Ladakh – Where the Zanskar and Indus meet

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A river runs through it and then on towards Pakistan

Maybe it was the fact that we got to bed early because of the lights out by 10pm situation or because our curtains were so thin they let in the sun early in the morning but I was already up and wide awake by 7.30am – which is more than what I can say during a normal work day.  I struggle to even get up after a good 8hrs of sleep.  Anyway, it was probably because I was on holiday as well and I was looking forward to seeing some sights around Leh.

We had a very simple breakfast of toast, butter and jam and very sweet milky tea.  Much like the daily dal and rice combo, this too was to become the breakfast item for the rest of our stay.

When we walked out the dining hall, our driver Sonam was waiting patiently outside the gate and after exchanges of “good mornings” and “thank you’s” we piled in the 4×4 and turns out that we were traveling with none other than Miss India Earth 2008 and her cousin!  Woo hooo.  So 4 girls, a 4×4 and one-happy-go-lucky driver were off towards Nimmu, the place where the two rivers meet and together flow off towards Pakistan and into the Arabian Sea.  We got the chance to walk down to the river bank and dip our toes in and unsurprisingly, it was freezing.  Definitely meltwater from the Himalayas – no doubt about it.

We went to a couple of other places (Magnetic Hill and Spituk Monastery) but the day’s sightseeing was pretty chilled out and we were back in Leh by the afternoon.  Since it was conveniently lunch time, we decided to stop by at some local restaurant in Fort Road and have some momos and thukpa, a noodle soupy kind of thing.

Then it was another round of walking around the city… I mean, town.  My friend, lured by some green eyed Kashmiri pashmina sales guy also managed to buy herself a scarf.  We also scored some free tea from him while we sat in his shop looking through all the colour combos.  Turns out it is also a small world after all – after exchanging some stories, we found out that he knew of the same travel agent in Delhi who helped organize my trip back in 2008 to Rajasthan and Kashmir.  I also later found out that he has the same name and surname as person with whom I had come to India with which was kind of a freaky coincidence.

Anyway, two pashminas and a couple of thousand rupees later, we walked out the store and up towards Shanti Stupa again.

View towards Leh from Spituk Monastery

Spituk monastery

On towards Nimmu village to see the two rivers!

I would imagine the moon landscape to look like this on a good day 🙂

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Juley Ladakh – A little piece of heaven

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Tibetan prayer flags on Shanti Stupa, Leh – Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir

A Leh-zy day…

We arrived in Leh after our 1 hr flight from Delhi and were pleasantly greeted with sunny skies and the cool, crisp mountain air.  As we stood on the tarmac waiting for the airport buses to take us on a 20 meter ride to the terminal building, we took in the surroundings; blue skies, wisps of white clouds and snow capped mountains that surrounded the city.  Actually, Leh is more like a small town.  We soon discovered that getting lost in Leh was nearly impossible.  All roads ultimately lead to the market.

Shortly after picking out our bags, we hopped in our taxis that were waiting outside the airport terminal and were promptly shown to our very modest hotel and even more modest rooms.  Apparently there are no “luxury” hotels and judging from our rooms, “average” hotels are also hard to come by.  Nonetheless, we got ourselves settled in and had a nap before they were ready to serve us lunch at 2pm.  We moseyed on down to the common dining room and I must admit, the views were amazing.  Every window you look out of, you’re bound to see some snow capped peaks in the distance.

After we had our fill of dal and rice, we decided to take a brisk walk into the market to suss out what the town had to offer.  One thing is for sure, you’ll never be short of finding Swiss and German bakeries there.  It reminded me a bit of Darjeeling, with its small coffee shops and pastries displayed in the windows.  Another common theme amongst all places in India are the pashmina stores (I later learnt that pashminas are a very high quality type of cashmere wool and that the best ones come from sheep bred in Mongolia because they have to withstand the coldest winters and so their wool is best adapted to keep them warm).  These stores looked to be mainly run by Kashmiris.  The people of this region also look very distinct from that of the rest of India.  Some of them looked Tibetan or Nepalese (and I’m pretty sure they are from there anyway) and others looked like they were from Central Asia and then of course you have the Kashmiris.

