Sunday, November 01, 2015

Delhi - Agra - Jaipur

We were planning to have a family holiday trip with my parents, sister and her kids for some time. They were all Delhi and we found a slot of holidays around 2nd Oct 2015. We were getting four days to go somewhere out of Delhi. Only issue was our going to Delhi and be back in 4 days. I looked up flight schedules and found that newly introduced Vistara airlines had a convenient flight timings leaving Pune late night and back from Delhi in the evening on return. This being a new full-service airline I went ahead and booked to check out the experience. So, we decided to do the famed Golden triangle of Delhi - Agra - Jaipur with Bharatpur thrown in between. We flew on 30th Sept late night and reached Delhi by 1:00 AM. This was my first time coming to Terminal 3 of Delhi airport and it was impressive.
Terminal 3 of Delhi airport
The plan was to just sleep and leave for Agra the next morning. We had an SUV at our disposal and I being the sole driver. After good rest we left for Agra around 10AM.
Kids all set for the trip
We were located at Mayur Vihar from where getting onto Greater Noida expressway was easy though we lost the way a little. However, once we got onto the expressway we were in Agra by 1:00 PM. The expressway was excellent and it was smooth ride. Once inside Agra, the regular traffic was there and we had some difficulty in locating our OYO rooms hotel near the East gate of Taj Mahal. The rooms were nice and Taj Mahal was visible from the window. After having lunch which we had brought from home and a little rest, we went to Taj Mahal by the battery operated vehicle. But the day was pretty hot and there was lot of crowd. Family was soon exhausted due to heat and crowd so they soon went back to hotel room. I was visiting Taj Mahal after several 25 years(!) and for my wife it was her first visit so we hung around and explored Taj Mahal from all angles.
Taj Mahal as seen from the huge entrance
Taj Mahal in full glory
Taj Mahal from different angle
Mosque inside Taj Mahal
We then decided that we should go around Agra a bit like visiting Red Fort. So, we took a Tonga to go to Red Fort. We enjoyed the ride and Tonga wallah obliged by letting us take pictures with Tonga. Red Fort was another revelation with so many stories about it. We had hired a guide who was telling us all the places where Shahjahan lived or exiled, where his daughters lived, mosque, sheesh mahal, bombshell damage etc. Soon, it was dusk and there were lot of birds circling the fort and its courtyard. We imagined how it would have been for Shahjahan watching his beloved Taj Mahal and the Yamuna while in exile. 
Entrance to Red Fort
Intricate garden inside the fort
Inside Red Fort where Shahjahan was exiled
Birds circling the fort at dusk

Once we came out the Tonga-wallah was still waiting for us. We wanted to purchase famous Agra pethas for which he took us to Panchhi petha store in the town. After that he took us to our hotel. We got the kids a ride on the tonga which they enjoyed thoroughly. After freshening up, we decided to have food at roof-top restaurant admiring the Agra skyline if that is what it could be called. Taj Mahal is not illuminated in the night so it was not visible, but we had a nice time with us being the only guests at the roof top. 

View of TajMahal from Red Fort
Red Fort from other side

Once we came out the Tonga-wallah was still waiting for us. We wanted to purchase famous Agra pethas for which he took us to Panchhi petha store in the town. 
Colorful Pethas and delicious too
Trying to ride Tonga

After that he took us to our hotel. We got the kids a ride on the tonga which they enjoyed thoroughly. After freshening up, we decided to have food at roof-top restaurant admiring the Agra skyline if that is what it could be called. Taj Mahal is not illuminated in the night so it was not visible, but we had a nice time with us being the only guests at the roof top. 

Agra city skyline in the morning

Next day we checked out and left for Fatehpur Sikri. It is around 40 km from Agra. At Fatehpur Sikri we again hired a guide who took us around. Fatehpur Sikri has two complexes, one is residential and administrative buildings like Diwan-e-Aam, Diwan-e-Khaas, Panch Mahal, Palaces for Akbar's three wives are there. Whereas other one is religious with Jama Masjid, Dargah of Salim Chishti and Buland Darwaza. There was lot of activity today it being Friday. There was literally a flea market inside with vendors selling souvenirs and decorative and other items to visitors. Buland Darwaza was an attraction due to its size and the stairs which one has to climb. I was really enjoying the commentary by the guide and made a plan to come back here again in leisure with a book or map to explore the place and surroundings in peace. 
Panch Mahal 
Corridors of Jama Masjid
The religious complex
Backside of Buland Darwaza
Sellers inside the religious complex 
Buland Darwaza with giant stairs

