Friday, 28 January 2011


The pleasant ride to Kargil saw varying temperatures; it was hot as we started and cold when we fell upon some snow en route. Barbed wires, a few snow-capped mountains in the distance and grazing animals dotted the landscape. About an hour later, we found ourselves surrounded by a few patches of snow, settled on the otherwise barren stretch of mountains. We took a brief break to capture our first snow sighting on camera; and of course, snow fights inevitably began.

Passing by the Zozila War Memorial (about 9km from Sonamarg) a short while later reiterated the grave historic prominence of Kargil in India’s history. Sometimes we are so blissful under our veil of ignorance, we don’t value the sacrifices that make our existence possible. A few hours later, we made another stopover, this time at Dropati Kund (legend has it that this Draupadi, of the Mahabharata, had her last bath here before she died in the Himalayas). Sitting by the waterfront, we enjoyed the crisp mountain air amid light conversation. Continuing our journey, we plodded on our rather solitary route with the sole company of military trucks and guzzling river water lending much-needed cool breeze.

As lunch time approached, we’d reached Drass. Claiming to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world, we found the immense heat rather ironic. We chose a quaint little joint for our meal that promised us home-like food. We had yummy, finger-licking rajma and chawal together with aloo mattar and roti; it truly was like eating at home. Moving ahead, we stopped to visit the Drass War Memorial, built in memory of all the soldiers that lost their lives during Operation Vijay. We paid our respects and said a little prayer for those young men. We also met a few soldiers by the gate; it was nice to see them in a cheery mood, laughing and happily posing for pictures with us.

A few hours later, as we reached Kargil we spotted a catchment area with bunkers and what seemed like training equipment. For a place that is so deeply disturbed by the remnants of war, Kargil seemed to don a calm and composed veil for tonight. We were put up at the Caravan Serai Hotel; a nice, simple place with clean, adequately spacious rooms and running hot water. As we began to retire for the night, we met someone who told us some intriguing stories about our location. He’d personally witnessed a bomb shelling a few kilometres ahead of our hotel. He narrated how he had to hide under his car to prevent himself from being hurt by the constant bomb shelling that continued all night. He was only able to come out in the morning—once the shelling had stopped—when a soldier helped him out.

Every time I tell people I’ve visited Kargil, they react with an expression or fear and immediate concern. But Kargil is much more than just a war zone; it is a place that houses people with unfathomable courage and undying spirit.

The route taken was: Mumbai-Delhi-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh-Sarchu-Manali-Delhi-Mumbai
(click on the names below to go to the blog post on that destination):  

1) Srinagar
2) Leh
3) Sarchu

4) Manali

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

LADAKH JULY 2010 - First stop: SRINAGAR

Five days before we set out for this trip, there was a curfew levied on Srinagar, which had been lifted just two days ago. Owing to that, there was strong military presence in the city. Military trucks, soldiers with guns and barbed wires formed our first images in this valley of flowers. The roads were relatively empty until we reached the waterfront, where we stuck in the traffic for over two hours as temperatures soared to an unbearably high degree.

Finally, we hopped onto a shikara and headed to our houseboat. It was spectacular! I’d seen images of shikaras on Dal Lake in dozens of old Hindi films and TV series, but to actually be there was quite unimaginable.

Rowing away, our hotshot oarsman—who by the way was wearing swanky sunglasses—represented the modernisation that has swept this city in the past decade. It dissolved our images of the caricature of ‘the sweet old man who would slowly row towards his destination whilst chatting with his customers, sharing old stories and anecdotes about his simple, content life’. He did however tell us that Dal Lake is spread over 23 square km and has over 5000 houseboats. Another feature of this lake is the Hydrilla plant that grows underwater. It has a high content of oxygen and is used as a fertiliser, we were told.

Our oarsman

My room in the houseboat was cute and cosy with a double bed, wooden furniture and a bath tub in the bathroom, which also had hot water. The cost, as per the guide, was Rs. 800.

 Here are a few interesting things about Dal Lake:
1)    The lake has a floating market. Not only are there shops every few metres in the market, people sell wares sitting in shikaras as well. They row right up to you and showcase their wares. Bargaining is an obvious part of the transaction. The variety of products range from jewellery and metal/wooden/papier-mâché boxes to clicking pictures in traditional local garb; all this while you’re sitting in your shikara.

2)    Aside from shops, you’ll also find restaurants, and stalls selling tea and eatables like magi and ice-cream in the midst of the lake.

3)    I did find a place offering water-skiing, but I’m unsure of the level of safety precautions they follow. Try at your own risk.

4)     I visited a little papier-mâché factory at the lake that sells the most beautiful papier-mâché products. You can choose from boxes, bangles, necklaces, wall-hangings, wind-chimes, bells and other home decor items. All handmade and hand-painted. The prices too are reasonable. Necklaces cost approx. Rs. 200 and bangles start from Rs. 50 a piece.

