Summit Dreams: Trekking Tales from Everest Base Camp

There’s a joke among climbers in this part of the world. A Nepali’s idea of “flat” is a little up and a little down. It’s not a joke. It’s the cold truth.

There are no easy days on this trek. This is big-mountain country and the steep ascents and descents never let you forget that. No leisurely strolls through meadows here. There are only two kinds of terrain on the trail – steep and very steep. 

Over 8 days, we ascended from an elevation of approximately 9000 feet to over 18000 feet and then all the way back down again over the next 3 days. It tested both my physical and mental fortitude to their limits.  

But all tiredness disappeared when, on Day 9, I stepped out at 3:30 am from our tea house at Gorakshep and saw the snow-capped mountains all around me shimmering in the glow of the near-full moon. Surreal.

Setting out for Kala Paththar under a moonlit sky

The temperature was a bone-chilling -15 °C.  After a 2.5-hour long, steep climb I was on top of Kala Pathar. It is the peak that offers the best views of Mount Everest. The spectacular panoramic view has not just Mount Everest in it but Nuptse and Lhotse as well. 

At more than 18000 feet, Kala Pathar is the highest altitude I have ever attained. Just as the first rays of the sun began to bathe the peaks in a yellow glow, the still-bright moon started going down behind the peaks. At that moment, the grind of the last eight days felt completely worthwhile. I counted my blessings.   

Ever since I started trekking, a trek to the Everest Base Camp has been on my bucket list. My resolve strengthened when I saw the movie Everest. To attempt the summit, I will have to wait for the next lifetime. A pilgrimage to the Base Camp would do for now. Hikers come here from all corners of the world, from Canada to Australia. Being right next door in India and not going would be a sin. 

I had booked my trek through Bikat Adventures. The 12-day trip ex-Kathmandu cost around INR 60,000 excluding food. The return flight to Kathmandu was approximately INR 30,000 and food on the trek cost around INR 35000. Including miscellaneous expenses, one can budget approximately INR 150,000 for the trip. Our group had only three hikers and was accompanied by a guide and a porter. 

Day 0 – Kathmandu

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu

I had a spare day in Kathmandu which I used for a spot of sightseeing. Boudhanath is a giant, whitewashed stupa with a glistening golden crest painted with the eerie-looking Boudha eyes. It is beautifully adorned with colourful Tibetan prayer flags. It’s one of the most important Buddhist shrines in Nepal. The stupa is surrounded by a circular gallery with some very atmospheric cafes and beautiful stores selling exquisite Tibetan handicrafts. I enjoyed lunch at one of the many rooftop cafes with a glass of chilled Coke and arguably the best views in town.  

In the evenings, Thamel is the place to be in. This neighbourhood in downtown Kathmandu is backpacker central. Trekkers and tourists from all over the world congregate here. It is packed with affordable accommodation, cafes and pubs serving all manner of global cuisine, trekking gear stores and handicraft shops. The bustle around the place has to be felt to be believed. It really comes alive in the evenings, with the music overflowing into the streets from its many excellent pubs. 

Day 1 – Kathmandu to Lukla by flight and onwards to Phakding 

The trip got underway with a flight to Lukla. Lukla Airport consistently features in the list of the most dangerous airports in the world. The tiny airstrip is only half a kilometre long and has a steep gradient. Our landing was uneventful (thankfully) but looking at the airstrip does induce a generous dose of trepidation. The 20-minute flight through the Himalayan foothills almost skirts the hills at times. With an outstretched hand, you may be able to touch the huts on the hills. Okay, I am exaggerating. But only a little.   

Lukla Airport – it doesn’t any prettier

At Lukla we met our guide, Chandra, and porter, Mahesh, had some tea and set off right away. The first day starts with a comfortable descent from Lukla to Phakding. The route passes through postcard-pretty villages and is dotted with teahouses every few metres. 

These tea houses are the lifelines of treks in Nepal. They provide frugal but cosy accommodation and simple but fresh, hot meals. The dining halls here are the centre of all activity where trekkers gather after the day’s toil to unwind, sip some hot ginger lemon or chilled beer, play cards and chat. Owing to a long tradition of hikers from the West coming in large numbers, one will find Pizzas, Pastas, Noodles and Pancakes on the menu, apart from the local staple Dal – Bhat. 

Nepali Daal-Bhaat

Day 2 – Phakding to Namche Bazar 

The steepness of these slopes hits home today. It’s a long day’s walk to Namche. With every zig-zag turn, I prayed for a small flat stretch to catch my breath back. But the slopes are relentless. The scenery though was breathtaking. Most of the day’s trek is through a forest and multiple times during the day, we crossed the famous suspension bridges across the Dudh Kosi river. The Dudh Kosi is aptly named. The rapidly gushing water appears as white as a stream of milk. Crossing these suspension bridges, also used by yaks and mules, is a mini adventure in itself, especially when strong winds rock them vigorously.    

Gorgeous Namche Bazar

We entered Namche Bazar at dusk and immediately fell in love with this postcard-pretty town. Namche is the capital of the Khumbu region, the region in which Mount Everest is situated. Namche is a weird, out-of-step place on the otherwise spartan trail. It has cafes serving Salmon Sushi, Live Music bars and North Face stores. It’s a good place to stock up on any provisions one may need because supplies get scarce and scarily expensive beyond this point.  

Day 3 – Acclimatization at Namche Bazar

My idea of acclimatisation is a lazy day spent in bed with a book and some hot beverages. Our guide, Chandra, thought differently. 

Starting from Namche Bazar, we hiked up more than 1500 feet to the Everest View Hotel. The views from the hotel are spectacular. While Everest bestows the region with its fame, several other peaks in the region are strikingly beautiful. Ama Dablam, meaning “mother’s necklace’, a 20,000-foot-high peak that we encountered often on the trail, just mesmerised me. 

The snow-capped peak on the right is Ama Dablam

Near Namche Bazar is the Sherpa museum which does a fantastic job of documenting all facets of Sherpa life. It traces the history of the region from ancient to modern life, gives numerous glimpses of the colourful sherpa culture and documents the mountaineering feats in the region meticulously. It is an absolute must-visit for anyone wanting to understand this mysterious region. 

Day 4 – Namche to Tengboche 

Another day of gorgeous mountain views. Another day of back-breaking climbing. 

The unexpected highlight of the day was a bakery next to Tengboche Monastery. After days of eating the bland food at tea houses (the diminished sense of taste at high altitude was more to blame than the food itself TBH), this was a carnival for my tastebuds. The quality of their cakes was exceptional and a bakery like this won’t be out of place in Paris or Stockholm. Their cakes can do as much good for the soul as prayers at the monastery next door can. 

Coming to the monastery itself. The Tengboche Monastery is a 100-year-old gompa that is not only sacred to the Buddhist faithful but also to mountaineers who wish to summit Everest. They make it a point to seek blessings here before proceeding onward.  Listening to the monks chanting in the chorus was deeply moving. 

The teahouses in Tengboche were all full so proceeded to the next village enroute, Debuche to stay the night. If you are beginning to spot an obsession with names ending in “che”, well, “che” apparently means “ a place that the guru’s feet have trodden”. The stretch from Tengboche to Debuche passes through a beautiful Rhododendron forest. Though the flowers were not in bloom, this stretch still was among the prettiest we encountered in the entire trek. 

A walk through the Rhodo forest

Day 5 – Tengboche to Dingboche 

Today we left the greenery behind and climbed above the treeline. After this, the scenery would get increasingly stark. We passed through pretty little villages, Pangboche and Shomore on the way. 

While I was lucky to evade altitude sickness ( a fairly common occurrence) on the trek, there was no escaping homesickness. We weren’t halfway through yet. The most testing slopes were still ahead of us. The temperatures and oxygen levels would keep on dropping sharply. My taste buds were betraying me and all food was tasting bland. The prospect of enduring this for another week, without any friends for company, was weighing me down. I was beginning to feel that I had bitten off more than I could chew. 

The antidote for homesickness – this letter from my daughter

Day 6 – Acclimatization

One more acclimatisation day. But Chandra’s got no chill! 


We hiked up to a viewpoint and I must confess, the views made the climb well worth the effort. Once back, I spent the rest of the day catching up on sleep and some light reading.  

Day 7 – Dingboche to Lobuche 

Once again, today’s highlight was gastronomical. For lunch, I feasted on Indian-style Puri-Tarkari at a teahouse in Thukla. Soul food. No disrespect to the Daal-Bhaat or Pastas, but Puri is love. As more Indian trekkers start frequenting this region, a trend that has picked up after the pandemic, I hope some Indian food will also make its way to the menus here. 

The landscape continued to be starkly beautiful. The weather was bright and sunny and I have never seen bluer skies. The anticipation of nearing the Base Camp also buoyed my spirits and today’s climb, despite the challenging terrain, felt a lot more relaxed. 

Day 8 – Lobuche to Gorakshep & Everest Base Camp

Today was the big day. We started early in the morning and reached Gorakshep around 11 am. 

Enroute Gorakshep

Gorakshep, situated at nearly 17000 feet, is the highest settlement on the trek. It is a tiny patch of flat land surrounded by steep mountains on all sides. It has no source of water. The water here is airlifted through choppers. No wonder a bottle of water that costs NRS 30 in Kathmandu costs NRS 500 here. 

After a quick lunch, we headed off towards the Base Camp around 1 pm. The climb towards the Base Camp is along the famous Khumbu Glacier. The landscapes were nothing like anything I had seen before. The glacier looks beautiful and ominous at once.  

The fabled Khumbund Glacier in the foreground

The base camp itself is somewhat anticlimactic. It’s merely a relatively flat stretch of snow-free land covered in rocks and pebbles, the last such stretch before the glacier and ice fall. Its symbolic significance cannot be overstated, but it isn’t the prettiest sight you will see on the trek. The Everest peak itself is quite distant and hardly looks imposing from here. Add to that about 500 people jostling for the perfect photo at the same spot. 

Base Camp at last!

Nevertheless, the feeling of making it to this spot is indescribable. Legendary mountaineers who submitted Mount Everest would have all started their climb from here. I was standing at a spot with unparalleled significance in the world of mountaineering and I could not be more grateful.   

We slept early once we got back because we would leave for Kala Paththar in the dead of the night. Kala Paththar is, both figuratively and quite literally the high point of the trip. 

Days 9-11 – The descent!

After summiting Kala Pathar early on the morning of Day 9, we came back for a hearty, well-earned breakfast. And then we started the descent. On Day 9 we slept in Pangboche and the next night at Namche. By the evening of Day 11, I was back in Lukla. 

During the three days of descent, I felt truly relaxed to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Freed from the tyranny of ascent, I paused now and then to gawk at the majestic mountains. 

Himalayan Tahr

I was also fortunate to spot some rare Himalayan wildlife, a Musk Deer (which sprinted past me too quickly to be photographed) and a Himalayan Tahr (which did not mind posing for some clicks).  

I won’t brush aside the feeling of accomplishment lightly. This was the longest, highest and steepest trek I have done so far. If you want to hike for the joy of it, there are many alternatives in India that are easier on the eyes, on the body and the pocket. But if you want to trek for glory, there’s no better playground to test out your mettle and endurance than this big mountain country. 

Buran Ghati: A Tale in Green and White 

We went to sleep in our tents at 8 pm, not knowing what the following day would hold for us. We had reached Dhunda, the last campsite on the trail before Buran Pass, at a lofty 13000 feet. After braving the biting cold, inclement weather and treacherous terrain, we were here. But whether we would cross the Buran Pass, the raison d’etre of the trek would be decided by the weather gods. The trek leader would wake us up at 1:30 am, only if the weather stayed clear to the pass-crossing. 

The wake-up call never came. Instead, I woke up at dawn to find the campsite bathed in powdery white snow. I was instantly overcome with the disappointment of not getting a chance to cross the pass. It was to be the high point (quite literally!) of the trek. Not crossing over felt like unfinished business. I would forever wonder what lay beyond on the other side. But if something had to deny me the opportunity, I am glad it was the first snowfall of my life. 

