City of the Sound of Music – Salzburg (2015)

One thing that I have learned from my travels is that each city has its own unique personality and feel that effects you almost immediately, sometimes profoundly and sometimes in a more subtle mannerism.

When I got off the train at the main station in Salzburg it was raining cats and dogs; however, I felt a strange sense of peace in the air and till date Salzburg remains my favorite city. There is a feeling that I still find difficult to describe.

My initial instinct was further confirmed by a small incident that till date is ingrained in my memory. My first day in the city, I was searching for the right bus stop and asked a young teenage boy with wild black curly air for directions and he pointed me in the relevant direction. 15 minutes later I was waiting patiently at the bus stop, when this boy came running because he had realized that he had given me directions to the wrong bus stop. This for me was the true essence of the small city.

The Sound of Music

Having grown up watching Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music and dancing to the songs with my older sister, I was determined to explore all the places in the movie including the Gazebo in the song “I am sixteen” and hence the first tour I took was the “Sound of Music.”

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The Gazebo from the Song “I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen”

We relived the movie by visiting all the gorgeous landmarks including the Hellbrunn and Leopoldskron Palaces (these formed the front and the back of the Captains House), Mirabell Gardens and the Church of Mondsee.

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The Palace formed the back side of the Captain’s house and this was the lake where the children’s boat toppled over.

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Mirabell Gardens – Who can forget the song “Do a deer, a female deer”

To conclude the day, I added on a Sound of Music concert that started of with an interview by the actual Maria Von Trapp who gave fun insights into life with the Captain including details of the marriage proposal and how in reality he had the greatest sense of humor. (Apparently, the captain proposed quite out of the blue by saying – I think we should marry and Maria ran all the way to abbey where she was told that it was the will of God. She then ran all the way back home to say yes to the captain).

Ludwig II – Bavarian Castles

Part of the adventure of travelling includes meeting new people from around the world. Whilst visiting the Neuschwanstein and Linderhof castles, I met this lovely American couple Christopher and Alison. Great company while visiting these majestic castles with amazing gardens.

Ludwig II is said to have been an eccentric who enjoyed beauty and majestic structures. In fact some of the rooms in both castles had gifts from other royals from around the world. What actually fascinated me was the room gifted by one of the Mughal Emperors including the peacock throne at Linderhof.

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Neuschwanstein Castle – Gardens

I loved my two weeks trek in Europe but Salzburg was indeed the cherry on the cake and is a place the memories of which I will always hold dear.

A Drive Through Masai Mara

Flying in to Masai Mara, like most others I had the preconception that Safari trips were purely for those who liked animals or had a massive adventurous streak. Don’t get me wrong I love animals and am somewhat adventurous. However, when the Safarilink plane landed at my station, that is not the first thing that hit me. There was something about seeing giraffes walking freely in an airport strip that made me feel a strong presence of God.

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Flying in with Safarilink to Masai Mara

I chose to visit Kenya in October 2017, which meant that I made it just before the end of the migration season. Our guide throughout the trip was great and we managed to see 4.5 of the Big Five (will explain the 0.5 later).

At the time of check in at the Mara Serena Safari Lodge, the receptionist warned me to keep the balcony window locked when either sleeping or when the room was unoccupied as security against the local thieves aka Baboons. Till date I am trying to understand how he managed to do so with a straight face, I sure had difficulty maintaining one.

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The Infamous Masai Thief

My first evening out into the African jungle, in a four wheel vehicle of course, I simply could not seem to get enough of the feeling of freedom.

However, the first thing that hits you when you drive 15 minutes into the African jungle, is the number. Nothing short of hundreds thousands of Blue Wildebeests and Zebras. As far as the eye goes, you can see them.

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Blue Wildebeest

Another thing that strikes home and might give some men a bruised ego is the actual equation of lions and lionesses. Lions could be seen lazing or napping whilst the lionesses looked after the cubs or hunted for food.

Lions were also the first ones to get a share of the bounty that the lionesses hunted.

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The First of the Big Five
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King of the Jungle Fast Asleep

All those lion hunt programs on television do not hold even a candle to the real deal. There is just a feeling of eery majestic when you see three lionesses working together to corner a wildebeest. The only way to describe their movements would probably be slinking; patiently they take their sweet time crouching and slinking in tall grass towards their target.

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Lioness Heading for Hunt

The 2nd of the big five that we saw was the mighty elephant and yes the ears of the African elephant are shaped like the continent. Its amazing to see how royally the walk and are considered to be the most cultured within the animal kingdom. They not only bury their dead but also revisit the graves regularly. Also as per the locals, they treat both their elderly and their calves with the utmost respect.

