Kargil

The passengers in the shared cab I took to go from Leh to Kargil were very interesting, all were muslims but with extremely different personalities. When they asked me my name (which is as Muslim as it can get) one of the passengers got super excited resulting in me getting a earful of Quran scriptures quoted (read shouted) at me. I love theological debates but not with people who mave a closed mind and who think their way is the only (right) way and that everybody else ought to feel the same. i listened to that guy to begin with and offered my views which were ignored and then it became such a one sided conversation that i completely lost interest. But he kept going on and on and so I turned my head away to gaze out of the window but even this hint didn’t register with him. I then had to resort to closing my eyes, pretending to be sleepy and then after 10mins of this he finally got the hint. The other passengers also came to my rescue and asked the guy to stop his religious and theoretical rants which nobody else in the cab was understanding either. The other people were really cool though, the type who keep their faith to themselves unless asked to share their experience and who respect the fact that everyone is entitled to follow a spiritual path that resonates most with them.

Stunning mountains as seen while driving to Kargil.
Stunning mountains as seen while driving to Kargil.

After I was dropped off in Kargil (the rest were going to Srinagar) Mushtaq, whose car I came in arranged for a guesthouse by speaking with some locals kids. This guesthouse (Dass Pa guesthouse) turned out to be more like a homestay with an extremely friendly family. The room was big, airy, with a lot of natural light, an attached bathroom and homemade food that was absolutely delicious! The owner’s nephews were extremely sweet guys and one of them, Abbas, was the one i spent a lot of time with. Despite being only 22 he is very well grounded and walking around the town with him was always a treat as he seemed to know everybody (Kargil being a very small town). We never walked 30secs before he was greeted by someone he knew!

Kargil's no-pretence town center
Kargil’s no-pretence town center

There’s not much to see in Kargil. In fact, the small town seems a few decades behind time. I found no wi-fi anywhere except in Roots Café. Most of the people frequent internet cafes that get busy as the kids come back from school. There are many shops for typewriters which frankly I cannot remember seeing anywhere else. There are only a handful of restaurants and dhaba style cafes are a lot more common. I still enjoyed my time there primarily coz of the homestay where i was staying. It was very interesting to hear about the Indo-Pak war of 1999 from people who’ve lived through it and had to do some voluntary service (like taking food and ammunition up to the hills to the soldiers) as part of the war. Most people (including me) thought that the “Kargil” war was fought in and around the town of Kargil but infact it was fought over 150kms of the Kargil district spreading into Drass and as far as the Nubra Valley in Ladakh. Visiting the War Memorial in Drass, from where you can see some of the peaks where the war was fought, and learning more the war was a very humbling experience.

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The highest mountain (the peak right at the back) in the above picture is Tiger Hill. At an elevation of 5307mtrs it is one of the highest peaks in the region and was one of the most important spots during the battle.

Drass is a small town, some 60kms from Kargil, and is one of the regions where the war was fought. It is known to be the second most coldest, remotest and uninhabited places on earth after Siberia. To think how the soldiers must have braved this condition to fight for their nation is unfathomable to me.

War memorial with Tololing (one of the moutains where the Indo- Pak war was fought) in the background
War memorial with Tololing (one of the moutains where the Indo- Pak war was fought) in the background

While in Kargil i also visited the LOC (Line of Control) which divides India and Pakistan. This is not an actual boundary as i had imagined but a very rough outline of it.

India and Pakistan, seen together in one pic
India and Pakistan, seen together in one pic

Everything after the first mountain on the left and the second mountain on the right belongs to Pakistan and the tiny patch of green (which actually looks black in the pic above) seen in between the mountains is actually a Pakistani village. Before visiting the LOC I confirmed that there were no cease fire violations. At the time I thought I was being silly but then i heard of another place (only 8kms from the War Memorial) that was blocked off because of these violations.

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One of the things that (pleasantly) surprised me was the openness of the muslims in Kargil. Unlike Leh which has similar number of Buddhists and Muslims, Kargil is primarily muslim. I remember discussing my backpacking adventure with some locals in Delhi and i was greeted with remarks like “ah, so you are just whiling time away” or “how come you are behaving like the foreigners”. Unfortunately, there are some who will never understand the importance of traveling and will always look at it as a waste of time. But on hearing the reason for me being in Kargil and why i was alone the locals greeted it as an amazing chance to learn and grow. Knowing i am Muslim (and a female) made them happier that i am doing something different and some said they would pray that i get to travel even more. It was also heartening to see girls going to school and a LOT of women working as school teachers. In fact, on the way to Kargil there were many places where men and women were doing roadwork together. Almost all women wore the hijab but it seemed more of a choice (as i discovered when i spoke to a couple of ladies), a habit rather than a rule imposed on them. Despite fears that have been voiced by fellow travelers i found Kargil very safe and open minded. Speaking the local language has definitely proved very useful and having a muslim name meant that i was at the receiving end of caring/loving partiality which i have no complaints about.

Just can't get enough of these multi-hued mountains!
Just can’t get enough of these multi-hued mountains!

Valley of Flowers National Park

I had initially planned to spend a month in Rishikesh just chilling, doing yoga and taking a break from travels but after 3 weeks of doing just that I was beginning to get restless (and lazy). I needed to do something that would wake my body up, so to speak. Sab, who I met in my dorm in Rishikesh and who had spent the same amount of time in the town, felt he needed a change. So after considering a few last-minute options we decided to do the Valley of Flowers trek.

