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Hidden from the outside world until the late 1800s, the Japanese culture has evolved independently over centuries. An enigma for curious travellers. Day by day, I’m peeling through the many layers of this fascinating country.

Behold, some of the secrets I’ve gleaned through conversations with Japanese people and my own independent explorations across Japan so far:

Mount Fuji: Why do the Japanese worship the mountain?

Respectfully called Fuji-san, what is the Japanese tradition that makes locals worship this spectacular mountain?

Mount Fuji, Japan. Photo: Wall Boat (CC).

Mount Fuji is not just one of Japan’s iconic mountains, it is also revered by the Japanese people as a sacred mountain. Surprisingly, I learnt that Fuji-san is not the only mountain that is worshipped in Japan. So are all the other mountains, trees, rocks and rivers. It stems from Shintoism – the original animist Japanese faith – in which elements of nature are worshipped as “gods”, with Shinto Shrines often dedicated to them. Sounds exactly like my kind of faith <3

Also read: Go to the Caucasus Mountains, Find Your Soul, Set it Free

World’s fanciest toilets: Why the fuss?

I’ve been spending way too much time marvelling at the toilets in Japan. Why are they so high tech?

On this toilet panel: Bidet spray for men & women and a bum drier!

Toilets across Japan – from business hotels to traditional ryokans to train stations – are special. So far, I’ve tried oscillating bidets, air driers, temperature-controlled seats and auto seat lifters! And I’ve been curious as to why the Japanese people are so innovative about their toilet technology.

One theory suggests that Japanese culture expects an individual to always be social. From sharing meals to public baths to communal Sakura viewing, people hardly ever get private time to introspect – except in the bathroom. So voila, the toilets are a sanctuary; extremely comfortable and futuristic

Also read: Quirky Things About Turkey 

Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony: Why so secret?

We manoeuvred our way behind the bustling streets and sprawling skyscrapers of Tokyo’s upscale Ginza neighbourhood, to an obscure alleyway. Then crawled through a tiny door into a non-descript tea room for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Why so secret?

Our tea master at the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Turns out, Chanoyu – the traditional Japanese Matcha Tea Ceremony – began as a peaceful meeting space for the Japanese Samurai of yore. The obscure location of tea rooms ensured their meetings could be kept secret, and the tiny entrances prevented them from carrying their swords inside. At the tea ceremony, Takeda-san, our tea master asked us to cleanse our hands and heart before bending through a small door to enter the sacred tea room – by humbly bending on all fours, we all became equals.

Back in the day, all tea masters were male. These days, the tea rituals remain the same, but many women train to become tea masters too; ours had been at it for 35 years.

I tried the traditional Japanese tea ceremony at Ginza Chazen in Tokyo. Cost: 3500 Yen (~INR 2100 / USD 35). Reservation required.

Fortune Telling: What if you get bad fortune?

If you visit a Buddhist temple or Shinto Shrine anywhere in Japan, chances are you’ll see a sacred tree or wooden bars covered with tied papers. These are not wishes, these are symbols of bad fortune!

Tying off bad fortune at a Buddhist temple in Japan.

Fortune telling works through lucky draw at temples and shrines around Japan. For 100 Yen (honour system) I could shake a box, pick out a stick with a number on it and find the fortune paper with the corresponding number. The fortune is written entirely in Japanese – and when translated, it predicted “half luck” for me. Better than bad luck, but not as good as good luck! The detailed prediction sounded pretty depressing, so like thousands of others, I tied off my “bad fortune” to the temple’s sacred tree in an attempt to ward it off! Japanese people often carry their good fortune in their wallet or purse.

Also read: Life Lessons from 2 Years of Travelling

The land of salaried men in suits: Was Japan always so hardworking?

We’ve all heard of the hard-working Japanese people, the strict corporate culture and long working hours. But has Japan always been this way?

Shinagawa train station, Tokyo. Photo: Andy Atzert (CC).

Indeed, in the chaotic frenzy of Tokyo city, it is hard to ignore the ubiquitous salaried businessmen in suits. So in a conversation with a 65-year-old Japanese man, I had to ask if this was linked to the Japanese culture or the ageing population?

