Monday, 29 June 2009

Shilonda Trail Tryout

Went to the SGNP on Sun. Was at Borivali Stn at 7.15 A.M to meet RV, who turned up a half hour late. We were supposed to meet BB at the main gate at 7.30, but she was a half hour late as well.

We started off and it immediately began to rain, but only for a minute. We took a few wrong turns, courtesy me, before finding the right path. Noticed that all the streams and rivers in the park were dried up. Despite the pleasant spell of rain we had on Friday (the spell that made us all watch our windows more than our computers at work), it didn't seem to do much to the park's water bodies. And worse, it wasn't raining much that morning and got really warm towards afternoon.

Still, we enjoyed talking throughout our 3 hour walk. I don't get to have many enjoyable & engaging conversations on a daily basis. It rained once towards the end of our little walk as well, and that was it.

BB bid us goodbye at the gate and RV and I went to a restaurant nearby, where he mostly drank and I mostly ate. We then headed to MD's place at Poinsur, where we lunched on delicious pork.


Sunday, 28 June 2009

Movie Seen - Dial M for Murder

A 1954 Hitchcock movie. A man sets up his wife's murder. When it goes wrong, he has his wife framed instead. As good as Rear Window.

As usual, the trivia on the DVD extras makes for interesting viewing - the 3-D aspect of the movie and the need for an intermission, Hitchcock's cameo in this film (isn't an easy one to spot), the film being based on a play and the changes Hitchcock made, other film makers' opinions on the film and cast. 

MD dropped by my place mid way through the movie. It was a Saturday. We chatted, I showed him all my travel pics, he said he's impressed I travelled alone. Everyone keeps telling me that. Two college friends, my cousin, and now him. I invited him to Shilonda on Sunday but he had other commitments.


Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Movie Seen - Raise the Red Lantern

A 1991 movie about a new new Chinese bride and the difficulties she faces in adjusting to her new home. Not too interesting.


Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Thoughts and Observations

Some thoughts and observations since I returned to Mumbai.

1. I'm still in the process of putting up my travel diary entries on the blog. This will take a while. My pics are in the process of being put up on Facebook.

2. We've given up half our office floor space a week after I return, making some of us move. Who knew we just needed half the space to fit in the same number of people? On the down side, we were so used to occupying a large office that the place we're left with now seems a little small.

3. Three of my friends - MD, RV & PV - who were in the process of looking for new jobs when I left, are now happily back to work after successful job hunts.

Here's an interesting TIME article on using Twitter and Facebook to find a new job, and it's corollary (thanks to Gautam Ghosh).

4. I've been going through my mail, not all of which I was able to read while travelling, and have come across some interesting stuff:


Monday, 22 June 2009

Movie Seen Recently - To Catch a Thief

Another good Alfred Hitchcock movie, made in 1955. This one's a pure entertainer rather than the more cerebral or suspense ones that he's famous for.


Sunday, 21 June 2009

Weekly Roundup

Well, it's been a week. One week since I returned from a long holiday and one week since I've been back at work.
And it's been a busy week as well.

My friend OB is moving to Brazil for a while, so I've spent both Wednesday and Thursday hanging out with him after work. Wednesday at Barista near the office, where he tells me I'm a good conversationalist when all I do is let him talk, and Thursday at CCD at Dadar, where I meet him and another old college friend SP, who's now into photography. See a bike accident near the flyover. Luckily, the driver who's bike skidded isn't badly hurt.

Friday night is spent at Janata after work with an office mate, who offers to sell me his 500 GB hard disk. I need disk space. My comp is full of photos.

Saturday night is spent catching up with PV, first at Janata again, where we miraculously get a place to sit at at 10.30, and then at CCD Carter Rd, after which I retire to his place at 5 gardens for the night. Woken up by a car that turns turtle after ramming into a divider outside his flat. The two occupants are wearing belts and aren't hurt, but are in shock like yesterday's biker. That's two accidents in two days.

We have breakfast at an Irani cafe the next morning, and I head home. It's been really hot this past week. When I'm on the train I have sweat dripping down my face onto the book I'm reading. And this is at night. If I'd known we were going to have a delayed monsoon I would have taken an extra week's leave.


Saturday, 20 June 2009

Travel Diary: May 28 - June 1

Day 21 - Thursday - May 28

Old Manali

Woke at 10.00. Had breakfast at Kathmandu Cafe - beans on toast (Rs. 40). Went for a long walk. Took the road out of town that passes the clubhouse. It was around 6 kms through beautiful green scenery. This was my first walk through lush greenery since Ladakh so it was a big difference.

