Sunday, October 25, 2009

Phuket, Thailand - Day 199 : Paradise for some

We have been in Phuket for a little under 2 weeks and our little slice of paradise has come with its fair share of problems.

It's surprising that an island the size of Singapore has little to no public transportation of any kind. There is a taxi and tuk-tuk mafia that gets away with charging over $3 for a 1km ride.

Late one night our taxi driver refused to drop us at our villa, suggesting we walk the last 200 meters along an unlit dirt road. I stood firm, refusing to pay him the predetermined fare unless he kept his end of the bargain - to drop us at the villa. An argument ensued, which ended with the driver threatening to attack T. We paid the amount knowing fully well that going to the local police wouldn't have helped.

It's distressing to see 60 something Caucasian males with young Thai women. I just finished reading Sex Slaves - The Trafficking of Women in Asia and and I know better than to blindly judge both the men and these young women. Yet I can’t help but loathe the need for these septuagenarians to feel virile.

All the sex tourism and arrogant taxi drivers apart, Isaac and I have been at the beach everyday while T takes a diving course. Naiharn Beach is secluded little cove on the southern tip of Phuket island with none of the tacky banana boats and jet skis. But what makes it even more perfect is a little fresh water inlet that flows from a nearby abandoned quarry into the ocean - making a perfectly calm and shallow pool for children to splash around in.

On the approach road to Naiharn beach there is a spanking new and cheerful little children’s playground nestled under tall shady trees. Perfect spot to share "i scream" with Isaac in the afternoons when the sun is overhead and the heat gets unbearable.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Siam Reap, Cambodia - Day 172 : Delayed postings

It's been almost 6 weeks since I posted my last blog. For those who check in regularly, I apologise for the infrequency. In the past 46 days, we have traveled across North Korea, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam and Thailand. Some might say we are "on holiday" but truth be told our waking hours are spent parenting and when Isaac does fall asleep we are racing to keep up with travel logistics or packing to catch our next train.

We made it safely to Cambodia after an 'interesting' border crossing at the Thai border and spent the last few days in Siam Reap taking in the sights of Angkor Wat. Tomorrow we have another early start, this time a 6 hour boat ride south along Tonle Sap lake to Phnom Penh.

Stay tuned, I hope to fill in the blanks soon.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Bloomberg segment aired!

Bloomberg TV ran this segment on our travels as part of a larger series marking the collapse of Lehman. This was recorded about 2 weeks ago during our stop in Hong Kong.We are amazed at how fast broadcast news can travel. T already has several enquiries in his LinkedIn account for possible meetings in Vietnam in the next few days. Hopefully this will translate into a job soon. I particularly like what T said - "Never waste a crisis." Of course we keep talking of how addictive this lifestyle has become and the possibility of extending our journey to the Pacific Islands. If we had a choice we would keep doing this and not settle into a job just yet :)

Copyright issues prevent me from posting the video directly on this blog. Jump to the Bloomberg page here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pyongyang, North Korea: Day 126 - Entering a time warp

Everyone on the Air Koryo flight is a little on edge and there is barely any of the usual pre-boarding chaos that ensues before take-off. Clearly, everyone has taken the pre-tour orientation seriously.

Last evening, at the Koryo Tours office briefing in Beijing we have been instructed on dos and don'ts while in North Korea. Don't fold anything that may have the image of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong-il; This includes in-flight magazines, brochures, books and posters. Don't take pictures of North Korean citizens or monuments without first asking permission from the official tour guides. Don't venture away from the tour group. North Korea is to be referred to as 'DPRK' - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Do not question their version of history. "And above all", we are told, "show the greatest respect for the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and the Eternal President Kim Il Sung". We are reminded over and over again that it isn't a free country.

At Pyongyang airport, we are greeted by the smiling portrait of Kim Il Sung perched atop a one storey structure, an image that will be ubiquitous for the next 4 days. We are asked to deposit our cell phones at immigration and laptops are subject to a great deal of scrutiny. Once outside, our group of 19 is assigned to 3 official guides - Ms. Song Sim, Mr.'O' and Mr. Kim who seem casual, eager to please and surprisingly very chatty.
En route to the hotel, we stop at the Arch of Triumph built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan that ended in 1945. They proudly claim that it is higher than the one in Paris. But everyone in the tour group seems more interested in getting a glimpse of street life - whatever little there is of it.

A lot of old trolley buses and perhaps 2 or 3 vans on the entire road. There is absolutely no visible signs of commerce - no neon signage, no advertisements and no billboards. There is a clinical emptiness to everything, as if the uniform gray buildings lining the streets are just a stage set.

