If you happen to be in Aachen in the extreme west of Germany, take a day off to visit Monschau. It is a quaint little German town with cobbled streets and the German trademark of half-timbered houses.
It is connected by bus, though quite limited in number and frequency, to central Aachen and it takes roughly an hour to reach this place.
I had looked up this place on the internet and almost all sites described this place as one “where time has stood still”. Its appearance has, it seems, remained unchanged for the last 300 years. Broadly, we knew that we must see the glass museum, the mustard mill, the Red House and walk around on the cobbled streets of Monschau, taking in the atmosphere. We knew that there will be no time to take a walk in the Eifel National Park or take a cruise in the Rursee reservoir.
Something unplanned happened right at the beginning. We boarded a bus at Aachen, with complete information on where to change buses, with the bus numbers, timings, intermediate stops etc. A mobile phone app called “DB Navigator” is a very handy tool for travel within Germany by public transport. Now Monschau had several bus halts and we chose, with all our worldly wisdom, Monschau bahnhof as our destination, expecting to get off at the main bus halt there and find ourselves in the midst of the bustling market. But Monschau bahnhof is in the middle of nowhere!
The bus dropped us there and sped away and we found ourselves on a deserted road with green fields on either side with no human habitation as far as the eye could see but there was a board declaring that it was Monschau.
We cut across the fields and walked on the cycling track which had a quaint shed with benches and tables as in an eating place and carrying the signboard “Monschau bahnhof”. Later, I read that there was a former Railway line Vennbahn which was converted into a bike trail. A woman on roller skates guided us through sign language (as she did not understand English) that we have to turn left and walk on for about 2 kilometers to reach Monschau town.
The path was rough, no doubt, and the walk was tiring but we would not have missed it for all the gaiety that Monschau promised. So, we did manage to go on a short hike through the woodlands of Eifel, though personally I would like to explore the Eifel National Park at leisure some day.
The display, most of which is also for sale, contained not only the expected glass vases, bowls and plates but exquisitely made swans, dolphins, owls and other figurines in all imaginable mixture of hues.
Entry to the museum is free and the visual treat is not to be missed. The museum also has a workshop at one end where one could watch the process of making glass articles. You can also participate in making a simple glass ball, at a nominal cost. But, apart from choosing the colors and blowing into the pipe when asked to, you do very little but then you get to take with you your “creation”.
Exiting the glass museum, you will soon be engulfed by the winding cobbled streets with its cheerful cafes, neat and quaint houses with blooming flowers on the windowsills and shops selling all kinds of gift items, artifacts and collectibles.
Predictably, there were several selling glassware but we came across a unique shop selling traditional , wooden handcrafted items made at a place called Erzgebirge in Germany. Most of the items were tiny and crafted beautifully. Also, frightfully expensive. The river Rur (though it appears more like a stream) courses its way through the town.
We looked around for a place to have a simple vegetarian lunch and struck gold in our first attempt itself, as we were directed to this tiny cafe called “huftgold” by the girl in the shop we had entered to buy freshly roasted Arabica coffee seeds. The cafe served us a delicious mustard soup and grilled vegetable sandwiches.
Now, mustard soup is something we were planning to taste at the mustard mill cum shop at Monschau. The mustard mill, set up sometime in late 1800s, has been with the same family for more than a century and the recipes handed down through the generations. Mustard is an important produce of the region and there are mustard museums at several places in Germany and Monschau is one of them. Apart from seeing a mustard mill in action and learning about mustard cultivation and processing, there is a shop which sells mustard in all possible forms – mustard infused chocolates, wines, candles, jams…. We missed seeing the museum due to paucity of time.
In the 18th century, Monschau was famous as a textile production center. Reminescent of its textile heritage stands the Red House in the middle of the town.
It is a prominent building and as its name suggests, its facade is red, a pinkish red in fact. It is an 18th entury residence and business house of the textile merchant Johann Schibler. Four of the seven levels of the house are open to public and takes the visitor on an interesting journey into the 18th century affluence. The house displays the original furniture, furnishings, paintings, utensils and other artifacts in an impressive collection. The house is well known for its self-supporting, spiralling oak staircase spanning three floors and depicting different stages of textile production. The textiles of Monschau were famous far and wide though nothing remains of it today but for this heritage building. Red House is closed to visitors at 4 pm and we could admire only the facade.
