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Singapore (Day 6)

The last day of our trip was finally here ; the trip until this time was eventful and exciting for sure. The last day’s plan was not too extensive. Some souvenir shopping, palawan beach and finally relax at the “jewel” at Changi airport. Our flight was scheduled for early morning 5 a.m , so we still had a long day (and night) ahead of us.

After some quick breakfast at the hostel and checking out , we reached little india by walk and tried the singapore fried rice. The fried rice was definitely “different” for sure, relatively a lot more vegetable than I get in India for sure and a lot more greasy but tasting great nonetheless. For souvenier shopping, the recommend spot is the Mustafa center located in little India; essentially a massive supermarket selling almost everything at a “discounted” price (by singapore standards). Navigating the mustafa center is task in itself; a lot like india actually; massive number of items jam packed into a relatively small space. We were primarily there for chocolates and find we did. Beyond chocolates, our customary singapore globe and T shirt and we were done with mustafa center.

It was middle of the day by the time we were out of mustafa; out as hell and we had nowhere to go. Flight was still 12+ hours away. Best would be to find another restaurant (with AC). We found ourselves a big bunch of potential restaurants; anandbhavan, sarvanan bhavan etc etc.bhavans. After much deliberation, sarvanan bhavan it was. Inside, sarvanan bhavan was exactly like any other darshini in bangalore , (with seating). People inside were talking in tamil and the cuisine was pure south Indian. We ordered the thali, dosa and chole bhatura. Me and karthik concurred that it was the one of best south Indian meals of our lives. How an Indian restaurant in SGP managed to serve up such authentic south Indian cuisine we don’t know. After a hearty meal, we still had to plan our dinner (given the price of meals at airports). We hunted around online and located a subway very close to our location in a mall. So after a quick walk of 10 minutes, we were in another mall packing our sandwitches.

We still had time left, palawan beach in sentosa was the last place to cover before departing for the airport. Another quick ride on the subway and we made it to palawan beach just before sunset. The beach was pretty crowded with hundreds relaxing on the sand, enjoying the cool water and photographing the sunset. I wanted to get the sunset but it wasn’t that impressive for effort required to take that 2 KG thing out of a packed bag; so I left it and we soaked in out last evening in singapore.

On our way back , as if to see us off, it rained for a bit cooling the weather off to late twenties. A long metro ride back and we were finally where it all started, Changi airport. Of course the intent of reaching the airport a bit early was to enjoy at “the jeweL’, more specifically the sound and light show. The construction of the “jewel”, the aesthetics, the “in tune” with nature design, massive indoor water fall truly places SGP changi far ahead of the nearest competitor in best airports list.

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We still had more than 6 hours to our flight; the subway sandwich lasted me only half hour and we still had hours to kill. So we set camp and ..dozed off. By the time we woke up at 3 a.m, the flight check-in had begun. It took another 2 hours by the time we were in. Finally our journey was about to end. After landing, me and karthik had another subway sandwich at the airport as per tradition and it was end of another memorable journey.


Singapore (Day 5)

Out last and final day was reserved for the Jurong Bird park. Jurong Bird Park is an aviary and tourist attraction in Jurong, Singapore. The bird park, managed by Wildlife Reserves Singapore, covers an area of 0.2 square kilometres on the western slope of Jurong Hill, the highest point in the Jurong region. There are dozens of exhibits at the bird park and it would take one an entire day to cover them all for sure.

To reach jurong, one would need to use a combination of metro and bus. I don’t quite remember the metro stop at the time of the blog but ample directions are available on google.After reaching the metro stop, a dedicated bus takes visitors to jurong. Tickets we had already purchased before hand , so redeeming the online ticket at the counter was a breeze. By 10 a.m or so, we were at the park entrance but as mother nature decided to play spoil sport with us. On this day , weather was quite gloomy and as soon I got my gear setup, it started raining heavily and we were stuck at the park entrance for almost 30 minutes or so.

The penguin enclosure located right next to the entrance was the only once accessible to us,so finished that first. Overall the park is quite big and a bit a difficult to cover by foot. There are carts which can transfer people from one enclosure to next. Also the map available at the entrance for free is very helpful to “tick” enclosures already visited. We had hoped for the rain to stop by the time we were done with penguin exhibit but the rain gods were in no mood to relent; so we boarded the cart to exhibit 3, it would be easy to move to exhibit 2 or 4 from that point. The map though made us realize  that we would need to visit “2” and “4”, so we started the walk all the way back to 2. Now I cant quite recall what was present in any of those but I do remember seeing too many multicolored ones to recollect.

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After spending 2 hours photographing birds. it was time to watch the first show of the day, “high flyers show” at pools amphitheater; hundreds of flying birds race, sing, and swoop through hoops before 100 birds flock onto the stage putting on an amazing color display. 40 minutes well spent.

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After the amazing show and a flock of flamingos later, it was time for the next one; King of the Skies.  Falcons, owls, vultures and eagles demonstrate their hunting skills in this one of a kind show. After the exciting one, we continued our tour of the park on foot and saw emus, rare pelicans and dozens of varieties of birds. My trustee 150-600 got me some incredible snaps in the light of the evening sun.

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Our final exhibit for the day was water fall aviary; a man made 30 meter waterfall in a 2 hectare rainforest enclosure where over 600 birds live. It is quite huge ; Walk to the suspension bridge to get a perfect snapshot of birds flying around, with the waterfall in the background and climb to the highest point to get a perfect shot of the man made forest. As such there are many more shows in the park but we had time only for the few stated ; we lost an hour due to the rain.

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All said and done, there is ample in the jurong bird park to spend an entire day , especially if one is photographing or loves bird watching.

>> DAY 6


Singapore (Day 4)

Day 4 was reserved for universal studios. With each passing day, our time of departure from hostel seem to be getting later. This day it was me. While having my breakfast, I met Pam from the US. She was sure in singapore , alone and found herself a nice part time job. She was actually tending to dogs by staying at someone’s home for free. Apart from that we spoke at length about US politics, travels around the world , family and a lot more. Bill from australia joined our conversation and we ended talking for two straight hours while we were having the usual breakfast. I skipped breakfast for the day, we were already late. Universal Studios is located at sentosa, which was again 40 minutes away.

Now as such, on the day we decided to leave our bags at hostel ; we cant have a 1kg camera hanging around the neck while snipping topsy turvy on a roller coaster. We boarded the MRT and were on the way but midway i realized that it would be dangerous to leave my camera at hostel, unattended. So we travelled all the way back to the hostel , picked up the camera and went back to sentosa. By 12 p.m we are at Universal studios. Universal studios is a big wonderland; especially for kids. Its an expensive wonderland though and it would take atleast 1 day to cover the entire thing. USS is divided into 5 zones, transformers, shrek, jurassic park, battle star galactica and egypt. We were already late on that day; we entered USS by 12.30 p.m. So the only way to cover USS was to visit only the major spots. Now the problem was that it became very crowded by that time. So we quickly scanned the net for the best rides of USS. First up were the battle star galactica rides and there two of them, ceylon and human. If comprises of looping twists and turns and other one has lots of ups and down. Each of the rides have a locker facility available to the tourits free of charge for 60 minutes or so. With some difficulty I fit my giant camera bag inside and prepared for an awesome one. Our hopes were quickly dampened though by the super long lines. We went to the ceylon first; I think it took us almost 40 minutes to get to the boarding station. The entrance way to the boarding point is structured like the inside a star ship and has all kinds of interesting artwork and dummies inside. A battle star galactica fan would probably find them interesting; I sort of did not. Nonetheless the ride itself was lot of fun although it lasts only for 2 minutes or so.

Immediately after completing the Ceylon ride , we tried to go for the “human” ride. after spending 20 minutes in the line and realizing that it would take atleast another hour to get the boarding station, we exit the line; our 60 minutes of locker time was up and additional time is chargeable upto 4$ and more. So we exit the line and decided to skip the “human ride” temporarily.

Moving on and next up the ancient egypt.Ancient Egypt is based on the historical adaptation of Ancient Egypt during the 1930s Golden Age of Egyptian Exploration. It features obelisks and pyramids which are typical of Ancient Egypt. Also featured are Pharaohs’ tombs which were supposedly commonly discovered during that era. This zone relies on the depictions made in the popular film franchise, The Mummy. The theme ride is based on this and is definitely one of the more “exciting rides” in terms of thrill. It again took us almost 30 minutes to get to the ride but was totally worth it.

Moving on from ancient egypt, next up was “lost world” park. A lot was mentioned about the park , especially the “rapids” adventure ride. But as fate would have it, as soon as we “entered” jurassic park, the weather turned dark and all rides were put on hold. Apparently lightning can hit the rides. So we decided to wait it out for a bit. While we were waiting , we were informed that the “waterworld” show is open to public , A live-action performance that involves stunts and pyrotechnics, surrounding by and using a large pool of water and based on hit movie by kevin costner “water world”. The live action show lasts about 20 minutes and and made incredibly well.

Thankfully immediately after the show, the gods were answered our prayers and Rapids ride opened up. The wait again was about 1Hr I think since everyone converged on a single ride towards the end of the day. The poster mentioned the possibility of getting wet due to water splash and we were expected to keep our bags in the lockers for 4SGP per hour,kind of steep but we were in singapore. So anyhow, post this, it was a long wait of 45 minutes and line which was atleast 200 meters long if stretched end to end . When when it was our turn finally,  we fit ourselves in a coracle like enclosure which was pushed into the water. The theme of the ride itself is that of jurassic park which starts off peacefully but the dinosaurs run wild and cause havoc in the park and “we” get to be part of the madness. It wasn’t as thrilling as I would have liked but ok to end our day at USS .

It was almost 6 p.m by the time we got our ride back via the metro. Constrained on time we were and one more spot left to cover, the famous singapore merlion and Light show at MBS. 2 stations switched and we arrived at the destination; well not exactly. We walked atleast a Km from the station and then we were there. The spot was already super crowded; many just relaxing by the water front and others waiting for the light show to start. I found himself the most optimal spot, setup my gear and waited for the light show to start while enjoying the cool wind and the beautiful sight. Of course the singapore skyline with the famous merlion looks stellar even without the MBS lightshow.

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By the time i took a couple of shots, the light show “spectra” started. The show lasts for about 15 mins and is stunning. Of course we were on the other side of the bay, so we had much large field of view but it is quite stunning from the hotel as well.

The weather was pleasant; so we sat for 2 round of the show, at 8 p.m and 9.30 p.m. The first round went into photographing it while the second round to enjoying the magnificence of the light & sound show. By 10 p.m or so, we left the location to take a metro back to the hostel.

The 9/11 is 24/7; so the usual spicy noodles and a drink and it was time for bed.

>> DAY 5


Singapore (Day 0)

Planning
Due to the lack of time, primarily from karthik’s end, i decided to plan something close by. Most countries seemed to take 10+ days; the time I could not afford. After a lot of R&D, singapore seemed to fit the bill. I was initially apprehensive ; singapore is known to be one of the most expensive cities in the world after all. But 6 nights,7 days can be accommodated in 45K INR the math showed as long we budged our spending. Karthik agreed and so began the bookings.

Requirements:
1. Singapore Visa : In order to get the visa, it is essential to visit an embassy, either in person or through an agent; I could not locate a method to get e-visa online. I selected Thomas Cook but other agents like Musafir will also do. The fee was only 2K but the documents list was rather long. The list is provided by default by the agency when applying for a visa through them. Important ones are :
1. Flights
2. Hotel Booking
3. NOC from company
4. Matte Finish photos
5. Visa Form
6. Salary Slip
and few more misc docs

1. I used MMT to book the flights. To and Fro cost me about 17K per head which seemed like an ok deal but probably would have got it for lesser if waited.
2. For hotel booking, we used hostel world. The highest rated economical hostel was Inncrowds backpackers hostel which cost only 900 INR per night per person via hostelworld.
http://www.the-inncrowd.com/
3. The NOC from company took some time. I had to convince my HR that this is a mandatory requirement for SGP tourist visa. After all they don’t give stuff on company letter heads willy-nilly.
4. The matte finish photos are a stringent requirement. There are cases of visa rejections when photos were gloss finish.
5. Salary slip is to show that we have enough income to afford the journey.
6. Passport with 6 months validity remaining.

