Hiking Kinabalu – Climbers, Keepers!

Standing tall at 13,438 ft, Mt. Kota Kinabalu, located in the Borneo Islands of East Malaysia is also the country’s highest mountain. The granite summit of Kota Kinabalu is the backbone of Borneo in the Crocker Range of mountains. It stands inside the Kota Kinabalu national park, Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Sabah state of Malaysian Borneo. The majestic mountain rises above the tropical forests that house rich plant life and wondrous bird life, few of which I was lucky to see, but could not photograph because a bulky camera dangling from your neck is the last thing you want in an arduous trek like this.

A viewpoint en route Kinabalu

I recently scaled the steep inclines of Mt. Kinabalu to reach the summit in the wee hours of the morning to witness what is perhaps the most feisty sunrise I have ever witnessed.

Though a demanding task, perhaps reserved for the physically fit, Kinabalu attracts hundreds of enthusiastic climbers every day. Climbers belonging to varied age groups from elderly Japanese tourists to pre-teen Malaysian school kids make an attempt to climb the steep ascend strewn with boulders. Though not all of them succeed in ascending the peak to watch the spectacular sunrise, the ones that do are rewarded with the awe-inspiring view of the sun rising over Borneo.

Tropical Borneo, home to Orangutans, stinky Rafflesia flowers, variety of Hornbills and other wildlife,  attracts a lot of tourists from all over the world – Western and Asian backpackers, Chinese, Japanese and Malaysian domestic tourists. Among them, a large part of the tourists visiting Borneo have Kinabalu on their list. In effect, you are never far from humanity on the trail, huffing and puffing their way ahead and behind you. Don’t get too competitive for this is no competition and your knee will pay the price. I took a lot of breaks, drank a lot of water (which you must carry) and took in the sights around me while inhaling fresh mountain air.

The trail is canopied by hulking tropical trees most of the way, the first day. Island thrushes croon sweetly while we climb. The views opened up briefly yet the canopy stay with coniferous trees lining the trail. Tourists – youngsters, students, elderly Japanese, populate the narrow bolder strewn trail ambling along. The trail is peppered with rhododendrons in sprightly blooms of pink and yellow, bird calls of Bornean Treepies, Bulbuls and Mountain Barbets and plants like the pitcher plant.

Though it is possible to climb the mountain in a day, it is perhaps best left to the devices of experienced climbers. For novices, like me, there is a break of the climb midway, 6km after the commencement of the trail, at Laban Rata Resthouse. This also helps you acclimatize your body because altitude sickness is common. An 8-year old boy was puking his lungs out while his mother was scrambling for medication and care for him as we arrived. Headaches induced by altitude is quite common too, keep a strip of painkillers. The evening went down as the still white high altitude clouds formed patches on the sky that changed its colors from pink to purple to orange. Kinabalu loomed large, like an erect phallus of a mountain god flashing his endowment in the waning sun.

The second day’s climb starts as early as 1.00 a.m. and takes you through the steep, bare granite rock mountain. It is perhaps better you are in the dark as you climb this part of the mountain because as the sun dawns on you, it also dawns on you that you’ve climbed an extremely steep part of the mountain. An unruly, cold breeze engulfs you as you reach the summit. Soon enough, the sun comes out and swathes everything in the glorious morning light. Selfie sticks are pulled out, flashes go off, smiles broaden despite the tedious climb as sun makes its appearance.

The granite rock climb.

Armed with the knowledge that we have scaled Malaysia’s tallest mountain, we started our descend. By noon, we have reached the base as my knees turned liquid and every inch of my body silently screamed in pain. We also treated ourselves with hot bowls of Tom Yum soup that teared me up and opened up my sinuses.  I slept for 12 hours and whined for another two days about my aching body. Small price to pay, perhaps.

Selfie sticks come out as light comes out.
Selfie sticks come out as light comes out.

Sabah Parks, the Malaysian government body for national parks, has leased out the maintenance of the trail and operations to a private player so you are required to book a tour with an agent to climb Kinabalu. Book a trip in advance before you arrive in Borneo, plenty of options are available online!

Some amount of rope climbing is needed.
Some amount of rope climbing is needed.
A hearty bowl of Tom Yum soup.
A hearty bowl of Tom Yum soup.

Have you climbed Kinabalu? Leave a comment and let me know.


