The trip to this sanctuary was added to an assignment in the tea gardens in Assam that began on a Sunday. So I decided to fly into Dibrugarh a day earlier and visit the Dibru Shaikowa national park, renowned for its rich bird life. My friend Nisha decided to join me and later extended her stay to visit Kaziranga. We took the flight together from Delhi to Dibrugarh and landed there at 9:30 in the morning.
It was at the end of March which is usually the best time to visit this region. But when we landed at Dibrugarh airport, the sky was overcast. We were met at the airport by Sanjeeb, our guide. He took us straight away to the camp on Majuri Beel, a lake adjoining the park. The camp was very basic but its location was amazing – at the very edge of the lake so we could greet the fishermen rowing in their tiny canoes. It had rained heavily the night before and the waters of the Brahmaputra had moved swiftly into the lake, swelling its level. This made it dangerous for us to go into the park. So, we decided to go for a long drive instead. See https://wordpress.com/post/ocdfortravel.com/981
Early next morning we headed off to the park. It was completely overcast but thankfully there wasn’t any rain. We took a jeep and went to one of the banks of the park where a small canoe was waiting to take us to the grassy islands that dot the park.
You have to know that the Dibru Shaikowa national park is a highly unusual park. It is a swamp forest, on exposed patches of land, completely surrounded by the Brahmaputra and Lohit rivers in the north and the Dibru river in the south. Each of these rivers is massive with many streams. So, picture tiny bits of grasslands encircled by countless fingers of water and you will see Dibru Shaikowa. Add to this a dense cloud-laden sky and you will have a vision of us on that day, with water above, below, and around us.
As we sat in the tiny canoe, I wasn’t sure if the sky was seeping into the water or if the water was dissolving into the sky. In that brief moment, I thought I was suspended in space. I struggled to come out of my trance as we approached the island. In the grasslands, we walked in a single line, trampling dense undergrowth, listening to bird sounds. A weak sun came up, giving us hope to see the parrotbills. But soon, the clouds moved in and the sun gave up completely. We had to return. We raced back to the canoe but by the time we sat, it felt as if the whole sky had collapsed. It poured torrents of rain. Our raincoats were hapless fragments in the fierce downpour. But sitting there, soaking, the canoe swaying side to side, I felt immersed in the beauty and fury of nature. And that moment will stay as the abiding memory of this park. Just as it remains beholden to nature, all months of the year struggling to stay afloat, that showery morning, so were we…
It was 10 in the morning. We had a full day ahead and it was clear we could not go through our original plan of visiting the Dibru Shaikowa national park. It had rained suddenly the previous night and the swollen waters of the Brahmaputra had made park access impossible. So, we did what I have been wanting to do for a long time: drive across the longest bridge in India over water, the Bhupen Hazarika Setu.
The bridge, spans nearly 10 km, over river Lohit, a major tributary of the Brahmaputra. It is named in honour of Bhupen Hazarika, singer, and lyricist, an icon of Assam. His deep baritone, soaked in the culture of the northeast, connected this region to the rest of India.
We left our camp in Majuli Beel and in a breeze, we reached Dhola, on the southern side of the bridge. Our plan was to cross over to Sadiya on the northern end and then drive all the way up to Roing in Arunachal. When we got onto the bridge, it was completely empty. The sky was overcast. The river below was vast and unending. The small islands in the river were shrouded in mist.
And we were overcome by a sense of freedom, of joy, of being one with the place. We walked, skipped, jumped, and drove along with Hazarika’s haunting voice lifting us, his song ‘Dil Hoon Hoon’ playing at full blast on the car stereo.
Off the bridge, we drove slowly past Sadiya, the place where Hazarika was born. Further up, we entered Arunachal Pradesh and at Bolung, we stopped at his statue. Called the statue of brotherhood, it looked amazingly life-like. Perhaps he was bemused that people here sometimes called him more Arunachali, than Assamese…
Soon, the landscape became more rugged with extensive bamboo plantations. People looked and dressed differently. It was amazing that just as you cross the border into another state, how things could be completely different from what you left behind. As we entered Roing, we were welcomed by towering snow-capped mountains. We stopped at this fantastic bakery for buns and great coffee. We picked up locally grown, dried ginger and elephant apples. Then we drove all the way back to the camp.
It was dark by the time we got back. We went owl-spotting and got lucky with the Brown Hawk Owl and the Oriental Scops Owl. As we walked in the still night, millions of fireflies surrounded us. Nisha, like a magician, caught them in her palm and slowly released them. Somewhere, a bird called out, maybe its last song before settling in for the night. And, with a soulful Hazarika-type sigh, our day came to a close.
Do people in Baroda understand how lucky they are? Maybe not all. But one person certainly does. Sameer Khera. My friend, Baroda-wala and an eternal traveler. Photographs from his frequent visits to Champaner-Pavagadh, filled me with travel-ache. So, when I was in Mumbai during Diwali holidays and started looking, Corona-eyed, at places within driving distance, C-P was an obvious choice. I called Sam to see if we could go together. But, as expected, the man had a travel plan on those very days. Then he did the next best thing and sent me a detailed itinerary of places I must see, along with the best times of the day to see them! Hurrah!
C-P is an 8 hour drive from Mumbai and we left very early. On the way, we took a short detour to Udvada, a place I had been meaning to go to since some time due to its significance as a Parsi spiritual center. By 3pm we reached Baroda and took the turn-off to C-P. These last 30 kms. were astonishing, as the plains opened up to the Pavagadh hill. Even from a distance, we could see the temples and old structures around its summit. And as we passed the city of Champaner, located at the base of the hill range, we felt we had entered a region of special historic significance. And it is. This is the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, a vast area dotted by ancient monuments making it an important UNESCO world heritage site.
Our hotel Champaner Heritage Resort was a bit beyond the city of Champaner, in Bhamaria village, by the backwaters of the Kada dam. From a small island here, where we watched the sun going down that day, dazzled by the golden water and the silver bracelets of our boatman.
And we watched the sun come up again the next morning. Near the top of the Pavagadh hill, at the Saat Kamaan or the Seven Arches.
The hillside is strewn with monuments from the time of the Muslim rule of Sultan Mehmud Begda and earlier Hindu rulers, notably the Khichi Chauhan Rajputs. At the very top is the revered temple of Kalimata, attracting hordes of worshippers from all over. We did not visit the temple as the cable cars ferrying people to the temple were quite crowded. We meandered around the ruins, just below the jump off point for the cable cars. And discovered that we could have actually walked up the hill along a sheltered walkway that no one seemed to use.
A little while later, down in Champaner city, we sought out a guide. The rest of the day we tramped through the wilderness and saw a bewildering array of mosques. The One-Minar mosque, Shaher ki Masjid, Nagina Masjid, Kewada Masjid, Kamani Masjid. It appears that Sultan Begda, who made Champaner the capital of Gujarat in the 15th century, spread his troops and families all across the area. Where they settled, they built a mosque. Once the city went into decline, these mosques were taken over by the forest. All the mosques are similar in architectural style – a masterful blend of Hindu and Islamic. While the domes and minarets make you completely certain you are entering a mosque, the Hindu motifs and carvings inside, throw you off totally. Our guide told us that Sultan Begda did not have access to any Islamic artisans and he basically had to rely on local ones. These artisans went wild making what they knew best. And the result is that the Champaner city is “the only remaining complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city”, as quoted by UNESCO.
With the sun following us, we went from one awe-inspiring monument to another, covering mosques, step-wells, and fortifications. We spent many delightful moments just watching trucks, trams, rickshaws, people crossing the gates of the walled city.
Finally, we saw the sun setting from the Vadatalav Lake in a majestic glow of light behind the Pavagadh hill. We could not get a very good photograph, so I am using Sam’s below from his earlier visit.
