December 30, 2012

Patisotagami


They arrive in vanquished dreams,
Dance away in solitary rooms,
I hear them weep deep inside.

Kisses on the roses are no longer red,
Fields are not toiled any more,
Taps run dry under the eternal sun,
Libraries of human delusions.


Stagnation, is the only recourse.

November 05, 2012

Chitkul - The Last Village

(This article was published in The Hindu Metro Plus dated 27-Oct-2012)




Journey to the end of the earth, or that’s what it feels like, when we visit Chitkul on the India-Tibet border

A couple of hours commuting to the airport, the pre-boarding hours, two and half hours in a plane, eight hours on a bus from Delhi to Shimla, then an entire day's bus journey to Sarahan, followed by another long day of rickety bus rides. That’s a total of 35 arduous hours spent so far on the road and here I am at 3:00 pm on Day 3 in Chitkul, the last village on the Indian side at the India-Tibet border.

The sun's rays are still strong and the day shows no signs of coming to an end. Chitkul is glowing as if the lights will never be put off in this hamlet. There’s a sense of cosiness, as if the place is transfixed in time, but a chilly wind from the Baspa valley that carries moisture from the Baspa river, is a reminder of the travails of time.

This last hamlet is by no means just a village. What was a remote village a few years ago with few travellers is now on the tourist map. The half-a-dozen guest houses greet us with signs of 'rooms available' and the attached restaurants display descriptive menus, mainly consisting of thukpas, momos, noodles and the omnipresent Indian thali.

The women are filling up water in cans from a tap just above ground level while the Baspa river flows by down the valley. A few donkeys linger and the putrid smell of their excreta is eclipsed in the afternoon breeze.

Our spine yearns for rest, which is duly acknowledged in the Thakur Guest House, a small place that mainly caters to budget travellers. The room on the ground floor, although hardly ventilated, is clean enough for a quick nap. Our sleep is broken by a passing tractor and we realise with a start that it’s 6:00 pm. With the hope of capturing the evening sun, I venture out, only to find the sun still bright, though the wind in the valley has become much stronger and the temperature has dropped. A hot cup of tea, perfectly savoured from the guesthouse terrace, lets me enjoy the view.

The morning has a pale blueness to it and one can hear the Baspa hitting the boulders in the distance. The chirping of the birds is like a chime in this one-man orchestra. Outside the guesthouse, I get a morning view of the Himalayas. With the sun's rays hitting only the peaks, the lower portions are still drenched in darkness, and the mountains look like they have been given a layer of icing at the top. The snow-capped ones shimmer as if they are the crowning jewels of India. One could sit on the terrace the whole day and do nothing but look at the skyline.

After two or three cups of chai, we brave a stroll up to the river. The Baspa is murky, carrying silt and mud, but the flow is still extremely strong. The place looks perfect for rafting, as there are many Class III and IV rapids. The sun is getting brighter but the cold is still perceptible. Another 5-6 km walk would have brought me to the Indian border check post but my laziness gets the better of me. I am told that 20 km from the check post lies Tibet.

I take a post-prandial walk around the village. With only a few hundred people living here, I expect to stumble on quite a few people and have some interesting conversations. But most of the villagers seem busy cooking lunch in their beautiful wooden homes.

An old man smoking tobacco tells me the small house-like structures scattered across the village are used to store grain and fodder, protecting them from snow and rain. I stumble upon a big beautiful wooden door, the main gate to the temple of the local goddess, known as Chitkul Maathi or Mata Devi. Chitkul is the last stop in the Kinner Kailash Parikrama, which starts from Kalpa, going via Thangi, Lambar and Charang, and continues towards Rakcham, Sangla and culminates at Karcham where the Baspa meets the Sutlej. 

Chitkul is cut off during winter and many villagers move to Sangla or Rampur. Looking back, I realise the arduous journey was well worth it. In Chitkul, the best thing to do is relax, soak in the views and take back enchanting memories. In many ways, it felt as if time had frozen in Chitkul.
 
HOW TO GET THERE
Hire a cab from Shimla, the wait for buses is long. The adventurous can hit Rekong Peo from Shimla. There are two daily buses to Chitkul from Rekong Peo. Sangla is the last big town before Chitkul and has many staying and eating options.
 
WHERE TO STAY
Panchali Resort and Thakur Guest House are good budget options, while Banjara Camp & Retreat, and Igloo Nature Camp offer slightly pricey tented accommodation.
 
WHAT TO EAT
You can get momos, thukpas, noodles and Indian thalis almost everywhere.

October 26, 2012

Change

Its time for change! And I am planning to move this blog and rebrand it.

I started this blog way back in 2004-2005 and since then the layout has been pretty much the same and so has been the title. The blog name of 'blizzardzblogs' came from my then preferred nick(handle) of 'blizzardz' which i did not much often use. And also the title 'Origin>Identity>Destiny' was something that was coined by my inclination towards philosophy and the all associated things.

But, i think its time for a change and fill in this blog with some energy which actually connotes 'Me' and carries the flavour of what i want from my life - namely, 'adrenaline'.

All the posts etc will remain as-is, and i am just going to change the blog link to something else. So, the link of http://blizzardzblogs.blogspot.com will no longer be available. And i am not sure whether this will break the GReader subscriptions too if you are reading this on your Google Reader.

Tune back into my profile link or hit http://about.me/venkasub after sometime for the updated blog link.


October 03, 2012

On TV Series

As a kid(and later as a teen) i used to watch a few TV series, most of them were the Hindi ones; and those were the days when we used to get only Doordarshan. Cable TV was a luxury, though there was an abundance of VCRs.

Bharat Ek Khoj, a series by Shyam Benegal, probably is/was one of the BEST series in the Indian Television, which used to run on Sunday mornings at 9am . It ran the viewer through the different periods in our rich Indian history and the Indus Valley civilization. This is probably one of the series that is etched in my mind. The hymns 'Shrishti se pehle sat nahin tha, Asat bhi nahin, Antariksh bhi nahin, Aakash bhi nahin thaa' still reverberates in my ears and the voice of Om Puri with the Roshan Seth acting as Nehru and doing the narration is unparalleled. It is a MUST watch for every Indian who wants to understand and appreciate our ethos without poring over our voluminous books. You can watch the series online in here.

The late 1980s and the 1990s saw emergence of the soap operas. Hum Log was supposedly one of the longest running TV series/soap operas in our Indian Televsion with a HUGE viewership. Almost everyone who watched it was spellbound by Ashok Kumar(Dada muni's ) voice and connected with the characters. The character names became house-hold names. The limericks of Ashok Kumar at the end of each episode was a treat in itself. And then as i was growing into a teen ,in the age of liberalization, i was introduced to Byomkesh Bakshi and Tehakikat. Byomkesh Bakshi had that charm and suspense factor which no other Indian TV series has so far; the director made every effort to keep the viewer tuned-in into the show and made the latter guess the climax. Also, the clean and uncorrupted Hindi was a treat to the ears. Tehakikat was a lesser watched show(though equally popular); it was produced and directed by Dev Anand's brother Vijay Anand and had a touch of humour in the detective series. (Correct me if i am wrong, but i think Saurabh Shukla was introduced in this series.) I was always hooked to this show, and had to fight with my parents to watch it even during my exams. Probably it was Byomkesh Bakshi and Tehakikat that led me to read the Three Investigators series. I remember, DD-3 introduced some TV series, but i do not remember the names(i think i saw Yes Priminister here for the first time, but my memory is not helping me).

And then life became hectic with the board exams and college. I also started distancing myself from TV and with the computer becoming Numero Uno in my life. I was sitting in front of my desktop most of the time. Movies(again, on computer) and Computer Games became the favourite past time, and also i suspect if the early 2000s saw any interesting TV series. Nevertheless, after almost a long time i started watching TV series a couple of years back, guess it was Mr.Bean and the Youtube which made me watch BlackAdder; the latter is one my MOST favorite TV series. The Mighty Boosh brought the geekiness in me alive and i was hooked to the British TV series for now. 'Yes Prime Minister' gave the much needed push in the adrenaline rush in the political satire arena(hardly there was, and is, anything on politics!) - also the humor in this TV series was very much related to the gray matters.

Mid last year, i started with the new BBC series called Sherlock - and i must say that the direction is simply awesome and so is the camera work. The dialogues are perfect and there is hardly any superficiality to it(though some might find the 'new' Sherlock objectionable). The Season-3 of this series is out only next year and this led me to watch the older version of this character - namely ' Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' played by Jeremy Brett. The protagonist almost dissolved into this role and i must say that it was a very gripping series - am yet to complete all the seasons. The role of Watson in this series is though sympathetic. He lurches around like a poor dumb soul with hardly any punch.

