A somewhat boozy ode to 2015.

Happy New Year 2016
Here’s to new beginnings!

It is the last day of the year and I am sitting at my slightly wobbly dining table a.k.a work table, overlooking my cluttered book shelf typing this. Having just arrived from a drunken lunch at two different pubs and waddling through Bangalore’s traffic for three hours to reach home, I haven’t bothered to disrobe yet. I can hear the pesky crackers going off somewhere.

Outside my house, the omnipresent snake has made another appearance on the street. “It was just lying stretched across the street for an hour,” my neighbor tells me. Is it amusement or fear in her voice? I can’t tell. She is excited nevertheless. She has a story to tell.

Like I have had all this year.

I really have had a productive year telling stories this year. And travelling for it. And enjoying both. And I am ‘touching wood’ right now, for fear of jinxing my luck by ‘knocking on wood’ instead. I’d like to believe that it’s my hard work and perseverance that got me around but I don’t mind attributing a little of that success to luck. But if you had ever told me that I was lucky to do what I was doing, know that I hated you for it (in case I hadn’t made it clear as soon as you said it).

Either ways, I am filled with an immense sense of gratitude. For all the friendships I made (you know who you are, you), for the stamps on the pages of my passport (Switzerland, Sri Lanka, Russia, Mongolia, China, Japan, Poland, and Germany), for all the people in my life (acquired and existing) who are brimming with love and who show that generously from time to time and for generally being acknowledged every once in a while for what I do.

I am reminded of this Oliver Sacks quote right now that beautifully sums up my feelings.

My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

As 2015 quietly slips by, I am going to contemplate on the book that I want to pick from my cluttered bookshelf. A new one perhaps; one that has only been unwrapped as soon as it arrived in the mail, flipped through and tucked away for later reading. Like that last year’s new year resolution. Whilst on the subject, I haven’t made any for myself this year – like every other year.

Also I have plans to eat the walnut studded Lebkuchen I brought from Germany for dinner tonight. May be I will also take a sip of the homemade limoncello I bought at a Christmas market in Stuttgart as well. I will raise a toast for all you lovely people.

May you all have a wonderful 2016. May you find loads of love, peace, happiness, prosperity and whatever it is that you look for in life. May all your dreams come true. May you work hard for it. May a little bit of luck favor you. Be well!

Walking the Christmas markets in Stuttgart, Germany

Europe is experiencing an unseasonably warm winter this year. The El Nino effect is heating up US and Europe and in Stuttgart, where I have arrived after a week in Poland, temperature is hovering around the 14C mark. A quick look at the weather for the week suggests only rains so no snow, typical of Christmas season, is in sight this year.

Which brings me to the next point. Christmas is in season and Europe is wearing its best to usher in the festival.  From the cobble stoned walkways of Krakow to the town center of Stuttgart, streets are decorated in glistening stars and fairy lights like shiny weeping willows falling from the branches of trees. Christmas is here, so to say.

The stars are bright.
The stars are bright.

The season has brought with it hordes of Christmas markets in each city square. These are congregation of stalls selling everything from mulled wine to homemade pizzas, coupled with performances for children and adults alike.

Some of them are themed, like the medieval Christmas market I visited in the suburbs of Stuttgart at the picturesque Esslingen by the river Neckar. On a sunny day, armed with Nishil ,his friends and my camera while braving the chill winds I went people watching, Flammkuchen binging and eating wafflen topped with pickled cherries.

The smell of cheese being grilled and onions being fried in butter wafted through the market while Falafel stalls jostled for space with Bratwurst shops. I saw hippy couples selling incense and matted haired home brewers hawking Limoncello (of which I bought a bottle and hoping to bring back to India without breakage).

Not everybody likes their pictures taken.
Not everybody likes their pictures taken.
Children at the medieval christmas market
Children at the medieval Christmas market.
Hot apple juice, anyone
Hot apple juice, anyone?

People layered up in less than winter clothing (it was only 14C, remember?) ambled along. The Christmas festive spirit was palpable.

