Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A superiority complex

There's a sense among the mainland Chinese that some Singaporean Chinese look down on them. When Misha said this to me during our walk along Shanghai's Bund, I could not bring myself to lie. In fact, a lot of my Chinese friends, more than the non-Chinese ones, were surprised I'd bought tickets to Shanghai. Some said they would never visit China.

'Why not go to Taiwan? It's better and the people are nicer.'
'Have you been to Shanghai?'
'Some other part of China?'

There's nothing new about people being presumptuous about cities and countries without them ever having been there. I faced the same questions and looks of horror when I announced plans to go to Bosnia-Hercegovina and Romania. But with China it seemed to me a different story altogether. You see, the Chinese Singaporean has his/her roots in some corner of China -- that's where their grandparents or those further back in the family tree came from. Yet, so many of them today have a problem with the motherland. It's the same with Singaporean Indians I suppose, but from what I gather, the issue is more pronounced in the Chinese community.

Why? A lot of the complaints centre around the PRCs (as mainland Chinese are referred to in Singapore) being uncultured and loud. This perception stems not necessarily from having been to China, but having observed the behaviour of PRCs living and working in Singapore. Be prepared to go deaf in China, some people warned me. I have to admit I did share some of those concerns. Don't get me wrong -- I don't have a problem with loud PRCs, my problem is with loud people, regardless of their ethnic background. The bottomline is, you can't stereotype a whole group of people because of the actions of a few.

This belief was reinforced in Shanghai as I observed people in the trains. Not everyone was talking loudly. Those who did looked visibly different from the city dwellers. Meaning to say, those who displayed such unpleasant behaviour appeared to be from the rural parts of the country. Then again, compartmentalising them would be myopic as well. Even in Singapore, there are people who speak in only two volumes -- loud and louder. But Singapore is largely urbanised to begin with, so where did these people come from?

Having said that, not all Singaporean Chinese detest China. I have friends who are in awe of its history, its wealth of poetry, its art, its landscape. So many of them have moved to China for work or study. They have expressed disappointment that the country is misunderstood. The politics of the country is another matter of course, but by and large, these Singaporeans have had wonderful experiences in China's cities and even their ancestral hometowns where they've made trips to.

But what about me, would I visit China again? Yes. I've always been fascinated with the country, specifically the western, 'restive' region of Xinjiang. Beijing too is a city I'd love to wander around at some point. Some people I know would shudder at the thought, but I'm not here to change their minds. I'm more interested in expanding my horizon further, to what that country has to offer. And if push comes to shove, I'd ask the Singaporean Chinese, who dislikes China, one simple question: don't you dig your nose too?

Sunday, 24 November 2013


Shanghai: a city once called the Paris of the East, and now the showpiece of an economically thriving China. I went without expectations and was pleased to have come away with a relatively good experience. The city itself boasts more skyscrapers than notable sights unlike other major cities. Having said that, Shanghai does have some museums to its name though I was in no mood for them. So here's my list of things you could do in the city, regardless of whether museums tickle your fancy.

A walk down Nanjing Road

The length of Nanjing Road is quite easily the commercial heart of the city. East Nanjing Road (left) is where the older shopping centres are located, including the first department store which opened in the 1920s. Now it becomes an orgy of neon lights at night and has a tacky little tourist train that plies a section of the stretch for a few yuan (it's better to just stick to walking).

High-end brands line the strip that is West Nanjing Road, together with several five-star hotels, restaurants and prime office buildings. You will also find the Jing'an Temple (left) here. The Buddhist temple has a history of over 700 years and is surrounded by high-rise modern buildings.

Statue at People's Park
The two sides of Nanjing Road meet at People's Square, a large public square in the Huangpu district. There's a lovely park here and the Shanghai Art Museum. Do beware of people coming up to you and asking if you'd like to attend traditional tea ceremonies. These are nothing but extortionate in nature and often your companions start off by saying they'd like to talk to you a while longer to practice their English or show you around. I was asked to take a photo for a trio before they launched into a conversation which steered towards whether I'd be interested to join them at one of these ceremonies.

Shanghai Propaganda Poster Centre

This gallery is in the basement of a residential block at Hua Shan Road. It displays anti-US, pro-communist posters from the 1950s through the 1970s. There's a little shop where you can buy postcards and even original posters. At the main gate of 868 Hua Shan Road, inform the guard you're looking for the Poster Centre and he will hand you a card with directions to the block where the gallery is located.

