Saturday, October 13, 2018

Paris - Again!

It was exactly after 4 years since my first trip to Paris. On my first trip I had done the usual - Eiffel Tower, Seine Cruise, Museums of Louvre and Orsay and Versailles. And a day trip to Bordeaux. To be honest, this time around things stayed pretty much the same - Bordeaux was replaced  by Reims (Champagne) and Seine cruise was ditched but we didn't add anything to our itinerary. Why? Well...first time around, I had not planned well for my vacation and as a result, wasn't able to do complete justice to most of the attractions.

Between then and now, I have been to many places in Europe and have kind of become good at planning vacations. So, this time around I knew what to expect and I was clear where I wanted to spend my time.

We had an early flight from Stockholm to Paris which meant that we left our hotel at 3:30 am. Since taxis are very expensive in Sweden, we had decided to take Flygbussarna airport coach instead. The bus stop was about 400 m from hotel (plus a long flight of stairs from hotel to main road). We were a bit worried about the safety at such an early hour but thanks to Scandinavian summer, the sun was rising as we stepped out of the hotel and made our way up those 100 odd steps and walked to the bus/ coach stop.

The bus arrived dot on time and we reached our terminal as expected. The airport wasn't crowded at all and we were done with check-in and security check within a matter of minutes. Flygbussarna is the cheapest transport to/fro Arlanda airport in Stockholm and I highly recommend it.

View from the Summit
We landed in Paris around 9:00 am but we reached hotel only around noon - thanks to the rains and the crazy Paris traffic. Wish I had taken RER as per my original plan but the long queues for the ticket really dissuaded me. My suggestion...even if the ticket queue is long, opt for RER - it will always be cheaper (10.3 Euros per head) and faster.

The hotel we had chosen was on Champs-Elysees (thanks to the points earned by dear hubby over his many many official trips). After a quick lunch and a power nap, we decided to walk to Eiffel Tower - we had a 3 pm booking for the Summit. Last time, I couldn't go to the summit as online tickets were sold out and skip the line ticket took us only till 2nd Level. This time, I booked well in advance but the weather was very disappointing - it was still cloudy though the rain had stopped. As luck would have it, by the time we reached the tower, and spent over 40 minutes across 3 queues (security, elevator to Level 2 and elevator to Summit), the sun was out and we could get a decent view of the city.
View of Trocadero from Level 2

The summit gets quite crowded especially because there just isn't enough space. And when a group of Gujjus intent on having Gujarati snacks at the summit get added to it, one has to descend sooner than planned.

So after about 10 minutes we took the elevator down to Level 2 where we spent another 20 minutes soaking in the sun bathed views of the beautiful city.

We then made our way over to the Trocadero Gardens - I believe that's the best place to admire Eiffel from - up close it isn't really beautiful. However, after about  30 min, it started raining and we were forced to head back to our hotel where we enjoyed some great wine and food over dinner.

Next day was reserved for Louvre. Yes...a day isn't enough but then we can't spend a month in Paris...not yet at least! This time around I had done some research on where I wanted to spend time in this massive museum and we spent most of our time in and around the Grand Gallery. Ofcourse we avoided the key attractions, like Mona Lisa, having been disappointed already during the previous visit. The audio guide wasn't that good as it has information about very limited suggestion is not to spend money on that but instead get data on your phone and use Google Lens to identify the painting and get information about it.

Outside view from a window in Grand Gallery
The day at Louvre was great except for the hoards of Chinese tourists some of whom had the audacity to physically push other patrons, who were busy admiring the painting, in order to get a picture with the painting. Some of them were rude enough to stand directly in front of painting for a selfie while someone else was studying it intently. And then some others were being irritating by making others take their pictures.

In spite of them, we had a good time at Louvre that included a coffee and cake break in the cafeteria. First time around when we needed a break, we found the queues too long as it was lunch time but about an hour after that there was a kind of lull and we could enjoy our coffee in peace.

We wrapped up the day with spending some time in the Egyptian Antiquities section and went back to Champs-Elysees for a well deserved long meal with wine.

Interior of the catherdral
Day Three we woke up late as today we were taking a short train ride on an afternoon TGV to Reims (Champagne region). On the previous trip, I had booked a 6:00 am TGV to Bordeaux and had cursed myself for it when I had to get up at 4:00 am in order to catch it. So this time around I decided to start late and enjoy a relaxed morning instead.

The agenda was to visit the cellars of GH Mumm, see some local sights and have a dinner before heading back to Paris. The vineyards are in Epernay and that is another 30 minutes by train from Reims plus vineyards are spread around and require tour bookings. Most tours start in the morning and we weren't too willing to do so :)

Rose window
So we reached Reims at 1:45 pm and started walking towards the Reims Cathedral. We had no idea what to expect and we found ourselves beyond surprised by this cathedral - it is about 800 years old, 450+ ft in length and almost hundred feet wide with a height of 125 ft at the centre. Built in high gothic style, it looms large above you and has some impressive stained glass work ranging from the 13th to the 20th century. The rose window over the main portal and the gallery beneath are of rare magnificence.

We spent more than an hour here before we realised that we were getting late for our cellars tour. So we made haste and walked for about 20-25 minutes to reach the GH Mumm visitors center. The tour started sharp on time with a short video in champagne making process. We then walked down to cellars where we were shown a few grape varieties and some out of commission equipment. Our guide was very informative and she had us hooked for the whole hour.

GH Mumm Cellars
The cellars are really huge and worth a visit - these are more like limestone caves/tunnels. The temperatures are kept low (approx 5-10 degree C) and humidity constant and so it does get a bit cold. Bathed in yellow light, these limestone tunnels look ethereal and the millions of champagne bottles make it look a like big underground treasure.

While I loved the cellars tour, the tasting was actually a let down because we had taken the basic tour, the guide just poured the wine and moved to do the proper tasting with the others guests who had 2-3 wines to taste on their ticket.

After the tour we walked back to the station through a lovely park and enjoyed a nice dinner before boarding our train back to Paris. 

Day Four

Cafeteria at Orsay

Having arrived late into Paris from Reims, today was another planned late start. Today's agenda was to spend time on our favourite impressionist collection at Orsay. With more than 100 impressionist masterpieces, Orsay is one of the richest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. As we had planned we spent most of our time on the 5th floor (next to cafeteria) that houses this collection. The audio-guide was good but again contained information on very limited number of time around I will rely on Google Lens alone.

After a few hours when our legs couldn't carry us any more, we imbibed some rose wine in their beautiful cafeteria before heading off to the post-impressionist collection (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond).

Performers outside the museum
When we left Orsay it was late afternoon and quite sunny but not too hot. We enjoyed some street music performance just outside the museum and then sat on the steps by the Seine.

During our last long visit to Paris we had spent an hour on a bridge somewhere between Orsay and Notre-Dame. So this time around, I wanted to visit it again. It took us more than an hour of walking alongside Siene to reach the cathedral but we couldn't locate that bridge. A bit sad, we decided to to call off the hunt and started walking towards the closest metro stop and  there it was - Pont d'Arcole.

