This post has got nothing to do with any series but just another one of my random musings about travel. As the pandemic rages on and on it gives me more than adequate time to pen (type really!) these thoughts about how I travel and what I like about it. My last post was my ode to Europe and what I love about travelling to that continent – Random Musings – Why we keep returning to Europe year after year. This one is something that is not restricted to a single continent!It may feel a bit piecemeal and disjointed but that’s life nowadays!
As the title of the post mentions I am a coastal city dweller and lived for most of my life in the coastal megapolis called Mumbai. So a beach (albeit a slightly filthy one) was always a short bus ride away. Visiting a beach was a regular activity throughout childhood but a trip to the mountains was always special as it happened only once in a few years. I used to travel with my parents and their friends in childhood and still have fond memories (but sadly no photographs handy!) of going to the meadows of Gulmarg or freezing all my tips off to get up early morning to go to view the Kanchenjunga in Darjeeling.
That fascination of the hills and mountains carried on into adulthood. Also being a non swimmer meant that the most I could do at a coast was waddle in the waves which is not my idea of fun. The better half has to suffer because of that as I am not very eager for a beach vacation unless there is something of my interest nearby. ( Read National Park!) But mention a hill station or a mountain foothill destination and I am always game.
In India we have the British and their intolerance to our tropical weather to thank for the development of most of the hill stations in India. So in every state there is a resort on the tallest hill / mountain that can be relatively easily accessed, ergo there is no shortage of new destinations! We consider ourselves fairly well travelled but we haven’t even visited a fraction of the numerous hill stations dotting the country.
So what is it that makes me ready to brave the almost always nauseating ride up the curving roads to get to a hill station. First and most importantly it is the views that greet you when you are on the top or even on the way to the top. Even in our country it varies a lot from the low hills of the Western ghats to the tea plantation dotted hills of the Nilgiris, the high altitude desert and lakes of Ladakh to the awe-inspiring snow covered peaks of the Himalayas. I will never get bored of sitting on a rock with a hot coffee in hand and enjoying these views.
A very important part of enjoying the hills is choosing a good place to stay in these picturesque locations. We have been lucky enough to stay in the full spectrum of the accommodation choices in our last decade of travel. We have enjoyed a night tucked away in our sleeping bags in a tent pitched in a small meadow in the Great Himalayan National Park (Trekking the Great Himalayan National Park, Part 1 – The long walk to Rolla) as well as stay in much more luxurious tented camps along the lakes in Ladakh (Lakes of Ladakh – Pangong Tso).
We have also stayed in small boutique hotels that are a bit away from the concrete jungles that the bigger Hill stations in India have transformed into. The most memorable among these being the Hotel Sherlock in Ooty (Ooty & Coonoor – A Short Monsoon Vacation – Part 1), a pretty little bungalow in Gagar known as the White Peaks ( The White Peaks , Part 1 – Mukteshwar and a short hike up the hill in Gagar)and most recently the amazing Sunnymead Estate in Shimla (The Sunnymead Estate, Part 1 – A blissful oasis in the middle of chaotic Shimla). All these places elevated our vacations in these high altitude places from good to great.
Our stays have also included small budget homestay at a small village called Nagini before our foray into the Great Himalayan National park, a luxurious homestay after the trek at the beautiful residence of Stephen &Hema Marchal called the Eagles Nest (Eagles Nest Homestay – Last day in the beautiful Tirthan Valley) to the other extreme of a 5 star resort stay at the Le Meridien in Mahabaleshwar. We have also stayed in beautiful eco-resorts in the Western Ghats of Goa (Birding in the forests of Goa, Part 4 – The afternoon of the Little Spiderhunter) & had a memorable homestay with Girish and family at the Jungle Bird Homestay in Thattekad (Birding in the lush and Serene forests of Thattekad – Part 3) .While the cost of staying a night in the first was a fraction of the cost in the last, each of them had their own little charm.
Going to the mountains has always involved some sort of walking or trekking activity for us. We are not the sort of travellers that go to a hotel and plonk ourselves on the sofa for the entirety of our stay. ( Though we have enjoyed a cosy evening in front of a fireplace on a cold evening as much as the next traveller!). The better half is an avid trekker of late and compared to her I am a rank amateur. I am too yellow livered to try rappelling or any similar adrenaline pumping activities but I enjoy the strenuous walk up a mountain ( I don’t enjoy the walk down though as it tests my already testy knee!).
