Kashmir – Go Offbeat, Beyond The Usual “Margs”

“Agar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast; Hami asto, hami asto, hami ast.”

The verses of Amir Khusro remained stuck in my head as our cab passed through the meadows of Pahalgam, on the way to Aru, the road curved and turned in sync with the curves of Lidder river. Dodging the pony owners, I kept walking on the slopes of Aru until there were no noises except for the sound of gushing stream against the deafening silence of distant peaks. For me, going offbeat in Kashmir meant getting to know its people up close and personal.

Khusro wasn’t lying at all when he mentioned Kashmir as the paradise on Earth, except that, as of today, the paradise went through unrest and troubled times much too often and to everyone’s agony, is now mentioned as the fallen paradise instead. As I went exploring the lesser famous places of Kashmir, I realized that there was way more to know about Kashmiriyat apart from the land itself.

Pahalgam is the valley of shepherds and you meet a lot of Gujars on your way while exploring the valley

Commuting from Srinagar to all nearby places is pretty easy due to the availability of shared cabs throughout, in addition to local buses, both intra-city and intercity. Given the ongoing unrest in the state during my visit, I preferred to keep my base in Srinagar and make day trips to all other places. I wanted to stay for a minimum of 2 nights at a few places before moving ahead to the next destination. Well, as luck would have it, few things did not materialize quite in my favor and I missed visiting a couple of places. On the brighter side, these circumstances collectively turned out to be a very good reason to go back.

Read more: Did you know? Polo, the game of elites, has it’s humble origins in Manipur

The meadows of Aru had enough pasture to offer its inhabitants

Beyond the usual ‘Margs’

Yousmarg

Yousmarg has the beauty of both meadows and brooks in equal measure

The names Gulmarg and Sonamarg pop up in the minds undoubtedly when one mentions about visiting Kashmir. Gulmarg has a majority number of visitors thanks to the famous gondola rides. While both places are breathtakingly beautiful, I preferred to first explore the lesser known ‘Marg’ – Yusmarg.

Surrounded by beautiful meadows with bakarwal settlements spread across the valley, Yousmarg is equally peaceful and mesmerizing. Trek to the beautiful Nilnag is a must when you are here. I would recommend staying in Yousmarg for a night to explore the place better. There is a JKTDC hut here.

Yousmarg is well connected with Srinagar. If you are traveling by public transport (read shared cabs), you will need to break the journey in 2 parts, Srinagar to Charar-e-Shareef and Charar-e-Shareef to Yousmarg. The shared cabs are easily available all day long. Local buses also ply from Srinagar to Charar-e-Shareef.

Read more:  What should you not miss during your trip to Spiti Valley

Aru Valley

The little hideout of Veera in Highway

If Pahalgam is called the valley of shepherds, Aru is the lesser known beauty situated at a distance of 12 km. There is an entry fee of INR 25 and regular cabs do ply to and from Pahalgam city center.

The best way to explore the valley is to go around on foot. Since interest in tourism has been given priority, I could see hotels and guest houses swarming in the valley with an increase in the number of pony owners. However, the pony owners did not bother tourists much in Aru unlike Gulmarg, where they follow you until you decide to give in. That one thing I hold in disfavor of tourism is the commercialization of any place a little too much.

My personal recommendation for people who must hire a pony due to obvious and unavoidable circumstances is – “bargain hard ”.

I would strongly recommend staying in Aru for a night. Alternately, you can cover Aru Valley and Chandanwari on a day trip from Srinagar.

Chandanwari

The road to Chandanwari is not smooth but it’s worth

Chandanwari is much more than merely being famed as the starting point of the most esteemed Amarnath Yatra. The road to this beautiful place is mesmerizing. The number of people visiting Chandanwari during the lean season (read non-yatra season) is the bare minimum. You can trek all the way to Sheshnag Lake. It is a 7 km trek and recommended to go early morning. Alternatively, you may hire ponies to get to the lake. I could not go beyond glacier as the weather started to turn unfavorable and we were advised to return.

You can see the beautiful Betaab Valley enroute Chandanwari

Fishing and angling are common scenes in Kashmir. You need to have a permit for the same

As mentioned above, Chandanwari can be covered in a day trip from Srinagar along with Aru. However, if you wish to trek to Sheshnag Lake, it is highly recommended to start early as weather Gods aren’t always kind enough.

