Satara Hill Marathon 2014 — A WOW Experience

Most of us in our running group, Run Amrit Shakti, had registered for the Satara Hill Marathon about 4-5 months back when they had opened the registrations. And had vowed to practise sincerely for it. For, Satara’s Half is not an easy one. Why! They call it the ‘Ultra’ Half Marathon! For, although 21.1 kms, there is a 413 meter ascent that needs to be conquered. So you start at 678m above sea-level, go through 4kms of the Satara town, and then start climbing the Satara hills till about 1059m above the sea level! A bad one…unattainable without protracted training..

The veterans amongst us had given us our dose of hill-run practise for the last 6 weeks in the run up to the D-day. We actually had a traning module drawn up for 2 and a half months, but the July rains in Mumbai, got the better of us. We almost didn’t run all of July!!! And when August dawned, we woke up from our collective slumber, petrified at the impending deadline, and vowed to slog it out ‘come sun, come rain’. Being a Powai-based group, hills were relatively easy to get – we’d run up to the Hiranandani Gardens and train in the steep slopes of one of the hills there. This saw us in good stead. And, one of the chief reasons  why the 15 amongst us notched up 244 kms together in Satara yesterday.

Why go to Satara for a 21 km Marathon? For a couple of reasons.

  • One, it is such a picturesque run. Just 4 kms and you are out of the town limits, into the hills, breathing in the freshest of air, watching the sun rise from behind the distant hills, green hills on one side and a greener valley on the other, dotted with lakes and ponds; beautiful birds. The rains haven’t left yet, and so you get to see a whole lot of white clouds play with the sun and the blue sky; sometimes dark ones threatening to get the better of the sun. Beyond the 7km mark, you enter the famed Satara plateau and can see a whole lot of beautiful wild flowers too.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  • Plus, I found Satara Hill Marathon to be extremely well organised! There were water stations every 2-3 kilometers, where they gave us biscuits, energy drinks, water, fruit juices. At the turn at 10.5 kilometer, there were bananas and oranges too. And guess what? The water stations didn’t run out of provisions until the end of the run! There were volunteers in bikes offering medical help such as pain-sprays throughout the way. Pacers of 2 hours, 2 and half hours, and 3 hours guided the runners. In my case, the 3-hr pacer guided me until the last 50 m and helped me make it in 2.57 hours! An SMS reached us in 6 hours of the run completion with our exact timing. And by today, we can also see our official finish line photos. Wow! The organisers are pretty serious about what they are doing.

Bib and Kit collection was easy too, and they were more than willing to change my T-Shirt when i found mine to be 2 sizes bigger. Was told about a gala carbo dinner too, but we couldn’t make it, since we were staying at Vivant, somewhat far away. Plus it rained on Saturday night and we, Mumbaikars, were shivering in our skin.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A number of people in India have become fitness freaks and are always on the lookout for beautiful and well organised runs. Satara Hill Marathon is one such. Take my word for it. And register in 2015!

Morning Walk in Gangtey (Bhutan)

We had fallen in love with Gangtey the moment we set foot there. This is the only way we can perhaps, logically summarise, nay, explain our complete craziness for the quaint little village. Why? We had made a promise when dusk on the valley, the previous night – Will catch the morning sun. The first rays. And guess what? We woke up with the birds. It had rained throughout the night. And was still drizzling outside. Quite cold, the fire too had died off during the night. Jayant quickly lit the fireplace while we brushed and showered and got ready. Come rain, come sun, we are going out for a morning walk!

And thus braving the ominous clouds and the resulting chill, we headed out. Into the sharp morning air, the unpaved road, to the smell of pines and the chirping of birds, to the mist, to the clouds covered hills, to the horses grazing in the shrubs thicket, to the dripping wet pink rhododendrons, to the peek-a-boo game of the rising sun and the clouds, to the slow brightening of the lands faraway, to the beautiful birds hopping and pecking here and there, to the crossing of wooden bridges, to wild red berries hiding in the grasses, to the feeling and gratitude, Thank you God for bringing us here and showing us this…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hotel Review: Dewachen Hotel in Gangtey, Bhutan

By the time we got back to our car after walking through the Gangtey Village and went looking for Hotel Dewachen, where we were booked, it had started drizzling in Gangtey Valley. So what we had a long day driving from Bumthang to Gangtey? We weren’t tired. But yes, we were longing for some hot afternoon drink :-)

Perched in a little hillock is Hotel Dewachen. It is lined with a thick cover of pine trees at the back, thereby giving it a very royal look. We were scheduled to be stationed in Gangtey for just that night. The long drive to Paro awaited us the next day.