The Essentials

Buran Ghati in Himachal Pradesh is considered among the most beautiful treks in the country, and justly so. It is a moderate-difficult trek because it climbs up to an altitude of 15000 feet. Indiahikes does a fantastic job of documenting treks and you can read the detailed itinerary on their site. I’ll focus more on my personal experiences and reflections here. 

I and a group of friends trekked with Trek the Himalayas (TTH) in May’23. The trek takes 7 days including transportation from and back to Shimla. The fee including all stays, meals, guide charges and transport was approximately Rs 16,000. 

The Journey Begins

Enroute Janglik

After a scenic 8-hour drive from Shimla, we reached Janglik, the tiny, postcard-pretty village that’s the base for the trek. With its charming traditional houses in wood and stone, beautiful temples and meandering paths through terrace farms, Janglik is a delight to walk around. 

Postcard-pretty Janglik

Here we met our trek leader, the local guides and our fellow trekkers. Our trek leader, Satyaprakash, was a stoic man of the mountains who would awe us by completing the entire trek in a pair of slippers. The local guides were a jolly bunch from Janglik, very hospitable and always at hand to help. Techies from Bangalore made up most of our trekking group. A welcome exception was 13-year-old Aarav, a spirited young boy who had already done other Himalayan treks and always stayed at the head of the group. 

We spent the night in a dorm in an austere homestay. The spartan homestay was a nice bridge between the comforts of city life and the frugal tent stays that were to follow. 

Our Homestay in Janglik

Paradise Found

Out on a walk the next morning, I crossed a lady who was carrying a big basket full of firewood from her farm on the slopes to her home up the hill. When I requested a photograph, she not only obliged happily but also invited several of her friends to get their portraits clicked! Soon a gaggle of Himachali ladies was crowding around my camera, giggling at their photos. Their faces were full of character and their easy, confident gaze had none of the bashfulness that characterizes their counterparts from the more conservative lowlands. They make light work of the arduous task of carrying manure, firewood and cattle feed up and down the hill between their farm and home. 

And on that note, we set off. Over the next two days, we trekked through gorgeous pine forests and lush green rolling meadows, soaking in the incredible Himalayan landscape. The big, snow-capped mountains of the Dhauladhar range kept us company throughout. The only people we met were either goatherds or fellow trekkers. 

The Campsite at Dayara Thatch
No words to describe this setting

Each campsite on the trek outdid the previous one. The campsite at Dayara, set amidst the meadows with grand mountain views, was absolutely gorgeous. The next one at Litham was set on deep-set snow with nothing but white snow all around and not a speck of green in sight. 

We also got used to being pampered with delicious, warm meals. The modern trekker need not bother with carrying provisions and cooking for themself. The good trek groups all provide simple but delicious and nutritious hot meals. Over the course of the trek, TTH treated us to an array of desserts including Shahi Tukda, Custard and Jalebi.    

Atop Frozen Chandranahan Lake

On the third day, we made an excursion to Chandranahan Lake from Litham. This alpine lake, flanked by tall mountains on all sides, is the source of the Pubber River. After the challenging hike up, we reached the top and found the lake completely frozen. The expansive mountains surrounded us on all sides and made us realize just how puny we are when juxtaposed with the might of nature.    

Nature dwarfs us

Not All’s Well

The excursion to Chandranahan had been taxing for some in our group. Their bodies were not acclimatizing well to the increased altitude of almost 14000 feet and they had struggled to maintain pace. Some of them were also experiencing increased heart rates or low oxygen saturation levels, both of which can be potentially dangerous. The trek leader had to turn some of them back. The news from the next camp at Dhunda was not great. It had been snowing incessantly, the tents were wet and the chances of pass-crossing were dwindling. All this prompted more than half of our party to turn back from Litham. 

Now this was my first trek with TTH and I have no major complaints. But I strongly feel they should have taken greater care to ensure that trekkers came prepared for the challenge. Indihikes is extremely professional in this regard. They insist that trekkers furnish proof of meeting their fitness goals before commencing the trek. TTH pays no heed to such stipulations and takes along everybody who shows up, irrespective of their fitness levels. They seem happy making a quick buck.  

Those of us who stayed back were dejected to see so many of the group leave. But we were determined to take our chances at crossing the pass. After all, that’s why we were here. 

Ascent from Litham to Dhunda

The ascent from Litham to Dhunda on the fourth day was a mild one and our group made short work of it. The Dhunda campsite is well above the treeline and entirely engulfed in snow. The first look at the Dhunda campsite took my breath away. Summit or no summit, this alone was worth soldiering on for. This winter wonderland was enveloped in fresh snow as far as the eye could see. 

Dhunda Campsite

Uncertainty & Speculation

We were all sitting clustered together in the common dining tent, discussing our prospects of crossing the pass, when suddenly, magically, it started snowing. This was bad news for our chances of crossing the pass the next morning but my heart spontaneously leapt with joy. This was the first time I was experiencing snowfall. I immediately sprinted out of the tent, rediscovering the child within. Within minutes, powdery white snow had covered all our bright red tents.

After a spell of fresh snow

We spent the entire afternoon observing the shifting weather and speculating how it would turn out the next morning. And the frequently changing weather kept us guessing. Rain and snow followed overcast skies but every now and again the sky would turn clear and the sun would peek out, giving us hope. I told myself that I had already gotten more on the trek than I had bargained for and the pass crossing would only be the cherry on the cake if it happened. After an early dinner, we went to sleep with nervous anticipation.


The weather gods were not kind. After relatively clear skies till one in the night, it had started snowing again and it continued to snow incessantly till dawn. We all woke up dejected but took it in our stride and saw it as an excuse to come back again to cross the pass some other day. As if we needed an excuse to come back to this paradise!    

We started our descent along the same route we had taken to climb up. Along the way, we were rekindling memories of crossing these same places on our way up. The stretch from Dhunda to Litham was laden with foot-deep fresh powdery snow. What’s more, it was still snowing. Trekking down amidst the snowfall felt surreal.  

First sight of green while descending

Coming back below the treeline and rediscovering the specks of green after being surrounded by a sea of white for three days was deeply refreshing. We completed the last hour of the descent towards Janglik in incessant, piercing rainfall. But the allure of reaching the base camp to a flat bed and a warm, dry blanket brought a spring to our strides.

The last mile

The homestay at Janglik which had seemed spartan when we had arrived at the beginning of the trip now felt like the epitome of luxury for our wet, muddied and tired bodies.     

This was the end of a memorable adventure. We headed back to Shimla the next morning, to civilization as we know it. 

Why do we trek?

I have often wondered what makes me want to trek. The terrain is strenuous and often treacherous. Sleeping inside tents in cramped sleeping bags is certainly not my idea of comfort. The toilet tents, despite best efforts, are invariably stinky. But the opportunity to experience the majesty of nature, away from the maddening crowds, trumps all manner of discomfort and has made trekking an addiction. 

I have also thought deeply about the morality of trekking. Trekking takes us to untouched but fragile ecosystems. We leave our biowastes behind which can, despite precautions, seep into the water stream and impact communities downstream. Most trekkers and trek operators are very conscientious and try their best to leave no plastic waste behind but lapses certainly occur. The mules carry heavy loads of provisions and tents for the group up and down the treacherous slopes and fatalities are not unheard of. 

The dark side

But on the credit side, the revenue from the trekking groups is a vital income supplement for communities hitherto dependent entirely on animal herding and seasonal agriculture. Many young men from the surrounding villages now choose to guide trekking groups over herding cattle. It also draws away the tourist load a little from the more commercialized hotspots.    

For trekkers, it’s a motivation to invest in one’s fitness. It certainly has been the driving force behind my attempt to maintain at least modest fitness levels. Trekking also stirs up consciousness and a leaning towards a more minimalistic life in harmony with nature. At least some of it stays with us, even after we are back in our urban jungles. 

But whom am I kidding? All said it’s just a drug that keeps me coming back for more. 

Scintillating Samarkand : Jewel of the Silk Road

While checking into the hostel in Tashkent, I spotted a Taj Mahal magnet on the fridge in the lobby. I told the receptionist with considerable pride that it is in India, where I come from. With a broad smile and equal pride, she responded that Babur, whose descendants had it constructed, hailed from the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan. And thus began my trip to Uzbekistan, with this beautiful reminder of our shared history. 

Ever since I had seen images of Registan Square in the Lonely Planet magazine, with its turquoise tiles glittering brilliantly in the sunlight, I knew I had to go there someday. After the trip around Kyrgyzstan, extending the trip for a short sojourn to Uzbekistan was a no-brainer. Before the visit, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were both distant specks on the globe to me, conveniently grouped together into the mystical, unexplored region called Central Asia. I am now embarrassed at my ignorance and naivety in thinking that they would be anything like each other. 

Kyrgyzstan is almost entirely mountainous and is a bastion of nomadic traditions. It is teeming with pristine natural beauty. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is mainly flat and has been populated by settled communities since antiquity. Kyrgyzstan draws tourists to its snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes. Uzbekistan is all about larger than life architectural marvels at the epicentre of the Silk Road. Both countries speak Turkic-derived languages. Both share a passion for Plov, their rice and meat-based national dish. After emerging from the Soviet Union, both are asserting their ethno-national identity that celebrates their unique differences. 

Uzbekistan: Practical Information

Uzbekistan is well connected with Delhi through reasonably priced daily direct flights by Uzbek Air. The e-visa is super easy to obtain, requires minimal documentation, costs just $20 and takes just only 2-3 days. Very tempting, I know! The local language is Uzbek and Russian is also spoken in the cities. Tashkent is the capital though most tourist itineraries revolve around the silk road cities – Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

Samarkand – Registan Square & Bibi Khanum Mosque 

I had just 72 hours in Uzbekistan. I decided to spend most of them in Samarkand, the crown jewel of the Timurid Empire. After a thrifty but comfortable sleepover at the hostel in Tashkent, I took the Afrosiyob train early the next morning. For approx $10 and in just 2 hours, I was in Samarkand. 

The very mention of Samarkand invokes mystique. This is what Colin Thubron, the legendary travel writer, says about Samarkand in his classic, The Lost Heart of Asia – “ ‘Samarkand’ conjures no earthly city. It is a heart-stealing sound. Other capitals of Islam – Cairo, Damascus. Istanbul – glow with an accessible, Mediterranean magnificence. But Samarkand inhabits only the edge of geography. For centuries after it slept in obscurity, it shimmered in people’s imagination”.  

After dropping off my rucksack at the hostel, I headed straight out to explore.  

If there’s one single image that typifies Central Asia in the popular imagination, it is that of the magnificent Registan Square in Samarkand. I could scarcely believe that I was standing right in front of it. 

Registan Square

The square has three madrassas. Ulugh Beg Madrassa, built by Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg in the early 15th century is the oldest in the triumvirate. It was among the best religious colleges of the period and drew luminaries as well as students from across the Islamic world. Ulugh Beg, himself an accomplished astronomer, also taught here. 

Intricately decorated ceiling of Ulugh Beg Madrassa
Inner Courtyard of the Madrassa

The two other Madrassas, Sher Dor madrassa and Tilya Kori madrassa were constructed more than two hundred years later but follow the same architectural style. The Sher Dor madrasah is remarkable for its mosaics depicting tigers, contravening Islamic norms against depicting living creatures.

Sher Dor Madrassa with tigers above the portal

It is hard to imagine a sight more imposing than Registan Square on a sunny day with glittering mosaics. Centuries of wear and tear had left the monuments in ruins before extensive restoration in the Soviet era reinstated their former glory. 

But after my time in Kyrgyzstan which is still a raw, unexplored gem, the commercialized veneer of Samarkand was unsettling. The guided tour of Registan Square was overpriced and adds little beyond the Wikipedia page. The guide kept trying to sell me more guided tours of other monuments in Samarkand and prodded me to buy souvenirs so she could make a commission. The rooms of these ancient Madrassas, which once housed students, are now souvenir stores. The handicrafts may be beautiful but pesky retailers rob the place of its charm.  

