It was nearly dinner time and we were all set to hit the streets once again. We couldn’t wait to explore all the restaurants and cafes that we had seen earlier. If you have been to Pokhara, in Nepal, you will know exactly what I mean. As we stepped out of our room, I heard my sister say, “I miss Amar!”. Amar had dropped us at Pokhara that afternoon and left for Kathmandu. We had really gotten used to Amar and this statement was repeated multiple times in overt and covert ways over the next 2-3 days, till we left Nepal.
Missing Amar happened out of blue this morning, once again. We wondered if all was okay with him and his family during this global Covid 19 pandemic. We googled to find out how Nepal was coping with the pandemic. Amar’s phone didn’t connect. So, we left a message in his boss’ mobile, who got back letting us know all was good and Amar had left for his village before the outbreak.
ABC Trek has a well-marked trail and the risks of losing your way or getting stranded somewhere with no help is minimal. The tea houses along the way make it even easier as you don’t need to put up in tents. This trek can be easily done by yourself and you don’t need a guide. Also, trekking in Nepal is very organized and the experience is very different from treks in India.
However, I chose to go with a guide for two primary reasons – First and foremost having a local guide means you are exposed to the local culture through fascinating stories and folklore, which you otherwise never get to know. Second, is related to logistics as the guide helps carry the backpack and you can trek with a smaller day bag; takes care of tea house bookings, which can be tough during peak seasons. Also, it’s a way of contributing to the local economy.
There are numerous trekking agencies in Nepal and selecting the right one can be quite a task. I decided to go with Nepal Alternative Treks & Expeditions (P.)Ltd, a trekking agency recommended by fellow blogger, Indranil Chatterjee – do check out his blog Break Shackles. In fact, I did no research and did not even try to look for other options. The reason being, Indranil had trekked ABC the year before along with his 8-year old daughter. His posts fascinated me as trekking with your child in the uncertainties of the Himalayas is no mean feat. Hence, I looked no further. My job became easier.
Through Indranil, I connected with Tej Bahadur and planned my trip. When Tej introduced us to Amar in Kathmandu, we were pleasantly surprised as he looked too polished to be a trek leader. His attire and appearance gave the impression of a regular office-goer than a trek guide. Well, looks can be deceiving and that’s what was happening. Amar was like our little genie, taking care of us and always fulfilling our wishes and desires. Amar’s unparallel hospitality often left us feeling uncomfortable, we aren’t always used to someone being at our disposal. At every step he treated us like his personal guests.
A perfect gentleman, Amar holds a Post Graduate degree in Mathematics from Kathmandu University. He was planning to start working on his PhD soon. That first appearance wasn’t all that deceiving, you see! Amar belongs to the mountains and trekking runs in his genes. It was because of Amar that our ABC Trek experience became so much more enriched and memorable.
“Myself Pradeep Sharma, no wife, no children, no mummy, no papa…”, he effusively stated while extending his hand for a quick handshake. “Chaye pee ke jaiye”, he continued “humari taraf se”, pointing towards the tea shop right behind him. (Have a cup of tea, it’s on me). I politely refused, while my sisters giggled right behind me.
This was one of the many sadhus we came across in the ghats of Benaras. The sadhus were of all kinds – some in their own world, some wandering aimlessly, some looking to earn a quick buck, some asking for alms, some irritated and upset, some busy performing pujas and yagnas.
I will narrate two funny encounters.
The Jovial Sadhu
We were passing by Darbhanga Ghat towards Dashashwamedh Ghat when we noticed this man talking to a family of 4-5 people. It appeared like they were seeking a solution to some problem and our man was happily obliging. We paused a few meters away watching him. The ash-smeared skin, the disheveled looks, the unkempt beard, the red dhoti, presented us with the perfect photo opportunity. By now, we had learnt that if you approach any such person for a photo either they outright refuse to oblige or ask for money in lieu of a photo. But this time it turned out to be different.
The man called us and said that we could freely click pictures of him if we wanted, he wouldn’t mind, and that he doesn’t want money in return. Having seen tourists in plenty, he had guessed our intention. After the family left, he posed for us in various ways. His enthusiasm was hilariously enjoyable.
The next day, we happened to pass by the same area when we saw someone smiling at us. It took us a while to recognize our jovial sadhu as he was wearing a woollen cap and a sweater. Though we said nothing this time, he offered to pose with us. We were busily headed somewhere but he insisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer. We just had to agree to his enthusiasm. In return, he took off his cap and sweater in the cold winter morning and posed in many different ways making sure all three of us had separate pictures with him. It didn’t matter whether we wanted a picture or not.
Happy with his earnest enthusiasm, we offered him a fifty rupee note, which he readily accepted.
The Santa Clause Sadhu
We were standing at the turning of a narrow alley waiting for the doors of a nearby temple to open for the evening. That was when I noticed a plump pot-bellied man with a flowing white beard and a red/orange robe walking towards us through the alley, which was empty until now. I alerted my sister, who was creating a photo series on sadhus. My sister jumped into action forgetting to be discreet.
As expected, the man asked for money the moment he approached the turning where we were standing. We looked away pretending not to listen. At the same time a small boy appeared from the neighbourhood and started teasing him – “Sadhubaba, Sadhubaba, zara Hanuman Chalisa toh padke sunao!”, (Sadhubaba, why don’t you recite the Hanuman Chalissa for us!). The man laughed boisterously and playfully brandished his stick as if to hit the small boy.
