EgyptDiary

Chapter One

Egypt had been in my bucket list for a long time. I just did not realize that we will visit it so soon.

After a 3 1/2 hour early morning flight on a Saturday, we reached Dubai. There was a brief halt of 2 hours and then we boarded our next flight to Cairo. It took another 3 hours of flying and we reached Cairo in the early evening.

Our pick up car was there with a guide who helped us get through the immigration and customs and dropped us at our Hotel, Hilton Ramses. There was a lot of traffic on the way and the ride took almost an hour although the hotel was only 1/2 hour away. The hotel reception was very quite busy and it took us quite some time to check in.

After almost 12 hours of flying and lounging at the airport we finally hit the bed early that night as our city tour was to start really early the next day.

Egypt actually turned out to be really opposite of what we were told about it. The city and Nile river below our hotel looked beautiful in the morning from our 18th floor window.

Egypt or the Arab Republic of Egypt is surrounded by Sudan, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, although the last two do not have a land border with it. It is the most populous country in North Africa with 9.5 million people of which 2 million live in Cairo alone.

Bulk of the country’s population lives along the Nile river as the rest of the country is a desert.  The areas around the Nile are quite green, something we did not expect to see. They grow a kind of grass called Clover right next to the canals, which jet out of Nile. This is used as fodder for the camels and donkeys. Apart from it the main agriculture produce are Barley, Wheat, Sugarcane, Figs, Melons, Olives and Pomegranates.

There is a lot of agricultural activity around the canals originating from the Nile.
The ancient burial site of Egyptians, the step pyramid.
Gigantic pillars in the tomb.
The Step Pyramid.

Our next day started with a visit of Saqqara region, the ancient burial ground of Egypt where we saw Djoser’s Step Pyramids. Different kings chose different sites for their Pyramids as Saqqara was the royal burial ground. Though the step Pyramid is made of stones the others, Pyramid of Unas and Userhaf are made of a core consisting of rubble. Extensive restoration work is going on in this site.

Pyramids of Unas and Userhaf have been damaged and are being restored.
Pyramids of Unas and Userhaf have been damaged and are being restored.
Only this remains out of a once beautiful statues of the King, Queen and their children.
Damaged statues.

From here we moved to the south to the city of Dahshur where the first Pyramids were built by Shepseshaf. It is here that the ancient Egyptians mastered their art of building Pyramids from step pyramids to smooth-sided ones. King Sneferu built the bent pyramid here and learning from his mistakes his son, Khufu built his pyramid in Giza. From Dahshur, we headed for an Egyptian lunch and after that to Giza.

The pyramid at Dahshur.

The Giza Pyramid is the oldest and the only surviving ancient wonder of the world. King Menes founded a unified kingdom in 3150 B C which ruled Egypt for three millennia via a series of dynasties. Among them the third and fourth dynasties constructed many pyramids, with the fourth dynasty constructing the Pyramids of Giza.

The Khufu Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the complex in Giza. Based on the artifacts and writing discovered there, it is believed that it was built over  a period of 10-20 years. For over 3800 years, it is the tallest man-made structure in the world.

It was initially covered by stone casing with a smooth surface, some of which can be still seen lying there. Inside the pyramid there are three chambers, for the King, the Queen and an unfinished chamber.

Pyramids of Giza.
The Sphinx.
Our camel ride.

While on a camel ride these three pyramids appear to be like a fairy tale structures right before you. Another structure there is of Sphinx, a mythical creature with a head of a human and a body of the lion. It is believed that those who cannot answer its riddles are killed and eaten by it.

With this the day came to an end and we headed back to the hotel.

Looking for Angrez Bazaar

Last Sunday I along with a few of my friends traveled to Rajasthan in search of Angrez Bazaar in Bandiqui, Duasa District, about 200 km from Gurgaon.

We left early at 6 am on a cold and foggy morning. Surprisingly the fog on the way, was only on the right side of the NH8 and none on the left.

The drive was beautiful and our first stop was Abaneri Chand Baori (step well) about 12 km from Bandiqui. I had visited this place a couple of years ago when not many people were aware of its existence but this time we saw a lot of tourists.

Chand Baori.
Harshat Mata Temple.

The Abaneri village, about 95 km from Jaipur was originally known as Abha Nagari or “city of brightness”. It is now in ruins but the good news is that it has started attracting tourists from across the world.

