Sunday, 11 March 2012

Rishikesh To Ukhimath – Worth While Journey In Uttarakhand

Rishikesh, the Gateway to Garhwal Himalyas, has been my destination since 1984, when I first ventured to visit the shrines of Kedarnath–Badrinath through a package tour conducted by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam Limited. The Rishilok at Muni-ki-reti, happens to be my most favourite overnight stay prior to undertaking the journey to the hills. The huge complex has many two storied structures, with large number of trees, manicured lawns, gardens with variety of flower beds and most importantly the peace and tranquility. What impresses me the most is that even after more than two decades, the place retains its original charm. Now all rooms are atleast air cooled, that is a huge relief during summer, when the Yatras to holy shrines starts to pick up. I had no hesitation to book an economy room at Rs. 600/- per night during my Madmaheshwar – Rudranth twin trek.

On 30th May of 2011, I woke up to the chirping of the birds and came out to the back yard which borders the forested area from the guest house boundary. Being situated on a small hillock, this place does not look any way a part of hustling and bustling Rishikesh town. A walk through the vast compound is nostalgic. In 1984, we were provided an ordinary double room without any cooler or attached bath. In the morning we boarded the bus from the very place inside the compound across the central garden. In 2007, we had our own private tour of Kedarnath, Badarinath and Tunganth and started our journey from the same place. We spent some time in the morning amidst the greenery and gardens. 
Garden at Rishilok
On 29th May 2011, after getting ready to hit the road, we did not have to wait for long. Naginder, my transport organizer at Rishikesh did not fail to send the Maruti Alto which he promised with an experienced driver in Manjit Singh. While we were packing our luggages into the car boot, we were surrounded by some form of wild life, which has been proliferating with the jungle on the backyard of the complex. They were practically every where, jumping on the tall branches of Gul Mohar trees, walking over the balcony of the guest houses. The pair on top of gmvnl jeep caught my attention. 
Langurs at Rishilok
We do not know, whether being seen off by Langurs at the commencement of Yatra is a good omen! We had a final glimpse of the Rishilok gate as we come out of the complex.
Rishilok Entrance

We took leave of  Rishikesh town and hit the hills, with a glance at the flowing river Ganges and Laxman Jhula at a distance. The road runs parallel to the flowing river with an occasional raft bobbing on river water and cruising with excited rafters waving at us. We have a brief halt to pick up a few bottles of mineral water from road side dhaba after travelling for an hour. The singnages of rafting companies are plenty along this route with beautiful bunglows just on the edge of the river, covered in greenery.
Rafting Hoarding

After another half an hour Manjit Singh announced that we are about to arrive at Shivpuri, a rafting enthusiasts' paradise and give us a photo shoot break. In my previous journeys along this route, never had the opportunity of having a break at this place. So, I was looking forward to it. After arriving at he spot, I realized what I had missed all these years.  From a vantage position, we watched the rafting camps full of tents, the furious Ganges flowing by the side. A group of early morning bathers took advantage of shallow bypassed stream of the river. A large number of cars parked, some people taking a stroll in early morning. It looked like a camp set up by a Circus company in big city like Mumbai. We Spent some time photo shooting and video capture, as we were not in undue hurry.
Shivpuri Rafting Camp
 Around 9 am we reached Kaudiyala yet another picturesque place on the bank of river Ganges and Rafters' paradise. This place has all the amenities right on the roadside. The GMVNL restaurant looked good, a log cabin nicely blending with the Scenic beauty of the place.
GMVNL Restaurant, Kadiyala
But we had other ideas for our morning breakfast. The Monal restaurant opposite looked more charming and alluring.
Monal Restaurant , Kaudiyala

In all my trip through this route, I invariably had my breakfast at Monal restaurant . There is a wide choice of food and beverages, the ambience is good, the service is prompt and what is fascinating is the restaurant has an unusual flooring. Actually there is no flooring, one walks on stone chips spread and all furnitures are placed on it.
A breakfast of bread and boiled eggs, washed down with a cup of coffee, we left the restaurant, crossed the street and took the steps going down the hill on the left hand side of GMVNL restaurant. We landed at a flat land of grassy surface and had a glimpse of the lovely row of cottages belonging to GMVNL. An ideal place to spend by the side of river amidst greenery and serenity, yet not so far from Rishikesh.

After a nice break we were back to the car and proceeded towards Deoprayg about 70 km from Rishikesh. Every time I passed by Deoprayag, we had a halt to take few frames. Time not permitting, we decided not to go upto the confluence point where the rivers Alaknanada and Bhagirathi merge together and move in unison and becomes Ganga.

