Khajuraho trip

चाय पिला ऊं….. ?! चाय ना दूं ….. ?!!

Was the call of the tea vendor as the 3-Tier-AC Punjab Mail coach raced into central India. Cousins all converging at single birth where there was something happening. Either it was awesome crisp chakalis and chirotes made by our aunts or a game of dumb charades. 6 kids accompanying us ensured there was never a dull moment, either it was constant shrieking with the excitement of the moving train and jungle-jim designed bunk beds or their cries in an event of a fall or an unfortunate squabble. It was a surprise to my colleagues when I told them I have a big family gathering at temples of Khajuraho !

In the central plains of India, April is a sweltering period. The day time temperatures reaching upto 42°C ! The land seems already parched. The arid soil is not the most fertile, but it yet breeds a host of vegetation. Amongst those, a specific tree stands out tall, literally!

The Mahua tree is high standing structure. At times tall as 20m. Its shape sometimes resembles an afro. The branches almost having a mathematical progression. The tier-1 branches shooting off radially around 7feet high from the ground. From those sprout the 2nd tier of branches that rise almost vertically. The next set of off-springs again spreading horizontally. April makes the tree leaves almost maroon in color. Start of the summer is time to bear flowers, the infamous Mahua flowers!

The Mahua flowers are small, bulbous almost a thumb’s width. The petals however have a strong character. They are thick, light green and hold a fragrant musky odor with sweet fluid. The flower is edible. The smell reminiscent of tender coconut. The flower is used for making sweets and even alcohol. The cattle seem to be extremely fond of this delicious flower.

panna-tiger-reserveBefore we could be enthralled with the sculptures of Khajuraho, we had planned a safari at the Panna Tiger reserve. Entrance is difficult, with chaotic checks of the rosters, entry passes and guards. The tiger reserve like any other forest bore a serene demeanor. Even during the hot month, early 6am was pleasantly cool. The first sightings of the animals were the deers, Sambar and spotted deer (chittal). The black faced hanuman langoor perched at the edge of the road held almost a day old baby clinging close to the mother.

Tigers are elusive and shy, however the spotters always find pug marks. We found a few, where the trackers had placed rocks along side the marks. It seemed like juvenile male tiger as the guide thought. That was the last and closest we came to the big cat.

We passed along the Ken river, “The cleanest of all the rivers in India” as our guide put it. The river runs northwards and drains into Yamuna. Its also the home of Indian freshwater crocodile or the Muggur crocodile. We did have a glimpse of one swimming in the distance, with just its snout visible along with the trail of the water. Through the hills we drove in the 4×4 Gypsy surrounded by mostly Sagwan trees with its big leaves now almost withered by this time of the year. We stopped at a scenic spot, above the river when a young Sambar female came up the gorge right next to us. It was followed by an even younger one. Both of them almost posing for the cameras.

The second day was reserved for the highlight of the tour, the shrines. Below the north-central heartland plains of India ruled the Chandela dynasty in the hilly terrain now called Bundelkhand. The western group of temples are dotted at the periphery of large lawns. We attended the light and sound show by the late evening. Lighting and highlighting the famous temples. It began with a voice and a story, a story told in an extremely well choreographed manner with light and heavy soothing voice of the narrator. Through the story, random areas of trees were lighted and bathed in sounds of the narrative. As the story moved towards the creations of the temples, the originally light parts of temples glowed differently revealing the majestic splendor.

khajuraho-temple-lawnsEven a temple visit had to be an early morning one, unless we wanted to bake ourselves. We hired a guide for a whopping ₹1900 (for the entire tour, the eastern and the western group). Our first visit was to the western group of temples, the stronger ones and with more character.  Rolling us through the stories of Varah, the Chandelas, Vishnu, other gods, demi-gods and devils alike. The guide cast a tight web of neatly linked story. A story that also kept relevance to the temple and its facade that he kept referring and pointing towards using a mirror and a beam of light.

