Varanasi

Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain

Have you ever been to a place that’s so chaotic, colorful and has so much character but at the same time there is this underling calmness to it.. A calmness that is surreal, enchanting and hard to explain.. That is Varanasi for me!

In Varanasi the sights, the smells, the sounds engage all your senses to a level where it feels magical, you easily get sucked in to falling in love with this place and all that it’s made of. It is a place where life and death goes hand in hand, a place that reminds us of the fragileness of life and also of the colorful side of life. She has the ability to bring out happiness and sadness at the same time- a perfect balance. She is the  world’s oldest inhabited city, and still is spreading her enchantment over anyone who sets foot on her soil.

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Our train reached Varanasi in the middle of the night stranding us in the middle of nowhere. Ultimately we made our way to our stay for the next few days, the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Temple in Saranath.

Saranath a small town located  13 Km away from the main town of Varanasi and is the place where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon “Damma chakka pawathana suthra”.

Mulaghandha Kuti Temple 

Next morning our first stop was the Saranath temple “Mulaghandha Kuti Viharaya” which is a  massive temple complex built in the recent past to signify the importance of Saranath in Buddhism.

 

Deer park

Just next to the Mulaghandah kuti temple is the Deer park, a wildlife conservation project under which a variety of birds and other animals are sheltered and cared for.

 

 

Dhamek stupa

Just a little distance away from the new temple is the Dhamek stupa, a massive stupa built of bricks and sand. It is  believed that this is the location where Lord Buddhas first sermon took place. The stupa is  34 meter in height and   lord Buddhas relics are thought to be enshrined inside.

Dharmarajika Stupa 

The remains of the foundation of a pre- Ashoka era stupa can be seen in the Vicinity of Dhamek stupa.

 

Chaukhandi Stupa

A octagonal shaped tower built to commemorate the location where lord Buddha met his first five disciples.

 

Ashoka pillar 

King Ashoka erected a pillar to mark the area where lord Buddha preached his first sermon.

Other than the main temple complex  there are a few more modern Buddhist temples built by different countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka.

 

In the evening  we made our way to the main city of Varanasi to visit the bank of river Ganga, the most popular site in Varanasi.

Even before reaching the Ghats the city turns in to this colorful mess. Shops line the roads selling food, arts, traditional crafts, and Puja flowers.

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Flocks of pilgrims come from all over the world to Varanasi every day to wash off their sins in the holy water of river Ganga or to cremate loved once. Varanasi is considered as an auspicious place to die as it is said that if you die here you will reach Moksha.

A labyrinth of ghali’s starting from the city will lead you to the Dashashwamedh Ghat passing shops filled with flowers and Puja offerings. The large Ghat takes you to the river bank where you can hire a boat to take you to see the Ghats from the river.

Dashashwamedh Ghat is one of the oldest and holiest ghats in Varanasi. located in close proximity to the Vishwanath temple this ghat is constantly buzzing with action. There are many legends surrounding this ghat, the most popular being that it was created by lord Brhama  to welcome lord Shiva.

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Once you reach the river bank you can ether walk along the Ghats or you can hire a boat to see the Ghats clearly from the river.

There are thought to be about 80-90 ghats edging the river Ganga in Varanasi, a ghat is a set of stairs leading down to the Ganga. They are used as a site for performing Puja and also to perform cremations. In some places these happen side by side- a true example of how life and death goes hand in hand.

Each Ghat has its own history, its own story and a purpose for its existence…

Prayag Ghat

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Munshi Ghat 

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Ahilyabai Ghat

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Darabhanga Ghat

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Ranamahal Ghat

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Raja Ghat

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Vijayanagaram Ghat

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Harishchandra Ghat

Harishchandra Ghat is one of the two cremation Ghats on the river bank. It is believed that who ever gets cremated at this ghat attains Moksha.

This Ghat is definitely not for the fainthearted !! The chances of you being there while a Hindu cremation is in progress is high. But it definitely is an experience not to be missed.

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Trust me your guide/ boatman will definitely stop at one of the silk saree shops on the Ghats for you to visit. The sarees there are a bit over priced since its target customers are foreigners.

