Trying To Lose My Way In A Forest

It takes almost 10 hours to reach Manali from Delhi. But one must get to Manali for all the fabulous destinations that lie beyond it’s folds. The high lofty peaks of Rohtang La, Kunzum La, Baralachala, Tanglang La, Khardung La that takes one to the icy high-altitude terrains of Spiti and Leh. Manali is a household name in India. I grew up hearing often repeated ‘Kullu-Manali’ – the double whammy phrase. In films, in casual discussions about the hills and one’s desire to go away. A distant promised land for those who want to escape routine  and live an unplanned life. 

Khajjiar


In my imagination, I pictured twin peaks, snow clad, a couple of huts. A bit like that very popular Khajjiar image. Green open pasture with a small lake in the middle, a lush forest making for an impressive background. Just a few cottages in the distance. ‘Mini Switzerland’ – as appropriated by Swiss envoy Willy P. Blazer back in 1992. That was my understanding of ‘Kullu-Manali’ as well before I got there myself. 
It’s not just me. If you Google Kullu Manali, one of the top links reads – is Kullu and Manali same? Just to clarify. The town of Kullu is about 40 km away from Manali (a hill station). Both the town and hill station fall in the Kullu district.

Though this is Kashmir
Image courtesy: http://www.sukanyaverma.com/


Once you get off the bus and find yourself in the over-crowded mall road/market, a figurative question mark forms in your imagination – why did I sit through that jumpy bus ride for 10 hours for this? The answer appears for those who are willing to walk some more, do a bit of a struggle with their backpacks in search of what they originally left home for – a bit of hard-to-find god damning peace of mind and that elusive scene without any asbestos roof or brick wall or electricity wire jutting into the scene.

Road to Old Manali. the Pine Forest neatly contained by a fence


Kullu however is even worse. Not once have I been able to find myself gutsy enough to explore beyond its puddly bus-stand overlooked by it’s seriously populous residential hills – just way too many rooftops clamouring for space. I think there are horrible side effects of being too popular. Lucky are the destinations that are yet to become household names and are yet to be reigned on by Bollywood crews.  

The occasional vehicle beyond Manali Mall road


I have a theory. That the collective name Kullu-Manali came because of our Desi crowd’s penchant for pilgrimages. The woman in my neighbourhood is quite footloose. She can’t read. Got married at 16. Is mother to 4 but we connect over travel talks and tea. Every once a year she packs into a bus with her friend from the neighbourhood and they do a 2-3 day trip – to temple towns and various other exotic locations that have been market by a temple. There’s singing on the way and steaming plates of Kachori after the temple visit. It costs just 400 to 500 rupees per head and is budget travel of another kind. Kullu and Manali both frequently appear in such travels. Kullu’s famous Dussehra celebrations and Manali’s Manu temple and Hadimba temple both can be covered in a day if one has the appetite for it. 

This blog has another (kind of spooky) story about the Hadimba Temple. I’ve linked it above in case you are curious what ghosts lurk here 😉

But there are some who are looking for something a bit slower; have too much time on their hands; and don’t mind hearing the crunch of their feet, one after the other, in the silence of an empty road winding up a steep hill. For those, Manali still has something to offer. Leave behind the crowds, vehicles, shoppers, and take a left turn. In a while the breathtaking pine forest engulfs you from both sides before you get to the less crowded old Manali or find yourself in one of the many villages that dot the hills here. 

The Beas River and Old Manali as seen from the Pine Forest in the evening


But nothing compares to the raw natural experience of this pine forest. It’s a portal to the past. The forest carefully holds on to the memory of life before development, brands, roads, amenities and consumption. The world in the pine forest is one of hushed heavy silence, wind howling, muted footsteps over layers and layers of leaves and pine needles; the distant rush of the Beas river, and the sunlight peering in through the mist of the trees. It’s a detox you didn’t know you needed.

A lone man fishing in the Beas River on an overcast day

Meeting Death At Pondicherry’s Manapet Beach

Originally published in Tehelka. Republishing here with changes.


The blue sky with its clusters of grey clouds meets the swelling ocean at the horizon. At 7 in the morning, the Manapet beach is abuzz with people, crabs and crows. This is my second day in Pondicherry and I am making plans of having a home here someday. In retrospect, that’s the way of this city.

