Sunday, June 18, 2017

Quirky Seattle - Fremont

The very first view of Fremont that caught my eyes.
A 20 minutes’ bus ride from Downtown Seattle, and the bus would drop you off near a café next to a bridge declaring the place to be Fremont. At first sight, it would be just like any other neighbourhood of Seattle, but look closely and you would be able to notice a colourful funky but informative direction post. Lo behold! You are at the Centre of the Universe. Now notice people around you. At any time of a bright day you would notice people with kids walking or people of bikes moving in a particular direction. Follow them, out of curiosity (not stalking level) and there below the bridge you will meet the famous troll of Seattle!


Welcome to a super interesting and quirky neighbourhood - Fremont!
For many people, who frequently travel to western countries – Graffiti and random statues at middle of some random street might not be an interesting encounter. But being from India, at least the statues and structures at seemingly insignificant corners of Seattle fascinated me a lot. Recently, a blogger friend of mine decided to do a series on street art across the globe and it was that series that prompted me to write this post because Fremont in Seattle is a must visit for its quirkiness!

Do you see the centre of the universe? 
Fremont, Seattle is known to be a treasure house of creativity! From the centre of the universe to life size statue of Lenin, from a troll under the bridge to Patches & Gertrude dancing away to glory – you can see it all during a languid stroll in the neighbourhood! Here are the five things to see when in Fremont Seattle:

Say Hello to the Troll!

1.   Troll under the bridge – I have already mentioned it so many times, that I am sure you knew this was a must in my list. In 1989, Fremont Arts Council decided to give some life to the folklore of troll under the Aurora Bridge and thus this troll was born. But unlike Scandinavian folklore where trolls were feared this troll is a friendly non-living being loved by kids and adults alike and is one of the most frequented sites in Fremont.
A handshake with Lenin?

2.  Statue of Lenin – This life size cast bronze sculpture of Vladimir Lenin was created by Emil Venkov and installed in Slovenia in 1988. Wondering then how it got to Seattle? In 1989, An American veteran - Lewis Carpenter found statue lying in ruin after the 1989 Revolution. As an appreciation and recognition of skill and craftsmanship of Venkov, Carpenter was determined to save the statue. Carpenter mortgaged his house to get the sculpture and got it to Issaquah. After he died the statue was owned by his family and they installed it temporarily in Fremont for viewing and sale. The reason this statue is worth seeing is because apparently, it is the only representation portraying Lenin surrounded by guns and flames instead of holding a book or waving his hat – symbolizing his violet ways of revolution.
When we made the people wear colours of University of Washington

3.  People Waiting for the Interurban – The electric trolleys don’t run from Seattle to Everett anymore, but still some people wait at Fremont to board one. Not real people, but aluminium statues with a dog at Fremont Interurban stop, installed in 1979, are the funkiest of the lot of statues in the area. You can dress them the way you want and make them as real as you want and that makes this buck really special!
Dancing away to glory!

4.  Patches & Gertrude – I didn’t know this, but Patches and Gertrude were titular characters of a famous live kids show that ran for about two decades and had a huge fan following in the Puget Sound region. In 2008, a life size statue of ‘Patches and Gertrude forever in Dance’ was installed, courtesy fan contributions. Interestingly, this installation has a place to leave buttons on Patches’ famously multi button jacket and a bronze TV box in form of a donation box. Donations left with patches makes its way to the Seattle Children’s Hospital – hence making kids happy even after all this time!
I was aiming for the moon and imaging night, in case you are wondering why my eyes are closed.

5.  The Centre of the Universe – Do you want to know exactly how far is moon from where you are standing? Do you know how much distance you need to cover to travel to Antarctica? Do you know where Paris is exactly – distance, direction, any idea? Well the answer is at the Centre of the Universe if the a colourful post right at the start of Fremont Neighbourhood. And if you like geography or are inquisitive about random distances and places – you must spend some time at the Centre of the Universe!

Apart from theses – you should also see the rocket, have some local cider, and be part of some Neighbourhood parade like the Oktober Fest or Solstice parade!
Have you been to any place that is equally fun and quirky? Do let me know in the comments below!

In case you just want to spend a peaceful evening - Fremont has that option too!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Kashmir Tales – The Carpet Weavers

If you guys have been following my blog regularly, you might have noticed I always go quiet for two weeks every three months. First of all - my apologies and than you all for still following me! I am trying to juggle with work and full time education along with travelling and my travel blog, and every 3 month I have exams which leaves me with no time to write for a week. But as always, I am back and this time with the final chapter of my Kashmir Tales.

