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D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 3 • ` 1 2 0 • VO L . 2

In Praise of

Winter Embrace the cold in Finland, India, and the United Kingdom








December 2013 G E O G R A P H I C




A bevy of reasons to embrace winter in India



Changthang’s ice age—chilling transformations in Ladakh







The making of a perfect British Christmas

A chilly evening in Mongolia’s vast grasslands is warmed by the kindness of strangers


THE FINE ART OF FREEZING The Finnish cure for wintertime blues




Ten weeks, 14 countries, and 16,000 kilometres later, a lifelong dream is realised



Up-close and personal in the Maasai Mara 72 Christmas market, Edinburgh





VO L . 2 • `120 • er 2013

On The Cover



cY ON A cONsErvAN mArA iN thE mAAsAi

in Praise of

Winter , India, cold in Finland Embrace the Kingdom and the United


AtiONs iN icY trANsfOrm g LAdAKh’s chANgthAN

BUs tO ANtArcticA drEAm

A chiLdhOOd is rEALisEd

This photograph was taken by photographer K. Salminen in Kuusamo, a winter sports destination in eastern Finland, near the Arctic Circle. One of the popular activities for visitors, is taking a ride on a sled pulled by Siberian huskies. natgeotraveller.india

12 Editor’s Note | 138 Inspire

VOICES 16 Tread Softly Think before you click 18 Real Travel The lies travellers tell 20 Guest Column A birthday biking trip turns back the clock 22 Guest Column Learning from children, a whole new way of travelling

34 36 Culture Does Aurangabad’s Paithani sari date back to the second century? 38 Geotourism Cornwall’s Eden Project: Is it a giant golf ball? Is it an alien spaceship? 40 The Icon Sydney’s Opera House


42 National Park Shere Khan, Baloo, and Kaa—they’re all at Kanha National Park

24 Take Five City walls are canvases for graffiti artists

48 Urban Renewal Watch out New York, Harlem is experiencing a rebirth—again

28 48 Hours There’s more to Monaco than high-rolling casinos

50 Smart Traveller An insider reveals Paris bargains

• Hidden Gem 32 Kokkarebellur’s winged visitors transform the village 34 An open-air museum celebrates Chhattisgarh’s rural art


54 Checking In Ice hotels that provide heart-warming comforts in frigid climes

GET GOING 116 Scaling New Heights A trek in Sikkim offers the chance to burn years of accumulated fat 122 East Coast Adventures The waters off Pondicherry hold secrets for scuba divers


126 From Bengaluru Medieval treasures in Gandikota

130 From Mumbai Beyond the pilgrim route in Trimbakeshwar • Stay 134 Bundelkhand’s ecological and historical gems 135 Hark back to the colonial era in Mussoorie

INTERACTIVE 137 Photo Contest The best of readers’ photos

LAST PAGE 144 The Comeback Goa’s Reis Magos Fort gets a new lease of life as a cultural centre




EDITOR’S NOTE Niloufer Venkatraman



hat I look forward to the most when the winter season comes around, is weekend camping with family and friends, usually at locations in the Sayhadris, less than three or four hours from Mumbai. Last week, I went on the first of these trips of this season. On our second morning outdoors, when I woke up at dawn, I felt the magical change in the weather. There was a nip in the air, I could feel the bite on my cheekbones, fog had enveloped the hills around. At night, watching the moon rise from behind the hill, the fort atop it silhouetted against the rising yellow sphere, I felt very lucky to have been doing this for the last twenty years. One of my favourite spots to camp is the banks of a lake in the wilderness, close to Lonavla. In winter there is enough dead wood around to allow us to make a small

campfire at night. One year, my husband caught a large fish in the lake. We cleaned it, rubbed it with spices, wrapped it in gauze to seal it, then coated it thickly with wet mud and placed it under the embers of the campfire to slowbake all day long. When we opened it in the evening, it was cooked to perfection, the meat flaking off the bone. Naturally, I think I’ve never tasted better fish. On these winter mornings, until the sun warms things up, everyone gathers around what’s left of the campfire. Each one gets a long stick with a slit at the end. A slice of bread is placed in the slot, so everyone can make their own toast over the embers, while eggs are simultaneously scrambled over the coals. When evening arrives, we often skewer sausages, corn, or marshmallows and roast them over the campfire. The kids get very excited by this. My daughter, who we’ve taken camping since


she was ten months old, loves it all so much that now her friends and their families also join us. From the cosy comfort of my tent, I like to listen to the sounds of the wild—the wind whipping through the trees, wildlife in the jungles, the cicadas sometimes creating a racket that forms a background score to the night. Sometimes, a night in the wilderness can be very still and completely quiet, with only the occasional sound of a deer or monkey in the forest breaking the silence. At other times, we’ve camped in a col at Rajmachi, near Lonavla, where a strong wind blows furiously against the tent all night— which both soothes me to sleep and disturbs me because of the way it starts and stops. As winter progresses, though Mumbai may still have 25°C minimums, nights in the hills can be pretty cold, sometimes dropping to 2-3°C. At some of the lakeside

campsites we’ve used, after dusk there will always a kettle of water on the coals, simmering away for anyone who wants a cup of black tea or coffee, a mug of hot chocolate, or a comforting bowl of soup. As the temperature drops further, everyone huddles closer, sitting around the burning wood, chatting, singing, sharing stories late into the night. It is around some of these campfires, on the edges of jungles, near ruined forts and ancient caves, on the banks of lakes and rivers, that I have shared camaraderie and conversations that would never have occurred in the city. For me and for many friends, these are some of the happiest memories of a holiday. Over the years, the bonds that have been created in chilling temperatures while warming our hands over glowing logs of wood, have been the most enduring. n


As the temperature drops further, everyone huddles closer, sitting around the burning wood, chatting, singing, sharing stories late into the night




