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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Somnathpur Keshava Temple: An OffBeat Cultural Trail just outside of Bangalore

750 years of pristine cultural history and that too located at just about 120 kms from the heart of Bangalore. And the best part is that it is tucked away in a non-descript village in the Mandya district of Karnataka. Sounds too good to be true right? But, it is the truth. It is a top off beat cultural trail that is located just 2 hours from Bangalore and which makes it either a great option for a day trip from Bangalore or as a weekend getaway along with other towns.

Somnathpur Keshava Temple - Offbeat Culture Getaway from Bangalore
Karnataka has had mighty empires in its past. The four great ones were Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Vijaynagara and Hoysala. Out of these, the temples from the Hoysala empire have stood the effects of time and stand in their best glory of all temples in Karnataka.

Beautiful Sculpture of Goddess Saraswati on the walls of Keshava Temple, Somnathpur, Karnataka
The temples at Belur and Halebid formed the crux of the Hoysala empire and hence attract the most attention. But, they did suffer damage during the wars. If you wish to see a Hoysala temple in all its glory, you have to head to Somnathpur, once a Hoysala kingdom stronghold, especially in the fertile Cauvery region.

Beautiful sculpture of Venugopala inside the sanctum sanitorium of Somnathpur Keshava Temple
This village was once very prosperous and hence was home to some of the most skilled craftsmen and sculptors. They designed a temple in 58 years about 750 years ago that saw very few wars and has withstood the effects of time gracefully. Thus, today, this archaeological site and non-functional temple stands in all its glory and lets the visitor admire the rich work created by the Hoysala artisans eight centuries ago.

Dancing Lakshmi - A rare statue at the Keshava temple of Somnathpur
Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, this Chennakeshava temple like the rest of all temples was built during the Hoysala reign. Built using soapstone dug from the grounds in and around Somnathpur, this Vaishnavite temple that faces east is built on a raised platform and using a shikhara architecture.

Epics, Battles, Mythological Creatures and Ancient Stories sculpted onto the exterior walls at the Hoysala Temple of Somnathpur
It’s specialty is its intricate sculpting and carving that depicts stories from epics, mythological events, Hoysala battles, folk lore, musical and dance events and much more. The key feature of this temple are its sculptures.

Lakshmipati Statue at the Keshava Temple of Somnathpur
From the dancing Goddess Lakshmi to Lord Indra on an elephant; from the four headed Brahma to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning; from the 10 avatars of Bishnu to the beautiful and intricate Mahisasaura Mardini, these temple sculptures leave the visitors in awe at their craftmanship and their attention to detail.

Mini Temples in the Hoysala Temple Sculptures
Some of these sculptures are a rarity in all Hindu temples, especially the likes of the Angry Ganesha (one who looks towards his right), the dancing Lakshmi, Lakshmipati, Venugopala, the statue of Brahma, etc. Even some mythological creatures like the Makara (front as a crocodile, hind of a peacock, and other body parts from an elephant, deer and fish) are bound to leave you astounded.

Somnathpur Keshava Temple - Sculpted Magic
Each stone and pillar on the outside walls of the temple depict so many tales from our rich Hindu mythologies. The 10 avatars of Maha Vishnu, the sun god, Lord Indra, the various goddesses, the day to day scenes, Kamasutra and much more can be seen on the temple walls. It is believed that the temple was set as an educational platform for the common man, who could learn everything from the gods to epics to sex to music and much more.

Statue of Brahma and his wives at the Somnathpur Keshava Temple
If you thought the outsides of the temple were stunning, wait till you enter the sanctum sanatorium of the temple and see the rich carvings on the temple ceilings. The icing on the cake are the main statues of the 3 temple gods – Chenna Keshava, Venugopala and Janardhana. While the statues of Venugopala (Krishna) and Janardhana still exist in the temple, the original statue of Keshava exists in the London Museum and only a replica from another archaeological site has been kept here.

Statue of Venugopal (Krishna) at the Keshava Temple of Somnathpur
If you are a culture or heritage lover, this Chenna Keshava temple is bound to keep you spellbound. And what you will relish the most is the fact that this is off the beaten path and hence there are very few visitors. Enjoy it before everyone gets to hear of it.

