Best Books I Read in 2015

I read 20+ books this year. For some it is a lot, for others just a few. Personally, I am very happy with having read so many good books. I invest a lot of time and thought in picking them. Thus, most of what I read this year has been brilliant. Making a best-of list is hence difficult. But, I'll give it a shot.

You can also check out the lists from the last couple of years.

1. A Personal Matter (Audiobook) - Kenzaburo Oe

A few years ago, I visited the hill town Mussorie with my family. One evening, while roaming the streets after dinner, I found a thrift store selling books at throwaway prices. Among the many I bought, there was one called 'Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere' by John Nash. It is a memoir of an American who had migrated to Japan, learnt Japanese and translated many Japanese books into English. One of them is by Kenzaburo Oe. And my word, what a book it is!

A personal matter is a dark, poignant piece of art. It requires patience and lingering on the words to admire their beauty. It is a semi-autobiographical work where the protagonist deals with the birth of his mentally disabled child. In real life, Oe has a son who is under developed and forms the basis of many of his works.

I consumed it as an audiobook and found myself rewinding multiple times. Reading it would have been preferable. It is one of those books which make you wish you knew the original language to truly understand the magnificence of this work. If you are still not convinced, did I mention that Oe is also a Nobel laureate?

2. The Martian (Audiobook) - Andy Weir

Another Audiobook. I discovered this via a blog I follow (Wait But Why) much before the movie. And as most books-movies go, it is so much better than the movie version. I actually slept in the movie, literally. Even if you have seen it, I would recommend reading/listening the book. There are so many details, incidents and twists and turns that have been missed or changed in the movie. The performance on my audiobook was outstanding to help the matters.

A fun fact: This book was released iteratively in a serial format with feedback from people on the internet. On completion this was released for free only for its rights to be later bought by a publishing house. 

3. Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer

This was the book on which the movie 'Everest' was based on. It is funny that so many of the books I pick up are later made into movies. Again, this was much before the movie was released. And unlike 'The Martian', Everest and Into Thin Air are quite comparable in their execution. However, like always, reading is much more recommended. 

4. Elon Musk : How The Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future- Ashlee Vance

This is a great insight into the life and mind of Musk who is a modern day hero for me. Musk’s most endearing trait to me is his hyper rationalism. His endeavours are grand - on the scale of humanity and probably beyond.

His efforts in all the companies together surmount anything seen ever before. Granted that he may not have started Tesla or Solar City but without his drive to get things done, they may not have reached the state they did. 

5. Boats on Land (A Collection of Short Stories)- Janice Pariat

I don't remember who recommended it. Perhaps someone in my Facebook feed. It is a collection of stories from the North East region of India. The author, Janice, has done an incredible job at weaving beautiful, dreamy stories. You know the times when you read a book and instantly want to be transported to that time and place, that is what this book did to me. 

6. Jaya - An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharats - Devdutt Patnaik

It doesn't matter if you are religious, atheist or agnostic, you have to agree that Mythology is interesting. The stories are colorful, grand and capture your imagination. Jaya did all this and more. 

7. Shatranj ke Khiladi (Hindi Edition) - Munshi Premchand
A simple short story by Munshi Premchand. I read this in Hindi and it was a delight since we don't really read much in Hindi nowadays.

8. The Art of Asking: How I learned to stop worrying and let people help - Amanda Palmer

I read this non stop on a flight with sleepy eyes but found it unputdownable. It is a brutally honest autobiographical account by Amanda Palmer. 

Other Notable mentions:

Now Reading and probably will find place in the next best-of list:

  • Atlus Shrugged
  • Man's Search for Meaning
  • Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I hope you get around to reading some of these. Would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on them. After all, what does a good book do if not incite deeply polarized discussions. 

If you like these recommendations, check out the rest of my reading list here.

Further Reading

  1. The Dharma Bums Book Review
  2. Siddhartha Book Review

 

An Elaborate Guide to Spiti Valley - Part 3

In the third week of August this year, 6 of us embarked on a trip to the less popular, but equally surreal cousin of Ladakh: Spiti Valley. We drove about 1200 kms on motorbikes plus 800 kms by car to and from Gurgaon. What follows is an attempt to create a guide to Spiti with a generous topping of my experiences sprinkled over it.

This is the 3rd and final part in the series. 

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here

All pictures in this post can be clicked on to open an expanded version.


6TH LEG: KAZA TO CHANDRATAL

 

After a slow, elaborate breakfast, we loaded our bags on the bikes and left for Chandratal lake. Upto this point, the roads weren't great but manageable. The scenery was what you would come to expect of Spiti - huge, barren mountains highlighted by a single snow capped peak and wide open fields all the way with the river lining the side.

Our first stop was at Losar. There, you should halt for lunch at the first shop on your left as you enter the small town. They serve delicious home made food. As we were chilling outside the cafe, soaking in the warm sun, we chit-chatted with a biker returning from Chandratal. He said that Losar was the first sign of a road he had found since Gramphoo (which is on the way to Manali). This should have been our first hint of what kind of route lay ahead of us.

Human flag at Kunzum Pass

It was a difficult ride up to the Kunzum pass which stands at a height of 4551 metres. The wind will be quite strong, so more layers are recommended, even in the scorching sun. In our exhausted state, it seemed like a non event to cross one of the most sought after bikers' milestone in India. We clicked a few mandatory pictures and rode our way down the trail.


CHANDRATAL

After a long, gruelling and the toughest ride thus far, we reached here at the last stroke of sunlight. At an altitude of 4300 metres, life here can get difficult. Chandratal Lake isn’t exactly where you would pitch tents. But, there is a vast sprawl of flatland 3 kms away where you would see a small tent-town which would serve as your resting place for the night. 