We check into the 40 something storey Yanggakdo Hotel located on a little island in the middle of the city. We joke that it's like Alcatraz - virtually impossible to escape from. No kidding, tourists can roam the island but we aren't allowed to venture out of it. The city's premiere 5 star hotel is decorated like a 1960's motel but we love the vistas of the city at dusk.By evening the city looks straight out of a science fiction novel. The imposing Ryugyŏng Hotel pierces through the skyline dwarfing everything around it. The city stays lit till 10pm but then abruptly plunges into complete darkness for the rest of the night.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beijing-Pyongyang - Day 125: Headed to the least understood country

Tomorrow we leave for North Korea - an alien communist country that has fascinated my husband for years. It's a peculiar travel destination and perhaps a little dangerous, but a once in a lifetime opportunity at venturing into a secluded and secretive country that lets in only a handful of tourists every year.

US citizens are currently only permitted to travel to the DPRK (North Korea) when the mass games are held which is from August 10th until the end of September this year. The Mass Games involves over 100,000 performers and is the largest choreographed human spectacle.

We will be traveling with Koryo Tours - a UK based tour group that has been taking tourists in since 1982. They are considered experts on DPRK, have hosted friendship football matches and produced the first travel program on North Korea. The team at Koryo have been very supportive of letting us travel with Isaac and assuaged any fear that we had about his safety.

To prep for our trip, we watched 'A State of Mind' - a documentary that follows two North Korean schoolgirls and their families in the lead up to the Mass Games. Here's a clip of the trailer -

More when we come back.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Beijing, China- Day 119 : A place to call home

Ever since we left India on May 6th, we haven't stayed in any one city for more than 5 nights. So it has been a welcome break to finally have an apartment in Beijing for 2 whole weeks. Its given us the opportunity to explore and appreciate this immense city without rushing ourselves. Immersing ourselves in Beijing has already helped Isaac pick up more Chinese than I have, and is constantly saying "Ni-hao"(Hello) and "Shaeshae"(Thank you).

Perhaps most disappointing has been the extent of urban pollution which Beijing got such a bad rap for during the Olympics. We haven't seen a blue sky and the city is always clouded under a gray smog. Pollution apart, Beijing has blown me away with not just its palatial temples and palaces but also its new urban identity. Anyone who visits will agree the metro and bus systems are among the best in the world and its futuristic skyscrapers are architectural marvels.

I will be posting more pictures on my FB album in a few days. In the meantime here's a video of Isaac at the Lama Temple -

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Datong, China- Day 108-110: Dealing with excessive attention

Since arriving at Datong - a north eastern town in China, we have been overwhelmed with the attention that Isaac gets. We thought Turkey was excessive but Datong hits the ball out of the park. T and I are trying our best to politely ask people to stop taking pictures of Isaac. On our last day in Datong we were stalked by a hotel guest who insisted on gifting Isaac 1000 RMB ($146) which eventually led to an intervention by the hotel staff.

The picture above was taken when we went to laundromat to enquire about laundry services. In a few minutes we were surrounded by 12 or 15 locals staring and running after Isaac.

Datong is a coal mining town that ranks as one of the most polluted cities in China. Our main incentive to stop in Datong (enroute to Beijing) was to see the Yungang Grottoes - a collection of shallow caves with over 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas which are over a 1000 years old. Apparently they closely resemble the Buddha statues that have been destroyed in Iraq.

About a 2 hours drive away is the Hanging Temple built into a steep cliff face near Mount Heng which dates to the 4th century. They were built above groundlevel so as to avoid being washed away in floods common at the time. At first glance the monastery looks precarious but were told that the horizontal beams that support the structure have been inserted deep into the rocks and the vertical beams (that look like they are holding up the temple) are merely decorative.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mongolia to China- Day 107

The 23 hour train ride across Mongolia and into China was interesting for 3 reasons:

1. We were sharing a cabin with a man who was smuggling (or transporting) an entire bike disassembled into 10 different parts and tucked into various corners of our coupe.

2. It took us through the Gobi desert - a dramatic change from the lush valleys that we had seen for the better half of the morning.

