Experiencing that wistful yearning to travel, and that ache for distant places getting stronger in you? Get up and out, explore your world ! NRI Achievers brings you a travelogue style pictography of six destinations, three in India, and three outside, on three different continents. So sit back and soak this cover feature of ours in, before charting those travel plans of yours this season…

A STREETCAR NAMED MELBOURNE

While India faces roiling summers, Melbourne down under is braving a wet, cold spell. Melbourne is one of the few remaining cities in the world where you still can ride a Streetcar (Tram), where local authorities run the City Circle streetcars free for tourists. In fact, the streetcar network here is the largest in the world, followed by St Petersburg, Berlin, Moscow and Vienna.

When compared with the other large cities across the globe, Melbourne is one of the youngest; having been founded as late as in 1835. While you walk about, you’ll spot many period buildings. Melbourne But what stands out is the almost-maverick, contemporary architecture. Glancing around Federation Square, on the one hand you will spot heritage buildings like Flinders Street Station and St Paul’s Cathedral, while on the other, you’ll see zany buildings like SBS Studios and Eureka Tower (tallest building in Australia). In 2011 and again in 2012, Melbourne has been adjudged the most livable city in the world by the Economist Group’s Intelligence Unit. No surprise though, considering the lifestyle and leisure it offers.

If you are fond of the classical arts and other assorted indoor entertainment, Melbourne offers the Victorian Arts Center, Melbourne Recital Center, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Comedy Theater, Athenaeum Theater, Her Majesty’s Theater, the Australian Center for Contemporary Art, and many more. It is also the home of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. For the sports lover, Melbourne will again prove to be delightful as it hosts the Australian Open (one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments), the Melbourne Cup (horse racing) and the Australian Grand Prix (Formula One). Additionally, Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) is always on the cricket calendar, no matter which cricket-playing nation is touring Australia.

I love seafood. The docklands area (the port) boasts some of the most-exquisite seafood fine-dining in that part of the world. In fact, chefs who routinely act as guest judges in the popular reality show “Masterchef Australia”, run many of these restaurants. And the view from these restaurants is one to die for. Melbourne-2For children and adults alike, a day’s excursion to Phillip Island is a must. Though an island, it has now been connected to the mainland by a bridge. Once there, the place offers myriad fun experiences – speed boat ride to seal island, penguin parade on the beach at dusk, learning how to use a boomerang, riding a sturdy stallion or an ostrich, koala and wallaby spotting, etc. And for those who may not have a day, a half day trip to the Melbourne Zoo will suffice to see the local favorites like the kangaroo or the koala. If you are bargain-hunting types, do not miss Queen Victoria market. Fifty percent of the market overflows with fresh produce, with bountiful offerings of fruit, vegetables, meat, chicken, seafood and delicatessen products, each with its own precinct in the market. The other half of the market is dedicated to clothes, home wares, café’s and specialty goods.

The city is gracious to its artists. There are many streets here which allow street art like stencils, paste-ups and murals. Most notable of these streets are Hosier and Rutledge Lane, near Federation Square. While all this makes Melbourne charming, the cherry topping is the river that flows through the city – the Yarra. Calming walks along its banks in well-laid out gardens will be a welcome change for anyone, even in the unhurried pace of Melbourne. This capital city of Victoria is certainly worth a relaxed visit for anyone with wanderlust.

 

VARANASI – OF GHATS, SAREES AND GHARANAS

It was just past sunrise. As our boat was gently being guided through the seemingly placid waters of Ganges, our boatman, a confident youth who had grown up on the ghats of Varanasi, was sharing what he knows about his city. Varanasi, he avers, has been named after its 80 ghats. The first ghat in the sequence is Varun Ghat, and the 80th ghat is Assi (80 in Hindi) Ghat; so Varun and Assi together lead to the name, Varanasi.

It is considered a holy city. In fact, 2 Ghats, Raja Harishchandra and Manikarnika, are cremation Ghats. Legend has it that the soul of anyone whose last rites are performed on one of these 2 Ghats goes straight to heaven.