Suddenly the atmosphere became light. Digging into my pocket, I found a ten rupee note that I handed over to him. As if obliged by this gesture, he recommended a weird remedy for some unknown problem. We were supposed to take a peda (an Indian sweet) every Saturday, encircle the same around our heads three times and then feed it to a dog. This antidote to some non-existent problem was hilarious and led to a lot of playful bantering.
Later in the day, we encountered the same sadhu once again and this time we noticed he looked a lot like Santa Clause. We had to click a few pictures.
Benaras had us engulfed in its quaint and historical charm despite all the negativities and oddities – the chaos, the crowd, the touts. The energy of the Spiritual Capital of India is hard to ignore. We found ourselves embracing and enjoying every bit of it as we blended into the surroundings with utmost ease.
Not surprising though. Every nook and corner has something that would capture your mind, something that you wouldn’t have seen anywhere before, something that’s exciting enough to thoroughly engage you – the seers and the sadhus, each one different from the other; the colourful boats some parked on the ghats, others ferrying scores of people through River Ganges; the curious tourists trying to make sense of the surroundings; the vibrant ghats exuding stories everywhere; the crowded and narrow alleyways with houses, lodges, temples, shops, restaurants, people, cows, dogs, bikes, and what not; the paan shops and the sweet shops; the list is endless.
The three of us had decided unanimously that we wanted to walk the length of the ghats. There are 88 ghats and we were told they cover a distance of about 12 Km. I am not too sure of the distance though.
We walked from Daseshwamedh right up to Assi Ghat, which happens to be the last ghat at one end. Then, we retraced our path and went right up to Panchaganga Ghat towards the other end. Our guess is we would have covered about 70 ghats. We would have continued beyond Panchaganga had we not run out of time. We didn’t want to miss the evening aarti at Daseshwamedh Ghat, though it wasn’t the first time we would be watching it. Also, we walked leisurely aiming to experience the ghats rather than to rush and cover them all.
Here’s an account of the ghats that touched us a little more than the others:
This is the oldest ghat and considered to be the most important one. It’s also the busiest and one cannot escape its vibrancy and liveliness. The famous Ganga Aarti (Ganga River worship ceremony) is staged on this ghat every evening. Ironically, this overcrowded busy ghat attracted us the most, all because of its energetic surroundings. Persistent boat owners, flower sellers, pujaris, pilgrims, tourists, sadhus, temples, tiny shops, massage practitioners, touts of all kinds – Daseshwamedh had it all. One can just sit on the steps and spend an entire day simply watching people and their activities.
The Story Behind: Lord Brahma is said to have sacrificed 10 horses at this place. (Medh meaning sacrifice; Das meaning ten; and Aswa meaning horse)
Chet Singh Ghat
It is the Chet Singh fort on this ghat that attracted us the most besides the fact that it was a relatively quieter ghat. Nothing much was happening here.
The Story Behind: The name of this ghat is derived from the Palace of Raja Chet Singh, the illegitimate son of Balwant Singh, the first Maharaja of Banaras. This ghat witnessed a fierce battle between the troops of Warren Hastings and Chet Singh in 1781.
The quietude of this ghat is what appealed to us most. The fortified Akhara situated here also made it quite intriguing.
The Story Behind:Named after the Mahanirvani sect of Naga Sadhus, this ghat houses their famous Akhara as well. This Ghat also has four small Shiva Temple, said to have been made by Nepal’s Maharaja.
We visited this ghat thrice in our attempt to visit Trailanga Swami’s Ashram, which wasn’t happening for some reason or the other. A yogi and mystic, famed for his spiritual powers, Trailanga Swami is one of the 54 foremost saints of India. The great saint, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, referred to him as “The walking Shiva of Varanasi”.
The Story Behind:Panchaganga Ghat (Pancha means five) is supposed to be the meeting point of five rivers – Ganga, Dhutapapa, Kiran, Nadi, Saraswati, and Yamuna – but only Ganga is visible.
The feeling of heaviness is what we associated with this ghat. This is the burning ghat, where dead bodies are cremated. This ghat is considered to be an auspicious place for Hindu cremation. Pyres burn non-stop here. There were about five pyres burning when we were there. The overpowering smoke rising from the pyres made it difficult to stand here for long.
“Would it be appropriate to call this Death Tourism along the lines of Adventure Tourism or Medical Tourism?” we wondered.
The huge piles of firewood stacked along the ghat made us depressed, thinking about all the trees that have been chopped off. The three of us agreed in one voice that given a chance, we would like to be cremated in Manikarnika Ghat because of all the mythology associated with it, but in electric pyres.
The Story Behind: It is a belief in Hinduism that cremation in Manikarnika Ghat leads to moksha (complete liberation from the cycle of birth and death). There are a couple of legends about this ghat and almost all are associated with Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.
One talks about Lord Vishnu digging a pit with his Chakra, the pit gets filled with his perspiration, and Lord Shiva’s earring falls in the pit while watching Lord Vishnu in action. (Mani means jewel in the earring and Karnam means ear).
Another talks about Goddess Parvati hiding her earring and asking Lord Shiva to look for it in the hope that the Lord would remain near her forever searching for the lost earring.
Yet another, says that Manikarnika is a Shakti Peeth and Sati Devi’s earing had fallen here.
Some sources also say that Manikarnik Ghat is named after the Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibhai.
