In Pics: Garden of Five Senses, New Delhi

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In Pics: Weekend trip to Manali and Rohtang

Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with added Instagram effects.

A couple near the #Rohtang Pass        

This cyclist is a long, long way from home. On the way back from #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali
A view of the road to #Rohtang Pass

Pedestrian bridge over the Beas river, on the road to #Manali

Shorn sheep block the road near Manali

A view of the road to #Rohtang Pass

Horsing around near #Rohtang Pass, #Manali

Tourists paragliding in the sky as trucks trundle by on the road below.

Tea? Coffee? The beverage man on the way to #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali

Neigh, neigh. Happy horse near #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali.

Rock formation on the road to #Rohtang Pass

Rock formation on the road to #Manali

A tourist paraglides over #Manali

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Notes from Darjeeling, Gangtok, Mirik and Nathu La

Perhaps my most abiding memory of last week’s trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim is that of taxi drivers obsessively cleaning their cabs. Having spent much of my life avoiding rides on New Delhi’s smelly cabs, it was good to see people caressing their vehicles as they hosed them down.

As we drove around Darjeeling to take in its sights, our driver took advantage of every halt to flick imaginary insect carcasses off the windshield. As we walked back from a temple complex in the nearby town of Kalimpong, we found our cabbie scaling the front wheel, trying to reach with his duster what appeared to be an unblemished portion of the SUV’s roof.

And he wasn’t the only one. Cab drivers in the region seemed to spend a lot of their quality time tending to their cars’ needs. On the drive to Gangtok, we stopped for steamed chicken dumplings at a roadside shack in Lopchu. Our driver Sohan Lama took a break too, but not before instructing a labourer to soap down the car. I am not sure if any money changed hands, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Of our many cabbies during the week-long visit to India’s east, Lama was perhaps the most interesting. A Nepali Buddhist from Sikkim, he supplemented his income with a store that sold herbal medicines championed by Baba Ramdev, a saffron-robed yoga guru adored by millions in the country.

Lama, an amiable man in his 40s, beams even more when talking about his teenage son, who’s training at a prestigious football academy set up by Bhaichung Bhutia, arguably India’s most famous player.

Lama’s son may have been among the dozens of excited pupils we saw, rather heard, at Gangtok’s Paljor stadium adjacent to our hotel. I say this with no particular joy, for this army of shrieking children invaded my sleep each morning and pried my eyes open.

I endured other early risers in Mirik, a hill station in West  Bengal. This time, a flock of pigeons rustling up avian buddies for a 5 a.m. conference outside my window. But not one bird was as irritating as the Bengali tourist seated behind me on Darjeeling’s heritage toy train. Each time the clouds parted and we caught a glimpse of the majestic Kanchenjunga peak in the distance, this woman screeched the equivalent of “Look there, can’t you see? There, there, not there, there,” in her native tongue, till everyone in her extended family had witnessed the spectacle. There was little to choose between her shrill voice and the blaring train horn – both were enough to cause a headache.

What was music to my ears was a pair of Gorkha teenagers rapping to Kanye West in the Himalayan village of Sukhia Pokhri. A friend and I were waiting in an empty restaurant for Lama, who was stuck in traffic several kilometres away in Ghum, home to India’s highest railway station. The siblings trooped in and fiddled with their mobiles for a bit before breaking into song karaoke-style with the background music on at full blast.

An old woman walked in and apologized to us, saying the wannabe hip-hop artists were her grandsons – they responded to her censure with gap-toothed smiles. “This is what the new generation does,” the woman said in Hindi, clutching her forehead in a gesture of disdain, but with a smile trembling at her lips.

After several hours of a back-breaking ride on barely-there roads and a dash through the yak-infested banks of the Tsomgo lake, our shared jeep finally reached Nathu La – a mountain pass at an altitude of more than 14,000 feet – only to be told by military guards that our mobile phones couldn’t be taken past the entrance. We dumped our bags and smartphones in the jeep, and trudged onwards in a sulk that lasted till we caught sight of the Chinese soldier just across the barbed wire. He smiled and walked past us, brazenly taking a photo of the milling tourists. I shook hands across the border as we attempted to engage him in conversation. “I don’t talk,” he said, and with that, he walked away to his post.

(Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with some having added Instagram effects.)