Everyone’s made a home here. The street-side vendors have neat little coconut- leaf brooms resting against tree, a pet dogs curled up in the corner, not a spec of trash in sight. Every evening when the school and college crowd disperses at 4 p.m., mothers are busy sweeping the front yard and fathers are busy buying snacks for the hungry little mouths perched on parked scooters and cycles. Almost every house we cross on the way to Pondicherry, from Chennai (through the East Coast Road), has rangoli at the entrance. The city enjoying a permanent breeziness, having the ocean so close by.

Back at the Manapet beach, I have had my eyes glued to a decaying tortoise for a while now, quenching a carnal curiosity that death invokes in me. I spotted it from a distance and had walked closer disturbing a murder of crows that had been peering over the massive darkness. I stop at a distance, the crows return to their occupation. This is my first encounter with such a huge tortoise, albeit dead. Mesmerised I walk a little closer and regret it immediately. The stench breaks over me like a wave. It is overpowering. Trying hard not to breathe, I fasten my pace on the slippery damp sand, not wary of the tap-dancing crabs anymore. I just want to get away.

I can’t. The air of Pondicherry now smells like death to me. Walking around the Nehru Street market in the scorching heat of January, I wipe my nose repeatedly and smell a lot of perfumes. A young French guy winks at me but I can’t focus. The heat seems to be making it worse. The soil is giving off that scent as are the coconut remains in a garbage bin. I spot an Indian Coffee House and hurry across the street to its spacious echoing comfort. A woman sells golden bangles and mukhuttis (ornate nose pins) next to the coffee house. The sun beating down on the ornaments shines with a vengeance making me regret my aversion to sunglasses. A beggar sits before the shady entrance and counts his day’s earnings. He’s got a white mess of hair on his head and eyes full of contagious happiness.

I stand at the cash counter and try to communicate my desire of sipping on a cold coffee. I have been engulfed by linguistic confusion in Pondicherry. I speak to my driver, Thevari, in Hindi, he doesn’t understand. I explain in English he gets it. I apply the same formula to fisherman Ramakrishna, who I found plucking live baits from sea shells and putting it on his hook before he went fishing on his boat and became a speck in the distance, and he tells me he understands Hindi fine enough. By the third day, I stick to gestures and nods firmly till I can ascertain the linguistic inclination of my acquaintance.

Pondicherry has a sense of peace prevailing over it despite the noise and its mad traffic. I hear Thevari mouth angry curses in Tamil to a man on a scooter before return to the car with a tranquil smile. We are headed to a Club Mahindra resort at Manapattu village (which leads me to my early morning walk to the Manapet beach). It’s an earth goodness. The luxury cottage I’m led to is shaded by palm and coconut trees and I can hear the ocean splashing on the shore in the distance.

Still relishing the aftertaste of the Coconut mouse that welcomes me, I accompany manager Vikas Syal on a walk around the lavish resort and finally end up at the beach. He talks about how the Thane cyclone devastated his property back in 2011 and laments the loss of the beach-side spa.

Ocean calamities have been a recurring threat to the coastline of Pondicherry but none of it did as much damage as the Tsunami of 2004. The beaches of Pondicherry are still peppered with fisherman colonies which sing about the wrath of nature. One of the worst hit villages, Pudukuppam, lies about 2 km to the right of the Manapet beach. Broken boats lie enmeshed in ipomoea climbers, sunk like corpses in the sand.

Even though the village outskirts are deserted and decaying at 11 in the morning, the lanes further in have a different story to tell. A woman sits outside her thatched-roof home, grinding lentils in an aluminum container. Having spotted an outsider in her area, she is quick to make a pained expression and ask for money. I point to her utensil to find out she’s making idlis. I gesture her to make extra for me. She finds that very amusing and laughing heartily says something to the other women hanging around in the lane. Most of them are wearing floral printed sarees and have their hair tied in buns. Some are wearing flowers in their hair. They all have golden jewellery adorning their ears, nose, wrist and neck. They seem to be discussing something heatedly and with a lot of giggles.

I ask one of them about the broken houses all around us. She points to the sea. Soon she doesn’t care that I don’t understand her language and speaks fluently in Tamil about the Tsunami which hit her village. She raises her hand above her head to gesture how high the water had reached. But the rest I don’t understand and I have no one to translate.

Further down the village, the Tsunami and the constant cyclones are not the talk of the day. Having worked hard since early morning for the day’s catch, mid-day is meant for relaxing. On a raised rectangular platform with pillars supporting the roof, three women sit playing what they call Aadpulia-attam and what I know as Ludo. A square wooden plank marked with red nail paint to resemble a female princess or demon in a square box. They play with broken glass bangle pieces and two cylindrical metal dice.