Right next to the Baori, lies the Harshat Mata temple, which also is in ruins. The Chand Baori was built by King Chanda of Nikumbh dynasty during the 8th century as a dedication to Harshat Mata, the goddess of joy and happiness. It was built to conserve water and was used as a community resting place during that period. It is the oldest landmark of Rajasthan consisting of about 13 stories with 3500 narrow steps leading to the water, which makes it one of the deepest and largest step well in the country.

Old Church, Bandiqui.
Inside the church (shot through a hole in the main door)

After spending some time there, we moved to Bandiqui, where another surprise was waiting for us, the old abandoned Church, built in Roman style with pink sandstone.

Bandiqui was chosen by the British, due to its location, between Alwar and Jaipur, to build India’s first Railway Junction in 1873.  Along with the British, many Anglo-Indian families too moved there as in those days Railways was a big employer of the community. Once settled, the christian community decided to build a Church near the Railway station.

Slowly, the town lost its importance after other Railway junctions were set up, and the Christian pollution began to decline and the Church was neglected. The local miscreants took advantage and looted the windows, stained glasses and even Jesus’ statue.

More than 120 years old Colonial bungalow.

In 2013, the Government of Rajasthan pledged to restore this and another Church in Ajmer but with Rajasthan having 1% of its population as Christians, it is not surprising that this has remained only a promise. Now with a right-wing government in power, you cannot expect much, though there is an urgent need to protect part of our heritage.

There are some beautiful Colonial Raj style bungalows too in Bandiqui, some of which are occupied by Government Officers but most are lying neglected. One Bungalow in particular was built-in 1898 and is simply beautiful to look at, and needs to be preserved as part of our Heritage.

On our way back, we stopped for tea at Neemrana Fort Kesroli and watched the beautiful sunset and with the sun going down, our short holiday also came to an end.

Neemrana Fort Kesroli.
Sunset as seen from the Fort.

FarrukhNagar & Sultanpur National Park

Yesterday we again drove to FarrukhNagar which is about 33 kms from Gurgaon. It is a historical town, established in 1732 by Faujdar Khan, the first Nawab and Governor of the Mughals.  It was named after the Mughal ruler, Farrukh Shah, who also built the beautiful Sheesh Mahal here in 1711.

The town has been ruled by Balochs, Mughals and British with each leaving some marks over its building, sadly not many have survived. Most surviving buildings here bear testimony of the turbulent times this town has seen. During the heydays of this town, this town flourished in salt trade, till the British took over. The British established the first Railway Station here in 1873 to transport salt to Delhi. However, in 1923, the British however shut down the Salt production here throwing the town into an economic crisis.

Delhi darwaza
National Integration.
Ghaus Khan’s Baoli.
Railway Station.

The Sheesh Mahal was  constructed with red sandstone within the Fort and has a large courtyard in front. The Fort had 5 gates into the town. However, only one of its gate, the Dilli Darwaza survives today.

There is the two story Sethani Ki Chattri, built by a rich merchant 165 years ago as part of his private residence. There were rooms on the outside, though sadly none of that exist today.

Sethani Ki Chhatri.
Sheesh Mahal.
Sheesh Mahal.

There is also the octagonal Baoli built by Ghaus Ali Shah, in the same octagonal shape as the town.

From Farrukh Nagar, we headed to Sultanpur National Park.  During season about 250 different kind of birds come here from far of places like Europe and Siberia.

Some redevelopment work had been done here recently, which may be good for tourists but I am not sure if it suits the migratory birds. The day we visited there were a number of small children in bright winter wear, which drove the water birds deeper into the lakes.

Neelgai.
Painted storks.

My personal view is that all visitors to this Park should be made to pay a bit more than Rs 10-, so that only serious bird watchers come here rather than visitors who come here for picnic.

 

 

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Turman Gate se Chawri Bazaar tak

Old Delhi is on every tourist’s list with Chandni Chowk and Jama Masjid topping that list. There are however a few areas in old Delhi,  which for some un-explained reason have not been so popular.

So last Sunday with a few friends, I decided to undo that and started our Chandni Chowk sojourn from Turkman Gate, on Asaf Ali Road and walked all though Chawri Bazaar.

Turkman Gate, is among the few surviving gates of Shahjahanabadi Dilli or the walled city of Delhi. It is named after the Sufi Saint Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani. His tomb is located on the east side of the gate and has been in existence since 1240, much before the city of Shahjahanabad was built.

