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Why I wouldn’t go back to Phnom Penh

The bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was fairly uneventful, the so called highway was nothing more than a never ending dusty stretch of land, and by the end of it, we were pretty glad that we hadn’t attempted to drive around on our own.

A short Tuk Tuk ride from the bus stand took us to our hotel, The Plantation. I had read rave reviews about this hotel, as one of the best places to stay in this city and I wasn’t disappointed. The hotel is really artistic, the staff is very friendly and helpful, the buffet breakfast is fantastic, and the spa, totally relaxing (we were offered a discount which I obviously availed 😛). But the absolute best part is the huge pool with cabanas along it’s length, where you can relax endlessly with your drinks and books, and when the sun gets too much, just walk down few steps and jump right into the pool!

The giant pool at The Plantation

The giant pool at The Plantation (the cabanas are on the left, you can somewhat see them here if you look closely)

The room

The pretty room overlooking the pool

I had two days in Phnom Penh which I spent mostly at the pool and spa in our hotel, visiting the Killing Fields, sampling amazing cuisine at Romdeng and Friends, buying souvenirs at the Russian market, walking across the waterfront and enjoying a meal at one of the local café’s right opposite it. While that sounds like quite a bit, I must be honest in admitting that I didn’t really enjoy Phnom Penh. It’s not a city that made any impression on me, at least not a positive one, which is exactly why I wouldn’t go back a second time.

I recall that on our first night we decided to have dinner at the very famous Romdeng, which wasn’t even a kilometer away, so we wanted to walk the route. Our hotel strongly discouraged us and asked that we take a Tuk Tuk since pick pocketing was common on the road. We didn’t pay heed, since it wasn’t too late in the night(8 pm) and presumably safe. While walking in a fairly well lit lane, we were followed by this guy on a bike, constantly circling around us and it did scare us a bit. We clutched our wallets and phones tightly and walked hasty steps till we reached the restaurant. And this wasn’t the only instance, all of which eventually led us to leaving our phones, cards (even my earrings behind) carrying only the minimum possible cash. This left me edgy and uncomfortable for the most part, and as a traveler that is pretty disappointing. I have also known of others who have experienced this – a friend who went to Phnom Penh on a work trip was elbowed by a guy on a bike and had her bag snatched. This was while she was walking with another colleague in broad daylight. She bravely held on to her bag and the bike guy had to let go.

I had a fantastic time in Cambodia but Phnom Penh was probably the only place in my entire trip where I didn’t feel safe and welcomed – it seemed like everyone from the Tuk Tuk driver, to the roadside vendor was out to rip us off.

Possibly the only thing that you may want to specially visit Phnom Penh for is the Killing Fields and Genocide museum. These are the biggest tourist draws to Phnom Penh, and while one may argue why such a place has been opened to tourists, I do think seeing these places will offer you an insight into Cambodian history like nothing else. It is said that every Cambodian today, over the age of 50 has witnessed and survived Pol Pot’s extreme regime, every family has experienced this horror.

I visited only the Killing Fields and I can tell you that it is definitely not an easy place to visit. Under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, nearly one third of the population was killed or died out of starvation. The killing fields were where these mass executions were carried out and one of these is now open to public viewing. Since bullets were expensive, people were killed by torture, slitting their throats by sharp leaves, hacked by hammers, rods or hung from trees. The “killing tree” was used to kill babies, by smashing their skulls on this tree. The experience is disturbing and horrific. During rains, many times skulls, bones and clothes rise to the ground surface even today. A giant stupa now acts as a memorial for all those who lost their lives and displays skulls and bones of the victims, which were recovered from the mass graves. It is unimaginable, chilling, painful.

We walked back in silence, the air still, heavy and foreboding, and skipped going to the Genocide Museum that day.

Cambodia is now opening up to tourists from all across the globe, but it is a country which is still getting back on its feet, one day at a time. In a warped way, I could make sense of my discomfort, understand why locals are always out to make an extra buck, why you need to be careful with your belongings lest someone snatch them – I can’t justify any of this, but I could understand it.Somewhat.

The memorial, Killing Fields

The memorial, Killing Fields

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Have you visited Phnom Penh? Would love to know of your experience in the comments section.

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In Photos : What I did in Israel!

It was after spending a fair amount of time discussing on where to go, that we closed in on Israel. I  remember exactly what tilted our decision – a Youtube video with this guy trying to find the best eats in Jerusalem. He was overly enthusiastic and smiling too much, while stuffing his face with the gooey goodness of hummus  but it was just what I needed to make up my mind. We had friends joining us and as the respective families got whiff of our plans, growing concerns about our choice of country threatened to derail the plan. Anyway, the dust settled and we booked our tickets and on a breezy Thursday night, we landed in Tel Aviv.
My research had convinced me that Tel Aviv is very cosmopolitan and fun, and it was. The not so fun part was that I had a crazy case of bed bug bites our second night, and by the morning it got so bad that the crazy bites became massive red bumps that itched like hell. We called the dude who owns the apartment and he looked genuinely shocked and immediately moved us to another apartment. He also agreed to give us our money back in full, a gesture that pleased everyone greatly and was accepted as a good deal. Except by me, as I was the only one suffering but somehow everyone had been redeemed with the unexpected money 😀 . Anyway, I was irritable after the incident, and fairly cranky in the heat, always covering myself and sprinkling generous doses of talc and applying thick layers of aloe gel. The pictures below will obviously tell another story 😉 .

Chilling at the Tel Aviv Beach

Tel Aviv is uber hip. Amazing beaches, beautiful people, food, bars, culture, art, flea markets, it’s all very cool and chic. The city breaks all the caricatures of being middle eastern, it’s global and it’s happening and it’s perfect for sun, sand and frolic.

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Just look at the color of the water!

Carmel Market

An iconic flea market in Tel Aviv, at Carmel you can find fresh produce, traditional sweets, clothes, accessories, homeware, basically everything under the sun. It was hot and very crowded, but I enjoy a street market greatly so I ended up taking a walk and bought some snacks and a really funky handmade necklace.

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Carmel Market

Evening cocktails at La Shuk

I am not really a big fan of cocktails but our friends wanted to go to the trendy La Shuk, so I agreed to tag along. The evening weather was perfect to sit outside, and it all felt very European, with the tables laid out on the sidewalk from where you can observe the people go buy. It was very expensive though, and I think any restaurant that is empty but still asks if you have a reservation is pretentious, hihi! A cocktail will set you back by INR 900-1000, but I will admit that they did taste really good!

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Cocktails at the very fancy La Shuk

Hummus at Mashawsha

This is hands down, the best hummus I had in Israel. It’s chunky, which I personally prefer rather than the super smooth variety, and is very flavorful. The pita is warm and fluffy, and they have a homemade style lemonade which is the perfect balance of sugar and lime. It was such a great meal that it made me forget about my rash, and I don’t easily forget 😉 . The set up is cozy and the prices are decent(by Israel standards).

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The best hummus meal at Mashawsha

Sunset at Tel Aviv Beach

As the sun goes down the activity on the beach slows down and the last of the swimmers, sun-bathers and volleyball players start winding down. The golden hour is beautiful, all colors of orange, yellow and rust, and is perfectly enjoyed with a glass of wine.

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Sunset the the beach ~Tel Aviv

Getting some local Halva

I was intrigued with this stall called Halva Kingdom, with their massive mounds of a crumbly pie style dessert, and the pushy sales guy calling out to customers. I assumed it to be similar to the Indian halwa, which is basically a grain(chickpea, a lentil or a flour), roasted with clarified butter, sugar and nuts. It’s the sort of dessert that instantly warms you up and it’s made commonly in homes during festivals and auspicious occasions. I ended up buying a few varieties in Tel Aviv but did not enjoy as it’s too sweet and heavy. People seemed to love it but didn’t catch my fancy.