The emblem of the Hoysala Empire
Ideal Times, Entry Fees and Guides:
It is best to visit this temple early in the day or late in the evening for better lighting and for cooler weather. Entry for Indians is INR 5 and for foreign nationals is INR 100. It is recommended to avail the services of government approved cultural guides to appreciate the meaning of the rocks and the sculptures. The typical fee of a guide is INR 350 for the group and his services last 40 to 60 minutes.

Very detailed Mahisasura Mardini Statue at Somnathpur
Food and Stay:
Somnathpur is a small village and nothing much in terms of food and accommodation can be found here apart from some fruit hawkers. The nearest cities of Mysore and Srirangapatna would be the best bet for food and lodging.

Vishnu in Varaha Avatar at the Keshava Temple in Somnathpur, Karnataka
Ideal Route from Bangalore would be
–> Bangalore –> Channapatna –> Maddur –> Mandya –> turn left towards Bannur –> after Bannur turn right towards Somnathpur (the overall distance would be about 120 kms and should take you 2 to 3 hours depending on speed and breaks). One can also opt for an alternate route via Kanakapura, Malavalli and Talakad. As per Jan 2015, the roads from Mandya to Somnathpur are in good condition with the exception of small patches were the roads have small pot holes.

Keshava Temple of Somnathpur
Timings
: 9 Am to 5 PM

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

How to choose Fashion Accessories for your holiday?

To be fashionable is the norm these days. Whether you are going to a party, going on a date, visiting family and friends, going to work or even if you are going on a holiday, being fashionable feels good and gets you the right attention. We take care of most of our fashion while we are in the city, but we somehow seem to misplace it while we go on our holidays. I used to be more utility-driven when I started traveling. I still am, but have slowly started accessorizing myself to be more fashionable during my travels without compromising on baggage weight or making my trip cumbersome. The below list is a set of helpful fashion accessories that will make you look fashionable on your trips without making your luggage bulge. Even though these handy tips have been written from a man’s perspective, it should help even the female traveler.

Buff or Bandana

Buff as a fashion accessory

Hats and Caps make for great fashion accessories, but they are very difficult to lug around in your luggage and they are also difficult to clean in humid conditions. It is here that the bandanas come to the party. Personally, I have been a big fan of bandanas for more than a decade now. They go well with formal, semi-formal and beach clothing. And they are light and easy to maintain too. Even better than the bandana is the buff, which I was gifted by a friend last year and ever since I have been hooked. These headwear accessories can be used as a bandana, a scarf, a neck warmer, a balaclava, a headband and in many more helpful ways. They look trendy, are light to carry and can be maintained super easily. According to me, they are one of the more important fashion accessories for the traveler.

Shoes
Dress Shoes for Fashion in Travel

Most of us carry our shoes according to our holiday type, which means, water shoes for beach holidays, boots for trekking holidays, walking shoes for relaxed holidays and the likes. While these solve the purpose of the holiday, our activities are bound to make them dirty and less fashionable. It is here that I request you to carry a second pair of shoes, ideally leather based. These could be dress shoes, loafers, ankle-length or full length boots. And they will come in super handy when you go for that fancy dinner or formal event or even a invite to a local home. Personally, I carry a pair of dress shoes (leather) depending on the kind of clothing I am carrying with me. And do note that these dress shoes are in addition to the boots that I also carry with me. For very hot weather, I prefer loafers.

Sunglasses
Sunglasses are an important travel fashion accessory

Sunglasses are ubiquitous in travel fashion these days and hence it it is no surprise that it finds an mention in this list too. On your holidays, carry not one, but two pairs of sunglasses. One, a lifestyle choice that goes well with formal events and regular holidays and the second, a rugged option that is more activity based (adventure activities, beaches, games, etc.). I swear by Oakley for my crazy activities and Ray Ban as a fabulous lifestyle option.

Scarf
Scarf is an important fashion accessory in travel

The scarf is one of the more under-used accessories in the men’s travel fashion wardrobe. It is light. It adds a new look to your same travel wardrobe. It comes in handy when you find it chilly especially at airports, flights and in other air conditioned environments. In simple words, the scarf adds character and warmth without taking too much space in your luggage. Personally, I carry woollen or silk scarves in my baggage. One of my favorites is a beautiful maroon scarf with a dash of colours designed by Paul Smith.

