Thursday, December 2, 2010

Who is the Alien now? Nasa finds new life form.

I just read this article in Gizmodo about NASA finding a new life form here. Let me just summarize it for you: All living beings share the same building blocks or DNA, made up of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. NASA just found a new form of bacteria whose basic building block is something we have never seen before – Arsenic! Essentially NASA has discovered an alien life form. And boy does this change things... If I am this excited about this discovery, some biologist somewhere, I am sure, is running around the streets naked screaming “Eureka, Eureka”!

To put in perspective this giant leap for mankind, think of this as the most important biological discovery since Darwin showed us that we are all descendant from apes and ultimately from bacteria. And this just categorically answered a question man has been asking for a long time – “Are we alone in this Universe?” We are definitely not alone. 

New alien species found!
Religious institutions world over, I am sure, will use this discovery to point to a cosmic creator, “See, I told you. This discovery just proves how untenable the theory of evolution is”. To a certain extent, they are right. The entire basis of evolution is based on the fact that we all evolved from a single life form. Now that there is a different strain of bacteria, does this invalidate or change certain core assumptions made in evolution?  I am not a scientist capable of answering these questions but am confident the answers will come soon from people far smarter than I.

Until now scientists are not sure if life originated on earth or reached here through an asteroid from a distant galaxy. So if our ancestors (if we can call bacteria that!) took the first bus available to this planet, where did this alien species come from? Did they come earlier than us from another planet and failed to evolve because of biological constraints? Or does mother earth actually belong to this arsenic based species until a wave of invaders (us in this case) wiped them out. Whatever it is, biology will never be the same again.

“The species that sees the sun die out billions of years later will be as different from us as we are from bacteria” ~ Richard Dawkins. Chew on that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vignettes from the Hessarghatta Ultra Marathon

The toughest marathon in this part of the world was held in Hessarghatta, Bangalore on November 14. Forget the 100k and 50k categories that give this marathon the sobriquet of "Ultra", I had registered in the 37.5k category. My preparation for the marathon was staggered and ranged from a few half marathons to a trek in scenic Kumara Parvatha mountains. Not much but with a weekly mileage of 40-45k I believed I had done enough to get through 37.5k on race day. I reached the starting point just in time for the race and ended up in the front row during flag off. This turned out to be an advantage since at many places the trail gets very narrow allowing only one person to get through and a decent start was vital. The trail was 6.25k in and out meaning every loop was 12.5k. I maintained a steady pace and felt some discomfort in my right knee when I stopped for water at the 6.25k mark. My right knee was troubling me for sometime due to a fall during the previous week's trek but I decided to ignore it and push ahead at the same pace.  
A marathon is a gala affair and the most important thing that a runner must do is enjoy the race. And running in a forest trail with the sun just rising in the horizon is pretty much ideal settings to have fun. Add to this the amazing resilience and determination of folks running 100k and 75k for inspiration, there was nothing more I could ask for. Around the 10k mark I struck a conversation with Pankaj Sir who is a regular fixture in RFL long runs. When we ran into the 25k runners starting off, Pankaj stopped by and posed for photos with a group of friends! Unbelievable I thought. Ran ahead to press my advantage, but he soon caught up with me and said "We should always have some fun in life. Right?" and sped ahead. I realized that running is not all about race timings. It’s more about having fun while you are at it. 

Start of race 37.5k race
Soon my first loop of 12.5k was done; two more to go. And every time I stopped at the refreshment stall, starting to run again was becoming harder due to my knee. I decided not to stop since getting into my running stride was the only thing that numbed the pain. Very Soon I understood that this I wasn’t going to be able to complete this race. I was pushing hard through sheer grit and determination and the encouragement from fellow runners. Was afraid to stop at the refreshment stall and just grabbed some fruits and ate them while running. I completed 25k in around 2:38 mins and decided to stop in order to avoid aggravating my injury.
I settled in the Medical desk to apply ice-packs and watch the other runners strive, struggle and strive harder due to the blazing sun. You could say I had front row seats. I was there watching  Ashok Nath win the 37.5k in blazing sub 3 hour timing demolishing the previous year’s first by more than an hour, Nigel make his way to the starting point with long strides like a football player about to take a penalty kick and Cath and the other 100k runners run loop after loop with grim determination. You need to strive to be an athlete and not just a runner and these folks simply epitomized that ideal.
 And it wasn’t just about the winners. It was about ordinary folks making an effort at the extra-ordinary and stories that shall remain for a long time. After the first few 37.5ers finished, the folks from the medical desk brought in a person who seemed to have collapsed just a few steps before the finishing point.  Thomas had run 37.45 kms with gusto and seemed all set for a glorious finish in the category when exhaustion overtook him meters before the finish line. He told me that he was gutted at falling short at the finishing point. The ultra is a cruel race that way. But they seem to have carried him over the finish line and the timing chip registered his timing as 4th in the category. Congrats Thomas. Nobody deserved this finish more than you.