With all this along with filled Visa form, I made my booking of slot at thomas cook. The folks were professional as such; the only problem was my visa was would be ready only 4 days before departure; which meant that if visa were to be rejected under any scenario at all, my trip would be screwed. This was primarily due to backlog at thomas cook’s end but since I had already paid for the visa processing, I swallowed the bitter pill and decided to move ahead with them.

Mean while karthik seemed to delay his processing of documents (as usual) getting me tensed up. -_-

Thankfully 3 days before departure both of us received our visas. This spurned another booking spree of sorts;
1. Hippopass helped us book the Universal Studios and Aquarium at 10SGD discount at an overall of 111SGD (Good enough for an extra lunch in SGP)
2. Govoyagin helped us book Super Grove tree sky walk along with the conservatories at about 1.5K INR.
3. Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park, Rainforest lumina and River safari courtesy the park hopper plus ticket at 94 SGD. (again the clubbed booking enabled some discount)

So the itinerary was as follows
1. Day 1 : Reach early morning , check in to hostel and SEA (aquarium)
2. Day 2 : Singapore Zoo, River Safari and Night Safari
3. Day 3 : Conservatories and super grove sky walk along with super grove night-show
4. Day 4 : Universal Studios and Singapore Merlion & Light show of MBS
5. Day 5 : Jurong Bird Park
6. Day 6 : Palawan beach, Souvenir, Jewel Night show

So with destinations booked and luggage packed, we were off.

>> DAY 1


Day 8 (Gangad to sankri)

The final day of the trek was finally here, we could not believe it for sure. It was a long eight days, we made lot of friends but it was finally time to trek homewards.

This was partially familiar route. From gangad, we took the “forest route” down to reach taluka. The route itself wasn’t too scenic , just the usual paths through the mountains. Part of the trek was on slippery ice, so we had our cramp-ons on but I wasn’t expecting any stellar shots; so for the first time during the trek , my camera was in my bag. Lunch was packed for us, it was puri and aloo, wow.

After trekking for almost 3-4 hours , we reach part of the trek wherein we walk right next to the river on the river. This is in fact the alternate approach route to the Har ki dun, but for us this was the return route. It was an excellent for some long distance photography but the group was walking at a brisk pace and I wasn’t going to be afforded the extra time to get the shots; of that I was sure. So I skipped.

Almost 6 hours into the trek,we reached our lunch point, the meadow ground atop the hillock. The very place where we had our first lunch on the first day of the trek. As we sat down and gobbled on our last “trek lunch”, we saw another group arrive, they were on their way up, like we were 7 days before.  While we spent time enjoying the moment, there was no time left. Ackruti, Gaurav and varun wanted to reach back as soon as possible, they had an early flight to catch and were planning to leave on the very day.

From the meadow, it was only an hour’s walk to taluka. Post reaching taluka, we all heaved a sigh of relief and congratulated each other. The first ones of us to reach the location, some indulged in a well deserved selfie session while I sipped on a hot cup of tea.

As trekkers arrived, jeeps were arranged to get us from taluka to sankri. We worked so hard during the trek (sort of); it was time to have some fun. We decided to stand in the back of the van instead of sitting inside. Well not just me, I was joined by akhil, Amrita, Shashank and karthik as well. The super bumpy ride from Taluka to sankri was interesting to say the least. On the way, we were able to spot entire villages perching precariously on mountain faces; one wonders how they get supplies.

So anyhow after the bumpy ride, we were finally at sankri, the end of our journey. We all planned before hand that we would dinner “outside”; sort of tired of IndiaHikes food. After reaching base and layering up for the last time, it was time to forage. Sankri is a small town with not many ‘options’. Come evening, a small shack located right up the stairs was the perfect spot to gorge on oily, unhygienic noodles, tea and what not. Folks were of the opinion that it was the best noodles they every had.

Regardless, shashank found an excellent restaurant serving pizza, burgers and the like. It was newly opened and we were of its first customers. Pricing was at a premium but what the heck, it was our last dinner together. Pizza, burgers, fries and lemonades were passed around the table with a hint of word games to add the zing. Come night, it was time for last night of mafia. Huddled into a room and hoping that our screaming does not wake up the rest of the crowd.


Day 7 (Kalkatiyadhar to Gangad)

This day was going to be long one. We are going to be trekking for about 6 to 7 hours.

At 9 or so, we were off. This route was traversed before by us on the way to kaltiyadhar, so the route itself had nothing additional to offer per se. Only we were looking forward to sleeping in a homestay again. We were going to travel via osla all the way to Kalkatiyadhar. This was essentially 2 days of trek , albeit this time it was going to be downhill instead of up.

All the familiar sights greeted us again, only in reverse this time. The river was on the left, the trail steeping downwards and a slightly unfamiliar but short route. The plan atleast was to have hot lunch at camp, which means the expectation was to reach the camp by 2-3 p.m.

The route was very slippery and I fell atleast 5-6 times , with my precious camera hitting the ground multiple times. Some how the glass survived the ordeal.

Post Camp, rest of the day passed as usual. The regular lunch, the hot maggi at the nearby dhaba and mafia in the night.

>> DAY 8


Day 6 (Kalkatiyadhar to Har ki dun Valley and back)

Early morning call, 6-7-8 I think it was. This day was planned to be long one, almost 14km of trek, 7 Kms to HKD valley and then back. More importantly there was no route to the valley. The previous group has trekked about 6Kms and turned back with a km to go. It was our turn (and responsibility) to create the route now. It did not have a daypack, so karthik carried the water for me. Apart from that we were provided cramp-on and gators. The cramp-ons help with grip on ice & now and gators are sort of water proofing the legs as we make our way through the snow. Initially the trek up from kalkatiyadhar is steep for an hour or so. Almost the entirety of the trek is on the snowy trail and is an experience in itself. The “shady’ part of the mountains had some frozen waterfalls; the group halted here , one by one to take solo shots.

Barring a few ups and downs, the trek was mostly flat until we reached the point where the previous group had halted. We had at least 1 to 2 kms ahead of us, in knee deep snow. We put on our gators and chugged on; “creating” a new path through the snow was quite difficult and requires a lot of energy. To make that worse, the terrain too turned steep for 500m or so; but the entire group still managed to pull through.

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After we managed to cross the last hillock, the end was in sight in the distance, another 1 km to go; a small house used by the forest rangers during the summers. A stream flows next to the house and made our way across the stream to our final destination and wow, what a view!!

Snow capped peaks and huge valley. It was a winter wonderland. The group was incredibly tired by the end of the trek and we reached the valley entrance by 1p.m or so. But we had no time to waste, Venkat informed us that we would have to leave by 2 p.m and lunch was yet to be had. The chappatis and peas curry tasted heavenly under the warm sun.

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After the customary round of photographs, the group departed back to camp site. We expected the journey back to take 4 hours or so. More importantly though, I realized that I did not have flash light on me ! Bad given that the way down was very slippery and how does navigate down a mountain in pitch dark. Keeping that in mind, we hurried along.

The journey back was along the same route, so it was more of the same. However the end of the trek gave a sense of accomplishment. I was accompanied by apoorva and amrita along the route. I ensured that I had some company with me since I had no flash light. !

By 6 p.m or so, it started getting dark, the sunset of extraordinary! but also was indicative of the fact that troubled times were about to start. Satyendra babu with a head lamp behind me and apoorva with a tiny torch ahead of me , we began our journey down. It was difficult for sure. I would have probably slipped multiple times but thanks to the cramp-ons I was in a better shape. The steep drops on the left sure were scary but we managed to pull through. As we proceeded down, the kalkatiyadhar camp site was visible but only barely. The dim lights got closer as we trekked down the mountain and my hopes were up; I couldn’t wait to get some hot evening tea. On the way down, we met india hikes staff was there so assist the laggards and edge us along; really helpful of them.

Finally after an hour of slow climb down , we were finally at the camp. Some hot tea lifted my dampened spirits. Half of the group of was already the camp. The evening was already turning cold and it was time to layer up. The rest of the night was the usual; while we were down we heard the big situation behind us. Neha had developed cramps on both her legs and subhash had to carry her all the way on his back for almost 4 kms.

Dinner was the usual and we tried another round of photography in the night. The view was more of the same.

The next day the plan was to trek down,cross osla and spend the night at Gangad.

>> DAY 7


Day 5 (Osla to kalkatiyadhar)

7-8-9 was the call I believe, wake by 7 , breakfast by 8 and leave by 9. Well, we almost did.
The trek on this day was expected to be moderate one with some ascent to kalkatiyadhar.

The beauty of the trail continued through the trek as usual. Huge valley, swargarohini in front, sun shining brightly above and a gentle breeze to push us along.

On the way there were multiple spots where the icy mountain water flowed under a man-made bridge (of sorts) and create perfect spots for photographs(not to mention delay the trekking time).

On the way we stopped for some hot tea at a shack and another round of photography. Part of the group started making snow angel, another one climbed up the rocks to get a better view of the valley (read selfies), akhil got busy making a snow man and karthik,..well, meditating. The hot tea and biscuits made the pit stop all the more enjoyable.

After tea, it was journey as usual for 2 hours. Some time near lunch, we stopped at another shack, this time we had wider menu of offerings, boiled eggs. Most of us were not in the mood for lunch but boiled eggs would go well with pulao, sort of egg biryani combo. The boiled egg was ok but the pulao so not good.

From the shack, it was ascent for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. The lunch made it slightly more difficult than expected but it was fine. A little past noon and the camp site came into view. Most of the group was like “that’s it”? Kalkatiyadhar is the most beautiful campsite of the journey for sure. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, it was stunning to say the least and were awe struck in its glory for almost an hour. After allocation of tents, it was time to “kill time”. Anant had brought a frisbee along; as yes, frisbee in the mountains. Not sure something I would get to do ever again.

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We split into two teams and the frisbee was all over the place; brought back old child memories really. Atleast 1 out of 10 shots went flying down the hill but thankfully the drop was not down all the way to the valley floor and we got back our frisbee all the time. Rest of the group separated to make “snow angels” ..again. In the mean time, we found the group from early morning coming down from the mountain. Komal enquired with the group about their trek. Almost two later and post sufficient “frisbeeing”, it was snack time. Don’t quite remember what it was but more importantly it was time to get the gear ready for the evening photography.

Evening was stunning, the sun lit mountains changed color from orange to glowing red. It started to reach freezing temperature very soon and undoubtedly it was very difficult to even click the camera button the views were worth the risk of getting frost bit (well not really but you get the point).

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Since we were in a valley, the winds rushing into the valley made the evening colder. Soon we huddled into our tents and layered up and got ready for dinner. Dinner was the usual; dal, rice and sabji but I was excited for what came next, astrophotography with my new Cam and lens. My god it was freezing and quite frankly being surrounded by the mountains was sort of a disadvantage, the view was blocked on all the sides. Karthik got busy with his shots as well but screwed up his infinite focus point and spent an hour getting that right. I never got to see his photos , so no idea how they panned out but I was fairly happy with my shots.

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Rest of the group got busy playing word games again , 8 huddled into a single tent. Rest of the group called it a night. It was a going to be long trek the next day.