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Halwa King at Carmel Market

Walled City or Old City, Jerusalem

The walled city of Jerusalem is a 0.9 square kilometer area within the main city, home to hundreds of years of history, conflict and worship. The square is further divided into 4 quarters – the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter and the Armenian quarter. As I moved through the tiny lanes, some shopkeepers called out to check their wares. The old city is frequented by tourists, local and international so it’s business as usual for the shops, if they catch a “tourist”. I also crossed the significant monuments, the Temple Mount, The Church of Holy Sepulchre, Dome of the Rock, Al-aqsa mosque as I moved from quarter to quarter. The landscape, people, clothes, language, monuments, it all changes so dramatically from one quarter to the next that you don’t need a sign to tell you where you are. It’s fascinating, how tightly diversity is packed together in the old city.

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Walled City Jerusalem

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The Western Wall

The western wall is probably the most significant place of religious worship for the Jews. It is the only part of the Great Temple that survived the Roman destruction and throughout the year thousands of Jews come to pray at the wall. It’s one thing to know history, it’s totally another thing to see it’s impact play out in front of your own eyes. I reached the wall and was pointed to the “women area” , a separate side of the wall to pray. As I walked towards the wall, I could see  women leaning with their foreheads pressed towards the wall. I reached closer to see many putting folded notes between the stone cracks and weeping, not a lone tear but actually sobbing. It’s a very intense experience, even for a non-Jew to see how strongly people feel about the wall, even today.

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Western Wall

Damascus Gate

As we were walking through the Arab Quarter in the old city of Jerusalem, we reached a grand exit gate called the Damascus Gate. We went through it and saw a police watchtower. A sign board pointed towards the West Bank city of Nablus. Curious as to why the security, we immediately took out our phones and got onto Google. We learnt that Damascus gate lies in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem and has been the site of recent attacks and unrest between Palestinians and Israelis, hence the watch tower. This has drawn criticism from Palestinians who feel it further restricts their entry into the walled city. Jerusalem is a divided city and crossing this gate lands you on the Palestinian side of the city. 15

Freshly baked breads

In the early morning hours, the smell of freshly baked breads, both sweet and savory wafts through the streets of Jerusalem. I especially loved the croissant style breads filled with warm oozing cheese. It’s the perfect breakfast on the go with a good cup of coffee.

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Freshly baked bread

Float in the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, with water so saline that no marine being can survive, hence the name, Dead Sea. The water has an oily texture and the saltiness makes it extremely easy to float. Plus a dip in the sea is said to have healing properties, and it’s mineral rich mud nourishes your skin . We visited the Ein-Bokek beach which is a free one, and it was fairly crowded with people either floating or covering themselves in the mud. The bed bug bites stung so badly in the salty water that I decided not to indulge further. It’s still fun though and a very unique experience.

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Dead Sea

Masada

Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a fortress built atop a rock plateau. It’s all very orange and Martian, and you can take a cable car or trek to the top of the fort. We went for the trek but it was noon by the time we got there and it was so incredibly hot(in June) that we ended up avoiding the 2 hour trek. There is a cable car as well that takes you to the top of the fort but if you plan to do the trek, it’s best to go before sunrise.

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Masada

Hummus workshop at Abraham Hostel

Abraham hostel is nothing short of a cult in Israel, with their economical hostels, events, workshops and tours. We decided to try a group hummus making workshop while in Jerusalem. A large community style table was set up and we were told that we will be cooking in groups of two, by our enthusiastic “chef” for the evening. The cooking part was pretty much non-existential, the chickpeas were boiled already, the Tahini was made and all you had to do was mash, mix and add the lemon and seasoning. Since I was really looking forward to a hardcore hummus making class, the cooking part was a downer. But the bar was open and we were enjoying the drinks, so I guess we made some evening out of it. Interestingly, this evening led us to one of our key highlights of the trip, a tour of the divided city of Hebron in the West Bank.

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West Bank Tour

Abraham tours organizes what is called as the Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron,  a conflicted city divided between Palestine and Israel. We decided to do it, and while I had surface information on the Israel-Palestine conflict, once I started reading about it, I wanted to know more. It’s also neither possible nor advisable to visit the West Bank unless with a tour group so this seemed like our only chance. This full day tour took us to Hebron, and involved spending time with an Israeli guide and a Palestinian guide, both of whom present their own narrative on the conflict, their angst, and what the current scenario looks like. Their narratives are compelling and it is a hard hitting experience. I walked away feeling confused and sad. But if I am successful in documenting it to some degree of coherence, I will definitely share it in another post.

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The group at the Hebron Tour

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Hebron ~The Israel Side

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A bird’s eye view of Hebron

Mahane Yehuda Market

The Mahane Yehuda market or “The Shuk” is a bustling street market in Jerusalem, frequented by locals and visitors. During the day, the market is a perfect place to roam around and get some small bites and drinks and buy local spices. By the evening, it’s a happening street with lights and music. It’s a lively place to hang out for a couple of hours and get some local shopping done.

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Mahane Yehuda Market

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A Jewish gentleman buying his groceries at Mahane Yehuda

Mahane Yehuda

If you love olives, you will love Mahane Yehuda for the variety and flavor

Tmol Shilshom

A cozy little cafe and bookstore, I loved Tmol Shilshom as soon as I saw it and ended up going multiple times. Jerusalem is an intense city and Tmol is just so calm and peaceful and artistic. I loved the Jewish breakfast of Shakshukya and the coffee. The staff is friendly and you can enjoy what you are eating in peace, without feeling rushed. Perfect to also catch up on some reading or emails.

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At Tmol Shilshom – that’s my look of regret when I overeat!

Hope you enjoyed these highlights from Israel? Would you ever consider travelling to Israel?

5 Unintentional Discoveries in Kutch

At one point in my life, I loved planning my trips to a T, but I have come to realise that a strict itinerary leaves very little room for spontaneity. There have been times when I have come back home feeling underwhelmed with my travels, largely due to excessive research and having a feeling of “seen it before”. So, sometime last year, I decided that whenever I traveled, I would keep certain aspects like transport and stay finalized before the trip. I could add an odd experience that may be harder to book on the spot. And I would leave the rest to be figured out once there. Interestingly, this has led to some amazing experiences that wouldn’t have happened if I was too caught up in “living my plan”. The internet is a great tool to find information and build your own travel plan yourself. But sometimes, knowing too much and trying to fit it all in takes away from the spirit of exploration and impulse. In Kutch, the top 2 things on my agenda were seeing the White Rann of Kutch and the villages, both of which I researched and planned beforehand. Besides that, I had little else fixed, but I came away with 5 interesting discoveries, purely on local recommendations that I absolutely loved.

Vande Matram Museum at Bhujodi

On the last day of our stay in the Rann of Kutch, our resort manager asked us if we would like to see the Vande Matram museum. Not being a big fan of museums, I decided to skip it while some other members of our group decided to check it out. They were left spell bound and insisted we make the trip. And that is how we landed at this museum. Opened in 2017, this is a 4D museum, one of its kind in India and showcases the story of India’s independence through a series of 17 episodes. The storytelling is done through a compelling use of technology, sound, art, architecture, life size models, and effects. Having seen the grandeur of some of the world’s most renowned museums in Europe, I was not expecting to be wowed by this place. But I was so so wrong. It’s grand, it’s innovative and it’s totally immersive. Once you enter the museum, you move from room to room, 17 in total and each room showcases a historical event in India’s freedom struggle. No pictures are allowed inside. But I can tell you that this is a unique experience that you must not miss!

