LEH,JAMMU AND Kashmir
Once upon a time,there was an intrepid Chinese traveller. That old man,perhaps in a robe,with parchment in hand and a sharp eye,scoured all of India and wrote fascinating travelogues. Hundreds of years later,every time we look for that final word on travel we pick up lines from his diary. So when Hiuen Tsang talks about the cold wind,the difficult road and the flying snow that he encountered in Mar-yul (a common name for Ladakh),you believe him.
Tsang must have been a curious man and Leh must have been beautiful even then to fall into his hectic itinerary. But Leh has been adding beauty to its topography even 45 million years ago,for that is when the mountain ranges were formed. Ladakh is one of the highest plateaus in India with a major chunk of it being 9,800 ft above sea level. They say it never rains in Ladakh. It does. Its never a downpour,though. It falls in the rain shadow and the natives pray not for the rains but for the sun to melt away their glaciers. So,no Miss Squelchy Shoes here. No puddles. No cancelled drives because the rain gods worked overtime.
But Leh can leave you breathless. Give yourself a day to acclimatise to the conditions before you walk into this sparsely populated place that was once the busiest stops on the Silk Route. You would need days to let the sights sink in, the snow-topped mountain ranges,the placid waters of the 134-km long Pangomg Lake that sits at an altitude of 13,400 ft above sea level (it is a five-hour drive from Leh),the Suru and Zanskar valleys that form a trough,the ancient monasteries that are perched on solitary rocks or steep hills (dont miss the 17th century Hemis Gompa,the largest in the region),the finches,the hoopoe and the lammergeyer that might just flutter by you or the yaks,the chiru (the shahtoosh is made out of chiru wool),the blue sheep,or the wild ass that might saunter by.
In Leh you can fish,trek,say your prayers,have the salt and butter tea,dip your feet in the lake or feel like royalty in the nine-storied Leh Palace that took three years to complete. If you get groovy,match steps with the performers during the popular Hemis Festival (usually held in the first week of July). Or spend an evening in a monastery and ogle at the thangkas or mandalas that the monks hunch over for hours.
There are regular flights between Delhi and Leh. Road trip is a great option,but be careful of the terrain. The ascent at Jozila Pass is more than 11,000 ft. Roads are open between mid-June to mid-October.
Where to stay:
Several options; most accommodations are family-run. Go to leh.nic.in for details.
Preeti Varma Lal
Within the multitude of gods that make up the Hindu pantheon,if ever there was a god of landscaping,then the Himalayan district of Spiti would quite simply be the pinnacle of his art. But here,there is hardly any rain and the green of the land is a bounty of snowmelt and rivers. Yet the reason why this place finds itself in a piece about monsoon destinations is because the season (June to September) is the best time to visit this place.
The district headquarters is Kaza,a town surrounded by rugged mountains and bordered by the vast basin of the Spiti river. Twelve kilometres to the north of Kaza is the fabulous Ki Monastery. On the summit of a hill,it looks straight out of a fairy tale,complete with a winding driveway up to its entrance. Located at a height of 4,112m,this gompa is the most important one in the region and counts amongst its treasures some ancient Buddhist texts as well as five-metre-long musical horns that are brought out on festive occasions,their notes resounding across the valley.
Kibber,at a height of 4,205m,was the highest road-connected village in the world until a few years ago. Subsequently,a new road was constructed to link Gete and Tashi Gang which are higher. Kibber has a gorgeous amphitheatre-like setting. As it is contained within a depression with no habitation around,it attracts birds and the rare snow leopard too. The sleepy hamlets of Gete and Tashi Gang are worth visiting for the views they afford. However,the drive there is harsh with broken roads and sharp rocks strewn across.
Then there is the Dankar Gompa. This 1,300-year-old Gompa seems precariously perched as it is built entirely on large stalagmites formed by wind and glacial erosion. I was a little apprehensive visiting this place of worship,thinking that it could come tumbling down any moment. But then it has survived 1,300 years. Huge mountains with the Spiti river meandering by their bases make a heavenly sight.
The road to Kaza from Manali goes over two high altitude passes,the Rohtang and the Kunzum. Kaza is 200km from Manali and most of the road is dirt track with numerous water crossings. It is an adventurous drive. The views are stupendous and the edges of the roads crumbling. A lot of caution is needed and speed shouldnt be a priority.
Where to stay:
A good place to stay is at the Banjara Camps in Kaza or in Tabo which is 40km further from Kaza. Go to banjaracamps.com
Rishad Saam Mehta
Kurseong has a famous neighbour. Rather cousin. On its slant grows perhaps the best tea; it has acquired a UNESCO Heritage Site tag and you cant be called a tourist if you have not been there,done that. Yes,it is Darjeeling. But when I hear the pitter-patter of the rain or see the clouds clamouring,I run to the other cousin the quieter one that borrows its name from a white orchid.