Jacket
Jackets are one of the top most accessories in travel fashion, but unfortunately, they either take too much space in our baggage or add too much weight.  It is here that you need to take a call on whether you want to sway towards fashion or watch out on your baggage weight. Personally, I prefer to have at least one jacket in my bag. This could be a leather jacket, a dress jacket, a dinner jacket (corduroy also) or a down jacket (if it is too cold).

Belt
Belts make for great fashion accessories, but I hate them for the fact that they make the X-ray machines at the airports beep.  If you hate them as much as me, opt for belts without any metal in them. Belts also come in handy when you lose weight during your travels. Personally, I carry two belts with me. One, a stretch elastic (non-metal) with a bit of leather that go very well with jeans and shorts and a black or brown leather belt that I wear with my formal attire.

Watch
Ever since mobile phones became a common place, people seem to have taken a lesser fancy towards watches. Nevertheless, watches still remain an important part of fashion and hence an integral fashion accessory in travel.  Like sunglasses, I prefer to carry two watches with me. One would be a lifestyle choice and the other one would be for adventure, sports and other activities. I use a Casio G Shock to handle the rough part of my travels.

Necklace
Traditionally, it is the women who don necklaces, but I think if worn the right way, men can carry it too very well. And especially during travel. You could either wear gold, metal chains, simple bead work, dog tags or black threads and pendants.  I prefer black threads and pendants or simple bead work. But, the others also make for great fashion accessories.

Bag or Luggage
Fashion in travel is incomplete without fashionable luggage. You can carry backpacks, duffel bags, hand bags, suitcases or others. They could be from designer brands, Samsonite or other regular travel luggage brands. In any case, ensure that your travel baggage complements your look. If you wear prints generally, prints would look great on your luggage. If you wear French fashion colours, opt for blacks and be on the safer side.

Gadgets
Travel Gadgets as a fashion accessory

These days, gadgets have usurped into our worlds and find their way into our holidays too. Since they are such an important part of our life and the fact that we flaunt it, it might be worthwhile to see if we can use it as an accessory. It could be either the gadget in itself or the gadget decked up in a case that goes with your look. These gadgets could be your mobile phone, camera, tablet or others.

I hope you found the above tips helpful and I hope that they will make your holidays more fashionable!

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Strategies that Get Me Overseas Every Year

I’m not rich or highly educated or remarkable in any way. Yet, I have managed to get across the ocean every year for the past eight. Sometimes I stay away for two months at a time, sometimes I stay in luxury, sometimes I sleep on the street. But I know how to make it work, and I’m going to share some of my secrets with you. This travel habit has made me a hero among my friends, and I’ve even had the pleasure of taking a few of them along to some of my favorite spots. I’m here to tell you that almost anyone can do this, if it is made a priority. I’m a single guy, so I’m talking to other people without kids. Parents can still do this stuff though, the internet’s full of ways. For now, here are my best tips for getting overseas often.

1) Travel in Luxury When You Get Lucky; Take What You Can Get When You Aren’t. I like to travel with what I can carry in a backpack. It makes customs a breeze. It keeps me on the move with ease. But I’m not some ascetic; this is just the easiest way to do things...most of the time. I have been known to travel to the occasional luxury spot, when I can afford it. I do this by monitoring lots of luxurious resorts and travel destination providers, for the purpose of catching awesome sales when they strike. One of my go-to sale sources is Corinthia Hotels, who are having their annual sale event right now. I have already booked mine, so I’m sharing this so you too can enjoy a lux vacation on the cheap. There are lots of other places to catch deals, but you’ve got find those on your own. I keep some of these honey holes to myself! The same also goes for flights. You’ve got to learn how to negotiate good prices, and catch sales when they surface. If you can’t get cheap flights, it’s hard to travel where you want.

2) I make meeting people one of my top priorities. I’m a member of several online travel communities. I’ve also met a lot of Couch Surfers in my day, some of whom have become my best friends. I’ve even met this one guy, Ted, from Brussels, in 3 different countries in 3 different continents. World travelers are a small community, and you’ll meet close knit friends sooner than you think. Anyway, meeting people is also good, because you’ve got friends everywhere you go, places to stay, ins to the best eating/drinking places, and guides to awesome locales around the world.