>> DAY 6


Day 4 (Gangad to Osla)

A lot had been spoken about osla, the most beautiful village enroute to har ki dun and today would be day we would make it. Our planned stay would be the guest house in osla. After our usual morning routine, we were off. The route to Osla is a beautiful one indeed. The swargarohini peaks are visible in the distance , the trek itself is easy for the initial part and then gradually picks up in ascent on the way to Osla. After the initial trek down and crossing a glacial stream, one gets a beautiful view of the mountain far away.

Swargrohini

After we cross the stream, we climb higher for most of the trail. Not much to say about the trek specifics but overall it lasted for 4 hours or so with hot lunch planned at the guest house. We reached osla by 2 p.m or so; kids on the way asked us for ‘mithai’ , unfortunately did not have any on me. Osla is a small village, about 9,000 ft above sea level. It is famous for a Someshwar Temple. Some people say it is the temple of Someshwar Devta (an avatar of Lord Shiva). The architecture of this temple is a wonder in itself. Kids were playing cricket next to the temple, some of the trekkers joined in in fact. Rishi almost lost the ball while trying to do a cover drive.

At osla

After reaching our lodge, it was just time to soak it all in. The cabin again was two floored, I decided to camp in the first floor again which fit about 13 people or so. The sun was warm and the courtyard overlooking the entire valley, a view to die for. Its enough to forget all the troubles in the world ; that I did. Put on my sun glasses , put my chair at an optimal location and dozed off; as peaceful as it gets.

After an hour or so, the sound of lunch bells woke me up. Lunch was good as usual and I napped a bit more after that heavy lunch. Venkat invited us all for a tour of Osla.

First up, it was the someshwara temple, one of the only temples in india where duryodhana is worshippped. The villagers of osla are quite proud of having this temple, given its uniqueness. Venkat explained the origins of the temple to the group while   I got some shots in. Right next to the temple, the kids were at it again, playing cricket. Venkat took us further into the village, a old lady was busy grinding grains. Many members of the group tried their hand at it, which ended up being quite the laugh for the rest of us. The old shacks where animals sleep in the winters, storage facilities for the harvest, the large tumbler which serves as the ‘washing machine’ up in the mountains. the sneek peek into the life of the villagers was something of an eye opener, a simple life is a good one.

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It was almost evening, the small shack selling tea was abound to attract the group. Good day biscuits, hot tea and the setting sun, a better evening could not have been asked for. The group huddled together for some fun chit chat as usual; I was ok just taking in beauty of the setting sun.

Late evening, as usual the group engaged themselves in group word games; I couldn’t wait for the darkness. I was hoping to get some night shots in finally. Would I be lucky? Well the below shot answered my prayers. In all fairness though , we were surrounded by mountains and stellar shots of the night sky was not possible, the beautiful mountains themselves were blocking the view. Regardless, I was totally happy with this shot.

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After a freezing night of photography, it was time to call it a night. By the time I got back, folks were still busy playing mafia etc. I joined in and ended up playing early morning. We pretty much lost track of time and got so engrossed in the game our voice echoed through osla village.; Subhash came and requested us to keep it down. Well that pretty much broke the group out of trance and we decided to call it a night.

>> DAY 5


Day 3 (Datmeer to Gangad)

So trek on Day 3 was supposed to be a easy one, travelling to gangad, a pretty well known resting spot for trekkers on the way or returning from har ki dun. Largely down hill, the most difficult part of the trek but starting the day ‘efficiently’. Apparently there was only one toilet at the camp, for 22 people. Yeah, ‘subah subah lambi line’ it was. Like the cold subzero temperatures did not create enough difficulty as is. Somehow we managed I guess. By 8.30 a.m or so post breakfast, ready we were for gangad.

By 8.30 a.m or so, we were all ready, well more or less, komal excluding. She was beginning to set the precedent to ‘late utho, late chalo’. After lot of screaming from venkat ,by 8.45 a.m we were off. This was the day when there would be significant trekking in the snow ,start to end ; although not the slippery kind (verglas) ;so no cramp-on’s yet. Regardless it was decent one in terms of distance atleast , about 6 kms or so.

Leaving Datmeer behind

The initial part of the trek went slightly uphill for 30 mins or so as we left gangad behind, visible from the top of the hillock we covered. As we trekked on , lost sight of it and continued on the snowy trail. Well, the view itself did not change much; huge mountains on the left gave us company for the entire journey while we navigated a pine forest 2 hours into the trek. Venkat warned i.e requested the group to keep in sight and huddled together as much as possible to ensure that predators i.e bears are kept at bay.

The pine forest

Crossing the pine forest took little more than hour and we rested at a point while venkat enthralled us with stories of the life of people in the mountains. (The things they eat, hunt, sell etc). After a quick energy snack break, it was to move on. After an hour of walking through the beautiful pine forest, it was time for next rest point, a temple. Here we rested for half hour or so when the group decided to play with the snow and take snaps as usual. Within the temple itself , venkat was helping some of the wounded people from the ‘bear incident’ of the day before. The sun was high up in the sky in the noon but the light was warm.

From here, it was mostly downhill. At many spots it was very slippery with the verglass and I fell down quite a few times. After crossing a small rivulet-bridge, the route turns flat as gangad comes into sight in the distance, a beautiful village nestled on the face of a mountain. As we trekked down hill , our homestay came into sight. A super cosy place with enough lodging for atleast 30 people. By the time we reached, lunch was almost ready and so were we. The upper floor seemed comfortable, so I grabbed a room in the upper floor with the balcony. Satyendraji joined in and we still had place for one more.

Lodging in Gangad

Lunch was basic as usual. A small shack next to homestay serves hot tea, noodles, omlette and what not to the trekkers. Hot maggi in subzero temperature is basically heaven, so how we resist? We had less lunch and more of that junk, but this once it could be excused. While sipping on tea, komal developed an apparent ‘crush’ on another trekker (not in our group) and a whole conversation ensued which was obviously hilarious with harmeet nudging her on to confess her feeling to the tall dark stranger.

One batch of fun activity done, it was time to move to the next one, the usual group games. Huddled in the lower cabin under the warm blankets, MAFIA was on as usual. But before we could start, venkat suggested something better , Get to know each others names before the games; for once people agreed. The game was simple, each trekker was expected to associated an adjective with his/her name and every other trekker is expected to remember the adjective and the name. And so we did , the ones that I remember

Killer Karthik, Rocking Rishi, PM pratil, Adventurous anant, sweet srishti, amazing akhil, Great gaurav, viceroy vaibhav, adriot amritha, amicable apoorva, natural neha, sitarist sparshard, krazy komal and Hi harmeet. There were few more names and can’t remember them all. Anyhow after reintroducing ourselves to the group it was time to get back to murdering people in the game. Cant remember much about the game specific but it was fun overall. By the time we completed, it was already late evening and the temperature plummeted sub zero.

The groups was not dismayed that though; we just continued playing !. It was not until dinner that we finally decided to give it a break and be done with the games for the night.

After a hot dinner, we had some time to kill. Venkat called us all to the lower cabin and took a class on mountaineering, the 8 thousanders and trekking in general. It was the first time that I felt that time was right to get some astro -shots done. Went behind the cabin on the first floor and get some. While the shots came out ok, there was too much distraction in terms of stray lighting from the village, overhanging wires and poles etc. So I decided to kill the pics and call it day while significant part of the group continued playing group games.

>> DAY 4


Har Ki dun (day 2)

#Sankri to Datmeer#

Trekkers with Indiahikes drive from Sankri to Taluka (12 km, 1 hour). Taluka is a small village with concrete houses ; the beginning of our trek. Venkar provided the customary introduction and we were off!! Tony taught a native song with lines of “maja maja maja” ; rest I don’t recall. 😦 .

Next to the forest guest house, the trail descends to the river valley of Thamsa and continues through a series of forests, while the river remains on your right. The descent in pretty steep and I fell down and hurt my finger, a wound which would serve as reminder throughout the trek. More than my finger , I was concerned about my camera. :).

This shepherds’ trail goes along the river on a level walk. Around 10 minutes into the hike, spot the first cemented bridge over a small stream. Another 15 minutes of level walk will have you reach another bridge, this time, a wooden one. These two spots are conducive to fill up drinking water.From here, walk uphill for 15 minutes till you see a small clearing next to the river. You can set up an emergency camp here if need be. We took a couple of snaps here with the beautiful view of thee valley.

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Another 10-15 minutes later, you’ll come across a spot where you can climb down to a tributary of River Thamsa. Look for a wooden bridge to cross this river, which is just below Datmir village. After crossing the tributary, you’ll reach a camping ground in a couple of minutes. From here, facing the inner part of the valley, locate two trails, one moving upwards and another going straight ahead. This served as our lunch spot. I think we had pulao on that day. With the warm sun hitting our face and temperature in lower double digits..we were finally in the mountains. The group decided to spice up the trek with a game of UNO. I navigated the camping grounds to spot a place for photography. Find I did but not very optimal is terms of location, not to mention the sun was too bright. Even my ND10 filter was not provided much benefit. I gave up and packed my gear back. By the time all this was done, it was already time to go.

Amongst the two trails, we took the trail which went up. This was the way to datmeer. The other trail directly leads to har ki dun (and is the trail we would take on our way back).  So anyhow , the next part of the trek would last us atleast 2 hours or so and was moderately difficult due to the steep gradient. It was fun though; I got to know harmeet too was in VLSI domain , working as fabrication specialist as part of ISRO; an exam which I could never clear. At the end of the journey and climbing maybe a thousand feet, we were finally at datmeer;  a snow covered town perched on the face of the mountain. The town was sparsely populated, many villagers shift to the valley where the temperature is more ‘manageable’. The view was amazing , we were all camped at the first floor.

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As is the routine, we were allocated rooms, 3 rooms in all. 2 for the gents and 1 for the women. We quickly changed into our thermals and sipped hot tea and pakoras as we watched the sun set behind casting the red hues on the mountains in front of us. The temperature in the night falls pretty steeply; the entire group snugged into a one room and decided to play group games. I think game was named contact or one of its variant, but whatever it was , i dozed off in the middle; others seemed to enjoy it though. Of course someone had to suggest mafia subsequently and that led to two very interesting games of mafia which was incredible fun as usual. I obviously wanted to get some shots of the evening sky but unfortunately it did not look all that impressive. So got back inside and joined the italian murderers again. Within no time , it was already dinner. Hot chappatis, subzi , rice and dal was usual. I wasn’t really in the mood for dinner, a light one would suffice for me. The night sky looked impressive for sure but there was too much junk blocking a clean view. Poles, wires, houses and the like. Not to mention, early in the evening we were informed that it would be dangerous to go out , a bear apparently attacked and killed a villager somewhere nearby.  With nothing to do, a part of the group went to sleep. Of course part of the group was very much awake and continued playing some variants of group games. It was light’s out for me.

>> DAY 3


Har Ki Dun (Day 1)

The cab was scheduled to pick us up at 7 a.m,. Man, was it cold but we couldn’t possibly miss out on the last bath before the 8 days of arduous journey. Modern tech aka geyser helped us out here. Whatsapp was already buzzing with messages with people already at the meetup point, while we were busy heating water up for a bath; yeah. that’s us alright, late as usual. Anyhow at the very least, the messages nudged us to hurry up with our morning routines and catch an OLA cab to ISBT, the meetup point. Atleast half of the group was already present at the meetup point by the time we got there. We met our first trekker, JD, a pretty experienced trekker and traveler in his own right. By the time we were done with our own ‘introductions’, the driver honked to get us into the bus.

9 of us huddled into 1 bus , akhil, vaibhav, karthik, sparshard, neha , anant, shrihsti and satyendra and yours truly. Rest of the group , not sure who were present, got into a jeep. Whatsapp indicated that rest were seriously late due to train delay and would arrive much later. It was going to be a long ride ahead.

