Day #13

This is a part of a mini-series of independent posts, starting here

The dusk is visible in the leaping splashes of what used to be still water, but which I am now involved with in a dog-eat-dog race, as I put forth one arm after the other pushing back my enemy. Talk about savoring my first foray into a swimming pool in Hong Kong! I am going to squeeze a few paragraphs out of this –
yes, I am that happy about the whole deal.

Let me start with the pre-swim prep. After doing (unnecessary/obsessive) online research mining reviews on Hong Kong pools, I was a bit skeptical. Most forums would go on about public pools being crowded and so on. I feared a scenario like this:

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But hey, I am really geared up for the whole deal and how bad can the crowd really be? I am a veteran of the Dadar battlefield and have the scars to prove it. Plus, I mean its been almost 2 weeks since I last tasted chlorine; I rather miss it. All I really wanna do now is suit up and jump in. YOLO. (Well technically, not jump in. Since the pool is just 1.4 metres deep…)

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Anywho, desperation and good sense win over, but as I swipe my Octopus and enter the fairly large Kennedy Town Swimming Pool facility, my steps falter, unsure, as if testing the waters. I become conscious of the fact that I am probably the only Indian guy in the whole place at the moment. I begin consciously trying to be as invisible as possible, hoping to blend in, for some reason, with my predominantly Chinese brothers and sisters.

At the gates of the changing rooms, there is an odd sign which says, roughly, “Anyone above the height of 1.35 metres or older than 8 years old won’t be allowed in the changing room of the opposite sex”. It is one of those things which you know, deep down, that there is some backstory to it. One of the two conditions was surely an addendum and my bet is on the latter. There is absolutely no way, after all, that some tiny dude did _not_ misuse it at some point in the past, and prompted the law-makers to rethink things! 😀

Well, as I enter the men’s locker room, my efforts to “blend in” are rendered futile as I come across my first culture-shock. For the sake of civility, I shall not venture into details, but samajhdaar ko ishaara kaafi hai (A gesture is more than enough to the wise). Takes some time for my eyes to adjust to this new darkness. No one on any forum cared to mention this phenomenon, of course. Thanks, internet!

The first couple of laps are nice and slow, as I stop to smell the roses; not really counting the laps anymore, free/frog-styling, soaking in the warm water and the cool breeze, sighing with content after every lap. Boy, have I missed this. The pool is mildly warm and a little crowded, but reality is way better than expectation. After a few relaxing rounds, I get a little competitive with random strangers, setting arbitrary goals for beating them to the finish (always fun!).

I notice something peculiar after some time in the pool. There is a general lack of body hair on everyone! They have as much hair as would a skinned potato (Nothing wrong with it, of course) I feel like Anil Kapoor from the 90’s swimming among the people.

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Yeah, I know – Disturbing. Now you feel my exact mental state for the next few seconds after becoming conscious of the fact!

As my swimming session draws to an end, I have the pleasure to view the sunset from the quiet, open-air pool deck. As the Sun takes in a deep breath for its long dip in the far off depths of the ocean, it brings down the shutters on an almost perfect day…

Day #12

This is a part of a mini-series of independent posts, starting here

Russia trip, continued. Beginning of the story

Day 7 – 11 pm:

What a day to be alive! You’ll be introduced to the reason for my enthusiasm soon enough. And I won’t even have to tell you when.

Bright, sunny day it was after another heavy buffet breakfast with the fancy cereals and the breads and the fruits and the omelettes and the sushi and on and on. First sight, right out of the door, we caught a red hot beauty standing there:

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*whistles and jeers* After ogling the vehicle for the better part of 10 minutes, we went ahead with our plan. We decided to tour along one of the canal routes that St Petersburg is supposedly famous for. Our first stop on the route was a bit far off, namely the Church of Spilt Blood (fancaaayyy!) The other thing it is infamous for, however, made sure we took off and wore our jackets as many times as this guy:

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St Petersburg has really beautiful canals, reminiscent of Venice itself. The intermittent clear skies help; brightening up the warm colors of the city landscape.

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These canals were artificially constructed and connected with the Neva river to ease transportation through the city. Very Venice-like! Little boats scuttling about ferrying starstruck tourists through the waters. Anyways, we got to the destination finally and it was a pretty sight. It was also a little underwhelming after the Moscow trip unfortunately, so I am not going to dwell much on this part.