I am curled in a chair, absorbed in my Percy Jackson book, the one I bought some time ago from my favourite bookstore. The shop has closed, so has the music store I used to visit. As the number of coffee shops in the city increase, Kolkata’s old literary, musical, and architectural icons are slowly going extinct. Even some of the heritage buildings built during the British era are being demolished to build shiny, new offices. I love my city, but I feel like its

Howrah Bridge, Kolkata.

losing character. Sometimes, I wish I could rewind to its olden days, if only to have a conversation about the last book I read. —Ankita Choudhuri also wins a copy of City Adrift: A Short Biography Of Bombay for her entry on the changing face of Kolkata. I think the coverage of National Geographic Traveller India sets it apart. I read about a fellow reader’s visit to Karwar on the Letters page of the October issue,

and was so drawn to the picture, I immediately looked it up. Two weeks later, I took a Rajdhani train from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram and visited the awesome beach. I spent time in R.N. Tagore and Majali beaches, and soaked in the beauty of the Kali River. From there, I went on to Gokarna and Murdeshwara in Karnataka, where I saw the 123-feet-tall statue of Lord Shiva on the beach. It was an exhilarating trip, and I owe it to you guys! —Sunirmal Mandal

Write to us, share stories of your travel experiences within India and around the world. We will publish some of them on these pages. Send your emails to

It was an exhilarating trip, and I owe it to you guys!”

HOW TO CONTACT US Emails: Letters: Editor, National Geographic Traveller India, Krishna House, 3rd floor, Raghuvanshi Mills Compound, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. Include address and telephone number. Not all letters can be published or answered; those published may be excerpted and edited. Customer Service: To subscribe or manage a subscription, email us at or call 022-40497417/31/35/36.

—Sunirmal Mandal

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ew visitors to Delhi might be forgiven for believing that the Delhi Metro has always been the core of the city’s public transport system. Or that the Delhi Transport Corporation has always had a fleet of air-conditioned buses. Both are relatively new additions, and have transformed life in the city. In the 90s, when I was studying in Delhi, there was a red, blue, and white line bus system. The red line was the cheapest and fastest, but only because the drivers believed that any other vehicle attempting to overtake them was challenging their manhood. It wasn’t uncommon to see two buses, full of passengers, parked by the side of the road while the drivers fought it out. At some point, the government replaced them with the blue lines, since they figured the red colour was the source of rage for the drivers. The city’s public transport is still far from perfect— the autos still overcharge—and there’s plenty of room for improvement. But thanks to the Metro and our swish buses, it feels like the city is moving in the right direction. —Abhishek Bhatnagar wins a copy of Naresh Fernandes’s City Adrift: A Short Biography Of Bombay for sharing his entry on the changing face of his city.

VOICES Guest Column



was once a happy road-tripper without much of a plan in my head, except to go with my rucksack wherever the road took me. Now, I’m juggling three versions of maps with rest stops marked in highlighter, a list of possible emergencies, and another list of whom to call in those emergencies. The rucksack has expanded into ten suitcases in the trunk, and a stash of useful things on the dashboard. Hereafter, “on the road” will always mean an urgent stop to stock up on unhealthy snacks that the kids just have to have—and another urgent stop when they bring it all up. After a week-long road trip across scenic Kerala, I’ve acquired a deep knowledge of the ground realities of driving with kids. To start with, no matter what you have packed to cover any contingency, there will be one other thing you really require that you forgot. I had laboured over my checklist for a week, buying gauze, milk in tiny tetrapacks, and medicine for almost everything. Of course, when one child broke out in itchy red welts, an allergy to roadside grass, I didn’t have it covered. Having fallen asleep almost as soon as we left Bangalore at dawn, our two under-10 boys woke every half hour to ask whether we’d reached Kerala. When we finally reached Kerala, they missed it because they’d fallen asleep again. Kerala announced itself not so much by its border checkpost, but by a sudden ferocious sprouting of green. That and the first of many “Bar” signs that signal you’ve reached God’s raved-about country. The next rule is obvious to most parents.

Jane De Suza As soon as you leave home or a restaurant, that’s when your child will need to go— desperately and immediately. The beauty of the majestic hills rising around you is somewhat lost when all you’re looking for is a loo. We travelled with a double dose of the “gotta go” syndrome: One kid had motion-sickness and the other had a running tummy. Our first stop was at Fort Kochi, full of the promise of Portuguese charm. The quaint old houses, narrow streets, and museums left the kids unimpressed. But it all changed when we reached the shoreline, with those big, old Chinese fishing nets. In a technique that goes back centuries, a handful of men tug at the ropes at one end of a pulley, while another man walks the beam to help shift the weight and lower the nets into the water. Our boys were easily persuaded by smiling fishermen to clamber to the large wooden platform and take their pull at the nets. The four of us threw our combined muscle into yanking those ropes. Nothing budged. When we’d thrown in the towel, two men with white hair and stringy arms levered the massive nets with negligible effort. In a few seconds, we’d pulled up a haul of slim, silver mullets. After a tearful look at the gasping fish fresh out of the water, our young boys refused to eat them. It dawned on me that the experience may have turned them vegetarian for life. Looking at the tourist haven through the eyes of a child is to notice the very few un-touristy things still left. In


“To start with, no matter what you have packed to cover any contingency, there will be one thing you really require that you forgot.” at its roots. It hit them that the black powder sprinkled on their morning fried eggs began its life as a green bubble on a vine. Our houseboat ride in Alappuzha was a geography lesson in 3D. They drew pictures and took photographs and wrote stories about their stay. On the 15-hour drive home, we looked at our boys after eight days on the road. They looked thinner, despite all that good Kerala food. They looked sunburnt and muddied, but taller somehow. My idea of a dream holiday still is taking a long drive out to just put my feet up in a little cottage high up on a hill. I imagine a glass in my hand, a book in the other, and the sudden whoop of excitement while a football comes crashing into my glass, shattering the peace, and perhaps the glass. Without that, the picture’s just not perfect. n Jane De Suza is a humour writer who lives in Bengaluru with her husband and two sons. She is the author of The Spy Who Lost Her Head (Harper Collins, 2013).


