Friday, June 16, 2017

Leh-d Back

Come summer holidays, our travel itch needed to be scratched. And so, we decided to scratch a cuple of things off our bucket list.
Sticking to our resolution of exploring our wonderful country, we've decided to head on a bt further north - all the way into the Himalayan Range. Destination: Leh!
The flight into Leh from Delhi was completely breathtaking. Starting with teasing glimpses of the mountain tops peeking out from under the clouds to gradually witnessing an entire vast mountainscape below us. Leh airport has to be one of the most picturesque in the world. 
Leh itself, is a sleepy little town, of cheerful people (and long-staying foreign tourists) and bustling with military personnel. We were fortunate enough to stay at a guest house whose owner is a Padma Shree - Sonam Wangyal - he was the youngest person to climb up the Everest at that time. He was also part of the Indian paramilitary forces, and he has some interesting stories to share.  I'm hoping to come back some day and do a book about him that's going to be a guaranteed bestseller.
The first day, we were advised to do absolutely nothing, so that's precisely what we did - until lunch, that is. Lunch was at this lovely little place up the road from ours - it served fairly decent food , had a fabulous view and had this little guy hanging about to boot. 
That evening, we decided to do some of the local sites: the Leh palace, the Namgyal Tsemo monastery and the Shanti Stupa. 
All the places were immensely beautiful, although the altitude and the wind chill did get to the kids who'd started moaning by then. 
Dinner was at the main marketplace in Leh, which oddly seems to have a lot more Punjabi food joints than 'local cuisine'. Still, we were in no position to go hunting for anything local; stalls here seem to shut by 8pm. 
The next day, after some great Kahwa and breakfast, we set off to see the place where the Zanskar met the Indus. en route, we stopped at a Gurudwara - the Gurudwara Pathar Shahib, which had an interesting legend of Nanak and his encounter with a local demon. We also stopped at Magnetic Hill (we had to - Child 1 was looking forward to this throughout the trip), and of course, all three excited souls were thrilled to bits as the car rolled up a seemingly uphill stretch of road with the engines off. Nimmu Valley - that's where you can see the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus is such a beautiful place, and of course, a great place to have 'Maggi'. (The Maggi will be a recurring theme throughout our trip. I'm amazed by its ubiquitous nature, this high up the hills) We thought we'd be early for rafting, but it had already started. And we were sorely tempted. But the fact that the water was still freezing cold, we had NO change of clothes and that it would take the better part of the day dissuaded us.
Our return to Leh was via the Phyang monastery. The monastery was shut, but the Bhikku there was kind enough to unlock it for us, long enough for us to pay our respects. The Baa- lamb had the sudden urge to meditate every time we visited any of these Gompas. There were 15th Century murals adorning the walls. the details and colours in those paintings are simply spell binding. We also stopped at the Hall of Fame - a place to honour the soldiers who've been martyred the our various conflicts. Naturally. child 1 and the Husband gravitated towards the guns - the bigger the better. I was a bit more interested in the photographs of the Ladakhi region and its history. The afternoon was spent in the main marketplace in Leh. I had my heart set on picking up a Thanka- style painting. We finally spotted one that was both beautiful and intricate. Happy with my purchase, we finally spotted one that was beautiful and intricate. Happy with my purchase, we made our way up to a local joint (after much asking around) and had delicious momos (the kids, of course had fried rice and chowmein - clearly haka chinese is all-prevalent in India. That, and Hindi soaps). We decided to take it easy that evening - after all, we had a long journey ahead of us the following day.
We left Leh the next morning and headed to Nubra. The journey to Hunder - in the Nubra valley takes us via Kardung- La - the World's highest motorable road, at 18,300 ft. We stop at South Pullu, then Kardung-La and then North Pullu over at the other side of the pass. To call the journey from South Pullu to North Pullu a road is a bit of an exaggeration. It was more of rock and dirt, bound together in places with snow and slush in places. With a smattering of free flowing streams on occasion. All the while, surrounded by about 6-8 feet of ice on one side and a sheer drop on the other side (especially from Kardung-la to Pullu). However Kardung-La was more of a tourist attraction people were going slightly nuts clicking pictures queuing up to use the toilets (a wholly avoidable experience), checking out Rinpoche Cafe to have black tea and of course, Maggi and souvenir shops run by the Armed Forces. The children by this time had started their whine about the cold, so it was time for us to leave. We wouldn't have stayed on top for more than 15 minutes, but it was enough for Child 2 to begin throwing up in earnest. The horrendous roads did not help and the poor thing was totally out of it. By the time we reached our resort in Hunder, I think everyone had quite enough of the journey for the day.
