Walking on thin ice

In a year filled with once-in-a-lifetime kind of travel moments (Machu Picchu and Niagara Falls, to name just two) one of my most memorable experiences was walking on the Athabasca Glacier in Canada. I had written about it for DNA newspaper then – and here it is, if you ever decide to head to Canada.

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My only previous experience with a glacier was a distant sighting of Fox and Franz Josef in the south island of New Zealand; I remember craning my neck and zooming my camera lens to its fullest, only to feel utterly exhilarated and vaguely dissatisfied at the same time.

This time around though, the experience was totally different.

To begin with, I was standing right on top of the glacier, walking on it and even miming crazy dance poses for keepsake photographs. This was what I had been looking forward to all morning, throughout the stunning drive between Banff and Jasper National Parks.

This route, the Icefields Parkway in the state of Alberta in western Canada, was through glacier territory, and widely hailed as one of the most scenic drives in the world. It did live up to that promise: smooth grey tarmac lined with snowcapped mountains, and glaciers glinting in the mellow morning sunlight on their imposing slopes.

Yet, all I could think about was the highlight of this 230 km road journey, the Athabasca Glacier, waiting for us somewhere in the middle.

Less than three hours after leaving Banff, our small group pulled up at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre for tickets and a quick lunch. Fortifying ourselves with a couple of more layers of sweaters and socks, we then trudged up towards what I can only describe as a red mechanical monster. It was an all-terrain bus (called ‘Ice Explorer’) with wheels that came up to my shoulders, a trusty old thing that carried us through the steep ups and downs of the slippery ice, to that safe spot on the glacier where we could actually get off and walk.

The first thing I did upon getting off was to remove my gloves for a quick dip of my hands into the thin ribbon of glacial spring. As I poured the cold water from my cupped (not to mention frozen) palms into my mouth, I got a sense of what the expression “pure as the driven snow” actually meant.

Even on that sunny day, there was a chill in the air, not easily defeated by all my thermal wear. That was, however, no deterrent, as I began to explore the area, stepping gingerly on the ice that seemed solid but was unexpectedly slippery in places.

Despite that, little children were running around with gay abandon, and adults were lying on the snow, fluttering their hands and legs in an attempt to create snow angels. It was just that kind of place, where adults could easily find themselves regressing into childhood.

The Athabasca Glacier was formed thousands of years ago, when most of this region was under ice. It is part of the massive Columbia Icefield, itself believed to be a remnant from the last Ice Age on earth. And if that is not impressive enough, the glacier is now flanked by 11 of the Canadian Rockies’ 22 highest peaks.

Standing on the glacier that sprawls over six square kilometres, I was reminded once again of my miniscule, insignificant place in the universe. Despite the crowds surrounding me, I had a sense of being alone, on the surface of something primeval and powerful.

The ice, unlike what I expected to be unblemished white, was a sparkling blue in places; perhaps a play of sunlight, or perhaps a hint of the water that flows underneath. I only had time for a brief exploratory walk before it was time to get back on the bus, all too soon.

Back home in the Indian summer, I found my mind drawn frequently and irresistibly, to that day in the Rockies, when I made snowballs on that venerable marvel of nature. And given that the glacier has receded almost 2 km in the last 100 years and continues to disappear at an alarming rate, I was grateful for that up close and personal encounter with it.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Getting there

The Athabasca Glacier is located inside the Jasper National Park, 104 km from the town of Jasper in Alberta. The nearest major airport is Calgary (320 km), 3½ hours away by road.

Best time to visit

The Columbia Icefields Adventure is open only from May 1 to October 15, and the best time to visit is between June and September, when the weather is temperate.

Good to know

~ Begin the glacier adventure with a stop at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, which also houses a café, museum and souvenir store.

~ Carry extra layers of warm clothing as the weather is unpredictable and can turn bitterly cold any moment.

Information

Visit the website of Jasper National Park for more information on this experience.

My fascination with Indian stepwells

My fascination with stepwells started when I first heard about Agrasen ki baoli a few years ago – an ancient stepwell hiding in plain sight in the heart of modern New Delhi. I finally got a chance to see it two years ago; we were living in Gurgaon then.

It was an unusually balmy winter Sunday morning, and my husband and I decided to make the best use of it by heading to Connaught Place for a south Indian breakfast at Saravana Bhavan, followed by a leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood.

I suddenly remembered that the baoli was supposed to somewhere in the area, so why not make a visit? It was tucked away in a small lane, with the wall in front of it decorated with an exquisite Ganesha mural.

