Nashala : A Tiny Village In The Mountains of Himachal Pradesh

There are many, many quaint villages in the Himalayas, and how we wish we could visit as many of them as possible before they get commercially exploited and lose their charm and innocence.

Nashala is one such quaint Himalayan village. Towards the right of Naggar Haveli, a winding 5km road around the hills, and through pine forests lies this gorgeous village, where most of the homes are still traditional in architecture. This sleepy agrarian village was the perfect spot for us to spend a day hanging around, photographing. Stay was in Manali, and all meals at Naggar Castle. Katrain could also be a good place to stay with delicious home cooked meals in your own tree house!

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Dhaba on the way to Manali on the Chandigarh – Manali Highway.
Manali Highway Road Construction
The road to Manali is terrible, with construction everywhere. So bad, that I now fear driving to Manali. It was like this earlier last year, and so about 4 years ago.

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Road Trip Through Rajasthan : 6400 km

Great road trips are made of these. Delicious road side food, beautiful country side roads and pleasant surprises through out. And in Rajasthan, thankfully, we had plenty of all that during our long work-related stay. We drove from Mumbai and went to Udaipur, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Alwar, Sariska, Mount Abu, Delhi, Sili Serh, and many of these places many times. We wanted to come back via Madhya Pradesh so went from Mount Abu to Chittorgarh and then via Mandsaur and Ratlam to Mumbai.

We learnt that the Milk Cake of Alwar is the best in the Universe. We learnt that Mount Abu is a fantastic place to re-visit and that the Pyaz Ki Kachori with Jalebi and Lassi is the best breakfast ever. We learnt that the Poha in Madhya Pradesh is divine. We learnt about ancient Buddhist Stupa near Virat Nagar, Rajasthan this town once being the capital of the Mahajanapada Kingdom.

– Rajasthan is awesome to drive in, and most roads are in good condition, the drives are scenic and beautiful.
– The drive from Jaipur to Delhi is terrible with lots of traffic, trucks and delays. Unless you start like at 5 am. Also, avoid this route after dark, it’s not very safe. There have been instances of robbing.
– NH8 from Mumbai to Udaipur is a superb well built road, but the stretch in Gujarat is boring and full of factories and trucks on either side. On our way back, we came via Madhya Pradesh.
– Madhya Pradesh roads generally were in bad condition and too much traffic and many small towns on the way.
– Highway food is generally decent throughout.
– The roads became better when we entered Maharashtra, but full of speed breakers around Nashik. Be careful.
– It becomes difficult to find good food on the highways once you enter Maharashtra.

We learnt we should do this more often and take notes 🙂

Highway Dhaba, Rajasthan
This dhaba between Udaipur and jaipur had great food to offer, and a lovely walk behind it, to a wetland body full of birds.
Riverside, Rajasthan.
A walk behind the dhaba revealed this river side.
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And next to the river, this awesome walk, with Kikar (Acacia nilotica) Trees in full yellow bloom.

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Sambhar Lake And Salt Pans: Birding Heaven

During a train journey from Jaipur to Jodhpur, we were pleasantly surprised to see vast vistas of shallow salt plains with what looked like Flamingos in the far distance. A quick check on the route revealed we were crossing the Sambhar Lake. Located some 90km South West of Jaipur, it’s India’s largest inland salt lake. … Read more

Kolkata : A Charming City Full Of Heritage

It’s difficult to cover Kolkata’s rich heritage in a blog post, but in a series of posts we shall try and cover what’s possible. Kolkata, spelt as Calcutta till recently, was the Capital of India for over 200 years, till 1911. As such, the city is steeped in history, architecture, culture, museums, libraries, universities, theatre … Read more

The Serenity of South Goa

We have never been excited by the noisy, crowded parts of North Goa. And when we had to reach Goa around Christmas for work we were afraid all places would be sold out or too loud. A bit of a search around South Goa, an oasis of calm and serenity, and we locked on to a beautiful place called Ordo Sounsar  (meaning Another World, in Goan), on Talpona Beach, run by the charismatic Serafin Fernandes.

