Tag Archives: snow

On ticking the Northern Lights off my bucket list and other stories from Lapland

17 Aug

This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of Hi Blitz

So overcome was I with anxiety tinged with just a bit of superstition, that in the days that followed my decision to travel to Lapland, I was afraid to reveal to my friends that my real purpose of heading towards the Arctic Circle was to see the Northern Lights. After all, it wasn’t uncommon for people ravenous with wanderlust like me, to have undertaken this journey to Finland under inclement conditions only to come back with post cards of the Aurora Borealis instead of real memories or pictures of the dancing lights. And I was reluctant to jinx my chance of seeing the Northern Lights by announcing it to the world.

We flew from Mumbai to Istanbul or Turkish Airlines and then onwards to Rovaneimi in Lapland, the northernmost end of Finland.

The wintery white landscape that sparkled like diamond dust beneath the starlit skies was enough to imbue our weary senses with a feverish thrill as our plane touched the snowy tarmac, a little after nightfall.

Little did we know that what awaited us over the next four sleep deprived days would alter our perception of life, beauty, nature and paradise forever because never before had one imagined a land so pristinely beautiful that it almost seemed otherworldly.

Santa's Village, Rovaneimi

Santa’s Village, Rovaneimi

After checking into our unpronounceable hotel Pohjanhovi we were driven in wi-fi enabled buses in the dark of the night (read 8pm) to the Sky hotel, one of Finland’s best dining destinations. Not only was I floored by the unexpectedly appetizing food served indoors at the restaurant but also by my own ability to stare at the star spangled sky atop a freezing al fresco terrace layered heavily with snow. This was done with help from a cup of brandy and constant movement of arms and feet resembling a Michael Jackson performance, to keep ones blood from freezing over.

The thing that struck me most of the landscape of Rovaniemi was that one had to pass through what seemed like a heavy forest smothered with powdery snow, to get to most attractions, making the overall experience even more romantic, by day as well as by night when the light of the moon wrapped Lapland in a veil of eerie yet calming darkness.

We traveled northwards and about an hour outside of Rovaniemi après dinner looking for the Northern Lights with a prayer on our lips and sleep deprivation in our eyes. My gut told me that after yearning to see the Northern Lights since the past twenty years of my life, it would hardly seem fair if I saw them this easily on my first night in Lapland. Sadly, my gut proved right and we headed back way past midnight feeling like war criminals made to stay awake as part of confessional exercise referred to as torture in certain communities.

The frozen Baltic cruise

The frozen Bothnia cruise

On our first morning in Finland and thereafter, we woke up at the crack of dawn, at 9.15 am each morning.  On our first day there we were herded in a bus to the Baltic seas, two hours outside of the city for the icebreaker cruise aboard a vessel called Sampo.

Operational since the early Sixties, Sampo ploughed open the frozen seas of Finland for trade vessels for 25 years before ending up as a tourist attraction. The colossal clash between the massive bulk of steel and the thick coat of ice is an extreme experience in its own right. What’s more is that you can spend an entire day clicking photographs of the white frozen beyond that will look no different than the white wall of your bedroom on your return to Bombay. But what can match the fabulous meals aboard the vessel, the icy winds outside it and the shards of ice below it as the mighty Sampo cruises along the frozen Bothnia Sea?

Here again, I said a little prayer for Mr. Remy Martin courtesy whom, most of us were kept alive on the deck of the boat.

Later, we were allowed to disembark in the middle of the frozen sea to take a plunge into the waters but only after slipping into a hideously fat rubber suit built to keep you warm and alive inside the waters. Since I am not tethered by vanity as such, I volunteered with a few others to look like the Teletubbies in those fat suits and floated about in the frozen waters till I could take it no more.

At night we were driven through the thick snow coated forest to an unbearably charming venue called the Be

Come snow or cyclone, we never stop posing.

Come snow or cyclone, we never stop posing.

ar’s Den, about 30 km out of the city. Numerous heads of state and other dignitaries have been hosted at Bear’s Den and I could see why the Fins were so proud of this beautiful lodge tucked away in the middle of nowhere.

This visit to Bear’s Den however, wasn’t for the faint hearted as it included an opportunity to partake in a traditional Finnish custom of allowing your body to get heated up in a sauna and then running out into the cold in swim suits and diving straight into the frozen river in front of the lodge.

We saw it, we saw it: The surreal Northern Lights,

We saw them, we saw them: The surreal Northern Lights,

This is something I would have happily ventured into if I was mature and brave or young and stupid; but since I am neither, my self preservation instinct stood firmly between me and this masochistic exercise and I happily cheered for the fearless among my group.
We kept looking towards the firmament for a sign of the Aurora Borealis but it was snowing heavily and there was no chance of seeing the lights in an overcast sky. On our way back to the hotel we were shown a DVD about the Aurora Borealis and we all came to the conclusion that if we did not spot the real thing, we could still claim that we saw the Northern Lights in Finland. We would, of course, leave out the finer details of where and how we saw them.