Below the platform, on the road, a patch has been cleaned for drying small silver fishes. Called Karavada, these fishes will be dried for two days before they are roasted with spices for a meal.

All this while – during the lunch at Le Café in the French city, at the rocky beach, during the walk at Aurovile and even in my plush room at Club Mahindra – I had been trying to shrug off the decaying smell of the ocean I encountered on an early morning walk across the Manapet beach. But as I sat on the platform now, following the board game unfolding at Pudukuppam village, I realise I had learnt to ignore the stink. I had started to accept it as a part of my stay in Pondicherry. Maybe that’s what the people at Pudukuppam village have also learnt to do. As I later find out, the government has constructed new houses for the people of this village a little far away from the ocean to avoid future calamities, but the people of Pudukuppam seem to be reluctant to live there. The beach continues to be where they are truly at home and the ocean is their source of life.

Later, standing ankle deep in the water clutching my camera, I feel the water rise in leaps and bounds to my knee only to leave as rapidly as it came and take all the soil from beneath my feet along with it. Water rushing towards me, water retreating back to the sea and the earth slipping from under my feet. I feel dizzy, as if I’m stuck in Hitchcock’s famous vertigo effect on a loop. I remember how writer Vicky Harrison once put it — “Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”


This year I had the good fortune of visiting Kolkata during Durga Puja. It was long pending. The last time I had walked down those crazy light decored streets I was a toddler. I don’t remember much of it besides the psychedelic light figurines and the off-white silk sarees in the crowd.

This year, I was there a few days before Mohaloya and watched the entire festival play out from the balcony of my maternal uncle’s home in Garia. The streets were already fenced with bamboo poles which supported a variety of advertisement hoarding all around the city. Every locality has a club. Like there’s the Raipur club in Raipur, Arunachal club near Ashok Trust and so on. These clubs had already done their share of collecting funds and various pandals were cropping up on open grounds. Each one with a distinct theme.

Every street bend boasted an aluminum speaker cone perched on an electric pole. And these cones blared out Rabindra Sangeet, a variety of safety announcements, advertisements and some praise for the local club – making the festive spirit very much a part of daily life. One couldn’t escape the joviality even if they wanted to.

In the midst of all this, the skyline of Kolkata played out the most dramatic role. The clear sunny mornings would often give way to a display of ominous clouds by afternoon. A quick thunderstorm would be followed by raging rains – enough to drench one through within seconds. My favourite activity turned out to be watching the crows during these episodes.

While all the other birds would disappear and seek shelter away from the unmanageable winds, the crows would cheeky spread their wings and be flung around. They seemed to quite enjoy it. It seemed as though they were trying to get away but the more time I spent looking at them, I realized they were just moving round in circles, going with the flow almost. Street smart birds do it different I suppose.

If it rains before Pujo, it is said that Maa Durga is coming home on a boat. She doesn’t always come on a boat though. Elephant, Horse, Palanquin, and Buffalo are her other modes of transport. But this year was clearly all about water. Here’s bringing you some moments from these storms which ushered in Durga Pujo 2019.

Akashe Pujo 1

Akashe PujoAkashe Pujo 2Akashe Pujo 3Akashe Pujo 5Akashe Pujo 4

Why Do You Travel?

Why Do you Travel

Everyone travels for a different reason.

Some want to get away from the routine and feel alive.

Some want to see new sights, savour new foods.

Some like the challenge and the thrill of it.

Some travel to escape reality.

Some to find themselves and some to lose themselves.

Why do you travel?

I ask because it’s one of those frequent questions in my own head. Why do I travel? I have always wanted to; since I was little. However, the reasons have always changed. It’s never been the same.

Earlier it was the easiest way to escape the responsibilities and realities of the city.

Then it became this way to define myself as who I thought I was and who I eventually wanted to become.

And now, slowly I realize, the more I travel the more this has become a way of life for me. To travel is to feel alive, to feel connected with myself, my country, and so many people who are just like me yet so different.

Maybe, the next time I travel (I will be catching a flight to Arunachal Pradesh on the 1st of September) I will find a new reason for why I travel.

So just curious about your thoughts on this. Why do you pack your bags and zip away? What do you go to find? What do you try to leave behind and what do you bring back? Why do you travel?

Do let me know.

(On another note, I made a travel video out of my July wanderings. I was at Jibhi, Manali, Prashar, and Jwalapur. Just drifting around Himachal Pradesh during the monsoons and experiencing travel zen. Watch the video. If you like it, follow my YouTube Channel. I’ll be posting more videos soon.)

