Nomadic Luxury in Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival

Nomadic Luxury in Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival

Piece published in SUITCASE magazine.

My Bell 412 helicopter searched for the helipad, a spherical silhouette on a patchwork of multicoloured terraced houses, slung out on a ground of undulating forest. I felt like Elizabeth Bowen, a lone female entering the Land of the Head Hunters – albeit by much more modern means. In these far-flung reaches of eastern India lies Nagaland, a region shrouded in mist, mystery and misconception. Every December, amidst a cacophony of colour and sound, the state’s 16 tribes put their differences aside and take part in the annual Hornbill Festival.

Heard of it? Probably not… but in India, the Naga’s notoriety precedes them. Despite government initiatives to increase footfall, only a trickle of tourists travel to this corner of the country every year. But the wheels of change are in motion. The 12-hour journey from Delhi has been slashed thanks to the introduction of daily flights to Dimapur and The Ultimate Travelling Camp, India’s most ingenious ‘hotel’ has embarked upon a pioneering venture to introduce luxury travel to the region.

I was not fortunate enough to enjoy such luxuries as direct flights but the private helicopter, courtesy of TUTC’s Kohima Camp, made up for it. Operational for just two weeks, from November 29 to December 12, the team has perfected the concept of nomadic luxury. Brainchild of General Deepak Raj, of former Indian Army fame and Dhun Cordo, wedding planner to the stars, this unlikely duo combined military precision with artistic flare to create the first camp of its kind. Nestled between the lush Dzüku Valleys in the village of Kigwema, it is just a 15-minute drive from the festival ground; when Modi is not in town.

Tribal Dance Khaki Tent

Having missed the opening ceremony (the Prime Minister does not do security by halves nor do I skip breakfast) Keja, my guide, updated me on the afternoon’s activities: a pork fat eating contest, a pork fat kicking contest and a pole, lathered in pork fat, climbing contest. So that myth was true: Naga’s love their pork. Lard-based activities aside, attendees can also look forward to traditional song and dance performances and peruse the tribal wares for obligatory souvenirs.

While we waited for Modi to complete his presidential duties, Keja took me to his tribe’s morung. Traditionally the physical and metaphorical centre of village life, a morung is a place for men to share stories, farming tips and the odd glass of rice beer. These days women are allowed in too and I was treated to a tankard of the stuff. I was beginning to enjoy myself as much as the locals, who’d been boozing since the AM.

“How about a traditional Angami lunch?” suggested Keja, “to accompany your traditional ‘aferitip’? They’ve got everything”. He was right, the Angami’s really did have everything on the menu: cows intestines in a blood gravy, fermented bean curry and tushichi which, for those of you that are not familiar with, is dog.

Stomach distinctly turned, I passed at the opportunity to take part in the infamous (and potentially fatal) chilli-eating contest. But for purveyors of peculiar foods or those in search of the unusual, Nagaland and the Hornbill Festival is the assault on the senses that many have been looking for. Be gone the Golden Triangle, this is India as you have never seen it before.

hornbill-festival-03

The Chamba Camp, Thiksey: Nomadic Luxury At Its Best

The Chamba Camp, Thiksey: Nomadic Luxury At Its Best

Published on The India Tube:

A former playing field of “The Great Game” Ladakh was once considered a destination so remote “only your best friend or worst enemy will visit you”, or so the local adage goes.  But with daily flights from Delhi to Leh, it’s now a firm favourite for a long weekend getaway from Delhi. And The Ultimate Travelling Camp really is the ultimate way to do it.

The Chamba Camp in Thiksey is TUTC’s flagship property and will be running until the end of September, before packing up and journeying to Nagaland for The Hornbill Festival, where they will be stationed from the 1st–7th of December. With four-poster beds, a designated butler service and bespoke menus, TUTC takes the concept of “glamping” to new heights – over 10,000 feet in this case.

blowing-conch-shells-before-the-morning-prayers-thiksey-monastery-02

It is the brainchild of an unlikely duo; General Deepak Raj, a former army general, and Dhun Cordo, wedding planner to the stars, combined creative flair with military precision to bring this pioneering venture to life. The concept is simple–a luxury nomadic camp that’s focused on seasonal or date-specific itineraries–but the execution is not: each tent fills one truck, and there are 14 tents. It is quite the convoy.

white-tent-interior-01The White Luxury Tents at The Chamba Camp, Thiksey nagaland-68The Khaki Tents at The Kohima Camp, Nagaland

An oasis of colour, The Chamba Camp sits serenely in the rocky embrace of the Ladakh and Stok mountain ranges. By day its 28 acres are a symphony of birdsong, and by night they are unbelievably romantic, bathed in moonlight and the flickering glow of more than a hundred lanterns. And with those views of Thiksey monastery you’d be forgiven for not venturing out your tent.

