Tuesday 7 June 2016

Vaishno Devi

This has been one of the most challenging journeys I've undertaken in my life.
The other challenging one I recall was one to Kedarnath-Badrinath.

Day 0, 22nd May, 2016
At around 8am, we departed from Ahmedabad for Jammu Tawi.
Next day at around 5 pm, we reached Jammu Tawi.
Vaishnodevi temple is situated at Trikuta Mountains which is located in a small town, Katra, in the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Pre-paid taxis are available at Jammu Tawi Railway station for Katra.
It took about 90 minutes for us to reach Katra.

Day 2, 24th May, 2016.
At around 8.30am we started our climb. The Base Camp is known as Ban-Ganga from where the pilgrims start the climb for Maa Vaishnodevi. The main temple of Vaishnodevi is known as Bhawan.
The temple is situated on Trikuta Mountain, with a climb of about 14 km from Ban-Ganga.
Services like Pony, Pitthu are available.
We walked on foot till Ardh Kuari. Now Ardh Kuari lies midway between Ban-Ganga and Bhawan. The track till Ardh Kuari can be easily walked. There are lot of refreshment shops on the way.

Ardhkumari is Garbhjun where Maa Vaishno Devi had spent 9 months period. This is the belief that one should cross this cave before going to Bhawan. But Ardhkumari is all time crowded and there is all time long waiting queues. My suggestion is check if your waiting time is within 6 hrs then you can wait else go to bhawan & visit ardhkumari in your return journey. We don't need to pay any amount for getting Yatra Parchi, for Bhawan (main Vaishno Devi temple), as well as at the Ardh Kuari.

Now the path from Ardh-Kuari to Bhawan is a bit difficult. The slope is really steep.
We took ponies for this path. Ponies dropped us at Sanji Chaat. Sanji Chaat is where the Helipad is located. Helicopter services run between Katra and Sanji Chaat. Sanji Chaat to Bhawan is a 3 km walk which is mostly flat.

At about 2pm in the afternoon, we reached Bhawan.
For Darshan, one needs to have a Yatra Parchi. We registered online on the Vaisnodevi Shrine Board website and obtained the Electronic Reservation Slip(ERS) for our date. It requires ID Proof numbers of each member. We do not need to pay any amount for obtaining ERS. After obtaining the ERS, we need to show it near the Ban-Ganga check post, which is located about a kilometer from the base camp, on the way towards Bhawan. Here, we received our Yatra Parchis.

At Bhawan, there are cloak room services available. Any electronic or leather items are not allowed inside temple and there are about 2-3 checks for the same.

At Bhawan there are 4 gates.
Gate 1 & 2: Gate 1 & 2 are the normal gates. Gate 2 remains closed most of the time. The entry for pilgrims is mostly from Gate 1. When we went, although the queue was continuously moving, it took us about 15 mins from getting in queue to the main Darshan. If there is rush, then you could have to wait for long. It is said that sometimes it takes 2-3 days during times of October-November.
This kind of scenario happens only in time of Navarati.

Gate 3: This is entry for Military official & their family, friends. This lines join Gate 1&2 line at last. It saves lot of time.

Gate 4: This is VVIP gate. The entrance of this gate goes direct for Darshan without any stoppage.

Each Yatra Parchi will have it's Darshan Session Number. This will be provided by them while issuing the Parchi. Ours was Session 77, which was running exactly at the same time we reached Bhawan.

Previously when I came to Vaishnodevi, in 2003, we had to go via a narrow cave. But they have renovated a bit, and now there is a walk-able path available.

After the darshan, we headed for Bhairon Temple. Now the path from Bhawan to Bhairon Temple is one of the most difficult I had encountered. An almost 45 degrees uphill and frequent U-turns which again had a 45 degree slope making it one of the most challenging.
According to the instructions of Shastras, the journey of Mata Vaishno Devi will not be complete without visiting Bhairon temple and take blessings of the Lord Bhairon.
We took ponies for our return journey till Ban-Ganga. It took about 2 hours and at almost 7.30pm, we were at the base camp.