Holy Trinity Church
Christmas Mass at Holy Trinity Church.

Our first stop on this walk, was the Holy Trinity Church which is right next to gate in a lane. It is small church built-in 1904 in Byzantine style, by Mary R Maitland in memory of her husband, Alexander Charles Maitland. Although in earlier days it was surrounded by a compound, it is now been encroached upon by the residents of that area. Yet once you go inside it is very peaceful and it is difficult to believe that a few meters away is the maddening traffic of Delhi.

Kalan Masjid.
Streets of Bulbuli Khana Mohalla.
Streets of Bulbuli Khana Mohalla.

Our next stop was Kalan Masid, which lies in Mahalla Bulbuli Khana. It is small but very beautiful mosque built on a raised platform in 1387 by Wazeere Azam Khan, a disciple of Sufi Saint Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani during Feroz Shah’s reign. Most locals however recognise this as Kali Masjid as during one of its restoration it was painted with coconut oil, which initially looked beautiful but later turned black.

Razia Sultan’s tomb.
Chaurasi Ghanta Wala Mandir.
Chaurasi GhantaWala Mandir.

Next we visited the tomb of Razia Sultan. Some people claim that her tomb is actually in Kaithal, while others believe it to be in Tonk. There is however no doubt that Razia Sultan, daughter of Iltutmush was a very brave and only woman ruler of Delhi. Not paying much importance to customs of that time she shone as a bright example of a ruler. Although at the time of her succession she faced many hurdles including her own brother Feroz Shah, she ultimately emerged victorious. There are two graves on site, with the smaller grave being of her younger sister, Shazia.

The last stop on our journey was the Chaurasi Ghante Wala Mandir in Bazaar Sitaram. No one actually knows how old the temple is, but it is probably 200-300 years old. It is believe that Seth Sitaram, who owned this market donated a huge sum of money to build this Hanuman and Shiv temple. The Chaurais Ghante (84) installed there represent the 84 lacs (8.4 million) cycles of birth one has to undergo to achieve a human form.

We winded our trip by having a late brunch at Shyam Sweets at Barshabullah Chowk near Jama Masjid. The sweet Nagori Halwa and Bedmi Puris set the tone for the rest of the day.

 

 

 

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A beautiful view of Mt Masanggang from Dochu La.

Panoramic view of Himalayas.

While driving to Punaka from Thimpu, we briefly stopped at Dochula Pass.  It was a foggy morning that day but after a while the sky cleared up and we got a magnificent view of the Himalayas particularly Mount Masanggang, the highest peak in Bhutan. We were really lucky that day otherwise for most part of the year the weather here remains foggy and chilly.

The Docula pass is at an elevation of 3100 metres and is 30 kms away from Thimpu. It is the starting point of Dochula Nature Trail.

It is here that the eldest Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo WangChuk built 108 Chortens to honour the Bhutanese soldiers who died fighting the Indian rebels in 2003.  The rebels were forced to exit Bhutan,  by the 4th King who had personally lead 700 of his men to this victory.

The Chortens are built in 3 layers, 45 chortens in the 1st layer, followed by 36 chortens and finally 27 chortens in the third layer, around the main Chorten. Each Chorten contains offerings such as grains and bronze utensils plus clay images of Bhuddha.

Each Chorten also contains a “soksing”, made up of a long square wooden pole wrapped in a silk cloth, which provides a connection with heaven from earth.

There is a temple called Druk Wangyal Lhakhang nearby which was built in honour of Druk Gyalpo (head of Bhutan state). In the open grounds, in the front yard of the temple, the Docula Druk Wangyal Festival is held every year.

It is a beautifully built structure and should on one’s must see list.

The Eight wonder of the World in making, in Bhutan?

His Eminence Trizin Tsering Rinpoche initiated the erection of World’s largest Buddha statue to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Bhutanese monarchy and celebrate the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

The place chosen was Kuensel Phodrang in the mountains overlooking the country’s capital, Thimpu.

By all means, it will possibly be the Eighth Wonder of the World as the statue is 169 feet – 51 m tall seated within the Buddha field or Pureland represented by the mandala in the background.

The statute houses 10,000, 8 inches statues and 25,000, 12 inches statues made in copper and gilded in gold. These are placed in multi-layered grid boxes. Names of each of the sponsors are separately inscribed on copper plates and are displayed in the meditation hall.