This ‘follow the sun’ itinerary was really a wonderful gift and guide from Sam. It gave us a compass and companion, even when he wasn’t around. We felt also the presence of many other people who had invested time and energy in preserving this unique place. Our guide Manoj Joshi’s father Ghanshyam Joshi, has passionately recorded the monuments, contributed to archaeology books and played an important role in lobbying for UNESCO status for the area. They can be contacted at 9879542611/02676245611. Rahul Gajjar whose name came up several times, has photographed and organized events to highlight the importance of the monuments here. And the Sarvaiyas, affable owners of Champaner Heritage Resort, who are restoring their property and making it possible for more people to stay a few days and take in its beauty.
As Manoj ji told us, the Pavagadh hill range has many more monuments to behold. But we had to leave the next morning. So, as the sun rose, we pottered around the mango groves and village ponds, leaving the boat people to their centuries-old rituals. We are, after all, only passers-by. But this treasure remains, a breath away, for the people here and I hope they forever take care of it.
Why the hell had I not come here earlier? That’s the thought that came to me when I saw the Agasthya Lake, shimmering in the evening sun and circled on three sides by burnt red hills. The rays illuminated the ancient Bhutanatha temple and covered everyone in a golden glow. At the banks of the lake, children played, men chatted and women washed utensils, in a ritual that must have repeated every sunset since the 7th century. And that day, just for a while, I was part of this age-old scene.
We had left Pune at dawn, and driven through Satara and Kolhapur to reach Badami by late noon. The evening was spent exploring the Bhutanatha and Malikarjuna group of temples clustered around the eastern and north-eastern sides of the lake. We spent the night at the Clarks Inn. I ate dinner at a nearby canteen, gorging down dried jowar rotis, dal and some incredibly spicy chutneys. But then I am an intrepid foodie. My husband took the safer option and ordered room service. The next day, Just before dawn, we went back to explore cave temples that are carved into the southern flank and Badami fort built on the north-western side of the lake.
The Badami temples, comprising Hindu and Jain temples, are stunning examples of rock-cut architecture, dating back to the 6th century.
The Badami Fort, also from the 6th century, was the residence of the Chalukyan rulers. Its entrance is through massive rock walls and the monuments are strewn all over the sandstone hill. Some of the monuments are accessible only through narrow crevices and others are a long climb to the top. Sitting on the high boulders, looking at the winking waters of the lake and the cool breeze on our faces, a feeling of deep contentment…
We would have loved more time at the Fort but had to leave for the two architectural marvels close by – Pattadakal and Aihole.
These two sites are barely 10 kms. apart and together with Badami form the cradle of Hindu temple architecture, built by the mighty Chalukyan dynasty. Aihole especially was like an open-air school for architects from all over to come and experiment. What they created has now become a veritable museum of architectural styles from North and South India and which, from 1400 years earlier, have inspired temple structures all across India.
Why do these magnificent gems get overlooked by tourists? Maybe it gets overshadowed by Hampi? Maybe it is off the beaten path? But this UNESCO World Heritage site is an absolute must do. So, to help you put this on your list, here are the distances from more visited places
A short drive from Pune in Maharashtra lies Paradise. For me, living in Mumbai, it was always so close and yet so far. Because Paradise shows itself only for a brief spell of time – a month in a year. Usually this is from the start of September to early October, after the monsoon has made its last retreat. But when exactly, is never sure. And then, you may hit the month right but the particular day that you get there might be blown over by wind or rain or a swarm of dark menacing clouds. So, only the Gods decide whether you see it or not. Its paradise after all!
After years of waiting for the right time, finally everything fell in place and I got lucky. I had a work trip planned in Pune in the first week of October and the next day was a national holiday. I rang up the local administration to ask if the timing was right. They said that in fact, the monsoon had retreated late so it was only in the last week of September that the plateau had opened up. I took the chance and booked my visit slot. And left Pune just before dawn. I reached Kaas Plateau by 730am.
And there, spread out in front of me were magical carpets of different hues.
Only a few people wandering about, in stunned awe, on carefully marked walking paths. The guide led me along these, telling me the names of the wildflowers, their pattern of blooming…“this one here blooms only at 12 noon so we call it the 12 o clock flower” and “this one here are few now but every 12 years, the plateau is covered in them”. I listened to the names. But mostly I just soaked in the colors, the smells and the glistening morning sounds.
The Kaas Plateau is a UNESCO World Heritage site, takes in only a stipulated number of visitors each day, and has temperamental weather, The wildflowers bloom only after the rains stop and that too for less a month. So here is some advice on how to plan for the visit. The first thing to do is to closely monitor this site https://www.kas.ind.in/. It is run by local committees and they give real time updates on days of opening. They also have super helpful people you can call and ask for more advice. If possible go on a weekday. On the weekend or national holiday, make sure you reach there as soon as the park opens. You will get a couple of glorious, quiet hours before the crowds come in. This place is very popular with locals who seize the chance when they can. Yes, everyone wants a piece of Paradise.
This loop went through Split and Dubrovnik in Croatia, Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia, ending in Belgrade in Serbia. The absolute thrill was that it was with two of my dear friends Nisha and Aparna. Mad, curious, excitable and very very funny, these two and me, had the time of our lives. And here, all three of us, are co-writing this blog post to share some of the most delectable moments.
We came together in Split (pun intended). Me arriving from a holiday with the family in Plitvice, Lake Bled and Austria. Nisha from India. And Aparna from the UK. We all trooped to our AirBnb and were welcomed by our host, Tessa’s father. He was obviously a very proud Croatian: he quickly told us the best places to eat in, the very best ice cream shop (‘I know this shop from my childhood!’) and uh, not to spend money on bottled water (“Split has the best water system and the water from the tap is 100% pure”) We followed his advice over the next few days, especially filling copious amounts of tap water in our water bottles.
Our first stop from the recommended list was a local favorite, Buffet Fife. We walked by the waterfront and arrived there with hunger and exhilaration in equal parts. We devoured the most delicious grilled trout and left absolutely satiated, in mind and body!
The next morning, armed with this map, we first sat ourselves – European like – in a coffee shop nearby, Bobis. And after boisterous discussions, decided our walking route.
Naturally we started at the Diocletian Palace, the number one attraction. This is an UNESCO World Heritage site, an enormous palace complex built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century. We then meandered through the narrow cobbled lanes, the quaint squares and came upon the impressive statue of one of the early humanists, Marko Marulic. At the bustling Peristyle Square, we slid through (as you must!) a narrow lane called “Let me pass please!” and stood at the steps of the beautiful Temple of Jupiter. I then headed to the bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Domnius for the best 360 degree views of the city.
I totally recommend it but it is quite a climb to the top. My friends deserted me in this expedition and sat around posing with their newly bought, matching (and IMO quite ugly) hats.
We lunched at one of the many cafes at the sparkling waterfront, the Riva. Here, we also bought our tickets for the ferry to Dubrovnik the next day. We did not forget (nor should you!) to touch the toe of the huge statue of Grgur Ninski. It is supposed to fulfill your desires 🙂
Late afternoon, invigorated by the highly recommended Luka ice-cream, we headed towards the Marjan Hill. Its a short climb to wonderful sunset views but the most memorable scenes en-route are of little homes bursting with flowers, children laughing and ladies sitting and chatting around. In the midst of this bliss, we found this home where the lady made stuffed dolls for sale. We sat with her for a while, chatting and sipping some delicious wine that she had made.
But the sun was still to present its full magic. We came back to the Riva and this time walked all the way away to the left of the city. Here, with bustling families and boisterous laughter, we ate the most wonderful pizzas.
The next morning glistened and gleamed and off we went on the ferry. It took little stops at several stunning islands before we reached our destination by lunch time.
Dubrovnik had spectacular views and sparkling seas. Notwithstanding its Game of Thrones fame, one can see why this city has so much allure.