So all the red soiled trails of Matheran have been walked upon multiple times by us when we went there. We even left the luxurious confines of the Le Meridien to walk down to a waterfall on slippery stairs in the pouring rain when in Mahabaleshwar. Birding in the hills (more on that later) always involves a lot of walking in the forests. Even in our time in the Alps or the Tatra mountains we have never shied away from physical activity & hiked up to a vantage point (Varenna – The Perfect dreamy little town on Lake Como) or walked hours to reach a lake (Zakopane , Part 1 – The hike to Morskie Oko on a rare non rainy day in the Tatras) wherever anything that suits our physical status was available.
Recently I stepped out of my comfort zone and did a multiway basic trek into the Great Himalayan National Park. Even though the trek was marred by a day lost to rain & my bad knee gave up on the final day (I still completed the trek without being carried out!) it was an exhilarating experience. The views and the changing weather at the top of Shilt was something I will never forget. ( Trekking the Great Himalayan National Park, Part 2 – The climb up to the Shilt hut after a rained out day at Rolla) I aim to get fitter and do another trek in that region hopefully some day.
The food in most of these places is reason enough to visit them. The simple but tasty and varied food served to us on the trek in the GNHP was amazing in its own way. The tented camps in Ladakh used to serve so much variety of piping hot food in that remote location was a pleasant surprise in itself. But a few places do merit a mention – The fingerpicking food made and served by Mohan and Pawan at the White Peaks in Gagar & the near gourmet cuisine made by the staff and served with great enthusiasm by the owner Madhavi Bhatia at the Sunnymead estate ensured that we returned from those trips weighing a kilo or two more.
Wildlife is something that I seek out in all my travels as most of the people who have read any of my posts would know. The hills are no different. That there is a exemplary variety of birdlife in the foothills of the Himalayas or the Western Ghats makes it even more enticing for me to travel to these places. It is like a cherry on the top of an already loaded Sundae.
There are some wildlife moments in the mountains that are etched in my memory forever & I am not including the ones from the birding trips as those are too many to ennumerate. Photographing a noisy flock of Oriental White eyes while sitting on the porch of my room at the Sherlock, staking out a flower patch at the botanical gardens in Ooty to get a good photo of the little sunbird, driving around Tsokar in Ladakh to get a good photo of the Black Necked Cranes, watching Red billed Leiothrixes thrash around in the bird bath at the Sunnymead, watching warblers dart among the bushes from our porch at the White peaks, watching a Chaffinch suddenly pose close to us on the walk to Morskie Oko and the list goes on and on.
Though the memorable bird sightings outnumber the animals the few which pop into my head are watching a Kiang gallop full stretch across the rocky landscape in Ladakh, a barking deer just staying long enough for me to get a photo before galloping off up the hill in Gagar, a Ghoral popping out near our camp at Rolla to enjoy the brief sunny interlude on a rainy day. Then there were the marmots across two continents that have been a happy subject for the camera. They have kept the 300mm happy and satisfied & justified me carrying the lens everywhere I go.
The people that I have met in my trips to these mountainous regions have always been friendly without exception. I still maintain contact with many of them and hope to meet them again some day.
Last but not the least I must mention the dogs of the hills as they have played a great role in making our trips more memorable. We have had a dog that I named “Kuttu Guide” walk with us on the trails of Matheran to each of the points to be rewarded by a packet of biscuits. A family of dogs at the Neora valley jungle camp entertained us and the head of the family used to accompany us in our treks around the region. The dogs at the Christian Ashram in Sattal who kept the monkeys away and allowed us birders to get some great photos. The effervescent Kali at the White peaks Gagar who was always ready for belly rub or a walk upto the top of the hill at a moments notice. The dogs at Sunnymead ( and the cats too) especially Ghussi (I mistakenly called her Goosie in my earlier posts but I stand corrected!) the naughtiest of them all, always ready to play fetch or wreck havoc at any birds who may dare venture near the bird baths when she was around. I may have missed a few of these 4 legged friends of ours but they always make me smile when I think of the times we spent with them.
Here I have not touched on the cable cars and cog wheel trains in the Alps as they merit a post of their own (Maybe whenever I am in a rambling mood next!). I have gone on for far too long but the gist of it is, the hills will always be calling me and I will always heed their call sooner rather than later till I am fit and able.
Till my next random travel thoughts,
In the words of my cousin,