Friday, August 26, 2016

Experience of Kaas Plateau in Mumbai

The faint greens and pinks of the wild at Pandavkheda 
Agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaaho to puri kaayanat usey tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai...
(If you really want something, the universe tries to get it for you)
Wondering why I started with this famous dialogue of SRK?

Wilderness and its charms! Can you spot the woolly caterpillars?
Well, last year I planned the trip to Kaas Plateau twice during this time of the year and the plans didn’t pan out. This year I had no time to even plan the trip and half the people I know were going there this weekend or are planning to visit Kaas next weekend. Wild flowers, carpeted earth, greens and blues and purples and I would none of that for at least another year or two. I was kind of sad till the last weekend but not anymore! The universe got me Kaas or something similar in Mumbai! We often fail to see things that are there right in our backyard and I certainly felt like this after my weekend experience.

Where there are flowers there are butterflies
Last weekend I decided to visit Sanjay Gandhi National Park after ages. A small left turn on the busy western express highway near Borivali, and it is like you have left Mumbai far behind. A bit of travelling in the concrete jungle and then wilderness takes over your mind. Dense forest, tree canopies and hidden pristine streams lead you to a set of 3rd century CE caves – Kanheri Caves and that is where I was up for a pleasant surprise. 

There are big ones and then there are tiny flowers
As you go up crossing the levels of caves you see the green overgrowth on the caves turning pink and at the 3rd level (the topmost level) of the caves the hill almost becomes like plateau and is layered with purple, pink and blue balsams (Impatiens). The whole are seems like a carpet woven by nature – green throughout and designed with colourful floral patterns. 

So many of these around near Kanheri Caves
Windy mountain top, light showers yet butterflies fluttering around in scores over the wildflowers, occasionally resting on some nearby shrub which is laden with bright yellow flowers. You can see plenty of woolly bear caterpillars languidly moving around the wet short grass and be surprised by the popping antennas of red crabs scurrying away.

At both the sites you can see arrays of pink and purple balsams
That was just one day. Then I visited the lesser known Pandavkheda area of Kharghar, Mumbai. Long, easy hike from the driving range just behind the golf course and you are in constant company or pink and yellow grass flowers. As and how the height changes and if you are lucky, you can spot many exotic tropical flowers in this region. 

Do you notice wildflowers? 
Purple bell flowers and Purpurascens were pretty much everywhere but then I spotted a patch of Glory Lilies or Flame Lilies – quirky, beautiful, poisonous flame like flowers and I knew I have had my mini Kaas like experience this weekend.

One of the most exotic tropical wildflowers - Glory Lily.  Did you know Glory lily, though poisonous, is used in a lot of medicines and is the state flower of Tamil Nadu and National Flower of Zimbabwe? 
True, Kaas is vast and more overwhelming visually, but this weekend made me realize Mumbai is no less. If my words were not enough, these pictures must have definitely given you a glimpse of the green Mumbai I saw during my last weekend trail!

The greens and the pinks of a different sort this time.
Have you experienced something amazing like this in some local area? Do let me know in the comments below.

P.S. - About Kaas Plateau
Kaas Plateau in Maharashtra is bio diversity hotspot which is called as the valley of flowers of the south. Located at a distance of 25km from Satara – 280km from Mumbai, this plateau is covered with about 500+ species of flowering plants in full bloom during the month of August and September every year. This area also became a UNESCO World Heritage Site some years back.

Let the grass bloom, for it is its season to glow

This post was also -

Friday, August 19, 2016

Ghats of Narmada – Omkareshwar

India is country where faith has become a nascent part of people’s lives. There might be no place in the country where one won’t find a temple around. While secularism is an integral part of India, its faith foundation can be traced back to the foundation of Hinduism and temple towns of Bharat. One such old town is Omkareshwar.

