27 July 2014

Dalian

Dalian is a coastal city in the province of Liaoning in north-east China with a population of around 7 million. It is a popular tourist destination for domestic Chinese tourists and is known as the "square city" in China, with several beautiful squares.

CITY MAPPING
For the tourist, most places of interest lie in three districts, namely Zhongshan district, Xigang district and Shahekou district. The airport is located north-west of the center.

SIGHTS
The Harbour area at the eastern end of Zhongshan district is a wide open area, nice to take a walk around in and feel the cool sea breeze. It is a popular area particularly in the evenings, but with absolutely nothing, it is a wide empty area and is popular with cycling as well. The entrance is on Ren Min Dong Lu, and is close to the Dalian International Convention Center.

Dalian Harbour area
Squares
From the harbour, walk west on Ren Min Dong Lu until you reach the first square, Gangwan Square which has a few pieces of colonial architecture.

Gangwan Sq
Continue walking straight on Renmin Rd and you will enter one of the city's downtowns, with many hotels, commercial buildings, restaurants and shopping centers. Keep on walking straight until you reach Zhongshan Sq, one of the city's main squares in the heart of the financial district.

Dalian was a colony of both the Japanese and the Russians and colonial architecture can be seen here, amongst other places. Most of the colonial buildings are banks or other financial institutions. 

Zhongshan Sq
The center of the roundabout is a popular place for locals, especially in the evenings. Dances and other performances often take place here. Some of the buildings are lit at night and it's worth coming for great photos at night. 

Continue straight from Zhongshan Sq, and Renmin Rd becomes Zhongshan Rd. A little further is Friendship Sq (Youhao Sq), at whose center is a crystal ball. 

Friendship Sq
Further continuing on Zhongshan Rd, in Xigang district is People's Sq (Renmin Sq), flanked by major government buildings on all sides. The square is quite large, and there are nice shady places to sit in where the din of the traffic disappears.

People's Sq
Among the important buildings located at the square are the City Hall and a court.

Located in Dalian is Asia's largest square called Xinghai Sq. Around the area are major tourist attractions such as the Shell Museum and the aquarium. The Dalian International Beer Festival, which occurs every year in July-end, takes place here.

Around Xinghai Sq
The area is very popular with domestic tourists. If you can put up with the crowds, the cool sea breeze is rewarding!

Colonial architecture
See Zhongshan Sq and Gangwan Sq above.

Besides, some colonial architecture is located around Russian Street. With the development of Dalian, much colonial architecture has been destroyed and replaced by modern facsimiles of Russian architecture, however some truly old architecture does exist. Also around are many tourist shops selling Russian dolls among other items.

Part of Russian St
Parks
With respect to city parks, Dalian is well served by Labor Park (Laodong Park), a large well-maintained city park. It's a great place to meander along, and serves as an access point to visit the TV Tower for views.

Labor Park with the TV Tower in the background

The park has amusement park-like rides for children, particularly on the eastern edge of the park. Access to the TV Tower is also from the eastern edge- one of the ways to get there is a 1.5 km uphill walk, along a green tranquil path. On the way there will be a barrier and a ticket booth (Y50) and from there it's only a little bit more to the entrance of the tower. You then get in the tower and take a lift to the viewing platform. The weather is often smoggy which can hinder views. 

Labor Park and beyond as seen from the base of TV Tower
Temples
On the outskirts of town is Hung Shan Temple, among the largest temples in north-east China. Set in green and calm surroundings, the only sound you can hear is the traditional Buddhist music if you come on a good day. It is said to be popular with domestic visitors but I got lucky: there were only a few other visitors. 

Hung Shan Temple
Other Sights
Often called the French Riviera of Dalian, Binhai Road is Dalian's seaside road with the twists and turns, and the rocky surfaces which did remind me of the French Riviera or the Amalfi Coast. There are several viewpoints and tourist attractions, such as Tiger Beach, on the way. 

Binhai Rd
SHOPPING
Very near Friendship Sq, around one or two traffic lights west on Zhongshan Rd, is the underground Victory Sq shopping center. You will see many entrances to it but strangely there are few exits when you are underground. The layout is confusing and signs are only in Chinese so enter only if you have enough time. There are lots of different types of shops, from hairdressers to restaurants.

Nearby is a large area with modern malls such as New Mart as well as outdoor shops and stalls. Has some global brands and food courts as well as Starbuck's, McDonalds and Haagen Dazs. 

Wen Cho shopping centre is a fine place to shop for souvenirs.

ACCOMMODATION
We stayed at the Conrad Dalian, a new property at the eastern edge of Zhongshan district, close to the International Convention Centre, Harbour and Gangwan Sq. 

 TRANSPORT
Taxis can be hailed off the streets, just stick out your arm. Flag fall is Y10 and a journey within the tourist areas shouldn't cost more than Y25. Drivers should use their meters- and they generally do. Even occupied taxis look for more passengers going in the same direction, don't be surprised if your taxi picks up somebody else or the taxi you hailed has another occupant. Taxi drivers do not speak English so have your accommodation write down addresses of places you'd like to visit, many will give a card with the hotel address and a list of important places.

Walking within the tourist district is a good way to explore some of the inner lanes and distances are not large. Pavements may be large but are always used for parking so you may end up walking on the road. Be careful while crossing, even a green pedestrian light may have vehicles turning right from the road or vehicles coming into that road. As for crossings not protected by lights, do NOT expect traffic to stop for you, cross with caution. Take particular care at squares such as Gangwan Sq, which have neither crossings nor lights, and traffic comes from multiple directions at once. No matter how beautiful the square is, watch out! For utmost care, walk around rather than through the square. As for other junctions, use underpasses whenever available. 

