India

New kid on the blog

Presenting Young, new kid on the travel blog.

Young is what happened when Yin and Yang went a little overboard with their travels!

baby travel

He is 3 months old and has already travelled to one country that included 4 cities, 3 flights, one train journey and a few bumpy inter-city car rides!

So we took Young to India as there were a line of grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunties queueing up to see the latest addition. This was his itinerary over a duration of 2 weeks:

While Yang became the typically paranoid mum about how son would cope with the sultry Indian summer and the hectic schedule after a pampered Dubai ‘winter’, Yin was certain he would weather it all. So except for a worrying cough that came along the way, Young responded well by just sleeping! The moment we got onto a vehicle, he’d fall asleep, only to wake up when we reached the destination. We couldn’t have asked for more (and can only hope this trend continues, fingers crossed).

Thus Young successfully completed his first trip.  Travel is never ever going to be the same again! Here’s to a whole lot adventures, madness and fun! Clink, clink!

Just in case you thought otherwise, that was the sound of baby milk bottles.

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Indian passport & travel issues

Note: This post is not really on travel but rather a problem that I faced because of my travel document. Hence relevant only to those with an Indian passport and living in certain countries outside India.

I made a brief weekend trip to India in July to attend a wedding. On my return, at the Emirates check-in counter of Bangalore International airport, I wasn’t allowed to exit and board the flight to Dubai. Eh, why? Because I had an ‘ECR’ stamp on my passport.

I have been in Dubai for the last 3 years, made a couple of trips to India and never faced this problem. However recently, I moved to my own work visa, having been earlier being on a spouse visa. What I didn’t realize was that my passport when issued and renewed, had an ECR stamp.

Indian_PassportSo what’s ECR?

“ECR = Emigration Check Required and as per the Emigration Act, 1983, ECR categories of Indian passport holders require to obtain ‘Emigration Clearance’ from the office of Protector of Emigrants (POE), Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs for going to following 18 countries:  United Arab Emirates (UAE), The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Brunei, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, Lebanon, Thailand, Iraq .

However, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (Emigration Policy Division) have allowed ECR passport holders traveling abroad for purposes others than employment to leave the country on production of valid passport, valid visa and return ticket at the immigration counters at international airports in India w.e.f. 1st October 2007.”

So effectively, I wasn’t allowed to pass immigration and what followed was figuring out how I’d get my passport renewed when all my original documents were back home in Dubai. It meant spending atleast a week in Bangalore, dealing with the Passport Office there and its known bureaucracy, arranging for the papers to be couriered, missing days of work and getting a new passport before I could ‘legally’ exit India.

And then we did something crazy. But legal, I must add.

In short, I used a valid 6-month UK visa and exited India. It was the quickest way out of this unwanted mess. I had no problems at Indian immigration and of course, there was never an issue with entering Dubai. All in all, a stressful 24 hours. And an expensive one too. But all’s well that ends well.

So this one’s for those of you NRI’s, who issued or renewed the passport in the past and not realised that some idiotic passport officer didn’t check your educational qualification and stamped an ‘ECR’ on the passport. Get that rectified now.

I have to get my passport renewed at the Indian consulate in Dubai (which I assume should be far less complicated) so that I can enter my country-of-origin again without fear of being held back again!

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Mumbai. Or Bombay, if I may.

For many Indians, Bombay is the city of dreams, of hitting a jackpot and making it big or losing it all and barely surviving. It is far less complicated for me. It is the city where I was born before I moved elsewhere, a city that I visited every summer during my childhood and a city that, despite its chaos and madness, has a special place in my heart for all the memories it holds.

And it was with this nostalgia that I visited Bombay to bring in 2015 and after a gap of 5 long years. It was just as I expected it to be – buzzing with people, a lot more traffic and pollution, old colonial bungalows replaced with 10-storeyed buildings and vendors selling street food with old haunts still intact (on a related note, the father thinks that it is the pollution that lends extra kick to Bombay’s street food. I try to take that with an extra pinch of dust, oops salt).

Credit: Rajarshi Majumder (Times of India)

So after a night of revelry on New Years Eve, I spent a quiet day catching up with cousins and helping them get over my surprise visit. By sunset, it was time to head out for a long drive from the city to town (as the local’s say) and after an impressive route (impressive because of a new link road, pot-hole free as of then) we reached Marine Drive. This is a long stretch of road also known as Queen’s Necklace because, when viewed at night from an elevated point anywhere along the drive, the street lights resemble a string of pearls in a necklace. Some more driving around town to show some of the city’s landmarks (Gateway & Taj of course) to a cousin’s friend and we finally headed back home not before stopping for an absolutely gorgeous chocolate milkshake at Bachelorr’s (their strawberry shake aint too bad either!).

This post is meant to be about ‘Bombay – the city’ but it is clearly gravitating towards ‘Bombay – what I ate’. Uh oh. You may stop now if you wish. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Day 2 was a lunch-out with the family and since I was allowed to decide, Burmese was the flavour of the day and we headed out to ‘Busago’ a small resto in Bandra that served excellent kaukswe. One of my fav’ areas in Bombay, Bandra is a quirky suburb mixed with Christian/Parsi old-timers, Bollywood celebrities & yuppies and is a great place for shopping and food (street-side, high-end and in-between). It brought back memories of many a summer evening spent on Linking Road, haggling with vendors, buying pairs & pairs of super-cheap shoes and stuffing ‘selves with chaat.

Bombay Pav bhajiTalking about chaat, a visit to Juhu beach was mandatory. This is an 18-km stretch along the shores of the Arabian Sea, horribly crowded on weekends, and dotted on one end with food stalls. And so we went, said hello to the beach and headed straight to ‘Siddhivinayak fast food’ 😀 Do not miss, and I emphasise, do not miss the Cheese Pav Bhaji, a mouth-watering bun & gravy combo loaded with butter and cheese. Another momentary glimpse of heaven. Try everything else they may offer but ensure that you end it on a sweet note with kulfi (cut into cubes on a paper plate and not the usual cone; that’s the beauty).

On Day 3, we visited ‘Elco’, another street stall that started out a few decades ago and has now found its clientele and expanded, with even a branch in Dubai! Post Elco, there was room for dessert and after all the consumption, a stroll along Bandra’s famed ‘Bandstand’ helped in much-needed digestion.

I spent the evening of Day 4 hogging on Vada Pav’s, the famed desi-burger that continues to give Big Macs and their clan a run for their money. On the last day, I went scouting for Dabeli, another delightful burger that I haven’t eaten in years and surprisingly hasn’t found presence pan-India. After a lot of searching, found a sandwich-vendor happy to give in to our demands!

dabeli bombay

I took the flight back as one happy, satisfied kid. There was a 10K run in the offing the week ahead of me and I had gained (more than) adequate energy that I needed for it!

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Uttarakhand

I was looking up some travel photos recently (which I do so every once in a while) and it brought back memories of an exciting trip to North India with a group of cousins.

Our trip was divided into 3 places based on 3 broad criteria!

  • Adventure (trekking)
  • Wildlife (the cousin sis was a ‘tiger lover’ and hence)
  • Climate (being summer time, we had to scout for cooler climes)

So we rounded up on the northern state of Uttarakhand that included:

  • The mountains of Jwarna
  • Jim Corbett National Park
  • The hill-station of Nainital

Jwarna is a small village amidst mountains and to get there, we had to first reach Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s capital best known for its schools and defence establishments. We made the most of our only day in the city frequenting local markets and making most of food stalls. After a 3 hour rickety van ride that included churning of gol-gappas and the momos stomached earlier, we reached our ‘Whispering Pines Himalayan Retreat‘ – a retreat which is a whole lot of tents lined across a well-terraced mountain. The place is nicely tucked away from the rest of the world and the locals who manage it were warm & welcoming and took us through a couple of treks including a moon-lit night trek for 2 hours with a soup-break! Which of course brings me to the pahari (mountain) food – fabulous! Made from produce that they grow locally, our meals were delicious to say the least, and made with tons of love. The bonfire-starters were so good that we insisted on visiting the ‘Maharaj’ (as the head chef is called in parts of northern India) and stopped short of shedding tears of joy while thanking him. Thereon we ate-slept-trekked and continued the cycle for 2 nights and had quite a blast.

