Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
Even America's homespun hero, Mark Twain, said of India:
it is "the One land that all men desire to see,
and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined."
On this trip, I and my travel companion also visited two of the other magical and mystical lands of the Himalayas, Tibet and Nepal.
To begin at the beginning, we landed in Delhi, on AA's very convenient nonstop from Chicago. It's a looooong flight (15 hours), but actually quite nice, as -- unlike a mere 7 hour flight to Europe -- one has the chance to have a full night's sleep, plus enjoy the meals, and still see a few movies to boot!
Our trusty, always expert and professional, Indian tour planner, Ranjan Gaur of Rudraksh Holidays, met us at the newly refurbished Indira Gandhi airport (which has been greatly spiffed up for next year's international Commonwealth [sporting] Games to be held in Delhi). (The glorious Ranjan may be contacted at:
I have said before, and I should say again -- as a travel tip -- that India off-season, namely May through August, is a GREAT travel bargain. The occasional rains keep the land lush and green, and the skies, air and streets of the city clean as well. And even the most expensive hotels in-season are offering excellent deals (especially good in this global economic downturn). This is my third "summertime" trip in two years, and I am a happy "convert."
In Delhi, Ranjan was able to get us a great rate of about only $150 at the aptly named Shangri-La hotel -- near the very central Connaught Circle. As we were headed to the Himalayas, it was only fitting that we stayed at this Chinese-born deluxe hotel chain bearing the name of the mythical paradise of the Himalayas, made famous by British writer James Hilton in his classic 1933 novel, LOST HORIZON (and later made into a Hollywood classic movie in 1937, and a less illustrious Hollywood musical in 1973):
After a day of rest, we enjoyed a magnificent Vedic reception at one of the holiest of temples in New Delhi, known as Yoga Maya Devi, named in honor of the sister of Krishna, the central figure of the Indian "bible" -- the Bhagavad-Gita.
Here's a picture of yours truly, in bliss, inside this sweet temple to the female aspect of divinity: [see the separate email I sent you, David]
For the shoppers amongst you, there are several recommendations in Delhi. One is Cottage Industries, with outlets around the country, but a particularly good outlet near the Shangri-La, on the famed Janpath Road. They have EVERYTHING Indian, from objets d'arts to clothing and furnishings. The goods are authentic, high quality and fairly priced too.
Another great choice for quality goods at fair prices is Fabindia, with many outlets throughout Delhi (and even a mail-order business).
ONWARD TO RISHIKESH
The next day, we were off from Delhi, by air-conditioned luxury van compliments of Ranjan, to spend a few days in Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas. Rishikesh was made famous in the 1960s to most Westerners, when the Beatles spent time (along with Mia Farrow, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and England's Donovan, to name just a few others) with the founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique (TM), Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (see http://www.tm.org/ ). Although Maharishi's little ashram in Rishikesh is long gone, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr just this year did a benefit concert at NYC's RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL, for the filmmaker David Lynch's charitable education foundation, which makes TM available to school children worldwide.
For a lay of the land and general things to see and do, check out
Ranjan found us a wonderful new Ayurvedic medical facility and spa near the center of this groovy, spiritually-minded oasis, called simply AYURVEDA BHAVAN (aka "Ayurveda House"). They currently also are accepting guests who want rooms only, without Ayurvedic services. It's run by some Europeans who were well-trained in the modern revival of ancient Ayurvedic medical healing techniques, as overseen by Maharishi himself at his Holland-based worldwide center. The facilities are modern, scrupulously clean, and quiet, even though it is not far (walking distance in fact) to the hubbub of Rishikesh's holy center, known as "Swargashram," reached by two glorious pedestrian-only, suspension footbridges that span the holy Ganges river here.
For other hotel options in Rishikesh, there is the classic GLASS HOUSE, with private mango gardens right on the banks of the Ganges, which once were owned by the Maharaj of Garwhal (the district in which Rishikesh is located):
This also is a lovely hotel, geared to the Indian upper middle glass, with gorgeous views. It is some 20 minutes outside of town, so less convenient in that regard, but its riverside tranquility may be more appealing to some. I stayed here last May '08, and loved it too! (It too offers some Ayurvedic treatments, but with more of an emphasis on "spa" rather than holistic medical treatment.)