Our third day in Rovaneimi was spent zipping around on snowmobiles over the frozen Kemijoki River and enjoying reindeer paella and potato gratin by the bonfire. In the evening we descended upon the Arctic Ice Hotel, which as the name suggests has been chiseled entirely out of ice.

Not that one needed another reminder of the cold when one is in fact gallantly holidaying across the Arctic Circle, but one could not leave without taking a tour of this ephemeral architectural marvel. I walked through cavernous passages, chapels and rooms impeccably carved out of ice and drank what was served to me out of glasses made of guess what? Ice!

Realizing that I had a better chance at staying warm if I exited from the Ice hotel, I let some Finlandia vodka roll off my palette and headed towards the snowy, moon lit landscape outside only to discover that the Aurora Borealis was making an appearance yonder, towards the Northern horizon. I gasped with disbelief when I spotted the green hues dancing across the lower horizon and before I knew it the entire group had converged outside to aah and ooh at the dramatic skies above.

This also called for another celebratory round of vodka shots, of course, for everyone who had witnessed this rare phenomenon.

Huskies

Huskies

Our last day in Lapland was the kind of day that makes you thank the universe for your very existence. It was one of the most magical days that I have witnessed in my life where fresh snow, Santa Claus, husky and reindeer rides, berry juice and tea by the bonfire all came together to add to our bien etre’.

A short visit to Santa’ village in the morning ended up being an afternoon that we did not want to let go of as we meandered about in the powdery snow that fell generously from the skies. This village headquarters Santa Claus’s office where he meets and greets visitors from across the world and where sounds of Christmas Carols gently punctuate the air all through the year. This was also where we were treated to a gourmet Lappish meal inside Santamous restaurant. We sent postcards to our children from the post office next to Santa’s office and in our bid keep the child alive in all of us, eagerly clicked pictures with him. We also clicked pictures against the imaginary Arctic Circle line that passes through Santa’s village itself.

Paradise found

Paradise found

Later sitting in a sledge being driven by a pack of blue and brown-eyed huskies, we traversed through the curves and bends of a snow-laden tracks flanked by pine trees drenched in polar white snow. In that moment I felt that I was in the land of Narnia. This was the incandescent fairyland of happiness and wonders, where reindeers ran about, unafraid and where man not only respected nature, but also in fact, partnered with it.

The Shamans, who were the earliest inhabitants of this land, believed that everything had a soul. Thus, rocks and trees, foxes and reindeer, the Northern Lights in the sky and the knife in the reindeer herder’s hand all carry knowledge and wisdom within. Spirits are present in everything, wherever one wanders.

Santa & Me

Santa & Me

Could I ever leave such a mystical place and happily go back to the dirt and grime of the concrete jungle that is Mumbai? Let me put it this way, when our flight to Istanbul nearly got cancelled the next day, I wasn’t complaining. I was happy at the prospect of having to spend yet another day in this veritable winter’s wonderland, storm or no storm.

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INFORMATION FOR THE BOX:

Our trip was organized by Yogi Shah of Villa Escape, Mumbai

There is enough vegetarian food to be had in Finland if you travel with Villa Escape. They make special provisions for it.

Dressing: Most Indians balk at the idea of being in sub zero climes but if one is better prepared to deal with snow, one can experience spring even in midst of a harsh winter. On a less philosophical note, four layers are all you need to keep you from turning into a frostbitten ghost of yourself. At least one merino inner layer, from head to toe, followed by some cotton layers and sealed with at least one snow proof outer layer, ideally with down filling is what will keep you protected.

Hotels: Hotel Santa and Hotel Pohjanhovi

Wifi: Practically every closed space in Lapland has free wifi including buses, restaurants, shopping malls and Santa’s village.

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On Zermatt and its quaint, snow covered charm

18 Feb

On Zermatt and its quaint, snow covered charm

Zermatt

We arrive at the tiny Zermatt station and the person at the ticket window there refunds my money and issues me a family pass without any hesitation. In return all I have to do is to fill up a small little form. I am so impressed that I am tempted to take his picture and Tweet it to my followers in India, but I let the feeling pass on account of no free wifi. I danke the man gratefully and step outside, luggage and kids in tow. The sun in Zermatt is strong and the air piercingly fresh, so fresh that my Indian lungs are feeling overwhelmed. Only electric cars and horse carriages are allowed to ply in this village since 1947 and Hotel Zermatterhoff has sent one such horse carriage for us. The kids are ravenous and spotting a Coop supermarket, begin to make their demands. “I am hungry,” wails the younger one. “Please buy me chocolate my tummy is hurting with hunger mamma.” Melodrama runs high in my side of the family and the younger one has inherited these genes in plenty. I leave them waiting by th2014-03-22 17.57.14

2014-03-23 11.12.46e horse carriage and dash in and out of Coop in record five minutes with a bag full of healthy options, much to my children’s dismay.

