Scandinavia in Winter – Start of a tour!

In the summer of 2010, Anubhav Vacations, a travel company just over one-year-old in the outbound tours from India crossed the Arctic Circle with a group of 20 people. The trip was planned around the Mid Night sun and the sun at midnight we did see. Our first group above the Arctic circle was not only our first one but also the first ever from India. I did not know this in the beginning and perhaps the fact that we were an Indian travel company with Indian people born and living in India was seen in the Lofoten islands, Norway as completely out of mind. The idea of going so far up north was as surprising to the locals who spoke to us as it was for the people in the group. That trip in the summer of 2010 and the lessons I took home from it decided the future course of work for Anubhav Vacations in a very significant way. We started taking the route of the countryside to show the country and over the years the scale has tilted in favor of a stay in the villages to staying in huge cities.

The reason for this brief introduction above is that without learning how to travel in summer in Scandinavia, planning a trip in winter wouldn’t have been possible. I think it was for about a year that I heard stories about the Northern Lights in Tromso. Facebook and internet marketing was still new but articles had already started to appear in travel magazines around Europe. SAS, an airline based in Scandinavia had a piece on the Northern lights in the north of Norway and I would think that it was in one of their in-flight magazines that the trigger to go and check Tromso in winter occurred. So in the winter of 2012, laced with whatever woolen clothing I possessed, I decided to take a SAS flight crossing the Arctic circle for the first time in winter. I think in that personal trip the Northern Lights was not so much of an agenda as was to understand whether a 60 + year, Mumbai living individual can take the cold. The warm clothes that I wore on that trip made me look like a Russian grandpa, with all the heavy wool. I was sitting at the window on my flight to Tromso and the cloud cover below was pure white. It was only after the sudden touch down did I realize that it was really the snow cover and so much of snow that even the roofs of the houses were white. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t care if I see the lights or not, this is so good”.

That winter two things happened, one, my bond with Scandinavia grew stronger and two an itinerary took shape. The same itinerary which gave us the first group tour to be ever done from India. Over the years, the image of the Northern lights though is a postcard image of winter, the real thing is to experience the Arctics in this time of the year. When a family of four rolled on a snow-covered river and got up only to see the sky change color, as if dawn had just gotten to be dusk in 30 minutes, the expression on their face said it all. Maybe they had a more ‘aww’ of an expression when the saw the Northern lights later, but the calm they had earlier was different.

As I write tonight from my hotel in Stockholm having finished the first group and waiting for the next group to come, I am happy that I am here for yet another year. I keep learning from Norway and in general from Scandinavia, summer or in winter!

Myanmar is to feel!


It was in a large room of a guest house in Yangon that I had my first night stay in Myanmar. The alarm went horribly wrong and a flight which I had struggled to find a seat in was in jeopardy of being lost. I rushed to the airport in a cab and as soon I reached the check-in counter and apologized for being late, they just smiled and said, “we have a delay, fog”. I realized it later that delays are not only due to fog but just a way how flights operate internally in Myanmar. I guess It was when the staff started calling out the flight that I actually woke up from a stretched position on a wooden bench. The Airport felt like a bus station in India but it did not look like one. It was spotlessly clean!

On getting down at the Heho airport in the center of Myanmar, I hired a taxi which later I learned was a 5th – 6th hand model of a Japanese Toyota. With an unpaved road ahead and a really old car, I was in for a very bumpy ride. But all this did not matter to me, coz by this time, and within 24 hours of my arrival in India’s unknown neighbor, I had already fallen in love with Myanmar.

The Inle Lake at just under 3000 ft above sea level was the reason why I had flown to Heho. The tickets back then and I guess still couldn’t be bought online. In fact, back in 2013, most of the modern world things did not work. Credit cards, cell phones, internet, nothing! Traveling in Myanmar by road is still not an option, back then it was more complicated. So, flying on small flights was the only way of going from one part of the country to another. The tour groups were there, they were mostly Europeans, looking at Myanmar as the next thing to do in South East Asia. I was there to see if I could have my own group tour to Myanmar. It was the first time I realized that simply liking a country’s feel is not enough, to start working with it. Big brother, US had its sanctions imposed, and any trade with Myanmar was very very difficult unless done from Singapore. Well, let the logistics be, this blog is about the land of Myanmar and its people.

On my second night in Myanmar, I stayed in a guest house in Nyuang Shwe on the banks of the Inle lake. The town felt like the ones from old Indian movies, the people felt like the ones from a different world. A world, where helping is just second nature and smiling is as natural as breathing. The country is not rich but the poor can feed themselves. Back in the time socialism was still very alive, if not kicking. The military was in all high offices and even though the gradual shifting to civilians holding posts in key positions in the government was happening, they were mostly relatives or close friends of the army personnel.

