A Handy Travel Guide to Hong Kong - Published in the Deccan Herald on 6th October, 2018

The Hong Kong Diaries 

There are some nice things about Hong Kong that get lost in the rhetoric of the tourist brochures.
 Like the landing at Hong Kong airport on Chek Lap Kok Island that was reclaimed from the sea, especially to construct the airport. As the plane descends, the vast sea, dotted with smaller mounds of lush greenery, appears. You wait for the sea to disappear, because are not airports found in urban environs?  But the sea, surrounded by verdant hills, remains in view till touchdown and even thereafter!  It is a nice sight. Or take the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Gardens. Spread over 3.5 hectares in the heart of a densely populated city, here is an oasis of aesthetics and calm. With flowing water, trees, rocks and wooden structures landscaped according to Feng Shui traditions, the Gardens validate the fact that 40% of Hong Kong's area consists of forests and National Park. What is particularly nice is that, the structures are held together, not by nails, but by an ingenious interlocking system carved into the wood. 

Of course, the attractions from the tourist brochures are nice too! Like Disneyland, the primary reason why many tourists visit Hong Kong. Disneyland is nice for obvious reasons. Ocean Park is nice too, thanks to the Giant Pandas. The sight of these playful, gentle giants lumbering up and down, in an air conditioned enclosure that mimics their high altitude habitats, melts even the most cynical! Ocean Park also has a cable car, penguins, dolphins and amusement rides. The penguins make you squeal but the amusement rides are not unique!  
Ngong Ping Village is another tourist brochure star.  It is accessed by a 25 minute cable car ride that travels high above the water, offering sweeping views of the endless South China Sea, the Hong Kong airport and the lush greenery of Hong Kong’s largest National Park.  One of the top 10 cable car rides in the world, it is more  enjoyable, albeit scary,  when done in the crystal cabin with a see-through toughened glass floor! You get off the cable car at Ngong Ping village to, what in Hong Kong, is a very rare sight - cows and bulls roaming freely, grazing away! It is a lovely change to see them alive and not on plates! Apart from the opulent but serene Po Lin monastery with a room full of Golden Bodhisattvas, the other major draw is the 112 foot high, Beijing-facing Big Buddha. Made with over 250 tonnes of bronze, the awesome Big Buddha leaves one feeling small, both on the temporal and spiritual planes. If you can spare a day, Ngong Ping also offers a beautiful sunrise at Lantau Peak, a cultural immersion at a Chinese fishing village and exquisitely calligraphed Buddhist Sutras on the Twelve Pillars on Wisdom Path. 
Then there is Victoria's Peak, the erstwhile residence of the British who first came to Hong Kong. It retains the colonial whiff even today and is the costliest piece of real estate in Hong Kong, housing the uber rich. You can reach the summit of Victoria Peak by riding the oldest funicular in the world, the iconic 108 year-old Peak Tram or you can take the bus to the Peak. While both offer breathtaking views and the illusion of the skyscrapers leaning forward as they ascend, the air-conditioned bus is much cheaper than the tram. But then, there are those that like a ride on a piece of history and even those who trek the scenic 7.5 kilometre trail up to the Peak.
 The Hong Kong shopping scene is another great crowd puller. From Times Square to Sogo, the iconic malls of Hong Kong showcase every international label, from Armani, Gucciand Versace to De Beers, Rolex and Cartier. Mall visits are really quite convenient, thanks to an arrangement between the bigger malls and the Hong Kong metro rail (MTR) by which, metro stations are located at the basement of the malls. The chic malls eat up your hours and if you don't watch out, your savings as well! The Smart Alec window-shops till kingdom come and then buys identical fare that serves equally well, from Ladies Market, Fashion Street, Sneakers Street, Jade Street, Apliu Street and the lanes of Causeway Bay, for a fraction of the price! Bargaining is expected and the initial price quoted is an exponential multiple of what it is finally sold for.