 

 

Varanasi-2The river Ganges is the soul of Varanasi (also variously referred to as Kashi and Banaras). Besides the now-institutionalized Ganga Arti every evening, another must-do here is a sunrise boat ride. The sights include bathing, washing of clothes, kids doing yoga, wrestlers grappling, colorful buildings bathed in the morning sun, monks, burning pyres, and many more. Like the leaning tower of Pisa, there’s a leaning temple just past Manikarnika Ghat, called Matri-rin temple. This temple was built by a son as a pay-off of all his debts to his mother. When he went and told his mother that here is a full and final settlement of all the debts he owed to her, she came and had a look at the temple. And, the temple partially sank as in response to a mother’s curse for her son’s arrogance.

VaranasiIf you thought Varanasi had only the Ganga to offer, that isn’t so. Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon, lies a mere one-hour’s drive from here. For heritage hunters, the archaeological site offers a lot. It has the Dhamekh Stupa, and myriad ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries. The venue of the first sermon is now a Sri Lankan Temple. Besides this, there are other beautiful structures like the Japanese temple, the Tibetan temple, the Thai temple, etc.

Varanasi is a gourmand’s delight too. Once here, you just can’t give the Poori-Bhaaji breakfast a miss. The sweets are considered the tastiest, and Chaat here is finger-licking good. The Lassi is to die for. And, in season’s time (summers), you’ll find countless varieties of mangoes here.

Varanasi also boasts remarkable handicrafts, especially silk. Banarasi Saris have always been sought after across the Indian communities. And the weavers here have always woven magic in silk.

The city is also noted for the preeminent status it enjoys in Indian Classical Music tradition. The Music Department of the Banaras Hindu University is replete with teachers for whom music has been a way of life for generations. It is the seat of the legendary Banaras Gharana, which has carved its name over centuries in Hindustani Classical Vocal, Tabla and Sarangi.

All in all, a 2~3 day trip to this city will definitely have something to offer for travelers in any age group. It is sure to tickle your curiosity, titillate your senses, and leave you asking for more.

 

AYUTTHAYA – OF RAMAYANA AND BODHISATTVA

While in Bangkok last September, I had decided to visit Ayutthaya, a heritage site of historical and cultural importance. With Pattaya, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Krabi, Phi Phi and several other exotic destinations on offer, Ayutthaya seldom finds a place in the normal itinerary of many tourists visiting Thailand. My enquiries revealed it was around 85 km from Bangkok, a driving time of 90 minutes or less.

 

 

AyuthyaDuring the drive, I did some reading up to realize that Ayutthaya is a brilliant amalgam of Hinduism and Buddhism. King U Thong founded the place in the 1350s. Its complete name is Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. It remained the capital of erstwhile Siam (present-day Thailand) for more than 400 years.

Ayutthaya is named after the Indian city of Ayodhya, the birthplace of Rama. Interestingly, the Ramakien (“Glory of Rama”), Thailand’s national epic, is derived from the Ramayana. The word itself is derived from the Sanskrit word Ramakhyan (Ram + Akhyan) where Akhyan denotes a long story or epic. While the main story is identical to that of the Ramayana, many other aspects such as the clothes, weapons, topography and elements of nature, were transposed into a Thai context, and described as being Thai in style.

By 1700, Ayutthaya had become the largest city in the world, with a total of 1 million inhabitants. Merchants from diverse lands, such as Japan, Portugal, Netherlands, India, Arabia, etc. started arriving here. The merchants from Europe have chronicled Ayutthaya as the finest city they had ever seen. Dutch and French maps of the city show grandeur with gold-laden palaces, large ceremonies, and a huge fleet of trading vessels from all over the world. All this came to a quick end when the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1767 and almost completely burnt the city down to the ground.

