Prague on Christmas eve

Prague – city where time has stopped Part 1- read here..

After quickly freshening up I and my friends went to a nearby Indian restaurant to have lunch. Our plan was to head to Old Town Square to be part of celebrations and see markets. As we came out of restaurant, oh man; it was raining. In the excitement of being in a city which was mix of two era, we forgot to check with hotel reception if they had any umbrellas. Although we were all wrapped but since it was freezing, we could not dare to step outside in rain and run back to our hotel which was few hundred metres away.

Has it ever happened to you when you could not wait any longer to be somewhere? That was my state of mind. Uber has presence in Prague and in desperation not to miss any part of celebrations; we quickly booked a cab to get back to our hotel. It was a day of fortunes 🙂 After grabbing umbrella from hotel reception, quickly headed on foot to Namesti Miru which was few blocks away. Red and white colour trams were gliding on cobbled streets. This square has St. Ludmil church which was soaked in lights resembling nothing less than the full moon night. It turned to be a perfect place to get ourselves clicked as all the action was happening in old town square. This was one of the places where all I could think was “here clock stopped ticking long back”. Have a look at the pictures below.

From here we headed to Namesti Miru metro station, didn’t know a stroke of serendipity was waiting. We headed to the vending machine to buy 24-hr validity public transportation ticket, realised that we forgot out Honest Guide’s advice. We had currency notes and most of the ticket machines in Prague accept coins and cards only. Card was not an option for us as Czech Koruna was not loaded in our forex card. Oh man, we could have exchanged notes at hotel reception but… All of sudden saw passengers rushing towards the station exit. I do not know what came over me and I began requesting the locals for coins in exchange of notes. Yes, language was no barrier because face said it all 🙂 My friends joined the party and there came 4 – 5 teenagers whose gesture filled my heart with gratitude and solidified my belief in humanity. I happened to ask one of them for coins and there stopped the entire group. They all opened their clutch and gave all the coins they had. It was exactly what we needed to buy 3 tickets. I heard them discussing among themselves that they will later split the currency notes among them. There came another gentleman who gave us his ticket. These kids took it from us to verify if it was a valid ticket. I was overwhelmed, “God bless You” were the words from my mouth to those youngsters and to the gentleman.

We at Namesti Miru – Longest escalator in EU

Namesti Miru station has the longest escalator in European Union. It took more than 2 minutes to descend to the platform. Our halt was at Staromestske nam, couple of minutes away from Old Town Square. One of the things which I love about Europe is amazing public transport. Throughout the continent; trams, buses, sub-way, inter city trains, cable cars they are all so gelled up that you rarely need to hire a car. Check out the pics below – magical sight of celebrations in Old town square.

On my left there was a massive stage where senior citizens were all set to sing Christmas carols and entertain the crowd. On other hand was a huge Christmas tree. There were tens of stalls selling local delicacies the aroma of which could be felt in the air. Church towers glistening in lights seemed nothing less than the castles seen in Disney movies logo. The sight was pure bliss. We tried Trdelink, its a YUMMY PASTRY with cinnamon crust and chocolate or vanilla filled inside.

I had Czech drink, hot mulled wine, It was freezing and this tasted like exactly what I needed at the moment. We stayed there for about an hour, enjoyed carols, ate, drank and lived the moment. After the performance got over, we happily left for the hotel as temperature was dipping further and it was closing time for stalls.

It was a day of joy, exuberance, gratitude and satisfaction. I could not ask for anything more. Came back to the hotel and had tight sleep as there was more to explore in Prague over the next few days.

Stay tuned for next chapter of this exciting trip….

Prague – city where time has stopped

Imagine being at a place where the first sight brings in the feeling of magic all around. Where you feel nostalgic because it seems that city is still in renaissance. Where few sights make you think was every Disney movie shot here? After Barcelona, my next halt was Prague, the capital city of Czech Republic . A jewel in central Europe, I was looking forward to see Christmas decorations, tinkling of bells, markets, carols, celebration and laughter. 🙂 I was ecstatic as I did my first ever sky dive on the previous day. From Barcelona, we took 1.5 hr flight to reach Prague on Christmas eve.