Beyond Deoprayag, yet again we came across the rafting enthusiasts getting a thrill out of traversing the turbulent rapids
Rafting on Alaknanda
 We got another break at Rudraprayag, the confluence of rivers Alaknanda and Mandakini. The colour difference of water of both the rivers is the most intense at this prayag.
Beyond Rudraprayag, we took a lunch break and rushed to a dhaba amidst drizzle. We got a top view of the agricultural plots by the side of river was lush green and blessed with copious amount of water to nurture the growth of crop.
Rain soaked landscape
Some more travel and we reached at the exreme end of the Ukhimath dwelling in late afternoon. Rain had abated by now. The river Mandakini flowing between the hills could be seen standing on the edge of the road above the terraced fields.
Mandakini from Ukhimath
 We checked in at Bharat Sevashram Sangha for the night halt to begin our twin trek to Madmaheshwar and Rudranth the next morning.

* Author has created a number of video clips based on the footages from his Handycam, which can be accessed from the following captioned link:
1) Ukhimath & Omkareshwar Temple 
2) Shivpuri, Rishikesh - Rafting Tented Camp 
3) Kaudiyala - Riverside Resort & Rafting Camp 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hardwar, Rishikesh - Gateway To Devbhoomi, Garhwal Himalayas

Hardwar can be called gateway to Devbhoomi and is accessible round the year. It’s easy connectivity with North Indian cities and towns by rail and road make people from all walks of life, spend a few days on the bank of the holy river Ganges. The Har– Ki–Pairi happens to be the focal point for the pilgrims to visit Ganga Mandir, have a holy deep in river Ganges and watch the famous Ganga Aarti in the evening. Mention of Ganga Aarrti, takes me back to the summer of 2008, when we stayed for a day at this holy place. Early morning saw us taking a 2 km trek to Manshadevi temple on the hill. A cable trolley runs for pilgrims to take them to the top, from the town. But, the booking is very heavy, hence never really had an opportunity of riding it, even after half a dozen of visits. On the trek route, the monkeys are a sure shot menace, if you are carrying any food stuff along with you. The view from Manshadevi temple of Haridwar town and Ganga flowing in a number of streams with island in between, is awesome. After darshan, we come down around noon time and enter one of the restaurants near Har–ki–pairi
Manshadevi Temple, Hardwar
Hardwar restaurants, serve mostly vegetarian North Indian cuisine, but one finds that cleanliness is not their priority. The sheer volume of pilgrims, see the eateries make a booming business, in spite of poor get up. Those who have a sweet tooth, will relish ‘rabdi’ dished out by even seedy looking restaurants. As far as lodging is concerned, there are far too many hotels near Railway station, bus depot or Har–ki–Pairi. The GMVNL web site offer online booking for one of the good hotels namely Rahi Motel. This huge hotel is situated in a sprawling compound, full of trees and blooming garden equidistant and walking distance from railway station and bus stand. The double rooms with air cooler are nice and comfortable.
Rahi Motel, Hardwar

When we reached Har–ki–pairi by 5 pm, the place was already teeming with people. We managed to sit in the hot sun, covering ourselves with newspaper, on the man made island, facing Ganga mandir. The climate became stuffy as the crowds swelled, and we were part of a sea of humanity, waiting for the grand spectacle to begin. At 6.30 pm, pujaris holding lamp-stands, with lighted lamps, standing on the steps on the Ganga bank, began Aarti amidst chantings. Barely ten minutes into the Aarati weather turned cloudy and hostile with gusty winds blowing. Expectedly, the heavens opened up. The crowd became restless but held on to their ground, some holding plastic sheets to cover themselves. The ground becoming wet, soon it was no longer possible to be seated. Another five minutes and the Aarti ended some what abruptly and then the race started. Crowd just bolted so fast towards the shelter of the sweet – meat shops near by, putting to shame Usain Bolt’s hundred meter dash in World Athletics meet!
There we were, standing under the canopy of a shop selling all types of snacks and sweets one can think of. Just to show to the shopkeeper that we were grateful for the shelter, bought a packet of ‘kurkure’. My camera bag was totally wet; water seeped inside to wet my digicam. We were fully drenched, like wet crows, forlornly watching rain water drops falling on snow white Faluda vermicelli, resting on ice slab. The shop owner, did not attempt to remove the delicacy to a safer place. Water from heaven, can surely cause no contamination to food stuff meant for consumption of pious pilgrims in this holy town! 

Back to Rahi Motel, my first priority was to check my digicam, whether it was fit to be used again? As luck would have it, the device lost non of its potency, such is the ‘mahima’ of heavenly blessings in Devbhoomi!