Unfortunately, the site was undergoing restoration work when we visited, so thanks to the scaffoldings everywhere, I could not take any photos. But during a recent trip to my alma mater in Ahmedabad last winter, I squeezed in a quick trip to Patan – rightly considered the queen of stepwells in India, fittingly built by a queen – stopping at Adalaj and Modhera on the way.

Here is a photoessay on a few of these stepwells – but before that, do read my story in BBC Travel on these ancient engineering marvels.

The kalyani at Hampi

A classic temple tank at Modhera

The steps of the tank at Modhera

The dramatic vav at Adalaj

Multiple levels of the Patan stepwell

Peering down into the well

The exquisite carvings at Patan’s Rani ki Vav

My top 10 wildlife experiences in 2016

Continuing from my nostalgia trip about travels in 2016, here is a photo summary of my close encounters with wildlife across the world. The husband and I are both wildlife enthusiasts (with a recently discovered interest in birding), and try to head to the forest whenever we get a chance. But as it happened, I got many unexpected chances to see animals and birds, all the way from Canada to Australia, of course, via the Indian jungles…

One of the wildlife highlights of the year – a long and leisurely sighting of Maya and her three cubs at Tadoba

Competing closely for first spot, the Penguin Parade at Phillip Island in Australia – the sight of hundreds of Little Penguins waddling on to the beach from the sea.

And as a bonus, fabulous sightings of koalas, this one giving us an audience during those precious moments between naps…

This shark safari at The Atlantis in Dubai was particularly special, not just because I got so close to the fish, but because it was a major step in overcoming ignoring my fear of water to do this

On a recent trip to Ahmedabad, I went on a freezing December morning to Nalsarovar Lake to see the flamingos

After planning for several years, we finally managed to head to Kaziranga to see the one-horned rhino in November

While Bandipur gave absolutely no joy, Kabini, also in the beginning of the year gave us excellent birding opportunities

Apart from these planned trips, the most delightful experiences were in placed where I had no expectations of any wildlife sightings…

The Ballestas Islands in Peru, where thousands of pelicans, cormorants, seals (and luckily for me, a dozen HUmboldt penguins) stay – who knew anything beyond Machu Picchu?

Coming face to face with the ancient Aldabra turtle in Seychelles, where I had gone for the Victoria Carnaval

Bison sighting at the Elk Island National Park in Edmonton, Canada

And finally, going in search of the endangered Green Turtle at the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve in Oman – and seeing this newborn turtle stumbling towards the sea

16 in ’16

2016 was a blockbuster travel year for me, where I got to visit eight countries – of them six new ones, and most excitingly for me, both North and South America for the first time!

I also got to tick a couple of adventure activities from my list, including paragliding in Uttarkhand and underwater walking in Dubai, stayed at a few gorgeous boutique hotels / homestays across India on work and leisure.

So, a quick look at the year that was, in images…

Began the year with a ten day trip to beautiful Myanmar with the husband

Seychelles in April for the Victoria Carnaval

The stunning isolation and magnificence of the Rockies, walking on Athabasca Glacier and being moved to tears at Niagara Falls – Canada in May

Many usual and some unusual suspects ticked off during a visit to Dubai for a stay at the new Taj, with a spectacular view of Burj Khalifa

My first trip to the USA (yeah really, can you believe it?) – two weeks on work in Louisiana and Nevada and then two weeks on holiday in California, Boston and NYC. What an incredibly spectacular country!

A dream trip for any travel enthusiast – and the delight of discovering there is so much more to Peru than Machu Picchu

Another unexpectedly delightful and beautiful country – who thought Oman would be so blue?!

Ended my international travels for the year with a wildlife trip to Victoria state in Australia – think kangaroos, koalas, penguins and platypus…

Then, there was the usual travel within India – went to the North East for a relaxed holiday (the last time I went was when I was 11!), a few hotel reviews and more chilled out weekends at luxury resorts too.

The second big trip of the year with the husband, after Myanmar in January – Meghalaya and Assam in November

A post-graduate class reunion in Ahmedabad and then a couple of day trips to Patan for the gorgeous Rani ki Vav stepwell and Nalsarovar for the flamingos

The Grand Dragon Hotel in Ladakh – in the middle of a frigid winter in January, the Gustor festival at Spituk monastery and a trip to Lamayuru along frozen roads…

The new and opulent Orange County at Hampi – for a review for Outlook Traveller

A visit to Freddy’s Bungalow in Bhimtal and Mary Budden Estate in Binsar, in February

The long weekend in mid August – a semi forest homestay in Masinagudi, lots of elephant sightings from closeby and this walk in the clouds near Ooty

Indulging at Ibnii, the beautiful new ecoresort at Coorg

Bumper sightings of Maya with her three cubs at Tadoba, once again staying at the lovely Svasara

I also managed a lot of wildlife related activities during my travels (even when they were not specifically wildlife focused) – look out for the next post coming up on this topic.