Last time we had taken a metro to reach Notre-Dame from Orsay and that's how we had encountered the bridge before reaching cathedral. This time around since we had walked, we reached cathedral first and then found the bridge on way to metro station. Anyway...I was delighted that we were able to locate it and spent some time clicking pictures.

Last day was reserved for Versailles...a palace whose beauty is surpassed only by its gardens. I won't get into text details here as words can't do justice to its beauty. The only thing I would add is that after visiting Schönbrunn in Vienna and Royal Palace of Madrid, Hall of Mirrors at Versailles doesn't hold the same charm for me as it did the first time around. The gardens, however, remain my favourite...even more so now because this time around we chose to visit the day when Gardens would have music and working fountains. It was really beautiful!!!

If one wants to visit only gardens, the entry is free except for the days when water & music is on. That day gardens also require a ticket. However, the gardens are huge and music/water is not on through out the day (to conserve energy). Please make note of the timetable of the musical gardens here. You will also be handed over a paper guide with same at the venue. The fountains work for an hour in morning & 90 min in afternoon and because of vastness of the gardens, it's better to plan a route map for two windows.

To get an idea of the beauty of the musical fountains, I would suggest you watch this video of Mirror Pool that I uploaded on youtube.  Below are some stills from the musical gardens but they don't do justice to it!

Latona Fountain

Apollo Fountain

Grove of three fountains

Bosquet de l'Encelade. By the time we got here fountain wasn't working

Thursday, June 14, 2018


At sharp 7 am we were out the apartment door and got the bus 1A in a few minutes that dropped us at footsteps of Copenhagen Central station. The platforms were accessible by stairs from this side but we didn't know which platform to go down to (with all our luggage).  Since the train was at 8:20 and it was just 7:30 am - the train information wasn't displayed on the screens yet. Thankfully, a blue collar worker at the station was exiting from one of the platforms and he told us to go to platform 5 for our train to Stockholm.

While waiting for the train, I bought us some breakfast because the bar/cafe car in the train is not operational till 9:00 am. The train arrived well before departure time so we had ample time to get in our luggage and find our seats. It was a comfortable journey that lasted about 5 hours 20 minutes and included a passport check as we entered Sweden.

From Stockholm's central station, we took a T train to our hotel. The central station is huge and signs are very confusing, so it took us some time to figure out the platform for our train - but it has escalators so luggage was not an issue. In Stockholm, we had chosen Courtyard by Marriott and it turned out to be a great property. The rooms are huge and it is less than 500 m from Fridhemsplan (T station and the bus stop for the Flygbussarna airport coach)

After we parked our bags, we landed in the city center (near Royal Opera house). It was the day of Stockholm marathon that was in its last stages. We had bought 72 hour Stockholm Pass online  along with the 72 hour transport cards (as station doesn't  have a sale point and we weren't flying into the city). It was delivered to Bangalore with reasonable shipping charges.

Just like Copenhagen card, this one included all key attractions including hop on hop off bus & boat tours. Due to the marathon, the schedule for the day was different and we had missed the last bus and boat. Instead, we signed up for the 2 hour 'Under the bridges' cruise at 6:30 pm. It was the perfect time for it - it was sunny but not too hot and the boat wasn't overly crowded (just yet).  The 2 hour cruise is a sightseeing tour where you travel under twelve bridges and pass through a lock that is connecting the Baltic Sea with Lake Mälaren. (Lake Malaren is a meter higher than Baltic Sea - so boats have to wait inside the lock till the water level inside the lock rises or drops, as needed).

On this cruise, we got to see the inner city, the Old Town, the island of Södermalm and the green areas of Djurgården. By the time cruise ended and we reached Fridemsplan, it was 9:00 pm - we just had a quick dinner and walked back to our hotel.
Views from the 'Under the Bridges' Cruise

Next day we started with a one hour boat cruise to Drottingholm Palace. Thanks to google maps goof up, we couldn't make it in time for the 11 am departure, so we had to wait 50 minutes for the next boat. In the meanwhile we strolled over to the City Hall next door. It is a beautiful building and can be accessed only through guided tours. Thanks to the delay in getting on the boat, the 15:30 (last) tour wasn't an option for us! So we just enjoyed the exteriors, the sparkling waters of Lake Malaren and clicked some pictures.

We landed at Drottingholm palace at 1 pm, took the self-guided tour - The palace was not mind blowing but it is still beautiful and it was interesting to see how it was inspired by Chateau de Versailles in many places. The Swedish royal family actually lives here (since 1981) and not in the Royal Palace of Stockholm. We especially loved the Queen's library where 10000 of the total 90000 book collection were on display.
Drottingholm palace as visible from boat, Queen's library and some beautiful chandeliers

After the palace tour, we made our way to the Court Theater building for a 35 minutes guided tour of same. Our guide was impressive in her knowledge of the theater that has everything in its original form including the wallpaper.
Court Theater

We caught the 15:00 boat back to Stockholm as the day was very hot to enjoy the gardens. And then boarded the Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) bus from City Hall. It was a bad choice because the sun was relentless and after some time roof was closed off as we were driving under the tram electric lines. The tour lasted 75 minutes and we felt baked by the end of it!!! We got off at the Central Station stop, had a lovely Italian meal and headed off to hotel just as it had started to rain.

Day 3 in Stockholm was reserved for island of Djurgarden - an area famous for Skansen open air museum, Vasa museum, ABBA museum, Nordic name a few. A combination of T and tram got us there in 45 minutes - the morning was cool and it was great for enjoying the open air museum.

Trying Stilts
Skansen is the world's first open-air museum, founded in 1891, with an area of 300000 square meters. This is great place to explore the five centuries of Swedish history which include the way of life, slavery system at the farms and many more. All of the 150 buildings in the museum were actually built in the past and then moved to Skansen. However at 10 am most of the buildings were closed, so we headed to the zoo to see bears, bison, wolves and lynx. We also tried our hand at some old Swedish games including stilt walking. After this we headed off to the aquarium where we got to see sloths, golden lion tamarins, meerkats, a vast variety of poisonous snakes & other amphibians and of course, many fishes.

After a small meal at Skansen we headed off to Vasa museum which was a short tram ride away. Vasa museum is dedicated to the battleship Vasa that sank in 1628 after just sailing just over 1300 m. The ship lay below the surface for 333 years until being salvaged in 1961. Some blame King Gustav II Adolf for the disaster, who ordered a large ship with 72 heavy-caliber cannons (though only 64 were mounted as canons took longer to build). Others blame Master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson who, apparently, was inexperienced at building ships with two gun-decks. The ship would have been gorgeous when it started on its maiden and only voyage - while the colours are gone, 95% of it is still intact and is original - thanks to the less salty & frigid waters of Baltic Sea.
Coloured one on bottom right is a model of the Vasa ship

We got lucky because we decided to rest our feet near the meeting point of the free guided tour. The guide was this short feisty lady who kind of reminded me of myself :) She was very passionate about her subject and we really enjoyed listening to her.

