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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cats and Dogs are Friends!!

We all know that as a tradition, cats and dogs are enemies. All we see in our daily life is dogs chasing cats and cats finding solace in some high ground.


But, when I saw this cat and dog cuddling against each other, I was shocked, surprised and then my face opened up into a huge smile. It was such a rare sight for me. May be, my first ever instance of seeing a cat and a dog cuddling against each other and being super comfortable in each other’s company.


Who says that Cats and Dogs can’t be friends!

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Crazy Roads of Someshwar Ghats

This is a downright crazy stretch between Agumbe and Someshwar. It just lasts about 10 kilometres, but offers a thrilling experience. And even better if you are on a motorcycle.


The extremely steep roads, the umpteen number of hairpins and dead turns, the choppy concrete roads thanks to the heavy rains and the dense forest cover all around makes these ghat roads a magical place.


It is at the beginning of these ghat roads that you will see the famous sunset point of Agumbe. And it is here that you will get a crash course on overtaking in short, steep and winding roads.


My friends and I rode on these ghat roads multiple times during our recent visit and we loved the thrilling experience it offered.

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Famous Sunset of Agumbe

The locals say that Agumbe is world famous for its sunset. In fact, even the information board at this sunset point claims this. Now, there are a lot of sunrise and sunset points all over the country. But, frankly, only a few of them are really noteworthy. But, Agumbe is very special!!

 
According to me, the Agumbe sunset figures right in the top. In fact, it is only a close second behind the sunset I saw over the Indian Ocean at Lakshadweep Islands. Kanyakumari and other places take a back seat in front of Agumbe.


The Sunset point is located about 2 kilometres outside of Agumbe at what is known as the 14th mile. A platform has been created for the tourists to enjoy the pristine view. For those who are adventurous enough to climb a steep flight of stairs, an even higher view point waits for them.

 
The sight of the setting sun against the open horizon and surrounded by the Western Ghats is so good that it can actually give you goose bumps. It is said that on a clear day, you can actually see the Arabian Sea from here. And the Arabian Sea, my friends, is more than 40 kilometres away as the crow flies. Now, ain’t that something!!

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Nathu La (Nathulla Pass) – The Chinese Connection!

Why do people travel to Nathu La? Is it to see the Himalayan beauty of Sikkim? Is it the urge to see snow clad peaks? Is it the fantasy of being able to survive in low oxygen levels?


If you said yes to the above, then you form a very small percentage of tourists that go to Nathu La. The major percentage of tourists go there only to shake hands and take photographs with the Chinese.


Such is the obsession that I guess the Chinese soldiers must have a hard time. In fact, when I was there as recent as three weeks back, I saw the look of scorn on the faces of the Chinese soldiers when people used to shake their hands. I guess, if I were in their place, I would get mad too.
 

How many strangers can you shake hands with in an hour. I guess in peak tourist season, these soldiers might have to shake hands with at least a 1000 people. And by the way, this is a very pessimistic number.


There is nothing as such to see at Nathu La except for the experience of actually being close to the India-China border. There are a couple of bases from either country and there is a thin line of peaceful agreement where Indian and Chinese soldiers stand side by side.


But, you have to give it to the soldiers of both countries to be able to survive in such unforgiving conditions. If you are planning a trip to Nathu La, I would request that you do not bother the Chinese soldiers and instead show your gratitude to both the Indian and Chinese soldiers (if you know to speak Chinese) coz the soldiers of both sides are showing great character for their respective countries.


Nathu La, is a trade route between India and China and is situated on the eastern side of Sikkim at over 14,000 feet. The winding border roads connect Nathu La to Gangtok. The distance from Gangtok to Nathu La is about 50 kilometres. As part of the trade agreement, Chinese import pulses, rice, cotton clothes and cooking oil from India, while India imports quilt, jackets, electronics and other small items from China.

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Trek to Jogigundi Falls – The Cave Waterfall!

Jogigundi Falls like most of the falls in and around Agumbe is situated amidst the dense forests of the Western Ghats of Karnataka. But, this is your slightly different waterfall. Unlike your traditional waterfall that falls from a height or in multiple tiers, this one flows out of a cave that runs through the hill.


The amount of water that comes out of the Jogigundi falls might not be scary, but the sheer thought of water coming out of a dark cave is thrilling. But, keeping the adventure factor away, this place is great for a half day visit.


