Friday, April 24, 2015

Mountains Calling- Gangtok

The beauty of North Eastern states has it's own charm and we had our hearts set on visiting them. This dream finally turned into reality with Gangtok. Bidding adieu to the toy train and the beautiful home-stay in Darjeeling, we hit the open road again heading to Sikkim only to catch better views of Kanchenjunga.

The route to Gangtok from Darjeeling via Kalimpong is beautiful but be mindful of the very steep roads until you connect NH 31 A, that runs from Siliguri to Gangtok. The highway is fantastic to ride on offering views of deep gorges, alpine forests. snow clad mountains and river beds. From Kalimpong, BRO came to our rescue and offered spectacular roads until Gangtok. Since it is a hilly terrain, we recommend caution while riding on these roads as they are prone to landslides.

On the way to Kalimpong, we stumbled upon the beautiful village of Lamahatta, The pine forests on one side of the road and the mesmerizing views of the white mountains on the other side guarantee peace and tranquility. The best way to explore this village is to take a hike to a nearby lake surrounded by pine trees or a trek to the monastery that is more than a hundred years old. If you want to unwind, visit the garden and catch up on reading your book with the breeze helping you turn those pages. The perfect place for you to reconnect with Nature and get lost in your surroundings. This village with a population of less than a hundred is one of the few places that had not yet seen commercialization, virgin beauty at its best!

We reached the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok and we must admit it was pretty impressive. In our opinion, Gangtok is well planned and the infrastructure is better compared to Darjeeling. The city is very clean and litter free with a pleasant climate. A traveler can keep Gangtok as base and do a few tours- Gurudongmar lake, Yumthang Valley/Zero point, Nathu La Pass, Zuluk valley, Rumtek Monastery.

Like all monasteries, Rumtek Monastery too is perched really high on a hill with breathtaking views of the city. Also known as the Dharma Chakra Centre, this enchanting monastery has an institute for Monks within the premises and houses a Golden Stupa (Lhabab Chodten) that contains the precious relics and holy remains of the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. This monastery is heavily guarded by the Indian Army and you are required to provide an identification proof at the entrance so make sure you carry one with you.

It is a grave sin if you do not visit MG Marg while you are in Gangtok. An evening stroll is bliss here, vehicles are banned on this lane making it a walker's paradise and the entire Marg has brilliant watering holes. One can see the entire city unwind, mingle and relax here post sunset. We highly recommend Baker's Cafe as they serve exceptionally good food. Their pizzas and ginger black tea are perfect for the winter weather. And of course their heavenly ginger cookies and sinful waffles would make you visit their cafe everyday during the entire duration of your trip. No trip to a North Eastern state is complete without gorging on piping hot momos and thukpa and MG Marg provides a lot of options for those to choose from.

We checked into Park Residency, a very basic and budget accommodation with clean rooms and bath. They provide 24 hours running hot water and their location is brilliant. The service is exceptionally good, Mr. Gupta takes hospitality to new heights and is always available to help you plan your trip.

Next stop Gurudongmar Lake

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Darjeeling- Queen Of Hills

Darjeeling, the sensational hill station, is mere 75 km away from Siliguri. Initially, the ride was exceptionally good. We had great roads, lush green tea plantations, the mountains and to add more charm- the tiny tracks of the famous toy train never left our sight. It was amazing to see these tracks crisscross through the ghat section. However, half way through the ride the roads turned narrow, became congested and were filled with potholes. This continued till we reached Darjeeling and the rider was faced with more challenges as the roads were way too steep to ride. There were times when the pillion had to get off the bike and give it a little boost.

Like the saying goes 'No pain no gain,' the finale was fruitful. Our very first sight of the phenomenal steam power locomotive made our day. The train was all decked up for a cultural show. It was indeed quite a lovely sight to admire this age old beauty serving to this day chugging out smoke and blowing the iconic horn that echoes around the valley. It awakened the child within us wanting to hop on to it for a joy ride.

This Queen of hill stations is way colder than any of the other places that we have been to in Nepal. The mornings are beautiful with the first sun rays falling on the peaks of Kanchengunga giving it an orange tinge. This place with abundant natural beauty soothes your soul almost instantly. The people are warm and welcoming and very helpful. The sun sets at 5 pm and so does the hill station. Shop owners shut their business at sunset. A perfect time to mingle with your family and friends around a bonfire, sharing stories and enjoying dinner. Unlike, the unhealthy lifestyle of always being hooked to your gadgets with virtual friends.

