WildZests: 2012

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Date With The Flamingos

Our trip to the Rann Of Kutch in December 2011 was really nice except for one thing, I didn't any opportunity to photograph the Greater Flamingos. Since then, I was always thinking of visiting the Anamalaichery Bird Sanctuary which is the closest place from Bangalore to watch these beautiful birds. Finally, last week, a random discussion yielded a weekend plan to visit Chennai to explore the bird sanctuary and also visit a friend who's recently moved to the city. We also had the Guindy National Park on our list of places to visit, but the sultry weather made us decide otherwise.

Anamalaichery is actually a small village at the shore of a big lagoon also known as the Pulicat Lake which is about 60kms from the main city. It's not really a very well organized tourist spot but more like a local fishing joint and you can hire the local fisherman boats for a 2-3 hour ride through the shallow waters. The water body itself is quite huge and extends in to Andhra Pradesh upto Sriharikota which is a well-known satellite launch site.

The lake is an ideal habitat for a lot of waders and you can easily spot a variety of Egrets, Herons, Sandpipers, Terns, Pelicans, Storks, Kingfishers and of course, the Flamingos. Though October is a little early for the migratory birds to arrive in large numbers, we did get to see most of the expected species. The Greater Flamingos were mostly Juvenile and/or sub-adults which may be a good sign showing that there is indeed some breeding that happened last season.

Tech Specs:
Canon 1D Mark IV + Canon 600mm F4L IS and Canon Extender 1.4x
Shot at 840mm, 1/1250s, F5.6 and ISO 250
Juvenile Greater Flamingo

The boats, though convenient are a bit noisy and it would have been good to have some quieter engines in them. Also, the other thing to know is that since the water level is hardly about knee deep in most places, the boats can't make it through to all the places. Hence, you may see a lot of birds at a particular spot, but getting there isn't going to be always possible. Walking in the water is an option if you don't mind getting your clothes dirty, but it's a bit tricky with the clay like soil sinking you knee deep at places. You may also be at risk of being bitten by the crabs that are found in plenty here, so it's better to be careful.

Tech Specs:
Canon 1D Mark IV + Canon 600mm F4L IS and Canon Extender 1.4x
Shot at 840mm, 1/2000s, F5.6 and ISO 250
Whiskered Tern in Flight

The boats are quite wide and you could sit down on the floor to get some nice eye level shots of the birds if you do manage to get close enough. Since it's not a very touristy place, the boatmen aren't really well-versed with Hindi or English and communication is a big barrier unless you have someone who knows Tamil. We had to use a lot of gestures to get our guy to understand what we wanted him to do.

Tech Specs:
Canon 1D Mark IV + Canon 600mm F4L IS and Canon Extender 1.4x
Shot at 840mm, 1/2000s, F5.6 and ISO 250
Greater Flamingos - Juvenile

If you're there to click pictures, you'll need to make sure to have a strategic approach to your angle of shooting to get the sun behind you. The ideal way would be to go seawards and then turn back towards the land if you're shooting in the morning hours. The choice of backgrounds is limited since it's mostly water everywhere but you could get lucky sometimes!

Tech Specs:
Canon 1D Mark IV + Canon 600mm F4L IS and Canon Extender 1.4x
Shot at 840mm, 1/1600s, F5.6 and ISO 250
Spot Billed Pelican

Given that the birds can fly and you can't, it's always good to be patient and wait for them to feel comfortable with your presence and then move in slowly. Waiting at a spot helps in observing the behavior and also capturing some of the moments in a pre-visualized manner.

Tech Specs:
Canon 1D Mark IV + Canon 600mm F4L IS and Canon Extender 1.4x
Shot at 840mm, 1/2500s, F5.6 and ISO 250
The Great Egret

Hope you guys enjoyed the short trip to Anamalaichery as much as we did!

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Ladakh Chronicles - 5 Years Of Soul Searching In The Himalayas!

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nir-va-na /ner'vana/

  • A transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of...
  • Liberation of the soul from the effects of karma and from bodily existence.

I just finished my 5th trip to the Himalayas over the last 6 years and now I can confidently say that I’ve reached the state of emotional contentment about all the time that I’ve spent in those mountains. It’s only after this trip that I’ve finally decided to move on and may be start another exploration to the north-eastern region next year onwards. It’s very similar to Nirvana coz when I think of the fact that I may not do another road trip to Ladakh anytime soon, there’s neither anxiety nor sadness about it!