Chhattisgarh’s Sirpur Has A Lot To Offer

First Published in Tehelka

How to get there By road from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur

Estimated time (From Raipur) Half an hour

Place to stay The Hiuen Tsing Tourist Resort, or the Hareli Ecio Resort In Barnawapara Sanctuary

At around 4.30 in the evening, the January sunsets over Sirpur, spewing its golden orange warmth over the forest on the left side of the road. The river Mahanadi runs parallel in the same direction somewhere in the distance across the dense growth of teak, sal and bija trees. At times the forest would give way to paddy fields where white cranes sat soaking the day’s last rays, munching on titbits and riding on buffalo backs.

Raipur to sirpur drive
Road to Sirpur (Image Courtesy: Tripoto)

Sirpur is a small town roughly 90 minutes drive from Raipur. It is situated on the banks of the Mahanadi river in Mahasamund district of Chhattisgarh. Sirpur, some claim, was more developed and flourishing than the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. Built on the concave of the river Mahanadi to avoid getting flooded, Sirpur (then known as Shripur) was a lesson in co-existing with nature. It was the Mahanadi that helped the town become a commercial, religious and cultural hub from the 4th to the 8th century CE and later buried the town under a veil of oblivion with a flood around the 14th century. In present times, Mahanadi’s existence is asserted only by the vast and dry river bed it has left in the wake of a dam which channelises the water for agriculture and electricity.

Mahanadi
Mahanadi River

But the original devastation of Sirpur happened in the 12th century, when the town was destroyed by a massive earthquake which left the town abandoned. The flood deposited layers of mud over this heritage, hiding it from view.

At Surang Tila, the magnitude of the earthquake which destroyed the ancient town is still evident: The entire structure has leaned towards the east. In fact, the rear of the structure is supported by metal rods to stop it from leaning further. Yet, the limestone temple intact with its four Shiva Lingas, one Ganeshamurthi, two Nandis and the remains of the 32-pillar Mandapa stands almost as it had about 1,600 years ago.

Surang Tila Sirpur 1
Surang Tila (Image Courtesy: Ketan Vikamsey)

Even though the first Sirpur excavations were carried out in the year 1950, unearthing five monasteries and an enormous monolithic sculpture of Buddha in the Bhumisparsha mudra, dedicated work on the site started more than 50 years later, spearheaded by retired archeologist Dr. A K Sharma. Thanks to his labours, Sirpur now boasts of 12 Buddh Viharas, one Jain Vihara, monolithic statues of Buddha and Mahavira, 22 Shiv temples and five Vishnu temples, an Ayurveda treatment centre, underground granary market and a sixth-century ‘Ayurvedic Snaankund’ (ancient spa), besides the Gandheshwar Temple on the banks of the Mahanadi.

Surang tila Sirpur
The ancient ruins of Surang Tila 

Sirpur is best traversed on foot or by cycle. A land untouched by modernity and dotted by temples from various periods makes this an aesthetic experience. It is to yet develop into a travel destination.

If one has gone all the way to this heritage town, it is not advisable to miss out the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary. You can either ask the Hiuen Tsiang Resort to arrange for a day trip to the sanctuary or live in the wild (definitely more recommended) at the Hareli Eco Resort. Barnawapar is a coveted spot for bird watchers, stargazers and dreamers.

Barnawapara-Wildlife-Sanctuary.jpg
Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary (Image Courtesy: Tripnetra.com)

January is the best month to visit Sirpur. Chhattisgarh, even in winter, is rather hot. The peak of winter is the time when it’s most pleasant (rather hot in the day and mildly chilly at night). The prestigious Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival is also held at this same time.

In 2015, this festival was graced by Kathak dancer and Hindustani classical music vocalist Pandit Birju Maharaj, Sitar player Shujaat Husain Khan and English percussionist Peter Robert Lockett, to name a few.

Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival.jpg
Birju Maharaj’s troop performs at the Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival (Image Courtesy: PhotoKatha)

In a way, Sirpur has just been discovered as a potential travel destination. It has a rather different experience to offer, removed from the usual hill or sea-side vacation. This is about exploring the vast plains of India.

Prashar Lake Trek

(Read the previous story about how I got to Manali’s Nomadic Nest here…)

Next morning, we discover Nomadic Nest to be a tranquil haven. The courtyard is cluttered with pear trees in full bloom. Reena doesn’t take time to wake up early and pluck a handful of pears to claim as breakfast. She has even made friends with half the members of this hostel by the time I am up and about.

