Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Switzerland in India

After the long journey from McLeod Ganj, we reached our hotel in Khajiar, The Royal Residency. However once inside we realized that it was buzzing with people and activity. The hotel staff showed us the rooms located on the second floor. They were very spacious with a large double bed at one side, wall to wall cupboards along the wall to the left. Immediately opposite the entrance door in the middle of the wall was a study table and a chair. The wall mounted LED beside the study table made a very decent view from the bed. Beside the LED was a large mirror and below it was a small dressing table with a shoe box in between the study table. On the far opposite side 2 extremely comfortable sofa chairs faced each other separated by a table. They overlooked beautiful hilly landscape outside with large glass walls. The room was very inviting and I immediately felt like staying here forever!!

Breakfast and dinner were included in our package. We arrived just around dinner time and being completely famished, made our way to the dining room in the first floor. It was a huge room with about 12 tables each having a seating capacity of 4. All but one were occupied, which we grabbed! There was variety in the menu including non-veg dishes. We thoroughly enjoyed the fare. After dinner and refreshing, I spent some time on open space on the second floor between the stairs and the passage to the rooms. Although the hotel was located in a deserted stretch, there were a couple of more hotels bang opposite to ours. After my eyes settled in the darkness I could make out the contours of mountains. Some lights in the distance showed places high up where people lived. Some moving lights indicated roads in the hills. The weather was just comfortable. My phone navigator indicated that this was the east direction and then and there I decided to return at dawn to view the sunrise.

Next morning I got up to the beeping sound of my phone alarm. Wrapped with a light shawl I stepped out of the room noiselessly. It was still dark outside but it was disappearing slowly. I took my seat on the cane cushioned sofa and eagerly looked in the eastern direction. As dawn slowly changed the view I realized with disappointment that there were no snow clad mountains within my view. I kept hoping against hope that once the sun was out, I would get a glimpse. This mountain range is the famous Dhauladhar range. However, that was not to be. The sunrise happened all of a sudden but there were no white peaks or golden glow on white peaks. The thrill had reduced significantly. By now the hotel staff had commenced duty and some guests had also come out. It was a bright day. Soon we were ready to move out. The breakfast was sumptuous to say the least! With a full stomach we left for the day’s sightseeing.


The first stop was Jagdamba Devi temple. The towering copper statue of Lord Shiva is visible from quite a distance. As you come closer you realize its beauty. The temple complex was well maintained except that closer to the statue there were monkeys hindering the path.

Thereafter we moved to Khajiar ground. It is a huge flat green area, more than double the size of a football field. Surrounded by deodar trees this was simply the centre of attraction of this place. In the middle of the ground there was a small water filled body. It is believed that many years ago a meteor had crashed at this site causing a crater. The mist played hide & seek with the sun making it comfortable and hot alternatively. When the mist enveloped the deodar trees, it made a sight straight out of fairy tales. Locals have created various activities here such as clicking photos in traditional dress, horse riding etc. and various eatables are easily available.

After spending around 2 hours at this beautiful spot we made our way down to Chamba city. It was about 22 kms away but the winding road with sharp turns and hair pin bends took more than an hour and made it a memorable journey down the hill! Chamba, crowded and congested, was in stark contrast to Khajiar. There was not much to see here. The late afternoon heat was also getting to us. The only place of interest to me was the Bhuri Singh Museum which had some ancient artifacts, paintings and sculptures.  



Next Post: A round up of the Hotel and Visit to the most charming place called 'Kala Top' where the movie 'Lootera' was shot.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

This Spice Almost Lost Its Flavour

Richard Branson gave a classic example of how to become a millionaire – start as a billionaire and invest in an airline! Astonishingly accurate – Who, in India, would have believed him 3 years ago? But as more skeletons tumble out of the skies (or hangers?), a picture akin to a dreary, cold, foggy and damp winter morning, instantly comes to our mind. The reality is not far from the picture – as the winter intensified its grip over Delhi, it almost claimed another victim - the ‘spices’ airline. Spicejet had become afflicted with a dangerous respiratory ailment and the doctors tending to it (read Government, regulators etc.) had all but spelled the death knell.

