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I normally keep a seperation of concerns between my travel blog and my ‘general’ blog, but starting the other day out of a writer’s block on the latter I ended up more or less on talking about one of the things I love about travel – Trains. Here is more..

Most of what I write is from my memory 8 years ago. So some may have changed, some may be inaccurate in some sense.  But here it is…

Kyoto, was the erstwhile imperial capital of Japan in a time that I do not recall at the moment. To enjoy Kyoto in true light, a little context of Japan helps. Japan is a country whose tourism is not much sold in India. Like Sony television, which as a policy sells on its price and on its name, without hardsell, so seems to me the case with Japan in general. I have known many who visit Las Vegas, Sydney, Singapore, and those who have visited Japan. With all justice to these fine places, those who visit Japan and stay awhile there have commented on something intangible about the place which leaves a part if them there and brings a longing back with them that stays.  In fact I would refer to the Tom Cruise monologue in “The Last Samurai”,  “They are an intriguing people. From the moment they wake they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seem such discipline…” Histrionics apart I would endorse that.

Kyoto, personifies that quite, hard working perfectionism, harmony of elements and that intangible, harmonious longing that Japan brings within a person. A well kept secret in some sense, Kyoto is about 300-500 KM from Tokyo and about 3 hours by the Shinkansen (bullet train). Compared to Tokyo, the hustle and bustle is nearly absent, except in some quarters and that too much more subtle. There are temples of a quiet, harmonious nature you can perhaps only find in Japan and then the whole place reverbrates a charm that I can remember to the last fahrenheit.   I had been there in March 2000 while on an assignment in Tokyo, taking a break after a hard 3 months of work, courtesy our team leader at the time, a Japan buff himself.

We missed the Shinkansen we had booked ourselves on. I remeber the heartbreak rush taking the Yamanote line from Ebisu to Tokyo central station. Rushing down the umpteen levels to where the Shinkansens stood. With little or no time to revel in the beauty of the Sinhkansen itself we had to board a moving one literally a.k. a India style and more, as we had missed our train, had to go part standing!

We had checked into a hotel, Japanese style, futons to sleep on the floor, Japanese style houses and a nice coldish weather to match. Kyoto has good wide roads, cleanliness that justifies Japanese perfection, greenery in an ample sense and a sense of histrory about the place that can make anyone a Japan buff. There is the Ginkakuji temple in the centre of the city and then on the whole there are 1600 buddhist temples and 270 Shinto shrines, quite a bit alright.  I rememebr Ginkakuji more than  the others because of the breathtaking Japanese gardens there.

Then there was Kiyomizu-dera, where we had Japanese tea and tofu served by elegant Japanese ladies dressed in traditional attire. The cleanliness and culture of the experience smacked of a rustic and sophisticated finesse at the same time that only one word  can describe best “Japanese”. There was much to explore in depth but we only had about a day and a half.

For moving around the city hire bicycles and ride the footpaths, its really lovely and cost effective to an extent you woudnt mind. When we hired them each biycycle cost about 600 yen a day. We stayed for 2 days but for a longer period a better bargain may be possible.

Recommendations to go – Spend 3 days, stay in a traditional Japanese lodge, stay close to Ginkakuji temple. Trek the hill up North of the city, and sleep under the pines in undisturbed brush, visit the buddhist temples, and let meditatation take you over effortlessly. Cycle around like a child unfearing of traffic, rivulets running by. But most importantly book the Shinkansen in time to get there and board it in time too.

Position this – A) A country with 400 National parks, 70 wildlife sanctuaries, 4000 year old History, the greatest mountain range in the word, the best whitewater rapids in the world, a subtropical coastline that is an envy of the world, and pearly islands that can compete with the Hawaiis of the world, a topography with practically every kind of variation earth has to offer, cuisine that has pervaded the nook and corner of the world, and much more.., also the largest democracy in the world – gets a paltry 4.4 million tourists a year.

And B) an island which is less than than 0.01% of the above country in size gets 7.5 million.

A) India B)Singapore.

Why? See www.incredibleindia.org for some more and you might wonder India should be as much compelling destination as any other, isnt.

No single reason , but the Government by large should hold the credit for this (lack of) achievement.  In 1960’s and Tourism in India was ranked somewhere as 126th or 127th on the priority list of industries for development, lower than the industry development of lighthouses!

Awareness has grown, and perhaps the priority, but even in the current context, poor project and funds management at the ground level, lack of accountability, political problems, infrastructure arent helping turn things around.

