Travel – Is there a best time or season?

We’ve talked about budget travel in the past. As you manage money, there’s also time that you need to. Obviously, the other big question that everybody ask me is about the best time to travel. There is no simple way to answer this question. And here I am not talking about how you would manage your leaves – your partner’s or your kids’ leaves. That’s for you to manage best and I am sure you would. What I am saying instead, is how it can alter your entire travel experience so much that you may end up loving or hating the same travel destination – merely depending on the time of travel. The time of travel decides how much you spend on a trip as well as what you experience.
For almost every destination, there are at least four different travel seasons: Peak, High, Shoulder and Low – each with its unique pros and cons. I am going to help you with factors that should determine your season of travel – with examples too.

  1. The purpose of your trip: Are you going to Iceland to see the Northern lights? Even if peak summer season travel is most comfortable and therefore very popular in Iceland, you cannot see the Northern lights in summer.
  2. Why is the Low season “low”?: In Kenya, Peak season is defined not just by weather, but when the Great Migration happens in the plains of East Africa – one of world’s most thrilling, intriguing and spectacular displays of wildlife behaviour. In a destination like this, it may be more rewarding to travel during the Peak season despite high prices. 
  3. Your budget: The Peak season is undoubtedly the most popular season to travel and prices too are at their peak. High season gives you most of the benefits of peak season with a little lesser crowd and lesser price. There would be a few things which you won’t get except for peak season but for all practical purposes that may not bother you. Shoulder season can give you the best of both worlds if you are lucky. Much lower prices and crowd. But that too comes with its own set of challenges. 
  4. Who is your travel planner?: When you plan your own itinerary, you have the full freedom to choose the time, duration, places to visit etc. Ideally the best travel planner is who would do the same for you. Many a times, however – travel agents offer you preplanned packages – leaving very little to choose. 
  5. Do you like the comfort of crowd?: Many might prefer being another face in the crowd but If you are not a fan, I would strongly suggest to avoid the Peak season. On the other hand, in the Low or even in the Shoulder season – there may be places where you find yourself to be the only visitor!
  6. Your preferred weather conditions: Undoubtedly, the weather at Peak season is favoured by most. Low season is considered most adverse. If you ask me though, it is a personal choice. I wouldn’t go into a hot desert in the middle of summer to save money. But I wouldn’t mind carrying a few extra woollen clothes for morning and evening chill when I travel to Europe in Fall or Spring (Shoulder season) and save some money, avoid crowd, enjoy nature in its own intended pristine way in the process. 
  7. Are you ready to take a little risk?: In the Shoulder or Low seasons, weather conditions and public transport can be challenging sometimes. Fewer hotels and restaurants would be available. But if you can plan in advance and do a little research, it can save you a lot of money. 

My verdict: Personally I am a fan of Shoulder season travel. Which is why, for example, I visited Siberia in March. The cold is bone chilling and nowhere as comfortable as the Peak summer. But for me – I had always imagined Siberia as a vast frozen land since childhood. It took me some research to be prepared for the cold – but I did see Siberia the way it is meant to, with miles and miles of pure, untouched snow, and nothing else. I got a chance to walk and drive on the vast frozen expanse that is lake Baikal and touch those famous but illusive beautiful ice crystals. So yes, you may be able to see a totally different landscape that not many have been able to experience. 

Think of it like investing in the equities market – high risk (calculated, if you may) but enormous returns. Then there is always this assured return of saving on expenses – which can be as high as 50%! You can always use it for your next trip. 

It ultimately depends on your preference. Hope this blog will help you take that informed decision.

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10 tips for budget travel

Most of us dream of traveling more and more don’t we? Like the vacation never ends? Like there is no limit on time or money? Let’s talk about ‘time’ sometime later. So this is about money. A popular belief is that travel is expensive. You travel only with the surplus you have after making the ends meet and probably saving for a rainy day. Not necessarily true. Let me give you some tips to help you travel on budget.

