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Friday, 15 May 2015

Unto the Caves: Trek to Amarnath with FareHawker

 The Amarnath shrine, is a beautiful cave situated at an altitude of 3888 m (12,756 ft) in the Sonmarg valley, Kashmir. Accessible from Baltal valley to its east and Pahalgam to its south, the trek to the cave is rife with snow clad mountains, deep endless valleys, and glaciers. Our Ultimate Travel Jockey, Parth Thakkar went onto the trek last year looking for a surreal experience in the middle of this crowded pilgrimage trek, as opposed to the isolated Himalayan vistas that he is otherwise used too. Here are some excerpts from our chat with him.

Q. Tell us something about your trek to the Amarnath cave? 
I trekked up to Amarnath last year as a Travel Jockey for FareHawker. It was quite different             from other treks that I have done in the past to Himachal and Uttarakhand. The weather to,                   begin with, was too fickle. It takes minutes to change a sunny afternoon, into overcast weather             with cold breeze    flowing rapidly. That apart,  it is quite a beautiful trek. The view of the                   Machoi glacier is nothing short of spectacular. Also, thev trails along the sind river is rife with a very interesting terrain particularly during the autumn. It stroked the photographer in me, and I was able to capture some brilliant images.

 Q. What about the trails? Are they well defined?

Yes. The trails are very well defined. It is quite a different experience to trek alongside a crowded yatra, as opposed to an isolated trail. But all the pathways, and trails leading upto every point from Chandanwari to the pissu top to the cave, are fairly well defined. Besides, you know you are going to be safe when the BSF and the CRPF jawans are in charge of looking after the security of the whole yatra.

 Q. Any difficulties in reaching Chandanwari?

None whatsoever. The people at FareHawker are professionals and they know the terrain fairly well. They took care of everything. But that apart, you can still find a number of cab services  from Pahalgam throughout the Yatra season.

Q. Generally it is a two day trek. Tell us what was your itinerary like?

Like you said, it was a two day trek. I started my trek from Chandanwari to reach Panjtarni and stayed the night there. The one thing I was surprised to see was that there was ample of food all throughout, from Pahalgam to Panchatarni and even further uptil Sangam. I hadn't seen that in any of my treks earlier. The weather however, helped a lot. The hues were clearly visible, and I saw           the glaciers as clearly as I could. The entire panorama was beyond serene, it was blissful! I reached Panchtarni by the evening and decided to stay there overnight. The next day in the morning I began the ascend to the holy cave and then finally up to the Maha gunah top by afternoon. After spending some time there I began for my trek back downwards.  

Q. But how about the initial climb from Chandanwari to Pissu Top? That one is quite steep.

Yes, it is. This part of the journey, although not very difficult, is quite arduous. It is perhaps, a 65-     75 degree steep climb, which can take a lot of energy out of you. But the saving grace is that the         stretch itself is not very long... You can accomplish it within 20-25 mins. Even if  you take longer breaks in between, it would still not take you more than 40 mins.

Q. Are the trails well- etched all along?

Oh yes, completely. Amarnath Yatra, as we all know is a major pilgrimage center of the country. The very fact that people have been climbing upto the cave since decades now, means that the trails are well etched. Besides, like I said- The BSF and the CRPF jawans are always present in case you loose your way.

Q. How is the view of the Sheshnag Lake? And also, what is the accomodation like for pilgrims 
    and travelers like yourself?

 It took me about 3 and half hours to reach Sheshnag, and when I did I was simply spellbound. The green meadows and the white mountains is the stuff that keeps me going in the first place. And Sheshnag Lake was just that. I got some amazing panoramas and time-lapse shots of the lake. Particularly, the time lapse of the snow sliding down the mountain and falling into the lake was special. As far as the accommodation goes, I pitched my own tent. It was overcrowded but still the they had made all the arrangements for blankets, and tents and sleeping bags... This was quite endearing to see. As far as the number of people are concerned, I knew I had signed up for that. So, I had made my peace with that.

Q. Yes, that is my next question. How is the Amarnath trek different from the other treks you've 
      undertaken. Is one kind of travelling better than the other?

That depends upon each individual traveler, as to what kind of experience he or she seeks. That will tell you if any particular kind of travel experience is better than the other. Personally, I do believe that you take something special with you, with each travelogue. Amarnath for me was too mainstream (for the lack of a better word), I am used to trek up the Himalayan vistas, on bare isolated trails, with nothing but my backpack and camera for company. That is not to say that Amarnath was not special, I learnt a few things here for which I am only glad that I went for this trek. Amarnath Yatra taught me not to be too snobbish about my treks. We love to trek up to the isolated trails and enjoy the Panoramic beauty and we keep doing that as we must. But just because others travel for different reasons than you, that does not make them any less of a traveler.

