Kashmir Travelogue – Apr 2024

Kashmir is just an amazing place that one has to visit. No wonder the persian poet Amir Khusro wrote – “If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

As always, this travelogue will give the detailed day to day plan that we followed with my comments in between; followed by some tips/important things to note; and finally contact numbers etc. This trip was coordinated by Deepika, a travel planner, who was recommended to me by a close colleague (who had a good experience with her recently).

Day 1: We left in the evening flight of Thursday (last day of school for kiddo) to Delhi. Reached pretty late due to a delayed flight (as always because of late arrival of incoming aircraft). Had booked at Bloomrooms at GK2 in Delhi. I am a big fan of the simple elegance of Bloomrooms (since my regular travel to Gurgaon during my travenues days).

Day 2: Had awesome complimentary breakfast at bloom. Did a one day sight seeing tour of Delhi. While my wife and me had lived in NCR for about 4 years long time back, my son had not been there. And he has been studying quite a bit of Delhi in history, geography, civics etc. So did the usual rounds – Lotus temple, Qutub Minar, India Gate, the new war memorial, Red fort complex, and finally Raj ghat (in that order). Had an awesome lunch at Haldirams Pandara Road. Airport pickup, drop, and the sightseeing was arranged by Deepika as well. This was the first time I had gone into the Red fort complex. It is HUGE. Dinner was at the nearby Bikanerwala at GK2.

Day 3: Caught the morning flight to Srinagar. Had breakfast at the airport.

We were picked up from the airport by our driver Riyaz Bhai, who would be our driving companion for the next 6 days in Kashmir. He was a soft, endearing and helpful person. (contacts below).

There was a slight mix up in the hotel stay for that day, but was very soon fixed by our very able travel planner, Deepika (contacts below). Be very careful about booking, and reconfirming hotel stays during peak seasons. We landed at Hotel Elaf Residency, but was told that they had only one night, but we needed two. We were swiftly shifted to Hotel Rose Petal. While this hotel was slightly off the main market area and slightly old, the rooms were good, well furnished, and the food was very good.

Srinagar sightseeing: We first covered the tulip garden. This was the highlight of the day. The tulip garden is open only for 3-4 weeks every year, and the bloom is just brilliant.

We then went to the Shankaracharya temple on top of a hill. The car gets to a certain point, and you have to cover 200 steps to the temple. It is a Shiva temple, where Adi Shankara meditated. Beautiful temple and a small cave shrine where he meditated. View of Srinagar and the Jhelum river from up here is awesome. There was some renovation going on when we went. There is a small walk from the car drop off point to the steps. If you feel tired, there will be autos that can drop you off for 150/-.

We then went on a Shikara ride on the Dal Lake. Its a slow paddle ride along the lake, where several vendors on other boats come and sell stuff like Kahwa tea (which I had, and was awesome by the way!!), flowers, jewelery, dress-up-like-kashmiri-and-take-photo etc. They take you to a floating market near the lake, show you the houseboats etc. Its a nice experience. You can also get some snacks in this floating market like French fries, maggi etc.

Lunch was at Raja Dhaba near the gardens. We had mentioned that we would prefer pure vegetarian places enroute – which is a toughie in Kashmir. We are usually ok with veg+non-veg food in larger establishments. Hence, breakfast and dinner was not a problem. The only pure veg places are Dhabas, and as everyone knows food in these places are unpredictable. They can be awesome or just so-so. Raja Dhaba was only so-so. There were many other gardens like the Mughal gardens, which we skipped.

Day 4 was supposed to be Sonmarg, but there had been an avalanche that had blocked the road to Sonmarg the day before. Thankfully Riyaz bhai had gotten this news through this driver friend network. While the road clearing work had been done, the traffic had increased significantly on that road, and Riyaz suggesed Doodhpathri as an alternate day trip location.

Doodhpathri is about 2 hours drive from Srinagar. As most places are, this is yet another valley with beautiful views and some pockets of snow (in early April). Doodhpathri is called so because in days of yore, a muslim saint had come by this place and struck the ground, and found water as pure and white as milk.

You can rent heavy jackets and boots here. You can purchase waterproof socks and gloves if you want as well. Your driver will take you here and recommend. Highly recommend you follow the suggestion of your driver in these. It costed us 450/- per person for boot + jacket.

Tourists are taken on a pony ride to a few viewing / experience spots. About an hour and half or so. There are a few ‘points’ that you stop at, take photographs, play in the snow, and view a rapid/river on the way. In most of these ‘points’ there were small shops selling kahwa, tea, maggi.

Note: We succumbed to a scam here. There was a photographer dude, who offered to come with us throughout the ride and take photographs of us during the entire time. His original rate was 40/- bucks for every photo we select and 50/- for every video. He did not tell us of any minimum number of photos. And we missed asking him. He came with us for the entire ride, and when we selected about 10-15 pics, he said that is not possible. He expected at least 4-5K. Thankfully with the help of Riyaz Bhai, got out of the very angry altercation by paying 2K/-. This was mainly due to a miscommunication. Riyaz bhai had told me at the last moment to give some tips to the horse men. At just that moment, the camera guy also had made an appearance and I misunderstood Riyaz’s point to be for the camera guy. We got into a big problem because we thought Riyaz was asking us to help/tip the camera guy. Be wary and confirm everything twice with your driver companion, if you are not clear, and choose what you want.

One of the horsemen was a cute young kid. Hatim was his name. All of 11 years of age. He was studying 5th grade. He does trips during the weekends. The pony I was riding on was his, and its name was Toofan. Hatim proudly told me that he rides Toofan every day after school. Such a heart warming moment, and a world so different from the one we live in.

Riyaz suggested that we should have lunch at a road side shack on the way back, which made only makki roti and sarson ka saag. He said we would never have tasted something like that before. I agreed with that sentiment, while wife and kiddo thought it was only ok-ok. Was a bit oily, and the oil had questionable freshness. But for me, this changed my opinion of makki roti and sarson ka saag – which I had hated until then, and thought was overhyped.

Dinner was back at Rose petal. Good clean buffet food.

