Category Archives: Travel

My Discovery of Russia (IV)


When I left for Russia, I feared the horror stories would come true. I had been raised to believe that the Russians were a cold, cruel people and I was told that Russia was a racist country.

My fears quickly vanished. I didn’t experience any racism in Russia. I was treated warmly and respected by everyone wherever I went – by my hosts, hostel mates, the people on the streets and at the railway stations and in the shops.

I saw the Russians taking part in the same primordial joys and sorrows we all do: their children kicked and screamed, their street performers shared their music with the world. They embraced the dance of life firmly, earnestly and fearlessly.

Moscow and St. Petersburg are gone, but I can still see myself myself walking alone those canals, taking joy in the fanfare of the World Cup and parading along Nevsky Prospect, one of the greatest thoroughfares I have seen anywhere.

More than anything, my time in Russia taught me more about myself and what it means to be human. In the end understanding triumphed over prejudice and fear:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is written in your books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and experts.
Do not believe in stories because they have been handed down for many generations.
But after observation, interaction and your own experience,
when you find that something is good
and that it agrees with your heart,
then accept it as the truth” (the Buddha).

Thank you Russia, for letting me see, experience and discover such good.


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My Discovery of Russia (Part III)





Naturally, I was going to ask questions about politics and social issues in Russia. I was fortunate to discuss these questions with Dennis, my hostel mate in Moscow who was also Russia.

According to Dennis, Putin isn’t the highest power in Russia. He is in fact a frontman, manager and negotiator for Russia’s ruling families, those “oligarchs” who own major stakes in Russia’s oil, mining and telecommunications industries.

Still, Putin was everywhere. On every street stall and in every Metro station and souvenir shop, I saw his hulking muscles on rather tawdry looking T-shirts, mugs and even on Matryoshka dolls. One shop on Arbat Street in Moscow had a doll with Putin on the outside, and Trump on the inside …

I couldn’t tell how popular Putin really was. Dennis said that most of the younger generation had grown weary of him after his 18 years in power. Still, if anything, Putin struck me more as a symbol of Russian pride and manhood in standing up to the West.

On June 14, 2018, I took the train to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg was the capital of imperial Russia and the site of the country’s great revolutions. I came here to see the history and I ended up learning more about Russia’s history of revolutions.

In 1881, the Czar Alexander II was assassinated by a group of political revolutionaries. I visited the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood below, which marks the site of his assassination. In 1887, Lenin’s brother was executed for taking part in an attempted assassination of Emperor Alexander III.


On June 17, 2018, I visited the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace, one of the world’s greatest museums and the residence of Russia’s last czars respectively. In front of the Winter Palace is Palace Square (below). This was the site of the Russian Revolution of 1905 which created a legislative assembly and constitution for Imperial Russia.

On November 7, 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace from Palace Square. They forced the abdication of Nicholas II and created the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union ended in 1991. In August 1991, Communist hardliners within the Soviet Union attempted to overthrow the pro-reform Gorbachev and seize control of the government. The Russian people, under the leadership of Yeltsin, rose up and defeated that attempted coup.

Russia may be an authoritarian country, I thought, but Russians don’t take it lying down.

Gender and Sexuality

I was struck by how clearly the genders are demarcated in Russia.

The Russian men were jacked. They wore tight T-shirts and muscle shirts. The (younger) Russian women meanwhile often looked like Barbie dolls, wearing skimpy little tops and showing off as much leg as possible.




I saw men and women holdings hands everywhere. It was a Barbie and Ken fantasy.

What I didn’t see were any gays or lesbians openly expressing their affection. Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Russia, but “promoting” it in public is. I looked up some gay clubs in St. Petersburg, but when I found them, they were housed in dark, indiscreet buildings, with tinted windows and an intercom at the door.





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To Russia, With Love


From ignorance lead me to Truth
From darkness lead me to light
From death lead me to immortality
(the Upanishads).

When I left Canada for Russia, I was told about how I would not be welcome there. Russia, I was warned was a racist, unsafe country.

Without those warnings about Russia, I would not have triumphed over my own fears and ignorance. I left Russia ten days later having experienced a warmth, respect and humanity which I will always treasure.

What makes Russians human? It’s in their music, laughter and chatter. It’s in how they run for shelter from the pelting rain. It’s in how the anguished cries of a Russian infant tugs on your heart strings. It’s in the celebration of the World Cup by Iranians, Russians and Australians in this country and in the courtesy shown by Russians holding doors open for you or giving way to you on the Metro.


One stereotype I must resort to is the strength of the Russian people: they are a tough, direct and no-nonsense people. This should not be interpreted as obscuring their basic courtesy which they take great pride in. In fact, their directness enables them to emerge all the more human in being open, honest and straightforward.

