Monday, June 17, 2019

Conveniently Inconvenient: The visa processing bottleneck




Visa facilitation centers in India were enforced by the Government to ease the travel process and shrink the complications. The tourism industry thrived on these visa application agencies and our dependency on them multiplied. However, it came as a shocker for me that none of the core objectives have been met by most of the visa management companies, leaving customers upset, angry and hopeless. These instances only create bad memories and corrupt impression of the country’s most trusted establishments. Here is what I came across.




When it comes to travelling abroad, visa processing centers can give you real nightmares. From mismanaged crowd to impolite staff behavior, applying for visa is turning out to be the most unpleasant experience. I guess, a thorough research and good word of mouth may give you a real picture of the scenario. Well, I am still searching for alternatives and a way to not blindly rely on tall claims.

Have you ever experienced this before? Do you prefer the services of a visa processing company or arrange everything on your own? Do share in the comments section below.  


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A fascinating road trip: Gurugram to Bikaner



A stretch of smooth roads lined with trees on both the sides was hubby's and my dream. We could think of no place around NCR especially when Gurgaon authorities are on a tree-felling spree.  Post our trip to Sikkim in October 2018, we were planning a road trip this time. This was when after multiple discussions and research we zeroed in on Rajasthan. So we formulated a road trip from Gurgaon to these three cities in the exact order- Bikaner, Jaiselmer and Nagaur.

Let me help you plan a great road trip from NCR to Bikaner.



Choose the right time:
Rajasthan must be visited in winters, ideally from mid of September to mid March. Since temperate soars to 50 degree Celsius, summers is NOT the right time to visit Rajasthan, unless you are too fond of heat or want to leverage low price in off-season.
We chose first week of March (2019) when winter was slipping away slowly before the onset of summer.

The right clothing:
While summers can be harsh, winters are equally brutal. Carry clothes in cotton or breathable facbric in summers. Do not underestimate winters. From long jacket to woolen caps, you need it all.
P.S- We hadn't packed much of woolens and the first day in Bikaner was spent battling the biting cold.



Roads:
The road condition from Delhi to Bikaner is excellent. Thankfully there are no potholes or unmarked bumpers. Barring a few places after Manesar, the roads are smooth.


 There isn't much traffic on the roads which makes driving even more pleasant. he roads get crammed up when you are about to reach Bikaner.



Distance:
The road distance from Gurgaon to Bikaner is 462 km via NH8 and NH11. If you choose NH52, it will be 502 km. It takes 8 hours or more to travel from Delhi to Bikaner. Once you enter the city, the view changes to an laid back, cluttered old town. The city traffic would slow you down. Since Bikaner is one of those old cities that has not modernized much, be prepared to drive through the narrow crowded lanes.
P.S- Hotel parking places are on the roads, not within the hotel premises.

The route: 
1. Delhi-Bahadurgarh-Rohtak-Bhiwani-Chirawa-Jhunjhunu-Mandawa-Fatehpur-Ratangarh-Bikaner (NH709 &11)

2. Delhi-Rewari-Shahajahanpur-Behror-Kotputli-Reengus-Sikar-Laxmangarh-Fatehpur-Ratangarh-Bikaner (NH709)


3. Gurgoan-Rewari-Narnaul-Chirawa-Mandawa-Fatehpur-Ratangarg- Bikaner (via NH11)

We drove on route 3 (NH709)


Enough greenery on both the sides of the road was soothing while the balmy sunshine caressed us on the gentle winter morning. The latter was trying to shine through the layer of fog and the weather was pleasantly cold.  I must say, roads in Rajasthan are just so amazing. Driving never felt so good. The journey was enjoyable and we looked forward to an equally great holiday. Thankfully Google Maps guided us well and did not take any diverted route. As we sped on the highway, pieces of sandy lands started to appear and after Ratangarh vegetation turned scanty. The moment we entered the city of Bikaner, we felt the massiveness. Jam-packed market-place, the chaos, colorful houses, vibrant turbans of men, narrow lanes, the laid back vibes, we enjoyed it all. Plus the old part of the city has a railway line running through the busy market. It was a sight to behold, when the people stood clear of the rail line, halting across the barriers watching the train pass by. I had known that such kind of market exists in Thailand. My first brush with this hence happened in my own incredible India. 

