Oct 2, 2012

Travelogue - St Petersburg

There is a touch of elegance in everything related to this city. Be it the roadside restaurants, or be it the opulent palaces of Tsars, everything has an element of elegance. That elegance is not one enmeshed in a fashionista world like Milan or Paris. It is rather a unique sense of royal charm. There is a melancholy in the air reminding us of the Tsarist past. There is still that intellectual element that gave birth to new ideas in politics and science. And, I'm quite sure that those unique spirits will shape up this city going forward as well.

The intellectual & cultural capital of Russia -  St Petersburg has a rather short history starting only in 1700's. At different times, it was named as Petrograd & Leningrad. It was here that Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsars. It was here that Dmitri Mendeleev invented periodic table. This city has also witnessed one of the longest millitary sieges in modern world history during second world war.

We reached from Moscow in a night train. Comfortable ride with pleasant sleep. We checked into this small , but very conveniently located hotel ( link ) next to Nevsky Prospect, the arterial road connecting most of the landmarks.

In front of Hermitage - Winter Palace of Tsars

Peterhoff's Palace

Day -1 : Hermitage - The largest art & cultural museum in the world.  Tsar's winter palace is converted into a world class museum which will leave you spell bound. Thousands of artifacts and paintings , royal pictures and much more. You would get tired of walking over here. We spent about 4 to 5 hrs here and then proceeded to Peterhoff palace , about half an hour ferry ride through the Baltic Sea.

The most spectacular palace that I've seen anywhere. Pictures speak of the beauty. All the fountains are natural streams . It was damaged during the second world war and restored later.  Hermitage and Peterhoff palace are just two among the many palaces built by Tsars. We missed Catherine's palace - which is supposed to be equally beautiful.

Dinner @ Pushkin's Restaurant, Nevsky Prospect

That night we had dinner at a classic restaurant themed on another Petersburg Luminary - Alexander Pushkin.. And then, took a stroll along Nevsky prospect till the Neva river which cuts across the city . The glittering Hermitage at night along the Neva river is an awesome sight.
Church of Our Lady of Kazan

Church of Our Lady of Kazan - Another glittering sight along Nevsky Prospect. Pretty near our hotel as well

View from the balcony of St Isaac's Cathedral 
Day 2 :  Rasputin - the mad monk lived in this city. And was murdered in another palace over here. Did not have the time to see the palace. St Isaac's cathedral gives a panoramic view of the entire city. Covered two more cathedrals and a park as well..  One downside that I can put over here is that, entry to any of these monuments costs about 250 - 400 Roubles per head.  Beyond a point, you would tend to avoid paying that and getting into these cathedrals.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood
A painter in-front of Hermitage
At many places, you would see that intellectual charm and sense of style. It has an element of mystic calmness reminding us silently of the past .

If Moscow left a feeling of incompleteness, St Petersburg really overwhelmed me with its aura.
We flew out in the evening flight back to Dubai in EK 176 .. And this city calls me back again for a trip.Not to see more monuments..but to relish the beauty of the city , Neva river and to breathe the fresh baltic sea air.

Sep 28, 2012

Travelogue - Moscow

The land behind the iron-curtain has fascinated me for a long time. Be it for the Communist legacy, or be it for the legion of chess champions , or be it for the modern oligarchs who buy off Soccer clubs, Russia seemed to be an enigmatic land.

We flew to Domodedovo International airport on a wednesday evening. EK131, a five hour flight from Dubai. Moscow has three airports. This one was quite outside the city. A one hour taxi ride took us to our hotelIts the olympic hostel of 1980 converted to a hotel. Pretty big complex with all the amenities. 

Thursday Morning :- We started off to explore Moscow. Started off with a taste of Russian expenses. Couple of sandwiches and tea costed us 300+ Roubles. 

Enter Moscow metro.
Moscow Metro Network

You would wonder at the engineering marvel of Russian engineers once you see the enmeshed map of metro tracks. Considering that this was built beginning from 1930s, it is really astonishing. 

Advice 1 : You need a map which has Russian & English names of stations printed. Russian alphabets and language is completely different from English. All display boards are in Russian. And you have to do some serious pattern matching to recognize station names.
St Basil's Cathedral

We surfaces at one of the railway stations near Kremlin. Started of with a small museum ( everywhere, entry fee is atleast 200 Roubles ). Next was the iconic St Basil cathedral. Nice place for photographs. History dates it back to the 1600's i think. The cathedral is next to Red square itself. You would scarcely see any relics of Communism except Lenin's mausoleum . 

Exit red square , we were welcomed by these two gentlemen.. And why not, I immediately jumped in for a photograph with them. 

Realized moments later that nothing comes for free in Russia - 200 Roubles down :( .  It doesnt make much sense to pick up a fight with Lenin & Stalin next to Red square .. Isn't it ?

Couple of small landmarks next to the area like war memorial, shopping area and some other museum etc were covered then.

Advice 2: If you are visiting St Petersburg, its better not to waste money in Moscow museums.