The Laxmana temple was the most regal of all and perhaps the biggest as well. It perhaps could’ve had more than 1000 sculptures on its face. From mythological cupids, damsels to Gods to mortal humans in their daily grind of life. The vanity aspect of श्रूंगार (personal make-up and beauty) having more focus. The sculptures typical pose of a couple in the आलिंगम् (sideways embrace with female’s right hand on the shoulder of the male and male’s left hand on her breast) was most common. It had figures of women wearing makeup like mascara or stretching in their beautiful curvy figures. Some of the sculptures turned into the infamous positions and stances of enjoying sex. The entire trip around the western group did turn out to be exhausting. Some of us were more interested in the menu on the breakfast buffet at the hotel than the historical mark of beauty in front of us.

Back at the hotel during daytime was laid back, Everyone wanted to cram up into a single room and even wondered if a dormitory would’ve been an excellent option. With all the cousins, sis-in-laws back from Khajuraho’s temples, giggles were relentless.

बापरे … किती अभद्र !!!

“How indecent !!” yet laughs followed. During one narration by our temple guide an aunt and another set of cousins couldn’t control their laughter – thanks to the heavy tongue of the guide and the unmentionables ! – They just burst out right in front of his emotion-less poker face of the guide. Poor guy, probably has to go through the same every single day.

gym-cardsThe lack of a dorm wasn’t good enough to deter us from finding a common gathering spot. Somebody found out gymnasium with a neat AC running and clean carpeted indoors. We just settled in there. Some just enjoying a cool pleasant walk on the treadmill while most of us going through rounds of UNO card game and other card games.

The evenings too didn’t go without collaborative fun. It was the pool where 3 generations of the family swum enjoying a cool water after the hot summer day. Aunts, uncles were the one who swum with their grand-kids who at times were shit scared of the water, but now accustomed to it, just like us – the 2nd generation. Someone even played songs by “Maroon V” that made it even more enjoyable.

After a sweets laden dinner, most of the seniors and 3rd gen along with their 2nd gen headed back to the soft comforts of the bed. While other set of the 2nd gen who could afford it, ventured out again in the open lawns, under the Mahua trees with their musky fragrances, remembering events of their lives. I went through the horror stories of my burns to the intoxicating tours on my cycle and motorcycle alike. When exhaustion ran over, most of them headed back to the rooms. While some strong willed continued the narratives, stories and UNO games into the rooms. With my sister lying next to me, doused with sleep, yet listening to anecdotes and movie dialogs by cousins, it was hell of a moment !! Times that would stay long imprinted in our memories.

Leaving back was never going to be easy. The kids loved every moment, specially now with the nuclear families – kids are used to more secluded lifestyle and not really pampered with love of multiple aunts, uncles and grandparents. As well – they had to deal with their  situations by themselves as their parents weren’t always there to interfere.

For us too, the large family gathering seemed like a huge success. Amidst ups and downs of our roller-coaster lives, the Mahua tree stood tall with some leaves withered while fresh new tender red ones slowing gelling in to make the tree stronger. Undeterred, deeply rooted looking ahead into the future.

A taste of American dream

Mumbai, 15 Nov 2015 0300 IST

I wondered what people felt or experienced in their first out-of-country experience. Today, I was going to experience one.

Abu Dhabi, 15 Nov 2015 0900 GST

As the Boeing 737 flew over the Arabian sea and then over the North Eastern peninsular tip of Saudi Arabia, it gave a lovely but a strange feeling. I loved watching “Untamed Africa” on Discovery channel in my school days. The charm of the African continent always lured me, The sand dunes of the Sahara to Masai Mara. This was still Asia, but close to Africa!

Flying at 35,000 ft. the air was very clean, even down below things looked pretty neat. The almost red sandy brown color of the dunes glowing in the early rising sun was the astonishing. The barren brown was sometimes dotted with some dwellings. Further west, Oman and the mountains of Fujairah, the plane slowly descended for its approach to Abu Dhabi. The houses down below were neatly carved in a very geometrical grid like fashion. They too replicated the hue of the environment. None of the houses had any stark bright color, but an earthly shade of dusky browns and creams. Each one of them having a small yard ahead bordered with palm trees. As I stepped out on the aero-bridge, the outsides seemed vast, eternally golden brown. The airport having turfed greens along the taxing route to add a little dash of artificial vegetation.