After quick nap of an hour, we reached mussorie and time for breakfast. It was already pretty cold in broad daylight. And what is awesome when its cold ? Maggi, paneer paratha and tea. It was pretty crowded in there but the waiter was pretty quick to get our order. The hot veg maggi and parathas were absolutely amazing. We took our first trekkers photo before taking off again.

The view on the way was amazing ; passing by a beautiful river canyoning through the mountains but it gets same after a while. So we did the only we can; slept. Somewhere midway we stopped for quick snap by the river before pushing off again.

2 hours late, we stopped for lunch at purula at a tiny restaurent. Folks ordered their last non-veg people of the week and gorged on an entire chicken I think. I stuck to my veg variant as usual but the food was fantastic. The bill was only 200 per head. At the end our meal, we were in for a surprise; i ended up meeting prajakta (from my previous sandakphu trek) who too was heading to kedarkantha for her year end trek. A very pleasant surprise indeed.

So anyhow , by this time i was already quite exhausted (not really fan of bus travel) but our destination i.e sankri was still 2 hours away. Finally after a hard day’s travel of 8 hours, we were at sankri by late evening. The temperature was already touch single digits and it was time to layer up after getting our rooms allocated. We were holed, up 5 in room. With some liquid down our throats and warm food in our bellies, the group introduced itself during the briefing session. Our guide for the trek would be venkat , assisted by co-guides subhash and tony. As usual the junta was split between bangalore, delhi and mumbai; almost an equal split as a matter of fact.

>> DAY 2


Har Ki Dun (Day 0)

#The planning phase#
End of the year was here;  it was time for the annual trek. After testing hustle and bustle of singapore, it was time to leave the modern world behind. After much deliberation and factoring in potential duration of the trek, I finally zeroed in on the Har ki Dun trek. Located in uttrakhand and lasting for only 8 days with moderate difficulty, it seemed like an ideal choice. Karthik agreed as usual, we tried to get in Shaheed and sanjeeva but as usual they had ‘reasons’ to not join. Sanjeeva with his marriage -_- and shaheed , the already married man. *sighs*.

The base pick up point was dehradun ; we had option of either going to delhi and catching transport to dehradun or flying to dehradun directly. The flight fare fluctuated a lot; from 17K (round trip) on one day to 12K on some other days. After booking the trek itself, I took it upon myself to get the flights at lowest fare possible. Everyday I searched..and searched and finally after one month of searching found the tickets priced at only 12.5K round trip. We already had all the trek equipment from our previous treks; the only things left to do was get the fitness levels up; a difficult task given the busy work phase me and karthik were going through.

A month from start of the trek, the whatsapp group was created by suhas, our coordinator. While very excited about the trek, suhas informed us of the change in itinerary. Unfortunately we would not be covering ruinsara tal (camping on meadows was banned by HC) and reaching har ki dun itself was a question due to heavy snow in the himalayan region; nature and circumstances beyond our control.

Our flight was scheduled for 20th early morning, a friday. After wrapping work and few hours packing, I was out by 11 p.m and at the bus stop. As such my ‘plan’ was to use (read ‘test’) my newly acquired Jana bank Rupay card to use the airport lounge. I reached the airport by 1 a.m and had ample time to kill. Karthik was expected to reach late as usual, by 4 a.m or so. So I decided to check-in my bags and subsequently checkout the lounge.

First disappointment at the lounge; we can only use the lounge 3 hours before the departure. 2 hours I spent loitering around. At 3.30 a.m, i approached the lounge only to be disappointed..and to be embarrassed. My card was not functional!!. Man was I pissed. The only reason i took that fixed deposit at Jana bank was to use the airport lounge. THe free buffet continue to elude me. The only counter which got me hungry was KFC, but barely. I was in no mood for burger but rice item was not even available. Without choice, I ordered the veg burger meal. By the time I was done with my meal, karthik and man I was envious; he managed to get the subway sandwich for dinner. Ah well, hard luck I guess. Karthik reached the airport and by 5 a.m and we were off at right time. The flight to dehradun was filled with trekkers; it was obvious from the ‘trekker’s lingo’. The journey itself was obviously boring, the boredom was done with after 3 hours or so and we were at Dehradun.

Dehradun airport,Jolly grant airport was surely an interesting one; very small compared to large airports of Bangalore and mumbai. No fancy restaurants, shopping counters etc; as a matter of fact, when we reached it was just direct to exit. Outside , we found a small shop selling hot samosas, tea etc.

In order to get out out of airport, the most preferred,easiest way is to get a taxi; but its almost an organized mafia. The tax union does not allow any autos etc at the airport and taxis themselves charge relatively larger amounts for the drive. So we decided to begin our trek to the mountains with a trek on the flat roads leading to the highway. After reaching the highway, which is the main highway connecting rishikesh and dehradun, we caught hand waived a bus to stop and got 70rs INR ticket to ISBT, the main dehradun bus terminal.

On the way to ISBT, we met another group of trekkers; old timers from gujarat who too had been on multiple treks in the past and were just returning fromm dayara bugyal. Here we received some further bad news, their trek ended in 2 days instead of expected 7 days. Fresh snow , 6 feet deep, stopped all trekkers in their tracks. We could only pray for nature to be more merciful to us.

After reaching ISBT, a auto rickshaw ride (costing only 25INR per head) got us near to dehradun railway station and Gmaps got us to Embassy hotel, our destination for the night. Booked through goIbibo , it cost me only 700 per night for two people. It was almost 2 p.m by the time we checked-In. After freshening up, it was time to forage for food, using google maps. “Uss da dhaba” was rated very highly with over 2K reviews and thankfully located only 500 meters away from our hotel.

“Uss da dhaba” did not disappoint. We ordered the full thali, comprising of Panner paratha, aloo paratha, paneer curry, raitha, kadhi -chawal. Man was it heavy but so worth it !! (not to mention economical at 120 INR per plate). So after that heavy lunch, it was time to catch up on much needed sleep. An nap we did for a nice 2 hours.

Come evening, it was time for a last bit of shopping and dinner. The temperature dropped significantly in the evenings, preparing us for things to come. After last but of shopping for woollen snacks and dry fruits, it was time for bed; it was going to be a long next day.

>> Day 1


Singapore (Day 3)

So plan for day 3 was to visit the conservatories and the sky walk. The initial plan was to visit the conservatories the day before but they were closed the previous day.
After freshening up, it was time for breakfast. The day before I had tasted egg prata, so today it was egg onion prata, again at high five 65. Karthik skipped breakfast that day ; the egg onion prata is a decent alternative to egg prata.

Another half hour later via the MRT, we were at our destination. The easiest way to reach the conservatories is via the marina bay sands MRT. Its a pretty good way to take quick up close look at marina bay sands; the iconic attraction of singapore. Its a pretty majestic site and probably worth staying in , if one can afford it i.e. It is pretty expensive, once in a life time for most people. We had to redeem our online tickets.

Taking the elevator to the first floor leads to a pathway which leads to the conservatories and the super-grove tree. There is an excellent place to take shots at the end of the elevated walk way.

From here on, take the stairs down and the road straight leads to conservatories and the super grove trees. So we reached our first stop, the conservatories. First up, the flower conservatory; essentially a super massive flower show open through the year. I suppose for the ones interested in horticulture it would be interesting; I did not have macro lens to even shoot decent snaps; i tried though. The flower conservatory is divided into two levels and overall it will take 90 min+ easy to complete the entire thing.

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Right outside is the cloud forest conservatory. This conservatory is massive, almost 7 levels and we get to proceed up the levels. At the very entrance , a  beautiful 7 storey high waterfall greets us and we spent almost an 20 minutes here trying to get some good shots. As one proceeds to the upper level, range of flowers and plants are an absolute visual treat. After the second level, an elevator takes us all the way upto the upper most level which is the actual ‘replica’ of sorts of the cloud forest. The man -made depiction of the cloud forest i,.e  the upper most layer of the forest which receives the direct rain and sun is breathtaking and must have taken countless man hours. The upper most two levels are dedicated to cloud forest and as we walked down to the lower levels. The lower levels further showcase the lower levels of cloud forest. There is an especially interesting presentation which highlights the destruction caused by temperature change on the earth’s weather, worth watching. So another good 2 hours spent in the cloud forest dome.

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As we exited the dome, the it had turned pretty hot, almost mid day. Next up on the list was the OCBC skywalk. As such, the best time to visit the skywalk is the late evening, during the light and sound show in the super grove tree. But it would been difficult to sync the time ; not to mention the excessive crowds during the evenings. So we decided to finish it.

Perched hundreds of feet above the ground, the OCBC skywalk , as the name suggests, is bridge-walkway between the super grove trees. After redeeming the tickets, an elevator took us up to the relevant floor and its only a few hundred meters long as such. The light was very harsh and it was a bad time for photography as such. The Marina bay sands is visible and so is the entirety of the super-grove forest and the domes.

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We rested under the trees for a bit soaking it all in. It was almost 3 by the time we were done and hungry as well. Obviously eating at regular restaurants (nearby) was not for us. Searching around in google maps, we found a hawker center nearby ‘satay by the bay’. Well not nearby per se; it was half hour away by walk. Off we were.

“Satay by the bay” is located at a very convenient location, by the marina bay and very close to marina barrage which is awesome spot in itself. The cool wind from the sea and the open atmosphere makes for a very comforting seating. However there is an additional price to pay; literally. We found though it was a hawker center, the pricing was relatively higher than the other hawker centers we had visited; maybe due to the location. Took a quick stroll around the place and an indian restaurant caught my eye. The menu looked decent and reasonably priced; karthik is a vegetarian any how and so we decided to go for it. Satay or meat on a stick happens to be specialty of singapore. Another restaurant offered satay at 1$ per stick (3 pieces on a stick). Customer was required to order a minimum of 7 sticks. Seemed like a lot but i was in the mood for some satay. So I went for that additionally. With an additional drink, that completed our meal.

Overall we were very satisfied with our food. The indian thali had pulao, vegetable curry , parathas and dal. The quantity was generous as well. For 8 dollars, totally worth it !

After a scrumptious meal, we still had time to kill. It was almost 4 p.m and the plan for the day, or rather night was to visit the gardens by the bay Light and Sound show. And it so happened that we were next to another one of SGP’s famous spots, the marina barrage. It is an absolutely favorite of the local and stellar spot for singapore skyline photography. Almost 1 hour, we spend right next to the “satay by the bay” hawker center. There is an excellent spots (with seating) to just sit and take the cool breeze with the marina bay in front. The pathway next to the public seating leads to the marina barrage and is a favorite for joggers.

At 5 p.m , we started walking towards the marina barrage which is only 10 minutes away by walk from the SBTB center. A pathway up leads to an open ground of sorts. It is here that one gets a stellar view of SGP skyline along with the super grove tree in front. We found a sweet spot and set up camp for the evening. Cameras aimed , ready and fired. From late evening to early night, we watched the sun set and the dim light fading away into darkness. The view was amazing. At 7.45 p.m, we even managed to catch the super grove show from afar which is a different experience for sure.

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After dozens of shots, it was time to head back to the super grove tree for light and sound show. The super grove trees are located about 20 minutes away from the marina barrage. After a brisk walk, we were finally at our destination for the evening. It took us time to find the right spot, less crowd and at the same time with maximum view of super grove trees , from a camera pic perspective. The light and sound show lasts for about 20 minutes and is breathtaking for sure. The illuminated trees , multicolored in varied shades in sync with the music, the 20 minutes is totally worth it. Wrapping up, it was time for our long journey back to our hostel. On the way back, MBS is all its glory was a sight to behold.

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We caught the MRT back to our hostel and we done for the night.

