Saturday, April 27, 2013

Skywatch Friday #7 - Kanchenjunga range on one clear day!

This is how the Kanchenjunga range of mountains look from Tukla range. Tukla range can be reached by car  from Nathu La, a mountain pass which is at a distance of about 50 kilometres from the Sikkimese capital of Gangtok. This place is much less crowded compared to the touristy Nathu La (thanks to its proximity to Gangtok). Can you spot something very unusual in this picture? Yes! It captures three distinct layers of mountain terrain - coniferous, arid and snowy. End of tree line and start of snow line. How cool is that? :)

This post is my entry to this week's Skywatch Friday.

Rendezvous with Rhododendrons #3 - Oh you, Okhrey!

It has been crippling to not be writing as often as I should be during the past week. A mere one week feels like a lifetime. Calling this my blog has now become an understatement, it is my baby, my heartchild (as opposed to a brainchild :D) And the privilege of not giving my readers yet another slice of Sikkim isn't helping my conscience much too. So here goes the third part, after all that much needed ado.

Ah, yes Okhrey!!! Let me pause here. Guess what, am just taking a moment to revisit the beauty so that I can paint an accurate picture. Imagine this – A little asphalted road winding through a hill dotted with rhododendron blooms, a quaint village with barely 10 households, a steep hill adjacent to the village, atop which is perched a little school. Throw in some plants and cute people here and there and that completes the picture. That’s exactly what Okhrey is. It is a tiny sleepy hamlet in some unimaginably remote corner of India; so remote that you cannot even find it in the Sikkim map! A cartographer not knowing it doesn’t make it any less beautiful – it is in fact as tranquil as it can get,  yet in the realm of civilization.

Most people here belong to the Sherpa community; yes the very same community to which Tenzing Norgay belonged. They are not only strongly built but also very endearing! Hospitality runs through their veins and arteries I guess. The Sherpa lodge, run by the Sherpa brothers (well,  every person is a Sherpa here, so I don’t really remember their first names and they are a little too tongue-twisting to remember too)  is a very basic yet cozy place to stay in Okhrey. After a cup of chai, we headed to the hilltop boarding school. The teachers and students were equally receptive to the idea of talking to tourists. Also the fact that it was way past school closing hours helped, as they were all in a laid-back mood. The emphasis that the Sikkimese lay on education is unlike any other part of India. After almost an hour of an engaging conversation with one of the teachers, we decided to head back to the lodge. That was something struck me. I decided to do an impromptu story narrating performance. The children initially looked quite annoyed as I was actually eating into their daily TV time! But a handful of curious ones insisted I tell them the story. So, what started off as a simple narration for a bunch of kids soon grew into a proper performance with a decent sized audience. By the time I finished my story, almost the entire lot was around me. One of the most fulfilling moments in the recent times!!

We returned to the lodge after shopping in the only souvenir shop of the town adjacent to our complex. Oh man, that night was quite cold. At 8000 feet above MSL, we could sense a sharp dip in temperature. Huddled under our blankets, we dozed off, dreaming about the promises that the day next held for us.

The very cozy room at Okhrey

The hosts

The little village

A rhododendron bud

The lovely children at the residential school

He was as hospitable as the people.

So true!

Okhrey getting ready for the night. The mountains disappear. Literally.

To be continued...

Monday, April 22, 2013

Another contest win!

Another nudge. Another source of motivation. Another contest win - my second contest win. My life experiences story has been selected as one of winning entries in the Ponds Femina Miss India - Godrej eon 'Woman of Substance' contest. It is amusing to see how hardships in past life become assets for the future. The story is a little too personal to share in this public space, but I must thank all my fellow bloggers for readily accepting me into this elite blogging world! Thank you readers! Thank you BlogAdda!

Here is the official announcement:

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Skywatch Friday #6 - Sky from the sky!