Day 5: We checked out of Rose petal and started towards our most anticipated place – Gulmarg – the valley of flowers. Wherever we travelled between places in Kashmir, we saw so many fields of mustard with their bright yellow flowers.

The road to Gulmarg is so beautiful. Gives a full European vacation feel. So pretty.

We need to rent boots and heavy jackets here as well. Recommend to follow driver suggestions on where to get. It costed us 350/- per person for boot + jacket.

We checked into Hotel Green Park. Its a decent hotel, not as good as some others, we are told. But we were lucky to get this one, given high season. We did not complain. Its a quaint little inn type hotel. Slightly old. The location is amaze max though. Its in the middle of nowhere with snow all round.

Right after checking in, we left to the Gondola area, where Riyaz introduced us to Altaf, who was going to be our ‘guide’ for all activities in Gulmarg. Deepika had already purchased tickets for the Gondola Phase 1 and Phase 2 rides. These are two stages of the Gondola ride. This is apparently Asia’s highest Gondola ride. Phase 1 has a lot of activities like sking, snow scooter riding, and sledge riding. We did all three. These are paid, and need to be booked there. Our guide helped us ‘negotiate’.

Phase 2 is more of a view point. This is the highest point in that area, and also very close to the Indian border. You can see several Indian border outposts from this place.

On the advice of Altaf bhai, instead of taking the ‘sane’ path back using the Gondola ride, we took a sledge ride down from Phase 1 to base. If you have a weak back like me, avoid. Yikes. Every bone in my body creaked. But was it FUN or what !! The sledge driver sits in front of you and navigates. You pass through some breath taking scenery and you get to play in the snow as well. You need to pay Altaf Bhai for his services too.

To get back to the hotel from the base, we had to take a union cab. (Regular cabs are not allowed to take people to/from base to other places). Somehow Riyaz had managed to drop us off in the morning. You have to pay for the union cab drop. It was evening by the time, we reached back to the hotel. We were done for the day. Since we had snow all around us, we had some time to walk around and play in the snow in the evening. Dinner at the hotel, which was also very so-so, but manageable.

The next day morning, after we returned our jackets and boots, we also spotted a quaint little Shiva temple at Gulmarg base. Peaceful Shiva temple in his own abode amidst the snowy peaks.

There is a water fall called Drung water falls near Gulmarg. We went there only to see very less water. Go there only if you know that if there is enough water or the water is frozen – in which case it is supposed to be beautiful.

Day 6: We checked out of Green Park and headed towards Pahalgam. Riyaz Bhai had told us this was the longest stretch and would take us at least 3-4 hours. On the way, we stopped at Avantipura ruins.

We were told that this was a place where the Pandavas had stopped during the exile. We took a guide there, who explained that it was a misconception about Pandavas. This is a 11th century Vishnu temple built by the Verman kings of Odissa. It has 5 sub temples within the complex – hence the name got associated with Pandu or 5. There is nothing to do with Pandavas. The ruins are majestic to look at.

We also stopped at two shopping points – one for buying saffron and dry fruits ; and one for Kashmiri clothing/carpets. We did a bit of purchasing here and moved on towards Pahalgam.

Lunch was at Vishnu Dhaba at Pampore on the way. Shady place (filled with smokers), but decent food. We got a place to sit outside thankfully to avoid the smoke.

We reached Hotel White Water Pahalgam in the evening. These are a collection of resorts about 10km before Pahalgam and are on the banks of the River Lidder. Hotel was good and so was the food. We walked to the banks of the river in the evening and spent time.

Day 7 was Pahalgam sight seeing. We checked out of the hotel and drove towards Pahalgam town. We started off with a pony ride to Baisaran – also called Mini Switzerland. The pony ride was scary , adventurous, and fun. It had rained a few days before, and the path was super slushy. There were a couple of view points in the middle. Baisaran itself is just a large meadow in the valley with snowy mountains surrounding it. As in other places, it has its own share of Kahwa and maggi sellers. Our package had three view points (including Baisaram and 2 others). There are other viewpoints that they can take you to, by paying extra. We skipped.

After the pony ride, we went on the ABC cab ride. ABC stands for Aru Valley, Betab valley, and Chandanwadi valley. The union cab funda exists here also. Riyaz had to park the car in a parking lot, and we had to shift to a union car. Deepika had arranged for tickets etc here as well.

The union car takes you on a 1-2 hour ride to the three places mentioned above. The ride is breathtakingly amazing. Snowy mountains and coniferous forests all around you. Aru is just a valley view point. Betab is a park/valley famous for Bollywood shooting spots. The best was Chandanwadi, which still had snow by the road. We stopped and played with snow one last time.

Once we reached Pahalgam, we had lunch at Nathu’s – a proper vegetarian sit down joint. There was also a Punjabi Dhaba next door. We just chose Nathu’s arbitrarily. Food was good.

We then started back towards Srinagar. We stopped at Cricket bat making factory briefly for kiddo to see how bats were made. Quite literally no one even noticed us going through the factory. We did not buy anything – though the bats were cheap.

We reached Srinagar by evening. We were booked into Wangnoo Heritage house boats, which is not on the Dal Lake, but on Lake Nigeen. These are supposedly better and away from the crowd, and more sereen.

Houseboat is actually not that much of a boat. It is just a floating hotel with a few rooms, a common dining area, living room, and a deck, moored at the edge of the lake. The rooms were very tastefully decorated – mostly of carved wood.

Dinner was tasty. But somehow we all got a stomach upset that night and we could not enjoy the stay as much as we hoped we would.

Day 8 we checked out of the houseboat, summoned a shikara and reached the shore, where Riyaz Bhai was waiting with our car. We then headed back to the Srinagar airport. We flew back to Bangalore with a stop over at Delhi.

Net-net, a wonderfully satisfying trip (except for that last one night).

Couple of things that we liked:

  1. In every hotel, they had rubber slippers kept outside the bathroom so that you could go in with your socks on, and not worry about getting your socks wet.
  2. Kahwa is awesome. A bit sweet, but I liked it.
  3. If you go through a travel planner, your driver companion is your single point of contact for everything.

