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So, I reached Shillong again a couple of days ago, this time to catch the cherry blossom season, which is a surprisingly new trend that is being mainstream-ized by the International Cherry Blossom Festival. This Festival started only last year and I first heard of the cherry trees only a couple of years earlier when I was there to visit Mawlynnong. During my earlier visits to Shillong, I don’t remember anyone talking about cherry blossoms. Nevertheless, I do think that they make some great frames and so I decided to make a quick round to the city.

The Arrival

I have never made a post on Shillong before but it is a familiar place for me and I have seen most of its primary attractions in the past but not after I started my blog. So, intended to have a quick walk around the city although very soon I realized that my timing was far from optimal. Anyone familiar with Meghalaya would know that the primary attraction of these hills are the waterfalls and cloudscapes that look best during the rainy season. Post monsoon, the hills turn grey and the waterfalls become leaner. This phenomenon can be compensated by the aforementioned cherry blossoms but this year, due to various reasons, the blooms cherries were refusing to bloom.

As a result, I literally struggled to find one blooming tree all over the town as I entered the city although the eponymous festival was already going on in full swing. The Guwahati-Shillong shared Sumo from Khanapara cost INR 170 and it was a smooth and eventless ride. After reaching the town, I went directly to Ward’s Lake, one of the primary venues for the festival and also one of the primary attractions Shillong in general. It is named after a British administrator who envisioned the lake right at the heart of the city and actually got it dug. Here, I finally found a couple of blooming trees although I was expecting more. Nevertheless, the lake lived up to its reputation and provided some good frames in the dying light of that autumn evening.

The Struggle

I wanted to make the next day count. But it was not realluy working. I visited Beadon Bishop and Elephanta falls but they looked far more subdued than what I remmeber from a monsoon visit during the summer vacations in the mid-90s. The harsh sunlight was not helping and in fact, it was far warmer than I’d expected. I bumped into some other travellers I knew. They were also looking for the same thing without any success. We teamed up, gave up on the cherry blossoms, and started walking around the markets. The most memorable thing I saw during this walk was the sight of local women selling skeletons of gigantic sponge gourds. Yes, we have these ones in Assam too but normally they are half the size.

Later that night we made our way to the Polo Ground, another of the iconic locations of Shillong that was hosting the rock concert as a part fo the festival. Shillong does have a rich musical tradition and it was a good show with many local bands singing their own songs as well as covers of iconic bands. We found a few stalls selling local wines. It seems they have begun to make wine out of everything. Cranberry wine, orange wine, jackfruit wine, mulberry wine, and scores of other varieties were being sold. We got one too and had a good time while the bands raged on. But… whatever happened to the blossoms?

The Redemption

I needed to return the next day. But I was finding it hard to believe that I will be returning without a single decent photograph of what I came to see. So, I decided to give in one last try. I also got some insider tips from various people on the social media and it seemed that the blossoms have finally arrived. I started walking from the Polo Ground to Laitumkhrah through a narrow alley near the NEEPCO office and soon spotted one tree in full bloom.

After that I started seeing them more often. I was told that the St. Edmund’s College is a good place for the same. I walked towards that and soon found a frame what turned out to be the most satisfactory one for the day and for the entire trip.

My frustration was finally gone and I was ready to leave Shillong but I decided to pay another visit to Ward’s Lake before I leave. This decision paid off too. The festival was over already but the cherry blossoms had finally arrived! I am not sure how to feel about it. They are not going to last long. After so much wait and speculation, they offer some brief moments of joy and disappear again, like some brief moments of passion in a star-crossed love story (Yes, I hate myself for writing these cheesy lines). Have good day.

Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival Travel Guide When does the Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival Take Place?

It normally takes place during the first half of November. For the exact date, check their official site or social media pages before you start planning every year.

What are the dates for Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival in 2018?

The Festival is being organized this year from 14th to 17th November.

This year they are even inviting dignitaries from Japan, the original land of cherry blossoms.

How to reach Shillong from Guwahati?

You will get shared cars from Paltan Bazar (near Railway station) or Borjhar Airport. They should cost no more than INR 300 per head and takes around 3 hours or so. You can also take local transport to reach Khanapara, which is on the edge of Guwahati, and get a shared Tata Sumo for only INR 170. Buses exist but they are infrequent and timings may be awkward.

Where does the Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival Take Place?

Events take place at various venues around Shillong such as Ward’s Lake, Polo Ground, and some stadiums in the city. Normally these places are not far from each other and not hard to reach once you are in the city.

How to travel from one venue to another during the cherry blossom fest?

