Friday, May 22, 2015

Wander Tales #2 - Chai

Wander Tales Comic - Chai

In this initiative, Ramya and I, bring to you little visual stories about travel experiences, insights, incidents and learnings. Check out the first comic in the link below and let me know your thoughts about the travel comic strip in the comments section! :)

(Read Introducing "Wander Tales" Comics)

Monday, May 18, 2015

In the Foothills of Himalayas, Let Kosi Valley Charm You

Mt Trishul as seen from Kumaon Himalayas
A Gorgeous sunset over the Mountains

Through the glass windows, I was looking at the night lift its cloak of darkness as a blue dawn fought its way through. The sun crept up the mountains that surrounded me as the first rays slowly flooded the room, the chirping of birds grew louder and I could hear the faint gurgle of the river below. I was still in bed as the orange light blinded me; I adjusted my position to keep the rays away from my face. While I have always loved the idea of waking up to first light gently falling on my face, it is not something that I got to experience a lot. But here at Kosi Valley Retreat, I went to bed every night anticipating waking up to bright sunshine.

I’m not a morning person on most days, but whenever I’m in the hills, I become one. It is impossible not to, when your cue to wake up is not the mechanized sound of an alarm ringing but the delightful cacophony of numerous birds singing. Plus, it helps to be well rested, in the lap of nature where your internal body clock resets itself (BBC: Can a week under canvas reset our body clocks?). Here in this valley, outdoor enthusiasts who prefer a nature fix along with creature comforts can have it all.

Sunshine Flooding the Room
View from the bed, minutes before sunshine comes flooding the room

My days largely comprised of hanging out with wild nature; Pine trees, Kosi River, Himalayas and its foothills, star-studded night skies, Red-Billed Blue Magpies, verdant green terraced fields and such were my constant companions. I spent a week here without encountering another tourist, which seemed to be a rather rare blessing these days.

On clear nights, sitting around a warm bonfire and listening to the screeching of thousand insects, I looked up into the heavens tracing the paths of numerous shooting stars. However, lazy mornings were spent in the balcony with a warm cup of tea in hand, watching the daring pigeons and hill mynas flutter close to the roof while the little birdies flew in frenzy in the farther trees. Afternoons and evenings were spent hiking in the pristine forest that surrounded the property and cycling in the pretty countryside of Someshwar Valley. But on some days when the serenity of the nature called to do “nothing”, I lazed under a pine tree watching the sunshine escape through its sparse canopy. In the age of sightseeing, it seems we forgot how lovely it is to sit under a tree.

But that doesn’t mean I spent my week in Kosi Valley largely doing nothing. My plan was to actually do nothing, and in fact the place is perfect to just laze around with a book or saunter aimlessly given the serene surroundings of hills, streams and forests. But both Kosi Valley and the team really caught me off-guard there, I had quite an active stay with long hikes and cycle rides on few days. However, the thing that I enjoyed most during my stay was the complete lack of a planned itinerary and how the valley let me in on its secrets, slowly, at its own pace, one day at a time.

Every morning, Shivraj(the manager) and I used to discuss what to do and made plans on the fly depending on my mood. Surprisingly, I found something to do every single day. One day, we made a date with the snowcapped peaks of the Kumaon Range. The next, we cruised along the gently winding roads on Mountain Bikes. On another, we just went hiking in the rain. There was no sightseeing, there was just experiencing the beauty of the valley, often ignored and overshadowed by the mountains that rise up from their sides. Fortunately, Kosi Valley Retreat offers you a rare chance to experience serenity in a valley that is off the beaten track.

***

My time in Kosi Valley, In Pictures (13!)A Slice of Heaven in Untrodden Corners of Almora

***

Make it Happen

Accommodation:
Kosi Valley Retreat
I stayed in the room on top left, comes highly recommended.
Kosi Valley Retreat is a stone bungalow set right by the Kosi River side in a valley between Almora and Kausani, offering 4 rooms on the top floor, with a dedicated balcony for each room which allows you a close look at the very active birdlife in the surrounding pine forest. The building constructed with stone and pebbles in typical mountain style is atmospheric, and the large glass windows and doors are a delightful touch because you can see the mountains and forest right from your bed.

