How can one manage to see Mt.Everest from up close without having to do an arduous trek to the base camp or without flying one of the fancy Everest joy flights from Kathmandu to watch the Everest from a plane’s window or without the will to risk one’s life summiting the Everest? It is simple, cross over to Tibet, drive all the way over to the Everest Base Camp by a great road and soak in the majestic views of the Mt. Everest from up close. It is China after all, they can build anything! Even a smooth road right to the base of Everest!!
Imagine my joys when through course of my travel research about Tibet, I found this possible experience of a lifetime right in my arms’ reach, rather in the road’s reach? The Everest Base Camp on Tibet side is called the North base camp and one can be dropped right there via a smooth road that leads right to the camp. To reach the South Base camp on Nepal side on the other hand is an arduous 2 week trek through the Himalayan range. From the north base camp, one can view the majestic and mighty Everest (known as Mt. Qomolongma in Tibet) from the closest possible quarters.
The drive and stay at EBC was highlight of my week long exploit in Tibet. After 3 wonderful days in Lhasa, we spent 2 nights in Shigatse. From there we headed to Rongbuk via Tingri. Rongbuk is the closest town to EBC and has one the oldest monasteries in Tibet. The roads to EBC from were smooth and picturesque.On the way there is a Everest view point from where one can see the full Himalayan range with highest peaks – Mt Everest, Cho Oyo, Makalu and Lhotse. From Rongbuk, one can drive for 10 mins or trek for 1.5 hrs to reach EBC. Since the sun was setting upon our arrival in Rongbuk, we quickly headed over by road to EBC to view the glorious Mt. Everest. Two hours and 1000 pics later of sunset over Everest, we returned to our guesthouse in Rongbuk due to the bone chilling cold. We did return to EBC the next day morning before the dawn of light to bask in the majestic presence of Everest for the one last time. The bone chilling and mind numbing cold were well worth it to not give up the opportunity at all.
It was a rewarding experience to observe Mt. Everest. The sky was clear luckily for us and I could also observe the setting sun causing the tip of the Everest to look ablaze, the clouds adding to the drama. It is here that one can feel the insignificance and fragilities of human life in face of nature that stands tall, come what may. I couldn’t even bear the cold at the base camp, I couldn’t help but wonder what then makes men and women to think about summiting the Everest, risking their life to nature’s plays? What makes them want to surmount the unsurmountable when one in 10 successful climbs to the summit ends in death. George Mallory summed it up in his book, Climbing Everest – “People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever….We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron…If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.”
The joy for me was to observe the Everest, albeit from a distance.
A breathtaking 2 day, 3,750km train journey through the rooftop of the world
“There is no possibility of building a railway which reaches Lhasa as long as Kunlun Mountains stands there.” American traveler Paul Theroux had claimed once. The Chinese proved everyone wrong years later by building the man made wonder – Qinghai Tibet railway. The Qinghai-Tibet railway begins from Xining, the capital of Qinghai province where the train enters the Tibetan plateau and traverses the rooftop of the world. Did you know that the Qinghai-Tibet railway holds 9 world records – the highest railway in the world (5072m above sea level), longest plateau railway in the world (1956 m), the highest train station in the world (5068m at Tanggula pass), highest tunnel in the world (4905m), longest plateau tunnel in the world (Fengoshuan tunnel at 1686m) amongst the others. No wonder, the Xining-Lhasa train was on my bucket list and I had researched many times over, but nothing prepared me for journey and the incredible experience that it was.
Often known as the ‘Skyroad’ or ‘Heaven road’, the train journey is incredibly scenic, crawling slowly through the permafrost plateau and the high passes. Without a doubt, the railway is an engineering feat and a man made wonder! It is unimaginable, the conditions which the construction crew must have braved to construct this! The Tibetan plateau has one of the harshest environment in the world (often known as the third pole of earth) with sub zero temperatures, high UV and low oxygen. On top of it most sections on the route are under permafrost which made it a construction challenge to not tamper with the ecological balance. With their environment first policy, the Chinese government left no stone unturned to build with care for the fragile plateau ecosystem, roping in many wildlife experts who oversaw the plan and construction. The full route to Lhasa was opened up in 2006.
I started the journey from Beijing from where one can go directly to Lhasa via a 45 hour direct journey. There is option to break the journey at Xining and then go onwards to Lhasa. I chose the second option and boarded the Beijing – Xining train at about lunchtime and we arrived in Xining the next morning. A 7 hour break and a delayed train departure later, we boarded the Xining-Lhasa train at around 8 pm at night. The train turned out to be a mini united nations conference as the fellow travellers were from all over the world with a very few locals on the train. Our fellow occupants were from Ukraine, Australia, Britain, Germany etc. The soft sleeper compartments were very comfortable with fresh linens. The dining car serves some non-veg food but as vegetarians, we had to carry our supply of cup noodles, fruits and snacks. A quick dinner later, we retired to bed. The scenic parts of the journey starts after the train crosses Golmud around 2.30 am. Not wanting to miss the beautiful scenery, I kept an alarm and rose along with the first ray of morning light. The next 10 hours passed by the window as I couldn’t peel myself away from the seat to even get up and use the washroom. The announcements over the train speaker system kept educating me on the marvel that the railway is.
After Golmud, the train slowly ascends the plateau passing through the Kunlun Mountains Pass and Tuotuohe Town which is the origin of Yangtze River. After crossing the Tanggula Mountain Pass which is the highest mountain pass at 5068m, the train crosses the Tibetan cities Ando, Nagchu, Damxung, Yangpachen and reaching Lhasa. Along the way, one can see snow clad mountains, frozen plateau land and dozens of beautiful lakes. If you look carefully, you can spot Yaks, Antelopes and other wild animals grazing peacefully. A highway to Lhasa also runs in parallel to the train track and one can spot hundreds of trucks ferrying goods to and fro from Lhasa. What mars the scenery are the electric lines and the telecom towers on an otherwise spectacular landscape.