What I am going to dwell on is what made me a devoted theist. While it might seem like an exaggeration, for a few microseconds, it really wasn’t. Imagine my horror when while strolling across the massive Palace square in the shadow of the Hermitage, I see this sight above my head.

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Low flying fighter planes in some sort of formation. Non-Russian. In Russian Airspace. Broad daylight. Holy shit. But thankfully, seeing that I am doing more or less OK at the moment, it was something more innocent. If a multi-billion dollar hi-tech aviation exhibition/market is innocent, that is. What followed was a series of sights and sounds that left me awestruck. It was beautiful. I hope I captured it OK:

Plain vanilla hellies!

Them Fighters

Anyways, having had enough adventures for the day, we headed back to our hotel for a quick refresh before a relaxing river cruise. Walking along the Nevsky Boulevard, the main street of Petersburg, we encountered hordes of tourists snapping and storing various pieces of history gracing the street, including the Leningrad Hero City Obelisk – a touching memorial which marks the bravery of a city that stood through under probably one of the most devastating sieges in history.. This is indeed a popular street; one can also tell by the tourist prices being charged in the souvenir shops!

Finally, we landed up at the cruise loading point in time to grab tickets for the last available cruise. The wait begins..

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Day #11

This is a part of a mini-series of independent posts, starting here

Apologies for the delay. Russia trip, continued. Beginning of the story

Day 6 – 5 pm:

There are probably few feelings as frustrating as running 100 metres through torrential rains, having to carry a faulty 20 kg bag that you cannot wheel along because its stupid handle won’t budge, looking like an idiot to passersby wondering why you can’t simply do the above and then realizing after getting into the taxi that you could simply have taken a comfortable internal route. Quite a mouthful, eh? So, after probably the worst welcome a city has ever graced me with, I sat in the back of the SUV taxi the hotel had kindly sent across, shivering, nursing a sore set of fingers and an aching back, and my jacket dripping all over the seat. Welcome to St Petersburg!

Thankfully, it all went uphill from there. After checking into the room, taking off the jacket, shaking off the cold, and freshening up, when the curtains were removed this is what greeted us:

St Isaac's Cathedral

The beautiful dome of the St Isaac Cathedral. Also built by Peter the Great, the church, like everything till now in Russia, was colossal – Huge pillars, a glorious dome to match, archangels decorating the circumference. So before I go further, a little bit about the city of St Petersburg that I quickly read up at the time. It was constructed by the relatively progressive and worldly Peter the Great who also established it as the new capital of the newly christened Russian Empire (admittedly, a much better capital shifting exercise than a Mr. Tughlaq). He named the city after his patron saint, who also shared his name. (One wonders whether that nomenclature would have been different had their names been different. Or who knows, the patron saint himself might have been someone else! “When in Russia”…) Peter was a big European buff and got a lot of European artisans in to build the city; and the influences can be clearly seen in some of the structures. It is, at first impressions, a more relaxed place than the hubbub that was the current capital. The city centre consists of most of the places of note for tourists and also quite friendly for us; it is beautiful, well constructed, well planned, and even boasts of such treasures as an art gallery with more exhibits than the Louvre!

So, once we ate our usual fare of room service Italian, we walked out into the now calm skies, armed with umbrellas and windbreakers. First stop, tourist info centre and a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city centre. Note that everywhere we went in Scandinavia and Russia, we encountered the same tourist agency operating these buses; and the service was quite good too. This is the link, in case it helps someone out. Anyways, back to the fickle Petersburg weather. During the approximately 2 hour bus ride, the weather must have changed its mood at least 5-6 times. Amid the decent sunlight to god-help-us-rain, we tried to listen to the not-properly-synced commentary on our headphones about each building as we passed it by. If not a whole picture, we got to see the outline and the colors for what lay in store for the next 5 days. We also realized that getting around on foot was the way to go, since as I mentioned earlier, most of the buildings of note were in the same area.

But for the day, we had had our fill of Russia. We found a cozy little Indian restaurant near our hotel which had better food, better prices and better service than more than half the restaurants I have visited back home and we chilled! No such feeling as diving into Dal Makhani bang in the middle of a former Russian capital. Amen.

Foodie list for Hong Kong

This is my list of personal preferences from trying out different places. The list is under construction. Do keep checking in as and when.