On the way to Chandratal. Your camps would appear in one such flatland to your left

We stayed at Parasol Camps which is the most reputed and popular tent around. The people at Deyzor can help you get a place there so you don’t need to worry about it once you get there. The caretakers are jovial folks, much like most of the locals we found on our way. When questioned that whether 6 in the evening (which is when we had arrived) was a good time to go see the lake, Bishan (the chief over there), answered that the sun dried up the lake yesterday. Some of us weren’t attuned to that kind of humour. Suffice to say, the lake wasn’t dry, it is never dry, it will never be, and we now have one less joke to fall victim to.

At the camps

There would be a lot of bikers and car-riders at the camp. You would chill with them at the common tent area where you would all huddle together for hours around a heat source since it would be so cold outside. There would be booze, music, good food, nice stories and stuff from all over Himachal that people have brought along with them. It would be fun.

Having traveled so far, and only a 3km hike away, next morning, we decided not to see Chandratal against our wishes. Don’t raise your brows, our schedule (damn you schedule), didn’t allow us that. I still have a little regret left from it. Additionally, the high altitude wasn’t helping. At any time, at least 2 amongst us had headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness and a general sense of discomfort.

Breakfast is served, you bid goodbye to the nice folks and they wish you smooth journey ahead as if they meant that we might need it (or was it just me who understood it that way?). Those few words from them should have been our second hint.


7th Leg: Chandratal to Kasol

 

Via: Kunzum, Gramphoo, Rohtang, Manali, Kullu

THE MOST HORRENDOUS JOURNEY RESUMES

Leave early in the morning from Chandratal. It would be a long ride to Manali and beyond. The roads ahead are the worst you would have ever set a wheel upon. Hold on. Allow me to rephrase. There are no roads. All that you would find is a narrow trail of stones, boulders, nallahs climbing down and up all the way to Gramphoo. The scenery around you will be surreal but you would hardly have enough spare attention to look at it. 

On this route, we covered about 60kms in 6 hours. You could go for a run and outpace the bikes. It’s not just that the roads were bad. They were also unpredictable, constantly rising and falling, twisting and turning, and we had to be extremely alert while riding. It was miserable. We don’t often hear people acknowledging that a part of their trip was less than perfect. Personally, I think there is no shame in accepting that this route was bad. In hindsight, like all things, I look at only the positives - how it tested our riding skills, the adventure it presented, the immense feeling of solitude. But, in those moments, we really were on the edge. Luckily Chandra Dhaba came soon enough on our left where we halted for refreshments, some shopping and to relax our nerves. 

Approaching Gramphoo

As you approach Gramphoo, the scenery would change drastically. The bare, rocky mountains would be replaced by lush green peaks with signs of life in the form of shepherds, sheep, goats and sheep-dogs. A massive traffic jam caused by these cute creatures would make you chuckle and irritate at the same time. 

Gramphoo is a non-existent signboard of a town where we couldn’t even find a place to eat. Not that we tried very hard. We were in rush to move on. A gang of 15 American bikers, who had ridden along side us thus far, bade us goodbye here as they turned right for Ladakh and we took a left towards Manali. 

Unlike yesteryears, the traffic on Gramphoo to Manali route is minimal. Once you get closer to Rohtang pass, you would find dirty snow hanging over the ledges of the roads. The pass itself is unremarkable (or perhaps this judgement was caused by exhaustion). I mean there is a vantage point but we passed through it without stopping. I am told that a few years back it used to be alive with tea stalls and various shops, but now it’s blank save for a few parked vehicles and people clicking pictures. The roads were finally strong, reliable concrete and we made good speed to a highway eating joint. My feet were wet to the core on account of having traversed many nallahs and balancing the bike on my feet across them. Shivering and teeth chattering, I took the shoes off and laid them out in the feeble sunlight in hopes of drying them. It didn’t work too well.

Resuming our journey, we crossed the pine-tree rich mountains that overlooked the Manali Valley. I had not been to Manali earlier, so I was thoroughly surprised by the massive commercialisation that had eaten up the valley in the form of endless hotels and cafes on both sides of the roads. Perhaps it was just me, but there was a distinguishable, even if faint, smell of marijuana in the air. This is Himachal after all. So, don’t be surprised to find Marijuana plants on your way all along the route. 

Some dude paragliding around Rohtang

Next stop was a cool bike repair workshop in Kullu. We refilled our food supplies and headed to Kasol. It was a day before full moon. The moonlight bathed the streets in gentle white light. The small huts we saw along the roads resembled a ghostly town. It was a good ride. 

Entering the Parvati Valley, the loud roar of the flowing river to the left of us, a smile crept out of me under my helmet. We still couldn’t see it, but the feeling of finally approaching our destination late at night was brewing inside. 


KASOL

I had fantasised about reaching Kasol all day long. Two of our friends (not on this trip), planned to visit Kasol around the same time we did. I imagined entering Kasol, roaring on our bikes, and our friends welcoming us outside Evergreen Cafe. Hugs, smiles and happiness. I imagined going into the cafe to chill before checking into a hotel. And that’s exactly what happened.

This was my second visit to Kasol. The first one happened at a very different time in my life. Luckily, I had written a post about my trip. Here’s where you can read it. 



FINAL leg: KASOL to SHIMLA TO GURGAON - SIGH!

 

Nothing remarkable to report here except that driving back from Kasol to Shimla late at night was a little spooky. I wouldn't recommend it - way too many trucks ply on this route, much safer to leave early from Kasol and arrive at Shimla in the late evening. 


