Beyond the Veil: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a destination where none of us would travel for leisure. May be because it is perceived as the country with strict principles and imposed policies. To many of us, the country reminds only of oil wells, dates and filthy rich sheikhs with their 4-5 wives in Burqa but there is so much beyond that. Jeddah, the commercial capital of Saudi Arabia lies on the coast of Red Sea in Asia. The place is famous more so because it is the gateway for Muslim pilgrims to their holy place – Mecca and Medina.

My visit to Jeddah was to meet some business purpose, but I couldn’t resist myself from exploring the city’s culture beyond its deemed conservative and fundamentalist nature. It was a quick ride from King Abdulaziz International Airport to my Hotel Red Sea Palace, all thanks to the city’s broad smooth roads. The swanky cars on the roads could not to be missed!!

The city very much reflects as an Islamic country due to its architecture, the tall minarets around the tomb shaped mosques give it a very typical middle eastern facet.

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I was famished after my long flight and left my hotel to discover the city’s local dishes. You can’t miss the refreshing fruit juices that are available at every nook and corner. People love chicken here and you can relish it in the forms of Chicken Biryani and Fried Chicken.

I was stuffed and was set to explore further. Next, I made my way to Al-Balad district which is the shopping paradise. Now, don’t think cheap shopping is available only in the Southeast Asia. You can find anything from branded perfumes to cheap watches and from electrical devices to apparels. The most interesting part is the Souq area which can be accessed through a restored gateway right of the Queens Building.

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Next on my list was King’s Fountain, a 853 foot fountain that is reputed to be the tallest fountain in the world and looks splendid when illuminated at night.

Other point of interests include Jeddah Aquarium and Al Tayebat International City but unfortunately I missed as I was engaged in work. Being a Muslim I was under obligation to visit the beautiful city of Mecca and Medina. Mind you no other religion is allowed inside these twin cities, that makes it pretty much a Forbidden Cities.

Mecca – The Forbidden City

The holy city of Mecca has its own airport but Jeddah is only 85 Km and only takes 1 hour by car.  Mecca the birthplace of Muhammad and a pilgrimage to it known as the Hajj and is statutory for all physically able Muslims. Kaaba is described as Islam’s holiest site. Mecca Royal Clock Tower Hotel, the world’s third tallest building and the building with the largest amount of floor area. A friend told me that as the expansion of the Kabba is taking place the Saudi authorities will demolish the Mecca Royal Clock tower and build more floor with wider area of Kabba which shall accommodate more Muslims for the Hajj period. The expansion plans are taken care by the famous Bin Ladin group which is owned and managed by the famous Osama Bin Ladin’s family. 15 million Muslims visit Mecca annually, including several million during the few days of the Hajj.

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Medina

The holy city of Medina is only 400 km away from Jeddah and only takes 3.5 hour by car. The burial place of the Prophet Muhammad and is known it is the second holiest city in Islam after Mecca. It is the home to the three oldest mosques in Islam which were built in the days of Muhammad. The fascinating thing there was the gigantic umbrellas which are automatic and folds in the night time and opens in the day time.

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I am glad to take out some time from my busy schedule and explore these places.  Mecca and Medina made my visit complete and totally worth it.

Note: It’s a good idea to hire a car in the city. If you are not Muslim, you will not be allowed to enter the city of Mecca or Medina.

Author’s Bio

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Juned Sheikh can be best described as an ‘Explorer’. He keeps penchant for writing and believes it to be a necessity for rejuvenating the soul. Follow him @ juned11blog.wordpress.com.

Chronicle enroute Budapest

Ripped, mugged, robbed any such adjective could very well taint your holiday.  Regardless of your gender, one bitter experience during your trip leaves you with a firm notion about the country and its people. Though a bitter incident is must for a traveler like me who sees goodness in everything without a dash of skepticism in mind. These incidents not only teaches you but makes you strong and cautious for your further travels.

