Tag Archive | "India"

Smart Deals: Cathay Pacific to India

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What’s the Deal: Cathay Pacific just kicked off a fare sale to India from all five US gateways (Chicago – ORD; Los Angeles – LAX; New York – JFK; Newark – EWR; and San Francisco – SFO) – with Economy Class fares up to 55% off.

Details: 

·         EWR/JFK/ORD/SFO – Chennai from $1184

·         EWR/JFK/LAX – Mumbai from $1194

·         ORD – Mumbai from $1208

·         EWR/JFK/ORD/LAX – Bengaluru from$1189

·         EWR/JFK/LAX – Delhi from $1228

·         ORD – Delhi from $1243

·         EWR/JFK/ORD – Kolkata from $1190

·         EWR/JFK/ORD/LAX – Hyderabad from$1205

Fine Print:  This sale runs until  April 30, 2014. The travel period is now until May 23, 2014

Booking: Cathy Pacific

Smart Deals: Mountain Travel Sobek

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In Ladakh's Nubra Valley with Mountain Travel Sobek.

In Ladakh’s Nubra Valley with Mountain Travel Sobek.

What’s the Deal: Mountain Travel Sobek is rolling out a $500 off deal for select Asia Adventures in India and Borneo.

 Backstory: Mountain Travel Sobek is the granddaddy of adventure travel companies, strating with a trek to Nepal in 1969. Leo Le Bon, Allen Steck, and Barry Bishop—officially founded the company in January 1969 with the hope of indulging their incurable wanderlust while doing business at the same time. On a parallel track, Richard Bangs, Lew Greenwald, and John Yost founded Sobek in 1973 after leading an expedition on the Awash, a little-known African river filled with crocodiles. The trip, meant to be a last fling before the three recent college graduates entered the routing working world, instead inspired them to form a commercial international rafting company, naming it after the ancient Egyptian god of crocodiles. In 1991 the two companies joined forces to become Mountain Travel Sobek.

Fine Print: Valid through March 29, 2013 on selected trips only.

Details: The deal can be redeemed using the promo code AS012.

Booking: Mountain Travel Sobek

The Interview: Tour d’Afrique

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Meltdown Madness in Africa with Tour D'Afrique

Meltdown Madness in Africa with Tour D’Afrique

By Everett Potter

When I hear the words “bike tour,’ I usually think of a week of cycling in Provence, Vermont or Napa Valley. I picture relatively easy riding, incredible scenery and great food and wine, neatly packaged into a six-night trip by an adventure travel company.

What the words “bike tour” don’t conjure in my imagination is a four month trek from Cairo to Capetown or a 2,700 mile ride from Paris to Istanbul. These are rides where your mind and body are tested and where strenuous riding is often the rule, as are deep cultural encounters you’re unlikely to have on a six-day pedal.

The company that offers such extraordinary adventure experiences is Tour d’Afrique and I learned about them from a guy named Shanny Hill, whom I met at the Adventure Travel World Summit in Lucerne, Switzerland last October.

Shanny is the Project manager for the Toronto-based company and we recently had a chance to speak about the groundbreaking trips that his company offers.

 

Shanny Hill of Tour D'Afrique in Ethiopia

Shanny Hill of Tour d’Afrique in Ethiopia

EP: How did Tour d’Afrique Ltd begin?

SH: Tour d’Afrique Ltd was conceived in the late 1980’s when Henry Gold, the company’s Founder and Director, was managing an international NGO that delivered humanitarian assistance to disadvantaged communities in Ethiopia and other African countries. His original concept was to produce inexpensive, rugged mountain bikes in Africa, for Africans, as a low cost solution to local transportation needs, and to market this new bicycle by organizing a cycling race across the continent – the Tour d’Afrique.