 

AFTEREFFECTS

 

Traveling, going on adventures, seeing new things, meeting interesting people - all this is fine. But, few people talk about what happens when you come back to the reality of everyday life in the big city.  The fixed schedule with 5 days of work and a weekend of drinking. Well, I’ll tell you - life becomes boring.

Boring, not in your regular definition of the word. But, boring in a way that constantly nags you to do something extraordinary again. The comfort of your bed becomes suffocating, the monotony of daily grind becomes a veiled attempt at living life. This is what I call Travel Withdrawal Syndrome or TWS.

Common symptoms of TWS:

  1. Soon after your return, even before the expenses of the trip have been detailed out and money owed returned, plans of a new trip begin taking shape.
  2. The number of work related tabs on your browser shrink to a small percentage, the majority being taken up by blogs of people describing beautiful new places and experiences.
  3. You start wondering how to travel full-time without having to beg for food and accommodation.
  4. At least once, you seriously consider quitting your job and doing something more interesting.
  5. At least once, you seriously consider moving permanently to the place you just returned from and opening up a cafe.
  6. You start dissociating yourself from all the others around you who are not doing something similar.
  7. You think of taking up another activity along with your work seriously - biking, photography, travel blogging.

How to cure TWS?
The answer lies in the last symptom. After a rush of adrenalin on your trip, there is a lot of residual energy in you. Channel it in learning something new. Acquire new skills by investing time in not just doing them but studying their deep lying concepts. Immerse yourself in it as you did with your travel. Say, for example, you were to take up photography. Watch some YouTube lessons, join a common class, do a small day photography trip. 

This allows you to not only grow intellectually, but also, gives you a reality check on how passionate you are about something. Especially if you considering an alternate vocation, this helps to answer the question of whether it is just a passing fad or something that you could seriously consider.

And write. Seriously. Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, just noting those experiences down in your private diary helps.


END NOTES

There’s not a lot to do in Spiti if you don’t count chilling as something. You see beautiful places, get a lot of time to be on your own. Read a book, look at the scenery, talk to friends, talk to the locals. Meet fellow traveler, share stories.  Your travel would be often and taxing. So, be prepared to be very tired throughout the trip unless you take proper rest. Drink lots of water, it’ll help with acclimatisation. The novelty of the scenery might fade off just a little bit, the adventure will not. Don’t go there with a constricted schedule. Go with some time on your hands. 

Finally, here are some vanity pictures. And Spiti in 10 bullet points.

 

Spiti in 10 bullets:

1. Landscape is surreal. Looks like a painting.
2. Altitude sickness is a real thing.
3. Roads are tough. Horrible even.
4. Food is slow but delicious.
5. You’d be constantly amazed by how fit the locals are.
6. There are bikers all around you and you share a genuine feeling of being in a community.
7. The locals are funny people.
8. With time, the landscape becomes so common that you stop noticing it.
9. Your plans will go haywire on account of unexpected changes in the road condition.
10. Many times, there will be no one around you for hours. Absolute solitude.

Hope these series of posts was helpful ( Read earlier posts: Part 1 and Part 2). Have a great trip yourself!

If you like this post, please consider sharing.

Apathy is worse than criticism for a writer, thus I would love to hear what you thought of it - leave a comment below or email mj at mayankja.in

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An Elaborate Guide To Spiti Valley - Part 2

In the third week of August this year, 6 of us embarked on a trip to the less popular, but equally surreal cousin of Ladakh: Spiti Valley. We drove about 1200 kms on motorbikes plus 800 kms by car to and from Gurgaon. What follows is an attempt to create a guide to Spiti with a generous topping of my experiences sprinkled over it.

This is the 2nd part in the series. By the end of the first part, we had laid down the basics. This, Part 2, is where we immerse ourselves completely in the journey. There are tons of beautiful pictures too. 

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 3 here


THIRD LEG: KUMARSAIN TO KALPA

 

Suggested Route: RAMPUR to KALPA

Again, the distance isn’t much, but the roads get very tricky at the fag end of this route. Since this would be the first day of your trip when you tread a difficult mountainous course, doing smaller distances is recommended.

Roads for the first half of this leg are solid tarmac and predictable. Good to ride on

Another hour after this natural tunnel, less friendly roads await

For most parts, you will find concrete roads, reasonable traffic and you would traverse at good pace. We led the group ahead and and took a few minutes break to wait for the rest to arrive. That spot was about 30-40 kms before Reckong Peo which in turn is about 10 kms from Kalpa. It took us close to 3.5 hours to cover that distance.

Chilling is important

A stream to your left before Reckong Peo provides an opportune moment to take a small rest

The concrete roads gave way to rock laden pieces of land which we call roads. Thick mud lined the roads. Our overloaded bikes squelched and squealed as we navigated our way through it at a cautious pace. The pillion kept mum lest they distract the rider. The bikes' lower-sides took the majority of the brunt of the stones scattered by the wheels. We narrowly missed two shooting stones which shot down from the hills just a few feet ahead of us.

A scissor appears on the road here, one leading to Kalpa, other to Nako

At Reckong Peo, climbing up to Kalpa

Eventually, it got better. We climbed mountains and then came back down again, only to climb up again into Kalpa. Slow moving trucks ahead of us threatened to slip back down. Sharp turns, overlooking the steep drop into the valley below, waited for us longingly. Young school kids waved us goodbyes with a smile on their chubby cheeks. 

A river to our left was a welcome sight. We relieved ourselves of the dirt with the cool, refreshing water, took a status check, and went on ahead to Reckong Peo and further ahead to Kalpa.

 

KALPA

Kalpa is located at a height of 2960 metres. Height is important throughout this journey because we climb high enough to cause altitude sickness in the city-dwellers that we are. 

