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Thursday, March 29, 2012

How to Spend a Year Planning for the Trip of a Lifetime

We all have our list of foreign destinations we’d love to visit.  Along with it, most people attach a list of excuses why they can’t take the trip.  But whether it’s the finances, a lack of free time, or uncertainty regarding the ultimate level of satisfaction derived from the experience, the ostensible roadblocks can almost always be removed with the right amount of planning.

If you have doubts that go along with your dream destination, take one full year to plan accordingly.  By adhering to the following steps, you’ll soon discover that your outrageous travel plans are surprisingly possible and certainly affordable:

Step one (12-10 months before departure): Pick three potential destinations.  Don’t focus on one specific place just yet, as variables may ultimately disqualify that choice.  Instead, decide on one ideal travel destination as well as two alternates.

Step two (11-9 months before departure):  Start acquiring airline miles.  If you don’t already own a credit card with a miles bonus, get one through a credit card company you already do business with.  Capital One Venture, for example, is a great miles deal for folks already working with the bank.

Step three (10-8 months before departure): Narrow your choices down to two.  Start researching flight prices as well as any and all caveats that may come along with using credit cards with no foreign transaction fee in these places.   Before making the final choice, find out how much each costs.

Step four (9-7 months before departure): Establish a travel savings fund.  Start putting money for your trip away.  Instead of simply slipping it into your ordinary savings, establish a unique account.  It makes your upcoming travel plans more official, which increases the chances of them coming to fruition.

Step five (8-6 months before departure):  Pick your destination.  You’ve done the research and crunched the numbers.  You may be no finance major, but your conclusions are undoubtedly reliable enough to base your decision on.   With that said, do not “settle” on a destination – pick the one you want the most.

Step six (7-5 months before departure): Learn the language basics.  The pleasure of your experience will increase tenfold if you take the time to understand the native language if it’s not your own. Directions will make more sense, service will be much more concise, and people will be more polite.

Step seven (6-4 months before departure): Collect sight-seeing ideas.  Research in detail your destination.  Don’t just follow the game plan of some traveller on TV, take the time to find the various locales, restaurants, and shops that you feel are worth visiting.  Consult the unending array of online advice for travellers, such as this blog, for unique and out-of-the-way ideas.

Step eight (5-3 months before departure): Book your flight(s) and hotel reservations, and apply for your passport.  Six to nine months of building up airline miles with your credit card should result in a fair sized chunk of your travel costs being covered.  In addition, three to five months before your arrival is the ideal time to confirm hotel bookings in popular destinations, especially if you plan on traveling during peak tourist season.

Step nine (4 to 2 months before departure): Get into shape.  Your vacation won’t be any fun if going up a single flight of stairs has you winded and looking for a place to sit down.  Increased exercise will not only make you feel better, it’ll also make you look better in those photos you will show your family.

Step ten (3 to 1 months before departure): Wrap up plans and prepare to depart!  If your passport application was rejected, then six to eight weeks is plenty of time to re-apply.  If some aspect of your plans must change, there’s time to do so.  Don’t forget to pay your taxes with a  free IRS efile and be sure to get travel insurance too. By doing the aforementioned months in advance, you allow yourself plenty of time as you near your trip to take care of any and all unexpected factors at play.

Almost all of us wish to see the world, but very few of us are able to climb out of our sea of excuses to make it happen.  However, chances are good that your seemingly impossible travel plans are perfectly practical so long as you give yourself plenty of time to prepare.  Spending a year on arrangements is a small price to pay when we’re talking about the trip of your lifetime.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lucky Restaurant serves the best Biryani in Mumbai

Founded in 1938 by Sayed Ali Akbarul Huseini, Lucky Hotels and Restaurants is one of Mumbai’s best Biryani joints. The Lucky Restaurant situated at suburban Bandra and next to the Goregaon flyover (east) is the name that every Mumbaikar mentions when you ask them for a Biryani restaurant suggestion.

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I got a first hand experience of this restaurant when I dropped in at their Bandra joint one evening. The place, which was running full had a pretty decent ambience with both non-air-conditioned and air-conditioned facilities. The first floor, which is their air-conditioned section is shaped like a igloo with a small entrance and very low ceilings. But, once you get settled and look at the menu, you are spoilt for choices. But, since this was my first time around, I went with the recommended meal of Biryani, Raita and Irani chai.

