down 5 things we simply loved about Gujarat. Our experiences cover Ahmedabad, Dasada, the Little Rann of Kutch, Modhera, Patan, & all the towns & villages that fell along the way.

Pukka road, Gujarat village
Caught in a traffic jam but on a ‘pukka’ road in a rural setting

#1. Roads – We are a Delhi NCR couple. It is quite difficult to impress us with roads. But we are also travelers. We have seen the worst of roads. But, the roads in Gujarat were a delight to be driven on.

Not just the highways; the back of beyond villages had ‘pukka’ roads. We have always believed roads are the harbinger of growth & development.

#2. Water – The remotest of villages have running water. It is quite a feat to be able to guarantee water supply to every nook & corner, especially when you are a predominant dry state.

step well, 108 shrines, Modhera Sun Temple
A step well having 108 shrines on its stairs at the Modhera Sun Temple

The capital of the country, Delhi, is unable to provide tap water to a number of its colonies, even though it has the best resources of the country at its disposal. Yet, Gujarat has achieved this.

It saves the womenfolk the drudgery of drawing water from wells and carrying it over long distances. & honestly, doesn’t the thought excite you that you can get a stream of water every time you open your tap?

Well, maybe, you take it for granted, for you have never known otherwise. Let us assure you – the alternate is not pretty…

Rani ki Vav, Queen's Stepwell, Patan, UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Rani ki Vav (Queen’s Stepwell) at Patan – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

#3. Electricity – Rural menfolk in white dhoti – kurta, women in colorful chaniya – cholis, children playing in the mud, cattle, goats, sheep & dogs freely roaming around, elders sitting under the banyan tree discussing sociopolitical affairs… this pretty much paints a picture of a typical Indian village.

What stands out is the fan whirring inside the hut, the bulbs twinkling at night, the small fridge to keep matters cool. This is not something you can see in every Indian village but it was something we saw commonly in Gujarat.

You can see the poles running through the length & breadth in every village but seldom have the wires carried current. In Gujarat, they did…

jharokha, window, Sarkhej Roza, Ahmedabad
A Jharokha (Window) at the Sarkhej Roza, Ahmedabad

#4. No beggars outside temples – So, to be honest, we visited only one temple in Gujarat – the Bahucharmata Temple in Bahucharaji. The Sun Temple at Modhera does not count as it is a tourist attraction rather than a pilgrimage spot.

We have not been to a single temple in India where we have not been flanked by beggars asking us to give something to them. They either hound us till the time we enter the temple or our vehicle, or they sit forlornly, their bodies covered with dust, grime, sores & wounds.

It is not a pretty sight. We feel bad for the ones who are genuinely destitute, but we dislike being hounded. This is usually by those who are active and fit, & can easily pick up some sort of work. But, of course, beggary is an easy way out.

Bahucharmata Mandir
Business as usual outside the Bahucharmata Mandir

At the Bahucharmata temple, we did not see a single beggar. No old man, no young girl carrying a baby, nil, nada, niyat. It made us think – what is different here compared to the rest of India? Is it because Gujaratis as a community do not believe in asking?

Or is it because there is no need for anybody to beg? Or is it simply because the administration does a good job of keeping them away? Sadly, we could not ask anyone these questions but would love to unravel this mystery.

Whatever it was, it put us at ease. We did not have to look away out of disgust or guilt or helplessness.

Rani ki Vav, Patan
Well-manicured lawns at the Rani ki Vav, Patan

The other aspect that stood out was the absence of hawkers trying to coerce you into buying offerings. Again, we have not been to any place of worship where the hawkers outside have not tried to sell me all sorts of offerings to make the gods or saints happy.

This is as true for a Hanuman Mandir in Delhi as for the Ajmersharif Dargah. In Bahucharaji, the hawkers peacefully went about their business, selling their wares to only those who approached them.

There was no shouting either by them, trying to seek attention of pilgrims. This is how a place of worship should be – peaceful and with the liberty for you to interact with the Almighty as you want.