Once we were done with the boat ride we took a stroll along the Ghats and we got to meet so many interesting peoples, priests, Sadus, commoners  who have made a life on these Ghats.

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Every evening a group of priests perform Agni Puja or Ganga arti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Thousands of people gather around every day to witness the puja, some standing on the ghats and some on boats on the river.

Visiting Varanasi was one of those experiences that have left me speechless (shocker!!) The things that I saw there, that I experienced there have left a mark on heart like no other. Varanasi made me grow even more closer and more deeply in love with India.

Safe travels,

XOXO

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Exploring Taman Negara

Did I ever imagine myself checking the color of a scorpion under UV light in the middle of the night in Malaysia? Well .. Nop, not even in my wildest dreams!! but guess what that’s exactly what I did!!

Taman Negara was not in our original travel plan (hence the never plan policy- my plans change just like my mind does). But I couldn’t have wished for a better place to be exploring the color of scorpions or go hunting for different species of spiders than here.

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The idea of going to Taman Negara was dropped on us by the friendly staff at the hotel we stayed in Kuala Lumpur. They suggested that going to Taman Negara is as good as going to Borneo Island (Is it? )and that they can arrange us a tour package for a relatively low cost.

Disclaimer- I’m someone who is not in to pre-planned package tours. I feel they rob me of the excitement of random plans, the good part of travel. I love the part where you have to figure out things in a new place, while interacting with the locals. But this time we were kind of sucked in to going on this tour because it sounded good enough- no regrets though!!

We left Kuala Lumpur early morning in the hopes of reaching Taman Negara in 5 Hours but… thanks (Not) to our reckless driver we made it in 3  (including a strictly  30 min stop at Batu Caves, read all about it here).

Even being a born and bred tropical girl, Taman Negara was different from all the tropical forests I’ve ever been to, it was a beautiful strange would.  After all, it is considered as the worlds’ oldest rain forest being 130 million years old!!!

The road leading to Taman Negara gives you pretty good idea as to what to expect!! You’re going in to the middle of nowhere!!

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Morning of day 1, we reached the Taman Negara village and settled in to our cabana houses (2 people in one cabana). The cabanas were pretty good, a few little glitches here and there (hot water took bit of adjustments to work) but hey it is in the middle of nowhere so it’s completely fine.

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Lunch and dinner was served on a floating restaurant on the river Tembeling, and breakfast at a hut near the cabana houses.

On the first day the only activity we were to do was the Night Walk. In the evening we had dinner and joined our guide and a group of people for the walk. We had to cross the river on a boat to get to the other bank where the trail starts behind the Mutiara hotel.

It was a simple walk through the jungle, the only noteworthy thing is that you don’t see anything other than what’s in the range of your flash light! Not the most comforting feeling, knowing that you’re in the middle of a rain forest. But fear not ! the trails are clear and demarcated so most probably you won’t stumble on any unwanted animal members. Our guide Andy showed us a bunch of small critters ranging from a few dozen species of spiders, scorpions, centipedes and he was super informative about their habits and habitat. He even showed us how scorpions look under UV light.. They look green!! Then he also showed us two centipedes mating.

Then we were marched on to a tall platform (Tahan Hide) from where you can look out in to a wide opening in the jungle which is a salt lick (A place where animals go to lick the salt from the ground – I didn’t even know they did that till now) where apparently on a good day you can view bigger wildlife such as sambar deer, wild boar but sadly we were not as lucky. So after spending a few minutes on the platform listening to Andy go on about the wildlife and really important nature- stuff we came back to the river bank and back to our cabana.

On Day 2 we were woken up by the screams of the roosters living around the cabanas.

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Once we were done with breakfast we were chaperoned across the river to the starting point of both the hike up to the canopy walk and the hike to bukit Terisek …

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We did the track up to Bukit Terisek before making our way to the canopy walk.  The hike was not that challenging since most of the way you have to walk on an inclining boardwalk.

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But our guide took us off trail through the jungle to show and teach us about trees, spiders and amber. At the top there is a view point which overlooks the Taman Negara national park.

