I have been a super duper Sony fan for mobile phones. And I had this weird perception that whichever phone lasted with me for more than 1 year was a Sony mobile phone. And hence I started talking about the device pretty positively. Here is a blog post I did around a year back.
And I still stick to every word I wrote.
Universe has a plethora of amazing views and sites to display to us astronomers.
The scale of our solar system is negligible to the vastness of the universe. Still, some of best views of the universe are right there in our backyard. Saturn and Jupiter are one of the best viewed objects in our solar system. Venus too shows beautiful phases just like our Moon. We just need to know where and when to look.
Celestial bodies strictly follow mathematical equations which were laid down by Kepler, Newton and many others. This makes it easy for us to determine the exact position and timings of rare events such as the transit of Venus. Earth’s orbit around the sun places us third to Mercury and Venus. This allows the earthlings to view not only the phases of these two planets but also, though rarely, the motion of these planets across the disk of the sun relative to earth. These are termed as transits.
The transit of Venus follows a rather complex pattern; they occur in pairs separated by 8 years and these pairs occur every 105.5 years or 121 years. The next transit of Venus will occur in December of 2117. This makes it one of the rarest events for the living population of the planet. (Unless someone somewhere discovers the fountain of youth and makes it accessible only to astronomers or a breakthrough in cryogenics takes place and people can extend their lives at will)
Like many teams which were formed to witness this rare celestial event, we too formed a team and we called it Astrohams – which signifies the two hobbies which are astronomy and ham radio (also known as amateur radio). The team comprised of the following individuals
1. Puneit Thukral
2. Neha Thukral
3. Kaustav Saha
4. Tarveen Bhasin Saha
5. Eshaan Saha
We not only called ourselves Astrohams but also, combined both the hobbies during the transit of Venus.
The primary objective was to view the transit safely. The secondary objectives were to photograph, web-stream and SSTV streaming of the event so that the not so lucky ones can also witness this rare, once in a lifetime event
Selecting the Venue
Once an experienced amateur astronomer told me, that for a rare astronomical event, concentrate on location location and location. Rest everything will fall into place. And this is what we did. The transit occurred on June 06 2012 and it was visible at sunrise across India and most parts of the world. This gave us a huge geographical area to choose our location. Now, we had to look for a location where the probability of clouds during sunrise was low and of course has a clear view of the horizon so that the event can be witnessed as early as possible.
We didn’t have to look too far, the terrace of our house turned out to be good location. It had several advantages
1. We had high speed Internet access which would allow streaming the event live on the Internet
2. Our ham radio setup could be relocated easily on the terrace which would lower the setup time
3. There was no need for travel thereby saving travelling cost and time.
Thus we finalised our terrace as the location for transit of Venus. Having done that we registered our event with NASA as well.
Weeks before the transit, we began arranging for the most crucial element to a safe observation – a solar filter. Our friend, Sneh, helped us with a sheet of a solar filter with which we created filters for our cameras, binoculars and newly acquired 10″ Skywatcher telescope. We were going to use 4 cameras & 1 webcam for the transit. Also, we ran some rehearsals to understand the position of sun at sunrise at the horizon and calculated when the transit will be actually visible to us in case of clear skies. We made a list of things needed and also tested out Ustream broadcasting as well as SSTV transmission on Ham bands. Many of the Delhi Hams participated in this rehearsal and helped us fine tune our setup.
We had planned for months that we will be staying home a day before the transit in case we have to travel in the event of a bad weather. As with any major astronomical event, I was studying satellite images for days now and understanding the movement of cloud cover. During the month of May and early June Northern India receives pre-monsoon showers which are accompanied by dust and thunder storms. This is due to the low pressure area created by the heating landmass which sucks in dust and moisture laden winds from surroundings. And it is now an established fact the cities being warmer than countryside are more prone to dust and thunder storms. It had been raining a few evenings before the transit which made the morning sky clear. However, during the first week of June, a big patch of cloud covered major cities in India. Upon studying visible, infra-red and water vapour channels images sent out by Kalpana-1 satellite, I decided to stay put in Gurgaon, even though the evening looked as if the cloud cover will not dissipate. I had seen a break in the cloud cover and the motion over time suggested that we will have broken clouds to clear skies by morning.
The morning of 6 June arrived and we were ready with our setup by the break of dawn. We did some final test runs and then waited for the sky to clear up. The south and west were clear and the north and east were covered with broken clouds. However, a nice and cool breeze gave us the confidence that the clouds will be soon dispersed and we shall soon be able to witness the transit.
The glowing disk of our nearest star was first visible at around 6.30 am local time and it was the most beautiful sight of the day. The broken clouds acted as a natural filter making it safe for us to view the sun directly. At this stage our solar filters were too dark for the faint disk of the sun. Amidst the clouds, we could clearly see a tiny black spot on the face of the sun. It is the best picture of the Transit that we took that day.
As our planet turned on its axis, the Sun gradually gained altitude in the sky, increase its luminance every second. The sky cleared up too and soon we were looking at the Sun through protective solar filters. Having witnessed the Total Solar Eclipse of 2009 which just lasted over 3 minutes, 5 hours of Venus transit was like a lifetime. There was so much one could do in 5 hours.
Kaustav and Neha attempted to transmit live image of the telescope through the webcast of the event – Kaustav’s office colleagues guiding him over phone (they were watching us from their office) on how to achieve a good focus with the webcam. This of course was not very stable as it was not planned earlier and thus they were trying it for the first time. Many first time observers stumbled upon to us and we formed a ritual that was to be followed – at first the were supposed to look through protective filter without any magnification and then with binoculars and finally with the telescope. No one was allowed to jump this and go directly at the scope. We shared with them the significance of the transit and how the first organised transit of Venus helped mankind to understand the scale of the solar system.
Parallely, we were uploading photographs on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter as well as transmitting near live images of the transit through amateur radio equipment using the SSTV mode on 2m & 20 m bands. Even though we did not get a response on 20 m; there was appreciable activity on 2 m. Days later, I saw one of the received images on Facebook which we had transmitted. The view from the telescope was mesmerising. The black drop of Venus among the sunspots looked so pretty that there are no words that can describe.
