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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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…

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.

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!

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