The exterior of the museum, modeled on the Indian Parliament. Image ref IndiaCSR.in

Vintage embroideries in the bustling Bhuj bazaars

The bazaars in Bhuj, Vania and Shroff Bazaar are a treasure trove of interesting things and our hosts at the Bhuj House recommended that we check them out for vintage embroideries. Right when you enter the bazaar, under the archway, you can find a series of shops selling vintage embroideries, woven on blouses, skirts and patches by Kutchi women, worn and passed across generations. It is an absolute explosion of art and colour, and a wonderful part of town to explore.

Beautiful Kutch embroidery display at LLDC. Image Ref – ShrujanLLDC.org

Using the e-permit facility to get a Liquor license

Considering that Gujarat is a dry state, I hadn’t expected getting a liquor license for a tourist to be this smooth. There is now an online portal for procuring a licence, you fill the form with all your travel details and id proof and get the printout to a registered liquor shop, details of which you can find on the site. The officers on duty will review the paperwork and stamp your permit. We expected it to be a tedious and time-consuming process on the spot, but it wasn’t, We were in and out in 15 min. You will struggle if you don’t have your paperwork ready or are trying to fill the form online on the spot. Once you have the permit, you can buy alcohol from the shop but know that drinking is an expensive proposition in this state.

Sleeping under a Chikoo tree

We stayed at Devpur homestay for 2 nights, a beautiful heritage property in central Kutch run by Krutarthsinh Jadeja. The room I had originally requested for did not have availability for both nights so for the second night we shifted to a tent in the family’s 12-acre mango and chikoo orchard. I was quite sceptical of the facilities; especially uncomfortable toilets make me nervous. But our hosts convinced me that I would love the experience and I decided to give it a try. The orchard was beautiful, and the tent was comfortable. The best part however was a big chikoo tree right outside the tent, it’s branches so luscious and green that it shaded a big part of the tent itself. There was a charpoy laid out and as soon as I lay down, I feel into a deep sleep, disturbed ever so slightly by the wind rustling the tree leaves and the chirping of birds. It was the best sleep I had had in months.

In deep sleep under the chikoo tree

Gujarat Thali at Osho Dining Lodge

From Devpur, on our hosts recommendation we headed to Mandvi beach. While I didn’t find the beach particularly exciting, we were advised to have lunch at the Osho Dining Lodge while there. We headed to this local restaurant between alleys and streets, steep stairs led us to the lodge and we were quickly seated. An over-enthusiastic waiter laid out our thalis and pickles on the table. And then the service began. From deep fried aloo bhondas to dhoklas, Gujarati dal, kadhi, rice, ghee laden rotis, pooris, aloo masala, vegetables and hot jalebis, the variety is immense. And the passion with which the food is served is even better. Our waiter kept on refilling our plates, despite pleas of being absolutely full. He insisted on just one more roti, a little bit more kadhi and rice. Till we were exhausted with all the eating and had to beg him to stop. The food is tasty(though heavy), the experience is even better.

The never ending Gujarati Thali at Osho Dining Lodge

I am glad I left some space in my itinerary that allowed me to indulge in recommendations from locals. What about you? Do you like to plan every detail of your trip or leave some things to chance?

 

 

 

The Artists of Kutch

After the spectacular Rann of Kutch, the agenda was to station ourselves in Bhuj over a couple of days, explore the town as well as the artistic villages of Kutch. Our first stop was Nirona, made famous by PM Modi after he gifted a Rogan art painting created in this village, to then President Barrack Obama during his US visit in 2014.

As we got down from the car, a swarm of school children, seemingly underwhelmed with new faces, walked past, waving and smiling. We decided to follow the crowd that had descended from a bus full of tourists, crossing a few narrow alleys and brightly painted doors framed with bougainvillea, and we ended up reaching the Khatri household, master craftsmen of the Rogan art.

The art form is intriguing to observe, and the Khatri’s willingly give a live demo. We quickly seat ourselves on the plastic chairs and charpoy in the courtyard. Out comes a piece of fabric, and a round tray with many bowls holding the different colours of the paint, which is a thick mixture of castor oil and natural die. The artist decides to seat himself on the floor and starts to work the gum-like paint with a needle, stretching the paint thin and drawing patterns on fabric, without the needle actually touching the fabric. He makes a flower, then a few more, and he continues drawing beautiful patterns. He then folds the cloth neatly along the centre and presses on the fabric. We wait for the reveal which he does without much fanfare, and as he starts to unfold the cloth, a mirror image of his painting appears on the other side. It looks beautiful, the colours, the detail, the creativity. I was spellbound and forgot to record a video but if you are interested check out this link to see the art taking shape.

The Khatri’s speak about how the art stood the risk of dying down some years back, as the younger generation didn’t find it financially attractive but streamlined efforts by the Gujarat government have given artists like them a global platform to showcase their work, drawing in crowds and money. A narrative that was echoed by other villages and artisans I visited. Many of them have been accredited with the coveted National Award for being master craftsmen in their field, proofs of which hang in the form of pictures in their homes and shops. All sell internationally and get access to a host of exhibitions, both in India and abroad. The exposure seems to have created a certain degree of confidence and pride in the artists, and rightfully so. They know that their pieces are unique, so they won’t hard sell, and you really won’t feel like bargaining. The prices are steep since all the crafts are hand done, but as I see it, it is a little bit of Kutch to take back home.

Our next stop in Nirona was the copper bell house by Husen Luhar. An elderly gentleman, Luhar sat on the floor and beat the copper thin and created various shapes out of it, creating bells and hangings. As I sat watching him, I couldn’t help but notice that he was constantly smiling while working, and as he beat every scrap of copper, he would hold it up to show it to everyone, a sense of pride in his eyes. I ended up buying a copper wind chime from his workshop, replicas of which I saw many later in Shroff Bazaar in Bhuj, at half the price. I can’t say if it was a replica really or the effect of middlemen, but this is probably the only art form that is fairly easy to recreate. It was disappointing surely, but I found comfort in the fact that the money went to the artisan directly, and that’s worth something.

It’s another day and we decide to explore Ajrakhpur and Bhujodi, both a 20 min drive from Bhuj. Ajrakhpur is aptly named after the Ajrakh art, which is block printing using natural dyes such as indigo, pomegranate, henna, turmeric etc, done by Dr Ismail Mohmed Khatri, who has been acknowledged with a doctorate by De Montfort University, U.K. as well as a Seal of Excellence by UNESCO. Bhujodi is famous for handloom textiles and embroidery, done by the Vankar community. You will find shawls, bedspreads, carpets, blankets, sarees, stoles, all handwoven and hand embroidered. Even if you detest shopping, the work is compelling to look at, and the artists are friendly and inviting, so you will at least come back with a cup of tea and good conversation.

If you don’t have time to visit the villages, I would strongly recommend checking out the Living and Learning Design Centre( LLDC), which is a project of the Shrujan Trust and a conscious effort to keep alive the unique crafts of Kutch. They train craftsmen and craftswomen to better their art, learn from each other and develop products that are marketable. The museum is a crash course into the art forms of 12 Kutcchi communities and is a real treat for your eyes. It’s so much colour and beauty in a room, it will fill you with awe about the talents of Kutch.

The final village that we visited was Bhadli, close to Devpur village, famous for the tie and dye technique of Bandhani. The work was extremely fine and detailed, and unlike I anything had seen before. It was extremely expensive as well and the artisans here didn’t seem too interested in showing their work. They mentioned that they cater to mostly foreign buyers and international exhibitions, and only do selective exhibitions in India. Names of a few of top Indian designers who have been inspired by their work was mentioned casually and I was categorically asked to specify what I wanted to buy and what my budget was. Since I was merely browsing and that obviously was far from comfortable here, I decided to make a quick exit.

