My tryst with "Ni hao"

When I started my journey, one of my biggest challenge was to overcome the difficulty to trust strangers. “Don’t talk to strangers” has it’s own local and regional flavours in our families and like most of us, I have grown conditioned on it. In new places, I have been warned of people who will put me in harms way and therefore to not drink water, to no eat anything a stranger would offer. The warnings are endless and the outcome is a castle of fear, which you spend more time trying to climb over.

The first destination on my solo travel was Aurangabad. As I climbed into the train and found my seat, I made acquaintance with a young researcher, Masters in law and currently working for the Justice Department. He was on an assignment to collect data on check bounce cases across India. We connected and talked and discussed quite a bit. Eventually deciding to accompany each other and explore Ajanta Caves together.

We took a ‘Shivshakti’ bus (government bus service) to Aurangabad. The ongoing infrastructure constructions made the journey very difficult, both as an experience and for the time taken to reach the destination. As we set out to explore the caves, we noticed that the bus staff was trying to communicate with an elderly East Asian man about the time of return. Both of them were trying their best to communicate and comprehend, but the attempts were futile. Obviously, your’s truly volunteered to help.

Having visited china for 10 days on work, many years ago, I had picked up a few words and greetings. ‘Ni Hao’ is the Chinese greeting for ‘hello’. I had taken a note of his passport before greeting him. “NiHao” I said and he looked at me surprised. His face lit up like a neon bulb. Very greedily, he tried responding to me, and obviously, I had to disappoint him. All my knowledge of Chinese language ended at ‘Ni Hao’. I could not converse with him beyond the greeting.

Thanks to the dumb charades that I and my wife were damn good at, with careful choice of animated actions, I was able to get the message across to him. He knew no word of English and we didn’t know any Chinese. Even then he decided to tag along with Hussain and me for the rest of the journey. Now, I would like to you to visualise the conversation between me and this man because it was all via actions!

With our guide at Aurangabad, Hussain and Cheng. Our Start.

After a lot of effort, I was able to pronounce my name to him and he gladly shared his name as Cheng. We shook hands on it.Now, he officially showed me his passport so that I get his name right. Continuing in actions, I showed him how old I was, which was 40years and he shared his as 55. He we went ahead and used the calendar on his phone to show me his date of entry into India and his date of departure. I was amazed, he had been around for a month already.

India-China Bhai Bhai- My man Cheng

We spent a lot of time in each other’s company, which was an experiment in itself. We explored Ajanta Caves, had dinner together and also shared all the expense. He also asked me what I was paying for my stay. I told him that I was paying Rs.350 and he very emphatically responded that he is coming with me.

I introduced him at the hostel. He stayed the night there and we continued explore Ellora, Daulatabad Fort on the following day. He was set to leave for Bombay (mumbai) that night. He showed us his wallet to tell us that his Indian currency is exhausted and he needed help. He reached in his pocket to draw out a 100 dollars and gives it to me to help him with the exchange. I was honoured at the trust he had placed in me. That feeling in itself was something I will cherish all through my life. I negotiated on his behalf and got him a good deal. He left for Bombay after saying a warm bye to us.

On Day 2 at Ellora with Deb.

The learnings were significant on this first solo destination after attending the course with traveler’s university on “Transforming from Tourist to a Traveler”.

Here is this alien man who knew no word of English, travelling in India with just a translator app, trying everything non-native to him and placing trust in someone non native. This was my moment of understanding that the Universe takes care of everyone and everything in it, we just have to trust the Universe and have faith that that it is all going to be okay. The roads might not be as smooth as we want, but eventually each curve, each stone, each ditch and each high will be an experience adding to this journey.

My take away from the interactions and experiences with Cheng, Hussain were many. I have put together a few points for anyone who intends to start traveling solo.

  1. Start with the belief that you can survive
  2. Acknowledge other travelers, they are in the same boat as you are, with same anxieties and excitement.
  3. Learn the art of small talk with any stranger- Name-Place-Eat-Weather-Clothing-Music-Age. Use your identity card, and google translator wherever necessary
  4. Learn greeting of the land. Google helps here too
  5. Smile more often
  6. Share and give more to your fellow travelers
  7. Be in the interest of the others

Go Solo!