At about an hour’s distance from Indore, Omkareshwar seems like a crowded small town that has grown in random unprecedented way over time and is now a block of crisscrossed dusty pavements with centres of faith at every other corner but it has one of the twelve ancient Jyotirings of the world that hold great importance in Hindu scriptures. A Jyotirling is believed to be a place where a proper ‘shiv linga’ had occurred naturally and recognized by sages of the time to hold incessant power and spiritual aura. Omkareshwar, or the river Island that houses the Jyotirling, however is believed to be created by the power of penance of Sage Mandhata and the shiv ling occurred there as a result of the power of his devotion and as the centre point of his spiritual power but then split in half when the sage doubted his penance.

Obviously it is all about stories and mythologies but with them grew faith and with faith grew this place and became what it is today. Now Omkareshwar is a pilgrim centre, smaller than the close by town – Ujjain, but equally sacred to the believers of Shiva. When you enter the town, all you see is lodges and tea/sweet stalls with boiling badam (almonds and cashews) milk at the entrance. A small bus-stand and a lot of people asking you to take a boat from the Ghat greet you in the vehicle free town. A little ahead is the Gomukh Ghat of Narmada that joins the mainland to the temple island. The Ghat is where you see the might of Narmada flowing through the deep gorge created by erosion of the old volcanic rocks of the Omkareshwar island, the towering temple of Omkareshwar and the reason why this place is named after lord Shiva (the shape of the island is like an Om)

The place as such is simple and doesn’t have much. A long lane of flower vendors, a 3 level temple with around 150 steps or so, the main Linga in a cage, a couple of other smaller shrines and a long queue of devotees. Close buy is an old fort and the village where the flower vendors and the priests reside. Yes, not much right? But it is the Narmada and the aura of the place that is undeniably captivating. I spent the whole evening at the top of the temple observing the beautiful sunset over the dangerous looking but calm river, the busy ghat, the last lot of the boats to the temple, some devotees still crossing the bridge to the island – another way to the temple, and the priests preparing for the evening arti.

Don’t know how much and what power these religious places hold but the whole experience of finding the calm and quiet at dusk, observing everything around and hearing the drums of the arti, created a different kind of silence and was something that made me believe in the aura of the place. God or no god, belief or no belief – Omkareshwar gave me an evening to remember. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Rail Yatri - A New Travel Buddy

After years of travelling in India I have realized one this – the best way to explore India is on road and the best connectivity to anywhere in India is via India Railways! Yes, if you want to travel in India you can’t escape these modes of transport since not everywhere you can go via flight, right? But guess what it wasn’t easy using both modes of transport until some years back. Indian railways site probably had the worst server ever that kept crashing almost all the time and road transport was unsafe and super expensive. But thanks to technology and smartphone apps things have changed for good now. On my recent travel – read everywhere this year – I used a couple of really cool applications that made travel easy for me! Today I would be telling you about one and another one in some days.

So first deal is with trains. Frankly I travelled in trains after 3 years in India and not once but 2 times this year already and would be travelling again to Ahmadabad next month in Shatabdi Express. And from finding seat availability on sluggish Indian railways site to checking PNR status to actually getting decent food in trains I found a new help in the town – Rail Yatri! I used their app to get the status of our train during my Orissa trip and book food from a hotel that got delivered in the train. (They have a web version and a mobile application as well and though the review is around the app, the site also works in the same way.) So if you guys are wondering what makes RailYatri such a big help, here are the reasons.

Pros of Rail Yatri

Train Status at a glance
Rail Yatri tells you exactly where a train is and gives you when a train would reach a station and on which platform! Imagine you have to pick someone up, help them with luggage and are totally clueless about where the train is coming and by the time you figure out getting there becomes a task or you reach the station only to figure out trains are late by an hour or two because of maybe the weather. Well, this is where Rail yatri comes to your rescue – it tells you the platform and the time when the train would arrive at a station. Know it all, be at ease right.