And for those who insist on Western-style, over-the-top luxury, there is the now-internationally-famous ANANDA SPA, built high in the Himalayan foothills, incorporating the former palace of the Maharaj of Garhwal:
Lovely it is, but obscenely priced! For those who cannot afford its pricey rooms and Ayruvedic treatments, but still would like to see the place, my advice is to have lunch there one day. It's relatively affordable, and you'll get to enjoy the Maharaj's restored palace, as well as stroll through the extensive grounds dotted with the modern bungalows and villas where most guests now stay. Like Glass House, Ananda Spa is definitely a drive away from Rishikesh proper.
Take your pick on accommodations, based on your pocketbook and personal tastes. For my money, I think the new AYURVEDA BHAVAN is ideal.
After several days in Rishikesh, we headed further north to the Kahsmir area of India, specifically to Jammu and another renowned temple to "Devi" (the female power principle of Nature: think Mother Mary in Christianity! Or if you're a science guy, think of the creative powers of the Unified Field in Physics), known as VAISHNO DEVI:
By the way, even though this area is little traveled to by Westerners (ours were the ONLY Western faces we saw among the thronging thousands of pilgrims at Vaishno Devi), there is demand from the pilgrims, who come from every strata of Indian society, for at least one 5 star hotel in the Jammu area, an outpost of the Radisson chain called Country Inns & Suites (perhaps surprisingly, but maybe not so incongruously, also well-known in the midwest of the USA!).
Ranjan thankfully put us there.
The mountain-top temple of Vaishno Devi is certainly one buzzing center of "shakti," or cosmic "girl-power" one might say! It is visited daily by many thousands of pilgrims who walk the some 12 kilometers right up a mountain peak. For those of you inclined to get your power peak experience with less arduousness, there are also two very reasonably-priced helicopter services that will whisk one to the mountain top in mere minutes (... and surprise: that is what we indeed did. The power of the peak is not diminished one bit!).
It is tradition that, after visiting the shrine to Vaishno Devi herself, one may finish the trip by visiting a shrine to her vanquished, male, erstwhile "stalker" (see the Wiki site!) -- a fierce form of Shiva, known as Bhairav, or "nicknamed" -- according to Ranjan -- Bhairon. Our flight schedule from Kahsmir back to Delhi required us to forgo a visit with Bhairon at his mountaintop shrine. But, Ranjan instead arranged for us to visit another shrine to Bhairon, right in the heart of Delhi. The little shrine in Delhi is remarkable for the fact that Bhairon is ritually revered there with an offering of whiskey (... and sometimes a cigarette as well!). It may boggle the mind of the average Westerner that a godly manifestation may be so honored, but India is an ancient place, with many rituals that may not be easily fathomed by the fastidious, tidy mentality of the relatively younger cultures of Europe and the Americas. For one perspective on this "spirits"-honored spirit, see:
Before we headed onward to our next Himalayan country, Tibet, we had to stop back in Delhi for our onward flight. Just for fun (and because summer sales were available), we stayed at New Delhi's most glamorous hotel, the renowned IMPERIAL, a 1930s masterpiece of British Colonial and Deco style.
The many restaurants within the Imperial are also noteworthy destinations in themselves (again, if you can't afford the hotel, enjoy one of the great restaurants inside the hotel). In particular, the spectacular SPICE ROUTE restaurant has gorgeous museum-quality, wood-carved decor to look at, and the pan-Asian food is equally artistic.
We were particularly lucky to be friends of a friend of the hotel, and as such, we not only got a sensational summer sales rate (about $200 a night), but unexpectedly we even got complimentary upgrades to $800-a-night "Deco Suites," which were extravagant to say the least (for example, one and one-half baths to each suite; ... I imagine just so any guests you might have in your living room won't have to use the same loo as you in your bedroom bath!). But, even if you are not upgraded, the basic Imperial room is gorgeous too. The hotel obviously has been recently and fully refurbished so that even the basic rooms have all the amenities of a truly deluxe property, including both a tub and separate "rainfall shower" in the sybaritic bathrooms.
