Category Archives: Beyond India

A date with Oman

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ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY savour a platter of experiences – from Portuguese forts and dolphin cruises, ancient petroglyphs and secret wadis – served with trademark Omani hospitality.

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Oman is a country that will astonish you with its riches. The Queen of Sheba’s palace near Salalah was the epicentre of the 6000-year-old frankincense trade and it is likely that the frankincense carried by one of the Three Magi during the birth of Jesus originated here. Sinbad the Sailor is not merely a legend, but a man of flesh and blood who was born in the ancient Omani capital of Sohar.

In the 8th century, Cheraman Perumal, the Chera king of Kerala, adopted Islam (purportedly the first Indian to do so), divided his kingdom among various feudatories and sailed to Mecca; he died while returning and his tomb lies in the Omani port of Zafar. In a country where the tallest structure in any town is not a shiny skyscraper but usually the local mosque, the understated Omani hospitality is disarming.

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Straddling the crossroads of three continents and four seas, Oman’s rich history was shaped by the waters that lap against its rugged shores. Hemmed by the Sea of Oman and the Arabian Sea and guarded by the Al Hajar mountains and the Rub’ al Khali desert (literally ‘Empty Quarter’), it strategically overlooks the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The Persians and Ottomans vied for control over the lucrative maritime trade of the Indian Ocean.

Yet, the country’s geography was its security and even the powerful Portuguese could only occupy a few coastal areas. Expelled in 1650 AD, they left behind a slew of seaside forts. Today, Muscat’s twin forts Al Jalali and Al Mirani, besides the Muttrah souq stand proof of the short-lived Portuguese presence in the Gulf.

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But Oman has a lot more to offer than Muscat. We flew to Khasab, an hour’s flight from the capital in the northern-most governorate of Musandam. One look at the Prussian blue fjords surrounded by mauve mountains from our Oman Air flight and we knew why it was called the ‘Norway of Arabia’.

Checking into the luxurious Atana Khasab Hotel, we enjoyed a lovely Arabian spread of fried hamour (fish), Zatar bread, hummus, falafel, moutabel (seasoned eggplant with olive oil) and salads perked up with zesty sumac (lemony spice). We washed it all down with laban (salty buttermilk) and date milk, before setting off on our local explorations.

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Khasab Fort, built by the Portuguese on the site of an earlier fortification, has been renovated into a museum and serves as the perfect curtain raiser to the maritime nation and its well-preserved Arabian culture. Various types of traditional boats graced the courtyard as if they had magically washed ashore.

Around it were specimens of a coffee-making room, arish (summer house) and granary with thematic rooms on the upper floors – a ladies’ majlis, study room, wedding chamber, an apothecary of traditional medicine and a dazzling showcase of costumes, jewellery and ornate khanjars (Omani daggers). We drove along the scenic Coastal Road from Khasab to the fort of Bukha, set against a stunning backdrop of jagged cliffs.

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Oman’s 1600km long coastline brims with adventures – from kite surfing and sportfishing to diving at The Aquarium at Damaniyat Islands, whale watching at Mirbat, bird spotting at the wetlands of Masirah Island and turtle hatching at Ras al Jinz. Back in Khasab, a traditional Omani dhow waited for us with friendly staff at our service with fruits and cool drinks as we lounged on plush carpets. The crags were studded with large flocks of nesting cormorants feeding their young while others dived and emerged to dry their wings on the rocky perches. Dolphins cleaved through clear blue waters, outpacing our dhow with graceful leaps.

We soon docked near Telegraph Island, named after the undersea telegraph system set up by the British in 1854 to send messages from Karachi to London along the Persian Gulf submarine cable. Today, its rich marine life and stunning tropical fish was a magnet for snorkelers and divers seeking hammerheads, leopard whale sharks, mink whales, mantas, eagle rays and turtles. Donning our masks and fins, we plunged into the clear waters for a sublime experience.

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Oman is also home to the loftiest peak in the Arabian Peninsula – Jebel Shams, often compared to the Grand Canyon for its rugged untamed beauty. But we were headed on a winding offroad drive to the 2,087 m high Jebel Harim, or the ‘Mountain of Women’. According to legend, local women often flocked to this lofty hill to escape pirates when their husbands were away fishing, hence its name.

En route we stopped at a lookout over the stunning fjord Khor Najd, besides Bedouin cave dwellings that were inhabited till the 1940s. At Qida, intriguing petroglyphs (stone carvings) of human, animal and abstract figures indicated the presence of early man. Yet, nothing prepared us for the sight of marine fossils high up in the mountain, imprinted on rocks when the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates of a restless earth collided around 90 million years ago!

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We flew back to glitzy Muscat, which seemed a world apart from remote Musandam. The imprint of Sultan Qaboos was everywhere with roads, grand mosques and portraits paying tribute to the dynamic sultan who had literally pulled the sultanate from the dark ages, transforming it into a modern state.

After luxuriating at the opulent Shangri-La Hotel, we drove to A’Sharqiyah or Wahiba Sands for some glamping at Desert Nights Camp. Our plush tent with stunning rugs and carpets was indeed fit for a sultan. It was a short offroad drive to catch the sunset over the dunes, which changed colour with every passing moment.

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The 12,500 sq km desert tract stretched 180 km by 80 km in the Ash Sharqiyah province (literally, Eastern Region) and was earlier called Ramlat al-Wahiba, named after the predominant al-Wahiba tribe inhabiting the region. Choosing to trudge down the sandy slopes to the camp, we were greeted by the sweet strains of the oud (traditional stringed instrument) and darbouka (goblet drum) while the smoky aroma of barbecues wafted as we dined under a starlit sky. It was a lavish Arabian spread of shuwa (meats), rice, Zatar bread, labneh, date milk and camel milk.

In the morning, we enjoyed a complimentary camel ride around the resort and tried quad biking and sandboarding, before our guide Mohammad from Khimji Travels took us dune bashing. It was a quick pitstop at Al Wasil to fill air into the tyres, which had been deflated to reduce the air pressure for the desert.

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Our next destination was Wadi Bani Khalid, the best-known wadi (freshwater pool) in the region, part of the eastern chain of the Al Hajar mountains that soared up to 2000 m. Till the 1970s there was no road access and people could get here only on donkeys or on foot. We trudged along the falaj or irrigation canal lined by date palms to the oasis. Serving coffee with a platter of dates is the hallmark of Omani hospitality. In the old days, the birth of a son was marked by planting a date palm! Enterprising kids deftly maneuvered wheelbarrows to ferry visitors’ luggage on the narrow cemented walkway that lined the irrigation channels.

On reaching an amphitheatre of sandstone ridges and burnished mountains shimmering with copper deposits, we spotted locals enjoying themselves at aquamarine pools. With depths ranging up to 10 meters, the pools were safe for swimming. The scent of char-grilled meats emanated from barbecues in shaded groves of palm trees; someone else burned frankincense in a majmar (charcoal brazier). It was the heady aroma of Oman.

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HOW TO EXPERIENCE OMAN

One of the safest countries in the Middle East to immerse yourself in authentic Arabian culture, Oman is the perfect blend of tradition and modernity. Its long coastline, soaring dunes and rugged mountains bejeweled with idyllic wadis (fresh water pools) are filled with many adventures.

Getting there & Around
The national carrier Oman Air flies direct to Muscat International Airport, Seeb from Mumbai (2h 50m), besides Delhi, Bengaluru, Kochi and Trivandrum (3h 30m). Khasab is a 50-min domestic flight from Muscat while Sharqiya Sands is 203 km via M23 (Muscat-Sur highway) towards Bidbid, Ibra and Al Wasil. www.omanair.com

When to go
Oman is pleasant from October to April barring the scorching summer months from June to August, except Salalah in the south which is washed by the khareef (rainy) season. The annual nesting of green turtles at Ras al Jinz is between July to October.

Visa
1-month e-Visa for Oman is available for 20 OMR (Omani Rial). Those holding a valid visa for US, Canada, Australia, UK, Japan or Schengen countries can get a short-term 10-day visa for just 5 OMR. https://evisa.rop.gov.om/en/visa-eligibility

BUY
Oman’s souks brim with stalls selling frankincense, attars, oils, ornamental khanjars (daggers), antiques, besides Turkish plates and lamps. Pick up a bottle of the best perfume Amouage or choose from hundreds of varieties of dates – Khasab, Farah or Khalas (the most premium variety), besides the glutinous Omani halwa. The medwak or Arabian smoking pipe made of wood, bone, metal, marble, gold, silver or glass is a great souvenir.

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Where to Stay

MUSCAT
Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Resort & Spa

Accessible through a tunnel, the complex of two hotels Al Waha (literally Oasis) and Al Bandar (The Town) has traditional Dhofari architecture with Chi spa offering a 4-hr Serenity Ritual with a frankincense scrub www.shangri-la.com

The Chedi
Luxurious 158-room hotel with Omani style rooms and villas, six restaurants, three pools and a Balinese spa. www.ghmhotels.com/en/muscat/

Al Bustan Palace
Opulent Arab-Art Deco resort with luxurious rooms, majestic 38m domed atrium lobby, five pools and 1km private beach, the longest in Oman. www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/oman/al-bustan

KHASAB

Atana Khasab/Musandam
Atana Khasab is a 4-star resort offering panoramic views of the spectacular Musandam shoreline or the mountains and authentic Omani cuisine while Atana Musandam is inspired by an Omani village with 8 clusters of lowrise buildings that come with private balconies. www.atanahotels.com

SHARQIYA SANDS

Desert Nights Camp
The only luxury desert camp in Oman set in 10-acres with 39 uber-luxury Bedouin style tents and adventure activities in the desert.
Ph +968 92818388, 99477266 www.desertnightscamp.com www.omanhotels.com

1000 Nights Camp
Set amidst golden dunes and Cineraria trees, stay in a choice of luxury tents fitted with reflective glass in the east and west for the perfect view of sunrise and sunset.
Ph +968 99448158, 22060243 http://thousandnightsoman.com

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TOUR OPERATORS

Khimji Travels
Hotel bookings, local transport and tours
www.khimjistravel.com www.touroman.om

Khasab Tours
Dhow cruises, offroad safaris & local excursions in Musandam
www.khasabtours.com

TIP
Women and bedouins are sensitive to being photographed (some believe it captures their soul), so always ask before clicking.

