Up Through the Forest Wilderness

An Arduous Climb Alongside Nohkalikai Waterfalls

We climbed, climbed, and climbed along! Will this ever end! At every turn, I hoped to see some flat land but there wasn’t any and every turn only revealed another steep climb through the same set of rugged, uneven rocks. I glanced at my watch and it was 2.30 PM. That means we’ve been climbing constantly for 3 hours now. “Just 10 minutes more to the top”, said Droning, our guide.  I knew I couldn’t take his word for it. As a 15 year old village boy, he can easily do it in less than that time.

We were tracing our way back from Nongriat after visiting the Double Root Bridge and the Rainbow Falls. The usual route is a pathway constituting 3600 concrete steps but we were on a different route. The path where we were walking, rather climbing, was right beside Nohkalikai Falls, which happens to be the tallest plunge waterfall in India, falling from a height of 1115 feet (340 metres).  And, that very well explains the steep climb. It was like walking up a vertical wall of that height.

We got carried away when we heard about this route and embarked upon it without putting much thought onto it. To top it, we had missed breakfast and had hardly eaten anything. Not just that, we ran out of water pretty soon. And, I for one didn’t have a single sip as I was saving it for my cousin, who needed it more.

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Pic 1: The steep climb laid out through rustic moss-covered stones

We had no clue about this route and got to know about it from some travelers the night before at Nongriat. The jungle route appealed to us and we had decided in an instant to go through that route instead of the usual concrete pathway. A quick chat with Droning to gauge the safety of the route with respect to wild animals and if it would be slippery was enough to seal the deal. Droning, however, miscalculated our capability and estimated that it would take us 2 hours to reach the top. He had said it takes him an hour, so by our standards it would be 2 hours. How wrong he was!

Also, it was only later that we discovered people climb down the route but seldom climb up. It’s not a very popular route and many people don’t know about it. Backpackers, trekkers, and adventure seekers walk down this route to go to Nongriat and then go back up through the concrete pathway.

Rajat and Ashwin, two of our newly made acquaintances had joined us too.

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Pic 2: Resting a while to catch our breath

The jungle was alluring and too glamorous for words! The initial 2 hours was simply fascinating. I felt the five of us were like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five unearthing a secret trail attempting to solve a dark and deep mystery. Tall trees and thick shrubs adorned either side of the steep rustic moss-covered stone steps. The sun passed through the miniature openings in the thick foliage making varied patterns on the path we walked. The entire pathway had a generous dose of Bay leaves scattered all over.

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Pic 3: The climb continues through as the sun’s rays filter through the thick canopy. (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

Every view appeared unique yet the same, all at once. Once in a while we came across these huge and delicate spider webs housing an elegant spider, proudly sitting right at the center. Gorgeous velvety butterflies fluttered every now and then spreading a blast of colours across their path. Some were tiny while most were really big, almost the size of a man’s palm.

A sweet jungle fragrance filled the air and our eyes feasted on multiple shades of green, sometimes interspersed by few browns.  Wild flowers of myriad vibrant hues scattered here and there were a source of constant delight uplifting our spirits and minds. I felt transported to a different realm. I wished I could take this jungle home and make it part of my everyday life but I couldn’t and have to make do with potted plants in my tiny little balcony.

There was nobody other than us in the trail making it even more enigmatic. The only people we met was a British couple going down the path towards Nongriat. They had come driving all the way from England and were exploring the remote corners our country.

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Pic 4: Delighted to meet people from across the continent (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

As we started walking, we found plastic bottles, chips packets, chocolate wrappers scattered all around. Though this path was less littered compared to the concrete pathway but it was disturbing nevertheless. Even a place like this, which is not touristy and less frequented was not spared. Initially, we just exchanged discontent about this among us.

Soon the discontent got the better of me and I started collecting them in a spare bag I had and by the time we were done with the climb, my bag was full and there was no more space in it. It was a great feeling to find the British couple doing the same and they were stuffing garbage in their pockets. I had another extra bag, which I handed over to them.

After about 3 hours of continuous climb, we were drained. The tiring uphill trail coupled with an empty stomach was increasingly becoming tough for everyone. Our water supply of 2L was almost exhausted, which was anyway insufficient for six adults. We had expected to find a water source enroute in the jungle but there wasn’t any. Our focus had shifted from the enchanting surroundings to ourselves. The enthralling jungle was failing to divert our attention anymore and was becoming more of an ordeal that we wanted to get over with.

All of us were pushing ourselves. My backpack felt heavier than it was and with no water my throat was parched. My sisters were struggling.  While one of them kept complaining about a supposed hamstring in her thigh muscles, the other was finding it more demanding than the rest. She kept drinking glucose water and spraying Volini on her calves to keep her going. She was getting me worried if she could at all make it to the top. At one point where I was further ahead, she even napped for a few minutes somewhere in the trail – I have no clue how she managed to do that on the almost perpendicular flight of rocky and uneven stairway.

To keep myself going, I devised my own strategy. I started counting the steps and set myself a goal of 30 steps at a time. After 30 steps, I would rest for a few seconds and start towards another 30. I would silently congratulate myself for completing 30 steps and heave out a sigh of relief of having progressed a little ahead.

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Pic 5: We just reached the top, the azure blue sky is just fascinating

Towards the end I was so dehydrated that it was getting increasingly difficult for me to move on. Desperate, I requested Droning to run ahead and get some water for us as we continued our climb. After an arduous 4 hour climb, the jungle gave way to tall brown grasses on either side indicating we were almost at the top. A little while later the hilltop appeared in the form of a vast and sprawling meadow. What a moment that was! Phew! At the same time Droning arrived with a bottle of water. We guzzled up all the water in split seconds like raindrops on a parched land. After quenching our thirsts, we moved ahead and soon spotted Nokalikai falls shining in the bright afternoon sun.

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Pic 6: The direction shows you can walk down this path, and we walked up instead!
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Pic 7: Nokalikai Falls – note the steep wall beside it, that’s the path we walked up!

Today, as I look back it feels good that we had chosen to walk that path. Several memories besiege me –

  • Agony of the 4-hour near vertical climb winding through the thick green canopy
  • Stepping through hundreds of fallen dry leaves strewn over moss-covered rustic stones
  • Maneuvering billions of crisscrossing gnarling roots that even God himself cannot map
  • Feasting our eyes on the myriads of colourful flowers and butterflies
  • Mushrooms and lichens of various shapes and sizes
  • Amazing and unusual insects by the dozens
  • And much more……….

All of this I wouldn’t have known had I taken the concrete pathway.

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Pic 8: We encountered several such gorgeous beauties. (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)
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Pic 9: A stick insect, insects that camouflage like twigs (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)
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Pic 10: The skeletal remains of a leaf (P.C: Ashwin Chandru)

Constant

In Pursuit of the Elusive Rainbow

I stepped out of my room and looked up at the sky. The moon shone brilliantly and looked like a perfectly rounded sphere of white radiance sailing in the cloudless night. Millions of twinkling stars accompanying the moon seemed to be looking at me knowing exactly what I was thinking.

