A Sky Full of Kites- Ahmedabad, Gujarat

 

11:57 PM: I’m late again.

Damn, I’m going to miss the train

Why did I take the wrong train again?

Why is the auto not moving?

Why is there traffic only here?

Why?

Why?

Why?

These were the thoughts running in my head as I sat in an auto frustrated with myself and the traffic, which was holding me back. It was already past the departure time by 2 minutes and my friends, who were already on the train, were giving me a running commentary on the train. The update- the train hadn’t started yet.

12:00 AM: Platform 4

At a 100 meters from the station, my friend tells me that the train is about to move and that I needed to get onto Platform 4 and jump into any compartment. I jump out of the auto and start running. Upon entering the station, I shout out ‘Platform 4 kahaan hai?” (where is Platform 4), but there was no one to answer except for a small boy who looked equally clueless.

12:02 AM: Not a second to lose

I run down a random platform hoping for it to be the right one, but luck wasn’t on my side. The train on the next platform started easing out of the station and without a second’s thought, I jump down onto the tracks to cross to the moving train. Halfway across, I trip and fall. Grabbing everything as I got up, I sprinted towards the train and just as the last compartment was moving out, I hopped on.

12:05 AM: Unwelcome surprises

Finally on the train to Ahmedabad, I do a quick damage check; no bones broken, slight bruises, DSLR intact… but my phone was completely shattered.

7:00 AM: Ahmedabad

We stepped out of the train shivering, welcomed by Gujarat’s misty morning. We were warned about the cold but didn’t except the temperature to be so low. It was 9 degrees! Without a moment to spare, we quickly dropped our luggage off, freshened up and hit the streets.

Our first destination was the Akshardam Temple located in the capital, Gandhi Nagar. It took us 45 minutes to travel and the roads were wide and smooth- one of the best I have witnessed in India- but sadly, there were barely any Vehicles on the road.

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We reached the temple around 10 am and there was a fairly large crowd gathering already! Before entering the temple, we had to leave all our belongings at the gate- literally all our belongings.  We were only allowed to carry our wallets inside. We entered to see a beautiful, green place that was spic and span. It was very peaceful and soulful, and completely silent except for a devotional melody playing in the background. The temple had everything inside, from gourmets to stay areas and even a water theme park. We spent an easy 3 hours exploring the site.

Our stomachs were growling when we got out and we wanted to have local Gujarati thalis, so our auto driver took us to a line-up of street vendors serving various dishes. However, the food was not as we expected it and nor was it prepared properly. We ate what we could and decided to head back.

5:00 PM: The Kite Festival

It was the festival of Makar Sankranti and the day of Uttarayan, also known as the kite festival in the northern parts of India. People were already on the roofs flying their kites. Everywhere we saw, there were only kites and people of all ages excitedly flying them, trying to outdo one another.

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Naturally, we wanted to fly some kites of our own as well! It took us some time to find the venue of the kite festival. The entrance was grandly decorated with a kite reel.

The sky was full of kites but sadly, we didn’t have any of our own. We had to go on a long hunt before we found a boy who helped us get some, and string them onto a reel.

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The Expert who helped us string our kites.

All set and excited, we went into the arena to fly our kites, but it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. In the 2 hours that we tried, we would’ve probably gotten only one kite up in the air for 10 seconds. All our efforts failed and our kites were tattered by the end of the day.  Finally giving up, we watched other people fly kites and then headed to an exhibition before moving to our next destination.

7:30 PM: Kankaria Lake

Many people suggested a visit to Kankaria lake when I told them about my planned trip to Ahemdabad, and it was totally worth it. It is a must-see spot (especially during the night) for anyone travelling to Ahmedabad.

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The entire lake was completely lit. A 5-km walk around the lake showed exciting activities such as a theme park, boat rides, water and laser shows, toy train rides around the lake, food stalls, gaming zones and much more. More scintillating was the lighting, with fireworks and fire lanterns drifting in the sky-  a sure treat for the eyes.

