Saturday, 12 November 2011

Impossible City?

Dubai Mosque
Changing times
Dubai Dancer
A whirling dancer at the Desert Safari
The Muezzin’s call floated across the glass panels, white tiles and soaring ceilings of the building. It was loud enough to not be missed but soft enough to not startle me in the air-conditioned quietness. My eyes were instantly drawn back to the signage displayed everywhere. Next to  every sign for restrooms and drinking water were the stylized figures of a lady in an abaya and a man in a guthra (head-scarf) kneeling in prayer. ’The Prayer Rooms for men and women are separate’, I registered mentally, and cast a furtive glance around to see if I should stand up in reverence. No one seemed to react to the slow, melodic and unmistakable chanting. So I continued reading my P.G. Wodehouse and waiting for my friend due to arrive in a couple of hours.

It was noon and I was in the waiting gallery of Terminal 3 of DXB (Dubai International Airport), one of the largest buildings in the world by sheer floor space. All of that space is exclusively dedicated to Emirates, the country’s national carrier. (There are two more terminals for others). Flights from Christchurch, Karachi, Muscat and Europe were scrolling across the display counter, and below me I could see the baggage arrival section that I had taken some 15 minutes to walk across. Baggage belts stood in two rows, some churning out bags, others silent, making the place look like a factory floor. Beyond the glass walls, a city shimmered in the desert heat in hues of beige and khaki. Over the next three days my friend and I would visit a place that almost everyone I knew seemed to have already visited, and talked about as if it were a distant suburb of some Indian city. ‘Better late than never’, I said, going across a mental checklist. ‘Dubai: Check’.

Dubai Seaside Beach
The Burj-Al-Arab
Desert Safari
Sunset in the Sands
It is easier for a foreigner to get by in Dubai knowing Hindi rather than English. Expatriates make up more than 3 quarters of the population, and more than half of them are from the Subcontinent. Besides, cultural imports like Bollywood make their mark on the locals. Arabs love Hindi films. Comparing the dialogues with the Arabic subtitles can be one way of learning Hindi. But despite the South Asian invasion, Arabic cultural influences are everywhere. Local men unhesitatingly wear the kandura (the long white robe),the guthra and the associated accessories. The delicate slender fingers of the Arabic script can be seen on every sign-board, shop front, and shopping bag. Mosques dot the city landscape which has a profile no more than 2 or 3 storeys high except in the down town. Dry spiny palm fronds jut out from behind high compound walls. And above all, the desert makes its presence felt everywhere, in the yellowish dust on the road sides, the baked dry plots of land that lie vacant, and even in the lush green lawns that are always seen with a fine spray of water from the sprinklers shimmering under a relentless sun.

Ready for Dune Bashing
I wonder where the term ‘Dune-bashing’ was coined. It could be better described as Passenger-bashing, in an SUV in top working condition, blaring Arabic music that blends in with screaming passengers, and driven over sand-dunes with the reckless abandon of a drunken camel. It’s a great ride to start your trip of Dubai with and is a part of the famous Dubai Desert Safari. We took the trip on our very first day, and I was glad to get up close and personal with the desert right away-it was my first look at any desert. It kind of lived up to my expectations-it was sandy alright, and dry, with stunted bushes dotting the landscape. But we hadn’t gone too far from the city, the mineral water bottles strewn in the sand were proof of it, and there always seemed to be a busy highway with a little hamlet right across the next dune.

Dubai Desert Safari
Arabian Nights
Desert Safari
Golden Butterfly
The evening ended in a desert camp, with a stage in the centre, and low seating on rugs all around to eat,drink and watch the performers. I had ended my trip to Turkey last year with the slight regret of not having seen a belly dance performance – which I was able make up for in ample measure here. The music can only be described as a heady melody with a sensuous throbbing rhythm. The belly dancer curved, writhed and gyrated like a snake, as if the music had been cast into flesh. We went back to the hotel wondering how the same society that asks its women to wear long black abayas reconciles itself with this ancient art-form that must have had tribal origins. In the distance were the lights of downtown Dubai, as we sped down the freeway into the night.

Downtown Dubai
The Dubai Mall and 'The Address' on the right
“They have very little oil, they’ve turned to tourism, shopping and real estate to make money. The real estate bubble was pricked a few years ago though...”, said my friend’s husband on the second day as they drove us around The Palm. This friend of mine has been living in Dubai  with her husband for the past few years and I met up with the couple for dinner after an evening at the Dubai Mall.

Dubai Tallest
Viewing Gallery atop Burj Khalifa
The Palm is one of Dubai’s many extravagant real estate projects that lie waiting for the times to turn again. Built on reclaimed land stretching into the sea in the shape of a palm frond, the place looked particularly desolate at night, with no pedestrians on the streets and lights switched on in less than half the luxury apartments. This was in sharp contrast to the Dubai Mall. The place overflowed with people, designer brand stores, eateries and entertainment, all inside a sleek, sparkling, warmly lit and climate-controlled building of immense proportions. We had taken a full 20 minutes to just drive out of the seven storeyed parking lot.

“How do you like living here?” I asked my friends over a Lebanese dinner. They lived a three hour flight away from home, enjoyed the comforts of first world living, had plenty of company of fellow-men from the home country and enjoyed a 1 AED to 13 INR currency conversion rate. They even had a two day weekend, on Friday and Saturday. “And the earnings are completely tax-free”, they said. Not a particularly bad deal, eh?

Dubai Downtown
Impossible City
The Burj Khalifa is a magnificent building in downtown Dubai, and is the world’s tallest. Stretching almost a kilometre into the sky, it looks across a landscape that looks highly improbable to say the least. Dubai has risen out of nowhere, in a land with almost no natural resources. (The meagre reserves of oil don’t really count for much of its revenues). What it does have is a narrow inlet of the Arabian Gulf, which forms the Dubai Creek, and has allowed the small pearl-diving community to develop into a port and a trading hub. The Al Maktoum family has ruled this place for years and have played a crucial role in deciding the city’s fate. The earlier ruler dredged the Dubai Creek for the first time, allowing larger vessels to dock, and giving a huge boost to its status as a trading hub. The current ruler has adopted the strategy to develop the region as a centre for business and tourism. It was he who spearheaded grandiose projects like The Palm. ‘Well, they’re at least doing something even if it looks like a gamble’, I said to my friend, as we looked at the Palm and other equally grandiose reclamation projects that lay unfinished just off the coast.

Dubai Bazaar
By-lanes of Grand Souk
Dubai Bazaars
Gold Souk
After the towers and malls, we wanted to have a look at the old quaint side of the city on our final day. We spent it wandering down the crowded sections of the old city around the creek, called the Deira. (The other, more developed side of the creek where we were put up, is called Bur Dubai). They have bazaars here, the lanes are called souks, and they have different ones selling different kinds of merchandise. The Gold Souk is not to be missed, of course. But the dark shaded lanes of all souks hold many interesting sights, sounds and smells worth taking in.

It was my first time in a desert climate, and the sun was everywhere during the day. A walk down a city block in the sun was enough to leave me dazed. But step into the shade, and I could appreciate the crisp dry air, clear skies, and balmy temperatures heralding the approaching winter.  We were told the place turns into a baking oven during summer, and no one dares to step out. Even schools close at the height of summer. The late October sun was enough to convince me of that. It had already got the better of us and we decided to cut short our walking tour of the old city.

Dusky Beauty
The Dusky Beauty
The Green Eyed Half-Face
We spent some time instead at a small Cafe by the creek having a traditional middle-eastern lunch of cold salads. Save for the one Lebanese dinner with my local friend, the rest of our food in the hotel and on the Desert Safari had been Indian, without even asking for it. I wouldn’t blame them though-the bus-loads of Indian tourists did make it feel like a suburb of Surat or Ahmedabad. So the effort to find some authentic Arabic cuisine was worth it. Besides, we were joined at lunch by the local cats that ran along the water’s edge from table to table, getting fed lunch scraps. At our table they had to earn their food by posing for my camera first.

Later that afternoon I was back in Terminal 3 of DXB for my flight back. I realised that I had missed out the one great purpose that most people land up in Dubai for:Shopping. But I wasn’t sure if that had detracted from or added to my experience.  I think the era of coveting stuff bought in Dubai is over anyways, for malls all over the world are notoriously identical these days.  If anything did not define Dubai for me, it was the malls. Nevertheless, I decided that tradition shall be adhered to. A box of dates stuffed with candied orange peel, with a ridiculous price tag, was my purchase from DXB Terminal 3. Less than an hour later I was in an Emirates A330, on my way back. As expected from one of the world's few profitable and renowned airlines, the service was crisp, efficient and courteous. And as expected it was provided by personnel, most of whom were not Arab.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Gazing across Millenia

I asked myself the other day, 'How far does your gaze go?'. A fairly odd question, I thought, but nevertheless I found myself saying 'A few inches, most of the times'. A laptop or an iPhone screen is about as far as my gaze goes for a major part of the day. And then, a few hundred metres a couple of times a day, to scan for an incoming bus at the bus-stop.

Is that why it feels so different when my gaze soars over a valley from a mountain pass, or when I look at piling thunderclouds on the horizon on an evening? Perhaps. Perhaps that is also why I was so intrigued by my answer to how far is the farthest that I have glanced.

Stars are so far away that measuring their distance involves borrowing units from time. They are quite unlike anything else that we will rest our eyes upon. Here is something that is not a part of our man-made world, and -unlike much of our earth-a part of nature that we cannot even reach or touch, leave alone control. In fact, stars are not a part of our world - we are a part of theirs (and a very small one at that).

Star-studded skies are best watched on cold dark and cloudless nights, with company that is willing to shut-up talking about themselves. If there is someone who is interested in astronomy, knows the names of the stars and constellations, and their facts he is indispensable.

Even more interesting is the person who knows the mythology and the stories behind stars. Every culture has made its own attempts to relate to and identify with the mystical sparkling night sky through stories and beliefs. I think it is just our way of making these powerful unknown objects more human. Which is why people can see hunters, bulls, bears and scales in the skies.

The stories of Orion the Hunter, (Mruga, the Deer, in India), The Great Bear (Saptarshi, the Seven Sages, in India), and the Pole Star (Dhruva, the Steadfast, in India) are as interesting, if not more, than information about the distance in light years, the surface temperatures and the life-cycles of these stars. Told in the silence of the night, stretched out on the grass in an open glade, the stories can swirl up skywards, taking fantastic vivid shapes, as consciousness flirts with sleep.

Norwegian photographer Terje Sorgjerd's stunning time-lapse video of night sky and the Milky Way couldn't have captured the magic of star-gazing any better. Shot at El Teide, Spain's highest mountain, it follows the Milky Way, (or Aakash Ganga-Ganges of the Skies-at it is known in India) for a whole week.

The pursuit of astronomical or astrological knowledge aside, watching the stars with your own eyes is an experience that can silence even the most restless mouths and minds. It may have something to do with the atmosphere, the location far away from cities and crowds, and the unhurried silence. But I suspect it has more to do with the way they dwarf us in time and space, breaking right through our thoughts for once, and making us forget ourselves.
It is not for nothing that the starry night skies are called the Heavens, where we go after we shed our lives on Earth.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Spine of the Peninsula

Western Ghats
Layered Basalt, Mahabaleshwar
Pune Tata Indica
Road to Sinhagad
The Lion Fort
If you happen to be flying into Mumbai from a south-easterly direction during the day, you cannot miss them. Just as the descent into Mumbai is announced, the dusty plains suddenly break up into long rectangular and jagged hills. A dam here and there, a river snaking its way, a patch of unbroken forest, and bare step-like cliffs – the details are all the more visible as the aircraft loses altitude. They disappear as quickly as they appear, and soon the creeks, mangroves and slums of Mumbai replace the view, before you touch down.

The Western Ghats form a 1600km long wall against the western coast of India, starting near the southern border of the state of Gujarat, down to southern tip of India. Himalayas may be the more famous of the Indian mountain ranges, but the Western Ghats are far older. They are remnants of volcanic activity when the Indian landmass broke away from Madagascar, on its way to ram in Eurasia and push up the Himalayas. They are, in fact, the faulted western edge of the Deccan Plateau, created by layers of volcanic rock. Hence the steep cliff-like western slopes, and the gentle, at times barely discernible, eastern slopes.

Sahyadri Vinchu Kata
The Scorpion's Sting, Lohagad, The Iron Fort
They’ve walled off a narrow strip of coastal plains to their west from the rest of India. Called the Konkan coast in the north, the Canara coast further down, and the Malabar coast near the southern end, this is the land that greeted the first western traders to come to India in search of trade, and later, colonies.

The Ghats are a couple of hours drive from two of the biggest cities in the state of Maharashtra, Mumbai and Pune. For guys like me who grew up here, it is almost impossible not to have visited the hill-stations and forts in the Ghats on picnics and treks. Most visits were revelations though - middle school history and geography made sure that we knew about these hills in as uninteresting and hopelessly pedagogic a way as possible.

Trekking Sahyadris
Atop Lohagad
Monsoon Clouds 
Locally called the Sahyadri Mountains, the Ghats provided significant military advantage to those who held control over them. The flat topped hills made for perfect military outposts and watch towers over the few navigable passes from the plateau down to the coast. Numerous forts have been built at strategic locations, to control the valleys and trade routes they overlooked. Where the cliff-faces were not steep enough, they were blasted using explosives to create sheer rock walls hundreds of feet high. And where that was not enough, massive stone embankments were constructed, many of them strong enough to be still standing for over half a millenium.
In a period pre-dating the use of motorised vehicles and aircraft, it is easy to see why a few hundred people armed with canons and guns could hold the fort - and effectively hold the surrounding countryside. The roots of the Maratha Empire can be traced to here. In its early years, Marathas, the local warrior peoples, held their own in these hills against the Deccan Sultans and the mighty Mughal Empire for decades, with the help of guerrilla warfare. Now, are all that’s needed to visit these forts is a fit pair of legs, some endurance to the sun and thirst, and a love of the outdoors-they make for great weekend hikes.

Western Ghats
Road through the Ghat forest, Mahabaleshwar
Fruit Crushes, Mahabaleshwar
The Western Ghats profoundly affect climate and life, in ways that are now taken for granted. India’s south-west monsoons hit the Ghats before they can cross over into the peninsula, causing heavy precipitation on their western slopes. The coastal plains and the Ghats are much wetter, greener and tropical than the dry grasslands further in. The climates of Mumbai and Pune are testimony to this fact-incidentally, Pune with its hot dry summers and cold winters is definitely more liveable than coastal Mumbai, which is always humid and warm, save for a few months of winter.

Further south, on the Malabar coast, the Ghats create the climate that allows the cultivation of spices. Spices were the reason why Vasco Da Gama set sail for India, and why Columbus, though he set out for the same destination, bumped into America. In the higher reaches, the Ghats create a  cool climate that European colonisers sought so much in the tropics, and created the many hill-stations that dot the range.

Magod Falls Karnataka
Monsoon Torrents
Magod Falls, North Karnataka 
Fresh Produce
Moreover, dozens of rivers arise in the Ghats, and depending on whether they flow west or east, they either have a few dozen or upto a thousand five hundred kilometres to flow across. The ones that happen to flow down the eastern slopes of the Ghats become the life-line of millions across the peninsula. So in a way, though the Ghats block rainfall from the Deccan Plateau on the one hand, they also provide perennial water supply to these parched lands on the other.

Down south, the terrain and the climate in the Ghats have given rise to vast stretches of semi-evergreen and evergreen forests. Sholas, unique high-altitude mountain forests of dense short tree cover interspersed with grassland-occur nowhere else but here. The richness of the flora and fauna caused this area to be recognised as one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots-an area holding a great wealth of diverse plant and animal life, but under intense pressure from population. They are also being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sunset, Lohagad
Sinhagad Sahyadris
Monsoon Freshness, Sinhagad
All in all, the Western Ghats are special. They are home to some of the wildest and most pristine natural habitats in India, a huge huge attraction for me. The Shola forests around Kudremukh National Park, the rain forest around Agumbe, and the many national parks around the Niligiri and the Annamalai hills are very high on the to-visit list. With some luck, I shall write about them here.


Monday, 21 February 2011


Rural Turkey, Cappadocia
I felt the thrill of being a news reporter, without being one. Like a surfer skimming along the lip of a wave, I was walking right in front of a huge mass of chanting protesters along the Istikal Caddesi, one of Istanbul’s busiest streets, towards Taksim Square, with my camera in over drive. My knowledge of spoken Turkish was limited to Teshukor-Thank You, while Arabic script scored at zero, and I did not know what the hell these people were chanting about. The banners did not carry any pictures or signs to help the curious tourist understand what was going on; and I had a feeling that the curious tourist was better off not getting too deep into the issue. In a less than 2 weeks, Taksim Square would be rocked by a suicide bomber linked to the PKK, the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party,  injure dozens, and send shivers down my spine. And yet, at the time I was blissfully oblivious to these political undercurrents, and enjoying the last day of what had been a whirlwind trip to an exotic land that left me craving for more.

Air Balloon
Land of Beautiful Horses
With an economy growing at close to 6% for the better part of the last decade, and set to cross $1 trillion in 2011, Turkey has been in the media, the news, and my MBA classroom discussions more than once.  Even before that, my history textbooks had talked about the Ottoman Turks and Constantinople, murder mysteries had been set on the Orient Express that goes to Istanbul, and I had wistfully looked at Istanbul showcased in glossy inflight magazines umpteen times, as I passed right over Turkey on US-India flights. Now that I think of it, Turkey was right there, at the top of the pile, all the time. And yet, it took a good and highly impulsive friend and his brother to get me to my feet, and finally haul my ass to Turkey with them. The timing could not have been better – right in the middle of my MBA.

My first glimpse of Istanbul was deceptively cursory, just like passing through London, Frankfurt, Brussels and Paris, on one of these US-India flights.  Landing in from India, 2 hours at the Ataturk Airport was all I could see of the city, before boarding the onward flight to the town of Kayseri in Cappadocia, Central Turkey. A garrulous American lady who had recently been laid-off, and had decided to make most of it by travelling, made for an interesting neighbour on the flight. ‘You’re Indian but you don’t speak with the Indian accent!’ she gushed, making me cringe. I had involuntarily lapsed into one of my most offensive American accents with her.

Cappadocian style
Turkey World Heritage
Göreme National Park
Cappadocia was a land of corn-flower blue skies, golden grasses, rocky outcrops and caves. It translated to ‘Land of Beautiful Horses’, as I learnt later. While I didn’t see as much as a pony in the next 2 days, the sight of wild horses galloping across the sun-drenched plateaus wouldn’t have been entirely out of place.

Cappadocia owes its form to Mount Erciyes, a 4000 ft high volcano in the region, the source of soft volcanic rock and ash. Wind and water have done their work over time and carved out strange shapes into the rocks. The natural rock minarets, turrets and fairy chimneys have made for stunning real estate and people have lived in caves in these structures for centuries. The ancient Byzantine churches of Göreme have some of the most elaborate excavated cave structures, their walls lined with fading frescoes, their kitchens still blackened with the smoke.

Twilight Goreme
Twilight at Göreme 

Our hotel, Gamirasu, while not a UNESCO world heritage site like Göreme, was equally impressive. It was built in true Cappadocian style, across a cluster of large and small caves on the slopes of a gentle hillside. The lush upholstery, warm lighting, shrubbery in the verandahs, and of course - the wifi connection, quite took away the ‘cave’ness. We were only reminded of it – painfully at times – by the low doorways.

Turkey Street
The Call to the Faithful
Blessed with abundant sunshine and clear crisp weather, Cappadocian towns retain an almost vintage feel. They have narrow cobblestone streets, low rise houses, and mosques that still dominate as the town’s biggest and tallest structures. The street signs and  the conversations are all in Turkish, as if to drive home the point that you are in an exotic land. People hurry home before dark and shops and businesses begin to shut down as the sun dips low. The smell of doners and kebabs wafts down streets at sunset, along with the muezzin’s evening call.  Kebabs are to be had in many places in the world at many times, but none of them smell as heavenly as the ones here on the chill evening breeze. They almost seem like an answer to the prayers in the mosque.

Turkey Dawn
Hot Air Ballooning, Cappadocia
Cappadocia Landscape
Floating in silence

Hot air ballooning over Cappadocia at sunrise the next day was a delight despite of the 4°C chill at dawn. It was an hour of floating over a surreal landscape of hewn rock-columns, towers, obelisks and needles, and quaint villages where, seemingly, life had never bothered to change over centuries. It took a solitary car here and there to remind one of the present. And nothing came close to the vast silence that surrounded us in all three dimensions, as we floated over the sun-warmed lands pretty as a picture.

Turkey Gamirasu
Our tour operator in Cappadocia apparently had a lot of his clients coming in from India, and even travelled to India on business every other year. His 20-something secretary, who had welcomed us with sparkling green eyes and warm apple tea, was as gorgeous a Turkish beauty as you could find. Despite her extremely limited English, on our last day in Cappadocia she had made small talk, enquired about our backgrounds, and asked how early did we marry in India. Unfortunately the conversation was short lived as her boss barged in with something completely unrelated to matrimony. He did let slip at the end that the her  father was a conservative man and a local Police Chief, with a certain smugness that said we weren’t the first to make small talk. And so from the dry central highlands we headed to the Mediterranean shores to see the ruins of ancient Greek cities, natural springs, and a beautiful port town.

Cappadocia Turkey Balloon
Uçhisar Castle from the air
Valley of Pigeons
Uçhisar Castle and the Valley of Pigeons, Cappadocia
The coast-hugging road that we drove down from Izmir airport to the ancient Greek city of Ephesus from must have starred in many an ad. The Aegean Sea was almost a painful blue. It was rather ironic that original Mediterranean landscape reminded me of California. Greco-Roman ruins in Turkey was also quite unexpected, until I realised that Turkey was only born in 1923 from the remains of the Empire of the Ottoman Turks, who themselves came to Turkey from Central Asia not before 1000 AD. 1600 years earlier, during the golden period of Ephesus, this land was Anatolia, inhabited by the Greeks,
 and later, the Romans and the Byzantines.

Turkey Greek Ruin
The Temple of Hadrian, Ephesus
Greek Ruins
Marble ruins of Ephesus
Ephesus was a vast city for its times, with more than 250,000 people living here at its peak. Second only to Rome, it was, not surprisingly, the second largest city in the world. It survived many attacks and changes of power, but its real undoing proved to be the gradual silting up of the Cayster River, which blocked its access to the Aegean Sea, rendering its harbour useless.

Turkey Greek Ruins
The Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Today its white marble ruins stand out under a blazing blue sky. Even in its broken state, the clear straight lines, the concentric circles and the angular edges are unmistakable. As is the evidence of painstaking planning to ensure that it had everything that a city would ever need, from parliaments to marketplaces, libraries to theatres, and public toilets to brothels. The still standing façade of the magnificent Library of Celsus and the colossal open air theater that could seat more than 40,000 spectators give some idea of the city that once was. It is cruel irony that the single standing tower of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is a grim reminder of the destructive power rather than the glory of religion. The Pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis survived natural disasters, looting and arson. But the final blow was dealt by early Christianity, declaring Paganism as Devil-worship.

Waterfront Twilight
Kuşadasi Waterfront
Turkey House
Mary's house
Jesus’ mother, Mary, is said to have spent her last days in the hills around Ephesus, and the house that currently exists has been built over ruins that date back to the relevant period. Whether Mary lived her last days here or in Jerusalem is still apparently a matter of debate. As is the historical accuracy of the story of Christianity. But the idea that an old lady, whose son had been murdered for his non-compliant religious beliefs, spent her last days in these secluded hills with the help of her son’s friends is entirely possible, and I could live with that.

When you’ve been trudging around hillsides under a cloudless sky for a whole day, and your feet have turned to quivering jelly, it’s surprising what a warm shower can do. This was exactly what was on my mind during our post-hotel-check-in-and-shower stroll along the beach that evening at the beautiful port town of Kuşadasi. Mediterranean cruise liners coming in from Greece dock at Kuşadasi, and we saw a couple of them pulling into the harbour as we walked. A gold and orange glow of the sunset lingered in the sky. The promenade along the waterfront was aglow with shops, restaurants and bars welcoming the guests from the ships. As the Dominos, McDonalds and Heinekens flashed their signs, Ephesus, Artemis and Mary went back to where they belonged in time - far far away.

The ruins of Hierapolis
The road to Hierapolis
The next day, at the natural calcium deposits and terraces at Pamukkale, was different day altogether. Cold, cloudy and windy, there was a smell of rain in the air as we climbed the steep hillside to the ancient Roman ruins of Hierapolis, a city that started out as a spa and healing centre, associated with the natural springs of this area. Ephesus, Hierapolis and Bollywood were part of the the reason for our trip to Turkey.

Bollywood lives on a staple diet of love stories, and constantly needs new romantic locations for the lead pair to sing its love to each other. This can end up inspiring people like my friend who got me to Turkey. When he saw super-star pair Katrina and Ranbir cavort around the ruins of Pamukkale, Hierapolis and Ephesus in this song ( Tu Jaane Na ), he decided it was time to pay a visit.
Calcium terraces, Pamukkale
Unlike the song, we could not see Pamukkale’s glory sans the visiting tourist hordes, but the white calcium cliffs and terraces were very impressive nevertheless.

Turkey had quite surprised me so far with what it had to offer. Just as India is the land of Tigers, Elephants, and Snake Charmers, Turkey to me had been the land of Hookahs, Kebabs and Belly Dancers. Though both definitions do capture the salient points, both are just as incomplete. It was time to see some more of Turkey, Istanbul was calling, and soon we were flying off into the night to Ataturk Airport.

Bosphorus Rainy Day
A cold blustery day in Istanbul
Turkey Istanbul
The Bosphorus
Straddling the continents of Asia and Europe on either side of the Bosphorus, Istanbul is certainly a remarkable city. It sits on a narrow strip of land that separates the Sea of Marmara to the south from the Black Sea to the north.  The 31 km long Bosphorus Strait is the only channel of water that cuts across this strip of land, connecting the two seas. Its little surprise that the city grew to such importance – its ruler not only controlled the land link from Europe into Asia, but also sea-borne trade between Russia and the Mediterranean. Anyone who ruled here was only too aware of this - from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine after whom the city was named Constantinople, to Ottoman Sultans who infused the city with Islamic architecture, cuisine and culture.

Turkey Istanbul
The Queen Mother Mosque, Istanbul
Chandelier Interiors of Mosque
The Blue Mosque
As we set out on a city tour, the weather that was closing in at Pamukkale finally broke. Cold and blustery, the weather whipped the Bosphorus into frenzy, and the glistening wet cobblestone streets were filled with people huddled in coats and under umbrellas. Cafes pulled away their outdoor seating on the sidewalks, and gone were any hopes of a sunset walk along the Bosphorus. Nevertheless, the city lived up to its name as the melting pot of history and cultures. The Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia – a church, a mosque, and finally now a museum – are huge imposing structures, architectural marvels, and concentrated concoctions of history. Equally intriguing is the Grand Bazaar, and the Egyptian Spice Market, both of which continue to be in use today. The indoor streets of these covered bazaars are a kaleidoscope of colours, sights, sounds, smells and faces. Within the few minutes I stood there, a cross section of Istanbul’s population passed me by.

Interiors Byzantine
Hagia Sophia
Egyptian Market Turkey
Egyptian Spice Market
The royalty of Istanbul, however, lived in the magnificent Topkapi Palace. The gates of this palace of the Ottoman Sultans look like they have come straight from the movie Shrek. The vast treasures inside look more like they have been pulled out of the Arabian Nights. Ottoman Sultans wrested Constantinople from the Byzantine Emperors, and ruled Turkey in a reign of unmatched power and wealth until very recent times. As a result, many relics of the Ottoman era, including the Topkapi Palace, have been preserved remarkably well, and give a very real glimpse into the empire.
We were late to get out of Topkapi, and missed our tour bus. The ensuing walk back to the hotel through the wind and the drizzle and the wet streets of Istanbul was an up-close and personal encounter with Turkish street food. The Galata Bridge over the Bosphorus had carts of pretzels, peanuts and sausages. The Istikal Caddesi (Istikal Street) on the other side was lined with shops selling kebabs, pizzas and doners. Doners are stacks of boneless marinated meat packed close like a sausage, skewered on a slow rotating vertical rod and placed close to a burner. The stack is topped with fat that drips down the stack as it is heated. The spiced meat roasts slowly in the fat and its own juices. When sliced off onto pita bread with white sauce, it makes a snack that you have to be really unfortunate to miss.

Istanbul Cuisine
Turkish Dolma and Pasta
But thinking back to all the lunches and dinners we had had, starting from the ‘dining cave’ at Gamirasu hotel, I realised that Turkey, in fact, is a very friendly place for vegetarians. My two vegetarian friends who watched me devour fish and meat at almost every meal, would certainly attest to that - because they themselves had their plates full of assorted selections at all times. Yogurt, cheese, spices, vegetables and saffron are extensively used in Turkish cuisine. Some specialities like Dolma (vine leaves stuffed with cheese and glazed with olive oil), Humus, and Pilav (spiced rice with meat/veggies - akin to the Indian Pulao) are positively mouth-watering. Nothing beats Turkish desserts though, and the Baklava takes top honours here. It’s actually worth trying to find the closest Turkish restaurant for Baklava, if someone hasn’t tried it before. Liberal use of sugar syrup, nuts and cream ensures that Turkish deserts do their bit for your taste-buds and coronary arteries.

Turkey Motifs
Turkish Carpets
Bosphorus Cruise
Ortaköy Mosque, Istanbul
Tramway, Istanbul
A couple of days earlier, on our way to Istanbul from Pamukkale, we had stopped at a roadside eatery. As we awaited our brick-oven pizza, I had a few minutes to reflect about this exotic land. Behind the layers of exotic mystery that it hold for tourists, Turkey has had its own share of problems: Kurdish rebellion, long-standing issues with Armenia over the Armenian Genocide, the challenge posed by the surging Islamic orthodoxy, rapid growth in a globalized world and the economic inequality left in its wake – our blonde haired guide to Pamukkale and Hierapolis talked long and deep about these issues. He had some German blood in him – blondes are very uncommon in Turkey.  He was most worried about radical Islam turning back Turkey’s progress a few decades. He talked about the radicalists' efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary, and islamicize the educational system. To me, the fact that he was talking about these issues to a bus full of tourists, was in itself a testimony to the success the Turkish Government's liberal policies thus far.

Istanbul Turkey
Interior of a mosque, Istanbul

Street Market Istanbul
Istikal Caddesi, Istanbul
Now on the last day, as I watched the protesters march into Taksim Square, I could not help wondering what this protest was about, and whether it would even be possible to have such demonstrations in Turkey in the future. The uncertain future notwithstanding, the allure of the country was unmistakable, and a week of freedom from the MBA was priceless. My friends, unencumbered by any such burdens, were flying off to Greece the next day, as I would be making my way back to business school.

I smiled as I remembered my short definition of Turkey again. I had smoked the Hookah, had a bath in a Hammam, stuffed myself with local cuisine and kebabs, hemmed and hawed over priceless Turkish carpets without buying any, and even tried the national drink-Raki, aniseed flavoured and very potent grape liquor. In the land of Kebabs, Hookahs and Belly Dancers, I had, however, missed out on the third piece. May be Turkish belly dancers are a good reason to visit again.