Sunday, June 7, 2015

A trip to the lap of Himalayas, literally - Part 3: Manali - The Valley of Gods

We reached Manali at unearthly hours of the morning after a rather tiring Bus journey. A quick, but powerful nap later, I was literally jumping up and down in pure delight after I found fresh snowfall right outside our balcony! The sight of snow-laden trees and rooftops draped in white was awe-inducing to our little eyes. We quickly geared up for a day of 
snow-filled fun.

Our first destination was Solang , a snow capped valley nearby, well-known for its ski slopes. We drove through snow-soaked roads and rusty steel bridges over the rocky Beas river. It is in this very picturesque route that Kareena Kapoor rendered her perky moves to the peppy song "Ye Ishq Hai" from Jab We Met( one of my all time favourites :) ).
The stretch is flanked by apple orchards. Unlike what I'd imagined(a cornucopia of apples like the orchards straight out of those Vicco Ads!),  they were mere patches of bare naked trees casting a ghostly impression against the white backdrop. Sensing my disappointment, our guide explained that the orchards only start blooming at the start of spring and are generally ready for harvest by August-September. It means, most of the apples that we have all throughout the year, come from cold storage!

Solang Valley was every bit as beautiful as I'd imagined it would be. The panorama was exhilarating. The vast blanket of whiteness: a shadowless wilderness brighter than a sunlit cloud. It was like stepping into the realms of fantasy. What followed was reckless abandon! We tried Paragliding and Zorbing, devoured piping hot bowl of Maggi seated on plastic chairs that were planted on snow, tried on traditional Himachali outfits, made a cute little snowman, had more snowball fights, found childlike glee in sliding down on our butts from small slopes and when it got too crowded as people started following our cue, we found other slopes to slide on.

The following day, we woke up to a raging snowstorm. Though it meant that some of our plans would have to be shelved( we would be missing out on an adventurous rafting trip over the rocky Beas :( ),  snowfall was a sweet unexpected gift. Layered in extra warm clothes we walked into the shower of snow outside. There’s something magical about standing beneath the sky, gaze fixed upwards, hands outstretched, catching the snowflakes that fall softly on the ground. There’s a crispness in the air, like everything’s being made new. We savoured the experience till our hands grew numb from the cold.
Undeterred by the storm which by now, was showing signs of blowing over, we set out to cover the nearby touristy places. The visit to Naggar Art Castle is worth mentioning. The gallery wasn't yet open when we reached there and it was "We-Can-No-Longer-Feel-Our-Noses" cold outside! Before we could turn into frozen mummies, the kind guards on post invited us over to their little log cabin, where they had stoked up a smoldering fire in the central fireplace(Its called "Bokhari" in the local Pahadi Language) using logs from the surrounding forests. After we'd stayed long enough to make sure our noses were still where they were supposed to be, we thanked them and went on to check out the gallery. The Art Gallery houses artifacts from the life's work of the Russian Roerich family, mainly Nicholas Roerich. He was a prolific painter, writer, philosopher and archaeologist.(All in one lifetime?! Phew!). The patrician family had devoted their life to ensure protection of cultural legacy at a time when the surrounding world was imploding in itself, festered by wars and cultural decadence. It forced me to put things into perspective. Perhaps, in those darkest years of human race, people had too less to lose and the devotion to their chosen cause was too fervent to be doused. We, on the other hand, are so cocooned in our little nest of comfort and luxury that we while away our life without remorse. I now felt guilty about bickering over frivolous stuff the previous night( like who should get out of the warmth of the bed to receive the in-room order :P ).