Captain’s Bar – Ginger Ale (Non-alcoholic) + Keep munching on the complementary nuts and chips they give. Trust me. (Also, probably a good place to land a banking gig if you’re into that :D)

Bersola – Deviled Pizza

Jinjuu – South Korean restaurant (As if “South” is really needed here :P) in the LKF area. Tostadas + Bibimbap was a good combo. And try the Spicy Kimchi Mary if in for an adventurous ride

Chilli Fagaara – (Sichuan Chinese) The gastronomical equivalent of a roller coaster. Apt for adrenaline junkies. Absolutely loved it. What I consumed – Krispy Rice, Tofu, String Beans, Steam Rice, Dumplings:

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Fantastic food; Few tips:

  • Whatever you order, specify “mild spicy” to the server (no one likes a hero; bravery and foolishness are first cousins)
  • DON’T attempt to eat any chillis whole
  • Go with a fat wallet. It’s not cheap
  • Order some lychee soda or something cool. You think you don’t need it, but trust me
  • Drink a glass of cold milk before you sleep, if you don’t want open rebellion from your digestive system the next morning
  • Tequila on David – Mexican. Standard fare was pretty good – Nachos, Fajitas, Beans & Rice. Choc lava cake to kill for.

    Day #8

    This is a part of a mini-series of independent posts, starting here

    Well, two days in Hong Kong! Love the place like a third home. Living with my favourite (and only :P) real sister. I kid, I kid! Pic to prove sincere sibling love 🙂

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    Lemme try again. So, am living with my favourite sis and bro-in-law and the cutie pie pictured above for a few months now while in HK. Absolutely excited. After a lazy first day trying to wear off the mild fatigue courtesy of a window seat in a fully booked overnight flight (Yeah, I don’t quite like the in-flight experience as much as the pre-), getting back slowly to routine.

    Turns out HK has great, well defined treks, which I never was enthusiastic (or non-lazy) enough to indulge in last few times I came here. But if there is a list somewhere of things that are infectious (like laughter and good ol’ ringworm), please add exercise to it too. Nothing like seeing two people focused on their diet, health and exercise to get the sweat flowing! So, that’s a checklist for now where I hope to tick off as many treks as I can on whatever weekends I have.

    However, being the true blue Marwaris we are, (me and sis, at least; jiju’s willpower is out of this world!) we are binging before we purge. Sis at least has a good reason for it, I am just along for the ride. I am actively making a list of good places to eat/hang out in HK, which I’ll keep updating here, so in case someone wants to, do try them out if ever you are in the general area. But, from next week onwards, iron clad discipline and gymming!

    And of course, how can I forget my little princess of a niece in this brief tell-all. That girl brightens whatever room she is in, with her cute questions and cute logics in her cute little voice. Even got to play the ukulele with her – as I held the frets, she strummed like a pro! Such a smarty. I swear she already knows more about the solar system than what I know today 🙂

    Anyways, also started with a new gig today. So, early wake-up call, brief confrontation with HK rain (I honestly don’t see the big deal; I’ll take HK rain over Mumbai any day! Or is that more of a statement on the public transport infrastructure’s resilience to them? Hmm), Octopus card entry, brief metro ride, Octopus card exit, escalator and finish line. (I swear, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought you could buy houses with your Octopus card; way too ubiquitous) Interestingly, I think in HK’s Central area, if you try really really really really really really hard, you can get away with probably not walking a single step and still get from any A to any B. Gotta love this city.

    Signing off for now!

    Day #4

    This is a part of a mini-series of independent posts, starting here

    Moscow saga, continued. Beginning of the story

    Day 5 – 3 pm :

    The last two days in Moscow were eventful. Tales include an unsuccessful ~11 km chase of a river cruise along the banks (with navigation errors on the part of yours truly), the Moscow Metro hop, a walk down the pretty Arbat Street, and a visit to the Gorky park. I’ll highlight the metro rides first.

    Expectations weren’t high, but numbers beat street estimates by some margin. Who the hell, after all, expects a “metro hop”? Intra city train hops in Mumbai are a topic best left untouched in polite company. Don’t get me wrong, the trains will get you where you need to go. Probably the fastest way around. Also happens to be the fastest way to get drenched in sweat; some of it not yours! (That being said, I loveth _aamchi_ Mumbai local) So one can empathize with me when I say I had gone into the whole thing with what can be described as slight skepticism at best and fear at worst. Moscow’s metro stations don’t, after all, look like the friendliest places to be in. Sure, they aren’t claustrophobic; nothing in Russia quite is. Yet, I don’t know if it is the lighting, the colors, the tiling, but I’ll be damned if some of them don’t induce that feeling. Doesn’t help that their trains and tracks somehow seem incompatible with each other, evidenced in the worrisome vibrations at speeds more than 20 kmph. Or that their doors snap shut faster than Exhibit 1. Or that a few of these stations doubled up as bloody bomb shelters, not too long ago!

