A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: nilesh

Cross-Roads of the Middle East - Jordan

Holiday in Jordan from Apr 17 to 28, 2013. Toured the length of the country - Umm-Qais in the north to Aqaba in the south and everything in between. We loved the country, it's people and all it had to offer by way of culture, art, history and food.

sunny 30 °C
View Holiday in Jordan - Apr 2013 on nilesh's travel map.

Photo Collection - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nileshkorgaokar/collections/72157633423887973/

When the taxi driver, in heavily accented English, cracks jokes before he has even deposited your luggage in the boot, you can be forgiven for thinking that he might be a particularly funny guy. Then you are met with the same good humor a few hours after you have checked into your hotel – from the café owner that you drop into for Arabic coffee, the assistant at the bakery that you enter because you can see mountains of Arabic bread being churned out from somewhere beneath, from the burly smiling guy behind the mounds of baklava and kunafa, when the Palestinian shop-owner can sing ‘Bol Radha, Bol Sangam’ – you are convinced that a great holiday with some of the friendliest people in the world is about to unfold.

For thousands of years, the Silk Route and the Christian & Islamic pilgrim routes to Jerusalem and Mecca crisscrossed thru what is now Jordan. The region has been a battleground for the Crusades and over the past couple of thousand years has been ruled by the Nabataens, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. Lawrence of Arabia fought with the Arabs for the liberation of this land from the Ottomans. As a result the country is a smorgasbord of influences from these cultures and conflicts. Add to that Biblical tales - Moses shown the Promised Land from Mt Nebo, Jesus baptized in the Jordan Valley....you begin to get the drift as to why this country must feature on top of your ‘go to’ list.

As the taxi pulls out of the airport towards Madaba, you do notice the lack of trees – but this is more than made up by the wonderfully undulating nature of the countryside, the rolling green wheat fields and the olive groves. Most of the villages and towns were perched on ‘tells’ – basically hummocks. We decided to begin our 11-day tour of Jordan at Madaba instead of Amman. Since our flight had landed at 4 pm at the spanking new terminal at Queen Alia International Airport, we had enough time to saunter downtown from the hotel after checking in. My wife, Dhana, was awe-struck by the bakery right in front of the hotel that, 24 hours a day, churned out various kinds of Arabic bread by the hundreds. It seems nobody, including hotels, makes any bread – they buy it from such bakeries. ‘Why can’t some marketing whizz introduce this concept in India – we wouldn’t have to labor at making chapatis’, were her words.

After wandering about some more – just checking out the shops, meeting a few more friendly local souls – we decided to dine at Haret Jdoudna set in one of Madaba’s old restored houses it’s a favorite restaurant with locals and tourists. We feasted on traditional Jordanian food – mezze, falafel, mansaf (lamb cooked in yogurt and served with rice) and magloubbeh (similar to biriyani but yet uniquely different). On the way back we stopped by the sweet shop for kunafa (pastry over goat cheese baked in syrup). Sounds deliciously decadent – and it is – cholesterol chaos at its best (or worst)!

Madaba – the Christian town of Churches and Mosaics
In many respects Madaba is a typical East Bank town which differs in one major aspect: underneath almost every house lies a fine Byzantine mosaic. Many of these mosaics have been excavated and are on display in the town's museum, but it is estimated that many more lie hidden waiting to be discovered. Madaba's chief attraction – in the contemporary Greek Orthodox church of St. George – is a wonderfully vivid, 6th-century

Byzantine mosaic map showing the entire region from Jordan and Palestine in the north, to Egypt in the south. This map includes a fascinating plan of Jerusalem: on the left is the north gate from which two colonnaded streets run south. On the straight street through the heart of the city stands the domed Holy Sepulcher. Clearly inscribed above the north and east gates is the legend "Holy City of Jerusalem".

Other mosaic masterpieces found in the church of the Virgin and the Apostles and the Archaeological Museum, depict a rampant profusion of flowers and plants, birds and fish, animals and exotic beasts, as well as scenes from mythology and everyday pursuits of hunting, fishing and farming. Literally, hundreds of other mosaics from the 5th through the 7th centuries are scattered throughout Madaba's churches and homes.

All these places are within walking distance of each other and if you go to the Visitor Center (all tourist attractions in Jordan seem to have one) you can get a map but no guidance. Next to the Visitor Center is a Mosaic Restoration Center which is also worth a visit. One of the youngsters there was happy to explain to us how a mosaic is put together – right from stone cutting to gluing the pieces to form the desired pattern.

In the afternoon we took a taxi to Mt Nebo from where Moses, after wandering in the Sinai for 40 years with his flock, was shown (but forbidden to enter) the Promised Land. There is a church that is under restoration and more mosaics. At the ‘exact spot’ that looks out over the Dead Sea valley and where Moses stood, is a slab that points to the various cities currently in the occupied West Bank – Bethlehem, Jericho, Nablus, etc. On that afternoon, the sun shone thru heavy cloud cover in vivid rays and added to the drama of the story that the guide (again funny) was narrating. Moses is supposed to have died on Mt Nebo at the age of 120 but the exact location of his grave is still a mystery.

Dead Sea and the King’s Highway
After Madaba the plan was to head south. There are three Highways by which you can do this – The Dead Sea, The King’s and the Desert Highway. Since we had chalked out our route, in consultation with our driver, we agreed to switch between the roads as required. The Dead Sea is a unique global phenomenon formed because of the ultra-high salinity of the water and no outlet. The ‘to do’ thing about this location is the spa treatment and the mud baths that all hotels offer. We had unanimously agreed that we would give this the go-by but still drive by the sea. After breakfast we climbed down from Madaba via Mt Nebo and on to the Dead Sea Highway. The heavily salt encrusted shore of the sea at one of the public beaches where we took a brief halt speaks for itself. “Dead Sea Minerals” is a ubiquitous expression across Jordan and it will stare at you in almost every shop. Their extensive use in almost all products like soaps, creams, bathing salts and may be a cause for the level of the sea being reduced by up to 30% in the last couple of decades.

After having been there but not having done that, we headed for Dana Biosphere Reserve run by The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (rscn.org.jo), an independent voluntary organization devoted to the conservation of Jordan's natural resources. On the way we made halts at Mukawir and Al-Kerak.

At Mukawir atop a stark promontory overlooking the Dead Sea are the ruins of the Palace of Herod the Great, supposedly the site of the execution of John the Baptist. There’s a great photo op just beyond the village as you approach the Visitor Center. Hike up the hillock in about 20 mins and in all probability you will be alone with the ghosts of Herod, his brother Philip, Herodias and Salome who danced and demanded John’s head on a platter for condemning the marriage of her mother with Herod. A strong wind blows thru the few Corinthian columns and the keep of what may have been church to add to the eeriness of the place. It takes a little bit of imagination to re-construct what must have been a small but grand palace-cum-fortress, the intrigues that went on, the battles for domination, the rebuilding, and the final destruction by the Romans in 72 AD.

We then switched to the King’s Highway; an ancient route mentioned in the Bible that winds its way south thru the different ecological zones of the country, including forested highlands, open farmland plateaus and deep ravines. On the way to the famous crusader castle of Al-Kerak we stopped for a while to admire at what is termed the Grand Canyon of Jordan – Wadi Mujib – also the site to trap water from springs for this severely water stressed country.

The magnificent Crusader fortress of Al-Kerak soars above its valleys and hills like a great ship riding waves of rock. Kerak's origins go back long before the Crusades but it was the Crusaders who made Kerak famous. The fortress was built in 1142 on the remains of earlier citadels, which date back to Nabataean times. Kerak was made the new capital of the province, for it was superbly situated on the King's Highway, where it could control all traffic from north and south and grow rich by the imposition of road-tolls. The castle in itself is more imposing than beautiful, though it is all the more impressive as an example of the Crusaders' architectural military genius. Each stronghold was built to be a day's journey from its neighbor. At night, a beacon was lit at each castle to signal to Jerusalem that it was safe.