Nomadic Nest
View from Roof of Nomadic Nest

Soon I am introduced to Srikanth who wants to do a trek. This is his first-time solo traveling proper – no booking, no planning – and he want to make the most of it. This piques my curiosity and I am already considering tagging along. And somewhere in the midst of making new friends on the veranda on Nomadic Nest, I have called Bunty (better known as Sen Sahb). He is Janmejay’s accomplice and friend at My Manali Adventures in Jibhi. During our stay there he had proved to be an absolutely delightful companion, making us a nice crackling bonfire (even though it was not cold) and proving to be a great conversationalist. His real job, when he’s not looking after the property and entertaining guests, is to trek. He’s a certified trek leader and my go-to person the moment I hear trek.

Prashar Lake vantage point.png
Prashar Lake in Monsoons, 2019

Next morning Srikanth and I are all set to go when I am introduced to another member of the hostel – Katherina. Katherina has been a silent and elusive member of this traveler’s household since our arrival. Besides her cluttered bed in our dorm, neither Reena nor I had actually seen her in person. However, today morning she is on her bed and eventually, a casual conversation starts. Within the next hour, it turns out that she is to be the third party for our Prashar Lake trek.

From the Manali Bus Depot, we will catch a bus for Kullu and from the Kullu Depot one to Panarsa in Mandi district – where Sen Sahb will meet us with a jeep and all the gear we will need on this journey. But first, I will bid farewell to Reena, who needs to return to Delhi. We see her off at the Hadimba Temple and walk down to the Mall road amidst a slow drizzle and Katherina’s conversations of how she got to India all the way from Germany and wanted to experience as much as she could during her one month stay in the country.

Over the course of the next three days, I am to discover the immense potential of her small First Aid kit, which is a traveling chemist shop in its own right. I am also to learn of the various vaccinations she has taken as a precaution before she stepped out of her country. But what’s endearing about her conversations is how similar Indian and German parents are when it comes to being concerned about their daughters and their safety. And even more intriguing is how the world stands united when it comes to approving certain types of lifestyle as normal while everything else triggers alarm and anxiety.

Katherine and Sen Sab at Prashar Temple
Katherine and sen Sahb at Prashar Temple (Rolling incense sticks before offering prayer)

Our trek starts from a village called Jwalapur. We reach around 4 in the evening and find a breathtaking meadow just off the road where we set out camps for the night. The drizzle that accompanied us to the Manali Bus stand, meets us again midway to Jwalapur. We must rush with setting up the camp if we don’t want to sleep in a wet tent.

However, the drizzle can’t mar our excitement at living on a meadow. The three of us set out to explore the lush green valley that’s our home for the rest of the day. It’s a steep climb and we are surrounded by pine forests on all three sides. Nothing but the sounds of nature here. But mostly a muted silence; the drizzle soaking into the ground silently. Somewhere to the north of our camp, an ancient Mahadev temple stands in the rain. It’s an eerie sight. The locals are very protective about this temple and Sen Sahb left us with a cautionary note – “Don’t go in there randomly. If you see someone ask them first.” He’s gone to find us food and water for the night from one of the nearby village residences.

But there is no one around, besides a few workers who are constructing another temple opposite the Mahadev temple. This one will be for Sheshnag – the king of serpents, who balances the universe on his hood. But currently, they are huddled under a cluster of pine trees enjoying a small, warm fire. They tell us this valley hosts a fair each year during the summer months. The temple they are constructing will be ready before the next one.

***

Jwalapur
Jwalapur

We start walking at 9 the next morning. First through the road on which we drove up yesterday and then one left turn leads us into the forest. This is going to be easy I think. I have walked plenty such trails through forests. Just watch your feet and enjoy the views. We were hoping the sun would be finally shining today. Katherine and I had offered gracious prayers to Apollo (the Greek Sun God) and Surya Devta (the Indian Sun God) but they were clearly not appeased. We hope it won’t start raining though. Sen Sahb is enthusiastic that the sun will be out by 12. What we get instead if steady drizzle and occasional downpours.

Trek to Prashar lake.png
Srikant and Mayank

Even though we don’t meet the sun today, we do find leeches. The first set quite early on in our journey – stuck to Katherine heels. Soon we find a meadow by a stream on the way and plonk ourselves on a stone slab that seems leech free. I have had the good sense of carrying salt. We enjoy watching the leeches melt away. Katherine puts away her slippers and changes into a pair of shoes. Srikanth, Sen Sahb and his cousin brother and assistant, Mayank, are all safe in shoes. I am the only one who must continue with slippers because Living Unplanned hey. I am ready for this challenge. It’s leeches vs me.

