Monday, February 28, 2011

What a game!!

What a game!! My emotions went through the entire roller coaster of ecstasy as Sachin Tendulkar made his 98th international hundred and India put in a supreme batting performance, despondency as England for all money looked to be on course to win with overs to spare, hope for a great England collapse always remained at the back of my mind and the sheer delirium of THOSE overs when India almost looked like they pulled off a Houdini. In the end I think the tie was a fair result that left both teams satisfied with the extra point, after having lost all hopes of a win at separate junctures during the game, while at the same time feeling hard done by for not delivering the killer blow that would have landed them full points.
Chinnaswamy Stadium Map
The day had started in complete contrast with a 1km long queue that took us more than an hour to negotiate to get into the stadium from Gate 16. I went for the game with a friend, Advit Sahdev and was lucky that he found a friend in the queue, which we joined midway with him at about 1250pm entering the stadium at about 2pm. I was reading reports of the thousands of people who ended up in the same queue outside gate 16 and ended up missing a significant part of India’s innings. It is with great amusement that I read KSCA spokesperson Sujith Somasundar’s statement regarding the last minute sale of online tickets as being the reason for the delay in entry when it took just me just 10 minute outside the stadium conversing with locals to understand the real reason behind the insane queuing time.

Gate 16 catered to the entire H & G stand with a capacity of over 11,250 spectators as mentioned by Sujith Somasundar. Due to the ongoing work at the Bangalore metro adjoining the stadium the entire area behind the North & East stand, where gates are usually in operation on that side of the stadium, was cordoned off. For the equivalent area catering to stands A,B,C,D,E,P3 and P4 there were 5 gates (Gates 11-15) that I walked past where the queues were obviously much more manageable. Is it too much to expect organizers at the Chinnaswamy to think of these issues and put measures in place to ensure that the paying spectators are not inconvenienced?

Stand G at the beginning of game
To top it all there was no numbered seating at any of the stands except for the VIP seats. So after the struggle with getting into the stadium, one was faced with the next struggle of locating seats together in a reasonable location where the view was not obstructed by the huge pillars that seem to be a major part of the DNA of Chinnaswamy stadium. We struggled around for another 20 minutes to find decent seats before the police opened the gates between stand G (which was completely empty) and stand H (for which we had tickets, but which was overflowing with spectators). We finally ended up with fantastic seats with a great side on view of proceedings. What did surprise me however were the number of empty seats when the match started. While the spectators making a delayed entry played a part, a large number of seats were still empty for the duration of the game, which I found a little surprising given the entire madness around the sale of tickets of Bangalore that led to the lathi-charge the day tickets went on sale.
Still empty seats with India 16/0
Indian National Anthem - DO NOT MISS, followed by World Cup theme song

The average Indian cricket fan takes all these inconveniences in his stride and continues to throng the stadiums. I had taken the morning 645am flight from Delhi to Bangalore and came across 4-5 diverse groups of people, father/son, 5-6 office colleagues, 3-4 DINKY (Double Income No Kids.. Yet) couples, who were travelling to Bangalore for the match. The number of travelling supporters for the Indian team might actually not be as small as I think it is and I plan to keep my eyes and ears open to check more of this phenomenon in the matches to come.
The fans, BCCI take notice

The fan story that tugged my heart was of this elderly gentleman seated right next to me who had come to watch the game with his nephew. The gentleman was more than 75 years in age, walked with a very slow shuffle but without the aid of a walking stick and was carrying his dentures with him. He lives with his family in the USA but was in India to attend the funeral of a cousin who had passed away and was leaving for the US the day after the match. He wanted to attend the match as he felt this would be his last opportunity to do so in India. He and his nephew had bought tickets in black from outside the stadium, braved the queue, the heat and the struggle to find a seat inside the stadium. They could not find 2 seats together and while the gentleman sat next to us his nephew ended up sitting in the row behind us. Right after Sachin’s century he asked me for my flag and got on his feet to wave the flag while getting his photograph clicked, with the enthusiasm of a 10 year old, to the loudest cheer of the night from the gallery that we were seated in. I hope Sharad Pawar, Ratnakar Shetty and their ilk in the BCCI sometimes get the opportunity to get away from their AC boxes and their pressing engagements of hobnobbing with the glitterati to spend some time with the real fans. Probably spending a day at a game without their AC boxes, catered food and reserved parking, queuing up like mere mortals is what is required to sensitize them to the improvements that are required to make attending a game a family event for the ordinary spectator rather than the ordeal it is currently.