This is the only other ghat that is dedicated to cremation rituals. There was a pyre burning in this ghat while another dead body arrived on a bamboo stretcher draped in shining yellow and red sheets of cloth amidst chants of ‘Ram naam satya hai’ (Truth is the name of Lord Rama.)
The Story Behind: Like Manikarnika, bodies cremated here are believed to attain moksha. This ghat is named after the mythical King Harishchandra, who worked at the cremation grounds for the establishment of truth and justice. Rishi Vishwamitra, a sage, asked the king to pay him a ritual fee. The king, known for his generosity gave up his entire kingdom, wealth, and riches but the sage was still not satisfied. Dejected, the king made his way to Kashi. Here he sold his wife and son into slavery and offered himself up for bondage. Years later his wife visited the cremation ground with their son’s dead body who had died from a snake bite. This was supposed to have been the final test for the King. The Gods rewarded him for his honesty, strength, and courage by giving back his throne, kingdom, and son.
It was still dark in the wee hours of that December morning as we stepped onto Daseshwamedh Ghat. The thought of sunrise over River Ganges was enough to get us out of bed and brave the cold at a temperature of 4-5 degrees centigrade. With teeth chattering and every exposed part of the skin going numb, we stood there looking around eagerly. A boat owner would come up asking if we wanted a boat ride like it had been happening every time we landed at the ghats.
And, soon someone approached, the requirement was discussed, the price negotiated, and we were rowing away into the darkness through the calm waters of River Ganges.
So focused we were on sunrise, that we failed to anticipate the fog that could shroud everything on a cold winter morning. As darkness gave way to morning light, we found ourselves engulfed in a sphere of haze where we could see nothing more than each other’s face. Forget the Sun, we couldn’t even see the ghats from the boat. The cold seeped into our bones as we realized our folly and the fact that we had wasted Rs.1200 on the boat for no reason.
We spent the other mornings walking the alleys and ghats, and visiting the Kashi Vishwanath temple. The latter I had to do twice, accompanying both my sisters on separate occasions. The less I say about the temple, the better it is. Not for my faith in the presiding deity of Lord Shiva, which I have enough, but the touts that seek out people like us, who have no patience or inclination to wait in the never-ending serpentine queues. The likes of us put up with them and their unreasonable demands only for a quick entry to the temple. Ironically, it’s people like us who encourage them and their unscrupulous activities – I plead guilty!
Our daily evening ritual at Varanasi was simple – watch Ganga Aarti and then binge on the street food. The evening Ganga Aarti or ceremonial worship of River Ganga is a well-orchestrated activity that is a must see at Varanasi. An elaborate make-shift arrangement is made every single day, which is again dismantled after the show is over.
A dedicated team from Gangotri Seva Samiti sets up seven elevated planks on which they sprinkle flower petals, mainly Marigold and Rose, making a gorgeous carpet out of them. Against each plank, they arrange several puja paraphernalia, including a layered brass lamp, flowers, incense sticks, conch shell, and so on. The team also manages the hundreds of devotees and tourists that gather every evening at Daseshwamedh Ghat – the place where the Aarti happens every evening.
We learn that the Aarti is performed by learned pundits of Vedas and Upanishads who are handpicked from institutes that impart Vedic Studies, like Benaras Hindu University (BHU).
The well-organized series of activities making for the Aarti left us stumped and we wondered how much of a practice might have gone into this. The Aarti began by blowing of conch shells and rhythmic chanting of holy mantras. Thereafter brass lamps, incense sticks, and other items were synchronously used one by one, as bhajans (hymns) played out in the background.
One can see the Aarti either by sitting on the stairs of the ghat, from the boats facing the ghat, or from the canopy of Ganga Sewa Nidhi office. We watched the Aarti from three different places on three different days. The first day was from a boat. The next day we decided to participate in Ganga Puja, which happens just before the start of the Aarti. We booked our slot by paying a fee at the Ganga Sewa Nidhi office. The Aarti Pundits conduct this Puja and it also guarantees a special seat right behind the Aarti platform.
We were also pleasantly surprised to find that a photographer had clicked our pictures while we conducted the Puja. His purpose was to sell the pictures to us, which he successfully did so at Rs. 20 per picture. We were delighted.
The food we binged on every evening consisted of a wide variety of snacks, from samosas to chats to pakoras and all kinds of stuff, deep fried in oil. Unhealthy, but who cares. We hardly ever do this in our city of Bangalore, rather there isn’t any scope to do so with the almost non-existent roadside food in the city. And, not to forget the sweetmeats – the pedas, the gulab jamuns, and of course the one and only Malaiyo.
My mouth waters as I remember these lip smacking food items and to think that I am a non-foodie….
No, this isn’t my kind of a place! Overcrowded, untidy and utterly chaotic – I should be feeling disquiet, anxious, edgy, and uncomfortable. None of that was happening. Instead curiosity and fascination was overtaking me. The energy of the place was seeping into me. I muttered something and my sister said – Welcome to Benaras!
Also known as Banaras, or Kashi and more popularly Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
My Varanasi sojourn started with my phone going totally out of service right from the time I stepped into the airport and it remained that way till I left the city. I was hardly concerned, however, as I knew I wasn’t alone. My sister was arriving an hour and a half later from Kolkata. [Well, my cousin sister but hailing from a joint family we don’t prefer to use the term cousin]. I was meeting her after 4 long years and my anticipation knew no bounds. I made sure to occupy a seat somewhere between the departure gate and the baggage carousal section so that I wouldn’t miss her. She would have no idea that my phone wasn’t working.
