India

Trips to India:

- Gujarat, South Rajasthan and Mumbai, February 2013

- Ladakh, July-August 2011

- Kerala, southern Karnataka and a bit of Tamil Nadu, February 2010

- Himachal Pradesh, August 2008

[scroll down for earlier trip reports]

Gujarat, South Rajasthan and Mumbai, February 2013 (20 days)

Route:

Mumbai – Junagadh – Sasan Gir – Diu – Palitana – Ahmedabad – Mount Abu – Udaipur (day trips to Kumbalgarh/Ranakpur and Chittorgarh) – Mumbai

Transport:

Trains for long distance. We booked tickets on-line in advance via Cleartrip (http://www.cleartrip.com/). Booking in advance is crucial, as tickets get sold out on most routes several weeks in advance. We even booked some backup tickets to be flexible in case of a flight  delay or a change of plans, which we then cancelled, as cancellation charges are quite low. For last minute bookings, there is also a batch of Tatkal tickets which are released a few days before departure and sold at a higher price.

Since early 2012 setting an account from abroad is not as straightforward as before, as an Indian mobile phone number is required. There is a way around it by e-mailing the IRCTC customer service and requesting the mobile password via e-mail. The whole process is explained here:

http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#book – from outside (please copy and paste into your browser, it does not work as a direct link)

and here:

http://www.indiamike.com/india-articles/setting-up-your-irctc-and-cleartrip-accounts-for-buying-indian-railways-tickets-from-abroad

I managed it quite easily and got my password e-mailed from the IRCTC within a day or so.

For checking trains, prices and availability I found http://erail.in/ to be most user-friendly and comprehensive, although Cleartrip website is also useful. For railway buffs, here’s the official website, quite confusing but ultimately has all important information: http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/

For first-timers, a useful introduction into Indian railways is found here:

http://www.indiamike.com/india-articles/india-railways-and-the-indian-train

http://www.indiamike.com/india-articles/indian-railways-rac-and-indian-railways-waitlists

Buses for shorter distance. We found state buses in Gujarat quite easy to use and not particularly crowded – we always managed to get seats. Tickets on state buses in Gujarat are bought on the bus. Schedules can be found here: http://www.gsrtc.in/site/ but the site apparently does not include all local buses. For longer trips, trains are much more comfortable, as buses are quite run down and roads often bumpy.

Site for local buses in Rajasthan: http://rsrtc.rajasthan.gov.in/ We only used them once on a short distance, so cannot give any opinion.

There are also private buses in most places, a bit more expensive but more comfortable than regular state buses. We used them once in Rajasthan.

Changing money was a bit hit and miss on this trip. We found no place to change money on a Sunday in Mumbai (Fort and Colaba area). In Junagadh (a bank) and Diu (a moneychanger) rates offered were only slightly better than costs of using an ATM. The only place we found much better rates than ATM conversion rates was in Udaipur, at a moneychanger in a touristy area between the Jagdish Temple and the lake.

Guidebooks: we used chapters from both latest Lonely Planet (2012) and 2010 Rough Guide and this time RG was much better. Lonely Planet has lost much with its latest changes – city maps are much less readable than before and we found the it much less practical than previous editions.

Malaria prophylaxis: Gujarat is marked as high-risk area on NHS travel advice maps, so we duly took malarone pills. However, the only place with many mosquitoes during our trip was Mumbai airport (literally infested) and we saw just a few mosquitoes in Diu but not a single one in Gujarat.

We used local Odomos cream as mosquito repellent, available at almost every shop.

Route:

Mumbai

We only stayed in Mumbai for one day at the beginning and at the end of our trip. It was just a scratch on the surface, as the city is fascinating, with plenty of interesting places to explore.

Mumbai Airport: one of the worst airports we ever visited. Bad organisation, huge queues to both immigration and security control. We arrived more than 3 hours in advance for our flight home and barely made it in time. The airport, including inside terminal buildings, has also a serious mosquito problem – little suckers were almost everywhere, including inside the plane on our flight back. It is a good idea to use a lot of mosquito repellent before going to the airport to have a small-sized container of repellent on the plane.

Transport from the airport: we took a pre-paid taxi from the official taxi booth, on the left side just before the exit from the arrivals terminal. Cost: 750 Rs to SBS Road in Fort, near Victoria (Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus.

Sleeping: we stayed at Travellers’ Inn in Fort (Adi Marzban Path, SBS Road, within walking distance to Victoria Terminus). Priced 1350 Rs for a small double room with ensuite bathroom, very clean. Free wi-fi. The place is small and they were quite busy, so booking ahead was a good idea (it is possible to book via agoda.com, with a bit higher price, ca. 1500 Rs). Website http://www.hoteltravellersinn.co/ (warning: you can come across their false website under the same address ending with “co.in”, with much higher prices and redirecting to another hotel for booking). On departure they happily arranged a taxi to the airport for us for 550 or 600 Rs.

Getting to and from railway stations: we left Mumbai from Mumbai Central station, a 100 Rs taxi ride from Travellers’ Inn. On our way back we arrived to Bandra Terminus, much farther from the centre. As we arrived at ca 2 p.m., out of rush hour, we decided to take Mumbai’s notorious suburban train to Churchgate near Fort. We needed to walk ca. 15 minutes from Bandra railway station to the nearest suburban train station. The train was not crowded at all. From Churchgate station it was a 40 Rs taxi ride to Travellers’ Inn.

Getting around in Mumbai: Fort area is very walkable and best covered on foot. We took a few bus rides in Colaba – not so easy to figure out, as bus numbers are in Marathi. Autorickshaws are not allowed in downtown Mumbai (south of Mahim creek), so cabbies rule. We took some taxi rides and the drivers were always equipped with electronic meters and willing to use it. We found drivers of older Ambassador cars more trustworthy than cabbies in newer cars.

We really enjoyed Fort area within walking distance of Travellers’ Inn. Wide walkable streets, usually without much traffic, some greenery, a lot of nice heritage architecture, some interesting spots, in particular related to the Parsi (Irani) minority. There are two Parsi fire temples (called “agiary”) in the area, sadly closed for non-Parsis. There are also a few Irani cafes left in Fort. Cafe Universal, one of them which went upmarket, is just on the street corner near Travellers’ Inn. We enjoyed its laid-back atmosphere, nice Art Deco design and wide windows open on the street. Quite pricey by Indian standards – beers for 220-250 Rs, meals from 200 Rs up. Later we learnt that it was a less famous sister property of Leopold’s in Colaba.

On our way back in Mumbai we visited Elephanta Island. Ferries depart from near Gateway of India. Tickets were in the 120-150 range for return trip, getting to the island takes ca. 1 hr. It is worth paying a few rupees more for the “deluxe” one which is much more comfortable and better for views.

Entry into Elephanta caves was 250 Rs (foreigner price). For anybody with even minimal interest in Asian art and culture history the caves are an absolute must-see, we found them by no way overrated, even if we usually prefer “living” monuments to archaeological sites. The guys at the ticket counter apparently run some kind of racket with the ticket checkers, collecting whole tickets (instead of only the control coupon) from visitors in order to resell them. We insisted on having our tickets back and they were extremely reluctant but finally handed them back to us.

Mumbai – Junagadh

The most useful train for reaching places in Saurashtra, Gujarat directly from Mumbai is the daily Saurashtra Mail (schedules and prices on http://erail.in/, we booked it much in advance via http://www.cleartrip.com/). The train is split in Rajkot, with one part going to Veraval via Junagadh, another one to Okha via Jamnagar and Dwarka. If there are no tickets to the farther destination, it is worth checking whether there are places to Rajkot and then separately from Rajkot to the destination.

Junagadh

A very friendly and picturesque place, with some fantasy-like architecture resulting from fascination of the local maharaja with neo-Gothic Victorian style mixed with Indian and other oriental elements.

We stayed at Relief hotel (http://www.reliefhotel.com/), a short rickshaw ride or maybe 20 minutes walk from both bus and train stations. 650 Rs for a decent double with bathroom, there were also smaller rooms for 500 Rs. The manager is incredibly helpful and will happily provide any useful information you would need for visiting Junagadh and surroundings. Hotel restaurant did not work at the time of our visit (but the manager guided us to a very good place nearby), wi-fi was planned in a short time.

A definite highlight of the visit to Junagadh was climbing Girnar Hill with its Jain and Hindu temples. There are stairs to the very top of ca. 1100 m, Gujarat’s highest point (Girnar Kaleti, the starting point, is below 200 m), so the hike is quite punishing for the legs. Starting early (7.30 a.m. at the latest) is definitely a good idea, as the sun gets scorching afterwards. Rickshaw ride from Relief to Girnar Kaleti was 100 Rs. The owner of Relief hotel warned us against having any food along the trail on the mountain and he was probably right, as there was no clean water available anywhere on the path. Bottled water, soft drinks and packaged snacks are available all along the way.

Junagadh – Sasan Gir

There are GSRTC buses every 1 hr or so, 30 Rs, ca. 1,5 hrs. We took one at 10 a.m. and it was not crowded. There is also one passenger train (unreserved class only) at 07.15 a.m. (exact schedule on http://erail.in/). As we learned later, the railway goes directly through Gir Forest and with some dose of luck it should be well possible to spot a lion from the train. Actually, the lion we saw on our safari in Sasan Gir was maybe 100 meters from the railway track.

Sasan Gir – hic sunt leones

An otherwise nondescript village which is a gateway to Gir Forest, the last place in the world with wild Asiatic lions. As a backgrounder, it is worth to see a BBC documentary “Last Lions of India” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEL2f90L_kY), which is also shown daily at the park office.

On arrival we were met by Nitin Ratanghayara, a local guy running a small guesthouse in his home. The owner of Relief hotel in Junagadh can contact him in advance, alternatively Nitin’s e-mail is ratanghayaranitin [at] yahoo.com. He seems to know all the strings, helped us with safari booking, and – most important – found other foreign travellers to share the safari cost. He seems to do it quite routinely, so if not in a group and intending to share the cost, it is definitely a good idea to look for Nitin. He does not charge anything for his help and his guesthouse is decently priced (400 Rs for an acceptable double room + 100 Rs per person per all-you-can-eat meal).

Safari details: it is booked at Sinh Sadan lodge in Sasan Gir. It can be booked a day in advance (at 5-6 p.m. for the next morning) or directly before starting. Despite a limited number of vehicles being allowed for each safari, foreigners should have no problems with booking, as paying much more, they enjoy unofficial priority. Safari timings are 06.30 a.m., 09.30 a.m. and another time in the afternoon (I don’t remember exact time). The first one at 06.30 is apparently best for seeing lions.

The costs were as following (for foreigners, Indian nationals pay considerably less):

2000 Rs for permit for a group up 4 persons, 2500 Rs if the group size is 5-6 persons, to be shared among the group

1000 Rs for the jeep (or ‘gypsy’), to be shared among the group

150 Rs for the guide, to be shared among the group

500 Rs photography fee for EACH camera above 7 megapixels.

Permits are valid for one safari only. I am not sure about the photography fees but it’s probably the same. Altogether it is not prohibitively expensive if you find other foreigners to share a gypsy. It is not possible to share a vehicle with Indian tourists as in such case Indians would be charged according to foreigner rates. Weird but so it is.

Most important – we saw a lion! A big male walked within maybe 20 meters of our jeep. It is far from certain – our companions took altogether 3 safaris and had 2 sightings, one of them a lioness from very far, a kilometer or so. We can consider ourselves very lucky, as we took only one safari.

It is also apparently easy to spot crocodiles while walking along the river on the northern outskirts of the village but this time we were not lucky. Having read about a crocodile breeding centre in Sasan Gir, we asked around and were directed by the locals to a glass pavilion inside a camping ground just right (east) of Sinh Sadan, with a few small reptiles inside. Afterwards I checked on Google Earth and there seems to be some sort of bigger structure deeper inside the camping ground, so probably we missed the proper breeding centre.

Download: [Sasan Gir train schedule]

Sasan Gir – Diu

The early morning safari ended just in time for us to grab our bags and catch the 09.57 a.m. train to Delvada (ca. 3,5 hrs, 20 Rs). There are also some buses to nearby Una later during the day, so getting from Sasan Gir to Diu is easy. From Delvada we took a rickshaw to Diu bus stand for 150 Rs.

Diu

A very pleasant place to chill out for a couple of days. Some interesting Portuguese-Indian cultural mix, slow pace, a few beaches (but not really a swimming place) and a welcome oasis in the middle of prohibition-parched Gujarat. Because of the last element we were initially a bit apprehensive before visiting on a weekend, but it the weekend crowds of Gujarati visitors turned out to be not so big and much more sober than expected.

We stayed in Herança Goesa, a family-run guesthouse listed in all the guidebooks. Every word of praise is justified – the rooms are spotless, ours came with a balcony with nice view, and the price was very reasonable (a negotiable 700 Rs per double). In addition to English, the hosts speak excellent Portuguese.

We tried some places for food. O’Coqueiro near our guesthouse was OK but we found Apana restaurant on Fort Rd at the waterfront the best place.

On one day we rented bicycles from a repair shop close to the mosque in Diu bazaar area (80 Rs per day) and rode to Vanakbara, a fishing village on the opposite end of Diu island, some 15 kms from Diu town. Probably most interesting: a bit south of Vanakbara village (accessible by taking a road to the left just before entering proper village) there was a boat yard with wooden fishing boats being built by traditional methods.

Diu to Palitana

We took a 9 a.m. bus from Diu to Talaja (bus destination is Bhavnagar), 5,5 hrs, ca. 80 Rs.

Download: [Diu bus schedule]

There are many more buses from Una if you miss the last one from Diu. In Talaja we had to wait ca. 1hr for a local bus to Palitana (1,5 hrs). Altogether getting from Diu to Palitana took 8 hrs of quite bumpy bus rides and after arrival and checking in we still had some time for a late afternoon walk from our hotel across the bridge into the center of Palitana.

