China: Many worlds in one!

Tourism between China and India can work like oriental magic.

It can make all things possible.

It can entwine our countries through interaction and understanding.

It can bring about a constant exchange of ideas and open new avenues of trade.

It can cement the three thousand year relationship between two of the world’s oldest civilizations.

Tourism can do all of these things if all of us work together – as one.

An ancient Chinese proverb says: “Don’t open a shop unless you like to smile.”

The Chinese people have taken this to heart. That’s what makes China so riveting, so inviting.

Everyone smiles in China. Shopkeepers. Cab drivers. Waitresses. Caddies. Dancers. Singers.

 

When people traveled to China in ancient times, the philosopher Lao Tzu said: “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”

What he meant was China has so many distractions, so many attractions, that travelers often forget their final destination.

That’s true even today.

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Potala Palace, Lhasa

If you travel to China for shopping, you could end up playing golf.

If you travel to China for golf, you could end up frolicking in the snow.

If you travel to China for the snow, you could end up learning Kung Fu.

If you travel to China for Kung Fu, you could end up in a nightclub.

If you travel to China for pleasure, you could end up in a Buddhist monastery.

If you travel to China to see the relics of the past, you could end up taking a cruise on the Mekong River.

The diversity of China makes it the most exciting travel destination in the world, especially for us Indians.

For us, China is only a few hours away and it has everything to offer: Pleasure. Leisure. Sport. Sightseeing. History. Mountains. Beaches. Shopping. Education.

If it’s in your heart, it’s in China.

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Zhejiang (Pic courtesy : China Tourism)

 

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#MyGrationSW : Why This Brave Woman Lives Alone In A Forest in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand?

THE DENSE FORESTS OF ADJOINING villages of Peora, Nolikan and Sonapani in

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Terraced Farm of Kamla ji near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar

Mukteshwar look deserted and lonely from a distance. Once you start to see through the dense foliage, you discover it is teaming with life. It is populated with birds, butterflies, reptiles, wild animals and humans who chose to call it home. As I took an evening walk in the forest with Manvendra, who runs the Leela Orchards, Sonapani home-stay in Mukteshwar, he educated me about a brave lady who lives all by herself in the middle of a dense, dark forest. Engrossed in his tales, I kept my eyes and ears alert for any sign of wildlife around the trail. After few minutes, we arrived at a makeshift gate to a lone white building in the distance. The gate was nothing but horizontal wooden logs loosely hooked on to vertical wooden poles. It was not meant to ward off humans but animals. The animals who rob her kitchen garden of fruits and vegetables she so painstakingly grows with help of laborers. This is apparently a big deterrent to most farmers in the Mukteshwar and nearby Ramgarh area. The white house was locked when we entered the lawns. Its architecture was a mix of modern architecture and traditional architecture of the region. In Uttarakhand, ‘Bakuli’ refers to the group of house, mostly of the same family. As the family grows, more addition to the existing building is done generation wise. Cattle are always tied in the ground floor room. This particular house was not a Bakuli since the next generation chose to stay in the glitzy capital of India, New Delhi.

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A Mix of modern and traditional architecture of Uttarakhand, isolated home of Kamlaji near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar.

Himalayan Spangle, a beautiful butterfly, clung fiercely to its pupa on a tree in front of the house. Much like the lady we had come to meet. She refuses to leave this place despite all the adversity. I would soon know why she still clings to this house in the middle of nowhere.

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Himalayan Spangle holding on to a pupa. In Front of Kamlaji’s house. Near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand

जड़ाऊ को अभी भगाया, बंदरो ने भी परेशान कर रखा है…..” (I have just shooed away the Swamp Deers aka Barasingha. The monkeys have been troubling me too.) The meditation of the Himalayan Spangle was disturbed by her coarse voice, unadulterated and unmeasured. Her name is Mrs. Kamla Pandey. She was delighted to see Manvendra, who is also a family friend. Kamlaji and Manvendra are neighbours and co- owned a dog. The dog lived upto an astonishing age of 18 years.

Ever since her husband, Late Shri Narayan Dutt Pandey, former sub inspector in New Delhi police breathed his last, she has resolved to stay all by herself at this isolated house in the middle of a dense forest, rife with wild animals. Danger from wildlife, lack of human interactions, irregular electricity supply and the challenges in keeping the soil of her farm fertile and grow organic vegetables and fruits has not deterred her. She has been living here alone since past 7 years. Sometimes her brother, who lives in a village nearby, pays her a visit.

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Natural Water Spring used for irrigation and daily use of Kamlaji. Near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand

She cooks food by herself. She has to walk for 3 plus kilometers to catch sporadic public transport to main town near the Sathkol Ashram. She sources grocery supplies from village vendor who sometime visits her and from a shop near the Ashram gate.

बस ऐसे ही बगीचे में घूमना फिरना….मजदूरो को देखना…चाय पानी देना…यहाँ पे बगीचा है….मकान है मेरा….मैं कैसे रहूँ यहाँ…..?” (Just roaming around my garden, checking up on the laborers, giving them tea and snacks…..Here is where is my house, my garden….How can I leave this place?), She replied with a sunshine smile when I asked, “What do you do here all day?”

She showed me around her sprawling terraced farm which she called bageecha (garden). It was abundant with pink and white flowers. In March the hills of Uttarakhand burst with a riot of colours, thanks to the flowering season.  From Mid May to July, these flowers will give way to abundant fruits like khubani (Apricot), aadu (peach), plum, apple, pear. Nearby a tree was drooping with the weight of tens of jamer. It looked like an Orange, but I was told it is so bitter that its consumption harms teeth. It is used like a lemon, in chutneys and pickles. The apples trees were pruned to encourage new growth which is good for the health of the tree and the fruits. The dark brown, leafless branches of the tree made it look like it is dead. In reality, the tree was just gearing up for the upcoming fruiting season. I uncovered a plastic sheet to see spring water flowing under the ground. This is the natural irrigation source for farming in the area. Some of the beds in the farm were dug up. She told us, she pays laborers to dig up the soil.  It helps in keeping the soil fertile otherwise it becomes hard and unfit for farming.

Kamlaji showed us around with a big smile and vivaciousness which is difficult to match up to. Her enthusiasm for life and positivity belied the challenges that she faces in her routine life. Before shifting here, she lived in Delhi for many years with her husband and kids. Her kids still live in New Delhi and following the footsteps of their father, they serve in police too. Her kids visit her at this place in summer.

“Do you ever miss New Delhi?” I ask

“याद आती है पर क्या करें ? मजबूरी है…यहाँ छोड़ दें तो फिर बर्बादी है न…..क्यूँ? ” (Yes, at times I do miss Mumbai. But if I abandon this land, it will all be destroyed. No?)

Whenever she misses her former life in New Delhi, she visits her children and live with them for around 3 months.

“पर अब अच्छा लगता है यहाँ भी……परदूशन नहीं है …हवा अच्छी है…अक्टूबर में फिर जाउंगी दिल्ली तीन महीने के लिए…..” (Now I like it here…There is no pollution….the air is fresh…In October I will visit New Delhi again for 3 months.)

Note: It is a part of a series which I run on my blog. You can follow the hashtag #MyGrationSW series on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter too. (Links below). To read other migration stories on my blog, pls see the tab MyGration Story.

The view from my #SoulWindow is BRAVO!

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Kamlaji at her isolated home in a forest. Near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand

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THE ARTOLOGUE COUPLE TRAVELS TO THE CORNERS OF INDIA AND TURNS WALLS INTO ART!

Featured Image: Jey Sushil and Meenakshi Jey, the Artologue couple on their travels (Pic: Sumer Singh Rathore)

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Meenakshi from Artologue shares a joke between painting sessions.

The Artologue couple travels in remote corners of India on their Royal Enfield bike Hari Bhari and Kesariya. They document their journey in their visually appealing blog called Artologue. Before you mistake them as just another couple on the loose, let me tell you why their journeys are extraordinary. Be it Bhagalpur (Bihar) or Shop Art Art Shop Festival (A Village Turned into open air art gallery) in Gunehar (Himachal) or the hitherto unknown village Lodarwa img_20170129_204543

Jey Sushil and Meenakshi with Shweta, posing against the new Artologue

near Jaiselmer (Rajasthan) and as far as Chennai, they leave a lasting impressions on the walls of their chosen destinations and the minds of the people who choose them. North, East, West or South, they have hopped on Kesariya and painted the town in rainbows colors. They paint the walls of schools, social support groups, orphanages, village homes and what nots. What makes the process interesting is that it is always a collaborative efforts. Locals help them complete the painting job making it a great excuse to bond with complete strangers and share good times over art. They had so many amazing stories to tell from their travels.

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Jazzy Jey from Artologue jazzes up the bland wall.

While Mr. Jey Sushil works full time as a journalist, Mrs. Meenakshi is a full time painter, artist. People fondly call Jey as Jazzy Jey. The couple likes to call themselves as Mee&Jey, yes no space. To quote them, their idea is “to bring art from art galleries to the homes and hearts of people.” Both are JNU pass outs. I found their chemistry infectious and their mere presence filled the room with energy.

Since a long time, me and Mrs. Alka Kaushik, a renowned Hindi journalist and travel blogger had been co-ordinating to fix an appointment with the couple and request them to paint a wall of Mrs. Kaushik’s study. Christened oddly by me as Hindon Café (Because ‘that room’ looks like a café and it’s near the Hindon river), it was a perfect place for artistic adventures. We had been connected for a long time on social media but never met in person. I instantly said yes when finally a date was fixed. (Me and Alka ji are to be blamed for this delay, thanks to our non-stop travels.)

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Meenakshi Jey from Artologue (faux) paints the nose of Sophie while Mukesh ji paints the wall.

On my personal agenda were: a) the sumptuous home cooked food (I am fed up of eating burnt food cooked by me) which I get to relish every time I visit Hindon café, b) endless conversations, and c) chilling under the winter sun with Sophie, the much pampered dog of the house (Because I miss my own pets).

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Jey Sushil and Meenakshi Jey from Artologue and their infectious madnesss.

The job began much before I could reach. Alka ji had called upon kids of construction laborers, local helps and house maids. Within minutes of instructions from the Artologue couple, they had turned a segment of the bland wall into a riot of colors. After devouring the pizzas, they left leaving behind the arduous task of painting the large wall. What lied ahead was scary for me. Fearing we would damage the wall, I and Dipanshu, a travel blogger dared not touch the brush until it was time to wrap. (I touched the brush only at the end to wash it)

Other non artistic guests gingerly painted the easier parts. I remember how Shweta, a sports blogger, put her hands down when she got the epiphany she was about to damage the wall. I teased her the entire day for this. On the other hand, Camy Thomas, a dentist silently painted along with poise as Sheelu ji took care of all the guests with her sunshine smile. Sheelu ji teaches Hindi to the expats. The hosts Alka ji and Mukesh ji painted diligently between jokes and sessions of green teas.Mukesh ji, a defense journalist kept every one’s spirits high with his crackling one liners. Mrs. Arti Jain, a journalist (formerly with NDTV) and her little daughter kept the spirits of everyone high. Mr. Deepesh, ex media person (Media Centre, USA Embassy) also remained away from the paint and brush for the same reason as Dipanshu’s and mine.

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Meenakshi Jey from Artologue paints the wall.

We didn’t realize when it turned dark. Even after spending all day, the task was far from over. Neither were we in any hurry. Blogging occupies all my time, including weekends. I needed this break to rejuvenate myself. The fun company made it all the more alluring. No wonder I cancelled my meeting on call and stayed back for more good food, banter and art sessions. Jazzy Jey educated us about the art of Meenakshi. We studied each of her artwork. It was so engrossing that I can’t wait to attend their next arts exhibition.

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The gracious hosts Alka Kaushik ji, Travel Writer and Mukesh Kaushik ji, Defense journalist diligently paints the wall with Artologue. A first for them.

When finally the painting job was done, our jaws dropped on seeing the end result. 4 larger than life humanized ants went about their business (Drumming, reading, the works!) as snake and star shaped kites touched the sky. The human kids (Much shorter than the ants) on the left had the control of the kites. We stared at the lively wall which was just bland canvas a few hours ago. I understood in that moment why art needs space in people’s homes. What followed next were the endless sessions of laughter, red wine, coffee and food.

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The new art work of Artologue. (L to R): Mukesh Kaushik ji, Alka Kaushik ji, Meenakshi Jey, Shweta Tiwari , Dipanshu Goyal, Jazzy Jey Sushil

It was 11 p.m. when the Artologue couple left the home, decorated with a shawl that Alka ji presented thoughtfully as a parting gift. Yes, it takes passion and a certain kind of madness to spend the entire day painting the wall of someone’s house, remain energetic even at 11 p.m. and ride back home on a bike in Delhi’s winter. Kudos to the partners in crime who are spreading happiness across India, one wall at a time!

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Jey Sushil from Artologue paints the town red! And green. And blue!

THE VIEW FROM MY #SoulWindow IS ARTISTIC!

Note: If you want them to come at your place (Village/Office/School/Hospital/Institutes/Organisation), paint a wall of yours and write about it then please mail them at meejha@gmail.com

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Mukesh ji, the host and Meenakshi Jey from Artologue paint the ants on the wall.

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Mee&Jey , Meenakshi Jey and Jey Sushil (The artologue duo) with their final artwork.

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WARNING: COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

Offbeat Gujarat: Solo Travel to Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary!

Pic above: A local filling pots with water during sunset in Nal Sarovar Sanctuary.This picture won a photography contest and was featured in DNA newspaper.

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The curious cross was a favourite with birds (and photographers like me)

I took the smooth highway from Ahmedabad to reach Sanand. It is the nearest town which facilitates access to the offbeat Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary. Sanand is a dusty little town; its only claim to fame is that it is the manufacturing hub for Nano cars. I could not spot any Nano car. However, I found myself in the middle of a sea of Chakkdis in all possible colors; reveling in their kitschy glory. A Chakkdi is a quirky vehicle unique to rural Gujarat. It looks like a motorbike is attached to a wooden cart.

 

Pics above: Left- I was sitting in this doodh wali gaadi. View from my seat. Right-The gaadi stops, passengers disembarking near the sanctuary.

Giving a miss to the chakadi ride, I hopped on the ‘doodh wali gaadi’ instead. The vehicle originally meant for carrying goods was cleverly converted into a passenger carrying taxi. The driver waited for close to 45 minutes until he ensured that at least 3 men are hanging precariously from the rear of the jeep. As if this was the unsaid rule in rural Gujarat.

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It is not really the proper way to reach the sanctuary but I never skip a chance to travel with locals, in their style. In no time, I was accompanied by dozens of rural men and women occupying every inch space of the massive vehicle. Those who could not find a seat, hung from the rear of the vehicle, rest sitting atop it. 20 minutes into the ride, the driver stopped the vehicle for more passengers. I wondered where will he make them sit. Without a second wasted in discussion, 3 adults climbed atop the front of the vehicle and made themselves comfortable. Their soiled legs, dangling in front of the driver’s seat, were the highlight of my hour long ride to the sanctuary.

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Selfie of me and the boatman. Solo Travel kind of a picture!

The ‘as-smooth-as-glass’ road from Sanand to Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary passed though idyllic villages of Gujarat. The lush green landscape offered a glimpse into the lifestyle of rural Gujaratis who lived on the fringes of either sides of the road. One moment has stuck to me from that journey. I spotted a woman doing her chores as her kids and peacocks roamed nonchalantly around her house peacefully. My experience has taught me that such utopian scenes of man animal harmony is common in rural Gujarat and Rajasthan.

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A curious boat in the middle of the lake!

54 kms (from Sanand) and more than an hour later, I was dropped unceremoniously at the crossroads near the sanctuary. Eerily, the only tourist who was walking towards the sanctuary was me. I entered the main gate gingerly; my attention caught by the wetlands on either sides of the road. I was excited to see huge numbers of migratory birds perched on every inch of the vast expanse. A tout approached me with a Rs. 500 boat ride offer and I gave in. Containing my excitement and faking my poise, I hopped on to the boat. By the time I started my boat ride, it was already 5 p.m. and the sun had started to melt. I could finally spot more tourists in a distance, quietly enjoying the bounty of nature.

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The pirates of Nal Sarovar, eh!

A flock of unruly gulls gheraoed my boat from all sides, harassing me for food. Their cheap antics didn’t match their elegant beauty. White in colour, they were gorgeous; the touch of bright orange beaks and feet made their appearance dramatic. Their abundance did not take away from their beauty. Their ‘pirate’ act was an interesting spectacle.

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My Boat, setting sun and solo travel. I went speechless!

Nal sarovar sanctuary is actually a large lake which spans approximately 120 kms. Announced a bird sanctuary in April 1969, it is one of the largest bird sanctuary wetlands in India.

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The boatman jumped in the middle of the lake to get his oar and ‘mojo’ back!

The shallowness of the lake and the characteristic reed beds and marshes makes it unique. This helps a variety of aquatic plants and avian life to thrive. The oar of my boatman fell when we were in the middle of the lake. My jaw dropped when the boatman jumped in the lake and heroically picked up the ore as I waited for him, swinging on the boat, in the middle of nowhere. The water barely touched his knee.

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The cross at the sunset. The colors were breathtaking!

Observing my baffled face, the boatman educated me that the maximum depth of the lake was 4 feet. No wonder, the shallowness makes it the an ideal feeding haven for migratory birds like greater and smaller flamingos. Their main diet is blue green algae which are in abundance here. Come November to February and it’s a paradise for migratory birds and bird-watching enthusiasts alike. Migratory birds travel from as far as central Europe (upto 3500 kms.) every winter. Apart from the local birds, these migratory birds traverse to Nal Sarovar in order to escape the harsh winter in their homeland. An impressive 200 species of birds call this place home.

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For few months it is a safe home for birds like stints, plovers, grebes, black tailed godwit, brahminy ducks, bitterns rosy pelicans, white stork, sandpipers, crakes, waterfowl, different species of wader and herons. Different species of fish, insects and aquatic plants and insects are also food for these birds.

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Cormorant bhaisaab strutting his stuff!

I passed through many large numbers of different species of birds, as the boatman navigated the boat poetically. Incongruous ‘Cross’ installed in the middle of the lake intrigued me. Cormorants used the crosses to display their “I am drying my wings” pose.

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By now, the gulls had deserted my boat leaving me alone with the boatman and nature. Absorbed in the beauty of the moment, I suddenly realized that we had left not only the gulls but any sign of humanity and civilization far behind. We had ventured deep in the lake. It was one those moments I cherish in my travels- communing with nature in utter silence. For a moment, the thought of being looted did cross my mind. But over the years, I have learnt to trust the people of this country and rightly so.

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The avian seminar!

The boat swam languorously in the lake, crushing the aquatic weeds gently under its rough exterior.There were birds in every direction I set my eyes on. Thanks to a setting sun, they had congregated for their ‘End Of Day’  seminars! The flamingos or pelicans eluded me. Never mind, the boatman pointed out a large flock of flamingos heading towards a resting ground for the night. They moved poetically, in a perfect V shape. Their faint noise felt like a lullaby.

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Boatman pointing to the flock of returning flamingoes, flying in a perfect V

Nothing can parallel the extraordinary feeling of gazing at scores of birds returning to their home. The erstwhile silence of the place was punctuated with their collective sounds! The interesting aquatic plant life attracted my attention equally. I strained my eyes and spotted beautiful aquatic plants, some jutting out of the water, some with gorgeous patterns; some flourished beneath the water but easily visible.

I chickened out when the boatman offered to take me deeper into the lake. Though I was dying to discover more of this place, I politely declined as it was getting dark and I had no clue how to go back to Ahmedabad. I didn’t even know where I was staying overnight and what I was eating next. Practical logistic worries quashed my romantic indulgences and I asked him to return.

