Satiating Nostalgia Under the Winter Rain at Junia

Room with a view

The rain keeps up it’s intermittent pitter-patter as we make our way from Ajmer to Junia. Our hostess & driver for the journey, is a god-loving woman, who insists on driving right upto every temple door en route ( The word fear has been left to all the other drivers to deal with …. swerve/brake in her wake, as she suddenly spots a temple & rushes towards it! ) so that she & all of us along with her, can pay obeisance to the motley lot of deities by the road without getting our hair wet. Vanity trumping piety by just a bit. What it can’t beat is gluttony as we stop & hop across the mud at a dhaba to indulge ourselves in the famous ‘Kachora’ that Nasirabad is so famous for. The best ones I still feel are to be found at the Nasirabad railway station which we would have warm with piping hot tea whenever we would take the train on this route. The train would arrive there right at tea time. But nostalgia has it’s own appetite & so we indulge it with cold kachoras, warm kachoris & guavas from a scruffy looking fruit-seller across the road. The guavas beg to be eaten right away & they turn out to be even more delicious than the Chittorgarh ones, with a hint of tang chasing the crunchy sweetness that only unripened guavas have. So many winters I have sacrificed bits of teeth at the altar of love for this crazy fruit.

The sun & wind chase the dark clouds & a beautiful rainbow towards the east as we follow the tail end of the clouds. I’ve always found winter rain to be utterly romantic.( Can listen to November Rain on loop! ) But lets not be narrow -minded about the definition of romance! It can be a delightful ménage à trois between my stomach & food accompanied by winter rain just there…in the background! We reach Junia, a tiny hamlet with a small fort almost obscured by the surrounding houses. The narrow lane that leads to our destination has these houses with miniature haveli-like colourful facades. A turn in the lane ends at the gate of Amar Bagh, with the lake & a flaming sunset beyond. Just in time for a piping hot cuppa ready to be had with the remnants of the kachori-kachora on the patio.

The flaming sunset chasing the clouds

The main house at the Bagh has been lovingly touched up & it still feels like a home away from home. ‘Jal Mahal’, the tiny ‘Lake Palace’ on the lake is as delightful as ever with it’s permanent residents, the old tiger heads & House Martins who come out every evening to put up a cacophonous show over the lake, water or no water. It is quite a sight with the setting sun as a backdrop as we sit on the patio by the lake. The perfect place for morning tea, evening tea, afternoon beer…heck, everything! I could spend my entire time there watching the hours unfold. A tree on one side of the floor provides a canopy with branches stooping so low as if seeking the water that is no longer there in the lake. The perils of progress, check dams nearby, seem to have reduced the water flowing into the lake which is a natural catchment for the extra runoff of the rains.

The tamarind & banyan beyond

The next morning & every morning while I’m there we take a stroll in the Bagh, rediscovering old haunts. We go past the tiny Shiv temple, (Where years back I had discovered a small dead bat & wrapping it’s feet around my fingers had proceeded to scare the wits out of the kids around me.) & the magnificent old tamarinds near the ramparts, turn at the stepwell (Where we would hang out along with the pigeons, blowing smoke circles into the air peacefully, safely away from twitching noses..) & the banyan guarding it towards the orchard that gives the place it’s name. I discover another stepwell, this one with an arched entrance to the steps which is even more ornate. We walk back through the orchard of guavas & lime. The latter fruiting & flowering in equal measure giving the whole place the faintest whiff of sharp sweetness. Fresh & tart. Lunch is the most delicious ‘khata’ I’ve had in a while, perfectly thin & tangy ,true to it’s name, the way its done only in Rajasthan. Its turning out to be one gastronomical trip as in the evening while we warm ourselves around the bonfire, mutton is cooked on open fire by the man of the house. The ‘Laal maas’ made by Thakur Kishore Singhji has always been such a treat. The patience & heart with which he spends the hours required to cook it to perfection can be tasted in every bite. He tempers the fieriness for us & we wipe our plates clean leaving no trace of the perfect thick gravy. Poor Russel, the resident golden hunk doesn’t get more than one tiny morsel as reward for all the doleful looks he has been giving all evening patiently.

A dried lake has it’s own beauty

There is no trace of the clouds that rained down in the night the next morning & it’s blue & clear & we’re like beached whales still digesting a breakfast of more kachoris & khata, a combination I’ve had for the first time, & stuffed ‘mirchi bhajias’ all washed down with coffee. A surprisingly good fusion. Our reverie is broken by the clamour of jangling bells & the bleating of sheep & goats. A big herd is making the most of the dried lake which is like a grassy rolling meadow right now. Sheep can walk across the length of the lake without lifting their heads much like a lawnmower & they keep up the background din through the afternoon, the sounds occasionally blown away by the breeze. In the evening we visit the ‘chattri’ made in honour of the founding father of the clan. Like all warriors of old there are stories of battles & valor, of a heroic death & an exalted legacy to be followed & honoured.