  1. Choose the place wisely: Well if your budget is INR 50K per person and you want to go to Hawaii from India, lets face it, it’s unrealistic. There is one thing where you have very little control over and that is flight fares. If you are open to other modes of travel like train or ferry and your time permits, you could go for it. Otherwise check the average flight fare to the destination before planning. 
  2. Plan in advance: This is probably the only thing you can do to reduce your flight fare. In many hotels also you will find early bird offer. This can save you thousands of Rupees.  
  3. Choose the time of travel wisely: For almost every destination, there are different travel seasons. Peak, high, shoulder, low. Every season has its unique pros and cons. The prices in peak season is always the highest and so is the crowd. High season gives you most of the benefits of peak season with lesser crowd and lesser price. Shoulder season many times can give you the best of both worlds if you are lucky. Much lower prices and crowd. But it comes with its own set of challenges. Like like weather conditions can be a challenge. Fewer hotels, restaurants and public transport. Low season is of course the most adverse time weather wise. If you are ok with that low season travel can sometimes be very rewarding at a lower price. 
  4. Plan and book your own itinerary: Another tip which can save you thousands. When you book yourself, you have the freedom to choose the places to visit or stay, low cost or otherwise. And you don’t have to pay a middleman. Again, plan in advance – so that you don’t end up doing a last minute job. 
  5. Know where you need star hotels: In different parts of the world the general standard of accommodation / hygiene is different. In some places even the most basic facilities will be very good.. Do some research and know if you need to book hotels with big stars. If you are adventurous enough then you can try couch surfing or carrying a tent. Otherwise hostel, homestay or apartments are also great budget options.  
  6. Travel like a local: Travel like a local would do. Take a map or use GPS on your phone to navigate. Walk if needed. 
  7. Use public transport: In many countries, hiring a taxi can make a big hole in your pocket. Public transport is always the cheapest option available as that’s how the locals survive. Also traveling by public transport can be very rewarding as that will help you adapt better to the local lifestyle.  
  8. Gather as much info as you can before you go: Gathering information is always helpful. You can tell when you are being duped. You can tell when you really need to hire a taxi and when you can manage with a public transport  
  9. Eat local food: Buy food from smaller shops and avoid big restaurants to save money. Anything specialized will always be costlier. Indian food in china may not be common. So prices will be higher for the special choice. Nearly every place has budget food options also for the locals to survive. 
  10. Or even better – cook: Nothing is cheaper than buying ingredients from a supermarket and cooking it yourself. In many countries, supermarkets sell marinated food which can be cooked in a hostel or apartment kitchen with minimum effort. Drinks are always cheaper at the supermarket than a pub or at a bar.  

Sikkim, 2012: Story of a man who saved my life

As your brain creates an image from a travel memory – it would often filter out and stash the unpleasant bits. It won’t ask you, just do it as a natural process. This especially is true when you find that strong passion for travel within – which I am guessing you do – because you are reading this. That still said – travel isn’t only about visiting beautiful places. Travel finds its roots in Nature. Nature, as stupendously beautiful as it can be, can also turn into a ravaging beast. And when it does – our survival becomes but a matter of meagre chance. You find yourself facing that fear – of uncertainty. Of extinction. You find the inherent selfishness of humans seeping through. Ironically, it was also the time when we found a stranger, acting out of extreme courage – saving our life.
 
Back in September 2011, a massive earthquake had badly shaken up the north-eastern part of India and parts of Nepal. The north-eastern state of Sikkim was the worst affected of all. The immediate impact was more than a hundred deaths, but the damage had not ended with that. A large part of Sikkim lies in the high altitude (more than 10,000 ft.) ranges of the Himalayas. Because of the altitude and the thin-ness of oxygen in the air, vegetation is relatively rare and mountain structures are unstable. The earthquake had made this already unstable structure even more delicate. Unpredictable weather and especially non-seasonal rains were to cause innumerable landslides and more and more destruction for many months, probably years to come.
 
It was in March of 2012 when me and my travel buddy/husband had decided to visit Northeast Sikkim. In retrospect, it doesn’t sound like the smartest decision – but well… we were less experienced travelers back then and hadn’t given much thought to relate the effects.
 
A couple of days into the trip – we had already seen some great landscapes in and around Pelling (a beautiful town on the foothills of Kangchenjunga) and were in the grip of the quintessential Himalayan calm (which will invariably grip you, every single time you break away from the urban madness and head to the hills). The plan was to move up further north, to a village called Lachung, closer to the Tibetan border.
 
We stopped over at Gangtok for a night. The next morning, we were to start for Lachung. We had booked transport from a local travel agency. Private transfer can be expensive in this area due to the time taken to travel and the actual distance covered through the mountain roads – which the kilometers never really capture. So, we had booked just 2 seats in a 10-seater. The same agency had also booked a home-stay for us to put up at, once we reach Lachung.
 