Along with Sherlock, i was introduced to The White Collar. This is a nice and sophisticated series appealing to the masses and am sure all the ladies watching this would be drooling when they watch Neal Caffrey. The character of 'Neal Caffrey' played by 'Matt Bomer' is nice with hardly any over-acting. The episodes are nicely spaced and have a nice running tempo. Though, 'Peter Burke' seems to overact at certain places, his wife 'Liz(Elizabth Burke, played by 'Tiffani Thiessen') seems to worsen it by her head-shakes. "Suits" - a legalese based thriller, which i like more than White Collar is again a nice series to watch - though slightly lengthy, but it runs fast. The protagonists, Mike Ross(Patrick J. Adams) and Harvey Specter(Gabriel Macht), have done a great job with the roles and the direction is again very nice. The dialogues and the quick retorts by , is awesome.

How i Met your Mother(HIMYM) and The Big Bang Theory(TBBT) were quick watches due to their shorter running times(only 20mins). We started with TBBT and then i started with HIMYM in parallel, but i quickly lost interest in HIMYM, as the plots were  not getting interesting, whereas Sheldon and Penny , interspersed with Howard, Rajesh and Leonard, in TBBT , were the best with their one liners and innuendos.

"Games of Thrones" was probably the best series that i watched till now. Each of the episodes was like watching a movie, and i simply could not resist from watching the episodes back-to-back. The scale at which this series is produced and the locales are drool-worthy. And I am yearning for 2013 wherein the next season would be telecast. Though there is ample amount of gore, blood, sex, nudity, and lust , this series is still a must watch for all the adventure and fantasy enthusiasts. Simply, do not miss this.

Driven by my experience(s) with British comedy, we started watching IT Crowd, the story of two young guys in an IT team, who happen to get a lady manager who knows shite about IT. Some great geek humor and quick watch.

Earlier this year, we started watching Two and Half Men, and i must say that its a very entertaining series; some episodes are a total drab, but there are some great rib tickling humor. Watching Jake say 'okay' is a treat in itself, not to mention Rose(the sweet homely girl next door) who is an excellent stalker. Alan seems to overact sometimes, but Charlie subdues him suitably. We stopped after Season-7 - one of the reasons being it was getting boring and the other being we simply did not have the new seasons..

And recently i saw "Band of Brothers" miniseries. Being an ardent war aficionado myself, i simply loved this series. Each of the episodes is done at the scale of 'Saving Private Ryan' and the "Director's touch" is unmistakable. The way the last few episodes totally changed the tempo of the the series is beautiful. I started watching this series on a Saturday(with a pretty bad jetlag) and the 10 part series(each spanning close to an hour) was done by Sunday evening :). The 9th episode, in which they show the Allied forces stumbling on an concentration camp and going clueless as to what it was, was simply mind-numbing. I had seen the movie 'The Boy in Striped Pyjamas' earlier , but the scene in BoB was simply a thousand times better - the way the people in the camp are shown would make anyone emotional. WATCH THIS!

And those were some of the series that i have watched in the recent past. Series like Terra Nova (and a few others) got my attention span only for a few minutes. Having said that, am looking forward to Shyam Benegal's much anticipated new TV series.

September 02, 2012

Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh, India

(This article was published in The Hindu Metro Plus dated 1-Sept-2012) 


In the hills of Himachal Pradesh we stumble upon a little town of gompas, temples and silences.

I could hear a thousand bees buzzing and the occasional chime of bells interjected by a clang, as if two super bees had just collided and sent a ripple of high frequency waves across the foggy mountain air. The moisture in the air absorbed this distinct clamour, and the buzzing continued and became more pronounced as I climbed further up. As I trudged a few steps off the serpentine road, a small structure emerged as the source of this humming. The human hum now took on the distinctive shape of the morning prayers of the nuns in the Buddhist monastery there.

Just a turn away from this came another unassuming one-storied building. With much curiosity, I interrupted the lama sitting there chanting and rotating his handheld prayer wheel, to ask for directions to the caves, only to shown into the building. A few steps inside and I felt the sudden drop in temperature and the anxiety of an impending stillness. A small inverted V-shaped opening to the right made me feel I was just about to enter a new world, like Alice. 

A huge statue of Padum or Guru Padmasabhava, as he is known, looked down upon the small room created by the walls of the caves and illuminated by many candles and a few tube lights. The silence in the air was discontinued only by his looks and the pointed goatee beard. The pale gold statue of Rinpoche, in his classic sitting pose, had just enough space to be ensconced between the two cave walls. The small cave room became the perfect time-capsule for a few passengers who wanted to digress from earthly harangues and meditate in this stillness. A sharp ear could hear water trickling down the walls in the adjoining smaller cave that housed a small idol of Padum’s consort Madarava.

Stepping out of the cave, my eyes were blinded by the whiteness of the fog and the clouds passing by. I climbed up the mountain to Naina Devi temple where there was more human presence. Bhajans could be heard clearly while my mind yearned to collect the prasad on my way out. The clouds eclipsed the temple towers and the heat from the havan kund was perfect for the weather. A newly-wed couple sought blessings from the mountain Goddess Bhagwati, an incarnation of Durga, while a few kids busily clicked pictures with the clouds as backdrop. The time for arathi made the pilgrims congregate at the sanctum while I ran out to get the prasad. After the unassuming fanfare at the temple, a government HRTC bus took me back to Rewalsar via a densely fogged road lined with pine trees.

I could see the 123 ft statue of Padmasabhava overlooking the town of Rewalsar from a hillock while rains continued to wet the green coloured lake called Tso Pema, Padmacan or The Lotus Lake. The sun's rays impregnated the clouds and struck the statue making it much more lustrous. A hot cup of tea in the cafe outside the Nyingmapa Gompa, whichmade a perfect resting place, where I could sit and watch the huge statue while letting the monsoon sink into me. Reading a book was not an option, as the silence of the staccato was mind-numbing. The mind picturised the whole sequence of events of Vajracharya on the burning pyre, which instead of consuming him turned into a pool of water and hence the water body called Padmacan and the genesis of Guru Padmasambhava, who went on to preach Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet from here.

A much-revered destination for Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs alike, Rewalsar on the hills had a charm that not many pilgrim sites possess. During a quiet walk around the lake, I stopped at different places to just look at the huge statue and get into a minor trance. It is believed that Rishi Lomas meditated here; and also that there is a Gurudwara built by the Raja Joginder Sen of Mandi to commemorate Guru Gobind Singh's visit. Having been mentioned as a sanctuary in Sau Sakhi, the town is sacred for Namdhari Sikhs as well.
Nestled between all these religious sites I found a small zoo that housed some ghorals, barking deer, porcupines and bear. The panoramic view from the side of the lake, which housed a huge prayer wheel and hundreds of smaller prayer wheels (or mane, as they are called) was the perfect culmination point after perambulating the lake.

After a few days in this quaint little town, I rushed back to the madness of the city to immerse myself in some post-travel research to find out know more about this uncharted destination.

HOW TO GET THERE
Rewalsar in Himachal Pradesh is 25km from Mandi and well connected by buses and taxis with Delhi. HPTDC operates comfortable Volvo buses.  

WHERE TO STAY 
Drikung Kadyud Gompa and Nyingmapa Gompa offer basic rooms at cheap rates. HPTDC Traveller's Inn and Hotel Lotus Lake behind the bus-stand are other options. 

WHAT TO EAT
Momos, thukpas and noodles are aplenty and the road outside Nyingmapa Gompa has many small eateries. Kommunity Kafe has nice thalis, albeit slightly pricey. The Tso Pema cafe sells organic tea and banana muffins. 

(This article was published in The Hindu Metro Plus dated 1-Sept-2012)

September 01, 2012

Book Review : The The Art of Intelligence by Henry A.Crumpton

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-07-2012)

We've got thousands dead. All I want is the mission. You gave it to me. I'm grateful." Thus responded Henry Crumpton (Hank) to his call of duty towards operations in Afghanistan. In The Art of Intelligence, Crumpton recounts how he joined the CIA as one of the youngest recruits, carried out operations in different geographies and rose to be the head of Special Operations in CIA's Counterterrorism Center and later as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State. The book is packed with many instances of action that involve running agent networks all over the world, collecting valuable intelligence, executing global covert action, leading men in war, and helping defend the US — aspects that make the book a good read for students of international relations.

This enjoyable read starts with the various components of the tradecraft and Crumpton's experiences with these. The first half talks about training, recruiting and liaisoning skills. Having spent around a decade running agent networks in Africa, Crumpton says, "Good spies are like athletes; good spies are born, developed and trained." A key step, as Crumpton explains, is how CIA transformed itself with the inception of new technology. Like how usage of GPS during the war in Afghanistan was instrumental in sharing intelligence quickly with ground forces. Or how proliferation of the Web made espionage an important part of collecting digital intelligence. Familiar with tough decisions that affect many lives, he notes that though engaging the enemy lethally is important, understanding and winning over the people is crucial. Parallels could be easily drawn in a corporate zone.