Hiring a cab for yourself can be expensive in Shillong. So, check the map and get yourself acquainted with the place names within the city so that you can hop into any of the cabs carrying locals. This way, you should reach any place in INR 10-20.

Is there any fee for attending Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival?

Not really. Events are generally free for all to attend. You will have to pay the normal entry fee at Ward’s Lake.

What to expect during the Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival?

Apart from the Cherry Blossom, you can enjoy the musical concerts and always try the local food, rice beer, and fruit wines. They should be easily available in the stalls around the venues.

Where, when and how to find the Cherry Blossoms in Shillong?

As you must have realized already, the blossom timings are not exactly predictable. The festival is planned to time with the blossoms but as it happened this year, it turned out to be a bit too early. No one can exactly predict the nature but ideally, they bloom between late October to most of November and they last 2-3 weeks only. However, once they start blooming, you can see them all over the city and you don’t really have to search for them.

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Prehistoric humans discovering and exercising their creative urge, a fledgeling species thinking beyond mere sustenance, or a community trying to immortalize their story, although in a crude format, no matter how you describe a piece of prehistoric art, it does not fail to fascinate you.
As I have already mentioned in my previous post about the Brokpa area, these are probably the oldest manmade work of any kind I had ever seen, equalling or predating those in Dholavira. As a matter of fact, this entire route is full of such prehistoric rock art clusters but Domkhar is the best preserved one and it is only fitting that it overlooks the Indus, the river that sired an entire civilization and lends its name to the country. This also is a good indication of the antiquity of the human settlements in their area. I once missed a good chance to visit the much more famous prehistoric rock paintings in the caves of Bhimbetka in MP and this one made up for that.
I did not have much clue about the prehistoric petroglyphs of Ladakh until recently. I did not have any clear idea even as I reached Leh this September. I only started getting interested in them when I decided to explore the Brokpa region and soon I realized that this Khaltse-Batalik route has the best concentration of such sites.
So, I left the homestay at Achinathang on a morning 8 AM bus. This was a small local bus that goes up to Khaltse. I got down at Domkhar, just in front of the signboard mentioning the sanctuary although it seems too early and the gate seemed to be locked.
I reached early and gate seemed locked
Anyway, found another way, going down towards the river bank and reached a spot full of seasonal flowers. I was beginning to wonder if I’d come to the right place as it seemed like a floriculture plot rather than an archaeological site. Nevertheless, one guy came out of the house and confirmed that I was in the right place. The village of Domkhar is also doing well in organic farming and that is what I was seeing all around. Anyway, the guy walked me to follow him. We took a narrower but well-maintained pathway lined with poplars from the plot and soon I noticed the first one not them, followed by the second one.
At first it did not look like the place I was looking for…
The poplar-lined gateway to petroplyphic paradise
After that they kept appearing one by one till we almost descended to the bank of the river. These scenes were varied. There were scenes of people and animals, showing hunting and another day to day activities. Not everything could be identified or deciphered but the ibex hunting scenes were probably the most prominent ones. There was also a clearly identifiable horse at one place, which raised a few questions. There are some controversies regarding the horses in the subcontinent. The traditional view is that they are not native to India and arrived with Indo-Aryan settlers while the opposing anti-AIT group of people will beg to differ. The age of this piece of art may give them some ammo.
It is fittingly located overlooking the great Indus
Ibex Hunting
What exactly is that?
The horse raises many questions
What is that?  Looks Egyptian!
Big Cats?
Phallic symbolism?
It is hard to know the exact age of these petroglyphs of Ladakh. Various sources quote various numbers from 2000 to 5000 years. So, It can be said that they are not all necessarily prehistoric and there is a continuity in this tradition that was sustained till the historical era. Also, some of them reportedly have Buddhist symbols, so they must have been done after the spread of Buddhism. However, the ones I spotted in Domkhar seemed genuinely pre-historic, especially the hunting scenes, and I personally never spotted any religious iconography.
I spent around 45 minutes admiring the rocks. I could have spent the whole day but the guy who was showing me around was getting a bit impatient. So, we walked back to the entry point and he directed me to a room, which was full of dried apricots. I thought now they will be charged the entry fee but surprisingly that was not the case (I had read in a different account that there was an entry fee). Instead, I met the family that I presume owns that plot including the petroglyphs. They offered tea and biscuits and then after that, I left. After that point, there was a long wait for the bus on the road for Dah-Bima but that is a different story.
Petroglyphs at Dah-Beema
A couple of days later, I had the opportunity to see a few more of these artefacts near Dah Village, precisely somewhere between Dah and Biama, by teh side of the road, on the banks of Indus again. Another such rock is now a part of the entry gate of an army camp in the same area. So, it is hard to click photos of that one. But here you can see one on the river bank, with Polo, the French guy I mentioned in the previous post.
Petroglyphs near Dah Village
Prehistoric rock art along with promotions for Hasan Mechanic, a pre-historic chariot repairer…
Now, the ones near Dah are not that well preserved. Some of them have already been lost due to the river and also due to road construction activities. Also, people seem to be sculpting their names on the rocks (as they always do in India).
This is exactly where Domkhar becomes important. There are many such sites in Ladakh and more are being discovered. But Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary seems more likely to survive while the rest are yearning for preservation.
How to Reach Domkhar?
Domkhar is around 120 KMs from Leh along the Khaltse-Batalik route. Catch the Dah-Bima bus from Leh bus stand at 8.30 AM in the morning and you should reach by noon.
Where to Stay in Domkhar?
I was told that it i spossible stay here but I could not see any place to stay in DOmkhar and nor was I planning to stay. The nearest places with definite stay options will be Khaltse and Achinathang on both sides. Otherwise, you can just take a detour enroute to Dah.
Where else to see rock art in Ladakh?