Sachin moves from 95 to 102, century reached at 1:20 
This was my first time watching a match away from centers in the North. I have seen international matches in Delhi, Faridabad and Mohali and the first thing that struck me about the crowd in Bangalore was their fairness. The crowd was decent enough to remain silent during England’s national anthem and applaud when the anthem was completed. In spite of the likeliness of an upset increasing with each passing landmark the crowd was generous in its applause for all landmarks reached by Strauss (including the reasonably insignificant landmark, in the context of the game, for 4000 runs in ODI cricket) and the rest of the batsmen. During the now infamous Bell UDRS review, chants of “Cheating.. Cheating” broke out from all around the stadium. Strauss was about to reach his century in the over or two after the botched review and I was thinking that the crowd might end up booing him, the mighty applause he got for his century put those fears to rest. A word though about the review, no-one in the stadium knew about the 2.5m rule and everyone in the stadium was perplexed about why Bell was called back. It was only after 3-4 overs post the event that I got to know the reason for Bell getting the review in his favour, after speaking to a friend over the phone. A similar event in the knock-out stage vs Pakistan could very well lead to a riot, stadium authorities would do well to take some steps about keeping the spectators informed lest emotions boil over a la Kolkata in 1996.
 A small but boisterous section of the Barmy Army was also sitting in our side of the stands. They were singing quite a few of their patented chants but the “Cheerios Cheerios” chant on the dismissal of every Indian batsman is something that caught the fancy of the locals who made a “See you.. See You” chant of their own to sing after every English dismissal. During THOSE overs of the batting powerplay that changed the game, the chants, singing and dancing took on an almost manic, intoxicated nature with the crowd feeding off the energy of one another to create an atmosphere I have never ever experienced at any sporting event in spite of having been lucky enough to have been present, among others,  when Kumble took all 10 vs Pakistan, when Yuvi hit those 6 sixes or when India won the T20 World Cup.
Crowd chants as Zaheer bowls during the batting powerplay
Video of last ball as the match is tied

DND, Consultant at work
Inspite of the “action every ball” nature of this match and the sometimes frenzied atmosphere, I found time for a few snoozes here and there. It had been a crazy week in which I travelled to Mumbai on Wednesday night for a team offsite returning at almost midnight on Saturday night before waking up at 445am to take the 630am flight to Bangalore. Consecutive nights from Wed to Sat with 4hr, 6hr, 4.5hr, 4.5hr of sleep interspersed with boozy, networking nights at the offsite had taken a toll before I arrived in Bangalore and while that is probably not a valid excuse I guess age is catching up. So the next time a TV camera zooms on a spectator snoozing in the most exciting phase of the match, don’t laugh, he might be a consultant balancing his working lifestyle with the love of following his favourite team in action :) Thankfully, I now get a weekend off to recover (flying all the way back to Bangalore for Ireland didn’t seem worth it) and will be attending India vs Netherland in Delhi on the 9th of March, work permitting.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Waah Dhaka and a meeting with Sachin’s biggest fan

I landed in Dhaka on the morning of the game and was greeted by the excitement of a host city that is still missing from all the other host cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad) I have visited on work over the past 10 days. The logos of the Cricket World Cup were plastered all over the airport and it was difficult to miss the fact that Dhaka was hosting its first ever World Cup match that very afternoon. The entire route from the airport to Gulshan 2 (the posh diplomatic enclave in Dhaka) had been done up with lights adoring the central verge on the road, all overbridges were covered with CWC 2011 branding and large cut-outs of  Bangladeshi cricketers were  shouting out from all busy junctions and round abouts. Banners wishing the team best of luck were visible fluttering from lots of buildings and people were still scrawling their wishes to the team on giant bats that had been placed for this purpose in central locations around the city.