With the luxury market in Ladakh almost as barren as its terrain, The Chamba Camp could rest on its laurels, but it’s the attention to detail here that really set it apart. There are several private dining options for a start, from meals in the organic garden, by one of its many water-bodies, in and amongst the alfalfa fields, as well as several outside the camp, every experience is tailor-made, as are the menus. Chocolate momos? You bet. High-altitude scallops? Why not!

picnic-set-up-02Lunch by the Indus River

harvest-threshingA pastoral scene during the harvest season

Surprises abound, like the live kitchen that greeted us after a day of exertion at water rafting, or the train of red-robed monks perambulating the camp while I sat sipping on a gin & tonic. Needless to say that G&T disappeared quicker than you can say “om mani padme hum”.

I visited the Chamba Camp during the 33rd annual Kalachakra, hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Richard Gere was there, but namedropping aside, it is the perfect destination for those interested in both the spirituality and history of the region (you can barely drive a few hundred metres without stumbling across another monastery or stupa) as well as a luxury break.

trekking-01A walking tour of Ladakh

If Ladakh is a spiritual Mecca then it is also the adrenaline junkies Elysium. With everything from trekking and white water rafting to mountain biking and climbing, there’s no shortage of activities to give your travel insurers the chills. There’s also horse polo matches which seasoned riders are welcome to try their hands at, and a list of activities so long I defy anyone to try them all. Yes, the Chamba Camp, Thiksey is both an adventurer’s paradise as well as a recluse’s hermitage.

The Ultimate Travelling Camp offers a luxe route to India’s more offbeat destinations.

 hornbill-festival-01 hornbill-festival-03Tribesmen at The Hornbill Festival, Nagaland

Leh Lady Leh: The Girl’s Guide To Ladakh

Leh Lady Leh: The Girl’s Guide To Ladakh

A piece published on one the bestest gal pals there is, Maia Sethna’s superb blog Girl Panic:

After flying solo and moving to Delhi almost a year ago, I felt like I needed a change of scenery. I had never even set foot in Ladakh, but you don’t get much more of a dramatic scenery change than here. In fact, as soon you step of the plane at Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport (or Leh to you and me) there are two things you notice. One, the absence of that ‘open oven door’ sensation; the air is cool here, you can actually breathe. Two, that view. You might be mistaken for thinking you’d just touched down on the moon. It’s not named the ‘lunar landscape’ for nothing.

Once considered so remote that “only your best friend or worst enemy would visit you” there, or so the local adage goes, Ladakh is now a firm favourite on the tourist trail. With several daily flights from Delhi to Leh during season time, it has never been easier to reach: the perfect destination for a long weekend getaway out of the sweltering Delhi summer.

meg - ladakhShamless #selfie on a rare afternoon off

Upon arrival make sure to set your watches to “mountain time”. One adopts a different pace of life here: early to bed early to rise. My morning routine in Delhi generally involved dragging myself out of bed by 8.45, ready to leave the house by 9am (read 9.30). Now I am tucked up by 10, a good book my only bed partner, in order to be up at 5am before my sacred morning stroll. Yoga, shower, breakfast: check. I am generally ready to carpe the hell out of that diem by 7am.

But what to do? If you’re the kind of girl looking for poolside butler service then Ladakh is probably not your thing. But, if you’re on an odyssey for some adventure in your life then look no further: you have arrived. With more adrenaline fixes than a back-street physician’s medical bag, Ladakh is the destination for those craving a natural high. Or a literal high (it does sit at over 10,000 feet after all).

meg - ladakh 2Me and some of my new friends!

From white water rafting to off-roading; mountain biking to climbing Ladakh provides a colourful array of ways to attempt to kill oneself. Or give your parents a scare. A trekkers mecca you can cover the same rocky passes that many before have tried and failed to complete. Near death experiences avoided, you might want to thank god (or Buddha) you are still alive. And with more monasteries than you can shake a dorjey at (google it) Ladakh is the perfect place to discover your inner sanctuary.

For the believers or the just plane curious, a trip to the oracle at Saboo makes for an enlightening afternoon. No she won’t be able to tell you who you are going to marry or whether or not your boyfriend really cheated, but she might just be able to shed some light on some personal or family gripes. Or for all your homeopathic health needs, there is the Amchi at Thiksey monastery – probably the happiest man in Ladakh. Save for my co-worker Captain Sonam. You haven’t known joy until you’ve met Captain Sonam.

