Olgha on Volga

Olgha on Volgaimg_5088

Russia is large, diverse & different & I was determined to do it differently. My choice narrowed down to taking the ‘Trans Siberian’ to Vladivostok, 7- 8 days on the train from Moscow or cruise along the Volga – Baltic waterway, from Moscow to Petersburg, touching 5 medieval towns & Europe’s largest lakes.

Moscow –  Petersburg is 650 kms or 4 hours by the super – fast Sapsan. I did this one way watching the countryside whizz past in a whirl. The water route along Europe’s longest river, draws one into the heart of the country. Cruising at 11 knots, over 5 languid days, with an additional 3 days each in both the major towns.

(River Volga is connected to the Baltic by an intricate system of canals, lakes & reservoirs. A remarkable feat of engineering.)

Dense forests of Silver Birch line the entire 1000 km coastline. The trees visible night & day like ghost companions, the landscape never varying. Neither bleak nor spectacular it has a quiet beauty that does not get monotonous. As a Russian epic baring the soul.

Summer nights along the river – never pitch dark, the sky changes colour from red, pink & white to every shade in – between. It is the strangeness that enthralls making one fall in love with the quiet of vast uninhabited spaces. The Volga with a rhythm of its own showcases everyday life by the riverside. A lone vessel passes by, hands waving. A solitary log cabin. People swimming, fishing, sun bathing, enjoying a family picnic on a warm day.

The first thing to strike you on arrival at Petersburg is the stark change from rural to urban. The Birch lined coastline has suddenly disappeared.


Along the way. Ruins, Nativity Church, village Krokhino, Rybinsk


‘Lev Tolstoy -’ named after Russia’s famed writer – advertises an 11 day itinerary that has a spew of activities ranging from Vodka – Bliny parties & costumed tea ceremonies to professionals speaking on the art, culture, history & language of the country. Concerts & recitals enliven the evenings. You could be at the bar, on the dance floor or catching up  on social media. The travel brochure does not mention the fantastic range of culinary delights coming out of the kitchen. A big plus & the fact that the ship carries a relatively small number of passengers.

Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsy, Kizhy island & Mandrogi are the 5 stop overs, each with a character uniquely its own. The Rybinsk reservoir with sea like dimensions is crossed soon after Yaroslavl, followed by Goritsy on the White lake. This monastery houses Russia’s largest collection of icons. Mandrogi is on the river Svir that flows out of lake Onega into Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake. A reconstructed village, the original was razed to the ground in WW2.

Uglich, a 10th century habitation is associated with Ivan the Terrible & Dmitri his brutally murdered infant son. I liked it that Ivan had proposed to his contemporary Elizabeth 1 & that she had turned him down. A cheery old band greets us on arrival, as we walk down the marketplace where the best bargains are to be had. The ‘Church of St Dmitry on the Blood’, a little red structure with blue domes, is built on the very spot the child was killed. It has iron floors intended to retain heat generated by burning embers from below the surface. Frescoes & nude murals adorn the walls. Hardly shocking to one coming from a country of erotic sculptures. But this is Russian Orthodox. But then again, this church was built for family use.

Yaroslavl is historically a big trading center. It boasts elegant new buildings besides old churches, a Monastery & a Nunnery both connected by a secret passage – if locals are to be believed. It is the art collection at the Governor’s, that takes your breath away. Three lovely maidens in gossamer white show you around their father’s property, ostensibly in his absence. They introduce you to the traditions & customs of the 18th century, replete with ball rooms & gentlemen in tails leading ladies up a waltz.

A world of elegant make belief that transports.

The river section between the 2 great lakes is most spectacular. Kizhy island in particular. A world heritage site it has been described as an open air museum of old wooden architecture, the 22 domed Church of Transfiguration the highlight. It was constructed without using a single nail or metal joint. Legend has it that one man built it using a single tool, an axe that was thrown away on completion. The church houses a fine collection of iconostases. Other relics of the past include 2 wooden houses, 2 windmills & a traditional Russian bathhouse on the shore. Kizhy is about 7 km long & 0.5 km wide. It is covered with meadows & giant Elm trees, marshes & bushes & is surrounded by 5000 other islands, from very small (2×2 meters) to fairly large.