Dargah of Salim Chisti
We now drove to Bharatpur and went upto Keoladeo bird sanctuary but there was no decent restaurant or dhaba visible. The govt restaurant would have taken some time to service so we skipped it. We eventually went to a private restaurant and had sumptuous lunch. It was 3:00 PM and we had three hours to visit Keoladeo Sanctuary before it closes. Vehicles are not allowed inside and there are rickshaws available for hire or one could walk or take bicycle. We hired three rickshaws and started off.
Rickshaws inside sanctuary
There is a small museum dedicated to birds which was ordinary. The rickshaw guys took us to a temple inside which has a small attached lake which has giant tortoise who like to eat atta balls. It was nice attraction for kids to see long-neck of tortoise protruding out of its shell to eat the atta balls.
Tortoise eating atta balls

This was a little early in the season for birds to be abundant but still there were some. The rickshaw pullers also double up as guides and were showing us different birds like Cormorant, Heron, Stork etc. The park has just single road with trails shooting off to right, left. Near some marshy area there was a huge group of painted stork.
Storks colony

I was not equipped with good camera or binoculars so I just admired from a distance. We ventured a little on foot inside the walkable paths and had some nice, quite time. We came out at 6:00 pm and had tea and snacks just outside the park. Again like earlier attractions I made it a point to come back here in leisure and watch the birds for the entire day. Let's see when that happens.
A part of the park
We started from park at 6:15 pm and fortunately the ride to Jaipur was swift without any obstacle. There was huge tunnel while entering Jaipur and using navigation we were at the hotel by 9:30 pm. We were booked at Fort Hathroi which is a heritage property again through OYO rooms. Its funny that I booked OYO rooms through Cleartrip and got huge discount by them. The rooms were big and had internal door for adjacent rooms which was convenient for us.

Next morning we were slated to do city tour using RTDC bus which had to be boarded from their office at MI Road which was just couple of kms from hotel. We were late to leave the hotel but the bus had still not come at the venue. Once it came, there was lot of confusion about the number of buses, seats etc. and it ate away lot of precious time. We eventually got seats in the front of the bus. The bus then went around picking up people from RTDC hotels. Anyways, once everyone settled we began the tour. Our guide was an interesting character to be seen apart from the attractions. He wore a listening device in ear, kohl in eyes, safari suit with a hat and broken english. We visited Hawa Mahal but did not stop, then Jantar Mantar, City Palace and then a handicraft store.

Famous Hawa Mahal

Jantar Mantar was very well maintained. Our guide was taking the group and telling them about all the instruments. The sundial here is the one of the biggest. Though there are many complex instruments but the easiest ones for tourists to understand are the current local time which was accurate on the instrument. Since it was getting hot we hurried through the instruments and went into shade. There was a lovely small temple with a tree beside it with squirrels running around.
Jantar Mantar
Jantar Mantar
Small temple and tree
City palace was an epitome of opulence. The building, the carvings, the chandeliers, a round of guns,
huge utensils etc. were sight to behold. The building itself was painted very nicely and everything was impressive. Just outside the exit, there was a snake charmer playing his been. He was attracting lot of attention as the tradition is almost extinct.

Inside City Palace
City Palace
Snake charmer outside City Palace
After handicraft emporium we were slated to go to Nahargarh fort. It was getting a bit hot and due to long weekend there was lot of tourist traffic on the way to Nahargarh fort. The bus dropped us well before the gate as it cannot enter the narrow entrance and we had to walk almost a kilometer inside. Once there everyone went to the only restaurant there but it was overwhelmed by the number of people who were ordering food. The kitchen was barely able to fulfil the orders. And after patience runs out chaos ensues. The crowd was just all vying to get their order picked up first. Along with me standing was a foreigner who was dumb-founded by this unruly behaviour. He too had bought a thali and but was unable to get it. I helped him to get his order and he was thankful. I was disappointed by crowd who showed their worst in such situation when even foreigners are present. After lunch there was very little time left to visit the fort but we still took a round of it going over the floors, windows, roof. The whole Jaipur city was visible from top. To get to our bus, we took an auto to get to the gate where bus was waiting. Due to paucity of time our guide cancelled going to Jaigarh fort by giving a laughable excuse. This is all mismanagement by RTDC wasting precious time in picking up everyone then taking us to shopping in the middle of the day and not stopping for food at some proper restaurant.
Nahargarh roof top with nice chhatris

View from the window

View of the city from Nahargarh fort
Next destination was Amber fort which involved some climbing up the stairs and walking around. With day's travel we thought to let rest of the family at Kanak Vrindavan garden and while me & wife visited the fort. We hired a guide again who took us around. There was supposed to be a ticket bought beyond a point but we did not go inside. It was quite crowded at evening time. Here there are elephants available to climb upto main fort entrance in grand style.
China wall like wall around Amer fort