>> DAY 4


Singapore (Day 2)

Day 2 was meant for singapore Zoo, River Safari and Night safari. As such we expected the day to be very hectic; the singapore zoo itself would take 4-5 hours minimum. Couple with the river safari and night safari , we would easily end up spending most of the day walking.

First up was breakfast. We were passing High Five 65 restaurant ,located right next to Inncrowds pretty much every day; it was time to try it out. I ordered the egg prata, a singapore speciality while karthik, without any choice ended up ordering the masala dosa. The egg prata is what it sounds like. Omellete fried with prata. Greasy and fluffy, it was served with “dal” of sorts. The dal tasted more like sambar but they went well together nonetheless. Karthik liked the masala dosa as well. So overall, a pretty decent breakfast. Singapore zoo allows food from outside inside the campus, so we decided to pack; 7-11 to the rescue again. We packed a sandwiches and rolls and pushed off for the MRT. The best option was take the metro to khatib and the Singapore zoo bus from the khatib bus stop , which is located next khatib MRT stop. The bus arrived in 20 minutes , the bus was full by the time it left the stop.

It took us about half hour to reach the singapore zoo. Singapore zoo is 28 hectares of wonderfulness ; at the entrance take a map for convenience. The zoo is large and would need atleast 6 hours to complete. There are trams available which can carry people from one point to another. The weather was when we started but singapore is known to have sudden rains; as early evening approached it started raining; quite heavily might I add. That did not stop us though, we carried on in the rain.

The zoo is home to a very large number of animals; including a large number of exotic & rare ones. White tigers, tapirs, hippos,lions, cheetah, reptiles,birds,crocodiles, primates and host of other animals.

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After finishing up with Singapore zoo, next up was the river safari. The river safari is an extension of the Singapore zoo and is located right next to it. There are two parts to it; one is the “rivers of the world” tour and the second is the actual safari. The river safari , which is chargeable, is essentially a 10 minute boat ride through a man – made (as everything in SGP is) habitat comprising of some rare species from the amazon. I personally found it to be “not worth it”. The rivers of the world is worth it though. Hosting a range of species found from some of the major rivers around the world, the tour will easily take one at least 2 hours to complete. (if you are brisk walking). The manatees were probably the best part for sure.

After the end of river safari, we took some well deserved rest. It was about 3.30 p.m and we had some time to kill before the start of the night safari. After a quick 30 minutes nap , we proceeded to the restaurant at the entrance of the zoo and camped with a cold cup of coffee. Behind us, an Indian family was discussing what an ideal method of covering night safari is. The reason this was important is primarily because the night safari is almost as big as Singapore zoo , but with much lesser time. There is the Night Safari via tram, a walk through the night zoo, a “creatures of night” show and a fire performance at the entrance of the safari. All in all, this is pretty hectic. I quickly checked couple of blogs online and many recommended going to the show first to avoid the crowded trams at 7.30 p.m. Followed by the walk through the preserve. Sounded logical. Now what we did not forsee is the massive crowd. Even though it was a weekday , there were hundreds. A long line at the entrance, most were tourists. And to make things worse, it started raining cats and dogs. As a result the ‘creatures of the night’ show got delayed by half hour to 8 p.m. In that time, a long line assembled for the carts. It took us almost 30 mins to get a seat for the night safari.

The night safari is unique that we get to see the creatures in the moonlight and that gives a different perspective. Special lamp lights simulate moonlight. The entire safari takes almost 45 minutes and photography is pretty much impossible. Any kind of flash is prohibited (including focus lighting). Combined with the low lighting, the only thing one can do is enjoy.

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After 45 minutes of safari, everyone ran towards the ‘creatures of the night’ show. Many animals are ‘presented’ in front of the audience;some showing acrobatics of sorts and exotic ones for the viewing pleasure of the audience.

We had only 40 minutes or so in hand to take the walk through the nature trails. There were 4 at the time of our visit. We would have liked more time but the last bus leaves at 10 p.m or so I think to khatib. So with 40 minutes in hand we rushed through the two of the trails , the names of which I can’t recall.

We found clouded leopards, lions, hyenas and few more of the creatures of the night. After running through two trails, it was almost 10 p.m and we decided to call it a night;took us almost 30 minutes to get back and out of the park. The bus to khatib arrived in 30 minutes or so, another 30 minutes to the MRT station and we were back in the hostel by 12 p.m or so. On return, we purchased some super spicy noodles from 7-11. I forget the brand but it was so spicy that it pretty much burnt my tongue. Along with a bottle of coke, my dinner was pretty exciting. Karthik, not so much; he ordered some weird pasta which was pretty bad.

Anyhow this was pretty much the end of the day.

>> DAY 3


Singapore (Day 1)

Our flights were scheduled for 9.30 p.m ; being a sunday, i decided to leave home at 4.30 p.m factoring in the infamous bangalore traffic. Initially planned to take the cab but shelling out 1000 INR seemed a lot; the bus at only 225 from Tin factory to Bangalore airport seemed like a decent option. Caught a quick ride to Tin factory and bus arrived in about half hour or so. The route to airport was congestion free and comfortable and took only 90 minutes or so. A lot more (expensive) food joints had opened up including a brand new darshini called nandi upachar.

I had the debit card from Jana bank which offered free lounge access ; as much I wanted to use it, I decided to wait for karthik to do our ritual of having a subway every time we are at the airport. Well, fate had spoken; “no ritual this time, karthik is going to be late”. 2 hours before flight, karthik messages that he is would reach the airport an hour before departure. Absolutely disastrous, so I decided to move to check in and check out the lounge. But as bad luck struck again, the queue to baggage check was so long that I ended up taking 90 minutes to reach the lounge with only minutes left for boarding !!

And karthik arrives then -_-. Ah well. We boarded the long flight to singapore on an empty stomach. Indigo is mostly an no-frills flight for the economy class; which means no free food/drinks which only worsens the problem in congested spaces. Without choice and terribly hungry, we ordered the cup noodles. It cost us like 250INR per cup and the noodles tasted pretty bad. Ah well, the spending had begun and I only regretted not using lounge. After a difficult dinner, it was time for the more difficult sleep; which we sort of did.

We reached singapore in the wee early morning hours, probably 5.30 a.m or so. Immediately after de-boarding , we cleared immigration and proceeded to move to get out of airport. First things first, the SIM card for communication. The SIM cards at airport all seemed very expensive, the plans i.e. We read reports of cheaper SIM cards available at Little india, China town etc. But before leaving the airport, we decided to check out “The jewel”, the crown jewel of CHangi airport which earned it the best airport in the world title. Unfortunately the light show is shut during the midnight hours; so we decided to check it out on our way back to India.

On to the transport out of the airport. the singapore MRT takes one easily out of the airport and anywhere in the country. An “EZLink” card can easily be purchased, out of which 5$ is non-refundable and a default amount (i think 2$) is put in. We recharged for another 10$ per head and proceeded to station. Singapore is known for world class connectivity and travelling around SGP is very easy. We downloaded the SGP MRT app and tells the user how to get source to destination with boarding, exchange and de-boarding station. Our stop, rocher was about an hour away with exchange at Tanah Merah.

We reached Inncrowds backpackers at about 8.30 a.m or so, it the hostel is very conveniently located. Only 200 meters from the nearest metro station, dozen restaurants nearby , A 7-11 is right next door to hostel and that’s where we managed to get our SIM card. Starhub operator SIM for 12$ only, 100GB data and 30 minutes of international calling. Enough for 7 day stay in SGP. Apart from the that, the variety of food items available looked very enticing; especially since there are no 7/11s in India.

Inncrowds provides free breakfast (Eggs, bread, Jam, Butter and coffee). The checkIn is fixed at 1p.m; in the meantime we were allowed to use the facilities at Inncrowds. The hostel itself has a very chilled out vibe, like most other hostels. Discounted tickets and rides through singapore are offered. Free Internet on a desktop / wifi is available as well. So after freshening up and getting some free breakfast, we headed out to SEA aquarium, part of Sentosa Island.

We left the hostel at about 10.30 a.m and reached Sentosa by 11.00 a.m or so; it was a train from rocher to Vivo City mall and the train to sentosa departs from upper most floor of Vivocity mall. HippoPass counter at the upper most floor is the point to get the physical HippoPass ticket-card and then it is on to Sentosa. On the first day, it was obvious that everything in singapore is very methodical , very little inconvenience to a tourist or a resident.

The monorail to sentosa again uses the EZlink card , single swipe, enter the train and the first stop is USS/SEA.

At SEA, the hippopass was scanned to get the physical tickets and we were in. The SEA aquarium is one world’s largest aquarium. Thousands of marine species and the crown jewel is definitely the world’s largest underwater viewing panel which gives the feel of an underwater ocean floor. Sharks, Jelly fish, Piranhas, Giant crabs, eels..too many to name; it has it all. One can easily spend an entire day here without a problem. We spent about 4 hours here before heading back.

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After we were done with S.E.A, it was almost early evening, around 3.30 p.m or so, too little time for another attraction but too much time to just waste away. We decided to cover Little India, China town and buddha’s tooth temple. Not that these are major attractions per se but still worth visiting. Little India is next to Inncrowds backpackers hostel, so we headed back to rocher. Our hostel was pretty crowded by the time we got back. We checked into our dorm, paid for the stay and walked to little india.

Little india was very interesting, it literally is a little version of India. Tamil songs, ranjnikath posters, dosa stalls, vegetable shops and lots of diwali lighting at the time of our visit. There are a couple of temples worth visiting but we had seen enough of them back in india, so we skipped those.

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One stop away from little india is China town. Apart from buddha’ tooth relic temple, there is the Maxwell hawkers center which is famous, almost world over now.

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Chinatown has hundreds of stalls, all selling items at a pretty economical price, This apart from the dozens of restaurants. By the time we reached China town, the relic temple was shut for the day. What was worth while though was the late evening shot of the temple. There was people interfering the shot as usual.

After getting a couple of shots , we made our way to Maxwell’s food center which is only a km or so away from buddha’s relic temple. We walked up to it and found most of shops shut down, well half at least.

It wasn’t too crowded though ; I ordered the hianese chicken rice, a known specialty of Singapore. There wasn’t much for karthik, a pure vegetarian. Somehow managed to locate a tofu dish, a large tofu chunk in some kind of sauce.

The hianese chicken rice was absolutely not my liking. The boiled chicken seemed to have no flavor and the rice was ..well.. tasting weird. So anyhow, with both our dishes disappointing us, kartik ordered a crushed lichen and ice dessert; which turned out be another disappointment. I think they put in durian fruit pieces which tasted ..weird..maybe it is an acquired taste. Either way, we were quite disappointed with the dinner; well 7-11 is open 24-7. After taking the trip back to 7-11, we packed some stuff for dinner. I took the hot and spicy chicken flavored noodle and karthik, the pasta. He was quite unhappy with his pasta; mine was super hot, like really spicy and I enjoyed mine with a cold bottle of coke. Totally worth it and a fitting end to the night.

>> DAY 2


Tanjavore

DAY 0 (Planning)
It was 2 months since my last trip, the long trek up sandakphu. Now it was time for another, only this time with family instead of friends.

Given the short time in hand and lack of interesting spots to visit, I decided to visit some temple towns this time; ironic for me given that I am a pseudo atheist. Mother and sister wanted to though, so the trip was on.

The plan was to tour only two towns, thanjavore and madurai and back in 3 days. All via train.

DATE Day Source Start Time Destination End Time Time Mode
SAT 23/02/2018 1 BLR 19:00 TJ 4:48 10 Train
SUN 24/02/2018 2 TJ TJ
MON 25/02/2018 3 TJ 6:22 MDU 10:00 4 Train
TUE 26/02/2018 4 MDU 6:00 BLR 4:00 6 Train

Booked all the hotels and train tickets 2 months in advance.