For more info, visit www.omantourism.gov.om

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the October 2018 issue Travel + Leisure India magazine.

 

Mount Buller: Into the White

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Victoria’s premier ski resort holds many adventures like skiing, tobogganing, snow walks, snowboarding, sled dog tours and a ‘Gnome Roam’, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

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For a town with a population of just 242 mountain folks, it sure felt crowded at Mount Buller. We are used to seeing more people at a traffic signal in India. Yet, between July and September, while the rest of the world sweats in summer or drowns in rain, it is winter in this part of Australia. In this Red Earth country with soaring temperatures and the wild outback, it’s hard to imagine a realm of snow!

Like thousands of adventure enthusiasts, we drove up via the charming towns of Mansfield and Yea (yea there’s a place called that; it also has a funky public convenience sprayed with ‘ToilArt’). At base camp Mirimbah, travellers pick up wheel chains to drive through the snow (mandatory for overnight visitors) and hire ski and snowboard equipment. Flecks of white on the eucalyptus trees soon gave way to a blanket of snow that draped the alpine vegetation. Switching to the free shuttle service at the parking lot, we proceeded to the festive Village Square Plaza.

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Shuffling up the frozen steps past the Clocktower, large crowds in colourful ski jackets thronged the plaza with restaurants, shops and free wi-fi. It was a short walk to Mt Buller Chalet Hotel near the Bourke Street ski run; one could literally ski-in and ski-out. A stuffed bear and moose graced the lobby, alongside ski memorabilia and a chair made of skis. The friendly manager Harry, a local legend of sorts, welcomed us warmly. We feasted on rib eye steak and Tasmanian seafood at the plush Black Cockatoo restaurant and set off to conquer Buller.

A quick change into hired snow gear and we found ourselves on a ski lift for a ‘Discover’ lesson at the Ski & Snowboard School at the Northside Discovery Centre. The only thing we managed to discover was how bad we were at skiing as we grudgingly eyed the rest of humanity zip down the slopes with consummate ease and screech to a halt in a spray of snow, meters away from us. It was the moment from the old Bullworker ads when the macho guy kicks sand in the face of the wimp. Our dreadful attempt at building a snowman made things worse, so we shamelessly posed with someone else’s hard work!

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We weren’t the first rookies on the mountain. Mt Buller’s spectacular scenery and abundant flora and fauna had first attracted aboriginal tribes eons ago. They brought young men to the peaks as part of initiation rituals and rites of passage. In traditional ceremonies, they roamed the mountain ranges they called Marnong (literally ‘hand’ in the Taungurong language) and told them stories about creation and Dreamtime tracks across the land.

Explorers Hamilton Hume and Captain William Hovell were the first Europeans to record a sighting of the peak on a 16-week adventure in 1824. Two years later, surveyor Thomas Livingstone Mitchell identified and named it after Charles Buller, an official in the Colonial Office in London.

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Soon, gold miners, timber merchants and bushrangers headed up the mountain while cattle traders used them as grazing grounds. In 1913, Frank Klingsporn widened the track for the movement of cattle, which opened the way for summer tourism, horse riders and hikers. The old bridle track is still used for mountain biking. After early forays by the SCV (Ski Club of Victoria) and the introduction of the towrope in 1949, tourism in Australia’s first Alpine village snowballed. Today, it gets more than 300,000 visitors in winter and 130,000 in summer.

The Summit Road loop took us to the Arlberg Hotel as we walked across to the Shakey Knees ski run, past the historic Hotel Pension Grimus to Northside Express Chairlift for a scenic chairlift ride. Around us nearly 300 hectares of skiing terrain spread out as the 1805 m high peak towered above. After endless rounds of tobogganing at the Horse Hill Snowplay Park, we donned our outsized snowshoes and clomped around the countryside on a Snow Walk.

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Mt Buller is simply a mountain of activities. Take a ‘Snowplay in a Day’ tour or go on a ‘Gnome Roam’, a family-friendly walk in search of Mt Buller gnomes strewn across the village. In between, catch a movie at Australia’s highest cinema Alpine Central, drop by at the National Alpine Museum on the evolution of skiing in the region, take a scenic helicopter flight over Mt Buller and Mt Stirling nearby and pamper yourself at Breathtaker Spa Retreat, the only spa in town. The region is also an excellent mountain biking destination with the 40 km cross-country Australian Alpine Epic trail, the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

However, we were off to Cornhill Road for the ultimate thrill of a 16-dog sled ride with Siberian huskies. Brett and Neisha of the Australian Sleddog Company briefed us on how to guide, brake and turn the sled. After our Mountain View Run Tour, we got to pet our team and play with the pups! Of all the things, the words of Frank Zappa’s song kept ringing in my head “Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Singapore Airlines to Melbourne and drive 248 km (3 hrs) to Mount Buller, 90 km from the nearest town Mansfield, from where MMBL (Mansfield-Mount Buller Bus Lines) has a regular bus service. www.mmbl.com.au

When to go
July-August is peak winter season though spring from September has great deals, less people on the slopes, shorter lift queues and warmer weather. In summer, go on hikes and cycling trails.

What to Do
Skiing, Snowboarding & Snow Walks
www.mtbuller.co.au

Australian Sled Dog Tours
www.sleddogtours.com.au

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Where to Stay
Mt Buller Chalet Hotel
www.mtbullerchalet.com.au

Breathtaker All Suite Hotel & Spa
www.breathtaker.com.au

Hotel Pension Grimus
www.pensiongrimus.com.au

Tip: Pick up a B-TAG top-up card for easy access to lifts, lessons, rentals, facilities and Snow Dough (for retail therapy) www.bullerstore.com.au

For more info, www.visitvictoria.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 22 Sep 2018 in the HT Cafe supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.

 

Much ado about Kathmandu

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The charm of Nepal’s ancient temples and squares, lively streets and mountain magic cannot be smothered by any calamity discovers PRIYA GANAPATHY

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‘We are in the year 2074,’ my guide Bir intoned solemnly in what sounded like the opening line of a futuristic sci-fi saga. Given its seamless blend of tradition and modernity, one does feel like a time-traveller in Nepal, but I discovered that the country has its own calendar – the Bikram Sambat Nepali Patro – and an unhurried sense of time!

Nepal has attracted mountaineers and hippies since the 60s, but a lot had happened since my last visit 12 years ago in the middle of bird flu and a palace coup! The month-long trip was a screaming rollercoaster of landslides, bungee jumps, canyoning, rafting and paragliding besides sedate explorations of Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini. This time, I had a more enriching purpose.

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In 2015, I had helplessly watched Nepal receive a body blow from a devastating earthquake. So when Marriott Hotels decided to celebrate their 30th Anniversary by inviting guests from across the world to participate in a home build project, I jumped in. Partnering with Habitat For Humanity, we were to build one of 12 homes for needy families around the globe. Kavre, a region near Kathmandu badly affected by the earthquake would be our worksite for a Nepalese family that had lost their home.

The 40km bus ride to Kavre passed through scenic Nagarkot and the 143ft tall copper statue of Kailashnath Mahadev, built by a Jain businessman from India on the Sanga Hills that divide Bhaktapur and Kavre. This was the traditional village of oil-producers – sang is Newari for mustard oil and ga means village. We drove past rice terraces and the quaint town of Banepa, an old trading outpost between Tibet and Nepal. Everywhere mud and stone homes bore scars of the quake.

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At Kavre, we grabbed gloves, donned hard hats and picked our tools to dig foundation trenches and clear boulders. After completing our ‘Rally to Serve’ project, we visited Habitat for Humanity’s model town in Pipaltar village, where volunteers had helped rebuild 87 houses. Three years on, as the country hobbles back to its feet with rebuilding and restoration projects, tourists are streaming in again, smitten by its irresistible charm.

On our return we stopped at the plush Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikel for a traditional Newari meal. Tasteful decorated with Nepali artifacts, the emphasis is on holistic living and healthy food using ingredients sourced from their organic farm. Their Himalayan Salt Room ensconces you in a pink cocoon of healing salt while the Chakra sound therapy chamber stimulates the body’s seven chakras. We sipped local beer and dined outdoors, savouring the view of majestic Himalayan peaks.

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Thamel Trail & Durbar Squares
On the surface, Kathmandu seemed the same – crowded and dusty with the familiar charm of brick houses, smiling faces and walls splashed with colourful graffiti. After champagne and high tea marking the launch of Fairfield by Marriott – the first Marriott hotel in Nepal – we took an evening rickshaw ride around the tourist-friendly hub of Thamel. We rolled down Tridevi Marg towards the winding maze of festooned alleys selling an assortment of exotic art and crafts. The streets were lined with bars, pubs, tour agencies and adventure equipment stores.

We learnt that Dharma Kirti Vihar, located behind Swayambhunath stupa was the school where Myanmar’s icon of democracy Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi studied Buddhism and taught English four decades ago. Sambhu, our charioteer stopped by an unusual tree stump covered with coins at a street corner. “That’s Vaisha Dev, the ‘dentist god’. Nepalese people hammer a coin into the idol to solve their dental problems!”

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Hopping off at Basantapur Durbar Square, we set off on a twilight heritage walk with Bir, our guide. The carved spires of temples were silhouetted against an indigo sky. The brackets depicted gods and goddesses as locals believed only they had the power to hold the weight of the massive conical roofs. Swinging between memories and the moment, I tried to fix the missing pieces. One of the oldest structures, Kasthamandap, the wooden architectural wonder that gave Kathmandu its name was completely razed.

Further away, the beautiful carved stone Garuda stared at the vacant space where the multi-tiered 1680 Trailokya Mohan temple should have stood. The Krishna Temple was another gaping spot. The ornate beauty was marred by dense scaffolding, which enveloped the monuments in a skeletal hug. One wasn’t sure how or where to begin healing the city.