Struggling through the congested lanes, we made our way to hotel Oyo Babu Heritage by lunch time and prepared for the day-out.

The lanes of Rampuriya Haveli

Our Itinerary:
We left from home at 5 am
We made it to our hotel in Bikaner by 2 pm.
Had lunch and rested for a while
Left from hotel at 4 pm to tour Rampuriya Havelis.




This is how you can plan a safe and glitch-free road trip by ticking off your essentials- 
  • Get your car serviced to avoid breakdowns 
  • Check car's tyre pressure and fuel tank  
  • On long road trip your car is prone to breakdown, flat tyre or overheating. Carry your car tool box just in case. 
  • Carry enough drinking water with you. I always carry my Milton Kool Rover Water Jug (11 liters capacity) on my road trips. This jug has traveled places with us! 
  • Pack dry snacks. Dhabas are not too frequent on lone highways.  
  • Please do not litter or trash plastic anywhere. Ultimately it goes into our own water bodies. Be a responsible traveler. 
P.S- We made the trip in March 2019. Also, the blog post made it to the list of trending posts of the day on Indiblogger home page. 
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Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Jewel of North Sikkim - Gurudongmar Lake





When a sparkling blue lake in the middle of a cold desert with crystal clear sky above leaves you speechless, you know you are at Gurudongmar lake in Sikkim. Dramatically perched atop cascading hills, 18000 feet above sea level, the place leaves you breathless, literally. Even the harsh terrain, sub-zero temperature and close proximity to China do not deter people from visiting this gem of North Sikkim. After having heard so much about this gorgeous place, husband and I finally made it there.
The pristine Gurudongmar Lake of Sikkim

As beautiful as this place looks, it is equally difficult to reach. Here is how you can plan your journey to Gurudongmar Lake.

The only way to reach  Gurudongmar is from Lachen via Thangu. So the first step is to travel to Lachen through the curvy and rough roads. Be prepared for traffic jams, long convoys of Indian army trucks, landslides, sudden change in weather and heavy rainfall. We travelled for almost seven hours from Gangtok to reach Lachen at 7 pm. It was pitch dark and luckily it poured after we checked into our homestay. The place was in ruins and looked like a bus shelter. Located in the wilderness with no market place around, we had to settle with the bad food cooked in the dirty kitchen. Our room was in bad shape. Though on our request they changed our room, we could not sleep at all. I don't want to talk about the horrible night.

Since your travel itinerary would include a night stay in Lachen, do read reviews online in advance.  Also, your travel agent or driver would have obtained your entry passes which are verified while entering Lachen. (All tourists need to have permission to enter North Sikkim in advance).

Know how to plan your trip to North Sikkim. 

Post spending one night in Lachen, you would be required to leave early morning for Gurudongmar after another bumpy ride of almost five hours. Once the Sun touches the mountain tops and the balmy sky brightens, you would get the incredible, to-die-for mountain view. The sun played through the tree tops, painting the mountains velvety green while we watched, mesmerized. 



Breakfast point at Gurudongmar


All vehicles are checked and passes re-verified at Gurudongmar entrance which starts around 7.00 am. Since tourists leave from the hotel at dawn, breakfast is served at cafes or tiny home stays at the checkpoint. While our driver was out for our passes verification, a warm Sikkimese family served us breakfast in their home kitchen with authentic antique aesthetics. A river flowing by, a foggy mountain view, friendly furry canines, the movement of army vehicles and the chill in the air multiply your excitement to witness the lake. Advisable to eat well here and take washroom break, since no settlement is found ahead.

Warming up post breakfast. Isnt the view stunning?

My furry encounter and happy selfie



Post a journey of about two hours you are required to halt again, where the passes are checked for the last time by army officials. It was here when I saw water frozen and restless female tourists in makeshift washroom queue. Don't expect any luxury here because even Indian army personnel work hard to arrange basic necessities for themselves. Yet they serve the nation with a smile.


Ship of the cold desert

Vegetation starts to vanish as you ascend higher. The intimidating brown mountains, the herd of massive yaks and little streams of rivers with a thin layer of ice greeted us. You would be enticed to get off your car, but the narrow roads and difficulty in breathing wouldn't let you.  Though the last 15 kilometers through barren landscape towards the lake point is smooth.

