TRAVEL GONE WRONG: WHY 4 MONTHS OF NON STOP TRAVEL MADE ME HATE TRAVEL!

TO TRAVEL NON STOP FOR 4 MONTHS NON STOP! That was my travel fantasy when I was still working in Navi Mumbai in a 9 to 5 corporate job (Fine, make that 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. job). Sitting at my desk all day, I would dream of packing my bags to never return. My day dreaming would be assaulted with more official excel sheets (some of which I used surreptitiously for making my travel plans for next few months). Circa 2016! As I mentioned in an earlier blog, 2016 was a magical year for me travel wise.

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Me at Tiger’s Nest Monastery aka Paro Taktsang

Thanks to my new freelance lifestyle, I had the freedom to realize my dream of traveling non-stop. I had accepted a bit too many professional invites for Press Trips and planned many of my personal travels as well. So from August 2016 to November 2016, it was non-stop travel for me for 4 months. Between this period, I showed up at my brother’s house (I was staying with him till then) only for few hours. I would be back home only to wash and change clothes, rest or deliver already delayed projects before starting my next travel. I remember before my Amazing Trip To Ladakh, I took a post midnight cab to home, picked fresh clothes, unpacked and packed my luggage again and leave before 5 a.m. to catch flight to Leh. Within those few hours, I crazily packed my bag, answered mails and even submitted assignments. As I was unpacking and packing I realized much of my room resembled a war zone. I wasted a lot of time to find my things. Because I had had no time to organize my life!

COMPLETE GUIDE TO PARO TAKTSANG AKA TIGER’S NEST MONASTERY IN BHUTAN

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Offbeat Bhutan : Cycling in Unseen Thimphu

Since November end to present day (February 2017), I have been declining Media Trips because I want to concentrate on my writing, earning and other pursuits in life.  I will start traveling again hopefully towards the end of February 2017. Till then, I just want to be at peace. I used my sabbatical from travel well to write more articles for print travel magazines and newspapers, to burn lot of food every day in my kitchen (I am a hopeless cook), play with my friend’s dog, catch up on movies and dining with my friends, organize my desk. I caught up with food festivals, film festivals, book fair and restaurant hopping in New Delhi too. I had spent quality time at 2 of my friend’s quiet homes and offices to write pending blogs. The month of December was most productive as I wrote around 20 blogs in December alone, most of it on Jordan and Bhutan etc. I also managed my finances and raised pending bills and earned more. I further augmented more wealth for me by landing up for assignments for me. On one of the days, I wrote 4 articles in a day! And oh, I caught up on a lot of sleep too. It was a creatively satisfying phase and I hope to repeat it again.

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Click to read about the mystery behind Penis paintings on walls of Bhutan near Chimi Lhakhang

I have realized that I can’t be location independent. I realized that my fantasy was just a fantasy! When I actually tried to live my fantasy of traveling non-stop, I ended up cancelling my own trips. After being on road and in air for so long, I had realized that I do like a base to come back to. (Coz बाबा को base पसंद है). I also realized that no matter how much I love travel, it is not the only thing I want to do. I was itching to read lots of books, even newspapers (I am known for reading 2 months old newspaper even when not traveling), catch up on Bollywood and world cinema (I saw 15 Iranian films in between), meet old friends, spend time with parents and nephews and nieces. On most of my travels in this period I carried books to read. Not even once did I get time to read those thanks to my packed schedules during travel. I talk to my parents in Lucknow daily on phone since 2008, when I left home. I had to request them to hang up because I was too tired (mentally) to even talk)

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I went to a remote village Sehore in Madhya Pradesh to see how Delhi girl Sanjana Kaushik is changing lives in rural India.

Even places like Ladakh, where I had planned 16 days trip started to make me restless. Even though it was my first time in Ladakh, I was constantly craving to get back home. This, when I don’t even like Delhi or Ghaziabad, my adopted home since 1 year! I realized I started to enjoy travel less and on every travel, after a few days, there were moments when I just wanted it to end right there. Perhaps if I was a newbie traveler, I would have still enjoyed it but after having traveled to more than 150 destinations in India since 2008, most of it solo travel in shoestring budgets, I was near saturation. I didn’t want to kill travel for me and since December 2016 I took a strict sabbatical from Travel. Not very long ago (Till just a few month ago), I used to crave for such a trip. From being Fired for travelling too much in 2015 to Tired of travelling too much in 2016, I had seen a paradigm shift in my travel aspirations within a year, a bit too fast. Henceforth, my focus this year onwards is to choose my official trips carefully.

  • I don’t want to travel for more than 10 days in a month.
  • I also want to travel more and more with parents, friends.
  • That said, I realized how much I crave to go back to my original Solo Travel Style. I did manage some amazing Solo Travel experiences last year. I hope to plan some epic solo travels for myself this year.
  • I want to choose my Press Trips more carefully. I should be charged up about the destination before committing.
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Taj Balloon Festival near Taj Mahal Agra was the highlight of my trips.

This break from travel was also important because I finally shifted to my own rented apartment in January 2017. When I shifted from Navi Mumbai to Ghaziabad to stay with my brother in November 2015, I knew I would move out within a year. But I was unable to even find time to go apartment hunting because I was hardly seen at home. Much of January was spent in organizing my life and cutting the clutter. From August 2010 to January 2017 (staying at 2 of my friend’s homes) I was literally living out of suitcases and backpacks wearing the same set of clothes over and again. It was fun and challenging but also cumbersome.

Before Ladakh in September, a Media Trip to Bhutan for 10 days happened to me in August. After enjoying Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Haa Valley at leisure, I spent quality time with parents at Mussoorie and Landour.   September was marked with 16 days in Ladakh. After Ladakh, I made a solo trip to Mumbai, Bangalore and Agumbe, Ikkeri, Kaledi, Shimoga, Jog falls in Karnataka. It was a mix of flights, rickety buses and sleeper class trains. My train to Mumbai from Delhi was not even sleeper class. It was an overnight Chair Car journey in Gareeb Rath.  September was indeed my busiest month.

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Did you know about the Corn Village Bhutoli in Mussoorie? Mosaic Hotels helped me find!

By the time it was October, I had started cancelling my own travels. Never before had I stood at a railway platform with my backpack and cancelled my own tickets. As I sat in metro to Nizamuddin railway station, I was boggled by the amount of work pending. The horrific visions of messy desk and room nagged me further. Upon reaching, I just cancelled the sleeper class train ticket to Surat on my cellphone and returned back to home. I promised myself to travel to Surat next winter to sample the seasonal dishes Ponk and Oundhiyo. Never before in my life had I done something like this. I even cancelled my much awaited trip to Kolkata on Durga Pooja in October. I had wanted to do it since eons. When I was so close to realizing that dream, I cancelled the ticket myself because 1) I was tired and 2) I had so much of freelance work pending). Before this, I explored Madhya Pradesh (Satpura, Bhopal, Pachmarhi, Sanchi, Sehore and Bhimbhetka.) for 7 days. I also stayed at parents’ home in Lucknow for sometime during Diwali. I had plans to visit nearby Ayodhya, Faizabad and Varanasi but I was too tired and just wanted to chill at home and eat some comfort food made by mom. November was all about hot air balloon ride near Taj Mahal and a quick trip to Boat Festival in Goa. I almost said no to these 2 invites. But it was so tempting I had to go. This was the time when I started to slow down. In reality, my 4 month long non-stop travel thus had brief moments of rest at home, thanks to the cancellations.

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Alongwith Naropa Festival, I also attended the Ladakh Festival in Leh.

I don’t know if I will travel like this again (Though I still have some crazy travel plans) but for now I want to take it slow. Kudos to those travelers who spend months on road! Before this trip, the most I had travelled at a stretch was one month in Nepal in 2015 (Everest Base camp Trek and Kathmandu). I remember I was itching for a base even then.

It taught me that we should all understand what personality types we are and make travel plans which suit our personalities. I would love your views on this. Does the same thing happen to you as well or do you love living out of suitcases and backpacks? Do let me know in the comment section below.

This song from the Bollywood film Lootera sums up my current state of mind well.

ना उड़ने की इस दफा ठानी परिंदो ने भी वफा जानी. शिकायते मिटाने चली; सुबह बेदाग है!”

(“Having decided not to fly, even the birds learned to stay this time! I answered all the complaints; the morning is spotless now!”)

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I took some time off from Madhya Pradesh Travel Mart and went to see Sanchi Stupa. Mesmerised, I spent all day here.

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Spotting Gaur aka Bison and other wildlife at Satpura National Park, Madhya Pradesh

WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

DHANAK THE FILM- ROAD TRIP TO RURAL RAJASTHAN!

Dialogue from Dhanak, the film by Nagesh Kukunoor,

“अब हम साथ में धनक देखेंगे, रात वाला धनक!”

(Now we will see the rainbow together. The rainbow which appears in the night, that is!)

There are noisy big budget Bollywood films and then there are those Bollywood films which release without making much noise, touch the lives of those who appreciate good cinema and remain etched in their memory forever. I prefer the latter.