Kokernag

Kokernag Botanical Gardens

The district of Anantnag has many lesser-known gems and Kokernag is one of them. Kokernag houses the largest freshwater stream and botanical garden in Kashmir. The Kokernag gardens are home to exotic immigrant birds. If you are a birding enthusiast, it is recommended to stay inside the garden complex in one of the JKTDC huts.

Shared cabs ply from Srinagar to Anantnag. You change cabs from Anantnag to Kokernag. The cab drops you just outside the Kokernag botanical garden.

Daksum

Daksum is surrounded by hills and is the most peaceful

Daksum took my heart away in a breath. The moment our cab entered Daksum, I decided to stay back for the night here.

Located at a distance as little as 16 km from Kokernag, Daksum is a quaint little village surrounded with peaks of conifers. Daksum is trekker’s paradise and a perfect haven for people who would want to spend time away from the madding crowd. The air of the silent woods offers pervasive peace and calm throughout, while the Bringhi River gushes through Daksum’s meadows. The JKTDC huts are located in the middle of the woods, which is an absolute delight.

The JKTDC huts in the midst of pines and deodars

You can either hire a cab from Srinagar directly. For travelers who find public transport perfect, below is the way you reach Daksum via shared cabs.

Srinagar – Anantnag – Kokernag – Vailoo – Daksum. You change cabs at the mentioned places. Trust me, the journey is everything but tiring.

Read more: How the old world charm of Calcutta still intrigues the new age traveler

Sinthan Top

The roads leading from Daksum to Sinthan Top

At an elevation of approx. 12,297 ft. Sinthan top is a mountain pass covered with snow all year around. You would not find a lot many tourists here and hence, would have the entire place to yourself. Sinthan pass is around 37kms from Daksum. The uphill drive on the serpentine roads is absolutely breathtaking. Sinthan pass connects Kashmir valley to Jammu via Kishtawar.

To reach here, one would need to hire a cab as not many people visit hence, no shared cabs available. Alternatively, you can also keep Sinthan pass as a pit stop option on your road trip from Kashmir valley to Jammu or vise-versa.

The kind of traffic you find in Kashmir

Apart from the above mentions, I also explored the regulars like Gulmarg, Sonamarg and the most beautiful but not-much-known Gurez Valley. You can read the detailed account on Gurez Valley here.


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Imphal – 48 Hours In The Capital City Of Polo


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2018 saw me travel to two places in India that have been high repute to being insurgent – Kashmir and Manipur. While Kashmir still battles every single day to breathe amidst regular attacks, curfews and unwarranted situations every now and again, Manipur, on the other hand, has regained its status of being out of the AFSPA act back in 2004. However; the conundrum around whether to visit the place still kept people from witnessing the blend of history and culture of this land furthermore, all things World War II, INA and, Polo.

Manipur has, slowly and steadily, succeeded in piquing the interests of travelers from around the world and has now gained little more momentum in its tourism through regular festivals, cultural fairs, sports, and various sustainable development programs. I for one was there for history and culture.

Kangla Fort

Finding A Place To Stay

Traveling within your own country gives you the freedom to land into any destination without prior bookings and that is something I am an expert of. Manipur was no exception. I checked for hostels in Imphal soon after landing and there was just one- The Youth Hostel. Impressive! I exclaimed in my head. Upon reaching, I was asked to wait at the reception area until the hostel manager, Mr. Singh was in. I could see a lot of students from other states discussing some interstate sports competitions happening around. It didn’t take me long to figure out that chances of my getting a room at the hostel were lean due to quite a few cultural fairs lined up on dates coinciding with that of my stay in Imphal.

The advantage for a solo traveler is that s/he can be adjusted, or rather squeezed in at places even when the chances of accommodation are nearly zilch. Mr. Singh was kind enough to allocate a spare room that was only reserved for VIP visitors. Yay! – What’s more interesting is that I lost my way to the hostel that very evening and Mr. Singh guided me very patiently over the phone. (Mis)adventures on travels. Phew! And yes, the language barrier indeed, which is why I had to call Mr. Singh before giving up on people around. I actually had underestimated this aspect before my arrival into this land of Meities, Kukis, and Nagas. However, I managed okay to co-exist.