Like most hill-towns, it is remote and not easily accessible. However, it is still untouched by the mass commercialisation that you find creeping in most hill stations. Our navigation for most of the journey (at least till our cell phones worked), was a friend who had stayed back in Gurgaon, fondly named Chunnu - the one who knows it all. Chunnupedia told us that the best place to stay would be Kinner Kailash, a Himachal Tourism guest house named after the mountain it overlooks, and boy was he right.

Kinner Kailash is at the dead end of Kalpa. Seriously. There is nothing beyond it. Thus, it provided us with an uninterrupted view of the imperious mountain ranges. The Kinnaur Kailash mountain stood tall, majestic and wore a white snow cap which was partially visible through the clouds engulfing it.

The view at the cottage

The guest house has spacious wooden cottages which we negotiated down to 3000 bucks for a company of 6 (2 cottages). The host is a chirpy, good-natured middle aged man with one glass eye. His hospitality was genuine and warm. At night, when he came out in his monkey cap and pyjamas, he looked liked a caretaker of a Dak Bungalow from a scene in a dark Bollywood movie about snakes and rebirths.

The food is delicious. They have a nicely placed garden where you can rest your tired asses and talk with fellow travellers. Just sitting there filled us with energy. And what do you do when you are filled with lots of energy without anywhere to let it out? You drink. A word of caution though, you won’t find any thekas near the guest house. You would have to climb down 10kms, to find the first sign of a market. Thus, be well stocked. 

What not to miss: Sitting outside your cottage at night, looking at the well-lit starry sky, soaking in the light reflecting from the mighty mountain snow-cap. Talking about your little place in the Universe is also recommended. 


4TH LEG: KALPA TO TABO

 

Distance: 150 km
Time taken: 7 hrs (including multiple stops for rest, food, and a long stop at a beautiful lake just before Tabo)
Via - Pooh, Nako

Make sure to get your petrol cans, and bike tanks filled up at Reckong Peo since this would be your last petrol pump before Kaza. Moving out of Kalpa, the roads improve at Pooh and are lovely to drive all the way to Nako and then some. 

The landscape changed quickly from light vegetation to completely bare mountains

You can stop to eat at Pooh at a small dhaba. It is closed on Tuesdays and guess which day we went there - yes, Tuesday. But, we found the lady who runs the place walking nearby. And she was kind enough to make Chowmein and Parathas for us. You can also get your water refrigerated at her shop since you are going to be driving in scorching heat. But, if you have reached Pooh, you would have realised it by now.

Some pictures of the route

Some people also stay at Nako lake camps. But, we overlooked that even though it was on our itinerary. One reason was that we were short of time and secondly, that place isn’t that great anyway. 

So, we went straight to Tabo.

The river

What not to miss: A few kilometres before Tabo, you would find a river to your left. Park your bikes on the side of the road, and walk down the hundred metres to the lake. The water is cold and clear. The surrounding mountains are smoothed by years of flowing water and the rushing winds. It is a good spot to chill for a while. 

 

 

TABO

Suggested: Spend a full day in Tabo

You know what, Kalpa, Pooh, Nako are all fine. They are all great places, no complaints. But, the careless abandon of travel that you unknowingly long for would present itself to you, for the first time, in Tabo. 

You should enter the hard to miss, huge Monastery gate on your left to find a rest for the night. The first place you find to park your vehicles would be your resting place. That would be Tiger's Den Guest House.  

Tiger Den Guest House

The moment we arrived there, we didn’t even unload our bikes to keep the bags in our rooms. Straight up, we headed to a theka nearby to buy some Beers. Then, we pitched ourselves in the Tiger's Den cafeteria.

It was evening and the faint light of the overhanging bulbs reflected against our oily, dirty and happy faces. There were smiling faces. Or maybe it was just me. But, the point is, it felt great to be there. The beers were opened, the food was served, and the conversations resumed. 

What not to miss: Visit the monastery. Lounge around the garden for hours at length. Meet the fellow travelers who stop by at Tabo in their journey to nowhere. 


5TH LEG: TABO TO KAZA

 

Next is a short 3 hour ride from Tabo to arrive at Kaza. You will be climbing down into the valley for most part. Here are some pictures. 

 

KAZA

You have arrived. The first big town, or, the only relatively big town in Spiti Valley. This would be your base for the next 3 days. A lot of places to visit nearby, good places to stay, and great food all around makes this a perfect place for you to pitch base.

As you enter Kaza, the Spiti river will run along your side. The roads leading up to the town have a lot of trustworthy straights that you can race your bike on. The river bed would make you want to climb down off the road and lie there for hours at a stretch. And sure enough, one amongst us did do that in spite of the searing heat of the afternoon. 

The local market welcomes you inside with its narrow lanes, lined on both sides with sundry shops, cafes and hotels. We stayed at Hotel Deyzor which is quite popular among the travellers. The free WiFi probably has something to do with it. 

A word of caution: Everything about Deyzor is cool, except the food. No, I don’t mean that it’s bad. Rather, it is quite delicious. But the slow service is a pain in the ass. And your abdomen. We had not ridden a long distance but had alighted on our bikes with a light breakfast. So, we were super hungry by the time we reached there. Upon reaching Deyzor, we left our bags on the bike and went straight to their garden cafe. But, the service was so damn slow. It didn’t help that the altitude was high enough to cause headaches in some of us. Sadly, this trend remained for the rest of our stay at the hotel. So, just be sure to not be hungry to the point of becoming cranky. Your food will arrive in its own due time.

