Encouraged by a bunch of friends (special thanks to Kalpana, Allen, Xingji and Sai) and inspired by a shared trip with Roberta and Sonia, I have finally made this small step towards something that I pictured as big and enjoyable.
By naming it Bria’s Answer, the first message that I want it to deliver is my willingness to help. Whenever you ask questions about (travelling in) India (and hopefully China as well later on- it is always more intricate to touch upon one’s own country than to comment on other countries, is it?) Bria will neither ignore nor avert.
But then, why not Ask Bria, to make the message more straightforward? This has nothing to do with the willingness, but rather the capacity to help. During my eight months’ stay in the Incredible India, my footprints have passionately yet tenderly hit the land of Delhi, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir (the northernmost state), Kerala (one of the southernmost states), Maharashtra, Punjab (including the western front: Attari-Wagah Border), Rajasthan (including the western front: another border with Pakistan that I forgot the name…) , Uttar Anchal, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal- You see, there is still a substantial part of the Subcontinent left unexplored. Even for the places that I’ve already visited, I cannot pretend to know them inside-out, despite my eternally flaming curiosity.
Therefore, I start with easy questions such as food, transportation, climate and logistics. (I am not a good consultant on accommodation because I belong to the category that can fall asleep ANYWHERE…) It is not that I am not a keen cultural observer (no matter how novice I am), but observations on culture, religion and social dynamics are always harder to frame. (I must fight over my laziness some day!) Some crude attempts, however, are already scattered all over the blog.
Just equally as I “show off” the brilliance and richness of my experience, I frankly expose the weakness and limitations of my thinking. But against all odds, I still hope that this column helps and I appreciate it very much if you can help it grow by appreciating my ingenuity, by correcting my impreciseness, and by tolerating my imperfections.
Q: Is August/ September a good time to visit Ladakh?
BA: I was in Leh from 2012-8-27 to 2012-9-2 and went trekking between at the end of August. In sharp contrast to our stay in Dharamsala where we did not see one beam of sunlight for the entire three days, the sun in Ladakh is so generous that you have to gear yourself up with lip balms, hand creams and sun creams to avoid the “care” that is “over-granted” by the sun. The beginning of September also sees the annual Ladakh Festival run by the tourism department, where one can enjoy parade, traditional dance, polo match, cultural and photography exhibitions and even a marathon!
Q: Where can I buy good Pashmina shawls in Leh?
BA: There are a lot of good handicraft shops in Leh everywhere, from Fort Road to Main Bazar. But never forget to bargain if you want a fair price. For us, we bargained with “The Gift” in Lal Chowk of Main Bazar near Jama Masjid (firstname.lastname@example.org) and got rewarding results because they are said to have got the shawl directly from their countryside factory.
Another equally important tip: although you can always bargain and reach an agreeable deal, the initial price that you would hear in Leh is always much higher, usually twice the price compared with that in Dharamsala or Manali. Since a lot of foreigners (especially those who have not been to above two places yet) tend to accept the price indiscriminately, not every shop dealer has the patience to run into a marathon bargain with you. (Exceptions can be found in Tibetan handicraft markets where you will manage to get “the Dharamsala price” for bracelets, necklaces, Buddha statues as well as other arts and crafts.) In that case, better equip yourself in advance in Dharamsala and Manali (if possible) before you are shocked by the expensive Leh.
Q: What are the recommended dishes/ restaurants in Leh?
BA: Our limited time of stay enabled us to shortlist the extensive collections listed by the Lonely Planet (but not that even that list is not exhaustive!) For dinner definitely try the mutton chili (don’t be fooled by the name. It’s not that spicy as suggested by the name, and you can always ask them to make it less spicy.) and mutton momo (severed within the soup) in the Tibetan Kitchen. Chopsticks’ chicken veg mixed rice offers the best alternative. As for the options on Changspa Road, Bon Appetit combines good food with amazing views (full moon and thousand stars- does that remind you of Van Gogh’s masterpiece?) Mini Khao Suey (Burmese noodle broth with assorted condiments) is something that resembles the classical Yunnan Dish of Cross Bridge Rice Noodle: Seven small plates host condiments such as eggs, lemon, peanuts, sesame etc. that you put into the rice noodle soup according to your own preference. Non-veg mixture of rice is flavored with the delicious lemon ginger chicken. The pasta and pizza might not be a satisfying option, though.
