Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Truth About Valley of Flowers - Part II

You are going to the Valley of Flowers? Utna Khaas nahi hai (It is not that great)", said the gentleman who was headed to Hemkund Sahib.

It is beautiful, but not that great” said the person who was already headed back from the hike at 10:00 AM . The same sentiments were expressed by a couple more people on their way back. There was one Indian lady and an American who said that the place was spectacular, but everybody else seemed to be disappointed. Read on to find out and see for yourself.
Continued from Part 1 (Click here tor read Part 1)

The Sarovar Tent camps do not have electricity. The only thing you can do after the light goes down is to star gaze. I know nothing about astronomy, but it is fun to see the night sky in the mountains. The sky was lit up with millions of tiny stars. “It is like somebody threw glitter in the sky” said our guide Bachchan and he was so right. We slept early and woke up early the next day. After a delicious breakfast of aloo parathas and chai, we set off for the hike.
It was another uphill path, and our feet began to complain immediately. Valley of Flowers was only 6 km from our camp, so there was no hurry. We walked slowly and in a few minutes came to the village of Ghangria. It was a small, dirty and noisy place. If you can afford the tents, don’t bother staying in the village. The entire place smelled of fried oil and bad food. You could struggle and hike up to 10,000 ft, but god forbid you have to live without Chole Batura and Jalebi. Once we cleared the village, the scenery opened up to towering mountains on 3 sides. At the fork in the road, we came across a number of pilgrims going to Hemkund sahib, but very few going to VOF. We probably came across 20-30 people on the entire hike!! As we passed through a wooded forest, Bachchan pointed out the Bhoj Vriksha. It is said that Ved Vyas wrote the Mahabharata on bhoj patra. This part of the country is full of stories from the Mahabharatha and I will write about it in part 3. As we walked on, Bachchan plucked sweet and sour jungle raspberries for us. The path of the hike crossed from one side of the Pushpapati river to the other. The roar of the white water rushing downstream was constant during the entire hike. I cannot tell you how soothing it is to walk beside the roaring river.

The valley is hidden behind huge, towering peaks, so you have to wait until the last kilometer before getting a peak at the view. The suspense prods you to walk on the uphill terrain just to get a glimpse of this land that caught the imagination of so many naturalists and botanists. Just before the valley opened up, the clouds cleared giving us an amazing view of the snow peaked mountains. I don’t know why I have this fascination for snow-peaked mountains, but I do. I have seen snow many times, in fact I used to curse it when I had to walk on it to school, but there is something alluring about white snow peaked mountains against a green valley. The camera kept clicking by itself and I am glad it did because in 10 minutes, clouds covered up the view.

Soon, the path flattened out and flowers began to show up. It was one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done – glacier fed river on one side, snow-peaked mountains all around and a valley full of flowers. The predominant species that was blooming at that time was this white flower. They were EVERYWHERE. There were patches of yellow and pink flowers in places, but white was quite dominating. We found a small patch without flowers (I am serious…they are everywhere!!) and had our packed lunch. Bacchhan went to the stream and brought us back cold river water to drink. Pure, tasty Himalayan water!! The weariness of the last few days caught up with me, so I decided to take a nap while Gaay and Bacchhan went for a walk. We spent many hours breathing in the fresh air and just taking in the splendid scenery. For me, the hard hike was totally worth it. I loved the place, so I was quite shocked at people’s disappointment.

I think the problem with VOF is its name – Valley of Flowers. People go there expecting not just flowers, but millions and zillions of flowers. The written material boasts of over 300+ varieties of alpine flowers. It does not matter that different flowers bloom in different weeks/months – people want them all to bloom at the same time and preferably in neat rows carpeting the area in pink, yellow and blue colors. Then they can wear a see-through chiffon sari and run around singing Bollywood songs.
Almost everybody I met there was obsessed with seeing the “blue poppy” (even the ones who had no idea such a flower existed). Guides took a lot of effort to find one and when they did, it was a major achievement – “OMG, we saw THE blue poppy!!” Never mind that the flower was a tiny 5-10 cm thing, half torn, hidden on the side of the path under some boulders. Victory is declared and the purpose of the trip is fulfilled. The problem with Valley of Flowers is not the place, but the false marketing. They advertise it as if it is a human controlled botanical park where you are guaranteed to see various flowers. Go there with the expectation that you will see what nature decides to show you and I guarantee that you will come back happy.

Now that you have seen my pictures and videos– what you think? Great? Good? Good but not great??

Friday, December 17, 2010

Prague, Walking Tours

The first time I had heard of Prague was many years ago. I had just announced in my office that I was getting married. My team took me out to lunch and the topic of honeymoon came up. The president of our company, a very sweet man said " YOU MUST GO TO PRAGUE" That is where all the young people are headed these days, he said. At the time, I had never been to Europe and frankly never heard of Prague, so I asked him more about it. He said " Prague is beautiful. It has museums, art galleries, churches, coffee shops, river-front restaurants.....everything. PRAGUE IS THE NEW PARIS!!"
It was only much later that I visited Prague. We flew in from Amsterdam on one of those cheap flights that have flooded the European market these days. One word of caution - When the flight landed and we entered the terminal, they had sniffing dogs sniff our luggage just to make sure you don't bring in the happy pills from NL:) Read my account of the trip to Prague here.

