Thursday, 28 July 2011

Green Valley, Amboli and The Leela Kempinski, Goa

Almost all the women I know, love the idea of trips away from home, especially to break the monotony of running the house-hold. It is lovely not to worry about planning and cooking meals, cleaning the house and especially getting up in the morning with a subtle subconscious worry whether the maid will turn-up or not. Even though we know that the fun will last for only a few days, these breaks are very essential for our sanity.

My latest rule in life is 'Never let go of any opportunity to take a trip – even if it means repeating the destination.' In fact holidays to repeat destinations allow me to laze out completely: getting the sightseeing neatly out of the picture. But when one lazy Sunday morning in April, my husband Avijit announced that he had booked the train tickets to Goa for a six night break, I got thinking. Six days by the beach might be too much. I looked at his face, I saw an expression of triumph for having booked the tickets well before the kids' vacations had started. I decided to keep quiet at that time. Goa is Aviji't favourite destination and the rest of the family (me and our two kids) loves it too. It is one repeat destination I do not really mind, but six nights opened the possibility of including an additional place, somewhere close-by. After surfing the net for a few days, I came across this small hill station by the name of Amboli. It is in south Maharashtra. Situated 690 metres above the sea level, it is the last hill station before the coastal highlands of Goa.The more I read about Amboli, the more I began to get charmed by the place. After a few discussions, the decision to include this place in the trip was made and the hotel booking done for 2 days in Amboli and 4 days in Goa. The place boasted of 130 species of birds . Though I have not really been an avid bird-watcher, I have had sporadic spurts of interest in these small yet smart creatures of God – their sounds, their colors and the way they confidently flap their wings and soar high in the skies. Looking at the pictures on the net, the interest revived once again – more strongly this time. I thought of going equipped with a professional binoculars. Only problem, the idea came just two days before we had to leave for the vacation. It is easy to buy a laptop at the last minute, it is even possible to order a refrigerator and request to get it delivered in a day – but binoculars? None of the shops in the fancy malls in Gurgaon seemed to keep and sell this object. I gave up hope but fortunately Avijit came across Space Arcades on the net. This is a pat of a research based organization, which aims to provide astronomy in India. You can get a site of all the dealers of astronomical instruments in India. The Gurgaon dealer is Leo Toys in Mega Mall. The owner promised to deliver it in couple of days after getting the order. Of these two days, one was Sunday and his dealer in Delhi was closed on that day. Anyway, we decided to take a chance and ordered a Celestron 8x40 model. The owner of the shop went out of the way and arranged it for us at 8 pm in the evening and we were to leave early next morning. In retrospect I thought it was a much faster purchase than it would have been if it was a freely available object and I would have then hopped from shop to shop comparing the features and the prices.

Space Arcade (for purchasing all kinds of astronomical products)

Travelling by train is a very relaxing experience and these days I have started to relish it. The train trip from Delhi to Goa is interesting. I like the way scenery changes from rocky mountains in Rajasthan to a complete green look as we approach the Konkan region. There are streams and rivers on the way. There are bridges and tunnels. I like to look at the little stations on the way – each with a character of its own. By now, I have realized that if there is a right way to learn geography – it is to travel by train and visit the places. It would be a good idea to keep a handy atlas and a railway time-table. When I was a child, I had hard time remembering the names of the five rivers in Punjab or the location of the Cauvery river. It was all to be memorized from the text books. That was a rather boring way to learn something which is actually so live and interesting. It took me so many years to realize that you got to see it to remember it. If I have seen a river once, I associate with it and do not forget it easily. Seeing, knowing and discovering is the way to go, not memorizing from a book. 

For going to Amboli, we got down at Sawantwadi Road, the last stop the Trivandrum Rajdhani Express makes before entering the state of Goa . It is another of those cute little stations, three platforms and hardly a soul in sight. From outside the station, we hired an auto-rickshaw to go to Amboli. The driver settled for Rs 500. I have travelled in Delhi autos a number of times but never paid such a high amount. The first part of the ride was to reach the Sawantwadi city from the station.We stopped to pick a few mangoes and jamuns. Unlike Gurgaon, they sell mangoes by dozens and not by weight. The next part of the journey was the climb to the hills. That is when I realized how different this auto ride was from the Delhi autos and how the guy truly deserved the money. The views on the way were very pleasant. The advantage with the slow auto-ride was that the kids did not get motion-sickness. I sampled a few jamuns on the way -- they were lovely.

It took us an hour or so to reach our destination, and we checked into the MTDC Green Valley Resort. Amboli is a cute little hill-station which has not been commercialized much. The flip side is that it does not boast of many great places to stay. No five star hotels here. I was a bit skeptical of what we were getting into. The check in was smooth though I would not classify it as a warm welcome. The rooms had a tired look – the furniture was faded and worn-out. But the location of the hotel was great. When we booked the hotel, we were not sure of the weather and the temperature of Amboli, so we had booked an A/C room. Soon we realized that the A/c was not needed. But the deluxe room was bigger and better than the standard rooms with an additional window facing the forest. The lawns of the hotel were nicely maintained and the benches simply invited one to sit down, relax, and maybe read a book. All the rooms were on the ground floor and that gave the place a resort-like look. The kids had a great time going in and out of the room, or just running around in the lawns. In the evening, we walked up to the sunset point for some pleasant views.