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The tall fierce image of Kala Bhairava glowered in lamplight as people bowed their heads in reverence to the God of Time, offering flowers, incense and butter lamps. The temple of Thulja Bhavani, closed throughout the year, is opened to public only on the eighth day of Vijayadashami. We noticed that the structures showed British influences. Bir pointed out a stone inscription in various languages including French; apparently King Pratap Malla who ruled in the 1700s was a polyglot!

The Jaganath temple, famous for its erotic art had been sadly defaced. With Buddhism emerging as the main religion in the 17th century, several people had adopted a monastic life of celibacy and the population in Nepal had dropped drastically. These amorous carvings were created to encourage people to marry and have children! It is also believed that it would prevent Kumari, the incarnation of the Virgin Goddess considered to be a form of Thunder and Lightning, from striking the temple.

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We saw the magnificent 9-storeyed palace built by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the architect of modern Nepal who conquered the three Malla kingdoms of Nepal and unified it with the Gorkha kingdom. In Indra Chowk, the Akash Bhairav temple honored the unusual terrifying form of Shiva regarded as the Master of the Sky.

His giant form is artistically ‘caged’ to prevent him from flying off and the temple is opened only once a year during Kali Jumma. After wandering around the famous Freak Street (now Jochne) we guzzled local beer at New Orleans, a popular restaurant with retro architecture and a great vibe.

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Stupefying stupas & Himalayan views

The next morning, we headed for our Everest flight. The destination board at the airport counter simply stated “Mountain”! Buckled into a small seat on the tiny Buddha Air 19-seater Beechcraft 1900, with propellers spinning, we were off for a close encounter with Sagarmatha. The scene of high altitude lakes, marbled mountains and glaciers ringed by the world’s best-known peaks seared my mindscape. It was a dreamy tour as we flew just 20 miles short of the world’s highest peak. You even get a chance to sneak into the cockpit for an uninterrupted view and click a few pictures for posterity.

Back on terra firma, I was still dreaming as I walked down Tridevi Marg to the Garden of Dreams (Swapna Bagaicha), famous as the Garden of Six Seasons. The serene Edwardian botanical garden inside Kaiser Mahal, former home of the late Field Marshall Kaiser Shumsher Rana begs you to linger despite the damage to its stunning pavilions, statues, fountains and ponds.

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A leisurely lunch awaited us at Mulchowk Restaurant, a gourmet dining space inside a leafy courtyard of Baber Mahal. Named after Patan’s Mul Chowk or Main Square, the restaurant is set in the erstwhile palace residence of Baber Shumsher. Now renovated by his descendants into a complex of restaurants and multiple courtyards enveloped by a maze of boutiques, art galleries and swanky stores, the luxe hangout is a delightful tribute to Rana architecture.

We headed to the famous Patan Durbar Square, a market cum temple plaza – its atmospheric appeal heightened by the golden glow of sunset. A local band regaled the crowds in one corner as elderly folks and couples chattered around the temple pati (resting plinths) and steps.

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Tourists followed their babbling guides or haggled with hawkers along the cobbled pathways. King Yog Narendra Malla’s golden statue on a stone pillar loomed above as we explored the historic heritage site. We could cover only three of the ten odd temples in this vast complex and the trio of courtyards in the old palace – Mul Chowk, Sundari Chowk and Keshav Narayan Chowk.

The Mulchowk Palace Museum had a collection of statues, paintings and images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities. We saw the Thulja Bhavani shrine where the Malla kings performed sacred rituals and the stunning Sundari Chowk with its unique lace-like wood and ivory carved window, a masterpiece of Newari architecture. The exquisite sunken royal stone bath Tusha Hiti was suffused with intricate carvings.

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The Krishna Mandir, built from a single stone, flaunted its 21 pinnacles and scenes from Hindu epics. The 3-storeyed Golden Temple or Hiranyavarna Mahavihar monastery displayed outstanding metal sculptures. There was so much to Kathmandu our appetite couldn’t be quelled! After a late dinner, we hit the swanky rooftop lounge Prive at Labim Mall to catch the sparkle of the city’s nightlife.

Before heading to the airport next day, as I grabbed some traditional sel rotis to accompany my potato mash, Bir nodded approvingly. According to tradition, visitors and family members are offered this unusual ringed deep-fried bread made with rice flour, bananas and cinnamon before they travel. Since the sel roti’s ends meet and overlap like a bracelet, Nepalis consider it a symbol of reunion – a circle of life. “You may go around the world my friend but like the sel roti, you will return to Nepal someday.” he affirmed.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport is just a 1hr 45 min flight from Delhi.

Where to stay
Fairfield by Marriott, Thamel
Tariff $100-$150
www.marriott.com

Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu
Dwarika’s Resort Dhulikel
Tariff Rs.25,000 + taxes onwards
www.dwarikas.com

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Where to Eat
Garden of Dreams Café
Mulchowk
Prive, Labim Mall
Thamel House

For more info, visit www.welcomenepal.com

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 24 August 2018 in Indulge, the supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Zambia: On the wild side

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From escaping ravenous lion prides to being charged by African elephants and encountering packs of wild dogs, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY live on the wild side in Zambia

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We were barely meters away from a pair of mating lions in an open safari vehicle, the tyres were horribly stuck in mud and daylight was fading faster than our false bravado. The more our Zambian driver-and-guide Powell Nchimunya revved the jeep, the deeper it sank. The cloud of grey fumes we blew towards the lions wasn’t exactly the post-coital smoke they would have enjoyed, so we begged Powell to ease off.

“During mating, lions prefer to stay in one area and they’re at it 60-70 times in the space of 2-3 days”, we were informed. “Just once makes people so ravenous,” we chuckled. And here was a lovely international spread for the lions’ delight if they so chose. “English, Swiss, French, Indian, what would you like to have tonight dear?”, we joked. (Nervous laughter)

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It was a strange predicament, thanks to unseasonal heavy rains, which had made the loop roads and tracks of Kafue National Park slushy. There was nothing we could do but radio for help and wait for the second safari vehicle from Mukambi Safari Lodge trailing behind to pull us out. “Shall we have the sundowners now?” Powell tried to sound cheerful. Considering our situation, it wasn’t a bad idea.

Out came sausage rolls and white wine. He carefully kept one spotlight trained on the tawny mane in the bush. “Ummm…. Can’t spot the lioness,” we observed warily. “Actually there were two lionesses…’ Powell corrected. “I don’t see the other one either!” We nearly choked on our wine, imagining two hungry lionesses slowly stalking us in darkness.

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This wild tract was once inhabited by the ferocious Ila tribe, who wore elaborate tasseled headdresses with kudu bone woven into their hair to follow each other in the tall grass. Finding plenty of fish in the river, they were always well fed. It was a cruel twist of irony that ‘Kafue’ literally meant ‘belly full’. Just when we thought we’d be part of the ‘lion’s share,’ we spotted a pair of headlights in the distance. Our joy was shortlived. The second vehicle that swooped to our rescue was stranded deeper in the slush! The leonine buffet spread was getting larger.

The spotlight was frozen on a pair of eyes shining like stars in the bush, in anticipation for any move. Minutes felt like hours as we radioed for help. Finally, a tractor from Ila Safari Lodge nearby towed us out. “Ah don’t worry, it’s quite common to get stuck when it rains.” Getting back on the gravel path, we hazarded a closer look at the mating lions, before returning to the safety of our lodge. Or so we thought…

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In the wilds of Kafue, it is not uncommon for stray wildlife to walk through resorts. Mukambi Safari Lodge, located on the banks of the Kafue river and named after the mukambi (water buck) has a clear policy on guests being accompanied to their rooms at night with a minder. “Once after dropping a guest, I saw an entire pride of lions walk by,” said my night guide.

Robyn van der Heide, who runs the place with husband Edjan and her daughters, fondly remembers Basil the semi-resident hippo who used the resort as his hangout for 14 years, often plopping himself at the reception. We locked our rondavels (traditional circular African dwelling with conical thatched roof); thankfully the night was uneventful.

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The next day, we took a boat across the river and set off on our safari. Kafue is the biggest and oldest national park in Zambia and the second largest in all of Africa. At 22,480 sq km, it is roughly the size of Wales. We were mock charged twice by African elephants and sneakily drove past some male Cape buffalos, called ‘widow makers,’ due to their aggressive nature. These lone stragglers inhabit slushy mud pools and cake themselves with mud, hence the nickname ‘dagga boys’ – after construction workers who have dried cement on them due to mixing dagga or sand, cement and water.

Kafue boasts the highest population of wild dogs in Africa and the greatest diversity of antelope in the world – semi-endemic puku, the endemic Kafue lechwe, sable, kudu, waterbuck, impala and many more. Guides jokingly call impala ‘McDonald’s’ after the M-shaped mark on their rump – “it’s fast food for predators”. Statistics reveal that it takes an average of 18 game drives to spot wild dogs; we were indeed lucky to see a pack of over a dozen Cape Wild Dogs on our second safari. First, tearing into a carcass and later crossing the main road.

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Nearly 500 of Zambia’s 750 odd bird species can be spotted at Kafue. The metallic glossy blue of the Greater Blue-eared Starling, the brilliance of the Malachite kingfisher, Namaqua doves flying off from their perch as we approached, gigantic Ground Hornbills preening furiously, Red-naped spurfowls calling out in warning on spotting the Western Banded Snake Eagle, the Grey Crowned Crane bobbing its head in the reeds like a powder puff flower; every moment in the bush was a head turner.

Zambia’s national bird the African fish eagle surveyed the stream. Hadada Ibis, named after their distinct ‘hadada’ call while in flight, were silhouetted on a tree. The Grey Go-away Bird, with its peculiar call that sounds like ‘go away,’ infamously featured in the film ‘Gods Must Be Crazy’. Technically a species of turaco, royalty and chiefs all over Africa have treasured its crimson flight feathers as status symbols. The hammerkopf with its hammer-shaped head kept flitting about ahead like an usher.