The Bund

A foggy morning at The Bund
This waterfront area is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Shanghai and is home to dozens of historical buildings of various architectural styles. They were once banks, trading houses and consulates. Some have very colourful histories and a number of them have been converted into restaurants and designer shops. The best times to come here are during sunrise when you'll find people flying kites, jogging, practicing taiji, or simply capturing the sun as it comes up. After sundown, it's a horde of people you'll see here, out for a stroll or posing with the Pudong skyline (above left) behind them. The closest metro station is East Nanjing Road, about a five minute walk away.

Cafe hop

Contrary to what you may think, Shanghai is dotted with many cool cafes, some of which have quite a fan following. My personal favourite is Ginger by the Park at 91 Xingguo Road in the Xuhui district. This one's non-smoking, a huge plus point in itself.

There's also Citizen Cafe at Jinxian Road (in the French Concession), which is apparently popular with the French expat community. A couple of streets away at Changle Road is Garden Books where you can combine your need for a caffeine fix with your literary pursuits. I found the books a little overpriced though.

Across the city you will also find branches of 85C Cafe, a Taiwanese chain which has a very affordable selection of breads, buns and coffees. I personally loved their garlic bread (very random, I know).

Yuyuan Gardens and the Old City

The Gardens (above left and right) are located in the northeast of the Old City and was built during the Ming Dynasty (1366-1644 AD). The pavilions and ponds provide a respite from the bustle of the city.

An alley in the Old City
Once you're done here, poke your nose through the small lanes that are part of the Old City. They are grey, drab, and a world away from the skyscrapers that hover in the background. It's not surprising then that this area is fast disappearing (at the time of my visit, there were two plots of land being drilled and hammered to become modern edifices).


Mural at M50
50 Moganshan Road (or M50 as it is better known) is a contemporary art district home to several galleries and studios belonging to more than a hundred artists. M50 used to be an industrial area and took on its current form in 2000 by a local artist who was initially attracted by the cheap rent of the disused space. If your pockets are deep enough, you could consider buying some of the works.

The only drawback about this area is its relative inaccessibility -- that is, if you're not one who's comfortable with walking at least 10 minutes to get somewhere. The closest metro station is Shanghai Railway Station. Take Exit 5 towards Minli Road/Tianmu West Road. At the junction of these two roads, make a right and walk in the direction of traffic till you cross a bridge over the Suzhou Creek. Then take the stairs down and turn right into the road that runs along the creek. Moganshan Road is right at the end.


Outside a cafe in Tianzifang
This arts and crafts enclave in the French Concession developed from a renovated residential area and its alleys are packed with art/photography galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants. A similar district is Xintiandi, in a vicinity to the north; but what sets Tianzifang (left) apart is its success in preserving its residential feel.

Beyond Shanghai

Confucius Temple in Nanjing
The beauty of a day trip from Shanghai is that several destinations are easily accessible by high-speed trains. You could consider places such as Hangzhou or Nanjing (both are up to an hour away). My friend and I went to Nanjing, until quite recently the capital of China. There are many historical sites here for you to while away your time, including the Nanjing Massacre Memorial (right) and the Ming tombs which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

High-speed rail at Shanghai's Hongqiao
Railway Station
Duration of Stay

Including the day trip to Nanjing, I spent full four days in Shanghai. Most of my exploration was done on foot at a leisurely pace so if you prefer to zip around in the metro, you could probably end up doing/seeing more.

To/from the airport

Hop onto Line 2 which takes you directly to East Nanjing Road and People's Square. The journey takes about 60-75 minutes though. Alternatively, you could hover in the air for a few minutes with the magnetic levitation or Maglev train which zips you to Longyang Road metro station (where you can transfer to Lines 2, 7 and 16) in eight minutes -- quite the time-saver. A one-way ticket costs 50 yuan. If you have a same-day air ticket, 10 yuan will be shaved off your fare.

Getting around

Shanghai is quite pedestrian-friendly so do exploit the opportunity to see more on foot. Otherwise, the city is very well-connected by the metro system with over 10 lines negotiating the underground space. Base fares are at 3 yuan for trips under 6 kilometres, then 1 yuan for each additional 10 kilometres.

Monday, 21 October 2013

To Wasen

The platform was filled with young revellers in traditional garb, accessorised with beer bottles and cigarette packs. There was a lot of chatter, some boisterous singing. I watched them, intrigued. It was relatively chilly, but I suppose the thrill and excitement of going to VolkFest (a beer festival and travelling carnival) at Canstatter Wasen, Stuttgart, was keeping everyone sufficiently warm. Other commuters not making a beeline for the event looked indifferent at best, and apprehensive at worst.