The Rathausplatz, where the Christmas market was being held, is adjacent to the Protestant Parish Church Esslingen am Neckar built in 1213. Its beautiful stained glass windows show scenes from the Old and New Testament ranging from Birth and Work of Jesus, The Wise and Foolish Maidens Martyers, Passion of Jesus and Life of Mary.

I did not waste a moment to plunge into an eating frenzy whilst there. Flammkuchen became a favorite. Flammkuchen is German for pizza, sort of. It has a super thin crust, giving a complex for the regular pizza’s thin crust, and its toppings are simple. They are usually onions and olives. Sometimes, there is also bacon bits adding flavor to the dish.

I also found interesting signage like this one. It means; ‘What is cooked with love reaches your heart and not your midriff.’ (PS: I take no credit for the (average) translation as it is only a loose interpretation of what’s written here!)

A quirky quote

Are you merry this holiday season wherever in the world you are? Leave a comment and let me know. A merry Christmas to all of you lovely people.

 

At the Gay Pride Parade, Bangalore!

I spent the better part of my last evening at the Gay Pride Parade in Bangalore (the rest I spent in getting back home in an auto rickshaw swimming through Bangalore’s notorious traffic). The Bangalore Pride Walk was held as part of the annual Bengaluru Pride & Karnataka Queer Habba celebrations.

Some pictures from the parade.

the crowd-partially
The walk.
Under my umbrella
Under my umbrella

Expressing solidarity with the LGBT community of the city, there were painted cheeks, elaborate headgears, flashy scarves, ethnic finery and of course rainbow umbrellas and flags braving Bangalore’s late monsoon drizzle that cloudy evening. Speeches, camera flashlights, thumping drums and folks generally shaking a leg or two complete the picture.

the don was here
The don was there.
the king among the crowd
The king among the crowd
My purple eyes
The girl with purple eyeshadow.
Selfie time!
Selfie time!

 

Homosexuality is illegal in India and social stigma along with harassment of openly queer people are common. Shows of support like the gay pride bring in a sense of inclusivity and instills confidence among the sexual minority group.

Have you ever walked a pride parade? Why not leave a comment and let me know.

Jungles of Madhya Pradesh – Satpura

While most of Madhya Pradesh’s national parks are overrun by family tourists and amateur photographers jostling each other in their safari jeeps for a glimpse of the mighty tiger, Satpura’s relative anonymity can be refreshing. There are neither frenzied queues at the safari counters nor are there olive green jeeps snaking from a kilometer to the entrance of the national park like in Kanva or Bandhavgarh. The pleasant nip in the morning air is, however, heavy with a quiet sense of anticipation.

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Denwa backwaters by the Satpura National Park

Spread across the belly of India, The rugged terrain of Satpura National park is part of a significant part of India’s Central Highlands and was set up in 1981 after combining Satpura, Pachmari and Bori sanctuaries. The park, rich in biodiversity, borrows its name from the Satpura Hill ranges that huddle around its periphery. The dry deciduous forests of Central India’s jungles are home to tiger, leopard, spotted and sambar deers, nilgai, four-horned and chinkara antelopes, gaur (Indian bison), wild boar, wild dogs, sloth bear, fox, porcupine, flying squirrel, mouse deer, and the Indian giant squirrel.

IMG_9445
Terrain of Satpura National Park
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Terrain of Satpura National Park

On a gray morning in late June while monsoon was slowly gaining momentum in the plains of central India, I visited Satpura. I went on safaris that were coloured by the anticipation of spotting the big cat – tiger and leopard. So the sambar deers, nilgai, four-horned and chinkara antelopes, gaur (Indian bison), wild boar and wild dogs stood little chance. I did not see the leopard, only its shadow at a distance. But I was amazed by the birdlife and wildlife at the national park.

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Denwa Backwater Escape. Pic courtesy: Pugdandee Safaris

I saw pied kingfishers hunting for termites near forest streams fringed by golden brown elephant grass. I spotted the Besra, Cresent serpent eagle, Brahmini starling, Great tit, White bellied drongo and white eye buzzard.