Then went downhill to the sweltering hot village of Jim Corbett called Choti Haldwani and stayed in a rustic little cottage for another 2 days. The main point of traipsing in this weather was to see the endangered Bengal tigers that are known to come out of their dens to drink water. But then, our efforts to wake up at 5am went to waste as all we spotted were hundreds of deers and other creatures seen otherwise in daily indian life. If you didn’t count the paw-prints of a tiger, that is, which was apparently hiding nearby according to our jeep driver. (We suspect he had these paw print moulds that were used in advance to create some drama for poor desperate tourists like us). The highlight of Corbett, for me, was being surrounded by orchards and orchards of mango trees and other fruits wherever we went. My cousins had the unfortunate task of trying to hold my hands tight lest I tried some monkey acts out of excitement.

And on our last phase, uphill we went again to the beautiful hill-station of Nainital. We stayed in an old british colonial bungalow converted to a hotel, loitered around the famous Mall Road sampling different cuisines, climbed uphill to the Nainital Zoo (at the insistence of the cousin sis who finally saw a siberian tiger albeit caged), went boating in the pear shaped lake that is synonymous to Nainital and soaked in the wonderful weather. It was a fitting end to the holiday!

Jwarna uttarakhand travel

Jwarna travel trekking

Jwarna food maharaja traveluttarakhand corbett mangroveJim Corbett Park uttarakhand travelCorbett Uttarkhand old ladyCorbett man eaters of kumaoncorbett girl boy uttarakhand travelNainital travel uttarakhand

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Railway rendezvous with Raju

Ma and I walk into the platform, lugging our bags along. There is a spare seat in one of those typical 3-seater benches you find in any railway station. Ma requests the two young fellows seated – Raju and Teju – to make place for a third and fourth, insisting that I do not stand for the next two hours (with due courtesy to the punctual Indian train system).

This is Bangalore and the boys seated next to us are conversing in Bengali. They appear to be in their mid-twenties, dressed in simple clothes and carrying a duffel bag each. With all the time to kill, Ma and me speculate on what could they be doing in life. We eventually conclude that they are cooks in Bangalore (broadly on the fact that the city has a lot of male cooks from Odisha) and are possibly going back home for a short break.

Curiosity gets the better of the mother and soon enough, a conversation commences with her asking them where they are heading to. Raju, the chattier of the two, also wants to know where we are from and what we do. Infact, he shoots off a string of questions about us and Ma suddenly gets cautious (we are returning from a wedding and she has some jewellery in her bag!). However, the guys seem affable and she continues to chat giving them enough information that should do us no harm. And then, it is our turn to ask them questions. Both of us in our Hindi best.

railway travel

I must admit that this pic was taken on the sly. In hindsight, I should have just asked their permission and they’d have gladly posed!

Raju tells us that they are farmers from a small town an hour away from Kolkatta. He has worked in the fields from a very young age and has always wanted to travel. Last year he made a solo trip down south to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, his maiden voyage outside Kolkatta. He further explains that he keeps some savings aside for travel whenever possible and this is his second vacation;  he has brought along good friend Teju to see the world outside Bengal. Our speculation proved wrong, we are now donning the interviewers’ hat and wanting to know what places he visited and liked, any challenges faced with language and of course, food. Raju tells us that while there were occasionally problems every now and then especially with communication, the overall experience was wonderful. And then he tells us something more. Nothing possibly new to you or me, but something good to hear every now and then.

“Every person must travel wherever he/she can, even with limited means. We meet people very different from us and learn something new everywhere we go. There are sights that amaze us and some that shock us but every experience is enriching and makes us wiser and more understanding.”

We chat a little longer and Raju and Teju are off to board their train to Chennai. They found the nippy weather of Bangalore a little too cold for their liking and are eager to discover a warmer city. And to devour idli-sambar.

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La Nostalgie

Nostalgia comes to all of us in various forms. A place visited, something you ate years back, a school reunion, a song. And then, something as cringe-worthy as hearing someone blow her nose.

When I set foot in France, the weather was just transitioning from autumn to winter. Could it be the climate change or could it just be that the French (or westerners to generalize) use a lot more tissues in their daily lives than Indians? Right from cleaning a food stain to wiping sweat to more intimate (t)issues that may not be worth detailing. All said, tissues are finding increased usage in India too – however, growing up (the 80’s generation and before) we have seen a lot more hankies, towels and water being used for all of the above mentioned!

