The best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji: Monsoon!

One part of India that I had not visited at all in my years of travelling, was the north-eastern states. I finally broke that jinx by visiting Meghalaya, the predominantly tribal state carved out of Assam in the 1970’s. After my wonderful trip to Meghalaya in the height of the rains, I am now convinced that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji, the two most important places to see in Meghalaya. It seemed right to be visiting the wettest place on earth, in the middle of the monsoon season! I’m now a huge fan of Meghalaya’s natural beauty,  and would love to share with you a little information about the places to visit in Shillong and Cherrapunji.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a busy little foothill town with the usual urban paraphernalia of shopping centres, cafes, schools, markets, even traffic jams. However, if you take the time, you will also find charming places of interest in Shillong that will show you what this town might have been like a few years ago before the spread of urbanisation. There are some very pretty churches in town, and a lake called Ward’s Lake where you can go for a stroll. The town also has a few very nice cafes that play great music, and I enjoyed chilling out at some of them. In the military cantonment area, you will also find a pretty waterfall called the Spread Eagle Falls.

Misty hills on the drive from Shillong to Cherrapunji

Outside Shillong, in the midst of nature, is where you will really see the true beauty of Meghalaya. “Meghalaya” means “abode of clouds” in Sanskrit; whoever coined the name must have visited during the monsoon! I found myself enveloped more than once in clouds of mist during the drive from Shillong to Cherrapunji and back. The distance from Shillong to Cherrapunji is only 50km but since it’s a hilly route the drive will take 2.5 to 3 hours one way. It is a really scenic route though, and you will enjoy the drive. Since there are limited options of hotels in Cherrapunji, most visitors cover Cherrapunji sightseeing in a day-trip from Shillong.

Aside from the fact that it was once the district with the highest recorded rainfall in the world (this position is now held by Mawsynram, also nearby), Cherrapunji or Sohra as it called locally, also offers amazing views of nature in all its grace. Places to visit in Cherrapunji include the Wah Kaba Falls, Dainthlen Falls, Eco Park, Nohkalikai Falls and the Seven Sisters Falls. I believe that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji because the highlight of this area – the waterfalls – are at their peak during the rains. The pictures do not do justice to the beauty that I was witness to.

 

Meghalaya also has a large number of limestone and sandstone caves; cavers from all over the world visit in order to explore them. One of the places to visit in Cherrapunji is Mawsmai, which has limestone caves that are open to tourists. The stalactites and stalagmites are indeed imposing to see. The world’s longest sandstone cave has also recently been discovered near here in Mawsynram.

Two other interesting places to see in Meghalaya are Mawlynnong and Dawki. You can either stay overnight at a homestay in Mawlynnong or take a day-trip from Shillong combining both places. Mawlynnong is known as the cleanest village in Asia, and after seeing the place I didn’t really doubt the title. From here you can easily get to the nearby Living Root Bridge in Riwai. Living root bridges are natural bridges found in a few places in Meghalaya and are one of the most important places to see in Cherrapunji and around. Locals would take the roots of Indian Rubber trees, and train and weave them into a mesh. They would then plaster the mesh with mud and stones to form a natural bridge, allowing people to cross over streams. Ingenious idea, and the bridges are still going strong. Be prepared for a hike up and down several steps though!

The Living root bridge near Mawlynnong

Dawki is about 100km from Shillong and you can easily combine a visit here with a Mawlynnong excursion. It offers scenic views of the Umngot river and the India-Bangladesh border. Outside the monsoon season, the river is very popular for boating. It is said that the water here is the clearest you will find anywhere in the country.

At Dawki overlooking Umgnot river and the India-Bangladesh border

 

Getting there:

Flights to Shillong are only available on Air India from Kolkata and tend to be very expensive. Instead, fly to Guwahati. Guwahati to Shillong is an easy 2-3 hour drive; you can either take a shared cab that will cost you around Rs. 300 per person and drop you at Police Bazaar, or hire a private taxi and have the comfort of stopping en route as you wish. I had hired a private cab for the duration of my trip.

Getting around Shillong and Cherrapunji:

Local cabs charge more or less flat fares for Shillong sightseeing and day-trips to Cherrapunji. A private cab would probably cost you Rs 1800-2000 for local sightseeing in Shillong, and Rs 2500-3000 for a day visit to Cherrapunji. Your hotel can also probably arrange transportation for you if you ask in advance.

