Scotland: The Land of Rainbows

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The plan. Or the lack of it.

In 2016, a friend invited me to go to Scotland on a holiday. It was so casually mentioned that it seemed like nothing more than tea-time conversation. Unknown to this friend, however, my ears went all pointy like a mastiff’s at the mention of the country. Many fantasies had been played out in my head in the past – men in kilts playing lilting music atop cliffs with steep drops into blue-green waters… the incredible moors and velvety moss covering it… the food… the near-musical Scottish accent… remembering Skyfall sort of sealed the deal for me. The catch? I only had two and a half weeks to put the plan in motion.

And so came the last-minute rush for the visa. My friend and I decided to leave the stays and places to visit for when I would get my visa – I didn’t know if I would make it, till the last minute. (Big mistake, this lack of planning. An impromptu holiday in Europe is the worst thing that can happen to your savings, especially if you’re Indian, because everything is expensive when you don’t book in advance.)

I waited in anticipation for my visa. Packed my bags. Had multiple conversations with people about where to go and what to do. Kept looking at travel websites for cheaper return flights. Bit my nails till my fingers were tiny stubs. Kept telling myself to not get overly excited because I’d be super-disappointed if the visa fell through. Until finally, my Dad called me at work two days before I was scheduled to leave: “There’s a VFS parcel that’s arrived for you.”

Later that evening, I went home and tore open the package even before saying hello to my parents, preparing my mind for the worst as I did so. I removed my passport with shaky hands and turned the pages one by one, searching, squinting, dreading… where was the darn vi…

There it was, my permission to enter the country, alongside my goony-looking mug shot. I was going to Scotland!_DSC4311

First impressions

Dreamy, like the setting for Wuthering Heights, minus the intense, deeply messed-up characters. A bitter-sweet gloominess, with grey clouds overshadowing a bright blue sky in patches.

Drizzly. It’s not the hard-hitting kind of rain, but just a constant murmur from the sky in the background; you grow oblivious to it pretty quickly.

Nippy. Wonderfully, exhilaratingly nippy. Some would call it cold and chilly, but I was so excited to just be there that the cold didn’t affect me.

It was around 5:45 a.m. when I stepped out of Edinburgh airport. I couldn’t be happier with the early start – I had 10 days in Scotland and was okay with early mornings. Well, some of the time! Question was, with so much to see and do, how could I make the most of its beauty? So here’s the list of places I went to.

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A view of the city from the Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh

Edinburgh, the hilly capital of Scotland, is one of the oldest cities in the world – and it shows. Everywhere you turn, there are beautiful buildings and monuments that have stood steady over time. The Royal Mile is full of mesmerising churches, offices, hotels and towers. By-lanes are full of restaurants serving everything from Scottish specialties to Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, French, Italian and Indian cuisine. If you do go, don’t forget to visit the Camera Obscura close to the Edinburgh Castle. It’s full of quaint little optical illusions, art pieces and souvenirs to take home.

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The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Castle itself will take you an entire day to explore. We didn’t reach it in time to view the crown jewels, which are supposed to be magnificent, but we pretty much covered everything else. The view of the city from the castle walls is simply stunning. You’ll see modern structures sprinkled between ancient architecture; the densely populated areas start thinning towards the edge of the water and merge into the sea. The sight, quite frankly, is magnificent. Pick a guided audio tour and explore at your own pace.

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The chapel inside Edinburgh Castle.

Street performances abound. We caught a fire show, musicians and living statues performing. Towards the evening, my friend decided to head to Arthur’s Seat – a viewpoint atop a hill – and I decided to sit in a park close to the castle and soak in the vibe of the city. A squirrel apprehensively approached a group of teenage hipsters who chased it around. Pigeons pecked, gurgling away. Sea gulls ventured into the park as well. Shops started winding down their shutters. One by one, the lights in the Balmoral Hotel came on. The Scottish monument lit up and like moths drawn to light, people started clumping on benches around it, deep in conversation, cuddling, enjoying a smoke after a long day, eating or just sitting and watching the world go by. Like me.