On the Road

a 200-year-old house with an overgrown back garden, the boys spent an hour watching an ant pull a dead cockroach many times its body weight into a hole in the wood. They watched rubber sap drawn out into mats and hung to dry on lines. The main interest they showed in the beautiful architecture of the 200-year-old house was in playing in the mud outside. On the drives, we realised that all the books and digital games taken to keep the kids occupied were of no use. We learnt that focusing on a fast-paced game on a tablet is a sure-shot way to road sickness. So we resorted to the games of our own childhood: spotting green buses or three people on a two-wheeler. “There’s an elephant!” shouted one excited boy. “There’s a dinosaur,” shouted the other, and I whipped around to see them, lying flat on the back seat of the car, pointing out shapes in the clouds. Over the next few days, they noticed long grass being pulled out from the earth to unveil ginger




ou can’t escape the Paithani in Aurangabad. The sari is everywhere. On hoardings, tourist pamphlets, and bus stops sharing space with misspelt graffiti and Bollywood heart-throbs. If the advertising is to be believed, the local weave is second only to Banarasi silk, and “only because the holy city has better marketing,” a textile merchant told me as he unfurled a sari the colour of brooding amethyst. Made from thick, heavy silk, the weave is identified by its geometric animal motifs, and liberal use of gold. A modest Paithani weighs about 1.5 kg—a heavy Kanjivaram sari is 500 gm lighter. Though I couldn’t afford one, the store owner was happy showing off his collection. As the textile parade continued, I began to recognise some of the motifs. The peacocks and flowers were remarkably similar to those I had seen in Ajanta Caves. I was intrigued. I knew that Paithanis were originally made with fine muslin, which would explain the translucent drapes of Buddhist apsaras in Ajanta’s frescoes. And they were both from around the second century. Could the drapes

in Ajanta’s murals actually be Paithani saris? I figured the best way to find out was to visit Paithan, 50 km north of Aurangabad. The town is filled with chai shops, stores selling cheap plastic toys, and jalebicoloured homes in various states of disrepair—a far cry from its illustrious past. In the second century, the town was called Pratishtana and was briefly the capital of the ancient Satavahana Empire, whose rulers were known for their patronage of the arts. It was under their rule that Buddhist monks began carving Ajanta’s masterpieces. Pratishtana was a thriving trade centre, and finds mention in Greco-Roman texts dating back to the 1st century A.D. Ptolemy’s records mention a “Baithana”, while Arrian, another famous Greek historian, writes of the region’s beads, coins, and jewellery. But the ancient city’s most valued exports were onyx, and intricately woven textiles, which fetched a high price, if not royal favour. It was hard to believe the squat, characterless building before me was one of few centres in the country preserving the venerable art of Paithani weaving.



Paithani saris can take upto a year to weave, and cost between `5,000 to `5,00,000.

The only people in the store were three, bored-looking cashiers. A few feet away, two mannequins draped in Paithani saris were frozen mid-namaste. The looms—over a 100 of them—were in a large room behind the store. There, groups of women quietly worked to the muted strains of a wheezing transistor radio. Deepa, a shy but giggly weaver, told me that Maharashtrian mothers would save for decades so their daughter could wear a Paithani on her wedding day. To be married into a house with more than one Paithani—a rarity, Deepa assured me—is considered a matter of pride. Like the 200-odd weavers here, she spends her days weaving these saris but doesn’t own one herself. On returning to Aurangabad, I visited Mr. Subramanyam at the Archaeology Society of India, about the Buddhist connection that spurred my visit to Paithan. Although there is no way of knowing whether Paithani saris actually feature in Ajanta’s frescoes, he says, generations of weavers have sought inspiration from the cave paintings. Centuries-old saris in museums, feature the Buddha sitting on a lotus—the only human or god to appear on these pieces. Mustard yellow, unabashedly loud greens, and purples—the saris I saw at the weaving centre were so luxurious, I couldn’t imagine wearing one. I was content just looking—until I spotted a black sari at the far end. It had the glossy darkness of raven feathers and a pallu featuring a single, blood-red flower in different stages of bloom. And just like that I wanted one too. To swathe myself in luscious silk, hear it rustle as I walk, and feel the woven petals under my fingertips. n




onsidered a tool of vandals and anarchists through most of the twentieth century, graffiti has now come to be accepted as a form of public art and expression. In fact, it’s even the subject of research by serious academics, who have come to classify it as street art, mural art, or urban art.


Berlin, Germany

Berlin experienced a tumultous 20th century, filled with upheaval, conflict, and division. As a result, the city always seems to find new ways to express its ideas. To many Berlin residents, graffiti fits the bill. It started with political slogans on the Berlin Wall in the 1960s and ’70s. In the ’80s, a more evolved form of street art started to dominate the scene: Cartoons and murals ridiculing the absurdity of living in a divided city. To catch a glimpse of that era, visit the 1.3-km section of wall that still survives. It’s known as the East Side Gallery. Since the fall of the wall, communist-era buildings in districts of Eastern Berlin have become the city’s freshest canvases. A notable example is a series of murals created by the artist Blu in Curvystrasse in 2007 as part of the “Urban Grassroots: Planet Prozess” exhibition. The most famous of these is a four-storey-tall mural of two figures—one of them upside down— removing each other’s masks while holding up the letters E and W, symbolising the slow (and at times suspicious) nature of German reunification.

