Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rickshaws in London

Rickshaw in LondonThere are few things I associate more closely with Asia (and India in particular) than the sight of rickshaws on the streets. I know I am back home when I can see cycle-rickshaws and auto-rickshaws on the street. That seems to be changing. Here's a picture of a rickshaw I clicked on Oxford Street during my trip to London a few weeks back.

Tuc Tuc in UKAnd, earlier in the week I found this article (through DesiPundit) which describes the Tuctuc, a cool new taxi service based on Indian auto-rickshaws for the US, USA and other countries. Here are pictures of the TucTuc from Brightham, UK, where it was first introduced. The Tuctuc rickshaws run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and some models have built-in Wifi and 17" color TVs! You can find more pictures of the TucTuc here.

Tuc Tuc in UK


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Liquid Pleasures

Among the few things I hated during my initial visits to the US (during the early 90s) was how difficult it was to find good tea. While coffee was ubiquitous everywhere you traveled and within offices, tea was difficult to find unless you were in upscale restaurants and hotels. Many a time, when you ordered tea, they assumed you wanted flavored iced tea. Thankfully, with the influx of more Asians in the US, that has now changed; you can even order ‘chai’ in the local Starbucks. Yet, having tea served in a super-sized foam cup with a single tea-bag dipped into (what seems like) a liter of hot water barely meets my definition of sipping tea!

Tea at The Ritz LondonTherefore, it wasn't surprising that during my recent vacation in Europe I was mighty pleased when I found I could order a variety of teas in the trains of Switzerland, in English cafes, and almost everywhere else where one could hope to find hot drinks. I was especially happy in England, where drinking tea has been elevated to a hallowed ritual of the afternoon tea. BTW, call this ‘high tea’ and they immediately know you are a tourist!

If you are in London and want the ‘premium’ tea experience, make a reservation at the Ritz. Alternately, I would recommend the Harrods (which, like the Ritz, is a destination in itself with a lot of history), or the Orangery in Kensington Palace.

Christmas Tea at The Ritz LondonTea at the Ritz is a formal affair and men need to remember their jackets to enter here. Served in the spectacular Palm Court, a choice of several varieties of tea, finely cut sandwiches, freshly baked scones, jam and clotted cream and a range of delicate pastries, combine to make for an unforgettable afternoon. At Christmas the Ritz becomes more magical than ever; a spectacular Christmas tree takes pride of place in the lobby, cascades of lights hang from the rotunda above. On selected dates during Christmas, tea will include a glass of Champagne, mince pies and Christmas cake with the usual stuff.

Tea at Harrods LondonAt Harrods, you can have the traditional afternoon tea (from 3.45pm) served with finger sandwiches, patisserie, scones and clotted cream at the Georgian restaurant on the 4th Level. If you want to try something different, visit the Laduree Tea Room on the Ground level, the epitome of French style that will offer the world famous macaroons along with its range of teas and indulgent patisserie. Note: Picture of tea at Harrods by Sarah Brown.

Tea at The Ritz LondonThe Orangery is the place to visit for a quintessential Garden experience. Located in the middle of the gardens of Kensington Palace, the menu is typical garden-party fare: fluffy roasted pepper & goats’ cheese tarts, flaked salmon salads & a chilled dish of broad beans, boiled potatoes & pesto. It’s decently done, but the tiered ranks of cakes greeting diners upon arrival indicate that afternoon tea is the real reason to come here: fruitcake, black & white sables or winter berry tart are the perfect partner for a cuppa or two.

To me (and many others around the world), the supreme tea of all teas is the Darjeeling Tea. Sourced from the 70 or so tea gardens on the Himalayan hill resort of Darjeeling has built a reputation in tea that has proven difficult to beat. Darjeeling gets its name from the Tibetan words for “Land of the Thunderbolt”. A popular Himalayan hill resort in north-east India, it’s tea gardens are situated on the steep hillsides with the Bengal plains directly south and the Himalayan crest directly north. Weather, soil, high altitude, and some of India’s oldest tea bushes have created unique teas that have resisted imitation elsewhere. I haven’t visited Darjeeling yet, but have heard many stories from friends and relatives of the spectacular views and the mountain rail journey (the train itself is a World Heritage site!).


Darjeeling is renowned for producing some of the finest teas in India, but it also produces the widest variety of flavor of any single growing area. The elevation of a single estate may sweep from 2000 feet to up to 7000 feet, with the temperature and cloud cover varying widely. The best are the high-grown teas, where the cool weather slows the growth of the leaves and concentrates the flavor. Add to this the three distinct plucking seasons of first flush, second flush and autumnal, and the range of quality from even a single estate can vary enormously. Second Flush refers to the high-quality growing period late May through June, and is by no means ‘second rate’. Note: Darjeeling picture by Funky Chickens.