We were spending the night at Nongriat in a homestay, which was right next to the double root bridge – a bridge that epitomizes the harmonious blend of Nature’s abundance and Man’s hard work. Braving 3600 steps, we had arrived at Nongriat earlier that day.

Later that night, we befriended four travellers staying at the homestay. Gautam and Om were from Mumbai and were biking in the North East while Rajat and Ashwin were solo travellers. Rajat came from Delhi and Ashwin all the way from the city of Mysore in the South. I was with two of my cousin sisters and we were exploring our own home state. Our destination for the next day was Rainbow Falls and we decided to go there together as a team. Our guide, Droning was quite amused to find the three sisters multiply into this little army in just a few hours. Droning lives in Nongriat and is a young 15-year-old lad, who is preparing to appear for his school final this year.

Next day started early for us. We were up by 5.30 AM and left the homestay at 6.00 AM with our newly found acquaintances. The sun wasn’t up yet but the skies looked clear. Soon, we found ourselves crossing a shaky iron bridge that threatened to throw us off as it swayed to and fro while we crossed it one foot at a time. We had encountered such bridges the day before as well, but I for one was still not used to them and could feel my knees quiver. This particular one was worse as the iron was rusted in places. After a while, we crossed another root bridge and the root bridges are so much more stable!

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Pic 1: Another precarious hanging bridge, this one had few rusted iron rods making it scarier!  [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 2: Another hanging root bridge, this particular one was supported by iron rods. Root bridges were much more sturdier. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]

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Pic 3: Towards the end of the root bridge as we stepped into the jungle. Isn’t that glorious!

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Pic 4: Through the jungle trail, one step at a time. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 5: Sis takes a break. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
The sound of running water of the falls teased us for a long while as we continued walking and expected to see it at every turn but the falls kept eluding us. Then, in a flash it suddenly emerged from the thick green envelope. There it was! Rainbow Falls – a hidden treasure in the deep jungles of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya. The mighty roaring water was spectacular leaving us transfixed for a moment.

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Pic 6: Rainbow Falls as it emerged through the dense green thicket.

I stared at it from the top of the hill for a while before convincing myself that this was not a dream. Only then, was I able to descend the final flight of steps towards the falls. As I looked on, I noticed the enormous force of the water as it pounded its way right into the pool below. The pool was a brilliant sparkling blue and looked serene and calm, unaffected by the torrents of water pounding on it with such great force.

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Pic 7: I just had to admire it for a while before making my way down.

The sun was just about making its way through the tall hills around the falls. So, we would have to wait a while to see the rainbow that appears on the falls. It’s this permanent rainbow across the falls that makes it unique and gives it the name.

I found myself a comfortable seating area from where I could view the falls in its entirety. One of my sisters joined me. The rest were already making their way down through the huge formidable boulders. We watched them go down. Two of the guys couldn’t control their urge and very soon plunged into the crystal clear blue waters of the pool below. The water was so clear that we could see right through into the pebbles at the bottom.

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Pic 8: The pristine blue water was just too alluring!

The dazzling blue water was too inviting. My sister could hold herself no longer and decided to climb down.  The huge boulders intimidated me and I wasn’t sure. It’s my short height that limits me, shaking my confidence at such times, as I know my legs will not reach out to all places. I felt quite comfortable where I was but my sister insisted. Soon, Droning was summoned to give me a hand and help me navigate my way down to the blue pool.

Down below, the falls was magnificent but at the same time terrifying and unnerving. I stood there for a while watching the rest of my gang braving the chill and swimming and wading in the water. At one point all of them climbed up a huge boulder that had a ladder against it for a closer view of the falls. I wasn’t able to muster the courage.

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Pic 9: The  clear blue water through to the pebbles below. The water was comparatively shallow, as it was Winter season.

Another sparkling green pool of water amidst huge rocks and boulders glistened in the morning sun and lay quietly away from the falls. While the others went towards that, I decided to go back to my comfort place and again not without Droning’s help. One of my sisters and Rajat joined me too.

We chatted and waited patiently for another hour and a half as the sun’s rays slowly descended down the falls. The rest settled in a place down below after they had their fill of exploring and posing for photographs of kinds. We didn’t know at what point the rainbow would appear and every now and then imagined seeing colours when there weren’t any.

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Pic 10: Sis poses at the crystal clear green pool at the far end of the falls. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 11: At my comfort place overlooking the falls. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
And when the rainbow actually appeared, we literally shrieked in unison. It was so sudden that I felt as if an invisible fairy godmother had touched it with her magic wand. We reveled in the enigmatic beauty of Mother Nature for a while.

It was almost 10.30 AM. A few more people had now started coming in and it was time for us to leave.

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Pic 12: Do you spot the rainbow? We had to wait till the Sun’s rays reached that point just before it touched the pool below.

In our anticipation of the rainbow, we had forgotten that we had missed breakfast. Having been up for more than 4 hours with quite a bit of physical activity, our stomachs had started growling. The girls had meticulously packed in a few bread slices from our Homestay the night before. The boys had none. The food was far from sufficient and we still had a long way to go. We had decided not to go back to Nongriat, instead follow a jungle trail that goes straight to Cherrapunjee.

We had already invited trouble, just that we were still unaware…. (Continued)

Nongriat – A Montage of All Things Green

A quaint little village nestled in the tropical rainforests of Meghalaya.

The perfectly rounded moon glistened as it’s bright white reflection fell on the crystal clear waters of Umshiang River that flowed through in shadows of light and dark, right below the double root bridge. It was a December night but not as cold as one would expect. The sky was clear with not a single cloud. It could have been full moon that night, I can’t say for sure but I couldn’t care less.

I seated myself on a flattened rock right beside the double root bridge watching the moon dance in the ripples of the river. There was magic in the air and my heart was strumming a random tune. In this utterly romantic setting, the only thing missing was the prince of my dreams…… Sigh!

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Pic 1: The jaw-dropping wonder of the Double Root Bridge

We were at Nongriat village, in the interiors of Meghalaya – a state in North-East India that houses lush green mountains, thick tropical rainforests, gorgeous water falls, rivers with clear waters and several other wonders of nature. Situated at a distance of 10 Km in the south of *Cherrapunjee, Nongriat’s fame is attributed to the three functional root bridges. Of these, the double root bridge is outstandingly significant.

[* Cherrapunjee, known as Sohra locally, previously held the distinction of being the wettest place on earth, which is now taken over by Mawsynram, another place in Meghalaya.]

The quiet village with its few tiny houses scattered around a thick canopy of green is like a soothing balm to sore eyes and tired legs. Trees of bay-leaf, betel-nut, jackfruit, pepper, bamboo, rubber, a variety of shrubs, ferns, and herbs converge in multiple shades of green creating a healing effect of harmony and freshness. Every household had an artificial beehive just outside their homes making us wonder if bee-keeping was an obsession with the villagers.

