Monday, 9 August 2010

Dear Lonely Planet India

Dear Lonely Planet India,

I bought a 2007 copy of the LP in May 2009, to take with me on a May-June 2009 backpacking trip to Ladakh and Himachal. Though the LP is written primarily for foreign visitors, I being both Indian and a resident of Mumbai for 10 years, still managed to find the LP very useful, primarily because as a backpacker, and a first time visitor to Ladakh and Himachal, my travel needs were not very different from those of most foreigners there. 

Here are some thoughts:

I found the lists of places to stay, with their rates, and places/things to see, most useful. The maps and public transport info were also much used. These are probably the main reason anyone would really want to own a Lonely Planet guidebook.

I liked the add-ons too. I liked the little ‘boxed’ information offering useful tips/information, and warning people of possible dangers like not to wander about the Parvati valley forests alone, or get involved in drugs, or get taken for a houseboat ride scam. I also liked the little snippets of history and general information all over the LP. It gave me context.

Now that we’re done with what I liked, can we commence with a few suggestions?

First, the North:

I like that the LP is compact enough to carry around. But I do have a request. Could you please issue state-wise or region-wise LPs for India, in addition to the full India LP? That would be so much better for us travellers who are only visiting one or two states/regions and don’t want to lug around a big fat LP for the whole of India. Carrying a smaller issue would be lighter on the back and pocket, don’t you think? I know that you currently issue specific LPs for Goa and the North-East. That’s a good start. How about one only for the North, like Kashmir-Himachal-Delhi?

I’d be happy if you could elaborate on the Old Manali–Solang Nullah ‘trail’ through Goshal village that you guys have mentioned in the chapter on Manali in Himachal Pradesh. I tried looking for it but only managed to stumble across a full moon rave party that had gone on for too many moons.

Your map and information about places in the Parvati valley in Himachal Pradesh are woefully inadequate, even in the 2009 LP edition (I checked). You need to mention that there’s a bus route that goes upto Versaily, which is the last bus stop in the valley. It would also be nice if you included more specific route information from Versaily to Pulga village and Khir Ganga and the hot springs there, given the number of foreign visitors to the area. Also, Tosh village (near Versaily) isn’t even mentioned in the LP, despite the fact that it’s become a destination with its own charm and decent accommodation. Maybe you could have your writers talk to a few Israeli tourists in the area? They seem to know more about the layout of these places than anyone else.

And now for Mumbai:

The LP entry on Mumbai seems skewered in favour of South Mumbai. While this is understandable to some extent, there’s a lot of stuff happening in the North that you could be mentioning, like clubs, restaurants, etc. For example, there’s so much to see and do in Bandra, like the numerous old Churches with their attractive architecture, and the original Wall Project on Chapel Road. And so much to see around Bandstand and Carter road. And so many eateries & pubs in Bandra that you’ve missed out on.

You’ve not mentioned Powai lake or the controversial Hiranandani architecture close by.

Further north, you’ve just given the Sanjay Gandhi National Park a passing mention, when there are so many well-worn trekking trails within the park that you’ve left out, like the Shilonda waterfall trail, the trek to the highest point in the park, the trails to Vihar and Tulsi lakes, and the trails commencing from the entry points in Goregaon and Thane. Do you know how many groups of people trek here each week during the monsoon? As far as entry points go, you’ve only mentioned the Borivli gate. And the only activities you’ve included are the lame safaris and the crowded Kanheri caves. There’s so much more for nature lovers. Plus, you’ve excluded the Aarey milk colony adjoining the park, also a popular green zone.

You’ve not even mentioned the giant Pagoda at Gorai (next to Esselworld), a breathtaking structure and Vipassana centre that's been reeling in curious onlookers. For that matter, what happened to Gorai, Manori and Uttan beaches? No entries on them, though they remain the cleanest beaches within Mumbai limits, and non-crowded to boot. Same story with Madh island and Aksa beach (though Aksa can get as bad as Juhu or Chowpatty). Where are the write-ups?

Further north, you’ve not mentioned Chinchoti falls at Naigaon, one of the few real natural waterfalls within Mumbai city limits, and one that gets crowded on weekends and has been responsible for a lot of drownings. You've also left out Bassein fort at Vasai, and Arnala fort at Virar. Are you not aware of the existence of these places?

Navi Mumbai fails to find mention in the LP. I find this strange since you could have used this opportunity to present the popular Karnala bird sanctuary and fort (near Panvel) and Peth/Kothaligad fort (near Karjat) to interested readers. There is accommodation nearby, but given their proximity to the city, I'm sure foreign visitors based in Mumbai wouldn't mind day trips.

