Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels (Part 1)

Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
I am damn delighted to blog about my first multi-day motorcycle trip which I had undertaken back in August 2011, covering just 768 kilometers in 5 days, on a 125 cc engine. The decision of exploring Murshidabad and Malda did not overwhelm me merely because of the historical aura associated with those places. A couple of months prior to this trip I had made a day-ride to the temple town of Bishnupur. Soon after that I had been crushed like a sugarcane for the following months. My traveling tongue was hanging out like a summer struck stray and soul started behaving like an unfaithful lady, before finally I got a break.

Men can act doggy but how could he live soulless? This time I didn’t have much days in hand and 4-5 days were all I could fancy for. Being an addict of hill stations I couldn’t think beyond availing the toy-train ride (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway) to spend my off-days in Darjeeling. But, man proposes, God disposes... I came to know that the toy-train service from New Jalpaiguri station to Darjeeling had been suspended indefinitely since last year due to a wicked landslide!

The alternate idea was making a motorbike trip to Ayoddhya Hills. But after some discussion with few prudent heads, Ayoddhya Hills turned out to be quite an unsafe place due to unpredictable Maoist activities. By then I was determined to make this trip... the destination could be anywhere but it had to be on two wheels. A nostalgic breeze came to neutralize my dilemma- I was born in Malda and spent first two years of my life in Murshidabad... Oh why not Murshibad and Malda then?

It was no stupid nostalgia but I was ready with my itinerary rationale. It can be real fun riding to a place lying on the bank of Bhagirathi River, showcasing the remnants of royal architectures, free from glossy city life and comprising the simplicity in its air and population. That's what I justified myself in favor of Murshidabad. Similarly, a little bit research on Malda unfolded places of great historical significance like Gour and Pandua!
Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
It was first time for my bike to enjoy a boat ride!
My brief Ride Itinerary:
Day 1- Bardhaman to Behrampur. Local sightseeing and Overnight stay.
Day 2- Exploring nearby places of interest (at Lalbagh, Azimganj, Baranagar, Jiaganj) and overnight stay at Behrampur.
Day 3- Behrampur to Malda. Exploring places of tourist interest at Pandua. Overnight stay at Malda.
Day 4- Exploring Gour. Overnight halt at Malda.
Day 5- Malda to Bardhaman return ride.

29th Aug, 2011:
The last day I had planned to commence my ride as early as possible, as soon as the first glow of dawn can be glimpsed through the window panes. But it took some good time to pack my goods and then the pre-journey excitement that ran down my spine didn’t let me sleep up to late hours, rather midnight. Owing to these factors my wake up time shifted from 3:45 AM to 5:15 AM! It was OK, I had nothing to regret, just that a bit more tease from the scorching sun was in my fate. Having finished my morning formalities started my journey at 6:25 AM. There was no headache of looking for a petrol pump as I had taken that responsibility the last evening.

There was nothing mentionable occurred up to Katwa other than my sudden discovery of that old narrow gauge train which once used to run between Bardhaman and Katwa. I noticed it whistling and marching along the paddy fields just few kilometers before reaching Katwa. That made me desperate to take her snap, which eventually made me ride like a reckless biker, jumping over few speed breakers. Unfortunately she drifted away from the road and meandered into green and I couldn’t see her again before reaching Katwa station. On inquiring about that train local guys told that presently it runs only between Balgona and Katwa (although, as of today, it runs no more!).

On reaching ferry Ghat a number of motorcycles were visible waiting for the boat. It was first time for my bike to enjoy a boat ride, so my confidence level which was low earlier got somewhat boosted by their abundance. As soon as the boat arrived, people with goods and cycles started rushing and I understood my duty. But there was no proper inclined slab to pull the bike onto the boat and consequently it got struck in the middle, making me totally helpless! Those boat staffs seemed to be prepared for such situations only… they came and lifted my vector by its limb guard grill and pulled it over like any other big luggage. This adventure of misfortune didn’t leave me so early. The river was dried in the middle, with water on both sides. So the bike had to be pulled once again over another boat and this time it was a smaller one carrying three bikes along with some 10-12 passengers. Only I know how I felt, until my engine crawled over to the solid road on the other bank.

