Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hello Hong Kong!

My wife and I recently did a 3 day stopover trip to Hong Kong on our way back to the US from India. A democratic special administrative region within communist China, Hong Kong is very different from the mainland. A former British colony, which is reflected in the fact that almost all signs in the city are tri or at least bilingual, the main language spoken here is Cantonese, unlike mainland China, where the primary spoken language is Mandarin Chinese.
Hong Kong from the Victoria harbor

Day 1: We landed at around 7 am local time at the Hong Kong airport, after completing the immigration at the airport and exchanging a few USD for
HKD, we met a relative of mine, who lives there and he took us to his place, as our hotel check-in was not until 2 pm and we needed a place to freshen up and store our luggage until check-in.
We left our temporary abode and we were guided by my uncle to nearest station (i.e Kowloon) for our train to Tian Tan Buddha, commonly
The barely visible Buddha
known as Big Buddha. It took us about an hour by train and then 20 minutes by the NP 360 cable car to get to the Ngong Ping village where the Buddha is located, however, unfortunately, due to the rainy and foggy weather, we could barely see the Buddha or the monastery in the small village. We returned back to our hotel late afternoon, a little disappointed.
Evening, although it continued to rain steady, we decided to go ahead with our Hong Kong after dark tour, with our guide Danny. He showed us how the city landscape, including the markets, parks, intersection etc. look during night time. We felt it
was a nice introduction to city. We ended the tour with a view of the skyline form a secret vantage point near the Victoria harbor. By that time, it had stopped raining and we were able to take some good photos of the views on offer.

The SoHo escalator 
Man Mo Tao temple
Day 2: Next morning was a refreshing change from the dull and drab rainy day we had seen the day before. It was bright, albeit a little cloudy; but no rain, which was a welcome relief. We had booked the 10 a.m Old Vs New Hong tour with Danny through Urban adventures, and he promptly met us at the designated spot on the South Hong Kong island. Danny walked us through Hong Kong’s journey from traditional fishing harbor to international financial powerhouse, exploring the pathways of Hong Kong’s historical transformation through its multicultural neighborhoods. We first went through the Hollywood neighborhood (the name actually comes from the fact that the area had a lot of Holly trees when it was discovered first by
Clock Tower
the British), home to many of Hong Kong's elitists.

Next stop was a  a former black market turned open-air curio market, called Cat street. This is because, apparently in Cantonese, the thieves are called "rats", and those who buy from them are called "cats". Our next stop was the PMQ, which used to be the Queen’s College and Police Married Quarters before, and now is a hub for design and creative industries. Its buildings have been retained, reinforced, refurbished and upgraded for new uses. Residential units have been converted into design studios and shops, offices for creative enterprises and lodging for visiting designers.

Our last stop was the SoHo district of Hong Kong, which has the world’s longest outdoor escalator. We round off the morning by a visit to the IFC 2 tower, in the central district, where there is a viewing gallery on the 56th floor, free for visitors.

Evening, we met up with my uncle, who took us to watch the light show at the Victoria harbor. We ended the night by having a Hong Kong special sea food curry dinner at one of the restaurants he took us to.

Skyline from the peak
Cable car to the Buddha
Day 3: Our last day in Hong Kong, was by far the brightest and sunniest. We took this opportunity to ride to the Victoria Peak to catch a full view of the skyline. The journey involved changed a train and a bus ride to get to the bottom of the hill. And then a tram to get to the peak. However, the view from the peak is one of the most amazing things I've seen yet. The photos don't do justice to the sight from the top. On one side you have the world's tallest and widest skyline spread across two islands and on the other side, you have the pacific ocean with green hilltops, which make you forget what's on the other side of the viewing gallery.
The monastery as seen from the Buddha
The Big Buddha

Next, because of our disappointing visit first time and the amazing weather that day, we decided to give the Big Buddha a second visit. And indeed it was worth it! This time we caught a glimpse of the giant Buddha from the cable car itself as we approached the hill top village of Ngong Ping. We spent about a couple of hours exploring the Buddha, the monastery and the surrounding areas of the village. We wrapped up our visit with some bean curd, which is made from soya and mountain water.

