Snapshots from Nepal: Part Two.

The story so far: Nepal welcomed us with open arms but bad roads, and we made it through Kakarbhitta – Chaubis – Janakpuri – Kathmandu without much incident. It was quite an adventure, hanging on to life as we scaled 45-degree mountain inclines and rode down just as bad descents, with scenic views for company. This post covers the rest of the ride, and the crazy situations I found myself in. To read part one of the Nepal trip, click here.

The road to Kathmandu was a preview of the routes we were yet to cover across Nepal. My tail bone refused to cooperate with my urge to sit down on a soft surface after the ride to the China border; a duck kept me company as I walked in the rain to stretch my legs before getting on the bike again – it waddled alongside making cutesy noises and pecking at unsuspecting people; in Pokhara, we were so bushed with all our previous days that none of us managed to indulge in adventure sports – not even hang gliding; Tatopani was the dream destination with a nightmarish ride to reach it; and Lumbini was sort of alright. When I wasn’t hanging onto dear life or bending over to stretch my back, I was shooting pictures such as these:

Dawn at Dhulikhel, the highest region in Nepal. Couldn't catch a glimpse of the Annapurna range, but we did have the clouds brush past us at our home stay.

Dawn at Dhulikhel, the highest region in Nepal. Couldn’t catch a glimpse of the Annapurna range, but we did have the clouds brush past us at our home stay.

 

Bikers watching as the home stay owners of our halt at Dhulikhel took the bikes down a treacherous road.

Bikers watching as the home stay owners of our halt at Dhulikhel took the bikes down a treacherous road.

 

One of the bumpiest - and most painful - rides I have ever had was to the Chinese border from Dhulikhel, but the payoff was worth it. China looms on the other side of the gate, with planned infrastructure even on the hills!

One of the bumpiest – and most painful – rides I have ever had was to the Chinese border from Dhulikhel, but the payoff was worth it. China looms on the other side of the gate, with planned infrastructure even on themountains!

 

The Waddling Duck. Some day, when the duck dies and goes to Domestic Bird Heaven and meets the rooster that chased me in the Trongsa Dzong, they’re going to have such a good laugh about the woman who was a total sucker.

 

Pine-scented roadways, Nagarkot. The place is very similar to Kodaikanal in its beauty. The nights are especially stunning, with 360-views of a star-lit sky.

Pine-scented roadways, Nagarkot. The place is very similar to Kodaikanal in its beauty. The nights are especially stunning, with 360-views of a star-lit sky.

 

Hotel at the End of the Universe. Inspired by Douglas Adams, methinks. And certainly comes close to Douglas's imagination.

Hotel at the End of the Universe, Nagarkot. Inspired by Douglas Adams, methinks. And certainly comes close to Douglas’s imagination.

 

Two boys and a commentary. At the main square of Bhaktapur Darbar square, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Two boys and a conspiracy. At the main square of Bhaktapur Darbar square, a UNESCO world heritage site. Bhaktapur appears larger than Patan Darbar Square, and is more architecturally versatile. As you go deeper into the square, it appears as if time has frozen – the locals still create pottery, embroidered murals and singing bowls, pretty ancient arts.

 

Stone carvings at one of the many temples found in Bhaktapur Darbar Square.

Stone carvings at one of the many temples found in Bhaktapur Darbar Square.

 

Wheat growing in fields on the way to Pokhara.

Wheat growing in fields on the way to Pokhara. The crop can be found growing across most of Nepal. When we went, most of the wheat in the fields was ripe and ready for harvest, so all we saw were fields of swaying Gold everywhere.

 

The road to Tatopani. When we returned from Nagarkot, we halted for the night at Pokhara, leaving behind more than half our luggage because we were going to return to the place and stay for two days. Our next adventure was Tatopani, and from there onwards to Muktinath. I loved Tatopani so much that I stayed back while the rest of the gang rode up to Muktinath. This was the second toughest route to navigate on the entire trip.

The road to Tatopani. When we returned from Nagarkot, we halted for the night at Pokhara, leaving behind more than half our luggage because we were going to return to the place and stay for two days. Our next adventure was Tatopani, and from there onwards to Muktinath. I loved Tatopani so much that I stayed back while the rest of the gang rode up to Muktinath. This was the second toughest route to navigate on the entire trip.

 

A glimpse of the snow-capped Annapurna range, Tatopani.

A glimpse of the snow-capped Annapurna range, Tatopani.

 

The view from our hotel at Tatopani. Off the screen to the right are the hot springs that give Tatopani its name. There are several such hot springs across Nepal. The water is rich in Sulphur and supposedly curative. When I drank a cupful, the taste was pretty metallic.

The view from our hotel at Tatopani. Off the screen to the right are the hot springs that give Tatopani its name. There are several such hot springs across Nepal. The water is rich in Sulphur and supposedly curative. When I drank a cupful, the taste was pretty metallic. P.S: Who can spot the blue truck?

 

The Thakali Thali. One of the highlights of the ride was the standard vegetarian thali one can find across Nepal. The daal is particularly delicious, with a special herb locally called Jimbu adding loads of unique flavour to it. The herb is pretty expensive and is usually imported from Tibet. The rest of the components of the thali are pickled radishes, local greens, a dry dish made with legumes, tomato chutney and potato-bean sabzi.

The Thakali Thali. One of the highlights of the ride was the standard vegetarian thali one can find across Nepal. The daal is particularly delicious, with a special herb locally called Jimbu adding loads of unique flavour to it. The herb is pretty expensive and is usually imported from Tibet. The rest of the components of the thali (from lower right) are tomato chutney, pickled radishes, a dry dish made with local pulses, local greens and potato-beans sabzi.

 

Visiting Devi's Fall at Pokhara.

