Showing posts with label Travel guide. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travel guide. Show all posts

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Traveling To Russia

Our guest author Jess Signet travels to a land not much explored and uncovers the secrets of this colossal country with many lesser known attractions. If you are thinking about a maiden trip to Russia, this article will provide you the much needed helpful information from a fellow traveller. And if Russia has never appeared on your wish list, we are sure after reading this article, you’d seriously think about a trip to Russia.

Russia is an exciting and unique place for anyone to travel. Hidden for so long behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union, western tourism still hasn’t taken this vast and impressive country into its clutch yet. Because of this, the unique and authentic experience that travellers get, without mass-crowds of foreigners, is pretty much unmatchable.

However, as soon as you get off the plane, it’s clear to see that this largely unknown part of our planet is a world away from what most travelers are used to. If you don’t do your research, you’re in for quite a surprise! Culturally, geographically and politically, this country is probably one of the most unique on earth, and arriving without the right preparation could make your traveling experience more difficult than you first anticipated.

Here’s a list of 10 things that I wish I’d known before setting off on my adventure to this wild and wonderful location.

1. You Don’t Know the Meaning of Cold

Coming from Britain, I was quite sure I had wintertime handled. You put on a thick coat, pull up your hood and spend six months of the year complaining that you wish it were summer. Unfortunately, after landing in Surgut International Airport in January, I realized the “cold” that I thought I knew so well was simply child’s play.

Reaching, and staying, well below zero during wintertime, Russia demands several jumpers, thermal underwear, hats, scarves and snow sports-quality gloves. It’s also advisable to have a back-up plan for days where the weather is too bad to go outside.

Catching up on movies, cooking a hearty meal and contacting loved ones back are all good options. Don’t underestimate this great country’s version of freezing, because getting cold, and having to stay cold, is not a particularly enjoyable experience. Note that if you’re planning to watch a fewmovies to avoid the cold when in Russia, be sure that you have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) installed, as many sites like Netflix are subject to geo-restrictions.

2. It’s Also Warm!

Fortunately, contrary to the popular and somewhat stereotyped belief, Russia can also be very warm. You have to remember that this country is huge, and whereas the northern regions are truly artic in their conditions, down south the climate is warmer than most European countries. I was astounded to discover that palm trees grow in the areas around the Black Sea, and in summer, temperatures can reach an incredible 40-43C and almost never drop below freezing in winter.

Unfortunately this means that any traveler planning to see the whole country requires a vast array of clothing options, from shorts and T-shirts to a fur-lined coat and thermal trousers!

3. Prepare to Chow Down

Perhaps unfairly, Russia is in no way known for its cuisine. Aside from the caviar, most people see Russian food as bland, heavy and generally undesirable. This could not be further from the truth! Whether you’re trying a crepe-like “Blini”, traditional beef stroganoff or a hearty “Knish” pastry, the many local delicacies are sure to delight.

This may be unfortunate news form me as I thought that the lack of tempting food would keep my budget down; however, it was well worth splurging in the local restaurants to try these mouth-watering dishes.
4. Poisonous Animals and Plants

There are many dangerous creepy-crawlies, snakes, stinging-trees and other undesirables in the vast landscape, and unfortunately, the sheer size of the country means that they vary considerably in different regions. Although there is information provided about the different species you need to be aware of when you’re over there, it’s usually in Russian, not explained very well or has pictures that leave a lot to the imagination. To avoid any nasty run-ins or trips to the local hospital, it’s definitely wise to do a bit of research and brush up on the potential dangers before you set off.

5. Journeys are Long…

As I may have mentioned previously: Russia is big! Covering an astounding 17.1 million km2, you only have to look at a map to see that traveling this country is an experience unlike any other. Although most travelers have a vague awareness of this, most people also fail to consider the repercussions.

To put things into perspective, I took the famed Trans Siberian Express journey,and it was an incredible seven days long, but it had very limited facilities, particularly in the lower class sections of the train. This meant that I was travelling for a whole week continuously without even basic necessities like a shower! Because of this I had to be extremely well prepared and ready to sit on a cramped train for, literally, days on end—which wasn’t easy!

6. …and Terrifying

Not only do you have a long way to go when driving anywhere, you also have a terrifying experience to endure. The driving in Russia is terrible, erratic and a complete recipe for disaster. Things to be aware of include the complete lack of use, or respect for, speed limits and sudden and unpredictable lane changes—even in busy traffic. It’s also not uncommon for drivers to use the hard shoulder as an extra lane as I experienced on my first day in the country when in a taxi from the airport.

7. Put Away the Courtesies

British people are known for their incessant politeness and focus on manners. I soon discovered that Russia could not be at a further end of the scale from this. No matter where you come from, you’re definitely going to find Russian people to be rude until you’ve learned to understand their culture.

Russians are very straightforward and genuine. They don’t smile if they don’t need to, and please and thank yous are very rare. However, this is a simply cultural difference rather than anything else, so put away the etiquette rulebook and get stuck in!

