If you’ve read my older posts you will know, I’m a girl from Mumbai who has always dreamed of living in the mountains, like every other city girl! After years of dreaming and feeling absolutely jealous of the people who made it happen, I finally took the great leap of faith and have moved to Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh!
I chose the wonderful city of McLeod Ganj as my soulmate because this is where it all started. Exactly this time, last year, I took my first ever solo trip to McLeod Ganj, and have ever since been so fascinated by the owerpowering grandeur of the Dhauladhar mountain ranges that I never really felt at home when I returned to Mumbai. Moving back here now feels like a completion of my karmic circle, and though the thought of living alone in a strange city seems daunting at times, I’m confident this move will lead me towards a harmonious union with myself, with my self mandala!
This morning, I woke up at the crack of dawn to the sounds of chirping birds! I stepped into the balcony to this gorgeous view of the sun peeping out of the mountains. It took me back to the days of primary school, where our drawing class assignments would include “A Scenery”, and like most kids with not a single bone of creativity in their body, I always chose to draw the simple mountains, with half the sun peeping between the peaks colored yellowish orange, and straight rays like cat whiskers colored yellow, a tree on the right corner of the page, and a small slope-roofed hut on the left corner with a ugly looking stick figure standing next to his humble abode. I couldn’t have imagined it then, but today staring at this incredible sunrise, I realized how lucky I am to witness the sight of my childhood imagination in flesh!
Here’s to a new life in the mountains, I hope to take you through my journey through regular pics and blogposts! Stay with me 🙂
Sleepy-eyed, tortured by the harsh temperatures, shivering to the bone despite four layers of clothing and 2 blankets – that would be me through the first half of the drive. But once I saw the sun rising in the mountains, leaving a shimmery gold trail all across the snow-capped peaks, and sprinkling peach pixie-dust over the clouds, sleeping was not an option anymore. You read it in the travel blogs and see it in a few movies, but it’s only when you see it yourself that you realize how magically overpowering a sunrise in the mountains really is!
We were driving towards the sole motivation behind my entire trip to Sikkim – The Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! Situated in the northern-most part of the state, Gurudongmar is one of the highest lakes in the world, and the second highest lake in India. At an altitude of 17000 ft, this place is a MUST bucket-list site for all Indian travelers!
Our journey had started just a day earlier from Gangtok, where we had to acquire our permits to visit the lake (being extremely close to the Indo-Tibetan border, tourists can’t go here without permits and have to go via authorized tour operators). Our driver, Arun, was the most rocking chap you can ever come across. He rapped to Yo Yo Honey Singh songs and kept us entertained throughout with interesting stories about Sikkim and his experiences with various travelers. This was a huge blessing, considering the 8 hour odd drive from Gangtok to Lachen, though very scenic and beautiful, did take a toll on us!
We reached our guest house at Lachen right in time for dinner! Our guest house was a small little home-stay of sorts, with the most beautiful arrangement for meals. We devoured on the humble feast served to us, and ran to our rooms, getting ready to wake up at 3 am the next morning!
Now, while waking up at 3 AM on any regular day is a task in itself, when you’re sleeping cuddled under 2 blankets, waking up at 3 AM is next to impossible! Had it not been for the unavoidable lure of the lake, we would have never managed to drag ourselves out of the comfort of our beds. After putting on as many layers of clothing as we possibly could, and packing the blankets from our guest house – we were finally ready for our Gurudongmar adventure!
We made a quick stopover at a small food joint, run by a sweet and ever-smiling guy named Rikjung with his Mom and younger sister. These were the most hospitable and friendly chaps! They cooked for us, helped us to servings of a local mixture called tumba – made from rice and taken with a bamboo pipe – effective to fight the cold, and lit up a fire to relieve us from our misery. This place won’t be difficult to find, as it’s one of the only places you come across on the way, approximately 8 kms before Thangu, at Yatang.
What started as a sleepy to-do journey, turned into the most scenic road-trip of my life! Be prepared to crane your neck left, right, to the front and back, all within a seconds notice, because there’s just so much to see all around, that you can’t help but act like an over-excited 5 year old in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory! Even though you won’t come across any kind of vegetation or human settlements that are usually a regular sight up in the mountains, the barren and cold landscapes with occasional spotting of Yaks holds a different charm to itself. This wasn’t my first encounter with the mountains, having had my fair share of adventure in Himachal. But there’s something about the untouched magnanimity and beauty of the mountains in North-East India, which is so exotic and mesmerizing, that captures you in its inviting embrace instantly! Have tried to put together a visual journey for you below:
After 4 odd hours of driving, including a stopover at an army camp, we finally reached our destination! One look at the snow-fed crystal blue water of the lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides, dressed with Buddhist prayer flags across its breadth, the texture of the water perfectly matching the pristine blue of the sky above – and you stop right in your tracks, losing all sense of time, place… and existence. There really isn’t much I can say that can justify how stunning this site is, I’ll let you decide for yourself:
Touchdown – Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim!
PS: We made this trip in November first week, so the pictures above represent what the lake looks like in November. However this view may vary from month to month depending on the weather. My friend just visited the lake (only two days ago actually). So I thought I should share his pictures too, to give you an idea of how unreal the frozen lake looks in March.
Trivia about Gurudongmar Lake: Gurudongmar Lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, who is said to have visited this holy lake during the 8th century AD. Gurudongmar Lake is listed among the 108 saccred laked of Sikkim and is regarded as the northern door for entry into Demojong (Sikkim). This sacred lake is said to have divine powers to fulfill the wishes of devotees who visit the lake. It has been notified as one of the most sacred Buddhist places of worship in Sikkim.
If you have an extra day, choose to stay at Lachung after your Gurudongmar trip, and opt for a drive to Yumthang valley and Zero Point the next morning! There is also a famous hot water spring enroute Yumthang that you can stop at.
Unfortunately for our overseas friends, the proximity of the lake to the Indo-Tibetan (Chinese) border renders this site out-of-bounds for all foreign travelers. Even Indian travelers can travel here only through packaged tours organized by local operators in Sikkim, and everyone needs an Inner Line Permit from Gangtok.
Under normal circumstances, I would share the number of the travel agent who fixed our tour, but we had a really bad experience with him and wouldn’t suggest him to anyone. For reference (and warning) sake, his name was Tashi Thendup – Anoop, he owns a hotel in Gangtok (which is too costly for the horrible service they provide) and he tricked us into staying there despite our repeated refusals.
Our driver was a superstar! You should call him whenever you’re going for this trip. He can organize the trip too, cheaper than others. Arun – +919475715570
Note for people with breathing issues: The drive to Gurudongmar from Lachen starts at over 8000 feet altitude, and you keep driving constantly till 17,000 feet. Breathing here gets difficult for even regular people. We were strictly advised by the army officials to not run / walk fast near the lake, and keep drinking water regularly. You also have to make sure you reach the lake early in the morning, and drive out before noon.
Make sure you keep your permit and photo id proofs handy on this trip, as you will be stopped and checked at the army check-posts. Also, for safety, carry dry fruits with you.
The water of the lake is considered sacred. We were advised by one and all to fill bottles from the lake to carry back to Mumbai.
The lake also has a small temple which is revered by Hindus as well as Buddhists, and attracts many pilgrims and monks.
Important: Just trust me and stop for a coffee with our jawans at the army camp enroute!!!
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So, funny story… I just missed my trip to the Rann Festival because I didn’t realize my train to Bhuj had actually left 24hrs prior to when I was planning to board. Defeated by the classic 12hr-24hr clock problem, a valuable lesson learnt!