For the scholarly, there is the Hong Kong Museum of Natural History, the Science Museum and the Space Museum. The Hong Kong Museum of Natural History with excellent displays, descriptions and detail is highly recommended. For the gourmands, Hong Kong offers the most authentic of Asian cuisine, from eel fried rice to noodle broth with squid, pork and what have you, both at the swishy, Michelin-starred restaurants and at the numerous eateries lining every street.  For vegetarians, strong of heart, there is the newest trend of vegan restaurants that recreate non-vegetarian delicacies with mock meat and purely vegetarian ingredients. For the rest of us there is Saravana Bhavan, Sangeetha, Sharma’s and Branto. 
Hong Kong is the most visited city in the world. It has retained this distinction for the last 10 years, despite being one of the most expensive cities. Excursions, amusement parks, trekking trails, shopping, gastronomic adventures - Hong Kong has them all neatly packaged and efficiently dispensed, both for the moneyed tourist and for the backpacker. However, at its heart, lies the juxtaposition of urban realities with the beauty of nature, the old with the new and the uber rich with the common aggregate, all within 2974 square kilometres.  
 Indian nationals do not need a visa but they need to complete a pre-arrival registration which is valid for six months. This can be done online and grants a 14-day stay in Hong Kong each time. Extensions are not possible unless you leave Hong Kong and re-enter.
Pick up an Octopus card as soon as you land in Hong Kong airport. It is the most preferred mode of payment in most places in Hong Kong and almost mandatory in the MTR and the buses.
The Hong Kong MTR, one of the best in the world, is the fastest, most economical and comfortable way of getting around Hong Kong.  The bus network is slower and less extensive but, nevertheless, connects all popular areas and sights. Red taxis and Ubers are expensive.
Hong Kong is prone to typhoons. The typhoon season runs from May to September, peaking from July onwards. When strong winds and typhoon warning are in force, many tourist attractions do not operate rides and ferry services are suspended. Plan your day after checking the Hong Kong Observatory website.
 Cathay Pacific runs direct flights from the major Indian metro cities to Hong Kong. Jet Airways and Air India fly via Delhi and Bombay.
Accommodation options range from youth hostels to AirBnB, service apartments and two star to seven star hotels. Some service apartments lease out only for a month or longer. 

Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer - Rajasthan in a nutshell

Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer - Rajasthan in a nutshell  

Rajasthan has been on the international tourist's map since the days of yore with its exotic maharajas and their palaces (many converted into hotels), mammoth forts and vividly coloured textiles and handicrafts. Many notable international films have been shot in Rajasthan right from Peter O'Toole's One Night with the King and James Bond's Octopussy to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Night Rises and Judi Dench's The Exotic Marigold Hotels. Lately, many domestic tourists too have been making a beeline to Rajasthan thanks to the very well crafted and aggressive marketing campaign of the Rajasthan Tourism Department.

Dating  back to almost 5000 years, Rajasthan lays claim to being  the home of the seers who composed the Vedas and present day cities like Jhunjhunu and Sikar are said to have existed right from the Vedic times as part of Brahmavartha. Excavations in the Kalibanga region of Rajasthan point to the existence of Harappans of the Indus Valley Civilization. Much later, the region was ruled by various dynasties like the Kushans, Guptas, Mauryas, Parihars, Parmars and Chauhans. This loose collection of principalities was invaded by the Mughals around 1200 after which many of the rulers accepted Mughal suzerainty, except for a few like Rana Pratap. Later Akbar unified the various kingdoms by forging alliances, both, through matrimony and annexations and a precarious peace prevailed among the Rajput principalities which the British formalized. When India gained independence and states were drawn up, a few Rajput princes refused to join the new India. It took all of seven stages of negotiations to complete the formation of Rajasthan. Today, Rajasthan is the largest state in India, covering 3.5 lakh square kilometres, which makes it as large as the Republic of Congo.   It shares a border with Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh Gujarat and Pakistan. It is home to the awesome Thar Desert, has four major National Parks (Ranthambore, Sariska, Keoladeo and Jaisalmer Desert Park), intricately carved temples and step wells showcasing the skill of its people and handlooms and handicraft that are the benchmarks for aesthetics and beauty.
The circuit of Jaipur (The Pink City), Jodhpur (The Blue City) and Jaisalmer (The Golden City) offers a fairly accurate thumbnail sketch of Rajasthan. If Jaipur offers a combo pack of Rajasthan, Jodhpur showcases its history faithfully and Jaisalmer lays bare the delights of the Thar Desert. Together, they provide Rajasthan in a nutshell in just over a week.


