Planning a perfect weekend trip

What is the idea of a perfect weekend? A few friends got together and kick-started a brainstorming session. The consensus is as follows.

Wake up on a Saturday morning a little earlier than scheduled, hop on to a 4by4 mean machine or a classic chopper and take to the highway. Be sure to leave a little early and greet sun on the way, it not only adds to the view but also lets you escape the grilling traffic schedule of a city like Delhi. Nobody is interested in spending hours driving toward one particular location, so we pick up a location not over 200 kms – Alwar.

Questions arose that there is nothing unique about Alwar to which suggestions flew in that any location is beautiful as long as you are accompanied by like minded people and the road trip is not monotonous, so we improvise again. We take on to the highway for a smooth ride and then take a little detour towards the ancient town Neemrana – not the fort, but the bauli. Neemrana has history written all over it as the palaces and landscapes talk a thing or two about the grandeur of this princely town. However if you dig a little deeper, a lot of questions emerge.( http://www.tripoto.com/trip/the-motorcycle-diaries-2-rajinder-singh-ki-bauli-neemrana-6902)

After spending some time at the this historic marvel, we head towards a heritage property in Alwar by the side of Sariska National park (http://www.alwarbagh.com/gallery.htm) . The lush greens at this property must remind one of the luxurious life of the erstwhile rulers. Relax by the swimming pool, play indoor / outdoor games, cycle around the property or just take a walk, one must have enough opportunities to take mind off the mundane tasks back home.

The evening must bring along good music, food and stories from fellow travellers, so much so that we wish for the night to never get over.

There should be a reason to get up early on a Saturday morning. What about a drive into the jungle? Not like the monotonous safaris, but a drive on your own. Sariska National Park is a short drive from the heritage property in the backdrop of Aravali Hills and an amazingly quiet and peaceful travel destination. Predominantly famous for Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary and tiger reserve alongside breathtaking Siliserh Lake.

The drive back home should be quiet and peaceful as one looks back at the beautiful moments captured during the weekend. Escape Route is organizing a trip to Alwar on 26-27 September just before the rush season starts on Oct 1. There are a few seats for fellow travelers interested to take to the road with The ER group. Alwar Bagh Alwar Bagh in the eveningPeacock on Sariska national park pariyojna boardNeemrana ki bauli

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Learn South Africa

Elephants, Addo Elephant National Park great white shark Harley tours Lion at Thanda private game reserve people horse riding Two cheetahs looking startled on a dirt road

I recently had an opportunity to visit the ‘Learn South Africa’ workshop organised every year by South African Tourism board – a classroom session meant for select traders across different cities in India. Indeed it was, as the hall was full of curious and interested travel traders listening to the super-energetic Hanneli Slabber – Country Manager, South African Tourism. Hanneli had an hour long presentation full of video clips and stories about South Africa as a travel destination not only for the adventure junkies but kids, culturists, historians, artists, luxury tourists, shopaholics, designers, regular honeymooners and others you think liked keeping their adrenaline under check. And there is much to choose from.

300 adventure activitiesShark watching alleys, surfing, hot air balloons, wild life safari, bungee jumping, canopy tours, horse riding across wild coast are only seven of the 300 listed adventure activities, South Africa offers to its visitors.

Stores in Cape Town offer good discounts on diamonds, gold, precious stones and jewellery. Move over Dior and Armanis and you get the best of the designs created by a growing breed of young designers from the interiors of South Africa. Hanneli says she has seen a growth in demand for stuff created by South African designers especially the young ones. Indulge yourself in South African retail therapy and get your hands on some amazing artefacts, metal stuff, furniture, apparels and accessories at great discounts.

Massage may be a thing of South Asia but South Africa takes it to an all new level with trained masseurs applying pressure on your body parts as you stare across some of the most scenic parts of South Africa. At Shibula Lodge & Bush Spa in Limpopo province there is a massage menu that includes full-body massage, hot stone massage, Swedish back and neck massage and aromatherapy back and neck massages as part of “Massages in the Bush”.