A round up of these villages left me feeling creatively energised. It’s hard not to, when you see so much talent. I felt inspired to create something, anything, as soon as I got back home. Maybe I will do up my balcony, or paint something. There is great joy in creating something from your own hands, no matter how small it is right?

Tips for visiting the villages of Kutch

  • The roads in Kutch are really good and all villages are perfectly motorable. Just drive down and walk around. It is very easy to find the homes of the artisans.
  • The artisans are welcoming, and will be happy to show their work, even give a live demo. You can buy the art in all villages directly.
  • These are real home and families. You will meet the other members of the family, the children playing around, and sometimes it wasn’t comfortable to click pictures. When it wasn’t, I didn’t. Where it was, I asked for permission. The reason I mention it is that I found more than a bunch of visitors invasive enough to make some families feel uncomfortable. And that just isn’t right.
  • In Bhuj, I would strongly recommend staying in The Bhuj House, which is a heritage Parsi homestay in the heart of town. It is a home filled with history and culture, and every little nook is representative of the colours and warmth of Kutch. Besides the villages, Bhuj is a unique town in itself, with its walled city, the busy Shroff and Vania bazaars, it’s history and culture.
  • Another beautiful heritage property is Devpur Homestay. From either or both of these homestays, you can use them as a base and explore the various villages of Kutch.

Setting foot on the Great Rann of Kutch

I looked outside the aircraft window, feeling optimistic and excited about the next few days. There were many things that still remained unfigured on my itinerary, but information online wasn’t extensive, and I had been too tied up this time to plan better. What resulted was an itinerary that left a lot of room for spontaneity, but I had a good feeling that it would all work out. Mainly because the part I was most interested in was already chalked out. And I wasn’t thinking of much else.

Other than the Rann of Kutch.

I landed in Ahmedabad, checked into the hotel and met up with the others in the group. For dinner, we decided to eat at the New Irani Restaurant in old city. It was fantastic food for the meat eaters with the lamb curry, mincemeat kebabs and biryani, not so much for the only vegetarian in the group who had to do with Rotis and Egg Bhurji. It was an uneventful evening and we decided to call it a night as the next morning was an early start.  Our plan was to drive to the Great Rann of Kutch, a distance of 350 kms which we expected to cover in under 7 hours.

We got ready the next morning, patiently awaited our self-drive car, which arrived, but with a driver. As it turned out, getting a self-drive for Kutch is not an easy thing and the company had assumed we needed a driver. Since we didn’t, we called more transport companies, more drivers, asked for help from our hotel, but nothing worked out so after wasting 4 hours, we gave up and hired an Innova and a driver. It was 11 am as we settled our stuff and ourselves in the car.

We crossed the mayhem of Ahmedabad to reach the highway. The roads are pretty great in Kutch, and you can really pick up speed, unless interrupted by the odd swarm of goats or distracted by the endless expanse of salt.

To make up for lost time, we decided to stop only once at Honest, a local and loved Dhaba chain. With every possible Gujarati delicacy on the menu, we debated endlessly on what to eat, eventually settling for Aloo Parathas like good north Indians 😊.

The ginormous paratha in my belly, I decided that it was time for a siesta, so I moved to the last seat of our Innova, very limited legroom but continuous seats which in my view are best suited to lie flat on(unless you are very tall). Perhaps it was the warmth of the sun, the cosiness of the space or the music that I had plugged into my ears, that relaxed every muscle in my body. I guess I dozed off for quite some time, as when I got up we had about 50 kms to the Rann of Kutch.

I got up to look out of the window, trying to absorb the sights and sounds. Nothing exceptional I thought. A vast expanse of desert both sides, the odd green shrub here and there, not too many cars in sight. Dry, arid, almost lifeless. Not pretty in any way. Striking though. And almost lonely and sad.

We kept going on till we came across a sign board that said Tent City. This township is built every year by Gujarat Tourism to invite tourists for the Rann of Kutch festival between November and February, which is the only time of the year that the salt desert doesn’t hibernate under water. While I was expecting it to be busy, what with the promotions that the Gujarat government does for the festival, I was still taken aback by the sheer enormity of the number of buses, cars, people and camels at the entry. The chaos feels like a shock, so ill-fitting with the scarce and still landscape.

We kept going further in, crossing tents and bhungas(traditional mud houses) and a flea market. I was curious to see how the tents looked on the inside, considering the prices can put a 5-star hotel to shame. We reached our “resort”, built right at the end of tent city. It was a little over 5 pm and the family was at the gate(some had reached earlier in the day), not so much in our wait but because the bus to see the Great Rann was ready to go. Between a lot of instructions of dropping the luggage in the room and not missing out on the evening snacks to what happened during the day, we found ourselves on the top of a double decker rickety bus, slowly moving towards the Great Rann of Kutch.

Another check-post later, we were on a ramp facing a huge line of traffic – cars, buses, people, camel carts. The line moved slowly but steadily, and fifteen minutes later, we were there.

I don’t think words or pictures can do justice to the Great Rann, but I will try.

An endless white desert that goes far till it meets like sky. Salt so white that I could mistake it for snow. Stepped on a marshy side and soiled my shoe, the desert will make you careful of where you tread. Not a bird, a flower, a tree in sight, but it doesn’t look like the desert needs them at all. I walk further and further till people look like tiny black dots on a white canvas, and I wonder, how far am I? Not more than a hundred metres, I think. I feel alone, very alone. And I want to go back but I want to stay on. Then the sun starts going down, and the games begin between the sun, the sky and the salt. Colours of pink, orange, yellow and blue, both above and below me, transforming like magic right before my eyes. Till all is enveloped in a cloud of black. No moon, no stars tonight, just a thick cover of black.

Just like that, it was over.

I head back to the bus in the distance, it’s neon lights flickering and a conductor shouting for everyone to get it. I must come back, I tell myself. I must come back to feel this magic again.

And go back I did, not once but twice. Different times of the evening and night. The magic didn’t fade even the slightest, the salt shone, the colours danced, the Rann stood still, lonely, mighty, harsh and beautiful.

Magical.

I came back feeling inspired and overwhelmed by the beauty of the Great Rann of Kutch. As dramatic and enticing as it is, it is also a very delicate and remote part of our country. On one hand, it is amazing to see the spotlight shining on this wonderland and the effort made to attract tourists, which lends to local livelihoods. On the other hand, I wondered if this desert will remain as pure and pristine with the growing tourism in the years to come. There are both sides to be argued and no easy answers.


 


 

 

 

Living the slow life in Ubud, Bali

Experiencing a new place is as much about you, your mindset, your choices, your likes or dislikes as that point in time. For me, Ubud was a trip like that. I was weary from work and travels, and wanted nothing more than to take things slow, eat well, sleep and not do much else. And Ubud is perfect for that. It’s leisurely, staying in bed is the norm and not the luxury, meals can be savoured, there isn’t no “getting out of the house” and “doing this and that”, evenings wind up early, and there is ample time to catch an afternoon nap and read at will.

Frankly, Bali wasn’t on my radar till a family wedding cropped up, and since I was going to take this rather long flight (there are no direct flights from Delhi), I thought it was worthwhile to extend the trip by a few days and see more of Bali. I gravitated towards Ubud, for it’s tropical, green and laidback vibe. I can’t really tell you to do this and that in Ubud, as I didn’t “do” much. I slept well, ate a lot, roamed the streets, stayed in two parts of town (one more central and the other very quiet), got a massage, attended a yoga class, visited a few flea markets. And that’s about it. Things typically Ubud. But all put together they made for a wonderful five days, that had me relaxed and rejuvenated.