But it was by far the most touristy place in Croatia. We had to plan way in advance by checking Dubrovnik cruise ships schedule to make sure we are there on the day that had fewer ships coming. The Airbnb was expensive, the host wasn’t welcoming at all and the taxi drivers cheated us. I guess those are the woes of all places that have massive tourist draw. But, we just HAD to see it. And we were lucky that we saw locals at their boisterous best – Croatia had entered the World Cup 2018 semi-finals that day! So, that one super day was all we needed at Dubrovnik. If we were looking for a few more lazy days, nearby Korcula would have done nicely!
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Mili, our cab driver, was at the door step next morning to take us to Mostar. Long hair loosely tied into a ponytail, towering, brooding eyes, measured demeanor, he was the first indication of what lay in store for us in Bosnia. From snatches of conversation, we were drawn into his scarred past – his identity as a Bosnian Croat, the civil war, his home torn asunder as his wife and son left for a safer Denmark but he stayed back. His deep love for Mostar and how he had fought to protect it. As we listened to him in silence and drove through the rugged terrain we knew that Bosnia was different. And intensely captivating. Our first stop on the way was Pocitelj, a walled medieval town, its contours dominated by the local mosque, high fortifications, and the river Neretva flowing languidly by. We walked through fig groves and came upon this beautiful spot.
By the time we reached our next stop Blagaj Tekke, just on the outskirts of Mostar, it had started raining. The dark clouds, the swollen Buna river, deep ravages in the tall cliff-face, and the monastery splashed in white – the effect was hypnotic. This was an old old place, the home of revered Dervishes, a place of prayer and reflection. And we were entranced.
We reached Mostar by early evening, drenched but excited. We were welcomed by one of the best Airbnb hosts Tarik. Spotless home, the kettle whistling and many types of tea, including Assam! For the Indians in us, this was nothing short of heaven. As we nursed our warm cups, Tarik gave us a complete rundown on where we should go. Since it had rained in, we did not do any sightseeing but went over to this gorgeous restaurant Sadrvan.
Surrounded by hills and the Neretva gliding past, it is easy to think of Mostar as just a pretty town. But it’s more than that. Actually, this is what kept coming back to us. Bosnia is more than that. It’s beautiful yes, but what makes it special is its determination to hold on to its past and yet take brave steps into the future. Everywhere are remnants of a tortured past…
Everywhere are people attempting to make sure those atrocities never happen again. And nowhere is it more evident than this bridge, the Stari Most – built by the Ottomans, bombed during the Croat-Bosniak war and rebuilt – and now the place where people take an enthusiastic plunge into the waters below.
We walked around all day, circling the small town, stopping by at the Crooked Bridge and the Hamam Museum, eating burek and sipping coffee.
We had intended to take the train from Mostar to Sarajevo, but there was only one train early in the morning, so we decided to drive. The journey was breathtaking and as we passed emerald green rivers and mountains, we wished we had taken the train. But, on the flip side, we got to eat in this restaurant that produces the most ultimate roast lamb Zdrava Voda
We reached our super Airbnb, had some tea, stepped out in the sunshine, and fell headlong in love with Sarajevo! This is a city for every emotion.
Horror. This was the place that triggered WWI with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. And this was the place that saw the end of the bloody wars that broke up Yugoslavia at the end of the century.
Sadness. Sarajevo has had a wounded past – nearly 4 years of siege – and acres of graveyards to show for it. As we walked up to the Yellow Bastion for a stunning sunset and as we read the messages in the Tunnel Museum, we were overcome by a sense of loss and pathos
Joy. In taking trams that connect the entire city, in drinking from the fountains channeling pristine water from the nearby mountains, in watching locals playing open-air chess, gorging on strawberries, figs and peaches, rambling in the old bazaar Baščaršija and in posing in the streets!
Awe.At the contrasts – sometimes on a single street. On Ferhadija Street, there is a marker “Meeting of Cultures”. On one side is Austro-Hungarian architecture and on the other, traditional Ottoman outlines. In the old town is a seamless assembly of contrasts – Jewish synagogue, Old Orthodox church, Cathedral of Sacred Heart, Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque and many others. Sarajevo is an absolutely awe-inspiring multi cultural melting pot!
Hope. Bosnia, personified by Sarajevo, is a work-in-progress effort at living with multiple ethnic identities, religions and cultures. Here, different from other countries in the former Yugoslavia, live large populations of Muslims (50%), Orthodox Christians (40%) and Catholics (10%). This living together has been difficult but it is what makes Bosnia unique. It is also what draws three Indian girls, proud citizens of a crazily multicultural nation, to this country and its iconic capital Sarajevo. And also to the Sarajevo flowers – dotted across the city as symbols of pain and resilience.
Armed with oregano, dried figs and Bosnian coffee, the three of us went our separate ways. I took the flight to India with a fabulous day long stopover in Belgrade taking in the sights – the Temple of Saint Sava, the Belgrade fortress and the Parliament House. It was at the Republic Square, the place which saw high tumult during the Balkan wars, that I felt I had turned a circle….but ready to start once more!
I had never thought of visiting Lebanon. But then I got tantalizing photos from Sherine who had been living there from the last three years. “So much history, beautiful landscapes, the mountains slipping into the sea – you have to come here”, she said. Hardeep wanted to go too…it had to be a few days around Diwali. So, November first week in 2018, off we went!
Hardeep came in from Mumbai and I from Delhi. We landed 15 minutes apart on the small airport in Beirut. And Sherine ran in during her lunch hour to get us. Ah – all perfect timing!
The views as the plane descended got me salivating – Mount Lebanon standing as a life guard on the blue Med sea, the barren Pigeon’s Rock jutting out just off the coast, multi-colored housing – and when Sherine gave us a short tour around before dropping us at her home, I knew we were going to have very interesting time.
Everyone in Lebanon has a story, Sherine said. And soon we understood that every street had a story too. The road from the airport passed the neigbourhoods of Sabra and Shatila which witnessed the bloody massacre of Palestinian refugees in 1982. As we left the mosques and many flags behind, it was almost as if we had entered a different world. Chic buildings, modern housing, predominantly Christian shops and the street where President-elect Bachir Jemayel was assassinated. And as I was introduced to the quiet janitor of Sherine’s building, a Christian refugee from Syria, I could not help thinking Omg!
We quickly ate some Manoushe and headed out to make the most of the afternoon at the Beirut National Museum. It is small but packs in a lot – much like Lebanon itself! And it gave us a great introduction to the history of the country. Powered by its special geographical location on the Sea and its vast hinterland, the earliest inhabitants, the Phoenicians, became masters at trade with Egypt, Greece and other civilizations. Going through the fantastic displays, we realized that it was this critical location that has dominated Lebanon’s history and its present.
Day 1 ended with a sumptuous dinner at Enab – one of the many fab restaurants in the city.
The next day we headed west towards the ancient site of Baalbeck. We climbed over Mount Lebanon and to the other side into the Bekaa valley. This valley is the food bowl for Lebanon with huge outputs of fruits and vegetables. The road is dotted with farms and food processing units. Since it was potato picking season, the farms were overrun by families of pickers – all from Syria. And the closeness to Syria was accentuated by the awareness that just a little further south west, lay Damascus.
Baalbeck town itself is the stronghold of the Hezbollah, whose presence could be felt in the large flags that fluttered from the various buildings. But as we entered the gates of the Baalbek site, we were transported into the times that the Greeks and Romans walked there. This is not just another Roman temples ruin – it is the largest and best preserved. We took a guide for an hour and then spent another hour meandering, clicking photos in the beautiful morning light.
We then headed towards Anjar. This is a slightly longer way to get back to Beirut but its very worthwhile for two things. One. for the excellent restaurant called Al Shams where we had delectable roast lamb and rice, followed by a huge bowl of local fruits. I was wondering why the restaurant had such massive seating when someone told me that this was to cater to flocks of Lebanese and Armenian diaspora who come here for summer holidays. Incidentally, Anjar was developed as a settlement area for Armenian refugees in 1940 and it continues to be dominated by the Armenian Christian community.
