In the land before time

 

When I got my passport in a mad scramble two days before I was to go to Malaysia about 8 years ago, I never ever thought that it would take me to so many places. What I saw of Dresden, Germany, in two days, will stay with me a lifetime.

I mean, look at this. Wouldn’t you want to live here?

And you can have this without anyone blinking an eye

#Lunch: braised beef with horseradish and vegetables. #twodaysindresden #travel #traveltime #latergram

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But the real reason I was there was for A. Lange and Söhne’s tour of their manufactory. So here’s what happened.

The birthplace of German watchmaking: that’s what Glashütte is called. Not surprising, considering the number of watchmakers in this picturesque little town that’s a 45-minute drive from Dresden. It’s cold and drizzling as we reach the manufactory of A. Lange & Söhne, a 121-year-old high-end watch manufacturer.

I, along with a couple of other journalists, am here for a look at the new premises. Right from the foyer, the place is steeped in tradition and celebrates the history of the brand. A bust of founder Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the Dresden watchmaker who started precision watchmaking in the Saxony region, looks out of the entrance genially. The timeline and photos of the company’s highlights adorn one wall.

In a statement, CEO Wilhelm Schmid says, “The new building is a response to employment growth in recent years, and represents an investment in the manufactory’s future. The focus was on a modern, energy-efficient building that would offer appealing surroundings and ideal working conditions. This will help us further enhance the quality of our watches and optimise our production processes. All the while, we strive to minimise our ecological footprint and resource consumption.”

The two-part complex, inaugurated by Chancellor Angela Merkel in August 2015, has a 5,400-square-metre production area, with a bright and clearly-structured façade. Slightly-inclined atelier windows ensure ample lighting without direct sunlight affecting temperature. A corridor — called a double-skin walk-in façade — helps in climate control. Conditions are virtually dust-free: they even have specially-designed jackets to be worn in certain sections. Machines and equipment used to manufacture movement parts are located in the lower-slung front part of the building, while departments in which small components are manually engraved and decorated are housed in the new building. The building houses Saxony’s largest geothermal energy plant, with 55 downhole heat exchangers extending to a depth of as much as 125 metres. The electricity used to operate the pumps is green, making the place a CO2 emission-free facility.

After stashing our bags and jackets, we start at the finishing department. It’s where the minuscule parts of the inner working of the watches are put together. Everyone works with a magnifying lens strapped over one eye and bright lights at their desk. It’s quiet and there’s an air of efficiency about the whole place. We line up carefully, making sure not to bump into any of the tables, and observe them as they pick up barely-visible parts and deftly assemble them.

This is followed by the engraving department (more on that later), and then the milling centre, where huge machines precisely cut out holes in the base plate of the watches. It’s mesmerising: the drills change automatically, the drill bits turn red-hot and are cooled constantly by a jet stream of water, and it’s pretty much the definition of clockwork.

The final assembly, chronograph and zeitwerk construction departments are a whirlwind of technical terms. But it is awe-inspiring to see how these wristwatches are assembled from scratch. Each watchmaker shows immense dedication and involvement, no matter which part of the process he works in.

After lunch with PR director Arnd Einhorn at Lange’s older manufactory, we walk back down the cobbled pavement to the engraving department.

Here is where some elaborate engraving and design work is done by the smallest team — there are only six people. One of them gives us a basic class in engraving.

With one tool, a magnifying lens and a disc of german silver, we are taught to make straight lines within a border. It’s harder than it sounds, and we are eons away from being anywhere near as good — or patient — to be on this team. But it’s a great way to wrap up the tour, as we get a first-hand experience of being part of the great watchmaking tradition.

(I was in Glashütte at the invitation of A. Lange & Söhne)

A conversation with Kite

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Does this guy look familiar? No? How about this one?

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Yep, that’s Oleg from 2 Broke Girls. And if I was going to be speaking to anyone from the show, it should have been one of the girls. But Jonathan Kite was a pleasant surprise: so excited to be talking, and his enthusiasm was infectious. This was a fun interview!

“Hey! How’s everything in India?” asks Jonathan Kite, in the most jovial tone. It’s a bit of a shocker, considering his character Oleg, on the show 2 Broke Girls, speaks with such a thick Ukrainian accent. Speaking in July, before the shooting for season six of the show began, he talks about how he got into the show, his new-found love for stand-up comedy and working with Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs.

Excerpts from a phone interview:

Are you shooting for 2 Broke Girls now?

We are not shooting right now, but we are going to start shooting season six in two weeks. So, we have a little bit more time off.

What have you been doing in the meanwhile?