While the mountain bike project did not take off, the pioneering vision of the Tour d’Afrique proved irresistible. In early 2002 Henry and Michael de Jong began the preparations in earnest, undaunted by enormous skepticism and the mountain of logistical challenges to be overcome, and, on January 15, 2003, thirty-three cyclists saddled up at the Pyramids at Giza and started pedaling south. Four months later, with Table Mountain and Cape Town in sight, they celebrated the realization of their dream and the establishment of the Guinness World Record for the fastest human powered crossing of Africa.

Since then our unique little company has grown, in leaps and bounds, through many trials and tribulations. The Tour d’Afrique has been recognized as the world’s longest and most challenging stage race. Following in its spirit, several more continental and sub-continental cycling expeditions have been undertaken,

All told more than 800 intrepid souls have now completed one of our epic trans-continental rides. Through our Foundation, and the donations of many of our clients, more than 2000 bicycles have been distributed to health care and community development workers in Africa and India.

Eiffel-Tower-Paris-France

The Orient Express Cycling Expedition, from Paris to istanbul, with Tour D’Afrique

 

EP: Give us an example of some of your trips and their length.

SH: Here are three of our upcoming trips. The North America Epic is just as it sounds – an epic cycling ride across all of our great continent from Anchorage to Mexico City. The intrepid cyclists from all across the globe will cycle 7,000 miles through Canada and the USA, and then along stunning Baja Peninsula before returning to mainland Mexico to cycle the final leg into Mexico City. This epic journey under human power takes 4 months and gets underway in Anchorage on Independence Day.

The Orient Express Cycling Expedition follows in the spirit of the luxury train line that once crossed Europe from Paris to Istanbul. But this is no luxury tour of Europe. We will be pedaling our way through each day and each town – covering 60 miles each day and staying in campsites and 2 and 3 star hotels to rest our heads in some of Europe’s hotspots – like Ulm, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest. This 2,700 miles journey takes 6 weeks during July and August. We arrive in Istanbul on August 25 after a ferry ride down the Bosphorus Strait. We take advantage of Europe’s rich history, wonderful cycling routes, explore its great cities, and its fabulous countryside scenery, at a pace much slower than the Orient Express trains of the past.

Our inaugural Bamboo Road Cycling Expedition will become the mother tour of South East Asia. This truly trans-continental trip will take participants from the metropolis of Shanghai, thru southern China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and then ending in the city-state of Singapore. For several years now, SE Asia has been a popular destination for cycling tourists, and we want to offer a grand tour that can encompass a great deal of the region in one tour.

EP: Who’s going on these trips, how many riders, what are their ages, and how experienced are they as riders?

SH: The people who are participating in our tours are from all walks of life it seems. From nuclear physicists, to truck drivers, and teachers, they have many varied professions. Though we typically have 60 to 70 % males on our tours, we are increasingly seeing more and more women participating and more and more nationals from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand, UK, Canada, and the USA. We have also had Brazilians, Egyptians, South Africans, Taiwanese, and many other nationals from emerging markets.

The skill level and experience of our participants is also quite varied. We have serious racers, and fit seniors, to first time cycle tourists who come on our tour and treat it as their own weigh loss program. Participants are as young as 18 and have been as old as 71. We do our best to accommodate all that wish to participate with staffing, cooks, and support vehicles working to create a framework built to give them the best chance at completing each day’s ride.

Chow times on the North American Epic, Tour D'Afrique

Chow times on the North American Epic, Tour d’Afrique

EP: How about accommodations and meals?

SH: Most of our tours are a mixture of camping and simple hotels. Our new tour of South East Asia, along with a few others, are all hotel or indoor accommodation. We choose simple and practical hotels when staying indoors. While camping in some of our more remote locations in Africa and Asia, we do some rough camping where our support trucks, and the water and supplies they carry are all that we have to sustain us for the night.

We do not compromise on is food. We have used trained chefs on many of our tours, because we know the importance of a tasty and nutritious meals at the end of a long day of cycling. You don’t ever want to have a hungry cyclists on a tour.

 

EP: Are there guides along for the entire ride or do I need to be proficient in map reading and another language or two?