Another place where great Indian teas are grown is Assam. The largest tea-growing area in the world with over 700 tea estates, Assam is a state in north-east India and lies on both sides of the Brahmaputra river. The place is home to wild elephants, rhinos, and India’s only indigenous tea plants. From the first eight chests of tea sold in the London auction of 1839, Assam teas have risen to become the pre-eminent choice of British brands, due to their strong liquor and perfect compatibility with milk.

All the major types of tea are plucked from the same species of tea bush. Their differences are a result of the processing given the to the leaves after they are plucked

Here's how a well-known tea lover is said to have expressed his great love for tea: The first cup moistens my lips and throat. The second cup breaks my loneliness. The third cup searches my barren entrail but to find therein some thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration - all the wrongs of life pass out through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified. The sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup - ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of the cool wind that raises in my sleeves. Where is Elysium? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither. ~Lu Tung, "Tea-Drinking"

Finally, I leave you with Tea Menu from the Ritz, London:

Ritz Royal English An exquisite blend, the rich malty taste of Assam blended with the fine flavour of Ceylon, wonderful colour of Kenyan, making this blend very well-rounded.
Darjeeling First Flush Truly the Champagne of teas, a rare & wonderful experience, this Black tea, from the first tender new shoots grown between February and April on the foothills of the Himalayas, producing a wonderful light liquor with a delicate flavour of green muscatel.
Assam Leaf (Tippy Orthodox) A full bodied black tea, high grown in the north of India, a golden tippy leaf yielding a rich aroma, strong, rounded malty flavour and attractive red liquor.
Ceylon Orange Pekoe A high- grown large leaf black tea, rich amber liquor, light full flavour with
scented aroma.

Russian Caravan A blend of China, Formosa & Darjeeling leafs reminiscent of tea carried to Russia from China by camels.
Earl Grey A large black leaf tea, China based, beautifully balanced with refreshing citrus bergamot, silky & smooth with a delightful aroma.
Lapsang Souchong Imperiale A China large black leaf tea from the Fujien province, smoked over pine fires, a distinct smoky tea with a silky tarriness, wonderful depth of flavour.
Jasmine With Flowers (green) A China based semi-fermented tea from the Fujien province, beautifully flavoured with jasmine flowers, wonderful perifime with delicate taste, a light gentle refreshing tea.
Rose Congou / Pouchong A China black tea from the Guangdong province enriched with rose petals & flavoured with rose aroma, very gentle, light, a delicious tea.
Chun Mee (green) An unfermented tea, long fine jade leaves, elegant pale yellow liquor, lightly scented, highly
refreshing velvety green taste.
Oolong (Formosa - Taiwan) A semi-fermented tea, attractive amber hue, slightly nutty taste yet fully developed
Moroccan Mint A wonderfully invigorating spearmint tea, caffeine free, highly scented, stimulating in the morning, soothing digestif.
Elderflower A creamy musk-scented Summer Flower, comforting & wonderfully relaxing enhanced with sugar & honey.
Camomile Heads A pretty infusion, calming, soothing & delicate, elegant aroma.
Verveine / Lemon Verbene An elegant, sparkling lemon tasting tisane, refreshing, digestif.
Passion Fruit & Orange A truly wonderful taste, apple, hibiscus, sweet orange peel blended with passion fruit & orange.
Rooibos Red Tea 100% caffeine free, rich in vitamin c, mineral salts, proteins & anti-oxidants


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rats in the Kitchen

First Ratatouille, now this! What's with all these rats infesting the kitchens? Click here for more sandwich art.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Massage at 36,000 Feet!

I flew on Virgin Atlantic from Mumbai to London and back. Here’s the low-down on their much talked about upper class.

Hello Gorgeous! welcomes the airline’s website as I hunt for baggage restrictions, having heard about strict baggage restrictions in European airports. I notice a prominent link about delayed bags in Heathrow. Heathrow airport’s reputation seems to be nose-diving if you go by the number of negative articles appearing in print now-a-days. I find that British Airways tops the list of airlines for lost bags in Europe. However, the Travel Gods were with me during this vacation; the sight of my mutilated suitcase appearing on the baggage carousal has never made me happier!

The Virgin staff is smartly dressed and very friendly (for a European run airline, not unusually so if you are used to flying Singapore, Cathay or Jet Airways). In Mumbai one of the girls even escorts us from the check-in counter to the the lounge. They board the Economy section before announcing boarding of the Upper Class; this gives us more time in the lounge and less waiting in the airplane which is different from the standard practise of most other airlines.

