Thursday, January 29, 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Human, human, burning bright...

At Bharatpur, near Mathura, is the Kaladeo Ghana bird sanctuary. Near Alwar, is the famous Sariska wildlife sanctuary. Both are located at an approximate 200 kilometers from Delhi and are good weekend destinations. Taking advantage of a long weekend, we decide to check out both.

The drive to Bharatpur along the NH2 is pretty much peaceful because of the good roads (except for a small stretch before Bharatpur that's getting relaid) and takes around 4 hours. Now, Bharatpur lacks enough decent accommodation for a tourist season and one must reserve well in advance. We discovered this to our folly when landed in Bharatpur late at night only to be told all the rooms were taken. After some cajoling we got ourselves into a govt guest house that was not clearly worth the money.

Early morning saw us queuing up at the sanctuary gate, trying to get ourselves to the services of a rickshaw to ferry us around. 20 rickshaws, carrying 2 each, to service a 1000 tourists who land up in a day. So imagine the odds of getting one. Luckily, and likely since we were one of the early 'birds', we chanced on two untaken rickshaws. That saved the day for us.

The sanctuary is spread over a huge acreage and requires around 3-4 hours at least (by rickshaw) to do justice to. The rickshaw men are clearly erudite guides, dispensing detailed info on birds of every variety around. As a comparison to Vedanthangal (near Chennai, which I've been to) the sanctuary is clearly more vast and has greater diversity.

For people going to Bharatpur: reserve accomodation before you land up (the RTDC one inside the sanctuary is great if you manage to get it), get there as early as possible at the entrance (the park opens at around 6 am) and try to get the earliest rickshaws. A lot of headache could be avoided if one manages to arrange good cycles to use at the sanctuary (as we saw a couple of foreign tourists do).

The route from Bharatpur to Sariska takes about 4-5 hours and is paved with potholes. The route broadly runs to Deeg and onto Alwar before reaching Sariska. Since we couldn't manage to reserve accommodation in Sariska, we decided to stay the night at Alwar - which in retrospect turned out to be a good decision.

Alwar is a beautiful, well planned town, very alike Jaipur and endowed with a beautiful looking fort on a hill and a lake. Its also just a hour's drive away from Sariska. We hit out early morning to Sariska and chanced upon some beautiful barasingha deer on the road.

It is a testament to the abysmally inadequate tourism infrastructure in our country that a sanctuary with thousands of visitors a day has less than 20 jeeps at its disposal, so that one needs to stand in line at 6-7am braving cold, hoping to be alloted one. Luckily, we managed this as well.

Sariska has recently transplanted two tigers (three more are on the way, as it seems) but spotting them is an exercise in impossibility. What one can see are large numbers of deer (sambar and nilgai), peacock, wild boars and an occasional jackal. But the anticipation of catching sight of a tiger seems to have brought so many people to the sanctuary that, while open, there are clearly more humans inside the sanctuary than wild animals. I bet the animals go "Human, human, burning bright..."

Besides the hunt for the unseen tiger, the jungle track off-roading is quite an experience and the kankanwadi fort has quite a beautiful setting (though with a back breaking approach road).

In sum, Sariska is worthy of a weekend trip. But more tigers and jeeps would greatly help. And so would better accommodation options. Finally, the latest news is that the the road from Alwar to Gurgaon is being relaid - if so, its better to take that, NH8 is way too crowded with heavy traffic.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Vegetable Pad Thai

Thailand is a beautiful country, so culturally similar to India, yet as economically developed as a lot of the west. And Bangkok is an impressive city - incredible flyovers, malls with wares from all over the world, gorgeous temples, a beautiful meandering river and smiling people all over. What's also nice is the harmonious mix of cultures and religions - the Thai, the Chinese, the Indian, the western, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim,... - in expressions all over the city. Most of the city is explorable on foot (with periodic hops onto the bts, the metro, the ferries and the tuk-tuks) particularly the old town which hosts the magnificent Wats.

So one day, I paraded into this crowded Thai diner, which specializes in sea food, and asked for a vegetable Pad Thai. Pure vegetarian, I emphasized. (Don't ask why, I have these streaks). The withering look I got from the waitress said it all. Then, in a typical Thai fashion, she laughed, and said something (which I later figured was mai-pen-rai or 'its ok' in Thai), and got me a bowl of tastiest noodles I've ever had. In memoriam, I title this post, the Vegetable Pad Thai.