The Sion Fort

The Sion Fort is one of the eight existing forts in Mumbai.

My brothers tell me that I visited the Fort as a 4-year old in 1975. Our family had just shifted to Mumbai from Bhopal that year and the first few months were spent in settling down and of course, exploring a new city. I have absolutely no recollection of that visit, though I remember other visits made at that time to the Gateway of India, the zoo, the shoe house at Malabar Hill,  etc.

Over the years, hearing my brothers talk about the visit to the Sion Fort has always made me want to visit it. But somehow, every planned trip to the Sion Fort has never worked out for one reason or the other. One can even say that it was jinxed. There was one instance when I had gotten off the bus at Sion and had just started walking towards the Fort when I got a call from office asking me to report immediately for a work-related emergency! That was about 4 years back and my last attempt to visit the Sion Fort.

Till earlier this month, that is. When I casually mentioned about wanting to visit the Sion Fort to Rushikesh Kulkarni, a fellow blogger and the guy who runs Breakfree Journeys, he said, “Let’s go.” Before I knew it, a date and a time had been fixed for the visit. And just like that it worked out. So on a weekday, about an hour before sunset, Rushikesh, my friend Neena and I met at the entrance of one of the lanes leading to the Fort from the Eastern Express Highway at Sion.

Sion Fort, Forts of Mumbai, Sion
The Sion Fort

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The Mumbai Monorail ride

On 1 February 2014, the Mumbai Monorail, the city’s newest (and third form of) public transport was inaugurated. Or rather the first leg (Chembur to Wadala), of the first phase of the Mumbai Monorail was inaugurated. A much-anticipated addition to Mumbai’s public transport system, the Monorail saw 20,000 people queuing up for a ride on the first day itself. The days following the inauguration saw newspaper reports with pictures of long queues of people patiently waiting for their turn to take a ride as well as experiences of people who had managed to go on one. Though I had wanted to take a ride during the initial period, I decided to wait till the novelty wore off and the crowds lessened.

And then on 11 March 2014, I read a newspaper report that claimed that the Mumbai Monorail ridership had fallen to 92,771 per week. This meant that only regular commuters were using the Monorail now, except perhaps on weekends when people still came out to “check out” the Monorail. So, two days later and at 7.30 in the morning, I was standing outside the Chembur Monorail station and looking up in anticipation of the ride to follow. Join me as I take the ride to Wadala and back on the Monorail and check out its efficiency and efficacy.

Mumbai Monorail, Public Transport, Mumbai
The Chembur Monorail Station

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The trek to Dalhousie’s Cottage

“Would you like to visit Dalhousie’s Cottage?” asked Prithvi.

It was our tour group’s first evening at The Hotel Grand Shangri-La, Kalpa and we were having dinner. Prithvi, the Managing Director of the hotel, was offering suggestions with regard to places we could visit.

“Dalhousie? As in Lord Dalhousie?” I asked.

“Yes, the very same. His cottage is located about 8 km from here,” was Prithvi’s reply.

“But what was Lord Dalhousie doing here? I mean, he has a place named after him, Dalhousie, in another part of Himachal Pradesh, right? Or is this the Dalhousie you’re talking about? I’m a little confused now,” said someone from my group.

“Dalhousie, the place, is quite different from what I’m talking about. This is a cottage that Dalhousie built for his stay whenever he came to this region. Kalpa was his favourite hunting ground, you know,” Prithvi said.

“Hunting, as in, shikaar?” asked another person.

“Yes. Kalpa used to have a lot of wildlife, including snow leopards and Dalhousie was particularly fond of hunting them. He used to sail up the Sutlej and then set up camp in the area. The cottage was built later, when his wife came here. Local legends say that she had an incurable disease and was dying..”

“She must have had TB,” piped up another voice from our group.

“So, would you all like to visit Dalhousie’s cottage tomorrow? It is a nice level walk on winding roads and under beautiful trees… It is only after we cross Roghi village that the climb begins — just the last 2 km, in fact. Those who cannot do the climb can stay back and rest in the village,” Prithvi said most persuasively.

Our group didn’t need much persuasion and there was a resounding yes from all of us and next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we set off for the trek with Prithvi leading the way.

Kalpa, Trek to Dalhousie's Cottage, Travel, Himachal Pradesh, Kinnaur
Walking past brightly painted hotels in Kalpa. The yellow one in the background is called “Hotel Apple Pie” !

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The Grand Shangri-La at Kalpa

I am not fussy about hotels. No, really I’m not. A clean room, a clean bathroom, a convenient and safe location, a restaurant with some decent vegetarian options… and I’m a happy and satisfied customer of that hotel. Everything else — air-conditioner, spa, multi-cuisine restaurants, gym, room with views, wi-fi, etc. — are only add-ons for me and their presence or absence is not a criteria for choosing a hotel.

Sure, I like 5-star and luxury hotels, but while very nice, posh and what not, they tend to overwhelm me. An occasional heritage hotel has been known to tempt me, but it’s always because of the story it has to say, rather than the facilities they offer. While travelling, I’m always more concerned about the place I’m visiting rather than the place I’m staying in. So a basic hotel works just as fine as a not-so-basic or more-than-basic hotel. Like I said, I’m not fussy.

But last September, during a trip to Himachal Pradesh, I stayed in a hotel where I had such a superlative experience that I was forced to admit that the place of stay also adds to the travel experience. And 6 months on, I can even say that my stay at this hotel is among the memories that come to mind whenever I think of that trip. The hotel that has spoiled me for ever is The Hotel Grand Shangri-La at Kalpa in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh.

The Grand Shangri-La, Kalpa, Hotel, Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh
The Grand Shangri-La

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The NH22 / Hindustan-Tibet Road

“We’ll take a 10-minute break here,” announces Doreen, our tour organiser and manager, as our convoy of 3 vehicles comes to a halt.

‘Here’ is somewhere on the road to Kalpa from Sarahan. It’s 10.30 am on a cold September morning and our 3rd day in Himachal Pradesh. As the rest of my group disperses to stretch their legs or use the washroom, I notice our drivers lock the vehicle with what seems like undue haste and almost sprint towards a temple that we have just passed.

That is when I notice many vehicles stopping and their drivers, and sometimes also the passengers, getting out and entering the temple. Curious to know more about this temple, I make my way towards it as well.

NH22, Hindustan Tibet Road, Himachal Pradesh, Taranga Devi TempleBy the time I reach the temple, the drivers are already out and on their way back to the vehicles. But on seeing me approach, Pawan (the driver of the vehicle I am travelling in) stays behind.

“What is this temple?” I ask.

“This is the temple of Tarandaa Devi,” Pawan replies. “She is the guardian deity of the road, us drivers, and all those who travel on this road. It is she who protects us and keeps us safe from accidents on the road.”

“The temple seems like a recent construction. Is it new”?

“Well, the construction is new, but there has always been a temple here. And the Tarandaa Devi idol is hundreds of years old.”

“Do you always stop by to pray here?”

“Always. No matter how rushed or how late, I always stop here. Tarandaa Devi has protected me and my family for many, many years. I was born in a village close by and have a very close association with this road — the NH22.

“Really? Tell me more about it.”

And over the next few days, in bits and pieces and fits and starts, Pawan told me about his association with the NH22 or National Highway No. 22.

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