Changing face to Pune.

My earliest memories of Pune are from late 70’s, when after my marriage I visited some of my wife’s relatives in Pune. After sometime, my mother-in-law also shifted to Pune so we visited her practically every year. I have fond memories of the city, every time I visited it.

In those days, most people lived in sprawling bungalows with trees all round and there were very few cars and two wheelers on the road. In fact on my first visit to Pune, I was shocked to see there were no fans in my sister-in-law’s house as they weren’t needed.

A few of the Bungalows which have survived.

Pune, with its proximity to Mumbai has always been very strategically important to whoever ruled India, right from 1674 when the Maratha empire was established, upto 1818, when the third Maratha war broke out. The Peshwas were defeated in the Battle of Khadki and the British established a large cantonment in Pune. Later, in 1895, the headquarters of the Indian Army was later established here.

A few of the Bungalows which have survived.

The climate of the city was so good that it was not surprising for the Officers during those days to choose Pune as their home after their retirement. Slowly however, it became the second largest city in Maharashtra, after Mumbai and due to the presence of several well known educational institutes, it became a major educational hub. It was often referred to as the “Oxford of the East”. Then came the IT revolution and after Bangalore, Pune became the second IT hub in India. Several multinational IT companies set up their offices in and around the city and population grew with many migrants from all over the country coming for work here.

Now Pune boasts a population of 3.3 million and is now the 9th most populous city in India.

A few of the Bungalows which have survived.

This has put a serious strain on the housing in the city. Bungalows have been brought down to make way for multi storied buildings with flats and the city has expanded in all directions, even beyond the Airport. As a result, the city is slowly turning into a concrete jungle and has started facing harsher climates and water scarcity. Due to water scarcity, the green cover is also depleting fast. The story not so different than some of the other cities in the country, like Jaipur and Bangalore etc.

Dry trees in the Pune University
Dry trees in the Pune University
Another one (Bungalow) bites the dust.
City expanded, no green cover.

On my latest visit, I was shocked to see less green cover, very harsh afternoons and mosquitoes in the evenings. I feel we need to give some really serious thoughts to our urban planning, and stop plundering the environment in the name of “development”.

It all started with a cup of tea.

The story of Yewale Chaha started with a cup of tea, when 16-year-old Dashrath Yewale came to Pune from Purandar and started selling milk. He often dreamt of setting up a tea stall.

The Yewale mascot.

That dream, which started in 1983 from Salisbury Park, Camp, Pune finally blossomed into a full fledged business spread across many outlets. It not only involves his son, Navnath but all Yewale brothers. Sadly Dashrath is not there to enjoy his dream.

After labouring extensively over five months, the Yewale brothers finally standardised their tea, by using the same proportion of milk, tea and sugar. They boil the tea over seven minutes while milk is boiled twice before being used for tea. This simple formula ensures that their tea tastes the same across all their branches in the city.

They use about 1,000 kgs of sugar and 300kgs of tea powder in a month to churn out countless cups of tea across all their branches in the city. This Wadgon Sheri outlet alone sells about 2000 cups of tea daily priced at Rupees 10.

The Wadgaon Sheri outlet.



The humble tea cup.

They now have a mega plan of opening 100 branches in the country and going international soon.

Having two cups of this magical tea last night, I can safely say that it is a must try for all tea lovers.

Pushkar se Sambhar tak

On the Republic Day weekend, early on a cold morning we left for Sambhar Salt Lake via Pushkar, where we planned to stay for the night.

Pushkar Adventure Camp

Pushkar is a seven hour drive from Gurgaon via Jaipur. It lies in the Ajmer district and is about 150 kms from Jaipur. The road bypassing Jaipur is good like other roads in Rajasthan.

Essentially it is a temple town situated on the shores on Pushkar Lake. It is famous for its cattle fair, which is held during October – November each year attracting tourists from all over the world.

We had booked ourselves in Pushkar Adventure Desert Camp which is outside the town amidst fields. The sleeping arrangements were in Swiss tents and we had a real cold night on 26th January.

Pushkar Lake

As soon as we reached Pushkar, some of our friends went for the Dessert Camel Safari while the others left to explore the town. Earlier, I had visited this place during the Cattle Fair so it was big surprise to see the town virtually empty, giving us, the photographers a golden chance to capture its different mood and laid back life.