The ‘chattri’

 

Gluttony

Its blissfully peaceful in the Shiv temple. The silver convertible Herald parked under the massive tamarind is long gone but the peacocks are still there in abundance, as skittish as ever & they scatter as we stroll through the bagh. Adulthood has given a quiet burial to a childhood dream of catching one of them. All the running around in the orchard back then would only culminate in spent energy & nothing more, thankfully. We return from our walk to find chilled beer, some more ‘laal maas’ to be had this time with ‘battis’ made by the gatekeeper. They’ve been made on smoked cow dung ( I know how that sounds but trust me that is as authentic as it gets! ) & then dunked, by the looks of it in a bucket of clarified butter, but by God! they are divine…crunchy on the outside & melt in the mouth inside! I mentally apologize to our home cook whose ‘battis’ I’ve thought till now to be the ultimate but these are a notch above. I request one to be saved for my journey back the next day since I’m stuffed till the gills right then but tomorrow is another day! After that leisurely lunch I want to crash out right there on the patio but manage to crawl into my bed somehow. The breeze has taken a breather that night & we have a bonfire outside the main house. There is some company today from the village, rugged sun kissed faces glowing in the fire light, talking about the produce of the season, local politics & village matters & I struggle to follow the cadences of the local lingo & give up, just soaking in the mellifluousness flowing around the crackling fire.

Bronzed village faces

The last morning dawns cloudy & windy & there is rain en route to Jaipur. We stop for one last feast of roadside pakoras although my ‘batti’ has been duly packed along. I quash my reluctance to have fried roadside food & dig in. They are sassy, as only freshly fried, piping hot pakoras can be with bits of coriander & fennel around the chilli, surprisingly not hot at all. Literally saying ‘don’t be uppity!’ Who would want to leave this idyllic life, food heaven & head to the city?! Even ‘Anokhi’ with it’s inviting cafe, coffee aroma wafting around isn’t enticing enough when one is fully fed up, belly full with the delectable charms of Junia.

 

 

 

Barot – And the Serendipitous Catch in the Uhl River

I’ve been asked why I haven’t written about Dharamsala, my hometown, as yet. I say, very selfishly, that I don’t think Dharamsala can take any more people & I wouldn’t want to contribute to its transient population even an iota. It is no doubt breathtakingly beautiful with the Dhauladhars giving an ethereal backdrop to a sweeping panorama that is the Kangra valley but as is the problem with all hill stations, popular or obscure, there are just too many tourists, an urbanization explosion & almost no waste disposal mechanism. It all either goes down the slope or into a stream. With this toxic cocktail on every mountain top & valley one needs to find places off the grid to get a clean green high.

So during one such visit home we decide we need to get far from the maddening crowds at Dharamsala. A visit to Barot is long overdue so some phone calls are made. We had planned a trip there sometime back… actually more like couple of decades back! But the trip had to be cancelled last minute because some big-wig decided to go for an angling trip & given that at that time there was limited government accommodation available & that too strictly by pecking order, we were given a short shrift. (Not only appropriated our idea but our rooms too! We never forgave the nameless holiday saboteur!) The best accommodation is still with the governments – Punjab’s & Himachal’s. So be it the FRHs (Forest Rest House) or the Hydel project guest rooms with their prime locations, booking is still a chancy affair if someone in Chandigarh or Shimla decides to breathe some fresh air. Still..we managed rooms in the FRH.

The ethereal Dhauladhars

So after a rather winding drive through the picturesque Kangra valley, making halts at Andretta to see the art gallery of the famous artist Sir Shobha Singh & the pottery studio run by Mansimran Singh & the tea factory of  Palampur ( I love the tea grown in Palampur. It is not for everyone – a very exacting tea that requires all your attention while brewing. The reward being the most divine smokey flavoured tea but one additional minute of seeping & it turns wrathfully acidic & bitter.) we stop for the night at Bir. It has a special place in my heart. More on that another time. The next morning after a long walk through the village followed by a hearty breakfast we start for Barot. We have a word with the caretaker again (once bitten…!) & are told that lunch would be catered for & the menu mentioned makes everyone’s mouth water. If there is one thing better in the mountains than the greenery around, it is the delectable greens in the plate. Throw in that chicken on the side &…aah..bliss! We cross the Funicular trolley track in all it’s gravity defying angle near Jogindernagar to take the turn off the highway for Barot. The trolley was commissioned when the construction of the Shanan Hydel project started. It is still in some sort of use this side of the slope but on the other, near Barot, it looks decidedly neglected.

The goats of Barot

We take a break after climbing a bit at a turn with a bus stand and flat ground. There is a massive Chinar tree & a herd of the biggest goats I’ve ever seen with shaggy coats & twisted horns, more satyr than goats, resting under the deodars & I marvel at their good genes & diet. We chance upon this clearing with the barest remnants of a bungalow which would be anyone’s dream house location even now.

