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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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


A Guide to Enjoying a Dim Sum meal in Hong Kong like a Pro

A guide? For a Dim Sum meal? Whaat! How hard can going to a restaurant and ordering a meal be? I must have lost my marbles, you think. But I have not dear reader 🙂 . This is valuable insight, gained over half a dozen meals, feelings of being lost and looking like an utter fool. Believe me when I say that a Dim Sum meal is more than just another meal, it is a ritual, and a slightly complex one at that. There are steps to it, flowing seamlessly from one to the other which may not seem like much if you have experience, but for a novice, it can be confusing as hell. More so if your place of choice is a traditional one, where no one may speak English or have the time to guide you.

We stood outside the door of Fresco Dim Sum at Kennedy Town, Hong Kong, eyeing the life size menu covering the restaurants exterior, while patiently awaiting our turn to be seated. A family came out, and in we went, moving past the noise and business of tiny tables placed so close, that you really couldn’t tell one from the other.

We found our spot, a table for three and adjusted ourselves into the cramped space. A waitress placed a large pot of tea, saucers, cups, a large bowl and chopsticks in front of us, without saying a word. The big bowl in the middle made no sense and I gave a “I am lost here” look. Accompanied by a friend from Hong Kong and the mister who had done this previously, I was happy for them to take over and be a silent observer.

And then it began, the ritual.

The cleaning of all utensils. You pour the tea into your cup and bowl and twirl it around, then discard the tea into the main bowl(Ah, so that bowl HAD a purpose 😉 ). You can pour tea over your plate and chopsticks holding it above the main bowl. Once everyone has cleaned their utensils, you pour tea into the cups to drink, first fill everyone else’s cup and then yours. The tea is to be enjoyed with the Dim Sum, and is to be refilled regularly throughout the meal.

What is the Dim Sum really?

It’s bite sized food to be had with tea, like the Spanish Tapas, just with tea instead of alcohol. Traditionally served as small bites in tea houses, the modest Dim Sum has evolved into a meal experience in itself called as Yum Cha, which literally means “drinking tea”.

Dim Sums can be steamed(mostly), friend or baked. Vegetarian and meat based. Sweet and Savory. There are no rules to order one type before the other. In fact, it is perfectly fine to order a sweet dim sum in between the meal.

How to best enjoy a Dim Sum meal?

People and time are essential in my view.

Go in a group so that you can order a lot of variety and sample different things. If you are travelling solo, I would really recommend looking for a food tour to make the most of your experience.

This is not a meal to be rushed or had on the go. It’s the sort of meal which is comforting, with people, conversation and food.

What to expect in a Dim Sum restaurant?

It really depends on the sort of place you go to. The one I mention here is a local place, cramped, loud and busy. The menu had an English translation, because this was Kennedy Town, Hong Kong. Otherwise go with Eenie Meenie Miny mo and cross your fingers 😉 .

Don’t expect perfect hygiene, table linen and cutlery. If that’s not your cup of tea, pick the more upmarket places.

As soon as you are seated, tea and utensils will be placed on your table, which need to  be rinsed with tea to take off any traces of grease, as I have shared earlier.

Chopsticks are the way to go but if you are not used to them, I would really recommend carrying a packet of plastic forks in your bag. Over multiple meals and practice, using chopsticks becomes easier but if you are new to it, imagine the frustration of trying to pick up a piece of food and dropping in five times before it lands in your mouth. Ask me. Just not worth it.

If you need a refill of hot water for the tea, just let the lid hang by the side and someone will come and refill it. Don’t shout at the top of the lungs for water, it’s likely no one will understand 😉 .

Order is to be made on a paper form, where you can tick what you want. In many restaurants, ladies will go around with carts of steaming dim sums and stop at your table and take the lid off the basket. If you like what you see, go for it.

Show your thanks to the server when they refill your pot of tea, or to the people you are eating with if they fill your cup by tapping the middle and index finger twice together on the table, as a show of thanks.

And that’s it. Thank me now 😀 .

The Dim Sums I loved (Honestly I could kill for these)

The variety is ginormous and I tried a lot over six meals and different places. I am sharing the ones I absolutely loved and would recommend you to try.


Har gou(Right Most): Steamed Shrimp dumplings, delicate and flavorful.

Siu mai(Top Left): Ground pork, shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, wrapped in thin wheat dough and seasoned with Chinese rice wine, soy sauce and sesame oil.

Lo baak gou(Middle): 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.

Untitled collage

Cheong fan(Top): Fresh steamed rice noodles with a variety of fillings, mostly beef, shrimp, or pork. Drizzled with a sweet soy sauce.

