Monday, December 30, 2013

Eurotrip (Chapter 2): Czech Republic - Prague

Chapter 2: Praha Sojourn

We woke-up to a bright sunny morning in our dorm in Prague (capital of Czech Republic for the uninitiated). The hostel dorm here was much larger and the breakfast had more options than Cinema Hostel of Krakow. Rohan had joined us from his bungee jumping detour and was already asking us to join him for sky diving. We decided to avoid the topic for time being and went out to see the city.

First  spot - the old town square (Staromestske namesti) of Prague. Like most other European capitals, old town plaza in Prague is the heart of the city and overflowing with tourists. Each building in the square is rich with history, full of colors and a treat for your eyes. The buildings are mostly gothic in architecture with elaborate designs on brightly painted fronts.

The Gothic architecture of Prague
The cobbled streets are overflowing with cafes, excited tourists, and street performers – the best of all European experiences. And no description of Prague town center could be complete without the Astronomical Clock. It is most recommended sightseeing spot of Prague and is bang at the centre of the square. The clock is an intricate piece of machinery with roman numerals and zodiac signs, all overlapping in an indecipherable way (at least to the untrained eye). There are four animated figures (each representing one sin or something similar) around the clock that do a periodic motion every hour when the bell rings.  This results in an amusing drama every hour as tourists rush to capture the clock figures in motion. (The most competitive clickers seemed to be Chinese/Koreans and yeah I am a bit racist)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Eurotrip (Chapter 1): Poland - Krakow and Auschwitz

Some holidays are break from monotony, some are a learning experience, some are just too much fun but only few trips are all this and more. The east Europe trip that we did last year was one such amazing trip.

The three protagonists – Tauseef, Rohan and Me. All three are boring bankers, tired of their daily office routine and looking for a break in the most literal sense.

Prologue – For Tauseef and me, this was not our first brush with Europe and we both had seen a lot of the west European countries. So we decided to go off the beaten track – an East Europe trip, covering Poland, Czech, Hungary and Romania. But Romania visa turned out to be an issue. Considering the hassle of flying to Delhi for interview at Romanian embassy, we dropped Romania from the itinerary. Now suddenly 5 days opened up in our 15 days plan.

After poring over political map of Europe for hours, we were still undecided. We picked Istanbul for two days, the reason was our cheap flight to Europe with a transit at Istanbul. This meant that we just needed to take our Istanbul to Mumbai flight 2 days later and spend two days in Istanbul. Also, Turkey provided Visa on Arrival for Schengen visa holders. But 3 days were yet unaccounted for.

Then Tauseef's boss, troubled by his googling in office for “European best places to visit”,  decided to assist. His suggestion - Croatia. We googled and were impressed in minutes. Dubrovnik, Zagreb, Hvar, Split and Plitvic – all perfect places to go. Also, while he was talking to his boss, a colleague (Rohan) of his overheard and came asking to join. He checked with me and I thought – the more, the merrier.

Flight – Turkish Airlines (Go - Mumbai to Vienna via Istanbul; Return – Zagreb to Mumbai via Istanbul)
Plan – 2 days in Krakow, 3 days in Prague, 3 Days in Budapest, 3 days in Zagreb/Dubrovnik and 2 days in Istanbul

Visa – Initiated through VFS. We had selected Austrian Embassy for our Schengen considering it was our port of entry but turned out that visa application has to be processed through the country with longest stay – Czech Republic in our case. We had to show a longer stay in Vienna (thanks to Hostel Booker, we booked cheap stay for the same) to get the process done through Austrian Embassy. This was important as Austrian Embassy is in Mumbai. Though later we realized, we were not even required to visit the Embassy for the 15 days tourist visa. The visa came in ten days and we were all set to go.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Jordan - Amman, Petra, Dead Sea and..... Snow !!!

As the end of the year approached, it was time for our annual leisure trip - the only criteria being that the location needs to be an offbeat one.

A number of options were discussed and we zeroed in on Jordan. The reasons being
1. Fulfilling the criteria mentioned above
2. My wish (and my friend Tauseef's) of visiting Petra and Dead Sea
3. Very importantly, availability of Visa-on-arrival

Both of us were to reach on Monday evening and leave by the Saturday evening flight - so in all we had about 5 full days - or so we thought.

The first advice to everyone for obtaining visa on arrival. There are not too many requirements - just have your flight tickets and hotel bookings in place and carry USD 1000 in cash (you may get a visa with lesser cash as we did, but it becomes a hassle)

After completing the visa formalities, we took the airport shuttle which drops you to the city bus station (for 3 JD a person) and took a taxi from there to our hostel situated in the busy Downtown area of the city.

We reached around 6 pm and after checking in, we decided to explore the nearby areas with Rida, out hostel caretaker.

We visited the Rainbow street, the most happening street with its great cafes and shisha joints. Since it was a Monday night, the crowd was sparse and we were told that Thursday and Friday nights are more happening. So, we left to come back another day.

There were three distinct phases that we can divide our trip into:

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Amazing Amsterdam

Amsterdam is known for things - a beautiful canal city (for the travelers), the city of Ajax Amsterdam (for the football lovers) and the place where hash and prostitution are legal (for most others).

So, when I was going to Amsterdam, I did not know which Amsterdam to expect. 

I was taking the train from Zurich after a full week of work and as with many of my travels, I had only one day to spend in the city. 

The train journey was interesting in itself with an African american singer and his friend for company in my cabin  and an great chatting session I had with 6-7 people from different nationalities sitting on the floor of the cycle compartment in the train.

