Rays

Sikkim. Viewing the peaks in the non-peak season. Therefore, none of the clichéd photos of either the summer blooms or the wintry snowy landscapes. Mostly barren mountains, with the promise of colour. Expecting clear blue skies and getting clouds. Making us look harder and deeper. Winter may be coming, but we got there first.

As always, I began my holiday planning from the homestay search. Gangtok, Lachung, Lachen, Rumtek, Pelling … all beckoned, but when Airbnb lobbed ‘Zuluk’ at me, there was no other place I wanted to see. Mum and Usha Aunty, my travel companions, had little choice but to go along with my plans.

It took a fair bit of my hard headed determination to get us to Zuluk, and what a delightful experience that journey was. Living with the locals, partying with strangers, and the private theatre of the sun’s romance with Kanchenjunga at dawn to cap it off!

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Our hosts’ kitchen at Zuluk

 

 

 

Getting to the viewing site was an adventure itself. A series of misunderstandings and an overcast sky the night before all threatened to put a dampener on our excursion. We left late, and hoped and prayed with all our might that it was not too late. That wish was granted:

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Kanchenjunga waited alone until we got here

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The sky turned fiery

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The clouds made way

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And the sun came out in a blaze of glory

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While Kanchenjunga blushed

We woke and dressed up at 2.30 am to get to this spot in time, and were blessed to be the only ones at this spot. More of the scene unfolded as the day got brighter.

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Paused our chattering teeth just enough for a sunrise selfie

After we had thawed a little in the sunshine ourselves, we looked beyond the obvious landscape, and found this:

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A bit of frost that couldn’t decide whether to stay icy at the freezing temperature, or to thaw with the gentle persuasion of the sun’s warmth.

And the reason I picked Zuluk? The ‘roadscape’:

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The Route of the Sun

From Cusco, we were headed to Puno, to see the Lake Titicaca. I would have liked to go by train, as the Perurail Andean Explorer sounded like a lot of fun. Until I discovered the tourist buses, following the Route of the Sun, similar to the train at a fraction of the cost (think 70-80% cheaper).

The hotel at Cusco recommended Turismo Mer, and we complied, opting for the fully loaded tour, with 5 stops, taking 10 hours for under 400 km.

We started off in the butt-freezing cold of the early morning on Monday, half asleep from the exertions of the Machu Picchu trip the day before, and promptly dozed off as the bus started.

About an hour into the journey, we had the first stop at a colonial church of Andahuaylillas. It was too cold to stick around inside the church, so Souvik and I stayed outdoors, trying to thaw out in the sun.

Cusco to Puno

I dozed off some more, until the next stop at Raqch’i, to see the ruins of an Inka built Temple of Wiracocha. There were some interesting handicrafts for sale at the plaza before the temple ruins, where I would have loved to linger.

Our guide, Mareta, had a soothing voice but dramatic flair, and brought to life the structure, and what it may have been used for. One of the rare instances where I found a guide adding value to the sightseeing!

After Raqch’i, and the exertion of getting on and off the bus, it was soon time for lunch at Sicuani. My hopes for a good lunch were rock bottom, coz how can the food be great, when cooked in such large quantities (4-5 busloads)? And how wrong I was. It was a traditional Peruvian spread, complete with Alpaca meat and quinoa soup, and the most divine dishes I’ve had in a while. Toasted corn, chips, Peruvian lentils, peas and potato, salad – I was back in my veggie heaven.

Cusco to Puno

The lentils were a delight for me, and I had to go for dal chawal (rice and lentils) seconds. There was an incentive for rushing through lunch – photo ops:

Cusco to Puno

After a good meal, and more shopping for Souvik – sweater and rug – we weren’t allowed to rest in the bus for another 30 minutes. That’s because we were nearing the highest point on the tour, at 14000 ft, at La Raya, where we stopped for more photos.

All along the way, I tried valiantly to get a good picture of alpacas grazing, and wasn’t successful at all. This was the best I could manage.

Cusco to Puno

Our last stop on the bus route, before arriving at Puno, was Pukara, to see the museum, and the famous toritos del Pukara (the bulls of Pukara). The bulls are the cutest little fellows that you see on rooftops, they are supposed to bring good fortune.

