The road less traveled: Exploring Georgia

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Unconventional destinations can be truly memorable, especially a country like Georgia, that nestles between two continents and cultures.

Tired of the popular tourist trails? Then Georgia is the place for you. In the last one year I had read and heard a such good things about Georgia that it kept playing on my mind and tempted me to plan this trip.

Travel partner : This time it was my fun and adventure loving friend Dr Anjali Patil. We had been to Greece together earlier. She just allows me to plan everything and goes with the flow. (P.S. I love such people!)

My reasons to plan the trip in October 2018 :

  • Fall colors : Mainland India typically has 3 seasons and the joys of spring and autumn in its true sense can be missed when you have lived here all your life. I was fortunate to enjoy the marvelous cherry blossoms this year in Japan and consequently the fall colors of autumn had to be ” ticked off the list”.
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  • Mountains : ” The mountains are calling and I must go !!!” I have a passion for the peaks and the the mighty Caucasian mountains beckoned.
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  • Grape harvest : Did you know that Georgia boasts more than 500 varieties of indigenous grapes? The first week of October is towards the end of the harvest season, yet we were able to grab some juicy bunches and have a merry time in the vineyards.
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  • Tbilisoba : It’s one day when the people of Tbilisi and around are reveling on the streets, not to be missed. A  great festival to enjoy the local produce, music and all that is good in Georgia!
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  • Georgian Wine : I’m definitely the oenophile, if not a sommelier. So visiting the birthplace of wine was definitely a pilgrimage for me, especially to see the intriguing quevris. Saperavi is  my favourite now.

Georgian people: My friends in Dubai had told me how warm and friendly people here are and this entire holiday would not have been as amazing without our dear guide Ana.

  • Georgian food: The palate craves some unique flavors and we were certainly not dissapointed by all the khinkali, khachapuri and walnut based dishes we ate.
  • Georgian architecture : Typical old houses with wooden balconies that can just steal your heart. You will find them in every town, perfect pics for all those Insta posts!
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Need I say more ?

I’m sure most of you are already packing….

Getting there :  Fly Dubai, the Emirates low cost psrtner connects flights from all over the world to Tbilisi.

Visa : US, GCC, UK and many country visa holders and residents done need a visa. Indians who dont have any of these, need to apply in Delhi and it takes about 2 weeks to get it.

Our 7 day itinerary involved spending time around Tbilisi in the regions of  Kazbegi, Borjormi and Kakheti and 2 days in Tbilisi  One could visit these regions as day trips from Tbilisi too but for the sheer joy of waking up in the crisp country air and mixing with the local people in guest houses, we chose overnight stays.

DAY 1

Our flight arrived late afternoon and we were greeted by Ana, our guide and driver Alex at Tbilisi airport. Driving through Tbilisi city center, we were headed north to the mountainous region of Kazbegi towards the Russian border.

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We drove miles along the country roads, gradually ascending up the mountains. The first stop our speeding Prius took was to soak in the spell-binding landscape surrounding the azure waters of the Enguri river near the Jvari reservoir.

We rolled down our windows and breathed in the clean mountain air…now we were hungry too. Ana had some wonderful surprises in store for us throughout this trip. But I would say the first restaurant she had selected for our supper was the most spectacular!

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As dusk was setting in, we stopped at a quaint and homely place along a gurgling brook. We frolicked over the old wooden bridge to the other side, exploring the log huts. A specially prepared meal awaited us; warm juicy khinkhalis (dumplings) and crisply baked khachapuris (traditional Georgian cheese-filled bread) with tkemali (Georgian plum chutney). Our host brought us a huge platter barbecued food next …it was a feast for the kings, in the most heavenly location….The best way to start your holiday!

A peek in the kitchen to learn the culinary secrets, lots of chitter-chatter with our hosts (translated by Ana of course!) and after striking a pose against the artistic wall, we were zooming again in our car on the Russia-Georgia highway.

Bidding farewell to our warm hosts, we drove through the popular ski town of Gudauri to reach our Guesthouse Qubi in Kazbegi for our first night. Tired yet excited about how the next day would unfold…..in the next blog !

Madloba!

Serenity in Sikkim

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My visit to Sikkim, the first to a Buddhist state is still etched in my mind. The land of monks and monasteries where one is greeted by fluttering prayer flags all along the mountainous route that give tranquility a whole new meaning. The name of Sikkim is derived from the term “Sukhim” meaning new “house” or “place” and the wanderbug in me was only delighted to discover surprises at every bend.

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The journey from Bagdogra airport to Gangtok winds through verdant green valleys and mesmerising vistas of the Eastern range of the Himalayas. One could just spend the day rejuvenating in the fresh mountain air and discovering amazing local food options on M G road> Must include places in your itineray without which no visit is complete

 

Rumtek monastery

 

 

 

The Dharma Chakra Centre is the largest monastery in Sikkim exemplifying the great Tibetan architecture and is almost a replica of the original one in Tibet.

 

 

The blizzarding snow and yaks at Nathula pass

 

 

 

The frozen lake of Gurudongmar

 

 

Lachung Valley

 

 

 

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Beyond sushi; Foodie trail in Japan discovering okonomiyaki, gyozas and more

Japan really has a treasure trove of food options to explore, each town has some culinary specialities of its own. Let me take you on a gastronomic journey, sampling some authentic fare that was really a feast for the senses at pocket-friendly prices.

Vegetarians, hang on, there is a lot for you here too. Just make sure that you download this very useful picture and save it on your phone so you can show it as soon as you enter an restaurant and they will guide you with appropriate options on their menu. This is an important part of your survival kit, then life is sorted !

Hiroshima

Hiroshima-style onomiyaki actually a delicious layered Japanese savoury noodle dish topped with cabbage, green onion, bean sprouts and seafood with pork. Vegetarian options also available. The chef will make it in front of you and the traditional way is to eat it is with a spatula.

Quaff off with some Kirin beer. Crunch on some kaki fry (deep-fried) oysters fresh from the sea that Hiroshima is famous for. There are many food joints to chose from. We had our lunch at Nagata-ya restaurant, not to far from the Hiroshima Peace Park. You will leave satiated, smacking your lips. Trust me.

MIYAJIMA

The island of Miyajima is a short ferry ride from Hiroshima, a picturesque spot to spend the evening.

It has a reputation for the best seafood (for obvious reasons). Strolling along the waterfront, snack on some scrumptious oyster curry bread here.

Vegetarians can relish the Miyajima croissant rusk with a hot coffee. Many sake shops and other local Japanese souvenirs here to buy as well

BULLET TRAIN BENTO BOXES

Whilst dashing from one city to the other on the super fast bullet trains, don’t forget to try the ekibens.

You can grab one at stands on the station platform or on the train itself. Vegetarian show your sign but chances are you will be declined and you may have to settle for a beverage and chips instead.

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Wagyu (Japanese cow) beef

This is the star of gastronomy of Kyoto.There are different varieties, all so delicious and come with step-by-step instruction card on how to eat them. Food court at the top of Kyoto station or Yodabashi store has many eateries with hearty meals.( Vegetarians have other options !)

Osaka

An evening in Osaka isn’t complete if you are not in Dotonbori. The electric streets with neon lights has a lot of food options, especially for crab lovers.

We chose to get away from the glitter and glow to amble along the canal that gives you a bit of a Europe-like feel. Dinner at this family run restaurant was a real treat and the hosts made you feel at home. Even though their English wasn’t so good, the smiles and hospitality made up for it.

Top places to see Cherry Blossoms in Japan in Spring

The cherry blossom flowering in spring or the Sakura season is dependent on the snowfall, temperatures of the preceding winter and the geographical location. Generally, the milder the climate, the earlier the blossoms open. In most of the major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, the cherry blossom season typically takes place from the last week of March to early April and that is really the time to be in these cities for Hanami (cherry blossom festival).

TOKYO

Imperial castle:

The grounds and the moats surrounding the grand palace is the most grandiose setting for Hanami. There are more sakura trees in the inner parts of the gardens as well where the former Edo Castle was present.

Chidorigafuchi Moat:

Memorise this tongue-twisting name as you cant afford to miss the mind blowing sight of the bowers of flowers and their reflections in the waters of the moat to the west of the Imperial Palace. Especially pretty here at sunset.

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Osaka Castle:

The symbol of Osaka is undoubtedly the best Hanami spot in this bustling city. There are more than 4000 cherry trees on the spacious grounds surrounding Osaka Castle. Take leisurely walk here or ride the road train up to the castle for the best selfie spots. Nishinomaru Park in the castle’s western part with green lawns and views of the castle tower that light up in the evening is a great place to have a picnic. There is also a plum grove here with over a 100 varieties of plum blooms to admire.

HIROSHIMA

When you visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the Atomic Park dome, the woebegone symbols of war and destruction and the whole saga of 6th August 1945 unfolds itself before your eyes and leaves you in a very melancholy mood. Stroll down the riverside and you be comforted to see families of the local people of this city having a picnic underneath the cherry blossoms. Join them or go across the river for the “soul food” of Hiroshima or the piping hot Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki for lunch.

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Maruyama Park

In the heart of Gion lies the Yasaka Shrine. The park behind offers a green solace and it is the city’s most popular place for cherry blossom viewing. A pleasant place to stroll in the morning as well when there is a cool nip in the air.

Riverside:


The banks of the Kamo River are a favorite place for Kyotoites to relax, stroll, cycle, play ball games, picnic and of course pose for a picture beneath the cherry blossoms. All the tourists don rented kimonos and hairpieces to strike a pose here.

Shijo Dori:

The main street of Gion has many interesting cafes, eateries and of course cherry blossom spots for all the Instagram queens! Some had even hired a professional photographer for an exclusive shoot. Now that’s a good way to preserve these priceless memories forever.

Higashi Hongan-ji or the Eastern Temple :

The grandest head temple in Kyoto is just a ten minute walk from Kyoto Station and the entire boulevard is full of cherry blossoms. Grab some food from the food courts around and have a picnic underneath the trees.

Fushimi Inari :

The pink and white blossoms offset against the bright red of colors of the shrine and the toriis paint a pretty picture. Rendezvous with some more as you stroll along the romantic riverside behind.

HAKONE

The entire route from Odawara station to Hakone is embellished with cherry trees in full bloom.However if you take the Limited Express Romancecar or the scenic mountain railway, as the name suggests, the journey is even more ethereal

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Kodak zen moment: Plum blossoms in a zen garden….

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Spring time is the time for other flowers too…here are some bright yellow daffodils that said “Konichiwa” to me outside my hotel every day !

 

Around Kyoto with Taichi

The red, green and gold tour of must-visit locations around Kyoto was most interesting because of our friendly guide for the day Taichi Asami. A university student, who volunteers with Kyoto greeters to show foreign tourists his city, his way..

A lot of emails had gone back and forth between us to chose these three most popular spots around Kyoto. Yet Taichi had promised we would break free from the stereotype tours here and do the different on his local food tours.

We were excited to met him at the Yamadaya ryokan where we were staying close to the station and he helped us navigate the crowds to reach the platform of the suburban trains we were to board for our tour of the surrounding areas of the city

First stop : Gimme Red : Fushimi inari shrine

A truly remarkable shrine that boasts of 10,000 vermilion red Torii’s (traditional Japanese red gates) that snake it’s way up the hill.At the summit is the shrine in honour of Inari, the god of rice, sake, and prosperity. Hence visited by devotees from the business community and individuals thankful for their prosperity.

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Each torii has the name of the donor inscribed on its left.There is a feeling of bliss as you walk through this long tunnel of torii which is truly one of the most iconic visions of Kyoto.

