Beat The Heat! – 2

A few folks reached out to us to know more about the three destinations we recommended in Part I to escape the Indian summer. Glad we could be of help! But, three destinations are inadequate for six months of the intense north Indian summer. So, we bring three more long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in the Himalayas, yet are quite different from each other!

Dharamshala

The home of the Dalai Lama & the Tibetan Government in exile is technically not a long weekend destination, i.e., three days will be insufficient to do justice to it. But something is better than nothing!

Fly to Gaggal, or take a train to Pathankot, or drive down to Dharamshala, the serene Himalayan town is more accessible than ever before.

We have a soft spot for all things Buddhist. Thus, liking Dharamshala came naturally to us. If you are of a spiritual bent, you will benefit from a visit to the Namgyal Monastery, the largest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet.

If, instead, you are one who prefers the outdoors, you can take the long but picturesque walk to the Bhagsu Waterfall. But, let us caution you – the waterfall & the Bhagsu Nag Temple can get crowded.

And then, there is always the option of sit back & sigh at the stunning views of the Himalayas.

We stayed at Sterling Dharamshala but we believe there are better options available like Hotel Norbu House and The Divine Hima. We drove from New Delhi to Dharamshala which became a little tiring as the distance is >500 KMS.

Our original trip of fours days had to be cut short by a day due to an accident. It only makes us determined to return to Dharamshala soon!

Jim Corbett National Park

OK, this is an uncommon choice to ‘beat the heat’ as the Jim Corbett National Park itself attains temperatures of 40+ degrees Celsius. But this is the best time to spot the big cat. Thanks to the extreme heat, many watering holes dry up, forcing the animals to congregate at the few that remain. Thus, summer turns out to be a great time to spot most animals near water bodies, including the tiger.

If you are like us (hate summer), let us reassure you that because of the greenery, the Park still remains bearable. Safaris take place in mornings & early evenings. So, take out the broad brimmed hat, slather on the sunscreen, put on the glares & head to Corbett.

And, again, if, like us, you dislike crowds, fewer tourists visit the Jim Corbett National Park in the summer, making it a more private experience for those who do.

You can get from Delhi NCR to the Park in about six hours, eight in case of traffic.

In our two visits, we stayed at Kanwhizz HUM TUM Resort (yes, that was its name but now it is called La Perle River Resorts), and The Riverview Retreat. Both are on the banks of the River Kosi but we recommend The Riverview Retreat. You can walk to the river and spend time in solitude, listening to the sounds of nature.

Kanwhizz HUM TUM had cabanas next to the Kosi. We enjoyed a candlelit dinner in one of the cabanas.

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Great way to end day – Candlelit dinner by River Kosi at Kanwhizz

Be careful of the scams operating in Jim Corbett National Park in the name of safaris. Agencies like Travel Tiger Track can cheat you by showing you zones like Sitabani (hardly a wildlife reserve) in the name of tiger safaris. No permit is needed for this ‘zone’. Private vehicles are allowed. There is a tea stall inside where visitors can not just have tea but biscuits, mixtures & instant noodles. Smoking is allowed too. No guide is needed to visit Sitabani.

Around sunset, visit the Garjiya Devi Temple, located on the other side of the Kosi. You cross a foot over bridge to get to it. To get to the shrine, you will climb steep steps. The shrine is small but the idol is beautiful.

Little Bambi
Little Bambi

Pangot

Falling under the Nainital district & the Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve, Pangot (or Pangoot) is a village known for its bird watching. Its beauty lies in its picturesqueness. The village, though barely 15 KMS from Nainital, is fairly remote.

Pangot is a birdwatcher’s paradise, courtesy the hundreds of bird types found here. Oak & rhododendron forests attract the eye. If you like all-weather destinations, this is the place. Like most of our other recommendations, please do not expect a list of things to do/ see in Pangot. It is a place of calm & quiet. So, if you love nature, make your way to this village which, along with birding, offers scope for activities like mountain biking too.

Pangot is a village; expect limited number of accommodation options. We stayed at The Nest Cottages which we liked for its location. Away from ‘civilization’, you can enjoy solitude. Your neighbors are birds, dogs & monkeys.

The cottages are standalone, reminding of English novels with their slanting roofs & wooden interiors. Excellent service, home style vegetarian food. The owner is a sweet old man, lovely to converse with.