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Gothic.

As the sun sets, though, Edinburgh takes on a slightly spooky air. You hardly see people milling about after hours (which would be 6:30 p.m. their time). Most move towards the pubs and eateries, but even those places get quite deserted by 9:30 p.m. on weekdays. Friday nights are when the city comes alive, with a rampant and diverse party scene. And those times, it’s like everyone’s oblivious to the chill – there are shorts and fishnet stockings and teensy weensy skirts and spaghetti tops and leather jackets and slit jeans everywhere you look. Edinburgh maybe one of the oldest living cities in the world, but it’s pretty young at heart.

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Inverness through the tour bus window.

Inverness and Loch Ness

If you’re a nature baby, head to Inverness and Loch Ness. The drive to both places is soul-soothing. I mean, what person wouldn’t be moved by massive rolling mountains generously dusted with rich brown and green wilderness, all set against a backdrop of a crystal blue sky and cotton candy clouds? It’s like being in a fairy tale, I tell you.

It kept drizzling as we drove through the highlands. At one point, the road snaked into nothingness between two parallel mountains; as we took a turn, a huge rainbow greeted us – one of the biggest I have ever seen. It was like an archway in the sky connecting the two mountains, and we were crossing under it. Think of the first magic trick you ever saw as a little kid and how it blew you away, mouth agog, eyes wide, completely enthralled and pulled in by the feeling of witnessing something so marvellous. When I saw that rainbow, that’s how I felt. It was the most magical moment I had ever witnessed. Words failed me. They still do, because it’s impossible to describe. And the magic just didn’t stop. There were rainbows everywhere we looked. To me, they’re now just synonymous with Scotland.

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On the way to Loch Ness.

We stopped at the Achnambeithach cottage in Glencoe and caught a glimpse of the three sisters. The cottage is protected by giant mountains on three sides, with a small loch flowing past it in the front and a red bridge connecting it to the highway. This part of Scotland is exactly how you see parts of the Scottish moors in Skyfall, sans the snow. (It was September when we went.) If you’re into trekking/walking, this trail is probably going to take your breath away. (The mere idea of walking/trekking takes my breath away, so you would be accurate in your assumption that no, I didn’t trek through the trail.)

And the hairy coos just add to the whole setting! These massive highland cows with intimidating horns and shaggy hair that give it a wild, unkempt look can only be described by one word: adorable. Personally speaking, their cuteness quotient comes pretty close to cat videos.

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Hairy coos!

Loch Ness, however, is the complete opposite. The loch is so deep (700 feet, I believe) that the water’s the darkest, blackest blue you can imagine. And the surface shines like a mirror. Contrasting this is the sky – at the time we went, it was a crisp blue, with clouds travelling across it. Everywhere else, you would probably see the sky reflected on the surface of the water, but not at Loch Ness. It was almost as if the water swallowed up anything that came close to its surface, despite its mirror-like glaze. I wouldn’t want to fall into the water, for sure.

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Welcome to Loch Ness.

Take the Loch Ness cruise – you’re not likely to spot the monster unless you’re very, very lucky, but you’ll see the glorious ruins of Urquhart Castle and the fields on either side in all their beauty. And don’t forget to pick up souvenirs of Nessie!

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McCaig’s Tower, Oban.

Oban

Because we didn’t plan in advance, doing a whiskey tour and stay on one of the Isles was almost impossible. So we decided on Oban – it was by the sea and not too far from the isles, in case we decided to go over for a day trip. Being a sea-side town, Oban was wet and rainy from the moment we landed there, with McCaig’s Tower, a tower that resembles the Roman Colosseum, overlooking the town.

The winds are mighty in Oban and the seafood is divine. I overdosed on Fish and Chips everywhere I went, so much so that my friend got sick of it by the end. The view of the sea is mesmerising, with the blackness of the waters evident here as well.

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On the floor at Oban Distillery.

