Junagadh: Of generous gifts and stories of intrigue

From Veraval we drove to almost a 100 km to Junagadh and first landed at Mahabbat ka Maqbara.


Tomb of Wazir Bahaduddinbhai Hasainbhai

Its location is quite a play on your senses – right opposite the Junagadh District Court – it has accused individuals, their distraught families, busy lawyers, the alert police force all bustling just opposite this calm witness to it all.


Tomb of Bahar-ud-din Bahar

It is hard to believe that such grand structures are mausoleums. The first one seems like a brilliant front for a Gothic library and the second for a palace- however they house the tombs of Wazir Bahaduddinbhai Hasain bhai built by the King Mahabat Khan of Junagadh and another of Bahar-ud-din Bahar respectively. Its Indo-Islamic, European, and Gothic architecture is attributed to it being constructed in a time when Junagadh was one of the princely states under the British empire in the late 1800’s.IMG_3053.jpg

It is remarkably easy to stand and stare at the buildings exteriors, arches, French-style windows, columns and doorways with the intricate work on them a feast for the eyes. The 4 minarets around the tomb of Bahar-ud-din Bahar have staircases winding in the opposite directions of each other paint a picture in symmetry and elegance.IMG_3066.jpg

Just beside them is the Juma Masjid built even earlier in the 1400’s by the founder of Ahmedabad – King Ahmed Shah. It has a vast courtyard and also has the minarets with the winding staircases- though a tad less impressive than the ones on the mausoleum.

Juma Masjid

The Narasinh Vidya Mandir just beside Jama Masjid is itself a heritage building that impressively has withstood the ravages of time and continues to function as a school.

Narasinh Vidya Mandir

From there we drove on to the Uparkot fort. The fort which is at the center of the city but accessible via narrow roads whose traversal is left to the mercy of the herds of cattle who make themselves very comfortable in the middle of the narrow alleys. Also waiting for them is futile since they have no intention of moving for your automobile to pass by.

The entrance of the 2000 yr old Uparkot fort would welcome you with ancient carvings of the Gods Hanuman and Ganesh. is 150 ft high. We were accosted by a “guide” at the entrance and were soon joined by 2 young police recruits as they too explored the area with us.IMG_3114

History: The fort is said to have been built by Chandragupta Maurya but renovated after it fell into disrepair. While the entrance to the fort is via the bustle of the town, all other sides are covered by lush green forests and the sounds of peacocks interrupted the silence ever so often.

Guide Hearsay: The guide claimed that the fort was built by the father of Kans(the legendary villain of the story of Krishna) but either he was wrong or it was built by Raja Ganesh of Dinajpur in Bengal, who was referred to as Kans by Muslim historians due to his persecution of Muslims. The only other connection I could actually find is the legend is that the king of Jungadh was King Revat whose daughter married the brother of Krishna- Balaram.

Legend: The legendary beauty Ranak devi was wooed by both the Chudasama king Khengara and the Chalukya king Jayasimha. Her wedding to Khengara threw Jayasimha into a rage. The route to the fort was divulged to Jayasimha by 2 nephews of Khengara who had been unfairly accused of improper intimacy with the Queen. Jayasimha with their help entered Uparkot and won the battle against Khengara, killing him in the process. Meanwhile the nephews also led Khengara to the palace of the queen. To avoid any further vengeance by the young sons of the queen, he killed them and took the queen to be his wife. She however escaped via a secret tunnel and instead choose to immolate herself (commit Sati) on the pyre of her husband thereby ending that tale. According to the guide, the nephews were also killed by the King Jayasimha  and buried under the underground granary knowing that they betrayed their own king and could similarly betray him someday.

Queen Ranakdevi’s Palace / Jama Masjid

Guide hearsay: It is believed that there were originally houses built over the granaries to prevent them from being easily found.The reserve food there also helped the people in times of long drawn war.

Note: The fort as it is today, is not as large in terms of areas to explore today as most forts, so we’d recommend you take a picture of the map at the entrance and make your own way in. We had a guide but we could have easily skipped it.

The first thing one would encounter is the Jama Masjid which is said to have earlier been the Queen Ranakdevi’s palace that was converted to a mosque by the King Muhammed Begda when he conquered Saurashtra. The insides of the mosque are therefore different from typical mosques since it has several pillars holding up the roof.

A lady inside the premises had setup a tiny makeshift stall with sweetmeats and small books in Gujarati. She inquired if I’d buy some of the items she had to which I smiled and refused. Then she attempted to start a conversation too but my non-existent knowledge of Gujarati failed me and I mumbled that I didn’t speak the language. She picked up 2 sweets made of tamarind wrapped around a stick and offered it to me- when I insisted that I didn’t want to buy it- she gestured that she wanted me to just keep it anyway as a little something from her. Needless to say I was moved by her graciousness. Every single time on our journeys we end up receiving the richest gifts from the simplest folk.IMG_3115

From atop the palace/mosque one is treated with an uninterrupted view of the Girnar hill, of which, if an image was rotated vertically, could be imagined to be the shape of a man’s face. It is also called Revatak Parvata in view of the story that the king of Jungadh was King Revat whose daughter married the brother of Krishna- Balaram.The hill is a popular pilgrimage spot with a cluster of Jain and Hindu temples atop it that can be reached with an ascent 10000 steps. It is also known for the Aghori ascetics who reside there and apply funeral ashes on their person and in general embrace everything society discards or fears.  There are edicts inscribed on rock dating back to 250 BCE near Girnar in a language similar to the ancient language of Pali too.

Girnar hill

Guide’s heresay :It is believed that the King Ashoka circumbulated the Girnar hill in repentance for the lives he took during Kalinga war after which he converted to Buddhism.IMG_3137.jpg

In the fort premises,it was the first time we’d encountered cannons with actual names assigned to them – Neelam and Manek who had traveled all the way from Cairo before making their way here to defend the kingdom against the Portuguese.IMG_3113

Up next:Junagadh and Gondal : Of a journey to the earth’s core and a palace for 9-lakhs

Diu : Of lighthouses by the ocean and a labyrinth of caves

Diu was a stark difference in terms of the rest of our trip and a time we were looking forward to spending by the ocean. After a leisurely breakfast, we made our way to the Diu Museum. It is a church converted into a museum and it seemed even more charming with the bustle and energy of the children in the school that it shared a wall with,  providing a contrast to it’s calm interiors. The simple museum houses figures carved in wood of almost every christian saint we’ve heard of (mostly as part of names of educational institutions)- St.Anthony, St,Johns,St.Francis to name a few.