SH: We have tour support staff that help create a framework of support. The style of our tours means that we also expect the participants to be involved in the process and involved in making the tour a success. This can mean that the participants will be using maps at times to double check the directions given by the tour leader, helping the chef chop vegetables to prepare for dinner, or helping others in the group with their bags perhaps. The idea is that on an expedition of this nature, its necessary that staff and clients work together as a team.

With that said, we do provide a great deal of staff support – with most of our longer expeditions having a full time medic, chef, bike mechanic, drivers, and tour leader.

EP: What sort of training regimen is required for these rides?

SH: We send out training tips to our registered riders. The most common thing that interrupts riding on tour is soreness. Sore knees, sore backs, sore butts…. The best way to combat this is to ride regularly in the run up to the tour. At a minimum we suggest you start some dedicated training 3 months before the tour starts.

Riding at least three times a week for a minimum of two hours each time. This could be in the form of cross training or bike rides at a steady pace. This will get you to the tour start with a base of fitness and well adjusted to your bike.

 

EP: You’ve got five levels of difficulty –easy, moderate, average, challenging and hard. How hard is “hard?”

SH: Good question. Hard can be very hard.

If I think back to my toughest days on one of our tours, it would be in Northern Kenya – part of the ‘Meltdown Madness‘ section that is rated as hard. Picture yourself riding in the rocky desolate landscape of the Dida Galgalu desert for 60 to 70 miles in 100 degree heat with no shade over a terribly rutted road. Now picture doing that for 5 days straight.

The truth is that this section described here has actually recently been paved and we may soon drop the rating down a notch to ‘difficult’

There are other examples I could come up with, but the truth about these ‘hard’ sections is they are often the most memorable, and people who at the start of a tour were struggling through the easiest of stages, find themselves stronger and more determined and ready to face these hard stages halfway through the journey.

We also have many sections with much lower difficulty rating, and so the ratings scale is definitely worth checking out.

 

North American Epic, Tour D'Afrique

North American Epic, Tour d’Afrique

 

EP: Tell me more about the North American Epic.

SH: The North American Epic was redesigned for 2013 to become a truly unique and truly trans-continental tour. In 2011 it was an west to east tour – from San Francisco to St. John’s, Newfoundland. This was a good route, but not quite exotic enough for our taste, and not truly a crossing of all of the North American continent.

Now with the new route from Anchorage to Mexico City, participants can see a line on a map stretching all the way across our continent. With many other tours being offered across the US or Canada from West to East, this tour give people a chance to cover the continent North to South.

Interestingly, those that have already signed up to participate are not North Americans, but people from all across the globe that want to come here and experience these places from the seat of their bicycle. They are from Norway, Britain, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa to name a few.

All the tour dates, details, and prices can be found here: http://tourdafrique.com/tour-overview/?t=north-american-epic

EP: Can you do parts of the North American Epic, if you do don’t have time for the entire journey?

SH:  Of course. All our expeditions are split into 2 and 3 week segments to allow people to be part of the experience while not committing to the long time require to complete the whole expeditions. The North American Epic is split into 8 tantalizing sections. With names like ‘Land of the Midnight Sun‘ and ‘Alaska Highway’ and ‘Canyonlands‘ interested cyclists are sure to find a section that suits their interests and timeframe.

We have had some people do a section at a time and eventually completing one of our trans-continental tours over the course of several years.

 

Tour d'Afrique riders in India

Tour d’Afrique riders in India

 

EP: Any new trips planned for Tour d’Afrique?

SH: Yes, we always have new projects in the works. The Bamboo Road Cycling Tour described earlier is one, and in 2014 we will start where that tour left off and launch the Trans-Oceania from Singapore to Sydney, Australia – crossing the outback and cycling through Adelaide, Melbourne on our way to the big finish at the Opera house in Sydney.

And, with the completion of this tour, we will have completed all the tours we needed to be able to offer the 7 Epics Challenge – a global cycling challenge for the truly crazy cyclists. A series of 7 supported cycling epics that touch every corner of the globe.