The carpet weaving machine
Kashmir flaunts its pristine gift of nature and survives with quaint, war zoned, recovering lanes full hopeful faces searching for life and smiling at what they have. Beautiful, quiet and enchanting is the place but equally amazing is the amount of art that flourished and has survived in this state. We have all heard of the Pashmina weaving that happens only in Kashmir but another thing that is ethnic to Kashmir is the Kashmiri carpet and rug weaving and guess what carpets made in Kashmir are not famous just in India but worldwide!

When I travel, I interact a lot with locals, get to know the place and its people as much as I can, collect stories, but often fail to pen them all down. In this current series of Kashmir Tales, I have made a conscious effort to share a piece of my local exploration of Kashmir and today I want to tell you more about the carpet weavers of the area.

During my stay in Srinagar I visited one of the premier carpet manufacturers and dealers of Kashmiri Carpets – Shawart Palace. Not really old, but well known for bringing a lot of carpet weavers under one roof. Right when you enter Shawart, you see a loom and a man weaving there, pretty oblivious to the customers entering and staring at his work. You see the work for about 20 minutes and it leaves you awestruck. You walk inside and you see a plethora of completed designs and you are mesmerized with the intricate work that has gone into each of the carpets and rugs in the room.

Rug and carpet weaving in Kashmir dates back to 11th century when the locals wove simpleton rugs for their own houses. Eventually with advent of Mughals in the Kashmir valley the rugs got artistic. But it was in the early 15th century when Badshah Zain-ul-Abidin brought a lot of Persian artisans with him to the valley who with the locals created regal rugs and carpets by blending pure wool and silk and by using the old school Persian techniques of hand woven rugs.

My dad, deep in conversation with the owner of the place.
The store owner at Shawart Palace told us that Kashmiri Carpets were famous because of their design and technique. Unlike the common carpets, that are tufted, Kashmiri rugs are hand knotted and hence are strong and ageless in a way. He also told me how these carpets are in high demand abroad, especially in gulf countries for, unlike the Persian rugs, Kashmiri rugs use bright colours as major thread work is of silk on wool and still manage to create major Islamic designs, oriental prints, floral styles and now days a lot of Rajasthani prints too. He said they have 50 something weavers working for their store and one weaver finishes a standard 900 by 900 knots carpet in about 8 months but as carpets sell for very high rates abroad it the produce is enough to give the workers, the shop and the actual carpet handloom more than enough revenue per year.

I did not dare ask him how much overpriced or under-priced a rug is at the store for Indians from the point of view of a weaver and how much a weaver earns. Neither did I questions the price of the ones they export, because looking around at the work I thought rich people wouldn’t mind paying for the quality they would be getting due to the skillfulness and diligence of the craftsmen who pour their hearts out for months to create these seemingly ostentatious carpets.

I feel a lot of times that some form of art is priceless and the Kashmiri carpets sure seem to fall in the priceless zone.

Do you guys talk to locals during your travel and try to find more about some famous art or cultural trait of the place? Do let me know in the comments below.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Kashmir Tales – Walnut Wood Carving

Wood is just everywhere in Kashmir, but something is special at most places!
Last week I told you about how the heart of a city was dying in Kashmir, so today I decided to show you how and entire local industry of Kashmir has survived the test of time!

So much to see and so much to admire!
On my way back from Sonmarg to Srinagar, I stopped midway to click photos in the middle of nowhere, there - a small stream cascaded through a huge groove of seemingly dead old trees. While gazing around I noticed a group of three Shikaras loaded with pieces of wood trunks and two men unloading them from the shikara and transporting them in a small truck. Out of curiosity I asked out driver what that was? And if it was wood for bats – wooden bats are manufactured in great numbers in Kashmir. He said it was a ‘Budha Wontkul’ which meant old walnut tree and he said ‘Yeah Dal ya Baramulla jaega.’ (This will go to Dal Lake or Baramulla)

Walnut wood carving!
On our way back he told us how most of the carving work we see inside the famous houseboats is actually walnut wood carving all done locally. Since Jammu and Kashmir is the only place in India where you find walnut trees, it made sense that the locals preferred walnut to teak or saal for carving and making wooden furniture. Walnut carving in Kashmir dates back to the early 15th century and is believed to have come with Uzbek Missionaries to the Mughal period.