Now, having missed this festival, I started researching about other interesting festivals / celebrations in India, and one thing leading to another, I didn’t realize when I had an entire bucket-list drawn up for myself! I thought I should blog about it in case there are other people out there like me, who were clueless about so many beautiful celebrations taking place in India every year (Listed in chronological order). I hope a few of these festivals speak to your heart too 🙂
What: Konkan Turtle Festival Where: Velas, Maharashtra When: March
The annual Konkan Turtle Festival, which can well be called a conservation movement, is held every year in the month of March in Velas village of Maharashtra in Ratnagiri. The Velas beach is the birthing place for Olive Ridley turtles, and these turtles return every year during the birthing season.The villagers of Velas have taken it upon themselves to protect these lovely creatures who are endangered due to the consumption of their eggs, destruction of breeding habitats, and the slaughter of adult turtles for leather and oil. After the mother turtles lay the eggs, the villagers collect them and take them away for hatching, and then restore the same back at the beach. Watching the newly born baby turtles scuttle across the beach surely looks magical!
What: Rath Yatra Where: Puri, Orissa When: 18th July & 26th July
Simply translated to the “Chariot Festival”, Rath Yatra takes place on two days in July in the beach town of Puri. The start / onward journey of the Rath Yatra 2015 is on the 18th of July, and the return journey is on 26th July. I absolutely love the overpowering beautiful colors and paintings, the spectacularly designed immense chariots cradling Lord Jagannath, brother Balbhadra and sister Subhadra. Not to mention this is one of the most famous international tourist attractions of India. Hauled by devotees and travelers via ropes, from temple to temple, all across Puri all the way to the Gundicha Temple, where the deities stay for a period of nine days, the festival makes for a lovely visual treat. From what I’ve read, the organizers of Rath Yatra invite volunteers to lend a helping hand with the preparations of the festival. Experiencing this should be grand 🙂
I’m still unsure if I might actually be ready for this. The Kumbh Mela has to be the most intimidating thing on the face of this planet for the sheer horde of humans that swarm this event. This year the Kumbh Mela will be celebrated in Nashik, Maharashtra. Trimbakeshwar is a holy town of Nasik known for the Triyambakeshwar Jyotirlinga temple – one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. Kumbh Mela at Trimbakeshwar is celebrated once in every twelve years, the last time being 2003. So if you haven’t experienced a Kumbh yet and you don’t want to wait another 3 years, go for it!! Just try not to get lost 😉
What: Krishna Janmashtami at Mathura Where: Mathura & Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh When: 5th September 2015
Janmashtami, or Dahi Handi as we Mumbaikars know it, the birth anniversary of Krishna ji, and what better than his birthplace to celebrate! Mathura in Uttar Pradesh celebrates this day with full pomp and fervor, and so does Vrindavan – which is the place where Lord Krishna spent his childhood! In Mathura people fast all day, and spend evenings in temples chanting prayers and reading from the Bhagavad Gita. Ringing bells, blowing conch shells, flickering diyas, prayers and aartis that go on until midnight, all adding to the festivities on the auspicious day. Every temple all over the city is decorated in one color. Over at Vrindavan, lovely processions or “jhankis” are organized that depict the important life events of Lord Krishna! The good thing is Vrindavan and Mathura are only 10 kms away, so one can actually visit both on Janmashtami 🙂 No better birthday party for Bal Gopal than this 🙂
A friend from McLeod Ganj introduced me to this week-long Kullu Dussehra celebrated in the Dhalpur maidan in Kullu valley. It begins on Dussehra and goes on for seven days. Now this celebration is a festive procession of sorts, as idols of more than 200 local deities from every temple in the Kullu Valley are taken out of their temples and carried in chariots to offer their devotion to presiding deity Lord Raghunath Ji. The former royal family of Kullu leads the convoy that is thronged by villagers, local devotees and tourists alike. At night international dance festival is attended by thousands of people at the open theater.
What: Diwali at Golden Temple Where: Amritsar, Punjab When: 11th November 2015
So Golden Temple is a must-visit and a must bucket-list place for anyone and everyone traveling to India – that goes without saying. While the Temple can dazzle you with its beauty even on a regular day at any given time, I can’t imagine how mesmerizing it must look on Diwali, lit up with a zillion diyas, draped in lights and glittering under the magnificent display of fireworks, emitting a luminous reflection over the immaculate lake surrounding the quaint temple.
Fun Fact:Diwali at The Golden Temple also holds historic significance as the foundation stone of the Temple was laid on Diwali, back in 1577.