I do stand-up comedy; impressions, mimicry, that sort of thing. And I’m actually trying to come to India, because I have so many Indian friends who tell me that this is really big in India.

You should come for a tour.

I want to! I think it will be fun.

What drew you into acting?

Acting is my first love; I just started stand-up a couple of years ago. I’ve loved stories my whole life; it’s something that I have a passion for. I love great stories and I think that it is a really important indicator of who we are as people and our culture.

How did you become part of the 2 Broke Girls story?

The part of Oleg was written for somebody who was 20 years older than me. Everybody else who auditioned was in their late 40s and early 50s. And, I was a young man, and I went in there just to meet people. You know how Oleg dresses on the show, with the hair net and the shirts and the pants? I wore that to the audition! So, it was really funny, because I don’t think they were expecting a young person. I grew my hair out and grew a beard, and I was just trying to have fun with it and that’s how I got in.

How do you approach Oleg’s character, knowing that it was written for someone older?

I play him older, because it’s what they intended. I try to make it work. I think that in the story, he works better if he is older.

What did you base him on, and how did you prepare to play a Ukrainian character?

I’ve worked in restaurants my whole life; I was the cook, I had that job when I was in university.

I’ve also been to Europe many times, and noticed that there was a lot of sexuality in European men. And so, I met some people and tried to put that into it, to try and see if it worked, and I think it came out okay.

How is it to work on set with Kat Dennings, Beth Behrs and Jennifer Coolidge? Do you have a lot of fun?

Honestly, it’s the best job I’ve ever had, because we all get along so well. We are friends in real life as well.

And we didn’t know each other before the show; that’s what is so unbelievable. I love working with them because I respect them and we believe in each other.

So, what do you think will happen in season 6?

Sophie’s expecting the baby, so it’s going to be a lot of fun!

What kind of dad do you think Oleg is going to be?

I think that he’s a very passionate person, because he has such a deep love for Sophie. I would love to see him cook with the baby in the kitchen.

What are the other projects you’re involved with?

I’ve shot a stand-up show, but I don’t know when it’s coming out. I was over at Warner Brothers, looking at some of the footage, and we’re actually editing it right now. And I’m going to be focussing on 2 Broke Girls now, so it’s great to be going back to work.

Food that warms the soul

Would you say no to this meal?

It was one of the best meals on my Spiti Valley trip. Which also included beauties such as these waffles

#DishOfTheDay. #lunch #dessert #waffles #SpitiValleyEscape2015

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And this breakfast. (Can you tell I love waffles?)

The perfect breakfast on a #lazysunday. #waffles #ham #sunnysideup #hashbrowns #SpitiValleyEscape2015

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There’s a lot of food in Spiti Valley: I only wish I had taken photos of the momos and thukpa and every simple yet delicious meal we had, but I was too busy stuffing my face at that point. I was asked to write on unusual food experiences there, but where to start? Here’s my take.

Up in the Spiti Valley region of the Himalayas, there are barely any roads, so the idea of street food is non-existent. That’s not to say that the quintessential thukpa is not available; it is ever-present in the centre of every far-flung town, offering a welcome respite from the bone-numbing chill. Well, at least it seems that cold to someone who has lived all her life in sultry Chennai.

After a 5 am departure from Kaza and an exhausting — but completely worth it — trek to Chandra Taal, one is understandably famished. Lunch is scheduled a couple of hours later at a dhaba. Now, one would expect a dhaba on the highway, serving Punjabi food with truckers digging into piping hot fare. But in the Himalayas, they do things a little differently.

Chandra Dhaba is perched on the side of the road, with nothing but beautiful views all around. One has to stoop to enter the brick room, which is warmed by the stove. The roof is made of waterproof sheets, which give the room a hazy blue Instagram-esque filter. A low seat is placed along the wall, and there’s a constant clatter of plastic cutlery and bowls being cleared.

Steam rises from a boiling pot on the stove, and a familiar aroma accompanies it. Who knew that instant noodles could smell so good? Perhaps it’s the setting, or simply hunger pangs. Either way, tucking into a bowl of noodles with crisp, fresh vegetables floating in the broth is not an experience that is soon forgotten.

These experiences are everywhere in Spiti. The kind folks atop Kunzum La (15,059 ft), the mountain pass between Lahaul and Spiti, serve up a breakfast of jam sandwiches, boiled eggs, cold parathas and piping hot aloo gravy. At Kaza town, you’ll be spoilt for choice with the variety of momos. Stores scattered widely on the hillside offer tea, coffee, potato chips and biscuits.

While fuel stations are few and far between, the people who run these stalls ensure that the travellers don’t experience a lack of refreshment.