Image source: www.alchemymarketingsite.com

Spicejet, till recently India’s second largest airline by passenger share, was hogging the headlines, albeit for the wrong reasons. The nightmare of Spicejet’s top bosses, who begged for mercy with the authorities, continued unabated. Along with it was hanging the fate of its crew, staff and associated entities. Spare a thought for their families. We cannot imagine their condition until we are in their shoes – a thought which sent shivers down my spine. The smiles on the faces of Spicejet’s cabin crew, which was so welcoming when I took my first flight with them in 2007, being a first timer on a low cost carrier (LCC), had perhaps been lost forever.

Spicejet, in its current avatar, started operations in May 2005. GoAir was launched later that year in November and Indigo in August the next year. The growth of Spicejet was phenomenal and together with Indigo, gave the full service airlines a run for their money. Their expansion in fleet and routes were also quite similar, with Spicejet marginally ahead for most of their first five years of existence. Fares were similar, with Spicejet giving more flexibility in booking options. While Indigo offered a hold booking for 24 hours, Spicejet offered a hold booking till 2300 hours next day irrespective of the booking time. With the triumphant twosome, low cost airlines had arrived big time in India, giving enormous edge to the gleeful general public.

However financially, Spicejet was slowly losing the plot. After making profits in the financial year 2009-10 and 2010-11, it was in losses in 2011-12 before returning to profit in 2012-13. This change in trend was due to further investment by its then owner, Sun Group. On a straight comparison, Indigo was posting profits without a break since 2008-09. History, unfortunately, was being repeated for Spicejet. The issues relating to frequent change of hands of owners had grounded the airline in 1996, then known as Modiluft. In its second stint, Ajay Singh, who re-started operations, exited and so did Wilbur Ross and Bhulo Kansagra, Spicejet’s other investors. Spicejet is the only airline, which did not have a focused owner all throughout its life.

Was Spicejet a victim of its own actions or did it suffer from the hapless fallout of the restrictive Indian airline industry or was it a doomed cause? Let us take a look at some instances of the other failed low cost airlines globally.

In the United States, a generation after deregulation of airlines in 1978, low-cost carriers have seized control of the domestic market. It was not always thus. Of the 34 newcomers created after deregulation, 32 soon went bust. Those were the days when the strong, incumbent firms such as American Airlines could simply unleash even lower fares whenever a low-cost upstart invaded its market. Before the antitrust authorities could do anything about it, the competitor was crushed.
Similarly in Europe, as many as 60 low cost carriers were forced to exit the market between 2003 and 2010. The low-cost airlines that were now defunct were diverse and ranged from a number that hardly began operations to others that were relatively successful, but merged or were taken over. Most of these airlines operated for a period and then went into bankruptcy. Some, such as Go Fly and BuzzAway, merged with successful low-cost airlines. In a few cases, the airline was registered, but never offered actual services. (Source: Low Cost Airlines: A Failed Business Model by Kenneth Button, page 208) 
In Australia after de-regulation of the domestic airline industry in 1990, there have been a number of attempts at entry by low cost airlines. However, they lived for limited periods and the major reason for shutting shop was liquidity crunch and cash flow problems. Typically, they have been independent operations, with no strong links to either financial institutions or other airlines. (Source: Low Cost Carriers in Australia: Experiences and Impacts by Peter Forsyth , page 2) 

