Saturday, 25 October 2014

The ‘Secret’ Lake

I LOVE lakes. So, when my host at Kettle Valley told me about Bhangzang Salamander Lake, I jumped at the idea of visiting it. Interestingly, one has to hike downhill to reach the lake and it takes around two to three hours of walk. It’s not hard at all, as there is no significant uphill hike involved. In fact, it’s lots of fun.

A 'secret' lake of Darjeeling

A rainy and slippery ramble

We started our hike from Dilaram Village and meandered through many tea gardens and quite a few deserted places before we made it to our destination, the lake. Before I go any further, let me give you a bit of humour – since it was drizzling that day and it had got quite slippery on the way, I had a slight fall in the sight of my fellow-hikers! Well, I choose to label it funny because I was quite confident of my shoes that they wouldn’t let me slip, as they had a good grip, but I still slipped.

Me, smelling a tea leaf along the way. Photo credit: My host
Lots of lush tea gardens on the way to the Lake
We spotted a deserted temple on our way  

What did I think of Bhangzang Salamander Lake?

Coming back to the lake, it’s not a usual beautiful lake with blue water to soothe your eyes. It is a muddy green lake, which has different types of salamanders living in it. To be honest, the moment I saw the lake, I was a bit disappointed. It didn’t impress me pronto. But, as I walked around and took my time to observe it, I liked its uniqueness.

It turned out to be 'unusual' 
Bhangzang Salamander Lake
It has rare salamander species
A perfect place to witness nature's beauty and quietude

A hidden picnic spot

I was educated that salamanders survived only in a pure environment. No wonder the freshness in the air was pretty evident. There was a bunch of young boys swimming in the lake, who kind of indicated that it was a great place for such outdoor frolic. Later, I read somewhere that the lake used to be a picnic spot for the British.

They seem to be natural swimmers. Their spunk was in sync with nature.
Green hues dominate the scene
Picnickers' favorite

A lesson of ‘environment’ love

Thankfully, it isn’t touristic. Maybe not many people know about it yet. But if you ever visit Darjeeling, make sure to hike down to this offbeat lake. It’s not just a place to soak yourself in the natural beauty, but it should also give you a sense of environmental consciousness.

It's therapeutic to spend some time at such places 
The lake appears 'heart-shaped' from a distance

As we began to walk uphill and bade adieu to Bhangzang Salamander Lake, I realised that the lake looked like a heart from a distance. Perhaps it was nature’s way of telling us, “I love you.”

So, what do you say? Do you think places like Bhangzang Salamander Lake reinstate our faith in environment?

Practical Information: Bhangzang Salamander Lake is in Darjeeling district around 14 km from the town of Kurseong.
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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Benefits Of Traveling In India

Jodhpur: A royal city of forts and palaces

India is a jackpot for a true-blue traveler! Well, I am not saying so because it’s my native country, but because it’s genuinely a great country. As long as you can handle a few ‘not-so-inviting’ things about India, it can offer you remarkable experiences. The most common opinion about India is that it’s dirty, overwhelming and crazy. Most foreigners have mixed feelings for India, as it annoys and fascinates at the same time. But, once you have tasted its love, you will be captivated for life.

I have had many interactions with many travelers from different parts of the world, and I have come to a conclusion that they all basically love India. There are some who find it a difficult destination, some who are wary of travelling here and then there are some who would like to avoid it totally.

So, today I would like to tell all my fellow-travelers all across the globe that INDIA is your ‘home away from home’ – be here to experience it.   


India is one of the budget-friendly destinations.

The first benefit of travelling in India is that it’s not an expensive country for a foreign traveler. Yes, it is pretty expensive for Indians, but quite affordable for foreigners. A standard hotel room should cost you between INR 1000 – 2000 per night, and a standard platter of food should be around INR 200 – 300 (or even lower). But of course, you need to be well-researched in order to make sound judgments and pick only what’s suitable for you.

Shimla: The Himalayan range

You can enjoy slow-pace travel.

Since India is not so expensive, you can have a long stay here. It is one of the countries ideal for slow travel. You don’t have to rush through destinations. You don’t need to follow a set itinerary. You can pretty much go with the flow and savor each city, village and region according to your own whims.

Luxury hotels in India: Udai Kothi in Udaipur

You can afford luxury without hurting your pocket too much.

Yes, luxury isn’t a far-fetched affair for foreign travelers in India. There are many luxurious hotels that offer rooms ranging between INR 6000 to 10000 per night. One such hotel is Udai Kothi in Udaipur, which is not just super comfy and plush, but has lots of character and style.

Most Indians speak English.

Besides Hindi as the national language, India also has a web of innumerable regional languages. However, English is a commonly spoken language in India. Most Indians speak good English, which is one of the major inviting factors for English speaking foreigners. As far as non-English speaking foreigners are concerned, people in India make efforts to learn languages like Spanish and French as well. At one of the hotels in Jodhpur, I found the Indian tourist guide communicating in French quite fluently.

Thar desert in Rajasthan

You can travel spontaneously and flexibly.