A young girl poses on shark graffiti painted with a 3D effect as part of the annual Street Culture Festival. Though relatively new to Taipei, graffiti has become very popular in the city. 24 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA | DECEMBER 2013

São Paulo has a thriving street art scene centred around three major areas: Vila Madalena, Centro, and Cambuci. Art galleries like Choque Cultural and Galeria Concreto also showcase the city’s street art. Apart from the usual styles of graffiti, a distinct feature of São Paulo street art are pichaçãos. These are signatures that are written in a font modelled after runes and include logos that were inspired by the record jackets of heavy metal bands in the 1980s. Pichadores (the creators of these tags) often form gangs with distinct logos.



São Paulo, Brazil


In the ’80s, a more evolved form of street art started to dominate the scene: Cartoons and murals ridiculing the absurdity of living in a divided city of the most prominent street artists in the world, in addition to providing a space to upcoming artists. Those interested in getting an in-depth look at historical and contemporary graffiti can sign up for a street art tour. To test your talent with the spray can, sign up for a workshop at the end of the tour (Graff Tours from 90 minutes to 5 hours; US $150 to 250/ `9,500 to `16,000;


Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne’s street art culture isn’t as subversive as other major cities in the world. Tagging and unauthorised graffiti attracts huge fines and even jail time. Most artists express themselves only on authorised walls, supporting the government’s policies. Melbourne street art is dominated by murals, stencils, and stickers. Here the emphasis is more on the artistic side of graffiti that integrates with the city’s urban landscape. Some major graffiti spots include Hosier Lane, Union Lane, Yarra Place, ACDC Lane, Duckboard Place and Little Laneway off Duke Street. To discover some of the lesser-known neighbourhoods, visitors can sign up for 3-hour tours conducted by local artists (We Make Stuff Good; Aus $40/`2,400).

These gangs compete with each other to tag the most prominent buildings, often at their highest points. They use pichaçãos as a symbol of dissent against Brazil’s economic disparities. Pichaçãos are easy to spot because seemingly every major building around the city has them.


New York, U.S.A.

Philadelphia may be considered the birthplace of modern graffiti, but New York is the city that has helped shape and define it. New York graffiti has

influenced street art all over the world. From subway trains to back alleys, mural art is a constant feature of the cityscape. A great way to get an overview of New York’s graffiti scene is by going to the Hall of Fame in East Harlem. Started as an attempt to give the youth of Harlem an outlet for creative expression in the ’80s, the wall now includes tags, murals, and memorials from the last three decades. To discover some of the latest trends, head over to 5 Pointz in Long Island City. The walls of this formerly derelict warehouse sport the works of some


Taipei, Taiwan

Street art is a relatively new trend in and around Taipei city and the government has a lenient view of it. Since 2007, artists have been allowed to paint on the fences of major public construction sites. Most of the graffiti here is influenced by anime. One of the largest collections of graffiti can be seen in and around Ximending. There’s also the Pier 2 art centre in Kaohsiung that hosts street art exhibits and festivals. To admire graffiti depicting the roots of Taiwan, head over to the schools and community centres of Taitung county. Most of their walls are covered with mural art depicting the traditional fishing and hunting practices of tribal Taiwan. n



During a recent drive to clean up the city, the São Paulo government painted over several street murals. Following protests, an attempt is being made to register and preserve some of the graffiti. This mural (top) was painted by Speto, who has been a graffiti artist in Brazil for 27 years; One of the most popular murals on Berlin’s East Side gallery is a portrait (above) of communist-era leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing.

IN FOCUS In Praise of Winter









IN FOCUS In Praise of Winter



had spent six years living in Mumbai, periodically scoffing at Mumbaikars who pulled on sweaters the moment the temperature dropped below 18°C. This isn’t winter, I’d claim with Dilliwala arrogance, recalling the sweet

smell of the kadamb flower that wafts through the capital’s streets early in winter, the sight of the watchman huddled around his tiny bonfire late at night, the afternoon picnics, the evening barbecues, the warmth of a cup of coffee in my hand.


When I finally moved back to Delhi in 2011, I wasn’t prepared for karmic revenge. In the last week of October the weather was pleasant, but November snuck up on me with the full brunt of winter arriving, almost overnight. I chased sunbeams

around my house, trying to stay in the warmth as much as possible. I was soon digging in old, forgotten trunks to salvage woollen clothing unused for six years, and drinking dozens of cups of piping-hot coffee, tea, and soup to defrost my bones.


If you know where to look, chilly weather can bring warm cheer

It was one of Delhi’s coldest winters in years. Darkness descended by 5 p.m., chilly winds always managed to find the gaps in the doors, and the windows fogged up when I cooked. Living in a corner of Gurgaon, I rarely left the house. This was not the winter I had craved. When March reared its sunny head, my husband and I took a break from the city and headed to the hills. We plotted a journey through the back roads of Shimla district, stopping at small towns and smaller settlements. We saw greenhouses full of mushrooms in Solan, and the buds that had just begun to show on the apple trees of Rajgarh. The mountains seemed to be shrugging off the cloak of winter, and tiny rivulets carried melting snow and ice down the slopes. I soaked up the sun sitting on the back of our motor-

cycle as we rode through towns like Dibber, Sainj, and Kotkhai. Our destination was a tiny, three-lane town called Kharapathar that I’d randomly selected for its location in the orchard-draped Pabbar Valley, and because it had an HPTDC hotel. But as we gained altitude, the warmth slowly slid away. The higher reaches were still firmly in the clutches of an extended winter. Tiny banks of snow began to appear by the side of the road. Cars struggled on the slushy ice. The biting chill made me hide behind my husband for protection on the motorcycle. As we rolled into Kharapathar, the sun seemed to completely give up and was little more than a distant, pale orange circle. The town itself was so tiny, its few shops still shuttered, that we might have missed it altogether if it wasn’t for the sight of the Giri Ganga Resort, whose staff was rather surprised to have visitors in this weather. The