Ayuthya-2Here, the Ayutthaya historical park is the ruin of the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam. It is a site of the mass murder, rape and enslavement of the Siamese people. Considering its significance in the region’s history, it has been included in UNESCO’s list of world heritage since 1991. What is likely to fascinate most visitors to Ayutthaya is the omnipresence of Buddha statues in these Hindu God Rama’s temples. Current-day Buddhism’s influence can’t be ignored here. Also, geographically, it is an island surrounded by 3 rivers, an interesting phenomenon. The must-sees include the three pagodas of Wat Phra Si Sanphet which house the remains of King Borommatrailokanat, King Borommarachathirat III and King Ramathibodi II, and the ruins of the old city, or what is left after the Burmese invasion (Burma, now Myanmar). Heritage hunters are bound to enjoy visiting the sites and listening to the stories of Ayutthaya.

During your visit, the intact pagodas and some of the ruins there are likely to take your breath away.

 

BANDHAVGARH – COURTING THE BIG CATS

Having clocked wildlife safaris in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Australia, etc., I wasn’t really keen on doing one in India. I had heard horrific tales of people doing multiple rides having to be content with just seeing pugmarks or poop of big game. So when a friend insisted and assured me that I will not be disappointed, I reluctantly agreed to make the trip to Bandhavgarh. It was end-May – summers being the best season to spot wildlife, as the foliage is all but dried up and animals have a crying need to make frequent trips to the scant water bodies in any national park.

We flew to Jabalpur and were driven from the airport to the National Park, a distance of about 170 km. That evening, we went for our first safari ride. It was hot as the ride starts at 4 pm, with mercury tipping 46 degrees. The ride itself was dusty and stifling. But, we went straight for the bull’s eye. We drove for about 40 minutes and parked near a large pond. Since we didn’t waste time en route, we got the best vantage point near the pond, all thanks to my friend’s experience of having been there and having done that.

Bandhavgarh TigeressThe next 30 minutes were a silent wait, with another safari jeep joining our waiting lounge every few seconds. My rough estimate – we had around 30 jeeps around us in those 30 minutes. Some of these jeeps waited for 5~7 minutes and left, perhaps having exhausted their patience and/or having had enough of the heat. And then suddenly, we heard some calls. The monkeys and the spotted deer were getting excited and frenetic. Our guide and the driver whispered that tiger isn’t very far now. Another 5~7 minutes were spent silently, excitedly and anxiously glancing around, with cameras just clicking away, perhaps to just pass the time and to overcome the nervousness. And then, the calls grew louder and more frequent, and sure enough – there was this tigress, looking around apprehensively and walking gingerly in the dried forest, making her way to the pond. Suddenly, the silence was broken by bursts of camera clicks.

The next 40 odd minutes was a ‘drum alive’ session of camera clicks. Heat and dust suddenly forgotten, everyone around was watching the entire sequence of the tigress slowly lowering herself in to the pond, lolling around for a bit, drinking water and finally lazily getting out of the pond.

The evening was spent savoring and discussing the sighting. Over the next 3 days, we went for 6 rides. We had terrific luck on every ride. One such ride gave us a glimpse of an entire tiger family – a male, a female and 3 cubs. Another ride offered the awesomeness of 2 cubs playing with each other, fighting gently like any two kids would. Yet another ride brought us face to face with a slightly grown up, yet scared cub, who wanted to cross the safari path to get to the water body, but was overwhelmed by the parked jeep waiting to catch a glimpse of this magnificent creature. He tried to resort to scaring this congregation with nervous growls.

 

Bandhavgarh

All in all, it was a great experience getting up close and personal with these magnificent cats. We even spotted a leopard resting contentedly on the safari path. But these sightings needed tremendous prior planning – all done by my friend. Bandhavgarh National Park (BNP) has 3 zones – Tala Zone (Gate-1), Magdhi Zone (Gate-2), Khitauli Zone (Gate-3). The best zone for sightings is Tala, but it needs to be booked months in advance. Also, even in a zone, there are typically 4 routes defined – A, B, C and D. The trick lies in repeating the route ride after ride, as the laws of probability increase your chance of sighting in case your were unlucky enough to have not sighted a big game. Also, the time of the year matters – summers have a higher hit rate of sighting, all because of reasons cited earlier. The more you plan, the higher your rewards will be.