Hotels in Shillong:

Shillong has hotels to suit nearly all budgets. However, I would recommend that you try and avoid staying in the Police Bazaar area unless you want to be stuck in traffic all day. It would be much better to stay in the Laitumkhrah area, which is what I did. One big plus of being there was that I was within walking distance of the famous Cafe Shillong! If budget allows, go for Ri Kyinjai which is a resort near Umiam lake and is considered one of the best hotels in Shillong. I was, unfortunately, on a more modest budget.

 

Meghalaya is a must-visit destination in India that offers natural beauty, offbeat experiences and an opportunity to get away from the concrete jungle. The people you meet here will, in general, be really warm and friendly, and you will feel welcome wherever you go. I know that I will be going back someday soon! If you’d like to learn more about the state, you should visit the official website of Meghalaya Tourism, it’s extremely detailed and helpful.

Visiting a green hilly destination during the rains makes it feel even more magical. I also believe that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji because unlike summer vacations when everything is over-run with tourists, this time there were relatively fewer crowds. Always a plus as far as I am concerned!

You might also like to read Top 7 Monsoon Getaways In India

 

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Places to visit in Shillong and Cherrapunji during the monsoon#Monsoon in #India is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji to fully appreciate their natural beauty

Hemkuta Hill Hampi

Temples, Coconuts and Ganesha: Hampi in Two Days

History buff that I am, visiting the ancient temples of Hampi had been on my to-do list for quite some time. I recently used a long weekend to make this trip from Delhi to Hampi in two days via Bangalore. If you enjoy history, architecture and nature then you will love Hampi. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in my opinion one of the most underrated places in India. Read on to discover more about the town’s history, the places to visit in Hampi in two days, and the nitty-gritty of planning a trip here.  

Hampi is a small, laid-back sort of town surrounded by paddy fields, coconut trees and banana plantations. The pace of life is much slower than what you’d typically be used to. In that sense, it felt like a mix of Kerala and Goa. There are homestays and small thali-serving “restaurants” everywhere. Coconut sellers place themselves strategically outside the various temple gates, offering them to you when you return from a visit, happy but dehydrated. Coconut water is great for rehydration by the way so drink away. I lost count of the amount of coconut water I got through during my two days in Hampi! 

The historic heart of the town i.e. Hampi Bazaar and its surroundings are considered sacred ground and you will not find any non-vegetarian food or alcohol being served here. To even find an ATM you will have to come out towards Kamalapur. The town survives mostly through income from tourism, as well as the neighbouring industrial belts. It is also a known centre for weaving. Cotton Ilkal saris from Hampi are famous, as are saris and textiles made out of the locally sourced banana-leaf fibre.

 

History of an Ancient Town – Kishkindha to Pampa to Hampi

Hampi derives its name from Pampa, the older name of the Tungabhadra river. The earliest archaeological records found here indicate that Hampi was inhabited by settlers as early as the 1st century AD. It is also believed to have been a part of the Mauryan Empire, and after that ruled by the Chalukyas and the Hoysalas. One can still see some surviving specimens of Hoysala temple architecture here.

The city really came into its own in the medieval times with the rise of the Vijayanagar Empire, the last great Hindu kingdom. The Empire was established in 1336, and Hampi as its capital city grew steadily and flourished as a centre for trade in gems, cotton, spices etc. Hampi was, in the 15th century, the second-largest city in the world (Beijing being the largest) and the richest city in India. It was a thriving metropolis, with a highly developed sense of art, architecture, agriculture and infrastructure. The society was multi-ethnic and multi-religious.

In the latter half of the 16th century, the Kingdom fell to the Deccan Sultans, and Hampi was destroyed, pillaged, and then abandoned. Today the ruins of Hampi consist of nearly 1600 monuments, are spread over an area of over 30 sq. km. Anybody who has seen the temples of Angkor Wat would be struck by the similarity in the layouts of the various groups of temples.

There is another mythological aspect to Hampi as well. It is believed that Hampi is, in fact, the Kishkindha kingdom mentioned in the Ramayana, where Rama and Laxmana met Sugreeva and Hanuman and stayed for some time before leaving for Lanka. In fact, Anegundi, located across the river from Hampi, has a Hanuman temple as well as a hill called Anjaneya Parvat where Hanuman is supposed to have been born.