The road was pretty lonely, but towards the end I did come to a little resort town, where I crossed a bridge to the east and came to the highway, where I began walking back to Manali, passing Vashisht, another small town popular with foreign tourists and backpackers. This must have taken another 5 kms.

It was late afternoon now, and while walking up to Old Manali, I cut through the nature park situated between the two towns. Again, it was the first time I'd seen fir trees so I went a bit photo crazy. I really enjoyed the coolness of the forest as well. It tends to get dark among the tall tress, even in the middle of the day.

I rested at the guesthouse from 5 till 8, and then ate dinner at Simpy's restaurant - a chicken tikka & roti (Rs.100). A blackout ensued when I finished my meal and I had to wait at the restaurant for around 10 mins before the power returned, since finding my way back to the guesthouse in the sudden pitch blackness would be risky, the roads being potholed and all. Leh had a lot of blackouts but most of the hotels and guesthouses had generators, at least for some emergency lighting. I hope blackouts aren't too frequent over here.

It's cold at night, but not in an uncomfortable way. I use a sweater and monkey cap when out and about at night and a light blanket while sleeping. This suffices.

Day 22 - Friday - May 29
Old Manali

I had breakfast at a little cafe nearby - a garlic cream cheese mushroom olive sandwich - really large and great value for money at Rs. 40.

Went on a nice pleasant walk to Hadimba temple - walked down to the Beas, crossed the bridge, and walked up the path, through mid range hotels and guesthouses to the temple compound.

The compound has four entrances, I discovered after walking around for a while, and I came in through the quietest one. The others can be noisy affairs, with lots of people trying to sell you stuff - saffron, kesar, pictures of you touching a yak, rabbit or snake, etc.

The temple seems pretty much hidden from view until you really come to it. It has a few interesting animal horns hung around its sides. There's a little forest, leading up from the temple, a nice place for a walk or rest - very similar to the little nature park between Manali and Old Manali.

I checked out some of the posher hotels on my way back to the guesthouse, which I reached around noon. Had lunch at 2.00 at Evergreen Cafe - a Falafel plate (Rs. 90) - which wasn't that good, and then spent time at the internet centre next door from 3.00 to 6.30.

Met P & T for dinner at 8.00 - we went to the Moon Dance Cafe where I had a Bruschetta (Rs. 60). P's food took an extraordinarily long time to arrive, and we were finished by the time it eventually did.

I'll be trekking to the Solang valley tomorrow.

Day 23 - Saturday - May 30
Old Manali/Solang

Woke early today and had breakfast at the same place as yesterday's cafe - another sandwich.

Put on a sweater - it was pretty cold today morning - and began my trek. I walked past Manu temple, and then climbed upwards following a shepherd and his herd of cows to a beautiful open green pasture really high up.

I saw three other people - foreigners. By the time I reached them, to ask for directions, two had already begun descending, and the remaining guy didn't seem to know where Solang was. He then began walking upwards, towards the where the pasture sloped up and the mountain continued upwards. I could also hear techno music coming from somewhere up there.

It was warmer now and a light rain began to fall, so I swapped my sweater for a light raincoat and approached the herder for directions to Solang, but he instructed me to go through the forest, meet up with the road I had walked on two days ago, and continue on that road to Solang. This would take me the rest of the day to accomplish, much longer than the two hours the LP guide had mentioned. I decided to continue with the trek anyway. I hate turning back. When asked about the music, he said something about a party some foreigners were throwing. I decided to investigate.

So I climbed upwards again. This time I didn't have to climb far and it wasn't too tiring. I just followed the music and it kept getting louder as I went up. It was really good techno music. I finally came up over the slope and saw before be a small clearing, where 3 yellow tents were set up, and around 15 Japanese/Korean hippie like people were milling about, some inside the tents, some outside, in the midst of a techno music rave party.

They were all in the zone, swaying to the pulsating repetitive music, some standing around dancing by themselves, some sitting and following the beat, all in their own little worlds. They were high. Some of them didn't even notice me, or didn't care, and seemed to be smoking hash.

The middle tent had a DJ with a laptop. He seemed to be the only truly sober member of the group. I also noticed large speakers with a generator. I can't believe people lugged that equipment all the way up here. They had to do it themselves. There were no roads here. They could have had a pack animal do it though.

I walked back down the slope to the green pasture below, and continued onwards to Solang, following a narrow,sometimes invisible path beside a line of barbed wire for what seemed like forever. This bit was the hardest. I managed to get myself inside the fenced off area at one point but couldn't find any way down to the road below.