Tips / Points to Note:

  1. Wear warm layered clothing. Thermals, woolen neck protectors, woolen caps, and gloves. (all available on amazon).
  2. Heavy jackets and boots wherever there is snow – can be rented at those places. Be prepared for slightly smelly not very hygienic jacket and boots. If you have sensitive skin or otherwise, please go prepared with alternative arrangements. The jackets and boots will get dirty during the activities.
  3. Back-packs are preferable instead of handbags, because of the kinds of activities you will do (like pony rides, sledge ride etc)
  4. Bright sunlight and snow make most of these places very harsh for the eyes. Take sunglasses. Especially for Gulmarg (both phases).
  5. Make sure all your hotel and activity bookings are in place (or go through a reputed travel planner / agency who will ensure this). We found people who had landed there and not gotten Gondola tickets.
  6. Expect everyone to ask for tips (Khush kar dena). There will be people who will ask if you need photos taken with your own phone. They are not offering help, they will ask for tips after taking the photo/video. The photos are awesome though. Not just photos. Anyone who is helping with any rides will ask for tips.
  7. It is very dry here, and hence you will not feel thirsty at all. But keep drinking water all the time, to avoid dehydration and fatigue.
  8. Keep air sickness bags or equivalent with you all the time, just in case, you (or kids) have a stomach upset. You can get in amazon also.
  9. Keep basic medicines available – like ORS, Eldoper, Dolo, Ondem etc. Esp when during the houseboat, you don’t really have access to a medical shop immediately.
  10. A few others have also told me that they got a stomach upset during their houseboat stay. So just to be safe, keep the houseboat towards the end, so that you can enjoy the rest of the trip.

Contacts:

  1. Deepika, our wonderful trip planner – +91 97798 11662
  2. Riyaz, our driver for the entire Kashmir 6 day trip – +91 96823 46669
  3. Bloomrooms – link
  4. Hotel Rose Petal – link
  5. Hotel Green Park – link
  6. Hotel White Water – link
  7. Wangnoo Heritage Houseboat – link

Trip report: Anaikatti

Anaikatti is a sleepy hamlet about 30 mins from Coimbatore, at the beginning of the foothills that are part of the Palghat pass in the Western ghats. Sterling Anaikatti (like most sterling resorts) is another 15 mins away, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. This is one of the smaller resorts compared to other Sterling resorts. Beautiful all wood buildings and the beautiful River Siruvani flowing besides it. You cannot get into the river but there are nice sitout spots from where you can relax just watching the river flow by and hear the gurgling of the water.

River Siruvani from Sterling

Day 1: We started early from Bangalore (6AM). Breakfast at Murugan idli Krishnagiri around 7ish. Sailed past most of the toll booths on NH44 because of early morning and weekday (Monday). Crossed Salem and got onto NH 544 towards Coimbatore. We hit straight to Isha because we had done significant speed and reached around 1245PM.

It is definitely worth a one time visit. Beautiful. Massive. Peaceful. The Dhyanalingam shrine, where one needs to sit down and meditate for 10-15 min is amazing. There is a certain vibration / feeling that one gets when one sits in front of that huge lingam and the lamps and the silence, and the whistling of the wind.

We walked around all the other shrines. had simple meals in the cafeteria there. Good simple stuff. Saw the tallest face state of Adiyogi (Yep – it is a Guiness world record holder it seems).

On a lighter note, I am sure someone advising Sadhguru (while building Isha) was a big fan of Jurassic park. The tall arched entrances, the arecanut tree plantations, the wooden nameboards, the cursive handwriting. All too familiar. Son was making fun that a t-rex was going to jump out from nowhere.

Reached Sterling Anaikatti in the evening. Rest of the day/evening was just walking around the resort. It is indeed a very peaceful place. No dikchak DJ crowd. Mostly families with children who have come for a relaxing break. Suited us. ymmv of course.

View of the wooden buildings in Sterling Anaikatti

Day 2: First of three outings. Jeep ride to Edavani. This is an area about 30-40 mins from the resort through the mountains, crossing a few mountain streams (which just run over the road), eventually stopping a few km before the road ends. To go beyond, one needs permission because it is an area where tribals still habitate. One of the oldest living tribal populations in the area. The jeep driver stops at another of those mountain stream crossing places where we could get off the jeep, and get into the stream and just relax. The ice cold water was so clear and fresh.

Day 3: Second outing was called River walk. Again a jeep ride for about 30-40 minutes takes us to the banks of the river Bhavani. And the driver took us on a mini trek (no slopes) through dense vegetation along side the river all the way to a place where the River Siruvani and River Bhavani merge. And on the trek back, we were shown a spot where we could jump into the water. Safe rocky place. This was becoming a pattern ūüôā

Day 4: Third and final outing was to a place called Maranati. This is an exciting jeep ride. About 20-30 mins of regular road and the last 15 mins was full off-roading on mud/rock paths on a 45 degree incline. At the end of it was a small water fall and a bit of slow rapids, where we could, yeah – you guessed it, jump into the water. We spent a lot of time here much more than the other two days. The other side of the river resembles a water hole like you see in Nat Geo. Our jeep driver told us that this was part of the Nilgiri Bio reserve, and in the late evening / nights, one can spot wildlife (mostly elephants) coming to drink water. We spotted only peacocks at the time we were there.

On all the three days, we were back for lunch at the resort. Evenings were mostly spent playing shuttle, TT, or board games (advantages of taking the car – we took on a bunch of games from home).

There is an evergreen forest about an hour away called Silent Valley. You drive up an hour and then the forest department takes you for a 4 hour jeep ride in the forest. Unfortunately we could not go because tickets were all booked up. Our jeep driver was saying, it is good to explore if you book that in advance (even before you land up).

The stay was comfortable. The rooms were a bit small. There are two types of rooms here – normal and premium. We could not get the latter. Premium rooms are slightly bigger and are an independent cottage types, whereas the normal rooms are 6 rooms in a block – two floors of 3 rooms each. There are only 6 premium rooms in the entire property. So try booking early. Food was decent – nothing to write home about.