IMG_9333
Crescent Serpent Eagle

I enjoyed the raucous, discordant screeches of the Indian rollers preying on large insects. Their blue throat has earned them the name ‘neelkanth’ while their beauty, the acronym ABBR (Another Bloody Beautiful Roller) by the birding community.

IMG_9366
A Brahminy Starling

Perhaps the most beautiful and hard to find bird I spot during the safaris remain the Indian pitta. These migratory birds are so beautiful and somewhat rare to spot that they are the cover birds of most birding guides. Over false alarm calls by anxious Sambar deers, I spotted pittas everywhere – perched on the branches in the forest canopy, foraging for twigs and feasting on insects. “It is the pitta season. They are nesting now,” reassured our guide Raju.

IMG_9307
A nightjar.

All the bone rattling safari rides were compensated by a generous amount of beer guzzling and nibbling on the Burmese Khow Suey at the restaurant of the Denwa Backwater Escape resort, which overlooks the still waters of Denwa’s backwater.

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My cottage overlooking the backwater . Pic: Denwa Backwater Escape

In the end, I did came very close to spotting a leopard. As we waited for the ferry to take us across the backwaters after the final day of the safari, we heard high pitched alarm calls of cheetals. The leopard had successfully run riot in the stag party and has had its prey. Our naturalist confirmed this, adding that this incident happens almost every day.

 

The vision of a lone Mahua tree from my cottage, by the waters being whipped by the monsoon winds, is still fresh in my mind. Brown skinned cows grazing the golden grass, a peahen skittering across, her head bent, presumably looking for insects for her afternoon meal and a wary lapwing noisily calling away at cows to prevent them from accidentally trampling her expertly camouflaged nest. Intrepid swallows braving the wind and trying to fly against it. These are my memories of Satpura and Denwa Backwater Escape.

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A crocodile bark tree.
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A sambhar deer.

PS: I was hosted by Pugdandee Safaris for this trip.

Visa help for Indians for the Trans-Siberian train trip!

Travelling with an Indian passport means you obtain visas beforehand, almost always. Visa is a huge part of your travel plan if you are an Indian. ‘Visa on arrival’ is a privilege Indian passport holders can only dream of in effusive terms. An Indian passport doesn’t inspire confidence with the consulate officials and it can be truly daunting to apply for four different visas for a trip.

Visa with an Indian passport

Which is where I was when I planned my Trans-Siberian train trip. Here’s where, I think, a good visa agent comes in handy. Before I sought out an agent’s services, I read and reread the consulate websites of Russia, Mongolia, China and Japan (Japan is not technically a part of your Trans Siberian trip but I was planning to go there) and came away confused each time. The sheer number of documents (bank statements, hotel and flight bookings, a patronizing covering letter, IT filing proofs, trip schedules..phew) made me believe that I needed help.

Trans-Siberian express
Trans-Siberian express

Help arrived in the form of a good-natured visa agent called Prem, at the STIC Travels, Bangalore office. He assisted me in arranging for all travel documents, writing trip planners and cover letters for each visa and his visa wisdom was of immense help for me. Oh btw, you can use http://www.booking.com to do dummy booking to show hotel bookings while applying for your visa without losing a penny. If you have an extremely good visa agent, he/she will also help you with dummy flight tickets to help plan your visa because the consulates need your ticket proof to consider your visa application.

Here’s a short brief on the visas.

Russia

Unlike countries that have a fixed duration visa, Russia provides visa for the period you request for. My visa was valid starting the day of my trip started and ended two day after it ended. You will need a cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, financial proof (attested bank statement for the past six months) to apply for the visa. You will also need an invitation letter from a Russian tour operator along with your visa application. I got this from Real Russia whose services I used for booking my train tickets. If you want to stay beyond 90 days in Russia, you will need an additional document to prove your HIV test results.

