Hay on Wye – The Town of Books

What more can a book lover possibly want?

The quaint town that is packed full of book shops. Even the pubs & the cafes have books stacked in them. It is also famous for its literary festival, when readers & writers from all over the world, descend upon it to discuss books.

My favorite bookshop has to be the ‘Murder & Mayhem’ which was stacked full of books on crime. So tiny from the outside but containing several ghoulish delights inside.

The ‘Rose’s bookshop of children’s & illustrated books’ contains some books that are really old, from the time that cloth was used to make books. This shop is a delight to walk through. Signed editions, first editions – you name it and they have it, as long as the book is aimed at children. The following photo shows the first edition Enid Blyton books at Rose’s bookshop.

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Everything in this town screams books:

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A cinema that has been converted to a bookshop:

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Hay-on-Wye, my kind of a town.

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It is nice to see such thriving independent bookshops instead of the usual charmless book-chains.

Moscow and St Petersburg

My brother says that Russia would be wasted on me because I haven’t read any of the Russian authors except Tolstoy. Would never know “the Raskalnikov walk” or “follow Rasalnikov till the pawnbreakers room”. I agree with him but it is too late to do anything about that now. I am already here.

First impressions: Taxi dropped us outside the Ritz & insisted that that was our hotel. We tried explaining that it wasn’t but language barrier came in the way & then we gave up. Spent ten minutes wandering around asking people. They were very friendly & so helpful. No Parisian rudeness here. Made us feel welcome. Spotted a MacDonalds (ye log yahan bhi aa gaye!!!). Finally we located our hotel just behind the Ritz.

Spotted the trademarks of Russia – numerous beautiful & colourful onion shaped domes. Cannot wait to explore further.

The GUM Store

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The GUM departmental store is allegedly the most expensive store in the world. However there was no stuffiness here. It was airy & pretty. Lots of smiling staff. When I asked the price of an unusual bookcase (made of cardboard) that I found interesting & rolled up my eyes on being told that it was for 1000 pounds, the pretty staff member did not laugh at me but laughed with me, which was some consolation.

We ate at the Soviet style canteen here (clear up the plates after you comrade – was a sign board, I saw). Though the store may have been expensive, the food was ridiculously cheap with a lot of variety.

In fact, it is a good place to hang out. There is a certain buzz here and the classical music that is played is a bonus.

The Moscow Metro

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Took the metro tour organised by Moscow Free Tours. These beautiful metro stations were built (or started) by Stalin because he wanted to bring the beauty of palaces to the common people.

During the war these were used as underground bunkers. Numerous children were born during these times in these underground stations. They were known as the children of the underground.

Lots of these metro stations had pictures of Stalin. These were later either removed or re-painted. (Err, Modi trying to erase Nehru from textbooks comes to mind).

There is another secret metro called metro 2 under the current one. The metro 2 was built exclusively to ferry important government officials, quickly from one place to another. It may still be in use but Putin travels by helicopter. He is supposed to work 24/7. His helicopter can sometimes be seen in the Kremlin.

I sneaked in a question about Putin to my tour guide. I wanted to know what the general public thought of him. The tour guide said that to answer that would require a whole new tour. She herself was indifferent to him.

Saw eleven stations in all. Each unique. The tour ended with a group hug.

 

The Novodevichy Convent

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A bit off the tourist track but which was very much on my list was the Novodevichy convent and monastery.
This was the place where women of noble families retired (or sometimes were forced to retire). There are nuns still living here & it has now been declared as a UNESCO world heritage site. I needed a guide here because I had several questions but could not find one.

The VDkNH

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The VDkNH is an open air exhibition of achievements of the Soviet Union/Russia. It is massive! Bikes, skates, mini transportation like the Segway etc were available on hire. We used our legs. It was also a place where young people come to look at each other. I don’t think that there is anything quite like it, on this scale, anywhere in the world.

St Basil’s Cathedral

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When we showed the ticket to go in, the ticket checker asked us – Indian? We said Yes. He said ‘Hindi Rusi bhai bhai’. All of us had such delighted smiles on our respective faces. Truly felt great. My daughter wanted to know what it meant & we told her how USSR/Russia had steadfastly stood behind India right since independence.

On my last day in Moscow

Last day in Moscow today. I’m pretty sure that the place has its share of dodgy shady areas but I could not see any. All I could see was affluence & beauty. I hadn’t imagined Moscow to be so beautiful. I think Russia is the only country today that has managed
to excel in space technology, sport, music, architecture & the arts.

I know the country gets a lot of tourists from Britain & parts of Europe & China but not so sure about the rest of the world. Met a US resident Indian, who had travelled here with his mom. He had paid 700 US dollars for their visas alone. The visa process was the only minor downside of the travel so far. They make you list all the countries that you have travelled to in the last ten years with the dates!

Moscow to St Petersburg on the Red Arrow

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Normally whenever we wanted to visit a place in Moscow by taxi, we would google it beforehand in our hotel & then show it to the taxi drivers on our phone. They cannot always read the English script but they look at the picture of the place to understand. When we wanted to visit the Leningradsky train station, we forgot to take the details of it on our phone. We kept repeating ‘Leningradsky, Leningradsky’ but we were probably pronouncing it incorrectly & the taxi driver could not understand. We did not have wi-fi so could not use our phones. Finally Meg mimicked a train & got slightly carried away while doing so. She gave him the full works with a ‘Choo Choo’ moving her hands in a circular motion & then even went ahead & gave a train whistle. The taxi driver understood at once. He in turn, mimicked his own version of the train, just to ensure that we were on the same page & finally we set off. Excellent mimicry saved the day.

Took the Red Arrow (Кра́сная стрела́) overnight sleeper train from Moscow to St Petersburg. This historical train leaves Moscow at midnight & reaches St Petersburg at eight in the morning.

Finally, I had my share of literary references from Russia. Anna Karenina takes the Red Arrow to meet Vromsky in Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. Though I found the train experience more like something from a Agatha Christie book.

Each carriage has a host/hostess in full uniform to take care of the people. None of the announcements are in English. Even the host did not speak a word of English. [Only the younger generation speak excellent English as they have started to teach English in schools here in the not so recent past].

When the train arrives in St Petersburg, they play the music to the St Petersburg anthem called ‘The hymn to the great city’. Reminded me of the music that was played when the Deccan Queen arrived in Mumbai/Pune but this music really makes you feel grand.

Moscow or St Petersburg

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Between Moscow & St Petersburg, I liked Moscow better.

St Petersburg, no doubt, has got some stunning buildings, numerous cafes and is generally like an upmarket pretty European city but something seems to be missing here. People are still as friendly & accommodating but Moscow has got more character.

It may be that other than the historical nuggets & the initial curiosity about the Russian way of life, we did not have too many expectations from Moscow but it managed to surpass our expectations. We were expecting to find beauty in St Petersburg anyway & we found it – no more, no less.

A major thrust of the history of St Petersburg is to do with having defeated Napolean and how the city was never ever conquered by Napolean. Peter the great & Catherine – 2 seem to have been responsible for making the city what it is.

 

The Eliseevsky grocery store 

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The Eliseevsky grocery store is famous in Moscow. We did not have time to see it there. When we were ambling in St Petersburg, we saw an interesting store & decided to enter it (Since all names are in Russian there is no way to know). It had a restaurant & we decided to eat there. It was only after looking at the English menu that we realised that it was the famous Eliseevsky store. St Petersburg had one too. Don’t know if the photos do justice to it but it was very atmospheric.

The Literary Café

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Aleksander Pushkin had his last meal here. Pushkin is the Shakespeare of St Petersburg. (He had once referred to his wife as “my 113th love”).

The Idiot restaurant

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In tribute to the man himself – Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Thoughts

Russia is a wonderful country. Was genuinely humbled by the friendliness of the locals. I liked it so much that I have made plans for a second visit.

 

Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery

I find cemeteries truly fascinating places to visit. Given a choice between a beautiful monument and an atmospheric cemetery, I would choose the latter any day.

Chekov, Gogol, Boris Yelstin & other famous personalities are buried in the Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow. Unfortunately could not locate their graves because, as elsewhere, everything was in Russian & I could not find a guided tour.

Gravestones here often carry the photo of the deceased. Saw several graves with photos of two men together ( father & son? brothers?).

A dog farm in Tromso

England has just started to turn a little warm and I decide to spend the Easter break about 350 kms above the Arctic circle in the pretty city of Tromso. We have just landed, I can see snow all around and it is still snowing. Considering that this is the Arctic region that should come as no surprise. Unbelievably, though the temperature is in the negative, the cold does not feel as excruciating as it does in the UK. (No wonder the Scandinavian countries are high on the happiness index. Their cold does not make you want to tear your hair out). Unlike England, there is no biting wind. We could easily take a walk in the snow without the slightest bit of discomfort. It is difficult (and not entirely fair) to pass judgement on the weather based on a day’s experience though, so I will stop these unfair weather comparisons for now.

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A cave like tunnel, which included roundabouts within the tunnel, brought us from the airport to the hotel. The landscape is like a fairy tale. Lots of snow dotted with bright twinkling lights. We took a very slippery walk outside our hotel and could see numerous restaurants with just 2-3 people in each.

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A New Delhi special pizza in Tromso! Urgh, what a mish-mash of ingredients – chicken, bacon, curry and sweet chili sauce. There was no way, I was going to try that. As you can see from the prices, Tromso is not cheap. Around 12 British Pounds for a small pizza.

Tromso has its own set of laws regarding alcohol. Supermarkets are allowed to sell beer within certain times only. Only Government owned shops can sell the harder variety of alcohol. (These rules do not apply to restaurants & bars). The bars do not serve beyond a certain limit in one peg. You can of course, have more than a peg but cannot have more than the limit in a single peg.

Shops are not selling alcohol at all because of Easter. I’m not very sure about the reason for this, as different people gave me different replies. I find it difficult to believe that it is because of religion, as most of Norway is atheist.

One thing is for sure – the Government here does not want anyone here to drink themselves senseless. Even bars are legally obliged to stop serving alcohol if they feel the person has drunk too much. What a difference from England where alcohol is freely available in the supermarkets.

 

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The next day, we visited a farm of 300 huskies for a phenomenal dog sledding experience. The huskies were being brilliantly looked after. The dog handlers knew each dog by name and personality trait. Got so much information on them in a single afternoon. The most intelligent dogs lead the dog sledding team. This is because they should be able to listen to & obey the commands & direct the team of dogs. The strongest dogs are at the rear. Normally they try & keep the same team of dogs. We were told that the male dogs do not like to change their team once they bond. The dogs like to sleep in the snow though they can sleep indoors if needed.

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Being at the mercy of a pack of eager and madly barking dogs can be a little intimidating. However the anxiety lasted for all of two minutes and we started to enjoy the experience of sledging through the snow. We were even allowed to play with the dogs afterwards, which for a dog lover, is a dream come true. The dogs are used to being handled by visitors and love being stroked and cuddled.

 

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All that sledding and dog handling can make you ravenous. We were given some Reindeer stew in a log cabin with a log fire burning inside. There was talk about not wanting to eat Rudolf, which was quickly overruled. It was absolutely delicious. Tastes a lot like goat’s meat. Eating reindeer stew in Tromso – what a surreal experience!

Frank Gardner’s Far Horizons

Currently reading this book written by the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner – ‘Far Horizons – Unusual journeys and strange encounters from a travelling life’. This book has given me itchy feet and looking back, the last time I travelled to a ‘off the beaten track’ destination was nearly five years ago. Having being educated in India, I was never really exposed to the concept of a gap year and that is one thing that I fervently wish that I could have done. To be young and travel to unusual places, not caring about what you ate, not being overly concerned about timings and schedules, meeting plenty of like-minded travellers, learning new languages – not caring about anything really – just living and travelling and experiencing new sensations. Surely not going on a gap year is like having a chunk of life unlived? Reading this book makes me want to book my next trip pronto – somewhere with a unique culture, a different language, unusual cuisine – Japan? Bhutan? Cambodia? Unfortunately the mundane duties of leading a “responsible” life beckon. The travelling will have to wait.

Michael Palin has written the foreword and he has this to say about Frank Gardner: ” Both of us are addicted to travel. We’ve been to roughly the same number of countries – over ninety, but less than a hundred – and often enough to many of the same places, though I greatly envy him Oman and Jordan and the islands of Sumatra and Socotra. He, like me, relishes the promise of a new journey to a new destination, preferably somewhere a little difficult to get to. We both love travelling in the back of pick-up trucks at the end of a hard day’s work, and on trains in which you can sit at the open door and watch the world go by. We have both eaten nasty things in nasty places and though, unlike him, I’ve never been attacked by a wolf or shared a swimming pool with a snake, I understand Gardner’s healthy suspicion of the natural world. Both of us appreciate the importance of having a sense of humour and not having a sense of self-importance.”

The witch in a bottle

Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford is old fashioned and dark with heaps of fascinating and very curious objects. When I was working in Oxford, I would often visit this museum during the lunch hour and would discover something new every time. The museum is free and can be best experienced alone, in my opinion. I have been visiting a lot of museums this year, mainly because of the terrible weather but this is one museum that I am always happy to return to.

The museum is part of the University of Oxford and was started due to the donation of nearly 18,000 objects by General Pitt Rivers to the University. The museum currently has over 300,000 objects. You can spend hours in here, getting lost in these intriguing objects. The museum provides torches as it is purposely kept dark to protect the displays. Keeping with the spirit of the museum, the information about some objects is displayed in tiny hand written notes.  Every space within the museum has been utilised  – there is a tall totem pole placed against one wall, a raft hangs from another and if you happen to look up to the ceiling of the first floor, you can see numerous paddles attached.

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Given below is a list of some of the enthralling items that are hidden in this museum. A word of warning – some macabre images are displayed below so if you are easily disturbed then stop reading right now.

Shrunken heads

Killing of the enemy and then displaying the head was part of a ritual commonly practised in the upper Amazon. Heads were taken in order to use the energy of the soul.  The process of shrinking the heads started by first skinning the head and  removing the brain and the skull. The skull was then immersed in hot water and hot sand was poured in. This process was repeated over several months. To prevent the soul from escaping and taking revenge on the killer, the face was often blackened with vegetable dye and the lips were closed with string. Sometimes the face was reshaped. Over a series of rituals conducted over a period of time, the soul was taken and eventually considered to be a part of the group. It was believed then that the energy had been harnessed. Thankfully this ritual of shrinking the heads is no longer carried out and was stopped in 1960. The museum displays actual shrunken human heads and faced an ethical dilemma on whether it was appropriate to display human remains in this fashion. The museum took the decision to display the human remains in order to convey the educational and cultural importance of these objects. It has ensured that the displays are treated with respect. Out of the numerous objects on display, around 2000 of them are human remains.

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The Witch in a bottle

Charms and amulets were used as a form of prevention against evil and witchcraft. The Tesophenyu, for example, was a charm, which when released caused disturbing and evil events. It was made up of the hair of the witch who made it, the mud from the grave of a man killed by a tiger and a woman who died in child birth among other things. The Witch in a bottle belonged to an old lady in Sussex who said “They do say there is a witch in it, and if you let ‘un out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.” This is one of the displays that most fascinates the kids.The small silver jar in the second picture contains the witch in a bottle.

The first picture shows a collection of canine teeth of a leopard along with claws of a large bird, together believed to be a protection against drowning.

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The following picture shows a wolf’s tooth, which was hung around a child’s neck to prevent convulsions during fever.

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This picture shows a policeman’s amulet from France. It was made with a piece of hangman’s rope and skin from a sadistic murderer. It was believed that rope from a criminal who has been hanged had curative properties and bought good luck.

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Animal mummies

Animals were mummified for three reasons:

  • Household pets were mummified for sentimental reasons
  • Animal mummies were often placed in human mummies to keep the humans company and also as a source of food in after- life
  • For religious reasons, as offerings

Offerings of mummified cats were often presented at temples in the hope of getting something in return. Visitors paid for having cats mummified and presented at temples. Several cat cemeteries have also been found at various places in Egypt. The picture shows a mummy of a human child, a cat, a bird and a crocodile.

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Treatment of enemies after death

I think that the pictures speak for themselves in this case.

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Jewellery made from claws, teeth and bones

Photos show necklaces made from bear and tiger claws

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Musical instruments used in the past

Picture shows a musical instrument from India.

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Games and puzzles from the past

Playing-cards from different countries

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