Thursday, 28 April 2011

Three travel books that will urge you to travel

Most travel writing focuses on the beauty and goodness of destinations. But once in while you’ll find writing that look beyond the obvious; writing that has you itching to discover the ‘other’ side. Here are some such books by writers who changed the way I see travel, and will hopefully do the same for you

Falling Off The Map: Some lonely places of the world by Pico Iyer—Truth in travel
A celebrated British-born Indian novelist and writer, Pico Iyer truly loves everything that has to do with travel. Millions of people enjoy travelling, but seldom do they visit places like Cuba, Paraguay, Iceland or North Korea with the same intrigue as for London or Paris. When you read his travel accounts about these ‘lonely places’, you get the feeling that he genuinely loves the places he visits and the people he meets, and doesn't see them as part of a journalistic assignment he ‘has’ to get through. He accepts them for what they are. With impeccable research and detailed observations, his writing is simple and brutally honest; devoid of frills and flowery descriptions. His exceptional findings not only pursue your interest, but make you laugh too, such as, “There was no beer in Iceland in 1987, and no television on Thursdays,” or “The Vietnamese government decided to make 1990 the ‘Year of Tourism’, while simultaneously deciding to tear down all the hotels in order to remodel them.” What’s interesting about his accounts is that neither does it instantly incite you to visit the country, nor dismiss it completely; it raises a sense of curiosity, making you want to experience for yourself the absurdity and inherent loneliness it bears.

A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson—Humour at its best
People who know Bill Bryson are sure to question why I chose to write about A Walk In The Woods as opposed to some of his more popular works, such as Neither Here Nor There (his travels in Europe). As it turns out, this novel was my first encounter with Bryson. The book is an account of his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail (AT)—the third longest nature trail in USA—with his friend, Stephen Katz. It won’t take you long to get hooked on to his unabashed sense of humour. He is so supremely entertaining that he doesn’t even spare himself in the bargain. For example, he describes one of the many reasons he longed to walk the AT’s 2,100 miles as: "It would get me fit, after years of waddlesome sloth." His satiric wit literally makes you laugh out loud. Not only has he thoroughly researched the history and making of the AT, he records his misadventures engagingly with insight; while simultaneously making a request for the conservation of the forests and animals. He displays an easy and smooth balance of the complexities of humour with the subtleties of informative details.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac—Inspirational
Undoubtedly, one of the most inspiring novels to ever be written, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road has impacted people (and continues to do so) since the 1950s, when the book was first published. An autobiographical novel, it is based on the impromptu road trips that he took with Neal Cassidy, and his other friends across mid-century America. It recounts a bohemian odyssey that not only influenced writing in the years to come, but penetrated into the strongest realms of American thought and culture. His writing is so moving that it taps into the deepest depths of the heart that yearns to taste the air of infinite freedom, which can only be discovered by quenching the desire of not only seeing the world, but feeling it. It somewhere incites that indescribable exhilaration you feel when you set foot on unknown territory, where you’re completely clueless about the routes that lay ahead of you, the language that is spoken here or the kind of people you’ll meet on the way. This is when you realise where the book has taken you. Music legend Bob Dylan beautifully describes this novel’s impact on him, “It changed my life, like it changed everyone else's."

Monday, 18 April 2011

The great Indian north

North India offers you a perfect getaway, where you can bask in the lap of natural beauty and experience the thrill of being so close to controversial boundaries. Make the most of a North Indian tour with these three must-visit destinations.

Published in Time 'n Style magazine's March-April 2011 issue.

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir
For decades, Kashmir’s breathtaking beauty has been shrouded by the veil of terrorism and militant intrusion. However, it hasn’t kept visitors at bay. On the contrary, the number of tourists that visit Srinagar has only increased, owing to the many films that showcase its beauty, irrespective of its demons. One of the most striking images of Dal Lake is of the beautiful wooden shikaras silently wading through the calm waters. Another reason for its inimitable popularity is the unique experience of staying in a houseboat. Spread over 23 square km, Dal Lake has over 5,000 spectacular houseboats with curious names like ‘Miss America’ and ‘Holly Kiss’! Furnished with intricate wooden carvings and cosy interiors, some rooms even come with opulent bath tubs.

The famous houseboats

 Notice 'Chicago'?

The lake has a flourishing floating market that one can explore while enjoying a relaxing shikara ride. There are a variety of shops every few metres that range from groceries and hardware to readymade garments, fabrics and accessories adorned with traditional Kashmiri embroidery to jewellery and metal, wooden and papier-mâché boxes. What will appease the lazy traveller is that these wares are sold in shikaras as well; they row right up to you, to showcase their wares!

