Free UAE Transit

Any kind of visa free or visa on arrival entry is good news for green passport holders, especially.

Back in 2008, as we embarked on our first Euro tour, we had an 8 hour layover in Dubai. At the time, we were offered a free transit visa into the UAE at the airport, not to mention, at no cost. So there is hope that once the new, relaxed visa regime comes into play, Pakistanis will qualify as will so many others.

As per the UAE’s local cabinet, passengers wishing to transit in the country for upto 48 hours will be able to do so free of cost via several of the country’s major hubs like the Dubai and Abu Dhabi International Airports. To stretch that count to 96 hours, a small fee of 50 Dirhams (around Rs.1,600 today) would apply. Given that Pakistanis currently pay a minimum of around Rs.10,000 for entry into the UAE, this is a game changer.

The mother-cum-traveler in me is busy concocting plans already. Baku, on its own, was never an interesting enough option. But once the new transit rule is unleashed, I am thinking 3 to 4 days in the Dubai Parks and then, some Azeri loving…. Some for the tot, some for the not-so-tot. Any takers?

 

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Mixed Class Cabins. Did You Know?

It is the 21st century, but air travel leaves a lot to be desired, especially for “cattle class” travelers. There is limited leg space, seat width is narrow and downright creepy if you’re sitting next to a stranger, seat reclines range from a mere 98 to 123 degrees, and even that is considered against good social etiquette.

Food is handed over in pre-packed trays.

The toilet to passenger ratio is abysmal. Bad.

You are among the first ones required to board the plane and the last ones allowed to step out. Your luggage deposit and release suffer from the same sequence.

Lounge access is either disallowed or available at steep prices. The Business Class lounge at the Dubai Airport, for example, comes at a price of around US$100 per person.

None of the above seemed to matter to me as a teen uptil a couple of years ago. As I have “flourished” in length and width, I’ve learnt to suffer from all of the above with heightened exaggeration. It isn’t a fun spot to be in, especially when my pocket doesn’t allow for business class extravagances. The mind says “no”; the heart says “yes”. But with some saving and some luck, I’ve found a good middle road: I buy mixed class tickets. Save the one transatlantic trip we made to Canada two years ago when we plunged into a full business fare with Turkish Airlines (the total price tag for 2 adults and 1 child sky-rocketted from Rs.500,000 to an obnoxious Rs.1,000,000!), we’ve been eyeing and grabbing good mixed cabin class fares on each of our trips. We buy economy class seats for our outward journeys and business class seats for our inward journeys. Why not the other way around?

  1. Most foreign airports offer better perks for business class travelers than Pakistani airports.
  2. You get added baggage on the way back, in most cases, 10 kgs extra, which is always a welcome allowance if you’ve been guilty of windowless shopping.
  3. It is something to look forward to; otherwise, load-shedding and creepy crawlies are the only thing in your future – near and far. One. Last. Indulgence.
  4. Airlines like Emirates and Etihad offer complimentary and hassle-free airport transfer in most major cities.

I have researched fares from Lahore to London and back, for several popular carriers offering the route for July 2018. Hopefully, these can serve as good reference points for this discussion-cum-recommendation. Here are the results:

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If cost is the only factor, then PIA comes out a clear winner whether you’d like to travel economy, business or a mixed class cabin fare. If quality of travel matters more to you, then look into other options.

airlines2Turkish Airlines, in this comparative analysis, clearly takes the cake. They’re offering more reasonable mixed cabin fares than the rest, and are neatly tucked close to the industry averages. I am a fan of the Turkish business class on offer in routes going westwards from Istanbul. They’re a bit old school compared to the modern and isolated business class cabin hum-dee-daas of middle eastern Airbus A380s but they’re extra spacious; plus, they have a chef on board for good quality gourmet food! Which one is your cup of tea?

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Choose one of the Middle Eastern carriers if privacy and luxury are more important to you. This picture is from an Emirates Airbus A380 cubicle. Their Boeing 777 seats aren’t half bad but not the same class.
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He was totally smitten by this Turkish Airways stewardess. But look at the air space around them. What a luxury in an aircraft!

A full business class fare from PIA is roughly the same as mixed cabin class fares for the other 4 airlines being considered here. I’d prefer the latter because well…they’re better people to fly with! I would still love to hear from people having traveled business with the national carrier and convince me otherwise.

Hotel Review: Swissôtel Makkah

We left Madinah with mixed feelings. It was time to say goodbye to the mosque, which despite all the inconveniences, we had grown to love, to find ourselves content and at peace in. It was also time to lay eyes on the Kaabah – the House of God.
There are different kinds of travelers. I, for one, like to enjoy my hotel room. I am okay with spending a little bit more for that extra bit of luxury. A lot of people prefer to shop; I hate stepping into malls, so it kind of evens out. Nothing pompous about my preferences.
Having said that, Makkah was not going to be about sitting cosied in a room. It was about going to and being up, close and personal with the iconic black cube that has more than a billion people in awe. But for me, it did mean spending a considerable amount of time in the room. Traveling with a kid, it wasn’t always going to be an option to step out anytime I wanted nor to spend hours at end inside the mosque. While planning our trip, I had one priority set straight: I wanted a Kaabah view room.
Abraj al Bait (the notorious Clock Tower) that dominates the Masjid Al-Haram today was to be our flavour of choice. After a little research, we concluded that Swissôtel Makkah was the most affordable option for a “room with a view”.

