The time when curiosity almost killed the cat

According to Wikipedia

“Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back” is a variation of a proverb, “curiosity killed the cat” that includes the rejoinder “but satisfaction brought it back.” Although the original version was used to warn of the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation, the addition of the rejoinder indicates that the risk would lead to resurrection because of the satisfaction felt after finding out.

I had a first hand experience of “witnessing” this proverb literally last week in Maasai Mara.

After a not-so-exciting afternoon game drive, as I was returning to my camp, my driver Simon got a call informing him that 2 leopards had just been spotted at a location we had left just minutes back, after a futile search for leopards. The sun was about to set and darkness was fast descending. He quickly reversed the jeep and we reached the spot in time to find some tourists in 2 jeeps  keenly  looking towards an area, dimly washed with twilight. My eyes needed a little time to see what they were seeing – two leopards lounging on the fallen trunk of a tree, looking into the bushes and beyond.

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The first sighting of the 2 leopards
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The wary older one
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The curious younger cub

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One was visibly much smaller than the other but I couldn’t make out if it was an older brother or the mother. Anyone who knows me even a little bit, knows about my love affair with these very shy grey-eyed cats. As I sat enraptured, feasting my eyes on these two cats, I also noticed two young elephants benignly progressing towards these felines, while merrily chomping on grass. The little one was closer to the pachyderms but the other one wisely slipped off the log and disappeared into the grass as they came closer.

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The young elephants and the little cub – look at their relative sizes
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The restless and the curious one

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Check the position of the tree trunks to follow the progress of the elephants
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The older one makes a hasty escape

The little one was as fascinated with the trunked giant as I was with her. She refused to budge and kept watching it. For a split second, there may just have been a change of mind induced by the instinctive feeling of possible danger because she jumped off the log but came back on it, seconds later, even more curious!

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Back on the log, but at the spot where the older one was initially
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Open challenge or juvenile curiosity?
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Coming closer

But now, the elephant was within nudging distance. And not looking too happy at the cub’s public show of defiance. I was getting edgy now as I knew what even a playful nudge of those tusks can do. Then came the trumpeting call of warning. The little one had not an iota of doubt any more about which road to take. In a flash, she was gone and I started breathing again! The mini tusker  kept slamming into the log, with her tusks, with displeasure but soon went back to the more pleasurable activity of munching grass.

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TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
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Now the cub finally gets wiser and starts to move

My hunch is, these two “kids” encountered each of its kind for the first time and went home all the more wiser. I also think the bigger leopard was probably an irresponsible older brother because he never entered the scene after his vanishing act. Would a mother leave her cub to spar with a tusker, no matter how young the calf may have been?

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This round belonged to the young tuskers

But the unanswered question that remains is: was the cat’s curiosity satisfied and if so, “will satisfaction bring it back?”

PS: Dusky conditions made photography very difficult.

Night of the hyenas

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Not so high on the popularity charts

It is a common sight in Kenya to see hyenas steal food from the bigger cats. Whenever there is a kill, you are sure to find these scavengers slowly fill up the fringes. Sometimes, they even take over as the dominant group, as I recently witnessed at Mara, where they staked their claims on a hippo killed by the lions. Their sly look, droopy back and awkward gait do not earn them any brownie points. However, they form a vital part in the cleaning up of our ecosystem.

I have learnt quite a few interesting facts about these cunning creatures during my stay in Kenya. They are not related to dogs although they seem to be. These hyenas not only scavenge, but they also skillfully hunt in packs. They can devour a whole zebra in under 30 minutes. Hyena poop is milky white due to the high presence of calcium from eating up all the bones. Female hyenas are more muscular and dominating. Interestingly, she has only 2 nipples – as a result, only the strongest 2 of her litter survive, leaving the weaker ones to starve to death! How cleverly nature keeps a balance….

I have only seen spotted hyenas so far and I only refer to these when I write. For more hyena “wild” facts, click on this link.

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The Ark (picture from the lodge website)

During our recent visit to Aberdare National Park, we stayed at The Ark. Most of my acquaintances who have been here, usually spend their time chilling out in the viewing deck with a drink or two, watching buffaloes and elephants (and sometimes a leopard or a rhino if they are lucky) at the salt lick and watering hole. When we reached there, we were also greeted by a similar placid sight – buffaloes, elephants, wart hogs and bush bucks jostling for a good lick of salt. And there were some herons, egrets, cranes, geese and ducks. We were not expecting anything scintillating but as we walked towards the lodge on a canopy bridge, cutting through the lush green forest, we mentally prepared ourselves for an adventure of sorts.

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The mating ducks

There are 3 viewing decks at the Ark but due to the cold, we chose to lounge in the one completely enclosed by glass panes but keeping an eye on the waterhole, hoping for a stray leopard. There wasn’t much action happening at that time, except for a pair of yellow billed ducks, engrossed in a deeply elaborate mating ritual.

After dinner, I asked the resident ranger if hyenas ever come visiting there and he said “Oh yes, they were here just now!” As I was ruing the fact that I had missed them by a whisker, I saw a big one sauntering in from the forest. It was 8:20 pm.

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The first hyena

Slowly, their numbers started to increase, alerting me to something sinister waiting to happen. The scene looked pretty peaceful till then – a herd of buffaloes grazing by the waterhole, with some ducks and geese skimming over the water. There was also a lone elephant and some genet cats scrounging for food. And the funny looking giant forest hog, which I saw for the first time.

And THEN we spotted the buffalo calf and the slow build-up of hyena activity around it. And their bloodthirsty intentions became quite clear. It was a spine chilling drama waiting to unfold…

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Can you spot the calf in the middle?
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The mother trying to escape with the calf
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The mother and calf looking for sanctuary in the water while the father tries to ward off the predators on the land

The number of hyenas had now grown up to 25! With the aid of some impeccable invisible communication, they had all positioned themselves around the floodlit waterhole, completely surrounding the calf. Some lazily sitting, some strolling, some drifting and a couple even mating in a bush! But they were all patiently waiting for their dinner.

Suddenly, a pack of 5-6 became aggressive and started to attack the calf. From all sides. For hours, the parents and other herd members charged at them in turns, trying to ward them off but keeping the calf well covered. Sometimes they even scampered away to the jungle, but were driven back to the salt lick from the other side by this relentless pack. They even tried to take refuge in the water but even there, the hyenas would not leave them alone. As I zoomed in on the calf, I noticed that its tail was bleeding. And there were scratch marks on its hind legs. The hyenas had tasted blood! The glass deck was full of visitors now, unsure of whether to stay on (and witness the gory end) or leave.

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For some strange reason, the other herd members gave up defending the calf after a while. It was now left only to the mother and father. At  12:30 am, we decided to retire to our rooms as we realized this was going to be a painful wait. In any case, we could all guess how this story was going to end. In my restlessness, I had come out once again to the deck only to see a white tipped mongoose scurrying about and a deathly calm around the floodlit salt lick/waterhole.

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white tipped mongoose

Just as we were dreaming that the calf got saved, we were woken up by the loud and continuous, painful grunts of a buffalo. The death cry pierced through the still of the night and we rushed out only to find the waterhole completely deserted. The ranger pointed out to the direction of the forest where the action was supposedly happening and after 10 odd minutes, the groaning stopped. At 2:20 am, it was all over.

Unlike the big cats, hyenas do not suffocate their prey – they eat it alive! One of the most painful deaths one can imagine. It shook us to the core trying to imagine what was happening beyond our line of vision. But that’s how it happens in the jungle. nature at its primitive or pristine best. There are no lions in Aberdare National Park and so the resident hyenas need to hunt in order to get their food. I have seen lion and cheetah hunts before but this one was particularly unsettling.

The next morning, there was the usual activity of the buffaloes and other animals at the waterhole. But the youngest member was conspicuous by its absence…

A Lesson in Solidarity

Very rarely does one sight a leopard out in the open the first thing in the morning. Not only did we sight Pretty Girl but we soon realized she was hungry and looking for a kill. She had 2 big cubs who were unfortunately not old enough to hunt on their own. IMG_7090

The gorgeous sight of this magnificent cat, a few metres away from our vehicle, stopped us in our tracks. After scanning the area for a while, she decided to try her luck on the other side of the river. We too moved away and positioned ourselves on the other side.

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Watching a leopard preparing for a kill is a hair raising experience. Not for anything is it one of the stealthiest predators. Unlike lions, it does not hunt in a pride. Unlike a cheetah, it does not chase its prey at supersonic speed. It mainly depends on its stalking and ambushing skills. I will let the pictures speak for themselves….

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We had read about the amazing jungle radar system that protects the herbivores. The zebras have an acute sense of smell. The Thomson’s gazelles have a good ear. The baboons and monkeys send warning calls when they spot a predator. The hamerkops and rollers act like drones and send distress calls when they spot a leopard – they hate the cat as it eats their eggs. But what we did not know was how they boldly challenge their predator after spotting it!

Fortunately for the gazelle, the leopard was spotted and it started to walk away dejectedly towards the bush across the plains. And then the drama unfolded. The little gazelle alerted its mates, who followed it at a distance, and then started charging towards the leopard. We thought that this foolishness will cost the Tommy dearly but the little fellow darted across the leopard and called out to the Topi herd, who came charging at her too. Then the impalas came running. In the midst of all this, a lone buffalo stopped grazing and started to walk menacingly at Pretty Girl.IMG_6267

The way the cat scampered away for cover is a sight I will never forget. A huge group of herbivores converging on their predator who slunk away for cover. What an unbelievable show of might. What an amazing show of solidarity. My hand raised an invisible salute. And the leader of the pack was the little Tommy who was about to be devoured. The anger, the arrogance and the challenge by that little fellow was awe inspiring.IMG_6232

And I could not help but think of the war-ravaged and beleagured people of the world, especially the Middle East. Could they have triumphed if they could show similar solidarity?

Born free

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Bateleur Eagle

As a child, I had learnt the phrase “as free as a bird” and heard it being used often and very casually. It was just another simile. Never did I have a second thought about what it actually meant. Or what it truly felt.

When we got transferred to Kenya, almost on the heels of the massacre at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, much to the surprise of our friends in Singapore, we happily packed our bags and prepared ourselves for the adventure that we were sure lay ahead of us.

Like most Bengalis, who had grown up reading Chaander Pahar, we had always been fascinated by Africa. It was never the Dark Continent but a magical and mysterious place. So much so that even before finalizing a school for our daughter or looking for a house, we set off for Maasai Mara right after landing at Jomo Kenyatta Intl airport at Nairobi!

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Red collared widowbird

The first thing that hit me when I landed at the Mara airstrip was the vastness of the landscape. As we were driven through the reserve by Edward (my first African wild life guide and teacher), I looked around me in wonder. The endless rolling plains, with its sun-bathed red soil, seemed to be painted in myriad shades of brown, red, green and yellow. The mesmerising play of light and shadow on the greens and yellows, with a sudden odd appearance of a lone acacia that is so typical of the Mara landscape.

And THEN I saw the birds….. swallows, weavers,  babblers, canaries, chats, cisticolas, doves, larks, longclaws, robins, rollers, pigeons, chirping happily and flying, gliding, sailing, whirring, soaring, flitting, skimming, drifting, circling, hanging, lazing…. sometimes even doing a figure of eight, well, almost. Birds of prey like eagles, buzzards and kites hovering, swooping, plunging….  And the scavengers watching and waiting ever so patiently.