The impact of the railway is much debated. Though all steps were taken to protect the environment during the construction and with the regular operations, the impact on the permafrost, the plateau temperature and the migration routes for wildlife is not well established. The railway was built with the intent of helping the most backward region of China i.e. Tibet to benefit from the economic activity that the connectivity and tourism would bring. It has raised standards of living in the Tibetan region for sure, but arguments exists on the rapid erosion of Tibetan culture.
On whatever side of the debate you are on, the only winning argument is that men are only limited by their imagination of what’s possible. Kunlun mountain pass still stands and has gracefully allowed the passage of millions of people to experience the spectacular Tibetan landscape.
Top tips for planning the journey:
Acclimatisation is important. One can take the Beijing Lhasa direct train which is about 45 hours. It is often advised to break the journey at Xining, rest for a day and then board the Xining Lhasa train to allow for full acclimatisation. Moreover, the scenic parts of the journey are after Xining, so it is better to save time by flying to Xining, spending a day in Qinghai province to see the Qinghai Lake and then enjoying the journey towards Lhasa. Each seat on the Xining-Lhasa train is equipped with oxygen supply in case someone develops altitude sickness.
Board the last train from Xining: Take the last train possible out of Xining as the scenic parts will then start after early morning and you can enjoy the Tibetan plateau in your waking hours. You don’t want to be taking a day train out of Xining only to sleep through the nice parts.
Book early: Trains tend to get costlier nearer to the date of the journey. Book early than two months ideally to get best prices.
Choose soft sleepers for comfort: The sleeper trains are of two types – hard sleeper with 6 berths per compartment and soft sleeper with 4 berths per compartment. There is a steep price difference and if you do mind a cramped compartment, you are better off paying extra to journey comfortably.
Bring your food: There is a pantry that serves food, mostly noodles all day. If you are vegetarian and cannot speak Chinese, it is better to bring your own food supplies as communicating with the attendants is difficult and you can’t make sure you are not eating anything that you don’t want to be eating. There is boiling hot water available through the day to cook noodles or ready to heat and eat packaged food. Bring fruits and snacks from the station as there is pretty much nothing else to do, but eat and look outside the window.
Travel light: The compartments are small and luggage storage is under the seats. There is also a overhead storage compartment. Do bring only small suitcases and backpack luggage else you will struggle with luggage storage.
Grab the alley seats in the morning: Each compartment has a door that can be locked from inside for privacy. There are foldable seats in the alley where one can sit and enjoy the view of the other side of the plateau. In the early morning, the sun rises on the left side of the train and you can sit on the alley seats to enjoy the dawn light bathing the Tibetan plateau.
Tiger spotting in Ranthambore National Park, India
Yes, I have very bad tiger karma. Had. Not anymore. With innumerable safaris (I stopped counting after 40) under the belt, beating heat waves and sunstrokes and surviving the disappointment safari after safari, I had the odd-ball luck called the bad tiger karma. No tiger had decided that it was worth its while to give me a fleeting chance to witness the royal highness. Of late, I had become the butt end of jokes of my hardcore tiger enthusiast friends. Then everyone around, tiger enthusiast or not, started digging on my bad tiger karma. To be fair, all that didn’t start with jokes. In the beginning, there was sympathy and encouragement. ‘Oh, it was the wrong season, I guess!’ or ‘I think the tigers are all poached, no wonder you didn’t see anything.’ or ‘ The forest is dense, it is hard to see a tiger. Better luck next time!‘ Then it moved to incredulous disappointment. ‘What? 5 Safaris and you still did not see a Tiger even in Tadoba? EVERYONE sees a tiger there, on EVERY safari!’ or ‘What? Not even in Ranthambore? My mother’s neighbour’s uncle saw a tiger last week in Corbett, IN CORBETT!’. Then it moved to the wretched jokes phase. ‘Oh, you are going to Bandipur! The tigers are going to hide. Poor others going on safari this weekend.’ Or sample this: ‘Are you releasing some special tiger pheromones that makes them run and hide?’ Then 40 safaris and more later (I mentioned I stopped counting) when the jokes had dried out and there was no more to be created, was the phase of social shunning, rather safari shunning. ‘We can’t go with you. We wan’t to see a tiger.’ Do you know of anyone who has been as unfortunate as me?
But haha! I think my wildcat jinx was broken with my sighting of the snow leopard last year! Yes, no tiger, but I saw a snow leopard on day 1 of our trek. Read more here: Sighting the Grey Ghost. Armed with confidence that my karma was undone by the generous snow leopard that had decided to grace me with his presence, I was steeled myself to chance it with another 4 safaris in the sweltering summer heat this year. I was a last minute pile-on to my friend’s plan for trip to Ranthambore (I had self invited myself; I also mentioned that my friends had stopped planning any wildlife trips with me). This friend had gifted me a tiger picture he had clicked and insisted that I hang it on my travel wall (adorned only with MY travel pictures) only to serve as a cruel reminder of my befallen fate. Aside his cruelty, he had an excellent track record of tiger sighting and had worked as a volunteer in the park. He knew the best areas, had the right connections etc. So my hopes were high with the promise of the forbidden sight. I had the nervous energy, perhaps bordering on negative outlook of the outcome to keep me from being disappointed yet again, but somewhere deep down I knew that this trip would be fruitful. It would be the end of the cruelty unleashed on me. This was going to be THE trip.