Apart from Domkhar, I have already mentioned the ones near Dah village. They have been reported around various parts of Ladakh and Zanskar but they may differ in style and antiquity. The ones along this so called Aryan Valley or Brokpa Valley seem to have their own distinctive style. Places like Khaltse, Nimmu, Likir, Alchi, Stakna, Karu, Upshi, and Tangste etc also reportedly have such sites but I will have to return next year to explore these.

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There is something so incredible and life-changing about spotting wildlife at a national park, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit several in India. However, there’s no denying that Africa is one of the best places in the world for national parks, with hundreds to choose from. If you want to become one with nature and see wildlife you won’t see anywhere else in the world, you simply have to head to Africa. With so many to choose from, however, how do you pick? Here are just six of the best national parks on the continent.

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Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Spanning over 1.5 million hectares, Serengeti National Park is easily one of the best that Africa has to offer. This is one of the best places to witness the Great Wildebeest Migration, but that’s not all. Dubbed as ‘big cat country,’ it’s thought that there are more lions in the Serengeti than anywhere else in the world. Head to the watering holes to see the majority of the wildlife in action – it’s where it all happens. Once you’ve finished your safari adventure, you can head to the white-sanded beaches of Zanzibar. Tanzania has it all.

Kruger National Park, South Africa

South Africa is a must-visit for so many reasons, not least of all because of Kruger National Park. This is the oldest and largest national park in South Africa and is ideal for spotting The Big Five. On top of the most famous animals, there are also thought to be nearly 140 different mammals and 500 species of bird, so you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to the wildlife here.

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Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

You can’t talk about national parks in Africa without featuring Masai Mara. It’s part of the same ecosystem as Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, so head here to see the end of the Great Migration. Masai Mara is also famous for the large number of lions, leopards, and cheetahs, so get your camera at the ready to snap some big cats.

South Luangwa National Park, Zambia

If you’re looking for something a little less tourist-heavy, South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia is the perfect spot. Due to being a bit more remote and thanks to fewer visitors than some of the other parks, this is a little slice of unspoilt safari heaven. This is also the ultimate destination for a walking safari if you don’t want to see the sights on the back of a 4×4.

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Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

This UNESCO World Heritage site is even more off the beaten track than South Luangwa. The Mana Pools attract a lot of large animals in search of water so expect hippos, elephants, buffalo, and plenty of crocodiles. You can even get in a canoe and paddle down the Zambezi if you want a more thrilling safari adventure.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar

Madagascar is the world’s oldest island and is home to 5% of all known animal and plant species on the planet. Of course, there is one animal everyone heads to Madagascar to see – the famous dancing lemurs. At Andasibe-Mantadia National Park you’re likely to be treated to a dance or two, while also being surrounded by a whole host of other stunning wildlife and plants.

There are so many incredible national parks in Africa that you’ll definitely be spoilt for choice if you decide to visit. Feel like I’m missing any from the list? Let me know in the comments!

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What on earth is the Aryan Festival?

Aryan Festival Poster

My first encounter with the Da-Bima area started with a large poster in Leh Bazaar publicizing the Aryan Festival in Biama. The festival was over already but I decided to visit the area anyway. I was aware of the Brokpa people, their iconic floral headgear, and the fact that they live somewhere on the Khaltse-Batalik-Kargil route. But I had not done enough research, did not even know the names of the specific villages, and it was not a part of my orignal plan. But as it usually happens during a long trip, the plans changed and I diverted my attention to this route as I kept discovering more and more interesting aspects.

