Saturday, January 30, 2016

Rajgir - The Crown of Magadha Kingdom

Rajgir, the first capital of Magadha Kindom that later on became the Mauryan Empire, has a lot of tales to tell every inquisitive visitor with a keen interest in history. This city is not just mentioned in the epic "Mahabharata" but also finds a place in Jainism and Buddhism scriptures and has a cluster of attractions spread across 3 lanes- defining Incredible India. This tiny town in the remote part of India has more than enough to give treasure hunters sleepless nights.

Sone bhandar Caves is the ultimate mysterious challenge and more like an Indiana Jones moment in Rajgir. This simple looking cave could very well be your elite luxurious retirement bonanza. If only you could decipher the inscription on the caves. Legend has it that incredible amount of gold and precious stones are hidden here and cracking this code would be the key to this treasure. When Britishers failed the intelligence test of our forefathers they resorted to brute force by firing canon balls in the hope of getting their hands on the booty. Needless to say their choice was not a smart one.

En-route to sone bhandar is Maniyar Matt dedicated to serpent Goddess. This structure resembles a well and has some interesting images such as Ganesh with snakes wrapped around, a six armed dancing Shiva and a four armed Vishnu. Sadly though most of these images have been ruined.

Bimbisar Jail or barely the remains of it today. If not for the board by Bihar Tourism, this place left us perplexed as to what should we see. It just looks like any other barren land. However, we were told that there was an underground prison where King Bimbisar was imprisoned by his son Ajatashatru. The site for the prison was chosen by the King himself, over looking the Griddhakuta hill. This hill is believed to have been used by Buddha to preach and the King being a disciple of Buddha wanted this privilege.

Another striking and almost unbelievable yet a pretty convincing place that makes you question your own reasoning ability is Lord Krishna's Chariot marks left on a very hard rocky surface. There are two tracks that run parallel to each other for several meters. It is very firmly believed that these are the wheel tracks of Krishna's Chariot. We believe Hindu Mythology is completely factual or one hell of a grand illusion.

Head to Brahma Kund to experience one of the many hot water springs in India. This is one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites. People strongly believe that the water here has great healing powers. The many temples around the hot water spring offer a very charming and serene ambience. We sat there immersed in thoughts losing track of time. The only downside to this place appears to be self declared pseudo priests and guides who offer unwanted advice and charge a fee. You will find many of them who may ruin your time there. It would be a better idea to stay away and not encourage such people as you never know how much they might end up charging you.

Vishwa Shanti Stupa is a breathtaking beautiful pagoda built on top of a hill and can be accessed via rope way or a tedious trek. The stupa is home to 4 statues of Buddha made of gold depicting birth, enlightenment, teaching and passing away of Lord Buddha. There is also a monastery and the views of the valley from here are amazing.The tickets for the rope way are issued from 8 am to 4.30 pm and keep in mind there is a one hour lunch break.  A round trip ticket for the rope way is priced at Rs 60.

On the way to Shanti Stupa stand the ruins of  Jeevak Aamravan, a residence cum hospital that was run by Jeevak Kaumarbhritya. Jeevak was a renowned physician in the royal court of  Bimbisar and Ajatashatru. He even treated Lord Buddha and there are accounts of his medical practice mentioned in literatures in Pali language.

There are beautiful tongas in Rajgir that slowly ferry people around. These colorful tongas were our best friends. They offer a package deal for most of the tourist attractions at a government set price of Rs 450 per tonga. However, if you want to visit attractions that are not mentioned in the package you will have to shell out a little more.

Rajgir is a very tiny town so most people prefer a day trip and hence this place offers very few basic stay options. Most of them are very old homes converted to hotels. Rajgir offers 3 very good stay options- Hotel Nalanda Regency near bus stand, Siddharta Hotel near Brahma Kund and Gargee Gautam Vihar Resort on the same road as Nalanda Regency. There is not a single 5 star property in Nalanda. Annapurna Restaurant in Nalanda Regency is the best deal to dine in the whole of Nalanda and Rajgir. They have a wide range of cuisines to choose from and serve awesome food. They offer excellent service and have a reasonably priced menu.

We stayed at Hotel Ratnagiri near bus stand, this budgeted place is one of the best stay options in Rajgir. This relatively new building which quite honestly is a rare sight in Rajgir offers compact rooms with clean sheets and soft pillows. Do keep in mind that there are frequent power cuts in Rajgir, this property has 24 hour power backup. Another plus is that it is walking distance from the railway station and tongas are readily available.

Another thing to keep in mind while travelling is though Indian Railways is a boon to a traveler, at the same time it can ruin your travel plans all together. Our train from Patna to Rajgir was late by over two hours, so do set aside buffer time to accommodate any such delays.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ride To Heaven On Earth!

It is a biker's dream to ride through the magical Himalayan passes, get awe inspired by breathtaking snow clad mountains, witness glacier melts gushing downstream, all screaming for attention.

Riding Thru Glacier Melt
Virgin beauty at its best- The 475 km ride offers thrilling view of deep gorge, mountain peaks, frozen lakes, and more plains. 

The mesmerizing ride starts from Manali, a lovely hill station in Himalchal Pradesh at an altitude of 2050m above sea level. The place has so much to offer - lovely apple orchids, Beas river, natural hot water springs, Hidimba temple, monasteries and thump of Royal enfield bullets crisscrossing Kullu valley. Above all, it is the gateway to Leh.

Picture Says It All
The Himalayan passes connecting Manali and Leh are open for 4 to 5 summer months (mid May to mid October.) Access and condition of the highways, that are maintained by Border Road Organization (BRO), depends on the amount of snowfall. You can check status here.