Iconostases, Kizhy


Kizhy island


The Governor’s 3 daughters. Yaroslavl

Moscow & Petersburg are both modern cosmopolitan cities of great historical & cultural significance. Doing Moscow by night, with a local preferably is a good idea. Walking or using the Tube. The metro stations, conceived as people’s palaces are works of art bearing proud witness to people’s aspiration & power. Lenin himself is said to have authorised it.

St Petersburg too is best seen on foot. Either walk the historic city or view it from a Hydrofoil on the waters. Everything is right there along the Palace Embankment. And do stay up for the opening & closing of the river locks. It happens past midnight, every night. Built on 42 islands in the delta of the Neva Petersburg is said to have 4 seasons in a day. Weather is never discussed or taken seriously for it suddenly changes. Just when you are beginning to enjoy it. A visit to the ballet/opera/concert/theater followed by fine dining is the ultimate round off. Both cities have much to offer & compare favourably with others around the world. It is the massive scale & size that astounds.


Metro, Escalator 40′ down


Geographically, Russia is Europe, but not quite. It is distinct & dissimilar & may it remain so. Much is made of the elusive Russian smile, blamed on the weather or the theory that people here are wired different. (Better by far than smiling & not have the smile reach the eyes.) The western world has successfully created & vilified an entire nation, one it terms an ‘enigma’. The supposed picture behind the ‘iron curtain’. Is that the truth? Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! The reality is a warm, sensitive & caring people. A beautiful country. Also the safest in the world.

Russians are simple. They are music lovers & singers with an innate sense of song & dance. Accordion – Bayan players & string quartets greet you at every port playing anything & everything from ‘Lara’s Theme’ to the soulful ‘Song of the Volga boatmen’. A land of churches, domes & cathedrals, choral music & Chants. I was witness to an absolutely mesmerising performance of big & small church bells chiming to distinct orchestral notes. This at a church in Yaroslavl.

Knowing, not knowing a local language can be an asset or handicap. Especially so in Russia. Despite supreme efforts I never did get a hang of the language, the vocabulary limited to just two words ‘Da’ & ‘Nyet’

“But that is all a lady need know” said a friend. Unwilling to give up, I progressed to ‘previart’ & ‘spaceba’, wishing with all the heart Peter the Great was around to force English on his countrymen.  But Ha! Ho! I still manage the last laugh. More than a fortnight later my Russian speaking skills suddenly come alive as another lovely new word is added to the vocabulary.


The meaning? Guesses? Anyone?


Enroute to Peterhof


Staff Quarters. Palace Square. Petersburg


Peter the Great’s little home on the gulf


Mother Volga, entrance Rybinsk


Roady Toady

Vroom, vroom…… off we go, full throttle. The car surges onto NH 22 which becomes a 6 lane a short distance further. Hazy mountain outlines hover into view then become large, dark looming shapes.The…

Source: Roady Toady

Tale of two cities


Doha airport

Doha airport

CDG Paris

CDG Paris

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

Do you believe in ravens, omens & signs?

In transit at Doha on an onward flight to Paris we decide on a quick cuppa before boarding. The coffee spills, oops! over the table, the floor & on Chanson’s clothes. No matter. She has a change. Minor mishap. The first & the last, before journey end, we hope.

All seated & ready for take off, there is an unexpected delay. We are informed about a ‘technical’ snag because of which passengers must disembark, only to board the aircraft four hours later, arriving in Paris past midnight instead of 8 pm.

My friend has traveled ‘Business’; I ‘Economy’ & we have agreed to meet at ‘Immigration’. I see her fetching up accompanied by a policeman. ‘Hey, Chanson”, I wave. She indicates that she is unwell so I leave the queue to join her.

