Tuesday, 12 September 2017

My Favourite 'Chai' Experiences In India

A cup of Chai in India holds a lot. There’s definitely more to a cup of tea than its aroma and taste. Tea is a kind of necessity. It’s an emotion, an expression…a medley of thoughts. A cup of Chai in India is an excuse to celebrate so many little things – the rains, the morning newspaper, the late-night chitchats, the train journeys, the much-loved friends, the not-so-loved guests at home…and so much more.

Chai has been a significant part of my travels, too. Although I can live without tea at home, I crave for a good cup of tea while I’m travelling. There’s something about Chai that enhances the joy of your experiences. But, do you get good tea everywhere? Umm… Not really. While tea is so important in Indian living, it’s not so easy to find a real good cup of tea. There’s this extra sweet, over-boiled tea that you get anywhere and everywhere in India. Well, that’s not my cup of tea.

The tea that I’m talking about is the real good tea. The tea that refreshes, delights and makes you happy.

Before I talk about my favourite Chai experiences in India, I’d like to mention what inspired me to write this post – it’s this beautiful post by travel blogger, Candace Rose Rardon “Home is a Cup of Tea”, which made me think about my tea experiences in India. Candace has weaved an exquisite post on tea, which also showcases her brilliant sketches.

So, let me share the stories of my best ‘tea’ experiences in India. One cup at a time –

Kashmir, one of the dream places I have been to, serves good tea all the time. Yes, it’s not just about one or two instances. But, I had good tea throughout my stay in Kashmir. And, I had quite a variety of Chai experiences – homemade tea, restaurant tea, small tea-shop tea and tea in a village home.

Kashmiris are known to have Nun Chai, which is salty in taste. I won’t say that it gives you that Chai ka maza (tea flavour), but you can enjoy it like a soup. Another tea Kashmiris have is Kahwah, which is the tea without milk. It’s prepared with dry fruits and whole spices like cardamom and cinnamon. The usual milk tea is called ‘Lipton’ in Kashmir, which is zaikedar (flavourful).

I had always dreamt of having tea straight from a Darjeeling tea estate. So, when I stayed at a tea resort in Darjeeling, enjoying an aromatic, flavourful tea was a foregone conclusion. A typical Darjeeling tea is the black tea, which is savoured without sugar. Well, I used to add sugar to my tea, but the locals told me to have it without sugar for better flavour. 

A Darjeeling tea has three distinctive features – the aroma, the colour and the taste. It’s simple and it’s delicious. The locals also add a few whole spices to their tea, such as bay leaves, cloves, etc. I loved my cup of Chai so much in Darjeeling that I got a couple of packets for home as well.

My most unusual tea experience was brewing my tea myself in a home stay. As I mentioned that they usually make black tea, so when they add milk in it, the tea gets spoiled. One morning, I requested my hosts to let me brew my tea myself, the way I like it. The experience of brewing tea in a traditional ‘Darjeeling’ kitchen was really fun.

Chail & Kasauli
I guess the whole of Himachal serves good tea, but I loved Chai particularly in Chail and Kasauli. I enjoyed tea at Chail Palace, a heritage Hotel and at the Ros Common, a colonial bungalow in Kasauli. These places hold a very special place in my heart, because I started travelling with such little hill stations of Himachal.

The Chais I had in Chail and Kasauli were nothing special in terms of the ingredients used or the method of making. They were just delicious. The quantity of sugar, milk and tea was perfect. But, the best part was the homeyness that came with those cups of chai.

Mountains and Chai make a great combination. Isn’t it?  

Ooty is also known for its tea gardens, which makes the experience of tasting some great tea quite obvious. But, there’s more to it. Besides loving my chai in Ooty, I also loved the way they made it. There’s a distinctive way of brewing and filtering tea in Ooty. You can stop at any small tea and snack shop and you will discover a particular way of making chai, which is interesting to watch.

So yes, Ooty is also a great Chai destination. Fortunately, I enjoyed the Ooty Chai in the rains, which is just so amazing.  