Shaheed Minar at Bir Tikendrajit Park

Imphal, the tiny capital city of this Northeastern state can very much be covered on foot and public transport. Every place is well connected via public transport. I mostly preferred walking and used shared cabs only on occasions when I felt lazy. I spent 2 days exploring the city, which, as a slow traveler, I found was sufficient time. Listing down my itinerary for 48 hours in Imphal.

Day 01:

Khwairamband Bazaar or Ima Keithel

You would find everything under one roof in Ima Keithel

In the heart of Imphal city, lies Asia’s largest all- women market, Ima Keithel, literally translating into “mother’s market”. Also known as Khwairamband bazaar, the market is a nerve center operating from dawn to dusk with women taking charge of trades of all kinds. You get to buy everything here from grocery to handicrafts to clothes to fresh local produce. Dressed in traditional phaneks (sarong) and innaphis (shawls), manning the stalls that are passed down onto them from their mothers or mothers-in-law, women here, have been the forefront of Manipur’s socio-economic landscape since time immemorial. Turn the pages of history and you would find proof in Nupi Lan, a social movement wherein, Manipuri women defended their trading rights at Ima Keithel against economic policies brought up by British autocrat.

For the women traders, Ima Keithel is not just a hub, it is their identity and life.

A detailed post on Ima Keithel coming soon.

Shaheed Minar

Shaheed Minaar

A memorial built in respect of valiant soldiers of Anglo- Manipur war of 1891. This was the place where 5 Manipuri commanders including the then crown prince, Bir Tikendrajit Singh was hanged for waging war against British Empire. The memorial garden is now named Bir Tikendrajit Park and is located adjacent to Mapal Kangjeibung, Imphal polo stadium.

It has a well-manicured garden and lawn. The locals often come here and spend time with families. Because of its location right next to the polo ground, you may as well be lucky to watch an ongoing polo match.

Mapal Kangjeibung (Imphal Polo Ground)

There was an ongoing Polo match and interestingly, the locals were cheering high

Manipur introduced the world to the game of polo or, sagol kangjei, as they call it and, Mapal Kangjeibung is the world’s oldest functional polo ground. So, the game of elites has humble roots and how.

I wasn’t aware of the polo ground until I heard announcements from the adjacent ground while taking a stroll at shaheed minar complex. I peeked out to find players getting around with their ponies. I quickly went to watch the game. Not that I understood any of it but it sort of felt cool.

Don’t miss out the board at Imphal polo stadium that reads – “Manipur Gave The World The Game of Polo”.

Govindajee Temple

The prayer and community hall of Govindajee Temple

Govindajee temple is the oldest, largest and, most important center for Hindu Vaishnavites in Imphal. The temple is an impressive red brick structure with two golden domes. It is located very near to Kangla fort and next to the royal palace. The temple is surrounded by greens all around, a lake and a temple garden. The place is very serene and I would strongly recommend a visit to the temple during early morning while the prayers take place.

I had been there in the afternoon. The main temple was closed and I had to wait for around an hour until it opened for visitors again. It was worth the wait I must say.

Day 02:

Imphal War Cemetery

1600 fallen soldiers laid to rest at the Imphal War Cemetery

Wars leave neither a good sight nor good memories, let alone the number of lives claimed. I had walked up to the Imphal war cemetery from my hostel that morning. The place is located opposite DM College, in a silent neighborhood, away from the hustle of traffic on the highway. It was a different sense of peacefulness inside the cemetery.

There are 1600 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War in this cemetery. The battle fought in Imphal and Kohima during the Second World War has gone down as one of the greatest probable battles in history. The cemetery is clean and well maintained by Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The cemetery remains open from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM during the winter months of October to February, and from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM rest of the year.

Indian Army War Cemetery

Cremation Memorial at the end of the cemetery that commemorates soldiers from other religious faiths

My hostel manager, Mr. Singh recommended this place to me and helped me with accurate directions. This cemetery is specific to soldiers of the Indian army, belonging to the Islamic faith. There is also a Cremation Memorial at the end of the cemetery that commemorates soldiers from other religious faiths too, that were killed during the battle of Imphal and Kohima.