Next morning, we followed the instructions set out by the agency, and were at the starting point at about 10 minutes before 10 AM. The agency had made it clear that we were to start by 10 AM if we were to reach Lachung on time. For us, we could have been more than happy to start much earlier – but we were not traveling alone. Amazingly enough, even this relaxed timing turned out to be a little too early for our fellow passengers. By the time everyone else showed up (three other families, two of them of couples – newlyweds and one of parents and two teenagers), it was past noon. We finally managed to start from Gangtok at 12:30 pm.

Beautiful waterfall on the way soon after we left Gangtok

 
A strict word of caution here, lest you miss it – and one that can probably save your life – is that whenever you must travel in these higher altitude regions, you must start as early as possible and reach the destination early. The weather is almost always clear and nice in the morning. By 2 or maybe 3 pm, it starts to become quite unpredictable. Especially if it is raining, there can be various factors putting your life at danger.
 
By the time, we finished lunch, 30-40 kilometers outside of Gangtok, it was already 2 pm and the weather had started worsening. The rains hadn’t come yet, but there was lightning – every now and then. We still had close to 90 kilometers to travel upward before we reached Lachung. Our driver was a straight faced local Sikkimese. His name was Dawa, was probably in his late thirties and looked experienced. He sensed the deteriorating weather, and started to speed up. However, this was no express-way. The roads on these hills are extremely narrow and curvy, and due to frequent heavy rainfall, melting ice and landslides – are broken and slippery too. To the left, we had the steep mountains and on our right, was the bottomless gorge. More than a 1000 ft. deep – and no, absolutely no protective barriers – no railings, or ropes – nothing. Of course, Dawa with all his experience and skills – needed to be very cautious.
 
At about 5 PM, we made a quick stop at a small tea-stall on the road. It was already getting dark. The lightning had become even more frequent and the rains had come – pretty heavily too. We still had another 25 kilometers to travel. Or so we thought. About ten minutes into being back on the road – we met another group in a car that had come from the other direction. They were bringing the news that the road had already closed down from the landslide – about 10 kilometers before Lachung. Reaching there tonight – or anytime soon was therefore out of question. Neither was going back to Gangtok an option – in this weather. So, we needed to find a place to rest for the night. The best person to help us here was Dawa. He decided that he would take us about 5 more kilometers ahead where there is a village, and find us an accommodation for the night.
We had just about settled our thoughts and making some mental plans for our unplanned night-stop when the car turned past a corner. As with the zigzag roads on the mountains – you never see what lies ahead, until you are there. And just as we were there, we saw pebbles and mud falling in front of us. Remember, we were on barren mountains – and the rains were not getting any lighter. We kept moving. Just a few meters ahead – it was not just mud and pebbles, but big rocks had started sliding down. It was not possible to move any further. It was even more dangerous to wait there. About any second a big rock could have come gliding down – pushing our car down the 1000 ft. deep gorge! We had to turn back.

Now, I do not know, even today, how Dawa managed to turn the car that day – in that tense moment – but it chills me to the bones, even thinking about it. I mean – the road was hardly an extra couple of feet wider than our car, the rains had made it barely visible, rocks were sliding down and we constantly feared a big one might hit us any time now. I closed my eyes in fear – and when I opened them again, I saw sweat drops pouring down his forehead. It must have been only 5 degrees C outside. He had made it happen.
 
The danger still lay ahead. We all had sensed it – but perhaps Dawa more than anybody else.

He wanted to drive away from that place as soon as possible. The tea stall we had stopped at earlier was less than 2 kilometers away, so he pushed the accelerator. A little ahead – that mud and pebble shower we had earlier passed – had now turned into a landslide – and there was a pile of rock and mud building up on the road. It was getting bigger by the second – but we didn’t have a choice. He tried to drive through – quickly. Just as the wheels hit the loose rocks and mud – the car swayed heavily on the left – almost toppling over. All of us sitting, screamed in fear. But it didn’t topple – we didn’t go down the gorge. We were back on the road – Dawa still speeding through. Our nerves had just about settled from the shock – when we reached that spot where we had met the other car earlier. Big boulders had fallen since then and blocked the road.
 
Driving through was no longer possible. But giving up while stranded in that barren spot would be suicidal too. So, Dawa got down to move the rocks away. And as perhaps the most obvious thing to do, Ankur followed him. Surprisingly enough, no one else joined in. There were three other young guys in the car, but the reluctance was apparent. Maybe the situation had overwhelmed them or probably they expected the driver to take care of it. Either way, it took a bit of angry insistence to get them down. Once they did, it took about 15 minutes for the five guys to clear the boulders from a small patch so that we could cross the stretch. From here on – with each turn the car crossed – one turn after the other – amidst falling mud, pebbles and rocks – we muttered a sigh of relief. If we could just make it through about 2 more kilometers downhill – there was a shelter that we could have for the night.
 