The total cost of the project was supposed to be US Dollars 100 million when the project started in 2006, with the statue itself costing 47 million. It was supposed to be completed in Oct 2010. By September 2015, when it opened most of the work has been completed but still, a lot of work is pending.

The outer walls of the meditation hall are adorned with beautiful murals. On all sides of the statue there are beautiful statues of dancers in various poses.

Legend has it that in the 12th century, Sonam Zangpo, a learned and well-known yogi had prophesied that a statue of the Lord would be built in the region to bestow blessings and happiness to the world. Guru Padmasambha, the learned Guru from India had also prophesied this.

View of the Thimpu valley below.

If you are in Thimpu, this is a very nice trek and it takes roughly about 2 hours to reach the top. Under the eyes of the huge Buddha is the nature reserve. In case you are not the walking types you could take a taxi right up to the top.

This place also offers amazing views of Thimpu below particularly at sunrise and in the evening at sunset.

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Why do Bhutanese paint phallus on their homes?

Travellers to Bhutan are often confused to see phallus painted on the outer walls of the houses or wooden phallus hanging or nailed on top of the front door. I was also amused to see this and decided to find out why.

 

I found out that this tradition started in 15th & 16th century by Lama Drukpa Kunley who was also known as a mad saint or divine madman. He originally came from Tibet and was the disciple of Pema Lingpa. He was fond of women and wine and would often demand these favours when travelling from one village to the other. His ways of teaching Buddhism were so unorthodox that it often shocked the monks.

When he came from Tibet he bought a wooden phallus decorated with a silver handle, which is now stored in Chimi Lhakhang, a monastery built near Lobesa village in Punakha, Bhutan. If you are women of childbearing age and visit Chimi Lhakhang, you will be blessed by the Lama by striking the phallus on your head.

It is believed that in Bhutan, phallus were part of the ethnic religion before the country embraced Buddhism. Lama Drukpa advocated the use of the phallus symbol as paintings on the walls and hanging the carved wooden phallus on house tops.

Though in urban areas this trend is now declining but is still prevalent in rural areas. On a drive from Thimpu to Paro, you can see these paintings on most of the houses. You will find them in various colours and some even tied with ribbons like presents.

During the house warming ceremony, in Bhutan, four wooden phallus are erected on the corners of eaves of the house and one inside the house. A basket full of phallus is raised by men to the roof while women pull it down and this continues amidst a lot of drinking, dancing, and signing by all present. The phallus are painted in five different colours signifying five divine interventions.

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Why you should visit Bhutan once before you leave this planet?

Paro International Airport.

 

Bhutan has been on my bucket list for a long time, so when I heard that my friends were planning a trip, I tagged along.

I am so glad that I did because Bhutan is so beautiful, green, disciplined and has low population density, making it an ideal place to visit for a holiday.

It is really a surprise, that though it was recognised by United Nations, as a country only in 1974, it has been able to control its population. It has just over 774,000 people for an area of 38,394 square kms.

Bhutan measures its economic prosperity not in terms of GDP but in terms of overall health of the nation.

Stained happiness.

This is measured by four pillars, sustainable development, environment protection, cultural preservation and good governance which together form the Gross National Happiness (GNH).

It is really committed to protecting the environment and if anybody is found guilty of harming the sacred black necked cranes, which come in hundreds in Haa Valley or Phobjika during winters each year, that he is sentenced to life imprisonment.

As per their constitution, 60 per cent of the country must remain a forest and that is the reason why it is world’s only “Carbon sink” (it absorbs more CO2 than it produces).

Phobjika Valley or Haa Valley.
Phobjika Valley or Haa Valley.

Import and sale of tobacco is banned in the country and there are heavy penalties if you are caught smoking in public.

The capital city, Thimpu is the only second city in the world which does not have a single traffic light. Pyongyang (North Korea) being the other. The traffic is so systematic that when the lone policeman manning a traffic “signal” goes off duty at 5pm each day, the traffic continues the same way as if he was there.

Beautiful Thimpu.
Beautiful Thimpu.
Lone manned “Traffic Signal” in the heart of the city.
Beautiful Thimpu.

The only way to cross the road in the city is through the zebra crossing. People breaking this law are fined Rs 1200- on the spot.

Bhutanese lay a lot of emphasis on their culture and its preservation. TV was allowed in the country only 11 years ago and all Bhutanese nationals must dress in their traditional dress when entering Govt offices and in their work places.