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But, whether you are a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian, whether you are going for breakfast, lunch or dinner, the options that the Lucky restaurant are phenomenal. And all this at a very reasonable price. A full meal with dessert and a hot cup of tea or coffee would cost you between 250 and 300 rupees. A lot of celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar and Sanjay Dutt have also visited this place and have endorsed their food. I would definitely recommend this place for a great Biryani treat.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wildlife Photography: Blackbuck Series from Maidenahalli

Jayamangali Blackbuck reserve situated about 150 kms from Bangalore is a great place to photograph blackbucks. The early mornings and late evenings are ideal as that is when the blackbucks graze the open grasslands and/or indulge in some horn-locking extravaganza.

The Maidenahalli grasslands and its blackbucks 
The soft golden yellow light of the early morning and the late evening hours provide the best light to photograph these rare breed of antelopes. And during the afternoons, one can see these blackbucks resting in the shade, which doesn’t offer much activity due to the heat and also compromises on the lighting.

Female blackbuck followed by a male 
While shooting these blackbucks, refrain from making any sound and stay at least 40 feet away from them for an undisturbed photography session. The above and below images are part of a wildlife series of the Jayamangali Blackbucks shot at Maidenahalli. In this a blackbuck couple is walking these open grasslands when they notice my presence to check out the intruder. Then, after staring enough, they bolt and disappear from my range.

The blackbucks of Maidenahalli in Karnataka 
Male and Female Blackbuck at Maidenahalli 
Blackbucks begin their gallop with their customary leap

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tomatoes can really be very sweet!!

I distinctly remember savouring sweet tomatoes while I was vegetable shopping with my mum a couple of decades back. It has been a while since I tasted such tomatoes anywhere. The ones we get at the market are more tangy than sweet and one cannot enjoy tomatoes like a mango. I think it is the new generation of fertilizers and pesticides that take away the true taste of this fruit/vegetable.

Farm Tomatoes

But, I again got an opportunity to taste real sweet tomatoes when I dropped by an organic Tomato farm situated next to the Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve at Maidenahalli. In fact, I was on a wildlife safari, but lost my way and ended up here at the farm. While I was checking out the tomatoes here, the tomato growers invited me and my friends to taste their farm’s produce. As I dug in to the warm and sweet tomato, my childhood memories flooded back and I asked for a couple more to relish this taste for a longer while. Only the lord knows when the next such opportunity will come by…unless we start growing more of such organic products.

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Indian Bush Lark at Maidenahalli

The Indian Bush Lark is a species of bushlark that is commonly found at the Jayamangali Blackbuck reserve in Maidenahalli. The tweets and cheeps of this bird can be regularly heard in the evening hours at Maidenahalli and that is what makes you take notice of this well camouflaged bird that sits on dry bush tops.

Indian Bushlark at MaidenahalliIndian Bushlark 
The Indian Busk Lark is also known as Red-winged Bushlark (Mirafra erythroptera). It’s song flight during the mating season is supposed to be an amazing spectacle. I hope to see it when I return to this forest in the monsoons.

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Indian Hut: Lip Smacking Indian Cuisine near Galle Fort

If you are in and around the Galle fort and if you want to bite into some lip smacking Indian food while staring at the waters of the Indian Ocean, then look no beyond Indian Hut, a great Mughlai joint. This restaurant is located in the old Galle area and close to the lighthouse near the Galle Fort. These folks do not serve pork, beef or liquor, but whatever else they serve is a treat for the taste buds.

A nice Indian restaurant at Galle Fort (if you miss your Indian food)

The place is done up in retro style with a steep spiralling metal staircase right in the middle of the restaurant. If you wish to be closer to the clay ovens and see how your food is dished out, you can sit in the Ground Floor and if you prefer an ocean view, then grab the 1st floor seats. Food here is reasonably priced and costs about 600-800 LKR per head depending on vegetarian or non-vegetarian fare. Apart from the clay oven items, the Biryani is also good here.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Abbey Falls near Madikeri in Coorg

The Abbey (also known as Abbi and Abbe) falls is one great looking waterfall situated in the Western Ghats of Coorg. This 70 foot waterfall is situated about 7 kms from Madikeri town on the Galibeedu road. This is one waterfall that brings together large crowds all year around and especially in the monsoons when the waterfall is massive and envelops its surroundings in a misty cloud.