Amer fort

Ride on the elephant
After finishing off our tour of Amer fort we came to Kanak Vrindavan garden and were glad that family rested well and kids enjoyed playing. We too rested for some time. After that we thought of ditching the tour bus as it was going to take more time to get back to our destination. We hired a tempo auto who was apprehensive to take so many people as it was beyond limit but eventually agreed. We managed to fill in with me sitting in the boot space. The driver was smart and took us through internal roads to avoid all the traffic on the main road and in reasonable time we reached the RTDC office. We picked up our vehicle and came back to hotel. Today we were supposed to go to a Dhani outside Jaipur where we were invited by an office acquaintance who owned the place. Once we reached there, the kids enjoyed several rounds of Camel ride while we sipped the buttermilk. Out in the open, it was getting cold already. We had a delicious traditional Rajasthani food and it was out of the world. The taste was distinct than anything we eat in cities. After that we came back to hotel and rested.
Traditional Rajasthani food

Next day we were slated to come back to Delhi. Our flight from Delhi was at 6:40 PM so were supposed to reach by 5:00 at the airport. The plan was to drive straight to airport. In the morning I drove a little in the city to tank up and found the roads and infrastructure pretty good and there was even a Metro there all functioning! I was lamenting how Pune being a bigger city with crying need of a metro the work hasn't even started.

We did a leisurely drive back to Delhi. Since I was coming to Jaipur-Delhi highway after long time, I was looking for what all has changed especially around Gurgaon. There were many more buildings and much more crowd. For lunch we stopped at 32nd milestone. I was coming here after around 14 years and had nostalgic feeling.
32nd Milestone
After that I thought of visiting past my first employer's building in Udyog Vihar phase-II. Nothing had changed here and the building and surroundings were still like what it was in 2001. After leisurely drive we finally reached airport where our driver had come to take back the rest of the family home. This completed a circuitous route without wasting time getting into Delhi and again coming back to airport. I patted my back for the meticulous planning. Our flight was nice with good service. At Pune, we stay close to airport so it was a convenient trip back home.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Himachal - Spiti Valley - 2015

We travelled to Spiti Valley in Himachal in May 2015. We booked the package with a tour operator for a dedicated vehicle, driver and guide. The package was ex-Shimla so we had to plan for getting to Shimla and back from Pune. 

Pune - Delhi - Shimla

We booked Duronto Express both ways to travel from Pune to Delhi and back. The train is conveniently timed though it runs on Friday from Pune and Monday from Delhi but then it forces you to spend more time on your vacation two full weeks. The train is quite popular and get booked within minutes on first day of reservation being opened. I fought with IRCTC site on the first day to secure confirmed reservation.

Delhi to Kalka was by Shatabdi Express which is again convenient but the train interior and service was disappointing, same menu of unpalatable things served for years together. Railways takes ages to innovate on things. Secondly the train interior is poorly maintained.

Kalka to Shimla was by cab. I booked one for The driver forced a break of 20 minutes for lunch even though we were not interested with a haryanvi "khan khun ko time to lage se". Since we just had one night at Shimla before starting for our tour next day we booked a hotel at Chhota Shimla away from hustle-bustle of Mall road and rest in solitude. We reached hotel Springfields ( by 3:30 pm and pleasantly surprised by the property. Its a heritage property originally built by Raja Dehant Singh and his grand-son is running the place now. Its mostly wooden with great staff with whom spent quite some time talking about the place. They have a small courtyard facing the valley which is the best part. The rooms and interiors were also quite impressive. We thoroughly recommend this hotel for a relaxed stay. I would love to stay here reading books in lawn and just not do anything. It seems they mostly get foreigners as visitors when look into their guest book which had pretty old records. We also got to meet a wonderful family with kids and spent talking and celebrating wife's birthday with them in the evening.

View from Springfields, Chhota Shimla
Beautiful lawn overlooking the valley at Springfields
Springfields building
Shimla - Kinnaur

First day we drove from Shimla to Sarahan via Narkanda, Rampur. This road is historic Hindustan-Tibet road whose construction was started by Lord Dalhousie in 1852. The road has a many interesting anecdotes. There is a narrow tunnel at Dhali near Shimla which paved the way for further extension of road. The road first climbs upto Narkanda and then descends sharply to come upto Sutlej river level.
Dhali tunnel built in 1870
First views of Sutlej valley beyond Narkanda
Sutlej River on the way to Rampur
Here there is a bridge to cross Sutlej to go towards Kullu. However, we continued at the left bank of Sutlej crossing Rampur, Jhakri, Nathpa, Jeori. From Jeori, one need to climb 17 kms upto Sarahan. By the time we reached there, it was sunset but even in the fading light we could witness the first view of Shrikhand Mahadev peak and the range around it.
Shrikhand Mahadev range
We stayed at Green Valley Resort which is a private hotel and a little inside the alleys but has good view. The rooms were basic but their restaurant was newly done with good modern interior and food was good. Sarahan is famous for Bhimakali temple with Kali as reigning deity. It has temple made of stone and wood in local hill style architecture which is unique to this region and beyond. We would see many more temples with similar structure. Sarahan also has a bird park but it was closed for the mating season. We visited the temple in the evening around aarti time. The ceremony was a little pompous with big bugles being blown and lot of chanting. It is one of the main temples for Bengali folks and they were plenty in number. There are two temples, one old and other new. The old one is now closed for public.
Bhimakali twin temples with Tigers at the door
Sun rising behind Shrikhand Mahadev range
Next morning woke up early and roamed in the town. The Shirkhand Mahadev range was gleaming in the sunlight. Me & the guide took a circular round of the town and saw the temples from different angles.

