Thursday, September 27, 2012

Kuala Lumpur - A walk through the Origins

I travelled to Malaysia in May this year to speak at International Travel Bloggers Conference and got to see Kuala Lumpur and world heritage city of Melaka. I took a walking tour around the old parts of KL.



My post on that walk appears on the Travel Wire Asia : Kuala Lumpur Heritage Walk – a walk through the origins of the city

This article was part of a publication for Tourism Malaysia. If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Andhra Adventures V: Medak




A few years back, when I used to visit Hyderabad, I heard someone saying that besides Nagarjun Sagar there are no weekend getaways from Hyderabad and that sentence somehow got stuck in my mind. Last year when I shifted here, I started looking not at the travel guides or websites, but at the map , trying to look at the 100 Km radius around the city and see if there is something that can be explored. I came up with a list, some of which I explored earlier like Warangal Fort and Temples, Pochampally & Cherial. Last week we set out to explore Medak and Pocharam. I forgot who was the guy who made that statement; I want to ask him who says there is a dearth of weekend getaways from Hyderabad.


Medak is about 100 kms from the city in northwest direction. You can approach it via Medchal highway or via Narsapur forest, but I recommend the second as the ride is scenic and you can see the monkey lined roads. In the morning you would see people feeding Bananas to the monkeys. The species of monkeys that you see on this stretch is very small in size, and you realize this when you look at the baby monkeys, which it seems, can fit in your palm. Unfortunately monkeys do not realize how fatal the road can be and you may see some of them killed by the vehicles.


Medak fort is a small fort located on a small hill well within the city. This must have been built during the times of Kaktiyas that means it is at least 800-900 years old. As you climb up the fort, you cross many gateways, none of which are in straight line. One gate has the sculptures of two lions on both it sides but on top of the arch and another had two panels depicting elephants. Among other things I could locate peacock and lotus symbols, confirming that the Hindu rulers must have built this. The panels though seem to have been put up recently as part of restoration. There are two mosques in pure white in the fort today, one at the base where you park the vehicle and another at the top. Both of them were closed when we visited. There is a water tank that must have been a source of water for the fort. There is no information about who ruled from here, who built this fort and other things. There is an ASI protected monument board, but no information board anywhere. What is most interesting about this fort is the views that you see as you climb and then from the top. You can see the town of Medak surrounded by lush green farms and trees with ample water bodies. Houses with slanting red roofs and white walls create a colorful sight against the green. The famous Medak church seems to be sprouting out of the dense trees from a distance, but you can feel its height even from the top of the fort. We spent sometime on top of the fort, where the air was cool despite the sun shining above our heads.


Our next stop was century old Medak Cathedral, that is supposed to be one of the biggest churches in South Asia. Built in Gothic style, it does stand tall and you have to stretch your neck completely to see its top. Light grey stone with an outline in pink, makes it look a little fairy tale structure. Two staircases on both sides lead to the first floor, and it looks like it might have meant for women. Inside the church there is a vaulted ceiling that looks like an attempt to imitate a wooden design. There are three large stained glass paintings, which make the whole place look very pleasant. The tiles on the floor are original that means they have lived for 100+ years and are still going strong. We saw many people being blessed by the young pastor there, but what intrigued me was the mixed faith of visitors. They prostrated like Hindus do, but they were doing this to Christ. Now we know most people who follow Christianity in India followed native faith at some point in time, but what you see in places like is the amalgamation of two and the way of practicing a very personal to each devotee.


As we drove through the small lanes of Medak to reach the fort, cleanliness stood out in the sparkling white houses with brightly colored doors. It is heartening to see a town that is cleanly maintained, and though it is expected everywhere we find cleanliness more as an exception rather than a rule in our country. Kudos to the people and authorities of Medak!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Poland Pails I: Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow



I always thought, salt came from the sea and only sea. It never occurred to me that earth can also have a salt mine hidden in her belly until I saw one such mine in Southern Poland, not too far from the town of Krakow. Since the mine is well below the sea level, you only see a small building when you reach the entrance, but the marvels start to appear after you have descended about 400 wooden steps to reach the first level i.e. the top level of the mine. Various flights of steps take you further down till you are 300+ meters below the ground level and thankfully there is a miner’s elevator to bring you back on the ground. This mine has produced salt since 13th CE till a few years back.