I went to watch Dhanak with zero expectations. After a sluggish beginning, the film surprised me with its riveting narrative and stellar performances by the kids. The film turned out to be a road movie (of a different kind!)

The story line is simple. A village girl fails her exams on purpose so that she can study with her visually impaired brother. The boy is a fan of Bollywood star Salman Khan while the girl is a fan of Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. Both are Bollywood megastars and apparently rivals. When news spreads that Shahrukh Khan is shooting in nearby Jaisalmer, the girl gets excited. The excitement is less of a fan girl excitement but of the hope that the megastar may help her cure her brother. Earlier in film, she sees him promoting eye donation on posters.

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Watch Dhanak, the film, directed by Nagesh Kukunoor on DVD. (Pic Credit: Drishyam Films)

What ensues is an epic road journey from the nondescript village (Dhani) near Jaitaran to the touristy Jaisalmer and beyond. Dhani (Remember Chowki Dhani?) are the cluster of huts in rural Rajasthan, the residents of which either belong to same caste or family tree or both. The opening sequences slowly revealed the life in a hut in distant Rajasthan through its characters. Sleeping under stars in desert (The quintessential Rajasthan Package for the urban) is an everyday reality here. I wanted to jump into the screen as the wicked aunt cooks Bajra Roti on a wood fired mud oven and the uncle smokes a hukkah.

The kids are rebellious and confidently embark on the journey in the ‘veerana’ (uninhabited lands) all by themselves. What happens next is very relatable to me as a traveler. I have always found the rural Rajasthan more charming than the Rajasthan one sees in brochures. The hospitality, the food, the people in Rajasthan just win your heart. I have found the roads in the hinterlands of Rajasthan to be baby bottom smooth as was also evident in the movie.

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Khichan in Rajasthan was the most memorable part of my road trip to Rural Rajasthan

Having exhausted all their water, the kid bump into a truck driver and ask him for water. Amused by their banter and boy’s dramatic “I am going to die soon.” (he repeats that almost every half an hour), the driver interrupts his siesta and offers them a ride till Garnia naka. He also offers them Amdavadi farsaan (Gujarat shares border with Rajasthan and the influences overlap). The scene was totally believable as I have experienced such goodness on the roads of Rajasthan.

Music and food are important to me when I travel. As they waited for a bus, a ‘saadi ka tractor’ (Tractor carrying wedding attendees) stops. The drunk man in tractor and the little boy indulge in magical jugalbandi. The silence of the desert was broken with the echoes of their mehendi rang lago’ It was melodious and smelt of Rajasthani soil.

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Pushkar Fair, Rajasthan. Why I love rural Rajasthan!

The man offers them a ride, food and an overnight stay. The next day, they leave for Jodhpur sitting atop a jeep. I remember hanging on to the rear of such jeeps in rural Gujarat and feared for my dear life. They end up in a God women ‘Mamtamayi’ Sheera mata’s darbar. The enticing smell of sheera (aka halwa) and poori (fried bread) tempts the boy and they end up missing the bus since they queued up for the food. I have missed some buses in rural and remote areas only so that I could eat more. At other times, I have almost missed my trains and buses because I tend to walk a bit far in search of interesting food during breaks.

TRAVEL GONE WRONG: WHEN I WAS STRANDED IN RURAL GUJARAT IN PITCH DARK

While walking from Lohawat to Jodhpur, they bump into an American. When the American starts singing “All I am saying is, let’s give love a chance” the kid spices it up with a rustic version of ‘damadar mast kalandar’.  It was one of my favourite moment of the film. The jugalbandi ended with the echo of a peacock in the background. In my road trip to rural Rajasthan, I was amused to see hundreds of peacocks on either sides of the road, sometimes even sitting on the paan shops.

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Camels at Pushkar Fair, Rajasthan

The kids meanwhile get kidnapped and then rescued by a ‘banjara’ (nomad) women. Good opportunity to weave in a kalbelia dance performance! The kidnap and rescue was a bit simplistic and so was Shah Rukh Khan rescuing the dehydrated duo later from the desert and sponsoring the boy’s eye operation.

The film ends with the boy getting his vision back and with this heart warming song :

ख्वाबों में अपने तू,

घुल कर खो जा रे

पलकों पे सपने

मल कर सो जा रे

होगी फिर महक तेरे हाथो में

और देखेगा धनक तू रातों में!

 (Get lost in your dreams,

Rub the dreams on your eyelids and go to sleep.

You will discover sweet smell in your hands then,

And you will see a rainbow in the night!)

 

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My picture of Om Banna Temple in rural Rajasthan. They worship motorcycle here! It was shown in the film Dhanak, directed by Nagesh Kukunoor.

Ecstatic to see the sand falling from his hand the boy says, “isn’t it all beautiful?” The sister says, “Yes, everything is beautiful!”

I have noted down the names of the village so that I can make a journey or maybe even follow their trail. The visuals in the film for sure made me want to take this road trip.

Their route (From what I could construct) was:

A dhani near Jaitaran – Lohawat – Jemla Bus Stop – Om Banna Temple – Jodhpur – Jaisalmer.

 

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Dhanak, the film is directed by Nagesh Kukunoor (Pic credit: Drishyam Films)

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THE ARTOLOGUE COUPLE TRAVELS TO THE CORNERS OF INDIA AND TURNS WALLS INTO ART!

Featured Image: Jey Sushil and Meenakshi Jey, the Artologue couple on their travels (Pic: Sumer Singh Rathore)

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Meenakshi from Artologue shares a joke between painting sessions.

The Artologue couple travels in remote corners of India on their Royal Enfield bike Hari Bhari and Kesariya. They document their journey in their visually appealing blog called Artologue. Before you mistake them as just another couple on the loose, let me tell you why their journeys are extraordinary. Be it Bhagalpur (Bihar) or Shop Art Art Shop Festival (A Village Turned into open air art gallery) in Gunehar (Himachal) or the hitherto unknown village Lodarwa img_20170129_204543

Jey Sushil and Meenakshi with Shweta, posing against the new Artologue

near Jaiselmer (Rajasthan) and as far as Chennai, they leave a lasting impressions on the walls of their chosen destinations and the minds of the people who choose them. North, East, West or South, they have hopped on Kesariya and painted the town in rainbows colors. They paint the walls of schools, social support groups, orphanages, village homes and what nots. What makes the process interesting is that it is always a collaborative efforts. Locals help them complete the painting job making it a great excuse to bond with complete strangers and share good times over art. They had so many amazing stories to tell from their travels.

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Jazzy Jey from Artologue jazzes up the bland wall.

While Mr. Jey Sushil works full time as a journalist, Mrs. Meenakshi is a full time painter, artist. People fondly call Jey as Jazzy Jey. The couple likes to call themselves as Mee&Jey, yes no space. To quote them, their idea is “to bring art from art galleries to the homes and hearts of people.” Both are JNU pass outs. I found their chemistry infectious and their mere presence filled the room with energy.

Since a long time, me and Mrs. Alka Kaushik, a renowned Hindi journalist and travel blogger had been co-ordinating to fix an appointment with the couple and request them to paint a wall of Mrs. Kaushik’s study. Christened oddly by me as Hindon Café (Because ‘that room’ looks like a café and it’s near the Hindon river), it was a perfect place for artistic adventures. We had been connected for a long time on social media but never met in person. I instantly said yes when finally a date was fixed. (Me and Alka ji are to be blamed for this delay, thanks to our non-stop travels.)

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Meenakshi Jey from Artologue (faux) paints the nose of Sophie while Mukesh ji paints the wall.

On my personal agenda were: a) the sumptuous home cooked food (I am fed up of eating burnt food cooked by me) which I get to relish every time I visit Hindon café, b) endless conversations, and c) chilling under the winter sun with Sophie, the much pampered dog of the house (Because I miss my own pets).

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Jey Sushil and Meenakshi Jey from Artologue and their infectious madnesss.

The job began much before I could reach. Alka ji had called upon kids of construction laborers, local helps and house maids. Within minutes of instructions from the Artologue couple, they had turned a segment of the bland wall into a riot of colors. After devouring the pizzas, they left leaving behind the arduous task of painting the large wall. What lied ahead was scary for me. Fearing we would damage the wall, I and Dipanshu, a travel blogger dared not touch the brush until it was time to wrap. (I touched the brush only at the end to wash it)

Other non artistic guests gingerly painted the easier parts. I remember how Shweta, a sports blogger, put her hands down when she got the epiphany she was about to damage the wall. I teased her the entire day for this. On the other hand, Camy Thomas, a dentist silently painted along with poise as Sheelu ji took care of all the guests with her sunshine smile. Sheelu ji teaches Hindi to the expats. The hosts Alka ji and Mukesh ji painted diligently between jokes and sessions of green teas.Mukesh ji, a defense journalist kept every one’s spirits high with his crackling one liners. Mrs. Arti Jain, a journalist (formerly with NDTV) and her little daughter kept the spirits of everyone high. Mr. Deepesh, ex media person (Media Centre, USA Embassy) also remained away from the paint and brush for the same reason as Dipanshu’s and mine.

