Thursday, August 30, 2007

Coffee, hills, foliage and beaches

[ Please look at here for pictures from this trip ]
Coffee, hills, foliage and beaches were themes of my journey driving a car through Karnataka recently (August 2007) along with couple of friends. We cut through central Karnataka horizontally towards west and hit the coast. Then we went North hugging the coast throughout and finally went north-east to finish our journey where we started, that is, Hyderabad. The trip came into being when my friend Nitin booked his tickets to Hyderabad in the middle of August some four months back. I wasn't sure of where to go because its monsoon times and wherever we go rains could hamper any plans. There was not much of common interest around Hyderabad to keep us occupied for 3-4 days. So, after consulting a friend of mine, reluctantly I chose Chikmagalur. I could not research much before leaving but could gather that I could visit Hoysalan temples of Belur, Halebid and Jain pilgrimage of Shravanbelgola.

The D-day came when we had to leave and it turned out to be a Monday morning. When everyone was rushing to the office on the road, we were getting away from it. Hyderabad to Banaglore I had done before but during night time some 3 months back. I was trying to figure out various pit stops we took. I identified the place we had tea, had dinner and even where we refuelled which drove Nitin nuts and was asking whether a plaque has been installed here to commemorate my visit? Our first stop was on a bridge over swollen Krishna river with muddy water before Kurnool. There was an island a little distance away in between the river with a fort on top!! Nitin considers himself as someone whom Schumacher looks upto, he didn't disappoint and touched 130 kmph readily on a dual lane road without divider and moderate incoming traffic. We stopped again close to a level crossing skirting a sunflower field. It was unguarded and we took a walk that sunflower park. Even with cloudy weather, sunflowers were in bloom. A large portion of landscape looked yellow remidning me of mustard fields in North. There were few fruit sellers whom we provided a good business. After that we rushed towards Bangalore with few stops for lunch, tea and snaps. The landscape throughout the drive was uneven, boulder-strewn or sometimes with hills made of boulders. Because of monsoon, the landscape wore a green look. The drive to Nitin's brother's house in evening Bangalore traffic was expectedly hellish.

We started a bit lazily for Chikmaglur in the morning and had to grind through Bangalore traffic. Once we turned towards Hassan from Nelmangala, the road and landscape improved drastically and we were cruising towards Hassan with occassional photo opporunity. There were frequent signs announcing proximity to Belur, Halebid but we decided to visit them while coming back. We occasionally saw Bangalore - Hassan railway line which took long time to convert from Meter gauge and runs upto Mangalore, one of the most scenic ones in India. Hassan was a non-descript town with messed up roads. Once we hit the road to Chikmaglur, the roads improved again. The road was one of the better tarmac I have seen and I am sure many of the ads with speeding cars might have been filmed on this road. We curved through fields, hills and water bodies. We stopped at one unguarded field full of marigold flowers. The flowers were in full bloom and planted in rows. We walked among them, folndled them and clicked lot of snaps. Yagachi dam is a small dam on some river whose name I don't remember on the way and worth visiting. We were expecting Chikmaglur to be hilly but it turned out to be plain. Nevertheless, the hill range of Baba Budangiri and western ghats were not very far. We stayed in a concrete hotel in the town called Planter's court. One could stay at any of the coffee estates but then your agenda should be only to enjoy the estate and not venture out much. Moreover, these estates are a little distance away from the town, so you have to know where to go. Once we checked into hotel, we asked receptionist whether she could suggest an itinerary for attractions nearby. Once we had that, we head off to a Cafe Coffee Day outlet nearby. We were surprised to find one in such a small town but the real reason was displayed inside the Cafe. Chikmaglur is the HQ of CCD's parent company Amalgamated Bean Company Limited and they procure their coffee from region around Chikmaglur so they have opened this outlet as an honorary outlet. The parent company called "ABC" for convenience was on the oppposite side of the road. By this time, the idea of going to coastal Karnataka was hatched and we called up couple of people in the "civilisation" to help us with distances to various destinations. We decided upon going to Udupi from Chikmaglur, from there to Karwar just south of Goa and then return to Hyderabad via Hubli.