hotel hadn’t yet opened up as winter was still in the air, but a room was quickly prepared for us. The staff advised us to have a quick bath before the evening chill set in, and buckets were filled for the morning because the pipes were likely to freeze overnight. I was shivering and not very happy. Sensing my distress, the friendly hotel manager set about making me comfortable. Placing a sofa in front of a large window, he brought a giant pot of ginger tea and some steaming pakoras. As the cold edged out of my body, I began to see the magic of a cold winter evening in the mountains. A stillness filled the valley before me as the fog lifted into the folds of the mountains, wrapping itself around the tops of the deodar trees. Dispersed lights twinkled in the distance, and when I leaned to look closely, my breath fogged up the glass, making them disappear altogether. A spicy rum toddy followed. Snuggling up, my husband and I sipped the warming liquid and watched the trees and the valley disappear in the moonlit fog. Winter was suddenly attractive.

The pipes didn’t freeze that night. And although the morning was frosty and crisp, the manager talked us into hiking up to the Giri Ganga temple. A little picnic lunch was packed and we set off on the trail. Pine needles covered the path, crunching softly under our feet. A troop of monkeys eyed us curiously. Halfway up, soft snow began appearing on the trail and soon it was completely covered with a white blanket. Dramatic icicles hung from exposed roots of trees and somewhere below, I could hear the rush of a noisy river. The temple complex was covered in snow, with nary a soul in sight. All around us it was silent and still, sacrosanct without the summer crowds. Bright red flags and old, grey stone cut a dramatic picture against the dazzling brilliance of the snow. We clambered up the hillside to the source of the Giri Ganga river, filling our bottle with the cold, sweet water. On the way down, we slid and rolled, shrieking with delight as the snow got into our hair and jackets. Being outdoors and active in the icy weather was invigorating, especially since we knew we would return to mugs of delicious ginger tea. Over the next two days, in the unexpected sharpness of frosty mornings and the stillness of chilly evenings, I rediscovered my love for winter. —By Neha Dara




IN FOCUS In Praise of Winter


During winter, when passes close due to heavy snow, walking on the frozen Zanskar River is the only way to reach Padum, the main town of the Zanskar region. This route has become the famous and arduous Chadar trek. A road connecting Darcha in Lahaul and Padum, which is due to open in 2015, will completely transform this region.



Offbeat experiences to escape your comfort zone


India’s longest cave system, the 25-km-long Krem Liat Prah, was discovered in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills in 2006.

LAZE AT KHAJJIAR This meadow in Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba district is surrounded by dense pine forests. It features a buttonshaped plateau with a lake that has an island at the centre. This combination of three alpine features has led to it being christened “Mini Switzerland”. Though there are brief spells of snowfall, winters here aren’t as harsh as in the rest of Himachal Pradesh. Hike through the Kalatop Khajjiar Sanctuary that surrounds the meadow. Visit the Khajji Nag temple, famous for the wooden images of the Pandavas and Kauravas hanging from its ceiling. The main reason for Khajjiar’s popularity is that it affords travellers a tranquil,

isolated winter experience without having to travel to extreme altitudes or locations. WALK ON THE FROZEN ZANSKAR The Zanskar river has some of the most thrilling white-water rafting routes in the world. But during the winter, it gives way to a whole new adventure sport—trekking on ice. The sole route connecting the villages in the Zanskar Valley to the rest of Ladakh is known to travellers as the Chadar trek. The nine-day journey through the canyon goes past Buddhist monasteries and frozen waterfalls. It is considered one of the most difficult routes in the world because of altitudes that go as high as 3,850 m and

temperatures that can drop to -35°C. The ice can be thin in some areas, so it is important to hire guides. CAVING IN MEGHALAYA Meghalaya is home to some of the deepest and longest caves in the subcontinent, some of which are still unexplored. Negotiating the caves can be a challenge even for experts, but a good option for beginners is the 7-km-long Krem Mawmluh cave near Cherrapunji. The hike involves walking through water pools past dramatic stalactites and stalagmites, while avoiding run-ins with the occasional bat. The ideal time to visit is between December and March when the region’s rivers are at their shallowest.



TREK TO SANDAKPHU The trail to Sandakphu, the highest peak on the Singalila Ridge, is one of Darjeeling’s toughest trekking routes. Located on the edge of the Singalila National Park, the 3,780-metre-high peak is famous for its panoramic view of the Himalayas. Four of the five highest peaks in the world—Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, and Makalu—are visible along the trail. The trekking season lasts from October to May, but for those looking to experience the extremes of winter, December to February is the time to go. Many trekkers tend to camp overnight around Sandakphu to catch the early morning view of the four peaks.

Journeys Slice of Life


Mongolian herders and nomads milk mares during the summer, also known as the white season. Fermented mare's milk or airag is an important part of their diet, as are eezgii (dried cheese), tarag (sour yogurt) and aaruul (dried curd)..







on the ST

Journeys Slice of Life


was tired and nauseated from six hours in Manault’s beatup, blue Russian jeep, jostling on the rocky terrain of Central Mongolia. I hadn’t showered in days and requested that we stop for the night at an official guesthouse. The official guest houses didn’t have much in the way of accommodation— usually a series of gers, traditional tents made of hides, and a small restaurant—but they did have toilet facilities, and taking a shower was a luxury after days along the dusty paths. But as usual, Bubu, my bubbly 18-year-old translator and guide, didn’t seem to hear. She had only recently taken a job with the tour operator and although she was Mongolian, she was from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where bus stops had Wi-Fi, and teens in popped-collar polos strutted streets filled with high-end cars. Her knowledge of the

rest of Mongolia was shaky at best. The other night I had caught her taking notes from Lonely Planet’s guide to the country. So when we stopped in the most rustic ger camp we’d ever seen, owned by a nomadic family, I was not pleased. My sick companion


The nomadic people (bottom right) of Mongolia have roamed the steppes for two millennia; Archery, (left) wrestling, and bareback horse riding are coming of age skills for every nomadic boy; Karakorum was the old capital of Mongolia from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Four of these giant stone turtles (top right) once marked the corners of the city. Only two remain, including this one outside the monastery’s northern gate.