My favorite part of the trip though, was the journey from Kullu to Manikaran. It had some of the most stunning views that I have ever seen! The roads are treacherous, narrow hilly paths winding through the mountains. But we were glad that our cab - Maruti Alto could maneuver it with surprisingly little effort. ( You don’t see these little, not so comfortable family vehicles much back in our big cities, but it’s apparently a big hit in these hilly regions due to this very reason! ).
The omnipresent Beas and Parvati rivers, now turgid from the unrelenting rains, kept us company all along; the gurgle of the river and the calls of the wind punctuating the bumpy ride. Nestled amidst these cloud masked mountains are little pristine villages untouched by the humdrum of the tourist cities. The handful aerie houses nest precariously on the edges of the lofty mountains. These little sleepy places where you wake up and walk into a flurry of clouds, where life moves in sepia toned stillness, they’re a paradise for backpackers. Tucked away behind these hinterlands, is the notorious village of Kasol, cited to be the unofficial drug capital of India, the land of Cannabis. We made a mental note to stop by one of the various Restos of this largely Israeli populated town, hoping to catch some puffing grass conversations. (Sadly, it never happened).
We got to witness the sinister side of it all, the dangers lurking beneath the veil of paradise when mother nature decided to wrath her fury. We were visiting the famous Gurudwara in Manikaran when our guide called up to inform us that we'd have to cut our trip short since the constant rains had caused major landslides and almost wiped off a small village nearby. Later on our way back, we actually got stuck in one. Large boulders had rolled off a scree slope, blocking the road between Kasol to Jhari. It took almost an hour to clear the mess and resume the traffic. The houses nestled on the mountains no longer looked so idyllic now!

The Jhari Landslide

On the last day of our trip, we took a whistle-stop tour of Manali. A few temple visits: Vashisht temple, famous for hot water springs ( which sadly have been converted to squalid, public bathhouses now), a temple devoted to Hidimbadevi, wife of Bheema and a small shrine dedicated to her son Ghatotkacha not far away from there. We did the customary spin of Buddhist prayer wheels that said  "Om Mani Padme Hum" at a buddhist monastery, strolled around Manali's old Bazar, ate hot Jamuns in the rain, took a leisurely walk in a nearby park covered by a dense canopy of conifers.

This had been such a gratifying trip. We'd lived some of our earliest fantasies, checked off quite a few things on our bucket list, interacted with people whose culture and lifestyle were radically different from ours and made beautiful memories. The feeling of having to return soon that we'd been trying to repress for so long, surfaced again. With a resigned sigh, I switched on my phone and this is what Uncle Google had to say:

From icy idyll to sweltering wretchedness! 

A trip to the lap of Himalayas, literally - Part 2: Shimla, the stairway to Himalayas

We were bound to Shimla by the Shivalik Deluxe Express next day. It meant waking up at wee hours of the morning. I didn't mind it though, it was my birthday and I was just too excited about the journey ahead! Thankfully, the Railway station was just a stone's throw away from our hotel. By the time we reached our platform, the train had already arrived. It had a colonial feel to it, with a rustic looking engine and large, spacious wagons with wide glass windows and comfortable chair cars for seating. The hospitality offered was laudable. Most of us looked like we'd stumbled into the train straight out of bed; And when the railway staff offered us a breakfast of sandwich and a steaming kettle of water for making tea, we gratefully gulped it down.

The five hour journey to Shimla was worth every moment. While the train lugged us away from a sleepy Kalka town into higher altitudes, I watched the valley tardily warm up and come alive as the Sun rose from behind a cloudy veil in the sky. We slowly wound our way through innumerable tunnels and over countless bridges( 102 tunnels and 864 bridges to be precise! The longest tunnel lasted almost 5 minutes!) and I couldn't help but wonder about the remarkable engineering feat that mankind had achieved - overcoming such insurmountable problems to inhabit this little corner of the globe. No surprises that this route recently became part of World Heritage Site, Mountain Railways of India. We could feel the shift in the climate, the icy chill of the mountains creeping into us as the train climbed higher. I felt a little sleep deprived, but the stunning views of the gorging valleys and the sierra of mountains didn't allow me a second of shut-eye, lest I should miss a moment of it.   

Our two day stay at Shimla was filled with exhilaration mostly and disappointment at times(making us wish we'd planned our time there better).  One of the first things we learnt after reaching Shimla:  Google distance yardsticks are of no help here. The entire city is built on steep roads and stairs! ( Try lugging your baggage till the hotel that you so proudly booked because Google said it's right next to the station, you'll know what I mean!). Nonetheless, we were ecstatic when we found out that our hotel room offered a majestic view of the mountains with a slight glint of snow on the other side.

Enticed by it, we soon took off for Kufri, a renowned Snow Point nearby. Snow Skiing, Sledding, Snowman - all those stuff from movies and books( If you're a Calvin buff, you'll know where most of that came from ;) ), now palpable! Gussied up in snowsuit and boots, we went on to attempt skiing. In my dreamy head, I'd imagined that I'd step on snow with the skis and in no time be zooming down those snow-capped mountains, but I couldn't have been more wrong! It takes Herculian strength just to propel yourself forward. And if you don't watch your posture, the skis can get tangled, threatening to send you tumbling on the snow like an out of control torpedo! I gave up after what felt like the hundredth time, kicked off  my skis and relished the rest of the time sliding down the slopes on a tube and chasing R~ with a snowball readily aimed at him ;). 