As I start writing about this area, I realize that it is a SEO nightmare. There seemed to be no clear, universally accepted collective name for this area inhabited by the Brokpas and this maybe a reason for its relative obscurity in touristy Ladakh. The tourism community in Leh is trying to popularize it as the Aryan Valley but I guess Brokpa Valley will be more appropriate. According to some ancient texts as diverse as Mahabharat & Herodotus, this is the Darada Country (Darada=Dards). Some others use the names one or two of the famous villages to depict the area, such as Dha Valley, Dah-Beema, Dah-Hanu etc. What makes it more difficult is that all these villages may also have multiple spellings. Dah may be spelled as Da, Dha or even mDa according to one academic book I found at a homestay, although I don’t know how to pronounce the last one. Biama is spelt at various sigboards as Bima, Beema, Beama and Biamah. Hanu, Hanoo or Hano area consists of villages like Hanu Thang, Hanu Yogma, and Hanu Gongma. Brokpas are also called Drokpas at places. I don’t know which keyword to focus on.

I intend to write more detailed posts on at least a couple of villages in this area. But this post is more of an introductory guide rather than a travelogue. I think it is necessary because it can get really confusing for first timers.

Geography of the Brokpa Region Dah Bima Area Map

Nevertheless, let me just try to explain. As you can see on the map, you start your trip along the Leh-Srinagar Highway towards Kargil but the road bifurcates at Khaltse and a narrower road goes towards Dah-Bima area and onwards along the Indus River. This road eventually passes through Batalik and rejoins the highway near Kargil. There is another small connecting road in the middle between Sanjak to Khangral that connects both the branches. The initial villages on this route are usual Ladakhi ones but after Hanu, you really enter the Brokpa area, with the most famous villages villages being Dah, Biama, Hanu Gongma, Garkon, Darchik and Chiktan.

Most of these villages are located on both the banks of the Indus River and located at a slightly lower altitude compared to Leh. So these regions are warmer and more fertile, growing buckwheat, millets, barley, apricots, walnuts, apples, and grapes among other things. They have road connectivity with both Leh and Kargil.

Brokpa People, Culture & History

Now, this is the trickiest part to write about. As expected, the history of this population is not very clear. If you look for it, you will find various stories starting with the one describing them as the descendants of some members of Alexander’s Army that miracuously got detached, secluded, and survived. But this seems to be a very popular story not limited to this region and I find it a bit too far-fetched. The Malana people claim it too and so do the Kalash from Chitral. This also gives rise the theories that describe them as pure “Aryans” because of their facial features anbd teh fact thgat they are generally endogamous. Of course, this is a harmless ploy to attract tourists and the broader historical and political implications of the same are best ignored.

According to the experts, a more plausible theory is that they are Dardic peoples like most others in Kashmir and Baltistan. But their culture is unique because for some reasons they resisted external influences. They did not covert to Islam like the rest of the people living to their West while they also did not get completely overwhelmed by Tibetan Buddhism of Ladakh. Although they are now nominally Buddhists, the customs somewhat vary from those in Ladakh. In the village of Dah, there are remains of an old Dardic fort and a shrine dedicated to the ancient pre-Buddhist female deity “Srigmo”.

While only a few thousand in number, the Brokpas are a very noticeable presence in Ladakh, especially because of their distinctive attire. In Leh Market many of them can be seen selling dry fruits. However, as I explored the area, I realized that it is not easy to get someone in full traditional Brokpa costume for the perfect portrait. Generally everyone wears them on festivals and other special occassions but otherwise only a few elderly women can be seen with the headgear in the villages. On the other hand in the markets of Leh they always wear it because it makes them stand out in the crowd and attracts tourists.

A Brokpa Lady selling dry fruits in the Leh Market.The Trip Through the Brokpa Valley

My trip started on a confusing note. Not much information was available and I was also not sure if I needed to get an official permit for the place like some other frontier areas in Ladakh. I asked other traveller friends and finally got the contact of Angchok, who is into tourism business and is from Domkhar village in the same route. He provided some clarity and I also asked me to get the permit.

I got the permit made and decided to take the morning bus from Leh and let the things unfold naturally. However, some frantic googling the previous night led me to a Facebook page of Achinathang Traveller’s Home, a homestay in a village called Achinathang, slightly before Dah and Biama. I left a message on the page and was soon contacted by Konchok from the family that runs the place. It turned out that this was a family of scholars, who have done a lot of research on the Brokpas and also on the history and archaeology of Ladakh in general.