Shrikhand Mahadev range bathed in sunlight

Bhimakali temple
Bhimakali temple in village surrounding

Today we were destined to Sangla valley. We connected back the main Hindustan-Tibet road at Jeori and went further. We had some nice breaks in the this pleasant journey.

Temple comlex enroute

Deep rock cut to make road

Road obstacle which one would love
To go to Sangla valley we had to break away from Hindustan-Tibet road at Karchham. Sangla valley might be named on Sangla town but river flowing through it is Baspa. Baspa merges with Satluj at Karchham. We reached Sangla leisurely by afternoon admiring the green valley throughout. We went to Cafe 42 there and had Maggi, Grilled Sandwiches, Coffee. The place was similar to any urban cafe with sit out and books etc. mostly catering to foreign tourists. The views throughout were great and it was a little cold.
Sangla valley

Sangla valley

Sangla valley

Sangla Valley
We proceeded to Chitkul which is the last point one can visit on vehicle on this route. Its a small village at 3400 mts. When we reached in late afternoon, it was quite windy and chilly there. Chitkul is located at quite wide open valley. Due to melting ice, there were many streams gushing through village. We walked up a little to visit the temple. We just had tea at one of the shops and returned back to our night stay at Rakchham. We stayed at Hotel Apple Pie which was again basic but had great food.
Chitkul village

Famous sign to claim the dead end
In the morning took a walk upto Rackchham village and beyond it. The sun was yet to show up above mountain. Once it was was about to burst out, the rays scattered on the mountain top. Once the sun was fully up the entire valley was filled with sunlight and due to mist there was haze. At one point we came to open valley with mountain streams criss-crossing. What an experience it was which can't be described in words.
A very distinct house with chimney looking like ship

Apple orchard with flowers

Streams are abundant in this verdant valley

Picture perfect

Baspa River

Today we were to drive to Kalpa which is a town above Reckong Peo which is administrative headquarter of Kinnaur district. We started leisurely and soon reached Sangla which gives name to the valley. Sangla village is on a slope with houses rising one above the other with gigantic Kinner-Kailash peak (6,050 m) towering over it. Sangla is also famous for Kamru Fort. This fort is like a tower dedicated to Kamakshi Temple. The Goddess idol was brought from Guwahati (Assam). We braced ourselves and took to steep climb of stairs. The climb took us through houses of Kamru village and get a peek into their life. First there is a temple which has couple of shrines in the small courtyard in hill architecture. Their sloping roofs are lined with flat chipped stones tiles and the distinctive cone as the top. The main Kamru fort was still some climb away. Thankfully, it was quite sunny and pleasant for the climb. After some time, the Kamru fort came into view perched right at the top of the village. One has to tie a cloth around waist and wear a cap which is available in the fort to enter the precincts and go around. The fort is one of the oldest in Himachal and its origin is not known. The temple is stone and wood and its remarkable that it still stands today after hundreds of years of harsh weather. The view from the top was gorgeous looking into the valley and mountains beyond.

On the way to Sangla

View from Kamru fort

Kamru fort
From Sangla we joined the Hindustan-Tibet road again at Karchham and came upto Powari. The road till Powari was pretty bad and dusty. From Powarni we ascended to to Reckong Peo where we stopped for lunch. We went to Little Chef restaurant which was at the main junction. We had Kinnauri Rajma which is sourced from Nesang village and it was delicious. The first impression of the town was like any other hill town with haphazard construction, vehicles dangling wires.
Reckong Peo town
After that we ascended further to Kalpa which is just 8 km but one has to gain lot of height. As we ascended through winding roads and wooded forest, Kinnaur Kailash range was getting visible and direction of sun was favorable. We checked into hotel Apple Pie which like rest of the hotels had rooms facing the Kinnaur Kailash. The main town of Kalpa was visible a little below with its distinct temple. Since we didn't have any plans for afternoon we were invariably looking at them trying to take in as much as we can, every peak, crevice, the tree line. I borrowed binoculars from the hotel manager repeated the routine again and again every time looking at something new resting only to take a deep breath of the cool air. Towards the evening dark clouds gathered on the range and probably it rained. The Kinnaur Kailash range has a peak which has a shivling stone on top. There is a well know trek to shivling peak. One which goes around the peak called "Parikrama" and other one is to get down to the other side at Chitkul. The Sangla valley from where we came is just beyond the Kinnaur Kailash range.
Shivling peak visible in the middle