DAY 1: A moving orange patch. Morning safari in Zone 3
My friends and I boarded the late night train to arrive in Sawai Madhopur in wee hours of the morning. After a quick snooze, we were off on the jeeps to Zone no.3 inhabited by a Tigress named Arrowhead. Just in 5 mins after entering the gate, I spotted a Tiger! There was a large lake next to the entrance and our guide was scanning the edges of the lake with a pair of binoculars. The tigress was soaking its body in the cool waters of the lake to beat the heat. Slowly it emerged and started walking along the edge. The tiger was almost 100 mrs away so I couldn’t see it clearly with naked eyes. But heck! My bad luck had just come to an end. I had seen a tiger, albeit at a distance! I hi-fived my friend, jumping in excitement of seeing what was a moving patch of orange. The tiger slowly started walking and the guide made a snap decision to abandon this post and drive back to the gate to catch the tiger possibly crossing the road. But that was it. The tiger never came out from the dense vegetation along the lake side. We spent next 3 hours going up and down 100 mtrs on the road. But no luck!
DAY 1: Hide and seek in a cove. Noon safari in Zone 6
The safari post lunch was an adventure in itself. We had an enthusiastic guide who strangely promised us to show tigers. As if the tigers were at his beck and call, his royal pets. But he did make good on his promise. After being convinced that there was a tiger hiding in a shallow ravine below the cliff we were on, we waited and waited for a clear view and finally managed to sight a little male tiger cub of Tigress Ladli which stepped out from the cove to drink some water.
DAY 2: Best sighting of my life. Morning safari in Zone 4
This was the best safari of two days! This sighting had made good for all the 40+ trips I had done in my life. We got an exclusive sighting of tigress Krishna and her 3 almost adult cubs for almost an hour. We had taken a blind left turn in dense part of the jungle and braked hard to come to a stop a few feet away from the tigress crossing the road. It was a beautiful sight, perfect morning soft light was hitting the tiger’s fur and made it glow. Further commotion ensued in the jeep and I turned left to look at what a fellow occupant of the jeep had spotted. There were 3 cubs strolling on the left and were coming to cross the road. They followed the mother across the road and all 4 of them sat on a patch for a few mins for us enjoy their company. One cub got up and started playing and cuddling with the mother. Awww! A few mins later, they got up and went deeper into the jungle. Our guide took the jeep all the way around the hill to catch the tiger family crossing the road to go down a small ravine next to a stream. All of them immersed themselves in the water for almost 30 mins by which time all the jeeps and canters in the zone had heard about the sighting and had made their way to the spot to create a ruckus. The tigers got up and went deeper into the ravine.
Day 2: A dash and a backside dazzle. Evening safari in Zone 3
The whole afternoon was dull and unremarkable but for a few birds. There were no signs, no sambar calls. Our guide decided to stakeout at a spot on the road where he thought the tiger would cross. There was just 30 mins left for the safari to end. So our hopes of making it a 100% success rate on this trip was getting crushed by the minute. Suddenly a jeep was zipping past us and the other driver hurriedly relayed to us that a tiger had been spotted by another jeep deep inside jungle. Then ensued a high speed dash to the spot, flying through the jungle. Following the pug marks, our guide took a few minutes to find the tigress Arrowhead walking inside the jungle. He took the jeep on the other side to catch the tigress walking on the road ahead of us. She wasn’t even bothered to turn around and look at us. We only saw the backside of the tigress and had to reluctantly give up the chase after a few mins as our time had run out and we had to report back to gate.
A fruitful trip and the irony of it all! We boarded the night train to get back to corporate stoogedom on Monday morning and I happily announced the end of my bad tiger karma to anyone who lent me an ear.
As I reflected back on our weekend adventure, an irony dawned upon me. I had seen tigress Arrowhead two times on this safari, once as a moving orange patch at a distance and its dirty backside on the second time. I had never seen its face! The irony is that the picture of tigress that my friend had given me to hang on my travel wall was that of Arrowhead! Life is indeed cruel.
How to get to Ranthambore national park:
Easiest option is to board an overnight train from Delhi to Sawai Madhopur.
Where to stay:
Anuraga palace was a decent and affordable option. Rooms were luxurious and the service was excellent.
When to go:
Hotter it is, better are the chance to see a tiger around the watering holes. Otherwise the park is open from Oct – Jun.
How to Book: We came across an excellent wildlife guide Nagendra Rajawat who also does wildlife trips and packages to Ranthambore. Connect with him on http://www.indiantourandtravel.net
Can a door to a house tell you more about the people living behind it? Can it represent a person? Can it frame the essence of the family living in it? Can it tell you a story? As I walked through the back alleys of Essaouira’s medina, I saw the the most prettiest doors to the houses, some lived in, some abandoned. It begged to me frame these few questions every time I clicked a door and helped me tell story to myself every time I sighted a pretty door.
To create the stories behind the door, one has to understand the origins of Essaouira. The city is a cultural confluence, the seamless co-existence of the old and the new. The fortified ramparts of the port city (Mogador in medieval times) and the blue moored fishing boats impart the old world charm whereas the clean well kept and cobblestoned medina is bustling with art galleries, boutiques and cafes that speaks of the modern essence of the city. The confluence is a heady mix, transporting you to an allure of an European city but pulling you back every moment with the sights and sounds of an Arabic city, be it with delicacies lining the streets or the soothing prayers playing over the loudspeakers of a few mosques’ dotting the medina. The hues of blue and white of the medina makes it an unmistakable fishing/ port town. Be it with the blue fishing boats moored on the port or the blue doors set against white limestone washed walls, the city is all blue and white – calming and relaxing.
As I let my imagination run wild, below are some of the stories that popped in my head when I saw these doors. Behind every door was a story waiting to be told.
A note on the plight and future of Circus. Scenes from Asiad Circus, New Delhi.
The photo was featured by National Geographic as part of their daily dozen top shots on 16th Oct – See here.
A few months ago, a photographer friend and I went to get some behind the scenes action at an Indian Circus group – Asiad Circus – who were performing in Delhi. After much cajoling, we eventually ended up talking to the owner and the artistes and were pretty moved and overwhelmed by their plight.