Sylvan & serene

The rest of the journey till Barot is on a narrow road along river Uhl, lively & frothing over boulders. The valley itself is curvy, sylvan with pines which give way to the mighty deodars, with ripening wheat in the lower & fallow potato fields in the upper regions. The dam dominates the centre of town & a narrower valley heads off on the right from town towards Lohardi & the snowy reaches of Bara Bhangal. The road suddenly seems to be a mud track towards the upper end of town near the FRH. We are told that two nights back there had been a cloudburst & it has taken down a huge portion of a stream, corners of couple of buildings, the wall & one sewage pit of the FRH & deposited bits & pieces all along the road as a warning to all those who cross that nature must be respected with a capital ‘R’.

Everyone has a shaggy coat in Barot!

In a comedy of errors we discover that the FRH & more pertinently the lunch we have been talking about is actually across the range back at Bir & still awaiting our arrival! It is not this one with it’s slightly cantankerous incharge &  there is no chicken or greens waiting to be had definitely. But thankfully this one is empty & we are grudgingly given beautifully wood paneled rooms by the harassed caretaker who is busy trying to get the swanky loo going which is a no-go courtesy the cloudburst. Fortunately there is a decent though basic room available in the adjoining homestay. As we settle down the weather packs up again with a vengeance & we are left praying that an encore is not in the offing. The sound of heavens opening up on a tin roof is, if nothing else, deafening.

Pine boughs over the path

The next day dawns scrubbed & sparkling & there is something to be said about the smell of deodars after the rains. It is as invigorating as it is sensual. The valley is preening it’s luminescent greenery. We spend the next two mornings & evenings discovering the walking paths to the villages tucked away in the higher reaches, stopping to chat with women getting their potato fields ready.  We give up any pretense of walking & flop down on the edge of the fields to watch the valley spread below as we ruminate on life. The days are spent by the stream (For some reason still marked as the Uhl only.) going up to Lohardi, angling with picnic lunches thrown in. We hire the rod & other paraphernalia there itself but decline the help of a guide as there are self professed experts in the group. We catch nothing more than a certain fervor for the activity! The only thing on the menu for us is the local trout & thankfully the locals are better at hooking the fish than us because left to us, we would have been on a starvation diet. We feast on sumptuous fresh catch everyday at the small eateries near the FRH. Though the weather generally packs up in the afternoon, a common enough phenomena  during summer, we take a drive up the Lohardi road & walk up to this village across the stream. There is a kul ( The water channel system in the hills.) & a flour grinding contraption powered by it. We see the snow clad Bara Bhangal heights through a misty veil of rain heading in our direction.

Veil over Bara Bhangal

The last morning of our stay & we are all loaded to head back & I am chatting with the proprietor of this restaurant, who I’ve noticed earlier tipping all the waste into the river right in front of his place. He bemoans the lack of any coherent disposal system ( True. Sadly.) & I try to give him a pep talk on self help because no one wants to come to a see a nullah (stream) turned nallih (drain) no matter how pristine the setting! The onus of preserving the scenic environs is on the locals as much as on us. I head across the road to the edge of the river where he has put out some tables under these sun umbrellas. Suddenly I spy this old lady & I mean old, bent, leaning on a half a twig passing for a stick type, on the slip of a bank below the wall lining the river. She seems to be getting into the river. I watch aghast as she gets into the water trying, it seems, to ford across the shallows. She slips, tries to get her footing but flounders. I am shouting & running towards her. She seems to be getting swept away right before our eyes! I am overtaken by this strapping young cop who till now had been lounging & reading a newspaper on a chair nearby. He is down  the wall & into the water in a heartbeat, fishing the old lady out along with some locals & us. She is carried up, handed a hot cuppa & given a gentle chiding by the cop who tells her that there are saner & safer ways of getting across. Phew! That has been unnerving…

As we hit the road crowded with the monster goats, we marvel at the tiny valley packing a punch – comedy, high drama, blissful tranquil moments & the serendipitous catch saved for the last!

Fact File – A permit is needed for fishing in the Uhl from the Fisheries Department. It is available at a nominal amount. The person hiring out the rods generally helps in getting one.

Ranthambore Alert -Ticketing trials and tiger trails

It amazes me..still! I’m not talking about the tiger.( He made a rather tiny cameo appearance, more like a peek-a-‘butt’ literally, much later in the story.) I mean it shouldn’t. Its not like I took a break from the country & have come back to discover that the separation did no good to the systems here! Its like we want to embrace technology but are afraid that the coupling will produce something worthwhile, so we stop before finishing the good job! But enough of the griping & on to the raison d’etre; the facts & story behind it.