In short, there is no short-age of things to do in Ladakh, especially over the summer season. And if you are man, or should I say woman enough, to brave its winter season and sub-zero temperatures, then you may well be rewarded with a rare snow leopard sighting. All I know is that I have been here for over a month, have another three to go and I have not covered even half of my “To Do” list. So I am sure you Delhiites darlings can fill up a long weekend!

thiksey - 2
Room with a View: My new Home Sweet Home

 

Ladakh: The Low Down

Whilst I could write an exhaustive list of “Must Do’s” in Ladakh I will let you figure that out for yourself, but here are just a few of my favourites…

Monastery: Thiksey

Not the richest, not the oldest, but in my opinion the most beautiful (and home to the largest and most photographed statue of the Matreya Buddha in Ladakh). Wake up early for the morning prayers with the monks and several cups of butter tea if you can stomach it. Whilst you are there why not make a trip to the local herbal medicine man, the Amchi, who will tell you more about yourself than your childhood paediatrician. Every malady imaginable is prescribed with one of his foul smelling “Tibetan dirt balls” as I like to call them. Hold your nose, they taste as bad as they look.

Cycle route: Wari-La

You might want to leave it a couple of days before you exert yourself too heavily. Whether it’s your lack of physical prowess or those extra 3000 feet: the views will quite literally take your breath away. Look out for yaks, zos, marmots and a whole menagerie of wildlife not found around town.

Shop: Jigmet Couture

Whilst Ladakh is hardly a shopper’s paradise Jigmet Couture is the best place to pick up some tailor made souvenirs. The man behind the name is a real enigma. Using locally sourced textiles Jigmet offers Ladakhi fashion with a modern twist.

Place to eat: Nimmu House

Local new kid on the block with its French owner and French chef, Nimmu house provides a sophisticated alternative to momos and thukpa.

Sunset Spot: Victory Fort

Forget the crowds of Shanti Stupa, Victory Point is where those in the know go to witness the ending of another day. Watch as the afternoon shadow casts itself over the valley below like a blanket before bedtime. Romantic much?!

Drive: Towards Alchi

Traverse several different landscapes en-route to the (largest?) monastery in Ladakh. From the winding roads to open planes you will feel as though you have travelled a thousand miles in just a couple of hours. Finish up with a picnic lunch overlooking the the Alchi dam.

Book to read: “Servant of the Sahibs: A Book To Be Read Aloud” by Ghulam Rassul Galwan

This is one of those books that will stick in your mind. Francis Younghusband, friend, explorer and fellow player of The Great Game was not exaggerating when he wrote “There has never been another book remotely similar to Servant of the Sahibs”. As much a primary source as it is an adventure novel Rassul writes with such naked honesty readers (or listeners) are permitted a personal account of the caravan trails of Central Asia that no modern day historian could hope to create. An absolute must read when travelling to Ladakh!

The 33rd Kalachakra: The Greatest Buddhist Gathering, Ladakh

The 33rd Kalachakra: The Greatest Buddhist Gathering, Ladakh

Yesterday saw the first day of the 33rd annual Kalachakra in Ladakh, hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The largest annual gathering of Buddhist in the world, with over 150,000 pilgrims set to attend it promises to be quite the gathering. With a break of 38 years since the last Kalachakra was held in Ladakh it is most likely to be the His Holiness’s last in Ladakh as he is said to struggle with the altitude. Ever the professional, aside from the odd tickle in his throat, His Holiness did not show it. Sitting and reciting prayers and teachings on love and kindness he also spoke on the importance of respecting and understanding fellow human beings religions, whatever they may be.

14th-dalai-lama   His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The word Kalachakra itself means cycles of time. Generally the passage of time has a debilitating effect on human beings: as we age our sight, hearing and physical strength deteriorate. Buddhists believe that the practice of the Kalachakra helps individuals to exit this cycle and achieve enlightenment.

 IMG_3927   Solo monk

The 3rd – 6th July marks the ‘initiation’ period before the main Kalachakra begins. The primary aim of this is to learn from the Bodhisattva and Tantric vows: focusing on the path to enlightenment as well as being able to benefit all living creatures. Including several days of prayers it is a preparation stage before the period of ‘empowerment’.

Pilgrims from all corners of the world attended with real-time translations being broadcast on FM radio stations in 13 different languages. A practicing Buddhist himself, although not present on the opening day, Richard Gere will be attending in the upcoming days as one of the primary sponsors.