Palitana

We stayed in Hotel Shravak just opposite the bus station. It was basic and rather gloomy but OK for one night. 450 Rs for a large double with bathroom. Staying for one night is enough, as there are onwards buses to Ahmedabad every hour in the afternoon. We had to check out in the morning but the receptionist stored our luggage until we were back from Shatrunjaya.

The main if not the only reason of our stop in Palitana was visiting Shatrunjaya, the sacred Jain temple-hill above Palitana. The stairs uphill were a 50 Rs rickshaw ride from the bus stand and Hotel Shravak. Entry is free but there is a photography fee of 100 Rs, paid at a booth to the left from the starting point of the stairs. The climb uphill is much shorter and far less spectacular than to Girnar Hill near Junagadh but there are much more temples to visit on the top, so a visit to Shatrunjaya takes most part of the day. Again, it is very recommended to start at dawn, as the sun becomes unbearable later on. Contrary to what some guidebooks say, nobody objects to having bottled water on the hike uphill and in the temples. It’s definitely needed, as the sun was scorching. All along the path uphill there are no food and drink stalls, only small kiosks offering drinking water from big tanks (we did not risk it).

Palitana – Ahmedabad

State bus, departures every hour in the afternoon, 5,5 hrs, ca. 120 Rs.

Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad turned out to be a very interesting city and definitely worth staying a couple of days. As we stayed only one full day (two nights), we visited only the old town, exploring its fascinating mosques, Sufi shrines, bazaars and semi-enclosed neighbourhoods called “pols”. While arriving by bus we also saw some ultra-modern and rich-looking districts with glitzy malls and posh cafes but they were quite far from the old centre.

Accommodation: we stayed in Hotel Volga (http://www.hotelvolga.in/) in Lal Darwaja area in the centre. It attempts without much success to be a half-smart “business-class” place. Ca. 950 Rs for a double with bathroom, decent-looking but it turned out that there were cockroaches in the room. On leaving we were unpleasantly surprised by an additional charge for wi-fi which did not work properly. Not recommended, there are several other decent-looking places in the close neighbourhood.

Ahmedabad – Mount Abu

We took a train from Ahmedabad to Abu Road (ca. 4hrs, booked much in advance via Cleartrip schedules and prices on http://erail.in/) and continued by a local bus to Mt Abu (1 hr, ca. 20 Rs).

In Mt Abu we stayed at Shri Ganesh hotel, a short walk from the centre. The managers were friendly and helpful but the room was quite basic – small and musty, with some humidity on the walls. Priced at 650 Rs per double with bathroom. Hot water available on request.

Mt Abu was OK for a short stay but nothing very special. It would be great to hike in the hills around the town but all the guidebooks warn against the danger of assaults or muggings in less-frequented places and the hotel owner confirmed that it was an issue. No guided walks were available for the day we were there. It was definitely worth to visit Delwara Jain temple, a 100 Rs rickshaw ride uphill from the town centre, with even more exquisite carvings than those in Palitana.

Mt Abu – Udaipur

Private bus, booked at Gujarat Travels agency on previous afternoon, departure 8.30 a.m., 220 Rs, 5 hrs.

Udaipur

First impression: Udaipur was very touristy! Compared to almost tourist-free Gujarat, there were literally hordes of tourists around the lake and the area near Jagdish temple was full of souvenir shops and similar places. Anyway, the town is really charming and real life in full coulours of Rajasthan was always just a short walk away. Shopping for spices in the bazaar area near Hathi Pol is especially recommended, as is getting lost in narrow streets of the old town.

On arrival in Udaipur we took a rickshaw to Jagdish temple and walked across the footbridge to look for accommodation in the Hanuman Ghat area. It turned out to be a perfect idea, as the area was much more peaceful and relaxed (even if still touristy) than the main tourist spot between Jagdish temple and the lake. We stayed in Panorama Hotel (http://www.panoramaguesthouse.in/) and really loved the place – 900 Rs for a clean comfortable double room with bathroom, with paintings on the walls, balcony and – most important – full spectacular view of the Lake Pichola and the City Palace. There is a rooftop restaurant with even more spectacular views. We also had some meals at the nearby Dream Heaven which seems a similar place, as regards charm, views and standard.

One place to be avoided in this area is Hanuman Ghat Hotel. On a Saturday night its unscrupulous owner threw an incredibly loud disco party on the roof, flooding half of the town with thumping noise. In Panorama some 100 meters away we had to shout to hear each other.

Day-trips fro Udaipur

We made two trips from Udaipur by car with driver, hired via the reception of Panorama:

-          Kumbalgarh and Ranakpur, 1600 Rs. Entry to Kumbalgarh Fort was 100 Rs. Only part of the fort can be visited on a day visit but it gives a good idea of the whole and almost the whole fort can be seen from the citadel.

-          Chittaurgarh, 1800 Rs. Entry to the fort was 100 Rs. The fort is very large with sights spread across the whole area, so our driver drove us around stopping at the sights.

Udaipur – Mumbai

By train, Udaipur Bandra SF Express, schedules and prices on http://erail.in/.

_______________________________________________________

Ladakh, July-August 2011

time – 1 month

1. General

Transport in Ladakh.

Bus: we found bus connections less frequent and reliable than in Himachal Pradesh. Most connections are served by private buses from the Leh bus stand with very variable schedules. There were no schedules for private buses at the bus stand and information on departure times available at the tourist information office was not correct. For example, there was no bus to Hemis on Sundays contrary to what they stated. For most frequent destinations like Shey/Thikse, Phyang or places along the Kargil-bound road we just came to the bus stand in the morning, did a couple of rounds asking the drivers and passengers about their destinations and took the first available bus. More remote villages (like those in Nubra valley or Korzok) are served by JKRTC public buses but the frequency is very rare – from one daily to one every 10 days (to Korzok).

Information on buses is definitely one thing that could be improved without much cost and with possible major benefit for Ladakh as a tourist-friendly destination.

Taxi: more convenient but quite expensive. Rates are fixed by the Leh Taxi Union and negotiations with every driver or agency start with a consultation of the ‘holy book’ with rates for all destinations. (The 2011-12 one is available at http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/buses-taxis-india-f38/leh-taxi-union-rates-2011-12-a-t35123/, and any updates will probably be posted on the BMCTouring forum as well). Most agencies in Leh would easily find people to share a jeep to popular destinations (e.g. Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake, Tso Moriri), so the cost can be shared between up to 6 persons. I’ve also heard that drivers approached individually are usually willing to give discounts of ca. 10% of the taxi union rate.

Around Leh: There are no autorickshaws in Leh, so it’s either walking (usually fairly pleasant), irregular and unreliable bus or the relatively expensive taxi.

Hitch-hiking: very easy on the main road along the Indus Valley. Each time we tried, one of the first passing trucks gave us a lift. More difficult on side roads, as there are less vehicles and they tend to be full. We tried to hitch-hike from Alchi but had to give up after waiting for almost 2 hrs. It is customary to offer the driver around the equivalent of the bus fare. In our case, most drivers didn’t want to accept money.

Restricted areas

Trips to the Khardung La & Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso, Tso Moriri and Dha and Hanu area require an Inner Line Permit. It is easily obtainable in Leh in one day, even on Sundays but not on national holidays (e.g. 15 Aug). The easiest way is to let an agency do it – they charge usually 150 Rs for a 3-days permit, up to 250 Rs for 7-day one. It’s possible to get one permit covering all the restricted areas for multiple trips. An important thing to remember is making enough copies of the permit – in principle one copy has to be left on every checkpost.

Entering gompas

Almost all gompas welcome visitors, with an exception of some rooms with wrathful deities where entry of women is prohibited (in such case it’s always clearly marked in English). There are no specific requirements to be observed, except basic rules of respect (appropriate clothing and sensible behavior, not disturbing ceremonies etc.), taking off shoes and walking clockwise. Major gompas charge entrance fees but it’s always a reasonable amount, usually between 20 and 50 Rs. It is a good idea to carry a strong torchlight and a good description of the frescoes –there are many fascinating details which are quite easy to miss without it.

Some smaller gompas may be closed and if they have no permanent residents, there might be nobody with the key to open them.

Weather

Mostly sunny and clear skies. Sun protection was an absolute must! Up to 4000 meters it was quite warm, even hot during the day. There’s no much vegetation beyond villages on that altitude, so most paths were pretty dusty as well. Above ca. 4000 m the air was considerably fresher and landscape became greener.

Even if Ladakh is considered high altitude desert, with average precipitation comparable to Sahara, there were a few cloudy days and it rained for one full day and part of another during our stay of one month. It seems that the climate patterns are changing and monsoon clouds have spilled over into Ladakh more often during recent years. Some part of the mountains seemed to be clouded more often, in particular the Stok Kangri area. A couple of times higher slopes above ca. 4500 m, including Khardung La pass, were covered by fresh snow which then melted in less than one day.

Flash floods remain a risk – luckily there were none in 2011, but there was a catastrophic one in August 2010 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Leh_floods).

Books

There are some well-stocked bookshops in Leh. If you are a book-lover, you’d better have some spare capacity in your luggage.

Beer

Available at most restaurants for tourists and most tea tents at villages for ca. 100-150 Rs. There is also a liquor shop at the road to the airport in Leh but it’s quite inconveniently situated, a bit too far to walk.

Guidebooks

We have used the following:

J. Mattausch, Ladakh und Zanskar, Reise Know-How 2002 (in German, there is also a more recent edition). An extensive, very detailed guidebook, with a lot of information on art and cultural background but quite good on practical details as well. Very useful gompa descriptions. For those reading German – highly recommended! For those not reading German – lobby hard for an English translation :)

Ch. Loram, Trekking in Ladakh, Trailblazer 2004 – very useful for trekking, includes detailed descriptions and highly usable maps. Drawback – there’s no newer edition than 2004 and some trekking routes change (roads are being built, paths are being washed down in floods etc.).

R. Hellwich, Garhwal, Zanskar & Ladakh, Rother Wanderführer 2010 (in German). Includes descriptions of some hiking routes not covered by Trailblazer (including day walks) but probably Walking times are apparently calculated for the very fit and well-organized.

Lonely Planet India, Jammu and Kashmir chapter – almost useless.

Janet Rizvi, Ladakh. Crossroads of High Asia, Oxford University Press 1996. Not actually a guidebook but a very readable backgrounder on Ladakh’s history and culture. Includes a chapter with detailed descriptions of gompas – worth copying and taking on the trip.

Maps

Good maps of Ladakh are not easy to find. In Europe, probably the best (if not the only) decent maps available are those of Olizane (http://www.olizane.ch/) and of TerraQuest (http://www.terraquest.eu/en/Maps). Drawback – both are expensive (especially Olizane which includes several sheets) and the TerraQuest map is rather geared towards the needs of long-distance trekkers like those taking the trans-Zanskar trek, with less information on areas outside major trekking routes. We decided to look for some other options in India and were quite happy with the result: “Ladakh and Zanskar Trekking Map” by Milestone Books (http://www.milestoneguides.com/), available in Leh bookshops for the cover price of 395 Rs. It was not a wonder of cartography but quite decent, substantially better than any other maps available in Leh. Scale 1:175.000. Needless to say, Google Earth and Wikimapia are much more useful than any of the available maps for planning the trip.

Changing money

There’s nowhere to change money for decent rates at the Delhi airport – there’s no State Bank of India branch anymore and moneychangers offer outrageous rates. It’s better to use an ATM.

The best place to change money during our trip was Paharganj – rates offered by moneychangers there were very good, about the rates of http://www.xe.com/ minus perhaps 0,5 – 1 Rs per euro . Some of them charge a commission fee and some pay less for low-denomination US$ bills, so it’s better to ask before changing.

In Leh there were several places to change money in tourist areas – in some of them the rates were very bad, the better ones offered rates which were 1-2 Rs per 1 euro worse than Paharganj rates.

In Manali rates were a bit better than in Leh but still worse than in Delhi.

Recommended links

IndiaMike travel forum http://www.indiamike.com/

BMCTouring forum http://www.bcmtouring.com/forum/

Indostan.Ru http://www.indostan.ru/ – a Russian language on-line guide and travel forum. Quite good on practical details, including public bus connections.

2. Travel notes

Delhi

Delhi Airport has undergone a major renovation recently and is now truly world class. The drawback is that there is nowhere to change money for decent rates anymore. So now it’s just as at most other airports around the world – it’s better to use an ATM or change a low amount just for getting into the city.

Getting into the city – there are prepaid taxi booths (price to Paharganj ca. 300-350 Rs, see more on using them in my 2008 report) and a brand new Airport Express metro link (http://www.delhiairportexpress.com/) going every 20 minutes straight to New Delhi metro station. Fast, clean and efficient. Cost 80 Rs per person.  The only drawback – in order to reach Paharganj we needed to cross the New Delhi Railway Station – pretty crowded, chaotic and requires luggage screening (with a queue).

We stayed in Star Paradise in Paharganj. The hotel has much deteriorated since our previous stay in 2008 – there were cockroaches in the room and AC was barely working. Price: 900 Rs per double, ensuite bathroom.

Delhi to Leh

We took a Kingfisher flight, booked on their website (no problems with international credit card), ca. 3 months before. Price for one way flight: ca. 3500 Rs. It’s better to book in advance as it increases to more than 10.000 Rs if booked a few days in advance. Views on the flight are fabulous, trying to secure a window seat is a good idea.

[added in 2012: since some time Kingfisher flights are frequently cancelled because of financial difficulties of the airline.]

Leh Airport to Alchi

We decided not to take chances with altitude sickness and instead of going to Leh (alt. ca. 3500 m) took a taxi from the airport directly to Alchi (alt. ca. 3100 m). Price: 1400 Rs one way, with stops at the Pathar Sahib Gurudwara (http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Gurdwara_Pathar_Sahib), Magnetic Hill and Basgo gompa. Sadly, Basgo gompa was closed and there was nobody around to open it. Going straight to Alchi turned out to be a good idea – I felt a bit dizzy during the first day in Alchi, it could have been much worse in Leh.

