Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Corbett National Park

Bijrani Forest area, Corbett Park.

Journey-not so smooth.

It is advisable to leave home early so you can cross Delhi before the rush hour traffic if you want a smooth  car journey to any of the nearby tourist destinations. We did not leave quite that early but it was not the NH24 traffic in East Delhi that bothered us but the road that turns towards Ramnagar once you cross the Moradabad bypass. Before that Gajraula was a good place to stop for breakfast as many fancy eateries have opened there. Once we turned left towards Ramnagar, the nightmare of travelling on the 30 km of broken roads of Uttar Pradesh started. The Toyota Innova went up and down the big potholes and we went up and down with the mighty vehicle. At that point one did not know whether to be sorry for ourselves or the poor car. Thankfully, we were greeted by the sign of ‘Welcome to Uttarakhand’ after being tortured for more than an hour and a half.  Miraculously the roads became perfect thereon.

You are outside the forest reserve as soon as you cross Ramnagar. The Corbett national park is a welcome sight after a drive of almost 6 hours. You feel that roar of tiger would greet you soon enough. All along the road opposite to the forest area are the numerous hotels and on the road you can spot many tourists zipping across in military green Maruti Gypsies. Many companies take their employees for 'bonding' and 'workshops' etc so the hotels stay busy. You can spot Kosi river from the road itself and the huge tall trees towards the reserve make you feel welcome in this abode of the tiger. All we wanted to do was to quickly dump the luggage in the resort and jump into one of the Gypsies for a 4 hour jungle safari.

Dhikala-the best place to stay

Safaris are allowed only on official vehicles
These private resorts including the club mahindra resort in which we stayed in are very picturesque and nice but there is no better place to stay in Corbett park than the Dhikala forest rest house. Rajiv Gandhi had gone along with his friends Arun Singh and Amitabh Bachchan and their families back in 1985 to usher in the new year. Stories about their sighting many tigers had appeared in newspapers at that time. It is said that Amitabh Bachchan gave a scintillating performance of ‘Mere angney mein………..’ at their exclusive private party near the bonfire on a freezing  December night. He apparently lifted Jaya in his arms while singing 'jiski biwi chotti.....' which got him the standing ovation from the PM and the first lady. A forest guard had told me about this performance when I had gone and stayed in Dhikala around a decade back. Other than the time when 2 tigers had entered the rest house, the song and dance by the superstar had been the most memorable night for him.

Some vantage points inside the forest

It is no longer an easy task getting a booking inside Dhikala. Either you have to be a VVIP or an expert at computers so you could book accommodation within 2 minutes when the bookings open 45 days before visit date. I could manage neither even though I tried hard enough. The travel agents control the system and then rent out rooms to tourists at a very high price. Dhikala is 32 km’s from Dhangari gate and right in the heart of the forest. The food served there is vegetarian and liquor is not allowed. The rooms are nothing great but they have water and electricity. There are some places where you can stay inside the forest in Sultan, Gairal and Jhirna where there is no restaurant and no electricity also. Only those who stay the night in Dhikala are allowed inside the Dhangari gate. A decade ago, we could go into Dhikala driving our own vehicles and then could go looking for tiger in our own cars along with a guide. All this is a thing of the past. Now you can only enter the Dhangari gate on official vehicles. Safaris  can be booked in advance on the website and those are done only on a canter. Also available at Dhikala are the elephant safaris which are really popular and need to be booked much in advance. The elephants can enter the thick part of the forests where vehicles cannot. The chances of tiger sighting are high in Dhikala.

Tiger can't be nearby

A guard at Corbett museum at the Dhangari gate informed us that a year back a tiger had come right up to the gate. This sounded exciting. Corbett museum is the most disappointing museum you can ever come across. It virtually has nothing but a few carcasses of animals including tigers. It has a bit of history of the Corbett Park. They certainly can improve this.

Jungle Safaris and search for Tiger

You do see a lot of pretty birds
Many have seen tigers on the main Ranikhet road as well outside the reserve. Leopards often stray out of the reserve. The forest guard amusingly told us that as a guard he had seen tiger many times but his children had never spotted a single tiger in the last 22 years even though they had always lived in the forest. Agonizingly a couple of times the tiger had passed almost under their noses and they missed him! According to him, he advised them not to be obsessed with tiger but learn to enjoy the forest and the nature. Tiger will automatically be sighted.Fair advise this.

If you are not staying in Dhikala then you have to take jungle safari either in Bijrani area (Entry from Amdanda gate right next to Ramnagar) or Jhirna area, around 20 km’s away.  Dhangari gate for Dhikala is around 20 km’s from Ramnagar on Ranikhet road. The rule is simple. Book an entry  permit on the website. This booking opens 30 days in advance.  The Supreme Court order a couple of years back had regulated ‘tiger tourism’ and only 30 gypsies can enter each area in one session. There are 2 sessions in a day. Session one is normally from 6 AM to 10 AM and session 2 is from 2 PM to 6 PM. Time changes somewhat during winter. You cannot enter the jungle if you do not have the permit. Cancellations are not allowed so do not go to Corbett thinking you will manage permits if you can’t manage it online. You will not be able to enter the forest. 