Picturesque Abbey Falls in the late evening hours 
This waterfall carries water throughout the year, though the water content diminishes quite a bit during the rainy season. This waterfall, which is fed by numerous streams before cascading down joins the Cauvery river a little downstream. The Abbey Falls is located between private coffee plantations with stocky coffee bushes and spice estates with trees entwined with pepper vines.

The overly crowded Abbey Falls 
The Abbey (kannada for waterfall) fall used to be be known as the Jessie waterfall during the British era in memory of Jessie, the daughter of Madikeri’s best captain. To reach this waterfall, one has to weave their way through coffee and cardamom plantations and steep turns. The short journey from the highway to the waterfall can be quite an adventure.

 
A hanging bridge constructed just opposite the waterfall is a great place for photographing this waterfall. This bridge also leads to a Kali Mata temple that is surrounded by coffee and pepper plantations. A board near the bridge mentions that nobody is allowed to get close to the waterfall as a lot of people have lost their lives here, but there are few people who throw caution to the wind and play the stupid daredevil act.

The hanging bridge near Abbey Falls

Everything about the place, including the waterfall is vintage nature, but I somehow don’t like the obscenely large crowds that turn up here. These large crowds coming with the intention of picnicking here destroy the serenity of this place and have no regard for cleanliness or for the environment. This can be a complete turn-off and that too especially in the weekends and/or on other national/state holidays. Personally, I would not visit this place again, but would not ask you to do so. You can definitely plan a short visit from June through December to see the Abbey Falls in full flow.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Easytobook.com: A great hotel price comparison site

There are many hotel price comparison sites available online, but I recently came across one that offers a simple, intuitive user interface, great global coverage and the best deals. That site is easytobook.com, a company headquartered at Amsterdam and aiming to be top five online hotel booking companies. It has also been ranked 5th in the Deloitte list of fastest 50 growing technology companies.

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A quick look at the landing page of this online hotel booking site shows that this site is available in 11 major languages and 21 global currencies giving it a very localized flavour. Easytobook.com has a huge network of 120578 hotels worldwide with coverage across Europe, North and Central America, South America, Asia, Oceania and Africa.

imageThe site promises the lowest rate guarantee and offers guest reviews in partnership with TripAdvisor. These reviews help the traveller select the best hotel both in terms of quality and price. The search on the homepage is pretty simple and allows the user to select the city or hotel along with Check-in and Check-out days, number of rooms required and number of people in the group. Basically, something that most online booking companies have and hence very easy to understand and navigate. But, the best lies in its search facility that allows the user to view city, airport and hotel details right in the search results through the site’s auto suggest feature.

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Here, the user can select one from the many dropdowns. The next page provides all the hotel details. The user can then refine his search by class of hotel, price, guest score, accommodation type and facilities. Then, the user can know more on each hotel through photographs, maps, detailed pricing, hotel details and guest reviews.

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The site also offers an interesting feature where you can compare up to 4 different room from 4 hotels across parameters such as conditions, maps, star class, facilities, price, guest reviews, etc. In short, this snapshot offers a cost benefit analysis that helps you select the best choice in the shortest time.

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The check-out process is also simple, while offering a secure connection for your sensitive credit card information. Confirmation and cancellation information, like any other online hotel booking site is shared over email.

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In overall, this is one hotel booking site that I would recommend a lot for its simple user interface, great global spread and its lowest price guarantees. Their blog also has some great titbits of helpful information for the global traveller.

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Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse from Maidenahalli

Sandgrouses are very pretty and well decorated birds and are typically found in hot and arid terrain, which are typically open grasslands and thorny bushes. The Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve at Maidenahalli mirrors some of the sandgrouse habitat and the sandgrouses are seen quite often here.