Check-in

Check-in was a bit of a scare. We presented our confirmation and the agent attending us claimed that no such booking was in their system. Right. So here we were, having traveled 5 hours in Ihram and we didn’t have a room to settle in. Frantic calls and messages to our agent in Pakistan ensued. While all hell was breaking loose, we decided to take our confirmations to another agent at one of the other check-in desks, and it took less than 10 seconds for officer number 2 to give us the green signal. Phew. Kaabah view room, I confirmed. “Yes,” he said.
As soon as we swiped the key, my son ran toward the window, and screamed with joy, having spotted the Kaabah. We ran after him and there it was. Its presence consumed us. But there was a problem. It was a very partial view. This was room 2924.
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We went down to the desk, back to the agent who checked us in, but he denied us another room saying that full Kaabah view rooms were for suites only (a blatant lie). And of course, we weren’t prepared to upgrade at an additional 600 Saudi Riyals a night.
Luckily, one of the bell boys suggested we return to the reception after 10 and talk to another agent. So after performing Umrah that night, we returned and were directed to an Arab duty manager. Now over the years, we have heard loads about Makkan Arabs being crude and harsh as compared to soft and polite Arabs in Madinah. So with very little hope, we approached his desk. As soon as I was done presenting my case, he responded: “Madam, go upstairs, pack your bags, and wait for someone to move you to another room.” It was Mr. Abdur Rehman, I think. Makkan Arabs 1, Myths 0.

The Room

IMG_7565The view from room 3527 was perfect. It wasn’t just a haram view, it wasn’t a partial Kaabah view; it was a full Kaabah view room. Sigh. One of the best investments of my traveling years. We joined so many prayers from our room window. Intuitively, I would recommend opting for rooms on floors 25 and above, with rooms 26 to 28 on any of these floors. So 2526 to 2528, 2626 to 2828 and so on, through to the top floors.
All the hotels in the city are designated as part of the haram, so our room and hotel got full audio reception from the mosque, for every congregation and every call to prayer. I have reason to believe that the same is the case with many, if not all, of the hotels in the area.
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The room size was okay. A slightly bigger one would have been better, considering we needed to fit in luggage for 3 adults and a child, and we needed space to move around and lay our prayer mats. But with a little rearrangement of the beds and the centre table, we were able to manage. The bathroom, however, was small. And maybe “small” is an understatement. The toilet area was roughly 4.5 feet by 4 feet, and the shower cabin was about 4 feet by 2.5 feet. On the bright side, the limited space was fully utilized with inset cabinets, hanging hooks, a hairdryer as well as a fixed bench in the shower for the frail and old. The size of the bathroom was still a disappointment but it was clean and the drainage was good, so I decided to focus on the aesthetics of the hotel rooms and the common areas.

Aesthetics

Very modern and very sophisticated. Minimalist designs, contemporary wall art and eye-catching lighting. The windows were floor to ceiling – a feature that lights up any room. A 10 out of 10 on aesthetics. The walk to the restaurant, situated on level P7, boasted a delightful interior.

Breakfast

If fruits, cereals, bread and butter do the trick for you, you’d be a happy duckling. I, however, usually prefer entrées to make a brunch out of my meal, and I found the menu a bit lacking on the desi scale. Boring me.

Location

I am not sure why, but every staff member we asked for the way to the mosque, directed us towards the mall. We’d walk straight into the mall from the hotel lobby, and then, trek a bit till we could step into the courtyard from the main entry/exit point of the Clock Tower. This opening faces the King Abdul Aziz gate of the mosque. It wasn’t a long walk, yet more than what we had imagined. It was when I ventured to the other side of the hotel lobby that I discovered it offered a straight walk into the mosque via Ajyad Road (Al-Safwa Mall) into the Ajyad and Ismail gates of the mosque. The trekking time was 2 to 3 minutes at most.

Service

The hotel has amazing management, and their housekeeping staff doesn’t let them down. Prompt. Efficient. Professional. Each time that we’d called their helpline, our doorbell would be rung within 5 minutes.
There was a slight issue with the water temperature in the shower, and it was resolved to full satisfaction without any pains.
Housekeeping would come in as soon as we called. Crisp, white linen was changed on a daily basis without fail. Vacuuming and wiping were also routine rituals, and done to perfection. All towels were replaced, no matter what. We did feel it was a bit excessive. Who changes towels and sheets at home everyday!
One complaint: They were a bit stingy with the complimentary water bottles: one 330 ml bottle per person per day. We got 3 a day in our triple room.
The helpline always called to follow up on our request. And we’d always respond, “Yes, done. Thank you very much!”
Signing off with a 20-second video made from our bedroom window:

Ramazan in the city of the Prophet

This is my first time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I never expected to break into tears when the plane landed. The moment it touched down, tears began trickling down my cheeks. All kinds of humble thoughts consumed me – more than anything, the realisation that Allah had given me the opportunity to set foot in the city that my Prophet (sws) once walked about in.

Our hotel here is very nicely situated. It takes us just about a minute to step into the courtyard of the mosque. It is a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing structure. But we can’t see the Rawza e Rusool (the tomb of the prophet) from this end. We need to walk down two corners before it comes into view. So last night, mum and I made an emotionally charged trip across the mosque. We were in deep conversation along the way, took a break for some yummy, chilled zam zam, but as soon as the iconic green tomb came into view, it’s as if we were pre-wired to go into silence. We stopped our conversation midway, and stared. Stared. Stared. Stared. Prayers for the prophet came oozing out. Very nearby, lay our beloved. He must have walked the land we were standing on. He must have. It is so easy to cry here. Tears come naturally and they feel therapeutic.