Day1

We set off from our hostel in Rishikesh at 5am, amidst heavy rainfall, to catch the early morning bus to Govindghat. The first half of the journey was spent in a very small but comfortable bus. We stopped only once on this 5hr leg to get breakfast at a street food stall selling Aloo Paratha with Chole curry. We didn’t intend to eat anything but vendors kept shouting out to people to come eat “pretha” and I just couldn’t resist! I managed to convince my fellow travel buddies to eat some as well. For the second half of the journey we changed to a bigger but very old bus with broken seats. The ride in this bus was horribly bumpy. There were so many instances of us flying out of our seats and returning with an uncomfortable and harsh thud. Luckily we hadn’t eaten much on the 11hrs bus ride so we avoided puking episodes (the lady behind me wasn’t so lucky). And there was just 1 toilet break which meant that I had next to no water and was feeling seriously dehydrated by the time we reached our destination. On the plus side, we were in the mountains throughout the journey and the view just never got old! I also had good company in Sab. His friend Kumar had also joined us for the trek. Sab is a very sweet fella, he’s a few years younger than me and is a digital nomad, which is a very interesting and unconventional path for an Indian. We get along really well and are able to tell each other to shut up incase of too much chatter. Once we reached Govindghat, we found a room, had some chai, met up (coincidentally) with another friend whom we had met in Rishikesh, ate our dinner and called it a day.

Day2
Day for the 14km trek from Govindghat to Ghangaria. I was a bit worried while going to bed last night coz I had an upset tummy due to the horribly bumpy and long bus drive. But by morning I was feeling slightly better. I knew that Ghangaria was at a height of 3100mtrs but this was just a number to me. What mattered to me was the distance of 14kms which I knew I could do. Let me tell you, I am not one for an uphill climb of any sort. I am not fit enough and hate being out of breadth which was validated on the trek. I was so very slow! The path was sometimes going uphill, then flat for a bit, then downhill before starting the uphill again and this was too much for me. At the start of the day I was mentally prepared to tough it out but towards the last 4kms my body and my mind were resisting the walk which made it extremely tough. I guess I could have at hired a pony at any point but the pain of giving up would be much worse than the physical and mental pain I was feeling at that time. Finally, I did it in 7hrs, the average time being 5.5 to 6hrs. One of the biggest reasons I could finish the trek was Sab. He is generally fit, is a runner, has done a couple of marathons and has also done the Everest Base Camp trek. But he is also a very easy going and patient guy and he was with me through out day. It was entertaining company and seriously motivating. He had to resort to a lot of tricks to keep me going from grabbing my hand and dragging me along to prodding me in the back with his walking stick to whacking me with it (just the once for which he got told off!) to chanting “Bum Bum Bhole” which is a chant we’d heard from the pilgrims in Rishikesh. (I think the chant means “Hail Vishnu”). This chant was more of an private joke for Sab and me as we’d heard some really stupid versions of this (For Eg, “Laxman Jhula, Bum Bum Bhole” which makes no sense as Laxman Jhula is the suspension bridge in Rishikesh). But when my motivation was running low we created our own (silly) versions of the chant like “Bangalore (where Sab lives) Bum Bum Bhole”, “Pune (where I live) Bum Bum Bhole”, “1234 get on the dance floor” and this kept the mood light and kept me going.
Once we reached Ghangaria we had some chai, found a room and bought a bucket of hot water each to freshen up (you have to pay for hot water as electricity in this village is limited). By the time the shower was done I was feeling really ill. It was seriously cold in the village! My finger tips were numb and were beginning to get a bluish tinge and our breadth was smoking. No running hot water meant washing hands in ice cold water which I absolutely hate. My chest, shoulders and throat felt tight and achy. After a quick dinner a popped a Paracetamol, wore 2 pairs of socks, 2 tops, trousers, a jacket, scarf made of yak wool (thanks Sab!) and gloves (which I had to buy in the village) and went to bed. The warmth from the many layers and the pain killer gave me much needed sleep and I woke up feeling loads better.

Day 3
My initial plan, when I set off from Rishikesh, was to spend 2 days in the Valley of Flowers (VoF) and 1 day at Hemkund Sahib (which is a pilgrimage site for the Sikhs) before doing the 14km back to Govindghat the day after.
But after the trek of the day before, I had changed my mind. I now wanted to spend just one day in the valley and head back to Govindghat on the same day. Ghangaria was too cold and the rooms too dreary to stay any longer. And I was not fit enough to do the 6km uphill climb to Hemkund Sahib.
So on the morning of Day 3, we set off on the 4km trek to the VoF at around 8am. Right at the start, we reached a fork in the path, left was going to the VoF but the right hand path had no signs posted. I wanted to go left but the crowd was going right so Sab thought there’d be a turnoff after the gorgeous waterfall we could see up ahead so we went that way instead.

Gorgeous waterfall with the melting glacier beneath it
Gorgeous waterfall with the melting glacier beneath it

After taking loads of pics & selfies we completely forgot about this fork in the path. We kept going (and going) and were very surprised that that the walk was all uphill. Our hotel manager had told us that the path would flatten out soon but we kept walking thinking that perhaps the local’s version of a “flat route” would be different to ours as they would be very much used to the climb. After 3kms we came to a sign which said Hemkund Sahib was 3kms away (it’s a total of 6km from Ghangaria) which made me think that the VoF is only 1km away as it’s only 4kms from the village. When we stopped for a chai break we asked the owner for confirmation and that’s when we realized the booby we’d made!! We were on our way to Hemkund, oops! But instead of getting angry I just started laughing! I remember telling the guys the night before that there was no way I was walking to Hemkund and if I changed my mind I would take a pony. I don’t believe in coincidences so I think we were just meant to go to Hemkund Sahib. Instead of heading back we decided to keep going all the way up.