Mongolia was groaning next to me, and bathrooms here were non-existent. When your stomach is sick, squatting on the steppe with no cover isn’t the greatest option. The two Japanese girls we had caravanned with earlier on the trip had demurely used a large umbrella for cover on restroom stops, but here the flat countryside offered few opportunities for privacy. The family had an extra tent covered in drying skins and bags of airag—fermented mare’s milk—that did nothing to settle our stomachs. Bubu didn’t understand why I was so angry until I explained it, my temper finally bursting after weeks of dealing with her lack of attention to our requests. But I wasn’t about to insult our hosts. The relationship between guest and host is all important in this most remote of countries, where you never know when you will be in need of housing. Determined to make the best of things, I brought out the great equaliser— alcohol, in this case a few bottles of beer and Chinggis vodka—and headed to the camp where our host family was making dinner on an open fire. With that simple gesture, everything changed. Maybe it was my obvious irritation, maybe it was the host family’s inclusive sentiments, but Bubu immediately started translating everything, something that usually took multiple requests to get her to do. And silent Manault, always uncomfortable indoors, opened up,

his face crinkling in pleasure in the afternoon sun. I squatted on the ground as the family passed me an intensely flavourful bowl of rice and beef broth along with a huge femur bone. After my partner roused herself from her stupor, we took pictures of the kids and printed them on a mini-printer to hand to the family. We had heard that though gers were often equipped with TVs and satellite dishes, photographs were still highly prized. After letting out an almost girlish squeal, the mother issued marching orders and the kids were immediately cleaned and dressed for more pictures. After the impromptu modelling session, while the men were still sucking marrow from bones with gusto, we left with the mother to pick wild strawberries on the slopes of the closest mountain. As we hiked up, she told us about the sacredness of the area. Wolves lived on the slopes and a shaman had recently climbed to the peak to perform a sanctification ceremony. The constant questions by a foreigner from the other side of the world didn’t seem to faze her. In fact, with her sun-weathered face, piercing gaze, and rugged lifestyle amidst acres of isolation, I got the feeling that very little fazed her. In this culture, the blue sky is worshipped and high places are held in reverence. Throughout the trip, we had passed ovoo, piles of rock (or wood in the north) that are ritualistically circumambulated clockwise. We had circled many. Sometimes, we added a rock


Bactrian or two-humped camels transport tents and supplies. They are sometimes used for wool, milk, and meat as well.


Journeys Slice of Life or stone to the pile in respect to the sky. When we were too rushed to stop, Manault had honked, keeping the totems on his right as we passed them while driving. But while walking around them, Bubu would often get confused about the direction she was supposed to go. By the time we returned to the camp, other relatives and friends had stopped by on horses and old motorcycles. Manault, perhaps relaxed from the vodka, but more likely because of the camaraderie of the steppe, taught me how to drink properly. When serving, I learnt to pour with my right hand supported by the left at the wrist. And to pour for everyone before I pour for myself. Bubu declined the drink, instead she dipped a finger lightly into the vodka, flicking it to the sky as an offering. As the wolves from the mountains started howling, my drunken host wrapped his arm around my shoulders to lead me back to my tent for the night. He was overjoyed to discover that we were the same age. I looked at his family, his friends, his tents, and his slice of this wide, wild country and wondered at how similar in spirit we were—and how utterly different. That night, the camp dogs awakened me, barking at attacking

wolves that had come down from the mountain. The growls I heard from the wolves were like nothing I had ever heard before; they went straight to my brain. Wide-awake, I heard the dogs fight back, driving the wolves away from the horses, the greatest treasure of any nomad. I fell asleep amidst the strange smells of drying skins and fermenting milk, wondering the next day whether the wolves—or even the past 24 hours—had been nothing more than a dream. We took our leave the next day to an empty camp. The family had gone to tend their flock. But the dynamics in our group had changed subtly. Our driver was silent again as he revved up his jeep, and as the bright azure sky beckoned I remembered the clink of bottles and the words spoken the night before. “Tocktoy!” Manault had exclaimed, his normally stoic face breaking out into a wide grin as he lifted his Chinggis vodka in cheers and benediction, “To blue skies, straight roads!” n Biju Sukumaran is a travel writer currently based in Argentina, the latest stop on his slow travel through South America, living in each new place for 3-4 months.


The barely-there roads of the steppe are usually traversed in Russian 4x4s (top left), which are prone to breakdowns thanks to the terrain; Chinggis vodka (bottom left), which derives its name from Genghis Khan, is Mongolia’s most popular vodka and a great way to break the ice with locals; The Mongolian Steppe forms a crescent to the north of the Gobi Desert (right).


THE GUIDE Orientation Trips to central Mongolia leave from the capital Ulaanbataar, which is perched atop the Mongolian-Manchurian steppe in the northern half of central Mongolia. The steppe forms a large crescent around the Gobi Desert, sweeping across central and eastern Mongolia. Getting there Flying to Ulaanbataar from India requires at least one stop. The quickest (about 15 hours), though not the most economical, option is to fly via Hong Kong. Picking another halt, for example Istanbul, is sometimes less expensive though the duration of the journey is nearly doubled.