When I started thinking of the travelogue for this trip, I knew it had to be more than just what we’ve covered this time, otherwise, it just wouldn’t give a full picture of how thoroughly I’ve enjoyed being there each year. I always used to call it my pilgrimage trip to the mountains and I still feel deeply connected with the people who live a ‘happy’ life in the Ladakh region despite all the hardships. It is here that I realized that money can’t buy you peace and that you can live happily ever after only if you’re able to find happiness in the smaller things you do every day.

So like a classic Hindi movie, this travelogue is going to start with a flashback and have snippets of each year that I’ve wandered around in these mountains. But, before we begin our journey into the past, let me show you one of the most precious moments of this years’ trip!

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This was shot at Rangdum where we pitched our tent for an overnight stay and literally soaked ourselves in the beautiful Zanskar valley. Undoubtedly the best place we’ve ever stayed and considering that it cost us just INR 100 for the whole day, there’s definitely no other place that can match this value proposition.

Here are the quick links to the different years of my travel...have fun!
Trip #1: August 2007: Our first ever trip to Ladakh – this is how it all started!
Trip #2: July 2008 - Spiti + Ladakh – A bigger plan comes alive!
Trip #3: June 2009 - My most leisurely trip to Ladakh!
Trip #4: July 2010 - Yet Another Exploration Ride To Ladakh
Trip #5: July 2012 - Pozu's First Trip to La'L'akh

Trip #1: August 2007: Our first ever trip to Ladakh – this is how it all started!

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In June of 2007, my dear friend Elly tabled the idea of doing a two week ride to Ladakh. Honestly, till then I never really knew about the place and may have never known but for that day! I had done rides before and most of them were crazy unplanned trips, but nothing that could match this one.

We had a couple of friends who had done this before and were going to join us on the mission, some more folks joined into the plan later on. Soon we were a group of 10 individuals and 7 bikes who were all set to explore the barren landscapes of Ladakh. Most of us had no idea on how to send the bikes out by train etc, but having experienced folks in the group helped in getting the logistics planned out etc.

Riding gear was bought from our very own friend at Cramster and we were all getting nervously excited about the whole trip. Tickets were booked and bikes were shipped three of days prior to our arrival at Delhi.

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Finally the d-day arrived on July 28,2007 and we were all airborne to our first destination i.e New Delhi. While we successfully unloaded all the Enfields at the railway station, we had a bit of a nightmare when the one and only Pulsar didn’t show up. It was shipped from Mumbai and was sent on a train that terminated at Amritsar, we were told that they probably missed unloading it and it should be coming back on the same train the next day! While the initial search operation was painful, a journo friend pulled some contact with the station master and thereon we were attended like celebrities. It was an experience that exemplified how the slow moving government machinery can be accelerated through the right levers. 

We were running late by a day when we started, but we were all together and that was the biggest highlight of the trip back then. The stopover at Chandigarh was the most memorable one, all thanks to the Chandigarh Road Survivors who treated us like long lost friends and even escorted us out of the city as we left early morning only to be stalled by my bike that had an alternator failure. We finally left for Kullu that afternoon and had it not been for the help from Jojo and his boys, we would have probably lost another day in getting the bike fixed.

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The excitement never stopped that day and we literally lost contact with one of our crew who rode from Mandi to Kullu without any halts after his bike had to be jump started due to a battery failure. Two others champions rode that distance with fused headlamps, using a Maglite as a light source. Finally we regrouped at Kullu and everything was okay!

Next day, we were going to climb our first pass – Rohtang! After a harrowing experience through the slush and with half burnt clutches we thoroughly enjoyed our first Maggi at Marhi and crossed the pass at around 5PM.

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 After coming down from the pass and beyond Koksar, we were hit by the next hurdle. It was around 6PM and the road had disappeared, nobody had a clue on where to go since we had we had to cross the infamous Paagal Naala at around 6PM. Finally, it was a good team effort that saw us pass through the raging river like water crossing – our first water crossing and one of the most memorable too. It’s sad to see that the legendary naala doesn’t exist anymore, there was a bridge on it a couple of years ago which is now gone and we passed through it this time around, but it wasn’t like what you see in the pictures below.

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The following day saw one of our riders getting hit by AMS – yet another first for us. We decided to stay another day at Jispa and help him acclimatize but he finally had to drop out of the group and turn back. With heavy hearts, we bade him goodbye and moved on!

Soon we were riding in the mountains like it was second nature and after passing through the biting cold at BaralachLa we made a quick photostop at Sarchu for some breath-taking views.

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That day was the first time ever we stayed in those big tents at Pang for about 50 bucks per head. Though it got really cold in the night, it was an awesome experience to stay at such a basic place and yet cherish it like a 5-star experience. The open air experience for the morning rituals was a new milestone for many in the group.