Alchi & Saspol

Alchi turned out to be a lively village, quite touristy but nevertheless nice. There are several guesthouses and eateries in the village. We stayed in Potala guesthouse right above the main ‘square’ – 400 Rs for a large, clean double with bathroom (sun-heated water, warm only at daytime). All eateries  were a bit more expensive than in Leh, we found Zimskhang restaurant to be the best among them.

For art & culture fans:  some explanation and pictures of Alchi amazing frescoes are provided here: http://www.univie.ac.at/itba/pages/sites/Alchi.html. An article shedding some light at the present situation of the monastery is available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Glimpses-of-the-Lost-World-of-Alchi.html. Photography of the frescoes is prohibited.

From Alchi we made a half-day trip to Saspol on the opposite side of Indus. It’s a ca. 6 km walk, quite pleasant (although under murderous sun) to the Indus bridge and uncomfortable for the last stretch along a narrow section of the main highway (we hitched a ride for the last 1-2 kms). Saspol is a large, nice village, with painted meditation caves on the slope above the village. The cave with most interesting frescoes is easy to recognize, as it’s the only one with painted entrance. The slope is greatly eroded, so the caves should be approached with utmost caution – a couple of visits by careless groups could easily damage them.

We have noticed only one guesthouse in Saspol, Alchi View Guesthouse on the main road, and there was nobody around when we wanted to have a look at it. There are also a couple of small shops in the village but no eateries.

Alchi to Leh

Our attempt to hitch-hike out of Alchi was unsuccessful and we found it a bit too far to walk to the main road in full sun with heavy backpacks, so finally we opted to wait for the bus. There are two buses daily – at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., 70 Rs, ca. 3 hrs.

Leh

The town was really full of tourists this summer! Because of its central location we came back to Leh several times during our Ladakh trip and explored the area. Some places were full but the number of guesthouses is so large that we never had problems finding a decent place for moderate price on arrival. We stayed in two places, both close to Fort Road:

- Yasmin Guesthouse (http://www.yasminladakh.com/hotel/). A short walk down from the Fort Road. If going from the center, turn left near the Tibetan refugee market, there’s a signpost there. Reasonably comfortable rooms but not very clean, nice garden. Price of a double room on the ground floor: 700 Rs (with ensuite bathroom). Rooms upstairs were more expensive and fully booked at all times. Advantage – 24 hrs hot water.

- Atisha Guesthouse, which we liked much more than Yasmin. On Malpak, a narrow lane in the Fort Road area. If going from the center turn right/uphill in the middle of Fort Road to the first lane right behind the bridge on a small creek, then walk past Irfan Guesthouse and Bimla Hotel. Ran by a nice local family who simply expanded their home to turn it into a guesthouse. Comfortable rooms, really impeccable cleanliness, tiled bathrooms. 500 Rs per double with ensuite bathroom. Rooms on lower floors are a bit dark, those at upper floor have a direct view of Leh castle and gompa. There’s no garden, only a nice common balcony on the highest floor. We were told that there would be hot water only until early afternoon but in fact warm showers were still possible at 9 p.m. or so.

Some recommendations in Leh:

Dzomsa – place which started with refilling water bottles with boiled water in order to reduce plastic rubbish (and continues to do that, for 7 Rs per litre) and developed to selling organic snacks, doing eco-laundry (good value), serving simple but delicious Ladakhi breakfast (on Fort Rd) and selling used books (on Zangsti Rd). They have 3 shops, on Fort Rd, Zangsti Rd and Changspa Rd.

Open Hand (http://www.openhand.in/) – Western-style cafe near Fort Rd. Good for espresso – probably the closest thing to the real stuff that you can get in Leh. Food was not so good value.

Agencies: there are many of them along Fort and Changspa Roads, arranging treks and jeep trips. We used 3 agencies during our stay and the one that seemed most trustworthy was Discovery Ladakh, ran by a former soldier, situated next door to Dzomsa, corner Zangsti and Upper Tukcha Road, a few steps from the smaller taxi stand on Zangsti Rd (not to be confused with main taxi stand on the beginning of Fort Rd).

Day trips from Leh

Phyang – easily reachable by a short bus ride, it’s just the next valley from Leh. That’s one of the easiest to reach places where you can see a gompa festival with chaam dances in summer months. Exact date varies each year but it can be googled. On our way back we visited Spituk Gompa, a short walk from the main road.

Thikse-Shey – the easiest trip to do by local buses (frequent connections every 30-60 minutes). We walked from Thikse to Shey, there is a side road going parallel to the main highway. Pleasant 1 hr walk on flat ground, some of it shaded by trees.

Sabu and walk back – we took a taxi to Sabu, in the next valley from Leh eastwards, for ca. 250 Rs (taxi union rate). The gompa was closed and there was nobody around to open it. We walked back to Leh – it’s a pleasant and quite beautiful walk of ca. 3 hrs across dry and barren landscape, crossing two low-lying passes, not described in the Trailblazer guidebook. From Sabu (ca. 3500 m) we entered the valley heading towards Leh (begins at 34.08.03 N, 77.37.21 E according to Google Earth) and continued up the valley for ca. 1 hr along a visible jeep track and later a path. Then we took the second side valley to the left/west, distinguishable by a rocky outcrop in the middle (34.08.55 N, 77.36.57 E) and after a short walk up the valley left it to climb a low pass on its left/east side (ca. 3800 m, 34.09.23 N, 77.36.47 E). From that pass we descended into the next valley and traversed it along a visible path, without losing altitude, to the next pass (ca. 3720 m, 34.09.36 N, 77.36.10 E) separating it from Leh. On that pass there’s a broad view of Leh and further path is just a steep descent towards the town.

Stok – went there by bus from Leh at ca. 9 a.m. The bus went to the upper part of the village, we walked down past the picturesque small gompa (again, there was nobody around with the key to open it) to the royal castle. Then we decided to walk down to Choglamsar, a Tibetan refugee village on the main road – it’s not that far, in ca. 30 minutes we did more than half of the distance before a passing driver gave us a lift. From Choglamsar we took a bus back to Leh.

Khardung La and downhill on a mountain bike – there’s a specialized agency on Zangsti Road called “Summer Holidays” (http://www.mtbladakh.com/) which organizes daily trips for 900 Rs per person. They brought us up Khardung La by car and from there we rode down by bike – the most spectacular bike ride in our lives. They were fully professional, the bikes were well maintained and had good brakes. A support team drove down behind the last bikers just in case a repair was needed. We liked it so much that we did it twice.

Inner Line Permit is needed to go up Khardung La. The agency arranges it on the previous day. And the pass is indeed very high. During our stay we saw it twice covered with fresh snow, once a couple of hours after we left it. An effort to walk to a small gompa some 20 meters above the pass left us out of breath after a couple of steps.

Two-days and longer trips from Leh

Nubra Valley – we chose the easiest option and shared a jeep between 5 persons, arranged at an agency in Leh. 2 day trip was ca. 6700 Rs per whole jeep (taxi union rate) + Inner Line Permit.

Our standard route covered Khardung La, Panamik and Sumur on the first day, overnight in Hunder, a camel ride near Hunder and Diskit on the second day. As an alternative, in a 2 days trip it is possible to go as far as Turtuk, a Muslim Balti village down the Shyok valley very close to the Line of Control, opened to tourism in 2010, but then it must be an incredibly hurried trip. The landscapes were totally spectacular, even for Ladakh standards, and the area is very interesting from the cultural point of view.

In Hunder there are several guesthouses charging anything between 500 and 1000 Rs per double and even an upmarket hotel. The best idea is to tell the driver to go the area below the gompa, there are most guesthouses there.

This trip made us very eager to come back to Nubra Valley in a less hurried way – we heard that there are shared minibuses from Leh to Diskit or Hunder for 300 Rs per person (one way), there is also a public bus once a week or so. Once in the valley, it is possible to move around by a combination of local buses, hitch-hiking and walking. On our next Ladakh trip we’ll definitely consider spending 5-6 days there.

Sham trek (Likir – Yangtang – Temisgam – Nurla)

We used descriptions and maps from the Trailblazer guide for the Sham trek and they were more than enough to find the way, which was quite obvious. There is a road parallel to the hiking path for most of this route (from Likir to Hemis Shukpachen) but there was almost no traffic on it and you couldn’t actually see it for most of the trek (the path takes a more direct route), so its existence doesn’t spoil the trek. The trek took us 3 nights, 2 days of actual walking. The whole trek is situated on the altitude between 3400 and 3900 m.

We took a bus from Leh to Likir at 9.30 a.m. (almost 3 hrs, 60 Rs) The bus went further west, so we had to get out at the bus stop on the main road and walk the remaining kilometer or so to Likir. Our initial plan was to visit the Likir Gompa and to continue to Yangthang on the same day but after visiting the gompa (a 1 hr hike up the valley from the main part of the village) we decided to overnight in Likir. It turned out to be a good decision, Likir is a calm, friendly place, very picturesque and seems quite affluent with its lively green fields and plenty of water canals carrying crystalline water. We liked it so much that we came back to spend two days there two weeks later. On our second visit we did a nice hike to the upper limits of the village (far beyond the gompa) and were lucky to find monks making a sand mandala in the gompa.

We stayed in Hotel Lhukhil (http://www.hotellhukhil.com/), a very comfortable place ran by a local family of thangka painters. Large clean rooms, with impeccable bathrooms (but hot water only in buckets). Rates were highly negotiable according to season and demand – their official tariffs were above 2000 Rs per double room including food (quite delicious) but we managed to negotiate a very considerable discount.

Next day we hiked via Sumdo (there was a tea-tent there) to Yangthang. Yangthang was another very picturesque place, much smaller and less affluent then Likir, situated on a small green promontory between two converging deep gorges. Several houses double as homestays, offering similar standard (we had a look at 3 or 4 of them). We paid 300 Rs per person for accommodation in Norbu GH, in very simple conditions, food included. No running water. There were also a few campsites and tea tents in the upper part of the village.

We tried to walk to Rizong Gompa downstream from Yangthang in the afternoon but the path described in the Trailblazer guide doesn’t exist anymore. Apparently it was washed away by 2010 floods. After realizing that a walk on the rough stream bottom would take much more than planned we gave it up. It seems that as of now, the most sensible option for reaching Rizong Gompa is going up from the main road in the Indus Valley.

Next day we walked from Yangthang to Hemis Shukpachen, where we stopped for an early lunch. Hemis Shukpachen is considerably bigger than Yangthang, there are several guesthouses there. After Hemis Shukpachen we continued for what is perhaps the most picturesque portion of the Sham trek, over two passes and traversing the upper part of an empty valley between them, to Ang. In Ang there are a few homestays and a tea tent. We continued down the valley to Temisgam where we wanted to stay for the night. It turned out that all accommodation in Temisgam was full because of the opening ceremony for a new stupa in the local gompa and the accompanying religious celebrations. We chose to walk down to Nurla, a village in the Indus valley, getting a lift from monks for a couple of kilometers. In Nurla village it turned out that we still had to walk a kilometer or so up along the main road. Just behind the bridge on the nullah crossing the main road, right above Indus, there was a “de-luxe” tent camp called Faryork Resort where we finally stayed for the night. Price after some negotiations: 1500 Rs per tent for two persons, with bathroom (hot water), dinner and breakfast included (the starting price was ca. 3500 Rs).

Lamayuru

From Nurla we hitch-hiked to Lamayuru in a truck driven by two friendly Kashmiris. In Lamayuru we stayed in Tharpaling Guesthouse on the main road, actually more of a homestay ran by a friendly local lady. Cost: 400 Rs per basic double room with bathroom (only cold water), 240 Rs for dinner, breakfast and drinking water for 2 persons.

In the Lamayuru gompa we had some trouble locating the Sengge-Lhakhang, which we finally found some 50 m below the main gompa complex, near back stairs leading to the village. Definitely worth the effort to locate it, it has very interesting frescoes of dancing skeletons.

Our initial plan was to do a day trip from Lamayuru to Wanla to see its gompa, taking a can there and walking back across the Prinkiti La. However, after the Sham trek, we didn’t feel enthusiastic into another long walk, so we opted for a car there and back. Unfortunately it turned out that there were no cars available in the village on that day, as everybody in Lamayuru was leaving for Temisgam for teachings of a major rinpoche. We had to give up and take a bus to Leh instead. After some waiting at the main road we caught a “de-luxe” Srinagar-Leh bus and were probably overcharged 250 Rs for the bumpy 5 or 6 hrs trip to Leh without a seat.

Pangong Tso

We chose to do a two days trip by shared jeep and it turned out to be a good idea. The distance (ca. 6 hrs one way) and state of the roads are such that doing it as a one day trip, although much touted in agencies in Leh, must be really bone breaking. Besides, the real attraction of Pangong was having a leisurely walk along the shore, seeing the play of clouds and sunlight on the opposite side, having a look at it very early in the morning.

Cost: ca. 6700 Rs shared between up to 6 persons (taxi union rate).

There are two interesting and undervisited monasteries in the valley going up Chang La on the road to Pangong Tso – Chemrey (well visible from the road) and Takthok (in the village of Sakti, ca. 5 kms off the road to Chang La). We visited Takthok and had a quick look at the festival on the gompa grounds.

There is no shortage of accommodation on the shores of Pangong Tso and, contrary to what you can read in some guidebooks, there are some budget options. Virtually all houses of the tiny village of Spangmik now function as homestays. We stayed in Gongma homestay, in the upper end of the village, for 200 Rs per person in a shared room and a small separate charge for food. Toilet and bathroom outside, with running water directly from the stream. The place is run by a friendly family – even in this “end of the world” kind of place all of them, including children, spoke communicable English!