The complete guide to Shillong

The small capital city of Shillong, tucked away in the north east of India, is an absolute study in contrasts. While some of the most stylish young men and women in the country (think coloured hair and calf length boots) can be spotted on its streets, the region is also home to the Khasi tribal group, with their traditional Jainsem robes.

Shillong came into its own under the British as a garrison town, and retains a laidback colonial charm, with its cathedrals and cottages dating from that era. Although at first glance, it feels like any other noisy, overcrowded Indian town, all it needs is a gentle scratch under the surface to see its innate beauty. And if the commotion gets too much to handle, there are plenty of easy getaways from town, from day trips to weekend vacations.

Here are a few of my suggestions on what to see and do in Shillong to get the best out of this city:

Go on a Dylan pilgrimage

Shillong is aptly known as the rock capital of India, boasting of even an annual Bob Dylan festival on the legendary musician’s birthday in May. The city is a great place to pay homage to this artist, beginning from the newly opened Dylan Café in the busy Laitumkhrah neighbourhood, an ode to the rockstar. Complete this experience with a live concert at night by Lou Majaw, known as Shillong’s Bob Dylan; he usually performs at Café Shillong or the Cloud 9 Restolounge.

Window shop at Bara Bazaar

From fresh meat to a few dozen varieties of chillies, punctuated with stalls selling colourful winter wear and quilts, Bara Bazaar promises a sensory overload. The best time to visit this local market is in the morning, around 9 am, just when the bustle is at its peak. Apart from window-shopping, this is a great place for street photography and people watching, especially the animated interactions between the locals.

Visit the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures

For a clear understanding of the history and culture of the north eastern states, collectively known as the Seven Sisters (along with one brother Sikkim), there is no better place than the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures. Spread over seven floors of interesting and instructive exhibits, this museum presents glimpses into this fairly unexplored part of the country. From agricultural practices to natural resources, from handicrafts to musical instruments, there is a wealth of information in these rooms.

Enjoy a bird’s eye view

It is an easy drive out of the city through the towering evergreen trees of Upper Shillong towards Shillong Peak. Visit early in the evening for panoramic views of the city in the distance, just as the twinkling lights of shops and homes get switched on. Before this, make sure to turn off at the road leading to the Air Force Museum, and go further on to the popular Elephant Falls to see how lush Meghalaya really is. Fuel up with coffee and sandwiches at the ML05 café on the way, cleverly themed around bikes and cars. Or carry a picnic basket to indulge in from the quiet environs of Shillong Peak.

Watch an archery lottery

In this unique and fascinating local sport called Teer or Siat Khnam, groups of archers who are members of the local Khasi Archery Association gather at the Polo Grounds every evening around 3.30 pm. At a signal from the leader, the archers let fly dozens of arrows towards the cylindrical bamboo target in the middle. The shooting stops in four minutes, and the arrows are counted; the last two digits of the number of arrows is the winning number for the day. Stay back after the match to watch the process of counting and announcing the results.

Head out to Umiam Lake

In the heart of Shillong is the picturesque Ward’s Lake, a favourite evening rendezvous spot for locals and tourists alike. With small fountains and flowering trees everywhere, this is a quiet oasis in the midst of all the urban chaos. For an even more pleasant experience, make your way to Umiam Lake, a quick 45 minute drive away on the road to Guwahati. Sprawling over 200 square kilometres, the soothing blue waters of this lake lend themselves to a range of activities, from kayaking to angling.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Stay

Royal Heritage Tripura Castle is the converted summer palace of the erstwhile royal family of Tripura, and one of the best luxury stay options within the city. For a calmer experience by the waterfront, stay at the Ri Kynjai Resort right on the banks of Umiam Lake.

Eat

Café Shillong always has a youthful buzz, along with food for the soul and live music on weekends. Dylan’s Café also has an interesting vibe and great food, along with dozens of Dylan memorabilia, from rare posters to cheery wall paintings. For Indian food, the restaurant at Tripura Castle is one of the best options.

Shop

Glory’s Plaza at Police Bazaar is the shopping hub of Shillong, where all the local fashionistas go for the latest trends. Pick up shawls and scarves in typical north-eastern designs and cheerful colours, or local bamboo and wicker handicrafts from the Meghalaya Handloom and Handicrafts Development Emporium or any of the smaller shops in the area.

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