Monday, July 31, 2017

Meghalaya's Natural Wonder- The Laitlum Canyons!

Meghalaya has enchanted us with her beauty and we were in love with the sunning landscape, amazing roads and the perfect relaxing environment that the state has to offer. The best experience was undoubtedly our visit to Laitlum Canyons which holds true to it's name "End of Hills." This beautiful location in East Khasi Hills is an amazing hot spot to catch views of the hills of Meghalaya. A 45 minute drive and some 30 odd kilometers from the capital, Shillong, this lesser known destination can be reached via Smit Village.

On a cloudy and misty day, we were the only tourists here barring a few locals who had come there for a picnic. We were taken aback by the beautiful gorges and valleys that this place had to offer. The lush greenery around, mountains hugging each other and a tiny stream flowing between the valley was breath taking. We stood at the edge of the hill soaking in panoramic views.

The tiny settlement amidst the vast green top canyons is a sight to behold. We walked around and climbed down the winding steep rock cut steps leading us down to Rasom village that has about 350 residents in total. This path of around 3000 steps through bamboo plantations and wild orchid groves is probably the only way for these villagers use to commute to the Capital. We came across a rope pulley that is till date used by the villagers to transport food and other commodities to their village. The rope pulley looked very antique and was made of bamboo and we were glad that it was not used to ferry people but only for goods.

We were there on a Sunday morning and the church prayers echoed around the entire valley. Though Nature kept us in tender hooks with mist engulfing the canyons and thick clouds hovering over, intermittently we had stunning views spending around two wonderful hours. It is a perfect place to beat the fast paced life of city. A paradise for nature lovers and trekkers. It would be a good idea to come here early in the morning if you are planning on trekking down all the way to Rasom village.

En route to Laitlum Canyons we were very fortunate to see two bulls slugging it out. We happened to be driving around at the right time. We stopped our vehicle and saw the entire fight with the villagers cheering their favorite bull. Nervous final moments of the fight, one bull literally stomped over the other earning a thumping victory. The villagers do this in order to pick the best and strongest bull for mating. It was a nail biting moment and we were glad to have been an audience to this brilliant moment. This would not fall under "Animal Cruelty" like Matador. Bulls are cared for and loved in India and for ages have been integral part of farming families. Across India many sporting activities take place year round to identify best quality stud bulls for mating and keeping alive excellent and healthy breeds.

There are not many public transport options to reach Laitlum Canyons but taxi rides can be easily arranged from Shillong. A bumpy cab ride to and from Shillong costed us Rs 1100. A meager Rs 20 is collected as entry fee for vehicle. If you want to feel tipsy you can stop en-route and taste the locally brewed rice beer. This place is a blessing for travelers as it is not exposed to commercialism yet.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Revisiting Beautiful Meghalaya Because Once Is Just Not Enough!

Revisiting this wonderland after two years gave us a wonderful opportunity to reminisce the golden days of backpacking across North East India. While a lot has changed over the last two years the good old people remained the same- caring and nice. Our second visit was equally adventurous and serene with a lot more new experiences that made the trip even more memorable.

We were unable to visit the Indian Air Force museum the last time and were pretty disappointed so this time the first thing that we did was head to the Indian Air Force Museum in Shillong. The museum provides a lot of insight into the weapons, technology and the valor of the Air Force. The first thing that gathered our attention was an aircraft ejection seat with a dummy pilot strapped to it. We saw missiles, bombs and other weapons on display. Apart from the pictures from the Indo- China war and Indo- Pakistan war, the museum houses uniform, medals and portraits of Indian Air Force personnel portraying their heroic tales as well. The massive aircrafts on display outside the museum are a delight and maybe the closet that we could get to these beasts. The museum is within the premises of the Indian Air Force Eastern Command, Upper Shillong and also houses a souvenir shop. Do remember to carry valid ID proof for entry into the museum.