The Himalayan Eco Tourist resort is a lovely self contained property which had many private cottages scattered around the area. When we arrived, they had already prepared the field and sown the seeds for their vegetable garden. They also had a fair bit of Apricot and Apple trees around the place.
I settled down, sunning myself, while hubby took a short nap to recover from the altitude sickness. Towards evening, we headed out again to the dunes, where a camel safari was the order of the day.
Child 2 now considers herself quite an expert camel rider, having ridden a Dromedary at the age of 3 in Jaisalmer and now a Bactrian at 6. Mine was a gentle sould who went by the name of 'Godma' and sported hair that reminded child 1 of his own hairstyle. (think messy hair standing up at all odd angles, which probably hasn't seen a comb in 6 months). The view was fabulous, needless to say, and I quite fell in love with these furry, gentle desert ships. To find such diverse geography in a small area is both surprising and stunning.
We woke up the next morning to the sound of birds chirping, just in time to watch the sun breaking out behind the mountain. I'm a self-confessed beach person, but out here, at this time of the day, I can completely understand why the Mountains call to the Baa-Lamb.
we continued on our journey after breafast, to Diksit Monastery. The monastery is placed in a staggered manner over one slope while the neighbouring hill has a massive statue of the Buddha. The priests at the monastery were lovely. They offered us some tea and allowed us to view some of the antiques from the monastery -  some of which have been there for over 500 years. The entire monastery and the Buddha were undergoing a but of sprucing in preparation for the visit from teh Dalai Lama in the coming months,
Just before we left Nubra valley, All three of my fellow travellers decided they wanted to do a spot of quad -biking across sand dunes. *sigh* I've given birth to little Adrenaline Junkies.
The road back to Khardung-La wasn't as uneventful as the previous day. The state of the roads meant that despite snow tyres, a few cars just couldn't make it over - they kept getting stuck in the mud. This led to a series of issues - an accident, traffic hold-ups and rescue missions. The frequnt stops were great for my motion sickess, but clearly. not-so-great for the husband's altitude sickness. By the time we reached Khardung-La, he could barely stand. He was dizzy, and breathless and we had to scoot in a hurry.
He was still quite poorly by the time we'd arrive back in Leh, and we made the decision to scrap plans for Pangong-Tso the following day. (similar roads, through Chang-La which was again at a higher altitude meant it would be foolish to try)
Given that we had a a couple of additional days in Leh, we decided to do a couple fo local sites more:
Hemis and Thikese monastery, and the Druk Padma Karpo school. The trio made it up to Hemis, which has quite a a collection in it's museum, but firmly refused to make the climb at Thikse. I did, however, thoroughly enjoying myself, soaking in the silence, and the view from up high. We have Shey Palace a miss - This would otherwise involve further convincing that this was a lovely place and listening to more griping that we clearly had no idea what palaces were,  and these were definitely not it. Patience was in shorter supply than usual that day.
The Druk Padma Karpo School (or the Dragon White Lotus school) is popularly known as 'Rancho's School. no prizes for guessing why, or what popular movie character it was named for. I was more keen on the building style- it was designed by Arup architects to be sustainable, with many features that make it eco- friendly, and responsive to the environment.
Despite Ladakh having extreme climates, the classrooms do not require heating, using thermal mass wall to store heat. The use of solar panels for their electric supply, reduction of water usage (through dry bio-toilets, a gravity fed water system), and after the damage to the building during the cloudburst in 2010, their response through seismically resistant frames, all make for a very impressive school.
Our stay in Leh came to an end all to soon and it was time for us to head out to the Srinagar valley. But we left with our hearts full of gratitude for the kindness of its people and a desire to be more like them - thankful and cheerful despite having very little.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Grand Canyon, Death Valley and the Yosemite*

*If you're wondering why I've clubbed all 3 together, when clearly each deserves a separate post, it's because we drove through all of them, enroute to where we wanted to get. Someday, the intention is to revisit each, and give them the attention they deserve.

We decided to head out to the North Rim of the Canyons from Vegas- granted it was a bit longer to drive to, but we were assured it was worth it. Clearly, we weren't doing enough driving according to the baa-lamb, and we decided that a stopover at the Hoover Dam was also due. The structure had us really excited (some of us more than others). So did the history (again, some of us more than others)
Hoover dam

The dam bypass

We arrived at our resort just minutes before sunset and made a mad dash to Mathier Point to catch the last rays of the sun. It was a dash I was glad to have made or I'd be kicking myself for having missed it.
Mathier Point

Watching the sunset in droves

Mother Nature's light show

Once we caught the spectacular show, it was back to more mundane matters like dinner. Yavapai had just one general store, with a fairly decent choice of foods. The night sky at Yavapai was something we hadn't anticipated: it was clear, with not a light around for miles and brilliantly lit up with stars. It wasn't the first of many times I missed my tripod, but it definitely was one of the times I missed it most sorely!
peeking over the edge to spot the Colorado river

The sunrise bathes the canyon is a golden glow

The next morning, we left two very sleepy children snuggled into their blankets and set off to catch the sunrise (ooh, what a sight). Somehow you never seem to get enough of the massive structure. it is breathtaking, frightening, awe-inspiring and exhilarating all at once.
After breakfast, we took advantage of the many bus routes running on a loop to catch various points along the canyon, walking a short distance along each point. We even managed to catch sight of a Californian Condor and a bluebird (apart from the ravens). It was a most satisfying trip.

Pic courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy

Pic Courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy
 Our return to Vegas was only for the night and we set off again across Death Valley and Yosemite. As we drove across death valley, we didn't expect the scenery to change much. After all, how different can hundreds of miles of desert be?
Yup. They clamber up pretty much everything.

Death Valley
And that's where Death Valley takes you be surprise. It's got beautiful vistas, especially when you take unexpected detours like Dante's view,
Dante's View

Furnace creek Visitor centre, Death Valley
or the silken soft sands and Misquitta sand dunes.
The various hues of the sand dunes at Misquitta

we love our jump shots

and throwing sand everywhere, so mum has the darnedest time with the laundry
 At racetrack, apparently, you can clearly see huge stones having moved across the sand, but with no clue as to what forces moved them, We decided to skip that, reluctantly, it would have been too much of a detour.
There were folks who suggested that we just drive on without stopping. I wonder how they weren't moved by the beauty of this barren landscape. In fact, we spent far too much time admiring the beauty of Misquitta, and the husband had to drive in the pitch dark to Lone Pine, just outside of the Death Valley.
The kids were rather looking forward to this place because they'd heard that this place was haunted. Eyes and ears were duly kept peeled for any signs of Paranormal activity.
Keeping a lookout for the spooky
The next morning, Child 1 did report an 'odd throbbing noise' and 'a bright red light' which he was quite convinced was a ghost. I suspect it was more of an overactive imagination and a departing Harley.
I think that's Mt Whitney

We continued our journey from Lone Pine to Pollock Pines via Yosemite. This being the beginning of winter, we couldn't go via Tioga pass , so we had to skirt around the borders. We headed along lake Mono and lake Topaz - such beautiful lakes, both of them. It's a pity we couldn't catch El Capitan but I suppose that's a reason to return to this place.
Lake Mono

We did make sure we stopped by lake Tahoe. The emerald lakes were beautiful, especially on our way up to Eagle falls. At this point, I have to mention, the baa-lamb accidentally dropped my camera, so all I really have to show from Tahoe are pictures from the phone.