We are driven down Bahnostrasse (main street), a narrow strip of tiny shops and restaurants and we arrive at Hotel Zermatterhoff. I realize that this distance could have been covered on foot in the same amount of time but then I would have deprived two little girls a chance to feel like Cinderellas, in their own words. Going by the number of ski gear and luxury watch shops along this tiny strip, one could decidedly come to the conclusion that the people of this quintessential Alpine village only need skis and expensive watches in order to survive. St Moritz, from what I can remember, was no different in this regard. There are more watch stores in Switzerland than supermarkets. There’s got to be a limit to obsession with time.

The Swiss clearly thrive on their great outdoors, their peculiar tasting cheese and being on time with the help of branded watches. Of course this leaves them with no time to be effusive or interesting.

I can almost picture a Swiss mother telling her son in German, “Hermann, Bitte bringen US Brot und Käse nach dem Skifahren. Vergessen Sie nicht, Papa und mir eine Hublot und Audemars Piguet bringen.”

“Das letzte Mal, dass du mich Rolex Oyster Perpetual, und ich musste es tragen zu stoppen, weil Maria, unsere Putzfrau trägt es auch.”

I agree with you, it sounds like the mother is planning to viciously murder her husband with her son’s help, but then that is German for you. What she is trying to say instead goes something like this, “Hermann, on your way back from the ski slopes can you please bring us some bread and cheese for dinner. Oh and don’t forget to pick up a Hublot and a jewelled Audemars Piguet for dad and me while you are at it.

Last time you got me that Rolex Oyster Perpetual and I had to stop wearing it because Maria, our cleaning lady wears it too.”

I am pleased to note that the staff at the Zermatterhoff hotel is exceptionally accommodating and courteous and when they fuss over you, they do not give you the impression that they are doing this for gratuity. We are led to our spacious (by European standards) rooms on the top most floor of the hotel. It is only when we walk into the attached balcony that we truly absorb the beauty of this Alpine paradise.

There are tumbledown wooden Valais homes smattered all the way upto the far away slopes and behind them the legendary Matterhorn at 4478 m above sea level.

Towering over the entire landscape in all its snow-covered splendour the Matterhorn commands awe. In days to come, I realize that the Matterhorn glacier changes its hue through the day, stark white in the afternoon, golden yellow in the evening, red at sunset and a frosty blue at night. This explains the obsession of the people of Zermatt with painting and clicking pictures of this peak. Almost everywhere you go in the town you spot a framed picture or a painting of the Matterhorn. As you walk around the cobbled lanes of Zermatt, you will often hear the words, “Look, that is the Matterhorn.”

I too am so inspired by this glacier that I am contemplating putting together a book called 20,000 different ways to look at the Matterhorn and still work up the excitement.

As the sun begins to set, these chalets glow like lanterns against the snow making the vista take on a dreamlike quality.  the chalets at varied heights stacked up in between our hotel and the mountains behind and after dark this scene takes on a magical quality against the midnights skies. There is something about the view that makes my nerves quiver with admiration.

The clamour of the church bells from the church next door from our hotel can be heard on the hour, every hour. My older one begins to complain about it and for the first time in the day, I lose my cool. “You have no appreciation for history. You just want shopping malls!!” I say making a conscious effort to sound condescending. “Why do you have to lecture me about everything. Just because you like these old old cities and churches that cannot stop ringing does not mean that we have to like it,” she challenges me.

I put this back talk to pre-teen behaviour.

Zermatt has two other famous excursion mountains apart from the Matterhorn, Gornegrat and Rothorn.

We find a sunlit table in one of the restaurants in Bahnostrasse and sate our ravenous selves with fondue followed by glace (ice cream).

This village of Zermatt may be tiny but it is not lacking in charm or elderly couples, evidently. That’s right, this place is an extension of my train as there are no young people in sight, only pet dogs and their advanced-in-age owners in expensive furs. So where are all the young people, I wonder. Perhaps they’re all doing their compulsory military service in the Swiss army. Or they could be on the ski slopes.

The next morning, for the price of a human kidney, we buy our passes to take the ski lifts along with the kids and their instructor Luca. Unlike last year, this year I am not going to be able to attempt skiing on account of a terrible leg spasm which I have had since a week now, because I am eighty years old apparently.

Luca tells me the weather forecast for the rest of the week is sunny. This bit of information dampens my mood right away because when you pay for snow you should get fresh snow.

Up on the slopes, I sit like a mountain goat, watching the world ski past me while all I do to entertain myself is to eat potato rosti and take selfies. When I go to the Sunnegga cafe to buy us some water, I discover that wine and water cost about the same. Under such circumstances, it would be sacrilegious to buy water. More importantly, one cannot overlook the fact that fruit provides more vitamins to the body than water and I need vitamins to survive the dry air, the harsh sun and my general joblessness 8000 Ft above sea level.

The cafe where I sat all day waiting for an epiphany

Given that water is selling for 6 Francs a bottle up here, if I decide to give it all up one day and move to the mountains to find my inner self, I could move to the Swiss Alps and look at working part time as a water bearer.

Even though it is only their first day on the skis after a gap of a year, my children are doing well with their lessons and have moved to the higher slopes with Luca in no time. This means I am left behind to listen to profoundly moving lyrics of songs blaring on the speakers at the first level.

“Who do you think you are?

Running around leaving scars?

You’ll catch a cold

From the ice inside your soul.”

My own soul is catching a cold from listening to these words. I decide to bring my laptop along the next day to occupy myself more usefully.

The next morning, I feel like a nerd when I realize that I am the only person boarding the ski lifts with a laptop instead of skis. But if Hemingway were here, wouldn’t he do the same, I console myself.

Up on the summit, I make friends with an immensely likeable girl from New York who was raised in Bombay and now lives in Manhattan with her husband and kids. The world is small indeed for we realize that we dislike the same people in Bombay. She also loves Adele. This in itself is reason enough to take to each other and we decide to meet with our respective families for dinner. The husband has finally reached Zermatt and much as I am looking forward to his company, I am stressing because I will have to plan itineraries for three children now.

Two monkeys on the slopes

The slopes are ideal for skiing but the heat is unbearable for the sun only gets harsher. I check the weather forecast a dozen times a day in the hope that snow conditions will show up, but to no avail. I feel cheated because if I wanted so much sun, day after day, I would have stayed back in Bombay or gone to Dubai. Luca does not get our fascination with cold weather and snow. He is planning to go to Kerala later this year to soak in the sun. “Imagine if you go to Kerala but it is raining all the time and you cannot go to the beaches. This is the same for us. It is just too sunny here. I want my money back,” I tell him.

Evert night we meet up with our new friends at a restaurant or their chalet while our kids play with theirs. It is working out really well really except that we are all having to wake up at 7.00 am daily to be able to make it to the slopes before it gets too hot. This holiday is feeling like a boot camp and I am getting just a bit tired of getting my children ready in several layers each morning and tending to their dry and sun burnt skin through the day. Every time I see them on the slopes after they have finished a round, like an orderly, I run to hydrate them with water and apply more sun block and lip balm on their chapping lips. The husband is also taking ski lessons, he seems to have a natural flair for it. This means I will have to continue to be miserable all by myself. But misery loves food and I am making so many quick trips to the self service cafe that I am on the verge of sending a friend request on Facebook to the girl behind the till who flashes her familiar smile at me now every time I show up with a tray.

2014-03-22 17.57.14

Our instructor is an erudite man and wonderful company. Being Italian, he is also very patient with my children. The older one is committed to following instructions from Luca but I am told that my younger one stops mid slope to dig out gummy bears from her pocket to mix them up with the fresh snow before throwing them back into her mouth. “It’s okay, she is cute, I don’t mind at all” he reassures me.

Since the milk of humanity is flowing so generously in his veins, I am tempted to ask him to keep the children with him for the entire week, till we reach the end of their lessons and his patience. Or he could keep them for longer and I could collect them in Kerela in a few months.

We are headed to Gonnorhea Gornergrat the next day, which is 12200 ft above sea level, to try out new pistes for the kids and new cafes for me. The train that takes us to the top chugs along the most picturesque landscape that I have ever seen, but it fails to inspire my children who are begging for my phone to play games on!

Luca takes the kids for their ski lessons right away and I carry on in the Gornegrat Bahn till the very last stop. When I step out of the train I see an incomparable, indescribable view that makes me want to fall on my knees to thank the universe for keeping me alive to show me such a sight and the Swiss for making provisions to arrive at such a destination without having to physically scale those mountains. Nothing can beat the feeling of standing on top of Europe with a panoramic view of  29 spellbinding Alpine peaks and Japanese tourists around you.

2014-03-20 15.05.03

When I am done taking selfies and sipping hot chocolate I join the kids who are all set to go sledging with me.

Since the husband is busy with his ski lessons, we hire only two sledges. My younger one, who has found her soul mate in Luca, chooses to go sit on his sledge with him and my older one reluctantly sits on the sledge with me.

The slope is steep and bumpy with sharp turns. Luca and my younger one race ahead of us while the older one and I barely manage to keep ourselves from falling off the mountain. We have to adjust our body weight while turning along the curves and my constant instructions manage to confuse and scare the poor child. “Turn to the left or we are going to fall off the edge, turn to the right now, or we are going to bang into the sides……” I go on. The frail creature is bobbing her head from right to left and doing her best to follow my instructions.