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Once we got back from the hike we made our way to the canopy walk starting point. Make sure you go on the Canopy walk because A) it’s a really good experience B) you get official bragging rights to the longest and highest canopy walk in the world!! But you must know that there’s no turning back. After you enter in to the canopy walk you cannot come back. So if you have major fear of heights take a moment to think. But personally I loved it and it’s not that hard.

Once we were done with the canopy walk we were shipped back to the other side of the river for lunch.

In the evening we were taken to the Orang Asli village nearby, on the other side of the river. Orang asli are the aboriginal people of Malaysia.

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You have to visit the village in a tour group. They told is to sit on a make shift bench and  an Orang asli gentleman showed us how the natives would make fire, hunt using blowpipes and how to make their traditional weapons.

Then he showed us to use the blow pipe and even gave us the chance to try our hand on it. Our target was a ragged Pooh bear perched on a stick.

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Our guide told us quite a few interesting tales of the Orang Asli tribe. These tribes live a life style that is very much connected to nature. They would move from one place to another and the move is initiated when a fellow tribesman dies, they don’t stay in a place where someone has died at least for a few years. And the way they bury the dead is interesting. They make a platform on top of a tree in the jungle and leave the dead on it.

Once the intro and discussion was over they let us wonder around the village to meet the villagers and talk to them. Also they sell miniature blowpipes and accessories for quite a bit of Ringgits inside the village.

Go around the village and interact with the villages. Your there to meet them not just to see them. And you never know you might get gifts from them 🙂  (that’s how I came back home with a part of an actual blowpipe)

Once the meet up at the village was over we were taken upstream for a round of rapid shooting. I think I was expecting a little bit more adventure to this , so I was a bit disappointed that it was not as thrilling.

Take with you-

  • Mosquito repellent because, boy do they bite!!
  • Good hiking shoes (preferably water proof)
  • A pair of flip flops for Rapid Shooting
  • A flash light for the night walk
  • And a little less adrenaline and a buttload of excitement

Next day a van was arranged to drop us back to Kuala Lumpur, from where we made our way to Malacca.

All in all the days spent in Taman Negara was the best days in Malaysia for me. I got to experience nature in a whole new way, got to learn a lot about nature and along the way made a few good friends from different countries. And wholeheartedly I recommend it to anyone who’s heading off to Malaysia.

Now that you’ve read about my adventure, let me know in the comments below what you think about Taman Negara, let others know your experience if you have been there! Hope this post helps you to get an idea about Taman Negara!

Safe travels,

XOXO

World’s End and Horton Plains– Sri Lanka

3 ½ hours and one scary winding up hill road later we reached Horton plains, one of the most popular national parks in Sri Lanka. Many tourist both local and foreign come to Horton plains because of its world famous natural beauty, rich biodiversity and to see the world’s end cliff (no not literally 😛 ).

dscn1046Even the road leading to Horton plains has so much to offer in terms of wildlife and scenic views. Bit scary but worth it.. especially scary when you’re on a bus that can hardly fit in to a bend 😛 and at one point a deer decided to cross the road in front of us, way to give a heart attack!!

Horton plains is located in the central highlands of Sri Lanka and the vegetation in this area is of wet patana grassland and cloud forest. The plains are rich in biodiversity with many species of endemic and non-endemic flora and fauna such as the Sri Lankan Sambar deer and Rhododendron arboretum.

At the entrance the guards check your bags to make sure you don’t take any polythene, cigarettes, lighters or match boxes inside.

Sounds weird but the entrance to the plain feels like the door to “Narnia”. It’s like two worlds are separated by one gate!! Also the deer hanging around like it’s no body’s business reminds me of Mr. Tumnus from Narnia! He even lets you pet him!!

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The trail starting from the main entrance goes through a grassland and will lead you up to a “Y” junction where you can ether take the trail leading to your right or left. Either way you go you will come back to the same place since the trail is an 8 Km long loop. The trail goes through a few points of interest such as the world’s end cliff, baker’s fall and chimney fall. It is advisable to start from the left side trails so that you will reach the world’s end cliff first. If you go late you will not get a clear view from the world’s end view point because the mist starts setting in as the evening progresses.