Kangla Fort

The West gate of Kangla Fort

Kangla fort is the ancient capital and seat of the royal family of Manipur. Apart from being the seat of political power of the royal family, the fort is also of both religious as well as cultural significance to the Manipuris. The palace is surrounded by a huge channel, called “Kangla Pat”.

The fort is close to Imphal river and is spread across an estimated area of 237 acres of land. There are temples, museums, and ruins inside the fort complex, which is surrounded by moats. The entrance of Uttara, the ancient coronation hall of the fort is guarded by Kangla Sha, dragon-like animals that are believed to protect the king.

The Kangla Sha

The Kangla fort complex also is home to world’s oldest polo ground, Manang Kangjeibung, which was turned into a helipad. There are quite a few tombs, cottages of British and Assam Riffle officers, samadhis/memorials of erstwhile kings and offices inside the complex. There is a pond believed to be sacred and of religious importance by the locals.  

The sacred pond inside Kangla fort complex

It’s recommended to spend a good amount of time inside the fort complex and explore it. 

There is an entry fee of INR 10. The visiting hours are 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM between November to February and 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM between March and October.

The Food Space Of Imphal

The air around the market area in Imphal smelled heavily of fermented fish with sights of locals snacking on Singju, a local delicacy, ingredients of which include seasonal vegetables. It comes in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian version. The non-vegetarian Singju is made of traditional fermented fish, called Ngari.

Singju- The local snack

The best way to relish on Manipuri food is to have the Manipuri Thali. Luxmi’s kitchen is famous for serving the best thali. I also tried thali at Imoinu kitchen on the recommendation of a close friend and found their food more delicious. My personal recommendation would be to go for Imoinu, run by 3 most friendly and warm females I met in Imphal. Both Luxmi and Imoinu serve Meitei cuisine.

Fermented fish. You find them everywhere around Manipur

If you are keen on trying Tangkhul cuisine, Shosa’s kitchen is most recommended. The food is hot and spicy. They serve amazing desserts and baked yogurts, the kiwi yogurt is a must try.

My next destination in Manipur was Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India. How I traveled there and where I stayed, my interaction with locals in Moirang and what I found intriguing about the INA memorial, is a story for another post. 

 

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Life In Gurez Valley: Helming Sunny Between Merciless Winters


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“Why go to the bakery? I am making tikkis. Have breakfast with us.” Said Yawar’s mother in her warmest tone. I obliged and sat beside his grandmother, whose nonchalant puffing of hookah was quite intriguing. Life in Gurez Valley is simple and frugal but far from boring. Later during the day, I would accompany Yawar’s mother to the potato fields and try my hands at harvesting the produce.

Yawar’s family was among few with whom I shared breakfasts, meals, stories, concerns, and laughter during my week-long stay in Gurez.

Yawar – He was a great company 

Yawar’s grandmother

The bridge that connects Achoora to Dawar

FREEDOM FROM OBLIVION

For the next 60 years since India gained independence in 1947, Gurez valley was written off to be out of reach for outsiders. Reason- The valley rubbed shoulders with LOC between India and Pakistan, one of the most heavily guarded and militarized zones in the world. Except for the locals and Indian army, no one else was allowed entry into the valley.

The shroud of oblivion was however lifted in 2007 when the government decided to open the ancient silk route gateway to tourists. In the past decade, very less has been written or talked about Gurez. While J&K tourism has made attempts to promote tourism in the valley by setting up tourist rest houses, organizing festivals and rallies, this isolated land in far north of Kashmir, continues to remain known only to a handful of people.

Strawberry grows in abundance and wilderness in Tulail

The road to Tulail

Sheikhpora Village in Tulail

Water is in abundance, thanks to Kishenganga that flows through the valley but, electricity for more than 5 hours is like gold dust.

Life here is remotely close to being exemplary but, that does not deter its people from carving contentment out of whatever is available. I was, on my way to live some of the best days of my life.