Five questions with Farley.

From visiting a Witch doctor in Bolivia to hiking the Volcanoes of Catalonia, food and travel writer David Farley has travelled far and wide and written really interesting pieces about his trips. His most irreverent achievement, however, remains his quest to find the holy foreskin that went missing in the Italian town of Calcata. He wrote a book about it called An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.

David Farley, Pic: Facebook profile
David Farley, Pic: Facebook profile

Though, even for Farley, it’s probably hard to outdo the wackiness of his holy foreskin investigation chronicles, he is nothing if not witty and engaging in real life. During my stay in Berlin recently, I got to meet him and hang out with over beers in the city’s hipster bars. He sweetly agreed to answer a few questions about why he moved to Berlin and what it is to be a travel writer today. Here they are.

You recently quit your teaching position, sub-leased your apartment in NewYork and moved to Berlin. How often do you challenge yourself like that?

Whenever I’m feeling complacent and stagnant I start to get very restless – not just a restlessness to travel or take a trip but to actually shake up my life and change my environment. I did that when I moved to Prague in the 1990s. I did it when I moved to Rome in the last decade. And now, Berlin. The fact is, though, that I had decided I wanted to move to Berlin in Spring 2014 when I was here on a magazine assignment. After that decision, I hemmed and hawed about it for a while – I think, in a Buddhist sense, I had to work out my attachment to New York and everything associated with it – but eventually I did it.


How did you start your travel writing career?

I was studying for my master’s degree in history in San Francisco and my girlfriend was a writer. I had asked her to proofread one my long (and probably boring) research papers. After, she said, “I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I was surprised how good the writing is.” She encouraged me to start writing and the first things that I felt compelled to write were about unusual incidents and circumstances that we end up in while traveling. Eventualy those stories began getting published in travel publications. By default, I became a travel writer.

My advice to people who want to be a travel writer is to not quit your day job.

How did the irreverent subject in one of your earlier pieces, ‘A sort of Happy Ending‘ in which your brother takes you to a Mexican strip club to make you a man, come about?

Simply this: an editor for a travel publication emailed to say they’d give me a large sum of money to write something and I could write whatever I wanted. The night before I was just telling a friend about that crazy story and so I decided to write about that.

Calcata, Italy - Flickr, Maurizio Bonanni
Calacata, Italy where Farley’s first book is located. Pic: Maurizio Bonanni, Flickr

How has travel changed you on a personal level? How has it affected your writing?

It has left an indelible mark on me and changed me in ways that I cannot fathom or calculate. It’s changed my life in every big and small way. It is hard to say how it has affected my writing because traveling and my writing are so intertwined. They have a symbiotic relationship.

Travel has changed my life in every big and small way.

How did you go about looking for Jesus’s lost foreskin relic for your first book? Give us a little backstory on how your first book shaped up?

I had been living in Rome and went on a day trip to this small medieval hill town called Calcata. There, someone told me that the village church housed, until recently, the Holy Foreskin, the only piece of flesh Christ could have left on earth. You don’t often hear the words “holy” and “foreskin” in succession to each other, so it was quite hard to forget about that. Because of my interest in history, I became fascinated with this relic, which used to be a superstar relic on the pilgrimage circuit: popes granted indulgences to those who came to venerate it. Pilgrims flocked to it. And it went missing in the 1980s under mysterious circumstances. I ended up writing an article about all this for Slate.com that went viral. From that, I got a book deal.

Irreverent Curiosity

Weigh in on the travel writing market of today. How are the opportunities for someone new to break into publications and become a travel writer?

The paying travel writing market has definitely shrunk since I first got into this about 15 years ago. There are far fewer paying publications. My advice to people who want to be a travel writer is to not quit your day job. Or quit your day job and dive into the writing life but don’t cannonball into the genre of travel writing. Instead, write about other things and make “travel” just one of the things you write about.

If you’d like to know a little more about Farley, he has a really cool self-interview published on his homepage, read it here.

Click here to read his award winning piece on Varanasi for Afar magazine.

Looking for Buddha in Bihar, India!

The state of Bihar doesn’t exactly figure high (or figure at all) in anyone’s travel-to list. As the world knows it, the state’s star attractions are pretty much Bodh Gaya and Madhubani. Bodh Gaya is the poster child of Postmodern Buddhism attracting dreadlocked mystics and orthodox buddhists from all over the world in equal measure. Madhubani has more or less transformed into the homogeneous face of rural Indian art outside India.