Me running the forest trail
Sometime later another person who seemed to have succumbed to tough course walked into the med desk. There was blood all over her arms and legs but a serene elation in her face that could mean only one thing- She had completed her 50k despite the injury. When I spoke to Vidyatha later to ask her how she managed to continue and she said “The pain is all in the mind”. Now I felt guilty at not having shown the determination to finish the race. Many such stories of determination and resolve came through and I was glad to have been there and soaked it in.
I would like to thank all runners from around the nation and the few outside it for participating and enriching this amazing test of endurance and stamina. Also much thanks to RFL, your organizational skills are truly sublime.
Soon all my friends Nitin, Suraj and Vinod completed their race taking a lot longer than what they had anticipated and we headed for lunch. Later limped back to the parking area, just like most other folks and I slept for the rest of the day once reached home. So will I be back next year? You bet. I have unfinished business…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Solitary trek up Kumara Parvatha - Day 2

I had trekked up the famous Kumara Parvatha Mountains all alone but had to stay put at Girigadde Bhatt’s house after the cyclone raged on without any sign of easing since noon. Woke up early the next morning to catch the sunrise; the sun stayed behind the clouds and never obliged. Got back for a hot water bath and a little rice upma, both managed to lift my spirits and resolve more than I could imagine. The group from Magadi on the other hand ate like there was no tomorrow. So when they backed out at the forest department checkpost saying that the entrance fees of 115 rupees was too much, I had my suspicions about why they really did it!  I was disappointed to see them leave, the companionship I was hoping for vanished in thin air, literally, as I moved further into the mountains.

Just another morning in Kumara Parvatha
I smeared my shoes and socks with salt in good measure to avoid leeches. Just took the salt meant for food, since folks around these places refuse to part with salt for some strange reason I cannot think of. The rocks were slippery due to the previous day’s rain and progress was slow and measured. The only wild animals I saw were red-coloured crabs, wild fowls and snakes that slithered away as soon as they sensed my approach. After an hour’s trek from the police check-post, I reached the place called “Mantap”, a stone-hedge like structure just below the peak. If I had had tents and company, this would have been the ideal place for a campfire and night-stay.
At around 12 noon, I reached the peak. Mission accomplished! Or at least the trekking up part of it. A dangerous downhill trek to Bidahalli APC was all that remained between me, glory and a lot of bragging rights, only I had forgotten the route to get there. A layer of mist had blanketed the peak reducing visibility to around 10 meters and hampered my search more. Soon it was time to decide whether I would spend more time probing for the trail or return to the Bhatt household where I am sure a sumptuous meal would await me. Dark clouds threatened to open up the skies and my survival instincts that I had suppressed until now woke up from slumber urging me to head back the way I came.  Fortunately I found the way to Bidahalli before it could do any damage!

Red crab! First for me
 The last bus leaving Bidahalli to Somwarpet was at 4 p.m. and I had only 3 and a half hour to tackle 7 kms of treacherous trail and 4 kms of road travel. Sounded like fun. The trail from Kumara Parvatha to Bidahalli is through a dense evergreen forest. I had great difficulty getting down two steeply inclined slopes of around 75 meters due to the rains and the loose gravel and slippery rocks lying around. At a certain location, I had to go across a slimy three meter slope from the side. No way! I thought. I went back for a sturdy stick, used that and a few low hanging branches to jump to the other side.
 My euphoria at having crossed the tight spot with the finesse of Tarzen made me overconfident and I slipped the very next step I took. Butt down on a patch of grass. Lucky you would think to fall on grass, only it was home to particularly large specimens of leeches than those I had encountered all day. Every time I fell, I dusted off the leeches, told myself that I did not want to incapacitate myself at this desolate place with no rescue squad waiting in the wings and carried on. So when you do check out the photos of this trip, keep in mind that a lot of real blood and sweat went into getting them to you...

