Poland

May 2017 took me to Gdansk in Poland. Gdansk – a place I had never heard until a month back and a name which I could not even pronounce. (A simple way to remember: “Gd” – Gadd as in Gaddaar (Hindi word) and “aaansk”).
IMG_20170524_191203-EFFECTS
Neptune Fountain in Gdansk
Now I know that this was the place where the second World War started. Gdansk – or Danzig had a majority native-German population. When Hitler sought to expand his empire, this was one of his targets. The majority in the city was in the favor of annexation to Germany. On 1st September 1939, as part of the bigger plan to attack Poland, the first hit was made at Gdansk. This is called the Battle of Westerplatte. The Polish put up a spirited fight – much to the surprise of the Germans. The fighting continued for 7 days and ended when the Poles ran out of ammunition and supplies.
I also got a chance to visit Hell. Well, that is a spelling mistake. The place is called Hel. It is a peninsula coming out of the north of Gdansk. This was the place of action in the world war 2 post the fall of Westerplatter. Hel is said to be the place where the Polish army resistance lasted the longest. 8 September to 3 October 1939.
Picture1
Around 50 km from Gdansk is what used to be the Stutthoff Concentration camp. This was the first concentration camp set up outside Germany. It was also the last to be freed and around 65000 people died here. The place – quiet, peaceful, beautiful carried with it horrifying memories in the form of photos, stories, barracks and yes – the gas chamber – Nazis favorite way to kill people.
IMG_20180126_184402
The concentration camp with the Gas Chamber at the far end
Advertisements

2017 – The Year of Travel

105,000 kilometers – that is how much I traveled in 2017. this is equivalent to going around the earth along the equator – 4 times.
The definition of travel here is going to a place outside the place I am residing in. So does not include the nearly 3000 km travel per month within the city.
The bulk of the kms ( 70%) came from 4 international trips across 3 continents. 95% was by air.
It was also a year with more than one trip to a location – 2 trips to US. 2 to Goa and 3 To Mumbai.
So 2017 is a unique year as I am not sure this will be a feat that will be repeated any time in future.  Planning to write more about it in coming days.

Hong Kong

DSC_4045

The first thing that hits you on visiting Hong Kong are the tall buildings. The densely populated region, which is one of the top financial hubs of the world, has no other option but to go vertical. Though the population density of Hong Kong (6516 people per sq. km) is way less than Delhi (11,289 people per sq. km) but like Delhi, it does not have the large number of slums which increase the required space for houses.

The vision to go vertical was taken in 1950’s when the burgeoning population was leading to decay in living standards. Today, according to Wikipedia, there are nearly 7900 high rise buildings (>115 feet or > 12 floors) in Hong Kong. (Mumbai has 2300).

Hong Kong, which comprises 2 islands (Lantau and Hong Kong) and a peninsula (Kowloon) was on “lease” to British till as recently as 1997 when it came back under Chinese. A special administered region of China, Hong Kong has a separate currency, visa law, clearly defined borders, independent governance, and different language. It is a unique case where it has characteristics of a city and behaves like a country.

 

Goa

Portuguese generally don’t get as much attention as the British when we talk about India’s history. Perhaps that is because of the expanse of their rule.

But Portuguese were one of the earliest Europeans to come and among the last to leave. Vasco da Gama, the first and the most famous of them, landed in India in 1498 at Calicut, more than 25 years before Babur arrived in the North to establish the Mughal empire. The Portuguese continued to occupy parts of India including Goa till as late as 1961 (more than 100 years after Mughals ended their reign).

Vasco da Gama on returning to Lisbon told the rulers about a significant christian population in India  He somehow confused the largely Hindu population with Christians. He was followed by more Portuguese who over a period of time occupied and controlled many parts, often with extreme cruelty. They destroyed Hindu temples and harassed Muslims. In 1510, they conquered Goa.
DSC_2496 Se Cathedral, Goa
To commemorate their victory over Goa, the Se Cathedral was commissioned. The construction, however started in 1562 and completed in 1619. It is said to have a golden bell which used to be heard all over Goa. Of course, it must be different from the bustling tourist place it is now. But it is a welcome change from the ‘bustle’ of Delhi. The cruelty for which the Portuguese
were known for is now long lost. Tourism is the backbone of the state and you find most people humble and helpful, specially to the tourists.
DSC_2502

Inside the Church

Golden Temple

Golden temple is perhaps the most important destination in Sikhism. It has actually become a symbol  of the religion with its shining gold an attractive sight in the simmering in a bright sunlight as well under artificial lights at night.

Mughal emperor Akbar, impressed with the ideology and thoughts of Guru Nanak and Guru Angad, granted some land to Guru Angad’s daughter on her marriage. His son-in-law after some years built a water tank on one of these lands. Later a temple – the Golden temple and then a city – Amritsar was built around that water tank. 