    But what does help is the beautiful decor of the stations. And they are so well maintained, that “Moscow Metro tours” are an actual thing and one can see why! We saw multiple tourist groups snapping pictures of the pretty stained glass panels at Novoslobodskaya, the palatial interiors of Komsomolskaya, the 34 gorgeous mosaics on the Mayakovskaya ceiling, or with the frontier guard statue at Ploshchad. (It is believed that rubbing the nose of the dog which is a part of the guard’s statue is supposed to bring good luck – it is such a common activity among all that the dog’s nose has actually been worn off its bronze) All of this was expectedly surprising to a bunch of people used to strictly utilitarian modes of transport. The experience comes highly recommended. And in case you visit, don’t forget the Komsomolskaya selfie spot!

    Once done with our underground shenanigans, we thought of giving a shot to another mode. After a long walk down Arbat street, (great place to shop for some paintings, or catch a theatre performance, or just sit around and watch people go by) we decided to catch a ferry ride on the Moskva river. However, in our hurry, the distance to the loading point got grossly underestimated, and we started off on the long walk ahead after a sleep-inducing lunch of Dal Makhani and Tandoori Roti. After an excruciating 2 hours, which included several navigation errors by yours truly, we got close to the loading point, only to be told that all slots for the day were full.

    The saving grace for us was that we were essentially at the border of one of the most extensive and beautiful parks I have ever seen. As Russian architecture somehow seems to go, this park was massive. At 7 pm, it was bustling with people lining up for cotton candy, schnitzels, corn on the cob, beer and more, after perhaps a long day at work, children running about, cycling, skating, Segue-ing, kids enjoying the bubbles around bubble guy. Glorious summer day! We did finally get on a cruise the next day (with more planning this time), but it isn’t quite worth mentioning. So, after a tiny tour of the beautiful and _huge_ Soviet-era government buildings, after what seems like ages, we finally bid adieu to Moscow and head for St Petersburg!

    As a final thought, I think I really underestimated what the city had to offer, as far as sights are concerned. Some that I have described till now showed the grandeur and the beauty of a city; once and still powerful. But along with this grandeur, one can see through the cracks if one cares to focus. I saw what was probably the most disturbing sight I have seen in my life in person, when in front of the Ritz Carlton at Red Square, I noticed a pregnant lady (probably nearing the end of her second trimester) kneeling in submission with her head hung low, and a cloth in front of her. It’s not like I haven’t seen people asking for alms on the street in Mumbai, but this somehow felt different. She was alone, didn’t have any support to hold on to, and was being thoroughly ignored, especially by the patrons walking by in their Jimmy Choos, and clutching their Guccis, and driving their Porsches. Away from home, in this grandiose city, caught up in a bubble, it brought me crashing back to the reality of a place that actually isn’t all monuments and power and glitz; that picture has imprinted itself on my brain, and even though I did not have the heart to take an actual photo, I won’t ever be able to push that image out of my head. It was a reminder. The yin to the yang…

    Day #3

    This is a part of a mini-series of independent posts, starting here

    The Moscow saga, continued. Beginning of the story

    Day 5 – 1 pm :

    The roller coaster that was the Moscow trip just ended as we get on a high speed train to St Petersburg. It is similar to the ICE trains that one might encounter in Germany or France, probably a notch lower. (You can definitely feel it moving in a way which tells you there is some compatibility issues b/w the train and the tracks!; there were even a couple of seat handle grabbing moments in the ride) The route takes us through the Russian countryside, zooming past fishermen, farmers, an occasional creek, normal-looking-people (finally, after the hot-fest that was Moscow!) waiting on stations to take trains to perhaps their normal-jobs from their normal-looking-lives. Gives me some time to reflect and type away on the phone.

    So before I start off again with references to people’s looks (despite previously being told not to), I must disclose that I was put up in an upscale neighborhood close to the Square, which also happened to be hot-night-life-adjacent, and so on. Selection bias was in fact the answer… This became more evident on the last leg of the Moscow trip as we were doing a metro-station-hop (more on this later), and decided to take a break and get off at Izmailovsky for (surprise, surprise!) some more shopping. Relatively far off from the central buzz, this seemed like a more “utilitarian” place, if you will. Smaller roads, more domestic cars, hawkers selling paintings, Matyushkas, carpets, Ivan Ivanovsky hats (bought it! – Exhibit 1) , fresh produce, souvenirs, you name it. Differences were stark. Less Dolce Gabbana, more flea market. Less wine, more beer. Less skin, more clothes. Must admit, felt kinda happier.