It was in October 2012 when I debuted my first solo trip to Eastern-Central Europe. Clustered with mixed feelings of excitement and anxiety I began my journey. My route was Prague-Krakow-Budapest-Vienna-Munich. It still excites me to think how I covered my journey. Thanks to social networking platforms such as couch surfing getting connected to other travelers and like -minded locales was quite a piece of cake. It wasn’t the first time that I was traveling alone far away from home but I still had inhibitions. To my surprise the journey started with awesome people in Prague and Krakow who really made my trip worth it. The gala time I had with them further strengthened my belief in goodness of the world. With the same faith I proceeded to my next destination – Budapest, I was brimming with excitement to experience this hippie city. I boarded the night train from Krakow to Budapest via Bratislava. I had booking in comfortable sleeper cabin where I took lower berth and placed by baggage beside me. In only couple of hours I was asleep. Suddenly at 5am I woke up with a jerk only to find my DSLR camera bag was missing with passport and wallet. The discovery rocked me so much that I froze and rubbed my eyes to try to search it again. When I realized it was actually missing I panicked that woke up other passengers in my cabin. I woke up the ticket checker who was in deep sleep himself and told him about the robbery. I was so desperate to find my bag that I didn’t wait for him to direct me but I ran through the corridor barefoot. In between I saw other opened wallets, few Chinese passports and an iPhone, but I was least bothered, I was only worried about my bag and my passport. I ran till the end of the corridor and found my bag lying fully opened without any camera and money but thankfully had my passport and debit cards.  I was not happy with the things I recovered but with what I lost. I was crying incessantly begging to get my camera back. Everybody around me kept giving me sympathy and somebody even told me Bratislava has a bad reputation for thefts and scams. Nonetheless, at the Budapest railway station I reported the incident at the police station to at least get the FIR report to claim my insurance. I was still crying though. Seeing me like that a police man even offered me a lift to my hostel.

Well it wasn’t over the worse was yet to come.

I reached my hostel only to find that entire hostel was empty. Yes I was the only occupant, imagine how depressed that made me. I waited for the hostel owner for more than an hour to check-in since he went out for lunch!! The hostel was good though and owner also calmed me down when I told him about the whole incident. The whole incident made me feel so low but didn’t mind to take a walk around the city and admiring the Danube bridge. By 7 pm I was so tired I went back to my hostel and slept. It was still empty so I locked my door to feel safe. I had to leave for Vienna the next morning so didn’t have much to unpack or pack. It was around 2 or 2.30am that I first heard the door bell but I was in such deep slumber I totally ignored it. But after continuous noise of it for at least an hour, I woke up and kept debating with myself if I should open the door. Door bell at 3 am is spooky..who would ring the bell of a hostel at such odd hour? A guest right. I mustered courage and went to open the door. A young guy in early 20s was standing at the door, who told me that he was staying in this hostel and was out partying. First I didn’t believe him but his looks caught me and I thought he may be genuine so I opened the door. He then asked me to give him the key of the main door because he had a friend or brother I don’t remember exactly who was waiting for him downstairs and he didn’t want to disturb me again but I was adamant. I said you may go and get your brother I will open the door for you again. In no time he returned with his brother who was bald and looked almost like a junkie. All the time both the guys kept asking me the key for the main door. It was then dawned upon me that they are not guests, they are thieves!!!. I strategically made my way to my room, locked it from inside and called the owner to ask if anybody else is booked here. Since it was still 3.30-4am he picked my call after so many trials and told me it’s only me who’s staying there. He asked me to keep everything locked he was bringing cops but it would still take him 20 mins. All the while I was making calls, both the guys were hitting my door to ask me to come out. I would be lying if for a sec I didn’t think that I’d be raped or dead. Though I discovered that in such difficult situations my mind works at its best. I asked the owner for emergency number but he was still in sleep so I googled it. I called helpline and told them the whole story fumblingly. I have bad memory for the names and addresses but for the first time I could remember the whole address of the hostel. I could still hear the bangs on the door. I deliberately started shouting “send police” loudly to let them hear that they can get in trouble. It was after 15-20 mins I again heard the door bell and got a call from the owner that it was him at the door with the cops but by that time the guys had fled away from the window. After giving the owners all the details about the incident and guys, the owner told me these guys have tried to break-in previously also when the guest was actually robbed by them. I didn’t know if to feel lucky or scared or angry that why didn’t the owner warn me of it prior. The owner was so embarrassed by the whole series of incidents that happened with me in his country that he kept apologizing even when it wasn’t his fault. That was the end of my worst 24 hours in a foreign land.

I detested Budapest and promised not to go there again. But sitting now, after almost 2 years I only regret of my lost pictures from Prague and Krakow but nothing else really. I still want to see that beautiful city and walk on the splendid Danube bridge.

I am proud of myself to deal with the situation so well. I learn t so much from it that now I have a checklist of my own to avoid any mishaps like these.

1. Dismantle your camera. Separate the parts-lens and memory card.So that you don’t lose everything.

2. Divide the money in different pockets of your luggage. Keep cards separately.

3. Of course lock your stuff but more than that if you are taking a night train always put the sling crossing your shoulders.

4. Keep SOS ready. Take down emergency numbers.

5. No harm in keeping money in grose but safe areas such as underpants with pockets.

 

Taken from my phone. The only memories that I have of the city.

Beautiful city of Budapest

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Crossing Danube bridge

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Top 4 eating places in Jodhpur

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The city of Jodhpur reflects blue if seen from altitude due to blue painted houses.  The city is known for its small lanes, authentic Rajasthani clothes specially bandhini (a.k.a. bandhej) and Rajasthani food.  You can’t miss Rajasthani food when you are in the city. It’s a feast.  Some very famous Rajasthani dishes are Dal Baati Churma, Ker Sangri, Gatte ki Sabzi, Kadhi, Pyaz Kachori, and the list goes on.

Since the city has a lot of restaurants you may easily get confused. Here is a list of my places where you can enjoy a good meal or time.

1. Gypsy Restaurant

As the name suggests the place is not at all gypsy. In fact it serves the best traditional Rajasthani Thali. Located in Sardarpura area of Jodhpur, the place is always brimming with foreigners and even locales. On any good day you may have to wait in a que to get a table but it is quick serving. The platter consists of mix of best 2-3 curries, 2-3 vegetables and sweets. You need to be really empty stomach before coming here as the meal is sumptuous to fill you for the day. The flavors just burst in your palette. You can even choose to order individual dishes from the menu rather the whole platter. But if you are in the city ou must try their platter as it offers authentic rajasthani cuisine at one place. Plus you can even ask for more, it is like a buffet where you are served at the table.

The mean costs around Rs.500 for two people which I think is quite rightly priced considering the quantity they offer.

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2. Panorma 360 view

Having a good meal and a view of magnificent Mehrangarh Fort, it can’t be nay better. Panorma 360 is a terrace restaurant on Hotel Inn Pal located near clock tower. The place can easily be located. Enjoy your meal on a breezy evening with great ambiance and view. You know I feel eating at such places really make your meal memorable. The place offers both vegetarian and non-vegetarian rajasthani cuisines. It’s a good place to try Rajasthan’s famous Lal maas (red meat).  I won’t say it has the best food but not bad at all. Certain dishes were good but some were bit spicy.

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3. Jhankar Choti Haveli

It’s a small cafe in Makarana Mohalla near Mehrangarh Fort. The place is good for snacks and spending good time in evening. You can bring your laptop, the cafe offers free wifi, plays good Indian music. Though I didn’t try main course there but just snacks, I would still go again to that place for its ambiance and backpacker crowd which gives you ample opportunity to indulge in good conversations and make friends for life. The place had a traditional Indian set up and thus gives you a lot to capture in your lens. The place is quite decent for pockets.