Nav Chokia-The best kept Secret of Jodhpur

After my hunt for the blue in the Blue City and spotting the Blue of the city. Now it was time to pursue and capture the Blue.

As usual I set out on foot towards the Ghantaghar, to have some tea at my now frequented tea joints. I took some directions from the kind people of the city and set out.
It was 2.5 km walk and it took me about 30 mins to reach the junction. The streets of were not very wide. The average views of the busy street with people opening their stores, frying jalebis and samosa, and boiling milk set the tone of the buzz in the city. The people were hospitable and greeted with a “hello” and helped with the directions as well.

As I reached what is called Nav Chokia, the first sight was of a temple, outside of which “God of Sex” written on a small pillar. What I thought might be a taboo in the conservative old city of Rajasthan, was normal and acceptable to have a platform to pray for the divine pleasure, nature has gifted to the ‘human being’. It surely wasn’t a taboo in this little village.

Un-taboo the Divine Pleasure-Temple of the God of Sex.

The two old water bodies are well maintained in the deep of the Blue City. I traversed and followed the streets of Nav Chokia ignoring the two random bulls on the road, some garbage, people stepping out for morning rituals.

Below are a few random clicks of the streets of Nav Chokia. Apparently the Swach Bharat campaign hasn’t yet taken effect inspite of efforts from the local authorities.

As I reached the end of the street to a large banyan tree, I saw a water body under the majestic shadows of the Mehrangarh Fort. Quiet had found its comfort there, with no other human being in sight, the space was exclusive to me. I sat by the lake and soaked in its beauty for a bit. The place seemed like the hangout for local men as beer bottles and leftover from the previous night out could be spotted there.

As I stepped out, I saw a frail looking old man, resting on the platform under the tree. I asked him in the Hindi I could manage, “Sahib, yahaan aur koi talaab hai kya?” He pointed to a little entrance at a large fort gate. There were hardly 4 others who were interested in the place. Here are some videos and clicks of this really beautiful water body and stepwell near the back gate of the Mehrangarh Fort.

Entry into the water body

This water body seems like the main source of water into the Mehrangarh Fort, and therefore was protected. The body was well populated with fish and people are not allowed to go down the steps towards the water.

The space at the back of the Mehrangarh Fort seemed a lot less crowded and this intrigued me to check if one can access the fort from an entrance from Nav Chokia side. And there was indeed an opening.
With just few architecture students present making sketches at the entrance, this seemed like the perfect way to explore the Mehrangarh Fort, away from the crowd. The guard at the entrance was a kind man. We struck a brief conversation, exchanged greeting and I began the climb.

Well soaked in the beauty of the gigantic structure, I stepped out to explore Jaswant Thada.
As I start, curious villagers of Nav Chokia who have been observing me, engaged with me to find out my story. I mentioned about my intent to reach Jaswant Thada and they were quick to suggest a road less traveled from beside the water body. They said “road kaccha hai, lekin agar app yeh nahi kiye to app kuch kiye nahi” (roads arent great, but if you haven’t this by walk, you haven’t covered anything). True to what they said, this was a beautiful wild route giving some new perspectives to the water body. After a good 45-60 mins walk, I reached the main road from where Jaswant Thada was just 300 meters away.

Jaswant Thada is another spectacular structure, made in marble and houses tribute to all the marwar rulers. The garden outside is beautiful. It would be a ornithologists paradise if one was interested in sighting and observing birds. As I sat outside the marble structure, the cleaning lady of the space decided to join me for a brief chit chat. Just as we clickEd a pleasant moment, nature gifted us with some spectacular clouds. Some Of my best clicks happened in this moment.

After the magical moments over Jaswant Thada, time inched towards my train timing. There are times you want cover just another place so that the journey feels completed. Mandor fort was that place for me in the Blue City. It is a place of significance and hence worth making it a part the travel destination. Mandor was the first capital of Marwar region. I am told that the place gets it’s name from Ravana’s wife Mandodiri.

Since time was a bit crunched, I took an auto from Jaswant Thada to travel a distance of 10kms and be dropped back at the clock tower. I paid Rs.400 for the same. All the money I may have spent in all of 2 days was spent on the 20 km trip to Mandor fort.

At the fort there is a park and museum apart from the ruin of the old fort. At point it may be worthwhile to understand the difference of what gets called as Qila/Quila (pronounced as Khila) and Garh/Gadh (pronounced as Gad).A Quila is a structure on the ground. And the Gadh is what build on a high mountain with a vantage point over the destination.

I walked through the garden for about 1.5kms to reach the fort. I gave the museum a pass as I didn’t have time. People climb to the top to get a view of the ‘Mandor Garden’. The garden also had a few structure which probably were meant to be temples, but were left unfinished. They look like the kind of temples structures you find in Khajuraho. I don’t have too much information share about the various elements inside the Mandor Garden. Hence my advice if you were to cover this place, do it slow.

I sat in the setting sun for a bit and started back. I would like to share an observation in this place. On a weekend, several people gather in the garden to play cards, mostly older men. I noticed many small groups. There were also communities, joint families or family friends circle come together and have some moment of fun playing something like a tambola. These are distant memories from my past. Seemingly, human connections are more alive in the rural india than on our urban side.

I headed to take one last look at the fort in the setting sun. This is should be a destination to cover, on every traveller’s list. Two days is justified time in Jodhpur.

To know all about Jodhpur, read my post here

Hunt for the Blue in Sun City

Where is the Blue?

As I set foot out of the Jodhpur railway station on 2nd January 2020, all I wanted to find was the the much hyped ‘blue’ in the Marwar region of Rajasthan, Jodhpur, also known as the Sun City of India.

There is much branding out there in the virtual world about Jodhpur, it was a disappointment to not see the town painted blue in the Blue City. It appeared the Sun City had bowled over the blue of the Blue City.

After having seen some photographs of Umed Bhavan, I decided to not visit the palace, and turn my focus to visit the grand Mehrangadh Fort.

Like anyone else would do, I took an auto rikshaw to reach the palace. There was the usual drill of security check, long line for tickets, audio guide, and follow the ant line of tourists to see what’s defined under the 33 spots of historical importance at the fort.

The grandeur of structure on a sandstone mountain loomed over me like a beautiful Giant. I got me wondering what it would been like to travel back in time, when the Raus of Marawar ruled Jodhpur. What would it have been every time the kind marched on his horse or the elephant after triumphantly winning a battle? what would it have been like for Rapunzel to be an Indian Character trapped in of those high towers? The fort is an aesthetic marvel and gifted creation from the past.

Marwar Majesty-Mehrangarh Fort
Peace on gaurd! Mehrangarh Fort

After walking through the castle, clicking snaps, I manage to spend some time with the local musician Nainuram, understanding his life and music. The walk wasn’t complete with covering the Canon point, which gives you a good view of the Jodhpur city as well. As I walk towards the canon point I stop a young man to ask for directions and strike a conversation. My ears were pleasantly surprised to be in conversation with a Graduate in History, who was involved in the documentation of the history and its evidences at Jodhpur.

In my conversations with a local, I usually ask them what does the city have to offer that I must not miss. He said “If you want to see what is Blue about Blue City, then walk to the farthest point of the fort ahead of the canon point. You will reach a temple. Go behind the temple and there are some vantage points that will let you have a view of the Blue City”. And then he suggested that I also immerse in the Blue City walking through it and accessing the 2 water Bodies at the back entrance of the fort from “Nav Chokia”. I was glad that I have a start point to explore for another day at Jodhpur.

After wishing each other luck, I continued to walk towards the temple. Reached the backside of the temple to peep over the little window of the fort wall overlooking “The Blue City”.

The Hunt for the Blue City was over. I now knew where it was and what I am going to explore the following day.

The sun had set and it was time for me to find my way back into the city. As I began asking directions to get to my destination, a kind guard at the fort recommended I take the winding stone paved way just beside the fort’s entrance to find my way back to the Clock Tower or Ghantaghar, which is a market square at Jodhpur.

The walk back was a yet another pleasant surprise with a night lit views of the fort and enough visual of the local settings in the old part of Jodhpur City.

To know all about Jodhpur, read my post here

Exploring Jodhpur

Where to Stay

Stay and accommodation in Rajasthan is generally on the higher side especially in season. The season in Rajasthan is from October to February. There are several hostels in Jodhpur, most which are located closer to the Ghantaghar (Clock Tower) Area. These are all the good names like Zostel, Hostelavie, etc. Some very up market hotel names like 360 degree Panorma at Pal Haveli is also there. An upmarket hotel accommodation is available inside the Mehrangarh Fort.

I stayed at a budget hotel, very close to the Jodhpur Railway station called Hotel Shiva. There were families as well as groups staying in the hotel. Room charges were Rs. 800 per night. No hot water was available and the quality of the beds and facilities is just about average. We would have paid the same amount had we stayed at the hostel. I strongly recommend staying at a hostel. They are close to the tourist places and most of them offer a great view as well.

What to See

The top most touristy places to see are Umed Bhavan, Mehrangarh Fort, Jaswant Thada, Mandor Fort, Ghantaghar, and Osiyan Temple (about 60 kms away from Jodhpur).

For Slow and Budget Travellers

My focus was primarily the places around Mehrangarh Fort. It took me good 4 hours to explore this fort and its nook and corners. The fort houses a museum of exhibits from the historical era as well. I walked down from the Mehrangarh fort to the Ghantaghar area. This walking trail is a one of the well kept secrets of Jodhpur.

The next day, I walked from Ghantaghar to Nav Chokia, the way leads to the back entrance of the fort, which houses two beautiful and not to be missed water bodies. Nav Chokia is the place to be, if you want to experience the Blue City for what it is. It is ancient, some of the structures are few hundred years old and seem to have stood the test of time. It is a must do if you are traveller by foot, or bike or any other budget format.

Local villagers recommended that I take the walking path to visit Jaswant Thada. This was another worthwhile trail. Jaswant Thada is a nice marble structure near a water body. From this place you can get a mesmerising view of the Jodhpur City and also the view of the fort.

The entrance fee at the fort was about Rs.300 (entry and audio guide)

The entrance fee at Jaswant Thada was Rs.30

Since I didn’t visit the Umed Palace I don’t know the entry fee, but I managed to see photographs of the clock collections and the car collections at the palace. As I understand the royal family stays at the palace, therefore a very small part of it converted into a museum of sorts.

Mandor Fort is about 9 kms from city, this can be accessed by train and then an autorikshaw or by taking a rikshaw.

Transport

To get to Jodhpur from Jaisalmer, I took a train. The sleeper Class ticket fare was about Rs.575. On a budget travel and in the right weather, AC train can be totally given a miss. People on the train were kind and accommodating. There were no incidents of thieving as well.

Taxi, auto-rikshaw and other local transport is easily available.

I used the hitch hike, shared auto model and by foot to move about. A lot of this can be covered by foot. You don’t have to pay more than Rs.10 or Rs.20 when you use a shared auto.

Uber Service is poor. Taking a regular autorikshaw/TukTuk would be better. Negotiate shamelessly. No one feels bad.

Special Musical Performance

After enjoying Mehrangarh fort on foot for over 4 hours, the mood of the day was to devour some laal mans and garlic naan. The Winding stone paved road and the search for Rajasthan’s more revered dish lead me to a corner building which hoarded sign saying “Live Classical Music Performance”. There were some foreigners trying to make way into the building.

I paused my search for laal mans and stepped into this little performance space. The tourists were beginning to lose patience waiting for the performers and they were as brattish as 5 years olds, trying their hand at the tabla, and ofcourse endless side-eyed selfies with a pout. After a brief wait, 2 young men stepped in with instruments. They laid out the Santoor and the Saarangi. The men explained the instruments.

The Santoor is an instrument with 100 strings and let out sounds which are meditative, pleasant and sets the mood of happiness to the listeners. With Arbaaz on the santoor, he managed to take us through an elating and enthralling experience. Soon his multi-talented brother who accompanied Arbaaz on the Tabla, unpacked a vintage Saarangi. The sarangi is a desert violin, which has 36 strings and connected to 4 main strings bunched with horse hair. It lets out music which is very akin to intense vocal expressions.

I requested if he can play something in Raag Yaman (Kalyani in Classical) and he generously played an outstanding composition to mark an end to the evening. Making my contributions of Rs.300 and thanking them, I set out to find my gastronomic muse, the legendary Laal Mans from the Rajasthani Cuisine.

Eats in the Blue City

For breakfast, we ate a place called Janata, which is brand with over 400 shops. Kachori chaat was very nice. Price Rs.35

On the road towards Ghantaghar (Clock Tower) There is a Shahi Kachori, a corner shop just before the clock tower. Price is Rs.20 from what I remember for both Pyaz (Onion) Kachori and Samosa. While the place is usually over crowded, I felt the items were salty. The stock is always fresh though.

Bombay Tea shop on the same road has some amazing bun maska. Price Rs.15. They serve chai, but I didn’t enjoy what they served. Price of Chai is 10 for what they call as single chai and it is quite a size.

Past the Clock tower, as you enter the road towards Pal Haveli, there are crowded tea shops who serve Kulad Chai at Rs.30. I found the coffee to be better Justified. Price Rs.15

Just opposite to these tea shops there is a much talked about Omelette shop. You wont miss it. They open after 11.00 am and stay open until night. They have an excellent menu of omlettes. I tried the “Cheese Masala Omlette”. very good and filling indeed. It cost me Rs.60. It is well reviewed in tripadvisor and tripto, but it also seemed like a local favourite. It is usually crowded, you are unlikely to miss it.

Managed to find a place called “Curry’s”. This is the roof top cafe above Zostel, Jodhpur. The order was served without much too much wait. I judge the dish 2.5 on 5.0. It missed the dominance of garlic, which needed to cut through the red chilly powder and the fat in the dish. Nevertheless, the succulence of the meat (chevon) and their Rajasthani hospitality was worthy of mention. The bill was about Rs.400. With slight disappointment I set out to explore some dessert. Mishrilal’s Doodh Bhandar is a vintage milk and sweet shop near the Clock Tower and is known for a few dishes. The Makahni Lassi and Doodh Jilebi. I pursued the Makhani Lassi which is glass of sweet yogurt with a dollop of home made white butter in it. While I couldn’t finish it, I must mention is a wonderful treat that you shouldn’t miss. Price is Rs.40.

Ended both days in gratitude to the numerous people who made my exploration of Mehrangarh Fort, Rajathani music, It’s food and finally in being able to scout and spot the “Blue in the Blue City” and further “Immersing in the Blue” a very memorable travel.

If there are any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section. I will happy to answer and connect with you.

Unleashing Columbus In Me

If travel was free, you will never see me again

-Anonymous

This quote has always inspired me in ways unexplained.

One of my greatest fantasies has been to travel the world. Countries close by, countries far away, big regions and small, nook and corners of the world holding treasures of stories and knowledge.

My Appa used to say, one of the things I was never scared about as a child was, sleeping in the open at night. Such was my comfort with ‘Darkness’. It helped me discover that, I had no concept of ‘the unknown’.

I had to fight a hard fight inside and outside my head before I could decide to push the reset button at 40.

Tougher than what I am able to put in words, letting go and allowing myself to accept whatever is coming my way, has been the key to ‘unplug my life’ from noises of entanglement.

After a series of unfortunate personal events, I decided to quit my job, to walk out of my business, to give up my dog to a friend, to let go of my possessions and to set out to on a journey to discover myself.. whatever that means!

‘Late Bloomer’ someone said in awe. So be it.

My journey till now has been to wade through my challenges, sometimes break down incessantly with pain and pick myself up with difficulty to breathe, look in the mirror hoping to heal my broken heart, push my limits in each and every way possible.

The ability to be in awe and amused about surroundings, uninhibited, vulnerable, exploring, experience, to fail and bounce back, to find new possibilities, to have unfiltered fun, to be in goodness, kindness and constant state of gratitude makes me who I am today.

Today, I am available for anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere, as long as there is acceptance for who I am, the way I am…as perfect as imperfect can be.

For the last six months, I set sail on a solo trip.

Here and now I start to share my stories from travel, not just as travel pointers, but hopefully to inspire you to explore life as a package.

Here’s to Unleashing ‘Columbus In Me’

Columbus In Me