Arunachal Pradesh
I will always remember my cup of chai at my home stay in Dirang Valley. The lady of the house used to brew fabulous black tea. She used to add cardamom and cloves in it, which made the tea taste so nice. I even bought the tea that she used, but I have realised that even if you bring the same tea home, it doesn’t really taste the same. I guess it loses its authenticity in a different environment.

So, that was my ‘tea’ journey through India. Some other places that I have hazy memories of good tea are Mussoorie, Nainital, and Shimla. I guess hill stations really know the knack of brewing good tea.

What about you? Do you like chai? Where have you had your most favourite tea?

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Thursday, 7 September 2017

The Abrupt End Of My Ladakh Trip

Ladakh still remains elusive for me. I have been chasing Ladakh for the last two years. I feel I have developed a kind of love-hate relationship with the most reclusive mountains in the world. Although I’m intrigued by the divine beauty of Ladakh, I also have a kind of resentment for not being able to explore Ladakh till date, after so many attempts.

My original plan was to visit Ladakh along with Kashmir in the summer of 2015. I wanted to do that Srinagar-Kargil-Leh road trip. But, that didn’t work out for me, so I did just Kashmir. Later, I tried going to Ladakh again in October, 2015. I had booked my tickets, too. But, I had to cancel that trip as well, due to personal reasons.

Well…I CAN’T BELIEVE I could savour only the first flush of astonishment while landing in Leh. My dream of exploring Ladakh still remains a dream.

It was supposed to be a 15 day solo trip – perhaps an ideal way to explore Ladakh. It was long-due and much-awaited. I wanted to challenge myself as a photographer, and as a traveller. I wanted to experience Ladakh quintessentially.

BUT, Ladakh still remains a dream for me.

My journey in Ladakh could last for only two days…

I had to cease my trip in Leh due to illness and return home. Of course, I didn’t give up so easily. I still wanted to continue the trip despite my bad health. But, I guess you can’t control things beyond a point. I was in such a bad shape that I didn’t think it was wise to go beyond Leh with an unfit body.

Yes, I’m deeply disappointed for not been able to do Ladakh even the third time. I know that I can plan another trip anytime in the future, but I’m still deeply saddened for now.

So, what’s my state of mind right now beyond the obvious disappointment?

As a traveller, I have learnt a few things with this experience. I really want to hold that quote close to my heart that says, “I wish I had never gone travelling… said no one ever.” So yes, there are no regrets when you look at a situation from a traveller’s perspective. Each travel experience, whether good or bad, has something to teach.

Travel is unpredictable.
My two-day sojourn in Leh reconfirmed my belief that travel is unpredictable. There’s nothing that you can really rely on. No matter how good your research and planning are, you can’t predict ‘unpredictability’. So, the good idea is to take the unpredictability in your stride and enjoy it.

Adventures can wait. Health comes first.
We all know that Ladakh is a demanding destination. It’s a place where you need time to acclimatize your body according to the high altitude. Falling sick in Ladakh is not unusual. I also fell sick and couldn’t continue with my journey. There are two things one can do to avoid falling sick in Ladakh – one, travel by road to acclimatize slowly with the high altitude; two, take necessary medication before your trip starts. 

Even a ‘short and strange’ stay in a new place is an experience.
Perhaps this ‘illness’ trip in Leh is going to remain one of my most remarkable travel memories. I stayed at Lassu Residency. It’s a lovely home stay near Shanti Stupa. I chose this place because I wanted to stay in the midst of nature and not in the chaos of the main market. And, I can safely say that Lassu Residency was a perfect choice for a peaceful stay in Leh. I enjoyed looking out the window – the enchanting brown mountains, snow-capped peaks in the far distance, a stream flowing by the home stay and traditionally-dressed locals passing by. It was all so beautiful.

Falling sick can be a great way to connect with the locals.
It may sound funny, but illness can be a great excuse to connect with the locals of a place. I had a similar experience in Yuksom (Sikkim) where I had fallen sick for a couple of days. Fortunately, my condition was not as bad as it was in Leh, and thus, I could recover fast and continue with my journey. I am reminiscing about my Yuksom trip because even there I got a chance to have a closer brush with the hospitality of the locals.