Camel carts for Desert Safari
Sunset @Pushkar Lake

Following morning we left to visit the Shakmbhari Mata Temple and Sambhar Salt Lake via Marwa. Though we did not stop at Marwa due to paucity of time, we did spend some time at the temple and had loads of fun driving on the salt lake.

Shakmbhari Mata Temple

History

Sambhar is the biggest saline lake in India which finds mention in the legendary “Mahabharata”. It is 96 kms south west of Jaipur and is spread in 190 square kms. Two freshwater streams, Mendha and Rupangarh feed it.

This lake was part of the Kingdom of Devil Lord, Brishparva. Shakambri Mata, the goddess of Chauhan Rajputs had blessed this town to a plain of precious metals. However the people fearing fights requested her to withdraw her blessings, so the goddess changed the metal into salt.

Sambhar Salt Lake
Sambhar Salt Express
Panoramic view of the salt pans.

Both Jaipur and Jodhpur kings had staked claim to this piece of land and rented it to the British but after the Independence of India, the Government of Rajasthan manages and control it. Around it there are 38 small towns and it attracts Flamingoes birds. The best time to visit this place is in winters as summers can be very harsh.

There is a heritage resort being run and managed by a NRI, but its tariff is usually over 10k Rupees per night. After spending some time clicking the salt pans outside the resort we headed straight to Gurgaon ending this beautiful short holiday in Rajasthan.

One night in Mashobra

Recently I received a holiday voucher for two nights in Club Mahindra, Mashobra, from my bank. I had not been to Mashobra though I had visited Shimla about 39 years ago, I decided to accept the offer.

Mashobra is a small town near Shimla on the India Tibet road made by Lord Dalhousie at a height of about 7041 feet. Although for an average tourist there is nothing much of interest and most people whom I met during me stay at the Club Mahindra, Mashobra used to travel to Shimla every day.

Early morning in Mashobra. View from my Hotel room.

Early morning trek to Craignano Nature Park.

However if you are a traveller, you can go for long walks in the hills. Although I must admit that I was a bit disappointed that most of the roads have too much traffic for walking and due to continued construction, there was a lot of dust on the roads.

The resort, is quite nice and offers good view of the town & sunrise and sunsets. The food is also good and you can sit in their lawns with a book or just enjoy the sun.

Mashobra town is a part of the Shimla Water catchment and the vegetation is mainly of beautiful blue pines, oak and cedar trees. You also encounter a number of birds and monkeys as you walk on the roads.

Blue pines trees.

Part of the Mahasu Shiv Temple grounds.

Mahasu Shiv Temple.

Sadly the way infrastructure is being developed, if you choose use public transport for travel to Mashobra from Delhi you face many hurdles. Top most is that Volvo buses ply only in the night and the others are connectivity with Shimla by local buses, haphazard traffic and traffic jams. Honestly this killed my joy of visiting this hill town so close to Delhi.

From Club Mahindra you can visit the (currently under development) Craignano Nature Park on the Shimla Naldehra National Highway at an altitude of 7700 feet.  It is set on a cliff and it is about 4 kms from the resort. The place has many blue pine, oak trees and a number of flower beds planted recently by the park authorities.

Craignano Nature Park.

Inside Craignano Nature Park.

Flowers inside Craignano Nature Park.

Flowers inside Craignano Nature Park.

Flowers inside Craignano Nature Park.

Inside Craignano Nature Park.

Inside Craignano Nature Park.

Flowers inside Craignano Nature Park.

Inside Craignano Nature Park.

Inside Craignano Nature Park.

Inside Craignano Nature Park.

Sunset in Mashobra.

To reach here you have to walk through the village where the dust from the construction and passing vehicles makes the walk a bit uncomfortable. If you take your private car or taxi to reach there, personally for me the purpose of being in the hills is lost. I feel that given its location and current facilities, Craignano Nature Park will always have very little foot fall and it is a waste of tax payer’s money.

Enroute you pass through the Mahasu Shiv Temple where earlier bull fights were arranged but after Supreme Court banned them, the fair has lost many admirers and the temple its devouts. I wonder if it still part of the half day temple tour from Shimla.

Well, my Mashobra journey lasted two days and one night. Till a new adventure starts, hang on.

 

 

 

 

 

CambodiaDiary – Three nights in Siem Reap

Our flight from Hanoi reached Siem Reap, Capital of Cambodia in the late evening. As soon as I got out of the aircraft the beauty of Siem Reap International Airport struck me. Built in Aug 2006, it is one of the busiest airports in Cambodia and we had to wait in a couple of queues before we were ushered out. Hopefully Cambodian Governments’ plan to develop a new airport 60 kms away will help tourists in future.