This was a bit tiring for us. But we expected it. And for the same reason we had kept the next day as a leisure day so that we could rest properly. And we did.

Day 4, 26th May, 2016
We headed for Shiv Khori. It is a Shiv temple located about 70 kms from Katra. The road from Katra to Shiv Khori is quite hilly as these are all border roads. I needed to have a tablet to prevent nausea, even when sitting on the front seat.

At Shiv Khori, it is about 4 km of climb to the main temple. Ponies and Pithoos are available here as well. The path from the base to the main temple is bit dangerous I must say. The path doesn't have fencing. And on such paths, if you are on a pony, believe me, it will scare the hell out of you. I remember my descent at Vaishnodevi on a pony. Even when there was fencing, I used to hold my breath at the narrow U-turns, where if you see below, it will be an endless valley.
We avoided the ponies, and went afoot.
Also, the shades have been kept at very discreet distances, every 400 meters or so. It was noon time, and climbing afoot in the sun was a daunting task for us.

Now at the main temple, there are two caves: the Old one and New one. Everyone will be directed towards the old cave.
This is not known to many that the old cave is too narrow to pass and one has to really struggle themselves up the cave. It is a natural cave with rocks sticking in between two halves of the mountain wall.. which is really narrow. By chance, if there is any movement, or an earthquake where the rock shakes just a bit, the guy will just be stuck in there with a very less chance of getting out. Even more, if you have claustrophobia, it would be really difficult.

I don't know why they don't direct the pilgrims towards the new cave. This new cave has an entrance from behind the temple.
I had joined the queue in the old cave. When I saw the cave, I simply resisted to go further. We asked if there's an alternate path, and directed us towards the new cave.
I strongly suggest taking the New Cave, which is not a cave exactly but a path which meets at the same temple and is much more suitable for walking.

On the returning path from Shiv Khori to Katra, there are couple of places for sight-seeing.

Day 5, 27th May, 2016
We headed for Ahmedabad via Jaat Express.

Altogether, it was a pleasant trip, rejuvenating mind and body. We were tired after the several hours of travel and walking but the kind of relaxation and peace of mind we experienced after this pilgrimage was tremendous.

Shortcut paths are available for pilgrims, the other path is for ponies

Towards Maa Vaishno Devi

Towards Maa Vaishno Devi

Such refreshment stalls are available throughout

If was around 11 am in the morning and weather was beautiful. It was drizzling a little bit.
The day after we went, it was raining heavily, and was difficult for the pilgrims to walk on a wet path, especially with such steep slopes.

Pithoo Service

From Sanji Chaat to Bhawan

Ardh Kuari

Official rates of services. But you won't get it with these rates. You will have to pay atleast 200-300 Rs. extra.

Official Site of Maa Vaishno Devi

These are some of the snaps I captured depicting the faith of people in Maa Vaishnodevi.
No matter how the consequences are, one needs to have faith and keep moving.

For staying at Bhawan

The main  entrance to the temple

Helicopter booking office at Bhawan. It is better to book online through official Vaishnodevi website. Booking opens 2 months before.

Bhairon Temple.

Trikuta Mountain, snap from near my Hotel in Katra

Some places to see in Katra. We visited Nau Pindian, Reasi Town, Water Fall and Shiv Khori.

Shiv Khori, It has 4km of climb. It doesn't have continuous shades as well as proper fencing.

Shiv Khori

Shiv Khori

Trikuta Mountain at Night

Thursday 2 June 2016

Dubai - Part 4

Day 5, 17th May 2016
This was the best day of my tour. At about 9.30am we headed for Abu Dhabi. On the way we visited Lulu's Hypermarket.
Dubai is connected with Abu Dhabi via Sheikh Zayed Road which stretches for about 80 kms. This road doesn't have a signal and one can easily drive with speeds ranging from 100-120 km/hr. Within about an hour we reached Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is richest source of oil in the world.

  First of all, we visited Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This was a really gigantic and magnificient mosque. There are a few restrictions on the attire of tourists entering the mosque.

