Trekking the meadows of Kashmir

Kashmir, always evocative of romance. The last time I drove through on my way to the Zanskar, I found the magic of the houseboats. This time was closer to the childhood Kashmir of cottages in Gulmarg – picnics in the meadows et al.

Dilshad said, ‘you have to come on this trek.’ There are no have to’s for me when you offer me a walk in the mountains – I would live my whole life out of a tent opening to incredible vistas every morning. That I manage to do it more often than not, is the greatest blessing.IMG_8250

The first time I ever flew into Kashmir, the airport was the beginning of the enchantment – there were fields of red poppies nodding in the jetstream of landing aircraft all along the runway. I don’t know if that still happens in summer, but there were certainly no poppies this October day. It was cold out and nice to anticipate the, brisk weather, walking. We had what was meant to be a quick car ride to our trek start point in Tangmarg – unfortunately – it was delayed by a traffic jam at road works blockaded by trucks. Just the usual fare. We started our trek from Tangmarg rather late, down to cross the river where the bridge has been swept away by the floods last year. The bridge still not fixed, but the large pipes that carry the water from the small power house were all in order. We scrambled over pipes and slippery boulders to the village of Drung. IMG_8138There IMG_8139was produce being dried in fields and on rooftops, corn and vegetables, getting set for the winter. We moved on through, being greeted by so very polite school children, all rosy cheeked and clean.
Our first stop was in a meadow surrounded by pine and fir, close to a now abandoned Gujjar hut. The family and buffaloes having moved down for the winter.

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IMG_8280IMG_8142We stopped to eat our lunch. The air was crisp and clean with the smells of pine and fir. There were remnants of daisies and buttercups reminiscent of the passing of summer. Our trek continued crossing burbling brooks and through forest and meadow – we passed an ancient Hindu temple, built by the Mughals apparently, now in ruin
s and shelter for cows it seemed. It was beautiful with fall colours on the few Chinar and wild Walnut trees. Carpet of green, gold and red. I was also imagining it in summer, the riot of wild flowers and colour that we could see remnants of would be in full bloom and make for an element completely different to the one we were experiencing. It never ceases to amaze – how well nature clads herself with impeccable style, colour and taste – perfectly suited to the seasons!!

IMG_8226IMG_8227We did a two day route in one and were rather hurriedly clambering up hills and down dale to get to camp before dark, which took away some of the enjoyment of stand and stare time, which is what I savour most when on a walk like this. However our guide Wali Mohammed would saunter off way ahead of us and then lie on a rock meditating, while we scrambled to catch up. He would look pityingly and ask if we were ‘ok’ or needing a rest? We did not dare need a rest so on we would trudge – him with his easy loping stride and us with our ‘Nepali shuffle’ slowly up the mountain. IMG_8146We did make it well in time, coming up below the high Gondola wires and through a large Gujjar and ‘Ghorha wala’ settlement to descend down into a charming meadow surrounded by firs and bordering a stream.IMG_8264IMG_8149Our camp was set and waiting and the fire was lit to warm our frozen selves. A new moon appeared in the twilight blue sky and all was oh so good with the world. IMG_8148It’s that moment that one breathes a sigh for the magic and gives thanks to whatever has led you to be here now.

To wake to the sun gilding the mountains and emerge into this brightening world out of a warm cocooned tent – it is one of those special joys of the trekker along with sweetly sore muscles. IMG_8224-1We were going up and over the ridge to the Frozen Lake. Crossing the tree line and up into the barrenness of browning meadow and giant scattered boulders, is not so exciting in biting cold. Then the clouds came and blocked out the light making for more ‘Drear’! Totally joyless walking when it’s meant for pleasure is no one’s idea of fun. We diverted through an enchanting forest of Bhojpatra, bone white tree trunks with flaking, paper thin bark.IMG_8239
Myriad coloured leaves that crunched underfoot, we stopped for our picnic lunch in this wonderland. Continued traversing the ridge and climbed down to the Cable car – which zoomed us up to the ridge we would have been walking across. Short cutting totally. IMG_8259By the time we reached the top it was hailing and raining and an absolute white out. The frozen lake would have to wait for another time, when perhaps the meadows would be a burst of interesting wild flowers to make that trudge more palatable.

That night as we lay snug in our marvellous tents it rained and rained and rained. I woke to the call of nature, which went unanswered because I kept waiting for the rain to abate. It didn’t at all and I finally put on my rain jacket and emerged into a breaking dawn – the toilet pit was flooded making for a natural water closet – no details here. The dining tent had stuff piled up on the table and water channels crisscrossing the floor. We had a makeshift breakfast and decided to abandon a further trek to Ningal nalla and just clamber down into Gulmarg. It turned into another enchanting walk through the rain with the mist enshrouded trees and the streams bursting their banks.
IMG_8282I must admit I could have walked some more – it was so beautiful. Unfortunately we very shortly reached the roadhead where a car and driver awaited us – he surreally appeared out of the mist holding a placard. IMG_8283We transfered to the posh Khyber hotel – where admittedly the bathrooms and the rain showers were a very acceptable luxury as was their spa. A steam and deep tissue massage were very welcome to cramping, cold muscles.