There is a 13th century castle too in Monschau. We saw it from afar, after exiting the woodlands and were still trying to find our way into the town center. Parts of the castle are in ruins and one of its wings houses a Youth Hostel since the Firsr World War. The backdrop of the castle forms a perfect setting for music concerts and other events that are held here during summer.
The bus halt Parkhaus Monschau is quite close to the town center from where, a direct bus took us back to Aachen. Had we alighted here, we would have seen the Red House and the mustard mill but the walk through the forest more than compensated for what we had missed.
Chances are that you would not have heard of Ulm, a mid-size city in Germany. I had not, till a nephew of mine had gone to study in the University there. I had imagined it to be a nondescript small town. When I visited this place, I was pleasantly surprised to find there the tallest church spire in the world, the beautiful Danube (Donau in German)flowing by its side and the most crooked house in the world, schiefes haus, dating back to early 1400 and now restored as a hotel. Ulm is also the birthplace of Albert Einstein.
Ulm is an hour and a half away by train from Munich. It lies at the edge of Bavaria, in south west Germany. It is one of the twin cities on either side of the river, with Ulm in Baden-Wurttemberg and Neu-Ulm in Bavaria. Like most German cities, Ulm has a hauptbahnhof – the main train station – which connects to other cities and adjoining countries too like Austria and a good network of trams and buses within the city.
The Old Town, with its cobbled streets, the Town Hall and numerous restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating is a charming place and I spent the first evening here. The town hall or Rathaus as it is called in German, is a wonderfully preserved building , covered with bright murals and featuring a 16th century astronomical clock.
Strolling in this area, you can take in most of the important places in Ulm – the church (Ulmer Munster), the butcher’s gate, the most crooked house and a walk along Donau.
The Ulm Munster is one of the most imposing structures. While the construction began in the 14th century, the current structure was fully completed only in 1890. The top of the steeple,which as of now is the tallest in the world, can be reached by climbing 768 steps. Needless to say, it offers an amazing view of Ulm, the Danube and Neu Ulm across the river. The final stairwell to the top is a narrow spiraling staircase. one has to climb single file here and it is recommended only for those who are really fit. The interiors of the church are awesome.
The stained glass windows depicting biblical themes date back to the 14th century.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is known to have played the impressive main organ of this church.
Though I visited several churches in the following days, in Munich, Vienna, Bratislava, Slovenia, Basel and Amsterdam, I found the Ulm Munster having an unmatched grandeur and spent some time again in this church before leaving Europe.
Across the road from the Munsterplatz (the square in front of the Munster), is the quaint marktplatz, the cobbled square encircled by the Town Hall (Rathaus), the pyramid shaped library and restaurants with the fountain known as fish tank at its center. The fountain also dates back to the 15th century and was used by fishermen to keep their catch alive on market days.
Leaving the plaza in front of the town hall and walking through the butcher’s gate, you come upon the Danube.
The river, as such, is not enticing at first sight. It flows quietly between straight banks and looks more like a wide canal rather than a river.
But that could be because I was viewing it with eyes that have seen the rivers in India, the wild tumultuous rivers originating in the upper Himalayas and rushing to meet the plains or the wide rivers coursing through the plains to empty themselves into the sea. But the beauty of the Danube flowing through Ulm is enhanced by the green grass on either side, dotted with trees, which at the time of my visit had the russet hues of autumn and there are benches and cycling/walking tracks all along.
It was an autumn morning and in the long walk I had along the river, I came across old couples taking a stroll, mothers pushing the prams with their babies covered in warm clothes, sprinters, joggers and cyclists.
There were also ramblers like me, stopping now and then to watch the ducks or sit on a bench for a while. Occasionally, a rowing boat would smoothly, silently and swiftly glide along the river, the arm and leg movements of the rowers well synchronized.
And of course the fall colors of the trees are a sight to behold, with the hues ranging from russet to golden yellow to flaming red.
If you are in Ulm, keep some time for a long walk along the Donau.
Fishermen’s quarter is a scenic part of old town, with half timbered houses and flower pots on the window sills.
Blau river, flows through this part of the town into Danube. The most crooked house in the world, Schiefes haus, is also situated here. It is now converted into a hotel.
A visit to Ludwigsfelder Baggersee is also recommended. It has a serene lake with lovely grassland meadows around it, There was not a soul in the autumn afternoon that we visited but it seems this place is crowded in summer with swimming and other water activities.