‘Parlez vous Francais?

Parlez vous Anglais?

In the middle of the night! Alas! We have just arrived after a grueling flight. (New Delhi – Doha – Paris)


Paris:angular streets

Paris:angular streets


The Seine

The Seine

After a long wait, unending explanations & umpteen glasses of water (my friend is dehydrated) our passports are stamped & baggage collected. This I manage with the help of friendly airport personnel who, manoeuvre me via several shortcuts across, that humongous airport that is ‘CDG Paris’.

We are taken to a paramedic centre where Chanson is made to lie down & get medical parameters checked. Her blood pressure shoots up & down dramatically. This happens over a course of hours. She is anxious & feels dehydrated. Has plenty of water and, wants to use the loo, but no. She is not allowed to move. A bedpan is brought. Fluctuating BP, breathlessness, dehydration, water – bedpan – more water. It goes on into the night. The doctor fears a blood clot from prolonged inactivity on a long distance flight. He cannot take a chance so recommends going to hospital for further tests. We won’t risk the chance either & agree.

Another long wait before an ambulance arrives with assistant & stretcher. It drives us through the dark & empty streets of Paris. An eerie 6 – 10 km ride, on this our first night in the city.

The Robert Ballanger hospital – believe it or not – is blood splattered. Wish I had taken some pictures. And there are patients waiting everywhere. Chanson is moved to a bed & told to wait. It would take time for the doctor to arrive. Those before us would be attended first. A man had been brought in five hours ago & was still waiting. ‘Just relax. Be patient’.

The clock ticks on. Dehydration. Water. Bedpan. More water. Worse, not knowing the blood pressure as there was no one monitoring it.

It is a long night.

Finally. The doctor arrives in the wee hours of the morning. He checks her pulse & voila she is to be discharged.

Just like that?

Yes, just like that. Never mind the BP or the ‘clot’, not to speak of trauma or money down the drain.

Outside, the dawn is slowly breaking & it is another day.

Welcome to Paris.

Old Port, Marseille

Old Port, Marseille

We have six hours before departure. What we must resolve is whether or not Chanson is up for the trip or should it be postponed by a day. She looks & feels better. In any case there are doctors everywhere – if need be, God forbid.

That decides it.

Marseille, the lovely seaside town every travel guide warns you about. Drunken sailors. Muggings. Brawls. Clever sleights of hand. Pick pockets.

Part of the experience.


‘Hotel La Residence’, overlooks the old port. It is a boutique hotel & we are lucky to have a harbor facing room with the Notre Dame in the distance. Despite a bustling port it is tranquil & quiet in here. We arrive around 4pm & spend the rest of the day loitering around La Panier & Canebiere –  simply getting a feel of the place.

Chateau D'lf, Marseille 'Count of Monte Cristo' Remember?

Chateau D’lf, Marseille a la The Count of Monte Cristo’


harbour view

harbour view


The Calanques at Cassis

There are plans for Cassis next day. Cassis, a tiny fishing village 20 kms to the east – along the coast – of which it is said,

“ he who has seen Paris & not seen Cassis, can say ‘I have seen nothing’”

Along the quay fishermen begin to set up stalls early next morning. Displaying every variety of exotic ‘catch’  and – as the song goes, “cockles & muscles alive……. Alive O!” Handsome Catalan faces against an aquamarine waterfront. Weather beaten faces that beckon – come taste the salt of the sea. The Concierge too urges us outdoor on to this, not – to – be – missed scene. I sling a rucksack & go out & mingle with the crowds. Blue skies, bluer seas. It is a beautiful day. Strolling, watching, quizzing, peering, talking, taking pictures, in short enjoying every bit of the action. Fish and Folk.

We would have lingered, but for Cassis.

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What is your worst travel nightmare?

Mine is falling ill and/or losing baggage

In no particular order.

