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what to see in Alwar

Alwar- Rajasthan’s Hidden Jewel

Rajasthan is a beautiful state north-west of India. With a vibrant culture and varying landscapes, it remains one of my favorite destinations. Within the geographically large state, a number of cities have become famous tourist attractions. From the historical city of Jaipur to Udaipur- the lake city, to Pushkar’s camel festival and Jodhpur, India’s ‘Blue City’, Rajasthan is full of adventure.

Yet, one of my favorite cities- Alwar is seldom mentioned within the list of must-visits when it comes to Rajasthan tourism. Truth be told, this is not much of a surprise. Alwar’s relatively small size and less accessible location have made itself invisible to avid tourism. However, the beauty of Alwar is not just with its buzzing markets and magnificent town, but also with its historical groupings and peaceful atmosphere. Just outside the relatively busy streets, sits its city palace.

City Palace

The city palace is made up of a grand structure and a massive courtyard. There were little people aside from a group of enthusiastic sportsmen, which gave my friend and me ample reason to maneuver around the space and photograph its exquisite architectural designs.

After admiring the palace for some time, we went up a flight of stairs that led to the most grandiose setting. It looked like a movie set-up. A single hill served as a backdrop to an emerald green man-made pond. Mid-pond sat a gazebo with a faded, rounded roof and a coral-tainted body. While there was a walkway leading towards it, a curator later called us to step off the path due to the chemicals in the water. On the right, similar structures sat atop the waters while on the left, there was a tiny collection of houses that dotted the already spectacular scene.

Moosi Maharani Ki Chhatri

City Palace in Alwar on a sunny day

Behind us, sat Moosi Maharani Ki Chhatri, a cenotaph that exemplifies Rajput architecture. It is a two-story structure made of red sandstone, with white marble pillars at its base. Fine, inlaid Rajasthan craftsmanship can be found on the ceilings inside the historical palace. Steps away from the terrace, there is a beautiful view of the city and hills surrounding the Palace. As a largely forgotten historical site, it has become a setting for locals to pass time or seek peace.

Getting to Alwar was not an easy task. While my friend and I followed the route recommended by GPS- a single 3-hour journey just north-west of New Delhi, we ended up taking 9 hours to get into the city. For those who’ve experienced Delhi’s traffic, driving out of India’s capital can be a complete nightmare. It’s often a miracle if I don’t spend at least twice to thrice the amount of travel time as suggested by Google. There are so many variables to be aware of when driving in India; I know for a fact that those who survive here will have the capability to drive anywhere.

I know for a fact that those who survive here will have the capability to drive anywhere.

For instance, I love riding tuk-tuks. But driving amongst them is definitely a challenge. Most tuk-tuk drivers have experienced professionals that put any moving being to shame. The way they move inches away from each other often scare the living crap out of me. Sometimes, cows and other creatures will squat mid-street. Due to its religious significance and ethical sentiments, it is better to leave cows unattended than to usher them away from blocking traffic.

Let’s be honest here- even the most precise GPS can’t accurately display the streets and alleyways in India, which leads to lots of confusion when trying to navigate unknown roads that can branch off into 3 different destinations. The only way to combat this, I found, was getting help from locals.

There were several checkpoints that led us to the city space. The night streets were still crowded with people when we finally arrived. Instead of stopping, we drove around for a bit more until we came across a plaza with several hotels. A great tip for getting cheap rates in a foreign city is to ask every hotel how much they charge. Seeing clients having a number of choices, these guest houses will greatly lower their prices to compete for the guest.

Ghanta Ghar clock Tower

Our trip lasted for two days and we saw most of the city. Pictures speak a thousand words.

Personally, Alwar will definitely remain on my short, but handy list of must-revisits 🙂 Want to see where else to travel in India? Check out some of my favorites here.

Best weekend trips from Delhi

12 Incredible Weekend Trips from Delhi

As the capital of India, New Delhi was strategically situated at the center of numerous empires and kingdoms. Consequently, the metropolis is filled with countless historical monuments. However, modern Delhi’s urban layout is vastly different from that of its pre-developed, nature-dominated cityscape. After living there for four months, I quickly realized that the municipality’s endless hustle was more than I could bear. Luckily, New Delhi sits at a crossroad leading to a diverse range of city life and natural habitat. With India’s remarkable history and vibrant culture, there are many affordable and accessible weekend getaways worth a visit.

Below are my favorites, in order of distance.

1. Alwar, Rajasthan (3 hours)

2. Agra, Uttar Pradesh (3.50 hours)

3. Virandavan and Mathura, Uttar Pradesh (3 hours)

4. Haridwar and Rishikesh, Uttarakhand (5 hours)

5. Jaipur, “Pink City” Rajasthan (5 hours)

6. Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh (5-6 hours)

7. Amritsar, Punjab (5-6 hours)

8. Nainital, Uttarakhand (6 hours)

9. Jodhpur “Blue City”, Rajasthan (10 hours)

10. Chopta, Uttarakhand (10 hours)

11. Udaipur “Venice of the East”, Rajasthan (10-11 hours)

12.Pandukholi in Dunagiri, Uttarakhand (10-11 hours)


1. Alwar, Rajasthan (3 hours)

With its beautiful lakes and stunning scenery, Rajasthan is one of my favorite states in North India. Within this vibrant region, Alwar places top on my to-do list. Unlike the tourist-heavens of Udaipur and Jodhpur, the city is a hidden gem that sits between Jaipur and Delhi. In fact, the drive can be as short as 3-4 hours if traffic permits.

Of course, this didn’t happen to us. After renting a car with a friend, we took on a ride that ended up being 8 hours- mostly due to our inability to navigate through the confusing streets of India. It was completely worth it though. While the city was quite typical in its small-town vibe, there were loads of hidden beauties just outside its gates.


2. Agra, Uttar Pradesh (3.50 hours)

It would be a sin to forgo Agra in this post. The city is home to one of the most distinctive architectural designs in India-the Taj Mahal. As a new Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan for Mumtaz Mahal as a symbol of ‘undying love’.

With the Yamuna Expressway, the city is a 3-hour drive from Delhi. Since we went on a gloomy weekday mid the monsoon season, the Taj barely had any tourists. At 1000 rupees ($15.5), the entrance fee for the tomb had increased drastically in the past months. The comparably pricey admission was well worth it- the Taj was absolutely breathtaking. Its pearl white walls sit somberly against the marble floor, which is overlooked by three red outlying buildings.


3. Virandavan and Mathura, Uttar Pradesh (3 hours)

Both known as religious havens, these two cities are a half-hour drive from one another. Virandavan has long been linked to Hindu history and mythology, mostly associated with Lord Krishna’s transcendent pastimes. There are many temples celebrating the Hindu god by both Indians and foreigners alike.

Located 11 km away, Mathura is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna. The city was noted as the center of Buddhism by Faxian, a Chinese monk who journeyed from China to India by foot. His successor Xuanzang, from Xi’an, also stops at Mathura mid his pilgrimage.

During Krishna Janmashtami, the two districts are crowded by Krishna worshippers. Even on a regular weekday, temples such as Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi are packed by followers who wish to close ties with the Hindu god.


4. Haridwar and Rishikesh, Uttarakhand (5 hours)

As with Virandavan and Mathura, Haridwar and Rishikesh are only 30 minutes apart. Tucked away in the Himalayan foothills, Haridwar and Rishikesh are nature havens. Due to their religious significance, the two municipalities are termed “Twin National Heritage Cities” by Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma in 2015.

The Ganges River flows through Haridwar, one of the Sapta Puri (seven holy pilgrimage centers) in India.  Legend has it that Haridwar is associated with a number of Hindu gods, including Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Its religious relevance is exhibited with numerous ancient temples and sacred sanctuaries dotting the area.

As with Haridwar, Rishikesh, the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ attracts an innumerable amount of people from around the world. Noted as one of the holiest places in Hinduism.  The city strictly prohibits non-vegetarian meals, alcohol and is a peaceful site with milky blue water reflecting the borderless sky and endless mountain ranges.


5. Jaipur, “Pink City” Rajasthan (5 hours)

This beautiful municipal is a couple hours away from Delhi. Sitting at the edge of Rajasthan, Jaipur is known as the Pink City of India. Founded in 1726, it quickly became the capital of the region under Jai Singh II to accommodate the growing population.

Jaipur reminds me of a modern Delhi. While streets are still busy and roads remain crowded, the city is much more organized. We actually saw most attractions within two days without having to wait for hours in traffic jams. It has some beautiful historical monuments including Jal Mahal, Amer Fort, Hawa Mahal and various palaces and fortifications. There are also villages that display traditional cuisine, dance, and rides.


6. Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh (5-6 hours)

Located 300 kilometers away from Delhi in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Gwalior is home to a number of historical sites and monuments. While it is rich in art and literature, the city remains relatively hidden when compared to metropolitans like Bombay and New Delhi.

Madhya Pradesh is known for housing the Khajuraho Group of Monuments, temples with erotic sculptures and nagara-style architectural symbolism. As one of its biggest cities, Gwalior has multiply said temples and hidden mountain-carvings. However, it also houses a diverse range of Mongol and Chinese-influenced architectural designs worth noting.


7. Amritsar, Punjab (5-6 hours)

As a state, Punjab was divided along religious lines by British India into West and East Punjab. During the partition process, millions of Muslims moved from India to West Pakistan while Hindus and Sikhs moved from the latter to the former.  Amritsar sits north-west of Delhi, 28 kilometers from the Pakistani border. It is best known and regularly visited for the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara in Sikhism.

Having lived in a Gurdwara in Gwalior, I’ve come to appreciate the generosity as demonstrated by the Sikh community. Aside from the peace and humility offered by the pilgrimage site, the grandiose architectural design of the Golden Temple is itself worth a weekend trip.


8. Nainital, Uttarakhand (6 hours)

A popular hill station, Nainital is situated in the historical state of Uttarakhand. Known as Devbhum or, “Land of the Gods”, Uttarakhand is a state known for its emerald green mountains and azure blue lakes. It is composed of numerous hill stations-high elevation towns, within its mountain ranges.

Held to be one of the best treasures of the Himalayan Belt, Nainital is one of the most popular tourist havens away from Delhi. Famous for its Naini Lake and various lookout points, Nainital is definitely worth a trip away from the city.


9. Jodhpur “Blue City”, Rajasthan (10 hours)

Jodhpur reminds me of Chefchaouen, Morocco’s renowned ‘Blue City’. As with the old city in Chefchaouen, many houses in Jodhpur’s old town are decorated with varying blue tones. Located in one of my favorite and most vibrant states- Rajasthan, the city also serves as a key base to the Indian Air Force, Border Security Force, and the Indian Army.


10. Chopta, Uttarakhand (10 hours)

As Chopta is comparably more difficult to access, it’s more of a local’s hidden gem. While the distance between Chopta and Delhi is roughly 10 hours by car, the unpredictable mountain roads and subsequent hike may result in a much longer journey. With a motorcycle, we arrived at a village leading to the Chandrashila Peak in two days. After dropping the bike off at a nearby shop, we took on the exhausting, yet breathtaking hike towards the peak.

4,000 meters above sea-level, the trek offered a panoramic view of the Himalaya ranges. It lasted about 3-4 hours, passing camping grounds, donkeys, paved roads, and rocky hills.

Following the trek, there are less than a dozen guest houses and modest shops that offer refuge to those who wish to stay. The summit is also home to Tungnath, the highest Shiva temple in the world. However, the view doesn’t end here. After reaching the summit, there is another 30-minute hike to the peak of the mountaintop. The tranquil site provides an endless, glorious view of the Himalayan ranges.


11. Udaipur “Venice of the East”, Rajasthan (10-11 hours)

Located in the same state as that of Alwar, Jaipur, and Jodhpur, Udaipur is known for its historic forts and innumerable lakes. As opposed to its desert-dominate neighboring cities, Udaipur is mainly composed of water and greenery that decorates a series of beautiful palaces and ancient temples.


12.Pandukholi in Dunagiri, Uttarakhand (10-11 hours)

A historical region in Uttarakhand, Dunagiri is composed of several villages in the District of Almora. Despite being well known for the temple of Shakti, my friend insisted on a hidden gem that overlooked the peaks of the Himalayas.

Pandukholi, an Ashram sitting quietly by the cliffs is a 3-hour hike from Dunagiri. The site was incredibly peaceful. With only a handful of people on the property, it remained silent for the majority of our stay. Despite the weather being incredibly foggy, the Ashram was just as grand as it would be with a clear, blue sky. Of course, the latter would provide a visible view of the snow-peaked Himalayas that sits an arm’s reach away.

A foggy day in Pandukholi, an ashram, Dwarahat, India


Final Thoughts

India is a beautiful country full of vibrant cultures and diverse eco-systems. While Delhi is its capital, the metropolis may be quite overwhelming at times. Fear not. With these accessible and affordable options, a weekend getaway should definitely become a regular program.

What are some of your favorite get-aways in the region?

Himalayan mountain peak during a beautiful sunrise, Chopta, Uttrakhand, India

Best Views of the Himalayas

The Himalayas is one of the few experiences that have stayed with me throughout my peculiar ventures abroad. The eminent mountain ranges offer ample refuge for those hoping to disconnect from the chaos of everyday life. Having lived in Delhi for four months, Uttarakhand became my go-to get away from the craziness of city living.

While Uttarakhand offers an amazing view of the Himalayas, it is not the only place to do so. Extending over five countries- India, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Pakistan, its magnificent hills and valleys can be seen from a number of locations:

Chopta, Uttarakhand, India

Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Kashmir, India

Everest Basecamp, Tibet

Sarangkot, Nepal

Fairy Meadows, Pakistan


Chopta, Uttarakhand, India

Chopta is a small region in the Uttarakhand state. Its scenic view is nothing like that offered by Delhi. From vast green spaces and bright blue skies, the district was absolutely breathtaking. On the fourth day of our trip into Chopta, we arrived at a village leading to the Chandrashila Peak. After dropping our bike off at a nearby shop, we took on an exhausting, yet breathtaking hike towards the peak.

4,000 meters above sea-level, the trek offered a panoramic view of the Himalaya ranges. It lasted about 3-4 hours, passing camping grounds, donkeys, paved roads, and rocky hills.

Trek up Chopta, Inida, with the Himalayas in the background

Chopta houses one of the highest Shiva temples in the world. After participating in a small meditation session, we went to bed. At 4 in the morning, my friend woke me up in the bone-shattering cold to hike the last mile onto the peak of the mountain.

Get up beyond my borderWe felt the sun before seeing its pink hues. There was an utter calmness that extended across the entire Himalayan ranges. No birds, no wind- complete silence.

Then, the sky began brightening up. With it, the snow-covered peaks became increasingly visible.

Beams of sun rays started reflecting off the summit, projecting an expanding warm orange tone an arm’s reach away.

It was utterly magnificent.


Annapurna Circuit, Nepal

Tasha Amy from Backpackers Wanderlust

At the edge overlooking Lower Base Camp provides one of the best-unobstructed views along the Annapurna Circuit of the Himalayas. Over the past eleven days from when I originally began the circuit, I have battled a twisted ankle, numerous bouts of Delhi belly and muscle pain where I did not know muscles even existed. Even though I am shivering from the temperature sitting around freezing, the peacefulness and sense of accomplishment cannot be mistaken. Apart from the jingle of horse bells in the distance and the wind howling, it is completely silent, I am on top of the world. I have hiked up to around 4900 m, trekking at an altitude higher than most other people will ever experience, and I will be climbing an extra 600 meters tomorrow. This is where the highest trekking pass in the world awaits and where the oxygen levels are half that of sea level.

From arriving at high camp this lookout point is a twenty-minute climb up a steep ridge with loose rocks. A walking stick is necessary to keep balance, otherwise, it would be a painful slide to the bottom. The area is decorated with precariously perched cairns, somehow still standing strong throughout the ever-changing weather.

Hiking the Annapurna Circuit is no doubt the hardest thing I have ever done. It tested me both physically and mentally while putting immense strain on my relationship with my trekking partner and boyfriend (though I know I would not be able to do this without him). Though, having a comfortable bed to sleep in every night thanks to the wonderful locals who run the teahouses and the great hospitality received makes you fall asleep with a smile every night.

Tasha Amy is the creator of Backpackers Wanderlust which focuses on budget travel and backpacking the world. Based in New Zealand she holds down a 9-5 job while making the most of every opportunity to get out and explore our beautiful planet on the cheap. You can follow Tasha Amy’s adventures on her Instagram or Facebook.


Kashmir, India

Vanessa from Wanders Miles

Trekking in Kashmir far exceeded my expectations. Following a night on a houseboat on Nigeen Lake in Srinagar we headed to the Tosa Maidan in the Bugdam district of Jammu & Kashmir nestled in the Himalayas.