I spent my last evening in Ulm by visiting the interiors of the Munster again and taking a long walk in the grasslands around Kuhberg fort, from where you get an aerial view of Ulm and of course, the Munster.
The river and the Munster are compelling reasons for visiting Ulm. Make it happen during your next visit to Germany.
We had a tiger sighting in zone 3 of Ranthambore National Park within the first hour on the first of the four safaris that we had booked. We counted ourselves as lucky and happily clicked photographs as the tigress Arrowhead walked past our canter, unhurried and unmindful of our presence. Arrowhead is one of the daughters of the tigress Krishna, who in turn is a daughter of the legendary tigress of Ranthambhore – Machli. As Arrowhead moved farther and farther away, we watched her contentedly while waiting for the canter to reverse and move on to other parts of the zone.
And suddenly, we saw stealth in her gait, trying to find cover behind the broken branches of the dead trees that were strewn around in that area. In an instant, many of us realized that she was stalking and were able to locate the object of her interest.
It was a wild boar, sitting alone in the middle of a marshy area, facing the other way and unaware of the predator closing upon him. The atmosphere electrified as we realized that we were about to witness a tiger kill or at least an attempt to kill. The tigress did not waste time and charged. It was too late for the wild boar which started fleeing only at the last moment. The tigress reached the spot in two seconds, overshot and turned back with unimaginable speed and agility and pounced on the boar, holding it down and trying to choke its windpipe. We had a clear view despite the distance as the kill was made in an open area and we could see the boar struggling and the tigress also struggling to pin it down.
The tigress made no mistake of releasing its hold till all signs of life ended and this took almost ten minutes.
It is very difficult to describe what I experienced then. Awe certainly, amazement definitely. Sorry for the boar but great admiration for the tigress. Also a sense of gratitude and humility that we were allowed to witness something which establishes the law of nature. The killing and what transpired subsequently were indeed the rarest of the rare events which one witnesses in Indian jungles.
We expected the tigress to carry her prey farther from us into the thick jungle on the other side. While the kill was witnessed by people in our canter and in two more jeeps, almost all the jeeps and canters that were in that zone congregated in that area as word must have spread around by then that there has not only been a tiger sighting but that there has been a tiger kill. The tigress got up, surveyed the area around her, picked up the lifeless boar and, to our amazement, started walking towards us. She clearly wanted to go back from where she had sauntered in, on the other side of where we were.
The boar was heavy and the tigress Arrowhead was tired after the exertion of the kill. Every time, she could walk barely a few steps before she had to put the boar down, picking it up again after a while. At one point , she stumbled a little and at another, she took a short leap to clear some hurdle in her way. All the while, she kept coming closer and closer, but changed her direction several times which made the jeeps and canters to regroup to provide her sufficient gap for the cross over. We had the closest view when she put the boar down again at the side of the track, between a jeep and a canter.
She picked it up again and made a dash across, tail up in the air in panic.
By then, all that we wanted was for her to cross the line of jeeps and reach her chosen space and feed on her kill in privacy. Soon she was out of sight and we returned a subdued lot as what we had witnessed had impacted our senses in a strange way.
There are several national parks that can be visited over the weekend from Delhi but Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan should be on the top of your list. It is an overnight train journey to Sawai Madhopur, which is on the New Delhi – Mumbai rail route and is the town adjacent to the park. The theme “tiger” is present everywhere in the station(which incidentally is very well maintained and clean) – wall murals and paintings, metallic silhouttes of tiger on the station name board and on the facade of the building.
There are no forest rest houses inside or even adjacent to the park and all types of accommodation ranging from the luxury hotels to budget hotels to mid range ones are to be found only at Sawai Madhopur. So you can stop thinking about contacts in the forest department for booking a forest lodge, which you may be compelled to do for a visit to Jim Corbett National Park or Bandhavgarh National park or kanha National park.
For jeep and canter safaris, booking has to be done online, with photograph and identity proof, not just for Ranthambore but for all the National Parks in Rajasthan. So, you must book your safari first before finalizing the plan to visit this park. The park is divided into 10 zones and a fixed number of jeeps and canters are allowed in the different zones. Zones 1 to 5 are the most popular as chances of tiger sighting are quite high here. Entry and exit of each vehicle is registered and the safari time is adhered to – 6.00 to 9.30 in the morning and 3 to 6.30 in the evening.
There is an impressive fort inside the forest with a temple, which is visited regularly by the local population.