Booklover’s retreat (Café Jeevan), owned by a Jammu-based Punjabi man, offered another amazing experience, mainly by its veg cheese sizzler with rice and noodle. Sizzling noise and vegetable aroma of the dish already augmented the appetite, not to mention the fresh taste of rice and noodles mingled with the cauliflowers, carrots and cabbages. The second-hand bookshop also creates a nice ambiance, although you need to search hard to make the 250 Rupees’ deal worthwhile. But once you plan to sell your own book to them, you will find their policy quite ridiculous: you give them your book in exchange of one of their collections, and you still have to pay them 125 Rupees (half of the original price)!
Last but not least, Open Hand Café is the perfect place for espresso if you are very particular about coffee.
Q: I am a border citizen (to India). Can I get the inner line permit to visit restricted areas in Ladakh from Leh?
BA: In theory, you should always find authoritative answers from government agencies like Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office (FRRO). However, save your rare chance of success and a lot of efforts in vain, my observation is that it is virtually impossible for border citizens to get the permit directly from Leh. I was also informed that the difficulty is not imposed to mainland citizens alone, but also those with Hong Kong SAR passport (I guess it is the same for Macau) or those from Taiwan but with a residence permit of mainland on their passports.
Instead, to get such permits, border citizens have to apply in Delhi, travelling from one government agency to another at the mercy of cold faces of suspicions thrown by those functionaries. (Chinese readers can refer to my attempt of getting permit to Sikkim here.) Throw a coin to see if you can get it or not. If you can even get it done fast (say, within one week), buy yourself a lottery and you deserve it!
Pessimistic as it sounds, it is by far the only official way that you can explore the stunning beauty and profound tranquility of Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso and Rupsu Valley. In practice, if your risk premium is high enough, you can always speculate if the pass check is strictly followed as to counter the intuitive perception of Indian slack. Otherwise, you don’t have to be sad either, because you can still make the most of what you are allowed to see and do.
If you are not from the border countries, it only takes one day to get the permit (with around 100 Rupees plus tax), and in emergency cases, you give your passports to the agency and get it back around 11 a.m. in the same day- Congratulations, Nubra Valley, Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri is waving their beautiful hands to you now!
Q: I am enjoying Ladakh so much and don’t know when to leave. Should I book my return ticket in advance?
BA: Good (and very important) question! Unlike Goa which is conveniently connected to everywhere (There are even international charter flights to Goa- from U.K.!), only four airlines (Air India, Go Air, Jet Airways and Kingfisher) operate in Leh and connect you to only three destinations: Jammu, Kashmir and Delhi (which means you have to transfer from these three places to go anywhere else). And not all of them have daily flights. (But when I search on Google now, it appears that Indigo and Spice Jet also operates to/from Leh, while there also seem to have flights from Leh to Mumbai, Chennai, Chandigarh, etc. Therefore I guess it’s all because of the high/low season. For that reason it might also be better if you check in advance!)
Normally, booking at least two days in advance is considered marginally safe. Chances are rare that you can get the ticket if booking only one day in advance. It tends to be even more risky if you decide to go on spot directly. But note that I am only referring to the beginning of September. Though not the peak season in the conventional sense, a considerable number of tourists are still expected, given the fair weather and the happening Ladakhi Festival. Actually, it is the last chance to appreciate the still tender charm of Ladakh.
From November on, this beauty will turn into some harsh and chilly flavor. So air transportation might be in lower demand since then. But on the other hand, you should not forget that during that time, air transportation is the only way to access Ladakh: route option would be blocked because of bad weather condition.
As for the peak season from May to July… you don’t need me to remind you to book at least one week in advance, do you? =P
Finally, I know how hard it is to say goodbye to Ladakh. But even the most fantastic experiences come to an end. No use crying because it is over. Instead, smile because it happened. Smile because the heavenly Ladakh has imprinted herself in your memory that accompanies you all your life.
Q: Is August a good time to visit Dharamsala?
BA: We were there for three days since the night of 2012-8-22, and as I’ve already mentioned, we had not seen a beam of sunlight. Despite the heavy monsoon, you might still want to go there for two reasons. First, as long as you have a raincoat and/or umbrella as a shield, the situation is actually not that bad at least compared with the old city of Amritsar, where one single pour of rain sufficed to manipulate the magic power of turning the arid town into Venice. Second, according to the Lonely Planet, August is one of the few months that you get a higher chance to meet Dalai Lama. Of course, you have to check his schedule (www.tibet.com) way in advance (say, two or three weeks before travelling) if you’re seriously into it.