By the time we had made a full circle of the market and snuck our heads into the different stores and tried out our bargaining skills (which I’m embarrassed to say that even after a year in India, it’s pretty much crap), it was approaching late afternoon and the air was getting cooler.  We decided to head back to our hotel on the outskirts of town, a mere 2 km away.  En route, my friend and I decided to test our fitness levels and climb the 500 steps to the top of Shanti Stupa.  Unsurprisingly, combined with the altitude and the steep gradient, we were panting after probably the first 30 steps.  We finally reached the top after numerous stops and I’m glad to say it was worth every step.  The 360′ view of the town surrounded on all sides by the snow capped mountains was a fitting reward.  Oh, and so was the stupa.

Going down was a breeze and with that our first day in Ladakh was off to a good start.  We had our fill of rice and dal again (one of many meals to come of dal and rice) and it was off to bed – lights out at 10pm since electricity here only comes on for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening – same goes for the hot water which I will now call a luxury.

Life may be simple but it sure is hard in these parts.

(We also found out that Juley means “Hello” in Ladakhi… we were wondering why they kept on calling us Julie only to find out what it meant later on).

Arrival at Leh Airport! Sunny skies and cool air. Perfect welcome… or should I say… Juley!

Walking towards our hotel in Leh

Spices to tell us that we’re still in India even though it feels like another country

The streets of Leh – Main market

A cafe with a view – a fitting reward after climbing up 500 steps.

We made it to Shanti Stupa!

Juley Ladakh!

Oman – Muscat

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View of Muscat's Mutrah Corniche and Mosque

March 27, 2012 :: Muscat

Our last day in Oman and we got up early to go to the Mutrah Fish Souk.  We thought we got up pretty early but evidently, fishermen wake up way earlier because by the time we got there, it seemed as if they were nearly done with their day.  Anyway, there we were, moseying between rows of fish and to say we stuck out would be an understatement.

From there we took a brisk walk along the Mutrah Corniche, overlooking the bay.  It was early in the morning but already, we could feel the heat so we headed back to our hotel to freshen up and head off towards the Grand Mosque, hoping to get there before 11am as non-Muslims are only allowed in up until that time.  Unfortunately, we got there just a few minutes too late.

We then headed towards Barr Al-Jissah Resort and the Oman Dive Center.  Looking to have a quick swim in their pools, we made as though we “belonged” there and snuck in.  It worked and after a refreshing swim and chilled out time, we headed back out to the airport and back to reality.

Minaret

Fish Souk in Mutrah

Mutrah Corniche

Oman Dive Center

Oman Dive Center

Barr Al Jissah Resort

Barr Al Jissah

Grand Mosque, Muscat

Grand Mosque, Muscat

Oman – At the Grand Canyon of Arabia

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Jebel Shams - The Grand Canyon of Arabia

March 26, 2012 :: Day 4 – Nizwa and Jebel Shams

Our second last day and we got up pretty early so that we could head off early towards Nizwa the old capital of Oman during the 6th and 7th centuries AD.  It was once the center of trade, education, art and religion.  Today, lying at the base of the Western Hajar Mountains, it is the center for date growing and it’s main attraction is the souk and the fort.

After a quick breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of the Mina Hotel overlooking the Mutrah corniche, we headed south and out of Muscat.  We reached Nizwa and walked around the souk.  It seemed more like a tourist attraction than a marketplace where locals would frequent as we bumped into the same people we saw back at the desert camp.  After a bit of walking around and looking at the trinkets and the numerous Khanjars, we headed towards the Nizwa Fort.  It was built in 1668 A.D by Imam Sultan Bin Saif Al Ya’rubi and it is Oman’s most visited national monument.

Nizwa Fort entrance

Nizwa Fort

View of minaret and date palms from the fort.