After a hearty lunch of Plov, I headed to the Bibi Khanum Mosque. While Registan is the centrepiece of Samarkand, this mosque is the single largest monument in the city. Standing below its enormous portals, I felt dwarfed – as much by the audacity of human ambitions as by the scale of the structure itself. Opposite the mosque is the relatively humble tomb of Bibi Khanum, Timur’s favourite wife. Timur’s plunder of India purportedly funded the construction of this grandest of mosques. 

Bibi Khanum Mosque

The inside of the mosque was closed to entry. When I peeked in, I saw the crumbling interiors being hidden by the glittering exterior. It was a bittersweet feeling to glimpse this unrestored part. Restoration is obviously essential to counter natural wear and tear. To not restore monuments is to lose them irreversibly to the vagaries of nature. But with every restoration, we also lose a little of the original and somehow diminish their standing as markers of antiquity. 

Registan Dazzles under the lights

Samarkand – Gur-e-Amir & Siob Bazar

The next morning, I headed to Gur-e-Amir, the tomb of Timur. Timur, despised in India as a marauder, is revered in Uzbekistan and is arguably the country’s most prominent icon. His statues adorn city squares and the architecture left behind by him and those who followed in his footsteps draw tourists from across the globe. History is all about perspectives. 

Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum

The architectural style of Gur-e-Amir has heavily influenced Mughal architecture in India. The interiors of the mausoleum, intricately restored, dazzle in the soft lighting. Buried beneath lie the remains of one of the most feared conquerors in history. People say that Timur’s grave is marked with an ominous warning for whoever dares to exhume his remains. Two days after a Soviet archaeologist opened his tomb in June 1941, Hiltler’s army invaded the Soviet Union. The story is apocryphal and the chain of events may be a mere coincidence. But if you are prone to believing legends, Timur continues to terrorize those who dare to defy him, centuries after his death.  

These grand architectural complexes, all deftly restored, make Samarkand look gorgeous but made up. I felt that rather than ticking off more grand monuments from the checklist, I should tread off the tourist grid to see a little of the authentic local life. Quite aimlessly, I headed into an unmarked alley. And immediately I became an object of curiosity for the local residents who invariably greeted me with a warm smile and the custody “Salam Alaikum”. At a nondescript local bakery, I saw a couple of young men preparing the ubiquitous Uzbek bread, Lepeshka, in the tandoor. We tried our best to converse with the help of Google Translate. I was touched when they gifted me a big warm loaf of bread, calling it a gift from Uzbekistan to India. I walked into an unmarked eatery with only local patrons and had delicious plov.  

Hot Lepeshka out of the tandoor

In the evening I went to the Siab Bazar, a one-stop shop for everything from dry fruits to garments and souvenirs. This is the main market for the locals so the prices are more reasonable than at the souvenir shops in Registan, though one still needs to bargain them down further. 

Tashkent – Central Asia Plov Centre & Amir Timur Square

The next morning, I caught the train back to Tashkent. Among my co-passengers on the journey was a high school student, Shaxriyor, who was well conversant in English and also translated for the other passengers. Russian was the lingua franca of the region and the older generation hardly speaks any English. But the youth see America as the land of opportunities and English as their ticket to America. The hours passed by quickly, with me answering their curious questions about India and vice versa. Their warmth and friendliness left a deep impression.  

I had just a few hours in Tashkent before I had to fly out. There was time for just one meal in Tashkent, my last meal in Central Asia, so it had to be at the Central Asian Plov Centre. To call it the Mecca for Plov is an understatement. It sprawls over a huge area, the size of a mini theme park with seating for hundreds of guests and Plov cooking away in gigantic cauldrons.

Central Asia Plov Centre

I took a plate, found a spot and dug into that plate of bursting flavors. I had tasted plov elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and always found it nice, but this place does it like no other. Hospitality comes very naturally to Uzbeks and the gentleman sharing my table offered me bread and tea. 

The Plov at Central Asia Plov Centre is Love

I spent an hour people-watching, sprawled on a bench in Amur Timur Square. The winter sun was oh-so-pleasant and I quietly counted my blessings. Just as I was starting to leave, I met a young Uzbek man who spoke to me in fluent, unaccented Hindi and could easily have passed for an Indian. He had spent four years in Delhi studying Engineering and recalled his time in India with deep fondness. And the trip ended the way it had begun – with an encounter that reminded me of our shared bonds. I will remember Uzbekistan as much for the people I met as for the things that I saw. 

Amir Temur Square

Kyrgyzstan Snow Drive: An adventure for a lifetime

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was compulsively scrolling on Instagram, rummaging through every single Reel in existence. That’s when I came across a Reel announcing a Snow Drive in Kyrgyzstan. A snow drive! In Kyrgyzstan! A splendid idea. Unless it cost me a kidney, I was definitely going. If it cost me a kidney, I would still consider the idea very seriously. 

The post that started it all

Central Asia has always exerted a magnetic charm. The prospect of exploring these little-known lands and their culture by driving around in a swanky Toyota Sequoia on snow. Phew. 

The organizers, Beyond Xpeditions, are an adventure travel outfit run by the very passionate Kaniyshk Malick. I booked the tour on a whim. And then spent three months incessantly daydreaming. 

The trip was in January, in the middle of the school session. This had to be a solo trip sans la familia. My very understanding wife generously managed the home front while I went on the trip. 

Kyrgyzstan in a nutshell

Kyrgyzstan is almost entirely mountainous with a strong nomadic tradition. Much of that tradition has survived to the modern day, albeit adapted for the times. The Tian Shan mountains and the gigantic Issyk Kul lake are its dominant geographical features. The Kyrgyz language is derived from Turkish and the people are a mish-mash of many ethnicities. Kyrgyzstan shares much of its culture with its Central Asian neighbours but is also fiercely proud of its unique differences.  

The Logistics

Not too long ago, obtaining a travel Visa to Central Asian countries was an arduous task. Now obtaining a Kyrgyz e-Visas is a breeze and takes less than a week and costs around Rs 4500. Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is connected to Delhi via Almaty, Kazakhstan by daily flights operated by Air Astana costing approx Rs 40k round trip. The currency is Kyrgyz Som and 1 Indian Rupee is ~ 1.05 Kyrgyz som at the time of writing. The costs of accommodation, dining and internal travel are comparable to India.   

Day 1 – Delhi to Bishkek via Almaty 

The flight to Bishkek will remain memorable for the breathtaking views from the window. All of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was draped in a sparkling blanket of powdery snow. 

Captivating views from the flight
With Kaniyshk & Saathvik en route Bishkek

At Bishkek’s Manas International Airport, we met Nazir, our local guide and the lifeblood of the group. His irreverent humour generously peppered with profanities would have us in splits throughout the trip.

Our man Nazir

After checking in, we headed to cafe Arzu for our first meal in Kyrgyzstan. The first meal in a new country always gets me excited. Everything on the menu looks exotic and I fight the urge to try everything at once. And by the last day, the excitement of exploration is replaced by the comfort of familiarity. There’s a sense of satisfaction from having explored a culture through its food. 

I tried Boorsok, the sweet, fried, fluffy squares of dough that would become a staple over the next few days. I also tried Laghman, a delicious Uighur dish of noodles and meat that’s relatively spicy by Kyrgyz standards. 

Day 2 – Kashka Suu Ski Base

The next morning, I got the keys to my ride for the next week – a sexy black Toyota Sequoia. It was love at first with Ana and I could hardly wait to get started on our escapade.


Splendid views of the snow-covered Tian Shan mountains greet you as soon as you exit Bishkek. A short drive out of the city is Ala Archa National Park. The park is home to impressive peaks, glaciers and hiking trails but they are all more accessible in the summer. We contented ourselves with a walk in the park and some juvenile entertainment involving snowballs.

Ala Archa National Park

At lunch, I had my first taste of Shorpo. This traditional soup is a clear, flavour-packed broth with meat, potatoes, carrots and herbs. The Indian Shorba, which looks and tastes very different, gets its name from this soup. 

Shorpo – Traditional Kyrgyz Soup

Post lunch, we headed to the Kashka Suu ski base, our first stop on the trip and the venue for my first stab at Skiing.

Kashka Suu Ski Base

Day 3 – Kashka Suu Ski Base to Kochkor

After breakfast, we geared up for Skiing and took the Ski lift up the peak. I put on my Skis and instantly had a crashing fall. I got up, brushed off the snow and tried again with identical results. With zero control over my legs, it didn’t seem very wise to persist, what with the edge of the mountain being right there. God has blessed me with many talents, but balancing my ungraceful body on slippery ice is not one of them, I admitted to myself with humility. 

But Nazir encouraged me to try some more. To be more accurate, he insulted and embarrassed me into trying harder. After an hour of toiling, I started finding my feet (pun intended). I managed to slide very slowly on a very gentle slope but it felt exhilarating. It was a humble reminder that getting better at anything starts with a willingness to look foolish in the beginning. 

Kashka Suu Ski Base

In the early afternoon, we left for Kochkor. The road skirts the border with Kazakhstan and passes through the starkly beautiful Konorchek Canyon before reaching Kochkor. The Kyrgyz obsession to name things with a K rivals Ekta Kapoor! 

Enroute Kochkor
Konorchek Canyon – Enroute Kochkor

Kochkor is a small village famed as a centre for traditional Kyrgyz crafts. Here we witnessed the intricacies involved in making felt from wool and weaving it into Shyrdaks. Shyrdaks are the omnipresent traditional Kyrgyz mats. The patterns on Shyrdaks originate from petroglyphs or rack carvings that are thousands of years old. These patterns are ubiquitous – from wallpapers to table mats, crockery to garments and even the emblem of Air Astana. 

Dinner was with a local family. Fatima welcomed us with a warm smile to a very elegantly laid-out table. The spread was very elaborate and delicious.

Dinner with a local family – Nazir can’t stop grinning

But the highlight of the evening was the time spent with the family at their home. Especially Fatima’s adorable grandchildren. The children had no inhibitions and thoroughly enjoyed our attention. The community-based tourism model is the bedrock of tourism in Kyrgyzstan with families opening up their homes to host tourists for both meals and/or stays. With hosts like Fatima, the model has a bright future. 

Fatima’s Adorable Family

Day 4 – Karakol

The next morning we left for Karakol. Karakol is a base for excursions into the nearby mountains. It is culturally rich, housing sizable minorities of Russians, Dungans and Uyghurs.

En route Karakol

The road meanders along the southern shore of the Issyk Kul lake. The sight of the blue waters of the majestic Issyk Kul, with the lake’s beach covered in snow and the faint outlines of snow-capped mountains in the background is mesmerizing. 

Blue waters of Issyk Kul

We were treated to Yak meat at lunch at a family guest house in Bokonbayevo. It’s a delicacy for important occasions or for visits from special guests. With a bloated sense of self-importance, I dug in. It was surprisingly delicious. While I shy away from non-vegetarian food at home, on travels, and particularly on international trips, enjoying local food without prejudice is both an indulgence and an essential part of cultural immersion. 

Yak wasn’t Yuck
Eagle Show – Golden Eagle with her Papa

After lunch, we attended the famed Eagle show. The tradition of Eagle hunting among nomads in Central Asia and Mongolia goes back centuries. Fledgeling Golden Eagles are extracted from their nests when they are barely months old and then brought up by their human parents and trained to hunt. Witnessing the show felt bittersweet. There’s a visible bond of mutual affection between the eagle and its human keeper. It’s an attempt to keep long-cherished traditions alive. But there’s also a realisation that they belong in the wild and this is a violation of the natural order. 

We were in Karokol by dinnertime and had dinner at Dastorkon – the most popular cafe in Karakol. How words travel always fascinates me. Dastorkon, meaning tablecloth, originates in Turkish and is in circulation across Central and South Asia, including in my native Bengal. Several restaurants in India also go by the same name, including an iconic one in Lucknow. Take also for example Samsa, a meat-stuffed puffed pastry that’s possibly the most common snack in Kyrgyzstan. Its cousins Sambossa and Samosa are found from Ethiopia to India. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole right now. 