We then wandered into a lovely old village near Tangmarg to visit an old home where carpet weaving was taught. All handicrafts are essentially winter activities in most hill areas – the short summers being used to grow a crop or do outdoor work as required. The kashmiris along with having the most spectacular scenery to dwell amidst, also seem to have the most beautiful crafts and artisan work. From their fabulous carpets to the gossammer woven, intricately embroidered shawls. Beautifully carved and crafted wood work and furntiture. Papier mache art with it’s skilled painting – they truly are a talented people. Watching those spinnners and weavers sit in that old room with the misty daylight that barely penetrated the dusty windows was a fascination.IMG_8286 Their strips of pattern strung in the threads above, their nimble fingers didn’t seem to pause and obviously they made no mistake to the intricate pattern they wove. In turn we also seemed to fascinate the whole family who came to peek at the strangers peeking at them.IMG_8293IMG_8296

Our day ended with hot chocolate at the Highland Park bar, I needed to go check out an old haunt – it was much the same and it was nice to see that though Gulmarg is unrecognizable from when I knew, all the new structures have the same old architectural style – it is still the large meadow of memory and has not been high rised and built into oblivion.

This is what I would term the perfect short trek,  – it is utterly beautiful country, comfortable walking terrain, great campsites and ends with an option of opulent luxury.

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The River

IMG_5738I drove across the bridge at Hardwar, and that first sight of the Ganga brightened my heart and set me smiling. It happens every time – the river, the mountains and that forest act like an elixir. The guard at the barrier to Rajaji Park, smiles and waves you through, the road winds through the forest and it feels like old friends welcoming you. Every vista, the trees and the grasses spell home. The old guard at the inner gate who has been there forever, recognises and waves. This time I took the road along the left bank all the way to the Garur Chatti bridge, by passing Rishikesh aswell. How I do love this part of the world and what a beautiful drive it makes with non of the traffic and noise, the perfect way to enter this home stretch after the maddening road conditions all the way from Delhi. Suddenly, it all washes away, the sunlight makes tree shadows dance, the road along the canal brings memories of elephant meetings and butterflies.

Three days at camp – blissful sunshine, the sparkling river with all her familiar nuances and time to stare despite being there to work. It is never work surrounded by that view. I found a new rock and spot to replace the one I lost. Sitting there and talking to the river as in the old days was a healing that has been a long time coming. She was my friend and confidante for so many years and washed away many a care and I thought I had lost the connection. Now as I sit and watch, the cliche of life flowing like a river resounds  – the turbulence, the obstacles, the depths and shallows and all through it, the constant flow. How many, many people before me have thought and said it, and how many more will say it, the point is how many have found wisdom, strength, succour on the banks of how many rivers? This one is just special to me – I think all rivers are special – but the Ganga truly is my friend and I am blessed to still be able to live on her banks whenever I choose.

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Albums and trunks, clearance or remembrance!

OF ALBUMS AND TRUNKS IMG_5699

I thought I would clear some clutter before the new year came in. Little did I think that it was going to be a crying jag of epic proportions.

IMG_5702Trunks: those wonderful things that store everything – I have many – and I thought to get rid of them!! Obviously I didn’t – to start –  it was the girls’ old files – report cards and letters – I was not able to throw out a single one. Then I found an old folder of all the cards that I had kept from my wedding – half those people are gone, but seeing those messages – obviously I just sat there, cried and packed them back into the folder. Backward in time to my own school files and dimmed letters from my grandfather, the ink is faded but the messages remain in that tiny scrawling hand, so many words of wisdom that carried me all this way.

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A dancing Bare Moms

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And dancing parents!

Followed the albums, ancient history, a whole story and so many memories. What a vast family I have, so many, many people that all come together to that one me! It constantly amazes me that I am the only person who has all of these people. Parental doubles, grandparents in quadruples, oh so many aunts, uncles, siblings.

An accident of birth, an accident of circumstance, an accident of plenty yet not any. To belong to so many people, yet to not wholly belong to any – it alternates between a blessing and a craving.

For the longest part of my life I wanted a place and a space that was answerable to none. Today I have it and love it, but, occasionally it throws up that odd alone feeling. This weekend was one such. Do I forget my family or does my family forget me? Probably all in my head and just the memories making me nostalgic and maudlin. 

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A little Maya

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A little Rifq

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Sisters!

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Youth.

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Friends, the dancing ones.

Bombay: Nostalgia and memories

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The Gateway of India

Bombay, for the last few years I have been coming to a different Bombay – what I knew as the suburbs, but where all the young ones, including my daughters live. This time the girls are not here and I am in old haunts and it is a trip down memory lane. Just how much I realised when I was sitting by the window of my beautiful old room in the yacht club, overlooking the Gateway of India and saw the Naval ensign flying off this venerable old building. Obviously I opened the window and tried to peer through the trees to see what was on. That’s when I heard the announcement for the beating retreat ceremony to be held there forthwith. It is a ceremony that I love, with the marching bands and the melodies. Imagine it in this setting, with the backdrop of the harbour and the ships.IMG_5558

I ran down and out into the street to see what I cold see. Naval personnel all over the place, for an instant, I actually thought of going up to the entrance and talking my way in. Then I looked around at the milling throngs and decided I had been in the enclosures often enough. This time I was going to be just one of the crowd peering in.