Again at the suggestion of Yousef, we decided to go further inland towards Jebel Shams (which translates to Mountain of the Sun).  Up until recently, apparently the roads were only accessible with a 4×4 as it was all gravel coupled with tight hairpin bends and a steep incline.  For the most part, we were able to reach about 60% of the way up to the top and all the while, our little car was screaming as we drove up the steep roads with views of the gorges on the one side.  We eventually hit the end of the tarred road and what lay ahead was a winding track of gravel going further into the mountain.  Luckily there as a “4×4 taxi” in front of us and knowing that we would need his services, he flagged us down and offered to take us up to the top and back.

In the end, it was all worth it as we reached the top and saw what is known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia.  Just like the time I saw the Grand Canyon in Arizona, my eyes could not take in enough of what lay out there.  It is just feels too unreal as you look down the cliff, a 1,000 meter drop to the bottom.  I tried to take photos but as usual, you can’t capture the full nature of it and it never comes nearly as close to actually seeing it in real life.  If ever in Oman, this is once place you should not miss out on.

Tarred roads... so far so good

End of the road for our Suzuki but the start to the top of Jebel Shams

The canyons!

Our taxi driver with his buddies.

A little settlement at the bottom of the canyon

Now that is a real 4x4

Oman – Peace and Paradise

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Sunrise in the desert

March 25, 2012 :: Day 3 – 

We were determined to catch the sunrise the next morning and make the most of our time in the desert so we got up at 5.30am and quickly (and sleepily) climbed up the soft sands to scout out the best vantage point to witness the first rays of the day over the Sharqiya dunes.  The rest of the camp was still fast asleep and there was total silence.  It was a crisp and cool morning and up on the dunes and there was an absolute feeling of tranquility.  There is just something special about the desert that makes you feel at peace.  I love the smooth contours of the dunes, they way they rise up against the desert floor and the fine grains of sand that almost looks liquid as it flows down the crest of the dunes.  You can’t help but feel reflective as you sit there, in the vast expanse of the desert as you eye scans over wave upon wave of dunes stretching all the way to the horizon.  Most of all, its the contentment you feel as you sit there in the silence and experience the emptiness of it all.

Once the sun was up we knew we didn’t have long until it would start getting hot so we climbed back down by which time there was already some activity in the camp as the other tourists were making their way to breakfast.  We did the same and waited for Youssef, the guide we had met in Ras Al Hadd to give us a ride back out of the camp along with the Italian couple he was showing around.  On the way out of the desert, we stopped by at another bedouin house for some dates and coffee.  He dropped us off where we left our car the previous day and we parted ways from there on but not before reminding us to visit Wadi Shab on our way back to Muscat.

A steep drive down the dune

Dining area in 1000 nights desert camp

A must-have in the desert

Wadi Shab is situated just after Tiwi.  You can get there from the coastal road that links Muscat to Sur.  There are brown information boards that guide visitors.  We parked our car by the dual carriageway and walked down to the mouth of the wadi.  This must be one of the most beautiful wadi’s in Oman because it is flanked on both sides by high cliff walls and the water is a clear blue with date palms on either side of the banks. There were some local boatsmen who offered to take us across to the other bank for 200 Baisa (USD 0.50).  Our guy who offered to take us was an old man, Said.  He dropped us on the other bank and told us that by 4pm, the water would recede and that we wouldn’t need to get a boat back.  As we walked into the wadi, Said turned his boat around and made his way back to the other side, possibly to ferry more random tourists who might’ve stopped by on their way.

Walking on what seemed like a dry river bed full of white round pebbles, the mid afternoon heat got more and more intense as we walked further in.  On both sides were the rocky walls of the mountains and the place looked surreal, like something out of Indiana Jones or even Jurassic Park.  After about 15 minutes of walking, we saw the first signs of water.  Again, what seems like the trademark turquoise blue of the Omani wadi’s.  We followed the footpath further in, climbing up rocks and walking along the side walls of the wadi.  We finally reached a pool of water and by then it was so hot that we decided it was time to step in and take a swim.  It’s no wonder that they describe oases as pockets of paradise because after seeing these wadi’s, it’s hard to see these clear blue pools of water surrounded by green trees as anything short of paradise.