10:00 PM: Manek Chowk

After a walk around the lake, we made way to our next destination ‘Manik Chowk’, for local street food. We entered the street hoping that we’d have a better experience than the one we had had in the afternoon, and we were met with quite an unexpected sight! At 10:30 pm, the crowd at Manik Chowk was unbelievable. It was so crowded that all we could see were floating heads and we didn’t know if our next step would land on someone’s toes or safely on the road. Turns out that Manik Chowk was a jewelry street by day and a food street by night.

We were pushed the entire way from one stall to another, and each stall had a treat for our taste buds. A variety of pav bhajis, sandwiches that we never knew existed, my favorite desserts, and the best pot kulfi I have ever had brought an end to a long and adventurous day.

9:00 AM: Vadodara

We left on a 2-hour journey for Vadodara early te next day. We had only one place in mind to visit which was the ‘Laxmi Vilas Palace’ but to our hard luck, it was closed for the day. We tried talking our way in, as many other travellers were waiting at the gates but the guards would not budge.

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At the closed gates of Laxmi Vilas Palace
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The Palace Dome from the gates.

Here, another traveler, a doctor and a captain joined us for the rest of the trip, exploring the gated city of Baroda.

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We walked to all the gates of the city sharing our travel stories and adventures. Time flew by and before we knew it, we had to leave. After having some special Gujarati ‘Undiyo’, we boarded a train back to Mumbai. A very eventful trip from the start, where I nearly missed my train, till the end where we traveled back without a reserved ticket, standing for 6 hours; indeed, I enjoyed as much as I learnt through the tip.

The Floating Fortress- Murud Janjira

img_20161217_175121578There are plenty of forts in and around Maharashtra, and one can only wonder at the combination of defense and art (two aspects so different in emotion) used to create such masterpieces. Like my previous endeavors, this one was also to a fort. This fort, however, was of a different kind- not one up in the mountains, but one surrounded by the sea. The Janjira Fort located near Murud, along the west coast of India.

The journey to the fort took us a total of 6 hours from Mumbai, travelling both by ferry and road. The ferry started from the Gateway of India all the way to Alibaug, a slow and pleasant ride with the sea breeze for company. It took us an easy two hours to reach Mandwa and from there, another half-hour bus ride to Alibaug. We took our first pit stop here for lunch after which we boarded a bus to Murud.

The bus journey, which took over two hours, was quite a bumpy ride considering it nearly threw me off my seat. I’d say it was the best part of the travel! Throughout the ride, the sea shore never left our side. The roads were slightly up in the mountains with the shore spread across the other side. Just perfect for a road trip.

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As we neared our destination, we were able to spot the fort from a distance. It was standing majestically in the middle of the sea with the sun setting at the background. It was as though it was a floating paradise. To reach the fort, we had to take sail boats which had a different feel sans the accompanying noise of the boat engines.

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Upon reaching the fort gates we were told that we had only 45 mins and would have to return  by the same boat. But when we entered, it was clear to us that we were not returning on that boat- the fort was simply huge!

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We started by covering the outer periphery first. The fort walls were still intact and many cannons were lying around. Through the arches of the walls we could see the setting sun and the glimmering water, a captivating site.

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We slowly made our way up to the center of the fort, which was the highest point. From the top, we could see the entire layout of the fort and beyond. The fort had two huge freshwater ponds filled with fresh water and lots of trees around them. We also spotted two dargahs and many small rooms adjacent to walls.

We decided to sit at the top until the sun decided to take his usual dip into the sea. After the amazing scenery and some more exploration, we returned with our fingers crossed, hoping to get a boat back.

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Luckily for us, there were many people waiting and we quickly jumped into a random boat to take us back. As soon as we reached land we set out searching for somewhere to stay.  We found a perfect place next to the beach which was surprisingly inexpensive for its location. We freshened up and hit the beach for some local dinner specials that consisted of a variety of chaats and fish.