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The Naval ships lit up

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Helicopter fly past

Found a great vantage point on the median of the road in front of the Taj Hotel. I had to crane my neck to actually see much, but I could hear the music and I could see the colours of the sunset. The helicopters arriving and doing their bit, I realised I didn’t actually have to see any of it, my minds eye relived it all from so many times, but just the fact of being there – in that place at that time. The haunting melody of ‘Abide with Me’ and the naval ships in the harbour turning on their lights. I think all my ‘naval brat’ friends will understand exactly what I mean, there is a poignancy to the whole; pride and a belonging along with a sense of nostalgia.

That this was to occur just the day that I chose to be here, happy chance!

I am now sitting in the bar at the Yacht club, overhearing snippets of sailing conversation, some gentleman trying to get a pretty, scared lady to go sailing. I look around at the memorabilia of sailing lore and think how much I love the sea. I think i shall go sailing one of these days while I am here.

I am so glad I decided to stay here rather than with family and friends. It reiterates for me that thought that comes so often, how being alone can be such a blessed state. Though I would have taken that buggy ride if there had been someone to share it…..so….

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Lit in tricolour

The fortune of my life that throws up these magic moments makes me sure to thank the powers that be for the enchantments.

PS: My photographs are just for story telling not for their great quality!!

The great Taj Mahal Hotel

The great Taj Mahal Hotel

The buggy rides.

The buggy rides.

It’s raining men!

IMG_4251Nice one’s too. I decided a time ago that the male energy does not fit in my space as a constant, it was a lovely, comfortable feeling; I would not be looking for the sharing and caring, just enjoying the fun of it. It’s been wonderful so far. Other than that decision, I also figured that after living a certain number of years one perhaps does not fall in love – or atleast not ‘fall’ like at 18. I once asked my mother, ‘so when does love and sex cease to be important?’ She said, ‘never.’ I thought, ‘sweet Mommy, what a romantic!’

So here am I, following my well laid plans and another delight rains down on me, or rather creeps up on me. We met and wandered up the mountain, delightful. So many intrinsic similarities, so much to talk about, great companionship – total support (remember we take people up mountains and that’s what we were doing) much laughter. The first wariness should have warned me, we were avoiding each other. But this awareness is coming in hindsight. Atleast I was avoiding him, I don’t know if I imagined him avoiding me. But we were still together in strategic places because it was necessary to share those things, we had a connection, it couldn’t be helped – I would wait to show him the best angle for the sunset (eeks) Did I even know I was doing it? This remembrance is wholly embarrassing. Has it started sounding like that 18 year old yet? It keeps getting better. So be together, bond and then feign indifference. Pretending that one is not feeling all the things one is actually feeling ( so comfortable and happy to be together) – know that one? Straight out of trashy romance.

Then it’s over, trip over, large goodbye party, tears and speeches all around – pour the heart out, because there is an excuse for it and you can in public forum – ‘you are like my alter ego – and – I will never forget you’ – cheese and all in the spirit of the moment and you believe it too. That’s all it is another trip, another lot of great people sharing a great time.

Go away, immersed in something completely different. Come back and realize we have a few more days together, just us. Amazing fun and those two days fly and so do I, and now all my preconceived notions have flown away.

The damn heart has a feeling in it, I don’t even want to call it a yearning or a pain, that means it gets a definition. How incomplete one is, when one is conceptualizing this wholly wise being, and you don’t want to admit that Mommy was right, you are an idiot and romance exists and no matter how long that heart has lived it still knows how to go pitter patter. Isn’t that completely exciting, just the discovery that this feeling can still happen – not just the bubbles and glee – but the angst too. Gracias mi amigo for rejuvenating a lost part of me.

IMG_4247Sorry for flawed photographs, but I only try to capture moments and know nothing about composition and the fact that an insect sat on the lens.

Over the high passes – another Himalayan drive

 

Teddy and Hari

An age has passed since I drove with the man that taught me how to manage the brake and accelerator together while releasing the clutch. My Uncle Teddy or Teddy Sahib as he is rather universally called, is a bit of a legend on mountain roads and trekking routes in Lahaul & other parts of Himachal. Those, who rally, drive off road and live the good life salute him.

A man larger than life, who explored every new road through the mountains the moment it opened. He had many times trekked it before. He taught us how to camp and cook out, to fish, to hunt and to make pickle.

His son, my brother Hari, follows in his father’s footsteps and has been India’s rally champion – he now tests cars, organises rallies, leads off road trips, does driving stunts for movies too. Generally a chip off the old block with additives.

 

Add to the mix two old friends visiting from England, Dave and Myra – Dave has just retired from being a well loved teacher. He is planning a cycling trip through Europe as soon as he goes home from visiting with us. Dave & Myra came trekking with Teddy Sahib in the early 80’s – they have four children (now grown) all conceived in India. Also two young men a friend and a young accolite of Hari’s; Bantu and Samar.

We are on a recce of a much travelled route, just not recently, so needs must check what new it offers.

 

Cars & CyclesSo our day starts with fixing the radios in the cars, checking that we have all the gear that we need, tow chains, umbrellas, winches are working – those large red jacks that pull you out of ditches are serviceable. Two bicycles are loaded onto the bike carriers – who knows when we might need to cycle for help or just cycle out, and our journey begins.

We are going back to Spiti, via Narkanda, Sarahan, Sangla into Kaza and out over the Kunzom and Rohtang into Manali.