Sabarmati Riverfront, Ahmadabad
The Sabarmati Riverfront at Ahmadabad – a role model for all river fronts in India

#5. Tourist Spots – Spotlessly clean. Well – maintained. Adequate signboards and historical references. No hanky – panky. No touts. There were only ASI – approved guides at the Modhera Sun Temple, who asked you only once if you wanted their service.

If you said no, they would quietly move away to the next set of travelers. We were so pleased with their professionalism, we ended up engaging one. And do not regret it one bit.

To balance our post out, there were a couple of things we disliked about Gujarat.

Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi Ashram, Ahmadabad
Remembering the Mahatma at his ashram

#1. Disregard for traffic rules – We were constantly at the edge of our seat whenever we were on the road in Ahmedabad. There was a complete disregard of traffic signals, lane driving, overtaking rules etc. It was a miracle vehicles did not bump into each other.

We are quite paranoid on the road. The situation in Ahmedabad was pure horror for us. The plus side – it made us remember God more than we usually do.

#2. Food – What is the deal with making even the curries sweet? How do you differentiate between entrée & dessert? Perhaps, it is an acquired taste but it was quite unpalatable to us. After one Gujarati meal, we slipped back to north Indian cuisines.

Sabarmati Riverfront
Evening stroll at the Sabarmati Riverfront

Sigh! Long post but we felt we needed to write this as a tribute to the good time we had in Gujarat. We intend to visit again soon, hoping to cover all the other tourist spots that Amitabh bachchan has requested us to! 😀

As The Steam Blows

We are travel addicts; and clearly road trip aficionados. But, when another long weekend struck, there was an urge to do something different. So browsing through yet another travel magazine, we chanced upon the must-do rides on heritage trains in India.

Mostly found in the hilly regions, these narrow gauge trains have been running since the colonial times. The British did have a way with finding idyllic spots & connecting them to the heartland. Can’t blame them there!

The closest to Delhi, of course, is Shimla or as the British spelt it, Simla, their summer capital. Thus started the search for a suitable train on the Kalka – Shimla route. There are a number of trains but the best in terms of looks is the Shivalik Deluxe Express while the best in terms of performance is the Himalayan Queen. A train with a twist is the Rail Motor Car which looks & sounds more like a jeep than a train.

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Our home for a couple of days

We booked ourselves for the onward journey on the Shivalik Deluxe Express and the return on the Himalayan Queen. With that, the Kalka – Shimla route was covered. But, now came the challenge of the Delhi – Kalka stretch. This was an insipid route; all we had to do was to commute.

The main train on this route, the Howrah Kalka Mail, is seldom punctual. We did not want to take our car to Kalka as we would have trouble finding a parking spot for it for three days.

We grudgingly booked the Howrah Kalka Mail for the onward journey and the Kalka Shatabdi for the return. And we waited, impatiently, for the weekend to arrive. A couple of days before our journey, we began checking if the Howrah Kalka was running on time. To our horror, we realized that it had been running with an average delay of 10-12 hours!

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Surrounded by pine trees

We panicked & started thinking about Plan B. Then it struck us, ever the typical middle-income-group couple, that we could take the bus. Himachal Tourism runs a cool fleet of buses from Delhi to the main cities in Himachal Pradesh.

For Shimla, there is almost a bus an hour. We scrambled to the Himachal Tourism website and heft a sigh of relief when we managed to find a bus at a suitable time on our designated date and booked it quickly.

The website turns out to be quite efficient even though it looks as government – ish as it can. We can select our seats and pay by credit card. Wow! This, of course, was followed by the process of cancelling both our onward tickets.

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Built by a British engineer sometime in the 1800s

Finally, the wait was over. We headed to Himachal Bhavan near Mandi House to board our bus. Our seat was at the far end with a rowdy bunch of young boys right behind us. A peaceful sleep seemed unlikely. Sigh!

Before we boarded, we wanted to have our favorite food-samosa. Right across the road is a snack shop which serves all kinds of greasy & spicy Indian snacks. We were drawn to it like bees to flowers.

Did you know that samosa is not Indian? It’s a take on a middle-eastern snack called ‘sambusak’. Well! Once we were satiated, we grabbed our seats. A quick checking of tickets took place, & we started moving. Yay!