A sunny day after stormy night. Look at the snow covered peaks far away

Tulail Valley

AMENITIES

 “Government is least bothered about Gurezis. We crave for basic amenities like electricity and mobile connectivity. Jobs too are a rarity because of which, youngsters are moving to Kashmir for better prospects. They hardly follow Dard tradition anymore. Water is in abundance, thanks to Kishenganga that flows through the valley but, electricity for more than 5 hours is like gold dust.” mentioned Gulam with a bit of disdain.

Gulam Mustafa is an ex-army officer, who settled in Gurez post-retirement and, now runs a bakery out of Dawar. I met Gulam one morning while I was simply strolling around Dawar, after my failed attempt to get a shared cab to Tulail. We got talking and it turned out that he had traveled to and lived for brief periods in almost every state in India, however, it was only back home in Gurez that he found his calling. His bakery doles out the freshest breads in Gurez. My visits to his bakery became regular during early mornings to collect fresh bread for breakfast. Well, I never returned without having a couple of breads hot out of the oven, drenched in butter and, noon-cha (salt tea- typical Kashmiri specialty) to go with. Heartfelt conversations over noon-cha were highlights of my mornings at Gulam’s bakery.

Gulam Mustafa in his bakery

Fresh loaves of bread out of the oven

Butter topped poppy seed bread served with noon cha at Gulam’s bakery

Kishenganga at Sunset- Gurez Valley

LIVELIHOOD

Farming and shepherding are basic whereas, manual labor forms the core job mostly for women, who do everything from farming to carrying firewood to hauling water to the fields. Winters are too harsh with 10- 15 feet snow on the ground. “It snowed very less last year though. Just 5- 7 feet” says Umer Lone, who works at BSNL telephone exchange at Dawar.

Everyone here, seem to be elated with the mention of tourism in Gurez.

Gurezi women returning from field work

Farming is the major job for women

Tulail valley in upper Gurez holds a distinct beauty. Both in terms of landscapes as well as cultural expanse. The residents of the valley still live in log houses and follow the ancient traditions. As winter sets in, the valley is covered in dense snow and remains cut off from the rest of the world for almost half a year. The army comes to residents’ rescue in case of emergencies during winter months.

Be it the unavailability of electricity 24/7, non-existent mobile connectivity, poor job prospects, isolation from the outside world for half a year or, poor medical facilities. Nothing manages to obscure the warmth of its people. They would offer me help upfront, be ready to accompany me as my guides and take me to places known to fewer. Seeing a solo female traveler visit their village, conversations would start with the usual question “Akeli aayi ho? Darr nahi lagta?” (You have come alone, aren’t you scared?). Some would laugh it off and say “Koi darr nahi yaha. Aap safe hi rahoge” (there’s nothing to be scared, you will be safe).

Our chat quickly shifted towards the controversial Kishenganga Dam project and how that would impact Gurez.

A typical log-house in Tulail

Tulail has the most number of traditional log houses in entire Gurez valley

Another fine morning saw me walking all the way beyond the desert village of Budwan, where the water from the reservoir had consumed nearly a quarter of the village. The entire village was evacuated and shifted to a nearby village. What remains today is a graveyard of memories buried under stacks of rubble. Mohammad Rafiq pays a visit to the site where his home used to be and spends hours fishing by the reservoir, reminiscing good old days. Like Rafiq, other residents too have left their hearts in Budwan even though, the new homes are much bigger and stronger than the earlier ones.

The only structure that stands tall in the entire ghost village is the old mosque. Stranded and lonely.

The lone mosque in deserted Budwan village

EDUCATION

I was pretty amazed and glad too, to see the number of schools in the valley. Every village has a minimum of 2 schools. There’s even a polytechnic college being built with hostel facilities. “Education is very important for us. Our girls are more interested in studies and that’s how Gurez has a 99% literacy rate.” mentioned Mohammad Nazir, whom I had met while on my way to Budwan. As our conversations progressed, I came to know that he works with NHPC. Our chat quickly shifted towards the controversial Kishenganga Dam project and how that would impact Gurez.

A Higher Secondary School in Izmarg near Bagtore

All they want is more people to visit their homeland and Google should include Tulail and Chakwali on its maps.

