A sense of secrecy, power, awe, and Lenin – these are the images that cropped up in my mind at the mention of Kremlin in my itinerary. The Red Square and the walled complex adjacent to it have been associated with almost all the important events in the history of Russia. These were the first spots that we were to visit during our city tour.
Lined with sturdy red buildings on one side and Alexander Garden on the other, the Red Square dates back to the 16th century. Back then, the square was meant to serve as Moscow’s main marketplace. It was a place where people congregated for public ceremonies, coronations, parades, and also for executions. Now, it is a heritage site, which is closed to traffic and filled with visitors and tourists. Rock concerts, cultural performances, competitions, bridal parties etc. are held in the square. The Red Square lights up with fireworks and festivities on the New Years Eve.
We enter the square through the Resurrection Gate. The gateway built in 1995 is an exact replica of the original gateway. The original gateway first appeared in 1534 and was reconstructed in 1680, only to be destroyed on the order of Stalin to make way for large-scale Soviet ceremonies in the square. Between the twin arches of the Resurrection Gate is a little Chapel with a blue star studded dome. A compass embedded in the ground near the chapel marks Kilometre Zero, the point from which the main streets of Moscow originate and branch out. Read more
A journey is best measured in friends, rather than in miles – Tim Cahill
We had met in Delhi after a gap of 25 years on the occasion of silver jubilee of passing out of college. It was then that four of my classmates and I had decided to go on an all women’s trip to relive our old camaraderie in a new place, in a different city, maybe in a different country.
Thus, began the search for a tour company and we got in touch with SOTC holidays for their World Tour Packages.
For us Indians, Russia generally does not come across as a top destination of choice for tourism as it is perceived as a cold and distant place, off the radar. But, that was precisely the reason why we chose Russia.
As Aldous Huxley has said –
To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.
SOTC Holidays suggested a customized tour package for us to two Russian cities – Moscow and St Petersburg. We decided to grab this opportunity to see the present capital and the past capital of Russia. It took us about a month of planning and coordination to finalize the tour and finally in the 3rd week of August, we set off on a five day trip to St Petersburg and Moscow. Our itinerary included 3 days of stay in St. Petersburg and 2 days in Moscow, with guided city tours scheduled on the 2nd and 5th day of the trip.
Delhi was the starting point of our group tour (three of my friends stay in Delhi). Boarding the early morning flight from Delhi, we landed in Moscow. From there we got onto the flight for St. Petersburg. Strangely, we had to check out our luggage at Moscow and after completing the immigration, check in again on the flight to St Petersburg. It was a short flight. In one and a half hours, we were in St. Petersburg, the city known for its art, splendid architecture, beautiful gardens, magnificent cathedrals and the largest museum in Europe,
Arrival at St Petersburg
A young lady named Jane received us at the airport at St Petersburg and accompanied us to our hotel in the van. On the way, she briefed us a little on the city. The driver spoke only Russian though. The weather was pleasantly warm. We reached hotel Marco Polo by 1.30 pm and checked into the two rooms that were booked for the five of us. By 4.00 pm, we were all set to go out and explore the port city, which is sometimes referred to as the Venice of the North.
During our stay in Kathmandu, we were deliberating on going to Nagarkot or Pokhara, but travelling to either of these places meant that we would need to spend a night there to see the sunset and the sunrise. Given our short schedule, we ruled out the visit to these places, as it would be difficult to drive back in the evening after sunset. These are the tourist places in Kathmandu that we visited instead:
About 20 km away from Kathmandu city centre, is a temple called Doleshwar Mahadeva, which is believed to be the head of Kedarnath temple, one of the most prominent Hindu pilgrimages in Uttarakhand, India. Given its religious significance, Birbal suggested that we go there.
It was a pleasant uphill drive with views of terraced hills and the valley. On the way up, I requested Birbal to stop at places from where we could get good views. He willingly obliged.
On reaching the temple, we found that it is a small, quaint place in the lap of the hills. The Shiva sculpture at the Doleshwar shrine is supposed to be 4000 years old. There were very few people. The temple was completely devastated by the 2015 earthquake and reconstruction work was going on. We bought some offering and went to the shrine, where a local person recited a stuti (prayer). We spend a few quiet moments at the temple and then proceeded to the other places.
I frankly admit that the impression that I had formed of Kathmandu, until recently, was solely on the basis of the scenes of some of the Hindi movies (such as Hare Rama Hare Krishna, and more recently Baby) and Indiana Jones movies that I had seen. That was before we (husband and me) packed off for a short trip, leaving our cat in the safe custody of my daughter, who has come home on vacation. The destination obviously was Kathmandu – an offbeat place but well suited for a short summer getaway, especially for heritage lovers like me.
Arrival at Kathmandu
Taking a morning flight from Mumbai, we landed in Kathmandu by noon. It had rained in the morning, due to which the temperature had dropped and the weather had turned pleasant. A huge poster of Deepika Padukone with an Oppo phone greeted us at the Tribhuvan International airport, where I was expecting to see posters of people in their traditional Nepali costumes. Repair work was being carried on at the airport escalators, which made me a little sceptical while using those.
The hotel Annapurna was not very far away and we reached the hotel in half an hour. While entering, we could see the Narayan Hiti Palace Museum, which was at a five minutes walking distance from the hotel gate. We decided to go there after we had rested for some time.
However, on reaching the Narayan Hiti Palace Museum, we found that it was closed. So we kept walking towards the Thamel shopping area. I saw that most of the people on the road had covered their nose with a dust mask, which I later found is a common practice all over Kathmandu.
Real museums are places where time is transformed into space. ~ Orhan Pamuk
I have always enjoyed trips to museums. My penchant for a visit to museums goes back to my school days when our teachers would take us for trips to museums and gardens. In most of the cities that I have visited, I have gone to see the city museum to get a hang of the history and heritage of the place. I find the museums to be treasure houses of wealth where one gets to see and know how generations have lived and progressed through the ages, understand their way of life, and appreciate their art and culture. Furthermore, the entry to most of the museums is either free or highly subsidised.
The oldest museum in Mumbai
Last weekend, my husband asked me if I wanted to go to the oldest museum in Mumbai. Needless to say, I was more than happy at the suggestion. Off we went to see Mumbai’s city museum, which was first opened to the public in 1872 as Victoria and Albert Museum. The readers of this blog may recall that some time back I had written about my visit to the Albert Hall Museum in Jaipur.
So, we got to know the museum was renamed in 1975 in honour of Dr Bhau Daji Lad, the first Indian Sheriff of Mumbai, a philanthropist, historian, physician, surgeon,who had played a key role in establishing the museum.
The second safari was in the afternoon. The zone allotted for our safari was Kanha. The gate, this time was far off from the resort. It would take about an hour to reach the forest.
We started at 2.30 p.m. The hot afternoon Sun was radiating its intense fury in the form of oppressive heat. With a scarf and hat on my head and a wet towel over my face, I endured the gruelling heat and the dry hot wind in the open gypsy. Somehow we managed to reach the forest gate.
Inside the forest, it was much more manageable as the shadowy trees absorbed much of the heat. A stray hare or two would suddenly cross the road, and jungle fowl would crow cock – a- doodle –do every now and then. During the drive, we caught the sight of birds such as the Black drongo, Golden oriole, White-rumped shama, Kingfisher and Indian rollers hovering between the trees.
While passing by one of the meadows, we saw a mixed herd of spotted deer and barasinga (swamp deer). Barasinga, the State animal of Madhya Pradesh is an endangered species and is endemic to Kanha. A full adult male stag has “twelve-tined” antlers, which are shed and regrown every year. The species has restricted food preferences, it feeds only on grass and does not eat leaves, shoots or fruits, and the female of the species gives birth to only one fawn after a gestation period of about nine months. The special biology and ecology of this deer, coupled with external factors may increase the likelihood of the population going extinct. To ensure their survival and safeguard against extinction, the Forest Department has made efforts to translocate them to other reserves as a part of the wildlife conservation effort.
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A pair of antlers was lying on the ground. Our guide reiterated that visitors are not allowed to collect or carry anything that belongs to the forest. He showed us some tree trunks with scratch marks that were left by the male tiger, as a means to mark his territory.