This place could have been more beautiful had it not been for the poor infrastructure. The narrow roads make sure that vehicles pile up one behind another for kilometers. In spite of the jam, the people wait patiently following traffic rules but for the vehicles that run for the government. If you are on your own vehicle you might have a nightmare finding a parking spot. Apart from the abundant natural beauty, Darjeeling offers some spectacular monasteries such as Ghoom, Dali, Bhutia Busty.

The Ghoom monastery is very calm and peaceful. It is ideal to visit the monastery in the evening and watch monks showcase their soccer skills. They were at their innovative best, playing with a make shift ball rolled out of nothing but plastic bags that was taking a beating.

Dali Monastery, home to more than 200 monks, was built by Kyabje Thuksey Rimpoche in 1971. The walls of this monastery are adorned with beautiful paintings depicting the life of Buddha. It also has a library with a huge collection of books on Buddhism and Tibetan culture.

Bhutia Busty Monastery is a lesser known monastery hidden high up on a hill offering a very peaceful and serene atmosphere. The view of the entire town from here is pretty spectacular. Tucked away 12 km from Darjeeling, it is well worth a visit. An interesting fact about the monastery is that though it is located in the West Bengal district of Darjeeling, it belongs to the State of Sikkim. This place also attracts few tourists as it is believed to house the  'Tibetan Book of the Dead' in their library but contrary to this popular belief, the monastery has given a clarification that it does not exist.

The Batasia loop, an engineering marvel, is where the toy train makes a 360 degree turn. A War Memorial was constructed in 1995 at this site to pay homage to martyrs of this land who did the supreme sacrifice - Laid down their lives to protect their Motherland.

Padmaja Naidu Zoo - This zoo is internationally recognized for its conservation breeding programs of Snow Leopard, Red Panda and Tibetan Wolf. It is the first in South East Asia to have successfully bred Red Panda in captivity and later released them in the wild. It is funny how mankind functions, we as beings are so self centered that we do not care about the repercussions urbanization has on the environment. By the time we wake up, it is already too late.

Though we do not appreciate animals being kept in captive, it is commendable to see the conservation efforts taken up by this zoo. Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park is specialized in educating, creating awareness, captive breeding and releasing endangered animal species in their natural habitat- the Eastern Himalayan region. Some noteworthy wildlife here includes Black Leopard, Snow Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Common Leopard, Red Panda, Leopard Cat, Jungle Cat.

Within the park premises is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The museum in the institute is worth a visit as it exhibits gears used by mountaineers for expeditions. Please keep in mind that the zoo and institute are closed for maintenance every Thursday. A kilometer away from the zoo is the Tenzing Rock where you can try your hand at rock climbing.

Last but not the least, your trip to Darjeeling is incomplete if you do not ride on the UNESCO World Heritage Himalayan Railway or the affectionately called Darjeeling Toy Train. The joy ride covers 14 km and lasts for about 2 hours. The toy train stops at the Batasia Loop War Memorial for about 10 minutes and for 30 minutes at Ghoom railway station giving one enough time to visit the Ghoom Railway museum. It is an incredible experience to travel on this piece of History, lovely to see the train chugging through the small hill town and providing mesmerizing views of Kanchenjunga. Everyday there are 4 joy rides with very limited seats. It would be a good idea to plan and accommodate this first in your itinerary. Each ticket costs 400 INR.

We checked into Merry Resort, this is easily one of the best properties in Darjeeling. Once a home for the Maharaja, this heritage property was converted to a hotel or more of a home-stay. The views of the Kanchenjunga from the room are priceless. It is tucked away in a corner with no clutter around and lots of breathing space which is really hard to find in Darjeeling. At the same time, it is only 2 km away from the main market and all other tourist attractions are dotted nearby. The place offers 24 hours running hot water, WiFi at the lobby and brilliant food. The staff are friendly and helpful. Above all, the pricing is a steal deal.

Next stop Gangtok

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lumbini- Land Of Buddha

"The mind is everything. What you think you become." - Gautama Buddha.

Leaving the mountains behind, we headed to Lumbini The Birth Place of Siddhartha Gautama, ideally the birth place of Buddhism. The Siddhartha highway that runs between Pokhara & Lumbini is a delight for any motorist. There are several ghat sections with views of deep gorges and the river Kali Gandaki for company. The road conditions are pretty good, however, do watch out for signage indicating landslide prone areas. Ideally, the journey can be covered in a day but it would be a good idea to stop over at the historic town of Tansen and check out the Amar Narayan Temple and Tansen bazaar. The roads from Tansen to Lumbini, apart from a few odd kilometers, are pretty good.