If you’re into outdoor adventures, talk to the team beforehand and ask for a detailed list of things to do around before zeroing in on the number of days you will stay here. There are enough activities to keep you occupied for an entire week and more, so plan your days well in advance so you are not disappointed that you have to leave out certain treks or cycle rides due to lack of time. 

A small team of friendly staff from nearby villages manages the retreat and they take care of you quite well. And, like me, if you hate the oily atrocity that is thrust upon us in the name of Indian food in most touristy places, you will love the simple and delicious Kumaoni food served here. The produce used for cooking is mostly organic, coming from the kitchen garden within the premises. 

Getting there:
Kosi Valley Retreat is situated in a village called Simkholi, 30kms from Almora and 18kms from Kausani in the splendid Almora district of Uttarakhand, far away from the crowd and close to nature.

Kathgodam is the nearest railway station and Haldwani is the closest bus stop. You can get shared or full taxis to take you to Almora from Kathgodam, it takes about 4-5 hours to reach.

Note: My stay and activities at Kosi Valley were sponsored by Kosi Valley Retreat.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Escaping the Nepal Earthquake & What Happened Afterwards

A beautiful country ravaged by nature's fury

I was fast asleep on the bumpy bus ride, traveling from Kathmandu to Chitwan on the day when the devastating earthquake measuring 7.8-magnitude hit Nepal on April 25th 2015. 

(FYI, Richter Scale was replaced by Moment Magnitude Scale in the 1970s)

Reaching Bharatpur by noon, the district headquarters of Chitwan and gateway to explore the jungles of Chitwan National Park, we could see the people of the city were gathered out on the streets and in the grounds, staring intently at their mobile phones. Looking through the glass windows from inside the bus, the reason why people were out was anybody’s guess. I got down at my stop to make a call to the resort that was supposed to pick me up. 

The manager said “Sorry, I do not have the exact information on where your cab is, it’s been a bit busy here because of the earthquake.”

“EARTHQUAKE?!”, I repeated after him in disbelief.

He confirmed. “Yes, an earthquake just hit Nepal.” 

I ended the call and went outside to find my cab had just arrived. Prem Gurung, an elderly forest guide, visibly shaken, came up to me apologizing for the delay caused (because of the quake) and escorted me towards the jeep as he asked me if I felt the tremors. 

I was clueless, I hadn’t felt anything. And only now I figured the reason why everyone was out on the streets in Bharatpur. I also wondered if it was the earthquake that must’ve jolted me out of my sleep in the bus?

We still had no clue on the magnitude of the earthquake. Fortunately here in Chitwan district, that was the extent of the disturbance caused by the quake, people were driven out of their homes temporarily. Intently listening to the radio, we heard people calling in from all over the country, reporting the damage in their respective areas. We couldn’t figure out the extent damage or the seriousness of the situation yet, barely an hour passed by since the earth shook. 

Soon, the conversation veered from the earthquake towards me, Chitwan, the weather, all and sundry. We completely forgot about the earthquake by the time we reached the resort in Meghauli, an area far removed from the tourist crowd of Sauraha. If there was a crowd, there would’ve been chatter about the incident. In this remote corner, where nothing was affected, earthquake became the subject of our small talk, but only until late afternoon.

At around 4 PM, the manager informed me about the casualties of the earthquake when the cable connection finally got working. 

“600”, he said. And this was the number only from Kathmandu, mere hours after the quake hit. 

After the number sunk in, my head started spinning. A thousand thoughts ran through my mind - fear, anxiety, relief, worry, confusion, disappointment and all such emotions hit me at once. 

The earthquake hit Nepal at 11.55 AM.