Watching the sky? Bliss. Watching the sky from the sky? ECSTASY!!! This is a picture shot during my latest flight. I feel twilights look their awesome best from airplanes. What still intrigues me is the formation in the middle. Does it interest you too?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

West Sikkim - Rendezvous with Rhododendrons #2 – Picturesque Pelling

The first episode of this travelogue ended with us, a small group of ladies setting off to scale the Sikkimese hills. The car journey was fun, frolic and fantastic all the way. Of course, what else could it possibly be when three like-minded lady travellers get together? The birds of the same feather naturally flocked together; chattered about food and destinations and experiences. In no time, no no, actually after a long time, which seemed like little time due to all the chit-chatting, we reached Pelling, a small touristy town in West Sikkim.

The sun goes down quite early in this part of India, hence though we reached the place at a point in time when it would be twilight back in Bangalore, it was pretty dark there.  The hotel (Sikkim Aurora) was located at the highest point in Pelling, opposite the helipad. Disappointed at not being able to view the helipad right away, we retired for the day.

The next morning, I woke my alarm up. Yes, I woke up at 4 45 and shut my alarm set for 5 am. Why? To do in Pelling as Pellingites do. Experience the Kanchenjunga in the morning.  Parcelled in warm clothing, I headed to the terrace.  I stood staring as the sky and the mountains changed hues – from black to dark blue to orange.  It was only after Kanchenjunga reflected the first rays of light that I turned around to look in the other direction. And what did I see? The helipad in all its glory and the orange ball escalating in the horizon beyond.  A man meditating on the helipad and a sleepy dog added to the serenity of the scene ( picture below). By this time, my friends had come up too. This was when the owner of the property, the very well-informed, local trekker Mr. Raja, volunteered to explain the significance of the place and the mountain ranges around us.  He even chalked out an offbeat sight-seeing itinerary for us around Pelling.

A sleepy dog, a meditating man, an orange ball and a helipad. Oh yeah, some red prayer flags too.

Our first destination in Pelling was Pemayangtse monastery. Just google it and am sure you will find a lot of touristy information about the same.  In brief, it was a very spiritual experience.  But what I wish to share with you is the one unusual thing that we spotted there – There were several prayer flags put up there too but for very different reasons. The list is below. Can you now see what is so unusual?

The second destination was Darap village, about 8 kilometres away from Pelling. Darap, with its resplendent fields and welcoming natives is an emerging ecotourism destination. The inhabitants of this little hamlet redefine hospitality. What we did was just drive into the village, walk along the fields and trespass into one of the villager’s compounds to take a closer look at the orchids. To our surprise, the whole family came out to welcome us. After exchanging pleasantries, the head of the family, a local farmer began enlightening us about life in Darap. Little did he realize that he would soon be bombarded by questions. I really appreciate his patience to relentlessly answer all our questions. Here’s what he said in a nutshell. Darap is a self-sufficient village. Unemployed youth here have aligned themselves into self-help groups and are involved in promoting eco tourism.  The government provides free education till 8th standard. It also provides training and supplies to farmers. For a change, this seemed to be one place in India where the people seemed to be actually happy with the local government. Good for them.

A cute girl in Darap
Exotic orchids in full bloom

After a brief stop-over at Changay falls, we headed to Singshore bridge near Uttarey. This is touted to be the second highest suspension bridge in Asia. Our driver divulged another enthralling fact which threw some light on how high the bridge was. If a coin is dropped from the top of the bridge, it would take 15 seconds for it to touch the ground. Fascinating, isn’t it? But for the fluttering of the prayer flags and the whistles of the wind, there was hardly any other noise. Calling it the abode of tranquility wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

Singshore bridge span
Singshore bridge perspective

Our last destination for the day was something truly offbeat. It was a cheese factory! Amul's Gouda cheese is made here, at the Alpine cheese factory. Tasting some freshly curdled, divine tasting cheese and buying cheese right from the factory was a 'once-in-a-lifetime' experience.
Fresh cheese!!! Yumm!!