I went on. The path took me across a steep little creek to another point in the mountain with a few homes and farms strewn about, where I got directions to the road at the bottom. Climbing down to the road took a long while since I was so high up by this time. After about twenty minutes, I came down to the motorable road I had walked on two days ago, the one following the river north. I continued walking along it, in the direction of Solang, stopping at 12.30 to eat some biscuits for lunch.

I kept on walking, on to the Whispering Woods resort. It was really hot by now, not only because I was out of the mountain forest area, but also because it was mid day. About 4 kms later, I came to a bridge allowing me to cross the river to Palchan. It was another 4 km walk uphill from there, along the road, to Solang.

I finally arrived at Solang at around 4.00 P.M, and rested at the bus stop. I wasn't sure what I'd find here, but a lot of vehicles kept passing me on their way further uphill. It was at this point that I saw paragliders in the air. I walked up the road; it turned out to lead straight to the valley, where a lot of adventure sports take place.

The first thing I saw were cars, so many of them that they were parked on both sides of the road next to the valley. The valley itself was really crowded, with people walking about the huge open ground, paragliders landing in their midst, kicking them in their faces as they landed, people in zorbing bubbles being rolled down one slope of the valley, pony rides, quad biking, tiny open air restaurants selling Maggie noodles and other snacks lining the sides of the valley, etc. There was even a small ski lift that looked like it was under construction.

I took in the whole sight, then walked back to bus stop. Waited for a bus to Manali for a long time but none arrived. A group of us then jumped into a tourist vehicle and paid the driver Rs. 20 each to get us to Manali.

I walked back to Old Manali, my feet a bit sore from all the walking, freshened up at the guesthouse, and ate dinner at the Cnaan restaurant at Sagar guesthouse - a mixed veg tikka & roti (Rs. 90).

Day 24 - Sunday - May 31
Old Manali/Vashisht

Had Muesli for breakfast at Yangkhor Tibetan Cafe. I had never heard of Muesli before but it is on most of the menus here so I finally decided to give it a try. It took a really long time to prepare but it was filling, I'll give it that. It seemed to have everything in it - around twenty different types of nuts and fruits in a bowl and mixed with curd and honey. Tastewise it was O.K, but a bit pricy at Rs. 70. I didn't mind since this was a one time thing. I'm not averse to trying these new types of food when travelling. We don't get stuff like this back in Mumbai so it's good to experiment now and then.

I came back and met P & T at their guesthouse. We had agreed to meet today and go to Vashisht. They hadn't even had breakfast yet. We took a rick to Vashisht, three kms morth of Manali on the east side of the river. It's supposed to be a hot spring town. Vashisht itself is more or less on the highway, like Manali, but it's built in to a hill (like everything else on my travels) so you need to take a steep motorable road right up to the top of the town, which is where the main temple, restaurants, and guesthouses are.

It's actually pretty crowded, what with people constantly visiting the temple and all. They have a few hot spring baths lying around but since it was late morning by the time we arrived there, there didn't seem to be any point in heating ourselves up further.

We waked around a bit, exploring the area around the temple. A few few narrow lanes off the main square lead to village like areas and guesthouses populated by foreigners. Vashisht is a lot larger than Old Manali. Like Old Manali, there just seems to be one main street running through the town, but unlike Old Manali, most of the action seems to take place at the top of the hill. Most of the atmospheric guesthouses and restaurants are located here, though surprisingly, given the town's size, they're not as numerous as the ones in Old Manali.

This town seems to be more of a holy place populated and visited mostly by Indians. This might not be a bad place to stay for a few days if you're looking to just relax, read and do nothing else whole day, but for someone like me, I'm not so sure I could handle it. At least not without company.

We asked around for hot springs and waterfalls and were told that there was one a few minutes walk away from the town centre. The path we were shown initially took us through village like homes. I was reminded of Goa. We then came to a small waterfall, Then a slightly larger one that turned into a little stream at the point where we crossed it, hopping over stepping stones to keep our feet (or shoes in my case) dry. The path took us around the periphery of the hill that Vashisht is built onto, and the views of the surrounding quiet beautiful forest were fantastic.

We finally left the forest area and came into a clearing where we could see the waterfall crashing down below us. This was the real waterfall, tall and strong. It only took us around 15 minutes to walk here form Vashisht town, the first time I've had to walk so little to get to a waterfall. There was a little lookout point built around a Hindu shrine somewhere around the middle of the waterfall, a little lower than the point in the forest from which we emerged. We relaxed there for a bit, and then climbed up, above the shrine to where the waterfall forms a pool of water after it comes crashing down over a precipice in the mountain. This was a really lovely meditative place. I love sitting around waterfall pools. Though deafening, they seem so peaceful.

