The Bunker Hostel -Debunking life in its own way

And I sat there on the cobbled stones near the waterholed bonfire on a cold Monday afternoon, amidst the clouds passing by, mocking my inability to fly with them. I sat there still blankly looking at the mountain and wondering if life could forever this be. If only time could stand still and let me be. 

This is not an exaggeration this is what The Bunker does to you. 

-How did I find The Bunker? 

I have never stayed in a hostel in India, partially due to safety and more so because of cleanliness reasons. But this time I was pretty tight on budget and after listening to a few stories about the new hostels springing up around the country, I decided to take the plunge. 

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Shailaja introduced me to the instragram influencer Abhinav Chandel who goes by the handle @abhiandnow who recommended The Bunker Hostel at Upper Dharamkot and after reading and staring at the pictures for an hour I decided to book the place through Booking.com. 

Although my bed bunk was booked they didn’t charge any money upfront and I kept calling them to ensure if that means I don’t get a place. The person on the other side calmly said, Pooja, don’t worry we got your bed. We are hiking right now,ceya. 

With this I had an inkling that this isn’t just another hostel and after spending a week with this enterprising and amazing lot I can only say, this has been my best hostelling experience ever. (I have stayed at St Christopher’s Inn–which is an award winning hostel in Paris, just to compare the experience) 

– Are you ready to reach The Bunker?

First things first, if you think this place is meant for the easy hearts it’s not, whether you choose to stay at The Bunker or Zostel at Upper Dharamkot, you will have to pull your luggage for 500 meters to a kilometre from where the cab drops you. Not really a big deal, but I recommend do not carry suitcases and extra luggage. You will repent it. 

I reached the hostel after sunset and met one of the owners – Ishan Byotra. And his friends Nidhi Iyer and Naihad Mohan who help him run the show. I didn’t get the chance to meet the co-owner Ashish.  But I am sure you will find them running the hostel once you reach there. Oh, there are two more important inhabitants- -Rain and Tazzoo. 

-What makes The Bunker my favourite?

Its the people who run the hostel, its the people who stay in the hostel and those who come for lively discussions and stay through the evening for lovely dinners.  The hostel attracts a lot of foreign tourists as compared to a Zostel, mainly because Indian’s are more aware of Zostel as a brand and their infrastructure is usually the same across the country. 

In a way that has helped The Bunker create its own niche. People playing and teaching poyi, Omir, an Israeli guy rapping along a hindi song in Hebrew, to the Swedish mailman Anton who brought me back from a treacherous trek or people playing guitars or lazily listening to music with each other. By the end of the day you would have spoken to everyone who is in the hostel. Instant plans with hostel mates and the zeal with which Nidhi, Ishan and Naihad help everyone, it sets them apart.
I had to go to Bir and Ishan overheard people in a cafe that they are headed to the same destination and got me to travel along with them. Or when I was in too much pain and Nidhi made me peanut butter sandwich even though the kitchen was officially closed. Its these gestures that go a long way in building trust with customers and loyal repeat travellers. 

– What more? 

The place dosen’t feel like a strange new place, its more than a hostel, its a new home with a lot of roommates, who somehow leave their imprints  on each other.  So much so, that I cancelled my other plans and came back to stay three more days with them.  And they were nice enough to adjust me at my same bed! 

– Dent in the pocket? 

I stayed in a mixed dorm called Rivers and paid Rs 450 per night. The room is cosy and has enough space for your luggage.  The washroom is neat and clean and hot water runs 24*7! I think there are cheaper rooms too!

Food is good- totally recommend the ginger honey lemon to drink, the veg Thali and Bunker Fried Chicken. You obviously can’t leave without eating or drinking Ishan’s special hot chocolate or experimental desserts. 

The place is pretty neat and clean and I recommend this hostel to anyone who is seeking to travel alone or with friends. 

-What are you waiting to hear?

We all have fears of travelling alone, but this place makes it easier. So those who asked me if they should travel alone, there can’t be a better place to start it.

Trust me you will leave a part of yourself when you leave promising to come back for its not everytime that you find a place which sings to your soul. 
PS: Ishan didn’t give me a penny’s discount to write this. 