Some silently worked on the cold winter morning

Luckily the very next day I got to visit Dijoo Art Emporium in Dal lake which is one of the oldest lake based walnut wood carpentry centres of Srinagar. I saw a few logs outside and the huge boat and a man working diligently, creating objects delicately carved, chiseled and designed out of walnut wood. I saw it and I went inside without any hesitation to know more about the work on walnut wood. The Shop head at that time was more than eager to answer my fifty or so curious questions. He told me that they sell their material to outside Kashmir and their major buyers are from Delhi and Mumbai.

While some showed us what they were making.
He laughed at my naïve queries around why walnut and why not any other local trees or teak that is used to build the houseboats. He replied to me with a proud smile – ‘Yeh Teak Weak humare ghar ka nahi na, hum toh akhrot ke pedos se kamaal karna jaante hain!’ (Teak is not a local tree here. We are skilled enough to work with walnut trees then why compromise with wood quality – meaning walnut wood was of higher quality.) When I asked him if due to demand a lot of walnut grooves were being destroyed and that was bad since it is very rare in India as it is – he told me that locals cut a walnut tree only after it is 250 to 300 years old and that too if the tree doesn’t yield well for straight 3 years or so.

A relative of mine had got this walnut wood clock ages ago

He also told me that the oldest walnut grooves were in the Sonmarg area but the area has thinned down due to the demand. (Which told me why there just few logs on those shikaras) The locals apparently plan 2 shrubs in spring for every tree cut during winters but since they do not cut the trees before age, walnut wood work has been getting expensive with time. He told me the costliest wood work were the ones made from the wood closest to the roots because they are darker and more durable compared to the trunks or the branches but due to shortage of raw materials lot of manufacturers have started using the bark and branches of younger trees extensively for they work leaving the tree still in place to grow, because exporting walnuts is also a big part of Kashmir’s economy.

Table full of art

With so much information to process and so many artifacts to admire, I was one happy traveler that day, proud to know how locals value their produce and nature. He offered me to visit their main factory in town just outside Srinagar the next day but unfortunately, due to my travel plans I had to give that a miss. I collected a number of Shikaras and branch carved maple leaves from the man at work just outside the store and left happy to have known more about a local art that has survived the test of time and is still strong in the Kashmir Valley.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Kashmir Tales - Dal, a way of life!

First view of Srinagar - after the flight obviously.

A placid lake, covering almost the entire stretch of Srinagar, known to tourists for the house boats that create a fence between the main land and the lake – yes this is the Dal Lake most of us know (or well – just Dal because Dal mean lake in Kashmiri Native Tongue), but there is so much more to this lake and what it is to Srinagar. Dal aka Srinagar’s Jewel is not the only lake of Srinagar but is certainly the most important one. Locals have been using the produce of Dal since the Mughal period (the period when the earliest records regarding Dal Lake have been found).
It is not just about touristy houseboats, people live on and around the lake!
Of late, my timeline and twitter feed has been filled with posts and pictures of Kashmir, which got me all nostalgic about my amazing trip to Kashmir. And made me realize, if I can do something to show the world the side of Kashmir I saw – I should do it and tell you guys more about the people and their lifestyle there! So here are my two pence – well 3-4 posts about the place that longs to be called heaven on earth again. First of which is all about the place we all know as Dal Lake!

Early morning shikaras and boats leaving for the floating market area
The earliest records of the lake mention agricultural activities the locals had developed on Rads – the floating gardens or landmasses on the lake. These Rads are the main source of Haak – a leaf or saag that is predominant in Kashmiri Cuisine. Apart from that these Rads are used for cultivating tomatoes and melons and numerous lovers like Daphne, daisy, water lilies and many more. But Rads are not just famous for cultivation, they create a system of wetlands that has become home to for knows how many species of birds and fish. And with wetlands on a shallow sweet lake you are bound to get lotus pads - which also influences the local cuisine tremendously.
A flower seller's boat
But all that was how Dal always influenced Srinagar. The major turn in the pattern came when the British decided to build Boathouses in the lake after Dogra Maharaja of Kashmir refrained from giving them permission to build new houses on land in the valley. The lavish boathouses built back then involved a lot of skilful carpentry on almond and teak wood and for this a lot of locals, proficient in walnut wood carving were employed. 