Try getting down this one...
 With every passing mile, my joy at having conquered the Kumara Parvatha alone grew and so did my concern that I would miss the last available bus from the tiny village of Bidahalli. I quickened my pace, but there is only so fast you can go in a jungle without injuring yourself. Around a km before check-post on this side of the mountain, I met a bunch of teenagers going into the forest. No water bottles, no gunny bags, just gung ho attitudes. I asked one of them where they were heading and he smugly replied “The Peak, of-course”. “Best of luck”, I said and added “you might die you know”. The smile withered to be replaced with concern while I advised him to avoid the peak and head to the Girigaddhe household through a bypass trail 4 kms from the start. You know you have reached adulthood once you can clearly see that all teenagers are douche-bags. The teens went off into oblivion while I emerged triumphant from it.

The evergreen forests en-route Bidahalli
 After reaching the forest check-post, the forest trail ended, but my trial had just begun. I had to cover the next 4 kms in around 30-35 minutes. I don’t know where I energy and resolve came from, but I increased my pace and also started running whenever I encountered an inclined road. And finally managed to catch the bus, full filmi style. There was only one person who conquered the Kumara Parvatha this Diwali, ME. I felt and still feel such a great sense of pride and awe that I think I am going to start referring to myself in third person from now on. “Your highness will now respond to your comments...”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Solitary trek up Kumara Parvatha - Day 1

I just wanted an adventure and to take some photographs. And a two-day trek in Kumara Parvatha, the 1712m high mountain range south of the Vindhyas seemed just like the right place. After the usual suspects (read friends) dropped out with lame reasons, I found that I was the only willing to make the trip.  A tinge of fear at traveling alone and the scent of an exploit I could call mine alone were enough to nudge me into deciding to go it alone.
If you are expecting encounters on the lines of Discovery channel host Austin Stevens kissing the forehead of a King Cobra in this blog, time to move on buddy. What you will find here is the story of a guy looking for adventure, but the lonely trek up the forbidding mountain shows him that in nature’s scheme of things, he is very puny.

Kukke Subramanya Temple
I reached Kukke Subramanya, the temple town located around 280 kms from Bangalore at around 6 a.m. after an 8 hour journey by bus. Freshened up and first visited the temple to deposit money given by friends and family. To think that the mighty Snake God would stop sending his minions to your home for a paltry sum of money is debatable, but a postman just has to do his job. I later visited the mantap where the Naga dosha yagna is performed to bless childless couples with children and cure skin ailments. Visiting any temple in the wee hours is a serene experience and visiting Kukke Subramanya when the early morning fog has just lifted is a sight to behold. Makes you wish you were a theist, almost.
I then started the trek after breakfast at around 8 a.m. The destination for the day was the house of Girigaddhe Bhatt located around 7 kms from the temple complex.  Not even a km or two into the trek, I decided to stop to catch my breath and immediately became aware of the sounds of nature- the cadence of the drizzle, the chirping of crickets and this distant gushing of water. Add to this the smell of fresh sand after rains and it will explain the reason why I trek...

Pushpa giri's beauty unfolds
The joy I mentioned above evaporated once I laid my eyes on fresh elephant tracks and dung around a km or so later. The most dangerous animals I could face in Kumara Parvatha are solitary male elephants or bisons. This is the point in time where I started asking myself some uncomfortable questions I had avoided – “What were you thinking? What are you doing in this forest all alone? You are a computer engineer, not John Rambo...” Add with this the constant chore of removing blood sucking leeches from my legs and the questions begun playing in my mind with increasing frequency.  Not sure how many elephants were there, but figured out that they were heading away from the trail. Took some pictures and hurriedly put some distance between self and the herd.

My experiments with the SLR. Depth of focus especially

 After walking for around 3 hours, I reached the household of Girigaddhe Bhatt, whose small farm house is an oasis for many-a-weary trekkers. The self sustained Bhatt household is sandwiched in the midst of the climb from Kukke to the Kumara Parvatha peak and is 7kms away from any pesky neighbour dropping in for tea at odd hours. Girigaddhe Bhatt, the 53 year old proprietor spends time grazing cows, growing betel nut that generally turns bad due to the heavy rains and feeding the multitude of tired people who end up at his doorstep without warnings. The mildly pot bellied man is at peace with himself and curious about what everyone else does for a living. He calls himself a “Kaadu manushiya”(a man from the wilds) but is more sophisticated in thought and speech than loads of city folks I know!

One the few pictures with  me in it
 Lunch prepared was simple with sambar, rice, chutney and curd. After a short siesta, one of my friends who knew I was on this perilous journey alone called up Girirgaddhe Bhatt to inquire if I had reached his home safely. Just a short call to see if I was still alive and kicking. Yeah partner; everything’s fine. I never pay much heed to weather reports when I plan for treks/trips since I think they are just reasons not to travel, but this time the cyclone decided to make its presence felt that very afternoon. Any plans of landscape photography I had were totally put to rest. Instead had to satisfy myself with the company of the loud mouthed but amicable folk from Magadi who had just arrived before the sky opened up.

