Solo in Salzburg

When the sky is overcast in May and the wind still chilly, the quaint touristy town of Salzburg is not far from Munich. A day wandering through the streets of Old town, a hike up and down the Hohensalzburg or a picnic lunch along the banks of Salzach are some of the many things that can fill your typical day out here. The place is thronged by tourists almost all year round but early May is not particularly crowded. You can still get lost in the narrow back alleys, sauntering at your own pace, latching onto the occasional free Wi-Fi outside a random cafe or boutique.

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Inside Hohensalzburg
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Intriguing street art
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Walk by them love locks
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The Yellow one- Mozart’s residence
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Ambitious advertising inside tunnels
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The most colorful pallet ever
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The funicular track as seen from the cemetary
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The town below as seen from the castle
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Green and Grey

 

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Some more street art
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Graffiti dedicated to the maestro on the subway

When I first arrived on a Flixbus the night before, it was raining to my utter annoyance and the black light jersey I had on was not going to keep me dry or warm for long. I realized that my hostel was more than 10 min away on foot from the place where I would be dropped off and I’d have to trot my way through the now dark and wet streets of Salzburg. Google maps got me to the right place just before my hoodie got soaked and here I was being greeted by a warm smiling blonde at the reception. After sharing my dashed hopes of a dry sunny day in Salzburg and paying up my deposit for the night, I led myself to the dorm above which I would be sharing with a noisy bunch of Swiss teens later. Chugging on my Bavarian beer through the 2 hour drive between Munchen and here had helped induce a sweet amount of sleep and I ruled in favor of hitting the bunk. Sometime later in the night I was woken up by the noisy brats I had mentioned before but I chose to ignore.

 

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The lower bunk in YOHO dorm- my nightly abode

Next morning while it was still pouring I woke up to be greeted by my adolescent roommates who offered their apologies for being adolescent and I got a move on. The day was opening up and I thought perhaps I can still redeem my plan to go around this beautiful medieval Stadt. I treated myself to a full Milka chocolate bar and grabbed a low fat milk from one of those early stores- “breakfast to go”. I began hiking towards the first place of interest on my list. The Mozart plaza. Now, I’m not sure if that’s what it’s called but it has a bigger than life size statue of the famous composer right in the middle and an interesting fountain with four stallions galloping out of it a few meters away. After a few clicks with the maestro in the background I proceeded to get a closer look of this fountain and while I stood there admiring the architecture, 2 young European girls sneaked up on me from behind and with beaming faces held out a pad with some kind of petition to sign on. They told me that it was for poor children or something and on realizing I was Indian , quickly began to fake their endless love for Bollywood and in the middle of all that animated conversation, at some point, I signed the petition, only to be told immediately after that I was expected to make a donation of any amount I like. I knew I was trapped and to exit this unsavory situation I had wound myself into, I quickly took out the Euro in my pocket and with an apologetic smile excused myself from the ladies.

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The Maestro
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The fountain with stallions
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Old world carriages at the plaza

The first lesson of my solo travel across Europe- Avoid smiling faces with petitions who like Bollywood.

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The globe and the game of chess

This plaza has old fashioned horse driven buggies and carriages lined around it which gives it an almost old world feel and if you are lucky enough to have no other tourists in the frame, you could pass your click as evidence of time travel. I got the Bollywood loving scammers in mine. The next square has a big Golden globe with a boy’s statue atop and a giant game of Chess laid out next to the globe. I’m not sure what these structures signify but they are not medieval for sure. From here you can either spread out in the old town or take the slope which goes up the castle. I took the latter and gradually the town became smaller and farther as I went up that winding road. After about 10 minutes and an equal number of selfies I arrived at the entrance where for 8 Euros I got access to the castle and a ride on the funicular on my way back. The castle perched on top of a hill is somewhat smallish but has some of the best views of the town and as if the Rain gods were answering to my prayers, the skies began to clear as I trekked up the cobbled path and the splendid vistas began to play out before me. The historical significance of the place was mostly lost on me as I spent most of my time clicking different parts of the town below from as many different angles and marveling at the beautiful scenery. One could see the Salzach snaking through the landscape, dividing the town into two parts as the washed rooftops of  the Austrian houses shone under the spring sun which was now somewhat peeping from behind the clouds. Everywhere I looked I saw vast stretches of green below and grey-blue above. The castle has a few canons laid out in galleries with their mouths pointing towards the town. Other than this, there is one medieval archaeological site, a square with a well in the middle and a small chapel inside the castle. Going around at any rate is not more than a 30 min affair. It’s the views that you pay for. I could have spent more time at the many vantage points but chose to move on and get back to the town below.

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The washed rooftops
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The town below divided by Salzach
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What are we aiming at?!
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Bring them on!!

The next place of interest for any tourist in Salzburg is the Mirabell garden. The other reason why Salzburg remains relevant in popular culture is the famous musical “Sound of Music” which was shot almost entirely here. There are several spots in the town which you will recognize easily. As a matter of fact, there are Sound of music tours designed around these spots, keeping the tourists engaged with fond movie memories. It is in this garden where the Von Trapp family is seen singing Do Re Mi in the film. The garden itself is not as vast as some of the others you will see in Europe but it’s laid out beautifully and is adorned by intricately carved sculptures. Many spots for colorful selfies and views of the surrounding hills, the Hohensalzburg castle included will keep you busy for the good part of an hour. Fortunately for me, by now the skies had cleared much and the warm filtered sunshine made the weather just lovely.

 

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The entrance to Mirabell gardens
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A boulevard
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Sculptures and fountains
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The cemetery where the Von Trapps hid

After stepping out into the streets, I was hungry again. So once again I walked into one of those departmental stores and walked out with a packed burger, some fruit cuts and an Austrian beer, hoping to find that perfect spot along the banks of Salzach for my first ever solo picnic. Who knew that this was to be the highlight of my day in Salzburg. I sat on a public bench facing the river below and the castle above the hill. The murky waters of Salzach were gushing under the bridge as tourists and locals passed me by. Lovers, walking hand in hand, dogs playing by their masters, toddlers in their strollers, I watched people enjoying their day, each in their own special way. All this people watching tired me out eventually. I began to feel lazy and dozed off for a bit under the warm sun.

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Picnic by Salzach

 

The power nap helped me regain my zeal to explore further and I headed back to the cemetary where the Von Trapps went hiding from the Nazis. This time of the year, it was overgrown in places but retained it’s charm nevertheless. There was restoration work going on in places but that didn’t seem to deter tourists from trying to find that exact spot where our dear Von Trapps tried to conceal themselves. Other than this, the cemetary doesn’t have much on offer for the curious tourist. Later I wandered off into the streets again, walking tirelessly, marveling at the quaint buildings, the back alleys, the weather and the people; wondering if the Von Trapps walked here or there. The town of Salzburg can be easily covered on foot within a day. You may start in the old town and wander off in the direction of your choice. For avid Sound of music fans, there are a few other filming locations outside the city such as the lake where they go boating among others. All you need is good weather and two sturdy feet. Bring yourself an umbrella if you don’t like getting drenched or go wild like me. Spend your day gazing people or street art installations, putting a lock on the bridge with your loved one or lazing by the Salzach. Nothing here is monotonous or overwhelming. A trip to this Austrian town is like the famous musical itself, leaving you with a happy, light and warm feeling inside.

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The love-lock bridge
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The quaint back alleys to get lost in
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Digital display inside ICE
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Salzburg Hauptbahnhof
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Do they get any neater?!!
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Austrian countryside as seen from on-board ICE to Innsbruck
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Hakuna matata, your boda boda is here

The vast yellow grassland has an eerie yet endearing sense about it. It lets you look out blankly into nothingness for as long as you please with *no conditions apply. The eye wanders for a while till it fixes its gaze upon something peculiar, something that moves, something that feeds or something that is looking back at one. The gaze is weighed down by the contours of the hump, the grizzliness of the mane or possibly at the agility of the gait and one is transfixed as time loses relevance. Such is the magnificence of nature, that which is beyond our control.

As a keen student, the geography textbook always fascinated me. I would flip through the pages to look at places that hadn’t been even covered by the teacher yet. It wasn’t a subject to me, it was like a fantasy. I would look at the illustrations and wonder what it would be like to be in this place or that. And of all the places, Africa had a different allure altogether. The sheer expanse of the continent, its diverse and unique landscape, the turbulent history of its people, everything about it made it almost enigmatic. It seemed so far away and growing up I always felt a strange beckoning to this dark continent. Of course, it is so vast, it would take anyone a lifetime to touch every last corner and I wouldn’t even commit myself to such a lofty resolution but the Eastern horn of Africa as it is called has a special place in the world of natural history and what could be a better start to my journey of Africa than that. The idea began taking shape sometime in 2015 when a colleague went away to Tanzania with his family. Upon his return he couldn’t stop describing the plethora of wildlife they witnessed over three days and at such close quarters. His stories brought to life the visions I had carried from my textbooks and all the Discovery films I had seen over the years. A little later another good friend mentioned it and I started imagining my African Safari already. I pitched the idea to a few like minded people to see if they would be interested. Soon enough, I had gotten two other friends and Sonam on board. We knew what we wanted to see but which reserve was to be visited was the question. August is that time of the year around which I plan my week-long annual holiday and hence, the natural choice was Masai Mara. The great migration arrives in Mara by August and the lions are spoilt for choice. There is plenty of game in the park and the big cats are out hunting. There couldn’t really be a better time to be in Kenya- the safari capital of Africa.

Kenya is a country located right on the equator but the Mara reserve which runs along the south western flank of the country falls in the southern hemisphere. Nairobi, the capital city and the first stop for all international tourists also lies a little south of the equator and hence, the weather in August is mildly cold which is surprising for most first timers. The overall topography of the country renders it cooler than most tropical destinations. The Kenyan government, in a bid to boost tourism has introduced e-visa for most countries making the process, literally, a cake walk. You sign up on the website, submit a copy of your passport, fill out your details and pay up USD 50. All in an hour’s work and if there is nothing wrong with your application you can get your visa in a day or less. Mine arrived the day after and I knew we were off to a good start.

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Downtown Nairobi as seen from our Safari operator’s office. 