We ascended through steep dense forest accompanied by local girls going to chop wood. The landscape opened out to what resembled a lush green carpet, the views through the clouds were tremendous. Watching the sun go down at our first base camp at 3200 m was magical, the sky lit up with an orange glow against the Haramukh Mountain, Kolahoi Peak and the Nun Kun Peaks as a backdrop. By now, I was far too excited to see what delightful scenes we were going to wake up to.

Moving into higher altitude to our next base camp at 4000 m, the snow-capped mountains became more visible and the serene surroundings were devoid of people apart from us and the shepherds with their flock. Low hanging clouds and rocky boulders made the spectacular views more special of GaadtarSar, BoardSar, and PamSar alpine lakes. We camped next to a river which flowed from the alpine lakes where our guides fished for trout for our dinner after a long day trekking.

One evening the sky lit up with almighty thunder which cracked behind the mountains, fortunately not by our tents, but it did make for a pretty dramatic sky. Luckily, this was the only adverse weather conditions we had over the 5 days, our trip was full of sunshine and jaw-dropping views. This piece of Himalayan heaven in Kashmir totally took my breath away.  

Vanessa is a UK travel blogger and digital marketer based in Dubai and the creator of Wanders Miles. The blog is all about trekking and adventures off the beaten track. Having visited nearly 40 countries across 6 continents, the hope is to inspire travelers to discover the beautiful world we live in. Follow her travels on her Instagram or Facebook!


Everest Basecamp, Tibet

Naomi from Probe around the Globe 

After a few days exploring the capital of Tibet, Lhasa, I was exploring my options for my onward journey. Soon I settled for a tour along the Friendship Highway, from Tibet to Nepal. We traveled by a 4×4 vehicle and I joined a tour with 3 new friends. One of the stops on our week-long journey through Tibet was a night at Everest Basecamp.

We drove for days on the Friendship Highway. Finally, it was time to enter deep into the Himalayas and we’d sleep at Everest Basecamp. After a million switchbacks, we finally pulled up to a small camp. We made it!

We would spend the night at the base of Everest Basecamp. I was super excited. Quickly, we gathered some stuff and set out to go to the actual base camp. The hike was grueling. I was absolutely not fit enough to walk like this at 4,800 meters. I struggled up a tiny hill but threw my hands in the air as if I just summited the peak of Everest. Prayer flags were flapping loudly in the never-ending wind, clouds drifted in front of the peak but quickly disappeared. It was a sight I’ll never forget!

Naomi is a train enthusiastic travel blogger from the Netherlands who went on her first cross-continental train journey to Tibet. She has a long-lost love for Roman history, orders anything on the menu as long as it has cheese in it and suffers from self-proclaimed travel planning OCD. Read more about her adventures in Tibet and follow her adventures on Facebook and Instagram


Sarangkot, Nepal

Lola from Miss Filatelista 

I suffer from asthma which gives me major limitations when it comes to hiking and reaching extreme heights. I do everything I can to not let this stop me from enjoying incredible views as I absolutely love to hike and explore nature while traveling.

When I was in Nepal, seeing the Himalayas became my top priority. After arriving in Pokhara, my boyfriend immediately set off to do the 3-day Poon Hill trek which is more than 3,000 meters. I didn’t want to risk getting sick and ruin his experience so I decided to stay back in Pokhara. Luckily, the lake town offers several smaller surrounding hills that are fairly easy treks, around 1,500 meters.

The best view from my trekking experience was from the Japanese Peace Pagoda. However, the most spectacular view I have had of the Himalayas is luckily also one of the most accessible. Near Pokhara, Nepal, there is a mountain that is accessible by road, called Sarangkot. It is also possible to trek to the top of Sarangkot as there are many trails to the summit. On our last morning, once my boyfriend rejoined me after his Poon Hill adventure, we woke up at 4 AM to catch a taxi to the top of Sarangkot for sunrise. We made it to the top of the mountain just as the sun was beginning to rise behind the massive Himalayan hills. The tallest peaks were capped with snow and as the sun rose it began to reflect vibrant hues of pink on the mountains which was a mystical feat to witness. As the sun rose further light began to flood the Pokhara valley below and shine down on the morning mist that was hovering above the town. This was my favorite Himalayan view as it is such a beautiful experience that even non-trekkers, like myself, can thoroughly enjoy.

Lola Méndez is a full-time traveler sharing her adventures on Miss Filatelista as she adds to her collection of passport stamps.She travels to develop her own worldview and has explored 52 countries. Passionate about sustainable travel she seeks out ethical experiences that benefit local communities. You can follow her travels on Instagram and Twitter.


Fairy Meadows, Pakistan

Ali from Pakistan Explored

The highest of the Himalayas scrape the sky and are cold, rocky, and barren. Not the most comfortable places to sit and admire the mountains.

If you want to get your fill of Himalayan mountains without trekking through extreme climates, a place called Fairy Meadows in northern Pakistan is the perfect happy medium. The idyllic, grassy meadows sit amongst a thick alpine forest close to the base of Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain in the world. Reaching the meadows involves a long drive along one of the most perilous jeep tracks in the world, followed by several hours of uphill trekking to a small village clocking in at about 3,300 meters/10,800 feet above sea level. It’s a relatively short if tiring trek, but rest assured that the views from the meadows are worth it in every direction.

Whether you’re camping out or sleeping in one of the handfuls of small cabins situated in the idyllic little hamlet, you’ll be perfectly situated to admire the surrounding Himalayas at any time of day. You can catch the sun’s first golden rays as they hit the snowy peaks of Nanga Parbat from the comfort of your cabin, or trek past icy glaciers to the Nanga Parbat base camp for better views of the surrounding mountains.

Given its mountainous location, Fairy Meadows is too cold and snowy to visit for much of the year, so you’ll need to plan your trip accordingly. If admiring the Himalayas from a patch of alpine paradise sounds appealing to you, aim to visit Fairy Meadows sometime between late April and early October, and ideally outside of the high tourist season runs from June to August. Bring warm clothes, a camera, and high spirits, and your trip is guaranteed to be one you won’t soon forget.

Ali is a person afflicted with perpetually itchy feet and a need to be outside as often as possible. He grew up in the United States before returning to his motherland of Pakistan to explore more of the beautiful country. Follow him on Facebook for travel tales. 


Of course, extraordinary views of the Himalayas are not limited to those mentioned above. The mountain ranges expand across multiple countries and differ with local practice. But without a doubt, my bucket list is again filled with many more Himalayan-centered journeys.

May we cross paths while happily stranded in Kashmir, India or Fairy Meadows in Pakistan. Or better yet, while we trek the Annapurna Circuit, Sarangkot, in Nepal, or the Everest Basecamp in Tibet.

 

Beautiful Xi'an City Walls at night with lamps and light

Growing up in Xi’an: A Guide to China’s Ancient Capital

I had a similar childhood to that of most first-generation immigrants. Considerable reluctance, slight curiosity, and the initial, burning desire to return to a country that’d mothered my 6-year existence.

Unlike most first-generation immigrants, this wish was granted after 3 years in Canada. Due to our familial arrangements, my parents shipped me off to a Chinese boarding school in Xi’an at the age of 9.

By then, my crying fits denouncing Canada had subsided to an all-time low. I’ve already established an appreciation for the country I’ve come to know as home. Yet, it was as if my parents were set to challenge and strengthen my sense of self.

In three years, we’ve moved 3 times- back and forth between North York and Scarborough-districts in Toronto. So when we decided that my time will be best spent learning Chinese and high-school grade mathematics in Xi’an, I unwillingly, yet curiously agreed.

As one of the oldest cities in China, Xi’an was the Capital of several vibrant Chinese empires- including the Golden Ages of Han and Tang dynasties. While it is capital no more, the city remains a potent educational, economic, and sociocultural cosmopolitan. It is also home to Terracotta Warriors, amazing cuisine and was the starting point of the Silk Road.

As with my previous schooling habits, I spent two years in 2 different boarding schools-a trend that resulted in 14 schools by the time I finished undergrad.

Other than street food, confusing Chinese characters, and my appointment as the Class English Representative, I recall very little about my two-year venture relearning a language I barely knew. On weekends, I’d stay at my aunt’s house in Beiguan Sub-district 北关 while Sundays usually saw to my squeezing onto overcrowded buses that took me to Xi’an International School, where I ate questionable canteen food and studied from 7 am to 6 pm.

Our girls-only dorm was divided into 3 sections, connected by a door-less entrance that gave our in-residence teacher easy access to monitor our daily routine. We slept on metal-framed bunk beds with 8 girls to each section, a common shower room shared among 24 girls. While school may be a blur, I remember the white porcelain squat toilets vividly. There were two to a bathroom, meaning all business may be done alongside a fellow comrade.