The Location:

The location was a bit of a trouble finding at night, which is all the better, since it attracts less crowds. At one point we had to cross a narrow iron bridge over the river Talpona, fearing it could scrape our car from either or both sides.

Bridge on Talpona River
An extremely narrow bridge on the way to Talpona Beach in South Goa.

Once we found the place, we were shown our lovely shack, made of bamboo, raised on stilts. These shacks are temporary and taken down every monsoons. The rooms were cozy and the open top bathroom very cool. Goa during end December becomes very cold at night with temperatures dipping to around 15 degrees, and add a cold sea breeze to that. We were thrilled to have discovered just the tucked away place to spend our Christmas and New Years’.

Mornings here wake up to a clean and serene beach, with only a fellow traveller or two practicing yoga. Our shack was right on the beach so we could hear the sea throughout. If you are the types who likes to connect to a peaceful and very indigenous local culture, South Goa would appeal to you. There isn’t much to do around here, which is very good, because you can truly relax. We discovered another shack next to ours which serves delicious local food, at very reasonable prices, called Deepiksha, and it became our meal destination. A walk down the road either way, and we discovered just a couple of more places, all serving great food, and all very peaceful.

The Talpona river forms a beautiful estuary as it meets the Arabian Sea. It’s home to many species of bird and marine life. A small ‘mangrove safari’ in a local fisherman’s boat is highly recommeded. Do carry your binoculars for spotting the many species of birds found here.  Evenings are spent lazing around, taking walks down the estuary backwaters while listeing to a Lineated Barbet, and stopping by some shack for your tea. It was during this trip that we also visited the nearby Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary.

South Goa is very peaceful and gorgeous, if you want to be away from the crowds. And lets hope and pray it stays that way.

Dinner at beach shack in south Goa.
Dinner at the shack was delicious and cozy, amidst the sea breeze and rustling of casuarina trees.

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Jodhpur : The Blue City

Few cities evoke a colour in mind, like Blue for Jodhpur (the other one which does is Pink for Jaipur, or this awesome pink village in Maharashtra). Jodhpur, a walled city, was the capital of the kingdom of Marwar. The city was built circling the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, built by the King Rao Jodha in around 1460 AD. For some reason, a whole lot of houses in this walled city have been painted blue. Some say it’s because the colour keeps the homes cool in the long hot summers. Some say the founder King Rao Jodha had asked for the houses to be painted blue. Perhaps we will never know.

Nevertheless, it’s a gorgeous city full of architectural joy in its narrow lanes.

When to visit: Summers are killing in their heat, so a good time to visit is the winters. If you are a music buff, tie your visit around end October when the summers are just receding and Fort Mehrangarh becomes host to one of India’s best folk music festivals, the Jodhpur RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival).

Where to stay: When in Jodhpur do try and stay close to the Mehrangarh Fort, inside the Jodhpur Blue City. That’s when you can really soak in the city and all it has to offer. There are plenty of stay options at various price points, and we chose Shahi Guest House.

Where to shop: Sadar Bazaar near Ghanta Ghar or Clock Tower is the market area. You can get your textiles, souvenirs, arty stuff, veggies… just about anything.

How to reach: Jodhpur has an airport so you can fly in. It’s also well connected by train and chair cars leave from Jaipur every morning (apart from many other trains). You can also reach Jodhpur by road.

What to eat: Do try the Rajasthani Thali (meal) at Gypsy restaurant, Sardarpura. For a fine dining experience, do have a meal at the Hanwant Mahal Restaurant in the Umaid Bhavan Palace hills. Also try the local Pyaaz Ki Kachauri, Chaach, Lassi, Gatte Ki Subzi, Kadi, Ker Sangri etc. Jodhpur, like most of Rajasthan, is great for food.

