Deliciously dangerous destinations

Pic by Calvin Wilhelm

Amazing Afghanistan

By Carol Andrade

Two routes lead to Bamiyan from Kabul. The northern route passes through Charrikar and Ahibar Pass and the southern route, goes from Kabul to Maidan Shahr and the Hajigak Pass to Bamiyan. In 2003, we took the second one, because we were told it`s more scenic. And it is. The valley, snug between Hindu Kush and Koh-Baba mountains, soaring, craglike, with skies that can only be described as deepest cerulean.

We are told, it`s unsafe now but it was unsafe even then. Kabul drowsed under an uneasy peace, bristling with a United Nations of soldiers spearheaded by the Americans. You fixed trips and appointments carefully, used locals for all information, even stayed in guest-houses owned by them but managed by Indians.

You hopped from sealed compound to sealed compound with high walls, except when visiting government officials. Here there were walls of soldiers. The only relief was visits to Chicken Street and Flower Street. Paradoxically, Chicken Street sold jewellery, carpets, and souvenirs. Flower Street sold groceries and meat.

We travelled in a hardy four-wheel drive, dashing over roads metalled only in parts. The earth and the houses, sturdy, geometric and curiously beautiful in their small compounds, seemed made of the same dun-coloured material. You seldom saw signs of life.

Fields on either side of the road had rocks marked in red. “Landmines”, said our driver, brother of the guest house`s owner who was also a minister. He accompanied us to Bamiyan to stay in another guest house owned by a former warlord.

Pic by James Gordon

A bone-breaking trip, an exuberant driver, and “rest rooms” anywhere. When we indicated discomfort as politely as we could, the driver said something like, “Aah, zzzr zzzr”. We jumped out and zrrr zrrr-ed behind rocks and wondered if Bamiyan was worth it.

It was. Even without the Buddhas, it began attracting the motley locals who depended on tourism for a living. The local minister, a woman, spoke proudly about Japan`s offer to fund the recreation of the statues, Germany`s offer of holograms instead. But even visiting the caves in which the statues had stood for 1500 years, was an unforgettable experience. The latest, of course, is that they won’t be rebuilt. Thank you Taliban, you have made your mark on the world.

In the guest house, rooms were huge, cavernous, and the warlord supervised dinner. Yards of Afghan flat bread eaten with a variety of curries and roast meats and salad. The bathrooms, equally huge and echoing with emptiness, were like treks through wilderness. LEDIS, said the sign outside one. BADROOM said another, meant only for bathing. The whole set up made even Kabul seem desirable.

Pic by Avril-Ann Braganza

Inviting Israel

By Kyriakose Cherian

Steeped in deep history and a pilgrimage site for three religions, Israel is already a well known destination. In addition, the invigorating weather, beautiful beaches, magnificent ski slopes and exploratory deserts dunes, give tourists another reason to head to this land of milk and honey. There is always something to do in Israel, be it water sports in the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, floating and soaking up minerals at the Dead Sea, trekking, exploring sand dunes in the desert, skiing on the slopes of Mount Hermon (open nine months in a year), or savouring the delicious strawberries, dates, oranges, watermelons, and other fruits that Israel produces yearly.

Pic by Avril-Ann Braganza

While the element of risk is limited, it is best for tourists to be aware of sporadic violence that might errupt given its tumultuous past. Trouble may spew, and Israel can face an attack from the Gaza strip as well as Syria and Hezbollah (an organisation of Palestine immigrants) from Lebanon. When we were in Israel in November 2012, we saw military tankers heading towards the Gaza strip and overhead missiles, but the chance of missiles falling in residential areas are very low, given Israel`s excellent defence system. Rumours may spark violence, especially in the old city of Jerusalem and the entrances and exits to the old city may be shut to tourists for a few hours. But the situation is brought well under control by the police and militia, and normalcy is restored before the day is over.

Pic by Sugatha Menon

Kashmir of my dreams

By Sugatha Menon

Kashmir had always been imprinted on my psyche as Bollywood's favourite for romancing—beautiful songs which get converted into dhinchak remixes, and which are sung ad nauseam at antaksharis— are set in this beautiful place.

Yet whenever we talked about going to Kashmir, I would chicken out, to the extent of telling my husband that we should do Kashmir individually and not as a family, the morbid reason being the obvious.

Yet Kashmir happened to me with our gang of 30 friends. My fears got tucked in a faraway place in my head, surfacing only when our flight home was delayed. Surfacing when on a shikara ride on the placid Dal Lake, we looked around and realised we were the only ones on the lake and it was dusk! That’s what Kashmir does, it makes you forget everything and you surrender to its beauty, humbled and awed. Our 10-day holiday covering Srinagar, Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonmarg was like looking at a celestial kaleidoscope replete with colours and beauty unmatched anywhere else in the world!

Pic by Simran Malhotra

I never tire of telling people, just as you see bougainvillea all over Mumbai, in Kashmir you see crimson roses. Deep red roses at roadsides, over stone houses, fences made of them,... there's so much beauty in Kashmir, it's no surprise that bloody wars are fought over it— like a beautiful woman watching with disdain as her lovers kill themselves over her!

Finding armed guards everywhere, you begin to take it for granted and after a point they don’t exist. What exists are exquisite gardens, heavenly sugary mountains, inviting snow slopes and archaeological wonders...but visiting Kashmir has a fallout. You leave with a heavy heart, saddened by the rape of this beautiful land, dejected by the desperation in the people’s eyes for a normal, safe life!

Pic by Avril-Ann Braganza

Flight to Egypt

Avril-Ann Braganza

The beautiful mount Sinai, 5,000 years of history marked by pyramids, mummies, jewellery, temples, art depicting Egyptian myths and the after-life... are reason enough to visit this intriguing country. Learn about your favourite perfumes and papyrus right where they originated., or engrave your name in a cartouche like the pharaohs. Even the desert is stunning— cliffs that look like lace and geometrical shapes chiselled by sand storms, glimpses of the Red Sea's turquoise water, and fluffy white clouds patterning the blue sky behind the mountains.

Tahrir or Freedom Square, where a small protest grew into a nationwide movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, is always alive with demonstrating groups, which could turn turbulent without warning. A stone's throw from here, are the treasures of Tutankhamun's tomb in the Egyptian Museum. In November 2012, the Egyptian government changed; the army who kept troublemakers in check, was instructed not to interfere with civilians. This gave those wary of the army, a way to make a quick buck. Tourist buses were held to ransom. The regular route from Taba (Israel-Egypt border) to Cairo was shut. Scheduled to head to Egypt from Israel, we were now considering rerouting directly to Mumbai. But with the necessary precautions, we crossed into Egypt and took a diversion to Cairo, skipping a visit to St. Catherine's monastery and Mount Sinai.
Pic by Avril-Ann Braganza

With an armed police vehicle up front, and a military vehicle with a light machine gun guarding the rear we arrived safely into Cairo. With a whiff of danger lurking in the air, this was a trip like never before—an adventure that set my heart racing, adding to the thrill of a holiday.