A stroll along the beach followed. The sea was very calm and it was pitch dark, with only a few people scattered around a campfire at a distance. It was as if the whole beach was for us. We had walked about 200 meters into the beach in hopes to wet our feet but that was not enough, the sea demanded more. To be honest, we were scared. It was just the two of us with no one around for as far as our eyes could sea, and the only sound we could hear was the waves. As much as we walked, it was as though the sea was running farther away from us. We returned and waited for company before our next attempt and this time we were successful. A thrilling end to a peaceful trip.

Editing Credits: Sharon Lewis

Night Camp at Kalawantin Durg

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Maharashtra is a state with plenty of tall peaks, several having forts on top built by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj – one of the greatest rulers India has witnessed. All his forts were built on tall peaks for strategic purposes, but these now stand as marvels that make you wonder how they managed to build these forts at such heights when we struggle for 4 or 5 hours just to climb to the top.

Such one place is Kalavantin Durg, located on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, 16 km from Panvel (last local train stop in Navi Mumbai). We took the Local to Panvel and then hired an auto to Shedung Phatak, the base of the Plateau. It is a 1-hour climb up to the plateau and another 2 hours from there to the peak. It was six in the evening when we started our trek. The sun was setting in the background and we could feel a drastic temperature drop at the base.img_20161126_174211729

We had taken plenty of stops on the way up to admire the view (by which time the sky had darkened), only to reach the top and find out that we had a lot of company- there were already about 20 tents pitched and much more in progress.

We wanted an isolated spot to set camp so we decided to explore a bit and find such a place. As we walked further up, we stumbled upon a village where we asked for suggestions and a villager was kind enough to come along with us to show us few. He took us to few spots up the hill but these did not have a good view, so he took us to the other side of the mountain. This side was very different as not only was it isolated, but had an amazing view of the city below and the surrounding mountains. Since this mini-expedition had taken us an hour and the villager had shown us many spots with a lot of enthusiasm, we offered him something in return for his impromptu guidance. And to our surprise, he refused to take it. That’s the simplicity of these people, they don’t have much but are the most humble and kind people at heart.

We quickly set up the tent and started the fire. Our dinner consisted of Maggi, which was pretty good. We collected bigger logs after dinner and made a fire big enough to keep us warm as the temperature was still dropping.

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Our Camp for the night.

After everything was set, we just lied down and stargazed in isolation with only the fire to keep us warm. It was very peaceful. We tended to the fire in shifts through the night while others took rest.

Early next morning, we decided to explore the place one last time before we returned, but little did we know that there was one more chance encounter to be had. After trekking around the mountain through narrow paths and thick forest growth, we returned to have breakfast and make for the base. On our way back, we bumped into a group of adventurers from Jack and Hill Adventures. These guys were setting up to do a Mannequin Challenge and invited us to join. And so our trip was complete- with a chilly start and a cheery end.

Editing Credits: Sharon Lewis

A Travel through Time, 2nd Century B.C – Sanchi

 

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Anyone on their journey through India will definitely be touched by its rich culture and history. Sanchi takes you centuries back in time and for an Indian born in the midst of a diverse culture, the urge to visit the place where history was made is only natural.

Sanchi is located at the centre of India, near the city of Bhopal, and houses the great stupas of Buddhism- a piece of heritage that dates back to 2nd Century B.C. My journey to the place started with a hiccup. The morning of my departure was a mad rush and in that hurry, I went to the wrong station in Mumbai. I was lucky enough to get a quick ride to the right station sans the traffic but in this endeavour, I spent my last Rs. 100 note on the taxi. The only other denomination I had was a Rs. 500 note- entirely useless due to the sudden demonetisation in India. I had to survive the entire 12-hour journey to Bhopal on a bottle of water. Amidst the occasional growling of my stomach, the travel took me through some beautiful terrains and landscapes.