The country is officially Buddhist and largely Hindu but the state does not interfere in dietary habits of its citizens some of whom consume meat, including beef, imported from India.

It is amazing to see that despite poverty Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia and its citizens are proud of their country. Though it is a constitutional monarchy they love their Dragon King, as he is called, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

Unlike some countries Bhutan walks the talk when it comes to Women’s Empowerment. We saw Hotels, Shops & Restaurants being manned by young women, also in each hotel we stayed, 95 percent of the employees were women.

Such a beautiful country, it should be on everyone’s “must do” list.

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Why I fell in love with Canberra?

Why I fell in love with Canberra?

Parliament as viewed from the National Museum.

Though I have regularly visited Australia for the past 12 years, it was my first visit to the Australian capital, Canberra. I have to admit that I am totally impressed with the City and it is not unfair to say that I am in love with it.

Among the various reasons why I feel that way is, the greenery and the low density of population. The city is surrounded by forests and natural reserves from all sides.

Though early European settlers in Australia started exploring Canberra in 1820, it was later designed by an American Architect and designer Walter Burley Griffin, who won the Federal Design Competition in 1911.

It has a population of about 380,000 and it is Australia’s largest inland city. It has many interesting sites for tourists. The major among them are –

The National Museum of Australia.  It opened in its current premises in 2001 and now showcases 50,000 years of Indigenous heritage and largest collection of Indigenous bark painting and stone tools. It is not be missed if you are in Canberra.

The entrance.

Another landmark is Australian Parliament which houses the Senate and House of Representatives which makes laws and policies in Australia. It is a massive and beautiful structure under an impressive flagpole.  The foundation document of democracy, The Magna Carta 1297, is also housed here. In the forecourt of the building is a large ceremonial pool and a central island which has mosaic based on an Indigenous painting by Michael Nelson Jagamara.

The Australian Parliament.
House of Representatives.
The Senate and the Legislation.

Next is the Telstra Tower, a steel structure, 195 meters high at the top of the Black Mountain from where you get a 360 degrees view of the beautiful Canberra. There are two viewing platforms. The tower provides communication services for the National Capital. It opened in 1980.

Telstra Tower.
Canberra as seen from the top of the tower.

Among other landmarks are the Australian War Memorial, dedicated to the Australians who lost their lives for the country. Lake Burley Griffin is also a big tourist attraction particularly in the evenings when a lot of people go for walks and cycling here. The National Bonsai and Penjing Collection has some high quality bonsai plants and again is very popular with tourists for view of the city.

The War Memorial
Inside the memorial.
An evening at Lake Burley Griffin.

 

 

 

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Top things to do in Southbank, Melbourne.

Melbourne is a beautiful city and has been rated as the most livable city for six consecutive years. The main business district in heart of town is called the CBD or the Central Business District. South of this suburb, 1 km down, lies the urban suburb called Southbank. On its north runs the Yarra river and to the east is St Kilda.

Before development began here it was an industrial area and now it is home to many high-rise buildings. There are many restaurants, hotels, bars and entertainment places.

If you really want to enjoy & know a city, you need to take a walk. In Melbourne, you can walk right up to the end of Southbank. The path lies next to Yarra,  is tree lined and particularly beautiful at night.

Most prominent landmarks down this route are given below. Check them out at leisure and enjoy Melbourne.

Sandridge Pedestrian Bridge. It is 178 m long and was re-opened in 2006 during Melbourne Commonwealth Games. Artist Nadim Karam has installed his very interesting artwork called The Traveller which welcomes the immigrants who arrived by train.

Polly Woodside Maritime Museum. Polly Woodside is an 1885 tall historic ship which has been rescued by the National Trust. It is originally from Ireland.

Eureka Skydeck 88. has the highest viewing platform in Southern Hemisphere. It is an absolutely must visit.

National Gallery of Victoria, oldest public art gallery and museum in Australia.

River Cruises, start and finish here.

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and Seafarers Bridge.

Crown Entertainment Complex, housing the largest Casino in Southern Hemisphere with hotels, bars, live shows, movies, shopping and a huge Food Court.

Melbourne Arts Centre is more of an institution with three theatres, State Theatre, Playbox and George Fairfax Studio.

The Southbank Promenade, running from Southgate Shopping Centre to The Crown Entertainment Complex.

 

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