Some of you may remember my last year’s roundup that covered the 16 UNESCO World Heritage sites I had visited in 2016 (it was also my hundredth post). My travel roundup post of 2017 is slightly different. It is likely to be useful for my magazine editorial friends as it arms them with a possibility of myriad stories I could share with them. In this post, I have enumerated some key travels in India too. Have a read of Travelure Travels in 2017 – An 8-Country Photo Roundup!
Travelure Travels in 2017 – An 8-Country Photo Roundup
2017 just got over. It was an eventful year that took me to 8 different countries namely Bhutan, Israel, the United States of America, Germany, Czech Republic, France, Finland and Iceland. Barring Israel and France, it was my first trip to the rest of the countries. So, 2017 took my visited-countries tally to over 35! These travels were undertaken for different reasons. In this post, while I will briefly share those reasons, the key idea is to share the excitement and the exotica I encountered in each destination.
In February, I was on a short holiday there with my wife. This trip took me around Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. As a nation, it prides itself on being a pioneer to measure its prosperity not on GDP (Gross Domestic Product), but on GHP (Gross Happiness Product). Since it is cosily snuggled amidst the Himalayas, not surprisingly it is soaked in natural beauty.
This bounty of nature apart, Bhutan is culturally rich too. Here, women’s ethnic attire is Kira and men are clad in Gho. Kira is an ankle-length dress that is worn with a Wonju (a long-sleeved blouse), while Gho is knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt called Kera.
The travellers to Bhutan tend to get scandalised seeing an all-pervading presence of phallic symbols as the country engages in fertility worship.
During our brief visit here, we were fortunate to see the special birthday celebration of the current Bhutan King called Druk Gyalpo.
Heritage Structures of Bhutan
Each district here has a Secretariat-like building that is the seat of administration as well as spirituality called Dzong. Most of these Dzongs were built during the 17th century. During my visit, I saw 3 Dzongs – one each in Paro, Thimphu and Punakha. My personal favourite is the Punakha Dzong for its rich exterior and scenic location. Built in 1637, it is the second-oldest Dzong in Bhutan and it lies at the confluence of Mochhu (Mother River) and Phochhu (Father River).
En route Punakha from Thimphu, I came across the Druk Wangyal Chortens (Stupas) and the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple) as I reached Dochula Pass. While the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang was built in honour of His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 108 chortens are said to have been built as a sign of victory of Bhutanese Army over the Bodo militants and for peace for the souls of the departed soldiers and militants.
Nowhere else have I seen any monument erected for the peace of souls of the destroyers of peace. No wonder Bhutan has the highest Gross National Happiness!
I had earlier visited Israel in 2015 as a winner of Cox & Kings’ #GrabYourDream contest. In 2017, I made my second trip to Israel – this time for speaking at TBEX International, Jerusalem. During this visit in March, besides Jerusalem, I visited Akko, Nazareth, Haifa and Bet Guvrin.
My 8-day trip was eventful – it took me to 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites, had me stay in the best hotel in Israel (Hotel King David), got me featured in the Jerusalem Post, and had petite TV anchor Fah Daengdej interview me for a 45-minute TV Programme ‘The Passion’ that was subsequently aired on Thailand’s #1 Channel – Nation TV 22.
I have already done a few detailed stories on Israel and you may read them HERE, HERE and HERE. But the high points of this trip were speaking at the first-ever TBEX International, visiting Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa and exploring the UNESCO-inscribed Bet Guvrin caves.
A Bit About the UNESCO Sites in Israel
Beginning at Mount Carmel’s base, the Bahá’í Gardens extend almost one kilometre (0.6 miles) up the side of the mountain, covering around 200,000 sq. mt. (or about 2 million sq. ft.) of land. The gardens are framed by a panoramic view of the city, the Galilee Hills and the Mediterranean Sea.
Caves of Maresha and Bet Guvrin, Central Israel, are ~55 km. from Jerusalem. These caves were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. UNESCO listing came about as the UN body felt that these caves are an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, culture and human interaction with the environment. The scale of some of the caves is breathtaking.
All in all, even my second visit to Israel did not have a single dull moment!
The United States of America:
I was selected as a TBEX speaker yet again for 2017 North America TBEX. The conference was held in Huntsville, Alabama in May 2017. I chose to reach New York City 5 days before the conference and went about exploring the Big Apple. As a first timer here, I was overwhelmed by the attractions NYC offers. Its staggering bouquet of offerings prompted me to write a First Timer’s Photography Guide to NYC.