 A florist on his shikara

Rowing through the market

Aside from shops, you’ll also find restaurants, and stalls selling kahwa (a refreshing tea, flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron), and eatables in the midst of the lake. There is a little papier-mâché factory towards the interior of the lake that sells an incredible papier-mâché products. You can choose from boxes in different sizes, bangles, necklaces, wall-hangings, wind-chimes, bells and other home decor items. They are all handmade and hand-painted.

Best View Resort: Plush interiors replete with chandeliers and exquisite glassware covering the living room, and comfortable rooms with elegant English bedcovers and fancy curtains and carpets, the Best View Resort is one of the more opulent accommodation options available here. The resort also houses a mini flower garden and swings for people who enjoy the outdoors. For more, visit

People who have visited Ladakh always say that every traveller worth their salt must visit Ladakh. You wonder what the big deal is. However, once you have seen it for yourself, no ounce of scepticism will remain and you will be stating the same. Diverse landscapes, snow-drenched mountain views and curvaceous roads make for an ideal road trip. Flying isn’t a bad option either, as it passes through some mighty mountains, offering you an unparalleled view. Most visitors stay at Leh, treating it as the prime base from where they can head out to explore nearby places such as Khardung La, Pangong Tso and the Nubra Valley.

At a whopping 18,380 feet, Khardung La is the highest motorable road in the world. Even though the 39-km stretch up to Khardung La from Leh doesn’t offer a dream-like terrain and is often covered with loose rocks and dirt, it continues to entice travellers worldwide to conquer it. Aside from bikers, the usual suspects, you will also find cyclists from various countries who train for weeks to make this journey. A popular place for photography, Khardung La is surrounded by snow throughout the year. 

Bikers and cyclists en route to conquer the highest motorable road in the world

Another landmark in Ladakh is Pangong Tso (meaning lake in Ladakhi), a five-hour drive over the world’s third highest mountain pass, Chang La. At 17,586 feet, this region has tumultuous roads and avalanche scares. What may seem like a tiring journey is duly compensated for by the lake’s inexplicable beauty. While ducks wade their way through from one side to another, a perfect reflection of the cloudy sky amid barren mountains forms delicately on the water. Through the course of the day, the colour of the water changes to display myriad hues of blue, making it a photographer’s delight. Situated at a height of about 14,270 feet, the lake is 134 km long and extends from India to China. It’s in disputed territory, as the Line of Actual Control passes through the lake and 60 per cent of it lies in China. What’s even more interesting is that during winter, the lake freezes completely, despite having saline water.

Leh is a foodie’s haven with some intriguing restaurants and bakeries. Pumpernickel Bakery at the main bazaar in Leh town is a must-visit for its delicious apple crumble and chocolate coffee cake. This quaint bakery and cafe produces lip-smacking treats that come at a whopping size and a measly price. For some unforgettable momos, try Gesmo Restaurant; a cute little place with envious green windows, located at Fort Road. They have a useful notice board that lets you find new places as well join other groups for treks and other expeditions. Restaurants like Summer Harvest and Leh-View are also worth checking out; the former for its Tibetan /Chinese fare with cold beer and the latter for its Kashmiri curries paired with a rooftop terrace.

Momos at Gesmo Restaurant

 Mint tea at Pumpernickel Bakery

Please note: A permit is required to visit many of the places mentioned above. Ensure to check the details in Leh itself.


WelcomHeritage Shambha – La: Decked with Tibetan murals and local artefacts, this glorious resort is located in a grove of poplar trees. Neat and snugly, all 14 rooms here are centrally-heated. They organise trekking and camping activities as per your requirements. For more, visit

KANATAL, Uttarakhand

Too often in our lives, we harbour a desire to escape to a place where we’re unreachable, but we rarely find a place like that. Kanatal is one such place. Tucked away in a little corner of the glorious Himalayan range, it is a rather nondescript hill station in the state of Uttarakhand. The scarcity of signboards that lead here provide ample proof of its obscurity. Relatively untouched by the hands of commercialism, Kanatal allows you to revel in its natural grandeur without the flurry of tourists and bevy of polluting vehicles.

It is ideal to discover this verdant hill station on foot. Walks and treks are common here, as they enable you to appreciate nature’s bounty at leisure. You are sure to find plenty of apple orchards and pear trees, together with wild flowers and pine cones that are strewn all over. You can also explore the many temples situated here. Springtime sees the flowers in full bloom, whereas winter sees heavy snowfall, covering the place with a pristine white blanket. 

One of the many rewards Kanatal bestows upon the wandering traveller is the gift of silence. The laid-back feel of this idyllic destination provides a spread of calm and much-needed relaxation. Taking a walk amid rows of trees, gazing at clouds passing by for hours on end, imbibing the sounds of nature or sipping on a cup of tea, sometimes you need to rediscover the joy of the little things in life. Kanatal is certainly not an extraordinary destination; it is a simple place with an extraordinary impact.