It is clear from the above that globally low cost carriers have struggled to stay afloat. Out of the numerous entrants, only a handful survived. The story in India has been no different. Post the liberalization in 1991, the Maharaja had its first taste of competition, when a string of airlines entered the domestic fray. Damania, East West, Jet, Modiluft, NEPC, Sahara all made flamboyant entries. I still remember collecting the flashy monthly magazines whenever my father would fly these airlines. However, apart from Jet and Sahara, none of them survived.
Coming back to Spicejet, a comparison with its peers, Indigo and GoAir, is imperative. Indigo had a focused policy and approach from the beginning. Some notable steps include investing in new aircraft (replacing old ones), maintaining an unbeatable ‘on time’ record and launching an innovative PR exercise (remember their TV commercial?). Indigo did its best to connect with flyers, retaining existing ones and equally wooing newer customers. Slowly its market share grew and currently it is ranked at the top. Once it sensed increase in volumes, it introduced pricing mechanism such as cost for pre-booked seats (Spicejet had introduced this earlier, but somehow, it weaned away passengers since Indigo did not charge for this), a few seats for a premium cost and on-board sales of retail products. GoAir, on the other hand, has had a slow but steady growth, focus being on profitability and gradual increase of the network.
Spicejet did not heed the various indicators of trouble that was brewing. When it was incurring quarterly losses in the last financial year, its management should have taken cues and commenced steps to bring it back to black. Instead they continued to only announce spot sales on its existing network. Initially it did help with its website crashing and counter overflowing. However, competition being stiff, other airlines including the full service carriers provided matching discounts. This somewhat made the entire effort look like a desperate attempt to remain afloat. Another possible indicator was Spicejet COO’s communication, be it repeatedly taking potshots at AirAsia India’s fare pricing strategies terming it unviable or internal emails comparing how his airline had better filled up seats. Spicejet’s auditors, SR Batliboi and Associates LLP, had pointed out in their quarterly review report the airline's total liabilities exceeded its total assets by Rs 1,145.58 crore (Rs 1.15 trillion) as on June 30, 2014 and warned "These conditions, along with other matters...indicate the existence of a material uncertainty that may cast doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern," in August A week later Spicejet announced its offer of a new range of enhanced food and beverage menu titled, ‘Hot Meals, Warm Smiles’, together with preference to passenger who pre-book meals. Although the press release mentioned that it was done to reduce costs, it is anybody’s guess that catering to a new menu is hardly a cost reducing factor, compared to other steps like reducing routes and operational costs, a step which it was forced to take just 4 months down the line.

The Government seemed to be a silent spectator to this catastrophe, till it was too late. The Ministry of Civil Aviation which has taken airlines to task for being unfair to passengers chose to take action only in December 2014. It may be argued that it would amount to interference in a non-Government entity. But Spicejet is a listed entity and deals with the public and it has responsibility towards its shareholders. Its financial figures are disclosed. With global instances of such bankruptcy not uncommon or unknown, some action by the Government and Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) earlier in the year could have prevented the misery and possibly revived the beleaguered airline and more importantly its passengers before its fall.
The downfall of Spicejet has been a dampener in the December year-end holiday season. Fares suddenly peaked at the expense of confused passengers, who were the ultimate losers. Spicejet passengers with confirmed tickets were panic-stricken when reports of the Government’s sanction begun to surface. There is some hope in 2015, though, with Vistara commencing operations. AirAsia India has already commenced flights and is expected to scale up its operations this year. While Spicejet’s ownership has changed hands again and Ajay Singh is back in the helm, we can only pray that its revival plans turn successful in the coming months. The vacuum created by Spicejet leaves sufficient room for the new kids on the block to get a head start and the old hands to make further inroads (or rather ‘inskies’!).
Warren Buffet who was once bitten twice shy by the airline industry famously said “Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down”. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Little Lhasa (Concluded)

The next morning we took a walk to the Bhagsu falls. It was a pretty walk along the mountain side with a cool breeze and sun filtering through the tall trees. The road wound around the town and led to the Bhagsu temple, which we had visited last evening. Beyond it lay the narrow trail. The gargling stream could be heard from a distance and now came into view a few metres below. The path was smooth initially, at first steps were carved out but after covering some distance it turned rockier and increasingly difficult. After about a kilometer, the waterfalls became visible. What an enticing sight it was. The more I saw it, the more I wanted to reach. The breathtaking beauty beckoned me very eagerly and with each step my excitement grew. However we had to be careful since the ground was getting slippery and the climb perilous. In anticipation of the ultimate destination, my heart egged me on.

The View Just Outside Hotel Bhagsu

Colour Flags - What Do You See Beyond It? 

Market Street - Still Early Hours

Lone Tourists!

Monastery In The Market Place

Can You Spot The Waterfalls?