Rocks with high level of salt content are the source of table salt that is indispensable for any cuisine. If you lick the rock, you can taste salt. As you walk in through various wooded corridors, you wonder why so much of wood is stuffed here in a neat pattern, almost making the place look like a storehouse for wood. Guide smiles and explains that this is to ensure that the cave does not cave in, i.e. the wood bears the weight of the rock above the excavated area ensuring the safety of people working in the mine and also ensuring the continued use of mines for a long time. At various places there are sculptures showing various mining activities with replicas of the equipment they used – which is again mostly made of wood. There are turnaround pulleys that were used to push the salt out of the mines upwards and there are water channels that transported salt water from various inside the huge mine, there are channels indicating the trolley tracks.


What makes this mine unique today are the sculptures that have been carved out of salt rocks. All over the mine there are carvings in the walls, statues standing in various chambers, an underground chapel, a ballroom and a huge dining room that serves as the restaurant. Some chambers have statues of the famous visitors to the mine over the years of its existence. One such visitor was Nicholas Copernicus who was a famous scientist and studied at the Krakow University. The sculptures in various shades of grey are enchanting. Most of them depict saints and scenes from their lives. Famous sculptures here include those of St Barbara and Pop John Paul II. There are scenes from the myths and legends around the mine, primarily associated with people who owned or started the mine. Even the chandeliers have been made out of salt crystals, polished to an extent that the light shimmers through them. Floor is made of tiles from the rocks here. Intelligent lighting creates a surreal effect. Our guide told us that most sculptures were created by the miners themselves and there names are engraved on plaques in the ballroom. I loved the creativity used in most mundane of the places that has converted a non-operational mine into a tourist hot spot and a UNESCO world heritage site.


Nature has also played its role in making this an intriguing place. Apart from filling the mine with salt that added taste to the food of million over 800 years, mine has a natural lake a water bodies in it. In fact this is how the mine was discovered, when a small stream of water coming out of this place was found to be salty by some natives. Today, a small audiovisual show tries to blend music with the natural elements of the cave. There are salt deposits here and there that form various natural formations like cauliflower or a scorpion.


Air inside the salt mine is supposed to have a healing effect as the presence of salt ensures a purity in the air and no infections can breed in this air. A section of the mine that is not open to tourist serves as wellness center, where diseases like Asthma and other allergies are treated. People are made to stay in the mine and absorb the air here so that their systems are cleansed of any allergies. As a tourist there are various routes that you can take in the mine, but only with a trained guides who come in miners uniform. Regular tours involve walking around 2 kms or so path, you can take a little more adventurous treasure hunt in the mine, even more adventurous night tour and a miner’s tour where you have to wear miner’s outfits, helmets and go with your own miner’s lamp.

A must see place if you are anywhere around southern Poland. Keep at least half a day for the mine and shopping of various rock salt artifacts including jewellery.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hyderabad Hues XXI: Kakatiya Delights




It has been almost a year since I visited the Kakatiya temple and forts in Warangal. I have been looking at signs of Kakatiyas in Hyderabad and around, but could not find any. So when the ITC Kakatiya’s My City Break offer came along, I decided to explore it. Here are few things that I enjoyed the most other than what you would expect in a well-known premium luxury hotel.


Highlight of the whole experience was my over dinner chat with Chef Aamer Jamal who has a habit of winning Biryani awards in Hyderabad. Now his Biryani is expected to be good, though being a vegetarian I could not taste his signature dish, but it was his Deccani that I enjoyed the most. He spoke affectionately on how he learnt cooking from his mother and aunts and is the first one in his family to enter this profession. His gratitude towards ITC group that groomed him and his will to excel in his field shows both in his creations and his attitude. Thank God for the Urdu I can understand and talk a bit, I could hear him speak in that beautiful language of Deccani, which is Urdu with a Hyderabadi Twist. Thank you Chef for making the meal very special. My personal recommendation here for vegetarians – try Dalcha – it is delicious.