Cut-outs in major round-abouts

I was staying at the Green House Bed & Breakfast that I had booked from hostelworld for $45/night, an absolute bargain for the equivalent of a private room in one of the large palatial Defence Colony bungalows. I had an extra ticket for the match as Pooja had ditched me to spend some time at her home in Kolkata. Zewl, the son of the guest house owner was only too happy to take up my offer to watch the match and could scarcely believe his luck considering that tickets for all matches in Bangladesh have been sold out. Zewl and I left Gulshan 2 for the stadium, a distance of 12km away, at 12pm anticipating a gridlock in a city where traffic jams are a major attraction in themselves. Surprisingly the streets leading up to the stadium were traffic free as I suspect those without tickets had firmly ensconced themselves in front of their TV screens so as not to miss a single ball bowled. The vicinity of the stadium was choc a bloc with people and I felt quite conspicuous in my blue India T-Shirt with the Indian flag fluttering behind me. To the credit of the locals, I never felt intimidated in spite of being one of only about 500 odd Indian supporters in the entire stadium where almost 29,000 attended the match.

View from our seat with the media center on the right
Surprisingly, the entry into the stadium was also a breeze and I was quite impressed by the official merchandise available at stalls inside the stadium. The India t-shirts, not the team jerseys, but specially designed round neck tees were quite stylish and should be available at all stadiums in India as well. We were sitting in the stand right next to the new media centre that has been created in Mirpur. Due to the extended media centre, our view of the field was about 20% obstructed on one side of the field but it didn’t detract too much from the experience. The crowd was incredibly noisy even when the stadium was half full. I found out that was I seated right next to a gang of about 15 odd people from the Indian High Commission in Dhaka and we formed a reasonably big and excitable gang that could create enough noise at times to be heard above the din that the Bangladeshi supporters were creating.

Our gang was further fortified by the presence of Sachin Tendulkar and India’s biggest cricket fan. While I do think of myself as a fairly devoted follower of Sachin and the Indian team, Sudhir Kumar Gautam takes the devotion to a completely different level. While chatting with him he told me that he had been following the Indian cricket team for their matches across the sub-continent (Pakistan, India and Bangladesh) since 2002. He travels from venue to venue, time permitting, on a bicycle because it doesn’t cost a dime. Sudhir is from Muzzaffarpur in Bihar and cycled from there to Dhaka in 9 days to attend the opening match. After the match in Dhaka he plans to cycle back to Kolkata where he would park it at a relative’s place for the duration of the tournament and then travel around the country by train.
For all games in India, he gets an all access stadium pass as Sachin Tendulkar’s guest. However, since this match was being played in Dhaka, Sachin had arranged a ticket for him and he was seated in the same part of the stand as myself. I was intrigued by the fact that unlike other fans that had got small flags painted on their cheeks, the colours on Sudhir’s body seemed permanent and were not running off with the sweat in the afternoon heat. On top of that, the entire design on his body with Tendulkar written in block letters and the flag pained on his head is fairly elaborate and I was intrigued by how he gets it done. Sudhir told me that he gets his body painted by professional artists in all cities in India and it typically takes an entire night before the match for him to get into his match ‘costume’. Since this was his first time in Dhaka he got delayed in finding an artist and had to get a rushed job done the morning of the match, not that I could detect that it was rushed by any stretch of imagination.

I consider myself to be a fairly big Sachin & India fan and would happily contest anyone for the “Who is a bigger fan” challenge, but the chat with Sudhir put my privileged existence into perspective and the only thing I can say, from one Sachin fan to another, “Dude, you win this contest by a knock out”

With Sudhir playing the lead, our entire gang got into preparing our stand for the match by tying our flags together and putting them on the balcony. By then it was time for the match to start and the atmosphere in the stand was electric. My favourite experience watching any sporting event involving India is singing the national anthem before the India vs Pakistan Commonwealth hockey game in Delhi, 20,000 people singing ‘Jaya he Jaya he’ gives me goosebumps every time I even think about it. While Dhaka probably was not on the same level as the experience in Delhi, the goosebumps did materialize probably due to the anticipation of the world cup finally starting and the charged environment.
Video of Indian National Anthem