Though the temple was brought into the present shape after many years by Maharaja Ranjit Singh (the temple was destroyed multiple times by the invading Afghans), but the ideology for it to be a symbol of a new faith is sown in the building plan.

Sikhism was born out of a combination of Hindu and Muslim religions. But Guru Arjun gave it a distinct identity and Golden temple is an example of that.

In a Hindu temple, a person has to climb stairs to reach the prayer hall. The golden temple was specifically designed such that people have to climb down the stairs from the road level. Also, generally Hindu temples have one entrance whereas the Harimandir as it is also called has 4 entrances.

Interestingly, the four doors symbolize the four castes of Hindus – Kshatriya, Brahmin, Shudra and Vaishya. It symbolized that the doors were open to all who wished to enter.

The philosophy still stands today and the temple is visited by people from multiple religions, castes and nations. It obviously is one of the most important pilgrimage destination for the Sikhs.

The experience of visiting the temple, though was not so great the last time around : https://sidharthbedi.com/2007/06/03/strengthened-beliefs-err-non-beliefs/

Bloemfontein

I was aware of the city before I knew that I had to come here. Of course the reference was cricket.

The city is Hansie Cronje and Allan Donald’s hometown. And it was at this ground that Virender Sehwag hit his first test century in 2001. For the LoTR lovers, this is the city where J.R.R. Tolkien was born.

Apart from that, the city, known as ‘city of roses’ is the judicial capital of South Africa (South Africa has 3 capitals). And like Chandigarh, there is an annual rose festival organized here too.  Another similarity with Chandigarh is the size of the airport.

Travel from India encompassed 3 different size of aircrafts. A moderate Airbus 330 to Dubai. Then a massive A-380 to Johannesburg and then a small turboprop Havilland to Bloemfontein over the huge – many of them exactly circular, farms of free state province. Outside the small airport there was only one taxi. And the first car I sat in, in South Africa, was a Hyundai Santro. Only that it is called Atos here.

The city is of course beautiful – mainly because you can see the huge expansive, dome like sky stretching out 360 degrees around you. There are only 2 buildings which can be called skyscrapers. The weather is somewhat like Bangalore – at least in January. Hot during the day and really cool in the evenings. Or such is the case in the particular area where I am putting up – Dan Piennar.

It is situated on a small hill overlooking the entire city of the Bloemfontein. Sitting in the room, you can even see the cricket stadium far away (or at least the flood lights). The breeze (and it is a wind today) has an inhibited access – from any direction which makes it cool in the morning and the evenings. And like Bangalore, it rains whenever the temperature crosses a threshold and more often than
not you can see a rainbow (though I don’t think that is the reason it is called the rainbow nation).

The sunsets are to die for. Everyday there is a different hue to the sky – Purple, orange, Blue. And the beautiful and rich houses..err. bunglows around the area form the perfect foreground.

Shimla – after years!!

Shimla – the queen of hills. No matter how commercial it gets or how crowded it gets, it still holds a special place for some of us friends. On a recent ‘official’ tour there, I tried hard to remember when I was there the last time. It was on a new year’s eve when we were there to inaugurate 2007. There are plenty of good memories before that of course – cricket with a fractured hand, ‘Naldhera’, the super expensive ice cream which was priced at an exorbitant Rs 30 but was compulsory on a cold night, experiencing the snow fall for the first time and sitting beside a warm fireplace at Vishesh’s home on Dec 31st, 2006.

Shimla essentially remains the same – the mall road, the ridge, the church and the famous Gandhi statue. But this time some things stood out. One is a huge statue of lord Hanuman on the top of a hill just behind the church. So if you click the church from certain angles, you will get the orange statue in the background.

Another notable difference was the absence of Barista on mall road. During college days, Barista was an aspirational place and we had hoped to be able to come to the Mall road barista café one day. Sadly, it was not to be. One another expensive eating joint used to be the Baljees, again on the mall road. But when I went there this time, it seemed as one of the cheapest. Times change. Things change. Shimla.. well the same.

Church with Hanuman statue in the background

Maldives

Maldives – a country of islands which are an extension of the Lakshadweep islands in the Arabian Sea. We had a chance to primarily be on one of them and it was undoubtedly beautiful.

At Male, it seems you are landing on the water itself. From the inside (or even outside) it is not a very attractive airport – certainly no match for the beauty of the rest of the place. As you get out of the airport, the first thing that strikes is the clarity of the water. It is almost as clear as in a swimming pool and you can see the bottom of the ocean floor.

A speed boat took us to our island. It was my first ride on a really fast speed boat and as it floated over the waves, it gave that funny feeling in the stomach – the same as you get on a roller coaster.

The island we went to (for the honeymoon) was more famously called the Paradise Island. The waters close to the island were greenish and not deep. Far away you could see it distinctly change to dark blue – indicating a sudden fall in the ocean floor. There were beach cottages along the circumference of the island and the water villas which were right in the middle of the water.