Visiting Devi’s Fall at Pokhara. Pokhara has many interesting places to visit. The Gupteshwar Caves are stunning, but make for really bad photography. There’s also the Mountaineering Museum which I heard is fabulous, but didn’t manage to go to because we got stranded in the rain.

 

This wishing well is pretty rich - by Nepali standards at least. At Devi's Fall, Pokhara.

This wishing well at Devi’s Fall is pretty rich – by Nepali standards at least. 

 

A night out in Pokhara, listening to a local band doing covers of the oldies.

A night out in Pokhara, listening to a local band doing covers of the oldies.

 

Chitwan, our destination after three days in Pokhara. The Chitwan Wildlife Sanctuary is pretty famous for its wildlife, but the entry is also quite expensive. We could only afford to go to the Elephant Breeding Centre. This was the scenic approach to the rows and rows of open enclosures for the elephants and their babies.

Chitwan, our destination after three days in Pokhara. The Chitwan Wildlife Sanctuary is pretty famous for its wildlife, but the entry is also quite expensive. We could only afford to go to the Elephant Breeding Centre. This was the scenic approach to the rows and rows of open enclosures for the elephants and their babies.

 

Lumbini, the last stop in Nepal before we headed back into India via Basti, UP. The ruins of Lumbini Palace are cocooned within this monstrosity of a structure and totally killed my desire to walk in. Based on the reports from those who did venture in, I didn't miss much. It was exciting, though, to be at the birthplace of Buddha.

Lumbini, the last stop in Nepal before we headed back into India via Basti, UP. The ruins of Lumbini Palace are cocooned within this… this structure that totally killed my desire to walk in. Based on the reports from those who did venture in, I didn’t miss much. It was exciting, though, to be at the birthplace of Buddha.

 

QUICK NOTES

Currency:

1 Indian Rupee = 1.6 Nepali Rupee. Which means that you’ll feel richer in Nepal. Possibly also one of the reasons why a lot of Indian families holiday there. Unlike Bhutan, people here don’t go crazy behind the Indian rupee. Oh, and 500 and 1000 rupee notes are not accepted in most places because of fraud.

Food:

Sekuwa – smoked meat – is widely available and is apparently pretty delicious. It’s an acquired taste for some. Vegetarian food is widely available – the Thakali thali, especially, is available everywhere. Chicken and beef are most common. You’ll find a lot of Chinese and Indian cuisine everywhere, but places that serve authentic Nepali food are a little hard to find.

Accomodation:

Varies from basic to luxurious. Water and electricity are a problem, so carry a torch with you. Most rooms are well-maintained, with western bathrooms and water heaters, toilet rolls and towels.

Weather:

It was pretty hot when we rode into Nepal, but after that it was raining throughout. The weather is mostly pleasant, and bearably cold in the higher regions. I carried six pairs of jeans and plenty of tees. I used floaters for local sightseeing, but for treks and the ride itself, I wore hiking shoes. Carry rain covers for your luggage.

Vegetation:

Sparse. Most of it is cultivated land, with a decent amount of greenery on the mountains. The historical monuments are note-worthy, with quite a few world heritage sites in the country.

Wildlife:

Not sure, really, because I spotted nothing – no birds, no animals, and definitely no yetis.

The road travelled. Less or more is entirely up to you.

The road travelled. Less or more is entirely up to you.

Getting there: Delhi is the most conveniently connected metro to direct flights to Pokhara and Kathmandu. You can also fly to Bagdogra and ride from there.

Go if: You want to indulge in plenty of adventure sports.

Snapshots from Nepal: Part One.

Since Nepal is known for being a 'Hare Rama Hare Krishna' destination, it seemed fitting to make this the opening shot for my posts on Nepal. This is the entire country in a single frame. The woman, however, is smoking a regular cigarette.

And the worries of her age go up in wisps of smoke. A local woman en route Kodari, from where the Chinese border is visible.

Nepal… Hmm, I’m really not sure where to begin. I can never separate the journey from the place on any of my travels. Nepal, however, broke the monotony. I am able to clearly distinguish between the journey through Nepal and the country itself – bizarre as it may sound. The reason’s quite simple – my 2000-plus kilometre ride delivered on the promise of adventure and adrenalin rush more than the place itself did.

Don’t get me wrong – the land of Gurkhas is stunningly picturesque in bits and pieces, but the first and most recurrent word on my holiday was not ‘stunning’, or ‘picturesque’, ‘beautiful’ or other similar adjectives. It was ‘impoverished’. It was the first thing I noticed on crossing the border at Kakarbhitta, and continued to notice throughout the ride – throngs of disabled people, an average quality of life, scarcity of water, power shortage, almost non-existent infrastructure… the works. If the country has any riches, I didn’t see any evidence of it. Not even in Kathmandu or Pokhara. I guess that’s the downside of riding through a country or visiting parts of it that do not have the ‘Tourist’ tag attached to them – you discover the reality behind the image portrayed to the world.

Fishing in shallow waters, en route Janakpuri.

Fishing in shallow waters, en route Janakpuri.

So that’s that about the place. Now about the ride… well, I have one word for it too: crazy. 80% of our journey was an off-road one, riding up steep hills, through parched river beds dotted with parched lands, surfaces covered with inches and inches of mud, slush and boulders. I am happy to say that my spine is fine and my butt isn’t in a rut. It was my first off-roading experience, but enough to last a lifetime – I have sworn off off-roading (for the time being at least). And this time, I didn’t fall off the bike even once or get chased by formidable roosters.

That’s about all I have to say about Nepal. I’ll let the pictures and videos work the rest of the magic. Since a lot of the riding was tricky, I shot a lot with my Moto G phone as well. You’ll know the difference. (Or not, because my phone camera is pretty good too.)

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Rest stop, on the way from Siliguri to Kakarbhitta.