Langurs at the fort

So, we decided to do this ‘clan’ holiday &, as is with all clan issues I suspect, it went back & forth till the last minute. The final toss up was between Pench & Ranthambore. I din’t care as long as I got to see the tiger, a long cherished dream. To see one in the wild….ah! If it even looked at me I would want to hug it probably! And what a bad idea that would be! Providence has ensured against that eventuality. So Bandipore, Corbett  & now Ranthambore done and all I’ve got to tell is about this hint of a tiger’s butt, artfully framed by the bushes!

The tiger in his frame

In our short trip to Ranthambore we went for two safaris, one in zone 5 & the other in zone 6. Zone 6 was first & in the afternoon. It was beautiful – open, rolling countryside, winding streams, spread out trees with enough prey base of the tiger in sight. You say it we saw them all, Bluebulls, Spotted deer, Chinkara (Indian Gazelle) & Sambar deer including one rubbing its antlers on a tree right off the road, tufts of grass hanging on them, oblivious to everything but his itch! Although we had been warned that the two almost grown up cubs – Jai & Veeru (The legend of ‘Sholay’ lives on!) had recently moved out of the zone, we managed to catch a glimpse of sleeping ‘Kumbha’ right at the end of the zone. He was so well camouflaged between a boulder & these bushes I wonder who spotted him first. He din’t even deign to acknowledge the loutish crowd of humans with a raised head & dirty look. We would have settled for anything! The best bit for me, besides the animals & the scenery was that I got to sit right in front along with the driver since there was no guide in the Canter & we had some pretty interesting conversation. But they all are like F1 drivers once the job is done!

 

Evening stroll
Evening rendezvous

Even in Zone 5 the next morning the driver did not let up as we raced around chasing the elusive ‘Laila’ seen moments before by this Canter load of people with Cheshire grins. All the other animals, Sambars with magnificent antlers, wild boars et al fell by the way side. Zone 5 is a narrow valley mostly with a swampy lake, rocky streams & massive old banyans with their roots thrown down far & wide. We spent a lot of time listening to the ‘call’. The sign of a tiger in the vicinity. The colours of fall, shades of orange & yellow are so deceptive & play tricks on hopeful minds.

Now to the facts which needed to be dealt with before the trip-

1.All the safari bookings are only online now on a first come first serve basis.(Hurrah!) But the number of vehicles being allowed inside per day has been capped.(Understandable I guess)

2.You need to book sufficiently in advance (Booking now can be done a year in advance), especially if you only want a gypsy & want only particular zones.(There are 10 zones & 1-5 are considered the core zones. There are ample sightings in the others too.) In some zones only gypsies go.

3.But, & this is the part that totally confounds me & seems to defeat the purpose of online booking is that, you still need to go Shilpgram (Where the ticket office is) once you are there in Sawai Madhopur, to collect your physical ticket (Must give ID proof…again!) get the vehicle & driver’s number, give the pick up point ,i.e, your hotel address.(That is the upside in a sense, unless your co-passengers are in a hotel across town. Then you go on one sight seeing trip in town & it eats into the safari timing.) The end result is that you need to get in line at the Shilpgram nonetheless or give about 100/-rupees extra per person to some tout/your hotel to have them collected, despite doing everything online. (Big bummer!)

4.For the afternoon safari, it has to be done the same morning and for the morning safari it can be done the evening prior but the vehicle & driver’s number will still be intimated in the morning only. (Nerve racking!)

5. DIY people’s link guide – http://www.tourism.rajasthan.gov.in/plan.html (This is the fairly new site with the dancing mustache/camels.) You will need to open an a/c. There is an entire pdf to help you through within the same site.

6.Lazy/Confused people’s guide – The hotel where you stay might still do your booking for a premium of course but they too will have to collect them hours prior to the safari.

7.Keep those IDs handy. They are checked at the entrance of the park sometimes.

We got lucky while booking as a cousin planned her trip right before ours. They got lucky because they saw Jai & Veeru, a sloth bear with her cub & a well-fed panther!! Maybe there is a karmic quota for sightings & not just for vehicles & tickets….

 

 

The Gardens of Delhi – A walk not only on the green side but through history itself

The tomb of Mohammed Shah in Lodhi

Although Delhi deserves the rap it gets for its abysmal air quality, it does have these pockets of redemption where one can peacefully, & I’m not saying quietly (Peace being a state of mind & quiet..well a totally different thing! ) or very healthily still, inhale & then inhale some more. Exploring the gardens is not only a walk on the green side but, in a lot of the gardens in Delhi, a walk through history. There are many where the the monuments not only sit pretty in their manicured surroundings but have immense historical value. Although not laid out like the Mughal gardens of say Srinagar, they have a certain charm to their meandering layouts. The most beautiful bit is that in every season one sees some or the other tree flowering.

