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Why Travel?

Umesh Kaul

Travel if you can because life is short and the world is too large a place to explore in a life time. So, do not confine yourself to your nest, soar high and see your surroundings. That provides you with the awareness that no book, blogs or any other write ups can provide.prize

Common Reasons: Traveling ensures that you get away from your regular 24 hour day long schedule. You break that synchronous daily cycle and give time to yourself. You explore new and different civilizations, landscapes, terrains, habitats, life styles, socio economic structures and living creatures.DSCN6717

Other Reasons: Ever wondered that the sun even rises at the place you dwell. Then why need to see the sunrise on hills, on sea beaches, in deserts etc. What is so fascinating when the process is same just the background keeps changing? Reason lies in the deep desire of breaking the monotony…

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Umesh Kaul

a2Characters: Me, Umesh Kaul or only Kaul, Lalit Kumar or Lalit, Atul Kumar Singh alias Atul and Laxmikant Shukla aka LK. We all are teachers at a private school in Lucknow and surely we need some zing in life. We decided to have a long bike ride just to quench our desires of some thrill and also to negate the belief that only peoples of Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune and Bangaluru are insane enough to go in for such endeavours.

IMG_20150603_100733611 We put our faith in them [the bikes] & in Lord Almighty Preparations: We got our bikes serviced, got all the required documents of the bikes, kept some cash, packed our bags with all the required things including medical necessities, toiletries and warm clothes. While packing we kept the things compact and light. We used slings to tie our bags on to the bikes ensuring that they won’t budge…

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Bike Ride to Tungnath : Shiva rules

Umesh Kaul

In the Lap of Shiva

Characters: Me, Umesh Kaul or only Kaul, Lalit Kumar or Lalit, Atul Kumar Singh alias Atul and Laxmikant Shukla aka LK. We all have been riding on our bikes all the way from Lucknow [for details check: Biking to Badrinath]. While traveling on NH58 we reached Chamoli in the afternoon and decided to have a small detour to Tungnath temple.

a2 Tungnath Temple [The highest Kedar] Leg 1: [Chamoli to Gopeshwar, 8 Kms. 40 minutes]: At Chamoli we crossed over the bridge over Alaknanda and left the river trail. The road ascends and reaches a small market where there is a junction of a road to Gopeshwar town and Chopta, or rather Okhimath road. At this market we took out some money from ATM as we knew that there is no ATM or petrol pump beyond this point till Okhimath.

Forests on the…

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Varanasi! : An ancient mystery in modern era!

Characters: I, LK & Atul.

Last weekend I along with my friends decided to visit Varanasi. A city that I had heard so much but never had a chance to have a glimpse of it. Somewhat like a hindi movie, Sholay. Wondering, what a simile? I saw it when I was 18 and it was released when I was born. When I saw it I knew each and every dialogue of the movie but was experiencing it for the first time in visual form.

Varanasi is different. It is historical, majestic, spiritual, classic, aesthetic, pious… [… running  out of adjectives]. Before even I had embarked upon the journey I felt as if I knew the place inside out. The only apprehension was whether the city would live up to its aura pre etched in my mind. With lots of expectations we all left Lucknow at night.


The route that we took was via Sultanpur and Jaunpur. As per the maps it was the shortest route but as the saying goes, ‘shortcuts are the longest routes’, we all realized it the hard way. Hardly 300 Kms but that took us good nine hours, thanks to the horrible road conditions especially after Sultanpur.

Varanasi, earlier known as Banaras or Kashi[city of lights] is a holy city in literal sense. Not only because of Kashi Vishwanath temple that also finds mention in our Skand Purana but also because it also witnessed the beginning of Buddhism when Lord Buddha gave his first sermon way back in 5th century BC. Ram Charit Manas was written here, the two icons of Bhakti movement, Kabirdas and Ravidas were born here and Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s visit in 15th century played an important role in the founding of Sikhism.


Holy waters of river Ganga

Although famous for being on the banks of river Ganga, it derives its name from two tributaries of Ganga namely, Varuna and Assi that form the precincts of the city. As we approached the city, the tinkling of temple bells and the religious chants, amplified through loud speakers, seemed to welcome us on our arrival to the consecrated place.  When we entered the city it was already 8 am.

Driving through the chaotic traffic of Varanasi is a test of patience of the person on the steering. You need to have a firm grip on the break paddle as anyone can pop up from anywhere as it is not two way traffic, it is multidirectional. Adding to the woes was the fact that the all the city roads and sanitation work is going through a major renovation.


We reached our hotel, hotel Ajay in Gawdolia at around 9 am. The city has either high end hotels at its outskirts or it is dotted with dharmshalas and guest houses. Economical hotels are hard to find and you will have to work hard to locate one with a decent parking space. In fact parking is a big problem in whole of Varanasi.

