Rossiya Diaries: Moscow Love

The Hilton is an excellent choice for an overnight stay in Moscow, especially if one is planning to depart on the Rossiya the following morning. Three of the city’s nine rail terminals lie within earshot of the hotel, including Yaroslavskiy Vokzal, the starting point for the worlds longest train journey.


Not only is it’s location on Komsomolskaya Square a convenient one, but the Leningradskaya Hotel (it’s original name) is a landmark building, one of Moscow’s “Seven Sisters”, a set of Russian Baroque skyscrapers, commissioned during the Stalinist era. The structure itself is grand and imposing; it’s lobby nothing short of opulent, and the rooms, stately. It is in one of them that SK and I meet, traveling companions on what is bound to be a journey of epic proportions.

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Binging on Berlin

Depending on which terminal you arrive at, Tegel does seem crammed, and somewhat inefficient, for something as simple as an ATM transaction. It also lacks rail connectivity to the city centre – a feature uncommon to most large European cities. But having realized its inadequacies a few years ago, Tegel‘s days are numbered, and the Germans are months away from opening the aptly named Brandenburg Airport as Berlin’s new gateway. Tegel is also, perhaps, the last stop for any form of whining or complaining, on a visit to this fine city!

Berlin needs no introduction. Nor any marketing. Everyone I know who has visited – fellow travelers, short-stay visitors and those who went on business – came back singing paeans about it. It took very little for me to be convinced. So I’ll do my part here and go easy on the hard selling, instead just focusing upon the high points of my trip.

On a sombre note

On a gloomy, cold and rainswept day, it made most sense to be indoors for as long as possible, so we set of for the Topography of Terror Museum, which lies just west of Mitte, the city’s central district.  Built on the site of the former Gestapo-SS headquarters, and sitting directly across from the buildings that once housed the offices of the Luftwaffe, the museum documents repression under the Nazi regime. Across from the beautifully designed exhibition hall is an open gallery, built into the old trenches that were discovered during excavation (the site was heavily bombed by the allies). Behind the trenches, and providing a surreal backdrop, lies the largest remaining segment of the Outer Berlin Wall.

During the course of our stay, we visited three museums in all, and every one of them was outstanding. Curatorial standards were amongst the very best; the attention to detail was incredible; the spaces were thoughtfully designed; and in each instance, the quality of English was flawless (most, if not all displays, were bilingual). Someone, somewhere had obviously gone that extra step.

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The Jewel in the Subway Crown

The New York City Subway isn’t quite as old as London’s Tube. In fact, it isn’t even the oldest in the Americas – that distinction goes to Boston. But when it did open, over a century ago, it was a momentous occasion. One that would change the course of the city’s development, and give it the very pulse it’s known for today. The year was 1904. The 27th of October was the chosen date, and the station where it all began – City Hall, in lower Manhattan.

On the last weekend of February, I had the rare privilege to tour City Hall Station – the very birthplace of New York’s Subway – a station that has been lying abandoned since 1945. Here are a few chosen images and accompanying descriptions from my visit.


We gather at the front end of the downtown platforms at Brooklyn Bridge Station. After checking in, we file into the first car of a terminating #6 train, which has just offloaded the last of its fare-paying passengers. Traveling some 600-feet around a sharp curve, we alight minutes later by the grand entrance that leads to the mezzanine level of City Hall Station.


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150 years of Tube’ing


Browsing the magazine section at WHSmith in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, I come across ‘Modern Railways‘, one of many UK-based rail mags. Of the lot, its cover is most appealing to me – a special issue on ‘150 years of the Underground‘. Without further ado, I drop a few more quid than planned, and pack it in to my carry-on bag.

Despite my best intentions, the magazine remains there till its time to use the bag again – on a short trip to Bombay i.e. Reading it on the flight out of Delhi, I discover, to my utmost delight, that special runs are planned in London to commemorate the occasion – starting on the 13th of January – the very day I will be transiting through the city again 😉


It is a chilly, gray January morning in London (shocker!) as I make my way from the Tube station to my cousin’s pad in Hampstead. A quick, but rather filling, breakfast in his neighbourhood, and then we’re off on our jaunt – me willingly, him not so!

Scurrying between the Northern Line platforms and those of the sub-surface lines at Moorgate, I glance at my watch – 12:08 – two minutes to departure! Rushing through the final stairwell, I exclaim, ‘I can smell it’. My excitement is contained momentarily by a tensile barrier, as I join hundreds of onlookers, who, like me, haven’t been fortunate enough to get a seat on the coveted train. Regardless, we’ve made it here, and just in time to watch her depart…


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Stopover in Stamboul!