After Vasa, we headed over to the Nordic museum but it is no longer about Nordic countries - it's focused only on Swedish culture. It has exhibitions about work and life in Sweden from the 16th century until today, featuring clothes and fashion, textiles, furniture and interiors, jewellery, photography, folk art, glass and china. We didn't enjoy it much and left it after an hour.

It was after 5 pm and we had been on our feet since 10 am...but we decided to do Skyview today - as it is a bit far from next day's attractions that are all grouped together on island of Gamla Stan. However, when we reached Skyview we were informed that next open slot is at 12:10 pm next day - we had no option but to accept those tickets. We were, by now, very tired and hungry - so we grabbed a meal near Skyview and took the T back to our hotel.

Last day, we started pretty early as we had to accommodate Skyview in today's agenda. By 9 am we were at Nobel Museum - it is a small museum but has lot of information available digitally. The physical exhibition was focused on a handful of Nobel Laureates from Literature. Here also we got a free guided tour - which though short was very informative.

After the Nobel museum, we took the T to Skyview...enjoyed the short & slow ride in the globe shaped glass elevator to the top of the building, clicked pictures of the beautiful city and then took the T back to Gamla Stan.

We reached the Royal Palace of Stockholm barely in time for the guided tour that costs just 20 SEK (rest was included in Stockholm Pass). The palace is very beautiful and again takes lots of inspiration from Chateau de Versailles. The tour, while informative, was a bit dull - the  guide just didn't know how to connect with the audience - he was quite formal. After the tour we continued to enjoy the beautiful building before heading out to the Ridderholmen Church.
Royal Palace of Stockholm

Ridderholmen is the Stockholm’s only remaining medieval abbey, built in the late 1200s. The church is the last resting place of the Swedish monarchs and aristocracy. However, we weren't very impressed by it and decided to leave after 20 minutes or so.

The last order of the day was to get back to hotel but it was just 4 pm and sun doesn't set in this beautiful city till 10:30 pm (in summer). So we decided to board the HOHO bus again today as the weather was actually cold today. It was the eve of the Swedish National Day (which is 6th June), so the roads had many cars and open aired buses/ trucks filled with revelers enjoying the eve of national holiday. 

The bus tour was certainly more enjoyable today and we got off at the City Hall and decided to walk the 2.5 km distance back to our hotel as our travel card had expired (though attraction card was still valid) and it didn't make sense to spend money on expensive cabs for this distance.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018


After covering the multiple cites in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Greece etc, Scandinavian capitals were the most obvious choice for me. After much research, we settled on 3 days for Copenhagen, 4 for Stockholm and 4 for Oslo & Bergen. However, the train tickets to Oslo were all sold out, so we dropped Oslo and instead added Paris to the itinerary.

We landed in Copenhagen around 3 pm and finally reached our AirBnb around 4:30 pm. The bags took forever to arrive - but the journey on Metro & S-tog was eventless. The pain was ofcourse lugging our 12-15 kg suitcases to the 4th floor without elevator (80 odd steps). We were sweating profusely with the effort and also because it was the hottest May experienced by Copenhagen in 150 years. Just our luck :) - thankfully I had packed couple of summer dresses as well.

Around 5:30 pm, we left the apartment for Nyhavn (New Harbour) and found that canal tours were still on. We had purchased Copenhagen Card at the airport (93 Euros for 72 hours including transport and all key attractions) and we got on the 6:30 pm cruise using same. It was 6:30 pm but sun was really strong -  the water and the breeze helped cool us down. The one hour canal cruise covered all key attractions including 'The Little Mermaid' - which as I had expected was a bit of a let down (thankfully we hadn't walked 1 km to see the same)

After the cruise, we started walking around, looking for a good place for some drinks and dinner. We finally landed in a square with a bunch of good options - including Dubliner (an Irish pub). Craving an Irish Ale, I chose the same and we sat down for a dinner of fish & chips. The time was now 8:30 pm and sun was still out but weather had cooled down considerably (i felt it was a bit nippy). So we decided to take the direct bus back to our AirBnb and were back in about 20 minutes.

Next day, after my morning run, we started the day with a visit to Rosenborg Castle (early 17th century) that also houses the Royal Treasury. It is a beautiful castle and the Crown Jewels were mind blowing. It is the only place (that I have visited) where one is allowed to click pictures of crown jewels.
Rosenborg Castle Exterior & Gardens
Danish Crown Jewels

After a small meal at the Castle cafeteria, we headed for our beer experience at "Visit Carlsberg". It was a sunny afternoon and perfect for downing a beer or two - we of course had much more thanks to the beer tasting we signed up for after the exhibition and imbibing the beer included with it. Our Cicerone (same as wine sommelier) for the beer tasting was well informed and really funny. He had us in splits throughout the tasting with his style and anecdotes. We mostly tasted Jacobsen beers that are not available anywhere else. We also bought some of these for consumption later.

After the many many drinks (I lost count after a few) we decided to head back to our room for an afternoon siesta - honestly nothing else was possible!!!

The massive beer collection at 'Visit Carlsberg'

In the late evening (around 6 pm), we headed out again to visit the Round Tower followed by dinner. The tower has very few steps, just sloping path all the way up and a decent view of the city.

The last day also started with a 3 mile run but it was a cold morning and it took me almost a mile before I started to sweat. The day that started cold, was nice and warm by the time we left for Christianborg palace. There was some construction going on the main road and it took us a while to find the entrance to it. There is no audio-guide for the palace but one can download (using free wifi) an audio-guide to the Queen's tapestries in the grand hall. The tapestry series depicts 1000 years of Danish history - it takes about 30 minutes to cover them all but its totally worth it.

The Alexandra Hall used for official dinners
10000 (of the total 90000) books of the Queen's library

The kitchen that heats and serves the food (it isn't  geared up for cooking)

It is a beautiful palace, not as old as other European palaces but still impressive - the visitors have to wear disposable shoe covers for visiting the Royal Reception Rooms.

After the palace, we had a short lunch and walked over to the National Museum. It is a small museum (compared to the likes of Louvre) but has some impressive exhibitions from the Stone Age, the Viking Age, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Modern Danish History. We managed to get a free guided tour here and were able to understand the key attractions better as there is no audio guide here as well. After the guided tour, we spent a good amount of time in the doll house collection. Definitely worth visiting if one has kids - though adults enjoy it equally :)
A doll house (top left) and 3 of its rooms up close
It was quite hot again and hence it was beer o'clock. We visited 'Bastard cafe' where one can play board games while one drinks and eats. Tried scrabble but the tiles were made for Danish script and had very few vowels - so we gave up and enjoyed our beer instead.

Last on our Copenhagen itinerary was Tivoli Gardens but the heat was scorching and it didn't make sense to visit an amusement park so we went back to our room for some rest and to pack (had an early start for Stockholm next day). We reached Tivoli around 8:45 pm, and found that Fridays are concert evenings and hence all rides stop by 10 pm. So we didn't buy a ride pass - we just strolled around the park, did some souvenir shopping, enjoyed our weird reflections in the carnival mirrors and watched a bit of the concert.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Skiing in Gulmarg

So I had time on my hands and I was itching to do something new. PADI certification has been on mind for some time but I wanted to be back in mountains. The two options open to me were Chadar trek in Ladakh or Skiing (Auli or Gulmarg).