 

Visit Tour D’Afrique for more info

 

Slideshow: Above the Clouds with Steve Conlon

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Above the Clouds
Above the Clouds

Steve Conlon founded Above the Clouds 30 years ago, in the early days of adventure travel. Nepal is where he made his mark. Here are some of his favorite shots in a lifetime of adventure. In this photo, trekkers in eastern Nepal, approaching Jaljale Himal, with Kangchenjunga in background.

Yaks beneath Manaslu, central Nepal.

Yakherder huts on Jaljale Himal, dwarfed by Kangchenjunga, eastern Nepal.

Himalchuli, Nepal

Trekkers crossing Cho La, Khumbu, Nepal.

Trekkers at Kangchenjunga Base Camp, Sikkim, India.

Trekkers approach well-camouflaged Buddhist chortens, Dhakmar, Mustang, Nepal.

Trekkers (lower left) dwarfed by Kangchenjunga (upper far left) and other peaks of Sikkim.

Slide 9
Slide 9

Trekker entranced by The Towers, Torres Del Paine, Chile

Slide 10
Slide 10

Trekkers (center) work their way up the ledge trail above Tsaile, Mustang, Nepal.

Letter from India: Jaipur to Mumbai

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Street scene in Jaipur

By Marc Kristal

On the road to Jaipur, we pass people in huts by the roadside, surrounded by skinny farm animals; inhabited ruins resembling the aftermath of an aerial bombardment; entrepreneurs giving haircuts or selling drinks, chips and chewing tobacco out of corrugated tin boxes on stilts; camels pulling carts loaded with bags of cement, goats clogging the roads, motorcycles zooming through clouds of red dust. When we get stuck in traffic, people come up offering rugs and beads for sale, or simply bang on the windows, palms out, eyes beseeching.

“The real India,” Bhowani says. As we drive, he narrates, pointing out the dhats – stairs leading down to a river – where villagers go to wash, gossip and look for mates, and the Banjaras, Indian gypsies who go from place to place, weaving baskets, doing ironwork, or else busking (the women dancing, the men charming snakes). Bhowani tells us about the BPL (“below poverty line”) card, which guarantees food or money from the government as long as you work; he explains that the women of the desert state of Rajasthan (literally, “land of kings”) wear bright colors because the landscape is monochrome, that many Indians can not get out of poverty because, by tradition, they must pay a great deal for weddings and even more for deaths, that the bud and the leaf make the best quality tea. Mostly mute, entirely mesmerized, we listen, look, and learn.

Jaipur's famous pink architecture

 

Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital, is unique: the brainchild of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, its 16-kilometer historic center, dating from 1727, is India’s first planned city, an axial, nine-block arrangement notable for its broad boulevards, unusual observatory, and delightful Hindu architecture (painted a terra cotta pink in 1876 to celebrate a visit from the Prince of Wales). The Oberoi Rajvilas, accordingly, draws on the Rajput style – to a fault: the hotel is a perfect replica – only much bigger – of Naila Fort, the roughly 150-year-old walled fortress that Oberoi Group head P.R.S. “Biki” Oberoi converted into his personal retreat some years ago.

The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur

 

Interestingly, the hotel was designed by the same team that created the Amarvilas – the Mumbai firm P.G. Patki Architects, H.L. Lim, a Singapore interior design office, and the Bangkok-based landscape architect William Bensley – and, as at the Amarvilas, craft is king: the gold-leaf wall murals, vegetable dye frescoes, and superbly detailed brass-and-wood doors embed the public spaces with a palpable sense of authenticity, as do such elements as the traditional lime plaster finish on the exterior walls. The design also incorporates two preexisting structures into the plan: an 18th-century Hindu temple and, directly opposite it, beyond the 70-foot-long pool, a former haveli (mansion) of comparable vintage, which houses the hotel’s spa and fitness center.

