For centuries, the valley remained cut off from the rest of India. Legend has it that when a road was finally built and the first car drove up, the locals weren’t sure what to feed it. The driver playfully declared that the car likes chicken and whisky. The locals innocently obliged, and the driver had a feast. They also say that when an elderly woman boarded a bus for the first time, she left her shoes on the road as a sign of respect to the bus. Getting off at her destination, she was shocked that her shoes were gone, no longer outside the bus where she had taken them off.
After my soulful sojourns in the North-eastern and Garhwal Himalayas, I descended to Mumbai for some personal work. Three weeks of sweltering heat has left me craving the rains, and made me nostalgic of my monsoon adventures last year, when I chased the rains from Rajasthan to Hampi. Over two trips to Hampi, I’ve discovered experiences that go beyond the majestic ruins of the ancient Vijaynagara kingdom. Take my list, stay with the locals, meet the dwindling gypsy community, cycle amid dramatic landscapes, and indulge a little:
On a late evening, we sat on a steep cliff, drinking the local Sikkimese Beer. Sparse villages and farms lay scattered in the valley below. The River Teesta roared along intensely. The mountains echoed with hypnotic chants from a nearby monastery. We were lost in our thoughts, when the mist slowly rose, and revealed to us in all its snow-capped glory, the mighty Mount Kanchendzonga.
I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories.
Some connections are just meant to be. Like Gangtok and me. At first glance, the city feels like any other hill station. But delve deeper and you get a wistful peek into an India that could have been. Flanked by the majestic Himalayas, the first thing that strikes you is the city’s cleanliness – no litter, no noise and no pollution, rules that the locals strictly abide by. Traditional monasteries stand in perfect harmony with the city’s evolving cafe culture. And the laid-back vibe of the locals slowly rubs off on you.
Two weeks ago, I impulsively decided to venture into the remote north-eastern Himalayas of India. Staying on an organic tea farm an hour’s ride from Darjeeling, I sipped the finest hand-rolled tea, drank the local thomba brewed from fermented millets on chilly nights, got a first hand perspective on the separatist Gorkhaland movement, and reminisced with the hill folk about the times gone by. Then I hiked in the mountains, through dense forests, past charming hill villages, along tea estates that dotted the landscape, and barefoot across the Rangeet River, to Sikkim.
I am transiting through Singapore on my way to South Australia as I pen this. Amid the lavish hospitality of the Singapore Airlines’ SilverKris Lounge and the excitement of visiting the land down under, I find myself looking back fondly at the last week, which I spent road tripping through rural Maharashtra. Just 2.5 hours away from Bombay, the state revealed many hidden surprises! We drove along pristine lakes, stayed at a work-in-progress art village just off Panchgani, and lazed in the warm afternoon sun on virgin beaches along the Konkan coast.
We slowly row away from the shore, leaving behind the dim lights on our palm-fringed island. The current in the backwaters sways our tiny kayak, and after a brief show of resistance, we surrender and let it guide us. Small fish occasionally jump out of the water, creating ripples. A thousand stars shimmer in the sky above. These are the virgin backwaters of North Kerala’s Kasaragod district, silent, untouched and without a houseboat in sight.
On a mustard farm deep in the interiors of Rajasthan’s Pali district, Pannibai pulls out weeds in the hot afternoon sun. A few meters away, next to a makeshift hut of wood and twigs, her husband and son cook lunch on a small fire. The family has been here almost 6 months, and come March, when the harvest is done, they’ll take their share of the crop and move. To another village, and another makeshift house. It’s the only way of life I know, she tells me; the real nomad, of the Rabari (gypsy) community of Rajasthan. The villages of Rajasthan are home to hundreds of years of fascinating traditions, many of which will get wiped away with the older generation. Partake of these awe-inspiring travel experiences while you still can:
It’s hard to believe that 2013 is coming to an end. This is the year I truly, madly fell in love with the sheer beauty of India, despite the challenges that travelling here is laced with (Read: 120 Days on The Road). I experienced the “other” side of the Himalayas and the Thar Desert, ventured deep in the interiors of Assam and Rajasthan, and developed an unexpected fascination for life in the wild. In search of an India Untravelled, I met incredible people dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty, ecology, heritage and traditions. These are 13 moments from 2013 that make me all mushy about how much I love this crazy country.