    Anyways, after the heady Red Square experience of the first day, we decided to complete the experience by going there again early morning next day and taking pictures of the great monuments that could put Narcissus to shame. The energy and enthusiasm in the place was infectious and I got swept up in the groove (Exhibit 2). My extremely resourceful sister also had a whole tour of the Kremlin planned out. The Russian government allows visitors access to certain buildings inside the otherwise secretive complex including the Kremlin armory, a 007-type-named-place called the “Diamond Fund” alongwith Tsar-made churches and a few other buildings. The Kremlin, after all, served as the seat of power for centuries upto the 17th century when Peter the Great decided to shift some stuff around and make his own capital.

    I’m sorry to say this, but dayum, those churches had some dull interiors. Having seen my fair share of European places of worship, these churches can at best be described as gaudy. Every nook and cranny that they could find, they coated with gold, covered by a Biblical painting, or both. Interiors with excessive red-based colors, heavy candle lighting and low sunlight just made them more unappealing. Did, however, get to see the coffin of a Mr Terrible, so overall would rate the churches a 3/5!

    The Kremlin armory on the other hand was some other-level exhibit. The audio-guide led us through rooms and halls full of heavy chainmail armor, ivory encrusted guns, human-size swords embellished with gems, gold ladles, sapphire broaches, diamond necklaces, flowing gowns of Tsarinas, cradles comparable to kingsize beds – all either commissioned by the Tsars themselves or gifted by European diplomats seeking audience. It is truly a mind-bending display of wealth. That is, until we come across the tiny throne room.

    It is always fascinating to encounter a piece of history or geography in real life, when you have read about or seen it on the internet; but despite this expectation, the human mind still manages to get stumped each time (Guess this underestimation bias is why market trends will always exist) When I came face to face with Ivan the Terrible’s ivory throne, or the two-seated one for young Peter and Ivan with a hole in its back for Sophia to advise the youngsters on matters of the state, or the crown that had been used for coronations across the generations of a powerful dynasty, or the grandeur of the other thrones on display (for instance, one of the thrones boasted of 300kg of gold, while another had 900 diamonds!), it was difficult to not get carried away in the moment and stand in awe at not just the wealth, but the vibes of power that seemed to transcend time to make their presence felt *shivers*

    Next came the mysterious sounding Diamond Fund, a small darkened hall guarded by KGB-types, and with shining display cases alongside its walls, displaying some serious diamonds and gems. The vibrant color gradients of the gems and the sheer sizes of the displayed diamonds (some as big as 300 carats) dug out mostly from under Russia, were a marvel. I literally have no more words to describe them; I only recall the silence with which I took in the information from the audio guide, one number after another.

    All this awesomeness, in the true sense of the word for once, aided by the comprehensive and carefully preserved collections from the state history museum got me thinking of the rich culture Russia has had, its history embedded with its contemporary European powers. Which got me thinking why is our rich history not this well preserved? Why do we, as Indians, not display our crown jewels in secure museums like the Diamond Fund, or describe our many extensive dynasties of the North and the South like the Romanovs or the Ruriks? Why not market such existing museums well and make them sustainable with viable commercialization? Why do we, as the common man and thus the likely consumers of this material, not value our history enough to not cringe at paying more than just 20 or 50 rupees (<$1) for upkeep and preservation of more and more places like these, but happily spend hundreds on overvalued samosas at over-hyped movies?

    Any how, as the trip progressed, as is the nature of our species, these introspections passed and were replaced by fresh ones. It also wasn't difficult to get distracted with so many new sights that the brain was getting bombarded with every hour. See, this is one of the things that I really like about travel. Somehow, I think all these new experiences act as lubricants to hasten the flow of information in your head. Somehow, these experiences add to the richness of one's memories and "open up" your mind. They give you perspective. They teach you things that someday in the future you can apply in your own life. (Simply put, it's a lot of data collection!) For example, when you see people happily busking on streets and metro stops for a living (and also being rewarded for it), you learn that their view of life is in direct contrast to yours. You often earn more and try to figure out how to be happy, they are happy and are trying to figure out how to earn more.

    I guess that's enough extrapolation for today. More Moscow fun to follow, with St Petersburg following close behind.