The taxi we booked from the airport to our place of stay dropped us somewhere in the middle of a chaotic marketplace. From there we were guided through lanes and bylanes to Chatterbox Hostel at Bangali Tola, our place of stay for the next 4 days. The narrow unkempt lanes were quite a shocker for me even though I was mentally prepared after having heard/read stories about them. I even doubted my decision of booking a place of stay in Bangali Tola, which I knew was an area marked by these network of narrow lanes and bylanes.
Soon I would realize what a good decision that was. I will have to write a separate post on the lanes.
It was around 9 PM, when we arrived at the hostel. We had booked a separate room for ourselves. For now, it was just the two of us till my sister from Bangalore joins us two days after. Dumping our bags, we stepped out immediately for dinner and a quick exploration of the neighbouring area.
Walking through the narrow lane, dodging cows and street dogs, we settled for a restaurant that got us interested just by the way it was decorated with things like cotton sarees and jute artifacts. As we waited for dinner to arrive, we decided to grab tea from a tea shop that was bang opposite. We were seated outside, and the narrow lanes meant all we had to do was extend our arms to the tea shop to get our tea cups.
The tea shop was the untidiest I had ever seen. The walls were black with permanent deposits of soot and didn’t look like it was ever painted. The pan where tea was prepared never seemed to have been washed. It was, however, the best tea I ever had. Thereafter the tea shop became a regular visit for us over the next 4 days.
After dinner, a 2 min walk led us to Ganga Ghat. It was quite late and we had no clue which ghat we were at. My first sight of River Ganga in the quietude of the night was nothing but magical. Peace, tranquility, and happiness is all I remember. It was freezing cold with North India being swept by a cold wave at that time. There were very few people around, some played badminton, some seated in a circle around a small fire that they would have created, some walked around, some simply huddled in a groups busy chatting away, and some were alone staring at the river.
Ganga looked calm and beautiful with hundreds of colourful boats tied along the shore.
We walked towards one side and in another 2 minutes arrived at Dasaswamedh Ghat, the oldest and the most important ghat at Varanasi. It was 11.00 PM as we settled down finding our own corner in the largely empty ghat. Wondering how much the ghat might be buzzing with activities during Ganga Aarti in the evening and also during other times of the day, we went on talking about our lives and catching up on the millions of things we had to share with each other.
Soon we started noticing several people kneading dough with atta or wheat flour on the ghat floor in various places across the ghat. My sister and I went about speculating and making our own assumptions on the purpose of their activity. Curiosity got the better of me and I headed towards three young men who were chit-chatting and kneading as a team. I learn they do this to create small balls that they throw into River Ganga for feeding fish. And, why do they do this? To feed a living creature before retiring for the night. This ensued an interesting discussion in that cold December night with these young men – mostly in their 20s.
My mind, unheeding, went into an unfair comparison of the seemingly uncomplicated lives of these men with their counterparts in my city of Bangalore where the corporate world swallows all these simple pleasures of life.
Emotions took the better of me when I had started writing my year-end post (read more about that here). Those emotions kept aside, 2019 has been one of the most beautiful years for me and in a very unusual way. The highlight of this year has been people and what better for the people person that I am!
Here are some of the top highlights of 2019 that I remain grateful for:
Who says you don’t find real people in the Internet! I did. Through WordPress, I have met some of the best people and I am never tired of saying that. This year was different as I met so many of them in person. I want to say a BIG THANK YOU to each of you for the warm and heartfelt moments you have added into my life!
It started with Todd and Sage, when I met them in Bangalore during their trip to India in the beginning of this year. I even had the good fortune of attending a story-telling session by Sage.
Thereafter I met Debdutta, who decided to make me his family and call me his elder sister rather than a friend. Along with him and his friends, I spend a memorable weekend at Kōḻikōḍ.
Then I met Arvind – most of you would know him and I’d be surprised if you didn’t. We spent an entire morning sharing travel stories over innumerable cups of filter coffee accompanied by dosas, when he had visited Bangalore earlier this year.
Last but not the least, Dilip and I became such great friends that I hosted him in my house when he stopped by Bangalore on his way back from his Leh cycling trip.
Note: I must mention two others though I am yet to meet them in person:
Hariom and I nearly planned a trip together but that didn’t happen. In him, I have found an extraordinarily special friend and it feels like I have always known him.
Narendra, with whom my connection went beyond WordPress and who has been a constant encouragement in so many ways.
It was through Internet again that I met Ambrose Trueman – the cyclist, poet, writer, and adventurer. We connected through Instagram and met in person in Shillong this year. His gesture of taking all the trouble of getting me the traditional rice cake as I had never tasted it is something I cannot forget.
A set of rather unusual circumstances led to my meeting the ultra marathoners, Banajit Burman and Asif Ahmed. Asif become a rather close friend and it feels like we’ve known each other for a very long time now.
I have been busier than usual this year and all for the good reason of spending time with people. Almost every weekend I’ve had friends visiting me at home, some from other cities – no complaints! Just that it has affected the frequency of my WordPress posts.
I got to spend more than a month in my home, Shillong, where I visited and explored several new places, including Mawlyngbna and Mawphanlur. Most importantly, my nephew, Abheeshek and I spent some quality time together after a very long time. We even explored David Scott’s Trail together.
