Surviving the chaos in hilly Dharamsala

If you are the kind that scours the work calendar for long weekends to escape from the daily humdrum – away from the urban chaos, you also need to be the kind to plan it weeks (if not months) in advance. Or you’ll end up doing what we did!

Not that it is not fun, but like N says – there’s travel adventure/backpacking fun that you enjoy when you are in your 20s. You decide on a destination on sheer impulse, head to the nearest bus-station, wangle your seat and head off – reservations be damned, hotel bookings can wait till the destination is reached..and the return – well, let the journey begin before that? In your 30s, caution weighs over recklessness. Being in office Monday morning is as important as taking that quick holiday, travelling in comfort is essential and having all your bookings in place – that does mark the transition over travelling years.

12105906_10153015800280044_7337891648933710417_nSo we tried recapturing our younger selves – packed our backpack, took a Metro to Vidhan Sabha, a cycle rickshaw to Majnu Ka Tila and plunged into a sea of confused humanity of backpacks and tired office faces eager to escape the plains for the hills – just like us. We’d booked Volvo buses only to realise private operators are mostly an amorphous set of boards- they most likely have panchayats, where they decide how to fill seats on buses to optimise their operations. Tip 1, if you plan on a weekend away madness, choose government buses – most state governments run Volvo buses to tourist destinations. Brings me back to point in the intro para – plan it weeks in advance. The government buses get sold out really really fast! But the first view of the hills and the valleys through the large bus windows as the sun rises makes the overnight trip really worth it.

It also does not help that your weekend and the destination you chose also happens to be the time and place of  an international T20 match featuring India. So apart from the backpackers heading in the same directions as us, there were also horn-happy youngsters out in their swanky cars – the width of the bonnet just about the size of the width of the narrow mountain roads winding up from Dharamsala to McLeodgunj.

Friendly tip: While people say they are off to Dharamsala, what they don’t tell you is that they sp12107819_10153015800470044_120085182443405240_nent hardly any time in that town. Everyone drives up to McLeodgunj a few kilometres uphill. Yes, you can walk it up, but I’d suggest take a taxi and save your breath for the gorgeous panoramic views of the Kangra valley.
McLeodgunj is far more than just a hill station – it has political significance too, for it’s the seat of the Tibetan government in exile – a government trying to fight Chinese annexation of Tibet. Since the annexation in the 1940s, there has been amass exodus of ethnic Tibetans to escape persecution. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, India offered him asylum and several thousands of them settled in Dharamsala making it into a little Tibet. To understand the struggles that Tibetans went through, there is a Tibetan museum just by the Dalai Lama temple. So when you visit the temple, do spend an hour there. It is an on-going struggle for autonomy – a demand that China has refused to entertain, calling Tibet an inalienable part of its territory. Across McLeodgunj, you’ll come across posters seeking a boycott of Chinese goods to show solidarity with the Tibetan cause.
12107289_10153018620920044_6861516932402625779_nWe stayed in one of the hotels managed by the Norbulingka Institute- The Serkong House, so a visit to the Institute was part of the deal. There are daily shuttles from their two hotels in McLeodgunj to the Institute, which is in Dharamsala. Spending half a day in the institute is definitely recommended. It’s like a little haven, with the sounds of gurgling waters, chirping crickets, huge fish and abundant greenery, giving it a surreal feel. The Institute also trains local Tibetans in several ethnic arts and crafts, which are then sold through their shops. It’s fairly pricey on the Indian wallet, but all the proceeds go into preserving a culture in a home away from home. That perhaps makes the premium that you pay for owning their handmade artifacts worth it.  The guides say Norbu in Tibetan means precious and lingka refers to picnic. A precious picnic, for sure! While there, sit in the cafe, soaking some sunshine with a glass of ginger-lemon-honey tea in the winter. That’s all you’d perhaps want to do through the break.