Most of the Prashar Lake trek is a good walk. But there are stretches which are steep and require advanced skills and good muscle power to see you through. The monsoon season has made some of it more challenging. It’s hard to tell apart solid ground from slush puddles at times and one needs to be somewhat careful before placing their foot. One wrong step could lead to a slip and fall. The route we have taken through Jwalapur is about a 9 km journey. There is another route that starts from Baggi and is around 16 km to Prashar Lake. A stream keeps us steady company throughout the route and we even find two waterfalls on the way; perfect spots to take a break.

Prashar Temple entrance
Entrance to Prashar Lake

Prashar Temple Priest
Prashar Lake Priest

Prashar Lake is breathtaking in the monsoon mist. Perched at an altitude of 8,956 ft (2730 m), this is a little blue mystery of the Himalayas. The water reflects the grey sky. the drizzle plays on the surface of the lake. Surrounded by the snow-capped Dhauladhar, Pir Panjal, and Kinnaur mountain ranges, no one yet knows the depth of Prashar Lake.  Legends claim that the lake is the result of an elbow dent delivered by Bhima – one of the Pandava brothers from Mahabharata. It was to provide water to Rishi Parashara who wanted to spend the rest of his life meditating here.

Prashar Temple
Prashar Temple on a Misty morning

The Prashar Lake temple worships Rishi Parashar and was built in 13th century by Bansen – the then king of Mandi. This Pagoda style temple displays traditional Himachali architectural elements and is said to have been made out of a single tree by a baby, according to local legends.

Prashar Lake
Prashar Lake, on a cloudy day

It was a tiring walk and when we finally surfaced at Prashar lake, I was pretty much in a mood to tell Sen Sahb and his assistant cousin Mayank that they can stop talking about the return journey because I am not planning to walk any time before next week. But surprisingly, by the next morning, I was quite upbeat.

The nest morning before we packed up, the clouds lifted momentarily to give an idea of the breath-taking vistas all around us – a 180-degree snow peak cover spread out before us. Katherine clicked photos. I gaped. Srikant stood, hands-on waist.

Below, I’m listing out all the crucial data and information you need for the Prashar Lake Trek in bullet points to help make your unplanned living a breeze.

Route: Parasna to Jwalapur (Mandi) to Prashar Lake

Distance: 9.5 km

Elevation: 2,730 m (8,960 ft)

Gear You Need: Walking sticks, Camps, Raincoats

Cost Per Person: 2,500 – 3,000 INR

Sen Sahb/Bunty’s Contact Details: +916230364702

This is an all year round trek. The walk and the lake both have their unique charm in all seasons.

Leech Pointers:

Leeches aren’t that bad or so I thought. They are just a little too friendly. If one can overcome that initial stage of disgust at their utter sliminess, then all you got to do is grab and tuck. And for most parts, they always come with that slight tingling sensation which makes them easy to detect at least on my shoeless, socks-less feet. Though I did feel that I had comparatively fewer leech attacks compared to those who were wearing shoes. It’s probably because shoes offered more grabbing surface. And as I had not expected, the leeches easily crawled into shoes and even socks!

Removing a leech that’s been sucking on you for some time can be a bloody affair. Not painful but bloody. Katherine tells me, Leeches have a special quality where they reduce the viscosity of blood making it flow easier and faster. She knows because her grandmother was being treated for varicose veins for some time and leeches were the cure. I suggest you carry doctor’s tape or band-aids with good adhesive quality in case you are doing a forest trek during monsoons – just to avoid unnecessary blood loss. However, I assure you those innocuous leeches will do you no other harm, give you no long term side effects. Just remember to carry salt.

Unwinding at Jibhi

I feel at peace after the trek. Absolutely content. I don’t need human interaction and am at ease quietly going about my work. It’s the 18th of July at around 3 in the afternoon. I’m sitting on the roof of Nomadic Nest, a hostel in Nasogi (a quaint village near Manali). Part of the roof is shaded with asbestos tins and the floor is covered with worn-out red carpet. The edges are covered with mattresses, with a blanket folded neatly on each of these.

Nomadic Nest Roof
Nomadic Nest Roof

Sharooq, who has been traveling the past 4 months is wrapped in an orange blanket, watching a particularly dramatic film on his phone. It’s playing out in his native language and I don’t follow the dialogues. On the next mattress Katherina, from Germany, is taking a nap. A half-eaten pear next to her on a low table. And I sit writing this. Occasionally gazing out at the cotton candy clouds of Manali. Sometimes the clouds move and reveal snow peaks in the distance.