After some time there, we made our way back to where our car was parked and true to form, as Said had said, the water had receded somewhat but not to the extent that we had hoped it would.  By the time we got back, the boatsmen were also nowhere to be found.  I reckon they were having their siesta so there was no other choice but to wade through the knee deep water, over the sharp little pebbles to get back on to the other bank.  It was probably not more than 50 meters but it was definitely not an enjoyable experience, having to walk barefoot over the slippery pebbles.  It was painful to say the least but we made it eventually.

We were finally back on the road and on our way to Muscat (with a slight detour at Bimmah to see the sink hole).

Entrance to Wadi Shab

The iconic blue waters of the wadi

A clear blue pool - we couldn't help but jump in!

The return journey out

Boatmen waiting to ferry people to the other bank

Back up by our car with the view of Tiwi village

Bimmah sinkhole

Oman – From Wadis to Dunes

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From 1000 Nights Desert Camp - Sharqiya Sands, Oman

March 24, 2012 :: Day 2 – Wadi Bani Khalid and Sharqiya Sands

The next morning, we got up at 7am and after having a full breakfast, we set off towards the Sharqiya sand dunes.  It seems like the roads have just been laid because we could not find any driving directions on Google Maps from Ras Al Hadd to Sur and from Sur to Al Ghabbi, the entrance to Sharqiya Sands.  At 8.30am, we traced our way back to Sur and from there back on to route 23 towards the desert.  Before getting to Al Ghabbi, we took a detour to the right into Wadi Bani Khalid.  Getting to the wadi from the main road was a further 20km up winding mountain roads that eventually opened up out onto a panoramic view of green date palm trees below in the valley.

Our small Suzuki was practically struggling to go up the steep roads but it was not for too long because we were soon coasting down on the other side towards the wadi.  We passed some small hamlets and groups of houses and finally arrived at our destination.  After a brief walk through the trees, we were rewarded by the sight of clear blue waters surrounded by greenery and contrasted by the sharp rock faces that encircled the wadi. This must be one of the more popular wadis as there were people swimming and even a small cafe on the rocks.  After some exploring, it was time to head back towards Al Ghabbi where our 4×4 transfer would be waiting for us to take us into the dunes towards 1000 Nights Desert Camp.

Driving up the mountain pass towards the wadi

Towards the Moqul caves

Entrance to Wadi Bani Khalid

At the wadi, some Omani men taking a swim

A village by the wadi

Sharqiya Sands

We arrived at Al Ghabbi around 13h30 and our driver to take us to the camp was only due to pick us up in another 30 minutes so rather than waiting in the hot sun at the nearby Shell petrol station, we decided to venture into the village.  After a few quick turns, we realised we had hit a dead end – well at least it was a dead end for non 4×4’s because the tarred road gave way to a sea of sand.  Spotting an opportunity to make some quick money, a young bedouin boy drove by in his 4×4 and offered to take us up to the nearby dunes and see his pet camels and home in exchange for some Rials.  We decided to take him up on the offer since we had nothing better to do other than wait for a further 20 minutes in the heat for our driver to pick us up.

Turns out that our young tour guide, Mohammed was only 13 and despite his age, he was quite capable of manoeuvring his big car in the dunes.  He took us in to see a bedouin home and welcomed us with some dates and strong black coffee.  On our way out, he introduced us to his camels and brought us back in time for our transfer into the desert.

Mohammed, our 13 year old driver

Mohammed with his camel

Not your average pets

It was a 40km drive further into the Sharqiya Sands.  The camp was opened in 2006 and over the years its has been slowly expanding with the addition of new tents each year.  It is however not overcrowded and when we arrived, we were the only guests there so we got the opportunity to have the entire camp to ourselves for a while before a few other tourists started trickling in in time to see the sunset.  The camp looks like its at the bottom of a valley, dotted by small trees and sheltered on both sides by huge sand dunes.  We took some time out by taking a swim at the camp’s pool and eating some dates before heading up the dunes to watch the sunset and it was worth the climb.  On top of the dunes, everything is quiet and peaceful.  We could see our camp way down at the bottom and it looked tiny.  We could see the other tourists as dots on top of the dunes on the far end of the camp across from us.  As the sun set behind the ancient dunes, the sand got a lot cooler and the wind started to pick up as the air that flowed toward the sea during the hot day rushed back inland.  Apparently the wind patterns here have remained the same and because of this, these dunes are considered to be old dunes, that is, they do not shift.