 

Day 1 (Bangalore to Thanjavore)
We had a late evening train from bangalore ; caught it at majestic as usual and was onboard by 7 p.m departure time. Now the food in IRCTC trains isn’t exactly reputed so to speak. I took the risk nonetheless, idli-vada it was and was it ..bad. The idlis were rock hard. To get that taste of the mouth, ordered “biryani” but that ended up equally bad, yellow colored rice is all. Disappointed with the dinner, it was time to forget it all. On the way to tanjavore, we passed by the railway track next to my house. We always did wonder where that track went on our usual weekend walk, well now we knew. If only there was was station next to my home. Our train was scheduled to reach TJN at 5 a.m.

 

Day 2 (TJN)
Spot on time , we reached TJN by 5.30 a.m. TJN station was clean and maintained well, as expected from small town stations. In darkness , Gmaps showed is the route to our hotel, hotel oriental towers. I had booked it close to the station by choice and it took us only 20 minutes by walk to reach the hotel. On the way we passed by the early morning tea stalls serving hot tea to travelers coming in/out of the town.

The hotel looked grand from the outside, is atleast 20 floors I think. The receptionist was fast asleep; probably cursed me when i had to wake him up from his slumber. He gave us the room on the top most floor which turned out to be mistake. The hotel itself is excellent; old paintings and sculptures adorn the halls and dim lighting gives a nice old world feel. Its definitely worth a stay. However It was summer already in TJN and without AC, the top floor rooms turn into ovens. I of course realized that through the course of the day. After freshening up, we were out by 8.30 a.m for so.

Oriental hotel

TJN is known for its authentic tamilian cuisine, the breakfast is especially good. Gmaps and trip advisor pointed us to sree krishna bhavan. Located only 1 km away from our hotel, it was rated one of the best in TJN, totally worth the 1km was our opinion. So we began the short long walk through TJN.

Streets of TJN

The restaurant had just opened it doors and we were probably the first ones in. Hot idilis, masala dosa and puri was the order. The breakfast is served with 2 delicious chutneys and the dosa was absolutely massive, almost too much for one person. We were pleased with it; especially my mom; sort of tired of eating the ultra liquidy sambar from BLR.

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After the hearty breakfast , it was time to start our sightseeing; the most famous one of TNK being the Brihadishvara Temple. It is one of the largest South Indian temples and an exemplary example of a fully realized Dravidian architecture.Built by Raja Raja Chola I between 1003 and 1010 AD, the temple is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was never much interested in temples but UNESCO world heritage sights have always been on my checklist.

Managed to negotiate the 2 kms to the temple for 100INR and we were there in no time. The temple complex is massive, easily the biggest one I have seen. It is classified as a living temple; which means that it is not just an architectural wonder; there are live ceremonies always going on; some one is getting married, offerings to the god etc. all in parallel in the multiple ‘mini temples’ within the complex. Before going, slippers and bags have to given way; in the heat of the sun, walking barefoot on hot rocky ground is problematic but can’t be helped.

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The main temple is massive and over a 1000 years old; thousands of carvings adorn the walls and a proper guide could probably explain the the history of it all. A very old & large nandi statue guards the entrance to the temple. We joined the long line of devotees entering the temple. After a wait of about 30 minutes in the line darshan was finally possible and we headed back out ; it out in sweltering heat.  Thankfully the large complex has some rest spots.

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After a quick drink of water and few more shots of the complex, we were out.

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Next up was the Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex , about 2 kms away with 100 INR for an auto. To be honest, the ‘palace’ is not well maintained; its not really a complete palace either , just parts of it. Over 200 years old, the complex comprises of Sardar Mahal Palace, the queen’s courtyard and the Durbar Hall.

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A reasonable part of the palace is in ruins, but what remains is good enough for a single visit. There is a couple of small museums within & near the palace which one can visit for a small price. The museum contains sculptures and carvings hundreds of years old and could potentially take hours of time if one were really interested. I spent about an hour here.

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Apart from the these two major sightseeing spots, there isn’t much to see in TJN. There is the sivaganga park though which local visit on cool evenings but given the heat, we just decided to skip this to rest in the hotel and get some of those sweaty clothes washed.

The temperature cooled down a bit further in the evening and thus time for some dinner; Aranya Nivas was universally rated to be the best restaurant in TJN; especially the traditional thali. Even though it is located about 1.5 kms away from the oriental hotel, we decided it was worth it; we may never visit TJN again in life after all.

For a small town, TJN had a reasonable bit of traffic. After some hectic navigation, we finally reached aranya nivas. There is a general seating area and another AC seating area inside. The general seating was full, so we moved to the AC seating area which was empty.

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Our order, dosa, paneer pulao and nan-panner curry was decent enough; but we definitely wanted to try the traditional meal which was unavailable for dinner.So after a nice heavy dinner and the long walk back, it was time to hit the bed; our train was for the early next morning.

DAY 2 (To Madurai from TJN)
Our train to Madurai was scheduled for 6 am with the travel time to madurai 3 Hrs+. On the way to madurai, the journey was amazing. The fog lining the fields a few feet above the ground and relatively cooler temperature along with a hot cup of coffee, perfect for morning. Of course we knew it was going to get much worse soon, madurai is known to get very hot in the summer season. We reached madurai by 9 a.m or so; I had booked an hotel hardly a km from the railway station, so it was an easy walk to the hotel. Before reaching the hotel though, some breakfast need to be had. One specialty of Tamil nadu , in general, is definitely the awesome breakfast. Where else can find so many varieties of chutneys and all so delicious.

Yummy !

After an awesome breakfast, we arrived at our hotel which only 10 minutes away. There were only two sightseeing spots on our list, Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace and Meenakshi Amman Temple. It is always ideal to visit a temple in the evening, so that was postponed to the next day; which means the palace was on our list for the day. The advantage of a small town is that all the major spots are always close to visit; so was the palace located only 1.5 kms away. Google maps as usual helped reach the spot in most efficient way.

Thirumalai Nayak Palace is a 17th-century palace erected in 1636 AD by King Thirumalai Nayak, a king of Madurai’s Nayaka dynasty who ruled Madurai from 1623–59, in the city of Madurai, India. This Palace is a classic fusion of Dravidian and Rajput styles. The building, which can be seen today, was the main Palace, in which the king lived. The original Palace Complex was four times bigger than the present structure. In its heyday, the palace was considered to be one of the wonders of the South.

There is a small entrance fee for the regular entrance; in the evening , a sound and light show is organized with some additional fee. The palace is reasonably well preserved and worth a visit.

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We were done with palace by 5 p.m or so and then it was the long 2 km walk back to the hotel. On the way , some dinner and hit the bed.

Day 3 (Madurai and back to BLR)
The most famous attraction of madurai is obviously the Meenakshi temple complex. The complex now houses 14 gopurams (gateway towers), ranging from 45–50m in height, with the southern gopura tallest at 51.9 metres (170 ft). The complex has numerous sculpted pillared halls such as Ayirakkal (1,000 pillar hall), Kilikoondu-mandapam, Golu-mandapam and Pudu-mandapam.

We left for madurai temple early in the morning; on the way to the temple , we barely escaped getting ‘tricked’; an auto wallah met us on the road and told us that men were not allowed into the temple without a “veshti” or a lungi; legs must be covered which was true. However for 10 INR only , promising to take us to the temple dropped us off at an clothes emporium selling expensive sarees. No doubt he had sort of arrangement with them.  Having been in similar situations before, we decided to bypass entering the shop and walked off to find a store where we could purchase an expensive veshti ; after an hours of roaming the streets around the temple, we finally managed to find a shop selling one priced at 100 INR.

Now phones and cameras are not allowed inside the temple; so i could not record anything even for memories sake. After depositing shoes for safe keeping, we entered the complex through the eastern gate. There is an entrance from each of the directions, the complex spread over many acres.

The complex is quite vast; with multiple temples. We immediately entered the main deity temple first; there was a reasonably long line. The guards do not allow more than few seconds of sighted worship per devotee , so this was done pretty fast. On the way out, there are outlets selling snacks and delicacies at a reasonable prince which we were glad to purchase and gobble up. At various point , there are centuries old sculptures of various deities; the scale of the temple is mind boggling. After exiting the roofed temple complex, we entered the 1000 pillar museum which again has hundreds of sculptures. At another point, we witnessed a live puja with the aid of an elephant. Walked a bit more and an ongoing marriage; all these simultaneously happening is what makes this a ‘living temple’.

All this walking and it was almost time to check out of our hotel; 12 p.m is what was told to us. But our train out of madurai was scheduled for 6.30 p.m ; so we had many hours to kill and not a single sightseeing spot left to see, in madurai i.e. Well there are a couple of temples but we were done with out share of temples for the trip. Movie and mall came to my mind; under normal circumstances I despise malls but there was no choice left to us whatsoever. It was terribly hot out in the open and there was no where left to go.

There is only one mall in madurai, Vishal de mall and there were only two hindi movies running in the theatre at that time. The mall-theatre were located about 20 minutes away from the station, We deposited our luggage in the madurai station clock room and caught an auto to the mall.Ran my calculations and realized that we would be cutting in too close to train’s departure at 6.30 p.m; the movie was 2.5 hours long and scheduled to start at 3 p.m. So we decided to skip movie altogether and head to the food court to kill time.

There wasn’t much variety as such in the food court either but at least it was ‘cool’. I ordered a burger meal while mom & sister went in for some chettinad rice combo. Both were high on price and average on taste.

 

 

At 6.30 p.m we finally departed for bangalore. A good temple run had finally come to an end !


Day 6 (Sabargram to Gorkhey via Phalut)

It was a bitterly cold morning on day 6 ; the wind chill making it worse. Most of us managed to wake up though ; to catch the beautiful sunrise over the mountains.The golden red hue over the sleeping Buddha was mesmerizing to say the least.

Worth the freeze

Nikhil was responsible for the group photos ; the group managed to pose despite the freezing cold. The beautiful sight provided us with the necessary warmth :). After the photo sessions it was time for breakfast and the long day ahead. After a quick breakfast, we departed for gorkhey-phalut. A significant part of this day’s trek is downhill; we were going to give away all our hard earned ‘trek up’ miles. The plan was to go to phalut and then to gorkhey; the overall distance being 21 km!
From sabargram , it is completely downhill to gorkhey, almost 15 km ! On the way we passed through a beautiful bamboo forest which was probably the most enjoyable part of the trek.

Through the forest

We were under the cover of the forest ; birds chirping, the sunlight through the leaves and the occasional cool breeze through the trees ; it was fantastic. We were given lunch on this day, freshly made fried rice. The idea was to reach a intermediate checkpoint and have a lunch but we were walking pretty fast ; so we ended up deciding that we would have lunch directly at the destination.

Samandan visible in the distance

After almost 5 hours of trek,  we finally reached Samandan village ; under the impression that this would be the end of our trek. The ends of my toes had already gone numb. But shirin informed us that gorkhey was another 2 kms away from samandan; fate had spoken; I would lose my legs on this day !
Samandan itself is a beautiful village; almost too picturesque to be true.

Samandan

Me and kushal used up our last bit of energy to reach gorkhey;  an amazingly beautiful village located in a valley between two mountains.

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After off loading our luggage, all of us gathered at a “shack restaurant” providing providing food to travelers. Hot Wai Wai noodles tasted heavenly at only 50 INR a bowl ; “how come this taste is missing in bangalore”, I pondered. Maybe it is the himalayan water. Regardless, I ended up having 2 full bowls.After checking in into a dormitory,  it was time to just relax and have some hot tea and macaroni, courtesy indiahikes evening snacks. We were now below 8K feet and there would be no more BP measurement; Naman, karthik and karun rejoiced at the very thought of that. A part of the group decide to split up and head to the nearby stream cool their heels, literally. Others decide to hike up the hill to get some mobile signal to book the tickets back home.  I just wandered around taking snaps of the beautiful village and the river stream.