Since employment increased a lot of locals started settling around the lake and many of them built themselves smaller houseboats on the lave hence creating a whole new society on the lake. Now the lake is a flurry of activities throughout the day as the society then created has thrived and found its way of life on this lake.

Just another day for a dal dweller
The current dwellers of the lake are not only artisans or Hanjis (fishermen), but also many rich merchants have made this lake their home! From floating markets to official structures like the Post office – this lake has it all. 

Post office on a boat!
You sure see a lot of tourists enjoying a tour of the lake on bright coloured Shikaras but you can’t miss out the locals traveling on shikaras too – to and fro, from their lake bound settlements to the mainland Srinagar. While as tourists you float around the hustling bustling lake market, ducks of the lake roam freely in the same area unhinged by your presence, not bothered by the commotion.

Do you see me?
The lake has found its harmony with people and nature and so have the people who accepted the lake as their home. But sadly, due to the unplanned growth of population on the lake during the 20th century and the crazy footfall the houseboats get in Kashmir, Dal seems to be dying. 

Can you imagine this lake is dying?
Slowly, but still dying. Government has been trying to regularly clean the lake and save the wildlife there, but responsible tourism and local awareness is the need of the hour. If we fail to protect the lake in time, we would not just lose an amazing piece of nature, a lot of people would lose their way of life.

Dal is a way of life in Srinagar afterall!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hidden Gem of Seattle - Kubota Japanese Garden

Small ponds and colorful trees are everywhere!

Filtered sunbeams sparkling on streams that meet the calm waters of ponds full of koi fish. Some tall some short trees, all casting a cold shadow on the skipping stones of life. Some bell, seemingly far away, breaks the tranquility of the area but only to introduce a pleasant occasional symphony to Nature’s song. And there goes the trail where you meet kids frolicking, dogs jumping around and people basking in the warmth of the sunny day

Kubota doesn't have small Furins but sure has a huge bell!
Ever since I have come to the United States, I have a new-found love for Japanese Gardens. I always loved Japanese traditional houses and country side thanks to all the ‘Animes’ I fell in love with growing up. Knowing that Seattle has such a significant American-Japanese connection, one of the first things I did after I got my admit to University of Washington was search for Japan Town (I was thinking in terms of China Town to be frank). 

Welcome to Kubota!
And it was during this search that I came across Seattle Japanese Gardens. There are two Japanese Gardens in Seattle - one well-known, at Washington Park Arboretum, and one known to few, tucked away in South Seattle. So, I being me, chose to explore Kubota Japanese Garden (久保田) near Rainier Beach and am recommending this place to all for this spring!
This is the first glimpse of the mini jungle inside!
Kubota Japanese Garden is tucked away in the centre of a residential area of South Seattle, but the park itself is nothing short of a mini forest. Occupying over twenty-acre landscape of the Rainier Valley, Kubota Japanese Garden was started Fujitaro Kubota in 1927 but it officially became a gardening landmark of Seattle in 1981 after Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board recognized the space.

Stepping stones and grass in this case representing yin and yang or stepping stones of life!
In 1927 an immigrant from Japan’s Shikoku Island, Fujitaro Kubota, bought five acres of a swampland near Lake Washington. Since he was an immigrant, he was never the owner of the land but that didn’t dwindle his love for traditional gardening and he back then started the rock garden part of Kubota. He was then sent to Idaho due to the situation in US during World War II, but he continued to supervise the building of the garden. Ages later, now in 2017, the place is a vibrant trail with hills, valleys and terraces, interlaced with streams and ponds with the typical stones of life, koi fish and beautiful bridges and two hidden waterfalls too (or maybe it was one that is at two levels and has a secret descending path!).

One of the small hidden waterfalls
So far I have been to 3 Japanese Gardens in the US and the array of structures and garden elements at Kubota just make it the best one! The gazebo and the terrace are now famous amongst wedding photographers while the bridges and the waterfall are just everyone’s favourite and must not be missed!

Gazebo look over point and wedding photo-shoots
Rock(stone) garden, maple woods, Mapes Creek, Stroll Garden and the mountain side give you an experience of an easy hilly trail away from the hustle bustle of city life while the park is actually in the Rainier Beach neighbourhood about 5 minutes away from the Rainier Beach Link Rail Station – aka pretty close to city life area!