Flights from India are not abundant but there are a few good options like Jet-Etihad which if purchased well in time can get you a good deal. We bought ours 5 months in advance for less than USD 500 each. The flight was comfortable with average leg space and palatable food. Abu Dhabi airport which was our transit was less than impressive but then again my reference is Dubai or New Delhi which isn’t really fair. It was crowded and felt cramped. Anyhow, the transit was about 2 hr and hence manageable. We arrived in Nairobi a little past 1 p.m. at a not so remarkable international terminal but the immigration process was crisp and in spite of the long queue we were through in less than an hour. There is a bureau de Exchange counter inside the terminal which gives you a good rate unlike some other airports I have been. 1 USD to 100 shilling was the going market rate then and the counter gave us 99 if I remember correctly. You will see a Safaricom kiosk as you move out into the lobby where you can purchase a prepaid SIM for voice or data or both without any hassle by just producing your travel document. We bought one for 2000 KSH which gave us more than enough voice and data than we needed for the week. There are other operators too but Safaricom has best countrywide connectivity and offers good rates. The average Indian will find voice calling in Kenya 3 times more expensive than home and I think the locals feel the pinch too as many prefer calling over internet to save costs. But the ease of procuring a SIM in any part of the world as opposed to India makes me pretty sad. Anyhow, with the SIM in my phone, we were on our way to the apartment we had rented near Strathmore university halfway between the international airport and the city centre. Here, I feel I need to mention that my experience with booking a place through Airbnb in Kenya wasn’t as smooth as it usually is. Two of my prior bookings were cancelled by the hosts days before the actual travel for some hard to believe reasons. But our stay at Kipngeno’s apartment was problem free and since we were spending just a night in Nairobi, it didn’t really matter as much. Later that night we called a cab to go downtown using Uber and that worked just fine too. Surprisingly, the native Kenyans in general and Nairobians in particular speak remarkably good English and communication can be a breeze for foreigners. Our cabbie was friendly and helped us narrow down our search for a good pub pretty quickly to Havana Bar. This dimly lit pub has a friendly vibe and from what we could see is popular with expats and tourists. The staff at the bar was helpful and amiable. The girl waiting our table was rather confused at our strange request for hot water with our whiskey. She had to ask us twice if we wanted hot or room temperature. The music was loud and we didn’t try explaining about our soar throats and running noses. The food was above average and the liquor cheap (by New Delhi standards). We enjoyed observing the locals, sampling the kinky urban art on the walls and the warm whiskey going down our throats made the chilly Nairobi night as pleasant as it could get. Happy high we went out of the bar, tipping our waitress more generously than we would back home.

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A mural on the wall of Havana Bar in Nairobi

One peculiarity I couldn’t help but notice in Nairobi was that the navigation display unit in all the cars we sat in was in Chinese or Japanese or one of those languages from the Far East that I cannot read. The make of the car didn’t matter really and when I asked one of the drivers about it he said he had noticed it too but had no clue why. I assumed that possibly, they depend heavily on importing CBUs in Kenya. My assumption was further strengthened when I saw the price of a mid size car advertised on a hoarding outside a dealership in the town. This car was easily more than twice as expensive than home where the car market is predominantly local manufacturing.

Next morning we were picked up by Ambrose, our driver and guide for the next 3 days. Ambrose wasn’t particularly happy with us since we were late for the pickup. A day long flight and last night’s whiskey had their effect and we took longer than anticipated to pack up and leave. Before leaving town, we went into the city centre once again to make the final payment at the safari operator’s office and picked up some much needed breakfast from the local favorite- Java Coffee house. The breakfast was simple but filling. Banana cake, boiled veggies, sandwich and fries. The coffee was above average without doubt. A really good brew made from the world famous Kenyan beans and yet somehow they choose to call themselves Java House. Irony.

Nearly after two hours on the road we were treated to our very first view of the rift valley. I could hardly contain my childlike eagerness to get a closer look and began to bug Ambrose to pull over.He stopped a little further at some kind of a tourist point where there were several other vans like ours. There was also a curio shop and a snack bar. The view from here was fantastic to say the least. As far as you ran your sight you could see the unending flatness of the depression below. For miles together, the African bush just lay there, undisturbed, uninhabited and perfectly wild. A closer inspection with our binoculars threw up a TV station deep in the valley to relay signals from the cliffs above. The local shop owners tried selling us food and curio among other things. After a brief stop, we continued our journey further into the valley. The total run from Nairobi to the reserve is about 6 hours and if you break in between, it can go upto 7. We stopped by a roadside restaurant  somewhere midway for lunch . This place was run by an Indian Kenyan couple. The heavily pregnant Gujarati wife walked around yelling instructions to her mostly native staff. She spoke in Swahili of course but to many of her Indian traveler customers she spoke in fluent Hindi too, serving vegetarian specials upon request. The Indian influence on everyday life in Kenya is more than noticeable. The diaspora from the sub-continent has penetrated almost all strata of the Kenyan society. They are merchants, business owners, executives, restaurateurs and even travel agents. They have lived here for more than a couple of generations now and identify themselves as Kenyans of Indian descent. However, most of them retain their Indian family connections and keep shuttling between their home and place of nativity. For lunch, we washed down some African rice, chapatis, corn, veggies and lamb with the good old Tusker. Well fed and contented, we got back on the road and soon enough I dozed off at the window. Having missed some part of the landscape, I was shaken out of my slumber when the caravan got off the main highway an hour or so later and the dust from the dirt road started to blow in my face. As we pulled up the windows and the rural landscape became clearer, we could see women selling fresh produce from the farms by the side of the road very much like home. There were children staring blankly at us, some even waving. Little flat roof huts strewn around the landscape with cows and sheep around. The vegetation in the valley is mostly dry and deciduous. There are several shades of dusty green, a lot of brown and yellow. The dirt road was pretty rough and for the rest of the ride we could hear little stones flying under our truck, sometimes hitting the chassis. But that didn’t seem to bother Ambrose who was flying at about 70 or even 80 kmph now as opposed to the 50 he never crossed on the highway. On inquiring he told us how there are speed monitoring patrols all along the main highway and drivers are not supposed to cross the limit. Yet another area in which Kenya beat India successfully- *impressed*.

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Our first view of the Rift Valley
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The good old Tusker

Arriving at the camp a little before 4 in the evening, we were welcomed by the manager and shown to our tent shacks. The Miti Mingi eco-lodge and a few others are located just outside the entry gate of the reserve. The camp is basic with limited electric supply. The common kitchen serves three meals a day in a buffet and any specials can be requested to the chef. The typical shack has 2 single beds with bedding and mosquito nets. The nets often have holes. Fortunately for us, there were few mosquitoes in August and the precautions we had taken were more than sufficient. The camp staff would also prepare a bonfire at night around which campers would sit to eat, drink and relax. Later that evening after our arrival at the camp, we took off for our first game drive a little past 5. At the reserve gate, local Masai women began to flock around the safari vans, trying to sell handicrafts and curios. The handicraft trade is an important source of income for the local communities. The same curios when bought in a retailer’s shop in the town can cost twice or even thrice as much. Naturally, the premium you pay in a shop is the retailer’s margin who buys the handicrafts at nominal prices from the original craftsmen. Hence, we decided to buy it from these women directly, both of us getting a better deal in that way.

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The pretty Masai curio saleswoman
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The little beautiful things

As we drove into the gate, we saw black spots strewn around the yellow brown grassland ahead of us. Moving a little further, the spots began to take shape and we could now make out their movements too. Tails wagging, horns locking, their grizzly goatee beards swaying, this was my first real sight of the much talked about Wilde beast. I’m positive I have seen more documentaries on this species of wild ungulates than any other. The great migration is a subject studied and researched by more wild life experts than any other possibly. As the day was drawing to a close, most of the beasts were resting or feeding callously. It was evident that there was no sign of immediate danger as the animals looked rather carefree. This meant that there were no big cats in the near premises. As we moved further inside, the African wild began to charm us in all its glory. A family of giraffes being led by the male head on our left, a solitary ostrich ducking and hopping in the grass to our right. A wild boar here, a gazelle there and a gang of baboons charging away. Our presence in their natural habitat was almost unnoticed as they went about their business without being bothered. The engine noise would occasionally startle a deer or two but in every other respect, Ambrose made sure that we were a part of the surroundings we were in and the animals were not disturbed. The setting sun cast interesting shadows through clouds on the grassland. One moment we would be under the sun and the next under a cloud’s shadow. The solitary van moving ahead of us against the infinite grassy slopes and the orange blue sky looked like a picture postcard come alive. The wind was in my face and it felt like I had time traveled into another world like an eccentric Dr. Who. From the sweltering humid honking of Delhi streets only a few hours ago to a boundless quiet in the cool wind of the African wild. If only this could be done anyday, anytime.

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A family of giraffes
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A solitary ostrich ducking its head in the ground
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A poser Zebra with Wilde beasts in the background

After about a half hour of off-roading, we stumbled upon a hillock and somewhere on our right, behind a bush, the American journo riding with us spotted the elusive rhinoceros. It seemed like he was trying to conceal himself, looking away, trying to tell us to go away. We waited for it to emerge out of the bush and just then it began to pour. The chances of getting a good shot of the bashful rhino were reduced by half but the idea of soaking in a bit of the African rain was welcomed by all. So we stood motionless with the hood of the van still open, waiting, getting wet and somewhat cold till the rhino emerged and when he did, we were all dumbfounded. To spot a rhino at close quarters in the Savannah is rare on account of the heavy poaching this poor species has suffered over the years. Today, it is an endangered species listed under IUCN red category. Ambrose did not fail to impress upon us that we were with the best guide in all of Mara.