Red square - Moscow
Red square – Moscow
Russia - Urals
Russia – Urals

Mongolia

By far, I can say, the least complicated visa of the lot is the Mongolian visa. Mongolia gives you a 30-day visa. The usual documents – cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, financial proof (attested bank statement for the past six months) are required to apply for the visa.

Mongolia - double humped camels
Mongolia – double humped camels

China

For an Indian, the Chinese visa can be tricky. I have had friends tell me that their visa applications are returned twice over for want of additional documents. Though you will need only the usual documents – cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, trip planner and financial proof for the visa, the ease of you being granted the visa lies in how uncomplicated your trip planner is. In my case, I only visited Beijing and hence I think it was simple. I was granted a 30-day visa. Also, be prepared to go through extra scrutiny at borders if you are an Indian and be asked if you have enough cash / a visa card to survive your time in China. Humiliating yes, but hey aren’t we used to it by now?

China - climbing the great wall
China – climbing the great wall

Japan

The Japanese visa is also mostly fuss free to obtain. After submitting my application, I was called to the consulate because my signature in the cover letter did not match with my passport. Go figure! Otherwise, it took exactly three working days for the Japanese visa to be processed. All usual documents (cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, trip planner and financial proof) apply. Though the Japanese visa is valid for three months, you can only stay for 15 days in the country.

Japan - a garden in Tokyo
Japan – a garden in Tokyo
Japan - Imperial Palace, Tokyo
Japan – Imperial Palace, Tokyo

Why not leave a comment and let me know if you have any visa wisdom from your travels? I would love to know. Do read this wonderfully informative post by Shivya Nath on travelling the world on an Indian passport by clicking here. Also, if you need Prem’s contacts, leave a comment and let me know.

Ps: With this, I end the series my Trans-Siberian trip. I will, however, publish stories on the places I visited during the trip. Follow the blog to read stories on the Russian / Siberian towns, Mongolia, China and Japan.

Inside the Trans-Siberian Express!

Much like journeys on any long distance train, travelling on the Trans-Siberian express also tends to get tedious and mundane. Sure you can talk to the local travellers to get to know their country and culture  better or fellow travelers from Europe and Australia (mostly the former) and swap stories. But the curiosity element soon wears off and the train journey becomes just a mode of transportation to get from one place to the next. Your time, though, will be well spent between engaging with curious trainee train conductors trying to test their English on you and looking for the empty charger outlets to recharge your phone’s dying batteries in the corridor.

Looking outside the window - Mongolia's grasslands.
Looking outside the window – Mongolia’s grasslands.
The train at a station - Russian side
The train at a station – Russian side

However, the vast expanses of Siberian Russia, the steppes of Mongolia and rustic Chinese villages will keep you company outside the train window. Just remember to load up your iPod (or whatever MP3 player it is popular in your part of the world) with your favorite music and pack your Kindle for times when you are bored chatting up and simply want some alone time. Packing a pair of earplugs and eye patches are beneficial too.

The train - Mongolian landscape
The train chugs along the Mongolian landscape
Outside the train window - China's mountain region
Outside the train window – China’s mountain region

Here are some pointers on what to expect on board and life on the train in general.

The train at a station
The train at a station

The conductors (Provodnitsa)

These are the conductors of your train. After checking your tickets before letting you inside the train, they also double up as keepers of the compartment serving you your goody bag as soon as you board. You will also see them sweeping your coupes, cleaning the toilets and helping you with anything related to your travel (if you manage to get across the language barrier that is. It’s not that bad, there is usually an English speaking Russian in your compartment invariably.).  The conductors are usually sweet, elderly babushkas (older women) or bald, ageing men with stained yellow teeth from years of smoking. But sometimes you do find young twenty something calling the shots. They are summer interns, as I understood from Alex a 19 year old who was the conductor in my compartment once, who would persistently want to have a conversation with me although we couldn’t understand a single word of what each other was saying.