World’s End

After about 20-30 min of walking along a trail through a cloud forest and weird looking rock formations you will reach the Small World’s End cliff which has a drop of 274 m. Then after another small hike you will reach the Big World’s End which has a drop of 884 m. During some seasons the Big World’s End is closed for safety reasons. The view you get to see from both cliffs are exceptional !!. On a clear day you can see the Udawalawe national park and also till the Indian Ocean which is 81 km away.

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Baker’s fall

Once you’re done absorbing the amazing view from the cliff head on out through the plains to Baker’s falls.

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To reach the falls you will have to climb up and through the cloud forest on a slightly tricky foot trail. This 20 m high waterfall is considered as one of the most beautiful water falls in Sri Lanka and is located on a tributary of the Belihul oya. There is a 12m plunge pool that looks tempting but please note that it is pretty dangerous and have already claimed many lives in the past years.

 

Once you come back on the main trail you will come across the Chimney Falls, a man made fall somewhere between Baker’s falls and the “Y” junction.

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The camping grounds are located close to the “Y”junction on the right side trail.

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Getting there

You can get to Horton plains by either train or road. If you’re coming by train get down at Pattipola or Ohiya station and proceed to the national park by pre-arranged transportation (I’m not sure if there are tuk tuks or any other vehicle you can get without arranging – but I might be wrong) or go ahead and use them strong legs. If you’re coming by road you can get to the national park through Ohiya or Pattipola.

 

Tips

  • January to march is the best time to go if your heart is set on getting a clear view from the world’s end point.
  • It is best to go a bit early (8-10 am) so that the fog won’t cover the view.
  • If you’re planning to trek in the morning be sure to take warm cloths (sweater) because during the morning time it’s a bit cold, but also take a cap and sun screen because as the day progresses the plains warm up.
  • Take plenty of water since there are no shops inside the plains (Stating the obvious ! ). Refreshments are available near the entrance.
  • There are two more trekking routes that are not frequently used, so if you are feeling a bit adventurous go for it. You can get the necessary information from the information counter at the entrance.

 

If you’re heading to Sri Lanka do try to visit Horton plains, where else will you get to pet a freaking wild deer!!

Hope you enjoyed reading this post and feel free to use the comment section below to talk about anything under the sun 🙂

Safe travels,

XOXO

A City with a History- Anuradhapura

A history buff heading to Sri Lanka? Then Anuradhapura is the place for you!

Anuradhapura is an ancient historical city located in the north central province of Sri Lanka. A UNESCO world heritage site, Anuradhapura is such a city that where ever you stand you’re bound to be standing near or even on top of an ancient ruin. It’s a city filled with well-preserved ruins bearing witness to the great ancient Sri Lankan civilization that once was.

If you ever step in to Anuradhapura you are bound to be amazed at how much there is to see. From gigantic stupas, monasteries to ruins of palaces – the standing witness of an old civilization.

 

Ruwanwali Maha Saya (stupa)

A gigantic stupa built by king Dutugamunu, Ruwanwali Maha Stupa is located in close proximity to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. Today the stupa stands at a height of 103 met and 290 met in circumference.  Around the Stupa you will see stone statues of king Dutugamunu, Queen Viharamaha Devi (Mother of king Dutugamunu) and King Bhathika Tissa. It is said that Lord Buddha himself predicted the making of this magnificent stupa in the location that it is. Also it is common belief that the most number of Lord Buddha’s relics are enshrined here.

 

Jethawanaramaya Stupa

Jethawanaramaya Stupa is the largest stupa in Sri Lanka (even the world) standing at a height of 122 meters. It was built by king Mahasen and it is believed that a part of the sash worn by lord Buddha is enshrined in this stupa.

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Isurumuniya

Isurumuniya is a Buddhist temple built by King Devanappiya Tissa. The temple is mostly famous for the fine carvings that can be found at the premises. The most famous being the one of the “Lovers” and the “Man and the Horse head”.

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Kuttam Pokuna (twin baths)

A set of pond located in Anuradhapura, which was built in 6th -8th century by king Aggabodhi. It is belived to be used by the monks of the Abhayagiriya monastery. One pond is larger than the other and the two ponds are connected by a underground pipeline. Water first enters in to the larger tank through the mouth of a Makara, after going through a complex filter system and then proceeds in to the smaller tank.