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Leh Ladakh Trip: Pangong Lake

Leh, 3 Sep, 2015

We were up early and Koncho, our driver called right at 6.30am. Before 7 we were already on the road in yet another Innova ride. The road to Pangong is first down south of Leh and then travels eastwards.  Its a fairly long journey for the Ladakhi terrain, around 160km through the tough mountains. Our last bike ride experience had ensured that we let go of any idea of traveling to Pangong on the bike. The bike owner had said the road passes through Chang La another high mountain pass and there are no petrol pumps till you return back, so fuel has to be carried on the bike. With our great experience the other day, Innova was a much comfortable choice.

Our first stop was at Karu, a junction where the road from Leh heads down south towards Manali. Koncho said the petrol pump was the last one enroute to Manali, next one would be only after 350km in Himachal Pradesh. Our road however moved eastwards, after a heavy and delicious breakfast of Aloo parathas by a non-ladakhi woman. I guess she was from HP by the looks of her high cheek bone,  frosted rosy cheeks and blue eyes which weren’t narrow.

enroute Pangong Tso
enroute Pangong Tso

Soon enough the road started climbing upwards and the tarmac converting itself into globules of white rocks. As we climbed higher we overlooked Sakti, a village where our nodding Padma had gone visiting her natives, they too called it गांव.  The road worsened, he said few days back there was a rainfall, due to which a lot of sand, stone and soil had come down from the hills and uprooted and spoiled the road. The nature of the soil and rocks was very lose, you could disturb the balance by a minuscule force. Climbing up, I asked Koncho what do the locals do when the tourist season is over, he replied many go down “South” (He always referred Ladak as North, नॉर्थ के लोग) while others like him drove trucks, cars for the Army as even the army’s drivers weren’t skilled enough to drive on the treacherous, slithery, icy single-laned roads on the mountains.
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Leh Ladakh Trip: Rest…

Sleep didn’t seem to come. Even after last day’s ride which was tiring, I kept waking up every 2 hours or so. Around 3am, I felt I was struck with viral fever, my body was aching, sleep wasn’t coming by and I wasn’t just feeling good enough. Somehow time just passed, wriggling in the nice warm thick soft cotton blankets. I kept hearing Siddarth wakeup, sneezing he was choking ’cause of his heavy cold. Kept muttering something loudly, only guy who seemed to be dozing was Sourabh who had got the injection for Altitude Sickness at Bagso.

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Leh Ladakh Trip: Roaming along, Alchi, Likir, Leh

Around Leh, 1 Sep, 2015

We made a grave mistake last night by booking bikes to roam around Leh, to Alchi, Likir Monastery, etc. We again had to climb almost a km. up hill for breakfast on the Fort road. I was feeling nauseated, even though hungry I couldn’t eat more than a single Cinnamon bun. Tea was just for taste and gave it away to Sourabh. Already feeling tired, all of us, somehow picked up the bikes, me with Siddarth on Bullet 500 and Sourabh riding alone on Avenger.

It wasn’t even 20kms or so that I noted Sourabh was dragging behind a lot, Somehow we stopped near Nimmu for the confluence’s snap in the late morning. He complained his bike wasn’t in a great condition so was he. Ahead while I was riding easy waiting for Sourabh to catch up, Sourabh came roaring from the back halting us to stop.

नही हो रहा है ! उल्टी जैसा लग रहा है, मैं नही चला पाऊंगा, मैं लौटता हूं

Sourabh at Primary Health Care, Bagso
Sourabh at Primary Health Care, Bagso

We were close to a military camp and asked a jawaan if he can rest by the road side, he suggested to go little ahead in Bhagso in the Primary Health Care clinic. At the clinic, the Dr. gave him an injection and asked him not to ride the bike, we decided we’ll move ahead and on our way back get Sourabh back around 4pm till then he would sleep and rest. Sourabh was dizzy with headache and nausea when we left him in the clean, beautiful ground + single floored govt. clinic.
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Leh Ladakh Trip: To Leh

Kargil, 31 Aug 2015

कल खुबानी नही लिया !? अरे बहुत अच्छा हे !