Bali Sugreeva battle Hampi
Sculpture from a carved pillar showing the battle between Monkey Kings Bali and Sugreeva in Kishkindha

Places to see in Hampi

The ruins of Hampi are clustered into groups; the two main groups are – the temples and sacred monuments around the Hampi Bazaar and the royal enclosure near Kamalapur. The Vijay Vitthal temple stands in solitary grandeur about 2km away from the Hampi Bazaar. There are also various hilltops around Hampi with ruins scattered across.

If you have four or five days, you can visit every monument in detail and cover everything easily. However, given that most people only stay in Hampi for two or three days, I’m giving below a list of the most important places to visit in Hampi in two days.

 

Places to Visit in Hampi in Two Days

  1. Virupaksha Temple

This is one of the most important temples in the area and the only living temple. As you walk up the road to the temple, you will notice roofless stone pavilions along the entire side of the road. These are remains of the lively bazaar that used to exist outside this temple in the 15th century. The temple is dedicated to Virupaksha, a form of Shiva and the patron deity of the Vijayanagar Empire. The original temple was constructed in the 7th century i.e. much before the Vijayanagar kingdom came about. Time your visit to this temple for the early morning to avoid crowds. Also, if you visit in the morning you might get to watch an elephant getting a morning bath at the adjoining river-ghat.

 

Approaching the Virupaksha Temple from Hampi Bazaar
Approach to Virupaksha Temple

 

  1. Sasivekalu Ganesha

This is a monolithic statue of Ganesha, about 8 feet high. Walk around and look at it from the back, and you will see that the sculptor has tried to show Ganesha sitting in Parvati’s lap. “Sasivekalu” in Kannada apparently means mustard and the statue has been thus named because of the similarity of its belly to a mustard seed. Or so I was informed.

 

  1. Kadalekalu Ganesha

Located just a couple of minutes’ walk from the earlier Ganesha, this monolithic statue of Ganesha was damaged by the invaders. At 15 feet tall, it’s one of the tallest Ganesha statues I’ve ever seen. Its location is really great, a pillared porch on a rocky outcrop surrounded by hills. Quite scenic.

Kadlekalu Ganesha or Bengal Gram Ganesha statue in Hampi

 

  1. Laxmi Narasimha

Narasimha is considered an incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu. Laxmi Narasimha as seen in Hampi is also sometimes called Ugra (angry) Narasimha due to the statue’s facial expressions. There was originally a Laxmi statue present in Narasimha’s lap, but this was damaged during the invasion of Hampi. What remains is the Narasimha statue and just the hand of Lakshmi. This statue is the largest of all statues in Hampi.

 

The Laxmi Narasimha statue is the tallest statue in Hampi
Entering the Laxmi Narasimha Temple

 

  1. Badaviling Temple

Located just next to the Laxmi Narasimha, this is a 3-metre high Shivling, carved out of a single piece of rock. It is believed that it was made by a poor woman seeking to please the deity.

  1. Underground Shiva Temple

This Shiva temple was until recently partially under water. It is still getting excavated and cleaned up by the ASI but is worth a look if you visit.

  1. The Royal Enclosure

This was the heart of the daily life of the royal inhabitants of Hampi. The Royal Enclosure contained living quarters, water tanks, stables, durbar halls etc.

Elephant Stables – This is a set of 11 stables for the King’s favourite 11 elephants.

Lotus Mahal – This beautiful medley of Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture was a part of the Zenana complex, and used as a venue for recreation and meetings. It reminded me of structures I had seen at Fatehpur Sikri in Agra.

Hazara Rama Temple – This Rama temple was the only temple within the Royal Enclosure and was the location for all ceremonial rituals of the royal family. The bas-reliefs on its walls depict scenes from the Ramayana – and instantly reminded me of the bas-reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat.

Mahanavmi Dibba – This 8m high platform probably exists in the same shape as it was made all those years ago. The King used to watch the Navami celebrations from here.

Queen’s Bath – This was an enclosed pool surrounded by corridors. The queen and her ladies used to go here for bathing and relaxation.

The Elephant Stables in the Royal Enclosures at Hampi
The Elephant Stables inside the Royal Enclosure

 

     8. Vijay Vitthal Temple

The Vitthal temple is as significant and well-known among the Hampi temples as is the Virupaksha temple. Avoid going here in the afternoon – visit early in the morning or in the evening. There is a dirt road about one km long that needs to be covered either on foot or by the shuttle bus, for which demand usually outruns supply. Vitthal temple is a Vishnu temple, and the highlights of this temple are the detailed carving, the various musical pillars (it is now forbidden to play music on these pillars to avoid damaging them further) and the huge stone chariot that is so intricately carved that it almost looks monolithic.