My hosts at Lassu Residency took good care of me while I was sick in Leh. I really appreciate their gesture of feeding me with comforting food so that I could recover soon. I’m also grateful to them for escorting me to the airport when I decided to return home.

Travel is definitely beyond the usual notion.
The abrupt end of my Ladakh trip taught me that travel is about so much more than you can ever perceive. Travel is also about failures. It’s also about your lows. You don’t always get things to brag about. You don’t always have stunning photos to share.

Yes, it’s going to hurt me that I could not go beyond Leh due to my illness, but I know for sure that Ladakh has some exclusive experiences in store for me whenever I make a revisit.

Ah! What should I say? Looking forward to many Ladakhs…

HAVE YOU ever had to chase a destination till you really got there to enjoy it?   
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Thursday, 31 August 2017

My ‘Unexpected’ Sojourn In Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia was never on my bucket-list. But, a misadventure intrigued me to explore this vibrant country. Such is travel. So yes, I happened to visit Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. It was barely a two hour layover at Malaysia Airport before my flight to Melbourne. I was obviously excited, and wanted to reach Australia as soon as possible.

At Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

The horror of missing my flight
However, my two hour layover turned into a 10 hour layover. I missed my flight to Melbourne. I was petrified the moment I came to know that my flight had departed. Well, the only option that I was left with was the next flight, which was late in the night. Exasperated with the fact that I had to stay at the airport for 8-10 hours, I consoled myself with a chocolate pastry. I had no inclination to obtain the visa and exit the airport. So, I just sat in a corner nibbling on my chocolate pastry, and flipping through my passport pages. To my joy, I discovered that the customs officer had granted me a three-day transit visa to enter Malaysia. I was thrilled to bits.

Now the next thing I did was called up a friend who lived in Kuala Lumpur. He came to the airport to pick me up. Ah! Setting foot in a new country unexpectedly was such a lovely experience.

My transit in Malaysia

My first impressions of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

It’s green and refreshing
Kuala Lumpur is beautiful. I loved my train journey from the airport to the city. I passed by many scenic sights. The outskirts of KL look quite lush. And, the air is clean and refreshing. To be honest, I didn’t expect KL to have any natural beauty. I thought it would be all about skyscrapers. But, I was quite surprised to see some lushness in the landscapes.

Lively shops and streets

The atmosphere is quite relaxed
Kuala Lumpur seems to be a chilled out city. Although the scintillating skyscrapers give an impression of a cutting-edge city, the locals seem to be relaxed. It looks like a liveable city with good transport, great shopping and eating options.

Nice restaurants and cafes

The city looks clean and sophisticated
I was so pleased to find KL clean and sophisticated. The roads, the transport system, the shops, the eating places and the locals of KL make it a pleasant city. Also, it’s quite fun to walk the streets.

KL has the colours of India
I really liked the ‘life’ in Kuala Lumpur – the shops and restaurants have the kind of buzz that I’m used to in India. The sights and sounds are so interesting. The colours are vivid. I felt KL has the ‘colourful’ soul of Asian countries and the sophistication of European and other western countries. 
The evenings are beautiful
I particularly liked the way everything lights up towards the evenings in KL. The buildings, malls and all the public spaces glitter after sunset, which adds a touch of festivity in the air.

Well, this was a real short stay in Malaysia. But, I’m definitely eager to explore more of KL and Malaysia – the beaches, the hills and the countryside. So, I guess the misadventure of missing a flight is a great excuse to set foot in a new country.

Travel tip: Always make friends all across the globe. ;-)

HAVE YOU ever missed your flight in another country? Have you ever had a transit visit unexpectedly?