3) You’ve got to be able to make money on the road. I have taught ESL classes, worked as a gondolier, modeled for a sculptor, bussed tables in a place where I didn’t speak the language, and blogged about ten thousand posts for different bloggers around the world. I can be pretty much self-sufficient anywhere I find myself. Nowadays, most of my work happens online, so if there’s WIFI, I’m good to go. You’ve got to start finding work you can do anywhere. It makes long term travel so much easier. If you can get to work on these three things, you’ll be ready for the trip of your life within the year! Maybe I’ll see you out there somewhere!

About the Author: Boris Dzhingarov is passionate about travelling. He writes for several travel blogs online.

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Maashad Hostel: Basic Budget Hostel in Central Tehran

Tehran is one of those cities in Iran where it is difficult to find decent budget accommodation. Maashad Hostel, located close to the Grand Bazaar is one such option. I stayed here for 3 nights and 4 days and the below review is based on my recent experience of staying here.

1) This hostel offers dormitories and private rooms. All rooms have shared bathrooms.

2) There are no safety lockers available and that includes even the reception. No towels are provided. Sheets and blankets are provided though.

3) The hostel has squat style toilets and a bathroom that provides hot showers. Cleanliness is basic. Don’t expect super clean facilities.

4) Free wi-fi is available in this hostel, though during the day, the speed tends to be a bit on the slower side.

5) There are no restaurants located close to the hostel. The nearest restaurants or cafes are at least a 10 minute walk away.

6) Cleanliness in the common areas is a bit on the low, but the rooms are alright.

7) The people running the place speak basic English and they provide only some basic information.

8) The hostel doesn’t provide any maps, though the metro station, the Golistan palace and the Grand Bazaar are just a short walk away from the hostel.

9) Even though the hostel is located right on the main road, the hostel rooms are surprisingly quiet.

10) The hostel doesn’t have an in-house kitchen or restaurant and do not serve any breakfast.

If you are looking for a real budget accommodation in Tehran and can adjust for a couple of days before you head out to the other cities of Iran, this place can make the cut. Else, it can be quite difficult to stay here.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Gastronomic Journey in Istanbul

Enjoying the local cuisine is an integral part of a traveler’s experience. It doesn’t matter whether you are a foodie or not. There are some things you just have to taste and enjoy. It could be the dosa of South India, Chicken Tikka Masala of North India, Masaman Curry of Thailand, Gado-Gado of Indonesia, Sushi of Japan, Kebabs of Turkey, Desserts of France, Pizzas of Italy, Salsa and Tortilla Chips of Mexico or many other such delicious dishes from all over the world. When you travel to any of these countries, you just have to taste them. In my mind, a trip is not complete without tasting the local specialities.

Eating with locals in Istanbul, Turkey
But, it would be a shame to taste these iconic dishes of the region or country at a restaurant in the tourist hub of the city. To get an authentic taste, we would need to taste such food in popular restaurants or at the homes of locals. I engage in both, but honestly prefer the latter for a wholesome gastronomic experience.  Even the world is waking up to this new trend in travel, which is experiencing travel the local way. We stay with locals, we eat with locals, we travel with locals, we engage with locals and in essence we experience the country with its citizens.

Delicious Turkish Food at a local house 
On my recent visit to Istanbul, I spent an entire day with Nuray, Ipek and Serdar, a local Turkish family who live in a nice residential part of this bustling city. During this day, I walked the local bazaars with them and haggled for the fresh produce of the day, I tried to understand the fine details of Turkish food while I cooked with them and finally I enjoyed a delicious multi-course wholesome home-cooked meal with them. The result was a sensational gastronomic journey for me that I would not have experienced if I stayed within the tourist quarter of Istanbul.

Delicious Vegetarian Food from Turkey
To take part in this local culinary experience, I used Traveling Spoon’s interesting service where they connect travelers with local hosts across the world for an interesting food journey. It doesn’t matter whether you are vegetarian or a hardcore meat lover, they convey your needs to the host and take good care of you. This is precisely what happened with me after they took my date and food preferences. I had opted for a market visit + cooking + eating program. They connected me with the host and arranged a vegetarian Turkish culinary experience for me.

