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 ( 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

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

New York - The fun city

New York Skyline


From One Square to Another

When you travel from the historic cities of Prague and Munich to the commercial capital of the World called the New York – the contrasts are stark.  In Prague we could delve in one historical building after another for many days. There was culture in every corner.  In New York, we were just checking which building had more length and which place had more lights! There were perhaps as many people in Old Town Square of Prague as they were in Times Square. While the Old Town square had those amazing architectural wonders in the shape of churches, houses and buildings – the Times Square was all gloss and glitter. At any given time of day or night it was full of action. Most of the people were just there so that they could be at Times Square. I mean they were not doing anything but sitting down on the famous steps and just looking around. Then they would look up as a larger than life attractive model advertising some clothing brand would almost like walk out from one the large hoardings on one of the tall buildings. Times Square never sleeps. All the 4 nights that we were in New York, we spent each evening at Times Square doing what others were doing – Nothing !

Experience the Broadway Musical- the less expensive way.

The Broadway. The Lion King is one of the most popular musicals.

Our hotel was near the Times Square. So this effectively meant that we had to cross Broadway to get to the square. Each day we would see the glittering hoardings advertising the Broadway musicals. We had seen a couple of them during the last visit but we were keen that the children get the experience of watching one. I did some research and zeroed in on ‘Pippin’ after deciding to eliminate ‘The Lion King.’  The prices of the musicals are pretty steep and some of the latest like ‘Book of Mormon’ were going for almost $ 350.00 each. I was told discounted tickets were sold in booking counters under the steps of Times Square. I also read that on Wednesdays many theatres had matinee show and discounted tickets would be available under the steps on the same morning. Very diligently I went and stood in a serpentine queue under the hot June New York Sun. Dear wife and children kept providing me with snacks and drinks. Many old people who stood in the line were flushed pink and it seemed that a couple of them would collapse due to heat. But they held on and moved with the line. I marveled at their enthusiasm. In about 75 minutes I came out victorious. I had 4 tickets of Pippin for the matinee show at 50% discount!

Popular Broadway shows need to be booked much in advance
The musical itself was nice and I think all four of us had fun. It was well produced and had good effects. We had good seats and I am happy that Children saw a Broadway musical. 

You will end up meeting a lot of people here just as we bumped into family members.


Understanding Manhattan

 It is easy to Navigate Manhattan. For those who have been there know that the city is built in grids and addresses are mentioned like ‘34th on the 7th’, which means 34th street on 7th Avenue. In between they have some names of avenues instead of numbers like 'Broadway' or 'Park Avenue.' Each of the avenues from the 5th to the 10th is a shopper’s paradise. All the big stores and designer names are in this area. You could get lost in a store like Macy's as it is pretty huge. At 'Forever 21', it seemed that merchandise was being given free the way crowds were shopping. Upmarket stores like Tiffany's have a huge presence here. A glass structure indicating 'Apple' store stands not very far from Central Park on 5th Avenue. They have a pretty large store but you have to take glass steps to underground. My son loved being there. People seem to be in a hurry in New York as they walk at a brisk pace.  The legs get tired walking as this is what you do most of the time. The neck gets tired if you keep raising your head to watch top of buildings.As you walk you pass restaurants, music shops, theatres, pubs and lot of colourful shops. They all are lit up at night and the music plays and hot dog vendors do brisk sale. There are a lot of places to visit and we would stop by at Rockfeller foundation or some other landmark like Trump Tower. Some great flower decoration was going on near Rockfellar foundation for the coming 4th of July Celebrations. We were not there long enough to be around 4th July or else we would have got great discounts on shopping. 
For the Art lovers, Museums are there and in nutshell one can say that you could do loads of things if you want to while in New York . The last time we were there we had taken the hop on and hop off bus which shows you most of the things. But otherwise the transportation is simple if you don't want to walk too much. You might be on 5th Avenue but the walk to Apple store from 20th street may take more than 40 minutes. Either you can take a Taxi or underground metro. We did both.
Taxis have a fixed fare from JFK Airport to Manhattan but we did get cheated when we arrived at New York. A fellow Indian whom I thought represented the Airport staff got us in a limousine instead of a normal cab and we ended up paying more than double the fare. Best would be to go to the cab queue and there would be no problem at all as most taxi guys were very decent.

The Story of Nightclubs

While at New York, it is imperative that you go to Nightclubs. My brother in law took us to a Pan Asian place called the Tao. It was full of action with a busy bar and a busier restaurant. It had a great d├ęcor and great crowd. Enjoyed the place very much.
A couple of days later we decided to celebrate our friend Sunil's birthday at the famous pub '230 on the 5th.' Sunil and Renu were also travelling at the same time and we had met up in New York at the fag end of our holiday. We were in for quite a shock when we were stopped at the gate and not allowed to go up. They refused to let us go to their lounge area as well. When we insisted, we were told that we would have to book a table by paying $ 200 which would include a wine bottle. What troubled us was that each and every person was allowed to go up other than us. It certainly seemed to be a case of racial profiling.
We finally managed to break this barrier and went up just to see what it was all about. We shouldn't have gone after the treatment that had been meted out to us but curiousity got better of us. It is just as well that we went up as our doubts got confirmed that this $200 deal was a big fib. There was one area which was for the reserved tables with wine but otherwise people could just buy their drinks and have fun.