View while walking up to Hemkund Sahib
View while walking up to Hemkund Sahib

Very slowly I finished the 6km walk just before 1pm and reached the top at 4300mtrs. Besides the Gurudwara (a place of workship for the Sikhs) there’s also a beautiful glacier lake at the top which remains frozen for 7months of the year. Come summer, the ice begins to melt and the Sikhs arrive to take a dip in the lake they consider to be holy. Although it was cloudy and the mountains not very visible the lake was beautiful.

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Such a peaceful place to finish the 6km uphill climb

We dipped our feet in the cold water and then went to the Gurudwara to pay our respects, chatted with some folks about the significance of that place, ate Prasad (which is a food substance considered to be a religious offering) and delicious Langar (free food offered at the Gurudwara to all worshippers regardless of religion) of khichdi and almond milk before starting the descend.
The day before I was very grumpy. I felt no happiness in having done the 14km trek just relief that it was over. But after the climb to Hemkund Sahib I was so happy to have gone all the way up. It’s a beautiful place, the lake is so very tranquil and the simple but hearty Langar so very nourishing.
By the time I reached the village at 5pm I was ready for another hot bucket shower. My legs were feeling like jelly, my stomach still achy, I hadn’t pee-ed since the morning and I was dehydrated but so proud of myself!

Day4:
The day for the Valley of Flowers, finally! I expected the 4km walk to the valley to be easier than the climb to Hemkund Sahib. In some ways it was but the hike was more of a trek. Most of the path was laid out with stones which meant I had to be very careful where I put my foot as I a have tendency of tripping over my own feet and regularly getting my toes caught in anything that comes in the way. If it wasn’t stones on the path it was a lot of muck. Even before reaching the valley I started seeing some very pretty flowers and then the view just opened up to the gorgeous valley. Another 500m or so (and after just over 2hrs) I was at the start of the VoF.
Just a quick background on me, I love colours! This is reflected in how I dress and even the carefully selected ingredients in my food to give it the max burst of colours. So to be in the valley of flowers, which has over 500 species of flowering plants, was an absolute dream! The flowers don’t blanket the valley but there are colours everywhere.

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Wherever you look you see different flowers against a stunning backdrop of numerous waterfalls and the mighty Himalayan range. If I ever had to pick a venue for my wedding (and if the long trek wasn’t an issue) then VoF would top the list! After taking lots of pictures and selfies, Sab and I sat down to really take in the view.

Who wouldn't want to just sit and take in the view!
Who wouldn’t want to just sit and enjoy the view!

Being surrounded by nature and by a glorious burst of colours, being able to listen to the stream flowing next to you and looking at the Himalayas made the whole trek absolutely worth it!

Such a beautiful view calls for selfies, me thinks.
Such a beautiful view calls for selfies, me thinks.

Before we knew it, it was time to head back. We were also getting extremely hungry and stupidly, we had forgotten to take any food or snacks with us! After reaching the village at 2:30pm, we ate some lunch and took the pony back to Govinghat. Taking the pony gave my legs much needed rest but the pain (and bruises) we felt on our butts at the end  was a whole new story. That night we had a whole new set of aches and pains to contend with!

Day5:
The plan was to catch the 7am cab back to Rishikesh but we were temporarily blocked in due to landslides. We were first given a new time of 9am, then 11am and then around 11:30 we were told it will take a few more hours. So instead of waiting in Govindghat we decided to do a short trip to Badrinath in the opposite direction. Badrinath is one of the prominent villages on the Chota Char Dham hindu pilgrimage.

A typical village in the Himalayas...such colourful houses!
A typical village in the Himalayas…such colourful houses!

The town itself is very pretty but the drive there was horrible. Narrow winding and extremely bumpy roads (due to landslides) meant my stomach (and the contents in it) were going up and down and left and right at the same time and it made my stomach pain so much worse! By the time we got back to Govindghat we were told that the roads have finally opened up but it was too late to get to Rishikesh on the same night. We decided to head to Joshimath which was only 25kms away but it would at least get us out of the landslide area (which was a smart move as that stretch was blocked the next day as well!)

Day6:
No more drama on this journey except the bumpy drive and resulting stomach ache but at least we were taking regular breaks which meant I could drink more water than I had been in the last 5 days. We were finally in Rishikesh by 6pm. Honest to God, it was like coming back home. If I was a weeper I would have cried.

Rishikesh

Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh is a holy town in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. It is one of the holiest places (or so I’ve read) for the Hindus and is the starting point for the “Chota Char Dham” pilgrimage circuit.

My main reason for coming to Rishikesh was that I desperately needed a break from traveling and I wanted to spend this break meditating, doing yoga and studying. I could have easily done this in Thailand but I would need to do a visa run so I decided to head to Motherland instead. After spending 4 days in Delhi I took the overnight bus to Rishikesh.

After just a couple of days in Rishikesh I realized why a lot of travelers end up extending their stay here. For some it’s the spirituality that this place exudes, for some it’s the prospect of learning or improving their yoga and for me, it’s the tranquility this place has to offer. I felt none of the spirituality or the holiness but I was super happy to spend my days just sitting in a café sipping chai while looking at a gorgeous view of the Ganges, the Laxman Jhula (the main suspension bridge in Rishikesh) and the mountains beyond.

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The town itself has a very chilled out vibe and it’s always a joy to walk along the tiny streets (while trying to avoid the dogs, the monkeys, the cows and cow shit) looking at all the options for window shopping. If I’d been a shopper I would have seriously depleted my travel money here! You’ll find a lot of shops selling pretty Indian clothes and countless other jewelry shops selling gemstones and silver jewelry. There’s also a lot of street food here from delicious fresh samosas to jalebis, pakoras, parathas, fried slices of toasty bread (which I promise I didn’t eat, who needs fried carbs!), delicious chole bhature (ok so I did eat bhature which is an Indian style fried bread :-O ) and momos. There are some no-pretense restaurants that offer delicious thalis for less than a dollar!  There’s only one (secret) place in town where you can get beer and chicken but generally meat (or fish) and alcohol are not allowed in Rishikesh but there’s a lot of yummy veggie food to make up for that.