I was a cynic as far as wildlife sanctuaries in India were concerned. That’s not the case any more. I am now a vehement advocate of Bandhavgarh. If you love tigers, Bandhavgarh is the place to go as it has the highest tiger density per hundred kilometers. But, remember to plan at least 6 months in advance, for the best routes and best odds of sightings.

 

LONDON – THE HUB OF THE ‘RAJ’

Before I visited London, my image of the city was largely shaped by Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Shakespeare’s plays, Charles DLondon-BW-2ickens’ novels, some 20th Century Fox movies, and last but not the least, the B&W Films Division documentaries seen during my childhood in movie halls. I always regarded London as a somewhat mysterious city. My mind’s images of London are still in B&W just like the Films Division documentaries I grew up with. The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, famously said, “When it’s three o’clock in New York, it’s still 1938 in London.” I would tend to agree with her. Though the new London has all that most modern cities across the globe have to offer, the spirit of London is still very renaissance.

Upon landing, I found myself in a seemingly 2-seater cab as expected (actually, the bench seat is meant for 3, and there are 2 folding seats, which you don’t see at the first glance). The fare is steep, but the view along the way was fascinating. I was staying in the Lancaster Gate area, so I came across landmarks like Royal Albert Hall and Hyde Park during this drive.

LondonLondon has 4 World Heritage Sites: the Tower of London; Kew Gardens (Botanical Garden); the site comprising the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, and St Margaret’s Church; and the historic settlement of Greenwich, in which the Royal Observatory marks the Prime Meridian, 0° longitude, and GMT. The Tower of London is steeped in history. The area includes the Tower Bridge, and also houses the crown jewels in a walk-in vault. Beefeaters are the official custodians of this place, and you’d do well to take a beefeater tour here – they tell you a lot about the place. Westminster Abbey has only one parallel – and that is the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, which is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians. Like the Basilica, Westminster Abbey is the burial or memorial place of some of the most illustrious Englishmen – from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Lord Byron to Oscar Wilde, and hundreds more.

The London Underground is the oldest underground rail network in the world. While most of London is easily accessible through the Underground (the ‘tube’, or the ‘metro’), you will have to either take a cab or ride the DLR, the Docklands Light Railway, to reach the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Everyone who visits this place is bound to have taken a picture of his feet on either side of the 0° longitude. Besides these, there are scores of other attractions that will interest most age groups. These include the Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Piccadilly Circus, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Madame Tussauds and The Shard. While I saw most of these, I could not visit the Shard, the tallest building in the European Union, as its inauguration happened on 5th July 2012, just a couple of days after I left London. The London Eye literally gives you a bird’s eye view to the cityscape of London. London is home to numerous museums, galleries, libraries, sporting venues and other cultural institutions, including the British Museum, the National Gallery, Tate Modern, the British Library, 40 West End theaters and the most revered of them all – Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

As a city, it is extremely child-friendly, and also, handicapped-friendly. Places like Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden London-BWare popular hangouts. Covent Garden also has a performer’s corner, where you can hope to catch a unicyclist keeping you spell-bound for up to an hour, or a mime artist having you in splits with his performance. You are sure to come across establishments which have been around for centuries – e.g. the Sherlock Holmes Pub, established in 1736. For its size and population, London may easily qualify as the greenest city with its vast expanse of parks and gardens. In fact, it can easily turn many other big cities green with envy!

Simply said, London has it all. To do justice to the place and experience what it has to offer, even a lifetime is short. But any of you visiting London would do well to earmark around a week for a glimpse of the tip – the tip of the iceberg called London.