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An Elephant Herd
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Close Up of an Elephant

Surprisingly, it is not the lion that is considered to be the most dangerous from among the big 5 but in fact it is the cape buffalo. In fact they are sometimes considered to kill more humans than any other animal in Africa. Also, it is common knowledge that a cape buffalo will not give up until it is sure that its prey is dead even if it has to wait under a tree for days at end.

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Cape Buffalo

We saw the white rhinoceros, however, since they are on the brink of extinction, due to their security we were unable to go near enough for photographs. Thanks to poaching there were just 4 of the great animals left in Masai Mara at the time. By law, the rangers are now authorized to shoot any poachers on sight.

Earlier I mentioned that we saw 4.5 of the big five; reason being that the last of them is excruciatingly shy. The leopard loves hiding up in trees shaped like umbrellas and all we could spot was a bit of its tail hanging down.

*Fact – the trees are not naturally umbrella shaped, they are shaped so by the giraffes and elephants who munch the leaves.

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Somewhere in the Tree is a Leopard

My personal favorite part of the trip however, did not involve any of the big five. Imagine having a giraffe just inches away from the car and being able to take a selfie with with it.

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With the Giraffe Standing Inches Away from the Car, Difficult to Get the Selfie
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The Giraffe Could not wait to Get Its Photograph Taken

Since it was migration season, another animal not to be missed was the zebra. Without exaggeration must have seen at least a couple million of these adorable creatures.

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Amongst the various cities that I have visited, I can count on one hand those that I would love to revisit. Masai Mara is definitely on that list. In fact, I am already planning my next African Safari.

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Concluding With a Photograph of a Beautiful and Majestic African Secretary Bird

Far East Chapter 2 (Mulu Park)

When planning out my trip to Malaysia, I decided to avoid going to family and friends for feedback regarding places to see. This decision was influenced by two main factors, firstly I had already taken a small vacation to Kuala Lumpur in 2010 and secondly I was feeling uncharacteristically adventurous. Hence, I simply researched the must sees of Malaysia and the first place that popped up was the Gunung Mulu National Park in the Sarawak province of Malaysia.

Taking a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Mulu (via Miri), I arrived at the park mid-afternoon. Since the nearest and most convenient place to stay was the Mulu Marriott Resort and Spa I chose convenience over price.

NIGHT WALK

Deciding not to waste my first evening there, I took the night walk. Despite it being rainy in the area we still managed to see fascinating insects and other small creatures whilst trekking through the rain forest.

I had never considered that the type of small creatures that I normally shirk away from would be so curiously mesmerizing.

After the 2 hour trek, I headed to rest up for a day trip the memories of which I will always hold dear.

GARDEN OF EDEN VALLEY WALK

Before I launch off into a description of the walk, it is imperative to mention that like most Pakistani’s, I am not very athletic and my muscles are inherently stiff.

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Many thanks to my tour mates – Andrea and Bernd Richard (Germany), Amina and Giovanni Ginaldi (Italy), Wei Wei Shih (Australia) and Gabriel Ferreira Batista (Brazil)

I reached the Mulu National Park well in time and met up with my group, people whom I will always appreciate for being patient and supportive beyond the call of duty.

We started the tour off by walking into a beautiful cave with stalactites, stalagmites and sleeping bats. After a good half hour of oohs and aahs at the gorgeous sights, much to my chagrin the guide went towards a 4 feet high white rock with a thick rope next to it and said lets start. At the time it felt almost as if someone had jolted me up from a deep sleep.

However, determined I joined my tour mates for a grueling yet memorable trek that consisted of 8 hours walking up, down, over, under, in and on rocks, water, and mountains.

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Wild Mushrooms on the Mountains

En route we experienced the Malaysian rain forest at its best whilst trekking up mountain paths where walkways were defined by tree roots, using ropes to climb rocks and walking through 4 feet of water.

Begrudgingly I have to admit, my aches and pains were overridden by the gorgeous sights that included snails, natural forestation and a gorgeous waterfall.

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For anyone who is up for adventure and a physical challenge, a walk down Eden is highly recommended.

WIND AND CLEARWATER CAVES

My last day at the Sarawak province, I decided to visit the famous Wind and Clearwater caves.

The moment you get off the boat at the first stop at Wind Caves and walk inside, the first thing that effects you are the strong winds that are uncharacteristic of the Malaysian rainforest. Stalactites and Stalagmites formed over millions of years were a sight of sore sights especially those that played with the light and shadows to create illusions of unique shapes and figures.

Next we re-boarded the boat to head for towards the Clearwater Caves. At the harbor we climbed 200 steps to reach the natural wonder that was inside the caves.