Even if you have a book with a map of Kerak, it’s better to hire a guide to show you around and make sure that you don’t miss its highlights. There are extensive signposts in English that make interesting reading as you stand right in front of a particular place. The upper levels are attributed to the Crusader period, and the staircases leading to the underground level of the upper courtyard provide access to Mamluk architecture complexes, most of which were probably associated with a palace. Among these ruins is a well-preserved school with an adjoining mosque. It was not until the end of 1188, after a siege of more than a year that Kerak finally surrendered to the Muslims.

Kerak is still a largely Christian town, and many of today's Christian families trace their origins back to the Byzantines. There is a small but interesting museum which is worth a visit.

Dana Biosphere Reserve
Amongst the many nature conversation projects run by the RSCN, this one is the most famous and well known. There are a few eco-lodges that provide accommodation and we chose to stay at Feynan Eco Lodge (feynan.com). To get to Feynan, you have the choice of getting to Dana village and then hiking for 5 – 6 hours to Feynan or get to their reception center 8 km away in your car and they will ferry you to Feynan in a 4-wheel drive because of the terrain. The Lodge uses solar power for water heating and candles at night for lighting. Obviously there is no TV or Internet but cell-phones had connectivity throughout. All meals are vegetarian and served in their dining room only.

The Lodge enables the local Bedouin community and a large part of the staff is from the vicinity. They offer various activities (graded 1 to 4 on difficulty) during the day like full-day and half-day hikes in the wadis as well as Bedouin Activity and sunset & sunrise walks. These walks give you a sense of the surrounding wilderness – stark, arid, treeless and stony but in its own way splendid. The guides during these outdoor activities are young Bedouins and having grown up in and around are able to explain the Bedouin way, the flora & fauna. During our half-day hike in Wadi Dana our guide, Ahmed, told us, apart from other things, how oleander leaves were used as ‘goat shampoo’, how herds of goat could be trained to behave to various flute tunes and how to make soap from a local bush. While returning we were very fortunate to witness the poignant sight a new born lamb being tended to by its mother. Its coat was still wet and its umbilical cord was still intact.

The Lodge itself is a fine piece of architecture with mud exteriors and protruding wooden stakes resembling an arabesque chalet. Each of the 26 rooms boasts of a different view of the surrounding mountains and a terrace offers remarkable views of Wadi Feynan. The interiors are also tastefully done and at night the mud walls and terra-cotta-like flooring reflects the numerous candles suggesting a fine flash-less photo op. For an arid landscape, however, the mosquitos at night were out in sufficient numbers to force us to use the nets provided.

As a nature experience, if you are used to mountains, streams, greenery, extensive flora and fauna, then Dana may disappoint. There isn’t much wildlife, very little water and no greenery. All I saw was a Spectacled Bulbul and a Tristram’s Starling . The dramatically gouged sandstone rock-faces that may have inspired Gaudi’s Church at Barcelona are present even in Wadi Rum which in addition has an even more awesome desert-scape. In hindsight, there are other places like Petra where we would have spent a day or two more.

‘To Aqaba’
As Lawrence of Arabia urged his Arab band, to Aqaba was where we headed next for a little rest and relaxation after three days of continuous outdoor activity. Aqaba is Jordan’s toe-hold on the Red Sea in an otherwise landlocked nation. Presciently King Abdullah traded about 6,000 sq km of desert with Saudi Arabia for a further 12 km of coastline. As a result the country has been able to exploit the exceptionally bright blue and crystal clear waters of Red Sea to build some beautiful resorts and marinas in Tala Bay south of Aqaba. We stayed at the Mövenpick Tala Bay rested our feet and took a ride in a glass-bottom boat on one day. One two evenings we went to Aqaba and walked around the town, the market place, the coffee shops, the beach and the ruins of the old city of Ayla. Determined to eat fish cooked Jordanian-style, on our last day we dined at Ocean Fresh Restaurant on sambousek (samosas) and Sayyadeih – fish baked with light spices and served with brown rice. Needless to say it was as delicious as it was fresh from the Red Sea.

Wadi Rum – Lawrence of Arabia Country
Wadi Rum is probably best known because of its connection with the enigmatic British officer T.E. Lawrence, who was based here during the Great Arab Revolt of 1917-18, and as the setting for the film that carried his name - "Lawrence of Arabia". A journey to Wadi Rum is a journey to another world. A vast, silent place, timeless and starkly beautiful. It’s one of Jordan's main tourist attractions being the most stunning desertscape in the World. Uniquely shaped massive mountains rise vertically out of the pink desert sand, which separate one dark mass from another in magnificent desert scenery of strange breathtaking beauty, with towering cliffs of weathered stone. The faces of the sheer rock cliffs have been eroded by the wind into faces of men, animals and monsters.

Although there are numerous ways in which you can enjoy Wadi Rum – camping, trekking, camel rides – we chose a 4-hour ride thru some of the main locations by 4-wheel drive. Those who have seen David Lean’s film will be able to relate to some of the landmarks like Lawrence’s spring, miles of scorching sand, camels and the complete lack of any shade. On the way out we even saw a small train – small steam locomotive, black wooden carriages – almost exactly like the one that Lawrence ambushes in the film. I was too tired to stop and capture the image – my only regret from the entire trip.

Petra – Nabataean Capital
Petra is, of course, the jewel in Jordan’s crown. Though we spent a day and a half here and didn’t miss anything significant, if I were to go again I would spend two whole days. Wadi Musa is the town that has sprung up around Petra and boasts of 55 hotels – a tribute to the popularity of Petra. There are several close to the Visitor Center. We stayed at the Mövenpick – barely 300 m from the entrance to the Center.

Although the Visitor Center opens at 6 am, we began the 2 km walk thru the Siq (a long, cool, and gloomy chasm) at about 8.30 am. If we had known better, perhaps, we would have planned to reach The Treasury (Al-Khazanneh) in time to catch the first rays of the sun. The approach through the Siq whose steeply rising sides all but obliterate the sun, provides a dramatic contrast with the delight to come. Suddenly the gorge opens into a natural square dominated by Petra's most famous monument, The Treasury who’s intricately carved facade glows in the dazzling sun. All this is well known but still doesn’t prepare you for the eventual experience. Seeing as they say is believing. And this is only the beginning.

The Petra basin boasts over 800 individual monuments, including buildings, tombs, baths, funerary halls, temples, arched gateways, and colonnaded streets, that were mostly carved from the kaleidoscopic sandstone by the technical and artistic genius of its inhabitants. Petra’s sights are at their best in early morning and late afternoon, when the sun warms the multicolored stones, you can view the majesty of Petra as it was seen first when discovered in 1812 after being lost for almost 300 years. More facades beckon the visitor on until the ancient city gradually unfolds, one monument leading to the next for kilometer after kilometer. The sheer size of the city and the quality of beautifully carved facades is staggering and leads one to reflect on the creativity and industry of the Nabataens who made Petra their capital. Petra is always breathtaking, and never to be forgotten. It flourished for over 400 years around the time of Rome and Christ, until it was occupied by the Roman legions of the Emperor Trajan in 106 AD. Not to be missed, if you have the time, is Petra’s neighbor, Little Petra which is about 30 mins from Wadi Musa. Both these places are extensively signposted and there is so much to absorb, its best to do some reading before venturing. Guides are expensive and we did without them. Donkeys and horse carriages are available for transportation and are useful to get back uphill to the Visitor Center after a day’s sightseeing.