Being a Sunday, and a popular spot for visitors, we saw quite a few more people come to this spot while we there, though I wouldn't call it crowded. Still, I'd like to come back here on a weekday. We walked back to Vashisht where we ate a late lunch at the World Peace Cafe. I had a mushroom mutter and two rotis (Rs.85). I needed to have something spicy after all the bland/continental food I've been having lately.

We took a rick back to Old Manali. I got off at Manali on the way and hit the ATM. Picked up a quart of rum on the way back to Old Manali and, back at the guesthouse, mixed it into a little-more-than-half full bottle of Pepsi that I carried all the way from Leh. I had bought it during our one and only visit to a bar there. Skipped dinner. Just read a bit and slept.

Day 25 - Monday - June 1
Old Manali

It was raining outside for almost the entire day today, so I got a chance to relax. Had breakfast at the guesthouse - cheese mushroom toast (Rs.50). Yum.

I picked up a book from the guesthouse collection - Avalon - The Return of King Arthur by Stephen R. Lawhead. Pretty crappy but it passed the time. I kept reading till lunch, which I also ate at the guesthouse - a chicken do pyaza with rice (Rs. 100).

I then returned to my book for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Met the guys in the night for dinner. I hung out at their guesthouse for a while, sipping my concoction and getting high while they finished a joint. They seem to have a whole bunch of beer bottles lying around. They really don't do much. I almost finished my rum while I was there and was pretty high by the time we left for dinner.

We went to the Lazy Dog, this really expensive place. I finished the rum I had (was really feeling good) while the guys made and smoked another joint between their beers. And then they smoked a sheesha. I had ordered Japanese food for the first time (another first for me) - a chicken katsu-dom (Rs. 180). It was really bland and not worth its price.

Made it back to the guesthouse in one piece.


Sunday, 14 June 2009

Travel Diary: May 23 - 27

Day 16 - Saturday - May 23


Woke at 9.45 A.M. Had breakfast at Gesmo today - Aloo Paratha (Rs.20) and a coffee (Rs. 20).

Spent the morning on the internet. One and a half hour offline and one hour online (Rs.130).

Met P, who lent me one of his books - Mark Tully's India in slow motion. T was sick today, so P and I went for lunch ourselves, to Gesmo again, where we both had yak cheese chicken sandwiches. I took a photo this time around. P tells me they really should be called nak cheese sandwiches, to denote the female of a yak, which is really where the cheese comes from.

We spoke to another guy who organises treks to the Markha valley, who told us it's Rs. 3,500 per person for 3 nights from Spituk to Stok. The other guy recommended to me was closed today so we couldn't talk to him to compare prices. At this point, we're just looking for ways to kill time for the next few days while we wait for the highway to Manali to open so we can be on our way.

I went for a walk with P. We hit a couple of army surplus stores in the market. They stock army boots, caps, hats, balaclavas, etc. I was looking for a cap, but the ones there were of an inferior make.

We walked through three 'Tibetan Refugee' markets, though not all the sales vendors there are Tibetan.or refugees.

I went back to the hotel and read for a while, before going for dinner with the guys at 8.30. We went to a new place again, and I tried a chicken Schnitzel (around Rs.100). It's supposed to be Israeli.

Day 17 - Sunday - May 24

Went to Kangla Chen restaurant for breakfast. Had the French toast. Found it oily and hard.

Met P on the street outside, and we went back to Kangla Chen so he could have breakfast there. These guys start their days later than I do.

Went to an internet place on Fort Rd next. I had planned to spend the rest of the morning there, but went back to my hotel to rest after I started feeling a bit sick - dizzy and low on energy - not sure why. T was sick yesterday, and I'm sick today.

I skipped lunch and slept the whole afternoon. Met the guys in the night for dinner. We went to Happy World restaurant where I had a sweet chicken corn soup. It made me feel a lot better, and I ordered a chilly chicken to follow.

We decided to put off our plans for a trek. It's too cold to trek anyway, and we're not feeling up to it.

Day 18 - Monday - May 25

Went back to Happy World restaurant for breakfast today, where I had a mushroom omlette (Rs. 35).

Then went back to the hotel to decide to do something more productive today as compared to the last two days.

I decided to visit Shakti village in the Chemrey valley, south of Leh, much more south than Thiksey but along the same route more or less. I walked to the bus station, around 10-15 minutes away, but had to wait an hour for the bus to leave, it being 12.30 by the time it did.

I reached my destination at 2.00 P.M, after a long but scenic bus ride that took me through Shakti village and terminated at a point soon after. I confirmed with the bus conductor that the last bus out of the village and back to Leh was only two hours away, and then began my walk back through the village.