The main form of public transport is bus, although trams, both modern and historic, operate a few lines. 

SAFETY
Dalian is by large a safe city, with traffic being a concern you need to watch out for (see above). Take usual precautions you would in any large city, including being watchful of your bags and pockets.

TOURIST FRIENDLINESS 
Language is a major barrier with effectively no one speaking a word of English. Bring along a Mandarin phrasebook. However, people are generally helpful and waiters etc may wait patiently as you point out specific words in your phrasebook. Even a few words of Chinese will be appreciated.

Last visit- Jul 2014
No of visits- 1

08 July 2014

Bali

How can a tiny island mean so many things to so many different people? Water sports, beaches, landscapes, temples- they're all there. Take your pick, or pick them all. That's why Bali is so great, it lets you try so many different kinds of activities.

MAPPING
Bali has an area of around 5780 sq km, tiny as far as islands go, but as far as destinations go, it is quite a big place. South Bali is home to many of the beach resort areas, such as Kuta, Seminyak, Sanur and Nusa Dua. The airport and the capital city, Denpasar, are also located in south Bali. Central Bali is home to Ubud, Bedugul. The volcanic Mt Kintamani is in East Bali.

SIGHTS
SOUTH BALI
Denpasar
Royal Temple
Denpasar is the capital of Bali with a population of around half a million people. The city centre is clean and green, with many government buildings and a number of interesting attractions.
Visit the Royal Temple and Palace in Denpasar, which has some beautiful carvings. Climb the spiral staircase for good views over the city. Entrance fee for foreign adults is Rp 10,000.

View of Denpasar from the Royal Temple









Lapangan Puputan Margarana (Puputan Park) is a well-maintained park in the center of town. Next to one of its sides is the Jagatnatha Temple.

Jagatnatha Temple

A street in central Denpasar
Also in South Bali are the towns of Kuta, Jimbaran, Seminyak, Sanur and Nusa Dua which are touristy and don't have much apart from beaches, shops and restaurants. The beach town of Canggu, though, is less touristy.

CENTRAL BALI
Ubud
Ubud is the cultural heartland of Bali with superb temples, villages specialising in things like silver and wood carvings and simply beautiful architecture. More than 90% of Bali's population is Hindu and each house here has a temple, which they maintain carefully. Every village also has a minimum of 3 temples. 

Located here are some beautifully ornate temples and palaces, such as the Puri Saren.


The Ubud area consists of 14 villages, each specialising in either wood carvings, silver or paintings. If you take tours, you will be shown the process of actually doing the work and then you can buy- some of the things can be of good quality and at some places you can bargain.

Another attraction around Ubud is the cave of Goa Gajah (Elephant Caves). It was built in the ninth century and served as a sanctuary.

Entrance to the cave, Goa Gajah

Bedugul
Bedugul is another area in Central Bali, and it is home to the picturesque Lake Beratan (Bratan). On the lakefront is the beautiful Pura Ulun Danu Bratan (Lake Bratan Temple). Entrance fee Rp 30,000 per adult. Parking also costs, around Rp 5000-10,000. The temple is on the western side of the lake and is an iconic image of Bali. You can't go inside the main temple but just viewing it from outside, and the whole compound is a great experience. There is some scenic greenery on the other side- behind the main temple.

Lake Bratan and the temple
The nearby town of Candikuning is a good place to shop for fruit and souvenirs. The sellers themselves encourage bargaining!

Bali is famous for its rice paddies, and one of the best viewpoints is at Jatiluwih, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Unfortunately it was raining when I got there, so views weren't too great.

This area is much higher than South Bali so it is usually much cooler up here. It may not be a bad idea to bring a light jacket, particularly when it is raining.

A farmer works at a rice paddy in Jatiluwih
EAST BALI
Mt Kintamani 
Mt Kintamani is a mountain in East Bali from where there are great views of Lake Batur and the active volcano Mt Batur. As in Bedugul, this area can be surprisingly cool, due to its elevation.

Lake Batur and Mt Batur
WEST BALI
Tanah Lot
On the western coast, not very far from South Bali, is the iconic Tanah Lot temple (Pura Tanah Lot), one of the most photographed in Bali, on Tanah Lot, a rock formation.

It is a very popular point at sunset and gets very crowded- however if you intend to visit at sunset, cloudy/rainy days can spoil the fun!

Tanah Lot
ACCOMMODATION
I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Nusa Dua, in the resort town of Nusa Dua in South Bali. Nice hotel with good rooms. Has an hourly shuttle to a private beach jointly owned by this and a couple of other resorts.

FOOD
The Loving Hut in Denpasar (Pertokoan Sudirman Agung B 12A Jl. PB Sudirman Denpasar, Bali) A little hard to find- it is a lane of two inside a commercial complex. Good food though, all vegan.
Bali is famous for its bars, such as the Rock Bar in Ayana Resort, Jimbaran.

SHOPPING
The Ubud area has villages famous for wood, silver, batik etc and if you are going on tours, you will certainly be taken to those places. Prices may seem quite high; if you're stopping in Jakarta, it may be worthwhile to have a look there as well. Denpasar is home to the usual department stores.

For groceries and such, there are numerous branches of Alfamart, Indomaret, Circle K, Minimart and Coco Mart virtually everywhere.

