Thursday, 3 April 2014

To the 'Happiest' place in the WORLD- Bhutan

The first stamp in my passport was to the happiest place in the world- Bhutan!! And it is the happiest place, not because I say so but because it is the only country in the world which is measured by GNH- Gross National Happiness rather than GDP. 
Like Alice in wonderland, here I was in my happy-land, wandering about the beautiful streets of Paro, with white imposing Dzong in the horizon, the sound of the flowing river, colourful prayer flags fluttering in the wind and warm smiles of the Bhutanese that simply charms your heart!

Amidst the cultural and religious surroundings, suddenly something stood out.

Wait a that a...WTH! Ok..ummm...let me re-phrase; only one thing was “standing” out and that was the most ubiquitous lucky charm in the Bhutanese culture, an image of ......wait for ERECT PHALLUS!! read that right! Images of these holy phalluses can be seen painted on the walls of the Bhutanese homes in the countryside or wooden ones, just hanging in front of shops and homes.

According to Bhutanese folklore, an erratic Buddhist monk would ward away demons by hitting them on their head with his “tool”! Since then it is believed that it keeps away evil. Fascinated and amused by this piece of Bhutanese culture, I wondered, maybe that is why this is known to be the happiest place in the world!

Days passed and soon it was time for me to go back from this fascinating country and head home.

My flight was from Paro, Bhutan to Delhi in India. I had heard from many that Paro airport is, if not the most, one of the scariest airports in the world. One night before my flight I met a gentleman at a party, who when heard that I was going to fly Druk airlines (Bhutan’s only Airline) said, “If you google Druk airlines, you might get keywords like DruNk airlines, ha ha!(*evil laugh)”. So funny .....NOT!

At this point, I was a bit scared! That night I did google it and this is what it showed, 
“Taking off or landing at Paro Airport can feel like a flight simulation video game where players must dodge natural hazards in their way.”

“When ascending or descending, aircraft has to avoid hitting the jagged Himalayan Mountains through a complicated series of dips and turns”

“Tucked into a tightly cropped valley and surrounded by 4900-metre-high Himalayan peaks, Bhutan's only airport is forbidding to fly into.” etc...etc..

Druk airplane taking off from Paro airpstrip and dodging the hills surrounding it...

*Gulp..I was going to need paper bags, loads of them!

Generally, I am not jittery about flying but today I had mentally freaked myself out about the “scary” flight! With no option but to go ahead, I seated myself in the nearly empty aircraft. Scary or not, I have to admit, this airport nested at the lap of magnificent mountains was one of the most beautiful airports I have ever seen. Strapped in and ready, the take off made me break into heavy sweat as we took some really tight turns around the mountains. I tried to think of the Bhutanese 'happiness' and all sort of things to distract me and after a few minutes in the air, I realized, it wasn't all that scary, just over-rated!

45 minutes into the flight, all seemed peaceful as I smiled and thanked all my Gods (at times like these I am pretty religious!). Just then the Captain made an announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, in another 5 minutes, we will be flying past the World’s highest peak, Mount Everest!!”

WTH...Are you kidding me????....Seriously?

As I sat for the next 5 minutes, pressing my nose against the aircraft window loomed into view, the Himalayan range with its snow capped peaks.

There were so many peaks that at first I didn't know which one was ‘it’, but soon came into view the WORLD‘s TALLEST NATURAL ERECTION, the magnificent Mt. Everest.

Now I was absolutely HAPPY!  :D :D :D

PS*- More about my Bhutan stories in the next few posts...!

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Call of the 'WILD'- Pench & Kanha Tiger reserve

DAY 1- Pench Tiger Reserve

7:00 AM
Sitting in the open gypsy, we are all straining our ears to hear the call of the deer and monkeys while our guide figures out which way the Tiger is headed. A low growl breaks the silence and we quickly look around.

False alarm. That was our stomach growling with hunger!