The child is sitting in the front and I put both my legs up to go full throttle and before we know it, our sledge has gone off kilter and crashed into the metal pole along the sledging slope. Crash, bang and two bodies go flying off the track and land in piles of snow.

. “Are you alright?” I yell. “Is your nose broken?” Fortunately, the child is wearing a helmet and has survived the fall without any major casualty but she is awfully mad at me. “I can’t believe that my own mother tried to kill me today,” she says hysterically. I am the kind of person who tends to laugh when I am in a state of shock. This of course, does not go down too well with those expecting sympathy. So I continue to lie there, submerged in the snow, my leg is hurting and my arm is numb but I am laughing much to my daughter’s annoyance.

When I finally manage extricating my body from the snow and drag myself to the sledge, the child refuses to sit on it and insists on walking all the way down instead. But the slope is too steep to walk and while we are negotiating, I let go of our sledge because I am a sophisticated person who cannot talk without moving both her hands. Now the sledge is speeding down on its own and the two of us running behind it in what could only be a scene from Mr Bean. The only way to get down now is to slide on our derrieres and that is exactly what we do. Two perfect fools, chasing a sledge on their asses.

As I go to bed that night, I come to the following conclusions:

1.I am less than average at skiing (based on my past experience).

2.I am terrible at sledging (based on my present experience).

3. I am going to stick to walking. That should keep me and other people around me out of harms way.

I realize that walking around in my carefully co-coordinated ski clothes might boost my self-esteem, which, unlike my physical body, is at a very low altitude right now, from watching eighty somethings ski and trek while I sit around like an invalid all day.

The next day, the husband and I hire walking poles to walk around and it has finally begun to snow. The train takes us all the way up to Gornegrat and we walk down snow laden inclines to the Igloo Dorf.

Igloo Dorf

The most amazing sight awaits us at the Igloo where eighties music is playing, skiers are sipping beers outside with snow falling all around them. We sit on stools covered with sheepskin and sip hot wine. The igloo also has bedrooms with a bed, an armchair and side tables carved of ice. I cannot imagine spending a night in such a place under any circumstances but after returning to the oppressive heat of Bombay, I have often fantasized about owning such a bed.

On our way back we stop by for crepes at a roadside stall where for the price of Beluga caviar we buy ourselves apple cinnamon crepes. This is Zermatt for you, where street food costs almost as much as a meal at The Ritz!

It is snowing heavily and the children want to make a snowman. Their father wants to make the most of this romantic weather and finish off some work on his laptop and  I have to do the one thing I dread most – PACK. Later that night, I find the younger one silently crying herself to sleep. “Are you missing Luca,” I ask her. She is too embarrassed to admit. “We will come again and you can meet him then,” I reassure her. “But why are you telling me all this when I am not even crying or missing him” she says with a forced smile.

“If you like, I can ask Luca to meet us for lunch tomorrow before we catch the train to Zurich,” I offer.

“I don’t mind,” she says coyly.

Next day over breakfast she tells me, “Remember I told you I don’t mind last night.”

I nod.

“So is he coming to see us for lunch?”

“He cannot baby as today is his day off,” I tell her.

With a sigh, she digs into her bowl of cereal and continues to eat but her mind is in other places.

The older one and I exchange a smile.

Back in India, Luca and the little one are exchanging voice messages on whatsapp. God bless their founders, for she is too young to be heartbroken.

Two bored kids and one beautiful train journey through Switzerland

18 Feb

Two bored kids and one beautiful train journey through Switzerland

train8

St Niklaus

The children and I are on our way to the airport to catch a flight to Zurich. We have decided to be there at least three hours before departure to be able to take a tour of the newly inaugurated GVK (Mumbai International Airport).

We walk to the Swissair counter, which is fairly deserted at the moment, and we are possibly the first ones to check-in. “You need to hurry up and get to your departure gate as the flight is closing,” the gentleman at the counter warns me. “Whaaaa…t?” I say incredulously. “We are early, what do you mean the flight is closing?”

“Ma’am you are really late. The flight departs in 45 minutes, I only let you check-in because you are traveling with young kids,” he informs me generously.

This should give you an idea that I am a foggy brained person, who gets by in life purely by chance and because of consideration or pity shown towards me because of my “young children”. God bless them.

On the plane, I can hear the conversations between parents and children in on the seats across from me and I am pleased to bits with the realization that there are other politically incorrect parents like me on this planet. I used to think my own style of parenting had glaring flaws in it but the other parents on the plane are threatening to lock up their children or leave them behind on the plane. I am realizing that I am not the psychopathic tyrant my kids make me out to be but an all loving, all forgiving Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music type of mum. I am hoping the mother on the seat behind us continues to admonish her daughter audibly enough for my kids to hear it but she disappoints me by passing out on her seat even before the seatbelt sign is off. It is late in the night and before I know it I am the only dingbat fighting sleep just so I can lose myself vicariously to Downton Abbey on the monitor in front of me.

I stay up all night watching Season 4 of the British drama and by the time our flight lands at Zurich airport the next morning, I find that I have developed a British accent, clipped tones and all. I am also peppering my sentences with old Scottish expressions almost involuntarily along with “Oh golly” and “Dear me!”

Incidentally, the husband is supposed to fly in from Singapore and receive me at Zurich airport, mostly because he thinks I will lose his kids somewhere between Zurich airport and Zurich railway station, both of which are across the road from each other.

The reason we planned this holiday was to be able to spend quality time with each other, far from the sweating crowd of Bombay and the reason we chose Switzerland, in spite of the cold, is because of my love for the mountains. It is the month of March when my children get ten days off from school and after being seduced by the compelling charms of the Alpine slopes the previous year, we have decided to head to the Swiss mountains yet again.

We are to change two trains to get to Zermatt over a five-hour journey. Mr Perfectly Organized aka the husband has already bought online tickets for our onward journey. Not that buying tickets in advance was even required given that the population of this country is only 7.9 million. But we like to err on the side of caution and so we have purchased full fare, non-refundable tickets for the whole family in a single swipe.

The only fly in the ointment is that he has made all these arrangements for two days later than my actual flight arrival schedule, due to some mix-up for which I am partly responsible. Now I have to cover this daunting distance between Zurich and Zermatt with two large bags and kids in tow all by myself. I know, I make it sound like I am a participating cyclist in the Tour de France but I call this situation daunting, not on account of the distance between the two cities but because of my physical proximity to my two unbridled children during this journey. Add to that my inability to multitask and the occasional attention deficit disorder symptoms and you can comprehend the reason the husband is nervous about me chaperoning our children all by myself.

Be that as it may, here I am, buying all of us tickets for a small fortune that can see a family of six through school in a third world country, the exact kind from where Brad and Angelina adopt their children.

Minutes later we are dashing off to look for our platform, which is at the far end and I am concerned that we might miss the train. One crazy lady with two large suitcases and frenzied kids  is seen running up and down Zurich Hauptbhanhofs, Europe’s busiest railway station and then, after identifying the train, finally flinging her kids and luggage into it with Olympic zeal.

The train leaves Zurich almost reluctantly while I sit there catching my breath, congratulating myself on crossing the first hurdle without any visible casualties. The kids are digging into a bag of crisps and I turn my attention to the landscape outside. Everything that I can see feels uninspiring at first. Factory units and industrial looking landscape, pass us by for a few miles and then the train chugs slowly into beautiful Bern.  I greedily take in whatever I can see of Bern from my window…the stunning lakes, cathedrals with gothic spires and unusually narrow and quaint cobbled lanes. It is a picture postcard city all right. I feel a pastoral delight as I look out of the window, nose to glass, and observe the tiny villages with their miniature chalets and churches that appear every now and then on the landscape. I wonder about the simple lives of the inhabitants of these villages comprising of no more than six to eight families. I think about just how awfully healthy yet dull I might have been had fate allotted me such a life.

I take a break from gasping in awe at the sights that are quickly passing us by to look at the faces of my two uninspired children. Rarely will you have seen such bored expressions on a human face. “Don’t look so bored girls, look outside,” I suggest. My suggestion is met with a request for the ipad from the younger one. Thankfully I am not of a highly introspective disposition or the fact that I have spawned kids who are so epically disinterested in nature might’ve bothered me a great deal.

I take a short walk towards the cafe on the train and cannot help but notice that most passengers on this journey are senior citizens. My being there with my children has probably brought the average age down to 75, but other than us, there are no young people in sight. We could have been shooting a Swiss version of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on that train, for all one knew. Except that elderly British women tend to be haughty and rude apart from being plump and/or buxom while the Swiss ones look lean, fit, benevolent and a trifle bored.

stalden

Leaving Bern and Brig behind, we change our train at Visp where quite a few ski enthusiasts and snow boarders board the next train with us. Z and R are exhausted from boredom and bickering now. The train chugs along, towards steeper inclines.

The journey upwards is awe-inspiring even though it is incomplete without chloroform, which I wish I had with me to temporarily sedate the girls, to afford my elderly co-passengers and myself some peace. But in spite of the high decibel conversations followed by disagreements between them, I am getting by on account of the white wonderland scenery around me.

babies2

Ticket inspectors appear quite frequently on Swiss trains and spotting one approach in our direction, I dive into my oversized hobo to dig my carnet to show to the portly man. The gentleman punches our tickets tells me in an concerned manner that I might have been better off had I made the annual Swiss Rail family card instead. “You would have saved a lot of money and also got discount for your family on the ski lifts,” he informs me in a thick German accent. This is because we are in the German speaking part of this country. I tell the kind man in tragic tones, that the gentleman at the ticket window in Zurich did not inform me about any such pass thereby depriving some little boy in Cambodia of education. He empathizes with me and then as a token of his kindness and commiseration he scribbles all over my tickets in German. “I haf ritten here to refunt your money and make you das family pass zat is only half price. Show zis at  Zermatt station, I cannot promise zey vill agree but you must try,” he suggests sincerely. I am so moved by the gesture and his overall avuncular impression that I want to give him a tight hug. I cannot imagine this happening to me anywhere else in the world other than Switzerland and yes, Japan.