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The very shy Rhino

The rain got heavy and we had to shut the open roof of the caravan. As we turned around to go back the trail we had taken uphill, Ambrose got radioed of something exciting. After driving mad for a few minutes, we arrived at a clearing half the size of a football field. Far in the distance, near some trees, we were directed to look. With the help of our binoculars, we finally began to spot some movement and in no time were we sure of what we were looking at. To be able to see two of the Big African five on the very first day was no joke but to see them like we did, speechless. As they gradually began to emerge out of the bush and come closer to us, we were able to count not one, or two or three but at least six almost full grown young male lions. Boy, just to look at them gave me an unparalleled high. Here, I would like to mention that I have been to at least six different national parks all over India and never actually spotted a big cat in the open wild. I had seen many wild animals before but not a cat and to begin that streak with the African lion was nothing ordinary. The playful lions would go to their fresh kill from time to time to nibble on whatever was left of it. Clearly, one dead Wilde beast was not sufficient to satiate the hunger of six young lions. Soon enough, the sun began to go down and more and more caravans started pulling in. By now, almost all the safari drivers in the park that evening had been radioed in by their mates. One of the lions crossed the vans to go over to the other side of the clearing and took his seat atop a rock right next to us. To say that we were thrilled would be an understatement. A slew of selfies with the young male in the background followed, of course no flash photography was indulged in to avoid startling the animal, thus filling our phones with countless grainy images. As we stayed longer, a pattern began to emerge. Slowly, all the lions began to fix themselves in certain spots, a little away from each other, gazing incessantly in a singular direction. They weren’t in the least bothered by the large crowd of excited tourists but kept staring at a herd of Wilde beasts a little to our right. In our excitement of spotting so many lions on our very first game ride, we had failed to take notice of what was really happening around us. These young guys were going into an ambush to launch an attack on the closest herd of prey. The focus on their faces was something unseen before. I thought they were waiting for it to get dark enough so they could take advantage of their specialized night vision and catch the prey completely off-guard. Of course, staying till after dark is dangerous and against the rules of the park and when the drivers came to know of an approaching patrol van, they all began to disperse. We learned that the drivers are not supposed to off-road from the trail marked by the park administration but they do and therefore, the patrol vans can come in like flying squad from anywhere, anytime. As the night began to take over, we started moving back in the direction of the same gate we had entered through and soon enough we were back in the camp to stretch and rewind.

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A young male lions stretching on the rock

Like I had shared before, the camp in itself was very basic but the collection of so many interesting people around us made up for the lack of any indoor recreation. Our Masai guard cum handyman helped us build a bonfire in the open space outside the kitchen and gradually many campers began to gather around it. Americans, Canadians, Norwegians, Chileans, Sierra Leoneans , Somalians, Japanese, Chinese; journalists, World bank officials, students, teachers, photographers and boring jobs like us. I had never been in the same place with so many nationalities before and what is a better conversation piece in such a gathering than a racist joke that everybody finds funny. As the alcohol warmed our bellies and the fire, our exposed limbs, the laughter got infectious and before we knew there wasn’t one nationality around the bonfire that hadn’t been ambushed so to speak. From Chinese manufacturing to Indian head bobble, from Japanese expressions to Canadian Maple syrup, every known stereotype was indulged in. To be honest, that night I realized that us Indians are by far the most racist lot out there and didn’t quite feel proud of it. Few of our co-riders from the Safari were a team of young journalists covering the ongoing human crisis in South Sudan. A sudden surge in violence had forced them to take refuge in neighboring Kenya for a few days. They decided to make the most of it by going on the world famous safari in Masai Mara. The young Sierra Leonean Mustapha, who was one of them began to talk about his work and as he moved on from one crisis to another, poor Sonam began to well up and by the end of the conversation she was visibly upset. The rest of us decided to pick on our storyteller for making her cry and everybody had a good laugh. The night grew darker and the fire began to go out. We returned to our rooms drunk on aperitif and life stories.

The next morning, we set out as early as 7 following a filling but simple breakfast of Toast with butter, some beans, Mandazi, eggs and Coffee. As we arrived at the gate, once again we were welcomed by the Masai women selling curios. This time we bought a couple of bead necklaces and hand crafted miniature wooden animals. Being back in the park early in the morning gave us ample opportunity to see the landscape change its contours in the constantly increasing daylight. The morning was cold and the wind forced us to duck inside the caravan, rising up only when an animal came along. A whole day safari not only presents  a plethora of opportunities to sight the many animal forms in the grassland but also brings with it some very real challenges like where to pee, what to eat, stretch your legs which are tired from hours of crouching among others. For us men, pissing in a field is as natural as it is for any wild animal, but the female tourists find it difficult given the terrain and the need for cover (modesty). Food is generally packed by your Safari operator and brought along. Caravans gather in a pre-decided spot where the tourists are allowed to come out and devour their packed lunches. We stopped on a hilltop overlooking the Savannah under the scorching noon sun for our picnic lunch after having spotted the third of the big five- the leopard. Technically, we saw two of them. The first was lying in a tree high up on a hillock, far from us and thus barely visible through binoculars. We were told by our guide that leopards evade tourists and are hard to spot. But a little later, we were called out to a bush where another leopard was busy nibbling on its kill without a care for all the caravans surrounding it and excited tourists stealing photographs. The animal seemed rather smallish from where we were and we assumed that it was a young solitary male.

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The smallish leopard

Post lunch, we descended back into the valley below spotting many other animals, Cape buffalo among them, thus taking our Big Five count to 4. As the day drew closer, we advanced towards the river crossing over the Mara where the Wilde beast congregate to cross over. We were unaware of where we were going and as we approached nearer, a strange kind of excitement gripped Ambrose who started talking in an animated Swahili to his radio mates and began speeding away from all the caravans which had lined up along the bank. It appeared to us that he was following something but we weren’t sure what it was. As we got closer, we realized that we had been chasing a large herd on our side of the bank which was preparing to cross any minute now and just as we pulled over next to the last caravan, a stampede of its kind began to brew as Wilde beast one after another began climbing down into shallow river, passing right beside us. It was a mad crowd with a singular objective in mind. There must have been thousands of them as the crossing went over a good 5 minutes while we filmed. I cannot imagine getting caught up in that frenzy. This is a sight many come to Africa to behold- wildlife experts, photographers, film-makers and tourists. Without even expecting it, we had been blessed to see it right where it belongs, not on a TV screen or in a Nat Geo magazine, but in the heart of the East African grassland, the Masai Mara.

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The wilde beast in Great migration on Mara
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A few minutes later, across the Mara

Almost as if the park knew what was missing from the most eventful day we could have, minutes later we were up, close and personal with a pride of full grown lions and lionesses, lazing under the bush, avoiding the 4 o clock sun. With a few great shots in our camera, we bid adieu to the king of the jungle and moved on for a rendezvous with a family of African elephants. As is the case, the female elephants (mothers) lead the clan and young ones follow. The family we met was busy playing with mud and water besides eating foliage. Few of the family almost exclusively posed for our camera before moving own. Having ticked the Big Five off our list besides a host of other animals exclusive to the African grassland, we concluded the longest safari yet, exhausted and content.

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The lazy king of the jungle

The next morning, after a final 2 hour game drive, we set out on the road to Naivasha, our next and final stop in Kenya. Somewhere midway, we bid adieu to Ambrose and hopped onto a different van which would take us further. We thanked our driver and guide with a barely opened bottle of French Aperitif and 2000 shilling, something I would call pretty generous by Indian standards but he expected more I thought. Anyhow, we were back on the road alongside a Spanish couple and another French-Polish couple onward to Naivasha. Once again, we were treated to the beautiful country landscape rising and falling from time to time, yellow green grass with lonesome trees in between.

Arriving in town a little after 4, we checked into Jane’s Guest house just outside the city centre. The swimming pool was clean and empty. We couldn’t resist ourselves and jumped in. After a lot of coaxing, Sonam finally agreed to slide down the little plastic ramp on the edge. Yunush, however, did not yield to any amount of persuasion. After the late afternoon dip, we decided to relax and unwind in the garden but as the sun went down it began to get cold pushing us back into the chalet. Next morning we started for the lake after breakfast, arriving at the shore around 10. Our guide and captain gave us life jackets and a few instructions and we were good to go. The sun was out and the soft warmth of the sun-rays made the cold morning comfortable and enjoyable. We pulled out our binoculars as the guide began pointing in different directions. Lake Naivasha has rich bird life as well as some wildlife along the shores and underneath. We spotted hippos who as expected were almost entirely under water at this time of the day. Their sensitive skin doesn’t take too kindly to the equatorial sun and they spend most of their daylight hours under water emerging only after dark to graze. They can be aggressive and should be avoided at any time. We observed from a safe distance as two of them began to hump. This particularly is a very sensitive time when you wouldn’t want to disturb them so we moved on. Over the next one and half hour we spotted several birds such as pelicans, cormorants, herons, ibises and storks. But the showstopper was the Fish eagle without doubt. When our guide first tossed the fish in his hand into the air, the eagle sitting on the far edge of the tree did not seem to bother. She is nesting, he explained. After two more failed attempts and his repeated mimic calls there was no sign of the eagle emerging out of the trees to fetch the little catch. But as every show must end with a grand finale, the fourth time our captain threw the now very dead fish into the air, a gliding eagle descended from the tree tops to pick up the catch which had barely landed on the water and even before one of us could capture it on film, flew away into the tree tops again. Content with everything we had been able to see and absorb in our 90 minute boat ride, we returned to the shore. Thanking our captain, we started once again, this time for our very last destination- Hell’s Gate.

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The Kenyan landscape
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Pelicans on the shore of lake Naivasha
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A Reed Cormorant bathing in the sun
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The African fish eagle hovering above us
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Fischer’s tower near Elsa gate

Hell’s Gate National park has earned its name from the dramatic rock formations that mark the entrance of the park, the most popular being Fischer’s tower. Geologists till date have not been able to find a satisfying explanation for the appearance of these strange other worldly structures. Being here is like being on the sets of a Hollywood adventure movie shot in some unreal world. The weather was nice on our last day of adventure in Africa. We rented these half broken bikes at the Elsa gate where we were dropped off by our driver. There are no other options available. If you want better bikes, bring your own. Having come unprepared, we were forced to carry our picnic lunch and water supply in plastic bags on the handlebars of our bikes which obviously was as uncomfortable as it could get on that terrain. All along, there is a dirt road that runs through the park for some 8-10 Km before merging with the asphalt road ahead going to the Olkaria geo-thermal power station. As we rode along this path, sometimes off-roading to get a closer look, we saw grazers like the Zebras, hog-warts, deer and baboons. We also saw the shadows moving clouds formed between the cliffs on both our sides. As the sun came up in the equatorial sky, the sweat came out and riding became more difficult. Sonam, in spite of her weak legs, pedaled through it all till the picnic point above the gorge. Here we sat down to eat our packed lunch alongside opportunistic monkeys and baboons, looking sideways as we quickly gobbled down our sandwiches, protecting them from the ever hungry primates. The road further was all uphill and riding up seemed more than what we could take. With the Olkaria spa in mind we decided to give it a try only to realize within the first 10 minutes that we wouldn’t make it. I was heartbroken to say the least. The possibility of soaking my sore body in warm therapeutic waters of the bath was slowly dying in front of me. With much grief, we called off the plan to continue further and decided to return to Elsa gate, the point where we had started. The ride back was that much more tiring and took its toll on us. We dropped off the bikes at the gate and continued walking back to the main road which is almost a kilometre further. On the main road, we hopped onto the famous city matatu and rode back into town.

The last dinner in Kenya was a special prepared by the home-chef at Jane’s. We were exhausted and hungry. Fortunately, we had the whole kitchen to ourselves and the food was pretty good. It tasted homely and that lifted our spirits a little. As every year it was time for Sonam’s birthday cake which I had ordered from a local baker. As I had ordered pretty late, there wasn’t much choice left and I had to settle for blackforest pastries instead of a red velvet which was my first choice. Poor Sonam, after the most tiring birthday ever, seemed happy to have a cake at least. In that moment I felt so proud of her. She had gone through the whole day with the rest of us just to be with me, to not miss a single moment of us.

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Us, cycling alongside grazing Zebras
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An inside view of Devil’s gorge

Next morning, we started back for Nairobi International Airport. Since, we had some extra time, we decided to stop by the famous Masai market on Kijabe street near the Globe flyover. After much haggling, we managed to pick up a few curios- fridge magnets, ornaments, miniature wooden tribesmen and a safari hat. At the international terminal, our African sojourn came to an end with all of us carrying many memories and images of the African wild and the people back home with us. I am positive that anyone who ever took this journey would find himself richer with a very unique experience. An experience which is overwhelming and humbling at the same time. There are many other corners of the African continent which are worth visiting and I’m confident this was just the beginning for us.

So long Africa!

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The perpetually angry Cape Buffalo
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Playful elephants
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Cheetahs feeding on fresh kill
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Sonam’s birthday cake (4 pastries arranged together really)
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Lethargic rhinos basking on the Mara
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Yunush and our Boda Boda riders in Naivasha town

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Photo courtesy: Prince Arora and self

 

München München

Munich is like a Utopian village where everything is in the right measure and size. The city is big and yet not too big to make it impossible to live and work on different ends. It is cosmopolitan and yet not too crowded or degenerate. It’s old but modern and not at all in decay. Whether you are in town for work or play take out enough time to explore the multitude modes of transport this city has to offer. The U-bahn (Underground Tube), suburban trains, trams and buses together weave a seamless connectivity for the daily commuter and tourist alike. Of course, Europe is best explored on foot but cycling around is also a great way to discover this beautiful city.

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The Orange tube station at Marienplatz. Its sharp contrasting colors set it apart from the other stations

Like most European cities, Munich is laid out around a central plaza known as Marienplatz. This is where all the action begins. Shops, stores and cafes abound. The legendary state owned beer hall- Hofbrauhaus is also located nearby, barely a stone’s throw from the plaza. A visit to this hall is essential by all means. It is only here you come to understand the historical context of the beer guzzling culture of this city and how it has evolved (albeit remaining true to its roots) over the centuries. Legend has it that the water supply in Munich was not potable back in the day often leading to disease. As an alternative to unsafe drinking water, the monks of the city began to brew their world famous Bavarian beer which they offered to the gentle folk of the city (even for free). Alas, the days of free beer are long gone and now you need to shell out 8 euros for a beer jug the size of 3 pints at the Haus. But the loud atmosphere of revelry that marks this hall is something to witness and behold. Buy a pretzel if you like dry salty bread or a whole meal and sip away on what the world knows as “Hofbrauhaus Original”.

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The original beer hall. The last standing state owned beer hall in Munich.

On my visit here, I was denied entry to the upper hall with the live performance as entry to this hall is only by reservation. I got up politely and went down to the hall on the ground floor which has no such reservation policy and you can grab any table that is not occupied. Of course finding an empty table during the evening hours is pretty much impossible. After scanning the hall for a bit I found an empty seat opposite another lone visitor who I later discovered was a business traveler like myself. He was British which meant conversation (negligible language barrier). We talked over an hour about politics in the UK, India and the US. The resurgence of the far right and its dangerous consequences for the world stood out as the single biggest concern for the both of us. After he had left, I realized that my British beer mate had finished his pretzel with laudable finesse while I had created a total mess with all the salt I had been chipping off of my pretzel. In my defense the Bavarian pretzel is too salty for the average Indian palate.

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The upper storey with the live music but by reservation only.
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The enormous pretzel I ordered to go with my dark beer. Too salty for the average Indian palate.

Other than Hofbrauhaus, attractions around Marienplatz include the giant Gothic structure we all know as Neues Rathaus or the New City Hall. The imposing structure is possibly the most photographed building in the area with its stunning exteriors that make you look at it more than once in order to appreciate the intricate detailing of the architecture. At the centre of the square stands the Mariensaule with the Virgin Mary at the top. The square leads into the main market street which terminates at the Karlplatz Stachus  which has a beautiful fountain arrangement at the centre.

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The New City Hall or Neues Rathaus in all its Gothic glory at night
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Karlplatz Stachus in late evening
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A Viktualien market that closed early
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The interesting sign board of sorts in the centre of Viktualien market
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The beautiful fountain at Karlplatz at night with McDonald’s in the background

There is a Mac Donald’s right on your left as you exit the street where you can grab a quick bite to make up for all the calories burned walking up the busy street. Along this street, you can find every possible store selling from clothes & jewelry to electronics and souvenirs, chain stores like H&M and a multitude of cafes. Another place worth visiting near the Marienplatz is the farmer’s market also known as Viktualien market. The market as the name suggests is popular for its fresh produce and local specialties made from farm fresh ingredients. When I arrived at the market a little past 7, the vendors were already closing down but it could have been on account of the rainy weather. There is a beer garden here where you can enjoy Bavarian specials over some nice conversation with friends. The city centre is architecturally appealing and offers a plethora of sites for anyone with an eye for beauty.

As you move a little further from Marienplatz towards another plaza, the Odeonsplatz, you find yourself looking at a structure not only aesthetically important but also historically relevant. The first world war was declared to the people of Bavaria from the Feldernhalle at the far southern end of this plaza as many nationalists, a young Hitler among them, cheered on from the crowds below. This and many other events of modern German history including the Beer Hall Putsch unfolded on this very plaza. In the years leading up to the second world war, Hitler converted the Feldernhalle into a sacred Nazi site where several demonstrations took place. When looking at the this structure, you will find on your left, the northern end of the München Residenz. As you enter through the gate, what catches your eye is the beautiful boulevard that runs all along the front of the Residenz which is now on your right. On the left side of the boulevard is a beautifully landscaped Hofgarten with several fountains and a central temple. There are ducks in the fountains which give this place a nearly fairy-tale look. The park is popular with locals who come here for fresh air and the beautiful sights, especially during the spring and summer.

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The imposing Feldernhalle at Odeonsplatz
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King Ludwig’s statue just outside Feldernhalle 
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One of the two majestic lions at the entrance of the Feldernhalle
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My first view of the Munchen Residenz. Of course, this is just the northern flank.
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The Hofgarten outside the Residenz with its many fountains.
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Locals gather under the central temple dome as it begins to drizzle outside

The next day for some heavenly reason unknown to me, our meetings in the second half got cancelled which meant an early start to my sight seeing. Taking the suburban train from Hauptbahnhof, I arrived in Dachau a little past 1 p.m. The weather was tending towards rainy from the very beginning. Stepping out of the station, the town appeared like any other suburb with fewer people, smaller plazas, narrower roads and lesser traffic. At the bus station, I asked for the route number that would take me to the memorial site and one of the conductors very cordially led me to a bus waiting at the station. However, this was the second person there that I had asked for the same. The first time I was ignored as the two conductors to whom my enquiry was directed seemed preoccupied in a very animated conversation and looked offended at my interruption. At this point I would like to add that it appears to me a cultural difference that the Germans have with us Indians. Here in India, it is considered acceptable and even normal for a person to interrupt an ongoing conversation if they are in need of help and do so very politely but in Germany I understand it is considered impolite, even rude to interrupt a conversation even if you are about to miss a bus or a train. The accepted behavior might be to stand next to the gentle folk whose attention you mean to draw and imploringly wait for them to eventually turn to you once they have completed their dialogue to a certain degree of satisfaction and then proceed with your inquiry. This is an observation based on at least two incidents. The other took place at the BMW Hochhaus a couple of days earlier in Munich. Anyhow, I got in the bus and just to be sure checked with a fellow passenger if my weekly pass covering six rings would also be valid for this bus ride to which I was told I would need to get a fresh ticket as beyond the Dachau station began the seventh ring and my ticket did not cover it. I quickly went to the driver who asked me to place the requisite change on the tray next to him and did the needful. Most transactions of this sort are automated all over the developed world and need the pressing of a couple of buttons only and you have your ticket. As I took my seat in the front (so not to miss the stop), I was greeted by unmistakably South Asian face. In a few seconds, he was speaking to me in fluent Urdu which is very close to Hindi and therefore well understood by most Indians, telling me about his home, his family, where he worked and how happy he was to make an acquaintance with a mate from the subcontinent here in Dachau. My kind and friendly bus-mate was a Pakistani and let me tell you that whenever I have met a Pakistani anywhere outside the subcontinent, the warmth I have felt is unmatched, whether it was in a Tokyo pub or on a city bus in suburban Munich.