TRANSPORT
Cheap petrol means that getting car + driver for a whole day need not be expensive. You can find a 5 seater for around 400,000 rupiah for 10 hrs, anywhere in Bali. Your hotel may have suggestions.

Bali is served by the Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS) in South Bali and has flights to many South-East Asian destinations. It is a modern airport, but with beautiful traditional designs on its exterior.

Last visit- Jun/Jul 2014
No of visits- 1




05 July 2014

Singapore

A small country packed with attractions. A multi-cultural city-state, with Chinese, Malay, Indian and colonial influences. Easy and efficient public transportation. Something for everyone, from amazing Buddhist temples to a top-notch zoo. Where else, but in Singapore?

CITY MAPPING
As far as countries go, Singapore is tiny- only around 716 sq km. However, as far as cities go, Singapore is just like any other big city, with lots of different neighbourhoods with different vibes.

A lot of the action is centred around the Singapore river, with the CBD and colonial area around. The river empties in marina Bay, with Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer nearby. North of the river are the areas of Orchard Rd and Bugis. South of the river is Chinatown. 

Changi Airport (SIN) is around 20-25 km north-east from the centre, on Singapore's eastern coast.

SIGHTS
Singapore River & Marina Bay
Singapore River snakes through the centre of town. Around its banks is lots of colonial architecture and the CBD.

Merlion

At the easternmost point of the river, just as it meets Marina Bay, is the Merlion, the half fish half lion, a structure meant to be a tourist icon of Singapore. The setting is really spectacular, with the skyscrapers on one side, and the Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer on another. 

Going west, on the north bank, streets are full with colonial architecture such as the Parliament and Supreme Court. Right on the riverbank is Raffles' Landing Site, the exact spot where Sir Raffles is said to have landed when he discovered Singapore. Located there is his statue. 

Raffles' Landing Site
There is a brilliant view of Singapore's skyline from there.

A few streets north, on St Andrews' Rd, near City Hall MRT, is St Andrews' Cathedral, the largest church in Singapore.

St Andrews' Cathedral
The iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with its 3 towers and ship-shaped roof, is home to the Sands Skypark ($23 per adult) which offers amazing views of Singapore. Check the website for any closures when you want to visit. You can buy tickets on the spot.

Singapore skyline as seen from Sands Skypark

Chinatown
A bustling neighbourhood south of the river, Chinatown is home to interesting architecture in tiny lanes, as well as many shopping centres.

Take a stroll down streets such as Temple St and Smith St. There are lots of small shops offering touristy trinkets and clothes, bags and the like.

Chinatown Food Street has lots of small eateries offering interesting things to eat and drink. A good place to come for vegetarian food. Free wi-fi as well!

Nearby, on Sago St/Kreta Ayer Sq/South Bridge Rd is the beautiful BuddhaTooth Relic Temple, believed to house the sacred relic. You need to cover up to visit- they offer shawls.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Getting to Chinatown is easy- Chinatown MRT is located right in the heart of the neighbourhood, while Outram Park MRT is located not far off, and Clarke Quay MRT isn't far off either.

Not far off is the Singapore City Gallery, offering interesting displays on the history and current of Singapore.

Sentosa Island




Sentosa, a small island south from Singapore, is Singapore's resort island. There are various ways to get here, such as monorail from Vivo City Mall (HarbourFront) and Cable Car.

Various attractions here include Universal Studios located in Resorts World and the Luge and Skyride, the Sentosa Merlion, and a nice beach, as well as Underwater World, which includes a walk-in aquarium, a definite hit with kids.

Other attractions
Some other attractions which I have been to in earlier visits (which were a lot of fun) include the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and Jurong Bird Park.

ACCOMMODATION
I stayed at Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium, located in the Riverside area.
Rooms- 8/10 Fine rooms, a little small, but this is Singapore. Have all the usual amenities.
Staff- 7/10 Most of the staff is helpful.
Location- 8/10 Good location, with several bus stops nearby. Great World City is a 700m-ish walk away. Outram Park MRT is the closest, 1 km south.
Breakfast- 5/10 Breakfast was disappointing, quality was poor and rates were high for that.
Other point- 1/0 A whole load of laundry (and a load is huge) at the hotel laundromat costs only $5.
Overall- 29/40 Recommended. But I would suggest not taking the breakfast.

FOOD
Singapore is known for its great dining opportunities from Chinese to Indian to Western. Food courts in malls offer good variety for the indecisive. Compared to other parts of south east Asia, rates are high.
Skinny Pizza- located in Great World City. Has paper-thin innovative pizzas, as well as amazing desserts.
SaladStop - serves great wraps in Great World City. Several options for vegetarians.
Marche- in Vivocity. A chain restaurant in a beautiful setting. You pay according to plate size differently, for different items such as salads, crepes, pastas etc.
Pita Pan- located in Marina Bay Sands mall. OK Lebanese dishes- many items were not available.
Little India has many South Indian restaurants, good for vegetarians.
Chinatown's Food Street has exciting options for drinks, desserts and snacky items.

SHOPPING
Singapore is renowned for its myriad malls and shopping centres, however prices of branded items are similar as elsewhere. Despite this, malls can be fun to just roam around in, and they offer great dining options. Besides, malls are home to hypermarkets which are convenient for shopping for food items, especially for longer stays.

Orchard Rd

Orchard Rd
Orchard Rd is probably what comes first to mind when "shopping" and "Singapore" are put in the same sentence, for seasoned travellers and first-timers alike. Home to a vast number of malls and department stores, Orchard Rd should satisfy even the fussiest of shopaholics. Even if you're not interested in shopping, just walking around is a great way to take in the city. Some of the malls here include Ngee Ann City (with the huge Takashimaya department store) and Paragon.  