The reluctance towards talking to outsiders is quite palpable. The owners and artistes are very wary of talking to either media or the general public as it is difficult for them to gauge on which side of the debate the other person is coming from. Empathy for their situation is often lacking.
Years ago, under NGO and public pressure, circuses were forced to give up usage of animals in the circus. Lions, Tigers, elephants etc which were the big draws for children to drag their parents to a circus, had to be given up. Along with that went the traffic and many big circuses had to wind up with the falling footfalls. The ones remaining are finding it hard to cope up with high rentals, intense scrutiny of officials (often having to end up paying bribes for nothing) and rising costs of running a circus. The problem of finding artistes is also compounding the problem. Many artistes in yesteryears were homegrown in circus, raised in the circus from their childhood and groomed to be performance artistes. With new laws on child safety and labour, circuses can’t groom young children anymore to be artistes. To keep the footfalls going, many hire foreign artistes from Russia and Kenya to bring in the novelty and wow factor but that also impacts the running costs of the circus. Years of government neglect and support in providing the circus the right technology to upgrade themselves have left them with no means to continue in the business. Artistes are finding themselves jobless, often having spent their entire life in the circus and now finding themselves with no other employable skills and nowhere else to go.
Both sides of the debate on the plight of circus are quite valid. But in these times, the debate has to be constructive towards solving the problem. The need of the hour is for the government to provide cutting edge technology to these circuses to upgrade themselves, reduce the entertainment tax and rentals that can help the circuses survive. Rehabilitation programs with skill development and deployment should be put in place to help the artistes to settle into a life beyond the what was their home, the circus.
Pangot is one of the best places to do birding and is a birdwatcher’s paradise. The place has almost 250 species of birds, both resident and the migratory birds that come here. The best season for bird watching is from Nov-Mar.
How to get there: Pangot is about 15-20kms from Nainital.
“Dear Emily, my only wish would be that you could make a trip over the great ocean. The land is golden and the people are so gracious and they have taught me so many things about kin and kindness. Hope it won’t be long until we see each other soon my dear. Love, Frasier.” ~ A postcard from Burma. 1st Feb, 1948.
Inle Lake is nestled in the Shan Plateau, surrounded by hills and home to the Intha people, as well as some Shan, Taungyo, Pa-o and Danu ethnicities. One of the most iconic features of Inle lake are the fishermen who have an unusual technique of rowing their boats using their feet. Wearing traditional wide trousers, shirts and conical hats, the fishermen have become an iconic sight at the lake. Carefully balancing themselves on one feet, they row the boats with their other leg wrapped around a paddle oar. They carry a huge conical net which they use to trap the fish and occasionally spear them through the opening on top of these nets. The locals are devout Buddhists who live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo, raised above the lake water on stilts. Though the primary occupation is fishing, there are farmers as well who grow their produce on floating gardens made of grass and seaweed which is just so amazing to see.
A one week road trip to Spiti Valley via Manali – Kalpa Kinnaur – Nako – Tabo – Kaza- Key – Kibber – Langza – Hikkim – Dhankar – Lhalung – Chandratal – Manali
The beauty of Lahaul-Spiti valley is overshadowed by the interest in Leh, its flashy famous neighbour. Hence Spiti remains untouched by the millions of tourists who throng to Leh every year. Spiti means the Middle Land – the land between India & Tibet. A melting pot of Indo -Tibetan culture, splendid views of untouched natural beauty, stark barren landscapes dotted by green oasis of villages, picturesque old Buddhist monasteries perched on top of the hills, gorgeous blue lakes and clear skies for stargazing, a trekkers paradise; Spiti has all this to offer and much more to travellers. Continue reading “A road trip through the Middle Land – Spiti Valley”→
I must have been 13 years old when I first read about Lahaul – Spiti and the picturesque Chandratal lake. There it was on a travel magazine, a double cover spread, capturing the majestic beauty of the semi-frozen lake and the snow-capped mountains in peak winter. Me, the young untraveled soul at that time, couldn’t fathom that such a beautiful place could exist in our country! I believe it subconsciously spurred my innate desire to travel. Although I used to dream of all the places I read about in my history textbooks and desired to see them one day, but if ever there was a turning point or the point Continue reading “The igniter of my wanderlust – Chandratal Lake”→
On a recent road trip to Spiti Valley, had the opportunity to spot a few more Himalayan birds, different from the ones I had spotted a few months ago in Rumbak valley in Ladakh. (See the birds here: Birds of Rumbak )
There were beautiful birds like rock buntings, european goldfinches, common rose finches, red fronted serins, long tailed shrikes etc.
Which one is your favorite?
How to get to Kaza:
Kaza in Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh, can be accessed via road from Manali. It is approximately 200kms away.
Thoughts while crowd-watching the evening humdrum of Yangon, Myanmar
There is no other better way to immerse yourself in a new city than something which does not involve spending long hours walking the busiest streets and watching the locals. Streetwalking gives you an inside view of the culture as you watch the locals get on with their daily lives. You are just a mute spectator, with the fortune to witness a part of the lives of people going by. As you feel the drama of the scene presented in front of you, you stop to imagine and concoct stories in your head. As you absorb the culture, sight, sounds and aroma, questions starting forming your head: What must that person selling the fruits be like? Will he go back to a family to have dinner? When did he come to the city? What are his dreams for his kids? What would be his favourite fruit? You are transported to this exciting world where the lines between reality and imagination begin to blur. You are in the moment, witnessing, assessing, absorbing and judging all the drama in front of you and yet in a parallel world you are curious, imaginative and telling stories to yourself. It is not without a doubt, my favourite pastime when I travel. After all when can I be a receptive, curious, imaginative storyteller. More imaginatively, the game I play in my own head is: What is he/ she thinking? Absorb the scene and form a thought bubble of the protagonist. Be curious. Tell stories.