A word of warning – this trip should be avoided in the first days after arrival to Leh. Spangmik lies on 4200 m. Spending a night on such altitude is best done after several nights on the altitude of Leh (ca. 3500 m) and enough acclimatization, otherwise it might be dangerous.

Leh – Tso Moriri – Keylong – Manali

We planned to get out of Ladakh overland and chose taking a jeep via Tso Moriri which is one of the more expensive options but offers unparalleled scenery. It took three days, cost 21.000 Rs (taxi union rate), shared between six persons. We arranged the jeep via the Discovery Ladakh agency – the owner seemed really trustworthy, carefully inquired about road conditions before arranging the trip (there were a couple of days of bad weather before) and did not charge us for the permit.

The first day took us up the Indus valley and then in Mahe south towards Tso Moriri. We reached Tso Moriri early enough to have a long stroll along the lakeshore and a walk around the village of Korzok, including a visit to the gompa. We were not particularly surprised by the views of the lake (truly maginificent, just as expected), however the village was a pleasant surprise, very climatic and with a nice gompa. There are several simple guesthouses in the village, usually offering rooms with lake view. We stayed in a place situated a short walk down from the main “square”, in an empty house turned guesthouse by some enterprising Tibetan second-generation refugees (I don’t remember the name). They had a furbished bathroom (shared) but without running water. Cost: 400 Rs per double room. From what we heard from other tourists, staying in one of the places on the main street would have been a better idea. There are also a couple of simple shops and eateries on the main “square”.

On the next day we left Korzok at 6 a.m. because we planned to reach Keylong in the same day instead of staying in Sarchu (Keylong offers much better accommodation, price and quality-wise). We had lunch at a tea tent in Thukje above Tso Kar and. late in the afternoon, finally reached the snow at Baralacha La. From Baralacha La we drove down into Lahaul Valley, which seemed very green, almost lush compared to Ladakh. Finally, we reached Keylong at ca. 7 p.m. after a long day. We stayed in Sumrila Guesthouse, 300 Rs per decent double room with bathroom (hot water from geyser).

It turned out that the road to Manali was blocked again because of a landslide at a small nullah on the Rohtang La, some 1-2 kms down from the top on the Manali side. Luckily, it was quite easy to walk around the landslide area on foot – in fact complete infrastructure developed around the footpath, including porters, pack animals for hire to transport heavier loads and even portable snack stalls. On the other side of the path jeeps waited offering onward transport to Manali. We bade farewell to our driver, who luckily found tourists willing to go to Leh, walked down and after an hour or so took a jeep to Manali (200-300 Rs per person, depending on the number of passengers).

Manali 

In Manali we stayed in Tashila hotel in the modern centre of the town, close to the bus station, taxi stand and Tibetan gompas. Price: 600 Rs for a large, comfortable double room with balcony and clean tiled bathroom.

Manali to Delhi

We took a private “de-luxe” AC sleeper bus for the overnight trip to Delhi. Cost: 900 Rs, booked at the office of Manali Luxury Coach Owners Association near the main taxi stand. The bus departed from another bus station a 10 minutes walk down from the main one. There’s absolutely no information on this station, it’s just a muddy parking place for buses, and there was some confusion as regards tickets and departure times but a phone call to the office solved it.

The arrival place in Delhi was near the entrance to the Interstate Bus Terminal at the Kashmiri Gate.

_________________________________

South India, February 2010

duration – 22 days

route: Bangalore – Mysore – Kalpetta (Wayanad) – Chembra Peak – (Kozhikode) – Thrissur – Guruvayoor – Kochi – Munnar – Kottayam – Allapuzha (Aleppey) – Kollam (Quilon) – Varkala – Kanyakumari – Bangalore

(southern part of Karnataka – Kerala – a small part of Tamil Nadu)

General impressions:

- communicating in English was very easy. Most locals use English to interact with North Indians too. I had an impression that nobody expected a tourist to speak even a few words in local languages which was perhaps a bit of a pity, as it greatly reduced our incentive to learn them…

- average costs – 2500 Rs per day per couple, with quite intensive travelling mostly by public transport, hotels for 500-800 Rs (decent budget places, a category above the cheapest ones, always with ensuite bathroom but without AC), without roughing it up and counting every rupee…

- public transport – usually very straightforward. In most cases it was enough just to arrive at the bus station without even bothering to check the schedule and a bus in the desired direction would depart within 15-30 minutes. State-run Kerala Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) buses were very basic but OK for short trips of a few hours. Luggage needs to be stashed somewhere inside the bus (usually under the seat if the bus is full), so it’s better to travel rather light. Getting a seat was usually unproblematic, with an exception of some transiting busses.

- trains – we didn’t really need them in Kerala, as buses are much more flexible for shorter distances. For longer distances tickets can be booked ahead through the very efficient IRCTC website (http://www.irctc.co.in/). It is necessary to set up an account (free and straightforward), tickets can be paid with any major credit card (my Visa issued in Poland worked) and apparently there is no problem with getting a refund in case of a cancellation (although I didn’t test it). For checking timetables, prices, availability and delays this site: http://erail.in/ is even better.

[update 2012: buying Indian train tickets on-line from abroad is not as easy anymore as it used to be. See http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#book – from outside for a detailed explanation.]

- autorickshaw drivers were pretty honest by Indian standards. Even in touristy places like Fort Kochi they didn’t overcharge or overcharged perhaps by 50%. In Delhi they would try to overcharge by 500%…

- general approach of the locals was mostly friendly or very friendly and usually more relaxed than in lowland parts of North India. There were mostly no touts or they were not that persistent. Mingling with locals was mostly a really pleasant experience.

- main drawback – most Hindu temples in Kerala are closed for non-Hindus. That’s a Kerala peculiarity – both in Karnataka and in Tamil Nadu, even close to Keralan border, we were allowed to enter temples without problems.

- mosquitoes – we were bitten several times (mostly in Fort Kochi) but there are very few malaria cases in Kerala, so we didn’t take any prophylaxis. We just used Odomos repellent cream and an electrofumigator in hotel rooms.

- guidebooks – we started by using LP India but later bought Rough Guide to Kerala which was much better on almost everything except transport details.

Summing it up – very enjoyable!

Bangalore (see also the end of this report)

Bangalore International Airport (http://www.bengaluruairport.com/) is situated ca. 40 km from downtown. It’s possible to change money there even in the middle of the night but rates offered were outrageous, almost 10% worse than downtown. There are comfortable shuttle buses for 125 Rs. per person (schedules to be found here: http://www.bmtcinfo.com/). There is also a reliable taxi service by Easycabs and Meru companies for ca. 600 Rs. to downtown. Genuine taxis are queuing at front of the arrival hall and they go by the meter without trying any tricks (at least that’s was our experience).  There were also numerous taxi touts flashing fake Easycabs or Meru cards. We gave them a miss and went straight to the taxi queue.

As our flight arrived in the middle of the night, we booked our first night in Hotel Empire on Central Street (http://www.hotelempireinternational.com/) per e-mail. No advance payment was required. A clean and comfortable en-suite room (non AC) was 1116 Rs., for what would go by perhaps 600 Rs in other cities or even in Majestic area in B’lore (see the end of this report for a recommendation for a cheaper place there). If taking a taxi it’s better to warn the driver not to confuse this hotel with its more pricey sister property Hotel Empire International on Church Str.

We changed money in State Bank of India and only later realized than numerous jewellery shops on MG Road offer better rates and substantially less hassle (it took ca. 1 hr to change money at the SBI). There is apparently nowhere to change foreign currency in the SC Rd. area near the bus and train stations, while staying there on our way back we had to go to MG Road to change money.

Bangalore-Mysore

We took a comfortable AC Volvo bus of KSRTC from Majestic Bus Stand for 240 Rs (ca. 2 hrs) of travel. Taking it is as straightforward as it can get – tickets are sold in a separate booth close to stand 18, departures are frequent, we departed within 15 minutes of arriving at Majestic.

Mysore and surroundings

We stayed at Hotel Govardhan (http://www.hotelgovardhan.com/) just across the park from the Maharaja Palace, basic but reasonably comfortable and clean for 495 Rs per en-suite double. They have a deservedly popular and cheap restaurant downstairs. The only drawbacks were noise from a next-door cinema screening Bollywood blockbusters and (much worse) incessant noise of bells used by the reception to call hotel boys.

Entry for foreigners into the Maharaja Palace is way overpriced at 200 Rs.  Several temples on the palace grounds may be probably visited without paying the palace entrance fee which applies only to the palace interior. We found the palace interesting but far from being a highlight of our visit to Mysore – it was more enjoyable simply to stroll around the town, in particular its bazaar district. As regards the sights, much more interesting places are situated in the surroundings of Mysore.

Buses to some of the sights in the surroundings start from the brand new and clean City Bus Stand.

Chamundi Hill – bus 201 for 15 Rs goes to the top. After visiting the interesting temple and mixing with the colourful and friendly crowd of Hindu pilgrims we descended to the footsteps of the hill by taking a pilgrimage path, with several small temples and a big Nandi figure underway. From the lower end of the path we took a rickshaw back into town.

Srirangapatnam – a small town ca. 30 kms from Mysore. By city bus no. 313 it took 20 min (8 Rs), a ride back by bus no 307 took one hour (with a detour via some villages), 9 Rs. In the town itself the sights are spread out but there are helpful city maps at front of them to figure out. We started by visiting the very interesting Sri Ranganathaswamy temple quite close to the town centre, open to non-Hindus. Then we hired a rickshaw to drive us around the remaining sights in the city and the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary for 250 Rs (including waiting time at all the sights). The sights we visited included Tippu Sultan’s mausoleum of Gumbaz (entry free, a fine example of Muslim architecture), an interesting mosque, and Daria Daulat Bagh, Tippu Sultan’s summer palace (entry 100 Rs for foreigners, actually we found it more interesting than the Maharaja Palace in Mysore). Finally we went to the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary which was definitely the highlight of our visit to Srirangapatnam – a boat ride on the Cauvery river, watching big mugger crocodiles lying idle on the riverbanks, numerous birds and giant bats hanging from the trees. Costs: 75 Rs foreigners’ entry, 100 Rs per person for boat trip.

Somnathpur – due to time constraints we took a cab there and back for 600 Rs., it took 1 hr either way. Entry to the Keshava Temple for foreigners was 100 Rs. A really interesting temple of Hoysala style, fully covered by carvings – much appreciated by us as we were not able to visit the more famous Hoysala temples near Hassan.

 Mysore – Kalpetta (Wayanad)

We were not able to get a reliable information on Kozhikode-bound buses at the bus station a day before, so we arrived before 9 a.m. hoping to catch something in that direction. It turned out there was a bus within a few minutes and it was almost empty. It seems that there are buses to Kozhikode via Sultan Battery and Kalpetta every 1 hr or so in the morning, at least at 9.15, 9.30 and 11 a.m., starting from stand 11 of the Mysore Central (long-distance) Bus Stand. It took 3,5 hrs to reach Kalpetta (86 Rs).

Kalpetta and Wayanad

In Kalpetta we stayed at Affas hotel (http://hotelaffas.com/) near the main bus stand in the lower part of the town. We paid 700 Rs for a large and comfortable double room, down from their official rate of 805 Rs. There is a good restaurant (Udupi Family) on the premises. An alternative budget place in Kalpetta is the PPS Tourist Home (http://www.ppstouristhome.com/).

From Kalpetta we did a hike to Chembra Peak, which turned out not to be Chembra Peak itself, at least not the main summit of ca. 2100 meters…. We took a rickshaw from Kalpetta to the trailhead for 200 Rs. The ride took us first ca. 9 kms to the town of Mepadi (11.33.10 N, 76.08.00 E according to Google Earth), then ca. 5 kms to the forestry office where permit and guide were arranged. In the office we had to copy a letter requesting permission for a ‘trekking expedition’ and pay 500 Rs permit fee (for groups up to 10 persons) plus 25 Rs camera fee. The fee included services of a guide, assigned to us on the spot. The rickshaw wallah waited for us to complete the paperwork and took us together with our guide a further 4 kms or so across a tea estate to the trailhead itself (11.33.22 N, 76.05.00 E, alt. 1020 m). The hiking time was 2,5 hrs up and 1,5 hrs down back to the trailhead, without any technical places, but sometimes pretty steep.

The hike took us near a little heart-shaped lake and then along a ridge to a grassy cum rocky summit at 11.32.15 N, 76.04.57 E, alt. ca. 1800 m (according to Google Earth).We were told this was Chembra Peak itself, as were other visitors who arrived shortly after us. I have also found some blog posts and pictures on the web and it seems that this is what is being told to all the visitors. I had some suspicions that the forested hills behind “our” peak would be actually higher but I was not totally sure (the air was somewhat hazy) and anyway views from “our” peak were certainly better, not obstructed by any trees. A later look at Google Earth confirmed my doubts – it clearly shows that the highest point in the adjacent area lies a bit farther to the south, it is a hill fully overgrown by forest, at 11.30.46 N, 76.05.24 E, alt. ca. 2050. A yet higher mountain, shown by Google Earth to be 2300 m high, is situated at 11.25.38 N, 76.07.53 E, some more distance southwards but still within the same mountain range.

Despite this misinformation, we liked the hike and the views and probably wouldn’t have enough time and strength to reach the higher summit anyway. However, if you decide to do this trek, it’s better to be aware that it’s not the highest point of Wayanad that’s actually climbed…

After getting back to the trailhead we walked back to the office across the tea plantation (1 hr, very pleasant) and at some place behind the office took a shared rickshaw bringing locals to Mepadi (5 Rs per person). From Mepadi we took a rickshaw back to Kalpetta for 100 Rs (there are also buses for 5 Rs or so).

The Chembra hike is also well described on the IndiaMike forum at http://www.indiamike.com/india/trekking-and-mountaineering-in-india-f89/hike-up-chembra-peak-in-wayanad-kerala-in-december-t98847/.