Siem Reap International Airport.

Pub Street.

Pub Street.

Pub Street.

Pub Street.

Old market, Siem Reap.

Old market, Siem Reap.

By the time we checked into our Hotel Ibis Styles it was dinner time so we headed out.  Ibis Styles is strategically located, a few hundred meters away from both the Old Market and the Pub Street. Both of them are a must see, if you are visiting Cambodia, as this is where all the action happens.

The Pub Street is lined with pubs and bar as the name suggests and some of the best eating places are in this area. Though we were visiting Siem Reap in September, not really the season, the sights and sounds made me wonder how it will be in the peak season. The place was absolutely magical with some street performers also performing live. Street food in Cambodia is a must try. There are many Chinese style buildings in the town and in the evenings when they are all lit up gives a very magical aura to the market and alleys.

When the French first arrived in Cambodia, Siem Reap was a little more than a village. In the late 19th century, after the French Explorer Henri Mouhot re-discovered Angkor Wat, that tourists started visiting it.

The city’s history is largely shadowed by the horrors of Khmer Rouge’s regime but after Pol Pot died in 1998, stability has returned and tourists footfall has increased many folds leading to an overall development of the country. It is now listed among the top 10 travel destinations by various travel magazines.

Bridge over the Siem Reap river.

Street Food of Siem Reap.

On the right hand side of our hotel was the Siem Reap river which had a few  pedestrian bridges connecting the cluster of tiny villages across the river. The villages were developed around the Buddhist Pagodas (Wat) there.

Early next morning we were picked up by our Tour Guide who took us to the Angkor Wat, a temple complex, one of the largest religious sites in the World. The temple complex is in the ruins of the ancient Angkor city, which was the seat of Khmer Kingdom during the 9th and 15th century. During those days Angkor was a mega city supporting 0.1% of the world’s population during 1010-1220. The main temple Angkor Wat also appears on Cambodia’s flag.

Pedestrian bridge across the Siem Reap River.

Angkor Wat temples.

Wall carvings in Angkor Wat temples.

The Angkor Wat is an UNESCO World Heritage site and is well preserved. It was built in the 12th century (113-115 BC) and it is estimated that it took 30 years to build it. It was King Suryavarman’s dedication to Lord Vishnu and the main temple resembles Mount Meru.

This was a funerary temple for King Suryavarman and that is why it is oriented to west symbolizing the setting sun and death and is designed for viewing from left to right in conformity of the Hindu funeral rituals.

Wall carvings in Angkor Wat temples.

The fight of GODs and Demons for Amrit.

Hundreds of years old trees, Angkor Wat temples.

Angkor Wat temples.

The walls of the temple complex are covered by images of Hindu mythology. Carvings on the stone tell the story of how GODs fought the Demon Kings and recovered the elixir of life, Amrit. The entry and exit to the temple complex is only be through the west gate.

There are a number of other temples surround the Angkor Wat. The word “Wat” means temple in Khmer language and was added during 16th century, when this became a Theravada Buddhist monument. After the Capital of Cambodia was moved to Phnom Penh in 1432, the temple was cared for by the Buddhist monks.

Lord Buddha, hidden in a tree trunk.

Next day our holiday in this beautiful country came to an end as we took an early morning flight home via Bangkok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 12 – The Temple of Literature

Next day we had our flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Hanoi. Since the flight was in the early evening, I decided to visit The Temple of Literature as it was right across the street from the place we were staying in.

The Temple of Literature all lit up @night.

Temple of Literature

It is a beautiful structure and probably the most picturesque. It was built in 1070 during the reign of Emperor Ly Thanh Tong of Tran Dynasty as a dedication to the great Scholar and Sage, Confucius.  The buildings are built in typical Vietnamese styles and are well preserved. It houses Vietnam’s first national university, the Imperial Academy. There are various halls, statues and pavilions where study sessions, offering ceremonies are held.

The Temple of Literature appears on a 100,000 Vietnamese Dong bank note. Every Vietnamese New Year, calligraphers assemble and write wishes in Han characters and distribute them people as gifts, which they hang in their homes as decorations for special occasions.