In half an hour I reached Debogram and took the NH34. What I had assumed of a National Highway it turned out to be exactly opposite to my utter dismay. Road was full of potholes, which were either too large or too deep. Moreover, there was no place for motorbike and its biker; every time a truck comes from the opposite side, you’ve to get down the road, doesn’t matter how, but you should do it religiously to save yourself from seeing the hell. After all these I don’t think I’ve to inform you further that there’s no divider and it is a two way crappy road.

In Beldanga there was a long jam of big vehicles which gave me a chance to sip some fruit juice. After a couple of hours of struggle, reached Behrampur at around 11 AM. Again it took some 15-20 minutes to search for the Forest department guest house (at Laldighi). There the room turned out to be above my expectation. I freshened up, took lunch and opted for a catnap. But it couldn't last too long. The tourist inside me got up and compelled me to put on the helmet once again, to head for Lalbagh, at around 2:30 afternoon.

Lalbagh was not far, just 12 Km from my guest house. It was a sheer pleasure to ride along the bank of river Bhagirathi. In the middle, it started drizzling which farther intensified the ecstasy of this solo rider. I stopped in the middle so many times to watch boats passing by or the ripples created by the shower drops while kissing the surface of the river… finally reached my destination in an hour. There was no second thing to do after that than visiting so many famous historical structures and locations one by one at a sluggish pace.
Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Hazarduari Palace.
Hazarduari Palace The palace is popularly called ‘Hazarduari’ as it contains about thousand real and false doors. It was built during the time of Nawab Nazim Humayun Jah (1829-37 AD) at a cost of 16.5 lakhs. The palace was designed by Colonel Duncan McLeod who also supervised its construction. The building, rectangular in plan, standing on the east bank of Bhagirathi is a good example of Indo-European architecture, strongly reminiscent of Italian style. The Durbar hall with its lofty dome, adorned with fine stucco ornamentation, is the most attractive feature of this monument. It now houses a museum displaying the collections of Nawabs consisting of furnitures, oil paintings, arms, statues, rare books and manuscripts (But don’t know why an oil painting named “Bacchus and Ariadne” was getting largest stares! I tell you I’m not in a sarcastic mood though…) 
Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Imambara, opposite to the Hazarduari Palace.
Imambara This largest Imambara of Bengal was constructed during Nawab Nazim Feradun Jah under the supervision of Sayed Ali Khan in 1847 AD at a cost of rupees 6 lakhs. Only six to seven months were required to complete this monumental construction. This rectangular building is divided into three equal blocks, each with a large quadrangle. It was erected to replace the celebrated imambara of Siraj-Ud-Daulah and adorned in the same fashion.
Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Ruins of the mosque built by Azimunnisa Begum.
Tomb of Azimunnisa Begum This ruined mosque was built by Azimunnisa Begum, daughter of Murshid Quli Khan and wife of Nawab Shuja-Ud-Daula. Like her father she is also buried under the staircase. It bears similarities with the Katra mosque in its architectural plan and designs.
Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Mir Jafar's Cemetery.

Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Nashipur Palace.

Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Jagat Seth's House.

Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Katgola Garden Palace.

Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Katra Mosque.
Katra Mosque Raised on a lofty platform, it is the most oldest and imposing Islamic architecture at Murshidabad. According to an inscription on the doorway, it was built by Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, the founder of Murshidabad in 1723 AD. Its importance lies not only as a great center of Islamic learning but also for the tomb of Murshid Quli Khan who was buried under the entrance staircase. The most striking feature is the two large corner towers with loopholes for musketry. 
Exploring Murshidabad and Malda on Two Wheels
Jahan Kosha Canon.
Jahan Kosha Canon The great canon known as Jahan Kosha or the World subduer lies as a solid testimony of the metallurgical skill of the Bengali blacksmith Janardan who made it. It weighs more than seven tons! According to an inscription engraved on it, it was made at the instance of Subadar Islam Khan during the reign of Shah Jahan in 1637 AD.

These were enough for the first day as the darkness engulfed the evening air, adding up to my exhaustion and lethargy. I contemplated on an early dinner and returned to my nest by 8:15 PM. Having munched 180 KM in the first day and a tummy full meal, I fell asleep very soon.