 

At Chaubis, Bhedetar. Everywhere we went, the rains followed. This was snapped at 5:30 p.m. in the evening. Thunderstorms and lightening were the flavour of the evening.

And then there was light. Chaubis, Bhedetar. Everywhere we went, the rains followed. This was snapped at 5:30 p.m. from the first floor of our resort. Thunderstorms and lightening were the flavour of the evening.

 

A wandering minstrel, Chaubis. The instrument is a type of Sarangi, but what I find most fascinating is the way the sound box is shaped – like a shoe. Imagine this music playing to the thunder and lightning show that the weather at Chaubis put up for us that evening.

At the Janakpuri temple, where onlookers listened to an enactment of Sita's version of the Ramayan on a candybox television.

A lesson in mythology at the Janaki temple, Janakpuri, where onlookers listened to an enactment of Sita’s version of the Ramayan on a candybox television.

 

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Sita’s home – Janaki Temple, Janakpuri. The temple, like the town, gets its name from Sita – known in these parts as Janaki. Not surprisingly, a majority of the visitors are women, most of them hanging around the inner sanctum of the temple, chatting, gossiping and exchanging stories.

 

Crispy, gooey jalebis at a breakfast stop on the way.

Crispy, gooey jalebis at a breakfast stop on the way.

 

Smooth tarred roads, the last stretch that we saw before days and days of off-roading.

Serpentine roads, en route Kathmandu. Smooth tarred roads on the way to Kathmandu – the last stretch that we saw before days and days of off-roading.

 

How to lose weight while riding. En route Kathmandu. I wasn’t kidding when I said that Nepal doesn’t really have too many tarred roads.

 

A glimpse of the architecture at the Jal Narayan Temple. The Jal Narayan - a solid-gold god asleep as he rests on serpents in the middle of water - is a remarkable example of craftsmanship, but wasn't allowed to be photographed.

Repairing the time tear, Jal Narayan Temple, Kathmandu. Restrorations at the Jal Narayan temple. The Jal Narayan – a solid-marble god asleep on serpents in the middle of water – is a remarkable example of craftsmanship. Couldn’t photograph it, though.

 

Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu. Again, stunning architecture and craftsmanship of the centre sanctum, with giant lions and kings carved out of solid stone dating back to 400 A.D, but couldn't be photographed for two reasons - one, it's not allowed, and two, non-Hindus are not allowed either. Where there is a will, there is a way, though, and I managed to sneak in and look around.

No entry. Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu. Again, stunning architecture and craftsmanship of the centre sanctum, with giant lions and kings carved out of solid stone dating back to 400 A.D, but couldn’t be photographed for two reasons – one, it’s not allowed, and two, non-Hindus are not allowed either. Where there is a will, there is a way, though, and I managed to sneak in and look around.

 

Prayer lamps on display at Bodhi Stupa, Kathmandu. I'm in love with monasteries, and was especially fascinated with this display at the base of the stupa. There are many stores, hotels and restaurants surrounding the stupa and the place is quite commercial, but everything just fades away when you climb up on to the stupa and walk around it.

Arranged prayers, Bodhi Stupa, Kathmandu. I’m in love with monasteries, and was especially fascinated with this display at the base of the stupa. There are many stores, hotels and restaurants surrounding the stupa and the place is quite commercial, but everything just fades away when you climb up on to the stupa and walk around it.

 

Patan Darbar Square, Kathmandu. Darbar Squares are massive, open spaces with temples, palaces and civilian residences co-existing next to each other. Patan Darbar Square is five centuries old an is the perfect example of traditions and modern-day living coming together.  This poor lion, however, is not a happy creature what with his majesty being abused by a shameless display of ghutkas.

Majestic no more. Patan Darbar Square, Kathmandu. Darbar Squares are massive, open spaces with temples, palaces and civilian residences co-existing next to each other. Patan Darbar Square is five centuries old and is the perfect example of traditions and modern-day living coming together. This poor lion, however, is not a happy creature, what with his majesty being abused by a shameless display of ghutkas.

 

Giving the wheels a sunset break, on the way to Pokhara.

Giving the wheels a sunset break, on the way to Kathmandu.

We spent a couple of days in Kathmandu and rode on to the highest point in Nepal, the Chinese border and a hotel at the end of the universe. I had a duck for company (what is it with me and birds??) and two snow-capped days in the lap of the Annapurna range. That, however, is for another post. This should whet your appetite enough for you to look forward to Part Two!

What do you get when you cross a helmet with a love of travel?

Helmet Girl in Nepal v1

I could say that I was going through an I-hate-the-Internet phase, was wallowing in self-pity after being dumped by an actor whose name I cannot reveal, was working so hard over the last month that I couldn’t recognize my own face in the mirror, or was cryogenically frozen in an experiment to immortalize the city’s most creative people; but only one of them would be true. I’ll leave it to you guys to guess which one, while I give you the news that this post is about – after months of waiting, I’m off on another epic biking trip to Nepal tomorrow. And while I’m there, I’ll be posting live feeds on Instagram under a series I am creating exclusively for the trip. It will be called (*drum roll*)…

… Helmet Girl in Nepal!

There will be tons of pictures and videos under #HelmetGirlinNepal. If you’re on Instagram and not following me, please do, so that Helmet Girl can head-butt her way into your Insta-feed. If you’re not on Instagram, you can click on the feed link on the right of this blog and be a part of everything I see. The only drawback? You won’t be able to like or comment on any of the posts.

There is another alternative too – you could wait for three weeks to catch the post on Nepal on this blog. (I know which option I’d choose, if I were you. Just saying!)

So wish me luck, and let’s pray together that I don’t fall off the bike or get chased by roosters. I’ll see you in two weeks’ time. Bidā’ī Bidā’ī!

Why you must trek in Kemmanagundi (even if you’re not the trekking types).

Our first view of Kemmanagundi.

Our first view of Kemmanagundi.