And two, for the atmospheric ruins of the Ummayads.
Back in Beirut we celebrated Diwali by eating some super sweets from road side vendors and then dinner at the well-known Cafe Leila.
On Day 3 we made an early start and headed off to Qadisha Valley in North Lebanon. I was looking forward to this part of the trip as we were planning to hike in the Holy Valley – a beautiful gorge that is dotted with monasteries that have sheltered Christian monks since the last 1700 years. We reached our first monastery in the northern part of the valley – the Dier Mar Antonius Qozhaya. This is the largest hermitage, said to be first built in the 4th Cent. The entire structure hugs the sides of the gorge – some buildings look new and some (like the cave chapel) are primitive. The first printing press of the Middle East was placed here and we also saw books written in Syriac language, used by the monks since so many centuries. As we walked along the old pathways and breathed in the crisp mountain air, I felt a sense of timelessness…
We went to more monasteries in the Valley later in the day but before that we stopped off at the Gibran Museum in Bcchare, his birthplace. I have been a forever Gibran fan so it was a must-stop for me. I was delighted to see a large number of school kids visiting the place – their teachers helping them understand the outstanding mind of Gibran through his evocative paintings and writings. I picked up one haunting reprint of his musings on religion.
Our next stop was the Cedar forest further up the mountains from Bchhare. At one time, Lebanon was covered with thick forests of cedar – so abundant that it figures in holy scriptures and on the Lebanese national flag. Today, only about 400 of the ancient trees remain. It is quite lovely to see the old trees in their majestic glory and feel the cool scented breeze. Our driver then picked up big baskets of the local apples and I was struck by the luck the Lebanese had – within a couple of hours from bustling Beirut they could hit the mountains and ski if they please!
Finally, around 1 o clock we made our way back to the Qadisha valley – this time to the southern end. This was a descent into the valley by car, though people hike down the steep gorge walls. The first monastery at this end is the Mar Elisha monastery, – almost carved into the gorge walls and now a large museum. Then we walked along the river Kadisha (facing north) to one of the most interesting monasteries – the Qannoubin monastery. The walk is stunning – surrounded as you are by the high walls of the mountains and autumn adorned trees.
This walk one-way from Mar Elisha to Qannoubin was about an hour and half and as luck would have it, by the time we reached the isolated Abu Joseph restaurant, it started to drizzle. The guys at Abu Joseph discouraged us from walking further to Qannoubin monastery – it did seem difficult as it meant another 45 mins up to the monastery and back. And then the walk back to Mar Elisha. It was 3pm at that time but the glorious day had abruptly turned dark. I was so torn. Just then, a monk came down from the Qannoubin monastery and said that we had to go up there and it wasn’t far at all. Our spirits revived, we worked out a deal with Abu Joseph (maybe thats what he actually wanted!) to drop us by car back to Mar Elisha where our car was parked. Then, we literally ran up the gorge walls to the Qannoubin.
And as we entered the white washed austere little monastery, it seemed like we just had to be there. Time stopped. We were enveloped by a hushed silence. This was an old old place, the wooden steps walked upon by people for more years than we could count. As I sat in the tiny chapel, I could imagine the hushed conversations here when the Maronite monks had fled persecution and come here, the prayers in the tough winter, the hope in the spring. Clouded with thoughts, I walked into the small room next door and there looking at me was the mummy of a saint. My heart stopped but only for a moment. Because it seemed alright. He had to be here, in this place, forever.
The Holy Valley has a forever-ness. And I would have loved to be here longer. If I had more time, I would have done this differently. But we had to move down and take the car to Mar Elisha and then back up to Bcharre and Beirut.
After getting back to Sherine’s home and some copious tea drinking, we hit the streets and ate some wonderful shawarma and falafel at the boisterous Barbar restaurant in Hamra street.
But my mind was still in the Valley. If I had the chance again, I would have planned for 2 or 3 days. I would have stayed at the first monastery we visited – the Dier Mar Antonius Qozhaya. I had noticed that they have simple accommodation there. And from there explored the valley and the many monasteries and grottos between the Dier Mar and Mar Elisha. Hmmm, next time…
Day 4 was a late start and a lovely breakfast on the waterfront. Everything seemed spanking new or under construction. The makeover from the old to glitzy new is going to be complete in a few months, I am told. Ah well…
Our breakfast was with one of Sherine’s friends who was Palestinian but born in Lebanon. His life and perspective was so intriguing – he had been born in a country that would not give him citizenship because his family roots were elsewhere! His pride and love for his country seemed to have a constant underlying question – why? The old truth struck me again – equality is not a concept, it is a feeling. When you feel unequal, no one can make you believe otherwise with their words. It just does not cut ice.
Surrounded by these thoughts, we drove up the coastline towards a small village called Batroun. This is Sherine’s favourite place in Lebanon and we fell in love with it too. As we parked our car, the local school closed for the day and little kids came running out to waiting parents. Lots of squealing and kissing. We passed many homes with their washing out and grandmoms sunning themselves. The rambling rose bushes, orange trees and grapevines around garden walls…this is no touristy must-stop. But its charm as one of the oldest cities in the world is unfailing.
We spent a lot of time in a small chapel with a broad verandah looking over the sea. Batroun has perhaps the best remnant of the Phoenician Wall made in 1st BC. Watching people sitting on it and fishing, it humbles you to think that that must exactly be the place some young Phoenician must have cast his net 2000 years ago! Later, as we continued ambling about, we stumbled upon a Roman theatre in the back of someone’s garden. Batroun bowled us over.
Late afternoon, we drove now south again in the direction of Beirut, to Byblos. This is the second oldest city in the world – lived continually for the last 7000 years! Here, we climbed the fort walls, walked along the souks, took in the stunning sunset and settled for a hearty fish dinner. Far more touristy than Batroun but lovely nevertheless.
The last day – Day 5 – we now headed towards the Chouf district in the mountains in the South. It again amazed me how one can climb from the sunny coast to the cool mountains, within a half hour! As we entered Chouf district, we sensed we had come into a place with an intriguing culture and history. All around us, people were going about their daily chores but men and women – they were dressed very differently. The men wore black short jackets with a white shirt over elaborate baggy pyjamas. And the women wore black burquas but with white veils. These are the Druze people, who have dominated the Chouf district in numbers and influence. Our first stop was the beautiful Beit ed-Dine Palace. Its sumptuous interiors, decorated with crafts from the Middle East are fascinating.
But even more fascinating were the conversations with had with the security people there. These young men are Druze and for them guarding the Beit ed Dine palace is a matter of great pride. He showed us the place where the President stays when he comes here and also where he has consultations with local people. The way political representation is agreed in Lebanon is that certain positions are reserved for particular ethnic groups. So, the Chief of General Staff is always a Druze. This, he said with a smile, was the importance of being a Druze. We then quizzed them about the Druze ways and learnt that the community is very tightly knit. The Druze cannot marry outside their community, they cannot convert in or out, they speak Arabic but their faith and culture borrows elements from Islam and Christianity. Omg! And I thought that such ethnic and religious diversity was only an Indian feature! Well, that why we must travel….to learn that people are so different and still so alike!
After the palace, we decided to do a short hike in Wadi Moukhtara. I had read about the trail on http://www.living-lebanon.com and wanted to see if we could do it on our own. But little did we know that we are going to have a very different adventure!
So, Moukhtara, a small town in the Chouf district, is the stronghold of the Jumlatt family. This family has been leading the influential Druze community for a long time and Moukhtara is rife with the tales of the family’s accomplishments, struggles and martyrdom. When we reached the massive Jumlatt mansion, we stopped to ask for directions to Wadi Moukhtara. The guards, all dressed in black and wielding guns, suggested that we should not go there as it was likely to rain. As if on cue, the clouds darkened and a light drizzle began. Instead, he said, why don’t we visit the Jumlatt house?
