Smoky Mountains Revisited!
Sunday, July 17, 2005 | 3 commentsby
India has a long tradition of people going to the hills to commune with
nature and to get in touch with their inner selves. After a gruelling phase at
work, I was ready for my communing and touching and the nearest hills were...you
guessed it the Smokies.
A quick hotel booking and car rental later, a friend and I were headed to the Smokies. We made good time despite having to do longer stints at the wheel. The really amazing part came at four in the morning when we drove in the mountains through heavy fog. But the hardship had its reward and owing to our delay, we were able to witness the sunrise at Lookout point. All the sleepiness was suddenly gone.
Unlike my last trip, this trip was made in summer and I wanted it to be different from the last one. We again started at Cades Cove. Only, this time we were able to partake of different joys bicycling, watching horses in the paddock, a dip in the gurgling streams.
Also, since we were in a small group, I was able to indulge my weakness for photography, hopping out of the car at scenic locations, hanging by the mountainside taking pictures and so on.
The next destination was Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the national park. In fact, Clingman's Dome at 6643 feet is the second highest point in the US east of the Mississippi. The peak is accessible after driving Clingmans Dome Road from Newfound Gap, and then walking a steep half-mile trail. A paved trail leads to a 54-foot observation tower.
Vistas from Clingman's Dome are spectacular. On clear, pollution-free days, views expand over 100 miles and into seven states. Sunrises and sunsets at the Dome are amazing and so is the feeling of being above and in the middle of clouds if you are lucky.
We decided to get out of the national park a little early this time and headed towards the historic town of Chattanooga, Tennessee. We were looking to visit a few places around Chattanooga Lost Sea, Ruby falls, Rock city and Incline Railway.
Lost sea is not a sea as the name suggests but world's largest underground lake (Yup, the Guinness Book of World Records says so!). The tour brought up another interesting feature cave flowers. 90% of their entire population is found in these caves(if you see the picture carefully, you will see floral patterns the same color as the rock).
Lookout Mountain, Georgia was the scene of a major civil war battle but today it is famous for other interesting landmarks too. Ruby falls, underneath the mountain feature -- a 145 ft subterranean waterfall and beautiful rock formations. Right around the corner from Ruby falls is Rock city. It is a local joke that you can't claim to have lived in the American south till you have visited Rock city. With singing elves, fairyland caverns and mother goose village thrown in with botanical gardens and rocks, it was one of the pioneering amusement parks of USA.
The final stop is the Incline Railway, a train that moves up and down a steep incline on Lookout Mountain. So steep is the climb that the railway is actually not powered but pulled up by a cable and pulley system while another train connected to the same cable descends on the other track.
Our refreshing jaunt across the old south came to an end all too quickly but then, once you've been to the Smokies, you'll want to go there again. Skiing anyone?
Tuesday, May 24, 2005 | 4 commentsby
When you have a penchant for long drives and the need to get away from things every few months, you find yourself burning the tarmac in different directions ever so often. Yet there are places to which you are magically drawn again and again. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located at the state line of Tennessee and North Carolina is one such place in the eastern US.
Like most Indians, I had never seen fall foliage before coming to the US, so when I heard about it, the Smokies were the nearest place to head to. Luckily, I was able to pique the curiosity of four other guys and so we set out in a rented Dodge Caravan. After an overnight drive involving lots of adventure (taking a wrong turn on a mountain road, nodding off at the wheel...you get the idea). we reached our hotel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee which is at the edge of the national park. After a few hours sleep followed by breakfast we headed for the national park.
The national park gets its name from the overhanging fog you can see most of the time but we soon lost interest in the fog.
For someone who is seeing fall colors for the first time, the beauty can be overwhelming.
We found ourselves gaping at sweeping vistas of rolling hills covered with trees adorned in multicolored hues. On top of that, the mountain air at that time of the year is something else altogether. Rolling down the windows we were soon drawing in air by the lungful.
Since we only had two days, we decided to concentrate on the famous landmarks of the park. The first stop was Cades Cove. The best way to see around Cades Cove is to follow the cades Cove Loop -an 8 mile long circular road which takes you past old wood cabins, pioneer farms (now abandoned), natural deer habitat and trails which lead off to waterfalls. Two miles onto the loop and all traffic on the one lane road came to a halt. After waiting for 30 minutes we got impatient and leaving one guy in the car proceeded on foot to check what the problem was.