The area is prone to landslides which could result in heavy traffic jam on the highway. Remember here you are at the mercy of Nature.

Natures Fury
14/15 days would be ideal to ride from Manali to Leh, also cover Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso.

The Route

Manali -> Rohtang -> Keylong -> Jispa -> Baralacha La -> Sarchu -> Gata Loops -> Pang -> More Plains -> Tanglang La (Second Highest Pass) -> Upshi -> Leh.

Jispa, Sarchu or Keylong are best option for night stops. Jispa offers awesome tented cottages by Bhaga river. Avoid staying overnight at Pang due to it's high altitude, I would recommend Sarchu.

Road Map

The first and most important step is to hire the right bike - Royal Enfield, enough said! We hired bikes from Anu Auto works in Manali and the condition of the bikes were pretty good. I would suggest one to ride around the city for a couple of days and get used to the bike. This will help you fix any issues or worst case scenario change the bike before your ride could start. Respect the machine, it will ensure you have a smooth ride.

Keep in mind there is only one fuel station on the Manali - Leh highway at Tandi. Refill fuel in your bike and buy additional fuel (Jerry cans) as there are no petrol pumps for the next 350 kms. However, one would find villagers selling fuel on the way at a premium price, cannot guarantee the quality of fuel though.

Massive Snow Clad Peaks
Day 1 Manali

I had hired a Machismo 500cc, took her for a spin and got a few things fixed. And she was all set to be my best companion for the next 15 days to take me through one of the most toughest yet beautiful terrains. We visited Manali market and Hidimba temple. Manali was awesome, the perfect place to start your trip.

Kick Starting The Trip
Day 2 The Ride Commences

It was the best day of the tour, ending the long wait for this journey to begin. We left early to avoid the heavy traffic in Rohtang pass. It is a 52 km black carpet ride. As we approached the pass, Mother Nature had a surprise- there was a massive landslide the previous night and a heavy truck was literally thrown off the road leaving us stranded.

Traffic Jam Due To Landslide
The calm serene mountains had shown us, mere mortals, what it is capable of. Fury of nature could be unimaginable. Traffic was piled up for kilometers. It was snowing and this made things even worse, the pass soon turned into slick muck making it very difficult to crossover.

The India Army was pressed into action to rescue the truck and clear the road. It was amazing to see how swiftly they started their work. Heavy army vehicles tried their best to get the truck back on road. Like someone rightly said 'You cannot argue with Nature.' The more they tried to lift the truck, the more it triggered landslides. With no options left, we decided to camp that night hoping for the best.

Day 3

The next day we were rudely woken up by a noisy film crew. It was stunning Aishwarya Rai and Akshay Kumar filming a song sequence. After drooling for a bit we rode to the pass. By then, the BRO had turned their attention towards clearing the road. In matter of hours with the help of people stranded, the road was fixed and wheels were set in motion. One by one the vehicles started moving. It was difficult to ride through due to snow. Finally, we crossed Rothang pass and it was such a wonderful feeling.

Our Camp
Third day on there was no looking back, no hurdles, Mother Nature was very kind to us. We were passing through one of the most beautiful landscapes. It was a treat to our eyes mystic land far away from all commercialism, life here was so beautiful. A place where dal chawal and hot maggie was all that one needed and craved for. Those few settlements that you pass through everyone greets you with a smile.

One Of The Very Few Dhabas
Day 4

Pics Do Not Do Justice To This Place
We reached Leh, the then capital city of Himalayan kingdom. Leh is at an altitude of 11562 feet above sea level, hence altitude sickness is guaranteed, please be prepared. It is advisable to stay in Leh for a couple of days and get acclimatised, best to consult a doctor and get prescription to fight AMS.

Black Carpet
Attractions in Leh are plenty, you can ride to Sindh river- one of the best places to watch the sun set, Santhi stupa, Leh royal palace, War museum, and fantastic monasteries.

Rest of the days one could plan according to their convenience, a day's trip to Pangong Tso is highly recommended. This high altitude lake is 150 km from Leh it spreads across India and China.

Pangong Tso
Nubra valley - this cold desert is 150 km away from Leh and is famous for double humped camels. En-route one would pass through Kardhung la (17,582 ft) - the ultimate destination, widely claimed to be the world's highest motarable road. A quite pass housing an Army camp. One would not be able to spend a lot of time there due to the altitude, and low oxygen level. It is beyond explanation to set foot there it can only be experienced not explained.

18000 Feet - Awesome
To visit the above mentioned places you would have to get prior approval. Permits should be obtained from Leh tourist office. It is advisable not to approach tour operators for these permits as you might not get permits for all places, apart from burning a hole in your pocket.

An extensive trip to Kargil - Drass - Kashmir sector is possible if you have couple of extra days to spare. Provided there is no political unrest or curfew imposed. 

Returning to Manali was the toughest part - reason not the ride but parting ways with mighty Himalayas, scenic surroundings, waving and greeting locals, hot maggie and finally saying goodbye to the dear bullet. 

Leh is so charming you will not be able to stop yourself from visiting again! 

Things To Carry

Good Leather Jacket.

Gum Boots are mandatory.
Meds for altitude sickness is must.
Bike spares - fuse, clutch/accelerator cables, tube, chain links.
Puncture Repair kit.
Helmet, Balaclava and good pair of riding gloves.
Jerry can.
Thermal wear.
Sunscreen lotion.
Nuts and chocolates.
Saddle bags.
Postpaid sim card. Prepaid cards do not work.
There are very few ATMs carry enough cash.
The lighter you pack the better the comfort.