There are many things I loved about visiting Russia.  I caught the fever and the spirit of the World Cup celebrations from around the world and met some great people from within Russia and from places like Brazil, England, Morocco and Morocco.

I loved exploring Russia’s culture, history and society along the canals of St. Petersburg and through its squares, cathedrals and palaces. The highlight for me would probably be Nevisky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s most famous street, immortalized by Gogol:

” There is nothing finer than Nevsky Avenue … in St. Petersburg it is everything … is there more gay, more brilliant, more resplendent than this beautiful street of our capital?”

Above all, I leave Russia remembering the importance of why we travel, to which I paraphrase the words of the Buddha:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Do not believe in anything simply because it is written in your books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and experts.
Do not believe in stories handed down for many generations.
But when after observation and experience, you find that something is good and that it agrees with your heart, then accept it as the truth.”

I leave Russia with a more open mind and a richer heart.

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At first glance, I found Berlin to be like other European cities, with its historic squares, cobble-stoned streets, stately apartment blocks and tree-lined canals. I stayed at a hostel (in the neighbourhood pictured below), in the Kreuzberg district, south-east of the city centre . The hostel was run by a young guy, Enrico.


Unlike London or Paris, Berlin is still quite cheap. The average lunch of a curry wurst and chips in my neighbourhood cost around 4 to 5 euros ($5-7).  The people are courteous, priding themselves on good service on the counter and good manners on the street.

While a good deal of its past was bombed to dust during World War II, there is still enough history in Berlin to fill the pages. Walking along the city’s most famous thoroughfare, the Unter Den Linten, I saw the statue of Frederick the Great of Prussia (below), the man who made Berlin the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. On one side of the Unter Den Linten was the the Humbolt University of Berlin, which boasts alumni as Schopenhauer, Marx, Engels and Einstein. I also paid my respects to Brecht, Fichte and Hegal who rest in the Dorotheenstadt cemetary.


One day, I caught a rickshaw from the Siegessäule (‘Victory Column’) to Potsdam Plaza. The rickshaw driver took me past the Brandenburg Gate (top) and the Reichstag, iconic monuments, if less grand than the Arch de Triomphe or the Capitol in D.C. He also rode us past the Holocaust memorial.


The reminders of Nazi Germany are there in monuments like the Neue Synagoge (above), which was set on fire during Kristallnacht in 1938. I visited the synagogue but not the memorial. Commemorating events does not mean visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons. Germany was defeated, partitioned and its people bore the Nazi stigma. If Germany sinned, it has atoned.

Enrico said that one reason Germans are polite is because they feel they must compensate to foreigners for Germany’s past. Still, if Germans are compensating for their past, then what about the British and French? And if Holocaust was the work of Nazis, it has also made Germany a convenient scapegoat for the anti-Semitism of all European societies …

In contrast to London and Paris, Berlin feels young, creative and new. The fall of the Berlin Wall let flow new energies. New buildings rise from the dust. In neighbourhoods like Schöneberg, I popped into public art galleries alongside bars and convenience stores. If it wasn’t the street musicians on the banks of the canal which kept me swaying by day, it was the nighclubs after sunset which kept the pulse going.

street music

This is a relaxed, free-thinking and cosmopolitan city. “A paradise,” one gay fellow proclaimed it whom I met at a bookshop in Schöneberg. The Turkish market at my doorstep brought together Germans and foreigners alike to buy silk, spices, fruits and vegetables and trinkets and haberdashery. My dinner of choice became the Turkish “Manti” – meat dumplings in yoghurt garnished with herbs and spices, topped off with a piece of baklava and some Turkish tea.

Alongside the Landwehr Canal by my hostel, the spring had scattered lovers, friends, book lovers and musicians jamming along its banks. Strolling along, I imbibed the perfumes of Arabic, French, Turkish and English mingling in breeze of spring. Great cities have their spirits and Berlin’s is the marijuana on the breeze, the old Turkish men playing bowls in the park  and the colour exploding across the city in its street art.


Thinking I was disappointed after four nights, I realized in those bittersweet moments of parting, that I had fallen for Berlin.




















In some ways, Berlin was like many other European cities with its historic squares, cobble-stoned streets, stately apartment blocks, canals and tree-lined avenues. I stayed at a hostel on the outskirts of the Kreuzberg district which is south-east of the city centre. It was certainly cheaper here than London, Paris or New York. The average lunch of a curry wurst and chips cost between 5 to 6 euros.

I found most of the people here to be courteous. The one exception was a vendor at a Turkish market who gave me a light slap on the back when I tried taking photos of his plates of dried rose petals without his permission. I suppose I asked for it; but then, he wouldn’t let me buy anything from his store after that.