Before we could fully agree on the plan, a very smart looking guard came forward and ushered us into the imposing gates. What followed was one of the most intriguing house tours I have ever been on! First, the garage with many cars. And here, exactly the way it was forty-one years ago, was the car in which Kamal Jumlatt had been assassinated. Tyres busted, windscreen shattered and riddled with bullet marks, this has been retained as a grizzly reminder of the sacrifice of the Jumlatt family. A bit unnerved, we walked up to the actual house. Here, suddenly, the mood changed. The courtyard was welcoming, with little pools and flowers. As we walked up the steps to the visitor chambers, we had another surprise – a life-like full sized Buddha! This, the guard explained as it it was the most obvious thing in the world, had been made by Walid Jumlatt for a Hindu guru who visits regularly and who is held in very high regard by the family! Then, we took in all the photos of the various members of the family, meeting dignitaries, spending significant moments together.
Walid Jumlatt’s family wasn’t in that day, but I could imagine kids running about in the rooms and courtyard. I guess, if you could ignore the omnipresent security and push back the memories of the bloody family history, this was actually a very pleasant home.
Why and how we came to be in this home, ofcourse none of us could figure out. But we did not ask too many questions. Just thanked the guards, cast one look around and made our exit. By this time, the drizzle had turned into full blown rain and we made our way back to Beirut, stopping only some delicious manoushe.
Back in dry and warm Beirut, we had a fantastic Armenian meal at Onno. We also went and picked up just the most amazing dry fruits, sweets and nuts from Al Rifai
And it was time to leave the next day. Mushed and sad, we said our goodbyes to Sherine and to the lovely country she called her home.
This is a 10 day trip to Jordan in 2016. Fully for pleasure – no work. My birthday was the perfect excuse. It worked very well as I was joined by my dear friend Sherine for the first part of the trip (she had lived in Jordan earlier and flew in from Lebanon where she works now). The second part of the trip was with Sushma, a close friend from India.
Why did I choose Jordan? Two big reasons: One, Petra. Two, it was in the Middle East – a region I had not visited before and wanted to know about. But there are many more reasons one should visit Jordan, as I found out happily.
What to do before you go
Get a Jordan Pass: This saved me more than 30 JD as my visa fees got waived and entry to most sites was included in the pass. With the pass, you get great brochures on what to see and do. Please see http://jordanpass.jo/
Look up a map of the region: the past and present of Jordan is intertwined with that of its neighbours – Israel, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. This is the land traversed by Moses and Jesus and Mohamed giving the world three major religions. This is also the land that is the center of intense dispute and division with global ramifications.
Look up a good map with main tourist sites. This one worked well for me.
This trip report is organized around places I visited. I started with Amman, traveled down to the southern-most city of Aqaba and then slowly made my way up again.
Pit stop 1: Amman
The capital city. Sand coloured houses crowded together on a few hills. It is the city with the highest flag in the world!
It is also a city that has an ancient past. Relics from the Stone Age, Roman era, Byzantine period and the Ummayad dynasty are all packed together on one mound – the Amman Citadel. This is absolutely not to be missed. Keep about two full hours. Also peek into the Archaeology Museum here that gives you a chronological view of Jordan’s history.
The Citadel entrance
The old city and the new
Roman Theatre from top of the Citadel
Roman Theatre Up Close
Amman is worth a day of tourist action but several evenings of fun. It has lovely restaurants and shops on Rainbow Street. I enjoyed visiting the Soap Shop http://trinitae.com/trinitaestore/ and Wild Jordan http://wildjordancenter.com/. The Old Town is magical with small shops and eateries buzzing with action till late at night. For humus head to Hashem (this guy is a veteran and it is his rumoured that his delicacies made the King leave his palace and eat here!), for authentic Jordanian sweets like Knanef (it is a sweet – hot cheese base with fried. It should be banned!) go to Habibah and for fab home-done pizzas and great music, visit Jafra. ENJOY!
Pit stop 2: Dead Sea
I did a day trip from Amman to the Dead Sea and Wadi Mujib – left at the crack of dawn so I could arrive early at the public beach in the Dead Sea. The cab ride to the Dead Sea was full of excitement. We passed the hilly outskirts of Amman and then pretty much dived into the earth. The entire journey was downhill – from Amman’s 2500ft above sea level to Dead Sea at 1400ft below sea level. On the way, you feel your ears pop! And we stopped to catch a breath at sea level!
I chose the Amman Beach as the place to dip into the Dead Sea. This turned out to be a wise choice. It is a public beach so quite cheap – way cheaper than the 5- star hotels that offer you day visits. And it was just right – because you really can’t spend much time in the Dead Sea anyway. Probably an hour at the most. The water isn’t for swimming (that’s the point!) and the skin starts to sting with the high exposure to minerals and salt. Amman Beach has basic but clean facilities for showers and change. I reached there much to the surprise of the sleepy attendant and then had the entire beach to myself. I tried various poses of floating and squeaked and whooped around. And just as I was feeling hot and tired, few people miraculously appeared to take my photos. I could not have timed it better!!
Pit stop 3: Wadi Mujib
The next stop was Wadi Mujib – hugging the Dead Sea but 30kms beyond Amman Beach. Wadi Rum is a reserve made up of gorges carved out by the many streams that rush down from the high mountains of Jordan to the deep arms of the Dead Sea. Now the thing to do here is to take the Siq Trail – the journey upstream from the point that the stream meets the Dead Sea to about 3kms up to a high waterfall. Along the way, I had to pass (and heave up) many small waterfalls and rock faces. It is stunningly beautiful but also intensely foolish to do on your own. The start was easy enough with just about knee deep water to wade through. Soon tons of water were pushing me down and I had to keep holding onto hefty ropes along the way. There is a fair bit of rock climbing to be done. I could do all this only with the help of three people who thought I was mad but worthy of assistance. Anyway, gasping (due to the water) and gaping (due to the jaw-dropping rock facades), I made it to the waterfall. The feeling was heady and I would not have missed it for the world. BUT caution: you must go with friends (or organize through Wild Jordan), wear water-resistant shoes and be ready to go underwater a few times!
Once back, I had hot tea and a look at the wonderful exhibition on the special geology of the region. Then, headed back to Amman – knackered but ecstatic. Along the Dead Sea, there are other places to visit such as the “Museum of the Lowest Place on Earth” and Bethany Beyond the Jordan (where Jesus was baptized). I did come back to Bethany but only after going down south first.
Pit stop 4: Aquaba
I took a morning Jett bus from Amman to Aquaba. The journey was about 4 hours through the Desert Highway that runs through acres and acres of (yes, you guessed it!) desert. But Aquaba is an aquatic paradise. It lies along the Red Sea – the northern tip that is called the Gulf of Aquaba. I spent a couple of days with Sushma at one of the resorts – just idling. But I really could not get into the laidback beach feeling with the foreboding presence of the Israeli warships on the opposite shore. Of all the places in Jordan, I liked Aquaba the least. The only thing interesting is the shopping because of its duty-free status. The one thing you must not forget to get here are the BBQ and smoked nuts. They can be bought by weight and are to die for.
Pit Stop 5: Wadi Rum
From the bottom tip of Jordan, we worked our way back up to Amman. And for that the thing to do was to take the super scenic Kings Highway. This is the ancient trade route linking Africa (through Egypt) to Mesopotania (Iraq). It is also part of the pilgrim’s route to Saudi Arabia. It’s like a slow drive through history. We used a good map (see elsewhere in this blog) and decided the places we wanted to stop enroute. Our first stop was actually very close to Aquaba – off the Highway – but on the ancient pilgrim’s route to Mecca. As soon we turned off, we went back in time and space. Suddenly the landscape was desolate, vast and silent. The barren hills wore shades of crimson and gold. And the railway track from the last century that carried the faithful pilgrims added to the ghostly feel.