The train quickly filled to the brim with these youngsters heading for the next station about 5 minutes away. It appeared as if the train had been chartered for them and it took a few minutes of boarding before the doors finally closed. From my little corner next to the door at the other end of the train, I watched bodies pressed gleefully against one another: boys in checked shirts and berms, girls in dresses that generously displayed their ample bosoms. Boys sat gingerly on each others' thighs, while the girls looked a little more comfortable in their boyfriends' (at least I assumed them to be) laps. A couple standing right in front of me couldn't stop sticking their tongues down each others' throats as their friends engaged in random banter.

The train emerged from underground and the site of the festival came into full view. One of the girls standing next to me squealed with delight at the sight of a huge ferris wheel and started bobbing on her feet. A guy next to her put his arm around her from the back and smiled. The kissers stopped momentarily and cheered together with the others.

The station arrived and calls rose for the doors to open. Then they started to spill out, as if the train could not bear their load anymore. Some boys started singing again, the girls chatted and laughed. Within a minute or two the train's interior made itself conspicuous again. There was space, there was an uncomfortable silence, accustomed as the ears had become to a cacophony of voices.

I remained behind, together with a few passengers around me. We were accompanied by the gentle roar of the carriage being pulled along to the next stop, together with the bottles rolling and clinking as they met on the train floor.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Baby, you are gonna miss that train..

This was first written on 1st October, 2013

I arrived at the Dresden Hauptbahnhof (main train station) fairly early and loitered around with a cup of hot chocolate. Downing the remnants of the contents of my cup, I dragged myself and the trolley bag to the platform where I found the train taking a breather. Ahead of me was an American couple -- one was struggling with bags, the other trying to find a way to open the door. I stepped up to the front and pushed a button and let the woman board.

The train ride itself was largely uneventful save for the occasional guffaws of the American woman (they were seated diagonally across from me). However my mind was elsewhere: the train has to reach Nuremberg on time because I need to catch my connection to Stuttgart, that too with a window of just 9 minutes. But going by how this train was making its scheduled stops on time, I was becoming comfortable with the thought that there would be no reason for a delay.

But of course, things go wrong when you take the side of complacency. Towards the end of the journey, the train made an unusually long stop at a station which looked like it had been hastily put together to stall our progress. I cocked my head this way and that from my seat, hoping to determine the cause of the delay or at least find out the name of the station. The American couple was also getting agitated. From their conversation, I discovered that they were travelling on to Munich from Nuremberg. I was comforted by this new piece of information.

Minutes before its scheduled arrival in Nuremberg, the train made another stop, this time in the middle of nowhere. There was no way to determine where exactly we were because trees obstructed our view on both sides. At some point, the American couple gathered their bags and made for the exit. I did the same just as the other passengers around me, mostly Germans, put on their coats and took the few steps towards the door.

Then came an announcement in German, the contents of which I understood from gasps that escaped the lips of the women in front of me (and a check of the time on my phone). I had already by this time made out the German words for 'platform' and 'fifteen'. They repeated the same words, and I knew I definitely had company.

As the train slowed to a halt, the American couple, at the head of the line, had trouble with the door again (the fact that I had opened the door in front of them earlier did not help them register how things are done). Thankfully, someone behind them jabbed his/her finger into the button that opened the door. My fellow passengers and I hit the platform running, quite literally, with our bags. I ran down the stairs towards our designated platform as if my life depended on it, jumping two steps at a time on the stairway, and emerged on Platform 15 to find the train still standing. For reasons that escape me now, the first few seconds were characterised by sluggishness, a belief that I could take my time finding my coach. Thankfully I did not have to go far, because my coach was right next to the stairway. I climbed in, relieved, as were those puffing away ahead of me: 'we made it with barely seconds to spare!', one woman seemed to say.

I thought of Geet from Jab We Met and chuckled.

P/S In the event your connecting train leaves before you reach the station, go to the train information counter/sales office. The staff will issue you a ticket with the next available connection.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

People II

The second collection of my People series.

Left: I spy, at a Soviet era cafe in Lviv, Ukraine.

Right: Cafe in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Right: I was walking around Istanbul, Turkey, close to the Hagia Sofia when I saw this boy, who I suppose had pulled himself away from friends standing not too far away, fascinated by these pigeons.

Left: This kd was out with her grandfather and couldn't decide if she really wanted to ride her little bicycle. (Mumbai, India)

Right: A couple in contemplation. (Zadar, Croatia)
Left: These kids were part of a school group visiting the Nek Chand Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India. We smiled at each other, I pulled out my camera, and he stuck out his finger in surprise.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Train to Heidelberg

It was towards the end of breakfast that the germ struck: I should do a day trip to Heidelberg. Immediately I reconsidered the option. Maybe it would be better to walk around the streets of Stuttgart a little. It cannot possibly be unbearably uninteresting. But what about Heidelberg? I had heard positive things about it and not going would be a shame and a wasted opportunity.

Let's decide at the train station, I told myself.