I got down at the railway station and went to the tourist counter and asked what could be done for a day. He started by saying - "Go out, take a left, there the red light district". Looking at the reluctance on my face he suggested other places like Dam square, the Tussad's museum and because of my admission as a football fan, a tour to the Ajax stadium. 

I decided to go to the Dam square and take it from there. I took a public transport 24 hour pass, that gave me access to all buses and trams and that is the thing I like about European cities, the ease of use of public transport.
The Dam square - the tourist hotspot

Thursday, December 5, 2013

One day in Hong Kong

Hong Kong is one of the biggest hubs in Asia - not only as a financial center, but also as an airport. It has been a transit point for me for some of my travels.

I had always wanted to visit the place when one of my good friends Aashu would be in town. But as luck would have it, it was not possible during my first couple of sojourns with the city - he either was not in town or absolutely busy.

However, during one of my return journeys, I managed to find some time to spend in the city, with Aashu for company. The time available to me, though, was very limited.

I was reaching HK around midnight and I had a flight to catch the next day at 6.30 pm.

After completing all the formalities at the HK airport (one of the smoothest immigrations), I rushed to Aashu's place which was very near Hong Kong station, the last stop of the airport metro.

He was there to receive me and we walked to his home. After chatting for some minutes, I asked him what the plan would be given that I had such little time to spend.

He immediately shot back asking, "Trek pe chalte hai (lets go on a trek)". I asked, "Seriously? Now?". It was then that I  realized that he was serious. I thought, why not and we left immediately.

We were going to the peak via Hatton road, which is also known as the morning trail (or alteast thats what I think it is called).

We began by starting to walk up the streets of Hong Kong. Hong Kong, though situated next to the sea is basically built on hillocks. Hence, the walk up the streets was a steep one and in about 30 minutes or so, we reached the start of the trail.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Zurich diaries

I have been lucky that my official travels have taken me around the world. I use such opportunities to spend a couple of extra days at any place going around the city.

One such travel took me to Zurich where I had the weekend to spend.

The first thing I noticed after getting down at the Zurich train station was the shockingly few number of people on the roads - something very different for someone like me coming from India.

There was a chill in the air, something that I had not expected in May. I walked to my hostel, which was less than 500 m from the station.

While having breakfast in the hostel, I asked for some ideas from my fellow hostelers for a day trip around Zurich. After discussing a lot of options like Mt. Titlis, Mt. Rigi and the blackforest, I zeroed in on visiting the Rhine falls - the largest waterfall in Europe - mostly because I like waterfalls and  also because I wanted a short trip.
The Swiss countryside - not the best of cameras though
The best way to get to the falls from Zurich is to take a train from Zurich HB (Hauptbahnhof). Switzerland lives upto its reputation of being one of the most beautiful countries during this journey. Once the train leaves the city limits, you can see 'DDLJ'esque Swiss countryside. One can be lost forever just appreciating the sheer beauty.

An hour later, the countryside is replaced by the sound of the Rhine and you know that the destination is close.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Sri Lanka trip - Old friends reconnecting

Now that I am in a mood to write, I think I should use this new-found enthusiasm to write as much as I can.

I was planning a holiday with my friends Puneet and Paras for a long time and we zeroed in on Sri Lanka as the destination. September was the month - not the tourist season, but we decided to go ahead to have a more relaxing trip.

The only things on our wishlist were beaches and Adam's peak - as there was no cricket in the country during out visit.

After some rescheduling to our flight schedules - courtesy the busy consultant Paras, me and Puneet left for Colombo, with Paras expected to join us a day later.

We took the Sri Lankan Airways flight from Mumbai to Colombo.

We had done some basic research on the train network in the country and zeroed in on the railways as our primary mode of transport (which was enough for the places we wanted to cover).

We got down at the airport at around 5.30 am and made our way towards Colombo Fort railway station. Taxis as well as public transport is available for the same but we preferred a taxi which cost us close to 3500-4000 LKR.

The railway network in Sri Lanka is reminiscent of what one would imagine the Indian railway network would have been in the 70s or 80s, though with a lot less crowd. Though, according to me, it still is the most efficient and cost-effective way of traveling in the country.

Colombo Railway station with its old trains
Still using old bulbs to light up the compartments

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The first post - Bangkok

I was having a chat with my friend, Tauseef and we were recounting some old memories. Most of them were related to trips we had taken together.

I always wanted to get back to blogging and what better to do it about than the experiences of my travels. Over the past couple of years, I feel that I have traveled more than a decent amount - both in India and internationally. So, there is a fair bit that can be shared.

I would start off this hopefully continuous series of posts with my trip to Bangkok.

Whenever anyone talks about a trip to Thailand, the images that come to mind are beaches, markets, massage places etc. However, my trip was very different from these cliched images that Thailand is connected to. That may partially be due to the purpose of my visit - watch Liverpool in action for the first time in my life, but even in my free time it was a different kind of experience.

I had a total of 2.5 days in Bangkok. I landed at the Bangkok airport around noon, took the metro (which became my primary mode of transport for the next 3 days - very convenient for the places I needed to travel to) and reached my hotel around 3 pm. The hotel was located in Nana, near all the shopping places, so there was plenty of window shopping opportunities for the shopping enthusiasts. I, however was not one of them.

On my way to the hotel, I had seen huge malls about 2 kms from Nana. So, decided to take a walk and spend my evening going around the malls and street shops. One very interesting thing was the presence of worship places right outside malls - and not like in India where it generally is a small structure. It was proper huge statues, most probably maintained by the city or the mall itself.

Temples dedicated to Brahma and Ganesha outside malls