Staying in a hotel run by the government or flying Myanma Airlines, the national carrier, was and perhaps still, considered a no. The lady Aung San Su Kyi back in the days had appealed to all the tourists visiting Myanmar not to help the government with money. Now, as she heads the government, I don’t know what is the new norm.

It was 6 pm and the lights in the town of NyuangShwe went off. The restaurant which I was seated in, immediately came up with candles on each of the tables. As I finished my meal and head out, I realized that in this dark, candlelit town (no generators), the evening makes one travel back in time more than it ever does, and in Myanmar, one is always traveling back in time. In our tour to Myanmar, I hear senior citizens often mentioning, back in the days, this is how it was and when they say it the expression on their face is priceless. A couple came back from a tour and in their description of Myanmar to their friends, they said, “we could show you the pictures of the places we have been to, but how can we tell you about how we felt there”.

This is Myanmar, I guess. An experience to be felt rather than a place to be seen.

The Nile in Egypt

Water has a very calming effect, both in sight and sound. In the evening with the setting sun behind the vast Sahara, or late at night when there is nothing to view but just to hear the water flow, the Nile speaks differently to me each moment. The waters reflect my inner thoughts, sometimes even giving me answers to questions I might not even know how to unravel. Here in the middle of Aswan and Luxor in upper Egypt as I wake up to the sound of the first prayer of the day, the Nile feels more Egypt than ever.

Although it flows through eight countries after its birth in the Victoria falls down south, It is only in Egypt that it gets its true fame. As much as Egypt depends on the Nile for its life, the Nile has depended on Egypt since ancient times to be known. The country is classified not into north and south but as upper and lower Egypt, and since the Nile actually flows into the Mediterranean in the north, the south of Egypt is called as upper Egypt. For me, the Nile is truly beautiful to be within Aswan, a town in the south or upper Egypt. Here the various small islands on the Nile, some formed after the building of the high dam gives the Nile the contrast of the rugged land. Otherwise only really the obvious contrast of the Sahara exists.

The Nile in upper Egypt has the community of Nubian people live on it. The Nubians are a beautiful lot, with their skin color distinctly different and their features more Sudanese than Egyptian. A Nubian house is colored with all the possible images of the surroundings, of everyday life, much like the scriptures on the walls of the ancient Egyptian temples. I wonder if 400 years from now when the natural colors of the paintings are still visible, only the Nubians here in Aswan would have something to look at from the past, while us living in the modern world will only have stories to hear of.

In Egypt, the people make for an interesting blend with the Nile. The Arabic that they speak flows seamlessly like the waters of the Nile and the tone in their sound is like music much like the sound of the waters. The food that they grow on the banks of the Nile is freshly served in their houses, more so here in upper Egypt and Nubia than in the mad rush of Cairo. Speaking of which, the Nile in Cairo doesn’t feel very happy. It feels like it just passes through the city while here in upper Egypt it feels like the Nile wants to be for a while, chatting with its people, wanting to know their stories while sharing its own. The Nile goes through eight other countries in the African continent before creating the fertile Nile basin on its way to the Mediterranean in the north. In our group tour to Egypt we spend 5 nights on the Nile out of the 8 nights in all and even then the people feel like spending a night or two more before they depart to India.

A huge chunk of the Nile experience involves sailing on the Nile and the 4 nights spent on the cruise help people to feel the river up close. Aswan to Luxor is downriver and takes 3 nights while the other way from Luxor is a 4-night affair. Luxor is known to have the highest number of heritage monuments in the world any single town, and you would realize it soon as you start sailing towards it. The kings of ancient Egypt aptly had the temples dedicated to the gods on the east bank of the Nile, while the place where their dead rested was on the west. You, would want to know why? Well, it’s quite simple, just follows the path of the sun, coming up from the east and disappearing below the horizon in the west.

The Valley of the Kings on the west bank for many is the highlight of the tour in this part of Egypt. The pyramid is a tomb but because it was so noticeable and on the training route of the Arabs and the Bedouins, it got looted time and again leaving it with nothing but black soot on its inner walls. The tombs in the Valley of the kings, however, were hidden and yet looted, however, they continue to shine with their interior chambers still possessing the vibrant colors of ancient Egyptian art. All over the Nile especially from Aswan to Luxor the kings built various temples. The temple at Edfu and Kom Ombo remain favorite of tourists for the way they come to be seen in the cruise itinerary. The former in the early morning sunlight and the later in the evening.