Diu Museum

A short walk away was the St.Paul’s church which is supposedly one of the best examples of baroque architecture of the 16th century in Italy with Roman influences.

St.Paul’s church

While the outside is quite impressive, the true beauty of it to our eyes lay inside with the very intricate woodwork that adorned the main altar and several areas inside the church.

St.Paul’s church

A little ahead is the church of St.Francis of Assisi by climbing up a pretty flight of steps up to the church that lies at the turn of the road.

Church of St.Francis of Assisi

It is purportedly used a hospital today but seemed to have no signs of it with a peek inside the locked doors.

Church of St.Francis of Assisi

We couldn’t resist the ocean any longer and went right to it to at the Jalandhar beach. We got to what was called the “heritage walk” point. It is a lovely viewpoint to enjoy the sights and sound of the sea that manages to look both soothing and intimidating at the same time.

The expanse of the ocean from the heritage walk point

The heritage walk itself turned out to be a walk over the endless fort walls – while it manages to give you a higher view of the city, it’s otherwise something we’d have spent lesser time on, had we known that it was not leading anywhere.

The endless path on the fort walls

Yet, we had a top view of the Naida caves from the fort to which we decided to make our way.IMG_2775

It is a maze of underground caves that make up quite a sight with the light streaming in through various slots above the rocks with the roots and branches of trees casually entwining the boulders and creating their own patterns.

Nadia caves

There are scattered Hoka trees brought in by the Portuguese from Africa here too, seemingly having embraced their newer home. There is debate wrt whether these caves are a natural formation or rocks dug up to be used in the Diu fort or maybe a little bit of both. While Anand was enjoying his picture taking, I found it a great spot to lie down on one of the benches and take in the view of the rocks in various shapes and textures, the overhanging roots and the play of light.


Fort Diu is perhaps the most known of Diu’s places to visit and welcomes you with its moat gushing with the monsoons waters. IMG_2897The fort itself has an unparalleled location by the ocean. It is the perfect spot to stroll by churches, cannon balls, tombs, lighthouses as you explore its every intriguing turn. IMG_2914There’s something poetic about the tomb of a soldier(?) with an open roof and a window that provided the sights and sounds of the ocean just outside its tall walls.

The soldier’s tomb- on one side of the wall was the ocean


We next headed to the dry dock in the city to spend some time watching the colorful fishing boats and folks crushing of huge blocks of ice. Just as we were about to leave, a gentleman asked us to head to the Nagoa beach. And of course, we followed orders. On the way we noticed a board stating “Fudam Bird Sanctuary“. However a man sitting at the entrance casually told us it was closed which seemed hard to believe since it was simply a small open area. Nevertheless we climbed up the watch tower outside and took in the sight of the stream and made do with sighting a few birds casually flitting by before we made our way to the beach.

The strange Fudam Bird Sanctuary


The Nagoa beach was definitely a favorite of the places we visited in Diu. It was the perfect evening hangout with a warm cob of corn to watch the waves crashing against the shore endlessly. The sounds of the water were only interrupted by the occasional words from a passing conversation or giggles of kids enjoying themselves in the park by the water.

Nagoa Beach

Note :We see reviews often calling this beach crowded . It just maybe that we were there during what’s considered the off-season(August-monsoons) but it was just on point for our tastes at this time 🙂


After checking in to the hotel at Veraval for the evening, we headed off to the temple – Somnath. We were just in time to get there since it closes at 9 PM. The temple is well lit up, large, has beautiful carvings on its exterior and interiors . It is surrounded by a town whose economy is seems pretty much based around the visitors to the temple.  The main deity in the temple is in the form of a Shiva linga. The temple is particularly known for having been re-built many times since the 11th century despite invasions by several rulers. When one looks at a map, it’s also observed that an imaginary straight line from here to the south pole would encounter no landmass till Antarctica. Since it was dark by the time we got there, we couldn’t truly enjoy the view of the ocean just beside the temple- nevertheless the soothing sounds of the ocean and slivers of the ocean waves still provided a peek into the experience.

Note :You would have to leave behind phones, luggage, footwear before entering the temple and it’s a bit of a distance from the temple to the place where you’re supposed to leave all your things- so if in a group, take extra care to stay together since it’s otherwise easy to miss each other. Interestingly the queues for men and women are separate and there were relatively very few women- that however led to most women waiting for up to an hour for their spouses/relatives to come out of the men’s queues. Not having phones along meant you were stuck to waiting at a predetermined place like I was too.

Up next : Junagadh: Of generous gifts and stories of intrigue

Ladakh : Of peaceful stupas and tense celebrations

The next morning we made our way back to our home for the vacation, Leh, however not before passing by even more charming scenes of the Shyok river along the way.IMG_3623.jpg

We had a slow day and then headed off to Leh to explore the town a bit more. We headed to the bazaar that housed Jokhang, a small Gonpa that is quite literally the spiritual heart of Leh with the lanes heading outward from it into the Leh town. It was probably the one place that had a lot of devotees of all ages on the steps outside chanting to themselves while counting prayer beads. We first hesitantly stepped in as the monks were in prayer, but soon an older monk nudged us to spend more time inside and really see the idols in all their beauty. IMG_2175.jpgOnce outside we walked around the place, rotated the prayer wheels, sat for a bit thinking of the last days of the trip and then headed back into the hustle of the market.IMG_2210.jpg

Another spot on our itinerary was the Leh Mosque, also very well within the market itself. It was undergoing renovation and we were only finally able to find it when a storekeeper took us all the way up the under-construction stairs to the prayer room there. On seeing us being unsure of the etiquette to follow, he kindly urged us that we wouldn’t offend anyone and could make a visit. It was a beautifully carpeted room that was otherwise simple. What caught our attention were copies of the Quran decorated in an intricate script. We sat there a while in the calm spot amidst the market noises and then made our way back. Outside it’s completely cement covered and with scaffolding at this point. I daresay it will be a different sight in a few months.IMG_2410.jpg

The bylanes of the Leh market are endlessly entertaining- we saw everything from freshly prepared yoghurt and butter, to clothes being dyed, to stores carrying souvenirs, silver jewellery and fabrics, to fresh peaches and radishes sold on the street.IMG_2407.jpg