Aside from reciting stories about Lenin and the Long March, we studied English with grammatical accuracy. Having lived three years in Canada yet with little linguistic talent, my ‘have-been-aboard’ pronunciation just about balanced out my broken Chinese.

The headmaster of the second boarding school was one of my grandma’s friends. With some 2-300 students, the school was visibly less international. Instead of pearl white squatting pans, our outdoor washroom was a 10-meter long, 1-meter deep ditch separated by dividers between stalls. To facilitate the flow of caca, the separators did not extend far down.

To summarize, I spent a good chunk of my pre-teen years worrying that I’d slip and fall into a shit hole. Literally.

It was in this chaotic setting, however, that I quickly settled in and began adjusting to a city I’d come back to every couple years. Now, I hold a great appreciation for this rather polluted, undoubtedly populated metropolitan. Aside from its outward glamour, Xi’an’s history is as complex and diverse as that of Mecca.


Terracotta Warriors 兵马俑

It’d be an injustice to introduce Xi’an without mentioning the Terracotta Warriors. The first time I saw the assembly of sculptures was nearly a decade ago. I wasn’t fazed. But with time, this opinion quickly changed. Within this extravagant funerary setup,  lies a historical and sociocultural significance combining China’s myths, legend, and 5000 years of civilized history unlike many others in the world.

terracotta warriors in xi'anThe tomb was solely constructed for Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC), the first emperor of a unified China. Its existence is part of the emperor’s Mausoleum, an incredible if terrifying construction built for Qin’s afterlife activities. The massive space includes quarters for his concubines, pets, treasures, and much more. Legends have it that the main tomb holds a number of biological protections and booby-traps, thus it has yet to be excavated.

Emperor Qin’s reign was as controversial as that of Chinese history. His tactical reign greatly expanded China while he enforced major economic and political reforms that standardized the multitude of practices by former Chinese states. He also unified the Great Walls of China into a single frontier that prevented the invasion of Xiongnu, a nomadic tribe to the north. At the same time, Qin was said to be cruel and merciless. His constructions resulted in countless casualties while he himself searched endlessly for an elixir of life.

One of the most memorable legends was that of 孟姜女, Lady Meng Jiang. The tale speaks of Lady Meng’s husband, who was forced by the state into corvee labor to build the Great Wall. After some time, Meng embarked on a journey to bring him winter clothes, only to find that her husband had already died. Her weeping collapsed a section of the Great Wall.


HuaQing Palace 华清宫

Depending on how long you’d like to spend at each attraction, Terracotta Warriors and Huaqing Palace can be visited within a day. These two places are some 15 minutes apart by car and around an hour away from Xi’an city center.

Beautiful Huaqing Chi in Xi'anLocated at the foot of Mount Li, one of the major peaks of the Qinling Mountains, the palace is situated mid a beautiful backdrop of mountain ranges. The extravagant sphere was built in the early Tang Dynasty and became Emperor Xuanzong’s choice getaway.  For Xuan, the palace was more than just scenic.  It holds moments with his favorite imperial consort- Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, a woman with a face that ‘puts all flowers to shame’. Notably, Yang was the wife of Xuan’s son Li Mao. To prevent public criticism, Xuan arranged for her to become a Taoist nun before officially making Yang his consort.

Yet, the political situation in ancient China was in constant disarray. Following the Lushan Rebellion, Xuan was forced to put Yang to death. When Xuan fell from the throne, Huaqing Palace’s tourism declined rapidly.  Beginning 1959, the People’s Republic of China carried out large-scale expansions and repairs, later establishing the historical site as an important tourist attraction.

Aside from the palace and pools, a hike up the mountains will bring forth a few temples and a beautiful view of the ranges below.


Muslim Quarter 回民街

As the first city to be introduced to Islam, Xi’an has a community of around 50,000 Hui Muslims amongst its 8.7 million population. The Muslim Quarter, a prominent food and cultural district is a local favorite. Not only does it gather a number of delicious Xi’an delicacies within a couple of dense, populated blocks, the quality and cleanliness of street food are also said to be sublime.

Muslim Quarters in Xi'an with great street foodCharacterized by bluestone paved walkways in-between Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture, the historic district has 10 mosques of different sizes; with the most famous being Huajue Alley Mosque 化觉巷清真大寺. Although a known tourist destination, the Muslim Quarter remains a local spot for snacking, shopping and leisure.

In the evening, the whole street embraces a rich, buzzing marketplace atmosphere that delivers nearly 300 kinds of specialty snacks such as cakes, dried fruits, and dessert. Behind these stalls are restaurants serving local delicacies, with some of my favorites being Pita Bread Soaked in Lamb Soup 羊肉泡馍, Cold Steamed Rice Noodles 凉皮, Hot and Pepper Soup 胡辣汤, and Kebab 羊肉串.

Despite the outward appearances of the Muslim Quarters, China has a history disparaging religious dogmas and remains a relatively homogeneous country associated with racial singularity. In these circumstances, Chinese minorities often face obstacles when trying to preserve their unique cultural lifestyles.


The Bell Tower 钟楼 & the Drum Tower 鼓楼 of Xi’an

Constructed in 1384 during the Ming Dynasty, the Bell Tower is located at the center of Xi’an. As the largest and most intact Bell Tower that remains in China, it was mainly used for timekeeping and distributing city-wide announcements. Fast forward to WWII, the structure was also used to issue warnings against ensuing airstrikes. Its distinct designs are representative of ancient Chinese architecture, which is in stark contrast to the modern centers that have been built around the area.

The Drum Tower was constructed in the same era, standing proudly some distance away facing the Bell Tower. Unlike the bell’s indication of dawn, the drum was used to mark the end of a day. The walk from the Bell Tower to the Drum Tower is brisk and scenic. Around 10 minutes apart, the two ancient structures are connected by a vast number of tourist favorites, including a Chinese-architectural inspired Starbucks, an underground mall, and various antique traps.

At night, both towers are decorated with a brilliant combination of red, green, and yellow lighting. It’s in huge contrast to the bumper-to-bumper traffic just streets over.

As of 2017, the Bell Tower entrance is 35 yuan (USD 5), with both towers at 50 yuan (USD 7.5). Children 1.2 m and shorter, elders 70 and above, active military members, disabled, and outstanding teachers with relevant documents can enter for free.

Beautiful Bell Tower at Night


Giant Wild Goose Pagoda 大雁塔 & Small Wild Goose Pagoda 小雁塔

What I love about the Chinese language is its complexity, richness, and elegance. As official renditions, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda are two names presenting little of the proud edifice embodied by their Chinese counterparts.

Let’s be honest. Who’d think a place like the ‘Giant Wild Goose Pagoda’ would become home to one of the greatest interpreters of Han Buddhism after his 17- year pilgrimage to India for Buddhist scriptures??

Journey to the West Cartoon

Photo by Okkisafire

For many, Journey to the West 西游记 has a familiar ring. The epic is based on Xuan Zang玄奘, a Buddhist Monk, detailing his travels with added folk elements and Taoist philosophy. Undoubtedly, the written volume, a televised, cartoon-ized, opera-ized, and inevitably, memorized journey of a monk, a monkey, Pigsy, and a banished general from heaven completed many a childhood.

In the past couple of years, the plazas surrounding Giant Wild Goose Pagoda was commercialized to receive the ever increasing tourist population. The North Square also houses the largest water show in Asia. Although admission is free, it is incredibly difficult to battle some thousands of people for a good view without forking a spot hours beforehand.

Big Screen TV in Xi'an mall, China

A couple streets from the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, lies a mall that has an entire ceiling- TV display

Show Time of the Musical Fountain

*No shows between November and January except on Chinese New Year.

Monday, Wednesday – Friday June 10 to October 5: 12:00, 21:00;
February 1 to June 9, October 6 to 31: 12:00, 20:30
Tuesday June 10 to October 5: 21:00;
February 1 to June 9, October 6 to 31: 20:30
Weekend and other statutory holidays June 10 to October 5: 12:00, 14:00, 16:00, 18:00, 21:00;
February: 1 to June 9, October 6 to 31: 12:00, 14:00, 16:00, 18:00, 20:30

Tang Paradise大唐芙蓉园

Unlike most of the attractions mentioned above, Tang Paradise is a Tang Dynasty-inspired theme park. North of the original Tang Dynasty Furongyuan ruins, the park was modeled and rebuilt as per the style of Tang Dynastic royal gardens and is China’s first large-scale theme park displaying Tang imperial culture.