On VND 100,000 banknote. (photo from internet)

The temple is modeled on the Temple in Shandong in eastern China covering an area of 54,000 square meters. The entrance is via the main gate with four tall pillars in the front. The gate opens onto three pathways which continue through the complex. The center path was used by the Emperor, the left path was for the administrative Mandarins while the right path was used by the military. Over the centre path is a big bronze bell which was rung to announce that an important person was on way and can be touched by the monks only.

Inside there are five courtyards. The first courtyards have trimmed trees and lawns where the scholars used to relax. The first courtyard leads to the second pavilion, the Khue Van. The third pavilion has a Thein Quang well and on either sides are two great halls housing the temple’s treasures.

A Calligrapher.

You enter the fourth pavilion through the third via Dai Thanh gate, which has two smaller gates on the sides. In the fifth pavilion is the Imperial Academy where students lived and studied for three to seven years.

It is one place you should visit when you have adequate time and preferably with a guide.

From here I went to the place we were staying and then off to the Airport. For my Cambodia travel check out my next blog.

VietnamDiary 11 – The Lan Ha bay cruise.

For every tourist visiting Vietnam, Ha Long bay, is a must visit place. Not only due to the fact that it is a part of the new seven wonders of the world but also because of its sheer natural beauty and charm.

In local Vietnamese language Ha Long means a descending dragon. It is believed that when Vietnam begin to develop as a country, Gods sent a dragon to prevent the invaders from attacking the people who were starting a life here.

There are two more beautiful bays neighboring it namely Lan Ha bay and Tu Long bay. We chose the Lan Ha bay for two reasons, first it is far away from Hanoi so not many tourists boats venture here and secondly there are many white sand beaches. Also it is the best place for sailing and kayaking. In fact my personal view is that you do not have to visit all three, pick one and enjoy.

Map showing the Ha Long bay and its surrounding bays. (pic source Internet)

Lan Ha bay.

Lan Ha bay.

Floating shop comes to your cruise ship.

Lan Ha bay lies on south and east of Cat Ba town but it is part of a different province of Vietnam as a result ships from Ha Long bay are not allowed to enter in to La Ha bay due to provincial restrictions. There are many species of fish, Mollusca, hard and soft corals and some large marine animals such as seals and dolphins, though there are very few of them.

From here you go in a small boat to see caves.

Kayaking.

The limestone caves.

The Limestone caves.

It occupies an area of about 1553 sq kms made up of about 2000 limestone islets, formed in almost 500 million years. Human presence in this area has been confirmed by historical research. In 1994, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Our trip from Hanoi started early and we drove to the Cat Ba town. From here we were transferred to the Cruise ship via a smaller boat. After we were transferred to the Cruise ship we really felt happy that we chose Era Cruise. It was a new ship and the suites, decks, food and staff were all really superb. We could not have asked for more.

The Limestone caves.

Our Cruise ship.

Sunset @Lan Ha bay.

Sunrise @Lan Ha bay. It was a bit cloudy that day.

The first activity was a sumptuous lunch after which we went to see the caves. On return it was time for swimming and kayaking followed by music and drinks on the deck. Post dinner we called it a day as we had to rise early to see the sunrise.

The morning began with a Tch chi class on the deck, followed by a brunch. After that we were transferred back to the Cat Ba island for our return journey to Hanoi.

 

VietnamDiary 10 – A day trip to Hao Lu and Tam Coc village.

Next day we went for a day tour to Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam and Tom Coc village. The tour started from the Old Quarters where we were met by a driver and a minibus outside the travel company through whom we had booked the tour.

Layout of the ancient capital.

Main entrance of the city & temples.

Main gate.

The temple.

The ancient capital of Vietnam, Hoa Lu was laid out in a valley between steep limestone mountains. The idea was to have protection via these mountains which even today are mainly accessible to mountain goats. Hoa Lu lies between rice fields about 90 kms from away from Hanoi.

Dinh Tien Hoang, the first Dinh emperor founded this city in 968 AD following years of civil unrest and a bitter war with the Chinese. There are two temples built in honour of Dinh Tien Hoang, Le Dai Hanh and Queen Durong Van Nga, who was first married to the first king and then later married to the second one. The tomb of Dinh Tien is also here.

In 1010, after the death of Le Dai Hanh, the new King Ly Cong Uan moved the capital to Thang Long which is now known as Hanoi.

After visiting the ancient capital we headed straight for a Vietnamese Buffet Lunch which was good with a vast variety of items.