Grapes are good intoxicants as they age but their antioxidant properties are excellent in detoxifying the body and skin, while the polyphenals (found in grape seeds) help fight free radicals making Vinotherapy a great success. Natural fruits, herbs and vegetables too have inspired some of the “unusual facials” in South Africa.

South Africa boasts of some amazing breweries and wine cellars. Local traders organise guided tours across wine yards, SAB beer museum in Johannesburg, food tours to taste world-beating brandy, cheeses and olive oils; the famous red-bush herbal drink, rooibos originated here; fresh and dried fruits are internationally sought-after, along with seafood, ostrich and venison (deer meat).

The best time to go to South Africa is the dry season between May to September as wildlife is easier to spot because of less vegetation and animals often gather around rivers and waterholes. There is little to no rain, the skies are clear, most days are sunny and there are fewer mosquitoes. However, April – May and September – October are delighting with pleasant temperatures and afternoon storms rarely interfere with the safari. It gets very hot in December, January and February, and parks get crowded during the main school holidays in December.

The ideal duration for a South Africa holiday is 12-14 days. Tour operators can offer the same at a cost of INR 1,00,000 to 1,50,000 per person including travel, accommodation and breakfast meals. Bargain to include more adventure activities as part of your itinerary. Indians have a reputation of participating in 7-8 adventure activities per day in comparison to 3-4 activities for the westerners.

It doesn’t matter, what kind of a tourist are you, South Africa has something for everyone. Hanneli proudly says, “The kids just do not miss their parents”. South Africa is the gateway for the world to Africa and for Africa to the rest of the world.

Rendezvous with Khardung La – K Top

I only knew Khardung La (La means pass in Tibetan) as a fad Mecca for bikers where they pose in front of the signage calling Khardung La as the world’s highest motorable road – a claim that appeared highly questionable. Such is my aversion towards fads that I decided to take the route less taken and drive to Nubra via Pangong. A route from Pangong via Durbuk leads to Agham followed by Khalasar and then Nubra valley. While there were loud concerns about no support on this route and one is pretty much left to nature’s will, few  tried to scare us by claiming that we will need to search for road. I smiled at my friends Lt Cmdr Rakesh Anna, Lt Cmdr Amarnath Subbu and my civilian IT engineer friend Rajesh Anna as we all wondered if it could get any worse than the mighty passes of Talangala, Changala, Baralachala and even Rohtang in freezing cold.

We took on the route with two royal enfields and kept waiting for the road to disappear. We were not surprised as the road proved to be better than crossing Changala pass again or riding through Khardung La or K-Top as it is locally called. A few hurdles on the road actually came as amusement and the twenty kilometers stretch without the tar on road could on only do little to dampen our spirits. What was scary did not appear so scary and what was promising did not impress much till we reached Nubra valley. The double humped camels and the sand dunes at Hunder, Nubra valley were picturesque. Learning that the springs at Panamik, Nubra are not literally hot springs but more like a pond and the hot water gets funnelled into a steam bath room, we decided to skip the part. Who would have wanted to take a steam bath and ride back 20 kilometers to stay the night. We instantly decided to get closer to Khardung La at Khalasar and leave at next dawn.

We started our ascend at 6 in the morning determined to cross the highest motorable road asap and I personally did not want a picture next to the K-Top signage. We did click some pictures in the beginning which showed K-Top completely hidden among clouds. There was no sign of sun but our excitement was intact. Only fifteen kilometers before the K Top, we came across a small check post called North Pullu. The name appeared funny as we crossed under the check post barrier. As we kept ascending, the snow fall amplified. Something about snow that gets me all excited, it was time for photographs again. The view just kept getting better till we were about 3 kilometers before the K Top. Suddenly the road vanished as the potholes were replaced by snow everywhere. There was no road but snow everywhere. The visibility in the snow fall was limited to less than hundred meters. As we tried to ride through the snow, the snow blanket kept getting thicker and the tyres could not find any friction. The motorcycle slipped a few times as we spotted an army jeep driver tying chains around its tyres to support movement and we decided to follow it. The snow fall got so intense that the tyre marks would vanish as soon as the jeep moved ahead. Our strategy had failed and then came a point of realisation that we just cannot move any further. One look down the hill sent a chill down everyone’s spine and suddenly everyone’s red face looked scared.