Click here to check the next part to know what I had explored on the following day!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale (Part 3)

Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
This is the concluding part of my Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale. In case you missed its previous installments, click here to read the Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. If you have a genuine paucity of time, for you I'll summarize the story so far. In October, 2011, I along with two of my colleagues, responded to the call of mystic Mustang and traveled to Jomsom from Pokhara. Our first morning at Jomsom turned out to be cursed by cold northern wind. It was difficult to stand even for a minute on the terrace to observe the panorama of barren rocky mountains and snowy Dhaulagiri. Undaunted, we bid adieu to the quivering colored flags and orange stacks of corns on the surrounding flat wood piled rooftops and prepared to trek to Muktinath, an important pilgrimage place for both Hindus and Buddhists. Our aim was to climb more than 1,000 meters in a single day. A couple of kilometers before we reached Muktinath, I was hit by acute mountain sickness. Luckily, we came across a jeep which took us to a tea-house at the holy village. In the stillness of the night at 3,800 meters I kept on tossing on a bed with dust coated skin, light head and ‘120 plus’ heart rate for the next twelve hours!
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Our aim was to climb more than 1,000 meters in a single day.
We felt better the following morning (Day 3), although not completely recovered... and headed for Muktinath Darshan. Again there were few hundred meters to ascend. Muktinath is an important pilgrimage place for both Hindu & Buddhist. The holy shrine at Muktinath is in a grove of trees and includes a Buddhist Gompa and the pagoda style temple of Vishnu Temple, Containing an Image of Vishnu. The Pagoda style Muktinath Temple is symbol of the religious symbiosis between both Hindus and Buddhists, against a backdrop of incredible starkness one can sit and stare to the south the snow covered Annapurna range, or to the north the Tibetan plateau. Hindus believe that lord Vishnu got salvation from curse of Brinda here. Therefore he is worshiped as Muktinath (the lord of salvation).
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Muktinath is an important pilgrimage place for both Hindu & Buddhist.
On the other hand Buddhists regard the deity as Buddha. Buddhists worships Vishnu as Avalokiteshvara. The Temple depicts metal statues of lord Vishnu, goddess Laxmi, Saraswati, Janaki, Garuda, Lava-Kush and Sapta Rishis. We somehow managed to reach the temple at the base from where one has to hike some more height to reach the temple at a greater height. There was snowfall in the top temple which we came to know. We were eager to go up but our recent AMS hadn’t forsaken us completely; so, had to give up our religious endeavor (we took it as ‘God willing’). It is believed that one should visit this temple after completing pilgrimage of four special religious sites, Chardham Yatra of India! 
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
The holy shrine at Muktinath includes a Buddhist Gompa and a pagoda style temple of Vishnu.
Once Pilgrimage journey made to this holy Muktinath, holy dip in the Kunda and bath beneath of 108 waterspouts “Muktidhara” is believed to bring about salvation (Moksha) and fulfill one’s wishes (but as I said earlier God had some other wishes for us, may be a ‘second visit’ some other time!). The Buddhist nuns take care of cultural heritage inside the Muktinath temple. Unfortunately, photography inside Temple and Monasteries is strictly prohibited. Another attraction for the pilgrims is the River kali Gandaki from where one can collect fossils of the prehistoric age popularly known as ‘Shaligram’. One may find such a stone within a few minutes or it may take hours and without any success. Nevertheless, these fossils can be collected from the local people at a price. Shaligram is considered sacred and is kept in prayer room in the house. It is supposed to be symbol of Lord Vishnu.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Holy dip in the Kunda and bath beneath the 108 waterspouts is believed to bring about salvation in a devotee!
Then we bought some woolen caps and gloves from local hand-loom artists and walked down to our lodge by 11:00 AM to checkout and head down to Jomsom on a jeep. The over-packed vehicle took 1 hour and 30 minutes to reach Jomsom. Coming down to 2,720m from 3,800m gave our lungs enough relief for sure... After resting an hour in the hotel we went out to experience the town of Jomsom by 3:30 afternoon. The more we walked on the stony roads of the remote town, better we felt its distinctness from the rest of the world. The ideal harmony of wildness of its climate, bareness of its soil and tranquility of its summits was an awesome evidence of Nature’s craftsmanship.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