Oban is also home to one of the oldest whiskey distilleries in Scotland, circa 18th century. In fact, it pre-dates Oban town and is most likely what gave rise to the settlement around it. The distillery is not too big, but it is quite impressive. Every time I go on a whiskey/wine making tour, my respect for the process and ingenuity of man grows. Oban was no different; the tour began with a quick history of the distillery and then we were taken into the heart of the place. We were requested to switch off our mobile phones because the alcohol content in the atmosphere insane. And boy oh boy, was it! One whiff of the place and you’re high – that’s how potent the smell was. They use recycled oak casks from other distilleries to age their whiskey and once done, pass it along to other distilleries for reuse. So the taste of whiskey, we were told, was quite unique. My friend concurred after taking a sip of the tasters. The barrels aren’t thrown away when they’re done serving their purpose as casks; they’re used as garden planters instead.

We walked around town for a bit and went for dinner by the quay at Eeusk, a highly recommended restaurant serving local seafood. The catch of the day is what’s served as food and because it was fresh, it was one of the best meals ever. Quite expensive, but worth it.

Oban didn’t quite give us the weather we were looking forward to, so we spent just a day there and moved on to Lake District, an hour and a half’s drive out of Scotland and into North West England.

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Lake District in the day.

Lake District

Also known as Lakeland, Lake District is a national park area full of breath-taking sunsets and scenic mountain views. Staying at the YHA in Ambleside, we had the advantage of being close to picturesque walking routes, local restaurants (the.best.chicken.wings.in.the.world) and, most importantly, the church where William Wordsworth worshipped. In fact, he lived in Grasmere and then Rydal for a significant amount of time, which is why Rydal is prominent in English romantic literature. So of course, our first day at Lake District started with a visit to this church. On the way, we encountered plenty of fluffy, woolly sheep (no hairy coos here!) and black and white cows (really!). As luck would have it, the church was closed, so we just took pictures from the outside, walked around and headed towards the mountains at Rydal.

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The church where Wordsworth worshipped.

I hated the climb up the mountain. Not because it was hard, but because one, I was tired after all the walking around; two, it was almost evening and I hate being out in the open in the dark, more so if it’s a place I’m not familiar with; three, I hadn’t exerted myself so much in a while and I was irritated with how unfit I was and how each step drove that home harder. Anyway, once on top, the climb felt totally worth it. I could understand why Wordsworth made Rydal his home and how many hours he must have spent finding inspiration in the views before him. If he ever climbed and didn’t crib like me, that is.

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Walking up the mountains of Rydal.

The next day, we walked through the forest. It was a very long, very cool walk, literally. Delicate-looking wild mushrooms grew in the shelter of tall, giant pine and fir trees. The forest was absolutely quiet, except for a heaving walker/cyclist here and there. Of course I cribbed with all the walking again, but this time, I was better prepared. So I focused on things that matter to me the most in the outdoors – trees, flowers, leaves, ducks, country life… and I ambled along just fine across the forest and later, around Ambleside.

That’s the one thing I envy the most every time I travel abroad: the cities are so pedestrian-friendly. Everybody, absolutely everybody, walks to everywhere. That’s how people go from one point to the other, most times. And it’s really satisfying to watch, because that means lesser traffic on the road and drivers respecting pedestrians, giving them the right of way, because walking is such an inherent part of their lifestyle. Of course, they have the motivation to walk as well. With every other building an architectural delight and every view a scenic one, who wouldn’t want to?

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Lakes, mountains and a lonely cabin.

Winding up

Ambleside was the last leg of our holiday. The next day, we would take the train to London for our flight back. It was bittersweet, that last night at Lake District. The experiences, the food, the walking, the sea, the environment, everything came together in a sea of emotions. I felt… overwhelmed. And grateful. And irritated. And exhausted. And exhilarated. After years and years of desiring to go to Scotland, imagining what it would be like to walk among the moors and feel the biting sea winds and be in this state of perpetual high spirits, I had finally made it. It was an epic holiday in many ways.

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Tried to make friendsheep with this guy, but he didn’t baa-y into the concept. Oh well.