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Ruppell’s long tailed starling

How beautifully the little birds cruised through the air without a care in the world! No concrete structures to be terrified of crashing into, no pesky kids to be wary of, no electric wires or poles to be cautious of, no obstructions or traps anywhere. Till then, I was clueless about birds.  They were just little feathered creatures who made some noise and flew around us. My knowledge was limited to crows and sparrows. I also knew that the dodo was extinct. And the kiwi was a flightless bird. Maara changed all that.

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In a moment, I realized the joy of being born free along with the meaning of living free and forever free. I squirmed to think of all the birds that are kept caged as pets. Of the feelings of all the animals living in a zoo enclosures. And of the social dolphins trapped in marine parks. If only people could make one trip to Africa to witness the unbound joy in their life in their natural habitats, they would learn a real lesson in conservation. And what a crime it is to keep them captive for our selfish voyeuristic pleasures.

That day I discovered what it truly feels to be as free as a bird. And I continue to learn every day….

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Grey crowned crane

PS: To see the Bateleur Eagle in its full glory, click on this link.

 

 

Hair-raising safari tales

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Happy faces on their way to Masai Mara   (Selfie courtesy: Tete)

Last week’s trip to Masai Mara was almost like a manna from heaven. The man of the house was sinking under tremendous work pressure when the savannah lifeline was thrown at him by our good friends Jui and Nirmalya Banerjee. They were going to inspect the site of the new Porini Cheetah Camp they are about to set up in the Ol Kinyei conservancy (in partnership with Gamewatchers Safaris). Would we like to tag along?  Of course, we w6anted to but that would mean taking the Friday off from school/work but thankfully that was doable. The universe also conspired to make the daughter’s tutors busy elsewhere over the weekend. Mara can never be experienced in 2 nights but we had been away from the bush far too long to afford to be choosy about such small things.

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Coffee break @Narok Coffee House   (Pic courtesy: Tete)

The road trip to Porini Lion Camp in Olare Motorogi conservancy was quite uneventful and we reached by lunch time. We hurriedly ate what we had to and got ready for our first safari of the trip. It was threatening to rain some time soon and the light was magical. As I watched hundreds of wildebeests and other usual suspects grazing on the golden plains, I found a perfect photo getting composed right in front of me.

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Jambo Zebra, said the Topi

We made a short stop at Mahali Mzuri (Sir Richard Branson’s famous high-end property) in the same conservancy to check it out. While the accommodation was extremely luxurious, what fascinated me more was the huge viewing deck (attached with every room) along with the thrilling fact that one could watch lions while soaking in a bathtub! All this of course comes at a pretty high premium.

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The amazing bathtub view with part of the huge deck visible at the corner (Pic Courtesy: Tete)

The grasslands were relatively empty and just when we spotted a lone giraffe at a little distance, our driver-guide Geoffrey said that the giraffe looked nervous! But why, we could not fathom as there was nothing around. We inched along the path looking right and left, when we suddenly spotted the cause of his ‘nervousness’. Basking in the sun was a majestic lion with a really imperial air. He sat there for a while, then walked down for a drink of water after which, he marked his territory before retiring for the day.

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I am handsome!

There were quite a few Topi gazelles with very young calves. We also found a pair of lion siblings due to an incredible distance-sighting by our guide. They were resting and the brother had a very full stomach. The sister however looked like she could do with some more food.

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Mother Topi with her little calf
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The sub-adult sister
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The well-fed sub-adult brother

A stationary Landcruiser at a distance drew our attention and when we reached there, we found two very large hyenas. However, its occupants were excitedly pointing downwards, which we later learnt was because of a sighting of a crocodile eating a zebra. Since we were on the other side of the river, we could not see what was happening on the bank directly below us. On our way, we saw some giraffes and two jackals trying to ferret out a prey from a termite mound against the backdrop of beautiful crepuscular rays (Jacob’s Ladder).

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While we looked at the hyena, the guys across the river enjoyed a more bloody sight

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Crepuscular rays
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Jackals trying to ferret out a possible prey

Then it started to rain and we all got quite wet. But we managed to see two lions out on a hunt – we followed them for a while till it got very dark – and soon after we found ourselves inside our camp. The lions were hunting within a walking distance from our tents! Early next morning, we heard a roar pretty close to the camp  which probably came from these two big cats.

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Hunt in the dark

Experiencing sunrise at Masai Mara can be spiritual for some.  Our morning safari started with a heart melting scene of a lioness (from the Ol dik dik pride) nursing her 6 fluffy little balls of delight – barely a month old. I often get consumed with very evil thoughts when I  witness such unbearable sights of cuteness – like kidnapping a few cubs for a while or darting the mother to sleep for half an hour to play with her litter!

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Sunrise
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What’s there beyond my mum?
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Essential body contact
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Patient mother

Ultimately, she had enough of the “torture” (or maybe the sun was getting too strong) and got up to go down to a shadier place, away from our prying eyes. We also noticed the rest of the pride lounging on a higher level, where there were older cubs.

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I have had enough!
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Other members of the pride on a higher level

thumb_img_2782_1024It is quite interesting to observe how morning shows the day. Of the litter, there was one cub who was more adventurous than the others. It was very curious about the surroundings and almost ventured out to the river bank – tell tale signs of a future leader. There was another one, a follower, who kept a safe distance.

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The adventurous one
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The paw size will tell you it’s not a house cat
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Don’t take me lightly

Of course the bird lover did not miss out on her feathered friends who intermittently flitted in and out of the scene – Egyptian geese, bulbuls, bee eaters, eagles, kingfishers, hornbills, kestrels and more.

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And then we spotted the magnificent cheetah Musiara with her 3 grown up cubs, lazing in the savannah sun. We had last seen them in December 2015 and it was so heartening to see all 3 survive such heavy odds. They were quite active and looking for a kill but the gazelles looked alert and evaded them. Later we heard that they managed to get their afternoon snack an hour after we left. But we were quite happy to enjoy the glorious sight of the beautiful mother with her gorgeous cubs.

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Looking for food

thumb_img_2830_1024thumb_img_2836_1024Our next stop was Porini Mara Camp in Ol Kinyei conservancy. En route, we stopped by the air strip to see off some of the Lion Camp guests. Later, we were lucky to sight a resplendent tree agama lizard trying to mate with a most nondescript female without much luck. All this grand show of colour was proving to be somewhat futile in his hunt for a potential mate. There were quite a few females around the tree who seemed to be teasing him in turns.

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The best located airport in the world

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The landscape around Porini Mara Camp looked more wild. You had a feeling of owning the place. Hardly any safari vans, no crowds and no off routes – it was like having your own private safari in a place with a very high density of cats and other sightings to keep you constantly chuckling with delight.

We quickly finished our lunch and went off for our afternoon game drive and spotted some beautiful fireball lilies, birds, jackals, wildebeests, crocodiles, gazelles, antelopes, giraffes and elephants. The plan now was to look for the big cats.

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Porini Mara Camp
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Wildlife all around you
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Wildebeests galore

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Suddenly, we got the news of a leopard roaring near our camp – immediately we turned back to look for it. As we approached our camp area, the guide spotted unusual baboon behaviour. Looking up, we saw a whole troop of baboons perched on tree tops, their tails hanging silently. I have never seen such well-behaved baboons in my life!

Right through our wait/search for the elusive leopard – which was for over an hour – the baboons stayed right up there, motionless and in pin drop silence. Some huddled together, some clutching on to their babies and some just by themselves, on the thinner branches that cannot support leopard weight.

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Unusually quiet baboons

This is the beauty of Porini guides. First, every vehicle gets a driver-guide and a spotter. More than their phenomenal spotting skills, what will astound you more is their uncanny inference skills. They can track cats simply by observing animal behaviour. Over and above spotting them, they will also find them for you. I have been to many camps but the Porini guides beat everyone hollow.

If you truly care for the earth and love wildlife, you can be guaranteed of an unforgettable experience in any of the Porini camps. They are more expensive as they are in a conservancy with very few camps but if you can overlook resort luxury (the tents are very comfortable but you won’t get pools or spas or gyms; instead you will get one bucket of warm water for your bath) and focus only on experience, this is the place to be in.

Our guide kept looking and then we heard a roar from a nearby bush. We went and parked near it and waited. Our men also imagined two soft “roars” in the interim period, later identified by our guide as belonging to a goose and a frog! How more embarrassing can it get? And then a loud and clear roar almost made us fall off our seats – the leopard could not be more than 10 metres away. Our guide saw a movement in the bush and we were very excited but a bit uneasy at the same time. I had never heard a leopard’s call before and its proximity was a bit unnerving. We wanted to change the position of our vehicle and discovered that it had got stuck in a very awkward situation!

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A cautious giraffe gingerly walking along in the fading light in front of us

Nothing we did could make the Landcruiser move even by an inch. In the middle of all this, there was another roar, this time even closer. The camp was very close and we nervously asked the driver if it would be wise to dial them for help. Now, the Masais have a very strong sense of pride. It is a big blow to their ego to ask for help and so he didn’t even consider our suggestion. Instead, he asked the men to get off to reduce the load. Naturally, he wouldn’t even dream of asking the women/children to do so. Incredulously, we asked if it was safe to do so, to which he calmly assured us that it was. We kept a lookout for possible dangers to cover their backs, but without abandoning our sense of humour. The guide had to sometimes remind us gently to shush.

However, we were still confused as to why the leopard was roaring – if it was a mating call, another leopard ‘on heat’ was likely to arrive on the scene soon. If it was a roar to announce her claim to the territory, the neighbouring lions may come to challenge her status. Neither situation was comforting, to say the least. But our guide and spotter seemed very relaxed as they tried to get the car out. The extreme edginess of the situation however, made our otherwise camera-shy men smile unnaturally widely, displaying a false sense of bravado.

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When you have nothing to lose, you might as well laugh    (PC: Jui Banerjee)

The next roar was softer, indicating that the cat had decided against human prey and moved away. Our car also was out of danger and we drove around, trying to locate the source of the sound which kept getting softer and softer. We safely returned to the camp, not really disappointed because this experience was worth much more than a mere leopard sighting.

Post dinner, the plan was to go on a short night drive. Jui and Nirmalya had told us that night drives in Ol Kinyei are quite rewarding. This is yet another plus of staying in Porini camps. Night game drives are included in the package and the thrill of driving out after dinner is incomparable to any other experience. Red lights are used to spot animals as they do not really bother the nocturnal ones. Yellow lights can temporarily disorient an animal for up to 30 minutes, yet many conservancies do that – charging a hefty fee for their night safaris.

Here, they do not even shine the red light on any animal for a long time as that makes the predator and prey more visible (either depriving the cats of their food or giving the prey a lesser fighting chance of survival). In fact, the Masai guides even dim the car headlights if they spotlight and stun any animal. Nightime in the forest is supposed to be a dark time, providing refuge for some and opportunity for others. Laws of the jungle need to be respected as much as possible, wherever, whenever.

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Aardwolf feasting on termites

It had rained more heavily in this part of Mara and the red light attracted hundreds of termites. I had been assured sightings of bush babies and the usual nocturnals like the spring hare (African kangaroo), scrub hare, jackals and so on but within a minute of our night game drive, we were rewarded with a very rare sighting of an aardwolf feeding around a termite mound. Surprisingly, this very shy creature made no effort to move away. Possibly because the red light attracted his favourite food (termites) twords him. The animals we saw later, paled away in comparison after that!

img_2944We woke up to another beautiful sunrise and got ready for our last safari. We saw the same herd of elephants walking in a file ahead of us. We also spotted a magnificent Bateleur eagle.