The dynamics between the CIA, Department of Defence, the FBI and policy-makers figures as a running theme in various contexts. Crumpton often takes a dig at the FBI for an almost non-existent intelligence analysis and sharing mechanism with the CIA, and compares it to that of the CIA's success in thwarting al Qaeda's Millennium Plot, which used a constant feedback loop between intelligence collection and analysis.

He stresses on the need for intelligence and covert action, while underlining that it is not a magic bullet. His frustration is visible when he mentions, "We had UBL (Usama bin Laden) in our electrical-optical insights, but we had no realistic policy, no clear authority..." He also mentions how Barack Obama came into office with negative views of the CIA and how it changed with CIA's key role in UBL's death.  That said, the constant eulogising leaves a false impression of CIA being a ‘perfect' body. Also, the stress on the importance of the private sector in intelligence collection hints at publicity for the author's firm — The Crumpton Group, a strategic international advisory. The author underscores the importance of crucial leadership skills needed in challenging and risk-filled environments.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-07-2012 .This review and other book reviews by me for BusinessWorld Magazine can be accessed here. )



Book Review : Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-07-2012. This review and other book reviews for BusinessWorld Magazine by me can be accessed here.)


  Why did Steve Jobs have the only set of bathrooms in the heart of the Pixar Studios office? Do we solve puzzles by insight or analysis? How did an autistic surfer invent a new killer surfing move? What led Bob Dylan to write ‘Like a Rolling Stone'? What was so special about Elizabethan England that it led to a literary explosion? And how do some companies and cities become innovation hubs? Explore these and many other interesting anecdotes in Imagine: How Creativity Works by popular science writer Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer is a staff writer with The New Yorker, and has been in news this month for a reason that, ironically, his works can explain well — self plagiarism. A controversy broke out when media critic Jim Romenesko found out that Lehrer, who moved his popular pop-science blog ‘Frontal Cortex' to The New Yorker from Wired, rehashed parts of his earlier pieces in his posts on Newyorker.com. Lehrer later apologised. Despite the row, Lehrer is among the best science writers of the day. He is young (32) and effervescent, and is touted to be Malcolm Gladwell 2.0. His earlier works include Proust Was A Neuroscientist (2007) and How We Decide (2009).  

The book has two parts. The first one focuses on the thought processes in an individual and the next one discusses the (social) dynamics in a group or a city. For Lehrer, creativity is a discovery process; it is like taking two already existing things and connecting them in an entirely new way. This, in some ways, reflects views of Greek philosophers such as Plato, who viewed creativity as a form of imitation. Lehrer says an idea has a promise when it looks obvious in retrospect. Creativity, he says, is more a state of mind than a phase of mind and different aspects such as colour or travel can drastically influence the flow of thoughts. Lehrer explains how comic artists improvise to let themselves go and not inhibit their impulses.

Without getting too deep into neuroscience, Lehrer succinctly explains the importance of the prefrontal cortex in the creativity process, how certain drugs affect the activity of neurons and how the eureka moment always comes along with the certainty of the success of the idea. The ‘aha' moment can be due to either an insight or analysis and it is easy to differentiate between the two problem-solving abilities. Citing Crockett Johnson's children's novel Harold And The Purple Crayon as an example, Lehrer explains how different ideas coexist in our brain (conceptual blending) — an important aspect of creativity. He corroborates this with the thought processes behind the invention of the airplane, printing machine, velcro, Google search algorithm, etc. Yes, you will find Lehrer digging out anecdotes from almost everything.

Lehrer says cities are indeed engines of innovation and it is where good ideas originate. Dense populations lead to more diversity and interactions which, in turn, generate more ideas — ‘knowledge spillovers'. Stressing the importance of interactions and communication, Lehrer explains how Silicon Valley won over Route 128 (a highway around Boston, which housed a hi-tech industry along its lanes in 1960s and 1980s). Despite the density of talent, Route 128 could not interact courtesy non-compete clauses and non-disclosure pacts, which resulted in stifling of innovation. There was no free flow of information. Lehrer says imagination is a talent that takes multiple forms, while creativity is an emergent property of people coming together.

Lehrer is not trying to prescribe a set of rules for you to be a more creative person, but he tries to touch upon the various internal and external phenomena that trigger creative thought processes in us. He combines aspects of neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, humanities and urban geography to make the book a comprehensive read. He has done his homework well, and refers to works of several scientists and researchers, making the book a must read for all innovators and out-of the-box thinkers.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-07-2012. This review and other book reviews for BusinessWorld Magazine by me can be accessed here.)



Book Review : Velocity By Ajaz Ahmed & Stefan Olander

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 11-06-2012)

As Seth Godin says, a trapeze artist can never succeed if he cannot let go his rope to get to the next one. Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander carry forward this idea in Velocity. Ahmed is the founder of AKQA, an award-winning creative agency, and Olander is the vice-president of digital sport at Nike, and they come together to translate their extensive experience in the digital world into seven laws for any organisation to be successful. Written as a conversation between the two, this book would help any entrepreneur, decision-maker or innovator in streamlining their thought processes.

The central premise rests on the adage: "If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got." The authors present why innovation is important in today's rapidly changing and challenging business ecosystem and how it is mandatory for survival. Richard Branson, in his introduction, says that change is often seen as a threat, but to an entrepreneur it is oxygen. Ahmed states how AKQA embodied this spirit and transformed  into a big company with a clientele that includes Nike, Heineken, Volkswagen, Fiat, Audi, XBox and Virgin.

The book cites many product successes and failures to demonstrate the importance of innovation, vision and perseverance for an engaging customer experience. Though the laws might sound axiomatic, the authors cite several instances where organisations have gone wrong in taking calculated risks. Examples include firms such as Borders, which missed the digital revolution and ended up filing for bankruptcy, or Segway, which tried to be the harbinger of the next revolution in personal transportation and failed. Emphasising on doing rather than on just thinking about an idea, Ahmed casually remarks, "Don't tell me you are funny, tell me a joke".

Marketing and advertising also figure prominently in the book. The authors emphasise that "being cool" comes with offering well-designed, interesting and indispensable solutions. Technology is only an enabler, and it helps aid imagination in offering customers simple and intuitive solutions. The many channels of customer engagement should not interrupt customers, but offer them a nice memory of the product.

No book on innovation can exclude Apple. The authors do discuss the indefatigable spirit of Steve Jobs and Apple's employees who have always offered great customer experiences. They discuss how ‘convenience' does not feature in the vocabulary of Apple and beauty and simplicity are a standard.

This book can also be called a successor to Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, with a lesser intensity. Though it is noteworthy that Gladwell is probably the best storyteller of our generation, Ahmed and Olander have done a good job of keeping the reader tuned in and sharing their insights, observations and enthusiasm for the digital world in a jargon free language.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 11-06-2012. This review and other book reviews for BusinessWorld Magazine by me can be accessed here.)



Book Review : Understanding Oil Prices by Salvatore Carollo

(This story was published in Businessworld Magazine Issue Dated 21-05-2012)

Bedlam is the right noun to denote the oil market. Especially to qualify the fluctuations in oil prices. Everyone is affected, but few have a clue about the why of it all. It takes a great deal of toil and pots of good luck to crack the code. You should know more than what is what and who is who. Understanding Oil Prices by Salvatore Carollo is a helpful guide for students of the oil market. Carollo walks the reader through different avenues of the oil industry and explains how factors such as technology, environment, financial markets and governance (or the lack of it) affect oil prices. He also elaborates on how a simple universal model is just not applicable in predicting oil price movements.

The book starts by explaining the crude oil ‘paradoxes' and moves to recent market vents (2008-11). It also chronicles events since the 1970s oil crisis that have shaped this industry. Carollo covers all the key events in the history of oil trade such as the closing of the Suez Canal in late 1960s, which brought in the supertanker era, or the Chernobyl disaster which led to stricter environmental laws or the 1980s when a ‘paper market' (futures contracts) was started. It also analyses key issues and events such as the world energy policy, the financial crisis, the evolution of oil price since the 1960s, the rise and influence of Opec, etc. The author digs deep into the futures universe — the financial Mordor (courtesy Tolkien), where paper-wielding analysts determine the future of the barrel. Such a world holds no links to the actual oil industry, but it rules the industry and triggers fluctuations in the price of ‘real' oil. The author reiterates that the economic principles on supply and demand are no longer useful in forecasting or predicting  oil prices. Carollo will help you understand why even when the Opec keeps increasing production, markets respond with an increase in the crude oil price. Thankfully, and interestingly, the book does not go very deep into the technical analysis of price movements. Further, the book is full of interesting nuggets of information. Do you know, for instance, that the US consumes 30 times more gasoline than Italy, but its tax revenues from automotive fuel is about a third of Italy's?