However, it seemed that everyone from the family was in Leh and the house was empty (It was not the peak season anyway). Nevertheless, Konchok met me at the bus stand next morning and handed me the key to the house and told me that the people from the neighbouring house will provide food. To be honest I was not sure about this arrangement and my phone was also not working in Ladakh. In case something went wrong, I was going to get stranded in a remote village with no backup. But nevertheless I took a leap of faith and started the trip.

A plesant bus ride along the Indus.. esp if you get the window seat.

The just passed through Nimmu and Khaltse and then left the highway from a diversion along the Indus. Enroute, I noticed the signage for the Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary, although there was no time to explore it. The bus passed other prominent villages like Skurbuchan and finally reached Achinathang, where I noticed a signboard directing towards my homestay. I found the place soon, located by the side of a blooming field of buckwheats leading up to the looming hills. There was not another human being around. So, after a bit of hesitation, I went in myself and entered the desolated house with the keys I got from Konchok. The house was full of apricots, produces of the season, and some part of it were going through renovations. There was no power (I realized later that just like Turtuk, it receives power between 7-11pm only). After some rest, I came out to explore the village and bumped into the girl from the neighbouring house I was told about. I got a cup of tea and the dinner was also sorted out.

Indus near Achinathang

Achinathang as a village has a lot going in its favor. It is a green and fertile patch covered with apricot orchards and buckwheat fields, not unlike Turtuk. But I did not have much time at hand. There are barely one or two buses in this route and if I had to do the rest of the things in my mind, I had to leave early next morning. So, I could not do much in the village although I enjoyed the simple dinner at the neighbour’s place again.

Buckwheats at Achinathang7th century statue at the homestay

The next morning, after breakfast, I decided to take the morning bus and come back instead fo going forward, to Domkhar so as the visit the Domkhar Rock Art Sanctuary. I will write separately about it but as of now, it is suffice to say that these are probably the oldest manmade work of any kind I had ever seen, predating those in Dholavira. As a matter of fact, this entire route is full of such prehistoric rock art clusters but Domkhar is the best preserved one. This also is a good indication of the antiquity of the human settlements in their area. I once missed a good chance to visit the much more famous prehistoric cave arts of Bhimbetka in MP and this one made up for that.

Ancient rock art at DomkharIbex hunting scene.. Domkhar

Domkhar did not take much time. But it was followed by a very long wait by the side of the road for the bus, the same one I took the previous day. The valley was blooming with autumn colours. But the bus seemed to be even slower. Among other things, it decided to take a detour to the inner areas of Skyurbuchan. Now, the previous day the bus did not enter the village and from the main road it looked ordinary. However, as the bus climbed up towards the main village, the delights of the village begun to unfurl. From the higher vantage point, the ripe buckwheat fields of Skurbuchan were clearly visible and I also noticed a scenic monastery, still higher up, I think at the top of the village. I wish I had more time to explore this village but it was not possible anymore. The bus then crossed Achinathang again, still continuing along the Indus, and finally reached Biama, which looked half submerged in water. I learnt that a lot of settlements by the side of the road had been lost in a recent old and they moved higher up.

Buckwheat fields at Skurbuchan

I originally thought of staying in Biama but looking at this, I was not sure anymore. There was one big new hotel, which was surely going to cost much more than my budget. Also, by that time, I had befriended a French couple on the bus. The guy had visited the region 8 years ago and he was looking to stay at the same homestay in Dah village. So, I just followed them and reached the homestay in Dah Village, located by the side of a millet field, under a vineyard.

Homestay at Dah Village

I spent the next couple of days here, exploring Dah, as well as nearby Biama and Baldez villages. I will write a seperate post about Dah to do justice to it. As of now, I should just point out that Dah is probably the heart of this Brokpa area. It is a large and goodlooking village that has kept the pristine culture intact. There are enough ancient ruins, as well as living traditions to keep you occupied for a while. But yes, I think I should come back at the time of a festival.

Main Places in the Dah-Beema Route

Khaltse

This is where the road from Leh bifurcates. The buses generally stop here for lunch. The highway goes towards Lamayuru and then Kargil. The other one goes towards Batalik through the Brokpa area. I have heard that Khaltse also has remains of some Dardic forts but I never saw them.

Domkhar

Domkhar is a big village famous for the Rock Art Sanctuary with the best-preserved specimens of prehistoric petroglyphs and rock art in Ladakh.