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Mihintale

Mihintale is the location where the meeting between Arahanth Mahinda Thero (The Monk who introduced Theravada Buddhism to Sri Lanka) and king Devanampiyatissa happened. It is said that lord Buddha has visited this place back in the day when it was called “Missaka pabbatha”. Arahanth Mahinda cave is a cave located nearby and is the cave used by Arahanth Mahinda Thero during the rainy season. Also close by you will get to see the Kalu diya Pokuna, a black water pond.

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Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi

It is a sacred fig tree, the right wing branch of the original fig tree from Budhgaya under which lord Buddha attained enlightenment. It was planted in Anuradhapura in 249 BC, making it the oldest living cultivated plant in the world.

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Thuparamaya

The first ever stupa built in Sri Lanka, Thuparamaya was built by King Devanampiya Tissa According to the request of Arahanth Mahinda Thero. Enshrined in this Stupa is the collarbone of Lord Buddha.

 

 

Abhayagiriya Stupa

Built by king Walagamba this stupa has the relics of lord Buddha enshrined in a figure of a bull made with pure gold.

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Samadhi statue

Samadhi statue is a statue of Lord Buddha in the position of “Dhyana Mudra”, thought to be made in the 3rd or 4th century. It is said that when you look at the statue from three sides (middle, left and right) you can see 3 different facial features (Neutral, sad and happy).

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Mirisawatiya Stupa

Another stupa built by kind Dutugamunu. The septa of the king containing the sacred relics of Lord Buddha is enshrined in the stupa. Carvings of the septa can be found on a pillar on one side of the stupa.

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Moon stone and Guard-stone

Locally known as “Sandakada Pahana” the moon stone is a carved semicircular slab of stone placed at an entry way or at the bottom of a stair case. The carvings on it symbolizes the Buddhist cycle of “samsara”.

A well preserved “Naga Raja” guard stone can be seen at the entry way of the Rathnaprasadaya. Guard stones of Sri Lanka bear the symbols for prosperity and protection.

Lankarama stupa

Built by king Walagamba this stupa has pillar stones around it suggesting that once there might have been a Watadage (house encircling the stupa) around the stupa.

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The Royal Palace of King Vijayabahu 

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Lowamahapaya

The remains of a massive 9 story structure that was built by king Dutugamunu. According to literature it was once 150 ft in height, had 1600 stone pillars as support and the roof was thought to be of copper- bronze plates. Today you will see the stone pillars and a small modern structure resembling the old building.

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Wessagiriya

A forest aramic complex home to 23 caves having drip ledges to keep the rain water away. It was thought to have housed 500 monks. There are a few paintings in one cave but they are very much faded.

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Museum

There are a few museums around Anuradhapura that’s worth a visit. Archaeological museum, Folk museum and Abhayagiriya museum are the main once.

 

Gal Palama (stone bridge)

The remains of a stone bridge believed to have been built in the 5-9th century.

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Reservoirs of Anuradhapura  

Anuradhapura is home to one of the most complex irrigation systems of the old world. Many artificial reservoirs or “Wawa” are scattered around the city, the main water source even today. Ancient reservoirs such as Basawakkulama, Nuwara Wawa and Thissa Wawa were built by kings to collect water and serve as the main water source for the inhabitants of that area.

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Anuradhapura today is a well-developed city offering all the luxury you need from restaurants to hotels. The new city is a bustling hub with modern shops and hotels.

Getting to and around

Anuradhapura is well connected to most of the major cities of Sri Lanka both by rail way and roads. As for getting around you can ether hire a car, tuk tuk or you can hire a cycle and paddle around the old city.

Tips – I have read on many blogs that many travelers were bored after visiting too many Stupas, If you think that will be the case for you just visit the main Stupas Ruwanwali Maha Saya and Jethawanaramaya and visit the other non- stupa ruins (you will get to see most of the other stupas on the road side, along the way).

Hope you enjoyed reading this rather long post and hope it will be of some use to anyone planning to go to Sri Lanka (or simply interested in reading about Sri Lanka). Feel free to comment down below and let us know what your thoughts are on Anuradhapura and what-not!