The driver enquired in the morning. The body seemed to be little deprived of sleep, even though there wasn’t any city late night social occasion or last moment code or presentations. A slightly heavy head since last evening seemed to have reduced but lingered there. We moved for Leh by 7am, climbing over the Suru river’s tributary – the Wakha river. Had a small breakfast of Ladakhi roti and tea and headed to Mulbekh’s Buddaha. A small monastery  on the Kargil – Leh highway. The chill in the air was evident, every single person in around covered head to toe. Breeze was a constant companion here.

The land of high passes, Ladakh
The land of high passes, Ladakh

We crossed multiple passes, amongst them a 3700m Namikila top. The landscape continued to be barren and naked. At times resembling the overflowing thick skin of fat fawn colored Neapolean mastif. We stopped for Army Cafe to fill the voids with momos and tea. The Cafe actually run by the army, was manned by 2 jawans both from Maratha infantry. A big silhouetted Shivaji painting adorned the door of the cafe. Further ahead Fotula (4100m) had to be crossed which took us into Lamyaru Monastery, one of the largest and oldest Gompas in Ladakh. It was here that I had a first hand experience of the clay-baked walls of Ladakh.

Moon Land, Lamyuru, Ladakh
What on earth is this Moon land !?

The lunar landscape of Ladakh became so devilish yellow looking after Lamyaru, that its actually a tourist attraction – The Moon Land. The fawn colored thick skin changing to sulpher yellow colored clay with even softer self holding capacity.

Deserted and flat on the top of the world
Deserted and flat on the top of the world

We had our lunch by 1.30pm at Khalsi in a Punjabi Dhaba, a scarce resource in this part of the world in orchards of Apricots and Apple. After snoozing off in the vehicle for long, we halted on a flat land where the driver told that this a very long straight road. After a few snaps and some more drowsy minutes we stopped at yet another flat road.

ये मेगनेटिक हिल है

The Magnetic Hill, he put his car on neutral and demonstrated how the car is being pulled uphill on slight slope. Unable to comprehend on whats really going on, we felt its pointless to just assume the magnetic nature of the place and we headed further ahead overlooking the Gurudwara, to Leh.

Indus and Zanskar Confluence, Nimmoo
Indus and Zanskar Confluence, Nimmoo

Leh’s entry is marked by the Indus’ tributaries. One such is Zanskar river. We stopped on a ghat which overlooked the confluence of the Zanskar and the Indus rivers which continued ahead as Indus. After the confluence at Nimmoo Leh welcomed us with a barrage of Military camps and postings. These gave away for a more civil traffic on the roads, with shops, hawkers and hordes of cabs. We settled for a home stay on the Fort Road. It was close to 5pm.

In the night we walked up the Fort road almost a kilometer to a restaurant for dinner. Along the way we also booked a Bullet and Avenger motorbikes for our next day’s trip to Likir, Alchi and other close by sight seeing. The climb had left us exhausted ! Leh’s high altitude and this kilometer long climbing road made us pant ! It feels strange to just walk a few meters and feel exhausted – that’s high altitude’s low oxygen showing off!

Leh Ladakh Trip: To Dras, Kargil

Srinagar, 29 Aug 2015

Essuus me, essuus me ! He is the owners

Akbar fort or Hari Parbat, Srinagar
Akbar fort or Hari Parbat, Srinagar

… the broker kept intervening our bargaining with the cab driver/owner for the Srinagar-Leh trip. “the owners” was a hint for us to not demean the guy since he was the owner of the cab and not just a rented driver. Finally the deal was set for ₹12K for Toyota Innova with an overnight halt at Kargil. Post the bargain another fellow followed us for a shikara ride, Mr. Young Noor Mohd. The “Young” in the name not different from the English one. However the shikara fellow was well in his late 50s, a slim short, with creases on his forehead typical of a hardworking labourer in the high altitude villages and towns of Himalayas. The shikara moved along the weed infected Dal lake of Srinagar into the thin pleasantly cold air, the surrounding mountains, hills overlooked the valley with a parental care. Next day we had to cross these parental protection and get into the harder terrain, where the altitude changed so dramatically that even the grass, let alone the trees and plants ceded to grow.