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Trust our army to make just anything better!

Getting out of Delhi was, of course, the biggest challenge, especially it being a weekday. It was compounded with the ‘kaawariyas’ & their entourages. Truly, one can do anything in the name of religion. The ‘kaawar yatra’ now is more about occupying the streets, playing LOUD music and creating nuisance, than it is about worshiping Lord Shiva.

We stopped at the Haryana Tourism guest house in Rai for dinner. Just outside the gate, a bike with two riders unfortunately got a little scare by our bus. While we had dinner, our bus driver & conductor tried to provide comfort to them. Nothing had happened to either them or to the bike. But they had a minor heart attack when our big bus and their tiny bike were millimeters apart. Chuckle!

Dinner was a simple fare. We did not want to delay the bus. We observed other families who are carrying their own food. They spread out the food on sheets in the garden. This took us back to school days. The annual picnic, invariably to the botanical garden, was an occasion we looked forward to, though there was barely anything new that we could see year after year.

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When we walked among clouds

Coming back, we were on our way and soon nodding off as the bus met the highway. The bus itself was in a great condition and there was not an iota of rash driving on the part of the driver.

The seats were comfortable, we were given bottles of water and shown a movie too! Do you support reclining seats? Aren’t they unnecessary and an inconvenience to fellow travelers? The manufacturers think only of the passenger who is going to use the reclining feature. They do not envisage the trouble that the person behind faces.

And we were finally in Shimla! It was early morning, was drizzling and ah, such a beautiful weather! When you are not getting stuck in traffic due to rains or when muddy water is not staining your clothes, then monsoons are just beautiful.

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Flowers of various colors in gardens

We were soon at the Shimla British Resort, another one of the offbeat places we had come across and booked. History has it that the Resort was the residence of a British engineer.

It got handed down to various people before resting with the current owner, who used to give it out for movie and advertisement shootings. Finally, about five years back, he opened it as a Resort for the public.

The Resort is a set of cottages in themes like British, Danish, & Scottish. Each of the rooms is tastefully done with the decor reminding of the colonial times. Lots of woodwork, lots of English paintings, lots of artifacts dating back to the Raj.

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The iconic Viceregal Lodge

We needed some sleep on a proper bed. So we hid ourselves in our Danish Imperial Room and slipped into dreamland. It was noon by the time we were refreshed. It was time to hit Shimla. We felt like tourists.

A quick peek into Trip Advisor showed the Viceregal House (or now known as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies) as the #1 attraction. Our Resort arranged a cab for us. The cabbie turned out to be a friendly, simple chap. He told us more about Shimla.

The Viceregal House turned out to be more charming than we imagined. It is a Scottish building and was used by the erstwhile British government as their Viceroy’s retreat. A number of historic meetings have taken place here, particularly related to the Indian independence and the partition.

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What happens when you book a honeymoon package

There is a short guided tour for the ground floor. It was completely worth it.  After independence, the House became the President’s summer retreat. Later, the President donated it to set up the institute. The Indian flag flies high.

We could not have been happier & more excited- a lovely weather with temperature around 18° C, a colonial building, greenery all around, & lots of history!

Next stop- the Mall Road. Obviously. Duh! Actually, not that obvious; we were hungry and wanted to settle down somewhere to grab a bite. We took a walk on the Mall Road till the Scandal Point. It was foggy; we deserved a cup of something warm.

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The erstwhile little outhouse

We narrowed down on Wake & Bake Café. Right opposite the police headquarters, is the small, unassuming café. We were famished; Cappuccino, Cold coffee, Chicken, peppers, chilies & rosemary pizza, Hummus & pita, and Carrot cake hardly seemed adequate. Burp!

The rain did not look like it was done with its daily target, but surprisingly, we quite enjoyed it. Perhaps returning to the warmth of the Resort was what the Gods intend for us. & we had no idea about the surprise waiting for us there.

We had booked a honeymoon package with the Resort. One of the inclusions was a romantic room decoration. Our room looked more wild than romantic. There was an interesting mix of balloons, flowers and leaves.