Jogigundi Falls is situated about four kilometres from Agumbe. About 3 out of these 4 kilometres can be covered by vehicles and the last one kilometre needs to be trekked via a narrow and steep trail.


A very pleasing and natural swimming pool greets you at the end of this trek. If you look to your left, you will find the Jogigundi Falls. One can bathe here, but please do avoid soaps or any chemical reagents as they can cause damage to the environment.


The entire place is made up of eroded rocks and green forests. One has to cross a small stream to get onto the other side of the waterfall from where the entire landscape is easily visible. It is when you cross the stream that you notice the huge holes in the rocks below and the sight of water gushing through these holes makes for a great sight.


One can comfortably swim in the swimming pool in front of the waterfall, though be warned that the waters here are pretty deep (upwards of 50 feet) and the edges of the pool have sharp rocky edges. Apart from swimming and taking a waterfall shower, one can explore the nearby forest trails or try to do some birding

 
When I returned to Agumbe, my local friend told me that he goes to Jogi gundi falls during the dry season, climbs all the way up the cave and comes out on top of the small hill above the swimming pool and then dives straight into the pool. This sure must be a great experience. Another reason for me to visit Jogigundi Falls in the near future.

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Scenic Kyongnosla Market enroute to Nathu La

There are three check points between Gangtok and Nathu La, but my personal favourite is Kyongnosla. Situated at close to 10,000 feet, this place has its own design of nature.


The check post that marks this area falls under the purview of the Kyongnosla Alpine sanctuary. When one goes to visit Nathu La, the time consuming check posts can sometimes get really painful and Kyongnosla comes as a breath of fresh air in such a situation.


Kyongnosla, in that way offers the services of a lively market to the tourist who can disembark and relax while the car drivers do the job of sorting out the permit process. This break also serves as a first level of acclimatization.


The market as such is very vibrant and colourful. It is here that one can buy themselves various woollen and thermal gear to beat the cold winds of Nathu La or treat themselves to some hot pakodas, momos and tea/coffee.


If you are not the shopping type like me, then you can climb to the neighbouring hill from where you can get great views of the entire Kyongnosla valley. This is exactly what I did when I was there a couple of weeks back. And this is what I typically do when the group takes a break at Kyongnosla.


I was feeling very stiff and decided to stretch out my limbs by climbing up to the peak. It was here that I got treated to some fabulous views of the fall colours in the valley and aerial views of the Kyongnosla market, the army bunkers and the small village houses below.


The meandering mountain river in the background adds charm to the overall beauty. To me, it feels like one can spend an eternity watching these pristine surroundings, but when the chilly winds wake me up from my dreams, I run down and join the rest of my travel friends for a cup of steaming tea and some hot momos.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Trek to Vanakebe Falls – A sight to behold!

This has been one of the best treks that I have done in recent times. It is what I would call a ‘trek with a difference’. The trek was not difficult as such, but the view that I was presented with at the zenith sent a pure adrenalin shot right up to my brain.


Vanakebe Falls is situated in the Western Ghats of Agumbe. The start of the trek is marked by an arch written in Kannada and which is about 0.5 kilometres from the Agumbe village bus station. It is a straight trail up to the waterfall. No deviations whatsoever.


But, do watch out for the teeming leeches here. The thick shade cover and the moist ground form a conducive environment for the leeches. The leeches will cling onto you right throughout this trek. In fact, such is the population density of the leeches that about 10 to 15 leeches will climb onto you every minute.


Our way of defence was to keep walking at a brisk pace and remove the climbing leeches by hand. If I remember right, all of us walked with a hunched back continuously removing leeches, but about 10 of them still managed to get inside my shoes and onto my leg.


Leaving the leeches aside…The trail to the Vanakebe Falls is about 3.5 kilometres one way and 3 kms of which is a mushy jungle. Then come the steep flight of steps that lead you to the waterfall. You can comfortably complete the entire trek up and down in one and a half hours of brisk pace excluding the time spent at the waterfall.


I have done many waterfall treks before, but did not have the faintest bit of idea about the view that I was going to be presented with. What I saw was that we were on a cliff edge and apparently we were on top of the waterfall. All we see was a steep drop below us. The sight was amazing and the greenery mind numbing. We somehow managed to cling onto some rocks, got ourselves a decent footing and looked down. We saw that the waterfall tumbled in two tiers and the entire drop looked close to 600 feet.