As we journeyed back to London by train, I didn’t take my eyes off the scenery outside my window. In my mind’s eye, every passing tree, every passing cottage, every mountain, stream and lake had a magical rainbow arching over it in a half-sphere. I carried it with me around Piccadilly Circus. Around Trafalgar Square. Around The National Gallery. I carried it with me on my flight back to Bangalore.

That magic rainbow may have bridged the gap between mountains in Glencoe for a brief moment but now, it connected me to Scotland. Forever.

Getting there: Bangalore has no direct flights to Edinburgh, unfortunately. You can choose a stopover at London or one of the Middle Eastern countries. I flew Bangalore-Abu Dhabi-Edinburgh on my way there and London-Kuwait-Bangalore on the way back. The flight times were approximately 14 hours, layovers included.

Go if: You love trekking. And the mountains. And the sea. And seafood. And people. And Scottish accents. And history. And of course, if you love rainbows. :)

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!

Banaras: Where Food and Faith come together.

The boat ride on the Ganges.
A boat ride on the Ganges.

Think of vivid watercolours fading in and out of each other in different forms and shapes – holy men with painted faces and a headful of braided hair, women in rainbow-coloured sarees and men in white dhotis and kurtas. Think of water – the surface appearance of which is smooth glass – catching the sunlight with a shimmer here and a glitter there, only disturbed by floating yellow marigolds and extinguished diyas; hordes of people lining the ghats, sinking into the shimmering water as if being eaten whole, to wash away their sins and the day’s collective grime, eyes closed in deep devotion. Floral notes from incense sticks mingle with the fragrance of fried foods, steaming kulhad chai and a faint, distant smell of burning, tying the scene together neatly.

That’s Banaras for you – one of the oldest living cities in the world.

I have never, ever, ever seen goats wearing sweaters and tees before, but it's a pretty common sight in UP. I'm guessing it has something to do with winter.
I have never, ever, ever seen goats wearing sweaters and tees before, but it’s a pretty common sight in UP. I’m guessing it has something to do with winter.

One part of Banaras’s story is on its ghats, where people of all religions gather for the evening aarthi or to absolve their misdemeanours and evil. The other is in its streets – the city thrives in its vast network of narrow lanes lined with shops on both sides and bustling thoroughfare in the middle.

Waiting for freebies at a roadside stall.
Waiting for freebies at a roadside stall.

There are stories everywhere you look – the erstwhile royal palaces by the ghats that are now home to regular families with regular lives; ancestral homes that double up as storehouses for the locally-made Banarasi fabrics; and temples that make wishes come true. In fact, there’s a story behind the city’s better-known name too – two rivers, Varuna and Assi, come together at this point, so the city that evolved by its banks got christened ‘Varanasi’. When the Mughal rulers came, they brought the name ‘Banaras’ with them.

Banarasi weaves sunbathing.
Banarasi weaves sunbathing.

Watching the evening aarthi is an experience in itself, but to witness it from a boat on the Ganga is an enchanting experience. The boatsmen drive a hard deal, finally carrying you to a vantage point from where the aarthi can best be experienced. Bit by bit, more boats come closer to each other and people begin to rock restlessly as other boats block their view. When the prayers start and the (good-looking) (Forgive me, God) pundits begin with their bells and prayers, the sounds drift out into the dark night over the gentle lapping of the waves and silence even the most noisy feet jumping across boats like monkeys.

Part of the aarthi involves lifting these Brass heavyweights and rotating them.
Part of the evening aarthi involves lifting these Brass heavyweights and rotating them. (Oh, and that’s one of the pundits.)

The aarthi goes on for a good 45 minutes, after which the people gathered purchase diyas, bind their hopes and dreams and wishes to the burning flame and let them drift off into the vast darkness of the Ganga. And while the prayers go on on one side of the ghat, pyres glow in the darkness on the other as families watch their loved ones turn to ashes.

Watching the aarthi from the river.
Watching the evening aarthi from the river, at the Dasashwamedh Ghat.