Otherwise, Germans pride themselves on making a good impression and on good service. There was only friendly behaviour from the person behind the counter to the person on the street, good manners and a warm welcome. Compare that again to London, New York or Paris.

Unlike those cities, Berlin is not a world financial centre. Nor is it the mecca of fashion and style. Berlin suffered more bombing during WWII than any other European capital, which eradicated a good deal of its past. Although it was the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia, it has left less historical resonance than the imperial pomp of Louis XIV of Paris nor the centre of world trade like London, Germany not existing as such until 1871.

Still, there is enough history here to fill the pages. Berlin witnessed unification under Frederick the Great.  It was a center of the Enlightenment, bringing together Kant, Hegel and Schopenhaur. Philosophers and writers like Brecht, Fichte and Hegal rest eternally in the soil of the city.


One day, I had walked some distance to the Siegessäule (‘Victory Column’) when I was too knackered to walk back to Potsdam Plaza. I hired a rickshaw to take me instead. He drove me toward the Brandenburg Gate along the thoroughfare which had carried the procession of history, its Kaisers and Chancellors, its carriages and cavalcades. I had taken my photos of Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag earlier that date, iconic monuments certainly, though less grand than the Arch de Triomphe or the Capitol.


Elsewhere, the reminder of Nazi Germany are monuments like the Neue Synagoge (‘New Synagogue,’ pictured above) which was set on fire during Kristallnacht in 1938. My rickshaw driver also took me past the Holocaust memorial, which I did not visit. I had discussed Germany’s past a day or so earlier with Enrique, our hostel manager. I agreed with him that we should not visit the sins of the fathers on their sons. Germany has atoned. The fate of Germany and of Berlin after the war, including their partitions, were the work of foreigners. Germans even today bear the stigma of Nazi Germany before the world.

When I asked Enrique, why Germans ar eso polite, he answered that even this is partly due to German’s compensating to foreigners for their past. Surely then the British and French have lots to compensate for. And what of anti-Semitism. Hasn’t Germany become conveniently been scapegoated for the anti-Semitism which existed in all European societies.

The history of Berlin is no less covered in blood and gunpowder than other great capital. What’s remarkable is how not only has the city been rebuilt, but how it remains young. New buildings rise from the dust. The high streets in neighbourhoods like Schöneberg have public art galleries alongside their shops and restaurants. Neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg bustle with youth and energy in their musicians, artists and hipsters. The buzz of Berlin is there in nightclubs, in street jams, in the explosion of colour in its street arts.

street music

The city is friendly, relaxed and welcoming, gay-friendly, multicultural and cosmpolitan. My friend recently said that great cities have their own spirit. Berlin feels like Commercial Drive in Vancouver or Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, with its own spirit bubbling in the hookah, unfurling in the bazaars, waiting to be discovered in its bookshops.

Berlin is cosmopolitan and German. In Kreuzberg, Turkish and non-Turkish, German and foreigners live alongside on another. Walking along the canal by my hostel, I imbibed the perfumes of Arabic, French, Turkish and English mingling in breeze of spring.

German cuisine wasn’t the best, but nor was I expecting it to be. I stuck mostly to the Turkish food in Berlin. Whereas Berlin has every cusine available, many of these, like Vietnamese, Thai, Greek, Indian and burgers are available in Vancouver. Where Vancouver is deficient in Turkish restaurants, however, Berlin holds in abundance. My dish of choice was “Manti,” the first Turkish meal I ate in Istanbul when I visited in 2010. Manti consists of small dumplings stuffed with meat and served in warm yoghurt, herbs and spices. At just 5.50 euros, topped off with a cup of Turkish tea, I felt as satisfied as a sultan in that Turkish restaurant on Kottbusser Damm.

The restaurants and cares are not the only Turkish legacy in Berlin. The Turkish are everywhere the local society: at work in shops, cab drivers, students walking home from school, old men playing bowls in the park, mums taking their children out in strollers. The Turkish market is an institution in Kreuzberg, and was happliy just a few steps away from our hostel. Lining the canal, its vendors sell everything from silk to spices to fruit and vegetable to trinkets and haberdashery to round, sesame seed Turkish bread.


Berlin was not a city that hit me across the head. After four nights, I thought I was disappointed. Yet in that bittersweet moment of parting, I realized, that I had fallen for the city without knowing.

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The Joys of Roaming Afar- Part I

New York and China 794

Written by Randeep Singh

Guilin, Guangxi Province, China – April 14, 2015

There’s a saying in China: “the mountains and waters of Guilin are the finest under heaven.”

The space under heaven is vast and Guilin is a sight.