8. Vodka is Not Like Water

There’s a very common misconception, probably inspired by the fact we know so little about them, that all Russians are Vodka-guzzling alcoholics. This is definitely not the case. Although there are many heavy drinkers in more rural areas, the cities are no more filled with alcoholics than Germany, Ireland and many other European countries. Alcohol consumption is also banned on the streets and in public places, so if you think you’re going to get away with swigging Vodka straight from the bottle while sight-seeing, then you’re sorely mistaken. I definitely recommend enjoying the drink responsibly in some of the local bars because drinking Russian vodka with the Russians is definitely an experience!

9. Prepare To Queue

There are many monuments and landmarks left over from the Soviet Union and queuing is most definitely one of them. Whether you’re trying to send letters home to loved ones at the local post office or have just nipped down to the shops for a pint of milk, you are definitely going to end up in a queue.

The Russian people are experts at this phenomenon and even better at slyly pushing in without being noticed, so if you do find yourself part of a traditional Russian queue, be sure to stand fast and not give up your place to anyone! I once found myself in a queue when a friendly local popped in front of me to start, what appeared to be, a casual chat, it took a while before I realized they’d actually just stolen my place in the queue without me even noticing!

10. Avoid the Politics

For the majority of the rest of the world, the view we have of Russian politics is, at best, ridiculous and at worst, terrifying. However, partially due to the media input and partially due to the ease of following tradition, most Russian people wholeheartedly support their political regime. Because of this, it’s advisable not to engage in discussions about it as, no matter how convincing you think you are, you’re not going to change their minds, and it’s very likely you’ll offend them in the process.

A trip to Russia will be an amazing experience no matter how much you know, but these ten things are sure to improve your time there no end! If you have any more tips that you feel should be included, then be sure to comment below.

About the author: Jess Signet is an avid traveler who recently enjoyed a fantastic trip to Russia. It’s a great country, so much to see and do and hopefully this article will help you prepare for your trip or just learn a few things about this vast country! You can catch Jess and her adventures on Twitter at: @Jessstravels

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Paradise Gardens of Kashmir

Kashmir – a place that has been associated with Paradise since ages, a destination that has been every Indian’s dream to visit, a valley that has caught every traveller’s fascination, a backdrop that has been filmed by numerous Indian movies of the bygone days. My childhood dream of visiting this heaven on earth- mostly fuelled by the Eastman coloured Hindi movies and fascinating travel stories has been slowly fading away. Modern day Indian films too have ignored Kashmir and found many better backdrops abroad while the terrorists have found Kashmir a better place to dwell! The insurgent activities have taken a toll on the tourism industry of Kashmir and the heaven started to become a hell.

I had to cancel once my planned trip to Kashmir due to the unrest in the valley. However, things are changing and hope it will continue to change for better and the tourism in this valley will prosper in days to come.

After much planning and thinking, one fine day, we flew from Muscat to Srinagar – the capital of Kashmir. It was April 2012, a great time to visit the valley, a season when the Tulips bloom and the ice starts melting. The situation of the valley was normal and tourists, mostly Indians have packed out all the must visit sites!

The first view: As our plane was approaching Srinagar, a magnificent panorama of snow capped mountains and yellow mustard fields appeared through the flight windows. Wish I had a window seat with a high resolution camera ready in my hands! Nevertheless, I kept my eyes wide open and tried to grab as much as possible this view of heaven from the top! Certain memories do not need a camera to hold, they are imprinted on mind. This was one of such memories.

The Dal Lake: The purpose of writing this article is to tell you about the hundreds of years old magnificent gardens of Srinagar. Yet, no writing on Srinagar is complete without mentioning the Dal Lake – the jewel of Kashmir, a sprawling lake of over 25 square km right at the heart of the city. This is the lake from where river Jhelum has originated. Nagin Lake and Wullar Lake are the two other prominent lakes in the city. These lakes are almost frozen during the winter. The spring and summer are best time for tourists to enjoy the beauty of Kashmir, be it the blooming flowers, yellow mustard fields or a night stay at one of the many houseboats across the length and breadth of these lakes. It’s truly an unforgettable experience to stay on these houseboats floating over the scenic lake with a panoramic view of the mighty snow clad mountains.
Floating market at Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
The Dal Lake is also famous for its Shikara ride – a quintessential boat ride also known as the water taxi of Kashmir. Shikara can be used to visit the floating market, the floating vegetable & flower gardens, the floating post office and the majestic gardens such as Shalimar Bagh or Nishat Bagh.

This lake has found its place in many creative works and continues to inspire the artists be it for a creative art or for a lyrical masterpiece!
Shikaras at Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir
The breathtaking view of this lake also compliments the royal gardens of Kashmir about which I’m writing in the following passages.