A man at the Metro points to my rucksack warning that it is open. I do remember closing it. However, let me see. Lo & behold, it is wide open, all zips undone. That sets panic bells ringing. I rummage through quickly, turning it inside out, checking each & every pocket, emptying out contents only to find the money belt missing. It had all the cash, credit cards, travel card, medicine and Passport.

I could have kicked myself. As Chanson pointed out, why was I carrying everything in the first place? She advised calm as we walked back to the hotel in the forlorn hope that it had been forgotten there.

Of course it hadn’t. The backpack had not been touched since our arrival. I had picked it up as it lay & walked out into the day.

The tally was euro 1500 cash – lost. Luckily it was too early in the day for merchant transactions. We were able to block all  credit cards & have the balance in the Travel card transferred to a duplicate one. That, fortunately was still in my possession. The next step was to alert the hotel.

Ricardo was speechless with disbelief, as were Eric & Julie. A wonderful lot, they were full of care & concern. Julie, the young manager personally offered help but it being a public holiday there was not much she could do. Worse, it was a Friday, to be followed by Saturday & Sunday. Nobody in the embassy could be contacted until the next working day. We had plans for Portugal (expense paid) but without a passport we were stranded.

Julie thought a meeting with a police ‘higher – up’ was in order & tried to arrange one but, it being a long weekend that too came a cropper.

Police in any case had to be informed just so travel documents were in order.

She accompanied us expressing dismay along the way. No matter what was written & said about Marseille, it was a safe place. She often went home without incident, alone at night. Ours was an unfortunate occurence. She narrated a similar experience in Mexico where she had to borrow $ 2000 to continue with the remainder of her trip. This she stuffed inside a teddy bear, afraid to lose it if she carried it in person. She would stitch/unstitch the bear every night, as & when money was needed. She also told us that every police station in France had a ’lost & found’ cell where stolen goods sometimes showed up.

Julie Pseat

Julie Pseat

Sweet, Julie! her continuous chatter made me forget the problem at hand, to the extent that I actually began to enjoy the walk.

“ Never mind the cash,” I blurted absentmindedly. “If only the passport is returned”

Chanson thought that was a far cry. It never ever worked that way.

“Just a thought”, I murmured, saying a Gayatri mantra to myself.

I am not a religious person yet I said the mantra & I said it without thought of profit or gain. It had been only a few hours since the horrific incident but the mind had reconciled & moved on. Taking stock, the situation did not seem that bad after all. We had scraped through pretty well. The actual loss was euro 1500 only. Perhaps I owed the bloke this money or perhaps his need was more. As for Portugal, that was another 15 days away. I would have a fresh passport by then.

Inside police headquarters Julie immediately got down to the task, explaining everything in detail to the officer on duty. He politely listened, nodding now & then while I stood idly by.

A voice suddenly called out, wanting to know my name.

“Sudha”, I said.

“Voila! Here is your passport”


Come again!!!

The passport??

No kidding. No fuss. There it was, in the hands of a lady officer – the black leather belt with everything in it. Everything that is, minus the cash.

Note: Pick pocketing is rampant in France so much so that the Eiffel tower had to shut down one day. Travelers are constantly advised to be careful. We certainly had several near encounters – that we escaped, if only by a whisker.

The French tend to blame immigrants, especially those of Algerian descent but the 20 year old who found & returned the bag was Algerian. He had gone to dispose a cup after having coffee when he spotted it in the bin & brought it to police.

Bless him always!


Au revoir Marseille. If I return it will be for the likes of, the boy & Julie.



On a dull working day I decide to junk the housework in search of art & pleasure. Here I am at Jogeshwari, in the centre of a road, facing row upon row of antique furniture & curio shops. It is a veritable treasure trove. The auto rick brought me spot on. No parking woes either.

Hayat Ali, with long flowing henna dyed beard, mans shop No:???? He refuses to be photographed as his religion forbids it or so he believes. The first buy is a Japanese teapot in a cheery floral design. A wee bit of haggling & the deed is done. It makes me happy & joyful. Beauty invariably does.