Towards Gurudongmar, after the last checkpost





Finally, when we got off the car to witness the marvel of nature, I was speechless. My fatigue vanished at that splendid view.  The pains we took to reach here proved to be worth.  The sight was too good to be true. The shimmering blue water of the lake looked so inviting with the clear sky beautifully embracing the towering mountains. I stared at the blue stretch with brimmed eyes, breathing slowly, trying to forget the low air pressure.









At this high altitude, it is recommended to move out within half an hour or else the low pressure takes a toll on you, causing nausea, breathlessness, rapid pulse or hallucination. Soaking in the beauty as much as we could, we bid goodbye to Gurudongmar. The place is etched in my memories forever.

On the way back, your driver would take you to Chopta Valley or Kaala Pathhar if mentioned in your itinerary and then back to Lachen for lunch.

Some safety and health tips for Gurudongmar:
-In case you have an ill, aged person or a child with you, do not take them to Gurudongmar. Lack of oxygen creates several problems. Mind you, medical facilities are not reachable, so are phone networks.

-Since it is located in the northernmost mountains of Sikkim, the place remains cold throughout the year. Needless to say, you would wear warm clothes and carry extra as well.

-If you have altitude or motion sickness, carry medicines with you.

-Advisable to keep ready to eat food with you, especially if you are travelling with elder or younger ones.

-Plastic water bottles (the packaged branded ones) are not allowed anywhere in North Sikkim. Carry your own sipper lest you should be penalized. Packaged juices are available and surprisingly allowed to be sold, but please do not leave the trash there. Non biodegradable plastic tucked between rocks or popping out in water, is a huge turn off. Plus, plastic remains in the ecosystem forever , polluting the planet. It shows the least amount of respect one has for the planet, humanity and self.

In case you are planning a trip to Zero Point in Lachung, read this.

P.S- This trip was in October 2018.
Also, the post made it to the top most list of posts on Indiblogger home page.

Top post on IndiBlogger, the biggest community of Indian Bloggers

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Touring Rampuria Havelis, Bikaner


With intricate art and vibrant colors inching throughout the exteriors, the cluster of Rampuriya havelis in Bikaner is a visual treat. This lesser known city of Rajasthan is an offbeat place to travel. Thanks to these colorful havelis. Located in the old part of the city, Rampuriya havelis were homes of the wealthy merchants many decades ago. Had the heritage property not been turned into a heritage site by the authorities, they would have been in ruins, hence damaging the chances of the little tourism they get. Visitors are not allowed to enter the havelis but can tour the lanes and settle with capturing the beauty through lenses.

Rampuria Havelis Bikaner
Rampuria Havelis Bikaner

Guarded by an aged man donning traditional Rajasthani attire, these havelis left me with a mystic charm. If the buildings look so gorgeous on the exterior, imagine the rich details of the interiors.

Guarding the heritage


The bulky locks with chains on the doors, the colorful windows, the carvings and paintings on the walls date back to the 1400's. Imagine 600 year old buildings! As I walked through the tiny lanes, the view of the adjacent buildings intrigued me deeper into the old city.









Intricate art 



Rich details in every corner 


Ancient homes so beautiful

Vibrant colors of the architecture

Old  is always gold




The grandeur of the past  




ENTRY FEES-
None.

BEST TIME TO VISIT- 
The heritage buildings can be visited any time of the day, though I suggest morning or evening for photography in better light. Day time can get extremely warm with unbearable heat in Summers..

November to March is an ideal time to visit Rajasthan which otherwise scorches with 50 degree centigrade temperature.

HOW TO REACH
One can easily reach the place via auto or taxi. If your hotel is close by in the old Bikaner city, you might was well walk.

GOOD TO KNOW- Bikaner is a small town of Rajasthan with still developing infrastructure. While the old town charm remains the same, do not expect good roads or open spaces. The lanes are congested, air pollution is high and the old town is quite untidy.

P.S- This trip of mine was in March 2019. The post made it to the top post of the day and was featured on Indiblogger home page.