During my visit to Sikkim, I made some special connections with people especially at Tingvong village of Dzongu Valley where we had spent 3 days. Living the Lepcha life, was an extraordinary experience almost making me believe I have some karmic connections with the people there.
I had started the year with a visit to Diu and travels have happened throughout the year with Sikkim and Nepal. I am in Varanasi right now and will be ending the year at Shalamun in Himachal Pradesh.
I have discovered the goodness of meditation and have started practicing regularly. An addition to my regular yoga and jogging but it has become an activity that I eagerly look forward to every single day.
I dabbled in poetry and dared to post some of them in my blog.
I have finished off my home loan, a great burden off my shoulder.
I have deliberately and consciously tried to live the life of what I can give rather than what I can get, tried to listen more and talk less, attempted to make people happy or at least not make them unhappy. Not that I have done so with a great deal of success but I know I wholeheartedly tried.
There had been no more rains since last evening and clear blue skies greeted us in the morning. The Sun was shining up in the mountain tops but was yet to reach the valley, where Bamboo, our tea house, was located. As a result, it was cold at Bamboo.
Through the Bamboo Forest
After breakfast, we started off for the day. The walk through the forest continued. This time, it was a dense and damp forest dominated by Bamboo trees. The Bamboo Forest was even more beautiful and enigmatic than the forest we had walked the day before. Not surprising, I found myself completely lost in a world of my own.
The trees and shrubs, the bushes and creepers, the roots and leaves all seemed to be interacting with me as though telling me unknown tales of their mysterious wonderland. Each and every leaf exuded radiance, shimmering in the morning freshness. The renewed sparkle can be well attributed to the rains that had happened the day before. “Don’t they seem to have just stepped out of a beauty parlour, massaged and manicured with some essential oils,” I remarked. My sister gave me a scornful look, rolled her eyes, and walked on.
Dovan to Himalaya
Enjoying every bit of the walk we leisurely reached Dovan, the next tea house where clear views of Macharepuchare peak greeted us. We took 2.5 hours instead of the expected 1.5 hour to get here. Thanks to our frequent stops in the forest to admire the flowers, caress tree trunks, marvel at the leaves of various shapes and sized, inspect the moss-covered boulders, etc. What’s the hurry! Somewhere we even crossed a stream through a rickety broken bridge.
The forest continued beyond Dovan and soon we hit upon a relatively wide footpath that can be well described as the rustic version of a cobblestone pathway. At the start of the pathway a notice was displayed with clear information about maintaining the sanctity of the place as a highly revered temple lay ahead in the forest. Soon, we landed at the temple. It was a Shiva and Parvati temple. A tall jagged mountain stood behind the temple adorned by a cascading waterfall that spread across the breadth of the mountain.
Beyond the temple was a steep set of stairs that continued all the way almost upto Himalaya, the next tea house. The stairs were well defined at the beginning only to be replaced by rustic boulders later. At Himalaya, we took a tea break. Dark clouds filled in the sky and it started drizzling. We slipped into our rain jackets and continued walking.
Gray Langurs at Hinku Cave
The climb continued after Himalaya but the forest started slowly thinning out. Multiple waterfalls strewn here and there from the mountain tops drained vertically down into Modi Khola that thundered somewhere in the deep gorges. In some places the trail was very narrow and we had to be cautious with our footing. In all such ascends, I would mostly be alone as my sister walked slowly way behind with Amar, our guide.
After sometime, a short but very steep climb got us face-to-face with a huge overhanging rock. This was Hinku Cave. All over this huge rock, were a large number of Gray Langurs – young and old, babies and families. We paused for a while to watch the over-energetic playful bunch hopping around before continuing our walk towards Deurali.
Surrounded by Waterfalls at Deurali
Soon we spotted the tiny blue tinned roofs of the tea houses in the far distance. Finally, Deorali was in sight though it was still quite a walk away. Simultaneously, Modi Khola made its grand appearance gushing away in leaps and bounds through the gorge. After a while we crossed a bridge and yet another set of steep stairs stared at us that would take us up to Deurali – our stop for the day at 3230 m.
We reached Deurali in the afternoon. The sun was shining bright when we arrived, but it lasted just for 10-15 min. No complaints, as it was enough to dry our partially wet clothes. There were several waterfalls all around us – in the valley in front and the tall mountain behind. We couldn’t enjoy the view for long as thick fog descended and progressively it got very cold. However, the evening sky was kind enough to put on a show of some gorgeous display of colours breaking the monotony of the drab foggy afternoon. A peak in the surrounding mountain resembled Lord Buddha’s face and we got to see that only the following morning, all thanks to the fog.
Her Very Own Flower Garden
As we left Deurali, we stepped into a valley guarded by tall mountains on both sides. The morning was cold, and the sun was yet to reach the valley. We passed through few easy ascents and descents through the rugged trail with Macharepuchare staring at us from the right. The familiar fish-tail shape was missing and I could not recognize the peak until Amar pointed it out.
After a while a picturesque sight greeted us. The snow-clad Gangapurna made an appearance at the horizon glowing with the first rays of the sun even as the valley still remained in shadow.
