Monday, December 18, 2017


Shaji and I had agreed to meet up at 5 pm on 12th from where we would go to his lovely home for drinks and dinner. On the way we stopped at a supermarket for a couple of things I wanted to pick up. Amaretto biscuits and soft jelly candies I had had at the B&B were on my purchase list. Special goodies were on ample display for Xmas shoppers. Shaji had prepared a whole lot of stuff for dinner. But generous helping of artichokes in olive oil, steamed assorted seafood and fried chicken wings more than stuffed me, besides the Glenfiddich. The lively conversation revolved around life in the country, opportunities for new generation and work. Shaji is an excellent conversationalist and I lost my sense of time. After 9pm I suggested we leave as I had to pack up and get up early to go to the airport.

I had a 10 am flight out of Milan on the 13th. This meant that I had to take a taxi to Centrale at 6.30am, from where I could take a 7am, or thereabouts, bus to the Malpensa airport. Over breakfast on the 12th Cinzia offered to get me a reliable taxi. When I didn't get her confirmation till late evening I was a bit ruffled. But she sent me a message in the night that Fluvio would be at the B&B to pick me up at 6.30. I was more than a bit jittery knowing what happens in India about such promises. I needn't have been. Fluvio was right on time and he dropped me off at Milano Centrale after a wonderful conversation about the city, its growth and his own personal experiences.

I was just in time for the bus that left a few minutes after 7 am. Having woken up quite early I dozed for most part of the drive to the airport. When I woke up I marveled at the amazing sight of snowcapped Alps that 'fenced' the airport. It looked as if the airport and the surrounding region had been neatly placed in a bowl with snowcapped sides. Despite having checked in online I had to wait an eternity to drop my bag; some glitch with the software, I was informed. Two shots of Baccardi and coke, snacks, breakfast and "Munna Micheal" helped me through to Abu Dhabi.

I wonder why we have to face gargantuan and slow moving immigration counters in India. Of course, all the paperwork has been done away with. Even then, I am sure, passengers need not queue up for so long to secure immigration clearance. Even security check in India is so cumbersome. Everywhere these days, security and immigration are a simple walk through experience. But not so in our country. We have to stand, shuffle, stand and suffer.


8. Santa Maria delle Grazie is a 15th century church built by the Duke of Milan and served as a Dominican convent, the refectory of which contains The Last supper, a Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece completed between 1494 and 1498. Miraculously the painting survived a vicious aerial attack by the Allied forces in 1943, while many others perished. In 1980 the entire complex was accorded a World heritage site status by UNESCO. The church is open for worship and tour, while the refectory is a museum, which requires a prior booking for a fee of Euro14.

9. Sforza Castle is another iconic place of tourist interest in Milan. Remnants of a 14th century fort were used by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, in the 15th century to build his resident castle. It was enlarged over centuries by successive residents of the castle, until it became one of Europe’s largest citadels in the 18th century. Today the castle, or what remains of the original structures houses the city’s many museums and art collections. A short walk through the gardens of the Castle lead to the Sempione Park.

10. The Sempione Park is adjacent to the gardens of the Sforza Castle where the triumphal arch “Arco della Pace” is a riveting masterpiece. The Porta Sempione stands at a place that housed another gate to Milan city. The Arco della Pace dates back to the 19th century and is a celebration of the Napoleonic years.

11. Dedicated to St Mary of the Nativity, the Milan cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan. The first church in the premises date back to the early 4th century. Churches and basilicas were added to propagate the Cathedral. However, a devastating fire in the 11th century left many of the structures damaged and unusable. Reconstruction of the Cathedral lasted the whole of six centuries and it was a Napoleonic order that signaled the finish of the Cathedral reconstruction in 1805. The roads radiating from the present day Duomo and the roads that ring it show the importance of the Duomo in the development of the city. The Milan Cathedral is the largest church in Italy and the third in the whole world.

12. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is Italy’s oldest shopping mall – built between 1865 and 1877 - and is named after the first king of the Kingdom of Italy. Christmas gaiety is exemplified by the massive Xmas tree put up within the Galleria by Swarovski and decked up with crystals of varying sizes and shapes; mouthwatering indeed. Four mosaics on the ground of the central octagonal portray the coat of arms of Turin, Florence, Rome and Milan. It is said that if a person spins on his heel three times on the testicles of the bull from the Turin coat of arms it will bring the person good luck to visit the city once again; I had done that in 2014 and here I am today, once again, inflicting unspeakable pain on the bull!