A trek of a lifetime to spot the Snow Leopard in Rumbak valley, Ladakh
It is the most elusive cat to spot, the snow leopard or the grey ghost or the ghost of the mountains or as the locals call it, the Shan. This very elusivity drew us to undertake an adventure of a lifetime, braving harsh terrains and sub-zero temperatures, to trek all the way upto the Rumbak valley in Hemis National Park in Ladakh in search of the snow leopard. With 30 tiger safaris under my belt without having spotted a single tiger till date, the trek was an attempt to spot the rarest of the wild cats and break my wildcat jinx. And boy! Did my jinx break and how!
There is a reason the snow leopards are called the grey ghosts. Snow leopards live in an extremely difficult terrain, walking along cliffs and slopes and living in sub-zero temperatures in high altitudes upto 6000m. They usually feed on blue sheep for Bharals and in those high altitudes, they need to be agile and have impeccable camouflage and that makes it really hard to spot these cats.
Without any serious trekking experience under any of our belts, my group of friends and I set out to do undertake this moderate to hard 10 day trek in the bone-chilling cold winters of Ladakh. The Rumbak Valley is the mecca for snow leopard spotting. Every winter, the severe cold drives the Blue Sheep, the staple diet of the snow leopards, to lower altitudes in search of vegetation to feed on. This in turn draws the Snow Leopards down the high mountains, enabling the visitors to spot these elusive creatures at lower altitudes. Between Jan to March, scores of nature lovers descend upon Rumbak Valley to get a chance to spot these elusive creatures. We also arrived in Leh this March in search of this Grey Ghost.
After a 2 day acclimatisation at Leh, we drove to Zinchen, the last point of the motorable road to Rumbak. After that is a 5-6 hour hike to Rumbak Valley passing by the Husing campsite. The hike passes by frozen streams and picturesque mountains and loads of Blue sheep could be spotted on the way.
Upon arrival at the valley, we had a packed lunch and we were welcomed with spotting on a scope set up to track the Lynx. The Lynx is even more rare creature to spot than the snow Leopard in these parts of the world. I was hopeful that with this spotting, my wildcat jinx was broken and was eager to spot the snow leopard.
We progressed to our homestay in Rumbak Village. As the night approached, the temperatures dropped to -15 to -20C. Our only saviour was the Bukhari or the Ladakhi room heaters which burn wood to keep the room warm. After a difficult first few hours contemplating if I had mountain sickness with the body ache and headache, I passed out into a restful sleep.
The bright next day brought hope and we made our way slowly to the spotting point after an hour’s trek. The whole morning passed uneventfully with the no signs of any movement of the wildcats except the spotting of the blue sheep by the dozens! We struggled to keep our hands and toes warm in the severe cold. We were about to give up but with setting sun, we were rewarded with the spotting of out lifetime! A male snow leopard walked on the ridge of a mountain a km away for almost 30 mins! It was a young male and it’s mating call reverberated through the mountains! It was an experience covering sight, sound and motion!
Now that we had seen what we had come looking for, the next 4 days were spent trekking to different directions from the village in the hope of spotting more wild animals. Though we didn’t see any more snow leopards, we saw much more fauna of Ladakh. On one day, we trekked west from the village and saw a Red Fox at quite a distance, basking itself in the sun. On the way back, we saw a dead red fox, which was being fed by the Black-billed Magpies. The remains of this red fox were the object of the fight between a Lammergeier and the Magpies which kept us enthralled all afternoon. One another day we trekked up to Yurutse Village, a one household village on the Markha Valley trek route, for an up-close encounter with the Lynx. We ended up sighting many other animals like a Yak,Wooly hare etc and some of us had some fun skidding down the frozen river on their bums. We also spent time birding and capturing many birds of prey like the Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, Lammergeier etc. After 5 days at Rumbak, we trekked back to Zinchen and drove to Ulley where we were rewarded with spotting of Himalayan Wolf & the Ibex. With so much that we saw, I couldn’t have asked for more, especially since my wildcat jinx was now finally broken!
How to get there & where to stay:
Leh is connected by flights and can also be accessed by road from Srinagar or Manali. Rumbak Valley is in the Ladakh region. The motorable road ends at Zinchen from where one needs to trek to Husing Camp. Further up after a couple of hours trek is Rumbak village. Rumbak Valley is famous for snow leopard sightings. Either stay at Husing campsite or in one of the many government regulated homestays in the Rumbak village.
The Rumbak Valley in the Hemis National Park in Ladakh is known for the elusive Snow Leopard spotting. Besides the snow leopard, which of course we were fortunate enough to spot, the area is dotted with many other animal species. Even more elusive to spot is the Lynx, which we could sight only through a scope as the distances were large and our 600mm as rendered completely useless! Even the Red Fox and the Himalayan Wolf could be seen through a scope. Most common amongst the animals is the Blue Sheep or Bharal which is the snow leopard’s staple diet. From the same family, one can also spot the Ibex,Argali and the Urial. Smaller animals like the Wooly Hare and the Pika can also be spotted aplenty.
Birding in Rumbak Valley, Hemis National Park, Jammu & Kashmir, India
On a recent Snow Leopard trek to Rumbak Village in Hemis national park, Ladakh region, I got an opportunity to spot some beautiful birds including some Tibetan species uncommon in other parts of the country. The area is home to many birds of prey like Golden eagle, Lammergeier and Himalayan Griffon vulture which rule the Rumbak valley. Many other local species like Chukar, Tibetan Partridge, Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Snowfinch, Streaked Rosefinch, Robin Accentor dot the valley.
Water Birds: Mallard Ducks, Storks, Common Coots etc.
Birds of Prey: Griffon Vulture, Lammergeier, Golden Eagle
Native Birds: Tibetan Snowcock, Chukar, Tibetan Snowfinch, Rose Snowfinch, Tibetan Partridge etc.