Unlike Gurez, not every village in Tulail has schools. Children travel to Sheikhpora or PTL (Purana Tulail) for attending schools. What struggles people go through in pursuit of a better life can be witnessed firsthand at these corners of the world. While back home, we crib on petty issues that might simply feel like first world problems when compared.

Getting lost into the woods were highlights of my days

WHAT’S NEXT?

Much to my sadness, the authenticity of the Dard-Shin culture and traditions of Gurez has, to most extent, succumbed to emigration and modern lifestyles, if not in entirety. There are cakes cut during weddings now, instead of Balushaahi and firni being served. Tulail, on the other hand, has still managed to keep almost 80% of the traditions alive.

Gurez 

Wild berries

Everyone here, seem to be elated with the mention of tourism in Gurez. April to August is the best time to experience the real beauty of Gurez, they say. All they want is more people to visit their homeland and Google should include Tulail and Chakwali on its maps. They view tourism in a good way and believe it would bring riches to their land.

How much of that’s going to prove true, only time will tell. Till then, Shukran Gurez! You have been an incredible host.

Dawn Colors of Gurez

Update- Gurez now enjoys 4g connectivity since 22nd October 2018, as Reliance Jio connections were activated after a long wait

 

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Staying In This Arunachali Village Will Shrink Your Carbon Footprint

When my plans for Arunachal Pradesh had been finalised, I was recommended to pitch tents and camp in Sangti Valley. However, except for the name of the village, I neither had an idea where to camp nor did I make any efforts to know more about it. In the days that followed, I became quite a procrastinator whenever I was asked about my stay options around Dirang.

I had two options in my mind and Dirang was definitely not among them. My mind jumbled between Sangti and Thembang, both situated at two extreme ends of Dirang. Which place I would stay put was left for last minute decisions, something I specialize in.

Ultimately, I zeroed down on Sangti.

By the Sangti river, life seems pretty simple

Why Sangti?

Situated at the sleepy outskirts of Dirang in Arunachal Pradesh, right by the bank of Sangti river, is a quaint little hamlet that houses around 500 families. It is in this village that I had decided to stay instead of Dirang which is thronged by tourists from all over.

Lined with the typical stone and wood houses, people of Sangti live in absolute harmony with the ecology. They build their own homes and furniture and utilities are made out of wood and bamboo / cane. The making of utilities out of bamboo / cane is an art-form of this region and you would find them in every household. They transform simple bamboo/ cane into visually attractive utilities like baskets, trays, storage pouches, smoking pipes, ornaments etc.

Recommended read: What more to do in Agra beyond Taj Mahal

A typical stone walled Sangti house

Sangti is also known for being shelter to black-necked cranes during the winter months between November and February. Buddhists consider this bird to be the embodiment of 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso and hence, treat them as sacred.

The Sangti river

What to do?

There is nothing much to do than lazing around. The stay here will allow you to slow down without a hint of tedium. The entire valley is best explored on feet. The valley is aligned with numerous kiwi and apple plantations. Take a stroll around the village. Since the valley is surrounded by hills, you may as well try hiking up to one of the nearby peaks, walk up to the neighboring village of Namthung, indulge in activities with the locals, learn the craft of making bamboo / cane utilities, etc.

Your stay here will also contribute in shrinking of your carbon footprint to some extent. You would love the experience of being a responsible traveler.

Recommended read: Did you visit Odisha’s first heritage village yet?

The bamboo gate of Letro homestay

Where to stay?

Letro Homestay is the only operational homestay in this picturesque village, started and maintained by Dorjee Letro and his wife, Sangnima. It is not very difficult to locate the homestay. As soon as you cross the sheep breeding farm, look for the suspension bridge to your right. Little less than 2 mins of drive from the suspension bridge would take you to Letro homestay. Look out for a display board with the name of the homestay on your left. The homestay is right opposite to the display board.

There are 4 rooms on the 1st floor for guests. Whereas each room is big enough for occupancy of 3 people, washroom and toilets are common.

Dorjee Letro. The owner

You can walk into their kitchen and try your hands on the local delicacies. They serve both vegetarian and non- vegetarian food as per the wishes of their guests. The fresh produce comes from their own little kitchen farm in the backyard. They also grow seasonal mushrooms which are dried and preserved for later use. Everything they grow here is pesticide free and organic. Do not miss having Khapsays, a Losar speciality, with your tea.