After our extra Delhi night in "Imperial luxury," we headed to Tibet, now part of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Before we get to what we enjoyed in Tibet, time should be taken to discuss the details of HOW to get to Tibet. Because the PRC encompasses Tibet now, it is not a simple matter to get entry there. As a USA passport holder, one needs both a general Chinese visa, and only AFTER obtaining that, one must additionally seek a Tibetan Travel Permit too. There are even tricks of the trade at play: one may be denied a Chinese visa IF one states an intention to head to Tibet. However, the government is obviously in on this game, since only a Chinese tour company may obtain the Tibetan Travel Permit for non-Chinese tourists.
Because of these various hurdles to even gaining entry to Tibet, I STRONGLY advise using an experienced U.S. travel agent to guide you in your interactions with the Chinese tour companies that have a monopoly on arranging travel for non-Chinese travelers in Tibet. We used the most excellent Ann Tonnessen of THE TRAVEL DESIGNER, INC., whose U.S. phone is 1-641-472-8844; email: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ann designed a wonderful around-the-world trip for me some 15 years ago, and she was equally expert in making our trip to Tibet hassle-free and delightful in every way. Use her: she knows what she is doing!
With Ann's expert aid, we safely arrived in Lhasa, capital of the PRC's "Administrative Region of Tibet." We were met by a Tibetan tour guide and driver at the Lhasa airport (no non-Chinese tourist is allowed to tour Tibet without an official guide), and whisked the 45 minutes or so to downtown Lhasa. (travel note: By the way, we feel we were very lucky to get a Tibetan-born tour guide, but ours told us that many guides are now Chinese-born, thus she advised to specifically request a Tibetan guide.) We were put up at the lovely 5 star, French-named hotel, the JARDIN SECRET.
There are other deluxe options as well now, including the 5 star, Four Points by Sheraton, at which we also looked (it was indeed lovely too). In addition to the Starwood Group's Sheraton, Starwood is also planning to open a St. Regis-brand hotel in 2010 in Lhasa. See SPG.com.
For an overview of what to see and do in Lhasa, see
I imagine most Westerners know Tibet from pictures of the iconic hill-top Potala Palace (it certainly is the image that drew me to Tibet), the spectacular last home of the currently-in-exile, 14th and current, Dalai Lama.
This 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is at this moment on a celebrated (except by the PRC maybe!) worldwide tour. His amazing home remains happily preserved for touring:
Whether spending SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET (a la Brad Pitt in his 1997 Hollywood film version of the famed 1952 book by Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer) or merely two days in Tibet a la me, this is one gorgeous land! Being so high on the planet, the air is sublime (no pollution at all, it seems), the skies so blue, and the heavenly Himalayan mountain peaks surrounding Lhasa are snow-peaked year round.
Tibet and Buddhism of course go hand in hand, and many of the most wonderful things to see are famous Buddhist monasteries. One in particular is the Deprung Monastery, which Wikipedia describes as analogous to " a university along the lines of Oxford or the Sorbonne in the Middle Ages, the various colleges having different emphases, teaching lineages, or traditional geographical affiliations."
We were serendipitously in Tibet during their much-prided, perhaps oddly named, "Yogurt festival."
For those attracted to Tibetan tongkas and other objets d'art, Tibetan clothing and homeware, and just tourist mementos of all kind, there is no better place to head than Lhasa's Barkhor St., a vast, circular open-air market in "old Lhasa." It is a shopper's haven of everything Tibetan. It's a bargainer's paradise as well, although your guide (especially those of Tibetan descent) may of be some assistance in that arena.
Barkhor Street originally arose as a circuambulation route around "old" Lhasa's most famous monastery, the JOKHANG TEMPLE, another venerated spot.
One final spot also very worth seeing in Lhasa is NORBULINGKA, aka the "Summer Palace" of the Dalai Lama (his "winter residence" being the Potala Palce, just a few miles away horizontally, but miles higher vertically -- it seemed). The gardens of the Summer Palace are genuinely gorgeous!