The communal feeling at these places is palpable. Everyone talks to each other, fleeting friendships are made and goodbyes are said with much enthusiasm. Leh and Manali might be the hotspots of tourism in the region, but the almost raw hospitality of Spiti Valley is to be cherished while it lasts.

Must-see in Spiti

The place itself is a must-see. But with great difficulty, I narrowed it down to five things you have to see/do when you’re in Spiti Valley. 

Chandra Taal26mp_Suze_2

Gorgeous, isn’t it? But this pales in comparison to the real deal. Situated at 14,000 ft above sea level, the crescent-shaped glacial lake is breathtaking at first sight. The clear, azure water is numbingly cold, but don’t hesitate to dip at least your toes in. It can only be approached by foot; a 2 km trek at that height can leave you feeling a little lightheaded, so remember to take baby steps and carry water if you’re not used to the altitude. It’s definitely worth the walk.

Hikkim

hikkim

Snail mail yourself a letter from the world’s highest post office. Postmaster Rinchon Chhering, who has managed the place since 1983, handles around 15 to 20 letters each day. It’s also the world’s highest polling station, at 14, 400 ft above sea level.

Komic

komic

One of the highest inhabited villages in the world — 14,830 ft — Komic boasts the highest motorable monastery in the world. It has a population of 114, mostly comprising of monks at the Tangyud Monastery. Don’t forget your sunscreen here; the sun is so sharp, you’re likely to get burned if your skin is exposed even for a few minutes.

Key Monastery

kee

From a distance, this building looks like it is made of Lego blocks. Founded in the 11th Century, and destroyed several times over by fire and invaders, the monastery has survived; this explains the haphazard construction. Murals cover the walls and if you’re lucky, you might catch a ceremonial dance performance. A beautiful view of the Spiti Valley can be seen from the topmost floor.

Kunzum La

kunzum la

Local belief has it that motorists should drive across the pass for good luck. Carry along some spare change, as a Buddhist temple at the pass is home to a “wishing stone”. One simply makes a wish and then tries to stick a coin (of any denomination) to the stone. If it sticks, your wish will supposedly come true.

All pictures by me.

 

Where the views and the drive take your breath away

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I love adventures, big and small. And Spiti Valley was my biggest adventure to date. As I prepare to go on an African adventure (to some emerald mines no less) next month, I couldn’t help but reminisce and share this story. A place whose beauty I can describe, but never capture, be it in words or in photographs. 

Two trucks have toppled in front of our car, and judging by the apples that are now rolling all over the road, it is harvesting season in Himachal Pradesh. Apparently, a mishap of this proportion means a two-hour delay, which we simply can’t afford. And so we end up driving through Shimla, instead of taking the bypass as we had planned. Well, at least I can say I’ve been there now.

I’m with a friend, and we are rushing to reach Sangla, which is a little over 350 km from Chandigarh. It’s an eventful start to our Himalayan Spiti Escape 2015, organised by Mahindra Adventure. The rest of the group left a couple of days back, and we are attempting to catch up with them; we eventually do, covering a journey they undertook over two days in 13 hours of near non-stop driving by Thousife, our tireless driver. We reach Banjara Camps in Sangla close to 10 p.m., and settle next to the bonfire for a warm drink and some much-needed food.

We wake up to a sea of apple trees outside our window. It’s a sight we get used to over the next few days: fruit-laden trees are everywhere, tempting us to reach out and pluck just one ripe apple and bite into it. We resist, and get into our assigned cars, ready to set out for a 133-km drive to Nako, which lies within the restricted area, close to the Tibetan border. It’s an impressive sight: a convoy of over 20 vehicles — Scorpios and Thars, led by a Legend — driving out with headlights on. As we pass by, children and adults wave to us and some even take videos on their phones. I’m in the latest model Scorpio, with a vastly more experienced companion; he’s an off-roader too. It’s just as well: I’ve never driven a big car and I’m more than a little intimidated by the roads after the previous day’s drive.

Although it is my first time in the Himalayas, I quickly realise that distances measured through kilometres are of no consequence here. The roads are bad, or simply non-existent. They are simply paths blasted out of the side of the mountains. We cover 20 km or less in an hour. As we enter Spiti Valley, however, I don’t mind the bumpy roads so much. At every turn, the view gets better. From green, the colours slowly fade. The vegetation gets sparser and the mountains turn brown; some are grey, black or snow-capped, but are no less beautiful. Each mountain is different, with the lines of a million years of the earth’s history etched on them; as one fellow adventurer exclaims over the radio, “It’s like art!” The Sutlej, and later, the Spiti River, snake along below us, and as we drive down into the valley, the towering walls of the mountains are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.