Day 5/Return: Started early again 615ish. Dawn was just breaking. Easy 45 min ride to Coimbatore. Had breakfast at Annapurna Sai baba colony. And then headed to Marudhamalai Murugan temple. Reached around 8ish. Had a great darshan, and then started back to Bangalore.

Brilliant breakfast at Annapurna
Misty Marudhamalai

Lunch at Aasai Dosai Saravana Bhavan (Salem) around 1245 and back in Bangalore around 5ish. All in a good relaxing trip.

Travelogue – Andaman – April 2023

Andaman gcmouli travelogue
Swaraj Dweep aka Havelock (Andaman)

We did a 5 day trip to Andaman. Trip planning assistance was done through pickyourtrail.com. The good part about planning your trip with guys like these are that, you get to plan your itinerary more or less by yourself (instead of one of those pre-planned boxed travel agent tour plans). Our requirements were simple. We wanted a relaxed holiday (did not want to keep running around). We wanted to spend some time in a resort with private beach access. The folks at PYT came up with a great plan. Lets dive into it in detail. Most opinions below are strictly mine. Your mileage may vary.

Day 1:

  • Fly from BLR to IXM (Port Blair). Dep 1130AM and arrival 2PM. Super wierd time, and we hate airline food for lunch. So we picked up sandwiches from Starbucks.
  • We had our Port Blair tour coordinator Arshad and a driver waiting at the arrival area with a name placard. (Will give phone number details etc at the end of the post).
  • Arshad gave us the plan for the day, and logistics. He is like a genie kinda guy. Shows up at just the right time and the right locations to help you with next step logistics. Very impressive coordination mechanics.
  • We checked in to Sinclairs Bay View. Great room (renovated recently) with fantastic views.
  • The property is kinda slightly aged and is in need of some sprucing up (exteriors, dining area, common area etc). Food is ok-ok in the restaurant. The staff, however, is amazing levels of warm / friendly / smiling. This made up for a bunch of issues. They are genuine and try to help. (Example – there was a large group of about 80 pax (pharma company sales offsite) during the time we were there. The staff made sure to tell us to come to the restaurant ahead of the usual buffet time, so that, we can avoid the noise/rush when the large group comes). Our package had a breakfast and dinner included in the tariff.
  • After we had freshened up, we headed off to the Cellular Jail. Spent about an hour or so soaking in the history of this place. Despite the crowds, it hits you hard on the kind of lives that the prisoners led here.
  • We had about an hour and half remaining for the sound and light show at the Cellular Jail. We sneaked a quick visit to the Corbyn Cove Beach. We were not impressed at all in this beach. Bunch of water sports. But nothing else.
  • We sped back to the Jail for the sound and light show – which was amazing. Tugs at your heart strings. Definitely emotional seeing the hard ships that some of our freedom fighters went though.
  • Back to our hotel room after this, had dinner and retired.
  • During all this time, we had the phone number of our scorpio driver (Sarfu). Jio phone signal is weak but not completely absent. In most places, we had some weak signal. We were however told that, if there was any situation where we dont have signal, we could just flag down any tourist vehicle driver and ask to call to Arshad or Sarfu, and people would oblige. I found that fascinating.

Day 2:

  • We had a ferry (Makruzz) to catch to Havelock at 8AM. Reporting time at the jetty is an hour before. Arshad had whatsapped the tickets the previous night. Sarfu was at the hotel in the morning. We had packed breakfast from the hotel (butter-cheese sandwiches (tad bit small, which we were a bit disappointed with), a muffin, biscuits, an apple and a banana). When we reached the jetty, we saw that almost everyone in line had a similar packed breakfast paper bag in their hand. The cruise is a large air conditioned catamaran type luxury boat. 90 min journey. Took us close to 2 hours though. You need to do security etc (pass bags through xray etc) at the jetty.
  • On reaching Havelock, we had Basheer (who was our Havelock coordinator) waiting for us on the jetty with a driver (with a name placard). We were whisked to our hotel – Sandyy Wavess. This is one of a half dozen resorts on a stretch of road with an access to the beach.
  • Super cozy rooms. Great pool. Neat access to the beach. Except please do plan with the tides – which can change the scene within a couple of hours. You would see an awesome beach, but in a few hours, the tide receeds significantly and the beach is just not useable. So enquire about this in advance. (And if this is not available, there is no point in booking a beach access resort). We had this issue.
  • The restaurant was a mess. Staff shortage (which I learnt from one of the servers whom we befriended). It was one chef churning out stuff. The food was good though, but would always take anywhere between 60-90 minutes at a minimum (which pissed us off quite a bit!). The food being good was the saviour. Breakfast and dinner was a buffet – so we needn’t had to do the excruciating wait. Our package had a breakfast and dinner included in the tariff.
  • We went to the beach (on the property), relaxed a bit, and then in the evening headed to Radhanagar beach – apparently the 6th most cleanest beaches in Asia. True to this, the beach is an amazing one. Super clean. Fine sand. Great waves. Fantastic sunset.

Day 3:

  • The first half was going to be to Elephanta Island – where all the water activities are organized. Contrary to its name, it is not an island, even though you take a speed boat to it. It is just a remote part of the same Havelock island, which you go by boat.
  • Super well organized again. You can buy tickets before you take the speed boat. You get assigned a speed boat. You got to remember the boat name (ours was Sea Lion 16). The boat waits for you for 3 hours and brings you back. You can also buy tickets at the destination.
  • All guests get a complementary introductory 5 min snorkeling session. Basically a bait tactic to take the free session, and then lured to deeper waters. We wanted to do this towards the end, but we ran out of time and skipped it.
  • Our package had jetski and glass bottomed boat as part of it. The glass bottomed boat ride is awesome. You can see the corals and the coloured fish clearly.
  • We took a few extra rides – Black eye and Standing rides – which are just different kinds of inflatables pulled by a speed boat. (Wife and kid went on this). We also did Sea Walk (a unique experience) and para-sailing.
  • The Sea walk is a beautiful experience. You are taken to a platform away from shore. Ladders go down to the sea bottom from the platform. The area is netted all around (so that large fishes / sharks do not come in).
  • They put a 45 kg pressurized helmet on your head/shoulders and lower you down (climb down the ladder). Each person has a diver assigned and a photographer taking pics. You go down 20-30 feet to the ocean floor. The diver basically moves you around and shows you the corals, the colourful fishes (think nemo type fishes), and sets you up for good pics, which the photographer is busy shooting with a go-pro. This goes on for about 10-15 mins and then you are pulled up. This does momentarily make the ears pop for some folks (it did for me, did not impact my wife).
  • Overall, the organization is wonderful for the kinds of crowds that this place gets.
  • Back at the hotel by around 130PM and we had food (had to wait 90 minutes for it though).
  • We had the evening to ourselves, but we could not resist the urge to head back to the Radhanagar beach again.

