Friday, June 30, 2017

YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed

YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
After completing my National Trekking Expedition Goa with Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI) in December 2013, I had reviewed YHAI trekking programs in the middle of 2014. Many enthusiast trekkers had shown keen interests on my amateurish review post. Apart from blog comments I was sent many personal messages by my readers. As expected, nature and focus of queries were different from one person to another, but there was one apprehension common in majority of those mails- Do I have to pee/poop in the open? Probably there are insufficient online reviews of YHAI trekking programs. So, I decided to publish my old review article in this blog for the ease of compilation and better visibility.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
Tented accommodation set up at Panaji base camp, Goa.
During my Goa trek I was lucky to interact with fellow trekkers who had have several treks with YHAI. I could even gather information from bicyclists who had participated in the biking adventure program in Goa. So, from my own experience and facts assembled from veteran members I'm here to review trekking programs run by YHAI. Let me be fair and confess that I've already enrolled for a life membership with YHAI, as I see many more treks coming my way. But that shouldn't be your yardstick. Better read all pros and cons to decide whether you're game for YHAI trekking programs. Oh I forgot, another biggest concern from my readers was: Are YHAI trekking programs safe for a solo female traveler? Yes, absolutely!
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
Inside view of a typical YHAI tent for 8-10 trekkers.
Youth Hostels Association of India is a non-profit organization and an associate member of the Hostelling International (U.K.), with 23 functional state branches, managing around 95 youth hostels throughout India, and annually organizing more than a dozen of national trekking, biking, family-camping and other environment friendly adventure programs. YHAI claims to be promoting travel, tourism, adventure spirits, national integration, education and health by providing hostels of good standards to millions of youths of modest means during their travel at cheap rates on a sustainable basis and also organizing adventure/educational events, to create understanding among youths about social and developmental issues.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
At higher camps you may need to collect your usable water from such wells.
Things which YHAI keep common in all of their trekking programs:

* An all inclusive package cost (Includes food, boarding, lodging, transportation, equipments, group insurance, guide fee, training/orientation, forest fee, any other permit). Once you reach the base camp it feels as if you returned to hostel and anything that happens to to you shall be taken care of by the warden!

* Simple vegetarian nutritious meals. It starts with morning tea, breakfast, lunch, tea-snacks, dinner and then Bournvita drink before you retire. You'll be served welcome drinks as you (though you'll soon develop repulsion for Roohafza) reach higher camps every day. Sometimes you may be offered soup as appetizer before the dinner. Don't be disheartened, at times you'll get boiled eggs too. So, in short , forget starving, you'll rather be overfed.

* Shared tented accommodation or dormitory.

* Common toilets or makeshift ones depending on the remoteness of the camp. You may have to poop behind the bush too, after all you're no common douche-bag... you're a trekker!

* Schedules are maintained pretty strictly by field directors and camp leaders. Like, even if you're free for the day/evening you'll be given a time deadline for reporting the camp.

* No smoking and no alcohol!

* Rules rule the game. This is one of the biggest reasons behind parents sending their children for these programs without much anxiety.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
A typical YHAI dormitory accommodation for trekkers.
Things you'd certainly like in any YHAI trekking program:

* Unbeatable, budget-friendly package! Yes, no other organization/company can quote you similar rates. All this is possible because entire support team in these adventure programs consists of volunteers, who're YHAI members with generous hearts.

* Although food is simple you'll like it for two reasons. First is, once you're doing physical activities the hunger you develop is your best sauce. Secondly, despite the unavailability of raw materials and inadequacy (owing to the low package cost) of funds you'll always feel that YHAI is trying its best to rotate the menu and present you with maximum variations! You can eat as much as your capacity permits.

* A built in environment that automatically keeps you disciplined.

* Equality and lack of prejudice in any form from YHAI. I didn't just talk of equality of cast, creed, race, gender etc. Here people of varied age groups trek with equal eagerness and integrity. Treks are also designed to keep them doable for wide range of participants.

* Strong sense of being in a group. You'll never feel abandoned and insecure unless you're a pathological loner.

* Concern for environment. You may end up picking all plastic wrappers from your path to dump them into their suitable place. Even if you're among those careless bunch who tends to litter craps a lot, you'll surely improve your habit, at least for the sake of your self respect!

* As I mentioned it before, once you're in, logistics and technicalities of the trip are no more your headache. YHAI will take care of all and only obedience is expected from you in return. Just imagine, although you're going for a trek it is okay even if you report without a rucksack as YHAI will provide you one!

* You can trust on the name of the organization and this is a big relief especially for first time participants.

* Due cares are taken for female trekkers so that solo women can join with complete peace of mind.

* At the end of the trek, a dozen of hands won't haunt you for tips.