5)    I also visited a store for readymade garments and fabrics adorned with local embroidery designs. You can pick up traditional salwar kameez, jackets, bags and more.

6)    Our last stop before retiring for dinner was Best View Resort. With plush interiors with chandeliers and exquisite glassware covering the living room, and cushy rooms with elegant English bedcovers and fancy curtains and carpets, it truly is one of the more opulent accommodation options available. A 3-bedroom costs about Rs. 5,500. The resort also houses a mini flower garden and swings for people who enjoy the outdoors.

A quiet dinner back at our houseboat ended our day-long tryst with Srinagar. As morning came, we headed for the road to Kargil after gazing upon a crimson sunrise while sipping on local Kahwa (tea).

The route taken was: Mumbai-Delhi-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh-Sarchu-Manali-Delhi-Mumbai
(click on the names below to go to the blog post on that destination):

1) Kargil
2) Leh
3) Sarchu

4) Manali

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Ladakh – JULY 2010

There couldn't have been a better way to announce the registration of Travel Stories of India's brand new domain, Traveller Stories, than to write a post about Ladakh. A few months ago, I'd posted a short piece on Leh, but here I'm going to detail out the road trip I took in July last year. The route was: Mumbai-Delhi-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh-Sarchu-Manali-Delhi-Mumbai.
So enjoy this post and wait for many more to come :) here's to many more travel stories.

Three months and I’m back again with my backpack, all set to finally go to Ladakh; a place that has fascinated me ever since my first steps into the world of travel. It is 6:30 a.m. and I’m whizzing past an empty Worli-Bandra Sea Link to catch the flight to Delhi. The crisp, cold morning air feels refreshing. It leads me to my usual digressions. Although I’m a night person, I love how it feels to be up so early in the morning. I wish I were a morning person; I’d enjoy morning walks. Coming back, I reached the airport well in time. All formalities done, I head to the bus that leads to my plane. Turns out, it doesn’t. The on-ground crew sent me in the wrong bus. So I wait to be chauffeured to my flight that is literally 10 steps away, but I’m not permitted to walk the distance. Anyway, I’m all buckled up and waiting for take-off when my thoughts scatter around again as they’d been doing ever since I decided to take the trip. You see, I was going via a tour group. “So?” You ask. Well, for one, I’m not particularly enthused by the idea of a group tour as it has a restrictive itinerary. However, since my friends were too busy and this was the only week I could take off, I chose the second best option because I HAD to go to Ladakh this year, anyhow. Another hitch (or blessing in disguise, I couldn’t be sure just yet) was that I had no idea who I was going with. I knew no one from the group. I was well aware that it could go either way for me: I could end up cursing myself for taking this trip with strangers, or it could be the best decision I ever made. So lets add on some drama here. Read on to find out which way it went

Worli-Bandra Sea Link at night

For easy navigation and a lighter read, I’ve divided my 10-day trip into four separate posts as per the places I visited, in this order (click on the names below to go to the blog post on that destination):
1) Srinagar
2) Kargil
3) Leh
4) Sarchu

5) Manali
The route is as follows: Mumbai-Delhi-Srinagar-Kargil-Leh-Sarchu-Manali-Delhi-Mumbai.

Kingdom of clouds
If it wasn’t obvious until now, you should know that I am completely and madly fascinated by clouds. And the kind of magical overdose I had on my flight to Delhi was something I’ve never experienced before. Never before had I seen clouds form such mind-boggling, vivid landscapes. In my head, they formed a mini castle, with little towers and arches. As a soft pink haze enveloped them for a few seconds, I remembered all those images I thought were photo-shopped and realised that they were real, oh so real. The announcement of our arrival to Delhi snapped me out of my dream soiree.

Grabbing my bag, I headed for the departure gate and met my tour guide. A Cappuccino later, I met the tour gang. A round of introductions later, we board our flight to Srinagar.

Coming soon: Posts on the remaining destinations...

Friday, 7 January 2011

Shopping in Pushkar - A hippie paradise

What drove to me visit Pushkar for the first time was the famous Pushkar Lake and the numerous cafes that were more popular for their unusual names—such as Pink Floyd Cafe, Rainbow Cafe and Funky Monkey Cafe—than anything else. But what came as a pleasant surprise, especially to my pocket, was the incredible shopping experience. The vibrancy of the colourful state of Rajasthan is beautifully portrayed in the clothes, accessories and handicrafts available here. You can soak into the rich culture by donning the traditional garb complete with elaborate embroidery and silver jewellery, or you can go for a bohemian hippie girl look and choose from the abundance of printed kurtas, dhoti pants and a sling bag.