Next I was happy to finally discover Dakshin, their south Indian restaurant where you get authentic Andhra food. They serve food from all the four south Indian states and claim that you get anything from royal cuisine to humble cuisine here. I tried Andhra food and I must say there was no sign of food being tempered to suit any other palette, chutneys were as hot as they can, food was spicy and served in a traditional way. If you know any other place in town that serves authentic Andhra food, do let me know. If you are at Dakshin, do taste everything in Iyer Platter.


I discovered a curious depiction of meeting of Rani Rudrama of Warangal and Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler who traveled through Deccan during her reign in late 13th CE. These are two adjacent areas in the hotel, Rani Rudrama’s court and Irish Bar Marco Polo.  Earlier serves you varieties of tea. There is a Kakatiya style pavilion here, though I found the color a bit of mismatch, if it was made in authentic grey or black stone like Kakatiya fort it would have made the whole ambience look more authentic. Do check out the subtle wall paintings depicting traditional Indian mythological stories. Marco Polo is a typical bar with ample space for you to sit around and relax if you can ignore a small fact that Polo was a Venetian not Irish. Nonetheless, Interesting artifacts to check in this room are a painting of Marco Polo where he looks like a Deccani, a map depicting his travels across the world, a golden replica of his horse and another travel map drawn on the central table. At other places in the property there are other paintings, some in Kalamkari and some in modern style that add to the aura of the place.


I am happy I took the offer. Sometimes it is good to let others take care of you and pamper you, doing that all the time for yourself can be boring.



Friday, September 07, 2012

Slow Down in Slovakia - I : A Big Small Country




A big small country is how the people of Slovakia like to introduce it to the tourists. A land locked country surrounded by other small European countries is one of the youngest nations in the world being born out of the dissolving of Czechoslovakia in 1993, after 70 years of their existence as one country. Our guide described it very entertainingly that it was like a divorce after a marriage of 70 years, and it happened when the wife i.e. Slovakia started demanding something for herself. It was a peaceful divorce and both the partners continue to be friends and work together on many things. It did exist as an independent nation for a small time during the World War II but was under the Nazi Germany. During the better-known history it had been a part of the Celts, Roman Empire, Great Moravian Empire and Austro Hungarian or Habsburg Empire. There is an evidence of continued habitation this area from pre-historic times. Slavic tribe that migrated here in 5th CE gives the country its name. Language Slovak also comes from the same origins.


I travelled from the North of Slovakia where it shares it borders with Poland to the Southwestern tip where it’s capital Bratislava lies. Slovakia has its own place and space in the history and the culture of the region, but to me what stood out was it’s natural beauty. High peaks of Tatra Mountains cover the most of Northern region of Slovakia, and the rest of the country has green hillocks that are home to small villages interspersed with rivers flowing across. Many lakes exist in the Tatra hills and it is a popular destination for skiing during winters when the region would wear a white cover. We could see many Ski pads and people practicing their jumps on them. Spas and hot water baths exist around the mountains. I did not get an opportunity to enjoy them and I am curious about these huge public-bathing spaces.


Economically, it is one of the fastest growing economies in the region, but I think that happens every time a small state is carved out, as it suddenly gets the prime political focus. Its main industries are Automobiles and Electrical Engineering. Most people belong to the Slovak ethnicity followed by Hungarian and their main religion would be Roman Catholic. At 5 million, population of Slovakia compares with that of Indian cities like Chennai and Kolkata or less than half of Delhi’s population. It almost feels like with those kinds of numbers everyone in the country would know everyone else. One of the reasons of the small population is heavy migration of Slovaks to US in 19th Century.