8. Devotion - a monk prays in Bodh Gaya
A praying monk at the Maha Bodhi temple.
7. Monks at the temple complex in Bodh Gaya
Monks at the Maha Bodhi temple.

Bihar’s roads are populated by persistently honking unruly drivers (much like elsewhere in North India but only in inflated proportions). Calling its traffic nightmarish would be understating it grossly. Patna received its first set of traffic lights just when I was visiting the city (in April 2015).

The state doesn’t exactly inspire confidence among travellers. But I did  manage to scratch just below the surface mildly and it revealed a rich Buddhist heritage amid the chaos of its day to day existence. There has no been no recorded history of Buddhism from the first millennium in India except the journals written by the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang when he was travelling in the Bihar region. His reports have been of immense help for scholars in various fields including archaeology, arts, religion and history in general.

14. It took four years to complete this Buddha statue in Bodh Gaya
The Great Buddha statue took 4 years to complete.
17. A rare painting of an emaciated Buddha
A rare picture of an emaciated Buddha mural in Bodh Gaya.


From mughal era tombs of sufi saints to relics of Buddha to Jain thirthankara Mahavira’s birthplace (Vaishali), Bihar is scattered with monuments of immense archaeological significance. As is the case with anywhere in India, Buddha and Mahavira have been assimilated into the local culture and are referred to as ‘Buddh Bhagvan’  and ‘Mahavir Bhagvan’. It is also not uncommon to see Hindu pilgrims thronging the Buddhist religious sites, praying to the idols, their dutiful hands folded in supplication.

9. Pilgrims from all over the world visit Bodh Gaya
Pilgrims at the Maha Bodhi temple.

One significant mughal monument is the Chhoti Dargah, the tombs of saint Makhdum Shah Daulat who died in 1608. The tomb also consists of the remains of Ibrahim Khan, the ruler of the time, who is buried at the feet of the saint.The sand stone monument, its beautiful Arabic inscriptions and intricately carved trellises are sights worth to behold. On a searing sunny day, the pond by the Dargah simmers, lazy water buffaloes chew on their lunch of dusty grass, cormorants sit with their wings extended drying themselves. It is quite a sight of dreamy rural landscape.

1. Chotti Dargah, the tomb of Makhdum Shah and Ibrahim Khan was constructed in 1613 AD
Chotti Dargah.
2. The trellises in this tower in Chotti Dargah is intricately carved
Chotti Dargah.

In the Buddhist circuit, though I visited Rajgir, Vaishali and Nalanda, the magnificent structure of Kesariya stole my heart. Alone and elegantly imposing, the crumbling ruins of Kesariya stupa built by emperor Ashoka rise above the flat nothingness of Bihar’s East Champaran district. Barring a few Japanese tourists in their chauffeur driven vehicles, not a soul was present at Kesariya when I visited.

6. The stupa of Kesariya might be in crumbles but it is still a magnificent piece of architecture
The magnificent kesariya stupa.
3. Vaishali, an ancient city, is the birth place of Lord Mahavira
Vaishali’s stupa.
4. The ruins of Kohlua, near Vaishali
Vaishali’s ruins.

Bodh Gaya, on the other hand, is thriving with international tourists. Bus loads of pilgrims from neigbouring countries with strong Buddhism influence namely Myanmar, Combodia, Vietnam and Japan jostle with domestic tourists for darshan at the Maha Bodhi temple. Though it felt touristy at the time, in retrospect, while sifting through the pictures I sense a vibrant quality to the place. It must be the devoted reverence of hundreds of these pilgrims that is rendering Bodh Gaya an ethereal quality.

12. The Bodh Gaya temple in twilight
The Maha Bodhi temple – twilight.
10. Bodh Gaya
A meditating monk at the Maha Bodhi temple.
11. A discourse in progress in Bodh Gaya
A discourse in progress.
13. Monks - Bodh Gaya
Monks waiting to enter the Maha Bodhi temple.

Nalanda’s ruins are phenomenal, no doubt. It speaks of a period that fostered rich educational practices in the 6th Century BC when students from countries as far away as China visited and studied. Extensive remains of brick temples, monasteries, sculptures in stone, bronze and stucco, were excavated beginning 1915.