The road from the main gate of the park to the fort is about 3 kilometers and you would come across people on bicycles, bikes and on foot too. Tigers have been spotted on or near this road, with no untoward incident.
There are several lakes and other water bodies inside the reserve. The three famous lakes are Padam talao, Rajbagh talao and Malik talao. All three are beautiful in their own ways. Padam talao is the largest and Jogi Mahal is located at its edge.
Jogi mahal has seen better times. Originally a hunting lodge for the royals, it was converted into a forest rest house. A stay at Jogi mahal overlooking the lake Padam talao teeming with wildlife and birds must have been awesome. Sadly, it is closed to the public now and seems to be in a sorry state of disrepair. Soon, it would be nothing but a ruin, devoured by the jungle. One can spot wild boars, sambhar deer, spotted deer(chital), crocodiles and a wide variety of birds in and around these lakes.
I end this piece with snapshots of the sisters Arrowhead and Lightning and the tigress Noor in different moods, captured during the other safaris.
Skipping the standard Northeast tourist circuits of Guwahati-Kaziranga-Shillong and Tawang-Bomdilla, we landed at Dibrugarh airport one fine afternoon with a rough plan to explore regions in Upper Assam and parts of Arunachal Pradesh around it. Apart from Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, which are major cities of upper Assam, I had not heard of most of the places in that region till Google opened the windows (is it a pun?) to the information available on the web, some in great detail and some very sketchy. Roing, Tezu, Dehing river, Dibang valley, Digboi (ah! I know that place), Dibru river, Margherita, Lohit river, Patkai rainforest, Maguribeel, Dibru Saikhowa national park, Myudia, Mehao, Miao…….Phew!
There is so much to see in upper Assam and the experiences are so varied that you cannot put them all together in a single article. So, what comes in Part I? The one which had the greatest impact on my senses – the birds of Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Maguribeel.
Dibru Saikhowa is a national park as well as a biosphere reserve. In fact, it is one of the identified biodiversity hotspots, that is, a region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity and at the same time, is threatened with destruction, having lost a significant portion of its original habitat.
Dibru Saikhowa is unlike the other National Parks of India – you don’t have jeep or elephant safaris, forest lodges and not even beaten tracks. Dibru Saikhowa has two villages situated deep inside the forest – Dhadia and Laika. For tourists in general, the park is explored only from the boats cruising on Dibru river, a channel of the mighty Brahmaputra. You reach Guijan, about 12 km away from Tinsukia, from where the cruises start. Om boat house is a well-known cruise operator, a day long cruise costing Rupees 1250 per person, including breakfast, lunch and snacks on board. The cruise vessel seems to have been taken straight out of a fairy tale book, with colorful tiny cabins and deck chairs.
You cruise over the Dibru for a while, looking out for the occasional dolphin or an egret perched over a drifting branch.
After a while, the boat docks on a sandy stretch of the saikhowa forest, deck chairs and sun umbrellas are offloaded and arranged on the shore and the tourists gingerly disembark and lounge around, make themselves comfortable, taking in the scenery and the refreshments. If there is anything overtly touristy about this whole trip, this is it.
They could have arranged for at least a short hike in the forest, with permission from the forest authorities, to get a feel of the flora and perhaps get a glimpse of the wild feral horses for which this is a natural habitat. However, after relishing the tourist trappings, we cruised further along narrower channels in a smaller motor boat, and we could see many more birds.
Cormorants and ruddy shelducks are in plenty. The latter, also known as Brahmini ducks, swim, waddle and fly in pairs. During the breeding season, the male is distinguished by a black ring on its neck.
The great cormorants and darters (also known as snake bird) are commonly sighted in dibru saikhowa.
After about two hours, the motorboat heads back to where the cruise boat is docked and it is time for lunch on board. It is siesta time thereafter and the cruise ends at guijan just when the sun sets. It was a spectacular sight and we just gazed at the setting sun, the golden hues it spread on the river and at the blazing sky.
The sunset on the Brahmaputra is one of the most soothing sights that I have experienced.
All through the cruise on dibru, we kept hearing about Maguribeel and the excellent bird sightings that a canoe trip can provide. Beel in assamese means lake with marshy areas. Maguribeel is on the south bank of Dibru river and is connected to it by a system of channels.