The Pagoda style Muktinath Temple is a symbol of the religious symbiosis between Hinduism and Buddhism.
There are apple tress in everybody’s garden... Apples fall off from trees and roll on the ground like what we see with guava in plains! The airport at Jomsom has such a small runway that only a very experienced pilots can tackle. We tasted dried apple chips, local Marpha apple brandy and also bought some apples... Tibetan curio shops near the airport were too expensive to get a good deal. Hotels, lodges and home-stays are established all around the main road showing how important role tourism plays on local economy... We couldn’t miss visiting the Jomsom Hospital with its hand few beds and basic facilities... the tiny medical store outside depicted the residual melancholy about the local health resources.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
At Muktinath we bought some woolen caps and gloves from local hand-loom artists.
Darkness surrounded faster than we had anticipated… It was our last night in Mustang, at least for this trip; so we decided to take Nepali food once again for dinner in some simple nameless hotel (rather say home-stay) run by a past middle aged Jomsom lady… Her blabbering while she cooked for us ‘hot & homely’ kept us wet with the aroma of Mustang and hospitality while serving us dinner acted as sauce to the plain food. Streets were blessed with either dim light or no light at all… So we returned to our hotel soon for the warmth of the wood and wool.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
In Mustang apples fall off from trees and roll on the ground like what we see with guava in plains.
Next morning (Day 4), the sky seemed slightly overcast… gulping few mugs of tea we rushed to catch the earliest morning bus of seven. The green minibus was already filled with other trekkers, travelers and hand few local people, so we were lucky to get three backseats just to experience the life of a ping-pong ball for next 3-4 hours! Our bus started its journey late and along with that it stopped in all possible halts for all possible reasons ranging from delivering boxes of apple to picking up postal sac from some remote post office, ultimately delaying our arrival at Ghasa. There also the irony didn’t leave us at our fate, for it took almost 3 hours for the next bus for Beni to depart while I passed my time crunching packets of chips, watching hundreds of passengers waiting with similar keenness and kids busy in their respective worlds. 
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
After resting an hour in the hotel we went out to experience the town of Jomsom.
As the number of passengers waiting for the minibus was much more than it could accommodate I knew there would be survival of the fittest and I didn’t like to come to the weaklings group… but Western people can never compete with Subcontinent machos in some feats like hurrying into a bus/train breaking all etiquettes of a queue… so I ended up on some seat while watching a countless passengers in despair from inside the window shield who failed to be successful. We gave a hearty farewell to Mustang and our bus descended along the wild unpaved road with the rhythm of the accompanying river. There was some problem with the engine of the bus which forced the driver to drive extra-cautiously and halt at every turn and that in turn delayed our arrival to Beni to post 8:00 PM. The last bus to Pokhara had left long before, so we had to reserve a taxi like the last time and yea, the driver charged even more. We reached our hotel at Pokhara little before twelve and finished our supper like famine victims.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
The green minibus was already filled with other trekkers, travelers and hand few local people.
Before ending this travelogue, few more things I would love to add about traveling to Muktinath as Mukinath is a prime destination for a majority of religious tourists too. Travelers willing to submit themselves to physical endurance test can only go there. There are several ways to reach Muktinath. Pokhara is well connected by road and regular flights to Kathmandu which has international airport. Either one can take a flight from Pokhara to Jomsom and then hike for 7-8 hours from Jomsom to reach Muktinath or trek all the way from Pokhara through Kali-Gandaki valley which takes a week approximately. Bus & Jeep Services (shared/reserved) are available from Pokhara to Jomsom via Beni, Ghasa correspondingly where one has to change the vehicle and it takes about 11-14 hours. In the daytime at Jomsom, shared jeep services (depending on passenger availability) are available for Muktinath which takes around 2 hours. Helicopter services are also available from Pokhara & Kathmandu. Actually, there are plenty of ways a traveler can travel, depending on his time and budget… but above all, the devotees believe that one should have the blessing of the Lord to reach to His holy abode.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Once in a Lifetime: Mystic Mustang and Holy Muktinath - Page 1 (Click on the image to enlarge)

Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Once in a Lifetime: Mystic Mustang and Holy Muktinath - Page 2 (Click on the image to enlarge)
As I mentioned in the introductory post, my Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale had got a place in the cover story section of May-June 2013 issue of Travel Secrets magazine. It always feels good to see your own words published on paper. My warm thanks to the editorial team! I've provided you the scanned pages which you can click to enlarge and read. Always remember to acclimatise before any high altitude trek to avoid being a spoilsport. Like any other remote paradise, Mustang is getting contaminated with rapid urbanization and desynchronized western influence. So, before this place loses her virgin hue, plan your trip to the Annapurna Circuit and take home some priceless memories.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale (Part 2)

Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
This is continuation of the first part of my Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale. In case you missed the previous post let me summarize it for you. In October, 2011, I along with two of my friends, responded to the call of mystic Mustang. This ‘Mustang’ is neither the iconic motor variant of Ford nor a dark golden mare from a cowboy movie. It is, in fact,one of Nepal’s most extravagantly beautiful and dangerous landscapes, destined only for the fortunate few who dare to abandon their luxury couch and taste the raw barrenness of Tibetan plateau over 3000 meters from mean sea level. This is risky beauty, and you’re prepared for almost anything as you sit inside a passenger packed 4WD, crawling on narrow-bumpy curves, between ‘anytime ready to slide’ rocks and the deepest ravine in the world. You could take the 30-minute exhilarating air route from Pokhara to Jomsom, the district headquarter of Mustang, or do the day-long road journey that covers some rare vistas formed by the snow-white Annapurna, infinite waterfalls, changing patterns of vegetation, magical rays on snowy peaks and the roaring Kaligandaki.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Raw barrenness of Tibetan plateau over 3000 meters from mean sea level.
We chose the second option, but wait—there’s a third option, only for those brave-hearts who’re traveling with time in their rucksack. You can trek all the way from Nayapul—a nearly two-hour bus ride from Pokhara to Jomsom to get intimate with the spectacular terrain in a more sensual way.We remained engrossed in the live documentary before us, silently watching our vehicle crossing shallow tributaries, charismatic setting sun, fading frozen summits, apple gardens of Marpha village and finally reaching the town of Jomsom, which looked mysterious in its late-evening cloak of darkness. A home-stay with a big board that read ‘Hotel Jomsom Paradise’ welcomed us and soon we succumbed to the warmth of the wooden room and quilt after enjoying tea, bread jam and chilly fried rice. My quick recap of the first day ends here.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
The town of Jomsom looked mysterious in its late-evening cloak of darkness.
Our first morning at Jomsom (Day 2) turned out to be cursed by cold northern wind. It was difficult to stand even for a minute on the terrace to observe the picturesque barren rocky mountains and snowy peaks all around us. The early rays of sun giving a prismatic effect over snow was something so alluring but then I realized that I couldn’t afford to lose my battery level as a whole day trek was just waiting for us in the coming hour. Momentarily I bid an adieu to the quivering colored flags and orange stacks of ‘to be dried’ corns on surrounding flat wood piled rooftops and got ready for Muktinath trek in ice cold water of the taps. After reaching the jeep-stand we finally decided to trek uphill for Muktinath.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Our first morning at Jomsom turned out to be cursed by cold northern wind.
We were almost in tight denims (make it a point to wear some loose trouser while trekking), without any trekking shoe (sport shoes are really not capable when it comes to trekking), had no trekking sticks (they come real handy in steep ascents) and had enough luggage (most of which I had taken care of in my backpack) to fight against gravity!... and most importantly we commenced our trek not before 9 AM but with an objective of climbing an altitude of more than 1000 meters, completely unaware of the fact how dusty wind transforms to crusaders over the rocky cliffs after 12 noon!