Soon, we were on our way to Okhrey, a sleepy little village located in a remote part of West Sikkim. That was where we were scheduled to spend that night. With all the bumpy and jumpy rides, we were looking forward to getting there soon.

‘So, how was Okhrey?’ You may ask me.  I’m not going to tell you anything about that, at least for now. Do come back for the next one. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Skywatch friday #5 - Above the sky!

I'm literally above the sky. And the clouds. All I can see is the sky. The sky is all around me. This is my real skywatch. NOTHING BUT THE SKY!

Location: From the cable car to Mt. Pilatus, Lucerne, Switzerland.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Camera critters #3 - Attention!

This is my entry this week to the popular camera critters meme.

I came across this flock of geese while trekking near Lake Chilika in India. All of them, striking an 'ATTENTION!' pose, as if listening to someone with rapt attention. Funny!

West Sikkim - Rendezvous with Rhododendrons #1 - The journey begins!

Ah! Here I am, finally, clicking on ‘New Post’. Life has been hectic this week, with piled up work to finish and errands to run, thanks to the vacation bang on the first week of the month. But, oh boy, no regrets there, as I've returned fully recharged, almost as if on steroids!  And the time is now ripe, in fact overripe to start my new travel series as promised. I've been maintaining the destination as suspense ever since I promised a new series and it’s about time to let the cat out of the bag.

TA DAAA! SIKKIM it is! West Sikkim, to be precise.

I’d been to Sikkim just a year back, covering East and South Sikkim (Nathula, Tukla range, Changu lake,  Namchi, Gangtok etc.) then. I must say, I was totally fascinated both by the place and the people. I also found that there is a lot more to explore in this tiny Indian state and ever since, I’ve been reading up quite a bit on the same.  That was when I stumbled upon an article about the Barsey Rhododendron trail. Miniscule efforts, magnanimous rewards – that was what Barsey in April was supposed to be. An easily doable trail with a gentle gradient, amidst the enchanting rhododendron spring blooms coupled with some stunning views of the Kanchenjunga. Hmm, this sounded exactly like my cup of tea. But who would I go with? My all time travel companion, my hubby, had already planned his trek of the year – Saurkundi pass sometime mid-April. So, for the first time, I decided to travel without family and find a women’s group to travel along with me. I posted my travel plan on FB, soliciting female travel companions, and believe it or not, there were over 20+ enquiries!(there are so many ladies itching to travel by themselves!) Last week of March, being the peak exam season, most ladies could not make it. So, it finally boiled down to a chic(k) group of three. Plans made, fingers crossed, breaths bated!

Finally the day arrived. I took my flight to Kolkata and from there, it was an overnight train journey to New Jalpaiguri(NJP station in the town of Siliguri). The plan was to meet at NJP.  And Mr. Murphy was nowhere in the scene. All the three of us arrived on time and met without much chaos or confusion.  And what’s more, the cab from Pelling was already waiting for us at the station! Sweet! Off we set to conquer the mountains….

(To be continued…)

P.S: Not too many photos this time, just a sneak-peek to keep you hooked J

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mmm...Fluffy, white, non-sticky Basmati rice at home? Doable!

If the title of the post got you here, then you are at the right place. Yes, it wasn't just a crowd-pulling or attention grabbing gimmick. Having tried, tested, failed, tried all over again and finally succeeded (Mohammed Ghazni isn't related to me in any way :) ), I can comfortably say that I almost always get my Basmati right. Be it Pulao or Veg Biriyani, the rice I cook nowadays adheres to all the adjectives mentioned above. And getting there isn't a big deal. All you need is a little caution. 