The Providinsta's taking a smoke break.
The Provodnitsas taking a smoke break.
A providnsta checking tickets.
A Provodnitsa checking tickets.

The food

You are given a brown paper bag filled with plastic cutleries, bottled water, and coffee / tea sachets on Russian trains. One meal is also provided to you for free oftentimes with your train ticket and you can choose to have it according to your wish (lunch or dinner). Just let the conductor know. Food and alcohol in the restaurant cars are slightly steeply priced but not exorbitant altogether. The number of times I visited the restaurant car, I found it mostly empty with the waiters watching Hollywood movies on their mobile devices.

The brown welcome bag you get in Russian trains.
The brown welcome bag you get in Russian trains.
Your goody bag has this!
Your goody bag has this!
The restaurant car
The restaurant car

Train etiquette:

  • It is considered polite to roll up your blankets, pillow covers and towels and return it to the conductors before your stop arrives.
Mongolian women eating pine nuts in the train
Mongolian women eating pine nuts in the train
Russia - inside the train
Russia – inside the train
  • You are not expected to tip in the restaurant car. In fact, tipping anywhere in Russia is not considered mandatory. You tip if you like the services (usually 10%)
Beijing - Ulan Batar - Moscow
Beijing – Ulan Batar – Moscow
Changing of wheelbase at the China - Mongolia border
Changing of wheelbase at the China – Mongolia border
  • The train compartments are generally populated with locals. Even if they travel with their children, you can see that the Russian children are remarkably well behaved and are not annoying. On the other hand, European backpackers in their twenties (especially when they travel in groups) can be exceptionally loud. Don’t be that gang. Nothing is annoying than your loud laughter piercing above the train’s quite at 10 in the night.
A train replica
A train replica
Train at Ulan Ude
Train at Ulan Ude
  • Smoking is not allowed in the train but you are free to smoke in the platforms as soon as the train stops.
Smoke dried Omul fish for sale on the platforms
Smoke dried Omul fish for sale on the platforms
At the Russia - Siberia border.
At the Russia – Siberia border.

Are you planning to take the Trans-Siberian express? Leave a comment and let me know.

Pictures courtesy: Lars Soholm.

Easy guide to plan your Trans-Siberian trip!

Long train journeys have always lured travelers. There is something exhilarating about gazing at the changing landscapes passing by your train window aided by the conversation and companionship of strangers with whom you are thrown together in a train compartment.  If you are among those that make a bucket list, you’ve already added the trip on the Trans-Siberian express to your list. It probably ranks high up among your other trips.  No less than an epic trip, the Trans-Siberian line chugs along three countries and spans some 6000 miles cutting across the desolate landscape of Siberian Russia, the rolling meadows of Mongolia and wilderness of China before arriving in Beijing.

The train - Russian side
The train – Russian side

Recently, I took the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow all the way to Ulan Ude in Siberian Russia and then transferred on to TransMongolian express heading to Beijing.  Planning the Trans-Siberian trip can be daunting and confusing more so for an Indian because one needs visas for three countries and at least two of them can be tricky to obtain (a separate post on visas coming up soon). In this post, I break everything down for you – the route to tickets to possible stops to budgeting.

A scene outside the train window
A scene outside the train window

Read on and leave a comment to let me know if you find it useful.

Select your route and stops

The TransSiberian express offers numerous interesting destinations along its route. The hardest part always is to decide on where to make a stop and which one to avoid (and to remind yourself that it’s simply not possible to cover everything). Depending on the time you have in hand, decide on the stops. I had three weeks. Typically, travelers start their journey in St. Petersburg (which is where I started my trip). I took pit stops in Moscow, Suzdal, Perm, Omsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Ulan Bataar, terminating the trip in Beijing China. I also flew to Japan taking advantage of the country’s proximity and spent a few days there. I did not stop at the usual suspects Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and Kazan.