Next morning we woke up to find the place filled with mist, which was a bit unexpected in the month of May. We waited for the mist to clear up. At around 8 am, we went for a walk in the forest behind the hotel. I was desperate to put my binoculars to use and get started with bird-watching. Unfortunately we could not spot too many birds. The hotel guard told us that we need to be there at 5 am. We were warned not to go too deep into the forest alone as there are wild bisons there. Sitting inside the lawns of the hotel, I spotted magpie robins and red-whiskered bulbuls. Lazing around in the lawns, my attention was diverted to a commotion in the hotel – new fancy mattresses were being brought in. Were they going for that much-deserved change-over of the furnishings? Not true. One of the staff guys told me the furniture and new mattresses were being brought for a VIP who was expected to come in the evening. Who could it be? Apparently, it was Mr Sharad Pawar! During the day, I watched many new items of furniture being brought in to replace the old ones. A few times I peeped inside the allocated rooms to see them getting a change-over. All the furniture – the mattresses, sofa and chairs were changed, however they could not do much about the chipped tiles on the floor. 

Many of the staying options in Amboli seemed to be of the B&B kind, so having the restaurant in the hotel was a blessing. The food was very reasonably priced but none of the meals we had there, can be called delicious or sumptuous in any way. I took a look at a couple of other hotels close-by. I was specifically interested in checking the Whistling Woods, which was at a short walking distance from our hotel. The place is cute but much smaller in comparison.There wasn't much space for children to run around. Moreover they do not have any restaurant. Another hotel in vicinity was the Shiv Malhar hotel. From the outward appearance, our hotel looked much better. In the evening, we took an auto to see the source of the Hiranyakeshi river. Again, very pleasant views on the way. We even spotted some rare birds here, but sadly I was not carrying my binoculars and the reference book. The thought of where a river originates from was intriguing. It was interesting to see the river originate from inside a cave.There is a small temple of Hiranyakeshi devi at this place. I thought the origin of river must be associated with Shiva and did observe a shiv-ling in the temple. Later I learned that Hiranyakeshi Devi is really the Goddess Parvati. When we returned to the hotel, it appeared like a completely different place. There was a big crowd there, many policemen on duty, press-reporters and other important people. The place was lined with cars and even an ambulance was parked outside. A separate buffet had been arranged for the VIP and their team and the area was cordoned off. Here, I must say a word for the hotel staff – in spite of their busy and hectic schedule that evening, they tried their best to accommodate our orders although with a little delay but with a smile on their faces.

Origin of Hiranayakeshi River
We checked out from the hotel next morning around 11 am and hired a taxi to go to Goa. We took a brief stop at the Mahadevgarh view point to take a look at the magnificent 360 degree views. 

Amboli is normally known to be a monsoon destination. It gets a large amount of rainfall and is known for its beautiful waterfalls. Before the rains, however, the waterfalls currently had no water, or had just a trickle. Nevertheless, for somebody coming from a place like Gurgaon, the place has its own sweet charm. I was glad to have visited this quaint little hill station.

The taxi ride on the twisty roads down from Amboli made the kids motion-sick and we were relieved to reach Sawantwadi. There were a few shops selling cashews and other specialty products.The driver advised us to pick the stuff from here as it is cheaper than Goa. In addition to the cashew nuts, they also sold interesting products like cashew ladoos and cashew bars. Then we proceeded to buy the the wooden toys which this place is famous for. There selection available was tremendous. We have been to Lakkad bazaar in Shimla and seen this kind of stuff, but the variety this place offered was huge. I must confess that being a grown-up has not taken away the fascination for toys from my heart and I end up having as much fun and blast going through the various choices as my kids do. There were wooden toy-houses, fish, crocodile, cars, trucks, tops, kitchen sets and many many more. When the kids were done with their shopping, we resumed the next part of the journey. This part was free of twists and we all had a comfortable time. The ride on the national highway was a scenic and relaxing drive. Apart from the usual coconut trees, there were plenty of mango trees.

We reached Panjim in an hour and a half but our destination in Goa was the hotel Leela beyond Margao, which took us another hour and a half. We got a warm welcome with garlands and coconut water. The kids loved it – there were big smiles on their faces. The indulgence in pampering had already begun. We have stayed in the Leela 10 years ago and the place has not changed much, though at this time there was some construction and renovation work in progress. My daughter who has been spoiled by her dad loves to enjoy luxurious stays in vacations. (To be honest, who doesn't? But once in a while it is a good idea to stay in government accommodations too – more often than not, they have the best locations to boast of.) We had booked a Conservatory Premiere room. I found it big, spacious, luxurious and very classy. Perhaps, it was the contrast with the Amboli hotel, which made us all appreciate and love the luxury even more. The room was divided into two areas – a bedroom and a sitting room. There was a wooden sliding door between the two. The sitting room overlooked a 'lagoon' through a glass wall, into which was set a large sliding window which could be opened. (OK, the actual structure was a bit more complicated, but this is as good a description as any.)