I learnt that before Japan’s Meiji period, the locals were more carefree. But when economic development was prioritised under the Meiji rule (circa 1800s), a culture of hardwork was instilled in people. “If I don’t work really hard, even at 65, I feel like I’m not doing my best…,” he said candidly. But the younger generation seems to feel differently – and according to him, the laidback way of life is likely to return in a few decades.

Also read: How I’m Funding My Adventures Around the World

Onsens (Japanese baths): How did Snow Monkeys discover them?

In the Jigokudani Park in the Southern Japanese Alps, Japanese macaques (popularly called Snow Monkeys) bathe in the hot springs in winter, just like humans!

Snow monkeys in the onsen at Jigokudani Park. Photo: bryan… (CC).

Legend has it that a few decades ago, a baby Japanese macaque jumped, by mistake, into an onsen (Japanese public bath with hot water from hot springs) at an inn in the Japanese Alps. It must’ve been pretty darn relaxing, for many of his tribe members started hitting the onsen for baths!

Years later, when the Jigokudani Park was established to resolve a man-macaque conflict, an onsen was created for the macaques. Every winter, they come down from the cold cliffs to bathe in the hot springs, fascinating scientists and researchers from around the world. What a sight!

The Jigokudani park is located in the Kanto region of Japan and can be reached with an easy half-hour hike. 

The first cherry blossom (sakura) in Tokyo!

Truth be told, Japan is unlike anywhere I’ve been before. Every corner, every rock, every shrine, every flower has a deeper story. As I continue my surreal journey into rural Japan, I hope to learn more about the evolution of Japanese traditions, the secret life of geishas and spring fire rituals that have survived over centuries. Perhaps even join some Japanese friends for hanami (sakura viewing), as the stunning cherry trees promise to blossom soon!

Have you learnt the secrets to any fascinating Japanese traditions? Or is there one you’re curious about?

*Note: I spent my first week in Japan on a travel blogging campaign with Japan National Tourism Organization. Opinions on this blog are always my own.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my adventures live!

Read more about my Japan trip:
In Search of Murakami’s Japan
Japan Tourist Visa for Indians: Requirements and Tips

Interesting posts about Japan on other travel blogs:
Uncornered Market: From Remote Control Toilets to Konbinis: Japan First Impressions
Green Global Travel: Japan Photos: 15 Pictures from a Dream Come True

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Until 2016, scoring a Japan visa on an Indian passport was a tedious process. You had to show an invitation letter from a sponsor in Japan, and from what I’ve heard, visa applications were lengthy and often rejected.

Good news! Although Japan still doesn’t offer visa on arrival for Indians, it is now possible for Indian citizens to apply for a Japan tourist visa without a local sponsor. The Japan visa requirements for Indians have become pretty straightforward, with typically a processing period of 4 working days at VFS Japan – the official visa application centre for the Japan Embassy in India.

I recently scored a single-entry Japan visa on my Indian passport, that allows me to stay in the country for 30 days. I was given upto 2.5 months from the application date to use it. Here are the requirements and step-by-step process for Indian citizens to get a Japan visa:

Find the Japan Visa VFS Centre closest to your passport address

Although my passport address is that of Dehradun, I’ve managed to score a Schengen Visa from VFS centres in Mumbai and Goa multiple times. I hate going to Delhi, so I confidently tried to file my visa application at VFS Japan in Mumbai too. But no matter how much I pleaded, they just wouldn’t bend their rules. They gave me two choices: Either produce a concrete address proof for my residence in Mumbai (only an electricity bill or property papers in my name, or in that of my relatives / landlord were acceptable). Or apply in Delhi. I didn’t have a choice but to go to Delhi, where the process was seamless.

See the entire list of VFS Japan Centres in India.

Post your Japan visa application through specific Blue Dart centres

A handful of second-tier cities now have designated Blue Dart centres, from where you can courier your Japan visa application. The processing time is two days longer, and you must send your documents exactly as stated on the VFS website – remember there’s no bending of rules ;-))

Check the Japan visa Blue Dart centres and postal guidelines.

Download the visa application form on the VFS Japan website

The visa application form for Japan is pretty short, but make sure you fill all the sections. Under the guarantor / reference in Japan section, fill the address and contact details of your first accommodation in Japan.