We had permit for Bijrani area on day 1 and Jhirna area for day 2. On day 1 we asked the resort to book Gypsy and guide and they did so for Rs 3800.00. Next day  we did it on our own and it cost Rs 2250.00. Hiring Gypsy is no problem as there are many available in Ramnagar and outside the reserve. Each vehicle allows for 6 people , driver and guide. If your group has only 3 people, you just cannot ask anyone to join you. Your names have to be on permit to enter the jungle.

Tiger eluded us in Bijrani though one could make by certain indications that there was one around. We did wait patiently along with some other gypsies but he/she never came out of the thick forest. There have been a lot of sightings recently in this area as there is a tigress with 4 cubs and they often venture  out on the jungle paths. We had 3 children with us (age 14-17) who did enjoy this gypsy ride, this spirit of adventure and the rough terrain. Unfortunately they could not experience the thrill of sighting tiger in the wild.  I was happy that they enjoyed  the forest and the landscapes. The very next morning a photographer staying in the neighboring resort got some lovely snaps of a tigress in action. We did envy him.

Elephants at Jhirna
We would have gone to Bijrani once again the next day and taken a chance of sighting the tigress and cubs but we had permit for Jhirna so this is where we had to go. We had the most unenthusiastic guide possible. He told us right in the beginning that we should not expect to see a tiger or any exciting animal. This was a bit unfair as there are tigers in the area and some people had sighted a tiger just 2 days back. We did manage to see some lovely forests and a herd of elephants so it was not a total washout.  Being close to natural beauty can never be a washout.

Marchula area with Ramganga river

Marchula-A pretty place nearby

We did have another day with us and each day we had been trying to get a booking for Dhikala. We would visit the forest officers office in Ramnagar each day and were willing to grab a chance of staying in Dhikala if we did get one. But this did not happen and we went for a drive to Marchula which was around 30 km’s from our resort. It was a lovely day and we sat on the rocks near Ramganga river enjoying the flow of river with beautiful backdrop of forests and mountains.The last time I was here was a decade back when we had stayed at the beautiful Ramganga resorts. 
A place this lovely is so near Delhi and it is a pity that we gave it a total miss for more than a decade. I hope we can make amends in the next few years and in the bargain see first hand the tiger in the wild. It is definitely worth a try. 

Fun on the rocks

Corbett Facts

Delhi to Corbett Park : 258 km’s
Corbett Park to Nainital via Kalidungi : 65 km's
Nearest railway station : Kathgodam.
Bookings for Accommodation inside the park and for safari permits : http://corbettonline.uk.gov.in
Accommodation bookings open : 45 days advance for Indians
Safari bookings : 30 days in advance
Main Gates : 1) Amdanda (for Bijrani). 2) Dhangari (For Dhikala). 3) Durga Devi 4) Jhirna
Places to stay : 
Inside the Park : Dhikala, Gairal and Sultan from Dhangari gate. Jhirna on the other side.
Many resorts outside the park are very popular with tourists and corporates.

Jeep Hire : From Forest office at Ramnagar or Amdanda gate. Rs 1750.
Guide Hire. Compulsory. Rs 500. From the gate you are entering for Safari.

Note : Carry the same ID which you had used for booking of  permit. Carry your permit.
Park closes during monsoons other than Jhirna area. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Perth- A week wasn't enough !

Nature has given a lot to Western Australia

7 hours is hell of a long time to spend at an airport in transit and when you are struggling to catch your connecting flight even after that, then it is a comedy of errors. As I strolled leisurely to the gate to board the flight to Perth, I was informed that for Australia flight no liquid more than 100 ml packing is allowed even if it has been bought at the duty free shop and is sealed properly in tamper proof bag. These countries do everything to make your life exciting by making funny laws.  I was tempted to throw the bottles in trash can but they gave me 15 minutes to return the whisky I had bought and it was indeed 15 minutes of excitement as I was sprinting all around trying to save some money. I did succeed and was thankfully on time for the flight to the Western Australian capital. 2 bottles of Johnny Walker certainly were not worth missing a flight for. 

Bangkok airport called the Suvarnabhumi Airport is a bustling airport with miles and miles of concourses full of people enjoying duty free shopping. I am pretty familiar with this airport and always enjoy spending time there. The place buzzes with people and I took a walk from concourse A to G and then went around again. Actor Fawad Khan and I bought the same after shave from Kings Power duty free shop and I decided to have some duck and fried rice at Thai restaurant called Mango tree. The food was excellent and service was efficient. The Thai airways had served some terrible food and their choice of drinks was poor.  I had walked around at the Airport quite a bit, so required that my feet get some massage. At 800 Bahts I had a very nice foot and neck massage at concourse G at Chang's massage. I was ready for another walking round but decided to spend time in the Louis Tavern first class lounge.

American express cards had offered me to join Priority Club without any membership charges. As I had long stopovers at Bangkok Airport while going and coming I jumped at that idea. The card gives you access to several lounges at airports and 2 accesses a year are without any charges. The concourse G had a huge Louis Tavern CIP first Class lounge which was spread over a few floors. I used this nice lounge on the way back. It even had showers and wi fi. While going my flight was from concourse C, so I used the smaller lounge there. This was very tiny but had some decent snacks and plenty of Black Label scotch to keep me happy.