Located 12 km from Shillong is the well known and easily accessible Elephant Falls. These falls ere named Elephant Falls by Britishers as there was a stone that resembled an Elephant adjacent to the falls. However, the stone was destroyed later in an earthquake. The local Khasi name for these falls is "Ka Kshaid Lai Pateng Khohsiew" meaning three steps waterfalls. A flight of steps from the parking area led us to the first layer of these falls that are wide and pretty much hidden among the trees. At the second layer, the water levels recede and we crossed a small bridge to reach the third layer which was the most impressive of all with milky white water gushing through on massive rocks and falling in a pool and continuing downstream.

The second day we decided to head to Cherrapunji. En-route was one of the most recent and stunning attraction- "Arwah - Lumshynna" cave to the already decorated and exciting Meghalaya tourist hub- Soraha belt. This massive cave, of which only 3 kilometer is mapped, is a wonder in itself. Compared to the other cave 'Mawsmai Cave' this cave receives very less tourist footfall. This particular cave is a few kilometers away from the highway and these few kilometers are stone paths with no tarmac which serves as a reason for most taxis to avoid visiting it, we would definitely mention that this cave is worth every trouble. Right from the parking area the trek path is beautifully paved and give you a feel of exploring the jungle. The neatly paved stone trek path seemed like a beautifully put jigsaw puzzle and massive greenery surrounding the trek path gave us a feel of walking into the jungle. We could hear the sounds of insects and birds and catching beautiful views of waterfalls around the valley was the icing on the cake. If this was not enough all through the trek path colorful butterflies fluttering their wings and hovering over our heads gave us directions.

There are several water channels that we encountered on our trek path and as we neared the entrance of the cave we spotted small openings that gave us an insight of what lies within the cave and the gurgling sound of water dripping and falling on rocks gave us an adrenaline rush. Upon entering the cave we could see water dripping slowly drop by drop from every opening possible. This cave is very wide with lots of room to walk around and what adds more beauty is the crystal clear water flowing every where and crisscrossing the boulders laid for visitors to venture further into the caves. The best part about this cave was the fresh water creek that kept company leaving us perplexed of its origin. The ice cold water and the magical sound of water dripping from the ceiling and joining into the unknown hidden paths gave us a glimpse of the life of cave explorers and the ray of hope to explore the unknown. The further we went in, the caves opened up stunning views of massive stalactite formations.

There are many deviations in between but be cautioned not to venture into pathways that are not lit as they are not meant for visitors and help maybe a distant dream in case of a mishap. The end point of the mapped path is a narrow path that leads to two massive rocks on either side blocking your path and the only thing that you can hear is water gushing throughout the narrow passages and flowing in full speed further into the unknown. The highlight of the cave lies just near the entrance on to your left. A slippery path led us to a massive but calm and still water body with turquoise blue water. It looked like a river in the cave with tree trunks sprouting out here and there. It reminded us of one of the scenes from the Harry Potter movie. Clearly, it was one of kind experience.

And of course the sigh seeing in Cherrapunji brought back some fond memories. The many cab drivers who took us on lot of tours made sure we had the best of time. Our recommendation from personal experience would be "Norlha" phone 9089616876. A knowledgeable, safe driver with a very comfortable car.

We went to Mawlynnong as well the next day and to be honest the village is beautiful but what was equally important and made us revisit it was the food. Yes, the food that was served in our home stay earlier was so yumm that we could still feel the taste of it linger in our mouths so there was no way we could skip the home stay and we were so glad to have found a room there. The Home stay and the local restaurant there as well serves the best meals in Meghalaya.

On our way back we even visited Dawki and it was fun to experience the beauty again and be content as Meghalaya was one place that we were sure we would definitely revisit and were elated that this wish was fulfilled.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

475 Km Leh - Manali Stretch One Of The Best Road Trips In India!

The rhythmic thump of Royal Enfield Bullets on a deserted road in the middle of barren land surrounded by cold mountains with hardly any civilization is what attracts bikers from all over for an epic road trip to Ladakh and the highway that is most preferred is the Leh- Manali highway. Apart from the stunning landscapes, this highway offers many challenges- Bad roads, glacier melts resulting in water crossings on the road, landslides, slush, high mountain passes, unpredictable weather, strong and cold winds making this ride even more special and challenging.

