Uzbekistan – Khiva (part 1 of 2)

Next day, Shokhrukh came to pick me early morning at 6 a.m. The hotel Grand Arte could not arrange breakfast for me at that time, hence we rushed to the airport. We caught a local flight of Uzbekistan Air to Urungech. The flight was on time and in an hour’s time, we landed. From there we went to Khiva (Also written as Xiva) by taxi. This journey is of about half an hour.

We checked in at Hotel Old Khiva. I think this is the most convenient hotel in Khiva as it is just across the road to the main attraction of Khiva. The hotel is very clean and the service was excellent. Most of the staff speaks decent English. One more comfort was of a currency vending machine. In this machine, you can exchange your Dollars, Euros etc to Som.

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Did I say attraction ? oh, it is a cluster of attractions. All enclosed within walls of Ichan Kala Fortress. Khiva is an open air museum (UNESCO, world heritage site.) But, strangely it is more modern than the other cities like Bukhara and Samarkand. Meaning the constructions are from 17th to 20th Century. Some of them are recreated but you can hardly tell.

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Outside the gate there is a huge map depicting the various branches of ancient silk route. You can easily identify the cities as they are still known by the same names.

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When you enter the main get, you feel that you are entering few centuries earlier in time. But it is not deserted or scary. It is as full of life as it would have been, then. The streets are full of young crowd, and the beautiful souvenirs, are on display.

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Some of the rooms have been converted into museums and some buildings are getting converted into hotels. There are couple of restaurants around, but they are also housed in some traditional buildings.

Another speciality of this place is that, most of the streets are meant only for pedestrians. The streets are so narrow, that no modern vehicle can move in or turn. Hence, you are at ease in moving around. You need to buy just one ticket for all these buildings and the supervisor (usually a lady) at these buildings will sign it off, once your visit is complete. One day is enough to cover all the buildings. You may take one more day, in case you want to go into details. The ticket is valid for two days. (Throughout my entire tour, my guide was taking care of all such tickets.)

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As soon as you enter the Kala, you see a huge Kalta Minor. The base itself is of diameter of 14.5 meters. Sadly the beautifully decorated minar is only one third of its original planned height (70 to 110 meters, as estimated). It was never completed.

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Adjacent to this Minar is a huge complex of Muhammad Aminkhan Madrassah (meaning school). This Madrassah is the largest (72 x 60 meters) in central Asia.

It has 125 hujris (cells) for students. The cells on ground floor have two rooms each and the ones on first floor have a room with attached balcony. A hotel is being planned in this building now, but the appearance is kept intact. Even the staircase, is also kept as it was.

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There is a camel kept in the area for joy ride. Surprisingly it looks much different from the camels, which we see in India or Gulf region.

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One of the buildings has a museum dedicated to music. It has some instruments, some portraits etc. The rooms also play the relevant music, while you are in. Uzbekistan had some Zoroastrian community, and one of the portraits shows their ancient dance around fire.

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There are other museums showcasing ancient silk, wardrobe, copperwares etc. Everything is very well preserved.

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to be continued …

Uzbekistan – Tashkent

I had not been to any country in Central Asia, before, hence I had narrowed my search to countries in that region. Uzbekistan was not that familiar a word to me, but cities like Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand sounded somewhat familiar to me. I read all the travelogues on the net.  Each blogger has written affectionately about this country and the people. So I decided to go there.

I searched for visa procedure, and I understood that it was possible to get e-visa. I could have done it myself, but decided to go thru ivisa.com . The documents required were passport scan, a clear photograph and address of the hotel. Proof of return air ticket, financial resources or even hotel booking was not required. So, it was done.

While looking for air tickets, many bloggers had suggested Uzbekistan Air. This airline does not appear on other ticketing websites but offers most convenient and economical connections from Mumbai, Delhi & Amritsar to Tashkent. The booking was done promptly. Fifteen days before the travel, I could select my favorite window seat. The website did not provide tools to book AVML hence I emailed them, and that was also done promptly.

As per the bloggers it would not have been too difficult for me to travel on my own, but I always prefer arranged personalized tours. I looked for some travel agencies in Delhi. They were very slow to respond and were offering stay only in Tashkent. (“Night Life” being their USP. This is a trap. There is no so called “Night Life” in Tashkent and most of the attractions are outside the capital.) So I looked for local tour guides and came across a wonderful organization toursbylocals. The quote was bit costly for a solo traveler like me, but I still went for it. The dealing with these people was wonderful. They did their part of planning and reminding very well.