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Make it a point to wear some loose trouser while trekking, not tight denims like us.
On the way we kept taking photographs of the reflecting mountaintops, crossed the calmed down shallow pebbly Kali Gandaki river and greeted joyfully to the fellow trekkers returning from Muktinath. Approximately in an hour or so we reached a village named Eklebhatti and purchased some energy drinks in a trekkers’ inn. There was no much ascent till then, so we were fully charged and restarted our power trekking after a five minutes break. Things were changing without our knowledge as we started munching heights. We had some dry fruits and biscuits from our stock while watching a village family crossing a long hanging bridge while carrying tons of loads on their back. It was amazing to watch how easily a short stature woman carries a gas cylinder up the hill on her back without slightest sign of irritation in her face!... and yea they speak clear English too! 
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
After Kagbeni the steep ascent began and it had past 12 noon!
I felt the urgency of using toilet as we reached Kagbeni in another hour, having lost our initial speed. Seeing the board ‘Dragon hotel restaurant & bar’ with a decent structure we went in. A picturesque village was posing itself down the valley which was visible quite nicely from the veranda of the restaurant. Having freshened up with energy drinks we resumed. But after Kagbeni the steep ascent began and it had past 12 noon. The sun overhead, dry-dusty northern wind was dehydrating us faster than we could anticipate and lack of trekking gears did the rest of the job of draining out our spirit. After sometime we found our water bottles empty... luckily a group of trekkers coming downhill generously helped us with their water supply!
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
The sun overhead, dry-dusty northern wind was dehydrating us faster than we could anticipate.
As the clock advanced I started feeling the heaviness of my backpack and hollowness of my sport-shoe. Almost same condition struck Dr Yoho, my co-traveler. Gradually I understood that I was under the hex of Acute mountain sickness (AMS). AMS is a sickness that affects travelers at altitude above 2400 meters characterized by light headedness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath with exertion, sleeping difficulty etc. The faster one climbs to a high altitude, the more likely he’ll get AMS! Symptoms depend on the speed of climb and how hard the climber exerts himself.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Gradually I started feeling the heaviness of my backpack and hollowness of my sport-shoe!
AMS is due to a combination of reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes. To prevent AMS it is recommended to ascend slow may be 300-500 meters/day, not to exert oneself, eat high carbohydrate foods, take plenty of fluids, avoid alcohol and caffeine. Once you’re affected by AMS primary measure is to stay at the same height for 1-3 days as a measure of acclimatisation or if possible descend, take Acetazolamide tablet 250mg 12 hourly after consulting with a doctor.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Things were changing without our knowledge as we started munching heights.
It had past 3 afternoon and we were still 2-3 kilometers away from our destination when we aborted our trek and reserved a passing by jeep (we were really lucky to get one!) for the remaining bit of our journey. In 10 minutes the jeep jumped up and down quite a few times to drop us at Muktinath before it was 4:00 PM. We (except Dr. Ridmi, who was even fit for completing the trek) didn’t have any fuel left in us to search for a good lodge. Consequently, we crawled into one trekkers' lodge which was just adjacent to the jeep-stand, with our baggages and altitude stuck health.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
It had past 3 afternoon and we were still 2-3 kilometers away from our destination!
Getting hot water was a fancy there too, so I kept on tossing on bed with dust coated skin, light head and ‘120 plus’ heart rate for the next twelve hours while Yoho suffered from tightness of chest and clattering teeth (due to hypothermia). From inside our log cabin we could hear the local people celebrating Diwali tihar (festival) with traditional songs and music... quite a marvelous experience eh?
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
A group of mountain bikers negotiating the slope while my vision was as hazy as this shot!