Back in Hanle, the sky was overcast and there was no hope to see the sun. Soon our friends who were sitting at IIA looking at Hanle, saw our webcast and decided to embed it on the AAAD’s website. The screenshot of our webcast was viewed by the team at IIA showed up few days ago on Facebook.
The transit lasted till about 10.19 am IST and we were glad that we witnessed and publicised the last Venus transit of our lifetimes. A lot of non-astronomers and non-ham radio users also came to observe the transit through our setup.
The transit of Venus was one of the most spectacular astronomical events we witnessed and observed. We consider ourselves to be lucky to have successfully observed it. As the saying goes, “at the right place and at the right time”
We now await for the next great astronomical event – Comet ISON in November 2013. Watch this space.
PS. If you like this post or any other posts, please hit the “Like” button.
Neha and I visited this place in February of 2012. It was an impromptu short trip, and till 15 minutes before starting, we had no idea that we will be visiting the Chand Baori. On a regular Sunday morning, we were checking the social feeds on Facebook, when we saw a post by the Jeypore Bike Riders – a group on Facebook who had visited this place few weeks back. Within minutes the trip materialised and we were driving down towards Alwar. It took us close to 3 hours to reach the village of Abhaneri.
Located about 200 km (124 miles) from Gurgaon, in the village of Abhaneri, Rajasthan is an old baori (stepwell) which has almost faded into the history. Built in the 8th or 9th century by King Chand of the Nikumbha Rajputs of Chahamana dynasty, this stepwell was dedicated to the the goddess of joy and happiness – Harshshat Mata. The temple of Harshshat Mata is at adjacent to this beautiful architecture. It is one of the largest and deepest stepwells (20 meter deep with 13 levels) in India (source: http://www.jaipur.org.uk/excursions/abhaneri.html)
The first monument visible from the road itself is the Harshshat Mata temple, which is built on a double terraced platform mimicking the Mahameru style. Mahameru or the Great Meru is a sacred mountain in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology. This mountain is considered as centre of all physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes (a multiverse concept). Many a temples built by the Hindus, Jain and Buddhist are symbolic representation of this mountain.
From this temple a path runs towards the Chand Baori and the path takes you to a different world in a different time. All around are perfectly geometric patterns of steps, down to the water body. The periphery of the compound consists of alleys access to which was restricted. I wonder what’s inside them. Also can be seen statues carved out of stone and set into the walls and pillars of the stepwell.
Abhaneri is one of the places around Delhi which has not been explored by many people and one can see the places and come back home the same day. So, if you live in Delhi/NCR and you haven’t seen this place yet, plan a visit soon. Best time to visit this place is during winters when the days are cool and pleasant.
Higher up in the Himalayas the roads are difficult to maintain and keep motorable. Everyday is a tug of war between man and nature. Nature usually relents for a short span of time after which armies of men & women of GREF (General Reserve Engineer Force) of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) use every available muscle and mechanised power to clear the roads in extreme conditions. The sections are frequented by landslides, brute force of water (streams, rain and snow), gales and earthquakes.
This journey of ours undertaken in the summer of 2013 travels along with the river Chenab through the remote areas of higher Himalayas covering Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. The roads we took are motorable on maps but barely motorable in reality. We crossed treacherous sections of mountains where no tarmac has ever been laid and no road roller has ever moved. Just the mountains have been blasted with explosives and cleared of debris. This journey travels through the roads of the Tandi-Udeypur-Tindi-Shour-Killar and Kishtwar.
The place of disclaimers is usually towards the end of a post and there is a reason for it being placed here. Should you get influenced by the post and decide to undertake this journey, you would do it at your own risk. We (Neha and I) indemnify ourselves from any mishap that you may face should you decide to undertake this journey. This post is not a guide or a route map but a memoir of our road trip.
The dry spell lasted this time for 4 months. Our last (short) road trip, was to Kufri with the offroading group, Terrain Tigers. Then came the end of the financial year, which for us, salaried people, is the time to indulge into compulsive savings to save tax and this translates to fewer funds to splurge.
Weekend road trips are usually impulsive, random and are done with less or no planning. But, there is at least some element of planning required for a trip lasting a week. Route plans have to be drawn in advance, halts need to be roughly kept in mind and then packing needs to be done accordingly. Neha and I had applied for leaves from office with no destination in mind, no route plan, nothing. We just knew that we are going somewhere, but where?
Till 31st May 2013, we were toying with the idea of the Rishikesh sector but thought that it will too short a trip to utilise the number of days in hand with us. The Spiti circuit was out of question as the Kunzum pass was not yet open. On Saturday afternoon, we narrowed our thoughts down to Chandra Taal trek, a lake in the Spiti valley much before Kunzum la. The next element was to assess if any gear is missing in our arsenal and voilà came the realisation that we did not have any trekking gear. A quick shopping drive followed to Satya Niketan in Delhi, where there are two shops selling trekking and adventure gear. While returning home, we chalked out the route plan which was something like this.
Day 1 – Gurgaon to Manali/Solang Valley
Day 2 Manali/Solang Valley – Rohtang Pass – Baatal – Chandra Taal
Day 3-4 Chandra Taal
Day 5 Chandra Taal – Rohtang Pass – Solang Valley
Day 6 Solang Valley – Gurgaon
This is what actually materialised
Day 1: June 02, 2013: Gurgaon to Solang Valley via Manali
We started at 1.30 am from home so that we reach well in time at Manali to apply for the permit to cross Rohtang pass next morning. Obtaining the permit was the main agenda of the day. For us, Manali or Solang valley was just a transit halt and we did not want to spend any extra time here. We entered Manali a little before 1 pm and by the time we found our way to the Mall road where the SDM office is located, it was almost 1.45 pm. Parking in crowded hill stations like Manali is always a challenge and while I struggled to find a parking space, Neha proceeded to the SDM office to procure the permit. The permit is issued free of cost after submitting an application (available at the photocopy shops in the vicinity) along with the copies of the car registration certificate and driving license. Sounds easy, isn’t it? It wasn’t. We reached Manali on a Sunday and everyone, right from travel agents to cops positioned at the Mall road believed that permit can not be obtained on a Sunday. They seemed so convinced that it was almost disheartening; a lot of people would have given up. Neha wanted to see for herself and headed alone for the office while I proceeded to park the vehicle.