Every other night there is the ‘Petra by Night’ show when at about 8.30 pm The Treasury is bathed in candlelight from the courtyard. It is a photo op not to be missed. A tripod and a good camera will be required to capture the magical moment when the sandstone glows a dark pink from the tiny flames of hundreds of candles. A narration of Nabataean tales with some music for about 30 mins adds to the fairy-tale like atmosphere. If we had had an extra day, we would have definitely gone in early one morning to catch the sunrise on Petra and then climbed to a couple of vantage points to get an aerial view of The Treasury.

The Desert Highway to Amman
Shobak and the UNESCO heritage site of Umm-ar-Rasas are short detours on the way to Amman. Even though we were by now ruin-weary we decided to take these detours and we were not disappointed. Shobak was built in 1115 by Crusader King Baldwin I of Jerusalem to guard the road from Damascus to Egypt, and was the first of a string of similar strongholds in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The castle's exterior is impressive, with a forbidding gate and encircling walls three layers thick. The walls and projecting towers are still reasonably intact, but inside the castle consists mainly of tumbled stones with a few walls and arches. One of the most fascinating remains is the ancient well-shaft cut deep into the rock, with 375 steps leading down to the water supply at the bottom – not for the claustrophobic.

The main attraction at Umm-ar-Rasas is the recently unearthed Church of St. Stephen with its perfectly preserved remarkable mosaic floor, the largest one in Jordan. It contains the images and portraits of 27 Old and New Testament cities of the Holy Land from both East and West of the Jordan River and of Egypt, making it a discovery second only to the Mosaic Map of Madaba. Less than 2 km north of the fortified town, the highest standing ancient tower of Jordan puzzle archaeologists: a 15 meter high, Byzantine square tower with no door or inner staircase, thought to be used by early stylite Christian monks seeking solitude.

Jordan’s North and Amman
North of Amman lie some of the best examples Jordan’s Roman past. To the very north is Umm-Qais and in between are Ajloun, Pella and Jerash. All can be done in a day’s drive from Amman. We began at Jerash starting early and arriving at the Visitors Center just before the tourist buses.

Jerash is the grandeur of Imperial Rome being one of the largest and most well preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside Italy. To this day, its paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples, handsome theaters, spacious public squares and plazas, baths, fountains and city walls pierced by towers and gates remain in exceptional condition. Walking thru Hadrian’s Arch, the Hippodrome imagining thundering chariots, the Temples of Zeus and his daughter Artemis, the Oval Plaza and colonnaded street best seen from the top of the South Theater, is a journey thru time.

Ajloun is a castle built by the Muslims in the 12th century as a military fort and buffer to protect the region from invading Crusader forces. The drive is thru beautiful pine forests and olive groves. Umm-Qais is the place where according to the Bible, where Jesus cast out the Devil from two possessed men into a herd of pigs. The use of black basalt along with lime in the construction of the theatre, the columns, the church and the Ottoman village gives the place a unique look. A profusion of spring flowers in various colors adds to the panorama. You get great views of the Sea of Galilee, Israel, Syria and the Golan Heights.

Amman is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In the Old Testament it was known as Rabbath-Ammon, the capital of the Ammonites around 1200 BC. In Greco-Roman times in the 3rd century BC, the City was renamed Philadelphia (Greek for "The Brotherhood Love") after the Ptolemaic ruler Philadelphus. The City later came under various empires until it was made part of the Decapolis League - a loose alliance of ten free city-states, bound by powerful commercial, political, and cultural interests under overall allegiance to Rome. Under the influence of the Roman culture, Philadelphia was reconstructed in typically grand Roman style with colonnaded streets, baths, an Amphitheater, and impressive public buildings. Whatever remains of this grand past can be found in East Amman – The Citadel with the Temple of Hercules, the Ummayad Palace the Archaeological Museum and Roman Theatre with the Museum of Popular Tradition. Starting early in the morning, we saw all these places by about noon and facing the prospect of where to have lunch my wife suggested that we re-visit Madaba where we could also pick up some souvenirs. Our driver recommended that we go to Dana Restaurant and called up ahead to ask them to prepare a special Christian recipe - sajieh, lamb or chicken, cooked on wood fire with onions and spices, served with a covering of several layers of koubz. My wife detected a glaze of honey. It was scrumptious and there couldn’t have better way to end a marvelous holiday. We profusely thanked Mustafa said goodbye, wished him well and got back to our hotel in Amman for a breather to prepare for the long flight back home the next day.

With the Middle East in turmoil, Jordan has remained peaceful. Even so there were some anxious periods in the run up to our departure when I hoped that the troubles over the border wouldn’t spill over. Everywhere we went we came across the friendliest of people. Combine this with Biblical lore, imperial Roman antiquity, crusader citadels, a confluence of religions and peoples and a delectable choice of cuisine. As we waited for our flight we hoped that this country and its leaders can find a way to navigate themselves thru the numerous issues that face them to emerge as a nation at peace with itself, its neighbors and will continue to remain a fabulous destination.

Fact File

Time Zone – GMT + 3

International Dialing Code - +962. Local pre-paid GSM SIM Cards are easily available at the airport’s arrival lounge.

When to go – We went in the second half of April and were met with very pleasant temperatures – max 18-24 degrees C and min 8-10 degrees C. However, towards the end it began to get a bit hot but not uncomfortable. April first half seems to be a good time and so does Sep-Oct before winter and rains set in.

Getting there – Royal Jordanian (www.rj.com/en) flies direct to Amman from Delhi and Mumbai though not daily. Check their website for latest schedules. Emirates (www.emirates.com) and Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) fly daily from various cities in India via Dubai and Doha respectively. Cost of an economy class ticket is about ` 43,000.

Visa – Visa on arrival is available for Indian citizens and is supposed to be cheaper. To avoid the hassle of standing in a separate queue after a long fight we had already got our passports stamped from the Embassy in Delhi. It cost about ` 2,300 per person. The Embassy (www.jordanembassyindia.org) turns around the passports in one working day.

Getting Around – Hiring a private taxi with an English speaking driver is the most efficient, albeit expensive way of getting around in Jordan as public transport is as good as non-existent. We paid about ` 5,000 per day (excluding petrol which is locally called ‘benzene’). On the recommendation of a friend in Amman we used a NISSAN SUNNY from Khaled Othman who owns Eras Car Rental Agency (+962.795412260) (Khaled5_othman@yahoo.com). Email is not his forte and if you give him a call a couple of days in advance he should be able to organize a car. His driver Mustafa Salem was a great companion – punctual, discrete, knew the country like the back of his hand and always came up with useful suggestions to optimize time, distance and sight-seeing.

Guides - If you need tour guides hire them at the place of visit – these are expensive but are useful for you to get a flavor of the place. We used them in places but found that if you have a good guide book like the LONELY PLANET, you can get by without one.

Currency – 1 Jordanian Dinar (JD) = ` 76. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted. ATMs are also available in most of the bigger towns but may charge a fee per withdrawal. We carried enough US $ and changed it into JD when required. At all the hotels and restaurants we used credit cards.

Nabataens – It’s a term that you will come across as soon as you start reading about Jordan especially Petra. Nabataens were ancient Arabs of North Arabia, whose oasis settlements in 37 BC & 100 AD, gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Arabia and Syria, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their loosely-controlled trading network, which centered on strings of oases that they controlled, where agriculture was intensively practiced in limited areas, and on the routes that linked them, had no securely defined boundaries in the surrounding desert. The Nabataean kingdom was later annexed to the Roman Empire, where their individual culture, easily identified by their characteristic finely-potted painted ceramics, became dispersed in the general Greco-Roman culture and was eventually lost.