And then, there are tears of pain. Unfortunately, the mosque is managed in a very male-centric way:

  • Men are allowed to visit the Prophet’s grave 24 hours a day. On most times, they can casually walk in and casually walk out. Women are simply not allowed.
  • They are not allowed inside Jannat ul Baqi either.
  • Access to Riaz ul Jannah is so much more difficult and complicated for women than it is for men. There are stampedes. I heard there were 6 casualties on the 27th of Ramazan. Women need to plan hours in advance in the hope that they might get a chance to get insid. They either need to find a place during or after tahajjud, or at zuhr time. A random door is opened in their section at these times, and whoever can wrestle their way in, get the chance. As a result, they behave like primates, pushing and shoving, trying to get in before the doors are closed again. The animal within is unleashed. How ironic, but all hell breaks loose. And I blame it on the management.
  • The mosque has 40 (or so) gates. Women get access to 4 of those gates. I have been exchanging notes with my husband, as well as have been observing from a distance myself. Men get to take a polite stroll inside, and find a place of choice to occupy for prayers. Women again need to wrestle their way in. Today, on the 28th of Ramazan, I couldn’t find a spot inside the mosque or its courtyard, to offer asr prayers. I joined the congregation half-standing, and I wept and I wept. I felt so traumatised. My husband said finding a place was no problem at all – the usual for men, I suppose.
  • We are travelling with our 6 year old son. The first time I made my way to the mosque, I was dealt another shock. He wasn’t allowed in the ladies’ section. 6 is an interesting age. He is neither too young to create a ruckus nor too old to be considered a non-mehram. And yet, here I was, stranded outside the mosque because my husband couldn’t feel his phone vibrating as I tried to get in touch.

Tonight is the 29th of Ramazan and I am not going to even attempt to get into the mosque. I will stay put in my hotel room. Allah is everywhere.

But the Saudis do need to reconsider the arrangements they’ve made for women. We are equal Muslims. We need to be able to access the mosque just as easily.

Finally, never choose to come in Ramazan if it is your first time here. It is too much of a heartache.

In the spirit of fairness, one must also give full credit where it is due:

  • If you are in or around the mosque at Iftar time, you will always get plenty of food and drink to break your fast. The government as well as many individuals give so much, you can’t ever be empty handed. You won’t need to go to the food; it will literally be brought to every one of you.
  • The cleaners have a tough job on their hands. People don’t clean up after themselves and the assigned workers are at the job tirelessly and continuously.
  • The government provides chilled zam zam to all pilgrims. You will get water whenever you want it. There are thousands of water coolers inside the mosque and hundreds of taps in the courtyard – there is never a dry spell.

Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik…

Relaxing at the Mayan Riviera

We’re a young family with 2 kids. Our favorite place in Mexico is the Mayan Riviera, and we keep going back to it. We’re not fans of visiting big, over-developed cities. We’re basically looking for a nice week of relaxation with minimal effort involved. Following our first trip there, we returned three times to the same place; that is how addicted we were!

Why the Mayan Riviera every time you ask? What does it offer that other destinations in Mexico don’t?

The answer is simple: The beach is our biggest consideration, and the Mayan Riviera has white sandy beaches, and is at a comfortable distance from the main cities; it is closer to some beautiful Mayan ruins and offers a healthy choice of ecological parks (on every trip, we’ve chosen to visit a different one). The other coast (Pacific side), on the other hand, has yellow sand beaches, and the water is not as calm as it is on the Mayan side.

Within the Mayan Riviera, there are options to lodge in either of these areas: Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Conzumel.

Conzumel is still largely untouched and undeveloped, and can therefore, be a tad expensive, but it offers the best facilities for water activity lovers. The crystal waters own a mammoth number of species for those who love to snorkel or scuba-dive. But we just want to relax!

Playa del Carmen is known as the hub of nightlife and shopping within the Mayan Riviera. That too, we are weary of. Enough of Saturday night binges, and I play my fair share of being a material girl in a material world, all year long. This week has to be special.

We, therefore, always prefer to stay in Tulum, which overlooks Mayan ruins, offers competitive accommodation packages, not to mention, of course, a stunning beach.
But I get it – everybody has their own considerations. Choose whichever area you will, but choose the Mayan Riviera at least once. I’m guessing you’ll want to keep coming back!

 

My Mommy and the Beach

By The Average Mommy

When I was seven my father worked for a large multinational company in Karachi and every summer we would head out once school ended and crashed with him in the annexe he rented.

This is my clearest memory of Karachi, standing on Clifton beach, my short hair blowing wild. It got caught in my eyes.

My mother was really afraid of the open sea, but we begged her to move closer and closer.

She held our hands so tightly, the waves would come and crash at our feet, but I remember I felt safe.

It never occurred to me that my mother was small and powerless in front of the sea, I pulled her in deeper, and never for a moment stopped to think what would happen to my tiny frame if our hands disconnected.

I remember the force with which she held on to my hand – they were soft and strong, and I knew the sea couldn’t hurt me.

Today, my husband and I decided to dip our feet in the Indian Ocean at Bentota in Sri Lanka, thousands of miles away from Clifton beach in Karachi.

We held on to our children and stood in front of the open water. The kids would scream and shout as the water lapped around their feet.

My children are wild and fearless, they inched closer and closer, wanting to go in deeper.

I felt so proud of the knowledge that we, as parents, had inspired this fearlessness.

It’s not naïveté that makes them believe their parents can save them from a merciless wave; it’s a solid record of good performance.