The first time I get behind the wheel, the expedition lead Hari Singh, a five-time national rally champion and Asia zone rally championship winner, informs us that we’re going to be traversing what is billed as the ‘World’s Most Treacherous Road’. It’s quite an experience, driving with solid rock on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

For the next four days, we don’t see a single cloud, and comprehend what “sky blue” really means. We drive from Nako, at 12,010 ft above sea level, to Tabo, with its famous monastery. On the way, we stop at Giu village, to see the mummified monk of Spiti Valley. It is said to be that of a 45-year-old lama (Buddhist monk), who followed the tradition of self-mummification; he was found, and still remains, in a sitting position, with a rosary in his hand. A guide points out a nearby mountain, saying, “This side is India, the other side is China.” We then drive down to Kaza, crossing the Lahaul and Spiti Valley as we stop for the night, at 11,980 ft. Since we’re a little away from the village proper, we can see the night sky in all its brilliance; the place is a photographer’s dream, be it day or night.

The next day, we drive to Komic (one of the highest inhabited villages on earth) and Hikkim (the highest functioning post office). On the way, there’s quite a bit of opportunity to go off-roading. After lunch by the Spiti River — barbecue, followed by a meal that included the most delicious baingan dish — it was time for splashing around with some river fording, before a visit to the Kee (or Key) Monastery.

Our longest drive of the trip begins at 5.30 a.m., when the temperature is 3 degrees Celsius. A breakfast of jam sandwiches, boiled eggs, cold parathas and piping hot aloo gravy awaits us at the highest point of our journey — Kunzum La at 15,060 ft. We then take a detour to see the beautiful Chandra Taal Lake, stop at a dhaba where we have instant noodles for lunch, cross Rohtang Pass in darkness and mist; 16 hours later, we drive wearily into Johnson Hotel in Manali. After an enforced digital detox, everyone’s glued to their phones over dinner, even as a group of hippies sing Yo Yo Honey Singh in the restaurant.

Manali’s laidback vibe is addictive; after a lazy Sunday lunch of roast chicken at Martin’s, we walk around Old Manali to shop and while away time till dinner, which we have at Casa Bella Vista. It’s vegetarian, but the pizzas, bruschetta and pita bread are so good that even the most hardcore non-vegetarians among us don’t mind the unavailability of meat on the menu. The molten chocolate cake and banoffee pie for dessert are divine. In all, the adventure and food have been expertly planned and executed from beginning to end.

It’s hard to leave behind such a beautiful place, but we pile our luggage into the now-dusty cars, and head to Chandigarh. The verdant green mountains that had me staring at their lushness have lost a little bit of their sheen in my eyes, especially after the barren beauty of the Himalayan valley.

Photo by Priyanka Koijam

From Chennai to China, via the runway

18MPVINO_SUPRAJA_2441837g (1)There are strong people. And then there’s Vino Supraja.

She vaguely said she was in town for a family emergency. Only after the interview did I find out that her brother had passed away in a road accident just a few days earlier. That’s why she was here. And graciously agreed to meet me for a quick morning chat.

I will never forget the ease with which she answered questions, posed for photos and laughed and joked around with me and our photographer. 

Here’s the story of how her life changed, moving from media to mannequins:

What does a person with a media career do when they land in China without knowing the language? In Vino Supraja’s case, she decided to go back to school. “I moved there with my husband on his job posting, but I didn’t want to sit idly. I couldn’t continue with my previous career, and most of the courses were in Chinese. I had very few options in English, and had to choose between MBA and fashion designing. I decided to go with the latter,” says the chirpy former radio jockey and TV host from Vandavasi (a small town near Chennai), who studied architecture at Anna University before pursuing her passion for media.18mp_vino_supraja__2441839g

On her first day at the Shanghai campus of International Fashion Academy (IFA) Paris, she was surrounded by youngsters fresh out of school. “But I didn’t feel out-of-place; they were all very friendly. I think I knew within a few hours that I had made the right choice,” says Vino, seated in the lobby of ITC Grand Chola on a short visit to the city last week. “We had French couture professionals teaching us everything from the basics of pattern making and sewing to marketing. It was a 360-degree training, and looking back, I can’t believe how much I improved over the three-year course.”

18mp_vino_supraja__2441842gAnd improve she did, enough to win her the Golden Laureate Award of her batch, for her graduate collection called Patang (inspired by the kite festivals of India), which was showcased at the Shanghai Fashion Week in October 2014. In the same year, she was a finalist in the China International Fashion Designers Creation Contest. Her work also found a favourable mention in the Chinese edition of Vogue magazine.