After a short sound sleep in the cozy hotel AC room that costed us Rs. 2000[$30] per night we set off to have our first sights of the river Ganga. The river was 3-4 Kms from our hotel and we took an auto [best option in Varanasi] to reach there.


First glimpse and you realize that Varanasi, the city and Varanasi, the river along with its ghats or banks are two separate entities. The yellows, the blues and the dusk all around created an aura which weighed upon my mind and heart rather than just being pleasant to my eyes. An hour long boat ride from Bhonsle Ghat [a relatively new ghat] was eventful, memorable and something that I will cherish life long.

We passed through Mankarnika Ghat with numerous pyres illuminating the river in the fading lights. The ghat is famous for cremations in hindu community as it is believed that as the river at the ghat flows out of its normal course and heads in the opposite direction, in the same way, cremation here means the soul moves away from the infinite cycle of death and rebirth.


As the sun sets and the lights come out, the serenity can be experienced amidst the reverberations of hundreds gathered at various ghats. It is a mass amalgamation of rural, urban, traditional, rich, poor, locals, tourists and foreign nationals into one gigantic solemn and yet vibrating ethos that thinks inwardly and philosophically.

As the aarti at Dashashwamedh ghat began the crowd came to a stand still. There were more lights and chanting as the eternal essence dispersed in the air. I stood there not as a hindu but as an individual trying to search for my own self. The city makes you think that way.


The commotion began immediately as soon as the Aarti concluded. As I was returning I wondered… Why so many peoples come here? Why the place has an incomparable aura of its own? What do they seek here? Why I felt the way I felt? Why? There is so much of crowd, there is so much of filth, bloated floating dead bodies can be found around some of the ghats [I saw one] then why so many peoples come here from all over the world?

 May be the answer lies in the same dirt and grime. May be it takes them away from all the worldly and monitory things. May be it forces them to think deep about life, about pain and sufferings. May be…! With all such thoughts cluttering my mind we travelled up to Malviya Bridge which is said to be the last point to which the River Ganga flows in the opposite direction.


We had the famous baba thandai at Gawdolia Chowk [the plain one] and had a hearty dinner nearby. Next day we went back to the ghat early morning and experienced the silent harmony of the same ghats that were so vibrant and noisy in the evening. We also went to Kashi Vishwanath temple and Kaal Bhairav Mandir. I did not carry any camera as I was told that nothing, not even watches, belts or wallets are allowed inside some of the temples but I was unaware of the fact that nearby shops do provide temporary lockers for the same. I do not know how Gods are affected but humans are, but then, let them all live with their faiths.

In evening I started my return journey, this time via Faizabad. The route was better and smooth just like my mind. You can say the after affects of Varanasi. I will visit the place again for sure…. When? Why? I do not know!


Bike trip to Kinnaur

Characters: I [Umesh] and Atul.

Though I accompanied Atul, but I have tried to put this narration, with him as the first person as this was his first trip to Himalayas and his first ever long distance trip on bike. Our journey commenced in the hot and sweating month of June from Delhi. With the sun shining bright and temperatures unrelenting, we decided to start off in the evening at around 5 pm.


The famous stuffed paratha at Murthal with white butter

It took us nearly an hour to move out of the snarling traffic of the city and another hour to reach Muruthal which was only 45 Kms from our place. Murthal [derived from Muni sthal or the land of saints] is a small town on NH-1 famous for its parathas [an Indian bread form]. After eating to our hearts full at Phalwan Dhaba we moved on. Surprisingly the traffic was heavy all along till Karnal. With his excitement on a high he kept riding till the early hours of the next day. At around 2 pm having ridden 220 Kms on NH-1, we reached Ambala. Although he was in no mood to give a break but I insisted and we were quickly in deep slumber in a small room of a road side motel.

Enthusiastic as he was, he woke up early and was on the roof top taking pictures of the rising sun. I could sense his inner glee and egged him for his animated actions [come on, who takes pictures of sunrise at Ambala highway?] but I do not deny that his exuberance was inducing.  It was my third bike ride and I could foresee the pleasure and the bliss that he was going to attain in the next few days.


On the road!!! NH- 5, just leaving Chandigarh

At 7 am we continued with our journey. Within an hour we were leaving NH-1 to move on to NH-5 [earlier NH-22] via Chandigarh Bypass and few minutes more we got had the first sightings of the hills from far. Atul on pillion seat had no control over his emotions as he would squeal and open up his arms in joy so as to gobble up the morning air. At 10 am we were crossing Solan and by 12 noon we had bypassed Shimla which was 150 Kms from Ambala.

The highway was in excellent condition and the ride to Shimla had been smooth. Beyond Shimla, the roads do get narrow but they were in pretty decent shape. As we crossed Shimla we ran into lush green Shimla Reserve Forest Sanctuary that provides a serene surrounding for the serpentine road. Few kilometers more via Kufri and somewhere around Bithal village we came across River Sutlej [From this trisection a road leads to Tatta Pani].