Range with prayer flags fluttering

Kalpa town nestled in the valley

Kinnaur Kailash range
Kalpa - Tabo
We started early from Kalpa at 6:30 am to be able to reach Tabo before sunset. We drove down to Reckong Peo and further to Powari to join the main Hindustan-Tibet highway. Just after Powari we had a puncture. Thankfully, we had spare tyre so it was rectified quickly. The road was really bad from here upto Spillo and even though BRO does a great job but the water, mud/gravel, landslide really play a havoc with road. We crossed over from left bank of Sutlej to right bank at Akpa over a wooden bridge adorned with prayer flag. Here there is a check post as well of Himachal police. We halted a little further at Spillo.
Gushing stream enroute 
Matter of pride
Bridge over Sutlej at Akpa
treacherous road
looking back at the river at Spillo
From here on the vegetation was all gone except small patches around cluster of houses. We are in Sutlej river valley and it was all muddy brown in color. For very short distance we veer towards a tributary of Sutlej to cross over which was much cleaner in color probably it was flowing through hard rock. After that it was dusty road all the way till Pooh which is an important center of Kinnaur district. It is wiser to come in an AC vehicle to keep away the dust.

Much cleaner tributary to Sutlej

Barren landscape with muddy Sutlej river

Its rocky landscape mostly 
vegetation is only around certain cluster of houses
We next stopped near Khab where Sutlej river coming from Shikpila pass towards the east meets Spiti river from north. Spiti has much cleaner water and it can be seen distinctly at the confluence. Shipkila which is a pass to Tibet/China is only around 40 km from here. One of the high peaks of Kinnaur district Reo Purgyil (6800+ mts) is also situated here.

Sutlej meets Spiti river near Khab

Reo Purgyil peak
Out next stop for lunch was Nako. The road climbs over precarious mountain slope over many loops to Nako. It is one of high points of the road. We were keeping ourselves hydrated for the height. I did feel a little dizzy at this height. Nako is small town with houses, few hotels and a lake. We went around the lake and admired the reflection of surrounding peaks and some vegetation. The villagers had sown peas in some of the patches near lake. There were lot of stone slabs scattered around with buddhist prayers and symbols etched in them. Our guide showed couple of shrines in the village and took us through its alleys. We had our lunch at one of the hotels here.
Alley in the Nako village

Nako village in surrounded by high peaks
Nako Lake
Stones with prayer symbols etched in them

some vegetables being grown by locals
We left for our destination Tabo. The road goes over Malling nallah road which is closed for last couple of years due to landslide. The landscape around here was quite different and could easily pass off as one from some other planet. It was like "moonscape" as the terms is famous for landscape in Ladakh. Actually this region is natural extension to Ladakh region and there is a trek to cross over from Spiti to Ladakh. More about it later.
Now we technically enter Spiti valley
Our last stop for the day was mummy at Giu village. The mummy is hundreds of year old body of a lama which did not decompose and was unearthed during some road construction. The local people rever and pray to it. Over the years it seem to grow some hair near forehead. Earlier mummy was kept at village but now a proper concrete temple is being built high above the village. The key of the temple is kept in the village and some volunteer accompanies us to the temple and open it. This place is very close to Tibet/China border. There was a lone ITBP gunman with old telephone equipment posted here to keep a watch with makeshift bunker. There is a small company of ITBP at the village for backup.