And then, we stopped.
The road before us was closed. Not with mud that we could drive through. Not with boulders that we could remove and move on. But with 2 feet high puddle of everything that a landslide brings. This time – there was no way forward. Or backward.
 
It came to us very soon – that we were now completely at the mercy of nature. With the weather and the landslide getting worse, and no network on the phone – unless someone came and rescued us – we could be here all night, or maybe longer. As we waited for a savior, in the next 5 minutes – two more cars joined us – to be saved, both having escaped the previous landslides by a whisker.
 
About 10 minutes later, a lone car came from the other side – lighting some hope in us. As we started screaming for help – it stopped, and a few guys came out. They checked the landslide puddle and stood there thinking. We continued asking for help – but that didn’t seem to affect them much. And then, suddenly they ran back to the car, started the engine, turned away, and left. We kept screaming. And hoping that probably they are just going away only to come back later, with help. Also, around this time, the sun finally went down – a little symbolically perhaps.
 
From there on started our wait. ‘Long’ would be an understatement. Every passing minute felt like a full hour. Every stroke of lightning in that pitch darkness made us fear an impending doom. Every time there was a headlight from far away mountain roads – it felt like a ray of hope; which soon turned to despair realizing that it wasn’t coming our way. Sitting in our cars – as it rained incessantly, the only respite was perhaps that just above us – on the slope – there were a lot of trees. A rarity at ten thousand feet above. It meant that the soil is not loose – and chances of a landslide right upon us was less. Still, all it would take was one big boulder to fall on us – to end our story.
 
More than two hours passed. All we had done was pray that someone would somehow come to know about us and bring help. By now there was a distinct murmur of prayers, sobs, and a lot of helpless consolations. Dawa must have felt just as helpless as us – but he tried to cheer us saying that the Army comes for a sweep during calamities and they would find us. So, we waited, with half hopes. Seconds turned into minutes, minutes turned into another hour. No one came.

Well, except the realization – that unless rescued – chances of us even seeing through the night – in this torrential rain, landslide and the Himalayan cold are not much. Dawa was an experienced soul on these terrains. Even as the rest of us reached our thought’s end he stepped up – and decided that he would go and get help.
 
The shelter that we had headed for was still 2 kilometers from here. But before anything, it would mean climbing and crossing past that huge block of landslide that lay before us. As we stayed inside the car, he got down and walked towards and then through the block. We saw him struggling. Slipping down, getting up, moving a little, slipping again … before he finally disappeared into darkness. We prayed harder.
 
The saying that “God helps those who help themselves” is one of the most thrown around lines in our daily sphere. Many of the times, our needs are so small that we really should have helped ourselves anyway – without involving God. Rarely, the situation becomes so where it is only the divine that can help. And yet you need to try hard to get that help. Very few of us can do that. We give up, long before. Thankfully, on that night – there was somebody who did not give up.
 
About an hour later – help finally arrived. Three cars with a few locals – drivers and villagers came and halted on the other side of the block. Within a few frantic minutes, we had grabbed some essentials and left the car. Fortunately, even the tireless rains had stopped, although briefly.
We took our shoes off and started crossing the waist high pile of puddle. At first Ankur and I tried holding our hands and help each other cross but soon realized it made each one of us less focused as we kept thinking about each other – and we kept slipping. We had to do this separately – helping ourselves – with full strength and balance. As I struggled through – one of the villagers came up and helped me balance – till I finally reached the other side. I had bruised my feet, was shivering in the cold, but all I kept looking for was Ankur – I couldn’t see him anywhere, so I kept crying out his name. After a few minutes, he heard me and came over, and we sat in one of the cars. There still was a lot of commotion around us – as all other tourists had finally crossed over. Some of them sobbed in relief, some laughed, some even created a fuss about lost shoes or luggage. Ankur noticed that even he had lost his phone, must have dropped from the pocket while crossing the puddle. But we were just too happy to be alive to care about these. The car took us to a nearly village. There were some Army men around when we reached, and one of them helped me out of the car and took us to a local family. They gave us water, made us sit and served us hot tea and momo. It overwhelmed me so much that I couldn’t eat – and started crying. The pressure had finally released – and the tears broke through. As everyone consoled me, I kept sobbing. But I knew that it was over – we had lived, to see another day.
 