Getting Around ULAANBATAAR The capital city can be explored on foot, via cab, or using the bus system. The city centre is quite small and many sites can be seen on foot, though it's best to explore during the day. Cabs have a tendency to overcharge foreigners. The new buses are clean and surprisingly modern— buses and bus stops have Wi-Fi—however traffic can be quite bad, especially during festival times. THE STEPPE To travel outside the city to the steppe, it is advisable to book a tour. Many tours use jeeps or small buses to tour the country. Some more specialised tours use oxcarts, horses, and camels to provide a more authentic experience. G Adventures offers an itinerary similar to what I did ( nomadic-mongolia/AMNA/2014). A more authentic experience, staying with nomadic families all the way and learning traditional

skills like how to saddle a horse, milk cows, textile making, etc. is also possible with the same operator. Nomadic Expeditions (www. is a pioneering sustainable tourism outfitter who offers guided trips that explore Mongolia’s natural and cultural heritage. They also run Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia’s first communitybased eco-lodge. The website of the Mongolian National Tourism Center ( also lists tour operators. Seasons Ulaanbataar is often described as the coldest capital city in the world. During winter (Oct-Mar), night temperatures are usually below -15°C, and can drop below -30°C on the coldest January nights. Pollution is a problem during this time, since coal is burned as the primary source of heat during winter. Summer (MayAug) temperatures are cool and pleasant, hovering between highs of 20°C and lows of 9°C. There is a short monsoon (Jul-Aug) when it rains for about 10 days in the month.

Summer is also the time for Nadaam, Mongolia’s biggest festival and a popular time to visit. The sporting and cultural event is held throughout the country in July every year, and involves the three traditional games of manhood—wrestling, horse racing, and archery. The largest Nadaam is held in Ulaanbataar from 11-13 July and is a huge affair complete with dancers, musicians, and competitions.

Made up of wooden frames covered by layers of felt, gers or yurts are traditional herders’ tents that are still widely used. They can be easily dismantled and set up, making them ideal for the nomadic lifestyle. SEPTEMBER DECEMBER 2013 | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA 107



Visa Applications have to be submitted at the Mongolian embassy in New Delhi personally or via a travel agent (011-24617989; open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday). A 30day tourist visa is free of cost (processing time three days). It can be obtained within 24 hours by paying a fee of `1,925. The

application and list of documents required is available at au/visas/newdeli.html

GET GOING Adventure

East Coast Adventures The waters off Pondicherry hold many secrets for divers of all levels | Text & Photographs by JYOTHY KARAT

Preparing to dive at Temple Reef, a dive site at an artificial reef recently built by the Temple Adventures team and the local fishing community. The reef was made to boost the fish population in the area, which had depleted due to overfishing.


bout 17 metres underwater in the Bay of Bengal, a few hundred cardinal fish were working on a deep-sea version of Swan Lake. We were diving, nine nautical miles off the coast of Pondicherry. Thirty metres under, when our descent was complete, I watched a pretty white dress floating past—it was a giant jelly fish. Dainty little damselfish danced, schools of surgeons swayed overhead, and sea plants quivered on the seabed, turning the ocean into an underwater Yash Chopra set. My oceanic adventure in Pondicherry was only beginning. When I discovered that it was possible to scuba dive in Pondicherry, I was delighted. I had spent a few days idling around beaches with a book and munching on croissants at the Auroville bakery. An evening stroll on the beach promenade amounted to an active day, and lunch with Spanish acquaintances warranted my Sunday best. Just when I was feeling the need to dial my visit up a notch, I saw a tiny poster glued to a lamp post during a visit to the botanical garden. The Temple Adventures dive centre buzzed with divers of all levels. Wetsuits hung from a steel rod on the porch, where some people busied themselves cleaning the equipment. The atmosphere was decidedly international. One French instructor called out in Hindi, an Australian was giving directions in Tamil, while Stephen, who was also French, spoke English with a pronounced south Indian accent. Everybody at the dive centre, including the chef Elisa, shared a great love for diving and marine life. I half expected to see Rango the cat pulling on a scuba mask. 122 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIA | DECEMBER 2013

The dive centre is obviously popular with advanced divers. But beginners can pick the “Discover Scuba Diving” programme that allows even non-swimmers a glimpse of the world under water. My Advanced Open Water PADI certification, which I had obtained in August, meant that I could dive to a depth of 30 metres. At this depth, one can swim around wrecks and reefs. The waters around India’s east coast remain largely unexplored. Every now and then, a new dive site is discovered. In the centre’s five years, Temple Adventures has found 21 new spots. As per tradition, dive sites are named after their discoverers. But occasionally, there is a lucky traveller on board after whom the site may be named. The spot where I was diving was one such exception. It was named “Sylviane’s” after a cheerful 58-year-old lady from Toulouse, France. Sylviane’s was marked by bright red gorgonians (sea fan corals). I was admiring a great moray eel’s double chin when I realised there was a giant emperor grouper, about a metre long, staring at me to my left. The most important lesson I’ve learnt from my dive expeditions is that sea creatures, like all other wildlife in the world, are shy. Just as I turned around to take a good look at him, the grouper swam away. An hour later, as we prepared for our second dive at Sylviane’s, I felt my heart pounding in excitement. As we discussed the topography and the marine life we could expect to encounter, the vast blue sea stretched out before us. This, I thought, was perhaps how Columbus and other early explorers must have felt. In my own little way, I was ready for the next discovery. n




3 1 At Pondicherry, visitors can also learn free-diving, which involves going deep underwater without any breathing equipment. 2 All diving courses start with some pool time when instructors run students through drills on using scuba gear and signals for communicating underwater. 3 A school of yellow fusiliers at the Ghost 18 dive site. Improving on the traditional practices of local fishermen who throw trees in the sea to create temporary reefs, a number of artificial reefs have been built around Pondicherry to create new fish habitats. 4 Beautiful gorgonian or fan corals can be spotted at dive sites around Pondicherry at depths of about 30 metres, accessible only to advanced divers. 5 A diver prepares to go underwater at Shy Shark Reef, a popular dive spot for shark sightings.