I boarded a raft at the Zhujiang pier around ten o’clock with a family of three from France. As our motor-raft buzzed down the Li River in a swarm of rafts, I exchanged smiles and words in French with the couple as their son hoisted the flag of their native Brittany to the raft’s bow all the while waving at travelers in other rafts passing us by …

I floated down the river without a care
deep in the shade of green hills,
drinking the wine of spring on the breeze …

The hills and water of Guilin are a landscape in a classical Chinese painting. Carved by time, fashioned by nature, the green limestone hills are like pieces of jade skirting the mirror of the Li River. The scenery has inspired painting and poetry in the Chinese tradition for centuries …

I drifted down the river,
gazing at the hills,
leaving time behind  …

Our raft docked around half past eleven. I alighted onto the bank, climbing the stone steps up to a landing where the greenery had given way to a dusty brown earth and a few mangy trees. Women were crouching over steaming pots, washing clothes in steel basins, yelling after their children, while others were chasing me and other tourists to sell trinkets, flowers and postcards.

I traveled to Yangshou with Stephen, a boy from my hostel. Arriving there around noon, we wandered through the streets and squares of the city, haggling over cashmere scarves and chinaware with vendors and dining on the salty, spicy local “beer fish” over cups of jasmine tea.

By three o’clock, women in parasols were flitting about in the heat and I caught a bus to another pier on the Li. Setting sail on a bamboo raft with a fellow from Jilin Province, we applauded the comorand fisherman who sent his comorand birds to dive, catch and return fish to him. We floated under the old “dragon” bridge, passing inns, restaurants and old men spectating from the riverbanks, while taking a plunge down a small waterfall.

I purchased a photograph of the latter for twenty Chinese yuan, fed and patted some water buffalo for good luck and boarded the bus back to Guilin as the sun began to set.

The Rice Terraces of Da Zhai, Guangxi Province, China – April 15, 2015

New York and China 993
One day, a maid from heaven saw a land on earth which rivaled the heavenly kingdom in its beauty. Leaving her mistress, the Queen of Heaven, the maid descended to that land on earth. While there, she fell in love a mortal, spending many happy days with him. The Queen of Heaven grew angry that her maid had neglected her duties and summoned her back to heaven. The maid was heartbroken to leave her love behind on earth. As she ascended to heaven, her tears fell upon the land around Da Zhai, immortalizing its beauty …

I set off around eight thirty in the morning with six other travelers from my hostel on a three hour van ride to the rice terraces of Da Zhai. The other travellers were a guy from Germany, another guy from the Netherlands, two sisters from Switzerland and a British and Australian couple who were visiting from Shanghai where they were taking part in a student exchange program.

When we arrived in Da Zhai, our driver drew a suggested route for us to follow on our maps. We were to first travel to a spot on the hill toward the north-east (number three on the map), move on to Tiantou Village towards the north (number one) and then to Zhuangjie Village in the west (number two). I set off with the Dutch and German boys, the couple somewhere in front of us and the Swiss sisters somewhere behind.

We ended up accidentally in Xinzhai Village but a local Zhuang women pointed us to the direction of “number three” which took us along a narrow lane to steps up the terraces. We climbed the terraces when the rest of the group decided to keep climbing to the peak. I parted with them, heading to the number three spot. I arrived around quarter to noon at a wooden rest home from which the rice terraces and villages were spread out like waves on a sea of green.

New York and China 979
Waiting at the wooden rest home, I was approached by a Zhuang woman with a baby boy strapped to her back. On her say so, I placed a little cotton cap on the chubby baby’s head much to his delight. I had told my party that I would wait for them, but as the minutes ticked away, I set off again remembering that we had to be back at the parking lot by four o’clock that afternoon. I got directions on how to get to Tiantou Village from another Zhuang woman, and left the wooden guesthouse with its crowing roosters and the baby in the cotton cap.

I spent much of the day admiring the view from the terraces. The rice terraces were green and dry. A few weeks later and they would have been shimmering full of water. That did not stop me from marveling at these wonders of man and nature. The rice terraces in Da Zhai cascade down the hillside like green waterfalls. They ripple across the landscape like folds in a theatre curtain. I can’t say how many minutes I stood just gazing at them.

I climbed the terraces and followed the trails, through bamboo groves, passing streams and waterfalls and Zhuang women selling embroidered goods, crafts and traditional style jewellery.

I came to the bottom of Zhuangjie Village by three o’clock, where I lunched on egg and tomatoes and rice at an inn. I was greeted by the Australian fellow and we headed back to the parking lot, discussing Asian architecture, his subject of study in Shanghai while the British girl lingered somewhere behind us.

I too would have liked to stay longer at Da Zhai; but thanks to the maid of heaven, it has become immortalized once again.

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