The remains of a long lost stream in Lodhi garden

My favorite for all the seasons & reasons of the heart is the Lodhi garden.  Back in the pre-pollution days it used to be my evening dose of fresh air. It has the octagonal tomb of Mohammed Shah, circa 1440, on a mound looking imposing. The Bara Gumbad  with its adjoining remains of a mosque faces the Shisha Gumbad. Both straddle the middle of a mildly undulating path. A miniature walled park within the park complete with its own pint sized monument sits close to these two, housing a rose garden. One of my favourite part is the stone bridge at the end of the pond, near the geese enclosure. It  arches gracefully, just so. Poetic place to watch the sun go down over the battlements surrounding the tomb of Sikandar Lodhi dating back to the 15th century. The other is the slope between the Bara Gumbad & the pond. The perfect place to relive one’s childhood & take a roll down. Not that the gradient will let you get too far! In spring this portion is a sea of colours & the place to have a picnic, sun yourself, watch couples get their pre-nuptial photo-shoot or catch the odd powers-that-be re-energize themselves  with their daily doze of Vitamin D & power walk.

Hauz Khas Fort enclave

If you manage to get past the quaintly eclectic village of Hauz Khas & its enticing eateries & tony shops you’ll see the picturesque tank of the Hauz Khas park. The “Deer park’, as it is often called, is a bit of a misnomer. It is actually a complex of adjoining parks which surround the village. There is a deer park (Yes they are safely parked at one enclosed end! ) & a rose garden at the entrance of the village. At the end of the village lies the Hauz Khas fort park. A small complex with ruins dating back to the 12th century & includes the tomb of Firoz Shah Tughlaq & a seminary & ‘chattris’. This overlooks the massive tank made by Alauddin Khilji ( the same one, made more infamous by the movie Padmavat ) at the end of the 12th century & is now part of the district park. A wide promenade encircles this where one can sit, sip coffee & watch the world go by or go to one of the eateries overlooking the lake at night & behold the moon shimmering in the water.

View from Sunder Burj
The Sunder Burj dome from the inside
Pavilion at the far end with a waterfall

 

The newest entrant on the green bloc sits quietly, thankfully, yet to be discovered. It’s much older & famous neighbour hogs the crowds, as it should, having been lovingly restored to such breathtaking glory. But once you are done with Humayun’s tomb, the Sunder Nursery adjoining it is a must visit. The Sunder Burj housed within & being an active old nursery lend it it’s name. Dating back to the 16th century it has recently been reclaimed & restored & it has to be seen to appreciate all the hard work. The Sunderwala Mahal shines bright, all scrubbed & cleaned. Done on the lines of a Mughal garden with water channels, ponds, tiny waterfalls & pavilions, its a fantastic take of the old on clean contemporary lines. It also houses a massive collection of bonsai. Although still to be completed on the far fringes, come spring it will be a melange of colour true to it’s name. A celebration of being alive again. Agha Khan Trust take a bow!

Nehru Park has no monuments but it makes it here purely for nostalgic reasons. Decades back it used to be our Sunday outing sometimes & we always seemed to get ice-creams at the end. It reminds me of a sleeping dinosaur with the spine running in the center & the rest of the park falling on either side & the various folds holding the slopes of rolling green with these rocky outcrops here & there. Set in the heart of the diplomatic enclave it is often the venue for some amazing cultural performances & mean gastronomical festivals. So its good for either, eating your heart out or burning it off on the undulating slopes!

This by no means is an exhaustive list. There is the Mughal Garden within the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises which is open to the public in February. The Buddha Jayanti park on The Ridge, an extension of the Aravallis which are beyond historical themselves. Likewise there are many swatches of green embellished with pieces of history in Delhi waiting for us to put that coffee thermos in the rucksack, get those walking shoes on & spend a languid few hours in the sun exploring them.

 

Chushul – Chumathang – Hello Indus & iridescent colours!

The wet land we hit within minutes of leaving Tangsey would be a birder’s paradise in warmer months. There is a village on the far side as we drive eastwards on the barest incline & cross corrals of goats & yaks grazing. The herders seem to be throwing down roots. The road winds it’s way  up in the perfect U- shaped valley at a leisurely pace along a marshy stream that seems to lose its purpose & direction & seems to muddle along, going in the opposite direction to the lake left behind. We spot  a marmot or two, the first of the distinctive Bar Headed geese & Brahminy ducks & for the others I spotted I’d need the expertise of a bird book or/& and a birder!