If Haridwar can be called the Gateway to Devbhoomi, then Rishikesh is the first step. From Rishikesh, one starts climbing the hills, to visit various religious shrines. Having visited Rishikesh at least half a dozen of times in summer,I felt far more comfortable compared to Haridwar. The number of pilgrims was definitely less. The place is well spread out on both sides of the Ganges. There are far too many hotels, and guest houses of various categories to suit the taste of every individual and budget. I prefer to stay at Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam, which has two guest houses, one at Bharatbhoomi, and second one at Muni-ki-Reti, called Rishilok. Bharatbhoomi complex is the new one which has come up within last six years or so. It is a multi-storied cement–brick structure, good air-cooled, a/c or non-a/c rooms. The front portion has a lawn where one can relax in the evenings. However, Rishilok, located at Muni-ki-Reti is ideal retreat, for nature lovers. The sprawling complex is very old but is full of trees, beautiful gardens and landscaped lawns. All the guest rooms are part of two storied structures, has balcony in deluxe rooms, with air coolers (Rs. 1000/- per day). In summer, the first floor rooms, below the terrace, certainly gets heated and air coolers take away some of the heat. In this respect, there is a better option. The economy rooms costing Rs.600/- per day, located on ground floor, with air coolers, is certainly value for money. In day time, rooms have a comfortable temperature, in night, you may require to wrap yourself in blanket, with air coolers on! On the flip side you have to do with Indian style toilets.
Rishilok, Rishikesh

If you are a foodie and did not find worthwhile restaurant with good food combined with great ambience in Hardwar, Rishikesh will not disappoint you. If you are holed up at GMVNL, Muni-ki-reti, and care to walk about 20 minutes, you will reach Ramjhoola. If you are crossing Ganges in the evening, via Ramjhoola, reaching the opposite bank, you can not miss two funny looking models!
Model at Chotiwala

They have been positioned there, grease–paint and choti et al, to entice the customers, to enter the Chotiwala restaurants. There are two Chotiwala’s, the real one and the other, a look –alike. We found the second one with a healthy looking model, ‘gol-matol’, to our fancy and take a chance. The ambience is just superb and can vie with famed restaurants of Delhi or Mumbai. There are several halls; we enter the air conditioned one. The cuisine is basically North Indian and South Indian. ‘Thali’ dinner is classified into North Indain, South Indian, Gujrati and Bengali. I could not resist trying a Bengali ‘thali’ which included ‘gawa ghee’ and ‘rosogolla’ and savored the meal. We found the damages not so high, considering the ambiance of the restaurant and quality of food!
Rishikesh abounds in Temples and Ashrams, but you can not miss Laxman Jhoola. Walking over the suspended bridge erected in the year 1939, you will observe so many motorboats and rafts criss crossing over river Ganges.  There is a ghat where you can buy ticket and have one of those pleasant journeys in motor boats, over Ganges. Reaching the other side of the Ganges, in a serene calm environs, will be soothing for every soul. The multi-storied temple, Parmarth Niketan, Swargashram and Geeta Bhavan will keep you busy. There are many bunglows, located in green natural environs, air temperature in summer will be a few degrees lower here and you will wish to stay put there, if you had the choice. There are too many stalls selling Rudraksha, gem stones, curios, gift items along Laxmanjhoola road. The walk could be a long and tiring one if one is not used to it. As the dusk sets in, do not be surprised, if you hear a group of rustic villagers singing bhajan, accompanied by dhol, khol and kartal, in a compound. After satisfying their souls and others around them, they have a proper arrangement for having a simple bhojan. After all, in Indain psyche, Bhajan and Bhojan go together!
There is a regular jeep shuttle service in Laxman jhoola road, from Laxman jhoola end to Ram Jhoola end, but then you miss out on the finer elements in this holy town of ‘Rishikesh-on-other-bank’.   

Evening time is ideal to visit Triveni Ghat for Ganga aarti. If you have missed the spectacle at Hardwar, this will certainly impress you. Just doing nothing, and seating on rocks in shallow stretch of Ganges, will give you a calmness which you desperately needed in your daily grind in you home town.