House and farm of Girigaddhe Bhatt
 The day ended with heavy showers late into the night while I was battling my own demons in my mind – Will I be able to cover the toughest part of the trek alone or should I tag along with the Magadi folk? The trail is dangerous enough and with such heavy rains will I be able to climb/descend any of the slippery hills that I knew are waiting en-route to the peak. Sometimes all it takes to slay your demons is to go to sleep and look at the world afresh the next morning, which is exactly what I decided to do.

To be continued...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Time to meet again. Bangalore to Alleppey trip.

When Anand sent another group mail with the heading “Time to meet again”, I was not sure if it would happen. After all, it had been five years out of college and lot of my classmates were either getting married or slogging in the US trying to buy that dream 3 BHK apartment in their hometown. After a week of chit-chat 10 guys were game for a trip to Alleppey, a picturesque town of canals, backwaters and beaches or as some folks like to call it “The Venice of the East”. Just like providence giving from one hand and taking away with another, my leave got rejected after everything had been finalized. Wished the guys luck and got back to mundane stuff like making a living writing code.
Partly in disappointment and partly to make up for this trip I was scheduled to miss, I applied for a week’s holiday during Diwali. With no clear plan in mind, I was hoping I would come up with a killer trip plan by then. Two days before my friends were about to depart, my manager broached the subject of my week long leave. “One week’s leave would be a bit difficult. We have so many things pending before the delivery next week”. Yeah standard IT dialogues. Without batting an eyelid, I bartered the week-long vacation for the one day leave that I really needed. The Alleppey trip was on for me as well.
Early morning fishing at Alleppey
Day 1:
After some frantic last minute ticket booking and hustle-bustle, I got on to the bus to Alleppey at 6 p.m. Friday night and a gruelling 12 hours later, reached the place which is around 600 kms from Bangalore. The skies looked like they were ready to send a shower at the first sign of provocation. Settled into a cosy hotel and ordered Idiappam with vegetable curry for breakfast. By the time I was done, the other guys from Bangalore had reached the railway station and we chilled out at the beach near the station waiting for the Chennai folks to arrive. With three SLR cameras including mine, we were spoilt for choice and set about taking pictures with the serene Arabian Sea in the background.

The majestic house boats of Alleppey
Ram who was entrusted with organizing this trip had booked a 3-bedroom house boat. These large boats rule the backwaters of Kerala and are the lifeline of a town dependent mainly on tourism. As we gazed at these majestic boats, I realized why man left the comforts and land set out to conquer the ocean – Adventure. Our captain was a well built guy with a pot belly that I am sure was acquired through years of consumption of toddy. With the little Malayalam that I knew, I convinced him to let us drive the boat for a short while during a straight stretch of water. It was surreal manning that large boat with the breeze on your face and the sight of the sun disappearing in the horizon.

Me with a house boat in the background
The in-house cook prepared a great lunch. The other guys tore into the fish with gusto while I and two other vegans savoured the vegetarian dishes. There were a few guys in small rowboats selling prawns and fish native to these backwaters. Our captain later led us to his favourite toddy shop. I had no desire to drink that stinky, sloppy coconut milk and decided to skip. This turned out to be a good decision in retrospect, considering the faces of the guys who tried! We ended the day watching movies, chatting and taking a lot of pictures of other boats passing us.
Sunrise at Alleppey
Day 2:
Come next morning, it was time for a traditional ayurvedic kerala massage. I was stripped naked, every pore of my being violated and they had the nerve to charge me for it. Actually the guy doing the massage didn’t seem to have an idea about the concept of nerve centres in the body or loosening up the knots in my body. Kerala massage seems to be all about rubbing in circular motions. Again this is my opinion. If you would rather prefer masochism, go ahead, give it a try.

Entire gang in the house boat. From Top Left: Pradeep, Muhilan,  Ram, Me, Vijay, Bas, Anand, Malai and Poochi.
Our next stop was the Kumarakom bird sanctuary, only it did not have any birds in the afternoon and ended up being a nice stroll. Our final destination for the day was the Vagamon hill station, around 100 km from Cochin, a series of hillocks, valleys and cascading waterfalls. It is an ideal place for trekking, especially in the Oct-Dec. The light was fading fast and we set about capturing some great shots in the twilight. Exhausted with the day’s adventures, we ended our day in the picturesque Hotel River Banks in Thodupuzha.