At the crest we realize it has been quite a climb because the other side is a loopy way down. The village of Chushul has the feel of an outpost – dusty & worn out. The first of the two memorials outside the village stand as sentinels, guarding the memories of the fierce battles fought here, man against man, man against nature. The road had disappeared many miles back & an apology of a track hugs the range on the Indian side. You can take off in any direction, its so flat,  & it would feel the same… mildly bumpy! Soon we hit a rocky stream of melting snow looking slightly impassable. We go downwards to cross it only to realize that the lack of rocks has made it too  boggy to cross. There is nary a soul to rescue us in case we get stuck. So we go up along the stream & finally gingerly rock & roll our way across! We come across a deserted campsite, or so we think till we see this massive dog run in our direction. What a beauty! He gives chase, running along, not looking like he reciprocates the love…

 

 

We go over a rise & on the other side we get a close up look at a herd of yaks, most camera unfriendly. The track now has the most amazing tourmaline pink colour to it. The valley is broad & pebbly, so wide, flat & straight I can imagine those herds of wild ponies on a full gallop here. We seem to heading straight towards this multi-hued mountain on a road now (They’re have a mind of their own here, the roads..suddenly they are there & just as suddenly they decide they’ve had enough of travelling!) which seems peppered with turquoise stones. The kind that one finds in the silver trinkets in Leh. I can’t get over these iridescent roads! We near the mountain & there is a stream skirting it’s base. The road turns & we leave the wide valley & the imaginary horses. The stream accompanies us, meandering, creating huge wetlands & we spy pairs of Brahminy ducks & the first of many Kiangs! Finally!! It looks nothing like the donkey from my first trip. There is a campsite of herders on the other side. As we near Nyoma the stream reveals its full form as the Indus. But here it is still winding its way leisurely, gathering power, not yet intent to get going. The valley is wide, sweeping & as sandy as the Thar. It looks like the background of a Thangka painting. The hills keep up the play of colours intermittently, now burnt pink, now mossy green, the dullest mauve. By the time we reach Chumathang it has been a long, slightly bone-rattling haul & I am grateful for the steaming hot spring water soak at the end of it all. Now that & the brandy that followed are the way to end a road trip.

Now that it is all coming to a close, I wish I could start all over again. The solitude has been profound & a most welcome change. Even Leh seems crowded now! Each valley has had  a distinct feel to it, its own character. The colour palette so rich & full, the sweeping vistas &, in our case even the meager wildlife have been a visual feast. The next trip is on the cards….

Pangong Tso – The gems in the crown

Take some deep sapphire, the kind that costs a fortune. Take some emerald. Add a dash of coral. Crush it. Toss it all in the air & what you see shimmer & glint in the sun, is what you should expect at Pangong Tso. The colours & hues shifting, altering – lightening or deepening depending  on where the sun catches them. The water so clear & yet, the colour so intense that, the stones in the water are barely discernible.

The narrow winding valley from Tangsey which opens into the expanse of Pangong Tso is like a collection of short stories itself. The first one starts with a grassy vale & a winding stream. To complete the picture there is a family of fat Chukars. There seem to be no other kind! On the far side we spy an orangish-silver fur ball hopping. Its a fox! With a magnificent tail (The kind I can imagine draped around my shoulder with the PETA kind baying for my head for just having such a sinful thought! Oh well! You keep your tail fox & I, my head.) trying to coax it’s evening snack out of the ground. We can’t make out in the end whether it trots off in disgust or triumph.

Then after a short drive there are some ponies with gorgeous manes & swishing tails.( No sinful thoughts now.) We’d been told that there are some  herds of wild ponies still left. But sadly these are not those. A few huts nearby confirms their tame status.

Then we hit upon a patch which seems lumpy & there are these tiny mounds  in the boggy looking  ground. We see one toothy marmot sunning itself. It has to be a crazy animal! It lives underground, in damp looking places in that cold! Our driver does’t let us share our parathas with it. (We sound like “Those Terrible Tourist Type’.) ‘Don’t spoil his habits’, we are told by the environmentally enlightened driver. There are these goats grazing nearby & suddenly one comes running with great interest. So it is the lucky one to get the paratha. It is convinced there are more on offer & after nosing around (Not butting thankfully) our pockets it decides to get into the vehicle & help itself since we are clearly not obliging it anymore. A quick slamming shut of doors doesn’t deter it & it is ready to hop in through the open window! Never doubt the tenacity of a hungry goat.

Finally we get our first glimpse of Pangong Tso after crossing this big dried pond. Are those colours possible?! There we are at one end of the lake. The famous ‘Garnet hill” on one side. I don’t know if it has anything left to justify it’s name. A few Brahminy ducks & gulls in the shallows of the lake. The gulls are riding the icy wind every now & then, squawking. Some enterprising fellow has hauled a red scooter near the water for the people to get photographed on. A hangover of ‘3 Idiots’ I presume..