After walking another couple of miles we came upon throngs of people trying to lift up their kids and excitedly pointing at something across the road. A quick investigation revealed to us the meaning of the phrase "bear jam". There was a bear with two cubs foraging on the other side which had caused the jam. While I unsuccessfully tried to take a few photos (the bears had climbed a tree by this time) the other guys shook their heads in disbelief and cracked jokes about the bear crazy crowd.
Luckily the crowd dissipated soon and we parked our car near a trail. After trekking for 4 miles we came upon the beautiful Abrams falls. After doing a little rock climbing it was time to return to the hotel.
The next day we started with Ober Gatlinburg. A small ski resort situated high in the hills above the town of Gatlinburg. The two towns are connected by an aerial tramway that passes through some beautiful mountain scenery.
Though, there was no snow at that time of the year, we still took the chairlift up the mountain and were greeted by breathtaking 180 degree views of the Smokies. We had not anticipated the temperature drop at the altitude during fall season and were soon shivering. Fortunately, there is a shop at the top that sells hot cocoa...ahh life is good!!
Soon it was time to start back. As we had decided earlier, we took the scenic route on our return and headed into the Newfound Gap which snakes its way through the national park towards Cherokee, North Carolina which is an American Indian town with it's usual trinket shops and casino. There are a lot of tunnels en route and we dutifully honked our horn in each one of them.
Another two hours and we were out of the mountains heading home but each of us longed to go back.
Tuesday, April 26, 2005 | 20 commentsby
Majestic, nearly vertical rocky cliffs surrounding a rich green valley, a multitude of waterfalls streaming in from the snow capped peaks, millennia old Giant Sequoia trees unmatched in their stature and girth, clear blue lakes continuously drinking fresh water from the melted ice and nature still untouched by human progress attract thousands of avid rock climbers, hikers, campers and tourists from all around the United States to the Yosemite National Park.
The drive leading to Yosemite Valley is not for the faint-hearted. Narrow meandering roads boasting a downward / upward slope of more than 10 percent that stretches at times to several miles without respite, with thousands of feet-deep trenches on one side appearing to have their jaws open, waiting patiently for a careless driver to satisfy their appetite. To do it justice, those jaws do fascinate an onlooker who has the luxury to stop the car in one of those rare scenic spots.
Such stop areas bring reprieve to the people who start feeling that they have loaned their lives in the hands of the driver for too long.
The real test, however, still awaits an already nervous passenger who has been too hasty in heaving a sigh of relief. The best scenic vista, namely the Glacier Point reserves for itself the most perilous road. That road is not only narrower, but at places has been partially worn off with the flow of melted ice reaching the base of the mountains creating fissures that can easily topple a vehicle on one side if the driver lacks the necessary skill to maneuver at such a critical point. It seems to be an open invitation to visit the valley, without the aid of the road.
Glacier point, however, opens the gates to a different world. A world full of serenity, natural beauty, filled with the sweet regular music of waterfalls falling in the distance and the magnificent Half Dome, visible in the background of summits adorned by snow. The varying textures of rocky cliffs appear different at various times of the day. When the day is bright, the cliffs appear lifeless and gray against the azure sky but as the shades of the twilight get sprinkled on them they appear to wake up. When the darkness falls, the stars twinkle against the dark fabric of space. The silhouettes of the cliffs appear to stand up like mythical gods, protecting those ancient civilizations and their faithful creatures that may have dwelled in the valley. This illusion is caused by the absence of any artificial source of energy present in the Park. Authorities have strived hard to preserve the true nature of this place as it has been from scores of centuries.
Hiking trails offer an even closer look at nature. Though energy sapping and testing physical endurance in the best of athletes they are well worth the effort. Trails are categorized according to the level of difficulty and some of them do require special training before one can surmount their challenge.
Most of these trails take the hikers close to the head of various waterfalls allowing for even more appreciation. The mist starts becoming dense as one approaches the apex of the fall, the colors of the rainbow appear every now and then, the tiny water droplets suspended in air after striking the rocks from a height of more than a thousand feet make the trail slippery, demanding caution and agility.