Jaipur, the state capital, is a good place to start and close the circuit because it is well connected to the metro cities and major towns of India by road, rail and air and also encapsulates the entire tourist experience very neatly. There are important forts and monuments, authentic gastronomic experiences and the mandatory shopping delights. The story behind how Jaipur came to be called the Pink City is interesting. In 1876 Maharaja Ram Singh, painted the whole city pink, the colour that symbolizes hospitality, to welcome the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria.  Prince Albert remarked that this was the Pink City and the name stuck.
Jaipur has four major forts - The Amer Fort, Jaigarh, The City Palace and Nahargarh fort.  Amer Fort, the most well known, thanks to the many movies shot there, combines functionality with aesthetics. It is a testimony to the creativity and ingenuity of the human mind, right from the rice and black dal amalgam used to produce a marble like effect on the walls, to the indigenous air conditioning from water flowing down a slope with vents on its side to let in air. A secret passage, not for public use, from Amer Fort leads to Jaigarh fort evoking vivid images of palace intrigue. The City Palace has some very interesting artifacts like the two 3000 litre silver urns in which the Maharaja Madho Singh II carried the waters of Ganga, when he sailed to England for the coronation of Edward II. Jaigarh and Nahargarh provide a bird's eye view of the city, showcasing some familiar film locations for the Bollywood tourist. Moving on, the Albert Museum- the foundation stone of which was laid by Prince Albert is a must-see, with its awesome architecture and fine exhibits. Then there is the Jantar Mantar which is the scientific forethought and labour of a very enlightened king. The Hawa Mahal, the face of Rajasthan, lies at centre of Jaipur in the heart of the shopping district. It is a network of jharokhas or windows from behind which the royal ladies in Purdah (veil) would sit and watch the world pass by, safe from the sight of the commoners. There is nothing you do not get in the roads in and around Hawa Mahal, from the vividly coloured safas or Jaipur Turbans to dupattas in a hundred hues, bed sheets, kurtas and sarees, with the best of block prints (Kishanpol), jewellery (Johri Bazaar), lac jewellery (Tripolia Bazaar) to marble and other handicraft (Chandpol Bazar), mojris (Nehru Bazaar), camel leather products (Sireh Deori Bazaar) suparis, perfumes, spices (Bapu Bazaar) and lots more. LMB or Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar, established in 1757, with its extensive vegetarian menu of Rajasthani delicacies as well as Pan Indian and international cuisines, is an excellent pit stop to assuage those hunger pangs. For afters, there is Pandit Kulfi and masala chai in kulhads (earthen cups), both icons of Jaipur. 


Jodhpur is 360 kilometres away from Jaipur - a journey of six hours by road and rail. Jodhpur is called the Blue City because of the houses and settlements around the fort, being painted blue. One belief is that blue copper sulphate is added to the paint for its insect repellent properties, another belief is that blue reflects heat and thus keep the houses cool and yet others opine that the houses of Brahmins were painted blue for identification. Whatever the reason, houses in old Jodhpur around Meherangarh Fort continue to be painted blue, if only to validate the nomenclature.