We did not have to step out of the property to see birds; many kinds greeted us right in the common area. Hardly any network & an erratic TV meant tranquility. Did we mention they have a well-stocked library?

Another accommodation you can consider is Jungle Lore Birding Lodge.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Pangot in about seven hours, nine in case of traffic. Do not forget to halt at Nainital to do some boating at the Naini Lake or to have a delectable meal at Sakley’s Restaurant & Pastry Shop.

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When Like & Dislike Co-existed

“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast, Hamin astu Hamin astu Hamin ast.” (If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.) No reference to Kashmir can start without this quote. Yet, we are divided on our agreement with it.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir valleys are sights to behold. At the same time, are they the best there can be? Did Amir Khusrou travel the world before he bestowed Kashmir with this honor? Or even travel all of India?

No, don’t get us wrong. We are not doubting the beauty of Kashmir. We have seen it firsthand ourselves. But to call it paradise when you have worthy competitors is a trifle unfair, is it not?

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Gulmarg – Such a gorgeous sight!

If we limit ourselves to India, we have found the barrenness of Ladakh, the rain-drenched hills of Himachal, the forts of Rajasthan, the sunsets of the Rann of Kutch, the backwaters of Kerala & many more to be equally beautiful, if not more.

Nonetheless, Kashmir captivates in a way that leaves an imprint on your mind for your entire life. We were fortunate enough to visit the beautiful cities & surroundings of Gulmarg, Pahalgam & Srinagar.

We were here around the Independence Day. Everybody cautioned us that it was an unsafe time to visit the valley. We felt this would be the safest due to heightened security; & we were right. While paramilitary & police presence is a common sight, on 15th August, there was a curfew-like situation which made our movement easy.

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Gulmarg – All poems about Kashmir returned to memory.

Our first stop, Gulmarg, proved to be a pretty little town with the gondola being its claim to fame. A walking distance away from our hotel, Nedous, was the gondola station. The gondola took us to a staggering height.

Here, enthusiastic folks can try their hands at snow sports, while the lazy ones can sit & admire the scenery. On open meadows, we saw horses galloping. It brought back to mind the vivid descriptions that Enid Blyton would paint. Ah, the joys of childhood! Rolling green hills surrounded our cottage. Tall pine trees adorned these hills. We asked ourselves- who would say this is India? Looks more like Switzerland!

We believe what irked us about Kashmir was the attitude of most people & their self-defined rules. In Gulmarg & Pahalgam, we could visit the sightseeing spots only if we hired a local taxi. We were not allowed to use our Srinagar-registered taxi. What was the insecurity here? Why create this nuisance for travelers? Why differentiate yourself from your brethren? It is all Kashmir, is it not? You are all Kashmiris, are you not?

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Too much prettiness

On 15th, we moved from Gulmarg to Pahalgam, a distance of 145 kms. The roads were deserted and the only presence we saw was of security forces. At one check post, we were stopped by a group of men.

The leader, clad in a vest & khaki trousers, & with an automatic in hand, came up to our vehicle, peered inside & asked our driver if we were all tourists. Satisfied, he let us go. The driver told us he was a J&K policeman.

We were left wondering. He looked like a goon. He neither had a uniform on nor was he displaying an identification. How was a layperson to know who he was, & with what authority was he stopping us? We are afraid to say this but he may have been a militant.

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The area surrounding our cottage in Pahalgam – River Lidder providing the perfect way to spend a few days.

Our apprehensions abated once we reached the busy but picturesque town of Pahalgam. All the curfew we had witnessed on our route evaporated here. Even with a light rain, locals & tourists thronged the main street, rushing to eat, shop or just idle away time.

Sadly, our experiences at the three restaurants we tried –Trout Beat, Paradise & Heena – were quite poor. The worst was that the servers, chefs & managers did not seem to care that we did not enjoy their food or service.

We had thought Kashmiri hospitality would be something to write home about. We know a bunch of Kashmiris who have moved out of Kashmir, & they are warm & friendly people.

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Wispy leaves

We had also only heard till date that Kashmiris refer to the people from rest of India as Hindustanis. We saw it firsthand there. In a restaurant in Pahalgam, a local picked up a fight with the restaurant manager, questioning him why were Hindustanis being served & Kashmiris were kept waiting! We wanted to say – brother, whether you like it or not, you are a Hindustani too.