Squirrels, mountain birds and other animals can be seen close to such bounties of nature singing in their own peculiar note along with the flow of water. A view from the top of the waterfall shows an observer looking downwards, water disappearing at a distance after traversing a tortuous path chiseled by time through the nonchalant rocks.
A vertical drop of nearly 4000 feet, authored by nature, appears to be done in a pain-staking manner by carving it out in a spherical rock to form one of the most amazing views in Yosemite. The Half-Dome thus formed serves to be the most precious jewel in the crown of the Valley. Its angular edges, the near-horizontal ledge that suddenly ends in a discontinuity, to reveal the extent of the depression is sufficient to make the boldest feel dizzy for a moment. The other half is smoothly rounded to give it the appearance of a primitive monarch's head, writing history in permanent ink to give its grandeur and magnanimity the finishing touches, indefatiguably rising to its true glory to face the golden light of every dusk and dawn.
It is a place to discover one's own love for the nature as the gamut of scenic experience that Yosemite National Park has to offer is extremely rich.
Off to Isloo!
Thursday, March 31, 2005 | 26 commentsby
The plan to go to Islamabad was hatched on the spur of the moment when Zaheer announced that he is bored and therefore would like to go on a long drive (his idea of a long drive also included an overnight stay). The five of us – me, Romi, Zaheer, Farhan and Ali – left Lahore around 7:15pm on 21st March. We stopped to get the car tank full first and also get some stuff to eat as it was decided not to stop much along the motorway. Farhan took to the driving seat and we reached Islamabad in three hours time.
Upon reaching there we asked for directions to “Blue area” so we could have dinner at ‘Jehangirs’ which is a good desi-food restaurant. The dinner was scrumptious and everyone ate to their hearts content. After dinner we drove around “Blue area” to search for lodging. As you drive around, you come to Constitutional Avenue and can see the Presidency and the Parliament House along the way. These buildings are magnificently built and reek of the power that they hold.
After a little while we found a very nice guesthouse ‘Chateau Royal’. It was very cosily built and the rooms were spacious and welcoming.
The funny part was when the waiter took our luggage and went to place it in the girls & guy’s rooms accordingly – he thought the two large suitcases must belong to us girls while the handbag and the backpack must belong to the guys. It came as a jolt to him when he found out the medium-sized handbag was the female’s total luggage and Zaheer made some flippant comment about us being the only two females in the world who travelled so light.
A couple of hours were spent in playing cards and then we decided to call it quits for the night as it was decided we’d go to Murree (a hill-station near Islamabad) in the morning.
Rise & shine everyone
In the morning everyone got ready (though Ali was hopping around half-naked in the lobby and only when a female shrieked at the horrific sight did he put his shirt on) and then we had our breakfast in the breakfast room. The scenic beauty of Islamabad and the clear sky made the morning more beautiful and exquisite. Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan is located against the backdrop of Margalla Hills. It is one of the most peaceful places to be in and one of the most well planned cities. The roads are of high quality and well maintained; greenery and the hills compliment the serenity of the city.
Journey to Murree
We set out for Murree, the most popular summer resort of Pakistan, around 11am. The traffic was light and the weather pleasant. Murree is an hours drive northeast of Islamabad but the drive is nerve wrecking especially for people like me who has a height phobia. The roads are narrow and the turnings are dangerous. Traffic is heavy on most days though this day was an exception but I still kept reciting various prayers even though Zaheer was driving with veritable ease. To add fuel to fire (for my phobia), Farhan narrated a thrilling story of his experience in Yosemite where his life was saved by sheer luck during one such drive. It was a very interesting story though it played havoc with my mind at that time and the speed of reciting the prayers considerably rose in my heart. There were green pine-covered slopes all around the road and made the whole view extremely breathtaking.
Finally we reached Murree and went via the “Mall” (which is a shopping area located at the center) to Kashmir Point, which is at the northeast end. As soon as we got out of the car, the chilly wind hit our faces and froze the limbs. Snow was still lounging in some corners but it was so dusty that it seemed more like a dirty stone than snow. Two Pathan kids asked us to do riding but we decided to walk on our own so that we could enjoy the scenic view at our own leisure. A street vendor offered to sell film rolls to us and also take our pictures but we didn’t need any of that since we had the magician photographer Farhan with us.