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Dawn is a feeling, a beautiful feeling..
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Elephants walking in a file
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Bateleur eagle

We couldn’t find any cheetahs but found a lion hidden in the bushes. While Olare Motorogi conservancy was bone dry, Ol Kinyei had received quite a bit of rain. All cats (except tigers) hate to be wet and move on to drier pastures or go up the hills when the plains become marshy. That is why this part was not full of visible cats.

Normally, this conservancy is famous for being a cat country where you will always see cheetahs and lions and more often than not, leopards as well. If you want to see the elusive cats, you better come here. You should also ideally spend 3 nights for a more fulfilling experience.

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Lion in hiding

Our guide seemed to be on some kind of a secret mission as he kept looking for something. He stopped at a secluded spot and bent down to peer into a small ravine, carefully covered by a thick bush. Then he exclaimed happily ‘There she is!’ Who? What? Where? He maneuvered our Landcruiser into a waterlogged ditch and asked us to look through the bush. And sure enough, there was a lioness with 3 newborns, who were yet to be taken out in the open as they were still very vulnerable.

It was quite a scary situation as she was only about 30 metres away and it is well known how fiercely protective mothers are of their cubs. Every time we peered through the branches, the lioness would look straight at us but gradually got assured that we did not pose any real threat to her babies.

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Vigilant mom
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Cub #1
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Cub #2
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Awwww….

Naturaĺly, we were thrilled at this rare sighting. Only rangers know where a new mother is hiding her cubs and in a conservancy, this news is often shared with the camp since it is safe to do so – the number of visitors are small and the camps very responsible. We were privileged to be taken to this spot because Jui and Nirmalya were with us. They gave a new dimension to our safari experience with their personal involvement which incidentally, is extended to all their clients.

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The little one still can’t focus properly

Since we had a flight to catch later in the day, we decided to leave the mom and cubs in peace to look for something else. But as Geoffrey tried to reverse, he discovered that the Landcruiser had got precariously stuck in the slush. The wheel did not get any traction and kept spinning wildly, emitting black fumes and carelessly flinging muck in all directions. The lioness immediately sat up, looking very alert. We had got ourselves in BIG trouble! After a few futile attempts, even the proud Masai realised it was a hopeless case and decided to call for help. But the call was made after a few more attempts.

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Royally stuck

Tensely, we waited there for over an hour albeit punctuated by uncontrollable fits of nervous, semi-silent giggles over things that were not even remotely funny, like various modes of death, adding an extra layer of clothing by wearing a waterproof poncho to make the biting more difficult and so on.

What was truly noteworthy was the extremely cautious behaviour of the Masais – the same guys who so very nonchalantly asked our men to get off the car in really close proximity of a roaring leopard the previous evening, did not even attempt to step out of the car in the presence of the new mother lioness.  Instead, they kept looking at the bush to gauge her mood.

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Waiting for help

Finally, help arrived in the form of a Landcruiser loaded with 5 smiling Masais along with a driver and mechanic. They brought some branches and threw them in front of our wheels — but did not dare to step out. Such is the depth of their respect for the new mother. A shovel was chucked nervously from the other vehicle but it lay on the ground, untouched, as it didn’t reach close enough for our driver to pick it up without leaving the car. Nobody  attempted to get out of the vehicle.

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Masai throwing branches in front of our wheels

This (branch throwing) exercise was of little help and so the other Landcruiser decided to go around to park behind us. The tarpaulin cover was pulled down on the lioness’s side of the vehicle to block her vision of the major movements happening on this side. One by one, 7 of us crossed over to the other car and drove away happily and with a huge sigh of relief. Our Landcruiser was left abandoned there, to be rescued later as and when the lioness moved away with her cubs, which was bound to happen soon, given the degree of disturbance caused by us although unintentionally.

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The rescue vehicle parked next to us
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Evacuation process
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Worried mechanic looking at the next evacuant
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The happy survivors in the new vehicle

Truly, it was a hair-raising experience.

It would be unfair to end my post without mentioning the very hospitable Banerjees. They are probably the first Indian couple to set up a camp in Masai Mara, and live there as well, in order to host their clients personally. Food is usually a big problem for Indian tourists in Kenya, especially the vegetarians. That will definitely not be an issue in their new camp (to be called Porini Cheetah Camp) as they intend to  address this problem earnestly.

They are both extremely passionate about conservation, wild life, creating general awareness about the delicate balance in nature, and their child-like enthusiasm can be quite infectious. Their biggest USP is of course, to host the clients and accompany them in their game drives. And when the host resides in the camp, every service – from food to guiding – goes up one notch higher. I’m looking forward to the opening of their camp next year and am sure it will be quite a unique experience.

P.S. – We enquired and found that our Landcruiser was retrieved from that ditch the same afternoon. The lioness had predictably moved deeper into the ravine with her cubs, out of human sight, but was still in the vicinity. Because when the Masais went to retrieve the vehicle, there was a loud growl the moment they stepped out.

(All photos, except otherwise mentioned, is by the author.)

Summer sojourn in London

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December 1999, London

My first visit to the Queen’s country was in December 1999 and the only images that stayed with me were of the dull grey skies and chilly-wet weather. It was also a rushed trip as I had succumbed to the temptation of a spouse-travels-free offer from SAS.

This summer, after 17 years, we decided to visit England to catch up with some family and friends. It was also a holiday all three of us were taking after a very long time.

My aunt (Boroma) who lives in Oxford was about to turn 86 and her son had never met his niece, my 15 year old. Boroma very sweetly decided to celebrate her birthday a week in advance so that we could all attend it together.

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The beautiful conservatory at Thai Orchid: the perfect place for a private celebration

We  assembled at her favourite restaurant, Thai Orchid, where my cousin had managed to organise a gluten-free birthday cake for her. Boroma was quite overwhelmed by this huge celebration and became a bit sentimental at the end.

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Celebrating Boroma’s 86th birthday in Oxford
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From L to R: Novo, Tete, Boroma, Kuka, me, Gopu, Mita and Esther

In between, we had planned to catch up with Tete’s nephew, also based in London, for a quick meal/drink. However, his twin sons got impatient to see the world and arrived 2 weeks earlier, sending the new and excited dad rushing to Sussex, kickstarting his paternity leave. He however remembered to Whatsapp me their adorable pictures later. We still went and explored his interesting neighbourhood, Whitechapel, close to the famous Bangladeshi area Brick Lane.

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This building had a very interesting looking facade (see below)

IMG_0969The weather was perfect when we landed in London, on a late afternoon in end July. The next day, the plan was to catch a play and explore parts of the city with my cousin. We had agreed to meet her in front of Foyle’s bookshop at Southbank around 11 am. After getting off at Waterloo station, we discovered an interesting place on our way.

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Father and daughter enjoying a roadside chat

As we walked on, we soaked in some more eye-catching  sights on the way. London in summer is such a vibrant city – my previous gloomy and wintry images were already beginning to get washed away by these more gay and brighter ones. The holiday mood had started to set in…

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One of the many buildings of King’s College
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The vibrant Southbank area

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I learnt an interesting fact about the Waterloo Bridge – it is also called the Ladies Bridge as it was built by women during WWII. The role of women has now been officially recognised due to the efforts of historian Christine Wall,  who discovered new evidence of their major contribution and brought it back to public attention.

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Even the tube stations have character
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Skating area under Waterloo station

We reached there an hour early and quickly decided to grab a bite. Coming from Africa, we automatically gravitated towards this place.

IMG_0749Soon after that, we set off to look for Temple Church off Fleet Street. It has a very interesting history but has come to public attention only after being used as a setting in Da Vinci Code.

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Fleet StreetIMG_0858

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The elaborate stained glass work

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Remember this from Da Vinci Code?

Our next stop was another offbeat place: Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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Frederick John Horniman, Victorian tea trader and philanthropist, began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’ from around 1860. His overarching mission was to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ and educate and enrich the lives of the local community.

His travels took him to far flung destinations such as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan, Canada and the United States collecting objects which ‘either appealed to his own fancy or that seemed to him likely to interest and inform those who had not had the opportunity to visit distant lands’. Mr Horniman’s interest as a collector was well known and many travellers approached him with specimens and curiosities.

By the late nineteenth century, these ‘natural, industrial and artistic spoils had accumulated to such an extent that he gave up the whole house to the collections’.

His wife is reported to have said ‘either the collection goes or we do’. With that, the family moved to Surrey Mount the grounds of which adjoined those of the former residence.

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Voodoo altar
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Trying out musical instruments
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The beautiful garden around the museum

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Lovely musical instruments to experiment with

Tete wanted a relaxing holiday and had no wish to scurry around with a been-there-done-that list. So for the first time, I went on a holiday without any fixed plans. We decided to take each day as it comes and left it to my other cousin in Reading to plan our tour, which she happily did. They wanted to take us to Henley, Windsor, Bath, Stratford, and Brighton during our stay with them and had also allotted a day for a shopping spree. Unfortunately, we had time only for the first two.

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My cousin’s beautiful garden in Reading

Tete’s unforeseen work problems got in the way and we had to dash back to London after only two and a half days, to be near his head office. Luckily, we found a wonderful apartment through Airbnb – central yet quiet, green and lovely. Now I had to start planning the remaining part of our vacation in the city. More on that later.

Rain decided to play spoilsport for a day in Reading, but we spent a beautiful and relaxing afternoon at Henley. Strolling along the river banks, having a lazy coffee, looking at the boathouses and watching their dog Snoopy have a fun day out.

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Magical Henley
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Brolly time

No trip to England is complete without experiencing the rains but they do add quite a bit of magic to the  atmosphere. The beautiful outing ended with a  quintessentially English fish and chips dinner.

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Ducks everywhere
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Henley of course
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This mermaid is much prettier than her Danish cousin
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House on sale

The next day was thankfully sunny and we went to Windsor to see how lavishly the royals lived. We also visited the Doll’s House and St George’s chapel with its stunning stained glass panels. But alas, photography is not allowed inside.

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Majestic Windsor
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Royal gardens
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St George’s Chapel

On our way back, we went for a stroll in one of the many beautiful parks in Reading.

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The cousins and Snoopy
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Pond full of ducks
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British humour
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Lovely light

Our London Airbnb neighbourhood, Maida Vale, was very close to a not-so-well-known place called Little Venice. It also had a beautiful park next door, which I later discovered was the legendary Roger Bannister’s training grounds.

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Our neighbourhood park’s claim to fame

Little Venice had been on my wish list and we quickly found our way there only to be informed that we had just missed the last boat. We explored the area a bit and bought some groceries for breakfast before heading home with a short stop at Paddington Greens where we serendipitously found the exciting plaque shown above.

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Our first stop the next morning

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We decided to do the London Dungeon tour that evening but sadly, it proved to be very touristy and a tad corny though it did have its small share of thrills.

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On the way to the dungeon
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London Dungeon tour
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This is a very interesting list

Our next day started with a scenic boat ride along Regent’s canal. It stopped at Camden Lock where we watched the locks open to let boats pass. It was fun to see how the operation is still done manually. The market also had great character.

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Gliding through Little Venice

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The site of the manual operation of the locks

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The interesting market

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IMG_1552On the way to the tube station, we saw wall after wall filled with graffiti. This was Amy Winehouse country after all!

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Vivid graffiti

IMG_1579After that we were off to Greenwich. Tete went to inspect the Cutty Sark while we went to the Fan Museum. Unfortunately, we could not visit the Maritime Museum or the Observatory due to time constraint.

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Entrance to the Fan Museum
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The idyllic orangery was just about to close – so we missed our cuppa
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The orangery
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Fans on display
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Mother of pearl fan
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Another market with a character
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The iconic Cutty Sark

The only thing we had planned on this trip was a “pilgrimage” tour of The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brothers studio. Thank god we bought the tickets online a month before as the tickets get sold out weeks in advance.

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It felt quite unreal seeing this
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Harry Potter fans do not need a caption for this
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The Great Hall minus the enchanted ceiling
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Potion Master’s room

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Just before disappearing
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Muggle attack
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Diagon Alley

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I had reconnected with an old childhood friend before our London trip and he insisted that we must stay with them for a few days. Luckily, he also happened to stay very close to the WB studio. Tete was a bit iffy as he had not met him for 30 years (we are all from the same locality or para) but I assured him that it will be okay. My aunt and cousins also know him and his family very well. We did not know his wife but she turned out to be a beautiful person one gets to like more and more with every passing day.

They drove us to Oxford to visit Boroma (they were part of her birthday celebration too) but first we stopped at a pretty wildlife park in Cotswold since we also had to keep the kids’ entertainment in mind. We drove through the picturesque town of Cotswold and the pretty university town of Oxford, admiring all the colleges. We were more than half in love with this wonderful family by the time it was time to leave for Reading.

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Charming Cotswold

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Cotswold wildlife park and gardens
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Canadian Timber Wolf
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Capybara
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Patagonian Mara
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Great Grey Owl
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Snowy Owl

Next morning, Tete took the kids to Madame Tussauds while I went to Westminister Abbey with my friend’s wife. The stunning architecture and stained glass blew me away but here again, photography was not allowed.

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Two new additions to the royal family @Madame Tussaude’s
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The stunning and historic Westminster Abbey

Those 4 days spent with our friends were such an enjoyable part of our trip. Complete relaxation coupled with catching up on our “wonder years” of growing up together in Calcutta filled with fun and mischief, secret crushes and dalliances, and all things nostalgic. We laughed and ate and drank and chatted (adda as we Bengalis call it) till late in the night – going off to sleep in a very happy frame of mind. Thankfully, they had a daughter and the kids had a super rollicking time too. The outcome was 2 sets of completely guilt-free parents.

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The 900 year old pub in Buckinghamshire

His older sister and husband (also old friends) drove down from Wimbledon one day and that day was an even greater riot! And when 4 doctors (the siblings are both doctors married to doctors) get together, the conversation can never get dull. We had lunch at The Royal Standard, presumably the oldest pub in England.

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Tete thanked me later for persuading him to stay with them. He was even more delighted to discover that their home in Ickenham had a secret leafy passage behind it, which led to 3 huge fields (amazingly maintained by the local county), where one could jog or walk. Summers also saw youngsters play club level cricket there. On one of his jogs, he also discovered a hidden bicycle trail that glided into the woods from the other side. Their adjacent house was on sale and I could almost sense his wishful thinking. A perfect setting for his retirement home!

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Our man jogging around the county field
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The field looked like this later on in the day

The last few days, we shamelessly immersed ourselves in doing the touristy things, including the “mandatory” Hop on Hop off bus tours. We visited many museums, took the Thames river cruise, walked along Southbank and visited Oxford Street. We did not do too many palaces (only Windsor) as we are not particularly enamoured with royalty.

Here are some pictures that capture our holiday spirit. All these sights have been much written about and so I will not add more clutter to cyberspace.

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You are not a tourist if you don’t hop on to one of these
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The tower that houses Big Ben

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A city teeming with tourists
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The London Eye – we decided to give this ride a pass
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Happy tourists
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A bunch of skaters
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Trafalgar Square
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Near National Gallery
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Identify your flag and drop a coin please
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The mosaic-ed floor of the National Gallery
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A Van Gogh painting I had never seen before
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I liked this painting a lot

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The gift from Egypt

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Keeping the Egyptian theme in mind
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In front of Buckingham Palace
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St Paul’s Cathedral
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Corinthian columns
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After a while, the brain gets saturated with these beauties

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Next stop was Tate Modern.

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Babel 2001

I also loved the poignant memorial  in Whitehall (below), dedicated to commemorate the efforts of over 7 million women “who served our country and the cause of freedom in uniform and on the home front” during World War II. The 22ft-high bronze sculpture depicts the uniforms and working clothes worn by women during the war. Military helicopters flown by all-female crews flew past the memorial to mark the occasion in July 2005.

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Ripley’s museum at Piccadilly Circus was slotted towards the evening as it is open till midnight. It was an interesting museum with various “kitschy oddities on display.” Watch this video to have a better idea.

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Look Ma, no legs!
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Funtime at the mirror maze at Ripley’s

We briefly stepped into Chinatown as it was right next door.

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We also decided to do a night tour of London (included in the ticket) as it was our last evening in the city. It was a beautiful ride but we were ready to drop off dead at the end of a very long day.

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Evening sets in

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The clock tells us it is almost 10
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Night scenes

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Foodlover’s delight
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The Tower Bridge acquires a dreamy look at night

We did not have time for V & A Museum on our last day but we did not miss the Museum of Natural History. It was still a rushed tour as we had a flight to catch later that afternoon.

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The magnificent entrance to the V & A Museum

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Satisfied visitors at their last stop of the tour

We were happy to come home but unlike last time, we wanted to come back soon to explore more of this beautiful city. I must also add that we were a bit apprehensive about the mood of the country towards us post Brexit. We were warned that we would have a bitter taste of racism this time but were very pleasantly surprised by the warmth, friendliness and helpful nature of each and every stranger we encountered on this trip. Most went out of their way to help us. I suppose they too must have been touched  by the magic of summer to feel any animosity towards foreigners. And I don’t want to return in winter to test the veracity of this little theory.

Some Nice To Know-s

  • If you want a VAT refund, please make sure you go to the desk before checking in your luggage as you have to show all that you bought along with the receipts and price tags. So keep all your purchases together. I learnt it the hard way.
  • Buses are much much cheaper than tubes, and a better way to experience the city. You can travel as much as you want to, on the same fare, although I hear that is to change soon. However, they are much slower.
  • Buy your Oyster cards if you want to use the public transport system.  There is a Zip Oyster card for younger children. You can buy them at stations and any shops that display the Oyster sign outside. But tubes are quite expensive, despite this card. A lot of stations are not manned nowadays. So either buy the cards online and ask them to deliver at a local London address or buy them from the dispensing machine. They cost 5 pounds.
  • The Hop-on Hop-off buses are a good way to see the city as you can see the city completely by mixing their red, blue and yellow tours. However, they are expensive (£23 – you can use the London Pass to avail a cheaper price but you have to wisely use the pass to reap its benefits). There are some public bus routes which can be used to tour the city cheaply. Check these useful links for more information on public transport.

http://www.visitlondon.com/traveller-information/getting-around-london/london-bus#w4VfIvtmUf8CzyAj.97

http://www.visitlondon.com/traveller-information/getting-around-london/london-tube?ref=more-ideas#51ZOsCFSQdqoROuk.97

  • Buy the entries of ALL attractions online. That will save you valuable time and money.
  • The London Pass is a very good option if you want to see 3 or more attractions in a day. If you carefully plan your day according to specific areas, you will save a lot of time and money. Their website has information about the nearby attractions. However, do keep in mind that the pass is valid for CONSECUTIVE days only. If you buy a 3-day pass, you have to use it on 3 consecutive days. So planning is very essential.
  • If you want to watch a play or visit the Harry Potter studio, buy your tickets online, months in advance. Better to give a London address where it can be mailed to.
  • Evan & Evans and Golden Tours offer good day trips to Bath, Stratford etc.
  • The Original Tours, Big Bus Company and Golden Tours are the more popular hop-on-hop-off bus companies. The last one has free wifi on board and is the cheapest and probably the best value-for-money option. On weekends, you sometimes get deals for 2 days tour for a 1 day payment. The red and blue line tours end at 5.30 pm but there is a night tour offered as well within the ticket price.
  • There is free wifi almost at all attractions, restaurants and cafes.
  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not is the only museum that is open till 12 midnight. All other museums and churches close between 5 and 6 pm depending on the season. So plan your day wisely.
  • All functional churches like St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey are closed for services on Sundays. Photography is also not allowed.
  • Most museums are free although some exhibits have a charge.
  • MAKE SURE YOU LIVE CLOSE TO A TUBE STATION – preferably one with many interchanges. It helps if you are near the Bakerloo/Central/Circle line. If money is a constraint, CHOOSE AN ACCOMODATION NEAR A well connected BUS STOP.
  • Check out these 2 links for comprehensive tourist information on London.
  1. http://content.tfl.gov.uk/london-visitor-guide.pdf
  2. http://www.myenglandtravel.com

Some offbeat attractions

I have mentioned Little Venice, Fan Museum, Horniman Museum and Brick Lane in my blog. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for the Maritime Museum and Observatory in Greenwich, both of which are a must-see. Here is a list of some other things not on the usual tourist map.

  1. London Walks is a fabulous way to explore London. Check out their calendar to see what suits you. Please note that this is totally different from the “free walks” included in the London Pass.
  2. Hampton Court (use London Walks for this, if possible, to get the real taste)
  3. Camden Market (can be clubbed with Little Venice cruise)
  4. Columbia Flower Market (only on Sundays)
  5. Portobello Road Market
  6. Museum of Brands (can be done with 5)
  7. Transport Museum (near Trafalgar Square)
  8. The London Film Museum (behind Transport Museum)
  9. Cartoon Museum
  10. Pollock’s Toy Museum (near London Zoo and so can be done with Little Venice cruise)
  11. Sir John Soane’s Museum
  12. The Old Operating Theatre
  13. Fullham Palace
  14. The Tintin Shop
  15. Kyoto Garden in Holland Park
  16. Kenwood House
  17. Chelsea Physic Garden
  18. Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel
  19. London Wetland Centre

Here is a link for the best museums for children. There is so much to do in this city, depending on your interests that no list can be truly exhaustive. I have left the pub and nightclub scene out altogether as that information is quite easily available. And also because I will not be the best judge in that area.

Countering Mr Murphy … our (mis)adventures in north Sikkim

Murphy’s Law is typically stated as: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Our trip to north Sikkim was fraught with obstacles and misadventures and it is a wonder we all returned home safe and sound – the latter adjective though became applicable only after a few days. However, this trip made us look inwards and possibly, taught us a thing or two about life and ourselves. The quote below expresses our trip  quite aptly.

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The birth of an idea

Three of us, friends from college days, had this strangely compelling feeling that we had to visit North Sikkim this year. Why we felt this way, cannot be logically explained. We had been mesmerised by the photos of Gurudongmar Lake and numerous recounts by independent sources – who all felt it was something akin to heaven.

Situated at an altitude of 17,375 ft, it is one of the highest lakes in the world and equally sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs as it is supposed to have been blessed by both Guru Padmasambava/ Rinpoche and Guru Nanak. There are many stories around why even during peak winter, one spot of this sacred lake does not freeze. Only Indian citizens are permitted to visit the lake as it is just a stone’s throw away from the Indo-Tibetan border. The closest village is Thangu (15,000 ft approx) where there is an army check-post. Foreigners are allowed only up to this point unless they get a special permit from MEA.