Nongriat is accessible only by foot and the pathway constitutes an almost continuous flight of 3600 steps, spread over 3.5 Km. After an early lunch, we had started walking from Tryna village, which is also located in Cherrapunjee. The steps are concrete man-made, which start with a continuous descent that go on incessantly and is merciless on the knees. On the way, we stopped at a single root bridge and our wobbling knees got some much needed respite.

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Pic 2: We start off from Tryna village, there are railings for support but only initially.
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Pic 3: The single root bridge enroute to Nongriat

The steps continue in the same way, interrupted only by a few precarious hanging bridges made of iron rods. These bridges sway dangerously the moment you step onto them threatening to throw you off onto the gorgeous greenish-blue river with huge boulders that lie below. The swaying becomes even more erratic when several people cross simultaneously and if you encounter someone coming from the opposite direction, you may just want to send a prayer heavenward.

Quite an adventure, indeed!

Just before reaching Nongriat, the steps go upward and the descent suddenly changes to a pretty steep climb.

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Pic 4: Those continuous steps take a toll on your knees
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Pic 5: Those bridges were absolutely exhilarating!

The entire stairway is through lush green tropical forests with leaves and roots brushing up against you. This region gets copious amount of rain and it’s fairly common for people to experience heavy rainfall while walking this trial. Not surprising as rains and rain-forests are like bedfellows and you cannot expect one without the other.

Having been born and brought up in the state of Meghalaya, I have seen enough of rains in my lifetime – and ugh, I am so not a rain person! Thankfully it was winter and the weather was pretty good.

And by the way, don’t be surprised if you encounter rain during winter, it rains throughout the year in this part of the country. The winter ensured something else though – no leeches! God knows how much I dislike them!

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Pic 6: The surrounding greenery takes away all tiredness in an instant
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Pic 7: Carpet of ferns, aren’t they gorgeous!
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Pic 8: The final ascent as we arrive at Nongriat

Apparently, the Government is planning to build a road to Nongriat. While it will be immensely beneficial to the local people of the village, I selfishly hope that doesn’t happen. Nongriat will lose its uniqueness. Besides, the ills that will come with a road will surely jeopardise the delicate balance between man and nature in this gorgeous little paradise on earth.

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Pic 9: A village home. This is not in Nongriat, but enroute just after the single root bridge. Khasis have great taste when it comes to home decoration, even a village home will tell you that!

Life is by no means easy for the villagers at Nongriat. The village has no school. While some children study in boarding schools in Cherrapunjee or Shillong, others walk these steps (~ 7000, both ways) on a daily basis.

There is no health care center, villagers rely on their herbal and natural medicines but for serious issues the only way out is again through the stairway. There are no shops in the village except one that sells Maggi and biscuits to travellers. Villagers have to get everything, including grocery all the way from Cherrapunjee.

Hence, devising a way to provide these basic necessities instead of building a road would do good to the villagers.

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Pic 10: The homestay at Nongriat where we stayed that night.

Most people come to Nongriat for a day trek. Our idea of staying a night at Nongriat turned out to be a great decision.

Nongriat is fascinating for nature-lovers – a picture perfect destination to experience nature’s abundance. Besides the forests, rivers, bridges, Nongriat is home to the fascinating Rainbow Falls. And, that sure deserves a separate post.

Bridges that Breathe

I stood there and stared at it, there it was, just as I had visualized. It looked brilliantly gorgeous in the subdued evening light. “Love is the bridge between you and everything”, I muttered. Rumi has indeed captured my imagination and seems to have followed me even to this remote village in Meghalaya. The tantalizing double root bridge seemed like an entwined poetry between the two trees that flanked the Umshiang River silently flowing through the rounded stones that lie below. It was winter, and the reduced water level in the river made it look more like a stream.

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Pic 1: A marvel of organic engineering – man and nature in perfect harmony!

It was my first time at Nongriat village after braving 3600 steps and it was all worth it. The natural bridge floored me with its splendid elegance and grace. I couldn’t stop marveling at the ingenious organic engineering of the local tribal people. There are several root bridges in Meghalaya that are hand-crafted, using natural resources by the Khasi and the Jaintia tribes of Meghalaya (Khasis, Jaintias, Garos are the three tribes that constitute the native people of Meghalaya.).

These root bridges are made by guiding the aerial roots of Rubber tree (Ficus elastica) across a stream or river, and then allowing the roots to grow and strengthen over time. The young roots are tied, twisted, and weaved together encouraging them to combine with one another. The roots are wound around areca nut tree trunks, placed on either side of the water body. The roots keep growing, entwining the trunk and the bridge is elongated to the desired destination taking about 10-15 years to completion. The roots thicken over time and the bridge is further strengthened with mud, stones, sticks, and bamboos. These bridges last for hundreds of years and can carry the weight of 500 people at one time.

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Pic 2: Enchanting tree trunks that seem to be straight out of a fairy tale.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the double root bridge is nearly 200 years old. Locally known as Jingkieng Nongriat, the bridge is one of a kind and famous across the world. As a non-tribal resident of the state of Meghalaya, I could feel my chest swelling with pride as I stood there trying to fathom this tangled masterpiece hand-crafted by my tribal brethren.

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Pic 3: The water in the crystal clear stream below irresistible to our tired feet.

Soon, I found myself kicking off my walking shoes and settling down with my feet dipped in the cold water and the bridge right in front of me. My sisters joined in. We chatted into the evening accompanied by the occasional fishes that swam across tickling our tired and aching feet. We stayed at Nongriat and hence could enjoy the bridge in the way we wanted to, which would not have happened otherwise.

The reason being, it was the Christmas – New Year time, when the maximum surge of tourists happen leading to the place getting over crowded. To top it all, not all tourists who come here are nature lovers. It may seem strange but it is true. When we reached this place in the late afternoon that day, we were shocked to find people all over the place. There were some who were bathing in the river and shouting their lungs out disturbing the tranquil and serene surroundings. This is not how I had visualized the double root bridge and this is not my idea of enjoying nature. Dismayed, we walked away towards the jungle and came back only in the evening.

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Pic 4: A single root bridge on way to Nongriat village.
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Pic 5: A closer look showing the floor of the bridge.

Earlier that day, while on our way to Nongriat, we had been to a single root bridge. It had a prominent notice displayed stating that only two people are allowed on the bridge at one time. But the crowd of over enthusiastic tourists had no time read that. We pointed out to many but they didn’t care. We waited for a very long time for the crowd to thin down before we embarked upon the bridge. The next day, we crossed two other bridges in the interiors of the village. Each one leaving us spellbound with their spectacular intricacies.

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Pic 6: Another single root bridge in the village.

Last year when I was home, we had visited the single root bridge at Mawlynlong. That one is accessible by road and hence remains very crowded. However, the day we visited there was no one. We were really lucky. Mother Nature ensured peace so that we could soak in her comforting ecstasy.