Q: What are the recommended dishes in Dharamsala?
BA: Moonpeak restaurant’s apricot mutton is a must try!! I swear it is the most delicious (and creative) mutton I’ve ever tasted! In contrast, the Himachal thali recommended by the Lonely Planet is less impressive under the glory of apricot mutton…) There is also a small restaurant just opposite Tibetan Ashoka Guesthouse whose only dish at night is mutton momo (soup served separately) – and this only dish is equally worth trying. You can also go to Common Ground café(www.commongroundsprojec.org, their menu is available online here) for its mushroom chicken and fried pork slice with the company of a bowl of rice (and it is the right place to practice using chopsticks), although Zhejiang Eggplant Garlic Sauce Tofu disappointedly seemed to be made of paneer. Even Café Coffee Day at Dharamsala has more diversified menu than anywhere else J
Q: Is Srinagar a safe place to travel?
BA: That was also something that kept me preoccupied when I was in Leh (before the trekking) fancying my next stop after Ladakh. Although the safety was constantly confirmed by friends, hotel managers, shawl dealers and taxi drivers, my doubt wasn’t cleared until I accidentally forced my way to Srinagar. I did not have time to explore the city (in spite of its beauty). But what I did was much more dramatic, if not adventurous, than that. I took the other road route by which Leh is accessible, i.e., the Srinagar-Leh route. To be fair, there are beautiful moments along the road. But most of the time the scenery was monopolized by barren ranges- way less impressive compared to Manali-Leh. The conditions are no better when the road surface, harsh as that on the moon, kept harassing one after another good carriers and caused frequent traffic jams. It took me around sixteen hours to reach Srinagar and another thirty minutes to the airport (during which less than vehicles passed us, making Srinagar virtually a ghost town at midnight; and sadder enough, my driver crashed a baby dog when it failed to discern us approaching…) only to have realized that it is closed by then. Exhausted and reluctant to find an accommodation, I asked the driver if I can stay in the jeep overnight. Consented, he drove me back to the city and found a “safe” place to “hide” me/us from police check.
My deviated account is just to show that Srinagar is quite safe at least along the Srinagar-Leh route and in Lal Chowk (even at midnight). However, that does not prove the warnings of Lonely Planet wrong. Although accident is a probability idea, it means deadly certainty the moment it occurs. Adventurous as I am, I do believe that it helps to follow the latest updates of Srinagar online before braving into the Town of Knowledge.
Finally, Unlike Leh which is almost mosquito-free, be prepared to fight the mosquitos awaiting you in Srinagar 🙂
Q: You mentioned two road routes to Leh. Which one is better?
BA: If the answer still does not revel itself clear, let us crystalize it in a law-and-economics manner:
|Vehicles Along The Way||Buses, tourist jeeps, trucks and oil carriers||Mostly trucks and oil carriers (I counted the number of foreigners that I came across to be less than twenty)|
|Duration||2 days (around 22 hours)||1 day (around 16 hours)|
|Road Condition||For 16 kilometers of roads, the car jumps all the while. So does your hip.||Generally better, but subject to traffic congestions even in non-rush hours. Surface of some roads are like the surface of the moon, though, which easily stumbles a truck by a stone)|
|Night Stop||State-run bus: KeylongJeeps: camp near Sarchu
Road-side “hotels” (camp-style beds) is another option
|Weather Condition||Always sunny along our way||Rained a little bit along my way|
|Landscape||See pictures below or go there and see personally 🙂|
However, bear in mind that the road to Leh will be closed between mid-October until May of the next year. So double check the availability of the route option.
Q: What are the recommended dishes/ restaurants in Mumbai?
BA: This is the question that motivates the entire project of Lonely Planet or even the Michelin Guide (do they publish one for Mumbai?) Indeed, just as there are so many sceneries to explore in Mumbai, equally are there so many restaurants and dishes worth your visit. For me, I can only offer humble tips like these:
1) If you happen to stay near Colaba-Fort, Powai or Bandra- congratulations! You will have the luxurious privilege (at least theoretically) to dine at different restaurant without repetition for one month!