The moon bridge! Do you get why? The other bridge is called the heart bridge. Bridges in Japanese gardens symbolize path to paradise.
Due to all the reasons, I just gave, and many more – sunny cool Seattle weather at it best included – Kubota Japanese Garden is my next ‘Seattle Spring’ explore suggestion!
Oh the colours! 
How to Get there:
Kubota Garden is located at 9817 – 55th Avenue South, on the corner of Renton Avenue S. and 55th Avenue South and is 5 minutes’ bus ride, 20 mins walk away from Rainier station. You could also take bus route 106 from Downtown to get there.
Reflection of life, reflection of nature - well this is reflection of a sunny day in Seattle!

Best Time to Visit:
All around the year – even during rainy days! Only During sunlight hours though.

P.S. Carry a bottle of water with you because the trail can dehydrate you under sun and tire you after a point.

And since it is spring now, expect a lot of flowers in the garden!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tulip Fields of Skagit Valley

Rows and rows of colours, swaying to the winds of pacific north west, setting the ground ablaze in a rainbow coloured flame. The closer you get, the bigger they get – individually enticing you to a flowered land that kind of captures your attention so much that you forget the hordes of people chattering around you. Only two things might break your trance – a view that seems more beautiful or a splash of the puddle you just stepped into because you were focusing on the flowers. But trust me – the view of tulip gardens and just roaming around in the bulb farms surrounded by hills and windmills is totally worth it!

I don’t know about people abroad, but every Indian is surely in love with tulip farms thanks to the elaborate dreamy sequences in Bollywood movies. Of course they were Dutch fields or Kashmiri fields but tulip farms are same everywhere, right? This Saturday, I witnessed the beauty of tulip fields at Skagit Valley, Mt Vernon in the state of Washington, United States and I am still in a spell cast by that place. Acres and acres of blossoms dancing on that priced sunny day. It totally was a sight I would love to go back to any day.

Nestled in a pristine valley surrounded by the Cascadia range, Mt. Vernon has several tulip fields that make it one of the best getaways from Seattle specially during spring. Two very famous tulip fields of the area are – Tulip Town and RoozenGaarde, and I made my way toward RoozenGarde for my flowery day out of Seattle. 

RoozenGaarde was established in 1985 by the Roozen family and Washington Bulb Company. Every spring for about 3 to 4 weeks, the garden is adorned with about 20-30 different variety of tulips (from what I could see), daffodils, iris and lilies. During late April and early may, RoozenGaarde and Tulip Town host the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival and this is the best time to visit Mount Vernon to bask in spring’s warmth and walk around the arrays of the flowers.

While RoozenGaarde is a vast area with more flowers, Tulip Town flaunts more variety and ensures more colours in a single picture frame. Sure, for people staying in the North West of the US, sighting a random bunch of tulips at road side is not that uncommon, but the tulip fields of Mt. Vernon give you an experience that is close to the one that one might have if in Netherlands or in Turkey. For once I could say too much of something wasn’t bad at all!

By the way - Trivia! - Even though tulip fields are now a well-known tourist attraction of Netherlands, the flowers and the idea of the fields is native to Turkey, Iran and Lebanon. Anyhow, people who cannot fly to the countries that are famous for the fields, and for people visiting Seattle till the first week of May, look of for sunny days and be sure to pay Mt. Vernon a visit!

How to Get There:
Skagit Valley is about 70 miles north of Seattle (Downtown) and it takes almost 2 hours to get there by road. This is the best way to reach Skagit valley since the buses from Seattle take about 3-4 hours and after a decent number of bus hops.

Where to Eat:
Do not eat at the gardens because it is crazy expensive! Instead make may to Mt Vernon city restaurants. There are plenty of options. 

About Tulip Town and RoozenGaarde:

Both the venues are just 2 miles away and you would require minimum 2 hours at atleast one of the places if you love photography or nature or both. Both places have a 7 USD entry fee which also covers your parking cost. Best time to visit the fields is either early morning or after 4:00 PM. This way you would avoid major traffic. Also the grounds are muddy so you would want to wear water resistant boots and keep your eye out for sunny days.
This week the farms are in full bloom and Friday is sunny – just letting you guys know.

P.S. – Keep a look out for Llamas and horses! I was excited like a child when I saw Llamas for the first time ever.