It was 1028hrs, and according to a quick check online, the next train to Heidelberg would leave Stuttgart's main station at 1039hrs. So began the vacillation with the idea of going for the day trip. Perhaps it would be a better idea to head to Tubingen -- it was closer and Nari was considering it too. But she had yet to reply to my text.

The next few minutes were spent fiddling with the ticket machine. Destination, one way ticket -- or return? Might be cheaper? No, the same as the onward journey. What time? 1500, 1600hrs? How much time would I need there? I'll get in at around 1120 if I hop onto the 1039. Hmm Cancel.

Let's try again.

Destination, immediate travel, one adult, single journey, 26 euros..
Insert card?

Why not? I don't have to commit for sure -- I'd still have to enter my pin.
Card enters the reader.
Card panel says I should Bitte Warten.

My card slips out and the main screen says 'Your ticket is being printed.'
'Your receipt is being printed.'
I pull out both pieces of papers from the tray. But which is the ticket? Neither says which train I'm supposed to catch, nor does it say what time I depart.


I run to the nearest approachable person who, as it turns out, speaks little English. Refer to the board, she tells me. I look at the big blue electronic display overhead and hunt the platform number for the 1039 train. 
I forgot to mention that the platforms at Stuttgart's station require some legwork because of construction works. So I run, alongside my fellow commuters, to platform seven. Once there, I ask around for help and a fellow passenger and the train conductor confirmed i was on the right track. 
Then I waited for the train to pull out of the station. 
It did..at 1055hrs.

Friday, 11 October 2013

on the road: Dresden

Cashier at ZARA: I'm sorry but this isn't the right price.
Me: Oh ok.
Cashier: Yes, that's the price for Spain. 
Me: I guess I don't have a choice unless I go to Spain to buy this (chuckle).
Cashier: Hmm. So you take this?

on the road: Brussels

American: Where are you from?
Me: Singapore.
American: Boring town but close to Phucket (as pronounced).
Me: Yes, but at least we don't go on random shooting sprees.
American: (Ignores me) In Europe, they kill you in different ways. 
Me: Such as?
American: Taxes, socialism, lack of empathy, corruption..
Me: I'm sorry the rest of the world isn't perfect like America.
American: (Ignoring me again) So you're visiting.
Me: Yes. You?
American: I've lived here (Brussels) 10 years.

Monday, 1 July 2013

People I

We love taking photos of people. I do too. Here's a first collection from my trips.

Left: my fellow passengers on Hong Kong's tram.

Right: a couple steal a corner of the Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary. It took me a while before I managed this shot. Partly because there were people passing, partly because I was trying as hard as possible to be inconspicuous.

Left: Sikh guards having a chat at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India.

Right: This guy was on the phone for some time while his girlfriend (we assumed she was), waited for him to end the call. He was either oblivious to her growing impatience, or simply ignoring it. Oh yes, this was taken in Istanbul, Turkey.

The shot on the right was taken outside Qutb Minar, Delhi, India. She was probably tired and waiting for the rest of her group.

Below: This is one of my favourite shots of my trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Solo travel

It always happens when I am recounting a recent escapade to what some of my friends call an 'exotic' location. Maybe it's the enthusiasm that lends itself to my stories or the sparkle in my eyes that glues them to what I'm saying, because it is then that they raise the question: 'when are we travelling together?'

Suddenly the excitement and passion with which I had relived my foreign experiences dissipates. I find myself lost for words and offer a meek, 'yes we should do it sometime'. Don't get me wrong, it's not as if I don't like company during my escape from the island; it's just that solo travel has opened up so much more. It feels like an epiphany, and I have some friends to thank for that.

One, for example, was very keen on going to China's Xinjiang province in mid-2011. But because ballooning airfares were making the trip increasingly impossible, we changed destinations. Several times. It's 2013 and we have yet to travel together.

Up until 2011, I was content with admiring Nari for her ability to just pack her bags and fly off where she desired. What made it all the more incredible, for me at least, was the fact that she's petite and a girl! I'm not sexist but it did make me think: if she can do it, why not me?

Of course there's the initial apprehension about going it alone: will I get bored, how do I bring myself to eat alone, and -- more importantly -- who's going to take photos of me (especially if you, like me, are one of those who thinks sticking your arm out and aiming the camera at your face is absolutely silly)? As cliched as it is, and like everything else, you won't know until you try solo travel. And the results can be quite surprising.

Travelling alone makes you your own master! You choose how long to take in one place -- you can linger for days, or run off after half an hour. You let everything take its time to slip into your skin -- the sights, the smell, its taste. You make conversation with other people because at some point you simply have to -- be it with the barista in a cafe or a fellow traveller -- think the Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy starrer, Before Sunrise (1994).