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Meenakshi Jey from Artologue paints the wall.

We didn’t realize when it turned dark. Even after spending all day, the task was far from over. Neither were we in any hurry. Blogging occupies all my time, including weekends. I needed this break to rejuvenate myself. The fun company made it all the more alluring. No wonder I cancelled my meeting on call and stayed back for more good food, banter and art sessions. Jazzy Jey educated us about the art of Meenakshi. We studied each of her artwork. It was so engrossing that I can’t wait to attend their next arts exhibition.

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The gracious hosts Alka Kaushik ji, Travel Writer and Mukesh Kaushik ji, Defense journalist diligently paints the wall with Artologue. A first for them.

When finally the painting job was done, our jaws dropped on seeing the end result. 4 larger than life humanized ants went about their business (Drumming, reading, the works!) as snake and star shaped kites touched the sky. The human kids (Much shorter than the ants) on the left had the control of the kites. We stared at the lively wall which was just bland canvas a few hours ago. I understood in that moment why art needs space in people’s homes. What followed next were the endless sessions of laughter, red wine, coffee and food.

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The new art work of Artologue. (L to R): Mukesh Kaushik ji, Alka Kaushik ji, Meenakshi Jey, Shweta Tiwari , Dipanshu Goyal, Jazzy Jey Sushil

It was 11 p.m. when the Artologue couple left the home, decorated with a shawl that Alka ji presented thoughtfully as a parting gift. Yes, it takes passion and a certain kind of madness to spend the entire day painting the wall of someone’s house, remain energetic even at 11 p.m. and ride back home on a bike in Delhi’s winter. Kudos to the partners in crime who are spreading happiness across India, one wall at a time!

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Jey Sushil from Artologue paints the town red! And green. And blue!

THE VIEW FROM MY #SoulWindow IS ARTISTIC!

Note: If you want them to come at your place (Village/Office/School/Hospital/Institutes/Organisation), paint a wall of yours and write about it then please mail them at meejha@gmail.com

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Mukesh ji, the host and Meenakshi Jey from Artologue paint the ants on the wall.

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Mee&Jey , Meenakshi Jey and Jey Sushil (The artologue duo) with their final artwork.

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WARNING: COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

10 REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT TOKYO WONDERLAND BEFORE OLYMPICS/PARALYMPICS 2020!

TOKYO THE WONDERLAND, the capital of Japan is a fascinating city! Ever since I have set my eyes on international travels, Japan has fascinated me as a destination. From what I have read on Japan, the quirks, the food, the advanced technology and the constant narrative of modernity blending seamlessly with tradition appeals to me the most. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government promotes Tokyo as ‘“a place that promises all kinds of fun by constantly generating new styles while bringing tradition and innovation together.”

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Aerial view of Skytree, Tokyo, Japan.

 

HERE IS WHY YOU SHOULD DISCOVER TOKYO WONDERLAND BEFORE THE WORLD RE DISCOVERS IT IN OLYMPICS/PARALYMPICS 2020

  • EXCELLENT DINING IN TOKYO: Being a vegetarian, I was delighted to know that one can find many varieties of vegan food in Japan. I am keen to try Soba, buckwheat noodles (served with hot soup or cold with dipping sauce), Tempura (Much like Indian Pakoras but with a Japanese twist), Vegetarian sushi (Order Vegetarian Sushi in Delhi and Gurgaon here) and Ramen, Izakaya (Home style cooking available in Taverns). And who wouldn’t want to try Bar Hopping at traditional Nomiya gai, the drinking streets in Japan?
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I saw live Tezuma performance by Taiju Fujiyama at Le Meridien, New Delhi
  • UNIQUE CULTURE OF TOKYO: Heard of Kosupure? The chances are high that you will bump into a local dressed up as fictional character, especially from science fiction, fantasy or anime. The sumo wrestlers, Geishas and Kabuki dance drama theatres from past still fascinates people from across the globe. Not to be missed is the Tezuma Tezuma is a traditional Japanese magic art form. It is appointed as a Japanese intangible cultural property in 1997. I was fortunate to catch live performance by Taiju Fujiyama, a young and famous magician at the Tokyo Wonderland seminar at Le Meridien, New Delhi. I can’t wait to have an immersive cultural experience in Japan.
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Eidabashi Suijob, Tokyo, Japan
  • EXCITING SHOPPING IN TOKYO: Nakamise Shopping Street is lined with 90 stores from the Edo Era. Kappabashi Dogugai Street, with a history of over 100 years sells Japanese, Western and Chinese Tableware, Raw food ingredients, food samples, kitchenwares, the works! Denbouin Street is great for picking souvenirs such as Japanese accessories, sweet amanatto beans, crafts, chopsticks, food etc. Don’t miss the statue of a famous thief on the roof of a garment shop, the eight faces of Edo drawn on the shutters and the colorful roof tiles. I am a non shopper, but I think Tokyo will convert me into one.
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The natural splendours of Okutama, Tokyo, Japan
  • DELIGHTFUL STAY OPTIONS IN TOKYO: As per 2015 records Tokyo has 675 hotels (98,644 rooms), 1194 Japanese style inns (45,204 rooms) Hostel bed starts at 2000 yen. Approximate Charges for rooms are (Twin Bed rooms): Economy hotel (7,000 yen), First Class Hotel (30,000 yen), Luxury Hotel (40,000 yen). Oh, and did you just ask me the price of a capsule hotel and a love hotel?
  • COMFORTABLE NATURE IN TOKYO: Who has not heard of the cherry blossom flowers that blanket Japan in during spring season? During the autumn, the brilliant colors of leaves lend a different took to the city. Tokyo has numerous manicured gardens where you can savour the bounty of nature. Why just hear those stories, why not go and experience it yourself?
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I saw live Tezuma performance by Taiju Fujiyama at Le Meridien, New Delhi.
  • EASY TRANSPORT IN TOKYO: The 20 railroad lines and 13 subway lines (fares start at 170 yen) run from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. and are dependable. 49,447 taxis ply on Tokyo’s road. Chargeable IC Cards, Suica and Pasmo are used for JR (Japan Railways), subways and buses in Tokyo.
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Marunouchi Ilumination, Tokyo, Japan
  • MUSEUM & ART GALLERIES IN TOKYO: With so much of rich history, Tokyo has many museums as well as art galleries. Being a numismatics enthusiast, Bank of Japan Currency Museum fascinates me.
  • QUIRKS OF JAPAN: Japan is full of quirks, be it the scandalous toilets of Japan or the frightening thought of entering a public onsen sauna naked. There are vending machines everywhere in Tokyo and so are cute mascots. Throw in capsule hotels and a never before experience is guaranteed. Do you have it in you to handle the quirks of Japan?
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Jyanoyu Onsen, Tokyo, Japan.
  • SIGHT SEEING IN TOKYO: There is a lot you can see in Tokyo. The peaceful Asakusa belies its violent past. The Sensoji Temple, built in 628 (Oldest Temple in Tokyo) is one of the most famous landmarks of Tokyo. The night view from Tokyo Skytree at 450 metres high Tembo Galleria, I am told is breath taking. A stroll through Yanesen transports your soul to a bygone era. When visiting the Shibuya scramble, don’t forget to check out the statue of the famous loyal dog
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Koishikawa, Tokyo, Japan
  • SIGHTSEEING IN PERFECTURES NEAR TOKYO: There is a lot you can explore around Tokyo. My most desired excursion from Tokyo is of course Mount Fuji (160 minutes from Tokyo). It is a childhood dream to see the sacred mountain of Japan for myself. Declared a World Cultural Heritage Site, a visit here is a must. Kamakura (60 minutes from Tokyo; history and culture), Nikko (90 minutes from Tokyo, famous for World Heritage Site Nikko Toshogu Shrine), Kawagoe (50 minutes from Tokyo, history), Chiba and Saitama are some of the best places to visit near Tokyo.
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Asakusa Nomiya Gai, Tokyo, Japan

I was amongst the lucky few who attended the first ever Tokyo Wonderland media seminar at Le Meridien, New Delhi, India. With all eyes set on Olympics/Paralympics 2020 to be held in Tokyo, Japan, the world is curious to learn more about Tokyo. The discerning Indian tourists are also looking beyond the clichéd destinations they are generally used to and are choosing Japan as an offbeat destination. The seminar was in fact aimed at promoting tourism to Tokyo to Indian travelers. I was fascinated by the video footage of Indians living and working in Tokyo, some for as long as 11 years. Thanks to the relaxation of short term visa requirements, more than 1,00,000 Indians visited Japan in 2015.

Mr. Ken Katayama, Deputy DG, Bureau of Industrial and Labour Affairs, Tokyo Metropolitan Government addressed the media in Japanese (which we understood thanks to live translation via an earphone). He maintained that India and Japan has always had a friendly bond and it makes sense to increase the Indian footfall on Japanese soil.