Recommended read: The differences and similarities between Calcutta and Kolkata

Mithun meat being dried and will be stored for winters

There is a small portico that serves as a common seating and dining area for the guests. You can also dine al fresco or opt to dine with the family in their kitchen.

The common seating area

I had expressed my wish to have only local food, especially thukpa for dinner and also wanted to try preparing it myself. Sangnima called for me just before starting her preparations and I got a chance to learn her recipe of thukpa. We were served thukpa with yak meat, dried mithun meat and phing (special rice noodles imported from Bhutan) curry coupled with local drink, Ara (rice and maize beer).

Ara. It’s strong .

The dinner spread

Dorjee Letro narrated stories of his encounters with travelers at dinner with one story segueing into another. His favorite among all is the story of his 1st guests, who were none other than Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin and her father Joel when the father daughter team had forayed into a 4,000 kms bike ride across 3 northeastern states. From trying out local outfits to getting hands on with local cuisine, Kalki showed no qualms and was very down to earth. Joel was the friendlier one, mentioned Letro with twinkle in his eyes.

For al-fresco dining

In case you wish to ride across the valley, Letro would arrange bikes for you. He also makes arrangements for camping by the riverside as he owns tents and sleeping bags. The tents are double sharing tents.

He has also set up 5 permanent luxury tents (double sharing) by the river side. They make foran eco- friendly luxury stay.

The green pastures are in abundance

When to visit?

Sangti can be visited all year around however, if you are more interested in camping and trekking activities, you may skip monsoon.

March and April – The best time to enjoy winters since it is neither too cold nor hot. The weather remains pleasant throughout the day and temperature dips a bit during the night. April is also time for the famous car rally in the valley which is sponsored by J. K tyres.

May to July- Monsoon is very pretty since the valley turns even brighter.

August to October – The flowers of the valley are in their full bloom during this period. The entire valley is covered in various colors with change in colors of conifers that line the mountain slopes.

November to February – This is a time when black necked cranes start migrating to the village. The winters are very cold and you would need to pack accordingly. February is also time for Losar, the Tibetan New Year festival.

Recommended read: About Gurez valley- the forgotten gem of Kashmir

How to reach Sangti?

Let’s vrooom

Sangti can only be reached by road since there is no air or rail connectivity in this region. The nearest airport and railway station, both are in Guwahati and is easily accessible via road from Guwahati.

There are 2 different routes that lead to Sangti from Guwahati. It takes around 10 hours to reach irrespective of the route you settle on.

The first one being the most common: Guwahati- Tezpur- Bhalukpong- Bomdila- Dirang- Sangti. This route is lined with food outlets for travellers.

The second route is: Guwahati- Udalguri- Kalaktang- Shergaon- Mandala- Dirang- Sangti. This one is rather unconventional route since you would not find any outlets for food or snacking. You will need to carry etables if you opt to take this route. However, the entire journey offers you with the most scenic beauty of northeast.

How much does the stay cost?

Stay charges for one room is INR 1500. If you are travelling in a group, you may go dutch. In case you are travelling solo, the charge for stay is INR 800.

Food Charges – INR 150 for vegetarian meal and INR 200 for non- vegetarian meal (The charges mentioned are for one meal that includes unlimited food)

Tea and snacks are on the house

How to book your stay?

You can book your stay on phone. Contact Mr. Dorjee Letro at +91 87946 68634

P. S- Mobile networks are terrible in Sangti. Hence, try to call during the day since it might be difficult to get through during late evenings

The usual scenes of the valley

Staying in Sangti valley gives you the opportunity to be a responsible traveler. Have you ever thought of responsible travelling or done it yourself?


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Agra – From Taj And Beyond


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It was 8:00 in the evening and we had been riding through the city for quite some time now, in search of some place to settle for dinner. Reason- Most restaurants were closed on the occasion of Diwali, a trend I found to be rather strange. “This isn’t Mumbai” my friend exclaimed in response of my astonishment.  

I was in Agra and this was the first of many surprises that were to be disclosed during the rest of my trip.