The next day while 2 of our group headed back, the rest of us headed to the Leh Palace from the 17th century AD. At first glance, it’s both very simple having been constructed with stones, wood, mud and sand and majestic at the same time. IMG_2294.jpgIt has 9 storeys, each reached via narrow steps which the ASI has done a good job in using to showcase the history of the place with everything from ceremonial dresses, ornaments and the paintings made of crushed stones and gems.IMG_2249.jpg The upper floors were used by the royal family to live in and appropriately has balconies that provide a panoramic view of Leh, the Ladakh mountain range and the Zanskar mountain ranges. They even have a video showing the history of the place, it’s stories and its reconstruction that’s worth a watch.IMG_3646.jpg

Our next stop was the Sankar Gompa. The door to the inner sanctuary was closed, do note that it opens up only early in the morning or evening. IMG_2314.jpgWe, therefore, missed quite an impressive deity with 1000 hands holding various weapons and 1000 heads.IMG_2312.jpg

We rested a bit in the assembly hall just outside that was painted with detailed murals in vivid, rich colours. The well-loved garden lit up with the flowers in brilliant shades. IMG_2318.jpg

We then headed to the Shanti stupa, its location and brilliant white colour against the arid background makes it hard to miss even from afar. IMG_2354It has 2 levels each with stories painted on the walls. The first level has relatively simple art with 2 deer sitting on either side of the Ashoka chakra and Budhhas image atop it. IMG_2358The second level showcases the birth and life of Buddha until his death. IMG_2363It was constructed by the Buddhists with the help of the Ladakhis who volunteered labour thereby making it a true work of love.IMG_2360

We ended the day yet again amongst the people of Ladakh trying to absorb as much as we could in the sights, food and sounds of its market. It happened to be the day of Muharram and the area was filled with security personnel with weapons. Hence, coincidentally, starting and ending our trip with the army. One only hopes this little pocket of delicate life amongst the arid mountains that has both harsh weather and the kindest people continues to be a haven of peace for the times to come.IMG_3542.jpg

Ladakh: Of snow fights and sand dunes

Continued from here

The next morning we proceeded to Nubra valley via one of the world’s highest motorable road at 17,582 ft of elevation- the Khardungla Pass. It is used to carry supplies to the Siachen Glacier that is guarded by our armed forces.


The scene is quite breathtaking out here, and not just due to the lack of oxygen! The mountains still had significant snow cover in September much to the delight of the subset of the group for which it was their first experience of snow.IMG_1960

There is an absolute riot if prayer flags at this point perhaps in the hope that those prayers will protect the passers-by and those who stand guard. IMG_1971Further ahead and Skarma very kindly stopped to let us have a go at a snow fight. IMG_3536This was a terribly one-sided battle with all of us on one side with our snowballs getting powdered even before we threw them and him, the mountain dude on the other side aiming at us with lethal precision and robust snow missiles! With hands freezing and getting even more out of breath with laughter, we left the place swearing to get back at him on our way back.

A little ahead for all of us, we experienced our very first snow-fall- a trip with happy firsts makes it all seem worth it! We stopped for lunch at a place called New Punjab restaurant, and it was like many other places run by just a couple. However, they had something we hadn’t seen on any menu in Ladakh before – Chitranna (Lemon rice). IMG_3550Something that’s quintessentially Karnataka. Much amused we enquired with the owner and he said he had just learnt it online. We enjoyed all the other dishes too. When he came after we were done, he enquired about the dish and himself said that we may not have liked it because it missed one key ingredient- curry leaves. Finding yummy chitranna with peanuts when travelling the Himalayas was enough of a delicious miracle for us, expecting curry leaves was too much even for his level of dedication to try to cook it for us! Adding to the ambience was their cute daughter who spent the time playing peekaboo with us and the friendly dogs around who chilled out in the sun during the few hours of relative warmth.


Some of our views ahead were unreal- one could actually not tell if a photo had been inverted or not with the mountains getting replicated on the water better than a copier every could. IMG_1977Just a few meters before we reached the top to Deskit Gompa, a tire of our car decided to get punctured! Much to Skarma’s amusement, with everyone pitching in, we were done with the tyre change in just a few minutes. The 32-meter statue of the Maitreya Buddha in vivid colours is visible well before you reach the place in stark contrast to the surroundings in neutral hues. IMG_2028The monastery is one of the oldest and largest in the Nubra valley and while monasteries are almost always atop craggy hills, it still never fails to make you wonder how they were even constructed there.IMG_1984


We moved on from the statue and then climbed up the steps of the white-walled monastery. IMG_2052IMG_2064And despite its beauty, what was truly wondrous to me was a little kitten that came directly to me and like one’s supposed to, we proceeded to pet it for the rest of our time there. IMG_2090We spent some time in the prayer halls and temples within the monastery and slowly made our way back.IMG_2081


We soon reached the Hunder Sand dunes where we crossed a narrow stretch of the Shyok river and landed in probably the only place on our trip that had a significant number of people all in one location. What’s impossible to miss are the rows of Bactrian camels available to be ridden on. Incidentally, all of us in the group decided to skip that, and instead decided to do something that was even more fun, sliding down sand dunes and watching the evening change colours with the setting sun!IMG_3591IMG_2131IMG_2152


We stayed the night at a hotel Sten-Del which had excellent service and food- if you needed more incentive it even had Mani Ratnam stay there during the making of one of his movies. So well, that was our celebrity connection for this trip. But we didn’t really need it, after all, we had seen snowfall and sand dunes in the desert- all in one day- I wonder how many other places could boast of that!

We headed back to Leh the next day stopping for yet another round of snow-fights at Khardungla, however, I’m sorry to report that we were badly defeated yet again. IMG_3623Ah well , we’ll deal with Skarma when he comes to visit us in the warm plains on our own home ground – maybe in a dosa-eating contest, another battle for another time.IMG_3633

Ladakh: Of unwavering focus and Bollywood in the mountains

Continued from here

The next day was yet another long drive, this time to the lovely Pangong lake. It was supposed to be warmer in comparison to Tsomoriri so we were thrilled to be on our way.