Lastly, we were all treated to a huge dinner prepared by the camp staff (who were of Nepalese and Bangladeshi origin).  By 10pm, it was all lights out at the camp and for the first time in a long time, I could really see the night sky filled with stars.

Taking a drive into the desert

Arabic tent at the 1000 Nights Desert Camp

The pool at the camp

1000 Nights Desert Camp

View of the camp

The Sharqiya dunes

Inside the camp

Sunset on the dunes

I LOVE OMAN!

“When it’s dark outside, you can see the stars” – Persian proverb.

Oman – In the land of Frankincense

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A village on route to Wadi Bani Khalid, Oman.

When one thinks about holiday destinations, Oman is not a country that would automatically come to mind.  It might not even feature on the top twenty list of places to visit but one thing is for sure – after seeing what the Sultanate of Oman has to offer in terms of its natural beauty and the diverse landscapes, it should definitely be among the top must-see destinations for any traveler looking for a unique experience.

This is the land of Frankincense, Myrrh and Gold.  It is a land that conjures up images of bedouin tribes and caravans criss-crossing the desert, oases of clear turquoise water and date palms.  Anyone visiting it can find all of this and more.  Situated to the east of Yemen and south-east of Saudi Arabia, Oman is on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula with the sea spanning from the north east to the south giving it a coastline of over 3000km. Having opened its doors to tourism in the late 90s, Oman has still retained its old world charm.  The capital, Muscat is tucked between the rocky mountains on one side and opens up to the Gulf of Oman on the other.  There are no skyscrapers and along the corniche life still remains simple as you can see men in their crisp white dishdashas and women in their black abeyyas while they take their evening stroll.  Omanis are warm and hospitable and everywhere we went, we were never in short supply of welcome tea and dates.

Even though its a world class city with great infrastructure it has still managed maintain its culture and way of life.  I hope it remains to be so despite the increase in tourism.

March 23, 2012 :: Day 1 – Muscat to Ras Al Hadd ::

View of Mutrah Corniche from Hotel Mina, across from the Fish Souk - Muscat, Oman

After an early morning flight out of Bangalore and a transit in Sharjah, we arrived in Muscat at 10am.  Compared to the heavy traffic and the bustle of Bangalore, Muscat was a quiet and welcome relief.  It was probably made more evident because we arrived on a Friday and the roads were empty since it was their equivalent of a Sunday.  We had hired what seemed like the smallest car on the road, a Suzuki Celero and it was clear that the Omani’s liked their 4x4s (which made sense to us later on as we discovered the terrain).

Entrance to Barr Al Jissah during one of our many wrong turns.

Inside Barr Al Jissah Resort, Oman

The Gulf of Oman

Reception area - Barr Al Jissah

Despite the small size of the city, finding our way out of Muscat without the help of a GPS took a couple of wrong turns and in the process, we discovered the Oman Dive Center and the luxury resort of Barr Al Jissah near Al Bustan.  After a brief walk around the resort and making a mental note to come back on our last day, we were finally on the open road and on our way towards Sur.

Finally on our way Sur-side!

Sur is a sleepy fishing town about 350km to the south of Muscat.  The newly built dual carriageway linking Muscat to Sur took us past numerous wadi’s, through mountain passes and then back along the coast.  We initially thought that the place we were staying at was in Sur but later found out that the Turtle Resort was at Ras Al Hadd, a further 40km away.  Nonetheless, we found our way there occasionally stopping at the petrol stations to ask for directions.