Sunday, December 17, 2017


After a wash and additional warm garment fortifications I ventured out into the cold in search of the San Donato metro, which I was told was a 15 minute walk. That walk lasted the better part of thirty minutes with the aid of Google maps, a physical map of the city and directions elicited from many kind passersby! My sense of direction is so awful that I could lose my way even on a straight road. On the way, however, I  came across a statue of our country's "Father of the Nation", who looks increasingly more relevant in foreign lands than in our own.

The public transport network of trains, trams and buses is very efficient and lets you commute seamlessly on a single ticket. The one day pass for Euro4.50 is a great bargain for tourists. Between the afternoon of 10th and forenoon of 12th I covered all of what I had set out to see and experience, including the snow.

1. The San Siro stadium was opened in 1926 and is now home to two of the celebrated Italian football clubs, the Inter and AC Milan. It is the largest stadium in Italy with a seating capacity of over 80,000 persons for a game. A grand sight indeed, but missed the opportunity of a stadium visit as it was being readied for a match.

2. The Cimitero Monumentale, Monumental Cemetery, was built in the second half of the 19th century to consolidate small cemeteries that dotted the city into large ones. Along with the other in Maggiore this cemetery is one of the largest in Italy and was designed by a noted architect of that time. It houses elaborate sculptures, temples, obelisks and works of art that serve as tombs for some of the prominent citizens of the city. Some sculptures are extremely poignant as some others as outlandish.

3. The Napoleonic gates of Porta Nuova was built in 1810-13 of sandstone. The decay of the gates makes it stick out like a sore thumb, especially since the neighborhood is receiving a complete makeover into a modern precinct with high rise buildings, shopping malls and parks.

4. The Colonne di San Lorenzo is a set of tall Roman column ruins, dating back to the 2nd century, almost in the centre of the city. They are directly in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which was originally built in the 4th century and renovated to its present form after many disasters over the centuries.

5. The Naviglio Grande is one of the major canal systems in the Lombardy region of Italy. Initially started in the 12th century as an irrigation project it soon morphed into a navigation channel, ferrying goods and people. It is one of the busiest places in Milan with vendors, bakers and tourist attractions occupying center stage. The smell of fresh bakes took me into a bakery from where I emerged with a huge Crockett and chocolate donut. The cold was increasingly affecting me. That's when i met Rana, a Bangladeshi who has been staying in Naviglio Grande area for 21 years, vending seasonal products. I bought a pair of gloves and cap from him, at a special discount!

6. The Porta Ticinese was one of the several Spanish gates that ringed the city in the 16th century. The gate was demolished and rebuilt in the 19th century, as were most others, to serve as toll gates to the city. At the top of the gate is the message "to peace that frees peoples", added after the Napoleonic wars. The Gate is a major tourist attraction in Milan, along with Naviglio Grande.

7. Snow was not on the cards. But the weather turned without much notice. After 4 pm it got dark and windy with traces of rain, which soon became flaky. When I emerged from the San Donato metro station by 4.30pm it had started snowing. It snowed through the dinner meeting and became incredibly cold. Wasn't I happy to get under a warm quilt on a comfy cot?


If someone had asked me a month back about my chances of visiting Milan any time soon I would have responded by saying, "Zilch". That is what I like most about life. It serves up cards that you never expect, pleasant or unpleasant. I have been served so many pleasant ones that it has helped me to appreciate the unpleasant ones as part of life’s great balance.

I work for Genchi India Pvt Ltd in Chennai as its Director Operations. The owner of the Company is the ebullient Ali Ashraf, who I had got acquainted with in my drive through Kazakhstan on the way to London. When he asked me to be part of company negotiations in Milan I was honored and happy at the same time; honored to be included in the team and happy to be visiting Milan once again. I had been to Milan in August 2014 during the London expedition. A friend I had made at the time, Shaji Paramkulangara, had become a regular FB mate. While planning the trip I took inputs from him and agreed to catch up on one of the days I would be in Milan.

I travelled to New Delhi on 1 December to arrange for a Schengen visa. The travel dates for Milan were yet to be confirmed, but I had to ensure that the visa was available soonest. Applying in New Delhi was the surest way to ensure its early issue, I was advised. And sure enough the visa was issued on 4th, despite two intervening holidays. And I was mightily impressed by the VFS facility functioning from the basement of the Shivaji Stadium metro station. If only the railways and metros in the country could exploit its premises like the DMRC they could make a pretty packet and at the same time offer a much better experience to travelers and shoppers.