Ahead we find a path going down to the lake. The colours turn translucent up close. There is an orangish tinged shallow on one side, separated from the main lake by a sand bar. On the eastern side it is all blue. Its a colour so intense & I can’t recall having seen it anywhere before. Not just a ‘blue’ but all the shades in the palette. Is there a hint of green too? The  shading made more intense because of the bland, bare hills around….sigh! I wish I was an an artist. We just sit by the lake & soak in the colours as the breeze blows madly at times. Just a little longer…There  going to be a full moon that night & I can only imagine how magical it will look…

Nubra Valley – Forging our own path

Khardung La is not for the thin blooded. Although its an easy, winding climb up but its the sheer altitude which ensures that you don’t take it lightly. One minute you can be fine, posing in front of the 18,380 feet board, feeling giddy to be on top of the world & the next minute the “on top of the world” giddy feeling gets real & acute & you are slightly sick. Fortunately help is at hand & after some pure oxygen & piping hot tea, you make sure you get down to the lower reaches of mother earth ASAP! But it seems the lack of oxygen has addled our brains a bit because we can’t resist stopping again, some way down, to have an “icicle  battle”. The melting snow has exposed them right along the road.

The descent on the other side seems lesser till we realize that the slope has plateaued before falling down into the serene valley & the turquoise Shyok winds its way at the bottom. Its a sunny, warm valley with the mighty Karakoram mountains flanking one side. Wow! One had only read about them in school books & now here we are…across the last range of the Himalayas & knocking on the doors of the next great range…Fantastic! One leg of the valley heads off towards Siachen & the other towards Turtuk. Due to paucity of time(Darn that factor again!) we make pit-stops nearby only. At the hot spring in Panamik, which is en route to Siachen, there is a basic structure with clean men’s & women’s sections. Its deserted & the water is hot & thankfully not smelly at all.

In the warm haze we see whirlwinds dancing across the valley floor near Diskit. The monastery seems to have grown organically from the mountainside. The imposing  statue of Maitreya Buddha near it looms large as it looks benignly westwards. The monastery houses, apart from statues of some pretty  fierce looking deities, a mummified head & an arm of a medieval soldier. It takes a little searching in that room full of ancient relics.

 

The popular touristy thing to do is to go to the dunes at  Hundar & take a ride on a Bactrian camel, which looks quite pitiful while molting .

Turtuk sounds inviting. (The name as much as the place!) I just love the name but I keep confusing it with Tobruk..which is just a continent away..!Any how, we head in the opposite direction the next morning. As with all worthwhile places the journey is as alluring as the destination. The road runs initially in a seemingly straight line in the valley. Suddenly it all curves to one side & the road ceases to be one. Its not only that there is not a soul in sight but one can feel the isolation.

We make a picnic breakfast halt by the river & we spy this low small cloud at some distance in the valley & it seems to be raining in that teensy patch. Its a clear day otherwise. We keep a wary eye out, ready to make a dash back to the car. Other than the odd boulder there is no shelter. After some time on the move again the path gives up any pretensions of being one, sort of saying,”figure out your way!” At one place we navigate over a fresh mud slide, rocks, silt & all. Slipping & sliding, bumping over the half buried boulders I can say that we did figure out our own way! In the warmer months this route along the Shyok becomes impassable with landslides & higher water levels.

I’ve been craning my neck & looking all over the mountain sides trying to catch a glimpse of some wildlife & finally I am rewarded with a fat Chukar partridge…right on the road! So much for making all that effort! Suddenly we swerve off the main road (Yes, it has magically appeared again.) into this gully & reach Tangsey in a bit. I try to imagine the Shyok’s  journey upstream between those lofty peaks, heading towards Daulat Beg Oldie. Now that is again a name which sounds inviting!

Batalik – A tribute to the human spirit

 

Kargil is a regular trading town, slightly ramshackle, surrounded by apricot orchards. It is nestled at the base of this massive mountain which looks more pronounced as we climb up the gently winding road to Humbotingla.

The setting of the drive is dramatic with this almost black rock feature rising up  along like a Grand Canyon wall…rugged & wild. The pass itself looks desolate with these snow covered peaks stretching out in all directions. On the other side, not far down is this village. Still reeling under the wind chill factor which hit us full on when we hopped out of the warm confines of the vehicle, freezing our grins semi-permanently on our faces like everything around, in the warm vehicle once again I can only wonder at the hows & whys of the people living in that village.

 

The road then descends through this steep narrow ravine, hurtling along a mountain stream & criss-crossing it & a village or two, clinging onto the steep sides & suddenly, the road swerves to a side! Thank god! There is the Indus, far far below, in a gorge nearly vertical in places.So deep, so silent yet relentless as it moves on, out of India. There in this seemingly end of the earth rugged place, nestled into a craggy outcrop, is this tiny oasis. This little’ Asterix-Obelix’ meet ‘Lord of the Ring’ elf’s village of the Brokpas. The village of Darchik.

It looks like its been pulled out of an Albert Uderzo comic. Its a hamlet of handsome people. Their origins a mystery. One can’t help but marvel at the human spirit. Why, of of all  the places in this whole wide world, would anyone come & carve out (literally it seems) a life in this isolated narrow deep gorge?But these people came & now have this fairy tale place complete with green fields, apricot trees, pretty houses, crystal clear little water falls & streams rushing  to meet the mighty river down below.