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Spotting a herd of Boehm’s zebra in the distance, we decided to stop for a coffee break. Only when we stood still did we notice the smaller creatures, like the pesky tsetse flies. “We burn elephant dung in a can at the back of the vehicle to ward them off,” said Powell. Though prevalent in Kafue, tsetse flies provided a natural barrier against encroachment in the park.

A train of Matabele ants scurried about busily. Named after the fierce Matabele tribe in Zimbabwe who raided other tribes in the 1800s, the ants raid termite mounds to grab eggs and hatchlings. Worker ants set out as scouts and leave a scented trail of pheromones for the whole colony to follow.

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Kafue does not have many lodges, which means you don’t encounter too many vehicles while on safari. The landing strip at Chunga is open for chartered flights all year round. Between our game drives, we dropped by at Ila Safari Lodge, run by Jacques and Linda van Heerden. They are the proud owners of Zambia’s first eLandy or Electronic Landrover.

The eco-friendly resort has absolutely no limitations while staying in the bush – a solar panel electric boat, luxury tents with a wooden deck and outdoor showers equipped with solar geysers. Their 3-day packages include pick up/drop from Lusaka, full day game drives with lunch in the bush, dining on the boat, fishing trips and seamless inter camp transfers.

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Undoubtedly, the best place to spot large herds of herbivores and their predators are the Zambezian flooded grasslands in the north – the Busanga Swamp and plains. A 6 hr drive away, this absolutely prime tract is the undoubted Jewel of Zambia. “It’s like Masai Mara without all the people. So wild, you are on your own,” said Linda.

We took the Great West Road straight as an arrow back to Lusaka. At Southern Sun Ridgeway, it was with a twinge of guilt we tried Zambian game meat like kudu, croc and impala. Musuku restaurant overlooked a pond-courtyard where resident weavers nested in the reeds and baby crocodiles sunned themselves on the central islet.

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For a closer brush with wildlife, opportunities are immense. Set in Lilayi Lodge’s 650-hectare game farm on the outskirts of Lusaka is Lilayi Elephant Nursery, an elephant orphanage where abandoned calves are nursed before being rehabilitated to Kafue Release Facility. At 11.30am every day, project staff give a brief talk about the project, explaining elephant behaviour and usher visitors to the viewing deck which provides the perfect vantage point to watch baby elephants feed and play.

Chaminuka, literally ‘village on a hill’ is 10,000 acres of pristine Miombo woodland and savanna overlooking Lake Chitoka, beyond Lusaka Airport. The home of Andrew and Danae Sardanis since 1978, it houses a huge private collection of contemporary African paintings, sculpture, masks and traditional artefacts – over a thousand pieces acquired from all around Africa over 50 years! Besides a tour of the Chaminuka Art Collection and game drives, you can pet cheetahs and enjoy wine and cheese tastings.

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The Kafue and the Luangwa are the two largest left-hand tributaries of the Zambezi, the fourth-longest river in Africa. South Luangwa National Park stretches around the Luangwa River and its oxbow lagoons possess excellent concentration of animals with great leopard sightings. The famous ‘walking safari’ originated here. The Lower Zambezi National Park promises canoeing trips down the Zambezi river – though you must watch out for hippos that sometimes topple boats! At Kenneth Kaunda airport in Lusaka, we marveled at Coert Steynberg’s bronze antelope sculpture ‘Lechwe of the Kafue Flats’, before boarding our Mahogany Air flight to Livingstone.

One place where the roar of the lion is drowned out by the roar of nature’s spectacle is Victoria Falls. Counted among the seven natural wonders of the world and the only one in Africa, it’s a dramatic 1,708 m wide and 108 m drop of the Zambezi river. If Vasco da Gama was the first European to come across the Zambezi river in January 1498 (at a point he called ‘Rio dos Bons Sinais’ or River of Good Omens), centuries later explorer David Livingstone was the first European to see the Mosi-oa-Tunya (literally, the smoke that thunders) waterfall in 1855. He called it Victoria Falls after the Queen. On his 1852-56 exploration of the African interior he mapped out almost the entire course of the river.

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Mosi-oa-Tunya is also a National Park with a decent population of antelope, elephants, giraffe and rhino, but thankfully no predators. Our resort Avani Victoria Falls Resort was a mere 5-minute walk from the cataract whose deafening roar hummed through the forest. Located within a nature reserve, Avani allows unlimited access to the waterfall and chance encounters with wildlife. We saw zebras grazing in the lawns and giraffes nibbling leaves off the trees! After devouring a mixed meat Zambezi Platter, we were off to Mukuni Big 5 to experience elephant feeding, a walk with cheetahs and petting lions.

From the plush David Livingstone Safari Lodge we embarked on a magical river cruise on the Zambezi aboard the Lady Livingstone. Sipping sundowners with a band playing on the silimba (Zambian xylophone using resonating gourds), we trained our binocs to the riverbank to spot wildlife. In the distance, the misty spray of the gushing waterfall rose like a wraith… David Livingstone’s words rang true, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Lusaka on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, Kenyan Airlines via Nairobi, Oman Air via Muscat or Emirates via Dubai. Lilayi and Chaminuka are on the outskirts of Lusaka, 45 min drive away. From Lusaka, Lower Zambezi National Park is 153km/2 hr 45 min drive while Kafue is 260km/4 hr drive via the M9. Mahagony Air flies to Harry Nkambule International Airport at Livingstone and Proflight to Mfuwe, the nearest airport to South Luangwa.
Mahogany Air Ph +26 097 786 5838 www.mahoganyair.com
Proflight Zambia Ph +260 (0) 211 252452/476 https://proflight-zambia.com

When to Go
The low season is from December to April, the wet months, when the grass is high and visibility is less. The dry season lasts from May to October when animals congregate around the river. Peak season rates apply from from July to Oct. Walking safaris start in August when the grass is short.

Tip
Tsetse flies are attracted to dark objects so wear light colours and avoid blue and black while in the jungle.

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Where to Stay

KAFUE
Mukambi Safari Lodge
Ph +260 (0)97 44 24 013
www.mukambi.com
Tariff $395/person, all-inclusive
(Peak season July-Oct $480)

Ila Safari Lodge
Ph +260 978 294 956, 976 366 054
https://greensafaris.com
Tariff $375/person low season
High season July-Nov$675

LIVINGSTONE
Avani Victoria Falls Resort
Ph +260 978 777044
www.minorhotels.com

Royal Livingstone Hotel by Anantara
Ph +260 21 332 1122
https://www.anantara.com/en/royal-livingstone
Tariff $414 upwards

Aha The David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa
Ph +260 21 332 4601
https://aha.co.za/david-livingstone/
Tariff $370

LUSAKA
Southern Sun Ridgeway
Ph +260 211 251 666
www.tsogosun.com/southern-sun-ridgeway-lusaka
Tariff $184

The Best Western Plus Lusaka Grand Hotel
Ph +260 21 1239666
www.bestwestern.com
Tariff $135

Protea Hotels by Marriott
Ph +260 21 1254664
https://www.marriott.com
Tariff $124

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Wildlife Experiences
Chaminuka, Lusaka
Ph +260 211 254146, 840884
www.chaminuka.com

Lilayi Elephant Nursery & Lodge, Lusaka
Ph +260 211 840435/6, 971 00 2010 www.lilayi.com
http://gamerangersinternational.org/

Mukuni Big 5, Livingstone
Ph +260 213 322286
mukunibig5.co.zm

For more info, visit http://www.zambia.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in the August 2018 issue of Travel + Leisure India magazine. 

Jaffa: Peeling the Big Orange

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Tel Aviv’s twin city Jaffa or Yafo is not just its oldest part dotted with historic relics; it is also its hippest quarter with cool cafes, boutiques and vibrant nightlife, discovers ANURAG MALLICK on a trip to Israel

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Listening to English cricket commentary on TV, I always wondered about the origin of the phrase “He has bowled a Jaffa”. It was a trip to Israel that finally cleared the mystery! But what in the world does an unplayable delivery have to do with a port town in a country that’s not a cricket-playing nation? The answer, is oranges…

Like the historic city it comes from, Jaffa’s famed fruit is a culmination of cultures – developed by Palestinian farmers from a Chinese strain brought by the Portuguese! Locally known as Shamouti, it evolved in mid-19th century from the sweet orange, introduced from China to the Mediterranean by Vasco da Gama in 1498. Unlike ordinary oranges, the Jaffa orange is sweet, practically seedless, with a thick skin that made it perfect for export. As crates of the fruit were shipped to Europe, Jaffa became synonymous with oranges. But what’s the cricket connection?

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After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the British were stationed in Ottoman Syria to administer undivided Palestine. During the Mandate that lasted till 1948, the cricket-crazy British were based in Jaffa where they picked up the orange reference. Theory goes, if the line and length of a delivery was good, then even if the bowler had bowled a Jaffa (orange) it would have beaten the batsman. By the 1960s, Jaffa oranges became Israel’s emblem. If New York is the Big Apple, Old Jaffa is nicknamed Big Orange.

Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew) is not just the oldest part of Tel Aviv; it is older than history itself. Supposedly named after Noah’s son Japheth who founded the settlement after the Great Flood, Jaffa is linked with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon and Saint Peter. Long before the Bible was written, a fishing village existed at this spot.

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Straddling the crossroads of religion, culture, commerce and politics, it is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity. In Greek mythology, Andromeda was chained to a rocky outcrop near Jaffa’s harbour as a sacrifice to appease the sea god Poseidon before being rescued by Perseus. It is called Andromeda Rocks in her memory.

Jaffa’s history is like a flipbook through the greatest empires of the world and legendary conquerors, from Ramses, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Herod and Saladin to Napoleon. Every civilization worth its sea salt colonized the region’s sole port – ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine, Ottomans and the Arabs. Jaffa survived everything from the Crusades, two World Wars and British intervention!

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Savouring spectacular coastal views from Hapisga Garden, we walked up Jaffa Hill, which has yielded archeological finds dating back to 3500 years. One of the monumental gates discovered here dates to 13th century BC when Jaffa was an Egyptian garrison under Ramses II. An older gate found underneath was destroyed during the conquest of Jaffa; an event retold at the Visitor Centre in Qedumim Square. The cast iron cannons were imported in early 18th century by the Ottomans to protect Jaffa from Bedouin raids by land and pirate attacks by sea.

Parts of the Old City have been renovated and the suburb is crammed with restored stone buildings, art galleries, souvenir shops, hip restaurants and sidewalk cafes. The Zodiac alleys are a maze of lanes leading to the harbour where the British-built Jaffa Lighthouse stands defunct. Overlooking the seafront, the minaret of Al-Bahr (Sea) Mosque, depicted in a 1675 painting by Dutch painter Lebrun, is Jaffa’s oldest existing mosque. According to folklore, the wives of local sailors and fishermen prayed here for their safe return.

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Located on the collision course of history, Jaffa has seen monuments built by one pulled down by the other and rebuilt or repurposed by yet another. St. Peter’s Church, a Franciscan Roman-Catholic basilica and hospice built in 1654 on the remains of a Crusader fortress, commemorates St Peter, who brought the disciple Tabitha back from the dead. On his 1799 military campaign of the Middle East, Napoleon Bonaparte stayed here during the siege of Jaffa.

The Jaffa Museum of Antiquities is located in an 18th century Ottoman building constructed on the remains of another Crusader fortress. Beit Zunana, an old mansion named after an 18th century Jewish landlord, was revamped into a hotel and later converted into a Libyan Synagogue. Famed Israeli artist Ilana Goor restored a 270-year-old building into a unique museum brimming with artefacts and antique vessels; its sculpture garden on the terrace offers terrific sea views. The Market House Hotel’s glass-floored lobby reveals the fascinating archeological ruins of a Byzantine Chapel below.

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Thanks to 400 years of Ottoman rule (1515-1917), several monuments are of Turkish origin. The majestic clock tower built in 1906 to honor Sultan Abdul Hamid II marks the city’s northern entrance. Mahmoudiya Mosque, the largest in Jaffa, was built by Abu Nabbut, Governor of Jaffa (1810-1820) and has a charming sabil (water fountain) for pilgrims. The Saraya (Turkish Governor’s Palace) built for Mohammed Agha in the 1890s was used as a post office and jail before becoming a soap factory. The New Saraya inaugurated in 1897 was bombed and only the facade and Romanesque columns survive.

Yet, for all the histories that Jaffa holds, it lies on the cutting edge of art and design. Walls are awash with street art while charming nooks have quirky boutiques and cafés. The best place to experience Jaffa’s bohemian flair is Shuk HaPishpeshim or Jaffa Flea Market. By evening, tables and chairs dot the pavements, transforming the whole area into a vibrant outdoor dining space. The stylish Puaa restaurant has furniture sourced from the flea market and every item is for sale!

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Despite the clash of civilizations, one thing that unifies everybody is food. Locals throng Abu Hassan for creamy hummus and msabbaha (hummus with chickpeas). Legendary sweet shop Abouelafia dishes out bourekas (stuffed pastries) proudly sporting ‘Abouelafia’s Co-existence Association’ t-shirts ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies’.

Strolling down Jaffa’s cobbled pathways, I came across Ran Morin’s enigmatic sculpture ‘Oranger Suspendu’ where an orange tree grew out of an artificial stone suspended by steel wires. The Hovering Orange Tree is seen not just a metaphor for Israel’s prosperity, but the fate of its people, hanging between heaven and earth.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
The national carrier El Al flies direct from Mumbai to Tel Aviv-Yafo in 8 hrs while Air India takes 7hr 15 min from Delhi. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul and Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa.

Stay
Market House Hotel www.atlas.co.il
Margosa Hotel www.margosa-hotel.com
Old Jaffa Hostel www.telaviv-hostel.com

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Eat
Café Puaa
Bourekas and sweets at Abouelafia Bakery
Hummus at Abu Hassan/Ali Karawan
The Old Man and the Sea
Aladin Restaurant

Local guide
Ofer Moghadam Tours
Ph +972 587833799
www.ofermog.com

For more info, visit http://www.goisrael.in/

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 14 July 2018 in HT City Cafe, the supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.  

Germany’s Christmas Markets

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the Christmas markets of Germany, counted amonthe oldest in the world 

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Christmas is the most awaited season for millions around the globe but Germany turns into a winter wonderland with its ancient Advent traditions and Christmas Markets dating back to 1393. Each city and town reinterprets the traditional Advent Calendar, opening up surprises and treats each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with 3-D designs.

“Christmas markets are a lovely ancient tradition,” said our guide Jens Becker in Wernigerode, a quaint medieval town high up in the Harz region, 2½ hours from Hannover. With painted half-timbered houses and the spectacular 15th century RatHaus (Town Hall) in the cobbled Marktplaz, it’s at its loveliest in the festive weeks running up to Christmas with a 10m tall Christmas tree. One of the most spectacular Christmas Markets in the region, the Mayor cuts the gigantic stollen (cake) and declares the market open. Wernigerode is known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling).

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Local craftsmen and artists set up stalls around the Townhall and Nicolaiplatz to showcase their splendid offerings in wood, glass, wool and ceramic, besides incense burners, nutcrackers, painted sun-catchers, knitwear, stone sculptures, nativity scenes, stars and bells in every shape and size. The stunning 12th Century castle forms the perfect backdrop to the weeklong Castle Wernigerode Winter Market. There’s fairy visits, Nikolaus distributing gifts in the inner courtyard, a children’s train and a special Christmas train that chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken.

Dresden is a beautiful city famous for its 600-year-old Christmas markets,” Becker continued excitedly. “I was there for the 579th market. They make amazing pastries and pies like Dresdner handbrot and have bakeries where children make their own confections. They also have the best mulled wine.” Dresden has a dozen Christmas Markets, each with a different theme or tradition. Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is counted among the oldest in Germany. Its name derives from hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as “Dresden Christstollen” (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker.

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The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a fairytale forest, a medieval market and the world’s largest freestanding Advent calendar. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market surrounding the Old City Hall in Cologne offers travellers a taste of hot gluhwein or traditional mulled wine and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near Cologne Cathedral. At the Elves Christmas market, zip around in the specially created ice-skating rink, enjoy German beer or bite into a hearty bratwurst (sausage). At Rudolfplatz, step into a magical world at the Fairytale Market.

Bustling Berlin turns into a dreamland, ushering in the festive spirit with its sixty odd Christmas markets, besides concerts, performances and shopping bonanzas. With the tunning Gendarmenmarkt Square amplifying the beauty of the WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus sees days and nights of endless merrymaking with food ranging from hearty meats to crepes, seafood and cinnamon rolls. Every Saturday Christmas-themed parades and circus performers enliven the main market during season.

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Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt. Every day at 5.30 pm at Christkindlmarkt, traditional Christmas music from the balcony of the Town Hall greets revelers while in Frankfurt, trumpets blaring from the St Nicholas Church balcony herald the festivities. Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt is counted among the oldest and largest in Europe and each of the 300 decorated stalls vie for the coveted ‘most beautiful stall’ award. Another beautiful Christmas market is Heidelberg, an old city snuggled amidst hills and forests with a gorgeous view of the River Neckar from its castle.

Between the North Sea and the Harz mountains, experience a range of Christmas themes and settings. Emden has the only floating Christmas market in the freezing north while Wilhelmshaven turns into a romantic beach setting with splendid views of the winter sea. Osnabruck woos visitors to see its massive 6m high Nutcracker figure while the Oldenburg Lambertimarkt transforms into a gigantic Advent Calendar. In Stade near Hamburg, Santa’s helper Lucia, the Swedish Queen of Light wears a wreath of candles. In Bremen, Weinachtsmarkt whips up wonderful white mulled wine while newer Christmas markets showcase pirate ships, music concerts and niche artisan products by the River Weser with wellness and vegan fare at Findorffer’s Winterdorf.

Essen/Ruhr area: Christmas market

Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt entertains over two million visitors in December alone. These Bavarian markets lined with neat stalls dressed with signature red-and-white awnings, sell handicrafts, candles, whiskered smoker dolls, handmade muppets and soft toys, music boxes and porcelain. Dig into delicious gingerbread, juicy Nuremberger sausages, iced lebkuchen and the yummy zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped treats made of plums.

On the streets, you cannot escape the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts. With carols in the air and shimmering streams of light raining down old timbered homes, with towns dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees gleaming like towers of light, elves and angels gracing the streets and shop windows, you almost see Nicholaus and his reindeer dancing through the skies to drop gifts down every chimney hole, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Germany’s Christmas markets.

Authors: This article appeared on 24 December 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

 

Adrift on the Danube: Sketches of Serbia

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A former settlement of gypsies turned into a hip bohemian quarters, a pottery village, an Ethno Park, vineyards, lavish spreads against an idyllic countryside and a gorgeous sunset cruise, ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY experience the best that Serbia has to offer

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“Going to Serbia? Must be cold!” remarked a well-meaning friend. “No, that’s Siberia! This is Serbia. Novak Djokovic… Ana Ivanovic… Jelena Janković… Serbia?” we shot back. Until recently, our knowledge of all things Serbian was limited to its most famous tennis personalities. But thanks to the Serbian government’s visa waiver scheme launched in September 2017, we were among its first beneficiaries and got to know the Southeast European country a little better.

Of course, we knew Tito. We have a Josip Broz Tito Marg in Delhi, named after the Yugoslav communist statesman and founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nehru, Nasser and Sukarno. Even back then, Yugoslavia had a liberal travel policy that allowed foreigners to freely explore the country and its citizens to travel worldwide.

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Despite Marshal Tito’s efforts, in 1991 a decade after his death, the unified country of jugo-slavia or ‘southern Slavic’ ethnic states splintered into Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

We flew in via Moscow to the capital Belgrade and landed at Nikola Tesla airport, named after another famous son – the noted physicist and inventor. The quirky baggage carousel emerged from the boot of FIAT cars installed in the wall with the poster ‘Welcome to Belgrade, FIAT – Proudly made in Serbia.’

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“So how’s Slobodan Milosevic?” we asked our driver as a conversation starter. Met with a frosty stare, we knew we didn’t mean the controversial president. “The tennis player…?” “Oh, that’s Slobodan Živojinović! You know ‘Boba’ eh?” he said with renewed respect. “He’s retired now. All our names end with -ić (ich). Can be confusing.” He switched tracks on the car audio and a lady’s wailing voice greeted us. “That’s his wife – Serbian pop singer Lepa Brena.” He sighed and shrugged, as if it explained everything.

That evening, we walked down Belgrade’s buzzing pedestrian street Knez Mihailova, named after national hero Prince Mihailo, who expelled the Turks from the country. His bronze statue astride a horse dominates Republic Square. On the far end, Skadarlija was once a settlement of Gypsies in the abandoned trenches opposite the ramparts of Belgrade’s fortress Kalemegdan.

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Today, it’s a hip Bohemian quarter full of kafanas (coffee houses), breweries and traditional restaurants like Dva Jelena, where musicians play starogradska (Old Town Music). Over coffee, we sat with Alex from Balkan Adriatic, to tailor our Serbia itinerary. We set off early morning for Zlatibor in western Serbia, stopping at a bakery for some börek (baked filled pastries), the most popular Serbian breakfast, paired with yoghurt.

The signboards whizzed by as we tried to read them, in vain. It looked uncannily like the restaurant signs one finds in Goa these days… “Is it Russian?” we enquired. “No, it’s Cyrillic”, said Alex. “H is N, П is P, P is R, C is S, 3 is Z!” The script seemed as if the Underground was sending coded messages (‘Ha! Read this, Herr Goebbels’) or perhaps someone had too much rakija (local plum brandy) and jumbled up the letters. One thing was clear – mastering Cyrillic wasn’t happening on this trip.

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Driving past stunning lakes, forests and monasteries at Ovčar-Kablar Gorge, we reached the pottery village of Zlakusa. Mixing powdered flintstones with local clay, potters slowly turn the wheel by hand to create masterpieces. Seventeen local families have been practicing this art for generations. Each piece had two seals – the letter ‘3’ or Z to denote the village Zlakusa and the family’s name, in this case, Pottery Tesić. With amazing precision and practiced ease, Zarko Tesić shaped a large earthen dish with a lid, used traditionally to cook meat.

Terzića avlija is a charming Ethno Park at Zlakusa that served as the first school in town. A few houses in a pretty garden bedecked with flowers double up as museums with relics from the Balkan War besides photos, utensils and Partisan memorabilia. Shell casings had been modified into beautiful coffee filters. Guests can taste home made juices and traditional Serbian dishes prepared in the well-known crockery of Zlakusa, learn pottery or take courses in folklore dancing and stitching. There’s a strong tradition of wood carving too, on display at workshops along the way.

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For insights into Serbian craftsmanship and countryside life in a 19th century mountain village we visited Sirogojno where 50 wooden houses had been transplanted from surrounding villages. Each was meant for a certain purpose and equipped with tools of the trade – blacksmith workshop, barn, chicken coop, corn crib, bakery, tobacco store, tavern with cauldrons for making rakija, a wooden church and the oldest house with roof crosses (erected to prevent premature deaths), dating back to 1845.

The only open-air museum in Serbia, Staro Selo (Old village) also has a store selling locally made jams, preserves and Serbian dolls. Outside, local ladies knitted Sirogojno style sweaters, caps and scarves. One beckoned us to her handmade tapestry and treats of dried apples and apricots on strings.

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It was evening when we reached Hotel Mir Zlatibor. At Grand Restaurant Jezero, Alex swatted away the menu as one would a pesky fly, giving us a reassuring nod that supposedly meant, “I got this!” He ordered a typical Serbian mezze platter, a mixed meat pile-up, Escalope Karadjordje (pork escalope stuffed with kajmak or clotted cream) and Princess Donuts. Sips of vodnjika, a traditional brew, revived us from food coma. A word of caution: portions in Serbia are humongous, though you can order half portions!

Our food intake was an imminent threat to our wellbeing; ironical considering Zlatibor was a wellness destination. In 1893, on the insistence of local hosts, King of Serbia Aleksandar Obrenović established it as a health resort. In his honour, a fountain was erected at the spot where he had lunch and a small lake Kraljeva Voda, literally King’s Water, was built.

Zlatibor smoked meat IMG_9323_Anurag Mallick

The picturesque hotels and restaurants look lovely in the reflection of Zlatibor Lake. In summer, tourists take a stroll around it or go hiking, while in winter the lake freezes over and people come to ski on the slopes of Tornik. The local market is a great place to pick up honey, rakija, cheese and smoked meats.

At Drvengrad between Mount Tara and Zlatibor, we stumbled upon an ethno village so pretty it could pass off as a movie set. We discovered it actually was one, built by Serbian director Emir Kusturica for filming his movie “Life is a Miracle.” The village set-up had quaint wooden houses with streets named after eminent personalities like Djokovic and Ivo Andrić, Nobel-prize winning author of Bridge on the Drina. We took a guided tour of the art gallery, library, the ‘Underground’ cinema, the church of St. Sava and a souvenir shop. Visitors stay in log cabins, sold out during the annual Kustendorf Film Festival.

Drvengrad modified Trabbant IMG_9371_Anurag Mallick

At Mokra Gora we saw the famous narrow gauge heritage railway Šargan Eight that once ran from Belgrade to Sarajevo but was closed in 1974. Between 1999 and 2003 the Serbian Ministry of Tourism and Serbian railways rebuilt the section over the Šargan Pass with Kusturica’s help. Popularly named Ćira or Nostalgy, the train runs on the Mokra Gora-Šargan Vitasi route with the tracks forming a figure ‘8’.

We made our own figure 8 back to Belgrade after some wine tasting at Aleksandrovic winery and the mausoleum of Serbian kings at Topola Oplenac with a crypt covered in mind-numbing mosaic. Soon, it was Alex (meal) time again and his order at Knežev Han restaurant matched the grandeur of the Serbian sunset.

Topola Oplenac crypt IMG_9569_Anurag Mallick

We bid goodbye to our rallyist friend as archaeologist Luka Relic guided us through the remainder of our trip – from Nikola Tesla Museum, Tito’s memorial House of Flowers, Cathedral of St Sava and Belgrade Fortress overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.

We explored the fort and museums of university town Novi Sad, medieval churches and Krusedol monastery in the Fruska Gora mountains and family-run wineries like Bajilo Cellar at Sremski Karlovci. In the old town of Zemun we took a sunset cruise down the Danube – the longest stretch of the river lies in Serbia – before wrapping up with delightful seafood at Šaran restaurant!

Krusedol monastery frescoes IMG_1964_Anurag Mallick

Back in Belgrade, after checking out the local craft beer scene with Luka we all met up for a farewell dinner at Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant. A lavish Serbian spread and enough rounds of rakija and dunia (quince brandy) later, Zoran the dashing owner of Balkan Adriatic decided it was time to experience Belgrade’s legendary nightlife.

What followed was a blur of music, lights and faces, as we dove in and out of clubs and splavs (party barges), barely in time for our return flight. But there was enough reason to come back – the legendary Iron Gates on the Danube, the Guča trumpet festival and of course Alex’s off-road trips and his goulash!

Aleksandrovic Winery IMG_9481_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Turkish Airlines via Istanbul or Aeroflot via Moscow, and Air Serbia to Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade. Pottery village Zlakusa and “Terzića Avlija” ethno village are 185 km from Belgrade. Zlatibor is another 38 km away with Sirogojno and Mokra Gora nearby. Novi Sad is 94km/1 hr northwest of Belgrade. www.airserbia

When to go
The Kustendorf Film & Music Festival is held in January. Exit, an award-winning summer music festival is held at the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad, the famous trumpet festival is held at Guča in August and a Rakija Fest in September in Belgrade.

Where to Stay
Hotel Moskva
Terazije 20, Belgrade
Ph +381 113642069
http://www.hotelmoskva.rs

Hotel Mir Zlatibor
Jovanke Jeftanović 125, Zlatibor
Ph +381 (0) 31845151
http://www.hotelmirzlatibor.com

Sirogojno village meal IMG_9164_Anurag Mallick

Where to Eat
Dva Jelena
Skadarska, Belgrade
Ph +381 11 7234885
http://www.dvajelena.rs

Zavičaj Ethno Restaurant
Gavrila Principa 77, Belgrade
Ph +381 63 369670

Knežev Han
Karađorđeva 4, Topola
Ph +381 34 6814411
http://www.knezevhantopola.rs

Grand Restaurant Jezero
Kraljevi Konaci bb, Zlatibor
Ph +381 (0) 66415415
http://www.grandrestoranjezero.com

Winery Aleksandrovic
Vinca, Topola-Oplenac
Ph +381 34 826555
http://www.vinarijaaleksandrovic.rs

Local tours
Balkan Adriatic DMC
Parmak Zoran
Ph +381 11 3625036
http://www.balkan-adriatic.com

Tour Guide: Luka Relic
Ph +381 65 9890305
relic.luka@gmail.com

For more info, visit http://www.serbia.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 July 2018 in Indulge, the weekend supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

 

Addis Ababa: The New Flower of Ethiopia

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Churches, museums, markets, coffee shacks and the legacy of Emperor Haile Selassie, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Addis, the bustling capital of Ethiopia 

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Addis Ababa. The very name triggered memories of playing countries and capitals at school, conjuring images of exotica – Ethiopian coffee ceremonies, legends of Queen Sheba, the Rastafarian cult of Haile Selassie and smoky jazz bars. So it was no surprise that a routine transit at Addis turned into an extended stopover.

A quick online visa and we were soon flying in on the award-winning Ethiopian Airlines, collecting our ‘Sheba Miles’. Perhaps the first thing we learnt that we had been saying it wrong all these years; it wasn’t a-baba, but a-bay-ba!

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It was Menelik I, legendary son of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba and the first Solomonic Emperor of Ethiopia who brought home a copy of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem. Around 19-20th century, his descendant Menelik II transformed the country with a wave of modernization.

At first glance, Addis Ababa seems like a busy chaotic capital full of urban squalor. Yet, as we drove up to the northern nook of Entoto, past roadside stalls selling traditional Ethiopian clothes and retro blue vans, we saw wooded hills full of juniper and eucalyptus. This is where the story of Addis Ababa began…

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During the early reign of Menelik II, Ethiopia had no permanent capital and the royal encampment served as the roving headquarters. It was atop Mount Entoto that Menelik based himself. In 1886, while he was on campaign in Harar, Empress Taitu Betul camped at a hot spring to its south.

She built a home and named it Addis Ababa (New Flower). Over time, a palace and soldier’s lodgings were added and a city developed. Most of the eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia, planted in late 19th century to supply firewood and timber to the newly founded capital.

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Today, the Maryam (St Mary) Church, Memorial Museum and Menelik’s Palace at Entoto draw only intrepid travelers with time on hand. In 1896, during the First Italo-Ethiopian War, Menelik led his troops against Italy’s invading forces from their colony in Eritrea and scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Adwa.

However, the Italians did invade Ethiopia in 1936. The Piazza district in the city center is the most evident Italian influence with Italian architecture and European-style shopping centers, restaurants and cafes. Here one can find Itegue Taitu Hotel, Ethiopia’s first hotel and the Hager Fikir Theatre, the oldest theater in the country.

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Addis Ababa is an imperial city suffused with churches, palaces and magnificent edifices. While returning from Entoto, we stopped by at the Gannata Le’ul Palace (Paradise of Princes) built by Haile Selassie in 1930, when he was anointed as Ethiopia’s emperor from its regent. He took on the name ‘Ras Tafari’, triggering the Rastafarian cult in Jamaica that believed in pan-Africanism. They regarded him as a messianic ruler, an incarnation of Jah (short for Jehovah or God) and the second coming of Christ.

This palace served as the main royal residence, while the seat of government remained at Menelik’s old Imperial Palace, also the current seat of government. Set amidst landscaped gardens beyond a majestic gate with twin statues of the Lion of Judah, we marveled at Haile Selassie’s opulent bedroom, study, Italian marble bathroom and the fascinating Ethnography Museum showcasing various tribes and their culture.

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Outside stood a Megalithic burial marker from the World Heritage Site of Tiya. After the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and the Italian occupation, the palace became the residence of the Italian viceroy who handed it to the Haile Selassie University (renamed Addis Ababa University in 1974).

In 1955, the National Palace (also called Jubilee Palace) was built to mark Emperor Haile Selassie’s Silver Jubilee. Modeled after the Buckingham Palace in London, it is the current residence of the President of Ethiopia. Located across Menelik II Avenue is the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

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The headquarters of the African Union is located in Addis as well and our local cabbie took us to the Chinese-built 200 million dollar AU Conference Center and Office Complex. The shiny chrome and glass building is treated like a tourist spot and proof of Ethiopia’s rapidly growing economy.

We visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral, once the largest Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral where Haile Selassie and his family are buried, besides those who fought the Italians during World War II. Nearby is the Art Deco Parliament building with its clock tower and the world’s largest pre-fabricated building Shengo Hall – a parliament hall and convention centre constructed in Finland and assembled in Addis Ababa!

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Merkato, the largest market in Africa, was a bedlam of shops, vehicles being loaded and unloaded, goods being hauled and pavement stalls selling everything from spices, metal parts, automotive spares, clothes, shoes to plastic. While here, we visited Ethiopia’s biggest mosque, the Grand Anwar Mosque built during Italian occupation.

After the fall of monarchy in 1974, Ethiopia saw a period of military rule and communism and has monuments linked to them, besides a wealth of repositories – Ethiopian Natural History Museum, Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum and a museum at St George’s Cathedral, founded in 1896.

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At the National Museum of Ethiopia, we headed straight for Lucy, past the statues, helmets, coins and pottery. She wasn’t the way we imagined her… not half astride, ready in welcome, but supine, neatly arranged in a glass case like a broken bone necklace that she perhaps once wore. Discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy is a 3.2 million year old female fossil and the world’s oldest hominid species Australopithecus afarensis.

Locally known as Dinkinesh or ‘you are beautiful’ in Amharic, she was named after The Beatles song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ which was playing at the excavation camp all evening after her find. What we saw was only a plaster replica; Lucy’s actual skeleton lay hidden in a special vault. It was a lot like the soul of Addis. The flower may have withered and turned not so redolent any more, but still remained a thing of beauty…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Ethiopian Airlines and Air India fly direct to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa from Mumbai (5 hr 10 min) and Delhi (6 hr 50 min) www.ethiopianairlines.com

When to Go
Meskel is a 1700-year-old Orthodox festival marked by lighting a bonfire and processions at Meskel Square in September

Stay
Sheraton Addis, a Luxury Collection Hotel www.sheratonaddis.com
Radisson Blu Hotel, Addis Ababa www.radissonblu.com
Best Western Plus Bole www.bestwestern.com
Caravan Hotel www.caravanaddis.com

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For local travel
Ethio Travel & Tours (ETT)
Email ethiopiatravel@gmail.com
http://www.ethiotravelandtours.com

Eat Local
Injera (spongy sourdough flatbread) made of local super grain teff
Tibs (sautéed seasoned beef strips)
Shiro (powdered chickpea or broad bean stew)
Kitfo (raw minced beef mixed with spices and butter)
Ethiopian coffee, Tej (honey wine) and local beers like Dashen, Habesha and St George

Don’t miss
Highest viewpoint Entoto
‘Lucy’ at the National Museum
Ethnography Museum at Addis Ababa University
St George’s Cathedral & Haile Selassie’s tomb at Holy Trinity Church
Africa’s largest open market Mercato

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article originally appeared in the HT City supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper on 2 July 2018.

 

Finding Rastapopoulos: Scouring Sarawak for the Proboscis Monkey

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From proboscis monkeys to Irrawaddy dolphins, Sarawak in Borneo is a paradise for lovers of wildlife, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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It was a Tintin comic set on a volcanic island in the Far East that introduced us to the proboscis monkey. In ‘Flight 714,’ its bizarre pendulous nose reminded henchman Allan of his mobster boss Rastapopoulos. As we flew in from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, we were excited to encounter the fascinating creature in flesh and blood.

Called bayou in Malaysia and bekantan in Indonesia, it is also nicknamed monyet belanda (Dutch monkey) or orang belanda (Dutchman), after Dutch colonisers who often had similar large noses and potbellies! Marooned in Borneo’s wilderness, creatures had evolved anatomical oddities to adapt to their environment – pygmy elephants, bearded pigs, finless porpoises, gliding lizards and swimming monkeys with webbed feet.

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The proboscis monkey is an endangered Old World Monkey endemic to Borneo, Asia’s largest island whose 140 million year old rainforests are among the oldest in the world. The flagship species was present in all three nations that shared the island –Indonesia to the south, besides Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to the north. Little wonder that the monkey was chosen as the mascot for South Kalimantan and Visit Malaysia Year 2014 and Malaysia’s Year of Festivals 2015.

The drive from the airport to Kuching’s historic riverfront was short and our room at Hilton Kuching overlooked the Sarawak River, Fort Margherita and the Legislative Building. We gorged on local fare like beef rendang, kari ikan (fish curry), nasi lemak (coconut rice) at live laksa counters, ahead of our wild adventure.

Kampung Bako-Boat ride IMG_5617

Borneo’s jungles are home to just 6000 proboscis monkeys and the best place to see them in Sarawak is the coastal area and riverine stretches of Bako National Park, home to troupes of 275 or more. The park’s location at the tip of the Muara Tebas peninsula at the mouth of the Bako and Kuching rivers made it the ideal habitat.

We drove past the legendary Mount Santubong shaped like a reclining lady to the fishing village of Kampung Bako. Over a cup of local coffee we watched tiny blue mangrove crabs flit about in the mud, and took a 20-minute boat ride to Telok Assam beach, which fronts the park. We disembarked to a jaw-dropping landscape of dramatic cliffs and marbled sandstone formations.

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Nearly 75 million years ago, this area was submerged under the sea. Tectonic movements led to the formation of sandstone hills which underwent erosion over millions of years, creating magnificent geological shapes along the rugged coastline – rocky headlands, white sandy bays and steep cliff faces with pink iron patterns, veins and honeycomb weathering. Wave erosion at the base of the cliffs had carved out fantastical sea arches and sea stacks. One looked like a gargoyle, another like a cobra’s head.

We waded through ankle high waters and reached the Park Headquarters after a short walk. Established in 1957, Bako is Sarawak’s oldest national park. At 27 sq km it is also one of the smallest parks in Sarawak, yet packs a lot for its size – jungle streams, waterfalls, bizarre rock formations, secluded beaches, nature trails and varied biodiversity.

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Almost every type of vegetation in Borneo can be found here – rainforests, mangroves, padang (grasslands) and peat swamps. In the forested patch around the park headquarters we spotted silvered langur, long-tailed macaques, Bornean bearded pigs and Grass green whip snake.

Bako has a network of 18 walking trails marked out for visitors – ranging from 700m/30 min to 12.8km/6-7 hours. Teluk Delima and Teluk Paku are the best trails to spot the proboscis monkey. Their 3.5 to 5.5 inch long nose helps them attract suitable mates! When threatened, blood rushes to their nose, causing it to swell into a resonating chamber that amplifies warning calls. We spotted our first proboscis monkey with great difficulty on a treetop; its appendage silhouetted against the sky.