Q. So What are the kinds of amenities that FareHawker provided to you for the trek?

Well, all kinds! They took care of everything from essential permissions for photography and documentation, to my car ride from Srinagar to Pahalgam, to my stay at Panchtarani. It really is great experience being associated with them as a Travel Jockey.

Q. And what was your experience like in Panchtarani? It is supposed to be the most busiest spot of the whole journey?

Yes, it is! Since the Amarnath Caves are accessible from both, Pahalgam (from where the trek route begins) and Baltal (from where the Helicopter services begin), Panchatarni is where both these paths cross. It is quite literally the intersection point. So simply put, all the travelers from Pahalgam meet all the travelers from Baltal in Panchtarni from where they climb upwards for the final leg of the trek to the caves.

Q. And how about the final stretch to Mahagunas Top and later to the Cave? Difficult to trek or well balanced?

Definitely not well balanced. Generally you find a balance, when there is a flat plateau between two mountains, or between an ascend and/or descend. Here you find that there is a gradual ascend for a good 3000-3200 ft and then immediately, a 2000 ft descend. So, while it is not difficult it certainly is arduous and physically demanding.

Q. What kind of gears do you require for a trek like this? Particularly in terms of the water that you need to carry?

No, water is one thing you definitely don't have to worry about on this trek. Since, it is mainly a pilgrim route, amenities like water, washroom, light snacks are always what you will find along the route. That apart, your very basic gear... Trekking shoes, warm clothes, jackets. But try to pack light. As a thumb rule you should always pack light while on a trek.  

Q. Would you like to tell readers, why choose FareHawker?

FareHawker really serves as a one stop destination for all your travel needs. Apart from trekking up to the caves, they majorly provide helicopter services from Baltal as well. In fact, they were among the first to provide helicopter services in the region. So, when there are two routes to a particular place, and you cover both these routes, and that apart, when you have been dealing with tourism and air travel in Srinagar constantly, you familiarize yourself with practically all travel related activities around the region ... You really know everything there is to know! And that's why you should choose FareHawker. Cos they are experienced and knowledgeable

Q. Any advice to other potential trekkers?

Pack light. Respect the beauty of the mountains. Don't litter. Don't take foolish risks. Enjoy your trip. Keep travelling!

Parth Thakkar is the Ultimate Travel Jockey, associated with
Farehawker. He is a travel photographer himself and loves
mountains, jungles, desert and beaches (in that order). 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Top 20 destinations across the world that would make you pack your bags and leave!

20. Dubai, United Arab Emirates

In the last few years Dubai has emerged as a futuristic landscape that looms large and beautiful over the Arabian Desert. The city is certainly much more than what meets the eye as it houses the world's tallest building (Burj Khalifa), the world's largest man made island (Palm City), the world's only 7 star luxury hotel (Burj Al-Arab), and the world's largest nature reserve (Miracle Gardens). Not to mention the Souks that surround the Dubai Creek that are worth visiting. These sell everything from spices to crafts to exquisite jewelry to inexpensive tourist T-shirts. Besides, you know the world is rushing to Dubai when Hollywood biggies like Tom Cruise and Vin Diesel rush there to shoot their films.

19. Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town is among the most iconic cities in the world. From Durbanville and Somerset in the east to Cape Point in the South to Atlantis in the north- this city never fails to mesmerize! The sweeping panoramas from the Kirstenbosch National Botonical Gardens define the landscape of this 'Mother City' whereas the sea vistas from the Cape of Good Hope Natural Reserve is magic. The Hiking and the Wildlife safaris, at Table Mountains (also a UNESCO world heritage site) and the Kalk Bay Mountains, and the wine tasting at Cape Winelands this world-class cosmopolitan has something to offer for all the kinds of travelers.

18. Queenstown, New Zeland

Queenstown is every adventure junkies' paradise. The town sits on the edge of Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by the Southern Alps. From Kayaking, to bungee jumping, to para gliding, to Jet boarding to White-water Rafting... Queenstown has it all! (We weren't kidding when we said that this was an adventure junkies' paradise). But the place is much more than that... You can take a quiet cruise through nearby Milford Sound, which is a part of the UNESCO world Heritage site, or fancy fresh sea food at Fishbonne Queenstown, or... Take a Helicopter ride through the Remarkables mountain range, where most of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed.

17. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

It is difficult to not take notice of a place when that place happens to organize the largest carnival in the world. Breathtaking Landscape, pristine beaches, warm laid back people, and some incredible architecture is what characterizes this 'Marvelous city' . The sight of Rio from Corcovado hill where its signature statue Christ the Redeemer is situated, is nothing short of magic. Hike up to Sugar Loaf Mountain for an equally serene  experience or indulge in some sun soaking at the Copacabana beach.