We wound up the first day with a Russian dinner ( with vodka , ofcourse :) ). The waiter asked us in broken English if we know Shah Rukh Khan

To an ordinary Indian, the first thing that they tend to associate with Russia is that of a friendly next door nation. To an ordinary Russian, India still reminds him of Raj Kapoor and maybe of late, Shah Rukh :)

Day 2: Kremlin 

The complex housing Russian govt establishments and the old Tsar'ist cathedrals. You need a full day to cover it. Except the arms museum, we covered all places open for visitors. We could not visit the Bolshoi theatre as it was closed. 

At night, we returned again to Red Square . And, that was beautiful

Day 3: Lenin's Mausoleum. 

To me, this would be the everlasting image of Moscow . Lenin's body is still kept preserved inside a glass case guarded by Russian soldiers. No photographs permitted there. The reverence with which they guard him even after the fall of communism is commendable.
Second World War memorial

Visited the Moscow city center next to Red square. There were members of Russian Olympic team playing table tennis with the public over there.

We did a Moscow boat cruise after that. Apart from a few photographic spots, the cruise was nowhere near the magnificent Bosphorus cruise at Istanbul. 

We had already checked out that day morning. After spending some more time, we proceeded to Leningradsky railway station for our train to St Petersburg.

Maybe because of the beauty & elegance of St Petersburg which we saw over the next two days, In my mind, Moscow left a bit of disappointment.Or, may be I can term it as incompleteness. Either way, those vivid images remain..and will be there for the lifetime. 

Jul 20, 2012

Travelogue - Istanbul

"If Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital"
- Napoleon Bonaparte

A visit to this city will give a feeling that you have lived through the history.. From the times of Emperor Constantine to Ottomans to Ataturk & to the bustling metropolis today. You would see charms of each of those phases here. 

EK 121 - Dubai Istanbul flight took about  3 1/2 hrs. We landed at the Ataturk International Airport ( Istanbul has two airports - So, be sure where your flight is landing ). As directed by our host Julien (https://roomorama.com/short-term-rentals/istanbul/galata/apartment/48437 ) , we could easily get the 30 minutes Airport Bus service Havatas to Taksim square. 10 minute Taxi Drive from there took us to our apartment.

Day -1 . Covered much more than what we expected.. Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi palace , Bosphorus cruise and Istiklal street. The three monuments are next to each other and this place ( Sultanahmet ) is well connected by the Tram service. Lot have been written about these monuments. I think I would put it this way - These three are a history buff's delight. You would see relics from Byzantine times . You would marvel at the architectural prowess during those days. And you would click lots of photos :)

Bosphorus cruise is perhaps the most amazing experience this city has to offer. you can see a number of monuments experiencing the calm sea breeze and sipping a cup of Turkish Tea. Its a wonderful way to relax and enjoy after a hectic day. You would see the giant cruise ships , cargo ships and even some millitary ships docked at various points. You would see the trans-Bosphorus bridges linking Asia & Europe. Numerous mosques & star hotels are there on both sides.

Day - 2.  Princess Island trip , Grand Baazar & Galata tower. 
Princess Islands are a group of Islands in the Marmara sea. It takes about one and a half hour ferry ride from Istanbul.  It is an idylic place where many Turks have built their second homes to relax.

Grand Baazar is a place where you can find everything unique to Turkey. Ancient trading point between Europe & Asia .. and true to the ancient trading culture, unless you bargain, you will be taken in for a ride.

Galata tower is an often neglected landmark in the city. On top of this ancient millitary tower is where you can get the best view of the city - Golden Horn Peninsula with the Sultanahmet area, Bosphorus strait and the teeming city areas by its side.

Day -3 : Spices Baazar , New Mosque & Return trip.
I think apart from the historical significance, Spices Baazar may not appeal much to Indians because we are used to seeing those spices at one place or other..Next to the Spices Bazaar is the new mosque and the Galata bridge. You would see Turks engaging in their national pastime - Fishing along the Bosphorus..

We returned to the airport in the afternoon to catch return flight.

Back home, as you sip various flavours of Turkish tea, the memories of this city come to your mind. As one of my favorite authors Orhan Pamuk  remarked, "Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space" .. and Istanbul is such a museum in its true sense.

Jun 2, 2012

The Falling Rupee & RBI's Losing Battle

How much is the rupee going to depreciate ? That's a question which the expatriate community keeps asking to every Tom Dick & Harry. The intention is to lock in on the most favorable exchange rate (i.e, highest depreciation ). Similarly when I visited India recently, some of the discussions often veered towards concerns on depreciating rupee as it is increasing the fuel cost.  Now, predicting the level is like a lottery. I'm not going to do that. The level, hinges on a lot of policy decisions by Govt, RBI & even the European Central Bank. Instead I want to write on a set of common misconceptions prevalent in Indian media about this phenomenon

1) Why cannot RBI sell dollars & pop up rupee ? 