They have a tribal culture that they still maintain and celebrate, may be to boost tourism, but I enjoyed the small Goral ritual that I participated in where they inducted us into the tribe. During my short two days, I took a boat ride in a scenic river, stayed next to a lake in Tatra mountains, ate local Slovak food – yes they did give us vegetarian food, saw a typical village, went inside a cave, stopped to admire a castle on a narrow tall hill, roamed in the streets of Bratislava, took a sneak peak at the wind mills of Austria and walked by the Danube that was pulsating with people in the evening on a full moon night. Could not have asked for more in that short time. I am not sure if there are any travel agents who offer exclusive tours to Slovakia but this can be definitely be a travel idea for an all inclusive holiday to European Quartet of Czech, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. Explore that.


PS: Now I know where the name Tatra comes from, we only hear it in context of Tatra Trucks in India.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Travelling Souls I - Ciro Rendas



I met Ciro about 5 years back  when he CouchSurfed with me in Bangalore and he is still travelling. He had just begun his traveling life and I had just quit formal employment and both of us shared a common profession linked to Business Innovation. Every time I look at his FB profile, he is in a different region. He speaks to us about this wonderful journey called life through his chosen way of living it - Nomadically. 


I know you have been travelling for more than four years now. I am sure this has become a way of life for you. Do you see yourself settling somewhere or you see yourself leading a nomadic life only?

What initially started as a 1 year round-the-world trip has indeed extended to over 5 years of wanderlust, without end in sight. Initially, I would cherish a 'faster' experience, trying to soak it all in during a shorter period of time before continuing onwards to the next destination and the next adventure. Nowadays, I prefer lingering longer in a place which attracts me while indulging in some interesting activity or occupation in that location. And, for the time being, this nomadic lifestyle fascinates me and I would obviously be thrilled to keep it going for as long as I possibly can.
I do foresee the possibility of stopping someday, but only under one circumstance: love. Either because I love the place and its people; Or I love a project I'm undertaking; Or I love someone in particular.

What motivates you to keep travelling?

The everyday 'wow' is why I'm still so hungry for the road. It's so easy to be fascinated by people and situations that you wouldn't normally experience back home.And when everyday there is a new surprise for you, why would you even want to stop anyway?

Do you think travelling is addictive, the more you do, the more you want to do it?

I think one can easily be fascinated by traveling, even if you only take all-inclusive tour packages (which I don't, by the way... the only exception being North Korea). Just getting out there into some place new and different from what you have in one's familiar surroundings is enough to convince you to 'escape', even if just for a quick getaway. But not everyone will want or even be able to do it in a continuous way, as I'm doing it. Most people have the need to return to their familiar surroundings or get back on their career-track after wandering for some months or even a year or more.

Personally speaking, I'm addicted. Luckily for me, it's a healthy addiction. You manage to have a varied diet because of all the different foods and drinks you try; you manage to do a lot of outdoor activities, even if it's just walking around a city; you learn a lot as you go, be it history, geography, religion, cultural differences, languages, etc.; you practice your inter-personal skills, as traveling is a social activity most of the time; and also your intrapersonal skills, as you'll also have a lot of time to yourself and to delve into the things you live and make some actual sense out of them.

What do you find most enchanting about this way of life? 

The people you meet and the friends you make are definitely the most enchanting. And naturally some locations also leave you awestruck, because of their grandiosity, their beauty, or plain 'weirdness'. The fact you have no routine is also quite liberating and the fact you can pursue different passions and not just focus on one single career appeals to me.

Were there some places in the journey that made you want to stay back? Is it possible to share the same?

There were some places that made me consider staying longer. I'm in one of them at the moment. I was in Nicaragua a few years ago and now I'm back again for another, longer, stint. Other countries such as India or Turkey keep drawing me back. And my time in places like Borneo and some islands around Indonesia also seemed quite short. So, even if the circumstances don't allow you to stay as long as you'd like to in a place, it's always possible to go there again in the future.

Do you think you would be able to settle in a place after being on the move for so long? Will the itch to travel let you settle down?

That's a question I've been asking myself quite a lot, and I honestly can't give a definite answer. Only time and experience will tell. As I answered in one of the previous questions, love would be the most powerful motivator to make me settle down somewhere.