St. Basil's cathedral, Red square
St. Basil’s cathedral, Red square

Buy / Reserve your tickets

It is crucial to buy / reserve your tickets in advance. For one, it is a necessary document to be attached with your Russian visa application. I used and liked the services of Real Russia. They offer a letter of invitation (and an itinerary) free of charge after you deposit £50.00 per person as a deposit. The letter of invitation is also a requisite document to be attached with the visa application. Real Russia also keeps tab on the booking window and books your tickets.

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

I used the second class coupe tickets all throughout. If you want to travel cheap (and not mind groggy passengers disrupting your sleep in the middle of the night to board / disembark at respective stations), you can opt for the Platzkart. Frankly, the Platzkart is not so bad if you are used to travelling in sleeper class reserved compartments in India. Do not expect to have friendly conversations, however, with locals. Russians are a closed lot and it takes some nudging for them to open up and very few speak English so even if the conversation happened it would be limited. The coupe, of course, is shared by four persons and offers you relative privacy. Keep in mind that upper berths are priced cheaper than the lower ones.

Plan your budget

I am yet to make the final tally on my expenses but it is my guess that I had spent about 2 lakhs INR (USD 3000, roughly). This is slightly on the higher side because I flew to Japan from Beijing and extended my trip for another 10 days. The train ticket starting from Moscow to Beijing in 2nd class coupe cost me Rs. 46000 (USD 698 roughly). The most expensive part of this trip is going to be your tickets (count your air tickets in and you are looking at spending at least a lakh rupees (USD 1500, roughly) on tickets alone).

If you are not planning on any side trips, the budget for your accommodation and food should not exceed 50 USD per day. You will mostly spend your nights in trains (which means you save on that day’s budget) and you can get a decent Russian meal of Pelmeni (boiled meat pies) or Posikunchiki (small fried pies with meat, mushrooms and potatoes) for 300 Rubles (about 5 USD). Sometimes I got by with cookies and stiff Russian rye bread.

Cathedral of the nativity, Suzdal
Cathedral of the nativity, Suzdal

Book accommodation / side trips

Though it is probably easy to walk around and find a hostel yourself at your destination, I prefer to book my accommodation in advance. That saves me time with which I can explore the town. Essentially, I had booked hotels before I arrived at a place on this trip (it also probably helped that I had a nervous travel partner who wanted everything in place before we started the trip). My side trips included a day hike in the Basegi National Park in the foothills of Ural Mountains, hiking the Great Baikal Trail by the Baikal Lake, the Flaming Cliffs and the sand dunes of Gobi desert in Mongolia. I also visited the Great Wall of China.

By the shores of Bikal
By the shores of Bikal
A Mongolian sunset
A Mongolian sunset

What to pack?

In the second class coupe, it didn’t seem to bother anyone that I wore a pair of boxers. In fact, the Russian men were mostly flaunting their flowing bellies, while the women were with tank tops and three-fourths. The moral? Pack a pair of train clothes for comfortable travel. If you have space, I recommend packing a simple cutlery set with your luggage (a mug, spoon and a little knife perhaps). Though the Russian trains offer you a pack of plastic cutleries every time they serve you your obligatory meal along with the goody bag (more on that later), you tend to not save them.  You will miss a plastic knife during the long duration trains when you need to apply marmalade on your rye bread or a mug for a hot cup of coffee.

Hiking the Ural
Hiking the Ural

Resources

I used the website www.rbth.com extensively for research on Russia. It is a great source of information on travels in Siberia and Russia. For more clarity on booking tickets on the TransSiberian express, do check the www.seat61.com website. I am not hesitant to admit that my travel partner bought the Lonely Planet guidebook after we planned our trip. Turns out, we have had at least 7 of the top 10 destinations covered during our trip, recommended by Lonely Planet. Long live independent research!

Bactrian Camels, Mongolia
Bactrian Camels, Mongolia
The train, Mongolian side
The train, Mongolian side

Did you find it useful? Leave a comment and let me know. Also, if you are planning your TransSiberian trip and need any help, do ask. I’d be glad to help.

Next post: Life aboard the TransSiberian express. Check back in a week.