Chestnut bellied sandgrouse (female) 
Though, the painted sandgrouse is the more exotic bird, it was my first ever sighting of the chestnut bellied sandgrouse and hence I was very elated. I saw these birds, primarily females, 3 different times during my entire day trip.

Chestnut bellied sandgrouse 
I nearly missed my first sighting of these birds when 2 females were sitting at the edge of the jeep track. They were so well camouflaged, but I guess a small movement gave them away. The intricate patterns on their feathers make them look nearly as exotic as the painted sandgrouse. 

Chestnut bellied sandgrouse on the ground 
These birds are known to be vegetarians in nature and are known to be travel quite a distance to satisfy their thirst. The chestnut-bellied sandgrouse is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve at Maidenahalli–A Fantastic Wildlife Zone close to Bangalore

Bangalore is one of the few large cities in India that has a lot of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks situated close by. A drove of wildlife zones (Kabini National Park, Nagarhole National Park, Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and many more) can be seen if you travel a little bit over 200 kms west or south West of Bangalore. And in and around Bangalore, there are many lakes that offer great avenues for bird watching. And if you travel 150 kms north-north west of Bangalore, you come across the Jayamangali Black Reserve at Maidenahalli, a pristine forest ecosystem bordering the rocky hills of Andhra Pradesh.

Male and Female Blackbuck at Maidenahalli 
The Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve has the 2nd largest contiguous population of Blackbuck in Karnataka. Ranibennur Blackbuck sanctuary is one with the highest blackbuck population in Karnataka.

Blackbucks begin their gallop with their customary leap 
This forest reserve is primarily made up of open grasslands and bushes, which allows a wide range of wildlife to thrive here. The mammals that are commonly seen here are the Blackbuck, Indian Grey Mongoose, Indian Fox and the Black Naped Hare. There are other mammals like the leopard, wolf, Jungle Cat and Civet that are spotted rarely.

Little Green Bee Eaters 
This forest is also a great place for bird watching with some rare species like the Montagu’s Harrier, the Indian Courser, the Painted Sandgrouse and the Great Indian Bustard seen here. Apart from these, the Jayamangali Blackbuck reserve is home to 125 species of avifauna that includes ground birds, shrikes, larks and raptors.

Sykes's Lark 
It was my first trip to Maidenahalli when I went there on a day trip last Saturday. I had heard a lot of great experiences about this place from fellow wildlife and bird photographers. And I finally got a chance to visit this rich ecosystem.

The Blackbuck of Maidenahalli 
After breakfast at a small shack after Madhugiri, our group reached Maidenahalli at about 10 AM. We went straight to the watch tower to inspect the terrain. This is where, we met the forest guard and completed all the formalities. While we we talking to the forest guard, we noticed a large herd of blackbucks grazing close by and thus spent the next 30 minutes photographing this large herd of blackbucks.

Black Shouldered Kite 
Shortly after, all of us hit one of the forest trails and went on a hour long trek where we spotted a black naped hare, a lot of drongos, shrikes and bee eaters. As it got warmer, tiredness set in the group and hence we retraced our steps back to the watch tower and took our car for a safari inside the forest. Though it was quite bright, we still ended up seeing some wildlife.

Chestnut bellied sandgrouse (female) 
This was followed by a simple lunch at Kodigenahalli (about 8 kms away) and an afternoon siesta at the watch tower. At about 4:30 pm, all of us took our respective vehicles and headed into the different jungle trails. The evening safari was better than the mid morning one due to a multitude of reasons. One, the golden yellow slant rays of the sun made the open grasslands look like a gold mine and second, the dropping temperatures proved a relief to both us humans and the wildlife.

A Shining Black Male Blackbuck looks on 
As we weaved our way through the multiple trails, we saw lots of blackbucks, a couple of male Montagu’s Harriers, many Chestnut bellied Sandgrouse, Little green bee-eaters, Southern Grey Shrikes, Drongos, Black Shouldered Kites, Tawny Eagle, Indian Bushlark, Sykes’s lark and some more.