Chadar dates weren't working with my schedule and hence, skiing was the only viable option. The FB recommendations were in favour of Gulmarg and a friend was able to help me with the logistics (instructor, hotel, airport transfers etc). All I had to do was book my flight tickets and reach Srinagar.

I landed in Srinagar at around 3 pm and had the vehicle waiting for me - along with my instructor. It took us 75 minutes to reach Gulmarg. While Srinagar was all brown, Gulmarg was all white - it was like entering heaven!

View from my hotel room
The hotel chosen by my instructor J turned out be great in terms of everything - its location is very close to baby slopes & the cable car (Gondola), and it is just 15-20 minutes by walk from the market. The rooms have floor heating and modern bathrooms - I had never stayed in such luxury in mountains :)

The proximity to market meant that I had my dinner (every evening) at a small joint owned by a friend of my instructor - it allowed me to have amazing Wazwan cuisine at reasonable prices and gave me opportunities to meet travelers from other parts of India.

Day 1 - J picked me up at sharp 10 am, in his car, and we drove to the rental shop next to baby slopes. It was less than a km, so walking was also an option. Once there, I was fitted with ski boots first. Next, skis were chosen basis my height and a pair of skiing poles were also provided. Having used mountaineering boots before, I was hoping ski boots wont be that bad - but I was wrong - they were actually stiffer and heavier than mountaineering boots. Even now I can't figure out how all the instructors walk in those boots so easily.
Working on my posture

J, then went on to provide me with some theory and did some demonstrations before making me wear my skis and start the downhill practice on baby slopes. While he was at it, a skier crashed into me at full speed causing me serious pain in left  hand and shoulder. The pain subsided but the fear of me crashing into someone else took its place and didn't leave me till the 6th day.

Anyway, I finally got my boots into the skis and started downhill - man it was scary...when I watched the videos later I realized that I was extremely slow but to me it felt as if  was going to fly off the face of the mountain. I just couldn't get to break using snow plough, I kept turning to one side and, as you probably guessed, the only way I could stop myself was by falling!

Once down the slope, I had to pick up the skis and walk back up while wearing those 2 ton boots. There was a tow bar that I could have used but since I had almost zero control over my skis - that wasn't about to happen today. By 2 pm, I was wiped out - thanks to walking uphill in boots and carrying the skis - so we called it a day.

enjoying the snowfall
Day 2-  I woke up to nice gentle snowfall - it was beautiful - falling so silently. J was back at sharp 10 am and I was back on the baby slopes - falling, cursing, getting admonished - but having fun thanks to the snowfall. J felt that I should  use tow bar today but I would fall within seconds of grabbing the bar - so he decided to hang with me the first 10 ft and then he would let go. Somehow that helped me get through the rest of journey to top without falling a lot (I fell only twice ). However once up, I wasn't able to get out of the way of the track as I would let go of the tow bar either a bit too soon or at a wrong the bar would be gone and I would start sliding back. Thankfully there were many people willing to help and they would grab my ski pole and pull me up and out of the way.

The snowfall continued through out the day and slowly it picked up intensity and by around 3 pm, my outer layer was soaking wet - thanks to waterproofing, the water didn't get inside but the chill most certainly did. The visibility had also reduced, so we wrapped up at 3 pm and headed straight to the market for some hot Kahwa.

Day 3, Sunday - snowfall had given way to a bright and totally white morning. Sun was out and temperature was positive again. Previous day's down jacket gave way to simple fleece and I started for the baby slopes fearing the tow bar but excited about another day of learning. My excitement was short lived as Sunday meant hordes of skiers at baby slopes - the wait for tow bar was 15-20  minutes. 2 minutes to come down the slope and 20 minutes to go back up. After about 2 hours of this, J decided to move to phase 1 slopes. I protested that I wasn't ready but since he felt otherwise, I found myself walking to the Gondola with skis on my shoulder.
Long queue for tow bar/ ski lift

This Gondola (cable car) is in two phases - first one takes you to Kongdori Station at 10,500 ft (Gulmarg is about 8,500) and second one takes you from Kongdori to Phase 2 (14000 ft). Phase 2 is only for professional skiers and ski patrols. Most folks go only for the breathtaking views. From Kongdori one can also take a chair car to about 12000 ft - but again that is not for beginners.

The Gondola to Phase-1 takes about 9 minutes and costs INR 740 for a round trip. Skiers, however, pay the same amount for a day pass - that allows multiple trips one way (Gulmarg to Kongdori) but return back to Gulmarg has to be by skiing only. A short video of the gondola ride below:

J had planned only one run for me today so he took a single one way ticket for half the amount and we were at Phase-1 groomed slopes by 1 pm. The whole run is about 6.5 km long and would take J only 5-6 minutes. Me...well I took good part of an hour that day. I was slow, I would stop for rest, I would curse and scream - but I didn't fall - not even once. How? J kept skiing in front me, BACKWARDS, the whole way to ensure that I don't fall. On steep portions he would actually hold me at the knees to break my speed. I was still not doing great at snowplough.

The worst part of this run was that it was long and the best part was that it was long. Confused? Long meant tiring but it also meant that it allowed me time to correct my posture and my technique. On baby slopes, J would ask me to correct something but by the time I could even understand what he wanted me to correct, the run would be over. Here, I could observe the mistake and correct. We were back at Gulmarg station by 2 pm and I was relieved that J had planned only one run for today.

Day 4 - it was just 10:30 am and I was already at Kongdori station -  man it would be a long day today!!!! The first run was bad - the icy slopes meant less friction and I just kept sliding and falling. At one point I just wanted to bawl, take off my skis and walk down the rest of the way - but I didn't. Not because I got some latent courage but because I knew walking 4 km in those ski boots will be far worse than skiing! So, I stayed at it, and finished the run in about 30 minutes. The moment we reached Gulmarg station, we were back in the line for Gondola - J felt that 9 minutes of ride was rest enough :(

Second run was better than first one and third one even more so. After third we took a lunch break and I did 3 more runs after that. My skiing time had reduced to 18-20 minutes by now. On an average, there was 9 minutes of cable car ride, 5-7 minutes at each station to get on/off the cable car and 20 minutes of actual skiing. So one run, end-to-end was about 40-45 minutes. Most people do 4-5 runs but thanks to "No Rest" policy of J, we could get 6 in by 3:00 pm.

Day 5 was more or less a repeat of the Day 4 with one exception - first run wasn't as terrible as the previous day - it wasn't great but not that bad either.

At phase 2 - 14000 ft
Day 6 - The day started with a long wait at Gondola counter for tickets - for some reason ticket counter wasn't operational. We managed to reach Kongdori station by 11 am and then took the second Gondola to phase 2. It was my last day in Gulmarg and I wanted to check out the views at 14000 ft. And they were indeed worth it.  After spending 15 minutes at at the windy phase 2, we came down to Phase 1 and started skiing around noon.