As the sun went down, we arrived at our Bedouin Camp sheltered by a massive rock face and settled for the night. The Camp was basic but that was part of the experience. Few other guests came around the fire and exchanged travel tales. Then we were served the traditional Zarb meal – chunks of meat with rice and vegetables all slow cooked underground in huge pots. After dinner, we brought our camp beds out of the little tents and spread ourselves under the moonlit night. I am not sure when I slept but once I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a soft light about, a slight breeze and a million stars. It was in the middle of nowhere, yet wrapped up in nature, I felt secure as ever.
The next morning, we leapt out at the crack of dawn and witnessed the sun coming up against the beautiful contours. Then, after a hearty breakfast, we went out to visit local springs, Lawrence of Arabia’s house and many ancient inscriptions – probably made by the pilgrims as they journeyed across this land. It was magical and all too soon we had to pack our bags and head out again to civilization.
Pit stop 6: Petra
Petra was the main reason for me to visit Jordan. I had researched it, seen pictures, but nothing could prepare me for the actual experience. After leaving Wadi Rum, we took a taxi and arrived into Petra by noon. By 4pm we were at Petra Visitor Center buying our tickets. We got the 2-day ticket and separate tickets for Petra by night. This was also a good choice as it does take two visits to get some sense of the magnificence of the place. And Petra by Night isn’t outstanding but can’t be missed either. We slowly walked through the canyon (Siq) passing important small sites that take you into the world of Nabateams in the 1st century BC. As you touch the rock faces, you can’t escape the feeling of awe that someone from 2000 years back may have touched them in the same way. The 2kms walk is stunning and that’s just the beginning. From the time you see the celebrated Treasury and till you reach the end of the gigantic city, you are humbled, gob smacked. I come from a very old civilization, but I just could not get over the scale and antiquity of Petra. We hurried through most of this, promising to do it in more detail the next morning. This was so we could go up to Monastery and watch the sunset over the Wadi Araba. It’s a very hard climb – by mule or on foot – but it is well worth it. We were the last people coming down and by the time we got midway, it was pitch dark. We were guided by the Bedouins and the stars. It was a thrill beyond words.
Infact, I am not going to use any more words. Petra has to be experienced, savoured and stored as a gem in the memory.
Late morning the next day, after another more leisurely visit to Petra, we resumed our north-bound journey on the Kings Highway. We stopped at Shobak, took in views of the Dana Biosphere area and meandered through the Kerak Castle. Each of these places and a few more along the way, could be stopped at and experienced for longer. However, we made small stops and by 4 pm we had reached our destination Madaba.
Pit Stop 7: Madaba
Madaba became our last stop before we took a flight out of Jordan. It’s a lovely town – much smaller than Amman but with hip restaurants and cafes and bustling markets. It is a better place to stay than Amman, in my opinion. We spent a great few days here. Madaba is famous for its mosaics – ranging from the 6th to 9th centuries. Literally hundreds of mosaics are scattered across churches and homes. The most outstanding is the Mosaic Map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land found within the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. But we spent loads of leisurely time just walking along the Archaeological Museum and Park and taking in spectacular scenes from ordinary life, stills and religious symbols – all in intricate mosaic. Then we dropped into the Madaba Institute for Mosaic Art and Restoration where students come in to learn this ancient craft.
All through these meanderings, we drank beautiful pomegranate juice from road side stalls and ate at iconic places like Haret Jdoudna and Abu Yoseuf. One wonderful place we chanced upon late evening was the Church of St. John the Baptist. Since we reached late, we had low hopes of seeing the church complex. But when we got there, we were greeted by a large group of bantering, joking, friendly youth who had come there for a prayer service. As soon as they found out that we are from India – “Oh! You have come from soooo far!!” – they gave us an exclusive tour of the entire underground vault and the bell tower. The absolute highlight was a well in the underbelly of the church – dating back to Moabite era, 3000 years ago – and still operational!!
Pit stop 8: Mount Nebo and Bethany beyond the Jordan
This is a day trip from Madaba or from Amman. From Madaba, it is truly magical because you drive first to Mount Nebo. This is the hill from where Moses is said to have witnessed the Holy Land. This is also where he breathed his last. As I skirted around the simple white monument and exhibition on the significance of Mount Nebo, I stood at the spot where Moses may have stood. The hill sloped down to the dry arid land below to the River Jordan and beyond that spread present day Israel. It is difficult not to be overwhelmed.
Just as the hill sloped down, so did we. Right down to the River Jordan which today is only a small canal. Here I bought my ticket and took a guided bus ride to see the place where Jesus is said to have been baptized. The area is dotted with small churches – small and ornate. But the place of baptism itself is a simple shed.
And a little on the side, the river where faithfuls from all over the world come to be blessed with the holy water. As I climbed down the steps, I saw, just 20 feet away, on the other bank – the border of Israel. Both banks – so close and yet so far away!
Bethany beyond Jordan made my eyes teary. And I felt, even more strongly, that you don’t have to belong to a religion, any religion to feel the power of an ancient space held sacred over centuries. I came away touched by a signboard near the baptism site that said, “Heritage belongs to Humanity”. Amen.
This is a memoir about travels between Khajuraho, Orchha and Jhansi in February 2016. These towns are part of Bundelkhand region in Central India and though I did not fully appreciate it at first, there is a distinct attachment of the people here to this identity – of being a Bundelkhandi. So, there is a Bundelkhandi language, cuisine, dance and song, culture and ofcourse the all awe-inspiring art and architecture.
It was really for the art and architecture that my friend and I decided to do this trip.
We took an overnight train from Delhi and arrived into Khajuraho at the break of a pink dawn. The cab ride from the railway station to the hotel was among green fields and a trail of small and big hotels. After checking into ours, we hit the streets. Khajuraho is really a small town with the temples as the focal point and hip cafes and hotels making the most of it. You can walk, cycle or take autos to see most of it. The temples are spread across three main areas – western group, eastern group and southern group. We started by exploring the western group. These temples face the east so that the first rays of the sun hit the idols. So, ideally the best time to visit them is during sun rise. Each temple here is poetry in stone. The sculptures speak to you. And the voice I heard mostly was the equal right of women to their own sensuality. No subservience, no excuse for the gratification they sought and no shyness. Only the joy of being equal. We could learn many lessons on feminism from this 9th century marvel.
9th to 11th century. Most of the temples are from this period when the Chandela dynasty flourished. And then amazingly, they were abandoned to be claimed by the forest. It was only in the 1800s that an Englishman Captain Burt discovered them quite by chance. All this and more fascinating stories related to the bravery and patronage of art of the Chandelas can be witnessed at the Sound and Light show in the evening (630pm English, 730pm Hindi)
We spent the late afternoon visiting the eastern and southern group of temples. A must-do at sunset is the Chatarbhuj Temple. This is a little away from the town center, secluded and simply beautiful. This temple is the only one facing the west so as to receive the last rays of the sun. Special here is the idol which combines three Gods Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna. Close by to this temple is the site of the newest archeological find – probably the largest temple of all – in ruins but you can see the solid base.
The next day we visited Panna National Park. We were not lucky enough to see tigers but the park was scenic with the beautiful Ken river that runs through it. There is very little chance to spot tigers here but if you go with a wish to see the natural wilderness that surrounds Khajuraho, you will enjoy this very much. Panna is not recommended if you don’t have much time. More rewarding is a slow viewing of the temples.
Other than the temples, a total must-do is Raneh Falls – whether dry or in spate. This is a deep gorge with beautiful coloured rocks – with deep hues of pink, yellow, grey, black, greens. Usually when it has rained well, this gorge has multiple waterfalls and is said to be a wondrous sight. We went during a particularly hard drought time, so there were no falls and the water was in deep pools below. But the full splendor of the rocks was visible to us. Again very few tourists here so we spent some quiet time sitting with the swifts whistling as they flew by.