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The following day morning saw us ride through the 30kms of gruelling terrain at Moreh Plains, but this was also the best photoshoot opportunity we had encountered so far. This was the first time for most of us to be riding through such a long stretch of open land and even though it looks perfectly flat, the sand is treacherous enough to swallow half the tyres in some places.

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The climb to TanglangLa was also quite a tough one and finally we were nearing our destination after crossing second highest pass in the world. We were so delighted to enter Leh that we took a long break at this sign board just to let the feeling sink in.

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At Leh, we roamed around the city and visited the usual suspects like the Shanti Stupa, the Leh Palace, Shey Palace etc.

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The next big event was going to be a ride to KhardungLa – the moment of pride for all of us!

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Given that we were a bit behind schedule, we had to squeeze in a day trip to Pangong Tso. We decided to hire two cabs for the Pangong visit since riding up and down in a day would have been virtually impossible and extremely tiring. Pangong also used to have the raging Paagal Nallah just as you reached the lake which was like an urban legend at that time. There were stories which indicated that even the cabbies used to be scared to cross it after 3PM since it was said that the water flow could easily pull away a qualis or sumo.
The mesmerizing lake itself is incomparable in its beauty and grandeur and the two hours we spent there were truly satisfying.

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With KhardungLa and Pangong covered in our first trip, we were out of time and we returned back safely to Delhi and got our bikes on the train after a lot of running around. Given that we were back just around the Independence Day, the railway stations weren’t accepting bikes as parcel and we had to get them onboard as accompanied luggage on general class tickets that they made us buy for no reason. The trip was and still is the most memorable trip to Ladakh, it had all the elements to make it successful and enjoyable.

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PS> I've used a few pictures in the 2007 section that are clicked by my dear friends Elvin & John who were a part of this wonderful trip. 

Trip #2: July 2008 - Spiti + Ladakh – A bigger plan comes alive!

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After the successful 2007 trip, we added a few more things to our to-do list and once again we were all excited. This time we planned to do the Lahaul-Spiti loop and then proceed to Leh and then come back via Manali or even try the Srinagar route if possible. We scheduled this trip for a little over two weeks so that we could travel by train to Delhi, thus saving us some money on the air-fare and also reducing the complexity of shipping the bikes as parcel etc.

Pic 2.21This time there was more concrete planning on the places we’d like to see and having done it once already we were more informed about the terrain, distances and time taken and basically what to expect. As against the first ride, we were only 4 bikes (3 enfields + 1 pulsar) on this trip with 3 pillions. However, the plan was never to be fulfilled the way it was originally thought of – more on this as the story unfolds!

The trip started as usual from Delhi with the first stop being Chandigarh. Again, the Road Survivor boys hosted us very cordially and even rode with us till Dharampur where we had breakfast at the famous Giani Da Dhaba.

We rode through the almost non-existent roads of Spiti stopping at Narkanda at the govt guest house and then at Kalpa on the following day. Hotel Buro The Gate was a fantastic experience and it offered a great view of the Kinner Kailash peak.

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Next day we started our journey towards Tabo and the landscapes changed to the barren mountains as we neared the Pooh village. This was the closest we’ve been to the Tibet/China border as it’s less than 10kms from the village.

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Slowly and steadily we climbed up to Nako and witnessed the magnificient Nako Gate. Beyond this was the dreaded Malling Nallah that was to be crossed for us to reach our destination for the day.

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The Malling Nallah was known to be big water crossing followed by an active landslide area where one could virtually experience rolling stones every 5-10 mins. The amount of stones used to be enough to block the road partially or even entirely in certain situations and a bulldozer and a few men and women were posted at the site at all times to clear the road.

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The water stream was quite big and deep at places and we had to do a thorough recce to make sure we could clear it without getting the bike stuck in water. We cleared one bike at a time through the water and parked it on the other side and after about 2 iterations we experienced a landslide just a few feet away from where the bikes were parked. Luckily none of the stones hit the bikes as it would have spelled disaster on our plans.

This particular instance can’t really be explained with pictures and you've got to watch the videos that would give you an idea on what we went through. Looking back after all these years, I feel that the sheer thrill of going through such things is what made me go back each time to this unpredictable and harsh terrain.

Once we were through with the biggest hurdle of the route, we were caught in a surprise rain attack at Lari which is less than 10kms before Tabo. The desert valley must have never seen such a rain shower in decades like what we experienced that day and a local was a testament to our assumption. Had it rained for a little longer like that and all the gravel mountains would have had major landslides in the area. But there was a silver lining to the whole rain experience, something that I had never witnessed before.

As we took shelter at the Lari Guest House waiting for the rain to subside, we were treated to a magnificent double rainbow. Never before have I seen the colors so distinctly in a rainbow as we saw here and the arch extended a full 180 degrees to complete the view.

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Pic 2.29The stopover at Tabo was equally interesting with a visit to the Tabo Monastery which is a little over 1000 years old now. The place we stayed was really nice and had equally good food options too.

The next day was the most controversial day of the trip where we argued over going to Chandratal or not. We had already been behind schedule and spending that extra day at the lake would mean one day less to get to Leh and back. This was also a day when my left shoulder had shown signs of fatigue. I also had had a fall for the day while navigating through a tricky soft mud patch where the front tire just sank in. Though there was no injury to either of us it did raise doubts about whether I could ride for the rest of the journey or not. Finally, we ended up at Losar where we pitched a tent and enjoyed the rest of the evening.

That evening at Losar was a turning point of the trip and the plan really started falling apart after this day. With all the bad roads that we had been riding through, my shoulder had gone bad to worse and I did not feel confident that it would be okay to ride to Leh and back with the pain always nagging you while you try to maneuver through the difficult terrain. The decision was not final though and I wanted to check if the painkiller would ease things out before I gave up.

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The following day we did another tough ride to Gramphoo and reached Sissu, the shoulder wasn’t getting any better and I decided to turn back from there. We decided to split the group and one of the bikes proceeded towards Leh while the rest 3 turned back from the Leh mission. After discussing a bit on what should be our future course of action, we took the road to Udaipur on the Keylong-Kisthwar route.

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The new plan was to get through the Keylong to Kishtwar route and then ride down to Delhi. However, as we reached Udaipur we learnt about a medical emergency back home for a friend and she had to get back to Bangalore asap. So we dropped the Kishtwar plan and got back to Manali on the next day where she boarded a bus to Delhi while we rode to Mandi for the night.

Given that we had a few days at hand for the return journey we were now exploring for places to ride without causing too much trouble to my already damaged shoulder. After some rounds of discussion, the plan was finalized to ride to Dharamshala and then get to Amritsar. A quick stopover at Dharamshala was very fruitful since we were able to see the Dalai Lama at close quarters at the monastery.

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Soon, we were back on the road towards Pathankot where we reached around 6PM that day. Amritsar was another 100kms away and we thought we’d find some hotel on the way, but we were so wrong! Little did we know at that time that there were no hotels along the Pathankot-Amritsar route and we ended up riding all the way to Amritsar on the potholed road in the rain and complete darkness.

There were two main things on the agenda at Amritsar, first was the Golden Temple and then we wanted to visit the Wagah Border.

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The Harmandir Sahib visit is always a divine experience with the temple working its charm to calm you down as soon as you enter inside. You instantly forget all the hustle-bustle on the streets that you entered from and the soothing live kirtans get your mind focused on the invisible force that binds us together. Even though I’m not a very devotional person, once in a while such places get me to sit down and pray.

Next up was the Wagah Border and we were not even thinking that it could turn out to be such a huge event. The place was packed with people and it looked like more of a wedding reception than a military ritual until the time came to close the gates. This was a true commercialized version of the gate closing ceremony with loud music and dancing all happening out there.

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In the end, though we didn’t really follow the plan in this trip, it turned out to be an okay and we enjoyed it. We did accomplish the objective of riding for those two weeks, the only difference was that we didn’t ride in Ladakh this year.

Later that year, my shoulder had started giving me lot of trouble and it was then narrowed down to a nerve compression issue. It took me a little over a month of physiotherapy sessions to get back to normalcy, so much for my endurance rides!

Trip #3: June 2009 - My most leisurely trip to Ladakh!

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In Oct 2008, I had another trip planned to Spiti with a friend and he had done major preparations for it. Sadly, I had to call it off just a day before we were supposed to leave due to a family exigency. But, to make it up for it, I promised to accompany him to Ladakh in the next season.

Pic 3.36Earlier in 2009, my wife gave me wonderful news that we were expecting our first offspring later that year. Now, that meant that she couldn’t join for the trip and it took a bit of convincing before she dropped all objections about me going on the trip without her. All arrangements were made for her convenience and we had her dad at home while I was away. I even got a BSNL prepaid number and carried a spare cell phone thinking that I’d get better connectivity than the Airtel connection, but that proved to be a wrong idea – more on that later.

Now, this friend of mine, he isn’t a rider, so I had no plans to do a ride with him all the way. We explored options of hiring a cab for all days and that turned out to be a pretty expensive proposition. Finally we decided to go backpacking so that we retain atleast some element of adventure. The plan was to fly to Delhi and take a train to Jammu.

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From thereon, we were supposed to be using local transport to cover longer distances and explore Leh and nearby places on hired bikes, returning through the Manali route.

Once we were at Jammu things started happening differently and we found ourselves hiring local cabs all through our journey rather than taking the bus.

We stopped at overnight at the Dal Lake in Srinagar and then hired another cab that would take us to Leh with a night halt at Kargil. That day there was a minor blast in Srinagar and when we left in the morning, the city seemed like it was locked down and under heavy patrolling. The jeep driver told us that such incidents are not very uncommon and even though the area around the lakes is fairly safe, tourists needs to take adequate precaution before wandering off into the interior parts of the city.

We stopped at the Lamayuru Monastery on our way to Leh and were lucky to witness the Yuru Khabyat festival. The masks worn by the lamas during the dances represent guardian divinities from the Dringungpa pantheon. As in the case of other monastic festivals, the sacred dance-drama concludes with destruction of the sacrificial offerings.

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Our plan to ride around never materialized and I ended up enjoying a good one week in Leh without any agenda. All I did was to sit around at Gesmo for most of the day and then roam around the market for a couple of times. This was definitely different than all my trips, but I was experiencing what I hadn’t done in all these years….how to do nothing!

There was one day where we actually hired a bike to ride around the Shey Palace and also visited the Hemis Gompa, but that was hardly anything to call a ride.

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Though we gave a miss to the Stakna monastery, I did manage to capture an amazing view of the monastery as seen from the Leh-Manali highway. The monastery is situated right at the banks of the Indus which flows through the mountains and ends it journey into the Arabian sea after covering most of Pakistan.

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We did a day trip to Pangong Tso by sharing the cab with a bunch of college kids who were on their first visit. It was a sight to see those 3 young kids turn up at the starting point at 6AM in just a pair of t-shirt and jeans while we were all suited up for the cold.

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Later we found out that the youngsters were mis-guided by the hotel guy that they won’t need any woolens on the way. Poor guys wore a frozen look at ChangLa as we stopped to click some pictures. We drove all the way with the windows rolled up to avoid them from freezing up.

The lake itself never ceases to surprise you with the varied colors and barren mountains and we had a good time walking around and clicking lots of pictures. At about 14000ft, it’s not a very easy thing to move around the lake on foot.

Though the lake doesn’t have many life-forms to support, it is often visited by the high-flying birds like the brown headed gulls, bar-headed geese and brahminy ducks in the summers. The lake gets completely frozen during winters despite the salt water and it’s said that the army guys can even drive their cars on it.

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The next trip was an overnighter to Nubra valley and this time we had a mother and daughter duo sharing the car. We made the customary stop at Khardung La for a photoshoot and then proceeded towards Hunder which was going to be our night stay.

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It was interesting to see how the elderly lady had all the energy and excitement to tour with her daughter who had returned from the US for a vacation. This was my first trip to the Nubra valley and while I enjoyed what I saw, I sorely missed the involvement that a bike ride has to offer.

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On our way back, we made a quick stop at the Diskit Monastery which was quite a nice experience.

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After whiling away a lot of time in Leh, we decided to head back and hired a taxi who would take us to Manali with a night stopover.

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On our way to Manali, we had a night halt at one of the tents at Bharatpur which is right at the base of BaralachLa and it turned out to be a sleepless adventure for both of us. While we had enough insulation to cover us on top, the floor wasn’t well insulated and it felt like we were sleeping on a block of ice. Not once did we remember to use the sleeping bags that we lugged around all the way in our backpack!

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The following day we reached Manali and then a bus got us to Delhi where we boarded our return flight to Bangalore. Overall, we accomplished all that we were set to do, but there was no sense of adventure in the whole trip. We just sat on the backseat of the taxi and looked out of the window as most of the tourists do. There was this one time we actually went to hire bikes in Leh and ride to Pangong Tso, but my friend backed out of the idea which left us with no other option than to hire cabs all our way.

After this trip, I realized how different it is when we travel on bikes versus being driven around in a car. When you’re on the bike:

  • You’re a part of the environment around you and you’re in a much better position to experience those magnificent landscapes.
  • Your eyes are always analyzing the road for the best possible route and both hands and legs are in perfectly coordinated rhythm – you’re constantly doing something.
  • There’s a feeling of accomplishment each day as you cover distances and stop for the night. There are many stories to talk about as you make your way through the difficult terrain.
  • You’re exposed to all the natural elements and you have to protect yourselves in order to stay the course.
  • You’re independent and you can choose to modify your plans based on your choices.

Overall conclusion, taxi rides are not for me! They’re just too boring and even though we covered most of the places I’ve done before, there was no sense of accomplishment in the whole trip.