Though their respective governments do not recognise each other, the ordinary people are least affected, Malaysians and Israelis on the same table.

Our next stop was the Tam Coc village, which is also called the inland Halong Bay. You take a 1.5 – 2 hours boat ride to see the three flooded caves which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Vietnamese, Tam Coc actually means “three caves”, Hang Ca, Hang Hai and Hang Ba, all three of them are on the Ngo Dong River. This area is particularly beautiful and boat ride is fun. It is interesting to see both men and women pedal the boats with their feet. We also toured the village on bicycles.

Tam Coc Village.

It is interesting to see who these women row the boats with their feet.

The flooded caves.

A women selling cold drinks and fruits.

The flooded caves.

Tam coc village.

VietnamDiary 9 – Hanoi tour continues.

Next day we started our Ha Noi exploration trip from West Lake, Vietnam’s biggest freshwater lake. It has a shore length of 17 kms with gardens, hotels, restaurants and entertainment centers.  The residential area around it is prime real estate of the city.

West Lake.

West Lake.

Restaurants and hotels around the West Lake.

The  historical Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Pagoda in Vietnam (1,450 years) is right in the middle of this lake. It was built by Ly Nam De in the 6th century. Then there is Quan Thanh Temple, one of the four sacred temples of ancient Ha Noi. The Chu Van An High School, oldest high schools in Vietnam is also close to the lake.

In the pagoda grounds is a Bodhi tree, which is a cutting from the original Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India given as a gift to Vietnam by the visiting Indian President, Dr Rajendra Prasad.

The Quan Thanh Temple dates back to the 11th century and is dedicated to Xuan Wu, one of the principal deities in Taoism. As one of the four temples it was built to protect the old city from the evil spirits.

After lunch we headed straight to the Old Quarters and Haon Kiem Lake.

Haon Kiem in Vietnamese means the “Lake of the returned Sword”. The lake is in 12 hectares and is the most beautiful and happening part of Ha Noi. There are number of hotels and restaurants surrounding the lake and in the evening this are looks magical with coloured lights.

In the middle of the lake is the Turtle Tower. It was built on the Turtle islet, a fishing site during the 17th century.

The Old Quarters is the ancient part of town which has existed since the imperial times outside the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Each street here specializes in one type of manufacturing  or commerce. There are about 76 streets where there are number of Hotels, restaurants and bars. This is one place where action never stops way past midnight.  It is still the main shopping area of the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

VietnamDiary 8 – Ha Noi tour continues.

Next day we began our Hanoi tour with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square. The mausoleum is a massive granite structure which took 2 years to complete and was inaugurated on 29 August 1975. It is the final resting place of the great leader also called Uncle Ho.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

It was Ho Chi Minh’s wish that his body should be cremated and his ashes are scattered over the North, Centre and South of the country. However the Vietnam government did exactly the opposite and gave him a treatment like the Soviets do to their leaders. They embalmed his body and installed it in an imposing concrete and granite structure modeled on Lenin’s in Moscow.

As no photography is allowed inside the mausoleum, I could not take any pictures.

Our next stop was  Ho Chi Minh Museum which was built to express the deep gratitude, people of Vietnam have for their President. It contains account of his life and his personal effects. The museum was inaugurated on his 100th birth anniversary.

The Presidential Palace is quite huge and grandeur and during his revolutionary life he lived and worked here. He was in fact a simple man who lived a simple life in a custom-built stilt house, behind the Palace till his death.

Presidential Palace.

Stilt house.

President’s car.

President’s car.

A pond in the palace premises adds to its beauty.

Mango path where Uncle Ho used to walk and do his morning exercise.

Next on our list was the One Pillar Pagoda, a historic Buddhist temple. Emperor Ly Thai Tong built this one pillar pagoda in the middle of a Lotus pond during his rule during 1028 to 1054. He was childless and one day in his dream he met the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshva, who handed him a baby son while seated on a Lotus flower.

The Pagoda is built of wood, on a single stone pillar 1.25 m in diameter and 4 m in height, and it is designed to resemble a lotus blossom, which is a Buddhist symbol of purity.

In 1954, the original was destroyed by the French before withdrawing from Vietnam after the First Indochina War. The current one was rebuilt later.

One Pillar Pagoda.

Ho Chi Minh Museum.

Ho Chi Minh Statue in the General Introduction Hall.

Uncle Ho at his desk.

The other attractions were covered next day.