The Vijay Vitthal temple is one of the two most important temples in Hampi
The famous stone chariot of the Vijay Vitthal temple

9. Hemkuta Hill

Hemkuta Hill near the Sasivekalu Ganesha is a famous sunset point in Hampi. I had read about it and decided to give it a shot. It was a wonderful experience and I would recommend the sunset here to anybody. Get here at least half an hour before sunset to get a good place to sit, since it’s a very nice and peaceful place to relax. You get some amazing views of the surrounding hills. It’s a large enough hilltop to allow for a large number of people to gather without getting into each other’s space which is great.  

 

Other things to do in Hampi

Rock climbing: The rocky landscape with huge boulders attracts droves of rock climbing and bouldering aficionados to Hampi, with November and December being the peak period for this activity.

Wildlife watching: You can visit the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, the only such sanctuary for sloth bears in India. It is located just 15km away from Hampi.

Visit the Tungabhadra dam: Located just outside Hospet, this is the largest dam in Karnataka. There is a lighthouse here which offers great views of the surroundings. There is also a garden with a musical fountain, somewhat popular with visitors in the evenings.

Coracle ride: You can cross the Tungabhadra river by coracle (a traditional round boat) that are still used in Hampi to this today. Look for these near the Virupaksha temple ghats.

ASI Museum: This museum in Kamalapur houses the artefacts found during excavations here, and also explains Hampi’s history in detail. The museum remains closed on Mondays and public holidays.

Tungabhadra river at Hampi
Tungabhadra river and Hampi’s classic boulder-strewn landscape

 

How to reach Hampi

By train: The closest railway station is Hospet, a town located within 30 minutes’ driving distance from Hampi. If you take the overnight train Hampi Express from Bangalore (Bengaluru), this is where you will arrive. From Hospet, you can easily get to Hampi by local bus or by autorickshaw.

By bus: Hospet has bus connectivity with cities like Bangalore and Mysore. From here you can continue to Hampi by local buses or autorickshaws.

By air: Till March 2018, the closest airport for Hampi used to be Bangalore which is a drive of about six hours. Luckily, since then Trujet has introduced a Bangalore to Vidyanagar flight connection. The new airport at Vidyanagar (Bellary) is just about an hour’s drive from Hampi.  

By car: If you wish to drive yourself, you can also bring your own vehicle as the roads, for the most part, are in decent condition, except for a few bits in between. Take the route via Bellary. Hampi being a popular weekend destination, quite a few people drive down from Bangalore, Hyderabad, Goa and so on.

 

Where to stay in Hampi

Hampi has accommodation to suit all budgets and requirements. The local administration has recently shut down most homestays and guesthouses in the Hampi Bazaar area, so check before booking. Kamalapur in southern Hampi is not a bad place to stay. It’s not much in terms of ambience, but the location is great. It’s where the bus-stand and ASI Museum are. It also offers close access to the Royal Enclosure side of the ruins.  The hotel I stayed at (Clarks Inn) was more than satisfactory.

 

Best time to visit Hampi

Being located in southern India and in an extremely rocky terrain, Hampi has a dry and warm climate. Summers can be quite unbearable, so avoid visiting between April and July. If you are making a long and lazy trip and don’t mind a bit of rain, monsoon would be ideal. If a quick weekend is what you have in mind, then the cooler months of November to February are good.

 

Getting around Hampi

If you haven’t brought your own wheels, then you have quite a few options when it comes to local transportation. You could walk of course, but I would not recommend this. The Hampi ruins are spread over rather a large area and the hot weather can really sap your energy. If the weather and your fitness levels allow, you may hire bicycles from your hotel or one of the local bike-hire outfits. Some places also rent out scooters and motorcycles, but be careful to check that it’s a legit setup. The bike you hire must have a commercial licence plate or you may get into trouble with the police.

By far the most common and ubiquitous way of transport within Hampi is the autorickshaw. They are everywhere.  Drivers will usually negotiate a flat per-day rate with you to take you around the temples of Hampi. However, they are not guides, so if you want a guide in addition, that will cost you extra. If you prefer a hired car and driver, most Hampi hotels and guesthouses can arrange this as well.