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The picture of the lake which stirred our fantasies (PC: Siddhartha Roy, 2007)

Apart from this much-talked-about paradise on earth, we also planned to visit Yumthang Valley (where people go to feast their eyes on the Valley of Flowers in March-April) and Zero Point or Yumesamdong.

Another place of interest was Katao  – known as the Switzerland of Sikkim. It is blocked now due to heavy troop movement by ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) and is officially not open for tourists. However, drivers in Lachen (the remote hilly town from where all northern Sikkim tours start) frequently bribe the guards to enter this place if senior officers are not present. We refused to take this route although travel agents openly encourage you to do it this way. Thankfully, our agent (Alpine Nature Beyond Ltd) did not fall into this rule-bending category.

Gangtok served only as a night halt for our journey to/fro north Sikkim as we were more keen to explore the virgin beauty of the north. One of our friends who had visited west Sikkim a few years back (and fell in love with this part of the country), told us that the northern part was supposed to be even more stunning. We locked the dates and finalised our itinerary by May. All we had to do now was count the days to 7th October.

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Day 1: The journey starts with a major hiccup…

We reached Calcutta airport well ahead of our reporting time but our smiles froze soon after, when I nervously announced that I had left my leather bag containing my purse, passport, credit cards, money and all essential medicines, at home! How on earth was I going to enter the airport without a photo ID? Just as I was about to dejectedly accept that my carefully planned holiday was about to crash even before taking off, I remembered I had kept my Adhar card in my backpack for some odd reason. First hurdle cleared. Whew!

Our travel agent had clearly told us that only a passport/voter’s ID/driving license was considered as a valid ID for getting a permit to certain border areas in Sikkim. So there was no reason whatsoever why I brought along this card –  which eventually bailed me out. A frantic call to Siliguri followed, with our agent assuring me that she will try to fix this problem. This is the beauty of India, where rules are not cast in iron – sometimes it comes to the aid of forgetful travellers like me.

On reaching Bagdogra airport (in Siliguri), we were escorted to our car by a sidekick of the original meet & greet guy Amit (as he was stuck in a jam somewhere) and introduced to Dipen, our driver for the trip. First we stopped for lunch at Marina’s and by the time we finished, Amit had arrived and handed over the necessary papers for the trip. We also bought some pastries and cream rolls from Glenary’s for the road.

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Stuck in the serpentine jam, all I could do was to admire the river in the dark

A little later, as I was buying my medicines, I overheard Dipen asking the chemist for fever medication as he had been sick for the past 3 days! Scary to think that we were to be driven on treacherous hilly roads by a febrile driver. Thankfully, the medicines worked wonders and made him very cheerful in a couple of hours. We were also relieved to observe that he was a very good and safe driver. The 4-hr drive to Gangtok took 7 hours as we got stuck in a terrible jam. The diesel fumes from other vehicles did not make things any easier.

It was drizzling by the time we reached our destination in Gangtok: Mintokling Guest House. A nice, cosy and homely place with friendly staff but a bit lacking in the food department. One of my friends was feeling very sick by then and was seriously worrying if she would be fit enough next morning to accompany us on the 7-hr journey to Lachen – our night halt at 9175 ft, for a bit of acclimatisation before the arduous drive up to the famous lake. One of the staff members, Montu, very kindly made a special meal of rice, mashed potatoes and dal (lentil soup) for her. The situation seemed to be slowly getting under control again. Later, we figured out that the culprit was the almost-gone-bad cream on one of the pastries that caused the scary indigestion problem and not her chronic acidity.

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Mintokling Guest House (Gangtok)

Day 2: Gangtok to Lachen

I woke up early to explore the grounds and met a lady from Chennai who was there with 2 of her friends. They had come back from Gurudongmar a few days back – s0 I was keen to learn about their experience. The Lachen road had been closed due to a landslide just after their visit but it had again reopened. Landslides are very common in this part of the world and you have to be mentally ready to alter your trip at the last moment. They didn’t seem particularly impressed by the lake (as they had been to Ladakh) and said that she would rather use the term no roads instead of bad roads to describe the way from Lachen to the lake. But I was too excited to hear a warning bell.

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Early morning birdwatching at the guest house

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Drongo/Phingey

We started for Lachen 2 hours behind schedule and were a bit worried as we had been advised to reach there while there is still light. We had also been told that it is a remote town in a very high altitude with very basic facilities. Food would be sufficient but simple. Being a newer destination, tourism infrastructure was still in its elementary stages. We would find out exactly how basic it was, after 10 long and adventurous hours.

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Welcome to North Sikkim, says the sign

The road to Lachen was expectedly picturesque and interspersed with waterfalls. The lush green foliage was particularly appealing. The first waterfalls we saw was the Seven Sisters Falls. We decided to stop at Chungthang Confluence later on our way to Lachung (from Lachen) as we were very short on time.

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Engrossed in my favourite hobby

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We stopped for a quick lunch somewhere near Singhik and were soon back on the road. The toilet stops were very basic but more or less clean, up to this lunch stop. There are many other scenic points where you may stop on the way, like Tashi View Point (a typically crowded touristy place), Phodong, Mangan etc but do remember that every additional stop will delay you further and prevent you from reaching Lachen safely while there is still light. However, do try to make a stop at Singhik.

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Road to Lachen

We had been forewarned about possible altitude sickness as well as various dos and don’ts and were well armed with homeopathic Coca 30 globules and Diamox tablets (later we learnt about its scary but possible side effects). Drinking lots of water was also recommended but with paucity of public toilets, it wasn’t a viable option for women. Even after carefully monitoring our water intake, circumstances forced us to take a very daring chance out in the open under a mild drizzle. Thankfully, the light was fading rapidly…. but we were still quite some distance from Lachen. Soon it was pitch dark and all we could see were the red tail lights of the few cars ahead of us. The rain was beating down more heavily now and the roads were not smooth or comfortable. The mercury was also dipping rapidly.

At 7.30pm, about 25 mins from Lachen, all the cars came to a halt – a car had got stuck badly in the slushy ‘road’ and could not get itself out. The road was not wide enough for other cars to go past it either. In the meantime, a call came from the hotel, wondering if we were coming at all. For one and a half hours, all the drivers ignored the cold and rain and managed to extricate the car and finally, we were on our way. Our driver Dipen came back drenched and took over the wheels of our Xylo happily. The danger was not over yet as no one knew if the same fate was awaiting another car.

“Dipen, what car was it that got stuck in the mud?”

“Xylo, madam!”

Stunned silence followed.

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Our Xylo

When we reached our hotel, it was close to 9.30pm. We were greeted by a young and keen Pramod who asked us what we would like for dinner! Obviously our request to keep dinner ready did not register or maybe they thought we would not be able to make it that night. We were also informed that our chosen hotel Snow Retreat was under renovation and so we were being put up in their ‘better’ property – Hill Retreat.

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Our colour un-coordinated basic room in Lachen

There were 3 fancy motor bikes parked outside and as we were being escorted to our room, we heard boisterous male voices from the adjacent room – obvious signs of drunken revelry. We also found that only 2 rooms were occupied – ours and theirs. We had recently watched the movie Pink and got quite scared. We immediately decided to talk in whispers and told Pramod and his assistant that they have to sleep in the opposite rooms. Pramod assured us that the boys were harmless and showed us a bell that could be used to call him, any time. We were freezing by then and asked for a room heater which got fixed after some juggling with the plug. Dinner was served in our room and as we got ready to go off to sleep, the power went off! So much for the calling bell. We got some candles and retired for the night feeling strangely safe, guarded by 3 male strangers from 3 (or more) supposed predators.

Day 3: Trip to Gurudongmar Lake

When we woke up, there was still no power and we had to get ready in candle light. One friend slept through her 2 am alarm and was woken up by the 2.30 am alarm person. My alarm was set at 2.45 am but I woke up earlier in this confusion. Anyway, we got ready by 3.30 am to embark on our 7-hr journey. Minutes after starting off, I realised I had left my phone behind. I was okay about it as we were unlikely to get mobile signals at that altitude. My friends felt otherwise. In his rush to reverse at the bend, our car fell into a ditch and got badly stuck! Dipen tried to get it out and after a while, told us glumly that it was an impossible situation. He still tried one more time to rev the car out of trouble, but the tyre started to burn and then had a puncture! It was 3.40 am. We got out of the car and called Pramod. He came out running and immediately went down to get 6 guys from the village at that hour in the morning! These simple hill people amaze me. They live in such diverse conditions and yet are always so helpful and smiling. We met so many of them during this trip and all of them were such wonderfully uncomplicated and generous people.

Thanks to these amazingly efficient guys, the car was rescued, the tyre changed and at 4 am, we resumed our journey to the sacred lake. We also discovered the reason for Dipen’s hurry. This was his first trip too and he wanted to be with the convoy of cars. Ten minutes into the journey, I realised that I had forgotten my camera in the hotel but I kept this embarrassing fact to myself. The journey was very scenic but not comfortable at all. And the sky being overcast, we missed out on what might have been a stunning sunrise. How I missed my camera!

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Road to Gurudongmar
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Rocky terrain
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Sudden bursts of colour
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Rivers galore

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As you gain altitude, you will find the green forests of lower altitude gives way to smaller trees and bushes. Beyond Thangu is the second phase of your travel. The road towards the lake from Thangu passes through the high alpine pastures carpeted with occasional rhododendron bushes. One can get a prized view of rare Sikkim rhubarb peeping through the bushes in inaccessible terrain or of a herd of mountain sheep grazing in the distant valley. In this area you will find little vegetation or people. Apart from Indian Army, there is no human habitation here. The gravel road through the valley gives you a unique view of a barren land.     (Nature Beyond website)

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My first sighting of yaks
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Mountain Horses
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Closer to the lake, snow caps started getting visible

The road was patchy and bumpy and filled with rocks and potholes. Evidence of a recent landslide was visible everywhere. There was no tarmac and in some places there was continuous water flow over the road. I was very surprised that the government allows vehicles to ply on such a risky road. Who do we call for help if we skid off the road or if there is a breakdown? How can you simply expect the army to bail you out in the direst of situations? Is that fair?

Altitude sickness was also an issue. I saw some people taking their sick companions up to the army tent marked with a red cross. There is an army check-post at Thangu, but contrary to what we had read on TA – that army personnel come and scan every passenger for signs of sickness before allowing them to proceed – we were neither stopped nor checked by anyone. In fact, a friend had suggested that we carry some sweets for these jawans posted in such godforsaken places. She said that they feel very happy and grateful to get such gifts from the plains, especially around Dussera time. My packet of kaju barfi returned with me as I met no one. Maybe they were busy patrolling the Indo-Tibetan border after the intrusions by Pakistan on the western side.

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The breathstopping Chopta Valley

whatsapp-image-2016-10-24-at-20-14-58-3All of a sudden, the cloudy sky magically transformed into a sunny blue one and we realised we were in the very barren Chopta Valley! And equally mysteriously, a stretch of silk smooth road appeared out of nowhere. Maybe this was the road to heaven? The topography changed to that of the Tibetan plateau with no vegetation. The landscape was stark but stunning. The road then turned right towards Gurudongmar Lake. We were hoping to see paradise….but were very sorely disappointed.