Though the Sonamarg - Leh highway has several attractions and breathtaking landscapes the Leh- Manali Highway is in a different league! We had saved the best for last and after 41 days we bid adieu to the beautiful land of Ladakh, we were in for the finale of our dream trip- our ride from Leh to Manali. This 475 km ride back to Manali is an experience in itself that any rider would vouch for with so many surprises, challenges and heart stopping moments. No wonder this particular road trip is rated very high and is in the bucket list of adventure seekers.

This journey requires a minimum of two days but we completed it leisurely in 4 days with 3 stop overs.

Leh- Taglang La- Debring- More plain- Pang- Lachungla- Nakeela- Gata loops- Baralacha La -Sarchu- Suraj tal- Deepak tal- Tandi- Sissu- Rohtang Pass- Keylong- Jispa- Manali- Mandi- Chanidgarh.

Day 1 Leh- Sarchu

We left from Leh way too early in the morning and the roads were beautiful blacktop until Pang. It was beautiful to have the entire road for ourselves and the massive mountains and the cold wind for company. There were pleasant surprises en route, we saw herds of yak grazing in the fertile lands and we also saw cute little Himalayan hare criss-crossing the highway. An important thing to keep in mind is that the Indian Oil Corporation pump in Karu (34 km from Leh) is the last fuel pump on this route. One has to top up the tank and carry spare fuel as the next stop is in Tandi, Himachal which is around 360 km away. Our first challenge of the day was riding up the mighty Taglang la Pass, the second highest pass that we crossed in this trip. There was no massive crowd here unlike Khardung La. From here the road until Pang was a delight- classic black top.

After Taglang La we had a small pit stop for maggi in Debring, which is not a town but a make shift tented accommodation place set up by the locals for travelers in the middle of vast uninhabited land. For the cold weather and tired body, a bowl of hot maggi and black tea is the best reward. After Debring, we reached the green More Plains. This vast stretch of land with mountains on both sides and black smooth tarmac road in the middle is any biker's dream road and is accompanied by the amazing natural sand art sculptures. These natural sand sculptures left us wondering how pristine the beauty of this land is and if if there is anything that this highway actually does not offer. This beautiful road continued till Pang.

Pang is another stop over on the Leh- Manali highway and offers decent options to halt for the night. Though basic, these stay options are a blessing for any traveler in this altitude. We stopped for a hearty lunch in Pang- Potala Pang Restaurant- a small shack run by a very humble and kind man. At 15000 feet above sea level in such unforgiving harsh climatic conditions, he had set up shop to feed travelers. Yes, he charges money for food but to us it was nothing less than a noble service. We had the best dal chawal, masala omelette and black tea here. All this costed us only Rs.160. Pang is the best bet for food as the next sign of civilization is far away in Whiskey Nalla and Sarchu.

We decided to continue our journey and halt for the day at Sarchu which was around 70 km from Pang. Next stop was Lachulung La at 16000 feet, followed by Nakee La at 15500 feet. It was so peaceful to ride through these high mountain passes and stop there for a while to soak in the beauty around. These passes were the only sign of construction in the deserted mountains and the prayer flags fluttering around were the only thing that gathered our attention. The vast number of stones left near these passes added more beauty to them.

And then comes the best part of the highway- the super winding and exciting Gata Loops- 21 in total. The stretch from Pang to Gata Loop is in its worst shape possible (2016). But after doing Pakachik and Nubra stretch we wouldn't really complain. Though the roads were not in their best condition, it was thrilling to ride on these amazing hair pin bends. These loops covering a distance of 13 km ensured an ascent from 4198 m to 4664 m.