Food woes no more!
2.  Food
More Options!
Okay sorry state, yes, but fact - but railway food is horrible still! I personally could never bring myself to consume anything from the railway pantry during my journeys and more than 24 hours in trains scared me for this very reason – food! But Rail Yatri has an awesome solution to the travel food woes – it lets you order your train meals online with options from hotels close to some stations and at pretty reasonable rates. So, you order food with your ticket and forget all the worries of bad food. Like the app already?

Check this out
You can do PNR check and Seat check in seconds which means it is faster than Indian Railways when it comes to these functionalities and well of course efficient! It also helps you by forecasting the chances of seat availability or the chances of your ticket getting confirmed with your PNR number which is based on a tested algorithm created with help of about 15 lakh PNR numbers.
4.  Rail Wisdom
Okay guess you are going to some new place and need a hotel or restaurant really close to the station or to some tourist place, Rail Wisdom of Rail Yatri helps you just there.
Cost Please?
5. Fare
It give you a complete break up of the fare of a ticket. Total transperancy is a good thing right?

There you go - the break up

Cons or con of Rail Yatri
1.   You can’t book a ticket.
Maybe this is something IRCTC wants to keep to itself completely but I really wish Rail Yatri could get the option for booking tickets for its users.
2.   Cost of cancellation.
Indian Railways has increased the rate of cancellation of tickets and they are different for different trains and classes. This month I had to cancel my Gujarat tickets which were actually tentative so it would have really helped to know for which train I would have incurred least loss but I had no way to figure it out and Shatabdi cost me a bomb during cancellation. I wish Rail Yatri had this feature along with its cost estimation feature.

So if you ask me, apart from these tiny cons I would really recommend Rail Yatri for all those who are using Indian Railways! It is, in my view, a pretty helpful application. Let me know if you guys know of a similar application which is really helpful while travelling in India.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Just Another Trek - Roopkund

Nature - just like in those windows wallpapers

Travelling – It leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller. 

One of the most clich├ęd quotes on travelling right? But it is true! It does that to me and I am sure a lot of others would agree with it too. But a lot of times we don’t get to hear those stories because a lot of people don’t really write or speak much about it. When I started this blog it was to share my travel stories and to inspire others to share theirs. One such moment has come today! A friend of my brother is a trek junkie and after completing many Sahyadri treks, he has recently started his Himalayan adventures and today is sharing his most recent trek experience on my blog!!

The Experience –

We knew it will be anything but easy
Still shaken due to the cloudburst news some days back, and nervous of meeting and trekking with twenty something new faces, I met my trek team at Kathgodam station and started our journey to the base camp at Lohajung. Little did we know that this ten hours’ drive would give us the taste of the first adventure of our trip. Hardly half way through the journey, I heard a faint rumble and soon our car stopped. Landslide – extremely common in the region but to see the road gone completely and mud and trees reclaiming the path ahead of us was a jolt to reality – the might of the Himalayas. Traffic and our driver’s urge to have a cigarette saved us in a way and we took a detour to reach Lohajung with a two-hour delay. Day one was just about getting acclimatized to the surroundings. The actual trek began on day two!

Green everywhere
Huddled up, and excited we began our trail with a 40 minutes’ car ride ahead of Wan and then the steep climb. I finally knew why we are asked to exercise and stay fit before such long treks – it is tiresome. Crossing Neelganga we finally reached Ghareoli Patal – our first camp. Green everywhere, forests dense and visible around the horizon and occasional clouds and mist –enough reason to fall in love with nature.

Bedni Bugyal Campsite
Next morning, we left for our next campsite-Bedni Bugyal. Soon, the forest began to thin down. On the way, we were told stories about how the place got its name. Bugyal basically means meadow. It is said the Vedas were written over there near a small pond called Bedni Kund. Hence the name Bedni(Vedni) Bugyal. And guess what - it is Asia’s largest meadow! This day was comparatively easier than the previous day due to the gentle ascent. It took me a while to soak it all in. We sat there on the lush green grass of the meadow, admiring one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed. The clouds parted and it seemed like we were looking through a portal into heaven. But that wasn’t possible, because we felt like we were already there. Bedni Bugyal was even more beautiful than I had seen in the photos. The meadow and the sunset connected all of us (trekkers) to nature but more importantly to ourselves and to each other as well. Our mutual love for trekking and nature, and those hours of walking somehow was taking away the ‘strangeness’ of those new faces.