She found the office empty but she did not stop looking. After a lot of searching, she ran into someone who guided her to the room in which permits were issued and by the time I joined her, the permit work was almost done. This was job half done. Hereon, we decided to check with the local adventure tour operators about the Chandra Taal. A day earlier, Neha had enquired about the route for Chandra Taal from a tour operator in Delhi and he quite convincingly said that the route was open till Batal and the lake is just 2 km away from the point road ends. Local tour operators in Manali had several versions on the status of the route.
The same people had said earlier with conviction that no way Rohtang permit can be obtained on a Sunday. Sometimes, it is best to check out things by ourselves, especially at places where man and nature are in a constant tug of war. We spent some time at the
Mall Road, had much needed lunch at a local eatery and then proceeded to Solang Valley where we had our hotel booked through HVK Facebook forum’s central helpdesk.
Enroute Solang, it suddenly struck me that we should refuel as fuel pumps may not be available after Manali. We had not gone far from the last available fuel station in Bahang. Soon, we had checked in Iceland Resorts in Solang Valley. A river stream passes close to this resort and we were attracted to it immediately. While we were walking down to the stream, we spotted two shepherd dogs in the meadow close by who were quite friendly and playful. We petted them and they followed us to the river stream. A few photographs later we were back at the hotel to have dinner and finally called it a day.
Day 2: June 03, 2013: Solang Valley – Rohtang Pass – Spiti road – Baralacha Pass – Sarchu
Rohtang pass used to be a mess when it came to traffic. It was not uncommon for cars to crawl and take 4 to 5 hours to cross this mountain pass. The permit system does not allow non-Himachal registered vehicles to go and visit the Rohtang pass. Permits are only issued to non-Himachal registered which have the intention of going to Leh, or Lahaul & Spiti valley. And then there is traffic movement restriction. From 6 am to 11 am vehicles are permitted to cross Rohtang Pass from Manali side. From 11 am to 1 pm, only cabs are permitted to enter the pass from Manali side. The road remains closed for traffic to carry out repair works from 1 pm to 3 pm and from 3 pm onwards traffic returning to Manali is allowed.
Having this information in advance was beneficial and we were at the Marhi checkpost at 5.40 am. There were about a dozen vehicles in front of us. At 6 am the checkpost allowed us to pass through. We made the best use of the power of our 4WD Scorpio and overtook all vehicles in-front of us. After that the whole section was a piece of cake. We completed the section in less than 90 minutes with many stoppages after the Rohtang top to click quick photographs. At Grumpu, we halted for breakfast and proceeded to the Spiti road. We could not resist to stop by the beautiful green meadows on the mountain side and relaxed for good 30 minutes before proceeding further. Short of 3 km on the road, we came
across an army vehicle and a volley of men clearing snow and ice from the road. The army officer shared that this was one of the three sections of road till Chota Dhara which were under snow rendering the road non-motorable. To make matters worse a snow clearing machine was stuck at one of the points. It turned out that the tour operators in Manali was fairly correct on the road being closed and Chandra Taal was now out of question.
We now decided to go and see Tso Moriri lake and thus headed towards Sarchu.We hardly would have covered 2 km and we were stuck once again due to a landslide. Fortunately for us, the road was being cleared by an earth moving machine. We refueled at Tandi, the last fuel station on the road to Leh.
The next one is 365 km away. While we were inching closer to Keylong, at a water crossing, the front right wheel started making grinding noise. We stopped and figured that some debris would have come between the brake-shoe and the disk. Since we could not see anything, we thought that removing the wheel will give us access to whatever is stuck and fix the problem. To our bad luck, while removing the wheel, the spanner slipped on one of the nuts damaging it. We had no option but to continue ahead. We would have gone a few hundred meters ahead that the noise stopped completely, but we still had one bad nut which would not unscrew should we have a flat on the way. So, we stopped over at a local road side car repair shop. In this
part of the country, a lot of Mahindra Boleros and pickups ply and finding such simple parts is easy. Twenty rupees lighter on the pocket, we got the bad part replaced and were back on the road. On the way to Sarchu we stopped to admire the beautiful Deepak Taal and Suraj Taal lakes.
Three years ago, we had got stuck at a water crossing while going towards Manali from Leh at Baralacha Pass. We were held up inside water for over 40 minutes till two passing vehicles offered their help and rescued us. We got stuck because the melting glacier had changed its course and was flowing in full force on the road instead of flowing under the bridge. Three years hence, the melting glacier had been tamed and made to flow where it was meant to. However, the place brought back difficult memories of the day.
We reached Sarchu an hour before dusk and set up camp close to a camping site. I started showing primary symptoms of altitude sickness. Afterall we ascended too fast, crossed two mountain passes in one day and were sleeping at 4290 m without acclimatisation.
Day 3: Sarchu towards Pang but back in Keylong
The symptoms of altitude sickness persisted through morning and I had a splitting headache upon waking up. The temperature inside our dome tent fell below zero and Neha’s nose had turned blue due to low temperature during the night. After the sun rose and we bathed in the warm light of our star, we felt better. Packed up and continued the journey for Tso Moriri. We were aware that an Inner Line Permit is required to visit the lake and the permit is issued from Leh; however, we wanted to take a chance and request the guards to let us pass through.