Food Collage

One very pleasant surprise for me was how clean the river Ganga is (its probably coz it’s a fast flowing river) and for this, one of my favourite places to do yoga was by the river. Imagine being in an asana and being able to see the mountains (sometimes upside down coz of the pose you are in) while listening to the flow of the water and feeling the cool breeze on your body!

In Rishikesh I found what I was looking for, a total break from uncertainty and constant travel (and travel research). I was also staying at an amazing guesthouse (called Shiv Shakti Guesthouse which I totally recommend by the way) with really friendly staff who treated me like a friend. I’ve spent a good few hours with them everyday while I helped at the reception due to staff holiday or while sharing a homemade lunch with them.

While in Rishikesh, I had a chance to visit the Garud Chatti waterfall. It’s a small and relatively unknown waterfall but it will always remain special to me coz it’s the first time that I stepped into a fall! It wasn’t something I thought I would do (and so I wasn’t wearing my bathing suit) so I jumped in fully clothed! The cold water and the strong fall gave me a good back massage.

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I also visited the Beatles Ashram which has been shut for the last 18-20yrs.

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The architecture is still beautifully intact and walking in the forest is a bit spooky in a fun way. The fun aspect started ebbing away after I was told about the elephants and tiger spotting (the Ashram falls within the Rajaji National Park). Infact, there was an injured leopard that was found inside one of the caves in the ashram! I am glad I visited but even more glad that I didn’t get eaten alive.

Another major attraction here is the Ganga arti at Parmath Niketan Ashram. It was a wonderful experience to join in the bhajans (devotional songs) and the aarti which happened right next to the river. I felt no spirituality in this process but the devotion/enthusiasm of the attendees was definitely infectious.

After almost 3 weeks of being here I am ready to move on. My mind and body are relaxed enough but I need some physical activity. I could still do treks and walks around here but due to the pilgrimage that’s currently going on there are so many people that even locals usually avoid leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary. So my next stop going to be the Valley of Flowers. The trip to the valley and back will take me 8 days and will involve a lot of uphill climbing. After the inactivity of last month I am sure it’s going to be very tough but it will be worth it in the end (I hope!)

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Delhi

For the last couple of years or so I’d been thinking/dreaming of traveling around India. But in all those “dreams” I was always accompanied by a male companion because traveling alone in India, I thought, was “very unsafe and not worth the risk”. Then I quit my well paid job and my comfortable life in London to just wander around the world. This step gave me the courage to look at India without the lens of fear created by negative media and acknowledge that India too can be traveled solo. Of course, I did some research to back this up and what I found was quite surprising. A 2014 study published figures on rape cases around the world and India didn’t even appear in the top 9 countries with the highest rape cases! Instead other countries, that I deemed safer, like New Zealand, UK, USA and Belgium were on that list. http://www.statisticbrain.com/rape-statistics/ That’s not to say that India is crime and rape free. God knows we have our share of $hit. But no country is completely safe. You have to be careful regardless of where you travel.

Armed with my desire to travel, the knowledge that it’s not as unsafe and of course a lot of time on my hand I decided it was time to take the plunge into my own backyard. My first stop was Delhi. This was unintentional actually. I wanted to go get off that plane and head straight to the train station to go to Rishikesh but I dropped that idea and decided to spend a few days in Delhi to refresh my memories of my first visit around 18yrs ago.

Despite what the statistics in the link above say, the Delhi gang rape case is hard to forget so yes, I was nervous but also extremely excited to be in the national capital. I was feeling so patriotic and felt this surge of pride for my country (which I admit is hard to feel if you live in this madness on a daily basis) but I’ve been away long enough and have traveled around enough to know what a treasure India is despite some major drawbacks like pollution, population and corruption (to name a few).

I arrived in Delhi after a 12hr “midnight to noon” journey from Bangkok which involved a taxi – metro – flight – another flight – bus – walk. When I was on the bus from the Delhi Airport to the New Delhi railway station (where I had booked a hostel) I was observing the activity outside and comparing it to my drive back from Mumbai airport to Pune, when I visit my parents. Delhi was busy and there was a lot of traffic but somehow it wasn’t as frantic as I expected. There was a lot of space between cars and surprisingly there were no bikes/bicycles/cows trying to squeeze in. I didn’t hear a lot of honking. The roads were in a much better condition. I could see a lot of green around. So far I was impressed. My stop arrived, I got off at New Delhi Railway station. And my first impression of Delhi was shattered. My mind was like “If this is the new railway station why the hell does it look so old!” And I realized my mistake. It was the railway station of New Delhi not a new railway station. Duh! After a lot of asking around, trying to figure out who was scamming me and who was not, I bought my platform ticket so I could go through the station and get out on the other side, the alternative was a much longer walk or the auto rickshaws over charging me. I managed to wade my way through the crowd with an 18kg backpack in 35degrees heat to reach my hostel.

After 12hrs of this journey I was exhausted so for the rest of the day I stayed in the hostel and did only the most essential things. Eat aloo paratha and dal makhani!

The next day would mark my first official day of solo travel in India, so I’ll mention it. 16/07/2015.

I started my tour with walking to the biggest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid.

Jama Masjid as seen from inside the courtyard.
Jama Masjid as seen from inside the courtyard.
Old Delhi as seen from the mosque, far away from the madness below.
Old Delhi as seen from the mosque, far away from the madness below.
Courtyard of the mosque, the city beyond and the Red Fort in the background, seen from the top of the minaret of Jama Masjid
Courtyard of the mosque, the city beyond and the Red Fort in the background, seen from the top of the minaret of Jama Masjid.

