Saturday, 27 February 2016

There Are Pandas In Udaipur

Introduction

Udaipur was the second stop of my backpacking trip through Mewar and Hadoti regions of Rajasthan, done in the second week of January 2016. Udaipur - the erstwhile capital of Mewar - is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, and for a good reason too. The city-scape defined by the two lakes - Pichola and Fatehsagar -, the beautiful palaces, temples and the ghats is beautiful in its own way. The narrow lanes of the old city are abuzz with tourists and the shopkeepers selling myriad articles greet you in smooth harmonic "Hello's". It looks like a fun place to be.

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Getting In

My bus from Mount Abu dropped me at Fatehpura, close to my Hostel in Devali, after a four hour ride. My contact - nay, friend - from Couchsurfing also decided to join me and stay at the same hostel. We stayed here for two days (three nights) and covered a bit of Udaipur and Chittaurgarh.

The map of Udaipur

Udaipur is connected by road to most major places in Rajasthan, and India by extension. The rail link is good for people from Mumbai.

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Monsoon Palace

The Monsoon Palace - also called Sajjangarh - was the first place we went to. Located on a hill on the western side of the city, the palace was built by Maharana Sajjan Singh in 19th century to keep a lookout on the monsoon clouds that would bring rain to the city. The palace was also used to keep a weary eye over the old Mewar capital of Chittaurgarh - then fallen under Delhi - visible on clear days.

The Monsoon Palace - Sajjangarh

The view from the top - Fatehsagar on the left and Pichola on the right

The entry tickets are Rs. 50 per head, plus a return 10 km jeep ride for Rs. 90. Yes, the hill is 5 km away from the entry gate.

The langoors welcome you at the parking lot

Some intricate jaalis at the Monsoon Palace

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City Palace

We transferred from one palace to the another - this one much bigger, grander and awesomer than the former. The entry tickets for the palace are Rs. 250, plus another Rs. 250 for the camera. The tickets for the 'Crystal Gallery' and Pichola Lake are Rs. 500 and Rs. 750, sold seperately. The first ticket only covers the entry to the palace myseum which is a labyrinthine maze featuring arts which received a royal patronage in Udaipur. The palace is built such that each successive ruler added something substantial to it to mark his legacy.

The gate of the City Palace
No photography beyond this point for me

It takes a minimum if 2-3 hours to cover the city palace museum. And, I did not opt for a photo-pass, so no pics here too. Go and see it for yourself.

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Garden Restaurant and Vintage Car Museum

The Garden Restaurant is an overpriced place to eat, but serves surprisingly good food. The nest part is that it is located next to the Vintage Car Museum. This is a collection of cars that were brought by, used and preserved by the royal family of Udaipur. The cars on display feature a variety of logos like Rolls Royce, Buick, Mercedes, Chevrolet, Morris and Cadillac. The entry ticket of Rs250, though can be justified by car-lovers only.

Cadillac

A Morris

A Buick

The grand Rolls Royce

There is a municipal garden next to the museum. The garden is superb. albeit a bit overgrown at places, and makes for an amazing place to relax in the core of the city.

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Jagdish Temple

This 17th century important temple is located next to the city palace. The temple features some stunning artwork and also is a much revered site for the locals.

The Jagdeesh Temple

A side profile

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Gangaur Ghat and Bagore Ki Haveli Museum

This ghat on the Pichola gets its name from the Gangaur festival for which this ghat serves as a venue. Its a good place to sit and watch the evening lights over the Pichola.

Entering the Gangaur Ghat

The museum was closed by the time we reached there.

The ghat and the museum

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Lakes - Pichola and Fatehsagar

Both these lakes are artificial, man-made lakes and serve to maintain a healthy water table in this typically dry land. The Pichola is located close to the old city centre. One bank of the Pichola is shadowed by the mighty palace walls, while the opposite bank is home to swanky hotels; speaking of which, the Jag Mahal - or the island palace - deserves a special mention.

Bridges on the Pichola

Pichola as seen from the Gangaur Ghat
Palace walls to the left and Jag Mandir in the far distance

The hotels opposite the Gangaur Ghat

The Fatehsagar Lake is in the newer, north-eastern part of the city. The city-side bank of the lake has been converted into a nice car-free promenade where the locals can spend a relaxing evening. The lake also has three islands, two of which are used as parks while the third has a Solar Observatory.