For a moment, I had a fleeting thought 'How unfair. Wouldn't I rather have had it facing the sea? This lagoon is after all, an artificial water body'. But I decided to take it in good stride. Little did I know at that moment, that in the next couple of days, I was going to fall in love with this very artificial body of water. I took a chair, sat down, and looked at the lagoon. I saw many water birds – they were black in colour and looked like ducks but had long slender necks. I checked with Avijit. 'Oh, snake birds', he said. I quickly checked in my reference book – they are indeed called darters or snake birds. It is very interesting to see them swim with that long neck in water which does appear like a snake inside. But it is even more remarkable to watch them sitting on a branch with their wings completely spread out. They can stay almost still like that for a long time – waiting for the wings to dry. It appeared as if they had decided to strike a pose for someone to click a picture. When we went for a stroll to the beach, I saw a board put up by the hotel listing the birds we were likely to spot there. For the rest of our stay, I spent a large part of my trip with my binoculars hanging around my neck.

Snake Birds
Day 2 – I got up at 7:30 am and went for an early morning walk. I spotted magpie robins, white eyebrowed wagtails, cattle egrets and red-whiskered bulbuls. Slowly I was learning to identify birds. The bulbul we see in Gurgaon is the red-vented bulbul. The red-whiskered bulbul is far more handsome in looks, with the bright red whiskers on its face and a distinctive black crest on its head. Slowly I was learning to point the differences between apparently similar looking birds. The male white eyebrowed wagtail and the male oriental magpie robin were both black and white in colour. But the wagtail had a white patch over the eye which looked like a white eyebrow while the head of the magpie robin was completely black. At times, I was able to get very close to the birds, almost looking into their eyes. Were the birds in that environment less afraid of the humans? I wondered. Unfortunately I was not equipped with a proper camera. That would be the next item in my shopping list now. With a little time I realized that the bird-watching walks were not really necessary to spot birds: I could simply sit in the room and look out over the lagoon and the trees on the island. Within no time, I spotted a common kingfisher, a white throated kingfisher, several pied kingfishers, a few red wattled lapwings and a couple of brahminy kites. Over a period of time, I have come to think that the most common colours of birds are green, brown and black. This must be to help them camouflage with the environment. But one colour I love to see in a bird is the colour blue. That is why the kingfishers grabbed all my attention. Not to forget their long attractive bills which they put to use for catching fish. Take the case of common kingfisher, I bet if it was brown or black – it would not have looked so beautiful. It is a sparrow-sized bird with blue upper-parts, orange under-parts and a long bill. The white throated kingfisher is larger than the common kingfisher. It has a bright blue back, wings and tail. The head, shoulders and lower belly are chestnut coloured. The throat and breast are white. That is why it is also called white-breasted kingfisher. The most handsome of the lot was the stork-billed kingfisher. It is rather large, about a foot in length and with a great combination of colours. It has a green back, blue wings and tail and grey head. Its underparts and neck are light yellow. The bill is bright red, very big and attractive. Its legs are red in colour. The call is unique, repetitive and can be heard from a distance. Of all the birds I saw in Goa, this was the one I really fell in love with.

The Lagoon
A few days ago, I was not familiar with these birds and did not know their names. I wonder if the identification was really important! Could I not enjoy them for what they were and not what they were called? But the mind was happy to be occupied exploring the knowledge of their names, their characteristics, calls and so on. Like an excited child, I would often sit struggling to match what I saw to the pictures in the book. I spotted a new green coloured bird with a long beak, sitting on a branch. I passed the binoculars to my daughter to take a look. Immediately she remarked "They are bee-eaters. I saw the picture in the book". I was amazed, she was absolutely correct. Slowly the interest was rubbing on the entire family. My 3.5 year old son also borrowed my binoculars to watch birds. During one of my walks to the 'honeymoon island' in the hotel, I spotted a red flameback woodpecker. This was the first time I saw a woodpecker in wild. I also saw a Greater coucal (crow pheasant) and looked through the binoculars to see its red eyes. 

There was a big frog in the lagoon water under our room. We were amazed to see that it stayed in the same position, looking completely still, for hours.