Posted by nilesh 12:19 Archived in Jordan Tagged jordan petra jerash wadi_rum aqaba madaba ajloun pella treasury lawrence_of_arabia umm_qais shoubak little_petra umm-ar-rasas kerak karak sobak shobak al_khazanneh jordanian_food mansaf arabic_bread mosaic_map_of_madaba mozaic_map_of_madaba madaba_mozaics dana_biosphere_reserve wadi_feynan wadi_dana Comments (0)

High Spirits in Bali Hi

A holiday in Bali to experience the way Hinduism is practiced there. Also to enjoy the unique architecture of the various kinds of Hindu temples that are sprinkled throughout the island and the people.

sunny 27 °C

'Ubiquitous' would be a grave understatement to describe Hinduism and its symbols in Bali. Temples, idols, prayers, symbols, religious offerings, deities and spiritualism are just about everywhere and sprinkle this outpost of Hinduism at every turn of the road or head in what is otherwise the largest Muslim nation in the world. Of course, the manner in which it is practiced here is completely different from India and to experience this difference is why we planned a holiday in Bali earlier this year.

Hinduism is said to have reached Indonesia from India as early as the 4th century AD. Initially it was prevalent pretty much throughout the archipelago and even now some prominent temples dedicated to Shiva can be found on the neighboring island of Java particularly around the city of Yogyakarta (sometimes pronounced with a ‘J’ instead of ‘Y’ – as in Jogjakarta). Along with Buddhism, Hinduism reached its peak around the 14th century before the eastward march of Islam vastly diminished the influence of both religions. Although Hindus now form a little less than 2% of the overall Indonesian population, more than 88% of Bali’s people are said to be Hindu and practice it in a manner that is quintessentially Balinese as we discovered during our holiday.

Along with the smaller neighboring island of Lombok, Bali is usually identified with luxury sea-side holiday resorts and the pleasure-seeking bars and pubs of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak – localities close to Denpasar International Airport. But venture a little deeper into the hinterland of this 6,000 sq km island and there is a whole different world waiting to be experienced. A world of simple, gentle and soft-spoken people with a ready smile on their face; of primary forests that attempt to conceal scenic rice paddy terraces and coffee estates; of small villages each of which proudly maintain their own version of temples and of simple dwellings that, space permitting, have their own miniature temples.

Balinese Hinduism is deeply interwoven with art and ritual, and is less closely preoccupied with scripture, law, and belief. It lacks the traditional Hindu emphasis on cycles of rebirth and reincarnation, but instead is concerned with a myriad of local deities and ancestral spirits. With kebatinan (search for inner self), these deities are thought to be capable of doing good or harm depending upon various factors. Balinese place great emphasis on dramatic and aesthetically satisfying acts of ritual propitiation of these spirits at temple sites scattered throughout villages and in the countryside. Depending upon the time of the year most villages have functions where you can witness dances and shows connected with religious festivals, sometimes performed by professional artists or sometimes by the local school children.

A Balinese temple is called ‘Pura’, and unlike the common towering indoor Indian Temple, it is designed as an open air worship place within enclosed walls, connected with series of intricately decorated gates to reach its compounds. Inside, especially in the smaller temples, one will normally find a temple each for Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Shiva (the destroyer). Although there are idols depicting dwarpalaks (gate guardians) at the entrances, curiously the temples themselves do not house any deity as the Balinese believe that gods are formless and omnipresent.

Each of these temples has a more or less fixed membership; every Balinese belongs to a temple by virtue of descent, residence, or some mystical revelation of affiliation. Some temples are associated with the family house compound (also called banjar in Bali); others are associated with rice paddies, and still others with key geographic sites. The temple spires are a common feature with Indian Hindu temples but while the Indian ones are made of stone and tower tens of feet, the Balinese ones are much shorter and are made of thatch from various sources like rice or coconut. These are eye-catching along with their other distinguishing feature - they are in separate tiers and decrease in width and size as the height of the spire increases.

After a brief hop to Yogyakarta to see the temples at Borobudur and Prembanan we based ourselves at a small family-run hotel in the central town of Ubud in the hills almost at the centre of the island. Post breakfast Yogi, our local guide and driver, would pick us up at Monkey Forest road and drive us to the various temples and other sights to return after lunch when we relax by the pool to read. Evenings would be spent walking around and ending with an excellent meal at one of the numerous restaurants in Ubud.

The temples in Bali do not in themselves have any history and most of them have been built and re-built again as they have been periodically destroyed by the earthquakes that sometimes strike this region. Although we saw and visited many temples during our stay, the names that stick in the memory are Pura Tirta Empul, Pura Kehen, Pura Ulun Danu, Pura Tanha Lot and Pura Luhur Ulu Watu.

At Pura Tirta Empul we were fortunate to see pilgrims and worshipers in their hundreds as it was the day after the full moon. We witnessed families, groups and individuals take the ritual dip in the temple pond and then gather to pray with their offerings in fresh clothes – either individually or as a group. The offering – incense sticks, money and flowers – in simple trays made of palm fronds was so similar to those that are sold outside many of our temples. In contrast Pura Kehen was completely bereft of any humans and we enjoyed the solitude amongst the moss covered trees and steps. Pura Tanah Lot and Pura Luhur Ulu Watu are on the coast. While the former is on an island that gets cut off with high tide, the later is located at the edge of an imposing cliff with the sea and the waves forming a spectacular backdrop. At Pura Tanah Lot once again we were able to witness a microcosm of Balinese people in their traditional best as they had turned out to come and worship. Men in their Udeng (headgear), Kamen and Saput (coverings for legs) and women in their kebaya (a transclucent top) and kamen or sarong (for their legs). While some were stuck on the island others were praying, making offerings and just enjoying the outing eating ice creams and Es Teler momo caca the local sweet refreshment with no fixed recipe but essentially containing coconut flesh, coconut gel cubes, palm fruit, condensed milk and crushed ice. The temples of Pura Ulun Danu – one tall and one short – were located on the banks of a picturesque lake and the waters of the lake and the hills around formed a great backdrop.

In between we witnessed the women of the house making their daily offerings outside their homes, farmers praying at the temples in their fields, a group of matriarchs preparing a colorful offering of rice-paste for an upcoming temple function, school children going to school carrying a broom to clean their classroom before classes and that most iconic of Balinese pictures – a procession of women on their way to the nearby temple carrying offerings of Gebogan containing a tower of fruits, vegetables and palm fronds decorations called dulang. One village’s main street was uniformly decorated with temporary bamboo mini-temples – white on one side and yellow on the other – obviously another manifestation of the villagers’ reverence. Bali’s rice paddy terraces at the Pakerisan Valley and in Jatiluwih are UNESCO World Heritage Sites but if you are not able to visit these in the west of the island, many picturesque ones can be seen in and around Ubud while traveling between the temples. If you have kids they will appreciate your taking them for a day to the Bali Safari Park south of the airport where they can see a show featuring orangutans and various birds. A good photo opportunity at the Safari Park is to pose with a baby orangutan.

We spent a week in Bali including a couple of days at Yogyakarta. Basing ourselves at Ubud turned out to be a good decision because of the choice of hotels and its central location with quick accessibility to most of the well-known temples. Of course, there are other hotels, some of them quite up market but the OKAWATI Hotel run by Mrs Okawati and its spacious villa like rooms and tucked away from the main road was more than adequate for us. Yogi’s van was reasonably priced as per the distance done per day and he himself was very knowledgeable about the island. I contacted him over the internet and we agreed on the itinerary and other details before we met at the airport on our arrival. We thoroughly enjoyed our slow paced holiday at Bali and came away completely charmed by its gentle people and their distinctive way of Hindu life. Some day we sincerely hope to return to another part and to a different experience.