I love travelling. It inspires me; it unlocks so many memories and feelings, so many things you think you have forgotten, but only need a small reminder- the receding sand from between your toes, the salty ocean air, children screaming with delight – to remind you of a cherished memory.

All the things parenthood takes from you, all the sacrifice it requires, it is all paled and faded in comparison to what it gives.

The absolute trust of another human being in your capability.

This trust, this belief and fan-following can help us move mountains.

Here’s to the beauty of little children who remind us that we are extraordinary, when the rest of the world has convinced us otherwise.

A visit to the ‘Forbidden Land’ (Israel & Palestine)

By Madeeha Anwar

I had a dream of visiting ‘Jerusalem’ for as long as I can remember. I had inherited this love for Qibla e Awwal and Jerusalem from my parents especially my dad, who was an avid traveler and had a strong wish to visit Jerusalem but couldn’t; because he was a Pakistani passport holder. I wish my father Chaudhry Khurshid Anwar was alive to see this day, Unfortunately, we lost him in 2014 (may his soul rest in eternal peace), Ameen.

When I came to the US, I pledged to myself to visit this revered city as soon as I’d receive my blue passport. In December 2016, a few months after becoming a US Citizen, I visited Israel and prayed at Masjid e Aqsa, Dome of the Rock (Qubbatussakhra), roamed freely in the old streets of Jerusalem, felt the auspicious history in the oldest cities known to human civilization; Bethlehem, Hebron (AlKhalil), Dead Sea and Jericho (Ariha) and got a chance to interact with the locals, be it Muslims, Christians or Jews; and discovered that everyone had their own stories of a sacred, unique and holy connection to this land.
It was an amazing experience to be at a place which was so unfamiliar to us and where not many Pakistanis were able to set foot before.

I’ve arranged (below), a pictorial glimpse from my long-awaited journey to Israel.

The author is a multimedia journalist and web editor with Voice of America.

Travel with Kids

A new baby brings with it, unexplained joy; also hard work that you can’t prepare for. A roller-coaster ride is what it is. Eventually, new parents do desperately seek a break. As did we.

In the fall of 2014, our son was due to start school. So a few months prior, we decided to go to Dubai to recoup, in an attempt to relax tense nerves and sore muscles – moreso myself than my husband. Travelling with a child is something a lot of parents are very scared of. Let me tell you: don’t be! If you plan right, it will all be well worth it.

In Dubai, we booked ourselves a room at Sheraton, Mall of the Emirates. This was good decision number 1. A hotel attached with a mall was something we needed at the time. Our tot was fond of afternoon naps. So we’d casually step out whenever we wanted, roamed around the mall, found ourselves an eatery, and when Mr. Cranky Pants decided it was time to unleash his super powers, we’d stroll right back to our hotel room. Late in the evenings, my husband and I would take turns watching movies at the in-house cineplex.

When out sightseeing or in the mall, we’d always take along the baby buggy. This was good decision number 2. It wasn’t an umbrella stroller. It was a heavy weight travel system with a large basket to carry along baby food and goodies. We had also accessorized the buggy with little toys to keep our kid entertained – when he decided to stay put. He otherwise loved running around. But the buggy still served as a nice alternative to restroom facilities for quick diaper changes in a discreet corner or for when tiny legs needed some rest…or for carrying shopping bags!

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The Dubai trip was just what the doctor ordered. We couldn’t do the desert safari because we were with an underage child. My husband muffled his excitement in Wild Wadi as he went solo. But this trip was just what the doctor had ordered. We ate and ate, watched movies, shopped a bit, entertained our kid plenty. It was a winning potion.

6 months later, we found ourselves in Thailand. Bangkok was hot, crowded and disappointing. Phuket though, was a mixed bag of nuts. Our hotel there was Grand Mercure. It boasted a separate swimming pool for children, which was a big hit with our 3 year old. This was good decision number 3. Choosing a hotel with a pool and/or a kids’ club or play area, will be well worth the additional moolah.

The inevitable was to happen. We booked an island hopping tour. This was a bad decision. Waking up your child in the wee hours of the day, hopping from one van to another, from one boat to another, from island to island, in sweltering heat was hard on both mother and child. He did eventually warm up to the beach and emerald waters but in hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend such tours with small children.

Soon after our son turned 4, it was London time. His obsession with “Big Ben” was contagious. By this time, as our child’s full dependence on milk and bananas had given way to home cooked, desi food, and his total aversion to fast food and pastas was evident, the three meals of the day were to be my biggest challenge. So while this trip was being planned, I was clear in the head: I needed kitchen facilities. We booked the Staybridge Suites in Vauxhall, This was good decision number 4.

 

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Our first morning in December London was spent doing groceries in Iceland – the supermarket of our choice. We loaded up: stocked our cabinets, fridge and freezer with ready-to-bake, ready-to-cook, ready-to-heat options, juices, veggies, spices and condiments. DSC_0072We had 10 chilly London evenings where we would return to a cosy kitchen. This was good decision number 5. When travelling with children, we learnt it paid off to stay put in one big, entertaining city.

 

 

 

 

 

Here is some proof.

 

Some Istanbul Inspiration

We stopped over in Istanbul on our way to and from Canada, back in 2016. It was a good decision. A very good one. Going from Pakistan, Turkey offers a refreshing break midway through an otherwise taxing transatlantic journey.

Equipped with some new, self-acquired photography skills, the city proved to be an ideal subject for a novice as myself. The landscape and architecture on display in Istanbul requires very little effort beyond point-and-shoot. Enjoy and hopefully, be inspired!