There were lovely lotus in the lagoons on the way to the restaurant– pink, purple and lovely yellow ones. We were on on one end of the hotel, far away from the restaurants and the pool area. The hotel has battery operated golf carts which came in handy for covering the distance. Coming to the food, this time we had not gone for an all-meals package. Though the food was expensive and the choice limited in the coffee shop, I must say the food was absolutely delicious and satisfying. We especially liked their red Thai curry with prawns. I remember when I was initially introduced to the five star hotels, I was very impressed with the buffet spreads – the variety and the choices would be overwhelming. Gradually I realized I spent more time in trying out the various dishes than in relishing them. Slowly I learned to focus on a few select dishes and tried to savour them. These days, I am much happier ordering a-la-carte, a few select dishes that I am feeling like eating, rather than going by the chef's choice in the buffet. 

Lovely Lotus in the Lagoon
Day 3, I got up very early (5:45 am) for the latest interest of my life – bird watching. A hobby brings out the child out in you – you are eager to get started as soon as you are up. There is a thrill in life. I settled myself in the chair and noticed a large number of ducks in the water. It was still dark. After about 15 minutes - all the ducks began to come out of the water one by one and started flying. For a few minutes, I saw them fly in a group making a 'V' formation. Few rounds of the lagoon and they disappeared. While I was looking at the lagoon to spot our familiar frog, I saw something moving in the water. It was a snake! I quickly woke up Avijit. He has no interest in birds but snakes are a different matter altogether. He quickly got up and stood beside me following the movement of the snake in the water. It was about one feet long. After a minute or so, the snake went into the weeds under the surface again. I spotted another smaller frog. Within a few minutes, Avijit spotted another water snake. As I saw through the binoculars, I saw it take its tongue in and bring it out. Avijit told me this indicated the snake was hungry. Slowly, it moved in the direction of the frog – closer and closer it went, and then suddenly it darted towards the frog, who jumped away in a flash and vanished from the scene. The commotion in the water at that time was something to watch. While I was still recovering from the thrill, we spotted a much bigger snake – about two feet long. We could see the pattern on his body very clearly. Avijit looked up the web on his mobile, and told me it was 'checkered kneelback' – a non venomous variety. 

During the day, we did not see any more snakes. In fact by the time our kids were up, there was no sign of either the ducks or the snakes.

Though I was very excited and thrilled to have seen the snakes from close, I must confess I was afraid too. From that time, I ensured the glass doors overlooking the lagoon were properly closed any time we stepped out. I have a major fear of snakes right from my childhood. Having stayed in Delhi, I have never seen a snake in my surroundings. Practically, I have seen more snakes in my nightmares than in real. In my childhood, my maternal aunt used to tell us scary stories about how in her ancestral home in Gwalior, she would go to the store room to take rice from a sack and would find a snake sitting inside the sack. Having looked at the snakes on that day brought me face-to-face with my childhood fears. At some level, it helped me make a little peace with my fears.

During the day, my time was getting split into three water bodies – watching the lagoon, dip in the swimming pool and enjoying the sea. Each one of them was working on refreshing and rejuvenating my soul. And there was also the river Sal. While the beach was pristine clear on the first day, for the next two days it got filled with an oil residue. Apparently a ship had leaked oil into the sea. We even found a dead turtle while walking along the beach. I am not sure if it was related to the oil residue, but it was sad to see such a beautiful environment getting polluted by human errors. 
The Beach

The best part of repeating a destination, as I said earlier, is that you don't have to bother about sightseeing. There was only one place we wanted to repeat in Goa and that was Dona Paula. We took a bus to Madgaon and a taxi from there. In my view, the best way to look at the people or culture of a place is to travel in local transport. I was travelling in a public transport bus after a really long time and had good fun. I love looking at people getting up and down from a bus. I also take pleasure in observing what they are wearing. The first time I came to Goa , I was amused to see an old lady, roughly of the age of my grand-mother, wearing a top and a skirt. My own grandmother never wore anything in her life other than sarees and salwar kameez. At that time, I had secretly taken pleasure in imagining how she would have looked, dressed up in a top and skirt and perhaps a hat too.

Day 4, I woke up while it was still dark. I wanted to check out the ducks. Indeed they were back there happily swimming. As soon as the day light appeared, like a press of a button, the ducks began to come out of the water. Did the first ray of light appear like an alarm for them? I wondered. One by one, they came out and began flying. Few rounds of the lagoon, in the standard 'V' formation and they disappeared somewhere. When I spotted a water snake, I woke up my daughter who was keen to look at a snake. Avijit was up too. We spotted another couple of snakes roughly 1.5 feet in length. This was our last morning there and we had to leave around 9:30 am. When the packing was done, I thought of spending a few more minutes watching the lagoon with a secret desire to add a new bird to my list. Lost in my thoughts I was trying to soak the scenery in my mind, when my eyes suddenly fell on the land below our room where I felt something move. It was a big snake, another ckeckered keelback, but much bigger: about 3.5-4 feet long. This one was not in the water, it was on land directly below our room. I was stunned. The patterns were all clearly visible – more clearly through the binoculars. I was dumbfounded looking at a wild snake from so close. Our excitement and noise level probably scared him and he slipped away from our sight soon.