Common Birds: Black Billed Magpie, Robin Accentor, Brown Accentor, Grey Tit, Grey Wagtail, Red Billed Chough etc.
How to get there & where to stay:
Leh is connected by flights and can also be accessed by road from Srinagar or Manali. Rumbak Valley is in the Ladakh region. The motorable road ends at Zingchan from where one needs to trek to Husing Camp. Further up after a couple of hours trek is Rumbak village. Rumbak Valley is famous for snow leopard sightings. Either stay at Husing campsite or at the Rumbak village homestays.
A bird-watching trek to the town of Sattal, located in Uttaranchal, India
The lower Himalayas is home to a hundreds of indigenous birds of India. Adding to the local avian fauna are the migratory birds who make the lower himalayas their home every winter. An opportunity to see such a vast range of birds took me to Sattal. Sattal, the land of seven lakes, is in the lower Himalayan region in the state of Uttaranchal and is home to a vast variety of indigenous & migratory birds, approximately over 230 in number. Over one weekend, I got to see and click over 50 beautiful birds that one can never ever see over the metro skyline.
Where to go: Sattal & Pangot are popular locations for bird watching. Both are at app 300 kms from Delhi and can be accessed by road or rail that goes till Haldwani & Kathgodam.
When to Go: Nov-Feb is best time; the weather is good and the avian population comes to life in the North Indian winter.
Meghalaya is undoubtedly one of the jewels amongst the 7 sisters of Northeast India with its mountainous terrain and year round rainfall that gives it a dense green forest cover, numerous waterfalls that cut deep into the valley and miles of limestone caves. It is not without a reason Meghalaya is called the Abode of Clouds. One can walk though the clouds as almost all the time, there is thick cloud cover, not in the sky, but on the land! Meghalaya is one of the better explored states of northeast due to its accessibility from Assam which enjoys best connectivity with the rest of India. A week in Meghalaya is good enough to get a sampler of the riches the state has to offer.
Day 1 & 2: Shillong
Shillong is a 2 hr. drive from Guwahati. It is the capital city of Meghalaya and was known as ‘Scotland of the East’ by the Britishers due its good weather and mountainous terrain.
What to do:
Umiam Lake is right on the outskirts of Shillong. Nestled amongst the thick pine forest on the hilly terrains surrounding this huge man-made lake, is a getaway like no other – Ri Kynjai resort. Faraway from maddening city crowd and with spectacular views of the lake, peace and tranquillity welcomes you with open arms. Made in beautiful traditional wood, furnished with wood and cane furniture and decorated with stunning artefacts from northeast, the resort has a colonial feel to it and is truly a cosy home away from home. Stunning sunrise from the hills right across the lake will jostle you awake very early in the morning and ensnare you to follow the natural trekking path down the hill to the edge of the lake, the way this landscape is best enjoyed.
Lady Hydari Park is a small delightful park with a mini zoo. Many species of birds like owls, eagles and animals like panthers, monkeys, deer can be found here. Wards lake is a remnant of the colonial-era Shillong. Surrounded by dense green trees, this man made lake has a small bridge and boating facilities. Shillong Golf Course is one the largest golf courses in Asia and is known as the Gleneagles of the East. Surrounded by thick pine forest, the golf course is a beautiful and scenic natural wonder. To know more about north east & its culture, one can visit the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures which is knowledge repository for the region. Butterfly Museum is one of its kind museum devoted to the study & preservation of moths & butterflies. Cathedral of Mary Help of Christians is one of the main and beautiful churches in Shillong. Shillong Peak is the highest point in Meghalaya from where one can get a breath-taking view of the entire Shillong city. Nearby is the Elephant falls or the 3 tier waterfalls. The walking path descends behind the entrance and gentle paved stairs leads one down to each of the 3 waterfalls in succession. Café Shillong is one of the best cafes with good food & great live music every evening.
Shillong is small hill station that needs to be explored languidly. Stroll around the city and watch a slow pace of life go past.
Where to Stay:
Ri Kynjai resort is the best option but is a 45 min drive away from the city. Other economical options are available in the city.
Day 3: Sohra/ Cherrapunjee
Sohra / Cherrapunjee is a 2 hr. drive from Shillong. Sohra or Cherrapunjee as it is popularly called, was once the rainiest place on this earth. The title has now been overtaken by another town called Mawsynram in Meghalaya. The the heavy rainfall has created many natural rock formations and waterfalls throughout the area, which cut deep into the lush, green valley.
What to do:
Many waterfalls dot the surrounding area. The Nohkalikhai falls is about 7 kms from Sohra and is the tallest plunge waterfall in India. The Nohsngithiang waterfalls or the 7 Sisters’ waterfalls is app 4kms from Sohra and is one of the tallest waterfalls in India. Wakaba & Kynrem falls are other beautiful falls around Sohra. Mawsmai caves are the located about 4kms away from Sohra and is one of the beautiful limestone caves in the region that can be explored by a beginner. From the Cherrapunjee valley view point, one can see the deep gorges and valleys of the region. The view point also offers a zip lining adventure overlooking the valley, covering 2400ft at a dizzying height of 500 ft.
Carry an umbrella and walk through this small, pretty town.
Where to Stay:
The Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort or La Kupar are both economical options.
Day 4 & 5: Nongriat
Tyrna village, the starting point of the trek is ½ hr. drive away from Cherrapunjee.
The Living Root Bridges of Nongriat village are one of the manmade wonders, dating back many centuries. The aerial roots of Banyan tree on opposite sides of the river are continuously twisted, given direction and woven together, till it can be shaped and strengthened into a sturdy bridge. This is the only means for the villagers to cross the raging water streams to reach the other side. There are two living root bridges in Nongriat, a single bridge and a double decker bridge.