Vagamon Hill Station
Day 3:
Ram and I woke up early to indulge in some more photography in the wee hours. Our final destination of this trip was Thommankuthu, around 74 kms from Cochin and 18 km from Thodupuzha.  These wet evergreen forests are a storehouse of medicinal plants and boasts of a fabulous set of waterfalls having seven steps. Maniathadam to Thommankuthu is supposed to be a good trial with plenty of wildlife. But all we could cover was the waterfalls and we had plenty of fun doing it amidst the heavy rains. We left for Cochin in narrow roads flanked by rubber plantations and reckless drivers.
Early morning photography
 Every trip has its share of things gone wrong.  And we had plenty of those.  One lesson learnt was to plan your own trips instead of trusting tour operators. Ours did not book tickets for the Bangalore guys and booked tickets in the wrong train for the Chennai folks. Finally we managed to call our friends and book tickets from Coimbatore to our respective cities and made a mad dash from Cochin to Coimbatore to catch our buses. Pradeep  remarked “There is only so much tension I can take in a day” , retreated into his shell performing “Dyanam”(meditation) and further cramping all of us sitting in the back seats of the Tavera jeep.
We reached Coimbatore just in time to catch the bus and were glad to be inside the air conditioned buses after having more than completed our share of misfortunes for the day. But when it rains it pours and fate is not without a sense of humour. Our bus broke down after around 80 kms from Coimbatore. We spent the rest of the night miserably sitting on the floor of another bus we managed to hop on to.
But don’t let our bad luck deter you! Leave your homely comforts, pack your bags and visit God’s own country. There is no way you will endure as much adversity as us. Also there is no way you can have as much fun as we did!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

New scenes in avatar extended edition

    James Cameroon's extended edition of Avatar fills in a few blanks in the earlier story. Here are the new scenes in avatar extended edition (in order):
  • Grace's destroyed school for the Naavi people. The school doors are ridden with bullet holes indicating a violent end. Finally some justification and the history for hype surrounding Grace Augustine.
  • Some new animals during the initial exploration of Pandora. Nothing you will miss.
  • Explanation about floating mountains of Hallelujah. Apparently it is due to large deposits of UnObtanium that acts as a superconductor.
  • Extended scene depicting dinner during Jake's first night with the Naavi people.
  • A hunting scene where in Jake Scully learns the ropes of being a Naavi hunter. Looks great on 3D.
  • I also get the feeling that the sex scene between Jake and Neytiri is a bit longer and wierder!
  • Another extension explains the anger and ferocity with which the humans attack Home Tree. This shows the Naavi retaliating for the destruction of Tree of Voices by killing a few soldiers and Parker ( The Company Man in Pandora) using this to justify killing of the Naavi and giving the go ahead to the eager Colonel Miles. Not sure why this scene was removed from the original in the first place.
  • The original picture shows Tsutey plunging to his death after being shot during the final battle with humans. This edition shows him landing on the forest floor in a fatal condition.
  • At the end of the final battle, a near death Tsutey proclaims Jake Scully the leader of the Naavi people after expressing his pride at having fought beside the Turukmakto. He asks Jake to give him a warrior's death by being his last shadow. One more Naavi custom to the fore.
    Some more tidbits in a great saga. Definitely worth watching if you are an avatar fan like me. Corollary holds true as well...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Raavan – Mani Ratnam’s Ramayana

    This was one movie I had to write a review on. Mani Ratnam’s modern day rendition of Ramayana has very little in common to the original epic we are used to hearing but the basic premise remains the same- love, bravery and later betrayal.

Major story line spoilers ahead. I guess this would have been Mani Ratnam’s rough draft of the movie:

    Ram is posted as a police officer in Lalgarh and comes there with Sita. Lalgarh is a strong hold of Raavan, a Robin Hood type character with a tinge of Naxal tendencies. Laxman and his group of motley police officers gang-rape Surpanika, Raavan’s feisty sister who later as commits suicide as per the requirements of the script to stoke Raavan’s evil side. Raavan promptly kidnaps Sita with an intention to kill her, but desists due to a strange fascination with her. An incensed Rama meanwhile teams up with Hanuman and scours the forests for his beloved wife.
    Raavan’s adoration of Sita grows on by ever growing day and he asks her if she would stay with him in the forest. Hanuman meanwhile finds Sita but ends up getting caught. He warns Raavan to surrender Sita and spare all his people a gory death. Not wanting to end up dead, a few others convince the rebel leader to send his brother, Vibeeshan to talks along with Hanuman. Rama now shows himself to be a sneaky character and dispatches Vibeeshan with finesse and a 22 mm revolver.
    With all options of peace dead and buried, a climatic end ensues with Raavan and Ram poised precariously on a burning suspension bridge. Sita begs Raavan to spare Ram’s life and in return promises to stay with forever. Touché! Raavan obliges, but Sita returns to her beloved husband who wants her to take a polygraph test to prove herself. Sita heads back to find Raavan, but her husband tails her and puts an end to the dreaded bandit.