 

As we were about to return, a magical moment unfolded before my eyes. I asked him to stop the boat as I saw the Sun change hues from a bright yellow and orange to a mellower deep red. The Sun shyly hid itself behind the trees and shrubs, the water in the foreground reflecting its colors. The bewitching reflection made it look like someone had scattered gold in the lake. The birds lent an ethereal quality to the moment. They frantically passed the Sun many times. It seemed like they were taking turns to enter and exit the Sun.

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The Sun swallowing and vomiting birds!

Before I realised, the setting had hypnotised me. Casting a magical spell on me, Nal Sarovar had exceeded all my expectations. Till date, it remains one of my most beautiful winter evenings.

It’s not every day that I am surrounded by thousands of migratory birds with a breath taking background of an orange sun committing suicide. For hours, the only sound I heard were the flapping of wings and the sound of ripples every time the boatman gently caressed the water with his oar. Bliss!

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The surreal sun down is still one of the best I have ever seen. And I have seen many! The overwhelming beauty pushed me into a contemplative mood, encouraging me even to shed a tear. My travels have taught me that one absorbs more and feels the place more when one travels solo and is left alone to commune with nature.

 

WHEN TO GO- November to February is the best time. Sighting is easy at this time.

 

HOW TO REACH-  Ahmedabad is nearest railway station/airport. Nal Sarovar is 61 kms away from Ahmedabad. I suggest book a cab from Ahmedabad. Traveling like locals might land you up in travel. Post the boat ride, I was stranded in dark for hours. I will soon write a blog on that horror.

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TRAVEL GONE WRONG: CLICK HERE TO READ WHAT HAPPENED NEXT AND HOW MY SOLO TRIP TO NAL SAROVAR SANCTUARY WENT WRONG. I GOT MYSELF IN TROUBLE!

TOP TIPS:

  • For bird sightings the best time is morning and evening.
  • Don’t forget to carry water bottles and light snacks in the boat.
  • A binoculars and a good zoom camera is an advantage.
  • Mosquitto repellent and hand sanitizer comes handy here.
  • Arrive Ahmedabad via train/flight. Hire a taxi from Ahmedabad to Nal Sanctuary and back. There is no public transport post sunset and you will be stuck.
  • Timings are – 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Day Trip from Ahmedabad is ideal.
  • Visit Lothal and Little Rann of Kutch nearby.

The view from my #SoulWindow is nothing less than a poem!

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Me, my bag and my tanhai (loneliness). I was decomposing a guava in this bag which eventually killed my camera battery. Read about my goof up here.

 Email me for collaboration : abhinav21@yahoo.com

Be a part of my journey on social media. The travel content I create there is different from this blog.

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WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

TRAVEL GONE WRONG: WHEN I WAS STRANDED IN PITCH DARK IN RURAL INDIA!

My stay at the wild ass sanctuary was nothing less than a misadventure. I didn’t know that my troubles were far from being over. I stood blankly on the crossroads in the dusty village for half an hour to find a suitable vehicle to reach Sanand, from where I would reach the Nal Sarovar sanctuary. Due to low frequencies, buses were hard to come by and all the ‘Chakadis’ and autorickshaws were already packed like sardines.

I had a premonition that my Gujarat adventure is going to the next level. Desperate, I prepared my mind to stand afoot on the rear of a jam packed jeep. Many such jeeps were passing by and I finally succumbed to the idea.

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However, the rear gate of the jeep I climbed was non existent, perhaps broken on purpose to accommodate more people and luggage. There was a ‘jugaad’ metallic extension jutting out of the base surface of the passenger’s seats. 181220101080-2

The metal extension was hanging in the air, bouncing every time the jeep moved. I had to stand there and hold on to dear life and the metal bar on the jeep roof. Once the driver vroomed, I had the best adventure ride, sans any security measures in place. The wind just blew on my open head and body as I struggled hard to stand straight on this super fast bumpy ride. I was smiling throughout the ride at my foolishness. It was the first time I was pushing my limits and abandoning my comfort zone throughout the Gujarat trip and that’s why it will always be memorable. It prepared me for more reckless adventures in future. img_5756

I was unceremonious181220101082-2ly dumped at a nondescript ‘Gayatri hotel’ in the middle of nowhere. I was told that the bus to Sanand will stop here and then I can board it. ‘Bus to Sanand’ be damned, I was dying with hunger as I had still not had my breakfast and it was already 2:00 p.m. I feasted on a filling ‘Gujrati Thali’ for a throw away Rs.40 (Roti, rice, lentils, mixed sprouts veggie, potato curry , roughly cut onions, popaddums and a trademark sweet and sour Gujrati curry with chass) It was very basic and the food was nothing to write home about but when you have not eaten since morning, every morsel seems Ambrosia, no matter how it actually is! Time to burp merrily!

 

My bus had also arrived just in time in the hotel premises. After an hour of a sleepy ride (The bus was empty, yayy yayy!), I had arrived at Sanand. Chucking the chakadis, I boarded a ‘doodh wali gaadi’ and had a memorable evening at Nal Sarovar Sanctuary. Read about it here.

Post the breathtaking boat ride, I was dropped on bike at the crossroads outside the sanctuary. I was standing there, smiling romantically181220101086-2 just thinking of what all I had just seen. But my stupor broke in no time and within 10 minutes I realised that, I was stranded in pitch dark and no vehicle was ready to go to Ahmedabad, just an easy 100 kms away. The romance vanished in a jiffy!

Its moment like these I thank my stars that I was born a 6 feet plus, brown male in India. It was just 6:45 p.m. and it seemed like midnight. There were just 4-5 more people apart from me, all of them waiting to pick someone. There was no buildings (barring the run down sanctuary office in the distance), no huts, no street lights, no shops (I was hungry as hell and had no food!), no civilisation. There were some huts afar but I chose not to go there and miss a passing vehicle. To make it worse the two dogs whom I could barely see in the pitch dark were fighting over some petty issues (Girlfriends? Food? Territory? Whatever!).

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To top it, one of them was playing Bollywood song on full volume ‘Munni badnaam hui, darling tere liye’ on his cell. I tried to strike a conversation with an older man. He said a ‘Doodh waali gaadi’ passes by at 8:30 p.m. If I am lucky I can get that. But I need to be attentive, lest I miss it. Soon the biker guy who took me inside the sanctuary also whizzed by. He refused to drop me at Ahmedabad but instead also suggested the 8:30p.m. jeep. I was running out of patience. What I feared was that people could mug me for as less as Rs.100/- or maybe my camera.