That night, walking along the famous Mall Road to The Ridge, we soaked in the colonial heritage and charm that the city has managed to retain. Absence of vehicles on these roads, fellow tourists shopping for popular wood-crafts, souvenirs and trinkets, the irresistible aroma of Samosas and Parathas wafting from the eateries: everything redounded to the overwhelming charm of the wintry night. The road further joins the Ridge which is a large open space at the heart of the city, housing Shimla's famous landmark - the Neo-Gothic structure of the Christ Church. A splendid view of the sprawling Shimla town from here, added to the magic of an already enchanted night, with the lights from the city's skyline looking like a cartography of fireflies ( "Or rather, a bevy of candles lit up for my birthday", quipped the dreamy Pisces voice inside my head!;) But I did end up bidding toodles to the best birthday of my life, with the customary cake and candle blowing, thanks to R~ :)).

Our last day at Shimla was a disappointment of sorts. The downside of a flourishing tourism industry is that most of the tourist places these days, are largely commercialized. A half a day tour to supposedly famous places around Shimla took us to Tattapani, a site well-known for its natural hot water springs, now conveniently encroached by "luxury" resorts and marketed as Natural Hot Water Sauna at exorbitant prices,  the oldest and highest Golf Course of India situated at Naldhera, which looks mostly desolate now and a river rafting spot enroute to Tattapani which doomed us to disappointment when we saw that the unamusing river Sutlej looked more like a ruddy stream. All this made us wish we'd stayed back and explored the British Colonial Architecture of the city instead. 
Still, Shimla will remain the beautiful place that gave us surreal images of a charming city, through beautiful songs like "Aaoge Jab Tum O Saajna" from Jab We Met.  And so, when the time came to leave Shimla, we packed our bags with the sinking feeling that accompanies all unwelcome endings.

A trip to the lap of Himalayas, literally - Part 1: Chandigarh de Shaan!

Travelling - It leaves you speechless and then turns you into a story teller.
-Ibn Battuta

Wanderlust, that's what put us on a flight, carrying us more than a thousand miles away from home to Chandigarh, the first leg of our week long trip to the enchanted land - Himachal Pradesh. We were still minutes away from landing, when the majestic Himalayan Ranges loomed into sight, dotting the horizon to our right, the peaks appearing as though suspended in air, like a cluster of clouds. They were beckoning us, with an icy cold carpet outstretched in our welcome. The allure was compelling, but we still had a day to kill before setting off to the foothills of those snow dappled mountains. 

Before you even land in Chandigarh, you'll realize why it's reputed to be arguably one of the most well planned cities in our country. The aerial view of it presents a contour so neatly designed in sectors and blocks, that you're reminded of the pictures of those well planned American cities that you see in movies. Chandigarh as a tourist spot though, has very less to offer, with a handful of gardens and lakes that one can laze around in. Since we had an afternoon to kill, we set off to visit one of the well known gardens called the Rock Garden and later explore the city. 

We were surprised to find a few Cycle Rickshaws on the road, a rare sight in Indian cities nowadays, but decided to take an auto anyway(for humanitarian reasons). The auto, painted completely blue, looked like it'd just been assembled from spare parts and made such annoying blare, yet surprisingly offered much better leg space than our recently bought Grand i10! The roads looked impeccably maintained, wide open and flanked by trees, not to mention, separate lanes to provide entry for houses on either sides. If you're a person who loves order, you'll love it here! All areas or extensions are marked by sector numbers with each sector said to be self-sufficient, complete with blocks of residential neighborhoods and a central marketplace.( Such a well planned city to live in, don't you think? Except for the day, when you forget to buy that one important thing from your long list of groceries and you've to rush all the way back, coz there's no shop around the corner to your rescue :P ). 