    Add in a few human emotions, songs, exotic locations and you have got yourself an authentic Bollywood script in three paragraphs! BTW I hope Mani notices this blog and invites me to co-author his next movie script. I am sure I could add a few twists here and there.

    Abhishek Bachchan seemed ill at ease playing Beera and his portrayal of the rebel was less than convincing. For folks down in the south like me who happen to grow up with tales of rebels like Veerapan and his murderous deeds, the portrayal seemed to lack the anger and attitude required. I wish there had been a fast-forward option to skip his dance sequences where he seemed totally ill-at-ease. Ragini is not a role that a lot of current Bollywood actresses could have done justice to, and I would say Aishwarya has done a decent job. The eyes are meant to emote fear, but Aishwarya tries to do that by breathing hard! Vikram seemed to fit right into the role of police officer who is ready to do anything to get his wife back and then ask her to take a polygraph test once she is back. Only problem he seemed to have was acting in Hindi.

    What shines in the movie is Mani Ratnam’s unique storytelling. This is not the run-of-the-mill Karan Johar movie where all the dots are connected. You are left to make some basic assumptions on why certain things are happening the way they are. Rehman’s scores in the movie seem nowhere near his best. The camera work is great and the landscape where the movie was shot is breadth-taking. Overall I think I liked the movie. Shoot me now...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

North India Trip – Chandigarh and Delhi

    We had journeyed into the biting cold of rotang and gone until Darcha on our little adventure. Here is what happened earlier on our quest to reach Leh.

    Here is what happened on our way back. While returning from Darcha, we were better equipped to stop and enjoy the snow at Rotang. Spent some time there and headed back to the wretched road to reach Manali in around 3 hours. Guruji, our beloved host, suggested that we bathe at the Vasisth temple hot water spring and we had a gala time obliging him. Felt hungry right after the bath and had a great dinner in a hotel in front of the temple.

Himalayas for you

    We woke up early the next day and headed to manikaran, a hot water spring around 80 kms from Manali. The hot water spring here is hot enough to cook food for lots of people coming to the gurudwara where it is located. The few brave souls who entered the water didn’t linger as the acidic water causes a burning sensation and make you feel giddy if you stay there for a long time. We had a light breakfast at Manikaran and later stopped over for tea at Kasol on our way to Chandigarh. Kasol is infamously known as the local drug den and we could see a few people smoking joints here and there.
   On our way down, we hit a major traffic jam and could only go until Bilaspur before light faded. Stopped around 10 kms before Bilaspur city for tea where the dhaba owner came forward with local information regarding that place. I would like to thank all the very helpful people in Himachal Pradesh who generally come forward for help if they realize that you might need it. We stayed at the Bilaspur local fisheries guest house. The respect and salaams make you wish you worked for the government; almost.

Leaving Himachal Pradesh

    We left for Chandigarh early after thanking the officer in charge of the fisheries. We had to travel until Delhi that day. Until then, I knew Srini to be a rider who didn’t take a lot of risks. But seeing him step on the gas trying to reach Delhi before sunset, I realized he could step it up if the situation demanded.
    Chandigarh is a model city where there is no need to ask for directions. There is a board at every junction indicating which part of the city you are in and explaining all routes and directions. The heat did dampen our enthusiasm, but I found that the rock garden in Chandigarh to convey the message that ‘art doesn’t need brushes and canvas or soapstone, even broken household stuff would do’. The master pieces that Nek Chand created in a shack are now the cynosure of the entire city. Reached Delhi at around 9 p.m. and settled into our friend’s place for the night.

At Rock Garden, Chandigarh

    We started off the day with a visit to Qutb Minar, the earliest and most prominent example of Indo-Islamic architecture. The 72.5m long tower is the world's tallest brick minaret and was completed in 1386 by Firuz Shah Tughluq almost 200 years after work began. I would suggest the audio guide for any first timer there who is interested in the history of the place.

Cousin Srini at Qutb Minar

   Very close to the Qutb is the Alai Minar, an unfinished tower that if completed would have been twice as tall and broad as the Qutb Minar. Alauddin Khilji, the driving force behind the Alai Minar died before the first floor was completed and his successors did not deem it necessary to continue work on the tower.