Photos - http://www.flickr.com/photos/nileshkorgaokar/collections/72157625952726746/

FACT SHEET

Climate and Best Time to Go – Being on the Equator, Bali enjoys a temperate climate throughout the year. Days can be warm and nights cool because of the forests and the insular climate. Australians flood the island during the Christmas and New Year holiday season and so it would be sensible to time your holiday to the Indian holiday season of April-May and Oct-Nov.

Getting There – There are no direct flights from India to Bali. We flew Thai Airways via Bangkok as it provided the quickest and most convenient option. Air Asia may be cheaper but the website warns that Indians may have to apply for a transit visa to transit thru Kuala Lumpur. Compare fares, timings and transit rules using integrators like cleartrip.com, makemytrip.com and yatra.com.

Getting Around – Public transport is almost non-existent and the best option is to hire a van with a driver preferably who will also serve as a guide. Foreigners hire motorcycles and for a younger person this may be a viable option. The need for driver’s license needs to be checked.

Visa Formalities – Visa is on arrival for most nationalities including Indians and can be obtained quickly at the counter at various rates depending upon the duration of the stay. We paid $25 each for a seven-day visa.

Places to Stay – Ranging from the top-end to the budget you will be spoilt for choice. We stayed at Lonely Planet’s Choice in Ubud – The Okawati Hotel. It’s a family run place headed by the very friendly Mrs Okawati and features about 10 very spacious rooms some of which face the small swimming pool. The restaurant overlooks rice paddies where villagers gather snails. Meals other than breakfast have to be pre-ordered. The hotel features Wi-Fi internet that we were able to negotiate for free use.

Places to Eat – Again you will be spoilt for choice of cuisine. Restaurants and bars line the main Monkey Forest Road on both sides with hostesses standing outside trying to entice you in. A meal for two with excellent service will set you back by about Rs 2,000.

Temple Formalities and Attire – Some temples restrict entry only to locals and you may not be allowed entry allowed as a foreigner at all. At other places you would be required to be wear proper attire – Kamen and Saput for men and kamen or sarong for women. Our driver cum guide was carrying an extra pair or two of these pieces of attire for us to get access.

Currency and payment – The conversion rate is 8,800 Indonesian Rupiah to the US dollar which works out to 178 Indonesian Rupiah to the Indian Rupee. You can withdraw cash from most ATM’s and your bank account will be debited according to the day’s prevailing exchange rate. Money changers will also accept US dollars and different rates that are open to negotiations. Most hotels and restaurants accept major credit cards. MasterCard has designated Indonesia as a country that is unsafe to use their cards and on return your card will be replaced.

Posted by nilesh 20:23 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia java hinduism kuta pura ubud balinese denpasar hindu_way_of_life hindu_way_of_life_in_bali temples_in_bali okawati_hotel okawati monkey_forest_road pura_tanah_lot pura_kehen pura_ulun_danu hinduism_in_bali pura_tirta_empul Comments (2)

Journey Thru the Middle Kingdom - Backpacking Across China

An account of travel undertaken from Lhasa to Qinghai province and then across the length and breadth of China ending up in Hong Kong before the hand-over to China.

semi-overcast 20 °C

As the whole world stands at the threshold of what is dubbed to be the ASIAN CENTURY, the biggest of the Asian Tigers looms large as an economic powerhouse. After being closed for almost 30 years this giant nation has suddenly swung open its big red doors. Economists everywhere can cite by rote statistics about the rapid progress that China is making in almost all spheres of development. The glamour of getting more than a glimpse at the mystique behind the Bamboo Curtain that had remained so tightly drawn has proved to be irresistible to men and women of all hues. The West, ever on the lookout for new areas to sell their wares have been investing their dollars in this emerging market in spite of all the pitfalls that a country with no history of capitalist institutions throws up.

But probably the most fortunate beneficiary of this Open Door Policy has been the intrepid traveller with his love for the unexplored, the untrammelled, and the (till recently) forbidden. He has taken full benefit of the “COMRADES, WE MUST INCREASE THE PRODUCTION OF TOURISTS!” mantra that Chinese authorities have been silently propagating for the last few years. It was in 1981 that the Chinese suddenly started issuing visas to solo and uninvited travellers through a couple of their embassies overseas, but mainly through various agencies in Hong Kong. Just about anyone who wanted a visa could get one, but since there was no fanfare, news spread slowly by word of mouth. Within a couple of years just about everyone who landed in Hong Kong was going to China. After all, the whole travelling fraternity had been waiting over 30 years to travel in the country unfettered by tour guides.

Though Hong Kong is still the most preferred gateway into the Chinese mainland, I entered Tibet from Nepal and after travelling by road ACROSS THE ROOF OF THE WORLD (hyper link to article on journey through Tibet) made by way in to the Chinese mainland by bus from Lhasa. Before you even contemplate taking this route, I must warn you that it is not for the faint hearted. It was, without doubt, the most horrifying bus journey that I had ever undertaken in my life. The journey consists of about 36-48 hours of non-stop driving across the bleak northern portion of the Tibet Plateau and to add to my woes I was ensconced with a platoon of chain smoking Chinese soldiers. If at any time in the future I suffer from a secondary smoking related disease, I will know, at once, whom to blame. Anyway, I had no choice as that was the cheapest way to get from Lhasa to Northern China; the alternative being to take the twice daily flight to Chengdu costing a whopping $210.

Getting a Visa
No visa is probably cheaper and more easily obtained than the Chinese visa. Just because we fought a border war more than 30 years ago, almost every Indian is under the impression that the Chinese Embassy considers every Indian an enemy of the state. Nothing could be further from the truth. I got mine from the Embassy in Kathmandu without even showing my face to the official. A travel agent did it for me for the price of $3. If you are in a tearing hurry and want it the next day, the price is $10.

Essentials
It would be a tremendous mistake to try and equate a journey into China with any of your sojourns to the likes of Europe or the United States. Whereas it would be difficult, but not impossible, to make yourself understood in these tourist friendly countries, in China it is like going to another planet. You will be a solo traveller amongst a vast sea of people who can neither read nor speak even a single word of English. Tourist Bureau Offices are few and far between, sign postings are in Mandarin, and unless you are fluent in Chinese yourself, it is a most frustrating experience when you can’t convey your needs and get information. Therefore, to make your trip smooth and trouble free it is best to be forewarned and forearmed. My one-stop solution to all travelling problems is to arm myself with the LONELY PLANET - TRAVEL SURVIVAL KIT. I would sincerely advise you to do the same and guard it as you would your passport, tickets and other travel documents because without it you are dead. You cannot find a replacement for love or money once you are in China. Get hold of the latest edition on CHINA that includes HONG KONG and MACAU. The best place to get hold of one would be either at Kathmandu (plenty of second hand book shops there) or in Hong Kong. But if you want to do some reading before embarking, you can get hold of one at MALHOTRA BOOK SHOP, ‘A’ BLOCK, CONNAUGHT PLACE, NEW DELHI. Though the style that Lonely Planet adopts is, at places, sarcastic and sometimes downright derogatory it is replete with details of every essential aspect of travelling alone in a strange country. The most useful are the Phrase Section and the various little maps of major towns that help you navigate. You might even like to add your own common phrases and have them translated into Chinese and romanised Chinese if you meet a local who happens to know English.

Planning
China is a country that initially earned a pretty bad name for itself when it came to the hospitality business. But that was then and this is now - travelling in China has gotten much easier than it used to be. More and more people are learning to speak English, especially those in the travel business. Hotels in major towns do have tour operators who will organise conducted tours, book your tickets and generally try and make your stay comfortable. Even then it is, I think, essential for you to plan your route and finances before you even embark. Apart from the tickets to and from the entry and exit points you should be comfortable in about $30 a day.