This was my first trip to this beautiful city but still I had the feeling that I have seen it before and know everything that a first time visitor would know. How? Check out this awesome Honest Guide channel on YouTube. Prague based journalist has made video on every topic, magical sights of city, currency exchange, Dos and Dont’s, public transport. So before heading to Europe from India; I knew quite a bit about weather, delicacies/drinks which I was waiting to try, places where I should head to convert euro to local currency.

From the airport, I took city bus as suggested by Honest Guide. After comfortable 15 -16 Celsius/ 59 – 61 Fahrenheit temperature in Spain, it was time for cold waves of Europe. I was wrapped head to toe in multiple layers. The airport bus was cruising through the bends and turns then came the view I was waiting to see, top view of red-tiled houses. On the way there were few parks and although it was December end; the grass was lush green and everything looked so surreal. I could not get down to feel the slow cold breeze on my face. After the bus we boarded a tram connecting to our hotel. The smooth roads turned into the famous cobbled streets and vintage trams was gliding in middle of these streets. I was like a kid looking through the windows on both sides anticipating the below view and Christmas decoration. Here the tram was passing through a bridge over Vltava river. It just made my day 🙂

It was 4 PM when the tram stopped, it was coldddd outside, we had a quick check-in at the hotel. It was a cloudy day there and as I moved the window curtains in room, there was the first sight of Christmas decoration right across the street.

Click here to read the next chapter

Skydive at EmpuriaBrava

It was year 2010, when I first heard about something called as skydiving. There were colleagues in my organisation who were in Canada for onshore assignments and they skydived there. I just heard the experience and do not know why but this story made home in my heart. Next year 2011, the epic Bollywood movie released “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” and it changed the perception of Indian audiences forever. I decided that whenever I will go abroad, I will experience what seemed like out of world feeling.

There were couple of times between 2012 – 2019 when I went outside India but for some or other reasons, kept on postponing this dream. There came 2019 when an old friend suggested to visit Europe and one of the cities in our itinerary was Barcelona, Spain. In the movie, star cast dived at Seville, Spain so I quickly searched how far was it from Barcelona. I felt this was the opportunity to capture my dream and make it mine forever. Seville was 900 KMs. Driving/Flying back to Seville did not seem like fitting in the budget. I quickly checked for skydive sites near Barcelona and first result I got was for Skydive Empuriabrava – Land of Sky. I had never heard of this place and did not have any contacts to get an opinion so relied on TripAdvisor for reviews across the globe. From there I came to know that it is in top 5 skydiving sites in the world.

my tandem skydive video

We planned to have 4 nights stay in Barcelona. First 3 days were for city sightseeing, 4th day I kept for my dream. I asked my friends and they were a bit scared to do this hence I decided to do it alone. I booked my slot from India and the date was set as 23-Dec-2019. Woah – I couldn’t wait any longer after making the online booking. We reached Barcelona and the day came, I could not sleep the previous night, that was the height of excitement within me. Lying in the bed, I was looking through the curtains for the dawn. Anyways as it was winter time, sun was supposed to knock the door at 8 AM 🙂

After having breakfast at the hotel and failing to reach the skydive site on call to check if weather was fine, I started from the hotel. It was after 7 years that I was travelling alone in a foreign land. This was the time I was getting goosebumps although I had been walking on those roads for past 3 days. Only difference now was that my friends were there with me then. I did not have voice call activated on my phone. While I was in the train, my friend messaged to inform that skydive site was operating that day as per schedule. THANK YOU FOR BEING SO SUPPORTIVE. 152 KMs away from my hotel, my route was going to be Arc De Triomf (Renfe) –> Barcelona Sants (Renfe) –> Figueres –> Figueres Vilalfante –> Skydive Empuribrava

Barcelona was bit cold and rainy that morning, on the other hand Empuriabrava region was warm and sunny. My slot was at 1PM, I reached the venue half an hour before that. Went to the reception and was asked to wait for my turn. In front of me was the runway for a small jet. I looked at the sky and saw lot of divers and their colourful parachutes. From the ground, it seemed like there was a flower bed in the sky. It was an hour’s long wait after which I was told to proceed for diving instructions. I felt my heart beats and yes, it was the time.