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Trying to catch the mist in our fists

We could neither stop giggling nor stop shaking our heads. We loved the cheesiness of it. For the decoration, we would give them 5/ 10 but for the effort, full marks! There were also fresh fruits & cookies. We did a little dance around the room.

Marriage indeed brings excitement & happiness to life, in the form of honeymoon packages! The poor Resort staff were disappointed when we asked them to clear the decoration within 15 minutes. But well, there was no place to sit. What could we have done? But guys, loved the enthusiasm. Thank you!

Day 2 started with Annandale. It was Kargil Vijay Diwas – the day India won the Kargil War. It was an absolutely fantastic day to visit the Army Museum. We had asked our friendly cabbie to take us around. He willingly obliged.

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Crossing almost 100 tunnels

We hold the defense forces in high esteem, especially the Indian Army. India is handicapped without them. Those days, there was a flash flood in J&K. The army carried out the rescue operations. J&K citizens, who have called the army all sorts of names & forced them to be withdrawn, now sought its help. It was an eye-opener how the army serves the nation without expecting anything.

The area around the Army Museum is a sight to behold. A greenhouse, a golf course, gardens, and vantage seating points- trust the army to do a great job at whatever they do.

So where was Sharma ji taking us next? (Psst, Sharma ji was our friendly cabbie.) We planned to head to Mashobra & Naldehra. The destinations were unimportant; it was the journey that held value.

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Difficult to imagine this when we live in metros

Winding roads, picturesque play of the mountains and valleys- it seemed we were in a picture postcard. We have come to Shimla earlier, but have never felt so contented with this region.

The Mashobra apple orchard was completely covered in clouds. The walk up to the Naldehra golf course did not seem too appealing, especially with the drizzle. But we were more than satisfied with the journey to the two places.

We headed back to our Resort for the second offering of the honeymoon package- a candlelit dinner. They arranged it for us in the small outhouse cottage. This was NICE!

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Pride of the Indian railways

& here was the last day. The day which was the reason for this trip. We were set to experience the UNESCO heritage train ride from Shimla to Kalka. The station is a stone’s throw from the Resort.

We clicked photographs with the train in the backdrop. We made a spectacle of ourselves; people gaped at us, but we were too excited to care. We realized that the seat which is supposed to be for two is really just one & a half. Well, two thin people maybe! It was good in a way as we sat cozily with each other.

The rowdy boys from our bus were on the adjacent seat. We rolled our eyes. The train was choc-a-bloc full. It was a tiny thing with almost no space for luggage. So do ensure you do not board the train with either large bags or with too many bags.

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Bringing our little journey to an end

The train pulled out from the station. Thus started a beautiful journey. We traveled through lush-green mountains, through almost 900 bridges and 100 tunnels in a weather that was pleasant.

It rained; we hurriedly closed our windows, but the water found its way in anyhow. People opened their umbrellas. Yes. In the train. The family behind us was lamenting throughout. But we found it amusing, rather than annoying.

The train brought us closer to nature. There were tiny stations along the way, with white cottages & blue roofs for stations, leaping right out of Malgudi Days. This was surely going to remain etched in our memories for as long as we lived…

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Its charm intact

The train has a decent speed, about 40 kmph. It halts at Kalka from where the broad gauge starts. We boarded the Kalka Shatabdi which fascinated us in another manner. The train was spotless, the air-conditioning worked marvelously, the seats were comfortable, the food was good, and the service was impeccable.

Soon, we were home. Our first heritage train ride had been memorable in more ways than one. Spotting & counting tunnels, a beautiful resort, soothing greenery all around, a salubrious weather, patriotic emotions, a candlelit dinner, & for the first time, liking Shimla…

We recommend an itinerary for four days, three nights:

Delhi – Shimla – Chail – Delhi

Day 0: Depart from Delhi by bus/ train.

Day 1: Arrive early morning at Shimla. Spend the day sightseeing specially Annandale, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, & The Ridge. Spend the night at Shimla British Resort.

Day 2: Hire a vehicle to take you to Mashobra/ Naldehra. Enjoy the journey! Night at Shimla British Resort.