  Next, we headed for the “Ferrari World”! This is the king of all Theme Parks. No park can beat this one. This is a huge one, completely indoor with breath-taking cars and thrilling rides. While buying ticket at the counter, ask for Ferrari Merchandise Voucher worth 10 Dirhams. You can use it inside for buying Ferrari merchandise. The Ferrari bag-packs are really awesome and are worth trying once.

  Once I entered into it, I was left with awe. It is such a gigantic one. I wondered these people are so advanced with structural engineering.
  There are lots of rides in it and we were lucky we got guidance on which were the best rides among all. We had only 4 hours for it. The ticket which they give will have a validity of two days.

The Karting is one of best and most sought after here. Each session is of 15 minutes and accomodates only 10 persons per session. Only for Karting, one has to register there with Facebook Id, and then they will give you a session slot. First thing I did was to register and get the Karting ticket. Withing 2-3 hours, all the tickets were sold out, and only those who had the tickets were allowed to 'experience the thrill' ! Yes, it was really a thrilling experience. Ferrari is known for its speed and I could feel it. Man! It was just awesome! The drifts were the best part of it.

  Next ride was Tyres Twist. This ride was just to get started. There were lots of rides and only few of them were of interest to me. I like speed. I like power. I like thrill.

  There is a ride simulator which gives an experience of how it feels to be inside the fastest car Ferrari has made. They will make you sit in a hall with seats like those in a car, with seat belts. There will be a huge screen. They will first show you a background story and then the camera moves inside the car. As the camera is inside the Ferrari, the seats will lift themselves up and you will find yourself facing right in the middle of the screen. As the Ferrari speeds up, one will feel the same as inside the car. There will be lots of obstacles shown on the screen and as the Ferrari takes sharp turns, you will experience the same... the seats tilting sharply from left to right and again left... when there are brakes, it will tilt in front to create the effect.. there will also be a splash of water when it goes through a small puddling. There will be two sessions, one with the normal car and another with the F1 Racing Formula car. I got a real feel of Ferrari after this!
  Next was the most awaited one, the most dangerous of all, and the most memorable part my journey... the Flying Aces Roller Coaster! This is not a child's play, mind you. Do not even try this if you are afraid of sitting in the rides. The speed of this roller coaster goes about 230 km/hr. They have made this ride such that the roller coaster ride isn't visible from inside the park. If you want to sit in it, you have to walk through a dark passage. Actually they have made this ride to depict the evolution of speed over the years. The passage through which you have to walk showcases the ancient aircrafts and other machines which have evolved over the years. The passage end being the entry to the roller coaster. You have to leave all your belongings in a free locker provided there. I suggest leaving nothing with you, even your spectacles.

  As you will sit on the coaster, I was fastened with a hood so tight that I wasn't able to move. When I asked for loosening it a bit, none of them responded. Once the roller started, it climbed so high, and then it was just free fall. Oh my god, I am still feeling the thrill in my hands as I am writing this! The coaster took such sharp turns, was so upside down, was so speedy. I could just hold my breath! Oh man! My first ride in the roller coaster and I couldn't believe I survived it! Those 3 minutes were the most thrilling of my life. I hadn't experienced such a thing before. But I was so happy after that. Adrenaline rush! It felt like an achievement to me. You know like conquering your fears. “Darr ke aage jeet hai”... There is victory beyond fear. It was a really memorable experience for me. After it finished the ride, they told me “Now you understand why we fastened it so tight, ha?”... lol.. I told “Yes, really. Thanks a lot for that!”.

  The Ferrari World has lots of eateries inside. Food is not allowed inside. They allow only 200 ml water bottles to be taken inside. Il Podio is an Indian restaurant there. For me, French Fries is the best thing to eat. I bought an Indian Black Tea with Milk for 10 dhs and French Fries for 15 dhs. The quantity and quality was worth the money.

  The best thing we did was to have as moderate breakfast as possible and have a time gap of at least 3-4 hours before sitting the rides. I could hardly imagine what would happen if I had sat in the roller coaster with a full stomach.