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Pic 7: The single root bridge at Mawlynlong village.

Brilliant

The Old City of Shanghai

As we explored the city of Shanghai, moving from one place to another, sometimes walking and sometimes in a taxi, what struck me was the remarkably beautiful roadsides and the sparkling cleanliness of the city. Besides, it’s a paradise for flower enthusiasts. There was colour everywhere. Even the road dividers were flower pots having multitudes of seasonal flowers. The dull and dreary rainy day was completely subdued and splashed with cheer and brightness all around.

Yuyuan Garden (Yu Yuan)

Yuyuan Garden provided a glimpse of what life was like in ancient China. Built during the Ming Dynasty, the garden has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the last few centuries and its latest restoration was completed in 1961. The place was bustling and overflowing with people. We jostled our way through the crowd of locals and tourists, as the aura of the place was transporting us to a different world.

The rock gardens, ponds, bridges, and pavilions stole the show and all the maneuvering through the crowd seemed worth the effort. Climbing onto the zigzag bridge passing through a pond of moss green water with plenty of orange fishes, we walked towards the mid-lake pavilion.

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The classical garden stood up to its name, ‘Yu’ in Chinese means ‘pleasing and satisfying’. 

The mid-lake pavilion was a fascinating elegantly designed 200 year old tea house. Being a tea-lover, this constituted the main highlight of Yuyuan Garden for me. If I had the time, I would have surely spent a couple of hours there tasting as many varieties of Chinese tea as I could. There is much more to the garden and I really wish I had more time to cover it all.

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The 200 year old Tea House
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Inside the Tea House, note the shelf on the right stacked with tins of different types of tea

City God Temple (Chenghuang Miao)

The City God temple is an ancient Taoist temple located in Old City and very close to Yuyuan Garden. We passed by the temple and saw it from outside.

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A selfie with Miss Sunny in front of Chenghuang Miao

Yuyuan Bazaar

A cluster of shops randomly scattered through narrow alleys greet you as you step out of Yuyuan Garden. Also known as Yuyuan Bazaar, the shops here sell souvenirs, scarves, t-shirts, etc. One of the lanes offer a variety of street food, many of which looked alien to me. I would have liked to dig deeper into those stalls to know more but once again the luxury of time I did not have. I had to satisfy my curiosity only by ogling at the variety of stuff that was on offer with occasional knowledge inputs from Miss Sunny.

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Stepping out of  Yuyuan Garden

Shanghai Old Street (Shanghai Lao Jie)

We passed by the lanes of Yuyuan Bazaar, crossed a street or two and landed into Shanghai Old Street. It was a busy street lined with curio shops and teahouses. Miss Sunny informed that this was the center of the Old Chinese City and foreigners seldom ventured here during the Concession days. Presently, this place looked vibrant with a lot of activities and exuded a contagious old world charm that cannot be missed. The corridor-like straight road lined with attractive shops on either side was a shopping paradise and can instantaneously change your mood.

The dormant shopaholic me raised its ugly head and overpowered the sane me.  The result was I ended up spending all the Chinese Yuan I had carried with me buying stuff from hand creams and face lotions to home decors, gifts and fake antiques. Miss Sunny’s expert advice came in handy in distinguishing the real stuff from the fake ones.

The laments and repents for my abrupt uncalled for action arrived sooner than expected when I was charged additional money for withdrawing cash from an ATM using my credit card.

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The shopping paradise – shopaholics beware!

It was indeed a great way to end my 7-hour Shanghai sightseeing. Miss Sunny dropped a happy and satisfied me back to my hotel. Due to the short time, I had to pick and choose and couldn’t visit all the places or do all the things I wanted to do. Hope to go back some day again.

Here’s a list of things that I would like to do, if I am lucky enough to land up at Shanghai again:

  • Take a night tour of the city
  • View the city from Oriental Pearl Tower
  • Shop at Nanjing Road
  • Take a ferry ride at the Bund at night
  • Ride in the site seeing tunnel below the Huangpu River
  • Ride the Maglev
  • Visit the water towns
  • Experience the traditional Chinese way of life at Qibao

[This post is a continuation. If you have missed the first part of this post, it’s here.]

 

 

Streets of Shanghai on a Sunday

Exploring ‘Paris of the East’ on a Cold and Rainy Day

Clad in a warm coat and a beautiful scarf, Miss Sunny was there right on time. “I think you should put on something warm”, she advised with a look of surprise seeing me ready to leave in a jeans and light sweater. It was an April morning and I was inside the comfort of my hotel with no idea how cold it was outside. Though there was no sun and the weather looked bleak and gloomy. I hadn’t packed proper warm clothes as I wasn’t prepared for it to be this cold. However, I went back to my room, scanned my suitcase and put on two more layers. Layering keeps you warm, and two t-shirts is equivalent to one sweater – one of the many things learnt during my Himalayan treks.

I was in Shanghai for a 3-day work-related visit and was put up at Renaissance Shanghai Caohejing Hotel, which is situated in the business district and a little off from the main city. Miss Sunny was my guide and kind enough to come all the way to escort me to the city. Otherwise, with my zero knowledge of Mandarin, it would have gotten difficult.

My Shanghai trip was close on the heels of a trek to the Himalayas and naturally I wasn’t too happy. I hoped and prayed that it would be moved but that didn’t happen. As I was reluctantly getting my tickets and booking my hotel, the traveler in me suddenly woke up, just in time, to remind that this was an opportunity! How could I miss that! So, I added a day to my itinerary to see what I can of Shanghai. A little bit of research and I found Miss Sunny through Trip Advisor recommendations and contacted her. And, I highly recommend her (sunnyerday@qq.com). Getting around in China can get tricky if you have no knowledge of Mandarin.

As we stepped out of the hotel, I realized just how cold it was! It was raining too and I had to borrow an umbrella from the hotel lobby. I am so not a rain person! Anyway, there was little I could do. So, I made peace and was all set to get a taste of the ‘Paris of the East’ with Miss Sunny by my side.

Jade Buddha Temple

We took a taxi and headed straight to the Jade Buddha temple, which is situated in the heart of the bustling city of Shanghai.

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The Jade Buddha Temple from the outside

The temple houses Buddha statues in two postures – sitting and reclining. The reclining one represents the Buddha’s death – the peaceful Sakyamuni. It portrays the sedate face of the Buddha and is also known as the ‘lucky repose’. There are two of these sparkling white and crystal-clear statues. The smaller one is the original famous Jade Buddha statue that was cut out of a single Jade and was imported by sea to Shanghai by Buddhist monks from Burma during the 1800s. The larger one is made of marble and was donated by Singapore. Miss Sunny mentioned that many people mistakenly think the larger one to be the Jade Buddha.