Gradually, the valley opened up and we walked through a flat stretch of winding trail as Modi Khola gushed away right beside us. After the forest, I fell in love with this section of the trail. The entire area was carpeted with multitudes of unique flowering plants. The bushes on either side were sprinkled with yellows and purples and whites and reds. Every few steps we were compelled to halt, not just for admiring the colours but the shapes and structures of the flowers. This place felt like Mt. Annapurna’s personal patio, a place she personally nurtured. No other explanation seemed plausible enough to justify such divine beauty.
Face-to-Face with Macharepuchare
A relatively steep trail started soon after the flower garden. After about an hour or so, we reached the Macharepuchare Base Camp (MBC), at an elevation of 3,700 m. It was a bright and sunny day. The sky was azure blue but some frivolous floating clouds appeared from nowhere and decided to spoil the show. On one side was the pointed-tipped Macharepuchare and on the other side Annapurna South. The clouds flirted with the both the mountains leaving us high and dry with only occasional glimpses. After a cup of tea, we headed towards our final destination – ABC.
Towards Annapurna Base Camp
As we started climbing up towards ABC, the floating clouds got thicker. The blue sky disappeared and everything around us was completely white-washed. A strong wind started blowing and it was getting really cold. Slowly and steadily we climbed up the winding pathway greeted by meadows, flowers, glacial streams. We could see only our immediate surroundings, the thick white blanket allowed no more.
It was no different even an hour and half later when we arrived at Annapurna Base Camp. We could see nothing at all, which was disappointing to say the least. And, we all know how adamant clouds can be in the mountains when they arrive in the later half of the day. We made peace, oblivious of the miracle that would unfold a little while later.
The grandeur of Annapurna Massif makes Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek one of the most sought after Himalayan treks. This moderate level trek entails a stunning journey bringing you face to face with the majestic Annapurna Massif in a very short span of time. The Annapurna massif includes the world’s 10th highest peak, Annapurna-I or Annapurna main. At 8091 m., the unforgiving Annapurna-I has the highest fatality ratio among the 8000 m. peaks across the world. It also holds the distinction of the first eight-thousander to have been scaled. The other peaks are in the range of 6000-7000 m. and consist of Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Machhapuchchhre, Gangapurna, and a few others.
Among these, Machapuchare or the ‘Fish-tailed Mountain’ holds a special place because of its unique shape and exquisite beauty. It is believed to be one of the homes of Lord Shiva and is revered by the Nepali people. Also known as Matterhorn of Nepal, the sacred Machapuchare has not been officially summited as it is not permitted by the Nepal Government.
My interest of trekking ABC finally culminated this October. I have already written a post on my soul-touching experience of the magnificent peaks at ABC. Click here to read.
Here’s a detailed account of my journey.
The Bumpy Jeep Ride to Nayapul
Tossed and turned and churned I tried my best to focus on the greenery all around me. Travelling on a bumpy off-road in the back seat of a Tata Sumo is not the most comfortable experience, if you know what I mean.
The bumpy muddy road did everything to make sure that a part of my attention remained on it even as my mind and heart was captivated by the surroundings. Winding roads snaking through tall green hills and deep valleys, clusters of tiny colourful houses nestled erratically on the green slopes, quaint tea houses intermittently scattered alongside the dusty road, sporadic areas of lush green pastures separating the road from the hills, terraced cultivation here and there up in the hill slopes, the meandering Modi Khola (Khola means river in Nepali) playfully appearing and disappearing, sudden gushing waterfalls cascading from nowhere making a noisy pool of water on the road before flowing off on the other side.
We were on our way from Pokhara to Nayapul, about 43 Km. away, to start our trek to ABC. The road from Pokhara is paved until Ulleri after which it’s just a dusty track that seems unfit for any vehicle. From Ulleri, one can take various routes to arrive at the village of Chomrong, beyond which the route is common upto ABC. The route is decided mostly based on the number of days one has at their disposal. The trek can take between 6-10 days on an average. After Ulleri, it is a common sight to find trekkers walking through the muddy stretch, lugging their small and big backpacks.
Climb to Chomrong via Jhinu
It was a little past noon when we arrived at Nayapul. A quick lunch and we were set to hit the trail. Our destination for the day was the village of Chomrong, via Jhinudanda.
Initially we walked through a near level ground with only negligible ascent and descent. The trail passed through dense vegetation on either side with views of green mountains interspersed with terraced fields and village homes. Soon we reached New Bridge, beyond which is Jhinudanda – commonly called Jhinu. New Bridge is a metallic suspension bridge that runs for nearly a kilometer. I normally don’t suffer from vertigo but on this bridge I found myself feeling a little unsteady each time I looked down. The fact that it vibrated with the number of people walking on it didn’t make things any easier and I tried my best to cross over as fast as I could. On the other side of the bridge, a flight of stairs greeted us that took us to Jhinu.
We didn’t take a break at Jhinu and continued towards Chomrong, little knowing that the entire trail constituted of rustic stone steps. Soon after, my sister started complaining of indigestion and feeling unwell. We rested for a while, she took some medicines and we continued. My sister was very slow and I was finding it difficult to keep going at her pace.
Day-1 in any trek is usually tougher as the body is still getting used to the new situation, so this wasn’t totally unexpected. Our guide, Amar, was with her and hence I continued walking ahead. Very soon I was way ahead and couldn’t see them.
After a while, dark clouds came in and it started drizzling. I had forgotten to keep my raincoat in my day-pack. It remained in my main bag, which was with Amar. The rains intensified. I tried to take shelter underneath a huge rock but the rains splashed me anyway. This rock was on a turning and I couldn’t see beyond. Realizing it was no point waiting, I decided to keep walking ahead. Just a few steps ahead, I could see a small restaurant. And, luckily enough that turned out to be the starting point of Chomrong village – our destination for the day at 2700 m. I waited here for Amar and my sister. By the time they arrived, the rains had stopped. We climbed a few more stairs and soon landed at the tea house that was booked for us.
The rains resumed in the evening and it continued pouring off and on. The snow peaked Annapurna Range remained shrouded by fleeting white clouds. As I went to bed that night, I thought to myself it would be a good idea to be up around midnight when the clouds would most likely clear up and the mountains would be visible. However, I slept through and when I woke up it was well past midnight. The first thing I did was to lift the window curtains and peek outside. And Ah! There it was – the glamorous snow laden peaks as though eagerly waiting to greet the dawn. I looked at my watch. It was 4.00 AM. I could easily distinguish the triangular Macharepuchare but wasn’t sure of the other peaks. It was not until breakfast that Amar helped identify the other peaks as Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, and Gangapurna.
Into the Forest towards Bamboo
Our trek for the day started by climbing down a series of steps that seemed to continue forever. We learned it was a series of 2500 steps and along with that knowledge came the not-so-comforting thought that we would have to climb up the same on our way back. The entire ABC trail is like a roller coaster ride, all you do it go up and go down with only very few level walks. Somewhere we crossed the office of Annapurna Conservation Area Project where our permits were checked. Thereafter, we passed through trails overlooking terraced fields, crossed over another hanging suspension bridge over a deep valley, and climbed through some uneven rustic stone steps as we headed towards Tilche and then Sinuwa – Lower Sinuwa and Upper Sinuwa, the last village enroute ABC. Annapurna-III was visible from some places while Machapuchare kept us company all through.
After taking a break at Upper Sinuwa, we moved towards our last stop for the day, Bamboo. The trail started with a thick forest dominated by tall Oaks. There were Rhododendron, Bamboo, and few other trees as well.
Forest trails are my eternal favourites, where I always find my imagination running wild. The trees and the bushes seem invitingly mysterious as though dozens of invisible eyes are scrutinizing my every move. And, I walk along building my own fantasy world of fairies and witches. Sometimes I blend in and feel one with them, at other times I feel I am encroaching upon their secret and sacred territory. Complementing the overall forest charm was the gurgling sound of Modi Khola flowing alongside that could only be heard but not seen and the twittering birds, calling out occasionally in a variety of melodious tunes. All of these were interrupted by one large and several small waterfall.
A steep descent for about 30 minutes, somewhere in the forest and we reached Bamboo at 2,145 m., after covering a distance of about 8 Km. from Chomrong. Almost immediately the rains started and we were thankful for arriving just in time.
Bamboo was bustling with trekkers it being peak season for ABC trek. We got to know there was no space for us, even the benches in the dining room were taken. Amar made a quick call to Dovan, the next tea house about an hour and a half away. That was fully occupied too. Amar recommended we have our lunch while he figures a way out. After waiting for close to 2 hours, Amar informed that he had finally managed a room, much to our relief. He had struck a deal with one of the tea house owners who agreed to give us his personal room. I have no idea where Amar or the tea house owner slept for the night. My repeated probing with Amar yielded no results.
By dinner the rains had stopped and the skies were clear. As expected, we woke up to a bright and sunny day.
The world of Social Media is flooded with cool travel pictures from across the world. Pictures that make you want to want to pack your bags right away and get into that gorgeous beach to watch the sun go down, trek through the meadows and jungles to reach the supposedly secluded mountain peak, dive into deep blue pools at the base of the tallest plunge waterfall, bungee jump off the highest cliff, or simply stare at the milky-way dazzling in the middle of the night. While many of these may be slightly exaggerated, they aren’t false. Travel does lead to such unique wonderful experiences creating a lifetime of beautiful memories.
However, not everything about travel is hunky dory, not all travel memories are fun. There are tonnes of unpleasant things that happen during travels, more so when on offbeat, adventurous, and budget travels. Nobody talks about them, they are things best forgotten. Afterall, we tend to remember all good things from the past rather than the not so good things. It’s not uncommon to deal with things like falling sick, unclean toilets, long waits at transits, cancelled or missed flights or trains, undesirable fellow passengers, getting injured, sudden political unrest, delayed or lost luggage, no mobile network, the list can go on and on. Any one of these or a combination of few has the potential to completely mar a travel experience.
Despite being an avid traveler, I have had several situations where travel felt no less than a torture. Here I share three of those.
Yes, you read that right! It was peak monsoon during the month of October and I was in Goa during an extended weekend with a friend and my sister. We were at Palolem beach in South Goa on a day when the rains poured incessantly. Not to be perturbed by the dismal weather, we set out walking along a lonely stretch of the beach towards a point where the sea meets the backwaters.
After an enjoyable ride in a boat through the mangroves in the backwaters, we were walking back when we spotted a series of colourful boats set in a row towards the periphery of the beach. Drawn towards them, we went and happily perched on the boats oblivious of the fact that those boats were coated with some chemical that contained acid. The boats were kept there for drying. There was no warning sign anywhere.
After a few minutes, we felt a sticky substance on our back. My sister immediately went to the resort we were staying at and changed into a fresh set of clothes. I didn’t. Being completely drenched, I thought I would dip myself into the seawater and get rid of the sticky substance. I felt some discomfort on my back but didn’t pay any heed to it. It wasn’t until midnight that my sister and I discovered we had blisters all over our buttocks and in certain areas on our thighs. My condition was far worse that hers.