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I just wished and prayed this was the last of my Gujrat misadventures. I have already had many weird experiences for the past 2 days and prayed that this one should be the grand finale. I would hesitantly ask for lifts to every vehicle passing by. Some stopped but none were ready to go to Ahmedabad. After sometime a truck halted. He asked me for a whopping Rs.800/- I thought about it for a minute and refused. Once the truck left, I cursed myself for refusing it.  Long after it had gone, I was still standing there begging for lift. The fault was mine. I had not done my homework properly. I took it for granted that I will get some vehicle easily. Leave alone vehicle, there was not even decent accommodation available in the vicinity. I even asked a chakadi driver to drop me but he too refused.

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After an excruciating wait of 2 hours, one God sent jeep driver came to rescue. He peeped out of his window and looked at me hesitantly. I was sure he would refuse the way he was studying me. But to my delight, he let me in. Concealing me delirious state of mind, I hopped in without wasting a second. In that jungle, we had no option , but to trust each other. 10 minutes into the travel, he told me. ‘Aap shareef lage to maine rok diya, nahi to rokta nahi hoon.’(You look decent so I stopped, or else I wouldn’t)  Thank heavens for my superstar looks!

This was the only time we talked; rest of the journey we stayed awkward and quiet. After a ride of 45 minutes in dense dark forests, he asked for a paltry Rs.20/- I was taken aback at his honesty. We didn’t discuss money earlier.

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I thanked him and gave him Rs.500/- saying, ‘Bhai bura mat mano, but aapne bahut help ki, please take Rs.500 /- (Brother, please don’t take it otherwise, but you have been of immense help, please accept Rs.500/-) He was surprised and happy!!! And never before was I so relieved to see the city lights! Phew! After this incidence I have time and again put myself in silly dangerous situations and rescued by the kindness of people. Now all I wished was a Rs. 200 room near the railway or bus station!  My wish was granted as I slept in a cheap yet cozy Ahmedabad hotel room that night!

P.S.: The next morning, I was supposed to take a heritage walk in the ‘pols’ of Old Ahmedabad. I was horrified to wake up to a dysfunctional camera battery charger. I had left a guava in the same bag and forgot about it. The guava had rotten and……….But then, that’s just me being me!

 IT IS A 2 PART BLOG: CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL STORY ON NAL SAROVAR SANCTUARY

Disclaimer: This blog is based upon my personal experience. I do not want my readers to repeat the same mistakes. It was my foolishness and a lack of research which led to this situation. You might not get as lucky as I did. And I am not sure if you have the ‘superstar’ looks and a 6 feet plus height, lol.

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Email me for collaboration : abhinav21@yahoo.com

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RANN UTSAV: ALL YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT RANN OF KUTCH PLUS A BONUS ITINERARY AND EXCURSION IDEAS

Think unforgettable food, exceptional sunsets, unique geography, traditional handicraft, soulful music of the soil! Kutch has this and much more to offer. What’s not to love! Plan a trip to this wonderland this Rann Utsav, a 3 month long extravaganza which celebrates all things Kutch!

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My Friend Rohit Rai, sunset, Greater Rann Of Kutch

Myriad geographies dot the landscape of India. One of the most outstanding locations is the White Rann of Kutch or GROK (Greater Rann Of Kutch). Those travelers who are bored of repeating the same beaches and hills on their vacations will appreciate this unique change of Indian geography. Come any time between December to February and treat your eyes with endless vast expanse of white giving a great backdrop for the annual Uttarayan aka kite festival. Many enthusiasts from across the globe flock here every year to flirt with the sky with their kites which are often dramatic, larger than life and quite colorful.

 

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Have you ever walked on your food? Salt, that is!

I boarded a 16 hour long train called Kutch express from Mumbai to Bhuj alongwith my office friends Vipul Sinha and Rohit Rai. What made the journey memorable were the people and the food I encountered en route. As soon as the train halted at Surat, I hopped off at the platform and retuned with pile of khaman dhoklas, fritters and theplas almost falling off my hand. I had little idea more food was waiting for me. An elderly man sitting opposite us fed us a sumptuous buffet of Gujarati food.

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These touristy rides are popular. I raise my eyebrow, up my nose, grimace and chose to walk instead.

Before we got our first glimpse of Rann, we made a detour to Kalu Dunger. It is the highest point (approx 1515 feet/462 metres) in Kutch. We waited patiently for a quirky ceremony conducted by the priests of 400 years old Dattatreya temple. On a round platform, away from human presence, the priests keep a mound of Prasad (holy food) which consists of cooked rice sweetened with jaggery. This 400 year old ceremony takes place every morning at 11 a.m. and just before dusk. In older days, the calls of ‘Le Ang, Le Ang” (Take my body) beckoned the jackals. These days, ringing of bells tell them about the food lying on the platform.

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Food for jackals served by temple

As per the folklore, Guru Dattatreya aka Pir of Pachchmai made a stop here as he walked the Earth. As he came across starving jackals, he offered his body for them to eat. Miraculously, his body parts regenerated as the jackals feasted.

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Just inches away from Indira Bridge. Photography of Indira Bridge is not allowed.

Ignoring the touristy traps of camel riders, we headed impatiently to relish the view of the vast sea and Rann from the top, trying hard to ascertain the border of India and Pakistan. The multi hued (blue, brown, pink, white) landscape mesmerised us with its beauty and grandeur. The landscapes changes color on the whims of moving clouds and as the light above it changes.

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Me soaking in the view from Kalu Dunger (Pic: Vipul Sinha)

A border town junkie, I was fast losing my patience to reach one of the most unique India-Pakistan border and experience it up, close and personal. Indira Bridge, a mere dot when seen from Kalu Dunger, is a deserted land peopled only by army personnel. I was heartbroken when I was told that one needs permission from DM’s office in Bhuj if one wants to view the Pakistan side. A flock of pigeons flew past me nonchalantly, seemingly, mocking my predicament.

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View from Kalu Dunger is breathtaking. I dare you to spot the India-Pakistan border!

We took the baby bottom smooth road to Rann from here. The drive was pleasant thanks to the crisp February weather and an empty road. Large swathes of arid land, brown and barren, sandwiched the road. During monsoon, the landscape displays multiple personality disorder as the rain water floods the either sides of road. You are at the unique Banni grasslands!

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View from Kalu Dunger!

Just before the sun decided to commit suicide, I took baby steps on the overwhelming expanse of Rann, observing it minutely, trying to make a sense of the spectacle before my eyes. It is difficult to explain the feeling of walking on tons of tiny salt balls, crushing softly under my shoes. The unruly breeze carried the quintessential taste and smell of salt. In a distance, I noticed tourists who had strayed far in the white desert, dwarfed by the grandeur of the Rann. The air reverberated with the rustic music which the local folk artists made. Have you seen a more atmospheric venue in India for an al fresco concert? I have not!