The temple is large. We walked around its three halls and two courtyards as Miss Sunny kept enlightening me with small nuggets of information every now and then. An interesting thing that I learnt here was the feminine form of Buddha – the Mother of Liberation, known as Quan Yin in China and Tara in Tibet. She is the Goddess of Compassion, a symbol of purity of heart and spirit. The female Buddha was new to me, I hadn’t known this before.

People’s Square (Renmin Guang Chang)

People’s Square is the main public square of the city with the main attractions being the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Grand Theater, and the People’s Park. People’s Square also has several tall buildings, fountains, and other structures. This place used to be a horse racing track before the Communist Revolution. Not much of a museum person, I decided to explore People’s Park instead.

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Gorgeous flower beds at People’s Park

The park was beautiful with flowers blooming all over. The unexpected splash of colours was enough to light up the dull and dreary day. As we strolled on admiring the colours, a flurry of activities diverted my attention nearby, where a group of men and women had gathered around colourful umbrellas laid out sporadically. On a closer look, I noticed all the umbrellas had some kind of laminated paper pasted on the outer side.

And I learnt a fascinating story. This was Shanghai marriage market where parents flock every weekend to find a match for their children. The laminated sheets contain details of bride or groom. Parents stick that on the outer side of an open umbrella and sit beside it all day for other parents to come by and if they think it’s a match they get their children connected. Reminded me of our online matrimony sites, though that’s virtual but same concept. The Marriage Market was unique and made my visit to People’s Square a memorable one.

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The Marriage Market at People’s Park

The Bund (Wai Tan)

The Bund is the waterfront area and has been the symbol of Shanghai for hundreds of years. It is located in central Shanghai on the banks of Huangpu River. Once again a splash of colours greeted us – the wall of flowers of various hues at the entrance. Infused with instant delight and happiness, I just kept gawking in awe.

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Greeted by this stunning flower wall at the Puxi side entrance of the Bund

We were at the western bank of Huangpu, known as the Puxi side. We walked on the pedestrian promenade on this side admiring the skyscrapers across the river, on the other side, and watched big ships pass by toting the world’s goods. The other side of Huangpu, where all the skyscrapers stood, is known as the Pudong side.

The Puxi side is characterized by 26 buildings of different architectural styles – Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Classicism and the Renaissance. The river was like a connecting link for the old and the new. Having seen this place in so many movies, walking on it felt quite surreal. The weather was playing spoilsport and had marred the view to a great extent.

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The hazy view was disappointing

Miss Sunny informed that there is a sightseeing tunnel of about 650 m. that runs under the river from the Bund in Puxi, to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong. It is supposedly an interesting experience by a speed train through the tunnel with colorful radiating lights. However, we had other places to visit and couldn’t go to Pudong just yet. My hotel was also in Pudong side. Miss Sunny also talked about the fantastic night view with the colorful lights floating on the river and the flashing lights from the far side of the river. One can also take a ferry ride and view the city from the river. I missed night views altogether as I had to reach office early the next morning and I couldn’t afford to compromise with my call of duty in anyway.

Former French Concession (Tianzifang)

The Former French Concession has a very European feel with its gorgeous tree-lined avenues and villa-style buildings. True to its name, the French once ruled this part of the city and many of Shanghai’s expat population live in this area. “After the Opium Wars, the French, the British, and the Americans were administering certain pockets of Shanghai”, explained Miss Sunny.

The area is marked by the presence of hip cafes and restaurants, concept bars, breweries, boutiques, art galleries and antique stores. We decided to have lunch here. I have forgotten the name of the place where we had lunch. Not just that, I can’t recall the names of any of the food items we had there other than Wulong Tea. And being the non-foodie that I am, I didn’t click any pictures of the exotic food! And, that’s making me feel awful right now! Miss Sunny had taken the trouble to explain each dish in great detail.

However, indulging in interesting conversations at the lunch table with Miss Sunny about life in general and the similarities and differences therewith in our respective countries was far more interesting to me than food at that moment.

I was loving every bit of my tour so far. The rainy day and the cumbersome umbrella was a botheration but I couldn’t care less. The city of Shanghai was incredible and everything amazed and fascinated me. After lunch it was time to go visit some parts of the old city.

Continued here…..

Moments of Bliss

Beside the Serene River Spiti…

I couldn’t have enough of the crystal clear emerald green water meandering its way through the nooks and corners of the big tall mountains. Sitting on the banks of Spiti River, all I could hear was the soft gentle gushing sound of water. The gurgling sound of water was healing and soothing to the mind. It was a moment of pure bliss and I felt transported to a different world. The serene calmness of the water quietened my mind and cleared out all thoughts. The peaceful moment was mystically overpowering and I could think of nothing else.

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Pic 1: Spiti River sometimes emerald green sometimes a tinge of blue

Originating from the Kunzum mountain range and fed by the glaciers melting from the top of the Himalayan range, the river is an epitome of peace and tranquility. Its calmness seem to radiate an eloquence and grace that made it gloriously beautiful. To me it seemed to be wearing a constant smile, welcoming me with open arms, and making me feel at home and comfortable.

Alongside the river and just a little distance away, runs the only road in Spiti Valley, which serves as a passageway for thousands of vehicles ferrying people across their destinations.The river didn’t seem to be affected at all by the tarmac road and its activities. It kept flowing along its own course shining and glowing all the way.

Shouldn’t I be like the river, I wondered? Unperturbed by all the happenings around me and be my best self always? Possibly I cannot but at least I can try. Will I remember this when I go back to the city?

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Pic 2: The tarmac road, the elegant river, and the barren mountains

The glistening stones smoothened over time with the flowing water was clearly visible through the shallow water. These stones laying on the river bed appeared to sparkle even though they were covered by a layer of colourless slippery moss. I tried stepping onto one but it didn’t let me stand. I wondered what stories they would tell. Each one would surely have a story of their own. They must have seen so much through the passage of time. If they could talk, what conversations would they have with me and with one another? I giggled at the thought of telling them about the world of AI and IoT.

I sat there for a long while staring at the transparent water. The river had captivated my imagination and I felt I could sit just like that forever. My mind was blank and I must have been smiling. “Didi, look here!” suddenly these words came flowing through the wind putting an end to my blissful reverie. It was my sister calling out from a distance. She was positioning her camera to click a picture. While I sat there, she walked along the banks, both of us were lost in our own worlds.

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Pic 3: I could sit there forever

Those moments of serenity and tranquility I treasure. Much as I wish, I cannot get that here in my city. Drowned in the humdrum of daily life, I miss those moments. The anticipation of the next such opportunity keeps me going. Until then, I just gratify myself with those wonderful moments carefully stored in a corner of my heart. My source of sustenance, as I patiently and eagerly wait for the next blissful moment….