I have heard that by not taking a big cruise and just going on a motorless sailboat, known as the Dahabiya the Nile can be enjoyed in an intimacy which is hard to compare. It’s the one thing I have always wanted to do. It’s nice to look forward to this. It’s nice to have the Nile to look forward to.

Lima Underrated

When I first landed in Lima, it was night. The city from the sky looked like any  other city, with its gleaming lights but with much fewer skyscrapers. It was late in the night and our drive to the hotel involved me thinking, ‘well, a little ugly’ and as I heard voices of in my bus just saying what I was thinking, vocally, I was already telling myself, ‘its good we have only one night here’. That was in 2011. Cut to 2018 and I find myself wanting to spend all my leisure time here in this city in before, after and in between the tours. So, what changed? First impressions are always the best ones?! 

Its true, the district of Callao in which the airport is, can look very ugly on the outside. It is not until the inner city roads lead you to the ‘costa verde’,  a green highway built kissing the Pacific Ocean, that you might actually want to change your impression. Lima is a dessert. I did not know that at first, as also the fact that it doesn’t really get sunny in Lima until it is afternoon. The winds blowing from the cold Pacific ocean cause a phenomenon called the El Nino effect. There is a constant haze in the sky, but under it, the city wakes up quite early to get on with its day. With its 48 different municipalities, Miraflores gets the title of being the tourist hub. San Isidro is the financial heart, which has also most of the Embassies. What really caught my attention and proved to be a game changer was the district of Barranco. It is here that my love with Lima started to gain a foothold and ever since all I have been wanting to do, was to know more about this crazy city with a lot of heart. 

Barranco is very Bohemian, and it looks really different from any other district of Lima. But for me, Barranco really downsized Lima to start getting to know it, first through, take a guess!! The food. It is here that I discovered the food of Lima in tiny bits and pieces. True, a local might not agree, but for me as a tourist, it was a perfect head start. I think it was on an evening in early 2016, that I kind of started playing with the idea of having something more to associate myself with Lima. The big travel agencies that I was working with at that time all gave me the same ideas and seeing no other option but to start my own company in Lima to create better itineraries, “Anubhav Peru” came to life. It hasn’t been a smooth ride since, but that’s ok. This is about Lima and what place it continues to hold inside of me. 

So where were we? Yes, Barranco. I will always be in Barranco somehow I guess. The entire city stands on a cliff and as the cliff slopes towards the sea, there is La Punta on the far end of Lima. On the face of it, La Punta looks like what Barranco might have 20 years ago, before the advent of restaurants and boutique hotels. La Punta hugs the sea and has a beautiful bay that latches on to it. There are lovely waterfront villas in which rich people live and here is where you know that they will never let La Punta be like Barranco. It is nice to look at the entire stretch of Coastal Lima though from the peninsula of La Punta. Here is also one of my favorite seafood restaurants, Manolo. Not many tourists come to La Punta, but the ones that do, end up liking it. 

Between Chorillos in the South and La Punta in the North, Lima is spread out inland. The spread is quite a lot with mad traffic, a public transport system which is as chaotic as it gets but still helps you to go from A to B in 1/3rd of a dollar, and then the amazing array of food joints. There is nowhere in the world that I have seen so much of chicken than in Lima. Polleria means the place of chicken, and in every block of Lima, there is at least one. The succulent whole chicken is grilled on skewers and the condiments plus the way of cooking makes all the difference. The other thing very evident in the Lima food scene are its Chifa’s. The Italians settled in La Punta, but the Chinese other than settling in the China Town, yes Lima has one, also opened Peruvian Chinese restaurants all over Lima. I can go on and on with the food in Lima. The Ceviche, the Japanese Nikkei, the old diners, all make Lima what it is. The food capital of South America. It is not just Peru’s own food that gives Lima this title, but the fusion of what the settlers got to Lima. 

Lima has its tourists sights, its museums and all that. But the food is what makes it what it is according to me. I sometimes feel like I can just come and settle here in Lima, not just for the food though. But, because Peru, on the whole, feels very much like home. 

Simply Patagonia

I guess it was just the way it sounded. That’s what it was that drew me to first use my cursor on google maps, to go south, south of the South American continent.

It was not however till I touched the hair of the Patagonia, in Bariloche, Argentina that I decided that I should try and go where my cursor had taken me on the screen.

Here as I write from the South Chilean Fjords, on board the Stella Australis cruise ship sailing at a latitude of 54.5 Deg South, all I know is, I would be associated with this region, for some time to come.

The best of South America and Antarctica, is how I describe Patagonia on my web page. It is only after coming here again do I think it is just different, and I might just instead use, ‘A Different Continent’, to describe how Patagonia really feels.