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Sunset as seen from Greater Rann Of Kutch. It is great for photo ops. Tripods are an advantage here.

In no time, the glorious orange sun drowned beyond the Rann in a hurry. I dropped everything and gave all my attention to the grand show. The setting sun, casting an orange glow to the desert, gently swallowed by the desert, left me stoned.

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Men dwarfed by the grandeur of GROK. Have you seen so much salt before?

We patiently waited as it was supposed to be a full moon night. After sometimes, it appeared poetically, changing its position and colors. We stood there, agape mouthed, watching a yellow moon turn into an ethereal white ball. The Rann was still white, now reflecting in the glory of borrowed moonlight.

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Sun set as seen from GROK

The scenes of a bunch of locals losing themselves as they perform an impromptu garba jig, seduced by the rustic music of folk singers on the erstwhile quite Rann (bathed in orange glow of a sun set) is something which I will not forget in a lifetime.

WHAT TO EAT:

As we left Bhuj for Rann of Kutch, our cab driver took us to a roadside cart where we filled our faces with sumptuous Gujarati breakfast. We binged on the ‘Can-I-Have-One-More fafda’, freshly fried with raw papaya chutney and crackling jalebis. We couldn’t help but pack some more from the roadside cart.

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Gujarati Food at Gateway to Rann Resort. I loved the white kadhi and daal khichdi.

Annapurna Guest House in Bhuj serves the best Gujrati Thali (their claim) in town. I was impressed when I sampled one. Make sure you go with an empty stomach; the portions are big. Ask for Undhiyo, a winter special.

WHAT TO SHOP:

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Local handicrafts!

Many shops sell local handicrafts, embellished with rich embroidery, beads and mirror work. Also look out for wall hangings, keychains, dolls, decorative mirrors, bedsheets, toran, footwear, pathan suits, bandhni saree, jackets, the works!

WHERE TO STAY:

Gateway to Rann Resort: Dhordho, the last Indian village.

The resort is indeed a gateway to Rann Of Kutch. At a convenient distance of 4 kilometers from the White Rann Of Kutch and walking distance from Rann Utsav, it’s the ideal resort to stay in Kutch during Rann Utsav. The urban traveler can experience living in a ‘Bhunga’, the traditional Kutchi mud houses, without compromising on comfort. The resort is equipped with all the modern facilities minus the unnecessary frills of a 5 star property.

Pic above: Me at Gateway to Rann resort (Pic: Vipul S.) and interiors of a ‘bhunga’

The area is peaceful, and the weather is very pleasant in the winter months. The rooms are spacious and decorated using the Kutchi textile and arts and craft, lending an authentic local flavor to the vacation. There are free music programs (Tips appreciated) during the evening followed by sumptuous Gujrati dinner. There are many Bhungas to choose from. The resort is the ideal place to experience local culture and flavours. The tariff includes the buffet style meals.

 Contacts : Check their website here

Check their tariff here

Mobile: +91-94094 75359 ( 10:00 am to 5:00 pm )

Email: kutchrannresort@gmail.com

Book rooms at least 1 month in advance on the website. The rooms fill up real fast especially on full moon nights. Avoid AC rooms. You don’t need one during winter.

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The GROK. Avoid camel rides. I find it unethical.

Other stay options:

Budget: There are many cheaper small hotels nearby. We checked some and the rooms were available for walk ins. (February). These are run by locals. Ask around and someone will guide you to one such bhunga nearby.

Luxury: Luxury tents by Gujarat Tourism is pretty expensive. Go for it only if you have deep pockets. The location is within the Rann Utsav Campus.

When to visit:

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The locals on the way.

Full moon night between December to February is good. February is ideal because the air is crisp and there are not much tourists. Avoid Christmas and New Year.

Rann Utsav:

Entry is free. There is lot you can do here. We went on the Valentine’s day and still there were not many people. We sat on Charpais (Cot) and had memorable night as a wonderful music band belted one Bollywood song after another. In fact, the concert was one of the highlights of the Rann Utsav. The band played soulful Bollywood numbers to a small attentive audience who got much involved.

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The musical night at Rann Utsav was one of the best part of our experience.

We also saw local dances and cultural shows. It is also a great place for stargazing. Choose a dark moon if you are interested in stargazing. It’s free in Rann Utsav. In fact, everything is free in Rann Utsav except the food and shopping of course!

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Want this touristy picture? Come to Rann! (Pic: Vipul Sinha)

Cab: I hired a cab from Bhuj to Dhordo and back for Rs. 3500 for 2 days. The ride included a visit to Indo-Pak border, Kalu Dunger, Rann Of Kutch, Rann Utsav and a dam on the way.

Tip: Ask your cabbie to stop at the ‘Tropic of Cancer is passing from here’ sign board.

Distances : Mumbai to Bhuj distance – 864 kms.

New Delhi to Bhuj distance – 1139 kms.

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A local at his home. Notice the elegant Pathani Suit and footwear!

QUICK FACTS:

  • The total area of the Greater Rann Of Kutch and Little Rann Of Kutch is a whooping 30,000 square kms.
  • Greater Rann of Kutch is not to be confused with Little Rann of Kutch which is famous for endangered Wild ass and lacks a salt desert.
  • Thanks to tropic of cancer passing through the region, it’s one of the hottest and driest regions in India. (Max. Temp soar upto 50 degrees)
  • A mysterious ‘ghost light’ known locally as ‘Chir Batti’ is reported in the region. On dark nights, villagers have reported seeing a ball of fire (which changes its color) in motion.
  • Bollywood films such as D Day, Ram Leela, Lagaan, The Good Road, Refugee etc are shot here.
  • Rann of Kutch was once a part of Arabian Sea.
  • At the 400 year old Dattatreya temples, the desert jackals, common in the area is fed temple Prasad everyday at 11 a.m. There’s free ‘langar’ for humans Donation advised.
  • The region attracts large numbers of migratory birds, most notably, the flamingos who rest and nest here.
  • The ruins of Dholavira, once a part of great Indus Valley civilisation, is not very far.
  • Rann Utsav, is a 3 month (November to February) festival which celebrates the culture of Kutch in all its glory. Expect great local music, dance, food and stargazing.
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The locals at a Chai (Tea) shop

A quick itinerary: The cheaper way

Day 1:

  • Make sure you catch a train (sleeper class saves money) which drops you at Bhuj early morning. Book a cab (not much of public transport there) for 2 days outside railway station. Head straight to Kalu Dunger. Enjoy the views of Rann, India Pakistan border and ocean from the highest point in Kutch. Nearby is a 400-year-old Dattatreya temple, eat the free community meal called ‘langar’ (It would be great if you can donate some money to a counter nearby, we did!) Watch the jackal feeding ceremony held every day at 11 a.m.
  • Next head to Indira Bridge for the kick of standing on the India Pakistan border.
  • Check in at the hotel. Rest and head to Rann Of Kutch in evening. Stay here till full moon appears. Enjoy the night at the Rann Utsav (Entry free) next to the hotel

Day 2:

Leave Rann and explore Bhuj. There is lot to do in Bhuj viz. ancient monuments, shopping, tasteful food etc. Expect a busy day.  It is a must to plan a day for Bhuj. This small town is full of interesting things to do. The scars of a massive earthquake are still there. Yet, most of the ancient monuments are in good condition. See a 19th century Pragmahal Palace,  Aaina Mahal,  Bhujiyo Hill, Chhatardi, Hamirsar lake, Shree Swaminarayan Temple, Bhujodi village

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These local kids were excited to see us!