Skurbuchan

Skurbuchan is also a big village. The lower area by the side of the road is not very appealing. But you can climb up to the main village which is more scnenic and there is a big mmonastery at the top of the hill.

Skurbuchan Monastery

Achinathang

Achinathang is an important village with ancient petroglyphs, monastery, and beautiful pastures that are now blooming with organic farming.

Hanu

At Hanuthang, a smaller road bifurcates. It goes northwards, and higher up, to Hanu Gongma, one of the major Brokpa villages.

Biama

Biama is the first real Brokpa village on the main road. It has a big monastery atop the hill, that takes a bit of hiking.

Colours of Biama

Baldez

Baldez is a beautiful village on the other side of the Indus from Biamah. You need to cross a hanging bridge to reach it.

Bridge to Baldez.

Dah

Dah is a few KMs ahead of Biama. It is the best known Brokpa village with a couple of homestay where most people stay. It has many ancient ruins of providing vital clues of Brokpa history.

Garkone

Garkone is another few Kms ahead of Dah, on the same side of the river, and another important Brokpa Village.

Darchik

Darchik is another Brokpa village further ahead of Garkone, but locate on the other side of the river.

Chiktan

Chiktan is located on a connecting road that joins this route to the main road. The road goes from Sanjak, just before Biama. It has a Batli style medieval fort.

How to Reach Brokpa Valley (Dah-Beema)? Autumn colours near Dah

From Leh, you can reach the Aryan Valley or the Brokpa Valley by catching the morning bus to Dah-Beema from the bus stand. It leaves between 7.30 AM to 8 AM 6 days a week in the morning and passes through Nimmu, Khaltse, Domkhar, Skurbuchan, Achinathang, Hanuthang, Bima and Dah. It does not go beyond Dah. Only one every Friday the bus does not go to Dah but takes a diversion at Hanuthang to go to Hanu Gongma. There are some other small buses that don’t go to Leh but commute between Khaltse and these local villages.

If you want to go to Kargil side, you can find some shared cars from Dah-Beema in the early morning (at around 5 AM). I could not find any bus service on that route.

What to see at Aryan Valley?

It must have been obvious by now but nevertheless, here is what you should look for in this area.

  • Experience brokpa people and culture (But be respectful and ask for permission before photographs)
  • Enjoy the natural views of grenn Indus, and blooming buckwhetas and apricots
  • Ancient petroglyphs and rock art can be seen at Domkhar, as well as at a spot between Biama and Dah, on the banks of Indus
  • Time it with one of their festivals like Bono-nah if you want to see everyone dressed in traditional attire
  • There more interesting pieces of history including ruined citadels and ancient sculptures that you will keep stumbling upon.
  • Look for local food and wine when you get the chance.
Unlikely nuggets of historyPermits for Brokpa Area

You need to get permits if you want to visit Dah Bima (just like you do for Nubra and Pangong etc). It costs INR 450 if you get it done yourself or you..

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We all know that fall/autumn brings a lot of colours to certain countries and chasing autumn colours is a pretty popular activity. However the change in colours during this season is not as dramatic in the plains of India. Mostly the leaves dry up and pave way from the dull winter after denuding most of the trees without offering any visual pleasures during the process.
Only the higher parts of the Himalayas in India boasts of the right kind of climate as well as right species of trees to deliver this proverbial riot of colours. Since my intended summer-monsoon trip in Ladakh got delayed (and various other disappointments also occured along the way), I inadvertently ended up here in September-October. The season has more or less ended and the markets now look deserted as I write this blog but this opportunity to frame the fall colours will remain one of the less frustrating aspects of this trip.
However, it was not as easy as it sounds. Due to the scarcity of public transport in Ladakh, I was finding it hard to do things as planned. But I met Leonardo from Italy in my hostel who asked me to join him for a bike trip along the Leh Manali Road, covering some key monasteries like Hemis, Stakna, and Thiksey.

Before you start expecting too much, let me tell you that this is a short post. I have not done such short photo features in a while but this one needs to be done as I have a lot of photographs to spare. A couple of big posts are in the offing but they still require a lot of work. Till then, you can just ogle at the bounties of the Himalayan autumn.