You would meet a lot of interesting folks at Deyzor. Some who organise bicycle tours, others who go on bicycle tours, writers, an Israeli group with a guitarist among them (not stereotypical at all), a military trained dog, a group of high school Australian graduates traveling the world and riding bikes in Spiti when only one of them actually knew how-to, and the rest of them learning as they go - on only the most treacherous roads in the world. Weird world. 

What to do in Kaza:

Key Monastery

En route to Key Monastery

Your first excursion from Kaza should be to Key Monastery. It is about an hour’s drive from the hotel and the route is picturesque. Literally. I mean this route inspired my intro to this series of posts (ref: Part 1). I found myself lost in the surroundings even as I was driving. It is so easy for that to happen to you. And if you try to bring your focus back on the road, which you should, your head spins around itself. Luckily, the roads are predictable and smooth winding up to the monastery. 

Key Monastery is situated at a height of 4166 metres. I wonder why they make monasteries so high up. Last one I went to was in Paro, Bhutan which we reached to after a particularly taxing hike of 2 and a half hours. You don’t really do anything in such places. Just soak in the peace and the quiet. Have a chat with the monks, get some water into the system. Sit inside the prayer hall and watch the monks do their preparations. It doesn’t sound much, but trust me, it is a lot. My friends had to pull me out of the trance to ask me to go back to base. 

This is where you will again have one of those - ‘What’s this life for?’, ‘Why do we work so hard to make money’, ‘What should we do with our lives?, ‘Let’s quit our jobs and settle in a monastery’ - moments. I’ve been told that the food inside the restaurant adjacent to the monastery is particularly fulfilling. You might want to give it a try. 

Kibber

Kibber is a tiny village close to Key. Ride into the village, go as high up as you can and then park yourself in the restaurant there. Have tea in their cafe, look around as you see small houses you can count on your fingers, and people which you cannot since there won’t be any. Seriously, there was not a single soul to be seen when we arrived there. Only after some time did we see a few people milling about, probably coming out of a conference since they all appeared from the same corner in a beeline. 

There isn’t much to do in Kibber (sleeping in the wide open fields is a recommendation which comes from a friend) , which itself is quite a nice thing to have on a vacation. But, it can get old soon, so you can come back by the evening. Here, I would like to highlight that driving at night isn’t a good idea anywhere in Spiti. They call these roads the world’s most treacherous ones and not without good reason. 

Couple of other places that we couldn’t go to were Hikkim (apparently, India’s highest post office, send your loved ones postcards from here) and Gue Monastery (where a 600 year old Mummy of a monk resides; legend has it that it still grows its hair). Google will tell you more about it than I can.


End of Part 2

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 3 here

In the next and final part, we look at the journey back from Spiti valley via Kunzum and Rohtang Pass. We also made a 2 day stop over at Kasol.

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If you like this post, please consider sharing.

Apathy is worse than criticism for a writer, thus I would love to hear what you thought of it - leave a comment below or email mj at mayankja.in

An Elaborate Guide To Spiti Valley - Part 1

In the third week of August this year, 6 of us embarked on a trip to the less popular, but equally surreal cousin of Ladakh: Spiti Valley. We drove about 1200 kms on motorbikes plus 800 kms by car to and from Gurgaon. What follows is an attempt to create a guide to Spiti with a generous topping of my experiences sprinkled over it.

This is the longest piece I have written on a single topic yet. For ease of reading and for my own sanity, I have broken it down to 3 parts. This is the first one.

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here


INTRODUCTION

 

Imagine the world of Gods. They live high up in sky, a million galaxies away. 4.54 billion years ago, their council decided to manifest a planet with life. They would call it Earth. The responsibility of the creation of this planet was assigned to a promising young artist called Vincio. His method of creation was to paint vivid, meticulously detailed pictures of Earth. Once finished, Vincio would breathe out a lungful of air into them to bring them to life.

At first, Vincio created the different landscapes that would form a habitat for Earthlings. Mountains, rivers, deserts, great oceans and their meeting points. He then progressed to creating simple life forms like bacteria, viruses and weeds. As he developed his art skill, he started making more complex life forms culminating into humans. But, the true test of his skill was when he would devise a sophisticated mechanism of co-habitation of these life forms with the aforementioned geographical landscapes. This gave rise to agricultural societies, villages, towns and eventually the big, shiny cities that we now inhabit.

After a millennia he came out of his self-imposed solitude where he painted the most complicated planet ever seen by the Gods. The Council was impressed. They decided to hold an exhibition of his work for the whole Gods community to see. The critiques would be invited too, so that they can comment on this elaborate plan of bringing the first life into the Universe. All that was left for Vincio to do was to let out a gentle breath into each of his pictures to bring them to life.

Here’s what Madre, an acclaimed critic, wrote about his work.

Review - Vincio's Breath of Life, An Exhibition

It is not with regularity that one sees work of this magnitude by a single artist - both in terms of the sheer amount as well as the complex patterns and their interplay with each other. Today, we have seen a work of extraordinary brilliance from a prodigious talent. By creating the human life, Vincio has outdone himself. We see that human life will build mega colonies and call them cities. They would build modes of transportation and communication which would surpass anything ever built outside of the Colony of Gods. Their collective intelligence as a species would generate great progress. However, this would come at a cost.

Humans, even with their advancements, would feel a certain emptiness in their hearts. Cities after cities which look soulless burial grounds of dreams and contentment have been a constant theme in Vincio's work. These big cities would stifle humans. The irony of working hard to seek progress and yet feeling shallow inspite (or because) of it would not be lost on them. Thus, a small number of them would frequent out into the unexplored.