I met my instructor, he was a very warm person. Quickly gave me few instructions on body postures which I had to keep during the tandem ride. There was another guy who was going to be my cameraman and we were all set to move to the jet. As I moved towards the jet, my smile was growing wider….. I was about to jump from an altitude of 13,000 ft 🙂 Interesting part was in the jet, only I was going for the tandem ride, rest other 8-10 were doing solo dive. Time was passing so quickly, the jet started running and in less than 30 seconds it was off the ground. OMG, it was about to happen. I should be nervous but I wasn’t feeling anything but EXCITEMENT. My instructor was constantly showing me the altitude of the jet. In less than 2 minutes, the other solo divers started jumping off the plane. The instructor tied me completely with himself, checked the harness and began sliding towards the jet door. I first looked at the ground through a clear sky and with the jet door open. I wasn’t thinking anything.

And there we jumped. Shit!!! We were having free fall at speed of 200Km/h and yes, this was a scary moment. Wind all on my face, I could feel every muscle on my face moving. Then a thought came to me, I cannot go back on the plane so I should look around and enjoy this moment. After 5 sec of freefall, my instructor opened the parachute and their came the halt. I now knew what it felt like to be a bird. 🙂 Clear blue sky above me, beautiful landscape around AND THE SEA – IT WAS WOWWWW.

I was hanging in the sky with my instructor and it was like he was giving me a guided tour in there. On my right was France, right down was Empuriabrava region, on my left was Costa Brava region where the shoot for scuba dive sequence in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara movie was done. We two were actually chit chatting in the sky.

During the free fall
After parachute opened
Left – CostaBrava
Right – France
Down – EmpuriaBrava
Front – Mediterrean Sea

And now we began descending, the beautiful coloured parachutes which looked like flowers from the ground, now I was one of them. The houses and buildings began looking bigger and there we touched the ground. Happiness was all over. I could not believe, I wanted to do it for 10 years, I could not sleep the previous night and it’s over now. Those last 5 minutes were like a second which came in as quickly as they went by.

Thanks to the entire staff at Skydive Empuribrava. You were so cordial yet so competat and professional. All those happy faces of solo divers in the plane, myself hanging in the sky – a month after this I can still soak that feeling. Waiting to come back and do it again, this time a may be SOLO DIVE.

I did not tell about dive to my family until I had the video. I shared with them and waited for their response. I was thrilled when my mother said “tumhe plane se koodte dekhkar bahut maza aaya“. LOVE YOU GUYS, my friends who came on this trip with me and so many others. Because of you, I AM LIVING LIFE.

Sikkim tour

Here is a comprehensive Sikkim tour guide. Sikkim is land of glaciers, alpine pastures, rhododendron, monastery, snow, tea gardens, herbs. It is extremely tourist friendly state of India. Because it is close to international border hence Indians need permit.  Tourism and Civil aviation department issue permit to visit certain attractions. While all foreign nationals need Inner Line Permit (ILP) to visit any part of the state.

Day wise break up of 8 day trip

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Itinerary of 8 day Sikkim tour

Indians need permit for below attractions in Sikkim tour:

  1. Gurudongmar lake
  2. Yumthang valley
  3. Zero point
  4. Tsomgo lake
  5. Baba mandir
  6. Nathula pass

Foreign nationals get permit only for below listed attractions: 

  1. Gurudongmar lake
  2. Yumthang valley
  3. Zero point
  4. Tsomgo lake

Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Myanmar and Nigeria nationals do not get any permit.