We passed by St. Denys Girls High School and the Murree Church on our way and kept walking towards the President house (formerly known as Governor House). A pine-covered forest is found on one side of the road while magnificent mountains can be seen on the other.
The reason we chose to visit Kashmir point instead of it’s counterpart Pindi point was because Kashmir point offers a much more fascinating view of the magnificent natural sights. At a near distance one can see lush green fertile valley and hills covered with snow. The panoramic view mesmerizes the viewer and one just keeps gazing at the icy peaks as if transfixed by the sheer beauty of nature. The beauty of the valley casts a spell on your senses and the sight that befalls bewitches the audience. When sunlight falls on the icy peaks, it dazzles the eyes as such it makes the mountain tops look so alluring and makes one wish that time would stop and they can enjoy the tranquility of such a place. The howling wind and the chirping of birds works as the perfect background music.
Our thrilling excursion was cut short at a point where a landslide had fallen recently so we had to turn back, and decided to go back to Islamabad. With a heavy heart at leaving the peace and tranquility of such a beautiful valley, we drove back to Islamabad. The song “Yeh haseen vaadiaan …” from “Roja” was on in the car and it fit the bill perfectly. I enjoyed the drive back to Islamabad as now we were going downhill.
Back in Islamabad
We got back in Islamabad around 4pm and went to “Pir Sohawa”. On the way up you can find a lot of monkeys sitting on the road enjoying treats from the tourists. Pir Sohawa is on the way up from Margalla Hills and when the Indian cricket team toured Pakistan last year, they were taken on a trip there too. We stayed there for a few minutes and then decided to go down to “Daman-e-Koh” – a low hill overlooking Islamabad.
Daman-e-Koh is often described as a terraced garden in the heart of Margalla hills. One can enjoy a glorious panoramic view of Islamabad from up there and it boasts of a very nice restaurant so you can fill your tummy and enjoy the picturesque view alongside. The food was very delicious and wholesome.
Rawal dam can also be seen from up here, which is the main water reservoir for the residents of Rawalpindi/Islamabad.
The panoramic view of Islamabad enchanted us and we stayed there till sunset. Watching the sun set from Daman-e-Koh was an enthralling experience. The change in light was so exquisite and the different colours in the sky captivated the viewer. The scene looked right out of the world’s most beautiful painting. It is at times like these that one really marvels at the universal beauty of nature. Time was short or else we would have loved to stay there for a lot longer.
Our next stop was “Hang-out” -- a sheesha-bar in Islamabad. Sheesha is a special sort of smoking pipe with flavoured juices inside it which makes the experience of smoking more pleasing. The ambience of the place came as a nice surprise to us. As you enter the bar, the pleasant aroma of scented smoke hits you and the superb décor is eye-pleasing - it is a delightful blend of western, Arabic & traditional designing. As we were all full, we decided to have light snacks instead of proper dinner. The little tidbits of food were nice; their mango ice cream is specially recommended while the soup wasn’t up to the standard. The good thing about this bar was that people of all ages could come and enjoy – apart from the usual teenagers hanging around, there were families enjoying the food and atmosphere.
Back to Lahore
Time flew and soon it was time to leave Islamabad. We left for Lahore at 11pm and this time Zaheer wanted to test Romi’s driving skills (she flew his test with flying colours and Zaheer is now a full-fledged fan of her driving). Farhan regaled us with more thrilling stories of his life and at 2:30 am we were back in Lahore after a tremendously entertaining trip.
Our only loss on this trip was my broken shoe * sniff sniff*
Thursday, March 31, 2005 | 5 commentsby
I was all excited and so were my friends. All of us were taking a break from
work and had planned a good five days of exciting fun. We were going to Sinhgadh,
one of the Forts which once belonged to the great Shivaji. Sinhgadh (1290 m
above sea leve), was once known as "Kondhana" and is located 25 km away from
Pune. All of us had different ideas of how it would be, but we were all sure of
one thing. All of us were going to have great fun at Sinhgadh!