From the Tibetan Himalayas, we jetted down to the Nepalese Himalyas, flying right over top Earth's highest spot, Mt. Everest. For an overview of the former Kingdom of Nepal, and fun stuff to see and do while there, see
We had been hooked up by the same friend that got us special treatment at the IMPERIAL in Delhi, with a charming hotel in Kathamdu called HOTEL TIBET.
It's owned by the most gracious hostess, Tsering Dolkar, who is a delightful woman of Tibetan heritage, a serendiptious thing since we've just enjoyed our own very first visit to Tibet! The Hotel Tibet is terrific in every way, from its authentically gorgeous and elaborate Tibetan decor, its scrupulously clean and comfortable rooms with all the modern amenities one might want (Satellite TV, wi-fi internet, etc.), a genuinely gracious staff, an excellent kitchen and 3 lovely dining venues (main dining room, garden restaurant, and rooftop venue with spectacular mountain views), all at very exceptionally reasonable prices. I believe the place has a 3 star ranking, but I think that's deceptively low, as I think it may only not have received more, since there's no swimming pool, a point not missed by me, given everything else about the place that I loved -- most of all our truly welcoming hostess Tsering! She and her staff say that they want their guests to feel at home, and it's the first time I've actually believed that sentiment in a hotel! The location is great too, directly opposite the deluxe Radisson, right in the heart of Kathmandu's Embassy Row.
I heartily recommend Hotel Tibet!
Being an erstwhile Hindu kingdom, with an equally large Buddhist population, many of the wonderful things to see again are temples of one sort or another.
The most striking Hindu temple in Kathamandu is called PASHUPATINATH, a celebrated temple to Shiva.
The temple's main entrance is guarded by a larger-than-life, enormous gilt-covered metal bull (to Westerners, perhaps reminiscent of, although bigger than, the famed metal bull of Wall St. that sits in Manhattan at the northern entrance to NYC's Bowling Green park, opposite One Broadway). This bull however is the vaunted "steed" of Shiva, and is known by the name Nandi.
Pashupatinath Temple is actually a huge complex, the grounds of which are extensive, encompassing several other revered temples. There are beautiful park lands as well, all guarded over not only by Shiva and Nandi, but also by the myriad indigenous monkeys that live in Kathmandu.
There are monkeys also in residence at another famed Kathmandu temple, a huge Buddhist Stupa called SWAYAMBHUNATH, or in fact, the MONKEY TEMPLE in reference to the hundreds of simian guardians considered holy here.
The other famous Buddhist shrine here is called Boudhanath, the stupa of which is seen from all over Kathmandu.
All of the foregoing shrines, as well as Kathmandu's famed "old downtown," royal Durbar Square
Before leaving town, if you've the time, one extremely fun thing to do, that is a specialty in Kathmandu, is to take a Himalayan "flight-seeing" tour of the world's highest mountain peaks which are within a short half-hour flight of the airport. There are many tours, I'm sure, but your hotel (certainly Hotel Tibet can do so) can recommend a good one. You'll leave early in the morning, when weather is usually the best (both for flying safety and sightseeing), and spend about an hour seeing the heights of the globe, including flying very close by the top of Everest itself! You'll even get a "diploma" memorializing your having "seen" the top of Everest!
And on that "high note," it's time to close this latest letter from your itinerant friend.
Bon Voyage to all."
Saturday, September 5, 2009
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
Luftslottet som sprängdes
© Stieg Larsson 2007, Norstedts Förlag, Stockholm
Two seriously injured people arrive at the emergency ward of the Sahlgrensa hospital in Gothenburg. One is the wanted murderer Lisbeth Salander who has taken a bullet to the head and needs immediate surgery, the other is Alexander Zalachenko, an older man who Lisbeth has attacked with an axe.
In this third novel in the Millennium trilogy, Lisbeth is planning her revenge against the men who tried to kill her, and even more importantly, revenge against the government which nearly destroyed her life. But first she must escape from the intensive care unit and exculpate her name from the charges of murder that hangs over her head.
In order to succeed with the latter, Lisbeth will need the help of journalist Mikael Blomkvist. He is writing an exposing article that will shake the Swedish government, the secret service and the whole country by its foundations. Finally there is a chance for Lisbeth Salander to put her past behind her and finally there is a chance for truth and justice to prevail.