Fill the Japan visa form online, then save print and sign it. Or download and print the form first, then fill and sign.

Get a passport photo of the specified size (2×2 inches)

Unlike other embassies, the Japanese embassy and therefore the Japan VFS centre are very specific about the kind of passport photo you need. It must be 2×2 inches – unlike any other passport size photos – and your face should be clearly visible. Luckily the VFS Centres in Mumbai and Delhi have a photo booth and I was able to get mine clicked the required way immediately; it costs more than doing it outside though.

Read about the exact photo specifications for a Japan visa.

Write a simple cover letter, including your trip itinerary clearly

The cover letter is an important part of the Japan visa application. You need to include your travel dates for Japan and why you’re going to the country. Highlight your trip itinerary clearly. I also included names of major countries I hold visas to, or have in the past, including the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. This always strengthens your visa application, especially as an Indian passport holder.

Show confirmed flight and hotel bookings

There’s no getting around this; I had to show confirmed hotel bookings at the time of applying for my visa when I hadn’t even started planning my trip! As always, booking.com came to my rescue – I looked for accommodations that offered free cancellation, and better yet, didn’t need a credit card to be booked.

I showed a confirmed return flight ticket. If your dates are open, you could try looking for a flight that offers full refund upon cancellation and book it with a credit card.

Get your financial documents in order

As with most other visa applications for Indian passport holders, you need to show your recent 3-month bank statements, last year’s income tax return and any other supporting financial documents.

My bank balance is usually pretty low, so I make it a point to include my fixed deposit summary, or ask a friend to temporary lend me money in my account  For an expensive country like Japan, I would aim to show a balance of 1-2 lakhs in my account, plus savings.

Also read: How I’m Funding my Japan Trip – and My Travels Around the World

If applying for a multiple-entry Japan visa, include ITRs for 3 years

The Japan visa fee for Indian citizens is only INR 440 (plus service charge by VFS Japan), both for a single and multiple entry visa. However, when trying to apply for a multiple-entry visa, I was told at VFS Japan (it’s not mentioned on their website) that I needed to submit 3 years of income tax returns to be eligible for a multiple-entry visa! This makes sense if you plan to pop by to South Korea nearby.

You don’t need an appointment at VFS Japan

You don’t need an appointment to file your Japan visa application at the VFS Japan centre. But note that they don’t allow any electronic devices – camera, laptop, battery packs etc – inside. I could take in my phone, but they told me to keep it off.

It’s best to carry only your documents and phone – both for submission and collection – to avoid any security hassle. Unfortunately there seemed to be nowhere to store your belongings at the VFS Centre.

See the complete document checklist for your Japan visa application.

Track your application online

You can opt for your passport to be couriered to your address, but I always prefer to collect it in person if I can. Either way, you can track your Japan visa application online. Mine was ready for collection on the 4th working day, including the day of submission at VFS Japan in Delhi. Good luck with yours!

Immigration at Tokyo Airport

Entering Japan with my single-entry tourist visa was a breeze! I was asked no questions by the immigration officer before being stamped in. However, during check-in, my airline did ask for my return flight ticket. It’s a good idea to keep that and your first hotel booking handy.

Got any other tips or experiences with an Indian passport and a Japan visa?

I’m spending a month exploring Japan. Read about my trip and follow my adventures in live on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

For more information about the Japan Visa application, please refer to FAQs on the VFS Japan website. If you have specific questions about the Japan visa process for Indians, you can contact VFS Japan or Japan Embassy by phone or email.

Bookmark these tips for tourist visas for Indian citizens:

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A few days ago, I got chatting with a friend who’s getting married soon. She seemed excited and nervous about the approaching wedding day, but lamented that her family and spouse were about to spend the better part of their savings – a mind-boggling 60 lakh rupees (~100,000$) – for a not-so-big wedding in a big Indian city.

That means she probably won’t have any money to travel in 2018. Hopefully by 2019, they’ll settle down in a new rented apartment and will be able to take atleast one holiday. Where should they go, she asked me curiously.

I couldn’t find the words to tell her this, but it’s lingering in my mind, so I’m going to tell you: don’t put off your travel dreams in 2018. Here’s why:

Are you spending your money on what fulfills you?