In Huntsville, besides speaking at TBEX, I conducted a full-day photography workshop at Huntsville Botanical Gardens (Read about it HERE). This under-rated city was a revelation as it amalgamates its Civil War history and heritage ably with its Rocket City stature. I did a detailed story on Huntsville you could read HERE.
During a Fam trip organised by #OneAndOnly #VisitTuscaloosa, I enjoyed a leisurely cruise on a pedal wheel cruiser on the Black Warrior River, spent an afternoon appreciating the richest collection of American Art in the USA in Tuscaloosa Museum of Art, visited one of the larger Mississippian Culture excavations in Moundville, checked out some snazzy wheels on display in the Visitors Centre of the only Mercedes manufacturing facility in entire North America, loafed around like the university students would in University of Alabama, learnt to appreciate the depth of meaning of the phrase ‘Roll Tide’, and enjoyed the delectable and robust Southern Fare in the local favourite eateries and some fine dining gems.
In fact, I will update this section soon once my 2-part article series on Tuscaloosa appears in the February and March issues of Smart Photography. Stay tuned!
Germany, Czech Republic and France:
I have rolled these three destinations into one since my trip was courtesy a Skyscanner contest I had won. The contest was simple – build traffic to the Skyscanner website and get people to download their app. My post – Delhi-Perth return for only US$250 (Rs.16,856). No Kidding! – proved effective and helped me win this contest comfortably. This win entitled me to an air ticket worth Rs.50,000 to a destination/destinations of my choice. And I chose a Lufthansa ticket (Delhi-Frankfurt-Paris-Frankfurt-Delhi) spread over the July-August timeframe.
Frankfurt was my first brush with Germany. Here, I was hosted by a friend who stays in Hanau, a pleasant suburb of Frankfurt. My friend took me on a guided tour of the Frankfurt’s Old City Centre. Situated on the banks of the scenic Main River, the city has a plethora of heritage architecture flanked by glitzy modern structures that include the quirky European Central Bank Building.
Another friend had joined us from London and after a 3-night stay in EU’s financial capital, the three Punjabi musketeers had set out on a road trip to the Czech Republic. On our way to Prague, we spent half a day at Pilsner Urquell Brewery in Plzeň. It is the oldest Pilsner beer brewery in the world and has influenced over two-thirds of the beer brewed in the world today.
Prague, Czech Republic
Once we reached Prague, I was totally taken in by its medieval charm! We were staying just a block from the famed Charles Bridge. And I couldn’t have enough of dining by the banks of Vltava – the longest river flowing through the Czech Republic.
The attractions ranging from the Petrin Hill to Prague Castle to the Old Town Square are enough to have one gaping as one walks! As I normally do in a new destination that has a Hard Rock Café, I bought an HRC T-shirt from the buzzing outlet in the Old Town Square. While I did a travel hack story about the usurious money changers in Prague (see HERE), I still have to do some detailed destination stories on this fascinating East-European city. Watch this space for more!
Paris and more
Once we drove back from Prague to Frankfurt, it was time for me to move on to Paris. Here, I chose to stay at a hotel that gave me a view of Eiffel Tower from my balcony. I selected Hôtel du Collectionneur on rue de Courcelles.
While I did get the view, it was far from what I had hoped for. And, at ~€400 per night (prepaid for 5 nights), the hotel was a total disappointment, to say the least. But then, having travelled some, and then some more, I have started taking such butt hurts in my stride (Remember, I had been robbed of $12,000 worth of camera gear in 2016 in one of the world’s safest cities – Stockholm?!).
I decided to make up for this underwhelming stay experience with some awesomeness. My Paris visit saw me walking through the Catacombs, the Tuileries Gardens, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, the third level of the Eiffel Tower, and more. I checked out Chateau Versailles, Château de Fontainebleau and Château de Vaux-Le-Vicomte – two of these three heritage precincts feature on the UNESCO World Heritage list; stopped by and shopped at Galeries Lafayette and Apple Store; and even bought myself a Hard Rock Café T-shirt for my collection. All in all, I soaked in enough to create some exciting stories over the next few weeks (See many more Paris images in my Paris Instagram Roundup).
So, don’t change the channel. More updates to follow soon!