Now the road ran alongside the river Sutlej. Its gushing flow was reverberating in the air as if reminding us mortals of the nature’s might. The feeling was eternal though with some painful body parts. As the sun was winding up its daily ride, our in between refreshing stops were on the rise. The weather wasn’t cool but pleasant. As the clock showed 6 pm we reached Rampur [140 Kms from Shimla] after covering nearly 290 Kms in the day.

Rampur is a small and ancient town right on the banks of river Sutlej. Situated at a height of nearly 1250 mts [from sea level] it served as an important junction of various major trade routes of India, Central Asia and Tibet. Lavi fair, that is held every November is the largest trading event in the Himalayas with traders coming from Ladakh, Kashmir, Tibet, Yarkand and other Indian cities. We got a decent hotel in Rampur for only Rs. 500. [around $ 7.5] and we also paid a visit to a Buddha temple which was adjacent to our hotel.

The night was cool, relaxing and well spent sleeping. Next day we rose late and could leave the hotel only by 10 pm. Within few minutes the change in the landscape was quite apparent. The traffic was sparse and sections of roads were picturesque but scary [literally], especially the stretch from Jeori to Tranda which also features amongst the most dangerous roads of the world. Fortunately for us, we did not find any traffic that day, except a bit at Wangtoo, but the overhanging rocks and boulders would give us fright now and then.

After crossing Sutlej through Shongtong bridge and Akpa bridge and covering nearly 120 Kms we reached Reckon Peo at around 3 pm.  On the way we also passed through the narrow market of Kalpa [the earlier District Headquarters of Kinnaur, now Reckong Peo]. As we neared Reckong Peo we got the first glimpse of the majestic snow clad peaks of Kinnar Kailash mountain range. Legend says that Lord Shiva meditated here during his escape from Bhasmasur and asked Lord Vishnu for his help.

To our surprise we quickly learnt that hotels in Reckong Peo were too expensive for our moderate pockets. Wisdom prevailed and bikes came handy as we travelled back to Kalpa and took a room in a budget hotel, Hotel Mount View for Rs. 1200 [$20]. Ideally located the owner couple was extremely polite and helpful.

We slept like a dead log in the cozy warmth of our quilts as it rained outside. Morning was bright with the high peaks adding to the gloss of the atmosphere. We packed our bags and rushed back to Peo [as known to locals]. The sights were splendid and the exhilaration that we felt cannot be put into words.


Reckong Peo…. Just Blissful

Reckong Peo or Rekong Peo is situated at a height of 2300 mts. It derives its name from the group of locals and the family which used to own this place in ancient times. We spent the whole day doing nothing there just gazing at the splendor of the place, enjoying the hot soup and momos. It is that nothingness that is most memorable for us even now.

Next day we set off for our last destination, Sangla. We drove all the way back to Karcham from where we left Sutlej and rode along the river Baspa. The road to Sangla was in a pathetic state and we had to maneuver the bike through the loose stones and pot holes on the way. The valley was cool and more tourist friendly in terms of accommodation and other resources. It had ATMs and a petrol pump too. The place is also known for growing best quality apples in the country. We enjoyed the food and the weather for a day before embarking upon our return journey.

I don’t need to convey the pains of the 600 never ending kilometers of the return leg but as the saying goes, no pain no gain. We took a night halt at Chail and were back in Delhi at 3 pm next day.


Are Travelers Escapists???

Travelers are Escapists?

Matter of debate but at least in literal sense they are.. or rather I am! We call our short trips get aways. Get away from what? Isn’t that escapism, an act of escape from routine boring and dreary daily routine, both physically and mentally. Do not take it as an accusation, it is just another view one needs to ponder upon.


Whenever we go to any destination, our first priority is to look different. Camera hanging from the neck, hat on the head, goggles and casual attire, we do everything to ensure that it is apparent to everyone around that we don’t belong there. We take pictures of locals, purchase local artifacts and enjoy local cuisine just to cement our own perception that we are tourists there.

The word ‘tourist’ owes it’s etymology to the latin word ‘tornare’ which means ‘turning on the lathe’. When you visualize a lathe machine in context to ‘tourist’, the initial thought is that of going round to a place and coming back. Think deeper and you will realize that in this process you have been molded differently. It is true that when you return from the tour you regain your original shape as per the human behavior but as long as you were on the lathe you were in a virtual cast.


Whenever we plan a tour, we explore the beauty of the place. We enquire about its accessibility, the natural and man made sights of the place, the excursions from the place, accommodation, weather conditions but are we ever inquisitive about the socio economic issues of the place, the hardships that locals face or even how the locals have been able to preserve the splendor of the place. I can read the answer sailing in your mind …. NO!