During my solo trips, I've couchsurfed a number of times. The people I met were absolutely amazing and they added so much more to my overall experience, whether it was discovering an un-touristy part of Krakow with Maciek, or walking into an Argentine-run cafe in some corner of Barcelona with Cesar. There's so much more you learn about people, their city and their country when you live with, or simply share some time with them. Conversely, they learn a little more about you too. In Kyiv, Ivan and his friends were amused that they had to zoom in several times before Singapore showed itself in its full glory on Google maps. I still remember the looks on their faces as I described the island's population density.

Above all, travelling alone takes you to that one place no one else has access to: your self. You learn so much more about who you are, what you're capable of. Afraid of getting lost? Can't speak the language? Too bad. Learn how to communicate with your hands, a pen and paper, or your body. Outside the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, I was a second away from choo-chooing around the bus stop after several attempts to get directions to the train station were going nowhere.

Solo travel for me allows me to break out of my shell, even if by a whisker. I consider doing things I ordinarily wouldn't (mostly legal of course) back in Singapore. I'm generally not a very sociable person,  I prefer to stick to people I've already established relationships with. But when push comes to shove, I surprise even myself. In Ljubljana, I met Luka for a road trip after we'd exchanged some messages online. He had suggested showing me Bled, an alpine town about an hour and a half away from the Slovenian capital. I jumped at the opportunity (he had a car so...). I saw another side of the country, and I made a new friend.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, and this is true when you're alone on the road. It makes you re-evaluate your relationships with those who matter. Something or the other triggers a memory and takes you back to someone you said goodbye to. The same goes for the country or city you were so eager to leave. You return to it with a new pair of lenses. You add something new, good or bad, to how you perceive that which you always thought familiar.

Most times, none of this would be possible with travelling companions. They distance you from such experiences. You end up being cocooned in your little universe, characterized by checking tourist sites off your list and freezing them in your camera. You could couchsurf with your travel buddy too, but more often than not, especially if you're from Singapore, this option is deemed to be unsafe.

Sometimes it's justified of course because you could easily meet nutcases. But this is where discretion comes into play. If the person you talk to online is giving you bad vibes, you obviously don't go looking for trouble. There was this one fella I was talking to from Prague and it emerged that we're both fans of Converse sneakers. Except in his case, it was not just about collecting or wearing them (I'll leave it to your imagination). Less threatening problems include long layovers at airports. I spent 12 hours between flights at Doha's airport in late 2011. Not something I would want to repeat in a very long time.

The most uncomfortable thing about solo travel for me is pulling out of a city. It is in those final moments that everything tries to hold me back. The seconds slip out of my fingers and it feels as if something has been left undone. It is during this time I wish I could spend more time with the people I've met. Before I boarded my train to Budapest from Cluj-Napoca's railway station, I expressed regret to Luci that I had not gotten to know him better (he was at work for the most part of my time in the city). It was then he said something I have always lived by, and had perhaps forgotten at that point:
there's always a next time.

Indeed. There's always a next meeting, always another adventure to be had.

Postscript: this entry was published on 24th July 2013 on The Hindu's Business Line

Friday, 7 June 2013

Coastal Croatia

To be completely honest, I used to think the old-school tourism commercial for Croatia that I used to chance upon on the BBC was cheesy. The ad claimed Croatia is 'the Mediterranean as it once was'. Really!

In Trogir
Yet there was something that drew me to this country. Maybe it was its name, or that a friend had been there before and raved about it. Or it was simply the fact that a routine scan of airfares on some airlines' websites made it possible to visit this country by the Adriatic Sea.

Whatever the reason, I found myself along the Croatian coast in April 2012 as part of a broader trip to the region. My trip took place during the low season but that did not really dampen the experience. If anything, I was to find out that it made for easier access and navigation. The only downside to it was that I did not get to visit the islands for which the country is famous, and this was because of the lower frequency of boat rides to and from such places like Hvar and Krk (and more importantly, my refusal to zip from one place to the next with what little time I had). Having said that, the cities boast some postcard-pretty sights and winding alleys that should keep you busy for a few hours, if not full day trips.


Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock was on holiday here once and described the sunset he saw in the horizon as the most beautiful in the world. It is a claim that was echoed by some locals I spoke to, and I must say they're not very far off from the truth. Of course it's quite another matter if you consider people who wax lyrical over sunsets pathetic. In which case, you might want to check out one of the following:

Sunset as seen from Zadar
St Donat's Church (above, right): one of the best preserved pre-Roman buildings in the world.
Sea Organ (below, right): This man-made organ works with the motion of the waves and 35 pipes to create a musical soundscape. Sounded like a whale singing to me.
Museum of Ancient Glass: This museum has what's been described as the most outstanding exhibits and the greatest collection of ancient glass in this part of Europe.

