So, I just noticed that I first officially announced this blog sometime in May, 2011. The first post was about the Valley of Flowers (VoF), based on a visit I made in 2010. So, it has been 10 years since that trip and 9 years since I started this blog. That particular post was completed in March itself but I was still working on the site and finally shared the link on Facebook in May. Barely 2-3 people responded back then and most people probably thought I was just sharing a link from some other site. Back then, I almost did not know anyone who was into other types of travelling beyond the family vacations. But anyway, that is how it began.
I don’t write about myself and it is not that interesting anyway. However, due to the current Covid-19 situation, I have a lot of free time and so, I thought I will do one. I don’t want to sound preachy or offer unsolicited advice. However, I do receive some unsolicited queries from strangers regularly. So, apart from talking about my journey, I want to address some of them, especially some technical and strategic questions.
Landscapes in the Mist
I was in Mumbai when I started thinking about the things that I do nowadays. I was sharing my place in a PG in Andheri with some strangers and it was increasingly becoming clear that I was not going to get too far in that city and even renting a private room seemed a far cry. The city demanded too much sacrifice and probably I never had what they called the “Spirit of Mumbai”. By that time I had already spent enough time in typical Indian middle-class pursuits and I was beginning to hate everything around me. I needed alternatives.
As I mentioned already, serious travelling had started a bit earlier, in the monsoon of 2010, which was my first ever trip to the Himalayas. Nobody told me to do it but for once I had planned and executed something seriously. It was a solo trek but I did not think too much about the “solo” part because I had been on my own for a while and I was doing most of the things alone anyway. At that time, solo travelling was not very trendy in India, and a lot of family vacationers I met along the way thought I was some serial killer on the run (although subconsciously that’s what I always wanted to be).
It also took some intense, uncharacteristic hustling and saving to buy the DSLR (Which was the coolest thing in the pre-GoPro-Drone era) and then to travel that far from Mumbai. In fact, I think I was initially driven by a naive interest in photography. I never really became a professional photographer but it remains a secondary pursuit for me to support my writings and documentation. That Nikon D5000 is still functioning too although I have added more lenses to the kit.
Writing was not new to me but before that point, I used to write about other things and not travel. During that trip, I became more and more assured that there is a scope for serious travel content in India, especially for locations like VoF. When I was planning the trip, I could not find much information online. Only a couple of travel forums had some useful information scattered across different threads. Almost no website had high-resolution images for a place as photogenic as that. In fact, somebody had uploaded a colourful picture from some valley in California and all Indian travel sites used to have that as the Valley of Flowers image. Eventually, I made my own images available but that misleading photograph still keeps showing up every now and then. Do have a look at this and this for entertainment.
So, although I started with travel blogging very early, I didn’t really get the early bird benefits. I knew what I wanted to do but I didn’t really have either financial or social capital to immediately start implementing my long-term plans. I had to build up everything from the scratch glacially, while maintaining a job for a while. The posts I wrote did well and ranked high on google, but they came after long gaps of several months due to my job and I was not being able to build up the momentum.
Soon after starting the blog, I had moved to Bangalore and the living conditions were finally better than Mumbai. I was in a new age travel company that seemed ideal for someone like me at the start, or at least that’s what I thought. However, it soon turned out to be a bureaucratic black hole full of conformists. I survived there for slightly more than a year but eventually left on a bitter note when my leaves for a Spiti trip got cancelled due to HR interventions (It took me 3 more years more to finally reach the edge of Spiti).
Maybe my frustration levels at that time had something to do with being in Bangalore itself. I know a lot of people rate it very highly but that city never worked for me. I think this is the problem with cities dominated by only one industry. Everyone I saw on the street seemed to be working in IT, talked in the same lingo, and in general, felt so uniformly monotonous that I soon got tired of it. Besides, I was now certain that coming to South India was a big mistake. I needed to be as close as possible to the Himalayas for making frequent trips and so I decided to move to Delhi. The only major trip I made while staying in Bangalore was that to Hampi.
The Wind Will Carry Us
Sometime towards the end of 2012, after leaving Bangalore, I went to Himachal with a friend. After roaming around Dharamshala and Chamba for a while, we visited the Sach Pass on a whim. We had not even heard of it until someone mentioned it at the bus stand. That turned to be the first serious offbeat stuff I ever did. We just figured out that there was a road and went with the flow. This set the tone for most of my future travels.
Crossing Bridges (& Burning Them)
Eventually, I got a job in Delhi and moved there. It paid more but the working environment was even more toxic. I left it within 6-7 months and finally decided never to torture myself with a fulltime job again.
Leaving the job may sound cliched now but it was not that cliched back in 2013 and it felt more like a sacrilege for average people. This is why I just left, I did not waste my time consulting anyone, I never informed my relatives, and nor did I write about it because I did not want my relatives to know bout it (Later I realized that such posts tend to get good traffic). Nobody was going to get it but I was more or less clear about what I wanted to do. It was going to be a long road, and a lonely one too.