When we were on our way Amboli, my 3 year old son had spotted a monkey and he asked me 'Why has the monkey come here?" I had told him "He came to say Hello to you". Having seen the big snake on the last day, I felt as if he had decided to show up and say Hello or Bye to us. I took that last walk to the beach that I always do before leaving, it is important for me to say 'Bye' to the sea. In my earlier vacations to the beaches, this has often been a very sad and emotional moment for me – parting from the sea. In addition to the sea, I had developed a love for the lagoons and the wild-life living there. With time, we have figured out a way to handle the sadness of ending a vacation. It is simple! Just start planning for the next one. It does not matter when or whether the vacation plan will materialize or not – it is important to begin dreaming all over again. . The greatest pleasure of a vacation in not in the destination, but in the dreams, the plans, the journey and the way you explore a place.

Last few times we had flown out of Goa, but we had taken the train from here six or seven years ago. When we reached Madgaon station, it looked the same familiar cute self. As the train started, I was still thinking about the lagoons that I had left behind. I thought about the snake birds, the kingfishers, brahminy kites and the other birds who would be sitting on the trees near the lagoon. Next morning the ducks will be back in the lagoon again while it will be dark and will disappear with the daylight. The snakes will be visible only in the early morning hours. When exactly did the ducks come for swimming in the lagoon? Why did they leave at daylight? Where did they go? Why were the snakes visible only in the early morning hours? There were several un-answered questions in my mind. I pondered for a while and smiled. 'Every lagoon has a story to tell – if you care to listen and explore'

Monday, 18 July 2011

Hills, Rains and Birds

Over the years, I have come to think that there are two kinds of travellers. The first kind like to travel at impulse. Friday afternoon is not too late for them to take a trip over the weekend. They believe in minimizing the journey time. They are open to the idea of looking out for a hotel after reaching the place. More often that not, they swear by a long list of sightseeing activities that are required to be done to make the vacation a success. The second kind are the laid-back kind. They like to travel even when they are not traveling by engaging themselves in planning the trip. They are not in a hurry to reach the destination – the leisurely journey is as much a part of the vacation as the actual holiday destination in. They take time in knowing about the accommodation choices the place offers and they like to book well in advance. They are okay with doing nothing or have a select few activities as part of the vacations. Mind you, the two are as different as salt and sugar. Instinctively, we all know which category we belong to. And if you ever happen to travel with the other kind, you will be surprised at how completely different a vacation to the same place and same time can turn out to be. My family belongs to the second category and we are the laid-back vacationers.

Our trip to Goa finished in May end and the kids were still left with 6 weeks of summer vacations. My husband suggested we take a second short vacation to Shimla in June. Shimla, capital of Himachal Pradesh, popularly known as 'the queen of hills', is around 350 kilometres from Delhi. There are various options for traveling from Delhi/NCR. You can fly all the way. You can drive (or hire a car so that someone else does the driving), this would take you anything between 7 to 9 hours. You could opt to take a train up to Kalka and then hire a car for the remaining hundred kilometres or so. This would also take you a total of around 9 hours to reach Shimla. The third option is to take a take a train to Kalka and then connect to narrow gauge toy-train to Shimla. The last option is the longest but a rather scenic and pleasant one. But this would mean planning a trip well-in-advance for booking the trains, especially if you are traveling in the peak season (May-June).

As I said, we are the laid-back vacationers. We like to plan the trip, book the trains even if it means a month in advance and consider the journey to be as much a part of the vacation as the stay at the destination. May-June is the peak season for Shimla, no train tickets were available until the 28th of June. So the train tickets were booked. With this also began our virtual travelling – net surfing and reading the reviews of the place, finding out about the places close-by, checking out the local weather and finally deciding on the exact location and the hotel. Having stayed in Chail and Shimla in our earlier trips, it was time to explore a different place away from the city. Our two kids (3.5 years and 9.5 years) tend to have motion sickness traveling on the twisty roads of the hills. Keeping that in mind, we decided to be within 30 kilometres radius of Shimla. Naldehra and Fagu emerged as the best two options. Unfortunately the rains in Shimla had arrived early this year and end-June appeared to be more like the beginning of the off-season period. We were checking on the weather sites everyday to view the rain situation. With every passing day, it appeared that the entire trip could be a wash-out. Shall we proceed or shall we cancel the reservations?And then we thought if the choice was to sit and watch the rains either at the hills or at Gurgaon, it was a no-brainer. After some initial debate, we finalized for Fagu and booked the HPTDC Apple Blossom on-line. This hotel was earlier known as Peach Blossom and was re-named to Apple Blossom in the year 2010. By the time we closed the matter, their top room Blossom Suite was available only for the first night. For the other two nights, we had to settle for their second best option, which was their super deluxe bedroom.

We packed a couple of light woolens for ourselves and the warm inner-wear and jackets for the kids . The Howrah-Kalka mail was late by 2.5 hours on that day but made up for the delay in the night and it arrived at 5:10 am, instead of its scheduled time of 4:45 am. We reached Kalka – a cute little station, different from the big-crowded, noisy and messy stations of Delhi. Cuter than the station, there stood the majestic bright red toy train Shivalik Deluxe. This was not our first travel by this train, however it has sustained the charm in our minds. The Kalka -Shimla railway is a narrow gauge railway and is listed in the UNESCO world heritage site 'Mountain Railways of India'. The other two listed in the site are the Darjeeling Himalayan railway and the Nilgiri mountain railway. The train connects Kalka, which is at a height of 656 m above sea-level to Shimla which is 2076 m above sea level. This train travels along a mostly mountainous route and passes through 102 tunnels on the way. The longest tunnel is at Barog and it is more than a kilometre long. A tragic story suggests that the Barog station is named after an engineer by the name Barog who had committed a mistake of digging a tunnel from both ends of the hill. When the two ends could not be aligned, he was penalized by the British authorities for his mistake. The engineer could not bear the humiliation and committed suicide.

Toy Train
The toy train takes around 5 hours to cover a distance of 96 kilometres. The train speed varies from 10 to 25 Km/hour. There is a talk of the railway being keen on increasing the speed to 45 km/hr, which would decrease the journey time to 3 hours. The fare for the Shivalik Deluxe is around Rs 300 either side. The seats are comfortable but not very spacious and my husband did a smart thing by reserving a separate seat for my 3.5 year old son. The interesting part is that the seats are reversible. There is a toilet in every coach. The rail-car which is a single compartment toy-train does not have a toilet and this could become an issue while travelling with kids. There is a provision for small attached fold-able tables for having meals. Tea was served at Kalka station and breakfast was served at Barog. For the breakfast, there is a choice between omelette and vegetable cutlets. The potato cutlets at Barog are really tasty and we even remembered them from our last trip. Travelling in air-conditioned compartments of trains has taken away the fun of sitting beside open windows. Here we sat beside open windows, had a chat with fellow passengers and could occasionally get down at a station to pick a food item like cutlets, juices or even unexpected stuff like cherry plums. As the train climbed upward, the air got cooler and cooler. An important tip to remember is that the valley falls on the right side of the train. A few birds sitting on the tree-tops and the telephone wires caught my attention. Having recently taken to bird-watching, I was trying to identify them. That is when I realized that I had left my reference book at home. The train reached Shimla at 11:15 am. The children were already wearing their jackets by this time and I wrapped myself in a shawl too.

 If Kalka station was small and cute, Shimla station was smaller and even cuter. I went to the information desk and checked if they had any book on birding. Quite unexpectedly and fortunately, they had one on birds of the Kangra by Jan Willem den Besten and I immediately purchased it. The gentlemen at the desk gave me complimentary copies of the Himachal Tourism magazine 'Monal'. There was a picture of the monal bird on it, which looked interesting.

We hired a cab to go to Fagu. For a distance of 22 kilometres, the fare of Rs 800 looked on the higher side but possibility of negotiations looked lean. It took us around an hour on the Hindustan-Tibet road (National Highway 22) to reach Fagu. On the way, we passed Kufri. We stopped on the roadside to pick a few bhuttas (roasted corn). I am a bit skeptical about the government run hotels and kept my fingers crossed till we reached the place. As we reached the place, I immediately developed a liking for it. The combination of white and green colours on the exterior looked neat. The check in process was smooth and immediately we were escorted to the room number 405 – the Blossom suite. What strikes you first is the sheer size of the room. It was really big and spacious. With two comfortable beds, side tables, sofa chairs, built in ward-robe and TV in place, there was still a lot of floor space. The bathroom was big and clean. The most attractive part was the setting of the four sofa chairs against the long window overlooking the valley and layers after layers of hills and mountains. For a moment, I was speechless.  The views were simply magnificent. At that moment itself, I guess I fell in love with Fagu. I was ready to overlook a few faults and shortcomings like the worn-out carpet in the room.

HPTDC Apple Blossom
I spent a good deal of time just sitting near the window looking at the un-commercialized raw nature, which was very appealing. There was a small school close-by. Little children adorned in school uniforms – some running and others walking at a leisurely place. They wore full-sleeves sweaters and long pants. We could see the apple orchards and a few small houses. We looked at a big field where a man was diligently digging the soil and sowing what appeared like cabbages. My daughter immediately commented 'Step farming'. I was not sure if that was the correct technical term but it seemed appropriate. I checked later that the technical term for this is 'terrace farming'. Graduated terrace steps are used to farm on hilly or mountainous terrain, giving a stepped appearance. Crop cultivation in hills is not an easy affair and the state of Himachal is deficit in food grains. But the state boasts in the production of potato, ginger, mushrooms, olives and figs etc. The state also abounds in fruit cultivation, which does not add to the problem of soil erosion. Apples yield the maximum income for the state. This is the reason why Himachal is called the 'Apple State of India'.

In the evening, we went out to explore the hotel surroundings. There is a temple close-by, which is quite a climb. There is a well defined path with comfortable stairs, only they are too many. There are marked rest-areas on the way. Me and my husband began the climb with a lot of enthusiasm. We had not gone too far before our bodies showed their current forms. Having been out of exercise was quite evident, every 20-30 steps, we would stop for a minute on the pretext of looking at the views but in reality to catch our breaths. We saw many slugs on the way – some were really big and healthy but slow as usual. Around mid-way of the climb, we reached the 'Snow King Retreat' hotel. Technically, situated at a higher altitude, it should promise better views. However, I was not impressed with the ambience of the place. The HPTDC Apple Blossoms has big open lawns in front of the hotel, which was missing in this hotel and it had a congested look. In addition, the access to Apple Blossoms is easier and shorter. After a short stop-over to look at the resort, we resumed the climb. The temple was at a height of 2600 metres and the views from up there were excellent. It is a Maa Kali temple – small, cute and operational. We were given prasad by the priest in the temple. The downward climb was a 'piece of cake' in comparison. Our tired legs were delighted to reach the comforts of the hotel room. As I resumed my sofa seat and looked out, I felt I was seeing many more layers of mountains compared to what I saw in the afternoon. I called my husband to take a look. He looked and screamed excitedly "That is the Kinnaur Kailash". His enthusiasm rubbed on me and for the next fifteen minutes, we kept looking at the range, sometimes through naked eyes and sometimes through my 8x40 binoculars. Through the binoculars, we could see the snow on the mountains. A staff member confirmed for us that it was the Kinnaur Kailash indeed. He also pointed us to look at the Churdhar peak. I told my husband "The next 2 days may be a wash-out but we can consider the trip made already".

The next morning was cloudy. The entire place was filled with complete mist and fog. It appeared as if the whole open space had constricted and that no valleys or mountains even existed. The previous night we had checked out the best super deluxe rooms in the hotel – they were room 401 and room 303. The hotel was entirely booked in the first two days, but we were lucky to have been allocated room 303. The room, smaller than the suite, was still quite spacious and comfortable. A corner room with two windows, giving us an additional view of the hotel lawns. It rained on and off the whole day and there was not much to do, except watch the rains. The children were glued to the Cbeebies on the TV. By evening, I was feeling so sick of the fog that I wanted to rename the place to 'Fog-u'. Desperate to get out of the hotel, we made use of a short break in the rain to check out the local shops. There are quiet a few shops, which can meet the daily needs of the locals there. One of the sweet shops even arranges for a taxi for sightseeing/dropping to railway station. It began to pour heavily and we took shelter in a shop there. The shop-keeper was a middle aged man and we got talking. He did not appear enthusiastic about the climate of the place and told us 'We wear sweaters all year round. May-June is the warmest period for us, which means we wear only one sweater in this month. We need hot geyser water for bath all year around" He also told us that he had bought a second house in Chandigarh and his family shifts the household to Chandigarh when the winter in Shimla/Fagu becomes severe. Isn't it strange that when people from Delhi would hear about snowfall in Shimla and pack their bags to come here for skiing, there would be local families shifting to Chandigarh to avoid the severe climate and the hassles cause by snowfall?

The weather in the hills is strange. One moment, it would be rainy and foggy and a few minutes later, the skies will start clearing out. One good thing with the sloped roads was that in spite of the continuous rains, there was no water-clogging issues. By late evening, the skies were so clear that we could see the stars. 'We may be able to catch a view of the Kinnaur Kailash next morning" my husband said before we went to bed. He was right. We got a good view of the range at around 5 am next morning. We could not see the snow, but the outlines were very clear. After the sun-rise, the views became hazy again. I decided to go for an early morning walk for birding. Our current room was on the first floor and it was great for observing birds. At the first sight, the common birds appeared very similar to the Gurgaon birds, but a closer look brought the differences out. For instance, the jungle crow looks quite similar to our house crow. Take a close look, its neck and breast region are not grey but completely black and it has a larger beak. The Jungle crow is sometimes also known by the name 'Large billed crow' or 'Thick billed crow'. Their call is similar but the voice is much deeper and louder. Talk about the other common bird,the bulbul.The common bulbul we see in Gurgaon is the 'red-vented' bulbul. That means, you will see a red color patch under its body. The Himalayan bulbul has a yellow vent. It has white cheeks and predominant crest on the head. It looks healthier in comparison to the ones in Gurgaon. Then there were these birds which looked similar to house sparrows – but they had a reddish-brown colour on their crown and on their back. They were actually Russet Sparrows. In my birding walk, I saw a few more birds which I have not seen in Gurgaon. In the quiet of the morning, I followed the sounds of different birds. There was this bird with a very distinct voice with a sweet whistle when it ended the call. It was a small grey-black bird with white under-parts and white lines close to the eyebrows. It was a male grey bushchat. The female is brown and white. Another very good looking bird we saw was a Tit – a green backed tit. It was a beautiful combination of olive green, blue, black and white. It has a black head, white cheeks, black throat, green body and wings with blue, black and white colours. I also happened to spot a hoopoe, which is considered a common bird. But I saw it for the first time in wild and I was thrilled to see its beauty – interesting crown, long beak and zebra-patterned wings. Another common visitor in the lawns was the rock bunting which also had a sweet 'sweep sweep' call. The bird has some similarities to a sparrow but it is bigger and has a longer tail. The male has chestnut upper parts and a striking head which has black stripes. I also liked the sound of the streaked laughing thrush. It is a very musical bird and I heard at least two completely different calls made by the same bird. Its size is of the order of common mynah, appearance dull brown in colour and has red-brown colour on it cheeks and in the wings. If the birds in Himachal looked healthier, the butterflies looked much bigger than the ones at Gurgaon. I heard my daughter tell her grandmother on phone 'I saw a butterfly which was green, blue, orange and black. And it was as big as my hand'.