Dewachen Hotel’s Restaurant: Sonam took us straight to the restaurant, while the hotel staff unloaded our bags and kept them in the room. The restaurant on the 2nd floor, right in the middle of the hotel and flanked by rooms on either side, overlooking the Phobkjhika Valley. Your instant impulse will be to grab the table by the window so that you can dreamily sip your drink looking out into the valley. They even have a fireplace. Which means, the days when it is too cold, this is where you hang around over drinks. Very clean and very well maintained, the food is reasonably good here at the restaurant. The Hotel staff try their best to honour every request of yours.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our stay at Hotel Dewachen:Hot tea, coffee and milk over, we headed straight for our roon. By now it had started raining and was getting colder. We needed our jackets.

One look at the room and the view from it, I told Jayanta that there was no way he could get me out of Hotel Dewachen at 8 am the next day!!! One large King-sized bed covered with the colourful Bhutanese bedcovers, wooden floors, a fireplace, large chairs by the window, this looked so sot cosy. And wait. The view outside could take your breath away. Large French windows and all that you could see through the panes was the unending Phobjhika Valley. Both Jayanta and I were speechless for a while. It didn’t take much haggling on my part to convince him about a later than scheduled check-out the next day. He called up Sonam, requested him for a check out around 10am and a trek of the Phobjhika Valley. Sonam warned us that this would delay our arrival at Paro. But we were fine reaching Paro even after dark. Plans changed, stay extended, we happily sat down in the chairs and kept looking out as dusk fell and slowly covered the valley in its dark cloak. Ethereal.

Next morning, I woke up early to catch the first ray of the sun in the valley. Bliss.

Final Word about Hotel Dewachen: If in Gangtey, don’t even think of any other place. Criminal not to stay in Hotel Dewachen.

Drive from Bumthang to Gangtey via Trongsa

Although we stayed there for 2 days and 2 nights, we were loathe to go back from Bumthang. So enamoured were we with the place! Sonam, our guide, reasoned with us and gave away a little secret, Gangtey is even more beautiful. Really, we asked in utter surprise. Possible? Yes, said Sonam.

And so, we checked out immediately after breakfast in our hotel, Ugyen Ling (Read – Review of Hotel Ugyen Ling in Bumthang). A quick stop at the market in order to get a couple of bottles of honey, and we were on our way. We stopped by once again at the Thokmed Yeshey Handicrafts & Yathra Production Centre to buy some knickknacks and a Yak-wool jacket. And then again at the Chume Valley. But then, we couldn’t leave Bumthang without a walk and run at the Chume Valley :-)

Gangtey is about 3 hours away from Bumthang. You need to get back on the road that had brought you to Bumthang on your way from Punakha (read about the Punakha to Bumthang drive), and cross both theYutong La and the Pele La passes. Between these two Passes, you also pass through Trongsa. Since we had not stopped at Trongsa on our way from Punakha, we stopped by for the Dzong’s tour.

Trongsa Dzong: Ah! It’s a majestic Dzong, to say the least. Just as they are proud of all their Dzongs and Monastries, the Bhutanese are most proud perhaps of the Trongsa Dzong followed by the Punakha Dzong. Not without reason though. Trongsa Dzong is the largest Dzong in Bhutan and the seat of administrative power.

Its location, perched on a hilltop, is most interesting — against imposing mountains on all sides and drops down steeply into the valley of the Mangde Chu river. An extremely huge complex, we went around the temples inside and raved over the paintings. Note, the administration complex is closed to tourists.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Reaching Gangtey: Despite all the above stopovers, we managed to reach Gangtey in good time. Late noon, but still time for the sun to go down, Gangtey appeared to be a sparsely populated village. Unpaved roads, school children on their way home from school, the Phobjhika Valley extending till eternity on one side, Karma didn’t wait for our request to stop the car. He stopped the car and told us he’d be waiting a kilometer ahead. We, as had become usual now, jumped out of the car to live every moment of Gangtey….

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Why Must You Stop By Chume Valley in Bhutan?

I wish I could tell you to close your eyes. While I narrated this to you.