Beaches, mountains, forests - they would all serve the humans as a reservoir of peace of mind, joy, even exhaustion yet fulfilment. However, they would all lack a sense of wonder which could move the human race to contemplation. In creating these, Vincio had been predictable and seemed afraid to break his boundaries until we chanced upon his work titled Spiti.

Carefully situated in the Spiritual Heartland of Earth - India, surrounded by the Great Himalayan mountain ranges and fed by the river Spiti, it would be a view to behold. Men traveling to the valley would gape in wonder. For many years, Vincio’s breath, in the form of winds, would create intricate patterns on the mountain ranges. It would not be easy for the men to reach there. But once arrived, they would experience profound moments that most would find difficult to express.

It is in Spiti that they would first come close to Vincio. They would see the landscape as not just another geographical form. It would seem to them as if they are the brushstrokes of a masterful painting. Yes! That would be, in opinion of this humble critique, the true pinnacle of Vincio’s work. Spiti would elevate humans from merely existing as yet another life form, to being truly one with the God’s process of Earth’s creation.


GURGAON

We were to leave at 2 o' clock in the night. I turned in early to bed to get some sleep before the long ride ahead of us. But, it was futile. Before a trip, as you await the time of your departure, multiple thoughts run around aimlessly inside your head. Have you packed enough? Have you packed too much? How dangerous would the roads be - Did I mention this was going to be a motorbike trip? 3 riders + 3 pillion.

I had planned to write about my experience after coming back. But, writing about Travel on a blog which which professes the value of mindfulness is tricky. On one hand I preach living in the moment but on the other, I also realise that travel writing requires capturing the moments as they are lived in the form of timely notes rather than just writing about them later by recalling the incidents from memory. 

As I struggled with these thoughts, eyes wide awake, mind racing from one thought to another like a distracted toddler, tossing and turning, I also had an evil thought. What if, at this moment, I decide not to go altogether? It would be easy to do so. No sleeplessness, no uncertainty about the roads, I could stay tucked inside the safe comforts of my bed. Had I not so meticulously planned the trip myself, I would have probably given those thoughts a little more weightage. I have done this kind of thing before. 

If we try to look for such patterns in our life itself, it leads to a philosophical introspection. How often do we ditch the brilliant, exciting, if only a little dangerous, step we think of taking, to settle for the monotony, ordinary and the familiar. Perhaps moving out of our comfort zones, to give ourselves a jolt of adrenalin, and some vitality to our existence might be just what we need.


First leg: GURGAON TO SHIMLA

 

Unlike Manali, Shimla doesn’t have many bike rental companies. Thus, it is advisable to book your bikes beforehand. So did we. A word of caution: Please research your rental company thoroughly. Some of the companies out there lend bikes which are in poor condition, unserviced and might have potentially dangerous hidden flaws. It is a matter of your safety so please be careful.
 
We left Gurgaon on Thursday night to arrive in Shimla the next morning. We had not slept the night before. But, a healthy dosage of Red Bull, music, adrenaline and the open road kept us awake and interested. 

We drove rash, we drove safe, depending upon the depth of our conversation and the tempo of the music we were streaming off the internet. The Internet. The Fucking Internet. Our hyper-active, frenemy, like a faithful dog, which because of its constant attention craving, sometimes becomes a nuisance, following us even this high up in the mountains. 

Mountains ornamented with carpets of green welcomed us all the way. Trees ubiquitous to highways across India formed a natural tunnel. The casual playfulness of light and dark flora on the mountains seemed like shadows formed by a play of light and clouds. Perhaps they were shadows. Trucks, with their poisonous exhaust fumes and life-giving one-liners on their backside never left our company. Roadside cafes, with their unoriginal names but fulfilling food greeted us at every few steps. One of these is Nik Bakers, just outside of Chandigarh and to your left. They serve one of the best Cold Coffees I have ever had. In case you are looking for something more filling, Haveli, the highly popular restaurant would be your best option. 

 

SHIMLA

At noon, we arrived to the quiet air of Shimla. We had not yet entered the main bazaar area, so there was still scope for us to enjoy the peace away from the cacophony of noises at the Mall Road. Most part of the day was spent on checking bikes, test riding, get any repairs done and buying spare parts if needed. 

Our stay was at Hotel Achman Regency. An average hotel on the highway by all means. The reception stood on what they called the 4th floor. The elevator took us down to our rooms on the 2nd floor. As we sat on our damp beds, the quiet engulfed us only to be broken by incessant spam calls offering me credit card limit enhancements. 

Ready to roll

As we looked out the window towards the erect pines craving to touch the blue sky, we felt that we could just spend the next 7 days here. Again, this is the comfort zone talking. At night, as we sat in our room, a cloud engulfed us. How did we know? Well, for one, the window shut itself. And second, we couldn’t see a damn thing beyond a few feet outside the window. It was all hazy, misty, and cloudy. We were floating high above the idiosyncrasies of daily life, if only for a few days. I wish I could have seen ourselves from a hill 500 metres away with a binocular. That would have been cool.


Second leg: SHIMLA TO KUMARSAIN

 

Suggested Route: SHIMLA TO RAMPUR
Pass through: Kufri - Narkanda

One thing you should set very concretely in your head is that your average speeds would be very low. It is reasonable to assume an average speed of 20km/h including the stops. If you are not riding pillion, you can probably push it to 25km/h but that’s it. The roads from Shimla to Rampur are good. But, beyond that, things get rough.

Apple orchard along the way. Freshly picked apples are delicious

We had planned to leave early from Shimla and arrive late evening at Rampur, but because of some unforeseen bike issues, we had to halt at Kumarsain.