The day was partly cloudy. We hired a taxi to go to Kufri to make use of the break from rain. Kufri is popular for its horse and yak rides to the scenic spots. There was an amazingly large number of horses standing there. None of us were inclined to go for the horse ride. Instead we were keen on checking out the zoo first. After all, we could not predict how much time the rain gods would permit us. The Kufri zoo, called 'Himalayan Nature Park' is much smaller than the Delhi zoo. There aren't too many animals but I liked the way the place is arranged. It appeared like a visit to a forest lined with large trees including oak, pine, spruce and deodar trees. We saw various kind of deer, bears, leopard and snow leopard. Snow leopard is the state animal of Himachal. It is an endangered species. There were two birds in their pheasantry which grabbed my attention completely. One was the Himalayan Monal. Standing proudly, the male monal looked like a riot of colours. Apparently it has nine colours on its body. The female looked dull in comparison. Himalayan Monal is the national bird of Nepal and is the state bird of Uttarakhand. It used to be the state bird of HP too but since 2007 it has been changed to Western Tragopan. This was the second interesting looking bird I mentioned above. Both the birds are pretty big in size. Monal is about 70 cm in length and Tragopan male is around 55-60 cm. The Western Tragopan is again a very unique combination of colours. The male is large bright coloured with black crown, blue throat, red face and the body is black with numerous white spots, each spot bordered with black and deep crimson patches. The Western Traogpan is considered the rarest of all living pheasants and the entire world population is estimated at less than 5000 individuals. There are 19 of these rare birds in captivity at the breeding centre in Sarahan Aviary, 160 Km from Shimla, however the bird were infected with e-coli last year and the authorities have given them rest from breeding this year. Last season, the birds had laid 17 fertilized eggs, of which only one hatched, but the chick died within a week. The government has put in a lot of funding for conservation plan for this bird. Regular hunting for its bright plumage has lead to a near extinction state of this bird. What a price to be paid for the beauty, I wondered.

Before leaving Kufri, we picked a lot of fresh fruits – apricots, plums, apples and nectarines. They were lovely fruits. The shopkeeper sold the nectarine as a 'three-in-one' fruit, one with a taste of peach, plum and apple. The nectarines were simply luscious – good looking and very tasty. Nectarines are erroneously believed to be a cross-breed between peaches and plums, but they actually belong to the same species as peaches. They are often referred to as "shaved peaches" due to their lack of fuzz or short hairs. I was left with no wonder why Himachal is called the 'fruit bowl' of our country.

The day we had to return, was especially sunny and bright. The views were clearing out layer by layer. I could see a few eagles in the sky through my binoculars. The weather was lovely, I removed my sweater and the shawl. I went for my morning walk passing the apple orchards on the way. The apples were mostly green, though some were partly pink. Once the apples would get ripe and become red in colour, the orchards would be quite a sight. But for us, it was time to say goodbye to the place. At some level, I felt cheated to be leaving on the brightest day of our stay. Ironically, at checkout, the manager gave us a discount for the last night as the official off-season had started from July 1. We requested the manager to pack some food for us which they gladly did. Leaving the place was very difficult for me, a part of me wanted to stay on and extend the vacation. My husband had to literally push me out of the hotel.

Train travel had a special advantage that even when the hotel stay had ended, there was still a part of the vacation left - the leisurely scenic travel. At Shimla station, we picked up HPMC Apple Jam. We opened it in the train itself and used it with the parathas. The jam was amazingly different in colour as well as taste from the apple jams I have been eating so far. Sitting by the window side, I enjoyed the beautiful scenery pass-by. My soul was internally aware of the gradual rejuvenation it had gone through in the last four days. The fresh air, the open space, the hills and the valleys, the birds, butterflies and the animals, the nectarines and the plums – all the colours and flavours of Himachal had truly reinvigorated my mind and soul.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...