The Meherangarh fort is clearly the piece de resistance of Jodhpur. Rudyard Kipling, awed by the fort called it "the palace that might have been built by the titans and coloured by the morning sun.” Chiselled out of sheer mountain and volcanic rock, at 410 feet above sea level and accessed by a state
The beauty and aesthetics of the Meherangarh Fort
of art escalator, the
e fort was built by King Rao Jodha from whom the city has got its name. Meherangarh houses an exhaustive museum that gives an up close view of the Rajput Royalty. What is also eye catching but often missed out, are the nests made by the swift birds. High on the ceilings of the fort are clusters of nests that look like bunches of flowers or clumps of fungi (depending upon the personality of the beholder), made by the birds by sticking together twigs, leaves etc with their gum-like saliva. Bird's nest soup, an oriental delicacy, is made from these nests. There is an interesting local lore regarding how the current Maharaja financed the restoration of this mammoth edifice. Since the government was unable to support his efforts, Maharaja Gaj Singh periodically collected all the bat droppings from the fort and sold them as manure to the chilli farmers around Jodhpur and raised funds. Over a period of time, his efforts gained publicity and financial assistance began flowing and today the fort has been named one of the best preserved forts in the world and also named Best Fortress by Time.  

The beautiful murals in Jodhpur Railway Station
If Meherangarh spells size then the other fort of Jodhpur, Umaid Bhavan Palace spells grandeur. Built by Maharaj Umaid Singh to provide employment to his subjects during a crippling famine, it is the only palace to have been built in the 20th century. One portion of the fort has been converted into a luxury hotel and the other, housing the residence of the current Maharaja, is said to be one of the largest private residences in the world. This palace too has a very fine museum.  Ghanta Ghar and Sadar Bazar are the major shopping areas of Jodhpur. Authentic condiments and spices, leather footwear (Mochi Bazar) and Leheriya, Bandhni and block print textiles (Kapra Bazar)and handicraft (Sarafa Bazaar) are good things to pick up from Jodhpur.  Chaturbhuj Gulab Jamun from Chaturbhuj’s shop in the serpentine and reed like lanes of Ghanta Ghar and Gypsy Restaurant at Sardarpura, touted to be one of the best eateries of North India, are not to be missed. Jodhpur Railway Station is quite a revelation! Spanking clean and embellished with colourful Rajasthani wall murals, it does not seem like one at all. Jodhpur has an olde worldly and almost somnolent charm about it that sets the tone for Jaisalmer which lies at the heart of the Thar Desert.    


Jaisalmer, 300 kilometres from Jodhpur, is called the Golden City, because of the golden hue imparted to it by the yellow sand and the yellow sandstone used in most of its buildings. It is home to the awesome Jaisalmer fort,  a UNESCO World Heritage site, inside which are ensconced the palace, intricately sculpted Jain temples, shops and markets. Impacted by the harsh desert heat and a sparse population of 80,000, Jaisalmer gives the impression of being in another world, in another time.  But  Jaisalmer is extremely significant, both as the gateway to the Thar and as the border of India and Pakistan with a significant army presence. The sharp sunlight, the dry heat and the silence all around one as one enters Jaisalmer makes it immediately apparent that this is desert land.  And the USP of Jaisalmer is, undoubtedly, the desert experience.

The Desert Camps of Jaisalmer
Desert camping with the desert safari thrown in, is a booming industry in Rajasthan.  Although Osian or Khuri nearer Jaisalmer have desert areas, it is Sam, 45 kilometres away that has a wider expanse of desert and better infrastructure to provide a safe and enjoyable desert experience. Accessed by an hour’s drive from Jaisalmer, on roads that cut through swathes of sand, with hardly any vegetation in sight, there aree more than 60 desert camps around Sam. Each camp consists of neatly laid out clean Swiss Tents, furnished to varying levels of comfort and luxury, with chairs, cots, well appointed, en suite bathrooms with running water and air coolers. The more luxurious ones even promise an AC. 