The Incident

 

KUMARSAIN

We spent two nights spent in Kumarsain for reasons which were out of our control. One of our bikes gave up, and for us to rearrange something else took time. Not much to report here except that the folks were super friendly and arranged a place for us to stay at the Forest Reserve Guest House, kept their shops open for us to get dinner and happily helped us repair our bikes - without expecting anything in return. There's just one single thread of conversation here that the world should know about:

The Dynamics of a Human - Pizza Relationship

Shruti: You know I read a funny news story recently. A girl in the US married a Pizza!

Mayank: Dafaq! (Laughter) Man, people are weird. 

(Laughter all around)

Mayank: I have a question. Did the girl marry a single pizza or pizza-breed in general?

Shruti: Oh yeah! That's an important question. I don't know. Perhaps pizza-breed in general otherwise she'll have to keep the single pizza deep-freezed and never eat it. That defeats the purpose of falling in love with and marrying a pizza.

Mayank: Hmm. Suppose the girl is traveling on a flight. She knows she is going to be hungry once she deboards the plane. So, she had called a pizza place in advance to get her pizza ready. Then this would be called a long distance relationship.

 Shruti: (Laughter) Yeah, and if she has a pizza in the flight then that's cheating.

Mayank: (Laughter) And if she has more than one, then she is just a whore. 

Both Shruti and Mayank laugh uncontrollably at the brilliance of their own jokes hoping that they remember this exchange of intellect to share with the world. The world needs to know this.


End of Part 1

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

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Apathy is worse than criticism for a writer, thus I would love to hear what you thought of it - leave a comment below or email mj at mayankja.in

Restart - Lessons from one startup for another

One year of writing and 2 and half years of living before that culminates into this post, as I press the launch button for my first book.

Restart - Lessons from one startup for another, an ebook, is out now. 

Available on Instamojo (Pay What You Want)
Amazon Kindle ($1.99)

I love books. As a kid, I spent most of my time at home either playing video games or reading books. Without a computer, books were my way of learning about the world around me. Early on, most of what I read were quiz books bought for 5 bucks from vendors on train journeys. It graduated to volumes of Children's Knowledge Bank which my Dad bought for me from railway platform book stalls. From my school library, I picked Famous Five, Secret Seven, Hardy Boys, Aesop's Fables and similar other short stories. Gradually, it came to reading Sherlock Holmes and George Orwell. And I have never looked back since. 

People say that once you read a lot, it becomes easier to write. I guess it is fairly true. Although, I would also say that once you start writing, it becomes easier to read. Now, when I read something, I notice patterns, usage of words and style of language which I would have otherwise overlooked. I place myself in the author's seat and think how she would have thought of this word or that. It is a more absorbed and engaging experience.

The first memory I have of writing is as a small kid when I started maintaining a dairy. As I grew up, I made poems as a leisure activity. In school, I wrote essays and participated in debates which I drafted on my own.

After all those years, Restart is my first book. In recent past, I have written haikus, poems, articles of all lengths and even some fiction. And, finishing up a whole book is one of my proudest achievements. 

But, this book is not literature. It is not a story in the regular sense of the word. There are no fancy phrases to describe a setting and no elaborate character descriptions. Instead, there is a simple, boiled down narrative of what happened at Musicfellas and what I learnt out of it. 
If you like my writing style, I'd be happy. But, it's going to change significantly as I write more fiction or even non-fiction and I hope to keep your interest alive. If you don't like it, well, it's going to change anyways. So, stick around.

The book is priced as Pay What You Want. This was a payment mode we had at Musicfellas and we were pleasantly surprised not just by the transactions but by the generosity of people as well. Thus, I am happy to use it here.

stats from Pre-Order of the book to help you decide how much to pay:

Average Price (Including the free downloads): Rs. 95
Average Price (Excluding the free downloads): Rs. 273

I hope you read the book. It is a short, crisp read (according to others). If you enjoy it, please consider sharing it with your friends, enemies, loved ones, ex-girlfriends/boyfriends and anyone else you think might find it useful. 

Please consider reviewing the book on Amazon: (Link to be updated)

This labor of love is the first book in what I hope to be many to come. Thank you for being a part of this. I hope you enjoy it. 

The Catharsis of Creation

Write, paint, stitch, shoot, make something. It seems hard at first, but once you actually get started, it feels wonderfully relaxing. It relieves you of negativity, exhaustion and boredom.

Last night, I felt really tired and confused, as if in a daze. That was how I had been for most part of the day. There was no apparent reason for me to feel this way. But, emotions never arrive in tune with our concept of logic. To disengage myself from this feeling, I tried to find means to entertain myself. 

I picked up a book but reading seemed labored. Then, I put on the latest Apple Keynote, but it looked boring. Talking to someone didn't interest me nor did taking a walk. Something was amiss. 

It was still early to go to bed so I decided to sit down and finish up some of the pending tasks for my blog. Gradually, I found myself in the groove of creating and moving things. One and a half hours later, I found myself fresher and more attentive than I had been throughout the day. And, I was able to pen down a draft of the post you are reading right now.

Creation is cathartic. 

By creation, I don't mean that you have to do Big things. You don't have to create an epic novel or a magnificent painting, or the most ingenious movie ever. You don't have to do it all right away. 

  Post-Its with small Haikus on my wall

Post-Its with small Haikus on my wall

When you are stuck, start small. Maybe, write a couple of lines on a post it and stick it on a wall.

Paint a bottle. Take a video as you cook something, edit it in an editor.

Or just spend time playing with creation tools online like Incredibox.

  Little Buddha on an Old Monk bottle - Not my work

Little Buddha on an Old Monk bottle - Not my work

It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to exist. You created something where nothing was present earlier. There was zilch before you put your skills into it to bring something to life. Pat yourself on the back, it's a big deal. 