I zeroed in on Qatar Airways finally for the flight to Milan from Chennai after exploring many options, even those of flying from Cochin and Mumbai. The meeting was confirmed for 9.30 am on 11th. To facilitate a strategy meet with Mr Ali in Milan I scheduled to reach early on 10th. I gave myself an extra day in Milan to attend to leftover business, if any, and booked the return on 13th. The weather promised to be cold, in keeping with the season, with forecast for light snow on the 12th. I hoped to catch some bright weather outside the meetings to take a quick tour of the city.

The meeting was in San Donato and I sourced a B&B close to the meeting place. Shaji told me that the best way to get to town from Malpensa airport would be to take a coach, which took about an hour from the airport to Milano Centrale. From there I registered that the Metro network would reach me to the B&B without a fuss. Later, however, Shaji offered to drive me from Milano Centrale to the B&B. Thus, all arrangements had been made for the three day tour.

The flight was at 9.15 pm on 9th. I decided to book an Ola cab at 5 pm and finally managed a share taxi at 6 pm; being a Saturday evening cabs were few and rare. I started to panic as the share taxi stopped at two locations to pick up passengers who were not worried about one who had to get to the airport. As it was peak time on a Saturday evening I was stuck, not able to get an independent cab. After much fretting and panic I managed to get one by 6.30 pm. The traffic holdups at toll booth, intersections and construction locations raised the panic levels intolerably. I started bullying the driver like a jockey on a laggard horse. When I finally reached the airport I was experiencing a nervous meltdown; the check-in and immigration was completed without much ado. It had been a jumpy ride and I needed to cool off. A large cup of hot coffee and a donut helped soothe the nerves.

The flight to Abu Dhabi was on time. Besides a helping of some lousy wine and passable rice and chicken curry the time spent in the aircraft was unremarkable. I managed to watch the highly recommended movie, "A killing in the Ganj", before the change of aircraft in Abu Dhabi. The terminal was crowded and looked inelegant. The duty free at the airport was so-so but had great prices for liquor. I picked up a couple of bottles to fortify me for the grey weather in Milan. I slept through most of the flight after dinner and watching "Half Girlfriend".

The flight was half hour late into Milan, but the faster than quick immigration, baggage retrieval and Customs made up for that. I walked out of exit gate 4 and found the Terravision coach bound for Milano Centrale. After paying Euro8 for the ticket I tucked the bags into the luggage hold of the bus. Dressed in a shirt and a thick windcheater I braved the cold windy conditions for some time and then sought refuge within the coach. Being a Sunday there were hardly anyone about. The coach reached Centrale in less than an hour where Shaji was waiting for me. After initial pleasantries he drove me to the place I was booked to stay. The drive to the B&B was more than I had anticipated.
I had picked the B&B over many fancy recommendations on the internet. The minute I entered the cozy three bedroom apartment and met with Cinzia, who minded the B&B, I knew I had made the right choice. After showing me to my comfortable room, that had an attached bathroom, I was served excellent Italian coffee, cake and croissants. In between mouthfuls of the goodies I got practical guidance on how to see the sights of Milan using the metro train network.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Day 17 - Bangalore to Kanyakumari to Chennai - 12 June 2017

When I started from Keys Hotel, Bangalore at 4 am the destination I had in mind for the day was the fourth corner, Kanyakumari. ORH had been booked in Kanyakumari for the next day and I had to get that advanced by a day. Ashok Kumar, Sr. Divisional Operations Manager of Trivandrum Division came to my rescue. He also arranged for the Station Manager of Kanyakumari railway station to be on standby to attest the log sheet. It was exactly 650 km from the hotel in Bangalore to the railway station in Kanyakumari. Much beyond expectations was covering this part of the journey in 7 hours. When I reached the railway station and got the log sheet attested by the Station Manager just after 11 am, technically all four corners had been covered. But, the Record Drive will be complete only upon reaching Chennai, as the expedition started from there.

If I were to halt in Kanyakumari I had a lot of time to kill in the day. after occupying the ORH I went for a drive to the Gandhi Mandapam at the land’s end to enjoy the beach and the lovely views across the sea. The Vivekananda Rock looked majestic and tourists seemed to have swarmed her despite the not so calm sea. When I visited Kanyakumari on excursion from school I remember having marveled at the three colors of sand one could gather from the beach. All that is past and kids today can’t do that today; the beach itself is an apology.

On the way back to the ORH I had a masala dosa for lunch. Before dozing off to sleep in the ORH I decided to drive to Chennai and complete the expedition this day itself instead of ‘wasting time’ in Kanyakumari. The two hour rest gave me the appropriate fuel to make a dash for the finishing point. At 2.45 pm I signed out of the ORH and left for Chennai – the final part of the FCoI.