Take a Bosphorous Cruise and return ferry ride to a princes’ island on the cheap

Since the aforementioned are two of the best highlights of Istanbul, a multitude of companies offer organised trips to both which can cost anything between 200 to around 400 Turkish Liras (TYR)  depending on the company you choose.

I am of the opinion that organised trips are not value for money; they are typical tourist traps and best avoided by savvy travellers. In case you didn’t know, both can be done cheaply on a do-it-yourself basis without missing out on much.

1. The Bosphorous Cruise:

Take a day cruise offered by one of the commuter ferry services like Turyol. They have dedicated day cruises on the Bosphorous that last an hour and a half. The ticket is only TRY 15. The last cruise is around sundown, which is the best time to hop on a ferry to appreciate the beauty of the Bosphorous and take memorable pictures in ideal light conditions. There are no belly dancing and dinner combos on offer but I take those as a big plus. Take in the views of the strait without distractions.

You can take the ferry from any point served by Turyol. I took it from the station below the Galata Bridge (forgot station name) and disembarked at the Asian side by choice. The ferry does a round trip so you can return at the point where you boarded it.

2. Princess Island Ferry:

Büyükada is also served by many stations across the city. Take a one way ride and return at will. During summer time, it might be busy but ferries to Istanbul are dispatched around the clock: if you miss one, there’s always another one to take you back.

I took one from Beşiktaş and spent half a day at the island, roamed around at will, took a phaeton ride to the reserve, and bought another one-way ticket back to Istanbul, which made stops at both Kadıköy and then at Eminönü. The one way ticket cost TRY 7/8.

At the end of it all, I had covered the cruise jing bang in 30 TYR instead of a mammoth 400 TYR!

London is Boring

“London is boring. There is nothing to do.”

I am a member of a travel forum and this statement was posted by another participant. I wouldn’t take this personally…except that maybe I do. For one, I owe London a big deal. My son was born in the city while we were temporarily stationed there. He was born with a rare medical condition that required several surgeries over the course of a year. Not a penny was demanded from us. The country’s health system afforded us the luxury of free treatment, and the doctors and staff at the hospital won our hearts. Loving and caring; on top of everything; never discriminating. Some were Londoners; some probably weren’t. And that’s the beauty of the city. It is home to more immigrants than it is to the English people. And that’s why, when you step into the city as a tourist, you immediately feel like you belong.

So then, coming back to: “London is boring. There is nothing to do.”

Approaching the statement very objectively, this is factually wrong. London is abuzz with concerts, shows, theatre, talks, conferences and festivals throughout the year. No matter what your taste, there is something on offer. There is always something to do or see. If you can’t find anything, you are most likely not looking in the right places.

I can maybe concede to the fact that some people might not find London clean or refined. There are as many types of people as there are cities in the world. You like some. You don’t like some. I’m still going to try and convince the pessimists out there.

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Imagine you are standing in London somewhere. Imagine it is the Marble Arch. Where do you go from there. There’s vibrant Notting Hill in one direction, the Arab eateries of Edgware road in another; the finesse of Knightsbridge and South Kensington are conveniently accessible on the other end of Hyde Park for some Harrods therapy or museum loving; fine dining options are dotted all across Mayfair behind Park Lane; and in yet another trajectory from the Marble Arch, lies the mecca of all shopping strips: the Oxford Street. Strolling down, taking in known and unknown high street brands and the iconic Selfridges, you can choose to turn left on Orchard Street to take you right into Baker Street and over to the Sherlock Holmes Museum or Madame Tussaud’s.

And if that is not your cup of tea, keep strolling down Oxford Street. Grab one of Ben’s Cookies along the way. That’s heaven in your mouth. Ed’s Diner, right behind Ben’s Cookies, offers halal hot dogs with black beans. Once you reach Oxford Circus station, you again have 3 options. Turn left for Regent’s Park, or go straight for New Oxford Street. Soho is nestled in somewhere down there. Try the area for a cheeky night out with friends and snicker away.

And if that is not your cup of tea, turn right for Regent Street. This curved – an almost concave – structured line of upper scale shops is a sight for sore eyes. This is the home of bespoke tailoring for gentlemen. But forget that. Whatever you do, do not miss Hamley’s Toy Store. It is unimportant if you don’t have any kids in your bandwagon. Just walk in. It’s magic. It puts Hamley’s stores in other cities to shame. I could easily spend an hour inside. At the other end of Regent Street lies the iconic electronic billboards of Piccadilly Circus. Granted it doesn’t quite match up to the vibe of Times Square in New York, it has still served as a fantastic photo op for tourists for decades. Stand across the road and look for props on the screen. There are, yet again, several directions to choose from. China Town, Leicester Square or Trafalgar Square. Lots of music, hullabaloo and street performances encapsulate Leicester Square and China Town on weekend nights.

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And if that is not your cup of tea
, walk towards Trafalgar Square. Admire Nelson’s column, the fountains and lions. The monumental National Gallery on Trafalgar Square is unmissable – and free. What’s your choice of monopoly property here onwards? Towards Charing Cross, right off the Strand, lie the electric Covent Garden on one side and the Waterloo Bridge on the other. Try The Icecreamists for guilty pleasures in Covent Garden. Their Breast Milk ice-cream was a bit too adventurous for us to indulge though (has this place shut down?). The Waterloo Bridge, on the other side, offers beautiful vistas of the city by the Thames.