The road at Sarchu check post was closed and we learnt that a bridge had broken the previous night. A few truckers told us that we can go ahead on the route as the bridge was expected to be repaired in the next 30-40 minutes. We resumed our onward journey and we were the only car in our line of site which was travelling. A few miles on the road, we came across a bridge over a river connecting two mountains. There was no one around and we got anxious – what if, this is the bridge which is broken and if we move on this we just might go down with it. We surveyed the bridge for any visual signs of damage or any missing planks. It appeared to be in a good shape; we had crossed bridges in worse conditions earlier. We did manage to cross over and that too in the same condition that we started, it was quite a relief. Another bridge came and went. Some 20 km from the barriers, we saw a crowd of people and some cars parked just short of where the mountain ended into a run down bridge structure.
On first glance, it seemed as if someone had either stolen the metal plates of the bridge as only skeleton was hanging. Upon enquiring from the BRO officer, we learnt that the structure still standing is an old abandoned bridge and the actual bridge had washed away in a flash flood last evening. We were also told that a bulldozer had started at 5 am from Pang and was expected to reach the bridge site in a couple of hours. A day earlier on the way to Tandi, we came across two small landslides and in both instances the clearing took close to an hour. Even though we a have no knowledge in repairing bridges , we realised that even after the bulldozers reach, the repair work will take at least 2 days. We did not want to stay in Sarchu for 2 more days and decided to head back. Just when we started back for Sarchu, we were flagged down by two men, who wanted a hitch a ride back to Sarchu. It turned out that one of them was a retired colonel of Indian Army who was on a motorbike trip of the region. A night before, 2 out of the 3 bikes had crossed
over and one of their bikers could not make it in time to find the bridge. They had come down to check on their team member and found him safe. Col. Vinod Arora had some interesting information and anecdotes to share. We reached Sarchu and sat down for tea with him. A quarter of an hour later we were back on the road after biding goodbye to him and his team member. We reached Keylong around 4 pm and once again through the central registration desk of HVK Facebook Forum, we had our room booked in Hotel Tashi Delek. Upon reaching the hotel, we realised that we had stayed in the same hotel 3 years earlier when we did the Leh circuit on our Hyundai Accent. We had a lot of time on hand, so we went for a walk in the small market of Keylong and returned to the hotel after dining at a Tibetan restaurant. We called up HV Kumar and understood the route to one of the most treacherous roads in the country - Killar Kishtawar road.
Day 4: Keylong to Killar via Udeypur
The first and foremost step in the journey was fuel. Unlike the Leh Manali route where even in the absence of fuel stations, one can manage to get fuel, there is no such hope on the route we were about to undertake. It is a road less travelled by tourists and till the end of the journey we were the only non-local vehicle on the entire stretch.
Before I move ahead, I would like to share this important piece of information. While refueling at the Tandi fuel station, I happened to strike a conversation with the attendant. To my surprise, he revealed that there are days when they are out of fuel and have to wait up to 2 days for the fuel trucks to come. And most of the travelers on this route including us take the Tandi fuel station as a guaranteed refueling point before we hit Leh.
The road to Udeypur passes through lush green grasslands and plantations with little patches of the brown mountains. And to add to the marvel of the scenery, there are numerous waterfalls, several are on the roadside and others in the distance. We took our time admiring the route and photographing it. The road is rough on certain patches but nothing compared to what lies ahead of Udeypur. We had started our journey around 8 am and we reached Udeypur around 1 pm. On the way we took a 12 km round trip detour to Triloknath temple. This temple is a live example of the communal harmony of the Hindus and Buddhists of the region as both religious sects offer prayers at the same place and the same time. The temple has the statue of Triloknath or Lord Shiva and is a mix of Hindu and Buddhist architecture. We could not photograph the interior of the temple as it was prohibited but it was quite a surreal experience.
The life of the people in these sections of Himalayas is quite unique. In the village of Triloknath, while coming back from the temple, we came across a small shop on the roof of which cut brinjals were being dried in the sun. Our curiosity got the better of us and we couldn’t help but ask the women who were engaged in this task. The people of this village have to work hard during the summers, drying vegetables so that when they are cut off from the world in winters and nothing grows, they can survive on their stocked provisions. Everything is stocked for 6 months of winter, right from salt to soap. They plan each and every aspect of their lives in advance to sustain the winter. And, to beat it all, they believe in community service. Everyone works together and has a role in the small society that they have. Communication is on the mercy of the mobile service provider and nature herself. Randomly the service provider may decide to turn off the connectivity or nature would create conditions to cut off these people from the world earlier than winters. It is quite unlike the residents of big cities, who are not even aware who their neighbours are, forget about understanding their needs and rendering help when needed. With the advent of “delivered fresh in 30 minutes”, we city dwellers do not plan meticulously as these mountain dwellers do.
At Udeypur, we had lunch at a local dhabba and checked with local cops as well as local taxi drivers on the status of the road till Killar. While the taxi drivers said the road was open, two police officers expressed concern for us starting in the afternoon. They cautioned us
of the water crossings and advised us to ask for help from the GREF if we get stuck. Also, they advised us not to waste anytime and cross the major water crossings before 3.30 pm as after that they become almost impassable. HV Kumar also expressed his concern of us being late in starting from Udeypur. Had we not been so casual till Udeypur, we would have ample time in hand to reach Killar. But time was already lost and there was no point wasting time in mulling over lost time. We continued ahead. Around 2 km down the road, the surface changed from broken tarmac to a narrow dirt road and this slowed us down. We were told that to cover that 80 km distance to Killar, we would definitely need 5 to 6 hours. Four kilometers further on the road, we encountered our first water crossing which was not difficult. Six kilometers further down, we saw something that shook our confidence. No way, we could cross this one without getting towed. The water was flowing at its full force and appeared quite deep. We saw three labourers working on the crossing fighting water by filling large rocks in gaps created by the brute force of water. One of them, showed us the narrow path they had been able to fill completely from where our vehicle could cross to the other side. We were taking a big chance as the underlying rocks could get displaced from their position while we were crossing the stream. We put the vehicle in 4 wheel low ratio gear mode and proceeded. The vehicle articulated over the rocks, through the water effortlessly and we breathed a sigh of relief. While, we may have gone across the water in 2 wheel drive mode as well, but the probability of getting stuck was quite high. A wrong move or slip towards the gorge side would mean instant end of the trip. The condition of the road beyond this point had further worsened and now we were now driving on spurred roads. Half an hour later, the weather changed and dark clouds covered the region. Even though my casio watch was constantly showing weather to be on the fine side, it had started drizzling. It was a bad sign. The whole mountain range on
which we were driving is highly susceptible to landslides caused by rain and gale. Loose stones and rocks are carefully balanced on each other on the cliff side of the mountain. A small external force caused by any of the natural or manmade sources would disturb this delicate balance and gravity would do the rest. It is not uncommon for random landslides in this region. And, if we were to get stuck, expecting help at that time of the day was like expecting to run into an oasis in Thar desert. And then, worse could have happened. We could be targets of these falling rocks and a large one could push us down in the Chenab river following several hundred feet below. Earlier in the day we had seen small pebble sized stones shooting down on the road a few meters in front of us. One just needs to be in the wrong place in the wrong time.
