Sunday, December 9, 2012

Life of PI (3D) - Beautifully Crafted !!

After a long time, here is a movie that is really simple in its storyline and yet has a powerful impact because of the style of narration and visual effects. I would strongly recommend you to watch it for those light moments which are so simple yet really deep.

Here are some of the wonderfuin moments:

Pondicherry has been described exactly the way it is. Anybody who has spent a reasonable amount of time in Pondicherry would be able to relate to the description of "Southern France" on one side and "the Indian Pondicherry" on the other...

Piscine Molitor Patel
The idea of an Indian being named on a French swimming pool itself is reason enough for a good laugh ! Adding on to the humor is the resemblance of the name with 'Pissing'. The moments in school are wonderfully shot.

'Piscine Molitor Patel' to 'Pi Patel'
The humiliaiton from his name drives 'Piscine' to rename himself as 'Pi'. He links his name to the mathematic number for 22/7 (~3.14). He introduces himself in as creative a fashion as he could have in each of the classes. The maths class introduction surely deserves a mention - he wins the hearts of his fellow classmates when he writes the entire sequence of decimals that follow '14' in Pi (3.14).

Catholic Hindu !
Pi's encounters with religion throw some very important questions.. Is religion the only way to God and if so, which religion is right?. Adding to that complexity is 33 million Gods in Hinduism. His introductions with Krishna, Jesus and Allah are nicely captured in simple moments.

Introduction of Richard Parker
The movie would not have been complete without the character of Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. Be it the first encounter with Pi or the ensuing battle of survival in the pacific, the bengal tiger adds a new dimension to the whole story. And the description of how he got his name is funny too.

Fully lit pacific
This is one of the scenes in the film that would linger in your minds for a long time. It is one of those long nights on the ocean and the midnight ocean is as calm as a new born baby. The oceanic creatures illuminate the bed of the ocean just like billboards in 'Times square' in NY. This moment is exceptionally captured and you are left with the feeling of wanting to be there.

There are many more exquisite moments which leave an impression on you and also make you think long after you leave the theater.. Whether you watch it in 3D or 2D (i've watched both!!), this movie is certainly not to be missed.

Actors: Suraj Sharma (Pi), Irfan Khan (Adult Pi), Tabu (Pi's mother), Rafe Spall


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Strings and Indian Ocean @ Esplanade, Singapore - Live Concert

This was my first concert in Esplanade Concert Hall. And i must say that the moment you enter the auditorium, you are spellbound by the architecture. It pumps up the adrenaline even before the show begins... I did attend the 'Sufi Gospel Project' in the open air theatre. That was an awesome performance too.

All these events were part of 'KalaaUtsavam - Indian Festival of Arts' - A wonderful compilation of Indian music and art. I attended only 2 events ('Sufi Gospel Project' and Strings/Indian Ocean) and both of them were outstanding.

Back to the live concert of Strings and Indian Ocean.

My room mate had booked tickets right in the center on the ground floor - it was possibly the best place to sit in the whole auditorium. The atmosphere was electrifying. I was reminded of the Yanni concert at Bell Center, Montreal.

I have been listening to Indian Ocean for more than ten years now and it has been a dream to attend one of their live concerts. Today was the day of fulfillment.

Rahul Ram (Guitar and Vocals) first arrives with his famous 'sadhu like' beard and introduces the band. He makes good fun of Amit Kilam (Drums and Vocals). Susmit Sen, the Guitar maestro is the calm and composed lead guitarist.
Asheem Chakravarty's death in 2009 indeed gave a blow to the band as they had lost their lead vocalist. The depth in his vocals in Kandisa can never be re-created. In the concert, his vocals were done by Himanshu Joshi and Tabla by Tuheen Chakravarty.

And then, they started.. Ma Rewa, Kandisa and the instrumentals by Amit Kilam stunned the audience. Although Joshi tried to do his best, he could not match Asheem's vocals in Kandisa. 

Even those who were listening to them for the first time were amazed at the mix of folk and rock. We had hardly heard five songs when they gave way to Strings, the rock band from Pakistan.

Both these are so distinct in their genre. Indian Ocean is more of a folk-rock, sufism based band whereas Strings is a traditional pop band.

Strings too played some of the audiences' favorite like Dur and others. The ones in the front row were on their toes most of the time..

The grand finale was a joint performance by both Strings and Indian Ocean. This was the first public performance of the song. It is about India-Pakistan and the sentiments of 'aam Janta' on either side of the border.

I am thoroughly satisfied with the performance of Indian Ocean, although i would have liked them to play more.. But, i guess, that feeling would have persisted irrespective of the length of the concert.

I really cannot wait until their next performance !!!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The curious case of security checks !!

Ever since i have started traveling, there has always been this unique underlying theme to all my trips - Security checks. Irrespective of what country i am in, i have been questioned more than the average traveler (The comparison is with fellow travelers from the Indian subcontinent - The comparison with whites does not make sense at all !!)

All this while I have been trying to figure out the reasons for this.. I knew that my color was certainly a contributing factor. So was my passport. But then, there were many travelers with the same color (both of skin as well as of the passport !) and yet, I have been sidelined more often.. Maybe, it is just an issue of perception. But, whatever the reason may be, I am now very comfortable with any of the security checks across the globe..

I am used to the immigration/security related questions whenever i enter a country. I understand the reason for it and always co-operate with the authorities.

But, what pushed me to write this piece is that I am now being stopped at local train stations too !!!

This made me think... Then i realized that each time i enter a country with this famous beard of mine, the probability of questioning increases many-fold.. I looked back at the cases when i have been questioned more than usual and i realized that there is a strong co-relation between between the length of the beard and the length of questioning at security checkpoints. I have had smooth entries with a clean shave...

I know there are pre-conceived notions about bearded men. And, that seems to be the very reason why all this is happening to me.

Now, that leads us to an important question. Are we living with a fake sense of security?

I would leave it here for you to think !!

A Pan Nalin weekend | Valley of Flowers (2006)

You may want to read PART I of this article before proceeding - It is not mandatory though. There are no detailed references to my previous article. This is a good standalone read too.

Samsara which came out fiver years before 'Valley of Flowers' set the bar a bit too high. Even though it was almost impossible, I have tried my best to review this movie without any reference to Samsara..

Set in the beautiful Himalayas, Valley of Flowers, is a movie on love and reincarnation. The theme tries to capture some ancient rare practices performed by by Yogis. These are the same mysterious lot of people who seem to know the secret of immortality.

Jalan (Played by Milind Soman), like his gang members, is an outlaw who lives a life of pride in the Himalayas. His gang loots caravans passing through the valley. On one such loot, he meets his love, Ushna (Played by Mylene Jampanoi) who was actually looking for him. The plot doesn't reveal how she comes to know of him..

The mysterious Ushna changes the dynamics within the gang and that results in some dramatic shifts to the plot.. 

The beauty of the Himalayas, again, does not fail to entice you - it has been wonderfully caught on frame. Jalan's loots of the caravans passing through the valley has been captured realistically. Although some moments seem a little bollywoodish but the overall scheme of operation of his gang has been portrayed very well. One of the moments that sticks on to you even after the movie is Jalan walking across generations (literally). It is crafted with an artistic touch. 

There are a couple of areas which i felt could have been better:

Firstly, the capture of Sadhus in the valley could have been a lot better. They were shown more like magicians churning out lotions of immortality. The whole theme rests on immortality and there should have been a stronger presence of that part. This portrayal dilutes the plot to some extent by losing credibility with the whole concept of immortality.

And, the sequence of events in Japan, again, were a little lacklustre. For example, the suicide case of a CEO could have easily been captured better. 

Overall, it is a good watch though i would not rate it as high as Samsara...

Actors: Milind Soman, Naseeruddin Shah, Mylene Jampanoi, Eri

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Pan Nalin weekend | Samsara (2001)

I have been wanting to watch Pan Nalin's movies for quite some time. I watched a couple of his films this weekend and i must say that both of them were outstanding..

Samsara (2001)

The story of a monk (Tashi, played by Shawn Ku) who, like quite a few of us, tries to answer some 'larger than life' questions. It tries to answer the question - 'What is the path to enlightenment? - is it renunciation of worldly desires or pure love even if it means being wound by a family'. The movies leaves you thinking even after it ends... That is the beauty of it.

 The movie is beautifully shot in picturesque Laddakh region of Indian Himalayas. The story is so well executed that you can understand the theme of the movie even without subtitles. In fact, I watched the first half without subtitles and still could understand most of it..

The story line is made of some exquisite moments which are really crucial to the central theme. It is because of these moments that one cannot stop himself/herself from being drawn into the movie. I would not reveal the entire plot but would certainly like to highlight a few of those exquisite moments:

Tashi taken back to the Monastery

Tashi completes his 3 year, 3 month, 3 day exile in a remote cave and is being taken back by fellow monks. It takes a while for Tashi to get back to being himself - But then, it is this exile that makes him question the path followed by monks. The author starts with this theme to set the context right at the beginning itself.

Tashi is sent for a lesson on physical relations

Tashi is sent to a remote cave where an old monk shows him pictures of various positions of intercourse. The same images when seen under a flame turn the individuals into a skeleton.. This gives the message without a single word being spoken..

Tashi quits monk life

Tashi is not focused on his return from exile. He often gives in to his senses and even gets erections a couple of times. These are moments which raise important questions about the life of monks. Tashi cites an event from Buddha's life that throws up a very important question - he talks about Prince Siddhartha renouncing his worldly desires after getting married to a beautiful lady and after having a son. Should one experience this worldly life first before renouncing it is a question that must be on the minds of almost every monk...

Tashi commits adultery

Despite having a beautiful wife (played by Christy Chung) and a very happy family life, Tashi is lured into having an affair. That is precisely the moment when he gets a letter from old monk Apo throwing up the same old questions again.

The rock with a quote

There is a rock with a quote (translated) "How can one prevent a drop from drying up?"  - This rock features a couple of times during the movie. It is only at the end that Tashi turns the rock around and to his surprise, finds the answer there.. "By throwing it into the sea"  !!! Makes you think...

A classy story excellently executed - there are not many movies like this one...

Actors: Shawn Ku, Christy Chung and Neelesha BaVora

Review of 'Valley of flowers' (2006) follows soon.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Camping at Pulau Ubin

This is the longest stretch i have been in Singapore in the last year or so - six consecutive weekends !! There was a pumping desire to get out and Pulau Ubin seemed a very good prospect for a weekend getaway.

Pulau Ubin is a small island on the border of Singapore and Malaysia and is part of Singapore. It is 'unspoilt' in the words of a Singaporean... You can rent bicycles at throwaway prices (<$10 per day - depending on the type of bike) and explore the entire island on a day trip from Singapore. The trails are neatly marked and well maintained.

My camping gear was lying idle for a long time and i wanted to put them to use. So, I decided to pitch up my tent at Ubin.

There are 3 camping sites on the island:

Jelutong Campsite: This campsite is the nearest to Ubin Jetty - less than 10 mins walk from the entrance. This was crowded when i reached. I presume that must be true irrespective of the day you go. But, I heard that the coastline is pretty long at this campsite and can accommodate quite a few tents.
<< Added Later: I went camping once more and found this campsite empty - Guess you can't predict >>

Noordin Campsite: 3+ Kms from the entrance. This is towards the farthest end of Ubin and gives a view of Johor straits. Not as busy - but then space is limited too because of the international border cutting through the coastline. The coast is not wide too so that adds on to the space constraint. I would say it can hold 10 tents max..

Maman Campsite: This is just less than 3 kms from the entrance. I did not have a chance to visit this. I would assume this is not as crowded as Jelutong.

It was 530 PM by the time i stepped in Ubin. Went straight to the Police check post to register - Registration is compulsory for all campers. You don't have to de-register - you give all the details just once. Day hikers/bikers need not register.

I went straight to Jelutong and found a bunch of tents pitched up. The last thing i wanted was a party night at Ubin. It was 545 PM and the sun was coming down. I had an hour or so before sunset. I knew i would not be able to check both Noordin and Maman without walking in the dark. I have had some bad experiences pitching up tents in the dark and hence wanted to avoid that. I decided that i would camp at Noordin irrespective of the state of the campsite.

Reached Noordin around 615 PM and found an extended family having a fishing weekend. I walked towards the end to find a spot that is a little peaceful. That's when I met Raman, the head of that family. He was a very nice guy - mix of Singapore/Malaysia (the name sounds Indian though!). Apparently, he was a regular visitor of Ubin. He warned me of the high tide that night. He recommended me to pitch my tent as far as possible from the shore - I did just that, pitched it right next to the railings beyond which there was a forest.

I finished my dinner and was sleeping when i was suddenly woken up by the sound of waves. It was close to midnight and the sea was swelling. At about 1245 AM, water was less than half a meter away from my tent. One big wave and my tent would have been under water. It was not life threatening but the thought of sleeping in a wet tent reminds me of that scary night at Colorado (The Colorado hike)

But then, Raman had pointed out precisely the area until which waves might reach - he was bang on. Because, i pitched my tent about a meter away from his 'line' and escaped the scare...

The next morning, i headed straight back to Singapore to get back to the Monday-Friday grind.

End of a really short and sweet weekend outing...



  • There is no immigration/customs as Ubin is a part of Singapore. Your bags are scanned on your return.
  • Singapore citizens/Long term pass holders: You don't need your passport. Just your IC should suffice. 
  • If you are a visitor to Singapore, it is advisable to carry your passport

How to get there?

By public transit

Reach Tanah Merah MRT (Singapore)
Take bus No 2 (Bus no 2 runs in both directions - make sure you take the bus that has the last stop as 'Changi Village bus terminal'
Get down at Changi Village bus terminal (last stop of bus no. 2)
Changi point ferry terminal is a couple of minutes walk from the bus terminal
Take the ferry to Pulau Ubin (S$2.5 per person flat fare unless you charter the whole boat for S$30)

By Car/Taxi
Make sure you reach the correct ferry terminal - there are 3 more ferry terminals in the same region. Mention Changi point ferry terminal or Changi village bus terminal to the taxi driver

Pics and Video blog

Changi point ferry terminal

Right at the entrance of Ubin

Chinese festival at Ubin

My MSR hubba hubba tent overlooking international border

Noordin Campsite
Raman shows me a Stingray

Video blog

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The five day migration !!!

It is 7AM on one of those Mondays..

Ravi wakes up and realizes that it is just the beginning of another week... It depresses him but he still has to reach office on time. He gets ready in a matter of 30 mins without thinking about any of the activities done during this time. It is as if a permanent software code in his brain runs at 7AM every weekday. Those who are aware of unix (software) would link it to processing a batch file!

He reaches the train station and sees that he is not the only one running for office.
The scene at the train station resembles the migration of wildebeest in the Serengeti plains of Africa. Every year, millions of wildebeest migrate from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. On the way, they have to cross the Mara river where they are preyed by Crocodiles. There is an entire ecosystem that survives on this migration.

Ravi realizes that his run to the office daily is pretty much like the migration of Wildebeest, just that this one happens five days a week!

Just like he precisely knows which platform to board his train, the wildebeest know their annual route to the minutest detail. If he knows which bogie is closest to the staircase, the wildebeest know exactly where to get fresh water. And, the manner in which the wildebeest trample each other to cross the Mara river is exactly the way people compete in this never ending race of corporate life.

There is an ecosystem that survives on this 5 day migration of office going public. There are coffee shops (or the chai waalas), bakeries, restaurants that thrive just because of this migration. He thinks nature has so many similarities irrespective of the type of event...

By the time he finishes thinking about this underlying common essence of nature, he has already missed 2 trains. He is now late to office - he feels exactly the way a Wildebeest calf feels when it is left behind while crossing the Maara river in Kenya.  

Nevertheless, he pushes on, reaches office and opens his laptop. And, somewhere in the plains of Africa, a wildebeest calf struggles to free itself from the hold of a crocodile. It knows it cannot win, but there is this element of hope which makes it fight.

Ravi is at his desk now - it is time for the 9AM batch file run. Here is the code:

Int Main (VOID)
 /* There is a return value to every function in 'C' language. This 9AM batch run always returns void in life. */

Daily routine()
       Printf("Another day in office");
            For (i=0;until all mails are read;i=i+1)
                Printf("Respond to emails");
                Printf("Flag the ones that are to be replied later");

     Printf("Time for a coffee");
     Meetings (ZERO)  /* Function called meetings cannot return anything other than ZERO */

For(i=9AM;i<530pm i="i+1)</p">{
     Daily Routine ()  /* Runs automatically until 530 PM */

Return 0; -- This batch can never return anything meaningful !!

} /* End of Function Main - Another day lost... */

Some where between 9AM and 530PM, in the Serengeti plains of Africa, the wildebeest have entered the Maasai Mara game reserve where they will be hunted by carnivores. Those who manage to survive make their return journey back to Tanzania to complete this cycle.

Ravi realizes that everyday in his life is like the annual migration of wildebeest in Africa. Those who manage to return make this epic journey again the very next day !!

And the cycle of life continues, the wildebeest are back again the next year !!!

Author's comments:

1. If you are not comfortable with 'C' (the programming language), the points below might be helpful to understand the blog better:
   a.  /*   */ is for comments, they are not part of the code. These are supplementary comments for reader of the code to understand the author's thought process
   b. 'For' loop is a loop for running something over and over again until a specific condition is met. There is no better comparison to Ravi's daily life than this 'For' loop
   c. 'Printf' is a statement to print something on screen. In Ravi's context, it is a reminder in his brain to do certain activities
   d. 'Scanf' is used for inputs.

2. If you know 'C' and have found syntax errors in the code:
    Printf("Very Well Done !!");
    Printf("But it really does not matter!");
    Printf("It is time for you to think about your life NOW! ");

3. If you are interested in knowing about the wildebeest migration (the one that happens in Africa not the one in cities), then this link has a lot of information. I don't get paid for anything on this blog - so please feel free to click on any of the links i provide.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The curse of 256 Kbps !

Some things are never meant to be ! And, apparently that is precisely the case with my internet speed - wherever I go... Here is a brief chronological summary:

Phase I (1990s): No Computer, No Internet (0 Kbps)

Since I hail from a middle class Indian family, we could never afford a computer in my early childhood days. In those days (90s), owning a computer used to be a luxury that most of the Indians could not afford. But, Moore's law helped and the market saw better processors every 18 months or so.

Wikipedia defines Moore's law as follows:
Moore's law is the observation that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years.
This meant that if you are not looking for the best in the market, you could easily find a model that is affordable.

Phase II (late 90s, early 2000): Dial-up internet (56 Kbps)

We did find a P4 that fit in our budget in the late 90s. Now, the next need was to connect to the world. Broadband (India's telecom department defined Broadband as 256 Kbps download) was expensive and we certainly could not justify the need for one. No one in our family had an obsession for computers - but, we all did learn to use it well though.

The only other option of connecting to the 'Cloud' was a dial-up connection. We got one and were finally able to connect. Checking emails at home was a luxury we did not have before. Forget streaming of videos - it used take forever to buffer. We never attempted after a while.

Phase III (Mid 2000s): Broadband finally (256 Kbps)

We kept moving across different parts of India as my dad had a transferable job. Everything changed with each move - People, practices, local languages, food. The only thing that never changed was the speed of Internet ! India never invested in setting up good infrastructure and it is beginning to show now. But, we will discuss India some other time - let us get back to my curse !

We finally got our first broadband connection. Everybody was thrilled that now we would have 'high speed' internet at home. Of course, what we didn't know was that 256 Kbps was the 'maximum' download speed !!! And, the curse continued in my life. We were just slightly better off than dial up - we used to get somewhere around 50 Kbps on an average and if the days were good, a speed of 100 Kbps !!

Phase IV (Late 2000s) : The era of Mobile internet (20 kbps)

I started working and moving places and there was no real need to own a personal laptop. We did have the USB stick for internet so as to be reachable wherever we are. 'Mobility' and 'availability' were the buzz words... And, of course, the curse continued...

Phase V (2009-2011): Montreal, Kanaada (also called 'Canada')

Despite majority of apartments having fiber connectivity, somehow, I landed up in one which had copper connectivity only. Apparently, they had plans to land optic fiber in that apartment but i guess they were waiting for my departure from that apartment !! People are usually surprised when you tell them that your internet connection in North America sucks - For me, it was just 'status quo' so i never bothered to think that much.
Obviously, almost all apartments had superb connectivity - my apartment was just an aberration.
But, the curse continued !

Phase VI (Late 2011 - Early 2012): Singapore Part I - The copper story continues

I moved to Singapore and found a beautiful place to live in. It was right in the center of the city - Life could not be better. Almost 75% of Singapore is Housing development board apartments, another 20% are condominiums and maybe about 5% are private landed apartments. Out of all the choices, somehow, I landed in a private landed apartment !

Singapore being the city it is, I never even thought i would go through the same trauma of internet connectivity. However, some things are never meant to be! My apartment had copper connectivity and internet speeds never went beyond 100Kbps. And, the story continued...

Phase VII (Early 2012 - Present): Singapore Part II - 16 Mbps at last !

After six months of staying in the heart of Singapore, I decided to move things around in my life. Of course, that was with the hope that I would find a peaceful place without the hustle bustle of tourists and shopping malls. I did manage to find a beautiful apartment.

With all my past experience and struggle, I was extremely cautious when choosing the type of internet connectivity. One of the operators offered me a 16 Mbps connection for a reasonable price. It was working well and I was so relieved that my struggle has finally come to an end. But, some things are never meant to be.

My wireless router, which was working as smooth as a whistle in my previous apartment, refused to co-operate. It had become moody and connected only when it desired.. And, the story continued.

As of today, the author has a new wireless router in place. However, now the high speed connection has become jittery !

The author is now at peace with himself and doesn't even attempt to do anything about it. I guess some things are never meant to be !!!!

1. Internet connectivity at Montreal and Singapore is super fast. My case is certainly an aberration.
2. I have not seen the progress of connectivity in India for almost three years now - So, my views maybe a little outdated. But, there is no doubt that Infrastructure is in a sad state in India. A detailed blog some other time.
3. Definition of broadband in India will be changed to 2 Mbps (download) from 2015 as per government guidelines

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Triund Hike and McLeod Ganj (Himachal Pradesh, India)

This was one of those spontaneous trips with real short notice. Pooran, a friend of mine, was planning a casual  visit to McLeod Ganj ('McLeod') and invited me to join him. I was in India and there was clearly no reason to reject the offer !! I had to re-hash my India travel plan to include McLeod and i did that with considerable ease...

Pooran drafted a beautiful plan of Triund hike along with exploring McLeod, Dharamkot and Bhagsu. There was no way i could have asked for a better plan - The plan had a beautiful hike in the Dhauladhar mountain range !
The Dhauladhar range (lit. The White Range) is a southern branch of the main outer Himalayan chain of mountains - Wikipedia
I flew in to Dharamshala from Delhi due to lack of time and Pooran, who was already in Delhi, took the bus. In the flight, I met a nice Canadian lady called Alice. She knew more about India than me !! She practises Yoga regularly and has a Guru in McLeod. She shuttles between Canada and India most of the time. We discussed about our travels in India and Canada. As it turns out, I had seen more of North America than her ! One always tends to run away from home in search of 'exotic' places. We continued our discussion in the cab that we shared till McLeod.

Day 1 - McLeod Ganj 

The first day was spent roaming around McLeod. We were just getting a feel of the town and its people. Very nice people - most of them of Tibetan origin.
We had dinner at Gakyi restaurant. It is a very popular vegetarian Tibetan restaurant. The owner is just too good - she gave us the perfect menu item for our needs.

Right to left (Pooran, Owner of Gakyi & Me)
For reasons unknown, McLeod has a lot of variety in desserts ! We found it a bit unusual for a town at 6000 ft. Later, when we enquired about the origin of these desserts, we were told that desserts cater to the needs of western audience. Now, that made sense since we were looking like tourists in our own country - this area has a lot of Westerners for various reasons.
We tried the banana cake, carrot cake and host of other desserts. The ginger-lemon-honey tea too is a beauty - i have never tasted tea as good as this one... A must try if you ever happen to be in this place.

We struggled a bit to find a place to stay for the night. After enquiring at about 5-6 hotels, we finally found a place to stay - Hotel Green. This was another great decision which happened by chance. Hotel Green was really nice - great views, excellent service and lovely food. (My review of Hotel Green on Tripadvisor is HERE)

All three townships (McLeod, Dharamshala and Dharamkot) have a significant population of Tibetans. Most of them are second generation Tibetans. The theme of 'FREE TIBET' can be seen almost everywhere just like the internet cafe below.

Free Tibet !
Day 2 - Triund + Snowline hike

We started the hike at six. The trail to Triund (9300 ft) starts at Dharamkot and goes through Galu Devi temple.
The trail has absolutely no markings but it is easy to follow because there are almost no diversions. The first tea shop is rough an hour and half away from the trailhead. The trail is moderately sloped - reasonably easy till  Triund. Some points on the way do offer good views.

(Photo Courtesy of Pooran)

The summit of Triund offers excellent views of Moon's peak and other peaks of Dhauladhar Himalayan range.

Summit of  Triund overlooking Dhauladhar Range
(Photo Courtesy of Pooran)
Time for some rest !!
(Photo Courtesy of Pooran)
Our initial plan was to hike upto Triund and head back to McLeod. But, we reached Triund around 930 - after 3 hours of hiring. We had a full day in front of us - we decided to stretch ourselves to continue on to the base of Moon's peak, also called the snowline. This was an additional 2-2.5 hrs from Triund. We took a couple of hours of break at Triund and then went on to snowline.

Great views on the way to snowline
(Photo Courtesy of Pooran)
We couldn't believe that we were actually at the base of Moon's peak which seemed to be really distant from summit of Triund. There was a cafeteria just before snowline - this guy stays up there (@ 11000 ft) for 9 months in a year. He made excellent Dal rice for us - much better than the Dal Rice in any of the cities.

The cafeteria at 11000 ft !!

At Snowline (Glacier of Moon's peak)
We were indeed exhausted after 10hrs+ of hiking the whole day. We head back straight to our hotel to catch up with some sleep.

Day 3 - Bhagsu + Return to New Delhi

The realization that this was our last day in the region was hard to bear. We walked till Bhagsu (abt 2kms from McLeod) - had a look at the waterfall from a distance and returned back immediately. The difference was clearly visible - On one hand, there was solitude and peace at snowline and on the other hand, Bhagsu was a tourist spot with a huge crowd. We didn't want to spend any more time at Bhagsu.

All in all, a beautiful trip that included a wonderful hike, meeting some really nice people and exploring a new culture. Would certainly love to be back here in the mountains !!


UP NEXT: Mt Kinabalu, Malaysia in August



New Delhi to Dharamshala: 
1. Bus (Himachal road transport corporation Rs 1000++) - almost 12 hrs
2. Flight (Kingfisher has one flight that runs on select days of the week) 1.5 hrs - price varies as per demand.

Dharamshala to McLeod Ganj
Taxi - Flat fare - Rs 700 (Taxi union has set fixed fares for destinations)

McLeod Ganj to Dharamkot:
~2 kms - 30-45 min walk - Rs 60 by Auto

McLeod Ganj to Bhagsu~2 Kms - Less than 30 mins by walk

Triund Trail Guideline:
Dharamkot (Trailhead) to Galu Devi Temple - 45 mins - moderate slope - paved stone steps.
Galu Devi temple to Triund Summit - Gradual climb but not very steep - about 2.5 hrs uphill and <2 hrs downhill
Triund summit to snowline - 2 hrs uphill and <1 hr downhill


Gakyi Veg Tibetan Restaurant - Highly recommended. Try their 'Special Muesli' for breakfast.
Tibet Kitchen - Good food (non veg)
Ginger-lemon-honey tea at TCV village cafe or Green Hotel's restaurant
Mineral water refill at Green Hotel @ Rs 10/liter - GO GREEN !

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Penang Hill Hike, Malaysia

This was my second trip to Penang. Penang is one of those beautiful small islands in Malaysia. My first trip to Penang was to Penang National park which is located in the north west corner of Penang island (Penang National park hike)

This time around, i wanted to attempt the most difficult hike on the island - From Teluk Bahang forest park to Penang hill. It was not difficult in terms of terrain but in terms of timeline. It is a hectic 8-9hr hike with no camping options. The only place you can stay for the night is at the hotel on Penang Hill. It seemed  like a good challenging hike...
However, i didn't know that i was in for a surprise despite all the research i had done.

Forest park trail closed !

None of the blogs or travelogues had a mention of a virus outbreak in the forest park (Taman Rimba Teluk Bahang). Apparently, the park was closed since May 2011 until further notice.

Last time I was stranded at a trail head was in Canada (Why you need to know French in a French province !)

Now, since i had booked Bellevue Hotel (top of Penang hill) for the night, I had to reach Penang hill by some other route. As per my initial plan, I would have reached Penang hill around sunset and I was not sure if i would be able to catch the last train back and hence had booked Bellevue (My review of Bellevue on Tripadvisor is available HERE)

So, here i was at the entrance of Teluk Bahang Forest Park, trying to figure out an alternate hiking route to Penang Hill. I had come across another route through Botanic gardens during my online research. The challenge was to reach botanic gardens trailhead. After a couple of inquiries, i realized that i would have to take two buses to reach Botanic gardens in a journey that would last hour and a half. Took the right buses but i was dropped at Air Itam which is the starting point of the train to Penang Hill. 

It was 1230PM and it had been four hours since i landed in Penang. I was still trying to figure my way out... Now, I had to reach Botanic gardens from Air Itam and apparently, the only way out was to trace the route all way back to Komtar and take another bus. That's where i met Dominique, who was also stranded at Air Itam and was trying to figure her way till the trailhead. She is a Canadian on a month long backpacking trip in Asia. I admire the courage of these backpackers - I would love to do a similar trip across the breadth of Europe some day..  

Now, this is called a Black n White picture !
We decided to do the hike together. We had a good long discussion on what each of us were doing in our lives. And of course, we discussed Canada, Asia and India too. She was planning to hike half the way up and i was to continue on to Penang hill. 

The trail from Botanic gardens is not so daunting. It is relatively easy. The second half is on a tar road and that part is frustrating. There is an alternate hiking route through the jungle but has no markings. I reached the start of tar road around 330PM and had to choose the tar road because i was too close to sunset to risk the unmarked path. And, I was rightly advised so by locals.

The tar road
It was close to Sunset when i reached
All the drama since morning had zapped all my energy. I was not greatly satisfied with the hike but the turn of events more than compensated for it !! A treat was due despite the fact that alcohol was expensive at the hotel !

The view from Bellevue Hotel
After resting through the evening, I had a good night's sleep. The next morning, I got up early, took the train down and spent about 5 hours walking through Georgetown. It has a nice ethnic mix of Chinese, traditional Malays and Indians too. As i was going through different communities i realized that Malaysia is actually more tolerant to all religions than i had expected. I could see churches next to mosques and then temples (Indian and Chinese) 100 meters away. It was great to see that atleast some pockets in Malaysia are not as radical as i thought they would be. Maybe even other pockets are as liberal - I do not know.

I spent time at the Penang Museum - got to know a bit about British rule, Japanes invasion and other petty wars that Penang has gone through. Visiting museums is NOT something i usually do - but, i can clearly see a change coming through in me. I have started paying attention to cities as well !! 
I also had a look at Fort Cornwallis, rather whatever is left of it. I was reminded of Shaniwar wada in Pune (India) when i first entered Fort Cornwallis. Both of them are in shambles partly because they are not maintained and partly because its been long since their construction. Over the next couple of hours, I just roamed aimlessly on the 'sunday afternoon' lazy streets of Georgetown.

And, that was the end of the trip - a trip that had lots of drama, unplanned events, some hiking, sight seeing and much more.. I am falling in love with Penang !!

Here is my video blog capturing some events live !


Singapore-Penang (Sungai Nibong): Konsortium bus <<10-12 hrs>>
Sungai-Nibong to Teluk Bahang Forest Park: Taxi RM 60 (you can bargain more - i had pre-booked so it was slightly expensive) <<30 mins>>
Teluk Bahang to Komtar: Rapid Penang Bus No 101 << 45mins to 1 hr>>
Komtar to Botanic Gardens:  Rapid Penang Bus No 10. Don't take the bus that goes to Air Itam if you want to hike up. It does not go through Botanic gardens. Take the Air Itam bus ONLY if you want to go by the train <<30 mins>>
Komtar to Singapore: Newsia Bus company <<10-12 hrs >>

UP NEXT: Mcleod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India (End of May 2012)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Medan - Sumatra (Indonesia)

My tolerance with Singapore has been on a downslide right since i stepped in this city country. And, with the current pace of depreciation, I would say, the day is not far when i would spend every non-working day outside this 'Disneyland' (Singapore lovers, Sorry !)

Back to Medan. This was a spontaneous Friday evening decision. Twelve hours before departure, I didn't have air tickets, reservations, a plan of to-dos. Nothing at all. Just booked the tickets and left everything else to unfold in due course. Just made sure i carried a copy of wiki travel guide on Medan - Wiki travel has been my savior on most of my trips.

Also, I seem to be graduating from 'travel for hiking' to 'travel for exploring'. The last two trips have been exploratory trips with no hiking at all - this is a new emerging trend !! Just plain backpacking budget trips...

This was my first trip to Indonesia where I was on my own instincts. All my previous trips were with a friend in Jakarta who knew 'Bahasa' - the language spoken in Indonesia. And, all of those earlier ones were hiking trips.

So, I landed at the Medan airport on time. Two days in hand and no itinerary... I didn't want to take a cab so walked out of the terminal. Negotiated with a becak driver (Pronounced as 'Bechak') for 20,000 IDR and asked to be dropped at the Grand Mosque, which was at the center of Medan. Later, i realized that i could have had that ride for 15,000, maybe even 10,000 if i had known Bahasa. It has been a while since i have negotiated in a place where i don't know the local language. Nevertheless, that was a good first step.

'Becak' - Motorbike with a carriage
I was offered everything from accommodation to girls to Marijuana right in the becak. I politely refused to all of it but apparently these guys have a good network. Well, that was quite liberal for an Islamist nation! So, if you happen to need to any of those mentioned above - give the becak driver a shot ! 'Stay away from drugs' is my simple advice - All South Asian countries have zero tolerance to drugs.

I was dropped at Angel Hotel which is mentioned in Wiki travel. It is a decent place for backpackers - Almost all guests were Caucasians. Got a single room for 60,000 IDR per night. Plain basic bed with an attached bath - Was a bit smelly though ! But, you get what you pay for. If you happen to stay longer, i would recommend staying at a better place. I just wanted a bed to crash at night - so, it was fine with me.

Headed into the city right after checking in. The Grand Mosque (Mesjid Raya) was right next to this hotel. Religious places don't appeal to me so didn't bother to go in. Went out exploring Medan on foot. I always believe that the best way to experience a city is on foot, provided you have time.

Medan seemed so familiar to me. Orderless, chaotic, noisy but full of life. People are nice and so are the becak drivers. It is like any other Tier II city in India, where i have spent almost my entire life till now.
I actually managed to have a mini conversation at a 'Chai ka tapri' (Tea stall) - Some of them are able to communicate in broken English.

After walking throughout the afternoon, I decided to indulge myself at De'Spa. Spent almost the whole afternoon there. It is a good place - Had a 2.5hr rejuvenating session for about 200,000 IDR. Felt really fresh as i came out. Just to warn you, this is NOT one of 'those' massage parlors !! If you would like more information on 'those', we can take it offline...

At about seven, I left for MC&P (Medan Club and Pub), which is supposedly the best place for expats. The Club was reserved for a private party and entry was by invitation only.

However, i noticed something peculiar. There was about a stretch of one km filled with flower greetings for somebody's wedding at the club. Could be a way of 'Medan'ians' showing affection or could be a way of projecting social status. Either ways, I enjoyed the colorful walk.

The next best club was 'The Tavern' at Dhana Toba complex. Took a becak - reached there by eight. Closed !! It opens at 10 - I had no intention of getting sloshed in a foreign country. Went to the cafe at Dhana Toba complex, had Ayam Rendang. It is a spicy chicken dish with steamed rice - a local Indonesian meal. Being an 'Iyer', there is no way i could have skipped a spicy chicken dish !!

Headed straight back to the hotel to catch up with some sleep.

End of day 1...

Day 2 was spent lazily going around aimlessly. Reached Sun plaza for lunch - Spent 3 hours reading Khaled Hosseini's 'The Kite runner' at a cafe. It was getting dark and i could sense thunderstorms in less than 15 mins. Skipped my plan of walking all the way back - took a becak to the hotel. It started pouring just as i entered the hotel ! Had a nice discussion with a Turkish lady who was doing business in India exporting handicrafts to France. We discussed everything from her recently acquired grandmom status to the European crisis to real estate in France to mosquito nets ! Of course, India too was discussed..

The next morning, I had an early flight back to the grind... End of another nice break !

Let's see what's next.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Pulau Sibu (Malaysia) - My first beach vacation !!

Well, here comes my first beach vacation. I have never thought I would ever attempt a trip like this but here it comes !!

Just like every other 'first' in life, this one too had its own charm...

Pulau Sibu (Sibu Island) is a remote island off the south eastern coast of Malaysia. Just the type of location I was looking for - not too many people and yet accessible. For starters, there is no public transport access to this island. There are a few options though (from Singapore):

1.Cross the border at Johor Bahru (Click HERE for details). Take a cab - Should cost atleast RM150 and would easily take a couple of hours. The taxi driver may not know the place - you may have to tell them it is near Tenggaroh Plantation.
2.Cross the border at Johor Bahru - Take a bus till Kota Tinngi. Hire a cab from there - should be an hour from there. Should cost between RM80- RM100
3. The easiest option - Book a resort with transport from Singapore. I did this - I stayed at Sea Gypsy resort. You can book a return trip for as much as RM100!! Being a finance guy, these numbers did make sense to me !

If it had been a regular backpacking trip, the entire trip would have been different - right from transport to the trip itself. However, this one was supposed to be a welcome break and hence i didnt think much !! And, that actually paid off. I had quality time at the resort.

Once you reach Tanjung leman by road, you take a ferry to Sibu island. It is a 25 min speed boat ride - good fun!
With Yus (Yus Lee like Bruce Lee !!)
The rooms at the resort are bare basic - which root you back to nature. It all adds up to a wonderful stay.

The first day was spent aimlessly trying to find reason by getting drunk. Beer and a beautiful beach - Life cant get better !! The next day was action packed. I went snorkelling in the morning. We went to a nearby un-inhabited remote island to have a look at corals. This was my first snorkelling experience - it was beautiful. You realize the amount that exists beneath the surface...
I bought an underwater disposable camera at the resort. I haven't developed the photos yet so I really don't know what is in the reel.. They will be online if they are worth sharing - i will find that out only when i develop the roll!!

Later in the day, I rented a Kayak and went exploring the seas.. It was good fun despite me not covering a significant distance. Again, this was my first time on kayak and probably that gave me the kick.. My left shoulder ligament tear kept reminding me that i should not stretch it too far - i had to listen and return back to the shore after a while!!

I met a Danish couple who were visiting Singapore - Had some really good conversations with them. They had travelled with me from Singapore in the same van. Really nice people with a cute kid called Carl.. We discussed Denmark, Indonesia, Malaysia and everything in between. It is these conversations that give an extra edge to my trips. Somehow I have been lucky to find great people on almost all my hikes and trips...

Cute Carl - he was very popular !!
Before i could realize, the trip came to an end. I got up early to witness sunrise. It was beautiful - just as is the case on any of the summits. Well, this is a new realization to me - Sunrises on beaches can be beautiful and beaches can be a good getaway too !!!

And of course, there had to be a closing video blog - which seems to have become a trademark of my hikes...

 UP NEXT: Mt Kinabalu (Malaysia, 13500 ft) in August 2012

Friday, April 20, 2012

Hike of the year - Mt. Rinjani (Lombok, Indonesia)

If you would like to have a real time feel of events, you may want to have a look at my video blog before proceeding...

Mt. Rinjani was special - I have been waiting to attempt this one since i have landed in this region. This one is probably the most challenging hike in South Asia (if we exclude hikes involving mountaineering). Standing tall at 12420 ft, Mt Rinjani can be easily spotted from anywhere in Lombok - It is a prominent figure on the island of Lombok.

Just like most other hikes in the region, this one too is heavily regulated. This is one aspect which i have had to live with for almost all hikes in the region. Hiring a guide is mandatory. Porters are optional but since i had a beginner friend with me, i wanted to be safe and hence chose a package with a guide and porter. My should ligament tear was also one of the factors that lead us to hiring a porter. The shoulder is much better now but i would have risked recovery by carrying a heavy load.

So, everything was perfectly planned. Here was the itinerary:

Day 0:
Singapore to Jakarta - Night halt at Jakarta

Day 1: 
Early morning flight to Mataram (Lombok international airport)
Sightseeing + acclimitization of Lombok
Night halt at Senaru (near the trail head)

Day 2:
Start hike from Sembalun trailhead
Camp at Base camp

Day 3:
Attempt summit early in the morning
Back to base camp
Camp at Crater Rim Campsite

Day 4:
Crater Rim campsite to Senaru
Senaru to Lombok airport
Lombok to Jakarta

Day 5:
Jakarta to Singapore

The plan was perfect - with sufficient time for transfers. The hike was going to be hectic but that's where the fun is !! A 4D/3N is much more leisurely but I don't hike for leisure ! Hikes have to be challenging and if they don't stretch you - you lose the whole essence of it...

Day 0: Singapore to Jakarta

This was my third trip to Jakarta by an Air Asia flight - the flight that departs Friday night. And, the flight has been delayed on ALL 3 occasions. But, i have nothing to complain because that's what i get for what i paid them !! Madhav, who was to accompany me for Rinjani, was there to pick me up - just like every other occasion. While in the flight, I actually thought of sleeping at the airport itself considering the distance of Jakarta city from the airport. I had to dismiss it because i had no way of communicating it to Madhav...
We had just about 4 hrs of sleep before we start our journey the next day.

Day 1: Jakarta to Lombok; Lombok sightseeing + acclimitization

We took the early morning Lion Air flight to Mataram. Mataram is the new swanky international airport of Lombok. It has been beautifully built. The majestic summit of Mt Rinjani was visible from the runway as we got down from the flight. After having a look at this view, I just could not resist reaching the summit !

Mt Rinjani from Lombok airport (Over the clouds!!)
We were picked up at the airport by John's driver. We had contracted with John (Click HERE to contact him) for a guide,porters and transport. The package also included one night's stay at Senaru. The entire hike was professionally managed by his team. We didn't want to be part of a larger group so we had the guide and porter for ourselves so as to move at a faster pace...

Pickup at Lombok airport
For most part of the drive to Senaru, we could see the summit of Mt Rinjani - you just can't miss it... Senaru is a 3hr drive from Lombok. Once we reached Senaru, we were shown our lavish villa that we were to stay for the night. All we wanted then was a bed to crash and get some sleep. We went around to a couple of waterfalls nearby. They were good too..

Madhav and I at Fall no 1.
This is the second waterfall - much bigger than No 1.

At Fall no 2: You can't go closer - Water was falling down with force!

Day 2: Sembalun Trailhead to Base Camp

We started early and traveled for about an hour to reach the trailhead at Sembalun. The ascent to the summit can be made from both Senaru as well as Sembalun.

From John's restaurant: Leftmost peak is Mt Rinjani

Before we started: With our guide Adi
Full house at Sembalun trialhead

Those beginning the hike at Senaru mostly do not go till the summit unless you opt for a 4D/3N schedule.
For those attempting the summit, there are 2 popular options - a) Start from Sembalun and get back on the same side (2D/1N) b) Start from Sembalun and complete the full circuit to get down at Senaru (3D/2N). Since this might be my only attempt of Rinjani, I didn't want anything less than the full circuit - I started from Sembalun and got down at Senaru 2 days later.

After about an hour of hiking, Madav, who was accompanying me decided to drop out. I guess he was mentally not ready for this one. It is easy to feel dispirited when you look at the 3 day schedule. He decided to go back and spend some time at the beach instead !! The porters were carrying equipment and food for 2 people and we had no choice but to continue because the schedule was really tight. There was no way they could offload some of the stuff and come back on time for first night's camp.

I continued solo. In fact, nowadays i am more comfortable traveling alone than with a group..

The peak is always there in front of you to keep reminding you of the challenge that lies ahead. It pushed me even harder to reach the summit of this majestic peak.

It is always there in front of your eyes !!
With Suma and Sana, our porters.
There is a nice patch of grass meadows just as you begin hiking. It is a reasonably horizontal patch but it felt nice to walk among grass as tall as me (I am a shortie so i presume the grass was not beyond 5 ft in height !!)

The incline keeps on increasing as you cover distance. I was told the last patch before the summit has a steep incline so i kept reminding myself that the worst is yet to come...

We were doing good pace and were tracking to plan. There was a picturesque spot just before base camp. It was beautiful - we decided to spend some time there.

Adi, my guide and I

A quick chat with a Norwegian 

This is the first time i saw a full circle rainbow ! Awesome..
We reached the base camp on time and setup camp for the night. We had an early start @3 AM next day for the ascent to summit.

Day 3: Summit ascent and on towards camp @ Crater rim

I was under the impression that this day would be a smooth ride apart from the summit hike. I was in for a shock...

We started early and hiking at decent pace. However, the last patch was too steep and it slowed me down. We were about 45 mins away from the summit when the sun came up. Ideally, one would like to witness sun rise from the summit.

At Sunrise - The triangular shadow is of Mt Rinjani

The last patch was indeed steep. I realized that i need to work more on my fitness.

The view from summit was outstanding - i can't explain it in words. The view you get from 12000ft+ gigantic structures right next to the ocean had to be amazing. We had gained almost 10,000 ft from the point we started - that was a significant achievement indeed.

Crater lake from the summit - This view says it all !!
Coastal belt from the summit
I don't know what 'Askrida' means ! My guide gave it to me 
The nasty summit ridge
After spending about half an hour consuming views, we started our descent to base camp. In less than a couple of hours, we were back at base camp.

The decision !

However, we had a decision to make.. Almost all of the remaining groups were returning back the same route since most of us were delayed in reaching base camp. I knew that this might be my first and last attempt of Mt. Rinjani. My guide told me he would follow anything i decide irrespective of its consequences. That comforted me - I took a call to continue on to crater rim for the night.

The slope down to crater lake was steeper than i expected and took us more time than we had anticipated. We reached Crater lake on time for lunch and had a daunting 4 hr uphill on to crater rim campsite. We surely were not going to make it before sunset. Surprisingly, we did good pace on the uphill climb despite hiking for almost 15hrs the whole day. This was the toughest day in the whole itinerary.
I was happy i could stretch and the result was really satisfying. Got some great views of Mt Baru as well as the summit of Mt Rinjani from the campsite at Crater rim.

The summit of Mt Rinjani from Crater Rim campsite - Outstanding !!
Looking at the summit from Crater rim campsite gave me a feel of accomplishment. The peak is majestic and it displays itself only for a short while during the day.

Day 4: Crater Rim campsite to Senaru

This was an easy downhill hike where we would lose close to 8000ft of altitude. It certainly was going to take a toll on my knees. We did this downhill real fast and did the whole patch in less than 5 hrs. My guide and I were in fact running downhill in the dense forest. I was stretching my guide on this patch - I asked for breaks to be skipped and i could see that he was not expecting that!!
Finally, he convinced me to take a break just half an hour before completion - I had to give in. He wanted to treat me for one last time - He was a great cook. He was so used to my taste over the last couple of days - I gave him no instructions for the last meal. He made it exactly the way i want...

I was feeling a bit sad that this was coming to an end. But then, that is part and parcel of every great hike. You want it to continue forever. But, life goes on...

This is easily highlight of this year - I certainly can't think of anything better in this region.

UP NEXT: Mt Kinabalu (13500ft) in Malaysia - August 2012