What are the challenges of travelling you can do without?

Well, as much as I love learning new languages, it's impossible for me to learn all the languages that would ease my communication with people in different countries and also help me understand all that's happening around me. So, language can definitely be both a tool to understand a culture as well as a barrier to fully grasp it.

Visas and travel restrictions to certain areas can also be frustrating, because of their annoyingly time-consuming and, sometimes, expensive bureaucracy.

But probably the biggest challenge of all is the physical distance between you and the people you care about and also the people who had an impact on you during your life and travels. On the road, it is frequent to meet people, create a strong bond and then go separate ways after some time. Fortunately, it's easy to keep in contact, so the farewells end up being more of a 'see you soon' rather than a 'goodbye'. I've lost count of the number of people I kept meeting and meeting again throughout the years in different places around the globe. The world is small and these meetings constantly prove it to me.

To me the fun of travelling lies in the constant surprises that it throws on you - both welcome and unwelcome, the small little things that you discover that keep you in awe, the discovery of differences in cultures yet the similarity in thoughts and lives of people. What amazed you the most in your travels?

Some things that amazed me the most are 1) that the happiest, most giving and honest people I've met were probably the poorest, materialistically speaking; 2) that people, in essence, are the same everywhere; 3) that everyone, no matter their background, has something to share, and vice versa; 4) that some of the most alluring countries I've been to have the worst media coverage of all and are also the ones no one wants to go to; and also that the most sought-after destinations end up being the least interesting.

I feel to know a place well, you have to live there for at least 6 months or feel few of it's seasons. What is your figure, or do you think you can ever know a place other than yours as well as your own?

I'd say it's hard to know elsewhere as well as you know the place where you grew up/were educated in and also lived a couple of decades of your life. Unless of course you end up staying more than a couple of decades in another place. But with the fast pace of change happening in so many countries, it might be hard to recognize a place and its people after a few years of being away. For example, I've lived in China and I could see change happening at the speed of light, not just in terms of infrastructure but also in terms of mentality. Also, places differ in size. There's a huge difference between living in Brazil or in Iceland. So, shooting out a figure wouldn't make much sense. In the end, it's all about how much you can soak in of a place for as long as you end up being there.

Why would you recommend young people to travel and why would you tell them not to?

'Life begins where your comfort zone ends' was a quote I recently came across with and I believe that leaving that 'comfort zone' is one of the most intense learning experience we can have these days. It tests you by making you face unfamiliar circumstances in unfamiliar spots and, in the process, makes you grow as a person. You'll easily comprehend and learn more about yourself and the world. Though, only after you return to your familiar surroundings will you finally realize all the change that happened within you.
I wouldn't recommend traveling if you don't like to socialize with people face-to-face or if you are strongly attached to your family. For the first, you'd feel too lonely and live a very superficial experience. For the latter, you'd feel too nostalgic and would suffer a lot.

Can you share some interesting anecdotes from your journey?

As a long-term traveler sometimes I feel more like a storyteller than an experience-seeker because of the attention other people give you when you speak.
Some funny episodes include...

I've been invited to partake in a movie while visiting the Kama Sutra temples.

I've spent hours in a military base while the truck I was hitchhiking was being checked for drugs.

I was offered to 'get to know' the daughter of a family who gave me hospitality.

I tried out way too many unusual foods and drinks, such as balut or tarantulas; but the only place in the whole world where I had stomach problems was in Delhi. I've always suffered the effects of the Delhi-belly whenever I went to India's capital (but never in any other part of the country).

I froze when a wide-open mouth, much bigger than the length of my body, headed straight at me.

I learned many new marketing techniques, including dressing girls in sexy outfits for the sole purpose of selling betel nuts.

Got lost in translation more times than I can possibly remember, but communication somehow came across.

I've slept in countless places (from stations, to palaces, to roofs, to parks, no man's land, to chicken buses, to active volcanic craters, to cargo boats, etc.), and I've always slept relatively well.

I've lived to tell these and other stories when everyone said some of the places where they happened were too dangerous to go to.

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