Finland and Iceland:
To round off the year, I whizzed away to Iceland in early November to attend the inaugural Trablin conference (Trablin = Travel Bloggers and Influencers). Since I was flying Finnair, there was an option of an up to 72-hour layover in Helsinki. I availed of a 48-hour layover to explore this Scandinavian gem.
I had reached Helsinki at 2 pm and by the time I reached my hotel (Hilton Helsinki Strand, located on the banks of Vantaa River), it was 3.30pm. And in winters, that’s almost the sunset time. All the same, I set out to explore the area around and predictably, ended up at the Hard Rock Café to shop for my collectable – a Helsinki HRC T-shirt!
Next morning, I took a ferry and explored Suomenlinna (Sveaborg), a sea fortress that was gradually built from 1748 onwards on a group of Islands. These islands are a part of Helsinki. By the way, this fortress is the only UNESCO site in Helsinki! The same day, I also photographed the Sibelius Monument, the Rock Church and the Helsinki Cathedral. For my short stay, I guess I experienced a lot of what Helsinki offers.
Reykjavik and more
Taking off from Helsinki on an afternoon flight, I reached Reykjavik late in the evening via Copenhagen. Thanks to the Trablin organisers, I had been given an 8-day airport-to-airport rental car. Upon landing, I had someone from Lagoon Car Rental waiting for me who took me to their office. Once there, I was handed over the keys to a shiny blue Mitsubishi Outlander. This car was mine during my entire stay in Iceland!
Trablin’s Iceland associates were kind. And, they kept me exceedingly busy during my reasonably long stay on the island. From an Into The Glacier tour to hunting Auroras, from the Lava Caves to the Ice Caves, from snowmobile ride on the glacier to the Game of Thrones tour across South-Western Iceland, from the whale watching tour to a cosy dunk in the Blue Lagoon, they had it all lined up for me. I even walked around the Harpa Concert Hall during one of the breaks in the conference and shot some gorgeous images of this stunning conference centre and the nearby Sun Voyager installation!
My regret – I should have kept another couple of days for visiting Vik to check out its black sand beach and Basalt columns and to visit the DC plane wreck on the black sand beach at Sólheimasandur.
All the same, as a travel photographer, I have learnt to live with doing whatever is comfortably do-able at a destination – you can’t do it all!
So, here is a scratching-the-surface roundup of my travels abroad.
My travels in India
In addition to this, there were some interesting travels in India too. And some of them were milestones in their own right. Earlier in the year, I had stayed in the newly-opened Oberoi Sukhvilas and then proceeded to drive off to Kasauli. Kasauli visit was to attend the Genesis Foundation’s Rhythm & Blues – a music festival.
This was followed by a day-trip to Nandgaon to experience the chaos it is famous for – the Nandgaon Holi. To check out the live action, head over to Sticks! Colours!! Action!!!
In July, I was a part of the OYORooms ad ScoutMyTrip’s #HighestBloggerMeet in Ladakh. This record-creating road trip took us from Gurgaon to Jammu, past Srinagar, Dras, Kargil, Leh and finally to Khardung La. For details of the trip, read Road Tripping to Khardung La for the #HighestBloggerMeet.
I had travelled to Goa for Abhilash Tomy’s boat launch. It is an epic event when a newly-created boat touches the water for the first time. This boat, Thuriya, would be his 32-ft boat for his second non-stop solo circumnavigation of the globe in a sailboat – this time as a part of the Golden Globe Race (Read more about it HERE and about his earlier adventure HERE).
In November, a Fam trip took me to Garli, a small idyllic time-warped hamlet near Kangra. It accorded me an opportunity to visit Kangra Fort, touted to be the oldest fort in India.
#ITBC Chat from Narendra Bhawan
And the Christmas weekend was spent in Narendra Bhawan, Bikaner. We were there for conducting an ITBC Chat that was sponsored by them. They also gave away a 2n/3d luxury stay in Narendra Bhawan as the prize for the chat contest winner!
Besides spending about 7 hours a day on the dining table (gorging on glorious multi-course breakfasts, lunches and dinners), I also went up close and personal with the globally-famous Bikaner havelis. I’ll soon update this and provide you with a link to check out my perspective on these heritage nuggets spread across India.
Broadly, that’s how 2017 panned out for me. How about you? If there are any specific exotic exploits you’d like to share, feel free to do so in the comments below.
I’ll wrap up by saying ‘Cheers’! I hope 2018 turns out as good, if not better for me, and for you too!
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