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Iran Sojourn: Part III

I sincerely apologise to my readers and my dear friend who took time out to write about the beautiful journey through Iran. As promised, this is the third and final piece from my friend. Please read on and send in your queries and feedback, we would love to help you if we can 🙂

Here, I want to share some possibly useful tips from my 10-day experience in Iran.

 Iran: Some useful tips for travelers

 Language

I do not know Farsi and I was fine and faced no major hurdle. Nevertheless, I would recommend at least learning the Farsi numerals (they are written in the same way as in Arabic or Urdu), because often menu prices in restaurants or in other places are only written in the local language. It would be better if you can count one to ten in Farsi, especially when you haggle while hailing a cab. It should not be very difficult for Indians as the numbers sound very similar to Hindi. 

This brings us to the issue of managing currency, which can be a little bit difficult at first because of the confusion between ‘rials’ and ‘tomans’. Iranian currency is officially known as ‘Rials’ and currently (in May 2017) one US Dollar can buy more than 32,000 rials. One rial is equal to 10 tomans and most prices in shops are written in tomans rather than rials. However, in actual conversations and haggling, the last there zeroes of the tomans are often omitted. So when a cab driver quotes a fare of five tomans, he most likely means five thousand or ‘panjhazaartomans’.

 Commuting within the country

Although a railway network does exist, you need to book tickets well in advance. In hindsight I am glad I failed to get train tickets as it allowed me greater flexibility. Overnight buses appear to be a popular mode of long-distance travel within the country and the buses and terminals are quite clean and well-maintained. I found buses to be a cheap and comfortable mode of travel. An overnight journey from Isfahan to Shiraz, almost same as Mumbai to Ahmedabad in distance terms, cost me 18,500 tomans or Rs. 370, in a semi-sleeper 3-seats-in-a-row (2+1) bus.

 Airfares also seemed much cheaper than fares in India. I booked a flight from Shiraz to Tehran – equivalent to a Mumbai to Bangalore flight – which cost me only 128,000 tomans or around 2,500 Indian rupees, despite booking just one day in advance and that too in Nowruz season. 

Things to do in major cities

In Tehran, the entire stretch from old Bazaar to Golestan Palace to the National Museum would be a good starting point to acquaint yourself with the history of the country; the entire area is well connected to the Tehran metro network. Also, I would recommend a visit to the Milad Tower, which offers a good panoramic view of Tehran.

 Isfahan is a great heritage city and the entire Naqsh-a-Jehan square and the surrounding area should be part of your itinerary. Also, it is a nice place to buy traditional Iranian delicacies like ‘Gaz’ candy (you can also buy it from Tehran International Airport on your way back home). I would also recommend a visit to the Vank cathedral in Isfahan, which stands in testimony to Iran’s history of religious tolerance. If you are interested in history and would like to see and know more about the Armenian genocide, then Vank cathedral and the accompanying museum would be good investment of time.

 If you plan to visit Shiraz, I am sure that Persepolis, the ancient capital city which was attacked by Alexander, would be in your itinerary. However, bear in mind that the local name for Persepolis is ‘Takht-e-Jamshid’ and that is likely to be the only name by which taxi or bus operators identify that place.

 Finally, you should know that alcohol is banned in Iran (except for maybe some religious minorities). However, there are tea houses and places where you get hookah.

 Although there is little to worry, but please be on your guard

I have already discussed how easily I found help, often more than asked, whenever needed. I did not discern any tendency to fleece tourists. My hotel in Isfahan helped me with my onward bus and airline tickets and I have no reason to believe they tried to make any extra money. On one occasion, I had forgotten my mobile at a restaurant in Isfahan and got it back when I went there after about an hour. Nevertheless, I can recall atleast two instances where I suspect street vendors tried to fleece me. Also, I was never sure if I was paying the correct fare for taxi because there does not seem to be any concept of paying by metre. Thus, while there is no reason to be paranoid, it is better to be on your guard.