It was now 4 PM!

I could only imagine the horror my family and friends must’ve gone through during these long 4 hours when I was not reachable in any way. Just the previous morning, I had decided I would go old school and travel without a local sim, just for the heck of it. Bad timing to disconnect, I realized. 

Phone lines were down in the country but thankfully internet was working. Quickly connecting to the internet, I waited for my phone to explode with notifications and as expected, it did! People were worried sick about my safety - family, friends and strangers alike. I let everyone know I was safe. It was very touching, the outpouring of concern from everyone. 

That evening, we were talking to the mahouts on how the elephants fared when the quake hit. They said the gentle giants were stomping hard on the ground and visibly shaken during the earthquake. I could only imagine how scary the ordeal must’ve been for all the animals that felt the tremors. 

The next morning, I woke up to mild tremors. I sat on the bed as the ground shook gently, it was a mild aftershock. It was surprising, our body’s naturally wired response to natural calamities such as this. Although the tremors were very mild, my heart raced like it was about to burst out of my ribcage! If a small tremor had me running out of the room, one can imagine how frightening it must have been when the ground shook like crazy for minutes.

As the day progressed, slowly the news about the scale of the destruction started trickling in. Along came the reports about the rescue efforts by the embassies of various countries, the valor of Indian army, the agility of the Ministry of External Affairs so on and so forth. My parents and friends were urging me to take the support of the Indian Embassy and fly back into India immediately. I couldn’t leave just yet. 

Here in Chitwan, the foothills of Himalayas, there was no devastation. Things were absolutely fine and it didn’t make much sense to me in leaving the safety of the jungles to head towards the devastated and resource-crunched Kathmandu. As people were making all sort of plans to leave the country, I didn’t feel the need to the flee as long as I could find a safe place. After all, the severely limited resources of Kathmandu were better put to use for local aid and relief efforts than rescuing foreigners who had come for a “vacation”, me included. I was safe here in Chitwan, so I decided against going to Kathmandu at least for the next 5 days much to the chagrin of worried folks back home. The only way I could help the situation immediately was keeping out of the way. And my motto always has been, if locals can survive, so can I. I decided to wing it with the people of Nepal.  

It was April 26th, a day after the dreaded event, rightly dubbed as the Great Earthquake. Things were slowly getting clear as the casualty count climbed higher, steadily. In 2 weeks, I was supposed to be trekking the Manaslu Circuit, a friend confirms that region is one of the worst affected, I was sure that my trek is cancelled. I had my return ticket booked for May 25th, it was only April 26th today. I was here in Chitwan at least till April 30th, but I decided to leave the rest to fate. I didn’t make any new plans just yet. 

On the afternoon of 27th, we were all sitting in the lobby, close to the WiFi router, sending updates and making escape plans. Just then, the ground shook violently. The tables and chairs shook hard as well, the vibrations were palpable and the noise was shockingly loud. We all ran away from the wooden porch building towards the pool, the water was swaying wildly as one single viscous body. Heart was pounding again, uncontrollably. This was a major aftershock and it lasted about 5 seconds.  

Later one afternoon, talking to the local staff, a friendly Indian Lady working in Chitwan, reminded me that if something has to happen, you cannot escape it even at the fringes and if not, you will be safe even in the eye of the storm. I took that advice to heart and decided to head to Pokhara which was verified to have escaped unscathed. While deciding what to do next, I was terribly conflicted. On one hand the fortunate turn of events that placed me out of harm’s way didn’t escape me and on the other hand there was this feeling of impending doom that things could go wrong the very next moment and that I should flee. All the bookings had been cancelled immediately at the resort, people who were there left the country in a hurry and those were to come, cancelled. The resort was empty by April 27th, the staff was given a well-deserved break, they started leaving for home too. The place was almost deserted except for me and a handful of staff. 