Remember my posts on Bhutan, in which I lamented my decision to trek to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery? Despite my earnest desire to go trekking more often since, my loathing for any activity that combines walking with breathlessness and increased heart rate overcame the enthusiasm.

View from near the Rose Garden.

View from near the Rose Garden.

And like all other times when life has made me eat my own words – especially when they involve ‘hate’, ‘don’t’ or ‘exercise’ – this time too, I had to down my loathing with a generous helping of humble sauce. Kemmanagundi is to be blamed for it. This popular-with-government-officials hill station of sorts in Chikkamangalur district cast its spell on a non-trekker like me as well. And my, what a spell it was – lush green hills as far as the eye can see, grassy pathways formed naturally over the hills, flowers in brilliant reds, pinks and blues, and a freshwater spring or two.

The trek to Z point, from where one can see the sun setting into the Arabian Sea.

The trek to Z point, from where one can see the sun setting into the Arabian Sea.

The trek isn’t for very long – at least, not if you take your vehicle up to the most accessible point. One can finish it in a couple of hours both ways. I ventured halfway out, and then decided against going any further because the path involved scaling down slippery patches of mountain and I had a big camera bag with me. (Let this be a lesson to everyone.) I am told, though, that the sun setting over the Arabian Sea makes for a magnificent sight.

Catching the sunset from regular terrain while the rest of them watch it disappear from Z point.

Catching the sunset from regular terrain while the rest of them watch it disappear from Z point.

The trek’s not the only attraction at Kemmanagundi – there are view points, water bodies, temples and more around the place. The most pleasurable bit, though, is the greenery and serenity that comes with it – winding mountain roads with an overarching canopy of giant trees swaying in the wind.

Blooms soaking up the mountain sun.

Blooms soaking up the mountain sun.

The local farmer's market in the compound of the jungle lodge we stayed at.

The local farmer’s market in the compound of the jungle lodge we stayed at.

And that sums up everything I have to say about the place – there wasn’t enough time to explore it more extensively, considering it was weekend trip with more time spent biking than exploring. I do say this, though – if a quiet getaway to connect with nature is your thing, Kemmanagundi is definitely a destination to consider.

The trees form natural filters, letting only wisps of sunlight through their canopy.

The trees form natural filters, letting only wisps of sunlight through their canopy.

Getting there: Drive down or bike it – it takes about 6 hours, with stops. The road closer to Kemmanagundi is quite bad, so that takes a chunk of time to get through. There are also overnight buses available. The nearest train station is Chikkamangalur and there are several trains that run every day.

Go if: You enjoy trekking, need some quiet time and want to feel one with nature.

P.S: There are plenty more pictures on my Instagram feed. Check them out to get a bigger picture of what the place is like.

“Tashi Delek, Bhutan.” – Part Two

A 'rare' view of the mountains on the way to Bumthang.

A ‘rare’ view of the mountains on the way to Bumthang.

The story so far: Our ride across Bhutan started from Siliguri on the India side. We rode through Phuent Sholing, Paro, Thimpu and Punakha, gathering many fascinating experiences and seeing many remarkable sights. This journey begins at the ride from Punakha to Trongsa. For Part One, click here.

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Bikes slicing through the landscape.

Bikes slicing through the landscape.

Day 5: Trongsa, 140 km

Saying goodbye to Punakha wasn’t easy, because we had the most fun there. But the ride to Trongsa was one of the most picturesque. It highlighted the different terrains that one comes across in Bhutan. From high cypresses to spindly deodars, pink flowering trees and creepers with snow-white flowers, the mountains had them all. As we moved higher up, the air got thinner and the wind, nippier. Every cell was firing away double-time.

Green pastures that are ideal for cattle grazing.

Green pastures that are ideal for cattle grazing. The little black dots on the bottom right of the picture are yaks.

Trongsa is a compact hill town, with one of the oldest and biggest monasteries in the country. The town also has a museum, which I am told is fantastic.

The mighty Trongsa Dzong.

The mighty Trongsa Dzong.

The monastery was walking distance from the place we stayed at – 300 stairs away, to be precise. After Paro, I just didn’t have the desire to exert myself again. Fortunately, others felt the same way too, so we ended up taking bikes to it. The monastery looks pretty intimidating from the outside, almost like it’s touching the sky. All white and oxidised red on the outside, the colour tones inside are mostly blues.

Inside the Trongsa monastery.

Inside the Trongsa monastery.

The monastery is home to a couple of cats, the calmest of their kind I have ever seen. As I crouched to take a picture of them sunbathing, I noticed a fiery red flutter from the corner of my eye. It was the rooster.

Seconds before the chase.

Seconds before the chase.

Thoroughly fascinated by it, I crept as close as I could to take a picture of it as well. It walked around warily, always keeping an eye on me as I went clickety click. A few seconds later, it moved away in the opposite direction while I continued taking pictures of it. Next thing I knew, the sly fox came straight at me like a homing device, clucking loudly and flapping its wings. The cats were watching the whole thing from their place under the sun and everyone else was too busy trying to figure out what was happening: a rooster chasing a fully-grown woman around the monastery courtyard? Really? I ran for a full 30 seconds before someone decided to intervene and chase the rooster away. And believe me, 30 seconds is a long time when you have a more-than-healthy rooster with a razor-sharp beak desperately wanting a bite of your ankle or any other body part it can get a grip on. And boy, could the damn thing run.

Every toddler has its own personalised pram. :)

Every toddler has his or her own customised pram in Bhutan. :)

Day 6: Bumthang, 90 km

Bumthang was a series of greys, greens and blues all the way. Sunshine was busy playing hide and seek with the houses in the valley, and the people were busy being content.

Cypress trees close to Bumthang.

Cypress trees close to Bumthang.

Yaks grazing on the way.

Curious yaks watching us pass.