We have all been up since 5:00 AM to come for this safari and here I was hungry, sleepy and cold! All I wanted then was some hot food, warm blanket and my bed. I really don’t like visiting Wildlife reserves and cursed myself for my present plight...

Back in 98’, my dad got home from office and said, “I have something to show you”. Soon emerged a pair of BIG eyes...REALLY BIG EYES with a really tiny tail. I looked at it curiously and it was a monkey going through momentary shock. But it was then; I was educated about the Slow Loris!

For 2 years, I stayed in the middle of Rangapahar Wildlife Sanctuary, Nagaland where wild animals and reptiles sighting was quite a common sight.

Probably because of this I really did not have knack or desire to go out of my way to see wildlife. After my 2 years in Nagaland, I never went to a wildlife sanctuary. No, it’s not like I don’t like wild animals because I watch a lot of Nat Geo and Animal Planet. But I always thought it was silly to go to a wildlife sanctuary to see animals when you can see it better on TV or the zoo. And then if you go there and end up without seeing any wildlife (monkeys don’t count), it just upsets you.

But here I was, on my way to two Tiger Reserve, Pench and Kanha, which I was only kind-of-excited about.  

A few hours’ drive from Nagpur is Pench Tiger Reserve in Seoni district. This Reserve or Mowgli Land, as the park is famously called is the original setting of Rudyard Kipling's most famous work, The Jungle Book. The Jungle Book and its character Mowgli is based on Pench National Park. So as soon as you enter the Seoni area, you will see familiar names like Bagheera resort, Mowgli Jungle homes etc. Amazingly many places described in this book are actual locations in Seoni district, like the Waingunga river with its gorge where Sher Khan was killed, Kanhiwara village and the Seoni hills.

We spent the evening at Jungle Homes where we are told that we need to be at the Turia gate of Pench by 6:00 AM at least, to finish the formalities. That means we would be leaving at 5:45 AM max which means by 5:30 AM, I got to be out of my room, which means I need to be up by 5:00 AM at the max! Wake up at 5:00 AM in the cold just to see a bunch of Tigers. 

Not happening. Sceptically I decided to give it just one shot.

5:30 AM
After layering myself warm, I groggily made it out of my room. In the dark I could see the open gypsy waiting for us. It was more open than I had expected and wondered how would this be of any protection against any animal attack?
It was a bit was too early in the morning to think, anything anyways.

Soon we were at Turia gate of Pench, waiting our turn to get in.


The sun is just about rising and we drive around and park ourselves on the trail waiting for the guide to figure out the path of the Tiger.
We spend the next hour or so listening to the ‘call of the wild’, basically listening to the bark of chitals and monkeys to figure out the location of the Tiger.

By now I am not only hungry, sleepy and cold but impatient too. Suddenly, everyone jumps in excitement. There is something beyond the high grass in the midst of the thick trees.
We crawl our gypsy a little ahead and then we see a spotted orange creature. Ok that wasn’t a Tiger but a beautiful Leopard crossing the trail ahead of us! I had never seen a wild predator this beautiful so up close and just to watch it for those few seconds was really exciting.

We followed it for a while till we lost it in the thick jungle again.
By now, I was awake in all senses and had forgotten all about the hunger or cold.We just had a Leopard sighting, which is way rarer than even a Tiger sighting!

8:30 AM
To say the least, we were very pleased. Now we drove around with a sense of satisfaction and watched the birds, deer, and langurs at peace.

Soon we stopped for our packed breakfast, soaked up more of the warm sun and drove around the reserve in search of the Tiger.

10:00 AM
By now we had bumped into the occasional Bisons grazing, wild Boars chilling in the sun and the little Jackal warily making its way while all the Tigers evaded us.

As we drove around the untamed jungle with the cool wind blowing through our hair and warm sun touching our skin and the varied animals grazing in the wild, I started to actually enjoy the moment.