Lesser Grey Shrike 
The wildlife safari in the evening was richer. I guess we would have had a similar experience if we had reached the reserve by 7 in the morning. In fact, that is what is heavily recommended. Either, you drop in by 7AM or stay overnight at the forest camp to ensure you get to see this ecosystem in both the early morning and the late evening hours.

A Young Blackbuck 
During morning hours, one can see the rutting blackbucks lock horns. While, in the evening, you can see the ground birds like the Harriers getting ready to roost.

Blackbucks frequently lock horns during the rutting season 
Overall, it was a great day trip for me and I wish to return to this forest soon. And this time, I plan to camp overnight here and spend more quality time here coz this place deserves much more time than just a day.

Young blackbucks grazing at Maidenahalli 
How to get to Maidenahalli from Bangalore?

A total of 148 kms from Bangalore. From Bangalore, take the Tumkur road. At Dabarpet (after exit toll booth and before Tumkur), go below flyover and take right towards Madhugiri. At Madhugiri circle, take right towards Hindupur. At about 3 kms from the circle, you will see a ‘Jayamangali Blackbuck Reserve’ board. At this board, take left. Further ahead, you will see another board. Take left here too. Keep going straight even though a right turn is available. From here, the tar road changes into a mud track. Keep going till you see the forest gate. Enter the forest gate and park near the watch tower.

A Male Blackbuck turns to look at me 
Permissions for Forest Entry

Day-trips do not require any permissions from the forest department. Though, a fee of Rs 100 per camera is charged by the forest department. For night stays or multiple day visits, one has to take permission from the DFO at Tumkur.

Montagu's Harrier (Male) 
Accommodation Options in the forest

There is an Inspection Bungalow with 8 rooms near the watch tower. Each room costs Rs 800 per night and comes with the services of a cook if food rations are provided. As an alternative, one can pitch their own tents near the watch tower. The forest department charges Rs 300 for each tent. Bookings for both these can be done at the DFO office in Tumkur. If a city stay is preferred, one can stay near the Madhugiri bus stand, about 25 kilometres away.

The blackbucks of Maidenahalli in Karnataka 
Food Options

It is recommended that you carry enough food and water on you while planning a trip to this forest. If you are fine with basic food, both Madhugiri and Kodigenahalli have some hotels where reasonable food is available. And if you wish to stay overnight, do pack in some food rations.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

MissPlitty: A great travel expense mobile app

There is one thing about travel that I am sure a lot of us hate and that is tracking and settling the travel expenses. Either we designate one guinea pig in the group to handle all the headache or spend prime time in keeping track of receipts or excel sheets. But, if you happen to be an Android phone user like me, then you have a brilliant travel expense solution in a mobile app called ‘MissPlitty’.

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This free mobile app available on the Android market is the near perfect answer to all our travel expense tracking and settlement worries. This is a simple app that helps you in sharing expenses among participants of events like trips, holidays, parties and so on. And all these expenses can be tracked in any currency. To give you a quick example…As soon as you open your app, you get your events page. Here, you enter your event title and the desired currency. Then, you can add the participants in your event. Either you can pull the participant details from your phone contacts or add them as a new entry. Then, as you start making expenses on your trip, you can add the expense details, the person who paid the bill and then select the participants of this bill from the pre-defined list.

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You keep doing this during the course of your trip. Each entry takes no more than 30 seconds and can be entered absolutely anywhere. At the end of your trip, you can ask the app to calculate and it will show numbers in red and green against each participant. The red against the participants means that they owe money to someone in the group, while the green means that they have paid in excess and will get a refund.

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To make the accounting simpler, the app has a ‘Suggestions’ feature that allows the user to see who pays whom and how much. And finally, the entire expense and suggestions report can be shared via email and/or Bluetooth and/or just the suggestion summary can be shared as a text message (SMS). The mobile app is so helpful that all my recent trip expenses have been settled before the group split ways at the end of the trip. This is a fantastic travel app if you are a Android phone user. I am sure you will agree with my sentiments on your every first trip using this app. But, like all apps, even MissPlitty has some areas for improvement. One of the areas where I would like some richer functionality is the provision of splitting one bill amongst multiple participants. Right now, it allows only one participant per expense. The other requirement is to be able to simultaneously edit and share the app with all the participants. Again, these are only good-to-have features and the app as it stands today is a great one considering that it is a free app. Thank you Fabio Maffioletti for developing this seriously helpful travel app for Android.