With lavish gardens and exquisite architecture, the only downside to this beautiful, vast sphere was Xi’an relatively grey skies.

When Chairman Deng opened China’s doors to foreign investment, the sudden shift from state-owned market to semi-controlled market jumpstarted Chinese economy. However, with an expanding industrial sector backing a fast-growing country, major cities began losing sight of blue skies. In Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an and other metropolitans, smog has caused serious health concerns.

However, this is not the case for the whole of China. As a native, I highly recommend traveling out of major city centers and experiencing a Chinese air quality worth salvaging. Or, simply avoid the city during the day and explore these architectural favorites by night. Out of sight, out of mind. amiright?


Fortifications of Xi’an 西安城墙

One of my favorite places in Xi’an is its city walls. As one of the largest and best-preserved walls, the Fortifications of Xi’an was built in the 14th century. Incorporating embankments from the Sui and Tang Dynasties, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty built the edifice over an 8-year period for defensive purposes.

The Chinese have the habit of walking after a meal: 饭后百步走,活到九十九- a hundred paces after a meal will result in ninety-nine years of life.

When I was younger, the green space surrounding the City Walls was a noted leisure area for locals. At 8 pm, just after dinnertime, the periphery immediate the deep moat would be filled with families. Children ran around screaming their heads off while grandparents sat playing chess and fanning away the summer heat.

Beautiful Xi'an City Walls at night with lamps and lightThe wall is about 14 km in length, with a lookout tower every 120 m apart.  The uneven height structure is designed to provide better aim at and eliminate incoming forces.  Bicycle rental services are available near all entrances and can be returned at any service location.  There are also sightseeing electric cars with tours some 50 minutes in lengths. One of the most remarkable entertainments is “Dream Chang’an”, a cultural performance, in fact, the only one in the world, with the theme of Tang Dynasty etiquette culture. It is breathtakingly beautiful, with performances from Thursday to Sunday 20: 30-21: 00. Ticket prices are 260 yuan (US 40).


Final Thoughts

My last trip to Xi’an was the summer of 2016. As with the rest of China, the metropolis has changed dramatically in the past decade. Its modern sphere and chic, foreign brands have resulted in a contrasting world. Nonetheless, the city remains a glorious bubble of energy and kept some of the most memorable parts of my pre-teen years, including delicious street food, no-fks-given dancing grandmas, and horrendous traffic jams.


survival blog

Surviving in New Delhi on $3 a Day | India

Editor’s Note: I am not discouraging people from visiting India. In fact, I loved so much about the country- the welcoming people, the beautiful sceneries, the tuk-tuks and food, and culture. Delhi is a bustling metropolitan. There is so much culture, history, lovely markets, lively cafes, nightlife, vibrancy, life. I’ve had friends who lived in 5-story houses with a theatre in the basement, friends who lived in family homes that faced beautiful gardens and others that had a simple apartment or cozy condo.

Every experience is different, each is worthwhile. 

With love, 
Daisy


New Delhi

If you’ve ever lived in India, you would have noticed murmurs of Mumbai’s unrest and Delhi’s seeming ease, Mumbai’s hot winters and Delhi’s dramatic monsoon, Mumbai’s friendly crowds, and Delhi’s hidden competition.

Yet, India’s theatrical contrasts are not just between its most well-known cities. Within each urban hub, there exists the greatest dissimilarity to which reflects India’s social structure – its socioeconomic difference.

For many foreigners, Delhi is hard to grow accustomed to. Rid the streets of vibrant traditional attire and fancy cars, the nice neighborhoods with beautiful apartments and perfectly trimmed plants, the carts of fresh fruits and vegetables and high-end pubs and bars and restaurants, Delhi is sweat and tears and inequality.

Of course, this is a condition in many developing countries. But Delhi hit me hard. The smell, the dust, the pollution that gave my ‘fragile’ Canadian lungs episodes of asthma attack. The bugs, the temperature, the viruses that gave me Chikungunya. The landlord, the fraud, the confrontations that made me question confidence. But what hit me most, was facing poverty head on – looking at 3-year-olds in the eye when they begged for money, not because they thought it necessary for survival, but nonetheless conditioned to believe it part of their livelihood.

It is in this Delhi that I lived for four months.

Before I left for India, I confidently told my family that I made the right choice. Great internship, great research project, great people I’ll be working with and great fun.

And psssssh what do you mean culture shock. I’ve never experienced culture shock. Besides, India is one of those mystical places you hear about, where people convert to Buddhism and live in the mountains to understand the meaning of life. Where’s the harm to that? Of course, I wasn’t keen to become a yogi by any means, but breathing in some spirituality on holy land wouldn’t hurt.

Boy was I wrong.

I set foot outside the Gandhi airport on a hot summer July noon. Right away, I noticed the welcoming/curious/aggressive stares I received from men crowded by the airport door. Pulling my cardigan a little tighter, I waited for my friend to pick me up.

We rented a small two-bedroom apartment in Lajpat Nagar, a sweet place that cost around $120 a month. To save money on electricity, we opt to share one bedroom so we can lessen the workload on our 1990s’ AC. The initial days were hot. We’d roam around in our underwear and cook on a knee-high stove, making sure our sweat won’t drip into the pots.

On the fourth day, monsoon got the best of me. While on a rickshaw home from work, it started pouring cats and dogs. My phone went to waste after losing a hard-fought battle with the depth of a pond formed inside my bag. I do seem to have real bad luck with phones.

Two weeks later, it became apparent that our landlord was overcharging us. Each with a considerable amount of student loans on our back, my friend and I decided to move to a more affordable location.

Initially, our landlord and her family had a crying fit. We had to stay for six months. She said. We must pay all the rent.  She said. We will never get our deposit back. She said. While sorting out the legality of this whole fiesta, we asked our friends to secretly help us transfer our luggage into the new place.

This second place cost $74 a month.

It was here that I truly understood what budget living meant.

home

The whole ‘apartment’

home2

Kitchen

home3

My bed

I mean, it wasn’t all too bad. Disregarding the broken window, the door that didn’t lock and our outdoor kitchen, we had a pretty nice backyard in a great expat neighborhood. Though, when it rained, it would pretty much flood our entire kitchen/balcony. Our western toilet leaked like a summer’s day garden hose and our India squat toilet was in this tiny 2×2 walled room. I’m being completely discreet when I say that I could have died in there on multiple occasions from the lack of ventilation. :'(

There was no AC. On the hottest nights, we’d blast the fan and the air cooling machine to drown out the street dog/cat fights, a regular occurrence in the neighborhood.

Photo of a bug in a jar we caught at home

Photo of a bug in a jar we caught at home

The most interesting part were the bugs. Because of the lack of window/ viable door, we’d have hundreds of friendly black flies drawn towards the light every. single. night. Their lifeless bodies lay across our covers, atop the table, on the walls.

Once in a while, we’d have something a bit bigger. Sometimes a grasshopper, other times, unknown, six-legged beasts.

We would run around screaming our heads off while these lost souls fly around dazed and confused. Over time, my roommate developed the ultimate skill of insect entrapment. We even had a dedicated water jar just for this whole new sport. *For my insect lovers: no harm was done/all released afterward.


Then I caught Chikungunya.

When I caught Chicken Guinea in New Delhi from an infected mosquito

When I caught Chicken Guinea in New Delhi from an infected mosquito

Chikungunya is this virus transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Polka dots decorated my whole body and I could barely walk with all the joint pain. Thankfully I survived the episode with only some spiritual fatigue. *For the love of god, please get your shots as recommended by a doctor before venturing South East Asia. I thought it wise to wing it without any prior medication. I’m clearly stupid. 


Other Expenses

Coming back to the rest of my expenses. During my time in India, I rarely ate out except for the occasional fresh fruit shakes. Every day, I’d stop a vegetable cart and give the vendors 30 rupees, which was roughly 40 cents, and ask them to fill a bag for me. Since we didn’t have a fridge, this was the only way to attain fresh veggies. True, I lost some 10 pounds within weeks, true, sometimes I’d go to bed a bit hungry and true, I began losing hair and getting crappy skin problems. But this ended up being more of an experiment if a bit unhealthy.

home5

Bag of veg for 40 cents, some lentils and a bag of powder for 5 cents

My roommate and I would wash our clothes and bed sheets by hand in buckets (:real fun during the sweaty summer months)

feet washed clothes

We also used our buckets as speakers.

new speakers

Honest to god, if you can get onto a bus in Delhi with ease, you can probably do anything in life. 

home8.jpg

I’d take the bus with the locals and spend around 20 rupees a day on transportation. Once in a while, when I’m feeling extra fancy, I’d grab a rickshaw for 40 rupees.