So my initial reaction to hearing tram passengers in Strasbourg blow their nose vigorously for a good 2 minutes was one of horror. I mean, yes I know something is bothering you, nice pretty woman – but why be so loud and open about it? And before I knew, the elderly gentleman next to me was also blowing his nose. And another one. In a few days, horror gave way to amusement, and among other things, I self-entertained my daily commute by listening to different tones, rhythms & intensities.

Now comes the embarrassing part, but it becomes imperative that I am honest here. You know that saying “When in rome….” – well, a few weeks down the line and I was one of them. Painting a not-so-pretty rouge picture of my round nose like just every one of ’em. Blame it on the icy weather, I say!

Anyway that runny-nose phase has gone past. Two days ago, the newly-joined French intern at work blows her nose. Just like the way they all do. And I once did. And strangely enough, I stopped what I was doing, looked at her and smiled, a sense of déjà vu totally enveloping me.

Strange, this nostalgia.

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The Dharamsala Diary

Two sisters set out on a ‘spiritual’ holiday albeit without a plan.

DharamsalaFlight in to Delhi. Rendezvous with a friend who took us around a wonderful tour of the Delhi University followed by a delicious Roti-shoti, paneer & Dal Makhni lunch. All 3 of us, newbies to the capital, clearly underestimated its traffic and what followed was driving around the city, jumping in and out of the metro and eventually missing the ‘luxury’ air-conditioned bus to Dharamsala. At the end, after further haggling and ‘jugaad’, we got onto a sub-standard ‘deluxe’ bus filled in abundance with smiling Buddhist monks in their maroon robes  – and post a tense last couple of hours, we couldn’t have asked for a more spiritual start!

After 12 hours of a bumpy sleepless night, we finally reached the pleasantly cold hill-station. Unable to reach our home-stay owner and with little clue as to its address, the trudge uphill began and after yet another Dalai Lama residencehour, moving away from the increasingly commercialised town-centre, we spotted our yellow-red bungalow perched atop a hill.

Flourishing Flora‘ is run by the Sarin’s – a Punjabi/Maharashtrian couple – and their sons. We got a room facing a lovely view of the hills and surrounded by trees (along with a whole lot of insects for company) and more importantly, devoured delicious food cooked by Aunt Sarin. Who’d think an otherwise boring ‘Upma‘ could be so ‘out-of-the-world’? But then, I digress yet again.

MonksAnd so, here we were – at the adopted land of His Holiness The Dalai lama. A little town crowded and unkempt, yet vibrant with people across nationalities roaming around the streets. Visited the Namgyal Monastery and tried to take a sneak-peak inside the huge gates of bungalow where ‘he’ resides, but was promptly shooed away by the guards. Came out dejected with the weather also looking downcast. And then 2 extraordinary events followed: we devoured the most amazing banofee-pie and happening in parallel, were sudden hailstorms. Yes, hailstorms galore that lasted a whole ten minutes!

Hill-goatie!

Our Dharamsala stay included a couple of other monasteries – The Karmapa monastery, away from the city – peaceful and soothing with cute li’l monks in their prayer robes. And the Norbuling Monastery – much bigger, beautiful with a seemingly Zen-inspired architecture & calm all around.

Not to forget the 18 kms-long trek to and from Triund Hill. Definitely not for the faint-hearted, but more than worth the effort.  So we huffed and puffed and forced ourselves to walk that extra mile, but that moment when we got the first glimpse of white mountains amidst the greens and browns – all exhaustion was momentarily forgotten! Until we had to return downhill, which was by no means easier.

Lastly, there was Dalhousie.

Lesson learnt: Sometimes, travel NEEDS planning beforehand. What to visit and what NOT to visit. With little Peaceresearch plus trying to avoid another night in the bus, we decided to spend the last couple of days in Dalhousie. A town where nothing seems to have changed since India got its independence. A place where everything seemed to be ‘under-repair’. Including Khajjiar, oh-so-badly maintained despite a large pole with a flag claiming it to be the “Switzerland” of India. Shameful because there was no need for comparison in the first place, and deeply disappointing because the difference couldn’t have been more stark.