Rumi Wasi

Cusco to Puno

Naturally we were tempted to stop and admire and shop. They come in multitudes of colours, but the natural ones look the best.

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The plaza itself had the most awesome colours going for it.

Cusco to Puno

Cusco to Puno

After this stop, I had more dozing opportunities until we got near Puno, and had our first sighting of Lake Titicaca, with the abundance of totora reeds.

Cusco to Puno

We were booked in the delightful Mirador del Titicaca, where we checked in to more beautiful views of the lake while Souvik recovered from a short, bad case of soroche (altitude sickness).

Lake Titicaca

Been here, done this… The mother of all tourism in Peru: Machu Picchu

Peru is practically synonymous with Machu Picchu, and the thought that I would travel to the country and not see the site was unthinkable. There were plenty of obstacles along the way, some of them in my mind alone. Apparently, this is the high season, because of the influx of American tourists, and Machu Picchu tickets get booked months in advance as they only allow a limited number in each day. The other aspect is that sitting in Indonesia, it wasn’t the easiest thing to research on how to find your way to MaPi. There are 6-day treks, 2-day treks, trains, buses, tour operators, and goodness knows what else. Plus all the reading I was doing was in English blogs, whereas I’m sure Spanish ones might have better and more current information.

Luckily, there are some good sites to get the information you need. Here’s one: http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/how-to-travel-to-machu-picchu

If, like me, you’re looking for the easiest option (effort-wise), these are the steps to follow:

  1. Book entrance tickets for Machu Picchu first.
  2. Next, train tickets from Cusco or Ollantaytambo (another town with some more ruins), and back. Dates depend on whether you want to stay in the Machu Picchu town for one or two nights before visiting the site or not. We did a day trip, so no hotel required at Machu Picchu. Actually the town is at the foothills of the mountain and is better known as Aguas Calientes (hot springs), and looks pretty tacky, whatever little we saw of it, and overpriced too, because of its location.
  3. Third, hotel and flight tickets for Cusco. We flew LAN airlines from Lima to Cusco, and have been very impressed by their professionalism and customer orientation (more on that later). Hotels in Cusco are aplenty, just use http://www.tripadvisor.com for reviews and decision-making.
  4. All of the above can also be done with the help of a travel agent or tour operator, but I like to be independent, as far as possible.
  5. Don’t forget to carry your passport/ ID on your trip, because they will check multiple times.

Getting back to my blogging frame of mind, once all the tickets were booked, I should’ve been relaxed and ready, but instead, I had a couple of sleepless nights thinking of the train that we had to catch, and the bus ride to the entrance of the monument, and how I might miss something if I overslept, as even the alarm is different on the other phone (remember I lost my iPhone?). Consequently, I was waking up much before the alarm, which is probably a good thing.

Our hotel folks were sweet enough to pack us a lunch bag as we had the early morning train to catch. Quite a fancy train experience in the Perurail Vistadome:

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With its enormous glass windows on the sides and the top, we could admire the beautiful landscapes along the way. Pictures from moving vehicles aren’t the best, but I can’t resist posting one:

Machu Picchu

The 3-hour+ ride is easy going, there are guide books and souvenirs of Machu Picchu on sale. We bought a book, and had the Lonely Planet guide on the iPad, as we didn’t want to have a guide there.

Disembarking at Aguas Calientes, we had a short walk to the bus terminal, paid for a return ticket, and had a bumpy, dusty 8 km, 25 minute ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu. It’s also possible to hike up the trail to the entrance from the train station. There are steps carved into the hillside, so you probably end up covering 2-4 km only, but all uphill. We were looking for the least effort, so bus it was.

I mentioned that numbers are limited, but it still seemed quite a lot of people out there. Probably because everyone was jostling for the best spot for selfies. We did our bit to add to the crowd.

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As soon as I set up the tripod for a timed photo of the two of us, the guards came whistling, so poor Souvik ended up lugging it all the way for nothing.

After having a bunch of unsatisfactory ‘iconic’ shots of the monument, we started our exploration of Machu Picchu. Not much is known about the structure, and a lot is assumptive. Believed to be built at the height of the Inca period, around 1450 A.D, as a retreat for the rulers from the cold winters of Cusco, this place stayed undiscovered by the Spanish conquistadors. However it came to light in the western world when Hiram Bingham, an American historian, made an exploration in the region. He followed the same policy of other invaders though, and took back a number of artefacts to Yale University for ‘further study’, but those were never returned to the site.