Torn between perceived safety and the actual situation on the ground, I spent the next few days with thoughts moving between participating in relief efforts, staying out the way, leaving the country and staying back. Things in Chitwan were fine meanwhile where I was well cared for. Meanwhile, in Kathmandu incessant rain, food and water shortage, unsafe buildings and blackout kept people exposed to danger days after the quake hit. They surely didn’t need one more person to take care of, I was staying away. 

On 30th morning, I made my way towards Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city which had surprisingly escaped any devastation even though it was just as close to epicentre as Kathmandu Valley, thankfully. Here in Pokhara I felt more strongly than ever that I must help with the relief efforts since I was already in Nepal but was quite confused on how I could help. Around the same time many articles came out suggesting that best thing you can do if you’re not a trained aid worker was to donate your money, not time and stay out of the rescue worker’s way! The logic seemed about right, I let go of the idea of volunteering. From past experience I knew I didn’t have the stregnth in me to face such a major humanitarian crisis, let alone help. I’m going to help Nepal stand on its feet by coming back as soon as it’s ready to take tourists. For now, I lay low. 

2 days after I arrived at Pokhara, I was resting in my room on 2nd floor when the floor shook lightly again. Once you have experienced an earthquake, you keep reliving the moment and imagining the ground is shaking. It’s not a feeling we are used to and we find it hard to let go of it so soon. I thought I was just imagining the aftershock, after all it was already a week since the quake hit. Later that day I found out that I wasn’t imagining, a 5.1 magnitude quake had hit Nepal again. 

I couldn’t shake off that terrible feeling of thinking anything in this world is permanent. I was filled with inconsolable regret about missing my chance to see the now destroyed, famous Hindu temples of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. I couldn’t shake off the finality of missing that opportunity, many of the century old monuments were reduced to rubble, lost for eternity and I sitting mere kilometres away from them in Kathmandu for 3 days thinking I could come back to them. While the civilization crumbled and struggled to stay afloat, the mountains stood resolute. They grumbled and shifted but they stood their ground, the fragile life on the other hand was torn to bits. It was as if the uncertainty of our existence was laughing in my face, sneering at my stupidity.

At first the feeling of extreme disappointment hit me, that my long awaited trek in Nepal was ruined. That I couldn’t see the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Then came the realization that my loss was nothing compared to the hundreds who spent outrageous amounts of money and mental energy in preparing to climb Everest. Then came the crushing realization that both of these selfish and rued opportunities were no match for the loss of livelihood and lives of the people who called these mountains home and those unfortunate visitors who lost their lives to the mountains. Resentment was quickly replaced with gratitude and I was embarrassed at my thankfully fleeting self-absorbed ego trip. 

Days after the quake hit, almost 80% of the future reservations were cancelled. Nepal is a poor country that depends a lot on tourism, even those not affected by the quake directly will be affected the sudden loss of income stream. Me and few others like me sauntered around in Pokhara, waiting for things to get better. While the short term survival is of utmost importance now, it’s the long term sustainability of the country that really bothers me. It isn’t easy picking up the pieces and starting all over again, from scratch, with no resources to begin with, but unfortunately that’s what the people of Nepal will have to do. 

Most of us, we are not the doctors who are saving hundreds of lives right now. We are not the people who are marshalling relief supplies and troops to affected areas, we are not the selfless volunteers working on ground distributing supplies and rebuilding houses. But if there’s one way we can help it would be by not cancelling our plans to Nepal. Just postpone your plans to the next season, whenever that is. Deep inside we all know that the mountains will never be 100% safe, and that’s an essential part of the adventure now isn’t it? So the minute the country is ready to take in tourists, you must go back.

***

Here's how you can help
While there are plenty of big charities you can donate to, I think helping the local teams and travel companies that are working on the ground at the moment could better support the relief efforts. Few teams that I know of are here, here and here.