From the Jama Masjid I went to the “super impressive from the outside but ok-ish on the inside” Red Fort.

At the entrance to the fort
At the entrance to the fort
Beautiful arches
Beautiful arches
Forgot what the building is called but the carvings on the walls and the arches were impressive.
Forgot what the building is called but the carvings on the walls and the arches were impressive.

My last stop was Chandni Chowk which is the oldest and the busiest market in old Delhi. I wasn’t interested in the market but an alley called “Paranthe wali gali” (Street of Paranthas). It was only my love for Paranthas that motivated me to go to such a busy market.

All of the 7km walk that day, in the Delhi heat mind you, was on small and extremely busy streets. Walking on the road trying to avoid bumping into other pedestrians, avoiding being hit by bicycles or bikes, ignoring auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, and trying not to step onto street dogs was a mission but also quite amusing.

One thing that really surprised me was that most of the people on the street were men! Where were the (rest of the) women?? I was dressed in a full sleeves cotton shirt and a knee length skirt and I remembered thinking, no more skirts in Delhi. I’ve never enjoyed being stared at. The other weird bit was that not every local realized I was Indian. This was a first and I don’t know how I feel about it. At one point, as I was about to take the stairs that would lead to a bridge that I needed to cross, a guy came running to me and he said, “mam, where are you going?” I replied “Jama Masjid” and he said “Please take a rickshaw, that bridge is not safe and foreigners are not allowed on that bridge”. When I told him I was Indian he said “ok, then you can go on that bridge”. I was surprised for so many reasons! Was my safety not as important because I am Indian? Or am I less likely to be harassed if I am Indian? And why do these people not realize I am Indian? It probably doesn’t matter that much but after that, I started asking questions/directions in Hindi. It was easier to get by speaking the local language anyways. It was all a bit overwhelming. It was like my first day of my backpacking trip, in Hanoi. I was constantly in a “flight or fight” mode. I didn’t bother getting my fancy camera out coz I feared it will attract more attention. My sole focus was getting to my destination. And there was a regular stream of “just breathe” chants going on in my head. I guess I was having a culture shock in my own country.

Bart, a Dutch traveler I met in my hostel, who’s been traveling in India for 4 months on his beloved Hero Honda motorbike, joined me on the second day and we spent the day sight seeing on his bike. It was during this ride that I realized that the day before I was in Old Delhi. New Delhi, even though just as hectic, is bigger with wider and well paved roads, a lot of green around, is much cleaner and in general less overwhelming. I was heartened to see this side of the city.

We started the day with Connaught Place (CP) which, I later read, is the “former location of the headquarters of the British rule.” It is also the largest financial, commercial and business center in New Delhi. The businesses on CP are arranged in 3 concentric circles with a park in the middle and is very confusing to get around for a first timer. Alternating streets of one-way traffic meant that we went around the circle many times before we found the shop that we were looking for. It was a fun (and easy) way to see CP so I was not complaining.

From there it was on to India Gate which is a war memorial built for the 82,000 British Indian Army soldiers who lost their lives in World War 1 and the Third Anglo Afghan War.

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We then made our way to the Akshardham temple which is the largest Hindu temple in the world measuring 356ft long, 316ft wide and 141ft high and featuring over 20,000 sculpted figures. I expected it to be just one structure but it was actually a complex covering 32 acres of land! Most of the buildings had exquisite, detailed carvings and the green lawns and the big ponds made the atmosphere very tranquil. Unfortunately cameras and mobile phones were not allowed inside so I have just one picture taken from the parking lot.

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There were 3 exhibitions that gave the viewers an insight to Indian values and heritage and also to the life and works of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who is considered an incarnation of God.

On the down side, the Akshardham is not an active temple (at least it didn’t seem like it). It’s more of a tourist attraction. The exhibitions, although good, were more like a theme park adventure than anything else. Its more appropriate to call this a monument instead of a temple. But the amount of work put into building this complex is very obvious. The whole thing took 5 years and 11,000 workers to finish!

Another thing I witnessed this day is how Indians react to Westerners or “Phirangi” as we call them. When on foot, we didn’t go 15mins without someone approaching Bart to greet him, shake his hand, talk to him, take a picture with him or just to say hello. It was extremely entertaining to witness this side of my own people who in general our not very good at starting conversations with strangers from their own country. Some credit goes to Bart as well as he is an extremely calm guy. I mean, he actually enjoys riding a motorbike in India! He has a ready smile which I’m sure also attracts people to come forth and talk to him. On the down side (everything seems to have a downside in India LOL), a lot of people who realized that I am an Indian, would talk only to me and that too in Hindi. I would reply in Hindi if they didn’t speak any English but I met some guys at my hostel who spoke good English and still chose to talk in Hindi (when Bart was around) despite me responding in English every time. Isolating people in conversations, however unintentional, is something that just does not go down well with me. I’ve been on the receiving end of this and know exactly how it feels.

So that was my first few days in Delhi. There’s a lot more to see and do here but it will have to wait for when I come back in a month’s time. As the Dutch say (Bart told me this so don’t hold me to it) “The City isn’t going anywhere”.

Sukhothai

So after chilling for 2 more days in Chiang Mai I set off for Sukhothai which is the first national capital of Thailand (followed by Ayutthaya, Thonburi then finally Bangkok). My only reason for visiting this former capital was the Historical Park, declared a World Heritage Site, which has some well preserved ruins of the royal palace and around 26 temples some dating back to 800 years.

The 193 ruins are spread over 70sqms are divided into 5 zones – Central, North, South, East and West zones, and it would take a couple of days to see them all. I frankly didn’t have that much energy or interest to see all of it so I decided to do just the Central zone which has the most ruins. Even then, it took a lot of mental debate on “whether I care about seeing some more temples” or “who cares about ruins when it 35C outside!” before I decided to just go for it. I decided to take a bus to the park and then rent a cycle to get around within the park which would save me 26kms of cycling in the heat.