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The first look of Dachau station as I arrived on the suburban train
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The entrance tower of the Dachau Concentration camp

In about 15 minutes, we arrived at the memorial site and as I got off the bus, I could see many teenagers flocking out of the camp, laughing, chattering and being themselves. Looking at them once again, I thought to myself, the guilt of the war is not theirs, it is not even German. They are as far removed from the crimes of the early 20th century as any of us but to know your history is important, necessary even. At the information desk near the entrance I learnt that there were no more English language tours or audio guides available but all the sites were marked and well described on the information boards. I wouldn’t miss anything if I looked carefully and so I did. As, I entered through the watch gate, a solemn feeling of overbearing heaviness took over my heart and mind. The consciousness of being in a place that had shaped our modern history in such a cruel, inhuman way made my feet heavy as I dragged them on the gravel ground to the administration block where a masterfully curated museum has been set up to educate the uninitiated. There is heaps of information in over 5 or 6 rooms displayed through black and white photographs, enlarged paper clippings, posters and election manifestos along with helpful notes. The museum takes one through the rise of Hitler, his anti-Semitic propaganda and the life at Dachau concentration camp over the years leading up to the war. It tells you who the inmates were, where they came from, what they did while at the camp and how many of them were exterminated or how many survived. If you choose to go through this museum, reading almost everything, you will easily need over an hour. After the museum, I proceeded towards the barracks. There are only two of these standing today, both in one row while all others remain razed down. As a matter of fact, these two barracks have been reconstructed after they were bulldozed at the end of the war. Today they serve as a museum for the curious. As you go along the length of the barracks, you see the beds in which the inmates slept, how they got narrower over the years as the occupancy surpassed the original capacity by over 4 times in the 40s. The toilets, twelve cramped up in a 6×10 ft space, tell you of the humiliating state of their everyday life here. But the barracks are not the uncomfortable part. As you move out of the barracks and walk through the passage in between, the poplars swaying in the wind on both sides, you can see the many different memorials built by the Jewish, the Russian, the Polish among others on the other end of the camp. As you stride away from the memorials, you see the only other exit which goes over a moat into an area surrounded by thick bush. There are watch towers all along the boundary of the camp just outside the moat which ensured nobody escaped from here. As you enter the annexe, you find a little to your left, the large crematorium which was built  somewhat later to deal with the high number of cremations as the death toll in the camp increased over the years. Here you will find the ovens in which the bodies were tossed, at times, more than one at a time which would combust them to ashes within minutes. As you walk further, you step into one of the most dreaded places in modern human history- the gas chambers. At first sight, it looks like a chamber of no particular significance till you notice the gas vents coming out of the ceiling and wall. It is when you absorb the reality of your position, the horror of it all strikes you and you almost want to get out of this place. But curiosity takes you further to the end, where there are massive incinerators which the SS guards used for disposing off the gassed clothing of the poor inmates whose bodies had been tossed in the ovens I described earlier. The whole experience was horrifying as it was and somehow the universe knew I was there  in that moment of time. The overcast sky began to pour down on me and by the time I reached Dachau station my best suit was half drenched. With a heavy heart I got back to my hotel room thinking about what I saw and what I pictured. Dachau was the first and the longest serving concentration camp the Nazis built anywhere in Europe. It was liberated by the Americans and served as barracks for American troops in the post-war years. In the subsequent years it served as refugee camp for ethnic Germans from all over Europe and was finally closed in the 60s. Today, it serves as a hauntingly beautiful memorial site which is a must see for anyone visiting the Bavarian city of Munich.

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The surreal and haunting meorial
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The recreated barracks
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The humiliating toilet
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Poplars on both sides of the passage that divides the barracks into two blocks
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The dreadful gas chambers
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The furnaces where the bodies were incinerated
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The incinerators for the clothing of the gassed inmates

On one of my other wanderings around the city, on a sunny/ drizzly afternoon I walked off Olympiazentrum towards the old Olympic village. As I navigated towards Connollystrasse using Google maps I was thinking about that fateful night when the unassuming Israeli athletes were taken hostage in Building No.31. I was thinking whether the perpetrators had walked the same road as I was walking now. Whether they had approached it from this side or that. As I walked through, I crossed many a student who are the current occupants of these buildings. The village has been absorbed into the university campus and houses students, faculty and their families now. I kept thinking to myself what are the chances one of these people here would know the exact building where the drama unfolded. All of them look the same and are lined one next to another. By just looking at them from the outside, you can hardly tell. I tip toed under all of them wondering, assuming, guessing even but could not muster up the courage to actually ask one of the passers by. A little later it began to drizzle and I was forced to cut short my investigation into the most notorious terror attack in Olympic world history. It seems Olympiazentrum has a liking for trouble.  A few days back there was news of some gunmen opening fire at clueless shoppers in one of the malls in this neighborhood. Terror strikes on civilians seem to be getting much more frequent in Europe lately. Not sure if this is going to lead to another war somewhere. Hope not.

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One of the many replica buildings in the Olympic village where the Israeli hostages were killed

Moving on from an unfortunate incident, let’s talk about my late evening visit to the Nymphenburg palace. I have to admit that of all the European palaces I have seen (and I have seen a few), I was most impressed with the exteriors of this royal building. The water body laid out in front of the palace is a visual treat. It may be simple but it’s expanse and the beautiful birds that inhabit it make it look like something live out of a children’s book. By the time I reached the palace the sun had set but the summer sky was still illuminated. I could easily appreciate the contours of the building, the intricacies of the architecture but what stood out the most were the violet flowers in full bloom all over the gardens. The setting sun gave them an almost Instagram filter appeal. The entry to the palace was unguarded and I could see people strolling in and out of it. To my good surprise, the interior gardens were still accessible. It was very quiet as there were no more tourists around. Just a few locals out for their evening stroll. I walked through the beautiful gardens laid out on both sides of the gravel path, discovering the many sculptures lining this path. Towards the end of the geometrically laid out gardens is a continuation of an endless green space which is almost like an English garden in its landscape. This green space is interspersed with a large water body, something like a pond lined by a walkway. I walked along this path as it got darker and darker, enjoying the quiet when I reached an open space facing the pond and sat down on a bench. Here I sipped on my  beer listening to the birds in the bush while time drifted away. Later, coming out of the palace, I hopped onto a tram that took me back to the city centre. Entry to the Nymphenburg gardens is free and they can be accessed till very late in the evening. I strongly recommend a visit.

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The first view of the Nymphenburg palace from the main road.
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Beautiful birds around the water body are fed by locals. They don’t seem to shy off.
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The cute nymphs that adorn the front facade
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The enchanting flower beds
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One of many life like sculptures in the gardens

Like many things in Munich, I couldn’t visit the National Science and technology museum. I shall regret this until such time I visit the city again. But I must admit that there is so much that the city offers to a backpacker or a budget traveler which doesn’t involve buying tickets but can be enjoyed almost for free. Beer in the supermarket is cheaper than water or soda and can be consumed anywhere on the street. Of course people don’t get drunk and unruly and the same is expected of tourists too. Among all of these free access places my favorite from this visit, hands down, is the Englischer Garten. Spread over 3.7 sq km, it is one of Europe’s largest urban parks. It has several entry points and can be easily accessed by the U-bahn. The park has large green spaces with walking, cycling and horse tracks. A stream of the river Isar called Eisbach flows through the park almost dividing it into two. The current is smooth though and there are several crossing points all along. There is a large lake in the centre with a cafe on its banks. Other than the lake, the park includes many other attractions like the Chinese beer garden, the Monopteros (which on this occasion was under restoration) and my personal favorite, Surfing on the Eisbach. An artificial standing wave is produced by water pumps near the main street at the end of the park where surfers take turns to test their skills. It’s great fun to watch them trying to ride the wave, falling every few seconds, some better than the others. The water is pretty cold and thus wet suits are advised. Amateur surfers might want to stay away as the man made river is shallow and you could hit your head on the concrete below if not careful. During m week long stay in Munich, I visited the English Garden almost every day, breathing in the fresh clean air, watching people run, cycle, walk their pets and almost everyday I would come back with some more pictures. On a hot sunny day, locals like to grab a picnic or a beer and relax by the river which turns into a great dipping spot. The garden is also a popular spot for sunbathing, even nude sunbathing. Yes, you read it right, it is totally legal and absolutely acceptable to sunbathe nude here. So, if you happen to be in Munich next summer, take out some time to stroll the garden but leave your prying goggles at home.

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A beautiful May morning in the Englischer Gartens
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Eisbach, a branch of the Isar flowing through the gardens
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The Monopteros which was closed for restoration
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The caution signboard at the Eisbach a little away from the wave.
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Locals surfing on the Eisbach. The water is really cold and wet suit is a must.
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The responsible citizens of Munich are asked to use these red plastic bags placed every little distance throughout the gardens at a post like this for disposing their pets’ poop. Hence, a poop free English Garden.
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The beautiful lake with the cute little cafe on the other side
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Locals walking their dogs in the morning.

I am optimistic of returning to Munich sometime soon and there’s a lot that needs to be marked off my to do list. Until then, be safe München.

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The swanky BMW fourcylinder
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Entry to the captivating BMW Welt is free for the car enthusiasts
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One of many innovative designs on display at the BMW history museum, this one here tells you the chronology of all major launches and events.

 

That vanilla horizon

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The slide down

As I stood anchored in that spot, I could feel my legs sinking deeper. The snow was almost up to my thighs and as far as my eyes could see, I saw a steep white ascent sparkling under the spring sun. My friends had disappeared beyond that vanilla horizon long before and the only sound in my ears was that of the wind rustling and flapping against my hood. The singular choice was to munch on a fistful of ground till it turned into ice cold water and wade on.

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The hight and mighty

At 12,000 ft. in the Uttarkashi Himalayas, when the March sun shines in all its glory, the snow turns soft, no matter how deep it may be and your feet sink into what (deceivingly) appears as solid ground, sometimes getting entangled in branches of trees which are now several feet under you as opposed to above you where they were only last summer. At 12,000 ft. after over four hours of uphill climbing, when you are severely dehydrated and have no water, you chew on ice and focus on the summit. The summit which is no longer about the panoramic view of the entire Bandarpoonch range, the Tibetan border or the Black Peak, but is mostly about crossing the finish line. At that point in time, it stands for every challenge, every race, every test ever taken and surmount it you must.

So I tightened my fluorescent gaiters once again and began the last lap of the trek. The climb to Kedarkantha climaxes with a narrow and precarious ridge which requires sincere navigation. About 15 minutes later I could see my friends and the guide perched atop a naked rock looking like they were done. I drew in a deep breath and lifted up my head. The 4 o’clock sun was right up in the sky and there were snow capped peaks all around us. Silence.