Singapore River & Marina Bay
This area is home to Great World City, a big mall with half-hourly free shuttles to Orchard Rd (we however found the timings erratic). 

Attached to Marina Bay Hotel is its very posh mall.

HarbourFront
This area is home to Vivocity, the mall at whose level 3 the Sentosa Express monorail from Sentosa arrives. The mall is also a big, interesting place to shop. Do have a look at the fountain outside its entrance. There are good views of Sentosa from a terrace-like area of the mall.

Fountain at Vivocity
Bugis
This area is home to a mall called Bugis Junction.
Nearby starts Bugis Street, an air-conditioned street market of tiny lanes offering some bargains on clothes, watches, bags etc. Also a great place for street food. 

 TRANSPORT
Singapore is served by Changi Airport, on the eastern coast of Singapore, with flights from all over the world. 

Within Singapore, travel is easy with efficient bus and MRT networks. Taxis are expensive at peak hours due to ERP- the congestion charge, which can easily add $3-4 to a small journey within the city. Taxis can sometimes be difficult to find. The easiest bet would be the nearest shopping centre which have taxi ranks (but queues can be very long). 

Walking is safe as traffic lights are respected, but do not cross randomly, something that is otherwise common in many other Asian countries. Jaywalking is illegal so cross at a designated crossing whenever there is one. At crossings, vehicles give way to pedestrians. However, the universal humid weather means that walking long distances can be uncomfortable. Be prepared for rain anytime!

Last visit- Jun 2014
No of visits- 3
First visit- May 2004


04 July 2014

Jakarta

Jakarta, a massive city of more than 9 million people, is the big beating heart of Indonesia. It is Indonesia in a nutshell, home to people from throughout the country hoping to make a living. Clearly, a large city such as this will have something to offer, and it's worth spending a few days here for its sights and shopping.

SIGHTS
JAKARTA PUSAT (CENTRAL JAKARTA)
Lapangan Merdeka
Lapangan Merdeka, or Freedom Sq, is a massive, nearly 1 sq km, green open area right at the heart of the city. In the 1997 Asian economic crisis, protesters engulfed the entire square, demanding the resignation of President Suharto. His resignation paved the way for the introduction of democracy in Indonesia.

Now, Merdeka Sq is a popular place for locals to just relax in, with its plethora of shops and street food. The square is home to the National Monument, called Monas, a 137 m high landmark which was officially opened by President Suharto in 1975. The top of the landmark is home to a 35 kg gold leaf.

Monas


Just entrance to the monument is Rp 5000 which allows you entry to the lower level (which also has good views) and access to the History Museum, located just as you enter the monument. Weekends and holidays can be very crowded; I went the day before Ramadan and the queue to get to the top was so long, the waiting time was 3 hrs!


View from Monas




Lapangan Banteng and around
Very close to the north-east section of Merdeka Sq is Banteng Sq.
The area around is home to the iconic Hotel Borobudur, Masjid Istiqlal (the largest mosque in south east Asia)- it can be seen from Monas, as well as Gereja Katedral (Jakarta Cathedral).

The mosque and the cathedral are bang opposite each other, in fact, the best views of the cathedral are from inside the mosque compound.

Jakarta Cathedral

Masjid Istiqlal

The roads around these squares are very green and parts are beautifully landscaped. If you feel tired of Jakarta's concrete jungle, you really just need to drop into the centre of town!

Gambir station is on the eastern side of Merdeka Sq.

KOTA
Kota is Jakarta's true old town, and is located west of the centre. By road, excluding in the worst of traffic, it should take 30-40 minutes from around Lapangan Banteng.

Kota is home to some well-maintained colonial architecture. Much is around the main square of Kota, called Taman Fatahillah.

Taman Fatahillah is a bustling square, home to various attractions such as the Jakarta History Museum and the Museum Wayang (Puppet Museum).

Jakarta History Museum
Entrance to Museum Wayang is Rp 5000 for an adult and exhibits are really beautiful, truly showing how artistic Indonesian society really is. Maintenance is not top, but the place is blissfully air-conditioned.

The square has lots of street food- up to you whether it's safe for you, but the things not using cut fruit/tap water should be fine.

The above list is far from exhaustive: we had only 2 nights. Other places of interest include National Museum, Ancol and Glodok.

ACCOMMODATION
We stayed at Hotel Merlynn Park in Central Jakarta, a few kilometers north-west of Merdeka Sq.
Rooms- 8/10 Generally of good quality, but edges in and around the wash basin are not very clean.
Staff- 8/10 Fine staff, no special comment here.
Location- 7/10 Not the best possible location. It is central but many other 5-star hotels are located in the southern part of the centre, which is more modern. However, amenities such as ATMs and convenience stores are closeby.
Breakfast- 7/10 OK breakfast, no special comment here.
Other point- 1/0 Free 4 garments laundry per day per room.
Overall 31/40 Recommended. Rates were good. However I would prefer a similar quality hotel at a similar rate in Sudirman or Hotel Indonesia roundabout area.

SHOPPING
Jakarta is very famous for shopping, with well over a 100 malls and shopping centres. One of the top is Plaza Indonesia, a posh mall at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in central Jakarta. Prices of branded goods are very similar to those elsewhere so there are no great deals to be found, in general.

