HIGHWAY TO THE HIMALAYAS: ROAD TRIP TO LADAKH (Pt II)- On one of world’s most beautiful places and dangerous roads.

The roads to Ladakh cutting through the Himalayan mountain ranges are some of the most treacherous, especially the mountain passes like Zoji La (Zoji pass) notorious for being one of the riskiest mountain passes in the world. Although at an altitude of 3528 meters above sea level (11,578 feet), the Zoji pass is much lesser in altitude compared to other mountain passes we had to cross in Ladakh subnsequently, the khardung La for one is above 18,000 feet, the Zoji pass hold the distinction for being the most treacherous and is being billed as one of the riskiest mountain routes in the world. Well I got to find out for myself why.

June 9, 2015, we left Srinagar after breakfast embarking on the National Highway 1 D which is more popularly known as the Srinagar- Leh highway. Coming from Delhi, this is a slightly more circuitous route than the Manali -Leh highway but I had chosen this route over the latter for the simple reason that the gradual ascent offered more time for aclimatisation to the higher altitude. Moreover the former is also famous for the magnificent vistas it offered of the beautiful Kashmir valley. True to the word, we passed through some of the most beautiful and picturesque locations offering magnificent views of snow capped mountain peaks amid lush greenery and foliage. Sonamarg which translates as “The meadows of gold” perhaps getting its name from the gently sloping meadows turning golden when the grass ripens, sits pretty on the slopes of the Himalayas, merely 85 kms away from Srinagar. Being a tourist hotspot, the place was crowded which was quite a put-off and we stopped only long enough for a quick photo shoot. From then on we clambered up the slopes of the Himalayas heading for the formidable ZOJI LA !

The Kashmir basin
The Kashmir basin
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Sonamarg “The meadows of gold”

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Leaving Sonamarg, the landscape began to change considerably. The green turned to grey, the two lane metalled road soon transformed into a single lane gravel and dirt road filled with slush and mud at intervals.The high point of this route is that the mountain trail is an engineering marvel of the olden days which was carved onto the steep mountain walls of the the formidable Zoji pass following the Indo-Pak conflict of 1947 to connect the isolated Ladakh to Kashmir. In the days of yore, Ladakh was an important post  falling in the famous ancient Silk route providing passage from Central Asia through the Karakoram pass and down the Shyok river and then to Tibet via Demchok (on the Indo-China border). Following independence, these routes were sealed and Ladhak was choked off from the rest of the world. As an urgent measure a route was forged through the Zoji pass to join the Kashmir basin with that of the Drass basin on the either side of Zoji La effecting a road link between Srinagar and Leh. The pass became the gateway to magnificent Ladakh. Subsequently Ladakh was connected to Himachal Pradesh on the south eastern side through the Leh-Manali highway which is also of no less repute as it also passes through a number of formidable passes. Turning back to the mortifying route on notorious Zoji pass, we were now abreast with our first petrifying challenge of the trip. The hairs on the back of our necks were by now quite stiff and erect, a tingling sensation of fear slowly creeping up the spine. I told myself quitely “Fear is good, fear keeps you alert”. My co-passengers who were snoring until some moments ago were now quite awake but rather quite. I guess nobody wanted to speak much and left me much to myself to focus on my driving and the perrilous road ahead. Intermittently a word of caution would come from the back if I ventured too near the edge. Here there are no barriers to keep you from slipping off the edge into the 90 degree fall into abyss. The edge itself is crumbling at various places leaving you prone to being swept down the slope if one went too close to the edge. The high altitude, inclement weather and snow have played havoc on the route; landlides, rock falls, mud and slush being a permanent feature of the road. The BRO is being constantly engaged in keeping the road motorable and passable which opens up for traffic in the latter part of spring and closes off before the onset of winter when it is completely shut off by heavy snowfall. However commendable the efforts of the BRO, it did very little in terms of safety and convenience. The road is still what may have been in the ancient Silk route days ! We slowly inched up the 9 kilometers long crumbling dirt trail, negotiating through the hairpin bends and narrow ledge of a road; sometimes perched precariously to let an oncoming vehicle pass by and sometimes not able to move ahead at all because there just isn’t any space left to let anything by. But negotiate we did and managed to finally emerge on the other side that is the Drass basin with a big sigh of relief and an experience to cherish a lifetime.