Kalpetta to Thrissur

Kalpetta – Kozhikode (KSRTC bus, 2,5 hrs, 38 Rs) + Kozhikode-Thrissur (KSRTC, 3,5 hrs, 76 Rs.) We boarded both buses just on arriving at the bus stands, without even asking for the schedule before.

Thrissur and day trip to Guruvayoor.

Hotel Elite International on Chembottil Lane in Thrissur ( http://hoteleliteinternational.com/ ) – a huge concrete block towering over the centre, not elite as its name would suggest, but reasonably clean and quite comfortable, at 621 Rs per double (contrary to what some guides say, no breakfast included).

Guruvayoor was 1 hour by bus (14 Rs) from Sakthan Thampuran bus stand. Sadly, the main Sri Krishna temple is closed to non-Hindus (even K.S. Yesudas, the most famous and universally respected Keralan singer was refused entry because of his Christian religion) and surrounded by a high wall, so there’s not much to see beyond the pilgrim stalls around it. There’s much more to see in another temple, whose grounds, if not the shrine itself, are open to anybody, around 1 km towards Punnathur Kota.  However, that’s Punnathur Kota itself which is Guruvayoor’s main attraction – a large palm grove where ca. 70 elephants of various size are kept and one can walk among the chained pachyderms. A rickshaw from near the main temple was 40 Rs (ca 3 kms), entry 5 Rs + 25 Rs camera fee.

Thrissur to Kochi

KSRTC bus, 49 Rs, 2 hrs, arrived at Ernakulam bus stand.

Kochi

From the Ernakulam bus stand we took a rickshaw for 40 Rs or so to the jetty, from where there are frequent ferryboats to Mattancherry on the same island as Fort Kochi (2,50 Rs). We were probably very lucky – both times we took this ferryboat, we saw a dolphin nearby, actually almost in the Kochi harbour. From Mattancherry to Fort Kochi it was a further 20 Rs or so by rickshaw.

In Fort Kochi we stayed in Oys La (http://oys.co.in/) near Santa Cruz Cathedral , a 5 minutes walk from the centre, for 700 Rs for a nice, very comfortable double with a balcony.

Fort Kochi was probably the most touristy place on our route, we found it interesting but not particularly enjoyable. There were much more touts and correspondingly, hard bargaining was much more needed than Keralan average. Apart from the usual sights, the Jain temple near the middle of the island was worth having a look at. What we missed was Jew Town in Ernakulam, previously populated by a group of so called Black or Malabari Jews, distinct from the Pardesi of Mattancherry – but unfortunately we read about it only later in a book purchased in Fort Kochi (“The Last Jews of Kerala” by Edna Fernandes, highly recommended).

We took a backwaters tour sold by the tourist information office in Fort Kochi for 600 Rs per person (got a discounted price of 550 Rs when we changed foreign currency in their place, actually they had very good exchange rates). It should be 3 hours by small canoes in the narrow canals and then 4 hours by a bigger one but turned out to be rather 2+3 hrs. It included also a quite long ride by minibus (more than 1 hr), as the site was near Vaikom, actually closer to Kottayam than Kochin. The trip didn’t cover that much distance, it was rather circling around the same places – altogether it was nice but we enjoyed much more the ferryboat rides across the backwaters which we took later between Kottayam, Aleppey and Kollam. And finally a warning – the canoe is unstable and easy to capsize. Experienced personally :)

Kochi – Munnar

Busses to Munnar depart from Ernakulam bus stand every 30 min till about 3 p.m. Took 5 hrs, cost 75 Rs.

Munnar

We found Munnar a very enjoyable and friendly place and really regretted our tight schedule that allowed us to spend only 2 nights there. It’s a perfect place for relaxing, taking leisurely walks across the picturesque tea plantations, doing some hiking in the mountains and enjoying local food. There is a cluster of cheap guesthouses at a very pleasant place near the main bus stand, some 3 kms (20 Rs rickshaw ride) down from the centre. We stayed at SMM Cottage, paid 500 Rs for a very pleasant corner room, with nice views on surrounding tea plantations.

The guys at nearby Greenview Inn do great business offering guided day hikes in the mountains (www.munnartrekking.com). Their hikes are quite pricey by Indian standards (600 – 800 Rs per person) but they are really perfectly organized, the guides are highly professional, very informative on local nature, tea plantations etc. and speak very good English. You can make up your mind a day before at Greenview reception by watching recent pictures from any of the hikes they offer. Mountains which are offered as destinations of the hikes include those with the following Google Earth coordinates (as we later figured out): 10.02.46 N, 77.05.38 E, alt. ca. 2000 m (we hiked this one, a very nice trek, with spectacular views and a big tea plantation in the lower part); 10.02.10 N, 77.06.25, alt. ca, 2150 m (according to our guide slightly less interesting, a scramble up and down the mountain without much diversity), and 10.06.37 N, 77.05.38 E, alt. ca. 2200 (according to our guide a nice hike but without any the tea plantations fragments) . The altitude indicated by the Greenview Inn guys tends to be 200-300 m higher than shown by Google Earth. According to their information and the pictures they were showing us, it is quite likely to see wild elephants on some of the hikes. We didn’t see them, only a lot of elephant dung on the way.

Altogether – definitely to be recommended for somebody who, like us, has only very limited time in Munnar, not enough to gain a good orientation. For longer stays I would rather choose to explore the surroundings by myself.

We have also asked the Greenview guides about the possibility to hike up nearby Anamudi peak, the highest in South India. They told us that since several years it was not allowed anymore by the authorities of the Eravikulam National Park where Anamudi is situated. The highest place one can get on foot is about one km along a dirt road towards the mountain. We didn’t verify this information independently, as we knew that Eravikulam Nat’l Park was anyway closed for the month of February in order to protect the Nilgiri tahrs during their calving season.

Munnar – Kottayam

This bus trip exceptionally required checking the schedule beforehand as there were only 3 buses daily. We took the one at 10.30 a.m. (duration ca. 5 hrs, price 106 Rs). It started from the KSRTC bus stand near our guesthouse, then proceeded to the centre of Munnar and back to the bus stand before finally beginning the route.

Kottayam

We stayed at Ambassador Hotel, an old-fashioned, quite climatic place. A clean, large double with big bathroom was 650 Rs, an AC room would be 1000 Rs. They also have a quite climatic hotel bar, which we sadly didn’t check – my wife would felt a bit uneasy as the only woman in a crowded, dimly lit bar, so we just took beers to our room.

Kottayam included one of the cultural highlights of our visit to Kerala – two Syrian Orthodox churches dating from 16th century, situated close to each other on the northern outskirts, some 3-4 kms from the centre. The “small” church called Cheriapally is a fascinating mix of architectural styles, mixing Indian temple elements, as well as influences of Muslim architecture and Zoroastrian iconography into a basically European (Portuguese-influenced) church structure. We were shown around by the churchkeeper who pointed our attention to many details that we would otherwise have missed. Church’s website: http://kottayamcheriapally.com/

The “big” Knanaya church called Valiyapally is a bit less interesting from the architectural point of view but has a highly interesting interior, including two ancient stone slabs with crosses and inscription in ancient Persian script, among the most ancient Christian monuments in Kerala. Website: http://www.kottayamvaliyapally.com/

Kottayam-Aleppey (Allapuzha)

We decided to take a regular passenger ferryboat of the State Water Transport Department between Kottayam and Aleppey to witness some life on the backwaters. It turned out to be a good idea, an enjoyable boat ride along incredibly colourful landscape, with numerous opportunities to snap nice pictures. The jetty is in the southern part of Kottayam, getting to Aleppey took 3 hrs, at cost of 10 Rs. There are 5 boats daily, at 7 a.m., 11.30 a.m., 1 p.m. and two more later in the afternoon.

Aleppey (Allapuzha)

Unusually for us, we trusted a tout at the jetty and took a rickshaw to Aashiana homestay. It turned out to be a reasonable choice – for 400 Rs we had a mini-apartment of 2 rooms and bathroom. It’s a bit far from the center, in Zacharia Bazaar district (just opposite Vrindavanam, which is listed by LP guide), within walking distance of the city beach.

Aleppey to Kollam

We decided to take another boat trip and booked the long 8 hours ride to Kollam. The boats all depart at 10.30 a.m. and are to be booked on the day before. We took the DTPC boat for 300 Rs per person. There is also a SWTD boat but it’s not a public ferry, just another tourist boat for the same price of 300 Rs. Both boats stop for lunch in the same place, which was simple but OK and pretty cheap (not included in the ticket price).

The ride was long but not boring, we enjoyed it very much, especially as the landscape changed from the well regulated backwaters near Aleppey to more wild parts of the canal farther on and finally to a wide lake near Kollam.

Kollam (Quilon)

We went first (by rickshaw) to try out the Government Guesthouse listed in the guidebooks but it turned out that the building is very dilapidated, situated quite out of the way and the keeper told us anyway they don’t accommodate tourists. So we decided to go to Kollam Beach Retreat (we got their card right on arrival at the jetty, website: http://www.kollambeachretreat.com/). It was way out of the center (50 Rs by rickshaw), at the seaside, good only if you want just to sleep in Kollam, without visiting it. A nice double was 300 Rs, larger ones went for 400 Rs. The beach would be quite nice for a stroll but it is used by locals as a toilet, so it’s definitely not good neither for swimming nor romantic seaside strolls…

Kollam to Varkala

We went by rickshaw back to the Kollam bus stand, then took a Trivandrum-bound bus to Kallampalam junction (24 Rs) and from there a rickshaw to Varkala beach (150 Rs). Later it turned out that a much better idea would be to take a rickshaw directly to Varkala from our Kollam accommodation – other travelers did it and paid 400 Rs.

Varkala

Varkala was nice but perhaps somewhat disappointing as Kerala’s prime beach destination. I would say an average beach place in another tropical country, e.g. in Malaysia, would be much nicer. It’s a good place to chill out for a few days after or during a trip across India but I definitely wouldn’t recommend coming to Kerala with beach holidays as a main purpose. It’s simply not a beach destination, perhaps luckily so…

Some practicalities:

We slept in Nikhil Guesthouse on Beach Road, opposite Panchavadi. Some 50 meters from the beach, in a peaceful location, short walk from the Janardhana Swamy Temple (sadly closed to non-Hindus but quite visible from the surroundings). A very comfortable non-AC room with a balcony was 650 Rs., down from initial 800 Rs. Anil GH just opposite has basic double rooms starting from 300 Rs.

Swimming in the Indian Ocean in February was a paradise-like experience but the beach in Varkala has some drawbacks as well:

- there’s not even a bit of shade all along the beach.

- a rip-off monopoly of guys offering umbrellas and beds for hire – an umbrella was a fixed and non-negotiable 150 Rs, a bed another 150 Rs, regardless how long you stay, so even if you need it for an hour you needed to pay for the whole day. The umbrellas were quite worn out and not very effective at protecting from the sun.

- despite being a goldmine for the locals, the beach is in a quite sorry state. Rubbish is simply dumped down the famous cliffs and a resident pack of stray dogs hangs out on the beach, just waiting to lie down in the shade of your expensive umbrella. The umbrella guys are not even slightly interested in chasing them away.

What we can definitely recommend in Varkala are the delicious fresh fish and seafood meals offered by restaurants at the beach and on the clifftop. In the evening fresh fish are displayed before the restaurants and it’s up to you to pick up what you like and negotiate the price. Starting prices are quite high by Indian standards at even ca. 300 Rs or so per meal per person but with some luck some places are willing to haggle. We ate at the place close to Beach Road, the only one situated directly on the beach. They prepared their fish in tandoori oven (delicious!) and settled for quite reasonable prices – at ca 150 Rs per meal.

One warning about Varkala – as we were there we heard many stories about thefts from guesthouse rooms, even those on upper floors. It seems that a gang of acrobat thieves operated by climbing trees and fishing out stuff from the rooms with specially prepared fishing rods through open windows.

Varkala to Kanyakumari

As time started to press, we decided to take a direct train from Varkala to Kanyakumari instead of trying out buses with a change in Trivandrum. A ticket booked 2 days before at one of the travel agencies on the clifftop in Varkala was 120 Rs (sleeper class) + 75 Rs Tatkal charge + 100 Rs per 2 tickets as agency fee. It turned out that the train was completely full until Trivandrum and completely empty for the remaining part of the trip. There were 2 direct trains from Varkala to Kanyakumari daily.

Kanyakumari and Suchindram

We stayed in Melody Park hotel, opposite Maadhini on East Car Street, for 700 Rs for a very comfy double with a small balcony.

In addition to seeing the usual Kanyakumari sights (interesting!), we did a short trip to nearby Suchindram (8.09.17 N, 77,27.55 E) some 12 km inland towards Nagercoil which turned out to be a real highlight. There’s a  big Thanumalayan temple complex there, which is even more interesting than the main temple in Kanyakumari. There are no restrictions on entry, except that men have to enter bare-chested and all photographic equipment needs to be left at a deposit  in the temple office. In the afternoon the temple opens at 4 p.m. and the inner sanctum at 5 p.m. We don’t know the morning opening hours. The temple has many interesting architectural and sculptural details (including some erotic sculptures) which are easy to overlook, so we are happy that one of the guys hanging around in the temple office approached us and showed us around for some baksheesh.

A rickshaw between Kanyakumari and Suchindram was 150 Rs. As Suchindram is not described in the international guidebooks, there were no tourists there, apart from an American-Indian pilgrim.

A good and dirt cheap place to eat in Kanyakumari were the evening stalls near the Shiva Residency hotel, a kind of “fast food” joint for rickshaw and bus drivers. Fresh fish or crab fried on the spot was in the 20-30 Rs range. It looked not particularly hygienic but was very busy with locals and food was being fried on the spot – typical signs of a good place – so we decided to try it and it was a great idea.