11:00 AM
Back to where we started and my perspective on safaris in the wild, I admit, had changed. I didn't get to see the stripes but I saw spots and also many birds and wild animals.
Now I was looking forward for my safari at the next Tiger Reserve, Kanha which is about a 4 hour drive from Pench.

DAY 2- Kanha National Park

6:30 AM 
This reserve is way bigger than Pench with a larger number of Tiger population and hence receives more number of visitors.
For this early in the morning, I was quite surprised to see the rush to go in. But entry to these parks is quite regulated with everyone awaiting their turns.

This time I was determined to see the Tiger.

8:30 AM
For two hours we drove around the park only to catch a glimpse of the Barasingha pack waiting to catch the rays or Neelgais roaming aimlessly but no Tiger sighting.



Apart from being the veritable wildlife reserve, this jungle is also a haven for bird spotters. Replete with migratory birds such as Malabar pied hornbill, Indian pitta, Osprey and some of the endangered species of Vulture species, these reserves also house plenty of local Peacocks and Kingfishers.

10:00 AM
Post breakfast, still no sighting and all we got so far was some Tiger poop and tracks. We even tried different paths and every time we crossed a gypsy full of people, they would beam and tell us about how they JUST sighted a Tiger. This was really disappointing!

We decided to take one last run before heading back.

As we trudged along slowly, we saw a bunch of gypsies parked near the stream crossing and looking at the rocks beyond. As we joined them they pointed towards a tree and hissed, “Tiger sitting under the tree..” We craned our necks to get a good look.

Beyond the stream, and the rocks, amidst the tall grass there were stripes, probably doing its business while we strained our necks to get a clear sighting! Soon it finished its business and walked off.

Just like that, it was over.

Well in the end I did see a Tiger, probably not exactly how I had imaged it to be. But I guess this is why it is called the 'Wild'. You cannot predict a sighting with absolute surety. 
I in my whole "want" of catching a Tiger sighting, nearly missed noticing many more beautiful birds and animals. And in retrospect, I got to experience more wildlife than I had even bargained for. The excitement of hoping to catch a sighting is quite addictive but apart from this, I also learnt to appreciate the forest, which was so serene and the landscape so beautiful. 

So probably next time I am on a safari again, I will hope to catch a Deer or Monkey sighting, so that I would end up seeing a Tiger or a Leopard maybe!

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Sun..Sand..& Turtles- 'Harihareshwar Turtle Hatching Festival'

I have been to the quite temple town of Harihareshwar twice. Even though I love this quaint little village for its clean deserted beach, three times would have been too much! But the last time I was there, it was for the love of beaches sprawled with tiny turtles!

About 4 hours away from the hustle of Mumbai city is Harihareshwar. It is known for two things, its temple and its pristine beach. This time I was there to witness the Turtle festival.

I had heard about the turtle festival and had been waiting for the chance to get out and witness it myself. Last year I did manage to do so and therefore, this year before the hatching season starts, I wanted to share a post on it so you can start planning for the same too.

Every year between February to March, thousands of newly hatched endangered Olive Ridley turtles make their maiden walk into the sea. Part of the Konkan Turtle Festival, this spectacular event is organized by the Sahyadri Nisarga Mitra (SNM) on the serene beach of Velas.

Tip: The Velas village is located on the picturesque Ratnagiri coast and is pretty close to Harihareshwar if you go by sea. By road it is about a 100kms.

The Konkan Turtle Festival is part of the conservation program aimed at protecting the endangered Olive Ridley turtles. During the festival, activists of the organization as well as tourists and locals release thousands of freshly hatched Olive Ridley Turtles into the sea.

From Harihareshwar we drove down to Bagmandale jetty, barely 4 kms away. Boats leave from this pretty jetty taking vehicles & passengers alike every half an hour.