I knew it would be winter in Uzbekistan, so I packed some winter clothing and thermals. I had written to Shokhrukh, (my selected tour guide), about me being vegetarian and he assured me that it would not be a problem.

I made booking with booking.com with Hotel Grant Arte, in Tashkent for a day. They immediately confirmed my booking and emailed a detailed guide note regarding how to reach them, from airport. (Including how should I bargain with Taxi Driver.)

The flight was on time. To my surprise, Masala Dosa was served for breakfast. The flight route was over Pakistan and Afghanistan. The skies were clear and I had wonderful clicks of snowclad peaks of Karakorum and Hindukush mountains. When we landed in Tashkent the temperature was -2 degrees centigrade.

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The immigration and customs did not even take 10 minutes. The only document required was print out of my e-visa (apart from passport.) There was no declaration form required. Shokhrukh was waiting for me at exit. He took me to the hotel, and after check in, we immediately started our tour of Tashkent City.

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I had not converted my dollars at the airport, so that was the first priority. We went to Hotel Uzbekistan to exchange. This is a very huge building of Soviet era. This hotel is still operational. You must have seen a photo of this hotel, but this is a different angle.

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The exchange was quick. The currency of Uzbekistan is Som and the exchange rate as of January 2019 was 1 USD = 8,440 Som. Som does not have sub units. The notes are available in various denominations from 200 to 50000. Notes of 5000 or 10000 are more convenient to deal in.

It was lunch time. Hence we went to Shalimar Restaurant in Tashkent. The menu was typical north Indian. The ambience was very good. The service was prompt. The food was very tasty too. (It was bit hot and spicy for Shokhrukh.)

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Being a capital city, the roads in Tashkent were quiet wide (4 lanes on each side) and there was not much of traffic.

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We first went to Abdulla Murodxo’jayev 17a Mosque. It was just the introduction to Uzbekistan architecture for me. It had all the elements like huge prayer hall, minaret, decorated front gate, a lovely garden etc. which I was going to see for next seven days.

Here are some snaps of that complex.

 

We were allowed to enter the main prayer hall too. (Uzbekistan is very liberal. There are no restrictions on entries to any mosque. Some places require that you dress up decently, but that’s all.) The main prayer hall has beautifully decorated domes.

In Uzbekistan, you find a iwan (a gallery-like structure with one side or two sides entirely open). This structure is usually supported by beautifully carved wooden logs. The top portion of these logs, is always beautifully carved.

Then we went to Khazrati Imam Architectural Complex. (In Uzbeki language A gets converted to O. So Imam may be written as Imom and Naan as Non ) These buildings were restored in year 2007, but the original style was kept intact. All the buildings look very beautiful, but it is difficult to capture on camera. Here are my trials !

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Muyi Muborak Madrasah is said to have been built on hair of The Prophet. Besides, it is famous for the great Islamic relic kept in its library, the Uthman Koran (also known as Samarkand Kufic Koran, Samarkand Codex, Samarkand Manuscript and Tashkent Koran; also spelled Osman Koran). This codex, in Kufic script, dates back to the 8th century and is believed to be the world’s oldest Koran copy. We are allowed to see this relic but photography is not allowed. ( Well, that is the only place, where I found this restriction.) There are some other translations of Holy Quran kept in the building.

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Then we went to Chorsu Bazar. Chorsu means cross road (similar to Chaurasta in Hindi, and yes Chor means char, four.) This is a very busy market. The beautifully designed dome has salads, meat, dairy products on the ground floor and the first floor has dry fruits stall. The ladies and guys are so generous, that they are ever willing to offer you handful of their products. The products are of first class quality and all reasonably priced. I purchased some cream cheese but the lady offered me to taste at least three varieties of it, to taste. (Well, she made it difficult for me to choose, as all were equally tasty.)

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We just had a quick round, over the dry fruits section. Outside this dome, there are various sections, selling colorful fresh vegetables, fruits, breads and other things. It is a very lively but clean place. I wanted to do lot of shopping, but I kept it for my last day. I purchased some fruits and bread, for dinner.