 

Overlooking Virupaksha Temple from Hemkuta Hill at sundown in Hampi
Overlooking Virupaksha Temple from Hemkuta Hill at sundown

 

I’ve seen a lot of temples in India and found Hampi to be really unique. The ruins and their stories are fascinating, and the quality of workmanship in the sculptures is outstanding. I do wish the local administration would focus on infrastructure development here. Given proper maintenance, better roads, shuttle buses, trained guides, etc., Hampi can easily be India’s Angkor Wat. In fact, I didn’t get enough of Hampi in two days and know that I will be back soon enough. 

 

Have you ever visited Hampi? What was your favourite part of the trip? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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Two Traveling Texans

#Travel tips on what to see and do in two days in #Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Bangalore in southern India

Isle of Skye offers scenic views

Travelogue: Day-Trip to the Isle of Skye

I had posted a little while ago about my trip to the Scottish Highlands and promised another post about the second part of the trip, my day-trip to the Isle of Skye. Here it is!

Driving across the Skye Bridge, we took a long day-trip to the Isle of Skye from our base in Stromeferry. We spent the entire day exploring different parts around Skye. The beauty of this island cannot be described in words, and even the pictures don’t really do it justice. I fell in love with this part of the world on that day. I still count the Isle of Skye amongst one of my favourite places in the world. Maybe someday I will revisit and explore it in greater detail.

Cuilin peaks on Skye

On this trip around the Isle of Skye we stopped to see the Cuillin Mountains; Portree which is the main town of Skye and rather quaint and lovely; the “Old Man of Storr” rock, etc. We spent an hour relaxing and admiring the views in Glenshiel (Fairy Glen). As per legends, this is the point where our world and that of the fairies meet. It did feel magical and beautiful high up there (I had climbed up to the top of the rock described as the fairy fort).

Old Man of Storr (L), Kilt Rock (R)

Tip: If you wish to pick up travel souvenirs or gifts while in Skye, try out the shops in Portree. You can buy interesting stoneware, pottery, trinkets and jewellery, things incorporating the local products like heather, and so on.

 

After passing Uig and catching some stunning sea views, we stopped at an unmarked point surrounded by cliffs and cliffside paths. Our guide took us on a walk along a trail which was, in hindsight, probably not the best idea for me with my propensity for accidents. However, the views at the end of the trail did make up for the nervous moments.

We ended the day with a visit to the Kilt Rock and its waterfall. From here, on a clear day, you can see right across the sea to the islands of Raasay and Rona. We were told that we were very lucky to have this view, since there are very few days with such good visibility here.

 

I was really tired by the time we drove back to Stromeferry. But this day-trip to the Isle of Skye was probably the most beautiful part of my days in Scotland. Just thinking about it now makes me want to go back!

The next morning we left Stromeferry and drove to Inverness, crossing the Glenelg Scenic Way. I was finally getting to visit Nessie!! Loch Ness is a huge, and I mean huge, expanse of water –  25 miles long, 1 mile wide, over 700 feet deep. Interestingly it’s a mix of salt and fresh water – salt water stays at the bottom and fresh water on top, with some kind of geothermal layer acting as a barrier. Not sure of the technicalities but interesting fact anyway. I looked around for Nessie but maybe she was sleeping in, it was a Sunday morning after all! It was grey and foggy and rather cold so we took some pictures, I picked up some pebbles that I’d promised to get for my sister, and then we drove on.

Loch Ness on a grey day

I’d been lucky with the weather so far; in all my time in Scotland there hadn’t been a drop of rain and I’d seen some glorious sunny days. Today that changed and the day was dark, gloomy, and windy with bouts of rain every now and then. Apparently, this is more what Scottish weather is supposed to be.

From Inverness, we went on to visit the Culloden battle site. This was a flat patch of moor where the Jacobites led by Bonnie Prince Charles fought a final battle against a much larger English army under the Duke of Cumberland in the mid 18th century. It was literally a massacre, over in less than an hour’s time for the most part. No prisoners were to be taken, so all survivors including the women and children were killed. Once the battle was over, the Duke set two trained butchers on the field to ensure that none of the dead would be recognisable in any way. As a result, all that marks the dead of this battle is one big common cairn in the middle. There are also numerous small stones scattered around, each bearing the name of a clan that fought and died here. It was a very sad place.