3 Aug 2014

Dave, Myra and I drove from Gurgaon to Chandigarh. 0900 from Gurgaon, 1300 in Chandigarh. Uneventful and fast.

4 Aug 2104

When you drive with Teddy Sahib and Hari, it’s all about the journey – so from Chandigarh to Thanedar we have come. 1000 hrs at Chandigarh – 1900 hrs at Thanedar (199 km). Coffee and stretch your legs, attend a ‘bhog’ in Simla, stop for lunch at a newly discovered dhaba, check out an orchard for sale enroute at Fagu, stop to see if an old hotel said to be renovated is actually so. It is, by the way, the Tethys hotel near Narkanda is much improved and stay able – with spectacular views.

Now we are sitting by a fire at the Banjara Orchard Resort in Thanedar, it is a place I recently discovered and very much like – so this is my introduction to the tour. We have met a couple cycling the route we are driving, and shall perhaps show them a new route tomorrow – a back orchard trail to Sarahan.

5 August 2014
Seetal van homestayWe discovered a lovely home stay this morning – 5 kms short of the Banjara Orchard retreat a little road goes steeply downhill and winds around, take a sharp left into a gate and like all worthwhile hill places to get to, drive steeply down through the orchard, take a few hairy hairpin bends and arrive at this charming little home stay – all local himachali architecture, beautiful interiors – wood and slate, 7 nicely appointed rooms and bathrooms and the views. A real find, they have a quaint cottage for families too, and a tiny little cottage all on it’s own in a corner for all on your ownsome chilling.

To Sarahan behind trucksWe drove that lovely route which takes off just after Rampur Via Gaura and Mashnoor to Sarahan. It is a village road, great in bits and nothing in bits, but the views are lovely and you drive through the forests and villages, get stuck behind trucks loading apples and generally take twice as long as normal. With Teddy Sahib’s commentary which ranges from pro or against depending on his state of well being – which deteriorates if he is still in the car when the whisky hour approaches.

Sarahan templeWe had lunch and visited the Bhimakali temple at Sarahan, it is huge and beautiful – the goddess is said to grant wishes – so I made them as usual, we need to figure what timeline they will appear in. That they do is quite a constant.

Then we drove the amazing Sutlej gorge, watching it get deeper and deeper, with the battlements of rock and the showering waterfalls, the road that cuts right into the sheer mountainside – a marvel of engineering. The dam works have ruined a beautiful river and it’s valley, but one just has to look a little higher and it is still a spectacle. The road is a ruin after a point and it is a challenging drive. The dam work has created a huge slide on the way to Sangla, so one

has to climb a 17 km detour up the mountain and down again to avoid a 3 km stretch.

Sutlej Gorge1

sutlej 1

It got us in after dark so we missed the splendour of this valley of the Bhaspa – but it is spreading out my window now – orchards, pink fields of something the locals call ‘Ogla’ and they make a roti called Chilta, with the flour. Flowering beans and potatoes, wild flowers spreading a rainbow on all sides and the river running by. There is really nothing in nature that dresses itself better than the high mountains, they change colours and acccoutrements, but are beautiful in all weathers.

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Sangla fields

6 August 2014

We decided we were not going to do another long haul today, with the condition of these roads it would take us forever, so instead of going all the way to Kaza we would stop at Nako. The well laid plans of mice and men – I shall get to that a little later.

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First we went up to Chitkul to see what the drive was like since we had last done it. It was beautiful, with these straight up mountains of sheer rock, stratiated in crazy patterns, in building block layers, and as you get closer to Chitkul, the Bhojpatra starts appearing and whole hillsides of thyme, scent the air. Chitkul itself was unrecognisable. It has developed hugely, there are only a few of the old wooden houses, still sprawling up the top of the village. The temple is completely new, the old Tibetan carved and painted gate that formed the entrance to Chitkul from the north is gone, in it’s place is a newly constructed cement gate, but they have put the guardians in on the sides in glass cases, even the overhead guardian is there, so the welcome and blessing is intact as is the beauty of the whole valley; flowers layered up and down every available space, the huge, steep, sheer rock mountains interspersed with trees clinging to unlikely crags.

Chitkul Temple

 

Dave, Teddy Sahib and Hari took turns cycling down to Sangla – the road conditions actually meant that they were most often faster than the cars.

Cycling from Chitkul

Cycling Sangla

 

 

 

 

 

Then started the hair raising drive up the second bit of the Sutlej gorge, there is a deal of dam work all along this beautiful river, they are of a certainty destroying it. The roads are absolutely non existent – 20 kms an hour, with sections that are still slipping and dropping rocks or have slid and you have to take massive detours like yesterday. In all this, as I said before – you look up or down and that raging river, and the sheer rock faces are the same – and so far, so is that poor river – a force to reckon with – till these dams turn him into a damn lake.

falling rocksSutlej 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

So we reach the check point at Aksa and discover or rather had forgotten, that foreigners need an inner line permit for that section upto Sumdo. How flummoxed were we and what a staunch guardian of the gate was the gentleman in the booth. We have had to retrace our steps through rock falls and mud slides all the way back to Recong Peo, where obviously the offices were already shut – so a drink to learning and the patience required on all great drives in the mountains!