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The last lap
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Pensive at the top
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One of many peaks seen from the summit

Later that night in the base camp, I thought to myself that a summit feels much smaller once attained and what you eventually remember is how hard the climb was or how thrilling the slide on the way down. We dried our wet bottoms around the bonfire that night and sipped on some really sweet tea as the rice cooked away. A fellow camper rolled up some leaves and travel stories began to flow, under a sky full of myriad stars.

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The cooking/ bonfire
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Leaves

The following day fresh hail, followed by light snow woke us up to a damp and cold morning. Pulling over my windcheater I went into the woods without a sufficient amount of toilet paper, thus paving the way for a whole new experience. Cleaning yourself with fresh snow amidst sky kissing pine trees is unlike anything you will ever experience at home. But to experience it so close to home is a privilege I did not know I have. I think like Kipling said now that I have smelled them once, I would keep coming back to the mountains to die (till I die).

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Good morning campsite!
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Peach flowers in blossom

 

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Spring on the ground

 

 

 

 

 

 
Photo credits: Vikas Lathwal

Rhododendrons everywhere

It all started with a Ruskin Bond essay about Tungnath and its ladder of heaven. Reading through his countless short stories and essays back in school, I would often stumble upon mesmerizing accounts of snowy peaks and quaint hamlets in the mighty Himalayas and form mental images of these remote places. But Tungnath and Deoria Tal were exceptional in the way they captured Bond’s imagination and mine through him. I may have consciously put my yearning for these places aside but the thoughts kept coming back from time to time- pushing me back to the road that snakes along the Ganga, higher and higher.

Most travellers will suggest to do it in one go- Deoria Tal, Tunganth and Chandrashila, in that order but when you have a full time and demanding job like mine, taking out 5 days together can be tough or should I say next to impossible. Hence, I decided to do it, one at a time, taking not more than 3 days off work at once, thus making 2 trips in less than 8 months.

In April of 2015, I set out on my first trip to Deoria Tal. Nestled atop an 8000 ft hill, this lake is surrounded by thick forest on one side and snow covered peaks on the other three. One of these peaks is the imposing Chaukhamba whose reflection can be seen in the waters of the lake during the day.

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The imposing Chaukhamba

This phenomenon is a nature photographer’s delight and one can see several tripods lined along the shore on a good weather day. We started our journey from Delhi on a state roadway bus which brought us to Rishikesh by evening. It was almost dark by the time we got there and were forced to abandon the idea of continuing further uphill. After getting some rest in a small hotel in the city market, we started early next morning for Sari, the village which was to be our last road head before beginning the trek. Unfortunately that morning, there were no jeeps/trekkers plying uphill and we had to turn to the bus. Typically the trekkers move faster and are marginally more comfortable, naturally being the

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The snaking NH58 along Ganga

first preference for less hardy travellers like ourselves. The bus began its uphill climb from Rishikesh, along the winding road we call NH58 with Ganga flowing all along. As we passed one little village after another, the air became cooler and the scenery more breathtaking. I cannot recall the number of times I have travelled along this road but each time is a treat unto itself. Our next stop was Srinagar where we changed buses to continue our onward journey to Rudraprayag and then further towards Ukhimath. On the way to Ukhimath, the bus became smaller and more crowded. As a result, the two of us found ourselves cramped up in a corner with another young couple who were headed for Chopta. They were nearly our age and it was a relief to meet someone nearly as crazy as us. After having changed transport 4 times in 14 hours on the road, we were tired and somewhat irritated (at least my co-passenger was). On the bus, we googled about camping arrangements near Sari so we could camp overnight at the lake and luckily enough we stumbled upon the legendary ‘Mr. Negi’ of Deoria Tal fame. Mr. Heera Sing Negi runs a small guest house for tourists in Sari along with camping equipment rental. He offered us a night of camping on the shore of the little lake and meal for two from a small dhaba which is located just outside the camping grounds for a sum of 1800 INR. Without much thought, we decided to head straight for Sari.

 

Upon our arrival in Sari around 4 pm in the noon, we were greeted by Mr. Negi and his family. He told us how he was the first choice among campers at Deoria Tal and had been in this business for long. The equipment he offered was basic- a tent for two, 2 sleeping bags and 2 mats. The sky was clear and there was little chance of rain which gave us confidence and we decided to camp after all. After some tea and chit chat, Mr. Negi’s son asked us to follow him up the mountain trail which was going to take us to the lake. This trail is cobbled for the most part, thus making it easier to climb in regular sports shoes.

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The cobbled trail

There are mules available on hire for those who are unable to climb themselves. There are several vantage points on the way up where you can stop to catch your breath and feast your eyes on the spectacular views. You will need these pitstops as the climb is steep and a young healthy individual could take upto 2 hr to complete the trek.

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One of the pitstops with Tungnath peak in the backdrop

By the time we reached the top, it was almost dark. So we decided to pitch our tent as quickly as possible. Our guide gave us his torch before leaving which proved to be very helpful as it gets completely dark up there once the sun has set. There were other tents around but the light coming from them was not at all illuminating. Not only had it gotten dark but the cold also started creeping in on us. We pulled out our sweats and jackets and rolled out our sleeping bags. At this point, we decided to open the Red label we had carried with us so carefully. We mixed our drinks in plastic water bottles for the lack of anything like a glass and sipped onto them while time ceased to exist. As we reminisced over childhood memories and complained about overprotective parents, we began to feel hungry and were reminded of the dhaba where a simple but heart-warming meal awaited us. The meal we had that night was simple but nutritious. Dal, roti and sabzi made us contented and we were ready to call it a night. After all it had been a long and tiring journey so far. After dinner, we came back to our tent in the pitch dark using just the light from the torch, got in our sleeping bags and dozed off.

 

What we witnessed the next morning can hardly be described in words. Bring on all possible filters in your DSLRs and iphones but you cannot rival what we beheld in our eyes that morning. Having arrived after dark at our camping site, we had not been able to assess the quantum of beauty that lay around. In a way, I would say it worked for us, the feeling of waking up to such heart-breaking beauty is indescribable. In front of us lay the mighty snowcapped Chaukhamba and several other peaks. On our right were the crystal clear waters of Deoria Tal and right behind us was a dense forest of Oak trees.

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The waters of Deoria Tal

Rhodendrons were in full bloom and could be seen all around. Along with the red, there were several shades of white, pink among others.

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Rhododendrons everywhere

The weather was cold but the scenery warmed us up inside. We took a stroll around the lake and even got up on an observation deck on the other end of the lake. From here, you get a 300 degree panoramic view of the Himalayan range and a multitude of bird sightings.

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The observation deck

Most of these birds were unknown to us but their brilliant hues will remain etched in our minds for a very long time. After an array of selfies and much fresh air in our lungs, we returned to our tent and began to pack up. Before heading back, we stopped for a quick bite at the same dhaba and this time around we were treated to aloo parathas.

 

As we trekked our way down from the lake, I remembered a quote from Kipling – “That is the true smell of the Himalayas, and if once it creeps into the blood of a man, that man will at the last, forgetting all else, return to the hills to die.” I don’t know about death but I had to return in less than 8 months, once again to these hills, this time to romance the highest shrine dedicated to Shiva- Tungnath.

Transit Tokyo

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Waiting for Hikari

Sometimes transit can be the most interesting part of a trip and the likelihood of that happening is more so during a business trip. Typically, business trips are squeezed between long, monotonous meetings and obligatory dinners in standard restaurants. Taking out time for anything remotely recreational is difficult to the extent that I often choose to forego a couple of sleeping hours or skip a meal altogether. During my week long stay in Hamamatsu I was faced with the same time crunch that has plagued so many business trips and I could find no opportunity to absorb any local flavor or culture. January being the peak of winters, days were short and local exploration after 6 pm in Hamamatsu was pointless. Having no company, I did not venture out in search of pubs or cafes which are anyway few and far in between in the sleepy industrial town of Hamamatsu. Before I knew our one week of business in Japan was over and it was time to head back home. We wrapped up our final presentation early on Friday morning to catch the afternoon Hikari back to Tokyo from where we were to fly back home the next morning.

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View from my room
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The hotel room

We arrived in Shinagawa district around 5 in the evening. As we waded through the strong Tokyo wind to the lobby of Hotel Prince which is right across the Shinagawa Metro station  I stumbled upon a white envelope with more than 150 thousand Japanese yen in it. The envelope was addressed to someone and looked like a payment of sorts. With our miniscule understanding of Japanese we had no way of returning it to the rightful owner. So we decided to assign it to the hotel staff that could in turn locate the right owner and return the money packet to him. We can only hope that they actually did return it but knowing whatever little I know of the Japanese people, they must have. The Japanese are typically more honest than us Indians I think. We checked into our rooms and as warned found ourselves in cubicles, literally. My room was on the 14th level in the East wing of the hotel overlooking the station across the main road and boy was it small. The single bed by the wall left just enough room for one person to pass through to the washroom on the other end. The only other elements in the room were one looking glass, a TV and a wardrobe.  If there is a country that has given meaning to the word compact, it has to be Japan. The tariff for this room was about 8000 JPY which is more than what I would pay for a double occupancy room with twice the amenities and certainly much more space back home and this is when hotels are expensive in India too. Anyhow, I changed into denims and a bomber jacket and set out for the night. The idea was to make the most of whatever little time I had left before my early morning flight back to New Delhi. I had taken some tips from Ryo Imai, a Tokyo local whom I met during my working week in Hamamatsu. He was kind enough to give me a printed map of the Tokyo metro network which can be pretty complex for a first timer to understand. He asked me to get on the Yamanote line from Shinagawa and get off at Shibuya.

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Downtown Shibuya

Shibuya is downtown Tokyo where I was headed to a local club called “The womb”. If you are coming to Tokyo looking for nightlife, you will typically be directed to one of the two stations- Shibuya or Roppongi. I picked the former and not the latter because I wasn’t looking for that kind of fun. As I arrived at the Shinagawa metro, I started scanning faces once again. Up ahead in a corner, I found a white face that didn’t look at all touristy. So I walked upto this tall British (I could tell by his accent almost instantly) man and asked him for the Yamanote line. He quickly turned to his wife who was clearly Japanese and with her help I was off to the Green line. On the train I met two desi looking blokes who turned out to be Nepalese as it was. They spoke Hindi and we discussed Bollywood for a bit. I suddenly felt at such ease. In a few minutes, we arrived at Shibuya and I got off the train. In that instant I was so excited to get out on the street that I completely forgot about Hachiko and missed it. This is something I must live with until I visit Tokyo again.