  Ferrari World has a ride which takes you through the various processes in a Ferrari factory. Do you know about a program called “Mega Factories” on National Geographic Channel? They had an episode on Ferrari as well. I got a real feel of that program after this ride. I must say this not a ride as such, but they will make you sit in a Ferrari Cabin and will take you through the various aspects involved the process from engine molding to shaping the chasis to painting the car.

  There are also other rides worth trying. But I will refrain from mentioning it here.

At about 5.30 pm, we started for Dubai via the same Sheikh Zayed Road. Due to heavy traffic, it took us about 2 hours to reach Dubai. On the way, I got to see some marvellous cars.

  We had our dinner at Veg World Restaurant at Meena Bazaar. This was a Gujarati Restaurant and people there will greet you with “Kem Cho”. You will see lots of shops around this restaurant for jewelry, perfumes, souvenirs, etc. Some of the products have a really reasonable price. They have a great collection of perfumes. As duty is levied on perfumes in India, one will get to buy perfumes at a cheaper rate in Dubai. I got a Ferrari Perfume there at half the price in India.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Ferrari World

Ferrari World

Karting at Ferrari World

Ferrari World

Flight Simulator, Ferrari World

Ferrari World

Il Podio is a cafe serving Indian dishes at Ferrari World
Karting, Ferrari World

Karting Academy, Ferrari World

Day 6, 18th May 2016
The day of departure. It was a wonderful journey these 5 days. I had a Qatar Airways flight Dubai-Doha-Ahmedabad. The Dubai Airport (DXB) is a gigantic one. The check-in counters are divided into 6 Areas with each area having about 10-15 counters. After getting the boarding pass, we had to go the Departure Area via a train. Yes. You read it correctly. A train with about 5-7 coaches at the airport, which transfers passengers to and from the Departure/Arrival area. It covers the length of about 1.5 km. The departure area has about 32 gates along with several shops. They have made something similar of a mall inside the Departure area. There are duty free shops, jewelery shops, liquor, chocolate shops, etc. You could do your complete Dubai shopping here. 
  You might have heard that buying Gold from Dubai would save you some pennies. They only charge for the gold. There is no making charge. I have included a price list below for you to compare. These are the prices for the duty free jewelery shop inside the departure area. It is the only jewelery shop inside the airport.

  Out there in Dubai, there is a place called “The Gold Souk”. 'Souk' means 'land'/'market'. There are two of the kinds: one in Old Dubai (Deira) and one in New Dubai. It is better to buy gold in form of jewelery than coins or biscuits. You can wear the jewelery it won't be noticed by customs at the airport. Even one gold coin per passport is allowed as duty-free. But I have heard that duty is levied on gold biscuits. 
  The Dubai-Doha flights are known as Shuttles. There are Dubai-Doha flights almost every hour or so. The duration of flight is about 1 hour 10 minutes. So as soon as we took off, we were served snacks. And just after we completed our snacks, the aircraft started its descent.
  Doha is the capital of Qatar. Doha is 1 hour behind Dubai. So we started in Dubai at 7.30pm  and landed in Doha at 7.40 pm local! (which according to Dubai would be 8.40pm.) 
  The air hostesses for Qatar airways are really pretty. The Doha-Ahmedabad flight duration was for about 2 hours 30 minutes. They serve decent enough meals. Our flight provided free alcohol. I am not sure if other International Flights also provide free of cost. So if you drink, you can ask for it. 

  At Ahmedabad airport, I didn't need to do any Immigration process except for just a passport check and a stamp of arrival.

All in all it was a memorable journey. 
Dubai is worth visiting at least once in a life time.

Gold Prices at Duty Free Shop at Dubai Airport

Gold Prices at Duty Free Shop at Dubai Airport


On our return flight Qatar Airways from Doha to Ahmedabad. Our seat was near the Emergency Seat, at which there was a seat for an Air Hostess. Her name was Samantha. My mom became a good friend of her during the flight. She was from Thailand and had visited only Kolkata. My mom invited her to visit Ahmedabad some day. 