It was decision time and we opted to drive back all the way to the connection between Nubra and Pangong as there was no point losing our lives in this wild goose chase. We quickly and safely descended downhill, crossed North Pullu. The army jawans gave us curious looks perplexed on what we possibly were trying to achieve uphill. One army officer stopped us and enquired on what made us think that we could cross the pass in that weather. I suddenly dawned on me that the barrier was down and the road was shut for vehicles when we had passed underneath over an hour ago. It took us twenty more kilometers and a look at the bright sun light shining at another hill to stop and introspect. What do we have and what do we need. We had only limited petrol as it was only 45 kilometers till Leh from K Top. The other route would have sent us back by another 150 kilometers and had its own risks of no support. We decided to reach North Pullu again and wait at the army camp, the idea was to put our motorcycles on a truck and cross the pass.

Lieutenant Commander Rakesh Anna and Lt Cdr Amarnath Subbu spoke to the army jawans at North Pullu check post and we were offered a warm cabin to wait inside. Our shoes were wet, clothes were wet and the snow outside had caused actual pain. Now, it had started to snow heavily till North Pullu and it was clear that there will be no movement anytime soon. The army commander suggested that we wait till afternoon and leave along with the civilian vehicles that were getting restless with each passing minute. A couple of hours passed and we still could not decide our next move, i could not even decide if I could take off my wet shoes and dry them a bit.

In a moment of impulse, Lt Cmdr Rakesh Anna asked a young army officer what he would have done if he was in our situation. He joked that he would have left and that very moment we all got up to leave. Waiting for a couple of hours had made us restless enough to not worry about the cold, the snow or the skidding from the K Top. Since our motorcycles were parked ahead of the check post, we did not have a problem and we left in front of the restless civilians. We were the only ones aware of the risks at the top, others weren’t. To our pleasant surprise the snow had stared melting and there were patches on the road to ride our motorcycles through. When the road disappeared again, we followed the military vehicles getting across the K Top to drop a senior officer. The army helped us through the two hour struggle to cross 2 kilometers and reach the top. None of us spoke during the strenuous climb as we struggled to fight the snow, pulled the heavy motorcycles, breathed hard for oxygen while -15 degrees and wet clothes took backstage.  Finally we reached the top and I saw the same signage, only with respect this time. I parked my motorcycle a little ahead, walked back to the signage and waited for my friend to come and click a picture.

Important points:

  • Khardung La serves as gateway to Shyok and Nubra valleys in Ladakh
  • North Pullu and South Pullu are army check posts on either end of the pass
  • The road from Pangong to Nubra via Durbuk is not that bad and should be explored with proper precautions and spare parts
  • Always carry extra petrol and basic spare parts
  • Nothing can save you from nature’s fury, but caution

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Finally at the KTop.
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KTop from the ground level
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First futile attempt

The thrill of an upcoming ride!

Constricted paths with no tarmac on it, fright of falling stones from one side and the fear of falling downhill from the other, spine chilling cold, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), God forbid any accident, what if the motorcycle breaks down in the middle of nowhere?,,

Versus…

Escape from monotony, the ride, breathtaking views, fresh air, adrenaline rush, testing your guts and a story for the lifetime

has been the deliberation inside the skull over the past couple of weeks. I never knew, planning a road-trip to Leh could do this to me. After all the preliminary planning, research, feedback from experienced riders (significant as well as irrelevant), cancellations  by friends and innumerable changes in the itinerary, a group of five guys is all set to take on the mighty mountain ranges and the dreading passes of the Leh, Ladakh valley beginning this weekend.

Starting from Manali, we will ride through the giant ranges of Zanskar and Ladakh and explore the beauty as well as raw challenges posed by the valley. Cannot wait to experience a dip in either of the Pangong or Tso Moriri lakes, attempt to flap wings and fly at Khardungla pass, a walk at the Nubra valley desert and an out of the world experience at the magnetic hill.

But most importantly find an experience that I could call my own.

Enough of reading up the experiences, it is time soon to write my own.

Roadtrip
Roadtrip

Bagpacking across central Europe like a local

I never really intended to write about my Europe trip, but it was this very time last year when I grilled google for information about the best cities, food, stay, nightlife across central Europe, plus I am missing my Euro-trip.

The University of Applied Sciences, Vienna had put up a schedule for the final semester and examination of its Masters program in CSR and Ethical management for June last year. The completion of the Masters course was to put me among very few in our country to have received formal education in CSR. But for me, it was more about the opportunity to observe a bit of the European continent than the final examination, degree, laurels etc. As our international faculty bragged about life in Vienna at a classroom in Navi Mumbai, I could picture myself roaming the streets with a bagpack.

Finally the day arrived, nothing could stop me, not the travel agent who almost got me blacklisted by faking one of my signatures on the Schenegen visa form, not the work pressure, not the shoestring budget…, nothing could deter me from finally treading the streets of central Europe for the coming month.

Turkish Airlines is the most reasonable option while travelling to Vienna with one stop at Istanbul. From the aircraft, Vienna looked like a beautiful countryside calling me out to all directions. Contrary to the security at Indian airport, the lone security clearance person at the Vienna airport meant that the next few days were going to be amazingly different from life back home. Well, everyone knows how the developed countries look like with sparkling clean streets, efficient public transport, colourful buildings with artistic paintings on them, better traffic sense, no honking, better management, people not pushing each other in crowded trains, uncomplaining citizens etcetera etcetera…, life in Vienna was all that jazz. The first few days were spent at an uptown Belvedere apartment just around Vienna’s celebrated Belvedere Palace. The spacious apartment offered to be great deal when shared among a handful of classmates. Managing breakfast in the apartment made our stay a little easier on the pocket. Coming days were spent navigating between university and Belvedere, around Turkish doner kebabs, burger kings, local beer Gasser among many others. One can get a set of two dozen local beers for as less as four Euros at the local retail stores, while one Gasser can is for two Euros. The booze is cheap and the variety is baffling. My European classmates made sure that all of us spent our time around beautiful museums, churches and shopping areas. As the classes and museums got boring, we began bunking classes and spent time on Vienna (read ‘Wien’) streets outside local retail stores; Hofers, Zielpunkts and Billas.

Schwedenplatz – a happening uptown shopping market during the day and a party destination by night – is a must go. Just be vary of the fact that if you are brown skinned, it will be difficult for you to enter any decent party. It was Vienna that made me realise that I may not be as fair as my mom said I was.  The saving grace was the Danube music festival on an island in the middle of Danube river, you can call it the Viennese sunburn only with better management, less security and its free for all. This year the Danube music festival is scheduled for 26, 27 and 28 June 2015.

Quick facts about Vienna: Royal city, Turkish doner kebab burger will cost you 2.50 Euros and One Gasser can is for 2Euros, Burger king starts at 4 Euros. Days are very long and the city is always cold, reaches around 5-6 degrees in June evenings. While the street cafes are amazing to chill, do pick up your F&B from the local retails stores.

As the faculty declared that more than half of our batch had flunked in the final exam, I asked myself if my sole motivation to study hard and clear the examination was to take a week out to travel to Prague, Bratislava, Milan and Budapest. My travel bags were packed a night prior to the results announcement and I had kept one suitcase at the house of a local friend I befriended during the Danube music festival.