The Army men told us how a lot of tourists were rescued that night from different places. There were a few unfortunate incidents too. All rescued tourists were put up in a local Gurdwara. In fact, there was no place left for us. So, they took us to a Government circuit house. There was no electricity or water. But the families in our car got separate rooms. Probably the most relaxing stay of my life – no seven stars or luxury resorts have even come close ever. We slept with our legs hanging at the edge of our bed, our jeans dirty from the mud almost till waist up.
 
When we woke up the next day, it was all bright and sunny. The view of the snow-capped peaks glowing in sunshine bore no signs of last night. We walked around the village thanking people, eating momo and waiting for the Army to clear the roads. Even the smallest bits seemed a privilege – it was like there was a whole new value of life that we had just found.

Snow covered mountains and clear sky…no sign of the calamity last night
Circuit house where we stayed the night
Remnants of last night, road being cleaned up

We finally reach Lachung by noon. We put ourselves up at the home of a local family. They had a cute little boy – all of one year and a fantastic tea shop on the ground floor. The rooms were very basic, food was simple and there was no hot water. Yet, it was the best we could have asked for. Even with the temperature at around 2 degrees C – we had the most relaxing bath in that cold water. Afterwards, we went for a walk around the village and by the river – to cleanse off remnants of previous night.

We walked by this river till evening to calm ourselves down
Our host, the mother and the boy

Next morning, Dawa drove us up to Katao – a magically beautiful valley region managed by Indian Army at Twelve thousand feet. There was snow all around. The surreal beauty helped us forget the plights of our journey, at least for some time. As we let the tension ebb – we played around in the snow. This was also when I realized how important it is for a traveler to pack right, and be prepared for contingencies. Our companions – the two newly wed couples were absolutely inexperienced. Even at this height and in the cold – they hardly had a piece of sweater each and no other warm clothes. So, we lent our sweaters, socks and scarves to them. Even Dawa had lost his only jacket in the previous night’s commotions and he was shivering in the cold with just a shirt on. Nobody else in our group had brought enough for even themselves. So Ankur lent him his jacket and himself wore two sweaters to keep warm.
Beautiful Katao
It was cold and thin air made it more difficult to walk. But we didn’t give up, not after what we had been through
While returning from Lachung, I remember myself closing my eyes in fear every time our car took a sharp turn or gave space for another to pass. Yet, it wasn’t possible to keep them closed for long – such was the rugged and un-spoilt beauty of the Himalayas around me. 
Beautiful Himalayan peak
Waterfall on the way to Lachung
 

The fear was still very much there – and it would be for months and years to come, but I was slowly getting my senses – my taste for nature back. When we finally reached Gangtok, we held his hands and thanked Dawa from the bottom of our heart one last time before parting ways. Ironically, Dawa in Hindi means ‘medicine’ – and it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. Even till date I feel I may not have thanked him enough. This experience reminds me every time, that amidst all the chaos there is still hope in the world. We never tried calling him after that. It has been so many years now. Maybe he doesn’t even remember us. But we will remember him forever.

Dawa…our medicine
Me, Ankur and Dawa in Katao

A borderline snowy disorder – an end as perfect as the chapter – (Trans-Siberian)

On the last night of our Trans-Siberian-Mongolian ride, the train stopped at a Chinese border station named Erlian for immigration formalities. It was around 9 PM and had just started snowing. At first glance, it was just another station – small and nothing special to speak of.  Crossing borders need a lot of work – not just paperwork, but also making changes to the train itself. So while we didn’t have much to do… minutes passed into hours and Ankur went to sleep. It must have been around 1 am when I realized that the train was being brought back to the station. As a reflex, I looked out of the window. And immediately was thankful that I did! The whole scenery had changed. The erstwhile mentioned mundane station had taken up a completely new look! Everything was covered with fresh white snow. And it was still snowing heavily. 

The before (top) and after (bottom)
The whole platform turned white

In one of my earlier writings I may have mentioned this… what I have within me is what can be described as an irrepressible love – almost like an eternal lust – for snowfall. I simply couldn’t  resist myself. It didn’t matter that it was past midnight, freezing cold and all I was wearing was a light sweatshirt. I ran down on the platform to feel the snow fall on my face, to touch it with my bare hands and to walk on the snow one last time before the end of our Siberian journey. I didn’t even bother to wake Ankur up, fearing he wouldn’t let me get down. I had just recovered from a cold only a week back. So I stood there, shivering, but reluctant to get back on the train before I absolutely had to. To keep warm I was strolling up and down the platform with an eye always on the signal. I was frantically clicking pictures but wanted a full-scape photo of myself too! This was a dream of a backdrop. Fortunately a passer-by understood this, in spite of the complete lack of understanding each other’s language, he graciously offered to take my photo on the platform. I was happy, satisfied – the moment had finally been captured, somewhat at least.