But there was more to the journey, as our first stop was the Thiksey monastery. It is possibly the most recognisable monastery in Leh with several layers of simple buildings cascading down a rocky hill. IMG_1638 Just a few stairs up passing by prayer wheels and monks’ living quarters, we reached the courtyard and entered the temple on one side of it. The temple was unlike any we had seen before. It had a very large statue of Maitreya Buddha 15 meters tall where you could see only the shoulder upward and the rest seemed to emerge out of the floor from a storey below to grace us with its presence. The idol had an intricate crown with each section having one diety with its own details bordered with more patterns. It was housed inside a hall with paintings of the stories of Budhha in vivid colours. The wooden pillars held up an equally colourful ceiling.

The colors and the stories even just on the crown!

A hall with stupas and rows of idols of various forms of Budhha was on the other side of the courtyard. IMG_1508The predominantly red and white walls of the courtyard and the paintings there presented a brilliant contrast to the beautiful skies in blue.IMG_1546


A short climb up and one would reach the prayer hall but not before seeing the scene that had become for me the most enduring image of Buddhism for me from the movie Samsara. Monks in a circle cheerfully and meticulously working on a mandala- a labyrinthine pattern inside a circular outline made with chalk using a huge wooden geometric compass and slender brushes dipping into clay to define the contours. On the other side was a single monk mixing colours into small heaps of sand to be used later to fill in the pattern.

The effort had just begun

They’d spend a whole day or more painstakingly poring over this work and at the end calmly destroy it and scatter the sand- a sign of the impermanence of things and a lesson in not being attached to material things.

The monk making up the colored sand with paint


The assembly hall itself had at its very end statues of Buddha with the Bodhisattvas- Manjushri and Maitreya.IMG_1577Inside the assembly hall is when I first noticed the small sculptures made of barley and butter that would be made as offerings to the deity – it was a tradition unique to Tibetan Buddhism.

Sculptures made of barley and butter


On the other side of the assembly hall is the Tara temple, this form of Tara was the Prasanna Tara and even though it was mostly covered, to my eyes, she had the fierce beauty that made the Goddess Kali so mesmerizing. She had 16 arms with an assortment of weapons and a necklace of bloodied heads. We weren’t completely sure why the idol and the ones beside it were partially covered but it was quite a contrast to the other temple with its bare ceilings with wooden logs and yet managing to keep you fascinated at its raw imagery.


The view from the top of the temple is that of the Zanskar Mountain ranges all around and the villages below. We chose to take a different way down and even passed by several stupas with varying degree of decorations.IMG_1629


With the bare mountains providing steady company we headed on along the roads snaking over them. IMG_1664The Border roads organisation makes sure you stay entertained with puns and funny quotes giving us respite from the endless roads. We continued to be fascinated by how close the clouds were to form perfect shadows on the mountainside.

Have you been so high that the clouds are your 

umbrellasWe stopped for lunch at an eatery run by a couple, the highlight being their toddler who calmly stayed the whole time in a chair, brushing away most people and blessing a few of us with her endearing giggles.

The center of our attention

Pangong felt starkly different to Tsomoriri, there were scooters and butt-seats(??) made popular by the movie “3 Idiots” for people to take pictures in.

Oh Bollywood!

There were quite a lot of people here but it didn’t feel too crowded either. It is at a height of 14,000 ft. To put that in perspective- Bangalore is at an elevation of 2953 ft. of  The water in perfect blue seemed to compete with the colour of the sky. IMG_1718We even had a few birds making their way along its surface. IMG_1725The water, the prayer flags, the mountains of the Changchenmo range and the stacked stones will be a snapshot of the Pangong lake that will stay on with us. R and G took the most lovely pictures in the Ladakhi costume as an apt souvenir from the location. Skarma, our driver, was right to huddle us to the water instead of letting us check-in to the hotel, because quickly, without warning, the sun-set and it was instantly too cold, windy and dark for pictures or to stay by the water.


The next morning, we woke up early to experience the lake just by ourselves, the crowds had either left for their journey on ahead or not woken up as yet. Just the water, wind and us let us finally find the peaceful oasis that is the Pangong lake.IMG_1771 Before we left, Skarma took us to another viewpoint to the Pangong lake, this time with no other people around and a spot of lavender coloured blossoms. It was the perfect location to watch the gentle ripples and practice skipping stones on the water. We sat by the lovely blue water this time the sunlight a little kinder to us , enjoying our time there before bidding farewell to yet another memorable scene at Ladakh.


On our way back we were lucky to see the most darling creature- the Himalayan Marmot- a cuddly plump ball of fur that looks even more endearing due to its serious look, fine whiskers, tiny ears, rounded paws and a disproportionately long tail. We were lucky to have a couple of them come out of their shared burrows, however, we wished they were a bit more wary of people because people honestly don’t deserve to see them. There were people getting unnecessarily close to them, shouting and even some utter idiots throwing stones towards them to get them to come nearer-I could only yell at such people but in times like this, one really wishes to do more. It is even more disturbing when such people have children with them who will then mimic their parent’s ghastly behaviour.

But well, we had to move on ahead and not let that ruin our time in a beautiful place. We went on along our journey and reached Sindhu ghat– we’d give it a miss if we knew that it was only a point by the river and there were several before it that were much more scenic.


Once back in Leh we had the evening to ourselves and decided to make the best of it with a walk around the town. We started off with different types of warm tea while petting the friendly mountain dogs and then headed to the Leh market. The market like in most towns is the hub of social life. IMG_1941We have everything from souvenirs for tourists, silver jewellery to fresh peaches and apricots, but what really got our attention was a chalkboard with a dish that called out to us like no other- Pani Puri! We were so thrilled to have that sweet, spicy and sour favourite that we re-visited the place every evening that we were at Leh. We’d recommend exploring the bylanes of the Leh market- every turn had something interesting to see.IMG_1959

Up next : Ladakh : Of sand dunes and snow fights

Ladakh – Of mountain lakes and star filled skies

Continued from here

Day 2 and whether we were ready or not, we were off to the coldest place on our itinerary- the Tsomoriri lake. Like the Ganga accompanied us all through our trip in Uttarakhand, here it was the Indus. Since we’re a bit closer to the point of origin, however, the visible difference between the 2 rivers is quite vast. The Ganga is a no-nonsense powerhouse of potential destruction in no uncertain terms and quite intimidating while the gentle flow of the Indus makes you want to sit by it and have a picnic all day long.