Historically, Sinhgadh has always been a place of great military significance, be it for the Marathas or the Mughals. Sinhgadh has always been associated with stories of bravery. The locals tell us that Sinhgadh is a place where valour is etched on every stone and the soil has turned red by the blood of martyrs! This fort is infused by tales of bravery. From the times when a Koli chieftain, Nag Naik, stoutly defended this fort (AD 1328) against the might of the Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq for nine months to the times of Jaswant Singh, Aurangzeb's commander, who dragged his guns up the fort's steep shoulders to avenge the insult to Shaista Khan, who had been rebuffed by Shivaji. It was at this very fort that Shivaji's general, Tanaji Malusare launched an attack to recapture the fort. In the ensuing battle, Tanaji valiantly laid down his life but captured the fort. A grieving Shivaji is known to have said, "Gad ala pan sinh gela" (The fort is won but the lion has gone). And this is how the fort got its name: sinh (lion's) gad (fort). Sinhgad lived up to its reputation even during the Indian freedom struggle. Lokmanya Tilak, the freedom fighter, had a bungalow atop here and Gandhiji is said to have asked for water from Sinhgadh whenever he was imprisoned at Pune.
But again we were more interested in fun than the history. The bus ride along the steep roads was just the beginning of it all. Finally after a 2 hour journey from Pune we reached the entrance of Sinhgadh. From that point onwards it was all walking. As we walked through we could feel the tiredness of the 2hr bus journey fade away. The air was so fresh and the gentle winds caressed you wherever you went. Our first target was to reach our dormitory, which was an old nunnery converted into a tourist bungalow. It took us about 30 minutes to walk from the entrance to the bungalow. On the way we could see many small huts and also some houses, one of which belonged to Lokmanya Tilak. Once we reached the bungalow, looking around we could see nothing but grass, trees and of course, the walls of the fort. As it was almost bedtime, most of us freshened up and went to sleep, anticipating a very busy day ahead.
Day two started with all of us going to take a look around the place. The place was so beautiful. With a glance across the walls you could see miles of open space. It seemed as if we were looking down from the windows of an airplane. We took a walk around the fort appreciating its grandeur and history.. There were monuments dedicated to Shivaji's son and also to a Mughal chieftain and we saw the wall, which Tanaji is said to have scaled. One look would be enough to scare, even the experienced climbers. It was almost straight and looked very slippery. It seems the soldiers had to scale this wall at night because the other sides were well guarded (The locals say they used a chameleon with a rope tied to its tail instead of the hook). The fort also houses a mammoth stable carved out of rock. There are also many small ponds including the famous Dev Taki. You can also see the NDA (National Defense Academy) khadagwasla from the top of Sinhgadh.
Day three was more fun. Although, we started late we were in for some high quality trekking. We took a ride to the base of the fort and started our trek and it was one of the more difficult routes we took. On the way up, you could spot these little rest spots made by the locals who made this climb daily. It was amazing to see these people making this climb to the top daily, though there are buses that they can take to the top. We saw little kids and old men climbing at a pace, which we could never hope to build up. Nonetheless, it was an amazing climb up to the top. The only thing we could see from below was the Doordarshan Broadcast tower which was at the highest point in Sinhgadh. After hours of trekking with generous breaks in the middle we reached the top. We had conquered Sinhgadh.
Day four was a rock climbing and rappelling day. Though most of us were pretty new to all this, it was one thing we couldn't miss. Under the trained guidance of our guides, we started our climbs. Though I did not particularly like the climb, rappelling was the activity I really enjoyed. Coming down the high cliffs was so much fun. I had been totally scared to take the first step, but after that it was pure enjoyment. That night our organizers had arranged for a treasure hunt which took us all around the fort. I had seen nightlife in the cities but never on a Fort before this. This was in addition to the nice campfires we used to have almost on all days.
Day Five was the last day of our stay at Sinhgadh. We packed our stuff and moved out. But not before we had devoured an amazing local meal prepared by the local chef. The curd in small clay pots that you get in Sinhgadh is just amazing! If you are a foodie, there is a special preparation called Sinhgadh style chicken, which is made on order. I think it is this sweet curd, buttermilk, Kanda bhaji, Pithle-Bhakari (Roti) and Chicken that drag many tourists here. It was a 2 hour drive back to Pune and the next day it was time to head back to the office.