We wanted to trek the highest peak in Karnataka called Mullaiyangiri. Even though there is a road which winds up and goes upto the peak but we wanted to trek. The trek starts from a place called Sarpadari which is on the road to Kemmangudi. It is one of the recognized trek in this region. Other one is to go to Baba Budangiri peak via Galikere. Once we entered the gate through which trek starts, we were unaware of what lies ahead for us. With morning sun, mild breeze and oozing confidence, the setting was perfect for trekking. The trail was clear most of the time but mountain slope was all covered with overgrown grass and different plants and shrubs and occassional trees. Climbing was a little tricky at some points due to wetness and there was possibility of slipping. The trail most of the time was steep and we were gaining height rapidly. We got worried, how will we come down with slippery surface? But that worry was for later as we enjoyed the mist covered mountain upwards and valley beneath. The peak has a Shiva temple. Interestingly, the Nandi statue is located a little away from the temple in open. I have seen such a practice for the first time. The view from peak were so stunning that for first 15 minutes we just sat silent admiring the views and only later thought of praying inside the temple. We were now looking for options to go back by hitch-hiking or simply walking on the road. But we met a local young man who made going back down look like a cake walk. We reluctantly agreed and started getting the same way we came. It turned out to be easier but I slipped multiple times due to sllippery surface to laughter of my buddies.

Once we came down, we headed for Kemmangudi, also known as KR Hills (Krishna Rajapuram Hills). The road was bad but it is okay considering its location. There was a waterfall in every cervice of the mountain slope. Sometimes we saw the white water and sometimes we only heard it. Soon we reached Kemmangudi which is protected area and is devloped with lawns, canteen and some other paraphernilia. Hebbe falls was next on our agenda. I had been to Chhattisgarh recently famous for its giant waterfalls, so I wasn't so keen to watch it. The falls are inside some private coffee plantation and access is very difficult. One can go there in only a 4WD Mahindra jeep or similar such vehicle. The first view of falls was unimpressive thought it turned out to be only its first stage. From where jeeps cannot go further one has to walk down a little bit over rocky and slushy path along the river on which falls lie. One has to cross the river itself thrice which could be knee deep with stones at the bottom. Only once you curve into the valley where waterfall is, does one realize its enormity. The white water was gushing with so much force that water droplets were clouding the entire area, so even if you are away from the falls, you will get wet. There was a pool created beneath which was very deep and no one dared to venture inside. Most of the people who wanted to have a bath stayed at the periphery of pool using rocks as support. We also ventured like this and bruised ourselves while negotiating slippery rock surfaces and stones at bottom. Because of force of water, the wind was also blowing very fast. After being there in water for some time and competing among ourselves who can stay for more time inside water, we came out. In between I has a nasty slip when from standing upright, slipped and landed on my buttocks on a hard rock. Anyways I survived that. While on the ride back upto Kemmangudi, I befriended few locals who worked in the coffee estate and with broken hindi, english tried to converse which was very entertaining. I like such interactions. They were asking me to write a letter to tourism minister of state to build a road to this place which will end their woes. Once we were back to Kemmangudi, it was already dark and had to do away with plans to visit Kallati waterfalls and drove back to Chikmaglur via Kallatipura. Driving in the night through winding roads is such a thrill. Anyways, a mountain trek and bathing in huge waterfall is enough entertainment for one day.