———————————————————————————————————————

10 Interesting places to visit near Bhuj

 Circuit 1:

Travellers can go from Bhuj to Ahmedabad. From Ahmedabad, they can drive down to Nal Sarovar Bird sanctuary and Little Rann Of Kutch, in that order.

  • Ahmedabad Participate in a heritage walk in the ancient gated colonies in old city called ‘pols’. Explore the grand Jami Masjid, go on a food trail in this culturally rich city. Distance – 334 kms from Bhuj
  • Little Rann Of Kutch : Its shares the name with Rann of Kutch but the geography of LROK is much different from White Rann Of Kutch. Not many go to the underrated wild ass sanctuary. Dasada is the nearest town. It is 276 kms away from Bhuj.
  • Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary: During winter, this place turns into a birder’s paradise. Lakhs of migratory and local birds congregate here. Time stands still as you watch them return home as the sun sets in comforting silence. Nearest town is Sanand. Sanand is 21 kilometres from Ahmedabad and 309 kms away from Bhuj.
  • Lothal : Nourish your eyes and grey cells by visiting the well preserved ruins of Indus valley civilisation. It is just 85 kms from Ahmedabad.
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Wild Ass sanctuary in Little Rann Of Kutch is only one of its kind.

Circuit 2

 Visitors can club Junagarh and Sasan Gir (in that order) which are both close from Bhuj.

  • Junagarh: Did you know Junagarh hides a secret? A Taj Mahal lookalike, that is! Mahabat Maqbara is an outstanding piece of architecture, much similar to the Taj. A discerning traveller will enjoy the gems such as Jamia masjid, Adi Kadi vav, Buddhist caves, mausoleums, tombs in Junagarh has it. Who would have thought! It is an easy 336 kms away from Bhuj.
  • Sasan Gir: Visit this national park which is the last refuge of the endangered Asiatic lion. Wildlife enthusiasts will love it. It is just 78 kms from Junagarh and 400 kms from Bhuj)
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Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary is a heaven for birdwatchers.

Other excursions:

  • Mandavi Beach The beaches of Mandvi are known for the windmills that dot the shore. It is 60 kms from Bhuj. One can reach here via taxis and buses.
  • Dholavira: History lovers’ paradise, it is an important site and was once one of the main cities of the great Indus Valley Civilisation. A smooth, almost empty and scenic road from Bhuj will take you there. Expect salt desert on either sides of road. It is 218 kms from Bhuj.
  • Lakhpat: The walls of a 18th century fort surrounds this city. History buffs, rejoice! It is 135 kms from Bhuj
  • Porbandar: Kirti mandir, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi’s is the main attraction. Not far away are sanctuaries and beaches. It is 377 kms from Bhuj
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We met a ‘Chakadi’ owner as we drove to GROK. The man and this ‘chakadi’ was featured in a Gujrati film called ‘Ring Road’. How could I not pose here. (Pic: Vipul Sinha)

HOW TO REACH RANN OF KUTCH

Nearest railway station: Bhuj.

From Mumbai

Mumbai to Bhuj:

19131 Kutch Express:  All days (16 hrs)

22903 Bhuj AC Super fast: Wed, Fri, Sun (13 hrs)

Bhuj to Mumbai

19132 Kutch Express:  All days (16 hrs)

22904 BDTS AC S F Express: Mon, Thu, Sat (13:50 hrs)

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Baby bottom smooth road to GROK

From Delhi

Delhi to Bhuj

14311 Ala Hazrat Express: (26 hrs)

From Bhuj

Bhuj to New Delhi

14312 Ala Hazrat Express: Thu, Sun (26 hrs)

14322 Bareilly Express: Mon, Wed, Sat (22 hrs)

The view from my #SoulWindow is full of variety!

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Cover Story by me in Railbandhu

A shorter version of this story was originally published as the Cover Story (February, 2016) of Railbandhu, India’s National Railway magazine.

Email me for collaboration : abhinav21@yahoo.com

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My friends Vipul (left) and Rohit (right) hogging on jalebi and fafda!

Be a part of my journey on social media. The travel content I create there is different from this blog.

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Sweeping views from Kalu Dunger, highest point of Kutch

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WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

TAJ BALLOON FESTIVAL: HAVE YOU SEEN TAJ MAHAL FROM TOP?

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This is how we landed. Clicked immediately after our landing by Baadshah!

img_9261THE BALLOON LANDED WITH A THUD in the middle of nowhere. It first hit the floor, our balloon tips over, rested briefly on the ground, dragged a little and finally stopped. A storm of dust enveloped my face, hair and camera.  I tried to find my balance as I was lying on the wooden basket on ground, my back facing the ground, my legs up in the air. Kind of 90 degrees! My co travelers, who were the next door neighbors a while ago, were now occupying the first floor of the ‘apartment’.  A group of villagers, young, old, kids came rushing to us as the balloon stopped and inflated, like a giant monster destroyed by a superhero. Windy landings are common if the weather is not favourable. It is safe even if the basket tips over. All you need to do is follow the instructions of pilot diligently.

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Local village kids running from one balloon to another in excitement. Adults were excited too but showed restraint.

Richard (from Sri Lanka, in pic below), our pilot said, “I have piloted Hot Air balloon in one of the most exotic locations in the world but I enjoy flying in India the most. The reason is nothing else but the sheer warmth of people and the excitement it builds at the landing place. Every single time!”

I couldn’t agree more with him. The moment we took off from the P.A.C ground in Agra, we were constantly accompanied by a strange cacophimg_9411ony. Nothing like I have heard before. As I looked down from the balloon, I saw small dots waving at us, screaming with joy and abandon. Each one of them was looking up; the kids playing on rooftop of their houses, the ‘ghoonghat’ (veil) clad women on the streets, the shopkeepers and vendors. It was the first balloon ride for all the 6 journalists and bloggers, including me. While we were ecstatic to participate in our first ride ever, the people below were excited just to see us fly.