Day 4:

  • Time to head back to Port Blair. This time the ferry was Nautica Lite. A very similar luxury boat. Same duration. The timing was slightly later. So we had the luxury of having a good breakfast buffet before the journey.
  • Back in Port Blair, we had planned lunch at Cafe Amaya. This roof top restaurant has continental fare and was recommended by PYT and others as well. The food was good and the view was awesome.
  • We had the evening to ourselves. We did a leisurely walk down to the Flag Point area (this is very close to the Sinclair BayView hotel). A good long walk. We visited this small temple – Alaikadal Ayyanaar. Beautiful temple. We walked down to the first ever tricolour flag that was hoisted by Subash Chandra Bose in 1943. History goes that, when the Japanese evacuated after WW2, they handed the islands to Bose, who was the supreme commander of the Azad Hind Fauj.
  • We walked past the awesome food trucks, and found one which was selling falooda/ice creams. Yumm-max ice creams was had. We skipped the other trucks, because we were not too confident about handling the veg and non-veg food together.
  • We popped into the Ramakrishna Mission for 10-15 minutes and listened to the evening aarthi.
  • Back at the hotel, we had a good dinner and retired.

Day 5:

  • Originally we did not have anything planned, but in the last minute, we had asked Arshad if there was something we had missed and could cover in a few hours. Our flight back to BLR was only at 230PM.
  • We realized we had not seen Ross Island (Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Dweep – NSCB Dweep). This was the summer retreat for the British officers.
  • The place is in ruins with tree roots growing eerily over the ruined walls. But one can imagine, how grand it would have been during those times.
  • The tourism board has done a good job of putting concrete paths through these ruins all the way to the light house (and the lone sailor man statue) at the edge of the island ; and golf carts (for a fee) to ferry people around. This was super useful, given the scorching sun.
  • The island has quite a few deer (saw many) and peacocks (did not get to see any). The golf card driver said that, the British had brought these deer to this island for food (venison). When the British left, there were about 15 deer, and now there are about 500 of them.
  • Headed back to the hotel in a couple of hours. Had an early lunch. Headed to the airport. And back in Bangalore for peak hour traffic at 530PM ūüôā

Notes:

  1. The Andamans is super super hot in April. You can get dehydrated / zapped very easily. Wear shades and a hat. Put on sunscreen. Keep drinking water all the time. Interesting tidbit – you will only get 2 lt water bottles in most shops. An elderly shopkeeper lady explained why to us – people drink 1 lt bottle in one go and throw the bottles all over. 2 lt bottles however last for some time, and have a handle on top of the bottle.
  2. Both the islands are super clean. Clean roads, pedestrian pathways. No plastic bottles (in the sea or on land). No junk. Was so heartening to see.
  3. Arshad Port Blair coordinator number – +91 99332 74036
  4. The coordination among these organizers is impressive and you should not have to worry too much at all.
  5. Airtel and BSNL have good signal strength across the islands, I am told. I had Jio and we had coverage in about 50% of the areas.
  6. Take adequate cash when you head there. ATMs are available but do not risk it. Given spotty network connectivity, do not rely on UPI. Especially in Elephanta Islands / Havelock.
  7. PB resorts do not have beach access. Some have good views. We realized that this might not necessarily be that big a deal, for some folks.
  8. Ask about the tides and when the beaches are usable.
  9. Don’t miss the Havelock water rides.
  10. We did not do Neil island because we wanted a relaxed itinerary. If this is something that interests you, you should check it out as well.

Pictures in the twitter thread below:

Wayanad-Kozhikode roadtrip – May 2017

Started off early at 6:15AM on a Thursday morning. Route plan was Bangalore – Nice Road – Mysore Road – Ramanagara. Breakfast at Kamat Lokaruchi. Took roughly an hour (usual time) to get there.

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The route from Ramanagar is – Mysore Bypass – Nanjangud – Gundlpet. At Gundlpet, you fork off towards Wayanad/Sultan Battery (the other road goes towards Ooty). After a few miles from Gundlpet, you get into forest territory. Awesome road and scenery all around.

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Super roads all the way. Took another half hour to get Windflower Resorts. Reached around 1:30PM – right in time for lunch.

If you went all the way to Vythiri town, you went too far. There is a town just before it called Chandel Junction. At Chandel, look out for Canara Bank and SBI ATM on the left, and a road that goes down hill right opposite it. The corner is also an auto stand. Easy to miss. You go down the road, or what is called a road for 3.5km. Horrible horrible driveway. Apparently they have not repaired the road because it is under some court stay order.

The resort is just fantastic. Isolated. But beautiful. We had booked a villa with a private jacuzzi. Totally enjoyed the room and the resort. Some pictures of the resort below.

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We went to Pookode lake one of the days, and totally not worth it. Super crowded small (compared to Ooty/Yercaud) lake. There is also a view point on the Kozhikode road that is pretty darned good. But we had to run off quickly. Too many rowdy monkeys demanding stuff from the tourists.

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There is one other place near by, called Banasura Dam. It is the second largest earthen dam in Asia (largest in India). You can do a speed boat ride (super awesome – my son loved it!) and just get some awesome views of the dam and the Kabini river.