On the Road? … Not Exactly!
So, I was finally free and I started that epic life on the road… Well… not exactly!
When I had the job,I did not have the time. Now I had time but freelance life was hard to begin with and I was not earning enough. What you need to understand is that those were still early days and not too many brands were pouring money in blogging in India and the word “influencer” was not yet in vogue. However, the winds of change were visible and I decided to hold on, living in and churning out content from a dark, ground-floor room in an urban village in Delhi.
City of Djinns
Here, I must say a few things about Delhi. The city gets a lot of terrible PR and the summer can definitely kill you but I found it far more interesting than Mumbai or Bangalore. For the first time in my life, I discovered the pleasure of exploring my own neighbourhood. Now I could create content even without travelling out of the city.
Finally, my travelling also got more frequent after moving to Delhi. Apart from exploring Delhi itself, I could make repeated trips to HP, Uttarakhand, and even to the likes of MP and Rajasthan. If you are willing to explore, these areas are enough to keep you occupied for a lifetime.
The Wind that Shakes the Marley
So, while things were moving very gradually I needed a bit more momentum, some way or the other. I needed to earn more and even this site needed to improve its statistics. Around that time I made a short trip to Parvati Valley with a friend. I found it to be a bit too commercialized, a circus of millennial hippies that I occasionally keep making fun of. However, the harsh truth is that my traffic suddenly doubled after I published some of those posts. So, while I was obsessed with extremely offbeat locations, it showed the benefit of occasionally covering marginally mainstream places.
I kept covering various places within Parvati, which culminated in this big guide that links to every other post.
Things began to improve by the second half of 2015. My traffic had improved along with other numbers and mails by random companies seeking links and features in my site started coming on a daily basis. I think the Indian travel blogging sector itself had grown a bit by then and more and more businesses were looking to promote themselves through blogs and social media although it remained somewhat disorganized (& still remains so).
60 Days of Summer
So, in the summer of 2016, I finally did what I wanted to do for years, i.e. long term, slow travel. I even vacated my place in Delhi and kept my stuff at a friend’s place so that I don’t have to bother about the rent. My focus area remained the same though. So, I was in the hills for the whole summer, exploring place after place, gathering more information and content than I ever did. I repeated this process in the following years too, and was planning the same for this year but now it is not possible!
I have made dozens of posts from such trips. All such posts go to the Himalaya section.
The last couple of years have been somewhat unstable. I have stopped living in Delhi but have not set up any permanent place for myself (Although I want to do so). I am either travelling, or staying with my family in Guwahati, and then occasionally visiting Bangalore where I have been consulting for a travel startup. Yes, I am still not fond of that place but early-stage startups generally don’t have HRs so I could manage short stints.
In the meantime, I have gradually increased my coverage of Northeast, which is one of my focus areas. Earlier I did short NE trips after long gaps as I was based in Delhi. I have done better since 2017 as I started spending more time in Assam. A lot remains to be covered in NE but I have gradually increased my footprint in this region of late. Even before the current fiasco, my last trip covered Tawang, Ziro and Mon.
Day After Tomorrow
Everyone is discussing the same thing now considering the COVID turmoil. What next?
As far as I can see, the travel and hospitality industry in general is looking at a downturn for a few months but eventually, it will be back like everything else. However, there will be some changes and adjustments and at least for another year or so, the volumes will be low. Some organizations may not survive the crisis but this also means an opportunity for new, innovative players. So, everyone will have to make some strategic corrections in the way they work. Personally, my sympathies will always be with small, independent, local service providers rather than big brands and I will try my best to promote them. It is a long discussion. I will try to write more about it in separate posts.
A Few FAQS
Before I wind up this narcissistic tripe, let me answer a few questions that people have asked over the years. These are more about the technical and strategic aspects of my work.
How did you come up with this pathetic name for the blog?
I spent several weeks thinking about it. I wanted the word “travel” to be there in the same to make it clear that it is a travel blog. I wanted to add something extra after that. During those times, I was a fan of Big Lebowski. So, I decided to pay a tribute to The Dude (Although no one ever got it).
What exactly is the goal of travel blogging or travel writing in general?
I don’t know about others but my first goal was to document the hinterlands of India. I enjoyed demonstrating India beyond the cliches of Taj Mahal, and those slums (Yes, that’s also the punchline for this site in case you haven’t noticed…. India Beyond Clichés).
I deliberately focus on not so famous places to explore. There are a lot of secluded valleys, villages, and offbeat treks for which you will find no more than 2-3 detailed posts including mine if you google. That is not a coincidence.