Bako National Park-Sunda colugo IMG_5850

Our guide Sam also pointed out a ball-like creature hanging upside down from a branch. Soon, a baby emerged from the mother’s shroud-like sac. This was the Sunda colugo or Malayan Flying Lemur. Being shy, nocturnal and solitary creatures, colugos spend most of the day curled up in tree hollows or hanging inconspicuously under branches. To reach distant food sources without encountering terrestrial or arboreal predators, it can glide up to 100m over the rainforest canopy using its patagium or expandable membranous skin!

Besides plantain squirrels, monitor lizards, otters, Bornean Terrapin and nocturnal creatures like pangolin, tarsier, slow loris and palm civet, Bako has over 150 bird species including endemics like Bornean Bristlehead and Bornean Peacock Pheasant. Though a popular day-trip from Kuching, visitors can stay overnight in forest bungalows. The area also has estuarine crocodiles which feature prominently in the culture and beliefs of the Sarawak people.

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Sarawak Cultural Village, site of the Rainforest Music Festival since 1998, is a unique award-winning ‘living’ museum that offers an insight into local culture. Stretching around a lake in a sprawling 17-acre site, replica buildings represented every major ethnic group in Sarawak – Bidayuh and Iban longhouses, sword-making shed of the Orang Ulu, Penan jungle settlement, Melanau tall-house, Malay town house and Chinese farmhouse.

In each dwelling, costumed tribesmen carried out traditional activities. We crossed a Bidayuh bamboo bridge, watched the vibrant 45-min cultural performance at the theatre and sampled ethnic Sarawak cuisine at Restaurant Budaya. A small souvenir shop stocked masks, instruments, clothes, collectibles and sapé (Bornean lute) music CDs.

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From Damai Beach Resort we left on a boat cruise around Mount Santubong to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and more proboscis monkeys, their orange fur glinting in the afternoon sun. After exploring typical kampungs or Malay coastal villages, we drove to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.

For over two decades, young orphaned orangutans and those rescued from captivity, have been rehabilitated here and now survive and breed in the wild. We watched them trapeze and spar in the branches as their whoops and calls echoed through the forest. Sarawak was alive…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Malaysia Airlines flies via Kuala Lumpur to Kuching International Airport, Sarawak. From Kuching, drive 37 km to Kampung Bako, from where the park entrance is 20 minutes by boat. Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is 24 km from Kuching.
www.malaysiaairlines.com

When to visit
May to September is peak season at Bako. The Rainforest Fringe Festival (6-15 July 2018), which started last year, is a 10-day spectacle of art, craft, music and design. www.rainforestfringe.com The famous Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival is being held on 13-15 July, 2018 http://rwmf.net

Tip
Wear long pants, hiking shoes or sandals. Carry a bug spray and a light rainproof jacket for the rainforest microclimate.

What to Do
Bako National Park
Ph 082-370434, 082-248088
www.sarawakforestry.com.my

Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV)
Daily cultural performance: 11:30am, 4pm
Ph +60 82-846 108, 846 078
www.scv.com.my

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
Ph +6082 618324/5
Timings 8am-5pm

Sarawak Cultural Village-Ulang uru longhouse IMG_5468

Where to stay

Hilton Kuching
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak
Ph +60 82-223 888 www.hilton.com

Hotel Pullman Kuching
1a Jalan Mathies, 93100 Kuching, Sarawak
Ph +60 82-222 888 www.pullmankuching.com

Merdeka Palace Hotel & Suites
Ph +60 82-258 000 www.merdekapalace.com

Damai Beach Resort
Teluk Bandung, Santubong
Ph +60 82-846999 www.damaibeachresort.com

Damai Puri Resort & Spa
Teluk Penyu, Santubong
Ph +60 82-846900, www.damaipuriresort.com

For more info, visit www.tourism.gov.my and www.sarawaktourism.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 18 June 2018 in the HT Cafe supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper.

West Java: Paddling around Pangandaran

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PRIYA GANAPATHY traipses around Jawa Barat from Bandung to Banjar by train, bus, boat, bicycle and rubber tube to experience real Javanese culture and cuisine that thrives in its kampungs (villages)

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There’s more to Indonesia that Bali’s beaches or temples like Borobodur. With over 17,000 islands strewn across the world’s largest archipelago, the opportunities for offbeat explorations are endless. I found myself on a train from Bandung to Banjar, as Jawa Barat (West Java) slowly unfolded its pastoral charms. We chugged past lush mountains and brown swollen rivers slithering like snakes through the countryside where farmers in conical hats toiled in their fields. At Banjar, we tried pecel, a local salad served on banana leaf that tingled with spices, crunchy fresh vegetables and peanut sauce.

We took a bus to the lyrically named Pangandaran, a peninsular tract between Central and West Java. Welcomed with traditional batik blangkon (knotted headscarf), worn by Indonesian men, we tucked into an Indonesian buffet at the beachside Hotel Arnawa, replete with fountains and rooms facing a large curvy pool. Later, we set off on bicycles for a cross-country ride to explore surrounding fishing hamlets.

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Located at the isthmus in Java’s south coast, with a national park occupying the fanning headland, Pangandaran is Javanese for ‘a place to make food or earn a living.’ Villagers in thatched huts gutted fish, sorting and drying them outside as cats prowled about picking at the dried fish strewn around. We pedalled past overturned boats lying in open beaches and rode down lanes lined by pretty cottages half-hidden by trees laden with jackfruit, oranges and hairy rambutan.

Pangandaran has two beaches, one on the west and another on the east. At its narrowest point, the neck is only 200m apart! Local guide Taufiq remarked, “It offers the most spectacular panoramas of both sunrise and sunset.” It began raining and we took shelter nearby.

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A young vendor tempted us with a cartload of snacks – from brown whirly putumaya made of brown sugar to the candy-coloured green and pink cetil or gurandil made of cassava. Klepon was a green orb garnished with coconut shavings with a syrupy centre that dribbled down our chins…

Hauling our bikes onto a raft for a river crossing, we cycled onwards to Tegal Jambe, a kampung (village) where villagers had arranged a cultural program. Shy ladies offered us local rainbow-hued sweets, snacks, steamed roots and fruits neatly adorned in woven baskets.

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A chime of woody clicks, tinkles and thrumming beats announced the troupe of black-clad musicians who enthralled us with a superb kentongan (bamboo slit-drum) performance. Led by a comedian–like leader, the Rombongan Bojong Jati ensemble entertained us with traditional Javanese music on angklungs (bamboo instruments).

The predominant home industry here is making gulah merah (brown sugar). Fresh palm nectar tapped from flowers is heated in a large vessel till it caramelises and thickens. Once poured into a mould and cooled, the palm sugar is tapped out as roundels. Being a coastal area, the brackish soil imbues the nectar with a hint of saltiness! Villagers demonstrated how to shin up coconut trees barefoot, strip nipah palm leaf to weave baskets and scoop out tender atap chee (palm fruit). Translucent, like shelled lychee, it is widely used in local sweet dishes.

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Secret Santirah

Most visitors head to Green Canyon for hiking, boating, kayaking and bodyrafting, but we trundled in an outsized bus on an undersized road to the quieter Santirah. “When it rains, the Green Canyon turns murky but Santirah remains clear,” Taufiq revealed. The river tubing or bodyrafting adventure along a pristine 1½ km stretch lasts two hours. Great for all ages, it involves perching on the edge of a large rubber tube, leaning back with feet tucked in the crook of the arm of the person seated in the tube ahead. Thus, with limbs interlinked, the group whooshes down the river, like a human caterpillar!

A clean gurgling river with delightful rapids, four limestone cave tunnels and five waterfalls to soak under, you savour the filigreed canopy of evergreen trees opening into sun-drenched emerald pools and thrilling cliff jumping; Santirah was the highlight of my trip. Being the only ones around, save dragonflies and butterflies hovering overhead, this was a secret side of West Java few knew of. We refuelled at a local shack with fried gorengan (batter-fried cassava and bananas), mi goreng (chicken noodles) and susu jahe (ginger milk)!

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After a short busride to Batukaras, we took a boat cruise into the mangrove tracts along the Cijulang or Green Canyon River, named after the reflective green and blue plankton. Aboard the thatched craft, Shane Josa Resort had arranged a lip-smacking seafood lunch of fried fish, crayfish and batter-fried prawns with rice and local greens.

Disembarking at the Sinjang Kalang pier, we hung around the surfer hangout Batukaras Beach sipping honge juice at RM Kang Ayi. The strange fruit of the torch ginger, shaped like a pineapple-lollipop studded with berries, was blended into an aromatic pink juice with a tart salty-sweet bite.

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Back in Pangandaran, we witnessed Kuda Lumping – a scintillating traditional horse dance at Bamboo Restaurant performed by dancers with painted horses and puppets who slipped into a trance after consuming a shaman’s magic potion. They say, a trip to Pangandaran is incomplete without catching the famous sunrise.

Though deadbeat, I left early, defying the cloudy weather to watch dark waves gilded by the first sunrays. Fisherman silhouetted against the horizon drew in their first catch as children leapt in the waves, awash with the refreshing spirit of dawn.

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Fact File

Getting there
Fly to Bandung via Kuala Lumpur (13-14 hrs) on Malindo Air or via Changi on Singapore Air (15-16 hrs). From Bandung take a train to Banjar and a 2 hr bus ride to Pangandaran or a direct 7hr bus journey from Bandung.

Where to Stay
The Arnawa Hotel, Pangandaran
Ph 0265 639194
www.thearnawahotel.com

Shane Josa Resort, Batukaras
Ph 082295695133
http://shanejosa.com

Mini Tiga Homestay, Pangandaran
Ph +62265639436, +6287826393801
https://minitigahomestay.weebly.com

Gino Feruci, Bandung
Ph +262 224200099
www.ginoferuci.com

Hotel Bidakara Grand Savoy Homann, Bandung
Ph +262 2242332244
www.savoyhomann-hotel.com

For more info, www.visitindonesia.co.in

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in HT City/Cafe, the supplement of Hindustan Times newspaper on 21 May, 2018.