Day 3: Checkout and head to Chail (a 2-hour drive). Check in at HPTDC The Chail Palace. Take a walk around and experience the former summer capital of the princely state of Patiala at its best.

Day 4: After an early breakfast, head to the Shimla railway station (2 hours again) to catch the trains back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It may snow during winter; so be prepared for the cold!

Recommended eats: Fruit chaat, Butter bun & Tea, Gol gappa

Recommended buys: Woolens, Handcrafted antiques, Tibetan floor coverings

P.S. The train bookings were done almost 3 months in advance. We kept a lookout on the ARS.

Meet the Maharaja

For us, a holiday is not about rest and rejuvenation alone. At different points in time, it is about adventure, luxury, new experiences, new cultures, new food and discovering each other. One such place which gave a new experience was Kishangarh, Rajasthan, India.

Kishangarh is a big town divided into an old and a new segment. The new segment houses large marble companies with their factories, offices, and lots of small marble product retailers. This is the not-so-interesting side.

The real charm is in the old town of Kishangarh, which houses the Kishangarh fort and the Phool Mahal palace. It is about an hour before Pushkar when traveling from Delhi. Both Ajmer and Pushkar are at easy accessible distances.

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The old town that still owes allegiance to the maharaja of Kishangarh. The blue reminded of Jodhpur…

We came to know about Kishangarh from the 2012 edition of Outlook Traveler. But when we mentioned it to people, they either did not know about it or dismissed it saying it has nothing.

It left us skeptical but not disheartened; skeptical because we were taking our parents along too. Nonetheless, we were determined to find out for ourselves. And, we are glad we did.

We started from Delhi fairly late, at about 9 AM. We got all the city traffic possible. The road from Gurgaon to Jaipur was quite bad too; there was construction going on. Diversions marked our route, making the roads even more congested.

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It may be small. It may not be as glamorous as other heritage properties. But it had a soul…

Once we turned onto the Ajmer- Pushkar road, it was smooth sailing. Phool Mahal palace is available accurately on GPS. Within Kishangarh, we crossed the market to get to the palace. This added to our skepticism as the market was narrow, with a fair degree of hustle and bustle. One of the roads branched to take us to the palace.

Once we reached there, all our skepticism went flying out of the window. Located on one side of the Gond Talav (pond), made of yellow stone, and having the fort as its backdrop, the Phool Mahal is not your typical luxury heritage hotel. It is more of a budget heritage hotel, but with all the old-world charm intact.

Kishor, the caretaker, showed us our rooms, which were on the first floor and were pond-facing. Our parents’ room was in a theme of blue with large bay windows overlooking the lake. It had a bathroom the size of a flat in most metros.

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The prettily done-up rooms. Great lighting, great views!

Our room had a pastel shade, and was circular & small. But it got its beauty from the paintings done on the wall. These were the Kishangarh style of miniature paintings. We also had a small verandah which opened to the lake.

The fort and the palace are retained by the royal family of Kishangarh. The current king is His Highness Maharaja Brajraj Singh. He is the 20th king. Kishangarh was set up when the second son of the Jodhpur Maharaja came here and established his own kingdom. His name was Maharaja Kishen Singh, from which the town takes its name. And true to its name, the town follows Lord Krishna.

The Royal Kishangarh has two more heritage properties – Roopangarh about 25 kms away from Phool Mahal, and Kishangarh House in Mount Abu. The lounge on the ground floor had a wall full of portraits of the 20 kings to have ruled Kishangarh. The dining hall had the photographs of the current king and his family.

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The prettiest bits – the paintings on the walls, called the Kishangarh Style of Paintings

The staff was skeletal but hugely courteous. The Rajasthani hospitality was quite evident. Kishor was not just our go-to person; he was also our guide to the history of the palace and fort. He accommodated all our requests. Along with him, we had a server dedicated to us.

The palace grounds are quite big with a large parking, the main palace, gardens and smaller standalone structures. When we reached, the Gond Talav was covered with water hyacinths.

The story goes-the pond was used for water chestnut farming. Once, along with the seeds of the water chestnut plant, came a few branches and leaves of the water hyacinth plant. These took over the pond as Alexander had taken over the world. Efforts were made to remove these but given their stubbornness and parasitic nature, it had been futile.