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The Jodhpur Station has a beautiful old world charm.

Jodhpur Station
A clock tower and red sandstone structures at Jodhpur Station prepare you for a town steeped in heritage.

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Tranquebar : A Tranquil Getaway Near Puducherry

It’s interesting how you discover something while looking for something else. In Puducherry, while trying to figure out how to reach the Chettinad towns, we learnt about Tranquebar, a 17th century Danish fort settlement, barely 2-3 hours from where we were. Tranquebar (officially known as Tharangambadi) also afforded us a chance to visit the Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary that we were so interested in. So we drove from from Pondicherry to Tranquebar, a distance of 120 km and a great drive.

Tranquebar has a very old and interesting history. It was was part of the Chola and Pandya kingdoms. In the 15th century, under the Thanjavur King, Raghunath Nayak, Tranquebar was an important international trading port. The Danish, under a treaty with the King, built Fort Dansborg, overlooked by Danish Captain Ove Gjedde, to have better control over the trade (mainly exporting pepper from India). Slowly the Danish took over Tranquebar, which was taken over by the British in 1801, and again returned to the Danish in 1814, and finally purchased by the British (along with other Danish settlements in India) in 1845.

The Danish sent the first Protestant Missionaries to India, who set up the first printing press of India, and the New Testament was translated into Tamil, for the first time, in this town.

The town is full of old Danish architecture. We couldn’t find much of the old Indian heritage left, apart from The Masilamani Nathar temple. Was the local architecture not able to stand the test of time? Tranquebar faced a horrid Tsunami in December 2004, which destroyed a lot of heritage, including a bit of the temple. But the town has recovered and extensive efforts to restore the heritage are on.

Visit this town if you are interested in tranquility and heritage. There are, thankfully, no noisy pubs, no beaches stuffed with loud ‘tourists’, no restaurants, not yet.

The main choice of stay is the lovely Bungalow On The Beach, a Neemrana Property.

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Early morning at the Tranquebar Beach.

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The Dansborg Fort, right on the beach.

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Mumbai to Puducherry : Roadtrip

I am always all too eager to hop into a car and drive off to beautiful destinations, rather than take a flight. And when this meeting came up in Puducherry, we thought for maybe 5 minutes, and decided to drive. And we didn’t regret for even one kilometer. Almost. That’s how began our Mumbai to Pondicherry road trip.

We planned the route from Mumbai via Hubballi, Bengaluru, Krishnagiri and then Puducherry. The road passes through some diversions till Kolhapur, but then becomes a beautiful highway, passing through miles and miles of farms. We got our first taste of authentic south Indian snacks at the border of Maharashtra and Karnataka, at Hotel Satyawati.

We picked Hubbali (before Bengaluru) for a stopover. Hotel Shoven, found on TripAdvisor, was a clean and affordable place for the night. We recommend. We do not recommend making a pre-booking at The Gateway Hotel, Hubballi, as you apparently cannot cancel 2 days before the booking. Weird. We lost some money there. Still fighting for it.

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Dhodap Fort : Gorgeous Hills Away From The Crowd

Many a time one wants to get away from the maddening crowds of the city, to reach somewhere serene. Such places are increasingly difficult to find, and we found one by happenstance. About 50km away from Nashik, towards Dhule, there are these beautiful hills which have the Chaturshringi Temple and the Dhodap Fort. This fort, at 1472 meters above sea level, is the second highest hill fort in Maharashtra. We drove till the base village of Dhodambe, and then a tiny hamlet of Kanherwadi  from where a trek takes you to the fort. We didn’t go for the trek, but spent some time in the hamlet and taking walks in the breezy meadows around the hills.

Full of lush old forests, the hills are a treat. I was sad at not having carried my binoculars and long lenses for birding.

We hope these beautiful landscapes remain unspoilt and untouched, for all future generations to enjoy and recharge in.

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In the village of Kanherwadi.

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Jodhpur RIFF: The Songs Of The Desert

October breeze. Full moon nights. And the songs of the desert! These words may portray a festive mood but the actual experience is truly beyond words.

Jodhpur RIFF (Rajasthan International Folk Festival) has been our musical retreat for the last two years. This is really a soulful music festival away from run of the mill electronica, rock-metal clones, or mainstream tunes. The curator tastefully brings the best of folk musicians from across the world and into a unique fusion with the traditional artists of Rajastjani folk, the Langas and the Manganiyars. You can imagine a beautiful confluence of west and the east , the Sarangis and the Guitars, Rabab and Jazz, Morchang and Violins! Different artists, languages, instruments and music genres meet and jam on the main stage.

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Nashik : An Evening In The Old Bazaars

Nashik is an ancient city with plenty of history, right from the time of Ashoka to the British rule in India. Nashik is also a prominent grape growing region of India and the fertile lands around it provide much of Mumbai and Pune’s  vegetables. It’s also a holy city for the Hindus, since Panchvati is where Lord Rama is supposed to have built his home in exile.

In one of our monsoon drives, we decided to pay Nashik a visit, having heard much about the holy part of the city, the Panchvati. We also wanted to visit Nashik before the millions came for the Kumbh Mela.

A walk through these beautiful old parts of Nashik are completely worth it. We went towards the end of monsoons in 2014, when the river Godavari was flowing with full force and some residual rains remained.

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The approach to Panchvati. This holy part of Nashik is full of ancient and new temples.
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At the Ramkund, Panchvati. There is a traditionof floating small lamps with prayers in the holy waters of the Godavari.

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Bir – Billing, Himachal Pradesh : Away From The Maddening Crowds

After a hectic recce in Kullu, our shoot got postponed. Therefor, we had the option of going to Delhi and wait out for further information or explore somewhere in Himachal. Just then, a team member suggested Bir-Billing and we jumped on it.

Bir – Billing are two different but closely linked places. Bir is a tiny village town, which has scenic meadows, farms, forests and is also a Buddhist settlement. As such, it has many monasteries and a stupa as well. Bir is a quiet, sleepy little village, yet not big on the tourism map, which is what makes it all the more attractive. Once in Bir, we stayed at the Namlang Himal Resort, a beautiful tucked away resort amidst trees and meadows, made of tiny independent cottages, each named after a town/village of Himachal. The rooms are basic, there is no room service, which we didn’t mind at all, and the food served at their dining area is excellent. The only thing that made me sad about Namlang Himal was a poor imprisoned Alexandrine Parakeet. Upon asking I was told she had a damaged wing and was unable to fly. I tried to connect with some local wildlife groups to rehabilitate the parakeet, but haven’t heard more on the issue. If you do visit Namlang Himal, do check on the parakeet.

There isn’t much to do in Bir apart from long walks through the village and meadows, and visits to the monasteries. This makes Bir an excellent place to unwind. There are plenty of treks around as well.

Billing is the paragliding hotspot of the world!

Billing is a meadow in the forests, a 7km hike (or drive) away at an altitude of 2400 metres above sea level. It’s weather and wind makes it one of the best destinations in the world for paragliding. September to October are supposed to be the best times for flying, though when we visited in end May, lots of people were still flying.

The para-gliders land at the meadow of the village Chaugan, at a place conveniently named ‘Landing’. It’s a pretty little meadow with a lone tea-shop (tapri) under a tree, which sells chai, cigarettes, instant noodles etc to visitors. Every evening at Landing is like a little festival with gliders landing, local people out for a walk, and an excellent sunset in the cool Himachal breeze. Chaugan is the village which has the most number of tourist accomodations, bicycle rental and sale shops, and plenty of eateries. The food here is yet unspoilt and still tastes of home made fare.

This year in October (2015), Billing is set to host a World Championship of Paragliding. The tiny village town is gearing up with plenty of construction and new shops are opening almost every day.

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The path leading to Namlang Himal Resort.

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