When I think about Nagaland, the first thought that flashes across my mind is colorful attires, jewelry, eccentric headgears and tribal dance on rhythmic folk music. There are more than 16 major tribes and many sub-tribes in the State, and each tribe has its own cultural traditions and customs. Now imagine seeing all of them at one place – that’s the Hornbill Festival for you! Organized by Government of Nagaland, Hornbill is one festival where tourists from the world over come together at one place to celebrate the beautiful culture of the Naga tribes. The festival being inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year has drawn a lot of eyeballs towards it, and I’m hoping 2015 will see many more Indian tourists queuing up for Nagaland! The official website of Festival gives options for tourists to choose homestays in the nearby areas, and apply as volunteers, but unfortunately the links don’t seem to work, hope they fix it soon!
What: New Years’ Eve at the Great Rann Where: Rann of Kutch, Gujarat (The Rann Festival) When: 31st December
I’ve never celebrated New Years eve in my entire life because I find the entire concept of bringing in a new year at a party filled with drunk people, very redundant.
But new years’ eve at the White Rann sounds like a still from a dream! The world’s largest salt desert – The Great Rann! This place is under water for a major part of the year, which is what makes visiting it so difficult and hence so yearned. Seeing it on a full moon night should be a great experience, and while one can go visit any time except Indian monsoons, the official Rann Festival organized by the government takes place only between December to March every year. The organizers set up a show for tourists with local artisans market, the night camel safari, musical performances, folk dance etc. Although, the tents here are priced on the higher side for my liking (Around 8k for two nights 3 days for one person, 12k for twin sharing), but I’m ready to save for it! Also, if you can’t go for New Years here, 25th December (Yay Christmas!), 24th Jan and 22nd Feb are the three full moon nights when the Rann is supposed to be magical!
Another Festival I would highly recommend is Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai. Being born and brought up in Mumbai itself, I can’t add these to my own bucket-list, but you totally should!
Lath Maar Holi of Barsana/Nandgaon and Kite Festival of Ahmedabad sound like amazing festivals too, do check them out!
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Setting out to explore the big bad alluring world of travel all alone is never so easy, even more so when you’re a girl (not being a sexist here) I remember how paranoid I was before my first solo trip to Himachal. It has now been more than a year since, and today I don’t have to think twice before lifting my backpack and taking a train to my next destination.
When it comes to travel, you always have a choice of choosing to do it with friends or going solo. I’ve done both and equally enjoyed the experience. While numbers definitely give you safety, traveling solo gives you freedom. You get to choose your own pace, meet new friends more easily, do the things you want to without worrying about whether your friends would agree, and not being tied to a fixed plan that everyone has signed up for.
Having said that, being a solo female traveler also means attracting a lot of unwanted attention, especially if you’re traveling in India. I don’t think Indians are still open to the concept of females traveling alone, and I’ve personally had a few bad experiences of being judged by disapproving Indian tourists. I’ve been chased by eve-teasers in Jaipur, which led to me spending 2 days watching television at my guest house because I wasn’t ready to go out again without company. An American lady I met in McLeod Ganj was groped in a public bus in Himachal, by a man who told her she reminded him of his mother (really!). And if you’re unfortunate enough to be too fair-skinned, don’t be surprised if random people and families come up to you on the streets asking for a photograph.
So I thought I should start my blog by sharing the wisdom that I acquired from other female travelers I met through my travels. Follow this and you should be good for your first solo trip 🙂
Be prepared, be cautious, be alert but don’t let any of this deter you from exploring our beautiful country.
Pack light, pack smart – I can’t emphasize on this enough. Lisa Haydon wasn’t kidding when she made Kangana Ranaut leave her humongous suitcase for a backpack. Nothing ties you down on your travel more than a bag that needs lugging around. This might be the last of the concerns crowding your mind when you’re planning your first solo trip, but trust me it’s the most important. Lugging around a suitcase, even if it’s a strolley, can be a mean task when you’re alone. You will hate that strolley when you find the perfect house right at the foot of the mountain, and now these 100 mountain steps to and fro the place feel like Mt. Everest. Please keep in mind, Indian roads are not strolley friendly, many times not walk-friendly either, and public transport cannot be always relied upon. So carrying a suitcase around can really be difficult at times.