Serene

My Brush with the Paranormal

When I stayed at a haunted hotel

A stifling sense of uneasiness crept in the moment I stepped into my room. I felt claustrophobic and was finding it difficult to breathe. Was it because the room was small? I don’t think so as I have stayed in smaller rooms before. Shouldn’t I be feeling really good to be in a room with a comfortable bed after having traveled for 24 hours through three flight between Bangalore and San Diego? Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me. Maybe a shower is what I need. I had an hour’s time before I met my colleagues at the hotel lobby as we had planned to go out for dinner.

Deciding to shower later before hitting the bed, I thought I would freshen up instead. I went to the bathroom and splashed my face with cold water, and thoroughly cleaned it using a lavish amount of facewash. I applied my face cream and changed into a set of fresh clothes. I thought I felt better. I still had time so I decided to unpack some of the things, at least the clothes I would wear for the night once am back from dinner. I bent over to my suitcase, which was lying on the floor and cast a sideward glance onto the bed.

The discomfort was back and this time I had this uncanny feeling of someone staring at me from the bed.

I gave up the idea of unpacking. Instead sat down on a chair and started fiddling with my phone. Opening the Whatsapp app, I sent a message to my sister informing her that I had reached. I also jokingly wrote to her, “I think this room is haunted. You know I feel someone’s lying on the bed staring at me. I am feeling eerie in here.” My sister responded with a laughter and asked me to change the room.

I was at San Diego for work along with a couple of colleagues. We were staying at the iconic US Grant Hotel, located in downtown San Diego, California. The 11-storied hotel was grand and spectacular with 270 guest rooms.

It is a historic hotel, even listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The hotel was opened in 1910 and belonged to Ulysses S. Grant Jr., the son of President Ulysses S. Grant, who dedicated the hotel to his father. At that time, it was a 437 roomed luxury palace with private baths, swimming pools, sprawling dining halls, and lavish ballrooms. Actually the hotel dates back to 1870 when it was known as Horton House and was the only major hotel in San Diego. It was purchased by Fanny Chaffee Grant, the wife of Ulysses S. Grant Jr. The hotel boasts of hosting people like John F. Kennedy, Stephen Spielberg, and even Albert Einstein.

I wasn’t aware of any of the historic detail until then. It was only later after I was back that I read up to learn more about it.

When I met my colleagues in the lobby, I casually mentioned that the grand hotel is not so grand afterall and the rooms seem suffocating. They didn’t seem to agree. So I visited their rooms, which were better and lacked the eeriness of my room. I requested the reception if my room could be changed. They readily agreed and after dinner I was transported to another room. The new room felt so much better though a slight discomfort remained but that was negligible as compared to the previous room. I chose to ignore that and went to bed and slept peacefully.

I have traveled multiple times to several cities in the world, lived in hotels and guest houses all by myself. I have never felt this way in any other place.

It was only two days later when I was at a dinner table with my American colleagues that someone started talking about this hotel being haunted and others chimed in with all kinds of stories. I was flabbergasted and jumped in to narrate my own experience. I don’t know if ghosts exist as I haven’t seen one, neither do I wish to, but I thanked my instincts that led me to change the room the day I arrived.

That night I couldn’t sleep even though I was in this new room. When I told all of this to my Bangalore colleagues the next day, nobody was surprised. Apparently, they had read this in the Internet and knew about it. How are they so cool about it, I wondered! I usually never read up to know about the hotels when it’s arranged by office as they are mostly 5-star hotels, so why bother. I thanked myself once again. This time for not reading anything beforehand. Then, I would have come in with preconceived ideas and whatever I felt in that room I would have attributed to that.

The story goes that the hotel was Fanny Grant’s pet project and she had put in a lot of effort and personal time in designing the hotel to make it one of the best. Within a year of opening of the hotel, she passed away. Her husband, Grant, Jr. remarried and moved into the hotel along with his new wife. Since then Fannie’s apparition, clad in an old-fashioned white dress, has been seen walking through the hallways. Other strange phenomena such as flickering lights and things being moved and misplaced within the blink of an eye keep happening.

The Internet is abound with these and several other stories associated with the hotel. Apparently, it’s the 5th floor that is haunted. All of which I thankfully discovered only after getting back to Bangalore.

I have never experienced anything paranormal and even this was just a brush. Surely doesn’t qualify as a paranormal experience. However, I cannot say for sure that such things don’t exist. There are tonnes of strange things that are beyond any explanations. And I do not hesitate to say that I am afraid of the unknown. I do believe in the existence of souls and in the concept of rebirth. And, I definitely believe that all souls are not associated with negative energy.

But afraid I am! Especially when I am alone…

Stifle

The Dreamy Desert Mountains

Sketches of my experience at Spiti Valley

It was dark in the room as I lay cozily tucked inside warm cotton quilts and blankets replaying the day’s events while my sister was fast asleep right beside me. It always takes me a while to fall asleep and this wasn’t unusual but today I wasn’t bothered as all I could see was the rugged roads and the radiant mountains. I smiled my way to sleep and couldn’t wait to be up the next morning.

The cold desert of Spiti Valley, with its austere barren mountains, deep gorges, emerald green river, ancient monasteries, gorgeous villages, and unique culture has given me a lifetime of memories and experiences. Here’s an attempt to capture the essence of Spiti through a brief outline of the places we visited.

Kaza – A Tiny Little Commercial Hub

Kaza brings memories of walking through narrow lanes of the busy little market area that sits right at its center.  Surrounded by jagged mountains, and situated at an altitude of 3,800 m. above sea level, Kaza is the capital of Lahaul and Spiti district. It is like a central place which connects all other places in the valley. On one side of the market area is a series of Chortens or Stupas that face the 14th century Tangyud Gompa. Just besides the Chortens is the only petrol bunk in the valley, which also happens to be the world’s highest retail outlet. The only ATM in the valley belonging to State Bank of India is also located in Kaza.

Solitude at Rangrik

While Kaza was bustling with activities, Rangrik’s solitude appealed to the nature-lovers in us. Situated at an altitude of 3699 m. from sea level, the quiet and sleepy village is marked by the large golden Buddha statue and prominent prayers written on the mountains. The village has a couple of good schools that attract students from all across Spiti. Our hotel, Spiti Sarai, was located a few meters away from the village homes just across Spiti river with sprawling open spaces. Initially we were disappointed about being 5 Km away from Kaza, but it turned out to be just as we would have wanted. We did things that we love to do, which wouldn’t have happened had we stayed at Kaza.

Walked in the open fields while watching the sun set behind the mountains; climbed up the long flight of stairs painted in white across the road to take a look at the Chorten up in the mountain but discovered a temple instead; clambered up the mountain looking for the cave with a magnetic rock that the hotel bell boy had talked about but took a wrong turn and ended up on a cliff overlooking the river on one side and the cave on the other and had to be satisfied with only a view of the cave from a distance. Most importantly, we spent a considerable time lazing on the banks of Spiti River.