Imagine a two-lane road in the mountains, and you are zipping by in a van with a thick cover of tall pine trees in both sides. You know you are going downhill, but can see neither the valley down below or the Pass you just left behind. The pines have blocked your view. 200 yards ahead is only what you can see, and soon the next turn and yet again the pines. Na na, you aren’t bored. Instead, you are inwardly fighting a strong desire to get out of the van and walk in that crisp air of the pines, sing-song with the chirping birds, and float with the clouds in that small sky the pines allow you to see.

But wait, the sky is getting bigger with every turn. You are in the foothills now. Well almost. For, the next turn opens into a clearing that shows a valley down there. Nestled between two mountains on either side. green. Surreal green. Not a soul in sight. Certainly not from that distance. You forget your impulse to walk. You want to run now. To the valley.

The valley is exactly what you have had seen in your dreams. Picket-fenced houses, Willows lining up both sides of the narrow road, a clear stream flowing by merrily, farmlands pregnant with produce, a crystal blue sky splattered with white clouds here and there, no cars, no sign of civilisation. This is how it looked like when God first created the world. And the people here in this valley have kept it that way. If this is not your ‘dream come true’ moment, what is?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You look at Sonam, your guide, pleading. And he smiles the all-knowing smile. Yet again. He has been thoroughly amused by your ‘let’s walk, let’s run’ demands over the last 7 days, and knows your mind now. Says, calmly, like the god of his country, Lord Buddha, A little further, may be you can walk for a while. You are happy like school children! And when the driver announces that you can jump off the car and reach him a kilometre ahead on your feet, your6-year old barges in with her sweet voice and negotiates, 2 kilometers. Good natured that he is, Karma, smiles a Yes. You grin back a Thank You!

And get off the car to frolic around, let yourself loose, want desperately to stay in this Utopia Land and not go back to your own dwelling back in the city.

That’s Chume Valley in Bhutan.  Even that short, utterly short, 2 km walk can fill you with happiness that will last you a lifetime.

Flowers in Bhutan

We were in Bhutan in end May; that’s the last leg of Spring. Spring starts around end March here and Bhutan is full of flowers everywhere for the next 2 months — in the trees, plants and meadows. We saw enough to have a heart’s fill!

Every Jacaranda tree in Punakha had been rendered lilac when we were there. Thimpu, being at a higher reach, didn’t have the Jacarandas. It had willows. But Punakha offered rows and rows of Jacarandas in the streets, pregnant with the beautiful lilac colour flowers. To me, the flower lover, it was an added boon – Jacarandas are my favourite flowering trees. 10 years of big-city living had taken away the happiness of seeing these trees every spring – Delhi-Mumbai don’t have these varieties. In fact, Delhi still had a few here and there, but I haven’t seen any in Mumbai in the last 7 springs we have spent here. Happy to find me so happy with the Jacarandas, Sonam, our guide, let me be. I sat down under one gigantic Jacaranda — couldn’t let go of this beautiful moment without a few minutes in silence and awe. I sat down, without touching the camera that was hanging from my neck, to look at the hundreds of flowers that had flown down from the trees to the grounds and the bees that had swarmed around these flowers to suck and stock honey in the hives up in the Dzong’s ceilings. But, most of all, I sat down to smell the Jacarandas the way I’d smell them in my childhood in Shillong. In those few minutes, I travelled back in time and relived some simple moments that the grown-up years had snatched away.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was lilac again at the Phobjikha Valley — the Primulas were in full bloom here. The black cranes had flown back to Tibet, leaving the valley to the Primulas. The hills of Gantey had red, pink, yellow Rhododendrons. It was roses, lillies, every everywhere.

Flower lovers, this is when you should come to Bhutan. The country is in full bloom at this time.

PS: Wheels On Our Feet’s FB page has a complete album dedicated to the flowers. Check them all out! Here – https://www.facebook.com/WheelsOnOurFeet

Book Review: Private India by Ashwin Sanghi

I had just finished reading Joseph O’Niel’s Netherland. Although just a 350-page book, it took me about a week to read it. What with his descriptive and pondering narrative,  I’d read portions and then, be the cow — chewing the cud. I completed it, mulled over the story for a day and then looked for a fast-paced book – my standard operating procedure since childhood; interspersing genres in order to change the palate. Private India, Ashwin Sanghi’s latest, seemed to be the right ‘cuisine’ …

Private India by Ashwin sanghvi

The basics first, Private India, is Ashwin Sanghi’s fourth book after The Rozabal Line, Chanakya’s Chant and The Krishna Key. Known and loved for setting his stories in history and mythology, Private India is a slight departure. It’s a crime thriller. Plus, he has collaborated with James Patterson (popular worldwide for the Private series) on this book, thereby giving it an international flavour. Didn’t I tell you I was looking for a change of palate? How fitting then, that I could lay my hands on Private India!