There are several good places to eat in but we quite liked the Raja Café with its big neem tree and views of the temples. Excellent continental stuff. The Bakery by the lake – run by Lalit hotel – is also very nice.
After two nights at Khajuraho, we drove to Orchha, at a turnoff some 10 kms before Jhansi. A nice place to stop for tea and snacks on the Khajuraho – Jhansi road is Alipura Palace. This is a heritage hotel run by the erstwhile king. We were served by Maan Singh who told us many tit-bits of Bundelkhandi food like their ber powder (made by drying and grinding ber) which is a cooler for the hot months. Also, things like badis (dried pulse dumplings) are quite popular. This food speaks of the aridness and the heat that is an essential part of living in Central India. We had lovely pakodas, green chutney and tea, said hello to the King and moved on. Alipura Palace, Maan Singh, 08085238223 www.alipurapalace.com
Orchha is bewitching. A multitude of spires and tall towers are spread around the winding Betwa river. The main site to be visited is the Palace complex along with a few important temples. There is also a sound and light show in the evening that we ditched to go and catch the sunset on the river. The reflection of the cenotaphs in the glistening water enticed us to visit the cenotaph complex in the morning. It was fantastic. Isolated, verdant and peaceful, these cenotaphs have a timeless beauty about them. The gardens are impeccably kept by the caretaker who has been at this job for the last 26 years. He also looks out for the birds that have these cenotaphs their home – vultures, parakeets and pigeons. A great place to stay at Orchha is http://amarmahal.com/
We took the train back to Delhi from Jhansi but not before making a breathless stop at the Jhansi Fort. I would definitely recommend more time here. This fort brings to life the incredible story of the Queen of Jhansi – Rani Laxmibai. We have learnt about her in school but seeing the palace she lived in when she got married at 13, the courtyard from where she ruled after she was widowed at 18 and finally the steep height from where she leapt and fled after being betrayed by her soldiers at 23. The most definitive part of the story was her decision to adopt a son and pronounce him heir after her husband’s death. This is not a story of a sad suffering widow who gave up on life. She was dedicated to ruling Jhansi and wasn’t going to give this up meekly to the British. Our guide brought life to the story of this bold and daring queen by weaving an evocative poem into his commentary. His deep voice, full of feeling will remain in my ears. I am sharing it here but if he is around when you come here, do get hold of him! Chandan Prajapati, 09598809858
Another recommendation is of our driver Zahid – 8085082155. He is a proud and well-informed Bundelkhandi. And yes, he is most respectful of feminists!!
This is a 12 day long circuit by road from Delhi/Gurgaon to Kutch in Gujrat. Although I had been to Kutch several times earlier on work, my last visit was in 2007. The rest of the family had not been at all. And my son Anav was very keen on bird-watching there. So, this was an all family trip with bits of birding, history, landscapes and culture. We left on 27th December 2014 and were back on 7th January 2015.
The travel route to Kutch:
Traveled to Udaipur. Left home at about 7am and reached destination at about 6pm. Great roads all through. Recommend eating a heavy meal just before the turnoff to Ajmer on NH8 as no great food options after that. Passed the wonderfully interesting cities of Ajmer and Chittorgarh on the way – each worth a stop and stay. The kids got their binocs to see the massive Chittorgarh fort that dominates the skyline as we passed the town. But we had to hurry on to Udaipur, so we did!
Stayed at: Chinar Villa, a homestay run by Ajit and Manju Rathore, a lovely couple who built this home to retire in. The rooms are very clean and reasonable. But the absolute gem is the enormous balcony that has the best views of the entire city. We got the room that has this balcony and I suggest you insist on this one. The sunrise and sunset from here are great. Location is quite central too. http://www.chinarvilla.com/aboutus.htm
Ate at: 1559 AD. Okay food, nice atmosphere. Especially nice old ceramic plates on the wall
Traveled around in Udaipur. Visited the Monsoon Palace, City Palace. There was lots more to see but we really did not feel like. Instead we had a lazy lunch at Udaivilas and then parked ourselves at the sunset point – Deendayal Park for some great views. An alternative location for sunset is the Ambrai restaurant or even another branch of 1559, situated very close to Ambrai.
Ate at: Don’s miss the samosas and kachoris at Jagdish Misthan Bhandar (fondly called JMB). For dinner, we had thalis at Gordhan near the railway station. They had good food but if you want authentic dal battis and don’t mind a basic eating place, then would recommend Santosh Dal Batti.
Stayed at: Chinar Villa…
DAY 3 and 4
We left Chinar Villa at 8am and took the beautiful, rugged road to Little Rann. The NH8 stretch winded through the Aravalis – hilly terrain and tiny tribal hamlets. We turned off the NH8 near Chiloda, somewhat short of Gandhinagar and passed the milky blue Sabarmati river. We then continued onto Dasada where we planned to stay for 2 nights at Rann Riders.
We reached in time for lunch and then swiftly went for our afternoon safari into the Little Rann. Mainly saw flamingoes. Also gazed long at the Wild Ass. The Rann of Kutch is the ONLY place in the world where they are found. The most beautiful part of this afternoon was the sunset. We went to nearby salt pans where salt workers continued to be busy making salt from the earth. Their children were children – jumping on the salt without a care in the world. Our kids had never seen salt being harvested before and they marveled at how many people had to work so hard to something as basic as salt in their food.
There is something about the terrain at the Little Rann, unlike anything you will see even at the Greater Rann. Its location makes it a huge swamp, where water gets stored and then drained out into the sea. Coupled with the harsh sun, it becomes a salty swamp. The outer layer is like caked white mud as if the land is always thirsty. But a few inches below there is lots and lots of mushy water.
We got an experience of this on Day 4 when we were busy bird watching. We got so excited chasing the Greater Spotted Eagle that we drove right into a wet patch of the swamp and got badly stuck. We had to be towed out! Getting off the jeep and feeling the wet mud sucking my feet in was a humbling experience. Never take nature too much for granted! Day 4 was all about great bird-watching: Indian Coursers, Avocets and the very rare Mcqueen Bustard. We also saw the elusive Desert fox. It was a pleasure birding in the company of some super birders here – Megh Roy Choudhary, Himanshu Jani, Jayantika and Prasanna.
Stayed at: Rann Riders (http://www.rannriders.com) is the best stay option in the area. The owner, Muzahid, is local and started this as a “nature” destination 12 years back. He has 6 dogs, 2 Persian cats, many geese, 17 horses, and a couple of emus on the resort! But now, it caters to all kinds of tourists – not just birders or wildlife enthusiasts. So, if you are focused on these two, you have to make sure that he knows. Then they will give you some of the best guides. Otherwise its a pretty place to stay for a couple of nights, close to Ahmedabad.
Ate at: Rann Riders – they do an all inclusive package. Very decent food and if you eat non-veg, fill up here as the rest of Kutch is unlikely to serve up any.
DAY 5 and 6
Day 5 we moved deeper into Kutch district. Rann Riders is just at the mouth of Kutch and Kutch is the largest district of India, So, we had some distance to cover. We headed to the westernmost point we intended to reach, a place called Nakhatrana. This is right in the middle of the Great Rann and a good location to look out for birds in the region. On the way we passed huge windmills, many smoke-spewing factories – all signs of the rapid industrialisation of Kutch. Thankfully, this was largely near Kandla port and as we moved past that towards Bhuj, the beautiful barren landscape stood before us.
Kutch is very different from the rest of Gujrat – you see this in the vast empty spaces , the dry shrubs but most of all in the people. Rabaris in black moving on their horse carts, men in stunning multi-coloured shawls and scarves and women in clothes with intricate embroidery and glasswork. it is a living museum of craft. There are signs of modernity – good roads, shops, vehicles etc. but still the world of the nomadic Kutchis survives.