Dan Perciun from develops self-guided city walking tour applications for Iphones. They have over 2,000 walking tours - spanning over 180 cities worldwide. He has offered to give away free city walk applications to my blog readers for participating in the quiz on Prague. The readers who correctly answer to most of its questions, will win three free city walk iPhone application developed by

1. Prague's oldest, most well known and famous bridge was named in the honor of a king.
Can you guess who?
A. Charles IV
B. Louis IV
C. Rudolf IV

2. Capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, is also the capital of a province and former
kingdom. Which of these is it?
A. Moravia
B. Silesia
C. Bohemia

3. Holding a lot of the world's records, the Czechs are considered to:
A. Eat most sausage per capita than anywhere else
B. Drink more beer per capita than anywhere else
C. Have most castles per capita than anywhere else

4. Can you guess how many of the Czechs have completed at least secondary education?
A. 85%
B. 90%
C. 95%

5. The Czech language belongs to the Slavonic family of languages. Which language is of
another origin?
A. Polish
B. Bulgarian
C. Albanian

6. On which river is Prague situated?
A. Danube
B. Elbe
C. Vltava

7. Which word, with an apparent English origin, traces its beginnings in the Czech language?
A. Sword
B. Robot
C. Sugar

8. What personality from the following row is not a famous Czech?
A. Gregor Johann Mendel
B. Franz Kafka
C. Gottfried Leibniz

9. Prague is famous for having presented to the world one of these incredible dances. Which one?
A. The Polka
B. The Walz
C. The Foxtrot

10. Tourists visiting Prague, are definitely going to be impressed by this wall constatntly
covered with grafitti and lyrics in honour of world famous artists. Can you take a guess
who that might be?
A. John Lennon
B. Jim Morrison
C. Elvis Presley

Answer the questions for fun or to get free walking tour applications.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

U.S Virgin Islands - St. John

" I am sorry. You flight is closed for boarding"

I could not believe my ears. This is a scenario I had NEVER faced in my life. I am a very planned person and always show up for flights well ahead of time. We started for the airport many hours ahead, but took a long lunch where we lost track of time. Before we knew it, we were zooming to the airport, but could not make it. The flight to paradise had to wait another day!!

Virgin Islands was never on my list of places simply because we lived in California. If we wanted to go to beautiful Islands, Hawaii was a 6 hour flight away. Caribbean Islands were just too far. Luckily for me, I had a conference in Florida and a bunch of us over-worked colleagues decided to take a quick 3 day trip to the US Virgin Islands. American Airlines has cheap flights to St. Thomas. A ferry ride brings you from St. Thomas to St.John
When people rate best beaches in the World, Caribbean islands always show up and for good reason. The white sand beaches with turquoise waters are a sight for the sore eye. If you want instant relaxation, all you have to do is stare at this picture below. Countless shades of blue waters surrounded by green rain forests make for breathtaking vistas.

We went to St. John which has the Virgin Islands National Park. We stayed at Maho Bay Camps, an award winning eco-tourist resort. They built the camps in 1976 when eco-tourism was not as fashionable as it is now. The tent cottages stand on stilts in the high forests and are connected through elevated wooden walkways to preserve the ground cover. They use wind and solar energy and harvest rain water. Camps were very basic but were perfect for us because we used it only for sleeping. Rest of the time we were sitting in the water, standing in the water, swimming in the water, floating in the water, drinking in the get the idea:)

Snorkeling is my most favourite water sport. Floating on the water while watching the underwater world go about its business is simply fascinating. Trunk Bay and Water Lemon Cay are the popular spots and we went to both the places. Water Lemon Cay was a good 1 mile hike from our camps. Weather was hot and humid and I was very uncomfortable. To me, that is the biggest drawback of the Caribbean Islands. Hawaii has no humidity, so if I ever have to choose, Hawaii will win hands down. I wore a ridiculous looking life vest ( 'Be Safe and have fun" is what Saru said before I left) and jumped into the water. The little cay with sandy beaches has incredibly beautiful marine life. The water was crystal clear and had lots of beautiful sponges and corals - elk and brain corals being the highlight. Hundreds of types of multi-coloured fish reside in the reefs there. Parrotfish, Angelfish, goatfish and butterflyfish were most common. As we were floating in the water, there was a point when the famous Caribbean clear water became sandy. The culprit, we realized was a hungry EAGLE RAY!! It was my first sighting of this species and I was thrilled. Just when I thought the day could not get any better, we saw a huge turtle!! Back in the camp, it was cool among the trees, but the only way to remain comfortable with the humidity was to be in the water!! Instead of hanging out near our camp, we took our stuff and literally sat in the shallow water for hours and hours until our hands and feet wilted like an old granny's. The next day, we kayaked to another snorkel spot and spent an afternoon there. We then rented a car for a few hours and drove around the tiny island to get an idea of how the rest of the place looked.

After soaking in the sun and the sand for 2 days back, we headed back to the airport where I heard the second bombshell in the trip. " I am sorry, I don't see your reservation"!! I pulled out my printouts and gave it to the lady who looked at it and said " This reservation was for yesterday"!! I paid a $100 penalty to change the ticket.
Just when I was thinking that this could not get any worse, the guard asked me " Passport Please". I had no idea that we needed a passport to visit the Virgin Islands!! They never checked on my way there. " Why do I need a passport. I am still in the US. I never took my passport to Hawaii, I said. " Hawaii is a state, USVI is a US territory" He replied while showing me to a special room. I gave them all my information and sat there for the longest 1/2 hour of my life. The guard came back and said that my information checked out and I was free to board the flight.
" Next time bring your passport"!! He said.
Given all the trouble getting in and out of here, I told myself I would never go back. But these pictures are tempting me to change my mind. Maybe......some day in the distant future!!

This is my World today. For more stories around the world, please click here.