View of Sur as we were leaving towards Ras Al Hadd. There are goats and camels everywhere.

In the end, we arrived at the resort and it was worth all the wrong turns and detours.  It was quiet, rustic and rewarding to sit there in what seemed like the middle of nowhere looking out into the sea.  We did not spot any turtles but we did have a good dinner so I guess it made up for it.  It was time for an early night considering we would have an early morning start the next day, driving out towards the 1000 Nights Desert Camp in the Sharqiya Sands.

A little refreshing stop after a whole day of driving - Ras Al Hadd Turtle Beach Resort

The beach huts - Ras Al Hadd, Oman

Simple rooms at Turtle Beach Resort - Ras Al Hadd, Oman

An Indian Summer

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Lazy afternoons in Bangalore

From the sweet scent of incense from my neighbours to the melodic sound of the evening call to prayers of the muezzin from a nearby mosque, I sit here in the warm glow of an Indian sunset and experience the full impact of this country on my senses.  Although I complain about the traffic, the noise, the dust, the pollution and the non-stop stream of people on my daily commute to work, it’s been an interesting 10 months so far.

If someone had told me 4 years ago whilst on holiday in India for the very first time that I would be back to live and work here, I wouldn’t have believed them at all.  In fact, the way I pictured things to turn out back then is not even remotely close to what it is today – and not in a bad way either.  It just makes life more interesting – I have no idea what will happen in a year’s time from now because so far, for the past 5 years, each year has been totally different from the last and it’s been completely unpredictable.  And although there were ups and downs, I’m glad to say I’ve enjoyed every experience along the way.

Some R&R in Thailand

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Koh Nangyuan

A three hour flight away from the bustle of Bangalore and you’re in Thailand!  I was in serious need of a break after working throughout December while I see my friends post their pictures of their exotic vacays on Facebook.  Sunny skies and beaches – yup, it was time for me to hit the islands too.

First stop was Bangkok or should I say: “The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma” (thanks Wikipedia).

Yup, that’s what the name means.  After a day of sightseeing and also getting taken for a ride by a tuk-tuk driver who was adamant that I visit numerous gem stores, I had a pleasant meet up with one of my friends who has been galavanting around South East Asia since the end of his internship late last year.

By the way, in terms of getting around in a tuk tuk, this is where I was missing India the most.  These Thai tuk tuk drivers will shamelessly charge a tourist between 100 and 200 Bhat for less than 2km – what a rip off.  This was when I was missing Indian tuk tuk rates.  I opted to walk instead which was not even 15 minutes.  Luckily, most of  the attractions in Bangkok are within walking distance from Khao San Road.

Bangkok

Yup, it sure it Thailand

Lucky Buddha Temple, Bangkok

Standing Buddha Temple, Bangkok

Near Khao San Road, Bangkok

From Bangalore to Bangkok! Meeting up with Carlos who is here to stay for another month at least.

The next morning, it was off to Kanchanaburi and the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai and the Thai-Burma death railway, aptly named because during its construction, it is said that 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along it.  Yeah… morbid for a holiday I know…

Japanese Memorial outside the JEATH museum, Kanchanaburi

JEATH Museum... nothing much to see in there apart for some creepy looking props. Eery indeed even in the middle of the day. Finally found out JEATH stands for Japan, England, Australia, America, Thai and Holland... what about Burma? Hmm....

The Bridge over River Kwai. For Reals. The arches are the originals from back in the day.

On the bridge.

If you go to Kanchanaburi, this place is pretty neat to stay at. Right by the river, good rooms, great price and even has a nice pool where you can cool off after a walk to the bridge. NICE, about THB800 per night.

Finally, last stop for the next four days was Koh Samui.  A perfect ending of sun, surf and white sands.

Early morning ferry to Koh Samui. 5am to be precise... YAWN...

And oh hello! It was definitely worth it.

Koh Nangyuan

Koh Samui - paradise indeed!

STREET FOOD!!!

Khao San Road, Bangkok

Shiggen!

Bangkok nights

Bangkok days

In Kanchanaburi