Kanyakumari – Bangalore

We did this longest single leg of our trip (ca. 940 km, almost 24 hrs) by train, booked more than one month in advance on http://www.irctc.co.in/). Timetables, prices, availability and delays are better checked on this site: http://erail.in/

Bangalore and Bannerghatta

This time we slept in Royal Lodge on Subedar Chatram (SC) Rd in Majestic Area (http://royallodge.in/) for 495 Rs for a decent double. There’s a very similar place with same prices next door. Just opposite there is a good restaurant, deservedly popular with the locals. The Majestic area looks a bit more rowdy than the center of Bangalore but we didn’t feel unsafe in the evening.

The Majestic area is geared more towards Indian visitors, so there are numerous travel agencies but no moneychangers – we had to take a rickshaw to MG Rd to change money.

On our last day we went for a safari in Bannerghatta – a sort of a zoo cum safari park, with tigers, lions and bears kept in large enclosures, visited by bus (http://www.bannerghattabiopark.in/). Entry to the zoo together with safari ride was 125 Rs per person. Bannerghatta is best reached by bus no. 365 (AC) from city bus stand in Majestic. Bus number 366 from City Market Bus Stand (listed in the guidebooks) ends some km short of the park entrance.

On our way back we stopped at the Bannerghatta village (12.48.48 N, 77.34.40 E) a couple of kms before the park entrance. There is a nice temple there, set against the backdrop of a picturesque bare stone hill with another small temple on the top.

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Himachal Pradesh, 5 weeks in July-August 2008

Route:

Delhi – Shimla – Sarahan – Kalpa/Rekong Peo – Nako – Tabo – Gulling (Pin Valley) – Kaza – trek from Langza by Komic, Demul and Lhalung to Dhankar – Kaza – Kibber – Kaza – Keylong – Manali – Mandi (and Rewalsar) – Delhi

Guidebooks, maps and websites:

The most informative web resource for our trip was www.indiamike.com travel forum and I would like to thank all IndiaMikers who posted very detailed and useful info, enormously helpful for our preparations. Some other useful websites included:

www.thorntree.lonelyplanet.com

www.trekkingforum.com

www.travelbit.pl (in Polish only)

It is also worth it browsing through the Himachal Tourism (http://himachaltourism.nic.in/) and Lahaul & Spiti gov’t (http://hplahaulspiti.gov.in/ ) webpages. From many blogs on Spiti, Kinnaur and Himachal Pradesh in particular I found this one: http://vistet.blogspot.com/ to be particularly interesting.

The best guidebooks are local, to be obtained in Delhi, Shimla (Minerva Bookshop on The Mall) or Manali (Bookworm in New Manali).

- ‘Exploring Kinnaur & Spiti in the Trans-Himalaya’ by Deepak Sanan and Dhanu Swadi, Indus Publishing Co. (http://www.indus-publishing.com/), 400 Rs – maybe less useful for practical details but a mine of information on culture and geography of the region.

- ‘A Ready Reckoner for Baspa, Kinnaur, Spiti & Lahaul Valleys’ of Nest & Wings – more basic but including a useful (best available?) map of H.P.

- ‘Himachal’ from the ‘Outlook Traveller Getaway’ series – basically a bunch of articles from the Indian travel magazine, with some practical details aiming at more upmarket tourists, 295 Rs

For the more interested, Indus Publishing has published a lot of other interesting books on Himachal, which resulted in completing the final leg of our trip (since coming across Bookworm in Manali) with three instead of two backpacks:-) One of them that would certainly have been useful to take on our trip is ‘Buddhist Monasteries of Himachal’ by O.C. Handa, but unfortunately we found it first in Manali.

We also had the Delhi and H.P. chapters of Lonely Planet ‘India’ guide – luckily it is now obtainable by chapter in PDF files from the http://shop.lonelyplanet.com/ website, quite cheap and saving us from carrying the entire India guidebook. As usual, LP is close to nothing on culture & background information but quite useful for practical details, maybe more for transport than accomodation, which is very easy to find in H.P. even without a guidebook.

There are no good hiking maps of the area, so taking a look on Google Earth and printing out some photos is a good idea. In Shimla we bought the relevant sheets of Indian Himalaya Maps by Leomann Maps (scale 1:200.000, paid 250 Rs per sheet), which are little more than a scheme of ridges and valleys, not showing any terrain features and being quite selective and not very exact in showing roads and villages.  At least they are a good help in identifying the panorama around.

Some other maps are added to or published in the guidebooks but they are no more than simple road or trail schemes.

The coordinates and altitude of most places we have visited are as shown on Google Earth. We have not used a GPS device.

Weather:

In general, monsoon was not as scary as described but it did make us some surprises.

Delhi: very hot and very humid, but generally sunny or only partly cloudy. In 4 days we spent altogether in Delhi we experienced only 3 short (less than 30 minutes each) but very powerful monsoon showers.

Shimla: refreshingly chilly (but still T-shirt weather) and mostly cloudy or foggy, making the heritage buildings feel very atmospheric. For 2 days it almost didn’t rain but on the 3rd day as we were leaving it started raining in the night and it went on for several hours, continuing well along our way into the Sutlej valley. It stopped around Rampur.

Sarahan: from cloudy and a few drops of rain to sunny with great views

Rekong Peo/Kalpa: sunny, dry, with a few clouds but generally great views to the Kinnaur Kailash

Nako: sunny and dry

Spiti Valley – surprisingly, it rained quite often during the 2 weeks we spent in Spiti and it was quite cloudy most of the time. Some locals told us it’s happening now because of climate change and was unusual before. But still, most rains lasted only a couple of minutes and because of generally very dry air we were drying almost as fast as getting wet.

Lahaul – less arid and more green than Spiti but generally similar weather – from sunny to cloudy with some unharmful rain.

Manali – much more humid but generally sunny. It rained only on our descent from Rohtang Pass.

Mandi – similar to Delhi, a bit less hot. A trip to Rewalsar was truly refreshing.

Arrival to Delhi

We landed in the middle of the night and were a bit scared by the tales of dodgy taxi drivers but with some precautions everything went without hassles. First we changed some money at the State Bank of India branch at the airport – the rate we got for euros was ca. 1 Re per euro worse than on the following day from a Paharganj moneychanger. We took a cab from Delhi Traffic Police Prepaid Taxi booth inside the arrivals hall (apparently a new one in addition to the previously existing booth behind the exit). There are several other prepaid taxi booths there, but all are apparently much more expensive that the Delhi Traffic Police one, which was easily recognizable by a queue at front of the Police booth. It costed 310 Rs to Paharganj, including a surcharge for night driving. We gave right – if untrue – answers to the testing questions of the driver (“First time in India?” – “No, third”; “You have a hotel booking” – “Yes, of course, and the hotel managers are our friends and wait for us”) and he dropped us right at the door of Hotel Anoop just as we demanded, without trying any dirty tricks. As recommended by somebody on the IM forum, we also didn’t hand the taxi receipt to the driver until he brought us to the right destination.

Arriving to Paharganj at 2 a.m. without a hotel booking was no problem either, as several hotels had open doors and the receptionists were quite awake. We took a room at Hotel Anoop (after some bargaining 500 Rs for a double with ensuite bathroom and AC; http://www.anupamhoteliersltd.com/) but wouldn’t recommend it – the room was minuscule and quite grotty, electricity in the bathroom malfunctioned and I got a light shock and the roof restaurant is quite overpriced. A much better place was Hotel Star Paradise where we stayed prior to departure – details at the end of this report.

Delhi—Kalka – Shimla

We took the 7.40 a.m. Shatabdi train from New Delhi railway station to Kalka. Travelled by AC chair car class, which was very comfortable, with newspapers and a meal included in the ticket price. Ticket costed 465 Rs + 25 Rs internet reservation fee. Prior to departure we got some conflicting information as to whether the Shatabdi (scheduled arrival to Kalka at 11.45, arrived ca. 10 minutes late) is connected  with the 12.10 Himalayan Queen toy train to Shimla, but we decided to risk it and caught the toy train without a fuss. A conductor on the Shatabdi did confirm us that both trains were connected. The railway station in Kalka is small and easy to navigate anyway, so walking from one train to another is a matter of 1-2 minutes. We located the correct car by finding our names on a sheet attached to the train.

The toy train was much less comfortable (but a pleasant and interesting journey), a ticket reserved over the internet costed 167 Rs + 25 Rs reservation fee. Only two cars had booked seats, other cars were occupied on a first come – first served basis (presumably much cheaper tickets) and the train was pretty overcrowded. It took 6 hours to reach Shimla, including about 1 hr of repairing the locomotive, so bus is a better option for anybody in a hurry (takes about 3 hrs).

A few words on booking Indian Railway tickets over internet – it is done via http://www.irctc.co.in/ website and I found it rather user-friendly. I had to create an account but it’s a matter of a few minutes. No Indian-issued credit card nor Indian bank account is required (I used my most basic version of VISA credit card issued by a Polish bank). At one of the steps I had to select an Indian bank but it was only to proceed the payment. My credit card slip revealed that I was charged slightly more (ca 20 Rs) than the ticket price + fee shown on the webpage – presumably the Indian bank fee for payment procession. The rate used for conversion from rupees into my home currency was quite fair.

There is also an option of cancelling your tickets over the internet and some people on the travellers’ forums reported that the money is then duly returned to one’s account. A big advantage comparing to the Polish railways where one can only cancel e-booked tickets in person or by mail (conventional, not electronic:-)…

Shimla

We stayed at Hotel Dalziel (http://www.dalzielhotel.com/) in an old British-style wooden building, with monkeys playing around on the roof. We paid 400 Rs for a quite comfortable double with bathroom. They also have larger rooms (wanted 660 Rs) in the main building and cheaper ones in a less-enticing back building. It’s a walk of about 10 minutes uphill to the Scandal Point.

They have laundry service and would arrange porters to the station or bus stand.

In Shimla we arranged our Inner Line Permits for travel close to the Tibetan border from Kinnaur to Spiti. It was straightforward and completely free of charge. We needed ID photos and passport & visa copies (made at a photo shop nearby for a few rupees). We submitted our applications at the Additional District Magistrate’s office in the courts building just below The Mall, about halfway between Scandal Point and Hotel Dalziel. The ADM office is to be found entering via a left entrance with ‘COLLECTORATE’ sign (there are 2 entrances signposted this way), on the 2nd floor. We were told to come to collect our permits in 3 hours. When we returned we had to wait a few minutes for the permits to be signed by the ADM in person. We applied at 11 a.m. (it opens at 10), collected our permits before 2 p.m.

KINNAUR

From Shimla we continued our trip mostly by ‘ordinary’ HRTC buses – uncomfortable but reliable, with really experienced drivers. There’s no luggage space, so luggage has either to be taken inside (to one’s own and fellow passengers’ discomfort) or put on the roof. Initially we resisted putting our backpacks on the roof, but further in Kinnaur as there was no rain anymore, did that and found the roof storage place surprisingly stable. It was enough to fasten the backpacks with a few simple string we bought for drying clothes. No advance booking is usually possible for HRTC buses, tickets are bought either from the bus stand 30 minutes before departure or simply on the bus.

From Shimla we wanted to take an HRTC bus directly to Sarahan (departs from the Rivoli bus stand at 9.30 a.m.) but were advised by the bus stand staff to take a faster connection to Jeori at 9 (final destination: Reckong Peo) and a connecting local bus to Sarahan (for Google Earth freaks: 31.31 N, 77.48 E, alt. ca. 2100 m) from there. Ticket to Jeori costed 147 Rs, it was 6 hrs along a winding, bumpy, but paved road, descending into Sutlej valley after rainy Narkanda and continuing up the valley above the spectacular-looking river. In Jeori (alt. ca. 1400 m) we caught the overcrowded Sarahan bus almost on arrival (1 hr, 15 rs). After arrival we went directly to the Bhimakali temple and took a very comfortable room in the temple’s guesthouse – 300 Rs for a double with ensuite bathroom, hot water, great view on the temple’s courtyard and mountains, definitely recommended. Ask at the temple for the timing of the evening puja – it is at 8 or 8.30 and we unfortunately missed it when we went for a walk around. For food I’d recommend Trehan’s Guesthouse, a few steps down from the bus stop. There are some dhabas closer to the temple, but they seemed unhygienic and the choice was very limited.

The next day we took a bus to Jeori and from there (on arrival) caught a bus to Reckong Peo – 75 Rs, 3 hrs along a bumpy, dusty and quite scary road (driver stopped to pray at temples before and after to most risky section). Buses plying the road between Shimla and Reckong Peo are very frequent, so there’s no need to check the schedule beforehand. From Reckong Peo  (31.32 N, 78.16 E. alt. 2300 m) we took a local bus (10 Rs, 30-45 minutes) to Kalpa (31.32 N, 78.15 E. alt. 2750 m).

In Kalpa we slept in Monal Residency guesthouse (uphill from the bus stand, a bit higher than Chini Bungalows) and it is definitely recommended. Paid 300 Rs for a clean double with bathroom (hot water from geyser) and balcony with a great view on Kinnaur Kailash. There’s a restaurant in the guesthouse (no beer), laundry service is available.

A nice walk we made from Kalpa was a hike up to the Chakha pasture above the treeline (alt. ca. 3500 – 3600 m), with stunning views of the Kinnaur Kailash. From Monal Residency GH e few steps uphill, continue along an asphalt road for ca. 100 m, then turn uphill taking a steep path along a water canal. After ca. 2 hrs of a steep and dusty but partly shaded ascent, all along the water canal, we reached the treeline. For the more ambitious – the 5072 m high Rakchora peak above the Chakha pasture looked accessible without technical difficulties but we didn’t go much above pasture.

Internet access in Reckong Peo and Kalpa – there are several places in Reckong Peo around the main bazaar, charging about 50 Rs per hour but having very slow dial-up connection. In Kalpa there’s one place close to the bus stand but we didn’t use it.

From Reckong Peo towards Spiti there are 2 buses – at 7.30 a.m. to Kaza and at 12 noon to Nako. To be on the safe side we took a taxi (arranged by the hotel owner, 250 Rs) to catch the earlier one but we could have easily done it by taking a 6.15 a.m. bus down from Kalpa.