Just 25 km short of Sarchu, we were stopped by the friendly BRO who were carrying out repair work on an iron bridge over a river. After the damage on the bridge was fixed, we crossed over and managed to reach Sarchu just in time before the sun set. We opted to spend the night at one of the cozy tents set up by locals. We got a steal deal of Rs.1000 for a spacious tent inclusive of food in such dramatic location. We had parked our bike almost inside our tent. It gets very cold in Sarchu so be prepared with a lot of warm gear. We were able to sleep only after being covered in 3 layers of clothing plus two massive quilts that helped us stay warm. Sarchu is NOT an ideal overnight stop if you are riding from Manali to Leh due to its high altitude(14000 feet.) Jispa or Keylong would be perfect overnight stops in Manali - Leh route.

Day 2 Sarchu- Sissu

We left at dawn from Sarchu and on this day we got the experience the actual wild side of Leh-Manali highway. We encountered 7 massive nallas or water crossings that day combined with rain. It was a total adrenaline rush to cross the massive water crossings. We left very early in the morning so we could be at the mercy of these glacier melts that run across the highway and it totally worked in our favor. We had just reached the Sarchu check post and it started to drizzle. The highway is known for its unpredictable weather and we were prepared. We quickly put on our rain gear and continued with our ride.

Just after crossing Sarchu check post, we encountered the longest water crossing in this route. An entire hair pin bend was covered by running cold water. It more felt like the road was flooded in knee deep water and we were riding on a riverbed. There are several tented accommodations that are made available or have been pitched for a few kilometers from Sarchu. Almost all of them looked very promising, however, none seem to have an attached bath. Right after this we started our steep ascent to Baralacha La at 4815 m. The conditions were extremely cold, we were wearing multiple layers of thermal, thick jacket, gaiters, sturdy shoes, two pairs of thick layered woolen socks, riding gloves and rain gear. Despite all this, it was quiet cold thanks to the strong winds. Though our fingers became numb and started hurting, it was all part of the journey and we did not give it much thought as we were too engrossed in enjoying the views.

The beauty of Nature totally makes it up and after Baralacha La, we crossed the State border and entered the beautiful green Himachal Pradesh. We were greeted by the sparkling Suraj Tal lake. We continued on the winding roads and crossed over massive Nallas and were extremely thankful to our bike that didn't give up once and took us through safely across these unforgiving water bodies. In between, we stopped to admire Deepak Tal. Thanks to no art director choosing these lakes for any hit movie, there was hardly any crowd. The pristine lakes were all for us. We crossed over Jispa, Keylong and finally Tandi where we stopped to fill up the fuel tank.

We were greeted with more rains once we crossed over to Himachal as it was monsoon season.  As we entered Himachal, it was continuously drizzling so be well prepared. The mighty Himalayas is home to several waterfalls that could be viewed from the highway. We had a very tough time focusing on the highway. The hills and the landscapes in Himachal are very different from what we encountered in Ladakh. While the places in J&K are at a higher altitude, the hills and mountains have a more antique look with rocks, sand, stone and mud and brief patches of greenery and wide rivers cutting through them. While Himachal is on the brighter side with colorful fields, though at a lesser altitude, mountains are huge, completely green with massive trees. The gorges are way too deep and the rivers cutting through them have very narrow passes and the water gushes with great speed.

Plus, the large number of glacier melts in Himachal lead to waterfalls towering hundreds of feet and joining the rivers making it an awesome sight. The temperature in Ladakh makes the glacier melt a slow and gradual process. The fields in Himachal are bright and colorful making it look like a rainbow on the mountain. With continuous rains that seemed to just get heavier, we decided to halt overnight at Sissu. Compared to highly commercialized Jispa and Keylong, we preferred the calm and quiet Sissu for our overnight halt before encountering the mighty Rohtang La. The entire stretch from Sarchu to few kilometers before Sissu, the road conditions are pretty bad barring a few kilometers. Sissu turned out to be a perfect place to stop overnight, it had a massive waterfall and a beautiful lake surrounded by lush green fields. A peaceful vacation couldn't have been more perfect.