During the trip we also took a diversion going towards a village called Igoo, just ahead of Karu. I don’t know anything else about the village and could not find anything online either. We just rode for half an hour, till the road was smooth, and enjoyed the scenes. Most of the photographs at this stretch were clicked from the backseat of the motorcycle with one hand. So please forgive me for the quality issues (I did straighten some of them).
I’ll write seperately about the monasteries that we visited later. The following photographs are about the road rather than any destination. Apart from the yellow and orange of the autumn, a consistent feature during this trip was the great Indus river in its greenest best. So, over to Indus, autumn, willows, and poplars of Ladakh.
Poplars near Shey
Autumns comes to HemisStupas engulfed by fall coloursIndus remains green while the rest bank turns yellowA closer look of the Indus/Sindu RiverSomewhere near Igoo VillageLove that peak in the background but don’t know the name.A solitary house on the Igoo roadShades take away the shineA non-conformist polar decides to go all greenClouds play with the willows near KaruDo you notice the Helmet on the left side?Yellow was never my favorite colour till I discovered autumn poplars.Autumn now spilling over to the street.That peak again!Is it getting monotonous?I think this will go to the desktop.Stupas look good anyway, irrespective of the season.The Leh-Manali Highway near Upshi.

 

View from the top of Thiksey monastery.
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After leaving Kausani, I reached Baijnath in quick time. The iconic temple complex was visible from the bus itself but I decided to spend a night here. I walked into the KMVN guesthouse and as expected, they happened to have a dorm. So, I was sorted for the night for only INR 200 and there seemed to be no one else in the dorm. After resting for a while I set out to explore the temple.
View of Baijnath from KMVN Dorm
Baijnath is a very small town that looked sleepy because it was not exactly the tourist season yet. Nearby Kausani is a bigger tourist attraction while Garur is a major market not far from here. Baijnath intrigued me because there is another Baijnath in Himachal, which is also an ancient temple (I’m sure there are others in India). So, I always wondered how the same temple got built in two different places but then it is normal in India as the locals associate themseves with various legends and develop local shrines accordingly.
Baijnath Barrage
Baijnath is essentially a Shiva Temple but the story is confusing. Baidyanath is one of the Jyotirlingas but that temple is somewhere in Jharkhand although there are other candidates who claim to be the same. Nevertheless, this is a reasonably ancient structure, at least a thousand years old, built by the Katyuri Kings who ruled these regions between 7th to 13th century and this believed to be the ancient capital of Kartikeyapura. The area has seen multiple invasions. The Gorkhas occupied the area once while a Rohilla attack damaged a few structures in the seventeenth century.
Baijnath Group of Temples
A closer view of the Temple
Nevertheless, the temples still stand tall on the banks of Gomati (Not to be confused with similalry named rivers in Bihar and Tripura), and although it is not a very large complex, it seemed to be one of the better maintained ones in the state. It is flanked by an artificial lake and a barrage, which was dug and beautified only a few years ago. The main Shiva Temple is surrounded by 17 smaller shrines dedicated to other deities and all of them are built in the usual Nagara style although I felt that the sculptures were more elaborate in Champawat. Apart from the main temple, the other important temples include Lakshmi Narayan, Kedareshwar, and Brahmani Devi.
One of the many temples
Relics I
Relics II
Relics III
It was not a very big complex and I was done with it soon. But the spring was still on in Kumaon and so I wanted to make the most of it. Some flowery pear trees and green fields were visitible all around the town, just like they did in Someshwar earlier in the morning. So, I decided to take a walk and move a bit away from the town, in order to get good views. To be honest, it was just a short stay and I don’t have much to say about it. I am aware some some more structures in a nearby village but I had to move the next day. So, I will just leave you with the pictures only for the time being.
Spring in BaijnathSpring in Baijnath II
Local women working at the fieldAnother local woman working at the field IIHow to Reach Baijnath, Kumaon?

You can get buses from Almora to Baijnath, which is around 70 KMs away. First reach Almora and look for buses going towards Garur or Kausani, which are important xcenters near Baijnath. Almora is a major town, around 80 Kms from Kathgodam, the nearest major train station well connected to Delhi.

Where to stay in Baijnath?

There are some small hotels in Baijnath but the best option is to stay is the KMVN guesthouse. The rooms will be somewhat expensive but impoverished backpackers can go for the dormitory at INR 200.

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So, is this your first time in India? Are you overwhelmed by the “chaos” described effusively by every western travel writer? Is it making you rethink your plan? It is not surprising but then, scores of people do travel to all corners of India every year. So, as a matter of fact it is not that difficult and you can make it easier by knowing a bit more about the country and getting the basics right. So, here are a few tips to begin with. These tips are targeted at budget backpackers such as myself.