I've not had a chance to see a lot of greenery in Ladakh, most of it being in Leh, and that too just restricted to small farms, but Shakti had full blown pastures, something I haven't seen here so far. Naturally, I had to take a lot of pics.

I caught a bus back to Leh on my walk out of the village. Another one and a half hour bus ride. I notice how well people adjust in buses here. There are absolutely no arguments or fights breaking out, despite the buses being crowded. Also, women seem to be treated with a lot more respect here, or rather, it would be more accurate to say that they're treated more like equals here than in many other places I've been to. There's absolutely no hesitation or fear from them as they share close confined spaces and seats with male strangers in crowded buses.

It's something I've noticed a lot here. Young Ladakhi women (all of them really beautiful, don't know how they do it) seem to lead more confident and liberal lives here as compared to other places I've been to in India. They have no reason to feel uncomfortable in or fear public or crowded areas. And Ladakhi men in turn seem to be really respectful, in the sense that they never seem to do anything to make a woman, either local or an outsider, feel uncomfortable, like stare at her or anything.

Ladakhi women also tend to play larger roles in the community, many of them in charge of operating shops and restaurants, unlike other parts of India where managing an establishment would be left to the men only. And the men seem to take this freedom that women have for granted. The liberal lives that women in Ladakh seem to lead just seems to be a part of the Ladkhi culture, ingrained in them, and not something their women have had to struggle or fight for.

I don't mean to paint a picture of a Utopian society where women are treated as complete equals. Gender discrimination no doubt still exists in Ladakhi society. A woman wouldn't be encouraged to take up a career in mountaineering or single handedly leading trekking expeditions, etc. Close knit traditional societies like the ones that exist here simply cannot change overnight.

But the liberal lives I'm referring to are more to do with how women seem to hold themselves over here. They do so with a lot more confidence than anywhere else in India that I've been to. In Mumbai for example, women tend to avert their eyes in public, looking down as they walk. Also, they wouldn't be very confident or willing to converse with a male stranger. Women don't have a reason to behave this way in Ladakh.

Anyway, it was around 6 by the time I reached my hotel. I ate a small packet of dry fruits since I missed lunch. P dropped by to give me news I'd been expecting - the road to Manali opened yesterday or today and the first batch of people have come in today. I thought I saw more people on the streets today. But of course, that could just mean that the tourist season is taking off.

It's amazing how much this town has changed since we arrived here 18 days ago. It resembled a ghost town then, half the shops still being closed. And we've slowly seen it transform into a proper international traveller centre, and get somewhat warmer as well.

P told me that T and he have booked jeep tickets for early tomorrow morning, and asked if I'd like to come along since there's going to be place. I told him I'm good to go. So we finally leave for Manali at 3.00 A.M tomorrow.

Day 19 - Tuesday - May 26

Left the hotel to meet the guys at 2.30 A.M. It was really dark outside but not as cold as I'd expected. We had booked a taxi the previous evening so we didn't have to walk all the way to Leh bus stop with our heavy backpacks in the dark.

The jeep stand was next to the bus station. We found our vehicle, got into it, and left at 3.00 A.M. It began snowing on or way to the second highest motorable road in the world - Tang Lang La - which we'd have to cross on our way to Manali. Visibility was bad as we climbed up and the convoy we had set off in had to stop at the pass for daylight to arrive before we could continue at around 5.00 A.M. It had drizzled a bit the previous evening and we had seen a lot of dark clouds here for the first time but thought nothing of it as it rarely rains in Leh.

We continued on, stopping at Pang for breakfast - omlette, chapati, and tea (Rs. 40) - which refreshed us. We then stopped a little before to change tires around 12.30 P.M. Most of the trip seems like a real blur since we travelled a long way - 450 kms - in 18 hrs. I remember driving by wide plains in a large flat plateau like area afterwards, and then down the mountain for a long time through the twenty Gata loops and past Sarchu, then through Darcha (where we first began seeing green mountains after almost three weeks of barrenness and where foreigners need to register), Jispa, Keylong and Tandi, then to Khoksar (a small town full of dhabas where most people break immediately before or after attempting to cross the Rohtang pass) and then further uphill to the Rohtang pass itself, during which time night fell, and we drove on in darkness all the way over the Rohtang and down the other side and the 50 kms to Manali.

We arrived in Manali hungry and tired. The whole town seems to consist of only hotels and restaurants, and is very crowded and dirty. None of us liked it from the moment we set eyes on it. Still, we had to spend the night here and so began looking for a cheap hotel. We finally found one that would take all three of us in one room for Rs. 800. It's the tourist season here and everything seems booked up.