If you are looking for nightlife, architecture or a constant stream of activities to do, you will find Ubud too slow and boring. However, if slowing down is on your mind, Ubud can be a charming little getaway with loads of peace and sunshine.

Stay

For the first leg of my trip, I stayed in a quiet street, just off the Monkey Forest Road, which is one of the busiest roads, dotted with people, art, markets, restaurants and cafes. This was an Airbnb, on Jalan Bisma No.97 which is a cool street with a couple of spas, bars, restaurants and a few luxury properties. The Airbnb was rustic, with a semi-open bathroom overlooking a rice paddy. It was basic, but the people were warm, and the location was great. We rented our scooter here as well.

The second place was really the stuff of dreams. It was a private bungalow, with its own pool and a wonderful view of rice paddies, in a tiny arty village called Penestanan. The house was made in traditional Balinese style, with intricately carved wood but all modern amenities. Much quieter and very private, this was like my own retreat in the middle of a rice paddy.

Tip: The town centre is extremely busy and touristy, and I don’t recommend staying there. Pick a quieter back lane or stay in Penestanan and rent a scooter to get around.

Entrance to the Airbnb on Jalan Bisma 97

Private pool overlooking rice paddies at the Penestanan Airbnb

Eat

Ubud is a delight when it comes to food, and there are no dearth of places serving traditional Balinese dishes such as Nasi Goreng, Nasi Campur, Gado, Satay etc but you can also get your fill of fusion or western food (though I am not sure WHY you would do that). Infact, the food scene in Ubud had gotten fairly premium with world renowned chefs setting shop, waiting lists stretching to days or even weeks, and a meal setting you back INR 5000 per person. Of course, without alcohol.

But like I said, Ubud is full of all sorts of places to eat, from cafes and bars to warungs (local restaurant or café), and to suit all budgets.

Umah Pizza

I know that I am contradicting myself here, but the wood fired oven and the smell of fresh dough and melted cheese was something I just couldn’t resist as I was passing by. The pizzas are thin, fresh, the variety is immense, and the rates are decent.

Wayan Café and Laka Leke

Run by the same owner, the restaurants are airy and beautifully made. There is an option to get a table or have a cosy floor set up with cushions. This was one of the fancier meals we indulged in, but it was totally worth it. I preferred Wayan Cafe over Laka Leke, both for its vibe and food quality.

Atman Kafe

Full of healthy, vegan, gluten free options and free Wi-Fi, you will find a lot of people working or just hanging around this café. Their sourdough bread with sambal is to die for, and the organic coffees, fresh juices and daily specials are fantastic.

Alchemy

This is a raw vegan food café and has a sort of a cult following in Ubud. I tried a pizza and zucchini pesto pasta, all raw. The place is Instagram worthy, but the food didn’t do it for me, and it was fairly expensive. I like food that is hearty and found Alchemy to be overhyped.

Ubud Raw Chocolate Factory

In one word: AMAZING! From truffles to dark chocolate to cacao chips to cheesecakes, this is a haven for the serious chocolate lover.

Tukies Coconut ice cream

I was walking in town and came across this shop with coconut shells by the dozen outside. Now, I am a big fan of coconut, in all shapes and forms so my interest was piqued.  I realized that they sell ice cream and went inside to get myself a cup. OMG! This is a wonderful treat in balmy Ubud. The perfect creamy coconut ice cream topped with roasted coconut shavings. I would go back just for this.

Sari Organic

Another Ubud cult, Sari Organic is a social organization and also runs a farm and café. The plus – a ride on a scooter or foot through amazingly lush rice paddies gets you to this warung. The views are to die for if you love nature. The minus –  definitely not even close to my top meals in Ubud, it’s not bad food by any standard, it’s not exceptional either. The setup is extremely charming, and for that it definitely warrants a visit.

Do

Get yourself a scooter – It’s the best way to navigate the crowded streets in Ubud and a wonderful experience to go through the rice paddies.

Spa – I tried one (interestingly on another blogger’s recommendation), but I wasn’t satisfied so not recommending it. However, every corner you turn you in Ubud you will see a spa and locals will be happy to give you great recommendations. Putri Spa was close to the Airbnb I stayed in and looked great, judging by how busy it was always. Treatments aren’t really expensive, so if you like a good massage (who doesn’t), this is definitely an affordable activity to do a few times.

Yoga

I tried the very popular Yoga Barn and it was a great experience. The place is scenic, quiet and feels very spa like, what with the greenery, incense and soft music. An individual class comes at 130,000Rp but depending on how many days you are in Ubud and your interest in yoga, you can take a package. You can check out the full schedule and rates here.

Traditional Balinese Dance

Unfortunately, I missed this, but I had great recommendations for Puri Lotus (temple right next to Lotus cafe on Jalan Raya Ubud). There was no performance the night I went because of the festival of Galungan which is massive in Bali.

Shopping

Street and flea markets are aplenty but frankly I didn’t find them exceptional. Lot of cotton clothing, trinkets,  crochet, ikat and batik prints, woven bags and baskets. Nothing eye catching that I wouldn’t find back home in India.  However, if you do want to buy some very good quality indigo dyed cottons, check out Threads of Life. It is such a beautifully done up store and you can just get lost browsing the amazing things on display. From the local markets, below are the three things I enjoyed getting back home

  1. Balinese Coffee or Kopi as it’s called.
  2. Crunchy Peanuts – you will get these in every supermarket, they are salty and super crunchy. I guess they are fried but whatever it is, they taste darn good.
  3. Woven bags – locally made and super cute, you can find these all around and for a fraction of high street costs.

Did I love Ubud enough to want to go back soon? Not really. There is no direct flight from Delhi, and the stopover costs you at least 11 hours of flight time one way, which is tedious considering this is Southeast Asia. Secondly, and more importantly, this sort of tropical, food centric, yoga and organic, flea market experience for me can be found closer back home, with better infrastructure and cheaper costs.

I did enjoy the down time though, and would love to see more of Bali in general and explore some of the beach towns next time.

(In April 2018, Indonesia’s national airline Garuda has started a direct flight from Mumbai).

 

 

 

 

Experiencing a cooking class in Madrid and making Sangria, Gazpacho and Paella

One of the things that interests me the most about visiting any new place is it’s food and over time, I have found myself gravitating away from fast food chains and leaning more and more towards local cafes, food tours and cooking classes. I love these experiences and come back home excited to try out recipes and relive my travels through them.

I was in Madrid last year on a work trip, part of a large team organizing our flagship European event. This was an event for which we pulled out all the stops, and while work was intense, it also gave me the chance to experience local culture, food and historic sights in a grand way.  Three things had got me really excited – Spanish food, Flamenco and Espadrilles. So, on the lone free day after the event was done, I decided to try these before I headed back home. (Sadly, The Flamenco performance didn’t work out, but I guess there is always another time.)

My heart was set on trying a local cooking class and I researched online for a good one that I could join end minute. I wrote to quite a few, only to be turned down by all except one, which was Cooking Point in central Madrid and walking distance from where I was staying. Frankly, I wasn’t thrilled as this was not on the top of my list – while the reviews were spectacular (#1 on TripAdvisor), it looked more commercial and I was hoping to try something more intimate and local. But time was running out, and when they emailed me that they had 1 spot left, I decided to go for it.

Located in Calle de Moratín, I reached the studio and met our guide and chef for the day, made the payment after which I was told to wait for the others. People began trickling in and everyone seemed friendly and eager to get started.