We visited the local brewery, where they use recycled Kingfisher bottles for their beer. The most prominent feature of the brewery, though, was the seven-leaf cannabis growing in abundance. Mary Jane’s like a weed (pun unintended) in Bhutan; you can spot it everywhere. The law forbids people from plucking/growing it. The fines are pretty hefty – 50,000 Ngultrum and over five years in jail. There’s also a cheese factory, a fruit pressing unit and a burning lake close by in Bumthang town, but we were too late to visit any of those.

Growing just outside the brewery.

Growing just outside the brewery.

Cheese cubes strung together in a local store.

Cheese cubes strung together in a local store.

Day 7: Mongar, 180 km

Bumthang had given me a glimpse of Bhutanese bird species. While I spotted a few pretty ones, I was clueless about their names. It didn’t help that they were constantly moving, making it really hard to shoot them. That changed on the way to Mongar, though. When we stopped for Maggi (read breakfast), we realised that one of the bikes had a puncture. About an hour and a half was spent trying to fix it, during which time some very colourful birds got comfortable with our presence and went about their flying without worrying about us.

A black-billed Magpie, one of many flying around near our breakfast stopover.

A black-billed Magpie, one of many flying around near our breakfast stopover.

We transitioned from plateaus to mountains again, going all the way up to Tumsi La pass – one of the highest motorable roads in Bhutan. Of course we stopped at the pass for a break. Of course I got off the bike. Of course I took pictures. What didn’t go according to plan was my getting back on the bike again. Because I’m short, getting onto the 500 cc Enfield is like climbing a mountain. I try to appear as cool as possible doing it, but sometimes it’s a serious struggle. On Tumsi La, I almost made it into full sitting position, but my camera bag had other plans. Let’s topple her over by getting snagged on the back seat rod, it thought.

Part of Tumsi La's ground is marked for posterity by me.

Part of Tumsi La’s ground is marked for posterity by me.

Like a puppet, I proceeded to role play my camera’s wicked intentions. I can see it all in slow-mo now: the leg on the other side of the bike slowly moving up as gravity pulled my other leg – by now suspended mid-air – and with it, my body, to the ground. Before I knew it, I had landed hard on my side. No broken bones, just bruises and a throbbing knee, thanks to my backpack. My elbow suffered a very painful scrape, despite my jacket being on. So, yes, there were cloud-covered trees, the chirping of birds, absolute stillness… And in the middle of the picture perfect setting was me, sprawled on my back awkwardly, wondering what the hell just happened.

The rest of the ride was uneventful.

Riding into the clouds after the fall.

Riding into the clouds after the fall.

As one moves along Bhutan, one notices the facial differences among the people. This was most apparent in Mongar, where facial features appeared flatter than everywhere else.

A game of football in progress as we entered Mongar.

A game of football in progress as we entered Mongar.

Day 8: Trashigang, 120 km

Pine forests line the route to Trashigang. We stopped for tea on the way and happened to meet a group of medical administrative officers. I got talking to them, wanting to know more about the country from the locals. I was told that education and healthcare are absolutely free in Bhutan. No matter how serious the illness and where you have to be treated for it, the government will sponsor it. It’s the same with education as well, but there’s a glitch to this – you have to score above a certain percentage to be sponsored by the government for further studies. My next question was an obvious one: how does the country manage to sustain itself if these were free?

What better than the scent of pines to keep you company on your ride?

What better than the scent of pines to keep you company on your ride?

The answer was hydroelectricity. Bhutan supplies power to India’s border areas and other countries. The water was fast depleting, though, a gynaecologist said. Bhutan was beautiful, but global warming and the democratisation of the country were fast changing that. The king was the head of state, but the new round of elections had new candidates with political interests and a hint of dirty games. This was upsetting news, because by then I had fully made up my mind that I would pack my bags and make Bhutan my retirement home when I was done with the ways of the world. I bade the locals farewell with reluctance, wanting to stay and pick their brains about everything remotely Bhutanese. We continued onwards, stopping on the way near the river Manas for pictures while some of us tried our hand at archery along with the locals.

Bhutanese boots, mostly worn by royalty or people during celebrations. They cost nothing less than 3,000 bucks.

Bhutanese boots, mostly worn by royalty or people during celebrations. They cost nothing less than 3,000 bucks.

Trashigang is more Indian in nature and dialect than any of the other towns across Bhutan because it’s closer to the border. It is also the best place to shop for local things. Home to the royal guest house, the hill town offers great views of the valleys and mountains all the way to the horizon, with roads snaking their way around terrains. It rained that evening, and all of Bhutan was a mass of blurry grey, with pitter-patter sounds everywhere.

7:30 a.m at Trashigang.

Early morning after the rains.

I was extremely fascinated with her nose ring. As she walked past us with her little grandson, i asked her if i could take a picture. She smiled shyly, but managed to keep her face neutral while i shot.

I was extremely fascinated with her nose ring. As she walked past us with her toddler grandson, I asked her if I could take a picture. She smiled shyly, but managed to keep her face straight while I shot.

Day 9: Samdrup Jongkar, 160 km

The border town adjacent to Darranga on the India side, Samdrup Jongkar is mostly a place for traders and businessmen to stop for the night. The vegetation is different from most of Bhutan and resembles the Indian kind more.

A river runs through it.

A river runs through it, on the way to Samdrup Jongkar.

Although the mountain views are stunning, the road to Samdrup is the worst of the lot. No surprise that BRO was doing the construction, and we had at least 15 kilometres of really tricky road to navigate.

Back-breaking roads.

Back-breaking roads.