What to do:
From Tyrna village, trek upto the Nongriat village to the see the Double Decker Living Root Bridge. It is 7000 stair trek to the village & back and will take upto 5 hrs. to complete this. But it will be totally worth the pain to take off your clothes and swim in the river stream by the bridge. Far away from the maddening crowd, you can walk around other trails to nearby villages and take a dip in many waterfalls along the way. It is highly recommended to stay in the village overnight and do another short 2 hr. trek next morning to the Rainbow falls and back. It is supposedly very scenic and highly recommended by all trekkers and locals alike. Chances of spotting an actual rainbow over the waterfalls are very high. If you plan to stay 2 days, carry only bare essentials, leaving rest of your luggage in Sohra as there are no porters and you will have to carry your stuff on your own, up and down the trek.
Where to stay:
If you want to do a day trek, stay in one of the Hotels in Cherrapunjee. To stay in Nongriat, check Serene Homestay as it is a good option. Expect nothing fancy.
Day 6: Mawlynnong
It is a 2 hr drive from Sohra / Cherrapunjee and about a 2 hrs. drive from Shillong. Being credited as Asia’s cleanest village is no mean feat. Mawlynnong is one of the finest examples of sustainable, eco-friendly community living, one that is obsessed with cleanliness & recycling.
What to do:
Walk through the fields of the villagers which are on the hillsides surrounding the village, where they grow betel nut trees & broom-stick plant apart from other smaller crops. Walking through the fields via a paved path, leads one to edge of the hill from where one can see the plains of Bangladesh. The same spectacular view of the Bangladesh plains can be seen in from a tall 80 ft sky view treehouse made within the village itself. A short drive away is the living root bridge, where bamboo tree roots are intertwined and shaped over decades to make a bridge to cross the river. A quaint church plays an important role in the life of the villagers who are all Christians. Small tea shops lining the road made with bamboo & creepers are the perfect places to sit back, relax and feel the nature consuming you in this quaint beatific village. The village doesn’t thrive amongst nature; every effort is made to make nature thrive in this village. Where else will one come across such a village with its winding paved roads, lush greenery, small springs & waterfalls that swell up during monsoons, charming bamboo houses and a notorious obsession for cleanliness & recycling. It is a village to get lost and get consumed by nature. No wonder the board welcoming tourists to the village, proudly proclaims Mawlynnong as ‘God’s Own Garden’. It is indeed a picture of what heaven could look like, on Earth.
Where to stay:
Homestays are available aplenty. Expect basic accommodation & food, nothing fancy.
Day 7: Dawki & back to Shillong
It is a 1.5 hr. drive from Mawlynnong and about a 2 hrs. drive back to Shillong.
Dawki is the last village in Meghalaya, bang on the India – Bangladesh border. India ends where the mountains end and Bangladesh begins where the plains begin. The picture of crystal clear blue river bed & the boats seeming like floating in air, set me on the track to explore Meghalaya.
What to do:
The views of the flat lands of Bangladesh are astonishing beautiful. One can walk up to the Indo- Bangladesh border crossing area and witness a border setting which is very calm & peaceful unlike the energy and emotion charged Wagah border of Indo-Pak. One can see line of trucks ferrying stones to Bangladesh, stretching upto many kilometres. Since it had rained cats & dogs the night before, I couldn’t see the blue waters. Nonetheless it is a sight to behold. Walk down to the riverbed & ask a boat for a boat ride along the river.
Where to stay:
Stay is not required. A comfortable day trip to Dawki can be planned.
I woke up with a start. The clouds thundered, electrifying and streaking the distant skies with lightening, each of which was spaced just seconds away from each other. The rains created a noisy ruckus, pouring over the tin roofs. The noise was spectacularly frightening, as I was startled awake from my disturbed sleep every few minutes, fully shaken. It was as if the heaven was about to fall. Tucked away in a cosy homestay in Mawlynnong in Meghalaya, I tossed and turned all night, Continue reading “God’s Own Garden: Mawlynnong, Asia’s cleanest village”→
It is a matter of great chance, persistence, fortitude and patience that goes into spotting an elusive tiger. Numbered around 3000 in India, each tiger occupies an area it calls home, often spanning more than 40 sq kms. No wonder, the rarity & the dispersion across a wide area, makes a tiger sighting extremely difficult. Of course, the sheer power & the majestic yet ferocious presence that the tiger exudes coupled with the fear it inspires, makes it an exciting thrill to pursue while inducing a greed to increase the chance encounters.
“350 seediyan hai. Pehle neeche phir upar jaati hai, phir village aur bridge aata hai. Ek baar main gaya tha. Uske baad 2-3 din tak bimaar padh gaya. Seedhiyon se nafrat si ho gayi thi (It is 350 odd stairs that go down and then up to the village and the bridge. I did it once and after that , I fell in bed for 2-3 days. I hated the sight of stairs),” muttered Tapan, our driver in Cherrapunjee, once the rainiest place on this earth. From his sombre voice, it was evident that this was his attempt to discourage me from doing the trek to the village, based on his bad experience. The trek to the Living Root bridge of the Nongriat village near Cherrapunjee is not for the weak kneed or the faint hearted as I was soon about to find out.
The living root bridges of Nongriat village are one of the manmade wonders, dating back many centuries. The aerial roots of Banyan tree on opposite sides of the river are continuously twisted, given direction and woven together, till it can be shaped and strengthened into a sturdy bridge. This is the only means for the villagers to cross the raging water streams to reach the other side. There are two living root bridges in Nongriat, a single deck bridge and a double decker bridge.
Dismissing Tapan’s foreboding warning of things to come, I decided to embark upon the trek to the village the next morning. After all it was just 350 steps! What was he talking about! It couldn’t be that bad after all. After reaching the Tyrna village, the starting point on top of the mountain, I found a guide named Phil. Phil was a smiling young lad, right out of school, who was killing time and making some pocket money by offering to guide in the few months he had before he had to join college. The board at Tyrna village indicated a 3km hike to the Nongriat village and some mild alarm bells were set off in my head. 3km and 350 steps didn’t quite add up!