Today being the last day of training, I wanted to get as many runs in as possible - so we decided to forgo lunch break and do 4 runs fast. Since the first run of the day was at noon - slopes weren't icy at all - I had a good first run which built my confidence and by third run, I finally started to have fun also because I managed all steep (per my definition) portions without any help.  A short video of last day skiing below:

As I finished the fourth run I started to feel sad - a new feeling for me because usually I would be relieved that I survived the day . But today I had so much fun that I didn't want it to get over. Sadly, all good things must come to an end - and so did this ski vacation.

But the last day was so great that I promised to be back next year and listen to J constantly telling me to let go of my fear. Hopefully I will get to do one run at chair car level next year - if not I will be happy skiing at phase 1 slopes :)

Monday, October 30, 2017

Rupin Pass Trek - Part II - Crossing the Pass

Day 4
Jhaka (8,700 ft) to Dhanderas Thatch (11,680 ft)

Today was supposed to be a long arduous day both in terms of distance (~12 km) and the altitude gain. So we started at sharp 8 am with an aim to reach the campsite by 4 pm. The trek leaders were concerned about the pace of a few slow hikers and hence we were given instructions to take less halts and walk together.

On way to river crossing
The weather was getting a bit warm but since the first 2 hours were through a forest, it was a very pleasant hike till the river crossing. By the time we reached the river, I had started to feel cold whenever in shade...the temperatures were finally falling. The river crossing was a bit hairy as we had to walk on a narrow path on the mountain side replete with loose rocks and dirt till we found a makeshift bridge to cross the river. Out local guide took each hiker one by one over that wooden plank bridge.

Soon after, we encountered some wooden logs and he picked up a big one in hope that others will pick a few too - idea was to build a bonfire at the campsite. Surprisingly those already carrying 15+ kilo backpacks decided to add more weight on their shoulders and soon we had enough wood for building a fire in the evening.
Huddled together for warmth :)

The trail after the river crossing was a bit more open and hence a bit warm again but never too hot for discomfort. The altitude gain wasn't felt as the long distance meant that slope gradient was not high. We walked for another 2 hours and finally  reached the lunch point by the river side. It is a beautiful spot - we could even see the waterfall in the distance (the site of next day's camp). The breeze was fairly cold now and sun wasn't that strong even though it was almost 1 pm. Huddled up together for warmth, we enjoyed the lunch of chapati & subzi and continued to wait for the rest of the group to join us.

I was feeling quite cold and needed to get moving. Though the rest of the group reached within 20 minutes of our arrival. I knew that they will want a longer break and the pace will continue to be slow. So, I requested the trek leader to allow me to go ahead with the porters - he finally relented and at 1 pm we were on last leg of the hike for the day with UK and 2 more hikers.

The porters were carrying 30-40 kilos of load and walking much faster than some of us carrying just a day pack. The wind had picked up speed, sun had vanished behind the clouds and proximity of trail to the water made it even colder. I was now feeling cold in my fleece and rain jacket - thankfully the continuous walking kept me warm enough. The trail had big stones and boulders but was still mostly flat. After about 90-100 minutes of this flat hike, we reached the ascent portion - porters decided to take a rest before tackling this climb and other 3 hikers were busy taking pictures. Since I was still feeling cold, I decided to continue with the climb, albeit slowly.

Because of rocky terrain, the trail wasn't very well marked - especially in the portion where it cuts across the side of the mountain. Again loose rocks and dirt made it a bit scary - I was cursing myself for not carrying a trekking pole today. Thankfully the porters caught up with me soon enough and got me back on the portion that was less rocky. Soon the trail turned green with grass and as I walked up to the campsite, it continued to become more beautiful.

The campsite was a marked area next to the flowing stream - we could see many more tents a bit up ahead. It was a little after 3 pm and the weather had become very cold for the thin protection I had on. The moment porters erected the kitchen tent, I sought shelter inside it and a few minutes later we were greeted by a shower of ice pellets. The ice pellet shower didn't last long and some of our tents arrived -  I got help from another hiker to erect a tent or two. The intention was to keep moving to get warm and also because weather was getting cold, I was in need of a shelter (I had to leave the warm confines of kitchen tent as more staff had arrived and they needed the space).

Hikers and Staff erecting tents
As soon as we finished one tent and started working on another one, other hikers started to arrive and they too joined us in the bid to get tents set up. Within 15 minutes or so, all the tents were up with help from the porters and kitchen staff. We were asked to change into warm clothes but my off-loaded bag hadn't arrived and I continued to hide in my tent. To be honest I was now missing the home stay :) and continued to do so till my bag arrived!
Bonfire at the camp site

The cold evening was perfect for a bonfire and around 6:30 pm or so, we all gathered around the fire - singing songs, cracking jokes and simply having fun. After soup, while some of us went back to our tents, few folks hung outside to enjoy the beautiful sky lit with billions of stars.

The day could have been shorter if I could have walked at my pace (the way I did post lunch) but I had also enjoyed the leisurely hike pre-lunch. But now I was feeling a bit tired and decided to retire soon after the dinner - the most sumptuous meal of any day complete with a hot dessert!

Day 5 - Dhanderas thatch (11,680 ft) to UpperWaterfall camp (13,120 ft)

The hike for the day was short (3 hours) but that also meant that it was mostly ascent with fewer flat patches in between. The morning was fairly cold and while we were ready for the 8:30 am departure, no one was in a hurry. We waited for the sun to hit our campsite and then started dismantling the tents. Today's plan was for - staff and porters and hikers - all to walk together.

Finally we took off at 9:45 am, and within minutes the ascent was upon us. Compared to what I have experienced on other hikes, it wasn't hard or long enough. Within 20 minutes we reached a stream crossing (now a waterfall actually) and UK was the first one to attempt it with help from our local guide...and he slipped on the ice covered rocks - thankfully he didn't get fully drenched or suffered any major injuries. I am always scared of slipping on ice and was very nervous but then our guide got a brilliant idea of flipping the rocks upside down - thereby exposing the non-icy portion to us. Thanks to his idea and his hand-holding (literal), we all crossed this waterfall/stream - one by one.

After the crossing, we took a short break till everyone caught up with us and in another 20 minutes we encountered a wider steam-crossing. Thankfully the water was running at speed, sun was out and there was no ice on the stones laid out to make the crossing easier. We took another rest after this before starting for the final ascent. Because of the frequent breaks, the climb didn't feel that hard - we finally got to the "top" of the waterfall - though the place where water starts to fall was a bit farther from camp site and we saw it only in the evening.

Campsite of Upper waterfall
Despite numerous breaks, we were at the camp site by 12:30 pm and got busy with setting up tents. This campsite was also next  to a stream and thanks to the wind, it had started to get colder by now. So we all wore thermal base layers and I decided to rest up a bit till lunch was served. Since we were at high altitude today, sleeping isn't a good option - it can reduce the oxygen intake and exacerbate altitude related issues.