Our bitterness evaporated with the sights that Pahalgam had in store. We stayed at Travelers’ Inn, a cottage which could be reached only by crossing a treacherous wooden bridge over an angry Lidder river.

On the land around the cottage, at any given point of time, five horses could be found grazing. Right in front of the cottage was the river, peaceful & crystal clear one moment, and angry & muddy the other.

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At Chashmashahi, pure water becomes impure just minutes after emerging from the ground.

Surrounding the cottage were mountains that started off green at the base and turned white as your eyes reached the peaks. It was one of those places where you could easily spend a few days just curled up in an armchair, in the sun, listening to the river, & reading a book.

The beautiful valleys of Aru & Betaab were nearby; so if you did feel like moving a limb, you could head here to soak in more natural beauty.

Another thing that annoyed us was not getting any product at MRP. It is no more a situation where Kashmir does not get tourists. It has an inflow all year round. It is perhaps because the rules that apply to the rest of India do not apply to Kashmir.

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We’d only heard about the beauty of the houseboats. When we saw it first hand, we didn’t want to leave…

Our last stop was Srinagar. We had an impression that Srinagar being the capital, it will be crowded and polluted with nothing to see. We could not have been more wrong. If you leave the heart of the city aside, the suburbs are beautiful & quiet.

The Dal Lake occupies a major part of the city and the promenade is a breeze to drive through. We opted to stay at Nigeen Lake, touted to be prettier & quieter. We had only heard about the beauty of houseboats. When we entered our Wangnoo Houseboat, we were so enamored we wished we could extend our stay. A plush setting with wooden interiors, the houseboat was fit for royalty. The canopied-bed was an added charm. The best part was the ‘home delivery’ of almost anything we wanted.

Srinagar offered Pari Mahal, Chashmashahi, and Hazrat BAL & Nishat Bagh to us. All those history lessons, all those story books, all those references in movies came back to us as we gaped unabashedly at each of these places.

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The symbol of Kashmir – the sleek shikaras

We finally found Kashmiri food that we loved. Ahdoos served us a wazwan that erased all the bad food experiences we had endured till then.

Our sojourn to the beautiful valley was short and sweet, with a little bit of spice thrown in. Our cameras managed to pick up colors we did not even know existed. We loved the kahwa even though the dishes did not excite us much. We brought back blackberries, firans, jewelry, kahwa, ponchos, saffron, walnuts and walnut tarts. Yum!

The natural beauty and the salubrious weather make it indeed a paradise, but when man interferes with paradise, it ceases to remain so…

Shout out to The Wanderbug for organizing this trip for us!

 

Images courtesy our friend & co-traveler, Tushar Belwal

It Took a Spell of Rain to Make Us Love

We have been to Goa before. You must know Goa. The city that is synonymous with India, and incorrectly so. Sure, Goa has sand, sea, skin and Sun, and attracts a large share of domestic and international tourists. But is this all that is there to India?

What about the heritage, the culture, the colors, the smells, the sounds, the jostling and pushing, the hospitality, the monuments, the history, the diversity, the religion, the dirt and grime, the easy smiles and so much more?

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We tried photography at various locations

We do not imply Goa has none of these; it does, yet it cannot accurately represent India. So now that we have established how fastidious we are, let us continue where we left off. Yes, we have been to Goa before.

The first time was when we wanted to heal ourselves. We wanted to escape the sudden pain that had been inflicted on us. We wanted to find our inner peace. Or simply put, when we did not want anybody to see our tears.

It was in April; tourist season had not really picked up. We were happy to escape crowds. We lodged ourselves in Panjim, a quiet part, going out to even quieter places, wishing to find our solace.

Consequently, the memories of Goa do not stand out for us from this visit. That trip was more about us than about the destination.

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We soothed our eyes

The second time was when we were in full spirits, gung-ho with life, and ready to take on whatever came our way. This was a more Goa-esque visit. We stayed in Baga, the heart of the city, buzzing with life, days starting late, and nights ending even later.

We thoroughly enjoyed but we asked ourselves if we would not have enjoyed as much elsewhere if we were in the same frame of mind and perhaps had similar company. So, you see Goa did not impress us much.

Sure, for a one-time visit, it is as good a tourist destination as any other. But we know people who go there every year, and perhaps even more than once a year. This fills us with discontent. There are so many exquisite places in India.