The ruins are well maintained especially the bigger temples, the historical park was extremely peaceful as there were hardly any tourists in the afternoon and riding a bicycle around the ponds, in the ample shade provided by the trees was actually a lot of fun. Even after having been to Angkor, it was easy to appreciate the ruins here.

The main temple Wat Mahathat
The main temple Wat Mahathat
Wat Sa Si
Wat Sa Si
Buddhas in the trees
Buddhas in the trees

The night market in new Sukhothai is also worth a visit. It took a lot of willpower to stay away from the meat section and eat only vegetarian food.

Delicious looking Chicken Curry
Delicious looking Chicken Curry

I settled for some delicious fried seaweed balls of some sort.

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These were super crispy and salty on the outside and hot and creamy on the inside. I also ate some “veggie spring rolls” which definitely had some meat in it which was unexpected as I had clearly told the vendor “no meat”. I still ate it and as a matter of curiosity went back to the vendor to ask if there was meat in the rolls and she said “no no, no meat, only little pork”. Uh huh. Lost in translation. I was a bit miffed to be honest coz if I had to eat meat I would have chosen the delicious Chinese steamed dumplings which nearly made me give up my “no meat” streak. Oh well. . For dessert I ate fried dough balls sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with sweet rice paste. A lot of fried food but I was content. It was a change from rice and noodles that I am frankly a bit tired of.

So that was Sukhothai. After that it was another 7hrs on the bus back to Bangkok where I treated myself to a hotel room so most of my 2days were spent in my room watching The Hobbit trilogy, working on my blog and heading out only to get some food or to watch the Wimbledon final. I also spent time with Joel again before he flew back to Switzerland and I flew to Motherland.

Chiang Rai

I’ve not heard a lot of positive things about Chiang Rai. Most of the people I’ve spoken to were like “meh, It’s just another city. You’ll get bored after a day”. But I wanted to see for myself and I am glad I did. The city is nothing extraordinary but not worth dissing either. There are enough restaurants and cafes and markets to keep you entertained for a few days. In fact I met a guy who got bitten by a dog and had been in Chiang Rai for more than 2 weeks and he said he was quiet enjoying it there.

On the first day Ben (who I met in Pai and who was still limping after his fall from the bike) and I just chilled in the hostel and ate in the night bazaar.

The second day we rented a bike and went to the white temple (which I was really looking forward to) and to the Khun Korn waterfall (that I was going to only coz we had the bike for the whole day and we didn’t know what else to do). The temple, in my opinion, was “meh”. I’ve not met anyone who agrees with my opinion but hey, it’s just my opinion.

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Yes the structure is beautiful but its right next to a busy road and is surrounded by parked buses, bikes, cafes and shops so there was no atmosphere at all. And the temple has a lot of oddities like skulls hanging from the surrounding trees or hundreds of hands rising from a pond giving the illusion of people drowning. I mean, what’s with that. It’s a temple and not a dungeon! So anyways, I wasn’t sold one bit.

Errmm...really?
Errmm…really?
Temples are supposed to make you feel safe or at peace but this is just creepy.
Temples are supposed to make you feel safe or at peace but this is just creepy.

The waterfall, on the other hand, was “wow”! It was 70mts high and the fall formed a pool at the bottom in which I would have loved to swim (if I could). We walked 1mile in the national park to get to the waterfall and by the end of the walk we were dripping in sweat but it was absolutely worth it!

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We wanted to end that day with a sunset over the Singha park (as recommended by our hostel) but it being the monsoon season it was so cloudy that we could see no sun so we ended up enjoying some delicious tea harvested right from the plantations around the park.

One of the highlights of my Thailand trip would come the next day. A 163km bike ride (my longest so far) to the Mae Salong village situated on Doi Mae Salong (Doi means mountain) close to the Thailand Myanmar border. The first 30kms of the ride was just highways so nothing special but then the climb started and the scenery changed drastically.

At one of the view points on the way to Mae Salong
At one of the view points on the way to Mae Salong

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A lot of the times we were actually riding in the clouds and it was so chilly that I had to wear my sweater and was very tempted to put on my scarf as well. Mae Salong is a very Chinese influenced town. The houses, the music and even the food makes you feel you’ve left Thailand and entered China.

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We ate some absolutely delicious Yunnan style curry with fresh egg noodles.

I would go back just for this curry and the fresh noodles!
I would go back just for this curry and the fresh noodles!

It was one hell of a ride! On the downside, I don’t think my ass has every hurt that much and the 4hr bus ride back to Chiang Mai the next day didn’t help one bit.

Pai

Pai is a very small and picturesque town in the hilly region of northwest Thailand. The 3hr minivan drive to Pai is sort of uncomfortable due to the endless winding roads which prevent you from taking a nap and make you wish you hadn’t eaten anything before the drive!

The pace of life here is so slow that it seems to be at a halt, but in a good way. The town centre has a number of really good restaurants and cafes with healthy and tasty food. More than once I’ve heard people who went to Pai for a few days and ended up staying for a few weeks. There’s actually not much to do in the town except eat lots of delicious food, shop in the night market, listen to live music performance at Edible Jazz or (from what I’ve been told) smoke pot. The night market has some outstanding food from fried spring rolls to one of the best Thai curries I’ve eaten in Thailand to some delicious burritos. My fav way to spend an evening there was to eat in the night market and head to Edible Jazz and relax on a mattress or a hammock while enjoying some live music.

Ben, who I met at my guesthouse, and I went for a 100km bike ride to the Tham Lot cave close to Soppong. Although the cave was good I’ve seen much better caves at Phong Nha in Vietnam.