10000 Buddhas Monastery 
This brought to an end our exciting three day trip to Hong Kong. If we had more time, we would've done the day trip to Macau and may be a trip to Ocean park, but we'll reserve that for the next time.

Tips: 1) Use the MTR octopus 3 day/ 5 day pass for unlimited travel on the train or the bus.
2) Exchange the Hong Kong dollars at the local dealers in Kowloon. Not all of them have good rates, so look around for the best rate. Else, the ATM card has the best rate, but you end paying a surcharge to the bank, it would make more sense of a large one time withdrawal.
3) Eat local/street side; we really enjoyed the taste and it's relatively cheaper. Make sure you know how to use chopsticks though, as forks/spoons are tough to get in these establishments.

What businesses did we use?
Flight: Air India (BOM-DEL-HKG)
Tours: Hong Kong after dark and Old vs New Hong Kong
HotelKowloon Mongkok 1812 Guest House

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

H1B Dropbox experience at US Embassy in Mumbai

I recently used the dropbox facility for my second H1-B VISA stamping, at the US Embassy in Mumbai. The experience was a smooth one, and is definitely hassle free compared to the in-person finger printing and interview process. The requirements for using the dropbox can be found here, and the list of dropbox locations across India can be found here.

The documents I submitted are as below:
1) I797 Copy
2) DS-160 confirmation printout
3) Dropbox confirmation letter
4) All previous and current passports.
5) One 2 X 2 inch recent photo (Please note, this photo has to be different from the one in passport even if it was clicked recently)

The whole process took about a week for me and here is the entire timeline.

Nov 23rd - Dropped off the document
Nov 24th - Case created - VISA status: Ready
Nov 27th - Case updated - VISA Status: Admin Processing
Nov 30th - Case updated - VISA Status: Issued and Passport ready for pickup

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Renewing your Indian Passport in the U.S by Post

India Passport
This process is no longer valid as the passport applications are now handled by Cox and Kings Global Services.

I recently renewed my India passport by post at the Houston, TX conuslate. You need to mail your passport to the appropriate consulate, based on your physical address within the US. The whole process took about 3 weeks for me.

There are several documents that have to be attached with your application and here are some key points compiling them.

Photo requirements: There're about 9 passport size photos that are needed to be sent/attached with this application. Walmart quoted  $32 for 10 photos, but I did this via an app on my Windows phone. I bet iPhone and Android have something similar in their store. The way this works is, you take the photo against a white background using this app, the app then puts 6 replica clicked photos on a single "photo", and you then print this collage on a 4X6 inch glossy paper at Walmart (or any other pharmacy) for 45c. So I got 12 photos for ~$3 using this method.

Notary: There're at least 3 documents that need to be notarized. This can be done by either going to a public notary or at any Bank of America or Wells Fargo branch and they will do it for free! Here is an article on notarizing photo copies, if you face any issues.

Cashier's check/DD: Please note that personal check or cash is NOT an accepted form of payment for postal application. You can get a cashier's check or a demand draft in favor of "BLS INTERNATIONAL SERVICES USA INC" at any bank or grocery store for a small fee. This needs to be done before you fill out the online BLS order form, as you will need to input the # in the form.

Shipping Labels: This needs to be done before you fill out the online BLS order form, as you will need to input both tracking numbers for shipments in the online form.
Below are the steps I followed for UPS.com I bet FedEx has something similar though.
1. Create a UPS personal account from their website.
2. Create two shipping labels (for the packaging type specify UPS Letter)
      (a)  Destination BLS address
      (b) Destination: Your home address
File Number

Online Application: This was pretty straight forward, the only tricky part was a field called
"File Number". This can actually be found on the last page of your current passport. Here is a sample form filled out, that I found on the internet.