Once we reached the other side, we drove through the village upto Bankot fort. This fort is situated atop the hill and stands at the mouth of Bankot creek. The fort history is debatable but according to the locals and the various tit-bits I heard, the fort was known to be under the control of Adilshahi and by 1548, the Portuguese took over it. Later, the brave Marathas, under the able leadership of the great Kanhoji Angre took control over Bankot and rechristened it as Himmatgad. Though this fort is beautiful with a fantastic view of the sea, not many tourists come this way.

From the fort, we headed down towards the Velas beach. The drive along the sea is spectacular. Completely isolated beaches fringed with beautiful trees, the view can revive you of all the city stress instantly!
Once on Velas beach, we waited until the activists were ready to release the baby turtles. Until then we walked around and explored the beach. Even though, the beach has black sand, it is absolutely soft and clean. Though it may not be very safe to swim here but it is perfect for a long walk along the shore to witness the romantic sunset.

Shortly the volunteers called the people to gather around as they expose the little turtles to the world. Looking at their size it is hard to believe that they would grow up to be at least 12 feet long! For now they slowly and shakily sweep their little fins towards the open sea.

As the sun sets in a lazy orange splash, we make our way back to Harihareshwar.

Soon it was pitch dark and the only light you can see are the stars scattered loosely on the sky! As we sat around the bonfire and sunk our tired feet in the cold sand, we could hear only one sound, the soft splashes of the waves!  
The next day we visit the Harihareshwar beach which is clean and deserted.

Nearby is the Kalbhairav temple. This shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva is widely revered and is also known as Dakshin Kashi.

A short walk from behind the temple up the hill, the path goes via a huge rock. According to legends, when the Pandava brothes visited Harihareshwar, this rock was blocking their path. So Bheema, the strongest of the Five brothers hit the rock with his gadda(a club) and split the rock in two. As you go down, you can see the fabulous natural design of the rocks. Sunsets here are fant-ablous and definitely not to be missed!

The Turtle hatching season starts next month, and Harihareshwar is a perfect weekend getaway with beaches, temples, wildlife, and forts all at the same place. So plan your trip now and don’t miss this beautiful event.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Trek to Paradise- Double Decker Living Root bridge & Natural pools of Meghalaya

After my trek to Tiger’s nest monastery in Bhutan, two months back, I got around to the fact that I wasn’t made for trekking and would probably never do it again.

Last month, between my huffing and puffing on the trail, I cursed for not listening to myself!
But here I was, on a long trek to the World’s only Double Decker Living Root Bridge and the natural rocky pools of Nongriat!

My guide Fredrick says that there are nearly 6600+ steps, this part of the nearly 10 KM walking trail and the number of bridges one has to cross. The trek generally takes about 7 hours to complete but I took more because I, ahem took breaks after every 10 steps while climbing back!

When I was planning this trip, I was completely ready to do it alone. But my mum and dad insisted that they come along too. OKAY. Now the trek would take me 9 hours to complete because mom has this knee pain she keeps complaining about and they are both nearly 60. I was quite doubtful if this was their best decision. But nonetheless, early next morning, we got our walking sticks, packed our lunch, met Fredrick(our 22 year old Khasi guide) and reached Tyrna village, the starting point of the trek.

Endless steps down 

As we made our way down the endless number of stairs, I kept wondering how would we ever make our way back. Moreover how would mum make her way back! But so far so good, we were just rolling down the mountain side fast. Soon we reached the first of the narrow swinging steel bridge. As I stepped on it, the bridge started swinging, I looked around to see if someone had stepped on it too. No, it was just my knee shaking uncontrollably. I am really scared of heights and at this point, even though I was petrified beyond belief, I didn’t say a word and slowly and steadily crept on until I made it across.

Mom was next and just as I turned to encourage her...”Wha...tttt!!!” she was already on the bridge, smiling and walking down like a boss! *Did I tell you she ain’t scared of anything, least some height?*

After being humbled by mum, I silently climbed some more stairs and walked on through the jungle, till we reached another *gulp*another twin steel bridge. I was sure this must be some kind of punishment until I saw the aqua blue water below that literally took my breath away! The beauty around and the fact that if I scream and whine, my mum would tease me endlessly, kept me distracted enough to cross the bridge rather easily!