I was just reading P Chidambram’s essays in his book “A view from outside” in which he cites N.R. Narayana Murthy’s assertion that the Taj Mahal, and what its symbolism represents a $20 Bn opportunity for India and employment. Simple math as quoted in the book – there are 200 Mn couples in developed nations. Even if 10% of them decide to spend their anniversary by the Taj in the typical 2 night, 3 day model, that at about a $1000 spend per couple can be a $20 Bn opportunity. Imagine adding to that a cruise by a resurrected Yamuna by Taj, then some more perhaps.  And then add up all the features mentioned earlier, each is a huge opportunity by its own right.

Pipe dream perhaps. Its not about a desire to do it,  only when things get down to ground it becomes a game of oneupmanship, egos,  red tape, sloth, jurisdictions – in corporate speak – misaligned KPIs and  institutionalized mediocrity.  As things stand no reform in the present government either seems headed in a direction, to suggest things will be any better in near or far future.

 

We made it. We went, and we saw and we shopped. 9 people, 2 cities 8 days a wonderful trip that left all longing for a little more. (Some proofs from my ancient olympus 3.2 M below)

Esplanade waterfront   Boat quay at night  

Coming back more informed on places to see, how to schedule time, things to do and lots more. Am sharing my notes on what might come handy for some planning on similar lines,

Firstly, Myths that went bust

Myth 1 : What will you do for 5 days in Singapore you’ll get bored, its a small place?

Its a small place alright, but a power packed one. If you are with a family I would say you can easily spend up to 7 days without getting bored a moment in Singapore.  Singapore has a lot of context to it through its multi-cultural heritage, its modernist present, a Las Vegas Blvd equivalent of Shopping Malls and a fantastic transport network to allow you to explore it all without getting lost. A family looking for bit of exploration, getting the feel of the city, some sightseeing and plenty shopping – 5 days wouldnt be enough for them.

Myth 2: Peak monsoon in December, holiday will get washed out?

No they wont unless you want them to. The good thing is rains cool off the place and dont last more than 2-3 hours at a time. Secondly, Singapore offers enough backup indoor options should you have to face a longish rain spell.  Though we carried umbrellas through our 5 days there we didnt need to use them more than 10% of our outdoor time, in peak monsoon that is.

Myth 3: Orchard Road is very expensive for shopping

Yes it is, but I think the brands that get sold on Orchard road would cost the same even if sold in China Town. Ngee Ann City, Paragon, Tangs, Palais Renaissance all within an eyeshot of each other carry premium brands and hence are expensive.  But a right around them CenterPoint, Plaza Singapura, Orchard shopping center and offer plenty deals and there are offers are peppered all over the place. Plus the fact you might get stuff here you wont find elsewhere. In a good sale time you can easily have a family spend 2 full days here and wanting for 1 more.

Getting around : Believe me, you dont need a guide to get around. Singapore particularly doles out tons of easy on the mind information through its tourist brochures and detailed maps available right as you check out of Changi airport.  Each place to see has a detail on how to get there by MRT or bus to the last detail and then you can also ask around. With English as the lingua franca it doesnt get easier than that.

Things not to miss,

Sights : Songs of the Sea @ Sentosa, Esplanade waterfront and Boatquay riverfront by night, DHL balloon, Singapore Eye (opening on Jan 18, 2008), National Museum, If possible a show at Esplanade,  A heritage walk around marina bay area if you can.

Eye candy malls and some shopping – Suntec, Marina square, Vivocity,  Orchard road  (Ngee Ann City, Paragon, Tangs, Palais renaissance, Funan Digilife mall (Electronics)

Real shopping – Bugis street (opens late around 1 PM), Sim Lim square , Mustafa’s by night, Niranjan’s (all very close to each other)

Food – Food Republic is a good one stop for a culinary experience of the South east

Enough for one post, I’ll suggest out what I think can be a good family itinerary in my next post.

Songs of the Sea  Suntec Fountain of Wealth

Our Mission Singapore had humble beginnings, originating as a mild aspiration, fueled in part by the constant eyeshare of x,xxx* airfare+hotel+sightseeing offers in the dailies, our retired elders travel grapevine. And partly that perhaps we had been static too long, and wanted some change from the urban ruralscape that Bangalore was fast becoming. So what would fit a foreign trip on a reasonable budget, we made our mind.

As a bit of a sales guy, I know my thing around bids, quotes, RFPs and so. Competitive bidding for the best is then again a norm regardless. So I put in my inquiries all over the web 3-4 web portals, 2-3 independent agents and visited 2 physical stores. Ample bidders in the game, first step successful. Next step, headcount. At the start count we were 2 young men , 2 young ladies, 1 mom and 2 very young ladies, range of age 2 to 62. As the trip information flowed down the family grapevine, we became 2 young men, 2 young ladies, 2 moms, 1 pop and 2 very young ladies. Range of age 2 to 60. Me one of the young men within the median. As date would be a primary parameter, I meticulously went about planning dates and had everyone to sign off on one, 20th Dec. It was a date worked out after heavy working around professional commitments of the group, discussions down to the level of assigning official resources over which I had no control whatsoever.