Though most people enter and exit through Hong Kong, I would recommend that you enter from one end and exit through the opposite. That way you end up saving the airfare one way. There could be various alternatives. One would be to enter through Nepal into Tibet and then head further north and then east and out of Hong Kong (the route I followed). Another entry point to the Xinjiang province of Northwest China could be either from Pakistan (the Karakoram Highway - out of bounds to Indians) or from Kazakastan. There is a train route from Alma Ata to Urumqi and I would love to travel on that route one day. Of late even Myanmar has offered transit facilities through its territory to Thailand from the Yunan province. Keeping in mind these pieces of information you should plan the general route that you would want to follow. It all depends on whether you are on a longer trip and just passing through China or taking some time off to do a one-off China trip. For Indians I would recommend the route that I followed as it lets us take in Nepal, the Tibet region before you venture into Mainland China.

China’s Provinces
As with states in larger nations, China is divided into its many provinces on a geographic and administrative basis. Due to its vast size and history, China’s provinces each have their own sights and sounds to savour. Tibet, now de-facto a Chinese province, is a treasure house of travel itineraries. It is ethnically different and though has had a turbulent and sometimes violent recent past, is now peaceful enough to visit. Xinjiang, in the Northwest is predominantly Muslim and has more affinity to the other Central Asian States. The ancient Silk Route passed through this province before continuing into the Gansu province and then on to Beijing. Yunan in the Southwest has its own ethnic minorities and with its misty mountains is one of the most beautiful regions of China. Sichuan is famous for the Giant Panda and its delectable cuisine. The mighty Yangtze River also begins its journey to the east from this province and a cruise down it through the famous Three Gorges deserves its own story. The terracotta warriors of Xian, the Great Wall in the Heibei province and the ancient city of Beijing are other sites that need no recounting. The economic boom that is now synonymous with China is visible in almost all large towns but is most prominent in the southern provinces. Shanghai, Guangzhou (formerly Canton) and Shenzhen are some of the cities that have changed beyond recognition. It is said that almost 20% of all constructions cranes for high rise buildings are today located in China! It is hard to believe that where Shenzhen stands today was farmland only 10 years ago. China has even become a decent place for shopping - the department stores, once known for specialising in empty shelves, are now overflowing with consumer goods.

Trains in China
I believe that the hard core traveller always moves with his heart and mind as close to the ground as possible. It is the only way to drink in the various flavours and tastes that a new country offers. Flying is best left to the business traveller. China is one of the few countries that would rival the extensive rail network of India. During the Communist era the railways received the full attention of the government and were rapidly extended to almost all corners of the country. An all out effort to extend it to Lhasa in Tibet from the north was abandoned only after the Swiss, arguably the best tunnel builders in the world, determined that it would not be possible to tunnel through the Kunlun and the Tangula mountain range.

As it exists today, the train is probably the best means of travel in China. It is cheap, fast, clean, efficient, there is no ticket-less travel and reservation is available whenever you want it. There are many classes of coaches from “Hard Seat” to “Soft Sleeper”. On short journeys “Hard Seat” is recommended and on longer journeys you are better off paying the slightly higher fare for a “Hard sleeper” berth. The “Dining Car”, so fondly missed on Indian trains, is a welcome place to have a placid meal while the train meanders through scenic countryside. The only problem is to make yourself understood whilst purchasing a ticket. After a rather long wait in a queue at Golmud for a ticket to Lanzhou, I always used the services of touts. Stand outside the Ticket Concourse and one of them will find you. The Reservation system does not require your name and this makes it quite safe to purchase your ticket from these Samaritans. Just make sure that you have been given the correct ticket by comparing the Chinese characters depicting the destination to the ones in your travel book wherein the names of various places should be given both in English and Chinese. The time, date and train number can be easily read.

To control the vast numbers of people, who travel by train, the Railway authorities adopt very strict rules about access to the platforms and trains. Queues are formed outside the station about half an hour before the train departs and only those with tickets are allowed inside the waiting halls. Then about 15 minutes before the train departs, there is another queue to be allowed on to the platform where the train is standing. Make sure by constant checking with other passengers that you in the right queue at all times as there is no time to rectify mistakes. But all these strict rules ensure clean platforms, trains and comfortable and smooth travel.

Apart from trains, if you are still constrained for time and have the money, China has a plethora of airlines that are now hooked to a national reservation network. Reservation, cancellation and changes are possible from quite a few places now. Buses also ply extensively all over China and because of the vast distances involved, most of them are double decker semi-sleeper coaches. The road network is also one of the most modern and spanking new highways are coming up all over making road travel faster, smoother and cheaper.

Chinese Cuisine
Vastly different to what we have been used to eating in Chinese Restaurants in India, food in China deserves to be mentioned as a special aside. Chinese cooking is justifiably famous, a fine art perfected through the centuries. Quality, availability of ingredients and cooking styles vary by region, but you will almost always find something to suit your tastes. And yes, even in spite of the fact that the Chinese are notorious for eating anything with four legs except the table, it is possible to ask for and be served strictly vegetarian food. Just learn how to say, “I am a vegetarian” (wo chi su) when ordering food. I always did so whenever I thought that I might be served something that I did not like and enjoyed myself on mushrooms, bamboo shoots, sprouts, eggplant and a variety of other vegetarian stuff served with noodles or rice.

If the language barrier proves impassable, the best way to order a meal in a restaurant is to point at something that somebody else already has. Some restaurants are cafeteria style with the Bill of Fare on display and you can just point to what you want. You can adopt the same style when you decide to sample one of the numerous pavement stalls that are cheaper, and adopt a more informal Parisian café style. Outside of fancy hotel restaurants, prices are generally low. But it is always better to be sure of what you are going to pay before you order your dish. Adopt and perfect your own method and sign language early during your journey as this is what you will be doing most of the time in order to avoid going hungry or being overcharged. A few exotic dishes are ridiculously expensive - even if they taste lousy - and you can’t count on the staff to warn you in advance.

My own favourite dishes were Chicken Gang Bao Style (diced chicken served with peanuts and soya sauce), Pork Fried with Rice Crispies ( Pork and Vegetables in a thick sauce poured over chunks of crisp rice in front of you to a sizzling noise) and the various types of kebabs that were served by the Muslims in the north west. Firmly believing that you haven’t really savoured a country until you have tasted their most unique dishes, I did not hesitate to taste Five Step Snake (one bite from it and all you are good enough for is to take five more steps!), sautéed snails, shredded eel, and other repellent ‘exotica’. The Snake was a real rip-off at 100 yuan as I couldn’t tell the difference between it and the capsicum that it was served with.

Chopsticks. You’ll have to master the art of using chopsticks because there is seldom anything else available besides your hands - disposable wooden chopsticks are universally available. Don’t worry about making a mess - every one does. If you want to, raise the bowl right up to you lips and shovel in the rice. Spitting bones on the tablecloth or floor is standard practice. The same chopsticks that you eat with are used for helping yourself to servings from the main course that are dumped in larger bowls on a revolving “lazy lucy” in the centre of the table. The best way to master chopsticks is to be hungry in a place where there are no knives and forks - looking around and trying to ape the locals might help.

The fact that you as a foreigner are a good English speaker sometimes helps you get invited to impromptu meals. Youngsters will not hesitate to stop you on the road and ask you if they can ‘practice’ their English speaking skills if you could spare the time to have meal with them. It happened quite a few times to me in various cities and left with me with a sense of having ‘done my good deed for the day’, not to talk of the free meal thrown in. A word of advice though; it is better to be very specific about what you would like to eat. Otherwise in their enthusiasm your host might order something he thinks is exotic and you will be hard put to refuse.