The first step was a visit to the legendry food market Anton Martin, to pick local produce of meat and vegetables. This was an amazing experience for me, as I anyway love picking groceries and Anton Martin had over 60 shops selling everything from meats, to seafood, to olives to all sorts of wonderful vegetables. We smelled great produce, understood how to pick vegetables and meats and after 45 minutes well spent, we walked back to the studio.

Once back at the studio, we were divided into groups of 2. I was the only one trying the class solo, but I got a partner from a wonderful trio of ladies. Each group was given one gas stove, chopping boards, knives and all cooking utensils needed for the class.

We first began prepping for the Sangria.

  • We began by pouring a bottle of wine into a glass jug. You don’t really need an expensive wine.
  • Add 2 tbsp sugar and a pinch of cinnamon
  • Add 100 ml orange juice and 50ml vermouth (you can add brandy as well)
  • Add some fruit – we added sliced limes, apples and oranges
  • Refrigerate for at least 4 hours
  • Add 100ml soda before serving

While our Sangria chilled, our chefl took out pre-prepared Sangria which was poured into a large bowl and we started the tasting. A few drinks sure got everyone talking(ahem!)

Next, we started preparing Gazpacho (this is a simple and healthy dish and also quite perfect for the scorching India summers)

  • Roughly chop 250gm tomatoes, 50 gm green pepper, 50 gm cucumber, 1 onion, small piece of bread, 1 garlic clove, 1 tbsp vinegar and churn in a blender
  • Pass through a fine mesh and return to blender. Add some salt, pepper and cumin.
  • Add 50 ml extra virgin olive oil and blend again to emulsify the oil
  • Chill in the refrigerator and top with diced cucumber, croutons and a dash of oil if you like

And now for the final (and my favourite dish), Paella

  • In a Paella pan (or any plat bottomed pan), add olive oil and fry about 250 gms of chicken for 3 minutes. Set aside
  • In the same pan, add a few cloves of garlic. Once brown, add diced green and red peppers (half each)
  • Once soft, add 200 gms of diced calamari and fry till it gets white.
  • Meanwhile, grate 1 tomato. Add to the cooked calamari along with 1 tsp sweet paprika. Add the fried chicken as well. Cook the mixture till dry
  • Add 150gm of Paella rice and mix everything well
  • Add 500 ml boiling fish stock (add saffron to the stock while it is boiling). Cover the rice and don’t mix further. Lower heat and let it simmer for 5-6 minutes.
  • Arrange mussels on the rice and lower heat further. Let it simmer for 5-6 min.
  • Add prawns to the dish and let it cook for 5 min.
  • If stock remains, increase the heat so that the stock evaporates within a minute or two
  • Take off the heat, cover with a clean lightly wet cloth and let it stand for 10 min
  • Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon over the dish and it is ready to be served

After everything was made, we all displayed our food and laughed and ate together. It was a wonderful experience with some lovely people and great home style food. Post lunch, the group clicked some photos and shared further travel plans. We were handed over a recipe booklet by cooking point and we said our byes.

The experience doesn’t come cheap at a cost of 70 euros per person and typically takes 4 hours. But I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. While it was more on the popular, commercial side of things, still there was something cozy and comforting about the way the class was conducted by Cooking Point, and the Sangria helps of course 😀 .

If food floats your boat and you enjoy meeting new people, you will definitely walk away feeling satisfied.

This experience was self-funded and not in collaboration with Cooking Point. All reviews are entirely my own.

A Photo Blog from Shanghai

Shanghai was the last leg of my China trip and I was keen to take it bit slow, unwind and reflect after three weeks of hectic travel. One would think that Shanghai is a likely misfit with that objective, and it’s true as well. Shanghai is dazzling and fast and all sorts of electrifying. But I still managed to do my own thing – ate some amazing food, chilled in my AirBnb, visited parks, walked on streets. A more relaxed pace and (mostly) away from the bustle, and I still had a great time. Sharing a photo blog of my days from Shanghai-

One of the busiest streets not only in Shanghai but apparently in the world, Nanjing Road is right in the city centre and bustling with shops, food and tourists. 


A local hideout, Wei Xiang Zhai was recommended to me by a friend as one of her favorite places to get a bowl of noodles. The lady at the counter seemed surprised on seeing us, I presume not many tourists frequent the place. Tables packed tightly together, I could see the kitchen at the back and customers who were totally focused on the food. The menu was all Chinese but we had saved a link from the internet with pictures and made our order. A very no-nonsense place, you get your food, eat and get out. Don’t think hygiene, conversation or ambience. Just focus on the food 😀 . 



And right at the other end of the spectrum was Green & Safe, an upmarket grocery store and cafe, serving western breakfasts, cakes, desserts, pizzas, organic juices and more. You can hear English widely and communication is a no-brainer. This could be any city, in any part of the world. Two Shanghai’s is close vicinity but couldn’t be further apart!


Fuxing Park is a great option on a slow day. It’s beautifully done and was full of elderly people sunning themselves, kids playing around and even this group doing what looked like some team building activities.

Probably the most visited spot in Shanghai, The Bund is the waterfront that lends an incredible skyline which is great to see both in the daytime and in the evening. Though I would imagine that it would look spectacular all lit up in the evening, I never ended up going back for the view(am fairly lazy like that 😉 ).



Steamed xiaolongbao are dumplings, with soup and meat inside and are nothing short of a culinary miracle. Poke a hole, slurp drink the hot soup and then eat the dumpling. I could go back to Shanghai just for these 😀 .

One of the many “hidden bars”, Speak Low is a seemingly popular place to get a drink in Shanghai(it was packed even on a weekday). On Fuxing Lu street, you enter this bar tools shop called Ocho and you are supposed to find the door to Speak Low. Once you do, you go up a flight of stairs and get to the first floor which is where we sat. Drinks and vibe were super cool. But know that none of this comes cheap.


Potstickers: Classic Shanghai street food, these dim sums are first steamed, then grilled on a skillet on one side, to make it crunchy. The meat releases its juices which will scald your throat on the first bite. Still, it’s totally worth it.

If you have the chance to do only one thing in Shanghai, then DO NOT miss getting a ride on the Maglev. Going upto a speed up 431 km/hour, when you see the traffic on the street from the train, it make you feel like you are in a sci-fi movie. The train line connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Longyang Road Station and a one way ride costs RMB 50.

Have you been to Shanghai and what were your impressions of the city?

 

A Foodie’s Love Affair with China

Exploring local food is a part of travelling that I really look forward to, and I always feel intrigued on how food plays such a crucial role in many cultures worldwide. Seemingly mundane matters of what people eat, how they eat it and who they eat it with can shed a lot of insight into history, weather, local produce, traditions and habits.

For a foodie, China is definitely out there in terms of quality, complexity, variation and flavor. There are some Chinese dishes that have found popularity globally but that is still a tiny tiny speck of what the cuisine has to offer. Many countries where Chinese food has become popular have adapted the cuisine to suit local palate, to the extent that there is nothing Chinese about it anymore 😉 . In India for example, Chili Chicken is a dish of mass appeal, had as a starter mostly, but ask a Chinese about it and they will draw a complete blank.

The food in China is more than fantastic, and I am surprised to say that I did not have one bad meal. 3 weeks, 3 meals each day = 63 meals out and NOT ONE BAD MEAL.

That is incredible in my view. And very very rare.