* Here I'm not mentioning subjects like- advantages of trekking in a group, opportunity to remain in close proximity to unadulterated nature, development of team spirit etc, as those things you can gain by trekking with other agencies as well.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
My YHAI ID Card for the Goa Trek, containing signatures of all camp leaders.
Things you might not like in a YHAI trekking program:

* Toilets/washrooms are public and not sufficient in number. Even in base camps where there's ample opportunity to keep them better maintained, you may find waterlogged bathrooms, stinking latrines and sometimes toilets with half broken doors.

* Tents are too tightly packed, often making it a challenge for tall trekker to find his sleep. 8-10 trekkers may have to share a large tent and I tell you honestly, you'll struggle to drive away your insomnia unless you're an easy sleeper.

* Rigidity with schedule may suffocate you at times and you might momentarily hate being constantly under supervision.

* Large group size (say, 50 trekkers in a group) gives rise to micro groups and at the end of the day unknowingly you may end up backbiting others with the ongoing trend. Yes, if bitching is not in your nature, later you'll suffer from self reproach.

* Apparent bossing of the camp leader. But I tell you, always remind yourself that every human being is different and your camp leader is volunteering out of generosity.

* Certainly these trekking programs are not suitable for solo/independent trekkers and also for those who need certain amount of luxury in their trip. Abundant dust in camping grounds may not be suitable for asthmatics and allergy prone individuals too.
YHAI Trekking Programs Reviewed
It doesn't really matter where you head on to or, with whom you pair up...
In this review, hopefully I've been able to share pros and cons of YHAI trekking programs in considerable details. Other than garments depending on the trail, few more things which you should carry in any YHAI trek for your personal convenience are- a rectangular lunch box, plate, spoon, mug, water bottle, torch, mosquito repellent ointment, water purifying tablets, portable power bank, few waterproof adhesive bandages, antimicrobial powder, needle, lighter, few plastic packets and a sleeping bag if you have one (though in Himalayan treks YHAI will provide you sleeping bags). Hope my article served it purpose. Now it is entirely your call whether to trek with YHAI or not. Ultimate truth is- it doesn't matter where you head on to or, with whom you pair up, as long as you are traveling and of course clicking photos on the go.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Monsoon is still in her teaser mode and the sadist summer is yet to leave his stage. Wet weather won't support much travel plans, but it'll be far better than this life sucking heat. Despite the never-quenching thirst for traveling, my idiosyncrasies do not always allow me to act like true wanderers. That's why I have been publishing photo stories from my old travelogues of late, instead of vrooming out with the riding jacket on. In my last post I was glorifying Odisha, my less sung neighbor state, as the perfect tourism snippet of incredible India. Today I'm back with another beautiful place of interest, barely ten kilometers away from the fast developing city of Bhubaneswar.

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Despite its poignant history and nature's extravaganza, Dhauligiri (pronounced as 'Dhavalgiri') is popular among day tourists exclusively for the Japanese Peace Pagoda located at the top of the Dhauli Hill. It's a shame that we limit our visit to Shanti Stupa and miss the soul of the place. Even I'm culpable of the same ignorance. Although I had been to Dhauligiri many times before, it was the first place I visited that morning. Yes, first half of the morning is the ideal time to explore Dhauligiri Hill. You may visit there in late afternoon as well. Just avoid the midday sun. An empty tummy parents dumb mind. Before entering the Peace Pagoda I topped up my greedy gut with few delicious vada.

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Dhauligiri Shanti Stupa stands white atop the Dhauli Hill, by the bank of Daya River, where Emperor Ashoka had embraced Buddhism after being mentally shattered by his self created massacre post Kalinga War. Kalinga War fought by the Maurya Empire under the able leadership of Ashoka against the state of Kalinga is considered as one of the most gory and devastating battles in history. It is said that during the course of this battle, River Daya had turned red with human blood, and that violent sight caused inner transformation of the mighty Maurya Emperor. Ashoka had won the battle. But, by then he had realized the futility of war and it was the last battle he ever fought.

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Shanti Stupa has been built in the shape of a dome. As you circumambulate the pagoda you'll come across four large statues of Buddha, each one of them sculpted in different postures depicting various stages of Buddha's life. On a fine day you'll have to compete hard with your fellow tourists to get a clear shot of those divine statues or motifs on the wall. It is nauseating to see how majority of tourists treat monuments and religious sites. You'll find most of them posing with their back towards Buddha statues, which is considered a disrespectful behavior in Buddhism. Some tourists are so gross that they do not mind letting their children sit on those statues to get it clicked. Still, when such manners are criticized by people of more civilized nations we take it on our hollow nationality!