Fulfillment amid the mountains and wildflowers of Uttarakhand.

I recently found myself walking the aisles of a fancy mall in Bangkok, looking to buy a winter jacket for my upcoming trip to Switzerland – where I’ll be trying skiing for the first time in the Alps! As I walked past shop after shop selling trendy clothes, footwear, accessories, cosmetics and electronics, I was consumed by a materialistic urge to buy whatever I could afford.

As someone who has studied marketing at university and been associated with the industry for over eight years, I’ve been privy to what goes behind those subtle marketing messages. Right from the latest fashion trends, to upgrading your electronic gadgets, to throwing a lavish wedding, to buying a diamond ring worth three months of your salary (seriously, that’s a thing now!) – marketing agencies understand how to make us crave material possessions. The question we have to ask ourselves is, do these possessions really fulfil us?

If you ask me, it’s not the contents of my bags (or everything I owned until four years ago) that has ever filled me with joy. It is chatting with Buddhist monks about life and detachment in a remote Thai temple, feasting on a traditional beyayenetu platter at a local eatery in Ethiopia and hiking by myself in the snow-covered German Alps. And money can buy those experiences if we choose to spend it on the things that matter.

Read: How You Can Save Money to Travel

The world is changing fast

Contemplating how much Georgia (the country) has changed since my first visit.

Back in 2012, I won an adventure trip to the remote Socotra island with alien-like plant life in Yemen. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to buy a flight ticket to Yemen then, and postponed my trip indefinitely. An ugly war has taken over Yemen since, nearly destroying the country and access to Socotra. It’s heartbreaking.

Back in 2014, I considered spending a month on the island of Dominica, labelled the ‘Caribbean’s nature island’ and said to be one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. But I dropped the idea, thinking I could do it a few years later. Recently, a massive hurricane has nearly destroyed the country and  its entire rainforest. As it tries to rebuild itself slowly, it seems like things will never be the same.

I’m not trying to say that we need to go everywhere right now. But civil unrest, natural disasters and the surge of tourists in countries that have recently opened to outsiders are making our dream destinations change quickly. If you can afford to travel somewhere meaningfully this year, do it.

Read: Simple Ways to Travel More Responsibly in Ladakh

The road tends to give you perspective

A different kind of perspective at the Soca River in Slovenia (that’s the actual color!)

It is one thing to stay at home, work where you’ve always worked, hang out with friends you’ve always known, do the things you’ve always done. But if you want to grow as a person, the road can give you plenty of perspective. Living with a Mayan family in Guatemala, sipping tea with a Bedouin family in their makeshift tent in Jordan and mingling with Odisha’s tribes in their markets, taught me more about life than any classes at university or conversations with intelligent people back home.

And being on the road, owning only what I can carry with me, has made me realize that we need little to get by comfortably in life.

Read: Unexpected Ways Long Term Travel Has Changed Me

You don’t have to wait for someone’s approval or company

Enjoying my own company and that of the Arabian Sea.

Even as a twenty-something Indian girl, if I had waited for someone to give me “permission” to travel or for someone else’s company, I would never have had half my adventures. My first solo trip to Spiti unleashed something in me – the desire to spend my days exploring new horizons and a deep appreciation for my own company. Some of my fondest solo travel memories include hitchhiking in Bahrain, cycling across the Eastern Ghats (mountain range) of India and hiking in the Ecuadorian Andes – and those memories wouldn’t have been the same if I hadn’t gone it alone.

But if you’re apprehensive to give solo travel a try, there are plenty of other ways: join a group trip, visit a friend in another part of the world, or try to relocate to a new country. Ultimately it’s about conquering your fears and taking the leap.

Read: Solo Travel: To Go or Not To Go?

People are the same everywhere, despite what we read in the media

Home of the Bedouins in Jordan.

I hate how much negativity is bred into us by what we read in the news. Everywhere I’ve travelled, the world feels completely different to what we’ve been told. Hanging out with Syrian refugees in Germany, chatting with an Iraqi designer in Italy, living in a tiny village in Honduras – labelled the most violent place on earth – and smoking shisha with a Saudi guy in Bahrain has taught me that most people are the same everywhere: warm, beautiful, insecure, friendly… just like you and me.