The tame Indus providing us company amidst the arid landscape

Note: the restrooms were extremely bad on the way, so do give your driver advance notice to stop in smaller villages along the way for possibly better facilities.


Our first stop on the way was at Chumathang at the hot springs there. The plus is that it is a hot spring with very small areas of it bubbling and sputtering up to the surface, the negative is that it’s not the cleanest place around since the locals use the water for their daily needs. IMG_1110However, it is by the banks of the Indus so we sat a while and watched the mountains and the water gurgling by.


After lunch there, we were lucky enough to spot a herd of mountain goats calmly grazing and perched on the narrow cliffs like it was no-big-deal at all.


The journey is long and arduous especially for our spines- even in a comfortable SUV, we found ourselves with aching backs by the end of the day. However, the good news is that the roads are in a bad state only because they are making them wider, so maybe by the time you get to it, it’ll be a breeze. IMG_1164And there it was, our very first view of the perfect oasis amongst the arid mountains and the sands. IMG_1173Kyagar Tso, a saline water lake in the Rupshu valley,  much smaller than Tsomoriri but we instantly fell in love with it. Since we visited Ladakh at the fag end of the season, there was nobody else around. There were a few wild horses grazing nonchalantly, a cold wind, the golden grassland, the ubiquitous mountains, the perfect sky and us. IMG_1195Though small, possibly since it seemed like a reward at the end of a long journey or because of the isolated place that almost seemed like one we had discovered ourselves, this was my favourite among the lakes we’d see on this trip. We spent some time dancing completely out of step and soaking in the surroundings but just because of the cold were soon driven back to the relative comfort of our car.


We went on ahead to the point of our long journey-the Tsomoriri lake. We first checked in to our comfy tents It gets very cold as soon as the sun sets around here, so our driver, Skarma huddled us on to a viewpoint for a more clear view of the beautiful water.IMG_1273 The place is windy, very windy which means the cold is also amplified as much. However, it felt incredibly unspoilt because there were absolutely no other tourists.IMG_1301 We sat by a stacked pile of stones watching the unmoving water, a huge herd of furry goats with their shepherd, the cerulean blue skies with picture perfect clouds and the unchanging part of the scenery throughout- the rugged mountains.IMG_3442.jpg


After a while, we drove back to the safety of our tents only to come out into the biting cold on our way to dinner. Just a glance upward and there it was, a sky like no other, an incredible number of stars blinking down at us from the inky darkness. If not for the cold we’d have been content spending the night watching them.


But spend the night awake we did, with the low air density and the cold, despite our comfortable tents, all of us had trouble sleeping. Nevertheless, we were kept entertained by the sounds around- the howling mountain dogs, the braying donkeys and the wind howling like galloping horses just outside our tents all night- if we ever needed a soundtrack – there it was.IMG_1318


The next morning after a stroll around the area trying to absorb as much of the scene as we could, we headed back to Leh this time stopping at a scene we’d passed by- my first view of autumn colors in India- the flaming reds, the brilliant yellows and the unapologetic oranges bursting through the green color that was meekly receding to the background. IMG_1367More company of the gurgling Indus and we reached what now felt like home, the town of Leh.IMG_1355

Up next : Ladakh: Of unwavering focus and Bollywood in the mountains


Ladakh : Of surprises and warm wishes in cold places

The morning we were about to land in Leh, the first view our sleepy eyes had was that of the sunlight piercing through the background of the sky. An ocean of clouds later we saw the place we were to land, just in between endless layers of brown hills providing a stark contrast against the white of the aircraft.After landing at the small airport of Leh amidst sandy, rocky mountains and a few hours of rest to acclimatize, we headed to our first stop for the day- the Hall of Fame, a museum maintained by the Indian army in memory of the soldiers. There are different areas within the museum dedicated to artefacts from the war- weapons, documents, clothing. Especially heart-rending are the letters from Pakistani and Indian soldiers to their families and tales of awardees of the nationals highest awards for gallantry.IMG_0885While it’s intended to instil a sense of pride and patriotism, all I felt was despondency at the sheer futility of war and the tragedy of lost lives of extremely young men in such a violent manner. Specifically, a quote by the Dalai Lama that I saw at a monastery later put the thought well in brief “Since armies are legal, we feel that war is acceptable….” (You can read more here if it interests you.)


After that sobering beginning, we somewhat aptly next headed to a place of peace- A shrine called Gurudwara Shri Patthar Sahib. The name “Patthar/stone” comes from a legend that Shri Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism had once visited Leh during a missionary tour and a demon who terrorised the people attempted to harm him by rolling over a boulder towards the Guru. However, the boulder melted on touching him and left his imprint on it instead. When the demon further attempted to kick the stone towards him, his foot got embedded in it and he finally asked for forgiveness and turned around his life in the service of humanity. A boulder supposedly with the imprint of the Guru is placed inside the monastery for people to worship.


A nondescript exterior to the Gurudwara that is a calm oasis in the cold weather nonetheless


The Gurudwara itself like most other gurudwaras we’ve been to is a simple structure outside. While it is pure torture for someone not used to the cold to take off the shoes and step into the running water to clean one’s feet before entering the space, it is quite heartening to have the delicious prasad once you’re done with your visit. We spent a little time there in silence and made our way back to go ahead to what is arguably the most popular image of Ladakh in Facebook- the Magnetic Hill.


Are you convinced it’s actually downhill?


However, there is no real magnetic hill but an optical illusion of going uphill when in reality we are going downhill. The reason for this is that our view of uphill/downhill is due to the horizon being a baseline for us to deduce it and in this area the specific layout of the hills obstructing the horizon causes us to see the slope as we do. Nevertheless, it’s a fun activity for folks to stop vehicles and let them seem to move uphill on its own. The group decided to make the best of the pit stop with me happily playing with a beautiful pup that decided to let me, and Anand and another friend decided to try ATVs for the first time on the rugged terrain.


An entertaining time later, we made a short stop at the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers. One can see the colours of the rivers deep blue and green merge into each other at this point. In the right season, one could also choose to go rafting here (supposedly the highest rafting location) amidst the imposing hills and the chilly water.