Nationality Verification Form: You need to submit 3 copies of this form, here is a sample. The only confusing part is point #14 on there, it seems like you can't enter your home address in India as a reference, so I had to use other addresses of relatives in India.
For #11, I entered the date I first left India for the US.
I left #15 blank.

Affidavit form for change of appearance: This is mandatory only for Houston jurisdiction, and needs to be notarized and signed.

Below is the grand checklist in the order I attached them, with the application:

1) Signed checklist
2) Original India passport
3) Cashier's check for $116.20 (Appropriate fee can be found here)
4) Passport renewal application
5) BLS order form
6) Envelope with 4 photos
7) 3 copies of Nationality Verification Form
8) Colored photocopy of the first five pages and last two pages of the passport.
9) Notarized color H1B VISA photocopy, as proof of valid VISA.
10) Notarized Lease copy as US proof of residence
11) Notarized Change in Appearance and Signature (Only needed for Houston consulate)
12) Return waybill for UPS
13) MS Degree copy for ECNR requirement

Once you mail in the application, it can be tracked here. My status started showing the next day after UPS delivered it to BLS.
Here is the entire timeline.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Alaska: The last frontier

Sunrise in Anchorage
Bears larger than bison, national parks the size of nations, and glaciers bigger than other US states. Me and my wife recently did a week long trip to the great state of Alaska. We chose the state for it's unique and distant geography.

Arctic Valley drive
Day 1 (Anchorage, AK) We landed in Anchorage on 6/27, Saturday early morning at around half past three in the morning. The rental cars companies don't open until five in the morning, so we waited at the airport to kill time. After
Artifacts at the museum
picking up the rental car we headed straight into Anchorage downtown for breakfast. Since the check-in time wasn't till noon, we then headed to the Arctic valley scenic drive after. The drive is about 40 min outside of Anchorage and the last 6 miles are on unpaved road, which makes it a little difficult to drive to the top. After coming back from the drive, we headed to the Tony Knowles Coastal trail near by for a nice walk along the coast. We rested for a while in the afternoon and later headed to the Anchorage Museum in downtown. This museum has some of the artifacts from the earlier settlers in the state.
The day came to end with dinner at the Namaste Shangrila Himalayan restaurant in town.
Seward Highway
The train arrives in Whittier
Day 2 (Whittier, AK) We had booked a Glacier cruise into the Prince William sound wilderness, which departs from the harbor in the small and remote town of Whittier, AK. Just getting there from Anchorage is half the fun, according to their brochure, and so it was! The drive from Anchorage passes through the scenic Seward highway (aka Alaska 1 Hwy) and goes through an unique tunnel just before entering the town of Whittier. The drive has some of the best scenic natural beauty I've ever seen. With mountains on one side and the Pacific wilderness on the other.
Prince William Sound
The one-lane tunnel, before entering Whittier, is shared by cars and trains traveling in both directions, and it usually needs to be aired out in between trips. This unique design that enables a single lane of traffic to travel directly over the railroad track saved tens of millions of dollars over the cost of constructing a new tunnel. It takes about an hour, if you miss your at the hour.
After having a quick lunch, we boarded the cruise at around at 1 p.m. It was raining pretty heavily that day, but we were told that's how the weather near the coast is most days of the year there. The cruise went into the Prince William Sound waters and it took about an hour to get to our first glacier. It got much more cold as we got close and deeper inside the waters, and the rain added to it. However, we were told that rain is actually good for glacier's health and it actually makes them look bluish (as seen in the photo above). It did however make viewing and clicking photos from the deck much more adventurous.
Exit glacier
After the three and half hour cruise we drove back to Anchorage, taking the 5 p.m tunnel.
Day 3 (Seward, AK)
Glacial river
The next day we had planned a drip one of Alaska southern harbors, Seward, named after for US senator William H Seward, who was the mastermind behind the Alaska purchase from Russia. The drive took us thorough some of the previous day's scenic route and into the Seward mount haven wilderness, on our way there. After reaching Seward, we had lunch at Ray's Waterfront and then headed to hike the Exit glacier. There is a 7 mile drive to get to the glacier and a 1 mile one-way hike to get to the tip. The glacier has been retreating since the nineties, and it probably won't be that long before it's gone. There're some really scenic stops getting to the top and a glacial river near the bottom, where you can hike to.
Us with our guide
The river float trip