Culloden moor

At Culloden, I took a coffee break because I found myself really affected by the whole story of the battle and the brave Highlanders. In time we all got back, and soon a short drive brought us to Clava Cairns, a prehistoric burial site 3000 to 5000 years old. It is the best preserved Bronze Age burial site in Scotland. The cairns of stacked stones were constructed in such a way that on a solstice day the light of the sun would hit the inside wall of the cairn. Nobody knows exactly why the cairns were built, but it is supposed that they came up gradually over many years.

Clava Cairns

From Clava Cairns, we drove to a tiny little town called Aviemore, which is mostly a base for people going trekking/skiing/hiking in the mountains. Practically half the town was built around the one High Street. I will remember Aviemore for the awesome hot chocolate I had here!

Leaving Aviemore we went past Blair Atholl castle (the place after which the original Scottish owners had named what is now Wallwood Garden in Coonoor, India) to Pitlochry, a slightly bigger town. It was raining much too hard to look around though, and we continued in the driving rain towards Edinburgh.  At the Mile I said goodbye to the others and left for the bus station with two of the American girls from the group, as all three of us were taking the same night bus back to London.

Midnight saw me bringing in my birthday in a National Express Coach somewhere on the highway to London!!

Visiting the scenic Isle of Skye in Scotland covering places like Portree, Old Man of Storr, Glenshiel, Kilt Rock etc.

 

Two Traveling Texans

Travelogue: My Visit to the Scottish Highlands

One of my most memorable trips so far was the trip I took from Edinburgh to the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. Even though it was a while ago, all I need to do is to close my eyes and remember, and I get transported to a happy place! I’ve decided to share my memories of that trip in two successive posts, starting today.

My great Scottish Highlands adventure started on a sunny June morning from Edinburgh, where I had already spent a few days exploring the city. I was travelling solo for the first time, didn’t know how to drive and wanted a cheap way to explore the Isle of Skye. Therefore, I had booked a three-day backpackers’ coach tour out of Edinburgh. There was a motley group of travellers on this tour – a mother and daughter from France, a couple from Argentina, female students from the US, a handful of Germans, two Russian brothers (one of them a Daniel Craig lookalike), a student from Taiwan, and me bringing in the Indian angle!

We left Edinburgh and drove out into the countryside towards the Highlands. A drive of about 90 minutes brought us to Bannockburn, the site of the famous 14th-century battle where Robert the Bruce had defeated the British. It was here that I realised that the movie “Braveheart” was not really as factually correct as I’d imagined it to be. Leaving Bannockburn we drove further west passing Stirling, with a brief halt to see Doune castle. We stopped for lunch at Callender, a small town with picture-book houses and pretty lanes lined with tiny cafes and shops. A single Main Street runs through the town, with most of the town businesses located on this street. I had a really delicious mint ice cream from one of the small shops here.

Just a little ahead of Callender we visited a personage called Hamish. Hamish is a Highland Cow (Hairy Coo!!) and something of a minor celebrity. Tourists flock to see this long-haired cow, feed him and take pictures of him. Everywhere we went in the Scottish Highlands, you couldn’t miss the souvenirs related to this animal. The Highland cow is a local VIP and an industry in itself!

As we drove further up into the Highlands I had my first glimpse of a Scottish Loch. We stopped at the rather beautiful Loch Lubnaig to stretch our legs and take some pictures of the spectacular scenery. Further up we stopped to see Glencoe, the valley (glen) where British troops had massacred the entire Macdonald clan. It seemed hard to associate this beautiful, peaceful place with so much bloodshed. Glencoe, by the way, is also where the set for Hagrid’s house was set up, for the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

 

After Glencoe we drove on past long lake-shores (Loch Leven, freshwater, and Loch Lhinne, saltwater) to reach the midsized town of Fort William. It is the second largest town in the Scottish Highlands. This area is also the beginning of the 100km long Caledonian Canal, which links Scotland’s two sea-coasts along with the Lochs Lhinne, Lochy, Oich and Ness. The town is the starting base for treks and hikes up to the Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles. We passed the Ben and then went up past the Commando Memorial. This is where a British Commando unit was set up and trained during the Second World War.

Our last stop for the day was the Eileen Donan castle. I recognised this as the castle from the Patrick Dempsey movie Made of Honour. Unfortunately the light was failing and I couldn’t get a good picture here. The current castle is actually just about 90 years old. The original castle was used to store gunpowder during the Jacobite rebellions and ended up getting blown up by British cannon-fire.

We finally reached Stromeferry (population seventeen) at around 7.30 pm after a long day. We were staying at a lake-side house called the Stationmaster’s House, a small B&B. It had bunk beds and hot showers and was quite comfortable. After dinner was done and we had all helped to clear and wash up, everybody scattered to do their own thing – showers, naps, walks. I took the opportunity to go for a short walk around the incredibly quiet and scenic lake-side.

Stromeferry where we stayed while visiting the Scottish Islands and Isle of Skye

 

I got back to find that the ice had been broken; the group was playing card games and talking about themselves. I think everybody was a little surprised to see a female solo traveller from India. We were a rare breed then, not that there are tons of us around even now. (You can read some more of my posts on solo travel here)

Over the next two days we covered Skye and Inverness. You can read about that part of my Scottish Highlands trip in this post  🙂

A typical sight from a visit to the Scottish Highlands

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A visit to the Scottish Highlands including Callender, Glencoe, Fort William and scenic Lochs

 

Two Traveling Texans

 

Photo Challenge: Transformation in Ladakh

This is my first attempt at participating in one of the WordPress challenges I have been following lately. The subject of this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge is transformation.

This picture is of Pangong Tso, the most famous lake in the Ladakh region of India, popularised even more after it was used as a shoot location for a hit Bollywood movie.

In summer, the tourist season for Ladakh, the lake is known for its beautiful blue-green waters that keep changing in hue, depending on the time of the day and cloud cover. It is an incredibly beautiful lake, and offers gorgeous shots of sunrise and sunset amidst the surrounding mountains.

Fewer people have been lucky enough to see the transformation of this blue water to a frozen sheet of ice. Unlike the usual Pangong images, this picture shows the lake in its fully frozen state. The lake freezes over during winter and you can easily drive a car over the frozen waters to the other side. I shot the picture in late Feb, on a day when the temperature at Pangong was an incredible -30 degrees Centigrade. Apart from the four of us, there wasn’t another soul around except for a military post some distance away. Walking on the frozen lake was an awesome experience, although the ice was so slippery that it was less of walking and more a combination of sliding, falling and stumbling, much to the enjoyment of my companions.

Someday, I hope to revisit Pangong in winter. Till then, pictures keep the memories alive.

via Photo Challenge: Transformation

Rediscovering spirituality in Orchha

“Photo? Take my photo?” he says, walking after us as we stroll towards the bridge on the Betwa. I oblige, and the sadhu baba gives me a beatific smile. I wonder if money is now expected, realise I’m not carrying any cash to give him and say something to that effect. He smiles and says, “Beta I will never ask you for that.” I feel ashamed to have suggested it.

This small town has more than its share of saffron-clad men and women, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise because this is after all basically a temple town. Jhansi, the closest big city, is a mere 25 minute drive away – but the difference is dramatic. Orchha is small and still retains the innocence of a place untouched by the hectic nature of modern life. Oh sure you have the Tata Sky dishes and motorbikes and even – so I hear – a local radio station. The market has signboards advertising Italian cuisine, B&B’s and shops selling kitschy souvenirs. But the pace of life here is slower, gentler. The locals in the market all seem to know each other. Life revolves around the temples and the daily aartis. Nobody hurries, nobody has deadlines. Nearly everybody has a smile on the face.

A group of young boys watches as Christine and I walk across the bridge, get some shots of the Chattris , and walk back – just about managing to escape being pushed into the river by a truck that has rumbled too close past us. When we reach them, one of the boys shyly asks if we’d like to share a soft drink. We smilingly refuse and continue on our way.

Orchha is a medieval town, established in the early 16th century by a Bundela king . The palaces and temples of Orchha are reason enough to visit, especially if you are a history buff like me. The fort here has a number of palaces built during various periods of its history; Jahangir Mahal for example was built as a welcome gift for the Mughal emperor Jahangir when he visited. There is also a Sound and Light show held here every evening which acts as a good introduction to the history of the town, though a touch melodramatic.

There are many famous temples in Orchha but to me perhaps the best sight here were the cenotaphs (Chattris) standing in a row like brooding sentinels; these riverside memorials to former rulers are now in ruins and still starkly beautiful. I stand and watch the sun disappear behind them.