Since you don’t have to worry too much about your budget, you can be flexible with your travel plans. You can travel on impulse and still won’t cringe with every penny that you spend.   

Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh

Indians don’t charge you for every little thing.

In India, there are a few things that come as perks, such as there is no charge for airport trolleys, and if you want to check out of your hotel and come back to pick your luggage, it’s complimentary. I don’t know if that’s the case in all the other countries as well. But in Australia, they charge for such small things.

Marine Drive in Mumbai

Friendships go a long way.

I am not saying that you should be friendly with any or everybody in India (or anywhere else for that matter), but friendships are valued here. If you are able to build a cordial association with someone in India, be rest assured that it’s going to help you a lot. People are basically warm and hospitable in India.

Quiet places in India - Yuksom (West Sikkim)

There are lots of quiet places in India.

Although India is a bustling country, you will still be able to experience peace and quietude here. If you want to stay away from the city traffic and crowd, there are many secluded regions for your relaxation and leisure. And the best part is that you will find many low-cost accommodation options in such places.

Also check out my story on Yuksom.  

Fresh organic produce in Tamil Nadu

You will have immense food choices.

Foreigners usually perceive India to be unsafe for their health, but the truth is you can have any kind of food you like. If you wish to have organic vegetarian stuff, you can have it. You don’t have to eat the spicy stuff that you are not used to.

Lastly, I would say India has got a lot of variety in everything, so you can really build your travel plans according to your tastes and preferences. For instance, there are accommodation options for every class and budget.

Have you traveled to India? What was your experience like?
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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Home Stays – Why Travellers Love Them

A bit of ‘homeyness’ isn’t a bad idea when you are away from home, isn’t it? Home stays give you that exclusive quality of travel – the personal touch, the warmth and the real experiences. After staying at quite a few of them, I don’t even want to imagine staying in a characterless hotel room with an indifferent staff.

One of the home stays that I discovered in Sikkim was Daragaon Village Retreat (Darap Village), which is run by a Gurung family. They are simple and sweet people, who ensure that each guest is treated nicely and given the best possible Sikkimese experiences.

The Gurungs were hesitant to host me. 
Initially, the hosts at Daragaon Village Retreat thought that their basic, rural and non-luxurious home stay would not please a traveller like me. I told them that my only concern was hygiene and nothing else mattered to me. Even while escorting me to my room, the girl at the retreat said, “It’s not that great.” On the contrary, I was quite happy with my room and the amenities provided. I got just what I needed – nice and clean bed, spacious room, and not to forget a well-equipped bathroom, which was not just clean but had toilet paper as well. I couldn’t believe that a modest village home stay could be so perfect.

Later, when I told Mr Shiva Gurung about how much I liked his home stay, he was deeply pleased. And, he further told me that they trained each and every family member on the etiquettes and the hygiene needed for guests.

So, why should you choose HOME STAYS over other accommodation options -

Home-cooked local food is served.

At home stays, food is usually included in your stay, so you don’t have to worry about paying for your meals separately. The best part is that they serve you their own local cuisine, which is home-cooked and organically produced. At Daragaon, I relished the delicious hand-made pasta made with the local wheat.   

Warm hospitality is the very essence of a home stay.

Who doesn’t like to be treated warmly? Home stays pour out an extra dose of hospitality upon their guests. However, they don’t get over-friendly with any guest. They maintain the necessary distance. No guest’s privacy is disturbed in any manner. You are free to do anything and relax at your own pace. There is genial friendliness, respect and care that you can expect from your home-stay hosts.

There is scope for insightful conversations.

A travel experience becomes richer with conversations. That’s exactly what you get at home stays. Since your hosts are the locals of that place, they tend to share a lot of interesting stuff about their culture and the general way of life.

Better cleanliness is maintained.

As I mentioned earlier, my room and the bathroom were so well arranged at Daragaon that I couldn’t have asked for more. Home stays maintain a high level of cleanliness, and if in case there is something that you need according to your own preference, they are always ready to do the needful.

Home stays help you connect with the place deeply.

Staying at a home stay gives a feeling of being hosted by a local, which instantly connects you with the place. Even if you just relax or take a stroll in the lawn, you get to absorb so much.   

You can have authentic experiences.

It’s my favourite part. At Daragaon, they arrange bonfires and other rural activities for guests, such as fishing, milking the cows, etc. I enjoyed their local beverage Tongba, which is made from fermented millets. It is a protein-rich drink and can hit you if had too much!

Home stays are safe.

Lastly, you can be rest assured that you are staying with a family. You can interact with the lady of the house, see how she cooks, eat with the family and sleep in peace knowing that your safety is also your hosts’ concern.

Would you prefer home stays over hotels? Is Daragaon Village Retreat your kind of a place to stay?
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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Darap Village – A Sneak Peek Into A Fantasy World

Going offbeat in Sikkim

“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” — Lawrence Block

I found this quote to be bang on for my story about Darap Village. I landed up in Darap Village, while I wanted to go to Pelling. I was oblivious of the fact that I had booked my accommodation in a home stay, which was in Darap Village, and it was a little away from Pelling. So yes, I passed through Pelling, but my actual sojourn turned out to be in Darap Village.