All that energetic climbing up and down (albeit half way) the hill had left us ravenous for food and it was sheer delight to exit into the food alley. Taichi helped us chose the right food (Vegetarian mochi rice cakes on a stick for Jaydeep). Lots of grilled meaty delights topped with mayonnaise here. Munching on the sticks we walked back to the station to board the train to our next site.

Second stop : Go green : Arashiyama bamboo forest

 

 

 

Third stop : Golden temple : Kinkakuji 

 

Coffee with the Hippos

Chasing the wildebeests for two days in a safari van can be quite tiring and a massage by the in-house masseuse Jane at Mara River Lodge was just what the we needed before this marvellous holiday ended. Topped with an Irish coffee ….I was enjoying just what the bartender ordered here !

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The hospitality of the staff was overwhelming. Francis the bartender took personal care of us…whether it was coffee, single malt or wine, he knew exactly how we wanted our drinks. The view of the river and the all hippos dunking themselves in the water from the bar was so perfect that you could just sit there all day with your camera!

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5 families of hippopotamuses…well that’s almost a soap opera of entertainment there. We got some fabulous pictures of some of their antics as you can see. “River horse” as the Greek meaning of their name suggests, they spend over 16 hours in the water. They are also very loud animals and if the whole bloat starts to grunt and snort together, its quite a rock show !

They basked in the sun all day, especially the little ones in their creche on the river bank and walked around only towards sunset to graze on the grass and aquatic plants.

A short game drive on the last day was full of some astonishing sightings, some moments which have to be captured in order to be able to cherish those memories forever …an ostrich that crossed our path, a cheetah camouflaged so perfectly in the grass that it barely caught our eye, a whole jenny of giraffes (27 of them! I counted, but sadly couldn’t get them all in one frame)

Birds are also in abundance here in the grasslands, making it a lensman’s delight. We spotted the blue superb starling, the crown cranes, lilac-breasted roller and many more avians in this veritable ornithological paradise.

Although I am a very meticulous planner, sometimes unplanned surprises can turn out truly delightful too. Such was our stay at the Mara River Lodge this August. We had stayed at the Mara Serena the last time we visited Kenya but this time obviously owing to the great migration all hotels were booked and we had to take what was available.

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The real treat was in store for my husband who is a vegetarian and Chef Charles really made the best of Indian (as the owner is an Indian) vegetarian food for him. He had perfected the culinary art of Gujarati dishes like khichadi kadhi, theplas and chaas under the able tutelage of the owner of the resort. Puri bhaji was the breakfast on the last day!

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I was very happy with his local dishes as well, I must say, complimented by the best wines of this continent. The location, ambience and the warm and helpful staff made our stay very special.

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Asante sana ! Till we meet again

Photo credits : Dr Jaydeep H Palep

Born Free

The great wildebeest migration, the Serengeti crossing, the greatest natural phenomenon on earth …. it’s been written about, filmed and photographed so many times over and over. This exhilarating experience was on our bucket list for a long time and finally we made it happen in August 2018.

 

This was my second trip to the Maasai Mara (earlier one being in May 2013) yet the beauty of the grasslands does leave you breathless each time! Since we were short of time, we took the Air Kenya flight from Nairobi which made 5 stops (not airports, just airstrips in the grass) before we reached Mara North in the Lemek Conservancy.

 

“Jambo!” We were warmly greeted at the Mara River Lodge. As the name suggests it is located right on the river, perfect for bird photography but not the place to see the crossing as it is along the northern part of the Mara River. I had been actively tracking the herds on Herdtracker every day since mid July and they were still a 100 km away.

 

One could sit and enjoy watching 5 families of hippo frolicking in the water and basking in the sun here. But we had to get to where the real action was. So after a quick cup of fine Kenyan brewed coffee whilst our lunch boxes were being packed, we jumped into the van on our quest to witness the migration.

 

It was long game drive, 3 hours to reach the river and a lot of game to be seen en route. Thompson’s gazelles, herds of elephants, towering giraffes, topis, elands and many more animals grazing in the vast grasslands.