Mummy at Giu

ITBP posted to keep watch on border 
Tibet/China border 
The grand temple to keep the Giu mummy
Giu village from top
We reached Tabo which is a town in open valley famous for its monastery. We checked into Tiger Den hotel. I took a stroll around the place. There is a helipad where a local cricket match was going on. The place is quite windy due to the geography of hills around. The hotel room was basic and clean. The dining area was completely in traditional Buddhist style with seating on carpeted floor and food on the wooden table. The hot food in such a setting irrespectively tastes good. After the dinner I climbed to terrace to look at star-studded sky in windy night. Next day we visited Tabo monastery. The old monastery is completely made of mud and built in 10th century and still going strong. There were lot of deities, paintings, figures inside which our guide painstakingly explained. There is a new grand monastery being built in the town which will be commissioned soon.
Tabo village 
Tabo monastery estd 996AD
Old Tabo monastery
Stupa of the new monastery being built
Tabo - Kaza
We started from Tabo and went to Dhankar. Its a village perched high above from the road to Kaza. It has a monastery which is second only to Tabo in reputation in the region. The monastery is precariously placed on the edge of mountain overlooking the huge delta of Spiti merging with Pin river. The monastery was closed as the main priest was away though we were feasting on the views. Dhankar also has a high-altitude lake which is at the height of 4200 mts around an hour and half of steep trek away. We were all prepared to do the climb but my son being only 4 years was doubtful. Even though we all started but after some time due to tiredness wife & son held back. Me & the guide trekked along. After around an hour we reached the top of a plateau from where lake is a little further. The path is all strewn with a distinct vegetation strewn around the landscape. The lake was really breath-taking. The water was transparent and there were fish in the water! I just tried to soak in as much as possible of the lake view. After we came down to Dhankar we had food at a guest house there. They made us a Tibetan Sandwich which was omlette and other veggies stuffed between Tibetan bread.

On road 
Delta of Spiti and Pin river
Dhankar village
Strange vegetation strewn across the landscape
Dhankar lake
After that we went came to Kaza and checked into hotel Spiti Valley. After settling down we went for a little stroll at Kaza market which is the main town center of Spiti valley.

Kaza - Langcha - Kibber
Today we were to go to high altitude villages near Kaza namely Langcha, Komik, Hikkim & finally to Kibber where we are going to stay overnight. These villages are one of the highest inhabited villages in the entire world all year round. These villages are just a bunch of flat-roof, white-walled, dark-windowed houses among some fields and nothing much. People here collect dry wood and twigs on the roof for the winter season when they burn them to keep the home warm. Temperatures here drop upto -40C in winters and for prolonged period. In summers they till the nearby land and grow peas, potato etc. Langcha has a huge Buddha statue in the open which is visible from far. It is one of the unique Buddha statue in such a setting surrounded by high-peaks. After visiting it, we went to Komik which is another high altitude village. There is a small monastery here which we visited. We also a hot-tea made by monastery folks for us. While going back we just passed Hikkim village which supposedly has a post-office for this region. Even though it was late May but ice had not completely melted and at many locations the ice was still collected in mounds. We stopped at one of them to enjoy making and throwing snow-balls which my son enjoyed very much.
Langcha village
Giant Buddha statue in Langcha village
Monastery at Komik village
Hikkim village 
Way down from villages to Kaza 
View of Kaza from top
We came back to Kaza as road to Kibber was a little different. Today we decided to try local cuisine which is Thupka and Veg Momos. Here, one mostly gets mutton Momos, hardly Chicken and Veg momos have to be specially ordered. The meal was nice and we were ready to proceed to Kibber. The road to Kibber goes via Ki Monastery but we decided to visit it while coming back next day.
Ki monastery at a distance
At Kibber we stayed at Tashi Zom guest house which was just before the village separate from the rest of the village. It was really sunny, windy and chilly outside so most of the time we stayed indoor. I went out a little to take a walk around the guest house and inside the village. This is a proper village with a school and a game of volleyball was going on. There are other guest houses and this village witness some tourists. Here I met Mr. Anurag Jately and his assistant. He is ex-NGC, ex-Fox Traveller head of programming for them and he was shooting night sky in timelapse, phew!! I was just awestruck listening to his anecdotes and watching some of his work on his laptop. He had come to Kibber on his Mahindra Thar with 250kg of photography equipment. They would set out only at night after 11PM and come back by 3-4AM after putting their cameras at multiple location. He invited me to join him but thinking of dark night in such altitude, forget about the chill what about if there is a miss of a skid??? I simply did not have courage to step out leave alone go with them at such time and I was anyway grappling with my thoughts of high-altitude dizzyness. He told me to have a look at Milky way which is visible to naked eye when it rises around midnight. I braved a small 15-20 minute outside the guest house and really looked at the Milky Way. Our room was completely wooden and even had provision to burn wood in a wood-stove which we enjoyed.
At Kibber village
Kibber village

Kibber village
Post office at Kibber

Distant village seen from Kibber
Kibber - Kaza

We started from guest house and walked through Kibber village among the villagers. People were bust in their chores and children were smiling, playing. This is probably the best time of the year for them. We took a detour to Kaza via Chichum. This is a village which is across a deep gorge from Kibber and the road it too circuitous and time taking, so there is a hand-operated rope trolley which locals use to cross over. We witnessed one such crossing by a woman and her child. The guide told us that its quite tiring to operate the trolley. We slowly descended from Chichum. At one point, we saw group of blue sheep which is local to this place.
Inside Kibber village
Trolley to Chichum village