However, you can get genuinely good discounts and prices for a wide range of clothes (including batik), shoes etc at Blok M, a shopping centre in south Jakarta, not far from Senayan. A must-visit for bargain hunters, in my opinion. Next door is Pasaraya, home to a wide range of handicrafts, souvenir items and clothes etc, but at standard prices.

TRANSPORT
Jakarta is served by the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK), around 25-30 km from the centre. Travel times depend a lot on day and time, so ask your accommodation to avoid tense moments spent sitting in traffic.

Taxis are available from the airport but they can be infrequent, resulting in large waiting times even for relatively small queues. There are different queues for different taxi companies. Queues for some of the more expensive taxis may be very short. A Silverbird (one of the more expensive ones) should cost Rp 150,000 to 200,000 to the centre.

There are many taxi companies within the city, such as Blue Bird and Silverbird. Other taxi companies, also reliable, such as White Horse, are attached to different hotels. Taxi fares are cheap compared to fares in Singapore or any Western city so travelling by taxi is a viable option. A Blue Bird from Plaza Indonesia to Hotel Merlynn Park (around 4 km) should be around Rp 20,000.

There is no metro but there is a suburban train network.

TOURIST FRIENDLINESS 
People are in general friendly but English is uncommon, compared to, say Bangkok. It is wise to learn a few phrases in Indonesian, especially for taxis. There was not a single sign in English at Monas, but signs were in English as well in Museum Wayang.

Know the address of your hotel, as well as a nearby landmark/main road. For example, Hotel Merlynn Park is on Jln K.H. Hasyim Azhari, know fewer taxi drivers understood this, as compared to a nearby main road Jln Gajah Mada.

Crossing roads requires more awareness of what is going on than awareness of rules. A time we crossed, absolutely no one obeyed the pedestrian light outside the Jakarta Cathedral- this is because pedestrians do not obey traffic lights either. Cross with care! Take help of locals, or cross at a junction where there are other pedestrians.

Last visit- Jun 2014
No of visits- 1

Gangtok

Gangtok is the capital of the tiny Indian state of Sikkim, in north-east India. And just how far the city physically is from other Indian cities, so is the city very different from other Indian cities.

Introduction
A city of a mere 100,000 people or so, Gangtok is a very popular tourist destination in India due to its proximity to other highlights of Sikkim as well as being, in comparison with the rest of India, a very orderly and clean city. I didn't see a single shanty anywhere! Road rules are obeyed, drivers are very courteous and the city is very clean. Sounds good?

Sights
In the heart of town is Mahatma Gandhi Marg, a wholly pedestrianised road full of shops, small restaurants, banks, ATMs and other services. It is a pleasure to walk around at evening, when the road gets busy. There is a taxi depot very close by, where you can hail taxis to go back.

A section of Mahatma Gandhi Marg
Gangtok is home to the Gangtok Ropeway, a cable car that has 3 stops in the city, offering great views. They are not packed to full capacity, but the attendant will restrict you to one point to stand at while the car is in motion.

Duddul Chhoedten Stupa- A beautiful stupa complex which was once said to be haunted by evil spirits. It was constructed in 1946. Definitely visit if you like stupas and the like.

The stupa

AROUND GANGTOK
Most of the big-name attractions people come for are not in the city itself, but a day trip.

Rumtek Monastery
Around an hour's drive from Gangtok is the Rumtek Monastery, the largest in Sikkim. You will need at least 45 min to see the place properly. The whole complex is very beautiful however photos are not allowed in several areas which can be a bit disappointing.


No special pass or permit is required to visit, but carry some ID.
Indians should carry their voter card, driving license or passport
(pan card is not accepted). Foreigners should carry their passports.





Nathula Pass
Nathula Pass is the India-China border around 2.5 to 3 hrs from Gangtok. The scenery around, especially at Lake Tsomgo (which is frozen in winter) is very beautiful and makes the long journey worthwhile.

You need to apply for a permit to visit Nathula. For Indians at least, the permit takes at least 1 working day and requires 2 passport photos and an identification (such as a passport, voter card or driving license; PAN card is not acceptable).

The area is home to army barracks and is under great security so stopping everywhere for photos is not possible. Definitely stop at Lake Tsomgo. There are a few cafes and shops on the way, where you can use a restroom.

Lake Tsomgo

Accommodation
We stayed at the Club Mahindra's property, which is really outside Gangtok proper and you will need to take a taxi to visit town (20-25 min). The property is designed in a very Buddhist style, and is therefore beautiful.

Transport
The nearest airport is at Bagdogra, in West Bengal, around 4 to 4.5 hrs by road.

Last visit- Jan 2014
No of visits- 1


06 January 2014

Kolkata

Kolkata is the biggest city in Eastern India, with a population of around 5 million. It is located on the banks of the river Hooghly.

INTRODUCTION
Kolkata is very famous for its Indian sweets. A particularly famous landmark is the Howrah bridge.

CITY MAPPING
Most tourist attractions are clustered around the Maidan and Esplanade area in central Kolkata. North of these areas is the Hooghly river, with the town of Howrah on the other bank. South of the centre are the posher districts, including Ballygunge, with the famous Birla Mandir. The airport (CCU) is 15 km north east from the city.

SIGHTS
Most attractions are in the city centre, consisting of Esplanade and Maidan districts. Through the centre runs Park St, one of the major thoroughfares of the centre, with many shops and restaurants. Among them is the popular Flurys, which is by large a bakery. It can be immensely crowded, and you may have to wait outside.

Park St on Christmas Eve

Park St

The western end of the street is at the large park called Maidan.