The author concludes by emphasising the importance of nuclear power and its relevance in the future and the need for an active political and organisational leadership at a global level in guiding and governing this extremely important commodity. The book is backed by extensive research, which reflects the author's experience. Carollo is an engineering graduate from the University of Palermo, Italy, where he worked at Italian energy giant Eni, before trying his hand and refining, market research, supply and trade of oil. That said, he is not didactic in his views, and his observations make the book an extremely enjoyable read. Informative charts and tables add to the pleasure.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-05-2012. This review and other book reviews for BusinessWorld Magazine by me can be accessed here.)



August 27, 2012

Poem on Farting


I least expected this poem in one of my latest reads - Hall of a Thousand Columns by Tim Mackintosh-Smith; the author retraces Ibn Batutah's route in India.

The most sagacious men of Hind,
Have spoken to the point on the wind:
'If you should feel a fart come on,
To hold it in is very wrong.
Fling wide the gates and let it loose --
Its breeze to ease will sure conduce!
We class as not nice habits these:
To blow one's nose, to cough, to sneeze;
The oral fart, or belch, is worse --
It smells far sweeter in reverse.

I read it twice in the book just to get the 'flow' right  :)

August 26, 2012

One day ride : Pyramid Valley

A gloomy and dark skyline coupled with the chillness in the air that acts like a belt and keeps you strapped to the bed was enough to give a late start to what was supposed to be the start of a day long ride to explore something new around Bangalore. It was alreay 6:30am and the early morning filter-coffee did not do enough to shake the laziness out of me. After quickly skimming through the newspaper and a few games of TempleRun, i was still unsure about the ride - the powerful mind was fickle today and was not able to decide. The secondary idea of hitting the gym also surfaced for a few seconds only to be taken precedence by the idea of finishing Sudha Murthy's book 'Wise and Otherwise'; this also did not last for long and the mind was yearning to venture out. Another dose of hot chai made me realize that this newly acquired trait, that is laziness, was doing me no good and i was slowly slipping into a trap which would be tough to come out of.

The clock struck 9.5 times and i started from my abode of peace and tranquility, and with the option to take the rains head-on. Since it was already late, i decided that a short ride spanning a few hours would be nice enough. I had spotted Champakadhama Swamy in Google Maps along Bannerghatta Road and it looked like a possible destination to check out. But only after i took the deviation from Bannerghatta Road, did i realize that this temple was still 'in' the proximity of civilization and i could see many going inside the temple. I was not in a religious mood and hence dropped the idea of stepping inside the temple. I had expected this temple to be REALLY old and dilapidated, as this temple was supposed to be constructed by the Pandavas - i moved on.

There was a small lane, next to the hillock on the right and i just kept riding, the tarred road soon gave way to gravel road and soon i hit a Bannerghatta National Park unmanned checkpost - i was excited with the thought of exchanging pleasantries with some lions and tigers. But the muddy stretch just spanned a couple of kilometers and i was soon out of the National Park. The tarred road again began and i continued. There were hardly any boards suggesting the locality in which i was, but the mind was busy looking at the distant scenery which had a few hillocks. I wasn't sure where this road would lead me to, and hence i was all the more excited. The thought of stumbling on some ancient ruins or an old temple or just a beautiful viewpoint kept me going. The road soon gave way to some more gravel road which lasted for quite sometime. Driving at a measly 10-20km/hr, i was enjoying the surrounding scenery while keeping a strict vigil on the surroundings to spot anything 'interesting'.



With only greenery and plains all around, i continued and realized that this was possibly the closest village neighboring Bangalore and wanted to know the name of the region. After a good slow 30min ride, i hit a stretch of tarred road again and the boards informed me that i was in Kagalipura and then the inevitable happened - i hit Kanakpura road. I had no intentions of returning to the city traffic for now, and hence took the left and continued. A Karnataka Tourism board informed me that Mekedatu was just 70kms away and it looked like a possible option. I stuck with Kanakpura road. The occasional drizzles were soothing for this tired soul, but the soothing was short lived and the rain gods fell upon me and my fellow beings with EverReady power. Taking shelter in what was like a warehouse i quickly packed everything into my daypack hid it inside my jacket. The EverReady power was probably half charged and the rains stopped soon.

Have you seen cloudy skies but still the Sun shines and the whiteness blinds you? Well, it was precisely like that. The ride was beautiful and there was hardly any traffic on Kanakpura Road. I was 'cruising' at a good 50km/hr(remember wet roads?) and suddenly spotted a board with the label 'Pyramid Valley'. Took the left, and after a 1-2km ride reached Pyramid Valley campus.



I always wanted to visit Pyramid Valley, but the thought that this might be another rip-off ,like KempFort, made me stall the plans. I simply hated visiting KempFort as it offered no spiritual solace!

Sometimes, its really wonderful that places with no expectations turn out to be good experiences.

Parked my bike inside the campus and was told that there would be an introduction to the campus in the Information Desk on the left of the entrance. They played a 10min video which detailed almost every aspect of Pyramid Valley. I liked the way it was presented - simple, short and not much verbiage. The clock had struck 12pm and i was starting to feel hungry. The place serves FREE FOOD daily :)(hurray!) Decided that i would first have lunch and then enter the pyramid, for i knew that once i enter the pyramid it would take a few hours to roam around.




A very simple lunch - comprising of onion+tomato chutney, okra curry, sambhar, rice and buttermilk was perfect.

I then entered the pyramid. This was a huge space - around 25,000sq ft of space. The center of the pyramid has a small tower on top of which there is a space for 'intensive meditation'. A notice at the entrance of the tower 'informs' you about the 'heat' on top of it and requests you to climb only if you think you can brave it for 30minutes. I took the challenge and climbed up. I saw a few lying down and had opined that they were doing shavasana, but i could hear a gentle rumbling sound from one of the men lying down. I sat down and tried to meditate, only to be disturbed by this 'rumbling'; i tried!(trust me i tried!) But me got the better of me, and i nudged the guy(who was deep into one of the best REM sleeps) and asked him to 'calm' down.  And that's how I restored silence again in here :)


A 45min meditation was perfect, at the end of which i could feel my tshirt totally soaked in sweat. By the time i climbed down , there were hardly half-a-dozen people inside this HUGE space and i simply loved the chill air flowing through at the ground level. Sat there for a few more minutes and then left this absolute 'black-box'. The pyramid is not made of concrete, but is a steel structure, made of girders.




Took the Kanakpura road on my way back. Stumbled on Trimurthy temple(on your right) which has 3 big statues of Ganesha, Hanuman and Krishna.



Hit the NICE road and was back home by 3:30pm.



Distance travelled : 70kms
Expenses:
    Petrol : 150
    Coconut Water : 15
    NICE Road toll(from Kanakpura to Bannerghatta Road) : 9

I would definitely recommend Pyramid Valley as a nice getaway from Bangalore - just to relax and enjoy the calmness. There is no 'intrusive marketing' about the courses and other things about the place and you are pretty much free to do whatever you want(albeit 'silently'). I would go there again, for sure, mostly with my family.

The place also offers stay options - dormitory and private rooms. Also some residential courses are offered. Looks like a possible weeklong holiday for your elderly parents who might be tired with the city life.

I did not want to talk much about the Pyramid Spiritual Sciences Movemement or the associated belief system in here, as i am myself not educated about them. But if you are into meditation, then this place is a MUST visit as you can sit inside the pyramid and just float away in the all-pervading silence(i just hope that you do not hear the rumbling!). The place is also EXCELLENT if you just want to ride out of Bangalore and read a Book :)



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August 04, 2012

Two Weeks in the Land of Gods - Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul

Prelude
Been almost a year since our last trip to Himalayas and the annual Call-of-Himalayas was in the offing. The process of shortlisting possible destinations began and after not much deliberation it was either Ladakh or Arunachal. But this was not the season for Arunachal, as the region will be seeing some extreme monsoon, and Ladakh was proving to be very expensive for two and also needed some more time if one had to go to remote regions(well, the touristy parts are best avoided!). Also, since bulk of the snow would have been melted by now, Ladakh was removed from the list(also, i had visited the region once ..so time for something new :P ).

Spiti came across as a possible option and we zeroed in on it after considering a possible trip to the beaches in South East Asia. I started with some pre-travel research and decided that Shimla to Manali via Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul looked good and doable in 2 weeks, though there were concerns of monsoon in the region.