After lunch, I just couldn't stay awake and dozed off in the sitting position till someone informed me that tea is ready. After tea, we went for an acclimatization hike to the waterfall. We got an amazing view of the valley from there - it was a prefect place for a photo shoot and that is exactly what happened :)

Post walk, we had soup outside the dining tent - It was now getting quite cold and foggy...we could barely see a few meters because of lack of light and the fog. Thankfully, we were served an early dinner (7 pm) because next day we were to cross the pass and hence the planned start time was 5:30 am.

After another great dinner, as soon as we retired, it started raining - atleast that is what it sounded like to me. But then I heard someone screaming - it is snowing!!!! Yes, we got snowfall that night...some folks were so elated that they decided to hang outside to enjoy same and take pictures.

I stepped out a couple of times to get the snow off my tent balcony but thankfully it was not that heavy a snowfall, so I slept off after some time without the fear of tent collapsing on me due to weight of the accumulated snow.

Day 6 - Upper Waterfall (13,120 ft) to Rupin Pass (15,250 ft) to Ronti Gad (13,420 ft)

I woke up at 3:30 am so that I could use the toilet tent without interruptions and was ready before 5 am but the tea wasn't. I approached the kitchen tent to find our lunches being packed and tea getting  ready. We got the tea at 5:20 am along with the breakfast, so definitely 5:30 am departure was ruled out. Also most folks weren't ready even at 5:45 am - infact one person arrived at 6 am for breakfast because he was sleeping!!!! I got quite pissed at that time - it was to be a long day anyway and it would be tougher to climb in melting snow. Only thing that I didn't like this whole week was how most  hikers took the start time as a suggestion and how the trek leader didn't take any action to change this behaviour.

First  halt of the day
Finally, we started at about 6:15 am - it was a tough climb due to cold and altitude and snow wasn't helping matters. Despite finger numbing cold, I had opted to hike without thermal base layer (as advised by trek leader). I had a fleece, a down jacket and rain jacket on top. Bottoms were hiking pants and rain pants and my body wasn't feeling very cold except for hands and feet -  two pairs of merino wool socks were not able to keep my feet warm. On hands I had merino inners with waterproof insulated gloves on top and even then my fingers were numb.

We progressed slowly with our local guide leading the way. At about 7 am, first ascent was over and sun had caught up with us. The sun warmed us up immediately and I had to take off my fleece top and also remove one pair of socks. We took a break here - waiting for everyone to catch up. For once, I didn't mind waiting - previous night's snowfall had changed the whole landscape - it was even more beautiful and I liked watching snow sparkle under the morning sun.

Sun and snow the whole way. 

After this long break, we continued towards the pass. The trail now was mostly flat with a bit up and down. The only issue was that it was either rocky or had big boulders - neither are easy to navigate with snow. We had a few smaller breaks on the way but only for others to catch up - we didn't really take or need a long rest anywhere.

Whole group at Rupin Pass
Then we reached the final ascent - this was the toughest part of the trek for me. It wasn't as difficult as some other treks but it wasn't easy either, primarily because of the melting snow. Had we started at 4:30 am, this part would have been much easier - but at 9:30 am, it was a tough climb. At a few places, the ground was so slippery that even with both hands and feet on the ground, I found myself slipping downwards. Thankfully the assistant guide helped us in these situations by literally holding our hands and helping us through the rough patches. AA, UK and I reached the pass at 10 am along with 2 others.

It felt great to be done with the climb but the wait in subzero temperatures with wind chill and sun hiding behind the clouds wasn't easy either. Last hiker arrived at 10:45 am after which our guides and trek leaders did a small Puja before we commenced the descent. The descent in initial part was a bit treacherous (again because of snow) and I took a short fall while another hiker took a full tumble. I only received one bruise on my elbow but my understanding is that his whole back was bruised. Fortunately, no major injuries so we continued walking.

The weather had turned cold again and it showered ice pellets on us the whole way to Ronti Gand - lunch break wasn't a great one either as chapatis were kind of frozen. Plus I had started to get a strong headache due to one hour wait at the top in cold & windy conditions. At one point my headache was so bad that I lost my footing - AA offered me some paracetamol and thanks to same I was able to reach the campsite by 2:05 pm.

While I wasn't physically tired, my headache was killing I asked staff to help me erect a tent and just crawled inside it. After a while UK got me a sleeping bag and someone else gave me his water (I had run out of same). Everyone was in the camp by 3:30 pm, good 30 min before the ETA that our trek leader had in mind.

I felt better after changing into warmer clothes for the evening and getting couple of cups of hot tea inside me. And I was back to my normal self after soul filling soup :) We were served another great meal tonight - it was our last dinner together as a whole group. Today was the first day that I  felt actually tired but I found myself unable to sleep - I was a bit saddened at the thought that the trek was over and that tomorrow we will be back in civilization!

Day 7 - Ronti Gad (13,420 ft) to Sangla (8,800 ft)

The final day of the trek had arrived, it was all descent and hence we were all taking it easy in the morning. We took group photos, enjoyed the special breakfast of puri-chhole, had a round of debriefing and started for Sangla at about 10 am.
Last Group Photo @Ronti Gad

The walk was quite easy except in a couple of places where the rain had made the ground quite muddy and hence slippery. Our assistant guide again helped us through these two rough patches. About an hour into the hike, we all got cell-phone signals and people got busy on phones - to manage this we were given a "phone break" :)

We resumed the hike on the trail that went through villages, next to apple orchards and finally we reached a river crossing at about 1:30 pm - other side of the river was Sangla. Once everyone arrived, we crossed the bridge and after a few minutes of uphill climb, we reached the car park where the cars to drop us to Shimla would arrive.

As we waited for the vehicles, we bid our goodbyes to the staff, exchanged phone numbers and made promises to stay in touch. The vehicles arrived shortly - total 4, so 5  in each vehicle - a comfortable arrangement. We took the vehicles to "Himalayan Dhaba" - a lunch point picked by TTH and immediately after lunch we boarded our respective vehicles to Shimla (at about 3 pm). Some of us were staying in Shimla for a day - we met there again and enjoyed some more time together but others had plans to proceed to onward destinations soon after reaching Shimla - so we bid our goodbyes after a dinner at one of the dhabas en-route.

Thus ended a wonderful week in the Himalayas - yes there were really cold nights and some tough climbs and occasional irritating moments but there were also wonderful people (both hikers and staff), good food and great scenery that made this trek really special for me. Sometimes things just align right for a wonderful experience and for me this hike had perfect alignment of all variables!!!!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why I Hike!

My family, my friends, my colleagues and even my doctor and my physiotherapist often wonder why I choose to hike despite Fibromyalgia. The training before a big trek is hard enough and the treks I undertake are never easy and after every trek my pain goes up significantly. While I have answered this question in parts, I felt it is time to pen it down in its entirety.