The 5 themes promoted at Tokyo Wonderland event are: 1) Comfortable Nature 2) Excellent Dining 3) Unique Culture 4) Delightful Stay and 5) Exciting Shopping

Out of these Comfortable nature, Excellent dining (I hope to find vegetarian Japanese) and Unique Cultures the most. And though I am a strict non shopper, somehow shopping in Japan appeals to me. Perhaps because the things you can buy in Japan are available exclusively in Japan.

Ms. Rewati Chetri, a finalist in Femina Miss India 2015 spoke animatedly about her visit to Japan, especially Tokyo. She is representing India at the Miss International 2016 to be held in Tokyo, Japan and couldn’t help but gush at all the sensory delights of Tokyo as she regaled the audience with her stories from Tokyo. Joining her in conversation was Mr. Akito Tadokoro, director (Marketing & Promotion Tourist Promotion Department (Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau). His subtle sense of humor made his stories from Tokyo even more interesting.

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Mr. Ken Katayama, Ms. Rewati Chetri and Mr. Masahiko Sakamoto at Tokyo Wonderland seminar, Le Meridien, New Delhi

Masahiko Sakamoto, Senior Director Tourism Division (Bureau of Industrial and Labour Affairs, Tokyo Metropolitan Government) stated that keeping in mind the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and increasing footfalls from foreign countries including India, the government is building multi lingual information desks at different places in Tokyo to tackle the language barrier.

With so much to eat/see/do in just one city, I can’t wait to be in Tokyo and tell you about my own experience there.

THE VIEW FROM MY SOUL WINDOW IS WONDERFUL!

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Note: All the pictures used here are by Tokyo Wonderland

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Asakusa Sensoji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan

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REVEALING THE TRUTH BEHIND THE REAL BIRTH PLACE AND DATE OF AZAD!

Shri Chandrashekhar Azad was one of the most important freedom fighter which Uttar Pradesh had produced. No one can deny the important role Uttar Pradesh played in India’s fight for freedom against the British. The huge state produced many courageous freedom fighters. U.P. was the playground for many important events in the 19th and 20th century which eventually led to the hard earned freedom of India.

During my 7 years in Navi Mumbai, I made many visits to my hometown in Lucknow. I always made sure that I picked at least 5 or 10 samosas at Unnao junction every time the ever punctual and everyone’s favourite Pushpak Express (Mumbai – Lucknow) halted in Lucknow. For many years Unnao meant Samosa (The taste is special) until Vineet Singh, an Unnao Resident and a talented travel and documentary photographer, casually mentioned the importance of Badarka village near Unnao over a chat.

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The statue of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad in Badarka, Unnao

Despite being born and brought up in U.P., I was clueless that this nondescript village is so significant in India’s freedom struggle movement. Unfortunately very few people know that it was the hometown and birth place of one of India’s greatest freedom fighter Shri Chandra Shekhar Azad. What made it interesting is the controversy regarding the real birth date and birth place of Azad.

Pictures above: 1) Vineet asking for direction, 2) a little girl at The Amar Shaheed Chadrashekhar Azad Dwar 3) Upcoming Housing Societies coming up in Azad’s name in Badarka, Unnao (Pls. click to enlarge)

I joined Vineet one hot afternoon in June to unearth the truth of India’s much revered and feted freedom fighter, fondly called by people as Azad (Free). While Vineet drove his car along the 12 km long dusty lanes of Badarka, my eyes were constantly peeled to spot any signs which mentioned the glorious past of the place. Tragically, except the signboard of an upcoming residential building named ‘Azad City’, cashing on his name, nothing else seemed to be celebrating the glorious past of the place. None of the villagers knew the location of the exact house of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad or his neighbour Shri Rajan Shukla’s residence.

Pictures above: The Amar Shaheed Chadrashekhar Azad Dwar (Pls. click to enlarge)

After much probing, one villager directed us to a memorial built to commemorate him. We entered the empty grounds populated by few monkeys and daily wage labourers toting kids with running noses.  Azad’s statue built in the campus of the poorly maintained and dusty large ground attracted my attention. The statue was a typical Azad statue which showed him proudly rolling his moustache with machismo.

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Me (left) and Vineet posing with the statue of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at the Amar Shaheed Chandrashekhar Azad Dwar, Badarka, Unnao

The Amar Shaheed Chadrashekhar Azad Dwar was a memorial which was built to commemorate the contribution of Azad towards India’s freedom struggle. On 7th January every year, thousands from across India congregate at this ground to celebrate the birth anniversary of Azad over 3 days (6th,7th  & 8th January). The District Magistrate helms the opening ceremony. The tradition of this ceremony dates back to the year 1932, just a year after Azad was martyred. The tradition was started by Azad’s mother to keep his memory alive. Many freedom fighters, politicians and friends of Azad attended the first event which was grand and celebrated with much fanfare. Bigwigs like former Indian Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi, Professor Nakamura (Foreign delegate from Tokyo University in 1973) and scores of former Chief Ministers and Governors have paid visit to Badarka. Mr Shukla recounted a story about Professor Nakamura. When he heard about the birth place of Azad during his stay in Delhi, he got curious and visited Badarka along with dozen more delegates. Moved by Azad’s story he promised to build a statue in Tokyo University in Azad’s memory. He communicated the same to Shukla family via snail mail once he fulfilled his promise. Mr. Rajan recalled fondly how much he liked the ‘buknu’ powder made by his mother. He requested to pack some for him and carried it all the way to Japan. Indian Freedom fighters like Shri Ram Prasad Bismil have also visited Mr. Shukla’s home at some point.

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A plaque at Azad mandir, Badarka, Unnao

In those days during the annual celebrations, veterans from Badarka and freedom fighters (many of them also the friends of Azad) used to recite unknown anecdotes from Azad’s life in their passionate and emotional speeches.

It is said that those speeches were so poignant that mere words would move the crowds to tears. Over the years, things changed. These days, celebrations are marked by political speeches and kids performing in cultural shows.  All of a sudden, people celebrate and acknowledge the glorious past of Badarka, for merely 3 days! The show is hijacked by politicians these days. Politicians usurp the podium, make umpteen promises and then disappear until next 7th January, Mr. Rajan Shukla rued.

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Me and Mr. Rajan Shukla at his residence. He spoke passionately about Shri Chandrashekhar Azad. Badarka, Unnao.

Long back, the then Chief Minister of U.P. promised to improve Badarka’s fortunes by developing it as an international tourist destination, even building quality schools and medical facilities. Predictably, it never materialised. Mr Shukla said disdainfully that despite its proximity to Lucknow, which is the capital and the political axis of U. P, Badarka has been given a step motherly treatment despite its historical significance. He lamented that Badarka lacks even basic education and medical facilities, let alone any development projects. For a population of above 5000, Badarka has only one school upto standard 8th. Even schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme failed to turn the fortunes of Badarka. No wonder, many youngsters are choosing to migrate to other cities to build a future for themselves.

THE CONTROVERSY REGARDING THE BIRTH DATE & BIRTH PLACE OF AZAD

The birth place and the birth date of Azad is disputed. Some records claim 23rd July, 1906 and Alirajpur in M.P. as Azad’s birth date and birth place respectively. Some official records mention Azad’s birth date as 7th January, 1906 and his birth place as Badarka. Smt. Jagrani Devi, Azad’s mother was clueless about Azad’s martyrdom until March 1931, a month after Azad killed himself when gheraoed by British officers at (then) Alfred park, Allahabad. Pandit Ramlaal ji Shukla, father of Shri Rajan alongwith Shri Sampoorna Singh, a freedom fighter visited her and broke the tragic news to her. Refusing to believe it, she cried for hours and collapsed. When they requested her to show to them a belonging of Azad, she showed them Azad’s ‘Jhabla’ (Clothes for infants) and janam kundli (Natal Chart/Birth Chart).

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One of the plaques at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao

She refused to hand over the hand woven jhabla which she lovingly knitted for Azad but gave away the ‘janam kundli’ of Azad to Shri Sampoorna Singh, based upon which he did the ‘shilanyas’ (laying the foundation) of his memorial with fanfare. Mr. Rajan presented to me an original photograph of Azad’s mother and an original copy of Janam Kundli. It clearly mentioned Azad’s date of birth and place of birth. The tradition continues to this date. The family of Mr. Ichcha Shankar Shukla, Azad’s classmate till class 4th, claims the same date. During British rule it was a hard task to openly celebrate the Azad’s birth anniversary or build the memorial because the British officer regularly frequented Badarka and sternly warned the locals to not even take his name, leave alone build a memorial. They feared that his story might inspire people and produce more Azads. The first birth anniversary was surreptitiously celebrated at Azad’s family home. Till the time India achieved independence from British rule, the location used to change every year. Many villagers volunteered to celebrate it in their home in a clandestine manner.

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Azad Mandir, Badarka Unnao. This was the actual residence of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad. A hut existed here originally.