At the mouth of the Tham Lot caves
At the mouth of the Tham Lot caves

But the ride to Soppong and back was one of the best rides I’ve done in my 3 months in Asia. The steep ascend, the relentless winding roads, the countless hair pin bends, riding in the clouds (m not kidding!) and being on top of the highest mountain in the region and looking down on the mountain range was nothing short of spectacular.

At the start of the ride to Soppong
At the start of the ride to Soppong
View from one of the countless hair pin bends
View from one of the countless hair pin bends
Watching the endless mountain range from the Pang Ma Pha mountain. Definitely one of the most beautiful experiences so far.
Watching the endless mountain range from the Pang Ma Pha peak. Definitely one of the most beautiful sights so far.

This ride is not for a the faint hearted or for those who are not sure of their biking skills. I’ve heard stories of people who’ve had some nasty accidents on rides around Pai. Ben had a fall too but it was rather unfortunate as he braked hard on a slippery stretch. The fact that he had just moved off and was riding at 10km/hr didn’t help much as the bike landed on his feet! Ouch. But we managed to ride back to Pai before the pain got unbearable for him.

There are a lot more caves and waterfalls around Pai and I skipped all of these. I did however wake up at 4:45am to ride to the Pai canyon in time for the sunrise which I didn’t see it coz, as I found out later, it was the wrong spot but I had the place to myself and it was definitely worth the loss of precious sleep.

People actually walk on that narrow path! I didn't
People actually walk on that narrow path! I didn’t
Quiet time at the top of the canyon.
Quiet time at the top of the canyon.

Chiang Mai

It took me 10 full days to get my fill of Chiang Mai. On around 5 of those day I didn’t even leave my hostel except to get some food. I just needed a break from being a traveler. I wanted to sleep in the same bed for longer than a few nights, I didn’t want to budget my meals, I didn’t want to go to “yet another temple” or “yet another waterfall”. But the 5 days of doing nothing (and lots of delicious, healthy, vegetarian food) gave me the energy to come out of hiding again.

Fresh veggie spring rolls with yummy mango shake!
Fresh veggie spring rolls with yummy mango shake!
Bean burger with tomato salsa and cucumber and mint salad
Bean burger with tomato salsa and cucumber and mint salad
Simple but oh-so-delicious veggie stir fry with one of the best mango shakes I've had in the last 3 months @ Dada Kafe
Simple but oh-so-delicious veggie stir fry with one of the best mango shakes I’ve had in the last 3 months @ Dada Kafe
Just could not resist the mango pancake! Pancakes in Thailand and Cambodia tend to be more like a cake but this one, cooked with fresh mango slices, was a treat!
Just could not resist the mango pancake! Pancakes in Thailand and Cambodia tend to be more like a cake but this one, cooked with fresh mango slices, was a treat!

In terms of attractions, Chiang Mai has lots to offer. The old city is buzzing with countless cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and numerous street side markets. But the pace of the city is such that you won’t feel rushed at all. Outside the old town though the story is very different, there’s a lot of traffic and in general you don’t feel the calmness like in the old town. Chiang Mai is famous for its markets, besides the countless day markets, there is the daily Night Bazaar, the Saturday walking market and the Sunday walking market, which is the biggest one in the city. It’s held along a 1km stretch of road and, by the looks of it, is expanding rapidly as a lot of the side streets and even temple compounds were occupied by stalls when I visited. The market had a festive air and was alive with street performances, live music played by the blind, Thai dancers, and a lot of stalls selling the usual handicraft, clothes, jewelry and of course, a LOT of food. It’s a must do when in Chiang Mai!

There are many temples in the city but I only went to the most famous one, Chedi Luang. The temple and the ruins are good for an afternoon stroll. I didn’t feel the urge to see the others as after 3 months in Asia I am finally “templed out”.

The ruins at the Chedi Luang temple
The ruins at the Chedi Luang temple

I was lucky to have experienced a live Thai cultural performance while eating some authentic Northern Thai cuisine. All this for free! The owner of the Mahout training center was kind enough to get me a free ticket that is usually reserved for his family members. At the risk of sounding sexist, I enjoyed the performances by the men (some played musical instruments, some performed with scary looong knives) more than the ones by the women (which basically were giggly Thai girls, all dressed up, and doing these slow delicate moves). Or may be I just don’t have a taste for cultural shows.

Another time, I spent a whole day on a motorbike going first up the mountain to the Doi Suthep temple, then going down to the other side of the mountain just to see what lay beyond and coming to a very quiet village (I think it was called Huang village) and then riding the Mae Sa valley loop, a total of 150kms. The temple itself was ok but what I enjoyed more was being on the bike and riding the winding roads and just hearing the wind whooshing past my ear.

Stairs leading to the temple
Stairs leading to the temple
Doi Suthep temple
Inside the Doi Suthep temple

And then there was a full day of cooking class. The day started with a trip to the local market before going to a farm where the class was held. For the pre-siesta session I cooked tofu jungle curry, veg pad thai and tom yum prawns. As everyone had picked different items from the menu we were going around the cooking stations and looking at how the different dishes were turning out. And when we sat down to eat we got to taste green curry, yellow curry, jungle curry, tom yum prawns, chicken in coconut milk, pad thai and chicken and cashew stir fry! At this point we’d eaten enough to last us the whole day (or two)! We then proceeded to take our promised siesta which is the only thing we had energy for. After this, believe it or not, there was more cooking and eating. We ate papaya salad, fried spring rolls, mango with sticky rice and banana in coconut milk. None of us know how we managed to keep down so much food but we did! It was all too delicious to resist.