Gadi has already traveled to 110 countries – plenty more than I’ll be able to accomplish in this lifetime! You can pretty much point to a country on the flight map, and chances are he’s been there. He’s even been to places in India, which I’m yet to visit! His next destination is a toss up between Azerbaijan and Moldova. He speaks about 8 languages, a number which he considers unimpressive! Gadi is an inspiration. He’s also my fellow passenger on flight TK004.

At Atatürk International, we part ways. His connecting flight to Tel Aviv departs in 45 minutes, whereas I have a full day’s layover in the city. Before I begin my sojourn, however, I must deal with rush hour in Istanbul!


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Alpine Train’ing

There are plenty of window seats to choose from as we pull out of Cointrin International but at Cornavin the carriage starts to fill quickly. I soon realise that I’m sitting on the wrong side – the Swiss follow British running practices! Determined to find a window seat on the ‘correct’ side, I make my way to the dining car.

The Swiss rail system is every bit a marvel, and a complete joy to experience. Trains thread their way through the length and breadth of the country, connecting the largest towns with the tiniest of hamlets. Schedules are frequent, connections seamless, fares affordable and the trains themselves are comfortable and always punctual! Better still, the dining car is alive and well here and continues to uphold the gold standard in timeless rail travel – table linen, chinaware, waiter service and a full menu!

For me to ride these trains is nothing short of a privilege and the dining car brings back pleasant memories of saloon travel in India. I tuck into my croissant, take a sip of my stiffly brewed Lavazza, and check off ‘most desired rail system’ #2 from my list 😉


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Dobrý den Praha!

Our flight out of Gatwick can best be described as ‘wildly turbulent’ – the kind where the Captain asks the flight attendants to take their seats, mid flight! So it is with some relief that we are back on terra firma at Ruzyne International.

The centre of Prague, though not far from Ruzyne, isn’t particularly well connected to the airport, as European capitals go! A combination of Bus + Tram / Metro usually does the trick but since we had a 6 AM flight out of London, we make our way to the taxi rank – definitely the quickest, but also the most overpriced way of getting downtown!

We check in to the very conveniently located Hotel Astoria, drop off our bags and make our way out to the Old Town or staré Město. The sky is overcast and the forecast for the next few days’ calls for equally gloomy weather, with more than a chance of rain! Perfect timing, I think to myself!

Minutes later, as if a switch has been turned on, the gloom vanishes from my face only to be replaced by a wide smirk! I am facing Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square), possibly one of the most charming city squares I have ever laid my eyes on. At the centre of it performs a choir; several stunning old buildings surround the plaza, and the aroma of Czech Country Ham fills the air! It’s good to finally be in Prague 😉


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A Gaijin takes in the Big Sushi

In 1946, my maternal grandfather, who was a PR man with the Royal Indian Air Force at the time, was posted to Japan for 3 years as a part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces deployment. His experiences there were rich and everlasting, and a few decades later, I would grow up hearing all about them. In his time there, he learned the language, made friends for life and was overawed by their hospitality, kindness and etiquette, a lot of which he came to adopt as his own.

Papaji, as us grand kids used to call him, passed away in ’89 but he left in me a fascination for a country that had greatly impacted him, and a desire to visit it some day. My love for trains helped reinforce this ever so often, what with the endearing image of the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) against the backdrop of Mt.Fujiyama, always whetting my appetite for the land of the rising sun.

61 years after his return from there, it was with some trepidation and a lot of excitement that I embarked on my first visit to Japan – the Big Sushi (local parlance for Tokyo) in particular – and set out to experience first hand all that I had heard, read and seen (from afar) about the country and its people.

First thing I did was get my timing right – be there in time for Sakura or the Cherry Blossom season!


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Dam Essentials

Despite being Europe’s 5th largest airport, Schiphol is surprisingly compact. You can get from your gate to the arrivals area in about a third of the time it takes to do so, say at Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle. A testament to its smart design, no doubt. Throw in a very conveniently located train station, with frequent departures to the city centre, and 15 minutes later your staring down Damrak in downtown Amsterdam! Not surprisingly, the city mirrors just that – a highly efficient design and extreme compactness!

The Warmoesstraat (straat = street) is a 5 minute walk along the Damrak from Amsterdam Centraal and a good place in which to get your bearings. Touristy, yes, but a great introduction to all that you’ve come to know as the Dam’s clichés – Canals, the Red Light District, Coffee shops, and of course, its quaint little alleyways.


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