Sort out your Visa

Getting visa for India has become considerably easier in recent times. In order to encourage tourism and business, the processes have been made simpler and bureaucracy has been reduced. Now, you can apply for your India visa online, which is the easiest as well as the fastest way to obtain a visa for India. There are 3 different e-visas for India, namely eTourist Visa, eBusiness Visa and eMedical Visa, depending on the purpose of your visit. The e-Visa remains valid for 120 days. You can enter India twice within this period (double entry). The second entry needs to happen within 60 days of the first entry. If you don’t want to go through the whole process yourself, you can contact a service like E-Visums to take care of the whole process and deliver it within 2-3 days.

Know Where To Go

One thing that always makes me sad is that a lot of people end up having a disappointing India experience because they simply don’t know where to go. They end up at the crowded tourist hubs and have no clue how to go beyond that. I have met people who were going to Nepal for trekking but did not even realize that a significant portion of the Himalayas lie in India. Even in the plains, there are many historical, natural, as well as cultural delights to be had simply if you are willing to see beyond the obvious. For example, I once made a list of offbeat attractions in Delhi, which remains one of my best performing posts. So, don’t just limit yourself to the so called Golden Triang, or Goa. Visit the cold deserts on the borders of Tibet, reach the untouched frontiers of the Northeaster India, and dig deep into the heart of India in Madhya Pradesh. In short, take some time off, read more about the areas you are planning to visit, don’t blindly follow the commercial guidebooks and definitely don’t listen to those travel agents.

Get a local Indian SIM

India is going through a telecom boom. Both call and data rates within India are extremely cheap nowadays, so much so that you don’t have to look for Wi-Fi hotspots any more. Most parts of the country are now well-connected, except a few remote Himalayan regions in the frontier. So, if you get a local pre-paid SIM card upon arrival, it should sort out your connectivity issues, that too at a very reasonable rate. The process for getting a SIM for the foreigners is slightly more elaborate but once you manage it, life should be easier for you. You can walk into any store and provide passport and visa details, along with the adress of the place you are staying in. You may also need to provide a local reference number and for that purpose the bets idea will be to take help of your host. The Sim generally remains valid for only 3 months for foreigners. This article has more details about the process.

Also, do note that while there are many service providers in India, not all work at every part of the country. If you are only visiting big cities and known touristy areas in the plains, most of them should work. However, in the remote regions and hilly Himalayan areas and the North East India, it may not be the case. The state-owned BSNL is present in most remote areas although the service quality is poor. On the other hand Airtel may be your best bet for most places including Ladakh and Northeast India.

Register IRCTC for train tickets

Trains are the cheapest ways to travel long distances in India and travelling on Indian Railways is an experience in itself. However, again the process is a bit more complex for foreigners. The official site for the same is IRCTC while you can also use secondary services. Some of your foreign cards may or may not be accepted by the system. So, it needs a bit of trial and error. Here is a detailed post about the same by a foreign traveller. Do note that you need to book tickets weeks and even months in advance to get a confirmed seat as the trains tend to be very crowded on most routes.

Driving in India

In a lot of popular tourist spots in India such as Goa, Hampi, Manali and Ladakh, it is possible to hire bikes and cars and hang out on your own. This gives you a lot of freedom, you can stop wherever you want, and explore the corners that are not touched by public transport. For this purpose you will need an international driving license that works in India. But don’t worry, this process is not as difficult as it sounds. You need to go to your nearest Regional Transport Office (RTO) with your passport, visa, your home driving license, and some other documents for the same. This is a good post that explains the process in a better manner.

Hostels and Homestays

While hotels are available everywhere in India, in order to cut costs, you can always opt for backpacker hostels and homestays where they are available. I am pointing this out because until recently, India did not really have the hostel culture and only in the last 4-5 years they have come up in large numbers. You can find them in big cities like Delhi, Bangalore & Mumbai, as well as major tourist spots such as Goa, Kerala, Hampi, Pushkar, Spiti, Manali, Leh etc. A hostel bed can cost as low as INR 200-400 ($3-$6) in most places. I especially recommend them in big cities where hotels can be expensive. On the other hand, I recommend homestays run by local families in the remote Himalayan regions, if they are available. For instance, read this post where I managed to find a homestay in Spiti for INR 300 (including 3 times meals). In such places you not only save money but have a great experience of local culture with local people and help them in a small way.

Food & Water

I am not an expert on food but I understand that a lot of westerners are wary of spicy Indian food. However, as far as I have seen, most of them get used to local food as they spend more and more time. Carry some basic medicines with you but in general, your system will get used to it within a week or so. As for water, bottled water are available everywhere. If you want to reduce the usage of plastic, you can refill your bottle at various places. For example, every major railway station nowadays has water refill joints where you can get purified water at dirt cheap rates (INR 2-3).

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