Day 5 – Karkara

Before leaving Karakol, we made a quick stop at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Russian Church, a quaint and pretty wooden church that’s more than a century old. 

Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church

The drive from Karakol to Karkara (there’s that love for K again!) was the most spectacular stretch of the entire trip. There was white snow on the road below, panoramic views of snow-covered mountains on either side and expansive blue skies above. Some stretches tested my driving chops, but Ana and I were a formidable pair.    

En route Karkara (quite proud of this composition!)

In Karakara, we stayed in yurts. Yurts are the circular tents of nomads made of a wooden frame draped in sheepskin. They are modest dwellings but meticulously designed to maintain warmth inside in the bitter cold and are easy to mount and dismantle to suit the nomadic way of life. Our yurts though were luxuriously touristy, with ornate upholstery, an attached bathroom and of course electricity. 

Here we also enjoyed rides on Snowmobiles, the beastly powerful bikes that can glide on soft snow. We drove along pristine slopes where no other mode of transport can venture. The feeling of being alone in the wilderness, surrounded by a spotless, undisturbed blanket of white snow is nothing if not magical. 

Breathtaking Views from the top

Day 6 – Cholpon-Ata

The next day we drove to Cholpon-Ata, a resort town on the northern shore of Issyk Kul lake. 

At lunch there, I tried Besh Barmak, a delicacy of flat noodles with horse meat. Besh Barmak literally means five fingers, indicating that it was time to set aside the cutlery and dig in with the hands. The horse meat is coarsely minced and that made it palatable. It comes with fatty horse sausages called Kaza on the side. The idea of consuming horse meat had initially repulsed me. But here I learnt that horse meat is not a staple but a seasonal delicacy. Families that rear horses sacrifice one horse in the winter and preserve and savour it throughout the winter, cooking it on special occasions. 

Besh Barmak – Noodle with horse meat

Cholpon-Ata, apart from being a resort by the lake, is also known for the petroglyphs found here which date back to the 2nd century BC. These patterns have inspired the designs on the Shyrdaks we encountered in Kochkor and from there have permeated the design elements of all things Kyrgyz. 

Open-air Petroglyph museum at Cholpon-Ata

Our stay at Cholpon-Ata was at the fabulous Karven Four Seasons Hotel, on the edge of Issyk Kul. The beautiful cottages with their roofs and yards covered in snow looked straight out of a winter wonderland. We had the resort willy-nilly to ourselves, a privilege one can only expect in the low season and in places like Kyrgyzstan which have hitherto escaped mass tourism.

After dinner at their restaurant, we jived with the restaurant staff to everything spanning English hits, Russian and Kyrgyz songs as well as 70s Bollywood hits. Mithun Chakrabarty is a legend here. His Jimmy Jimmy and Disco Dancer are anthems in Central Asia. It is unanticipated experiences like these that make a trip memorable. 

Day 7 – Ashu

After luxuriating in the temperature-controlled pool of the resort in the morning, we set off for the last stop of our trip, a tiny village called Ashu. It lies at the base of the mountains and has just a handful of residents. The lovely lodge we stayed in is rapidly transforming from a small homestay into a full-blown resort with increasing tourist arrivals to this beautiful village. 

Gorgeous views from the Guest House at Ashu Village

The hostess is a jovial lady and we got chatting in the evening with Nazir interpreting. She told us how she grew up on dubbed Bollywood movies and Raj Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty and Amitabh Bachchan are as familiar to her as they are to me. 

After an early dinner, we spent the evening barbequing next to a bonfire, accompanied by some Bishkek cognac which had become a regular companion for the evenings. As the evening advanced and the cognac took a firmer hold, I played back in my mind the many highlights of the trip and lamented its imminent end. The next day, we would complete our circuit around the country and head back to Bishkek. We tend to use the phrase trip-of-a-lifetime quite liberally, but this trip, without a doubt, was a trip of a lifetime. 

Bishkek Cognac added much colour to the evenings

Day 8 – Back to Bishkek via Burana

On our way back to Bishkek, we stopped at the Burana Tower. It is among the oldest architectural constructions in Central Asia, dating back to the 9th Century. Through a narrow winding staircase inside the tower, we went to the top and enjoyed splendid panoramic views of the snow-covered valley. 

Burana Tower

If there’s one image that defines Kyrgyzstan, it is that of men on horses. Our last stop on the road was to catch a glimpse of the traditional Kyrgyz horse games.

While some games are innocuous, the most iconic of the games, Kok Baru, is anything but. It is like polo with the ball replaced by a headless goat carcass. The game is fiercely competitive and invariably results in injuries. The notion of using a goat carcass in a sport certainly feels revolting at the outset. But it’s an important part of Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic heritage. The game originated thousands of years ago when nomadic shepherds hunted foxes that predated on their flock. They found a use for the fox carcass by using it in horse games.  Over time they replaced the fox carcass with that of a goat and the sport evolved into Kok Baru. 

Kok Baru – the rider is clutching the “ball” with his feet and heading towards the goal

On one hand, a nationalistic re-assertion of nomadic traditions and identity after a period of Soviet suppression is bringing games like Kok Boru to the forefront. On the other hand, the carcass is being increasingly replaced with rubber moulds in many places to make the sport more palatable for modern sensibilities.     

After witnessing this anachronistic spectacle, we drove on to Bishkek. Parting ways with Ana after 8 days and 1600 kilometres together was painful. But we both knew that our relationship would be ephemeral. 

Goodbye Ana

On the last evening, we went to what is probably the best cafe in Bishkek – Chaikhana Navat. Fittingly, the last dinner was the Kyrgyz national dish – Plov. The food was excellent but the highlight was the decor. Every inch of the cafe is covered in Shyrdaks, ornate carpets, wall hangings and ceramics. It is easily the most ornate restaurant I have ever been to. Navat is a Kyrgyz dessert of sugar crystals with grape juice and spices. It seemed like an apt metaphor for the country as a whole. 

Day 9 – Bishkek 

On our last morning, we made a quick trip to Osh Bazar, a humongous local market for everything from produce to garments, dry fruits to bread and souvenirs. It’s a great place to shop for authentic wares at reasonable prices.  

The traditional bread – Tokach – at Osh Bazar

And just like that, after 8 memorable days, the Kyrgyzstan chapter was over. But I was leaving Kyrgyzstan fully convinced that it will keep drawing me back every now and again.

Kabini Chronicles: Tiger Tales from the Safari

Tigers are hypnotic. Their majestic form and imposing demeanour make it impossible to tear away one’s eyes when in their presence. All one can do is admire their grace, transfixed on their every move.  And no matter how many times one may have seen them before, every new safari generates the same excitement for a fresh encounter and every sighting is met with the same euphoria.  

Every time I go on jungle safaris, I try to condition myself to keep expectations low. I tell myself that spending time in the jungle, amidst unspoilt nature should be an end in itself. Sighting a tiger should not define the “success” of a safari. But whom am I kidding? The hype around the animal is inescapable. 

About an hour and a half into our evening safari in Nagarhole National Park, our jeep’s driver got a call from a fellow driver. A tiger had been sighted. Immediately, we sped through on the dirt track to reach the spot where it had purportedly been spotted. Our hearts were racing with anticipation. It took us about fifteen minutes to get there but we found the spot deserted when we reached. We lay in wait for over an hour, now going a few feet ahead, now retreating back, in search of the elusive beast. Every once in a while, we would get excited by some rustling in the bushes, only to realise that deer or langurs were behind this.  Alas, it wasn’t our day. 

The day had started with a drive to Kabini from Bangalore along mostly brilliant, occasionally bumpy roads. Cruising along on the Bangalore – Mysore highway, we made it there in about 5 hours, including a pit stop for breakfast at Kamat Lokaruchi. 

Delish Breakfast at Kamat Lokaruchi on Bangalore-Mysore Highway

We had booked our stay at the Kabini River Lodge, an erstwhile hunting lodge of the Maharajas of Mysore.

Tents at Kabini River Lodge

The best part about staying here is that it includes two safaris in the package and eliminates the hassle of booking the safaris separately. It is also the starting point for all safaris from Kabini into Nagarhole, meaning that guests from all other properties in the area also need to come here to commence their safaris. The quality and upkeep of rooms here could be better though, especially since the tariffs are not modest.   

Inside the tents – the most flattering angle

After enjoying the delicious and extensive lunch spread, we started the jeep safari at 3 pm. Every few meters, we found flocks of spotted deer busily munching on leaves. A healthy population of prey is a sign of a thriving tribe of predators. If the abundance of deer was anything to go by, the tigers here, numbering around 150, must be a happy and well-fed bunch.        

Abundant Prey at Nagarhole National Park

We also met quite a few elephants up close. Some had long tusks, almost scraping the ground. They seemed unperturbed by close proximity to humans and continued enjoying their leafy diet even when we drew close. Imagine that the dreaded bandit Veerappan was wreaking havoc in these very jungles a couple of decades ago!  

Showing off its Elegant Tusks

During jungle safaris, while most scan the ground, I tend to keep an eye on tree tops in the hope of spotting our feathered friends. We were lucky to spot a flock of Malabar Pied Hornbills and also a White Bellied Woodpecker. Both of these were the first spottings for me of these species and assuaged my disappointment at not meeting the more illustrious inhabitants of the jungle. 

White-Bellied Woodpecker
Pied Hornbill

As the light started falling and it started raining quite heavily, we abandoned our hopes of tiger spotting and turned back towards the lodge. 

I had come across a brilliant advertising campaign by Jim’s Jungle Retreat, a lodge in the Corbett National Park. Their maxim of “seek the tiger, find the jungle” is something I try my best to follow, but it’s easier said than done. We still had one more foray to make into the jungle the next morning, but that was to be a boat safari and tiger sightings on it are generally very rare. 

After a hearty dinner, we retired early for the night. The next day was to begin before dawn. 

The dam on river Kabini, built in 1974, has created a reservoir and backwaters. It is in these backwaters, adjacent to the Nagarhole National Park, that the boat safari takes place. Summers are a great time to spot wildlife on the boat safari when the water recedes, drawing the animals out. In October, with the rains in full swing and the reservoir brimming, our chances of spotting anything were slim.    

The Kabini Reservoir
Osprey spotted on the Boat Safari

We set off on the safari, expecting it to be nothing more than a pleasant boat ride in a lake. I could not have been more wrong. 

Once again a phone call with reports of a sighting. Once again a dash for the spot. But this time we got there just in time to witness the gorgeous form emerge from the thickets. The collective, hushed sigh from a boatload of people when the tiger first came into view was testimony to the awe they inspire. Our boat was less than 10 metres away from the shore along which a mighty tiger was strolling regally! There were no other boats around and our boatsman shut off the engine and kept the boat perfectly still. Left undisturbed, the tiger paced along the shore for a good five minutes, maybe longer. With every step, it seemed to stamp its authority on the jungle with effortless, self-assured grace. Finally, it disappeared behind the bushes, as silently as it had emerged, leaving us all incredulous of our own good fortune.    

An Unforgettable Sighting

Their hypnotic attraction is such that I had begun planning the next jungle excursion before I even got off the boat.  

The Many Charms of Kuala Lumpur: a 4-day Itinerary

One of my favourite sounds is that of the immigration stamp clanking on the passport. After a long break from international travel, hearing that sound again was profoundly gratifying and signalled a world returning to normalcy.   

When I began contemplating a foreign trip after what seemed like ages, Malaysia with its mix of big-city life and natural bounty, diverse culture & lip-smacking food immediately sprang to mind. Easy connectivity with Bengaluru and a convenient Visa process sealed the deal. The Visa process turned out to be not-so-convenient after all, but more on that later.    

We were a family of 5 – my wife, our 6-year-old daughter, mother and mother-in-law, along with yours truly. This post covers the four days we spent in KL and is a travelogue cum family holiday itinerary suggestion. We also covered Langkawi and Melaka, and they deserve separate posts of their own. 