Lumbini, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the most sacred places for Buddhists. The Lumbini Development Zone is home to the Maya Devi Temple, Ashoka Pillar, Pushkari Pond, and Bodhi Tree.

Maya Devi Temple- Legend has it that Maya Devi was on the way to her maternal home and it was in Lumbini that she felt labor pains and grasped a branch of a tree for support and gave birth to the Prince in 623 BC. Later, as a mark of respect, a temple was erected here which was renovated and a newer structure stands guard around the birth stone. In order to avoid waiting in long queues it would be a good idea to reach the temple early in the morning. The temple gates are open from 6 am.

Ashoka Pillar- It is believed that Emperor Ashoka visited this place in 249 BC and erected the Ashoka pillar in front of the temple. The inscription on the pillar provides evidence that this is the birthplace of Gautama Buddha.

Puskarni Pond- This is where Maya Devi had taken a bath before giving birth to Buddha. It was in this same pond that Buddha was given his first bath.

Bodhi Tree- This tree is considered sacred and is decorated with prayer flags. One can sit under this tree and meditate. The sacred gardens around the temple add more charm to the place. One can spot remains of virahas, stupas and layers of brick structures with some dating back to 3rd century BC which stand as a testimony that this place was considered a Buddhist pilgrim center from a very early time.

Every Buddhist nation across the globe has its presence in Lumbini by constructing extravagant temples/monasteries in the International Monastic Zone as a mark of respect to Buddhism and help promote Lumbini as a center for World peace. The most extravagant being the Myanmar & German Monastery. Also, do check out the extravagant paintings depicting the life of Buddha on the walls of these monasteries. 

Just a kilometer away from the main attractions is the World Peace Pagoda. It is an ideal place to watch the sunset.

It is a good idea to explore Lumbini by foot, on a cycle or a rickshaw. Take a walk around the village, meet the locals and feel reconnected with nature. The evening breeze not just refreshes your body but also your soul. A beautiful place to watch huge wet lands, kids playing in the fields, birds returning to their nest and the sun setting in the pink sky.

An abode of peace and tranquility, this is a perfect place for soul searching, meditating and spiritual awakening. This place is not just for the pilgrims but is truly a Nature lovers' delight. One can spot Nilgais walking around in the garden, it is a sanctuary for birds and do not be surprised if you see a lot of painted storks, egrets and many other birds welcoming you to the garden early in the morning.

We checked into Hotel Peaceland. This place is highly unprofessional and is a perfect example of how one "Terrible" experience can ruin the entire notion about the place. We stayed here for 3 nights and during the last night's stay we headed to the restaurant for dinner and were taken aback when the waiter asked us to come later as they were expecting guests. Though shocked, we wanted to be considerate and ordered food to be served in our room. Not surprisingly even after more than an hour there was no sign of food despite several calls. Finally, we cancelled our order. This left us questioning if they were expecting guests to arrive who were we then. This was a good enough reason for us to not recommend this hotel to fellow travelers. There are several other properties around such as Lumbini Bamboo Resort, Hotel Zambala.

With Lumbini as our last stop, we wrapped up our Nepal trip and headed to India. Hetauda would be an ideal stop over if you are leaving from Lumbini. It  has quite a few budget hotels and this would be a refreshing stop as there are good eat outs and markets around. We said goodbye to the Himalayan country and headed to our very own Incredible India. It looked like our 21 day road trip across Nepal just flew by at the blink of an eye. From here on, we continued to explore the Himalayan ranges of North East.

Next stop Darjeeling

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Pokhara Magical City Of Lakes.

We back tracked to the beautiful and winding Prithivi Highway heading to Pokhara. As we descended down from Gorkha to the highway, little did we know that we would be riding through thick clouds with near zero visibility in super cold conditions. Thanks to our riding gear that kept us warm and cozy. It was only when we reached the highway that we realized our helmet visor had taken a beating and was covered in mist making us aware of how extreme the climate can get.

From here on, the snow clad high altitude Annapurna range joined hands with Trishuli to be our companion all along. Every click on the odometer got us closer to the mighty Himalayan ranges. We were so engrossed in admiring the beauty around us that we did not realize we had reached Pokhara.

Pokhara is where the mighty mountain peaks play hide and seek with you, one minute you view them and the next minute they are hidden behind the clouds. Though the city is one of the most important ones in the tourist radar, it is not as chaotic and crowded as Kathmandu. Phewa lake dominates Pokhara, around which the entire city is built. There are truck loads of options to stay at the lake side in Pokhara. However, we headed to the dam side which is more calm and peaceful.