30 Aug, 2015

Next day as the Innova rolled through the winding turns of Srinagar’s streets dotted with Army jawans, the ever so beautiful Poplar trees on the sides bore a perfect foreground for  the picturesque backdrop of the Deodar, Cinar, Birch trees hills. The hills completely covered by the silk green velvet grass. Indus / Sindhu welcomed us for a tea stop near Wayul. The blue-green-gray cold water flowing downhill right from Leh, our destination. The gray pebbles, rather almost white  teasing Indus to play along its journey to Pakistan.

En-route was Sonamarg, almost 2 hours from  Srinagar, The ‘meadow of gold’ has green hills, with trees only on the higher reaches of the mountains. A breakfast of paratha and Kashmiri-roti – which resembles Tandoori-roti (although smaller and thicker) and tastes halfway between tandoori-roti and a Naan. The driver, Mr. Javed Mohd. had a नंकीन चाय or Kashmiri tea, a pink colored pungent liquid made out of milk, black salt and other spices.

Zojila (pass)
Zojila (pass)

Further ahead we moved past the start of the route to Amarnath Shrine. Soon, we were at the dreadful Zojila or the Zoji Pass. A rocky pass with white sand and rocks. The road eroded to the basics, with just rocks, sand and grains collaborating to form a partially forming a road. Horizontal, climbing, lose with rocks and pebbles and extremely dusty. The width of the road at times only wide enough to accommodate a single vehicle. If trucks came from opposite direction, either of them had to reverse on that terrain to get back where little more land was available to ply. The green, silky mountains had changed into a completely rocky feature with only hints of Our driver showed us the “India Gate” a vertical column of stone on the right. This marks the start or the end of the rocky pass. After we were in a partially tarred road on a flatter ground, but yet overlooking the rocky intimidating mountains. A big sign over the road welcomed us at Zojila (Alitude: 3517m) and into Ladakh.

Kargil, Ladakh

Ladakh means the “land of high passes” in the local Ladakhi or Bhoti language. “La” means a pass, so Zojila is “Zoji Pass”. The name very evident for the traveller in Ladakh. No ride / drive longer than 20km misses a high pass watched over by sometimes soulful other times angry rocky hills.

The top right conical feature is Tiger Hill.
The top right conical feature is Tiger Hill.
Vijay Path, Kargil War Memorial
Vijay Path, Kargil War Memorial

Another 2 hours of drive led us through more barren land and mounts into the war zone, Dras. Javed stopped for lunch and showed us the Tiger Hill a taller and distinguishable conical feature amongst 100s of other rocky cliffs. A small board invited us into the second coldest inhabited place, Dras. Post lunch the stop was at Kargil war memorial not very far away from Dras. A typical military curated, paved, marked, beautified roads led us to the memorial. Where a jawan asked us to walk through the “विजय पथ” and assemble at the briefing point. Here he gave a 15-min long briefing about the war and the memorial, shouting loud into the cold breezy open desert. For many even walking along was a arduous task, this guy continued with dedication and thick voice emitted right from the depths of the stomach.

Kargil town was just an hour from that place. We found a hotel and went to see PoK (atleast thats what we thought). However we were taken higher into another local hill, climbing for almost 30min to a place called Hundarman. Where the driver stopped and pointed us to a far off village with just over 15-20 huts.

वो पाकिस्तान का गांव है

The village like settlement in top right corner is in POK
The village like settlement in top right corner is in POK

A small river flowed through the base of the hills, further north, the river divided the countries. The village was around 2-3 km away from that place. The climbing road too had signs of “Warning: mines ahead” which ensured atleast local tourists didn’t get too nosy. The road continued even further up into the mountain where there were few Indian families living and primarily occupied by bunkers of Indian Army.

We experienced the treacherous conditions in which the Indian army is functioning. Where every single step is an effort for the common man, the jawan parades, runs, climbs and kills.

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