Patagonia is just a geographical region, and even though it is a combination of Chile and Argentina, the 1.2 million people that call it home in the two countries, feel more Patagonian, than they feel individual about the countries they live in. Other than when they play football with each other, perhaps, Patagonia is what unites them. They say here in the south, after 40 deg, there is no law and below 50 there is no God.

Patagonia is very different in its appearance in Argentina and in Chile. Argentina has huge expanses of Steppes which as it further goes south gets the appearance of a desert. Chile on the other hand with very less land distribution in comparison to its neighbor gets all the rain and humidity from the Pacific Ocean. The Andes simply don’t let the clouds pass over to Argentina.

On our trip to Patagonia, the days on the cruise are the highlight and they are planned to come in at the end. The 4 nights on the Stella Australis in the Southern Fjords of Chile displays the wild nature of Patagonia at its best, or sometimes even the worst. The Andes, the land mass of Patagonia is as important as its waters. The rivers, the lakes and then the Oceans. The Pacific and the Atlantic way apart in the north Patagonia come together as one great mass of water at the Drake Passage, some say the most dangerous sea in the world to cross. But before the Drake passage there is one small land mass, that is known as Cape Horn. This, is the last piece of land looking towards the Antarctic land and if you sail for 2 nights and 3 days from here, the Antarctic Peninsula will be arms length. This time around our ship our vessel was not allowed by the winds to dock reach the land by the Zodiacs. So, we simply circum-navigated the cape and somewhere between taking the pictures, saying ‘smile’ and feeling really cold, I thought about the sailors that must’ve sailed this sea in their simple vessels. In the night the documentary being shown was about the fighting spirit of the animals and humans alike to survive Patagonia and make this land their home.

From its tiny cities to its vast empty lands, Patagonia is not only the best of South America and Antarctica but it is simply Patagonia.

Berlin – Keeps getting better

The first time I got into Berlin was from Scandinavia. Back then in 2008 – 09, fresh from a beating from the cost of food in Scandinavia, Berlin proved to be a heaven for both how cheap the food here was compared to Norway and how varied my options looked. In the Summer that year I took the train from Berlin’s east train station to go to Krakow, Poland. There is a different train station to get on a train westward bound. The ‘Westbahnhof Train Station’ is super modern and if you want to head on the rails to Paris or Amsterdam then this would be it. The East Station, however, like the countries in the East back then was not something to write about. The train too looked as if it was pulled from a post World War II movie. People hardly spoke any English and since it was the end of Summer the sun was already going down at 1900 hours, the time my train was about to screech out of Berlin.

Since then I have been traveling to Berlin at least thrice every year for work and every year it seems like the old communist days are long over. I do not think English is how one should judge the receptiveness of a place, however understanding the language in a foreign country does help the regular movement. In the beginning, the guys at the hotel reception and tourist places only spoke English, but as the years went ahead the corner coffee shop and the odd waiter at a Vietnamese restaurant did too.

The Vietnamese Pho (Noodle soup) in Berlin is as popular as the Turkish Kebab. Both these nationalities have their own little attachment to Berlin. Vietnam was a brother country to East Germany in the Communist era and a lot of them came for education and never went back. Similarly, many from Turkey came during the late 80’s till the late 90’s as Germany unified and a lot was needed to be built in the East to make it at par with the West. They never went back either.

The food scene is Berlin is colorful and places like the ‘Hackescher Markt’ is one the many food districts where high-end restaurants go side by side with a run of the house Thai joint. This is one thing that has always impressed me of the city. True, it is the Capital of Germany and true, it does look like one, but it feels like a very Global city. It feels as neat and tidy as any city in Scandinavia and it feels as warm as any in Latin America. This is Germany, I guess is hard to find. From the Germans that came here from other big cities and recite their stories of Berlin, I have learned that how metros like Frankfurt and Cologne feel commercial and superficial to Berlin. Some have found a love interest in Berlin and they stay back and the others, well they just stay back for the love of the city.

The Tegel Airport is like the city itself. Though there is one more that connects the city to the globe (The Schoenefeld). I have always landed and taken off from Tegel. Since 70% of the city is green and a large part of it has the river Spree running through it, the whole city even with its concrete structures feels like a huge park. It also helps that the ride to Tegel is a maximum of 20 – 25 mins in a public bus from one of the many city centers. Unlike the cities of Paris or Amsterdam in the West or Prague and Budapest in the East, Berlin does not have an old town. I guess the city lost whatever it had and was considered old in the war. Speaking of which the cities subsequent caretakers did make sure that very less of what war did was kept. ‘Hitler died here’ one of our guides had said once. When we asked where he pointed to a parking lot! They did not want to relieve the war it seemed. However, what they still have is the wall. The wall still runs through the city but is only present as two brick lines on the ground on most of the city roads. The east side gallery is a creative space which was given to various
artists to use the wall as a platform to show their art and to paint a message of ‘the world needs no walls’. The city also has a DDR museum where the communist lifestyle is played. The parliament building or the ‘Bundestag’ has a lovely glass dome roof and rivals the glass structures from the Potsdamer Platz, where the Sony Centre plays the Annual Berlin Film Festival every year.