Badarka was the place where the first Azad Memorial was built in 1958. The folklore has it that such was the aura of Azad that the memorial attracted huge crowd from across India in those days. Even today the magic continues, albeit on special occasions. In 2006, a parliament member from Karnataka, questioned the Central government about what steps they are taking to honor Azad’s birth centenary. The centre realized that his birth place is still under dispute. Upon the study and verification of the official records, 80 % of it mentioned Badarka as Azad’s birth place. The other 20 % claimed Alirajpur as his birth place. When Centre verified the records with Uttar Pradesh secretariat, they found that Badarka was mentioned as his birth place. The state and centre team then sent a team to inquire on the same minutely to Bhabhra village, formerly under Jhabua district, now a part of Alirajpur district in M.P. Badarka was finally announced as his birth place formally by the Government after much verification and research.

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Statue of Smt. Jagrani Devi, mother of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at Azad mandir, Badarka, Unnao

Relying on Vineet’s memory of an earlier visit long time ago, we managed to find the house of Mr. Rajan. The hot June afternoon forced the entire village to stay cocooned in the cooler climes of their homes. We broke the silence of the village as we knocked Mr. Rajan’s door, He was amused at our arrival. Not many expect visitor during hot summer noons. As he recounted stories of Azad and his home, cows busied themselves in chewing cud and monkeys fooled around.

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Mr. Rajan showing me an old picture of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at his residence in Badarka, Unnao

His family maintained close bond with the family of Azad, especially his mother. In those days, both the families used to visit each other’s house almost on daily basis. Smt. Jagrani Devi, mother of Azad, used to spend hours just chatting  at the house of Mr. Rajan. Smt. Jagrani Devi, the third wife of Pandit Sita Ram Tiwari gave birth to Azad and Sukhdev. Both of them were born in Badarka. Sukhdev passed away at a young age. A self respecting woman, Smt. Jagrani Devi never approached anyone for help even when she was the only surviving member of her small family. Mr. Rajan recounts that often she used to share her sorrows and shed tears in the memory of Azad at his house and that of Shri Ichcha Shankar Shukla, the 2 families with whom she shared deep ties. Roads and memorials were built in her memory in Badarka after she bid adieu to the world in 1951. Shri Braj Kishore Shukla (Father of Mr. Rajan), a freedom fighter himself, dedicated his entire life in lovingly preserving the memories of Azad.

He started a trust called – Shaheed Chandra Shekhar Azad Smarak Trust Samiti to facilitate the same. In those days many revolutionaries were involved in the committee. Established in 1960, its goal was to rekindle the interest of young people in Azad and improve the living standards of Badarka. The committee did succeed in turning a dirt road into a 16 kms long road known as Shaheed Chandra Shekhar Azad Marg. It also implemented the ‘pey jal yojna’ which supplies water to the locals. Mr. Rajan, 65 years old is taking that legacy forward. He passionately presented before us the old files, well preserved newspaper cuttings and original documents and pictures which narrated the story of Azad.

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The yellow building at right is Azad Mandir. A hut existed here originally and Shri Chandrashekhar Azad was born and brought up here. Badarka, Unnao

Mr. Rajan was mentioning about Azad’s home every now and then.  It piqued my curiosity and I requested him to narrate the rest of the story at his house, now a memorial. The memorial called ‘Azad Mandir’ was inaugurated on 7th January, 1988 by Shri Gopi Nath Dixit, the then governor of U.P. Its foundation was laid on 7th Jnauary, 1985 by the then C.M. of U.P. Pandit Narayan Datt Tiwari. Located just 5 minutes away from his house, I was losing patience to see it for myself. As Mr. Rajan continued talking, I stole glances through the corner of my eye, distracted by the few village kids, ruins of ancient haveli and tethered buffaloes. The first sight of Azad’s house humbled me.

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Statue of Smt. Jagrani Devi, mother of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao

Now a memorial, it was once a hut built of wood and mud. If we compare with modern apartments, it was even smaller than a studio flat. It was just a small room without any kitchen or attached toilet. In comparison Mr. Rajan’s home and others’ home was much bigger. I reckoned that greatness must always be defined by ‘karma’ and not privilege. Realising that such a great freedom fighter had such modest roots made me reflective.

I left my slippers outside the metal gate, which is never locked. Despite the poor maintenance, the locals revere the place and remove the footwear before entering, just like they do in temples in India. I jump, at times to avoid resting my feet on a thorn, at other times to avoid the hot floor. The tethered cows at the front house guard the commemorative memorial. The floor was covered in dust and thorns were lying here and there. The statue of Smt. Jagrani Devi stood tall amongst all the muck, as if still smiling with pride! Patriotic slogans which evoked the freedom struggle were painted on yellow walls.

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Shri Rajan Shukla with the statue of Smt. Jagrani Devi at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao.

After finding a spot in shadow, Mr. Rajan recited the escapades of Azad with passion. The tales which turned Chandu into Azad and made him great!  Mr. Rajan pointed towards a plaque which addressed Azad as ‘Son of Lion’ (Singh Shaavak).  He fondly narrated to me and Vineet about an anecdote of Azad’s childhood in Badarka. Azad was taking his lessons under a makeshift open air school, with a ‘chappar’ roof, he was distracted when some British officers harassed the locals from the ‘pasi’ community.  They started bundling all the belonging of a certain Kallu Pasi. The ‘daroga’ (Inspector) beat him up, turning his body red with blood when he protested. Little Chandu, (Azad’s nickname) found it hard to look at it and do nothing. The rebel kid in him made him hit the cops and run away. The furious cops found his home and interrogated his petrified father. Then Azad narrated the entire sequence and said that he did not like what he saw and hit them. It was one of the first instances when Azad displayed a rebellious nature, valour and fearlessness.

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One of the plaques at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao

Mr. Rajan ji told me a story of Azad which not many know. A certain Mr. Ram Lakhan  Awasthi, inspector in Alirajpur, hired father of Azad as a gardener at a paltry salary of Rs. 5 per month. Azad was around 13 years old when the family had moved to Alirajpur. Bored and disinterested in living in a remote tribal area, Azad agreed when a merchant asked him to accompany him to Mumbai. Odd job of painting a ship and later dish washing dishes at a tea shop sustained him in Mumbai, then Bombay. A Sanskrit teacher Shri Nand Kishore Gupta spotted him washing dishes and could make out that the child belonged to a decent family. He asked him his residence details, his name and the reason why he was washing utensils.

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The ruins of old havelis at Badarka, Unnao. Who would have thought?

He convinced him to come to Varanasi and offered him food, shelter, education, clothes and a monthly allowance at Benaras Sanskrit Vidyapeeth. Azad moved to Benaras. At the tender age of 15, when adolescents are engaged in frivolous activities, he along with the students of his college participated in a procession chanting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (Long Live Mother India) and Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live the Revolution). Azad led the procession with a flag in his hand. The British confronted the procession and tried to stop it. They asked Azad to throw away the flag and retreat. He taken to the magistrate upon arrest. What happened next is history. Here is what Azad answered to the questions posed by Magistrate.

Name : ‘Azad’(free)

Father’s name : ‘Swadheen’ (free)

Address : ‘Jail’

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Smt. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India visited Badarka, Unnao. The plaque commemorates that event.

The magistrate, annoyed with his bold replies, ordered 15 lashes to be whipped on his exposed body with leather belt (dipped in hot oil). He would utter, ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ at each lash unflinchingly. After the ‘punishment’, his blood soaked body was dumped on the road. His pictures and story were carried in newspapers of that time. This event made him a household name.

His medication was taken care of by Shri Sampoornanad, a close family friend. Later, upon healing Azad addressed a crowd at a public meeting. It is said that the crowd was so huge that they had to put a chair above a table on a cot so that everyone could see him. He declared boldly from the stage, “We are free (Azad) from today onwards!! The British will never be able to kill us.” Years later, he kept his words when he shot himself as British officers attacked him.

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We sat here and chatted for hours with Mr. Rajan. Badarka, Unnao

I probed Mr. Rajan why was there so much confusion regarding his birth date and place. His theory seems plausible. As per him most of writers who wrote on him did not belong to Badarka. Unfortunately, no one from Badarka documented his life in words. On the other hand, other, including his jealous rivals, minted money by penning books on his life with half baked facts. Mr. Rajan told me that some so called revolutionaries from Bundelkhand were rivals of Azad. Azad had even ordered to get them eliminated since they were involved in anti national activities such as acting police informer. Tragically, after Azad was martyred, the same set of people wrote books on him with an agenda of raking in the moolah. They even spread fabricated stories like Azad, who was a Brahmin, ate meat in order to gain political mileage. This resulted in wrong information masquerading as history.

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Plaque praising Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at Badarka, Unnao

Mr Rajan rues that if Azad was still around, India’s destiny would have been something else. Not only did Azad have a vision of a free India but also an India without cast, creed and caste. I contemplated at the seemingly impossible dream of an egalitarian society, took a deep breath and said my thanks and good bye.