Our daily schedule was getting hectic and i hardly had any time to do any research about possible uncharted destinations in the valley(s).  Decided to book the to-fro tickets to Delhi and then take it on from there - we liked this mode of unplanned travel, as it was adventurous with loads of new experiences. Also, booked the bus ticket from Delhi to Shimla as Shimla was decided to be the starting point of the 'actual' trip.

Bulk of the planning of the route was based on this map. We had planned to the route from Shimla via Sarahan, Sangla, Rekong Peo, Tabo, Kaza , Losar and finally ending at Manali. This way we could do the entire Eastern side of Himachal Pradesh. Time permitting we planned to do Chandigarh on the return journey from Manali to Delhi.


The Journey
What we had planned and what it turned it out to be?...well read on..
We took our chances with the weather and started with this unplanned sojourn.

Day 1 - Jul 16, 2012. Monday
Had a wedding to attend in Chennai and then we caught the 11:40am Spicejet flight from Chennai to Delhi. A mediocre(& expensive) lunch in the flight was necessary as the flight was at an awkward time and also we did not get anything packed from home - a rather expensive start to the trip! After reaching Delhi at 2:30pm we caught the Volvo Bus from just outside the airport to Connaught Place. The idea was to roam around till evening and then catch the bus from HPTDC office in Janpath at 8:30pm.

Delhi was hot, dusty and humid. The heat was unsettling and we preferred to stay in the shades of CP. Another lunch at McDonalds followed by a gallon of flavored milk at Keventers was perfect for our already tired souls. A nice and heavy downpour in the evening calmed the surroundings and was a much needed respite. A few donuts, totally drenched, in white salwar-kameez, were seen around ;)

Boarded the HTPDC bus to Shimla, decided that we would hit Sarahan from Shimla and then immediately fell asleep. The bus stopped somewhere in the middle of the night for dinner where a small buffet spread was priced at 160(duh!).

Day 2 - Jul 17, 2012. Tuesday
Reached Shimla at 5:30am. The bus stops somewhere near a small tunnel, walked further up the road to the bus stand and were told that there are no buses to Sarahan from here, hence proceeded to Lakkad Bazaar which is just a 10-15min ride away. The few minutes halt at Shimla was uninspiring - the weather wasn't cold as i had expected and also the monsoon was yet to arrive(greenness was yet to spread); and no views of snow capped mountains!

Lakkad Bazaar is a small place with a few shops tucked on the side of the mountain from where the buses which start from down-the-hill-Shimla arrive. After a quick breakfast, and getting packed a few parathas, caught the bus to Rampur. Rampur is the transport hub of the region and the chances of buses to Sarahan from here are more. Reached Rampur at around 12pm. Rampur was blazing hot - hotter than Delhi or Chennai and the heat was prickling. A nice lassi was perfect for the heat.

After a few inquiries, caught the bus which mentioned that it was going to Sarahan, but instead dropped us at Gharat which was 2km away(down) from Sarahan. The ride was also longer than the usual route via Jeori - it took us almost 3-4 hours more than the usual route via Jeori(do note this). But the ride was beautiful; the bus was almost always going through apple orchards with apples being just a metre away from the bus. I wished they stopped somewhere so that we could pluck, but the driver always decided to stop somewhere far away from them. Nevertheless, it was a beauty to just watch them.


We reached Gharat at 4:30pm and were told that there are not many options to Sarahan which is just above Gharat. There are not many buses from Gharat to Sarahan, the last bus is at 5:30pm and we caught this. There was a mild chill in the air as we got down the bus at Sarahan, but i was yet to see some snow covered peaks. The evening fog had almost drawn a curtain on the entire scenery, though the sunlight was still ample. Checked into the Bhimkali Temple Guest House and had a small nap - a long day indeed it was! A quick visit to the temple premises and around with some hot momos for dinner and chai was a perfect end to this uneventful day.



Was surprised to see the sun set and the darkness emerge only around 8pm - i had expected short days in the mountains. This was good, as for travellers, long days always help. And now i was curious to know the sunrise.

Day 3 - Jul 18, 2012. Wednesday
I could see the pale blueness at almost 5am and then by 5:30am the place was well-lit and by 7am the sun's rays were hitting at us directly. The hot alu parathas with chai was a perfect breakfast; morning visit to the temple ensued. There were hardly any tourists around and the place had a tranquil charm to it.


Caught the bus to Jeori and were told that there were no direct buses to Chitkul and the bus to Sangla leaves early in the morning. The best was to go till Karcham and try our luck from there. In the meantime, finished one more dose of breakfast(yes, more alu parathas) and bought the first(and last?) dose of apples. Also, happened to stumble on a 'new' fruit(atleast to me) - called 'aazhu' - this is a green colored apple look-alike with a yellow to orangish interior and a red big seed.

A dusty and rickety ride it was to Karcham, as the road construction next to the power project(s) was under progress. We were dropped right in front of the Karcham Dam off NH-22 and the road to Sangla diverged off from there. Had to wait for the next bus to Sangla which arrived in 30-45mins. The ride to Sangla was beautiful and the scenery changed; what was earlier full of apple orchards was now huge mountains on either sides with the Baspa river flowing right down along the valley and the roads meandering through, cutting along the sides of the mountains. Still there were no sights of snow capped mountains and my yearning increased. After a quick lunch at Sangla, we waited for the next bus to Chitkul which was to arrive at 2:30pm(the last bus). Had lunch at Sangla and then waited for the bus to Chitkul. The ride to Chitkul was even more beautiful and the chillness in the wind was perceivable.  The first views of snow capped mountains and virgin landscape, and evening views of the mountains were simply awsum after 2 long days of bus rides.


After exploring a few guest houses, preferred a room in Thakur Guest House (not a great place!). The temperature dipped in the evening and it was pretty cold in the night.

Day 4 - Jul 19, 2012. Thursday
Day spent just relaxing and enjoying the views. Went for a morning walk around the river Baspa and the rest of the day was spent reading a book and talking to other strangers and fellow travellers. For the first time in my travels, i finished a book - it was 'The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers' by Paul Torday.


I did not expect so many foreign travellers in Chitkul; nevertheless the place was not touristy at all. Evening went around the Chitkul village and clicked loads of pics. Its interesting to note the village life in this part of the world, most of the people are engrossed in their own life and hardly care. Many labourers(or villagers?) were working on the construction of a canal which was to save the water(from snow/rain?).


There are two shops in Chitkul which sell biscuits and other items; and they sell at Marked Price. When asked, one of the shopkeepers mentioned 'sir, pachta nahi hai' , i.e, money obtained by charging more neither gives pleasure nor is digested. His response was heart numbing, for the shopkeepers in the city charge a rupee or two more for just keeping a bottle of water refrigerated. Note that Chitkul is indeed far away, though there exists a road to connect the village, but still its remote and needs a full-day's travel to reach the nearest towns of Rampur or Rekong Peo.



Day 5 - Jul 20, 2012. Friday
Again, we were treated to the beautiful early morning view of the mountains. With the blueness of the sky  all-pervading and the sun's rays striking only the top of the mountains and the noise of the Baspa river striking the boulders, this place was definitely a charming place to relax for weeks. But, we had to move on.

The first bus from Chitkul to Rekong Peo leaves at 6:15am and reaches Rekong Peo at 9:30am. Had a late breakfast in the canteen(not a great place again) in the Rekong Peo bus-stand and replenished our stock of biscuits, chocolates and juice. The next bus to Nako was only at 12:30pm and hence the long 3hour wait in the bus stand; the only saving grace being the sun not being harsh -- preferred to just wait in the bus stand. Another 'really' long bus ride commenced - the ride was one of the most trecherous i have done till date - there were roads at few places, and 'no-roads' at almost all the places :) Boulders and loose gravel from the side of the mountains looked threatening. The 1hour stretch before reaching Nako was beautiful and the terrain now was devoid of any greenness. There patches of green only in the small villages ensconced along the gradient of the mountain.

Reached Nako at 6:30pm and checked into Lovon hotel. A nice room it was having the full view of the mountains. Went for an evening stroll around the lake and monastery.


Would have loved to wait here for a few more nights and explore more, but had to rush and make arrangements for the next day ride to Gue. Hiring a car in this part of the world is expensive and i was looking for possible travellers who might be interested in tagging along and sharing the ride costs - after a few unsolicited checks, a Russian couple agreed and we were set.

Day 6 - Jul 21, 2012. Saturday
The target for the day was to visit the monastery at Gue which houses the mummy of a lama(I shall talk more about Gue/Giu and about the mummy in a later post). Gue does not have any bus connectivity and hence going by private transport, namely car, was the only option, for which the arrangement was made the previous evening. Started from Nako at 7am and reached Gue around 9:15am. Gue is at a 9km detour from the main road; there is an arch on the right(when coming from Nako) near Gue-nala from where you have to take the road under the arch and keep going straight.