Imagine doing that when breathtaking views are passing you by

Like a lazy caterpillar our red train is negotiating around white snow capped slopes dotted with lonesome snow covered chalets and winter-withered trees. An inexplicable feeling of bien-etre’ surges through me. I begin to feel healthier and more cheerful merely by looking at the mountains and can hardly wait for the train to arrive at our destination just so I can step outside and inhale the crisp mountain air.

Notes from Azerbaijan, Merci Baku

17 Feb
Baku, Azerbaijan

The burning mountain, Baku

 

snow

Baku on a winter morning

I was expecting to arrive in a land of hijab clad women called Marjani, Fatima and Hayat walking behind hirsute men. I was expecting to find load-bearing donkeys, reluctantly trotting down narrow streets that disappeared into an arid nothingness. I was expecting chai khanas and bazaars where shisha smoking men traded cattle along with carpets.

But when our plane landed in sub zero Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, the grand idiocy of my visual assumptions were revealed to me almost immediately. Wide roads and cascading flyovers stretched in front of us as our car drove into the city. The sun had barely just set and beautiful, illuminated buildings from the different architectural periods that the city had borne witness to, were lighting up the landscape. Moving along the gentle curves of the road that raced alongside the Caspian sea, we arrived at the Fairmont hotel, perched over a hilltop that overlooked the sea with the city unfurling around it. The hotel was a part of the iconic Flame Towers that proudly blazed with digital incandescence and could be seen from anywhere in the city.

The chill in the air stung our faces even as we hopped out of the car and made a dash for the warm hotel lobby where more warmth awaited the men from our group in the form of beautiful Azeri  women moving about busily on the premises.

We were lead to the 15th floor where, from the window of our room, the expanse of the city glimmered beneath us. In the dark of the night, strong winds, which the Azeri’s called khazri began to blow and a flurry of snow started to fall from the night skies. When we woke up in the morning, Baku was under a light blanket of snow and such a delightful sight that I began to squeal with joy.

Snow is snow and it makes anything look beautiful, but when snow falls over a mélange of buildings that have their roots in the city’s Russian imperial, communist and Islamic past it takes on a dreamlike quality. Add to this the new gravity defying, modern steel and glass edifices that dotted Baku’s landscape that compelled you to ponder over the country’s new-found prosperity.

Driving around the time warped streets of Baku, one was in the past one minute and present in the next and sometimes, one was simultaneously in the past and the present. As we drove down the cascading roads that took us into the heart of the city, the view outside of the windows was Arabian Nights meets Star Wars. This spectacular look, of course, has been achieved with help from the oil that seemed to be spouting from the Azeri soil as easily as mould grew on stale bread. It was not uncommon for the farmers living in semi squalor of the early 20th Century Baku to have dug into gushing oil and become billionaires overnight. One of the most famous families that made their fortunes on Azeri oil was the Swedish Nobel family of the Nobel Prize fame. The Nobel brothers along with Russian General Oil Company and Royal Dutch Shell, owned most of the oil being extracted out this country by the eve of World War I.

With the oil continuing to surge as generously as ever, a century later, Baku glistens in its glory and beckons the beau monde. In the wake of this new prosperity and freedom, designer stores like Gucci, Dior and Armani have suddenly appeared along the Neftchilar Avenue, Baku’s very own Sloane Street. Their presence seemed like a contradiction of sorts to us because the general public in the city did not give the impression of being fashionable or brand conscious.

Chingiz, a very young, very helpful and highly accident-prone man, who worked for the agency that had facilitated our trip to Baku, informed us that the forlorn looking designer stores were a part of the ‘Let’s put Baku on the destination map’ package.

Even though our agenda was crammed with historical sites to be seen, the city was paralyzed owing to the unexpected snow. There were hardly any vehicles on the roads because people were not used to driving around in the snow in this seaside town.

We did manage getting to the old city and walking around the most intensely quaint and deserted part of Baku, which also happens to be a UNESCO World heritage site. The locals of Baku lived inside the fortified confines of the old city in the 1800s while the Russians and the Georgians who had recently annexed Azerbaijan lived outside of it. It was while walking around in the narrow lanes of the old city that I realized that not only were the load-bearing donkeys and women in black burqas from my imagination missing, also missing in Baku were dervishes in the stone walled old town where minarets tore through the winter sky.