An interesting day it turns out, scouring shops selling everything from antique furniture to curios, lamps, books, coins, stamps, miniatures, paintings, film posters & framed photographs. A frame minus the photograph goes for less than one with a period picture. This is Mumbai. Everything has a price & everything sells. Even empty perfume bottles. I bought one in the shape of a dolphin. And don’t ask me why. There are bargains to be had. Of commonplace household items & freebies if one is lucky. Much like the ‘buy one get one’ scheme at Malls.

A role reversal happens at times, when the seller suddenly & surreptitiously becomes the buyer. “ You have Rolex watch? I give good price,” whispers Hayat

“You have Asharfi? You know Asharfi / Guinea/ gold coin?”


Folding Deck Chair

Folding Deck Chair

Antique Camphor Box

Antique Camphor Box

Silver, embossed Soporo.

Silver, embossed Soporo.

Artefacts include an old time Pressure Cooker

Artifacts. Pressure Cooker (hanging)




Life size chestnut coloured  wooden horse

Life size chestnut coloured wooden horse



Objets d’ art evoking refinement & grace occupy every inch of empty space. However mediocre their lives it must be said that these shopkeepers have a keen eye for the beautiful. Amidst porcelain vases, sculptures & Chinese curios picked up from rich Parsi homes ( from the days of the opium trade) lie everyday household items such as a grater from grandma’s kitchen – made of brass & shaped like a tortoise – Also a pressure cooker, perhaps the first of its kind, polished, sparkling and new.

My prized bargain that day was a ‘Soporo’, a cone shaped artifact with a tiny bird at the pinnacle. It is used in Parsi ritual. This one is in silver & has an embossed Persian design. There is an inscription at the base, a date along with the name of the silversmith, the makers Rustomjee Jahangir. It also, has a name – SN Soonawala – Its last owner I presume.

It is a sad feeling

What could have compelled Mr Soonawala to part with precious family silver? It could not have been penury I am sure. Had he fallen on bad days? Was he emigrating to a far away land? Or could he have died childless? The possibilities were immense.

In any case the shops were all chock – a – block, full of artistic souvenirs from stately affluent homes. And each had a story, a tale to tell.

Exhausted from walking & talking, the heat & the dust I looked around for a café in an area where there was none. A shop owner offered to find me a drink. What would I have?

A Coke preferably or Pepsi. Any Cola

That would be difficult


Unofficial ban. American company. Nobody buys or sells it here.

‘Minute Maid’ pulpy orange then

That too. Same company. Have a Thumbs Up’ instead. Easily available

A ‘Thumbs Up’? Uggh!

Talakaveri Coorg

Nov16-20, 2014

A tiny less explored corner – that is forever – Coorg (64 Sq Miles).

It is, in a nutshell, coffee & spice & all things nice.

Evening mists. Beautiful women. Warriors.

Hanging Lamp - Coorg

Hanging Lamp – Coorg

Otti Roti/Rice Bread

Otti Roti/Rice Bread

Todays Menu

Todays Menu

Nimmi's Open Kitchen

Nimmi’s Open Kitchen

The much touted KSRTC, the State run bus service turns out to be a let down so I go cross country, taking any old bus from Bangalore to Mysore, then onwards by taxi. A blessing in disguise for it offers the opportunity of enjoying the countryside at will.

The ‘Elephant Corridor’ at Badaga is a 20 acre estate & the Chengappas, Nimmi & Viju perfect hosts. You are cautioned against early morning walks as elephants graze & roam the wilds & can often be heard crunching grass. Yes, quite literally for all around us is the sound of silence. Pachyderm encounters are not uncommon & could be counted among the many joys of life in Coorg.

‘Homestay’ is an organized sector here. There are 200 registered owners who act with rare passion often going the extra mile in their eagerness to showcase all things Kodagu. Hence no surprise that Viju offers to organize transport & keep a track as I commute from Mysore to Badaga via (at his suggestion) the Tibetan enclave & Golden temple at Byeluppe.