 
When we finished the trek and reached the town again, one of the locals told us that during the dry season when water is less, one can cross the stream and go onto the other hill and climb down to the first tier of the waterfall and enjoy a waterfall bath in a cliff-like atmosphere. Sadly, we could not cross over to the other hill as the water current was very strong. May be some other day, I will go and experience this trek in the dry season.

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The Aura of Lingdum or Ranka Monastery, Gangtok, Sikkim, India

The Buddhist culture of Sikkim makes it home to more than 200 unique monasteries and each one of them has a certain aura about it. While I was recently at Gangtok, the plan was to go visit the Rumtek monastery, but due to a delay in our plan for the day, we had to visit the Lingdum Monastery instead.


While the Rumtek Monastery is a high security zone, the Lingdum or Ranka monastery is a fairly peaceful place and hence the entire group loved exploring it.


The long line of prayer wheels greeted us upon our entry. We made our way inside after spinning these prayer wheels. The group spun these wheels for good luck, for photographic opportunities or simply for the fun of it.


As soon as we entered the monastery, we were greeted by the sight of young Buddhist monks who were getting trained in the Lama dance. It was quite enjoyable just to see them undergo this training. Bad students were reprimanded by the trainer’s stick.


I personally saw this training session for about 20 minutes before climbing up the steep flight of stairs and into the inner sanctum. Here we were greeted by a prayer session that was in progress. Only Young Buddhist Monks were around and it was them who conducted the evening prayer session.


Buddhist chants were sung and various musical instruments were used along with the traditional Buddhist gong. It was quite interesting to note that the entire monastery was functioning with young monks.

 
The inner sanctum of the Lingdum monastery is very much like any other large Buddhist monastery. Large sized Buddha statues plated in gold could be seen. The insides were colourful with depictions and drawings.


There were colourful wall hangings too that swooned nearly all the way to the floor. The best part about this monastery is that most of it is open to tourists and one can happily explore the entire perimeter.


There are certain vantage points from where one could get brilliant views of the monastery sanctum, the training session taking place in the courtyard below and even some great sunset views on the neighbouring hills. We had such a great time here that we did not at all rue our missed opportunity of visiting the Rumtek Monastery.

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Leaf Line

I spotted these freshly drenched leaves during my trek to Vanakebe Falls near Agumbe in Karnataka. The lines on these leaves looked so sharp that I was tempted to take these photographs.


Unfortunately for me, I did not have my zoom lenses at that time and hence had to make do with my 17-40 lens.


On looking closely at these photographs, I wonder if there is a science to study the future of the trees by looking at its leaf lines!

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GREEN GREEN Terraced Slopes of Gangtok

Lot of us travellers are left open-mouthed when we come across the scenic and lovely green terraced slopes the world over.


Even I was left stunned when I saw the densely forested and green paddy field slopes of Gangtok. They looked so fantastic. I guess many of us would either want to own or rent out such properties.


Having a bungalow outpost on such green slopes would be like a dream come true for me. When will such a day come for me?

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Banjhakri Falls – A Touristy Spot near Gangtok in Sikkim

Banjhakri falls is your typical touristy spot in Sikkim. It is an energy park and a shamanistic theme park. The falls is set amidst dense greenery and the theme park itself is littered with ethnic sculptures and figurines of the Jhakri culture.


There is quite a story behind this place and its name. The word ‘Banjhakri’ means a forest shaman. If we break it down further ‘Ban’ means primitive and ‘Jhakri’ means shaman.


Shaman is a priest among certain people of northern Asia, regarded as one with healing and magical powers who can influence the spirits and bring about good and evil.


And it is these Shamanistic practices that are depicted via the figurines in this theme park. Some of these depict rituals, some healing ceremonies and others the initiation process in the life of a shaman.

 
All these are quite interesting and so is the waterfall that roars down from a height of say 70 feet. Enough facilities have been provided for the tourists to go closer to the waterfall and in fact take a natural shower.


Sikkimese style bridges have been built over the water streams and that lead to small view points from where one can get great shots of the waterfall. Apart from being view points, these spots are also designed in shamanistic style and one can see great artwork on their ceilings.

 
Apart from the waterfall, the energy park and the theme park, this place, like all true tourist locations in India offers a great shopping outlet. It even hosts some decent momo stalls. Nothing beats a hot plate of momos and a steaming cup of tea on a nippy evening here.


But having said all the above, I somehow feel that this place gets too crowded for my comfort. May be because it is too close to Gangtok (4 kms away). Hence, remember to plan your itinerary in such a way that you visit this place during the non-travel or touristy season.

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