Fredrick, Mum and Dad taking a break 

Two bridge down and before we knew it, we were at our first living root bridge, small but really sturdy. These bridges are used by man and animals alike and are a boon for the villagers as it not only makes accessibility easier but also brings in the tourist.

While the steel bridges go weaker as times passes by, these bridges made from the living roots of the tree only grow stronger. It is an extraordinary example of bio engineering and a true marvel of the Khasi tribe’s ingenuity.

From this small living root, you can catch a glimpse of the ‘Daddy’ of Living root bridge, The Double Decker Living Root! But to reach the bigger one we had to walk up till the next village, Nongriat. This village with oranges growing wild and cute children running around was a perfect place for a tea break!
From here the legendary bridge is just about 5 minutes away.

Under the shade of the orange trees

You won’t realize you have reached the bridge until you are on the bridge. The roots of the trees are stretched across the river and woven so seamlessly with the support of bamboo and then embedded with stones; it is difficult to believe that the bridge you walk on is actually LIVING!

One bridge can take years to be completely functional but once ready it can last for years to come.
Once we marvelled at this bridge and walked on it like ten times at least, it finally sank in why people travelled so far just to see this piece of brilliant design.

The place was completely Narnia-like, apart from some people like me who had come from far and wide( and seemed like such outcaste).  

 After taking in all the beauty, we headed towards the natural pool. The trek to the pool takes about an hour or so and has no trails at some places since it is hardly used by anyone. Before we reached our destination, Fredrick tells me, “One more bridge...”, then gives a toothy grin and says, “the longest.”

By now he knew about my predicament with these bridges which amused him beyond my comprehension!
Soon we reach the last steel bridge and he wasn’t kidding! It was the superlative of all the bridges we had crossed so far, long-ere, narrow-er, slimsy-er, scary-er, every-err-thing-er!

I let mum go ahead, while I prepared myself mentally.

I switched on my camera on video mode and hung it around my neck. Unfortunately I cannot post the video here because I started howling when I reached somewhere mid way. Now when I replay the video, it’s just simply embarrassing! The last 2-3 minutes I just prayed hard and LOUD!
Realistically, even if I had tried really hard, I wouldn’t have been able to fall off this bridge but you never know right...

Right after this bridge was another crazy bridge which was actually a steel bridge but with roots strewn all over it. The roots had eaten of the bridge to such an extent that most of the footing was made of just tree bark and bamboo sticks. The trees with their roots all over and moss covered rocks looked magical. And I was sure that this was the kind of bridge Gandalf and his hobbits would use to pop in and out of the woods!

From here the trail got really steep and difficult since we had to make your own trail and walk down till the river bed. While I lingered around behind the gang, tired and hungry, I looked at mom and dad. These two were like swans, always with each other, helping each other out on this adventure.

Soon we were at the river bed which greeted us with a slow flowing rocky natural pool, blue as the deepest sky and clear enough for us to see the bed! This was P.A.R.A.D.I.S.E!!!!

I couldn't resist going in and before my mum could stop me, I was down for a dip in the icy cold water in the middle of the winter month! After the long trek, this was the most refreshing thing.
A quick riverside lunch and we were on our way back, the same way. Well, what goes down has to come up!

I choose to skip this part since most part of the climb up was about either mum pulling me up or dad pushing me up. And at this point I can say with absolute conviction that if it hadn’t been for my mom and dad, I would have still been somewhere in those Khasi hills with roots growing all over me!

Though the living root bridge was amazing, what left me truly amazed was the stamina and strength my parents have at their age to complete this trek!

This post is dedicated to my super mom and rock-star dad and their spirit for adventure!