The couple are college day sweethearts. That their hearts continue to beat in unison after 35 years of marriage & 2 children is there for all to see. Parked next to their car in the porch, is a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ – the one that was used during their courtship & wooing days. Large sums are being proffered for it today but it continues to stand there – mechanical testimony to a Mills & Boon romance.

Nimmi a Srilankan is the epitome of everything Coorg – from language to cuisine to good looking but the banana jam is hers & hers alone. It goes exceedingly well with the local Dosa – Idli. A desi version of pancake with maple sauce if you will, but far more tasty. ‘The Elephant Corridor’, which has been a homestay for over 10 years, looks to becoming a wedding &  pre nuptial destination, as also a location for Bollywood flicks. ‘Coffee Beans’ was filmed here.

Mercara or Madikeri (3500’) as it is now called is the district headquarters. The entire area that was once a rain forest may be termed ‘semi’ rain forest today as large tracts have been cleared for plantations of rubber, coffee, spice & orange. Acre upon acre of cultivated land interspersed with surviving rain forest vegetation – trees so tall that they seem to be reaching for the skies.   Large & small homesteads with red brick tiled sloping roofs dot the countryside at regular if distant intervals. There is hardly a soul around. And silence so deep – except for the occasional bus rumbling by – it is picture perfect

The river Cauvery has long been to the south what the Ganga is to the north. A disputed river perhaps but also the holiest of holies, especially at its source – Talakaveri,

Pilgrims climb the Brahmagiri hill near by for a Coorg view. Also to leave behind make belief houses. Little stone clusters that symbolize their hope of future housing.

After springing forth at Talakaveri, the river vanishes underground. Suddenly & completely before re emerging 8 kms away at Bhagamandala,. Here it meets the waters of the Kanikke & the mythical Sujyoti to become ‘triveni sangam’, a site of pilgrimage.

Breakfast at the gazebo and a Coorg style sit down meal with friends & extended family. Otti Roti, Pandi curry, Kumbala curry – the works

That coupled with the quiet of the countryside is what I shall carry long after.




1912453_10203952565228873_5928174334037203247_o                                                                                                                                                                     Bhagamandala

Cavery waters at Abbi falls

Cavery waters at Abbi falls


Tombs - Gaddige

Tombs – Gaddige

The tree of life - Elephant Corridor

The tree of life – Elephant Corridor

Top of the world

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Gangtok is a mere 124 kms from Siliguri, from NJP & from Bagdogra but the trip by road takes roughly 5 – 6 hours. Not only because of difficult hilly terrain but dilapidated road conditions.

The alternative, by chopper covers the distance in less than 25 minutes.

The Bell helicopter operated by Pawan Hans is a 5 seater that takes off from Bagdogra (weather permitting) thrice every day.

(Bagdogra is a military airport. A couple of international flights operate from here.)

For the return flight from Burtuk helipad, the fare is Rs 2700 – on board baggage strictly according to specification, which is a smaller than 22”suitcase weighing less than 10 kg.

Capt. Sardul Singh, our pilot flew us at heights of 5000’ – 6000’ over flat plains, low hills, valleys & lush green countryside interspersed with villages. The meandering Teesta in the valley below us a veritable delight.

From Burtuk the chopper can be further requisitioned for a 15 minute joyride over Gangtok & around. At Rs 9500 this offers breathtaking glimpses of the eastern Himalayan range – especially Kanchenjunga (if one is lucky & the day clear)


River Teesta. Aerial view

River Teesta. Aerial view

Perched at 5500’ Gangtok has ample charms, its rare & beautiful orchids not the least. Locals however rue the way it is regressing mainly because of a large tourist influx & poor infrastructure.

I liked Gangtok.

Among other things it is plastic free. One can stroll the promenade, eat the best Chinese ever & get a super duper hairstyle all for a throw.

I did not stay here though but at Mile 5 at 8000 ft. where the air was clean & noise pollution zero. There was even an 18 hole golf course & golf hut to boot.