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Tuesday, 22 August 2017

My Solo Adventure In South Australia - ADELAIDE

Being alone in Adelaide was fun. There’s something about Adelaide that sets it apart from the other cities of Australia; I guess it’s the layer of modesty over the cutting-edge way of life or maybe the unruffled people. Whatsoever it is, Adelaide is a lovely city with lots of treasures for a solo traveller.

I stayed in a home stay in a seaside suburb called West Beach. Before I tell you anything about Adelaide, I’d like to mention its transport system – it is amazing! It’s so easy to travel within the city and even around the city. And yes, the home stay where I sojourned was also great. The host, Claudia, was friendly and helpful. I think it’s an excellent place to stay if you are in Adelaide – it’s a little away from the city, which gives you a chance to explore Adelaide beyond the main attractions.

Also read: My Solo Adventure In South Australia (BAROSSA VALLEY)

Why I enjoyed being alone in Adelaide –

My morning walk at the beach
Since I stayed near the beach, there was no way I could miss the chance of taking a stroll along the shore. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining and I could see a rainbow, too. So, it was a beautiful start to the day. It did rain a little bit later, which made me sneak inside a petrol pump shop to have a quick coffee and breakfast. After the nosh, I set out for my wandering in Adelaide.

Many beautiful buildings to admire

Pretty streets and squares
Adelaide has a carefree vibe. Victoria Square and Rundle Mall are perfect places to embrace the essence of Adelaide. There are so many colours and elements to soak in – the cafes, the florist shops, street musicians, pretty bicycles, and the laid-back atmosphere.

I ambled aimlessly at Victoria Square for some time and then settled for a latte at an alfresco café. It was such a pleasant day with balmy sunshine and mellow breezes. It was just so perfect – watching people around you, taking in the vibe, smiling and glancing occasionally and just being. That’s what I call ‘blissful’ travel.

Cheese tasting at Adelaide Central Market   
I believe visiting a local market is one of the most interesting experiences in any city. Since Adelaide is a food city, visiting its biggest and the most renowned local market was a foregone conclusion. Adelaide Central Market is really cool. I loved exploring it. My favourite part was cheese tasting. I tasted quite a few nice flavours. The goat cheese was super yummy. I tasted all the soft cheeses that you should eat fresh and not store for very long.

Enjoy this short video of cheese tasting at Adelaide Central Market –


Ramble through Rundle Mall
Rundle Street Mall is one of the most vibrant places in Adelaide. You can shop, eat, listen to live music, or simply loiter around – the place has so much to offer. I loved walking through the entire street and spotting various pretty cafes and restaurants.

Enjoy talking to the locals
If you are ever in Adelaide, make sure you talk to the locals there. They are such lovely folks. There’s something so modest about them. I happened to have small chitchats with a few locals while wandering and exploring the city. And, I adored the bus drivers. They are so helpful.

HAVE YOU been to Adelaide? Is it the kind of city you’d like to explore alone?

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Friday, 18 August 2017

My Solo Adventure In South Australia - BAROSSA VALLEY

Perhaps South Australia is the best place for solo travel. Well, I say so because I had my first taste of solo travel abroad in Australia – I went to Adelaide and Barossa Valley all alone. So, was the experience any different from my solo travels in India? Nah… I think solo travel is great anywhere in the world. But yes, South Australia will always hold a special place in my heart.

To be honest, I was a little wary of doing certain things in a foreign land, such as walking alone in a deserted place. As an Indian, the part that amuses me about foreign countries is the dearth of people on the road. Their neighbourhoods are so quiet. You barely see a soul around. So, when you walk on the road it gives you a strange feeling that you shouldn’t be seen on the road and should be hiding somewhere like everyone else.

So how did my solo adventure turn out to be?

On the train from Adelaide to Gawler 
On the train to Gawler

Though I landed in Adelaide (from Melbourne), I started my trip with Barossa Valley. The first thing that I loved about Adelaide was its people. The moment I stepped out of the airport, I was embraced by an intrinsic geniality that a solo traveller longs for. I hopped on the bus available at the airport that takes you into the main city. I was still a bit indecisive about going to Barossa Valley, as my trip was a short one. But, I still went to the train station to inquire about the journey. There isn’t a direct train to Barossa Valley. You need to take a train to Gawler, which takes an hour to reach, and from Gawler you need to take a bus to Barossa, which takes 30 minutes or so.