This place has to be visited early in the morning to see hundreds of local and migrant birds. It is a kilometer or so further ahead of Guijan and if you are based in Tinsukia, it would take just half an hour to reach Maguribeel. It is a shallow lake with a thick network of weeds forming the bed and the canoe moves noiselessly through the lake, skirting the marshes which throng with bird life. The white wagtail, a common winter visitor to Assam, is spotted easily but very difficult to photograph as it keeps flitting. I was eventually able to photograph it on the shore after getting off the canoe.
You see a wide variety of birds on maguribeel – purple moorhens, teals, yellow wagtail, open billed storks, black winged stilt, pied kingfisher, night heron and many more which we could not identify.
I was truly satiated with an hour spent on Maguribeel but for avid birdwatchers who would like to make several trips on the beel watching and studying the birds, there is a Kohuwan Eco camp with lodging facilities which arranges for boat trips too.
I present these black and white beauties as a finale to the memorable time spent at dibru shikhowa and maguribeel.
When we decided to make a trip to Kurseong and Makaibari, reactions were predictable. Many had not heard of these places, some thought it must be an inaccessible place somewhere in a remote corner of the north eastern part of India and the ones who knew its location, presumed that we would be halting there for a day before moving to Darjeeling for a full-fledged vacation. But, try Kurseong as a holiday destination and you would be pleasantly surprised by what it can offer.
Kurseong is a quaint hill town, perched roughly midway between Darjeeling and Siliguri. This is one of those way-side places that you pass through on your journeys but rarely remember its name, much less choose it as a destination.
You can reach Kurseong by road or by rail, both running together for most of the stretch, with the narrow gauge railway line criss-crossing the road at every bend. But if you take the train, be prepared for a slow journey – almost double the time.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, started in 1881 and still fully operational with most of its original features intact, has been conferred a World Heritage status by UNESCO and has several unique engineering marvels – the Batasia loop, the Z elevations at a few stretches etc.
But then, I will be digressing if I go into that in detail. So, look at this road or rail journey through rose-tinted glasses, with visions of Rajesh Khanna crooning “ mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu” (the queen of my dreams, when shall thou come – an evergreen hindi film song shot on this locale)
Kurseong would look picturesque from across the hills, but certainly not so if you are standing on the main road near the Railway Station and the market place. Take a look.
But, move away from here onto the upper lanes through churches and houses with pretty laced curtains on the windows and flowers blooming in tin pots on window sills or onto the roads leading to the tea gardens, the hill town and the valleys engulfed by mist and you will feel very differently about this place.
The obvious place to visit, while at Kurseong, is the Makaibari tea estate. The long leafed Darjeeling tea is known to tea lovers all over the world for its distinctive flavour and you can see how it is grown in Makaibari tea gardens and processed in their factory, which was set up in 1859. Unlike other tea gardens of Darjeeling which have been taken over by multinationals, Makaibari is still with the same family for four generations now. Also, Makaibari tea estate was the first one in the region to adopt organic tea growing and has been a trend-setter.
At Makaibari, great emphasis is laid on the plucking standards – smallest shoots comprising two leaves and a bud are plucked by hand and women are preferred for the greater dexterity they have.
It is hard work indeed, as 22000 such shoots have to be plucked to get a kilogram of tea. Plucking starts early in the morning before the overnight dew evaporates.
At the factory, the plucked tea leaves go through the process of withering, rolling, fermentation and drying. The green leaves are evenly spread on huge troughs, through which hot and cold air is blown in a regulated manner so that moisture is removed slowly in about 15 hours.
The withered leaves then go through a roller machine which twists and twirls the leaves gently without breaking them. The rolled leaves are then spread in a thin layer in a cool and humid room for 3-4 hours to allow fermentation. The fermented leaves then go through a dryer with regulated temperature.
Almost all the machines at the Makaibari tea factory have the “Brittannia” marking: These had come from England a century ago and are fully functional even now.
The tea leaves then go through the final steps of sorting, grading and packing.
Makaibari produces the world’s most expensive tea, “silver tips” – which is plucked under a full moon. Visitors are taken around the factory and the process of making Darjeeling tea is explained. There is also a museum which traces the history of the Makaibari tea gardens and displays the milestones achieved over the years and other testimonials.
While at Kurseong, take time to visit the churches and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway museum, watch the train move through the crowded market place with the people going about their business just two feet away from the track and taste the excellent momos at West Bengal Tourist Lodge.
Also, skip Darjeeling if you want the magic of kurseong and Makaibari to linger.