Roses are a common sight in Sikkim.

As soon as I reached my home stay, I realised I had something better in store! I was thrilled to bits to discover that I was in the midst of plenteous natural beauty. All I could see around was lushness and hear a reverberating sound of water running by somewhere. It was all so refreshing and pure. 
An abode of nature.
On a clear day, you can see Kanchenjunga mountains from Darap village.
Every nook and corner is beautified with flowers.
Abundance of love.

The Village hike

The following day, I was all set to go on a village hike with a young local guide, who was also a student. He proved to me a great help, as I had planned a serious photography day. Since it was raining on and off, it would not have been possible without his support. He held my umbrella for me while I took my own sweet time in framing and focussing.

My guide and assistant on that epic day.

As we continued to hike, my guide educated me on many little things about the village, like its inhabitants were a mix of Limboo, Lepcha and Gurang community. The first and foremost thing that I noticed on my own was the blossoming Cardamom plantations. Then I was told by my guide that it was their main source of income.

Cardamom plantation 

Ancient mud houses

My first halt was at a house, which was supposedly 100 years old. Yes, it was that ancient. There was just one old man inside the house, who was sitting near the stove. His kitten kept loitering around him. After a brief chat with the old man, we moved ahead to meet other villagers.

A kitten for company
An ancient house - 100 years old as told by my guide.

Tribal folks

The tribal folks in Darap Village looked so fascinating. They dress a certain way, they wear quite a lot of ornaments and they have an uncanny layer of contentment on their faces. I hope you didn’t miss the photo essay on the faces of Eastern Himalayas.

This lady appeared out of nowhere, but she looked picture-perfect.
This is the preparation of a Sikkimese local beer - Tongba

I discovered many quirky things about the village life in Sikkim (I don’t know if that’s the lifestyle in villages everywhere else, too) – as I mentioned earlier, there is a kitten around the stove, perhaps because she wants to stay warm. When I asked my guide about it, he told me they kept a kitten in every house to keep mice at bay.

So story-bookish... isn't it?

Hospitality of the old-fashioned hearth

I was offered tea or water at almost every house that I visited. All of it seemed to me a storybook kind of a fantasy – cute little huts, old-fashioned hearth and the queerly dressed tribal people.

She's heating the vessel to prepare tea for me.
...And here's my tea! (Notice the mug! It's so pretty!)

Straight out of a story book

The classic old woman, who gave me my best photographs ever.

My absolute favourite was an old woman, who stood outside her hut as we approached. It was all misty and surreal around her hut. She had expressions of an English royal lady and even her attire was so old-worldly and charming. Her smile had a certain conceitedness that she wasn’t aware of. It seemed as if she had got bored of her palace and moved to a hut. My camera was dying to capture her wrinkles. While I was on top of the world to have photographed her, she kept saying “I am old, I am old”.

Well, I was certainly on a high while trailing through Darap Village - meeting villagers, exchanging smiles and pleasantries, sipping their smoky water, and lapping up their simplicity.

Have you experienced a ‘fantasy world’ like this? Is Darap Village your kind of an offbeat escape?
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Monday, 13 October 2014

The Faces Of Eastern Himalayas (Sikkim and Darjeeling) – A Photo Essay

Faces devoid of pretences

I simply love meeting people from different regions and communities. Since India is such a vast land, there is enough opportunity to discover new people in almost every part of the country. On my sojourn in Sikkim and Darjeeling, I met many lovely people. These people are innocent, hard-working and they seem to be quite content with life.

The most interesting part about coming across these folks is that they look quite different from the rest of India. So, it’s almost like exploring a foreign community within my own country!

Here's unveiling the Eastern Himalayan faces captured through my lens –

She's an oldie from Darap Village in West Sikkim. It was a fairy-tale scene -an old granny stood outside her hut and later invited me in for a cup of tea. She wondered why I wanted to take her picture, because she wasn't aware that my camera was eager to capture her royal and elegant looks.
He's a Nepalese man from Dilaram village in Darjeeling. He had lost his wife 11 months back and now he spent most of his time around his beloved's Stupa (grave). 
These are simple tea-pluckers from Darjeeling. Although they are underpaid and live difficult lives, they never forget to smile and extend love.
Darap village, West Sikkim - They are people of Limboo community, who are settled there for ages.
Mother-daughter duo - Baby is called 'Nani' in Nepali 
Gangtok, MG Marg - A Sikkimese lady in a typical Sikkimese attire. 
Darap Village, West Sikkim - A rural man engaged in his daily chore. Most of them work in the fields.
Ranka monastery, Gangtok - The younger lamas (monks) pose for me.
Darap Village, West Sikkim - A lady from Limboo or Lepcha tribal community. She was reluctant to show her tobacco teeth, but she grinned for my camera.
Darap Village, West Sikkim - These Limboo tribal people like to wear beautiful ornaments. It's part of their everyday life.

Do you like meeting people from different regions? Which photograph did you like the most?
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