Blue sheep
We came down and went to Ki Monastery. It is located at the top of small hill like vanilla ice-cream on a cone. Like other Buddhist monasteries they allow visitors to roam around the monastery. Our guide took us through all parts of the monastery. Young lamas were chanting in the open and some of them giggling at us while taking photos. Older lamas were busy in their chores. We went to their kitchen and had tea there. There was preparation going on for lunch. Cooking was all wood fired. We went to the terrace of the monastery for sweeping view of the river valley. There were some figurines which are meant to drive away the evil spirits.
Entrance to monastery
Prayer wheels at Ki monastery

Monastery kitchen all wood fired

Young lamas practising in courtyard
After spending enough time came back to Kaza and checked back into same hotel Spiti Valley. This time we were the only guests. The hotel is run by a local couple both of whom are government servant in a local school. Since there were no guests to attend the owner interacted with us. Most surprising was the owner had been to Nagpur for doing a course in Physical Education. I am from Nagpur and it is notorious for being the hottest places in India. This first question was how an inhabitant of Spiti could survive in the heat of Nagpur? He told us that government job is the most sought after occupation here as private enterprise is limited. We slept not knowing what was in store next morning. Next morning when I woke up, it was snowing and entire valley was covered in snow and white. This was something we did not anticipate so were naturally thrilled and played with snow on the terrace. It wasn't a heavy snowfall and it soon stopped.
Kaza monastery in snowfall


Houses and valley covered in snow

Kaza to Mud (Pin Valley) to Tabo

Our guide made a small change in itinerary and instead of staying at Kibber for 2 days, we thought of spending an additional day at Tabo and visit Pin valley instead. There is a village called Mud which is the last motorable village in Pin valley around 35 km inside the road to Tabo. The road follows the Pin river and is into Great Himalayas as against Trans-Himalayas of Spiti valley. The road was pretty treacherous but with great views of snow-covered mountains so close probably from last days snow fall. There was lot of ice still not melted around the road. Pin valley is supposed to be very green but we were a little early in the season. Mud is one of the end-point of Pin-Parvati trek who goes over Pin-Parvati pass and comes down to a village called Wangtu which connects to the road to Shimla. At Mud, there was literally a glacier over a mountain stream and we had lot of fun throwing snowballs. We had delicious (anything hot is delicious) momos and noodles here for lunch.
Going inside Pin valley
View from Mud village towards Pin valley
Getting deep into Pin valley
Glacier at Mud
After that we traced back our way and came to Tabo and stay at Tashi Khangsar. Tabo is in an open valley with narrow opening so it is mostly windy. Next morning there was a fresh spell of snow-fall and the barren brown hills were white.

Tabo hills with fresh snowfall

Our hotel at Tabo
Tabo - Kalpa

Now we were backtracking our way back and due to over exposure of barren mountain scenery there was less enthusiasm. We stopped at a spot to get into the Spiti river basin and after some stone hurling and calm moments hearing the sound of the flowing river we made quick retreat to Kalpa which I was looking forward to. We reached Reckong Peo and again had lunch at the same Little Chef place with same Kinnauri Rajma. We checked in again at Apple Pie hotel at Kalpa. We had kept one day at Kalpa so we had next full dat to explore Kalpa and surroundings. Most of the time was spent spending time in the room looking at overcast and probably raining in the Kinnar-Kailash range.

I woke up well before sunrise to admire sunrise in the hills and took position at a vantage point. Kalpa is pretty popular with Bengali tourists and there are hotels catering exclusively to them with signs written in Bengali. Many of them were up and ready to look at the sunrise. The entire hour or so from initial light to complete immersion of the valley in sunlight was like a light show with many hues from orange to blue and the sunlight diffused by the mist. Once sun was up there was an urge to have a hot cuppa so I climbed down to the Kalpa village. But there was no shop open as yet. took a round and found a stall open.

Just before sunrise
Valley getting first rays

Sun completely fills the valley
 After readying up we went to visit Reckong Peo this being a free day for us. We first went to Monastery of Mahabodhi Society which has a huge statue of Budhha and lots of flowers. Watching the statue against the backdrop of KK range was gorgeous. After that we went to a couple of Tibetan/Buddhist and Hindu temple which are adjacent. They both had typical small structures with intricate wooden carvings. After that we went for walk and shopping in local market. We bought some Kinnauri Rajma, Walnut, some herbs and woollens. In the evening we went to suicide point or windy point which is on the way further than Kalpa on the road to village called Roghi. The place has view of deep valley down below and its quite a windy place due to hills around. That ended the day for us in Kalpa.