Rain made us worry a lot and even though how much we wanted to hurry, we could not. We were covering 10 to 15 kilometers in a hour at max. Going faster would mean risking the approach angle of a blind turn and we would be sleeping with the bears and other animals in the forest below – should we survive such a fall.
Around 2 pm, we came across a third water crossing or should I say 200-300 meters long river bed crossing uphill. In fact, it was a rogue waterfall, whose flow had changed its course and was now following on the road for quite a distance. This section came upon us suddenly after a blind turn. Looking at this vast flow of water, we stopped. Up in the distance, we saw a lot of people and three trucks parked.
These were the GREF guys and they were repairing the roads. This instilled some confidence to cross this section as if we were to get stuck, we could always request/beg the truck to tow us out. Engaged 4WD low 2nd gear and started moving. At first the water was only an inch deep but with every turn of the wheel uphill, the depth increased. By the time we reached the waterfall, we were in quite deep water. Without increasing or decreasing the approach speed, we continued ahead and managed to cross over. We breathed a sigh of relief and stopped. We met the GREF guys and asked them about the road up ahead. Their leader was a guy from Haryana and seeing our Haryana registered vehicle, quickly came towards us and greeted us with humility. We reciprocated. He shared that this was the most treacherous of the crossings and many a people get stuck here. Every morning, they start their battle with the water here and by evening they returned home relenting to the force of water. And had we been here 2 hours later, they would have gone home and we would have been by ourselves. He also shared that the road till Killar was fine with no such death traps. However, he warned us that the road gets quite narrow and at places we need to be careful on our approach angle, else…, (silence)
Around 3 pm, we reached the village of Tindi and there we enquired about the road ahead. We ran into a GREF truck driver who was returning from a day long hard labour. His brought in news which we never expected. He told us that up ahead, his team is set to blast the mountain to widen the motorable path and unless we cross into Killar by 5 pm, we are likely to get stuck in the middle of nowhere in the blast zone. Clearance of debris following a blast takes anywhere between 8 to 48 hours. The leader we met earlier on the water crossing didn’t warn us about this. Did he forget? Was he messing with us? Is this guy messing with us? There was no time to waste debating; it was time to panic. No way, we wanted to get stuck in this place. We wanted to move ahead. This also meant, that there is no looking back hereon. If we cross into Killar, we must keep moving ahead into Kishtwar and further ahead to Jammu road. We drove a wee bit faster and we were now constantly running on 4 wheel high mode. This mode brings in more traction on bad surfaces and helped us articulate the spurred and rocky path with much finesse. A dozen kilometers ahead we met some more people and finally a vehicle going in our direction. We stopped and asked. The leader at the waterfall did not forget to warn us nor was he messing with us. It was the truck driver – a$$h013! Okay, so here is truth. The mountains do get blasted once a week, on a Friday or Saturday. Today, they were drilling holes into the cliff to make space for explosives. At the village of Shour, this was validated. We saw teams drilling holes in the cliff. We rechecked with them and one of them expressed concern that if we wanted to return this path after Friday, we may not be able to. Did he say, return? No, never!
Around 6 pm, we were at Killar and headed to the government rest house located near the helipad. Shocking it was, the place was booked. Turns out people from L&T Hydro electric power project were staying the night here. Next we went to the only hotel in the town, Chamunda View Palace. This palace is the town’s watering hole and was sold out as well! Now, what? There is a homestay called Chandrabhaga. This place was also sold out. Apparently, elections were close by in this town and political strata and cops were staying in the hotels. Now what! sleeping in the car, was an option. So I went to get the car to in order to find a parking space while there was still some light. The owner of the Chamunda View came up to me and asked if we managed to get a room. And then, he said that he has one room which is in shambles which is left out and he can give it to us. During our Bhutan drive, we got a similar room in Gopalganj and slept in our sleeping bags. It was better than staying in the car, at least we both can lay horizontal and not be exposed to the cold night of the himalayan hamlet. It took us an hour to set the room – a lot of room freshener was sprayed, and the bedding replaced by our own. Food also came from our luggage and we called it a day.
Day 5: Killar – Kishtwar – Batote-Gurgaon (24 hours non-stop drive back home)
At 5.30 am we were in the car, driving towards Kishtwar. We were forewarned by many about this road. Everyone had one common thing to say. Only the real adventurer dare to travel on this path. The road here becomes so narrow that there is barely space to keep all four wheels on the track. And then there are steep hairpin bends; bends where one can not turn the vehicle in one go. There is not enough space to turn the vehicle in one go. You traverse half turn and then reverse and then move ahead. All this needs to be done, with loose rocky surface which gives away without warning and then there is raging Chenab river in the valley below. This route has done no provisioning for errors. One mistake, one wrong move on these cliffhangers and it is the end of your journey and definitely, the end of life.