The stupa at Duddul Chhoedten in Gangtok, Sikkim

A red panda at the Darjeeling zoo

A pet dog at the China bazaar, on the way to Nathu La

Yak on the loose at Tsomgo lake on the way to Nathu La

A cloud trapped between two hills in Sikkim

A tree stands forlorn near a Darjeeling tea garden

Tea gardens at Mirik, West Bengal

Rusted vehicles at the BanJhakri waterfalls park near Gangtok

Young monks play football at a monastery in Kalimpong

Young monks polish shoes near to the Mirik monastery

A double rainbow on the way down from Nathu La

Cable car dustbin at Darjeeling

This dog got a bird’s view of Darjeeling
A couple of frisky goats on a rock on the way to Darjeeling

A crystal clear view of the Kanchenjunga from our Darjeeling lodge

Posted in bengal, darjeeling, Gangtok, holiday, lama, Mirik, nainital, Nathu La, sikkim, travel | Leave a comment

Photo blog: Kasauli – a weekend getaway

Mapping the view at Sunset Point, Kasauli

This British-era cantonment town in Himachal Pradesh is a cozy weekend retreat for tourists escaping the heat of the plains. The mist rolls in at odd hours, sometimes accompanied by squalls and – in our case – hailstones.

Shaggy dogs, each more bearlike than the next, loll about the cobblestone paths that meander past gabled houses shaded by pine trees. Intrepid monkeys lie in wait for careless tourists – one sudden move and that mouth-watering bag of goodies is lost to the simians.

Quaint shops sell knick-knacks; even the more modern ones offer apple cider vinegar — a magic potion that sucks in fat to help you fit into that beloved pair of pants. Waste bins shaped like tiny green houses stand guard at almost every corner, flanked by old-world streetlamps. At Ros Common, the heritage hotel where we stayed, there are no electric fans. Not that we need them. We spend much of our time on the garden swing, laughing and basking in the sun.

At night, the silence is deafening and the pre-dawn twittering of birds is music to my ears. We devour aloo parathas for a lazy breakfast in the open, while a bunch of speed merchants roar past us on fancy motorbikes. The imposing Christ Church, built in the 19th century, is a short walk away. The climb to Sunset Point takes a toll on my knees but the glorious view, laid out before us like a landscape painting, is worth it. Chandigarh’s Sukhna Lake glistens in the distance, dozens of kilometres away.

It’s a trip well spent, in the company of former colleagues at India’s premier news agency. Amazing people, each one of them. We should do this again.

(Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with added Instagram effects.)

Christ Church, Kasauli

My friend Sumit at Sunset Point

Another milestone achieved

All smiles on the way to Sunset Point

Breakfast in the sun

Kasauli as seen from Mount Path

Clean and Green

The bikes of the biker gang

Designer streetlamps

Peter the dog soaked in the sun on top of cars

Christ Church, Kasauli

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Notes from a Kashmir trip: Part 2 – The German flag, Cupid, and Naseeruddin Shah

It seems hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, before the flash floods hit Kashmir, the Dal Lake in Srinagar was teeming with carefree tourists lounging in canopied shikaras.

On a balmy August evening, boatman Bashir steered us towards the middle of the lake, avoiding the stretches overrun by weeds. The Dal may not be pristine any more but it was still a pleasing sight.

Moored houseboats, looking more like giant dollhouses, were lined up on my right. Most had filigreed exteriors. Only a few tourists were about, relaxing on open decks, and they took no notice of our presence as we floated past.

I was surprised to see a German flag fluttering atop one of the houseboats. It seemed a bit late to be celebrating their World Cup triumph, and I asked Bashir to shed light on the mystery. It turned out that there was no soccer fan involved; only a lovesick one.

Cupid had struck the owner of a houseboat when a German tourist was holidaying on the premises. The romantic vistas may have helped his cause. Or the heart-shaped shikara paddles had done the trick. For whatever reason, sparks had flown on both sides and the lovers were soon yoked in matrimony. Today, the inside of the houseboat is done up the German way, or so our boatman said.

Bashir, who is in his 40s, has been ferrying tourists since 1989 – around the time the protests in Kashmir made it to international headlines. In the winter months or when sightseers stay away, he helps his family weave pashmina shawls in a village near the lake.

Bashir stops paddling and points towards ‘Cheerful Charlie’, the houseboat where Hrithik Roshan was filmed serenading Preity Zinta in the 2000 Bollywood thriller “Mission Kashmir”. It’s a nondescript houseboat, much like the others. Bashir himself has ferried only one celebrity. Several years ago, when Naseeruddin Shah and two of his friends went for dinner on a houseboat, the veteran actor sat in Bashir’s boat.

I wonder if Shah mentions the Kashmir visit in “And Then One Day”, his recently released memoirs.

(To be continued)

Part 1 – Srinagar, flatbread, and the Bengali connection

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Photo blog: A visit to Chandni Chowk, Delhi

Crumbling havelis, chaos in its alleys, dangling power cables and the all-permeating aroma of something edible bubbling away in some unseen cauldron. And yet, this bustling Mughal-era market retains its charm. Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with added Instagram effects.

Something forlorn about empty vehicles soaking in the afternoon sun.