Suggested reading on the Nepal Quake

***

I just returned from Nepal 2 days ago. As I prepared the mental notes for this post, I saw that another earthquake of magnitude-7.1 7.4 hit Nepal again causing a lot more casualties, just 3 days after I was in Kathmandu. Then, I could only pray for Nepal and thank my lucky stars, for saving me twice!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Introducing "Wander Tales" Comics - In Collaboration with Ramya Sriram of "The Tap"!

We all love comics now, don't we? The kinds that can cleverly condense our long-drawn-out thoughts into insightful little drawings. So when Ramya approached me with the idea of working on a travel comic, I was more than excited to see how it shapes up.

Ramya, is a talented illustrator who has donned several hats in the past as book editor, copywriter but storytelling is what she enjoys most. Check out awesome work at www.thetap.in, I personally love her fun and nostalgia-inducing "Amma Says" series where she talks about moms and all the things they say.

And me, well you know me. I am the wandering soul. 
(If not, read more about me here.)

I will tell the stories.
Ramya will draw the comics.

And together we present, Wander Tales!

Here's the first one. We hope to make this a bi-monthly series.

Wander Tales #1



Do watch this space and don't forget to tell us how you liked the idea and the first comic. :)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

In Pictures: A Slice of Heaven in Untrodden Corners of Almora, Uttarakhand

On a cold chilly morning, my frozen hands and toes feeling uncomfortably numb, surrounded by nothing but the solemn silence of the resolute mountains, watching the lofty Himalayan peaks slowly turn pink at sunrise, I made a promise to myself that I will come back to these mountains as many times as I can. Because there's no good reason in this world that justifies staying away from the joy of getting lost in the infinite beauty of the Himalayas!

In a forgotten valley between the famous hill stations of Almora and Kausani that have captured our imagination for long, I spent a week at Kosi Valley Retreat in the obscure yet picturesque Someshwar Valley where the River Kosi meandered quietly endowing the valley with all its might, impervious to all the attention the hills around were getting. The lower slopes of the mountains and the fertile plains between them were packed green with verdant terraced fields, amidst them children frolicked and women in colorful dresses worked. Hidden beyond the small mountains were the giants, Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukhamba and their ilk. Sparrows, magpies, bulbuls and many other birds flitted around in the branches of the pine trees but the river quietly flowed in between.

In this valley that is something like heaven, I spent my time day-dreaming under pine trees, cycling along winding roads, hiking in the hills, running after birds and talking to Himalayas. If there's something like homecoming, this was it. 

Almora, Uttarakhand
Having seen a lot of Himalayas before, I'm not one to be easily appeased by a quick peek of a peak above the ridges. I have hiked for days in its impenetrable valleys, crossed over several passes, camped in flower filled grasslands and have seen sun cast its first light on the big mountains from right under their noses. But here - in Almora - I am certain that I have never been this spell bound before. When I saw the mighty Himalayas tower over the valleys and sneak up on the several layers of little pine ridges, when I could see the mountain rise from plains of the earth to reach for the sky and everything that's in between, I knew was becoming privy to a beautiful secret!   

Almora, Uttarakhand
While I have been longing for mountains all along, there's a certain charm to the mountain-surrounded valleys that you cannot deny. Wandering in the verdant Someshwar valley, on foot or on cycle, I often wondered how did I miss this little detail - that valleys is where life is. This is where smiles flourish, laughter resounds, people live and birds chirp. 

Almora, Uttarakhand
The thing with the hills is unless you are on top, your view is obstructed. The thing with the valleys is that the gorgeous views are unobstructed, despite being at the bottom! This is the typical landscape in the Someshwar Valley.


ALT
ALT
My tryst with hiking in the Himalayas had unexpectedly started in Gharwal, marvelling at the very same Trishul that was standing in front of me here in Kumaon. That was 6 years ago, yet looking at the crest of the mountain peaking above the Someshwar Valley, it felt like meeting a long lost friend when I hiked up the small hill in front of the retreat one evening.