A boat ride on the Ganga will reveal that the burning ghats are not too far away. “Kehte hain, yahan ki chita kabhi nahi bujhti”, a local told us, referring to the number of cremations that happen on a daily basis. Although seeing a dead body float by was one of my greatest aversions to visiting Banaras, I didn’t spot a single one – not even at the burning ghats. Death is a profitable business here.

6:30 a.m in the morning, the waters are covered in dense fog. Sometimes, when the fog dissipates in parts, one can watch seagulls travelling with the boats, as the oarsman throws fish food into the water.
6:30 a.m in the morning, the waters are covered in dense fog. Sometimes, when the fog dissipates in parts, one can watch seagulls travelling with the boats, as the oarsmen throws fish food into the water.

History doesn’t just live in Banaras – you can see traces of it in the places around the city too. A trip to Sarnath will acquaint one with the birthplace of Buddha. Sarnath is a quiet town – except for the bustle of tourists, mostly from other Asian countries – but quite unremarkable otherwise, considering it’s home to one of the biggest religious forces in the world. Ramnagar Fort, on the other hand, is a quaint, pretty place with an impressive collection of vintage cars, clocks, and pictures. Unfortunately, little care is taken to maintain the fort and its historic treasures – layers of dust rest on most things. The architecture’s a mix of a couple of styles, of which old-world Kolkata is the most evident. Somehow, this mélange of styles also comes together to create a distinct flavour in the cuisine of Banaras.

At the Ramnagar Fort, pausing to take a picture. The architecture brings Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas to mind.
At the Ramnagar Fort, pausing to take a picture. The architecture brings Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas to mind.

Chaats are a must-try in Banaras. The Tamaatar chaat, unique to the city (at least as far as I know), is made of a thick and spicy tomato gravy topped with tiny fried Bengal-gram bits, coriander, masalas, a tablespoon of Ghee and sugar syrup. It’s like the Fourth of July fireworks in your mouth, with layer after layer of flavours bursting forth. Food as a rule is rich and lip-smackingly good in Banaras, and is best washed-down with a Kulhad chai from one of the road-side stalls.

The cooks using huge ladles to get the piping hot samosas and kachoris from the wok and let the residual oil drip.
The cooks using huge ladles to get the piping hot samosas and kachoris from the wok, and then resting the ladle on the sides to let the excess oil/ghee drain out. The fire is stoked by table fans – saves on manual labour.

In the three days I spent in Banaras – well, two-and-a-half actually because our train was delayed by 10 hours – my senses were on overdrive: there’s so much to taste and experience and absorb, so much to learn about culture and history. And if this is how much I have learned in such a short time, I can’t wait to go back and see how much more I can get to know over a week.

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That’s the city by the ghats of Varuna and Asi.

Getting there: There are direct flights to Banaras from most metros. The alternative is to take a train/bus from Delhi. The train journey is picturesque, but please avoid the Gharib Rath – it is ridiculously late at all times.

Go if: You want to soak in history, wash away your sins, want to experience culture, love stories, love colours, and love food.

Guwahati: Four things to do in four days.

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Waiting for a goods train to pass.

I treat people and places very differently. It’s easier for me to take an instant dislike to the former than the latter. Guwahati changed that for me.

The second we entered the city, we got caught in a traffic jam for over an hour and a half. The bridge over the Brahmaputra was like a bad discotheque – the cacophony of multiple vehicles honking constantly left no room for a conversation at a normal decibel. I thought Bangalore traffic was unruly and the people on the roads badly behaved, till I got stuck in the jam. As for the city itself, there’s spit and dirt and betel leaf stains everywhere.

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The bridge that we were stuck on.

Perhaps my harsh judgement of the city stemmed from the fact that it was a stopover on the way back to Bangalore from Bhutan. Perhaps my judgement is accurate. I don’t know for sure, but one thing I do know: Guwahati can’t be all that bad. No city can. There are always redeeming qualities – for heaven’s sake, even Mumbai is teeming with life despite the pollution, poverty and distinct class divide.