The story behind the visit

It was in the month of August that I called up my friend Rajat in Perth. Rajat has been in Australia for more than 20 years but I have never visited him. He was earlier at Adelaide and shifted to Perth a few years ago where most of his wife Farah's family stays.  My mind was working towards planning a trip for next summer. We wanted to go to a cool place as Delhi gets unbearably hot in June with temp as high as 45 deg C. Last few years we have travelled to USA, Europe and South Africa during summer break. Rajat wasn’t very pleased about our coming at that time of the year as it could get  very cold and windy and wet in Western Australia. He encouraged us to come in December when the atmosphere is festive and beaches are full. He tempted me with this idea and as I easily fall for such temptations, within next 30 days not only did I have a ticket in my hand but also the visa for Australia. The downside was that this trip was for me only as kids had their school exams and board exams from Jan to March. So, Devicka and kids had to opt out but encouraged me to go. It so happened that Farah and the girls were in USA at the time of my visit. It was going to be a bachelor's party in Perth at new Years time.

Day 1, A perfect start

The weather was nice when I landed at Perth in morning on a Sunday. I had left a cold and foggy Delhi where minimum temperature had be around 4 deg C. In Perth the day gradually became warmer and reached a nice 28 deg C as we had lunch at the picturesque Matilda Bay restaurant overlooking the Swan river .The restaurant was upmarket but served great grilled fish. Rajat has forgotten his 'jat' habits and is now a very fit Indian-Aussie. He decided to eat some shrimp salad.

Australian families were out in the sun having bar-be-cues and picnics near the river. Youngsters were skating, cycling and busy playing Frisbee. As we finished our lunch and planned a small swimming pool party with Farah's family for the evening, Kohli and Rahane hit magnificent centuries in a counter attack to Australians in the Melbourne boxing day Test. This fantastic weather, the great atmosphere and the cricket scores were a good omen for the week ahead.

Pleasant start to a New Year – on the beach.

The crowds increased as the day progressed. 

The week ahead turned out to be busier than I thought it would be. Perth is much more laid back than Sydney or Melbourne. It is a small town which has grown but not grown as much to make life hectic. Rajat told me that he had started his life in Australia as a student in Perth 25 years ago. I did remember the time when Rajat had left for Perth . Perth had just one high rise at that time. Now it has a modern city centre with a lot of buildings. At this time of the year people were in a holiday mood. Even the restaurateurs decided to close shutters for a few days starting 1st January. Even they needed to have fun with their families. For us also the New Years day was a day of relaxation. We decided to spend the time at the beach on the morning of the New Years day. The water looked lovely and even though days were warm in Perth, the water was pretty cold. It did take me some time to gather courage to jump in. Once inside, it was pure bliss. I did not come out for an hour and later went for a dip again. Cottesloe beach was full of people and it made a pretty sight. I loved this atmosphere. We took a full round of the beach and then went to a restaurant for some chilled beer. We got some fish from Amberjacks and the amount of chips they give with fish is not funny. The place was very popular and the fish they served was pretty good. Just the night before we had had a nice evening at Foreshore ushering in 2015. 

The New Years eve and some selfies.

The New Years party at Foreshore. The fireworks were dazzling.

Rajat had bought tickets for an open air party downtown at ‘Foreshore’ for the New Year's eve. In the huge lawns reminiscent of India gate lawns a huge stage was set up with a DJ and a massive and effective sound system. The food available on payment was basic and mainly Pizzas and some light snacks. The drinks were all pre-packaged mixtures in cans so that crowds could be served fast. At first we had Bourbon & Cola mix and then switched to Beer. There were thousands in the park. Mostly were unattached like us. They were there for fun and sure they knew how to have fun. No ‘chic’ approached us but it was good fun as many revelers would offer me their drinks and many would take selfies with me. Some groups did involve me in dancing to the rocking music and initially I was a bit scared but then realized that these were all friendly blokes. 2 pretty girls who were dancing near me , at some point came on my either side and decided to take selfies with 'me the foreigner'. So fair were they that my dark  face would disappear in the dark background of the night in the photograph. They needed to put on their flash to make me appear in the picture. I wish I had that picture for remembrance.

As the magnificent fireworks came to an end we trudged towards the bus station a few km’s away. People don’t take chance with drinking and driving in the developed nations. As was expected, we missed the last bus and as we had no plan 'B' , and with no cab available, most of the journey home was on tired legs. It was a night to remember.

Margaret River region – a nice place to chill

Wine tasting at Margaret river

300 odd Km’s from Perth lies the Margaret River wine country. This place is eminently popular with tourists as well as locals. The area has so much to offer that perhaps our one day journey wasn't enough to do justice to all that the place has to offer. As you approach the region, you can see the wineries all around. There are several breweries and chocolate factories as well. In route to Margaret river you can stop in at several other prominent touristy places . I saw 2 Kangaroos lying dead on roadsides as they must have been hit by speeding cars. 

The magnificent caves at the Margaret River region

There are surfing beaches, swimming beaches, forests, golf courses and the stalactite and stalagmite caves. I had visited the similar caves in South africa near Oudtshoorn and it is really lovely to see such well preserved and looked after natural wonders. They do charge you good money to enter but the audio gives you wonderful knowledge about formations of such caves and the historical and geological aspects attached to it.
A landscape photographer would love the entire Margaret river area. People come here to live for a few days and it is considered to be a very popular holiday place in Western Australia. The quaint little market has some lovely restaurants and the Margaret river information centre. We thought of having lunch at the sea side but then decided to drive to the market for some Mexican food. You could go to any of the wineries and most of them have wine tasting facilities as well as decent restaurants. You can learn a lot from the personnel there about wines. Our hostess was a young Indian lady who had just come to Australia . Her husband was a wine maker in another winery. I did ask a few questions but not too many. Wine drinking was the only priority.