Regardless, Machu Picchu stands as one of the finest examples of Inca planning, architecture and engineering. The structure is much bigger than it appears in photos. It is believed to have housed any number between 500 to 1200 people in its heyday. The mountain is terraced on all sides to prevent landslides, and for agriculture. The agricultural section is separated from the ‘urban section’ by a dry moat. There is a Temple dedicated to the Sun God, a grand central plaza, ceremonial structures, residential areas, bathing areas, working areas, even tombs for the rulers. No amount of photos and explanations can replicate the feeling of walking through the structure, and feeling it for yourself. Unsurprisingly, this place is on the bucket list for so many people, and we were fortunate to be there.

Señor San Roman had told me the day before that the Inca style of building was to mimic their natural surroundings. I do see shades of that in some of the structures. The triangular sections above the walls do look like the mountains around the area!. You don’t notice the terraces unless you look very closely. It’s beautiful. The Incas paid special attention to the stones in the scared structures. See how the temple walls and the tomb are polished to a smooth finish, as compared to other (less important) structures above? And all the walls are just stacks of stones, no mortar to bind them together. They use principles like offset alignments of the stone and trapezoidal doors, windows, niches, to withstand seismic shocks. There are channels to manage the flow of fresh water, and waste water. It’s probably all done manually, without the use of any beasts of burden.

By the time we got there, it was midday, and after a couple of hours of exploration, going through each section and figuring out its function, we were depleted of energy in the hot sun. Quite a change from the previous days of bitter cold and grey skies. Though I keep saying ‘easiest path’, there’s a LOT of climbing up and down the steps that take a toll on your feet and knees and breath. A quick look at the photos, and we could find no good ones of ourselves, so against all our good sense, we climbed back up on the hill to the guardians huts, for that iconic shot. Most of the crowd had dissipated and we had the place to ourselves. This time we got it right.

Machu Picchu

The Incas probably built this section for the guards as a lookout point, and to watch over their structure, little knowing that it would be THE spot for 99% of all photos of Machu Picchu down the ages!

We had a train to catch in the evening, so we reversed our tracks, back on the dusty bumpy bus ride to the train station. The night ride had nothing to admire on the outside, but the staff on the train put up a spirited ‘fashion show’ for us, showcasing some lovely alpaca wool garments with great flair, and of course, an opportunity to buy later.

That night I slept like a log.

Full and Finally!

Where I come from – Kolhapur, India – Peru (पेरू) is the word for guava. As a nice tribute/ coincidence, my first meal in Lima was “guava y funghi” – pasta stuffed with guava in a delicious mushroom sauce with paprika foam. I don’t get all the fuss about new-age food in foam form, but the meal was delicious. I figured out the guava-Peru significance only much later, probably this morning, after the stomach groaned from all the chow overload over the past 30-odd hours.

The flights were loooong, and I felt obliged to eat everything they served, as I had opted for the ‘special’ Asian vegetarian meals. We had a longish layover at Amsterdam, where we stuffed ourselves with more coffee and bread-y meals, just because. Schiphol Airport is supposed to be one of the nicest in the world. We just picked the time when they’re in the process of making it nicer for the future, consequently, painful today. Airports in Asia have left rest of the world far behind in  look, feel and process. Even our humble Soekarna-Hatta airport seems like a breeze compared to the exit process in Lima. The luggage trolley has to be one of the indicators of smartness of an airport. Lima certainly has the ones from the last century. And we had a lot of suitcases, all of which had to be scanned at Customs. A word of advice to travellers – Must use the facilities that you see right at the gate after disembarking; there aren’t any more later, at least, none that you can spot easily. And if you ate on the flight like we did, ahem….

Still on the topic of food, Peru has one of the newly popular cuisines of the world, so I hear. The restaurant at our Business Tower Hotel, Quimera, certainly is on the spot with their food and presentation. I passed the sampler bite of salmon and cheese to Souvik (too fishy for me, after a micro-lick). I’m loving their serving bowls and platters, and since we’ll be here for a few days, I might get to see those again.