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Ruins of old havelis at Badarka, Unnao

White Palace Of Badarka – The ruins of this huge building is walking distance from Azad’s home in Badarka. The British christened it such. The 500 year old fort was built by Mughal emperor Jehangir. As per historian Shri Lakhpat Rai Sharma, Jehangir transported and buried large amounts of treasure in the underground cellar of the mysterious fort. In a bid to recover the treasure, the British did much damage to the palace as they tried to demolish it. One can still see the cannon shots. The British managed to loot much of the wealth. However they could not find any treasure. Also called Fort of Harivansh Rai, the massive fort comprises of 7 stories, 4 above the ground and 3 below it and is built on the area of 4 hectares. The folklore has it that a 25 kms long tunnel passes near the fort with doors at regular intervals. The religious idols recovered from a temple within the campus have now been moved to another temple nearby. Mr. Rajan told me a quirky fact: even if a small stone falls off its walls, it always drops within the fort and never outside it. Azad used to sit and plan the next missions here along with his friends. It is said that they escaped from the tunnel when British Officers attacked the fort.  The mutiny of 1857 did most damage to the fort.

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Plaques at Azad Mandir, Badarka, Unnao

Other significant places in Uttar Pradesh which played a major role in India’s freedom struggle.

U.P. played a vital role in the freedom struggle of India. While many revolutionaries nourished the soil with their blood, many politicians discussed and shaped the future of India on the land of U.P.

Kakori Station: 91 years have passed but the details of Kakori Kaand’ also known as Kakori Revolution is still etched in the conscience of Indians. On August 9, 1925 near Kakori station, HRA (Hindustan Republican Association) members overpowered the train heading towards Lucknow and looted the money which belonged to the British. Led by revolutionary Shri Ram Prasad Bismil, he was accompanied by other legendary freedom fighters such as Shri Chandra Shekhar Azad, Shri Ashfaqulla Khan, Shri Sachindra Bakhshi and others. Everyone involved were arrested except Azad.

Chandra Shekhar Azad Park: Known as Alfred Park during Raj, British built the park in Allahabad. Today, it is remembered as the park where Azad breathed his last. He preferred ending his life under a tree rather than surrendering to British who gheraoed him. The prized possession of the nearby museum is the .32 bore colt pistol which Azad owned. Anand Bhawan, the residence of Nehru and often visited by Gandhi and other freedom fighters, is also a must visit.

Residency: The ruins of Residency in Lucknow still reverberate with the echo of the chaos which prevailed during the Mutiny of 1857. The goosebumpy marks of cannon shots are still visible on the walls. Nearby is a graveyard where British officers and their families, who perished in the siege, were laid to rest. The place haunts with its aura and one must visit it to develop an understanding of the freedom struggle movement of India and Uttar Pradesh’s role in the same.

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Plaque commemorating Azad’s birth in Azad Mandir in Badarka, Unnao. Notice the name of Dr. Braj Kishor Shukla, father of Mr. Rajan on the bottom right.

Note: This is my longest blog till date. It is also the blog I worked the most on. The blog is based upon my conversation with Mr. Rajan Shukla, the neighbour of Azad and took me many days to assemble the facts and write them. The personal meeting with Mr. Rajan was followed up by many phone calls and telephonic interviews to verify the facts and write an error free story on a sensitive topic. Heartfelt thanks to Mr. Rajan for giving me his valuable time and special thanks to Vineet for bringing Badarka to my notice. I stayed overnight at his home and he and his parents played a wonderful host to me.

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My articled Shri Chandrashekhar Azad’s relation with Badarka Village in Railbandhu magazine.

 This article was also published in the January 2017 issue of Railbandhu magazine, the official Railway magazine of India run by the Government.

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Me busy documenting Badarka, Unnao on a hot June afternoon. Picture by: Vineet Singh

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Statue of Shri Chandrashekhar Azad at Badarka, Unnao

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OOTY GUIDE: WHY YOU SHOULD GO TO OOTY WITH FAMILY AND/OR FRIENDS NOW?

Featured image: Valley View Point in Ooty. I wish I had booked those lovely looking cottages for my stay!

OOTY also known as Ootacamund or Udhagamandalam (meaning house in mountains), is a popular hill station in Tamil Nadu (South India). It makes for a great weekend break from Chennai, Mysore, Coimbatore and Bangalore. I don’t understand when new age travellers look down upon touristy destinations. Though I may detest some of the touristy destinations, I like some of them only due to the touristy frills attached to them. Ooty is one of them.

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The dramatic sky of Ooty!

I went to Ooty (7,347 feet above sea level) with my parents in 2002 and was craving to repeat that experience. My parents had planned a quick trip to Ooty post my disastrous interview for selection in a hotel management institute in Manipal. Seeing student couples whiling away their time in cafes, often kissing and groping each other between bites of American Chopsuey changed my parents’ mind. As the then 20 year old, I was weaving kissing and groping dreams. My fantasies were soon dashed when I heard them say that I will not study in Manipal, come what may. With a stern tone of finality! I had never kissed and groped till then! Such people are destined to enjoy Malpe beach (It was the first time I saw a beach) near Udupi and later Ooty with parents.

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I saw this somewhere in Ooty!

Bus ride from Coimbatore to Ooty!

Circa 2010! My train from Bombay halted at Coimbatore station. Me and my friends (2 guys, 1 girl) rushed to Mettupulayam station to catch toy train to Ooty. Failed to board my train (We had a reserved seat, sigh!), we settled for government run bus to Ooty and pretty much enjoyed the ride as it manoeuvred through dense hypnotic forests, sporadic waterfalls, and scary hair-pin turns. The mountains were enveloped with clouds making it look like those floating mountains of Avataar movie. En route there are many charming little shops selling hot snacks (Tragically for a Chinese tourist, it was spelled fried ‘snakes’ by them.) which tourists wrongly shared with the unruly monkeys.

Pictures above: Scene en route Coimbatore to Ooty and Coonoor (Click to enlarge)

Once in Ooty, for the first time since I started travelling, I booked a proper hotel room (Read not a Rs.200 room). Blame it on the female company. I discovered that I actually do enjoy a little extra space, bigger bathroom, a little luxury at times. Travelling sure helps you discover yourself! Or maybe I liked it because I got to sleep on a comfy bed after so long. From 2008 to 2015, I slept on floor on a mattress in my Bachelor’s pad in Navi Mumbai.) I remember in 2002 I stayed in a dingy room with my parents. I still remember the taste of poori-aaloo and how scandalised I was when the cold water from the tap numbed me.

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School girls and the Holy Cow, somewhere in Ooty!

I was curious to re discover Ooty after that trip. First thing after checking in, I stepped out and entered a shabby South Indian eatery. For some strange reason I have come to believe that the shabbier the eatery is, the better is the taste of its food. Halfway through the South Indian meal, after I had mixed up rice, daal, curry, sambhar and rasam and made it look like one big dish (because I didn’t know any better), I found a stewed cockroach in my plate. In ordinary circumstances, I would have left the restaurant, without saying a thing. (That’s me!) But I was so tired and so hungry for the South Indian fare and the food was so good, I just asked him to change it, not knowing if the cockroach was in sambhar/rice/curry/whatever. Later in the day, when more sense prevailed, and when I thought about what I did, I shuddered with horror. I stopped thinking. The beautiful weather, endless cups of filter coffee and the locally made chocolates helped me forget and fight nausea!

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Look out for such architecture when in Ooty!

After marvelling at the incredible looking sky, I booked a taxi which took us around the selected hot spots of Ooty. It was a departure from the noisy Ooty Darshan Taxi I booked with strangers when I travelled with parents. It was also a departure from my solo travel style which is mostly hanging on to a rod or handle or someone’s collar in a public transport.

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The lovely Botanical Garden in Ooty!

MUST SEE PLACES IN OOTY:

Doddabetta Peak: Unarguably, the best Ooty experience, it is the highest point in Ooty at 8605 feet. The taxi guy claimed that one can see far off places such as Mysore and Coimbatore from there. The heavy fog didn’t allow us to do that. Never mind we focussed on the chilly breeze, dewdrops, hot Nilgiri chai (tea), the works! You don’t feel like leaving the place. No wonder we spent maximum time here.

Pictures above: Me at Doddabetta peak!

A caution: My travel companion had caught fever and cold and we blamed it on Doddabetta Peak. So please pack some wool before heading here as it is much colder than other parts of Ooty.

Top Tip: Eat some fried snacks and tea here. After a point, one needs to park the vehicle and walk up the stairs to reach the main point.

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Botanical Garden in Ooty!

Botanical Garden: Dating back to 1847, this is the best and most well maintained botanical gardens I have seen in India. Beautifully manicured and boasting of some rare plant species (Don’t miss the famous 20 million year old fossil tree), it is a treat for photographers, picknickers, lovelorn couples, birds, butterflies and botanists. Don’t forget to pose next to the animal shaped topiaries.