 

It was from here, that four days ago, Katherina, Shrikant and I set out to Panarsa and then to Jwalapur to start out trek to Prashar Lake. It was all very impromptu. About a week ago, I was somewhere in Delhi, hard at work on freelance projects that would pay the bills. A colleague of mine had been floating the idea of a short weekend trip for some time. It was all sketchy, something we would do if neither of us got busy with something else.

Aut.png
Aut

However, she made that one crucial call on the last day, and I, on a whim said, okay, why not. No tickets booked, destination still not decided, we had finally agreed that we leave in 4 hours. To Himachal Pradesh. By the time we were at the busy messy Inter-State-Bus-Terminal, we had picked Jibhi as our destination for the weekend.

Jibhi Thailand
Jibhi

I had been hearing a lot about this village. Life at Jibhi had infested my Instagram feed. It promised to be all about apples and jam, home-cooked food, sitting by the stream and friendly dogs. It seemed non-committal enough. Jibhi is not an obvious destination. It’s only an alternative get-away receiving tourist footfall when other popular destinations are over-crowded.

Our Room at My Manali
Our Room at My Manali Adventures in Jibhi

 

So when Reena and I arrived at Jibhi after a 16-hour-long bus journey, we found what we were looking for. Rains, cool fresh air and a scantily populated Himachali village dotted with wooden-door shops selling items of necessity. The highlight – a handloom machine, big, and rusty, which was carried all the way from Kullu some 26-years ago. Next door to the handloom machine a shop selling traditional Himachali shawls most of which have taken 4-7 days to weave. Right now, in offseason, there are no takers and the shop has to be opened to show the goods on sale.

Jibhi Bus Stand
Jibhi Bus Stand

Besides prying into closed shops, we also trek to a hidden away spot between Jibhi and the next village called Ghiyagi. Sometime during fetching us water and extension boards for extra charging points, Janmejay or JJ of My Manali Adventures tells us about Thailand. “It’s a perfect spot for swimmers”. But why is it called Thailand? Because it looks the part.

Jibhi Pond
Jibhi, Thailand

An innocuous mud trail leads us to the stream. From here we show some daring and wade through heavy currents. Reena holding on to the stone, and I to her arm as I cross to the middle where the current seems manageable. And then she lets go on the rock and carefully crosses over holding on to my arm for support. Then we are at the blue lagoon surrounded by big rocks. There’s no one around and we call the rock cave our queendom and spend the afternoon being absolutely silly.

But while we were wading in knee-deep water or even enjoying the bonfire later that night, we had no inclination that we would be leaving Jibhi the next day.

My Manali from forest
My Manali from the forest across

The trek to Prashar Lake was leg three of this unplanned journey. Leg two began with us hitchhiking from Jibhi to Banjar to Kullu. At Banjar we meet Hiralal who calls himself Diamond. His business card reads H.L. Diamond and he works with a local news channel. Fliting about the mountain roads in his red Alto is a daily affair. And today he just happened to stop by at the Banjar bus-stand to drop someone off when Reena pounced on the opportunity. Diamond readily agrees to ferry us to Kullu. He’s going there anyway. It’s his home town. Later he points out his abode as he turns towards the Kullu bus-stand.

Diamond tells us about the traveling god (devta) of the Himalayas – Sheshnag – who during the monsoons is taken from his residing village to a neighbouring village, where the locals offer prayers and celebrate his presence for 7 days before the devta is taken back to his native temple. Diamond even stops at one such celebrating house to pick up a courier. The house is decked with lights and shiny green tapestries. Children are loitering in the yard and the elders are busy organizing everything. We are invited to join the feast but we must push on – a friend waits in Manali.

The plan to extend this trip from Jibhi to Manali would have never materialized had it not been for Anuj Khurana. The man runs a production house from Manali. It’s called 4Play and he claims their den is the center of India’s best adventure filmmakers. Khurana from Aligarh left home years ago. He worked sales jobs and odd field gigs before he quit to travel fulltime. He made films on the road for years before landing up at Manali and feeling settled in the hills. I would have called his place in Manali home but it’s a den alright.

A corridor stacked with mountain bikes and the boxes that carried them. A huge wooden table houses a rock climbing shoe upturned, probably drying after a wash. It’s Saturday so the boys have washed their clothes and it hangs drying on strings surrounding the courtyard. There’s Ram Siga, who cooks for the lot. Anuj and Ram Siga are constant members of this household and run long endearing conversations of domesticity and admin issues while the other – interns, trainees, filmmakers, and friends drink and chatter in the next room. Someone leaves, someone arrives every day.  It’s an ecosystem – a support center for creators and adventure lovers. And home to Roxie, a shy mountain dog who is way too big for everyone besides Khurana.