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HIGHWAY TO HIMALAYAS : ROAD TRIP TO LADAKH – The stop at Srinagar

Ladakh is one of the remotest and least populated region of Jammu and Kashmir (India), ensconced deep in the high mountain ranges of the Himalayas. A dream that have held my fascination for a very very long time. So come summer, I was finally decided upon taking a self driven road trip to this secluded and rather desolate realm in the Himalayas. Despite various odds and difficulties, I along with three of my childhood friends, finally embarked on the trip from Delhi on 7th of June 2015 with much gusto, anticipation and fair share of trepidation. Yes, trepidation because a self driven road trip to Ladakh is considered one of the most difficult and riskiest road journeys one can hope to come across, taking you through some of the most dangerous routes in the world and a very inhospitable and arduous terrain of the Himalayas. To top it up I intended to drive the whole stretch (we cloaked a total of more than 4000 kms) alone ! But what is an adventure without a little risk. So off we went.

The first stretch was a rather easy yet strenuous drive of nearly 900 kms from Delhi to Srinagar. We had been delayed by one day and had to make it up by skipping the planned halt at Pathankot. We started off from Delhi in the evening around 1700 hrs, drove the whole night and the whole of the next day with pit stops at Chandigarh, Pathankot and Panitop. We finally hit Srinagar as the sun went down. We headed straight for the pre-booked Houseboat at Nagin Lake, which is an extension of the famous Dal Lake but slightly more exclusive and less crowded. Here is a glimpse of the beautiful Dal Lake.

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Nagin Lake, Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir (India)
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Dal Lake, Srinagar, Jammu and Kasmir (India)

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At the break of dawn the following day, we set off on a  Shikara (boat) ride from Nagin Lake to Dal Lake and back, chancing upon glimpses of a number of migratory birds that make Dal lake their temporary home. Besides the birds, the lake is also home to local population and even has a floating market where people venture in small canoes to make their daily purchases. We even stopped the boat by a coffee shop to have a nice steaming cuppa to top up the experience 🙂 Dal Lake 6Dal Lake 7 Dal Lake 8 Dal Lake 9 Dal Lake 10 Dal Lake 11 Dal Lake 12 Dal Lake 13 Dal Lake 14 Dal Lake 16 Dal Lake 17 Dal Lake15Dal Lake 19    Amidst the birds, tourists thronging the lake and local populace going about their lives, we also came across an old man whiling away the morning, enjoying a hookah in the middle of the lake !

Stand by me (II)

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Through the stormy night
and the morning light,
stand by me.
In waters deep
or in sunshine sweet,
stand by me.
You are all I seek,
all that I’ll ever need,
Darling stand by me.
Every storm is a breeze
and sunshine ever so sweet,
Just so long as you stand by me.

                                          -Mo Irom

Keibul Lamjao

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What you see here are pictures of seemingly normal and regular landscapes that has hardly anything of interest other than being a picturesque scenery. But appearances can be deceptive. These are pictures of a very unique and fascinating wildlife sanctuary in Manipur (India) called the ‘Keibul Lamjao National Park‘ which is the only one of its kind in the whole world, the distinction being that it is actually a floating sanctuary !!! The grassland you see above is actually a massive bio-mass of various vegetation, soil and organic materials in various stages of decomposition and so thickly intertwined that it is almost like a landmass but actually floating on water!  Secondly, it is also home to the very rare and endangered species of deer called the ‘Cervus eldi eldi’ or the ‘Brow-antlered-deer‘ that is endemic to this floating island and found nowhere else in the world.