3. The border control with China was painless but what had us fascinated was the gauge changing process. The train tracks in Mongolia and China differ, so the train was pulled into a shed, the train carriages were literally pulled apart like Lego pieces and lifted up while the gauges got switched. All of this while the passengers were still in the train!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Ulanbator, Mongolia- Day 103-106

We have spent the last 3 nights at a Ger camp in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park about 50 kms from Ulanbator. It is vast, unspoiled and one of those places that you sincerely wish will never change because everything looks perfect just the way it is. We have been kicking back and enjoying the endless green valleys while Isaac amuses himself with the horses and yaks grazing the steppe.

Having been saturated with architecture and culture the past few months, this was exactly the break that I needed.

The Ger is layered with various insulating materials so as to retain heat and has a wood burning fireplace at the center. The tent has a colorful interior - red wood panels and painted folk designs but devoid of any furniture other than beds and a table, which isn't very different from traditional ger homes. Our guess is that Ger tents are circular to minimise resistance to winds.

Monday, July 20, 2009

UlanUde to Ulanbator - Day 102: Border nightmare

The border control between China and Mongolia was a nightmare. We waited for nearly 5 hours at the Russian checkpoint although they did allow us to walk on the platform while our passports were being checked. Isaac wasn't feeling too well and we couldn't make him instant noodles because the hot water samovar (water dispenser) was switched off at the border. He was hungry, cranky and then cried non-stop. He eventually fell asleep but I was so upset with the guilt of not having fed my hungry child.

Then came the Mongolian border control which took another 2 hours while we waited in our stuffy cabins. I was so glad when we were finally got moving.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ulan ude, Russia- Day 101: Buryat Republic

Ulan Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic - an autonomous region within the Russian federation. The Buryatis were a shamanistic people before adopting Buddhism and have clung on to their faith despite years of Communist repression. Ulan Ude is home to Ivolginsky Datsan considered the center of Buddhism in Russia. It is also home to to the largest Lenin head :) How's that for megalomania?

We are staying in the apartment of a young Buryati man whose mother took a liking to Isaac.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Irkutsk-Ulan Ude, Day 100 - Hitting the 100 day mark

Hitting the 100 day mark should make us feel celebratory but on the contrary we are so sad that our trip is already half over. We have had so much of fun thus far and Isaac has done surprisingly well with all the travel.

Today we take the last train on our Trans Siberian journey, from Irkutsk to our last stop in Russia - Ulanude. Riding the Trans Siberian has given me a rare insight into the very heart of this country and I am glad that we chose to do this despite how uncomfortable it got at times. I wouldn't go as far as to say that it has changed my life, but Russia as a country has taught me more about myself than I ever knew before.

I was attempting to shoot a video but had to stop because T was giving Isaac a little nightcap before bedtime :)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Lake Baikal, Russia - Day 97 - 99

We were woken up by our wagon attendant to see the most surreal sight outside our train window - soft mist covered fields with a floating purple haze hanging over it.

After pulling up at Irkutsk station, we had an eventful time getting to Listvyanka - a little fishing village on Lake Baikal. Isaac got a bit of motion sickness and threw up over me and himself while we were in a public bus which left him cranky and uncomfortable for the rest of the ride.

Lake Baikal is the most voluminous lake in the world, is home to over 1000 species of plants and animals and is a UNESCO World heritage site. Even if the facts mean little to me, I was immediately smitten by the serenity of the lake. The waters are crystal clear and the lake's waters gently lap up on pebble covered beaches.

There is surprisingly little tourist traffic given it is high-season but there are lots of locals going about their daily routine which consists of fishing, selling fish and eating fish. But not just any fish. Omul is a white salmon like fish that can only be found here and has spurred overfishing to the point that it is now an endangered species.
We are staying at a guesthouse on a street lined with traditional Siberian homes and its a real treat to witness the slow pace of everyday life - grazing cattle, men drawing water from the wells and firewood being hauled into homes.

A video of Isaac throwing pebbles which lasted for over an hour.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Krasnoyarsk-Irkutsk - Day 96: Rossiya No. 2

About 8 different trains into the Trans-Siberian and we have figured that the trains with the lower numbers (e.g 1 or 2) are the more modern ones and the larger the train's number the more rickety and drab they get. Shortly after realising this pearl of wisdom which had eluded us thus far, we read it in black and white in our guidebook. I do wish we had figured this out earlier, although T argues that the older trains are a more authentic Trans Siberian experience.

Krasnoyarsk, Russia- Day 96

Krasnoyarsk is city of 900,000 people in the center of Siberia and was a major center of the Stalin Gulag system housing several labor camps. Krasnoyarsk was closed to foreigners during the time of the Soviet Union and our host - Alex says he sees a tourist only about 4 times every year. Most tourists do not stop in cities like Krasnoyarsk simply because it lacks any cultural or architectural uniqueness.Nevertheless we spent a beautiful afternoon riding a cable car to the top of a ski mountain to take in the breathtaking views of the city.