Sibenik as seen from
St Michael's Fortress
Cathedral of St James (right)
in Trg Republike Hrvatske
This medieval city is often bypassed for its more famous neighbours, but Sibenik is lovely in its own right. You'll find steep backstreets and ancient chapels compactly packed in this part of northern Dalmatia. There's also the Cathedral of St James, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose most unusual feature is the frieze of 71 heads on the exterior walls of the apses. They may look like caricatures but are actual depictions of people from the 15th century (left). Apparently the cathedral cost quite a bomb, and it's said that the stingier the donor, the gross their caricature!

Sibenik is also home to the St Michael Fortress, which offers fantastic views over the city, the Krk River and the Adriatic Sea (click! click!). Parts of the structure date back to the 13th century.

North of Sibenik is the Krka National Park, similar to the Plitvička  Lakes National Park. The one in Krka offers you breathtaking scenery of waterfalls and all else nature has to offer. Some historical and archaeological remains can also be found here.

a street in Trogir
The showcase of Trogir:
Cathedral of St Lovro
Tiny Trogir is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. The medieval core is surrounded by walls and comprises a preserved castle and tower and a series of homes and palaces. These are from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods. The most important sites include the 15th century Fortress Kamerlengo. It hosts concerts during the Trogir Summer festival.


The bell tower in
central Split
Reading at the foot of
St Duje's Cathedral, Split
Split is in Central Dalmatia. It was originally built around the Diocletian palace where locals sought refuse centuries ago. Within this UNESCO World Heritage Site you'll find the Cathedral of St Domnius and its iconic belltower (left), a couple of museums, Roman walls and temples. 

Split harbour
Split is also famous for housing the Galerija Meštrović, which displays the works of the Croatian sculptor. I did not get to see it though because the gallery was closed at the time of my visit. There's another such museum in Zagreb. 

view of the Old Town and Lokrum Island
from the City Walls
The Old Town as seen from
my guesthouse

Then there's Dubrovnik, images of which are splashed virtually everywhere that Croatia is advertised. The city is marble streets, baroque buildings, and an endless stream of tourists frantically freezing virtually every inch of the Old Town in their cameras.

A dwelling in one of the
streets in the Old Town
The entire area is closed off to cars and surrounded by thick defence walls. You can walk around the walls for a fee (the main entrance and ticket office is by the Pile Gate, but you can also make the ascend from Ploce Gate in the east). I went at around opening time and had the walls mostly to myself. I finished the walk in about an hour, but I suppose if you go during a busier period, especially in summer, it may well take a much longer time. Stroll, too, along the main street, Placa, or as it's commonly known, Stradun, the Old Town's pedestrian promenade. I was told that in summer it becomes very difficult to walk down this stretch without being elbowed or rubbed against someone else.

Cavtat's promenade
Dubrovnik was the target of bombardment during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, and if you'd like to get a sense of this slice of history, take a peek at War Photo Limited , a photo gallery curated by a photojournalist who worked in the region in the 1990s. Note though that the gallery is closed between November and April.

the harbour at
If the crowds of Dubrovnik get too much for you, hop on a bus and head down to Cavtat, which is a lot less touristy. This little town oozes charm and grace. In terms of sights, there are the baroque St Nicholas Church and the birth house of Vlaho Bukovac, Cavtat's most famous son, at the northern end of Obala Ante Starcevica.

Getting around

The coast is well-connected by buses (and ferries) which leave for each destination mentioned here almost hourly. You can also get buses from these cities to other parts of Croatia (including the capital Zagreb) and neighbouring destinations like Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina (from Split and Dubrovnik). There are airports in Split, Dubrovnik and Zadar. The cities are also served by trains though buses are a better bet.

The cities are also good jump off points for some of Croatia's famed islands. These include:

Between us
Pag and Kornati from Zadar
Hvar, Brać and Vis from Split
Mljet, Korćula and Lokrum from Dubrovnik

Best time to visit

Summer is where all the action is! But if you prefer it to be less crowded, visit during the shoulder months (April, Oct, Nov).

How many days

Dubrovnik, Split and Zadar can keep you occupied for a day. I'd suggest spending at least a night as well. I'd set aside 2-3 days each in Split and Dubrovnik which was a bit too much, which is why I made trips to Sibenik, Trogir and Cavtat. I spent on average half a day in each place but it ultimately depends on your individual preference.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

80 Rupees

This piece was first written on 25th March 2010

In a span of an hour and a half, the brown faces at the bus stand at Fatehpur Sikri were replaced with foreign ones, mostly Caucasian. One had been pacing up and down even before we got there.