Safe travels,

XOXO

Tips to prepare yourself for a Trek..

I love going on Treks.. Hiking, trekking, mountain climbing you name it, I love it. I love the adrenaline, the scenic views and the unexpectedness of it, you never know what’s waiting for you at the end of a trail. Every time I plan a trip I make sure to add a trek here and there just to full fill my desire to burn my legs!.

But on a normal day when I’m not traveling I spend a pretty sedentary life. I’m sitting in front of my lap top or I’m sitting on a lab bench sulking the whole entire day!! thus I hardly get any type of exercise, No physical activity, Non what so ever!!. I NEVER go to the gym.. To be more exact I’ve never set foot inside a gym.. for one there are no decent gyms around (Cough* Excuses* Cough)  and two even if I go I wouldn’t even know how to switch on a treadmill ( yah that bad!!). So you get the picture, I’m not the fittest person on the planet BUT I can trek decently. The love and passion I have for trekking drives me to do so. (or may be its just the adrenaline !)

I enjoy every second of it.. every step, every bend, every weird looking rock everything !. And I try to at least go on a few treks every year and I do a pretty decent job while on them.  But on some hikes there comes a point after which I’m tired beyond my body’s  normal capacity and  because of this instead of enjoying the hike I turn on this “Beast Mode” where I try to push past the pain and make myself move just so I can finish it. Past that point I don’t get to really enjoy the hike and surroundings until I get to the end. I just tell myself “one step at a time!” and I end up just looking at the ground the entire way. It’s a bummer!! because to enjoy a Hike a) you need to look up from the trail  b) need to stop panting like a happy dog! (Minus the happiness)

Since I’m prepping to go on a trek this year that I’ve always wanted to go, I thought of doing some research to find ways to get myself in to hike ready shape. My goal is not necessarily to lose weight but to try to make my legs strong and breathing capacity higher and increase my resistance. (if loosing weight comes as a bonus then meh I’m not complaining! )

So these are a few tips I found on the internet on how to get yourself hike ready,

Exercise

The word I dread the most! But it’s important if you want to be able to hike like a boss!! Professionals say that it’s best to find a work out routine that suites you and that mimic the activity that you are planning to do. Do aerobic exercises like swimming, jogging, running etc. and if you are a gym kindda person engage in activities such as weighted squats, treadmill with incline mode, stair stepper or use the climbing machine. Just try to mimic the activity you aim to do as much as possible.  Example- if it’s a mountain terrain you’re planning to conquer, jogging, running or the use of stair stepper can help you get that hike ready legs you need.

Hike = Walking

Get ready to walk a lot, by walking a lot. Make it a daily habit to walk a few miles so that your body gets used to the activity. Try to find a few challenging terrains that you can practice in, so that it will feel more close to what is to be expected than just running on a road.

Train with your backpack

Your backpack is going to be your best friend on the hike. – It’s going to have all the goodies in it and its going to weigh at least a few Kg. That weight is going to add up to your total weight and if you train without it you’re a few Kg short when practicing.  Fill up your backpack to an approximate weight that you think your backpack will be and train while you are wearing it so that your body will get used to the weight.

Hydrate and Eat healthy

It’s important to keep your body healthy and hydrated both during the trek and also the training period. Make sure you drink as much water as needed and eat food filled with all the nutrients and energy that you need.

Get them shoes right!

What’s the most important thing for trekking you ask? Shoes!! Without those “good good” shoes you ain’t going anywhere! Find a pair of good hiking boots and socks to match. Try to find boots that are water resistant because you never know when there will be a splash. Also make sure the shoes have a good grip and is light weight.

Use your hiking boots

Make sure you use your boot before the big day so that it won’t cause any cuts or bruises while on the track. Let your shoes season to your feet. Let them bond!!

 

Other than that make sure you find the right hiking gear you need and learn about the trail you’re planning to go on, to get mentally prepared. Rest, just enjoy your trek and bring back buckets full of memories!!

Hope this post helps you nonprofessionals out there to enjoy your next trek a little bit more. And if there are any other tips that might help please feel free to comment below, it might help a fellow hiker !

Happy trekking and safe travels,

XOXO