Monday, May 27, 2013

In company of some featured friends

Bharatpur, of late, has become a regular fixture in the tour programs of people who are going to Agra and thereby has made a surreptitious entry into the so called "Golden Triangle" (Delhi-Agra-Jaipur). No more is it a quiet hamlet frequented only by strange creatures, who, even in the chilling winter, leaves the warmth of a hot blanket and decides to park themselves behind trees with extremely long telephoto lenses or binoculars for several hours. On the contrary, now it has it's fair share of "Uncle-chips"-munching tourists who usually touch this point en route Agra-Fatehpur Sikri.

The usual way to go to Bharatpur from Delhi is by road via Faridabad which goes via Ballabhgarh-Palwal-Hodal-Kosi Kanal-Dig (part of which is NH2). There is an alternate road via the Sohna which also joins this road at Palwal. There are plenty of dhabas on the way; but be warned - this is the so called "Mathura Circuit" which means it is completely vegetarian. People who cannot imagine starting the day without a masala omlette would be in for a rude shock.

There is no earthly need for any prior hotel bookings at Bharatpur as long as you are not very finicky. There are probably as many hotels as the number of birds in the Keonadeo National Park (which is the official name of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary). Unless you know any of the hotels from first hand experience, it is not recommended to book a hotel based on internet ratings (we tried the first time and landed up at a hotel which probably has not seen the face of any guests for at least 3 months). 

We had been to Bharatpur twice and on both the occasions, we stayed at a hotel called "The Birdie Inn". The location of the hotel is superb (5 minutes from the park) and the quality of their food, especially their continental fares, are certainly worth mentioning. The rooms are nice and comfortable though not exactly build for the convenience of the "modern" tourists (not enough plug points, viewing angle of the TV from the sofa is not optimal etc). The service cannot be described as "prompt" or "efficient", but the bungling waiters seem to have a kind of wodehouse-ish simplicity which, somehow is rather endearing. 

There is nothing much to do at Bharatpur in the evening (the TV channels available are restricted and you might be forced to watch a power-packed saas-bahu K-brand serial. To save you from this fate worse than death state, the hotel staffs light up some form of "bon-fire" to keep the people entertained. This soon transcends into a kind of community drinking session with everybody sipping rum with coca cola and lamenting about how they could not capture the supremely exotic bird that they had seen. As the hotel architecture has a certain archaic look, it works quite well.

The breakfast starts at 6:30 am and it is a good idea to have an early breakfast and reach the park by 07:00 am. A guide is a must and certified quides are available at the park gate as well as at the hotel. We took the guide who is "loosely" attached to Birdies Inn and we were quite satisfied with him.  

By paying some extra charges, you can take the car upto a certain point inside the park and there onward,  the options are to walk or take a rickshaw or a bicycle. My recommendation would be to take a rickshaw to dump the handbags / camera bags / spare lenses / cranky kids etc and walk. You would be greeted with lovely views like this :

You would also get to see quite a number of birds, depending on what time you go.  Sadly, I didn't get any memorable shots of the feathery friends due to the usual set of excuses (my telephoto is not long enough, the lens is too slow, the other tourists were making too much noise etc). Nevertheless, these were a few which were not completely of trash-bin quality.

1) Cormorant :
2) Kingfisher 
3) Bee-eater
4) Neelkanth

If someone wants to do a real justice to this place, he should probably make 2-3 trips to the park - one near the swamps, one to the temple and one general. For most of the usual tourists, one trip or maximum two should suffice. Each trip takes about 3 hrs on foot - hence one needs to carry adequate water and some small food with himself. There is also a boating facility inside the part (was not functioning when we were there) and a tourist centre just outside the park where one could go and buy the usual T-Shirts/ Caps / mugs etc with animals & birds pictures / motifs on them. 

Another attraction at Bharatpur is the fort at Bharatpur (called Lohagarh Fort) which was built by Raja Suraj Mal. Whether you will enjoy this place depends on whether you are travelling to Agra from Bharatpur or vice versa. If you have already seen Agra or Jaipur, I dare say you might find it a bit of an anti-climax. Nevertheless, it has a small museum inside and people interested in history would certainly love it. The fort has the usual wide staircase and large arches and also has a rather well maintained canon. 

On the whole, a nice place for a couple of days stay and a good run-up for the Fatehpur Sikri !!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Naukuchiya Taal

Naukuchiya Taal is a place meant for people who have severe aversions to shopping, getting  incessantly jostled on crowded roads, being forced by insistent local guides into visiting some 5 or 7 or 9 "must see view points",  - in fact, an aversion towards all traditional "typical tourist" stuffs. Naukuchiya Tal is a quiet place close to Nainital (in fact, it is a fixture on the "five-point-lake-tour" that people usually take from Nainital) which has a large lake which supposedly have with 9 corners (hence the name "Nau -kuchiya"). I must admit  that I could not exactly identify these 9 corners; The first time I counted was in the evening, after a couple of beers, and I got 5;   the second time was when I was fiercely paddling a paddle-boat in the lake and the result came to 13 corners. Leaving apart this slight mathematical paradox, Naukuchiya Tal is, beyond doubt, a very nice place. 