All said, there is a so much more to Himachal than Dharamsala & Dalhousie. And one day, we shall be back.

Om mani padme hum. May more people travel, understand one another and may peace prevail on earth!

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The great indian rail journey

36 hours of free time.
Chai/Kapi-wallahs.
Packed food.
Cockroaches.
Green fields.
Brown rugs.
Smelly toilets.

Positive or negative, nothing can evoke a strong sense of nostalgia like that of a train journey. To me, the quintessential train journey of my childhood was that taken from Coimbatore to Bombay (yes yes, Mumbai) and back during summer vacations. Fortunately, for most of these 36 odd hour-long trips, we were able to afford a 2-tier air-conditioned coach (there were no 3-tier AC coaches then). Tamilians, Malayalis, Gujjus & Sindhis would form the majority of passengers travelling this route. Strangers would become friends by the end of the journey.

An interesting observation that sticks to my mind was the always-uniform food habits. The south indians would invariably home-pack their food. Tamarind rice and curd rice would be neatly wrapped in banana leaves & old newspapers alongside spoons and paper plates. A Bombay-bred family like ours would sometimes carry theplas (spiced Indian flat bread) in aluminum foil as well. Nothing, and I repeat NOTHING could replace Idlis (rice dumplings) smeared with chilli powder (and sugar at times) as the staple train breakfast. Buying from trains or stations was not the norm. In sharp contrast was the gujju family seated next to us. The mother (or better still grandmother) would first remove the knife, then the kairi (raw mango) which was deftly and finely chopped along with an onion. A quick mix of this with puffed rice and the masalas culminated in a delicious looking Bhel which was then distributed and consumed. And mind you, this was just the appetiser. While I recall it to be a great ‘timepass’ watching the fervour with which these folks consumed their food (and occasionally offered me as well), I must admit that it did not contribute much for the tidiness or odour of the place!

As years passed by, only overnight or half-day journeys were preferred, the one I now classify into the ‘insomniac’ and the ‘contemplative’ trips. The former being overnight sleepless train journeys where one hears atleast 4 different types of snores in various intonations and rhythms! And the latter which start early morning and reach the destination by noon/evening. These are ones where you read a book, take a nap, and contemplate life by looking at the countryside.

I think most of us Indians have gone through these varied emotions at some point in time on the train – cringing in disgust while visiting the loo, the thrill in getting off a station for a few minutes and rushing back before as the bell rings, the excitement at spotting your loved one waiting to receive you at the station or the deep-down feeling of sadness when you wave frantic good-byes as the light goes green and the train slowly chugs along to its destination.

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Go, get Leh-d! (Kashmir)

IMG_0475

(In continuation with the earlier post on Ladakh)

“Plan only a part of the intended travel. In anticipation of the unknown, lies the adventure.”

I like a little bit of planning because the groundwork is fun – to have a basic sense of the geography of the place, the culture and an attempt to search a little in-depth and discover little treasures tucked away from the regular sights.

And so, having reached Ladakh, we had no clue what we were doing for the second half of our trip. Which resulted in an impromptu overnight drive to Kashmir via Kargil. And what a night that was!

IMG_0330Leading the way were two ladakhi youngsters taking charge of a rugged and much-abused SUV – it all started well with 2 traditional and hummable ladakhi songs. Which later turned out to be the ONLY two songs they had in their ‘cassette’ and the ONLY two songs we heard in-loop for the most part of our journey!  “Jojolejo-nonoleno” (whatever that means) still rings an air of nostalgia!

The road (if one would call a mud path so) through the mountains was nightmarishly narrow and winding. The only sound was that of river Jhelum gurgling right below us in full frenzy. Luckily the moonlit night helped give some direction to the dual-song obsessed drivers who drove like men who had an overdose of Red Bull. IMG_0430After a brief stop at 11am for some excellent dhaba ‘rajma & rice’, we reached Kargil at 2 pm hoping to get some rest till morning. The infamous town was eerily silent and the J&K tourism lodge that we spent the rest of the night will go down in history as one of the worst-kept rooms ever!