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The very disappointing Gurudongmar Lake under a cloudy sky

We were greeted by the ugly sight of about 50-60 tourist jeeps parked around the rim, polluting the place with a powerful smell of diesel fumes. We parked in the second row. As we walked towards the rim, we saw the famous lake beneath us. The sun had disappeared and the sky was overcast, ruling out any possibility of a reflection of the mountains across it. Nor was there much snow on the peaks. There was no vision of aquamarine water or of the silvery peaks as the various photoshopped pictures on the internet had led us to believe. There was a long flight of steps leading to the lake (which was lined with Buddhist prayer flags) but we were too disappointed to even think of attempting that climb. It was just a peaceful little lake at a very high altitude. Under a clear blue sky, with the reflection of the mountains on the waters, it would surely look beautiful, but we still felt that the lake did not have the dimension or ambience to enthral us. Maybe our expectations of paradise were different.

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How my phone camera captured a hint of blue is beyond my understanding

We returned to Lachen exhausted, and extremely disappointed. After such an arduous journey, we were expecting to see something much more spectacular. Strangely, I was feeling the effects of altitude sickness on my way back – a mild headache with a strange kind of numbness around my cheeks. We were contemplating if we should stay back in Lachen instead of driving down to Lachung, where we were to spend 3 nights. However, another day in Lachen seemed very unappealing and we decided to travel to Lachung (8075 ft) as per our original itinerary. My friends went down for lunch while I lay down in bed nursing my headache and steeling myself for another arduous road trip.

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En route to Lachung

img_2141The 2.5 hr drive to Lachung however was much better and the roads were quite good. As usual, there were waterfalls galore and lush green mountains. We reached our hotel in Lachung – Norling Zymkhang – on time. It was a small property and we liked our room a lot. Biggish with very clean beds. The windows also opened out to a great view, although there was some ugly extension work going on below.

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Our humble sanctuary in Lachung
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The view from the window
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View from the bed when the mist cleared

Almost everyone spends 2 nights in this pretty town but we agreed to add an extra day to relax and enjoy the surroundings. And what a good decision that was. We checked in and immediately crashed out for 2-3 hours to recharge our batteries.

For the first time on the trip, we had a tasty meal during dinner. Over the next 3 days, the cook Kusal turned out simple but delicious meals which we gobbled to our heart’s content. One must also mention Madan, the quiet, young and helpful staff member who served us very sweetly.

Day 4: Free and easy in Lachung

The next day was meant to be free and easy but one of my friends went down with hill diarrhoea. After a frantic call to her GP in Calcutta, 2 courses of antibiotics were prescribed. Thankfully, she was carrying those tablets with her and got started on them immediately. The medicines proved quite effective but she decided to stick to a no-risk diet of rice, dal, boiled potatoes and eggs. Post lunch, we went out to explore the town.

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Wild berries
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Beautiful Lachung
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Remnants of Fall colours maybe
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Fauna
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Ferns
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The moody mist was too magical
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Random composition
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Alpine vegetation
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Moss, glorious moss
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Quite a pose

While finalising our Lachung hotel, we all loved Season House (awesome TA reviews) but it did not provide room heaters. And being true blue, cold-fearing Bengalis (ore baba, thanda lege jabey), we had thumbed it down. Better warm than sorry is what we believe in. That afternoon, we wanted to check it out for future reference. It truly was a mind blowing property with jaw-dropping views. It also had the cutest possible dining hall. The rooms were smaller but who cares about that when the setting is so spectacular? The manager also assured us that very soon, they will be able to provide room heaters. If we come here in April some day, we will definitely stay here, room heater or not. Food served here is vegetarian, although non-veg momos are available at the junction below. The climb is quite steep though.

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Season House
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The view – the powerful presence of nature

We retired early as we had to leave at 5.30am next morning for Yumthang Valley and Zero Point. My friend decided to give it a skip as she needed more rest and wanted to play it safe with her under-control diarrhoea. We were to soon discover how mindblowing that trip was going to be. The rhododendron flowers bloom in summer but even without them, this journey was one of the most picturesque ones we had ever taken. We had to pass through an army camp to reach the valley and nature started to reveal its gorgeousness right from the very start of our journey.

Day 5: Trip to Yumthang Valley and Zero Point

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First sight of the snow caps at dawn

img_2228Feast your eyes now on some of the breath-catching views we were exposed to, en route to Yumthang Valley. I do not possess a wide angle lens and my camera could not do justice to what our eyes saw. A totally unforgettable experience. The acute disappointment over the sacred lake faded away very quickly.

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The first rays of the sun hit the peaks
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Yaks graze in the beautiful Alpine valley

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Wish I could capture a quarter of its true beauty
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King of the valley

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A picture in contrast

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It had obviously snowed more in this region

We decided to go to Yumesamdong (15,750 ft) first as it tends to get more crowded later in the day. It is popularly known as Zero Point because there is no road after that point. We were lucky that for the past 2 nights, there had been heavy and unexpected snowfall. This place too is open only to Indians because of its proximity to the border. We saw a huge military presence in this area. Finally I found my soldiers! I called out to one of them, wished him for Dussera and gave him my box of kaju barfi.

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Approaching Zero Point

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Land of snow
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Life exists though

We could not go up to the post which says ZERO POINT as the road was too sleety and slippery, thus missing out on a great photo op. We also discovered that our car (or any car for that matter) did not have a 4 wheel drive. We were so grateful for our blissful ignorance about this fact on our roller coaster journey to Gurudongmar Lake. But what we greedily recorded in our visual memory here, will last us for our lifetime.

I forgot to mention one small detail. We had stopped once in the snowy terrain before trying to reach that post announcing Zero Point. Our jeep stopped just before a culvert to give us our first experience of walking in the land of snow. I realised immediately that the snow had turned into treacherous sleet by then, as I lost my grip a few times. I warned my friend about the dangers and carefully trotted along. We also asked a fellow adventurer to click us. Then Dipen rushed us, urging us to get in the car so that we could reach ZP ahead of the rush traffic. I got in and waited for my friend. A few minutes passed. Maybe she is making snowballs, I thought. Five minutes later, she got in a bit dishevelled and disturbed. She told me that she had slipped and fallen flat on the snow. Trying to break the fall with her hands, she broke her fingernails, but was kindly assisted up by a fellow Bengali with a sympathetic chot laageni toh beshi apnar (hope you didn’t hurt yourself too much)? And didn’t even hear a thud. Documented below is her last vertical picture (with me) at Yumesamdong. Jokes aside, we were worried if the fall would aggravate her recently acquired lower back problems. As we found out later, it didn’t.

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The picture after which my pal took a tumble in the snow and broke her nails
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Little fellow, what do you get to eat here?
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Some food resides in this freezing water obviously
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One of these is inhabited by P P Ghosh
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When you witness these hostile environment, you cannot but salute the Army men
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Frozen

We saw many tourists lose themselves in uncontrollable delight on seeing so much snow. Living in the hot and humid Gangetic plains below, this was enough to drive them crazy, literally. There were people engaged in various activities – having mock snowball fights, clicking themselves in Titanic poses, rolling in the snow, balancing with 2 huge snow footballs in their hands and of course, taking selfies galore. I even saw a guy lying on the snow bare-bodied and getting photographed for posterity! Utter lunacy.

However, what surprised me most was to see so many terribly under-dressed in this extreme climate. Quite a few were wearing open slippers without any socks while some were in shawls or very light jackets but all of them were frolicking in the snow! Snow boots and warm jackets are easily available on hire on the valley roads. One local driver openly expressed alarm at seeing such under-dressed people, saying baad mein bhari parega (it will cost them dearly later).

I wasn’t sure if it was ignorance or sheer bravado. We also encountered one very distressed young dad seeking water for his daughter who had fainted due to altitude sickness. We were more than happy to oblige. It  may be worthwhile for the govt/media to keep a track of the health of people returning from north Sikkim. Judging by the brave display of naivete, I would not be surprised if there were quite a few serious casualties.

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Stark beauty
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Cruel terrain
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img_2326On our way back, we got stuck in a bad jam. There were hundreds of jeeps, blocking our way – some of them double parked. These latecomers were trudging their way up (not at all advisable at this altitude) as cars could not progress further. Somehow we managed to get out of this and happily headed for the multi-hued Yumthang Valley (11,925 ft).

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The brave girl did get down again to pose with me at an even higher altitude

img_2333img_2335We had passed by Yumthang Valley on our way to Zero Point but we fell in love once again with the stunning scenery – we were lucky to be witnessing nature at its grandest best.

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Traces of snowfall from the previous nights

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Rapidly changing landscapes

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The winding mountain roads

We got off the car to take a walk in the valley. This was not the flower season but even without them, its natural beauty took our breath away. We were trying to imagine how it would look in April, filled with 32 shades of rhododendrons! Although it was sunny, it was windy as well and hence very chilly. A tributary of river Teesta with crystal clear water flows through ththis beautiful valley. We just looked on…

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Stunning colours

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The tributary
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Variable scenery

img_2368img_2367img_2364img_2361img_2359Our senses satiated, we dragged ourselves away from here and into the car. We were on a temporary high. Speechless, we headed back to Lachung.  I wished our third friend could have joined us for this visual treat. But I believe what is meant to be, is meant to be.

I have to mention a funny thing here. Our sick friend had requested the cook to religiously serve her rice, boiled potatoes (aloo), boiled eggs and moong dal every day to recover asap. The moong dal became a permanent fixture in the regular dinner menu and they lovingly served her quota of boiled eggs and aloo everyday. On the day we were leaving Lachung, she had recovered well enough to try normal food but before she could even order her meal, out came Kusal armed with 3 boiled eggs and aloos! We couldn’t refuse such a gift of love and affectionately carried them all the way to Gangtok. We had a good laugh about it later and she remarked that she would have to abstain from aloo and eggs for a while. They are really such sweet and simple people!

Day 6: Lachung to Gangtok

Next morning, we left for Gangtok after a very tasty breakfast. The ride was uneventful except for maneuvering our car to go past the countless army trucks coming from the other direction. When we reached Gangtok, it was raining. We checked in to the same guest house and went out in search for lunch. Our wish for having a good Chinese meal at the highly recommended Chopsticks remained unfulfilled as there was a 1.5 hour wait. So we had to make do with grilled fish at a nice coffee shop. A quick round of shopping for teas, cardamoms and woolies followed.

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Ferns at the guesthouse

Day 7: Supposedly back to Calcutta via Bagdogra

I woke up early to try and catch a glimpse of Kanchenjunga peak from our balcony. I’m not sure if I managed to but I did get some interesting shots.

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Pigeons
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The glimpse of a snowy range but where is Kanchenjunga?

During breakfast, we found out that due to a landslide, the road from Gangtok to Siliguri was closed but work was on to restore the link. We left for the airport and luckily the road was open but the police were letting only one vehicle at a time. We heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that this would be the last of our obstacles, but little did we know.

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Landslide on the way to Siliguri

We reached the airport, had a big lunch and checked in our luggage. As we had lots of time to kill, one pal even decided to shop! Just as she was happily strolling out with her new purchase, it was announced that our Indigo flight (along with some others) had got cancelled.  The earliest available flight was 2 days later, on Sunday. As I had an international flight to catch on Sunday morning, we quickly cancelled our tickets, got the refund slip and requested our agent to help us with bus tickets. She acted quite promptly and instructed us go and collect the tickets from town. A car was also arranged but we got stuck in the infamous Siliguri evening traffic jam. The bus was supposed to leave at 6.30 pm.