The Fatehsagar with its Solar Observatory

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The Panda Of Udaipur

This is the Backpacker Panda - our hostel, located in the Devali area, next to the Fatehsagar Lake. The hostel is located in a residential area and a bit far from the main attractions of the city. The criss-crossing alleys also make it a bit hard to locate, however Google Maps can be relied upon for the perfect route.

The hostel itself is quite new, inaugurated in the later part of 2015. The hostel is top notch in terms of amenities and facilities with an impressive decor. John (a.k.a. Siddharth), the manager, is a friendly and helpful guy and also prepares top-notch Maggi. Plus, they provide you with a Panda-Map and bicycles on rent to explore the city any way you please. If you ever happen to go there after reading this, do pass my regards.

Oh yes, the best part is all this costs a maximum of Rs. 450 per night if you opt for a bunk-bed and you get to meet a bunch of other travelers too.

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Not Enough

That was all I could cover in Udaipur, sadly. All I could spare was just one day in the main city. There's probably a lot more to do in the city and a lot more to explore too. A hike up the Neemuch Mata temple, the rope-way rides and boat-rides in the lakes are also pending. Just walking through the narrow lanes of the old-city would be much fun in itself. All those latent plans will have to be shelved till I return here, sometime in the near future.

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Other Places In Rajasthan

Mount Abu || Chittaurgarh || Bundi || Badoli || Jhalawar

© One Of The Road

Monday, 22 February 2016

Jugnoo - Simplifying Urban Auto-Rickshaws

No Auto-Rickshaws Please

I'm always wary of commuting by an auto-rickshaw when I'm outside Mumbai. The working meters make it a bit simple in Mumbai - the catch being that one must insist on using the meter and even then there have been attempts to fleece near airports and railway terminals. One needs some thick skin to ensure that the right fare is being charged.

Outside metros though, working meters are a rarity. And when a person strolls in with a ragged t-shirt and a backpack - typical backpacker/tourist wear - one can literally sense the rickshaw-wallahs drooling at the sight of an easy prey. So, I'd prepared myself to haggle strongly as I set off for my trip through southern Rajasthan in early January of  2016.

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Chalo Jugnoo Se

Our hostel manager at Backpacker Panda Udaipur introduced me to this app - Jugnoo. Apparently I've been living under a rock for a while, as this app has gained quite a buzz. The idea is as simple as the regular Ola/Uber cab hailing services, but applied to auto-rickshaws. Payment - calculated as per distance traveled on the GPS - can be made by Paytm or cash. The app - as I read - has also started a local grocery delivery service using the same network of auto-rickshaws.

Jugnoo - 'cause we are all fireflies ....

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My First Day With Jugnoos

My first ride was from the hostel to the Monsoon Palace - a distance of about 5 kms. The total fare was about Rs. 40, but waived off since it was our first ride. And Paytm gave some sweet cashback too.

The distance from the Monsoon Palace to the City Palace was almost similar. The price quoted by the rickshaw-wallahs at the stand was Rs. 100. Common sense prevailed and I hailed a Jugnoo for a ride which cost me Rs. 36 after factoring in the Paytm cashback. A 64% saving. Take that you fleecing pot-bellied-good for nothing-smirking rickshaw-wallah! Yeah!

I followed it up with a two more rides that day.

Ride in progress

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Reality Check

The next day I'd to leave the hostel early at about 7am, but there were no Jugnoos on the road. So, I had to fall back to the classical call-Pintu-from-the-next-block routine. This was not a shock in anyway, as is it unreasonable to expect anyone on the road at such an early hour.

I extended my Jugnoo-riding at Kota too. It started well, but then I was faced with a small problem - ride refusal. I'd request an auto from my location, my request would be accepted, the driver would call me up and then reject the ride if he did not like the destination. This happened thrice in a row at a particular place in town and so that ride had to be completed through the classical routine. That was incidentally my last attempted ride through Jugnoo at Kota.

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Impact?