So this post is a memoir of the dishes I loved the most in China, from the regions I travelled.  Goes without saying that this is not an all-encompassing list. So if you are planning, do not go near the fast food chains and western restaurants as that would be a terrible waste of an opportunity. Not only that, a Chinese meal is a shared experience. There is no concept of individual portions. Meals take time and are savored. There is conversation and food. Lots of tea. It’s a grand ritual in itself that is repeated meal after meal, day after day and there is something very comforting about it.

Before I drool any further, here are my favorite 15:

Har gou: Steamed Shrimp dumplings, delicate and flavorful with a really thin skin and delicate juicy meat inside. Read more on enjoying a Dim Sum meal here.

Lo baak gou: Shredded radish mixed with rice flour and flavored with ham, shrimp, or other vegetables, then pressed into cakes and fried. Called turnip cakes as well. Commonly found in all Dim Sum places, you can read more about enjoying a Dim Sum meal here.

Sichuan style fish: This dish is literally fire in a bowl. The Sichuan peppers are explosive and you can feel your nostrils and mouth on fire, just after one bite. This dish is a Sichuan cuisine classic, fish and some veg, in a whole lot of oil, chili and other spices. You basically use your chopsticks to eat the fish, leaving the rest in the pot. To calm your insides, towards the end of the meal you will be served with some chilled watermelon, sweet custard like tofu and jelly.

Cauliflower in peppers and bacon: Another Sichuan classic, the vegetable is nice and crunchy and oozing with the bacon fat and heat from the peppers.

Grilled Tofu: Soft melt in the mouth tofu, fried and then covered in a sweet sauce and grilled on a skillet, this dish is another Cantonese favorite of mine. The tofu is so soft and served so piping hot, I burned my mouth many times for lack of patience 😀 . This is a must have for all vegetarians.

Potstickers: Classic Shanghai street food, these dim sums are first steamed, then grilled on a skillet on one side, to make it crunchy. The meat releases its juices which will scald your throat on the first bite. Still, it’s totally worth it.

Congee: A rice porridge popularly had for breakfast and cooked in chicken broth, topped with soy, onion, egg, this is a decently heathy breakfast and very easily available.

Steamed xiaolongbao or Soup Dumplings: Another Shanghai classic, a really thin skin, with a pork filling and steaming hot soup inside. Just imagine the level of skill needed to perfect these. The trick to eat is it to make a small hole in the dumpling, slurp drink the soup and then eat the dumpling.

Fried Pork chops: Tried this at a local’s recommendation at Wei Xiang Zhai in Shanghai and OMG! Crusty perfectly crisp pork chop, soft on the inside. The stuff of dreams I tell you.

Mussels: If you end up in a Cantonese restaurant, do try this if you are a seafood fan. Had them in Guangzhou and they were incredibly fresh, I am sure I could taste the ocean in them. Topped with a whole lot of garlic and chili. YUM!

Tofu cream: I really don’t know what this dish is called (sorry) but at a food court in Wenzhou, I saw big pots of soy milk boiling and the chef was removing the top layer that was cream. It was served in its natural form, with just a bit of soy. Tastes a lot of like cream but nuttier. A very unique dish and great to balance any spices you may be eating.

Baozi: This is basically a bao, a steamed bread like bun filled with all sorts of vegetarian or meat fillings. It’s a great snack on the go and perfect for breakfast.

Sesame paste noodles, vinegar and scallions: Another favorite from Wei Xiang Zhai in Shanghai, this is a dish locals swear by. Wheat noodles topped with hot sesame paste and chili oil with a few scallions thrown in, this dish is full of substance and flavor.

Zongzi: Very commonly available street food, this is glutinous rice with meats cooked and wrapped in bamboo or any other large flat leaf. It can be stored and frozen for months so is easily available at train stations where they will just steam the Zongzi and serve you on the go.

Lai wong bau: Bao dough stuffed with an eggy milk custard and steamed. Sweet and perfect to end your meal with.

Have you visited China? If so, did you love the food as much and what were your favourite dishes?

 

What to Know Before You Go to China!

It’s a massive understatement to say that I want to go back to China. I am actually DYINGGG to go back to China! I spent three weeks last year and felt that I could barely scratch the surface of this massive, intense and complex country.  Having visited a few other non-English speaking countries was by no means any preparation for the language barrier I experienced in China. I was also fresh off a month of a vegan diet before my trip and was keen to reduce my meat intake but China was definitely not the right country for that resolve. Plus, a lack of access to social media and google proved frustrating on many occasions. BUT, it was still an incredible experience and one that I would jump to do again. I met some amazing people, ate ginormous amounts of food, which was totally unlike the “Chinese food” that I was used to, saw some wonderful towns and cities and experienced the fantastic infrastructure which I would have never believed  possible in a country that size.

So below is a list I created, of things I think every first time visitor to China should know. It won’t take away your struggles entirely, but it can ensure that you prepare yourself and don’t lose unnecessary time figuring things out while there.

Here goes –

Dealing with the Great Chinese Firewall

No social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. work in China and while this may not be a show stopper for many, if you are a borderline addict(who isn’t ?), prepare yourself for a social media detox. If this doesn’t bother you, then great, you have nothing to worry about 😉 .  While I was aware of this before my trip, I found the first few days hard. I guess it was just something I was so used to and took for granted. It got easier by the second week and I quite enjoyed being disconnected.

No Google – This was a huge problem for me, especially because I needed to check my Gmail for some important messages and even more importantly, needed google maps for navigation. Totally sucked!

When I visited last year, you could still get yourself a VPN and override the Great Firewall but as per this article published in the Guardian in July 2017, there have been talks that China will block all VPNs in 2018.

Let’s talk English

This is definitely the biggest barrier for a traveler and adds another dimension to the complexity. My Airbnb host told me that while Chinese kids start learning English in elementary school, it’s not widely used in daily conversation so over time, the control on the language fades. Hence, most people remember some of it and hardly use it hence are extremely uncomfortable to hold a conversation in English. She gave me a great tip – if you get lost somewhere, or are in any situation where you need a translator, your best bet it to look for a young person who could be a student, as their English skills will be most refined and they can likely help you out.

Chat on WeChat

It’s not just a chatting app but a lifestyle app and solution to everything in China. It’s got chatting like WhatsApp, shopping, a payment interface, a social media platform and so much more. Everyone is on WeChat in China (~900 million people use it) and it really was the most convenient platform to communicate digitally.

Food is incredible for meat eaters BUT….

I am a foodie, and have a limited barrier to trying out new things but even then I was challenged a fair bit in China, specifically if I wanted to eat vegetarian or not eat certain types of meat. Of the places I visited, except for Shanghai, I found menus written fully in Chinese and no one on the staff who spoke enough English to understand my preferences. So unless you have a local host or anyone with you who speaks the language, know that eating out will be tricky for the most part.  Most menus have photos of the dishes so you order by eye and make sure that you have a language translation app and data on you at all times.

This was largely fun for me but I know that it can be extremely painful if you have dietary restrictions of any kind. If you are a vegetarian, it can be a massive struggle to be honest.

But if you are not, BE PREPARED FOR ONE HELL OF A CULINARY EXPERIENCE!

Chopsticks aren’t for everyone

While we are talking food, let me share with you a deceptively minor seeming matter and that is Chopsticks. Most local restaurants will not give you a spoon or fork and you will need to eat with Chopsticks. I struggled. BADLY 😦 . In fact it pissed me off when I was hungry and struggling to hold on to the food on my chopsticks. I swear I just wanted to use my hands! It’s an art to eat food on Chopsticks, and you will get better with practice surely. But I would advise you to carry some disposable forks and spoons for the initial meals.