Haam sui gau(Bottom Right): Deep-fried glutinous rice dumpling with pork.

Cha siu bao(Bottom Left): Steamed barbecue pork-stuffed buns.

Lo mai gai(Not in photo, very popular as street food also): Steamed sticky rice flavored with chicken, mushrooms, sausage, served in a lotus or banana leaf.

Fung zao: Fried steamed chicken feet. It’s considered a delicacy, but I just did not have the heart to try.Untitled collage (1)

Lai wong bau(Top): Bao dough stuffed with an eggy milk custard and steamed.

Ma lai go(Bottom): Soft, eggy, steamed sponge cake.

Do fu fa: Soft, silken tofu served with a ginger or plain sugar syrup.

Dim Sum is definitely one of my most favorite foods ever. Would love to know if you have been to a Dim Sum place and what your experience was like.


The pain of visiting an Indian hill station on a long weekend – experiences from Kasauli

The walk to town wasn’t a hard one, but it was different this time, and not in a positive way. My dream of enjoying a long, peaceful stroll in the hills was shattered with the constant blaring of horns and the long line of cars, leaving very little space for a pedestrian. Suddenly in the standstill traffic, I see a window roll down and out comes a hand throwing a plastic bag down the hilly slopes. I approached the mall road and the situation was worse. There were too many cars and not enough parking spots. The police tried to turn back the cars, but I saw that many drivers were unwilling to listen hence creating a bottleneck.

I walked further to visit the shops I always do and get my supplies, but there was barely any space to walk around without getting jostled. A lot more restaurants had opened up. The shops were all full. Business was booming it seemed. The street was littered with plastic bottles, wrappers, cans and empty packets of chips. I picked my supplies quickly and decided to head back.

We met a taxi driver, known to us for over a decade. He mentioned that peak season was madness, a two km ride took him forty-five minutes or more, because there were too many visitors and everyone wanted to park at the mall road, clogging the one route to it for hours. People got frustrated at the traffic they themselves caused, and ended up getting aggressive on the road, shouting and constantly honking, he smiled sadly. He had decided not to drive around this time of the year, letting go of his livelihood.
A home-stay owner shared a similar story – visitors often came just for the weekend, driving from close by places without prior booking, assuming that they will get a place to stay for the night. There are limited hotels and home stays in the town, though the number is increasing every year. But people turn up nevertheless, only to get agitated when they don’t find a place, adding to the overall chaos in town. There is demand, so a lot of construction is coming up, not all of it regulated.

I have been to Kasauli many times over the last decade – the luxury of a family cottage and a reasonable distance from Delhi has meant a lot of spontaneous trips and memories over the years. It’s a town I have come to love, as it always felt like home. Until this trip. It’s been two years, but I realized how much can change in that time.

Two days later we headed back to Delhi and left very early to avoid traffic. We had a frustrating time reaching Kasauli due to heavy traffic from Panchkula onwards. From Dharampur to Kasauli was completely choked as well but we took an alternate route, thankfully one that still isn’t well known and saved a couple of hours. Since we left really early on the way back, we took the main route crossing Dharampur and Parwanoo and I saw the massive landslide that had happened a week back and was covered in all national dailies, cutting off all connectivity to the hills, including food and supplies that the locals depend on. The landslide has been attributed to the excessive rains, and the cutting of hills to make a four lane road. Hills that are fragile and vulnerable and obviously unable to stand the impact of massive construction.

What is depressing is that this isn’t the story of one hill station – Mussoorie, Nainital, Shimla and many more, which were synonymous with summer holidays for 90s kids in northern India, they are all struggling with a massive influx of visitors and commercialization. A close friend recently did the Triund trek and while they enjoyed the experience, they couldn’t help feeling disappointed by the garbage strewn throughout the trek, even by selfie clicking educated youngsters.

I write this post because I feel sad. And angry. It is beyond me to make sense of why we are so callous about our own country and how easily we turn a blind eye to our own unconsciousness. How we don’t realize the value of what we have in this beautiful, diverse country of ours and how we don’t understand that it WILL NOT last forever.

Tourism is a great thing, it can boost local economy, create livelihoods and enable development. But it needs to be sustainable. Especially areas that are fragile, have limitation of resources and run the risk of collapse, if there are no check points. What’s the point of development if it is actually leading to destruction, I wonder?
Maybe the government will care enough to regulate, maybe it will be too late by then. Till then, pick up that plastic bottle and throw it in the closest bin.

I visited Kasauli, a tiny hill station in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh, during the Independence Day long weekend. Do you love the hills too? And have you visited any hill station during peak season? What were your experiences? Please do share more in the comments section.