Guwahati’s redemption came when I did four very different things during the time I was there. They’re things you should definitely do as well, if you ever decide to go.

1: Spot Rhinos at Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary

Morigaon is 30 kilometres out of the city and home to over 100 rhinoceroses. Passers-by who were giving us directions to the sanctuary told us that it was closed for the season and we wouldn’t see any rhinos. Heedless, we went all the way to the sanctuary, crossed a rickety, half-submerged bamboo bridge and walked onto a road with a vision worth a lifetime –a herd of rhinos grazing alongside cows on the sanctuary grasslands. Having only seen one in a zoo, I went slightly mental at the sight of so many rhinos. It was fantastic.

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This rhino was very curious about all of us staring at it. Notice the cows around it, dwarfs in comparison. The cows this up North are slightly shorter than the cows we’re familiar with.

2: Experience the night life at a local pub/lounge

After ten days of riding over rough terrains, everyone was game for a little letting-down-of-hair. We were recommended a place not far from our hotel. Apparently, it was well-known as a party place and open till late. When we went there, though, we were the only ones around. Of course, that was also because it was 7:30 in the evening – we were hoping to wrap up early and catch up on some much-needed sleep. The bartender told us that the place would start filling up soon enough and that we were in luck because there was live music that night. The North East is known for its musical talent, so we were quite excited with the whole idea.

An hour later, a man walked in with two women. He had short spiked hair in the front and long straight hair at the back. The women wore teensy weensy dresses with six-inch heels and fishnet stockings. One had dyed her hair toxic blonde and the other wore her hair in an ascending haircut. It was weird. When they started singing, though, things came back to normal. The blonde singer transformed a soppy Bryan Adam song into a semi-metal track and did a fabulous job of it too. The crowd, all of them men, started trickling in after 9:30 p.m. One late entrant was a she-male, very upset about sharing the limelight with two (only) other women in the place – the female biker on the Bhutan trip and I. As the music hit a crescendo, so did the hormones of the crowd around us. That was our cue to leave before things got messy.

It had been an interesting and different evening.

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A view of the city from the Brahmaputra.

3: Browse through the book stores at Pan Bazaar

Pan Bazaar’s located in one of the oldest market areas of Guwahati and is home to streets full of book stores. With books of every era, genre and author, the place is pure paradise. I picked up an early edition of the original Arabian Nights (which I still haven’t managed to finish) from a book store run by a man who seemed to have been around for a while and had a great knowledge of books. When I got my book, it came wrapped neatly in paper with string.

A lane near Pan Bazaaar, full of flower sellers.
A lane near Pan Bazaaar, full of flower sellers.

4: Cruise the Brahmaputra

The Brahmaputra is so vast and endless that I don’t know why they call it a river. The waters look deceptively calm, sprouting islands of greenery here and there. Pictures of rafting expeditions show how violent the Brahmaputra can get, though.

Our cruise started around 6:30 in the evening. The crew members were busy decorating the boat with balloons and crepe paper when we went on board. Not thinking too much about it, we walked to the upper deck to our tables for an uninterrupted view of the river. The Brahmaputra watched on, silently welcoming us to explore its waters. Seconds after we were seated, it started pouring cats and dogs. The rain formed a veil around the river and we could see nothing; there was no choice but to seek shelter in the lower deck.

The Brahmaputra, minutes after it started raining.
The Brahmaputra, minutes after it started raining.

It was a nightmare. There were families sitting on one side and staring at the youngsters dancing on the other side to blaring music mixed by one of the waiters. The rain stopped an hour later and we went back up to watch the city lights glistening on the surface of the Brahmaputra.

It was a pleasant way to end my stay in a city that I couldn’t wait to get away from.

A father-daughter moment in one of the many fields near Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.
A father-daughter moment in one of the many fields near Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary.

Getting there: Guwahati is accessible by flight and trains.

Go if: You want to see rhinos or raft on/cruise the Brahmaputra.