 

 

Then we proceeded to Timur and Independence Squares. This is a huge open space, with large trees around. It has a horse ridden statue of Timur ( Taimoor, as we say in India). This Taimoor is forefather of all Mughal kings from Humayun to Auragjeb, who ruled northern India. There is a war memorial too.

The area is so vast, that I was unable to capture the whole area in any single frame. The national bird of Uzbekistan, crane, appears in beautiful sculpture on the arc.

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The statue of mother of war heroes, represents the grief and sorrow of all such mothers. The names of war heroes (of Second World War) have been written on brass plates on specially constructed iwans.

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The metro station is just nearby. The former bunkers have been converted into metro stations now. Until recently, photography was banned inside these stations. But now, there is no such restriction. We had joy ride of just one station.  Due to very cold climate, the photo is not very clear. But I am told that each metro station is beautifully designed. (Wish could, visit all of them !)

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The huge building of Hotel Uzbekistan turns into a giant LED screen in the evening.

Well, it was time to return to hotel. We had to catch early morning flight to Urungech, next day.

 

Where is Uzbekistan !

When I was planning a vacation, this time, I wanted to go to a region not visited by me earlier. The first criterion was of course the ease in getting visa. I can’t afford the wait for visa, if I have to apply for it from India. My vacations are short and I make sure that my travel arrangements are made, before my vacation actually starts.

So I came across blogs about Uzbekistan. Every blogger, without fail, has written affectionately about this country. But, they have also listed some problems they faced there. Maybe the blogs are based on their experiences, couple of years earlier. My experiences were different, or rather much better.

Hey, but let me start from the beginning, for the benefit of all of you. And yes, this is going to be a long story, because the country has offered me so much, I am almost in love with her. Let me start with basic information, about this country.

  • Where is Uzbekistan ?

It is a land locked country in central Asia. She shares her border with one of our neighbor, Afghanistan. She was part of former U.S.S.R. , but now a separate country.

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  • How to go there ?

Tashkent is the capital of this country. It has international airport. ( There are some other international airports also.)  Uzbekistan Air is the national airline. It has direct flights from Mumbai, Delhi & Amritsar to Tashkent. But you will not find this airline, on any of other search engines. It has it’s own website, and bookings can be done on it. Contrary to what you may read on net, my experience with this airline, was fantastic. (read on !! )

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  • How to get visa ?

E-visa is available.  You need to pay 20 USD per applicant. You need to upload, your passport scan, photograph and need to provide hotel address. They did not ask me any proof of hotel booking. In case you need any assistance for visa, you can check with ivisa.com. I did.

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  • Is it costly to go there ?

The airline offers fantastic rates.  (other indirect connections are also available.) The currency is Som, and in January 2019, the exchange rate was 1 USD = 8,440 SOM. The food is abundant and much cheaper than most other countries. The accommodation is also not very costly. You may find decent hotels from USD 30 onwards. Even hostels are available, which are, of course, much economical. You can easily convert your USD with any bank or hotel. USD are widely accepted and they are more convenient to carry. Make sure you have small bills as the seller may not have change.

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  • How to go around ?

I had made my entire arrangements with toursbylocals.com. But if you want to move on your own, buses, taxies, trams, trains, local flights and even high speed trains are available.  They are quiet reasonable priced. Be assured, that you will not spend much on it.

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  • What about language ?

The official language is Uzbeki. Russian is widely spoken. But, English is also not very uncommon. Most of the salesman and hotel staff, can surely communicate with you in English. Even taxi drivers, speak decent English. ( It is being taught in schools now.) And in the era of google translator, no language is any issue, anymore. You may download an offline dictionary, if you wish to. You may find many signboards in English too. They use Roman script (Russian script is also used) and you will be surprised to notice, the number of Hindi words found in their language.

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  • What to see there ?

You may follow the silk route like me. The cities like Tashkent, Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are covered in it.  This tour may require seven to eight days. If you have more time, you may visit Chimgan mountains, which is like Switzerland. You may even go for trekking in that area.  Aral sea ( which has almost vanished now) and Fergana valley can also be visited. But please do not fall prey to some tour agencies who promise you the “night life” of Tashkent, in just two days.. There is no “night life” in Tashkent.  The cities, I just mentioned are treat to eyes. I will be posting many photographs here, in this series.

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  • What to eat there ?

I am vegetarian and after spending eight days in Uzbekistan, I am still alive. Jokes apart, there is plenty to eat there. Their food is not heavily spiced like ours, but it is very healthy and tasty. They do eat Naan, Kabab, Pulao, Samosa and do call them by these very names. There are some Indian restaurants too. The bazars and supermarkets are flooded with fresh vegetables, fruits, cheese and dry fruits. Every seller will happily offer you a handful of his products just for tasting. And that includes best dry fruits also. Many restaurants, you visit will surely have couple of vegetarian dishes too and the menu card, would be available in English also. Most of the hotels, you stay, will offer you free breakfast, and will make sure it is of your choice.

 

  • What to shop ?

If you are like me, who think that it is your obligation to buy a small gift for everyone you know, back home, then you will not be disappointed. The only limiting factor would be your baggage allowance and of course, the cash you are carrying. (Some establishment in big cities do accept, visa cards, but not all.)

Uzbekistan has best silks and cottons to offer. Brass plates, dry fruits, wooden carvings, ceramics, furs, chocolates, fruits, knives.. the list is almost endless. Everything is reasonably priced and you are always welcome to offer your price.

 

  • When to travel ?

I visited in January. It was winter there. The temperatures were negative. But I enjoyed it. Being off season, I had most of the sites, for myself. The skies were blue and clear. April and May are ideal months to visit. All the trees would be flowering at that time.  The weather would be comfortable but it would be high tourist season also. ( You need to make your bookings, in advance.) August will be fruiting season, but it would be very hot also. So, the choice is yours.

  • Immigration policies.

The net has some reports which say that you need to declare your foreign currency at the time of arrival and departure too. You can not take more forex out, than you brought in. (Obviously).  But, nobody asked me to declare. The only document requested, apart from my passport was the print out of my e-visa. There is another report on net, which says that you must register yourself, for every night, you stay in any hotel. The hotel would do it for 3 USD per night.  The hotels, still do it, but nobody checked it for me, at the time of departure. I am not sure, if these rules are done away with now, but in case.. better to be ready.

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  • How are the people ?

They are the sweetest, I have met. They are Very friendly, caring and hospitable. They will come forward to talk to you. I can assure you, that you will also have some pleasant experiences to cherish, for life. I will narrate few of mine, in this series.

 

And last.. IS IT SAFE ?

 

ABSOLUTELY … It is very safe to move around. There are special tourist police available at places of tourist places, in case you need any help. I would just narrate one incident. I wanted to see the night lighting at Bukhara, so my guide and I went for after dinner walk. We purposely walked the lanes and by lanes of Bukhara. I found many working young ladies walking back home (maybe after work.) They were relaxed and quiet comfortable to walk alone. I did not find, any groups of young chaps, chatting in any dark corner. Need I say more ?

 

As there are many photographs to be uploaded, I am going to it is a phased manner. Bear with me. I travelled from Tashkent to Khiva, to Bukhara, To Samarkand and back to Tashkent. I Will write in this order. The photographs posted here are some random ones, will arrange them in subsequent posts. Enjoy !!

Praslin Island – Seychelles (Part 2 of 2)

  • You get 360 degrees view from the top.PRASLIN (45)
  • I saw some fruits, similar to Indian Jamun ( Java Plums)
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  • This is one of the palm tree. Can you spot the green gecko ?
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  • The decent begins.  It takes around one hour to reach the top. It is not a continuous hike. The guide stops at many places, and gives detailed information. So you don’t get tired actually.
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  • Here you can replenish you water supply ! It is completely safe water to drink.
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  • A lovely orchid at the gate.
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  • The drive from Fond Ferdinand to our nest destination, Anse Georgette was alongside seashore. We stopped at some places, just for the clicks.
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  • This is a natural formation.
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  • In Seychelles, all the beaches are open to public by law. Hence the beach, Anse Georgette, even though is inside a star property, is accessible. You need to pass thru the property and along their golf course to get there. You need to inform the property in advance. (This was promptly done by Coconut services, for us.)
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  • It is a bit long walk, but well worth it !
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  • Finally we reach the beach. The waters are deep blue as always, but around this time of the year, the dead sea weeds, washes to the shore. Though not any dangerous, we avoided entering the sea. ( In Seychelles, beaches are not novelty, we visit a different beach every weekend.)
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  • There are no food stalls or even drinking water available on the beach. You need to carry it. There are a couple of fruit sellers though, and this is what (at the most) you get there.
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  • As most of the beaches in Seychelles, even this beach is clean and beautiful. The only problem is, around this part of the year, lots of dead sea weed is washed to the shore. This is not a big issue, as the weed is floating at certain spots and you will always find a clean spot, to swim, if you wish too.
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  • We had to catch return flight to Mahe, so we wound up early. We had a leisurely walk to the gate of the property, where our taxi had come to pick us up.
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  • This is how you see, Mahe from the flight !
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Concluded !

Praslin Island – Seychelles (Part 1 of 2)

Praslin Island – Seychelles (Part 1 of 2)

 

Seychelles has many islands, out of them Victoria is the main and Praslin (pronounced as Prale) and La Digue are the others. Most of the activity (whatever little it is) is on the main island, Victoria. The other two are necessarily tourist attractions. (There are many other islands of Seychelles, some of them are having star properties on them, but most of them are unoccupied.)

So when you are in Seychelles, visit to these islands, is necessary part of your itinerary. There are regular flights available from Mahe (Victoria) to Praslin. The flight duration is just 15 minutes. There is regular ferry service also available, the ferry from Mahe to Praslin, takes about an hour.

The island of Praslin has public transport service, but Taxies or car hire is more comfortable option.

Here is the photo gallery.

  • We caught an early morning Air Seychelles flight from Mahe. As soon as we took off, we see the beautiful tiny islands.
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  • Just before landing in Praslin, I saw a vast golf course, little did I know, that I would be crossing the entire length of this beautifully landscaped golf course.
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  • The airport of Praslin, is a beautiful and spacious. Here are some snaps of the place.
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  • We had booked Coconut Services Taxi. Mr Ryan was already waiting for us at the airport. He drove us towards the national park, called Fond Ferdinand. There are two national parks on this island. The other one is called Valle de mai. The later one is UNESCO world heritage site. The entry ticket for Valle de mai is Seychelles Rupees 350/- per person, whereas Fond Ferdinand charges only SCR 125/- per person. (Being residents, for us it is free of cost.) They do have guided tours of the park, and the fees are included in the entry ticket. These are some snaps at the entrance of the park.
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  • The guide Merina arrived on time (9.30 a.m.) The booking office had not opened, but she allowed us to carry on the tour, and we could settle the entry fee on return. This tour involves hike on a hill. So sports shoes are absolutely necessary. You need to carry water too. (There is a stream flowing at the entrance and half way thru the hike. The water is absolutely safe to drink. There are cold drinks available at the entrance, but not on the way. So it would be necessary to carry supplies.) The hike is well marked trail with steps till the peak. There are 21 stages. Up to stage 15, there is shade, after that you get exposed to the sun. So sun protection and suitable hat is recommended. )PRASLIN (27)
  • The guide is knowledgeable and introduces to various plants and birds.
  • And insects too. There are very few of them in this country though. This particular spider is harmless and enjoys being photographed !
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  • This is vanilla creeper. It is an orchid, but the pollinations needs to be done by human hands, as the insects doing this, are not living in Seychelles.
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  • On the way you do hear many bird calls, but due to thick canopy, it is very difficult to see them. This particular bird is called as Flag of Holland, as it has colours of that country. (This is the best view, I could capture.)
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  • The main attraction is the coco de mer (Fruit of the sea ). This is the largest nut in the world and may weigh up to 18 kilograms, when ripe. There are separate male and female trees. The male tree produces flowers, and the pollination is done, mainly by geckos. The nut is edible, so it is extracted and the empty shell is stuck together again. This tree is found naturally only on this island. ( It is grown in Victoria, too ). Here it is kept, for you to handle. In case you want to buy as souvenir, then you must officially purchase it from legal traders. Without the certificate, you are not allowed to carry it, outside the country.
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  • These are flowers of the male tree. The flowers are very aromatic and smell like, basmati rice.
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  • Almost at the top.
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  • This is the view from the top.
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  • This young boy made it, till the top !
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To be continued .

An evening by the sea !

Here in Seychelles, barring just a few, most of the beaches are without any hawkers or food stalls. There are no typical beach crowds either. So what you have is almost like your own private beach !

When you drive on a road here in Seychelles, you have the sea by your side, almost all the time. You just need to decide where to park.

This evening we chose a beach on the east coast, hence we did not have a picturesque sun set for the background, but the sky was so colourful… !

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