I lived a dream during the day with the Champion. She felt so light behind the wheel that it seemed to me that she was raring to be back home. There were many moments of anxiety during the day but, together, we braved them and got to Chennai to complete the tough expedition. It was her show. The second leg of the day from Kanyakumari to Chennai was 685 km in 8 hours and 45 minutes. Reached the end of the expedition at the House of Hiranandani, Chennai at 2330 hours. It was 1334 km in 15 hours and 45 minutes today.

The previous record for solo FCoI of 26 days, 22 hours and 15 minutes (647 hours and 15 minutes) was bettered quite handsomely. 13214 km was done in 16 days and 19 hours (403 hours) to complete the FCoI expedition, thereby shaving almost 40 percent off the existing record. Most definitely, the documents have to be verified and the record certified by Limca Book of Records. When I got back to my apartment, despite the late hour I decided to make up for the nearly three weeks of 'parched' existence with a double shot of Beluga vodka!
FCoI in summary: 13214 kms in 403 hours at 777 kms per day and overall average speed of 57.5 kmph. Total driving hours 299 hours and 15 minutes, which was 57 percent of the start to finish time. Consumed 1000 ltrs of diesel at an average cost of Rs. 59.4 per litre, fuel efficiency per litre was 13.5 km. Travelled through 17 states in 17 days to break the existing record of 647 hours and 15 minutes.

Distance, time taken and average speed for the four corners were as below:
Kanyakumari to Tezu (first corner) – 4108 km, 66 hr 10 mt, 62 kmph
Tezu to Leh (second corner) – 3796 km, 73 hr 20 mt, 52 kmph
Leh to Koteshwar (third corner) – 2624 km, 50 hr 20 mt, 52 kmph
Koteshwar to Kanyakumari (fourth corner) – 2686 km, 39 hr 50 mt, 67 kmph

My heartfelt thanks go out to each one of you who supported, encouraged and egged me on during this tough expedition; it would be unfair to take names because I am certain to leave out many, for that was the kind of all-round assistance, prayers and motivation I received. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Day 16 - Pune to Bangalore - 11 June 2017

I anticipated the day’s drive to be stress free and smooth, as I had done this stretch quite a few times in the past. I also decided to leave later than is usual, at 5 am. Access to the highway NH48 was neither far nor difficult. Normally it is a nightmare to leave a city because of poor sign posting. However, nowadays with the assistance of navigation systems, that problem has been more or less eliminated. I have seen terrible traffic snarls near the Khambatki ghat, a mountain pass through the Sahyadri range on the NH4. Early in the morning the pass is generally free.

The sight of the Suvarna Vidhan Soudha just off the highway near Belgaum made me get out of the car to take in. Apparently the Vidhan Soudha was built at a cost of nearly Rs. 500 crores to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Karnataka formation day. Belgaum district has been in the centre of a border dispute between the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka since long. In order to spike any further dispute the Karnataka Government undertook this extravaganza by acquiring 127 acres of land from farmers. The question uppermost on most minds is: Was it required to bleed the exchequer for one sitting of the Assembly here every year? Is our democracy so devoid of accountability?

I was famished by the time I reached the Kamat Upachar outlet beyond Sira at 3 pm. After fueling at the outlet beside the Upachar I had a leisurely snack of dosa and coffee. It was just another 150 km to the Keys Hotel on the Hosur Road. The transit from NH48 to NH44 via the NICE road was a beauty. The bypass has considerably speeded up the movement from one link to the other. Finally, just before 6 pm I reached the Keys Hotel and was lodged in a comfortable room. The day spanned 882 km in under 12 hours of driving. Rains, sometimes quite heavy, had slowed progress before noon. But the most irritating factor was the 17 toll plazas I had to navigate by shelling out Rs. 1,111 as toll fee. It is not the fee per se that is the irritant; it is suffering serpentine queues and quite often some boorish car owners try to impress the toll clerk with their ID to seek exemption from payment of toll fee. Why anyone should be exempted from payment is beyond comprehension when all those who are exempted, as per the list displayed at toll plazas, are those who are eligible for reimbursement of expenses while on duty. If they are not on duty they must pay. Anyway, the toll plazas must go, in the interest of saving fuel, time and management cost.

However, the more important thing that occupied my mind was that the fourth corner will come up tomorrow when I reach Kanyakumari.

10 March 2018 - Day 7 - Melbourne to Mount Gambier

I was ready by 6.30 am to leave; the night rest was not adequate owing to incessant cough and feverishness. Despite a hot water bath I ...