From Reckong Peo to Nako (31.53 N, 78.38 E, alt. 3600 m) it costed 95 Rs, took 5 hrs along a scary road up the Sutlej and then Spiti valleys. Our Inner Line Permits were checked at a checkpoint underway and our data was recorded in a visitor book.

In Nako we stayed in Leo Purgiel (a.k.a. Rio Purgil) hotel which is probably the most comfortable place available (there are also some cheaper guesthouses nearby) – we paid 400 Rs for a big double with clean bathroom (hot water from geyser) and balcony. There is a restaurant in the hotel. We met our friends from Poland travelling a similar route in the opposite direction, so we had a beer and have to warn any subsequent travellers – don’t buy ’10.000’ beer, it’s perhaps the worst I’ve tasted in my life.

Nako has an interesting Buddhist monastery, allegedly founded by Rinchen Zangpo in 996 AD, with old frescoes and sculptures. It was completely deserted as we visited late in the afternoon. We were however able to enter most of the temples, as they were not locked. Taking a torch light to see the frescoes was definitely a good idea.

We stayed only one afternoon and until noon next day in Nako which is a pity, as I think now. There is a great walk to be done to the village of Tashigang (31.50 N, 78.41E, alt. ca. 3500-3600) over the Sutlej valley. The path starts from the village, goes uphill near a few chortens and then to a well visible small pass in the ridge just above Nako (to the south). Then it continues almost flat, traversing a gentle slope more than a kilometer above the Spiti river bed, with spectacular views. The path is well visible on Google Earth photos. We only walked along it for about one hour from Nako and came back to catch the Tabo bus. A poster from IndiaMike shared some more details with me later –according to him the hike to Tashigang takes 3-4 hrs one way, with the final section above the Sutlej valley requiring crossing a landslide area. A further hour’s walk behind Tashigang there should be a cave temple. In Tashigang it should be possible to sleep in a homestay or possibly in the temple itself. According to him it’s legal to do this hike on a standard Inner Line Permit for travel between Kinnaur and Spiti.

There was no mobile phone coverage nor internet access in Nako.

From Nako to Tabo we took the 12.30 p.m. bus (60 Rs, 2 hrs of bus ride itself). This part of the trip was the most problematic, as a short distance (2-3 km) behind Nako the road crosses the notorious Malling Nullah active landslide area. When we crossed, the road was completely broken – in fact the evening before we heard a loud bang and seen dust coming from the Malling direction. The arrangement of the HRTC for such case is called ‘transhipment’ – we were required to take our luggage and cross the broken section (approx. 100 m) on foot. Pretty scary, with very unstable rocks hanging above the road. Minutes before we crossed some big boulders fell on the road with loud noise. On the other side of the nullah we waited for less than one hour for another bus which took us to Tabo. In this case hiring a private vehicle seemed not so good idea. We met several tourists who got stranded in their jeeps, waiting for the road to be cleared enough for jeeps and smaller vehicles to pass, which took at least several hours, maybe even more than a day. I think the most practical option in case of an overnight wait is getting to Nako (for those coming from Tabo – leave the jeep, cross on foot and walk to Nako), as it’s really close.

SPITI

After getting to Tabo (32.05 N, 78.23 E, alt. 3050 m according to some maps or 3280 m according to other ones and Google Earth) we went to the monastery guesthouse, just at the entrance to the old gompa. For the first night we got a double room (with bathroom, geyser) in the very nice main building for 300 Rs but as it was booked, we had to change for not-as-nice another building for the second night (250 Rs for a double with bathroom, geyser). There is a small library with several interesting books on Buddhism and Buddhist art in the main guesthouse building.

The monastery (belonging to Gelugpa school) is definitely the cultural highlight of a visit to Spiti. The monks are used to opening the temples for tourists (donations appreciated) and did it quite eagerly for us, even if we wandered across most of the temples by ourselves, not in a larger group. Again, like in most other Buddhist temples in Spiti, having a torchlight was essential. Each morning at 6 a.m. the monks gather for morning prayers in the new temple outside of the old gompa complex – tourists are welcome to come.

There was no mobile coverage in Tabo, the single internet café did not work (they told me they had a permament problem with connection). It was possible to make an international phone call but very difficult to get connection. For those in need of good food and real coffee, we could recommend the Kunzum Top restaurant.

From Tabo we decided to head to Gulling (32.03 N, 78.06 E, alt. 3550) in the Pin Valley. Our initial plan was to take a Kaza-bound bus, get off at the junction in Attargo (32.07.30 N, 78.10 E, alt. 3480) and wait for the Kaza-Mudh bus to take us into the Pin Valley. However, on the bus stop we met a jeep driver who told us that, as he was going to Kaza anyway, he would take us to Attargo for 80 Rs per person and than, if we wished, make a detour to Gulling for a further 400 Rs (for the whole car) – so we got to Gulling by jeep for 560 Rs, quite a bargain price comparing to 900 – 1000 Rs I had been quoted for a jeep a day before. It turned out to be a good idea when we saw Attargo en route – it was just one uninviting shack in the middle of nowhere, definitely not a good place to spend possibly hours waiting for a bus.

In Gulling we found accomodation in a private homestay in a traditional Tibetan-style house with Coke billboard on it, previously functioning as Hotel Himalaya but now the hotel sign had been taken down for some reason. We paid 150 Rs for a very comfortable and large room, arranged specially for guests. The bathroom was shared and rather basic but had running cold water, hot water was provided in a bucket. Dinner (simple but delicious) costed a further 50 Rs for 2 persons. Our hosts ran also a well-stocked shop in the same house (opened on request) and there were two simple dhabas nearby in the village (not much choice besides chai and omelette).

From Gulling we walked the 2 km or so to the nearby Kungri Gompa, an interesting Nyingmapa monastery visible at some height over the valley floor. Outside the larger new monastery complex there’s an old temple with nice frescoes – again, the monks were quite eager to open it for us and a torchlight was useful for seeing the frescoes.

Another, somewhat longer interesting walk we made was to Sagnam, an hour or so up the valley (at the confluence of Pin and Paraiho). We stopped for chai and chang at a dhaba, then crossed the Pin river to another village of Khar and returned along the opposite side of the river to Gulling. There was a rope bridge near Gulling where we crossed the river back. The walk along the opposite side of Pin river can be continued to Tangti Gogma and Tangti Yogma villages, with possibly another bridge below Gulling (not sure though). In a few years this place will probably be spoilt by an alternative road to Kinnaur (bypassing Malling Nullah) – we’ve seen the construction works already underway.

There was no mobile coverage in Gulling nor nowhere else in the Pin Valley.

From Gulling we took an 8 a.m. bus to Kaza (30 Rs, less than 2 hrs, the connection serves the Pin Valley until Mud). It was terribly overcrowded, with a big live sheep stuck between the passengers and their belongings in the rear. The animal was apparently used to bus rides, as it behaved very calmly despite the bumpy road.

Our initial plan was to go directly to Dhankar and start a 4-day trek to Langza from there, but the Polish traveller we met before (at Malling) told us of the painful Lhalung to Demul ascent, so we decided to go to Kaza first and do our trek in the opposite, mostly descending direction.

In Kaza (32.13 N, 78.04 E, alt. 3600 m) from quite numerous guesthouses we chose the Mandala Hotel just at the jeep stand, close to the bus station in the lower part of the town. At 500 Rs per double it was perhaps expensive but the rooms were large and very comfortable, with big bathroom and almost impeccably clean, even comparing to the usually high Himachali standard. There’s a restaurant in the hotel but no laundry service. Front rooms facing the jeep stand may be noisy.

Kaza is a place one can feel (almost) like having returned to civilization – there are two internet cafes (with erratic connection because of power cuts, 50 Rs per hour), mobile coverage, several shops and restaurants, trekking agencies etc. However, there’s no ATM and nowhere to change money in Kaza nor elsewhere in Spiti. The jeep stand is run by a taxi union which has regulated prices – listed on a board at the booth.

SPITI LEFT BANK TREK

We used Kaza as a base for the Langza – Komic – Demul – Lhalung –Dhankar trek, leaving excess luggage at the hotel. At first we were a bit afraid of finding the route by ourselves so we asked for the prices of arranging this trek by an agency. The first one we asked was Ecosphere (http://www.spitiecosphere.com/, http://www.himalayan-homestays.com/), but they quoted us rip-off prices of 550 Rs per person per day for accommodation and a further ca. 1000 Rs per day for pack animals and pony man. We asked at another agency at the small square in the very centre of Kaza (later an IndiaMike poster indicated me their name and webpage: Spiti Holiday Adventure, http://www.spitiholidayadventure.com/) and they gave us honest advice – told us that hiring a pair of pack animals and pony man would cost about 500 Rs a day, the pony man would show us the way and find accomodation. However, they told us that the orientation is simple, accomodation easy to find, so we can easily leave excess luggage and go by ourselves. After their reassuring advice we decided to go by ourselves, but if anybody would prefer arranging it, I would definitely recommend avoiding Ecosphere and doing it by Spiti Holiday Adventure.

Route descriptions of this trek can be found on the following webpages:

http://www.indiamike.com/india/himachal-pradesh-f29/spiti-trekking-home-stays-and-facts-t12937/

http://www.gonomad.com/destinations/0709/india-spiti.html

http://www.trekkingforum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=3542 (in German)

http://www.trekkingforum.com/forum/showthread.php?p=83344 (in German)

We started by taking a jeep from Kaza to Langza (32.16 N, 78.06 E, alt. 4500 m) for 600 Rs, where we visited the monastery (some old frescoes) with a recently constructed giant Buddha statue. From the monastery we backtracked a little bit along the road and turned (at the junction over Langza, with Ecosphere sign) to another jeepable road going to Komic. We walked along the road taking some shortcuts and soon reached a pass, from where both the village of Hikkim and the Komic Gompa (at greater distance) were well visible. The village of Komic lies below the gompa and is visible first from the immediate approach to it. It took us some 3-4 hrs from Langza to Komic Gompa, walking very slowly because of short breath.

Komic Gompa (32.14 N, 78.06.40 E, alt. 4500 m) houses very friendly monks from the Sakyapa school. There are some interesting frescoes and masks used for Chaam dances in the old temple (near the guesthouse, out of the new temple complex). Unfortunately entrance to the old temple is forbidden for women, so my wife could not visit it. There’s also a stuffed snow leopard hung above the entrance. We slept at the monastery guesthouse, paid 150 Rs per person (additional donation appreciated but not asked for), including food – 3 simple meals. The room had a waterless bathroom (bucket provided), water was available from a well nearby and toilets (also waterless) were on the outside. The monastery has a well stocked shop, selling bottled water, snacks, soft drinks, sweets and even beer (we didn’t risk it at this altitude). They also have one of the highest volleyball playgrounds in the world.

The next (2nd) day we walked to Demul, assisted by a group of boy monks from Komic monastery school going back to their families in Demul. The boys, aged between 5 and 10 years, were running and jumping around, gentle enough not to laugh at our pathetic altitude-crippled efforts. The way would be quite easy to find even without any assistance – for the first part it followed a jeepable road, along a path parallel to it, climbing to a pass with a small chorten (slightly above 4700 m, duly circumambulated by us together with our monk companions) and then traversing gentle slopes of a valley with one-house shepherds hamlet (called Doksa, 32.12.11 N, 78.07.31 E, alt. 4500 m) in its bottom. At some distance behind Doksa, before the road starts to wind down, we took a well-trodden path going to the left, first uphill, then almost flat. Soon we reached a stone hut of yak herders, where we had chai and yoghurt (probably 32.11.33 N, 78.08.32 E, alt. 4600 m). Then we continued along the path, again uphill, to another pass of 4717 m, with a chorten and prayer flags. Views were awesome during the last part of the ascent, as a side valley opened a wide perspective on upper Khunke valley and surrounding snow-covered peaks, including Chang Chau Kang Nilda. A pack of yaks grazed in the valley below, of more ‘yakety’ sort than the usual mix of yak and cattle. Behind the pass our path continued for the final 1 hr of quite steep descent to Demul, with some walls of interesting mani stones immediately before the village. Altogether the Komic to Demul walk took us some 6-7 hrs.

As we were told afterwards by our Lhalung host, there are several homestays in Demul (32.10.10 N, 78.10.45 E, alt. 4300 m). Not knowing it, we went to the only one with a sign – Gonpo Homestay, in a traditional house in the upper part of the viilage, to the right of the main street as one arrives from Komic. The accomodation was very modest (waterless toilet, no bathroom, water available from a waterhose on the street) and the host family, being part of the Ecosphere scheme, charged us a quite high price of 300 Rs per person, including meals. We have not seen any shop in the village.

From Demul into Lhalung the path descends some 600 meters, which turned out to be quite useful for me, as I had a headache after the second night over 4000 m. The first part of the walk on our third day was a steep descent into a gorge immediately below the Demul village. After some time, the creek descending from Demul (and our path) joined the valley of Khunke (as named on the Leomann map) – a bigger stream, with a well trodden path. A further 1 hr or less down this stream took us to the tiny village of Sanglung (32.08.54 N, 78.12.25 E, alt. 3550 m) at its confluence with the Lingti river. From there we turned left up the Lingti valley, walking 1 hr along a well-trodden path traversing quite high above the Lingti. The path then descended to the bridge on the Lingti just below Lhalung. From the previous descriptions we found on the web there was some confusion as to the existence of this bridge (apparently washed away by a flood some years ago), so we can confirm – as of August 2008 the bridge has been reconstructed and looks quite solid. From the bridge it was a 30 minutes ascent to Lhalung village. Total walking time for the Demul to Lhalung part was about 4 hours. The ascent would be indeed painful in the opposite way, so we were quite happy that we had chosen this direction and grateful to the Polish traveller who had warned us about that at Malling.