One can breeze through the key attractions of KL like Petronas Towers, Menara KL and the glitzy malls in a couple of days. A deeper immersion into the history and culture of the city at an unhurried pace will take 4-5 days and is worth the reward. 

Day 1

Evening in Heli Lounge

I have a thing for rooftop bars. In a city like KL with an iconic skyline, I could think of no better way to kick off the trip. 

Heli Lounge sits atop the 35th floor of Menara KH. It is a functioning helipad by day and turns into a cool lounge bar in the evening. 

Heli Lounge

My wife and I went in at 6 pm, right around the time it opens. The place has a relaxed vibe and draws travellers of many nationalities, all out to have a memorable evening. It offers a great vantage point to watch the sun go down and the skyscrapers light up. We felt grateful for the small things – stumbling upon this place on a nondescript blog, scoring THE table directly overlooking the twin towers and the pleasant weather that evening. I would like to believe that the alcohol had nothing to do with this sentimentality. We hung around till around 8 pm. By then the skyline was lit up and looked mesmerizing. 

The cover charges are RM 100 (~$22) per person and include two rounds of drinks. Steep, but the views make it worth every penny. 

Heli Lounge is among the best places to hang out in KL

Dinner at Jalan Alor

For dinner, we headed to Jalan Alor – the famed food street of KL. I had read a lot about the place where it was touted as a great spot for delicious and inexpensive street food.  By the time we got there around 9 pm, many shops had started winding down. We sampled some fare at a couple of outlets but were let down by the quality and frankly quite shocked by the prices. KL has cheaply available, delicious food at every corner.  It felt like Jalan Alor just doesn’t match up and had morphed into a tourist trap. 

We slept at a lovely Airbnb, very conveniently located in The Robertson Suites. The rooftop pool with a view seals the deal.

Rooftop Pool at Robertson Suites

Day 2: 

Dataran Merdeka 

We started the day in Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square). This is where the Malaysian flag was first hoisted upon independence in 1957. Taking a stroll on the manicured greens with the magnificent Sultan Abdul Samad building in front, I could picture the scenes of celebration that must have played out on that day. It was a happy coincidence that we were here on 15th August, India’s 75th Independence day. 

The Sultan Abdul Samad building initially housed the British colonial administration of Malaysia.  Some government departments of independent Malaysia continue to operate from here today. It is built in the Indo-Saracenic style, a style developed in colonial India from the fusion of contemporary European architecture with Mughal decorative motifs. 

Menara KL and the Petronas twin towers peak out in the backdrop, presenting a study of the shifting definitions of architectural grandeur. Call me old school but I think for all their shiny steel reaching for the skies, the modern skyscrapers don’t hold a candle to the intricate craftsmanship of that era. Here’s a picture, what do you think? 

Sultan Abdul Samad Building with Petronas Towers and Menara KL in the background

Jamek Mosque

A short walk from Merdeka Square is the Jamek Mosque. It was built in 1909 and was the first major mosque of KL. It is open to non-muslim visitors during non-prayer times and a free guided tour is available. A very knowledgeable volunteer took us through the mosque, explaining various facets of the history and architecture of the mosque as well as the practices of Islam. 

River of Life 

Kuala Lumpur literally means “muddy confluence”. And right next to the mosque is the meeting point of the Klang and Gombak rivers which gives Kuala Lumpur its name. It was here that Chinese tin miners started settling in the mid-19th century and set in motion the chain of events that led to KL eventually becoming a thriving global metropolis.   

The confluence of the Klang & Gombak rivers – River of Life project

The River of Life restoration project is a beautifully paved walkway along the riverside and makes for an enjoyable stroll around the spot where life began for KL. 

Islamic Arts Museum 

The equisite interiors of the Islamic Arts Museum

For me, one of the highlights of Kuala Lumpur was admiring the breathtaking collection at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. The artefacts on display span carpets, tiles, weaponry, ceramicware, and objects of art. The rich collection, immaculate curation and aesthetic and informative display make it one of the best museums I have visited.

The collection of ceramic tiles at Islamic Arts Museum

Many weapons on display had exquisite ornamental carvings. I found the juxtaposition of art on objects of mortal combat paradoxical and mildly amusing. What must have been the feelings of the craftsman embellishing the swords that he knew would slaughter men on the battlefield? Did soldiers take pride in how intricately carved their daggers were? We’ll never know.  

The on-site restaurant, Moza, has fantastic food and stunning decor. The restaurant itself can be reason enough to visit the museum. The museum even has a children’s library on site. We dropped our daughter there and she merrily spent a couple of hours reading while we explored the museum. 

Moza : fab decor, fab food and fab service

Menara KL 

What’s better than a view of the Kuala Lumpur Skyline from the Petronas Towers? A view of the KL Skyline with the Petronas Towers. 

As the evening approached, we made our way to Menara KL to get just that view. 

There are two levels of viewing galleries – the Observation Deck is at a lower level and is a glass-enclosed space (RM 49/ ~$11). The Sky Deck is an open-air gallery on the top floor and has a glass bottom box overhanging from the ledge called Sky Box (RM 99/ ~$22). On a day with clear weather, it is worth splurging a little extra to get to the Sky Deck. 

We got here early in the evening, which was ideal. We first caught the gorgeous sunset over the cityscape and then stayed on till the lights turned on and KL came alive.  

Day 3: 


Chinatowns the world over are known for their food and KL’s Chinatown is no exception. Packed with legendary eateries of yore as well as hip new cafes, Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown is a must-visit. Today is the day to let loose the glutton within!  

Old China Cafe is a charming joint that has, true to its name, retained its old-world charm. We tried the Chicken Rendang which was bursting with the aroma and flavours of lemongrass and coconut milk. The mildly flavoured pea flower rice was the perfect accompaniment for it.

Old China Cafe – Chicken Rendang & Pea Flower Rice

The Central Market is the heart of Chinatown and a great place to shop for quality stuff at reasonable prices. Alongside handicrafts, garments and utilities, there’s a section with art shops with paintings by local artists that make for very nice souvenirs. 

Its massive food court has many stalls, many specialising in variations of a single dish – Nasi Ayum, Yang Tau Foo, and Nasi Lemak among others. The food here is reasonably priced and generally excellent. I devoured a large bowl of Yang Tau Foo and instantly fell in love with the dish and the concept behind it. It’s the Chinese food version of Subway where you chose your broth, type of noodle, sauces, veggies and assorted fish cakes and possibly meatballs that go into your bowl. It’s mostly steamed, rich in protein and vitamins from the veggies and packed with umami. I have been craving it ever since I have come back. 

Yang Tau Foo – The Subway of Chinese Food

Yang Tau Foo – equal parts health and taste

The colourful and impressive Mahamariamman Hindu temple that serves the local Tamil community is worth a visit. After Malays and ethnic Chinese, Tamils make up the third biggest chunk of Malaysia’s population. Descended from migrant workers who moved here under the British Raj to work on rubber plantations, they staunchly maintain their religious and linguistic identity as Hindus and Tamils and are proud Malaysians. It made me ponder on the many strands that make up our identity as humans and how some of those strands are more fluid and flexible than others. 

Mahamariamman Temple

While heading back, the splinters flying from underneath clay pots on a coal oven caught my eye. The man working the ovens at the roadside stall looked strangely familiar. And it came flashing back. The stall had been featured on Nat Geo Traveller India in a piece on Malaysian food that I had read before coming!

Clay Pot Chicken Rice in the making

Though the Rendang and Yang Tau Foo were still jostling for space in my tummy, seeing this and not eating it would be criminal. The clay pot rice is cooked by throwing in rice, soy sauce, chicken broth and pre-cooked chicken pieces into the pot and letting it simmer. Once done, it is served hot in the clay pot. The result is a delectable pot of earthy goodness. 

Chicken Clay Pot Rice

KLCC Suriya & The Petronas Tower

We had seen the Petronas Towers from the vantage point of Minara KL and the rooftop Heli Lounge. Now it was time to admire it from up close. 

The KLCC Gardens, adjacent to the upscale KLCC Suria mall, is the best spot in town to gawk at the twin towers in all their lit-up glory. Standing beneath this elegant engineering marvel that’s the icon of a resurgent Malaysia is awe-inspiring.  

Light and Sound shows take place every half an hour in the gardens and add to the ambience.  

Petronas Twin Towers in all their lit-up glory

For our last night in KL, we shifted to another Airbnb at Tropicana Residences, this one right next to the twin towers, with views of the towers from every room. Not too many people in KL had a better view that night.  

Day 4

Waking up to this view from the room !

Aquaria KLCC

The last day of any trip inevitably makes one feel that a lot more remained to be seen and done! 

But with just half a day left, we spent it at the Aquaria KLCC. After all, our daughter had been a patient companion on the museum and mosque tours that could not have been much fun for her. We owed her this much. 

But I say this without exaggeration – once inside, I was no less excited than her. It is a vast and intriguing collection of marine life forms housed in a very thoughtfully designed space. The residents range from the tiniest sea creatures to some of the largest freshwater fish on the planet, from cute sea horses to some fish that look genuinely loathsome. 

There’s a glass tunnel to walk through where sharks, sting rays and marine turtles will glide right past you. It is almost like scuba diving without having to get wet. The highlight of the visit was the feeding session where the aquarium staff dived into the tank and assorted creatures including sharks and rays fed from their hands. 

Aquaria KLCC

Budget for half a day and RM 75 (~$16) in entry fee per person in your Malaysia itinerary for this unmissable experience. 

And on that note, it was a wrap on Malaysia and time to head home with a bagful of memories and a desire to come back someday to experience so much more the country has to offer.   

Practical Information


Malaysia provides e-Visa to Indians. Apply on the official website and expect to receive the visa between 2-5 working days. The official TAT is 48 working hours but it generally takes longer. Once you apply, they may ask for additional documents or even request an in-person interview. In my wife’s case, they requested an in-person interview in Chennai. But when we pleaded over e-mail, they waived it off and issued the visa basis some additional documents. Keeping 2 full weeks in hand for the visa process is advisable to avoid any last-minute anxieties. 

SIM Cards

Tourist SIMs are easily available near the airport exit. I got a Maxis/Hotlink SIM which served me well. They have an RM 20 plan for 7 days and an RM 40 plan for 15 days. Both come with enough data for average users. 

Currency Exchange

There are a few currency exchange places near the airport exit but they are all ridiculously expensive, with mark-ups in the range of 10% or higher. Pretty much any place in the city will offer much better rates. The best rate I found was in Jalan Alor @~1.5% commission which is very decent. 

Getting into the city

KL’s 2 airport terminals are connected to the city by Metro, Bus and cabs. The Metro is the fastest but also expensive. The metro to KL Sentral will take 40 mins and cost RM 55 per person. The bus is significantly cheaper starting at RM 12 and it takes about 90 mins to reach. A cab will take you directly to your destination in central KL for ~RM 100 in an hour and for groups of 2 or more, a cab is the recommended option. And cab in Malaysia is synonymous with Grab, which works like a dream. They are fast, efficient and affordable. I could write a whole post eulogising Grab but that’s for another day.

Mayurbhanj: A well-kept but easily accessible secret

Finally, something good came out of the incessant scrolling on Instagram. Sometime back, I was stopped in my tracks by a photo posted by the gorgeous Bengali actress Mimi Chakraborty. But no, it wasn’t Mimi’s unquestionably good looks that made me pause. It was the shoot location. The Belgadia Palace in Baripada, Orissa. 

Belgadia Palace
Belgadia Palace

A quick search revealed that this was the erstwhile royal palace of the Bhanj Deo dynasty of Mayurbhanj. It’s now been renovated, converted to a boutique hotel and thrown open to lesser mortals. And it looked fabulous. What’s more, it’s a rather accessible 5-hr drive away from Kolkata. 

After following them on the Gram and lusting over the place for a couple of months, we booked to spend the extended Diwali weekend there. 

The road to Baripada from Kolkata is excellent throughout. Most of it is along the national highway and even when you turn away from the highway near Jhargram, it continues to be well maintained and scenic.  