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4. Cafe Mehran

There are not many choices of eating joints in the premises of Mehrangarh Fort. One such cafe located in the fort is Cafe Mehran. I had heard a lot about the cafe and seeing the crowd there I was very enthusiastic about it. But unfortunately I think the place is a bit overrated in terms of food. Though the place is always buzzing, well it could be because it is better than the other cafes in the fort. The food it not bad but very ordinary. It’s a sort of fast food place where you can rest after your long walk around the fort and have a quick bite but nothing more than that.

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Getting to Jodhpur

Rajasthan is quite well connected by roads and railways.

There are few trains that goes direct to Jodhpur and even Jaisalmer. To name a few – Mandor Express, Del-Jsm Express, Rajasthan S Kranti etc. You can choose what suits your timing.

For comfortable travel you can book cabs from Delhi or Jaipur to Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.

 

 

Five memorable things to do in Philippines

Philippines is an amazing country not just because of its splendid beaches but because of its warm hospitality. I visited the country in November 2013 and totally fell in love with Filipinos. It is unbelieving that such a small county has so much to offer, from pristine beaches to beautiful colonial towns and from natural wonders to irresistible shopping in big city. I am sure the internet is full of “must visit” list in Philippines. Here are five of the things that I believe will etch  Philippines in your memory.

 

Scuba Dive to watch Balicasag Turtles

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This is was my first dive too!! Do not worry just take a dip and enjoy the serene sea life, walk on the sea bed and feel the fishes around you and if you get lucky you may even spot a magnificent Balicasag turtle.  This species of turtles are found only in Bohol which is the best place to experience sea life in Philippines.  You can easily book your dive with any of the diving centers at Bohol beach. The rates are competitive but fair but you need to make your choice wisely. There are no scams as such and are quite safe too.

Get photographed at picturesque Virgin Island

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Any ferry at Bohol beach will take you to this untouched, non-touristy white strip of sand in sea.  Let your feet feel the warmth of soft white sand on this beautiful piece of land amidst the mammoth sized sea. This place is heaven for photographers. Since it is not so deep around this island, you can enjoy wading in the sea. You can get yourself clicked with star fish in quirky poses and be embarrassed for life.

Eat, Drink and Dance with midgets

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The Hobbit House is one of its kind eating place located in Station 2 near D’mall in Boracay Island . Very easy to locate. The best thing about the place is that from furniture to its staff everything is dwarf, so eating there is quite a fun. The staff was  super friendly and served great cocktails. Well I can only comment on the vegetarian Italian food which I found was pretty decent and priced on par with other restaurants in the vicinity.

Get drunk and famous in Boracay

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Boracay is famous for it nightlife. Although there are umpteen places to get drunk on the island, one such place where you can try your hands to get famous is Cocomangas. Located in station 1, the club is famous for its upbeat music and gimmick “Still standing after 15”. If you are still standing after 15 shots of different liquor and spirit, you get a number for your country, you win a t-shirt with Cocomangas written on it and your name gets engraved on the club’s Hall of Fame!.  The other cool places in Boracay where party never ends are – Summer Place, Juice Bar, Epic, Area 51 etc.  You can never get tired of getting sloshed at Boracay.

Get dirty in Burgos street in Makati

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P. Burgos street is the prime red light area of Makati city. The street is strategically located near all posh hotels. It is a long street with dazzling neon hoardings that say dirty names, expats, half naked girls and lady-boys.  You can enjoy a drink at Cafe Cubana which is a decent pub with live band. The street has a very lively feeling.

There are a lot many things that I couldn’t do in Philippines which is definitely a reason to visit it again.

Wild Ranthambore

Last weekend I took a trip to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. It is about 5-6 hour  away from New Delhi. As soon as I stepped in my resort I was welcomed by majestic Rajasthani hospitality.