Next day we started early and went to Dattapeetha on Baba Budangiri hill. There is a "Hindu-Muslim temple" as locals call the shrine dedicated to Baba Budangiri. Baba Budangiri is attributed to have brought coffee plant from Arab and there quite a few legends about him. From here, one could climb the peak and road ends at Manekydhara waterfall. The waterfall is again a muslim shrine and it was developed with areas to bathe etc. It was not very inviting so we concentrated our attention to deep valley beneath. The valley was so very gorgeous with lot of greenery and houses in between, stretching endlessly, only haze terminating the view. There were couple of lakes formed beside the road due to rains. The water was still and green and with green meadow of mountain casting its shadow on the water, the scene looked straight out of some foreign locale. We kept on stopping at all such occassions for pictures. We were confused. How many should we click? Everywhere we look it was equally beautiful and we really missed having a better camera to do justice to this locale. We again came back to Chikmaglur town because road to Udupi was opposite direction. While going down the same path of CCD, we stopped for a while to visit CCD's parent company. I was apprehensive that we would be entertained but staff there was cordial. The receptionist guided us to Asstt. Manager who gave answers to our questions and served us a coffee brewed mechanically in one of CCD's vending machine. The coffee harvest season is suppossed to be in Jan to April when green coffee berries which we saw in so much adundance turn red. The coffee planats needs to be protected from direct sunlight because of which lot of trees like Cardamom, pepper and Silver Oak are also planted along with them to give them shade. There are two basic varieties of coffee: Arabica and Robusta. On asking how does one distinguish between two varieties and which variety is popular brands nescafe and bru made of, he was clueless. Anyways, after some twenty minutes we left, him promising us to entertain us again during season.

Now we headed to Udupi via Balehonnur, Sringeri and Agumbe. The lush-green views refused to subside and we were continuously treated with great views of fields and foliage. Sringeri is famous for a "mutt" built by Adi Shankaracharya in 12AD. The mutt was closed for afternoon siesta so we could only visit the main temple premises and missed the wonderful meal that is supposed to be served everyday for lunch. Anyways, we took a round of premises, clicked pictures and saw big fishes diving for alms from visitors in Tunga river. We left the place and headed towards Agumbe which is famous for its sunset point from where on a clear day one could witness sun setting in Arabian Sea which is around 50 km from there by road. We climed to that sunset point and we could really see a portion of sea through hazy atmosphere. The valley beneath was all rolling hills with forest, clouds hugging them and a couple of distant waterfalls as specks of white on green background. From here we hurried to reach Udupi as soon as possible to catch sunset but eventually could not. The road from Agumbe down was all hairpin bends through Someshwar wildlife sanctuary. Before Udupi we crossed Manipal which is famous for lot of technical institutes and we could see lot of student community. It truly is a academic town. Once we reached Udupi, we rushed to Malpe beach which was 8 kms inside from the town. By the time we reached, sun has already set but enough light was remaining to give cloudy sky an orange hue. We could not resist ourselves and went straigh into the water. It was so refreshing walking on sand with waves slashing on your feet. We checked into Karavali hotel right on NH-17. Now was to time to hunt for hotel Mitro Samaj which somebody recommended for good food. We searched for it but it was closed, so had to settle for Woodland's the same one as in Chennai.

Next day we started early and headed for Kaup beach which is some 12 kms from Udupi. Once we were there, we could not locate where is the entry or open space where through which people enter the beach. After going back and forth once, we parked at one place and walked through the village to get to the beach. There was a light house perched on a rock to our left and beach was further left. To get to that we had to cross one stream. As soon as we crossed it, we landed into the crab colony. There were hundreds of crab infants running helter-skelter on slight disturbance. We circumvented it and came to the main beach. There were a few fisherman, unnetting the crabs they had caught. We spoke to them and held couple of crabs in out hands and did some other antics. We walked on the beach but it was not that great. First there was lot of drift wood or burnt wood floating in the water and lot of seashells which were making it difficult to walk. After spending an hour, we came back.