At last we reached the end of the path, but holloa! the falls were within striking distance, but a huge boulder blocked the way. We looked around for an alternative path but couldn’t discover it. So we carefully climbed over, exercising caution with every step. And then the sight that unfolded was unforgettable - the enormous falls gushing down the towering cliff, the deafening sound of water crashing onto the pool below, the jagged cliffs jutting out behind the cascade! We soaked ourselves in the abundance and beauty of nature. I stood transfixed for many minutes as if to capture this heavenly experience. The weather had changed and being so close to the falls, all of a sudden I felt its icy cold touch. We spent as time possible but with the day’s itinerary planned in advance, we could not afford more time. I looked back affectionately quite a few times before bidding bye and taking the path back. The morning trek was extremely satisfying. It had made us hungry as well, so once we reached the parking area beyond Bhagsu temple, we looked around and chose a small eatery for breakfast. Nehria Tea Shop was somehow able to make the simple alu paratha very delicious and the tea was refreshing.  

In Nature's Lap - The Falls

The Cliffs Jutting Out

Pool At The Bottom Of The Falls

Valley View From The Falls

Breakfast Break!



It was around 10.30 in the morning when we returned to the hotel. We packed up quickly, paid the bills and hopped onto our cab. The last destination before moving out of Dharamshala was the abode of His Holiness, the Dalai Lala temple. The temple had been set up by His Holiness after escaping from Tibet in 1959 and his residence is located opposite the temple. It was a kilometer from our hotel down a narrow road dotted with small shops on either side. The car dropped us outside the large entrance gate. There was a large turnout of tourists for this landmark. Unfortunately photography is strictly prohibited and every person is searched before entering the main complex, hence I was unable to click any photo.

The first flight of stairs leads you to an open area, the size of a half hockey field. The next flight of stairs brings you to the main temple – the sight at first was no different from any other Indian temple. It was very crowded with Tibetans occupying every nook and corner of the place and the consequent din was not surprising. However once you step inside you realize that the murmur results from chanting of prayers by the monks. The inner sanctum consisted of a towering bronze statue of lord Buddha flanked by 2 other smaller statues of Buddha in other forms. On one side there is a huge heap of eatables - chocolates, biscuits, salted items etc. You can take a clockwise walk around the temple which is decorated with prayer wheels, flags, mani stones and other symbols of Tibetan culture and history. It was quite an overwhelming experience to watch a kingdom being run in exile. We are all citizens of a free country and it is here that I felt the air of dependence, which my forefathers must have surely experienced prior to our own independence. I was so moved by the determination of these exiled people that I went around to enquire in what manner I could contribute to their continued sustenance. I was directed to the office at other end of the temple, where I donated as per my wish – there was no coaxing, forcing or threatening – only a simple smile and gratitude from the young Tibetan who handed me the receipt.
Outside it was drizzling fairly hard now. The morning sunshine had been replaced with grey skies and dampness had set in the air.  As we bid farewell to Little Lhasa, it seemed the heavenly place was shedding tears at our departure! It was mid-afternoon and by now the traffic had built up. The narrow roads were now choc-a-bloc and we were stranded on the outskirts. I could not anticipate the delay just then and being somewhat exhausted, dozed off. My slumber was interrupted many times by our cabbie turning the ignition on, only to move a few metres and then come to a halt. It was after an hour and a half that we were finally able to get a clear road down the hill. The rest of the descent was uneventful and once on the plains, hanger pangs gripped us and we had a meal at a dhaba. We had to take off our woolens since it had become quite warm. With a hearty meal in place, we boarded the cab at about 5 o’clock for the ascent to the second leg of our vacation – Khajiar.
Dhaba In The Plains!
Freshly Cooked Food At The Dhaba
On The Way To Khajiar

Fading Sun
The roads were smooth and the climb was also a visual treat till darkness set in an hour later. Lights could be seen at times through trees and as villages approached the darkness momentarily disappeared. It was around 7.30 p.m. when bright lights could be seen at a distance, another half an hour brought us to Dalhousie. It was chaos here as well, when our cab got entangled in another traffic snarl on a narrow stretch while passing through Dalhousie. Fortunately, intervention from some locals and cooperation from the vehicles coming in the opposite direction, expedited unlocking the gridlock. The ascent from Dalhousie to Khajiar brought in some anxious moments. There were very few vehicles on the road and it was pitch dark – the only lights were those of our cab’s headlamp flashing against the pine trees. Signboards warning us about the wildlife flashed once in a while. As our cab sped along, the dense jungle on either side sent a chill down my spine. Looking back through the rear windshield I noticed the full moon filtering through onto our seat, but the moving car reduced any effect of its light. After non-stop travel of about an hour we reached a lighted stretch and hotels on either side, at last, indicated human habitation!  What a relief we felt to see that our hotel, Royal Residency, was also among these!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Little Lhasa