Click here to read the Final Part of my Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale (Part 1)

Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
This travel story comprising our memorable road journey from Pokhara to Jomsom and trekking to Muktinath, dates back to October 2011, which was published as the cover story- "Once in a Lifetime: Mystic Mustang and Holy Muktinath" in the May-June 2013 edition of Travel Secrets magazine. I had published the Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking tale in one of my old blogs too and it gave me immense satisfaction whenever any traveler friend had approached me to inquire about the Muktinath trek. But, after good 5 years of that blogging I found the content and formating of my mystic Mustang travel story not as much reader-friendly as I would love to pen down today. So, here's a small effort from my side to rewrite the closest-to-my-heart travel story of Pokhara to Muktinath. Yea, old scotch in new bottle... but trust me, it'll definitely be a worthy read!
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Definitely, mystic Mustang!
Diwali was creeping nearer and the desire to make a short trip somewhere with the excuse of celebrating the auspicious Diwali was budding in my heart. Dushera leaves had been exploited more than any official authority would permit, so chances of indefinite hitchhiking was far beyond a foggy fantasy. Idea of solo traveling to nearby places didn’t give me much relief due to the brutal fact that I had consumed my travel budget for the quarter in the recent wildlife trip. But anyhow, I couldn’t afford to dedicate my 3-4 days in the name of crackers and fireworks. Luckily one of my friends, Ridmi came up with the idea of exploring Mustang and trekking to Muktinath (a sacred destination both for Hindus and Buddhists, lying 3,800 meter above MSL). After hearing the atypical name 'Mustang' (sounds more like an iconic motor variant of Ford or, a dark golden mare from some cowboy movie right?)  and doing a bit of web-search I couldn’t resist the temptation of joining the three travelers’ brigade! 
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Beyond Beni all the places are tourist destinations!
Mustang is one of the seventy-five districts of Nepal located in the north-central part of the country as a part of Dhawalagiri Zone. Jomsom is the district headquarter of Mustang district. Wild, windy and harsh, yet strikingly beautiful land of Mustang bestrides the Himalayas and extends northward onto the Tibetan plateau preserving pure Tibetan traditions in its upper parts till date. Besides the trekking routes through the upper Mustang and along the Annapurna circuit in lower Mustang, the district is famous for the scenic villages in the lap of snowy peaks, innumerable fountains, waterfalls, springs, pilgrimage site of Muktinath and apple gardens/apple products of Marfa. By the end of 2010 when I had gone for Kathmandu-Pokhara trip I came over Nepal Tourism advertisement in quite a few places, where the caption “Naturally Nepal – Once is not enough” had lured me to the core. I was overwhelmed to realize that I was responding to the call of Nepal Tourism once again within a short span of twelve months!
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Pretty soon after we left Ghasa we got the magnificent snow clad Himalayan view!
Brief Itinerary of our journey from Pokhara to Jomsom and trekking to Muktinath:

