Friday, May 26, 2006

Some stuff I've written for the paper

Far in the distance, the horizon turns purple as the swollen clouds threaten to burst. The bus from Pathankot continues through the Kangra Valley whizzing past picturesque hamlets and startlingly pretty Himachali girls.
The mighty Dhauladhar blocks out the afternoon sun as the Punjab State Roadways bus hurtles to the root of the mountain.
Around me the scene is much the same. A pack of scrubbed pahadi boys fighting over a harassed puppy, assorted villagers with assorted luggage and a handful of reticent, chanting monks sitting behind the bus driver.
This was my first trip to magical McLeodganj. I had mentally prepared myself for a vacation of calm and solitude. Maybe catch the Dalai Lama in action too.
Dharamshala, 9km below McLeodganj, is crowded and polluted. Stay here only if you have no accommodation options up in McL.
To get to McLeodganj from Dharamshala, you can either hop on to one of the 10 rupee-a-ride Sumos, grab a rare bus, hire a taxi for Rs 200 or just walk damn it!
On the way up, you’ll cross the Church of St John in the wilderness that boasts a sprawling graveyard. Walking into the cemetery here is like a tutorial in the days of the Raj what with all the moss-covered tombstones surrounding the ancient gray stone church.
When you get here, the road bifurcates three ways. If you’re backpacking your way around, go left and check into any of the guesthouses you see. This area is usually populated with loud Israeli tourists that party up in Bhagsunag so you won’t get a lot of peace.
If you’re not on a shoestring budget, take the middle path and ask for the Chonor House. Run by the Norbulingka Institute, each of the 11 tastefully appointed rooms has stunning murals by Tibetan artists.
This is where ‘Mr Pretty Woman’ likes to stay when he comes to town.Chonor House overlooks the massive monastery from where the Dalai Lama conducts his business. If you want to attend a lecture or a seminar here, remember to leave your camera and cell phone back in the hotel.
McLeodganj is a small town. You could walk all over the place in less than an hour. However, if you want a little adventure, you could sign up for paragliding (in Billing) at any of the tour operators on the middle road (Daya Tours and Travels is an option).There are several nice restaurants here. The Pema Thang restaurant serves only vegetarian cuisine, but the food is wholesome and fresh with a view that overlooks the valley.Come to McLeodganj to get away from it all, make friends with some genuinely nice people and if you’re lucky…maybe you’ll get to fly off the mountain.

Every would-be lotus-eater I know has made the bumpy, winding 15-hour journey to the Valley of the Gods at least once.
More to claim that, “I’ve been to Manali,” than anything else. Over 13 trips up, either by bus, car or Bullet, and the place still exudes the same appeal for me.
New Manali is ‘reserved’ for the middle-class Indian family, much like the way they’ve taken over towns like Mussourie and Nainital. The main town is highly avoidable unless you take a sudden fancy to the sprawling Tibetan market or have to pass through on your way to Rohtang and Vashisht.
Old Manali, to the left, across the river Beas and left up the hill, is home to scores of Israeli backpackers ‘burning’ their way through their military pay. You’ll also bump into random English, French and the rare American tourist.
Eating and accommodation options in Old Manali are clean, safe and affordable. The Dragon Guesthouse is a popular choice among the shoestring crowd for the view each room offers and the accompanying Dragon Café that dishes out a variety of cuisines at short notice. The rest of the ‘hotels’ here are 10-15 room joints that are good enough to pass out for the night, but not much else.
Drive up Circuit Road, before you cross the bridge to Old Manali, and you’ll come to Log Huts, probably the best place to park yourself in this hill station. Just across the road, is the comfortable Apple County Resort. Almost all hotels save for the extremely low-budget rest houses; will offer running hot water, clean linen and restaurant facilities.
If you wish for a little more peace and relaxation, lunch or dinner at the rooftop of the World Peace Café in Vashisht is a must. To your left is Kullu, shrouded in grey cloud while the snow-clad peaks of Solang beckon invitingly on the right. In front, across the surging Beas lie the twinkling lights of Manali. All this while the wind that whistles through the valley, teases a song out of the huge wind chimes.
If you thought you’d had the best pizzas in India, you clearly haven’t been to Roberta Angelone’s Il Forno that’s up on the way to the Hadimba Temple (down the road from Log Huts). Supposedly where ex-PM Vajpayee loves to drop by when he’s visiting the ancestral home.
One of the trippiest activities to do while in Manali, is to pack a picnic basket (preferably with some of the local plum/apple wine) and head to the ‘forest’ that stretches from Old Manali to New along the banks of the Manalsu River. Take a walk down a pathway lined with ancient pines that make everything around them seem small an insignificant, much like the mountains that surround them.
Come to Manali for the spectacular view, great food and local folk who let you do your thing.
The drugs are secondary.