The crowd was silenced after the first 2-3 overs with Sachin & Sehwag’s strokeplay and while they did find their voice sporadically during the Indian innings, the Indian gang in the stand had the upper hand in the battle of the crowds during the Indian inning. We had a nice little sub plot going in the battle of the crowds as the police materialized after 2 over asking us to remove our flags from the balcony. While we pointed out the other Bangladesh flags tied to the balcony as well, the police were in no mood to listen and forcibly started untying the flags. In scenes probably reminiscent of the “Narmada Bacho Andolan” where protestors wrapped themselves around trees, Sudhir took on the role of Medha Patkar and wrapped himself around the balcony and the Indian flag tied to the railing while the rest of us tried to argue with the police about the rationale of removing only the Indian flags. The police saw the logic of that and after a while left us to our own devices. While Sehwag was smashing the Bangladesh bowling into submission the Indian section of the crowd had won a small battle of their own.
On hearing our victorious shouts, a part of the enthusiastic Bangladesh contingent, that had been observing our tussle with the police with some amusement got into the act and tied together close to 25 large Bangladesh flags and spread them around their part of the balcony dwarfing our flag to huge cheers from the rest of the sections. Unlike the field where Sehwag was still in top gear, the Bangla supporters had won a round in battle. The entire mock battle was in good spirits and there were quite a few Bangla supporters who came up to Sudhir to click their photographs together.

The entire battle of the supporters was nipped in the bud by the ICC, who sent one of their officials with the police at the drinks break to remove both the composite flags as they were covering the branding of the tournament sponsors Hero Honda & Pepsi. The message on who runs the game could not have been clearer.

On the field India rattled up a huge total, in spite of which the crowd remained in high spirits during the entire Bangladesh chase. Even after the 30th over by which it was clear that Bangladesh was playing for pride and to minimize the impact of defeat to their net run rate, the crowd continued to cheer each and every run especially when their heart throbs Tamim Iqbal & Saqib Al Hasan were batting. One of the young Bangladeshi supporters informed me with barely contained glee that these two are big time gossip fodder for magazines in Bangladesh and are both dating a model & an actress respectively, Apparently the girl friend of captain is a Hindu but that is not big enough news in a reasonably secular Bangladesh.

Video of Sehwag getting his 100

Video of the crowd cheering the Bangladeshi batsmen

My overall impression after chatting with quite a few Bangladesh supporters is that they have extremely high expectations of their team and expect Bangladesh to definitely qualify for the knock out stage. At the same time they were satisfied by the fact that in spite of the great start in the first 10 overs, their team’s sole objective was to minimize the margin of defeat rather than go all guns blazing and lose by a slightly larger margin but send out a message to the other teams that they would continue to play hard aggressive cricket and not take a backward step. I think this is the dichotomy that the Bangladeshi team and people are still coming to terms with, the extremely high expectations to be world beaters tempered by the realism that they still don’t quite belong to the elite level.
Outside the stadium on the way back
As the match fizzled out with the dismissal of the captain, a largely satisfied crowd started to leave. After the game, in spite of the defeat there was a carnival like atmosphere outside the stadium with those without tickets hanging around, taking family photographs around the periphery of the lit stadium decorated with fancy lights from the outside.

My flight the next day was at 345pm and I thought I would utilize the time doing a bit of sightseeing around old Dhaka. As it turned out I should not have bothered and could have instead caught up on my sleep. After leaving the guesthouse at 10am it took me 2 hours 15 min to cover 12 km to Sadar Ghat, the passenger terminal for ferries that ply the Buri Ganga and is the transportation lifeline of Bangladesh. I got exactly 10 min to spend at Ahsan Manzil, an old palace and museum belonging to the Nawabs from the 18th century. For 30min of sightseeing I had to endure almost 4 hours crawling the 30 odd km in traffic.