And moving on to the rest of Maharashtra:

North Maharashtra doesn’t seem to exist in the LP. You’d do well to know that the towns and beaches of Vangaon, Dahanu and Bordi, along with nearby Parsi strongholds, make for interesting exploring.

The North East of Mumbai, beyond Kalyan, holds a few well-known gems. I’m referring to Malshej Ghat, one of the most beautiful drives from Mumbai that’s heavenly possible, and Shivneri town, home to the massive but crowded-on-weekends Shivneri fort, birthplace of Shivaji. The fact that you’ve left out what constitutes one of the most beautiful and fulfilling day trips I’ve been on makes me want to cry.

You’ve made a passing reference to Igatpuri in the ‘Around Nasik’ section but have failed to mention its main attractions – beautiful Bhandardara lake, Mt. Kalsubai - the highest peak in Maharashtra, and a trekkable one at that, and a few waterfalls.

Talking about the Nasik region, you’ve left out the hill stations of Jawahar and Vikramgad, about two hours drive from Mumbai, with attractions such as the palace, Dabossa falls, caves & mountains, and excellent valley views.

Your entry on the Konkan coast begins on a bad note - describing the food as being monotonous. I hope that’s a joke. Or maybe I just dreamed up those delicious fish dishes and mutton thalis I’ve eaten there.

The rest of the entry on Konkan is bare at best. You begin with Murud-Janjira, move on to Ganpatipule, then Ratnagiri, and end with Malvan-Tarkali. You’ve missed out at least 7 beaches between Mandwa jetty and Murud – Kihim, Awas, Alibaug, Korlai, Kashid, Naigaon & Nandgaon. Alibaug, Kashid & Naigaon are popular beaches and get quite crowded on weekends; you don't have to recommend them but you shouldn't leave them out. You’ve also left out Alibaug fort, and the entire villages of Revdanda (built within the ruins of a fort) and Korlai, home to the beautiful Korlai beach, lighthouse, and fort, all situated on a little peninsula, and one of my favourite places in Maharashtra. How could you be so cruel?

And moving south of Murud, you seem to have bypassed Diveagar, Srivardhan, Harihareshwar, Guhagar & Vengurla beaches, amongst others, and Chiplun town, amongst others. Diveagar tends to be secluded though you can have a hard time finding a guesthouse that isn't full, while Harihareshwar tends to get crowded due to it being a pilgrimage centre, though it is vast.

Moving to the hill stations, I find no mention of the famous Khandala at all, with its beautiful valley and trekking routes. You have mentioned Lonavala, but have left out information pertaining to Korigad fort, and the trek to nearby Rajmachi village, with its twin forts, temple, caves and pond. You’ve also left out the fact that there’s a direct motorable road to Lohagad-Visapur forts from Lonavala, or the fact that the forts are engulfed in mist during the monsoon, giving them a magical feel. You need to give people a reason to visit a place. 

I also find no mention of the very beautiful Pavna dam/lake or nearby Torna fort, or the route to Amby valley. In fact the only attraction you've listed about Lonavla are the same ole same ole Karla and Bhaje caves. Give me a break. There's so much more. I do see with some relief that you haven't noted disastrous Bushi dam, though whether this is out of purpose or ignorance I do not know. It might be fair to include it in your next edition, if only to ward unsuspecting travellers away.

These then are some of my suggestions of places to visit in and around Mumbai. Places I've been to and had loads of fun. Places that are beautiful, clean, mostly non-crowded, and worth travelling to. Places that any foreign traveller would enjoy. Places that for some reason are not listed in the LP. And then you wonder why foreigners only hang out at Colaba. You've built up this image of Mumbai as revolving around the town area (by the way, please have your writers stop referring to Worli as North Mumbai), with the only external locales worth venturing to being spots like Elephanta. No wonder you don't see any foreign tourists at the well known beaches, hill stations, or forts. They don't know about them. And they depend on you to enlighten them. And you could do a lot better.

Please let me know if you’d like my help with updating the next LP with any information pertaining to the suggestions above. I’d be happy to contribute. Also, if you should find these suggestions out-of-this-world useful and in your immense gratitude feel like gifting a copy of a more recent version of the Lonely Planet, or feel like offering me an author’s position at your esteemed publication, I wouldn’t say no.

Edit - 11/Aug/2010 - LP have written in to say that a lot of these places have been left out due to space constraints. Also, the Pagoda at Gorai wasn't included due to it being incomplete at the time of publication.