Read: We Travel To Realize Everyone is Wrong About Other Countries

Life is short and unpredictable

Contemplating life… and death.

I hate to break it to you, but life doesn’t care that you plan to follow your dreams in a couple of years. In 2017, I was shocked and heartbroken to lose two young and inspiring blogger friends to a road accident and disease. My heart goes out to their loved ones, but it doesn’t mean that we should live our lives in fear. It means that life is fragile, that we take too much for granted, that along with planning for the future, we need to live our present in a way that fulfils us.

That we need to seize every day we’re lucky to experience in our lifetime. Carpe diem.

What are your travel dreams for 2018?

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my adventures live!

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I stood on a parapet watching in awe, surrounded by people as they cheered and counted down to the New Year. Almost everyone had lit their paper lanterns by now, and as the clock ticked to midnight and firecrackers went off in the sky, we released our lanterns with a feeling of joy that’s difficult to put into words. As the lanterns drifted away into the sky, creating the illusion of a thousand twinkling stars, I felt like parts of my past, and all the fears and challenges of 2017, had drifted away too. A surreal feeling.

Behold, a glimpse of the magic of celebrating New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai, Thailand:

The joyful feeling of releasing my first lantern.

In the past three years, I’ve rung in the New Year in the strangest of ways – in 2016, laying out alone under a canopy of trees in rural Maharashtra, trying to see the stars from the gaps in between; in 2015, falling asleep before midnight in Sri Lanka; in 2014, in the visa-on-arrival queue in Bangkok after my Dubai plans fell through!

So as I stood in a Buddhist temple, holding my first paper lantern (thanks to this post I stumbled upon), waiting to let it go (usually takes 3-4 minutes after you set alight the waxy thing below), I knew this is finally going to be a New Year’s Eve to remember.

Also see: My Most Memorable Sunrises, Sunsets and Night Skies of 2016

Buddhist monks release a sky lantern. Photo: John Shedrick (CC)

Legend has it that the first paper lantern was built and released by a Chinese military man in the third century, with a message asking for help against an enemy that had surrounded their platoon!

These days, in Thailand, many locals believe that releasing a lantern will release their worries and fears, while I’ve heard that for Buddhist monks, the release tends to get them closer to the path of enlightenment.

Also read: Lessons on the Art of Living, in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

The crowds at Tha Phae gate around 8 pm!

They say the Yee Peng Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai sees many more people and lanterns, but surrounded by the crowds at Tha Phae Gate, that was hard to believe!

Close to midnight, more people release their lanterns.

As my lantern slowly drifted away into the sky, it made me feel like I was letting go… of the materialistic things I’ve been holding on to, ugly memories of the past and 2017 itself.

Also read: 17 Incredible Travel (and Life) Moments of 2017

A magical sight <3 Photo: Guy Tetreault (CC)

Then the sky filled with a thousand lanterns and wishes, making me forget that I usually can’t stand crowded, noisy places. As I gazed up at the lanterns, an indescribable feeling washed over me.

Letting go off 2017.

Video: The magic of New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai!

I made a short video trying to capture that feeling, of watching thousands of lanterns drift away in the dark night sky. Wish you an enchanting 2018!

New Year's Eve in Chiang Mai: A Thousand Lanterns in the Sky! - YouTube

Practical Tips: Celebrating New Year in Chiang Mai

Where to celebrate: Tha Phae Gate in the old city of Chiang Mai is the centre of the celebrations. People start gathering from 7 pm onwards, till past midnight. If you arrive early, go to some of the nearby Buddhist temples (follow the direction of the lanterns floating in the sky) to release your first paper lantern amid Buddhist chanting.

Where to buy sky paper lanterns: These can be bought at the Buddhist temples, or from vendors at Tha Phae Gate. In 2017, they cost 40-60 Baht.

Environmental impact of paper lanterns: The lanterns are primarily made of rice paper, and have a thin wire below on which is attached a small piece of wax, to be set alight to release the lantern. Hot air created by the flames pushes the lantern up in the air. The paper is biodegradable; the wire is presumably not. According to the Guardian, sky lanterns have been banned in Vietnam.