Definitely not lying when I say getting on the bus in India is rough. However, after a few times, I really got the hang of running, grabbing onto complete strangers and jumping onto moving buses.

Not to mention that buses were super entertaining. Men would generally give women seats and when they fail to, others would scold them.  Whenever there was an argument, the entire bus becomes involved.


Total Cost

In total:

  1. My share of the apartment, which was $34/month was around $1 a day.
  2. Including food and transportation, it came to about $2 a day.
  3. After a friend lent me a phone, my bill came up to $5/month through Airtel.
  4. I also took two trips during this month that amounted to another $30 (yay budget travel)

Cheap? Yes. Worth it? I don’t know. I don’t think I will ever be able to live through the constant hustle of this again.

A few days after the first month, I met a friend who was generous enough to invite me to stay with his modeling agency. So, I spent the rest of my two months in India with a bunch of international models, met producers, actresses and a ton of people in the entertainment industry. But that’s a story for another day.

Happy traveling! xx

P.s: And don’t forget, no matter what, we are a privileged lot.


World Health Organization:
  • According to the most recent estimates, in 2013, 10.7 percent of the world’s population lived on less than US$1.90 a day, compared to 12.4 percent in 2012. That’s down from 35 percent in 1990. 
  • This means that, in 2013, 767 million people lived on less than $1.90 a day, down from 881 million in 2012 and 1.85 billion in 1990. 
  • A vast majority of the global poor live in rural areas and are poorly educated, mostly employed in the agricultural sector, and over half are under 18 years of age. 

The work to end extreme poverty is far from over, and a number of challenges remain. It is becoming even more difficult to reach those remaining in extreme poverty, who often live in fragile contexts and remote areas. Access to good schools, healthcare, electricity, safe water and other critical services remains elusive for many people, often determined by socioeconomic status, gender, ethnicity, and geography. Moreover, for those who have been able to move out of poverty, progress is often temporary: economic shocks, food insecurity and climate change threaten to rob them of their hard-won gains and force them back into poverty. It will be critical to find ways to tackle these issues as we make progress toward 2030.

Get up beyond my border

A Week in the Himalayas: A Photo Journey

From green hills to rocky cliffs, the Himalayas is one of the few experiences that have stayed with me throughout my peculiar ventures abroad. The eminent mountain ranges extend across five countries: Nepal, Bhutan, India, China, and Pakistan. Having lived in Delhi for four months, Uttarakhand became my go-to get away from the craziness of city living.

Despite what people generally associate with the mountains, my two expeditions were anything but peaceful. Aside from a motorcycle accident, getting lost in the wild, losing our phones (and having it returned) among various other incidents, I lost (and found) my passport in one of the many villages up the hills. Yet, these episodes embedded within me a strange trust for the Himalayas- this naive, optimistic feeling that everything will be alright.

The road to the mountains was in itself a journey. After hopping onto a 9-hour night bus from Delhi to my friend’s village near Nainital, we began a day-long trip into the Himalayas. Dunagiri was our first stop. Originally a 4-hour ride, we got lost after a couple wrong turns and arrived after a 9-hour venture.

A historical region in Uttarakhand, Dunagiri is composed of several villages under the District of Almora. Despite it being well known for the temple of Shakti,  my friend insisted on a hidden gem that overlooked the peaks of the Himalayas.

By the time we reached the foot of the hill, the sun has begun to set. With our tent and sleeping bags in hand, we began climbing a mountain that led to Pandukholi, an ashram sitting quietly by the cliffs.

The sky was completely dark when we reached the halfway point. Since we’ve already lost our phones on the road here, there was barely any light sources guiding our footsteps away from the cliff under.

It was horrifying.

3 hours and loads of whining later, we were finally greeted by a beaming form from afar.

It was the long-awaited spiritual haven.

A puppy that lived in at the ashram, Dwarahat

Unlike cinematic ashrams, as portrayed by Hollywood favorites, this place was tucked away in the middle of nowhere. The guru greeted our arrival and immediately asked someone to get us water and cook up some chapatis. There were barely any people on the property-three students, a visitor and his guru, the guru of the ashram and his aid.

That night, we sat by a fire and chatted for some time. After showing us around the property, the guru let us to a field outside the gates to set up a tent.

We spent the next three days meditating, eating homemade meals, and waiting for the fog to clear.

It never did.

Without a question, the second leg of our trip was spent chasing snow peaks- further north up the Himalayas.

Chopta is a small region in the Uttarakhand state. Its scenic view is nothing like that offered by Delhi. From vast green spaces and bright blue skies, the district was absolutely breathtaking.

Due to the distance, we spent a couple nights at guest houses along the way. Those in the area clearly don’t see many foreigners. Even myself, a North-Indian looking Asian, got tons of stares from the local people.

On the fourth day of our trip into Chopta, we arrived at a village leading to the Chandrashila Peak. After dropping our bike off at a nearby shop, we took on an exhausting, yet breathtaking hike towards the peak.

4,000 meters above sea-level, the trek offered a panoramic view of the Himalaya ranges. It lasted about 3-4 hours, passing camping grounds, donkeys, paved roads, and rocky hills.

After the sunset, we retreated into a beautiful guest house on the mountain. Since the night was still quite foggy, we crossed our fingers and hoped for a clear morning.

travel inspiration

Guest House on the Chandrashila Peak

Tungnath Temple, the highest Shiva temple

At 4 am the next day, we began another hike towards the peak.

To be honest, my Cappadocia experience is the only one that can rival this view.

We felt the sun before seeing its pink hues. There was an utter calmness that extended across the entire Himalayan ranges. No birds, no wind- complete silence.

Then, the sky began brightening up. With it, the snow-covered peaks became increasingly visible.

Beams of sun rays started reflecting off the summit, projecting an expanding warm orange tone an arm’s reach away.

We sat on the ice-cold earth, unable to move from such a sight.

After the sun came out, we ventured around the alp, where a little prayer temple sat overlooking the cliffs.


Total Cost

Since I took one of those cheap local buses from Delhi, it was no more than 250 rupees per ride. Mind you, it wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel as the decade-old bus had no A.C, broken windows, and unadjustable seats.

Otherwise, we spent around 6000 rupees ($93) on gas, food, accommodation, and other activities. Included within this, was a 500 rupee donation to the ashram.

  • The accommodation was around 300 rupees/night/room. Guest houses may ask for more once they realize you are a foreigner, but I got away with identifying as a North Indian.
  • We ate at cheap local shops or cooked vegetables on a home-brought mini gas stove. These places won’t cost more than a couple dollars per meal.



Beautiful Gwalior Fort on a Sunny Day

5 Things to do in Gwalior

India’s colorful history and vast geographical area have resulted in a multifaceted country with varying language, customs, and architecture. With its enormous size, comes undeniable responsibility. Knowing it’d be extremely difficult to capture all of India’s glory in a couple months’ time, I focused most of my energy exploring India’s northern hemisphere throughout my four-month stunt in Delhi.

Gwalior became my only central/southbound trip.

As noted in numerous budget-traveling posts, I tend to convert my friends to Couchsurfing enthusiasts on a regular basis. This was the situation with Joyti, an Agra native who worked with me in Delhi.

How to Couchsurf: Is Couchsurfing for You?

Joyti was similar to me in age, height, education background, and love for food. Yet, she was completely different from me in her perception of life. This isn’t much of a surprise. With its history and culture, women in India are often subjected to more societal restrictions than women from the Wild Wild West.

From a middle-class household, Joyti was incredibly hardworking and relatively sheltered. Her dedication to pursuing a career in journalism led her to the office where I interned- Women’s Feature Service, a news agency established by UNESCO in the late 1970s.

Despite her moving to Delhi and vast desire to explore the world, Joyti had never traveled outside the boundaries of her home. In fact, her perception of India is much more rigid than my naïve take on the country.

Hearing someone with similar ambitions, passion, and drive to that of mine, of course, I was keen on dragging her onto one of my typical, unplanned, stranger-travel experiences.

Located 300 kilometers away from Delhi in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Gwalior is home to a number of historical sites and monuments. While it is rich in art and literature,  the city remains relatively hidden when compared to metropolitans like Bombay and Delhi.

One day after work, we decided that the trip was postponed for way too long. Instead of going home, we headed to the train station to embark on the adventure.


