A peaceful retreat in the hills

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Friday, March 11, 2011

After many weeks of lazing around on beaches, we finally escaped the alluring charms of Goa and headed to Thivim station to catch the 6.45am train north to Mumbai. We soon learnt, however, that we needn’t have got up so early as our train was three hours late. We watched frustratingly as another Mumbai bound train arrived and left and eventually boarded our train over four hours late! Fortunately the train was not too crowded and we passed the time sampling the various foods being hawked up and down the carriages. The time passed relatively quickly until the end as we approached Mumbai painfully slowly, stopping every few minutes. We pulled into Lokmanya station, one of Mumbai’s outlying stations and our train’s final destination at around 10.30pm. As soon as we stepped off there were the usual rickshaw drivers crowding round us all clamouring for business. We were stressed and tired after the long journey and wanted a few moments to gather ourselves together but it was impossible. We ended up getting a rickshaw with a driver who was all charm but who ended up cheating us out of quite a bit of money by a sleight of hand trick. He took us to a hotel where we were given a tiny cell like room with dirty peeling walls and which was not at all cheap. This is the norm in Mumbai which is by far the most expensive city in India.

We woke the next morning and found ourselves in a Muslim area on a street lined with stalls where all manner of dead animals were being butchered. The smell of raw meat pervaded the air and piles of litter filled the gutters. We had intended on spending a few days here but after our dealings with the rickshaw driver the previous night, the crowds of people, the heat and the high cost of living, we decided to leave as soon as possible. We were in luck and managed to get some tickets for a train leaving for Mount Abu in Rajasthan that afternoon. The rickshaw drive to the station cost us about a quarter of what we had paid the previous night and took us along busy roads where cars and motorbikes sped along next to carts pulled by oxen and then along the edge of one of Mumbai’s slum areas.

The Ranakpur Express left at 3pm. We were seated next to some Indian families and their noisy kids. For dinner we tried some bhelpuri, thin discs of fried dough mixed with puffed rice, lentils, onions and herbs. We were travelling sleeper class, which is much more affordable than the three levels of first class and adequately comfortable with seats which pull out into three tiers of sleeping platforms. The motion of the train and the noisy stations that we passed through meant that we didn’t get much sleep. We arrived at Abu Road station at 4.30am and waited a few hours for the first bus up to Mount Abu. We knew we were in Rajasthan as we saw men wearing turbans and women in vibrant red and yellow saris. The bus took about an hour and we dozed as it wound its way up the twisting road.

As soon as we arrived in Mount Abu we knew that we had come to the right place. Located in a bowl like depression up in the spectacular Aravalli Mountains, it is the only hill station in Rajasthan and at 1200 metres, it enjoys a much more agreeable climate than the dry plains below. As such, it is a popular holiday spot for Gujaratis wanting to escape the heat during the hot summer months. We checked into the pleasant and very reasonably priced Shri Ganesh Guesthouse, located down a quiet lane a few minutes walk from town. We were so tired that we went to bed for a few hours before heading into town for a lunch of Dal Bhati, which is a delicious lentil dhal poured over an oily oven baked bread. After lunch we walked around the scenic Nakki Lake, the focal point of the town. The town itself is a little touristy but in a nice low key way with a few ice cream parlours, souvenir shops and even a miniature Eiffel Tower (!). There are also a lot of old palaces dotted around the surrounding hills dating back to the time of the maharajas. In the evening, we walked to a sunset look-out point along with a guide and a few other guests from Shri Ganesh. It is strongly advised that you don’t wander alone in the hills around town as people have been mugged here and there are also high numbers of sloth bears which have the potential to be dangerous if with cubs or if caught by surprise.

Seeing a sloth bear, preferably from a safe distance, was high on our wish list so the next morning we joined the same guide for a half day trek into the surrounding countryside along with a nice Australian and English couple, Gemma and Liam. The hills around Mount Abu are rocky and covered in dry forest and scrub and a number of rare plants. We saw a large troop of langur monkeys but no bears unfortunately but we enjoyed a good walk soaking up the local environment and feel of the place.

The next day we joined another trek into Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary, this time with a chap called Charles who was both knowledgeable and passionate about his local area and its wildlife and culture. There were six of us on the trek, a young Australian doctor, his English girlfriend and her friend, and an interesting and inspirational German man called Winfred, an incredibly sprightly 73 year old who has spent most of his life in the merchant Navy, has travelled all over the world and is still travelling widely now. The trek was tough as we climbed up into the hills scrambling up steep rock faces. When we reached the ridge at the top we were greeted by an incredible view down onto the plains below stretching for miles across to the not so distant border with Pakistan. Half way through the trek we stopped at a camp site used by nomadic Rajputs. Here Charles brewed up some chai and coffee and baked some bananas with melted chocolate in the fire. Then it was more scrambling back up to the top of the ridge and down the other side. The endpoint of the walk was a magnificent Jain Dilwara temple. Made of marble carved into the most intricate filigree, it was one of the most amazing buildings we have ever seen. Unfortunately photography was not allowed which is a real shame. It is something to do with the Jain religion which has some odd rules such as no menstruating women allowed inside. Mount Abu is also home to a large number of Brahma Kumaris followers, a kind of religious sect who devote their lives to yoga and meditation with the aim of achieving universal peace. Dressed all in white, many of these followers were wandering around the temple.

After the trek we all went for a slap up meal at the amusingly named Hotel Hilltone where we tasted a delicious Indian dessert called Gulab Jamun which is made of round balls of deep-fried milk solids soaked in a sweet rosewater syrup.

We are a little disappointed that we still haven't seen any sloth bears but apart from that we have had a lovely couple of days here in Mount Abu. Tomorrow we venture further into Rajasthan to the city of Udaipur.

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