wpid-20151004_114558-01.jpegMcLeodgunj was once an important British station – but today, you will hardly see any signs of it. A massive earthquake in 1905 not only killed several officers, soldiers and their families, but also reduced most colonial buildings to rubble. And the Raj decided to move their summer capital from Dharamsala to Shimla. This church, among the last straggling remnants of the days of the Raj is a must-visit. St.John in the Wilderness can look neglected if you try to visit it over a working week-day. But on Sunday, the church doors are opened for two services. And looking at the altar, the sun filtering in through stained glass decorations, you can’t but imagine how the services would have looked a century and a half ago, when families would have congregated in the Sunday best to reaffirm their faith and mingle. Don’t miss out on walking through the gravestones, some hidden by the spreading wilderness. Some ornate descriptive ones will tug at your heartstrings – young families wiped out within days of each other – you wonder if it was illness or an accident or perhaps even suicide? There’s one memorial you can’t miss. That of Lord Elgin, the second Viceroy of India, who spent his final months in Dharamsala and wanted to buried here.12144826_10153018620995044_1993878872900690071_n

Set aside the dark thoughts and in the time that you are in McLeodgunj, take as many walks as you can to admire the Kang12112461_10153015800380044_6123973573794063356_nra valley from different angles. You can trek up to Dharamkot – the town where people head to for accommodation when McLeodgunj is fully booked. You get lovely views of McLeodgunj and Dharamsala down below.

You can also walk towards Bhagsu, an old village famous for an old temple that is reverred by the native Gorkha populations settled here. There is also a waterfall, the Bhagsunag falls. We walked till nearly there and then turned back – wondering12079242_10153015800730044_7930648840543261001_n why – the snaking traffic, the honking and the steadily billowing dust from the stomping tourists and their huge vehicles clogged my asthmatic lungs pretty bad. Rather than fall ill, we walked back!

This post cannot end without a mention of the food you can hope to eat in this hill station. Eat in the small eateries that dot the place. Some are definitely better than the others, but one thing that stood out across most places, big and small that we ate in was that food was always cooked fresh and has a vibrant, rustic taste that increases your appetite a tad more! Where did we eat? Well, we tried the Clay Oven (for Tibetan and Nepalese fare), Jimmy’s Italian (yummy wood-fired pizzas) (they are owned by the same family), Moonpeak Espresso and a few smaller places that Tripadvisor had rated high. The spinach and cheese momos – you rarely see that in the plains and the wholesome flavourful Tibetan flat-noodle soups and the spongy steamed Tibetan bread.

What do I love most about my three-day break in McLeodgunj? Apart from the fresh food and the cleansing honey-ginger lemon that I tanked up on, it has to be the Kangra valley views- the glorious sunsets ( I can never rouse myself up for the sunrise) and the walk through the cemetery – remembering men, women and children who lived over a century ago. This quaint hill station, today is the keeper of their memories.12118809_10153015800765044_7345200711533632008_n

 

Exploring Budapest: A Slice of Holocaust History

Travel is perhaps the best teacher in the world – especially if you are curious about history and how the world changed and morphed into the beautifully ugly crazy rabid zone – where every identity has a religious, ethnic, racial sub-story. At some point of history or other, there has been persecution, pogroms, subjugation and conquests that have radically changed the way our world is today.

An epoch that changed Europe, an unhealed scar that raises its ugly head time and again, one that reverberates across the continent even seventy years later – The Holocaust. While a trip through cities and regions that have World War II tour (of cities and places that are part of the turning points in the War) is still in the works, we keep stumbling on the dark side of modern European history in several cities of Europe.

Walk by the  banks of the Danube river along the Pest side and you’ll come across shoes by the bank. From afar it look like several people just took off their shoes to take a swim. But from up close, you realise they are metallic – stark and cold. We stumbled on it by sunset of our first day there. Perhaps it was the setting sun playing tricks, but that sinking feeling of melancholy – that sense of ‘I don’t know the story, but I know it will haunt me for long when I do’. The moment we were in a cafe with wifi, I wanted to know the story behind those pairs of metallic shoes by the Danube. Before the Second World War began, 25% of Hungary’s population was made up of Jews. During the War, the Arrow Cross Party that had Nazi affiliations murdered around 600,000 of them. Nearly 19% of the Jewish population wiped out during this time were Hungarians.

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Food in Myanmar – Some Eating Tips for Fussy Eaters!