15. Monks visiting Nalanda
Monks in front of Nalanda ruins.
16. Nalanda ruins
Nalanda’s ruins.

Bihar has always been stuck in an unfortunate economic quagmire. The sheer number of global NGOs working in the development sector in its capital city Patna is proof that change is likely to happen, albeit in smaller pockets over a longer period of time. However, there is no denial to the fact that travelling in the state can be rewarding despite all these obvious unavoidable setbacks. May be, these pictures will serve as proof.

5. A woman separates chaff from the grain in rural Bihar
A woman working in her front yard.

Under its rough exterior, Bihar boasts of rich archaeological treasures that stand magical and forlorn, as if in anticipation of a bright new day.

18. Monks in motion
Monks in motion.
19. Sunset in Bodhgaya
Sunset in Bodh Gaya

Have you visited Bihar? What has been your experience? Why not leave a comment and let me know.

PS: I also visited Madhubani during my time in Bihar. That is perhaps for another post.


Climbing the Great Wall of China.

As far as travel lists go, I don’t usually make one (wait, have I told you otherwise elsewhere in the blog? Forgive me, for I must have been inebriated when I said that.) Also, you wouldn’t usually find me in places thronging with people, in stampede-inducing situations. But when I found myself in Beijing, finishing up my Trans Siberian train ride (Oh, I promise never to talk about that trip ever again in these pages), I couldn’t resist a trip to the Great Wall of China.

The great wall of china 1
Comrades ascending the Great Wall of China.

I had just two-days in Beijing and couldn’t do anything productive and offbeat anyway (other than hunting for cheap street food, of course.) So I embarked on a little trip to the Badaling side of the Great Wall one morning with my travel buddy Lars.

The great wall of china 2
The Chinese are a pretty obedient lot and this side of the Wall was neat and clean!

You’d assume, given that the Great Wall of China is a world wonder, it would attract international tourists by busload. On the contrary, the Badaling side of Great Wall – apparently most popular section of the Wall – was buzzing with domestic tourists on that sunny day in September when I visited.

The great wall of china 3
The Badaling side of the Great Wall attracts 180 million visitors each year!
The great wall of china 4
Railings are installed on each side to aide visitors with difficulty in walking.

Located in Yanqing, 60km from downtown Beijing, the Badaling Wall has been open to foreign tourists starting 1953. Only 3741 m of the wall is open to tourists.

The great wall of china 5
Of course, that is a mandatory pose on the wall if you are a boy of that age.
The great wall of china 6
The entire stretch takes a little more than two hours to climb.

According to the signboards, while it was included in the world cultural heritage list by UNESCO in 1987, the wall received two Guinness World Records in 2002. One for record number of visitors and the other for ‘highest reception number of head of state’ (go figure.)

The great wall of china 7
The Badaling side of the wall is called ‘scenic wall’ and for a reason!
The great wall of china 8
Scaling the Great Wall of China.

The Badaling side of the Great Wall is called the scenic side and that is not without a reason. Between being squeezed dry by the thronging mass of people and taking pictures, if you looked around you will see azure blue skies, green peaks and dense tree cover all around the wall.

The great wall of china 9
Shoot me, will you?
The great wall of china 10
It is quite a panoramic sight if you manage to look around.

At a distance, even Beijing could be seen on a clear day (which is kind of, sort of rare for a city like Beijing whose pollution levels surpass even that of Delhi’s. Or vice versa.)

The great wall of china 11
Huffing and puffing, we went.
The great wall of china 12
Clearly, not everybody is enjoying the climb.

‘It is a bridge of friendship between the international friends and the Chinese people,’ reads the signboard, along the lines of standard propaganda-speak.

The great wall of china 14
The watch towers, towering above dense vegetation, are quite a sight.
The great wall of china 13
The urge to take pictures in front of the monument is irresistible for the comrades.

The signboard further announces that this section of the wall was ‘ranked first in the selection activity of China’s Forty Best Tourist Destination in 1991.’

The great wall of china 15
As the day progresses the crowd thins out as climbing is difficult in the harsh sun.

Have you been in Beijing? Have you been to the Great Wall? Leave a comment and let me know.

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.

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.

Terrain of Satpura National Park
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A crocodile bark tree.
A sambhar deer.

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