The Zanskar and the Indus- merging into one



Lunch was due and we were ravenous and so after some more winding roads, we reached the Alchi Kitchen restaurant. It is actually a beautiful home kitchen by run an older lady and 3 younger ones.IMG_0954.jpg Incidentally just as we ordered, we had an impromptu performance by a gentleman on guitar of a beautiful Elvis Presley number even joined in the end in a jugalbandi of sorts by another gentleman in a mesmerizing classical raaga. Perfectly delighted and with smiles even wider than before we continued our hilarious conversations while Anand busied himself taking pictures of the cooking – or so I thought. Much to my complete surprise, what should I see but Anand and A (another friend) coming in with a home-made cake from the ladies there and wishes for my birthday painstakingly written on it with tiny beads of…wait for it….mouth-freshener!

IMG_3085.jpgNeedless to say, I had the best birthday cake cutting celebration ever! Friends, music, laughter and your name in minty fresh tiny granules- one really can’t ask for much more from life. We enjoyed our food leisurely (we’d recommend the mok mok/dumplings and the apricot walnut saffron tea) exchanging rip-roaring wedding stories and doubling up in laughter. Some shopping from the stalls on the way later, walking through an alley, we got to the Alchi Gompa.IMG_0993


Now all monasteries we’d seen along the way were on hilltops and this was an exception being on relatively plain land.


The deceptively simple exteriors


The 3 storied Sumrstek temple had idols of Maitreyi Budhha, Avalokiteshwara and Manjushri- the 3 forms representing Compassion, Hope and Wisdom respectively. The wooden pillars and structure of the temple for some reason reminded me instantly of the wadas in Pune.IMG_1026Even the clothes of the idols have stories from Buddhist lore drawn on them. The towering idols in the small chambers of the shrine make them somehow even more imposing than otherwise.IMG_3095

One shrine Lotsa- meaning translator- referring to the founder of the shrine Rinchen Zhangpo who is referred to as the Great Translator.

The shrine for Manjushri even had different chambers, 4 statues of Manjushri facing in each direction and a larger statue in another chamber.

The circular design on the wall (visible on the right) are actually individual handpainted images of the Buddha


The huge clay idols in each one are carved with remarkable detail with adornments and with celestial beings of all shapes and sizes, goddesses, fierce divinities, some even showering garlands. What takes your breath away even more than the remarkable idols are the vivid frescoes on the wall- some had endless rows of hand-painted images of the Buddha, while others had intricate mandalas in brilliant colours.

Never enough prayer wheels



We walked around the monastery for a view of the Indus and headed back to the cab when what should we hear but the mewing of a silly kitten stuck atop an apple tree. Some significant jumping and rescuing later we made our way back. IMG_1075.jpgWe decided to distribute the cake to the cab drivers who had all parked there waiting for their tourists to return. To my surprise, they broke out into singing a happy birthday and then insisted on a picture with us!IMG_3110.jpgAnd that’s exactly how dear folks, a perfect birthday gets a cherry on top.IMG_1001


Up next : Ladakh – Of mountain lakes and star filled skies


Travel tips : For the first time China traveler

Continued from here

General tips

  • We decided to take a Chinese-speaking group tour to save money- the one we found online with an English guide would have cost us 4 times as much. There may be other options but we found none easily online. The downside was that we didn’t understand a word of what the very enthusiastic and seemingly funny guide was saying. We were extremely fortunate that my friend decided to accompany us so the essentials were translated thanks to her. The group itself was very friendly and kind but our lack of Chinese language skills was a downer to more conversation.
  • Carry a toilet paper roll everywhere – while the restroom stops are much more frequent than on Indian package tours, the restrooms often did not have toilet paper. Locals know it and carry tissues and so should you. Some restrooms are quite dodgy but honestly, we were grateful to be able to be well hydrated knowing there were sufficient restroom breaks.
  • More often than not, you have hot water available to drink/take with you at restaurants and not room temperature water unless you purchase bottled water. Since we had a wish to purchase less bottled water it meant that we had to borrow a flask so we could fill it up with the hot water vs the water bag that we usually carry on trips that’s not meant for boiling water.
  • Learn to eat with chopsticks or alternately carry preferred cutlery wherever you go. It will save you the hassle of asking for spoons at every single eatery – spoons are not served by default.
  • If you’re vegetarian, you may have limited options but there will most likely be at least 1 option for you 🙂 See our food post for details. However, if you don’t eat mushrooms- you may need to explicitly mention it in addition to the other things you choose not to eat since mushrooms are very often on the menu. Take a print out of this on paper since it will be something you often translate. If you eat eggs, the most common dish is eggs with tomatoes (not my favourite) but if you can learn the words for that you will be well fed.
  • ATMs are not very commonly found in the rural areas just like in many countries. Take cash along with you stored in each of your luggage items.
  • The visa process to China is a little confusing. As of today, you can only apply for it from Mumbai and Kolkata so if you, like us, don’t live in these locations you will have to go via a travel agent. An online search yielded exactly one result and we went with that since there were no recommended agents on the visa site. It cost us Rs.7500 per person. The government site asks for a lot of documents (account statements, hotel bookings, ID proofs etc) but the visa agent required just our passports. So not sure how that works.
  • Carry good walking shoes you can rely on- there is a lot of walking – even if you choose to not go on a “trek”. We walked an average of 15 km per day. Also, a jacket that is both sufficiently warm and is good for light rains will help rather than multiple ones. We purchased one in Huanglong since we didn’t want to carry 2 separate ones during the trek.
  • Like all international trips carry copies of your passport, hotel address, local contacts (if any) and tickets in all your luggage items. You will have to keep your original passport close at hand since its required for getting entry tickets at many places.
  • In some areas during your travel, people may ask to take pictures with you, it’s easy to mistake it for them wanting you to take their picture. If you don’t mind getting your picture taken with them, give it your best smile 🙂


App Review: 

We were lucky enough to have my friend Summer along for most of our trip in China, but it’s good to be prepared.