The Sand Dunes of Lancelin

These naturally formed San Dunes are marvellous to look at.
There are many places in and around Perth which makes you fall in love with the place. Lancelin sand dunes were really breathtaking. They were visible from very far and the pure white powdery sand gleamed in the afternoon sun. They were not too far from the sea and the beaches. On the drive here I asked Rajat to stop at a few places so I could see their 'bush' region and could see a lot of area destroyed by the 'bush fires.' It is said that these sand dunes were formed  over 4000 years ago along with other dunes in the Quindalup system when water levels rose following the end of the last ice age. The dunes are visible from many kilometres away and have provided a useful landmark for travellers and even the aboriginals over the centuries. I was delighted to see such beautiful natural formation so near the city of Perth and ran up and down the soft sand hills like a child and tumbled down many a times till the legs got tired.

It would have been prudent to travel a little further and seen another great natural formations called the Pinnacles, but we decided against it. It was New Years eve and it was time to go back and get ready for the evening. 
My friend Rajat relaxing in sand

Gastronomical Delights of Perth

Australians love drinking and they love eating. The variety in food is tremendous and popular places remain full. I have written earlier that I enjoyed the upmarket Matilda bay restaurant on the first day. We also went to Jamie's Italian for lunch as I was told that for dinner you have to book months in advance. The place was busy and had great atmosphere. More important- the food and drinks lived up to the hype.

My lunch at Jamie's

Twice we went to the happening area of North Bridge at night. We did some pub crawling and eventually decided that North-bridge Brewing Co. was where we were most comfortable. The place was large and lively. The drinks were good but food was limited. Each time we were there we decided on eating dinner at a seemingly popular Malaysian place called 'PappaRich' but by the time we finished with drinks we could get food only at Nando's or Outback Jack's.   

Inside the Northbridge Brewing Co. 
To a tourist the city and surroundings has much to offer. People throng to places like a Casino for night entertainment as we did one evening and gave away some money to the roulette table. Hillary Boat harbour was for a pleasant afternoon and you could go for swim as well. A lot of kids were jumping from the jetty and having fun while parent's relaxed at the beach. We saw them all from a vantage location while eating fish n chips and then took one big round of the place before settling for some Ice cream. An entire day could be spent at Rottnest island and from there you could take a Ferry to Perth city or Freemantle . Rottnest has everything to offer which a tourist or fun seeker requires.

The port town of


I quite liked Freemantle as it had a very relaxed look about it with some great food places. The Beer always tastes better in such places. The King's park in Perth is one of the largest Urban parks in the world and from high above you get spectacular views of the city. There were many people there and while children played around, the joggers were busy cutting down their fat as they went up and down the jogging path which was shaded by lovely trees and had great slopes and climbs.

As I sat in the aircraft after a week in this lovely city, I carried back with me the following images which will remain with me for a long time to come.

At first I thought it was a damaged wall

New Years party had more than 10000 people. 

Nice way to cool down after morning in bright Sun

A view from King's Park

I love the color of sea

From the jogging track of King's park

The waves could be real rough. But enchanting.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lucknow- The magnificent Bara Imambara complex

The magnificient Bara Imambara Complex

Asaf ud Daulah, the Nawab of Oudh was apparently a very popular Nawab. There was a saying in Lucknow during his reign that ‘Jisko na de Moula, usko de Asaf-ud-Doula.’ This meant that if the almighty does not provide for you, Asaf ud Daulah will. 
I was born and brought up in Lucknow but even while staying in Lucknow you do not often visit the historical buildings. I do remember going to the historical buildings of Old Lucknow once or twice as a child but that’s about it.  I did visit Bara Imambara soon after my wedding and now it was time to show my kids this part of history which they are not aware of staying in metropolis like Delhi.

My Children enjoyed the monuments
As you enter the main gate and catch a vision of the entire complex, you are taken by surprise by the magnificence of it all. A creation of Asaf ud Daulah the Imam-Bara & the Rumi-Darwaza (Rumi-Gate) were constructed as a famine relief measure in 1784. It is said that many parts of the structure were built and destroyed many times so that the poor would continue getting employment.

The upper part of Rumi Darwaza as visible from Bara Imambara
Consciously designed by its architect Kifayatullah, the 164 feet long and 52 feet wide building is constructed in brick with high quality limestone. The arched roof of the Imam-Bara, which is built without a single beam, is the largest of its kind in the world.

Deposit your shoes outside and then enter the Bara Imambara from here

Thankfully the awareness about cleanliness is being spread. 

Inside the main hall of Imambara. No pillars. 