I had already visited Bratislava during my stay at Vienna. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, located two-and-half-hour boat ride away from Vienna. Bordering Austria and Hungary, Bratislava is the only national capital bordering two independent countries. Let me put it this way, what could be the best use of day’s time?? Travel to Bratislava from Vienna in a Danube river dreamliners (name for cruise boats), enjoy a freezing boat ride over Danube (if you want a view from the upper deck), delight your eyes with picturesque sides of the Danube river, walk around the old Bratislava city, get clicked against the backdrop of Bratislava palace, get lost in time and translation, bargain for quality stylish leather accessories at the local shops, savour local delicacies, stuff your bagpack with lovely local souvenirs bought at a reasonable price among other things. All of this and you get back to Vienna in time for dinner.

Quick check on Bratislava: warmer than Vienna, a little cheaper than Vienna, ideal for a day trip from Vienna, paradise for shoppers hunting for leather and local souvenirs.

The next destination on my itinerary happened to be Prague, pronounced Praha, the capital and the largest city of Czech Republic. I so want to address the land as the city that comes alive at night and the air smells of weed. The regular would be to visit black churches, museums of torture instruments of the medieval times, learn a thing or two about the gothic culture. Well, I skipped all of that and jumped on to a boat floating on river Vitava, near the Charles Bridge besides the Prague castle for 2500 Czech crowns an hour – it is called a pleasure boat. The boat ride was relaxing with an amazing view of the colourful Prague city with red-and-white buildings, black as well as white churches, row houses in different shades over the locals sunbathing on their pleasure boats. Music bands play live to the happy restaurant customers. After the boat ride we walked up the Charles Bridge towards the Praha castle. I have never been so happy in my life spotting a Pakistani restaurant that we found in Prague, what followed was a feast of biryani, chicken, yellow dal, Indian breads, rice among all other food one would normally ignore back home.

Intrigued with the idea of ‘Pub Crawl’ in Prague, we set out in the evening and ended up at Cross Club. Pub Crawl is for tourists where a local guide organises a local party tour for you, taking you to few local party spots during the course of the night for as little as twenty Euros per person – each person is entitled to one welcome drink and one gets to see more than one party joints in one night. Now Cross Club is not exactly pub crawling, but this venue is house to six differently themed dance floors, each house to a different genre and diverse set of followers. Well, I had fun at each until my friend passed out for a bit. The locals were too hospitable to tell us the actual pub crawls around town but insisted that we stay around as the party was just getting started. Indeed it was, I remember pulling ourselves out of the club around dawn while others still entered the party. We checked out of Hostel Elf next morning and boarded the student agency bus to Milan, with a sole intention to splurge and spend the money saved by staying local and travelling cheap.

Quick check on Prague: Party destination, 1 Euro equals 28 Czech crowns, tourists from diverse ethnicities, metro train travel within city helps you save on expensive taxi rides.

Milan welcomed us with open arms as the great Buenos Aires street in Milan was offering everything on discounts upto fifty percent for the next two days. While Milan had an odour similar to that of Mumbai, the city was still cleaner and the morning rain only washed it cleaner for us. The shopping bags kept increasing but one could never get enough of the offerings with special deals. If you order a pizza at a restaurant in Milan, make sure you tell the chef to slice it. Cutting the pizza into six/eight pieces is only an Indian tradition. After the first two days, we forgot to confirm to the hostel that we would be staying an additional night and the room was allotted to someone else. We brainstormed and decided to go back to Vienna as we still needed to collect our bags from my friend’s house. The morning was spent in Vienna gorging on the street Turkish Doner kebab burgers and my favourite blueberry yoghurts. With the final goodbyes, we left Vienna for the final time and moved in the direction of Budapest, the last city in our itinerary.

Quick check on Milan: warmer than other cities and humid, shopping paradise, the locals especially girls have a thing for Indians, Never pay for anything until you are sure – the stores do not replace anything even if there is a fault

Budapest follows in another post…