Fun with Friends. The Empire State Building as a backdrop.
As we went up by a lift , the lift stopped at a high floor which had an indoor louge but it was the main terrace a flight of stairs up that was full of action with a couple of bars and loads of people. People were all over the huge terrace and the place was rocking. You could get a night view of the entire lower Manhatten. On the other side the brightly lit Empire state building towered magistically above you. We did have a couple of drinks there, observed the people and left soon after. This racial profiling business had left a bad taste in mouth.

Times Square does not sleep at nights and shops also are open till late at night. We ended up having dinner each night at quite a few places around the Square. Our friends Sunil and Renu enjoyed the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company experience very much as they had never eaten at this restaurant before. One day we had dinner at chinese Restaurant  'Nanking' which served us some nice Indian-Chinese the likes of which the Delhi based Nanking is famous for. One of the nights we went to Ruby Tuesday very late at night and were surprised to see full bar operational and the restaurant filled with guests. It had a nice atmosphere.The kids were highly recommended Max Brenner as their cousins described it as the best dessert place in the world. This was not at Times Square but it was a little away at Manhattan itself at Union Square. So, while we were pubbing the kids went to Max Brenner and had their food and desserts there. There are a couple of very famous dessert places in Manhattan. The kids were decent enough to get for me a plastic syringe full of chocolate from Max Brenner. The chocolate was injected into my mouth giving me a taste of what the kids must have eaten. They told me that the place was over crowded and very popular. They suggested that I see the menu on the net. I did see the menu on the Net after coming back to India and thanked god that I hadn't gone there. It had the most mouth-watering desserts and the pictures of what they had to offer was awesome. A sweet toothed guy like me would have eaten a load of the exotic desserts and then gone there on all the days we were there. This certainly would not have been good for the waist line.

Statue of Liberty

Hope the kids learnt something !

You cannot go to New York and not visit The Statue of Liberty. One of the hurricanes had caused some damage to the area last year so the trips to the island housing this mammoth structure had been shut for most part of last year. We hadn't pre-booked on internet so did not get the pedestial tickets which would have allowed us to go up to the pedestial of the statue but we didn't actually have any inclination of making any climb. The ticket windows were crowded but pretty organised so it didn't take too long to get the tickets. The security was pretty extensive and then one boarded a ferry for a trip to the island. On arrival we were given audio appliances with headphones and soon we were all fully versed with the entire history of Statue of Liberty.
They describe very well how it was made, what materials were used, how architects and sculptors worked on it, what thoughts went into making such a high pedestial, what issues cropped up while it was being transported from France to USA etc etc. Having read several books and watched many films about immigrants landing in USA in the past one could identify when the audio describes the happiness and hope that these immigrants felt when they saw the towering Statue of Liberty from their ships. For them it symbolised freedom !

Nice way to relax on a Ferry ride

Long Queue to get back to New York

When our ferry was docking at the island a few hours earlier, we saw the long queue of people waiting for us to get off so they could alight the ferry to get back to New York or New Jersy. We knew that soon we would also be in that queue.

The 9/11 Memorial

It is around a 20 minute walk from we disembarked from Ferry to the memorial. The twin towers stood tall when we last visited New York. So much has changed and so much has happened since then. They say America and American way of life has changed since that fateful day. The homage to hundreds of fire fighters who died on that day is poignantly done. It is a good tribute.

A tribute to fire fighters who perished when the twin towers collapsed

The water body paying tribute to all those killed on 9/11 is a very fine and very mature way of paying tribute.
It all looks very nice and peaceful. Well done New York City !

The homage to all those who perished on those attacks is beautifully done. 
When we had reached New York, we had wondered what we would do for 4 days. The 4 days had slipped by and we hadn't even done justice to the great lung of New York called the 'Central Park.' We had barely spent 30 minutes there and most of the evenings they have some concert or some show. We didn't see any. We didn't see any because we ran out of time ! People had suggested some place near Manhattan which had amusement park and fun things to do. I think we were having enough fun here walking the streets, window shopping and sitting at Times Square doing nothing !

Some images of Times Square

Times Square is all color, all action and is full of energy. As mentioned earlier you can spend a great deal of time just sitting around and doing nothing. Observing people is a good entertainment here. Some images : 

Rickshaws in Times Square, New York. Wow.

Good paint job.