I reached Bhopal at around 10 in the night and found it surprisingly cold. I was shivering despite having worn two layers (temp. 15 degrees celsius). I quickly checked into my lodge, found the nearest restaurant and had two full plates of Biryani. Well, that finally answered my stomach.

Having heard a lot about Bhopal and its lakes, I decided to take a small tour around the city. With a willing auto driver as my guide, I visited two lakes and a few religious places before he dropped me back.

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Early next morning, I left for Sanchi- a one-hour ride by bus. I reached my destination around 8, had a quick breakfast, got my tickets and started towards the Stupas.

 

Sanchi Stupas:

The monument is located on a small hill, a small climb from the base by foot or vehicle. The place by itself had a very calm and peaceful atmosphere. It was very well maintained with vast green lawns and not a single piece of trash lying around.

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The Ashoka Stupa- a symbol of Buddhism and peace- was a tall dome with intricate carvings on its entrances. The place was built by Ashoka the Great, the Mauryan king who had at that time ruled a kingdom the size of India. He built this monument after he converted to Buddhism, as a symbol of peace. The pillars at the entrance had detailed carvings depicting various stories from that time.

The inner portion was relatively cooler than the outside and had a symmetric architecture which formed beautiful and unique patterns.

It took me nearly 5 hours to cover all the corners of the area. There were several temples and monasteries with a lot of sculptures and carvings, but many were in ruins.

I spent another hour in the shade of the trees, enjoying the serenity of the place. Many of the preserved artefacts were displayed in the museum at the base of the hill, where I spent my afternoon.

 

Udayagiri Caves

I had about 5 hours before my train back, and not wanting to waste them, I looked on for more nearby attractions. Many locals suggested Udayagiri caves. These caves are 15 km from Sanchi and there is no local transport to the place. One had to rent an auto to do so. After a lot of bargaining and convincing of Autowalas with my broken Hindi, we soon agreed upon a price.

The caves dated back to 3rd century A.D and were a patronage of Chandragupta II. It was an exhausting climb up the caves, accompanied by carvings, sculptures and engravings of old texts on the walls.

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At the top of the hill, I got a breathtaking 360-degree view of the surrounding jungles, terrains and lakes. The view left me captivated for several hours.

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Throughout this trip, I met a lot of interesting people – a Korean couple travelling around India, who were my company at the Stupas,

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The Kushwaha’s – 5 Brothers

 

the Kushwahas family (I climbed the Udayagiri caves with them) who got me some tasty guavas from the hills, and an old-aged school teacher who travels 120km every day just to teach his children – truly inspiring. After all, what is travel without new experiences and meeting new people with inspiring tales to tell?

Editing Credits: Sharon Lewis, Pragati Jayachandran

Where time stood Still -Daman

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If you live the fast-paced life of cities, Daman will surely make you feel like time can stand still. Located near Gujarat, Daman is a small place with widespread beaches and commotion-free streets- perfect for a quiet holiday.

 

Since there are no direct trains to Daman, we had to travel to Vapi and then take a 20-minute ride down to Daman. The ride itself made me quite nostalgic as it reminded me of all the memorable trips I’ve had before. With regards to transport, Daman has one drawback- the autorickshaws there do not know the concept of meters and most of them don’t have one, and so, if you don’t want to be ripped off, I’d suggest you take your own transportation.

After reaching Daman, we quickly checked into the hotel and lounged for bit before we hit the beach. We had a nice beach view lunch of the local fish specials, after which we walked down to Deveka beach. To our surprise we could barely find any people there. All our eyes could see was the vast beach and the glimmering sea.

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The beach was a mix of rocky terrain, sand, and stones, which formed amazing textures on the shoreline. In fact, we had to walk a considerable distance through the rocky beach before we touched the sea.