The Inner line

7th August 2014

We spent the morning sitting under a tree in the carpark outside the office of the District Magistrate at Rekong Peo waiting for him to sign the permit. Then he went off for a meeting and the little man helping us followed him. There were a french group and three motor cyclists waiting – also two or three bicyclists. Teddy Sahib, who was convinced that under Hari’s organisation we will get no food and no drink anywhere, went off around the bazaar and found samosas. Complained all the time that with all these apples growing on the trees, there are no apples to be had for love or money. Just then the boys arrived with a bag full of apples and a charger for Dave’s camera which they have borrowed from a shopkeeper. He has given it them from a new camera, on condition that they return it in Chandigarh. This can only happen in a place like this. Dave, to complete the story has left his camera charger at home.

We finally got the permits at 1200 hrs, which is when we started off. First we had to find the petrol pump, to which the Teddy Sahib took umbrage again. ‘All you young people, no organisation, we have been sitting for so long, this is when we should have done all this. Now we will reach so late and no one will stop to eat. That is why I bought the samosas.’ He was fine once we got going – the road was a nightmare, but the scenery was so spectacular. Through the rest of the Sutlej gorge, watching it change from a raging river to a spreading high mountain river and then narrowing again into a narrow, narrow gorge as it came closer to it’s confluence with the Spiti. Confluence Spiti SutlejThe actual confluence is a spectacle of sheer rock, you cross the bridge over the Sutlej and suddenly the road becomes smooth and the gorge feels like you could touch the other side – and you are climbing up and up for a long time till you top out and the high mountains of Spiti spread before you in all their colour and majesty. Huge swirling rocks churned like cake mix by the forces of nature towering into a blue Spiti sky.textured mountains

precarious orchards

Green Spiti

 

We stopped at what used to be little Nako village around a pretty little lake, today it is an expanding Nako village with a thriving agricultural trade – currently in peas. I have forgotten to say that what used to be sere brown, now has large pockets of green – new apple orchards, fields of blossoming potato and peas suddenly appearing around bends, nestled under where a stream or snow run off provides irrigation. The Kinner Camps in Nako is prettily located and has comfortable tents, with very good food. Lunch, that we had at 1700 hrs.

Nako village

 

Then we decided we were heading to Kaza, it was beautiful watching the light on the mountains change, the moon came up and added a completely other magic. We drove up through dark villages meeting a few headlights en route. Hari shot ahead, not minding the bumpy road – his passengers only the boys. I on the other hand, with Teddy Sahib, Dave and Myra – went more paced. Myra was feeling the altitude – not enough water. But she held out bravely and we finally got to the Deyzor Hotel in Kaza at about 2100 hrs. Hari already had the bar open – it was a very welcome drink after a truly tremendous drive.

8th Aug 2014

spiti from my window

 

I woke this morning to a sight that lifts my very soul, the amazing mountains of Spiti skirted by green poplars framed in my window. The one thing I always do in my favourite places is sleep with open windows and curtains undrawn, so the dawn and the pictures outside my window come right in to start the day. And what a day it has been. We are staying in a charming little hotel called the Deyzor – who knows what it means, but the proprietor is a lovely young man, passionate about the life he is living and working very hard to provide a service. (Any and all who happen to go here, do not ask for discounts, it is value for money.)

So we were given a great breakfast – porridge, variety of eggs, pancakes and pressed coffee – which is such a bonus.Spiti river

 

Then started our wild adventure – we were to drive to Hikkim, the highest post office, Kaurik monastery and Langza village to check out home stays. However, half way up – Hari saw an opportunity to go off the road and climb straight up the mountain, so of course we did just that, got spectacular views, had Dave gripping his seat in an agony of uncertainty. That both Dave and Myra just took it in their stride is kudos to them. I of course had theTeddy Sahib to guide me, he is very conservative with his advice, whether it is trust in what he has already taught or a belief that he is no longer heard, I am not sure. However, if you ask, he will offer – and it is a stupid person who does not ask when you have the master beside you – so he offered, ‘miss the stones that will hurt your car, not too fast, the rubble will get kicked up – and 1st gear low, or second will do.’ Thus we reached the zenith, took amazing photographs and then dropped down like we would have a dune in the desert, except here there is no sand that acts as an automatic braking device – never the less, we made it.

Off roading Spiti

 

We then finally found Kaumik and visited the old, typically Spiti monastery. Entrance, long hall with rooms on either side for the monks and the main monastery directly ahead, up the stairs. It was lovely, lonely and serene. The old monastery does not allow women, so only Dave got to go see the preserved snow leopard in there.climbing offroad

Kauric monastry

 

 

 

Kauric 1

Next we descended to Hikkim and the post office – a beautiful village with traditional homes, the landmark fields of waving crops, homes with juniper edged roofs, washed white. The postmaster is delighted, but can’t find his stamps – so his wife offers tea, while he hunts up the stamps. Dave finally posts his cards and we move onto Langza village to a charming home stay run by an old lady and her grand daughters. She gives us a great lunch of dal, rice and homemade, delicious ‘dahi’, supported by Maggi noodles. A traditional home, the rooms have the low cots with the Tibetan carpets and nothing is changed from how their home would normally be. The same central room with its stove and low seating with tables in front for eating and relaxing. The outhouse of dry pit latrines traditional to these dry, high mountain areas still works.