Clicking photos on the platform

As I returned to our coupe, Ankur had woken up by now and I got a big scolding. A few days later my fever relapsed and put me out of action for a week. Still, I don’t regret those few minutes spent on the platform on that surprising night – even one tiny bit.
The other side of the track, while we were leaving
Next day morning view from the train. The whole region was covered with fresh snow after a night of heavy snowfall

Great Wall: The Colossal walk through my dreams…

During my formative years I was spellbound by the magnanimous Great Wall and dreamt of traversing the same someday. Never realized through Great Wall my foray into being wanderlust will begin. China – our first overseas trip… a true blue oriental experience which I am going to cherish for the rest of my life. It turned out to be a foreign land in the most authentic way. Be it the weather, the cuisine, the means of communication or the wonder of the world “The Great Wall”. Many people asked us why China as Europe is becoming travelers’ paradise day by day but we really wanted to have a very different experience, a path less traversed. I and my travel mate/husband are happy to say that China did not fail us. Though different aspects of this country deserve an exclusive mention, here focus is on The Great Wall.

The unconquerable...
The unconquerable…
It was a frigid winter morning in Beijing and we practically put on everything possible to fight the cold. Our teeth chattering and body shivering, we eagerly awaited our pickup on the front porch of our hotel. The coach arrived and there were couple of tourists already. En-route we came to know more about our fellow travelers. It was around two hrs drive from Beijing to the drop point of the Mutianyu Great Wall.

Frigid Beijing Winter Morning
Frigid Beijing Winter Morning
This UNESCO World Heritage site has 26 watchtowers scattered over the entire section of Mutianyu Great Wall but due to heavy snowfall the last three watchtowers were closed. So, we could only walk till 23rd watchtower. Initially I thought oh! I am missing something but as I started walking I realized I would be happy to make it till 23rd. Our tour guide suggested we can either walk our way to the end or we opt for a cable car till the first 8 towers and then walk through the rest of the journey. We opted for the second option and as our cable car started moving over, the majestic structure began to unravel before our eyes with its snow clad pathways and the thick forest encompassing it which was mostly covered with snowflakes. My first glimpse of the Great Wall took my breath away. This architectural grandeur appeared like a monstrous dragon slithering its way through desert, grasslands, mountains and plateaus.

The first look at the mighty structure..
The first look at the mighty structure..
Our cable car came to a halt at tower 8 and our guide gave us a brief historical background of the Great Wall before we embarked on our long walk. The Great Wall of China is mainly made of stone, brick, wood, among other materials, constructed on an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China to protect the empires from the invasions and onslaught of the various nomadic groups surrounding China specially Mongolia. An archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measure out to be 21,196 km. Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC which were later amalgamated and are now collectively referred to as The Great Wall. The majority of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Mutianyu Great Wall was the first to be refurbished following the ruckus created by Cultural Revolution.

Great Wall also served the purpose of border controls, imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade and the control of immigration and emigration. Furthermore, the defensive characteristics of the Great Wall were enhanced by the construction of watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, signaling capabilities through the means of smoke or fire, due to the fact that the path of the Great Wall also served as a transportation corridor. Our guide also mentioned about a Chinese custom according to which when an adolescent turns into a young adult he has to tread the path of the Great Wall once to become a thorough gentleman. Thus started our jaunt along the wall.

Thus we Start off....
Thus we Start off….
Half the passage was covered with snow while the other half was cleared for the tourists to be able to walk along the way.  The sun rays deflected on the snow like a thousand diamonds glistening our path. Seldom do we get such a welcome which is etched in your memory forever. As we strode along the path we realized how uneven the terrain was going up and down interspersed with steep stairways. Because the Wall is build literally on the edges of the mountain ranges, it is flat in some areas, and incredibly steep in other areas. Walking our way through seemed taxing enough, could not even discern the plight of young men and soldiers who were forced into unfair labor notwithstanding the harsh weather, the treacherous terrain and the continuous aggression by the neighboring tribes.

The Wall and its Grandeur..
The Wall and its Grandeur..
As we walked along soaking in the beauty of the vast topography as far as our eyes reach occasionally taking rest in the watch towers and trying to learn couple of Chinese words from our guide we met several interesting personalities on our journey. As I was walking down, in my mind I was already thinking that I should go back and ask my travel enthusiast friends to make the trip as soon as possible because we are so used to our sedentary lifestyle that our body might not be able to adapt to this terrain and weather with age. But there he was a 62 year old gentleman from India walking past us with utmost zest while his 70 year old friend was catching up with him behind us. The reality jolted back to me that it’s all in the mind. Further up we saw a rag picker in the Great Wall sliding down the snow with two bags full of plastics and other wastes. In for another shock when he said “Namaste” (a respectful way to greet in Indian culture). He was a French national who traveled to several parts of the world as part of his cleaning spree. He was making a small effort at his personal level to make the world a better place for us, left us wondering wouldn’t it be so much better if each one us did our part rather than cribbing over spilt milk.

The personalities which made a statement of their own.....
The personalities which made a statement of their own…..
The penultimate leg of our journey turned out to be more arduous than we fathomed. The walkway became more perilous mostly covered with snow which was very slippery. We almost crawled our way through and grasped the side rails to keep us from falling….reminisced my first day in the skating rink of my school. As we proceeded up north from tower 21 the weather became more chilly and windy to add to our woes. Ultimately we reached our final destination at tower 23 and we were all ecstatic to make it successfully till the end despite all hazards. All we wanted was to savour the moment.

The penultimate leg...
The penultimate leg…
Witnessing such an iconic splendor left us dumbstruck. As we stood at the top and looked down around the vast expanse of land we really felt at loss of words that would divulge our honest feelings. A winter morning on the top of Great Wall, with almost no tourists made it an astounding experience. The Great wall indeed dawned upon us as one of the greatest wonder of the world with all its enigmatic and mighty existence. The pastures all around were partially covered with snow and the wall has maneuvered its way through them to blend with the clear blue sky above.

Merging with the infinity...
Merging with the infinity…
As we started walking back the path seemed less deceptive now that we have conquered it once. The guide also mentioned how the Great Wall has been portrayed in different Chinese movies time and again as it stands as an epitome of Chinese history and culture. While returning we spotted couple of more tourist groups but nothing as overwhelming as people mention during the summers here. After the long walk we were all tired and famished so our thoughts and discussion began to entangle around Chinese delicacies.

We again came back to the same juncture we started off earlier in the day and this time was received by a Chinese family who invited us inside their house. They took us to their dining room where they had spread the table with some delicious piping hot food in our honour. I wouldn’t have minded started devouring it then and there, but can’t forgo our etiquette can we? So, each one us took a chair around the table as our host started serving us.  The authentic taste of Chinese food had left us all gaping for more. The sticky rice, kimchi salad and their very own green tea deserves a special mention.

The Sumptuous Lunch...
The Sumptuous Lunch…
Following the sumptuous lunch we started to bid adieu to our host and hopped on to our traveler to drive back to Beijing. As the coach made its way the wall loomed away from our sight and the tired bunch started dozing off but I am sure the way we got to explore this wonder is going to be engraved in our mind for a very long time to come…felt like we made a journey on a time machine, touched another era and came back.

The Great Wall serving its new purpose
The Great Wall : Serving its contemporary purpose

The Eternal Bliss!! Remembering Monterosso Moments..

Following a long taxing jaunt along the coast of Mediterranean, while we were lazing around on the sun kissed beach of Monterosso and enjoying the cool breeze, we found it strenuous to keep our eyes open. The tranquility around hummed like a lullaby to our ears. We were skittering in and out of our dreamworld when we finally gave in to be swayed in the laps of Mother Nature reclining in its arms for a peaceful slumber.

 

When we opened our eyes under the clear blue sky, reality donned on us how we dozed off on the banks of Mediterranean and sprung on our feat all refreshed to explore a bit more of Cinque Terre. Seldom, us city dwellers can afford to come so close to nature and enjoy such a serene siesta. An indelible experience which shall haunt us like a déjà vu for the rest of our lives….

In water with the beast – Great White Shark cage dive by Payal Bhatia

My tryst with wildlife began when I was little. I remember my childhood being glued to NatGeo, Animal Planet, Discovery channel etc with my mother and brother. When children of my age were busy watching cartoons, I was watching wildlife documentaries.

Having watched thousands of documentaries on sharks, it was a dream to dive with them some day. I was fortunate to have met my partner (now husband) who shared my passion for wildlife (after meeting me). Naïve and adventurous, we decided to experience the Great White Shark Cage Dive on our honeymoon. Usually, people choose the destination followed by the activities they would want to do – but we chose the destination after choosing some of the things we wanted to experience together!