Nearby is the Victoria Memorial, a beautiful piece of colonial architecture. It was built between 1906 and 1921. Expect loads of crowds on holidays and weekends.

Victoria Memorial with the massive crowds on Christmas Day
Also in the area is the St Paul's Cathedral, built in 1847. Photography is not allowed in the interior. 

St Paul's Cathedral

Other attractions in the area are the Indian Museum and Eden Gardens. 

A lot of colonial architecture is around Dalhousie Sq (BBD Bagh).

Dalhousie Sq
Some of the interesting buildings include those of the General Post Office and the High Court.

High Court
On the northern bank of the Hooghly is the bustling town of Howrah, with the main railway station of Kolkata.
Old Howrah Bridge

Howrah Railway Station

In south Kolkata, the primary attraction is the Birla Temple. Photography is not permitted inside.

Birla Temple in Ballygunge

ACCOMMODATION
1) Park Plaza Kolkata Ballygunge---located in south Kolkata's Ballygunge area, Park Plaza offers pleasant rooms and has a good restaurant. While Birla Temple is walkable, you will need a taxi to travel to the centre. 
2) Swissotel Kolkata---handy to the airport (a 10 min drive). Rooms are plush and there is a mall next door- convenient for food.

FOOD
Kolkata is rightly famous for its Indian sweets. 
Balaram has a small outlet on Park St and a bigger one in Bhawanipur. Great sweets- many distinct ones as well.
Kwality, on Park St, serves good Indian cuisine but portions are very small.
Flurys is a famous bakery on Park St with smaller branches elsewhere.

TRANSPORT
Kolkata is served by the Netaji Subash Chandra Bose Airport (CCU), 15 km from the centre. There is a pre-paid taxi service- follow the signs upon arrival. 

Taxis can be hailed on the streets. If the meter starts from 10, the actual fare will be 2.4 times the meter reading plus Rs 1. If the meter starts from 25, the meter reading is the fare. A taxi from Ballygunge to Park St would cost about Rs 80. 

However, taxis can be very difficult to find around Park St at evenings. Some may be unwilling to go.

Kolkata also boasts a metro and India's only tram service. 

A tram runs past Birla Temple
Last visit: Dec 2013
No of visits: 1

21 April 2013

San Francisco

Pretty houses on a slope, a beautiful orange bridge and a climate which seems incompatible with California, San Francisco is a unique city. And while it may sound cliched, it's true nonetheless.

INTRODUCTION
San Francisco is famous for several things: be it the famous ex-prison Alcatraz, the Victoria-style houses (Victorians), its steep slopes, and several more. Whatever your main highlight, you'll leave satisfied.

CITY MAPPING
San Francisco's centre is pretty compact. The centre is surrounded by the bay on the north and east. Much of the northern part of the centre consists of upscale residential districts- such as the Marina, Nob Hill and Cow Hollow. Slightly south is North Beach as well as the true downtown with the famous Union Sq, and around are Chinatown, the Financial District and the Western Addition. Slightly west is the Golden Gate Park. South of Downtown is the SoMa (South of Market St) and South Beach.

San Francisco's airport (SFO) lies around 14 miles to the south of the centre.

SIGHTS
UNION SQ and around
Union Sq, bordered by Powell St (west), Geary St (south), Stockton St (east) and Post St (north), is a popular public place in this part of town. It is frequented by office folk during lunch time, as well as shoppers taking a break and tourists. Indeed, this area is now a popular shopping area, with department stores right next door. Saks Fifth Avenue is on the northern side, Macy's is on the southern, Neiman Marcus is closeby, and only slightly away are many individual stores and other shopping centres.

Union Sq

To view a history of the square, check out the granite on the south-western side.

There are often exhibitions in the square. There are 2 cafes, and some good seating. Sit and watch the world go by!
Union Sq at night

Powell St is one road where the famous cable cars drive by. Sitting on the square, watching the cable cars go by, while listening to the cables running steadily below, is a typical San Francisco experience. The cable car is generally very crowded when going north- as it gets full from its southerly end at Powell and Market... so waiting at the cable car stop opposite Union Sq is probably going to be fruitless in the mornings and evenings- better to line up and wait at Powell and Market.

Cable car on Powell St
Powell St, well till its southern end at Market St, remains an important shopping street, with plenty of stores.

The junction of Powell St with Market St is perpetually busy, as here the iconic turning around of the cable car for the return journey takes place.


MARKET STREET
Market Street is one long road, and a major thoroughfare, which runs from the southern part of the city all the way to the Ferry Building on the seaside (the seaside road from Fisherman's Wharf in the north to South Beach is called the Embarcadero; the Ferry Building is roughly somewhere in between). This section will concentrate on the stretch of Market Street mainly in the Downtown district. Along the road run the vintage streetcars (line F) and buses. There are also stations for the streetcars from underground for lines J, K, L, M, N and T.

The Ferry Building is a landmark, from where some ferries depart (for example, to the town of Sausalito). It also is home to several restaurants. From this area, you can enjoy a nice view of the Bay Bridge and nearby skyscrapers.

Ferry Building with its clock tower,
note the streetcar  along the
Embarcadero
Bay Bridge

Going south-west on Market St, you will enter the Financial District with its myriad skyscrapers. Some nice buildings here include the Hobart Building (582 Market St). On the junction of Market, Geary and Kearney is the Lotta's Fountain. Nearby is the Phelan Building, the largest flat-iron structure in the city.