The Train Ride

Like most around the world, the train compartments in India are separated by class. Unlike most, the difference between each class can be extreme. Having traveled on a budget for some time, Sleeper Class or, Second Class and Unreserved Class became the go-to options.

We arrived in a deserted Gwalior after 6 hours. Aside from a few tuk-tuks attempting to lure in our business, the streets were pretty much empty from any activity. Since it was too late to call our host, we decided to spend a night at a hostel by the railway station.

The next morning, our host picked us up to explore what Gwalior had to offer.


Sun Temple Gwalior

Our first stop was the Sun Temple in Gwalior.  With its magnificent red sandstone exterior and delicate carvings, the temple is dedicated to Surya, the Sun God. Inspired by the Sun Temple in Konark, Orissa, this one was commissioned in 1988 by G.D. Birla. Sitting proudly mid a beautiful green space, the temple is definitely more than just a replica. It was a peaceful setting. The garden was free of chatter, as devotees navigate their way up the white marble steps with their bare feet.

After half an hour or so waiting for prayer time, we reluctantly got up and headed towards the next sight.


Tomb of Mohammad Ghaus

Luckily, all attractions in Gwalior are just miles apart. After a 20 minute drive, we arrived at the Tomb of Mohammad Ghaus. Mohammad Ghaus was a 16-century Sufi master of Shattari order and the author of Jawahir-i Khams. The tomb itself was largely different from that of the other architectural designs in the area, which further indicates India’s steady embrace of multiculturalism and its colorful history.

Despite never having taken a seat of power, Ghaus Muhammed is widely respected by numerous Mughal rulers, who eradicated this towering tomb in memory of him.

As with the Sun Temple, the tomb was a peaceful place mid a large garden. Despite the car horns immediate to the gates, the space within seems to have forgone the passing of time.

It was close to 2 pm when we left the tomb. Not having had the time to take lunch, our host recommended that we eat at the Gwalior Fort Gurdwara, where we are looking to stay two more nights.


Gwalior Fort

Its hand-crafted designs were detailed and rich in color. A distinguished sign signifying trade between China and India during the time of its construction, Chinese dragon was curved onto the pillars of the fort. After lunch, we headed over to the Gwalior Fort- Man Singh Palace. The Gwalior Fort was especially beautiful. In fact, it was a photo of its picturesque walls that drew me to this relatively unknown city.


Sas-Bahu Temple

Just 5 minutes down the road, sits Sas-Bahu temple, two temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, respectively.

For myself, these two temples truly embodied the core of Indian religion.  Sahastrabahu Temple was constructed in 1092 by King Mahipala for his wife, a devotee of Lord Vishnu. However, when his son’s wife, a devotee of Lord Chiva arrived, another temple was eradicated meters away. Together, these two temples were known as ‘Sas-Bahu temple’, or, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law’s temple.

Mother-in-law’s TempleSahastrabahu Temple

We walked around the compound and discovered that aside from a group of children, we were the only people in sight. After seeing me, many ran towards us and began pulling out their phones to take selfies.

While my Asian features are a common sight in Delhi, where many Northeastern Indians resides, they quickly gained #celebritystatus amongst the children in Gwalior.


Daughter-in-law’s Temple


Gwalior Fort Gurdwara

Sikh Gurdwaras offers a place of worship, a langar hall, and rooms for temporary stays. In line with what Sikhs practice, food, and stay are free of charge with donations welcomed. Most importantly, Gurdwaras opens its doors to people of all faith and religion.

Mr. Singh, pictured below, became our host during our stay at the gurudwara. He was such a generous man, showing us the temple space and the seamless preparation process for meals in the langar hall. When I caught a cold mid Sunday, he came in with tea and biscuits wishing me well.

budget accommodation


Final Thoughts

There are too many places to visit near Gwalior. Madhya Pradesh. Due to our relatively tight schedule, we were unable to fit the rest of the city in a two day weekend. With some more time in hand, I would have loved to wander around Jai Vilas Palace Museum or Gujari Mahal Archaeological Museum. Nonetheless, I thought Gwalior one of the most beautiful cities I’ve visited so far- more importantly, it added to my immense desire to take on a cultural escapade in South India.

Finally, Joyti loved the weekend away. As an avid solo traveler, nothing beats getting my friends to join me in these rather unconventional ventures and convincing them that all will be well.

At least for me, it has been.


 

Hawa Mahal, Pink City Jaipur

5 Things to do in Jaipur

In Delhi, I attempted to find weekend escapes that brought me away from the craziness cause by city-living. Despite my usual escape into the Himalayas, Jaipur quickly became one of my favorite weekend getaways.

Although the ‘pink city’ was more or less, similar to that of Delhi’s urban setting, I quickly realized that it was much more harmonious.

To give Delhi some credit, it does house ~20 million people within 16.5 sq mi. Jaipur, on the other hand, has a mere 3 million in a much larger geographic area.

With its vast land, comes various things to do.  Luckily for us, my roommate had a long-time friend who resided in this bustling city. Within a weekend, we were able to see the main attractions.


5. The Pink City

True to its name, Jaipur’s old city is painted in various shades of pink- from pale baby pinks to deep purple burgundies. The architecture within the 7 Darwazas/gates seem to take on a life of its own. Inline with Rajasthan’s lavish history, buildings within the walled city, no matter how imperfect, all have a special flavor to it. The streets of the old city were crowded-vendors, merchants and little food stops lined the roads. Women wore the traditional Rajasthan saree, with bright greens and pinks as opposed to the more conservative tones seen elsewhere.


4. Jal Mahal – India’s Floating Palace

The floating palace is just a couple minutes’ drive from Pink City. After leaving the confines of the city walls, we parked the car at a little parking spot opposite of a beautiful lake. It wasn’t until we walked across the platform that I realized that there was a magnificent palace atop the Man Sagar lake.


3. Visit the Fort

There are three famous forts within the city of Jaipur.

  • Amber Palace
  • Jaigarh Fort
  • Nahargarh Fort

Since they were all relatively similar, we decided upon the most accessible one for our trip. The entrance fee for Amer Fort was 20 rupees or so, with camera equipment at an additional 5 rupees.

The drive up the mountain was filled with monkey encounters. With cars attempting to come in and out of the entrance, we decided to line our car on the side of the mountain and walk up the hill towards the palace fort.

With ‘artistic Hindu style elements’, the fort was built with red sandstone and marble. Having weathered 5 centuries of rain and sun,  the palace remains formidable. It overlooks the Maota Lake and offers a  great view of the green space under.


2. Heritage Resorts

Special to Jaipur and few other cities, these were traditional Rajasthani-inspired villages inclusive of various local activities and cuisine. It was a resort of sorts- with corners showcasing dance, music, puppet acts, and other talents. There were also grounds for theme park-like rides.

All of the attendants wore traditional attire. During dinner time, we were brought to a massive dining hall with servers placing mouth-watering delicacies on our plates.

Although the entrance fee is quite hefty-400 rupees and upwards depending on the inclusion of a meal, it was quite the experience. Some famous heritage resorts include Chokhi Dhani and the Heritage Village.


1.The Export and Tradeshow

Despite Delhi having some beautiful and cheap markets, the export market in Jaipur seems to offer cheaper products. It would be a shame if I didn’t load my luggage with beautiful Indian attire after visiting the country. The marketplace wasn’t too big- so it was a great way to spend a couple hours without being overwhelmed as in Delhi. Vendors from across the country sit at their respective booth offering a glimpse into their regional take on Indian wear. Kurtis were generally 300 rupees/ piece, similar to that in Delhi. Earrings and cheap jewelry were 50-100 rupees while sarees ranged between 200-500 rupees. I found a merchant selling sarees for 300 rupees/ a piece.

It was a steal!


Final Thoughts

When visiting Rajasthan, it is easy to get sidetracked by Udaipur or Jodhpur. While these cities are beyond beautiful, Jaipur will surprise you just as much, if not more 🙂

travel to turkey

Pocket Guide to Turkey

Travel to Turkey and do it like a (semi)-pro.

Traveling within the City

Buses and Subway

There are a few different types of buses in the city. The two most distinct ones are minivan-buses and city shuttles.

Minibuses are in a range of colors, which usually differs based on the city they are in. They are not the easiest to spot but generally appear in the form of a large van.To stop a minibus, stand on the sidewalk where the buses have a clear view of you. If they don’t stop, you can wave it down. There are virtually no bus stops for minibusses, so nonverbal communication in a 10-second framework between the driver and you is key.