Glamping in the Thar
Tightly cartellized, all camps offer a similar package of camel safari into the desert for sunrise or sunset (which are truly glorious sights), sand bashing in four wheel drives for the young and the hot blooded, and stargazing in the unpolluted desert darkness and typical Rajasthani cuisine. The duration of the desert camp ranges from an overnight stay to a week long sojourn. The desert camp experience is highly recommended. The camel ride into the desert is, literally and figuratively, the high point, designed to test the bravest. If one has survived the first forward lurch, the much sharper second backward thrust into the air and made peace with the height from the ground and the uneven gait of this inexplicable creature, the ride is very, very enjoyable! Everything else in Jaisalmer can wait.
Another interesting spot on the way back to Jaisalmer is the Ghost Village of Kuldhara. Established by Paliwal Brahmins in the 13th century, this once prosperous village is presented to the tourist today as the haunted village. Legend has it that Salim Singh, the debauched Minister of Jaisalmer coveted the beautiful daughter of the chieftain and threatened to destroy every villager and the village if she was not sent to him. Fearing her fate, it is believed that the villagers fled the village overnight. No one saw them leave and no one knows where they relocated. The village gates are shut every evening by the people of the neighbouring village, who don't believe the village to be haunted, but happily spin tales of voices and spirit sightings after dark, in order to attract tourists. Kuldhara is an experience that could be interesting or scary but it is, nevertheless, an experience!

 One would expect to be bored at the repetitiveness of Rajasthan's forts, palaces, textiles and cuisine, but that does not happen. Every fort has a tale to tell. If Amer fort is one of the biggest, the Kumbalgarh Fort has the second longest wall in Asia. If textiles rule roost in Jaipur, leather dominates in the bazaars of Jodhpur and every bazaar has something different to offer.  From the mighty Aravallis to the endless Thar, from the grandeur of its royalty to the depth of its wildlife reserves, Rajasthan gives you the maximum value for money in terms of experiences. If Kerala is God's own country, Rajasthan is testimony to man's creativity and persistence in surviving nature's harshness. In fact, the Rajasthan Tourism logo is quite interesting. It has two birds flying above two camels sitting back to back, evoking the imagery of the Thar Desert. But a closer look reveals the face of a typical Rajasthani man with the huge Rajasthani moustache and smiling eyes. This is so typical of Rajasthan - where you actually get more than what you see!

Fact File
Best time to visit
The best time to visit Rajasthan is between September and Mid December when temperatures normally run between 30 C to 10 C.
December to March is good if you can bear the cold since temperatures could come down to single digits.
Summer, from March to June, is highly avoidable because temperatures touch 50 degrees.
Getting there
Jaipur is connected by rail and air to the major metro cities of India and to all its neighbouring states by state-of-art National highways.
Jodhpur and Jaisalmer are connected to Jaipur, Delhi and Udaipur by road, rail and air. Flights from Bangalore, Bombay and Chennai reach Jodhpur and Jaisalmer via Delhi and Jaipur.
Tickets range from 2000 depending upon the city of origin to 15,000 during the peak season, so booking early helps.
Covering Jodhpur and Jaisalmer by road, at the rate of, @ of 9.00 per km, is also interesting. Pokhran, the site of India’s first successful nuclear testing, falls on the road from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer.
Accommodation Options
The tourist is truly spoilt for choice in this respect, in all the three destinations. At one end of the spectrum lie hotels with a tariff starting at Rs 1200, while at the other end lie the Palace Hotels with a tariff of Rs.50, 000 to Rs.70, 000. The good news is that there are also reputed hospitality groups and the Haveli hotels in the mid range from Rs.4000 upwards that offer classy deluxe accommodation.
Forts involve a good bit of walking, much of it on gradient paths. Wheelchairs are available on request.
Hire only government approved guides thorough official channels. Do not believe touts who take you to textiles, handlooms and handicrafts shops around the forts. The prices are inflated keeping in mind the foreign tourist. You can get the same things in the city at a fraction of the price quoted around the forts. Finally, Bargain, bargain, and bargain till you drop dead!


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