A lovely drive
Driving through the countryside

Upon arrival, we were greeted with fanfare and shown into our rooms. They have a mix of regular rooms and suites. We were travelling as a family of six and had opted for one of each kind.  Now, having stayed there, I would strongly recommend the suites. They are well worth the extra pocket pinch.

The elegant and opulent suite rooms come highly recommended
The short drive to Goaldihi passes through the forest

After a quick lunch, we headed for the village of Goaldihi, a half-hour drive from the palace. We had heard about the Sabai craft practised in the region and this tiny, bucolic village is the best place to see it in practice.

Women of the self help group making baskets with local Sabai grass

Women of the village operate a production facility cum training centre where they spend their afternoons weaving dried indigenous Sabai grass into beautiful objects of utility like baskets, lampshades and purses among other things. This initiative not only helps sustain a traditional craft but also gives some measure of economic independence to the women and supplements their family income. The show is run entirely by women and is a heartwarming example of what grassroots (pun intended) development can achieve. 

Chhau performance at the palace

We got back just in time for a performance of Chhau dance arranged within the palace for the guests. Chhau is a folk dance form practised in Mayurbhanj and contagious districts of Saraikela in Jharkhand and Purulia in West Bengal. The Mayurbhanj Chhau, unlike the form practised elsewhere, doesn’t use elaborate masks. A brief solo performance on incidents from the life of Lord Shiva, accompanied by traditional musical instruments, gave us a flavour of the dance form.   

Tasteful period furniture adorns every corner of the palace

The rest of the evening was spent exploring the palace. The palace and every artefact within it, whether for utility or embellishment, oozes class and is a testament to the fine taste and considerable fortunes of the ruling family. The property is full of Insta-worthy spots. Virtually every corner implores you to pick a magazine and just plonk down on one of the elegant chairs or sofas. I did just that. 

Reading or Posing?

Dinner was a simple but delicious affair. Seated at the head of the table in the magnificent dining hall, for a fleeting moment I felt like an omnipotent monarch myself. We retired early after dinner, for the next day was to begin before the crack of dawn.    

On the second day, we visited the Similipal Tiger Reserve. The forest had been closed to visitors ever since the first outbreak of Covid and had only reopened a couple of days back after 18 months. When it comes to forest safaris, my maxim is to go with zero expectations of any animal sightings and treat every sighting as an unexpected bonus. It was just as well because we entered the forest at 7 am, spent almost 12 hours inside the forest sighting practically no wildlife. 

Joranda Waterfall inside Simplipal Tiger Reserve
Gorgeous Barehipani falls in Simplipal

But driving around the forest amidst the dense foliage with a sense of anticipation is an experience in itself. There are two very picturesque waterfalls – Barehipani and Joranda – inside the forest. Lunch was had in a canteen inside the forest run by a women SHG which had bid for and obtained the tender to the canteen from the forest department. The food was simple but delicious and once again, it was the enterprising spirit of the tribal women running the place that won us over.       

Local delicacy – Patua – chicken smoked in Sal leaves

Another interesting experience was tasting Patua – a local delicacy – chicken marinated with spices and wrapped in sal leaves. It is cooked over a charcoal fire on gauze. The flavours of the fresh sal leaves seep in and combine with the smokiness to give Patua its unique taste. 

The finished product – very flavourful

On our way back, we did something I have wanted to do for a long time. We stopped our car in the middle of the jungle and turned the lights off. It was almost 7 pm and pitch dark outside. Rarely do city dwellers like me get to witness such clear starlit skies. Breathing in the crisp, fresh winter air in total silence and pitch darkness in the middle of the forest was a deeply gratifying experience. 

Practical info: The entry fee to the park is Rs 100 per person. Unlike other national parks, there are no organised safaris. SUVs can be rented from the city and permits are issued every morning to a limited number of vehicles on a first-come-first-served basis at the designated entry gates. Guides are also allocated at the time of entry  Boleros charge Rs 5000 for the full trip to and from Baripada and Innovas charge Rs 6000. Adventurous travellers can also choose to drive themselves. 

Again, after a long, exhausting day, we retired early.  

The next morning I had to wake up to the unpleasant realisation that it was the day of our return.

I made use of the morning in spotting some of the avian visitors to the property. There are common birds like doves and parakeets and less common ones like barbets and thrushes. This was followed by breakfast.  

The one area where the otherwise immaculate property has some room for improvement is in the culinary department. The choices are limited and despite the setting, seem overpriced for what is essentially simple food. Odia food has a very rich legacy and is replete with hidden gems. This felt like a missed opportunity on part of the palace to showcase some of them at reasonable prices. 

An excellent alternative to having in is Brewbakes cafe, just about a km from the palace. They have an extensive menu, delicious food, efficient service and very reasonable prices. It was a delight finding a restaurant this good in a relatively small town.  

Interesting relics of the yore scattered across the property
Those times had different moral codes – Trophy hunting was the norm

But I digress. After breakfast, we got a detailed tour of the property. The tour put the myriad portraits, artefacts and architecture of the palace in context. It was illuminating to learn about the rich history of the benevolent royals and their generous contributions to the common good of the area. The goodwill earned over generations means that the erstwhile royal family, now devoid of their titles, continues to be very highly regarded by the locals.     

And with that, it was a wrap on our time at the palace. With a heavy heart, we bid goodbye to the royal comforts and warm hospitality of the Belgadia Palace.

We could get used to this!

On our way back we stopped at a village called Kuliana, which we had come to know, is home to traditional Dokra artists.  

This pitstop turned out to be the highlight of our trip. We landed up at the doorstep of Sri. Yudhushtir Rana, a very decorated Dokra artist. The septuagenarian craftsman was delighted to have visitors who had come in search and showed off his craft with childlike enthusiasm.  

The Dokra artisan immersed in his craft

First, elaborate statuettes are made using beeswax. The figurines are then covered in clay with an opening on top. Once the clay has dried, it acts as a mould. Molten metal is then poured into the mould. It dissolves the wax inside and the metal takes its place, in effect forming the figurine. It is then allowed to cool and the clay mould is cracked open, revealing the metal statuettes that are then polished and sold. The motifs are mostly religious or scenes from tribal life. 

The artisan’s guileless enthusiasm and sheer pride in his craft gave us hope that as long as ambassadors like him are around, our millennia-old crafts are in safe hands. 

The long drive back gave me ample time to reflect on the many highlights of this short but rewarding trip. Odisha tourism pitches the state as the best-kept secret of India. I couldn’t agree more.     

Misadventures & Musings on Kashmir Great Lakes Trek

Twin Lakes – Vishnusar and Kishansar

Misadventures are inseparable from my trips, much like controversy and the Kardashians, and corruption and Indian politics. From getting my specs stolen by a monkey in a Balinese temple to getting my DSLR stolen in a Parisian church and being locked out of the Airbnb at midnight in Hanoi, misadventures are never too far. 

It was no different on the recent trek to the Great Lakes of Kashmir. As anyone who has ever trekked will concur, the one thing you absolutely need is a reliable pair of shoes. I thought I had one. My pair had faithfully accompanied me on three previous (long) Himalayan treks and then expectantly but patiently hibernated for two years to grace my feet again, what with the pandemic raging outside.

I had spotted signs of distress during the last trek itself but was deluding myself that they had more to give.  Within the first hour of the six-day, 70 km trek, Chetak (as I fondly, ironically, and posthumously christened my shoes) started crumbling. The outer sole layers that provide the much-needed extra grip on treacherous mountain tracks started teetering off and dangling.  Mind over matter, I thought and calmly pocketed the separated soles and soldiered on for the rest of the day. By the morning of day 2, the entire outer sole started coming out making the walk nearly impossible. Without batting an eyelid, our trek leader, Dhaval, pulled some strings (literally) and tied up the pieces. I mentally bowed to him. He was no less than Bear Grylls for me.


That saw me through the next two days, including the venerated Gadsar pass crossing. But by day 4, the strings had done what they could. That’s when Dhaval suggested putting on my socks over my shoes. Out came my faux designer socks and they snugly engulfed what were the tattered remnants of my shoes.

Chetak 2.0: Wrapped up in socks

For a while, my designer footgear became a topic of curiosity, admiration, and even envy among fellow trekkers, guides, and locals alike. But with near-zero grip, I fell often and clumsily on the mix of muck and horseshit that masqueraded as the trail on the final day. I somehow negotiated the 12 km of steep descent with no damage to my bones and only slight damage to my pride.   

Ultimately, a valuable lesson was learned. With ingenuity and fortitude, one can overcome any obstacle but it’s way better to just buy a new pair of shoes and not be stingy.

Base Campsite at Shitkadi

Well, now onto more mundane stuff. Like the trek itself. Indiahikes, the foremost authority on treks in India, calls the Kashmir Great Lakes trek the prettiest in India. That’s high praise and as I soon discovered, well deserved. The trek takes one through three high-altitude mountain passes, lush green meadows, mountain rivers gurgling on their way down, and six absolutely pristine glacial lakes, each prettier than the other.

The trek route has no human settlements and no mobile connectivity. It remains covered in snow for most of the year. In the short window from late July to September, after the snow melts and the passes become accessible, nomadic sheepherders bring up their flocks from the valley below to graze on the ultra-nutritious alpine grass. They are the only humans you will encounter on the trek, apart from army personnel and fellow trekkers.

Nomadic sheep herder

Let me issue some fair warning. Parts of the blog may sound like a love letter to Indiahikes. It’s because they deserve it. Not because they paid me (though I would very much like that).

I can’t possibly document the full itinerary better than Indiahikes already has, so you better read it here. I’ll just stick to a retelling of some unforgettable sights I saw and the reflections they evoked.

Vishnusar Lake

While everywhere you look on a trek in Kashmir gorgeous vistas abound, the first jaw-dropping moment came with the first glimpse of Vishnusar lake on Day 2. The placid, glassy waters of the lake, surrounded by steeply rising mountains on three sides just takes your breath away. The tiredness from the arduous walks instantly evaporates. As I sat next to it, along with my thoughts, I felt blessed to be living that moment.

En route Gadsar Pass with Kishansar in the background

The third day is arguably the toughest and trickiest day of the trek but it is packed with visual delights. We crossed the Gadsar pass on the third day. A challenging 3-hour climb took us to the top of Gadsar pass. At 13,800 ft, it is the highest point on the trek.

The view from the top is spellbinding. Snow-capped mountains play peekaboo with clouds on one side. On the other side, the twin lakes – Vishnusar and Kishansar – appear as tiny specks of turquoise.

View from Gadsar Pass

Once everyone in our group made it to the top, Dhaval assembled us in a huddle that he calls the gratitude circle. Everyone thanked the people who made this possible for them – parents who bred a love for the outdoors from childhood, understanding spouses who encouraged (or at least put up with) the idea of a solo trek, and of course our excellent support team at Indiahikes. It was an emotional moment for everyone. I couldn’t help starting my vote of thanks with a word of gratitude to the scientists behind the Covid vaccine.

Gadsar Lake

Lunch on day 3 was next to Gadsar Lake.  As I sat on a rock next to a gurgling stream, with the majestic lake in clear view, I realized that I would choose simple food with a view like this any day over gourmet meals in fancy restaurants. The sloping meadow that runs all the way down to the lake was peppered with tiny flowers of myriad colours. A flock of sheep languidly munched on the lush grass. All was well with the world. There was nowhere else I would rather be.

Gadsar Lake

Walking onwards from the lake en route to the Gadsar campsite, we crossed a tiny stone hut of a herder. His small boy stood beside his mother and as we waved, he waved back flashing a million-dollar smile. The innocent, heartfelt smile overwhelmed me. I wondered how, in such harsh conditions, with practically no material possessions and hardly any human company, the child could be this happy and contented. I contrasted it with the many contraptions city kids (including my own) have and how little difference it makes to experience happiness. 