Why No? because then our preference will be in staying and worrying here rather than traveling and worrying there. It is just like asking peoples to smile before the click of the camera because no matter what, we want our memories to be pleasant and they are supposed to have smiling faces without realizing that smiling exteriors often have painful cores.


In vacations we always rush off for hills, mountains, sea beaches, deserts or forest reserves. Except for some exotic locations, we all enjoy and appreciate the humility of the locals. Humility in the sense that they are helpful, caring and do not charge too much for goods and services. What we don’t apprehend is that all these landscapes are harsh for human life.


What happens to them when the tourist season is over? We [the vacationers] do not care because we are on a lathe machine, remember and we have to return and some one else will be on it. This will go on and on and the lathe will keep moving round and round creating lively eventful moments for the riders but do we ever give a thought about the equipment [lathe] that is stuck to its axis and working nonstop.

Bhutan is the best example for the issue I am talking about. It is the most eco friendly country of the world with more than 70% of its land under forest cover. To the world it has the highest Gross National Happiness ratings but the fact is that 70% of the population still lives there without electricity and is one of the economically poorest nations of the world. How many of us have visited Bhutan and how many are aware of the fact mentioned latter. You can draw parallels to the place you have visited recently.


So, what to do? Give up traveling and exploring! No way! The only request is, include these kind of thoughts in your planning for a trip. Give some time to the gloominess of the place you visit and do share them. It’s not to much to ask for and as for the rest, you all are wise enough!

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Kashmir: Sonemarg Trip

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Any destination in Kashmir is appropriate for spending few days of an extended weekend in summers. Mark my words, but my family and close friends do not think so. With limited sources of information their perception has overridden their logical analysis and mere mention of Kashmir gives them jitters. This was my second trip to the state and I assure you that natural views of Kashmir are still a treat to the bland eyes sore with the usual sights of concrete jungles of the city.


Welcoming Rains

After some random planning we set off from Delhi for Udhampur by train and by noon we were there the next day. Udhampur is a large town established by Raja Udham Singh and is now the headquarters of Northern Command of the Indian Army. It is basically used as a transit point between Jammu & Srinagar. It was hot when we reached but the weather turned pleasant as evening set in. As a matter of principle we avoided camera clicks there.


A Kashmiri girl welcomes us!!!

Next day, we started off for Srinagar via NH1 in our SUV. To our surprise the entire road was a beautiful four lane highway and the rains added to the beauty of the trip. It took eight hours to reach Srinagar including brief halts at Banihal & Anantnag. The highway is dotted with small roadside food joints which serve fresh vegetable pakodas [an Indian snack]. On the way one can admire the beauty of mountains, small rivers and streams and the bright sunshine. Just as we crossed the 3 kms long Jawahar tunnel we reached Srinagar.

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Views enroute Srinagar

At Srinagar, we stayed and enjoyed the hospitalities of the historical hotel Lalit. This 100 years old hotel was built by Raja Pratap Singh. The Chinar tree in the courtyard is said to be the meeting point of Mahatma Gandhi and Raja Hari Singh.

The following day was spent exploring the dimensions of Dal lake. We took a shikara [a small wooden boat which is a cultural symbol of Kashmir that can accommodate 6 persons]. Although the boatmen charge around Rs. 500 per person for one and a half hour ride but we had our rates settled for Rs. 2500 for the whole boat.


Dal Lake

Shikara ride was an experience of a kind. Our boatman, Shabbir was an enthusiastic person and much like a true escort he showed us the families living on the houseboats, small commercial boats that sell artifacts, daily use items, kahwah [a traditional green tea used in Afghanistan & Kashmir], ice creams and desserts. He also took us to the backwaters of the Lake too.

The evening was spent doing some real and some virtual shopping at Lal Chowk. Dinner [wazwan or multi course kashmiri meal] was an exquisite Kashmiri delight of Gushtaba [traditional kashmiri dish of minced meat balls of mutton prepared in curd], rista [meat balls again but lot softer].

Next morning we had a small excursion to Sonemarg [literal meaning: meadows of gold]. About 90 Kms from Srinagar on Kargil – Leh highway it took us about 3 hours to reach there. The road is 2 lane and with some rough patches but the sight alongside is heavenly. Snow capped mountains, river Nallah Sindh and the chinar trees add up to serenity of the route all along.

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The weather was cold in the alpine valleys of Sonemarg. One can have beautiful views of Himalayan glaciers flowing into the valley and the mesmerizing and mighty peaks of Sirbal, Machoi and Kalhoi peaks. We had dinner at Sindh view restaurant and in the breakfast we enjoyed the stuff at local bakeries that included nan khatai too.

After spending two days in Kashmir we headed back to Delhi.