What to buy: Clothes, ethnic costumes, silver jewellery, groovy accessories, traditional handicrafts and souvenirs like Rajasthani puppets, pottery, embroidered fabrics and brass utensils among other homeware.

The variety in clothes is unlimited. Dhoti pants, culottes, harem pants, kaftans, kurtas, sarongs, tunics, dresses, shrugs and lots more. Fabrics range from cotton and polyester to silk and weaves, such as khadi and jute. Block-printed textiles and tie and dye patterns reminiscent of this region’s local produce are common here. Ethnic jewellery, mainly in silver and oxidised silver, lac bangles, beaded necklaces, funky bracelets and fancy footwear are very popular with tourists. Most of these items come from Barmer and other tribal regions of Rajasthan and have been worked by hand.

One of the most spectacular pieces of art to buy from here is the exquisite range of miniature paintings made by local artists. Most of them depict stories of olden days when kings and queens would rule over common folk. There are also a number of leather goods, mesmerising puppets and pottery.

Where to buy: The major shopping areas in Pushkar are Sarafa Bazar, Baza Bazar and Kedalganj bazaar. All the bazaars comprise narrow streets that are often packed with little shops and stalls. Another great place to shop is close to Pink Floyd Café, Choti Basti where everything is for Rs 20 only! Clothes, purses, and a few accessories like head bands. Some of the stuff is old and some new, but if you dig in, you’re sure to find something you like. So stroll around and take your pick. And, do not forget to bargain!

Price: Rs 20 onwards

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

How to pack right and travel light


Photo: Yoshi Aka for Stock Xchng

One of the dullest parts of planning a trip is packing the luggage you’re going to carry around. But if done smartly, you can end up with lightweight bags and elevated enthusiasm to travel; in addition to saving money that airlines charge for extra baggage. Here are some quick and easy tips to make your trips smooth and light.

1) Restrict your luggage to only what you can carry. Ideally, carry one backpack/suitcase for your basics and one day pack for gadgets like your camera or laptop. The minute you need someone to help you with your luggage, you are way beyond travelling light.

2) If you’re carrying a backpack, then place the heaviest stuff at the bottom of the bag. This will ease the load off your shoulders once you lift your bag.

3) If a backpack is not your thing, then opt for a strolley as it’s easy to carry around than a hard-sided suitcase.

4) Before you begin packing, prepare a list of items you need to carry as per the destination you’re visiting (keeping in mind the weather there) and the number of days you’re going for. Then divide them into relevant categories, such as clothes, shoes, etc. and tick off one item at a time whilst packing it in. Chances are high that you may eliminate things even at the list level.

5) Minimise heavy clothing and carry layers instead. Using three T-shirts instead of one bulky jacket can help reduce the load tremendously. Likewise, using a really thick rain poncho is better than carrying a large waterproof windcheater. Except for places that have extreme snowfall, the layer principle works for every type of weather.

6) Try and carry multi-purpose items. For example, take a dupatta that also works as a sarong to wear on a beach or as a sheet to sleep on and a cover during cold journeys. If you fold it up, it can even serve as a soft pillow. Buffs protect in the cold, work as headbands at anytime and eye masks in a long flight. The ipod and Creative mp3 player, both work as backup storage devices.

7) When choosing your travel wardrobe, remember that dirt doesn't show up as easily on busy prints, dark colours and polyester fabrics, so choose these to light-coloured solids, unless you're planning to do a lot of laundry!

8) Always carry a few spare plastic bags to keep your dirty laundry in, or at rare times, wet clothes.

9) While packing, use the rolling technique. Clothes when rolled instead of folding or packing in layers takes up less space.

10) If you’re carrying formal attire, use hanger bags or even plastic bags as friction causes wrinkling and plastic reduces friction, thereby enabling the clothes to be wrinkle-free. For saris and other Indian attire, use butter paper.

11) Segregate all items into multiple compartments. This ensures that you don't empty your entire bag to remove just one pair of socks.

12) Start the trip with at least 30% space left in your backpack. Unless you unpack and repack tightly on a daily basis, chances are that your stuff will expand and take up the entire space.

13) Keep Xerox copies of important papers such as your passport and ticket in both your bags so that in case any of your bags get misplaced, you don’t lose crucial documents.

14) Always carry a medicine box with basic medicines for a common cold, fever, motion sickness, etc.

—With additional inputs by Aparna Shekhar Roy, a serial backpacker who blogs @

When I quizzed Ian Wright, popular host of travel shows such as Globe Trekker and Out of Bounds on TLC, on the one thing that he doesn’t travel without, he blurted, “My sketch book!” A surprised moment later, his witty instincts resurfaced, “…and a string because it could come in handy!”