For reasons that I cannot understand, everybody was on a mission to ride their bikes into each other’s backsides that day. Consequently, the bike ahead of us crossed a speed bump at one point of the journey and stopped, so that we had to hit the brakes really hard. The bike skid and toppled over, taking my rider and me with it. My ankle was trapped under at an awkward angle, but fortunately, the bike was lifted off it before any damage could be done. I was holding the camera, so it fell with me, but that too suffered nothing more than a few scratches. Again, had it not been for my backpack, I would have been pretty badly hurt.

Another town on the way to Samdrup Jongkar.

It feels like the houses just spilled down the crevice between the mountains like waterfall.

Prayer flags dot the landscape across Bhutan. This particular location, though, crept up on us out of nowhere. It's a green pasture surrounded by  pure white prayer flags fluttering away. Peaceful and dreamy place.

Prayer flags dot the landscape across Bhutan. This particular location, though, crept up on us out of nowhere. It’s a green pasture surrounded by pure white prayer flags fluttering away.

More than anything else, the fall was unexpected. The rest of the journey went smoothly, though, and the view of the mountains against the seven-leafers growing on the roadside more than made up for the mishap.

A last view of the mountains before we were to cross the border into India.

A last view of the mountains before we were to crossed the border into India.

Day 10: Darranga, 60 seconds

The day we were supposed to cross the border, I visited the Samdrup post office to buy stamps for my dad. Bhutanese stamps are pretty and very colourful, and you must buy some for yourself.

On the walk back, I thought about Leh. About how I was angry to leave because I didn’t want to go back. I evaluated my feelings to see if there was anything remotely similar to it again, but no. The time I had spent in Bhutan was fulfilling and enriching. Most importantly, it was calming. I learnt so much, saw and experienced so much. It didn’t feel alien, and I wasn’t afraid that I would never see it again. Bhutan felt like home. It felt like I would be back. And as I looked back on the mountains, their stillness reassured me of that feeling. I may not go back this year or the next, or maybe even a few years after. But I will go back, and maybe the country will be different in many ways, but still mean the same to me. It will be my retreat to heal and gather myself together.

One sees signs across Bhutan that say Tashi Delek. The meaning of the words is fluid, ranging from ‘welcome’ to ‘best wishes’ to ‘thank you’ to ‘may good things come your way’. When I crossed the border to India, that’s what I said to Bhutan. Tashi Delek, beautiful country, for helping me re-discover myself. And Tashi Delek, so that you may continue to be as content and free and untouched as you are.

In Bhutan, where there are kids, there are likely to be outstretched hands for a high-five, or alternatively, just wave with gusto.

In Bhutan, where there are kids, there are likely to be outstretched hands for a high-five, or alternatively, just wave with gusto.

QUICK NOTES

Food:

Mostly beef, pork, chicken and fish. As you move deeper into Bhutan, fish is difficult to find and replaced by Yak meat. Eggs are available everywhere. Vegetarian options include cheese momos, Maggi, local greens, dal, rice, puris with potato curry and Ema Datshi – the national dish of Bhutan with base ingredients of cheese and chillies.

Accomodation:

More or less standard across the country. The rooms are well-maintained, with western bathrooms with water heaters, toilet rolls and towels.

Weather:

Pleasant. Cold higher up in the mountains. I carried five pairs of jeans and plenty of tees. I used floaters for local sightseeing, but for treks and the ride itself, I wore hiking shoes. Carry rain covers for your luggage.

Vegetation:

Beautiful. Many times, you’ll come across breath-taking views as you take a turn on the road. You can also go trekking into the forests. I’ll probably try it next time.

Wildlife:

Bhutan is 70% forest and protected wildlife areas. A variety of cats, birds and monkeys can be found here. No yeti spotted to date, unfortunately.

Further reading:

I received a copy of ‘The History of Bhutan’ by Karma Phuntsho for review from Random House India during my trip. It’s a brilliant book with A-Z of everything about the country. I’m reading it right now, and I would definitely recommend that you get your hands on it.

tashi Delek, Bhutan. I'll miss you.

Tashi Delek, Bhutan. I’ll miss you.

Getting there: There are flights to Bhutan from most metros, but I’m not sure if these are direct or stopovers. Alternatively, you can fly to Bagdogra and ride from there.

Go if: You want to get away from it all.

“Tashi Delek, Bhutan.” – Part One

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A woman reading prayer beads, Phuent Sholing.

My purpose for going to the Bhutan trip was very clear: I needed to heal. This year’s been one of the worst yet on many levels, and the opportunity to travel to Bhutan came along at the perfect time. In many ways, the country purged me of some monsters, helped me regain my equilibrium and brought me back to life. It welcomed me with open arms and an atmosphere that’s completely devoid of negative energy; after all, when everyone around you is content with their lives, the feeling tends to rub off on you.

The road from Siliguri to Phuent Sholing is mostly bad, but the lush green of the tea plantations alongside the roads eased the trauma out a little.

The road from Siliguri to Phuent Sholing is mostly bad, but the lush green of the tea plantations alongside the roads eased the trauma out a little.

I read somewhere that travelling is like flirting with life, that we would love to stay and spend some more time, but really, we have to get going. With Bhutan, we flirted that way with the places, spending every night in a different part of the country, waking up early each morning, packing our bags and heading out to the next destination. It was exhilarating to be out so early in the day, riding through cloud-cloaked Himalayan peaks and nippy mountain winds.

Happy mornings.

Happy mornings.

It’s difficult to capture the essence of Bhutan – and honestly, I want to keep the country as much of a closely guarded secret as I can because I don’t want it to change, ever – but I’m giving it a shot anyway.

The border gate to Bhutan, from the India side.

The border gate to Bhutan, from the India side.