Cenotaphs (Chhattris) at Orchha
Cenotaphs (Chhattris) at Orchha

At night, the stars come out. Standing by the river I look up and try to identify constellations. I think I see Orion. I know for sure that it’s been a long time since I saw so many stars in the night sky. The night is quiet, peaceful and I could well be all alone – except for the half-full hotel just behind me.

We decide to attend morning Aarti before leaving Orchha. The Ram Raja temple is the only temple of its kind – Ram is worshipped here not as a deity but as a king. In deference to his royal status, a pair of cannons is posted at the entrance of the temple. Sentries are on guard duty outside and inside. We go in, a few minutes before the morning Aarti is to begin. The temple courtyard is full mostly of locals, who from the looks of it seem to be regulars here. There are of course also a few gawking tourists like us. I have a vague sense of unease, feeling like an intruder – I never visit temples if I can help it – but I soon start feeling better.  Finally the sanctum doors are opened and the Aarti begins; the devotional song being sung is one that I’ve never heard before, but the entire congregation seems to know it well. They sing loudly, un-selfconsciously, with all their hearts. A mother picks up her toddler son to allow the priest to touch his forehead in blessing. An old man is getting a wedding card blessed by Ram Raja. The hymn goes on, soothing yet cheering. I look around. I feel tears running down my face that I can’t stop. And finally, after years of declaring I don’t believe in prayers, I find myself saying one….

(Written in 2011 and published on an earlier blog. Migrated here now)

Remembering my first solo trip: Scotland – Part One!

I love travelling solo. Why, you might ask. I have listed a few reasons here. This post though is about my first solo trip, which happened in the summer of 2010. I travelled to London, stayed with a friend for a couple of days and then took a week’s trip (alone) to Scotland. It turned out to be one of my most memorable trips ever.

How it began

Early on a June morning I took the morning train out of King’s Cross to Edinburgh. The journey takes about 4 hours, and the trains are very comfortable. The train was also a great way to see more of the countryside, which was truly beautiful. I realised that all the cliches I’d read about were true: rolling meadows, cows in peaceful pastures, picture-book cottages and houses with sloping shingled roofs.

Finally getting to Scotland was both exciting and scary. I didn’t know a single soul there, had never travelled alone this far from home, and had no idea what lay in store. So yeah, there were definitely some butterflies in my tummy as the train pulled into Waverley station. It was overcast and a drizzle started up almost immediately; luckily the hostel I had booked was just a 5 minute walk away.

Edinburgh the Medieval Beauty

My first evening in Edinburgh was also the day I fell in love with the city. Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town and the 18th century mostly Georgian New town are both World Heritage Sites, and one can spend days just exploring them. I stayed in the city for three days here and spent hours just walking everywhere.

On this first evening I was still too jet-lagged to do much, so I just took an exploratory walk up the Royal Mile.  The Royal Mile is a cobblestoned street connecting the Castle with the Holyrood Palace. It actually measures about a 100 yards more than a mile. The part of it closest to the castle is where you will find most of the souvenir shops, restaurants, T shirt sellers, and all the usual suspects. But it is still an interesting walk, with medieval buildings on both sides and dozens of narrow alleys (called Wynds or Closes) leading off from it. Go down any of these wynds and you never know what you might find. A part of the Mile is pedestrian-only.

Edinburgh solo trip image
Edinburgh – The National Gallery in the foreground

I also walked across Waverley bridge to the New Town side of things, and took a look at the Monument, the Royal Academy, the adjacent National Gallery, the Mound etc. Old Town and New Town used to be divided by the Nor Loch – the town’s water supply/sewage dump. This was eventually drained and converted into a beautiful green area called the Princes Street Gardens. It’s a great place to sit and people-watch. You also get great views of the Castle, and some decent ice cream!

By the time I finished my walk it was around 8pm, and it was still bright and sunny. To somebody used to night setting in by 7-7.30 pm in summer, it was strange at first to see dusk extending as late as 10pm here. It was a little disorienting, especially since all shops and cafes shut by 6pm.

My first day in Scotland turned out great. I managed the train connections safely, found myself in a beautiful city, and made friends with my hostel roommates, Amanda and Melissa. After three days exploring Edinburgh I continued into the Highlands and Skye. More on that, later! In the meantime, if you are planning to visit Edinburgh anytime soon, do check out this list of top things to do.

Getting there: Edinburgh is well connected by flight, train and National Express coach services