Almora, Uttarakhand
The inimitable romance of walking in pristine pine forest listening to the sound of rustling pine leaves that feels like swelling waves of an ocean and basking in the sunlight streaming through the punctured canopy is exactly the kind stuff that dreams are made of. For two days, hiking in the hills overlooking Someshwar Valley, I let myself fully immerse in the little joys of being in the outdoors. There were bigger rewards as well, but life is made up of many of such small moments too.

Almora, Uttarakhand
That night after a tiring climb through pine valleys and ridges, rhododendron filled pathways and countless Himalayan views, we came to a holy temple atop a hill. We spent the night at a forest resthouse. For the record, I was in a cottage. In reality, I was sleeping under the stars!

Almora, Uttarakhand
It was breathtaking alright but it was more heartwarming to see the mountains here without the deep gashes and ghastly bruises inflicted by humanity in the name of development. There is no greater joy than seeing undisturbed forests, even more so in a country like India where we are encroaching into every inch of wild spaces left!


Cycling to Kausani
Views of green terraced fields and pretty box houses
Some of you who were followers of this blog for few years now might remember that there was a time when I was crazy about cycling! I climbed 36 hair pins bends over mad gradients, rode 140kms in a single day, soaked myself silly cycling in the rains and even attempted to ride in the Himalayas. All that was behind me though, it's been ages since I cycled and last year I even sold my trusted bike! But here in Someshwar Valley, couldn't resist the temptation looking at the lovely roads of Almora and the mountain bikes at the place where I was staying. 

Almora, Uttarakhand
On the first evening, I took the bike out for a short spin - an easy 10km ride in the valley along side the fields. The itch had come back, few days later, we cycled all the way upto to Kausani, 20kms from the valley. The weather was delightfully overcast with cool winds to keep me company, the climb to Kausani was gradual and gently making the ride very pleasant. The cherry on top, however, were the breathtaking views of green valleys and pine mountains. 

Almora, Uttarakhand
On the last day, before leaving the valley that gave me so many fond memories, thought it only made sense to hike up the hills one last time to bid goodbye. It rained that morning, heavily. As I made my way up the village into the pine forest over the ridge, this unbelievable sweeping view of the valley welcomed me. As the rain reduced to a drizzle, I stood over a slippery rock wondering if this was Kumaon's way of saying farewell to me, by delighting me one last time. I walked further ahead on the trail lost in the view when two wild boars grunted and lunged into the forest startled by my presence, reminding me that the forests here as wild as they are beautiful. I scurried back in fear, to the retreat where I was staying. A smile stayed plastered on my face though, how wonderful was it to encounter life in the forests, abode of the wild, the beautiful, and the reckless!

Almora, Uttarakhand

Sometimes, our greatest gifts come in strange packages. Who would've thought staying in valley will get me closer to the mountains? Who would've thought ignoring the hill station viewpoints will take me to secret hideouts only the locals know about? They say Uttarakhand is known as Devbhoomi, meaning a place where gods live, because of the numerous temples that dot the state. But looking at these mountains and valleys, I have no doubt that in that claim because who else can create a place so exquisite?


Practical Information:

Someshwar Valley is situated between the popular hill stations Almora and Kausani in the state of Uttarakhand, India. The weather is pleasant during the summers and can get quite chilly during the monsoons and winters.

How to reach:
Kathgodam is the nearest railway station and Haldwani is the closest bus stop. From here, you can get shared or full taxis to take you to Almora, it takes about 4-5 hours to reach. The valley is at a distance of 20kms from Almora.

Where to stay:
Kosi Valley Retreat is a beautiful 4-bedroom stone building set in a quiet and serene Someshwar valley right on the banks of Kosi river, far far away from the crowd and tourists. The cozy retreat is managed by the sweetest team of locals from surrounding villages who will take care of you like family including stuffing you with lip-smacking homemade and organic food.

I travelled solo and never felt unsafe. Whenever I went hiking or cycling or walking, I was always accompanied by local guides from the retreat who took good care of me.