Day 1: Phuent Sholing, 180 km

Phuent Sholing is the border town and therefore, one’s first impression of Bhutan. Mine was that it reminded me of London in some ways – there are no people yelling and screaming; everyone goes about their work quietly; every building is beautiful to look at, even the petrol bunk is fancily painted with symbols and creatures; and the air is clean. The roads are tarred and smooth. There are hardly any two-wheelers around – almost everyone has a car and it’s either a sedan or an SUV. The Bhutanese are very strong on culture, so you’ll find almost everyone dressed in the traditional attires of Gho (for men) and Kira/Tego/Onjo (for women). What was remarkable was that the difference between the countries was very apparent with the single step I took from the Indian border into Bhutan.

The streets of Phuent Sholing.

The streets of Phuent Sholing.

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Every building is embellished with ornate designs in Bhutan. People spend enormous amounts of money on hiring artists who specialise in  these traditional designs to decorate homes/shops/hotels.

On the way to Paro from Phuent Sholing.

On the way to Paro from Phuent Sholing.

Day 2: Paro, 130 km

Riding through and over mountains, one reaches Paro, a quiet town scattered across a lush green valley. The royal palace is located here, but nobody’s ever seen it because it’s tucked awayon a hill all its own, with nothing around it.

The streets of Paro. This is probably the centre of the town, with hotels and restaurants located here. Most of the houses are further away, scattered across the plain.

The streets of Paro. This is probably the centre of the town, with hotels and restaurants located here. Most of the houses are further away, scattered across the plain.

Kids in Ghos, worn as a school uniform in different colours and patterns.

Kids in Ghos, worn as a school uniform in different colours and patterns.

Paro is also home to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Legend has it that a monk saw a tiger flying across the mountains and he wanted to see where it would go. One day, as the tiger was passing by, he jumped onto it and was carried to a cliff. So impressed was the monk by the entire phenomenon (I would be too, especially with a flying tiger), that he decided to build a monastery on the edge of the cliff.

The astonishing art work on the houses across Bhutan, first seen in Paro. The phallic symbol is painted on the outside of houses (and sometimes on doors) too ward off the evil eye and as a symbol of fertility.

The astonishing art work on the houses across Bhutan, first seen in Paro on the way to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The phallic symbol is painted on the outside of houses (and sometimes on doors) to ward off the evil eye and as a symbol of fertility.

The trek to Tiger’s Nest is not for the faint-hearted. Trekking and I are like embittered enemies, so even though I thought I was mentally prepared for a fair amount of walking, seeing the monastery from the point where I was going to start the climb turned my legs to jelly. My heart nearly stopped. Here’s why:

See the specks of white on the mountain? That's where I had to go.

See the specks of white on the mountain? That’s where I had to go.

So, you have to trek across two mountains – and it’s a bloody steep climb, mind you, with no proper path – and reach the third for the monastery. It’s at least six kilometres one way. I have never, I swear to you, trekked so much or come so close to giving up on living in all my years. With a little help from kind biker souls, though, I pushed myself to reach the monastery. I needed to own and relish that sense of achievement.

On the edge...

On the edge, about a kilometre and a half away from the monastery.

Day 3: Thimpu, 90 km

If Paro’s the older brother who’s more responsible, calmer and sorted, then Thimpu is the younger brother – wild, vibrant and Quixotic. 90 kilometres is like a whole world between them, that’s how different life is in both places. The capital of Bhutan, Thimpu is a cultural melting pot, with textile museums alongside government offices, coffee shops alongside gaming zones in basements, and a whole stretch of the main road cordoned off for an arts and crafts exhibition. In the distance, a giant Buddha looks on, gleaming gold in the sunlight.

Thimpu, as seen from the steps of the textile museum.

Thimpu, as seen from the steps of the textile museum.

While waiting to get our entry permits for the onward journey, I looked at this part of the crossroads and was instantly reminded of the pictures I have seen of European countries.

While waiting to get our entry permits for the onward journey, I looked at this part of the crossroads and was instantly reminded of the pictures I have seen of European countries.

Thimpu is a great place to walk around, because the roads are big and almost traffic-free.

A picture of the royal family at the Arts & Crafts stalls. No wonder they give so much importance to Gross National Happiness!

A picture of the royal family at the Arts & Crafts stalls. No wonder they give so much importance to Gross National Happiness!

Day 4: Punakha, 190 km

The ride from Thimpu to Punakha is beautiful. We rode up some steep mountains, slicing through the clouds covering the slopes. At one point, as we ascended to the Dochu La pass, we were greeted by a most magnificent sight – a series of chortens places in a circle, white and deep red and gold, peeping through the clouds zooming in. The scene took my breath away.

The chortens at Dochu La.

The chortens at Dochu La.

Being a riverside town is half the charm of Punakha. The other half is the Punakha Monastery – the biggest in all of Bhutan, I am told.

Punakha Monastery rests on a sliver of land, with the river flowing by it. Major restoration work has gone into making the monastery the way it is right now, possibly for the royal wedding in 2011. Whatever the case, the monastery is gorgeous. There weren’t too many people around when we visited it, so I explored the place unrestrained. Walking around, I also noticed that some of the rooms inside the monastery functioned as various government offices. As we moved deeper into Bhutan, I realised that this was true of every monastery we visited.

Punakha Monastery.

Punakha Monastery.

The lawn surrounding the river side of the monastery offers a great view of the monastery bridge.

The lawn surrounding the river side of the monastery offers a great view of the monastery bridge.

Our stay in Punakha was the most entertaining of the lot – we celebrated a birthday, miraculously managed to find a cake to cut and indulged in the madness that comes standard with a mini-party. A group of 11 big-ass bikes is an unusual sight in Bhutan, so we also had cops dropping in on us to see the bikes and take a ride. I was highly amused.

"His helmet is so much better than mine...", said the cop, depressed.

“His helmet is so much better than mine!”, thought the cop, depressed.

Little did I know that there were more amusing things in store as we rode on to Trongsa. I was chased around the monastery by a rooster, fell off the bike a couple of times, and had interesting conversations with a group of locals.