We reached Nakhatrana, had lunch and then left for the Banni grasslands. We saw the most glorious sunset on the last day of 2014 with thousands of Common Cranes coming home to roost at Chari Dhand. Unforgettable. And our first sunrise of 2015 brought us a sighting of Grey Hypocolius which can be spotted only for the first hour of the dawn, if at all. Other special bird sightings were of: Grey necked Bunting, Red necked Falcon, Cream coloured Courser, Marshall’s Iora and White naped Tit. We also did some great shopping – pickles, earthern pots and clothes!
Stayed and Ate at: CEDO http://cedobirding.com/. This is a homestay run by a local NGO that focuses on environment protection and sustainability. It is led by Jugalji who is a renowned botanist with a passion for environment and geology. The rooms are very clean and airy. And the food is fantastic – all local Kutchi preparations. Definitely ask for bajra rotlas, baingan sabji, khicdi and kadi. CEDO provides naturalists for those interested in birding and geology and if you are lucky to have him, Jugalji is an expert guide. CEDO and Jugalji are also part of a comprehensive film on the Rann of Kutch by Discovery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HO8QV0PvQoU
Note: On earlier trips, I did not do Nakhatrana as the aim was not birding. So, if birding is not your thing, I recommend going to the most touristy part of Kutch – Kaladonger. This is a small hill from where you can see the white salt desert right till the border of Pakistan. You also can drive or walk into the salt desert here. There are tiny villages around where you can visit the homes of artisans and see the astounding beauty of the lipan work done inside and outside their houses, their embroidery and wood work. During the months of December to February, you could participate in the Rann Utsav held here and stay in tents and see artist exhibitions etc. There is also a lovely eco-resort run by locals called Shaam e Sarhad that you can stay at – I loved it.
With our birding appetite satisfied, we now moved on to the more cultural and historical aspects of Kutch. We headed for Mandvi and Bhuj. Mandvi a quiet town by the sea. The beach is secluded, long and wonderful. For more solitude, we headed towards Modava. The drive is beautiful with little lagoons and ponds on the way. On the beach, we saw flamingos walking daintily and a jackal relaxing! Also, Shyamji Krishna Varma memorial is a good place to visit to see how this early revolutionary from Kutch contributed to the freedom struggle. We also briefly visited Vijay Vilas Palace – seen in many movies. It is located right on the beach. We were scheduled to stay in the tents but ditched the idea. They did not look great at all. We went to Bhuj and stayed at Amikunj, the home of our friends, Dipesh Shroff and Kirit Dave.
What a breakfast we had at Amikunj! Hard biscuit type wheat bhakris topped with pickle for savoury and organic honey for sweet. We alternated between savoury and sweet and ended up eating A LOT. Large amounts of tea followed. We slowly moved to Bhujodi, a village very close by and very well known for its weavers. We spent the morning understanding the spinning, dyeing and weaving process – enthralling! And then ofcourse shopped for some great shawls and scarves. More shopping followed at the Shrujan shop – run by a NGO dedicated to improving livelihoods of women artisans and led by Chandaben Shroff, a lady who has inspired many including me.
But the truly amazing place that morning was the Living and Learning Design Center. This was under construction to be inaugurated in March 2015. But we were guided there by staff of Shrujan who explained the vision and intent. This place will showcase arts and artisans from all over Kutch, have live galleries and films and places for people to learn in. This is a must-see.
By 11am we headed towards 4500 BC – to the ancient Harrapan town of Dholavira! This meant now moving back eastwards from Bhuj to Rapar. This would also be our way out of Kutch into Rajasthan.
Dholavira is situated on an island called Khadir Bet right in the middle of the white salt desert. To reach it, you have to pass a long stretch of black tarred road with the white desert gleaming on both sides. It’s an outstanding sight! What is even more astounding is the location of the site of Dholavira. It’s far far away in one corner of the island, resembling a large mound of mud. When you get closer you see a huge campus complete with a fort, houses, canals, drains, playgrounds and massive water tanks. At the highest point, you can see the white desert on all sides and can imagine a time when this was all sea and ships sailed all the way to Persia and Greece. And just 10 kms away is Sindh, in Pakistan where other major Harrapan sites can be found. Standing there, with the breeze blowing in, as it must have come in for centuries, you get in touch with something timeless and surreal. We slowly disengaged ourselves from that time and moved to the sunset point, near Fossil Park, a few kms away. On the way saw the Indian Fox and a pair of sandgrouse. We climbed a small hill before Fossil Park, from where all you could see is the white desert. And the sunset was magical. We stood there with not a soul around, only the sounds of the wind and wolves in the forest. As the sun went down and the moon came up, we walked on the white salt desert. First slowly and then running, chasing each other – laughing and happy to just be alive and in such a beautiful place. Perhaps what added to the magic was the near full moon. It stayed with us shining all the way back from Dholavira, through the tarred road to Rapar. As you can imagine, this was the absolute highlight of our trip to Kutch.
Stayed at: So, whats the downside of visiting Dholavira? There is no decent place to stay at all. Dholavira has a rotten government hotel – to be totally avoided. There are no homestays allowed as it is a sensitive border area. You cannot camp without permission of the BSF so basically you have to stay at Rapar. There is not much to choose from at all. We stayed at the Suvidha Guest House – atleast we got clean rooms and toilets. Just slept and left early in the morning next day.
Left Rapar for Mount Abu. On the way we made a small detour to Patan, the town known for its Patola weaving and beautiful stepwells. It was also the capital of the Gujarat Sultanate (before Ahmedabad) and has beautiful havelis. We could only stop at the Rani-ki-Vav, an exquisite stepwell built in the 10th century and then at Patola Palace, to see the intricate patola dyeing and weaving process. But Patan could be worth a couple of hours more.
We continued on to Mount Abu and reached around late afternoon at the famed Dilwara temples. Whatever you hear of white marble Jain temples, does not prepare you for the beauty of these temples. I had seen Ranakpur temples but Dilwara made me do a double take. The fact that these were constructed in the 11th century, in such a remote part, with incredible fine detailing, it’s truly gob-smacking. In the evening, tired, we checked into our hotel and wound down.
Ate at: We were zooming off on the highway around noon when we saw restaurants with big signs “Non-veg served here”. The kids went mad, we stopped and had our first non-veg meal in a long time! Close by was the Havmor ice-cream parlour. So all in all, a long lunch and dessert distracted us from hurrying to our destination.
Traveled to our last stop on the way back – Kumbhalgarh. We selected this as it was a good place to break the long journey back and we had heard good things about the fort and wildlife sanctuary. The drive there was very interesting passing by deep ravines, small lakes, rugged territory and tribal hamlets. This was the place I had first seen the ‘rehat’ or persian wheel nearly 25 years back when I had visited Ranakpur (located very close by). This contraption to lift water from wells/ponds powered by a pair of cows or humans was so intriguing, I never really forgot it. And now, so many years later, villagers continue to use this method and ‘rehats’ dominate the landscape. Some things will remain the same…..and why not?
Kumbhalgarh turned out to be pleasant surprise and well worth a lazy three days visit. We could only do two. The fort is huge – the length of its walls next only to the Great wall of China. The ramparts are formidable and the entire inner area is dotted with interesting temples and ruins. There is also a sound and light show in the evening which the kids found entertaining and we discovered a new Rajput hero – Raja Kumbhal! Large areas around the fort are actually a sanctuary for leopards, wolves and other wildlife. We went around for a night safari, very exciting and some near misses with a leopard! The guide was great – Rajkumar @07568486383.
Stayed and Ate at: Club Mahindra. This is one of their nicer properties, well laid out and good food. The buffets are great value and ask for their local specials – ker sangri, gatte ka saag and ofcourse dal battis.
Started the day early and drove all the way back to Gurgaon. back in time for evening tea!
Ate at: Ajmer family hotel just before the toll naka at Ajmer – the best toilets and parathas.