The Rajvilas proves also to be a land of abundance: with 32 acres of grounds, the hotel offers 54 guest rooms, arranged in small clusters around traditional central courtyards with fountains, fourteen luxurious tents (identical, we are amused to discover, to the ones at Ranthambhore) that, says front office manager Vikas Sawney, “are our most popular room type with honeymooners,” and three villas with private pools and gardens. And while the Amarvilas feels more like a posh way station on a grand tour, the Rajvilas is a destination unto itself, with visitors that spend seven to ten nights enjoying the resort-style amenities and practicing yoga and meditation. Though the hotel arranges sightseeing tours, says Sawhney, “these guests have seen the city and never go out.”

Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur

Last stop, Mumbai

We, however, do go out, and onward, and after a magical night at the Oberoi Udaivilas, a palace-like hotel on the shores of Lake Pichola in Udaipur – not only a place of great and romantic beauty, but one of the world’s most desirable honeymoon spots – we arrive at our final destination: Kipling’s “Mother of Cities,” Mumbai.

“Whatever is created must be destroyed to be born again,” explains our local A&K guide as we tour the caves of Elephanta Island in Mumbai’s harbor, which contain a Hindu temple, carved from a single rock between the 5th and 7th centuries. The same, sadly, might be said of the Oberoi hotel here, which came under terrorist attack in November of 2008. The modern atrium-style hotel on Marine Drive (like South Beach in Miami, a protected Art Deco district), with panoramic views of the Arabian Sea and Mumbai’s skyline, has been completely redesigned; it exudes an air of utter peace, exemplified by the live jazz, played on a red grand piano in the lobby, that sends soothing echoes throughout the vast interior space (only the heavy security at the door reminds one of the property’s unhappy recent history).

The lobby of the Oberoi, Mumbai

That peace proves beneficial, because Mumbai (“everyone still calls it Bombay,” says our droll guide) represents urban life in extremis: here, Mukesh Ambani’s 27-story, billion-dollar home – the most expensive single-family residence in recorded history – overlooks slums so dense and vast that they resemble a kind of ground cover; and every manner of human experience seems to lie between the two. As our tour bus navigates the tumultuous streets, we receive a recitation of arresting statistics: During rush hour, a train pulls into one of the city’s stations every 45 seconds, each loaded with 5000 passengers (three times its capacity), for a total of six million people in two hours. Fifty-two thousand taxis and 100,000 rickshaws roam the streets. Three thousand new cars arrive in Mumbai every day, as do 300 new families. Even Bollywood – which produces three movies a day, an output that would have given night sweats to Louis B. Mayer – is not exempt from frenzy.

Yet as we embrace Bhowani, thank him for his knowledge, perseverance and good humor, and at long last depart for home, the statistic I find most emblematic – not only of Mumbai, but the entire subcontinent – is the 200,000 hot lunches delivered every workday, by the 5000 so-called dabba wallah, to office workers from their homes. Daily, these extraordinary men collect lunch boxes called tiffins from all around the city and – traveling by bicycle, train, and on foot – show up precisely at lunch time, then collect and return them, all by mid-afternoon. Not only have the dabba wallahs been studied at business schools for their punctuality, they make fewer than one mistake in every six to eight million lunches delivered – and earn $80 a month for their efforts.

In Joseph Heller’s 1979 novel Good as Gold, the protagonist wonders how his illiterate, penniless grandmother could have made it from the old country to the new world on her own, when he – wealthy, successful, respected – can’t go from one American city to another without a travel agent. Something akin to this has been scratching at the back of my mind since my arrival, via first-class transit, in India. The country has taught me two things. The first is that, when it comes to survival, people find a way, often with imagination, energy and grace. The other is an old lesson, but seldom so indelibly delivered: Westerner, count thy blessings.

For more information, visit Abercrombie & Kent

 

Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.

Letter from India: Tigers, Burning Bright

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The train at Bharatpur. Photo by Marc Kristal.

 

By Marc Kristal

We reach Bharatpur, where our magic bus is to be exchanged for an air-conditioned India Railway car. Bhowani explains that the drive to Ranthambore National Park is many hours long, while the train is relatively quick; the bus, bearing our bags, will rejoin us later that night. I am not wild about being separated from my suitcase, but Bhowani, with a look of faint amusement we all come to know well, assures us that it’s for the best.

The scene on the Bharatpur platform instantly validates his judgment. The train in the station (not ours) is packed so full that people hang out of the open doors, even as women carting multiple children and armloads of canvas bundles are stuffing themselves into the throng. The platform is no less congested, with families sprawled on the ground, naked children toddling unheeded toward the platform’s edge; a man with legs so crippled that he wears a single sneaker on one knee drags himself up and extends a hand. Cows and goats graze on the tracks. As the train starts to move, half a dozen young men leap off the platform and give chase, scrambling onto the last car and hanging off the sides: according to Bhowani, they’re only going one stop, and it’s worth the risk.

“Sixteen million people ride the trains every day,” he relates, and the mood, as it seems to be everywhere in India, is high-key; as we raise our cameras, the passengers, almost without exception, grin and wave.

Bhowani has mischievously informed us that our train will be even more crowded, but it proves similar to an older NJ Transit model and we arrive in Sawai Madhopur more or less on time. From there it is a short drive to the Oberoi Vanyavilas, a resort that, with its twenty acres of landscaped gardens threaded with water features and paths lush with bougainvillea, feels a bit like a hotel in Bel-Air or Beverly Hills. The difference is that, instead of bungalows, one finds 25 “luxury tents,” modeled on the ones that 19th-century shooting parties used to stay in, and quite irresistibly sybaritic.

Guest room at the Oberoi Vanyavilas

Much as I would like to loll in my oversized bathtub, pretending I am Gary Cooper in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, the big attraction here is the park, which, among India’s 21 tiger preserves, has racked up the most recorded sightings. The hotel, like many of the 70 others that have materialized since the park was established in 1980, offers daily game drives, and the morning after our arrival, we set off in an open-top four-wheel-drive along Ranthambore’s rutted roads with a guide. There are seven different zones within the park, each with opportunities for game spotting; the guides search the sites where tigers typically congregate, listen for the distinctive war whoop-sound the sambar deer makes to warn other animals of a tiger’s presence, and exchange information regarding kills (a tiger will feed on a carcass for three or four days, alternating meals with trips to a nearby water source). We motor from point to point, pausing for long, still stretches to listen, scan the area with binoculars, and hope that the Royal Bengal we’ve spotted doesn’t turn out to be a tree stump.

Tigers of Ranthambore

Game drives can be a bit like longterm-relationship sex: brief moments of ecstasy interspersed with interminable interludes of waiting. But we almost immediately get lucky: with a handful of jeeps from other hotels, we converge on a promising spot – and within moments, a 14-year-old female the park stewards have named Machali steps out of the woods and, rather than avoiding the stunned, riveted humans with their snapping cameras, walks straight toward us in a wary but leisurely way, passing between the vehicles and within ten feet of us (briefly locking eyes with one of my traveling companions and giving her a memorable shock) before continuing on her way. None of us can quite believe what we’ve seen: the old lady is a star, and we have just been treated to an incomparable turn on the jungle catwalk.

 

Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.

 

Five Amazing Yoga Retreats in India

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Yoga in India

By Melisse Gelula and Alexia Brue of Well+GoodNYC

India is the promised land of yoga retreats. And a trip with a top teacher is almost a rite of passage for American yogis serious about their practice or curious about the culture. There are lots of ways to do yoga in India: spiritual pilgrimages and do-gooder excursions to yoga-sprinkled sightseeing tours. Because all of them require some planning in advance, we’ve given you a head start. Here are five of the most interesting yoga retreats in India in early 2012, at  Well+GoodNYC

 

Melisse Gelula is co-founder of Well+Good. She is the former editor-in-chief of SpaFinderLifestyle.com, spa beauty editor at Luxury SpaFinder Magazine, and travel editor at Fodor’s Travel Publications. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto and has completed six years of training as a psychoanalyst. Melisse has written for such publications as Departures, Martha Stewart Living, Organic Spa, and Budget Travel and has been featured as an industry expert in the New York Times and on CNN.com, the Travel Channel, E! News, and more.

Alexia Brue is co-founder of Well+Good. She was a contributing editor at Luxury SpaFinder and Spa magazines and is the author of Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath (Bloomsbury). She has an MA in arts & culture journalism from the Columbia School of Journalism and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Conde Nast Traveler among others. Alexia has appeared on the Travel Channel, NPR’s All Things Considered, BBC Radio, and more.

Letter from India: Delhi, New and Old

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Old Delhi. Photo by Marc Kristal.

By Marc Kristal

Toward the end of my 17-hour Lufthansa flight to Delhi last April, an explosion of cheering rolled through the plane. Over the course of the trip, the pilot, in German-accented English, had been delivering updates on the India-Sri Lanka World Cup cricket final, made comic by the fact that he did not understand the game – “I hope some of you know what that means, as I certainly have no idea” was his sniffiest crack. Now, apparently, the pilot had announced victory; when we finally touched down, not only the passengers, but all of India, remained celebratory.

It was a good start to what promised to be a singular voyage: a collaboration between the luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent and India’s Oberoi Hotel Group. The former has, since 1962, been crafting small-group, specially-designed tours of some of the world’s more exceptional destinations, and had developed a bespoke itinerary – tailored to the interests of myself and my traveling companions – overseen by a guide who would remain with us for the entire ten-day, six-city trip. Oberoi, meanwhile, would handle the ultra-luxury accommodations. Begun in 1934 by Mohan Singh Oberoi, the presiding figure of India’s hotel industry, the family-operated company has eleven business and leisure hotels in the country, many reflecting their local histories and aesthetic influences, all recognized for their high level of service.

I confess to being as in the dark regarding the ways of cricket as our pilot. But as, departing customs, we are met by representatives of both organizations – seemingly delighted to see us, despite it being after 1 AM – and taken to the comfortably appointed minibus that would serve as our trip’s chariot, I remain perfectly clear about finding myself in excellent hands.

Oberoi Gurgaon. Photo by Marc Kristal.

 

Delhi, New and Old

Half an hour later, we arrive at the Oberoi Gurgaon and receive, the lateness of the hour notwithstanding, an exceedingly thorough welcome: several beautifully attired, gracious women greet us; one dabs a bindi on my forehead (“for luck, strength and health,” she explains), another offers a most towel, a third serves fruit drinks. This is followed by a very complete overview of the hotel’s layout from the night manager, after which another staff member leads me to my quarters, which she explains comprehensively. (This entire process will be repeated, virtually without variation, at every Oberoi we visit.)

The big news is that we are not, in fact, in Delhi but rather Gurgaon, which is just outside it and is, in effect, a new city. A generation ago it was a farming village with little in the way of construction or population. Around that time – realizing that land outside the capital was eventually going to become valuable – a group of businessmen, with the government’s assistance, began buying out the farmers and having their land re-zoned. Who precisely got wealthy, in India’s famously corrupt government, off this is hard to say, but the gamble paid off: Gurgaon is now a center of business and commerce – innumerable call centers, plus the preferred place for international companies to set up operations – and one of the wealthiest enclaves in the country.

With all of that money focused in a relatively small area, the Oberoi people created a hotel that is effectively a world of its own, one catering to the luxury tourist market, business people, and local residents looking for places to dine and shop. The complex is a rectangle nestled in a man-made forest, its built features surrounding a dazzlingly blue, 36,000-square-foot reflecting pool; the 202 rooms are contained in a somewhat pre-Columbian-looking volume, which faces an ivy-covered, 50,000-square-foot retail arcade across the water; these two are joined by what the hotel calls the “Jewel Box,” a glass-and-steel structure containing the lobby, restaurant, and meeting spaces, notable for the colossal scale of the public rooms and the blinding sunlight bouncing off the marble surfaces within (by day, the lobby requires Ray-Bans). It is a monumental compound, devoted to the things most people in India, I am to discover, don’t have – quiet, space, and water.

A detail from Lutyens President's House.

In the lobby the following morning, we are met by Bhowani Singh, the A&K representative who will be with us for the entire journey, a dapper gentleman with the large, melancholy, bloodshot eyes of a Bassett hound. Once ensconced in our minibus, we take off for Delhi, and Bhowani and a second A&K guide – a local specialist, which the tour company provides at every destination – explain that, like Washington, D.C., it is “a state unto itself”; indeed, the new city, which the British made India’s capital in 1911 and was master-planned by the classical architect Edwin Lutyens, shows the orderly layout and elegant Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture of a great colonial outpost. I am surprised by the broad streets lined with gracefully shaggy acacia and tamarind trees, very well looked-after, and find it hard to believe, admiring the magnificent Rajpath (“Kings Way”), anchored at one end by Lutyens’ 1929 President’s House and the monumental India Gate at the other, that this is the sprawling dystopia (population: 18 million) of legend.

Jama Masid. Photo by Marc Kristal

Our arrival in Old Delhi, just within the sandstone walls of Emperor Shah Jahan’s Red Fort, corrects my impression. In a ten-minute bicycle rickshaw ride along the tumultuous commercial lanes, overhung with vinelike tangles of electrical wire, off Chandni Chowk, the main street of the district, I am exposed to more visual, auditory, olfactory, social, cultural, architectural, urbanistic, historical, and sheer human information than I typically receive in a year; moments later, climbing the long steps of the 17th-century Jama Masjid, India’s biggest and best-known mosque, surrounded by beggars clutching woebegone infants, I am still struggling to process the hallucinatory blur through which I’ve just driven.

Half an hour later, exiting the holy calm of the mosque into a nonstop racket of car horns, the unshakable press of peddlers, and people, people, people, I think: This is India.

 

 

Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart.  He lives in New York.

The Interview: Steve Conlon, Above the Clouds

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SteveConlonAndTheKingofMustang

The King of Mustang and Steve Conlon.

I met Steve Conlon about 15 years ago, after a friend traveled to Nepal with him and his company, Above the Clouds. She had enormous respect and confidence in Steve as a leader and a creator of authentic experiences in the Himalayas. He’s still at it, as he explained over a lunch with Jamling Tenzing Norgay (yes, his dad summitted Everest with Hillary) in New York City this past year. Now his daughter Lisa has joined him in the family business. Steve is a pioneer in the adventure travel world and I decided it was time to let him talk about how his extraordinary company began.

Steve, tell me about the beginnings of Above the Clouds?

In 1982, I was managing a local trekking agency in Kathmandu.  As my Nepali wife,  Muna, and I prepared to move to the US to raise our soon to be born son, several Sherpa friends came to me and suggested, “Why don’t you start a trekking business when you get back home, and I’ll handle your groups over here.”  And that’s just what we did.  Our son was born nine days after we landed, and Above the Clouds was born later that same day.  Once again, necessity, combined with a fierce passion, was the mother of invention.  In the five years I lived in Nepal, I had visited 65 of the country’s 75 districts, and that enabled me to develop some innovative itineraries that gave us a leg up in Nepal and proved to be foundational to our growth.

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Bollywood Meets Beefeater at the India/Pakistan Border

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Rust4

At the border with India and Pakistan.

Story and photos by Kristin Rust

Americans today may not associate Pakistan with any kind of fun, but fun is to be had at the only India/Pakistan border road crossing, where tourists can experience a madcap event in a tiny corner of the world.

The town of Wagah, split in half between India and Pakistan, is often called the "Berlin Wall of Asia," thanks to a tumultuous history between the two territories. Yet, each evening at sundown the Border Security Force of India and the Pakistan Ranger soldiers come together for a friendly Retreat Ceremony with a lowering of the flags.

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