In Lhalung (32.08.50 N, 78.14 E, alt. 3750 m) numerous houses now offer homestays. After seeing one of them, we finally went to the Khabrik Guesthouse, a homestay ran for some years already by a very friendly family. The owner works also as a mountain guide (guiding i.a. treks from Kibber to Tso Moriri) and speaks quite communicable English. His wife also has some basic English skills. We paid 200 Rs per person, including meals. The bathroom and toilet were modest but functional and clean, with water (cold and hot) provided in buckets. There’s a shop in the village quite near to Khabrik Guesthouse, but without a sing, so we had to ask the hosts to point it. There was beer in the shop, in the quantity of one bottle.

Lhalung has an old Gelugpa monastery situated a little above the village. It used to be a Tabo-like monastery complex (allegedly founded by Ringchen Zangpo in 996 AD) but only one temple survived till today, with very interesting frescoes and sculptures. A metal roof has been added quite recently, protecting the building but also damaging its view. Only ruins of other temples remain. The main temple was closed as we arrived, looking deserted, but as we hung around for a while, a friendly monk appeared and opened it for us (donation appreciated). He allowed us to photograph inside the temple for a photo fee – hence an appeal to the next visitors: if you are allowed to do it, be careful not to use flash, as it could damage the frescoes. Afterwards we had a tea in his quarters. He told us that Lhalung is now not a monastery on its own, but rather part of Dhankar monastery and Dhankar monks take turns staying in Lhalung.

The last, fourth day of our trip was an easy 5 hrs walk (at a slow pace) from Lhalung to Dhankar. Shortly after leaving Lhalung towards the main Spiti valley we took the upper jeepable road running parallel quite high above the Lingti. It’s possible to reach Dhankar walking all the time along this road but the views are far better taking a shortcut along a path as the road approaches the main Spiti valley. The path leaves the road to the left (uphill) and is well trodden and visible all the way. Shortly before Dhankar it rejoins the road.

In Dhankar (32.05.25 N, 78.12.45 E, alt. 3800 m) there are several guesthouses and homestays but we didn’t stop there for the night. We visited the famous Gelugpa monastery (very interesting, entrance free, donation appreciated) and the ruins of the fort on the top of the rocks. The village itself is quite picturesque too. We also considered going uphill to the Dhankar lake (32.05.30 N, 78.13.40 E, alt. 4140 m) but it looked so steep that after 4 days of trek a warm shower and comfortable room in Kaza turned up more enticing. Luckily, an Indian couple met at the monastery gave us a lift.

Ki – Kibber

The next day we took some rest and took a jeep to Kibber, stopping at Ki Gompa. Including waiting time at Ki Gompa it costed 700 Rs which we shared with a couple of Koreans and two Indian guys. There’s also a bus in the late afternoon but it leaves no time to visit the Ki Gompa.

Ki Gompa (32.17.50 N, 78.00.45 E, alt. 3870 m) was the most touristy monastery we visited, with several groups going around, but the views were truly spectacular. In the monastery itself there was not as much to see comparing to Lhalung or Dhankar. Sadly, most of the rooms were not accessible, only the main prayer hall, a small temple on the opposite and the roof being open to visitors.

In Kibber (32.20 N, 78.00.40 E, alt. 4150 m) we stayed at Norling Guesthouse which was one of the best accomodations on this trip. It has basic rooms (shared bathrooms) for 150 Rs and better large ones upstairs for 250 to 350 Rs (en-suite or bathroom shared between two rooms, geyser with hot water), with a big terrace with great view. It has also a restaurant with tasty meals (beer available) and a shop. The friendly owner speaks communicable English.

There’s a small old temple in the middle of the village with some interesting frescoes and a new monastery just above, where we had an occasion to see the blessings given by the monk serving as Dalai Lama’s oracle on a visit to the village.

Kibber was a perfect base for day walks. The first we made was to the Chichum village (32.20.50 N, 77.59 E, alt. 4100 m), well visible from Kibber on the opposite side of the Parilungbo gorge. The walk requires going down and up the Parilungbo gorge (there’s a bridge at the bottom), so it took ca. 3 hrs there and 2 hrs back. The first part of the walk follows the trail eventually reaching Parang La and Tso Moriri in Ladakh, from which one has to turn left in a small gorge not far after crossing Parilungbo.

A road bridge was in construction over the Parilungbo valley. When it’s completed, it will make Chichum reachable in a very short walk (much less fun without crossing the valley) and the picturesque 4900+ m high peaks just behind Chichum will be accessible as an easy day hike from Kibber.

We’ve seen no open shop in Chichum, but there is at least one homestay there which advertises on the entrance to Kibber. Unusually for Spiti, the temple in Chichum was closed and there was nobody around to open it for us.

Another day hike we made was to the 5157 m high Dangmachan peak (name and altitude according to the Leomann map), a grassy mountain directly above Kibber. Going up was a sequence of short steeper ascents and flat grassy fragments, a bit confusing as the top is not visible from anywhere during the walk. As we went higher, breathing became more and more difficult and the walk exhausting – definite proof we should never try to climb Mt Everest. When we finally crawled onto a knoll with some cairns that we had assumed to be the top, we realized the real top was further away, another ascent before us – so we decided ‘our’ knoll would be enough, as probably it exceeds 5000 m as well.  Google Earth coordinates of the mountain are 32.20 N, 78.03 E.

Another possibility of an easy but interesting day walk from Kibber are Gete and Tashigang villages, across a very deep gorge (Shilla Nullah) from Langza (well visible from there). We left that one out for our next trip. It’s theoretically possible to walk from Kibber via Tashigang to Langza (and combine it with the Langza to Dhankar trek) but the nullah between Tashigang and Langza looks barely passable.

On our last day in Kibber we slept too long to catch the early morning bus to Kaza and the shared jeeps departing later (8 a.m., 40 Rs, as were told by our host). We tried to hitch-hike but soon several jeeps with a group of monks arrived and unexpectedly we could witness the visit of an important delegation headed – as we were told – by the monk serving as medium for the personal oracle of the Dalai Lama. The reverend guest gave teachings, blessings and was given a reception with music and dances. So finally we found transport to Kaza first in the late afternoon after the visitors left, by a car hired by Italian tourists.

GETTING TO LAHAUL

After two nights in Kaza and some shopping at the Ladarcha fair we went to Keylong in Lahaul valley. First we took a morning Kullu-bound bus to Gramphoo (32.24 N, 77.15 E, ca. 3300 m) on the junction of Manali-Leh and Manali-Kaza road. There are two morning buses from Kaza in that direction – at 4.30 a.m. to Kullu via Manali and at 7.00 a.m. to Manali. We booked our tickets an evening before at the bus stand. Getting to Gramphoo took 8 hrs along a mostly bad unpaved road, costed 130 Rs. According to the Kaza taxi union rates, a jeep from Kaza to Keylong would cost 5500 Rs. Our bus stopped for breakfast in Losar village (32.27 N, 77.52 E, alt. 3950 m). If somebody plans stopping here, we’ve seen 2 or 3 basic-looking guesthouses and a few dhabas. Then the bus took us up the Kunzum La (32.23.40 N, 77.38 E, alt. 4551 m) where the bus respectfully drove around the small temple on the top of the pass and stopped for prayers or photo-taking. From Kunzum La we descended into upper Lahaul valley and the landscape suddenly changed – the mountains were more spectacular, with crevasse-ridden glaciers almost hanging above the valley, the slopes green, with more abundant creeks and waterfalls. We stopped again for lunch short before Gramphoo. Gramphoo itself is not the worst place for a short stop – it consists of 3 or 4 dhabas at the roadside.

In Gramphoo we planned to catch a Manali to Keylong bus, but as none arrived for an hour or so, we made the tactical error and hitch-hiked. We got a lift from a big richly decorated truck going to Leh which turned out to be probably the slowest one in the Indian Himalaya. After making the first 5 km or so the driver stopped for lunch in Khoksar, where 2 HRTC buses passed us. Our backpacks were on the roof of the truck, so we didn’t stop the bus. As we drove on, we were overtaken by 3 or 4 further buses, the last one on the outskirts of Keylong. Finally it took us more than 5 hrs to travel 50 km from Gramphoo to Keylong, but the positive side of that was experiencing a ride on one of the decorated Indian trucks.

LAHAUL

In Keylong (32.34 N, 77.02 E, alt. 3050 m) we stayed at Sumrila Guesthouse on the main road, 5 minutes descent by stairs to The Mall. We paid 300 Rs for a double with ensuite bathroom, hot water from geyser. The room was average (although clean) but terrace view absolutely rocked – a broad panorama of the valley, limited by two glacier-covered groups of mountains. Meals served at guesthouse were tasty and beer was available.

Keylong is much bigger than any place in Spiti, with several internet cafes (usually 1-2 computers, connection was often down, 60 Rs/hr), restaurants and shops. There was no pharmacy though, and we had to pay a visit to local hospital to get some aspirin.

From Keylong we made some walks and a jeep trip to Udaipur and Trilokinath.

A jeep to Udaipur (32.44 N, 76.40 E, alt. 2640 m) and Trilokinath, ca. 50 km one way, costed us 1500 Rs and for additional 200 Rs the driver agreed to take us to Shashur Gompa above Keylong at the end of our trip. We negotiated the price directly with the driver at the taxi stand near Sumrila GH – agencies in the town wanted 200-300 Rs more. Unfortunately the Shashur Gompa was closed and all the monks were out in the town, so we could only walk around and peep through the main door.

The most obvious walk from Keylong was a visit to Khardong Gompa – well visible on the other side of the Bhaga valley, just opposite Keylong. The walk is along a well paved footpath – first down to the Bhaga river (the descent starts near the hospital on the western, lower end of Keylong), across a bridge and up to the village of Khardong (with a small Drukpa temple in the middle). From the village we got a lift from a monk driving to the monastery, but there’s also a more direct footpath. The gompa, belonging to the Drukpa school, is mostly new, but there are some old Tantric frescoes inside. It was closed the monks are living in nearby buildings, so there should be always somebody to open it. It’s not practicable to take a jeep to Khardong gompa, as there’s no direct road from Keylong and it requires a detour via Tandi at the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga rivers.

Another walk was a visit to Yordong Gompa, spotted by us a day before from Khardong – set quite spectacularly among cliffs above the village a few kms down from Keylong on the main Manali-Leh road (in the direction of Manali). From Keylong we walked down along the road which was a continuation of The Mall (running parallel below the main road), crossed a nullah with a big stream and joined the main road. After a kilometer or so along the main road we reached HRTC repair compound (with a small sign pointing to Yordong gompa), entered it and took a paved path uphill to the gompa. The monastery is new and not very interesting but the walk itself and the setting amidst hanging cliffs is quite nice.

RETURN

From Keylong we went to Manali by HRTC bus (130 Rs, ca. 6 hrs). Not far before Manali a landslide blocked the road on the descent from Rohtang Pass, so we walked over and instead of waiting for a connecting bus took a shared jeep for 50 Rs per seat.

In Manali (alt. 1900 m) we stayed at Tashila hotel in the Model Town (short walk from the bus and taxi stands, close to the Tibetan gompas), which we could definitely recommend. We payed 300 Rs for a large comfortable room with bathroom (hot water), terrace and TV with BBC News. The manager also arranged taxis well below the official rates. We made a day trip to Naggar by car arranged by him, for 500 Rs (including waiting time).

From Manali on we had a third backpack in result of our visits in Bookworm bookshop (two branches in New Manali – near post office and behind the bus stand), so we decided to take a car to Mandi, as only ordinary HRTC buses were available on that route. Arranged through our hotel it costed 1500 Rs (drivers at the taxi stand wanted 2000 Rs) and took almost 4 hrs. The lower part of the valley was quite spectacular, with a big waterfall among tropical flora at Hanogi and monkeys hanging around at the roadside.

In Mandi (31.43 N, 76.56 E, alt. 750 m, so pretty hot) we stayed at Hotel Evening Plaza just above Indira Market. Contrary to what is said in the LP guide, it’s a very short 5 minutes walk across a bridge from the bus stand. We paid 500 Rs for a double with fan and an run-down aircooler, decent but not worth this price.

We walked around the temples of Mandi (2-3 hrs are enough for a visit) and made a day trip to Rewalsar next day. Rewalsar (31.38 N, 76.50 E, alt. 1330 m, so much cooler than Mandi) is connected with Mandi by HRTC buses leaving every hour or so (1 hr, 22 Rs). It seemed to us a much nicer place to spend a night than Mandi.

Getting from Mandi to Delhi with something better than an ordinary bus required booking a ticket for one of the Manali-Delhi or Dharamsala-Delhi overnight buses. We did it via Satluj Bus agency at the bus stand in Mandi and had to pay the full fare from Manali – 900 Rs per person for an AC deluxe bus (this description fully fitting the facts). The bus dropped us quite close to Paharganj and Connaught place in Delhi.

On our second stay in Delhi we decided to look for something better than Anoop and finally found a nice room at Star Paradise hotel (http://www.stargroupofhotels.com/, but their website is down right now) at a side street close to Downtown hotel. We could recommend it – a nice, clean and comfortable room with bathroom and AC costed 700 Rs, had TV and a fridge. Meals and beer could be ordered to the room and laundry service was also available. The guys working there were honest – at one time I forgot to lock our room and being back we found our room properly locked, key at the reception and none of our belongings missing. Another time I misunderstood the amount I had to pay for laundry service, paid 50 Rs too much and got it back within 2 minutes.

They arranged for us a car to the airport for 300 Rs. Hearing all the stories about the queues on the airport we went there far too early which was a mistake, as passengers were allowed into the terminal first 3-4 hrs before departure. Luckily we had our e-tickets printed out, as they were quite thoroughly checked on entering the terminal, including checking the names on the tickets against our passports. There is a waiting room charging 30 Rs opposite the terminal but most people just wait outside.

That was the end of our trip which made us very eager to visit Himachal again…

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