16. Kerala, India

There is a strong reason why Kerala is called 'God's own Country'. Known for its Backwaters, Mountains (Munnar Hills), and huge coconut farms all tampered with lush green vegetation. Then there is also the famous Periyar Tiger Reserve where occasionally one can see its' beautiful inhabitant- the Royal Bengal Tiger. Along with these, Kerala is also home of diverse art forms like Kathakali, Kalaripayattu and Mohini Attam. The city itself boasts of diversity, from the synagogues, ancient temples and other heritage sites in Travancore to the mystique Munnar hills and from spices of Malabar to the ports of Kochi... Kerala is a must visit!

15. Siem Reap, Cambodia

What once used to be a small old-worldly village, has now become a booming metropolitan and among the largest construction sites in Cambodia. Ruins of Angkor Wat, in the once royal city of Angkor Thom have put Siem Reap at an all time favorite on many a travelers' bucket list. APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) has some very informative online portals dealing with the history of this once royal city beloning to the Khmer dynasty. That apart, you can also enjoy some Sombai (a local cambodian drink made from local fruits and spices infused in alcohol) and indulge in some street shopping at the Angkor Night Market. 

13. Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe, both physically as well as culturally. A city with some awe-inspiring architecture and ultra modern amenities fused in together, while, offering some delicious food, Istanbul is at the center of empires, with a gold mine of historic and religious places to soak in. A bulk of these monuments, mosques and Hammams (Turkish bath) that include the likes of Hagia Sofia mosque, Sultan Ahmet Cammii (Blue Mosque), Basilica Cistern and Ağa Hamamı. While on your trip to Istanbul, don't forget to try the traditional Nargile (Turkish water pipe).

12. Budapest, Hungary

A UNESCO World heritage city which offers an astounding range of baths with over 118 natural springs and borholes, from the sparkling Gellert Baths to the 1913 neo-baroque Szechenyi Spa to Rudas Spa, a spectacular 16th-century Turkish pool with original Ottoman architecture. That apart the iconic Chain Bridge and the grandeur of the Buda Castle are the stuff beauty is made up of. Also, the panoramic view across the Danube to Pest is simply breathtaking.  This city has a unique vibe and a world-class music scene that brings in rhythm even to the most stiff souls. Budapest most definitely is among Europe's most delightful and enjoyable cities which many have termed as the 'Queen of Danube'.  

11. Barcelona, Spain 

When the Century's renowned architect (Antoni Gaudi) builds more than just a few buildings, that city is bound to be visually stunning with among the finest Europe has to offer. A stroll down the Cuitat Vella (old city) and visit to Park Güell, a little ahead will take you back in time. That apart, National Geographic rank the Barcelona beaches among the best in the world where you can enjoy some sun soaking during the beach season that begins in mid march and goes on until November.  This Spanish wonder offers a whole lot than what meets the eye, and would certainly be on every traveler's bucket list.

10. Goreme, Turkey

town literally carved into the volcanic rock, Goreme is a vast UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also the gateway to Goreme National Park. The city boasts of some spectacularly different architecture that you may have not experienced anywhere before- The 10th- and 11th-century cave churches,  The chimney rock formations are among the more popular ones. The city is also home to some very delicious food and turkish wines. 

9. St. Petersburg, Russia

 St. Petersburg is arguably among the most breathtakingly beautiful places in the world and virtually any building in this large historical metropolis, threaded with canals dotted with baroque bridges, could be considered an attraction, Oh and yes- St. Petersburg is a declared UNESCO World Heritage city. The list of attractions here, doesn't quite seem to end- The infamous stone Kremlin is both intimidating and awe-inspiring, The Peterhoff, Peter & Paul Fortress, the beautiful Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, and there is the Hermitage Museum housed in the Winter Palace, aging back to the Romanov Dynasty... It not only magnanimous but also inspiring! The Hermitage Museum is home to some of the world's oldest and greatest collections of art, treasure, and antiquities. And this list is just a tip of the iceberg. There is vast treasure hidden inside the inspiring city, which can be uncovered only by visiting and exploring it yourself!  FareHawker definitely recommends you take a trip to St Petersburg asap!

8. London, United Kingdom

The world's oldest city, the world's largest city that has in all these years, managed to retain its beauty and charm to the rest of the world, so much so that it is almost in every traveler's bucket list to once visit this 'Royal City' that once ruled the world. The Crown jewels, the Buckingham Palace, the Kings Cross Corner, Trafalgar Square, Camden Market, and of course, the 221B Baker Street for all fiction/fantasy nerds (of course).  London has everything for everybody- The food, the fashion, the wine, the art, the history. It is impossible to have a single bad day in London!