The Bhulbhulaiya at Bara Imambara, is a unique labyrinth of intricate balconies and passages, with 489 identical doorways, which give the feeling of being lost. Once you are inside the Bara Imambara, the guide points upwards and tells you that bhulbhulaiya is in the walls of the building. When my daughter asked if it were behind the building, the reply came ‘Nahin baby – bhulbhulaiya in diwaron ke ander hai. (No my child, the bhulbhulaiya is inside the walls). Bhool Bhulaiya is a labyrinth of hundreds of narrow stairway passages, some of which have dead-ends, some end at precipitous drops while others lead to entrance or exit points. The Bhool Bhulaiya was constructed to confuse any enemy intruder. The narrow lanes of the labyrinth can make anyone feel lost. Only a few knew the way out of this maze. 

The roof top

The structure contains various strategically built hollows in the corridors. The guide would stand hundreds of yards away and whisper something or light a matchstick which you could hear clearly at the other end. There is also a blocked passageway which, according to legends, leads through a mile-long underground passage to a location near the Gomti river. It is also said that there were tunnels inside which led to some nearby towns.

Inside Bhulbhoolia

At the time of entering the complex you are required to buy a camera-ticket for I think Rs 5 if you are carrying a still camera and Rs 20 if you are carrying a video camera. Those guys are not interested in the fact that virtually all cameras and mobile phones have cameras and video cameras built into them. They are very happy to accept Rs 5 and give you a receipt.  Then further on you have to buy entrance ticket for around Rs 50 which includes not only the buildings of this complex but also of Chota Imambara and art gallery and maybe one or 2 more buildings.

The rates for guides are displayed but the guides are clever and they quote you much more as they promise to include other buildings. Having paid humongous amounts in Europe just for entrance charges to mediocre structures, I did not think that paying an extra Rs 100 to the guide would amount to too much for our group. All conditions of guide were accepted by us without a murmur. At the end of it I tipped him as well.

The kids enjoyed the bhool bhoolaiya and wanted to explore more of it but were frustrated with the guide interfering at each step. He would not let them get lost and explore the passages on their own . They thought they would enter it again but once we were down those large steps, better sense prevailed and we moved on to Shahi Baoli.

The Shahi Baoli

The actual Baoli. Now totally dry. 

I thought we will be led to a well or a bath which must be called the Shahi Baoli.
However, I was not aware that one of the most unique buildings that Asaf-ud-Daulah built was the Shahi Baoli. It was constructed around a large well that had been initially dug as a reservoir for storing water for construction work near the Imambara. it turned out to be a perennial source of water, being connected underground with Gomti river.

The entrance to the Baoli. It is a fascinating piece of architecture. 
Asaf-ud-Daulah who had a desire to build unique buildings, ordered it to be built as a guest-house - the Shahi Mehmaan Khana so an entire building came around this well. It is said that Warren Hastings, the Governor General of East India Company, was one of its first distinguished guests. He is said to have remarked 'I am lodged most magnificently and most uncomfortably.' The Nawab was well known for his hospitality so one wonders why Warren Hastings would have been uncomfortable. Others who were the guests of this unique gueshouse have penned praises about the hospitality, construction and the surrounding gardens.

One will need to do more study about its construction and architecture as the Baoli has unique features like the guide explained to us that anyone entering the Baoli building could been spotted clearly by their reflection in water from many vantage points. He did demonstrate this. Very interesting.

Asfi Mosque is part of the complex but we just admired it from outside. Did not go inside. It appeared to be huge and very well constructed. We also wanted to go and have a look at Chotta Imambara so we gave Asfi Masjid a miss for this trip.

Asfi Mosque at Bara Imambara complex

Friday, September 5, 2014

Eurail Travel - All you ever wanted to know.

A few years ago we did an interesting summer trip with my cousin’s family. The trip covered 3 countries and many cities. We bought the Italian Rail pass for travel within Italy. Other countries were Greece and Turkey so they did not require the rail pass. Otherwise each country has a different rail systems and they all combine to make it Eurail. We had booked the passes from Delhi through our agent and my cousin Kunal had possession of these passes. As mentioned, the pass we had booked was from Italian Rail system (trenitalia.com) and it allowed us to travel on 4 days in 1 month anywhere within Italy.This meant that you could travel as much as you wish on these 4 days within Italy as long as it was within 1 month from the 1st use of pass.

It so happened that our Turkish Airline flight to Venice got cancelled after several delays as something went wrong with the aircraft and we were asked to board Lufthansa flight instead. We were told that we would get the checked in baggage only after a couple of days as there was no time to load it on to Lufthansa flight. There was panic as Kunal informed us that the rail passes were in checked in baggage. Our schedule in Italy was hectic and we were in Venice just for a day followed by 2 days in Florence and another 3 days in Rome. Where will we take delivery of suitcases ? By the time we would get our passes, the Italian leg would probably be over.

The Italian pass for our family had cost around $700. It is a steep price to pay  for just for 4 days of travel. But this is what Eurail travel is all about. It is convenient  but very expensive.  The prospect of losing out this money was scary when you were travelling abroad with limited amount of money. It would have ruined our holiday.

Luck smiled on us. As we had to get our immigration cancelled we came out of boarding area and as luck would have it our luggage  also came out after being offloaded from Turkish flight. We begged the staff to let us take out the passes. Obviously they refused. My sister in law begged and begged to our surprise they relented. Persistence pays ! The baggage was opened and quickly the passes were retrieved. We next saw our baggage after 5 days as the Lufthansa flight was ready for takeoff and there was no way our luggage could be loaded on to that. Even though we had no clothes etc, for 5 days  it did not bother us. Clothes we could afford to buy but buying new passes would have been tough !