The village of gue is one of the most beautiful villages tucked away in the middle of mountains, the Chinese border is just a mountain away. After visiting the mummy-lama, we got a drop at Sumdo from where we  luckily got a lift(a gentleman who was the VP of the local panchayat) to Hurling. An awsum breakfast at Hurling which included nicely made hot alu parathas with dal and some spicy curd(real spicy!) and then waited along the roadside for almost an hour for the next ride. We knew that the next bus would be around 2-3pm or evening around 8pm - both of them being buses which start from Rekong Peo. Minor drizzles threatened onwards journey but were glad that there was no downpour.

We were lucky again and a truck carrying timber agreed to 'carry' us with them. Initially, we thought of getting down at Tabo which was around 20kms, but on reaching Tabo(figures prominently on the tourists who visit this region) we decided to give it a miss and continue onwards till Schichling from where we could go to Dhanker. Little did i know that Tabo was a UNESCO site until i saw a beautiful picture in the guest house at Dhanker, but it was too late by then. The truck-wala dropped us just outside Schichling, near the arch from where Dhanker is around 10km uphill. The truck-wala was so nice that he did not take any money from us ; i felt so small in front of him.

We got down at 1:30pm and for the next 3 hours(!!) we sat by the road, in the open , waiting for a possible lift to Dhanker. A calf, few dogs, a kid and a granny(who did not know hindi) gave us company; the granny also offered us some tea - i thanked her. A lama later joined us in our wait and the conversation with him was very nice. Little did i know that for the next few days he would be our guide. I had a long conversation with him regarding Buddhism and different facets and tenets of it. Finally around 4:30pm , a tractor, which was carrying silt from the river came up - this was going up till the village - the sand was to be used for construction. We perched on top of it and the next 45mins was a rickety ride up.


And a nice 15min steep trek - ascent - till the monastery guest house, ensued - the lama helped us by carrying one of our bags which let my wifey climb. A much needed chai with the lama was perfect to cool us down; and he suggested visiting LhaLung - another village with an old monastery and also a climb, till the Dhanker Lake. A visit to the new monastery at Dhanker wrapped up the day.


Day 7 - Jul 22, 2012. Sunday
We struck a deal with the lama whom we had met the previous day to be our guide and also take us to LhaLung. Started for Lhalung monastery at around 8:30am in Maruti-800.  Surprisingly, despite the extreme terrain small vehicles like Maruti-800 are very common here - they seem to be cheap and economical.

A 10km ride it was LhaLung from Dhanker; enroute we spotted the beautiful village of Demul. Apparently, there is a trek route from Kaza which goes through via Langza-Komic-Demul-Lhalung.


The monastery at LhaLung looked small from outside and i was worried about a possible tourist trap - but it turned out to be otherwise. The monastery abbott greeted us in and told us about the history. Unlike other monasteries which have murals all around the main sanctum, this 1008 year old monastery had many sculptures of the yogis and dolmas on its wall. It is said that the earthquake which stuck this region earlier did not have any effect on the structure or the idols in it.

We checked-out post lunch from Dhanker monastery Guest House and waited for a ride to the base. Though i wanted to climb till the Lake uphil, i left it to be done an another day.

Got no ride to the base and hence waited for close to 2-3 hours. Finally hired a cab(again the same lama's) to let us a drop till the base and then again a long wait for the connecting bus to Kaza. The bus to Kaza came at around 5:00pm(it had met with a flat tyre somewhere around Sumdo and was late)

Reached Kaza around 6:30pm and checked into a hotel after exploring a few options. I do not remember the name of the hotel, as it was a tibetan name, but this was perched on the first floor above a pharmacy, a few hundred yards from the bus stand(near the fork). It was a new hotel and the rooms still smelled off the lacquer that was used for the wood. Had an early dinner at Dragon restaurant, only to be disturbed a few noisy Indian women and dogs.

Day 8 - Jul 23, 2012. Monday
After breakfast, we hired a car for ride to Langza and Komic. With no other tourists to share the costs, this one, was fully on us. But i was all the more excited to visit the remote villages than to notice the costs(quick calculations of the expenses so far made me comfortable and we had sufficient reserves). We started from Kaza at around 10pm and were back by 1pm. I wanted to go to Tashiganj too, but was told that the gorge/nalla before Tashiganj was tough to cross for now. More on Langza and Komic in later posts, but a quick one would be : These were probably one of the most beautiful villages that i have seen in a long time. The view of the mountains and the big Buddha statue will be remembered for a long time.


Evening - we roamed around the narrow lanes of Kaza and bought the tickets for the early morning ride to Manali.

Day 9 - Jul 24, 2012. Tuesday
We started from Kaza at 5am and stopped at Chatru for lunch(we stopped somewhere before that for breakfast too - but do not remember the name).

Before that, we stopped at Batal - this was a shit break! The entire scenery of Batal consists of two tea shops which sell cigarettes and food; and the air reeks of shit. The open land next to the river has become a big shitting ground. Note that the road to Chandratal diverges from the road to Kaza here. You can also trek from here till Chandratal.

Lahaul officially starts from Chatru and i could feel the terrain change as we were introduced to the first views of greenness and that of wild-flowers here. After having left the barren terrain of Spiti, Lahaul was a much needed change ; the air was wet , the greenness was beautiful, and the smell of the wild flowers for kilometers was just too beautiful. The road was interspersed with many waterfalls which continued to paint  the scenery.

The climb to Rohtang Top lasted for 4 hours and i was surprised to find quite wide roads and almost zero-crowd at the Top. Things had changed and i was VERY happy. An Old German couple who were travelling with us(they had settled in Spiti) were also surprised to see that Rohtang was indeed clean and there was hardly any nuisance at the Top. A quick chai break was perfect to enjoy the fog-laden views. Our joy was very premature, as we soon hit upon a roadblock - a fresh landslide had made the traffic stop and for the next 1hour things came to a standstill.


Finally, reached Manali at 4:30pm and checked into Pushpak Hotel which is just opposite the bus stand.

We could have gone to Old Manali or Vashisht which would have been cheaper and less crowded, but we were tired and decided to retire for the day. Went around the Mall Road in the evening only to see hordes of tourists! Was waiting to get out of Manali as soon as possible.

Day 10 - Jul 25, 2012. Wednesday

And hence after the breakfast, checked out of the hotel and reached Kullu and then a connecting bus to Mandi. Reached Mandi around 2:30pm with rains greeting us. A late lunch near Police lines was much necessary to recharge us. Caught a bus to Rewalsar at 3:10pm and a nice 1hr ride it was. Checked into Nyingmapa Monastery Guest House.

I simply loved the ambiance of Rewalsar - it was a quiant little town perched on top of mountains with a nice green lake being overlooked by Guru Padmasambhava. A chai followed by an evening stroll around the lake brought the day to its end.

I can keep going on and on about Rewalsar - not here - but in a separate post.

Day 11 - Jul 26, 2012. Thursday
A good sound sleep was what i needed and this was perfect. A nice lazy start to the day and after breakfast i decided to go uphill to the temple of Naina Devi. Also, there is a lake called Kunti-Kund which Arjuna had created for his mother Kunti when she was thirsty ; and there were 2-3 buddhist caves. There are buses to Naina Devi from Rewalsar. And from Naina Devi you can trek down till the caves; or if you like walking, would suggest walking from Rewalsar to Naina Devi and then down till caves and then catch a bus from there back to Rewalsar.

Rewalsar - Lotus Lake
Naina Devi temple was totally engulfed in fog and the view from the top was almost nill. I climbed down the mountain till the caves and then visited the small monastery there in which the lamas were performing the daily puja/rituals. The mantras in the air with the occasional drums and bells was magical in this foggy cold weather. In one of the caves, a big statue of Guru Padmasambhava welcomed the visitors. This was a perfect place for meditation, as there was hardly any noise or sound from the roads.


In neighboring cave, was the idol of Mandarava. After spending sometime meditating and talking to the lamas there, i took the bus to Rewalsar, which was at 12:15pm.

Evening was spent roaming around the lake and in the Tso Pema cafeteria (near Drikung Kadyud Gompa). 'Dawa' who is almost always present in the Cafe(is the attender) was a lama earlier and chatting with him was fun. There is a small library in the Cafe and the calm surroundings makes it perfect to read a book sipping some hot chai.

We also checked the possible options to Delhi from Mandi and were told that either there are the VOLVO buses or the HRTC 'dabba' buses. After a nice trip, i did not want to stress more and decided to book the tickets to Delhi from Mandi in Volvo; so, visiting Chandigarh was out of the radar now. A thing to note here is that you have to pay the FULL tariff(from Manali) in-spite of boarding the bus from Mandi.

Day 12 - Jul 27, 2012. Friday
After chai and breakfast, we visited the big 123ft statue of Guru Padmasambhava which is on the side of the hillock overlooking the lake. The sun was getting hotter and the climb was mediocre. The monastery below the statue was simply beautiful and breathtaking - the walls were FULL of paintings and i simply fell in love with the view from outside the monastery.


Later, we checked out from the Monastery Guest House and spent the day in the Cafe. I also visited the new monastery(dont know its name) which was just above the Gurudwara and also visited the Rewalsar zoo on my way back. The zoo is extremely small and has a few deers, porcupines and beers - though small, i was all the more surprised to see its presence here.


The best thing about this Tso Pema Cafe is that lots of travellers visit here and you get to have some nice conversations. Met a German couple who were spending some time in Rewalsar and were clueless about what to do next ; i adviced them Spiti and gave them the map that we used - they were more than happy and decided to do the same.

At around 5pm, caught the bus to Mandi and reached there around 6:15pm. We had 3 hours to kill before we boarded our our bus to Delhi and hence we spent sometime in the Mandi Sports complex (opposite Police lines) watching the kids play football and the elders walking around the playground. Dinner was at the same restaurant near Police Lines(guess it was some Sai ....) and then boarded the bus to Delhi at 9:15pm.

Day 13 - Jul 28, 2012. Saturday
Reached Delhi at 7am and then caught a bus to New Delhi railway station. Deposited the bag in the cloak room there and then roamed around Paharganj.  Spent a few hours in the Ramakrishna Ashram till 12pm and then post lunch spent some more time in Paharganj. Delhi was still hot and the blazing sun made us go back into the shades of the railway station and relax. The A/C waiting room in the station was overcrowded and we decided to move to Hazrat Nizamuddin. By the way, the small canteen at the A/C waiting room serves some nice cutlets and veg burgers.

You will be surprised to know that the local train from New Delhi Railway station to Hazrat Nizamuddin costs just Rs.2 per head(!!) - the platform ticket costs Rs.5 for your information! Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station was better as it was less crowded and clean - though there are no A/C waiting rooms, but the breeze outside the waiting rooms was nice. Spent the rest of the evening sitting outside, listening to music and talking to strangers and sharing experiences.


The train departed at 9pm. Bangalore Rajdhani Express serves you dinner on the first night of travel - but the dinner arrived late at around 9:30-10pm; so if you are not used to late dinners prefer a bite at Comesum on platform number#1.

Day 14 - Jul 29, 2012. Sunday
Uneventful ride back in the train and conversations with strangers. The idli with coconut chutney at Secunderabad Junction was perfect after weeks of parathas.

The train despite being Rajdhani Express was not upto standards; the compartment was an old one and the toilets were not kept clean at all.On top of it the food was not served the right way; this was suitably brought up by a few ex-railway officials travelling with us. A mini protest (with the chants of Anna Hazare) started and almost 50% of the compartment marched towards the pantry car. Later lots of complaints were lodged. After all this, i came to know that one of those retired ex-officials had met Anna Hazare too and was part of the Anti-Corruption rally. I also submitted my complaint and was instructed by one of those retired officials to follow up with an RTI.

Jul 30, 2012. Monday
Early morning chat with a guy who was a driver in the army stationed at Leh - the story of Dhoni who came to Leh to play cricket with the Army guys and ended up panting for breath due to altitude, surfaced ;)  Reached Bangalore at 7:15am(Rajdhani delayed by almost 30mins!) and then home by 8am and then office by 11am :)

Summary
This trip was by far the BEST trip i have ever done till date, and i highly doubt if anything else would topple this for now(by the way, this circuit just toppled Ladakh as my numero-uno destination). The terrain and the experiences were simply amazing and it kept surprising me. The 3 different valleys - Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul - offer completely different terrains and this is the best thing about this circuit. Be it the apple basket of Kinnaur or the rugged and treacherous terrains of Spiti or the nice and green Lahaul which has an abundance of wild flowers, this circuit will not let you down. And hence probably this is called by Rudyard Kipling as 'Land of the Gods'? The food could have been better, as its thukpas, momos and aloo parathas almost everywhere; but the chai/tea is awsum. Also, budget-wise, this was a very economical one, though the air rates to Delhi have almost doubled in the last few years, but i guess the place deserves it.

Tips and Suggestions:
  • If you are new to hitch-hiking or long distance bus travel in mountains, then avoid this. This is a TOUGH ROUTE.
  • If you have a bike, then this terrain is a MUST-DO; its much more treacherous than the Ladakh terrain.
  • Prefer to start from Shimla and end in Manali, you gain altitude slowly and are acclimatized by the time you reach high altitudes in Kaza.
  • The disadvantage of ending in Manali is that you have to face the wrath of the Rohtang and can get stalled,but if you have enough buffer in your plans, then this is not a problem. Plan to hit Rohtang on a weekday, so that you can avoid the weekend crowd.
  • It would be great if you can spend more time in each of Chitkul/Langza/Komic/Gue - Gue does not have stay options, but i hear you can always ask the villagers for a space for the night.
  • Carry enough biscuits, fruits and fluids while travelling in buses. Have enough reserves too.
  • Keep drinking water; fluid intake is a must at high altitudes.
  • When you are having a headache or any symptoms of nausea or AMS, consult a doctor IMMEDIATELY. Carry a dose of diamox in case.
  • There are not (m)any restrooms along the side of the roads while travelling, and this will be a problem during long distance bus travels. So have a good bowel movement and clear up in the mornings.
  • If you are a chai(Tea) lover like me, then you need to tell the maker to put sugar as per your tastes, the mountain people generally prefer more sugar.
  • Buses do not ply in the nights. In the mountains the frequency of buses is always less, espcially direct buses to remote destinations. You might have to change buses often or hitch-hike. Be freindly with people and am sure commuting wouldn't be a problem.
Expenses (All expenses are for Two): 

Transport - Total  : 24,000
Chennai-Delhi(Spicejet - Air) : 10618
Delhi Airport to Connaught Place (Volvo Bus): 100
Delhi-Shimla(Volvo Bus) : 1760
Shimla to Lakkad Bazaar (Bus) : 10
Lakkad Bazaar to Rampur(Bus) : 280
Rampur to Gharat(Bus) : 120
Gharat to Sarahan(Bus) : 10
Sarahan to Jeori(Bus) : 40
Jeori to Karcham(Bus) : 130
Karcham to Sangla(Bus) : 50
Sangla to Chitkul(Bus) : 60
Chitkul to Rekong Peo(Bus) : 160
Rekong Peo to Nako(Bus) : 256
Nako to Gue(Car) : 1000
Schiling to Dhanker (Tractor) : 50
Dhanker to Schiling(Car) : 200
Dhanker-lhalung-Dhanker(Car) : 400
Schiling to Kaza(Bus) : 58
Kaza-Langza-Komic-Kaza(Car): 1200
Kaza to Manali (Bus) : 456
Manali to Kullu(Bus) : 90
Kullu to Mandi(Bus) : 160
Mandi to Rewalsar(Bus) : 50
Rewalsar to Naina Devi(Bus) : 20
Mandi to Delhi (Volvo Bus) : 2240
New Delhi to Hazrat Nizamuddin (Local-Train) : 4
Hazrat Nizamuddin to Bangalore : Rajdhani Express (Train) : 4190

Food: 6030
Sundries: 148 

Accomodation: (Total : 3450)
Bhimkali Temple Guest House, Sarahan(1 Night) = 300
Thakur Guest House,Chitkul (2 Nights) - 2*200 =400
Lovon Hotel, Nako(1 Night) = 500
Dhanker Monastery Guest House, Dhanker(1 Night) = 500
Kaza (2 Nights) - 2*400 = 800
Pushpak Hotel, Manali(1 Night) = 450
Rewalsar(2 Nights) - 2*250 = 500

Total (for two) : 35,000 INR

Note : I will cover each of Chitkul, Gue, Langza, Komic and Rewalsar in finer detail in later posts. For now, have tried to pen down much of the itinerary.

Do let me know if you have any questions w.r.t the route or need help planning your itinerary or travel.

Further Reading:
If you liked the above travelogue, you might most probably like the following 3-part series on 3 highlights in this region.. that got published in The Hindu - one of the leading newspapers in India..
  • Dt. 1-Sept-2012 - Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh, India  [Links: Source - Blog]
  • Dt. 27-Oct-2012 - Chitkul - Last Village, Himachal Praedsh, India [Links: Source - Blog]
  • Dt. 30-Mar-2013 - Gue, Himachal Pradesh, India  [Links: Source - Blog]

July 09, 2012

The Red Daffodil


The raging war that tore the land apart,
Fields melted, no emotions to roar.
Sun did not wait to set,
Moon had no patience to rise.

July, not the month of heat.

The distant bells - the church's or the mourner's?
Not the rains, not like this cursed land,
But it was the land that pursed itself.

The villagers a distance glory,
Scattered batons, dreaded flies,
Dawn was not here to break,
Light too tepid here to make.

The Man, again, forgets his rule,
Goes against what he was told.
Family left, greetings bequeathed,
Wishes sacrificed, prayers unfulfilled.

It is a shoulder that we seek,
Let the tears wet the Armour ; Not the soil.
Armageddon is not fought on land,
But the Mind, it is.

July 05, 2012

One Day Ride : Pachapalli Dam and Rayakottai

Prelude
The quest for uncharted destinations around Bangalore continued, and I stumbled on an one-day ride which could cover Panchapalli Dam, Bettamuligalam and Rayakottai. Tossed this idea in CouchSurfing's Bangalore chapter and was quick to get a few replies. Finally, 4 were ready and we agreed to meet at the NICE exit from Bannerghatta Road as the first meeting point at 6am - the guys were prompt and we started after cursory greetings. 2 Bullets(Royal Enfield), 1 Pulsar and 1 Avenger.

to the nether world.

Just before the Tamilnadu checkpost, one of the Royal Enfield's (Puppax's) brokedown and it took us close to an hour to find some help - we did not get any mechanic and the owner had no option but to halt and see if he could try 'carrying' the bike in a mini-truck or tempo. We left Puppax and continued the ride (later Puppax called us when we were in Panchapalli Dam, that he successfully carried the bike back to Bangalore).

Continue on the Hosur Road, and turn right at the Rayakottai junction (you will see a green highway traffic board which instructs that Rayakottai is on the right). Continue and hit Denkanikottai.

Breakfast
He had an awsum breakfast at Ganesh Bhavan at around 9:00am. This was Vijay's discovery in one of his previous rides, and i must vouch for the fact that the pongal served here is the best i have ever had till date, the serving was big/large too. Idlis were also good; and we had 1.5 plates of pongal and around 4 idlis and a coffee. We decided that we would chuck Bettamuligalam; we were running slightly slow and also Bettamuligalam required that you had to retrace the road(accoridng to the map)- and i do not like retracing paths. Instead, we decided that we would hit Panchapalli Dam and then see if there was a good road to Rayakottai.


Panchapalli Dam
After the heavy breakfast, we continued onwards to Panchapalli Dam. The roads were good and the winds were strong. I could feel the bike drift awsumly.  The first views of the Panchapalli Dam's catchment area were not impressive, but still it was a change of scenery. Since we had visited in late summer, and monsoon has been pretty dismal this year, the water level was low. But one could imagine how this area would be green and full of water post-monsoon.


The dam did not have any visitors , and we loved the wind.There are lots of boulders strewn around the place, and i think this would be a good place for the rock climbers.

Release into the canals

Catchment area, Panchapalli Dam

The valves to control the gates, you can see the boulders on the hill
We went near those valves(in the above pic), and the wind was 5x faster than that in the road; the helmet if just left on the ground was moving on its own. The place and the almost-noon-sun were perfect. After clicking a lot of pictures, we inquired about the road to Rayakottai and were told that the roads are good and reach there easily.

The ride was beautiful and the nice blue skies with occasional clouds and the roads with tamarind trees on either sides were perfect. We reached Rayakottai in 30-40mins.



Rayakottai
As earlier mentioned, we did not intend to do Rayakottai, and it was in our radar only if time permitted. Nevertheless, due to the change in plans Rayakottai turned out to be a nice discovery. After hitting the town, we inquired around for the fort and were told that the tallest boulder that you could see from road was the one. We parked our vehicles at one of the houses near the entry to the fort, and offloaded the extra luggage. Bought some biscuit packets and started the climb.


The locals told us that 'we'(referring to the fact that we were city-dwellers) would take close to 1-1.5 hours whereas 'they'(the rugged people from the countryside) could easily do it in 30mins. In fact, one of the locals(who had a paunch) wanted to have a bet with me for a Lakh rupees that he could climb the structure in 30mins(sigh!).

The trail easily recognizable, there are stones in the form steps, and after the initial hiccups with the ascent it becomes easy on the knees. There is not much shade during the ascent, hence shades/coolers would be useful. We stumbled on this entrance(guess this was the security-briefing area in those days :P ), the structures are dilapidated and there are no mentions of what-is-what, and hence continued the climb with the occasional click-breaks.


After a few more minutes, we could see the walls of the fort and then we hit is what can be the main-entrance to the fort. These were heavy-strong structures.

 


My initial research had informed me that Rayakottai was Tipu Sultan's fort, but there was no mention of Tipu Sultan anywhere, nor did the ASI(Archeological Survey of India) have any boards educating the masses about the place.

There are many room like structures at the top which have plants/shrubs all around; and the local shepherds roam around with their goats in these premises.



Dried up pond at the top



We reached the peak in about 30-40minutes and spent around 45mins clicking around and exploring the place.





A quick descent and a beautiful ride till Hosur - again those roads with tamarind trees. I am in love with roads with tamarind trees - there is certain style and culture about them.[A nice read on the related subject]

And i was back at my place by 4pm.

Post Ride Research:
I did not have much time to research about the place before visiting Rayakottai but my curiosity arose many times post the ride. I wanted to know why Tipu Sultan had to have a fort in Rayakottai. And my research did not give me much literature to peruse but a few references which are as follows.

In the "Gazetteer Of South India" By W. Francis (Mittal Publications, 1988) Rayakottai is briefly mentioned:
Rayakottai("Kings fort') - Village in Krishnagiri taluk of Salem District, Madras, situated in 12D 31N and 78D 2E.Population(1901) 1,497. To the north stands the hill with its ruined fort which gives tghe place its name. This commands one of the most important passes between the Mysore table-land and the Baramahal, and was of great importance in the Muysore Wars of the 18th century. Its capture by the Major Gowdie was the first exploit in the Lord Cornwallis's march. It was ceded to the British by the treaty of 1792, and under its wallas the army of General Harris encamped in 1799 before entering Mysore territory on its way to Seringapatam. The place was at one time a favourite residence of military pensioners.

There is a mention of the fort in the "History of Tipu Sultan" By Mohibbul Hasan (Aakar Books, 01-Dec-2005):
Of all the passes which led from the Carnatic into the table-land of Mysore, the Palakad Pass formed the most easy route. I t was nearer Bangalore, and it was by this pass that the Mysore armies had always invaded the Carnatic. It was commanded by several forts of which Hosur and Rayakottai were the most important. Cornwallis, therefor , first turned his attention to their conquest , which would not only open a free communication with the Carnatic , but would also protect it from the incursions of Tipu's horse.

On July 15 Cornwallis marched towards Hosur, situated about 28miles SE of Bangalore. The Sultan had tried to improve the defenses of the place but they had been left incomplete. On the approach of Major Gowdie's detachment, which had been sent in advance it was evacuated. The garrison tried to blow up the fort, but the Major's advance was so sudden that they failed in the attempt. The fort was occupied on Jul15. The hill forts of Anchetidurga, Neelgiri and Rutlengiri surrendered a few days later.

Major Gowdie was next sent to Rayakottai which was garrisoned by 800 men. It consisted of two forts, one at the bottom,  the other at the top of a huge rock. ON july 20 Gowdie succeeded in seizing the lower fort by an assault. He then made an attempt to capture the main fort. The garrison put up a stiff resistance, but on the approach of the main army under Cornwallis, the Commandant lost heart. He accepted a bribe from English, and on  July 22, on condition of security of private property and permission to reside with hsi family in the Carnatic, surrendered the "lofty and spacious fort, so strong and complete in all respects that it ouught to have yielded only to famine and a tedious blockade.  Kenchillydurga, Oodiadurga and other small forst also submitted at the same time. Rayakottai, Anchetidurga and Oodiadurga were garrisoned; the others were dismantled. Thus, with the exception of Krishnagiri, the capital of Baramahal, all the posts necessary to establish an easy communication with the Carnatic had been secured.

On top of Rayakottai Fort
It is noteworthy that Rayakottai was one of the MOST places in the Carnatic, and am REALLY sad to see it's current state of affairs. Hope the ASI and Government take care of this place suitably, and the public is educated enough to not to scribble on the walls.

Tips:
1. Start early; You can easily return to Bangalore by 2pm or so if started early.
2. Ganesh Bhavan for Breakfast - MUST! I would go here again, just for the breakfast :)
3. Post monsoon should be a nice season for Panchapalli dam.
4. There are not many great restaurants along the highway, and only the towns have some limited options.
5. Rayakottai needs some time at the top - exploring stuff. I would guess that it gets pretty hot during summer, despite a cloudy weather we could feel the heat(but it was not bad).
6. If you are lost or do not know the route, ask the people, you cannot go wrong :)

Route :

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