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We put our feet up

Why then would one waste one’s effort, money and time on the same destination over and over again? But then, that is us. We cannot repeat. We need our variety. We need new destinations. We need new experiences. We need new journeys. That is where we get our ecstasy from!

But this time, it was different. We think it was the ‘third time lucky’ adage working. We stayed from Friday till Sunday, a short trip. In our experience, these little breaks help tremendously in rejuvenation.

Given that we had not stepped out of Delhi for more than two months, we were not complaining. We were glad to get away.

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We counted the trees

The connectivity from Delhi was rotten. The earliest non-stop flight was at 10:25 AM. You reached after 1 PM; half a day was effectively wasted. Nonetheless, as we had been trying to see the upside of everything, we realized that taking such a flight meant we did not need to get up at an unearthly hour.

True to our nature, we were at the airport with about an hour to spare and used that to gobble down a breakfast at Fresco.

We had a page three crowd in our flight which was on its way to attend a wedding in Goa. We were forced to observe the wedding party as they were dripping with brands, air-kissing quite heavily and were loud. Ah, of course, when did money guarantee class? We immersed ourselves in our books.

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We reveled in the warm glow

Our hotel was only an hour and 10 minutes away. We were staying at Vivanta by Taj – Fort Aguada in Sinquerim. They had sent a pretty little bus to pick its guests up. As soon as the bus started moving, we started falling in love.

It was drizzling; my surroundings were lush green. The rains had washed away the dust; it seemed the plants and trees had been given an extra coat. The narrow roads had been washed clean; Goans were going about their daily lives covered by raincoats or protecting themselves under colorful umbrellas.

We could not take our eyes off. What also drew our attention was the array of colorful houses. Memories of Burano came back to life. Oh how young were we! How ‘in love’ were we! Truly, nothing can recreate the magic of a honeymoon. Or even of courtship.

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We gaped at the clear reflections

We wondered why so many colors, ranging from orange to pink to green to blue. Was it something to do with fishing communities? Fishermen returning at night with their hauls had trouble identifying their homes in the dark? Or were they too drunk?

What was it? Wikipedia told us that coloring the exterior of the house signified the economic well being of the owner. Also, the erstwhile Portuguese rulers fined houses that were not painted. Lastly, white was reserved for the churches.

We were, somehow, not convinced. There had to be a drunk fisherman angle. What is life without a bit of spice!

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We swung in hammocks tossing our worries to the wind

We had not imagined the Taj property to be as pretty as it turned out to be. Located at almost a tip of Goa, flanked by the walls of Fort Aguada, Taj Fort Aguada is sprawled across acres with cottages dispersed throughout its premises.

It is built on a hillock and so the elevation of cottages differ, making thus possible different views. Our cottage was at a fair height. The sea view was unobstructed from there. At that moment, we knew we had finally loved Goa. What the beach, shacks, parties could not do, the greenery, the rain and the sea did.

That evening, we also hit the gym after almost two years. It felt good to get our blood, heart and limbs going. The gym is located between the two Taj properties- Fort Aguada and Holiday Village. The hotel car provides the pick and drop.

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We looked up to see this. A small voice in our head said – duck!

The hotel is one where you need not step out. You can just flit from one spot to another, catching the cool sea breeze, listening to the crash of the sea waves, sipping on something and reading a good piece of fiction.

There are multiple activities arranged at the hotel itself but we, unfortunately, were unable to participate in any. Though, we did avail their spa services. We had visited Jiva before and were thoroughly impressed. This time too, we were not disappointed. It is good to leave yourself in the hands of an expert. Hmm! We reminded ourselves to do this more often.

Our next evening was spent sitting next to the sea, with music playing in the background and the warm light of the candles bringing a glow to our faces.

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We strolled in the lush green gardens…

We traveled to a lot of corners of Goa, either to buy or eat or see. Being on the road is our elixir. Being on the road in a pleasant clime with raindrops falling is perhaps divine. Plants, trees, puddles, earthworms, the smell of wet mud- all brought us to our knees.

Our road trips have brought us closer and closer to Mother Earth. Her beauty is unparalleled. She knows when to be gentle and when to unleash her fury on those who mess with her. This visit was not about us Goa; it was about you in your full glory.

We have no itinerary to provide; we are still mesmerized…