And if that is not your cup of tea, maybe head down to the Houses of Parliament, the Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey via Whitehall. Say hello to the prime minister at the unassuming 10 Downing Street along the way. The London Eye and South Bank Centre, both situated south of the river, are also iconic landmarks. London’s southbank also hosts one of the biggest iMax screens in the continent.l2

And if that is not your cup of tea, walk down the Mall from Trafalgar for views of Buckingham Palace. St James’ Park is another popular royal park situated in this area. A section of the Buckingham Palace is open to the public for some time in the summer months. Do check. Other popular palaces in the city are Princess Diana’s Kensington Palace or the Hampton Court Palace associated with Henry VIII.

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And if that is not your cup of tea, try the gothic currents of Camden Town, the modernity of Canary Wharf and the O2 Arena, which is a good venue for dinner and a movie at the end of the day. Access their website for upcoming shows. You never know, you might stumble upon Disney on Ice, Sonu Nigam in concert, or a BSB-NKOTB reunion to relive the obsessions of teen years.

It is impossible to wrap all of London in a blog post, I concede. I have been to churches and cathedrals across Europe, but few beat the magnificence of St Paul’s Cathedral. It is jaw-dropping from the inside. A guided audio tour will totally be worth your while, and a hike up the spiral staircase will test your mettle and core strength. Are you up for the dome? Along the way, stop for a breather and some fun at the Whispering Gallery. This was featured in a Hollywood movie which I cannot quite recall. Maybe one of my readers can jog my memory.

Further down the river, lies the Tower Bridge (often mistaken as the London Bridge). Next to it, sits quietly, the Tower of London, which offers history buffs, a solid rendezvous into London’s gory yesteryears. Also nearby, stands the Shard – a modern addition to London’s skyline.

I haven’t as yet fully covered the city centre, and there is so much more in the outer (and conveniently accessible) zones of London.

It is best to spend more than a week in the city if you really want to take it in, but if you’re in a hurry, check my guide on How to Use the London Pass.

Boring is not a word I would associate with this giant metropolis. Tens of day trips from any of its major rail stations are yet another reason why it makes such a good base to see more of England. Something tells me, I will keep going back. And so will many of you.

London is not boring. There is so much to do.

Ghost of Hamlet & The Strait of Øresund

If you are in Copenhagen, an easy and enjoyable way to go to Sweden is to cross the strait of Øresund that divides the Danish islands from the Swedish mainland. Øresund bridge, which has the honour of being the longest rail and road bridge in Europe, connects the two countries. You can take a bus from central Copenhagen that will take you to Malmo (app. one hour) or you can take the quick train. I, however, opted for a ferry ride between the Danish coastal town of Helsingor (Elsinore in English) to the Swedish town of Helsingbor (don’t confuse the names!) from where you can go to Malmo and farther afield.

My reason for taking the ferry was to be in Helsingor to see Kronborg Castle, which is the fictional location of William Shakespeare’s drama “Hamlet.” Being an aficionado of literature, I wanted to relive from memory the tragic story of prince Hamlet by being inside the very walls in which Shakespeare had imagined it.

Palaces and castles in Scandinavian countries are quite modest by European standards and this one is no different. This is where the monarchs of Denmark would come to seek leisure during summertime and enjoy beautiful vistas of the strait and be able to see the coast of Sweden on a clear day, as did I on the day I was there.

Don’t miss to visit the dungeons below the castle – a dank and dark labyrinth of cells where prisoners were kept in subhuman conditions. There is a life-sized statue of Ogier the Dane at one end of the dungeons. Legend has it that one day he will wake up from his stony slumber and conquer all of Scandinavia and rule forever!

Photo Essay: Baku, Azerbaijan

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Outside the entrance of the Shirvanshah Palace in the Old City
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Sehrli Tendir: A restaurant famous for its breakfast. This woman is known to make the best bread around this area.
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A beautiful street in the Old City.
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Karvansaray Baku
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Open Museum
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Philharmonia Park: a copy of the Monte Carlo Casino
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Sheki
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Gobustan: Old rock carvings and formations
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Good Morning! The view from Sahil Hostel’s balcony
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Sheki Khan Palace in Sheki
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Inside the Sheki Khan Palace, Sheki
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Ichersheher (Old City)

By Maryam Haq

The contributor is from Pakistan. She loves to travel, and when at home, cooks amazing food.

A Day in Bratislava

It was not until I was mapping my way to build a viable rail itinerary through Italy, Austria, and Hungary that I discovered Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I knew immediately that I would need to make room to explore it, and I did.

Bratislava is only one hour by train from Vienna and can be visited comfortably as a day trip. Trains depart every other hour and return with the same frequency. Having seen the highlights, I believe it deserves at least a couple of days to properly explore the city and its surroundings; even more if you want to go deeper into Slovak territory to see places that are not frequented by tourists on a busy itinerary.

The pièce de résistance is the picture perfect Devin Castle (Hrad Castle) sitting atop a hill that looks as though it was made from marzipan, like the eponymous hotel in the film “Hotel Budapest”, and the well-preserved old town centre with many historical sites to see on both sides of the River Danube that divides the city in two.

Various statues and artworks that dot the city centre provide another attraction to the visitors. Some of them are wacky and intended for fun, especially the signature landmark of “Man at Work.” Visitors take obligatory pics there and those who wish for good fortune are told to rub its nose. I duly observed the ritual!

The Shandur Polo Festival

The rule is, there are no rules!

Save a few conventions, the Shandur Polo Festival depicts Polo – once known as the king of games, and the game of kings – in its purest, unadulterated, roughest form. But what’s special about this festival, ironically, is not the way in which polo itself is played; rather, what takes every tourist’s breath away, is where this festival takes place.