There is something special about this one. It seems forever wrapped in a sheath of mist; it is here that the pricey handrolled tea that sells in Harrods for a fortune is,well,handrolled; where the Balason river gurgles happily; where hirsute ferns unfurl mysteriously; where Buddhist prayer flags flutter in gay abandon; where nuns gather rhododendrons to make the gur-gur chai. And guess what,you do not bump into the Chopras and the Sharmas from your neighbourhood holidaying there. Its quiet and less crowded.
If you have never been to Kurseong,you would never know how deep the valley is and how winding the roads. There are hairpin bends and one-way streets,yet everything is serene and inconspicuous. Even the snow-capped Kanchanjunga that peeps into your hotel window seems to fit in perfectly. Mother Teresa found her calling not too far from the heart of Kurseong. Faith finds its corner in St Marys grotto where believers light lamps and offer flowers; Nature finds its best moment at the sunset viewpoint where the sun vanishes behind the hills in a blink; antiquity its preservation in the Forest Museum and faith in the Buddhist monasteries where hymns of the devout resonate in the evenings. The whiff of pine in the air is seductive and tea gardens lord over the terrain. If you peer from the aircraft,Kurseong looks like a colossal emerald bauble,so green it is in the rains.
When the rain thunders down,there is nothing one wants more than a hot cuppa. But in this hilly town you are not stuck with everyday masala chai. At Cochrane Place,a boutique hotel,you have 40 varieties of tea to choose from one is called champagne,and is as transparent and as exquisite. Here you can dig your fork into almost-forgotten Anglo-Indian dishes like Mulligtawny soup or a mango curry and if you want to throw in a dash of spear mint in the soup,pick a sprig for yourself from the garden. My joy lies in the walk around the tea plantation or picking a rudraksha at the ancient Shiva temple. Yours could be a picnic by the Balason river,you can sit on a boulder and chill your beer in the river.
Fly to Bagdogra and drive to Kurseong,roughly 90 minutes away. You can take a train to New Jalpaiguri Station or even the famous Darjeeling Hill Railway.
Where to stay:
Cochrane Place,Phone: 0354 – 2330703; Website: imperialchai.com; Tariff: Rs 2,250 per night upwards.
Preeti Varma Lal
If you happen to land in Bhutans capital during the monsoons,chances are you will go days without a sight of blue. An airy drizzle greets you at every step,the moisture floating in restless currents as you walk past colonnades. Unlike the ferocity of the downpour along Indias coast,Thimphu rains have an unobtrusive charm . You can flick off the drops of moisture from your jacket (yes,you need one even in June) and browse the impressive shop fronts stocking everything from Tibetan curios to imported sneakers. Suppose you have a leisurely day at hand. Why not try my game? For the entire stretch of the main avenue,Norzin Lam,which contains the plush hotels and the government offices,scamper from building to building taking the shelter of the projecting tin roofs.
Or else drop into one of the abundant roadside bars (now you know the reason for Gross National Happiness). Peer into the street over your peg of the local aniseed liquor,sonfy,along with some cheese momos. Alcohol is ridiculously cheap with a peg of whisky sometimes as expensive as an egg. If it is one of those longish bouts of rain,go for a full traditional Bhutanese meal of some brown mountain rice,shakam pa (strips of dried beef cooked with local vegetables such as mooli and beans),jaju (seaweed broth) along with a mug of hot water. By the time you finish,the asphalt of the streets would have been licked in a coat of wetness and Bhutanese dames resumed strutting the sidewalks. Monsoons in these highlands are not always subtle though. Rainbows aside,once in a while,the clouds standing at the summits on the western side of the valley part to let in a sheet of sunlight.
The twin monasteries of Tango (pronounced tun…go) and Cheri are around 20 km from the capital. Both equally sacred and revered,they offer solace from the taxing cycles of karma. Both are accessible during the monsoons,though be careful to get a sturdy pair of walking shoes for the hike.
The Paro International Airport is 54 km from Thimphu. From Paro to Thimphu,hire a cab for around Nu 400 (the Bhutanese currency is on a par with the rupee). The popular land route is via the border town of Phuentsholing. Bhutan Transport Corporation runs a regular bus service from Siliguri (which along with nearby New Jalpaiguri station are the nearest railheads). It takes around four hours to reach Phuentsholing. From there,buses ply to Thimphu every day or you can book a cab.
Where to Stay:
For luxury,check in at Taj Tashi. Hotel Druk Sherig near the clock tower offers Bhutanese-style clean rooms. Pristine Hotel opposite Jumolhari is the best budget option.