Waking up to this!
Next day, the trek got difficult. There was fog almost everywhere our trek guides (of Indiahikes – they are awesome by the way) anticipated rainfall but we got lucky and reached Ghora(Horse) Lotani(return) – a place after which horses don’t go ahead - pretty much on time. And this marked the end of the greens and start of the rocky territory. High Altitude was here, and this was where our will power would be tested. Steep valley on one side and mountain on the other and fog around – pretty much like movies. With a lot of caution, we managed to reach our next campsite – Pathar Nachauni before lunchtime. Due to the windy, foggy weather and tiredness of the group the day’s trek ended here and we had the local special momos to celebrate the completion of half our trek that day! Okay, maybe it is not of much importance but I loved the momos.

The meadows
Next morning, we had our oxygen level and heart rate readings checked (this actually happened twice everyday) and left Pathar Nachauni campsite. But first it was time for Kalu Vinayak temple and Bhagwabasa where we were told how Pathar Nachauni got its name. There was a king who was on a pilgrimage on this route circa 800 A.D. Apparently, he made Lord Shiva upset, so he turned all the dancers of the King (Apsaras) into stone. Mythology is funny, period. By evening, the weather had cleared up and we got a clear view of Mt. Trishul and Nanda Ghunti close by, well technically.

We just didnt want to stop
But all of that changed that night. At 2 am, I woke up to the sound of rain! We were supposed to leave for Roopkund at 4 am! I woke up at 4:30, but the rain still had not stopped. As a trekker, climate often ruins your plans, I knew that but this was the first time I was going to face the scenario. 6 ‘o ‘clock, the rain stopped and we were 2 hours behind schedule. With all hopes of melting snow not posing an issue for us reaching our final destination – Roopkund, we started our walk and nature appreciated our efforts I guess. The weather cleared up and there was sunlight! Stones, steep ascents, streams on the road and finally I saw Roopkund emerge behind a small slope.

Clear waters of the small glacial lake - Roopkund. Yes this is the lake!
It was surreal. Just standing there, living the moment. The majestic lake to one side and an “above the clouds” view on the other. It was a short 100m path down to the lake. The lake of bones was here. Did you know these bones are dated to 9th century and still no one is sure of whose bones are they? Completely intact human skeletons, some of which still have skin attached to them. Creepy yet fascinating right? It made me wonder about the stories behind the lake and left me completely baffled.  Any ways, we could not make it to Junargali though as we were late and the snow had started melting. So we decided to come back after this once in a life time view and experience.

Happiness is here
The experience would stay with us forever, and the wondering about what happened at this lake would puzzle us all the time but at the same time all the memories we created, friends we made during this trip are priceless and maybe the best part of the journey. Guess that is what travel is about – connection, be it a place or people.

Have you been to a trip that has turned you into a storyteller? Let me know in the comments below.

One last campsite

Also, in case you are planning to be a serious trekker and are unsure about doing a taxing trek like Roopkund, you can always start with a comparatively easy but equally beautiful trek in the same area! the other famous winter trek opposite Roopkund trek is Brahmatal Trek

About the Writer -
Shardul Prabhu is a second year student of chemical engineering at Thadomal Sahani College of Engineering, Bandra, Mumbai. His love for mountains has taken him on several local treks in Sahyadris and two Himalayan treks so far. (Brighu lake before Roopkund) He says ‘Trekking has made me realize that it is only when you go to the mountains, you realize how small you are in front of nature.’ Though not a blogger, he chose to share his experience at Roopkund because it was so different from the other treks he had done and because he wanted to express his gratitude toward Indiahikes staff.

That sense of achievement