I was very much intrigued by the entire eco-system that the app aims to create. I was mostly surprised by the fact that the app convinced the rickshaw-wallahs to charge the correct fare. It seemed to directly impact the net amount that they would take home. Frankly, I cannot fathom this and I'll need someone to do the explaining here. I did try and speak to the rickshaw-wallahs themselves to see what were their views but the response was mostly guarded. I did learn a few things though:

Me: Kuch faayda ha Jugnoo ka? (Is the app useful?)
Rickshaw-wallah (R): ... (disinterested) Haa ...

Me: Kiraya toh kam hua hai ... (But the fare seems to have reduced)
R: ... (shrugs shoulder) ...

Me: Kaisa chalta hai fir? (How do you manage then?)
R: Ho jaata hai ... (We manage ...)

Me: Aur internet?
R: 330 ke do recharge lagte hai mahine ke (Two recharge of Rs. 330 per month for the internet)

At this moment we reach the hostel where I alight . My thought train is now occupied by that stupid "Free Basics" debate ... Free internet for these guys anyone?

Jugnoo fleets (?)

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P.S.:

I used Jugnoo at Vadodara just before publishing this. A cumulative saving of more than 50%, and the drivers were generally happy too.

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© One Of The Road

Friday, 12 February 2016

Mount Abu - A Quickie Visit

Introduction

Mount Abu was the first stop of my backpacking trip through Mewar and Hadoti regions of Rajasthan, done in the second week of January 2016. Mount Abu was never in my initial scheme of things, but it made through on the basis of train ticket availability. I expected Mount Abu to be like any regular hill-station, albeit with a distinctive Gujrati flavour and it did not disappoint. My plan was to reach Mount Abu by lunch-time, take a hike in the evening, explore the place the next day and depart for Udaipur.

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Getting There

I took the 19065 Bandra - Bhagat Ki Kothi express on Friday night - almost Saturday midnight. The train reached Ahmedabad with a 30 minute delay the next morning and held on to it as it negotiated the single-line after that till Abu Road. The train reached Abu Road by 1300 hrs.

On the map

From Abu Road, I took a Rs. 50 shared cab ride till Mount Abu. The cab was filled with local college students out to have a good evening. For a Rs. 100 extra, the cab could also be converted to a 'tourist cab' for local site-seeing. The cab dropped us near the bus station. My first task after getting down was to check for an evening bus to Udaipur. There's only one bus that leaves at 1530 hrs and is operated by Gujrat Travels. I booked a seat for Rs. 250 for the 4 hour journey.

One can also rent a motorbike for Rs. 200 onwards for site-seeing at Abu.

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Accommodation

Mount Abu, at Rs. 400, was the costliest place I stayed in through-out my trip. It was also the stupidest Rs. 400 I'd ever spent in a trip (I hope to keep it that way).

I'd checked in to the Youth Hostel & Tourist Lodge affiliated to the YHAI. It was not an advance booking, but I must say, I got lazy here. The room was pretty much OK, but hot water was dependent on solar power and only till 10 in the morning; which in the chilling cold of Mount Abu was a spectacularly bad idea. The location too did not add any charm to the place. I also did the mistake of assuming a 24 hour checkout, which actually turned out to be at 9am (6 hours before my bus departure).

Hill-stations and flowers ... an expected combination

Anyway, this is one of the places to avoid at Mount Abu. You can probably spend some 100-200 bucks extra for a better-than-decent place in Mount Abu.

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Nakki Lake

Nakki lake is the de-facto activity centre of Mount Abu proper. Loads of tourists and loads of touristy things to do.  This was my first stop for the evening.

The Nakki Lake
The 'Toad Roack' can be seen in the background towards left

Clock Tower by the lake

Got a bit off-track and sighted this beauty

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Bailey's (Valley's?) Walk and Sunset Point.

Bailey's Walk starts at the far end of the Nakki Lake, goes farther from Mount Abu and winds its way back to the Sunset Point of Mount Abu. The trail passes through patches of dense vegetation. There is a constant threat of bears crossing certain sections of the trail and hence a solo hike is not recommended. I was joined by two gentlemen working with the Bramha Kumari's Mission who were out for a small hike. They pointed out sections where they had encountered bears in the past. We parted ways near the Sunset Point.