Part 2: Random acts of kindness by people made my Iran trip a memorable one

When we come back from our trips, its not just the places we visited that makes our memories special, its the kind deeds of strangers, the people and the city’s culture which makes a trip truly magnificent. And somehow we always remember how strangers went out of their way to help us when we really needed it in a strange new land.

In this second series, my friend narrates the beautiful memories that he brought back home from Iran, not of just places but people who were generous and kind and who went out of their way to make his trip a splendid one.

Here it goes: 

The first thought that crosses ones mind when they hear about travelling to Iran is how safe is it anyway. Right?

Although the apprehensions are quite warranted given its neighbors – Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan which are not exactly the most peaceful or ‘stable’ countries in the world. However, what US President Jimmy Carter had to say about Iran in 1977 still holds true: “Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troubled area of the world”.

The amount of frisking and checking in public places in Iran was visibly lesser than in India, perhaps suggesting lower terrorism risk-perception. Especially, security at domestic airports or Tehran metro seemed relatively less stringent compared to India. Of course, security at the Tehran international airport was at par with major airports in India.

Iranian Hospitality:

This brings me to the random instances of kindness that made my trip a memorable one. I was invited by a guy I just met at Tehran airport to his home in north Iran (Gilan province), not very far away from the Caspian Sea. Although not in my itinerary, I kind of made a detour as I did not want to let go of the opportunity. Although you can call it risky, but the greed to see something more than what I had planned for made me bite the dust. Needless to say, I had a great stay,  the family went out of its way to make me feel at home and the elder sister of the extended family even took a day off from her bank job and drove us to the nearby attractions of Lahijan. The traditional food and the ride to the mountain area is still afresh in my memory.

Iran certainly is not like any dystopian Middle-Eastern patriarchy where women are barred to venture out of homes without male companions or not allowed to drive or work.  Also, interaction between members of opposite gender does not seem to be a taboo, as I can attest from my own experience. One of the many female students who worked as staff (or volunteers) in Isfahan’s tourist attractions was kind enough to take interest in my expedition and actually showed me around the city in evening after completing her shift. Isfahan is a great heritage city and there is a saying in Farsi: ‘Isfahan, nesf-e- jehan’ meaning that Isfahan is half the world.

Besides being very generous to tourists, people are generally very polite and extremely well-mannered. Just a small tip to travellers from India; when you hail a cab, sit in the front seat. That is what seemed to be the norm there.

It was common sight to find posters commemorating heroes (often martyrs) of the eight year-long Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) at any round about. The war, also referred to as the ‘Arab-Iran war’ by Iranians, started when Saddam Hussein attacked Iran just a few months after Iran’s 1979 revolution, trying to take advantage of the post-revolution turbulence in the country.

Reminders to the revolution and the eight-year war are a common sight, especially in the capital city Tehran,often in the form of large murals over buildings. The huge cemetery of the war martyrs, Behesht-e-Zahra or ‘Zahra’s Paradise’ in south Tehran, was quite busy when I visited on a Thursday afternoon in 2014, some twenty six years after the war. Apparently, it is tradition for families to picnic at the gravesite and also to distribute food/sweets/candy to other people/strangers nearby. The cemetery was dotted with countless photos / posters of young soldiers, presumably all martyrs. The cemetery gave me the vibe that the revolutionary fervour is still quite alive. Of course, drawing too much inference can be risky because of three reasons – one, a war memorial will always display greater zeal or fervour than the average population; secondly, the period I visited was just before Nowruz holiday and might have distorted the number of visitors and lastly, other people besides martyrs of the war are also buried there.

How safe is it for women?

Owing to my limited experience in Iran as a solo male traveller, I am not in a good position to comment on how safe Iran would be for a woman traveller and you are advised to check other online resources on this subject. It is indeed true that there is a mandatory dress code for women in public, i.e. the hijab, with covering of hair (often by a scarf) being an essential part. The most common attire for women, as I observed, was jeans plus coat or jacket plus scarf.

This is the second part on my 2014 trip to Iran. The first part had dealt with planning the trip. The next and final part will dwell on some practical advice for travellers. However, due to my work schedule for the coming week, I would be able to post about it only on the next Sunday, i.e. 14th May 2017.