On the drive back towards Khalatse we crossed the other village of the Brokpas, Hanu. Got a fleeting glimpse of the most startling pair of green eyes  full of mischief on this tiny tot running to these village elders sitting along the road. The drive back  to Leh along the Indus out of Batalik was, thankfully, less vertigo-inducing than our route in & we saw a massive rock in the river which, according to the driver, has Buddha’s ear carved into it. Our driver being a local of this valley had turned his nose up at the dried apricots available in Kargil. He insisted that the Batalik ones were the melt – in -the -mouth kind, which they were. We also picked up some ‘shilajit’ which is found in the upper regions of the valley. I couldn’t get myself to have it finally, having heard so much of its …ahem, uses. I had visions of myself running around with either topped up testosterone levels or/and hot flushes!! Some aspects of the human ‘spirit’ are valued only in the mountains I guess!

Dras – Highway through heaven

Setting out early on a clear crisp morning on the highway to Dras we hit Pathar Sahib soon enough. Like we were to discover, everything in Ladakh is larger than life & incredible is the norm, we bowed our heads in front of the rock bearing the indention of Guru Nanak’s silhouette & the demon’s foot. Guru Nanak seems to be  the original intrepid traveler.

On the road again we crossed the’ Magnetic’ hill. We sped past it as it held no such ‘magnetic’ attraction for us. The confluence of the two mighty rivers the Indus & the Zanskar showed the latter in much muddy light.

The highway was a dream run & we sped past tiny villages, the surrounding fields showing a hint of luminescent green. The road alignment seemed to have changed since the last time I had traveled on it & we passed through the much photographed ‘moonland’ & not above it. We wound our way around the Lamayuru monastery which had been a bit of a blip way down there on a side last time. So there were none of the hair-raising ‘jalebi mors’ up to Fotu La where, the last time, our teenage (or so he looked) bus driver in all his youthful exuberance had taken a wide turn on the first bend down & so, had these two shrieking women nearly jump across the engine onto him.(I plead guilty to being one of them.) But to our credit  we dint! We just held onto each other & prayed. Not daring to look down from  the nearly 13,000 feet we were at. I guess our reaction just ensured he drove at a more staid pace & took tighter turns thereafter! The pass itself was windy & there was a hint of falling snow this time. The vista on the other side was stunning with this snow-crested massif on the left looking like a ‘I’ve- been- here- forever’ implacable chunk of giant rock.

At Mulbekh, right next to the main road, carved on the face of a giant rock face, stands the Maitreya Buddha, its base hidden inside a tiny temple.

Kargil seemed to be warmer than Leh going by the greener fields & orchards of flowering apricots. Their pale beauty frustrating my efforts to vividly capture  their beauty on camera. After Kargil there were frozen streams of snow melting into the river flowing along the road. At one place the path had been cleared through  this huge muddy mound of  snow. Ponies grazed contentedly on patches of green along the snow in the fading light. Winter giving way to spring.

 

Dras was still frozen in most bits. A village on the far side of the stream was still snow bound. The entire geography of the place seemed to have altered since my last trip, it seemed. Given it was too early in the year there were none of the rolling grassy meadows & wild flowers that we had enjoyed that time. The War Memorial is a must-visit. The last letters making me want to bawl buckets. There is a ‘Draupadi Kund’, a fathomless spring ahead of Dras on the road to Zoji La pass. The Pandavas have supposed to have come this way on their last journey….It seems to have been the last journey of many a  braveheart.

This visit -of the buds of May & making our own way

 This time we decided to fly to Leh. Driving up, I feel, is better though. The places enroute, both from the Srinagar & Manali side, have their own beauty & not to mention the acclimatization is taken care of. But time…oh dear! Its always such a fight..for time, against time!

We went early in the tourist season. At the beginning of May the passes hadn’t opened & the schools hadn’t shut in the north & so we managed to beat most of the crowd. Each month of the tourist season has something to offer. May has the pale beauty of the apricot blossoms & snow, July is a riot of colours with the wild flowers blooming & then there are the festivals spread over various months & with the accompanying hordes! Take your pick. We made trips to Dras, Batalik, the Nubra valley, Pangong Tso & Chumathang. Tso Moriri would have required more time & for some obscure reason Zanskar didn’t feature on the itinerary.

So at the end of this visit I have worked out the itinerary for the next! Will begin with Tso Moriri & take it from there. I’ve heard so much about the Chadar trek too but the one piece I did read about it, ironically, was about why we should NOT be doing it. It made total sense & as it is for someone like me who can turn blue, even south of the Vindhyas in winter, I’ll pass & hope global warming doesn’t get to it before I do!