Our next destination was Karwar, some 210 km away. We started from Udupi on NH-17 and were expecting smooth ride but road was broken at many places which hampered our progress but the visual treat more than made up for it. Close to Maravanthe, the road comes right next to the sea shore. That 1 km stretch was amazing. We stopped and had coconut water just to elongate our stay there. Murudeshwar announced its presernce from a distance when we saw gopuram of the temple coming up there and lord Shiva statue from a distance. Since I had seen this vista previously in some magazine I easily recognized it. The statue is part of temple complex which is coming up in Murudeshwar. Murudeshwar seem to be dominated by some Mr. R N Shetty. His initials RNS could be seen on lot of buildings including a gorgeous RNS residency hotel. There is one Naveen restaurant which is built on water and there are few sea-facing seats which we readily occupied. The lunch was sumptuous moreover by the views we got. Next stop was Gokarn which I had heard about earlier. There is a Hindu temple here whose significance I wansn't aware of. Anyways, we headed straight to the beach but at that time of the day, it wasn't that inviting. So, we pushed off quickly and headed to Karwar. We wanted to reach Karwar comfortably before Sunset which we did. The Karwar coast has a Naval base and a port where a huge ship was berthed. We could see granite cargo being transported there. We headed straight to the beach here, undressed and jumped into the sea. The slope was very gentle here so we could go deep inside but the waves were equally gentle so we were not exhilirated. Karwar has few islands off its coast, one of them being famous for snorkelling and other water sports but they are not run in monsoons. The islands were clearly visible from the beach and one could make that it was raining on those islands. The clouds were engulfing the sun time and again and we were not sure of watching a clear sunset. But otherwise, sky was beautiful, grey clouds in orange sky and rain lashing the islands was very dramatic. Lot of people had gathered by that time and were watching the sun set peacefully in sea. We checked into Navaratna Lodge in the town which was the most reasonable one. We dined in Amrut restaurant which was famous for seafood preparation. We had Tandoori fish of Anjal type. We siphoned it off to our stomachs in no time. prawn fried rice was equally good.

Next morning we woke up really early and started for Palolem beach in Goa. The Goa border is some 20 km from Karwar and Palolem is a famous beach of South Goa. Till now, I haven't been to Goa and not even researched about it because it is so very well known and appeals more to people looking for party and clubbing experience. So, honestly I didn't know much about Goa. I had taken a vow that whenever I go there, I will go for a week or so and finish it off in one go. Anyways, that vow broke when we entered Goa. Probably it had rained last night because of which the terrain was all wet and sky cloudy. The greenery in form of trees, seasonal plants/shrubs and even algae was everywhere. House walls, bridge railings, rock faces and just about anything which has potential was draped with moss. After an hour or so around 7:00 AM we hit the beach. The beach was deserted except lot of fishermen activity towards north of the beach and few locals angling in choppy sea. We were in no mood to waste and immediately hit the waters. We splashed, we jogged, we sat and admired the natural beauty around. Soon, foreign tourists start trickling in but nowhere the number it must be during the season. The sky was mostly overcast with occassional rain but very mild and welcome. Here the waves were stornger and we let waves carry us away and we just gave in. After having enough we headed to a restaurant in a shack. It was buzzing with lot of foreign tourists, the decor and presentation to match the international needs and menu had lot of continental dishes. After gorging on them, we were all set for a long day ahead. We left the place and headed back to Karwar. In between we stopped to purchase the local drink, cashew fenny. The shop owner told us about Galgibagh beach which he claimed is very good. Since we had lot of time, so we headed for it. It was a beautiful 9 km drive inside NH-17 and we came to beautiful Galgibagh beach. By this time, sky had cleared and it was nice and sunny with mild breeze. There was no tourist except us and miles of white sand. The beach itself was tree lined. We had to literally tear away from such a wonderful place and head back. From Karwar we went to Hubli to drop off Nitin's brother in a Bangalore bus. In between, we took a detour to Magod waterfalls. It is not possible to go upto the falls but only oggle at it from a distance. But still it was worth going there. Hubli was one nightmarish town to drive around due to lot of one ways, traffic and bad roads. Somehow we managed within it and headed towards Gadag, Koppal and Bellary. The roads after Koppal turned a nightmare and with no signs of directions we lost way in between and instead of Kurnool ended up at Guntakal. We thought of playing safe and reached NH-7 Hyderabad-Bangalore road at Gooty. After that it was just a monotonous drive to Hyderabad.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

An year has passed

Since I started my journey on my bike to Ladakh. I remember I started on 30th July 2006 from Hyderabad. Now when I recall that trip of mine, it just gives me goose bumps that I actually accomplished it. Mmm... Let me recall where was I on 4th of August, yeah today I had reached Keylong, capital of Lahaul Spiti. Oh yes, I have preserved my entire itinerary somewhere. Let me pull it out... Here it is -