Mile 5 East Sikkim

Mile 5 East Sikkim

MG Road Gangtok

MG Road Gangtok

The trip to Nathu La the Indo Chinese border post got cancelled several times on account of inclement weather. I bide my time, my patience finally rewarded with clear skies when I can make the trip without hazard.

From Mile 5 at 8000’ to Changu lake at 12500’, to Sherrathang, Kupup 13500’ & finally Nathu La 14400’.

5 am June 6, 2013   At first an antacid, then a hot cup of green tea & biscuits & I am ready. The road is torturous, pot holed & slithery with debris strewn all over. And there are umpteen roadblocks caused by landslides but these are quickly cleared. Can this possibly be our border road? Not much change I notice since my previous visit nearly 30 years before. And why allow so many tourists every day?

The Chinese have state of the art infrastructure across.

Now this is harakiri.


Past Mile 17 & on to Changu with a halt for breakfast that consists of tea, coffee, Alu paratha, pickle & curd. Everything tastes absolutely divine at such heights.

A line of 10 Chinese trucks is seen approaching the recently opened trading post at Sherrathang. All laden with goods I presume.

The drive up is scenic with mountain springs & waterfalls from melting glaciers. Short bridges decorated with prayer flags span fast flowing streams. There are at least 3 big lakes enroute.

Also the wind chill factor, hence despite the sun it is bitterly cold. Thank God for the woolens.

Changu Lake @ 12500'

Changu Lake @ 12500′

Baba Harbhajan temple at Kupup is a big draw. It is thronging with visitors come to pay homage to the soldier saint who guards the frontier – so it is said – even in death. The mandir for me is a disappointment. I would have preferred something military, simple, dignified & proud of bearing

Baba Harbhajan temple Kupup 13500'

Baba Harbhajan temple Kupup 13500′

And so to top of the world, Nathu La where it is 3 degrees F in May. The one big change I notice (besides better buildings / ongoing construction) is the open camaraderie between the Chinese & Indians. Raw recruits laughing & chatting – in what language I’d love to know.

What hasn’t changed however & never will is the warm hospitality of the Indian army. One experiences it at different locations again & again. Cheerful smiles, handshakes, hot tea & roasted nuts. Everyone ready for a photograph. Memories are made of this

Nathu La Post

Nathu La Post

Holla Mohalla

The Midas touch

The Midas touch

Along the Nahan – Dehradun highway, on either side of the road are forests of Sal, Mango & Poplar. Cruising at an easy 80mph, fast approaching & almost upon us, is what can only be described as a forest on wheels. Would this be Birnam Wood marching towards Dunsinane Hill?

It is rural India at its chaotic best. Tractors spilling with sugar cane bear past. Sometimes it is a beast of burden plying this load. There are make shift stalls beneath the shade of trees selling fresh sugarcane juice. At Rs 10 a glass it is a most refreshing drink especially when garnished with lemon & mint.

Villages appear & disappear, hand pumps dot the landscape, vast stretches of pot-holed roads interspersed with amazing state of the art highways. The forests give way to fields of mustard, wheat & corn. Swaying in the breeze, ready to be harvested for Holi has just gone by & Baisakhi is only a few days away.

Past Asan barrage on the Yamuna are field of strawberry. Ripe & red & a plenty the farmers don’t mind you plucking & eating them.

There are tractors brimming with human cargo in their colorful best. Everyone it appears is going to the Holla Mohaala fair at Paonta Sahib, midway between Nahan & Dehradun. The scenic Gurudwara dedicated to guru Gobind Singh is on the banks of the Yamuna. It has a museum that has antiques, weapons & personal belongings of the last Guru.

The mela is on in full swing & will continue up to Baisakhi.

The same at Anandpur Sahib is bigger & better we are told. Here there are turban tying competitions, mock fights & a demonstration of martial arts. Also, simulated battles with war drums & standard bearers, games of tent pegging & bareback horse riding.

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