Trek up to get the mobile signal

Come evening Vivek asked for some IH feedback regarding the trek; he heard no complaints as expected. Buddhaji narrated stories of his experience in the mountains and history of Sikkim ; his “talk” was pretty long and I fell asleep for a few minutes in between. The sound of the dinner bells woke me up though ; specially prepared country chicken curry was enjoyed all but I stuck to the vegetarian though. The night again was bitterly cold but the dorm was nice and warm. Thankfully I had run out of battery only on the last day ; we tried to enjoy the group company to the maximum ; after all this was a going to be our last day in the mountains;  the next day was the trek back down and home.

Day 5 (Sandakphu to Sabargram)

Me, karthik and Nikhil woke up early in the morning to get some shots of the much anticipated sunrise; it was freezing cold outside with the wind. We braved the cold to witness a once in a lifetime shot.

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Totally worth it ! The big 4 visible at a distance with a sea of clouds separating us or the sleeping buddha glowing under the morning sun; the pictures don’t do justice.
And what better way to start a trek than a breakfast of champs ; Pancakes,Jam, bread and egg. And we were off !

We were to trek 16kms today to sabargram which also happened to be the only tent camping experience during the trek. This day also turned out to be the best day of my trek since I ended alone for 3 hours with not a soul in sight. The initial 3 hours are on a semi-motor able road leading to the meadows. Due to the group size, again we got separated ; only I hadn’t realized until much later that I was that last one. I walked for 3 hours , on the motor-able road and the beautiful meadows taking shots of the picture perfect landscape and enjoying the solitude.

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Somewhere midway , I found karthik and chirin waiting for me and apparently I was the black sheep; the last one in the group. :(. Vivek was angry with my pace and I had to hurry up. Chirin found us a short cut, albeit a difficult one; after half hour of super brisk trek, we ended up overtaking the group. A few yaks greeted us at the check point.

Hello there!

While the solitude was totally worth it, the price was 20 seconds of rebuke from vivek. After this point, I was forced to be in the middle of the group for the long way ahead.

So far away

The trek got reasonably difficult from this point and from a particular junction, it was almost up at 45 degree angle. This stretch took a toll on us.The sun blazing away to glory did not help either. A short distance from here we finally halted at a beautiful valley for our lunch; khichdi and apples it was.

View from our lunch point

This was a much needed rest; a few dozed off under the warm sun while rest finished our lunch. Sabargram was still 4kms away !

This is too steep !

After almost 2.5 hours of trek , we finally reached sabargram. Preetha was already at the spot and sketching away while rest were higher up atop the hillock. Small lodges at this point would serve as the dinner room but our tents were pitched higher up. So this wasn’t the end of our journey; just great !

Another 10 minutes of walk and finally, we arrived at our destination. Naman, Karthik and others who arrived early helped Buddha bhai to pitch the tents while rest were just relaxed in the tents. By the time we arrived at 3.30 , it was already time for tea after a mandatory round of stretches. The view of Kanchenjunga is spectacular, after we were only 60 kms away.

What a sight

The bad news was that tea point was again 10 minutes trek down; like my knees hadn’t suffered enough already. The plan was to finish dinner and come up only in the night. So off we went again. Everyone huddled into the dinner room ; sri kishen opened his bundle of snacks as well; cashews, pumpkin seeds and wasabi mix. We still had hours to kill and what better way than singing songs; especially when we had super talented singers like prashanth and mahita in the group. Time just flew by and it was already evening; I rushed to the top of the hill again to get some shots of the sunset.

The final sunset over the sleeping buddha

After dinner and the final hike up, it was the most important activity of the trek; the astro shots with the lighted tents. The shots came out fantastic to say the least, at least on camera LCD.After some delightful shots , it was finally time to get some much needed rest.

>> Day 6


Day 4 (Kalipokhri to Sandakphu)

So today was the day where we would finally hike up Sandakphu; this is challenge we were all here to complete after all. After a short walk of about 1Km on the windy road leading to sandakphu, the tea house is finally visible atop the sandakphu, far away, 6kms i.e. The trek route again lies on the border of India-Nepal.

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At certain junctions, there are small shacks offering refreshments. The trail from here to Sandakphu is a steep incline of 4 km and zigzags up the hill. One can choose between two routes here – the left one which goes via Nepal and is a longer trail with a gradual ascent, or the more popular shorter route with a steep ascent. We chose the steep one obviously.

Stairway to heaven?

Midway a tower post gave some wonderful view of the valley.

Above the clouds

All along the route, there was a semi motor able route leading to the top running parallel to the trek route which is steeper. The top seemed closer atop every small hillock but seemed far away after every descent; why was the mountain testing us ?

All along the way, the views kept getting better, with clouds playing hide n seek from behind the mountains; sometimes engulfing the valley; other times disappearing without a trace.

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The mules carrying supplies, luggage raced past us at many junctions; for once it seemed the mule was having a better time than us. After 4 hours of trek, we finally reached a point where sandakphu was within reach.

Within Reach finally

Well, almost within reach. It was another 500 meters at least fro this sign post; when the incline is at 45 degrees, that’s a lot.

At this point, there is another ‘short cut’ leading to the top with a even steeper incline; me, Nikhil,Yash and kushal decided to give it a shot in hopes of cutting our trek time.

The slippery incline

The “stairs” were covered in a thin sheet of ice and it was very slippery; so slippery that yash decided to turn back. After much struggle, nikhil managed to hike up but I had underestimated the hike; the gods of friction abandoned me suddenly and with the gravity assist , I ended up hitting my head on the ice , on the ground, and slipped about 2 meters. In all fairness , i thought that this is the end. Can’t continue with a bloody head right. Thankfully, while I did hit my head bad and lost consciousness for a few milliseconds maybe, I was able to regain balance and give it another try, only more carefully. Kushal, right behind me, learnt from the folly of my ways and managed to safely trek through the slippery passage and quick 5 minutes walk, we were at the top of sandakphu, FINALLY !

It was a gorgeous sight with a crystal clear view of the sleeping buddha in clear daylight.

The sleeping Buddha

A traveler’s lodge served as a rest point / tea break joint where we snacked on some hot tea and Good Day cookies. Temperature here was -2C in broad daylight. Heck, we managed to get a good mobile signal here as well; a lot of trekkers called up their homes. I called up my work buddies to inquire on the state of the chip I was working on; I was trekking in the mountains at a very critical state of the project.

Tea Break !

Thankfully everything was fine. After some light snacks, it was time to move on. Our tea house was another 1.5 kms and this time the walkway was flat.

At the tea house

The tea house is run by a pleasant aunty and we all checked into our dormitory; all the guys in one and the women in another.

At last we arrived

We were provided with additional sleeping bags & liners since blankets cannot be washed in cold icy waters. Almost immediately , lunch was served; the usual course. After lunch , we had multiple options. Behind the lodge, there is a nice place to take good shots of valley; one can spot the clouds being held hostage by the high mountains.

You shall not pass

Some of us scouted the area for good photography locations, for eg, the top of hill behind the tea house while other huddled inside the observation room to play dumb charades ; made more fun with Hot cauliflower pakodas served with tea, i gobbled at least 6 of them. Soon enough it was sunset time already and half a dozen of us rushed to the top the of the hill to view the sunset; it got pretty crowded up there pretty fast and we had to jostle to get a proper shot through; made worse by the biting cold and the fact that we had to remove our gloves to get the camera settings correct. The sunset was breath taking for sure, the red hue over the clouds with glowing horizon; it was magical to say the least.

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After a quick dinner, a lot of us assembled to take shots of the milky way; it was the first time in the trek that we had a clear night sky. Actually it was the first time that many of us were viewing the galactic core; so surely a definitive moment of many of our lives. The shots came out pretty decent and definitely gave me more inspiration to upgrade my camera before my next trek.

What a sight

A final shot of sandakphu before hitting the sack and I called it day.

Under the night sky

>> Day 5


Day 3 (Tumling to Kalpokhri)

With a lot of difficulty, we (Karthik,Nikhil,Me) managed to wake up early in the morning, before sunset, in the biting cold, to get some shots of “The sleeping buddha” with the morning glow on the Kanchenjunga peak. As it turns out, from our locations, the sunrise was obstructed by hills; but the morning light was just warm enough for a good shot. By the time we got back, most of the group was already awake.

The morning glow

Vivek arrived in some time to take BP reading of the BP patients , namely Karun, Karthik and Naman while rest left for breakfast. The breakfast was hot poori, sabji and pulao. I ended up eating lots this morning, (shouldn’t have).

By 8.30 a.m or so , everyone was already raring to go while some engaged in morning stretches. Day 3 journey would comprise of 14 kms of trek which we were expected to finish in 6-7 hours. A motorable road passes through this area which takes one to nepal. We obviously took the non-motorable trek route and reached Gairibas after a few kms walk on a flattish terrain. The sun shone brightly over the multi colored hills.

Early Sun

The trek itself is just on India-Nepal border ; to the right is India and to the left nepal.

This is the also the day where we enter the singhalila national park, officially; since we paid 100 INR per head for the cameras; also the day where nikhil dropped his lens was stuck without a proper viewfinder for rest of the trek.

Through Singalila National Park

The trek us through a dense forest and for the very first time during our trek, the 4 great mountains along with everest were visible to us, at a distance of course.

That’s Everest

All of us stopped here for a customary round of photography. From here, the trek went downhill which brought us to some stunning meadows and a majestic view of the entire valley.

Meadows

From here, we were also able to spot in the distance, the long route which we would take for the rest of the day.

Route ahead visible in the next hillock

The rest of the trek to the checkpoint was downhill for a good 1.5 hours or so through a pretty dense forest with the trail made by / for trekkers ; I ended up pretty much along for this part of the trek ; almost concerned that I wasn’t lost. We finally reached Gairibas at around mid day for a well deserved break. Garibas has some refreshment stalls and shacks to refuel. There were atleast 100 tourists/trekkers here on that day. I am not sure whether we were on the Indian or the Nepal side.

At Garibas

Here we were treated to some hot momos courtesy Indiahikes , 6 per head with super spicy chutney. It was veg version, so karun went and ordered the chicken version and most like that one better. Some just dozed off for 15 minutes by the road side meadows and rest enjoyed the refreshments before what looked like a pretty intimidating hike back up to our lunch point,kaiyakatta.

This hike to kaiyakatta was a steep one, almost 2kms and tiring indeed for most of us; made worse by tourists going up the hill in a landrover and probably thinking ,” What’s wrong with these people, why walk when a jeep is available ?” That thought definitely crossed our minds. We tried to take a couple of shorts cuts, steeper , but with the hope that it would cut our travel time. Well, it did but not by much. At the very least, I remember Yash, Nikhil and me struggling through this part. Finally after 2 hours or so, we reached Kaiyakatta. Atleast 10 trekkers were already reached before us.

As lunch was getting served, Siddhika & co. took a cake to celebrate; never really saw lunch time as celebration but as long as cake is there, who am I to question. Turns out Siddhika was getting a year old on that day. So all of us joined in to celebrate her birthday as well; “maybe I should give this a shot next time”, came to my mind.

Anyhow after a hot lunch and happy occasion, it was the next and final leg of the day’s trek; the walk to Kalipokhri, which was 4 kms away through the misty forests.

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As usual, due to the long distance, group was significantly split up which was a good thing. The misty weather provided a perfect opportunity to trek alone in nature. The sun shone in through the mist at a distance which was a wonderful sight.

Through the mist

After 2 hours of walk, we finally reached Kalipokhri, a bean-shaped black lake surrounded by waving Buddhist prayer flags. Kalipokhri translates to Black Lake. Another 5 min walk and we were at our tea house for the night, pandim lodge.