As you might guess, the holistic feel when managing the aspirations of such a group is more like managing a country, where you have people from diverse backgrounds, age groups and professions. Secondly who carries the luggage and the kids when the coolies aren’t around, the 2 young men of course. So degree of mobility is constrained too. And too top it up travel in the peak holiday season. Challenges come in many flavours apart from projects like Delhi metro. And then when young man of the two, and that was not me had constraints with his work,  guess who had to taken the mantle of responsibility and power… well that’s me.

So I had an election manifesto, created with what we felt would work best, and would keep us mobile and keep our blood pressures low. As the first principle of good governance, my rule was to decide on an agenda based on what I feel will work and then communicate, communicate and communicate to the rest until all understood. A leader must display conviction at all times even when he changes his decision 3 times in a day and then again is able to convince the electorate either which way. And which I truly demonstrated with success, within a short span of time, I managed to convince my electorate along the feasibility and equal unfeasibility of all the following combinations

Langkawi+KL+Singapore on 20th Dec 5,6 or 7 nights
Langkawi+Singapore on 20th Dec 5,6 or 7 nights
Singapore+KL on 20th Dec 5,6 or 7 nights
Singapore+Cruise on 20th Dec 5,6 or 7 nights
Singapore+Bin tan on 20th Dec 5,6 or 7 nights
Singapore on 20th Dec, 5 nights
Singapore on 20th Dec, 4 nights

And then after all this, to my amazement, I managed to convince everyone later to the above options for the 7th, 8th, 14th, 15th, 20th as well, for that matter any date so long as we would go.

While this was happening, my mind a fertile ground around travel and exploration was heavy working out the logistics of each day, each hour and planning out strateges, maps and , Hotel A, not close to metro, No, Hotel B, right next to freeway, No. Hotel C, so many bad reviews (that I felt like adding one more), Hotel E opening onto an expensive shopping area, (with 4 ladies gunning for malls, you need to be discreetly parsimonious) ,No.

I had with me four different hour by hour theme based itinaries off VisitSingapore.com, currency exchange rates for trans-asia, and MRT travel details down to the 6 lines… and mental maps on how to keep each one of my electorate smiling 24×7.
Flights, in a span of 1 week I took on blockings and cancellations on Indian Airlines, Jet, Thai, Malaysian, SriLankan and Singapore airlines. No mean achievement especially even before you have traveled.

A lot of my thinking and excitement of the trip was guided around by an impression lingering on from the summer of June 2000 AD, when I spent 1 hour transit time  in a bright sunny Singapore on Clarke quay….I thought that’s how it would be even now, until I read up a statistic….December is peak monsoon time in Singapore.

Within the next few hours I was all over met records, yahoo answers chatting up with Singaporeans and checking up with my office colleagues based in Singapore. Net result, yes it would be monsoon, but what heck, it rains everyday in Singapore anyway, so just come!

Some thoughts… and then perhaps the momentum of all above – keep planning the attack…

Day 4 the inquiries start yielding fruit. I get a call from Simran Makemytrip, I put down my phone its Anjali from Yatra, and then again, its Sonakshi from a local travel agent, before I know its Rohit from SOTC, and then of course Balwinder from Ekido.

A minor complication that I did not mention here was that that my electorate spans Bangalore and Chandigarh (two of the cities that I love most in this country) and fortunately my family is based almost entirely within these two places too. So while I was floating RFPs around, one young lady, my sibling that is, also did her due diligence in visiting a travel operator there by the name of Ekido. My first impressions on hearing the name were impressions a la Japanese, and then perfection and promise of quality of everything Japanese (Trap)….

So some analysis and mental magic quadrants later I give go ahead with Messrs Ekido and we pay a fair advance. Some web navigations later it turns out that Messrs Ekido is a Global tour operator based in India, with its Global operations based in 1 city in India and in 1 office in such city, and a .com address that displayed “website under construction” . Feels exactly like a heavy brass bell dropping on your toe…

As things stand this is where we are right now…at the mercy of Amadeuses and Galileos of the travel world…and perhpas victimized by our own over blockings all over the place…
Well,  if destiny favours travel we will. As of the moment the competitive bidding is still on and heated, my electorate is excited an anticipating, cutting weight, pre-shopping for “The shopping” and by the way are also booked into 4 airlines and 3 hotels in 3 cities on 3 different dates. Courtesy their leader, who sits here updating his blog, and awaiting the destiny of his nation to be revealed…

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