Gradually, I have expanded my coverage and focused on certain larger geographic areas. In general, the bulk of my content is about the Indian Himalayan states of the North and Northeast India. I personally love these areas and most of these parts are rarely covered in mainstream media. However, I am not averse to other secluded areas too. For example, I recently visited areas like Bastar in Chhattisgarh and Koraput in Odisha.
Why do you only focus on India? What about other countries?
At least initially I didn’t even have the budget for foreign trips. Later on, as mentioned already, my strategy evolved in a way that I ended up focusing on certain regions of India. I believe that everyone should have a clearly defined niche in blogging and bulk of your content should come from that niche. This is how you can establish yourself as an expert in your niche.
If I visit other countries, my first priority will be neighbouring countries. I would also love to explore remote mountainous areas such as those in Central Asia. Modern countries and big cities don’t usually excite me.
Why don’t you focus more on Instagram?
I am not even very fond of this medium. I avoided using it until as late as 2015. I thought it was some juvenile thing that will go away (Now Tiktok makes it look mature in comparison). Later on, I started an account as everybody started doing it but to be honest, I don’t care about it much. As it usually happens in all social networks, natural reach has gradually taken a beating and there is a lot of corruption out there (people buying bot followers etc). I have it for the sake of it but I have never earned anything from it. A few times I got offers to promote some products in it but I felt very awkward and refused (It is too visual a medium to suddenly paste the image of a sponsored product in the middle of my landscapes).
Usually, I am happier doing it the nerd’s way, writing long-form content, working on SEO, increasing traffic, allowing clients to approach me rather than reaching out to them. Those who understand it knows what it takes but not everyone does. I have met PR agents who have no clue about organic traffic but lust after unnaturally high social media following. I hope this crisis opens their eyes.
Does nobody invite you to FAM Trips?
In the last few years, FAM trips have got a bit too prevalent in India and some people seem to measure the extent of your “success” with the number of free trips you are invited to. However, I do not really enjoy such trips for various reasons.
Generally, I never approach anyone for the same and even when I sometimes get invited, I accept on rare occasions. I have nothing against them but they are just the opposite of what I was looking for when I started travelling. They are too organized and mainstream to offer any real adventure and I think you don’t learn much when someone else organizes everything for you. For example, you will never learn how to reach a remote place on public transport if someone simply picks you up from the airport and drives you to the resort but this is exactly the kind of information I want to provide my readers, who are mostly budget travellers.
Also, such trips are mostly organized in groups, and one can always end up with company one does not enjoy. At least for introverted snobs, it is never a good prospect. So, I mostly roam around alone, or with people, I already know and get along with. In any case, FAMs will never give you experiences like this or this or this or this.
Why do you spend your own money to travel? Does it make sense?
Here is the thing… I do it only because I like it. If I had made a cold profit and loss calculation at the start, it would have definitely tilted in favour of a full-time job. Average middle-class Indian thought process teaches us that every other expense is a waste except the ones that pay off home loans and car loans. Thankfully this mindset is gradually changing now.
I started doing it because I wanted to do it and enjoyed it. Everything came afterwards. If your only goal is to win free trips and you actually have no interest in exploring places or can’t stand a night at the railway station, then you will lose your interest soon.
What is the best use of Frequent Flier Miles?
I have no clue. I am not a frequent flier and I don’t even like flying anyway. The last time I booked a flight myself was in 2013. The last time I actually took a flight was in 2017, when a client booked for me. My budget travels within India depend on trains, buses and shared cars. Sometimes in remote areas, I end up walking 15-20 Kms carrying the backpack after missing the last bus. Try to avoid missing the last bus though. It is not good for the back in the long run.
Do You Travel Without Money?
Absolutely not. If you don’t have money please find a way to earn it first. What they call “Begpacking” is the most abominable thing I have ever heard of. I travel on a low budget but I am not here to beg from anyone. Yes, sometimes even I get stuck and then get a lift or get hosted by locals unexpectedly. But those moments are not planned and I do not set out with a plan to travel for free.
Apart from self-respect, this is also about supporting the locals. Tourist facilities in remote regions exist because local economies depend on it. If everybody tries to do it for free then these local service providers will shut down soon.
Why don’t you write for other Publications & commercial travel websites more often?
It is another strategic decision. I occasionally publish for travel magazines and newspapers but I don’t do it too often. The very simple reason for that is that I take my own blog too seriously, especially the SEO game that brings in all the traffic. So, if I provide my best content to another website, I will be increasing my own competition, cannibalizing my organic traffic. This is why I write for other sites and publications after a lot of calculations and my best content always is reserved for this site. Is this the right approach? Well, there is no right or wrong in this. It is about the nature and extent of your ambitions as far as your own website is concerned.
Do you plan to keep doing the same thing for the rest of your life?
I believe that you should not be dependent on only one source of income. Also, one needs to keep exploring possibilities and expanding one’s horizons. I am also working on a few other things that I hope I will be able to announce in the next few months.