Autumn Colours at Mane Village

The most notable thing about Mane was the vibrant Autumn colours in various shades of yellow and gold. Situated at an altitude of 2926 m, the village has a small Gompa that did not appeal much to us. Other than this, there is nothing much in this village. We spent  most of our time here interacting with the village kids. Later, we got to know that there is a lake known as Sopona Lake, which is a 2-3 Km trek away from the village.

The Buddhist Mummy at Gue

The intriguing mummy at Gue had captivated my imagination right from the first time I had heard about it. After I landed in Spiti, I could no longer contain my curiosity and kept asking about it to everyone I met. Finally, I was at Gue and as I knelt in reverence, it was a moment of awe that no words can describe. The remarkably well preserved mummy in a sitting position with intact hair and nails left us astonished. That no chemicals are used, the natural mummification just left us marveling. At a distance of about 80 Km and a few kilometers away from the Indo-China border, Gue is the furthest village from Kaza. Situated at an altitude of around 3200 m, Gue is famous for this 500-600 year old naturally preserved mummy of a Lama that was discovered by the army after an old tomb containing the mummified body had opened up following the earthquake in 1975. The mummy is now kept in a separate chamber inside a glass casing just beside the village Gompa. Locals believe that the mummy is of Lama Sangha Tenzin, who had sacrificed his life to free the village from a menace of scorpions. They say when the Lama’s soul left his body there was a rainbow in the sky and the scorpions had disappeared. Carbon Dating has scientifically established the mummy to be of a 45 year old Lama from the last quarter of 15th century. The Lama apparently belonged to Gelugapa order who are practitioners of Zogchen, the highest form of meditation. This is the only Buddhist mummy in the world and also the only known naturally preserved mummy in India.

Apple Orchards & Mud Monastery at Tabo

The extraordinary Mud Monastery at Tabo took us by surprise as I had not heard/read about this before. Tabo is situated at an altitude of 3279 m. and the monastery dates back to 996 CE, the Tibetan year of the Fire Ape, when it was founded. The monastery, consisting of temples and Chortens, is completely made of Mud and is surrounded by tall mountains that supposedly have a number of caves carved into the cliff face that are used by the monks for meditation. That’s why Tabo Monastery is known as the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’. We read about the caves in the description provided in the signboard but didn’t have the time to go see them. We got to know that the Dalai Lama considers Tabo Monastery to be one of the holiest and has also expressed his desire to retire in this ancient monastery. He has also held Kalachakra ceremonies here in 1983 and 1996.

The same compound also has the new monastery, which is concrete and of modern architecture. We were fortunate to attend a prayer ritual that was happening at the new monastery when we were around. Tabo Gompa houses many ancient and priceless Buddhist manuscripts and is considered second in importance to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet.

Tabo also fascinated us with its apple orchards, which start off many miles before reaching the village and continue many miles beyond it. To top it all, the apple trees were covered with ripe red apples and it was with great difficulty that we controlled our desire to just go and pluck off a few. Even the monastery has a garden of apple trees with the tonnes of apples hanging from the trees.

The Quaint Villages of Kibber, Lhalung, & Chicham

We experienced the local culture through our homestays at Kibber and Lhalung village. The enriching experiences at the homestays demanded a separate post altogether. An important highlight worth mentioning here is catching a glimpse of the red-eyed fox on our way to Lhalung as it quickly passed by our car and went down the mountain.

While at Kibber, we went to visit the newly inaugurated bridge that connects Kibber to Chicham village – a bridge that took 17 years to complete. It is unnerving to think that before this bridge, people would use a trolley tied through a ropeway between the deep gorges at a drop of about 150 m. to go to Chicham. It’s not surprising that many people have lost their lives during this commute, which was the only mode of connectivity to Chicham.

Dhankar Gompa from a Distance

Dhankar village is famous for the 1000 year old Dhankar Gompa and the mesmerizing Dhankar lake, which can be reached only after a steep climb of about 3 Kms up the mountain. The quiet and solitude at the lake made all the climb totally worthwhile.

The Dhankar monastery is built on a high spur of the mountain overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Dhankar was the traditional capital of Spiti Valley and the monastery is like a fort that also served as a prison. Dhankar literally means fort on a cliff (Dhan: cliff, and Kar: fort). Most of the fort is in ruins now after the 1975 earthquake. A new Gompa has also been built but the old one is truly fascinating. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to explore the fort and had to satisfy ourselves with the view from a distance. However, we were lucky to have spotted a few blue sheep grazing up in the mountain on our way to Dhankar. You can’t have it all…can you!

The Pristine Beauty of Pin Valley

Pin Valley mesmerized us with its gorgeous landscape. Pin River, with its majestic greenish-blue color runs throughout the length of this fascinating valley before merging with Spiti River. Pin also houses the ‘Pin Valley National Park’. We took a drive down the valley upto Mud village but did not have enough time to visit the National Park.

Our Pin Valley drive can be summed up as a sunny day with azure blue sky alongside the graceful and sinuous Pin River through the enchanting silence of miles and miles of isolation accompanied by stunning views of the mottled desert mountains.

We crossed several villages on the way of which Mikkim is worth mentioning as its population of only 30 amazed us. We also walked on a hanging bridge over the river and visited Kungri Gompa on the way. Kungri is the second oldest Gompa in the Lahaul and Spiti Valley and has the distinction of being the only monastery, which belongs to the Nyingmapa order of Buddhism.

Looking for Fossils at Langza

Situated at an altitude of 4400 m., Langza village is dominated by a large statue of Lord Buddha, overlooking the valley. Langza is also the place to find fossils of marine animals and plants, which is attributed to Spiti Valley being submerged in the Tethys Sea millions of years ago. We expected to see a few but got to know that they can be found only if we trek higher up in the mountains.

Seabuckthorn Tea at Komic

Situated at a towering height of 4587m, Komic’s distinguishing feature is that it is the highest village in the world connected by a motorable road. However, our memories of Komic is associated with Seabuckthorn tea as this was where we had tasted it for the first time.  Seabuckthorn are orangish berries, the shrubs of which are scattered all over Spiti Valley. These fruits are a rich source of vitamin-C and due to their therapeutic properties are used in traditional medicines. The dried and crushed form make amazing organic tea that tastes like hot Fanta though we enjoyed eating them right off the plants too!

Posting Letters at Hikkim

Hikkim was super special – after all not everyday you get to post letters from the highest post office in the world. We sent post cards back home to our parents, which they are yet to receive and which is a surprise. Can’t wait to see their reactions. We also posted cards to our own addresses in the city and which have already arrived. At an altitude of 4440 m., Hikkim also has the highest polling booth in India. While driving back from Hikkim, we got lucky again and this time witnessed two Ibexes looking down at us from the mountain top.