What to do:
Situated in a pristine corner of Uttarakhand, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails around the property. I went on 2 rides and 3 hikes during my week long stay there. Talk to the team at Walk to Himalayas who can suggest a good itinerary for you. If you love outdoors you are in for an absolute treat as the retreat is stocked with outdoor gear like rock climbing equipment, mountain bikes, camping gear and all that jazz. 

Note: My stay and activities at Kosi Valley Retreat were sponsored by Walk to Himalayas. Opinions, as always, are honest and mine. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Strange Places Feel Like Home

Two months ago, I had this momentous epiphany that I should be giving up the apartment, my belongings, a stable base and live out of a backpack. I gave my two months notice to the house owner, packed up my stuff and made plans to call the road home. And the first place I wanted to go back to, as a nomad, was a strange place that was never comfortable, always had great adventures in store for me and felt like another planet to someone who comes from the land of bright tropical sunshine - Ladakh!

Leh Palace in Winter
Leh Palace, glowing on a winter morning
I always thought, as a wandering soul at heart, I would never want to call one place home. But here in Ladakh, every single time I arrive, I feel at home. Including last month’s journey, I’ve been here five times already - thrice in summers and twice in winters! I returned this time thinking I’ll be back again coming summer. I often wonder, how is it that a place can call out to me again and again, and again?

But what makes a place feel like home? 
Familiarity? Probably. 
Novelty? Certainly not!

The first time I arrived in Ladakh, it was like novelty hit me in the gut and assaulted my senses ceaselessly. I never knew Himalayas were so dry, muddy and so majestic. The oxygen deprivation was a completely new sensation altogether and the proximity to sky-high mountains was inexplicably nostalgic - having grown up in plains, those were memories probably from my past life.

It was here in these mountains that I first experienced freedom in its purest form. Sitting on the banks of a solitary Pangong, then untainted by the consumerist hogwash, I felt like I arrived at the end of the world. Except for a handful of vehicles, the disastrous human touch was delightfully absent and the untarnished natural beauty of the blue lake was mine and only mine to savour. It’s been 7 years since I first set foot in this enchanted land, I’ve seen the place change over the years - from blissful desolateness to pitiful commercialization. I’ve seen the place grow, I’ve explored it’s nooks and corners - I’ve gone from the marshlands of Chushul to the tribes of Dah Hanu, reached scintillating heights of Stok Kangri to freezing depths of Chadar. I’ve followed the trail of a Snow Leopard and watched dozens of Kiangs(Wild Asses) run amok across the cold desert. Every time I’m here, a sense of belonging and a rush of familiarity washes me over. 

Flowers around Hemis Monastery
Flowers on the way to Hemis Monastery
I do not live here, but I see a friendly face on every corner. I did not grow up here, but there’s always someone who recognizes me here. I do not belong here, but my body adjusts perfectly fine to the high altitudes & freezing temperatures here. My mind - it takes flight here! There is something in these hills that reminds me of a place called home, that was never mine to begin with. 

Last January, when I was worried sick about walking on Chadar(it’s a frozen river for god’s sake, which can break anytime!), I completed the trek without any incident. Our guide said, this was a rare occurance that we finished the trek without any weather related trouble or the need to wade barefoot through freezing waters. This year, when I went back, Ladakh welcomed me with a warm heart in the dead of winter by showing me its colorful festival welcoming summers! Feels like Ladakh takes care of me, always. 

Dosmoche Festival
Dosmoche Festival, marking the beginning of summer
How many times have we made silent promises that we’ll be back somewhere and how many times have we actually gone back? With Ladakh, I go back every single time I make that promise. I’ve been to thousand other places since my journey started at Ladakh and till today Ladakh is one of the very few places that truly feels like home - oxygen deprivation, lack of greenery and freezing temperatures notwithstanding! Sometimes the strangest of places feel like home and perhaps the magic lies exactly in not knowing why. 

Ladakh is my strange beloved place I can call home, what’s yours?

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