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And then the day came when I took the safari to see the majesty of the forest. And look what I spot first …

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A stag..and he crossed the road in front of us, its whole movement was captured. For more pics look at my other blogpost here.

We also got to spot spotted deers and lots of them.

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We were taken to a spot where there were a lot of peacocks who were friendly not shying away from visitors. And how charismatic it is..

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There was this whole lake blanketed with red algae..We got to see some other birds there and a crocodile which was too far to spot. Some didn’t even believe if it was a real one. It looked real to me but I have my own doubts.

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Although it was a tiger reserve the only thing we didn’t get to spot was a tiger. Pretty disappointed I was. I also wore my leopard print pants, I was that excited. But after that I got to know it is a 10% probability to see a tiger here. The guide told me that the Wildlife enthusiasts take about 50 trips to and fro to see one Indian tiger, well I was just unfortunate. But I really enjoyed the jungle safari although the bumpy ride really strained my back.

After I got back home I googled more on if they are even any tigers there in this reserve or is it just a gimmick. I found out something interesting story about a tigress of this forest.  Read about her story here.

Unexplored journey – Lansdowne

Not all journeys are successful. This doesn’t mean the others which are not successful are failures but sometimes they leave a story behind which you wouldn’t mind telling to people again and again.

So this was back in 2010 December.  My father has always been very spontaneous on travel. It’s a record that he has never booked a hotel room well in advance and his idea  behind this is in India you can always find a place to crash for a night and if you don’t, you always have your car.  It was around New Year holiday when at a prompt, my family decided to celebrate New Year’s eve at some hill station. It was still 31st morning and we all started packing not sure of destination. My dad while packing kept asking me to Google any place within 300 kms from Delhi. After a lot of  yes and no we finally pinned down Lansdowne.  My family had never heard of this place before and they were bit skeptical at first but since it was 250 km from Delhi and bit unexplored they got convinced.  Like a adventurous family we packed everything in our SUV and left for Lansdowne.  Lansdowne is a very small hill station in the state of Uttarakhand in India.  It is a relatively a less touristy place.

It was very unfortunate that in a very less time of our journey we got stuck in traffic for almost 4-5 hours.  For once my parents gave up and suggested to return back home since it was winters and Lansdowne being a hill station is prone to thick fog which could hinder our drive.  But like an obstinate traveler I insisted to carry forward and so we did. As expected by the time we reach the hill slopes the fog blanketed the road and we all were at the edge of our seats. While in ascended towards the destination I observed Lansdowne is located on a very steep hill, so driving here is not easy especially in night. Additionally it is not a very touristy destination back then in 2010, now it has, so the roads were not well maintained and there were no street lights to top it all. We were driving in a secluded rocky terrain, steep slope, thick fog, and adding to the difficulty there was also unfenced deep trench , I don’t know if there was a  water body running below or pointed stones as it was pitch dark. As a family we were happy that we were together that if something happened tonight it would be to all of us. Needless to say it was a high point of anxiety and fear to my mother, she started a series of endless chanting and prayers that we reach safely to the town. This high tensed drama went on for atleast 5 hours. I won’t lie but the thought that why didn’t I stay back at home came to my mind but I did not let it out rather I had put a brave face and was showing how fun this journey is.  

But after brave driving by my father we reached to the point when we saw first Motel but the town was still 1 km away.  The Motel was having its New Years Party with all it guest enjoying.  We were  pretty excite seeing people after 5 hours so we halted there for a while and did general inquiry about the place.  There we got to know that the further road to the town is blocked due to a landslide !!! It was such a devastating news to us. After such a hard driven journey, all we got was an unexplored destination. We were still curious so went further to see if we can drive through the landslide but we saw a bus stuck half in the trench which of course freaked my mom and she commanded everyone to not to even think of doing any stunts but to take a room at a Motel we first saw. So we didn’t further proceeded towards the town. Alas!!!.