Phelan Building

Continuing south-west, the road becomes increasingly lined with shops- fashion as well as stores such as CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens, which are convenient for supermarket supplies. The road, however, becomes less interesting, as you enter the Tenderloin area.

FINANCIAL DISTRICT
If you like modern architecture and skyscrapers, you'll enjoy walking through this area. One of San Francisco's landmarks, the Transamerica Pyramid is located here. To see it closely, get to it at the southern end of Columbus Avenue. However, as this post continues on, you'll see various places from where you can get good views of it from afar.

Transamerica Pyramid
Other interesting buildings include the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange.

On Sundays, however, the area is pretty quiet and even the restaurants are closed (except for, say, Subway). It is recommended to visit it on a weekday afternoon. Then, it could be nice to just see the bustling activity and the traffic flowing past, especially while sitting somewhere in the Financial District on Market Street.

CHINATOWN
Immediately west of the Financial District is Chinatown. Come here, say, after 10-11 am when the area really starts to become bustling. Just start walking and checking out the various merchandise in the shops- it is an interesting area.

The Chinatown gate is located at the junction of Grant and Bush. 

Chinatown Gate

Chinatown
At the edge of Chinatown, bounded by California, Grant and Pine is the Old St Mary's Cathedral.

Old St Mary's Cathedral

NOB HILL
West of Chinatown, Nob Hill is a peaceful, posh residential district. With a greater than fair share of San Francisco's steep slopes (duh, where did the word "hill" come from?), walking will be slow, but the cable car (the Powell-Hyde one) runs through the district. 

Residences of Nob Hill

On California St, reachable by the cable car, is the Grace Cathedral.



Walk north 5 blocks on Taylor St, till you reach Broadway. On Broadway, between Taylor and Jones, there is a perch from which you can enjoy amazing views of the area. Beware of the slope (there are steps on the last stretch if you have difficulty on the slope). A small cartoon celebrates your arrival to the perch.


Do not forget the views!


RUSSIAN HILL
North of Nob Hill is another residential area called Russian Hill. These areas share similar attributes; vantage points and slopes. The Powell-Hyde cable car line runs through the area.

This area is famous for its crooked section of Lombard Street, and that area also offers good views.


NORTH BEACH and around
North Beach is San Francisco's very own Little Italy. Filled with Italian restaurants with outdoor seating, this area is also home to Washington Square. It is located east of Russian Hill.

Washington Sq has a nice park and a church. 

Washington Sq with the Peter and Paul Parish church
Another of San Francisco's landmarks is the Coit Tower, on top of Telegraph Hill. Bus 39 passes by Washington Sq and will drop you right at the top of the hill, at the base of Coit Tower- the walk is supposedly steep. The entry costs $7 per adult and the observation deck affords 360 degree views of the city.

Coit Tower

As said, the views are legendary.

View of the Financial District from Coit
Tower. The Transamerica Pyramid
looms large.
And for great views of the bay from up there...



Alcatraz is at the left. Boats are moored at around Fisherman's Wharf.

FISHERMAN'S WHARF and around
Fisherman's Wharf is located north of Russian Hill. To get here, take the Powell-Hyde cable car which will end at Beach and Hyde. Alternatively, streetcar F from Market will end around, at the Embarcadero. 

It is home to Ghiradelli Square- where you can savour its famous ice-creams and take back home a multitude of chocolates. 

Around the cable car stop at Beach St, there is a very good viewpoint with the Golden Gate bridge in the distance.


THE EMBARCADERO
The Embarcadero is the seaside road which links Fisherman's Wharf with South Beach. It is used to access the many piers along the way from which ferries to various destinations are taken. 

The F streetcar passes along the road from Market St to Fisherman's Wharf.

A theme-park like atmosphere surrounds Pier 39 with its surfeit of shops and restaurants. If you're in the area and don't know where to eat, have a look here.

GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE & around
When a tourist thinks of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is probably among what comes to mind first. This magnificent bridge links the city to Marin County and is about 2 miles in length. Pedestrians are allowed to walk across on the East side.



And on the bridge...




The views are stunning too (unfortunately I don't have a good photo).

Nearby, the district of Marina is another posh residential area. It is home to the Palace of Fine Arts.

Palace of Fine Arts

WESTERN ADDITION 
This area is south of Pacific Heights (which is south of Marina).

San Francisco is home to many Victorians, but many tourists prefer to see the Painted Ladies here, east of the viewpoint of Alamo Square.

Alamo Square itself is a nice garden, offering good views not only of these 'Painted Ladies' but also of other parts of the city. To get here from around Union Sq, take Bus 5 from the junction of Market and Powell. Get down at McAllister and Pierce and walk one block south.

The Victorians with the Financial District

Painted Ladies

CITY HALL and around
Very close to Union Sq, just west of the Tenderloin, lies the impressive structure of the City Hall.

City Hall

Also around are the Symphony Hall and the Opera House.


While it is close to Union Sq, if you're starting from there, you may not like to walk here as you will have to cross the Tenderloin- so take the streetcar J, K, L, M, N or T to Civic Center and walk 2 blocks on Grove St/McAllister St (till you reach Van Ness Av) to reach City Hall.

TENDERLOIN
Walk only 1 or 2 blocks from Market St into, say, Golden Gate Av or Turk St, and the atmosphere changes completely. You are now in the Tenderloin. This area is an unfortunate part of town, blocks away from the wealthy areas, where streets are full of the homeless and the mentally ill. While it isn't very unsafe during daytime, it is not a nice area to walk through and you should exercise caution. But don't worry- displaying a camera and similar really isn't a problem.