Dubai - Part 3

Day 4, 16th May 2016
This was the most tiresome day of all. At about 11am, we headed for Dubai Mall. Dubai Mall is the largest mall in the world with over 1200 shops. It is also one of the most expensive malls. We just went wandering in one of the shops, saw a ring, a really beautiful ring, saw it's price in Dirhams, converted to Rupees, and it came to about 1.5 crore INR! Another shop had watches in the range from 30-50 lakh Rupees! We were told that usually the big Sheikhs and film stars buy from here. It is really a gigantic mall and there are taxi services inside the mall to carry passengers from one extreme end to another.
  You just cannot see the whole mall in limited time provided. But there are only few places worth seeing. I suggest seeing “The Village” inside Dubai Mall. This place is decorated in a really beautiful way with about 500 umbrellas hanging from the roof.

Dubai Acquarium and Underwater Zoo are the most interesting ones. I suggest to visit these first of all when you visit the mall. If you will be fresh in the morning, you will be able to enjoy the aquarium and zoo. The aquarium is really beautiful. It has octopus, squids, star fish, and even penguins. And they haven't just put them in a water container and put for display. They have created a beautiful habitat similar to how these creatures live. The same is the case for the zoo. There is even a restaurant with an ambiance similar to a forest. The background music involves the voices in the forest, the roar of a lion, birds chirping, a howling wolf, etc. This creates a really wonderful effect. I saw a gigantic crocodile in the zoo. Their ceilings of the containment in which the animals are kept are made up of glass such that you can stand on it from the floor above and see the creatures from top as well.

  So that is all to see in Dubai Mall according to me. We had limited time and seeing all the 1200 shops is just impossible. I had an acquaintance who was living in Dubai since past 16 years. He himself hasn't been able to see the whole mall.

  Next was Burj Khalifa.  The ticket counter for Burj Khalifa “At The Top” is located on the Underground Floor of Dubai Mall. The Tour Package agency will book an online ticket for you. The online tickets have discounts of about 50%. And there is no difference in the tickets issued online and the ones issued at the counter. These tickets are issued for a definite time slots e.g. 5.30pm, 6pm, etc. After you produce the online booking ticket at the counter, they will give you a voucher. It might be written that they will start taking tourists only 15 minutes before their time slots but they are lenient with that. We were alert and they were allowing even 45 minutes before the given time slot. Our time was at 8 pm. I suggest taking a time slot in range of 5-7pm. The sun sets at about 7pm there and this time will give a beautiful view. Mornings and afternoons will be very hot. In our case at 8pm, we had a really wonderful view but we could not click good pictures due to lack of proper light. Evenings will give you real feel of 124th floor.

  Burj Khalifa is the wold's tallest building, about 830 meteres high. It has about 160 floors having offices and residential spaces as well. The tourists are taken only till 124th floor via a lift that  covers the distance in about a minute or so. The feeling you get in the lift is similar to what you get in an aircraft while taking off. Your ears will also feel the similar pressure.

  The 124th floor has an open-sky gallery for tourists. I don't know how many people are aware but there is a free upgrade to 125th floor as well. There is a door at an extreme end from which you can go one floor above. The crowd is little bit thinner and the view is also awesome. There is an art gallery and a souvenir shop on this floor. There was a Bollywood song being played in the background on 125th Floor of the world's largest building.

  Dubai also has two bollywood radio channels, one of them being Radio Mirchi. I was very glad to listen to some melodious songs throughout my journey on the radio. They also used to give IPL score updates.

  The Dubai Fountain is also a must-see here. The Fountain show is for about 4 minutes and happens in the interval of 30 minutes in the evening. The best time to enjoy it is when it is a bit dark. We also saw it again from the 125th Floor. The lights and music create a magnificient effect.

This area where Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa are located is known as Downtown Dubai.

As I said, this was most tiresome day of all. There was lot of walking.
Dubai is a huge city. They know how to best utilize the space and create magnificient structures with extricate designs and perfection. Burj Khalifa is an example of it.

Dubai Mall

Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo

Downtown Dubai

At the Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

Dubai Fountain

Burj Khalifa

Dubai Fountain

Looking up from 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa