Category Archives: Asia

A journey to the amazing gate to hell

Darvasa_gas_crater

For and ordinary person who has no archaeological knowledge and experience, the site of the Gates To Hell, Derweze, Turkmenistan is the literal gates to hell. Before I made my journey to this breath taking site I did my research and I confidently knew what to expect. That did not prevent me from being amazed at the site. Forget the pictures and the stories you have heard about this burning crater, a real and onsite experience will amaze you.

I was traveling with other travel enthusiasts who I met at Turkmenistan. We were three girls of almost the same age and none of us had visited the site earlier. We met up early in the morning with our driver Rustam in Ashgabat. Rustam was eager to show off his new found language skills as he had just recently returned from London where he had completed a course in English, and we were eager to listen to his stories which helped to make the long 270km. drive out to the village of Derweze, not seem so long. Rustam had insisted that we have a peak into the gate early in the morning or at sunset if we Gates_of_Hellwanted to get an experience of our lifetime and we agreed. After a long rest following a tiresome journey we work up the following morning and left our resort at Derweze for the climax of our journey. Our van headed straight to the site in a journey that was filled with nothing but anticipation.

As we approached the burning crater we could see a bright red glow just above the horizon. The traffic was becoming heavier and heavier as the temperatures slowly overwhelmed the morning cold to give us the warm welcome we deserved. The site approaching the gate was amazing. It is the most beautiful scene I have ever experienced. A lifeless deserted decorated by a raging orange fireball. The confident sand glows in recognition of the light that hits it at an angle. The color of the sand brightens as you approach the main crater.

Darvasa_gas_crater_1At the crate we are welcomed with a group of thrill seeker standing majestically in front of the dominating flames. I got scared at first. The fire was un-wandering and you could tell how hot it actually was at the center of the crater. I then saw the silhouette of a mother and her young daughter gazing at the hot burning ground with confidence. I decided to approach this majestic beauty at least closer than the mother and her daughter to have a clear view of the marvel that pulled me miles away home.

The site was amazing. I realized I could not move closer to glaring flame because of the heat. The fire that had been burning for centuries was way alive. Closer to the center of the crater the fire is more intense. We stood by the fire as I told the young girl standing with her mother about the crater and why it is not hell yet.

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Borobudur Temple Compounds

Borobudur Park Stupas

I’ve decided to stay for three days at the Princess Manohara Hotel, located within the Borobudur Park. The clients of this hotel have free access to the monument during the day. The room wasn’t cheap; actually it was the most expensive room in the whole Central Java region, but the opportunity to live only a hundred meters away, not to pay for the entrance and have a breakfast almost at the foot of the Borobudur Temple Compounds is a good deal.

The most significant historical monument of all 17,000 islands of Indonesia – Borobudur. This Buddhist temple was built in the 8th century AD, and is the largest historical Buddhist temple in the world. It was erected as a huge square stupa, made in the form of a mandala. At the stupa there are eight levels: the lower five are square shaped, and the top three are round.
Borobudur Park Indonesia
Three levels symbolize the seat of the three areas – Kamadhatu (sphere of desire), Rupadhatu (sphere of forms) and Arupadhatu (sphere without forms). The Kamadhatu level is hidden under the ground and is not visible to visitors. The first 120 panels of the sphere of forms tell stories from the life of Gautama Buddha. Some of the panels show Bodhisattvas, the Buddhist saints, wandering in search of wisdom.

The following panels tell the stories of the classic Buddhist canons of the previous lives of the Buddha in the form of folklore. In this case, the Buddha is portrayed as a god, a king, an ordinary man or even in the form of animals, such as, a lion, a deer, a monkey, a swan and a turtle. Each rebirth of Buddha shows his generosity and compassion. These stories disclose all the main Buddhist principles in a simple way.

The highest level corresponds to Arupadhatu (sphere without forms), represented by three circular terraces above. The upper tier holds 72 small stupas around a large central one in the shape of a bell – the principle of wisdom. Inside the stupas are statues of Buddha.

Borobudur ParkYou may wonder why the biggest Buddhist temple was built in Indonesia, away from its homeland – India? In the 8th century on the fertile island of Java powerful agrarian kingdoms and empires had been significantly influenced by the culture of India. In Java, the local Hindu dynasties replaced the Buddhist ones and vice versa, and each dynasty tried to perpetuate their faith with colossal monuments to prove its advantage over rival dynasties. Thus, arose the largest Buddhist temple Borobudur and the largest Hindu temple of the world at the time – Prambanan, but that’s a whole new story.

The Mountain Railways of India

Kangra_valley_rail

Once I reached Chandigarh, my next stop was Kalka. This I had covered by bus. But from Kalka to Shimla I had to travel with the Mountain Railways of India. I had already heard about the UNESCO World Heritage toy train from Kalka to Shimla and was determined to be a part of it.

Getting tickets was not easy. I had to choose between three trains. The Shivalik Deluxe Express, the Himalayan Queen and the Rail Motor Car. As I had not booked my tickets earlier, I could get space only in the Rail Motor Car. This was possible as the train leaves pretty early, at 5.10 a.m! Not many people would be willing to wake up at that time in the chilly Kalka weather.

Express train IndiaOnce inside this coach of the Mountain Railways of India, I was pleasantly surprised with the transparent roof. So now I could enjoy the scene from the windows and even enjoy watching the early morning sky of the hills. My camera simply did not stop clicking. There were only 14 passengers in this single coach train. Also, there was just one stoppage at the Barog station. Food was provided along the way. This meant that I could enjoy the scenic beauty without any interruption!

The complete route is only 60 miles. But I counted 102 tunnels on the way, with one of them being a kilometre long! I was amazed at the endurance of the British who had built this route when they had to go to their summer capital! The route also includes 800 bridges, and I simply lost count of the steep curves. It is said that there are nearly 900 curves on the way. In addition to the beauty of the hills, the engineering marvel simply cannot be ignored!

Mountain_Train IndiaThese trains run really slow. But you understand this when you actually experience the steep gradient that it has to climb. But this was actually good for me as I could readily enjoy the spectacular scenery on the way. Even though these trains were built by the British, they have been refurbished in order to make them comfortable. As the train reached Shimla at 9.35 a.m. I could easily reach my hotel, freshen up and have my breakfast there. This way my day was not wasted at all. I had the full day to enjoy sightseeing in Shimla in addition to the awesome train journey that I had captured in my camera and was carrying along with me!

Sun Temple, Konark India

Konark_Sun_Temple_Front_view

India is a country rich in heritage and culture with so much to see and do. On my visit to Konark, I stayed at the Lotus Resort situated on the beautiful Ramchandi Beach. The resort was very comfortable and made for a relaxing stay. Konark is easily accessible by rail, car and air. I took a flight to the closest airport of Bhubaneswar and then a train to get to Konark. The trains in India are a very unique experience and I couldn’t resist tasting some delicious chai, which is Indian tea, while on the train.

Sun Temple, Konark IndiaAfter a comfortable night at my hotel I made a trip to the famous Sun Temple. The temple was very busy with tourists coming from all over to visit. As soon as I reached the Temple I was amazed by the beautiful architecture. The temple was built in the shape of a chariot and has wheels and pillars carved. The temple was built in the 13th century and is still famous for it’s intricate carvings and architecture. The shape of the chariot represents the chariot of the sun god Surya and that is how it got it’s name.

I planned my visit so that I would be in Konark for the annual dance festival which is a 5 day festival. During this annual celebration I had the opportunity to see the major Indian dance forms such as Odissi, Bharathanatiyam and Kuchipudi. The festival also includes an exhibition of crafts and handicrafts. If you are planning a visit to Konark, I highly recommend planning it so that you are here for the dance festival. It was very enjoyable to watch and something not to be missed.

I also went to the government emporiums. They have a beautiful selection of fabrics and handicrafts, which I bought as souvenirs for my family and friends. You will also find the traditional Pattachitra paintings which are paintings on palm leaf as well as some beautifully embroidered umbrellas. My favorite buy was my personalized umbrella with my name embroidered.

When looking for places to eat, I would suggest visiting the main market. I found lots of dhabas or little cafes that had a good variety of vegetarian and non vegetarian food. I definitely recommend trying the fish fry as Bengal is known to have some of the tastiest fish and after trying it, I have to agree.
Side_view_of_Konark_Sun_TempleBeing a single female traveler in India, I did wonder how it would be. I soon realized this was not a problem however, as there were plenty of tourists around. Many of them were traveling alone and I made some good friends on my visit. This was a memorable experience and I will definitely visit again soon.

The Beauty of Ellora, Ancient India preserved in stone

Ellora India

It has been my fascination to visit the most refined architectural epitomes throughout the world. Perhaps the best location for that would have been India. That was it, I decided, packed my backpack and headed for an experience that redefined my views on ancient beauty. Standing at the station terminal of Aurangabad, I was waiting for my tour guide. Ankita was her name, a lovely girl she was. A lot of acknowledgement shall go to my Tour Company for having made arrangements for lodging, a superb guide and some wonderful experience.The time that i shared with some loving people has made a deep impact on me and lures me to revisit the place whenever possible. Having been a teacher of History and Civics, i had a decent idea about the Ajanta and Ellora caves, but this experience made me realize that there is perhaps more than what meets the eye.
Ellora preserved in stoneEllora: Ancient India preserved in stone- According to my guide, these were not just ,mere temples or caves, but a visual encryption of the religious stronghold within the people of three different religions, Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. Its was an insight into marvelous architecture which was unlike any other. The place was a series of temples from all the three religions. The place was a depiction of the tantrum of events in the lives of the mythological gods. In a better way the three different religions seemed to have been bond together by the beauty of the place. The caves are likely to have been built within a time frame of 5th century BC to 8th century BC. in total there are about 34 caves, representing the three different religions. According to the guide this place was an intersection of these three religions that lived in harmony at that period. Under the influence of religious stronghold this place had emerged. Right from inception I had an idea that such a place needs time to understand and that is why I planned my trip for about 6 to 7 odd days.
The major proportion of temples have been carved from enormous stones and brilliant depictions through art seem to illuminate the fabric of beauty. Being centered around mythological gods, the Hindu temples have description of the sacred Hindu texts, “Mahabharata” and ‘Ramayana”. The enormous caves resemble the amount of labor and detailing that has been used by the workers back then. Certainly it makes one feel the pain of labor that is invested. The Buddhist caves were austere, illusive and serene. The huge interiors left me spell bound.
My first three days revolved around these caves and on my fourth day i came across the ‘Kailasa Temple’, or the single largest Monolithic Structure in existence. It has been built in the honor of the Hindu god, “Lord Shiva”. Perhaps the best among any that I have seen. An enormous chariot that has been carved from a single stone. This was the best part of the journey. I seemingly enjoyed touching the temples and walking across large boulders of scenic beauty. The place has its own touch of serenity to it. The series of relatively small Jain temples were nice and soothing for an individual. The huge size of the rock carved sculptures exceeded my expectations wildly. The place has a warm and religious fragrance to it. Perhaps it helps to illuminate the person by erasing all stress, especially if you are in love with traveling.
Ellora Ancient India preserved in stoneThe epic detailing and compact illustration needs more than mere words to be able to describe. The place was fascinating, beyond any of my expectations and to be honest, even the whole 6 days fell really short. The place should not be seen through the eyes, it needs to be felt with them. It is indeed a story of ancient civilization, ancient India. It is called Ellora: Ancient India preserved in stone.

The Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai

Mongolia

Visiting the Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai (what a mouthful!) was highly recommended by everyone I spoke to about my trip, and has long been on my ‘bucket list’ of places to visit as soon as I had the time the opportunity. I spent hours admiring the petroglyphs which document an amazing 12,000 years of Mongolian culture. This is the best preserved and oldest collection of rocks in North Asia and the earliest of the images date from about 10,000 BC which is mind blowing. The visitor center at the UNESCO World Heritage Site was excellent and there were informative signs and guidebooks explaining the importance of the complexes. The petroglyphs show a landscape where the valleys surrounding it were perfect for big-game hunting which is how the Mongolians survived and thrived.

Mtn Sheep PetroglyphWhilst there, I particularly enjoyed learning about the following Scythian and Turkic periods which depicts the transition to a herding culture and then towards the nomadic lifestyle using horses that Mongolia is predominantly known for. It’s incredible to have the chance to get up close to this rock art which is so many thousands of years old, and imagine the lives that the artists led. The pictures give an amazing insight into what the world was like, showing images of rhinos, mammoths and ostriches and then elk and ibex in the later periods.

PetroglyphOn the following days, I visited the other two sites (there are three in total where you can view the petroglyphic carvings). I really enjoyed taking in the surrounding scenery too; this is something I love about visiting ancient archaeological sites – they always seem to be in some of the most stunning locations. These sites are actually in mountain valleys which were carved out naturally by glaciers in the Pleistocene age, and as well as the petroglyphs, there’s also a huge array of ritual and funerary monuments which help to map the cultural changes throughout the ages. Once I fully exhausted the history, I took in some air with a trek which took me across the rivers and ridges of the Altai Mountains, joining a small guided tour group for part of the way, because due to its remote location and inaccessibility, tourists are advised not to wander off alone! I finished this leg of my journey pleasantly rested from the fresh air and solitude, and with an even greater appreciation of the stories that the ancient Mongolians left for us so many years ago.

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A visit to Vladivostok Via the Trans-Siberian Railway

sunset-Vladivostok

Since learning about the Trans-Siberian Railway in my lower class at school, it has always been a fascination and dream to make this great leap of experience. The least I knew about it is that it is the world’s longest commuter route, and my destination is at Vladivostok, which is its eastern terminus.

Vladivostok railwayHaving been in transit for almost six nights, I was ready to explore this magnificent city and absorb all that it had on offer. After refreshing at the Comfort Inn hotel – they have superb facilities e.g. Wi-Fi, restaurant, sauna, laundry and a mini-market, I headed out to get myself something to eat.

Lesnaya Zaimka is one of the ancient restaurants in Vladivostok, full of Russian hospitality and welcoming atmosphere of hunting mansion. They offer mouthwatering European, Russian and Caucasian cuisines. I had the opportunity of tasting some of their specials of Manchurian deer and bear meat. Tasteful drinks from the restaurant’s bar list accompanied the meals.

My stay at Vladivostok was not long. Therefore, I had to capture a lot of adventure at a very short time. I am an adventurous and party animal, and I visited Aerotunnel Letim, which is a famous attraction situated in the isolated space of Sports Complex Fetisoy. It is an exhilarating activity worth trying.

Among the places that are a must-visit is the Military and History Museum of the Pacific Fleet. Not just visitors whose interest is in naval science visit, but who as well want to absorb more regarding the city. Acknowledge its incredible history and experience its unique atmosphere. I saw over forty thousand individual exhibitions, narrating the Pacific Fleet’s chronicles and operating medical devices used in the course of the Russo-Japanese war.

Vladivostok_streetI had to finish my day with a little bit of a jig, and I had a variety of magnificent places to visit. Located close to Vladivostok train station and the sea terminal as well, the nightclub Abordage is the exact place to relax because of the friendly and pleasant atmosphere. The interior design is typically marine style and has a rich cultural effect. Modern musical bands and stylish DJs entertain guests and a concise place to spend the rest of the night.

My concept of Vladivostok was contrary to my experience. The city has friendly and hospitable people who look positively into the future confidently and with hope, though the weather might be a bit chilly for most of the nights.

An icy wonderland, wearing a swimsuit in a Siberian winter

Ulan_Ude

I am so looking forward to my stay in Ulan Ude, I plan to stay for 6 days. I originally planned only an overnight stop but after talking with friends when I was in Tyumen I have decided to take a tour here, their description of the ice grotto’s as magical caught my attention and imagination.

I am so glad I am traveling independently, a little bit hard when booking my onward tickets as my Russian is not so good but I have found many people who are willing to help, even to writing down what I want in Cyrillic, the Russian language that looks like symbols! Traveling as I am, is allowing me to take diversions and longer stays if something interesting is happening and the other nice thing is it gives me chance to meet up with others doing the same thing.

Ulan Ude Center    I am staying at the Ulan Ude Travelers Hostel, that again has been recommended by friends and The Lonely Planet. I had the instructions how to get there written down in English and Russian but I had no problems once I got to Lenin’s head, a rather large monument with the unlikely honor of being the largest bronze head of Lenin in the world at 7.7m high its is certainly unmissable.

Ulan Ude has been a town of many names, starting life as a Cossack ostrog (fort), it was originally called Udinskoye which became Udinsk in 1775, and then in 1783 it was called Verkhneudinsk to differentiate it from another town on another River Uda, apparently there are two River Uda’s in Russia. This name remained until 1934 when during the communist years it became Ulan Ude (Red Uda), a reflection of the Communist ideology. Due to military installations Ulan Ude has been a closed town and was only opened in 1980.The hostel is a new adventure for me and I am finding it very interesting and informative and the facilities excellent. The beds clean and spacious,with internet and hot water, the travelers essentials!

Lake_Baikal  I have also joined with a group there to go on a three day tour to Lake Baikal, described as a ‘winter fairy tale’, the lake, in Bay Chivyrkuisky, also boasts ice grottos and hot springs, can’t quite believe I am packing my swimsuit, in Siberia, in winter! We will be staying with host families and that I am especially looking forward to, also having a meal of fresh fish caught by the ice fisherman sounds tasty.

Before all of that, tomorrow I am off to drive a husky sleigh in the morning and visit an open air museum in the afternoon. The Ethnographic Museum of the Peoples of Transbaikal is one of Russia’s largest. It reflects the diversity of the region and the Mongolian-Buddhist culture of the area, highlighting the fact I am moving ever nearer to the East and its influence can be seen in the architecture and people around me.

4 Days in Novosibirsk: The Beauty and Serenity of Russia

Novosibirsk night

I alighted at Vokzal Gravny railway station in Novosibirsk from Moscow 2 hours from the time of departure. The cold cut through my skin but thank goodness I had carried my heaviest jacket with me. It took me a full day to be used to the cold. I was fascinated to find most Russians in the Novosibirsk streets do not speak English. Luckily I met a young woman, Hanna, a resident there, who acted as my interpreter during the whole stay.

Russia’s third largest city stands out as one of the dated cities in the country. Through my entire trip, I came across ancient structures, some archival and abandoned at the outskirts of the city. However, the city boasts of breath-taking sceneries that neither of my earlier trips had presented. Just like back at my home city, I either caught a taxi or Metro to all my destinations.

Sceneries I visited

Novosibirsk State MuseumFirst off, I visited the Novosibirsk State Museum. Located at Ploshid Lenina facing the metro station, the building taught me the history of Novosibirsk at a glance. The House of Cabmen and Siberian Modern Art Center are within walking distance from the museum where I learned more about the culture and the lifestyle of the Novosibirsk residents. I then visited the Lenin Square at the city center and the Akademgorodok, both ancient buildings holding historical importance not only to the Novosibirsk residents but to Russians from all walks of life.

I always dreaded to visit the famous Novosibirsk Zoo. In my second day of the trip, I took a taxi, called my interpreter Hanna, and headed out to the zoo. The superfluity of animals and the serene environment left me yearning to visit Novosibirsk more often. The zoo is always awash with tourists, both domestic and international.

Novosibirsk State Academic Opera HouseActivities

The plethora of fun activities that I could carry out in Novosibirsk could not fit in my schedule. On my third day, in the evening, I visited the State Academic Opera House, located at the Lenin Square. The plays there are classic and known worldwide. There are a wide array of ice arenas around the city and I visited one of them to just view the skaters do their thing.

Shopping, Wining and Dining

Thanks to the high number of shopping malls, I carried some of the Novosibirsk goodies with me. I shopped at the Siberian and the Moscow Malls. I tasted Italian and Russian cuisines but was fascinated to come across the People’s Bar and Grill that served British/American delicacies. I slept at the Zokol Hotel located at the Shchetinkina St just a few minutes’ walk from Lenin St. Novosibirsk city has a number of free Wi-Fi spots and even the hotel I slept in offers free Wi-Fi. After the trip, I had learned more than I needed about the history and the culture of Russians. Though the city does not boast a high number of tourists, it is one of the best places I visited in Russia.