  • Hexatech: Many apps – Google, Instagram, Gmail, Facebook- do not work in China. The only way to get them to work is via VPN. We used Hexatech and it worked seamlessly.
  • Google translate – Download the offline translation for Chinese so that it’s available to you. Install a Chinese keypad to allow for Chinese people to type back responses to you. It also allows you to focus on some text and translates it. It is hugely helpful with food menus (despite funny literal translations occasionally) and signboards towards the exit/restrooms. However do not expect people in rural areas/older people to be comfortable with typing on your phone that they may not be familiar with.
  • Bing search: Google search does not work in China. But Bing does. It is a good option when you can search for images and point at them to people instead of word translation.
  • Didi: This app company has bought over the Uber business in China, so other than the green taxis that you can hail on the street, this is the primary option for taxis. While the app is available in English, the problem still holds that the driver will call to confirm your exact location – and then your inability to speak Chinese will impede further communication. So we didn’t end up using this app.
  • ChengDu Metro map: We did plan to take the metro as often as we could and it was very convenient since you have an English option to purchase your ticket. Do note that liquids will have to be given to the security personnel to scan separately in addition to scanning your baggage. Also, you cannot take knives and sprays in the metro. (We purchased kitchen knives and on a previous trip I’ve lost a bottle of perfume to the metro :()
  • iPhone maps : While the all-too-familiar Google maps doesn’t work, the iPhone maps did. Incidentally, both of us currently own iPhones so we didn’t try other options. Bing Maps just may work. Other map applications locals use are only in Chinese.
  • Wechat : This app is the most commonly used one that doubles up as both a social network, payment gateway and a text message alternative – This would be the useful to communicate with local friends and contacts.

What to buy on your trip to take back home (personal pick)

  • Tea: Not the green tea (which is also great) but the flower teas. They look stunning and taste fantastic. Which tea? I’d say a little bit of everything. Anand liked the barley tea too.IMG_1003
  • Sunflower seeds: Yes, sunflower seeds are available in India too- however, there are a lot of flavours to choose from- both sweet and savoury. We recommend going to the local vegetable market to purchase them so you can try one of each before deciding on which one to buy.

    Sunflower seeds still on the flower-we bought the toasted ones
  • Clothes: Clothes while fantastic are not inexpensive. The lower end shops cost as much as many branded clothes in India. Do purchase a style you may not get in India but the cost may not be too low.
  • Snacks: They have a glorious amount of vegetarian and non-vegetarian snacks that we almost always loved. From wasabi flavoured peanuts to rice crispies with the lightest hint of salt, to ready to eat seafood. For this, you’d have to purchase small amounts during your trip and decide which ones you like to take back home.
  • Anything cute: The products there are unapologetically cute- for kids and adults, stationery, clothing, accessories – if cute is your style you’ll be in shopping heaven.

    Yes, a panda shaped rice cake
  • Umbrellas: We did not purchase this ourselves, but if you’re in the market for beautiful sun umbrellas in everything from lace to bursting flower patterns – you’d be in the right place there.
  • Chopsticks: Needless to say it should be your go-to place for chopsticks. You have less expensive ones in all kinds of pretty prints, child sized ones with handles, elegant ones in gold, ones in steel and silver, wooden ones with carved designs- you name it and you’ll probably find some here. They make great souvenirs to take back to friends too.


Up next : A fort tale: Penukonda and Gudibande


China- Sichuan province : What to eat (Even if you’re vegetarian!)

On of the common concerns, we heard from friends when we went on a trip to China was about food. China is a multicultural country with varied cuisines and here I can speak for the province of Sichuan as a tourist. It’s truly blessed and we had opportunities to sample a wonderful variety of delicious food here- that’s spicy and flavorful- just as we’d like to describe some of Indian food too.

The food is delicious and we’d highly recommend you embrace it’s flavours and tastes without comparing it with familiar food. Visiting Sichuan and eating at fast food places seems criminal considering what the local food has to offer. However we do admit, having a Chinese friend along greatly helps in trying out the food. Here’s a list of what we ate on our trip- it’s not the complete list of recommended items- just what we chose to eat.

Day 1 : 

The first thing that’s a favourite of mine is the Sichuan barbeque – the ultimate winter food – hot, spicy. It works in a simple format- you select the vegetables/meat of your preference and you pay by the stick (more for meat). They barbeque it and get it to your table. It goes marvellously well with the locally available peanut soy milk, the herbal tea served in cans or beer that they prefer.

Food ordered by our group of 4:

Vegetarian : 3 types of tofu, 3 types of mushrooms, potato, lotus stem, 3 types of greens, a long chilly,

Meat : snails, fish, chicken, pork, beef

Eggs : Quail eggs


Day 2 : Leshan

LeShan is also popular for its food and Summer had visited it just for the food previously, so we decided to make the best of our trip there.

Veg/Egg: Tomato and egg noodles, Egg chow mien, Greens and Noodles

Meat: Sweet skinned duck (which is a speciality of Leshan), Beef and noodles

LeShan food
Our lunch at LeShan

After lunch, we dropped into a few more eateries and decided to pack snacks for the trek. It was quite a challenge to pick a few of the options but we did manage to finally pick – buns with a sweet brown sugar filling, rice with sesame wrapped with corn husk, brown and white coloured rice cakes, and steamed pork dumplings. Some packed watermelon and green and red cherries later, we were all set to take the bus to see the famed Leshan Grand Buddha. (slideshow below)


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Day 3:

At the Wenshu Monastery, we were hungry for a snack and headed to the place most crowded (always the safer bet in an unknown place). People just had paper containers of soft noodles that we ordered too. Was quite a delicate process to handle those noodles with chopsticks since they cut through so easily and it is simple fare. But Anand loved it so it’s a thumbs up from the Indian vegetarian. Vegetarian restaurants are quite the speciality in the area- you could try some more when there.

Food at Wenshu Monastery

Day 4:

Huahu:  Lunch  here was one of the very best we both enjoyed

Vegetarian: Dandelion leaves (bitter for me, Anand utterly loved it), mushrooms, eggs with tomatoes, mushroom soup, rice

Non-vegetarian: Kung-pao chicken, whole fish cooked Sichuan style, beef with peppers, and fried beef.

Our favorite meal on this trip!

We had dinner at the hotel we stayed for the night in Huanglong. A meal of

Vegetarian/Eggs : julienned potatoes (my favourite), tofu, eggs with bitter gourd

Non-vegetarian : Beef, and another meat dish with the ubiquitous soup.


Day 5 :

In hotels, breakfasts seem to have lots of items but not much spice other than pickles. We had a modest breakfast of some porridge, the local bread with a few types of pickles before heading off to Huanglong.