An hour after driving here,
we came across the Himachal Pradesh border before the Sansari Nalah. The barrier was in closed position and I walked up to the guards to fill in our details. The details are taken to inform the next of kin incase you don’t make it to across the treacherous path. They offered us tea and we chatted with them for quite some time, understanding how they work and in what conditions. We also tried to find out what to do in case there is a breakdown. Both the guards expressed grim concern over the question. The answer was quite expected and disheartening – you are stuck. They too warned us of the path up ahead and asked us to be slow and extra careful. And, they were right and so was everybody with whom we shared about this trip. The hairpin bends were extremely steep climbs on rocky surface. No way, I was going to try doing it in 2 wheel drive. I had learnt the skill of rock climbing with the offroading group – Terrain Tigers and it was time to implement it. Mahindra’s Scorpio behaved amazingly well and we kept going without any problem. Of course, we had to articulate some turns in steps, which meant reversing up to the edge of the road and here the strong team Neha and I are, displayed our best coordination skills.
This route has some of the best waterfalls we have seen in our life and that too on the side of the roads. We just couldn’t resist stopping at most of them. At Tiyari village, we had breakfast. While eating the local dhabba person shared that last year 3 vehicles with people went down into the gorge and were never retrieved. Upon enquiring about the occupants of the vehicle, he said that their identities were determined by the records maintained by Himachal and J&K checkpost people. The road becomes slightly broader till Gulabgarh from here but only in some small sections. Soon we came across a village where a railing less wooden bridge was the only way to cross the stream of water. The road leading to the bridge and following it was quite steep which translated into maintaining an optimum momentum in order to approach the bridge and then to climb to the road following it. Being railing-less and extremely narrow, the precision had to be accurate to the inch. There was simply no room for error.
The force of water flowing under it was adding to the building tension. It was just crazy. We crossed the bridge alright, but lost momentum on the ascend and stalled. Flexed the handbrake to its extreme position and yet on depression of the clutch the vehicle was slipping into the stream of water as if it had a huge magnet inside it. It seemed as if we were done for. Once again, the 4WD low gear came handy and we were out of this mess.
After Gulabgarh, tarmac can be felt on the road and it is a relief. The narrowness of the road continued on various sections especially turns. Tarmac also meant, more vehicular
traffic and thus the chances of being stuck in a bad zone increased manyfold. We somehow managed to reach Kishtwar in one piece. We refueled at Kishtwar and proceeded to Batote. Around 4 pm, we were in Batote and called up HV Kumar from a local payphone enquiring about the route plan till Pathankot. Our phones were not working in this section and thus we had no navigational aids. Neha and I decided to go home now. We were more than content with the scenic beauty since last few days and the beauty at Killar-Kishtwar route was icing on the cake and hence, regular hill stations like Patnitop had no value for us.
We started driving towards home and joined a huge traffic snarl at Patnitop. We waited for more than 30 minutes before the mess sorted out and we resumed our journey. We reached Pathankot via Udyampur , Ramkote and Lakhanpur around 9 pm. I asked Neha to sleep on the rear seat of the car and by 1 am we were at Roopnagar. She took over the driving and I rested for a while. Around 3,30 am, we had food at the dhabas in Murthal and entered Delhi around 5 am. By 5.45 am we were home. We had done it! Not only we drove through a very difficult terrain but also drove non-stop for 24 hours.
A special thanks for Kumar HV, for tracking us and guiding us throughout the trip.
On 25th November 2012, we celebrated our third wedding anniversary and for the last 2 years we have been meaning to see the famous Pushkar fair. The first year of our married life, Pushkar fair happened around our wedding day, so obviously we missed it. The second year, we had rescued few stray dogs a month earlier and their care was a priority that time. This year, we decided, we will go ahead with it.
Only when we decided to finally make it to Pushkar for a weekend, we researched more on it and realised that it was not a place where we would like to spend more than a few hours. A cattle and camel fair looks amazing in the many beautiful photographs that keep getting circulated post the fair; but to be honest, we could not be in such an environment for more than few hours. Another problem was accommodation. Most affordable accommodations in Pushkar were sold out and the luxury tents were way too expensive.
We toyed with the idea of pitching our own tent at Pushkar but being a high traffic area, especially at the time of the fair, it was not wise to do so. People from all walks of life flock at such places and it would have killed the fun of camping anyway. We checked Google Maps for nearby cities where one can stay at comfort without shelling a fortune.
Avid road travellers such as us, believe in crashing for the night at a comfortable, clean and safe place rather than a luxurious stay. We get the kick out of driving through the country and not staying at exotic locations. It is the journey which adds value to our travels and not always the stay. This thought process made us reach Jodhpur on Google Maps.
Commitments at work gave us just two days for the trip. So we decided to see Jodhpur on day 1 and Pushkar at day 2.
Day 1: Gurgaon - Fort Khejrala - Jodhpur (Umaid Bhavan Place & Mehrangarh Fort) – 600 km
As always we planned to start early to beat the traffic and crunch maximum miles the madness begins. We rolled out of our parking lot at 4 am and headed on NH-8. We crossed Jaipur in 3.5 hours and by 10 am we had crossed Ajmer. At Ajmer, we experienced heavy traffic at a railway crossing but still denser traffic jams were up on the cards. The road between Ajmer and Beawar are fantastic. Speeds greater than 150 kmph can be achieved on this stretch. At Beawar, when you turn towards Jodhpur, long traffic jams welcome you. There is another railway crossing where the road is quite narrow and one needs to wait in a long queue before one can regain speed. There is a better route to reach Jodhpur via Merta City which we took one our way back. Thanks to HV Kumar for this wonderful tip.
Fort Khejrala - A few scores of miles after the town of Bilara, we reached the T-junction where the a Village Road merges to the State Highway. A big hoarding by the management of Fort Khejrala is erected here and it is difficult to miss it. After taking a right hand turn, we travelled for about 12-14 km on this narrow village road. The road is well laid but not broad enough. Two vehicles can not pass each other without one getting down on the left shoulder. After reaching the village of Khejrala, we took a right hand turn and climbed up the still narrower street and we arrived the gates of this centuries old fort. This has been converted into a heritage hotel and tariffs begin from INR 8000+ (in the year 2012)
The terrace of the fort provides a panoramic
view of the terrain below and in a distance we could see as far as the city of Jodhpur. The staff at the fort shared that on clear days one can see the Mehrangarh fort from the premises. We spent about an hour at the fort before we resumed our journey.