Day 1- Pokhara (altitude below 1,000 m) to Beni by taxi, Beni to Ghasa by shared jeep, Ghasa to Jomsom by bus, night stay at Jomsom (altitude 2,743 m).
Day 2- Trekking from Jomsom to Muktinath, night stay at Muktinath (altitude 3,710 m).
Day 3- Muktinath Darshan (altitude 3,800 m), return to Jomsom by shared jeep, hopping around at Jomsom, night stay at Jomsom.
Day 4- Jomsom to Ghasa by bus, Ghasa to Beni by bus, Beni to Pokhara by taxi.

Obviously, as none of us hailed from Pokhara our actual travel itinerary was lengthier than this, but, to keep my narration focused on Jomsom to Muktinath trekking I'm taking author's liberty of editing out all irrelevant details. Here Day 1 shall start with a fine morning at Pokhara valley and Day 4 shall end with our dinner time at the same lakeside hotel.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Most of the passengers got down at a middle place called Tatopani.
Pokhara, situated in central Nepal, is nestled in a region of awesome natural beauty. The valley is filled with lush vegetation, swift flowing rivers and dotted with clear, shimmering lakes. Pokhara is blessed with the backdrop of one of the most dramatic sceneries in the world- a 140 Km of panorama made up of towering Himalayan ranges seen close enough to be touched on a clear day! It is the only place in the whole world from where one can enjoy the majestic view of 8000+ meters tall giants while comfortably sitting below 1000 meters above sea level! Best part is, Pokhara is not just about natural extravaganza... it also has a crazy yet serene nightlife to pamper its tourists. Ah forget the last night, this story starts with a fine morning in some lakeside hotel at Pokhara. We woke up late in the morning as per my last night's presumption. There remained a ‘simply not possible’ chance of reaching Jomsom in that very day if we thought of availing public bus service up to Beni (a place somewhere in between Pokhara and Jomsom from where one has to change the vehicle) after morning 8:30. So we agreed upon reserving a cab at a hiked up rate which comfortably took us to Beni in little more than two hours. There are couple of domestic airlines plying mountain flights between Pokhara and Jomsom, but you've to be an early bird, otherwise you'll miss the worm.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
From Beni our Jeep started ascending off-road along the meandering Kali Gandaki River.
Drive along the under-maintained road alongside the Seti River was pleasant. Having finished our lunch with non-vegetarian Nepali thali our actual off-road journey began! Beyond Beni all the places are tourist destinations, so from Beni onwards public transportation rate differs for Westerners, SAARC tourists (in practicality only Indians come in this half safe side category!) and Nepalese citizens. I was unaware of this fact till then, so my Hindi conversation with the counter men costed me higher fare rate as decided for the Indians, which I realized when I paid for the second half of the journey at Ghasa once again at Indian rate. But after that I was fully conscious to use only Nepali language while purchasing further tickets and managed them all at low local rate.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Our Jeep crossed stones, mud, escaped hanging giant rocks and crossed innumerable waterways!
From Beni our Jeep started ascending off-road along the meandering Kali Gandaki River. The path was a combo of all badness a driver wants to avoid in daily driving... our wheels crossed stones, mud, steep ascents, escaped hanging giant rocks and a marginal risk of sliding down the river at every second of the beautiful bumpy four wheel drive! We passed through mountain villages, crossed so many hanging metal bridges connecting villages over two different hills, a lot more fountains and waterways which our jeep had to cross with its steady mountain heart.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
At first we were hesitant to take the minibus for such a risky route...
Just imagine of a moment you are sitting by the open window of your jeep and the high flowing fountain water knocks your door with its full glory misting your vision with the splashing out tiny water droplets... surely you’ll feel like you’re in heaven! Most of the passengers got down at a middle place called Tatopani. We reached Ghasa, the entry point of Mustang district in 3-4 hours. There we boarded a minibus which safely dropped us Jomsom in another 3-4 hours.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Naturally Nepal – Once is not enough!
At first we were hesitant to take the minibus for such a risky route but there was no jeep available that time. Later we had fully cherished the bus journey though. Our destination Jomsom (district headquarter of Mustang) and Muktinath comes under Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) which is the largest protected area of Nepal. One needs to get a valid entry permit for traveling/trekking in any region under ACA. Permits can be obtained either from NTNC office at Kathmandu or Pokhara. Be careful, double fee is levied if you’re caught without a permit in any of the field check-posts. Anyway, why to think of such situation?… it’s always sensible to be a good example for others and spread the word about eco tourism with dignity. So, we had procured our trekking permits beforehand which were checked and stamped at Ghasa.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Slowly the temperature lowered which forced us to insulate more.
Very soon after we left Ghasa we got the magnificent snow clad Himalayan view which kept luring us throughout the journey till sunset. It was a first time experience of being so close to those white glossy peaks. Slowly the temperature lowered which forced us to insulate more. The angry river never left us alone. It was really difficult to photograph all those beautiful moments my eye had sipped due to the jerky drive. 
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
It was really difficult to photograph from our bus due to the jerky drive.
I got engrossed in the ongoing live documentary to silently watch our minibus crossing some shallow tributaries, apple gardens, charismatic setting sun, fading frozen summits and finally reaching the cute little town of Jomsom before 7:30 PM... The sound of raving Kali Gandaki River mixed with whistling wind as we got down at Bus Park in the darkness of the air instilled a spirit of adventure in us.
Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale
Jomsom Airport, located at an elevation of 2,682 m above mean sea level.
We walked some hundred metres crossing a small bridge to get a descent accommodation which resembled more to a home-stay with a big board that read ‘Hotel Jomsom Paradise’. The coldness in the air and unavailability of warm water boxed out of our desire of taking bath and we succumbed to the warmth of the quilt just after sipping cups of tea, bread jam, chilly fried rice and dry chow-chow.

Read the continuation: Jomsom to Muktinath Trekking Tale (Part 2)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Were those Pigeons Courting or Fighting?

Were those Pigeons Courting or Fighting
Last Thursday when I was savoring my breakfast, I spotted two agitated pigeons on our neighbor's sunshade. Though it could be an aggressive attempt of courtship, to my ignorant eyes it resembled more like a fight over grains or territory, which is not so uncommon among domestic pigeons. If I could read their sexual characteristics correctly and differentiate a cock from a hen, definitely I would've been in a better position to comment. But sometimes ignorance is bliss right? We can simply imagine two hunky pigeons fighting over something and grab popcorns! That's what I told myself while taking the new lens out of my camera bag. The clash of pigeons lasted little more than three minutes and the 300mm telephoto end of my Tamron lens captured few okayish shots to help me hatch this brief photo story. I would highly appreciate if any pigeon breeder happen to drop on to my humble abode and use his expertise to clarify whether those pigeons were courting or fighting.
Were those Pigeons Courting or Fighting
Once you pick a fight, by default you surrender the license to drive back home peacefully.

Were those Pigeons Courting or Fighting
At this point, I was scared that the bully pigeon might take the intestine out of his opponent!

Were those Pigeons Courting or Fighting
In a war do-or-dying is not the only option. You have to devise fresh strategies and prioritize survival. 

Were those Pigeons Courting or Fighting
Winning is nothing but a state of delusion. After all, how long does a winner's smile last? Congratulations anyway!