The whole island has been converted into a resort with a wide range of facilities and activities to do. You could take a ride on one of those planes which land on the water (I had seen them in the movies only), go fishing at night, have a private beach barbecue or play a wide range of games at the island itself.

But more than this man-made fun, it was the nature which was at its best. Strolling on the beach with a bright moon light, cool breeze and sounds of the waves was one such experience where the nature brings it all together to make it a perfect moment. Or maybe sitting on the beach restaurant – candle light, staring out at the vast dark expanse in front of you with an absolutely blank mind. During the day you could snorkel for hours together and be close to a range of variety of fish and pick up an assortment of sea shells – right from the sea bed.

Everything was excellent but in hospitality industry often the physical beauty alone is not quite enough to give you an ‘experience’. You need the accompanying service. And that was one downside at this specific island.

The rooms were big and comfortable but there were no soaps in the bathroom. And though only a limited people watch TV while in Maldives, but still the condition of the TV was pathetic – the remote control broken. A bottle of water ordered at the room took hours to come (and not just once). The behavior seemed ‘taught’ and may be did not come from inside.

Well, some of these glitches apart, the place (a one hour flight from Sri Lanka) is worth a visit – especially considering that it is feared that these islands may be under water in few years.

On Road in China

It was a short – lasting 36 hours – trip to China.

To be very frank, I expected an India-like feeling on the roads – no traffic sense, people jumping lines and crossing traffic lights, crossing roads wherever and whenever they wanted. But it was exact opposite.

The flight landed in Hong Kong. “The airport is huge”, I thought.  “But what the hell, we also have a T3”.
The proud Indian ego had countered the first impression.
(And why did people complain so much about the thick carpet at T3. HK airport also had a similar carpet adorning its floors.)

But the other impressions which followed were difficult to be countered.

kuch kuch BSE jaise lagti hai...

The taxi which was to take us to Mainland China was called Limousine on paper. It was not that long car we generally have in mind but was a huge MUV – a Toyota Alphard – Pretty awesome. It had run 2,50,000 kms but still was ‘fresh as a daisy’.

One of the major reasons for that was explained by the next impression – the road infrastructure. If they had those kinds of roads why wouldn’t the life of the vehicle be multiplied. And it was not just the highways but all around. It was told that even the villages had same kind of ‘makhan-like’ roads.

Most of the 36 hours was spent on the roads so there were more observations about that. There were plenty of tolls on the way and almost all of them were ‘manned’ by women – even at late hours. And they looked happy doing the job. They smiled, greeted and after the payment was done, thanked and held their hand out in a guiding direction towards the exit. It was a pleasant change from what you see at the Indian toll stops.

One of the tallest building

The most surprising part though was that people had patience and the traffic sense. The pedestrians waited for the traffic light to turn green before crossing the roads. Vehicles generally followed lanes. They were not in a hurry to get ahead on tolls. The height of such behavior was actually observed near the airport where one had to cross a really narrow stretch of road to reach the terminal. There was a light installed which was red for pedestrians. But there was not a single vehicle on that road. Still people stood there for good 5 minutes and moved ahead only when light turned green. I stood there, behind in the line for few seconds trying to understand why so many people were just standing there and was simply dumbstruck when I realised the reason for it.

Another interesting thing was street lights being run by windmills. Small windmill fans were installed on top of the lights along with solar panels which, I guess is an excellent way ‘go green’. Though not sure how viable it is.

Lastly, I found the large bill boards on road sides were a bit banal there (at least along the roads around Shenzhen which I roamed). Unlike India where we have actors and actresses or at least some images along with them, most of the bill boards there lacked such things. May be there is something that India can give China – a Shahrukh Khan perhaps!!

Cheen ka heero

A billboard with a Hero

The British Magazine

During the 1857 uprising, hundreds of sepoys came into Delhi after a  mutiny in Meerut where they killed all the British. In Delhi too they went about killing all the English – men, women, children they could find. By the afternoon, almost all of them in the city had been killed. At around 4 PM, the sepoys went to the Mughal king – Bahadur Shah Zafar to seek his blessing and support for the uprising.
The old king, having very less options, reluctantly agreed to it. As soon as he came back to his quarters after announcing this publicly, there was a huge blast north to the Palace (The Red Fort). It was so strong that it was heard 20 miles away.

The epicenter of this blast was the British Magazine – North India’s largest arsenal of ammunition and guns. Lieutenant Willoughby was defending this Magazine since morning. By the afternoon he was fully surrounded by the sepoys. To prevent such a large cache of arms and ammunition landing in the mutineer’s hands, Willoughby blew up the whole building along with a large mob of the sepoys who were attacking it and of course himself.

What remains of this magazine are the two entrances around 100 meters apart. Kashmiri Gate Post office stands where perhaps  there was a warehouse of the ‘modern’ Enfield rifles which were the primary reason for the 1857 uprising.