 

The sun was blazing down but the constant breeze pleasantly kept us company. The best part was that the place was so quiet that all that you could hear were the waves- no passersby shouting, vendors calling or children crying; just the music of the sea.

 

After spending some considerable time at the beach, we moved on to see some local attractions. First, we hit St. Jerome Fort.

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There was nothing special about the fort itself but it led us to one of the most enticing experiences there. Near the fort was a fisherman’s dock, and we got one of the fishermen to take us out into the sea. It was amazing to set out towards the sun, completely surrounded by water.  We stopped after a few miles to watch the sun dip into the sea and turned back. This was definitely the best part of the trip.

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We spent the night roaming the streets and visiting some local markets before we returned to our hotel. And just when we were about to hit our beds, we heard loud music. Turns out the city had more for us. It was Navratri, and in and around Gujarat, people were happily playing garba. We witnessed a night full of dance and music, a lovely way to end the trip.

To sum it up, it was a very pleasant and relaxing break, the perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of the cities. That being said, one cannot spend more than a day or two in Daman.

Editing Credits: Sharon Lewis

Camping Among The Clouds- Lonavala

 

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‘Among The Clouds’- that’s exactly what it felt like when I spent a weekend in Lonavala. Lonavala is a small charming hill station just outside of Mumbai. It is so common a weekend getaway for people from the city that I’m surprised I took so long to visit! I landed up there last weekend after a most random turn of events, though it culminated into one of the most incredible camping experiences I’ve had.

During my usual Friday at work, I was busy preparing for a lazy weekend when my roommate called up and told me to be at Mumbai’s Kalyan railway station after work. As planned, at 11pm I found myself alone at the station (which is by far the dirtiest station I have been to), waiting for a train that was an hour late. After a bout of coordination that I’m extremely proud of, I managed to board the exact compartment my friends had boarded. No places to sit, but our journey was full of chatter and laughter.

We reached Lonavala at 3:30 am. That’s right, 3 in the morning. The place was dead quiet, the atmosphere had a chill, and there was mist creeping around.

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Nope, we definitely weren’t afraid. Without a clue of where to go, we wandered around the city until we managed to find a rickshaw driver who would drive us to a place of his suggestion (Tungarli Dam) in the early hours of morning.

Up In Heaven:

The auto driver dropped us at the base of a hill- a short climb up to the dam, on the right side of which we could camp. We turned on our torches to find them absolutely useless; the fog up here was so thick that our torchlight just couldn’t get through. We made our way up slowly, trying to sense as much of the path ahead as we could. As we reached the top, the silhouette of the dam started to appear in the background of the sound of a stream. If we weren’t scared before, now we definitely were.

Moving along the walls towards the right, we found a path leading up. We reached the top and, after a lot of trouble, found a decent place to set camp. It took us a good half hour to set up and by the time we settled it was 5:30am. We decided to catch some sleep while we could, but managed only about an hour before sunrise.

We woke up at 6:30am and jumped out of our tents hoping to catch a beautiful sunrise. What we encountered though, was just breath-taking. We were literally among the clouds and mist.

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Towards our right, Lonavala lay in a fog. Right in front were green mountains with their peaks covered by clouds, and on our left the dam stood undisturbed and pure. Clouds floated above the crystal-clear water.IMG_20160924_063744541.jpg

Though tired from the sleepless night and travel, my eyes refused to shut. I sat there for hours listening to chirping crickets and singing birds, enjoying the view. Time seemed to fly and in fact three hours had passed.

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The Perfect End:

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After a walk around the dam (where we also skipped stones!), we went down the hill to feed our growling stomachs. India can surprise you with its local specialties, and we treated ourselves to some anda pav and Maggi. The stall women and two cute children kept us company.

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The place was so peaceful that we ended up camping in the same place the second day as well. Despite all our misadventures of the previous night, only one word could describe our time at Lonavala- beautiful. I guess unplanned trips turn out to be the best experiences.

Editing Credits: Sharon Lewis