Make Ctrip your friend for booking inter country travel

Having been used to Skyscanner, Kayak and the likes, I struggled to get the right tickets and costs on these sites for travels within China. Then I was introduced to Ctrip. And that was that – an end to my woes. Ctrip is a Chinese travel company and you can use it to book any ticket – rail, air, bus or even accommodation (I didn’t do that). The site is in English (Thank God) and they have an app – all easy to use and very efficient. You don’t need to look further.

Public transport

This is a huge plus considering how massive China is. The train network is incredible and works to the second and once you get the hang of it, it is an extremely enjoyable experience. I took many trains in Guangzhou, Wenzhou, Ningbo, Yuyao and it was fantastic to see the level of connectivity even to smaller towns. Extremely impressive. But what takes it to another level is getting a ride on the Maglev train  from Longyang Road Station to the Pudong International Airport Shanghai – the train reaches a maximum speed of 431km/hr and you really feel like you are time travelling when you whiz past the traffic on the road. The train is built more as an experience for travelers but it is a must must do, even if you don’t need to be on that route. It costs 50 yuan per person and less than 8 mins.

So that’s it!

I hope you found this list useful if you are planning to go see a bit of China. It’s a fascinating country to visit and can be a very unique experience if one is willing to keep an open mind and have a spirit for some adventure.

 

 

So long Guangzhou!

I met S outside her apartment building in Guangzhou, where she was waiting to handover the keys to us. I was surprised when she greeted me with the excitement of a long lost friend. We had never met in person, but had had a fleeting interaction on Skype, if I can even call it that. The Mr. had stayed in S’s apartment a few times on previous work trips, and she had expressed an interest in knowing about me. At dinner one evening with S and her husband, she insisted that I be Skyped that very moment. It was a brief call, in between a noisy dinner table full of food at a Cantonese restaurant. I could hardly hear anything, but her enthusiasm was evident even then.

She took us to her apartment and showed us around the artistic house, her pride obvious. The cozy two bedroom in a modern sky rise building overlooked the Pearl River and had an airy and comfortable feel. It was probably the most well-kept Airbnb I had ever stayed in, and when I mentioned this to S, she beamed like a proud parent. She offered to take me around the city and I said happy to say yes. We decided to meet the next day in the afternoon, as her morning was busy with a family get together called Ching Ming.  When I asked what that was, S explained that it was an annual ritual to pay respect to the dead in the family. I know it sounds morbid that I was keen to observe the ceremony, but I did not feel comfortable asking S so I kept quiet.

The next morning after breakfast, I decided to head to Shangzxajiu street, the very busy and commercial town center. I took the metro, which was surprisingly easy to figure out and super-efficient. At 1pm, S messaged me on WeChat that she was on her way to meet me and asked me my whereabouts. Thirty minutes later she found me, and I was glad, as Shangzxajiu hadn’t caught my interest particularly. It was noisy and touristy, and there wasn’t much to do around. “I take you to another place”, she said.

We headed to Dongshan and I was immediately taken in by the beautiful neighborhood, full of multi-storey mansions with terraces and gardens, many of which were converted to art galleries and cafes. S explained that the houses were built by Chinese expats after returning home, hence the houses had a strong international influence. We entered one of the houses and explored the art gallery on the ground floor, before finding our way to the terrace where we decided to catch a break and get a drink. “Would you like to have coffee?” I asked S.  Only tea, she said and launched into an explanation of the different types of Chinese tea, their benefits and its significance in the Chinese culture. Tea was the drink of choice, at all places and all times and the similarity to India wasn’t lost on me, though we have our own variation with milk, sugar and spices. I decided to share tea with her and she promised to take me to some special places where I could purchase teas to take back home.

Over the next few days, we met many times – sometimes to explore markets, take a walk or just get a meal. I found S to be a great companion in a city whose language I did not speak. She was curious and interested but never overbearing and pushy. She was pleasant to be around and thoughtful in many ways. For someone like me who thrives on my own private space and the need to be independent while travelling, she was a great match and easy to adjust with.

S and I were having lunch one day at a Cantonese restaurant close to the apartment. The place was full of people and noise, a very typical meal time scenario anywhere in China. Food is a national passion, and meal times are sacred. Since the menu was in Chinese but had pictures (which is very common), I made some suggestions by eye and insisted that S order for the both of us.  She told me that it was the norm to eat out a lot, as meals are complex to cook at home and eating out was fresh and inexpensive. When they had people over, they would create a meal but it was a lot of effort as it was always elaborate.

Over food, S and I spoke of many things. She told me she had two Airbnb’s in the city and she loved renting it out to international people, as she wanted to meet and interact with cultures from different parts of the world. “It is not just about giving my house, I want to know more of the world through the people I meet” she said. I was curious to know if all guests had a similar level of enthusiasm to let her into their life and she gave me a knowing smile. “I don’t interfere if people don’t want”, she said.

She was curious to know about Amsterdam, where I worked.

“Do you like it?” she asked.

“I love it”, I said and she gave me a wry smile.

She hadn’t been to Europe but was keen to go soon. Since her husband wasn’t as crazy about travel as she was, plans were always hard to make. I found it incredible that she possessed such an understanding of people, cultures, behaviors and the world, despite not seeing any of it. As I am fully knowing of the fact that not all those who travel far and wide learn anything from it.

She asked me how long I was married and I said 5 years.

“No kids?” she asked.

“No kids”, I said.

What about you. I asked. “Same”, said S and we smiled.

Her husband worked in a startup and kept busy hours. They had been married a few years and had been living in Guangzhou for quite some time. Her family wasn’t too far away, and her father-n-law lived very close by.  We discussed aspects of society, culture, family and relationships in our respective countries and realized the strong points of intersection in our own thoughts and ideals.

We finished the meal and she told me that she would take me to the most beautiful store I had laid my eyes on. We reached a mall, packed on a weekday afternoon and went to a huge store selling everything from furniture to arts, crafts, crockery, gifts, candles and homeware. It was stunning. And expensive. I didn’t want to buy anything but we both spent a lot of time just looking at things. Picking up a piece here, admiring it and then putting it back. I could see that S had a love for beautiful things and a keen eye for art. Her home was an exact reflection of that. She told me she came to this store often just to browse around.

As we were heading out, we passed a store selling traditional Chinese dresses.

And then something crazy happened.

S caught hold of my arm and squealed excitedly, “Let’s put you in a traditional Chinese dress”.  I wasn’t really keen but S and her enthusiasm did me in. We entered the store and S approached two girls standing at the billing counter. I couldn’t understand a word of what they spoke but I could see that S was explaining that I wanted to try on a dress. One of the girls eyed me up and down and started pulling out dresses from a rack. I picked out a few that I liked, very sure that none of them would fit me as they were definitely made for XXXS sizes. I tried them on, one after the other, my cheeks getting redder with each dress, both because of the cramped changing room and the humiliation of literally bursting out in every piece. The girls got out bigger sizes for each dress and finally I found something that didn’t look totally ridiculous. S demanded that wear the highest heels in the shop and pose while she clicked photos. I looked terrible, but S wouldn’t hear of it.

I think it took me one full day to get over my embarrassment.

On our last night in Guangzhou, the Mr. and I went out for a farewell dinner with S and her husband. They took us to one of their most frequented Cantonese places, a cuisine which I had grown to love in my short time there. The food was brilliant – we had stir fried bok choy, a variety of dim sums, mussels, silky sizzling tofu and pork. After dinner, the couple decided to walk us back to our apartment. Over promises to see each other soon and keep in touch on WeChat, we said our goodbyes.

I haven’t been in touch with S since then though I think of my time in China often and hope to go back soon. Maybe that’s the nature of travel. You meet people and connect at a certain moment in time, and then you move ahead in your own direction. I hope though that ours intersects again sometime.