Don't worry about creating something small, casual or flimsy. Creation doesn't have a quota that you would not have enough left in you to make something serious. Quite the contrary. Creating these small projects could actually serve as a fertile ground for you to build your next big thing. 

I had planned that I would not publish another new post on the blog until I release the book. I imagined that this would allow me to pour all my energy into finishing up the book. But, I felt something stuck inside of me which affected my writing process. Perhaps, I should have realised that I would derive energy from the simple act of writing whether it is on the book or not is irrelevant.

Brewed Green Tea. Made and edited a video

The energies you derive from doing these small, off the cuff projects, coalesce to support your big dream project. Human race has been moved forward by people who created, in their small chambers, irrespective of what is going to happen to their projects, simply for the joy of creating. 

 

It is almost addictive like a drug whose fix you need regularly. Once you experience the high it gives you, you can never turn back. Only that it is much more beneficial and progresses us towards our quest to find meaning in our lives.

Jodhpur Riff Music Festival

Picture a massive fort with imposing walls that stands upon a hill accessible by roads that climb up, zig-zagging their way to the top. Inside that fort, musicians from all over the world have assembled bringing their own unique style of music with them. You are seated on chairs in a wide open courtyard surrounded by the tall, erect walls of the fort that stand cocooning you away from the world outside.

  Mehrangarh Fort at 7 in the morning

Mehrangarh Fort at 7 in the morning

But, it is not morning when you are in there (as it is in the above picture). Instead, it is midnight. The moon is waning, having seen the first day of the music festival in all its full glory.

You are not alone.

To the left of you are your friends with their eyes, ears and minds glued to the stage in front of them. To your right is a tiny 3-year old foreign kid with sunset yellow hair in an Indian kurta and pyjama. He sits on the floor, claps, leaps up, dances and plays with whomever he wants, oblivious of the rest of us. Carefree and obviously having the time of his life, he doesn’t smile though. It is as if the scene in front of him was one of the secret rituals of a ceremony that only he knows and was created just for him to take part in.

His mom is somewhere at the back. You know this because you had seen both of them eariler in the food courtyard. He looked sleepy then, probably waiting for things to get started. The mother looked like many years ago, she must have gone through a similar procession. Ragged clothes, pierced skin, a backpack, flip-flops - she exudes charm and natural cool that many of us can only look at, admire and idolise.

Behind us is a swarm of people equally interesting and completely interested in what was unfolding in front of us. Some are standing holding their drinks while others, their lover's hands. Rest are seated on a stone platform at the base of the walls surrounded by strangers wanting to strike up a conversation, smoking, listening to the music. 

The Royalty of Jodhpur sits on one side against the wall - impeccably dressed in their regal attire - turbans, sherwani, swords - the works. Guards with curled up moustaches stood protecting them from the common folk. 

The main attraction was lit up by an amalgamation of colors dispersing out of various strobes shining on the performers on the stage and reflecting against the walls. 

Who the performer is on the stage is immaterial. You don’t remember much of how it sounded like except that when you were there, the music was solely what you thought about. No other thoughts entered into your head and you feel glad because of it. 

The music lifts you up, drowns you down, moves you - takes you in circles, makes you smile, wonder and smile some more. You don't really know which category to place this music in. There is Rock, Sufi, Soul, Folk and many others. Often, they collaborate and produce unique sounds. 

It is not too cold , just warm enough for a thin sweater. You take a sip of your drink. But, it is only customary, you don’t really need it.

Earlier, you sat at a ledge outside with your friends, legs dangling in the air. 200ft below, looking ahead in the distance, you see the many houses and people that make up the city. People dance on the roofs for a reason which you are not privy to. City appears a box full of more brown boxes with a few specks of color scattered around on top of people’s houses. 

And it is midnight. 

This is Jodhpur Riff Music Festival. I was there for only a night and day but it is already among one of my favorite live music experiences. I didn’t click many pictures of that night, there is no point. You have to be there to truly appreciate the grandeur of the event. 

On the way to the fort at 4.30 in the morning

That night, we stayed at the fort till 3 am then came back to rest for an hour before leaving again for the finale at a different venue. Unlike most music festivals, this one didn't end with a grand last night. Instead a beautiful morning show ended the proceedings. It was by the brilliant Kabir Panthi Prahlad Singh Tipaniya whose work we are already a big fan of. 

Prahlad Singh Tipanya - Tu Ka Tu

This was a completely new experience for me. We arrived at the venue for the morning show, Jaswant Thada which is a mausoleum, early in the morning when it was still dark. Tipanya Ji sat on the floor of the courtyard with his group. 

Different shades of Jaswant Thada during the performance

The sun had not yet appeared, probably waiting for us to assemble before emerging. We lay our bums down on the bright green wet morning grass, others on the mattresses. Gradually, the light grew brighter and we shut our tired eyes and let the music sink in. Although, honestly, we couldn't really hear all of it - the exhaustion from the night before resulted in a few small naps interspersed with Tipanya Ji's booming voice and the sounds from the instruments of the rest of his group. 

Eventually, we got up, roamed around, had a cup of tea, looked on the other side from where, again, the whole city and the Mehrangarh fort could be seen - all this time, the group kept singing songs of Kabir in devotion to God.

As it ended, we broke into an impromptu jig. The rest of the day was comparatively uneventful as we came back and rested for a bit before catching the train to back home. 

From Jodhpur, we took back some fine memories and delicious sweets and kachoris. And left behind a promise to do this again. 

For more photos of the festival, check out their Facebook page.