Basmati is a type of long-grain aromatic rice and is primarily grown in India. (Yes there are other varieties too!) It is by nature longer than the usual raw rice and tends to stay separated from the other grains when cooked. However, it is very easy to overcook Basmati and make it mushy. South Indians are used to working with aged raw rice which is very tolerant to the amount of water used.  For example, a cup of well-aged raw rice can take in upto 3 cups of water, tolerate even an extra whistle in the pressure cooker and still stay nice and good. But do the same to Basmati, it is sure to take its revenge. So respect the rice and follow these steps:

  • Soak the Basmati for at least 15-20 minutes before cooking. This reduces the cooking time of the rice and also removes some starch.
  • The thing that makes rice grains stick together is the starch content. Repeated washing of the rice removes the outer coating of starch (the thing that makes the water white while washing), thereby leaving the rice less prone to stickiness. So make sure you wash your Basmati multiple times, but exercise caution – your over enthusiasm may actually break the grains. 
  • Measuring the amount of water that you add to cook your Basmati is of absolute importance. You may be an expert cook, but if you are new to cooking Basmati, I suggest you stick to measuring cups for a while.  You may use your eyes for measuring at a later point in time.
  • NEVER cook Basmati in a pressure cooker!!!! The result is almost always pathetic. I recommend the stove top or the electric rice cooker method. In the stove top method, cook every cup of Basmati in 4 to 5 cups of boiling salted water for and drain excess water once cooked. In the rice cooker method, add 1.5 cups of water per cup of Basmati and cook till done. There won’t be any water left to drain in this case. Adding spices like elaichi, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves etc. and a little ghee while cooking makes the end product extremely aromatic and inviting.
  • Post-cooking care also plays a significant role in plating up a perfect Basmati recipe. Cooked basmati is extremely fragile, handle with care. Stir it gently with a flat spatula. Never stir too much.
  • Now for the Pulao Biriyani segregation – When I make Pulao, I half-cook the harder vegetables like beans, carrots and peas separately with a little salt. Then I sauté the softer veggies like baby corn, mushrooms, cauliflower, soya chunks etc., add the soaked rice and the half cooked veggies and dump them all in the rice cooker. This consistently yields a superb Pulao!
  • For Biriyani, I cook the rice as in step 6 and then spread it out on a plate to cool. Then I layer the rice and veggies alternately in a heavy bottomed vessel and cover it with aluminium foil and a plate and then place a weight on top to simulate ‘DHUM’. I put it in a double boiler to prevent burning. The end result is astounding!
  • Don’t try making fried rice with Basmati rice. Raw rice works much better. If you are bent on using Basmati, then use cooked and cooled rice. But do so at your own risk!
  • Last but definitely not the least important - don't fall for the trap. It is not necessary that you have to buy the costliest variety of Basmati to get the best results. Even the mid range varieties or the 'Everyday Basmati' varieties can give please your eyes and taste buds if cooked correctly.

Phew! Now you see, cooking Basmati isn’t a big deal after all! A little patience is sure to reward you with great results. Now storm you kitchen with a warrior spirit, cook up a plate of jaw-dropping Basmati and let me know!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Thus the hiatus comes to an end!

Yes, the first week of April 2013 marks my first hiatus from blogging. And guess what,  it was for a good cause! I generated more content for my blog by travelling to a very beautiful and exotic destination. Obviously, that would be my next travel series too! By the way, when I was away, a few things have happened in my blogging world.

1. I've got my first IndiRank. It is 72. Not sure what to make of it.
2. My little blog has crossed 2300 hits.
3. A few more people have started reading my blog. A big shout out to all you lovely readers, who keep motivating me to write.
4. My blog has started appearing in Google search results.
5. Lots of wonderful posts from my fellow bloggers, missed reading all of that! Will catch up with all that soon!
5. Quite a few comments on my last post, I promise I will reply ASAP.

Watch out for the new travel series in a day or two! Till then, stay happy and keep blogging!

Skywatch friday #4 - Awesome sky at Langkawi!

Tropical rainforests, turquoise sea and the blue sky  - you can see it all in this picture. Can you figure out where the sky ends and the sea begins?? :)

Know more about the interesting skywatch friday meme here.