Alai Minar,Qutb Minar in the background

   The nearby 7m tall Iron Pillar is one of the world's foremost metallurgical curiosities as it 98% pure wrought iron and a testament to the skill of the ancient Indian blacksmiths. It was built at the time of Chandragupta Vikramaditya and has withstood corrosion for more than 1500 years.

Iron Pillar

    We next visited India Gate, one of the largest war memorials in India. It commemorates the 90000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives in World War I fighting for the British Empire. Now it is just a place to hang out with friends and have ice-cream. We bought lots of litchis that served as our lunch. Srini wanted to take a picture with one of the jawans but was asked to ‘bugger off’. Entertaining.

    We later visited the Red fort and stayed for the Light and Sounds show which explains the history of the city from Shahjahan’s time to Nehru giving his speech of freedom from the ramparts of this fort. The show gets pretty boring with time and one advantage of having an SLR camera is that things never get boring. Srini used the time to catch up on lost sleep. Later visited Chandini Chowk for shopping and stopped by at Parantha street for dinner. Fabulous kulfis you get there.

Red Fort

    Our second day in Delhi and the weather had been great so far. I wanted to visit the Delhi Metro once to find out how the entire system worked. Srini flatly refused to accompany me and told me that he was prepared to wait until the Bangalore metro was up and running. One thing I noticed is that even though the infrastructure in Delhi is way better than most other Indian cities, there are way too many cars on the road. And that’s why the Delhi Metro is such a vital cog in the city’s infrastructure.
    One possible reason to seeing so many cars on the road here is that petrol is cheap here and CNG is cheaper. Enabling your car for CNG fuel ensures that taking your car out is almost as cheap as taking your bike out. And what would you prefer considering Delhi’s extreme climes – car or bike? This seems to have resulted in a strange fetish among Delhi people to own a car that is at least one level more than the neighbour. Strange! In comparison, Bangalore folks don’t care or don’t know who the neighbour is!
    We moved to Srini’s friend Sagar’s apartment for our last day in Delhi. We knew we were in safe hands when the first place he showed us in Delhi was Khan Market.  Torn between gazing at the amazing cars and the hep crowds; the cars proved just too irresistible. We later had authentic North Indian chat at Haldiram’s. We were all set to leave the next day, but by that point in time, I was totally in love with our capital city.

P.S: Thanks to the gods of Delhi for the great weather while we were there. You can now revert to the usual.

North India Trip - Himachal Pradesh and beyond

    Once Srini, my cousin and I decided go on a long bike trip in North India, we began the stretched out process of planning for it. We wanted to go as far as possible along the Delhi-Chandigarh-Manali-Leh road and back on Srini’s rusty dependable CBZ.

On the way to Rotang

Here is a sketch of how it went. You can skip this part unless you are planning a similar trip:

Day1 - Start from Bangalore to Delhi (2061 kms) by train.
Day2 - Boring train journey with bad food.
Day3 – Reached Delhi and unpacked the bike. Left for Chandigarh (250 kms) and visited Kurukshetra on the way.
Day4 - Leave for Manali from Chandigarh (350 kms). White water rafting and amazing ride.
Day5 –Leave for Rotang from Manali (50 kms) and stay at Khoskar (70 kms from Manali) for the night.
Day6- Going further into the wilderness. Visited Keylong (110 kms from Manali) and Darcha (145 kms from Khoskar) before returning to Manali.
Day7 – Hot water spring bath at Manikaran (80 kms from Manali) and stayed put at Bilaspur for the night. (Manikaran to Kullu-30 kms and Kullu to Bilaspur-154 kms).
Day8 – Back to Delhi. Visited Rock garden and rose garden in Chandigarh. (Bilaspur to Chandigarh-135 kms and Chandigarh to Delhi-250 kms)
Day9- Qutb Minar, Red fort and India Gate, Lotus temple and Chandini Chowk.
Day10- Travelled in the Delhi Metro. Visited Khan Market and dinner at Haldirams.
Day11- Shopping at Palika Bazaar. Got the bike packed into the train and set off to home in the evening.
Day12 – Another train journey.
Day13 – Reach Bangalore by 7 a.m. Back to usual grind.