1st reason and this is the most obvious – I hike because I love mountains and the proximity that I seek with them cannot be achieved by going to a hill station and staying in resorts. I love the way rivers gush at speed through the narrow valleys, I marvel at the towering white beauties and the way their peaks look like molten gold when bathed in the rays of the early morning sun. The closer you get to nature, the farther you will be from comforts. So I give up soft bed, hot water and attached western toilets – because that is the only way to experience the true beauty of the Himalayan landscape.

Yes, tents are not the most convenient but they are the best if you love the sound of a river flowing by, birds chirping in the morning and sun waking you up while lighting up the mountain tops. The best part, though, is the view of the Milky Way on a moonless night - this view is possible only at a campsite far away from light pollution of the habitation. The billions of stars shining down at you is an unparalleled experience!

2.  I enjoy the company of fellow hikers – after spending many years in corporate world, it’s refreshing to be in an environment that is not competitive. We all carry similar gear, wear similar clothes and have to eat the same food :) - all that is distinctive is our back grounds and our personalities. The variety of humanity that one comes across during treks is incomparable to any other activity. And the best part is that everyone is willing to help – be it sharing the name of a lodge they loved or a side day trek they enjoyed or even some medicine that another hiker is in need of. I have never seen one hiker refusing help to another.

3. It puts things in perspective – Nepal or any other hilly region that you may choose to trek in the Himalayan belt are rich in natural beauty but not in material comforts. People there do very hard work for minimal wages – it’s a harsh terrain that doesn’t lend itself to even vegetation after a certain altitude. Humans carry 30-60 kilos of load just to earn a living. The kids have to walk many kilometers to attend school and one has to fetch water from a source when plumbing becomes scarce. And yet, I don’t find them complaining – I chat with porters & kitchen staff a lot and I never find them grumpy or upset.

On a recent hike, our main chef went hungry for lunch as food got over before he could reach the lunch spot. When he reached the destination for the day, he handed me the apple he had in his backpack because he knew I was hungry. I didn’t know he had an apple and he was hungrier than me – he still chose to give me same!!! When I see the hardships the locals face, I realize I how lucky I am and when I notice their response to those hardships, I know I have a long way to go in learning the equanimity that they exhibit so effortlessly every day!

4. No worrying about tomorrow – The itinerary would outline the tough days and easy days (in terms of distance or terrain) but weather can change those definitions for you. An easy day can feel hard because of the relentless rain or the scorching heat or fresh snow. On the other hand a tough day may not feel that bad because you got the perfect weather for the climb.

The key is not to think about what tomorrow will bring your way, the only way to enjoy the hike is staying in today – soak in that sunshine while it lasts, enjoy the hot meal till you have gas for the stove, play in the fresh snow without worrying how hard will it make your climb next morning once it starts to melt.

The treks always remind me how to enjoy the moment, live in the present and leave the tomorrow to tomorrow!
5. You start getting an idea of what Lord Krishna meant when he said, “कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन। मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि॥
Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana – You have the right to perform your actions, but you are not entitled to the fruits of the actions.
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani – Do not let the fruit be the purpose of your actions, and therefore you won’t be attached to not doing your duty.

Yes, we always start with an objective of reaching a base camp, or crossing a pass or summiting a peak but honestly getting there is not in our hands. It is said that you don’t climb mountains, they let you climb them. So if it’s not in the scheme you won’t get to that pass or see the top of that mountain. However, you won’t get there at all if you don’t put any effort – so you walk every day for hours – in rain and in sunshine and in snowfall – all the while knowing that there is no guarantee that you will reach the point you intended to when you started this journey. 

On a trek, one starts to understand how attachment to the end result can be source of unnecessary grief and heartache. In all the hikes I have undertaken, there has been at least one person who didn’t make it to the top and it has been me couple of times. But that doesn’t dissuade me from planning my next hike because I am content in the knowledge that I put in my best efforts even though I “failed”. 

Despite my love for mountains and other reasons that make me hike, there are times when bad weather or extreme cold or plain fatigue make me question my sanity. But thankfully those moments don't last long enough :) and I am back in the mountains before the memory of the last visit fades!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Rupin Pass Trek, Part I - The Treknic

In September this year, I landed in Leh with an aim to climb Stok Kangri. Given I had turned back from 5900 m at Island Peak, I badly wanted to summit this 6000 m peak. But as luck would have it, I couldn't even start the hike to base camp - I developed a bad tooth ache which on closer inspection (in Bangalore) turned out to be fractures in both roots of that tooth.

While I was still waiting for the dental surgery, AA asked me if I would be up for a hike in October and without even thinking I said yes - and within hours I had made the payment to the organizing agency (TTH) and booked flight tickets & hotel stays for both of us.

The hike was to begin about 2 weeks after my dental surgery and I was convinced that I had ample time to get fit for it. Well...that didn't happen because my surgery site hadn't fully closed the day I flew to DED. AA was worried that I might quit in between - AGAIN! And to be honest I was worried about it too...but then I decided to not think along those lines and leave it to mother nature instead.

I had booked AA on same flight from DEL to DED as mine and another fellow hiker (UK) met us at DED airport, so we 3 cabbed it together to the city. As per the plan, we were to get aboard a vehicle for Dhaula at 6:30 am next day from the Dehradun Railway Station.  However both AA & UK overslept - thankfully I decided to check on them at about 5:40 am (despite the resistance they exhibited previous night when I suggested that I give them a wake-up knock).

Anyway, we did manage to reach the station a few minutes before time and within 15 minutes, the first Tempo Traveller was full, so we started for Dhaula a few minutes before 7 am. The second vehicle decided to wait for a guy whose train was many hours late.

In the TT,  was a Bangalore couple living less than a mile from my place (S2), two ex-army guys from Singapore (J & H), a young chap from Assam with two sets of names (AS), two guys from Chennai (A & K) and a girl from Kolkata (KS). Overall the journey was uneventful - we made a few stops for breakfast and lunch etc and finally reached the destination at 16:30. AA, however, did manage to soak the empty seat next to him - with water (we all assumed for our mental peace!)

The camp site was next to a small village, so was a bit cramped. It also had copious amounts of stinging nettle all over - some of it touched me over the trousers and managed to cause localized swelling and pain. After tea and biscuits and a quick introduction to our trek leader, some of us settled into the tents and waited for the second bus.

The second bus arrived a little after 7 pm and soon after we were given a briefing by the trek leader and guide staff. The briefing included the usual - everyone's introduction & trek experience, the route information along with altitudes, AMS, daily routine etc. After a sumptuous dinner, I decided to retire early (as compared to others - though 9:30 pm bed time is late for a hiking trip).

Day 1 - Dhaula (5500 ft) to Sewa (6300 ft)

First group photo - @ Dhaula
Today was the first day of the hike and it was expected to be easy especially because we weren't that high in terms of altitude and the gain was minimal as well. The weather was quite hot for 5500 ft and month of october - thanks to the bright and almost scorching sun. The breakfast was porridge (dalia) and cornflakes (with sweetened milk), the lunch (3 chapati and pickle) was packed and handed to us in aluminium foil and some biscuits, chocolate & candy were provided as snacks.

Waiting for the mules
We started at 9 am and by 11 am we were all feeling tired due to heat and accompanied loss of water. Around that time we also hit the ascent portion of the hike - it came upon us suddenly and felt kind of relentless - more so  because of the sun. Till the ascent I was quite slow in my progress but during the ascent ordering of hikers changed. However, the faster of us had to always wait for the rest of the group to catch up - so it felt as if we were walking less and waiting more. We reached Sewa village around 1 pm but our mules (carrying tents, offloaded bags and supplies) were far behind - so we all waited around in a hut (meant for storing fodder) a bit before the campsite.

While waiting some of us started stretching and noticing that AS starting doing push-ups. Soon it turned into a competition - H (one of two Singapore guys) did 60 in 42 seconds, AA did 60 in 44 seconds and AS did 40 in 45 seconds. AA's performance was even more impressive given his age group!!!

Setting up tents at Sewa campsite
The mules arrived around 3 pm and soon all of us got busy pitching the tents - the kitchen staff focused on getting tea and snacks ready for us and we hikers started erecting the tents with help from the trek leaders and guides. This site was even smaller than Dhaula but felt cleaner as it was in front of a temple. It was also close to a few houses - resulting in our toilets being the regular squatting kinds (instead of the tent covered pit latrines that are the norm at camp sites)

Due to excessive sweating, I was desperate for a shower and proximity to the houses allowed me to explore its feasibility. In search for a loo before the camp site was set up, I had chanced upon a clean bathroom of a house - so I went there again and persuaded the lady of the house to allow me to bathe in exchange for money. She agreed - even provided me with hot water :)

Enjoying Soup in the nippy weather
My evening became even better as hot pakoras were served along with the tea - hot  bath, hot tea, hot pakora on a chilly evening - what more could I ask for!!! Some of us were disappointed with the plain chapati and pickle lunch but the pakoras managed to calm down all the ruffled feathers!

We hung outside our tents, sang songs and enjoyed the evening till it became completely dark - the dinner was served again around 8 pm (late in my opinion) and while having same, the astro hobbyists in our group pointed to us the constellations and stars visible that night. Sated with good food, we all retired by 9 pm. Thus ended the day 1 of the Rupin Pass Trek.

Day 2 Sewa (6300 ft) to Bhauta  (~7300 ft)

First photo op for the day
Bhauta Village wasn't listed in the original itinerary sent by TTH, this change was informed after we reached Dedradun. Our local guide hailed from this village and hence the plan was to do a homestay at his house. We left Sewa at around 8:30 am after breakfast & after dismantling our respective tents. The day that had started cool, soon began to heat up. The initial few minutes were easy and took us to Rupin river where we all had a leisurely photo-shoot :)

Bridge between UK & HP
A few minutes later, we crossed a small bridge over Rupin river and were informed that we are now in Himachal Pradesh. The trail then started to ascend through the forest and after about 45 minutes opened up to a motor-able road. Till the road, we didn't feel the heat much as forest cover was sufficient to block the sun.

We stopped just after forest trail ended, for instant noodles and tea. The previous day there was to be a "Maggie point" en route but same was closed - so folks were thrilled to be able to partake those today.

Waterfall along the way
The weather was quite hot  by now and route was a bit boring (mildly ascending road) but soon we encountered a nice waterfall - the mist from the fall was cool and again we all spent significant amount of time trying to get closer to water and taking pictures

Our lunch point was also close to another waterfall - we had our lunch of parathas & potato subzi in the shade of a big tree near the fall and continued to rest a bit. One of us decided to climb up the water fall but instead landed in the water below - drenching himself from head to toe. Thankfully he was backpacking and had access to dry
Lunch halt for the day
clothes - so he was able to save the situation.

After the lunch, the road became narrower and soon after we started another ascent to the village. The ascent wasn't  really tough - it was the heat that was making it so. We reached the village around 13:30 and decided to have another Maggie/ Tea break. The home stay was less than 10 min away so no one was in a hurry to get there anyway.

Enjoying the evening sun at Bhauta homestay
Our final approach to home stay was short and under the shade. The arrangement there was 4 rooms - now we were 20 of us - 14 men, 2 couples and 2  women. One lady among the two couples insisted they want to be together for the night, so KS and I decided to spend the night outside on the two single beds. This way 2 couples could get a room and 14 men somehow adjusted in the 3 remaining rooms. Even in my earlier hiking  experiences, I have found that men are able to adjust better than us women!

Before dinner, we decided to play a card game called Bluff in one of the rooms. Some folks were new to it but soon they got the hang of it and we had a fun time.

The foyer didn't have any glass over the windows but since weather wasn't truly cold, I wasn't worried. However what I hadn't signed up for was the torchlight in my eyes whenever someone decided to use the loo and with 18 folks inside the 4 rooms, even if everyone uses the restroom once, there wouldn't be any sleep for the ones sleeping in the foyer. And that is exactly what happened, so I gave up all attempts at sleeping around 4 am and decided to make use of time for my morning routine (there was only one toilet for about 30 of us, including staff)

Day 3 - Bhauta (~7300 ft) to Jhaka (8700 ft)

In original itinerary,  Sewa to Jhaka was to be done in one day, but since the hike was broken across two days - both days were fairly short and easy. We started at about 9 and and after just 15 minutes halted at Jiskoon village for some shopping - some folks needed rain ponchos, some needed a backpack, some even needed shoes (the soles of ones they had were coming off). No one was in a hurry due to short route and another home stay for the day (no tents to be erected means cooking can begin as soon as staff reaches the location). Our assistant guide hails from Jhaka so this stay was at his house.
Another Maggie Point!!!!

A few minutes after leaving Jiskoon, was a water source where again we were provided with a leisurely photo opportunity. The trail across this water source, was hard ascent for about 20 minutes and we again halted for maggie/tea break - this was getting too much for me because honestly so far the hike time had been lesser than halt time.

 After this halt, we continued with the ascent and reached Jhaka home stay well before lunch. Here also we were given 4 rooms and even though the same lady insisted that she wants to be with her partner, I was adamant that I need my sleep before the 12 km hike the following day.

While this ensured that all women get one room, she chose to sleep in foyer with her partner (and they faced the same issue of flashlights that I had encountered the previous night)

Soup time at Jhaka
After hot lunch and tea, the group went for a short walk which I skipped as I was tired due to lack of sleep. I used the time to clean myself up (managed to get a bit of hot water for same) and rest up.

After the soup, some of us again played Bluff till dinner time - the dinner time had a pleasant surprise for us in the form of Jalebis!!! Hot crisp Jalebis on a cold evening - man this was luxury - I have never been spoilt like this on other hikes :)

On this sweet note ended the three easy days of  this hike - which I choose to call "Treknic" (trek+picnic). While it had been fun, I was more excited for the upcoming 3 days where we would walk for long hours, establish camps in open and enjoy the raw natural beauty of the Himalayas (as against the cosy homestays in the inhabited villages)