Alex, Lydia and their lovely kids were our hosts for two nights and Isaac was so glad to have the company of children and toys for a change.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Novosibirsk, Russia - Day 92: Railway Museum

Novosibirsk as a city owes its very existence to the Trans-Siberian rail network. It's first settlement was due to the construction of a bridge for the rail line. We explored the small but impressively curated railway museum where we were the only visitors that day. Isaac loved the little scaled down train models and T is a train enthusiast - so I had both boys happily occupied.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Omsk-Russia, Day 90: Look how far we have come!

Before boarding our train from Omsk to Novosibirsk, we saw this map at the train station. It shows Russia's extensive rail network but also just how far we have come from Moscow (2716 kms) and the 3180kms we have before we get to Mongolia.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Omsk, Russia- Day 89: Olga's Russia

Olga - our hostess in Omsk is an English professor at the Law faculty who has lived in Omsk all her life. As we sat at her small kitchen table late into the night, she explained the challenges of everyday life in Communists Russia and narrated stories of her personal losses and tragedies. As someone who was born in 1940's, she has witnessed the hardship of not only her parents and grandparents but also the lack of choices in present day Russia for her grandchildren. After the fall of Communism, she says the country has merely changed hands to another set of thugs and made little material difference to regular folks.

Her grandfather was branded an enemy of the state and executed shortly after the 1918 revolution. In the years that followed Olga recollects seeing her parents and grandmother live in a cramped apartment with little to eat and few job opportunities to earn a living wage other than at state owned factories with deplorable working conditions. Her mother was a pediatrician but even that didn't ensure a decent life. A few years back she lost her husband to cancer and her daughter to a car accident, yet she shows an amazing appetite for life and is full of questions about America and the countries that we have visited.

Like any grandmother she dotted on Isaac and insisted on making us elaborate meals even though it wasn't included in our lodging arrangement with the Home Stay association through which we found Olga.

Omsk is a pretty enough town and is known for having the most number of Lenin statues that any other city in Russia. The highlight was being invited by the church caretaker of Omsk Cathedral to view the city from the bell tower and to see the golden onion domes up close.

Boris - the caretaker said that I was the first Indian he has ever met. Since Moscow I have been a bit of a novelty; perhaps because Indians are not common in these parts or perhaps because I don't look anything like the Indian movie stars from the 70's and 80's that they are familiar with :)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Yekaterinburg-Omsk, Day 88

We had 2 old women as coupe mates on the overnight train between Yekaterinburg to Omsk. Both of them looked and behaved like they were mentally disturbed and T who normally says only the nicest things admitted that they were "Borderline scary" :)

Of course, Isaac never has a dearth of friends to play with. We have discovered that Trans Siberian trains are filled with boisterous kids. Russian mothers are completely comfortable traveling with a portable kiddie potty which they place outside the car/wagon toilet when their kid wants to 'Go'. While I admire this kind of determination I don't think I could cope with all the cleaning that follows after the 'job' is done. Changing diapers seems so much more easier in comparison.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Yekaterinburg- Russia, Day 86-87 : Hitting a wall

If there has been a low point so far, this has to be it. The apartment in Yekaterinburg was filthy and depressing. The bathroom didn't have a sink, the kitchen stove wasn't working and the fridge had mouldy stuff growing in it. We tried to spend most of the day outside and came back at 10:30pm to find the front door was jammed. By the time we had Isaac fed, showered and in bed, I was mentally and physically exhausted and ready to ask T to buy a ticket to get us out of Russia.

In many ways I feel like I have a "hit a wall" - a marathon terminology used to describe the onset of fatigue and the inability to run any further. In large part it has to do with how strenuous it has been to pack and board a train every second day and the dodgy accommodations that make me squirm. I am hoping that I can get past these'comfort'issues and enjoy Russia with all its eccentricities.

Yekaterinburg's most historic site is the the massive Byzantine-style Church of the Blood which now dominates the Romanov execution site. It baffles me that the entire family has now been elevated to the status of saints with altars and expensive icons erected for each member of the family. Apparently the canonisation has been the subject of much debate - one side arguing that their deaths had nothing to do with their religious beliefs while the other side saying they met their deaths with Christian humility.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Kazan-Yekaterinburg - Day 85: Crossing over to Asia

This leg of the Trans Siberian journey cuts through the Ural mountains and puts us officially in Asia.