What’s been your most memorable New Year’s Eve?

Connect with me on InstagramFacebookTwitter and Google+ to follow my adventures, and subscribe to my Youtube Channel for weekly videos!

Featured image: John Shedrick (CC)

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I’m not really in the mood to pen this post. One moment, I’m in the Slovenian Alps, cycling and hiking amid pristine alpine meadows, it’s the middle of the year, there’s so much I want to experience, there’s so much more I need to write about. The next moment, it’s December and my social media timelines are filled with holiday messages. Where did the time fly?

2017 has been a strange year for me as a travel blogger. This year, I struggled to write even a couple of blog posts every month, not because of a lack of stories or time, but because of the way the travel blogging (and social media) landscape is evolving. Attention spans are shorter, quality content is harder to come by and it feels like everyone is trying to sell the same travel narrative and perfect instagram shots, without a deeper connection to a destination.

Cycling amid the stark mountain terrain of Spiti.

So this year, I began experimenting with other things. I accepted speaking gigs to inspire people to pursue alternate lifestyle choices, spoke on topics close to my heart and tried to connect directly with my audience. I worked on environmental / community-based projects I feel passionate about, in Spiti and Sarmoli in India. And I tried to get more involved with the worldwide vegan movement.

Yet I literally had to scroll through my Instagram posts to realise what I got upto all year. Turns out, quite a bit:

Featured on the cover of National Geographic Traveller India magazine!

Back in April, while I was living out my Alpine dream in Slovenia, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveller India magazine reached out to me for a story for their special anniversary issue dedicated not to a place, but to the traveller. I was looking forward to seeing it in print, but was taken by surprise when I saw my name on the cover, in the revered company of inspirational travellers like Pico Iyer, Ruskin Bond and Sudha Murthy. The surprise soon turned to gratitude, for all the encouragement and support I’ve received on this journey.

Read my story for Nat Geo: My Home Has No Address

The year’s first snowfall in a tiny village in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia

Hiking on the Georgian countryside after a snowy day <3

What’s that feeling when you go to sleep admiring how the autumn leaves are turning red, yellow and orange all over the valley… and wake up with snowflakes dancing all around you? Yeah, I haven’t found a word for it either. But I remember my heart fluttering as I stepped into my balcony with a hot cup of tea, and put out my hand to catch a falling snowflake. Walking along the cobblestoned alleys of our picturesque little village in the dramatic Caucasus Mountains felt like living through the most dreamy chapter of a storybook. It was the only time in the year I had the illusive feeling of being home.

Read: Go to the Caucasus Mountains, Find Your Soul, Set it Free

Spotting a humpback whale in the Maldives

Maldives: Snorkeling with turtles! - YouTube

We set out on the tiny fishing boat of our host at Madi Finolhu Guesthouse in the Maldives, to snorkel with the illusive manta rays and whale sharks… but were taken aback when a humpback whale surfaced near our fishing boat instead! Apparently they migrate from the Arabian Gulf at the beginning of winter, crossing the Maldives on their 200+ kilometre long journey, and we were lucky enough to spot one just as it surfaced out of the ocean. I’ve never seen anything so huge; our host was genuinely worried it might overturn our boat!

(I was too stunned to get a picture, so the video above is a glimpse of snorkelling with turtles in the Indian Ocean).

Read: How I’m Funding My Adventures Around the World Through Travel Blogging 

“I Love Spiti” – An initiative against plastic bottled water in Spiti

The “I Love Spiti” installation near the entrance to Kaza.

I’ve dreamt so often of going back to Spiti – a region that changed everything I knew about the world and myself. Finally in 2017, I travelled back with a purpose – to create awareness against the mindless consumption of bottled water by a growing number of tourists in Spiti, in collaboration with Spiti Ecosphere and fellow volunteers. We worked with the local tourism industry to offer alternatives like filtered water, and built a life-size installation – “I Love Spiti” – entirely with discarded plastic bottles, so travellers can pledge against their use. Hopefully, 2018 will witness less plastic bottles discarded into the dumping ground next to Spiti River.

Read: “I Love Spiti”: How Travellers Must Help Save India’s Surreal Himalayan Desert

Jumping off a cliff into glacial water – canyoning in the Austrian Alps

Rappelling down a waterfall in Tirol!