Most noteworthy, only Indians can visit Baba mandir and Nathula Pass.

Documents needed for permit in Sikkim tour 

  1. Passport (mandatory for foreign nationals)
  2. Indian nationals need IDs containing address like voter ID etc.
  3.  Passport size photograph (3 pics are required)

Permits are issued only through local tour operators. Hence I chose Sikkim Tours and travels for permit.

Click here especially for Travel tips

Why is Sikkim an ideal holiday spot?

  • Endless landscapes exhibiting natural beauty
  • extremely safe destination
  • humble, helpful and trendy locals
  • If you wish to explore a remote corner

How to book hotel in Sikkim?

I used MakeMyTrip to book hotel using “Book Now Pay Later” feature. As a result I did pay for hotel booking in advance.

Budget: 1200-1500 INR/hotel

Day 1: Reach Gangtok and check in to hotel

How to reach Gangtok, Sikkim

By Air: Siliguri (IXB) or Bagdogra (IXB) is the nearest airport.

From airport prepaid taxi are available to Gangtok. The price of prepaid taxi is fixed hence I paid 2200 (Indian rupee) for a private taxi in December 2016.

Travelling time between Gangtok and Bagdogra is 4.5 hours.

To be continued in next blog…

 

North Sikkim tour

Visit to North Sikkim need minimum 3 days. My trip included visit to Gurudongmar lake, Yumthang valley and Zero point. Click here for Sikkim tour – Part I

Interesting facts about Sikkim:

a)Vehicles of other Indian states are not allowed in Sikkim for sightseeing . Vehicles of other states can enter the state only to drop off the passengers at their hotel/home. Drivers should very well know the local routes and respect army restrictions which is otherwise a punishable offence.

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Facts about Sikkim

 

Day 2: Beginning North Sikkim tour by reaching Lachen (base village for Gurudongmar lake)

By road is the only available mode. Private or shared cabs can be hired from Gangtok. I chose for private cab from Sikkim Tours and Travels. Travel time between Gangtok and Lachen is 7 hours covering distance of 95 KM.

Why special visit to a lake:

i. It is one of the highest lakes in the world located at an altitude of 17,800ft

ii. It’s proximity to Chinese border

iii. It’s sacred nature due to the legends associated with Guru Padmasambhava and Gurunanak.

We were riding on SUV owing to the difficult terrain that was waiting to be conquered. Sikkim has mountainous terrain with lush greenery and waterfalls all over.

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Stopover for lunch en route to North Sikkim

Gangtok was windy at 19°C while in Lachen mercury had dipped to 11°C. Our body had to acclimatise both to mountain sickness and the temperature. We had early dinner in Delight hotels Royal Lachen and marked it end of day.

Day 3: Our ascent to Gurudongmar

We began our journey at 4 in the morning when temperature was negative and we were shivering. It took 4 hours of treacherous ride through snow clad peaks to reach the lake.

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Food available on way to Gurudongmar:

Since oxygen level and temperature is low around the lake, it’s essential that one should not have empty stomach.

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Food available on the way to Gurudongmar lake

The locals will let you buy the least quantity of liquor which will make you feel at ease with the temperature.

I was admiring the locals for hospitality, adherence to rough surroundings, hard-working nature, zeal to stay at native place and still make a beautiful today and better tomorrow.

15 Km before the lake is Indian army base camp.

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Snow covered mountain on the way to Gurudongmar

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North Sikkim tour

I bought handful of coffee mugs as a small token of saying THANK YOU.

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Gurudongmar lake

An interesting fact about this lake is that a part of it never freezes and devotees carry sacred water in containers.

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It is advisable to return to Gurudongmar lake army base camp max by 12 noon as the oxygen level dips further. We stayed at the lake for about 45 mins and began our descent to Lachen. During descent we saw alpine pastures covered with rhododendron tree all over. This state has maintained its raw form and is still flourishing.On reaching the hotel in Lachen, had lunch and left for next stop, Lachung.

To be continued in next blog