IMG_3926 Pilgrims arrived in bus loads from all over Ladakh, India and the world

IMG_3938 One lone pilgrim makes his way home by foot through the many ‘gullys’ that traverse the Ladakhi countryside

The crowd was something to behold with the traditional dress from around the state of Jammu and Kashmir proudly being displayed; including this Thiksey native sporting a tibi hat typical of Ladakh.

IMG_3924   A village elder (who turned out to be a great aunt of a friend of mine!) wearing her traditional attire

Whilst the left of the stage was reserved for press and foreigners, the front seats was a Red Sea of monks, all eagerly listening to His Holiness’ every word. In fact the entire Shey region was awash with the red and yellow garb of the monks.

IMG_3903   Awash with red and yellow: monks from all around the world came to attend the 33rd Kalachakra

The Kalachakra will take place until the 14th July with the Jiwetsal grounds gradually filling up with travellers and pilgrims alike. The pinnacle will be the creation of the physical representation of the Kalachakra, a mandala and meditational visual aid depicting the various stages of enlightenment. This physical mandala will then be destroyed after the end of the Kalachakra as a symbol of lack of detachment, principal to Buddhist teachings.

It’s My Birthday: I’ll Get High If I Want To!

It’s My Birthday: I’ll Get High If I Want To!

Lying in bed with a pounding headache, unremitting nausea, unable to leave my room save for some medicinal strength coffee is pretty much how I spend most of my birthdays. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Except that this year my incapacitation was not alcohol induced, this year it was because I got high – 10,500 feet high to be exact.

thiksey  View of Thiksey monastery – and some local wildlife!

Waking up with altitude sickness isn’t everyone’s idea of a Happy Birthday, but as I lay in bed, feeling as rough as the local terrain, with that view of the Thiksey monastery, the “hangover” was totally worth it. A self-proclaimed vagabond and unashamed indophile what better job could I ask for than working for a nomadic camp, traversing some of India’s roads less travelled.

988   My new Home Sweet Home

Consequent to its remoteness “only your best friends or worst enemies will visit you in Ladakh” or so the local adage goes. There is merit in this – Ladakh is not everyone’s cup of chai (in fact its local butter variant is one of the more disgusting things I have tasted). With overland routes closed due to heavy snowfall, for the majority of the year it is only accessible by air and even then, flights operate at the mercy of the weather. Assuming you’ve arrived in one piece you then have the altitude sickness to contend with: 24 hours bed rest, one Diamox tablet and a helping of sobriety for good measure. Like I said, Ladakh is not for everyone.

But for those of us who like their mountains high and their rivers wide it is a veritable Himalayan heaven. “The Land of High Passes” really is a perfect destination for the seasoned road-tripper, mountain trekker, river rafter and spiritual learner. Not to mention an excellent escape from the merciless Indian summer.

IMG_3937

One of those seasoned travellers I was talking about…

2014 saw Ladakh set the scene for the 33rd annual Kalachakra festival. The largest Buddhist gathering in the world it was hosted by the Dalai Lama – during which we wished him a very happy 79th birthday! As I sat crossed legged amongst a sea of red and yellow clad monks, wishing His Holiness many happy returns, I could not help but give myself a mental pat on the back. Swapping Delhi for Ladakh, knowing that I was going to spend the summer here, was a gift money could not buy.

053

     Happy Birthday Your Holiness

Four months without a working phone (the Kashmiri government restricts use of all non-local prepaid simcards) and very limited access to internet sounds like your average city dwellers worst nightmare. Yet armed with a yoga mat, a stack of books almost myself in height, my DSLR camera and a new pair of walking shoes I cannot wait to see what the rest of summer brings.

Almora: Photoblog and Guide from an Amateur

Almora: Photoblog and Guide from an Amateur

Morning has brokenThe stunning views along the drive from Kathogodam to Almora – worth staying awake for! 

Chai StopBread PakhorasFollowed by the mandatory chai stop and my first bread pakhora? I think that’s what these are called? Anyway they’re bloody delicious and basically hot morsels or crispy, carby goodness! 

The Beautiful Blue HouseThe beautiful “Blue House”

Sunny YellowAnd our “Happy Yellow” room 😀

The Butterfly!The butterfly(!) that made my lap it’s home for half hour or so. The juxtaposition of my horrible acrylic nails only makes it more beautiful; whilst simultaneously ruining the photo.

Billionaire Boys ClubThe Billionaire Boy’s Club of Crank’s RIdge: These guys have seen it all – Dylan? Ginsberg? Just another hippy passing through..  