A TravelingSpoon Experience
All I did on my own was to take the local metro and reach the home of the host. Once I reached the home of Nuray, Serdar and Ipek, I was treated to some Sherbat and delicious cigarette rolls (these are filled with spinach and peynir cheese). What happened next was an interesting conversation that ranged from India, Turkey, Food, Music, Dance, Travel and much more. I could not believe that I was busy yapping happily with these strangers. It felt like they were my friends. Somewhere amidst all this interesting conversations, we made a trip to a local market to see, smell and sample the local vegetables and produce. The whole bazaar had an electric atmosphere with lots of colour, sales calls and haggling conversations.

Sankara - the cook
What followed next was Nuray gifting me a lovely apron (moustache and sunglasses) handmade by her and an elaborate cooking session that involved me eating more cigarette rolls, drinking lots of tea, watching Nuray cook and listening to my hosts talk about their food. Nuray offered to let me cook, but I left it to her expert hands.  I was happy to watch, eat, talk and listen. The smells from the cooking were making my mouth water and had definitely whetted my appetite.

Cooking Turkish Food with locals
If you look at the entire spread, you will be surprised at the sheer number of vegetarian options in Turkish cooking. Well, due credit goes to Nuray for this, but what I also found out in my month long stay in Turkey is that this Kebab country offers an immense number of vegetarian dishes. The spread included rice, bread, dolma, strained yoghurt, beans and tomatoes, lots of mezes and salads, stir friend beans, Biriyani Rice, deep-fried Kabak Mucveri (Turkish Zucchini fritters), Peynir cheese, fruits, more cigarette rolls and the super yummy Baklava. All in all, it was paradise for a foodie liked me. With all this food in me, my stomach was super full, but my heart still yearned for more.

Shopping at local Turkish bazaars for vegetables
It was indeed a special Turkish gastronomic journey for me and of course it was vegetarian! And not only did I make great memories, I also ended up making 3 new friends in Turkey!!

My mouth has been watering just re-collecting my memories from that day. I better go fix myself something to eat. I hope you find yourself a gastronomic journey too on your next trip.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

World House Hostel: Great Party Hostel in Beyoglu, Istanbul

Generally, as a thumb rule, backpacker hostels have prime locations, but even among them, there are some that leave you totally spoilt with respect to location. I stayed at one such place in Istanbul and this place is called the World House Hostel. I stayed here for 4 days and 4 nights and the below hostel review is based on this experience of mine.

1) This hostel has phenomenal location. It is located right next to the Galata tower, one of the top tourist attractions of Istanbul. It is right at the edge of Istiklal Street on Beyoglu, which is Istanbul’s eating and nightlife district. It is a short walk from the Galata Bridge and 2 to 3 tram stops from the other key tourist attractions of Istanbul. What more can one ask for?

2) The place is run by an interesting mix of local and international staff who love to interact with travelers and give great advice. They have dorms and private rooms. Since they are located within the party circuit of Istanbul, their prices tend to increase over the weekend.

3) The place is great with lovely Turkish breakfast that comes free, safety lockers, hot showers and comfortable beds. The only problem with respect to amenities was weak room heating.

4) They offer free wi-fi in the hostel, but the speeds can be slow at many times.

5) One of the big problems with this hostel is that the people who stay here are party lovers. So, if you are not the party going type and wish to turn in earlier, you will have a tough time as the sound levels stay high till midnight.

6) The sound from the mosque tends to wake most of the people in the mornings. But, that is true with most of the places in Istanbul.

7) The hostel has an in-house restaurant that serves affordable and delicious lunch that is very popular with the locals.

8) Shopping, ATMs, restaurants, supermarkets and other amenities are just a stone’s throw away.

9) The hostel has a lounge area, but it tends to be small when the hostel is fun, which is most of the time.

If you love to party and are looking for great location in your hostel and value for money, then the World House Hostel can make an interesting choice.

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Friday, January 09, 2015

How to Survive as a Vegetarian in Iran?

Honestly, it is pretty difficult to survive as a vegetarian traveler in Iran. Most of the restaurants do not serve/serve very limited vegetarian food. The locals love to eat meat and hence most of the restaurants serve kebabs. I spent 27 days traveling the length and breadth of this country and really struggled at many places, but towards the end of my trip, I learnt a lot of things that would have helped me as a vegetarian traveler in Iran. Below are these helpful tips if you are a vegetarian and intend to visit Iran.

Vegetarian Food in Iran 
1) Learn to say that you don’t eat meat in Persian. (Bedoonay Goosht means ‘no meat’). You can also say ‘Man kiah korh hastaam’ (I am a plant eater).

2) In restaurants, ask for dishes like Mirza Ghazeimi (roasted eggplant), Kashq e-Badumjun (Eggplant and Tomatoes in a broth), Khorak e-Badumjun (Eggplant with lentils in a thick broth), shorba (lentil soup) and must (yogurt with garlic).

3) If you are visiting a local home, you can ask for any of the above dishes or for Kuku Sabzi (a deep fried dish made from vegetables).

Khorak-o-badumjun
4) You can eat saffron rice, plain rice and any of the many types of breads available in Iran.

5) Yoghurt and Yoghurt dishes are aplenty in Iran. This will help you get you much needed protein and hence it would be good to know their names. Mast-o-Khiar (Cucumber and Mint Yoghurt), Tzatziki (Cucumber in Yoghurt), Mast-o-Badamjun (Eggplant in Yoghurt) and other varieties.

6) Buy labneh cheese, peynir cheese, butter and other types of cheese spreads from the super market. You can eat this with the many types of breads available in Iran (Barbari, Taftoon, Sangak, Lavash and others). My personal favorite is Barbari, but it is best consumed hot.

Traditional restaurant at Isfahan, Iran
7) A lot of fruits and vegetables are available in the local markets. This will ensure that you get your vitamin supplement easily.

8) Iran is like the nut and dry fruit capital of the world. Almonds, pistachios, Apricots, Dates, Walnuts, Figs, Sunflower Seeds, Watermelon Seeds and many more are available here and at very reasonable prices. It would be good to snack on these from time to time.

9) The people of Iran have a sweet tooth and hence like to indulge in their desserts and sweets (shirni). These desserts have a lot of nuts, butter and sugar and hence make for ideal food supplement in case you can’t find yourself a wholesome vegetarian meal. Even the local ice creams are delicious.

Tips to survive as a vegetarian in Iran
10) In most parts of Iran, even if you can’t find a vegetarian dish in a local restaurant, you can definitely find a vegetarian sandwich in a sandwich joint. These sandwiches are made from (veggies, falafel (deep fried chickpeas), mushrooms and/or peynir (local cheese)). They are not the healthiest option, but they are cheap and help you get your calories for the meal.

11) Another great protein supplement in Iran is doogh (their yoghurt based drink). At some places close to the Turkey border, it is referred to as Ayran. This drink is either served plain or flavored with mint and other herbs.

Baghlava - a Iranian Dessert
12) Other drinks such as Sherbat, Tea, Coffee are available at many places.

Action at an Iranian Bread Shop
If you follow these handy tips while traveling to Iran, you will find that it is easy to travel as a vegetarian in Iran. You might not have tons of options, but you will end up eating local and delicious food that takes cares of all your nutritional needs.

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How to access Facebook in Iran?

Iran is a great country for a holiday, but if you are thinking that all your phone applications and technology needs will work fine, then you are mistaken. Due to the embargo, the government of Iran wants to control all the communication going out of the country. This means that they block Facebook, Twitter, many blogging platforms, many photography hosting platforms, payment gateways and many more. Only Skype, Instagram, Viber and WhatsApp seem to work fine all over the country. Even a lot of websites are blocked. For example, many booking sites will work, but when you complete the payment processing page, your transaction will not go through. Media sites are another casualty. All you will end up seeing is a static page in Persian that you would not understand. And all this in spite of having one of the best internet penetrations in the Middle East.

If you wish to share your photos on your Facebook profile, post updates on Twitter, blog on the move, access booking sites, make international payments online, access your banking sites and use other blocked applications/websites, you need to find a way to bypass the government blocks through a VPN tunnel. Most of the locals use one to connect with the outside world and that is precisely what you would need to do to keep in touch with your family, friends and work.

While there are a lot of VPN tunnels available in the market, not all of them are free and not all of them work properly in Iran. According to me Psiphon, HideMyAss and StrongVPN are the best options. And it is best to download them onto your phone or laptop before arriving into Iran. Personally,  I used the Psiphon mobile app on my Android phone and it worked beautifully on my phone, even though the speed was low and the connection kept disconnecting from time to time. Psiphon is available free of cost, keeps changing its IP address through its intelligent system and tunnels the entire phone, thereby ensuring that your device works like how it would in a normal environment. Through Psiphon, I was able to browse all the sites, pay my bills back home, access Facebook, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, Banking Apps and basically my entire phone.  As far as I know, Psiphon is not available on the Apple Store, but there one can use platforms like Hide My Ass, StrongVPN, Express VPN and the likes. These are paid options and I am not aware of free working options for the Apple world.

I hope this post comes in handy to all those who are planning a trip to Iran. Do remember to download and install your VPNs before you land in Iran!!

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Goreme Mansion: Lovely Homestay with Cave Rooms at Cappadocia, Turkey

There are only a few places in the world where you can stay in a cave room. Cappadocia in Anatolian Turkey is one such location. The timing was such that my trip to Cappadocia coincided with my birthday and hence I ended up upgrading myself from a typical hostel to an awesome cave room. The cave room that I stayed in was at the Goreme Mansion in the town of Goreme, one of the top hot spots of Cappadocia. I stayed here for 4 days and 3 nights and the below review is based on this experience of mine.

1) Cave rooms are very unlike traditional rooms. They have all the modern facilities, have low ceilings, walls coming out at places and limited air circulation. But, that is also the fun of a cave room. The cave rooms at Goreme Mansion were like this. If I remember right, the rooms cost me about 40 Euros per night.

2) This place is run by a local family who take good care of you, help you answer all your touristy questions and also throw in some tips. While the husband and wife do not speak English, their son and their front desk manager speak good English.

3) The homestay offers free traditional Turkish breakfast that is wholesome and delicious. They do not serve any other meals.

4) They offer free wi-fi around the clock.

5) In terms of proximity, they are located at a short walk from the bus station and most of the restaurants, supermarkets and shops of Goreme. One can even walk to the open air museum from their place.

6) The homestay offers tours and takes bookings for balloon rides. Personally, I did not take any of their tours.

7) The rooms are temperature controlled, have hot showers and have comfortable beds in a reasonably spacious setup.

If you are looking to stay in a cave room and wish to connect more with a local family, I would request you to give Goreme Mansion a look.

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Thursday, January 01, 2015

50 Random Things about Iran

Happy New Year to all you lovely people!!

2015 is here, but I still have a lot of stories from 2014 to share with you. Iran was my last destination in 2014 and what a destination it was. I spent 27 days traveling across its mountains, deserts and cities. During these 27 days, I visited the capital of Tehran, the desert cities of Kashan, Isfahan, Na’in and Yazd, the ancient Persian kingdom at Shiraz, the sand dunes of Verzaneh, Abyaneh – a scenic mountain village that used to follow Zorastrianism and stayed with a local family at Darya Kenar by the Caspian Sea. While I was exploring these various places across Iran, I came to understand various facets of this country. Some of them blew my mind away. Some of them are very interesting and some are extremely handy to know for people who are planning a holiday to Iran. Below are these so called 50 random things from the land of Persia.

Pink Mosque of Shiraz
1) Iran is a very safe country.

2) 4 litres of gasoline costs 1 US Dollar. A year back, the fuel price was 10% of this number.

3) Road infrastructure across Iran is very impressive.

4) It is very difficult to survive as a vegetarian in Iran. Even most of their vegetable dishes contain meat sauces and their sweets, desserts and fats contain animal fats.

5) The women of Iran are drop dead gorgeous.

Abandoned desert city of Kharanaq
6) There is a tad bit of racism towards Indian citizens in Iran.

7) The Chador (full body veil) that the women wear is not like a dress, but like a wrap around.

8) The people of Iran are incredibly friendly towards the tourists. Most of them do this to practice their foreign language skills, while some of them are genuinely interested in talking to foreign nationals.

9) Most Iranian citizens will offer to pay for your bills (hotel, travel, food, gifts, etc.). This is called Tarouf and is sometimes taken to extreme levels.

10) A lot of Iranian women love to color their hair blonde, get a nose job done and sharpen their eye brows.

Shaking Minaret at Kharanaq

11) Even though many things are banned in Iran (access of internet, alcohol, satellite television, etc.), the locals have their own workarounds.

12) Iranians have insanely long lunch breaks.

13) As a city, Isfahan can compete with any top city around the world in terms of layout, organization, cleanliness and appeal.

14) Food portions are very large in Iran. This especially holds good for lunches.

Traditional designs on the mosques of Iran
15) Even though the official currency in Iran is Irani Rial, people make transactions in tomans where 1 toman equals 10 rials.

16) The VIP buses in Iran are super roomy and possibly the best in the world for tall people.

17) There are some parts of Iran where the women wear white or colorful Rusaris or Hijabs. These women originally belonged to Zoroastrianism, before they converted to Islam.
 
18) Bus ticket prices are much cheaper than the train ticket prices in Iran.

19) Locals say that they prefer to travel by road or rail than by plane. This is because air crashes are quite common in Iran.

The insanely friendly people of Iran
20) There are dense jungles with wildlife in the north of Iran.

21) The younger generation of Iran is very unhappy with the country’s restrictions and wants to emigrate to foreign countries.

22) Family bonding is very high in Iran. This can be seen every evening and especially on holidays when families gather together over a meal or at a nice location for a picnic lunch.

23) Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be accessed through a VPN tunnel in Iran. By default, Skype, email, Instagram and Whatsapp work.

24) International credit cards and debit cards do not work in Iran. This applies to online transactions as well unless you change your IP Address.

The Rolling Sand dunes of Verzaneh
25) International debit cards cannot be used to withdraw money from ATMs in Iran.

26) Iran has one of the world’s largest supply of natural gas and crude oil, but has very few refining facilities.

27) Cars and motorbikes in Iran are many generations old.

28) There is an import duty in excess of 100% for foreign cars.

29) There are more luxury cars (like Maserati, Lamborghini, Porsche, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, etc.) in Tehran than on the Autobahn.

Beautiful paintings on the walls of Esfahan
30) The people of Iran love their poetry.

31) The people of Iran have a sweet tooth and love to consume lots of sweets and other desserts with their cup of tea.

32) A lot of people in Iran smoke. This includes the cigarette or the traditional hookah.

33) Iran is the nose job capital of the world. It is also famous for other cosmetic treatments, like lip jobs, hair transplantations, etc. And these are inexpensive too.

34) Many people of Iran live in the shadow of its rich and glorious past.

Iranians love this super long and elaborate lunches
35) Saffron in Iran is 4 times cheaper than the ones in India.

36) A lot of Iran is mountainous and most of these mountains see snow during the winter.

37) Most of the women in the smaller villages weave carpets to keep themselves occupied and to supplement the family’s income. Sometimes, they might work for many years just to weave a single carpet.

38) It is very difficult to get a large silk carpet out of Iran. In all probability, you will be stopped at customs in Iran.

39) It is just a 2 hour boat ride from the South of Iran (Bandar e-Abbas) to Sharjah.

Tea and Hookahs are a favorite evening past time of Iran
40) There is a lot of inflation in Iran.

41) During Moharram and other dates where important people of Iran died, people cry, beat themselves up and demonstrate all this in public.

42) Tourism is on the upswing in Iran. Lots of new hotel properties are being built to supply to this future demand.

43) Iran is extremely popular with motorcycling enthusiasts who tour this country during the summer months.

44) The people of Iran hold a bitter feeling towards the Arabs.

Nuts and sweets can be seen everywhere in the markets of Iran
45) Even though Iran is largely a Muslim country, it has some of the most beautiful churches in the world.

46) A lot of Iran’s younger generation are not religious and wish to emigrate to other parts of the world.

47) All the citizens of Iran get money towards fuel compensation every month. This money is transferred into the bank account of the head of the family.

48) Normal foreign exchange rates peg 1 USD as roughly 26000 Irani rial and 1 Euro as roughly 33000 Irani Rial, but when you are in the country, you will get a rate that is much superior to this externally quoted rate. As an example, I got 34,700 Irani Rial for 1 US Dollar and my traveler friends from Europe got 41,300 for their 1 Euro.

49) Irani Rial has no value outside of Iran.

50) Eating roasted sunflower seeds is a favorite past time of the people of Iran. Some might include pistachios and almonds too.

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