Around 6.15 pm, when we realised it was a hopeless situation, we got off on the road and lugged our suitcases in the rain to the ticket counter, some 50m away. Thankfully, our tickets were waiting there. It was 6.25pm. Initially, we were told to take an auto from there to the main bus terminus but there was no time for that. Thankfully, that road was on the bus route. After a call to the driver, we were asked to wait at the counter with our luggage. The rain was falling more heavily now. Around 7pm, we saw the bus approaching and we ran across the road over the divider and on to the other side. Our suitcases were loaded quickly – we got up and filled up the last 3 seats. The seats were comfortable and we watched the movie M.S.Dhoni on board. Dinner stop was at a roadside dhaba and the less said about the public toilet there, the better. In the age of Swachh Bharat (clean India), it is unfathomable how no tourism minister is yet to do something about providing clean public toilets for road travellers. Maybe it is time we had a female tourism minister who will understand how especially difficult it is for women.

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Our bus sometimes also plies between Bengal and Bangladesh

Sleep wasn’t peaceful. The guy next to me liked to sleep diagonally, almost pushing me out of my seat. I had to nudge/shake him constantly to reclaim my paid square of space.

Day 8: Not part of the original plan, but in Calcutta at long last

Just as I was enjoying a beautiful sunrise, the bus had a puncture close to a small town called Bethuadohori. And there was no spare tyre! These unfortunately are not fine-able offences. A few passengers hired a van and dashed off to the station to catch a train to Calcutta. For 3 hours, the rest of us waited for the tyre to get fixed from the nearest town, Krishna Nagar, without any access to breakfast or toilet facilities. The men of course were shamelessly spraying the countryside.

Thankfully, the bus gave us water. We also had some left-over snacks from the trip. After some enquiries, we walked up to a library with pay-and-use toilets. Needless to say it was not clean. At times like this, however you are grateful that there is a toilet at all. The pee-fee collector asked us if we were from Delhi. And on our return, when we were standing outside to get some fresh air and stretching our legs, a curious passerby stopped his cycle and asked us if we were from Bangladesh! Obviously we were looking like aliens.

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Our breakfast with flattened rice (chire/poha)

Finally, the bus took off and the expected TOA at Esplanade was announced to be around 2-3 pm. Then we learnt that Red Road was being readied for the Durga Puja immersion carnival that very afternoon. That meant major trouble for commuters. Mr Murphy was having a field day! Unanimously we decided to get off at the airport and take the bypass to go home. My friend informed her driver about our change of plans as well as the new pick-up point. Finally, after a 19-hour journey, we got off the bus. We have never been happier to set our feet in Calcutta. Soon after, we were picked up and were on our home.

In a nutshell, I left Gangtok on 13th Oct at 8.30 am to reach my home in Calcutta on the 14th at 3pm. Definitely, my longest road journey ever.

Looking back…

It’s quite interesting how time changes ones perspective. When I returned from the trip, I was frustrated and totally drained by the number of obstacles we had to overcome. Interestingly, we overcame each and every one although we didn’t see it that way then. It was not a fun trip for us and we didn’t want to ever go for a holiday in the hills again.

But now, when I look back, I see things in a different light. Yumthang blew me away and I won’t mind visiting again some time in April to see the flower show. I’m also “mildly” curious to see Gurudongmar on a clear sunny day. I really need to know why people rave about it so. Did I miss anything? But it will happen only after Gangtok airport gets functioning. That will reduce my road travel to a great extent.

I also know myself a bit better now. For one, I do not enjoy traveling at a frantic pace. My kind of vacation has to be relaxed. I am not a hill person either despite the breathtaking vistas it has to offer. If I have to go on a long road journey, I must have access to hygienic toilets. I discovere I have a much higher tolerance for cold weather now, although I still prefer a warmer climate any day. It is also not a good idea to see too many photos of the place you plan to visit – it raises your expectations and you will be, more often than not, disappointed.

Post Gurudongmar experience, I am convinced I do not get an extra “high” by overcoming the odds and fighting adversities to reach a difficult destination. Many people do not even get to reach the lake because of bad weather and unforeseen landslides. So, getting to the lake adds to the adventure and charm for many. Unfortunately, it did not, for me or my friends.

I enjoy a sight that is tranquil and quiet. The sight of a place teeming with hundreds of noisy tourists is a BIG deterrent. The reason why despite living in Kenya for over 2 years, I haven’t yet been to watch the great migration. I have been to endless safaris though, but only during off season. However, that is entirely my personal opinion. To each his or her own.

Getting to experience the hill people was a big gain. Their simple attitude towards life makes you realise how urbanised, self-centred and disconnected we have become. There was no impatience, annoyance or frustration despite the hardships they face daily. What warmed me most was their feeling of brotherhood as was evident in the joint effort of the drivers in Lachen to get that hapless car out. Despite rain, cold and darkness, I neither saw any signs of frayed nerves nor heard any verbal abuse. I witnessed that even more when 6 people who were woken up at 3.30 am, came up with a smile to help us get our car out of that ditch. They didn’t even linger on for tips, although we did leave some money for them. Contrast that to what we observe during traffic jams in the city. Horns, screams and rudeness. Hill travel is risky and so road courtesy is a must to survive. And how beautifully they all observe it. Our driver for the whole trip, Dipen, seemed a bit surprised when we tipped him at the end. Whereas in Siliguri, Amit’s stand-in, blatantly asked us for money simply to guide our trolleys to our Xylo.

We met this family from Calcutta whose holiday in Darjeeling got ruined  as they were hotel-bound for 3 days due to the rains. They were in the same night bus, going through similar travails. We got chatting while waiting for the puncture to be repaired and while they were also worried, the lady said with a big smile, that they love the hills and would again travel north next year. So what if this trip was a washout?

I realised that we have changed a lot since our carefree college days. For example, this aversion to crowds is a newly acquired bourgeois attitude. Ordinary people will vacation during holiday season (when they get leave) and will travel in jeeps that are filled to capacity, to save money. Holidays probably offer them an escape from their routine drudgery and they express that joy without any inhibition. ‘Civilised’ society teaches us to do everything in moderation – speak softly, eat quietly, munch silently, ….. Money and material comfort have indeed made us more impatient, intolerant, hypocritical, self centred and over-critical of the hoi polloi.

Even as a teenager, I had an aversion to the “Rocket Bus” which was the cheapest way to travel up north. I also used to wonder how people use stinky public toilets and had made many imaginary vows regarding what I will never do in life. Although, I escaped from the Rocket Bus, this Volvo bus ride taught me a few valuable lessons. Prime among them was: necessity forces you to do things, whether you like it or not. I remember reading recently how a foreigner understood why taxi drivers in India spit outside while driving. He drove a car without an AC (can’t recall why though) for a few days and realised after continuously inhaling the dust, grime and diesel fumes of our polluted capital, that it is necessary to spit it out. Else you fall sick.

Another big gain from this trip was the strength of our friendship. We shared one room throughout the trip and were never once inconvenienced. When someone fell ill or got hurt or … the other two mothered her. I was financially supported throughout the trip by the other 2 with an indulgent smile. I’m sure we had to compromise at times but that sentiment was never voiced. One of our friends discovered the magic of Eno fruit salt on this trip. Another one had a forced facial done by a total amateur simply because she thought that would give her relief from her traumatic fall. My forgetful nature was a major reason for that post-midnight roll in the ditch. But I never felt any negativity from my dear friends. And most importantly, we laughed outrageously (ottohashyo) throughout our various misadventures and not – except for that single night in Lachen, where we chose to do phish phish (whisper) out of sheer fright! We still managed to cover our mouths and roll in the bed with silent hysterical laughter. And we threw caution into the wind by giggling and guffawing anywhere and everywhere, despite being advised by my friend’s mom to laugh only inside the protected walls of our hotel rooms. Honestly, we tried to follow that dictum.

Some tour details we got from our operator

  • Bagdogra – Gangtok: 130 kms in 4 hrs (5550 ft)
  • Gangtok – Lachen: 130 kms in 7 hrs with some stops and lunch (9175 ft)
  • Lachen – Gurudongmar Lake: to and fro 120 kms in 6 hrs via Thangu Village (13,625 ft) and Chopta Valley (13,325 ft)  to the lake (17,375 ft) – Indians only
  • Lachen – Lachung: 50 kms in 2 hrs (8075 ft)
  • Lachung – Yumthang Valley: 25 kms in 1.5 hrs (11,925 ft)
  • Yumthang – Yumesamdong (Zero Pt): 30 kms in 1.5 hrs (15,750 ft) – Indians only
  • Lachung – Gangtok: 125 kms in 5 hrs

Clothing: Heavy to very heavy woolens from Oct-March and light woolens for the remaining months

Permits: Needed for Changu/Tsongo Lake, Nathu La and North Sikkim (Lachen-Lachung). Valid forms of ID are PP/Voter’s ID/Driving License and 5 copies of PP size pics needed

Altitude sickness: Can be expected especially for people with high BP, asthma, heart problems — please talk to your doctor before venturing

Turkey grand finale: Surreal Cappadocia

Words fail me when I try to describe Cappadocia  or Kapadokya as the Turks refer to it. So I will rely on two trusted sources to do the work for me.

Lonely Planet: Cappadocia is like landing on another planet. As if plucked from a whimsical fairytale and set down upon the stark Anatolian plains, Cappadocia is a geological oddity of honeycombed hills and towering boulders of other-worldly beauty.

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Fairy Chimneys (pic from internet)

Wiki: Cappadocia, a semi-arid region in central Turkey, is full of other-worldly natural sites, most notably the fairy chimneys – tall, cone-shaped rock formations clustered in Monks Valley and elsewhere. Popular for exploration are Bronze Age homes carved into valley walls by troglodytes (cave dwellers) and later used as refuges by early Christians. The 100m-deep Ihlara Canyon houses numerous rock-face churches.

10355797_10152484322251888_3865883129227337933_nVolcanic eruptions created this surreal moonscape: the lava flows formed tuff rock, which wind and rain sculpted into sinuous valleys with curvy cliff faces and pointy fairy chimneys in the Göreme valley. (Source-LP)

10653462_10152484322636888_5285493931760597593_nI first heard of Cappadocia when I saw some photos posted by a friend of mine and wondered if this place was for real. When I decided to join my friends for the Turkey tour, they wanted to keep it free and easy but I was so consumed by my curiosity for this surreal place that I made my tour very hectic by including Cappadocia and Ephesus in my itinerary. A day in Ephesus is good enough to explore it but you need at least 2 nights to enjoy the magnificent offerings of Cappadocia satisfactorily.

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Abandoned pigeon holes carved on the rock surfaces

This place has an equally remarkable human history. Probably looking at the way the landform was eroded by nature, the locals took a cue and began chiselling their homes into the region’s soft rock, some of which have become today’s boutique fairy-chimney and cave hotels which look more stunning at night.

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One of the fancier cave hotels
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Another cave hotel at night time (Photo credits: elkepevi.com)

They also carved underground shelters and and as a result, in the beginning of the 4th century AD, an urbanized but underground cavern architecture was created here. In fact, tunnel complexes formed entire towns with as many as eight different storeys hidden underground.