2) Best Salad: Nicely located inside the elegant bookshop Kitab khana that fills your mental appetite, Food for Thought is the right place to surrender your physical stomach. Caesar Salad with lettuce, croutons and corns, as its special signature dish, coincidentally matches the Chinese philosophy of color, aroma and taste. A perfect combination of the three makes it the best salad that I have ever tasted in Mumbai.
3) Authentic Chinese cuisine: My wishful attempt to search for authentic Chinese cuisine accumulated a poor record ranging from minor failure (Aroma of China) to absolute fiasco (the stand outside Food Bazaar in R City sold the most ugly-tasted momo I have ever tried in my life! Luckily, the stand is no longer there~) until I found this one. So, be prepared for the name- China House!
If you Google it, it would show up two results: one in Grand Hyatt (Santa Cruz) and one in Galleria (Powai). I am not sure about the relations between these two, but since I have been to the first one only, my comments here correspondingly refer to the one in Grand Hyatt.
As a Shanghai native, Shanghai Steamed Bun (Xiaolong Baozi) on the menu immediately stimulated my nostalgia (as well as appetite). I ordered it soon after being reassured by the Chinese chef that it would not be made as spicy veg momos of the Indian style. As if to match the posh status of Grand Hyatt, the bun is served in an unexpectedly delicate manner with a slice of carrot underneath. But no sooner had I moved my chopsticks did I realize the function of the carrot: the skin is much softer and fragile than that of the bun which I am used to in Shanghai, vulnerable to even the slightest touch of my chopsticks. Therefore, carrot was here to prevent the meat juice from leaking further- Yes, meat juice! The main reason why I am satisfied with the dish is that I finally managed to find one bun stuffed with real meat (pork). And the flavor was also real, despite that the quantity of meat is too scant to quench all my nostalgia. In any case, as reasoned by Roberta, pork is not, and will never be enough in this vegetarian country!
The dish of Tofu and mushrooms was also the only one that I have tried by far that uses real tofu, rather than paneer. (To be fair, I love paneer as well, but I cannot bear substituting paneer for tofu in my beloved Chinese dishes!!!) Equally satisfying is the seafood fried rice. Not only are the prawns and fish so fresh, it is also rare for the restaurants in India (be it Italian, Chinese or Continental cuisine) to get rid of the fad for heaviness. I won’t feel strange if I was served the rice either overwhelmingly salty or spicy. But the plain freshness of the sea food aroma proved to be a pleasant surprise.
High-class as Grand Hyatt is, China House is one of the most expensive place in which I have dined in Mumbai. But for the authenticity of the food it serves, and the professional manner in which they serve it (both of which are luxury goods by the Indian standard), the money you spend there is definitely worth it.
Wait…I know it might still be beyond your budget, so I discovered a cheaper option- with virtually equal quality! Here comes…Mainland China!!! It is actually a chain, with the most reputable ones being the one in Saki Naka (according to pop opinion on tripadvisor). I didn’t go there, and initially I was a little bit worried if the quality will be compromised, as is seen in a lot of other chains. (Oh why don’t you also worry about Punjabi food below, but only about your Chinese food >_<) Luckily, the one in Powai proved my worry to be unwarranted ^.^
4) Punjabi Dishes: Urban Tadka’s butter chicken and paneer tikka masala is the first real thing about food that strikes me in Mumbai. Later on, even though I have tried several authentic Punjabi dishes in Punjab itself (Amritsar’s Crystal Restaurant and Brother’s Dhaba is highly recommended!), it remains to be my top place for Punjabi dishes. Better still, it is a chain which means it can be accessed in all the major places in and around Mumbai.
5) Best Cheese cake: After the main course, it is time to consider the desserts. Breaktalk in Powai boasts the best (or perhaps even the only) Japanese light cheese cake in town. It is so light that you don’t feel that you are biting or digesting the cake- it simply melts in your mouth. If Breadtalk is not convenient for you to reach, the chain Café Moshe’s offers Philadelphia Cheese cake which is good enough to be an alternative, although it might not be so light as Breadtalk one. Carrot marzipan cake is equally worth trying.
Or if, to the other extreme, you are as unfortunate as us to be locked under the spell of cheese-cake-mania, Café Leopold’s and Café Pali Village’s options are both good enough to be collected into your stomach!