Rafting in Rishikesh
Probably the second-most favourite weekend break for Dilliwallahs, Rishikesh is the gateway to the Himalayas in Uttaranchal.
Religion may have established this small pahadi town, but rafting is what is getting it added attention.
The Ganga is essentially a ‘pool and drop’ river – placid stream interspersed with boiling rapid. Every single river guide will swear that this is the safest river to raft on.
There are six grades where rapids are concerned with six being the most difficult. The most difficult rapid to get through on the Ganga down river from Devprayag is the ominously named The Wall, a Grade 4 rapid.
Ideally if you’re coming here on a rafting trip, you should drive out from Delhi early, say 4am, to get here by roughly 9. So you’ll have enough time to grab a light bite and for the instructors to walk novices through the basics.
No matter what anyone tells you about how you can’t drown in the Ganga, take your life-jacket seriously, under- currents in the rapids are extremely strong. If you are unlucky enough to fall in, hold your breath and, allowing the current to carry you forward, try to grab hold of the raft. Don’t try to swim.
If you’re doing the whole 36km stretch, the first rapid is Daniel’s Dip, followed by The Wall going onto various rapids ranging from Grades 2 to 4 with The Golf Course being the last major rapid before you hop off at NIM Beach.
Usually, rafts carry six-eight oarsmen and one river guide who sits at the helm. Sometimes if there’s an extra person, they’re used as a high-hide, up front where their only responsibility is to hang on to the ropes and not talk in the rapids.
Although the experience through a whirlpool can be quite heady, sitting back and tripping on the view as the raft meanders past forest, waterfall and startled wildlife is just as intoxicating.
There are a multitude of camps dotted along either bank and most offer additional activities like rock climbing and trekking. Since significant portions of bookings are done by the burgeoning BPO brigade, a lot of the activities are built around team building exercises.
By the time you get back to camp and dry off, a bonfire will have been lit and, if your friends are the enterprising variety, that case of beer will have been fished out and stuck in the river to cool.
Most campsites have local staff that double as storytellers and musicians once the moon comes up. So entertainment for the evening is take care of.It’s when you’re sitting by the fire in a crisp moon lit night, tanking up and listening to haunting Kumaoni folk songs that you realise that THIS is what the Great Outdoors is all about.
Pick that up!
The rafting route runs through the Rajaji National Park, so if you’re planning on stopping for a breather at a particularly inviting beach, watch where you’re throwing that cigarette butt, Uncle Chipps packet and Bisleri bottle. All campsites strive to be as environment-friendly as possible with dry toilets and minimal use of electricity. Cell phones may not work because you are really in the middle of nowhere, though some camps will have landlines for emergencies.

Kikar Lodge (Sukhi's place)
Not very many people would consider Punjab a leisure destination but that’s about to change. Nestled in the lower Shivaliks and a two-hour drive north of Chandigarh is the Kikar Lodge. Built in the middle of 1,800 acres of private forest, the ten-cottage Kikar Lodge is a wildlife retreat with a difference. The only thing typical about this resort is the amiable Punjabi hospitality.
As you enter the gates of the estate, you drive past the owners’ homestead, their dairy farm and orchards, before you wind your way into the resort proper.Although winter frost had burnt the immediate flora to a crisp on this visit, the surrounding hills, thick with evergreen foliage and the absolute quiet impart a sense of dreamy detachment from the chaos of the Capital.
The Ropar Wetlands form an integral part of the retreat and if you keep chatter to a minimum, you might just spot some barasingha, wild boar or an elusive fox.
The Lodge has eight air-conditioned cottages and two suites built along the contours of the land. These tastefully appointed rooms are equipped with comfortable facilities, and thankfully no TV.To cope with the surge in guests, the resort is also planning to have ten luxury tents on the lines of the Aman-I-Khas in Ranthambore.
Although they do not encourage room service, as they prefer guests coming out to mingle, if a honeymooning couple asks for a little privacy, the resort provides for a luxury tent in the middle of the forest with a butler and cook at hand.
One of the biggest attractions at the Kikar Lodge is the Kairali Ayurvedic Spa, a first for Punjab, with trained masseurs and a host of spa treatments. One shirodhara followed by an afternoon’s worth of beer and sun is equal to heaven!
There’s a lot you can do here at Kikar if you have the inclination. A quad bike ride through the forest on marked trails is loads of fun, especially for novice bike riders, as is the night safari in an open-top Gypsy. Silence is an absolute must for the latter. Please leave giggling relatives back at the resort if you want to see any sort of fauna.
Other adventure activities include angling in the Sutlej, mountain biking and camel safaris, besides the 30-odd km of hiking trails throughout the estate. There’s bird watching in the lush Ropar Wetlands, a playpen for accompanying offspring and horseback riding, besides other team-building exercises designed especially for the BPO crowd. Or, if you’re the leisurely sort, you could just grab a beer, sit by the pool and vegetate.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

wht happnd to quintessentially eccentric??

7:10 PM  
Blogger Pirate of the Arabian said...

Too many syllables and difficult to pronouce when you're drunk and telling people about your blog at random get togethers

7:59 PM  

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