 

LADAKH – THE ROOF OF THE WORLD

Ladakh-1It was to be my first visit to Ladakh and I was to mentor a ‘Fashion & Nature’ photography workshop there, and it was late June, which is peak summer time in Ladakh. And then, our Ladakh expert gave us a checklist, which included paradoxically oddities like sunglasses and sunscreen lotion, hat and skullcap, Diamox tablets, thermals and earmuffs, oxygen cylinder, et al. Upon checking, I found that one would need stuff like sunglasses, hat, sunscreen lotion, etc., during the daytime since the place is on a high altitude (average approx. 14,500 ft.) and hence would mean higher UV radiation; while evenings would necessitate the other things like thermals, ear-muffs etc., since temperatures drop drastically (its a cold desert, and then, there’s the wind-chill factor). I was still perplexed about Diamox and the oxygen cylinder, and pat came the realization – there is much lesser oxygen in the hills than what we are used to in the plains. So Diamox would thin the blood and help absorb whatever little oxygen is available, and if that wasn’t enough, the oxygen cylinder would come in handy.

Ladakh-3Frankly, I went there thoroughly scared. We landed in Leh, the regional HQ of Ladakh. At the airport, our first tablet of Diamox was administered. Upon reaching our hotel, we were briefed to try and spend as much time as possible in bed for the first 24 hours. Acclimatization to the high-altitude reaches, characteristic of lesser oxygen, you see! From Day 2, we started our whirlwind tour of Ladakh. We visited Sindhu-Darshan – a place to see the river Indus in full glory. We were told that the annual Ladakh festival is held at the same venue. We visited the Shey and Thikse monasteries, both located in stately and scenic splendor. Our first major outing was to Lamayuru. Like most of Ladakh, the route was fascinatingly scenic. En route, we came across Patthar Sahib, a holy place for Sikhs; Magnetic Hill, where despite the road sloping up, the vehicle auto-rolls upwards when left in neutral; and Moonscape, a string of hills with textures resembling the cratered surface of moon. Upon reaching lamayuru, we found ourselves in an ancient monastery, one that was as fascinating as the ones we had visited around Leh.

On Day 4, we headed off to Nubra Valley. This journey took us past the highest motorable pass in the world – the Khardung La. As always, it was covered in snow. At a glorious 18,318 ft., this pass is a marvel of civil engineering. Interestingly, we saw sand dunes on the banks of River Shyok. This place also gave us our first glimpse of a Bactrian camel. This strange creature has 2 humps on its back.

Ladakh-2On day 6, we pushed off to Pangong Tso (Tso = Lake). It took us past Chang La – the third highest motorable pass in the world, situated at a height of 17,560 ft. The first glimpse of the lake literally took our breath away. The water was deep blue, and so was the sky. The mountains surrounding the lake were myriad hues of earth-colors. And, the lake had a sizable population of sea gulls ! Upon checking, we realized that Pangong is a salt-water lake – hence the sea gulls. That night made us pull out all our warm clothes. The temperature was down to a low single digit, and the wind chill factor a crazy high. With very little cover between the elements and us, since the vast expanse of the lake, roughly measuring 140 km x 3.5 km (with 40% of the lake lying in Indian territory and the balance 60% in China) offered nothing to mitigate the fury of the wind. Though we were here for a fashion + nature photography workshop, we couldn’t resist indulging in some astro-photography, shooting star trails across the silky night-sky. And tell you what, none of us had ever seen so many stars in the skies anywhere else before.

Just a small aside to fill you in on the region and its construct – Ladakh comprises 2 districts – Leh and Kargil. It is an autonomous region administered by a Hill Council. While the whole region is picturesque, most popular tourist spots are in Leh. It is called the roof of the world since it the highest plateau in the world. For us, it was a hectic trip. But the delectable menu offered by nature took away all our tiredness. In fact, on Day 8, when we were to leave Leh, we had made a common resolve and covenant – we will be back in Ladakh soon. This was 2 years ago; and for me, the resolve is getting fulfilled tomorrow as I write this little travelogue sitting here in Kargil, heading towards Leh in the morning.

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