Beyond Kalpokhri

By the time me and kushal reached, the main dorm was already completely occupied; it turned out to be a good thing though. Me and Kushal ended up in a smaller room with kamlesh; with an attached bathroom. Phew, that would our mornings much less hectic. By the time we were done settling down , we were called for the post-trek stretches. It was difficult on this day; the tracker was showing almost 14kms of walk and I sure could feel them in my legs. By the time we changed into our thermals for the night along with additional 3 layers , it was already evening tea time. Most huddled up into the dining room by the kitchen, it was nice and warm. Preetha and Sonakshi got busy with sketching while the rest just enjoyed the warm tea. There wasn’t much to do for me either since the moon was up the sky making night photography impossible again.

Our cosy Dining Hall

As we went about discussing our interests and hobbies , sonakshi was in the line of fire. The group forced her to sing, which she did, pretty nicely might I add. Her singing sped up the kitchen folk and served us dinner at 7.30 p.m. I wasn’t hungry but there was an interesting dish to eat; squash, a local vegetable. I had never heard of it and decided to taste it at least. Soft and sweet, I ended up eating 3 chappatis with it. Srihita did not like the taste much I guess, she wanted noodles for the night. And what better way to prepare noodles when you have the Instant Gas burner kit. Srikishen got the setup ready in our room and whipped up a hot bowl of noodles in no time.

By the time he switched off the burner, it was time to hit the sack.

>> Day 4


Day 2 (Jaubhari to Tumling)

Early mornings are always difficult,  when the temperature is the single digits, more so. After a hot breakfast , we assembled at the courtyard for the first day of the trek. Our guides were buddhaji and chirin. Buddhaji was from village close to jaubhari and so was chirin. The first thing vivek taught us was to how to tie a shoelace such that it never gets loose during the trek. I managed to get a loose variant of the method to work for me. We were also given a set of eco bags to collect garbage wherever found all along the way.

The initial 5 min trek from the base camp to the ‘main road’ got most of us panting, it was the beginning of the journey after all.

The initial trek was up a concrete path up next to the main road. Across the road,  a trail going up the hill to Upper Chittrey. This is a steep climb of 3 km, through a thick forest, and takes about 2 hours to reach.

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All along the way, we were surrounded by tall pine trees and Rhododendrons waiting to bloom. As we proceeded through the forest, the group fragmented. I decided to stay either the forefront if the group or the trailing everyone to ensure some good shots. As I realized on the first day, I wasn’t fit enough to lead the group; I decided to trail the group in the future and stay somewhere in the middle , alone.

Towards the end, the trail required a steep uphill hike but the views it presented were breathtaking. Darjeeling was visible on a hill top far away.

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The sleeping buddha was visible to us for the very first time from atop the hillock.It was breathtaking.

The sleeping Buddha

Here a motor road going upwards; a little below, towards the left, is the Chittrey Monastery with Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind. This is Upper Chittrey, where we took take a break with hot tea and biscuits. Nepal is just downhill.

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From here, the trail gradually went uphill. There are steps cut into the mountain at certain locations to help locals and trekkers climb through the forest until Lamyadhura. This was a difficult one for me for sure and between taking shots, taking quick resting stops and trekking again, I ended somewhere in trailing lot. All along the way, we could see the motorable road next to our trekking route with land rovers taking tourists up to sandakphu and phalut. It was another 3 hours of trek by the time we reached Lamaydhura,  a small village with a handful of Tibetan families that run a small tea shop. It is a cozy place to take shelter , enjoy a lunch/tea. I bought a packet of chips and a snickers bar to keep my mind occupied.

The trail from Lamaydhura to Meghma is a 3 km hike up a steady incline. It also has some leisurely walks over grassy terrain and motor roads. This is the easiest gradient of the day’s trek. Chimal and magnolia trees are scattered along the route.

As we departed from Lamaydhura, the weather suddenly turned cold and mist took over the hills.

Incoming Mist

Many of us reached out for ‘warm clothing’ before resuming the trek at this point. Somewhere along the route, sri kishen took out his ladoos over a hilltop and that provided some much needed relief and energy.

Some of us ended splitting up, one group including myself ended up taking the motor able route unintentionally while another group took the “trek route”

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After about 2 hours of walk, we reached meghma, our lunch point; finally !! . There is a monastery here which was closed on that day.

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The tea house here is run by a small tibetan family who cooked up some super delicious dal, chapati, Cabbage curry and rice for us. Hot omelettes , made on order, were totally amazing when the temperature is a cold 2 degrees outside.

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After a hearty lunch at meghma, we are off for the final leg of the journey, Tumling; an almost flat walk which takes about 1.5 hours. The misty evening added an eerie tone to the trek; I loved it.

Mist over the hills

The road from Meghma to Tumling was covered in mist and we passed through a number of small villages on the way; overall it took us about 1.5 hours or so to reach tumling.

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We finally ended the day at Tumling lodge. The temperature was already touching almost 0 ; we were shown our dorms as soon we arrived. All the guys huddled into one room and all the women in another. After arrival, vivek gathered all of us for the mandatory rounds of stretches (& massage).

View from our lodge

As evening approached and weather turned colder, we all made base in the lodge near the dining area and decided on play a game of Name tagging while sipping on hot tea and pakados. The game is to associate a tag with the name of the person and try to recall the tag-name combo of the entire group , all at a time. We had Madmax Mahita, Stupied Soham, Perfectionist Pooja, Kinetic Karun, Killer karthik, Notorious Niranjan, Yummy Yash and Naughty Nikhil from the ones that I remember. It was fun until we all of us ended up recalling all the names. Mafia was suggested next; the game most played in all treks. Prajakta wasn’t all that enthusiastic about it; she was fed up of mafia on all her previous treks, she had been on many. Rest of us were reasonably excited I suppose. Niranjan was god for the first round and as bad luck would have it, I was killed in the first round Mafia , Darn it! Mafia had this round. Karun was made God in the second round; this round was fun since I was part of Mafia along with Kushal ; I was about to be kicked again but begged the villagers to spare at least a round; they fell for it and I survived the gauntlet some more until my ruse was up ; I made it all the way to the end until being nabbed by the villagers.

A good 2 hours were spent playing the game and it was already time for dinner. It was the usual again, chappati, dal, subzi and rice. After a hearty dinner and tiresome day , it was time to retire to the cosy dorm for well deserved rest. But the night beckoned us !

It was super cold outside. The ones with the DSLRs, me, Karthik and Nikhil bravely ventured outside to try our luck with the night sky. It was a very bright moon lit night; the sleeping buddha was visible at the distance under the moonlight but the stars definitely weren’t. An exposure of 30s was creating a day light effect. The shots actually looked quite interesting; so I decided to go for them post a reduction of exposure time.

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A final shot of the sleeping buddha exhausting 1 bar of my battery and we were off to bed.

Sandakphu under the moonlight

 

>> Day 3


Day 7 (Gorkhey to Sepi)

Our last day was finally here; the initial part involved the trek back up to samandan and then begin the trek down hill. On the way it was all up this hill and down that hill, pretty much the entire route. On the way we passed sone beautiful streams ; unfortunately there was no time to even photograph them since the most of the group had raced on ahead. Quick snaps and again on the way.

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After almost 3 hours of trek we reached our checkpoint to have snacks and tea;it was a pretty wonderful sight.

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Thankfully , from here on it was completely downhill. On the way , me and kushal discussed everything from stocks, origin of jp Morgan and corrupt CAs of india.

Bridged pathways

After almost another 3 hours of walk, we were finally down , back to civilization. It was almost as if the bridge personified the end of the journey and was there to greet us; But was it the end of the walk itself , not quite. Another half hour of walk on the tar road and we were finally at the lunch point. Mobile signal on my phone after 7 days; wow. Messaged family that I was on my way !

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The lunch was hot rice with curry and soya chunks; the soya chunks were some of the best I have tasted in my life. Cabs were ready to depart by the time were done. We thanked our guides vivek, Shirin and bhuddha ji, a final goodbye and we were off ! It was a race against time now; we were supposed to reach railway station by 8 p.m and the train was scheduled to depart at 8.30 a.m for a dozen of trekkers. It was close but thankfully the train was delayed,as expected from the Indian Railways. It was me,Karthik, Kushal and Prajakta who were staying back at siliguri. After dropping off Yash & nikhil who were with us in the jeep, we decided to indulge ;  some hot pizzas from dominos awaited us. Cheese burst, Lava cakes and coke; what a way to end the night. Waiving final good byes to Prajakta and Kushal, we ended the night.

The trek memorable, the group wonderful and landscape beautiful; I couldn’t have wished for a better way to end my 2018.


Day 1 (Bagdogra to jaubhari)

The trek group meet up point was the NJP railway junction. The cabs would pick us all up and get us to jaubhari, our basecamp. After a ridiculously mini complimentary breakfast at the radha rani lodge and half hour of searching for the meet up location, we finally met up with the entire trek group. Sri kiran and mahita were there with their 8 year old daughter , sri hita. Most were from Mumbai including rahul,siddhika, kamlesh, darshan, kushal, soham, karun, pooja ; We along with niranjan, sonakshi, yash, nikhil from bangalore; Srikiran family from Pune ;naman from Kolkata; prajakta from hyderabad and preetha from Seattle. The customary introductions revealed something rather funny, the youngest member of the group , sri hita, was also the most experienced trekker of the group. This was her 4th high altitude trek and had been on over 40 treks on her life..of 8years ; Incredible achievement !. In all, we had 4 vehicles and 20 trekkers, and we were off ! We left at about 11 a.m or so the estimated time to jaubhari is about 4-5 hours.

I was with prajakta, naman, kushal and darshan in the cab. As we made our way through the well kept army camps at bagdogra and proceeded to jaubhari, the discussion in the vehicle was mostly around our past treks, our regular(boring) day jobs and potential difficulty of this trek. Prajakta was already on 7th high altitude trek, Kushal had been to kedarkantha and it was a first for naman and darshan.

2 hours into the drive, we stopped for lunch at Nesang’s Gorkha Cafe at Mirik. The weather had already turned cold and we were hardly at 5000 Feet; many scampered to get their jackets from their packed luggage on top of the jeeps. The Cafe is nice but it takes a while to get the order though. Me , Nikhil, Darshan, kushal and Naman got ourselves a table and decided to order some hot Thupka’s , veg chowmein and hot tea (excluding naman who did not take tea). The lunch took forever to arrive and the discussion at the lunch table was again around past treks and adventure sports; (and how we would never risk sky diving at Mysore).

The thupkas and chowmein, when it did arrive was totally worth the wait. Hot soup soaking in veggies and thin noodles, tasted heavenly in the cold weather.

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After a hearty lunch, we proceeded on to jaubhari. By the time we reached, the weather had turned gloomy and it was already cold. A nice cup of warm tea and biscuits provided much needed relief (and internal heat). After settling for our dorm rooms (7 in 1 room) , the setting sun brought the entire group together in the courtyard sipping tea while preetha sketched away to glory.

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Some of us managed to take some snap in the midst and post that huddled together in the dining room to meet our trek leader, vivek , and get our initial formalities done ; including submitting our medical certificates. Well, the medical check up sprang up a few surprises, Karthik, Naman and Karun were the BP patients of the group and would be closely monitored throughout the trek.

The dinner was phulkas, Dal, rice and a subzi along with banana mash for dessert. The hot food on cold winter night was something many of us were experiencing after a long time. (and of many it was a first time). The water was ice cold and washing tiffins was a big time head ache for sure; its all part of the himalayan trek experience though.

After dinner, I went out to take a look at the night sky for some potential shots; it was a bit cloudy. The warm dorms with thick blankets beckoned; I was done for the day.

>> Day 2