I contemplated life for an entire minute before deciding to jump off a cliff  into the glacial pool of a waterfall – freezing cold in the end of September. Canyoning in the Austrian Alps – rappelling down waterfalls, sliding down rocks, swimming in glacial water – was one wild adventure!

Read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears

Solo trek to Jhandi – Uttarakhand’s highest peak in the lesser Himalayas

Hiking to Nag Tibba, and further to Jhandi.

I’ve never really been on a popular trek in India, simply because I can’t stand hiking in a noisy group. Luckily, you don’t need a group, or even a guide, to hike up to Nag Tibba, and further up to Jhandi, Uttarakhand’s highest peak in the lesser Himalayan region with majestic views on the snow-capped Himalayas. So I had to give it a shot. Although I was on the verge of turning back twice and got lost a bunch of times, I eventually made it and lay on the peak, in the warm sun, all by myself.

Read: Awe-Inspiring Hideouts in Uttarakhand to Tune Out of Life and Tune Into the Mountains

An Instagram and Photography workshop in Sarmoli

Crowdsourced smartphones and curious participants. Photo: Jayashree Ramaswamy.

@voicesofmunsiari began as a humble Instagram account in 2016 but developed its own wings in 2017. It got featured as India’s first Instagram account to be run entirely by a village community by several leading publications including The Times of India and Conde Nast Traveller. In Sarmoli’s annual summer festival, we decided to take it to the next level with crowdsourced smartphones (thanks to everyone who contributed!) and a Photography and Instagram workshop, during which we were joined by Bangalore-based photographer Jayashree Ramaswamy. Most of the attendees were women, and I had so much fun sharing what I’ve learnt about Instagram over the years, and playing impromptu games (including a treasure hunt) with the curious audience.

Read: Sarmoli, Uttarakhand: A Himalayan Village Where Locals Run Marathons and Their Own Instagram Channel

Perseid and Geminid – two meteor showers in one year

The Milky Way in the dark nights skies of Spiti.

If you follow me on social media, you know how much I love stargazing. So each time I read about a meteor shower, I desperately look for a place with dark skies to catch it. That’s also one of the reasons why I’ve strived so hard to build a nomadic life.

But this year, I almost didn’t see a meteor shower because of how last-minute and ill-planned my travels are… except that the universe conspired to make me see two – the Perseid Meteor Shower lying on a charpoy (cot) in the Thar Desert near Churu and the Geminid Meteor Shower in northern Thailand! The feeling of laying under the dark sky, witnessing multiple large greenish / blue meteors dash through the sky, is just indescribable.

Read: Saving Money for Travel: 9 Practical Tips

Cycling in the Slovenian Alps
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Perched on a mountain overlooking Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, is a prominent statue of the ‘Mother of Georgia’. In one hand, she holds a cup of wine, and in the other, a sword. The wine is to welcome friends; the sword is to deter enemies.

Four years ago, when I first travelled there on my humble navy blue Indian passport, I immediately felt welcomed like a friend. When cabbies heard I was from India, they would sing me Raj Kapoor songs from old Bollywood movies. In Racha, I drank whiskey shots with my host family for breakfast, in celebration of being their first ever Indian guest. Deep in the Caucasus Mountains, despite no common language between us, I made soul connections with local priests on a vow of silence.

Working on my terrace with a view of Tbilisi below!

Then something happened.

Easier Georgia visa for Indian citizens

Four years ago, in order to get a visa to enter Georgia on my Indian passport, I had to spend a few frustrating hours outside the small compound of the Georgian embassy in Delhi. Sweating in the oppressive Delhi summer heat, my only fellow applicants were two farmers from Punjab, hoping to buy agricultural land in Georgia and start a new life.

When I finally spoke to the visa officer, it took some convincing to be granted a month-long visa. But I was ecstatic to receive it and be on my way.

Things have changed drastically since. While I was still in the country, Georgia relaxed its visa rules and granted entry to Indians with a valid (and used) visa to the US, UK or the Schengen zone of Europe.

Also read: How I Manage Visas on My Indian Passport as I Travel Around the Globe

A shot of whiskey / chacha for breakfast, anyone?