Well, laid my hands yes, and couldn’t let go of it until I had finished it – complete it in 6 hours flat, reading it until 2.30 in the night! Amused at myself, I wondered, at that unearthly hour, when was the last time I had stayed up this long for a book?

And now, for a quick review of Private India: Private India is a whodunit set in India’s Maximum City – Mumbai. Fittingly, the plot encompasses Mumbai’s unavoidable kaleidoscope – its wealth and poverty, its skyscrapers and slums, its good and its evil. Being the history and trivia buff that he is, Ashwin has weaved an interesting piece of history on certain crime groups of old India too. Plus, he effortlessly moves the plot through characters so believable that 50 pages into the book and you are almost ‘watching’ the book instead of reading it!

Simple English, descriptive just to the point that is necessary, not-one-dull-moment, Private India scores in being a good crime thriller coming from an India author. If you are a thriller fan, you will like it. Don’t expect a Dan Brown or Ludlum clone here and you’d be happy.

Verdict: If you want to escape worries of project deadlines, questions on whether Modi Govt can change India, or how the world can be a better place, or just how much longer your home EMI will burn your wallet, grab your copy of Private India. You will be transported to a world where your only question would be, Who is behind the murders and why? And you will not get out of that world until you have ‘found out’. Guaranteed!!!!

Restaurant Review: Salt Water Cafe in Bandra, Mumbai

6 o’clock. Friday evening. And we were stuck in BKC. But of course! What do you expect. Jayanta was waiting for us at the Four Seasons in Worli and we had planned for a dinner at someplace good in Lower Parel. When at 6.30, we were still at BKC, i asked him to come over to Bandra. Midway was better in this crazy traffic. Our driver too agreed!

And so we met just where the ONGC complexes start in Bandra, and here too, the same story — CRAZY traffic! Worse now, I was already hungry. So we took yet another prudent decision. Unnecessary to try to wade through this sea of cars; lets hop into Salt Water Cafe. It was just about 7.15 and we were sure, Bandraites were still taking their afternoon nap so that they could own Friday night. Hence, there wouldn’t be waiting at Salt Water Cafe. We should have been awarded that night for such AWESOME decisions. We got quick tables and ordered our drinks.

Brandy-Tody for me (I can’t seem to like anything else during the rains), Sula Resiling for Jayanta and Sweet Lime for our little one. And toasted to the evening — Weekend! Weekend! Weekend!

How is the Food at Salt Water Cafe? We have been here before. And had loved the food then too. This time round we ordered Pork Belly and 8-hr Slow Cooked Lamb. Our ususal litmus test. And boy were they good!!! The Pork, Jayant said, was better than what he has had at Smoke House and Bungalow 9. The Lamb was really slow-cooked — must have been pieces from the area around the shanks, for they were so tender!! The sauce was the same in both the dishes. I felt that my dish could have done with a bit of Prune juice. Pity! Else, those tender lambs would have been ethereal! Desserts were one Tiramisu which we shared. The perfect taste!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How is the ambience at Salt Water Cafe? It was a mast Friday evening. Most of the patrons looked like they too hopped in from their offices nearby. Loudly chattering over drinks. You could tell that they too were relieved it was Friday! Some nice music played in the background, but most of it was drowned by the chatter and laughter. It did feel so relaxing! Salt Water Cafe is clasy yet informal. Which is what we like about the place. No Uncleji-Auntyji fretting loudly or their child making a mess. Good crowd is the next important thing after food and ambiance, what say?

One word about the staff — extremely vigilant, helped sweeten Ridi’s Sweet Lime, gave us an extra bread basket when requested, kept inquiring about the food. Greatly appreciate!

Go ahead! Plan a meal at Salt Water Cafe in Reclamation! 