Virgin Atlantic CabinThe cabin has an unique design. Seats are placed diagonally and every seat had aisle access. While seats on the new Singapore Airlines business class are wider, Virgin’s seating allows for more social contact (but less privacy). The seats convert into fully-flat beds and they provide a duvet, pillow, sleeping suit, the works! They also have a unique, full-service bar with a dozen bar-stools around it where you can socialize with fellow passengers. Mood lighting in red and purple gives the cabin a very distinct chic appeal especially when the lights are dimmed during the flight. Note: Cabin picture by Englishman.

The other unique (and by far the coolest!) service they provide is that of a trained beautician/masseuse who will offer a head & shoulder massage, a manicure, etc., when you are flying at 36,000 feet. This service is not guaranteed especially if the flight is full. That is so much fun even though the massage lasts only for 15-20 minutes. Strongly recommended!

Food was not particularly great on my flight from Mumbai to London, but the selection on the return flight was better. The entertainment system is a let-down. They do not yet have Video On-Demand and the number of choices available to us was few.

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse Heathrow LondonThe exeprience during our return journey from London to Mumbai was even better. The Virgin Clubhouse in Heathrow is the most elaborate lounge I have ever visited. Chic design, mood lighting, a-la-carte menus, full-service bars, sushi, billiards, salon, spa, showers: you name it, it’s here! I was actually hoping I had more time to spend there instead of my 90 minutes which passed very quickly. Note: Clubhouse picture by Gary.

Virgin Atlantic Hello Gorgeous!Note that Virgin provides complimentary limo services to passengers who fly on a full-fare business-class ticket in many cities including Mumbai and London. They also have arrival lounges at select cities where you can shower before you leave the airport.

I would rank Virgin Business/Upper class at the very top for service quality and cabin design on the Europe route. However, please note the few negatives as well: In addition to an ageing entertainment system, the fact that they are not part of any airline alliance also can be a deterrent to business travelers. And of course, the fact that flying Virgin means flying via Heathrow and taking a chance of losing your checked-in luggage. :-)


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sweet Dreams are Made of This

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Ever since I acquired my first digital camera, I have preferred to let my pictures do the talking when sharing my impressions from around the world on this blog! But now, as I stepped out on the terrace of my chalet in the alpine village of Grindelwald, I quickly realized that no camera could capture the breathtaking panorama and scale of the sweeping alpine splendor in front of my eyes. (Click picture below for a larger, high-resolution version of the alpine panorama)

Grindelwald SwitzerlandThe majestic peaks of the Monch, Schreckhorn, and Eiger provided an imposing backdrop to miles of impossibly picture-perfect landscape. A landscape of beautiful streets winding downhill, of quaint cottages in the distance with brightly colored flower beds, of sweeping alpine forests on mountain-sides that disappeared into the clouds and of the snow-clad peak of Eiger that mightily burst forth from the top of the clouds. The gurgling of a nearby stream and the chimes from the village church added to the feeling of having been transported to a fantasy land from another time.

Alps at Grindelwald SwitzerlandEarlier in the day, we flew into Switzerland on a bright, sunny morning. The weather Gods had been kind so far to us on this vacation. We enjoyed completely dry and rain-free days in England which has seen some of the most severe rains lately and here we had a bright, sunny day with excellent visibility..

Grindelwald SwitzerlandWhile the Swiss Rail system was every bit as efficient as I had expected, we had to change trains thrice to get to Grindelwald. I had to take change trains at Zurich Central (which is different from Zurich Airport), Bern and Interlaken before I finally made it to Grindelwald. Since we had three suitcases, changing trains was a hassle (especially when one of the connections required me to change platforms). An unfortunate side-effect was that I left my only warm jacket behind on one of the trains. The journey via train to Grindelwald takes about 3:15 hours

Jungfraujoch ObservatoryWe had rented an apartment-in-a-chalet instead of a hotel. This consisted of two bedrooms, a living room, a dining/kitchen area, bathroom, and a large open terrace with flower-beds and a view to die for. The apartment was stocked with everything you needed to cook and eat at home. A bakery just across the street also stocked all essential groceries which was an added bonus (the girl at the bakery had an uncanny resemblance to Phoebe from Friends!)

Grindelwald SwitzerlandOn our first day in Grindelwald, we strolled down to the delightful Oncle Tom’s Hutte, for freshly made thin-crust pizzas. I remember ordering one with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, broccoli, bell peppers and mushrooms, and the other with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, smoked salmon, leeks, and sour cream. Both were delicious, and the glasses of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene (a type of sparkling wine) nicely complimented our lunch.

Grilled Pork in Grindelwald SwitzerlandAnother place I recommend is a small family-owned restaurant called the Riggenberg Tea-Room. The special consisting of grilled pork meat, fries and buttered peas was delicious, as were their freshly made ice-cream desserts.

We did try the cheese fondue during our last evening here; the fondue was served with lots of bread chunks, potatoes in their skin, and shallots. The dish was interesting but not particularly great.

On other days, we lazed around in our little wooden dwelling, made our own breakfast and dinner, and felt like we could be here forever without feeling home-sick. The local breads, wine and cheese were great, and in this setting tasted better than any gourmet fare I have had!

Jungfraujoch in SeptemberThere is a cableway from Grindelwald to a place called First (altitude 2100 m). From the summit station on First, you have a choice of high-Alpine hikes. The easiest one is the 50 min hike to Lake Bachalpsee, one of the most beautiful mountain lakes in the Alps. As well as admiring the stunning views of the mountain world reflected in its crystal-clear waters, visitors can also try out their angling skills here.

Switzerland is a treat for nature-lovers. Everywhere will notice the effort that has been taken to promote tourism in a manner that is friendly to the environment. Nowhere more than on the rail journey to the ‘Top of Europe’, Jungfraujoch. The trip takes you via Kleine Scheidegg and through the Eiger North Wall up to the scenic splendors of the Jungfraujoch in the heart of a wonderland of glaciers and eternal ice. Attractions include the Ice Palace, the Sphinx observatory building overlooking the Aletsch Glacier, husky-driven sledge rides and the Snow Disk Run. This is a popular site for skiers, hikers, and trekkers.

The scenic splendor as the train climbs the steep incline is extraordinary. The day was clear and sunny and we could see distant villages, gondolas (as the cable-cars are called) slowing ascending the peaks, tiny figures of trekkers in distant mountain trails, and vast, lush green valleys and hillsides speckled with colorful flowers and cows everywhere.

Jungfraujoch SwitzerlandThe Jungfrau railway was built in 1894 by a charismatic man with big dreams called Adolf Guyer-Zeller. The rail system took 16 years to complete, and right from inception was electricity-driven, even though electric-trains were still in their infancy.

During these years, the base camp for construction workers was located on the Eiger Glacier and in the winters, the workforce in the “Sea of Ice” was cutoff from the outside world, making it necessary for the advance delivery of the following provisions before winter set in:

  • 12 tons of flour
  • 1500 liters of wine (almost 1 liter per day per worker!)
  • 2 tons of potatoes (for the Swiss)
  • 800 kilos of macaroni (for the Italians)
  • 3000 eggs
  • 400 kilos of coffee
  • 50000 cigars
  • 4 tons of meat
  • 30 tons of coal (for baking and for the toolsmith)

Fireplace in my chalet at Grindelwald SwitzerlandJungfraujoch has the world’s highest post-office, a high altitude weather station, and an advanced research station to measure data on pollution, cosmic rays, and ozone depletion. But most interesting of all, it is also home to Bollywood Café, probably the highest Indian food restaurant in the world! Decorated with film reels, movie posters of Hindi and Tamil hits, the restaurant offers an Indian buffet lunch for CHF26 pax. While they have few items in the buffet and no Indian breads, the food was pretty good, especially the Turkey curry, the Chole, and the Alu-Gobi-Corn subzi. I also noticed Hindi signs (in addition to the usual ones in local languages and English) at cafes in Jungfrau advertising chicken and veggie snacks!

If you are planning a visit here, please remember to get your sunglasses, sun-screen, and warm clothes. When we stepped on the ice and snow on top of Jungfrau the chilly -7 degree temperature coupled with the glare from the ice took some time getting adjusted to. But then we were soon throwing snow at each other and trying to make a snowman. Great fun! Have to do this again some time; maybe during winter :-)

And for those who are planning a trip to Switzerland, here are some tips:

  • Figure out if renting a car is a good option for you. A car will give you the flexibility of stopping and admiring the splendid views as you travel. Americans will not have trouble since you are driving on the ‘right side of the road’. Indians drive on both sides of the road in India, so we can drive anywhere!
  • We traveled in Switzerland by rail instead of renting a car. While every visitor hears about the Swiss Rail Pass, please contact the Info Desk in the Airport Railway Station first; given your travel plans they will recommend the most cost-effective Pass for you. For us they recommended a Half-Price Rail Pass.
  • Remember to carry sun-glasses and sun-screen if you are planning to visit Jungfraujoch or any other snow-clad mountain
  • There are lots of vegetarian food options in Switzerland. The long-distance trains have a café on-board too.
  • If you are staying for over a week and plan to buy groceries and stuff for the kitchen, find out where the nearest Coop store is. They are a nation-wide grocery chain and you will find better prices.


Friday, September 07, 2007

Timeless London

We landed in London late in the evening. Heathrow airport was crowded and the arrivals lounge area was a nightmare for the claustrophobic. In other words, we felt we hadn’t left home at all!

Lobby of the Thistle Victoria in LondonBut things began looking up the moment we left the airport. There was a car waiting for us and the driver helpfully pointed out the many sights on the way to our hotel. The Victorian buildings, the roads themselves, and the many monuments are a constant reminder of the city’s medieval past and its rich heritage. London is a very beautiful city and very distinct from any other city I have seen so far.

Buggy near Buckingham PalaceWe were staying at the Thistle Victoria, a grand old hotel which was clearly built in a different era. The grand staircase, the large portraits on the wall, the polished chandeliers, heavily curtained corridors, and the gas-fired heating system all added to its old-world charm. The hotel’s location is excellent. Right over the busy Victoria station (you can directly get into the hotel from the tube-station) the hotel is about 5 minutes walk from Buckingham Palace, and about 10 minutes from Hyde Park corner. Most popular shopping and entertainment destinations (such as Knightsbridge and Oxford Street) are only a couple of tube stations away.

Doorman at the Thistle Victoria in LondonOne of the most popular tourist attractions (and also the most over-rated) in London is the changing of guards at Buckingham Palace. However, we were able to do something more special. Buckingham Palace is open to the public during the months of August and September when the Queen and her family vacation outside of London. So the next day, on a bight but chilly London morning, we stepped into the glittering staterooms of Buckingham Palace.

This being the 60th marriage anniversary of the Queen, there was a special exhibition that included the Queen’s wedding dress, her diamond tiara, and many wedding gifts, portraits and exhibits that are usually out-of-bounds to visitors. My wife and four year old daughter went ooh and aah over the pearl-studded wedding dress and diamond tiara, while I admired the elaborate dinnerware and furniture on display; they were part of the 25000 wedding gifts the royal couple received. Since the wedding happened just after WW2 ended, some gifts were more functional like a sewing machine!

Diana's 10th death anniversary at Kensington PalaceThe other important event that coincided with our visit to London was Princess Diana’s 10th death anniversary. We went down to Kensington Palace and joined her many admirers who left flowers, photos and messages on the gates of the palace where she had spent happier times before her death.

I was particularly excited as I drove down the many familiar streets. Streets which I knew from movies and books since childhood. Seeing pubs and restaurants frequented by Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde that were still up and running. There is a place where Ho Chi Minh is supposed to have once worked as a cook! There are still signs of London's two most horrific events: the Great Fire of 1666 that burnt down 8o percent of the city and the Blitz of World War II.

Westminster Abbey from the London EyeTrafalgar Square with Nelson’s statue was particularly interesting. One of England's biggest heroes, he joined the Royal Navy when he was 12; among his other victories, if he hadn’t defeated Napoleon’s navy in the Suez most unexpectedly, Tipu Sultan may have been alive much longer and the French may have even ended up ruling India during the 19th century. Trafalgar Square is named after the battle of Trafalgar where Nelson won his final battle, but at the cost of his life. His statue is made from molten cannon balls from the ships he commandeered at that battle.

A London CabI spent a lot of time on the bridges of London: I drove over them, cruised under them, and photographed them from air as I went up on the London Eye. But most of all, I loved the buildings that lined every road. Every one seems to have a story to tell and gives London its character. Certainly, a very different sight from the glass and steel structures you see in the US and in most of urban India.

We spent only two days in London and couldn't get time to indulge in gourmet dining or local specialities. But if you are planning a trip to London, you should treat yourself to a hallowed English tradition: high tea. If you can't get a reservation at the Ritz, try Harrods instead. High tea will usually include scones with clotted cream and preserves and a large slices of dessert along with your Earl Grey.

Also, if you want to travel London's historical spots quickly, the hop-on, hop-off tour buses are the best option. There are two options: The Original Tour and the Big Bus Company. I think the former is the best deal; they have been in business the longest, have over 100 buses, and cover more areas. Additionally, they have a free two-way river cruise built into their base ticket. Use the tube only if you are travelling alone, are not claustrophobic, and can manage to get in and out in spite of the rush-hour hordes.