Unlike minibusses, city shuttles are your average-Joe buses that operate in larger cities. While these buses stop at standard stops in a metropolitan like Istanbul and Izmir, it was harder to spot them in areas with fewer tourists. As such, tactics used to stop minibusses shall be pulled out here. If you stand on a sidewalk that can be easily seen by the driver, they will most likely stop. NOTE!!: City buses don’t usually operate in remote areas. Familiarize yourself with minibusses if you want to include more deserted travel destinations in your itinerary.

Don’t mind me repeating ‘bus’ two dozens times. These are the only viable means of public transportation since only 5 cities in Turkey (Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Adana, and Bursa) have subway systems.

Taxi/Uber/Hitchhiking

There are virtually no taxis in smaller cities. Taxis in bigger cities, like other tourist prone destinations in the world, sometimes are set out to profit from tourist ineptitude. Beware of taxis taking a long, unnecessary detour, and generally, have an estimate of the trip cost by asking locals.

Uber works in a similar fashion. They operate in larger cities but often forgo the less touristy ones.

As such, I often opt for buses or hitchhiking. It’s really easy to hitch a ride in Turkey since people are all around nice, nice and nice. There are definitely safety concerns as with hitchhiking elsewhere, but I found all my rides to be incredibly friendly.


Traveling between Cities

Buses

The biggest bus companies in Turkey are Metro, Pammukale, Kamil Koc, Ulusoy. Not all buses will go to your destination, make sure to check online, or at the office! (Offices are located at the city’s central bus station. Most speak English)

Buses are significantly cheaper than other means of transportation. They generally range between 30 and 65 lira (US $8-16). NOTE!!: Bus prices don’t change, so if you don’t have a set travel plan, feel free to buy tickets a day beforehand. But make sure that they don’t sell out!

Other Methods of Transportation and Blabla Car

Planes are generally twice or thrice more expensive than buses so I am not a big fan. As noted, I thought hitch hiking to be quite safe as well. I’ve only hitched rides around Alanya but hear a lot of backpackers do it with little difficulty.

My favorite form of transportation around Europe and Turkey was Blabla Car. I used the app four times in Turkey, and two out of the four times, the drivers wouldn’t let me pay because I was a foreigner! In one of the cases, We ended up becoming good friends and I stayed at their beach house in Izmir for a night, but that’s another story.


Clothing for Women

This varied between cities. Turkey is a lot more open minded than I expected. However, definitely dress more formal if you don’t want to invite stares. I wore skirts and shorts throughout my trip and felt pretty safe. But then again, I was usually with friends. Short shorts and tank tops can be seen in major cities, especially tourist zones such as Alanya, where a bulk of the tourists walked around the streets in their bikinis 😀


Clubs and Bars

Turkish clubs are very interesting, especially down south. They are dominated by main stream music with occasional Turkish songs. The dance floor is pretty small, usually with hired girls on a stage in the middle. Tables and chairs surround the dance floor, with well-dressed clubbers standing around them. Drinks are very expensive, ranging from 15-20 lira for a beer

Clubs in Istanbul (Taksim district) are completed like those in Europe, deep-house, small, chills.


Safety

I felt very safe in Turkey despite recent events (Asians being attacked in Istanbul and the conflict at the Syrian-Turkish border). Since I was there before the bombing of both Istanbul and Ankara, I didn’t have a sense of distress or urgency. To be fair, I didn’t travel too far east so I definitely wouldn’t know or recommend anyone to visit the borders. In terms of the 9 cities I visited, I loved all and felt really safe!

Remember to always ASK ASK ASK

Although a lot of Turkish people aren’t fluent in English, especially down south. They are very friendly, and will do all they can to help!

Happy Travels xx

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Antalya, Turkey

Days Trips: Antalya | Turkey

It was between Greece and Turkey. The office in Greece took a million years to reply, so I went forward with an internship to teach English in Antalya, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

After staying there for a month, I fell in love with the town. From the weather to the food, Antalya was everything a beach city could ask for. It’s definitely the works of all that sunshine, but those who live by the sea are always super friendly.


Antalya

Clock Tower in Antalya, Turkey

Clock Tower in Antalya, Turkey

Antalya is the capital city of Antalya province, a beautiful sphere encompassing party town Kemer, bungalow-filled Olympos, historical Side and beautiful Alayna.

A tourist hot spot, Antalya has a beautiful beach and a busy bazaar running through Keleici (Old Town) leading to a beaming harbor. As a historical site, Old Town has infrastructures dating back to the Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman Empires. For those looking for a great night out, Keleici has some small, but great bars and clubs.

Antalya, Turkey during sunset

Antalya, Turkey during sunset

The marina is surrounded by restaurants and cafes, with Gluets (old wooden boats) looking to draw people in for a rocky ride. As a large group, we were able to bargain a boat ride for 5 lire. It lasted an hour into the dark sea, with Turkish music and dancing throughout the whole trip.

Later, a few of us spent some time near a seating area by the beach. There were numerous vendors walking around offering ice-creams and plates of fresh mussels stuffed with rice – a must have. There is also a free elevator around the harbor that will definitely save some leg work, and do not miss the view from the observation deck when you leave the lift!


Kemer

kemer1

Kemer has two of the best clubs in Antalya–Inferno and Aura. The entry is around 30 lira including a free drink. The clubs are fancy, with a large number of tables surrounding a small dance floor. Unlike Istanbul’s deep house, clubs in Antalya often blast your typical top-40. As a large go-to city for tourists, there were a lot of all-inclusive hotels and resorts in the area. However, prices for alcohol and other items are relatively higher than Antalya. You can either take a bus from Antalya, which costs 10 lire, or a taxi, which is around 50 lira.


Olympos

Olympos Antalya

Olympos, Antalya

Olympos is a beach paradise! This is where most locals go for vacation as the sea is visibly clearer than ones in Antalya. It is famous for its tree houses and bungalows, as well as its Greek ruins. The small town consists of numerous guesthouses that lead toward the beach/ruins.

The beach has a 5 lira entrance fee but is free when late at night or early in the morning. The ruins are off a beaten path and usually deserted.

There are buses to Olympos leaving Antalya every half an hour. It is around a two hours ride, costing 8-10 lira. Make sure to take public buses such as Bati Antalya, Kumluca Seyhat, Bati Antalya or Antalya tur from the main Antalya bus station and TELL THE DRIVER that you want to get off at the Cirali Olympos junction! If not sure, ALWAYS ask!!

I ended up Couchsurfing in Olympos in a bungalow. The place was beautiful, as the bungalow was located a few kilometers away from the touristy spots. However, the stay wasn’t the greatest and I ended up spending a night in a treehouse after the first night.


Side

Water reservoir in Side, Turkey

Water reservoir in Side, Turkey

I decided to start my travels right after my internship. Side was the first on my list. Famous for its ruins and long beaches, it is 14 lire and an hour and a half away by bus from Antalya.

Side is a small, ancient town inside the larger city of Manavgat. If you are traveling by bus from another town, take it to Manavgat and ask around for a shuttle!

Convincing two of my teaching friends to come along and couch surf for the first time, we were lucky to have one of the best hosts I’ve encountered!

Founder of a school for disabled children, my host was extremely passionate about his city. He tirelessly drove us throughout Manavgat, showing us Oymapinar Dam, the city of Side, took us on ATV tours, jet skiing and go karting.


Water reservoir in Side, Turkey

Water reservoir in Side, Turkey

The Oymapinar Dam is a must see if you are able to find a car or hitch hike. The Dam is huge and the water reflects a deep turquoise. There aren’t many tourists due to the 30-minute drive up a mountain, so it is truly nature at its finest.

In comparison, Side is much busier. While the ruins were not as crowded during the evening, the enclosing streets were full of packed restaurants, bars, clubs and a colorful bazaar.


Following Side, I continued on my 9-city Turkey venture by tapping into the beautiful landscape of Alanya. Although Alanya is also a city within the province of Antalya, its beauty deserves a post of its own.


Final Thoughts

Although Istanbul remains the most known Turkish city among tourists alike, I’d recommend anyone to dabble the beauty of Antalya, even just for a few days. From beautiful beaches to mesmerizing ruins, Antalya provides tons to see and more to do. These mini trips around the Antalya province are definitely worth the time

Total Cost

Traveling in Turkey is extremely cheap. Since I couchsurfed in all of the cities, I spent no money on accommodation. Otherwise, there were a few lire here and there for food and tourist sights. I didn’t end up buying anything in Antalya since Izmir and Istanbul are known spots for shopping ;). I believe I spent less than US $100 during my month in the province.

  • The buses between different cities in Antalya vary between 10-20 lira (US $3-6).

Happy Travels xx

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