The alternate world in Copenhagen’s backyard – Freetown Christiana

I chugged along on my bicycle, occasionally stopping to take a quick look at the map on my phone till I could see the entrance to Christiana. I turned to B, who was right behind me and with a quick nod of agreement, we decided to a few more minutes of cycling till we were officially “outside of the European union” and inside Christiana.

We found a good spot to park our bicycles and decided to walk around. As history goes, Freetown Christiana was established in 1971 by a group of hippies, who broke down barricades to an abandoned military base and eventually built a society, with its own rules, laws, currency, completely independent of the Danish government and “considered outside of it”. Over the years, this community built houses, workshops and cafes, experimented with green building techniques, solar energy and water-treatment systems to reduce their ecological footprint. Many small businesses flourished and the place attracted artists and musicians, free thinkers who found it a haven. In 1973, the government gave Christiana the temporary status of a “social experiment” which allowed the town to persist, and 16 years later with a majority vote in the parliament, this squat was made officially legal.

But can such a Utopian world really sustain?

YES, there are over 900 people living in the town today, many of them third generation.

As we walked around, we saw these houses and sheds and murals and art and boutiques. There was even a community center and a movie theater. Residents were out and about, sitting on their porch, walking their dogs and just going about their daily business.

We were distracted by a sound, a woman’s voice but coming from a speaker. Intrigued, we followed the sound, to be led to a large garden in which a huge crowd had gathered. Everyone had a green balloon in their hand, those who didn’t were offered one by the volunteers. The woman on the mike was asking more people to join in, to what exactly was unclear to us. As we got closer to the crowd, a lady approached me and offered a balloon. I asked her what it was for, she smiled sweetly and said something I couldn’t quite comprehend. I held on to my balloon, confused what to do with it. The woman on the mike suddenly began a countdown, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 and shouted “Legalize Cannabis”, everyone released their balloons in the air and chanted the same, like a slogan. It felt strange and stupid to be standing there, taking a part in something that I had no reference point of and did not endorse. Why were these people fighting to legalize drugs, and what point of view did I have on it to stand there and release a balloon, for god’s sake. I felt disturbed.

B and I walked away and decided to get a coffee, we sat in a small café, quietly sipping our coffees, confused with what had just passed. As we got up to leave, we heard loud music on the street and came out to see people dancing and drinking, like it was a carnival. A few makeshift stalls had come up, out of nowhere, and we could see that they were selling cannabis. A tourist tried to click a photo, and immediately 2 men came from behind the stand and took his phone and I would presume, deleted the photos. You are not allowed to click pictures, specifically where the cannabis trade is done, its written everywhere on street signs in the town. Don’t ignore it.

We left this scene and walked around an area which was like a flea market, selling t-shirts, food, jewelry, crafts, and household items. I would hope it was all locally made, but knowing that Christiana is the second most popular tourist attraction while visiting Copenhagen, I can’t be sure if it is outside businesses making sunshine.

We reached our bicycles and decided to head back. It was an odd experience, but it felt like there was more to the place than what I saw in the afternoon, so I decided to do some research online. I learnt that Cannabis is still illegal in Denmark, however Christiana allowed for it since the beginning.  Since the town is a “Freetown”, the government tolerated it. Initially the trade was run locally and by small businessmen, but how long could bigger gangs keep away? The trade was too lucrative for that.

Raids have been conducted in Christiania many times to keep a check on drug sales on a street names Pusher Street but none got as violent as in 2016, when a police officer was injured by a gunshot.  The residents were upset and decided to have a meeting where it was unanimously decided to shut down Pusher Street. The current version of the trade is probably very small and patchy from used it used to be.

Since then, Copenhagen officials are trying to legalize cannabis so that the trade can be controlled effectively. The proposal has been rejected multiple times in the past. What happens in the future is anyone’s guess.

The internet is full of videos and articles from the residents, who claim to want to nurture and protect the spirit of Christiana, which is self-sustainable, free thinking and independent. Where everyone is equal and has a voice. Where the community is supreme. Where creativity is valued. Most express disappointment that the focus largely remains on the Cannabis trade, which they say is a part of the ecosystem but not the whole system itself.

The more I read about the place, the more I realized that my first encounter was a bit deceptive. I was a passerby in an ecosystem that I did not understand, and I found it comforting to paint everything with one stroke and generalize. The reality turns out to be far more complex. One can have an opinion on an ideology, and even disagreement with certain aspects of it, but it is incredible that a place like Christiana can exist and sustain itself for over 46 years.  What will its future be like, I am curious to know. But if only for its spirit, you should go see it – With an open mind.