Slightly disconcerting to drive through a stretch with land dropping off into the water on both sides

Glad to note we weren't the only foolish tourists stopping every so often for picures
There was another first - me actually telling the Baa-Lamb that it was a bad idea to head on up to Eagle Falls, as it look pretty icy. Normally, I'm the one with the crazy ideas. Of course, sound logic is always ignored in our household, so up we went, in sneakers and jeans, trying to outsmart the ice and the setting sun. About 3/4th of the way up, however, good sense prevailed and we decided to head on back down, slowly slipping and sliding our way back to solid ground.
slipping and sliding down to safety
We spent our last night at Pollock pines before we headed on over to San Francisco to meet cousins and fly on out.
Happy reunions

The best kind of fun! (Kermit concurs)

Cousins meeting up after more than a decade. Two tiny humans have sprouted in the meanwhile.

I have a feeling this isn't going o be our last trip here. There are just too many places we haven't explored. Yet. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Vegas, Baby!

As soon as we arrived in LAX, we promptly went out and did the American thing - we went out and promptly hired a minivan! Child 1 thought he'd died and gone to heaven!! LAX wasn't the place where we were staying back, though. We we driving down to Vegas, Baby!
The drive to Vegas. We could get used to those open roads

Yup. Roller Coaster. In the middle of nowhere. Just because!
The afternoon we'd arrived, we decided to hit the strip - but not before Child 1 and the husband decided when in Vegas, they needed to check out a shooting range. With real guns. Not just tiny, fit-in-your-holster kinds either. The Mother-of-all-hell-I'm-Rambo kinds.
This was at a petrol station. Where you could buy a gun to go with your coffee. 
yup. These ones. With your choice of targets.
Pic Courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy

No really. You can pick and choose. I chose... to stay at home.
Pic courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy

Vegas was unabashedly loud, bright and commercial, and I loved it!
oversized everything. Including Christmas baubles.

...through the looking glass. 
The walk along the strip was predictably neck-craning and mouth-gawping and we were happy just soaking it all in. 
The funkiest coffee shop ever!
The only thing we did go to, was the New York, New York coaster. By we, of course, I mean Child 1 and the husband. Me? I was roaming the arcade with Child 2, while she was busy playing arcade games to collect more useless trinkets. 

This was clearly a favourite with the kids. Child 1 totally loves the music too. 
We're starting a band. We'll call it 'the Wannabes'. 
The next day was for the kids - of all ages. we spent the day at Circus Circus, and boy was it fun! From roller coasters to LaserTag to 4D movies... there was much to see and do. 
mad coaster fun.
Pic courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy

we're going to beat you hollow at Laser Tag!
Pic courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy

Apparently this little froggie didn't jump high enough for my little monkey.
Pic courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy
That evening was my pick of activity,and I wanted to catch a show- and I was spoilt for choice. I chose Cirque Du Soliel's longest running show- Mystère. It was definitely the highlight of the Vegas trip for me.

Every minute of the Cirque show was entertaining with clowns having us in splits to trapeze artists having us gasping to entertaining acrobats and a spectacular sound and light show. There were several times during the show when I made a mental note to myself to get the soundtrack on my phone. it was fabulous. 

what an unforgettable experience
Surprisingly I wasn't to keen on doing the one thing Vegas was famous for - the Casinos. Of course, the kids were allowed within 15 feet of the tables, but I wasn't that keen to visit them either. The blinking lights and noises just made it annoying and head-ache inducing.
That didn't stop us from hitting the bar though. Several times.
Pic courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy

Child 1's dream drum kit
Pic courtesy: Arun Kumar Krishnamurthy
We would return to Vegas shortly, but tomorrow, we were off to the Grand Canyon. A rather long-ish drive, but a trip we couldn't not do, having come this far. 
Oh we were most definitely in Trump's America