Gangbal and Nandkul Lakes

Another high point (literally!) was crossing the Zach pass on the fifth day. The pass faces the mighty and sacred Harmukh mountain. For most of our hour-long stop at the top of the pass, the valley below remained shrouded in clouds. But ever so ephemerally, the clouds parted to reveal another pair of picture-perfect lakes – Gangbal and Nandkul. Okay, I have officially run of adjectives to describe pretty things. I was obviously disappointed at not getting clear views of one of the most spectacular sights on the trek. But I also realized that this mystique of nature is what makes trekking such a cathartic experience.  

The fifth night, at the Gangbal campsite, was our last on the trek. The next day we were to descend down to Naranag and drive back to Srinagar. There was a special surprise waiting for us. After dinner, the ghoda-walas who took care of the horses that carried our provisions came to the dinner tent. With humble utensils serving as musical instruments, they broke into soulful Kashmiri songs. We listened absolutely enthralled and then broke into spontaneous celebratory dancing. It was just another reminder that zest for life trumps material abundance when it comes to finding happiness in everyday life.     

Moideen Chacha- the leader of the ghoda-walas

I can’t possibly write about the trek and not mention what an absolute delight it was to trek with Indiahikes. It all starts from the detailed information you get on the website before you book the trek. They are anal about the fitness requirement for the trek and you are grudgingly thankful for it once you complete the trek without hiccups. The food they serve is delicious, wholesome, and always hot.

Dhaval (Trek Leader), Murtaza Bhai & Aslam Bhai (Guides)

The guides are knowledgeable, competent, friendly, and generous. They have the uncanny ability to magically appear with a helping hand, every time you need them. While I can’t quite wax eloquent about the trek leader on a previous trek, Dhaval, who led us on KGL, was excellent. He led by example, maintained discipline without getting overzealous and we always like we were in very safe hands.

Last but certainly not least, I met a wonderful bunch of people on the trek. This was the first trek where I went without friends. But a group of like-minded individuals, all there for the right reasons, meant that good company and enjoyable, insightful conversations were always at hand.  

The gang

Trekking gets one close to unspoiled natural beauty in a way that’s just not possible through any other means. To everyone out there who hasn’t it yet, give this trekking thing a shot. You can thank me later!

Kochi Chronicles: sights, sounds and tastes of the historic city

The Lonely Planet magazine has just come out with its list of “Top 10 cities to visit in 2020” and an Indian city has made its way to the list. With its rich architectural heritage, vibrant art scene, lip-smacking cuisine and veritable amalgamation of cultural influences, Kochi has truly earned it.   

Sleepy fishing village to a vibrant port city

The fortunes of this nondescript fishing village were dramatically altered when a tsunami devastated the once important port of Kodungallur (Muziris), 50km away, and flooded the lands around Kochi creating an excellent natural harbour in 1341 AD. Spice trade with China and the Middle East flourished in Kochi and began transforming it beyond recognition.

In 1500 AD, the Portuguese found their way to Kochi and established amicable relations with the Rajah of Cochin. What began with trade inevitably ended in conquest. Control over Kochi was later wrestled from the Portuguese by the Dutch in 1663. It was held briefly by the Nizams of Hyderabad before finally settling with the British in AD 1790. It stayed that way until India’s independence in 1947.

The colonial period deeply influenced Kochi’s architecture, culture, food and much more and the influences are in abundant display in modern-day Kochi.

5 must-dos to absorb Kochi

Amble around Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi is a 1.5hr drive from Cochin Airport and about 45 minutes from Ernakulam station.

Discovering Fort Kochi isn’t about a checklist of things to see and do. It is about soaking in the feeling of being in Fort Kochi. For romantics prone to nostalgia, it is easy to visualize nearly 450 years of colonial history unfolding in front of one’s eyes while crossing colonial-era churches, mansions, offices and cemeteries.

Fort Kochi gets its name from a fortification built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century to safeguard their trade interests. It was destroyed by the subsequent Dutch conquerors and only tiny fragments of the actual fortifications now remain to be seen inside the Indo Portuguese Museum. 

The resplendent Santa Cruz Basilica

Start your walk from the Santa Cruz Basilica. While the original church was erected by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, it was used as an arms store by later Dutch colonists and razed completely by the British in 1795. More than a hundred years later, it was re-erected by the Bishop of Cochin and that structure endures to the present day. The exteriors are spotlessly whitewashed in a pleasant shade of yellow. The interiors are decorated with beautiful murals of scenes from the passion narratives. 

St. Francis CSI Church where Vasco da Gama was once buried

Walk onwards to the St Francis CSI Church. This humble monument was the first ever European church in India, erected in 1503, soon after the arrival of the Portuguese. The legendary explorer Vasco Da Gama was buried here briefly upon his death in 1524 before his remains were taken back to Lisbon. 

Dutch Cemetery

Walk further on to the Dutch cemetery which was consecrated in 1724 and now lies in ruins. The gates are perpetually locked but you can peep inside to get a view of the tombs. The tombs of Dutch governors, commanders and officials now lie overgrown with moss and weed. It is a stark reminder of the rise and ebb of fortunes of empires and the agents.

Chinese fishing nets

End your walk through Fort Kochi with a stroll along the seafront, ending near the Chinese fishing nets. Along the way, you can spot the lone surviving canon from Fort Emmanuel, the original Portuguese fortification of Kochi. Chinese traders of the 14th century introduced the fishing nets to Kochi and they continue to be in use even today. It’s also a great spot to watch the sun go down. The fishermen bring their fresh catch in the evening for auctioning and witnessing the orderly chaos of the auctions is a treat in itself.  

Check out Jew Town & Mattancherry Palace

Paradesi Synagogue

All that now remains of the once-thriving Jew town is the Paradesi Synagogue. But then it’s not just any synagogue. Built in 1568, it’s the oldest active synagogue in India. The name “Paradesi”, meaning foreigner, proclaims that the Synagogue was erected by Sephardic (Spanish speaking) Jews, from Europe as opposed to the local black Malabari or Cochin Jews.  

The Synagogue is open to visitors from Sunday to Thursday from 10 am to 2 pm and again from 3 pm to 5 pm. It is closed on Saturdays and in the second half on Fridays. It is also closed on all Jewish holidays. Unfortunately, our visit overlapped with the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and we couldn’t enter the synagogue to see the treasures it holds inside.

Jew Town

The street leading to the synagogue is closed to vehicular traffic is lined on both sides by antique and souvenir shops and cafes. With the gradual emigration of the local Jews, a once thriving community is now down to a handful.

Mattancherry Palace, also known as the Dutch Palace, looks deceptively dilapidated from the outside. But inside, it houses a well maintained museum documenting the history of the Kingdom of Kochi. Built in 1555 by the Portuguese to appease the Rajah of Kochi, it was extensively restored by the Dutch overlords in the 17th century and hence the name Dutch Palace.  

The inner walls are covered in spectacular murals with some dating back as far back as the 16th century. Particularly noteworthy is one that captures the entire story of Ramayana in one contiguous painting with one scene merging seamlessly into another. A painting depicting Maharaasa of Krishna has him employing his eight divine limbs to simultaneously pleasure a multitude of milkmaids. This epitome of erotica is housed, perhaps justifiably, in the basement connected by a steep staircase!

Portraits of Rajahs of Kochi, their stamps and currency and plaques on the history of Kochi complete the informative collection of exhibits.

The palace museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm on all days of the week except Friday. It charges a princely Rs 5 per person for entry.

Witness Kerala’s Traditional Performing arts

Kerala Kathakali Centre is probably the best place in Kochi to get a taste of Kerala’s rich traditional performing art forms. It is a private institute operated by a certain Mr Vijayan. At their auditorium located in Fort Kochi, they host daily shows of Kalaripayattu from 4 pm to 5 pm and Kathakali from 6 pm to 7 pm. One can also witness the pre-performance Kathakali makeup session happening live on stage from 5 pm to 6 pm.

It’s not a one-man job
Kathakali makeup
The final output

In fact, the makeup is as big a draw as the performance itself. The elaborate facial makeup still uses entirely natural pigments following centuries of traditions. It is a mesmerizing experience to witness the transformations of perfectly normal looking men into mythical characters of either gender, even animals if the story demands it! The prominent facial colour signifies the kind of character being portrayed – green symbolizes godliness, black is for evil, white is for spirituality, red for turmoil and yellow denotes a mix of godliness and turmoil.

The performance is spellbinding. The performers challenge the limits of human physiology with the manoeuvring of facial muscles and eye movements. The unsung heroes of the act are the singer and the drummers whose skilful rendition perfectly compliment the performance of the dancers. Stories from Indian mythology are the typical themes of Kathakali performances. We got in early and got balcony seats on the upper level which offer an unhindered view of the stage.

Kalaripayattu is Kerala’s flagship martial art form dating back from at least the 6th century BC. It has been referenced in many Hollywood and Bollywood movies and even has spawned a popular animated show for kids. It would have been a sin to come to Kerala and not catch a demo. But be prepared for flying swords and other nerve-rattling stunts. The accompanying descriptions of each form of combat, the weaponry and associated traditions make for a rich experience.

The Kalaripayattu show costs Rs.300 per person and the Kathakali show is for Rs.350. One can refer their website for updated information and mail for reservations.

The shows are a tiny but essential glimpse into Kerala’s rich tradition of performing arts. It is heartening to see the traditions being kept alive through the collective enterprise of dedicated individuals like Mr Vijayan and his associates.

Hop across Museums

Kerala draws in droves of tourists, both Indians and foreigners, primarily because of its resplendent natural beauty. But it packs enough of a cultural punch to satiate culture vultures. And there is no better place to get a taste of its rich history and culture than the Kerala Folklore Museum.

Kerala Folklore Museum

Surprisingly, this place flies under the radar when it comes to most tourist itineraries of Kochi. Located about 10km away from Fort Kochi in Thevara, it is the labour of love of Mr George Thaliath.

The private museum has been painstakingly assembled by him with collection efforts spanning over three decades.

The museum building itself has been assembled using antiques and structural elements from 25 dismantled heritage structures. Inside it is a cornucopia of artefacts of historical and cultural significance.

The ground floor has an excellent collection of centuries-old wooden statues collected from various sites in South India. Particularly noteworthy is the wooden gable of a disused 15th century temple. There are Nannangadi, or giant terracotta pots from 1000 BC, in which human bodies were traditionally buried in a crouching position. Also on display are the Manichitrathazhu, which are metal locks with extremely elaborate craftsmanship that were fitted on sturdy jackwood doors in the traditional homes of the elite for providing security and displaying pomp in equal measure.

My interest was kindled in Theyyam, a ritual form of worship popular in Kerala, by the many masks, breastplates and costumes on display. They are elegantly crafted and heavy AF. I couldn’t fathom how it would be humanly possible to even don the full paraphernalia, let alone dance in it.

The uppermost floor is actually a transported dancing hall called Koothambalam, once attached to an ancient temple in Kerala. The massive wooden edifice from the 18th century weighs more than 60 tons and stands without any middle support. On the ceiling are wood carved figurines of 333 gods and goddesses representing the proverbial 333 crore gods of the Hindu pantheon. This is accompanied by 253 mural paintings depicting traditional art forms of Kerala.

What makes the museum truly unique is how such a vast collection has been thoughtfully assembled and maintained by the individual zeal of one person, and now upon his death, by his family, to preserve and showcase the cultural heritage of his motherland. I left the museum determined to spread the word about this marvellous initiative. To anyone headed to Kochi, the museum is open from 9 am to 6 pm on all days of the week and the Rs.100 entry fee is very well spent.

India Portuguese Museum

This museum established through the efforts of a former Bishop of Kochi is housed within the Bishop’s House premises in Fort Kochi.

The basement of the museum has the last surviving remnants of the original Portuguese fortification of Kochi. While there isn’t much left to see anymore, these bare bricks once ushered in colonial expansion in Kerala and subsequently in all of India.

The collection here provides a glimpse into the religious traditions of the period through the historical artefacts. It is open from 10 am to 6 pm, with a lunch break from 1 pm to 2 pm, every day barring Mondays and public holidays. 