The Rock Garden didn't prove to be anything extraordinary, but the experience of strolling around the city is worth sharing. After cursing ourselves for whiling away some precious time traipsing around the garden, we decided to head on to Sector 17, one of the central places in Chandigarh, with thriving shopping centers and eateries. When we arrived at our destination, I was amazed by the sheer number of shops selling blazers and suits for men, something that we South Indians can only imagine buying on a really momentous occasion( Most likely when you're about to tie the knot and usually from reputed designer outlets like Raymond et al. :P). And here, there were rows and rows of shops lined up, selling them like it were a roadside sale! R~ being the "more traveled one" between the two of us, stepped up to show off his demographic knowledge. He explained to me that, while it could be explained as a necessity because of the extreme climate that the city faces, the number of suit-selling shops, men strolling around the city clad in them for no apparent occasion and the fleet of cars on the road compared to bikes, were also symbolic of "The Punjabi Shaan", a testament that the Punjabis truly live lavishly. On the contrary, the city skyline is mostly limited to four-storied buildings, with many of them unpainted, embodying the simplistic and eco friendly philosophy it is built on. The marketplaces give the impression of Chandigarh, as a city grappling to maintain its legacy. The once vibrant and thriving centres of the city, now housed shopping centres mostly on the ground floor, while the upper floors looked desolate and unkempt. I thoroughly enjoyed shopping there though, filling our bags with the baroque Phulkari worked clothes and fuzzy, warm sweaters. 

Soon it was time to head to Kalka, a small town less than an hour away from Chandigarh where we would spend the night and board the renowned narrow gauged train to Shimla the following morning. We had sacrificed a day from our trip to include the journey since many fellow travellers had deemed this as an unforgettable experience that one shouldn't miss. While walking back to our room after a decent meal at a dhaba nearby our hotel in Kalka, we chanced upon an ornate chariot, adorned with flowers. The unmistakable sounds of a "Baraat" somewhere nearby explained its presence, poised like an unflustered bride waiting to embark on a fresh journey. I smiled at the moment of resonance, as sonorous emotions of excitement about the journey that awaited us the next day, engulfed us.

P.S: Something to muse upon: 
Beside the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, The High Court of Punjab and The High Court of Haryana are housed within the same campus. It reminded me of the fact that Chandigarh serves as the capital to either of the neighboring states. However, it's also a Union Territory, meaning - it's ruled directly by the Union Government of India and is not part of either state. Does that mean, I was in two states at once, or in the middle of nowhere?!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On Turning One

We turn one today :) Well, mother earth has dutifully brought us back precisely to where we stood a year ago, the same point around the centre of the world as she knows. While the 365-day odyssey must’ve been so lonesome for her, I’m lucky we had each other for company. Believe me on this, no matter how much I crib about the contrasts of our dreamy Pisces and Idealist Virgo match, at times I silently thank the Universe for finding me you, bestowing upon me a companionship that could make a year long journey seem like a day.
The last time we were here, surrounded by our loved ones, yet only aware of each other, we were waiting for that destined moment to become “we” from “you and I”. Today, “we” have come so far from the “we” that we were back then. A year spent on learning and unlearning, making and unmaking us.

A year, of me getting into that thick head of yours and re-programming a few 0’s and 1’s with 1/4’s and 1/2’s and 3/4’s here and there. A year of you, breaking into the little bubble around me, and replacing a few mystical things and magical happenings with real people and solid plans.
A year, of your culinary experiments and my literary endeavours.
A year, for getting used to waking up to blaring fast beat music in the mornings, letting that new album that you just won’t stop looping around, grow on me; while you watch me sift through my playlist and replace it every so often coz I just can’t stand monotony.
A year of watching you eagerly wait for Rahman’s next album, the launch of the next awesome gadget, or the telecast of that new series you’re hooked onto, like a child longingly waiting for his new pair of shoes; While I lapse into episodes of thoughtfulness when the writer’s voice inside my head just won't shut up, or jump up and down in childlike glee when you actually buy me a new pair of shoes :P . A year of learning to be able to appreciate xkcd jokes; and of you being able to tell a peep-toe from a slip-on. A year of those late night bout of giggles triggered by your occasional breakthrough in coming up with some really good wisecracks, or my rare(read NEVER) moments of stupidity.

A year for getting to know each other’s wonderful idiosyncrasies and realizing that those are what makes us each other’s. One more year will pass, and we’ll stand here again, contemplating another year gone by. Our first milestone was about closing in the gaps in our relationship, I hope the next one holds so much more.