By the banks of Yamuna, lies the historical city of Agra which was once the capital of Delhi Sultanate, under the regime of Sikandar Lodhi. Even after Lodhi dynasty ebbed away, the city continued to be seat of the Mughal empire, which successively advanced to power. What remains today is the architectural legacy of the Mughal empire interspersed across the city and neighboring areas.

The mere mention of Agra instinctively brings Taj Mahal to one’s mind and this inimitable monument of love allures millions from across the world. However; the city offers much more beyond the Taj when one sets for an intensive exploration of its rich history and patrimony.   

Like all my travels, even this time, I had not decided on any set itinerary however; I had in mind the places I wanted to explore during my 3 day visit. I came back with mixed emotions and impressions about the city, its people, the tourists, its heritage and of course, the Taj Mahal.

Listing down my experiences in the city, both good and bittersweet.

THE TAJ MAHAL- A GRAND ODE TO LOVE

There would be tourists swarming everywhere within the Taj premises

Well, Taj Mahal needs no introduction. Having read and heard so much about the monument of love throughout my life, my excitement had somewhat frizzled out by the time I finally stepped into the city. However, one look at the grand monument and I could not contain my adoration towards it and the sentiments that led to building of this architectural marvel. The entire structure is epitome of rich and intricate artwork that leaves one mesmerized to the core.

Recommended: Have you been to Gurez Valley?

BEYOND TAJ

Jahangir’s hunting retreat outside Akbar’s tom in Sikandra

While Agra’s historical significance dates back to the times of Mahabharata, the city gained its golden age only under the rule of Mughal Badshahs. I explored the interiors of the old city that are least visited apart from the prominent ones.

The Agra Fort, one of the finest Mughal forts built out of red sandstone and marble represents a small city within its premises with quite a few palaces, mausoleums and gardens. Sikandra is home to grand Akbar’s tomb along with an unknown Lodhi tomb within the site. Tomb of Mariam-uz-Zamani, Chini Ka Rauza, Tomb of Itmad-Ud-Daulah, Aram Bagh (the Persian garden built by Babur) and the black mosque behind Taj Mahal are few structures with varied architectural styles and elements.

PEOPLE AND GOODWILL

The Deewan-ei-Aam of Agra Fort

The most important element of a place is its people and when traveling to a new city, our impression about the city mostly depends on what kind of people we come across. As it happens, we meet people of all kinds in all places. A thing with me is, I have managed to meet some awesome people while on the road and Agra was no exception. My rickshaw driver, whom I had hired for 2 days, invited me to the inauguration of a new restaurant that his close friend had opened. Also, the hotel staff where I had stay put, was very helpful. One of them even offered to drop me to Taj Mahal East gate early morning on his bike when I had forgotten to inform my driver about the pickup time.

I cannot thank my stars enough whenever I meet such wonderful people. As they say, there is always a workaround.

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SHEROES – THE REAL HEROES

The Red Taj – Tomb of Colonel John Hessing

A first of its kind, Sheroes’ Hangout in Agra is a quaint café run by 5 acid attack survivors. The restaurant is very tastefully designed with graffiti and trinklets adorning the walls. I was recommended this place by a friend and came back feeling overwhelmed. As an initiative of “Stop Acid Attacks” and Chhanv Foundation, the café runs on no-set-price menu. So, you pay whatever you feel like.  Didn’t mind splurging here at all.

My request to all you peeps is to consider shelling out some extra cash here.

TRAVEL EXPERIENCES ARE ALWAYS POSITIVE. NOT!

The mosque within the Taj Mahal premises

“So much money spent on a dead king. That too an invader” blurted out one of the tourists while coming out from Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra. The comment left me appalled. I have, however; omitted the part of the comment which was far more shocking and disturbing. This instant was just the tip of the iceberg.

Travel is not always about happy memories and when it is from your own country, a not-so-positive experience is more than disappointing. As a country, while we brag about having rich cultural history, the heritage and legacy left behind by former rulers is something we should rather take pride in, than regarding it with disdain.

Whom do we hold responsible for such intolerance? Regressive mindsets or negative media?

I would wish for a sky under which, people are a little more respectful, inclusive, tolerant and humane.

 

P. S – This article was first published here

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