Come a little above sea level, a little more, and then, travel a whopping sum-total of 12,500 feet! And behold, you will find yourself in majestic company. From the centuries old traditions of Gilgit-Baltistan to the mammoth embrace of the Himalayas, from the warmth of green pastures of a level field to the night moon afloat sparkling lakes, the Shandur Festival can easily be anybody’s cup of tea.

The 3-day polo festival has been taking place at the Shandur Pass, every year since 1936, from the times of the British Raj in the sub-continent. Mas Junali was the name given to the ground that formed the playing field, which literally means, the pologround under the moon. The Shandur Pass is a plateau, nested almost mid-way between the historic towns of Gilgit and Chitral, in the pristine beauty that is a trademark of the northern areas of Pakistan. Qualifying teams from the two cities participate in the festival that takes place from July 7 to July 9. No umpiring. No rules. And play only stops if either man or beast are seriously injured.

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There is something very zen about sportsmen battling it out in the backdrop of some of the highest, snow-capped peaks in the world. The unusual hybrid of man’s fierceness and nature’s calm and quiet, tickles undiscovered bones in the body, and in a good way. It sounds cliched, but observing and cheering on polo players at the Shandur Pass – best known as the ‘Roof of the World’ – is an experience of a lifetime.

The game of polo is not all there is to the festival. These wee hours of July give the locals a chance to welcome the outsiders to their culture – with lots of open-air barbeque, local dances and shows. Of course, adventure sports like trekking, horse-riding, hiking and mountaineering are optional – and highly recommended – portions on Shandur’s platter.

How to Get to the Festival: Shandur is completely zonked out, compared to the hustle and bustle of the average modern lifestyle. Fortunately though, it is possible to commute by jeep or by jeep and plane combined. While the former is an 11 hour journey from the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad (you can stop at a facility in the city of Dir for a night’s rest – or not), the latter can be a quicker though less adventurous combo of a flight from Islamabad or Peshawar to Gilgit, and then, a 4 to 5 hour jeep ride into the Shandur Pass.

Where to Stay: Full facility camps are set up next to the pologround every July, for players, participants and the audience. The pure-hearted trekker should always opt for this experience. Alternately though, for the more picky traveler, there are hotel and motel accommodations – both government-owned and private – in the nearby cities, including Gilgit and Chitral, hometowns of the participating teams. Of course, bear in mind that daily jeep rides to and from the festival will then be a necessity.

The Shandur Polo Festival is a traveler’s ticket to not only feel at the top of the world, but actually be at the top world.

3 Tips for Planning a Trip to Japan

Over the past two months, I have been asked numerous times about my recommendations for Japan, my itinerary and if I had any tips to share. It turns out that a lot of my friends are planning to visit Japan this year! I thought it would be a great idea to share a couple of tips and advice based on my experience planning for the trip.

1. Get a JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) to travel around Japan.

If you plan on visiting multiple cities in Japan, I highly recommend getting a JR Pass. You might be hesitant to get one because of how pricey it is, but it’s worth it. A 7 day JR Pass cost roughly the same as a round trip ticket from Tokyo to Osaka/or Kyoto. You pretty much break even and you get to use the pass on all JR lines (subway/rail) and the JR Narita Express (from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station). Since I was in Japan for 2 weeks, I opted for the 14 day JR Pass and used it visit Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. I definitely took full advantage of the pass and you should too if you’re planning to visiting other cities: https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/jr-pass (Note: if you’re planning to get it, make sure you order it before you get to Japan because they will mail you the documents you need to pick up the pass when you get to Japan.)

2. Rent Pocket Wifi and stay connected 24/7 so you can share your adventures on Instagram and Snapchat in real time (jk but not really).

It was honestly one of the best investments for the trip. I was able to use Google maps, look up/research spots on the go and start this blog on my train ride to Osaka. It comes with a portable charger as well and it’ll only cost you ~$6/day, which is a bargain.

3. Save some room in your luggage for souvenirs if you’re staying in hotels.

If you’re staying in hotels, you will get basic toiletries – toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, lotion, slippers and some places will even provide razors and body sponges (loofahs). I packed travel size toiletries that I didn’t even touch – aside from my contact lens solution.

Bonus tip: If you’re planning to visit the Ghibli Museum, make sure you buy tickets in advance (more than a month in advance).

You can’t buy the tickets at the museum, you can only get them online or at a Lawson convenience store in Japan. The tickets only go on sale during a certain time each month and you learn more about it here. I wish I knew about this when I was planning my trip – I wasn’t able to get tickets a month before my trip and when I was in Japan.

Guest Post by Explore with Kenneth

Crossing Borders in Schengen

While staying in Munich, we decided to take a day trip to Innsbruck. The beauty of travelling through Europe with a Eurail pass is that it affords one the luxury of making spontaneous plans. The beautiful town of Innsbruck is nestled in lush mountains. Its city centre is buzzing – electric just enough to be jovial, and calm just enough to enjoy the natural beauty that surrounds it. Within the day, we managed to cover several touristic hot spots including Nordkette, the cable car that took us to a mountain top, offering panoramic views of the Austrian landscape. By evening, as we stood at the platform, waiting for our delayed train to take us back to Munich, a calm prevailed. We were tired but happy. Innsbruck was worth it. We were tired but happy. We were unaware of the anti-climax that awaited us on board the “Munich express”.