Located on Golden Gate Av, 2 blocks from Market St, is the St Boniface Catholic Church



SoMa (SOUTH OF MARKET STREET)
As the name says, this is the area south of Market St, until South Beach. If you like seeing fast flowing traffic, come here for its broad roads.

Located on 3rd street is the famous SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Very close by, accessible from both 3rd St and Howard St is the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Its garden has a beautiful setting, with a church right in front, with a good view of the surrounding skyscrapers.


TOUR TO ALCATRAZ
This famous ex-prison can only be visited on a tour, that too, only by one company. Look here for details. 
The tour is very good, and the audio-guide has interviews with actual prisoners and officers. Cost is $30 for an adult and remember to book around a week in advance- although you can book even sooner.

Cellhouse
The ferry is also excellent and offers great views. The ride will last about 20 min one way. 

Perfect views from the ferry
Built as a military facility, it was turned into a high-security prison in 1930s (known as "The Rock" by inmates). It was then closed in the 60s and now is a tourist attraction. On a visit, you will discover the cellhouse, the administration quarters and viewpoints from the island.

Picture Gallery of Alcatraz



Before entering the main cellhouse, you'll come across a small building with old photos of Alcatraz when it was a prison.

Photo of prisoners at work


ACCOMMODATION
We stayed at the Westin St Francis bang opposite Union Sq. It has maintained some historic charm and rooms are very spacious, considering its city location.

HOTEL REVIEW: WESTIN ST FRANCIS
Rooms: 8/10 Very spacious given the downtown location and they come with the usual amenities.
Staff: 8/10 Most of the staff are pretty helpful and friendly.
Location: 10/10 Bang opposite Union Sq and close to many restaurants and transportation, you really can't ask for more.
Breakfast: 8/10 It is pricey and the spread is rather limited but quality is excellent.
Total: 34/40 Recommended.                      

FOOD
San Francisco is famous for its dining scene- you have loads of choices.

UNION SQ, TENDERLOIN & MARKET ST
Being a prime tourist area, there are infinite possibilities here.
- The basement food court in the Westfield Shopping Centre has many choices. It is located on Market St, right opposite the junction with Powell St. There are also other restaurants located on the upper stories of the mall. The food court gets crowded on weekday afternoons due to the office crowd. 
- Cafe Bellini on Powell St (between Geary and O'Farell) is a nice restaurant, and also has breakfast options. Open from 7am. Great macaroons, too.
- Little Delhi serves Indian food on Eddy St (between Mason and Cyril Magnin).
Besides, this area has the usual chains- such as Chipotle (amazing Mexcian food; we went to the outlet on O'Farell St, between Cyril Magnin and Powell), Starbucks, Subway etc.
- Peets Coffee has several branches on Market St. Good for a drink and watching the world go by.

SoMa
This area also offers good eating possibilities.
- Check out the cafes on Mint Plaza, off Jessie St. 
- Sunrise Deli, located on 2nd St between Stevenson and Jessie, also has other branches across town. Serves good Lebanese cuisine.

PIER 39
- Mangoes serves very good Mexican food. Sit out, if the weather permits. Views are good.

TRANSPORTATION
San Francisco is served by San Francisco International Airport, lying around 14 miles south of the centre. A taxi will cost around $40 + tip to around Union Sq. 

The city's main transport network is run by MUNI, which runs buses, streetcars and the cable cars. If you're staying for more than 4-5 days, get a MUNI 7-day passport ($28) which can be used on any MUNI transport without any extra surcharge. MUNI also issues 1-day and 3-day Passports.
An individual cable car ride is $6.
Taxi flagfall is $3.10.

BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) connects San Francisco with the airport, East Bay, Daly City and Colma. MUNI passes aren't valid on BART, even for inter-city rides.

Another commuter train, called CalTrain, connects San Francisco with Gilroy, stopping at places such as Palo Alto.

Cable Car
MUNI runs three cable car lines. One runs on California St, from Van Ness to Market. Then there are two lines, with one end at the Powell-Market junction. The Powell-Mason line ends at Bay and Taylor, while the Powell-Hyde line ends at Beach and Hyde. The latter is better to appreciate the city's steep inclines but both are good experiences.

SAFETY
San Francisco is by large a safe city, but be careful of pickpockets in crowded public transport. The city has a large number of homeless people but they are unlikely to create much hassle. But you should be careful in the Tenderloin area.

ITINERARIES
One day
Walk down Market St all the way to the Ferry Building. From there take the streetcar to the Embarcadero and take in the views of the Golden Gate bridge at Beach St, at the end of the Powell-Hyde cable car. Then take the cable car till Union Sq, appreciating San Francisco's steep inclines and end at Union Sq, and sit and relax, and watch the world (and the cable cars) go by. In the evening, go to the Golden Gate bridge.

Two Days
Do Day 1 as above, getting a brief overview of the city. On the second day, visit Chinatown in the morning, followed by Washington Sq and roam around North Beach. Visit the Coit Tower and then in the afternoon, get to the Financial District- check out the Transamerica Pyramid from close. In the evening, take a stroll through Nob Hill and visit Grace Cathedral.

Three Days
Do the Day 2 Itinerary as above. On the third day, visit Alcatraz (book in advance!). Depending on the time of the tour, adjust in a stroll through Fisherman's Wharf and Ghiradelli Sq.

For more about the city, check out this report (also by me).
Last visit- Apr 2013
No of visits- 1