30th July - Flew from Hyderabad to Delhi
31st July - Delhi -> Chandigarh
1st Aug - Chandigarh -> Narkanda
2nd Aug - Narkanda -> Manali
3rd Aug - Rest at Manali
4th Aug - Manali -> Keylong
5th Aug - Rest at Keylong
6th Aug - Keylong -> Sarchu
7th Aug - Sarchu -> Leh
8th Aug - Rest at Leh
9th Aug - Rest at Leh
10th Aug - Leh -> Diskit
11th Aug - Diskit -> Hunder -> Panamik
12th Aug - Panamik -> Alchi
13th Aug - Alchi. Visited Indus/Zanskar confluence, Basgo, Likir andAlchi Monastery
14th Aug - Alchi. Visited Lamayuru monastery
15th Aug - Alchi -> Drass
16th Aug - Drass -> Srinagar
17th Aug - Srinagar -> Jammu
18th Aug - Jammu -> Delhi by bus
19th Aug - Delhi
20th Aug - Flew to Hyderabad

It was uforgettable, life changing journey (may be bit exaggerated but definitely a milestone in my life) which I am fortunate I undertook. I was maintaining notes of the trip, very religiously initially and later cumbersomely but I still have them. When I came back I tried to write a travelogue out of them but it proved to be a hearculean task for my temperament. Just like you require special preparation to undertake such a journey through that moonscape, you require skill to articulate it in writing. Anyways, I am closing my eyes and trying to recall some golden anecdotes from that trip.

Higher the risk, higher the reward, thats what I can call the first memorable incident on the initial part of my trip from Shimla to Manali. Just before Jalori pass though not that high but supposed to be test of man and his machine, front type of bike got stuck between stones and slush, what the road was left after a stream decided to run over it due to incessant rain. The bike wouldn't move whatever method we tried. Then came a godsend saviour, a Ladakhi guy called "Motep" who was veteran of such roads and was driving alone to Leh. May be his experience or his strength or both, he lifted the front portion of bike and brought it out of slush. What a relief it was. Once we crossed over the pass, in that wet atmosphere, we got to see some of the best views of the trip. Clouds swept over valleys, rising higher through cervices of hills as if hills are on fire. A small village was nestled midway on the mountain, its blue house and triangle capony sourrounded by mist. Amazing. My partner rightly said, we've stuck goldmine.

At Keylong, met an interesting guy who hailed from Jammu, a pea trader whose job was to load peas being grown in the region, do some accounting and then send them to Azadpur mandi in Delhi. Suprisingly he was an MCA but did not find a desk job interesting. Now he travles around this region to fields, meets farmers and spreads this trade throughout Lahaul Spiti, his brother being posted in Kaza. He told us about a ritual specific to Lahaul spiti. Around 15th August, there is a fair held in Keylong where young boys and girls of marrigeable age are asked to come in the middle of a ground. Boy is free to pick any girl he chooses but girl is free to resist and run away. If there is competition among boys, then a boy has to face it and win over. If he captures the girl and keeps her for the night, then they are married the next day. Doesn't look like it is fair to the girl but there might be specifics which probably could be understood only if we go that fair !!

Baralachala pass (16000 ft) got us a couple of companions who stayed with us upto very close to end of this trip. Two very affable sardars on bullets from Chandigarh who were trying to push their bikes up the mountain slope due to landslide. We helped each other and got through with it. I still haven't sent them the CD containing pictures of this trip. I will send that on this anniversary. One more guy joined us, a British, thrice than my size and riding a 500cc bullet, an explosive engineer on an year long vacation through many countries in the world, going solo to Ladakh! Whoosh! I once took him as a pillion rider on my bike. I wish I could see how this scene looked, a monster sitting on a puny bike with equally puny rider.

A dutch gang of oldies out to do some adventure met us at Narkanda on their consecutively numbered bullet bikes. They kept playing hide and seek with us till Ladakh. The leader was gritty lady who never spoke to us just smiled. We overtook them just before Leh.