Pictures above: Scenes from Botanical Garden, Ooty! (Click to enlarge)

Pine Forest: I thought these existed only in Bollywood films until my taxi-walla stopped here. I was mesmerised by the forest and the rows and rows of unending wood shedding the beautiful cones on every patch we stepped upon. The ‘nature baba’ that I am, I spent a lot of time just strolling around. The forest leads to a picturesque lake giving great opportunity for postcard pictures. You can even have a horse ride by the lake but I preferred sitting on a rock and soak in the beauty.

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Pine Forest, Ooty

Shooting Point: This place also reminds of Bollywood. Blessed with breath-taking landscapes, it is ideal for photography and picknicking. Interestingly, I also got the opportunity to see the filming of a Bollywood Film, the damp squib, ‘Love U Mr. Kalakar’. It was amusing to see Bollywood actors Amrita Rao and Tushaar Kapoor, lip syncing while dancing to a forgettable song. One can get a bird’s eye view of the beautiful villages below.

Pictures Above: Bollywood actors Amrita Rao and Tushar Kapoor at shooting point, Ooty.(Click to enlarge)

Valley View: As the name suggests, you get unbelievable view of the valley beneath. It looks like a utopian world from here what with trains (Yes, the same Chaiyya Chaiyya one!) chugging lazily through the tunnels, beautiful cottages dotting the landscapes , manicured gardens , ducks roaming nonchalantly, and clouds enveloping mountains. Yes, it is unreal! You can also avail the facility of telescope from here.

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Toy train in Ooty!

Boating at Pykara: Not a boating fan, I assumed it is going to be boring! But once I was in the boat, I wanted it to continue for eternity. Not only are the views of foggy forests mesmerising, the feel good factor of fresh breeze slapping on your face is unforgettable. Plus pray that its drizzling (NOT RAINING), when you are at it. You sure want the winds to bring along small water droplets when it slaps your face. Don’t skip this little hidden gem of Ooty. Most tourists do skip. The route to reach this place is also picturesque.

Pictures above: Me at Pykara. Boating at Pykara in Ooty is a must! (Click to enlarge)

Tea Estates: I stepped inside a tea estate and enjoyed roaming around in the labyrinthine garden. Though I wanted to take an official tour of a tea estate, but couldn’t due to lack of time. It’s a must do.

Thread garden: A unique garden featuring artificial flowers which look as good as the real thing!

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Me doing a Bollywood jig at tea estates, Ooty.

Toy Train: While returning to Coimbatore, I woke up really early to attempt one more time to board the legendary Toy Train. I was welcomed by a long serpentine queue, all vying for that 1 elusive ticket. (The ticket was at a throw away price). Heart-broken, I still stood in the line. After waiting for a good 1 and half hour, the doors were closed on my face. So there were 3 kind of people there:

1 – Grinners: Who got the tickets plus a seat!

2 – ‘My world is shattered’ types: Who didn’t get the tickets after waiting for eons.

3 – Soul Searching types: who got the tickets but had to take the arduous task of standing in the aisle through the journey. All they could view were the humans inside the train.

I thanked my stars that at least I didn’t belong to category 3 and boarded a shabby-shaky bus to Conoor. (And got the ‘soul window’ seat here! )

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Chair fit for a mother-in-law at Botanical Gardens, Ooty

Idli Thieves at Ooty Railway Station: There is a little canteen in the station premises, serving good quality and delicious cheap food. The relatives of people waiting in line for toy train tickets inundated the canteen for their idlis and dosas. The demand exceeded the supply and the canteen staff was overwhelmed to cope. The impatient crowd was making it worse. I stood there with a coupon to get my Idli. And then much to my amusement, I saw some youngsters grabbing the idlis from the counter in their plate and whizzing off without paying. I chuckled on witnessing such open robbery. Funnily, no one was doing anything about the chaotic situation. The shop-owner didn’t even bother to stop the idli thieves. Fed up of waiting, even I was tempted to steal the idlis, but self-control, values given by my parents and patience salvaged me! I got my idlis ‘LEGALLY’ after a wait of 15 minutes. (I could have got it in 30 seconds had I looted, never mind!)

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We walked on these paths in Ooty for hours.

Walk aimlessly when in Ooty: Don’t forget to stroll on the countryside. Isn’t walking the best way to explore a place. I did a lot of that and loved the experience. In one such walk , we entered a carrot farm and ate fresh carrots from the field .

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Look closely. Those are artificial flowers at Thread Garden, Ooty

Soul Window Tips:

  • Apart from South Indian delicacies, also try the locally produced chocolates, teas and fudges.
  • Avoid North Indian food.
  • Try if you must the continental food in the trendy cafes. I had amazing pasta and wood fired pizza at one of those.
  • Head to Coonoor, just 17 kilometres away. Quieter and less crowded, it is great for those who are looking for offbeat experience. I personally enjoy both touristy and offbeat destinations so I visited both Ooty and Coonoor. Kotagiri (28 kms) is another offbeat excursion.
  • Fill your face with local fruits.

 

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Me at Shooting Point, Ooty!

Nearby places I wanted to see but could not:

You can include these in your itinerary-

Within Ooty- Toy train ride,6th mile and 9th mile (popular for film shoots), visiting a tea factory, Thread Garden and Wax Museum.

Excusrions: Mudumalai Forest sanctuary, Bandipur National Park, Coonoor, Kotagiri.

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The lake behind Pine Forest, Ooty.

How to reach Ooty: Coimbatore is the connecting town. One can take a flight/train/bus to Coimbatore. From Coimbatore you can board Toy Train (Please book in advance), bus or taxi. The Toy Train also halts at Coonoor.

For internal travels it is advised that you either book a taxi or buy a seat in a group tour van. Local buses also ply within city.

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Me at Hotel Sapphire Garden View, Ooty!

Best time to visit Ooty: It makes for an ideal year round destination. However best time to visit Ooty is April, May, June, September, October, November. July to September is rainy season in Ooty. Inconvenient but beautiful nonetheless!

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Me making friends in Ooty!

Where to stay in Ooty:

Option 1: 3 of us stayed in a large room at Hotel Sapphire Garden View. The sit out area by the window was our favourite place. It was great for enjoying conversations over drinks. The rooms are not luxurious but comfortable. Replicas of paintings by famous painter Raja Ravi Verma dotted the corridor. It is walking distance from Ooty railway station and Central Bus stand. It was reasonably priced.

Phone: 0423 – 2443349 , 2443350

Email: info@sapphiregardenview.com

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Me and my friends from Ooty!

Option 2: Please stay in the dreamy romantic cottages near Valley View point. I wish I could stay there, but I discovered this gem on my last day. I was intrigued so I asked the staff to show me the rooms. It was Rs. 1200 (For 2 people), Rs. 2000 (Upto 6 can accommodate , room was huge) at that time. The facilities were not much: just a basic bed , wardrobe and toilet but the rooms were cozy , warm and romantic. Imagine sitting by the window overlooking the valley with a cuppa and your loved one in your arms. Ideal Honeymoon getaway! And I am sure , that if I ever return to Ooty, I will stay here !

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Me at the lake behind the Pine forest, Ooty!

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Me at the Golf Course, Ooty!

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The many local variety of chocolates in Ooty!

WARNING: COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

 

VISIT JORDAN: MUST NOT MISS THESE TRAVEL TIPS AND A 7 DAY ITINERARY!

Jordan Overview

Located in West Asia, Jordan is bordered by Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, Saudi Arabia to the east and south, and Israel and Palestine to the west. Tourists can access the Red Sea through the southern port city of Aqaba. Amman, capital of Jordan is located in the northwest part of the country. While the majority of Jordan is desert, the northwest area is quite fertile and is part of the Levant region of the Fertile Crescent, which has been referred to as the “cradle of civilization”.

Etiquette Tips For Jordan:

Etiquette is very important in Jordanian culture. While Jordanians graciously tolerate behaviors from visitors that may not necessarily conform to their own standards of etiquette, you can show respect for Jordanian customs by following a few basic rules:

  • Stand when someone important, or another guest, enters the room.
  • Shake hands with everyone, but only with a Jordanian woman if she offers her hand first.
  • Don’t engage in any conversation about sensitive or personal topics unless you know the person you’re talking to well.
  • Most women don’t like to be clicked. Ask permission or avoid altogether.
  • Remove your shoes when visiting a mosque or a private house (unless you’re specifically told to keep them on).
  • Never interrupt someone praying.

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What to wear in Jordan:

I found Jordan to be a liberal country. However some religious places may have clothes restrictions. Here are my packing tips based upon my trip in May:

  • Smart Casuals
  • Casual trousers / jeans and T-shirts.
  • A warm but light jacket/and or a shawl for nights.
  • Walking shoes – You will be walking a lot in Jordan. Comfortable shoes are recommended. Flip Flops advised for the nights and the beach.
  • Some places like Wadi Rum are remote. It is advised that the travelers must carry basic medications along. You might waste time finding the brand you need. Worse still, you may not be able to find the same brand in Jordan.
  • Jordan is a heaven for outdoor enthusiasts. Sunscreen and Sun glasses are must!
  • It is a picture perfect location. Do carry a good camera and enough memory cards!