Hikkim PO

Langza Homestay

 

 

 

 

 

There is a marvellous trek to be done on this route,staying in the traditional homes and it seems many foreigners have discovered this. We met a french group staying at Langza and others in Kaza planning to go up. It is nice to see the traditional being put to a good economically viable venture.

We came down to go play at some offroading in the river beside the bridge and so ended a day of much fun and enjoyment.river offroad

 

I have not mentioned that at every step what makes this purely magical is the amazing scenery around you. This valley is easily one that I rate the highest on my places to go back to and rejuvenate your soul.

Ki monastry

9th Aug 2014

Kaza to Manali, 199 kms on my gps – easy driving on rubbish roads. We got to the pass in record time, payed obeisance and Myra and I decided we were going to bicycle off the pass. We had no figured that these were big boy bikes. I tried riding it for a spell only to find that if I had to put my feet down in a hurry – I would probably split my body or seriously damage it. They were way to large, we could not get off the seat without hitting the bar, so caution prevailed and we let the men do the riding. It was a murderous road. I honestly don’t know when it was last fixed, we just bumped and ground our way over the boulders – through free flowing ‘nalas’ and on and on till we crossed the Rohtang and hit both the mist and a good road.

Kunzom passKunzom flags

 

 

 

 

 

 

The change in terrain from Spiti to Lahaul is instant, it is greener and you start to see the shepherds with their precariously perched herds – on incredible slopes. All seeming to be quite happy where they are.

Cycling off the pass

Before leaving Spiti we stopped at the Chomoling nunnery, where they recognised me as the person who came with the ‘Jehudi’ women. We had spent a day and night at the monastery, helping in whichever sphere absorbed them during the ‘Queen of the Desert’ tours.

For me entering and leaving Spiti is like a prayer – blessed to come back there and asking a blessing to come back again.

Chomoling little nunsat the top(offroad)

10 Aug 2014

MANALI: More family has arrived, Maya, my daughter, on a bus from Delhi. Girimere, my brother, and Karandeep, a family friend, arrived with their monster bikes that they are riding across to Leh. Lunch at Martin’s, a cafe in an apple orchard that only provides Sunday lunches and beautiful surroundings.

Manali

 

Teddy Sahib and I then went to inspect a camp site up the Raison road at Baira Gram, it was an hours walk up and down in this acute heat and humidity that the valley is facing. A lovely spot which would need some development.

After the hot walk, a much needed tea with Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Bala (the Johnsons) at their beautiful home. A building that I consider the most beautiful hill home of all.

We wound up with a dinner of delicious trout at Pia’s – Johnson’s Cafe.

This was to be the end of our tour, but; ‘ So, Pavane Bhen,’ says Hari, ‘ it’s a long weekend coming should we go to Dalhousie?’ ‘It’s a boring long drive,’ I say reluctant to stop at Dharamsala. ‘Over the Sach?’ Hari, with a very naughty twinkle. Obviously, how does one resist that.

 

11 & 12 Aug 2014

Over the Sach, has to be quite the most spectacular drive that I have ever done.

Road to Sach2

 

Obviously we had to climb over the Rohtang again – long delays because we were accompanying Girimere and Karandeep who are riding their monster bikes up to Leh. So their kit had to be packed properly, then some leak fixed and who knows what else – however – it was hugely worth it to see the big smile and pure joy that emanated from my brother Girimere once he got on his bike and was ready to go. This has been one of his dreams. So we saw another dream driving off and followed them over the Rohtang. The pass was totally empty for a change. No traffic jams, even the Rani Nala is not acting up. Smoothly over and we stopped at Koksar for meat curry and rice with Pandit ji. Then onto the petrol pump at Tandi where we all refuelled and parted ways. We went up into the Pangi valley and the boys continued to Ladakh.

Giri in glee

 

The Pangi valley – a place of greenery and huge agricultural development. Everywhere you look are fields cut out of the mountains growing potatoes, peas and currently being harvested cauliflower. There are streams and waterfalls everywhere, the road follows the river Chenab or Chandra Bhaga all the way and is really not as bad as the section from Kunzom to Rohtang – less murderous for sure. The mountains change in every valley – these are sheer rock with tree cover and not the erosion that we were seeing earlier – spectacular and beautiful – what was great to see almost all over is the prosperity of the people due to the agricultural push. There are water channels in all directions tapped off every bitty little stream.

Green Pangi

 

We drove and drove well into the dark to finally arrive at Cherry Bangla to find some hundred people had taken over our booking as well as all else including a forest of tents pitched on the lawn. It is a great comfort to be driving with Hari and Teddy Sahib on occasions such as these. Hari who was way ahead of us, obviously, drove on and found another little rest house in the village of Sach. We even got a dhaba opened up who cooked us great daal, rice and the inimitable pudina and chilli chutney. Our rest house required the spreading of all our clothes on the rather dodgy sheets, thankfully it was warm and we did not need the even more dodgy quilts. The breakfast was compensatory the next morning, great parathas and egg bhurji and we set off to climb this amazing pass.

Road to Sach 1Road to Sach 3

 

It was 15 km to Kilar and then a little beyond you get to see this narrow slit in the rock wall across the river – it is the way up to the Sach pass. You go down and down to cross the bridge across the Chandra Bhaga (Chenab) and then start climbing this steep road up the very narrow valley of the Sach nala. Sheer rock sides, with waterfalls washing down in sprays that acted as a car wash many times.