The path to the village is a cemented staircase in middle of a thick jungle, that first reaches the bottom of the valley and then after crossing the river, another flight of stairs upwards lands one at the village. Very casually, we walked down the flight of stairs, enjoying the beauty around. After about ½ hr of walk down the stairs, with knees beginning to become wobbly, I figured we must have actually done double of 350 steps that my driver warned me about. I asked Phil, how many steps were actually there? To my shock, he said 3500! Clearly Tapan didn’t count properly! Well, shoot me, I said. Phil smiled helplessly. How was I even going to get through it, with my knees already wobbling! Walking down was the easy part I figured. Walking up the steep and narrow flight of stairs could be a death wish! Never mind, I would crawl up. But it was a problem for later.
So we continued. The breathtaking hike through the forest was well worth it. The jungle was enveloped with clouds and the morning dew made everything look fresh and beautiful. We saw a few villagers coming up the stairs. One was a little girl in a school-dress, not more than 7-8 years, who was walking up the stairs to go to school! It was very hard to imagine that the young kids did this everyday! Just for basic things like going to school and getting a good education! Soon, we spotted two more villagers who were transporting local produce in heavy sacks strapped to their backs. To see & experience the hardships that the villagers faced day in and day out, was extremely heart wrenching. What made them go up and down the stairs every day? Why couldn’t government make more efforts for them to easily connect with the world outside, like making ropeway trolleys. But observing them gave me the impetus to complete rest of the trek without a whimper.
After the steep flight of stairs down, we arrived at a small village, from where the single root bridge can be accessed. We progressed ahead, arriving at a wobbly iron bridge at the bottom of the valley. Crossing it for the first time, gave me a good scare. While Phil languorously strolled ahead, with wind in his hair and spring in his step, here I was, sweating by litres, clutching the swaying bridge for my dear life and crawling ahead. I did not want to look down at the water stream 30 ft below, for I would have succumbed to my fear of heights and gotten fully paralysed. Miraculously, I survived, only to find another higher and longer iron bridge after a short walk ahead. History repeated itself as this also I survived. Phew!
After a short walk up on another flight of stairs, we arrived at Nongriat village. Nestled in the middle of the jungle was this quaint and clean village, freshly sprayed clean with the shower that had just started. The village is fully off the grid and hence has become a hotspot for trekkers who want to be engulfed by nature. There were a few homestays I found on the way where trekkers esp from abroad were relaxing. It is commendable what the villagers have done to encourage responsible tourism while protecting nature. They have contributed towards a community guesthouse for trekkers, have made large dustbins for collecting waste etc. They respect nature by keeping the village clean. It is a harmonious co-existence of villagers, nature & tourists. A short walk from the village, is the Living Root Bridge. The first view of the root bridge mesmerised me and made the arduous trek fully worth every drop of sweat and every ache in my body. It felt as though I had arrived in paradise. With chirping birds that began to emerge after the downpour, the double decker bridge in middle of a thick jungle, set right across a rumbling waterfall and over a gentle water stream, was a sight to behold. The double bridge was a masterpiece in itself, with intertwined roots made sturdy over centuries. The villagers are working on creating a third deck, by twisting and shaping the roots. Perhaps in a half a century, it would be fully made. The water was so clear, cool and fresh and it was enticing me for relaxing dip. I hadn’t got a change of clothes, so I just made do by sitting with my feet swaying in the water and periodically dipping my face in it. Mesmerized with the bountiful greenery around me, I thoroughly enjoyed the beauty of the place amidst the slight drizzle.
Ahh, I so didn’t want to go back. It is quite natural to feel like this in middle of nature, completely off the grid, where one can unburden the stresses of daily life and try to find a rhythm between self & nature. I bumped into a foreigner who completely endorsed my sentiments. He, like me, had come for a day trek and decided to stay back after feeling enchanted by this place. My resort in Sohra doesn’t know where I am, he said very coolly. I wished I could have done the same. But I am a woman with proper plans and it would mean the rest of my trip would have gone for a toss. A small tea shop right next to the bridge was just perfect to have a cup of hot tea and steaming Maggi, before I reluctantly winded my way up.
The rains had cleared up the clouds on the way up and I could see the spectacular landscape of the valley, gasping in awe of how much we had walked. Slowly and steadily, I made my way up, not knowing what was sweat and what was rain drops on me. This time I had counted. It was 3500 stairs (app 5000 steps ) from the bridge back to the top which meant we had done 7000 stairs and total 10000 steps up and down. But it didn’t hurt one bit, for my body and mind had found a gentle rhythm to propel me further. I met an aghast Tapan at the top, for I had completed the trek in 4.5 hours which is quite an average time clocked for the trek. Thank god you didn’t tell me it will be a 7000 stairs trek, I would not have ever done it, I told him. The loss would have been only mine!
And yes, my body revolted at the sight of stairs for almost a week after that.
How to get there:
Tyrna village, the starting point of the trek is ½ hr drive away from Cherrapunjee. From there it will take a relaxed 1.5 hr walk down to the Nongriat Village and then a 2 hr walk up. Budget 4-5 hours including stops.
Where to stay:
If you want to do a day trek, stay in one of the Hotels in Cherrapunjee. However, it is recommended to stay at Nongriat village for a night or two to thoroughly experience the place. Serene homestay is a good option. Expect nothing fancy.
What to do:
Carry swimming trunks and a towel if you want to dip in the stream. If you plan to stay, walk around on other trails to nearby villages and take a dip in many waterfalls along the way. Also trek up for an hour to Rainbow Falls which is supposedly very scenic and highly recommended by all trekkers and locals alike. Chances of spotting an actual rainbow over the waterfalls are very high. It rains abruptly making the stairs slippery, so wear trekking boots and waterproof your camera and phones. Travel light.