We checked in and went looking for dinner. I like the weather here. It's cool without being cold. A relief after Ladakh. We found a restaurant on the main road, crowded, and I had soup (Rs. 65). Then back to the hotel for some well deserved sleep. We simply can't believe that everything that we saw and did today really took place today. It seems more like this morning or afternoon actually happened two weeks ago.

I also notice that I've reached day 19, the halfway mark in my travels.

Day 20 - Wednesday - May 27
Manali/Old Manali

A lot of noise outside woke me at 5.00 A.M today - traffic noise - and again at 7.00, after which I just couldn't go back to sleep. It seems Manali gets up real early.

I had breakfast at the hotel - Aloo Paratha (Rs. 15) - and then walk with P to Old Manali to find a new place to stay while T slept in. I can't imagine why anyone would want to stay in Manali. Old Manali was supposed to be a better place, according to the LP guidebook, and it took us a about a half hour to cover the 2.5 kms there.

I liked Old Manali immediately. It's small, friendly, and full of international travellers and backpackers, which means most of the people here are more or less my age, and there aren't any noisy children or traffic problems around. The town is really close to the roaring Beas river, and we found the main guesthouse-restaurant area after an initial wrong turn. These seem to be built along a slope with a narrow road running uphill through the town, which seems to be used mostly by Indian tourists in their hired vehicles from Manali coming to visit Manu temple at the top of the hill and end of the road.

Indian tourists bug me. They roam about with their large families, take a lot of pictures, make a lot of noise, leave plastic about, and then leave in their noisy vehicles. They don't ever dwell on any of the places they've visited, inquisitive about its history or significance. They only seem to want to have some kind of pictorial record of a place that they can tick off their list and brag about visiting later to their friends.

One thing I noticed in Old Manali is the number of international tourists, or rather, the lack of Indian tourists living here. A lot of Indian tourists pass by the town in their vehicles to Manu temple and then go back to their hotels in Manali or elsewhere. But none of them actually stay in Old Manali. I'm trying to figure out why. Maybe a place gets a certain type of reputation after a while, and Indian families don't want to be associated with that kind of reputation.

Also, Indian families like to stay in hotels - the more expensive the better. Probably because they mostly travel as part of a tour group, that prebooks hotel rooms for them. Foreigners, not bound by this constraint, are free and in fact prefer to stay at cheap quiet guesthouses with gardens and cafes and like-minded company where they can relax and do their own thing and not be disturbed, like reading a book on a balcony taking in the scenery, as opposed to living in a characterless hotel room with all its typical depressing features that lean towards anonymousness.

Furthermore, foreigners want to live in a place they feel comfortable in, not a place where they'd be conspicuous or made to feel self conscious, and the only places in India like this tend to be places already populated by foreigners. The same applies to Indians I guess - they'd like to live around other Indians when they travel.

So P and I walked through Old Manali inquiring at different guesthouses about prices and rooms. They all had rooms available, and though some were more expensive than others, we each found something in our price ranges. Mine is Rs. 300 a night. We waked back to Manali, checked out of the hotel with T and took a rick to our new homes.

Again, the climate here is excellent. It's hot in the middle of the day - but only if you're in the sun. You do sweat a lot if you're walking along an asphalt road in the afternoon. But the moment you step into the shade, you cool down. Five minutes in the shade and you wouldn't believe you'd been sweating five minutes ago. I love this kind of heat. It's dry heat. Not something I've experienced in Mumbai. There, the humidity keeps it hot no matter what the time of day it is. This is the first time I've been so comfy in the last week of May. People in Mumbai must be suffering right now.

I rested for a bit at the guesthouse, then went for lunch and a walk with P & T at the Shiva Garden Cafe and Restaurant, where I tried Israeli food - Pita, Humus, chips and salad. Quite good. I continued alone uphill to the end of the road and Manu temple, and then walked to an ATM in Manali, walked back and got a haircut. I also bought a few nuts and biscuits I might need for lunch if I go an a trek here.

And I've been drinking more water here. Unfortunately, no one here offers refills so I have to keep buying bottled water.

I met the guys for dinner. We went to Dragon Restaurant (attached to the Dragon guesthouse) where I had mixed veg and naan (Rs 100).


Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Travel Diary: May 18 - 22

Day 11 – Monday – May 18


Woke at 8.00 A.M. Had a hot bucket bath. Left the hotel at 9.00. Had a luxuriously long good breakfast of mushrooms on toast & coffee (Rs.60) at Lamayuru Restaurant.

Walked to the Shanti Stupa junction north on the outskirts of town and then took the long winding road right and round towards the series of steps cut into the side of a hill that serves as a sort of back entry directly towards the gompa above Leh palace.