P.S. Settle Up is another similar free mobile app that is available across iPhone, iPad and Android. You can give that a try too.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Zanskar Valley: One of the remotest places in India!!

The remotest places on our planet often offer the most adventure and it is no different that the Zanskar Valley situated in one corner of India in the Western Himalayas offers its fair share too. To reach Zanskar valley, one can take one of the many flights to Delhi and then from Delhi, you can either fly to Leh in Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region or drive to Leh through the highest series of mountain passes in the world (Manali –> Rohtang Pass –> Keylong –> Barlacha Pass –> Sarchu –> Tanglang Pass –> Upshi –> Leh).

Scenic Zanskar river - beginning to freeze - once completely frozen, the famous Chadar trek on the river begins 
In summer, one can take the road from Leh to Padum via Kargil to reach the Zanskar valley and in the winter months, one can do the short drive from Leh to Chilling and then onwards walk this rugged terrain.

Spectacular Zanskar valley 

The Zanskar valley is a mecca for adventure travel enthusiasts. In summer, adventure lovers come here to raft on the ferocious Zanskar river where the rapids are typically Class 4 and Class 5. Rafting trips can be as short as 6 hours to as long as 7 days. The river rafting expedition begins near Padum and ends just after the Sangam (the place where the Zanskar river joins the mighty Indus river). A closer look at the terrain and you will figure out that the gradient from Padum to Sangam is steep throughout ensuring a high adrenalin experience all the way.

This stretch of the Zanskar river has completely frozen 
And come winter, the hard core trekkers come here to do the famous Chadar trek, where the entire river is completely frozen and people live on and around this river for the next fortnight or so. In fact, the Chadar is the age-old trade route taken by the people native to the Zanskar valley to get food supplies from Leh and Kargil during the bitterly cold winter months. In today’s world, trekkers from all over the world join the locals in walking the frozen river in a world that is enveloped by ice. The insane pictures from this trek coupled with its sensational stories have made this trek go right up on my adventure travel bucket-list.

Road from Nimmu to Chilling, runs parallel to the Zanskar river 
I was there in the heart of this valley last winter, but I was a good 15 days early as the river had just started to freeze. Another 15 days and the entire river would have frozen making way for the Chadar trek. But, Chadar or no Chadar, the terrain, the river, the people, all make for a great experience in one of nature’s best kept secrets. And I guess we will have to thank the mighty Himalayas for making it such a tough place to get into.

The amazingly picturesque Zanskar Valley - one of the remotest places on earth 
Apart from the Zanskar river rafting expedition and the Chadar trek, one can indulge in other adventure activities too. There are other equally tough treks that can be taken to explore this remote region. The Markha valley trek running parallel to the Zanskar river is one of the toughest and the prettiest. A lot of treks are also undertaken from the Himachal Pradesh side of Keylong. And if you are interested in seeing the snow leopard, go on a winter trek into the Zanskar regions and increase your chances for spotting the rarest of the big cats. In summer, Himalayan bears, kiangs (Tibetan Wild Ass), Marmots and other mammals can be seen here.

Enjoying the beauty of the partially frozen Zanskar river

The Zanskar valley is also the place where the Himalayan car rallies are held every year. Though, this is ideal terrain for rally racing, the locals tend to think otherwise. They mention that the rowdy car drivers damage their already sensitive connecting roads leading to gradual weakening of the roads and a decrease in passenger safety during local commute.

Bridge over the frozen Zanskar river 
While traversing this region, remember the age-old maxim,which says ‘where there is adventure, danger is not too far away’. And the chances of recovering from danger is also quite low given the remoteness of this region. Hence, ensure that you are reasonably fit before signing up for any of these adventure expeditions, take all necessary precautions and pack all the right gear especially in the winter. Enjoy the adrenalin rush, but don’t do anything stupid. If you do come back in one piece, you will remember the rush for your entire lifetime. Such is the magic of Zanskar Valley, one of the remotest regions in India!!

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