The Bailey's Walk begins here ... or is it Valley's walk?

The initial ascent

The Sunset Point, as the name suggests is a place with a steep fall facing west from where one can see the sun setting all the way down to the horizon. There are a total of three sunset points on Mount Abu and this is the oldest and also the most crowded. Vehicles are not allowed all the way to the point, but these does not deter the tourists as options like baba-gaadi (hand-pushed wagon) and horse-rides are available.

The trail continues

I managed to find one isolated corner to view the sunset. The view was partially obstructed by a few trees, but the relative isolation from the throngs was refreshing. A chilling breeze started as the sun went down the horizon, rendering a possibility of a extended stay fruitless.

The sun - it sets

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Tarmac Hiking

Post sunset, I met up a contact from Couchsurfing and we decided to explore some trails near the Arbuda Devi Temple the next day. I left the hotel at 0800 hrs, had my breakfast and met up with him at about 0930 hrs. We started on foot to the Arbuda Devi Temple area, but halfway I got a call from my hotel for checking out - I was blissfully unaware of the checkout time till then. By the time I trudged back to the hotel, checked out and started the walk again it was 1115 hrs.

Random shot from the road ...

Since we both had to catch the 1530 hrs. bus to Udaipur, we dropped the plan for the hike and decided to walk up to the Dilwara Temples instead. It was a hike for sure, through the undulating terrain, but on a tarmac road.

A church by the road

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Dilwara Temples

This place opens for tourists at noon sharp. Shorts and assorted ultra-casual clothing is prohibited. Photography is prohibited too.

What lies inside the almost-commonplace entry gate is a sight to behold. The temples feature some of the most amazing sculptures in India, carved delicately on equally fragile pieces of marble. Mere words cannot describe this place.

The only pic I could capture - does not do any justice

Fun fact: Dilwara Temple is actually a complex made up of multiple smaller temples. The main temple, it is claimed, was constructed in 11th Century AD for a sum of Rs. 11 crore (Rs. 110 million). That, after inflation adjustment, would probably exceed the present GDP of the entire country!!!

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Trevor's Tank

Trevor's Tank is a protected forest in Mount Abu that in general all of Mount Abu dismisses as a bore. We could've hiked there, but were short of time. We reached the place, walked about the periphery and then started the return hike to our hotels.

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Food

I started off with a light and fast lunch of paav-bhaaji at the Arbuda Restaurant. The food was OK here. Sher-E-Punjab is a good place for non-veg food - tried and tested. Cafe Shikibo has good coffee and free wifi. The best breakfast, I believe, is the ubiquitous omelette freshly made and sold on the road-side stalls.

Savouring the good butter-chicken at Sher-E-Punjab was my last 'activity' at Mount Abu.

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Parting Shot

I was a bit pressed for time at Mount Abu and hence could not cover some good places like the Arbuda Devi Mandir, Guru Shikhar and Bramha Kumari's Mission. That and some hiking trails in the area will keep the possibility of a another visit open for me.

And the canopies too ...

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Other Places In Rajasthan

Udaipur || Chittaurgarh || Bundi || Badoli || Jhalawar

© One Of The Road

Sunday, 7 February 2016

A Misadventure In Lonar

Introduction

I had high expectations from this trip of Lonar. For starters, Lonar is Maharastra's - and also India's - only hyper-velocity meteorite impact crater lake. The circular crater has a diameter of about 1.8km and the lake in the middle has some highly alkaline water. The crater - like all things celestial - has been given some amount of importance in the Hindu mythos which can be judged by the number of temples that surround the lake - 27 in all.

The Lonar Crater and Lake

This trip was done around the second weekend of September, 2015. That's almost near the end of monsoon. Tejal had joined me for this trip. The plan was to reach Lonar via Jalna, spend the day there, then cover Sindkhed Raja - birthplace of Shivaji's mother, Jijabai - the next day and return to Mumbai via Jalna.

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Trip Starts

The 17057 Devgiri Express departs Mumbai at 2110 hrs everyday and reaches Jalna by 0500 hrs. This train is usually full and ends up bearing quite a lot of unreserved passengers.