Praying at Kee Monastery [or Key Monastery]

Picturesquely perched on a hilltop, Kee Monastery appears like a fortress with its haphazardly stacked rooms and temples. At an altitude of 4,116 m., the over 1000-year-old monastery is the oldest training center for Lamas and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Besides invaders, it has also dealt with natural calamities of fire and earthquake. It has a vast collection of ancient murals, books and centuries old thangkas. We had expected to see a flurry of activities in the monastery with Lamas of all age groups busily carrying out their daily activities. None of that happened and the monastery wore a barren look as all the Lamas had gone over to Kaza that day for attending a ceremony. Also, we had plans of spending a night at the monastery but our amazing homestay experience resulted in swapping it with another homestay instead. So, we explored the monastery, prayed, and chatted with the only Lama available and headed for Gette.

Tying Prayer Flags at Gette

Dozens of prayer flags fluttering in the strong wind tied around an old Chorten on a hilltop is what greeted us at Gette. Surrounded by tall mountains and situated at a height of 4270m., it is also a viewpoint for Kee monastery that lies on one side of the valley.  On the other side is the Gette village, which has only 2-3 houses. There was nobody other than us at Gette at that point of time and we spent our time leisurely tying prayer flags and clicking selfies while reveling with the wind in our hairs.

Kunzum La and Chandrataal

It was afternoon and the wind was blowing strong when we reached Kunzum La on our way to Spiti. The prayer flags were fluttering and the landscape around it breathtaking. Situated at an altitude of 4,590 m. Kumzum La is the gateway to Spiti being the only motorable route that connects Kullu valley and Lahaul Valley with Spiti Valley. It also offers a spectacular view of Bara-Sigri, the second the longest glacier in the world. A series of Chortens and prayers written on flat stones are prominently displayed. All vehicles passing by this route stop here and pay respect to Kunzum Devi. The stunning Chandrataal is at a distance of 9.5 Km from Kumzum La and the more I say about Chandrataal the less it is and definitely demands a separate post.

Spiti Valley feels like a dream. The surreal landscapes that remain cut-off by snow from the rest of the country for at least 7 months a year is a different world altogether and has completely enthralled me. I have already written so many posts on it but it still feels like I have so much more to share…..And now I can totally relate to Rudyard Kipling’s description of Spiti –

“At last entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here.”

Rugged Road to Radiant Mountains

The rollercoaster of a ride to Spiti Valley

As the car started climbing up the winding mountain road from Manali, I could sense the rush of that familiar feeling of excitement and happiness – which surfaces only when I am headed to the mountains, Himalayas to be more specific. And this time I was about to explore the cold desert mountains of Western Himalayas.

We were on our way to Spiti, the land between Tibet and India. The name ‘Spiti’ literally means ‘The Middle Land’

Spiti had been on my mind for a long time now, right from the time I came to know about it, 7 years back. However, it happened rather suddenly when impulsively I asked my Manager for leave amidst extremely busy times at office not knowing that it would be granted and everything was planned in less than two weeks. And, then my sister offered to join in. Magic just happens, all you need is the intent!

The winding roads continued as we feasted our eyes on the green conifers shining in the early morning light. As we crossed Rohtang Pass, the green trees disappeared almost suddenly being replaced by massive rocky mountains. Almost simultaneously, the tarred road also disappeared and it was replaced by a pathway strewn with pebbles and loose mud.

The pathway got narrow and narrower and seemed to hang precariously on the mountain slopes. Further ahead, the pebbles were replaced by larger stones and there were huge rocks planted randomly here and there. Every now and then I thought we were about to hit a dead end but a hidden path would emerge from nowhere. On occasions we were asked to step out of the car and walk up a few meters only to reduce the load and make it easier for Raju, the driver of our car.

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Pic 1: A glimpse of the road!
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Pic 2: A test of your driving skills and your patience

We rode across several waterfall, which we learned are known as ‘Nalla’ in everyday verbiage in this part of the world. These constitute water coming from the glaciers and the quantity of water increases as the day progresses. Some of these were pretty risky. For us, it was sheer Adrenalin rush but not quite for Raju who had to manipulate his way carefully and at one time he even sent out a sincere prayer to the Almighty. He had already displayed his driving expertise, why did he have to do that! He revealed a couple of experiences – once when his car had gotten stuck at one such nalla forcing him to spend the cold night in his car and another when he saw his friend’s car skid and fall into the deep gorge, thankfully his friend was saved. Raju also entertained us with other interesting stories of the road – sudden snow falls, increased water levels in the nallas, traffic jams created by broken vehicles, etc.

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Pic 3: Back-breaking but views that more than compensate

The bumpy ride rattled every bone in our body but we weren’t bothered. Just one look out of the window is all it took to forget the tumultuous journey.

Humongous mountains fiercely stared at us revealing their might with river Chandra gushing below with its emerald green water. It’s difficult to comprehend that there can be so much splendor in the rugged and starkly bare sky-touching mountains. We marveled at the various shades of brown, black, white, and grey. Later on in Spiti, we also found splendid shades of peach, amber, orange, and yellow. The mountains were intricately patterned and curved and each one looked uniquely different. The impressive craftsmanship is attributed to the melting snow as it flows down towards the river.

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Pic 4: Those colours and intricate patterns curved out by melting snow.

It was the beginning of October and there wasn’t much snow around. Though the mountain tops did have some snow and some of them were fresh. Winter was just round the corner and soon everything would be carpeted in white. In fact, the route from Manali would also close down. The way from Shimla would however remain open.

We learn from our driver, Raju, that the route from Shimla is what we should have ideally taken. Usually people start from Shimla and end at Manali. Though getting to Kaza, the main town of Spiti through Shimla will take you upto 3 days as compared to just one day through Manali. However, that route will take you through the beautiful places of Kalpa and Chitkul of Kinnaur Valley. Also, the road from Shimla is a properly tarred one.  I realized in my hurry I hadn’t done my research well enough.

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Pic 5: The long and winding roads across fascinating landscapes
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Pic 6: One of the many magnificent bridges we crossed

The route though Shimla would have been wonderful but I don’t regret having taken the one from Manali.  It was definitely worth the experience in its entirety and it also appealed to my adventurous spirit. At one point we even landed at a place where the road was missing, a huge boulder had apparently fallen from the mountain taking along with it a portion of the road. We had to wait for a while and a make shift road was put in place by using stones. Another time a local villager stopped us asking if we could drop him to Losar, which was a village on the way. We readily agreed and had some interesting conversations on the way. Not just that, when we saw yaks grazing in the wilderness our excitement took over us and he drove one of the yaks towards us so that we could get a good picture.

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Pic 7: The villager chasing the yak for us
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Pic 8: When the herd interrupted us
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Pic 9: There were hundreds of tiny birds on this shrub, which flew away the moment we approached. I feel handicapped with my phone camera at such times!

After all the adventures, as the sun was setting for the day, we reached Spiti. To our surprise, we were greeted by superbly tarred and smooth roads that were starkly contrasting to what we had endured so far. “This feels like butter!”, I heard my sister remark from the backseat. “Now, that’s cheesy!” I grinned from the front seat, where I had shifted to be alongside Raju a long while ago.

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Pic 10: Just when the roads were getting better 

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