Star attractions of Pokhara are World Peace Pagoda, Davis falls, Gupteshwor Mahadev Caves, Phewa Lake, Begnas and Rupa tal.

Like every off road of Nepal, a steep partly paved and unpaved road leads you to World Peace Pagoda. From the bike park, it is only a couple of minutes hike and you reach the Stupa. This is the first World Peace Pagoda in Nepal. One can catch stunning views of Phewa lake & the City from here. The complex houses a Japanese Buddhist Temple as well, which is worth a visit.

En-route Peace Pagoda is Davis falls and Gupteshwor Mahadev Caves. Davis falls has a tragic story behind it- in 1961 a Swiss tourist lost his life here and the falls were named after him. The stunning fact about this place is the water disappears into a tunnel after reaching the ground. It is even more flabbergasting to hear the water gushing but not being able to view the path that it takes to reach the tunnel. No wonder it is called as Patale Chango (underground falls) by the locals. The source of the water is Phewa lake and it channels down into a naturally formed cavern- Gupteshwor Mahadev Caves.

Crossover to the other side of the road and diagonally opposite to Davis falls, you will find the entrance of Gupteshwor Mahadev Caves. Head down a fleet of spiral staircase and you enter a cave that is believed to be 500 years old and the largest in South Asia. Mid way you can spot a naturally formed Swayambhu Shivling. As you approach the other end of the cave, you can hear water rumbling inside the caves. We were very excited and curious to see the Davis falls. When it seemed like one mystery was solved, an even more perplexing one popped up. Ideally there should be a huge water body at the end of the falls, but surprisingly we saw very little water at the end of the cave. We stood there admiring the mysteries of nature.

Phewa Lake: This massive water body attracts hordes of tourists and the charming little boats lined up were too inviting that we hopped onto one and headed to another attraction on the lake - The Varahi temple. This two storied Pagoda styled temple can be reached only by boat. From here, you have a beautiful view of the World Peace Pagoda. This serene lake is so soothing to the heart and soul that one invariably sits there and soaks in the beauty around. You can even rent a boat for the entire day and row around as far as you wish.

Begnas & Rupa Tal: Only 11 km from Pokhara in the town of Lekhnath are these two magnificent lakes. These lakes receive only a handful of tourist footfall when compared to Phewa. Hence, a calm and serene atmosphere is guaranteed. The reflection of the icy peaks on the still lake add more magic. One can sit here for hours together and travel into the oblivion. We preferred this place over Phewa lake for boating as there are way lesser boats in the lake at any given time. However, the restaurants around the place serve substandard food and should be avoided.

It surely is blissful to wake up early in the morning and walk around the lake covered with misty clouds and get a chance to see locals fishing in the lake. We saw a father teach his son the techniques of fishing and at the same time teaching him one valuable lesson of life- patience. The one who waits patiently gets rewarded in the end. You can also cycle around the lake if you wish to. Also, with many paddy fields around the lake you may treated to a lot of egrets flying around and pretty much settling around those fields.

If you are looking for adventure or an adrenaline rush, Pokhara will definitely not disappoint you. You can head to Sarangkot for Paragliding. This is the launching spot for para gliders and offers spectacular views of the Annapurna Range. You have lot of other activities as well such as hiking, trekking. The sunrise and the sunset views from Sarangkot are picturesque.

The best place to treat yourself will be the 'German Bakery.' This place is a food lovers paradise- the pastries are sinful, the Swiss apple pie and hash brown potatoes are to die for. The ginger black tea compliments their food really well. It would be a great idea to head to this place for breakfast and evening bites. The one place in Pokhara that you should definitely not miss.

We checked into Hotel New Nature Land at dam side, this budget hotel offers good rooms, satellite TV, 24 hr running hot water, WiFi, exclusive parking. Their service is good and location is excellent. The hotel is just a kilometer away from the lake but miles away from the chaos and hardly any distance from other attractions. The views from the corner rooms and the balcony are scintillating.

In Lekhnath town, we checked into Grand Hotel Begnas, a budget hotel that offers spacious rooms, WiFi, clean sheets and views of Begnas lake and mountain peaks. Their service is decent but the food is terrible. With the same amount of cleanliness and space but with lot a better views at an even lesser price check out the 'Day break Lodge and Restaurant.'

Next stop Lumbini.