I had first encountered Azerbaijan as a child in Tintin comics and I die a little as I say this, but I had failed to update my information about the country in the decades that followed. Agreed that reading and quoting from the National Geographic might’ve been a better idea than relying solely on the fountain of knowledge that is Tintin comics, but it was too late to have retrospective regrets.

Be as it may, the snow continued to fall the entire day, and all of us felt shaken and stirred at the same time. The infamous khazri from the Caspian sea was giving us unsuspecting people from warm climes a hypothermia of sorts.

I had a month to pack for this trip and had forgotten to carry a few important winter staples such as my hand gloves, along. I was, however, so enchanted with the 11th Century Islamic architecture of these buildings that I had literally thrown caution to the wind and was busy clicking pictures even as the sensation from my fingers slowly slipped away.

By the time we reached Mugham Club, a 14th century keravanserai, I was sure I had frost-bite and was mentally preparing myself for a fingerless future.  Fortunately, the warmth of Mugham Club helped and my dying fingers were revived with a little help from some local wine. Incidentally, Mugham Club was a popular overnight stop for caravans of traders to take rest when they traveled into the city of Baku to sell their wares.  I was expecting to see Alibaba and his forty thieves emerge from one of the many stone balconies that overlooked the courtyard of the serai, but I saw waiters emerge in an equally large number instead. Several lamb chops, berry pilaf and some olive murabba later we were back in our mini bus. It was minus 7 degrees Celcius outside and I could see why vodka was so popular around these parts.

Inside the mini-bus we thrived on Chingiz’s stories of Azerbaijan and himself.  An Azeri born and brought up in Dagastan, Russia; Chingiz spoke fluent Azeri, Russian, English and Japanese. In fact, he had graduated in Japanese literature and worked and lived in Tokyo before the smell of fresh oil drew him back to his country. It was from him that we learnt that Azerbaijan was a secular state and a progressive one too. Muslims did not feel morally compelled to keep rozas during Ramadan and the few who did observe this fast, usually did it to detox. Women wore western clothing and were allowed to pick their own groom, but this came with a caveat for the groom. He had to propose marriage to the girl within six months of dating her, failing which, he would have to suffer the wrath of the girl’s father and there was no telling what form this ‘wrath’ would be served in.

In the three days that we spent around Chingiz, in three unrelated incidents, he managed to acquire a hairline fracture, an uneventful car accident and another fall that fortunately did not lead to any more breaking of bones but only damaged a gadget or two.

The names of almost all the streets of Baku changed every time there was a new ruler. Street named after Islamic rulers changed into streets named after Russian Czars that then took on the names of famous communists leaders and symbols and now finally, they were being called by local Azeri names. According the Chingiz, his father and he never referred to a street in Baku by the same name, both preferring to stick to the names concomitant with their respective eras and this often caused much confusion between the two.

Back at the hotel, Anna Kournikova’s doppelganger, long golden tresses and the same bright smile in place, waited to greet us inside the lobby and even though it the cold outside had frozen the marrow in his bones, there was a sudden spring in the husband’s step and a grateful smile stretched across his face. I could not blame the man, the blending in of the Central Asian and Russian blood had rendered the women of this country astonishingly beautiful. Unfortunately, this cocktail had not worked too well for the local men.

The following morning we were driven to the famous burning mountain or Yanar Dag. Our guide spoke in an insufferable accent and even though she spoke in what she thought was English, most of what she said sounded unintelligible. The men had to put on their earmuffs inside our severely heated minibus in order to escape the sound of her voice. She was very sweet, pleasant even and I did not like myself for finding her intolerable as a guide, but one had to be a masochist to enjoy her company. The burning mountain, however, was well worth the drive because it was unlike anything one had seen before. Freshly fallen snow covered the mountain and it continued to burn with natural gases from the underlying earth.  Some claim that it has been burning this way since before Christ and even Marco Polo had made a mention of it in his travel records. Fire worshippers from Iran frequented this spot from across the border to pray and our guide urged us to do the same. Or maybe she asked us to jump into the flames and stay there, there was no way of telling.

Back in Baku we were taken to the picturesque Ateshgah, an ancient fire temple (yes natural fire again, sigh!) and even though we spent a few minutes clicking pictures, we did not learn much as the guide herself seemed clueless. We only found out after our return to the hotel that the temple has inscriptions in Punjabi made by traders from India during the Middle Ages. And before you decide that my Punjabi brethren might have scribbled assorted abuses involving mothers and sisters on those hallowed walls, I would like to inform you that these inscriptions are, in fact, quotations from the Adi Granth in Gurmukhi. There were also Sanskrit inscriptions in praise of Lord Shiva and Ganesha. In hindsight it might have been a better decision to stick to Wikipedia on our smart phones instead of the misguided tour guide, who I think might be better off as a body embalmer or post-mortem specialist, because the dead don’t complain nor do they have a problem with warped accents.

[More on Baku in Notes from Azerbaijan part 2. Coming soon to a blog near you]

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