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   The Keibul Lamjao National Park covers an area of approximately 40 square kilometres of which roughly 26 sq kms comprise the floating habitat of the magnificent Sangai (local name for the ‘Brow antlered deer’). The waterbody on which it floats is the largest freshwater lake in the whole of Northeast India. Known as ‘Loktak Lake‘, it hold special significance for the people of the region and is listed among BBC’s 14 most amazing bodies of water on our planet. Seen spread across the lake are smaller phumdis and on slightly bigger ones, one would come across hutments of fishermen that populates them. The phumdis are also used for fish farming by the local populace.

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The only means of commuting in this massive waterbody amid the floating phumdis are the slender fisherman canoes that slices through in the narrow pathways between the phumdis . Perched on it precariously, we set off to find the very shy and elusive ‘Sangai’. Scientifically named the ‘Cervus eldi eldi’ after the British Officer Lt. Percy Eld who reportedly discovered it in 1844, this very rare species of deer was almost driven to extinction due to rampant poaching and neglect. Until a few years ago their number had dwindled to an alarming two digit figures numbering around 80 only but recent conservation efforts and growing awareness have brought the figures up again to three digit figures of 208 according to the last census in 2013. Even then occasional poaching incidents still continue to haunt these fine animals and checking it is a herculean task for the highly understaffed forest officials. At the time of the visit in March 2015, there was only 1 Ranger and 5 forest officials on regular employment who were aided by 27 other casual employees. These understaffed and unarmed forest guards often have to go up against heavy odds and even fight against armed poachers. Undoubtedly it is their love and regard for the magnificent animal that has been the diving force behind their dedication to the protection of the almost extinct animal. It is of utmost importance that measures are taken up to spread awareness and safeguard the conservation of this rare species that is found nowhere else in the world.

Coming back to our expedition,we were able to spot around 8 of the elusive animal which is a very good figure but unfortunately they were too far away for a clear shot (obviously camera 🙂 ). We were told that a large number had gathered at their playing ground near Pabot ching (a hillock in the middle of the sanctuary) early in the morning but by the time we reached there they had all retreated to the tall grasses that shelters them. A very far away shot zoomed in optimally could only get me a very hazy picture below. Even then it was exhilarating to see  the fabled ‘Sangai’ in person, knowing the fact that it actually is in existence still. Of course there will be another day for our rendezvous and I shall be ready.

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Observation tower at Pabot Ching

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Romancing Nainital

Khurpatal Lake, a few kilometers from Nainital.
Khurpatal Lake, a few kilometers from Nainital.
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Nainital Lake
The hill town of Nainital
The hill town of Nainital

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 A view of Nainital at night
A view of Nainital at night

Lodged at the foothills of the Himalayas in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand (India), Nainital is a treat to the eyes as it is aptly named (‘Naini’ stands for eye and ‘tal’ for lake). Said to have developed in the mid-nineteenth century after the British took over the Kumaon hills following the Anglo-Nepalese war (1814-1816), it became a favoured escape for the British colonial officers and later became the summer residence for the Governor of the United province. Initially a preserve of the British, it soon developed into a full township half a decade latter and now it is bursting at its seams.

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The lake of tears

The ‘Barapani’ which translates as ‘the big water’ is a huge expanse of water (lake) cached among the ranges of the scenic Khasi Hills, in a place called Umiam in Ri Bhoi district just before entering the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, one of the scenic states in Northeast India.  It is situated along the NH 40, in the Guwahati-Shillong highway, just about 20 km before reaching Shillong, the capital town of the state. Spread across a catchment area of 221.5 sq. kms, the lake is formed by the Umiam river. The lake came to be commonly called the ‘Barapani’ because of its huge expanse. It is a major tourist attraction in Meghalaya.

There is an interesting folk lore that is associated with the Umiam river that feeds the lake. In Khasi, the language of one of the indigenous tribes of Meghalaya, ‘Umiam’ translates into ‘water of the eyes’ meaning tears. The river gets its name as ‘the river of tears’ from a fable that is popular among the local people. The story goes that two sisters from heaven who were inseparable descended to earth one day. One of the sisters landed in the land of clouds, Meghalaya, but the other got lost on the way and never made it to earth. Heartbroken and stricken with grief on having lost her sister, the lone sibling cried and cried until her tears ran as a river. The river thus came to be known as ‘Umiam’ – the river of tears.