Our first use of pass should have come for our journey from Venice to Florence. It would have taken around 2.5 hours to reach if we had managed to board our train. So enamored were we by this interesting city and its canals that we reached late and were told that we would have to wait for 4 hours for another train. We had a rail pass so we looked at the map and got onto the train to Bologna. We now managed to explore a new town which was not in our itinerary. We had lunch at Bologna and roamed around this historic city and then caught the train to Florence. Here we learnt our 2nd lesson. On some trains you require reservations even though you may be having a rail pass. We shelled out the reservation charges and penalty to the TT.

Another important lesson was that the lighter you travel , the more enjoyable the trip would be as you could get down at any station to explore an exotic city. 

It was then that I decided to study about the rail system of Europe. I think in this blog I have covered most questions a person would be asking before taking a Eurail pass. 

Q) What is the difference in Eurail pass and interrail pass ?
Ans) Eurail pass is for Non European residents staying out of Europe for at least 6 months. European residents can use InterRail pass issued by Interrail.eu

Q) Is Eurail one rail system ?
Ans) Each country has its own rail system and they combine to form the Eurail system. Examples :
Germany : Deutsche Bahn
Swiss : SBB Swiss Rail
Italy : Reilitalia

Q) What is Global Pass, Select Pass & One country pass
            a) Global Pass : Allows you to travel to 24 countries with one pass within the limited time for which you have bought the pass.
b)      Select Pass : Allows you to get one pass from 3-5 neighboring countries.
c)       One Country Pass or regional pass : Valid for 1-2 countries. You could buy for 2 neighboring countries also like Switzerland and France. Regional pass can mean Benelux countries or Balkan countries which are considered as Regional.

Q) What is the definition of a day ? What do you mean by saying one can travel on 3 days within one month ?
Ans) A day means a minute past midnight to midnight. If you take an overnight train starting at 10 PM and reaches destination at 7 AM – this would mean that you have travelled on 2 days. If you have a pass saying 3 days in a month then you can travel as much on 3 days in this one month.
Normally if someone says I have a Eurail Pass it means he has pass for continuous days of travel. For example Eurail 4 day pass means he has pass for continuous travel for 4 days. Flexi pass for 4 days means that he could travel on any four days in 2 months or 1 month as the case may be.
Q) What happens if you have a 2 country pass but you travel to a 3rd country ?
Ans) Make sure you buy a separate ticket for that portion of journey in advance. Otherwise you will be fined.

Q) What do you mean by activation of rail pass ?
Ans) Once you buy a Eurail Pass then you have 6 months in which to get it activated. Activation happens on the first day of travel. If the pass is valid for travel for 4 days in one month then the one month starts from the activation of the pass. There are activation/validation machines on all stations in Europe which imprints the date on the pass. Make sure that you activate your pass before boarding the train. And validate it on each day that you travel so that you are not considered a cheat. Generally you activate the pass by a machine on 1st day of travel and from next journey onwards you fill up by hand the date so that when TT comes he can see that you have filled up the date.

           Activation and filling up of travel dates

Q) Normally what are categories for Passes ?
Ans) a) Adult or saver pass : For Adults over 25 years. Savers pass is for 2 or more adults travelling together. This saver is discounted but one always has to travel together. It could be for 1st class or 2nd class.
b) Youth : You have to be under 26 years. Only valid for 2nd class.
c) Child : Normally from 4-12 years. Children under 4 travel free.
Many a times families travelling together get special rates.

Q) Does pass give you any other benefit ?
Ans) Depending on the season there are schemes so one should study that. At times even local transportation is included. Each country has a list of benefits it offers. You get a booklet with the pass which mentions all the benefits in each country where your pass is valid. The benefits are like discounted entries to museums, free tickets to amusement parks, free ferry travel, discounted hotels, discounts at restaurants etc.

Q) Is Reservation required for Eurail travel ?
Ans ) When travelling with a Eurail pass you’ll need to book reservations for most high-speed trains and all night trains. In the popular countries of France, Italy and Spain almost all trains need reservations, except the slower regional trains. 
You can book your reservations up to 3 months before your travel date . In France most trains require reservations except for regional slow trains.  The Eurail booklet is a good way to find out if reservation is required or not when you check on trains. On internet also when you give details at Eurail website, the pink R shows if that train requires reservations or not. This is an additional expense but you have to live with it. There are many ways of making reservation including by phone and by post but delivery of reservation slip may be a problem as they send by post. For E-Reservation also you need to do it a week in advance and you can print the reservation right away. But do we have one week when we are travelling? Most of the times I have gone to the rail station a couple of days before boarding date and got it done. At rail station you can get reservation even one hour in advance is availability is there. The biggest problem is that reservations also cost a lot of money. For a 4 hour journey it was almost 10 Euros per person.

Q) Should first class be preferred to second class ?
Ans) Well, I have always travelled second class and it’s pretty comfortable. Economically it makes sense also as the trains are very clean and comfortable. The 1st class ticket holders can travel in 2nd class but the reverse is not allowed. The seats are a bit better in 1st class and it is supposed to be quieter. In some long haul trains they may give you a glass of wine. But I have been very happy with 2nd class and I can’t afford 1st class with my budget.