The bus may have met with an accident, the guy at the nearby cafe told us. He suggested we round up eight people to share a cab which would cost under Rs 100 each (about 2-3SGD at the time). Another group of eight had disappeared under a similar arrangement.

The other option was to simply keep waiting for a bus that would cost Rs 27. But what if none arrived? How much more would it cost to take a cab on our own?

There were seven of us: my mum, an Irish woman, a trio of Koreans (2 girls and a guy), and a Caucasian man and woman. The same guy at the cafe was most eager to help us, considering the cab arrived within minutes of the end of his phone call. This sounds like a scam, I thought to myself.

The cab, as he called it, was a 6-seater -- one in front, 3 in the middle and two at the back, where a spare tyre meant you'd have to sit in a somewhat squatting position. A French couple, whom I didn't approach to be part of our road trip, were the first ones to sit themselves in the van. I couldn't find the words to tell them to get out, and no one else seemed to bother. What this meant was that the Caucasian woman who was to be part of the group had to be left behind. The Irish woman we'd approached had to squeeze with the two Korean girls (with the spare tyre). Because of this inconvenience, she was asked to pay Rs 50, as opposed to the 90 the rest of us were asked to fork out. I was not entirely pleased with what had transpired, and the other passengers made no effort to be discreet about their scathing remarks about the situation they were in. 'This is India', someone seemed to suggest.  

Fast forward to Agra's Idgah bus station: I pulled myself out of the vehicle after having my butt cheeks spread thinly between the passenger and driver's seats. The French couple were the first to pull out two fifty rupee notes and place them in the driver's palm. Thinking the rate had been brought down to 50 per person, the rest of us followed suit.

As we were leaving, the driver held us back, asking for the remaining amount. I realised then that it was indeed only 50 for the Irish woman. We called the French couple back and explained the situation. The man said they were not paying more. The rest of us, who had agreed to make up the difference, were thrown off-guard. Even the Irish woman started getting into a fit on our behalf (I don't understand why she decided it was her business to).

So what next? I was the only person the driver could speak Hindi with and he asked me to help him out. But what was I to do? The others were still standing around, but by this time the prevailing mood was not to take out more money and there was no way I would pay for everyone.

At some point my mum thought I was being harassed into making the difference and told me to leave. But what about everyone else? I started walking into the mass of people and traffic, and told the others to leave. My mum and I shuffled away and hopped into an autorickshaw to go to the railway station.

We did not look out of the three-wheeler. What happened to the others, I will never know. But sitting in the auto, I felt disgust for the French couple. More than that, my mum and I felt horrible for having cheated the driver. How much value did those 80 rupees add to our lives that evening, I asked myself later? But things had happened so fast. There was almost no time to think rationally.

Does cheating someone and then feeling bad about it make it less wrong? Your take on this is as good as mine. But how do you forget a poor man pleading with you for his rightful share, and the look on his face searching for an answer in yours?

Sunday, 26 May 2013

His name was Premchand

This piece was first written on 21st March 2010

The train was waiting at the platform from as early 1620hrs. We’d actually made it on time to Kalka after a slow descent from Shimla on the toy train, considering the Himalayan Queen left the mountain town 25 later minutes than scheduled.

It was soon to be a 6-hour ride in the second sitting compartment to New Delhi. My mum and I settled ourselves into our seats next to the window. Actually, I was to rest my butt along the aisle because we were to have someone in the middle. A quick look at the passenger list next to the train door before we’d boarded gave us an idea of who was going to be our t ravel companion: a man named Premchand. I did not not take note of his age, which was likely printed in the very next column. All the name gave us was an indication of what the seating arrangement was to be like, and fodder for my often fertile imagination.

I got busy trying to figure out which one of the men climbing into the compartment might be Premchand. I pictured him to be someone mature. Then again, he could have easily been a young man with a moustache in a neatly pressed shirt and pants. But the number of elderly men that kept coming in began to chip away at this image.

Could it be this old man, with snow-white hair with glasses perched on his relatively sharp nose? Or the friend of the family sitting behind us, whom we’d seen loitering around on the platform earlier? I just hoped it would not be the man standing near the door whose mobile phone conversation was no longer secret.

At 1650hrs, the train started pulling itself out of the station as lazily as the sun was being swallowed up by the horizon. But where was Premchand, I turned and asked my mum? Could he have missed the train by a whisker (maybe he was dragging heavy bags)? What if someone else hops on and tries to claim his seat? Should I save it for him? But how do you do something like this when you don’t even know who it is you’re helping? My mum pointed out that he might be boarding at a later station. Fair enough (I don’t know why this thought had not crossed my mind in the first place).