On the ‘immersion’ aspect, I’ve tried to cram some basic Spanish words into my vocabulary, and was successful in blurting “gracias” to the immigration lady. Mental exercise is good for the brain! I may also avoid jet lag, thanks to all the movie watching on flight, and a well-deserved deep sleep last night. There’s a small concern of altitude sickness and acclimatisation (seriously, who thinks up all these?), for which I have pills (thanks, Sonia), and instructions to drink plenty of water and walk very slowly (hah, my body is perfect for that). The plan for today is to find my way downtown, and get a feel of the city. I’ve noticed that the ‘uniform’ for women is jeans and boots; glad I packed mine. Whether I can last a whole day in boots remains to be seen. Time to put myself out on the streets of Lima!

Que Será Será

Some exciting travels happen without any wishlist, expectations or planning.

Not in my wildest dreams was I heading off to South America in the middle of the year for a quick holiday. It’s the other end of the world, after all. But an employment offer for Souvik was too good to pass by. We had some difficult decisions to take, at the end of which Souvik is going to work for a while in Lima, Peru, and I’m staying back in Jakarta to carry on the business here, but not without extracting my pound of flesh, er… two week vacation in Peru.

UnknownJust tossing names like Peru and Machu Pichu in the air make me want to sling my camera over the shoulder and take off to parts unknown. Only, there’s a small matter of the visa. There are only 2-3 countries in the world that don’t demand a visa from Indians, and Peru certainly isn’t one of them. We found our way to the Peruvian embassy in Jakarta, and went through a major soul-searching, gut-wrenching process to get that precious stamp on the passport. Then came a few weeks of illness, maid-less-ness, intensive housekeeping, that left us no time to plan the travel. Apparently it’s the high season for travel, and Machu Pichu gets sold out months in advance. I was a little disappointed.
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A couple of days back, I had a relaxing mani-pedi session, and a quick read-through of the Lonely Planet Peru, to put me back in the mood. A few hours of intensive online research and I know that all is not lost yet. There are some spots available for Machu Pichu, and train bookings, plus a few more scenic routes to travel through. Bags packed, warm woolies in, and the quick introductory blog post almost done.

On the ultra long flight, there’s an agenda to speed-learn some useful Spanish phrases, and to get the accent right. I already have visions of paragliding off the cliff in Lima, gawking at Inca ruins, day-tripping from one hot spot to another, admiring herds of llamas. Can’t wait to get going, but that will only happen once I pack up the laptop.

So, hasta mañana, amigos! Watch this space for more.

A Yarn and Some

When opportunities to travel to new destinations present themselves, I tend to shamelessly grab them, just as I did with Reva’s tour to Maheshwar & Mandu with her friends.

Maheshwar, to me, evokes a vision of yards and yards of hand-woven sarees. Ever since a cousin in the family started her own business designing Maheshwari sarees and employing local weavers, they’ve been top of mind for most of us, making an appearance in family weddings and being the perfect gift. They’re lightweight yet dressy, in multitudes of colours, and even make super salwar-kameez for non-saree people like myself.

 

My cousin has her own label, Gayatri, and retails in Indore.

Getting back to the weaving, since we were traveling to the source, I expected it to be a fantastic photo op. Sadly, since it was a national holiday that day, most of the weavers were out of action. I did get a few though:

 

Yet Another India Travel Story – Introduction

It’s been a roller coaster of a summer lately, what with the traffic woes during Ramadan, then the highs of receiving the work permit, just in time for a long and hectic travel to India. Yeah, you read it right. There’s ‘work’ in the statement above. About time too. But not before some quick journeys to exotic places.

I managed to grab a short vacation to the historic towns of Mandu and Maheshwar with Reva & her friends. Chetna, our intrepid group leader, not only organised the tour and all the logistics associated with it, she also cracked the whip to make sure we had everything we needed and nobody got left behind. There was a unique ‘essentials’ list – homemade Shammi Kebabs from Hyderabad, home-baked brownies, tortes, banana loaves (all properly delegated), colouring things for the lil ones, alcohol preferences, secret social networks for the latest updates, a wicked sense of humour – to name a few.

Who better then, to write a guest post for my blog, than Chetna?

If ‘Mandu’ is evocative of romance and poetry, you’ll be surprised to know that it’s real claim to fame is not the best known tale of Baz Bahadur and Rani Roopmati. I was pleasantly surprised. Look out for Chetna’s post, and you’ll know.