Within the caves there were unique limestone formations that had been developed by water and other natural influences over millions of years.

Concluding, the trip to Mulu is one that I will always recall with the fondest of memories and highly recommend.

Far East 2016 – Chapter 1 (Bangkok)

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There is just something exciting about a sudden spur of the moment decision to go off on vacation. So was the case with my visit to Thailand and Malaysia. It so happened that I had been getting fidgety – I mean mid-August already and no concrete plans for my annual vacations. As luck would have it, opportunity struck when a group of friends going for some professional training in Bangkok asked me to join them.

With less than 5 weeks and so much to plan, I analyzed the visa processing time for countries in the Far East and eventually decided to include Malaysia in my vacation plans. Advice – when booking a hotel always do your research through the travel websites but for the actual booking itself approach the hotels directly; you will always get better rates.

On 2nd October 2016, my friends and I took the flight to Bangkok, Thailand landing late evening at the Suvarnabhumi Airport. We took a cab to the Hostel 24, a nice cozy retreat in Sukhumvit Soi managed by a friendly Belgian couple. Highly recommended for those who are looking for clean, convenient and budget friendly accommodation.

AYYUTTHIYA

I had pre-booked my tours through the Sun Leisure World Corporation and as per schedule left for a full day visit to Ayutthiya early on 3rd October 2016.

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Stu pas and statues of Buddha

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I personally loved the combination of old structures and Buddha statues that were sometimes covered up in vibrant gold. The energy in these areas is quite distinct; to fully understand what I am referring to, you will have to personally visit.

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Reclining Buddha, Ayutthiya
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Buddha in a Tree, Wat Mahathat, Ayutthiya
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Delicious coconut pancakes (a local delight). Advice – If you have a Thai sitting next to you on the flight, get a list of the local delights.
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Couldn’t resist a click with the elephant who loved being photographed.
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Embellished statues of Buddha at Ayutthiya
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Embellished statues of Buddha at Ayutthiya

SAFARI PARK

Day 2 of vacations, my friends decided to skip their daily shopping spree to join me for a tour of the Bangkok Safari Park. If you like animals or have kids or enjoy the circus then this is a good place to visit. It is however, somewhat disheartening to realize that the animals are not well treated; some of the elephants even had broken tusks.

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I did however volunteer to have a 2.5 ton elephant walk over me; after all life is too short not to experience. Check the video below for proof of my antics.

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CITY TOUR – TEMPLES

The one thing I have realized through my travel expeditions is that the architecture at every country has a unique personality. Thus was the case in Thailand as well, unlike what I had seen of the European historical buildings that were more sober, and the remnants of Mughal architecture back home that were decorated in glass, the Thai temples are done up in bright golds.

Since I was due to take the evening flight to Kuala Lumpur, my last day in Bangkok, I decided to take a half day tour of Bangkok focusing mainly on the famous Royal Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).

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The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) from 1782 to 1925.
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The famous and truly beautiful Emerald Buddha – housed in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) on the grounds of the Grand Palace
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Monkey guarding the Ubosoth, Wat Phra Kaew
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Kinnorn at the Wat Phra Kaew has the top half of a man and the lower body of a bird and is often considered to be a musician.
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A visit to Thailand is incomplete until you have tried out some of the exotic fruit – dragon fruit is highly recommended
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Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) near the Chao Phraya River. To reach the temple one must cross the river on a ferry.
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Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) – part of it was being renovated
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If you make a wish whilst hitting the bong 3 times, your wish will come true

After an exhaustive trip, I returned to the Hostel 24 to check out and take the flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia… and that is another chapter.

Turkey – March 2014

When planning my annual vacation, I always tend to first glance at my ever growing travel bucket list and then follow my gut instinct. My favorite travel partner is and perhaps always will be my dad for two main reasons – 1) we don’t believe in shopping for anything other than small souvenirs 2) we are completely touristy even if it means getting up at 06.00 am.

Well since we both had USA visas, applying for the Turkish visa was easy… apply online and 24 hours later its in our email inbox. And hence began the prep work.

Going onto the then newish website tripadvisor.com, we decided to search for accommodation in the much more practical Sultanehmet area versus the more posh Taksim Square vicinity (by the way best decision that we made). Sent an email out to Idrees at Haseki Sultan Apartments and began the gentle negotiation / booking process.

Landing in Istanbul on 7 March 2014, we reached the Apartments early afternoon. Of course the first thing we did after dumping our luggage in the room was spread out all the brochures Idrees gave us and starting working on a plan of action.

Instead of taking a boring daytime 15 minute ride across the Bosporus we opted for the more practical and fun option of dinner and musical show on a ferry. A 5 course fancy meal coupled with belly dancing and a skit of Ajooj Majooj was the perfect vacation kickoff.

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A photograph with the dancers on board ferry

Determined to miss the early morning rush, we did the 10 minute trek up to the Topkapi Museum at 09.00 am only to find the entrance blocked by a dog snoozing in the morning sun. We were provided with head sets that doubled as our personal guides. The museum is one of those must visits in Istanbul and we enjoyed both the artifacts and the beautiful architecture.

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Entrance to the Topkapi Museum
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He was fast asleep and undisturbed by the tourists around him

On our way out of Topkapi and en route to the Blue Mosque the roasted acorns were an unavoidable temptation. The Blue Mosque as I remember was a true reflection of Turkey’s architectural history.

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Blue Mosque
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Blue Mosque

Next on our agenda was a full day trip to Troy. The pick up came early morning and we sat down with a group of 6 other tourists form Australia and UK. For all the history buffs or those fascinated by the story of Helen, this trip is a must. As history depicts, the walls of Troy definitely appear impenetrable; not only is the entrance curved but every 2 blocks are interconnected in a unique jigsaw pattern. Of course one cannot miss out on the famous Trojan Horse from the Brad Pitt movie, (Hollywood gifted it to the Turks for display in Troy).

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Gifted from Hollywood to Troy

While at it, we also had some fun peeping out of the windows of an older version of the Trojan Horse.

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Next day we decided to take it slow and limited ourselves to the Grand Bazaar, Haga Sophia and a roadside meal of Koftas. We loved the Grand Bazaar with all the colorful artifacts and in true Pakistani fashion haggled at the prices. Haga Sophia though we found to be a tad bit overrated and overpriced. After lunch we took the 45 minute tram / bus to Taksim Square more out of curiosity than anything else.

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Taksim Square

Since both my dad and I are sticklers for history and culture, next morning we took a flight for a 2 day trip to Izmir. Very convenient especially since we left our luggage at Haseki Sultan and carried only an overnight bag… piece of advice make sure you check the hotel the local tour agency books in Izmir; Hotel Paris was filthy beyond description. However, the trip itself was amazing, we managed to cover the entire Dardanelles belt including Pergamon I and Pergamon II.

The general architecture including one of the biggest theaters and libraries was a sight for sore eyes.

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The size of the theater was overwhelming
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Couldn’t resist this father daughter memory outside one of the biggest libraries worldwide
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Also amazing was how the Romans managed their water system and the gorgeous 3D mosaic tiling.
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A glimpse of the lovely detailed Roman architecture
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View from Pergamon II

Whilst at Izmir we were also shown Mary’s (Hazrat Maryam) last residential place. As per history a Russian nun saw this very place in her dream and described it clearly. Till date this is a practicing church.

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Entering the church near Mary’s house

On the extreme insistence of some of our close family and friends we decided to take the bus to the mausoleum of Hazrat Ayub Ansari. BIG waste of time!!! Firstly no one there knows any english, secondly took us eons to locate the place. Once we did, it took us exactly 5 minutes to finish the tour. The rest of the vicinity consisted of hills with thousands of graves. Not recommended at all.

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The entrance to the mausoleum

Our last day in Turkey we decided to revisit Taksim Square for some gorgeous royal blue roses that we had seen. Wanted to get some for my mom, however at USD 20 a piece we decided to stick to just one. We hand carried it back home almost like one would fragile glass and Mom loved the rose. Advice … never buy exotic colored roses, chances are they are dyed.

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The famous flower shop with dyed blue roses

Even though its been almost four years since we visited, Turkey still presents memories to last a lifetime. Loved it and one of the best places I have seen to date.

The Passion for Global Trekking

Life is a journey that I am of the opinion should be filled to the brim with memories. I personally do not recall what cell phone I had 5 years ago but I do remember my travel experiences including small fun stories and people that I met.

Yes, we all have a different concept of travel; some enjoy being pampered whilst staying in fancy hotels whilst others choose destinations where they can relax and rest up. Others choose destinations where there is great opportunity for shopping; then there are those like me who want to visit different countries to understand their essence and lock up the memories forever.

Belonging to a middle class family in Pakistan, I grew up hearing stories of my parents’ 6 weeks trek around Europe. Incidentally my father who had already seen more countries than anyone else I knew, was the one who encouraged me to take my first independent vacation to Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Till date he remains my favorite travel partner simply given the fact that we both have similar travel goals.

Through my travel blogs, I hope to share with my readers some of my experiences and understanding of the personality of the places I have visited.