There's an early morning Aurangabad-Akola bus that connects Jalna and Lonar. It departs from Jalna at about 0600 hrs. and drops off at Lonar by 0800 hrs. The fare is nearly Rs. 150.

A tourist-map at the bus station

The actual map

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The Accommodation Hunt

At a first glance, Lonar appears like any slow-moving Indian village; and it is largely true. One would expect some hustle due to the proximity of the lake, but the place simply does not get the expected number of tourists.

The Krishna Lodge near the bus stand is supposed to be a decent place to stay. The other option - and chosen by most tourists - is the MTDC next to the lake, about 1 km south-west from the bus stand. Another option is the PWD guest house. The old guest house is located bang on the eastern arc of the crater rim, but was under maintenance due to a broken water tank. The newer one is close by. These can, however, only be booked by writing a letter to the PWD office in Buldhana.

Where did we stay? Well, we did not stay in Lonar after all.

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The Lonar Crater Lake - Our Trip

After reaching Lonar, we straight up went to the MTDC. The place was full, but the guy at the reception kindly spared us a room to freshen up. The PWD, as expected, did not entertain us without the letter from Buldhana office.

We decided to skip the accommodation search and check the Crater Lake first. One of the paths to descend to the lake starts from the old PWD guest house. The path is mostly gravel and descends with switchbacks for about 150 feet till it levels our near a set of temple in varied stages of dilapidation.

The gravel path begins
The white speck at the far end is the Kamaljamata Temple

There are 27 temples in the crater that surround the lake. A few of these have a documented history. This documentation is available in guidebooks, but none of the temples actually even bear a name-plate. Information about the temples and the lake composition can be found in the Wikipedia page.

The first temple appears

And then another

The next one is mostly ruined

This might be the Ram Temple

The crater around the lake is densely forested and a broad trail runs around the lake through this forest. The forest has a decent population of langoors and some birds, which I fail to identify. There are quite a few peculiar insects as well.

The trail through the forest

This temple has bats

The lake, however, is highly alkaline and constantly spews an odor similar to that of Hydrogen Sulphide (H2S) - also knows as the odor of rotting eggs. There is no 'regular' life to be observed in the lake. The langoors and the birds do venture close to the water, but never touch the water. The forest masks most of the odor, but once one ventures close to the water, it seems impossible to stay there for more than a few minutes.

The over-tranquil lake

Tigers though, seem to have a good time

We completed half of the 6km circumference walk around the lake, a little beyond the Kamaljamata Temple, when the trail seemed to disappear in the forest. We decided to turn around, and since the odor had started making us feel queasy, we decided to abort Lonar altogether. In our haste, we skipped a few important places like the Daityasudan Temple which were actually located a bit away from the water.

Tower next to the Kamaljamata Temple

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What Next?

There was a slight drizzle by the time we left the crater at 1430 hrs. We decided to skip Sindkhed Raja too, and head straight for Aurangabad. We eventually left Lonar at 1530 hrs in a bus that dropped us at Sultanpur. From there it was another bus ride of about 3 hours to Aurangabad. We had missed most of our objectives of this trip, but the upside was that we would be in Aurangabad with a day to spare and could make an attempt for Ajanta caves, Ellora caves or Deogiri-Daulatabad.

An overcast goodbye to Lonar

Also, it happened that some insect bit Tejal on her ankle during our walk around the lake. The harmless looking prick, later transformed to a very ugly infection.

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Queer Observations

There was something queer about Lonar. Throughout our time near Lonar and Sultanpur, we came across men in groups of three. And none - except one - of the groups we met were remotely friendly. The group at Sultanpur appeared to be downright hostile asking what we were up to in these back country areas. Also, we realized that Tejal was the only visible female in and around the crater at that time. So it was immediately decided that my pen-knife belonged in by hand and not in my bag.

Another observation was the apparent lack of Marathi, even though this area is the geographical centre of Maharashtra. Not saying that the Hindi/Urdu was chaste either.

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Parting Shot

I'll probably be back in Lonar sometime in the future to check on the places that we missed. Anyway, it is a beautiful place to set up a camp. I'll just have to be better prepared though.

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Other Places Nearby

Daulatabad-Deogiri 

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© One Of The Road