We checked into Hotel PLM Dhara in Sissu on the Sissu- Manali Highway. They offer good, spacious and clean rooms with 24 hour running hot water and excellent view from the room. The food here was amazing and they served generous quantity. Their service was top notch and pricing was very reasonable.

Day 3 Sissu- Mandi

We again left early in the morning and were prepared to cross the challenging Rohtang Pass. It had been 2 full days since we had seen the sun. The dark clouds kept up the consistency and entered the third straight day. Just after Sissu and before crossing Rohtang La, there were quiet a few water crossings on the way due to continuous rains the previous day. It was rather easy to cross the water nallas but it was extremely tough and challenging to ride to Rohtang La pass with massive stretches covered with slush. The bike kept swaying due to the saddle bag and it was a challenge to not lose grip and fall over. We are extremely thankful to our reliable bike that braved it all and finished the treacherous stretch without stopping even once. True to its tag line "Made like a gun, goes like a bullet." We did not have an option but to continue riding despite the drizzle. We were so thankful that it was not pouring.

After crossing Rohtang La, we got absolute amazing roads till Mandi and en route were greeted by the amazing tunnel that has not only cut short the distance but gives an amazing feel to ride under a massive mountain. On the other side, a pleasant surprise awaited us. A mammoth waterfall cascading several hundred feet down into the river.

The continuous drizzle or slush or rough roads did not annoy us one bit. But at one particular junction, devoted temple sevaks were annoying to say the least, they were distributing prasad and something to drink to travelers. They created a lot of ruckus and vehicles big to small stopped to take the prasad resulting in unnecessary traffic jam and decorating the entire highway with paper cups and plastic spoons. People threw the waste on the highway after they were done eating. By no means, are we suggesting that the temple should not give out prasad or quench thirst but is it too much to ask to not block traffic and dirty the streets? Could they not give this to devotees who walk into the temple? Again another instance of inconvenience on National Highway in the name of religion.

After covering 190 km and with continuous rains hampering our visibility we stopped 10 km short of Mandi and checked into Hotel Sally and nearly after a month our hotel in Mandi had a fan. They offer amazing clean rooms with 24 hour running hot water and kickass views of river Beas and surrounding green hills. Tired with the ride we ate and crashed for the day.

Day 4 Mandi - Manali

We left from Mandi and the roads were in pretty good condition an reached Manali in no time. En route we stopped for brunch at Pizza olive in Manali that has been in business for several decades and true to it's name served amazing Pizza and drinks. The views from the restaurant are killer. A good hearty meal costed us Rs.620.

Reading tragic news about massive floods in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Chattisgarh and Himachal receiving continuous rains in the last few days, (July 2016) we were worried sick if we would also be boxed in due to landslides or any other untoward incident. There have been enough signs off late that we should respect Nature more and just praying and hoping does not really help. We seriously need to get our act together. Massive caved in roads, smaller landslides en route and continuous rain again confirmed our fears. We thought it would be best to leave the hills asap and did not stop overnight in Manali but continued our ride to Chandigarh.

From Leh-Mandi, the last 3 days have been an absolute back breaker and adventurous at the same time. On an average we clocked 200 km per day. It might not seem like a lot but taking into consideration high altitude passes, extreme weather, treacherous roads, massive water crossings, and the slush, it was one hell of a ride.

A few things to keep in mind while riding on the highway are - It would be a good idea to cross over Rohtang La quiet early in the morning. It is best to avoid to cross Rohtang when it is raining as it results in heavy traffic on these narrow roads plus the deep depression that the heavy vehicles leave on the slush creates unnecessary trouble. These things make the conditions even more tougher for any rider. While on a road trip to Ladakh via Himachal not all but most of the pick up truck drivers drive quiet rashly and have no regard or respect for uphill vehicles. It always seems like they are in a massive rush to reach their destination and at anytime could knock you out so it is best to be mindful and ride safe.