Road to Sach

Dhabas below SachGravity defying villages perched on pinnacles of rock, sheep on steep meadows and a death defying trail along the other side that would make for an amazing trek. As we got closer to the top, it starts to open and the meadows begin to spread below just before the glacier starts – then you can see the piles of bald moraine between the spreading snow fields. This is the only one of the passes we crossed that still has so much snow. We stopped for lunch at the usual dhabas, just short of the final climb to the pass. Walls of snow on either side, large water crossings, the most brilliant pass crossing in a long time. Sach PassA small temple at the top where we all went and offered a prayer for thanks and safe passage onward. And the climb down, once past the snow – it was a spread of meadows covered in all the hues of flowers that are found in the high Himalaya.Off SachFlowering meadows A smorgasbord of scent and colour that we just stopped and stared at. Then it was an uneventful and regular ride to Dalhousie, via Bairagarh where there is a nice rest house, past Tissa where we used to camp in the woods as kids and then past Chamba & Khajjiar back home on the hill of Bakrota above Dalhousie.

Blue poppyHome Dalhousie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Egypt, The Great Sand Sea

EGYPT
The Great Sand Sea and Northern Lakes

A Unique Adventure

In my ongoing quest to find exciting travel experiences, I am joining with Mercury Himalayan Explorations to creat a Unique Explorations division for them.

This is the first of our many offerings which I hope you will feel compelled to sample.

After careful research, ensuring the experts are in place and much happy planning, we are pleased to share our first international off-road adventure into the romance of the Egyptian Sahara. We have decided that the perfect way to bring in this new venture would be over the New Year, so join us to discover the panoramas and mysteries of this ancient land on a self drive expedition through it’s heartland.

The best off road team in Egypt will guide us through the desolation of the Great Sand Sea. Our trip will start with a brief tour of Cairo and the Pyramids, maybe the Museum or a cruise on the Nile if time allows. We visit the ancient library at Alexandria, the most significant library of the ancient world, it was destroyed by Ceasar in 48 BC and has been restored to great magnificence in 2002. Carry on to visit the World War II Memorial at El Alamein; the Oasis of Siwa, one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements, home to a tribe of Berbers, and the ancient oracle of Amon that led Alexander to Greatness.

We will have specially modified 4×4 vehicles, which we will drive under the guidance of experts.

The outdoor cooks will stir up lavish Mediterranean cuisines. This trip will run as an explotatory one and there may be some changes to add variety or excitement along the way.

ROUTE: Cairo – Alexandria – El Alamein – Marsa Matrouh – Siwa – Shiata Lake – Sitra – Nawamesa – Oasis of Baharia – Valley of Whales – Wadi al Rayan – Lake Qaroun – Cairo

Sketch Itinerary

Day 1: 26th Dec: Arrive at Cairo – Pyramid visit – Egyptian Museum We will be met at the Cairo airport and escorted to the hotel. Wash and head into town for a lovely local lunch in a traditional garden restaurant. We will have time to visit the Pyramids of Giza and gaze at the enigmatic Sphinx. Before returning for dinner and a good nights sleep at the hotel.

Day 2: 27th Dec: Cairo to Marsa Matrouh via Alexandria and Al Alamein, (525 Kms) After an early breakfast we will board our coach and drive North 220 Kms to Alexandria. Founded in 331 BC, Alexandria is today the second largest city of Egypt. In Alexandria we will take a brief walk along the sea front, visit the library which houses the largest collection of books in the world and have a great Mediterranean sea-food lunch in a local restaurant. From Alexandria drive another 100 Kms to the World War II battle ground of El Alamein. It was here that the Allies scored two crucial victories over the Axis forces. The cemeteries here are have thousands of graves of soldiers from both forces that died defending their lines. It is said that the outcome of World War II was decided in El Alamein. The museum brings alive every Commando comic you ever read. Drive on to the coastal town of Marsa Matrouh. The desert meets the deep blue Mediterranean and makes an amazing sight. Marsa Matrouh provides an ideal break from the long journey West. Hopefully we will have some time to enjoy the beach either in the evening or early morning before we continue our journey. Dinner and overnight at the hotel.

Day 3: 28th Dec: Marsa Matrouh to Siwa Oasis (300 Kms) We now head south to the remote settlement of Siwa. Located between the Qattara Depression and the Egyptian Sand Sea, Siwa is one of the western most settlements in Egypt. It is the home of the Oracle of Amon that Alexander came a great distance to consult. There are also cenotaphs of ancient pharaohs and an oasis that time has bypassed. We visit Cleopatra’s bath, maybe do some cycling and definitely take a donkey cab. Dinner and overnight at hotel.

Day 4: 29th Dec: The Shiata lake drive Now we start driving!! We get our specially modified 4×4 SUVs. After a short briefing and do’s and don’t’s, we will take a 120 Kms round trip through the Siwa dunes to the Shiata salt lake. An outdoor lunch by the lake and a chance to sit floating in the dense waters of the oasis. We can Return to Siwa followed by dinner and overnight at the hotel.