10445550_10152484325626888_5188795889447892071_nI took an evening flight to Nevşehir, where I (along with many others) was picked up by a van which dropped us to our respective hotels. Thankfully, no glitch happened here. My hotel was in Ürgüp and I was the last one to be dropped, close to midnight. I had booked myself in a cave hotel although it was just for a few hours. It was a very cosy and cute one, owned/managed by a Malayali Turk whose grandfather had migrated here and settled down after marrying one of the local women.

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Hotel Manager

HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE

I had booked a balloon ride the next day which meant a wake up call at 2.30 am! I quickly absorbed the unique interiors of my cave dwelling and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. My ride came on time and I was taken to the balloon site when it was still dark.

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Getting ready for take off after many instructions
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UP we go
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View from our balloon
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Vegetation
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Accordion-ridged valley
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Happy me
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The balloons go pretty low for you to observe the surreal landscape at close
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Time for the sun to rise
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Good morning
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Flying over the city
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Time to let out the livestock
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With 2 jolly Brazilian co-ballooners from Bello Horizonte
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Cheers to a safe landing
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Various flying objects

MY CAVE HOTEL

I don’t remember the name of this tiny place but it is still very vivid in my memory as a one-of-a-kind cave dwelling experience. Here are some pics.

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Entrance
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Turkish artefacts
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The hotel
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Another corner
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Breakfast area – Mr Nair is the guy in red
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Low hanging grapes
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Close-up
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My little room in a cave
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Reception area
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Neighbouring hotel
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The surreal neighbourhood

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If you are in Turkey, there must be cats
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Just a few of them
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Under the car

TREKKING IN GOREME VALLEY

After a hearty breakfast, I went off for a hike with a tour group. Come walk with me…

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Ancient volcanic eruptions blanketed this region with thick ash, which solidified into a soft rock—called tuff—tens of meters thick. Wind and water went to work on this plateau, leaving only its harder elements behind to form a fairy tale landscape of cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys, which stretch as far as 130 feet (40 meters) into the sky. (Source – National Geographic)

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Almost like a psychedelic dream
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Pumpkins
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Happy to be here
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Indiana Jones
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Walk on…

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More food
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Nut vendor
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Enter a caption

As you trek along Göreme Valley, you will see a series of pigeon houses riddling the rock faces. Traditionally, the local farmers  used to collect the birds’ droppings to use as fertiliser. They not only fed them but also painted their homes with kilim-style motifs using vegetable dyes. Cappadocia’s pigeons really lived in style then but now, most of them are empty  and the locals engage themselves serving human visitors. The downside of booming tourism.

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Pigeon houses
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Decorations made with vegetable dye

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More pigeon holes
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Almost decorated like a shrine

10592830_10152484328086888_6903008380720935149_nPigeons were kept because of their eggs, poop-fertiliser and messenger service.

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Road side cafe for tired tourists
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Toilet
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Ahem ahem!
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In case you are thirsty after the trek
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Tiny watermelons

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More pigeon holes
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Self explanatory sign: I loved the pigeon hole icon
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Alluring comfort of shade
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Presence of minerals
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Effects of Tourism

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Till 1953, people lived here

Human hands also created incredible works of art in this rocky wonderland – they carved caves, living quarters, places of worship, stables, and storehouses in the soft stone.

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Does this look real?
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One more cafe
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We stopped at this town for a shopping break
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Zooming in to the top storey

10320461_10152484331766888_125305611901134583_nIf you live in one of these cave hotels, you will very soon realise why the locals loved to live in these caves – the tuff rock keeps the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.

Due to lack of time, I missed out on the amazing fresco-adorned rock-cut churches of Göreme Open Air Museum (you need to take multiple tours to cover the whole area). So that gives me yet another reason to re-visit Turkey.

Turkey.Göreme038.jpgFresco depicting the crucification of Christ on the ceiling of Tokali Kilise @Göreme (above)

UNDERGROUND CITY

However, I did not miss out on the unbelievable underground city that gave refuge to many locals. Göreme was located precariously between rival empires – first the Greeks and Persians , and later, the Byzantine Greeks and a host of rivals. So, depending on the political climate, the citizens needed a place to hide – which they found by digging tunnels into the naturally soft rocks. The site also provided refuge for local Byzantine Christians who were persecuted – first by the Romans and then by the Muslim raiders. The sound of approaching hooves literally made them go underground!

By the 4th century, Christians fleeing Rome’s persecution had arrived in some numbers and established monastic communities here. The monks excavated extensive dwellings and monasteries and created Byzantine frescoed paintings in cave chapels beginning in the 7th century, which endure in well-preserved isolation to this day.

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Animals were kept here
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Probably the kitchen

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Alcoves
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Ventilation shaft invisible from above the ground
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Close up of the shaft

Visit to a Carpet Factory

This was just a small part of the tour with a view to encouraging local cottage industry. We were wooed with Turkish tea and savouries and shown countless carpets/rugs/kilims.

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Weaving kilims
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Cocoons: the not-so-strong threads (partially seen on the right basket) are recycled
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This is how silk yarn is extracted after putting them in boiling water

And then we were back on the road again, stopping for a short while at a scenic viewpoint.

10646917_10152484334511888_2204961223387582518_nIronically, the primary threats to this World Heritage site come from the same forces of erosion that created these surreal landforms. Forces of erosion are now wearing off some of the human creations to give them a more natural look. Extensive preservation efforts are on to preserve these natural wonders of Göreme.

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One of our stops for enjoying the moonscape panorama
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Uchisar Castle
The adventurous few climb up to Uchisar Castle, the highest point of Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, to satisfy their adrenalin rush and to enjoy the stunning panoramic views. We watched them from afar.
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Road side stall

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Closer to the main city as departure time approaches
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It was just after the 2014 elections – a poster of Ataturk looms large

There was also another very commercial stop at a gem manufacturer’s shop where I didn’t feel inclined to take any photos. Some of the women thoroughly enjoyed this stop and happily bought rings and other forms of jewellery. I was dying to go back to Istanbul.

Here is a short link to some other attractions in Cappadocia. The 7-picture slideshow gives a good enough guideline.

 

 

 

 

Turkey Part 4: Enthralling Ephesus

Ephesus is so loaded with history that only a history enthusiast will have the patience to go through this post. So I will try to keep it short and graphic – with links for the knowledge-thirsty ones.

I went to Ephesus by the night coach and almost got lost in the process when I got dropped off at a HUGE coach terminal (around 8.30pm) by the van I boarded at Istanbul. Later, I learnt that the shuttle van had taken me to Istanbul’s gigantic Main Bus Terminal or Otogar (auto+ghar =coach terminal) in Esenler where all long distance coaches start/end their journey. Nobody had informed/warned me of this imminent van -> coach transfer when I bought my ticket! And then it started to drizzle. Cold and alone in a non-English speaking country, that too on a wet night, it was quite a desperate situation. Almost reminiscent of a scary midnight abandonment in the middle of train tracks in Indonesia.

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Esenler Otogar: Imagine me standing here all alone at night, bag and baggage, with these huge caoches hissing and puffing to a stop all around me (pic from the Internet)

No one understood a word of English and I had no clue about which coach to board as none of them had Ephesus written anywhere – instead, they all indicated destinations I had never heard of. Around 9pm, an elderly bus driver took pity on my plight and told me in a mixture of broken English and sign language that I was standing at the wrong place and also that I should get up on a coach going to Selçuk.

The Selçuk coach arrived around 9.30 and I got up, hoping for the best. It was a very comfortable bus ride but I found no one waiting to pick me up, next morning. After some time, a frantic looking man arrived, saying that the bus to Ephesus had already left but he will intercept the bus somewhere and put me on it. And so he did, although I missed one sight as a result of that. So in the middle of the road, I got up, bag and baggage, onto a big bus which had just one seat left. Not a great start to a journey I was very keen on.

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My first stop was the House of the Virgin (Meryemana in Turkish), located in a nature park between Ephesus and Selçuk. It is believed to be the last residence of the Virgin Mary and so sacred to both Christians and Muslims. Photography is not allowed inside.

According to predominant Christian tradition, Mary was brought to Ephesus by the Apostle John after the Resurrection of Christ and lived out her days there. This is based mainly on the traditional belief that John came to Ephesus (see St. John’s Basilica) combined with the biblical statement that Jesus consigned her to John’s care (John 19:26-27). Archaeologists who have examined the building identified as the House of the Virgin believe most of the building dates from the 6th or 7th century. But its foundations are much older and may well date from the 1st century AD, the time of Mary.

Then we proceeded to Ephesus for a tour under the merciless sun. Here are some sights.

 

Ancient Ephesus was a great trading city and a centre for the cult of Cybele, the Anatolian fertility goddess. Under the influence of the Ionians, Cybele became Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt and the moon, and a fabulous temple was built in her honour. When the Romans took over, Artemis became Diana and Ephesus became the Roman provincial capital, the fourth largest city in the empire after Rome, Alexandria and Antioch.

Of Turkey’s hundreds of ancient cities and classical ruins, Ephesus is the grandest and best preserved. Indeed, it’s the best place on the Mediterranean to get a feel for what life was like in ancient times.  (Source: Lonely Planet)

CURETES WAY

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This 210m long street was one of the main roads of Ephesus

The street was lined with flowering trees, fountains, monuments, statues and shops on both sides. Walking this street is the best way to understand how the Ephesians led their daily life.  Due to frequent earthquakes, many structures including the Curetes Street had been damaged. 10678654_10152487596451888_5213431083762527992_nCircular depressions and linear grooves were made into the marble to prevent pedestrians from slipping on the smooth marble street.

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Footsteps in antiquity

Under the shade of the flowering trees that lined the street, sometimes there were ‘stone abutments adorned with 12 circular depressions – boards for games of chance that ancient Ephesians would play for fun and even bet on: the contest was known in Latin as Ludus Duodecim Scriptorum (Game of 12 Markings), the predecessor of backgammon.’

 

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Romans invented many board games: this is one is the father of backgammon

UPPER AGORA

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Ionic pillars
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Roman Baths at Upper Agora (central meeting spot)

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The original terracotta water pipes

THE GREAT THEATRE

The Great Theatre was built in the 1st century AD. Later, it was renovated by several Roman Emperors. It is considered to be the most imposing and the most impressive structure of Ephesus city. It could host up to 25,000 spectators.

Its cavea (sitting section) consisted of 66 rows of stone seats which were divided into 3 horizontal sections by 2 diazomas (walkway between seats). The seats at the bottom of the cavea had marble backs and were used by the most important personalities of the city. Its skene (structure at the back of the theatre) consisted of 3 storeys with the 2nd one decorated with pillars, statues and carving by Emperor Nero. The 3rd storey was built by Septimus Severus in late 2nd century AD. The ground floor consisted of a long corridor with 8 rooms. The semi-circular constructure between the cavea and the skene, known as the orchestra, is the place on which the choruses were singing.

Columns with niches, statues and windows adorned the façade inside the theatre (opposite the spectators) and there were 5 openings (the middle one wider than the others) to the orchestra, which made the skene looking imposing.
There is a street on the upper part of the theatre which connects it with Curetes Street.

The Great Theatre of Ephesus was destroyed due to an earthquake in the 4th century AD and only a part of it was repaired.

Apart from the theatrical plays and the music performances that took place in the theatre, political and religious events were carried out in it as well. Among the most important of them is the conflict between Christians and the followers of Artemis during which Saint Paul was judged and sent to prison as he was accused of hurting Artemis.

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Way to the theatre