The Terraces: This castle-like resort is one of the best in Kanatal. Its spacious rooms, luxurious service, friendly staff and spectacular mountain views offer true value for money. For more, visit

Friday, 15 April 2011

Mumbai - a dash of nostalgia

Mumbai, the city of dreams, boasts of innumerable architectural delights such as the Gateway of India. Come along with me as I take you on a pictorial journey of some of Mumbai’s most memorable landmarks.

The Gateway of India
The most well-known landmark of the city—the Gateway of India—was built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V and his wife Queen Mary. Designed by George Wittet, it was built mainly in Indo-Sarcenic architectural style with elements of 16th century Gujarati architecture. Built from yellow basalt, the Gateway has steps behind it leading to the waterfront. From here you can take ferry rides to places such as Elephanta Caves, Alibaug, et cetera.

Asiatic Library
One of the oldest libraries in Mumbai, the Asiatic Society of Mumbai was established in 1804 by Sir James Mackintosh. It houses about 25-30,000 rare collections of books with an annual membership fee that range from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 15,000. This library has a dust free, air-conditioned laboratory to store books, which was built in 1991, whose purpose is to conserve old books.

Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus
Victoria Terminus, Mumbai’s oldest railway station, was christened CST in 1996 after the Maratha warrior Shivaji. This Gothic style structure was designed by F.W. Stevens, and was named in honour of the reigning Queen Victoria on Jubilee Day, 1887. The old building has exquisite ornamentation on the façade, beautifully executed panels and friezes adorning the walls, loggias, buttresses, arches and windows.

Rajabhai Clock Tower
Modelled on the Big Ben in London, the 280-ft high Rajabai Clock Tower was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, a British architect, and funded by Premchand Roychand, a banker and philanthropist, who named it after his mother. The Tower has a spiral staircase, which it is said, was closed to visitors since it had served as a suicide point for several people. In the olden days, it used to play tunes like Rule Britannia and God Save the King among the 16 tunes that changed four times a day.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
With an indomitable presence, the Taj Mahal Hotel is not only an architectural delight, but it also serves as a symbol of resilience after enduring the 2008 terrorist attacks. Having hosted esteemed guests like Barack Obama and The Beatles, this hotel boasts of onyx columns, graceful archways and crystal chandeliers and bears Moorish, Oriental and Florentine architectural influences.

Monday, 4 April 2011

LADAKH JULY 2010 - Stop 5: Manali

En route to Manali, we passed by a fog-filled Rohtang Pass. Even amid the dense fog, we were surprised to see people willing to go paragliding down almost invisible trees! Their enthusiasm sure woke us up. We reached Manali at about 5pm. After dumping our luggage at the The Beas Hotel, where we got a room that overlooked the gushing Beas River, we set out to explore some eateries. We settled on Johnson’s Cafe and were pleased to find ourselves at an al-fresco restaurant replete with a cute little garden, patio, stained glass lamps, simple wooden beams and wooden furniture. Our night ended on with some lip-smacking trout, red wine and conversations with fellow travellers.

Zing Zing Bar anybody?

The foggy Rohtang Pass.

People gearing up to go paragliding en route to Manali.

The town of Bhang!

The next day was filled with sheer adventure as we headed on to the Solang Valley to engage in paragliding, zorbing and more such adventurous activities. We started with a quiet cable car ride. The fact that it was designed by a Swiss company exuded a sense of safety. The ride amid misty fog enveloping the lush green trees—and a light drizzle sent it good measure—was slow and steady enabling us to enjoy the scenic surroundings at a leisurely pace. Paragliding was the one thing that all of us in the group wanted to experience. Even though it would be the second time for me and another girl, we were still up for it with the same enthusiasm. There were two different points (with different heights) for the same. We second timers took the shorter trip, while the rest went up higher for the sheer thrill. All went well for the first four gliders, but by the time the fifth glider was up, the fog had covered a large section of the trees, thereby disabling an accurate start. After two failed attempts, he unfortunately had to give it up.

I on the other hand was petrified once geared up as the ground beneath me was soaked in the drizzle and hence was too slippery for take-off. Well, I’m glad I did it anyway! The adrenalin rush of being airborne is unmatched by any other adventure sport I’ve tried so far. Once you’re flying, you never want to land! There were locals who were clicking every paraglider and later selling them the images and videos of the same for Rs. 150-200. I too bought mine; it is worth the spend. My buddies tried zorbing as well. I sadly backed out due to a blocked nose that was making me feel stuffy owing to the drastic change in altitudes and temperatures on the trip. But, there’s always next time...

Me, paragliding!

My buddies Hufreesh and Deepti after their zorbing ride.

Our glorious trip ended on a ‘high’ note as we headed to Delhi by bus, watching Rajneeti on the little TV screen and translating the same in English for our South Indian mates.

What this trip did to me, I will never be able to explain. But it changed me... in so many wonderful ways :)

For more pictures, click here

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) Kargil
3) Leh
4) Sarchu