Pics above: Mars Like Wadi Rum was my favourite in Jordan

More Soul Window Tips for Jordan:

  • The water is safe to drink here but if you are still unsure you can buy bottled water
  • Take these things back home– Dead Sea products, Local Souvenirs, Mugs, Mosaics from Madaba, Different kinds of nuts, olives, spices to name few.
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Click to read why I ran out of Dead Sea as soon as I entered it!

Food Tips For Jordan:

Healthy food is available all over Jordan. The cooking standards are good. Most restaurants and take away outlets maintain hygiene and quality. It is a paradise for vegans as most of the mezzes and deserts are 100 % vegetarian and healthy.

Time Zone : Jordan

From the beginning of October to the end of March, Jordan is two hours ahead of Greenwich

Mean Time (GMT) and seven hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard Time (EST). Jordan switches to Daylight Saving Time in the summer, when it is three hours ahead of GMT between South Africa and its neighboring countries, or between the 9 provinces of South Africa.

Currency of Jordan:

The local currency is the Jordanian Dinar, commonly called JD. 1 JD = $1.41 USD (as on January 2017)

Denominations– 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 JD notes are in circulation. The Dinar is equal to 100 piasters (pronounced “peeaster”) of 1,000 fils. The piaster is the unit most commonly used. If you see prices written as 4,750, it means the price is 4.75JD. Currency can be exchanged at major banks, exchange agencies, and most hotels. Indians can withdraw JD at ATMs with their Indian Debit cards. My advice: Withdraw whatever amount you want to withdraw in Amman. It has more numbers of ATMs.

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Aqaba : The only coastal city of Jordan which borders Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel!

Best Time To Go To Jordan:

Jordan boasts almost year-round sunshine with temperate weather.

  • The Spring and Fall seasons: Mild and temperatures range from 60-70°F/15-21°C, with rain being more common in the Spring.
  • Summers are sunny with temperatures averaging 90°F/32°C in the day with cool evenings.
  • July and August are the sunniest and driest months of the year, especially in Amman and the Jordan Valley. In the desert areas, temperatures can reach 100°F/38°C.
  • The winter months from November to April can be cold, but snow is rare. Aqaba is an especially pleasant wintertime resort with the colder temperatures staying in the north. About 75%of the country can be described as having a moderate climate with very little annual rainfall.

I went in May. It was a pleasant time to be in Jordan. The days were breezy and conducive to walking. The nights were cooler (Just a shawl or light sweater is fine). Below is a lowdown on what weather is like in May in Jordan:

– Amman – 26°C – 32°C

– Petra – 22° – 26°C

– Aqaba – 31° – 35°C

– Dead Sea – 23° – 26°C

– Wadi Rum- 26° – 30°C

Average temperatures in Jordan by season:

Month Lowest Highest

January 40°F/5°C 60°F/15°C

April 54°F/12°C 77°F/25°C

July 66°F/19°C 97°F/36°C

October 55°F/13°C 84°F/28°C

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Amman Citadel : Click the link to read why this place is the cradle of civilizations.

Immunizations advice for Jordan:

 No vaccinations are required to enter Jordan, although preventive shots for hepatitis, polio, tetanus, and typhoid are recommended. Travelers with personal health issues should consult their physicians before traveling. Medications should be carried in hand luggage along with passport, tickets, money, and other important belongings. Carry a small carry-on case with change and other essential for the layover in Sharjah. Don’t check this piece in.

Electric Outlets available in Jordan:

The electrical system in Jordan is based on 220 AC volts/50 cycles and requires two-pronged wall plugs, similar to ones found in parts of Europe.

Religion in Jordan:

The main religion in Jordan is Islam with 92% of the population being Muslim, but all religions are free to practice. 6% of the population is Christian, with the remaining 2% being a mix of other religions including Druze and Baha’i.

Smoking advice for Jordan:

Smoking is much more common in Jordan than in Europe or the United States, and smoke-free accommodation is relatively unusual (with the exception of larger hotels). Smoking the traditional water pipe or nargileh, also known as hubbly bubbly, is an interesting experience that visitors can try in any coffeehouse and many restaurants. The tobacco flavor is mild and mostly fruit-flavored. Most restaurants have smoking and non smoking areas. When smoking on road, pls drop the ash tray attached to the poles (Yes, it is for real!)

Tipping Tips for Jordan:

As a tourism based economy, Tipping is always appreciated. A 10% service charge is often added in hotels and restaurants, and extra tips are discretionary. In restaurants, for example, tipping an extra dinar for breakfast and two extra dinars for lunch and dinner is customary.

In general, you should plan to tip guides, drivers, and anyone else who performs a service for you in the amount you deem appropriate for the service rendered. Having small bills on hand makes tipping more convenient.

How To Reach: Air Arabia runs economic yet comfortable flights from India via U.A.E. Check my review of Air Arabia Flight.

Skyscanner offers cheap rates and you can even turn on a price alert for the same. Book using this link

You can download the Skyscanner app. Links below:

IOS app Download

Android App Download

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The view from the Amman Citadel in Jordan

Below is a 7 day itinerary for Jordan. It is more suitable for luxury but adaptable for budget too:

DAY 1

  • Arrive at Q.A.I. Airport on Air Arabia
  • Check in at hotel in Amman Crowne Plaza Amman Hotel
  • Lunch inside the hotel Al Halabi Restaurant
  • Visit the site of Jerash
  • Visit Citadel
  • Visit Down Town Local Markets
  • Rainbow Street
  • Dinner Sufra Restaurant
  • Overnight Crowne Plaza Amman Hotel

DAY 2

  • Visit Royal Automobile in the morning
  • Carry Shawerma & Falafel as take away lunch
  • Drive down South to Petra
  • 5:30 PM Early dinner with cooking class Petra Kitchen Rest.
  • 8:30 PM Petra by night event
  • Overnight Petra Guest House Hotel

DAY 3

  • Half day visit to the site of Petra
  • Lunch at Al Qantarah Restaurant near Petra
  • Visit Little Petra
  • Afternoon Drive to Wadi Rum
  • Jeep tour in the desert. Visit the sun set point.
  • Overnight Dinner and music program at Al Captain Camp

DAY 4

  • Morning drive to Aqaba
  • Lunch cruise with Yasmina Boat
  • Check in Moevenpick Resort &Residences Aqaba
  • Dinner Royal Yacht Club
  • Shopping in the streets near the hotel
  • Overnight Moevenpick Resort & residences Aqaba

DAY 5

  • Morning drive from Aqaba to Dead Sea
  • Check in Jordan Valley Marriott
  • Lunch in the in house restaurant
  • Time at Leisure
  • Floating in Dead Sea
  • Dinner inside hotel Italian Restaurant
  • Overnight Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa

DAY 6

  • Visit Baptism Site
  • Visit Mount Nebo
  • Lunch at Haret Jdoudna, Madaba
  • Continue the trip to visit Evason Mai’n Hot Springs
  • Time at Leisure
  • Dinner & overnight Evason Mai’n Hot Springs

DAY 7

  • Transfer to Q.A.I. Airport to depart

Jordan Tourism Details:

VISIT JORDAN WEBSITE

E-mail: info@visitjordan.com

P.O.Box 830688 Amman 11183 – Jordan Tel. (962 6) 5678294 Fax (962 6) 5678295

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Petra at Night is magical: Please click the link to read how it feels there at night. And of course for exclusive pictures!

YOU WILL LOVE READING THESE BLOGS ON JORDAN (EXCLUSIVE PICS AND TEXT):

DEAD SEA: WHY I RAN OUT SCREAMING AS SOON AS I ENTERED THE DEAD SEA

PETRA: THE SECRET OF THE CITY OF DEAD REVEALED

PETRA IN NIGHT: IS IT WORTH IT (EXCLUSIVE PICTURES)

AQABA- THE ONLY COASTAL CITY OF JORDAN WHICH BORDERS EGYPT, ISRAEL AND SAUDI ARABIA

WADI RUM- MARS ON EARTH?

AMMAN CITADEL- THE CONTINUALLY HABITATED WALLED CITY

Mövenpick Resort and Residences, Aqaba- The Ultimate Luxury Experience in Aqaba!

AIR ARABIA- HOW TO TRAVEL TO JORDAN ON A BUDGET AND IN STYLE

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Click on the link to know all that you wanted to know about Petra – a UNESCO World heritage site and one of the 7 wonders of the world.

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Got any question/comments, ask in the comment section below so that it can benefit other readers.

Email me for collaboration: abhinav21@yahoo.com

Be a part of my journey on social media. The travel content I create there is different from this blog.

Pls subscribe/follow/like:

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NOTE: I was invited by Jordan Tourism Board to Jordan on a Press Trip

WARNING: COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.