Umaid Bhavan Palace – We reached the Umaid Bhavan Palace at 3 pm. There is a parking lot available at the fort entrance and the cost of entry into the palace is INR 25/adult. The palace is more of a museum which highlights the life and ancestry of Maharaja Gaj Singh. It boasts of a beautiful blend of modern architecture with a blend of Rajasthani culture. Here on, we headed to the Mehrangarh Fort.
Mehrangarh Fort – To reach this fort, we had to go through the old city of Jodhpur and ascend up the hill leading to the fort gates.
There are two parking lots – one 100 metres before the fort and one closer to the fort gate. Keep driving till you reach the second parking lot. A strange observation at the ticket counters was that one which displayed the prices in Hindi was selling tickets at a cheaper rate than the one selling tickets with prices displayed in English. Audio guide is available at the counter which we would strongly recommend. There is an elevator facility as well (for a small cost) at the fort entrance. Walking, however is fun and offers a lot of photography opportunities.
This is a better place to see compared to the Umaid Palace museum. It gives an opportunity to walk through the fort and see the entire place. From Mehrangarh, one can witness the blue city of Jodhpur. We spent around 2 hours at the fort and it was closing time. Thereafter, we went to the area where the canons are placed and watched the sunset.
After the Mehrangarh fort, we checked in to Dhillon House – a B&B near the Circuit House. We found Dhillon House through TripAdvisior and the good ratings given well justified. We had Lal Maas for dinner at a resturant recommended by Mr. Dhillon himself called On the Rocks.
Day 2 – Jodhpur – Pushkar- Foy Sagar Lake – Gurgaon 650+ km
After travelling more than 600 km and visiting three forts, we went into a deep slumber at the Dhillon House. We checked out around 10 am and had breakfast at one of the local shops of Jodhpur near Nai Sadak.
We wanted to avoid the traffic jam at Beawar and thus took the Merta City route suggested by HV Kumar. This route turned out to be amazing. Expect for 500 m of super bad roads (which were under construction) the roads are good and traffic light.
Around 1 pm, we entered the city of Pushkar. There is a RTDC village opposite to Pushkar fair grounds where parking was available. After having lunch at the RTDC restaurant we headed for the fair. The beauty about Pushkar fair lies in the colours of Rajasthan.
We spent a couple of hours at the fair, took a camel cart ride and then we started back home. Just after we crossed the city limits of Puskhar we came across a small ghat section overlooking a lake. Modern Rajasthan boasts of many man made lakes and no longer qualifies as a dry desert. We stopped over for some photographs and proceeded for home. A few kilometers ahead, we came across a sign board which said right turn for Foy Sagar Lake.
Then through the narrow lanes we snaked our way to the Foy Sagar Lake. The Lake just pops out of no where and is beautiful. I do not know if it a camping site, but to me it appeared as a place where one can pitch in their tents and have a camp fire.
Once again, we started back home and continued till Jaipur. Back in August 2012, Jaipur to Delhi drive took 8+ hours and we did not want drive a snail pace. Therefore, we decided to go via Alwar and then via Bhiwadi- Sohna to Gurgaon.
The roads are good till Bhiwadi, though quite often speed breakers keep troubling. The Bhiwadi- Taodu-Sohna road has less of traffic but small patches are extremely horrible. Over all we managed to cover Jaipur to Gurgaon in 5 hrs and 15 minutes.
One thing that Neha and I realised during this trip was that, there should be a will to go and see places and time can usually be managed. A trip which usually takes 3 to 4 days, we squeezed in 2. Many people would sneer and criticise this kind of trips but then at the end of the day we enjoyed every moment of it and were completely refreshed by the end of it.
We humans have always been intrigued by the flying birds and many men gave their lives in desperate attempts to learn to fly. With the advent of physics, we learnt about aerodynamics and this finally helped us to defy gravity. I remember as a child, at the sound of an approaching aircraft, rushing out of the house looking at the flying objects in the sky. Have we all not wondered and desired to fly like birds in open. Have we all not wished to have the magical carpet of Alladin or the witch’s broom or to fly with a fairy or to meet Superman in person. Alas, these are all fictional. Finally, fiction transformed into reality when like a madman, I ran towards the edge of the cliff. As your feet leave solid ground, gravity comes into action and you begin to descend. And, then you realise the paraglider that is attached to you is pulling you away breaking your fall, ascending higher and higher like an eagle. You are not inside an aircraft but this time in air not controlled by machinery but we humans.
Our trip to Billing, Himachal Pradesh back in June 2012 took a backseat when we decided to go to Chakrata instead for spelunking. This was a long overdue trip. Billing is a famous paragliding destination in the world, second to a site in Philippines. Indian festivals tend to create long weekends, and such opportunities are not to be missed. The Diwali of 2012 was on a Tuesday, which meant that if you take one day off on a Monday, one ends up with at least 4 days to roam around the beautiful planet we call home.
The mighty beast- our new Scorpio was a recent addition to our home (06/November/2012) and this added a set of bells and whistles to this trip. We started our journey from Delhi along with my Mom, Brother, his fiancée. My dad backed out last minute. Mom had recently joined a teaching at the Sherab Ling Monastery and thus, we were to stay at the monastery guest house. We took Una – Palampur route to reach Baijnath. On the Baijnath-Joginder Nagar road, one has to take the road leading to Bhattu village and drive for about 7 km before you are greeted by the Tibetan prayer flags. Keep moving till you approach a setup which transforms into a scene from a fairy tale; ones that start with “In a land far far away, in the middle of a dense forests lived few monks. Their forests had prayer flags all over the road which lead to their temple. The monks believed that these flags will guide the lost souls to their abode.” Of course Google Maps is of little help on this road.
The Palpung SherabLing Institute just pops out from the middle of no where and it boasts of an architecture worth admiring. We reached this place after dark and being a lone establishment – there is nothing much you can do after the natural lights go out. We ate at the restaurant/canteen of the Palpung Institute and then retired to our rooms.