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Roxie at 4Play

 

Anuj Khurana offers Reena and me his gracious hospitality and we have a lavish meal of chicken masala and roti. Ram Siga is a good chef.

By 1.30 am we are trotting down the narrow village lane of Nasogi to the friendly hostel in the neighbourhood – Nomadic Nest. Sai – a 21-year-old from Tamil Nadu (he really looks 29 though) – who runs the place is fast asleep but we still manage to find beds.

… Contd…

A Photo Story about the Camels of Bikaner

If you are done with Junagarh Fort, Lalgarh Palace, and a visit to the Karni Mata temple with its numerous rats, then maybe you are thinking what else you could do with your time in Bikaner.

Here’s an offbeat travel idea you could try when in Bikaner. You’ll find the National Research Centre on Camel just off the Jodhpur bypass. Established almost 35 years ago in 1984, the centre today houses around 300 camels.

During my Bikaner haul in May a day trip of any kind seemed like a bad idea. The heat stings. The centre, however, closes by 6 p.m. I was barely in time to enjoy a peaceful sunset with the camels here.

Even though this was after hours and meant I’d have to do without the camel milk ice-cream, this visit was just the kind of thing which makes me happy. It was a meditative kind of silence interrupted by the shuffling of their feet and an occasional peacock. In the red sand and blue walls of the centre, the marks on their hind legs, attentively turning their heads to my every move, and some even trying to say hello with a friendly nudge.

The sanctity of the interaction was interrupted by the sudden emergence of the herders. Though it was a short-lived one. Since they easily moulded in the space. Soft-spoken, animal lovers who are more than happy to point out the little ones while marvelling at their cuteness. The herders spend the night with their animals, on wood and jute cots under the stars. This sleeping under the stars is undoubtedly the best way to spend the Bikaner summer evenings.

Camel4
The ship of the desert, Camels are an integral part of the ecosphere of the region

Camel 2
Some pictures from an evening spent at the National Research Centre on Camel, Bikaner

Camel Herders of Bikaner with logo1
Camel Herders done with work for the day

Camel5.jpg
A jute bag to keep water cool

Camel6.jpg
Baby Camel curious about the camera

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There are more than 300 camels in the complex

Close Encounters With Nature

Hello,

On this humid Monday morning!!! I’ve got two bizarre travel videos for you.

If you thought cats were curious and kind of crazy then you need to hang out with camels more. Is what I learned during my trip to Bikaner. Check these homies out. They just trooped towards me and were pretty much like –hey! look at that… what’s that? Let’s go check it out — and then they were like – hi!wassa!

I generally don’t use hipster slang lingo while writing but I think these camels were quite young and of this millennial generation. Sort of pictured that’s how they would communicate. Besides, their obsession with the gadget … they are definitely hipster camels.

But what a kickass way to spend the evening. This was just endearing. I felt so close to them. If you ever visit Bikaner, go to the National Research Centre on Camel, (ICAR). It’s just outside the city and they have so many camels more than 370! and there are baby camels too.

Okay, getting to the second video, this is going to give you some serious beach craving. It gave me a serious beach craving. Oh! and I also added a trippy music effect to it. The track is called The Best Way to Travel – it’s by Moody Blues. Check out Moody Blues after you watch my video. If possible, watch this video in HD.

This was captured in Bekal, in Kasargod. So there’s enough conversation about Cochin, and Alleppey and backwaters and the South Kerala Beaches and no one bothers to talk about North Kerala. And that’s quite good. Because throughout my stay in Kasargod, I had access to absolutely isolated, clean beaches. Not another soul in site (mostly). I felt like the queen of the world. All those luscious sunset all mine.

Seriously, If you want to go off the beaten path in Kerala, head to Kasargod. It’s not the most glamorous tourism spot, but if you want a luxurious vacation then there are a few 5-star properties by the coastline such as the Taj Bekal Resort and Spa, or the Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal. There’s even a club Mahindra property with a private beach.

But yes, Bekal is for the private beach experience. For broke backpackers, there are hotels/hostel setups. Rs. 600 per night is the best deal you’d get. If you are a guy, you might get it as good as Rs. 300. For female and family travelers the accommodation costs a bit more. It’s safe, clean and comfortable. And just a 5 min walk away from the beach.

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