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Outside a random Love Hotel
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Entry to The Womb

As I got out on the street I turned on Google maps and started walking towards “The womb”. A lounge quite popular in the Tokyo International Party circuit , the womb isn’t far from the Shibuya metro and can be reached on foot. On the way, I took a few selfie pitstops outside some Love hotels in the bylanes of Shibuya. Even though I would have loved to check one of these from the inside going in all by myself would have seemed pretty sad. So I took my selfies and moved on. Arriving at the womb I learned about the online website of Tokyo International Party circuit where I could register and get a discount on the cover charges. So I did and got in for a mere 2000 JPY. Now, this is a measly sum to pay for 3 hours of boozing anywhere in the world, especially in India, so I was just bloody damn happy. I put away my things in one of the lockers in the passage and got in. What I thought was a club turned out to be a sports lounge with an international football game running on the big screen. At first, I thought of turning back but then more people started coming in and I just happened to strike conversation with a Polish bloke I had met in the lobby. This guy was a student of International relations learning the Japanese language at Tokyo university, planning to enroll in a masters program later. While talking to this guy I had an epiphany. This guy was living my life. I was supposed to be him. I had an overwhelming feeling of realization and a distinct sense of sadness at the same time. I’m not sure if all of this was not triggered by the Shochu on the rocks I had been pouring down my throat but it was real and it was happening to me at the Womb, in Shibuya, Tokyo. Over the course of the evening, we discussed, politics, races, people, women and culture among ourselves and with some others who cared to join us. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones not interested in the game. Here, I met two Paki blokes, one other guy from India, a couple of American girls (who showed no interest whatsoever) and people from almost everywhere. I do not remember interacting with so many different people from so many different worlds in one place anywhere else in my life. Somewhere around my 4th shochu, we started talking to Lisa. Lisa stood in a corner with another Indian guy and Zach (Polish guy) initiated the conversation. In no time, Lisa was telling us about her Indian origin and her visit to Wadala in Bombay. Once again, I felt at home in a distant foreign place as memories from my Bombay childhood rushed back. Our conversation was interrupted by some music towards the end which wasn’t bad at all really. I think I remember congratulating our German DJ at the end of his gig and before we knew it was time to go. For all the curious travelers out there, Tokyo in spite of being a true world city goes to sleep at half past ten and I mean that literally. The whole city shuts down, even the clubs and other party places and the only store that remains open in this sleepy megalopolis beyond 12 is the Donkey Store.

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Donkey Store
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The groupie

Lisa and Zach took me to the Donkey store where I purchased a pair of touch screen gloves for my sister in a half drunken state following which we came back to the Shibuya metro. On our way back we took a bunch of groupies as we discussed Lisa’s boyfriend in detail. We closed it with some heart to heart advice for little Lisa and decided to call it a night. They put me on the train back to Shinagawa and pushed off themselves. As I rode back on the metro, I reflected upon the events of that night, how within a short span of time, I had made friends with two completely random people and how easily I had been able to connect with them in a strange town far away from home. I realized how only traveling can bring you closer to people you would never know otherwise, people so different and yet so similar.

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Drunken reflection

Sometimes, transit is better than destination because you know that it’s not over yet, that something lies ahead of you. It can be more meaningful than the destination itself because of the experiences it brings you. It is ephemeral, yes, but it is also forever.

Peeping behind the curtain

Moscow isn’t quite like what you think if you grew up reading the same history books they give out at school. It is flooded with lifestyle brands and luxury items to the brim today. You can buy anything as long as you have money in your pocket. It is a lot like Beijing in that sense, only less crowded.

 

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The view
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The hatch

Our late night arrival at Domodedovo airport wasn’t as comfortable as we had expected when the 24X7 mobile store Svaznoy closed on us for a 2 hour service break and we couldn’t buy any local sim. Getting a taxi without my pre-installed taxi hailing apps turned out to be a bit more difficult than we thought. The black Lexus that offered to take us to the city from just outside the airport quoted an unreasonably high fair to begin with and refused to accept it upon our arrival at Kievskaya, cursing us in Russian at 1 am in the morning on a deserted street, demanding more rubles. We were exhausted and annoyed. We gave him the extra 500 rubles and proceeded towards the apartment. But this wasn’t the end of our ordeal for the day. With no one to permit us inside the building where we were booked in an apartment with Airbnb and no phone, we were stranded for another hour till we could figure out some way to buzz ourselves (with some help from the building guard who did not speak or understand a word of English) into the apartment on the 9th floor. Building No.4 on Berezhkovskaya embankment like most other buildings in the neighborhood was old and sturdy. Built in true Soviet fashion it was flat and red. The view from our balcony was spectacular to say the least with the Moskva river flowing along the road and the Stalin skyscrapers piercing through
the Moscow skyline on both sides. I was fascinated with the whole ‘buzz in’ procedure which is still pretty rare in our part of the world but the trash hatch was what really caught my fancy. It is unfortunate we didn’t have more trash to send down that charming little rusty hatch.

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The Red square
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The Kremlin (from within)

Red square was everything I had imagined and more. The August light was at its best. So, in spite of the cloud cover, every angle was a photo-op unto itself. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the multicolored domes which looked like ice-cream scoops to my girlfriend. She wasn’t quite happy with me as I spent most of my time on the phone calling cabs and finding directions. You see, when you propose a particular destination for a holiday to your friends you become the default tour guide and assume a lot of additional responsibilities more so because say something were to go wrong, you would be to blame. The queue to Lenin’s Mausoleum is LONG during the summer. We decided to skip it on Day 1 and focus on the other spots around the square. Entry to Kremlin also involved standing in a long queue, taking turns, but we finally got the tickets in time for the 2:30 pm batch. An app based audio tour is a great way to explore the Kremlin, whether you are alone or in a group. There is so much to see and so much to click at. One building after another. The church yard by far is the most crowded and the most interesting section of the fortress. There
are 4 different churches all around you – white and gold. The armory was the section to which we had bought the tickets but when we actually got there, we realized that our friend who was carrying them had dropped them somewhere. That was at any rate the most unfortunate thing that happened to us in Russia.

Day 2 brought us to Lenin’s Mausoleum again. This time the queue was somewhat shorter and since we were leaving for Petersburg later that night we decided to line up no matter what. As we entered the dark indoors of the building housing Lenin’s body, I could feel a strange sense of gravity stepping forward into the main sanctum. The place was illuminated with a dim red light and I could see him resting behind the glass wall, eyes closed, hands folded, small and oblivious to the changed reality of his motherland outside that dark space.

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Khamovniki from the backyard

Our next stop was the Khamovniki. Hidden in a narrow lane just off the main road is Tolstoy’s Moscow residence where he lived for almost a decade. The house is well-maintained and open to the public as a museum. Nestled between modern high buildings, the little orange house looks out-of-place and time. Tolstoy didn’t write any of his famous works here but the house tells a lot about his personage and how it evolved during his later years when he gave up many a vice- meat, alcohol and women to name a few.

The overnight train from Leningradsky Vokzal took us to St. Petersburg bringing our Moscow sojourn to an end. Trains in Russia are modern and comfortable. Our cabin was private and we had brought back some Russian vodka to help us relax and get a good night’s sleep. We jotted down our expenses and reconciled the accounts to vodka and some local fast food. The night went by quickly and the next morning we were in the Czar’s capital.

Piter as it is called by locals is a European city in all respects. It is covered best on foot and every few minutes one stumbles upon a roadside cafe. Museums abound and the open spaces are filled with locals and tourists alike. Naturally, it is easier to find an English-speaking person on the road here than in Moscow. It is better to approach younger looking people for that. There is so much to see here that our short trip was clearly not enough to capture everything. So we decided to cover the major attractions- Peterhof gardens, St. Isaac’s, Ballet at Alexandrinsky, Solnechnoe beach and the Hermitage.

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Peterhof fountain complex

But before beginning with any of these, we headed straight to a local banya. Degtarniye is basic but sufficient. Using google translate and sign language we paid up for a 1 hour session. Taking off one’s clothes in front of total strangers is one thing and taking them off in front of your friends is another. But being the only one who had ever been inside a public bath in my group I had to take the lead here and show my friends how it is done. They were shy in the beginning but before we left that place, they were already considering the prospect of coming back for a second session. The dry sauna was good and the cold water even better. We took about 4 rounds of sauna to a count of 100 each only to be shushed by fellow banyers the last time. The little cold water pool was a total plus. A piece of advice for the novice traveler in Russia- most banyas will remain closed during the early hours of the day. We arrived at Degtarniye after taxiing to 2 other banyas ourselves which obviously turned us away.

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The hydrofoil jetty at Peterhof

Later that day we headed out to the Peterhof gardens which are the perfect blend of nature and Czarist architecture. The palace building is imposing yet charming with its yellow and white exteriors. The gardens are well kept and you wouldn’t tire of taking selfies
and groupies here. The real attraction is the fountain complex. They run till 6 in the evening and we arrived just in time for the closing ceremony which is orchestrated to opera music. A short yet impressive show I would say. The fountains drain into an artificial channēl which leads out into the gulf of Finland. The little beach here is rocky like most of the St Petersburg coast and lined with pine trees. Right next to the beach is a jetty from where depart the hydrofoils to the Hermitage embankment. Don’t hesitate to bargain downwards from the quoted 700 rubles per head. The hydrofoil is certainly a much quicker and easier way to get back to the city on a clear weather day.

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The chandelier at Alexandrinsky

Back in town we headed straight to the Alexandrinsky on Nevsky prospekt realizing we didn’t have enough time left to go and change into our fancy jackets as had been planned. Luckily for us, they don’t deny entry to sweatpants anymore at the imperial theatre some 185 years after it first opened to the audience. The Swan lake transported us to a whole other world, a world of aesthetic beauty and craftsmanship. The performance was splendid but what really hooked me on was the theatre in itself. As a first timer you will simply marvel at the regal interiors of the building, it’s chandelier, the galleries, the curtains and the Czar’s box. I wished I could just spend some more time in there even after the performance had concluded.