Dhauligiri - erstwhile battlefield of the Kalinga War
Do not forget to savor the soothing panorama of the surroundings from the back of the Shanti Stupa. When you gaze at the vast stretch of greenery below, the narrow strip of meandering Daya cutting through agricultural land might compel you to imagine the bloodbath visuals of Kalinga battlefield and get goosebumps! Conserve your energy to visit the nearby Dhavaleshar Temple and Rock Edicts of Ashoka. Take your time and absorb the essence of Dhauligiri. When you are done either go back to Bhubaneshwar to explore its old world charms, or head onto Puri to witness a vivid sunset over the Bay of Bengal.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
Despite offering one of the finest tourism snippets of incredible India, it's a pity, Odisha still remains vastly overshadowed in the tourist map of the subcontinent! Ancient monuments, pilgrimage sites, wildlife reserves, mangrove forests, hill stations, rivers, lakes, coastline - you name it, Odisha has been endowed with it. Like most other travel-obsessed Bengalis I have traveled Odisha more number of times than my lazy brain can recall. Yet, in every two-three years I get an irresistible urge to explore my neighbor state. In my last blog post on Konark Sun Temple I had tried to give an account of that traveler's idiosyncrasy. Visiting Udayagiri Caves was (probably for the fourth time) a tiny fragment of a bigger itinerary sketched back in December, 2015.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
Ganesha Gumpha, one of the most significant caves of Udayagiri dates back to 1st century BC.
Not everyday the teenager lobby boy at a busy motel in Bhubaneswar get to run errands for an unshaven solo traveler (more importantly, one who has arrived on a motorcycle). Probably the chap was looking for a trump which would work on me. Sunset was closing in. Although I had just arrived Bhubaneswar after a 450+ kilometers of ride, it seemed shallow to call it a day without even paying a courtesy visit to the nearby Jain caves- Udayagiri and Khandagiri. When the boy came to know of my intention he seconded my thought with a scheming smile, "Sir, as the sun is getting low you'll be rewarded with great views inside Udayagiri Caves". I was too tired to crack a conversation and simply smiled back with an optimistic nod. If you're absolutely free you might fantasize the truth concealed behind his 'great views'.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
There are altogether 18 caves in Udayagiri, most of which comprise a row of cells.
The twin hills located in the outskirt of Bhubaneswar at a close proximity to NH-5, house excavated rock cut caves called Lena in the inscriptions, and were essentially dwelling retreats of Jain ascetics. There are altogether 18 caves in Udayagiri and 15 caves in Khandagiri Hill. These caves were excavated by Kharavela and his successors in 1st century BC. The activities continued till the time of Somavamsis of 10th-11th century AD. Most of the caves comprise a row of cells opening either directly to the verandah or to the open spaces in front. The cells were essentially dormitories, an inference substantiated by a sloping rise of the floor at rear end to serve he purpose of a pillow. Ah hold on! I didn't decode these architectural mysteries. It was plain and simple jotting down of information as provided by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
The Jain Temple perched atop Khandagiri Hill as visible from the top of Udayagiri Hill.
In later periods some of the cells were converted into shrines with minor modifications, such as- increasing the height of the chamber by deepening the floor. The doorway of cells have pilasters on either side with crowning animal figures, and arches over them are decorated with flowers, creepers and animal motifs. Among all 18 caves at Udayagiri, Rani Gumpha and Swargapuri-Manchapuri Gumpha are double storeyed. The famous inscription of Kharavela is found engraved on the brows of the Hathi Gumpha, written in Brahmi script in 17 lines. It records many of his expeditions including the victory over Magadha and retrieval of the Jaina cult image taken over by the Nanda King.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
Udayagiri Caves as visible from the top of Khandagiri Hill.
Ganesha Gumpha (Cave-10), one of the most significant caves of Udayagiri dates back to 1st century BC and contains two dwelling cells with a benched verandah in front. The arched doorway of he cells above the railings are relieved with scenes like the abduction scene reminding that of cave-1 and the other scenes representing the popular story of Udayana and Vasavadatta. The cave is named after an image of Ganesha carved inside. The historical significance of this cave lies on a five-lined inscription of 8th century AD. That afternoon I had kept my visit limited to Udayagiri Caves. Entry fee is charged for Udayagiri. There is a thick population of playful langurs on both of these hills. But, do not be too apprehensive of their presence. With time, they have learnt the art of existing harmoniously with hostile human beings.

Udayagiri Caves - ancient retreats of the Jain ascetics
Modern Bhubaneswar city when viewed from the top of Udayagiri Hill.
You need at least a couple of hours to explore the 'Sunrise Hill' (literal meaning of Udayagiri) properly. Due to imminent sunset I had to cut short my cave tour. By then, I had barely documented Udayagiri Caves, and Khandagiri Caves were left untouched. So, I had to return there the following day to wind up the unfinished trade. Both of my visits were on weekends and I tell you, the whole surrounding was messier than a crashed aircraft site! I am really sorry to say, the majority of tourists flocking there on weekends are far from being half civilized and I bet you won't dig their gross attitude towards such historical heritages. Unfortunately you can't change them. So, if you want to absorb the essence of those caves better schedule your visit on weekdays. The city of Bhubaneswar is a giant chest of monuments and history. I'll pick out another gem from that casket in my coming post. Till then, take good care.