As we floated lyrically in the air, our happiness found an extension in their happiness. The constant bird’s eye view of the iconic Taj Mahal, one of the 7 wonders of the world made it memorable; once-in-a-lifetime thing. The early morning ride made it amusing for me to see people start their daily routine viz. women drying clothes, school kids readying for school, shopkeepers opening their shops, a group of unruly monkeys jumping across rooftop boundaries of adjoining homes.

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View of balloon from our balloon!

We covered a distance of 10 kilometres in 17 minutes. Another balloon had landed near our landing spot. It was a scandalous site. The balloon stood tall, its fabric poetically waving in the air. Before it collapsed, it attracted the attention of villagers, young and old alike. Young kids ran from all directions, initiating little dust storms. Senior citizens from the villages showed restraint and yet found it hard to hide their excitement! They looked at the balloon in awe, agape mouthed, cracking jokes and sharing good cheer. I sensed that they would perhaps discuss it all day, maybe even all week. This is how a sleepy village comes to life in India.

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The other balloon which attracted much attention. It landed on a stage like hillock making it all the more dramatic.

It was one of the most memorable mornings of my life. I value it even more because I was unable to fly the previous morning. Owing to bad weather (strong winds), I was supposed to be in one of the 5 balloon rides which were cancelled out of 15. Our lady pilot from Malaysia apologized for cancelling the ride. “I am sorry, I shouldn’t be flying today. The winds are too strong. It is my first time in India and I can’t take the risk. You can still hop in the balloon and take selfies though.” Me and my co traveler, were disappointed but understood that it’s better not to fly than to risk it all. Never mind, the sumptuous breakfast (delicious South Indian) at The Grand Imperial was still waiting for us.

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The view of Taj from our Balloon!

I was supposed to leave Agra the same day but I extended my trip for one more day, to give it a shot the next day! I decided to relax the entire day at my comfortable room in Samovar hotel Agra, sometimes sleeping, sometimes gazing at the Taj Mahal from my room. I just happened to get lucky the next day despite the warnings of strong winds again!

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The bird’s eye view of Taj was clear this time, unlike a hazy one during 1st edition in 2015.

My extended stay was a blessing in disguise as I got an opportunity to be witness to the special Night Glow Show of hot air balloons dancing to the tunes of western music. In this event, all the 15 balloons were tethered to the ground and visitors were given a taste of what the real ride would be like. The constant firing gave it a dramatic look especially to those balloons shaped like a cartoon character, Smurf being the most popular one.

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Ballons shaped like cartoon characters ruled!

Kudos to the Uttar Pradesh government for coming up with such initiative. Despite such diverse landscapes and important sites, a Hot Air Balloon scene is conspicuously missing in India. Thanks to companies like E factor and Sky waltz, one can have such experiences in places like Jaipur, Agra etc. Samit Garg, the CEO of E factor told us, “I had a memorable Hot Air Balloon experience in Germany. I wondered why it is not happening in India. So, I decided to introduce it in some destinations in India with much success. Taj Hot Air Balloon festival is a seasonal event and we hope to make it a permanent activity, increasing the present count of 15 to 100 in coming years. We have already grown from 3 days event last year to a six day event this year.”

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Night Glow event!

Tushar, the energetic marketing personnel from E factor told us, “It is a safe activity. Indians now get a chance to explore the world class aviation and adventure sport right in their backyard. It’s really rare that anything goes wrong up in the air. In our history, we have not had any such issues. The visibility is much better this time. Last year, due to smog the view of Taj Mahal from top was cloudy.”  E-factor Adventure Tourism  Pvt. Ltd. runs commercial hot air ballooning flights in India. It promotes and hosts Hot Air Ballooning events in other destinations too.

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Smurf clearly walked away (or is it flew away) with all the attention!

Accomplished pilots from India and countries like Malaysia (female pilot), Sri Lanka (Richard, our pilot), USA, UK, UAE, Poland, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Netherland, Switzerland, Belgium helped make the dream come true for many.

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO OF THE FESTIVAL. CLICK HERE

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Our Malaysian Pilot on day 1. It was her first time in India.

YOU CAN DO IT TOO:

If you are lucky, you might end up winning a lucky draw and do the ride for free. Those interested may submit a form to the tourism office. A lucky draw will be held each evening based upon which winners will be finalized. There is a fixed quota for domestic and international tourists.

When to go: The second edition of Annual Taj Balloon Festival is a 6 day event commencing from 25th November and ends at 30th November. If you missed this year, do give it a try next year!

How to reach: make a 3 to 4 hour long road trip/train ride from Delhi. Agra has an airport. Feel free to book it via Sky Scanner.

One can fly to Delhi and make a trip to Agra or fly to Agra Airport.

When: The 2nd edition is from 25th Novmber to 30th November. In case you miss this event, keep an eye for the dates on UP Tourism website for next year, mostly in November.

Where to Stay: Samovar Hotel is comfortable, luxurious and in cenimg_9221tral location. The meals (I sampled Veg Burger and Stuffed Parathas) are good. There were some issues in TV which was sorted immediately by the maintenance person. Best part: You get view of Taj Mahal all day from your (soul) window. I often lazed around eating and gazing at the Taj from the comfort of the room.  Much like how Shah Jahan must have longingly stared at Taj Mahal when he was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Red Fort. If only Shah Jahan had an option to view Taj from top. I stayed in room number 412.

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This is where we took off from. I clicked this from my balloon up in the air.

Moral Policing:

  • In case your ride is cancelled, please do not argue with the organizers and nag them for a ride. Safety is most important and the weather condition is in nobody’s hand!
  • If you have taken a ride already, don’t ask for another one. There are people waiting for same since the number of people who can ride is limited. This year it was just 400 people.
  • Strictly follow the instructions of your pilot. If he says keep the camera in your bag and sit on the floor of basket, then do it. It is for your own safety.
  • Don’t bend from the basket when it is up in the air.
  • Don’t walk over the deflated balloon. Some of them cost more than Rs. 90 lakhs.
  • Don’t demand a flight over the Taj. No flights are allowed till a certain distance from Taj.
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It was heartening to see locals help trained pilots with packing of balloon. Deflating it is much harder than your think! And they did it 2 times in a day!

The view from my #SoulWindow makes me speechless!

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Bird’s eye view of Taj from the Hot Air balloon. Clicked using an 18-135 mm lens

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A local amused by the unexpected landing!

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Pool Side buffet at Grand Imperial Hotel, Agra. Loved their South Indian fare.
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Locals gathered near our balloon as soon as we landed near the village.