Top post on IndiBlogger, the biggest community of Indian Bloggers



Sunday, February 3, 2019

All about planning a trip to Nathula Pass




Sikkim was one hell of a trip for us (husband and me). While searching for Sikkim tour places, Nathula made it to top priority list. Since there were a lot of surprises and changes in plan,  I wasn't sure if  we would be able to make here as Gangtok to Nathula pass taxi fares were high. At last we found a travel agent in Gangtok Gandhi market, who made necessary arrangements at 1000 INR per person. (It varies between Rs 700-1000 depending on the season.) Booking a whole taxi costs around Rs 2500 which is recommended for a group or family travelling together

P.S- Visitors are required to fill up a form with details which is submitted by the agent at the border authority office. The forms are queued up for next day and signaled for 'permit'.  Hence one must apply for the same a day before the intended visit.

For altitude sickness and breathlessness, it is recommended to have popcorns. Buy a packet or two from vendors at the taxi stand.



The shared taxis (usually Tata Sumo or Bolero) ferry ten people in one go. We left sharp at 9 am with 8 more people as co-passengers. The breathtaking views on the old Silk route of 53 km from the taxi stand to Nathula Pass left us speechless. The views changed from emerald cover of mountains to tree tops wrapped in fluff of clouds. The rapidly changing landscape compensated for the little challenges on the curvy road. Narrow roads along with solo bikers slowed us down and we got stuck at a check post for half an hour. Yet our excitement throughout the journey remained on a high.


Be prepared for road blockages or broken bridges that happen due to avalanche and the only people who take responsibility to repair the damages is Indian Army. Roads are a lifeline of Sikkim as well as strategically important due to proximity from China. Hats off to our Army who rapidly come into action and keep everything moving.

P.S- Due to this bridge construction, entry to Nathula was stopped for two days. Luckily the roads were opened just a day before we inquired. Do get in touch with Sikkim tourist information center before you make booking for Nathula.



Our stoppage on the way where we were greeted by a furry lot. 

Enroute Nathula

The driver would usually stop midway for a short break. Advisable to to relieve yourself or fuel up with food during the break, since the facilities vanish as you near Nathula. Your driver would have a collaboration with these tiny eating joints, where you are required to place your order for lunch in advance.

(Food is quite costly; one plate of fried rice was Rs 180 and a humble thali of rice, daal and dry veggies was priced at Rs 200.  But its okay. Given the harsh terrain where logistics support is negligible, that's how they make a living)

Vegetation started thinning and temperature dropped gradually as we sped through the uphill curves. Our co-passengers had come to a common consensus to visit Nathula Pass first followed by Tsongmo Lake and Baba Mandir on the way back.








Stepping out at an altitude of 14000 feet in spine chilling cold towards Nathula Pass post was a life-learning. We took one step at a time on the stairs, slowly inching towards the Indo-Chinese post facing each other. Icy wind hit our ears and lack of oxygen made us breathless. But you know what kept us going? It was the Indian Army soldiers who had a smile on their face while braving the odds. Nothing puts them off guard or off duty even in sub zero temperature.

Read about my fascinating experience in Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim here. 

An Army personnel narrates stories of the post formation, the ill-fated war and history of Chinese invasion. Both the country's flag flutter in chilled winds, each representing the respective nation's pride. While you can look at the Chinese guard post and sometimes their soldiers on inspection rounds, photography is strictly prohibited. We were told that Indian tourists out of excitement take pictures and post on social media which Chinese use as a propaganda against India. They have accused India in past of war preparations.

PS: If caught, mobile phones are confiscated. Use of SLR camera is a big no. You can carry your camera but in no case would be allowed to use it.

Imbibing the stories and paying our respect at the war memorial, we made our way out through the canteen grabbing some jalebi and momos. Army also sells small collectibles and gift items worth carrying home as memories. We bought a wall poster on which has a space to paste a picture and write the date of visit. This was the best collectible from Nathula for us.

P.S- Do spend a little at the souvenir shop. It can be an amount as small as Rs 50. The money goes to Army welfare. This is the least you can contribute for the brave-hearts on duty. 

Enriched with a sense of pride, saluting the heroes of the nation and paying a quiet homage at the war memorial, we bid adieu to Nathula hoping to come back some day again.   Our next stops were Baba Mandir and Lake Tsongmo.





P.S- My trip to Nathula was in October 2018.
This post made it to Indiblogger Homepage as the featured post of the day as well as the top post of the day.
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