A stop or two later, a man in a white shirt calmly squeezed past a group that was trying to get off the train. He had glasses on, and a moustache. Planting himself comfortably next to me, he gave himself all but two seconds before turning to me to ask for my seat number (I was in his seat). Before I could finish explaining my trespass, he understood that the lady next to the window and I were travelling together. ‘No problem,’ he said, before whipping out his mobile phone to inform someone at the other end that he had gotten into the train. At this point, I turned to my mum, and as discreetly as possible, pointed my right index finger in his direction: ‘Premchand!’

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Akhirnya ke Bromo juga (finally made it to Bromo)!

The first time I came across Mount Bromo was on a postcard I'd bought in West Java during a school trip in 1996. I remember being fascinated by the extraordinary image on the card. But at that time, there was no definite desire to ever visit the volcano and I suppose this was partly because I'd been disappointed by Tangkuban Perahu, another fiery mountain near Bandung which we made a trip to (it did not look like a 'conventional' volcano to me).

Fast forward 12 years and I found myself staring at Mount Merapi near Yogyakarta, smack in the middle of the 2006 and 2010 eruptions. The problem with Merapi was that it was in a bad mood for the most part of my trip to Central Java.

We drove from one location to the next in the hope of getting clear views of the mountain, which we eventually did at the Kaliurang lookout point. Merapi offered itself for scrutiny for all of 10 minutes. As it rumbled gently and breathed smoke, the volcano slowly drew the clouds hovering nearby to conceal it from view. What if it erupts right now, I wondered...

A fleeting urge to see Mount Bromo germinated sometime around here. But as the attraction grew, so too did the obstacles: two eruptions in 2010 and 2011, and roadblocks in the planning phase. Sometimes it was a matter of not being able to sync free time with a travel companion, otherwise it was the impulse to fly somewhere else. And even after having flown into Surabaya and getting into the nearby town of Malang, things looked less than certain because our hotel, which was helping us arrange the tour, informed us that no more jeeps were available for the drive around the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.

Bromo-Tengger-Semeru as seen from the viewpoint
at Mount Penanjakan
the bubbling caldera
But as the cliche goes, all's well that ends well and every bit of inconvenience was worth it: the wait, the little sleep (if any) I got before pushing off for the National Park at 1.30am, and being thrown around the jeep every now and then. As we snaked our way down a neighbouring mountain, I fell into slumber, contented.

the lunar landscape as caught
on the way up to Mount Bromo
How to get there?
The closest airport is at Surabaya. The city is well-connected by regular domestic flights and can be reached via some regional countries including Singapore and Malaysia. Surabaya is also accessible by train from Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta.

To the park
villages dot the landscape on the left
There are three routes and the one from Probolinggo is by far the most common. The other two are from Pasuruan and Malang. I'd suggest asking your hotel/hostel or tour agencies around these places to help you with arrangements. My transportation was organised by a friend who lives in Malang. Make queries too about specific travel plans. For example, if you want to a return ride to Probolinggo or travel onwards to Surabaya or some place else. The car rental services usually have no qualms taking you to a different location you started out from, but it's best to settle the price beforehand to avoid any unpleasant situations. Note though that the car from one of these towns take you to a transfer point somewhere up on Mount Penanjakan for a jeep which will take you further up and to Mount Bromo afterwards. Also, how much you pay for your transport arrangements depends on how many people you make the trip with. If you're alone, try asking around at the hostel/hotel if anyone else is heading Bromo's way.

The vast plain that is the Sea of Sand, where the volcano sits
Generally, your tour should be something like this:

1 or 2am: push off from your hotel/hostel, depending on where you are
4ish: reach Mount Penanjakan where you wait for sunrise. It gets pretty crowded up here so please do not, under any circumstance, expect to be isolated from the world while watching this spectacle of nature.
5ish: sun comes up, cameras click away ad nauseam.

Contemplating the scene before me
The jeep takes you down Mount Penanjakan towards the volcano once you're ready to pull yourself away from the lookout point. By the way, visit times are restricted to 7am-5pm.

Apart from the volcano..

panorama, with Mount Semeru dominating the frame

If you have your own transport, you can easily reach the Madakaripura Waterfall. There are seven waterfalls here (some of them drop over the access path during the wet season so bring an umbrella). Legend has it that bathing in the waters is an elixir of life. The water is regarded as holy by the Tenggerese and is used in their important ceremonies.

The Poten: a Tenggerese Hindu temple that sits in the Sea of Sand close to Mount Bromo. It's open only during prayer services.

Things to take note of
It can get quite chilly up (temperatures hover around 10 deg C) so bring something to keep you warm.

More importantly, Mount Bromo is an active volcano so do check its status before planning your trip.