 We were being followed by the bad fate that Motel was full and there was no other Motel in that area so here we were out in the cold without any roof just the car and four of us. We had dinner at the Motel and James Bond decided to leave back to home that very night. After a lot of confrontations we decided to go back to home and it was still midnight. We had to face that scary ride again in one night. But thankfully descending down was not that scary than before. We reached the foothills but the fog was still thick. While my brother and dad were taking turns on driving I was having my goodnight sleep. I would only wake up when I would hear that they lost the way and took the wrong turn and reached to dead ends. I remember my brother also asked a way from a man who guided us in detail but later we realized he was a thief!!! and was trying to steal a car.  In sometime we reached the outskirts of Delhi and watched the sunrise. 

This was one failure trip when we couldn’t reach to the destination but this whole journey has left a deep impression in my memories which I think I’ll always pass as strange stories from my travel.  I do plan to go to Lansdowne again sometime but may be sometime in summers so that I can see what was below in the trenches.

I have no pictures from this trip but I still want to put some from Google so that readers can relate and imagine the whole journey I had been though.

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Shakespearience

“Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”

William Shakespeare

How wonderful these lines are and so was the one who wrote those – William Shakespeare.  I am very sure anybody who has read his works, at some point of time, must have fallen in awe of his words. It will be a fatal loss if you are in England and not visit the birthplace of Shakespeare – Startford-upon-Avon.

It was end of Autumn in 2009 when I was still studying there. Some of my friends planned a trip to Scotland which excited me but the whole thought of snow and shivers stopped me from going. I decided not to go. Who thought that decision of saying no to a trip, would take me to Shakespeare’s home. I and 3 of my friends decided to visit Startford-upon-Avon. This is a very small cute little town and was just 35 kms away from Birmingham where I was based.

Reaching there is an easy task, you can easily book train tickets online. I think it took us not more than an hour or half to reach there. You wouldn’t even realize the travel time as you will be so consumed enjoying the countryside landscape.  As soon as you’ll board off the train you will be welcomed by a happy town. Being from India such small towns really enchant me.  You can literally walk around the whole town. We were eager to see Shakespeare’s writing table and hence we bought the packaged tickets that covered Shakespeare’s birthplace, Nash’s house and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. You can also avail student discount on the tickets. I think a pass to 4 houses would cost may be around 18£ and a pass for 5 houses would be around 22£.  We were told these properties are now managed by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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Shakespeare’s home is very well maintained. Below you can see his bedroom and his kitchen.

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Nash House and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage are quite close to Shakespeare’s home. One can enjoy the lush gardens those surrounds these homes.

The other interesting place to visit is Holy Trinity Church. It is the place where Shakespeare is buried.

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While walking around the church we discovered this magnificent view.

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After Shakespeare, take a walk around the town you will be amazed to see the houses and small shops in the area. I was just caught by this Door 🙂

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To the memories,

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A Beginning.

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A travel blog was what I have always been wanting to start but being an amateur traveler was a major deterrent. Then I realize, I may not have a collection of HD photographs like other bloggers I follow but I do have my experiences and tips that I can help people with. This blog is therefore all about my experiences in places I have been to or will be going to too soon.

I don’t think there is any being on this planet who hates exploring new places and if there is  feel sorry for them. Although I was always aware of the nomadic instinct within me but it only became full fledged once I moved to UK in 2009 for my Master’s and since then I have only looked for opportunities to sneak away to explore some more. Exploring is a expensive passion, not anybody or everybody can afford.I won’t say I am a full-time traveller who scout for travel competitions to win free stay or tickets rather I have a full-time corporate job. Needless to say I save only little since all my money goes in yet another journey.

Advanced civilization comes with various protocols. As much as I love to travel, these ruthless visa formalities slows down the whole process. I would be happy to help with visa queries for the countries I have been to (obviously only for Indian nationals). 

Through my blog posts I want to recreate the events happened with me and how the place played a role in making it better or worse.

Cheers