The next morning, after a brief homage at the Kargil Memorial and ‘chai’ at Drass, we reached Srinagar. The Kashmir of my childhood (in 1988, when we did a family trip) was just as beautiful but with security personnel holding rifles at every nook and corner. Dal lake was just as beautiful and the weather was perfect. And it is worth mentioning how gorgeous the men and women look (Psst: I was shamelessly ogling at some women with flawless skin and pink cheeks and briefly IMG_0519had the husband worried). Spent 2 lovely days on and around the lake before it was time to head back.

My 2 cents:

J&K is a paradise for backpackers, honeymooners, families, spiritual seekers. And despite all the turmoil that the state goes through, it must be visited once in one’s lifetime. Enough said.

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Go, get Leh-d! (Ladakh)

Audacious title, I hear?

But that is pretty much what you need to do! A lot has been written, plenty spoken, and visuals galore but like any traveller would tell you – Seeing is Believing. Seeing is Experiencing.

Having booked during October which is the off-season and pretty much end of the tourist season (after which the roads apparently close due to snow) we took advantage of some relatively cheap tickets and on one wintery morning, landed on the pretty ‘little’ Leh airport. But wait! That was just not ANY landing! Towards the last 15 minutes of the flight, the landscape had transformed from the usual white-clouds-and-blue-sky to a vivid mountaneous region with snow-capped peaks. Amidst a spellbound expression, one hurriedly pulls out the camera, at the same time remembering the air hostess’ warning not to use it, but really should anyone care? Some quick captures just to freeze that moment for the future, and then we are back staring out open-mouthed.

So yes, back to the li’l airport with an army base nearby. After collecting our luggage we hop into a small van that takes us to closer to the city centre. And then off walking into a small lane and we are directed to our haven for the next few days: Sia-la guesthouse.

Sia-la, a little gem that was discovered by chance on the internet after hours of research, since we were particular about getting a home-stay kind of accommodation. The guesthouse is synonymous of its lady owner Zarine – charming, warm and welcoming. All you have to do is ask her for tea and be assured to spend the next couple of hours in her living room sipping traditional chai and biscuits, hearing stories of the city, her ancestors and the changing youth of Ladakh. To me, Zarine signifies 3 notable characteristics I observed among the ladakhis during my brief stay – humble, hospitable & peace-loving.

Step out of Sia-la and what you will not miss in this land are:

  • Bare-brown mountains and ice-blue waters

It could have been the timing, but late October and the onset of winter allows one to witness an expanse of bare brown mountains with a few snow capped peaks. Not an iota of green. A trip from Leh to Dikshit/Hunder goes through 2 gigantic mountains and a ~3kms long road that connects them. Its BREATHTAKING. It makes you appreciate nature so much more. It can just make you fall in love all over again! Oh but I digress….

And then there is the Pangong-Tso, one of the most picturesque lakes in India, with every hue of blue that you’d find on a paint catalogue! A lake that has been kind enough to be 25% Indian – the rest of which is in China – and allow travellers to experience its beauty. And if you can brave the cold, stay overnight right near the lake in a few available tents!

  • Pagodas and Buddhas

You see them all along – little white structures called ‘chortens’ on the side of roads, on hilltops – just about anywhere. And the famed Sanchi stupa from where one can have a birds eye view of the city. Then, the monasteries – beautiful colourful structures that stand apart in the region. While there are the more popular ones like Shey & Thiksey, if you’re ready to rough up a ride – do not miss Sumur monastery in the Nubra Valley. Set amidst an amazingly picturesque village with out-of-nowhere greenery, this 150 year old structure provides a fascinating view of the valley, and has a storehouse of a huge collection of thangkas (buddhist silk paintings) and is surrounded by apricot and apple trees!

  • Thukpas and Yak-cheese

The food is super-delicious! More than due credit given as winter sets in and consumables are hard to get (the roads close and much cant be grown in this region) so how restaurants whip up varied stuff is beyond me! A must-try are thukpas (veg/meat noodle soup) and ofcourse, yak-cheese pizzas! And on road journeys, don’t be surprised to encounter little joints that serve hot paranthas or Maggi noodles!! Maggi – SO popular even in places where local noodles should be ruling!

And while we are at it, the road from this little paradise on earth leads to Kargil-Drass and towards Srinagar….

Categories: India, Travelogue | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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