For all that, though, you’ll have to wait for Part Deux.

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Masinagudi: A jungle Haiku

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Masinagudi from the Safari centre.

At the junction of

Nece Road, we meet early to

ride high with the wind.

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Golden butter melts

Over soft, fluffy idlis –

Breakfast at Bidadi

Piping hot Tatte (South Indian for plate) Idlis and crisp golden vadas at the famous Shree Renukamba hotel.

Piping hot Tatte (South Indian for plate) Idlis and crisp golden vadas at the famous Shree Renukamba hotel.

The lull of the wind

whooshing past, rocks you to sleep;

The jungle wakes you.

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Dry, brown crackling grass;

Not a leaf moves in the air,

Nor an animal.

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Except, wait, what is

that in the distance? Oh! A

lone tusker, walking!

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At Tiger Paws,

We all arrive, tired and tanned.

Lunch, and then the safari.

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Deep inside we go,

Hoping for tigers. But there

are only peacocks.

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Some bison, a hurt

elephant calf, eating slow.

…The safari ends.

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The jungle’s quiet,

Like your mind; clear, like your thoughts

amid deep blue hills.

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Maybe the jungle’s

plan is to keep you coming

back to see fauna.

Maybe the plan is

to share the stillness of the

tigers’ home with you.

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That’s why, cat or not

When the jungle calls, answer

with a smile and go.

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Getting there: Masinagudi is approximately a 6-hour drive from Bangalore. The roads are nice and the drive through the forest is brilliant. I’m not sure about buses plying to the place, but i guess there will be.

Go if: You love jungles, wildlife, nature, need some solitude and quiet time.

Biking 101 or what riding to Masinagudi taught me.

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The bike that bore my weight with machismo.

When was the last time you experienced a whole new dimension to travel? Something that was so starkly different that it opened up a world of alternative travel experiences? Mine was last weekend, when I went on my first ever biking trip as a pillion on a Bullet Machismo 500. The wind in my hair, the tarred road under my feet that dissolved into a motion blur as we picked up speed, the machine gun doog-doog-doog of the Bullet’s engine… I can confidently say that the pleasure of a biking road trip has no equal. The traffic is just background noise and your 9 to 5 becomes an alternate reality; nothing is of consequence any more. All that matters is the love affair between you and the road and the elements. It’s a liberating experience.

Of course, biking is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially if you’re going with people you don’t know. Experienced as well as novice riders will have a hundred things to say about it, a sore backside being a constant warning. But you’ll never know what works for you (or doesn’t) till you get on a bike and hit the road. The two days I spent riding into the wilderness taught me some very important life – and biking – lessons.

#1 Choose your riding club with care

Going with friends is great, but what works for riding clubs is that they’ve done this thing a hundred times before and are extremely organized. There are a few biking clubs in Bangalore, but the friend I rode with is a part of Bangalore Motorcycle Club, and it was a great first experience to go with them. The bikes travel in single file on the roads, flanked by a pilot – the biker that leads the group – and a sweep – the biker that rounds up the group and is always the last one riding. Hand signals are passed down like Chinese Whispers along the line and were damn fascinating to watch. Spare parts and a mechanic are mandatory, and there’s no place better than the middle of the jungle to help you understand how crucial they are.

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Riding back to the resort after the jungle safari.

#2 Leave your hang-ups at home

Learn to let go and get friendly. Your riding group is going to be your on-road family, and it makes sense to establish a certain familiarity with them. If you’re riding pillion, make sure you know your rider because it’s the two of you on the bike and really, you’ll be bumping into his/her back a lot and that can get awkward with strangers. The BMC bikers I met were just as crazy and uncomplicated as the people I usually meet, so I had no problems bonding with them.

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The advantage of riding with someone familiar: you get to do crazy things like take pictures of shadows on the road.

#3 Protect yourself against the elements

At the end of the trip, my face looked like it belonged to a Matrioshka doll – I had two spots of deep red on my cheeks and chin, thanks to the sun. But that’s also because I went without sunscreen lotion like a stud muffin. So, protection gear must include a comfortable helmet, an all-weather jacket, a scarf to cover your face, sunscreen lotion and a pair of good shades. Oh, and good shoes.

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Riding jacket: check. Helmet: check. Shoes: check. Gloves: check. Sun glasses: check. Pillion: Oh wait, did she fall off somewhere?

#4 Biking is as basic as it gets

It’s not exactly about roughing it out, but it’s not like a car where you can carry your house and (your neighbour’s) with you. Biking trips teach you to be frugal with your packing. You don’t end up spending too much either – our ride was supposed to be to Bandipur, but things changed and we ended up in Masinagudi, at a resort with a gorgeous view of the Nilgiri hills. Because the bookings were last minute, we had four rooms between 17 of us. And we managed just fine.

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Travelling light is key.

#5 Save your backside by shifting positions from time to time

Take turns at moving your legs, sitting straight, slouching and raising your backside off the seat over speed bumps. I gripped my friend’s shoulder at regular intervals to leverage my weight (I was numb at one point) and lift myself off the seat or slide forward a little. Oh, and definitely carry some meds with you if you suffer from motion sickness.

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I call this the ‘Straight Leg’: bikers often use the bars in the front to stretch their legs over them or raise them over it.

#6 Biking knows no discrimination

Anyone can ride. There was a woman rider in our group and four women pillions, including me. Some of us didn’t know how to ride a geared bike. Some of the bikers had been with other biking clubs before. Some were new at long rides and some were seasoned trippers. Some were techies, some teachers, some from HR and marketing. All of them were bound together by one thing only: their love for biking.

En route Gopalswamy Betta.

En route Gopalswamy Betta.

I would recommend at least one biking trip for everyone at least once in their life. This was my practice ride before my two-week biking trip to Bhutan. And now that I’ve got a taste of this, I don’t want to let go of it.