GET GOING Adventure THE GUIDE ORIENTATION Officially renamed Puducherry in 2006, Pondicherry is located on the eastern coast of India, 310 km southwest of Bengaluru and 160 km south of Chennai.

GETTING THERE By Air Spicejet operates several flights from Bengaluru to Pondicherry (1 hour) during the week. The airport is 6 km/30 mins from Beach Road (autorickshaws charge `200). By Train There are many trains between Chennai and Pondicherry, but they take much longer than the road journey. The Puducherry Express runs overnight between Bengaluru and Pondicherry every Friday. The station is 2 km/10 mins from Beach Road. By Road Pondicherry is 160 km/3 hours south of Chennai. The drive down the East Coast Road is rather scenic. Frequent buses leave from the bus station in Koyambedu (tickets `190). Shared taxis are available at Chennai airport, and charge `3,500 for four passengers for the one-way trip. From Bengaluru, Pondicherry is a 310 km/6 hour-drive down NH66 (taxis charge `7,000 each way). The 7-8 hour overnight bus journey from Bengaluru to Pondicherry is perhaps the cheapest and most efficient route. There are both government-run and privately operated buses, most starting from Madiwala or Shantinagar bus stand ( or www.; tickets `500-700).

GETTING AROUND Pondicherry is fairly easy to get around on foot but autos are also available for short distances (the unofficial minimum fare is `50). You can rent bicycles (`50 per day) or motorcycles (`250 per day) at Mission Street.

SEASONS Pondicherry’s pleasant winters (Nov-Feb), when day temperatures are a maximum

of 30°C, are the high season for tourists. Summer (Mar-Jul) is hot and humid, with highs of 40°C. The monsoon (Jul-Aug), lowers temperatures and brings relief. Light showers continue through Sept and Oct. Though you can dive all year round, the best visibility underwater is from Nov to March.

STAY BASIC Hotel Coramandal Heritage is a simple, heritage building located on Mission Street. The rooms are simple, yet comfortable and there’s free Wi-Fi (04132260269; www.hotelcoramandal. in; doubles `900). Dumas Guest House is a charming guest house located close to Beach Road in the French Quarter. It is a convenient place to stay if you want to venture out on foot (0413-222

(0413-2343067; hotel-de-lorient.; doubles from `4,000). LUXURY La Villa Shanti is a hotel with contemporary design and facilities, attached to a 19th-century bungalow (04134200028;; doubles from `7,000). Palais de Mahé is a brand new hotel on Rue De Bussy that manages to be luxurious without being fussy. It has a nice swimming pool for guests (0413- 2345611; www.cghearth. com/palaisdemahe; doubles from `8,500).

GO SCUBA DIVING Temple Adventures is the only dive centre in Pondicherry. It is located in the residential area between the railway station and Pondicherry

them a basic understanding of scuba gear (SCUBA stands for Self Contained Under Water Breathing Apparatus). The following day, they are taken out to sea for an assisted dive to a depth of 12 metres (`6,500; two days; one dive). Open Water Diver: This is the basic certification level for divers. The four-day course teaches participants about the equipment and using it underwater independently. This allows participants to dive anywhere in the world up to a depth of 18 metres (`23,000; four days, four dives). Qualified Divers: You can simply opt to go on fun dives (`4,400; 1 day, 2 dives) or get a higher certification like Advanced Open Water Diver, Enriched Air Diver, and more.

WHAT TO EXPECT Temple Adventures is run by a small team of friendly, helpful divers. Diving in Pondicherry isn’t exactly what one would describe as resort diving. Compared to diving in Maldives, it is like trekking through a reserve forest. You may or may not spot a manta ray or a shark while diving here, but will be sure to have an adventure.


5726;; doubles `2,500). COMFORT Les Hibiscus is an old, colonial house on Suffren Street that has been converted into a popular guest house. Rooms fill up quickly (0413-2227480; www.; doubles from `2,500). Hotel de l’Orient is a Neemrana establishment, a magnificent mansion with colonial-style interiors. Its restaurant serves Creole (Tamil-French) food


harbour, near the Indira Gandhi sports complex (99402 19449; templeadventures. com; 5, Veeramunivar street, Colas Nagar). It offers trips for qualified divers as well as certifications and courses, such as Discover Scuba, an introduction for beginners. Discover Scuba Diving: As the name suggests, this two-day programme provides a brief introduction to the activity by running participants through the hand gestures used for communication, and gives

Diving gear can be rented at Temple Adventures for `600 per day. They also have a dive shop that sells protective rash vests, Scubapro wetsuits, masks, and more. Do remember to book lunch (`200) at the dive centre on the day you go underwater. Elisa, the chef, is one of the best in town. There is free Wi-Fi.

WHAT TO BRING Do not, under any circum­ stances, forget to bring your sunscreen lotion and a hat. Sunglasses will help too. Bring towels and a change of clothes. It is very easy to get dehydrated when you are out on a boat, so always remember to drink plenty of water.

BIG SHOT Contest



Cricket fever

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Next theme: In Praise of Winter


Among the many things that amused me on my trip to Ladakh was the playful monks who I met there. Many of them were only young children themselves, priests in training. Here, I saw a group engrossed in a fast game of cricket. This particular shot was a six, and went on to win the game for the crew.

Send us pictures of your favourite winter moments. It can be about food, culture, or simply the way your neighbourhood looks in the cold. Submit a single photo, along with your caption (100 words). DEADLINE

31 December 2013 HOW TO ENTER Log on to to submit your photo or email it to bigshot@ with “Big Shot–In Praise of Winter” as the subject. For Terms and Conditions visit www.

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December 2013 preview  

Preview of the December 2013 issue of the Indian edition of National Geographic Traveller

December 2013 preview  

Preview of the December 2013 issue of the Indian edition of National Geographic Traveller