And here is my take on the lake of tears.

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Krishnaraja Sagar Dam and the beautiful Brindavan Gardens

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Just 24 Kms from the city of Mysore in the district of Mandya in the state of Karnataka lies the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam (or KRS in short), one of India’s first irrigation dams built way back in 1924 before India even got its independence. The dam was financed by the then Maharaja of Mysore Sri Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV after whom the dam has been named. Built over river Kaveri (Cauvery), the dam was the source of water for drinking and irrigation in the fertile valley of the Kingdom of Mysore. It is still the main source of water supply for the cities of Mysore, Mandya and even Bangalore.

Built by one of India’s finest engineers Sir Mokshagundam Vishveswariah, who is known as the architect of modern Mysore and the father of planning in India, the dam is a marvel of engineering built entirely on a mixture of limestone and brick powder without the use of cement which was a very rare commodity at that time. Interestingly, it was also one of the first dams in the world to have automatic sluice gates.

The best part of the dam is its beautifully laid out terrace gardens spread over 60 acres behind the dam with running waterways and a number of fountains which are beautifully illuminated at night. The Brindavan Gardens, the credit for which goes to Sir Mirza Ismail, the then Dewan of the princely State of Mysore, who designed and created the garden in 1927. Mentored by the ingenious Vishveswariah himself, Sir Mirza Ismail, who was also a friend and classmate of the King, was a very proficient administrator who helped shaped Modern Mysore.The establishment of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited being one of his many achievements which is too long to be listed here. It was during the turbulent pre-independence period that this trio took Mysore to its heights which is aptly called the ‘Golden period of Mysore’. Thanks to these visionary geniuses that we get to enjoy the fruits even today.

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Sunset at Palolem

In the opening scene of ‘Bourne Supremacy‘, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) wakes up from his nightmare in a hideout in Goa (India). Then comes the jogging scene where he runs (or rather races) along the the waters edge in the beach where gentle waves of the beautiful blue sea laps the shore….that breathtaking beach is Palolem.

Palolem Beach is nicknamed the ‘Paradise beach’ and rightfully to its name it is one of the most beautiful beaches of Goa, located way down south in the Canacona municipal council of South Goa district. Stretching about 2 Kms in a crescent shape, lined with coconut trees and shielded by a small island “KanKon” slightly north-west of the beach, which actually protects it from the huge ocean waves, the beach is graced with shallow waters and gentle waves. A paradise indeed. Then there is the sunset to knock your breath out. Here is a glimpse.

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Watching the sun go down in Goa

The legend of Goa is unparalleled in India, the mind conjuring up images of enchantment and revelry at the very mention of the endearing name. That was how it was with me. And yes, it does live up to its name I would say. The breathtaking beaches, beautiful landscapes and distinctive heritage lends Goa a charm that attracts millions of tourists every year from across India and abroad.

Goa is India’s smallest state, a coastal paradise wedge between Maharashtra in the north and Karnataka in the south and east. Strategically located in the Konkan belt along the western sea-coast facing the Arabian sea, its has historically been a major trade port which had come under the rule and control of numerous Indian feudatories and dynasties including the famed Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty in the 3rd century BC to the Delhi sultanate in 14th century BC before it passed into the hands of the Portuguese merchants in early 16th century and being ruled as a Portuguese province for over four centuries and half, thus lending Goa a charming blend of Portuguese and Indian lifestyles and cultures. The architecture of its churches and heritage buildings bear the unmistakable Portuguese style giving it a unique charm.

Goa is a heady mixture of the hill ranges of the fabulous Western Ghats that raises from the coasts, much like an embankment to a water body, and the coastal plains which is interspersed by fabulous beaches at intervals all along the stretch from north to south. Being on the western coast facing the Arabian sea, the beaches of Goa would invariably see the sun rising from the palm topped land ridges that runs along the coast, traversing across the sky in a big loop to finally dip into the sea, casting a beautiful golden hue to the choppy waters and the shore just before it is immersed in the darkness of the night. Here are some visages I managed to capture while watching the sun rise and go down in Goa.

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