Every time that I roam the streets, Berlin feels inviting and every time I leave the city limits I am happy because I know I will come back again. Berlin happens to be one of my favorite cities in Europe I know. Just like the more than 4000 varieties of Cheeses and Sausages in KaDeWe, Berlin’s premier food and shopping store, the variety of nationalities living here along with the Germans make this a very special place to be.

The Saxon Swiss National Park and the Elbe River

Over the first few years of my driving from the German border into the Czech country, I kept noticing signboards with an interesting design of mountain peaks on them. There was just one though at repeated intervals. I think somewhere between wanting to go deeper into the German countryside and my disapproval of Prague’s tourist scene came the idea of actually following the direction that came from the signboard.

I drove to the Saxon Swiss National park and my GPS read 7 kms or so when the scenery had already started to get interesting. The Autobahn was a bit boring with acres of flat fields but now on the country road, the fields gave way to intermittent hills. Just around 3 – 4 kms before Bastei, the village in the park, I could see the sand stone formations slowly appearing. As the road got narrower it also got interesting with pensions (family run guest houses) dotting the sides of the road. I parked and started following a small group of tourists assuming that they were headed to the park entrance. I only came to know later that there was no such thing as the park entrance and that I was already inside the park.

It is only at the first viewpoint did I realize how high up I had come. The sandstone formations rise up from the surrounding countryside and the first viewpoint is just the introduction to what lies ahead. As I continued walking again in the direction of the people with me, I passed the Panorama Bastei hotel, by this time I had read the letters B A S T E I more than 10 times including on the GPS. There was enough build up for the grand view that was supposed to come in. I had sneaked a peak on the internet the night earlier and was keen to see if this looks as good as it did on the internet.

What I saw was way better than the internet. From the first viewpoint the river Elbe is not visible but from the second and the final one what I was sanding over was something that I could count as the best 10 views of my traveling life. The River went parallel to the road which went parallel to the railroad and when the red german rail coaches went by the contrast was perfect. As the river snaked its way up north my eyes could see right to the next big town. In my first year of visiting Bastei and the Saxon Swiss National park I only took in the view from the top but in my subsequent years I went on the famous Bastei bridge and took in the view of the Sandstone formations that so beautiful cropped up from ground zero next to the Elbe River. Just visiting the Saxon Swiss National park and actually soaking the scenery up is different. I guess one needs to take on the many trails of the park and maybe spend a night camping in it. Or perhaps visit in the winter when the snow makes up for an interesting contrast with the grey sandstone. In any case, if you are a just a tourist like me and not an adventure enthusiast to truly take it easy in the park, staying in Bad Schandau by the banks of the Elbe would be a good idea. Similarly staying at Rathen, the town at the end of the famous 2-hour Bastei trail is a good option too. The later is more charming with quant countryside hotels lined up along the river.

I stay at The Lindenhof hotel in Bad Schandau. It is family run and feels like one. I often go there in Spring-Summer, when the Asparagus and strawberry are in season and many of the menus in the restaurants of this region have season specials to choose from. I have only once cruised the Elbe river downstream from Bad Schandau to Rathen which was the next stop but I could very easily have gotten to Dresden or Meissen further downstream. Both Dresden and Meissen are special in their own way. The former is more like a city and used to be one of the principal ones in former east Germany along with Berlin and Leipzig. Meissen, however, is small and charming with its shot to fame coming from the Porcelain Manufaktur, the first porcelain factory in Europe back in the times when the royalties used only the works from China, a homegrown porcelain was something to be proud of.

Staying on the Elbe and visiting the Saxon Swiss National park is something that I look forward to every year, and every year I take the same number of pictures and act like a tourist. Perhaps the Elbe ages with time and with each year it looks more beautiful.

Where: on the border of Germany and Czech 30 km from Dresden.
How to reach: Coming from Berlin you could take a train to Dresden and then change for a train to Rathen or Bad Schandau. The bus is not too handy.
To stay: Hotel Lindenhof in bad Schandau was doubled are from Eu 100 onwards.