Dharamshala has carved out a space for itself in any traveler’s diary. Its unique history beckons one and all. It was this call that made us plan a trip. First of all there many ways to get there – with the airport at Gaggal near Kangra and railway station at Pathankot, it is very well connected. We chose to enjoy Bholu. So after going through the various options, Dauladhar Express seemed a convenient overnight journey. Next was booking a place to stay and with good experience of staying in a Government accommodation, preference was to get hold of one. The Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation gives you a convenient one stop shop experience on its website http://hptdc.gov.in/custsw/viewuser8.asp, where you can view availability of all its properties across the State. We were booking in advance, yet to our dismay most of the properties were full, so it helps to plan early.
Dauladhar Express departs from Old Delhi Railway station at 22.45 hours. It is a herculean task to reach the place by road through traffic and congested areas in the evening, so it helped that we had begun early (our Ranthambore experience fresh in mind). This time we reached with enough time to spare. The train departs from platform number 15, hence you need to climb the overbridge. We helped ourselves to goodies from the McDonald’s outlet in the station premises (old Delhi station also has Comesum, for the foodies) before the train departed on schedule. With no further adventure, we reached Pathankot Junction next morning at the scheduled time of 8.20 am. Our pre-booked cab was waiting outside. This was result of another valuable advice – advance cab booking not only saves you the hassle of haggling with cabbies in the station but is also very cost effective.
Soon we were ahoy! After an hour of travelling, we took a break at a vegetarian dhaba (Indian roadside eatery typically seen on highways). The food seemed fresh and quite tasty. The journey slowly moved from straight roads to winding curves and after another hour or so, the cabbie took a diversion from the main road. The climb to the mountains started soon after. The roads all throughout were surprising well maintained. The curves got sharper, the roads narrower and the climb steeper. The cab glided through with breathtaking views of the valley, forests, narrow streams and the serenity of a mountain drive could be felt. After a drive of almost 3 hours in bright sunshine we reached Dharamshala. Our stay was at McLeod Ganj or Upper Dharamshala and took us another hour to reach it. Closer to the destination, we experienced a bit of a traffic jam – too many vehicles on holiday!
The Dhaba
Hotel Bhagsu was right in the heart of the town. Once we located the place and alighted/embarked from the cab, mist enveloped the surroundings – tall cedar trees were suddenly barely visible, and a chill in the air welcomed us with open arms. The room was a decent one a comfortable double bed, sofa, table, almirah, television and a large washroom. The washroom had a geyser and the room was equipped with a heater.
The Entrance
The Restaurant at Hotel Bhagsu

We refreshed and after a quick lunch, embarked on sightseeing. The first spot was the Dal Lake, a man-made lake about 15 kms from the main town. As we reached the lake, mist from the hills swooped in, giving it a magical backdrop. The lake was full of variety of fishes, which were coming to the surface in droves whenever any bread crumb was thrown by the numerous tourists. We partook of tea and samosas at a small tea stall opposite the lake. After enjoying the place, we headed towards Bhagsu Nag temple located at one end of the central road in McLeod Ganj.
Dal Lake
The Magical Backdrop

Cars are allowed till a certain point, beyond which once needs to take a short walk through a narrow stretch. The temple is located on one side of the complex and one needs to climb a few stairs to reach it. On the other side is a tank, whose water is considered to be holy with healing properties. Although we were told by locals that the water emanates from a hot spring, the water was not hot, rather it was quite cold. We could hear water gushing close by and on enquiry, were informed that the famed Bhagsu waterfalls was located about 2 kms ahead. In the fading darkness, we made an attempt to reach it but had no option but to withdraw due to unknown territory and warnings from visitors returning not to proceed further. Since it was quite cold, nothing could be better than settling for some tea. While checking out options we spotted a quaint place called German Bakery located at the end of the narrow stretch near the point where the cars were parked.