China as a travel and holiday destination seems to most, to put it rather strongly, a bizarre idea. Especially to those of us who have been content to let our holiday needs be handled by agencies and packaged into “4 days and 3 nights in Goa/Manali/Shimla/…” or “17 days in Europe”. Apart from the fact it straitjackets your freedom, it allows for little creative relaxation and also sometimes prevents you from getting the real feel of the place by isolating you with rigid timings and locations. Travel is as much a discovery about oneself than simply visiting new places and sleeping in different hotel rooms. I strongly feel that the notion of a self-conceptualised holiday needs to be nurtured into our psyche, especially the young. Travel not only teaches you a lot about yourself, it is, I feel, an essential part of growing up. It allows you to see the outside world in an unfettered fashion, awakens a sense of humbleness and lets you make your own decisions. Moreover, China is not very far away, it is different from the West and must be seen before the liberalisation policy changes its face forever.

Conditions for travel may not be the best - but they continue to improve. China is now making a determined effort to modernise and catch up with the West. The size of the task is staggering, and now is a unique opportunity to get some whiff of what the Communists have been doing for the last 45 years. As far as I was concerned the only downside of my month long journey through this fascinating country was I came away with the distinct impression that our politicians have been taking us for a ride for the last more than 50 years.

Posted by nilesh 14:33 Archived in China Tagged china tibet backpacking_in_china chinese_cuisine lonely_planet silk_route tibet_highway lhasa_highway Comments (0)

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE PANDAVAS - BEYOND BADRINATH

Tracing the path that the Pandavas and Draupadi supposedly followed on their way to heaven towards Meru Parbart. This is beyond the well-known pilgrim town of Badrinath and one needs to trek for about half a day to reach the Vasundhara Falls.

all seasons in one day 18 °C

Come summer and once again this year thousands of pilgrims will head towards the Valley of the Gods or Dev Bhoomi as the Garhwal Himalayas are popularly known locally. Most will visit all the four dhams, or pilgrimage sites, of Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The most famous of these is the seat of Lord Badri Vishal at Badrinath as it is the most accessible of the sites. Only a few of those thousands will go beyond the temple sites to seek and enjoy what lies beyond.

All these famous pilgrim sites, set as they are in the rugged upper mountain reaches, have more than simply religion to offer. Legend has it that the Pandavas, on their journey towards Heaven, passed through the Badrinath valley. The valley has been carved out of the young mountain range by the Alaknanda, a constant companion by the side of the road after its prayag with the more famous Bhagirathi; sometimes close by, and at times frighteningly, yet tantalisingly far below. Beyond the temple site of Badrinath lies the Marcha Tibetan village of Mana where the motorable road comes to an abrupt end. The mythical indications of the Pandavas having crossed over and continued beyond are almost immediately visible if you venture beyond the temple site. High on a hill to the left of the river a ribbon of water suddenly seems to spring out of the hillside. If you do bother to enquire the name of the source, the locals will tell you that the water began to spout from there after Arjun shot a bow into the hill side to quench Draupadi’s thirst. At Mana itself is the junction of the Alaknanda with the Saraswati rivers. It is somewhere here; where exactly, is a mystery; that the Saraswati plunges underground and emerges at the Prayag near Allahabad.

In the village of Mana itself there are a few sites to be seen. One is the life of the villagers who are direct descendants of those who in the good old days maintained a trade route with the Tibetans through the Mana Pass on the border with Tibet; a gruelling three day march beyond. The other is the cave where Rishi Vyas is supposed to have written the Ramayan. The Pandavas probably passed by much before the village must have been established. A little ahead of Mana is the place where they crossed over the Saraswati river. At this point the river is actually a deep gorge with the freezing waters plunging from rock faces smoothened by aeons of polishing. It creates a tremendous roar because of the narrowness of the gorge. A huge boulder as if placed across the river by some powerful being enables the crossing. It is called Bhim Pul and a small temple dedicated to the Vayu Putra can be found immediately on crossing this makeshift bridge.

Up to this point it is relatively easy going and possible for anyone to venture up to. Mythology says that the Pandavas carried on beyond on their journey along the Alaknanda. To follow in their footsteps further on does require some amount of will power and planning. But it is well worth the effort and the relatively short one day trek can be very rewarding both physically and spiritually. Due to the proximity of the border with Tibet, it is better to obtain permission to venture beyond from the local Intelligence Bureau detachment at Mana. It is also better to start early in the day so that it is possible to return by early afternoon. Some form of refreshments and warm clothing is suggested as there is no habitation ahead of Mana. Some initial guidance should be sought for as otherwise it is quite possible to stray on to the track towards Mana Pass along the Saraswati that is used by the Army’s Garhwal SCOUTS on their patrols to that area.

The story goes that the Pandavas never completed their last journey together. Due to their having committed fratricide they are supposed to have perished one by one. Draupadi, they say, was the first to fall on the journey and she is said to have breathed her last just after having crossed the Saraswati. A small temple in her name stands here. There is no one to look after the place, but the site offers a good view of the Alaknanda disappearing below the glacier from where it emerges. Also can be seen the track as it meanders towards the Vasundhara falls where it finally ends. It is a tough 6 km trek up to the base of the water falls the top of which can be seen from here. On a bright clear day, the high altitude sky, starkly blue, with wisps of clouds being blown by the high velocity winds from the snow capped mountain tops, it is a pleasurable journey. One is advised to take it easy, especially if one is not used to walking long distances, as you are now venturing into high altitude area beyond 9,000 ft above sea level. There is no need to balk at the prospect, though, if you take it slow and steady, taking time out as often as required to enjoy the scenery.

The journey ends when you reach the base of the falls, as anything beyond is in the realms of mountaineering. The falls itself is a perpetual source of water from a rocky outcrop that keeps getting blown away by the high winds almost as soon as it starts its downward journey. In late October the area resembles the deep freezer of non-frost-free refrigerator with the sprays of water from the stream having frozen on the rocky surface. The Pandavas are supposed to have bathed here before continuing onwards. At the village of Mana, the Alaknanda valley turns to the north-west and after crossing over some seemingly impregnable ranges continues to the base of the mythical Meru Parbat. It was only Yudhistir and his faithful dog who managed to reach up to here and then ascend to heaven. For the trekker there is no life beyond the Vasundhara and after a rest it is best to begin the walk back to the village of Mana.

The best season to visit Badrinath is in the summer when the plains are burning with heat waves. The shrine opens sometime in the early part of May and this is widely reported in the newspapers. However, if you are planning to venture beyond Mana, then it is best to wait for a month or so and travel in the month of Jun as the snows are still piled up high beyond the temple site. The nearest railhead is Haridwar or Rishikesh and from then onwards it is by road. The rich come in their own cars or hire a taxi. For the hoi polloi it is the buses of the UP Roadways or the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam. One should be prepared for bad weather in the mountains as the rain Gods are very fickle minded in these rarefied areas. What begins as a bright sunny day can suddenly turn cloudy and windy with rain thrown in for good measure. The later part of September and October are highly recommended. The tourist season is over, there is less crowd but most importantly, the weather is more likely to behave itself. The down side is that it is slightly chilly at all times. But the sight of the magnificent Nilkanth peak soaring upwards just behind the temple, the crisp air, the azure blue skies, the silence of the mountains, and the satisfaction of having ventured beyond religion more than make up for the extra time and effort spent.