A late night binge at Mac Donald’s is what we closed our day with. Interestingly the burgers there tasted better than the ones we get back home. It was nothing like a Georgian meal (for which I had been harping on since we got there) but it was filling and we were too exhausted to explore new avenues. We called it a night early in order to be ready for an early morning train ride out of Piter to a quaint little town called Solnechnoe.

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Dip in Gulf, beer in hand

Solnechnoe is some 45 minutes on a local train out of St. Petersburg closēr to the border with Finland. It has a neat beach lined with pine trees as is the rest of the coast around here. We arrived a little early for most Russians. There weren’t more than 4 other people there- a couple who were camping on the beach, a young mother with a toddler and an old woman. The morning sky wasn’t totally clear and that’s what we thought kept most locals indoors that day. We had the beach to ourselves. We strolled a bit, sipped on some beer and eventually decided to take a dip. To our utter surprise, the water was hardly saline and not very deep. It was cold for August but certainly worth venturing in. On our way back we bought some organic fruits from a local roadside vendor who was rather camera-shy and turned away when we tried taking a picture.

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Selfie with the Czar’s throne
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The Golden Room
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Da vinci’s

Next on our list was the Hermitage. For any amateur, traversing through the myriad exhibits in this museum is a daunting task to say the least. Merely navigating through the several halls is a challenge as one struggles to locate the exhibits of his interest. The collection is formidable and one has to agree that the Hermitage is second, probably only to the Louvre in the expanse of its collections. Any expert guide will suggest you to buy your tickets online beforehand to avoid the snaking queues at the museum. We did take this advice and bought our tickets online using the Russian version of the Hermitage website which sells the tickets for the actual local price as opposed to the English version which sells them for more than twice of that. This useful piece of information was shared by a very kind Svetakoshka on Tripadvisor. She is a real expert on St. Petersburg and for any one planning a trip to this beautiful city on their own she is a true Godsend. With the vouchers in tow we headed straight to the counter where you exchange them for actual tickets. That taken care of, we headed into the museum walking past the never-ending queue outside the current ticket counter (which we couldn’t even see from where we stood; it must have been far). Half an hour into the museum, we knew that the designated 3 hours which we thought would be sufficient, were only going to get us a casual glance at the more important things and that’s what we did. We scanned through the important rooms and halls, sparing a look for the Da Vincis and the Rembrandts here and there. Even if you are no art patron,  a visit to the Hermitage is a must as it gives you a glance into the life of the Russian royalty. Their throne, their possessions, their extravagances. The Golden room is a hot favorite with the tourists and often becomes a bottleneck for those going through. That it’s a great photo-op is needless to mention. Taking amateur pictures with one’s phone camera is largely acceptable across the museum except in few more delicate halls.

 

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Drawing of bridges on Neva
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Hermitage illuminated at night

By the end of that tour, our legs felt like jelly and I think I heard them crying for rest. We took a cab back to our apartment on Marata street which is a very convenient location for anybody traveling to Piter from Moscow by rail and crashed almost at once. My friend woke the rest of us up around 11 pm to get us ready for the night boat trip on the Neva. Now, this is by far the most romantic thing to do in the city. A small boat takes you on a 1.5 hr ride along the Neva as the many bridges start drawing up for the ships to navigate into the port city. The sight is a pure spectacle. You set off from the Hermitage, slowly cruising along the river as one by one the bridges are drawn up. Everything around you is lit up, the bridges, the buildings along the embankments. The wind is strong and cold and staying out on the deck is difficult. But one can always sit inside and enjoy the views from behind the glass wall listening to soft music.

The next day we woke up rather late which meant we could squeeze only about one attraction in our itinerary before departing for Moscow by the Sapsan (high-speed train). We settled on St. Issac’s. A quick audio tour was very useful as we marveled at the architectural history of the cathedral. Luckily for us, there were no queues here.

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Sapsan in Leningradsky

The afternoon sapsan brought us back to Moscow. Catching the train of course was an adventure in itself. We miscalculated the time it would take to get back to our apartment on Marata Street. The traffic
on Nevsky Prospekt can be a real bitch. Always factor in that. We ran our lungs out to coach number 8 of
the train, had our passports scanned and got in at the very last minute. The ride from Piter to Moscow was comfortable and took a little over 4 hours. The train attained a top speed of 200 km/hr somewhere midway but remained mostly around 150 for the rest of the journey. The food from the bistro was bland and not worth the money but we managed with some dry packaged food from home. I would recommend this ride as a quick, efficient and comfortable way to commute between the cities as opposed to flying or the longer overnight trains which are more expensive too.

We concluded our Russian sojourn with some local shopping in the uptown neighborhood of Chistiye Prudiy and a ride on the Aeroexpress to the airport which is in fact a very convenient way of getting there. Our whirlwind trip as the Scot we met on the Sapsan called it was so much more than I had pictured it to be. We exhausted ourselves drawing in each experience and all that beauty every single day we were there. Both the cities are very unique and different from each other. Piter is truly European while Moscow still has so much Soviet flavor (at least in the buildings and the streets). They are vibrant and alive. They are welcoming and fun. I would advice all lovers of travel to take this trip of a lifetime at least once.

Some useful tips for my reader friends:

  • Getting an invitation for visa is not at all difficult. Use one of the Russian online agencies. We used Palytravel
  • Airbnb is a great way to find accommodation in Russia.
  • Cabs are easy to hail. Just use one of several mobile apps. They are reliable and you
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    A Moscow Metro station

    can pay in cash. We used Gett and Yandex.

  • Travelers from India can take a direct overnight flight operated by Air India. Tickets are real cheap if you book well in advance.
  • Vegetarian is Vegetariansky in Russian.
  • Use the Metro in Moscow & Petersburg. It is not just public transport. The stations are world heritage sites.
  • Book your train tickets through tutu.ru if your card doesn’t work on RZD, the official railway website. They will charge you a small premium (about 10%) but then you really don’t have a choice. Ticket pricing is dynamic and booking in advance beneficial.
  • Russian Ruble is pretty weak right now.  So you get more value for your dollars. Exchange kiosks are present all over the city and offer good rates.

For any further information on my travels, please leave comments below. I will be happy to help you plan yours.

Naked & Happy

Sometimes the most unexpected experiences can add meaning to your life. They don’t come often, they don’t come in a package. They are in your face and naked, prettly much like yourself. Lean, somewhat shaggy, hairy or not. If you miss them, you may never know they are real or even possible. But most importantly, you cannot anticipate them.

I had been in Hamamatsu for 3 days and my workday seemed to leave no daylight for local exploration. The routine evening drinks and ready to eat meals were beginning to get me. So I decided to engage in some activity that did not necessarily require any sunlight and looked up Google again. The good old-fashioned Japanese “Onsen” came to my rescue and came as close as it could. I stumbled upon a little gem hidden away near the Takatsuka station, right next to the Shinkansen tracks, just a stone’s throw from our manufacturing facility. “Gokurakuyu” as it is called is a humble chain of onsens found all over Japan. They have an all Japanese website which thanks to Google Translate told me exactly where I was going after work the next day.

As I arrived at the main entrance, a middle aged man stopped my further advance by pointing at my shoes first and then towards the shoe locker area. It didn’t take me forever to figure out the message and I took off my Oxfords and proceeded towards an open locker. Lockers in japan are pretty neat, technology wise. You are required to put in a coin to lock up. This could be service fees or security deposit depending on where you are at. It could range from 100 yen at an onsen to 300 yen at a night club in Tokyo. The same gentleman (who did not speak a word of English BTW) led me to the next stop which was a ticket vending machine. With sign language and some broken Japanese, I managed to pay for the onsen and a hand towel. Thanks to pre-research, I knew exactly what I was paying for. A hand towel is a must have inside an onsen- you can buy one or rent. I decided to buy and bring it back as a souvenir.

Most onsens in Japan today are artificial and in-doorsy. This one claims to be built around at least one natural spring. As I got closer to the autodoor, it slid open and my very first sight was that of an old naked body wiping himself dry while looking at the TV screen airing an international Football game (Japan was playing of course). As I moved further I found myself in another locker area, this time for my clothes and other personal belongings. Stripping naked in a room full of strangers didn’t seem as discomforting as you would think. After all, no one cares, no one looks. As I pulled down the last piece of clothing, I heard myself saying “hamam mein to sab nangey” (old Urdu adage literally translating to everyone’s naked in the bathhouse. The metaphorical usage can be quite different though.). With a mixed bag of feelings, half knowing what to expect I entered the main bathing area. This place had 3 hot pools, with temperatures ranging between 40 and 45 degrees and one cold pool with a water temperature of around 15. There were men of all ages but older folks outnumbered the rest of us. Isn’t that true for the Japanese society at large? No one spoke to anyone. Each one seemed to focus on his own cleansing. The water was great. I must admit I wasn’t prepared for such hot water. I also tried their dry sauna. It had thetrical seating with big heat radiators at the front that blew REALLY HOT air into your face. There was yet another TV screen inside airing the same football match which I couldn’t get my eyes to look at. I challenged myself to survive this hell of a sauna to a countdown of 100. By the time I came out of there, my fingers were numb and dysfunctional. With claws for hands, I headed straight for the cold pool. The temperature extremes must have done it but I felt really really good. By this time I was practically unaware and unconscious of my nakedness. It seemed completely natural to walk around in my birthday suit, not having a care in the world. My journey from a bashful unattractive teenager to a confident, still unattractive adult seemed to have concluded.

Being naked in public can be a liberating experience. You don’t have to be an exhibitionist to know that. In a media-frenzied Entry to men's onsen, Gokarkuyuworld where each day we are fed with these Greek God like images of men and women, knowing that your body is just as ugly or beautiful as they come can help you in so many ways. Japanese society, traditionally speaking is rather closed and self-involved. I remember getting some old & confused stares inside the onsen- after all I was the only foreigner there. But what stood out for me personally in this experience was the overwhelming feeling of dipping myself in hot spring water under the open January sky in a non-discreet suburban town somewhere in Japan.

I have always believed that travel is my pilgrimage. I was meant to go around. I do not know what future holds for me but I do know where my ruck sack is and that’s all that matters. I hope that someday we can all learn to look beyond the clothing and the embellishments, look at one another in the light of humanness, in the light of nakedness.