Yeketerinburg is situated on the border of Europe and Asia (on the Asian side) and is infamous as the sight for the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. Rumours have it that after the cold war, Soviet nuclear arms were moved to Yeketerinbug as the Ural mountains formed a natural buffer in the event of an explosion.

In the cabin next to ours, we met little Amir and his mom who were headed to Yeketerinburg to undergo the first of 3 surgeries to repair his cleft lip. Understandably, Amir's mom was very nervous about the surgery. It's in moments like this that I wish I could speak more Russian and tell her that children are stronger than we give them credit for.

A video of our private'luxe'cabin -

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Kazan, Russia - Day 83-84: Republic of Tartarstan

Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tartarstan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation that has it's own President, constitution and national flag. It's unclear to me how much of real 'autonomy' they have, but it seems in some judicial and executive respects they govern themselves while being delimited at a federal level.

I came to Kazan expecting it to be a 'one lane town' and was surprised to see a city with a modern waterfront dotted wit high-rise buildings, and a Kremlin which is a UNESCO World heritage site. Other parts of the old town are crumbling from neglect and entire swatches of the main street is filled with building debris.

Kazan has more in common with Central Asia than Russia due in large part to immigrant influx from former Russian regions such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Sunni Islam is the state religion and many of the mosques destroyed during Communist rule have been restored.

A not so happy Isaac with the Uzbek staff of the restaurant 'Staroe Mesto', where we had Tatar salads and dumplings, then a conversation about how much these guys would love to go to New York and open a restaurant.

And a video of the beautiful Kul-Sharif mosque in Kazan named after the Imam who died defending the city from Ivan the Terrible.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Moscow to Kazan - Day 83 : First Trans-Siberian train

Moscow to Kazan was the first of 7 trains we will be hopping on and off as we cross the length of Russia. The train that we rode from St.Petersburg to Russia does not count because the main Trans-Siberian route starts in Moscow and terminates in Vladivostok.

This was a "firm" train called "firmenny", which means that they are more comfortable (and more expensive). I was pleasantly surprised to find the train was absolutely spotless and thoroughly modern.

A video clip from the train which features Ivan - a little boy who Isaac became fast friends with.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Moscow, Russia - Day 78-82 : Beautiful yet broken

Moscow has been such a mixed bag and in many ways reflects how beautiful yet broken Russia is.

For starters our high-rise apartment for 4 nights in Moscow turned out to be a dump. The hallways in the Soviet ear building smelled like a combination of stale dog urine and body odour exacerbated by the absence of any kind of ventilation or natural light.

We also had a frustrating time trying to sort out the Trans-Siberian train tickets. The Lonely Planet recommended travel agent (who we paid quite a premium to) hadn't added Isaac to our tickets. The agency was unapologetic and unwilling to help, which meant we had to queue up at the train station to get it sorted out ourselves. Russia's service industry - tourism, hospitality et al needs a major rehaul.

The irony is that Moscow ranks among the 3 most beautiful cities that I have ever visited. The beautiful birthday cake like Stalin-skyscrapers, the golden Church domes in the Kremlin, the polychromatic St.Basil's cathedral gives Moscow such a distinct and unique architectural identity.

We also met 2 friends of T's - Igor and Oleg, who graciously gave us the insider's tour of the city and pointed us to some beautiful parks and watering holes.

Here's a video at the Kremlin on our last day in Moscow -

Thursday, June 25, 2009

St.Petersburg, Russia - Day 77 : Peterhof Palace

Perhaps the highlight of St.Petersburg was Perterhof Palace - the summer residence of Peter the Great. Again given the time constraint, we opted out of entering the palace, instead just wandered around the beautiful Lower gardens which in itself took us nearly 4 hours. Our toddler was mesmerized with the Grand Cascade fountains (or "FON-TEN" as Isaac has begun to say).

A short video of the Grand Cascade at Peterhof -

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

St.Petersburg, Russia - Day 76

With just 4 days in St.Petersburg we were constantly forcing ourselves to decide between the numerous sights to visit. Telling ourselves that we must return to St.Petersburg some day when we don't have a toddler on our hands, we grudgingly opted-out of visiting the famed 'Hermitage' and other museums.

Shortly after taking this picture outside the Hermitage, we sat at a restaurant that had this dated picture taken from about the same angle. Those beautiful tram tracks is now a congested road and there are hardly any trees in sight.

And this is the wholesome Borscht we had at lunch which Isaac didn't quite appreciate.

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