We again waited by the side of a water body, which looked more or less like a scene drawn out of a fairy tale. A herd of spotted deer was drinking water from the lake, some egrets and ibis were wading in water, and monkeys were jumping on the trees. Just by the side, was a flashy peacock crowing hoarsely and spreading its plume in a desperate bid to attract the attention of its mates. The peahens, didn’t seem to be in a mood to oblige though.
The sight was so captivating that we kept on watching the dynamics of the animals around the lake. Our guide was entrusted with the job of watching out for any signals or forewarning calls of the tiger. When he could hear none, we decided to move on, but not before we had spent more than half an hour by the lake.
In one part of the forest, there were many butterflies. As our jeep moved, the butterflies kept flying alongside, giving us the feel of a continued journey through the fairy land. While traversing through the zone, we stumbled upon a herd of nilgai, bisons, wild boars, and a jackal, and caught a peek of a variety of colourful birds such as the Scarlet minivet, Golden fronted leaf bird, Purple sunbird, and White-rumped vultures.
The driver would habitually slow down at each fire line in the hope of catching a glimpse of the ruler of the jungle. Though sometimes our guide spotted pug marks on the road, however, there was no sighting of the real tiger. At around 5.30 pm, the guide told us that we would soon have to start retreating as we were deep inside the forest and it would take almost 45 minutes to reach the gate. By now, the weather was pleasant and breezy, but the fact that we still did not have a single tiger sighting in our second safari trip left us with pining for the big cat.
However we tried to convince ourselves that we had experienced the beauty of the jungle, but we knew that the safari would remain incomplete without a tiger sighting. The exuberant voices of our friends after they had seen the tiger and her cubs, echoed in our ears and a few questions repeatedly popped up during the conversations.
“Have they sighted another big cat today?”
“What will we tell them now?”
We had almost given up the hopes!
Just as the jeep negotiated a curve on the road, the guide told the driver to stop, and he pointed his finger to the side right in front of turn. Lo! There was a tiger right there facing the jeep and walking on the road towards us. My heart skipped a beat at the sight of the elusive creature, who seemed to have appeared out of the blue, at a distance so close.
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On seeing the jeep, the tiger deflected towards the bush. The guide instructed the driver to stop and reverse the jeep, so that the tiger would come back on the road. He was right! There she was out on the road, and continued with her majestic walk. How beautifully he understood the psyche of the animal!
In a hushed tone, our guide told us that she was a tigress, with four cubs. Overwhelmed, and with a mixed feeling of surprise and awe, we watched her stride confidently towards the jeep, as if to claim her right of way in the jungle.
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At one point, where there was a turn and the road was wide enough, the jeep stopped and we waited for her to cross over. This was a rare sighting and a lifetime opportunity for us, as we looked on with astonishment at the majestic gait of the Tigress, who, luckily for us, seemed to ignore our presence completely. I thought she might be looking for her cubs.
Brimming with excitement on seeing a tiger in its natural habitat from such close quarters, none of us in the Gypsy wanted to miss the opportunity to click it.
The sighting made my day. The moment is etched in my memory forever. As we left, we were gloating with delight that no one could have had a better sighting than what we had. Our score with the other group was even or better now. We enjoyed the beautiful sunset on our way out, seeing a sloth bear digging an anthill.
At the gate we eagerly waited for Group 2 to join us, so that we could share our moments of the rare encounter. As we saw them approaching we just couldn’t hold ourselves and rattled out the story.
“We were right behind you at a distance. After you had left, the lady later sat on one side of the curved road calling out to her cubs, who came out one by one from the bushes to cuddle up to the mother. It was like seeing a grand family reunion, of a mother tiger and her five grown up cubs.”
Happiness is relative. Our excitement shrunk like a punctured balloon.
Unbelievable as the story sounded, the pictures of the royal family gathering proved that it was true. The score remained uneven, and could not be matched in the next two days. In the forest, I learnt anew that comparison doesn’t help, especially in a jungle sojourn.
We came back to Mumbai with many happy memories of the trip.
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