Days 5 & 6: 30th & 31st Dec: Drive to the Great Sand Sea and camp overnight in the dessert. After an early breakfast we will load up our cars and leave on our self contained drive South East into the northern part of the Great Sand Sea, an unbroken mass of dunes that roll over the barren frontiers of Libya and Egypt. Parallel dune ridges run north-south for hundreds of miles! Until the 1930s, this hyper-arid region had barely been explored, but during WWII, clandestine German and British desert patrols, including Count Almasy, aka The English Patient, probed this remote area, spying on each other’s movements. Today, the area remains largely unvisited and remote. During these 2 days in the Great Sand Sea we will visit the lakes and settlements of Sitra, Nawamesa and Bahrian till we arrive to the Baharia Oasis. The Baharia Oasis provides an ideal backdrop to bring in the New Year. All meals are prepared by our outdoor caterers and we camp overnight for these mid desert days and nights.

Day 7: 1st Jan: Drive to Wadi Al Hitan (Valley of Whales) Breakfast at camp, drive from El Bahria Oasis east, on asphalt for about 250km and then go off-road heading south into a completely different type of landscape. We will head to Wadi Al Hitan, the Valley of the Whales. The site reveals evidence for the explanation of one of the greatest mysteries of the evolution of whales: the emergence of the whale as an ocean-going mammal from a previous life as a land-based animal. No other place in the world yields the number, concentration and quality of such fossils, nor their accessibility and setting in an attractive and protected landscape. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We will set up camp for the night in the valley.

Day 8: 2nd Jan: Drive to Wadi El-Rayan Our last day of desert driving takes us to Wadi El Rayan – stretching about 65 km southwest of Fayoum city and 80 km west of the Nile River. The Wadi offers great sand dunes, sulphur springs and some of the largest waterfalls in Egypt. After visiting Wadi El-Rayan we drive up north from a point at the western tip of Lake Qaroun to meet with the asphalt road back to Cairo. Check into your hotel. We will meet for a farewell dinner.

Day 9: 3rd Jan: Pick up from hotel to airport for departure. The morning is free to go around the city. Lunch is on your own. Great options are a visit to the Cairo museum that houses more than 120,000 antiquities including the famous burial treasures recovered from King Tutankhamun’s tomb and or a cruise on the Nile. In the evening we will all transfer to the airport to board our flights back home.

 

SUGGESTED FLIGHT:

Emirates

DATES DELHI DUBAI CAIRO  
    Arr Dep Arr  
26 Dec 2012 0415 hrs 0630 hrs 0840 hrs 1055 hrs EK 513/ 927
           
  CAIRO DUBAI   DELHI  
    Arr Dep    
03 Jan 2013 1900 hrs 0030 hrs 0440 hrs 0915 hrs EK 924/ 510

COSTS:

Rs.1,66,000.00 per person
Two to a car supplement cost: Rs. 15,000 per person (extra)
Single room supplement: Rs. 10,500 per person (extra)

Final payments may vary marginally because they will depend on the rate of exchange when we make the final transfers.

Package cost Includes: • 4 in Car Self-Drive cars. Option for 2 in a car also available. • Transfer from airport to hotel and back by air-conditioned buses. • Sightseeing Giza Pyramids & Sphinx, Cairo Museum, Old Cairo with Guides and in Air-Conditioned Busses. • 2 Nights in a 3-stars Hotels in Cairo, 01 nights in 3 star hotel in Marsa Matrouh, 02 Nights in Siwa Hotel. (all occupancy on twin sharing basis) • All desert safari permits. • Three supporting cars, one pilot car, and 2 cars with technicians, cook, Medic First Aid specialist and supplies of Diesel Fuel, Water, Food and drinks. • Full Board package and beverages for 4 days in the desert. • Guiding and guiding Equipment “GPS, UHF radios and Satellite Phones”• Single Tent and one mattress per person. • Currently applicable Govt Service tax

Package cost Excludes: • All tickets for the tourist areas and museums. • Tickets for entry of king Cheops pyramids and the Sun Boat and for Cameras inside museums. • Sleeping Bags. • Any Damage to the cars due to misuse will be covered by the guest. • Visa issuance fees. • Flights Tickets

Payment Terms:

To book an immediate payment of:Rs.41,500 per person

By 10th November: Rs. 83,000 per person

By 30th November: Rs. 41,500 per person

By 10th December: Balance payment for all extra service costs.

Cancellation Policy:

If cancelled till 15th November: 20% cancellation fee on total cost

If cancelled between 16th November- 05th December: 60% cancellation fee on total cost

If cancelled between 06th December – 15th December: 75% cancellation fee on total cost

If cancelled after 15th December: 100% cancelation fee on total cost

Comprehensive Damage Waiver: As a driver you are liable to pay any damages to the vehicle up to a maximum of Rs. 55,000. This amount is per car and can be shared with all 4 or 2 people in the car. This damage will include any body damage, under body damage, and damage to suspensions and axles caused by negligent driving. Guests will be required to settle this on the spot before departure from Egypt.

Gear list: • Light cotton clothes • One warm jacket for the mornings and nights. • One warm woollen cap. • Sleeping bag. • Sun block lotion • Sun Hat • Sport shoes for walking and river sandals • Dark glasses • Camera • Personal toiletries, soap, towel and medication

CONTACT: pavane@mhe.co.in /akash@mhe.co.in