Bhagsu Nag Temple
The Holy Tank
On the Temple Complex's Entrance Gate

Darkness Descending
German Bakery
We returned to the hotel and decided to take a walk to the main road, which was about 10 minutes away. The road was lined with shops selling local fare as well as other regular items. After exploring various shops for more than an hour, our stomach was growling with hunger. We had come across very good reviews of Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen, so we headed there straightaway. The place, located on the first floor, was teeming with customers. We were fortunate to secure a table which had just been vacated. The walls were lined with posters of famous Hollywood movies. Some of the items on the menu were already over, informed the owner Tserin very apologetically. She also recommended some other items, from which we made our choice. The service was super slow but when the food arrived, we really forgot about the delay. The pizzas, be it chickonara, peri peri or roasted chicken, tasted awesome. It was such a refreshing change from the staple pizza that we are so used to. The pasta with piri piri sauce was equally enterprising! Overall an excellent place for satisfying one’s taste buds. A short walk from the restaurant brought us back to our hotel where we retired for the night.

The View From The Road
The View Inside

Have You Seen These Movies?
Some More Down Memory Lane
Pizza - Fresh & Juicy


Watch This Space For The Amazing Bhagsu Falls and the Dalai Lama Temple

Sunday, October 12, 2014

City Of All Faiths (Concluded)

The other major tourist destination in Ajmer is a visit to Pushkar. Although Pushkar is famed for its colourful fair held in the month of October, it has another claim to fame. One of few temples dedicated to Lord Brahma is located here. The distance from Ajmer to Pushkar is roughly 15 kilometers and takes about 45 minutes to cover. The scenery is quite picturesque cutting through the Aravalli hills. One particular spot on the way provides a breathtaking view of city of Ajmer. And it is a sight right out of story books. The city is spread around the huge Anasager lake and is overlooked by the Aravallis on almost all sides. The blue lake and green hills give the city a dream like appearance.

Cutting Across

Lush Green Aravallis
Valley Called Ajmer
Brahma Temple
The approach to the Brahma temple was narrow and congested. The cab dropped us a few feet from the temple entrance. There was a huge crowd already. Innumerable hawkers and salesmen of local shops (far outnumbering the visitors!) thronged the surrounding area making it difficult to walk. We literally had to wade our way though. The local practice is to first take a dip in the holy water lake situated at a walking distance of 10 minutes. Thereafter you can enter the temple. By the time we came back from the lake, the crowds had somewhat reduced (thankfully!). We deposited our footwear with a makeshift shop, purchased the offering and climbed the stairs. It may be noted that bags, camera etc. are not permitted inside the temple so it is preferable to leave them in the cab. We completed the climb of about 70-80 steps without further ado. However, akin to the entrance at the mosque, there was no organized queue at the entrance to the main deity’s sanctum and it resulted in considerable pushing from impatient pilgrims in the final flight of stairs (about 10 steps). Once you reached the top you can quickly offer your prayers and move down the stairs to the other side. There are various other deities within the main temple complex.  

The hotel’s cab services to Pushkar are on the higher side. For a 4 hour trip where the travel is maximum 35 kilometer, they charge Rs. 1200/- for a Tata Indigo. This is nothing short of daylight robbery. What was even more shocking to us is that the trip was complete in about 2½ hours. The cab could not be utilized other than for visiting any other temple or gurdwara located on that stretch. What a waste of money. In Gurgaon cab charges for 8 hours or 80 kilometers will come at the same or lesser fare!  
3 days had passed in a jiffy in this wonderful city. Ajmer has the distinction of being one of the few cities where 2 major religions co-exist peacefully side by side. The warmth and hospitability of the people here make it very endearing to a tourist. However, it has its drawbacks as well. Consumerism has taken its toll here as well. The city roads especially those from the railway station to the area around the hotel are very dirty. On some roads and at one small entrance to the lake, garbage had piled up. The vehicular traffic is haphazardly regulated…traffic police seemed quite helpless (or perhaps didn’t care much). I have my doubts if pollution checks are ever carried out on the automobiles, the black unhealthy smoke emitted by most auto riskshaws together with the obnoxious smell is very nauseating.

We Desperately Need Swachh Bharat Abhiyan
Inspite of all this, when we finally reached the station and boarded the Shatabdi Express to Delhi, our mind was filled with fond memories of a weekend well spent. The long Independence Day weekend gave us true independence in our travel and stay in Ajmer.