Advantage of taking bike to these regions as against bigger vehicles is that you can get away with any kind of blockages like slush and rubble, climbing mountain slope and narrow passage. That is what happened when we cleared through probably 2 km of truck jam, a feet deep muddy slush, standing at the head of breach that Gya river has caused just before Upushi, 50 kms from Leh. Fourtunately, a bulldozer was working to clear a part of mountain slope for atleast smaller vechicles to go through. We were the first one to pass.

On the way to Khardungla, we learnt what an army convoy is. 40-50 trucks going in a line, squealing on every throttle or break application, dooming this world by spewing fumes through their chimneys. But the men inside were humane. They kept on giving us sides, not the snobbish behavior that we witness everyday in the city. The K-top as Khardungla pass is called has a sourvneir shop selling t-shirts, key chains, caps announcing the glory of the pass and exalting the one wears it screaming "I was there". Come on, 18,380 feet is not a mean feat. Earlier, there used to be free tea served here by army canteen to whoever comes here just as a gesture to his/her accomplishment but alas that practice was discontinued for some time now.

"How far is Siachen from here?" Where can you ask this question in India?
"These folks have come from India?" Where do you get to hear this in India?
Probably only place is Nubra Valley beyond Khardungla pass, close to Pakistan and Chinese border, much beyond consciousness of mainstream India, a warm and beautiful valley, a world apart from real world. Only thing is one can stay here for only 6 months a year only. To stay for rest of the year comfortably, you should probably need to transform into an eskimo.

I haven't been to Rajasthan but I have now seen sand dunes. Where? In Nubra Valley at Hunder. You have real sand there as you find in Rajasthan; this is what I am told. Only difference is in Rajasthan the sand gets baked at 45 deg, whereas here it freezes to -45 deg in winters. One more stark similarity is camels. They are known as Bactrian camels who have two humps as against their counterparts in Rajasthan with single hump. But they are elusive and very small in numbers. We could find them only after lot of hunting around.

Driving in night is not advisable but that is what we did when we got stuck in a situation when we started for our destination with wrong estimation of distance. We were to reach Lamayuru but much before, night fell and we four riders were left alone riding along with only a single beam of light piercing the dark. It was moonless night and stars were not visible. Scary...

Allahabad is considered the holiest confluence but confluence of Indus with Zanskar river at Nimoo is magical. Two rivers full of water and character, with different shade of muddy water. Indus light brown and Zanskar a deep brown both coming out of gorge in the open. You get to witness this from main road quite high up in the mountain where you can appreciate the symmtery in their meeting. They converge like a perfect V and you can distinguish their waters due to a line getting formed in the middle.

Who can forget Kargil and Drass which became household names in 2001 when last skirmish with Pakistan happened. We too were excited to pass through the locale which come closest to the LOC. There is a sign on that road which says "You are in the eyes of enemy" depicting how close we to the LOC. This part was tense with heavy presence of military all of whom had nothing else but oggle at us and we going along sheepishly.

First view of Kashmir valley coming from Drass after days of rugged, brown mountains without vegetation, watching trees on mountain slopes was most welcome. When trees finish, a greet carpet of grass is spread all over. Here starts one of the most dangerous areas in the world in one of the most beautiful settings. I pitied all those soldiers who were posted every hundred meters on the road sitting all aloof. We had an idea and started waving to them as we passed them. Wow, they were equally enthusiastic to wave back at us. Then I started looking for them on road, behind the bushes and trees, sitting on a cliff higher up. Everytime we got an equally enthusiastic wave back. It was sheer bonhomie all the way.

Srinagar, though considered fortified but we were not stopped even once. Dal lake is more than a lake, its an ecosystem, a flourishing town with a unique character never to found anywhere else in the world. It was sad to hear that it will soon be uprooted, if only the residents had been a little proactive in maintaing it upto the mark.

How I wish I could go on and on but just like this trip I will have to stop somewhere. Now let me go to sleep with these beautiful dreams. BTW, photographs from this trip are here.