Rishikesh is a place to arrange for your onward transport to Garhwal–Himalayan destinations. Whether you are heading for Kedar–Badri, Gangotri–Yamunotri, Hemkund Sahib or innumerable other destinations, the hotel/guest house receptionists are adept in finding you a transport organizer. If you want to take Uttarakhand Roadway’s rickety buses, head for the bus stand, and you will get the relevant info. There are private buses too for discerning travelers. I have no experience of either. As we were mostly in groups of four, took an Ambassador taxi at a pre-determined total cost, including driver. The advantage of ambassador is the copious space for luggage. The Ambassadors getting extinct, Tata Indica and Maruti Alto, suitable for a group of four will cost around Rs.2,000/- per day. Larger groups can avail of bigger car like Sumo and Qualis, which will cost  Rs. 2,800/- per day.

* Author shot video clips standing on Laxman Jhoola over the Ganges, recording the activity like speed boating and views of temples in the vicinity of river bank which can be accessed through the captioned link: Rishikesh - View From Laxmanjhoola

Monday, 5 March 2012

Shopping at Leh

Indian tourists visiting any destination in India or abroad, will more often than not return with at least a few bulging shopping  bags.  One is not surprised to see them buying some ‘Made in India’ tee-shirts from supermarkets in USA or UK.  So, buying Tee-shirts at Leh town which has actually been stitched in some small scale unit in Gujarat is no great deal! But, what makes one buy a few of them is, every such shop has a tailor who stitches a plethora of designs, in front or back of tee-shirt. The designs which are popular are, map of Leh – Ladakh with indication of high altitude destinations; or it could be the good luck charm geometric pattern; or any design you may fancy.  On average each tee-shirt costs Rs. 200/-. If one is lucky three of them may cost mere Rs. 500/-.
Leh being situated at an altitude of 11,500/-, it is cold round the year, except the late summer months of July/August/September.  Hence it is no surprise that, there are many shops selling clothing to combat different degrees of cold climate. The stuff is mostly imported from China, Korea and other Asian counties. A jacket capable of combating 5 to 10 degrees Celsius with thick woolen linings may sell for Rs. 1200/- to Rs 1800/-, depending on quality and county of origin. A pair of gloves for combating -22 degree Celsius will set you back by Rs. 150/-. But the quality is suspect.  Most of the shops selling woolen clothing do not offer bargain; hence it is better to scour a few more shops before selecting; Leh is such a small place, if one is willing to walk for two hours, he may have seen it all. 

Food items like honey, dry fruits etc. can be purchased at Dzomsa a chain of shops; three of them scattered at different locations in Leh. Following photo shows the inside of Dzomsa on Fort Road displaying food items and books. 
Dzomsa Shop
More adventurous ones can buy dry fruits like Akhrots, apricot seeds, raisins, spread and sold on road side, somewhere between main market and Jama Masjid. 

A typical ‘gifts and presents’  shop in Leh, is well stocked with Thangkas ( painted scrolls, which can be used as wall hangings ), the miniature black and white Yaks, for decorating a table, replicas of Tibetan prayer wheels, Buddhist paintings and many other items.
Curio Shop
Plethora of Thangkas or painted scrolls dispalayed, are in great demand.

Buddhist prayer wheels where prayers are inscribed could be pricey but a nice souvenir to take home.
Prayer Wheels
Near Jama Masjid one finds a books and CD shop, where, books on Tibetan and Ladakhi literature, one can thumb through. The music CD’s have some lilting tunes created on meditation and the beautiful mountain high altitude scenario. 

Turquoise coloured Ladakhi gem stone is very popular item for those who want to buy some jewellery. Pendants, necklace, ear-rings made up of gem stones, encased in silver, is very popular. Jama Masjid area by-lanes have many shops to attract this class of clientele. Jewellery being priced on higher side of the budget, it is better to be accompanied by a local Ladakhi guide, whom you may have engaged for your travel safaris. If loaded with good tips, they will more often than not see that you get a good bargain; unless you are an expert in this stuff and want to venture on your own. We found our driver for jeep safaris, making every effort to get us a good bargain in all our shopping expeditions.  
Ladakhi stone jewelry
Apart from Leh town, Thiksey museum offers a lot of Ladakhi artifacts, CD’s with lilting tunes befitting the Trans-Himalayan mystic.  

As in Indian psyche Bhajan and Bhojan go together, so is shopping and hogging! We somehow, most of the time ended up at Lamayuru Restaurant for our vegetarian food ( eggs included ) and for Non-Veg food just crossed the street to Best food restaurant.  Service at Best Food restaurant is not at its best, you may have to hold on to your hunger pangs for 45 minutes or more. But if you have the endurance, it will be worth it. The best food I tasted at this restaurant was Rice – Chicken sizzler; not too pricey at Rs. 150.

Following video clips created by author is as per the captioned link:

Curio Shopping at Leh - Ladakh 

Dzomsa for Shopping at Leh - Ladakh