A smartly packed backpack at such times is the best friend you never invited to your trip. Pack in layers, remember you don’t have to carry your entire wardrobe, more important than clothes are essentials like torch/ portable charger/ map/ diary/ portable speaker. Always carry a backup phone with a good battery life for times when your smartphone gives up on you (I use Nokia 105) Don’t forget to keep copies of all important travel documents, in case the originals are stolen or lost.
Go shopping! – For the right things. If you’re headed to a mountain city, shop for the right shoes, if you’re traveling in the winters, shop for the right jacket, always always always invest in the perfect backpack suited for your height and weight (I use one from Stikage) Don’t let your judgment be clouded by fashion statements or brand names. When I traveled to North Sikkim, at freezing temperatures, it was a custom-made cheap leather jacket from Dharavi that helped me survive more than the costlier but more stylish winter collection jacket from Vero Moda. On my first day of sightseeing in McLeod Ganj, I slipped into the waterfall because my Puma shoes didn’t have the right grip suited for the terrain; a 600 shoe from Dharamsala streets came to my rescue for the rest of my trip. Similarly, a good swiss knife (I carry Victorinox), a powerful torch, the strongest portable charger will go a long way in taking a lot of stress off your mind while traveling.
Pre-travel via Google – Read read and read a little more about each and every aspect of the place you’re going to travel to. As a solo female traveler, nothing will make you feel more confident of your decision than a thorough risk assessment. Read up stories of other travelers about local transport, accommodation reviews through TripAdvisor or Airbnb, health conditions through the Indian government health advisory, the political environment, local laws, cultural taboos. A few states in India are out of bounds for certain nationalities for security reasons, visiting places close to the Indo-Pak border need Indian citizens to get special permissions in advance too. It’s always a good idea to be prepared for such situations.
It’s good to have it, but don’t flaunt it! – I’m speaking about your gadgets and expensive accessories. Whether it’s a DSLR or a Laptop or an iPhone, when you’re traveling by public transport, especially when there are chances of you taking a nap, do not put on display what’s in your bag. Also, be alert at all times, lock your bag, keep it between your legs / under your head when you sleep. A friend from China traveling on a bus from Delhi to McLeod Ganj didn’t even realize when her MacBook was stolen from her bag. Lucky for her, the thief didn’t spot the Canon 5D DSLR just below the Macbook! So yes, it’s ok to want that perfect train shot for your blog, but be extra cautious if you’re on an overnight journey or in an overcrowded compartment.
Choose homestays – In my personal experience, couch-surfing (or homestays) has helped me get acclimatized to a new place, as you always have the family to guide you through the initial days when you’re clueless about everything. It is also the best way to learn the culture, manners, try the local cuisine of the place you’re at. And if you’re lucky like I was, you could find a home away from home, a family away from your family, that works as a medication for your initial home-sickness period.
Dress right, drink responsibly – It isn’t even funny when you see girls in shorts and heels on a mountain trek. I’m totally for the freedom to choose what you wear without fear of being judged, but not for anyone else but yourself – please choose your clothes wisely. See the kind of place you’re heading to. See what the culture of the place is like, how the people of the area dress. Traveling is always more pleasurable and convenient when you accept the traditions of the place you’re in, rather than trying to carry your metro culture to it. Similarly, drink responsibly if you’re alone.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to say yes – Transformation is the biggest gift traveling gives you! But this will happen only when you’re open to new experiences. It’s good to be alert while you travel, but there’s a thin line between being cautious and an outright worrying lunatic. Don’t get so paranoid that you forget the main reason why you stepped out alone in the first place. Being a solo female traveler in India can be intimidating, but 9.75 of 10 times chances are you will witness the brighter side and come out smiling after a good day spent with absolute strangers. Don’t be afraid to say yes, it might just turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you!
Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!