6) Best frozen yoghurt: if you are somehow not convinced that the cheese cake is healthy enough, Frugurpop (inside Food Festival, third floor, R City) is a safe option that will make your mom happy. The peculiarity about the shop is that they only offer limited options per day (due to technical constraints?) Previously it was two. By the night of 2012-9-9 they seemed to have made a big stride to increase the variety into three. By far the flavors that I have tried include: kiwi and berry, mango, triple berry (blueberry, blackberry and raspberry), green apple… all of them are yummy. The toppings further makes the tasting on top of the world J
7) Best Ice cream: According to tripadvisor, Natural Ice Cream Parlour in Juhu is arguably the best ice cream in town! I haven’t been there (I know it’s a shame!) so no personal opinion is available. But it doesn’t hurt to trust its website popularity, right? If 123 reviews are not adequately impressive, then the rank (4th among 831 restaurants) certainly is!
8) Best Espresso: Costa Coffee. You can count on that as this tip is contributed by an Italian native expert on coffee. Thanks, Roberta!
Or, there might be another way of dining…
9) The Brunch Marathon: If the Taj lunch buffet is beyond your affordability while you are too lazy to get up early on Sunday to catch the breakfast, walk a few meters further and have a stop at Le Pain Quotidien. From the buffet with delicious butter to difficult-to-find (-in-Mumbai) salami, chicken and prosciutto to fresh fruits to my utterly-missed Belgian chocolate cakes and waffles…Full already? It’s just the start! As the name of this tip indicates, brunch is indeed an occasion where you can effortlessly spend the whole afternoon. So it is better that you go with a bunch of close friends. You will have to talk as much as you will have to eat: three or four hours of eating, drinking and chatting non-stop. Or just simply cool your heart silently with this warm ambiance- who said that it could not be another option?! The most important thing here is a free casual spirit. And the rest? Simply Enjoy!
Q: Mumbai seems to be famous for slums. Should I pay a visit to the slums?
BA: I was in Dharavi on 2012-9-20, shortly before I left India for a second time. It was a highly educative, inspiring, interesting and thought-provoking experience, the derivative of which is my reflection article.
For an overwhelming number of outsiders, Dharavi, once the largest slum in Asia, is either the symbol of poverty locked in a dirty neighbor; or, exactly because of this, some might feel uncomfortable, if not angry, with the idea of “showcasing” the poverty and mess as if an exhibition.
Regarding the first doubt, the baseline, anyway, is that you’re not gonna die merely being exposed to the region. True, some alleys, aisles and areas are still annoyingly lack of hygiene. But Dharavi is more than that. While the whole India might be different from what one (perhaps prejudicially) imagines, (Isn’t China so as well?!) nowhere offers as abundant and heartening surprises as Dharavi does. Apart from being once the largest slum, it is also (still) the most productive slum in India, with an annual turnover estimated to be 650 million dollars. Therefore, Dharavi is equally a “showcase” of entrepreneurship and a more general power of life, as it is of poverty (if such imagination still contains some truism). You will feel the beating of this power only when you observe it from a close enough angle, personally.
While it is always better to have a local-friend-guide, not everyone has the “privilege” to acquaint oneself with those who participate in “Teach for India” at Dharavi, who have been studying Dharavi for some social work research projects for decades, or who operate their entire business within this community. However, as a first-time newcomer-observer, you still need someone to explain you everything. In that case, Reality Tours (which has a sister NGO called “Reality Gives,” dedicated to the betterment of Dharavi) delivered a fairly professional and satisfying job. 500Rs for a two-hour accompanying-and-explaining tour is quite a deal, not to mention that, as told by our guide, 80% of the profit goes back to the community. Further inquiries can be mailed to the agency directly.
Last but not least, as I mentioned, Dharavi is no larger the largest slum since 2009. Actually, at least four slums have outnumbered it: one on Kurla-Ghatkopar belt, one on Mankhurd-Govandi belt, one along Yogi and Yeoor hill slopes and one in Dindoshi on the western flank of the National Park (The Times of India, 2011-7-6). It’s just there is not yet a second Slumdog Millionaire that these slumdogs are less famous than the Dharavi “millionaires.” But their poverty, lack of hygiene, underdeveloped education, or even their entrepreneurship, might be no less impressive than the one unfolded in Dharavi. Please give them your due attention as well, if you can. Sukriya 🙂