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We stayed there Thursday and Friday. We were planning to leave Saturday back to Bangalore. But we realized that Kozhikode was just 2 hours away. And the beach beckoned. So we made a flash decision. Was able to snag a room in a beach resort in Kappad beach, which is 20 km from Kozhikode. The resort (Renai Kappad Beach resort) is separated from the beach by just a small road. We did Banasura on Saturday morning, on the way to Kozhikode. Reached Koppad beach by lunch time.

Evening was spent on the beach. Super time was had.

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Back to Bangalore on Sunday morning. Had breakfast in Kozhikode. It is a long ride back to Bangalore. Almost 10 hours including breaks. Lunch was at Gundlpet. There are a couple of decent restaurants just outside of the town. Reached home around 6PM.

 

Nandi Hills

Last weekend, my sister, brother-in-law and their kid visited Bangalore, and we used this as an excuse to visit Nandi Hills (which we had never visited so far in the seven years we have lived in Bangalore!).

We started early – around 7:00Am from Koramangala. We took the usual route to the airport that most cabbies take: Viveknagar -> Mother Theresa Road -> Residency Road -> MG Road -> Golf course -> Mekhri circle.

As per plan, we took a slight detour off at RT Nagar and had breakfast at the Vasudev Adigas – at 730AM.

Left Adigas around 830AM and took to Bellary Road. Road is just awesome. Beautifully paved 6 lane road. Pleasure to drive. But do beware of cops who stand with radar speed detectors and can book you (apparently happens very regularly).

After a while, you will see a board to Nandi hills heading left. You will also see a restaurant complex of sorts in that junction. Do take that road even if your GPS does not say so. My MapMyIndia GPS asked me to go straight on and take the next left. The road quality is super bad in the second route.

The Ghat section is a pretty intensive ghat section – not too long, but quite a few hair pin bends. Honk at every turn – because it looks like this ghat section is a favourite for bikers to show off their speed biking skills (especially given that, it is a favourite romantic spot for couples).

Once you reach the top of the hill, there are parking areas. The one at the very top apparently gets filled up very quickly and overflows to the lower level, which is where we parked. This is an area under a larger number of trees and some weird tree house type structures with little or no flooring.

Interesting observation: 5 of the 10 cars that were parked there were zoomcars.

This parking area is just super windy and chill. Do make sure you take a jacket.

You climb up to the actual Nandi hills area via a little walkway and a few steps.

You have a large Shiva temple which looks pretty old. And a Kalyani (temple tank) inside it. This tank is fed by fresh water springs all year long. It is believed that this tank (and its springs) is where three rivers originate – Palaar, Pennaar, and Arkavathi.

There are some neatly maintained gardens and pathways nearby, where you can take a stroll. The two 5 year olds played a bit of football for a while.

There is a Nandini ice cream parlour, where we all had ice creams. There is also a small cafe (small eats like idli, dosa, tea, and coffee are available), where all had tea/coffee.

Warning: There are a large number of monkeys. Even if they see you having something resembling food, they will come and grab from your hand. In fact, if you do even so much as to sit on some of the park benches, they think, you are going to eat, and approach you.

The monkeys scared the living daylights out of us, and we left in about an hour. Over the course of the half hour, we saw monkeys snatching chips packets from small kids, snatching ice-cream bars from older people’s hands, and such.

We left from there around 11am and back in the city by around 1:15pm.

Overall observations:

  • Nice views from the top
  • It is a good picnic spot – but without food.
  • Beware of monkeys
  • We missed an old temple at the base of the hills – with two 5 year olds, this is how much we could cover.
  • It is a place that you can visit once – nothing more to do multiple visits – would be boring.

Pictures:

 
Nandi - @ Nandi Hills
Vista from Nandi Hills
Temple/fort on top of Nandi Hills
Steps - Nandi Hills

Sringeri July 2015

 

  • Weekend trip
  • Onward: Talaguppa express (16227) from Majestic (SBC) – Pf 9 – AC coaches get added at Bangalore – in the front – next to engine. Reaches Shimoga town (SMET) at around 4:50AM.
  • We had booked a taxi from Sringeri – You can call Sudhakar at +91 94487 23382 if you want to book. Good guy. Understands Kannada and Tamil (potentially English and Hindi too, I did not try). Cost (at the time of this writing) is Rs.2250 for pick-up.
  • For staying at Mutt rooms, check in main reception (the driver will take you there).
  • Lunch and dinner were had at the Mutt. For breakfast and evening tiffin, we frequented Hotel Maruti. This has been there for the last 20 years (second generation family that I am seeing that is running it). Restricted menu items, but guaranteed not to affect your stomach.
  • We did a Hornadu visit from Sringeri and back. Takes 2 hours to get there and 2 hours back. And about an hour for darshan. We took the same cab. Rs.2250 (almost same distance).
  • Return was also using the same cab (Rs. 2250). Though the train is at 10:30PM, we were advised to leave around 6PM so that we can come to Shimoga around 8PM. Dinner places are open (and relatively less crowded at this time). We had dinner at the Mathura Paradise. Decent vegetarian North Indian food.
  • Return train is Talaguppa-Bangalore express (16228). Comes in at Pf 2. Comes in mostly bang on time. AC coaches come coupled. Train stops only for about 5 minutes.
  • Arrives in Bangalore at an unearthly hour at 4:25AM (apparently some times even earlier).

 

Kumbakonam ‚Äď Summer of 2015 ‚Äď Temple Trip 2

This is part 2 of my Summer of 2015 series. Part 1 is here.

I had a list of 5 temples to cover this weekend, and was able to succesfully cover them. I do not intend to hurry on this at all. While I am attempting to cover the 276 thevara paadal petra sthalams, 276 is after all a number. My intention is to savour the Thanjavur jilla, the different forms of Lord Shiva, the beautiful Chozha architecture etc. So yeah, no hurry.

Saturday morning, I set off on the trusty wagon-R of my brother-in-law. First stop was Konerirajapuram. Take the Kumbakonam Karaikal road. In about 19 km, you will reach a town named S.Pudur. Take a right here and you will see a signage for vadamattam. Take the road for another 2km, you will hit the temple tank and you will see the Shivan temple.