Posted by nilesh 03:09 Archived in India Tagged uttaranchal mana uttarakhand garhwal badrinath badrinath_temple vasundhara_falls treks_in_garhwal treks_in_uttarakhand pandavas mahabharath legend_of_the_pandavas meru_parbat bhim_pool saraswati_river alaknanda_river alaknanda trekking_in_garhwal trekking_in_uttarakhand trekking_in_the_himalayas mahabharat Comments (0)

ABODE OF THE GODS - BEYOND RELIGION

A road journey to the Kailash - Mansarovar region in Western Tibet. A trek around the Mr Kailash on foot and a campsite on the banks of the sacred Masarovar Lake.

all seasons in one day 15 °C

A PLETHORA OF TOURISTS OF ALL NATIONALITIES – Indian, Tibetan and other foreigners visit the Mt. Kailash-Lake Mansarowar area in Western Tibet. Most visitors are pilgrims with the sole aim of cleansing their souls and attaining some form of higher religious atonement. But the raw beauty of Tibetan landscape, the stark majesty of Mt Kailash, the surreal serenity of Mansarowar coupled with the increasingly relaxed travel regulations in Tibet now attracts the trekker and nature lover in seeking something different, from lands afar. It is not uncommon to see more foreigners than Indians on the “parikrama”, on foot, and even unfurling Buddhist prayer flags at various gompas on the way.

Plenty of people come to this pristine pilgrimage. A lot of them perform the “parikrama”. A lot of them cleanse themselves in the freezing waters of the Mansarowar. Almost all of them return with a sense of having achieved their aim of performing one of the most difficult “yatras” of all. What a lot of them don’t do is to stop and ponder over the adverse effects of their visits and how they could leave the place, fragile as it is, as clean as possible. A lot of them do not get down from their yaks to adore the numerous high altitude flowers that grow above the tree line in all their glorious colours and contours in spite of the harsh conditions. A lot of them are too bored to notice marmots scampering into their burrows at the approach of their group, the jungle fowl who stop chortling to each other out fear of detection or the rabbits who stare nervously from behind the short bushes and hop away, kangaroo like, on being startled.

The Kailash-Mansarowar is located about 150 Km north east of the Indo-Tibet border with western Nepal inside Chinese controlled territory. After they invaded Tibet in the office, the Chinese simply forbid any visitors to the area. I can’t help thinking that it was this single measure that must have given a lease to the wildlife of the area for us to enjoy now. It was only in about 1984 that, as part of their liberalisation policy, they started to allow pilgrims into the area, This provided the impetus to intrepid back packers and others who were by then simply starving for new areas to explore. The rigours of travel in Tibet, the harsh climate, the remoteness all only added to the romance and glamour.

Until recently the only way an Indian could perform the yatra was to form part of a group under the aegis of the Ministry of External affairs between the months of June and September. But now there are a variety of choices as travel agencies in Kathmandu and Lhasa vie with each other and dream of making the trip more fun and easier. Now it is possible to reach Darchen at the base of the sacred mountain in a big 4 wheel drive. Darchen is the place where even the local Tibetans who come to perform the parikrama in their own tents.

One has to be reasonably fit, both mentally and physically, to undertake the journey around the mountain on foot. The locals do it in one day taking about 12-14 hours with their ever revolving prayer wheels. But for others it can involve camping out at least 2 nights and completing it on the third tiring day. When I did the yatra in July this year, I had no idea the place would turn out to be a sanctuary for a variety of flora and fauna. It was only when I began to startle wild rabbits a half hour out of Darchen that I realised what would be in store. A little higher up and the rabbits were replaced by another class of rodents; the marmots with their slow, clumsy, otter like bodies. While resting to catch my breath and battling high altitude sickness, I realised that if I kept quite still these unsuspecting creatures would come quite close whilst foraging for whatever it is that marmots forage. The click and whirr of my first shot startles one of them to rear up for a better pose and a second shot.

It was during another such rest when I had bent over with my hands on my knees to ease the weight of my rucksack that I noticed what the ground had to offer in spite of the chill and frost. Tiny flowers resplendent in their colours, shapes and variety caught my attention. That such beauty could exist at such an altitude almost distracted my attention from the religious aspect of my yatra which was not turning out to be a trek. But then admiring the bounties of nature and doing my bit to preserve it is another way to serve God.

The second day began with an arduous climb to Dolma La at almost 19,000 ft. It was the constant cacophony of wild fowl that kept my mind away from the ache in the lungs and legs though I was now feeling much better otherwise. For a very brief while I was able to spot the fat birds during one of the rests and moments of solitude. Flowers kept changing in their appearance and were really a sight for sore eyes. However, a little short of Dolma La one comes across a sight that really makes eyes sore.

In an act representative of purification pilgrims discard their old clothes after they cross the Dolma La in the opposite direction. The result is a virtual garbage of pile of old clothes, footwear, headgear and other items that, as they degrade, will do no good to the fragile ecology of the area.

The relief on reaching Dolma La is palpable and one must relax there to absorb the atmosphere and the sanctity of the place. If you have the will and energy you can make the ritual three rounds of the prayer flags fluttering in the chilly winds and unfurl one of your own. I would recommend a simple prayer rather than add to any foreign material already there. That way you can do your bit to preserve the area’s environment.

The descent down to you second night out is comparatively easy, passes through a ‘valley of flowers’ and compel you to cross many rivulets, some of which are a result of the melting of the snows of Mt. Kailash. At one time I was walking down a trail that was surrounded on both sides by many gurgling streams and was dotted by a carpet of flowers of all colours. It took all my dexterity to avoid trampling such beauty. Each exquisite flower growing under such trying conditions was probably God’s way of decorating His Abode.

After the parikrama we proceeded to the Mansarowar where I expected to only see various shades of blue and green of the pristine waters of the holy lake. We had reached late in the evening which, in Tibet, is still light enough for good visibility. I was delighted to see a plethora of migration birds and other fauna that were enjoying the serenity of the lake as much as I was. On my jaunt down to the lake I startled a juvenile rabbit who to my utter astonishment tool only a few steps and did not hop away like his other brethren. Obviously he had not seen many humans and thought me his friend. By being very cautious and cooing him to him encouragingly I was able to cajole him into posing for some very close pictures. Prancing about in the freezing waters of the lake were Pintails and other wild ducks. I also encountered a couple of pigeons who had made a home for themselves in an old abandoned gompa right next to the waters.

All these experiences with so much flora and fauna really made my yatra an experience to be treasured. However, I hope the Chinese government realises that unbridled tourism to the area can destroy a sanctuary that has survived for so long at such an altitude. Due to increased liberalisation by the Chinese government people from all over the world are now coming to this area. Also we can expect to see a virtual exodus of tourists to such out of the way areas in the foreseeable future. TIME magazine has forecast the Travel and Tourism will be the Industry of the next century. Travel agencies in Lhasa and Kathmandu provide powerful 4 wheel drives to groups and they drive across Tibet to reach here. On the way they discard beer and wine bottles, aluminium cans, plastic water bottles and wrappers, and other material foreign to the area. There is also an area on the eastern bank of the Mansarowar where pilgrims ritualistically discard clothes.

The area being closed to tourists, because of winter, for most of the year, probably helps it rejuvenate itself. Not being an expert on environment management I cannot make any estimate in this regard nor can I claim to make any specific recommendations to help preserve the area. But the earlier the authorities realise that it is better to pre-empt a disaster than to indulge in expensive disaster management after it has occurred, the better. For one, they should ban sale of beer, wine and water in the area. Water in Tibet is not contaminated. Stream water sterilised by tablets should be able to fulfil the needs of the tourists. Also they can set up some sort of garbage collection centres in places like Darchen where tourists can deposit their garbage for a small token payment.

The authorities should also realise that in the name of religion, as I have described, a lot of pollution is caused. They should educate the people that God is happy with their having come all the way to the area and a simple prayer is enough to appease Him. In the end all I can offer is a prayer of hope that the Abode of Gods remains as beautiful and bountiful for aeons to come.

Posted by nilesh 15:32 Archived in China Tagged tibet kailash western_tibet mount_kailash kailash_mansarovar mansarowar manasarovar trekking_in_tibet by_road_to_kailash by_road_to_manasarovar Comments (0)

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