The views like these are common

Q) Can you actually travel great distances like from  Barcelona from Paris by Eurail ?
Ans) Yes and with loads of fun and scenic beauty. You will have to change a few trains but then you should travel light. It will take around 11.30 hours and 4 transfers but it could be fun. You will go from Paris to Migennes to Dijon to Lyons to Avignon and finally to Portbou (Spain) which is near Barcelona. Better still, stopover in a few towns of France in-between and enjoy a couple of days in South of France also. If you don’t care about views etc. then there is a direct night train between Paris and Portbou. Just sleep through your journey but pay more for reservations.

Q) What is better – Rail pass or point to point ticket ?
Ans) If you don’t intend to take long journeys and travel for just a couple of hours in a day then point to point tickets may be cheaper for you. Just check the price on internet at Eurail website.

q) Sometimes you get very cheap flight tickets within different cities of Europe. Isn’t that better than train?
Ans) We got tempted by a similar deal and decided to fly from Madrid to Barcelona. This is what we realized :
1)      Taxi fares were exorbitant as Airports are located outside cities.
2)      Most rail stations are right in centre of cities.
3)      The hassle of check ins, security and reporting time is a problem at airports.
4)      Flights get delayed frequently but trains are normally on time.
5)      From hotel to hotel it would have taken us 4 hours on train from Madrid to Barcelona. It took us 9 hours by flight. Flight got delayed by 3 hours.

Train stations are in city centre in most cities

Q) Where have I enjoyed travel most in trains ?
Ans) Switzerland , without any doubt. Trains run by clockwork precision. The scenic beauty is unmatched with snow capped mountains, lush green mountains , huge lakes and waterfalls. Most of the time it seemed as if you were watching a picture post card.  The rail pass offered us special discounts on excursions to Mt Titlis and Mt. Jungfrau. I want to do it again as when we went last the kids were very small.

Inside the Swiss train

Q) How should I plan buying my rail pass ? What is the best way of buying a rail pass in India ?
1)      Decide on the countries and cities you want to visit. Decide if 1 country pass would do or more.
2)      If going for more than one country then try to choose neighboring countries like Switzerland, France and Italy for select pass.
3)      Decide how many days you will be travelling in one month period. Try to reduce these days by combining a few sightseeing destinations on a single day.
4)      For short journeys don’t waste full day of pass but by point to point ticket.
5)      Decide who all will be travelling together.
6)      Feed information on website and you will get rough price.
7)      Any recognized agent will give it to you for same price.

Q) What happens if I lose my pass ?
Ans) It is gone. It is like cash.

Q) What is rail planner App ?
A) It is an android and iphone app. You must load it before you travel.The Rail Planner App is a tool that allows you to look up train information, no matter where you are. It works offline and gives you quick access to departure and arrival times for European trains. The app can help you plan your trip in advance, but it can also be of great value when you're standing in a busy train station, trying to find your connecting train. Load it on your mobile before you go.

Q) What next ?
Ans) Start planning for a trip next summer !

Monday, September 1, 2014

Schengen Visas- What a pain !

The countries which come under Schengen member states

From the year 2009 to 2014 – my family and I have traveled to Europe each year. The Schengen member states require you to take a Schengen visa which allows you to travel to any of the Schengen member countries seamlessly. This is definitely a boon for a traveler as in earlier times one had to apply for visa for each country separately. There had been times when unsuspecting travelers were woken up in the middle of the night in a train and asked to pay a heavy penalty as they were passing through a country, the visa for which was not stamped on the passport.  The argument that they were not disembarking in that particular country did not work. This happened more in corrupt countries like Italy where the Police was in hand in gloves with the train conductor. The rule was that when you embarked on a train for travel to another country, it was compulsory for the passenger to deposit the passport with the conductor. The conductor would study the visas and inform the cops in the transit country. The cops would threaten imprisonment and heavy penalties and would extract a good bribe. Part of it was shared with the conductor. I know of many people who went through this torture and lost a good fortune by paying these bribes.

Recently at the Delhi Airport one Lufthansa employee was trying to act smart with us thinking we did not know the Schengen rules. Having travelled to the Schengen member countries like Italy, Greece, Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Spain, France, and Switzerland etc in last 5 years I do know the rules as well as anyone else. Visa is given by the country in which the time being spent is the maximum during that trip. If the time being spent is equal in terms of number of nights in two countries, then the country being visited earlier has to be applied for visa. Though the rules do say that you have to visit the country which has given you the visa, there is no way to verify this by any authority as the passport is just stamped by the country in which you land first. The immigration officers at arriving airports normally just check your return/forward tickets. They are within their rights to check if you are indeed going to the country which has issued you the visa so you should be prepared for this. But once inside Schengen area, you can move around from country to country without any further stamps on your passport. This does not mean that you can travel around without your passport. The passport is checked at many points even while you are travelling by bus or train.  
Now coming back to this fellow from Lufthansa – he wanted to know why we had visa from Czech Republic when we were going to Munich in Germany. Knowing the rules I told him that as my maximum number of days stay was in Prague, it was obligatory for me to take visa from Czech embassy. I showed him my bookings for Prague and transportation. He wanted to argue more but then I had to tell him to buzz off or else I would complain to his senior. Thankfully this sorted him out.