 

As we got closer to the Southern part of the Mara river, the excitement and anticipation surged, the search for the wildebeests and the river crossing point escalated. We spotted a big crocodile and some hippos peacefully basking in the sun.

 

But where were the wildebeests? They don’t seem to be crossing here. We asked every safari van driver that passed by if they had seen anything. Finally one of them said “Oh yes! They were crossing at point no. 5 one hour ago, but it would be over now! ” Point no. 5 ….where is that? It doesn’t show on Google maps. Our driver seemed to know about it but he was reluctant to drive that far. Well, we weren’t here to see Northern Lights so we just urged him on. A few kilometres later what do we see ? Suddenly we were engulfed by herds and herds of wildebeests till the horizon. They came in hundreds, then thousands and then a few more thousands until all we could see was a massive grey-black sea of wildebeests.

 

Moving the safari van slowly along the rugged path was a task with the big wildebeests grunting on either side and little ones scampering around. We managed to reach the river by 3 pm but were greatly disappointed to only see the evidence of the crossing by virtue of carcasses of the ones who never made it submerged in the river and hovering vultures.

 

For the next couple of hours we drove along the river bank that was completely was packed with wildebeests. Would they cross again? Would the lions attack them as food was certainly present in abundance? We hopefully hovered along the bank along with at least another 30 vans, each vying for the best spot to sight the action.

 

Suddenly out of nowhere one of the vans spotted him; the king of the jungle enjoying his afternoon siesta in the grass. He was woken up by the sounds of the safari vans or the scurrying animals and looked around to the survey his prey.

 

Seeing a large herd so close by he started walking towards us, then walked right past our van and disappeared …not to be see for a few minutes. We were waiting with bated breath trying to figure out where he was …..and there he was crouching right behind our rear wheel waiting to spring an attack on the weakest of the beasts.

 

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He darted out and started chasing the herd at lightning speed, while they ran deeper into the bushes seeking shelter. Whether the lion grabbed his dinner or not we really could not see as our of the blue (and green) there was a huge cloud of dust that arose as the herd clamoured west towards the river bank; the leader of the pack contemplating crossing again to get away from the lion on this side maybe.

 

River crossings are considered the highlight of the spectacle. Sometimes a herd may reach the river and then hang out on its banks for days, frustrating the crocodiles and tourists alike. But once it begins, its a sight to behold. Few other sights would be second to them for the sheer drama and adrenaline surge they create amongst those fortunate to witness them in a lifetime.Would the vile crocodiles lurking in the murky waters capture in its jaws the brave animal that jumped in first? Would the animals be able to scramble up the slippery river bank? Would weak or injured wildebeest be able to swim across at all? All cameras were poised in every safari van on both the banks to capture every second of these thrilling events.

 

We witnessed this for the next one hour, loads of wildebeests and a few zebras as well scrambling down the slope of the banks, hurtling through the shallow waters. They had picked a safe spot and there didn’t seem to be any villains in the water here. That’s the first question everyone asked me when I got back and I replied that I wasn’t crestfallen that I had not seen the wildebeests fall prey to the crocodiles. In fact I was feeling propitious to have witnesses the survival of the fittest.

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The beautiful pattern made by the silvery grey animals on the banks as they ascended on the opposite side to safety will remain etched in my mind forever. I was rooting for these brave forerunners, and did witness a few heart-breaking moments when an animal broke a hind leg trying to climb the bank or lost its precarious grip and fell down onto others, injuring them all. This is what made the Migration a true spectacle – the ecstasy and the agony of survival, unedited, unfiltered, in raw true life.

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We had beat the odds a few times here… normally the crossing doesn’t happen twice in a day, and not towards sunset. So we were feeling truly lucky as we headed back to the hotel.

Humming this song on my way back as the sun set over the grasslands….

“Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart
Live free and beauty surrounds you
The world still astounds you
Each time you look at a star”
Photo Credits : Dr Jaydeep Palep
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