7. Prague, Czech Republic

Prague has served as a capital of the historic city of Bohemia for centuries. With its Bohemian lifestyle and fairytale landscape, Prague is nothing short of dream. Almost undamaged by the World War II this magical city of cathedrals, bridges, gold-tipped towers and church domes, has been mirrored in the surface of the swan-filled Vltava River for centuries now.With a vibrant character full of energy, music, colour, art, culture, fine dining catering to almost every need of an independent traveller Prague is considered by many (And rightly so) right up there as the most beautiful city in the whole of Europe. 

6. Paris, France

Practically, no bucket travel list in the world, would be complete without including Paris in it! Paris remains the world's most beautiful, romantic city brimming with art at every corner, and carrying with it a rich culture and a royal history. Not to mention a long lineage of talents this city has given the world, what with the likes of Yves Saint-Laurent, Marion Cotillard, Roman Polanski and many more. No wonder then, that they call it the fashion capital of the world! So, if you would like to gorge on some pain au chocolat at a local deli, sip some champagne, and be awestruck by a whole barrage of Parisian marvels like Eiffel Tower (of course), Louvre Museum (why not), Arc de Triomphe, Moulin  Rouge, the Notre Dame Cathedral, Moulin Rouge and Lido then head to Paris NOW!

5. Kathmandu, Nepal

When your city, is home to the top most point in the world, the world notices! This bowl shaped city stands at an altitude of 1400m and is home to some of the tallest mountains in the world: Annapurna, Langtang, Manaslu and of course... The Everest! There is a whole lot of things that this city has to offer... The city boasts of a rich history that can be inferred from the inscriptions on the Swayambhunath Temple, the Boudha Stupa and of course various heritage sites around the Durbar Square. Kathmandu is one of the most serene journey traveler can experience!

Note:  While we completely and unequivocally endorse tourism in Nepal, we must bring to attention that on the 25th April, 2015 a massive earthquake measuring 7.9 richter scale struck Nepal with its epicentre about some 40-45 miles away from Kathmandu. The whole country is reeling under its' aftershocks.

4. Marrakech, Morocco 

When a city is just a few miles away from Sahara Desert, and located on the foothills of the snow capped Atlas Mountains, you know the place is going to be indeed very special! Marrakech brims with character in its' every nook and corner... The pristine architecture of the gardens, the local markets, the mosques and the palaces so full of grandeur. Visiting the serene Jardin Majorelle, the historic city of Medina is actually like falling through a looking glass back into the stories we've read in our books. In fact, the whole of Marrakech, especially the Djemaa El-Fna square comes alive packed with musicians, dancers, and story tellers just like the way you might have read in one of your arabian nights' stories. In the last year itself, Marrakech, witnessed a record number of tourists from all over the world flocking this wonderland!

3. Ladakh, India

Bound by mountains, protected by the Himalayas, inhabited by the Indo-Aryans, adorned by nature, and dictated by climate- Ladakh is among the most beautiful places in the world. The breathtaking landscape, which is used as an important trade route in the region, is moulded by the nature over the years and is located beyond the highest motorable passes in the world... The stark and barren land interspersed with isolated settlements of green oases full of swaying poplar trees, apricot orchards, cultivated farm land, and a rare sighting of the elusive snow leopard is what dreams are made up of. The warm and generous people in the Turtuk village, or staying along the banks of the Pangong Tso lake... Ladakh stays true to its essence- the roof of the world!

2. Florence, Italy

Once upon a time the most influential city in the world, Florence is a cultural, artistic and architectural gem. The birthplace of European Renaissance, the birthplace of  European architecture (Alberti and Brunelleschi) , the birthplace of Opera, the birthplace of first modern bank, the pioneers in science, politics, exploration and map making (Galileo, Machiavelli, Vespucci and Toscanelli)... Could this city be any more of a spectacular? Well Yes, it could.  The Duomo, Galleria degli Uffizi, the list basically does not end. I could just not stop about Florence. So pack your bags and head to Florence now!

1. Grand Canyon, Arizona, U.S.

The best travel experiences are the ones that takes you by surprise! Grand Canyon witnesses almost 2 million tourists per year and yet, it doesn't matter if you're witnessing its beauty for the first time or the tenth time- The Grand Canyon WILL take you by surprise! The massive canyon, carved over several centuries by the Colorado river at an elevation of 2130m is an overwhelming experience. The Canyon so full of exquisite flora and fauna that mingles around this enormous landscape might just leave you awestruck! You need more than just a few days to explore the entire North and the South Rim and once you do, you might not experience anything else quite like that! Its almost as if the words fail to describe what a marvel this landscape truly is...