The steps form a winding tiring path up the hill. I climbed them steadily with lots of breaks. On reaching the gompa, I found an Am/Can man who showed me another way down – a kind of steep dirt path between the palace and gompa that would take me directly to the palace below. I hadn’t seen this on my last visit to the palace, and including the long approach road for vehicles, would make up the third way to reach the gompa.

I looked around the gompa and the fort above it a bit. This has got to be the highest I’ve ever been to in Leh, and is probably Leh’s highest point. The views from up here are indescribable. It’s lonely up here, and windy. The gompa was closed, and I didn’t see any other tourists save that one man during my time there.

I decided to walk down from the gompa to the palace using the dirt path between them. Easier said than done. The path essentially runs down a very steep slope, zig zagging from one end of the slope to another so as to enable you to keep your balance. I started off a bit shaky at first because of the height and the slipperiness, but made it down to the palace entrance, then climbed down from the palace into Leh town, following the drain and moving between houses as before.

I met P at the shake place, and we walked to the Tourist Information Centre to get directions to the Snow Leopard Conservancy office, from where we hoped to get details about the Markha valley trek. They drew it out for us on a map.

As we walked to the office, I realized for the first time today hot it was. My back was soaked. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever sweated since arriving in Leh, and possibly the first warm day of the year. There was no wind at all today, come to think of it, and even a few minutes in the sun were enough to make you want to get back in the shade, where the temperature dropped dramatically.

Still, for all our efforts searching for the office, and finding it, no one seemed to be in. We made plans to visit tomorrow, and I walked to the SBI ATM, only one of two ATM's in town, and where lines during the daytime are really long. It’s best to go there early in the morning or late at night.

I chilled at the hotel, had a shave, and then went to see P & T. We go to Summer Harvest Restaurant, a pretty expensive place. Still, the portions of food were generous. I had a chicken biryani (Rs. 110) which was very substantial with egg and a lot of chicken so I couldn’t complain. I wasn’t able to finish all the rice unfortunately.

I went back to P & T’s place after dinner and drank vodka with Miranda and Sprite, watching Office Space and the CSK vs KKR IPL match side by side.

I went back to my hotel at just before 12.00, wary of the street dogs on the two minute walk to my hotel. The dogs here are really shaggy – they seem to be covered with a mountain of fur. I noticed it wasn’t cold outside, even for this time of night. I didn’t need my gloves or scarf or sweater. Left the monkey cap on though.

Day 12 – Tuesday – May 19

Awoke late today – 11.00 A.M. The hotel now has running hot water so I had a hot shower today for the first time in 12 days. Went to Lamayuru Restaurant for brunch at 12.30. Had a paneer mushroom with rotis (Rs. 70).

Walked to the SLC office again. They were in this time. Very friendly people. They gave me details of the trek and a tour organiser who could arrange homestays along the way.

I walked up to the Shanti Stupa junction again and took a left this time to go to the Hall of Fame museum. I was sure this road would lead me there. The walk went on for at least four kilometers. Most of it took me past army barracks and buildings on my right.

A section of the army structures are built against a mountain which seems to have sand running up almost the entire length of it. It was very windy in some parts along the road, creating sandstorms that I had to pass through or stop for occasionally.

The Hall of Fame museum was nice. The three rooms to the left are dedicated to Ladakhi history, culture, flora, fauna, and industry.

The centre room contains a large display of the important Ladakhi mountain passes, with information on some of the key personnel involved in helping to capture them.

The three room to the right contain information and displays about the air force and their role in Ladakh - like the 114 helicopter squad that’s responsible for airdropping supplies to soldiers at high altitudes.

The two rooms on the first floor contain information on the army’s presence in Siachen and the special equipment used by soldiers there - like their clothes, boots (which are really shoes within shoes), supplies, and pictures of them performing their duties.

The walk back to Leh town was mostly the same way, only uphill, but I took a right turn about 15-20 minutes before coming to the Shanti Stupa junction through a village like area. I thought it would be an interesting detour back into town, and I wasn’t mistaken.

The detour took me past some beautiful two-storey village bungalows with large green lawns, yards and pastures; then guesthouses and finally taking me to Fort road, where all the best restaurants are and where P & T stay, my hotel being on the road next to it and meeting it at the taxi stand junction.

I rested at my hotel for a while. It’s definitely cold today, more so compared to yesterday’s heat. I then walked to the tour organizer I was recommended earlier, who gave me additional details about the trek.

I went to P & T’s next. Drank a vodka and pineapple juice – it had quite a kick – and watched Species. We went to Happy World restaurant for dinner, where I tried Italian food for the first time. I had a Pico chicken lasagna. It was just chicken baked in white sauce, which I’ve had before, but in layers. A bit boring.