Apart from these two museums, there is also the Mattancherry Palace museum of which I have written earlier and the Museum of Kerala which I didn’t have occasion to visit.

Devour Kerala’s Mouth-watering Cuisine

Eating out in Kochi is as much about savouring the flavours as it is about soaking in the charming ambience of its restaurants. The Fort Kochi area, in particular, abounds in heritage bungalows converted into dreamy cafes, bistros and restaurants. Below is a short selection of restaurants we tried out and liked to varying degrees.

Jetty Restaurant at Forte Kochi

Jetty takes the top spot in my recommendation of eateries in Fort Kochi. Housed inside a renovated heritage building that’s now Forte Kochi boutique hotel, the décor here oozes class from every nook. The bright ochre yellow exteriors will deceive you into thinking that you are somewhere in Portugal. But once you dig into your meal you will be brought back to Kerala through the classic eats of Kerala cuisine, are all done to perfection. If you have one meal in Fort Kochi, head here.

Bristow’s Bistro is housed inside the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel. It is the former mansion of renowned British Engineer, Sir Robert Bristow, who played a key role in the construction of the Kochi Port. The stately dining hall is near the edge of the sea and an evening meal here accompanied by the sea breeze and the sounds of crashing waves is a delightful experience. The food is excellent and moderately priced. I can vouch for the succulent Tuna Steak, flavourful Pork Masala and soft and fluffy Appams. It is among the few establishments in Kochi that serve beer, though the choice of brands will be severely limited (as is the case pretty much everywhere in Kerala). 

Kashi Art Cafe

Kashi Art Café This hybrid of a café and an art gallery has been making waves in Kochi’s casual dining scene and justly so. If the tables are removed, you might well mistake it for a rather nice art gallery. That’s until the food is served and you realize that artsy distractions notwithstanding, the food is the real hero and is reason enough to make your way here.

The mustard flavoured chicken served on a bed of buttery mashed potatoes and the juicy skewered prawns come highly recommended.

Tea Bungalow is yet another jewel in the long list of heritage boutique hotels in Kochi and has a restaurant to boot. A tastefully decorated property dating back to 1912, its décor is themed on prominent port towns strewn across the Indian Ocean region. The food at their restaurant is delicious and the service prompt and efficient.

Ginger House draws in droves of foreign visitors led by its backwater-view dining room and prominent mentions in guidebooks. It is located in the Jew Town and like many Kochi establishments, this is also housed inside the eponymous boutique heritage hotel. After being spoiled by the amazing food across restaurants in Fort Kochi, the food here was a big let-down. And if the food was middling at best, the service was absolutely atrocious. The views are lovely but that couldn’t quite make up for the disappointment in the other departments.  

Kochi will delight your eyes, ears and taste buds in equal measure and you will doubtless concur with the curators of the Lonely Planet Cities to visit in 2020 list!

Kareri Lake Trek: Enthralling & Under-rated

As I hung on to dear life, clutching some thorny shrubs, the hundred-odd metres that separated me from the safety of the marked out trail seemed like miles. A miscalculation by our guide during our descent from Kareri Lake had led us to think that crawling across the dry sheer slope of the mountain will be safer than walking over the slippery snow-covered slope. To be fair to him, he negotiated the stretch with the utmost ease. But he had massively overestimated the agility of our stiff bodies that were totally unaccustomed to such nimble manoeuvres. To me, it seemed like accepting an invitation to break a few limbs.   

After an excruciating thirty minutes which seemed like the last thirty minutes of my life, I managed to gracelessly creep and crawl through the stretch and meet the trail. My hands were bruised from the thorny shrubs and my cargos were plastered in mud but I was standing on level ground with all limbs and sense of humour intact.

When I was planning a reunion with a childhood friend over the Good Friday extended weekend, I had resigned myself to the idea of meeting in Goa as a middle ground between Mumbai and Bangalore which are our respective abodes at present. Until he came up with the idea of a short trek to beat the heat. After some frenetic research, the Kareri Lake trek was finalised. It was accessible through overnight travel from Delhi, was doable in a couple of days and was considered to be at its best in April. That checked all the boxes for us.

Day 1: Arrive in Dharamshala, onwards to Kareri village

We had taken the overnight Dhauladhar Express from Delhi on the night before. It dropped us at Pathankot at 8.30 am. From there, Dharamshala is about a 3-hour cab ride away. Cabs are available right outside the railway station and fares can vary from Rs.2000 to Rs.2500 (~$30-35) depending on your negotiation skills. 

Ghera village: Pretty as a postcard

From there we took a bus to Ghera (1.5hr, Rs.35). Kareri Village is about 7km from Ghera. There is no public transport between Ghera and Kareri village. There are some private vehicles which transport locals on a seat-sharing basis for Rs.30 per person but such arrangements can be infrequent. Renting out the full vehicle costs around Rs.500 ($7). Bravehearts may even choose to walk uphill along a “shortcut” which could take upwards of two hours.

Kareri village: Love at first sight

We reached Kareri village just before sundown and fell in love with the place immediately. Small colourful dwellings dotted the hills, herdsmen were grazing their sheep and goat, the fields were lush with a crop of wheat and birdsongs filled the air. How could one not fall in love. We made enquiries about possible arrangements for the trek by calling a few numbers we had come across online. We settled on the deal offered by one Mr Durga (+91 78074 32558) who provided us a tent and two sleeping bags, all meals during the 1.5 day trek and the services of a guide for Rs.3000 (~$42.5).

That settled, we went to have coffee at “Out of the World Café”. It’s really a humble hut with a table and some chairs laid out in the open but that’s about as fancy as cafes get over here. That’s where we met Sam, an intrepid Londoner who had set off on a two-month long solo adventure in the Himalayas, splitting his time between India and Nepal. He informed us that he was put up the Forest Guest House and the rooms there were the best to be expected in Kareri. Our other options were homestays with locals or camping out. We got lured by the prospect of a comfortable bed and hot shower before heading into the wilderness for a couple of days and opted for the Forest Guest House.

The caretaker, Jagdish Ji, is a smooth-talking and slippery fellow but he knows he has the best rooms in town. The Guest House receives no official visitors and the income from letting it out to trekkers earns him a healthy side income. He let it out to us for Rs 700 ($10) for the night and charged Rs150 ($2) per person for dinner and breakfast.

The Forest Guest House

Having found a comfortable place to spend the night in, we stepped out for a late evening stroll. It was a full moon night and the mountains were bathed in moonlight. The snow-capped Dhauladhar was glittering. The Koel’s cooing was being echoed by the mountain. There was a nip in the air. And there was catching up to be done and childhood memories to be recounted. But Kareri sleeps early so we had our dal-chawal at around 8:30 and then tucked ourselves in for the night.

Full moon

Upon our arrival we had learnt that the upper reaches of the mountain, including the lake itself was covered in a thick coat of snow. This was unusual for this time of the year and it got us even more excited for the following day. 

Day 2: Kareri Village to Kareri Lake & return to base camp at Reoti

We woke up to the chirping of birds, a welcome departure from the blaring alarm of the mobile phone which has become de rigueur. Simple things like these make you feel thankful.   

Waking up to this view at Kareri village

While feasting on parathas and tea in the morning, we noticed the approaching outline of a small boy. He came up to us and announced that he was Shabbo, our guide for the trek. On enquiring whether he had been doing this long, he informed that this was to be his second visit to the lake and his first as a “guide”. He had been to the Shiva temple near the lake once earlier with his mother to offer prayers on some religious festivals. Never shy of giving a youngster a break, we wholeheartedly welcomed him into our fold.

All set to start

We started the ascent at 8.30am. The first couple of kilometres were along a paved road that ran through a pine forest. We were beginning to feel that we would slay this. Then things took a turn. We heard the gushing sound of Nyund Nallah and the path diverted from the even, paved road to a trail of steep stone stairs. The ascent was continuous and very steep. There were no interludes of level patches and it was uphill all the way from there on. I was out of breath very soon. My friend was faring only somewhat better.

View from the trail

But the views were more than making up for the toil. The energetic glacial stream carving its way through the mountain, rhododendron trees in full bloom, the snow covered upper reaches of the mountain all came together to create a very picturesque trail.

After 7km of arduous hiking, we reached Reoti at around 11:30am. Kareri Lake is another 6km from Reoti. Most sane people camp here overnight and continue to the lake the next morning. But a hazardous mixture of ambition and naiveté had made us plan to cover the whole trek in a single day, all the way to the lake and back to Reoti by evening.   

With the sound of my panting now drowning out the gushing of the stream, we carried on. Soon after crossing Reoti we began to encounter snow on the trail. Until gradually, the whole trail was enveloped in soft snow. This is where our guide came in handy as the stream we had been following was frozen over and the direction to take was no longer as obvious. While we slipped and fell and made fools of ourselves, our guide seemed to be strolling in a park. At times like these, I feel that we should wear our “avid trekker” tags very, very lightly.  

Snow covered trail

The final stretch towards the lake was beautiful beyond description. All around us was just the purest shade of white and a few daredevil trees that stood tall amidst all this. I had begun to feel that the views of the lake couldn’t possibly be any more beautiful than what we were seeing already. Of course, I was wrong.

Frozen Kareri Lake

When we finally reached the lake at around 2:30 pm, we were overwhelmed by the view. Apart from a tiny patch, the whole lake was frozen. We just sat there feeling humbled and grateful at having seen a sight like this. There is a Shiva temple overlooking the lake. I generally lean towards atheism but at times like these, hands fold up automatically in reverence. Perhaps I was just recognizing that God is but an embodiment of the enthralling nature around us.  

Shiva temple overlooking Kareri lake

Barring us, there were just three other people at the lake. One of them even planned to pitch a tent inside the temple and spend the night there. The very thought of spending a night in a setting like that, with not a living souls for miles around was spine chilling. We wished him the best, envied him for his courage and started our descent.

The descent back to Reoti took us about 2 hours. It was marked by ample back patting and self-congratulations on our accomplishment. And well, to be fair, traversing 19km on a mountainous trail, 13 of them while ascending, is no mean feat for two borderline obese urban dwellers. Apart from the hair raising incident with which I began my narrative, the rest of the descent was unremarkable.   

We were immensely fortunate to have done the trek on a Friday. When we got to the base camp, there were about 50 tents set up and they were overflowing with boisterous occupants. The weekend crowd had descended (well, in this case, ascended) to Reoti to undertake the trek the next day. While we had come across less than a dozen people during the course of our trek thus far, there was a crowd of more than 150, all set to take over the mountains tomorrow. And this was just one campsite. There were a few more, no doubt, with as many occupants. 

We were bundled inside a supposedly “two-man” tent which was small enough to suffocate even a single occupant. We discovered a spider inside the tent but were told that it is par for course and nothing to get worked up about. We entered our sleeping bags and did the sheep counting drill to try and sleep amidst the commotion.

Day 3: Reoti to Kareri Village and back to Dharamshala

We woke up early to start our descent from Reoti. With our heart upbeat but our feet sore from our accomplishments of previous day, we headed back towards Kareri. The descent was pleasant and took around 2.5 hours. While walking down, we recollected how trying it had been to walk up this very same path.

On reaching Kareri village, we should have just hired a vehicle to get us dropped to Ghera. But there is something about treks that awakens the Scrooge in me. It is attributable to a sense of accomplishment on having done it on the cheap. We decided to hitchhike. We started walking along the road to Ghera, confident them some vehicle would soon come by and would be only too glad to offer us a lift. We were wrong. We ended up walking all 7km of the way to Ghera, without a single vehicle crossing us in the 2 hours that it took us. 

On reaching Ghera, we learned that the public bus was to leave only after two hours which would have been too late for us. This time we did manage to find some good Samaritans who agreed to drop us to Dharamshala.

As we boarded our overnight bus from Dharamshala for Delhi, we felt very thankful for how the trip had gone. The weather had been a sport and we had dodged the crowds. We had even managed to emerge unscathed from some precarious situations. All in all, we could not have asked for more. We were going back with a bagful of memories and our sunburns were our only souvenirs.