At 10 pm, as our carriage prepared to swoosh past Mannheim, two police officers got on board and demanded our passports. Our green booklets of glory, at that time, lay safely tucked inside our Munich hotel room locker. I began to have a panic attack – hot, hot blood gushing to my face, my limbs becoming lifeless. I had a hard time operating my mobile phone, as I tried showing the police officer our return tickets to Pakistan. It was an act of desperation that bore no fruit. He was in no mood to grant us the benefit of the doubt. We were rudely asked to get off the train. As we made our way towards a container in a park behind the train station – a makeshift police station – the heart pounded vociferously. Our 5 year old was both alert and exhausted. He was holding in tears being mature enough to know that nothing about what was going on, was normal.

A lady officer in the station, we felt, was subtly pleading our case with the officer who brought us in. They were speaking German, so we didn’t know the exact exchanges being made, but he said “Pakistan” furiously several times in his conversation, while she’d look toward our kid time and again. To her, we seemed okay to release. Eventually, a call to our hotel was sanctioned. It was past midnight and the “24-hour” front desk wouldn’t pick up. When they finally did, I patiently explained the situation to them, gave them our room number and locker combination. Following 45 minutes of agony, the officers received emailed scans of our visas and passports.

A taxi was then summoned for us. Of course, the one hour drive through the highways of Germany was on our tab. The lady officer escorted us to the taxi stand, and apologized repeatedly for our sour experience. There was apparently an illegal immigrant problem in the area, and the police there wasn’t equipped with biometric machines. She knew that although bringing us in was within her colleague’s power, not doing so was also an option. Not in so many words, her parting gestures towards us were apologetic in lieu of borderline racist behaviour meted out by him.

All is well that ends well, but we would never want to be in that situation again. Always carry your passports along during cross-border day trips in Europe. Sure, the borders are blurred within the Schengen area, but random checks are a real possibility.

How to use the London Pass

For a first-time traveler, or for anybody who hasn’t mastered the art of maps and time-management, London can be over-whelming. It would suffice to say, there’s a month’s worth of attractions for the avid tourist. And distances are aplenty. How does one manage then? Luckily, the city’s got a great network of underground tube stations. We devised one excellent, super efficient way to use it.

Step 1: Buy a London Pass. Websites like London Town will sell them online. Get a 3-day pass.

Step 2: Have your heart set on marking every possible inch of territory. That’s what we did, when we were in London last June.

Step 3 (hot tip!): Mark all points of attractions by tube lines. On the day that we were taking the Circle line, we marked all places that were close to stations on that yellow line. And on that one day alone, we managed to cover places like the Tower of London, Kensington Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Albert Hall. All of these were adjacent or close to stations on the Circle line, and therefore, it meant that we could cover the maximum attractions without having to waste time changing lines or catching buses.

And of course, get up early! Most of these places will deny you entry after 4 in the afternoon.

Montmartre or Notre Dame?

Paris enchants anybody who ever sets foot on her. My own experiences have been no different. The city seems to grow on me, every time I’m there – not that it didn’t leave an impression the first time around. One of the best things about a city like Paris is that it always has something new to offer, even if it is your fifth or sixth visit. The usuals on any traveler’s itinerary are Champs Elysees, the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame cathedral. And true, your trip would be incomplete without paying them rich tributes!

On my fourth trip to the city though, I finally set foot in the Latin Quarters, and what a beauty! An uphill trek through crowded streets, selling everything from crepes to Chinese cloth, take you to the point that eyes the rest of the city. There, sitting proudly, the Montmartre Cathedral, tickled my bones. What splendor, what beauty – Roman arrogance, standing in all its might and glory! The Montmartre Cathedral is a sight to behold. I personally found it more enchanting than the almost mythical Notre Dame. You can disagree, but you still shouldn’t miss it! I certainly wouldn’t want anybody to. It’s as white-washed as new, as if showing Catholic pride, and even the neighborhood generates more of an Italian feel with its flea market, than it does Parisian.

And yes, some friends of mine climbed the hundreds of stairs that led upto it. You don’t have to. I repeat, you don’t have to! Once the cathedral comes into view, turn left and take the funicular that awaits you. Or curse Paris forever…haha!

Europe via Rail or by Air?

A question often put forward by eager travelers planning their first trip to Europe. I am proudly biased in favour of rail travel. Here’s why:

  • European airports are situated outside the city centre. You need to get to the airport at least 2 hours prior to your flight. When you add the time and money it takes to get to the airport in the city of departure and from the next airport to the city of arrival, you will have wasted a lot of time.
  • All central and major stations are situated in city centres. They are easily and cheaply accessible.
  • With train travel, there is no requirement to check-in so you can very easily arrive within 10 minutes of departure time.
  • You can even transit in cities on the way. Just leave your luggage at a locker facility on the station, step out to roam the city, and then, catch a later train for your final destination.
  • Seeing Europe by rail also allows you the flexibility of keeping your schedule spontaneous. Buy tickets (or supplements, if required with your Eurail pass) when at the station. For most routes – especially within one country – this is very doable. It keeps the element of surprise alive.
  • For longer routes, it is also possible to take a night train. These will offer flat beds. Since those won’t be as expensive as a hotel room, by next morning, you will have saved money and welcomed a new dawn, a new city.
  • Budget airlines have extremely stingy luggage rules and limitations. With train travel, the weight and/or dimensions of your bags and accessories, are not a hindrance.
  • Eurail pass holders, do not forget that you get perks (like hotel discounts) and complimentary ferry / cruise travel. Be sure to check what is on offer.

Have we missed something? Please use the comments section below.