Australia and South Africa were 2 countries we narrowed down to – finally picking South Africa because of the weather and prospective safaris in the Kruger National Park.

We obviously did not inform anyone at home about our plans to dive with the great whites. Safari in Kruger National Park was enough to scare the family members!

We landed in Cape Town on 1st June 2015 and chose to rent a car because that’s really the best way to get around the country at your own pace. We were both itching to dive as soon as we got there, but had to wait for a couple of days for the weather to clear up. We chose Gansbaai as our diving destination which was about a 3 hour drive from Cape Town. It was still drizzling by the time we got there and we were nervous about underwater visibility (which is one of the main factors when it comes to diving). We were a group of about 20 people. There was breakfast, followed by basic instructions about the sharks, cage and the boat. I clearly remember not understanding a word of the safety instructions about the cage because I was already freaking out about the whole thing. Most people around me were 40+ years of age and my husband and I were the only ones in our 20s. What really got me thinking about how crazy our decision to do this was when an old lady said to me that this was way too dangerous for a honeymoon! But there was no backing off now – the decision was made.

After some encouraging self talk, we set sail in our little boat. We were provided with wet suits and clear instructions to not pee in them or we would have had to wash them on our own. That was one frivolous instruction I thought before I was with the shark in that freezing cold water! After reaching the middle of the ocean, the crew started preparing for the dive. The bait was thrown to lure the shark and the cage was lowered in the water and tied tightly to the boat. I observed the preparation closely with the images of the cage being attacked by an aggressive great white. We waited patiently for about 45 minutes. The crew announced that we would only wait for about 15 more minutes. After that announcement, the ambience in the boat really changed from tense to calm. I think people (including myself) were relieved to hear that 15 more minutes and we would head back safe with “bad luck” as an excuse.

However, that was about to change very soon. The bait managed to lure a great white and it was time to jump into the cage. The crew asked us to form groups of 5. My husband and I decided to go second, hoping to learn to few tricks from the first group (which was risky since the shark could have simple disappeared in a couple of minutes). I decided not to see the shark from the boat to avoid any last minute change of mind. The first group remained in there for about 5 minutes and then it was our turn. We were supposed to jump in the cage which was tied to the boat with a shark swimming around it! The water was freezing and I jumped after my husband. He stood at one end of the cage hoping to get the best view – by that time, I only wanted to get back alive and in full. I stood next to him holding onto the bars of the cage as tightly as I could with my teeth chattering the whole time. Only our faces were above the water with the rest of the body submerged. But while diving into the water, I managed to gulp down truckloads of water. That really scared the hell out of me because I could not breathe. My husband held my hand and calmed me down. For a split second – I had forgotten about the shark! Once I go back to my senses, I saw the shark for the first time swimming around the cage in a frenzy, splashing water on our faces with her super powerful tail. I don’t remember what I was thinking at that time. My mind was numb. I had never seen such a majestic beast ever before! I saw her shiny grey body and remember it being huge – with gills and fins and that tail! That fin – which has become symbolic of a monster in the oceans. But I remember her being calm and playful and curious and boastful of her power. This was her territory and we were at her mercy – her mood really decided if we were going to go back with memories or never going back!! Completely mesmerized, we ducked into the water, holding our breath to get a view of the her inside the water. I saw her again, this time looking straight into my eyes! I almost lost control of my bladder and quickly came to the surface. My husband got super lucky when the shark’s fin brushed against his shoulder delivering a powerful punch. For a couple of minutes, I just held on to the cage waiting for her to come right in front of me – again. But she decided that it was enough for the first time.

Finally the bait managed to lure a Great White Shark
The shark approaching the cage
The Shark bit a piece off the bait
Seeing the shark so close to the cage, my heart skipped a beat
The majestic beast brushed its tail to our cage before moving away
 

Before we realized, it was time to go back up. I then looked at her from the safety of the boat. She was everything I had imagined her to be and more. I hoped she’d open her mouth only once to give us a glimpse of that spectacular jaw but she wasn’t in the mood. She had given us enough memories that would last for a lifetime.

I remember having tears in my eyes after she left. The whole experience was extremely overwhelming. I dont have too many photos because everything happened so quickly and I didn’t want to take my eyes off her even for a second. My husband managed to get a small video though – thanks to that – we were able to prove to everyone that we actually did it.

I don’t know if I’d ever be able to do it again! But I do highly recommend it to every wildlife enthusiast. It is unique and will leave an indelible mark on your mind.