This post needs to begin with a big disclaimer – I cannot claim the tag of a foodie – for I’m unfortunately a bit fussy about what I eat – fish, seafood and red-meat have rarely, if never found their way on to my plate. I’m allergic to prawns and lobster, the innate fishiness of fishy-smelling fish (fish can’t smell like anything other than fish, can it?) makes me look for other options and red-meat – well the less said about them the better in my foodie journey. So what does that leave me with? A lot of veggie options and the bad apology for meat according to hard-core carnivores – chicken! My fuss about food also extends to my inability to sit at roadside stalls and eat what the locals eat – I end up looking at the table, hunting for scurrying rats or roaches or sniffing about for unsavoury- I’m told all this in fact adds to the flavour and at about a tenth of the cost of what I’d pay in ‘posh’ cafes and restaurants. I hunt for clean and functional, not posh and opulent. And the truth is, in any country, there are several of these options available too!

Disclaimers apart, I hope this post helps kindred travel junkies like me with a sensitive stomach and an over-sniffy nose as their Achilles heel. Few posts helped me before I got here, so I’m hoping mine helps more like me!  Continue reading

The Travel Bug: It Bites Some Harder than Others

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The view of Mandalay from atop the Mandalay Hill

I’m on my final day of travelling through Myanmar. It’s been ten days since I got here. And I’m in love with a country that’s still learning how to embrace the free flow of tourists into their country. The systems are still not completely in place – public transportation, lack of signages or population that speaks English to help a lost traveller – it might take a few more years, but those that are in place are admirable – new highways, really comfortable long-distance buses, clean restrooms on highway stops (Allelujah!!) and honest people with smiles that make you want to hug them when they struggle through the language barriers to help you out.

Myanmar, I must admit is not the easiest country to travel  especially not in the non-touristy, monsoon season. The hotels offer off-season rates, but you have to shell out a premium for travelling in and around cities. Lack of tourist volumes mean that you are shelling out that much more. And there are few warnings or written material that can help you plan and budget your trip better – often, the hidden costs pop at you when you are already at the spot. There are tourist rates and there are local rates. And as in several other countries, tourist rates are in dollars. But all these aside, there is a joy of discovery when you move through the country. It still feels virginal and lesser explored – not jaded to the ways of foreign travellers poking and prodding through their history and lives.

When I talk about a new plan to travel – a new country that I’m excited about exploring, I’m often subjected to friendly chides – What? Another holiday? Do you even work? Can I have your job? If I could, I’d love to not have to work and only travel. So this post is dedicated to the travel bug – a bug I think that bit me very early in life. And still continues to have its tiny claws embedded deep in me. So what is it that makes you lock your home, pack your bags and take off?

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Mingalaabaa Mandalay

Over the weekend I travelled from Yangon to Bagan. The glorious town which has more Phayas shattered across the landscape is a sight to watch. That’s a story for as soon as I get back to Yangon. Today I want to attempt something different -a story..One that will end in Mandalay. Perhaps the land of the Glass Palace, where I currently am now has inspired me?

Since it is a story, there are few photographs. But I hope the story keeps you entertained enough not to mind the lack of pictures.

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Monsoonal Musings From Myanmar

If Procrastination were a punishable offence, I’d be serving a life term. ~ Anon* 
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I have been writing about my travels as a post script, never as a continuing journal or blog posts. So on this trip, I have resolved to not procrastinate and at least have short posts that perhaps later I can follow up with more reflections from my travel.

Guess where my backpack and I currently are? Myanmar – (and make that yet again! This is among the few countries that I haven’t lived in that I have visited twice.)
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Talking Tea, BathSpa and Sally Lunn’s Buns

What do you do when you are low on energy, inspiration and the general joie de vivre that is sooo essential to keep a travel blog lively and vivacious – and more importantly make you want to live that experience through me or even better it some time later? Well, you dig deep into your travel notebooks for stories already told. While sending it out to you, I’m also living that day of that year once over – the smells, the taste, the joy returns momentarily – and life springs anew inside the jaded wilted me. ( It could also be this haunting summer heat – Delhi is currently a molten 45 degrees – where you feel the heat seep into your bones cooking your brains and innards alike)

So what better time to talk about food?? Food that makes me yearn for the lovely weather in which I’d savoured it. So this story, my lovely loyal readers comes to you from Bath. Read on.  Continue reading