Went straight to bed afterwards. Quite tired, and in no mood for more alcohol.

Day 13 – Wednesday – May 20

Woke a little after 9.00 A.M. Had breakfast at Gesmo Restaurant. A mushroom omlette and coffee (Rs. 50). Then back to the hotel for a hot shower – real nice.

The guys and I decided that we’d meet at 11.30 at my hotel. P showed up, and we decided to join a family going to Pangong Tso lake tomorrow.

We then walked around, and went back to their hotel where I borrowed a book to read – Mark Tully’s India in Slow Motion. We went looking for lunch at 1.30 - Gesmo again – where I had a yak cheese chicken sandwich with chips and salad (Rs.80).

We went to see a movie at 3.00 P.M at the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh – Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh – based on the book by Helena Norberg-Hodge.

Went back to the hotel to read for a while, and then to P & T’s at 6.30, where I watched a bit of the RR vs KKR match. We went to the newly opened Dreamland Restaurant for dinner, where I tried Kashmiri food for the first time - Rogan Josh and rotis (Rs. 100). The mutton had a distinctive taste I’m not used to in the mutton I usually eat. It’s not my favourite kind.

I got a water refill and went back to get a good night’s sleep. We’re supposed to meet at 6.20 A.M tomorrow for the lake trip.

Day 14 – Thursday – May 21
Leh/Pangong Tso

Met P at 6.20 today. We left at 6.45 A.M in a jeep with the Indian family we’re sharing costs with. A husband, wife, and their son who seemed to be around six or seven.

We climbed up into the mountains south east of Leh and crossed the world’s third highest motorable road – Chang La. On the other side, we breaked for breakfast at 10.30 at Tangtse village, where we had paranthas and salty tea (Rs. 40). Pangong Tso lake is a 40 km drive from the village, through desert like land where we saw a few wild asses.

The lake is beautiful, and large. The different shades of blue were the first thing that struck me about it. That, and it’s size. We couldn’t see the end of it, and I’m told most of it lies in China. It’s bordered by mountains for the most part, and the approach road that we drove on only took us so far. There’s a small army encampment at the lake, it being a sensitive area, and all visitors require permits.

We got out of the vehicle and spent about a half hour at the lake, just walking around it’s shore and taking pictures. There were other visitors as well – a lot of package tourists in jeeps and vans. I saw a few gulls over the water, which was cold. The lake area itself seemed to be colder than Leh, and this didn’t seem like the time to picnic there.

We drove back to Leh, reaching it at 5.30 P.M. The drive was uneventful both ways, and the trip cost us 1,100 per person.

Back at Leh, I freshened up and met the guys for dinner. We went to Budshah Inn Restaurant, the same place we went to on our first night here. I had a chicken tikka and rice (Rs. 170) and a bit of the gravy from the chicken mughlai (sweetish) and chicken tikka masala (stronger) that my friends ordered, though I still felt a bit hungry. The chicken tikka is sure not enough for Rs.150.

Day 15 – Friday – May 22

Woke at 10.00 A.M. Breakfast at Lamayuru again – coffee, beans, mushrooms and French toast (Rs.50). Very filling but the mushrooms were in the bean sauce – I prefer my mushrooms dry.

I caught a bus to Spituk, a town just outside Leh, about a half hour’s journey. My destination was the monastery. The bus dropped me at what seemed to be a real isolated place. I found and walked up the approach road to Spituk monastery, where I took a lot of pictures. A separate approach road leads to a large Buddha statue above the monastery.

I walked back down, not sure where the bus stop was, and decided to walk to Spituk town. Luckily, I saw a bus approaching from the opposite direction, flagged it down, and returned to Leh, where I hit the ATM, and rested at the hotel.

I had lunch at Tenzin Dickey Tibetan Restaurant on Fort Road at 3.00 P.M – fried veg cheese momos (Rs.60) & Sorig Tea (Rs.20). Then spent a little time on the internet.

I met P & T for dinner. We went to a newly opened place again – Bon Appetit restaurant. A lot of activity seems to be taking place this week. Restaurants long dormant have been lifting their shutters and the number of visitors has been increasing. I guess businesses are anticipating the opening of the Manali–Leh road. That should bring in most of the tourists.

Anyway, I tried Italian food again. I had the Pasta Napolitana. Not very good and boring as well. I should stay off Italian food for a while. Or at least Italian food made by Indians in India. We then went to a bar nearby. I had a 60 ml of rum (Rs. 30) and a pepsi, watched the IPLK semi final – DC vs DD. Adam Gilchrist can bat!

Went to bed at 11.30.