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The water-hyacinth covered lake. Before, during and after the wind blew…

The hyacinths were killing the pond. The lack of oxygen made the fish come to the surface. The pond had a dirty brown-grey color. But, but, but, we got a pleasant surprise when a gentle current made all the hyacinths drift into a corner of the pond. The pond then got a  blue shimmer color. That was the sight that kept us company for almost a day and a half.

We hope the municipality took corrective action. It was just a matter of will, was it not? And not every pond would have catfish as large as an eagle’s wingspan.

Next in line for us was the visit to the fort. The entry fee was INR 200 per person. The tickets were available at the Phool Mahal reception. A guide escorted us and explained the doors, the spikes, the horse-drawn carriages, the treasury, the weapon storage area etc.

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The rampart, the defense arrangements, we could breathe the days of yore

He then handed us over to ‘Mukhiya ji’ who was the priest in the temple inside the fort. The temple was dedicated to an avatar of Lord Krishna, Sri Nath ji but it could not be accessed by the public.

Mukhiya ji took us on a tour of the fort interior, which included many palaces. We just managed to cover the queen’s chambers after which we were exhausted. There is quite of bit of climbing that one needs to do, and it being Rajasthan, the Sun can be pretty strong. So try to go during the evening hours and do carry water with you.

It was heartwarming to see an intact fort which gave a glimpse of how the royalty lived many years ago. The fort also housed Studio Kishangarh which was the art initiative by the princess of Kishangarh. The Studio was striving to revive the old Kishangarh painting style. Worth a dekko!

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Studio Kishangarh- an initiative by the princess to revive the lost art of Kishangarh painting

Maintaining the fort would not be easy on the wallet, especially without a private/ public funding; a fort without a regular tourist inflow, it must be the pride of the royal family, and their memories that have kept this going.

His Highness was doing a pretty good job. Our only regrets – (1) We could not explore the fort in full due to its size and our paucity of time; and (2) We could not pick up a souvenir from the Studio Kishangarh outlet.

As we completed the fort visit, we were greeted by the sight of His Highness sitting in the veranda of Phool Mahal. We struck a conversation where he told us about the history, the efforts to clean the pond, the privacy of the Srinathji temple, and his other properties in Roopangarh and Mount Abu.

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Within the massive fort, lots of palaces for kings, Queens, princes, princesses & all bhai- bhatijas! That’s why they didn’t need a TV those days 😉

His Highness came across as a learned man; we later came to know he was an author and a lecturer on the Kishangarh art. There is something royal about royalty, isn’t there?

This brought our trip to an end. The day we left was the day of Holi, the festival of colors. We found the roads and highways devoid of traffic. On our onward journey, we had taken almost eight hours to reach. While returning, it took us six hours.

We took away nuggets of learning from the trip: (1) Never write off a place without experiencing it; (2) Hit the roads on major festival days.

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Bravery awards, replicas, sun-lit verandas, open courtyards… Sigh! This is the era we should have been born in.

Lastly, for the ease of fellow travelers, we suggest the following itinerary ex-Delhi: Delhi – Kishangarh- Ajmer- Pushkar- Roopangarh- Delhi. Five days, four nights would be sufficient.

Day 1: Leave from Delhi in the morning. Reach Kishangarh by evening. Spend the night at Phool Mahal.

Day 2: Start early and explore the fort in the first half. Head to Ajmer after lunch and offer a ‘chaadar’ at the ‘dargah’. Return to Phool Mahal for the night.

Day 3: Start late and head to Pushkar. Visit the Brahma temple and others, if you wish. Or shop at the bazaar and eat delicacies at the German bakeries. Head to the lake towards evening and be a part of the ‘aarti’. Back to Phool Mahal for the night.

Day 4: Head to Roopangarh. Explore the fort by day and rest there at night

Day 5: Leave for Delhi

Recommended time to visit: October-March

Recommended eats: Laal Maas (a very spicy mutton dish)

Recommended buys: A souvenir from Studio Kishangarh, lac bangles

Ram-ram sa!