Address of Salt Water Cafe: 87 Chapel Road, Rose Minar Annexe, Next to Mount Carmel Church, Reclamation, Bandra West, Mumbai

Hotel Review: Ugyen Ling Resort in Bumthang, Bhutan

We were stationed in Bumthang for two nights and a day, and chose Ugyen Ling Resort for our stay. A little away from the main town (perhaps a 5 minute drive away, 15 minutes walk away – nothing is really far in Bumthang), we got to the resort around 7.30 in the evening after a long drive from Wangdue (Read Drive from Punakha to Bumthang). It was raining when we arrived, and hence, quite cold. The staff were expecting us, and so the check-in was prompt. Plus, sonam, our guide, had already placed order for dinner. And so, we were advised to ‘quickly wash up and head for the dining room for steaming hot dinner”. Music to our ears!!! :-)

How are the rooms at Ugyen Ling Resort in Bumthang, Bhutan? Sensing that we’d be cold, the staff had already switched on the heaters, and so we entered a ‘warm room’ that had a large firplace by the seating area, a decent sized bedroom, a cosy dressing area and a good enough bathroom/shower. We were clearly taken in by the size of the room – it didn’t have a wall between the seating and sleeping area, thereby giving it a large, open feel. We discovered in the morning that it had an attached verandah.

We discovered that Ugyen Ling Resort was a rectangle-shaped, two-storied place with rooms on either side, a courtyard in the middle with the verandahs overlooking it, and the office and dining on one side. Pretty neat. Made with stones, the place gave the feeling of staying in a hostel!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How is the food at Ugyen Ling Resort in Bumthang, Bhutan? Very simple. No frills at all. But the Momos they served that cold night were outstanding. And even more outstanding was the tomato-chilli sauce that were served as accompaniment to the dumplings. They served Chicken Curry Bhutanese style, Red Rice and Veggies. Note – the menu is fixed unles your’s is a large group to justify individual preferences.

Breakfast, too, was a spread of the basics – bread, bananas, jam, butter, milk, eggs and tea/coffee. Oh, they served canned juice too. The only lunch that we had in Bumthang, was at a restaurant in the main market.  But should you need lunch at the Ugyen Ling, order beforehand. Also, MUST order the Red Panda beer  here.

Final Verdict For Ugyen Ling Resort in Bumthang, Bhutan: Without mincing any words, we highly recommend the place. Very well maintained, ever-helpful staff, close to most places like the main market, the Dzong, the Ugyen Ling Palace, yet so quiet, we had an extremely comfortable stay there. Did I mention they have free wifi too? Go to the lobby to make those travel posts on your social-media handles. The rooms have poor connectivity since they are spread out.

Once again, Ugyen Ling is a very good stopover in Bumthang (Bhutan)

Where & What of Shopping in Bumthang (Bhutan)

Here is our verdict right at the beginning — if you are touring the length and breadth of Bhutan like how we did, say for instance, Paro-Thimpu-Punakha-Bumthang-Gantey, Bumthang is where you should shop from!!!

Why should you shop at Bumthang in Bhutan? Bumthang is 290 kms from Thimpu, 355 kms from Paro. As I said, in my Sight-Seeing blogpost on Bumthang, Bumthang is a small town, almost a village. Owing to the distance, Bumthang sees fewer tourists than Thimpu, Paro or Punakha. And that makes it a cheaper, more reasonable place to buy things from. Everything that you may see in Thimpu or Paro is about 25% less here. Same quality, same stuff. We had toured the shops of Thimpu, and since our last stop was at Paro after Punakha, Bumthang and Gantey, we had decided that if we didn’t get anything good at good rates between Thimpu and Paro, we’d buy from Paro. Good we did that. For, we found Bumthang’s to be the most acceptable rates!

What should you shop for at Bumthang in Bhutan? Pretty much anything that you might want to buy as memorabilia from Bhutan – the masks, traditional brassware, Kiras, Yak wool jackets, Yak-bone jewellery, Thankas etc.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Where should you shop at Bumthang in Bhutan? Well, that’s the most important question, isn’t it? As I have mentioned already, Bumthang is a small town, and hence there are many markets/shopping options. Yet, there are two places where you could go:

              Bumthang’s Main Market: There is just one market right in the   middle of the town. Stretching for about half a kilometer, the road is rather wide and is flanked by shops and restaurants on either side. A handful of these shops have a good collection of Bhutanese handicrafts. We bought masks from here.

                    Thokmed Yeshey Handicrafts & Yathra Production Centre: This centre is about 20-30 minutes before you reach Bumthang. We had seen the place on our way to Bumthang and since, it was already 7.30 in the night, we decided to stop by during the return journey. We did that, and found, to our utter surprise, that the place is a treasure trove with everything under the sun! The Bhutanese sun! J The rates are very very good, and I picked up a yak-wool jacket for INR 3000 which, am sure, would have cost me double in the city. Fantastic range, fantastic rates. Buy from here if you are in Bumthang!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Memoirs of a warring couple who agree only on travel and food

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: