Thursday, January 2, 2020

Traveling to Saint Petersburg with a Russian E-visa

Traveling to Russia has always been a bucket list item for us. There are so many things to explore: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Lake Baikal, Siberia, Trans-Siberian railway line, and the list goes on. I guess the fact that we don't hear so much about Russia in the western media also gives it an air of mysticism.

Saint Petersburg, here I come :)

One of the main deterrents to Russian travel is of course the difficulty in obtaining a Russian Visa, which impacts not only Indians, but (for a change) citizens of western countries as well. So it was welcome news for travelers when the Russian govt. recently decided to grant E-visas to citizens of 54 countries.

Russia E-visa


You can find all the E-visa application details on the official website here.

The details are clearly outlined on the website - some points to note:
  • The E-visa is only valid for specific regions of Russia, e.g. the St. Petersburg E-visa is only valid for St. Petersburg, and you won't be able to travel to Moscow with it.
  • The region specific nature of the E-visa also impacts your entry point in Russia. You will need to fly in to Saint Petersburg Pulkovo airport directly. Note that the E-visa is not valid for train entry points yet.
  • The E-visa is only valid for 8 days.
  • You can only apply 18-days in advance before your travel date, and although the website says that the maximum processing time is 4 days - we got ours in 2 days.
The application process itself is quite straightforward. You do not need to provide any supporting documents, like tickets, hotel booking, insurance, etc.; however it is always recommended to carry them with you when you finally reach the immigration desk.

As the E-visa scheme is quite new (introduced in Oct 2019), we had our apprehensions reg. if the airlines and the immigration officials themselves would be aware of it. We are happy to report that we did not have any issues in this regard. The only observation would be that the emigration check seemed to be almost as detailed as the immigration check, with the officer asking for all types of documents even for the destination country. So please keep sufficient time in hand even during your return trip for airport formalities. Overall, the E-visa scheme seemed to be working very well, and hopefully the Russian authorities will expand it to other regions soon.

Saint Petersburg

Coming to the city itself, the first impression that comes to mind is its sheer grandeur and opulence wherever you look.

Magical Saint Petersburg

The good thing about St. Petersburg is that most of the touristic sights are within walking distance of each other, e.g. St. Isaac's Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Kunstkamera, Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum, Nevsky Prospekt; are all within a 2km radius of each other. The only exception is the Summer Palace which is a bit far and you will need to arrange some type of transportation to reach there.

St. Isaac's Cathedral and Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood


We stayed at the Four Seasons hotel in Saint Petersburg, which is right across the St. Isaac's Cathedral with stunning views of the Cathedral. Make sure that you book a balcony room with a view of the Cathedral to make the most to it. 

the imposing St. Isaac's Cathedral at night

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood with its colorful domes is simply amazing (below pic) and can be considered as one of the most Instagram friendly structures in Russia :), so this an must visit on your trip to Saint Petersburg.

The interiors of both churches is simply amazing and definitely worth the US$ 8 that you will need to pay as entrance fees.

An additional attraction of St. Isaac's Cathedral (separate ticket) is that you can also climb to the top to take some amazing ariel shots of the city.

Saint Petersburg, the city protected by Angels


Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum


The Hermitage Museum is one of the main museums in Russia, with a collection rivaling other famous museums such as the Louvre in Paris. A 1-2 day trip is usually recommended to cover the whole museum, however any amount of time that you are able to spend here will not be a disappointment. The good thing about the museum is that it is located within the Winter Palace, so you can visit both attractions in one shot.

Green on blue - the colorful Winter Palace

Nevsky Prospect

Nevsky Prospect is the main shopping street in St. Petersburg. There are shops of all flavors - from  flea markets to exclusive brands. As such, it is always crowded, and was esp. so during our visit, as we visited during the festive end of the year period. While the streets were very nicely decorated with lights, beware of pickpockets as this is a very real threat on the streets - by personal experience, my own mobile phone was stolen from my jacket pocket during the trip - so please take this seriously and take necessary precautions. 

We had the opportunity to sample two Indian restaurants during our trip:
We can recommend both, with a slight preference for Tandoor - although it is a bit on the expensive (fine dining) side.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Explore Mount Bromo, Indonesia from a photographer's perspective

While Bali hogs all the limelight in Indonesia, there is actually something even more dramatic which you should absolutely visit during your trip your trip to Indonesia. This is the Mount Bromo active volcano on Java Island in Indonesia.

OK, it depends a bit on what you are looking for - if you are looking for a nice family vacation with nice temples, beaches, rice terraces and waterfalls (yes, there is a lot to see in Bali), with a lot of hotels options and developed touristic infrastructure; then Bali ticks all the boxes. However, if you are a bit more adventurous and do not mind roughing it up a bit, then a trip to Mount Bromo is definitely recommended. The landscape (below) is simply out of this world - this is probably how I imagined Mars to be like :) - you can even see the volcano fumes coming out of the crater.

Mount Bromo, Java, Indonesia

Why is it unique?

Based on our experience, this is as close as you can get to an active volcano. The craters look simply amazing up close and it is possible to climb up to the top for the crater from where you will be able to basically look inside the crater's mouth (more on this below in the tour description).

We have been to Mount Etna in Sicily before, and while the surrounding landscape with black volcanic ash is quite dramatic; this is a completely different experience with multiple craters in the vicinity nestled among mountains.

Up, close and personal with an (active) Volcano


How to get there?

Mount Bromo is located within the Taman Nasional Gunung Bromo Tengger Semeru (Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park). It is located on Java island, which is basically a different island than Bali. So you will need to take a flight to Surabaya.While there are a few direct international flights to Surabaya from neighboring Asian countries, your best bet is to take a local flight from Bali.

There is also a domestic airport in Malang, but very few  planes fly to this airport. You have to also understand that the local airlines scene in Indonesia is not very well regulated. While there are a lot a domestic airlines, some of the airlines have a bad safety record and flights often get delayed - not least because of weather conditions. Also, note that some airlines charge a 'foreigner tax' which you might need to pay at the Check-in desk, so please take all this into account while booking local flights in Indonesia.

And, this is also the reason why we recommend flying to Surabaya, which is a large city in Indonesia, so you will at least have some options if your flight gets inadvertently delayed or canceled. It is a 3-hours drive from Surabaya airport to Cemara Lawang village (more on accommodation options later). We booked the Mount Bromo tour with Helios Tours (including airport pickup and drop) and can definitely recommend their services.

Finally, regarding domestic airlines, we would also recommend the national carrier Garuda Indonesia which flies to both national and international destinations. Although more expensive, we flew with them from Bali to Labuan Bajo (Komodo Islands) and Surabaya; and in both cases everything went smoothly. They are also part of the SkyTeam network (Air France, KLM) which means that you can both use/earn miles + (and more importantly) you can be assured of some international oversight and review of their safety and performance track record. 

Is the Sunrise tour worth it?

Most of the tours to Mount Bromo are advertised as Sunrise Tours, which basically means that you reach a viewing point called Mt. Pananjakan around 45 mins before sunrise, and then watch the sun rise over the mountains.

However, this means getting up at 2.30 am in the morning (even if you are staying at Cemara Lawang village, which is the closest base point), and then jostling to catch one of the special 4WD Jeeps that will take you to the viewing point. The crowded scene in the morning with 100s of Jeeps making their way to the viewing point can get a bit overwhelming even for hardened travelers like us who are used to crowded and chaotic cities of India.

So the question is if a sunrise tour is worth it? It is of course possible to visit the mountains later in the day, when it is much less crowded and chaotic. So the "it depends" answer basically lies in the question if you find the below pictures dramatic enough to justify the hustle and bustle. To see the sun rising over the peaks and the moon during sunrise is something you will only experience during a sunrise tour. So from a photogrpahy (or Instagramming) point of view, it is absolutely worth it. However, it is not for the faint hearted and also not something to be attempted with kids.

Sunrise on Mount Bromo
Sunrise over Mount Bromo
It was amazing to see the Moon during Sunrise
Mount Bromo Sunrise

You can of course rough it up even further, by starting a couple of hours earlier and hiking up the viewing point. However, note that you will be hiking completely in the dark (with head lamps, but without any makred hiking trails) on slippery slopes - so this is absolutely not recommended unless you are an experiences mountaineer.

Finally, please remember that all these tours are very weather dependent. Even after all this trouble, you might end up with a thick fog at the top with very low visibility. So please make sure that you make your flight bookings with a bit of buffer in hand, so that you manage to get a few shots even if you miss the sunrise. 


Where to stay?

As mentioned earlier, the default (and closest) staying options are in Cemara Lawang village. Popular lodges include Hotel Café Lava or Bromo Permai. The staff are friendly, however note that the hotels are very basic with mininal lodging and dining options - think of 2* B&B type lodges.

You can find better hotels, e.g. the Jiwa Jawa hotel, which might be preferable if you are with family and kids. Note that it is an additional 1-hour drive from Jiwa Jawa hotel to Cemara lawang village, which directly impacts the time you will need to start from the Jiwa Jawa hotel (1.30 am) for the Sunrise tour. The bottomline is that you are free to explore options other than Cemara Lawang, but please keep in mid that everything will need to go via the Cemara Lawang village - which is the starting point for the special 4WD Jeeps.

In some blogs, it is also written that staying in Cemara Lawang village is prefereable because of its exceptional views. In our opinion, that views you get from Cemara Lawang village are not specific to the village, and you will get the same views during the tour or later in the day upon returning from the tour - so do not stay in the village just because of the views.


Tour Summary

In short, this is how the tour works:

1. (Assuming you are staying at Cemara Lawang village) There is someone banging on your hotel door at 2.15 am asking you to get up - so you basically need to be ready to go by 2.15 am.
2. You wait outside your hotel for 15-30 mins to get on your (shared) 4WD Jeep. They probably have a parking spot somewhere outside the village and you need to get on yours when it comes in front of your hotel - unfortuantely, they are not waiting for you, nicely parked outside your hotel, for you to board as soon as you go outside :)
3. The Jeep stops a short walk before the viewing point called Pananjakan. You walk in the dark, but on a paved road with others - everyone walking in the same direction - so it is not very challenging. There are also some stalls on the sides where you can have tea/snacks if you reach the viewing point before time.
4. Watch the sunrise and take as many pics as you want, all the while jostling with others talking selfies at all weird (and sometimes dangerous) positions.
5. Go back to your jeep. They are all parked along the road, so please make sure to remeber your jeep number or always stick with your tour guide. You will now drive down over the sand sea to be close to the craters (refer to the pic below).

Race to the Volcano

6. From the Jeep parking spot, it is still quite a bit of walk on the sand sea before you finally reach the stairs that take you up to crater mouth. The walk on the sand sea also includes climbing up a bit on some short slopes (refer to the pic below). Note that the tours usually give you around 1.30 hours to go to the crater and come back to the jeep - which might be quite challenging. The good thing is that you can also do this on (rented) horseback, which is recommended unless you are really fit and are  able to still walk fast after the hectic day so far.

The great escape

7. The stairs (below pic) although full of sand are quite safe - you can always hold on to the rails. The only issue if that they are quite narrow, so you will need to go in a line which simply adds to your overall tour time. So keep this in mind while calculating how much time you will need to climb it. 

8. Once you reach the top however, the view inside that crater is simply amazing and makes everything so far worth it. So make every effort to reach this point as it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Living on the edge (of an active volcano)

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Amalfi Coast, Italy

We visited the scenic Amalfi Coast suring Easter 2018.

Village on a mountain
The corner house
The infinitiy pool with a view
The charming city of Ravello
Cliffs along the Amalfi coast
A beautiful day in Amalfi
City among the clouds
Night in Positano
The Lone Explorer
Last man standing
The Gateway
Lovely evening in Ravello

Lake Bled - A Slovenian fairytale

We had an opportunity to visit Lake Bled in Slovenia in Mar, 2018.

Bled Island

The place is simply amazing. It is one of the most picturesque locations we have seen, so far. The church on the island in the middle of the lake truly gives it a fairy-tale like feel.

Bled Island
Winter in Slovenia

The walk around the lake takes around 1 hour, and is highly recommended. It is so relaxing to walk around the lake, and the experience of an early morning jog around the lake is not to be missed. There are hotels on all sides of the lake most of which have a nice view of the castle, e.g. the pics below show the views from Villa Istra, Grand Hotel Toplice and Vila Bled, respectively. Bled is like a 40 min drive form Ljubljana, so day trips to Lake Bled are also possible, however try to stay at least a day so you can truly appreciate the beauty of the place.

The corner house with a view
A cold winter night in SloveniaA glimpse of Bled Castle

To reach Bled Island, you need take one of the beautifully decorated boats from the shore below. A ride to the island and back takes around 10 Euros per person.  

The lonely boat

The way it works is that they take you by boat to the island, where you can stay for 2-3 hours, and then take the boat back to the shore. Below is where the boats are docked at the island.

Waiting for a ride

Finally, walking around the lake, you will reach a point which is the starting point to hike up to to Bled Castle. Half of the hike consists of unpaved paths, so be careful if you are doing it in winter. There is a restaurant at the top, souvenir shops, and you will be rewarded with some nice panoramic views of the castle.

The "peaceful" Lake Bled