Shalimar Bagh: Way back in the year 1616, Mughal emperor Jahangir built this beautiful garden for his beloved wife Noor Jahan. Designed in Persian style, this garden is surrounded by Chinar trees and is full of fountains, flowers and manicured gardens. The garden has got three terraces – each one designed with a specific purpose. During the rule of the Mughals, only the first terrace – known as Diwan-e-Aam was opened to the public. The second terrace was reserved for the royal guests and aristocrats and it was called Diwan-e-Khas. The third and the highest one called Zenana or Harem was only for the king and his wives.
Shalimar Bagh. CC Image Courtesy shahbasharat
Nishat Bagh: This is largest of all the Mughal gardens of Kashmir. Designed by Jahangir’s broder in law Asaf Khan, this garden was built in the year 1633. Located on the eastern banks of Dal Lake, Nishat Bagh, which means garden of joy, has 12 terraces, each one full with flowers, lawns and tall trees – the most impressive of which are the chinar and cypress trees. 
All the terraces of Nishat Bagh have water pools coupled with fountains, the 11th one has the highest number  of fountains, 25. The 12th terrace or the Zenana terrace was exclusively for the King and the royal ladies.

Nishat Bagh is at a distance of 25 km from the airport and can be reached by both road or a Shikara ride on the Dal Lake
Nishat Bagh. CC Image Courtesy mckaysavage
Chasme Shahi Garden:
Chashme Shahi Garden, Srinagar
Built in the year 1632 during the Shah Jahan rule, this one is the smallest Mughal garden of Kashmir. The garden is full with different varieties of fragrant flowers, lawns, waterfall and fountains and provides a breathtaking view of the green mountains.
The name Chashme Shahi means the royal spring and the garden is built around a spring. The water of the spring is believed to have medicinal importance. The garden is designed in Persian style and it overlooks the mighty Dal Lake on one side and the Zabarwan hills on the other.
Chashme shahi Garden, Srinagar
Char Chinar Garden :
This one is a tiny island garden located in the Dal Lake which can be reached by a Shikara boat. The name char chinar is derived from the four Chinar trees that stand across the boundary of the island as a landmark. Chinar trees grow in abundance in this region and have been a pert of Kashmiri life and tradition.
Char Chinar Garden, Srinagar
Pari Mahal:
Pari Mahal, Srinagar
Located on the slopes of Zabarwan hills, near the Chasme Shahi Garden, this charming garden was built at the ruins of a Buddhist monastery. This ancient monument is believed to be constructed for the purpose of astronomical observations by prince Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan in the year 1650. He  named it after his wife Nadira Begum, who was also known as Pari Begum.
The garden of Pari Mahal has six terraces spreading across an area of over 7500 square meters. The gardens are watered by a nearby spring. 

Tulip Garden:
Tulip Garden, Srinagar
This is a new addition to the age old tradition of Kashmiri gardens. Decorated with lines of different varieties and colours of Tulip flowers spreading across 15 hectars, this garden is a real delight to the senses. One of the most visited attractions of Srinagar, the ideal time to visit this garden is during March and April when the flowers are in full bloom. The garden was opened only a few years ago and since then it has found a place in the heart of the tourists. Tulips are very delicate flowers and can be grown only in favourable weather conditions. Kashmir is one of the very few places on earth that suits the Tulip plantation. Over 1.2 million Tulips of different varieties bloom every year here making this garden look like a colourful carpet on the foothills of Zabarwan mountains
Tulip Garden, Srinagar
Tulip Garden, Srinagar
Tulip Garden, Srinagar

Apart from these wonderful gardens and lakes, Srinagar has many other attractions  - Hazratbal Mosque, Hari Parbat Fort, Shankaracharya Temple, Sri Pratap Singh Museum and so many other tourist places which I could not visit during my short stay in the city. Finally, I conclude by sharing a few advices which might be helpful if you are planning a vacation to Srinagar for the first time.

1. How to reach: Srinagar airport is well connected with the international airports in Delhi and Mumbai. Some flights also have a stopover at Jammu. The airport security is very tight and time consuming. Be prepared for it and reach the airport early while returning. Srinagar can also be reached by car from nearest railway station Jammu (258 km) and from Delhi (876 km)

2. Be aware: Keep a track of the latest happenings in the state and if you come across any news of violence or unrest in the region, do not hesitate to cancel the trip even at the last moment.

3. Be safe: Book the accommodation well in advance. The tourists are often approached by stray agents, guides or porters. Better to avoid them. Also, do not buy anything from roaming vendors who try to lure the tourists to sell their products or services.

4. Be careful: Keep your belongings safely. Never trust strangers.

5. Dealing with locals: Bargain hard. The price is often overstated to the tourists, particularly the foreigners.

6. Things to buy: Kashmir is famous for Cashmere (Pashmina) shawls. You can buy it as a souvenir or for your winter use, but only from a good store. Never buy from stray vendors. You can also consider buying carpets and saffron (kesar). 

7. Nearby attractions: Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg are some of the great places to visit while you are in Srinagar. You can also plan one or two night-stays in some of these places. Kashmir is full of natural beauty. Try to enjoy it as much as possible with a well planned itinerary.
Notwithstanding the underdeveloped tourism industry of the state and incidences of violence, tourists can’t resist visiting Kashmir for its scenic beauty and the paranormal experience of heaven on earth. The beauty of Kashmir can only be felt by staying there and exploring the city at a slow pace. It’s a must visit destination for all, particularly for nature lovers. Kashmir is awe-inspiring, incredible, out of the world - I could have written more, only if I had any word left in my vocabulary.

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