Konerirajapuram - Shivan temple
Konerirajapuram – Shivan temple

Legend: The Raja wanted the sculptors to make the largest Nataraja possible. He had said, atleast 6-7 ft. Typically Nataraja is made using a 5 metal alloy called Panchaloham. The sculptors kept trying, but they could reach 2.5ft, 3.5ft, but never more than that. Lord Shiva appears as a thirsty brahmin in front of these frustrated sculptors and asks for water. The irritated sculptors give Lord Shiva a glass of Panchaloham. Shiva drinks this and becomes the 7 foot Nataraja that we see today in the temple. The sculptor gets very psyched and goes and tells the Raja, who refuses to believe this story. He comes and hits the idol using a chisel, and blood starts oozing out. The Raja then begs forgiveness to the Lord and asks how to cure the wound that he has created. Lord Muruga comes in the form of Vaidhyanathar and cures the cut. On the right side of the moolavar sannidhi, there is a Vaidyanathar sannidhi and facing him is Muthukumaraswamy (Muruga).

Very quaint little temple. The temple was getting ready for Kumbhabishekam. Another highlight of the visit to this temple was the temple dog, which kept playing with me the entire time I was there.

There is also a famous Perumal temple here. I tried going them, but the temple was locked. I could only peek from the doors. I could get a faint glimpse of the Lord only.

Konerirajapuram - Agraharam
Konerirajapuram – Agraharam

Next on the list was Vaikal Maadakovil. Maadakovil is a class of temples built mostly by Kochengat Chozhan where he built the main temple on a platform which was about 4-5 above the ground (some of them even higher). This is because of a legend that he was a spider that reborn; and in the legend there is an elephant which kept destroying the spider web. [Read legend here]. So even in the next birth, he is supposed to have hated (or afraid of) elephants, and built most of his temples on a raised platform so that elephants cannot reach the sanctum sanctorum. Anyway, back to Vaikal. The road to here is a bit on the narrow and wild side. The road twists and winds through paddy fields and thick bamboo thickets. I used Google Maps to reach there. You will not find too many people to ask directions to here either. Temples was open. No priest. Apparently the priest comes in the morning, performs puja and leaves. Beautifully peaceful temple. Nice temple pond also.

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Vaikal Maadakovil

Road to Vaikal - through lush fields and thick bamboo thickets
Road to Vaikal – through lush fields and thick bamboo thickets

Next on the list for Saturday was Thirukozhambam (earlier called Thirukozhambiyam). Head back to the Kumbakonam-Karaikal Road. There is a new bridge that connects Vaikal with the highway, which Google maps does not know about. I found it by accident. Head back towards S.Pudur. You will pass the right turn that we had earlier taken (to Vadamattam). Right after that, you will see an arch on the left. The arch will say “Sanathkumareswarar”. Head into the arch and head down for about 3-4 km, and you will reach Thirukozhambam. Again, no priest. Temple was open. Went in, had darshan and came out. It has a become a popular joke with my father-in-law. Every time I head back home, he asks me, if there were any other people other than me, in any of the temples I had gone to, and the answer usually is no.

Thirukozhambam
Thirukozhambam

Thirukozhambam
Thirukozhambam

Temple tank - Thirukozhambam
Temple tank – Thirukozhambam

On the way back, I saw the Sanathkumareswarar temple. Seemed to be well maintained, and I also remembered the arch. So I went in. We, Indians have a penchant for wealth, Gods, and Gods who help us create wealth. This temple proof. The legend is that Kubera (the God of wealth) had been cursed by a sage, and had lost everything. He came here and prayed to the Shivan here (Sanathkumareswarar) and he regained back his wealth. This makes the temple ‘famous’. There is also an interesting story about the Guru (Dakshinamoorthy) sannidhi at the back. He has 6 raashis on his left thigh and 6 on his right (you can see the engravings). Apparently, if you come here for 12 thursdays in a row, God will grant whatever you were praying for. The priest here told me that this shrine is famous even among Christians and Muslims. After that I headed home. Total time ~ 3 hours.

Sunday morning – I had two nearby temples. Started around 930AM. First temple was Kottaiyur. Shivan is called Kodeeswaran. Simple small temple. The priest was there in the Ambal sannidhi only. To reach here, cross the kaveri, using the new bridge (the old bridge is closed for construction now). Once you cross the river, you will hit SH66. Head towards Swami malai. You will cross Melakaveri first and then you will hit Kottaiyur.

Kodeeswarar kovil, Kottaiyur
Kodeeswarar kovil, Kottaiyur

Carving of the story of Manu Needhi Chozhan (Equal Justice to all) - Kottaiyur
Carving of the story of Manu Needhi Chozhan (Equal Justice to all) – Kottaiyur

Next on my list was Innambur. To reach here, continue for about 3 km on SH 66 towards Swamimalai. You will see signage for Innambur. You can either take the right towards Thiruppurambiyam and then left into Innambur, or head a little forward for signage directly to Innambur. Very nice Shiva temple. Two devis – one with a very traditional tamizh name (Sugandha Kundalaambal) and one with a very trendy modern name (Nitya Kalyani). Both these temples took around one hour only.

Innambur
Innambur

To see the full beauty of the Thanjavur jilla, you need to hit the back roads. The scenery on the side of the highways do not depict the true reality. For instance SH66 scenery is drab. Once you take the road towards Innambur or Thiruppurambiyam, it will blow your mind. Lush green fields. Lone palm trees. Small temples in the middle of the field. Canals. The works.

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Enroute to Innambur

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Enroute to Innambur

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Enroute to Innambur

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Enroute to Innambur

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Enroute to Innambur

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Irrigation canal

 

Kumbakonam – Summer of 2015 – Temple Trip 1

Reached Kumbakonam on Saturday morning (Bangalore-Mayiladuthurai Express).

Saturday evening started around 5PM. Original idea was to do Thiruppurambiyam, Eenambur, and Kottaiyur – all within a few km from each other. Kottaiyur is closest to Kumbakonam. Then comes Eenambur and then Thiruppurambiyam. Two temples on my stretch list was Thiruvaikaavoor and Thiruvijayamangai.