My way of carrying my travel document copies.
Most Schengen countries have outsourced the visa applications and processing to an organization called VFS which has its office in Nehru Place in New Delhi. They have some centers in other part of country as well.  VFS is divided into several sections depending on country you wish to apply your visa to. It is like an assembly line factory which processes your application according to certain parameters and according to the country you are visiting. The website gives a long list of documents required with the form. Some of the requirements are quite ridiculous.

A couple of years back some country had the requirement that the married couple give their marriage certificate. They asked for it even though my wife’s name was mentioned in my passport as spouse and so was hers in mine.  As we did not have a registered marriage certificate they asked us to give an affidavit with a current photograph in which we were together !
Another country’s requirement was that we must get a certificate from school that the children had taken leave from school to travel abroad. It made little difference to them when we said that all schools in Delhi are shut from 15th May to 30th June for summer vacations. They would not accept the application. Now a school can’t keep giving certificate to each child allowing them to travel during holidays. Luckily the school had a website and it also had a list of holidays. The embassy accepted that.
I think it was the Swiss embassy which wanted the photocopy of each passport page- even an empty page! God knows why they would want copies of empty pages or matter of fact any other page other than the first 2 and last 2. As we travel quite often, we make sure that we apply for jumbo passport booklets. A jumbo passport booklet comprises of 60 pages. Now we had to get these 240 pages photocopied to submit to the embassy. It must have all gone into a garbage bin. So much for saving paper and environment!

Travelling between countries is very simple with Eurail

There are some outrageous rules which the VFS have imposed. Many of us go to Europe to explore the continent. The world class transportation system makes travelling from one city to another or from one country to another a very simple affair. Euro Rail system combines several rail systems of several countries and ensures you have seamless travel. You have an option of buying single country pass or 2 country pass or even 3 or more country pass. The pricing is done according to days you intend to travel. Youths, groups, seniors and children are given special rates. It is fun to travel to one destination and then decide where you want to go next after looking at map and talking to people. You may feel you are travelling within one country but each European country and their culture, food and language is different. Lakhs of people got enamored by the Euro rail travel shown in ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya le jayengey’ and  took off for Europe soon after the movie was released. Many of them got a shock when they were told at the embassy that they wanted a complete itinerary along with internal train tickets and confirmed hotel bookings if they were to be given visas. I did once try to explain to VFS guy that I wanted to explore the continent so don’t actually need advance hotel bookings.  I told him that there are so many small Inns and hotels near beautiful lakes, mountains and rivers where I would  just love to spend a few days without actually planning anything in advance. He wasn’t impressed. He said that he could not give visas till the requirements are met. So we arranged for dummy hotel bookings.

The movie which made Europe travel trendy.

Normally a Schengen Visa is given for 3 months or 6 months. I don’t know what got into the Embassy of Spain in 2011 that they gave us Visa for the exact dates according to our Air tickets. They gave us visas for 17 days! I mean we would have been sunk if for some reason the flight would not have taken off on time on the day of departure from Spain. There are a lot of repercussions for overstaying in these countries. It was the same year I think when Iceland Volcano ash was delaying flights from Europe.
As if this wasn’t bad enough the immigration officer at Delhi was even funnier. Our flight was for 10th June night and our Visa for Schengen was valid from 11th June. He said that he could not allow us to go as the visa was valid from next day. I had to explain to him that visa was given by Spain and we would reach Spain on 11th June as it takes many hours to get there. He wasn’t satisfied with the reply and went to check with his supervisor. Thankfully the supervisor had more sense.

Validity of 3 months is not enough.

A family Visa for Schengen costs around Rs 20,000 (USD 350.00) for our family. We have been continuously applying for it and getting it for last 5 years. Along with it we have to submit heaps and heaps of papers. By the time you complete the documents for the entire family - application forms, specified photos, hotel bookings, transport bookings, Income Tax returns, salary certificate, leave from office certificate, leave from school certificate, savings proof, bank statements, authority letter, credit card copies, proof of previous visit to Schengen, passport copies travel insurance, cash/draft etc etc. you are exhausted and fed up. On some pretext or the other VFS does ask for some documents more so the application cannot be submitted in the first attempt. By the end of all this you are fed up.  As I have been doing it continuously since last 5 years – I am more fed up than others.

USA and Canada have given us visas for 10 years after following due process. Why can’t Schengen states do the same? If a person like me has a visa in hand – I would just fly off to one of their exotic locales whenever I get an opportunity. Sometimes airlines do come up with tempting offers. This rubbish paperwork and expense involved in just applying for visas may be stopping a lot of people like me from visiting many European countries. It is said that when Indians travel abroad they spend a lot of money. By preventing us Indians from easy access to their countries these European nations are doing themselves a great disservice. No wonder they are unable to come out of recession!

              We have always had fun in Europe but visas are a big pain

Gondolos of Venice

The Windmills of Mykonos, Greece

The Caldera of Santorini

The beaches of Barcelona and not to miss the architecture of Gaudi there

The stunning Alps

The beautiful lakes of Austria

The amazing city of Prague

The Art Museums
The elegance of Eiffel Tower
Bull fighting in Madrid
The dream city of Innsbruk, Austria
Rhine Falls, Switzerland
Prague at Night

The relaxing cafes of Paris