“Get out of my way before I … Ah well! Let’s face it, you can’t suffer more than a scraped shin at this speed.”
Power cables, tyres, assorted parts and a passer-by.
Time for forty winks, next to an empty water tank — in an attractive shade of green.

Lassi at Kallan Sweets, a bakery that has satiated the sweet tooth of celebrities such as M F Husain. And no, I didn’t dare taste it. Too creamy.

Don’t walk away. 100? 90? How about 80 rupees for a pair of underwear.

Smiles galore, so what if there’s an obstacle just waiting to show up ahead.

The imperial Jama Masjid in the background.

Pigeons prattle on with a bird’s eye view of the crowded alley.

A red sedan roars past, only to screech to a halt behind a tangle of cycle-rickshaws a few metres away.

Lost in thought outside the Jama Masjid.

Scene from a sun-kissed day in September.

“Pack in as tightly as possible. I can’t put someone on the roof.”

The 19th-century Digambar Jain Bara Mandir is shut, but the portal has its own allure. Click

Posters of the right-wing ABVP, the student wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, are an anomaly in a neighbourhood with a sizeable Muslim population.
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Notes from a Kashmir trip: Part 1 – Srinagar, flatbread, and the Bengali connection

Some minutes before our aeroplane landed in Srinagar – Kashmir’s summer capital – disembodied voices floated to my ears from the seats behind me.

A woman was addressing a girl of six or seven, perhaps her daughter, urging her to look out the window.

“Welcome to my home, Ayesha,” she said. “This is my Kashmir, this is where we belong.”

I looked out, hurriedly taking in vistas of verdant hillsides on a sunlit day in August as our flight from New Delhi touched down. I felt like I belonged too.

The afternoon drive from the airport to our hotel in Dal Gate was uneventful. Srinagar could be any other small city in India, except for the watchful CRPFsoldiers stationed behind concertina wire at intervals along the route.

People walked, travelled in rickety city buses from a bygone era, or drove cars or motorbikes. Women gazed out of the windows in pretty villas with sloping roofs. Children laughed and waved. Vendors greeted customers with cups of kahwa tea. A band of bearded old men smoked a hookah in front of a closed shop with its facade painted red and white in the colours of Airtel, a telecom company. Labourers toiled at an under-construction flyover. Decrepit houseboats rotted in the placid waters of the Jhelum river. Chinar trees loomed in the distance, obscuring the mountains beyond.

My colleague Sankalp and I stopped for a quick lunch at Krishna Vaishno Dhaba, a popular Srinagar self-service eatery with vegetarian fare. Popular is an understatement. There was only standing room at lunch hour, and I tucked into a delicious meal of greasy flatbread stuffed with cottage cheese, oblivious to the innumerable diners who brushed past me to get to the washbasin. We were unfazed as hungry new arrivals tried to hijack our table, edging us out like an invading army. We did eventually cede our territory, but only after the last crumb had soaked up the residual gravy and had satiated my taste buds.

Outside, a cluster of beggars stared at a woman who had fainted and was being revived by anxious relatives. She had been among the unlucky ones without a restaurant seat, and either hunger or the sun had proved too much for her.

When we arrived at the Royal Inn, we were surprised to find a billboard in Bengali advertising cuisine from the eastern Indian state. Turned out our hotel was run by Bengalis and the reception area stocked magazines in the language. And they never shut their TV off — the hotel employees were couch potatoes and spent hours in front of the idiot box, snared by melodramatic soap operas in Bengali. We were in the room above, which meant that at night, we were lulled to sleep by angry women berating each other in high-pitched voices.

I love Bengal and Bengalis, as several of my friends and colleagues would testify, and this is not a cultural stereotype. But I have to say the staff at the Royal Inn was rude and unhelpful. We switched hotels as soon as we could.

Later that evening, as we enjoyed a sunset shikararide on the Dal lake, our boatman Bashir steered us to a floating store. A teenage boy was holding fort – selling aerated drinks, tea, coffee and biscuits to passing tourists. I noticed his Bengali accent and also the fact that he was overcharging us. Our boatman scolded him in Kashmiri before the boy smiled and returned the change.

When I asked, Bashir said several migrants from Bengal had settled in the area over the years and picked up the Kashmiri language to ply the tourist trade.

And that wasn’t the last Bengal connection on our Kashmir trip. On our travels, I kept spotting posters pasted or painted on walls advertising the services of a Dr. Bengali who offered guaranteed seven-day cures for sexual dysfunction and haemorrhoids. He seemed quite popular in these parts.

(To be continued)
NOTES FROM A KASHMIR TRIP: Part 2 – The German flag, Cupid, and Naseeruddin Shah

Posted in Bengali, dal lake, india, kashmir, Krishna Vaishno Dhaba, shikara, srinagar, travel | Leave a comment