Pre-siesta meal - Pad Thai, Tom Yum prawns and Jungle Curry
Pre-siesta meal – Pad Thai, Tom Yum prawns and Jungle Curry
One of the best naps I've had (after the mosquitoes stopped biting)
Well deserved break from all the eating!
Post siesta dessert - the all famous mango and sticky rice
Post siesta dessert – the all famous mango and sticky rice

After a lot of deliberation I decided to skip the Tiger Kingdom (where you can play and stroke and take “cozy” pictures with the big cats). However magnificent they might me, they are still natural predators and there’s no way I’d be able to get close to them without screaming my head off and m sure the tigers wouldn’t appreciate that one bit and then god knows what they would do to me! Yes, yes, I’m a wuss.

In hindsight, my stay in Chiang Mai was well balanced. I did enough to keep myself entertained but also managed to get the down time I needed. It’s my favourite place in Asia and if there’s any place I’d consider living in, it would be Chiang Mai!

Fish Amok

Ask any one who has visited Cambodia what their favourite local dish was and chances are high that they’ll say “Fish Amok” without having to think too hard. This dish is traditionally made with fish that is lightly spiced and cooked in coconut milk. The fish can be substituted with chicken or lots of vegetables for a veggie version.

  • Servings: 2
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 150gms fresh snake fish (or salmon)
  • 15-20gms sliced fresh lemongrass stalk
  • 1 fresh kaffir lime leaf
  • 1cm fresh galangal
  • 1cm fresh root turmeric
  • 2cms fresh finger root (Chinese ginger)
  • 2 red sun dried paprika (substitute with 1-2tspn of paprika powder)
  • 150ml fresh coconut milk
  • 1/2tspn chicken stock powder/knorr/buillion
  • 3cloves garlic
  • 1tspn brown sugar
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1tspn shrimp paste
  • 1 kale leaf (or 4 big spinach leaves), sliced
  • A big pinch of cornstarch
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded and very thinly sliced
  • Ceramic bowl (traditionally banana leaf is used to make a bowl but this isn’t easily available outside Asia)

Method

  1. Rinse and soak the sun dried paprika to rehydrate for a minute.
  2. Thinly slice fresh lemongrass and set aside. Put in a mortar.
  3. Slice all these into small pieces – kaffir lime leaf, peeled galangal, peeled turmeric, finger root and peeled garlic. Add to the mortar.
  4. Add the soaked paprika and shrimp paste to the mortar. Pound for 10-15mins, regularly checking for consistency of the paste. Paste is ready when it’s absolutely smooth.
  5. Finely slice the fish into thin 2cm strips and add to a bowl. add chicken stock, salt, sugar, 1tbspn spice paste, 4tbspn coconut milk and mix till everything is combined.
  6. Strip off the stem from the kale leaf and tear into small pieces and add to the ceramic bowl.
  7. Add the marinated fish into the ceramic bowl (do not mix it with the leaves) and steam it for 15-20mins using a steamer or a water bath.
  8. Make coconut cream by adding 50ml of fresh coconut milk to a pot, add a pinch of corn starch and simmer for a minute till it thickens, while stirring constantly.
  9. Remove bowl from the steamer, garnish with 1tbspn of coconut cream, few thinly sliced kaffir leaves and sliced fresh red chilli. Serve with steamed rice!

Beef Lok Lak

One of the dishes I learned in my Khmer cooking class was Beef Lok Lak. This is a Cambodian twist on a Vietnamese dish consisting of cubes of marinated and sautéed beef served on a bed of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber, then drizzled with a delicious sauce and served with rice and a fried egg sunny side up. Beef can be substituted with chicken. When I next have access to a kitchen I will try making a veggie version with mushrooms and tofu.

[recipes Serves=1 Time=”30 mins” Difficulty=Easy]

Ingredients

For Beef

  • 100gms beef
  • 4-5tspn vegetable oil (or sunflower oil)
  • 1tspn chicken stock powder/knorr/buillion
  • 1/2tspn soft palm sugar or jaggery
  • 1/2tspn brown sugar
  • 1/4tspn of salt
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1tspn light soy sauce
  • 1tspn oyster sauce
  • 1-2tspn mild hot chilli sauce
  • 2tspn tomato sauce (use less sugar if using ketchup)
  • 1tspn black pepper powder
  • 1egg
  • 2 leaves of lettuce
  • 3 whole slices of a tomato
  • 2 onion rings, halved
  • 1 lime
  • handful of coriander leaves
  • Steamed rice

Method

  1. Dice beef into 1.5cms pieces and put in bowl. Add 2tspn of oil, 1/2tspn chicken stock powder, palm sugar, soy sauce, a pinch of salt, oyster sauce, chilli sauce, tomato sauce and 1/4tspn of black pepper powder. Stir and beat with a spoon for a couple of minutes and then put aside.
  2. Squash and peel the garlic, mince finely and set aside.
  3. Lay the lettuce leaves on a plate, arrange the onion slices on top and then add tomato slices on stop of the onion. Add steamed ride to the plate.
  4. Dip Sauce: Squeeze lime in a bowl, add a pinch of salt, 1/2tspn of brown sugar, 1/2tspn of chick stock powder, 1/2tspn of black pepper powder. Stir with a spoon. Set aside.
  5. Add remaining oil to a frying pan and turn the heat to high. Saute garlic for 10-15 seconds before oil becomes too hot. When garlic turns golden, pour marinated beef in the pan and stir fry until the beef is cooked and the sauce begins to thicken. Add this beef on top of the salad. Garnish with coriander leaves.
  6. In the same pan, add the dip sauce and stir for a minute or so till it thickens slightly. Pour into a small bowl, set it next to the beef.
  7. Fry an egg, sunny side up and then put on the plate.
  8. That’s it. dish is assembled and ready to eat!

[/recipe]