Day 4 & 5 (Talkeetna, AK) We had booked the next three days up north in a small Alaskan town call Talkeetna. The town is about 15 miles from the nearest highway and the downtown is easily walk able.
Byer's lake
The town is unique because at the end of the town's main street is the confluence of three rivers - Takeetna, Susitna and Chulitna, with Denali national park as the backdrop and Mt McKinley visible (on really clear sunny days). The drive from Anchorage took about 2 hours to get to the remote town and after checking in we did a 2 hour river float trip on the Talkeetna river.
The next day we did a drive up the Denali highway north, to catch a glimpse of Mt Mkinley but it was too overcast to really see anything but dark clouds. Although, there is no denying the adventure of driving in the wilderness, weather sunny or overcast. We stopped by Byer's lake to do a small hike be
fore heading back to our lodge.

Hurricane Glutch
Hurricane Turn Train
Day 6 (Hurricane Turn) The next day we had book the hurricane turn train which departs from Talkeetna  during the summer season on a round trip to Hurricane Gulch, hop off at any given mile post. This train still operates as a flag stop service, allowing passengers to hop on and off as they please. This area is home to approximately 40 year round residents. They use this train as their lifeline to transport necessary goods from Talkeetna or beyond back to their homes in the wilderness. I must confess, I did not know the meaning of the word "remote living", until I saw how the people lived in this area. There are literally single home towns, on this track, and this train is their only connection to the outside world, as there is no dedicated electricity, no internet and only emergency/local phone service.
The entire round trip takes about 7-8 hours, from and back to Talkeetna.
Day 7 (Drive back to ANC) 
Can you spot McKinley?
The last day before we headed back home via our late evening flight from ANC, we decided to head up north one more time to try and catch a glimpse of Mt McKinley, as the sun had finally showed up. (Well, almost). We headed north to a point called Mt McKinley view point, which we had seen the first time we drove up there but did not venture in. The point is located about a mile inwards from the highway, uphill through twists and turns, to a private hotel called "Mt McKinley Lodge". We stood in the viewing of the lodge, as it was kind of seemed open to the general public too, and there is it was! Finally, we could see the mysterious and hidden Mt McKinley, in all it's glory. We took some photos and headed for the 3 hour drive back to the airport.

All in all, this was one of the most unique and adventurous trips we've had in recent times. I would go back in heartbeat.

What businesses did we use?
Anchorage B&B: A loon's nest
Talkeetna Lodge: Northern Guesthouse
Glacier Cruise: Phillips Cruises
Talkeetna River trip: Talkeetna River guides
Hurricane Turn trip: Alaska railroad

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Chicago in a day

I recently visited Chicago with my wife, during the memorial day weekend. Located only an hour by flight from Kansas City, the city boasts of having one of the most spectacular skylines in the world.
The destruction caused by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 led to the largest building boom in U.S history. Today, Chicago's skyline is among the world's tallest and most dense.
We began our day by doing a walking tour with "Inside Chicago", which is owned and operated by a lady named Hillary. She was on-time and showed us some of the "inside" details of some buildings in the Loop.
Afternoon, we did an architectural boat tour that goes right through the river that does a "Y" within the city. I would highly recommend both these tours as give an insight into how and why the city skyline is the way it is. Here are some of the pictures from the tours.

Chicago skyline as seen from the flight landing

Tribune tower

The riverfront

Triangular apartments 

Wrigley building(s)

Chicago bean 
Millennium park 

Trump tower, 2nd tallest in the city