Delhi and it’s surrounding cities were under a blanket of a dense smog which was adversely affecting the lives of the residents and my sweetheart Neha also came under the influence of the gas chamber. She was experiencing breathing troubles which simply vanished when we reached Sherabling. The air is super clean and our lungs were in for a treat.
Aloo paranthas (freshly baked bread stuffed with mashed potatoes) can be obtained anywhere anytime. They are like this cross cultural food adopted by all. During all my travels, local cuisines may not be available at a particular hour, you never fail to find aloo parantha readily available. While we were having breakfast next morning at the Stupa Guest house, we saw two gliders flying. The entire family got pretty excited for the adventure sport we were about to undertake.
Before starting for Bir, we got the number of the paragliding operator from the manager of the SherabLing Institute. Kamal & Pinku (+91-9816925470) were the operators we were referred to. Pinku had a podium finish in the October 2012 paragliding championship which was held in Billing. On the way to Bir, we stopped multiple times for several Canon & Nikon moments.
We had some trouble finding the Bir landing site – we had bypassed it as the direction boards are misleading. It is better here to ask the locals about the landing site. We parked our vehicle at the landing site and took their Innova to the take off point. The take off point at Billing is about 14 km by road and it takes a good 25-30 minutes to reach there. It was warm at Bir and we made the mistake of leaving our woolens in the car. Even at Billing we did not anticipate the bone chilling cold that was in store for us once we were airborne.
At the launch site, we saw many foreigners undertaking solo flights, wearing special suits and geared up with GPS and other gadgets. We all anticipated that we might feel a bit cold in the air. Some local shared that these solo fliers fly for hours at a stretch and thus they need to be geared up and for a short tandem flight, we need not worry. Worrying wouldn’t have helped either – it was impractical to climb down 14 steep kilometers and then bring the warm clothes back here.
Soon we were ready for take off – Mom was the first to fly, followed by me, then my brother, then his fiance and Neha was the last one to fly with the best pilot of the lot, Pinku. We had one GoPro camera with us, which I mounted on my helmet and we hired one GoPro camera from the operators which Neha took along with her. The DSLR and the point and shoot were of little use here.
The moment I was airborne, I felt funny in my belly – it is the same feeling that one gets on a roller coaster. Within a few seconds the feeling goes away and then you begin to ascend, taking advantage of the thermals which peak between noon and 2 pm. The increase of altitude results in sudden decrease in temperature and along comes the realisation – why I am under-dressed! It’s too late to complain so I decided to enjoy every bit of it.
Many times during my flight, I was flying above the birds and twice an eagle was flying so close to me that I could do a morphology study on the avian. My pilot took me for a cross country tour of the area and we covered two ridges. Couple of times, I spotted my brother whose red helmet was visible from quite a distance, but I could not spot Neha in the several gliders flying around. My pilot told me that the best time to glide is late September, October and early November as the weather is quite stable during these months.
During my flight, my pilot wanted me to have the experience of some stunts he liked to show off – and then after taking my consent, he began to roll the glider. I could feel the increase in the G forces and we began to spin rapidly. This lasted for a few seconds. Paragliding is very noisy; the sound of the air is near deafening at times. At the end of this so called stunt, everything went quite for a moment and I felt completely weightless. An awesome feeling. After about 35 minutes or so, the pilot took us towards Bir’s landing site. We were still at a great altitude and then he said it again – ” Shall be repeat the stunt”, but this time it’s going to be much more fun”. I consented to it once again as I thought it would be just the same. And boy, was I wrong! We began to spin with immense speed. The G forces were clearly felt this time. I could feel blood rushing to my feet and the pressure of the blood rapidly increasing in my legs. Within a split second, I remembered all the shows on Discovery and Nat-Geo where they talked about fighter pilots passing out due to extreme G forces. At one point, I felt that my legs could no longer bear the outward pressure of my own blood and will burst out. I just hoped that I pass out before that happened. But nothing of that sort took place. I did not pass out nor did my legs explode. What happened was, we descended too quickly. We landed in the next five minutes and I enjoyed every bit of the flight
Mom had already landed. The cold and the flight made her sick so she rested while others landed. I could only spot Neha when she was landing and took a video of her landing. Each one of us, had an awesome experience of the flight and unanimously we regretted not taking the warm clothing along with us. Hereon, we went to have lunch. The trio – Mom, Bro and his fiance had to leave for Delhi by bus the same night from Baijnath. Later that evening, Neha and I came back to our room and we went into a deep slumber after an exhausting day.
Next morning, we headed for the Sherabling Monastery where a monk gave us a personalised tour of the place. After the monastery tour, we headed for Barot.
Barot is famous for its trout farms and is a famous angling destination. It is about 35 km from Baijnath on the Baijnath Mandi road. We reached Barot by 3 pm only to find out that the trout farms are closed for breeding season and angling is not permitted till March 2013. While we were contemplating on heading back to Delhi, we spotted a nice wooden hut of the PWD Guest House. Upon inquiring from the caretaker about the accommodation, he told us that the rooms need to be booked well in advance from Jogindernagar. He suggested that we should call up the booking office and attempt a telephonic booking. We did and we got a room – of course we had to get a room, there were no tourists around a day before Diwali. The caretaker, then advised us to go on a drive 14 km ahead of Barot and admire the scenic beauty. We spotted couple water falls on the way, a minor water crossing and grazing grounds. We were back in Barot before the last light of the day disappeared into the approaching night.
Ate trout fish for dinner from one of the local restaurants and then headed back to our room. It was very cold in Barot – at about 8 pm, the temperature was around 4 degrees Celsius. We started back home next morning around 5 pm and we were back in Gurgaon for Diwali at 3 pm. This was by far the best Diwali vacation we every had.
Though paragliding is now checked off from our bucket list, we would certainly like to do it again – this time with proper clothing and a two way radio strapped on to us. We really missed each other for that 1 hour we could not spot each other. I found out today that there about several paragliding destinations in India, Billing just happens to be the best of them. It is a very safe sport, especially if it is done along with an experienced pilot.