There was something inside me that told me to skip Barossa Valley, but the curious me still purchased the ticket to Gawler. And, I loved my train journey! It was so easy to reach Gawler, and the station was so quiet and vintage. Then, as I hopped on the bus to Barossa, I passed by some mellow landscapes of vineyards and hills.
My ‘edgy’ walk to Bethany

Tanunda, the main town of Barossa Valley, is where my bus dropped me. The moment I got off the bus, I headed to the tourism office to inquire about how to reach Bethany village. The name ‘Bethany’ fascinated me, and so I was eager to visit it. But, to my dismay, I was told that there’s no public transport available for Bethany. I could go there if I had my own car. Well, I still wanted to go. So, I asked them if I could walk to Bethany. To my joy, they said that it would take 40-45 minutes to reach Bethany if I walked fast.

My quick lunch before heading to Bethany

I didn’t follow the Google map. I just asked for direction two-three times from different people and kept walking until I reached my destination. It’s a straight highway road from Tanunda that takes you to Bethany. It’s an easy walk. But, I was scared.

The highway begins here...

Barossa Valley looked so deserted. There was nobody around. I mean it’s strange not to see a single person for 40-45 minutes… Anyway, I kept walking because I was exceedingly curious to see Bethany. My constant thought throughout the walk was ‘I hope it’s safe to walk on this highway all alone, while the weather is also unpredictable’. It was an overcast day with occasional rains. But, I still wanted to do what I wanted to do – visit Bethany.

I kept following the sign boards. And finally, I saw this board –

Finally, I reach Bethany.
Such sign boards relieved me.
A few rustic elements that made my lens happy.
...and some more.
One interesting site that you should visit...
... a touch of spookiness isn't a bad idea on a solo trip. What say?

I was joyous to have made it to Bethany. Although the village didn’t turn out the way I had imagined it, the feeling of being alone in a totally deserted, unfamiliar place was thrilling. Each house that I passed by was shut as if nobody lived there. I happened to sneak inside the backyard of a house for shade when it started to pour suddenly, and I found this beautiful orange tree –

Why did I not pick up those oranges?

Well, orange and lemon trees are a common sight in Barossa Valley. I regret not plucking an orange to reward myself for my solo, edgy walk.

Should you visit Barossa Valley during winters?

No. I’d recommend you should skip Barossa Valley during winters because the vineyards are bare-branched and the hills look dry. The streets and squares are extremely quiet. There’s absolutely no buzz around. So, the voice that told me to skip Barossa Valley was right.

Bare-branched and deserted 
The last few hues of autumn...

But, travel is different for different people. I’m not trying to act like a naysayer here. You might enjoy the dry and deserted Barossa Valley. However, spring would be the best time to visit it when the vineyards are in full bloom. Barossa Valley is known for wines, after all.

Tanunda, a charming little town

Besides the wineries, Barossa Valley has a great history to narrate. So, make sure to visit its old sites, especially the museums and the churches. I didn’t really do anything that a tourist would typically do in Barossa – wine tasting, unearthing its history or tasting the traditional cuisine, because as I mentioned it was not the perfect season. I’d have loved to taste the wines in the midst of a blossoming vineyard, which would have been a real experience.

One of the things to do in Tanunda is to visit such museums...
...and these churches
...and explore some cute, little shops like this.

Besides, Barossa Valley is huge. I just explored a little part of it. So, my recommendation would be to stay there for at least a couple of days to be able to explore it deeply.

I’d like to sum up by saying that all travel experiences are good. The feeling of being alone, talking to locals, wandering, experiencing the weather, the food, the local transport… everything together makes you part of the place that you visit. So, experiences and adventures that you create as a traveller are always better than what you find in the brochures.

HAVE YOU travelled alone anywhere other than your own home country? How was your experience?

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