Lunch though did not disappoint. We stopped for lunch at a large rich looking place and had a sumptuous meal of

Vegetarian: Eggplant, Pumpkin, ear mushroom( Anand liked this one a lot), local bread, eggs and tomato, pickles, rice

Non-Vegetarian: Fish, chicken, beef and pork dishes.


Day 6 : Jiuzhaigou

Food here was very bland for Indian and Chengdu tastes.For dinner we had

Vegetarian/Eggs: Pumpkin, Bean Sprouts, Tofu, Soup, rice, eggs cooked in water.

Non-Vegetarian: Ash gourd with Pork, Pork with Potatoes, Beef with Peas, Buckwheat noodles with some meat (I don’t recall)


Day 7 :

Breakfast and dinner were on similar lines as the day before, So after dinner at the hotel where we stayed we set out to find what our heart desired – a spicy barbecue.

We ordered a few sticks of greens and several types of mushrooms with lots of spice to crave our chilly withdrawal symptoms of the past few days.


Day 8 :

On the way back from Jiuzhaigou we stopped for lunch where we had an endless buffet with numerous options for lunch and then headed back to the bus.It’s hard to even list the entire set of items , some I can remember are

Vegetarian : Corn, cakes, soups, eggplant dishes, noodles, greens , potatoes, mushrooms, several salads

Non-vegetarian : Dried fish, beef, pork dishes (too many to remember)


Day 9 :

We were lucky to be hosted by my friend Michelle and our family and in Jinli enjoyed this brilliant looking and tasting meal.

Vegetarian: a sweet jelly dish, several types of sweet baked items, eggplant,  the most coral like mushrooms cooked with eggs. a sweet dish with noodles

Non-vegetarian: Duck cooked with tea, kung-pao chicken, a cold but delicious chicken dish, a huge serving bowl of fish cooked in chili oil.

(slideshow below)


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And they added icecreams to the mix  – one shaped prettily like a plant with cocoa powder imitating the soil in the cup.


Day 10 :

The next day we revisited Jinli not in the least for its food. We picked a dinner of pineapple rice, fried potatoes and fish cooked on a stick and walked around enjoying its sights once more. However the food available was incredibly varied and beautiful looking.(slideshow below)


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Day 11:
Mostly spent eating and all the lovely food is right here in the post.

We did not specifically go searching for food items, but easily found things we enjoyed and can’t wait to have again sometime- and we hope you do too. Happy eating!


Up next: Travel tips : For the first time China traveler

China: Chengdu : Of flavourful food and foot massages

Despite staying a few minutes away from the museum we never got to it for lack of time amidst our other visit choices. The next day we checked out and leaving our luggage at the hotel met Summer for a day of shopping.


We met at the point that was literally the centre of the city called Tianfu Square which is the most common image one would find on looking for Chengdu city.It has the Science and Technology Museum and a statue of Mao.  IMG_0705But before shopping, we’d more important things first and we stopped for food. We all had piping hot bowls of delicious noodles all 3 vegetarian. My favourite type of noodles – made with sweet potato- stays hotter even after a long time and so was quite a struggle to eat quickly. It, being so tasty made it a challenge I was willing to take on.


We mostly went shopping for clothes and souvenirs- mind you neither are less expensive than India. We were lucky that we were also close to Chunxhi road which is the main shopping area in Chengdu. We picked up a snack midway of chicken wings filled with rice (sounds intriguing but really bad at all!) and some Oolong tea for Anand.IMG_1100


Shopping was as always was exhausting and we were soon hungry again- this time we headed to the food court at the Tianfu Square Station. While Summer and I shared a dish of noodles with clams, Anand had an assortment of wraps with delicious fillings.


We then headed back to her home to meet Wunscai again whom we had sorely missed.Summer also treated us to something that was so typically Chinese- the century egg- it’s an egg coated with clay, ash, salt and quick lime, and rice hulls for several weeks. It gets cooked when the pH is gradually raised thereby curing the egg. It does look intimidating in a deep green colour that one doesn’t normally associate with eggs. The outer portion is a little jelly like but otherwise, it tasted very much like a usual boiled egg to us.



That evening we headed off to yet another typical Chengdu experience- the foot massage. The masseuses use their knowledge of acupressure to give you a pleasant calming experience that however starts by, quite literally putting you in hot water, albeit only your feet. The customers there who were there before us- an older couple and a gentleman, were incredibly gracious to let us go ahead of them since they had reached there after their supper and didn’t mind the wait. My masseuse easily rattled off my list of ailments from just massaging my feet much to my embarrassment. That being said, I’d definitely love to do it again- it’s a perfect mix of therapy and a pedicure and was a complete treat to us especially after several days of enjoyable but long distance walking.IMG_1128.jpg


It was a day of Chengdu experiences after all, so there was no better way to end it other than with a Sichuan hotpot supper. It’s something one cannot miss on a trip to Chengdu especially if you love spicy food. You’re provided with add-ons of garlic, spring onions, chilli, and sesame oil to put into your bowl. You pick each piece of food and let it cook in the boiling pot of spicy sauce and then pick it up, let it cool down in your bowl and then bite into the delightful morsel.


Vegetarian, egg: Quail eggs, stringy mushrooms, lettuce, a sweet pancake that we purchased in addition to the rest of the food.

Non-vegetarian: Fish, Duck intestines, chicken, beef


Last day:

And just like that, we had come to our very last day.  It also happened to be the day we tried the Durian fruit for the very first time. Being familiar with jackfruit which is one of my favourite fruits, the appearance doesn’t put me off.  However, it’s notorious for being stinky and for good reason. We tentatively bit into it and sensed the consistency of soft custard. Unfortunately, I didn’t warm up to it but well it’s worth a try if you get a chance.


Our trip has an apt ending with a final touch of hospitality from a city that had been so generous to us, a delicious lunch made by Summer’s mother- eggplant, greens with mushrooms, and my favourite- julienned potatoes.  We gorged on it gratefully and bid a warm farewell to our hosts.IMG_1149.jpg


We’d have a lot to look back on when we reminisce about this trip together- the wonder in our eyes at the stunning caves at LeShan, the unspoilt beauty of Huahu,  the decadent food we’d had the chance to try every day, the unbelievably perfect hues of Jiuzhaigou and the most magical of all and the memory that’d stay with us the longest – the sheer kindness of dear friends and perfect strangers at every step of the way.

Up next : China- Sichuan province : What to eat (Even if you’re vegetarian!)