Buddha staute
Us at the statue
Snow capped peak

Buddhist temple at Reckong Peo

Chandika devi temple at Kalpa town 

Wooden carvings at the temple

Prayer wheels at Kalpa temple
Suicide point really deep and windy

End of the day at Kalpa
Shimla - Delhi - Pune

After returning from Spiti tour this time we stayed at Bridge View Regency on the Mall Road, steps away from HPTDC Lift. The location was nice and easy if one has to roam around Mall Road and Ridge but a little away from Heritage structures of Shimla. The hotel itself has weird layout where one has to climb steps before/after lift. Thankfully we got a room with great view of entire main Shimla. The hotel had things lacking one of them was availability of water. Secondly, there was no ceiling fan or AC as probably the time the hotel was built there was no need for fans but now with hotter summers even in Shimla, they have provided only table fans. Lastly, their breakfast buffet was disappointing, no fruits or juices, only oily poori/bhature with aloo/chana and bread sandwiches with either boiled egg or omelette, no eggs to order. We had better breakfast at lesser equipped places in Spiti.

I have lived in Shimla long back in early 90s when my father was posted here. I used to come in summers for 2 months for 3 years, so I was keen on visiting places where I had lived and visited during that time. We lived in a suburb of Shimla there called Kelti. The route to it is from Ridge to Longwood and then towards Kelston and then bifurcate at one point towards Kelti. It was nostalgic to walk on the same road which I used to frequent 20 years back as child. To my surprise, road was just like what it used to be. Same road barriers painted green and white, the rain shelters where I took refuge many times in rains, the ascent, descent. The final leg to Kelti was still unpaved like it was at that time. Though this time saw more people crossing me with phones in their hands, hoardings and presence of vehicles. Finally in Kelti it was transformation. There was a cellular tower standing right in front of house where we used to stay and the building added more rooms above and in front. Now there was a new motorable road upto Kelti from backside which was non-existent at that time. Houses had cars parked in front! Though there was familiar silence and sound of wind which I experienced at that time but still lot of construction unsettled me. Even in the valley down below which used to have only trails now seemed to have paved paths and there seemed more houses and fields in the hills on the other side of valley. There is a temple called Dhengu temple which is on a hill above Sanjauli. I remember me and my father walked to that temple on the day next to Rajiv Gandhi's assassination when all govt offices were closed. It was still there but now it had a red colored ugly looking tomb. Having nobody to meet per se, I left the place with mixed feelings.
Shimla in the morning 
Mall Road with Hanuman statue on Jakhu hill above

Shimla city
The Ridge, Shimla
Church, The Mall, Shimla

Next day we decided to visit some heritage attractions which surprisingly I didn't visit when I used to be here in early 90s. Perhaps because that time there was no information or interest. We took a cab to Viceregal Lodge which is on Observatory hill. Its a grand structure with great gardens in front and the back. The front garden was full of flowers and plenty of butterflies. The rear gardens are more relaxed where visitors can sit on grass. There is a HPMC outlet selling juices. The interiors are grand and the entrance hall is completely wooden. Lot of important decisions regarding India's independence and partition were carried out here. Nowdays it house Indian Institute of Advanced Studies which has research programs in humanities and liberal arts. Looking at the location and solitude its a perfect place to research on these topics. There are guided tours here which run at intervals of 45 minutes with entry fee of Rs. 40/-. They take you through 3 photo galleries and view of library and main entrance. From there we went to Himalayan bird park. It had birds found in Himachal though not very impressive collection. Mostly it had hen/cock and pheasants. Then we came to Himachal State Museum. The building is tucked away up in the hills and there is a steep, long climb to get there. However, it is worth it as it has many items in display both from Himachal and outside like sculptures, paintings, arms etc. Then walked upto Mall Road via Vidhan Sabha and other official buildings. This part of Shimla is silent and quite walkable. Once the Mall road started solitude gave way to crowd.
Viceregal Lodge
Flowers at Viceregal Lodge
Garden at Viceregal Lodge
Himachal Phaesant

Ceceil Hotel

Railway Board building
Sunset over Shimla
Shimla all lit up 
Sunset over Shimla
 This was complete three train journeys over 2 days. We started with Kalka-Shimla Himalayan Queen Express @ 10:30 am. The journey though seemed to be long but soon we were enjoying. There was light drizzle in the later part of travel. The best part was the moment train arrives the solitary eatery comes alive with people extending hands furthest to be served first.

Our train ready to depart
Train going through forest 
Finally back to plains
Kalka to Delhi was by Shatabdi with same standard food and service. At New Delhi, we were taken at platform 1 and had to cross 16 platform and more to reach Ginger Yatri Niwas. Tired from day we were looking forward to sleep but had to wait for 30 minutes as rooms were being cleaned. Apparently, they over book passengers including day guests and allot rooms as and when available. Though the room themselves are quite reasonable for the price and efficient.

Next day we took a cab from Yatri Niwas to Hazrat Nizamuddin and boarded the train. The return journey was nice with company of families with kids.