I did Thiruppurambiyam first and then for some reason decided to do Thiruvaikkavoor and Thiruvijayamangai on that day. One thought I had in mind was Kottaiyur and Eenambur are relatively closer to Kumbakonam and can be done yet another day.

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                                                                          Thiruppurambiyam

 

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                                                                         Thiruppurambiyam

 

Thiruvaikavoor
                                                                               Thiruvaikavoor

Thiruvijayamangai
                                                                Thiruvijayamangai

Sunday morning decided to Thirupanandaal with my brother in law. He had gone to college here. Nice large temple. Well maintained. It has its own aadheenam – so not very surprising.

Thirupanandaal
                                                                Thirupanandaal

Thirupanandaal
                                                                            Thirupanandaal

On the way back from Thirupanandaal, my brother in law was mentioning about a temple which had been recently built dedicated only to the 63 nayanmaars. Interesting small temple with just utsavars for the 63 saints.

63 Nayanmaar temple
                                                                   63 Nayanmaar temple

So that ended my first weekend trip in the Summer of 2015. More coming up in the weekend of April 25.

 

Bangalore – Shirdi – Pandharpur

This is a guest post from my father. Father and Mother had done a 4 day 3 night trip to Shirdi and Pandharpur from Bangalore.

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First Day

  1. Left by Karnataka Express to Kopergaon (Shirdi access) at 7-20 pm. Comfortable journey with good catering service.
  2. Reached Kopergaon (KPG) at 2.00PM 45 minutes late.
  3. Kopergaon to Shirdi about 15 to 16 Kms. Separate auto Rs 300.
  4. Checked into to Prebooked A/C room at Sai Ashram Bhakta Nivas, a 2000 room accommodation complex by Sai Samasthan. A wonderfully created infrastructure with a sorry state of maintenance. The Sai Samasthan need to take a very serious view if they have to maintain the complex in good shape. Highly recommended to stay in one of the good hotels in the nearby vicinity until the maintanence problem is fixed.shirdi1
  5. Sai Dharshan through tickets booked on line. Good Dharshan and pleasant experience.
  6. Visit to other places like Dwarakamai, Chavadi and other places within the Temple.
  7. Mukh Dharshan (A Dharshan of Sai Baba) from a hall from a little distance. Good view of the entire Sai Baba from here.
  8. Snack at Sukh Sagar a restaurant near gate — Good Bombay Chat.
  9. Night Arathi (10.15 PM) through admission pre-booked on line. Systematic admittance till going into the Deity main hall. After entry it was like in a Mumbai Suburban train during peak hours. Once the Arathi starts people get adjusted to that.

Second Day:

  1. Morning after breakfast (7.30 AM) come out of the Bhakti Nivas. Lot of operators waiting to take you to Sani Shignapur (Sani temple). They charge Rs 120 per person for two way journey.
  2. We chose a Force Motors Long Chasis Carrier (they pack 14 people).We got a middle seat (4seats).We have to wait for almost 45 minutes before starting.
  3. Good decision to take the Force Vehicle taking the very bad condition of the National Highway which we have to take. It would have been a night mare with a Maruthi Omni or a Tata Ace.
  4. We reach Sani Shignapur (65 Kms from Shirdi) after 75 minutes’ drive. Since we reached early no crowd and we have a good Dharshan of the open deity. The deity a black stone in the open surrounding. Very nice Dharshan.shanishigna
  5. On our way back we could see lot of vehicles zipping past indicating the buildup of crowd going to Shani Signapur.
  6. After reaching Shirdi back at about 1.00 PM Lunch at Woodlands (duplicate) opposite to Sai Temple. (Slightly highly priced but good.) Rasam Vada, Sev Puri, Bakala Bath and Mysore Coffee.
  7. Again Dharshan at Mukh Dharshan Hall.
  8. Leave for Kopergaon little early by about 7.15 PM as we have to reach Kopergaon well in time to go to Solapur by Maharashtra Express slip coach to Solapur. The train reaches Kopergaon at 9.50 PM. The train arrives on time. Till the last moment the Railways do not announce the platform, which puts the passengers to lot of anxiety and makes you run helter and shelter
  9. Though the stopping time was one minute, the train halted for 90 minutes to allow crossings for 4 trains.

Third day

  1. Maharashtra express reached Daund at 3.00AM, 45 minutes late.
  2. The slip compartment to Solapur was expected to be attached to Chennai Mail at 5.15 AM which arrived at 7.30 AM and so the train reached Solapur at 11.15 AM 2hours late.
  3. This leg of the journey was the worst. The condition of the sleeper coach with the nightmarish toilets emanating stench which could make one swoon. Further parking the compartment in a dead end platform for 4.30 hours made it into an open toilet for all the people living their life in the platform.
  4. At last reached Solapur and checked into Surya International (not the executive hotel but the older one) which looked a heaven after the nightmarish journey.
  5. Decent hotel which charged Rs 1400 plus taxes for a deluxe non A/c accommodation.
  6. Hired a car (Suzuki Desire A/C) through the hotel for visit to Pandharpur (Rs 2000). Good car with a descent driver.
  7. Solapur ‚Äď Pandharpur is 68 Kms one way and takes 75 minutes‚Äô drive.
  8. Though we have obtained Pre-booked pass through internet, luckily we don’t have to use it since there was no crowd. We had a good Dharshan.
  9. Pleasant experience is there is no touts to pester you.
  10. The whole trip to and fro Pandharpur took 3.15 hours.

    Pandharpur_Vithoba_temple
    (image courtesy:wikipedia)
  11. Reached the station Solapur well in advance and since our departure time by the Solapur- Yeshwantpur super-fast express at 7.20 PM is linked with Mumbai Mail from Chennai, quite a good spread of food like Idly,Vada etc. were available (otherwise everywhere only Vada pav and Bread Sandwich only.

Fourth day

  1. Reached Yeshwantpur on time at 7.10AM after a pleasant journey in the train.14783638006_95ab41dd50_z