HeavenA mountain “meadow”. If I died and went to Heaven, this would suffice. 

BellsTemple BellsBells at the sanctuary of Kasar Devi temple – it even has a meditation room. A more spectacular temple is the famous Chitai Temple which makes the Kasar Devi’s collection of bells look poultry! The temple is in honour of Lord Shiva and newly married couples in particular make offerings here. It is about 10km from Almora and a fantastic walk! 

Putting out feet up!Putting our feet up and enjoying the view at Mohan’s, the social epicentre of Crank’s Ridge. Pity about the annoying telephone wires.. If not renting a house I would certainly recommend staying here. 

Last Supper

Rhododendron JuiceOur last supper (mercifully not another curry) accompanied by the fruity elixir and bibendum of the gods: rhododendron juice! Warning: will cause tooth decay. 

Other activities in Almora include hiking, biking (pedal and motor) and fishing to name a few  – basically anything outdoorsy. All can be booked at Mahon’s. There is also a lovely little shop called Panchachuli where fabrics and clothing, made by local women using traditional methods are sold. The factory and associated NGO are located further down the road, closer to Almora town.

I hope you are inspired to visit Almora and love it as much as I do!!

Relaxing in Rishikesh: Not What You’d Expect

Relaxing in Rishikesh: Not What You’d Expect

“Beatles ashram?” we asked hopefully to the two small village boys that stood idly across the overgrown forest trail. Our enquiry was met with vacant expressions. Apparently they weren’t fans. Yet despite the lack of guidance we found what we were looking for but a hundred feet or so further down the trail. And it was shut – fabulous. Our ‘relaxing weekend of yoga and meditation’ in Rishikesh had not exactly gone to plan. Arriving in the early hours of the morning after another crippling overnight bus journey we were met by a friendly four-legged centenary, christened Oedipus (owing to his funny apparently webbed feet)! Most of the time nothing makes sense in India, so whether Oedipus led us or followed, we found our way to a guest house – and passed out. Awakening, what felt like a week later and unbolting the door our gaze fell upon the best view of Laxman Jula. Well done Oedipus.

After gathering our thoughts and belongings we decided to do what one does in Rishikesh: yoga. We arrived to find our yogi either asleep or in a state of deep, impenetrable meditation. Probably the former. Not to worry, this is Rishikesh after all – we’ll go for a spot of Ayurvedic healing and get our doshas diagnosed. A long and uncomfortable motorbike journey later we arrived at “the absolute best clinic of Ayurveda in Rishikesh, madams” *said in thick and undulating Indian accent. The doctor was out: Fuck. This. “To the Beatles ashram!” we cried, which now, no longer a functioning ashram, seemed not be much of a tourist destination, judging by the fact that NO-ONE KNEW WHERE IT WAS. But it meant a scenic walk through some of the more rural parts of Rishikesh and, upon discovering it was closed, we decided to make our way back to town along the banks of the river Ganges, which the ashram sits right next to. Oh, the Mother Ganga, she always brings good things and this time she did not fail to deliver. Tired, hungry and a little pissed off we scrambled over sand banks, hopped over sewage pipes until we finally came to a bit of a clearing. Who should we find relaxing under the shade of a little bridge beside the Ganga – the babas of course; the best people in India!

Welcomed with the humble hospitality only a real baba can give we were ushered into the make shift tent of Baba G. I am always amazed at how easily conversation flows and how much one laughs when spending time with babas – nothing to do with the chillum pipe being passed round like a conveyer belt. They are such kind and open people. We spoke of the Kumbh Mela, which my friend and I had attended (along with hundreds of thousands of other babas and a hundred million other Hindus) earlier that year, Hindu philosophy and life. After sharing a tasty meal of daal, chapati (with the biggest mountain of sugar on it! Still don’t really understand that?) and chai it was getting late. We made our way back to Rishikesh stomachs, minds and hearts full of food, thoughts and love. The afternoon spent with Baba G had obviously caused our planets to align because on our way back to we stumbled across the evening Ganga Aarti at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram. Unfortunately the huge statue of Lord Shiva was not present to oversee the evening’s festivities, having been destroyed in the devastating floods that swept through Rishikesh earlier this year. The young boys from the ashram performed bhajans and offerings were made to Agni, the fire god. There is something really hypnotic about this performance and it is easy to get swept away by the beautiful voices and the ever audible roar of the Ganga.

So, Rishikesh, you weren’t what we’d planned but then when does a good plan go to plan anyway? However next time I come I would like to do at least one of things we’d set out to do! If you’ll permit it that is?