Then in 2015, Georgia opened up an e-visa option for all Indian passport holders.

You no longer have to wait in the sweltering heat outside the Georgian embassy in Delhi, nor have the coveted US or UK visa on your passport to enter Georgia. All it takes is an online visa application. But…

Indians with e-visa are being denied entry into Georgia

I was shocked when I first heard it. Months ago, a solo traveller from Mumbai posted on Facebook how she had been deported from Tbilisi airport back to India, despite an e-visa and valid documents (accommodation, return flight ticket and bank statements). She described the immigration officials as rude and unwilling to listen.

Her report was soon followed by others – all Indian passport holders on e-visa, deported without reason.

In fact, when I travelled back to Georgia in November 2017 and started sharing my stories on Instagram, multiple travellers messaged me to share how they had been deported from the airport and had their travel plans shattered.

Also read: Advice for the Young and Penniless Who Want to Travel

Fall colors and a blazing sunset in Georgia.

Growing anti-Indian sentiment in Georgia

I’ve often felt some sort of racist undercurrents against Indians in countries frequented by Indian travellers. I hate it, but I do understand why the stereotype exists. Some Indian travellers tend to be overly demanding and disrespectful of the local culture. I felt those undercurrents even on my first day in Tbilisi this year – unlike my first trip in the country.

During my time in Georgia, I tried to get to the root of the problem. I heard from locals (and in the local news) how farmers from India have rapidly been buying agricultural land and putting Georgian farmers out of business. I also heard about the surge of Indian travellers into the country since e-visa began, some of whom were illegally transiting through Georgia to enter the EU.

But it wasn’t until I was leaving, at the airport immigration, that it became obvious. The immigration officer was friendly at first, but his expressions changed when he saw “India” on my passport. He began asking me questions, like why I would spend a month in Georgia, who gets a one month holiday, my itinerary in the country… I found such interrogation at EXIT immigration strange. It left a bittersweet taste.

It seems to me that immigration officials at Tbilisi airport have been specifically asked to investigate Indian travellers. Every country’s visa rules state that immigration officers have the final say in letting you into their country… and in Georgia they haven’t hesitated in using it to deport travellers.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

Waking up to fresh snow on the Caucasus mountains <3

Is it still worth travelling to Georgia?

To tell you the truth, I’ve hated typing this post. Despite the negative undercurrents in some interactions, I love Georgia. It’s a gorgeous country, with mountain towns right out of a postcard, warm-hearted locals, delicious (and plenty of vegan) food, a feeling of abundance (think juicy red apples in every front yard in the fall), fascinating legends and a growing alternative food and music scene in Tbilisi.

The tourism infrastructure is comparable to the rest of Europe, at a third of the prices. And for a country where tourism is growing rapidly, I’ve hardly ever encountered a tout or felt cheated.

To tell you the truth, I can’t wait to go back.

Also read: Dreamy Airbnbs to Experience Europe Like a Local

Badrijani nigvzit and pkhali (eggplant & spinach with walnut paste) – vegan and delicious.

How to ensure you’ll be able to enter Georgia on an Indian passport

Forget about entering with an e-visa. A record number of Indian travellers have been deported from Tbilisi this year, and immigration officials are not inclined to honour the e-visa. It isn’t worth risking your flight costs, hotel bookings or work leave. Besides, it might shatter your Caucasus dream.

Use the alternate option to enter Georgia – a valid and used visa for the US, UK or Europe (Schengen) on your Indian passport.

While entering the country, the immigration official looked at my passport with some concern at first. But as he flipped through and saw my US visa, he relaxed. No more questions asked, no documents checked.

I know it sucks on many levels, it sounds unwelcoming, it seems tedious. But what can I say, it’s worth the hassle if you want to experience the breathtaking beauty of Georgia and its people.

Scenes from a mashrutka (shared taxi) along the countryside of Georgia.

Would you consider travelling to Georgia despite the visa hassle? How do you deal with visas on the Indian passport?

Follow my nomadic adventures live on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

US Tourist Visa for Indians: Tips and Requirements
How to Score a Schengen Visa on an Indian Passport
Canada Tourist Visa for Indians

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