RBI cannot and should not try intervening in forex market beyond a level. The volume of INR currency market is supposed to be about $40 - $50 billion a day . Now, to seriously make an impact on the exchange rate, RBI will have to release about $10 billion a day ( i.e, bare minimum one fourth ). With the present level of foreign exchange reserves ($290 billion ), this activity can go only for a month at the max. And if RBI tries doing that, rupee will be prone to speculative attacks of this nature

2) So, who is supposed to address the problem ? RBI or Govt ? 

Govt. This depreciation is due to fiscal profligacy ( i.e, in simple terms, govt is spending more than it earns ). This was possible till now because capital flows to India were strong. With the advent of Eurozone crisis ( and many other internal factors ), these inflows have dried up.

Rupee, in one sense , can be visualized as the guarantee (legally it is a promissory note ) given by Govt of India.  If such a guarantee is issued by an entity whose expenses are greater than revenue, the value of guarantee will go down. This in-short explains the depreciation of rupee without getting into complicated economic parameters like Fiscal deficit & current account deficit.

3) What should the govt do / rather should have done ?

Depreciating currency is a cheap trick used by governments worldwide to promote export competitiveness. India too has fallen prey to this. When economy is doing well, government should do enough things to bring down the real 'cost of doing business' and 'cost of living' . i.e, power , modes of transport, infrastructure, food etc. Doing these things would have been relatively easy when economy was doing well. Now, a depreciating rupee forces govt to reign in their expenses. Doing enough infrastructure investments is difficult in such times. But there is no other option.  Certain reforms which are targeted towards these areas ( transport, food prices, power ) should be undertaken in high priority.

4) Should the fuel prices be deregulated in India ? 

This is a painful decision point. But ultimately, yes. these have to be deregulated. You cannot simply sell something at a lower price than what you procure. However, thats a long term goal .

The present manner in which prices are determined has no big logic. Hence, everyone is at a loss to explain a high/low price. I would say, its best to arrive at a index based pricing system. A formula which involves Global crude indices, rupee exchange rate etc.

In short term, taxing private diesel driven vehicles should be a priority. Otherwise we are just subsidizing the rich at the cost of poor.


Feb 21, 2012

Travelogue - Seychelles

Imagine a place where people are happy about everything.. No big complexities in life.. You work from 10 to 4:30 / 5 PM on weekdays..Everything in city is closed from Saturdays 1 PM .. Most of the natives party on Saturday & Sunday evenings on beaches... That's Seychelles.

A quickly planned trip over an extended weekend. We flew in EK 705 from Dubai. 4 1/2 hours flight.. A quick tip for all flying to Seychelles - Always take the window seat and make sure that you land there in the morning. The runway in Mahe Island runs parallel to the coast line..The view that you see while you land is one of the best experiences that you get in the trip.

Snippets from the trip.. 

Long time back when I used to collect stamps & coins, it was very difficult to get a few stamps / coins of small nations like Seychelles. I'm no longer into those hobbies. But somehow, didn't want to forego this chance.. Central post office in Victoria, the capital city has a philatelic center. Bought a few from there :).. Few of those where released to commemorate Prince William & Kate.  They came to one of the Islands in Seychelles for their honeymoon. ==> http://www.north-island.com/  . 

Clock-Tower, Victoria.  Erected in memory of Queen Victoria. Perhaps one of the smallest capital city areas in world. Most of the significant areas in capital city are at a walkable distance from this point. 

Waves, beaches & pristine beauty . Cameras cannot capture it fully .. You have to experience it. Umpteen spots around the island. Thanks to our wonderful guide Alrick - http://discoveryagritour.com/   . Highly recommended if you are ever visiting Seychelles. He'll explain everything about the island with apt historical , cultural & scientific background

Seychelles Flag 

Blue for the Sky, Yellow for the Sun, Red for their hearts, White for the beaches, Green for the vegetation. This tiny nation has imagination !!  And Seychellois are proud of their heritage  
Coco De Mer


This tree is unique to Seychelles. The gender of the tree is known only when it produces its flowers / seeds .. That happens when the tree is about 20 - 25 years old. Lot of stories / legends associated with it..

Aldabra Giant Tortoises 

Again unique to the Seychelles Islands.. They can live upto 200 years apparently.  Endangered species..Conserved in special enclaves.. Nature has even created an Island there in the shape of a tortoise.

The creole cuisine.. Fish, Tuna, chicken  & octopus curry..
Non- veggie's delight.. :)

The cuisine is highly spicy.. with cinnamon as a main ingredient..

"Lavenir  dan ou lanmen" - Your future is in your hands..   Big words  for a small nation.  Till a few years  back Seychellois had no options for higher education.       Now, they have a university which offers a lot of courses.. A few Seychellois who are educated abroad have come back and joined as professors over there..

The beauty of Seychelles is that it'll make you realize that people can be happy with limited opportunities...  Limited income, limited ambitions, limited dreams.. They seem to be blissfully unaware of the high-paced world outside, yet quite content & happy about that ignorance.. At-least for a moment it makes you wonder , whether you really need to have all the riches to be happy in life.