When her husband was transferred to Detroit on a two-year assignment, Vino followed with their son, and there, continues to pursue her new career. She runs her studio out of home, where she does all the work herself, from conferring with clients and sourcing material to cutting and sewing. “So you can praise me if it’s good and blame me if it’s bad. I don’t have anything to hide behind! Textile designing is also a passion of mine, and I design the materials myself; I love the freedom of playing with colours,” says the 35-year-old.

18mp_vino_supraja__2441840g“Very early on, I realised that fashion designing was no different from architecture — we either dress buildings or human bodies. The understanding of the structure is what’s important,” she explains, when asked how she found it so easy to adapt to fashion designing. Her latest collection, W, which was featured at the WALK Runway Fashion Show in Detroit 2015, pays homage to celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his signature windows. Her designs are structured, yet manage to have a lot of movement. As for the colour pallette, Patang featured bright splashes of pinks, reds and yellows, whereas the WALK collection plays with browns, blues and beiges.

18mp_vino_supraja__2441844gVino prefers designing long dresses, jackets and evening gowns, and is getting used to sporting her eponymous label. In the long-term, she plans to move back to Chennai and get into costume designing for films and television. “I want to travel a lot and learn, and later in my career, I would love to mentor young designers. That’s my goal,” she says.

A version of the story can be found here.

Chasing away the chill

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For over a year now, I have been curating a weekly food-themed page for my paper’s weekend edition. Sometimes, we plan a themed edition: music festivals, summer, street food, what have you. It so happened that we planned a monsoon edition, even though there was no sign of it then, and we are yet to see any rain in Chennai. 

The immediate idea was to go for monsoon foods and recipes. However, the morning that our pages get made, I decided to change things a little bit a wrote this:

Hot bajji, crispy pakoda, steaming momos and freshly brewed tea spiked with spices… India’s rainy day snacks are legendary. Gloomy weather calls for comfort food, and each country finds solace in traditional dishes that infuse warmth and cheer. Here are some favourites from around the world.

United Kingdom

apple_crumble_2429121aA recent survey revealed that apple crumble might be this nation’s most preferred comfort food to combat their almost perpetually overcast climate. Flour, demerara sugar and butter are rolled together to form a breadcrumb-like topping that covers a caramelised apple filling. The filling to crumble ratio is very important, as the fruit shouldn’t seep through and soften the crispy crust when it comes out of the oven. While it’s traditionally served with custard, it’s not uncommon to have it with a dollop of fresh cream or ice cream. Other favourites include shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash.

Philippines

MPThe tropical climate ensures that there are heavy rains from June to November, but the Filipinos have a long list of wholesome dishes to sustain them. Batchoy is a popular noodle soup made with stir-fried pork, chicken and beef served in a broth with round noodles called miki. Then there’s the lugaw, a rice pudding that’s similar to the congee served in China. Those with a sweet tooth go for the bibingka; it’s a rice cake made with coconut milk that’s usually eaten during the Christmas season. The soft, spongy cake is served warm or hot.

Photo: John Herschell

USA

MPThe iconic macaroni and cheese is a year-round staple, but there’s something about indulging in this cheesy delight when it’s pouring outside. While some brands of instant mac and cheese have a large following, it’s also quite simple to whip up at home — add your favourite veggies or crispy bacon strips for additional flavour. Southern favourites include buttermilk biscuits with gravy, chili con carne with cornbread apart from the universally appealing cinnamon rolls, pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Photo: Steve Johnson

Cuba

MPThe island nation gets its share of rain between May and October. Their cuisine incorporates Spanish spices and techniques with Caribbean flavours, like the picadillo, made with ground beef, tomatoes, and a variety of spices and vegetables sauteed in olive oil and white wine; raisins, potatoes and capers are sometimes included. It is generally served with black beans and rice. Ropa vieja, made with shredded steak, is another favourite, eaten with soda crackers or warm, soft Cuban bread. Buñuelos — anise fritters with syrup — are a sweet treat with the earthy flavour of star anise.

Russia

MPThe largest country in the world might be associated with extreme cold and snow, but the areas bordering the Black Sea have a humid, subtropical climate with mild and rainy weather for the latter part of the year. Steamed cabbage rolls, or golubtsy, stuffed with beef, are reassuringly familiar and comforting to the average Russian. There are also some strange winter soups, like the Solyanka, which is made with lean beef, fatty pork, pickled cucumbers and black olives, and the hot milk soup with noodles, which is served to small children.

A version of this story can be found here.