How to reach there :
There are two practical ways of reaching there - by train or by bus. By train, one needs to get off at a small tourist hamlet called "Kathgodam" and then take a car from Kathgodam to Naukuchiya Tal. If someone wants to take this route, then the train bookings must be done well in advance as there are not so many train going to Kathgodam. 
The distance between Kathgodam to Naukuchiya Tal is about 47-50 km but it takes nearly 1.5-2 hrs o cover this stretch due to the extremely winding roads. In fact, for people who are susceptible to motion sickness, it is recommended to eat less and keep some plastic bags handy.
The other way is from Delhi/Gurgaon to by car. The distance is about 325 km though it can vary a bit because of the Pant Nagar bypass and Moradabad bypass. And contrary to what is usually mentioned on travel guide books, it takes about 8 - 8.5 hrs. The reasons are as follows:
a) Gurgaon to Delhi Anandnagar ISBT  crossing takes about 45min. 
b) There is usually a long queue at the road tax booth over there which will probably take 30 min.
c) The usual breakfast stop is at Gajrala. This place has several delicious eateries like Bikaner Bhujiawala, McDonalds, KFC (on the opposite side of the road) and a hotel called Meridion (on opposite side of the road). As all these places offer sumptuous food, clean toilets and places which keep the children entertained, the brunch usually gets extended to nearly an hour.
d) The road near Rudrapur (about 30 kms of it) is designed to give you a feeling of riding a horse on difficult hill terrains while being hounded by blood-thirsty cannibals. In fact, I am planning to give a suggestion to UP tourism department to convert this into a kind of adventure sport. Perhaps Salman Khan or Akshay Kumar could be coerced into using this as a set for their adventure game shows. 

Anyway, we reached Naukuchiya Taal just beyond the lunchtime. There are several places to stay at Naukuchiya Taal. From a location point of view, KMVN and Lake Resort beats the others by a long margin. Both are located right beside the lake; the Lake Resort seemed more upmarket while the KMVN has a typical old fashioned moth-ridden governmental air about it.  Nevertheless, the KMVN has all the basic facilities and a stupendous view of the lake.

Food at KMVN is nice though the choice can hardly be described as "wide". The breakfast consists of cornflakes / aloo paratha / puri bhaji / omlette-toast and the lunch/dinner is limited to chicken curry / butter chicken / chilly chicken / mixed veg / kadai paneer with rice/ roti/ chowmein. Despite the restrictive choice, the quality of the food is really good, long as you don't stretch their culinary capabilities by asking for things outside their menu. It is better to order in advance as they take a bit of time to prepare it. 

There is no possibility of getting alcohol at the resort but if ordered well enough in advance, they can fetch it from Bhimtal. In our case, they were obliging enough to even keep the dining room open till 11:30 or 12:00 in the night (we were sitting in the dining room balcony) and an elderly waiter, in a heavily inebriated condition, kept on barging in, trying to "service" us!!

There are enough activities to do in Naukuchiya Taal to keep you entertained for a couple of days. There are horse rides available which take you around the lake as well as into the forest. The horse ride around the lake is a bit of disappointment at the horse can only travel 1/4 th of the distance and then comes back. A far better way is to take a walk around the lake which would take about 2 hrs. The walk is lovely - partly along the road and then soon becomes a thin road through the forest offering spectacular view and atmosphere. 

Towards the end of the walk, we came across the Kotak Mahindra Resort of Naukuchiya Taal, which, for some strange reason, is called the "Dancing Waters" (wouldn't it be more appropriate for a resort located by the sea instead of a lake ?). We stopped there for a drink and a look at their facilities. The resort is lovely with a lot of facilities (typical Club Mahindra standard) and I can certify that they serve superbly chilled beers, refreshing cocktails and  addictive masala-coated peanuts.

The other activity that is a must in boating. In this, there are three choices - the shikara (where you sit daintily and another gentleman does all the rowing), the paddle boats (2 seaters and 4 seaters; nice option provided you don't have a leadership crisis about who is steering the boat) and two-seater canoes. The Canoes seem to be most fun as long as you don't mind getting wet - either from sweating or overturning the canoe and falling into the lake. There is also a possibility of doing paragliding but this depends on weather conditions. You should do this the moment the weather allows this instead of postponing this for the next day. We postponed it  and ended up sitting in the balcony for the entire evening as there were rains and thunderstorms outside.

Evenings in Naukuchiya Taal, especially at KMVN, tends to become a bore. The power situation is bad, which means television - the greatest baby sitter of the 21st century, is no more functional. I strongly advise carrying playing cards, chess and few more board games along with several packets of munching stuffs. Please remember that there is no internet in KMVN and in fact, in entire Naukuchiya Taal, there is only one cybercafe (which consists of a single virus-laden laptop precariously balanced on a lopsided table and connected to the cyberspace through an exceedingly slow dongle). I believe Kotak Mahindra has an internet connection in their resort lobby which will be a boon for their guests. 

There is absolutely no shopping options (except a near-extinction Kashmiri emoporium) or restaurants in Naukuchiya. One has to drive down to Bhim Tal (about 6 km) for shopping or even a slightly off-beat dinner (off-beat meaning courses beyond Chicken Butter Masala / Kadai Paneer / Malai Kofta or the "chinis food"). 

On the whole - as a getaway destination for a lazy, idyllic holiday for 2-3 days, Naukuchiya Taal is a great option. 

Info : 
Trains to Kathgodam from Delhi 

  • Ranikhet Express (overnight fro Delhi; reaches Kathgodam at 5:00 a in the morning)
  • Uttar Sampark Kranti Express (reaches at 22:40)
Places to stay
  • KMVN - approx 2,000/-
  • Lake Resort - approx 4,000.-
Car rates 
  • Innova : Rs 12/ km; minimum 250 km per day; Rs 200/- per night driver's allowance. Consider about 3000/- on top for various toll tax, state entry tax et al.