We left Bangalore on 28th May at around 10 p.m on the Sampark Kranti express. Srini had already loaded his bike into the same train that morning for 2200 rupees.  After spending the next day planning, sleeping and eating uncooked railway food, the blistering north Indian heat welcomed us into Delhi. We were desperate to get out of the heat; got our bike back and pushed it to a nearby petrol bunk. The first thing that impressed me about our capital was the well connected roads and infrastructure. We hit the karnal road and left for Chandigarh immediately. Stopped at Rasoi dhaba a k.m into Haryana and got our first taste of simply exquisite authentic north Indian cuisine.

In front of a 3 km long tunnel before Kullu

After travelling in a car for more than two years, I took some time getting used to bike travel. We reached Chandigarh at around 7 p.m. Srini played the student card well and got a 50% discount at Plaza hotel.  One cardinal rule I would add for bike travellers in India is to pretend you are students; gets you the best rates everywhere.

River Beas in full flow
We left for Manali at around 8 a.m. You know you have entered Himachal Pradesh when the pleasant breeze of the mountains replaces the heat of the plains. They say that the journey is more important than the destination and we had a gala time on the way to Manali; be it rafting in the cold waters of Beas river and having chilled beer with the owner afterwards or travelling through a 3 k.m. long tunnel just before Kullu. Reached Manali at around 9.30 p.m. and settled into the cosy house of our host – Das Guruji.
Guruji is an 80 year old ayurvedic doctor who still zips around Manali in his Santro. His secret: Wake up on time, sleep on time, eat on time and eat nutritious food. In that case, any software engineer is destined to die early.  Guruji seemed glad to have visitors and chatted with us way into the night when all we wanted was sleep.
Normal work day in Manali

                We have a great sight awaiting us on waking up- snow clad peaks on the road to Leh, our final destination. Our plan to go to Leh hit a serious roadblock when we learnt that all roads to Rotang were closed every Tuesday for repairs. The policeman in charge ignored our pleas that we would not be able to read Keylong/Darcha before end of day. I spent time exploring the nearby hills and working on my photography skills with Srini as my guinea pig. Finally the policemen relented and let us go ahead at around 4 p.m.
    The road to Rotang, which is at an altitude of 15000m, was bad with plenty of places where you could puncture the bikes if you drive carelessly. It took us two long hours to reach Rotang and we were too cold and tired to even touch the ice, let alone play with it. Exactly not how I imagined my first visit to an ice clad peak.  Those images of people playing in ice faded as we had a tough decision to make- whether to go ahead towards Keylong in the fading light or restart our journey from Manali the next day.

Me at Rotang pass with furry rabbit

Rotang pass

    We decided to head forward after some discussion. Around a k.m. into the drive, the roads were replaced by one foot streams caused due to the melting ice and light started fading fast. Srini started vacillating that we should have gone to Simla and the relatively easier Spiti in Kaza valley; I wanted us to go forward in spite of these difficulties as this was to be our adventure to script. It was at these times that both of us pushed each other to our physical limits and I was thankful to have somebody I trusted. We headed forward to Khoskar around 20 kms from Rotang.
    A few more kms into this treacherous ride, a few people warned us about a muddy stretch where their 4 wheel drive had almost got stuck. Once we heard this, Srini rode very carefully expecting any slush of water to be quicksand. And our bike almost got stuck at the exact same location they had warned us about. Fortunately the CBZ came through under these exacting conditions and we went forward to the welcoming village of Khoskar for the night. Never were we so glad to see a dhaba or a village or have a cuppa. The untidy little room were rented there probably costs a lot less than what we paid, but we would have paid a lot more for that at that point in time. We were now officially in the midst of an adventure.

On the way to Keylong

    We woke up in the morning to find that Khoskar was a beautiful little village surrounded by snow clad mountains on all four sides. Took some great pics. We met a Delhi Constable who had come to Khoskar through the Kaza valley all the way from Simla. He advised us to go to the famous Chandrataal lake on that road. He warned us that he had to get the help of a crane to extricate his new alto car from 4 feet deep pit of water where it had got stuck. Both Srini and I made a mental note to avoid that route all together and headed Darcha.
    We filled up petrol in Tandi, around 5 kms before Keylong. Ideally for a Leh trip, this would have been the last location to fill up the tank. Darcha is around 35 kms from Keylong. Throughout the way to Darcha, we came across breathtaking valleys and mountains and stopped at regular intervals to take pictures.

The beautiful little town of Keylong

   Written on a board in the treacherous way to Leh – “If you are married, divorce speed”. Not that you can ever find smooth roads to accelerate there! Our Himalayan adventure ended at Darcha but both of us looked back at the mountains one last time promising ourselves that we would one day return to complete the journey to Leh.

Liked my blog on the first part you the trip?? Here's what happened next- North India Trip Continues