Coming back to Bangalore was a pain that I am never going to forget. It took me nearly two weeks to heal and the treatment had to be done with utmost care as chemical burns can easily get infected.
This happened to me on two different occasions. The first time in Kanyakumari when I did not know I was allergic to certain types of seafood, including prawns. I gorged on a plateful of prawns and had a lot more than I usually do. The others thought the prawns weren’t cooked well enough. I had their share too!
When in the ferry towards Vivekananda Rock, I started wheezing. Thinking that the cold wind of the sea was getting into me, I didn’t bother much. Once in Vivekananda Rock, my face swelled beyond recognition forcing us to get back to mainland immediately. A few doses of Avil, an anti-allergic tablet, helped arrest the situation. I spent the rest of the holiday with a swollen face with eyes that were nearly shut.
Another time, while returning from a trek, I was bitten by certain insects leading to a severe allergic reaction. This time, I had an Anaphylactic Shock – a life-threatening situation – and had to be rushed to the hospital ICU immediately. It’s by God’s grace that I am here today to tell the story. [More on that story here.]
Marooned in a Beach and then Getting Lost in a Jungle in the Dark
It was about 7 years back when I was visiting Gokarna with a bunch of friends. At that time Gokarna was relatively unknown and didn’t get many visitors. We had hired two autos to go to a place called, Paradise Beach. We had no clue where this beach was or if such a beach even existed. There was no Google Maps, no smart phones.
The auto drivers duped us and took us through a jungle dropping us in some isolated place far away from civilization saying that was Paradise Beach. We could see no beach but could hear sounds of waves crashing somewhere down the hill. We climbed down the hill maneuvering tall bushes only to find ourselves on huge boulders amidst thousands of crabs.
One of us was smart enough to note down the auto driver’s phone number. Or else, I have no idea how we would get out of that place. Now, why the auto driver’s left us at an isolated place is anybody’s guess!
On the way back, it had gotten completely dark. We had to make our way down a hillock following a trail through a jungle for a distance of about 2 Km. to reach Kudle Beach, where our resort was located. No motor vehicles could pass through that part and it had to be traversed on foot. We weren’t prepared for the dark and didn’t have torches.
All we had in the group of seven of us was two working phones, the batteries of which were nearly draining. The rest of the phones were completely out of charge. The friend leading the group down took a wrong turn and we soon realized we were lost in the middle of the jungle. To make matters worse, the two working phones went out of battery. After panicking for a while, we had no choice but to carry on walking following the sound of the waves. Once again it was by God’s grace that we made it alive to our resort in pitch darkness.
Would you like to share your not so good travel memory(s)?
When I was planning my Gujarat itinerary last year, the most important consideration was my parents as this trip was for them. I had to plan an itinerary with enough and more breaks so that it would be comfortable for them. This was crucial as my father has acute motion sickness, something that developed as he aged and it’s so bad that he cannot travel at a stretch even when moving from one place to another within the city. That’s why Jamnagar ended up being part of the itinerary as a break between Ahmedabad and Dwarika. The travel of 7-8 hours by car from Ahmedabad to Dwarika wouldn’t work for my father. So, we took a train to Jamnagar, stayed back one night, and then proceeded to Dwarika.
Jamnagar, the city of Jaamsahebs, was known as Nawanagar when it was established centuries ago at the banks of Rangmati and Nagmati rivers.
The feeling of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) would have made me sick if I was to leave the city without experiencing anything of it. So, before leaving for Dwarika, we decided to go to Jamnagar’s signature tourist spot – Lakhota Fort located in the middle of Ranmal Lake. The fort was not quite like the fort we expected but was not bad either.
Ranmal Lake, also known as Lakhota Talav was constructed by the Maharaja of Jamnagar, Jam Ranmalji-II, between 1820 to 1852 and spreads around 5 lakh sq. meters. A sprawling garden surrounds the lake with pavilions for resting and pathways for walking around. The pathways were very spacious and I would not be exaggerating if I say they were larger than many a road in my city of Bangalore.
It was morning time and we found elderly people walking around or seated at different places gobbling up the morning newspaper while youngsters were jogging through the morning air. On the back ground was playing old Kishore Kumar melodies throughout the garden making the morning refreshingly soothing and beautiful.
My parents and I walked around leisurely and the garden was turning out to be a good place to start the day. The lake and the garden was very well maintained. There were several entrance gates and a nominal entry fee was charged.
We learnt that the well-maintained lake was used for pearl culture during the times of the Maharaja.
At the center of the lake is the Lakhota Fort or Lakhota Palace, the latter being a better description of the place. A short causeway that runs over the lake like a bridge connects the garden to the palace. The palace houses a museum that stores artifacts and pottery dating from 9th to 18th century. Photography is not allowed inside.
The palace was built in the mid-19th-century by Maharaja Jam Ranmalji-II, at the same time when he built the lake. I am not much of an architecture person but the fine woodcarvings at the palace did catch my attention.
At the south east side of the lake, is Bala Hanuman temple. The specialty of this temple is that it is in Guinness Book of Records for non-stop chants of “Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram” that have been going on continuously since 1st August, 1964.
With my FOMO put to rest, we happily exited Jamnagar and proceeded to Dwarika.