Next up for me is the game vs. England in Bangalore on Sunday. I finally got an e-mail confirmation from Kyazoonga today that my request for transfer of ticket (since the game was originally scheduled for Kolkata but got transferred to Bangalore at the 11th hour) is done and that I can collect my ticket from the stadium booth on Saturday or Sunday. So adios till Bangalore and here is to hoping that Bangalore can surpass the Dhaka experience.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Let the games begin!!

Last year after Sachin’s 200 vs South Africa, I was convinced that the 2011 was going to be India’s year as Sachin HAS to be a part of a world cup winning squad. I think he has been saving himself in ODIs with the sole aim of being a part of a world cup winning squad which has been one of the motivators that has kept him going in the last few years. It strikes me as surprising that he played just 2 ODIs last year and I think I will stand by what I wrote last year, that if India wins the World Cup then Sachin will announce his retirement from ODI cricket.

Since then, an additional factor that will make this an interesting world cup to follow from a personal point of view would be to see Sachin score his 100th international hundred. I was lucky enough to witness his 50th test hundred in Centurion and to witness the 100th international hundred would be another pilgrimage ticked off in support of the only god I have believed in.

Since making this plan in March last year, I bought tickets on 1st June 2010 ,the day the tickets went on sale at, for all of India’s matches (except for the game vs Ireland in Bengaluru on 6th March) till the quarter final. So starting from tomorrow, I will be travelling to one of the venues every weekend (except the weekend of the 6th) to watch India keep its date with destiny on 2nd April 2010. I travel to Dhaka’s Sher-e-Bangla stadium to watch the opening game of the 2011 world cup tomorrow.

The organizers were kind enough to help me organize this itinerary by scheduling all of India’s matches over the weekend so that taking time off from work is not a variable to worry about for the group matches. The only India game on a weekday is vs Netherlands, which in the worst case scenario would mean missing one inning of the match if I cant take the day off. However, this is where the kindness of the organizers stopped for me. I have visited various other sporting events such as the 2007 T20 World Cup, 2006 and 2010 football world cups, the Euro 2008, US Open etc but I am yet to come across a more mismanaged tournament from a spectator point of view.

Which other ‘global’ tournament would have:

1. Tickets for the semi final and the final not go on sale by the start of the tournament. Yes the tickets for the semi final and final are yet to go on sale and the organizers have not seen it fit to inform the public on when they intend to. From what I read in the newspapers just 4000 tickets for the world cup final would come on sale, but there doesn’t seem to be any transparency on when and how would the sale take place.

2. Matches rescheduled a month before they take place. I (and 10 other friends) had bought tickets for the India vs England game at the Eden Gardens and made our travel and stay arrangements only for the game to be shifted a month before the start of the world cup. The organizaers have been kind enough to let me exchange my tickets for the game in Bangalore but with just a week to go I have no information regarding the stand I would be seated in. I would also need to get in a collection queue on the day of the game to get my ticket as there isn’t enough time for the tickets to be couriered. Given the number of people who would have had their tickets transferred in this manner I predict major chaos on the day of the day.

3. De-centralization of printing of tickets. Each venue/state association is printing its own tickets and sending them to Kyazoonga, the ticketing partner, as per their own timelines. With the world cup starting tomorrow, Kyazoonga is yet to receive tickets from Mohali, Chennai, Nagpur, Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi, Ahmedabad etc. Due to this for people who booked tickets for matches at multiple venues on Kyazoonga the tickets can only be dispatched once all of them become available. I had to personally go to the Kyazoonga office near Defence Colony to collect my India vs Bangladesh match tickets. The rest of my tickets will only be couriered to me once all state associations can get their acts together and print tickets for all the matches taking place at their venue. While this is still not a game changer for me, I shudder to think of the pain that overseas visitors, some of whom would probably have left for India, would be going through to track their consignments as Kyazoonga’s customer care is permanently on hold given the high number of queries they are getting. Already there are reports coming from Dhaka and Bangalore about the high number of tickets available for sale in the black market, I am sure a significant chunk of that is ending up in the pockets of those running these associations.

4. Absolutely no on-ground activation to build excitement among the general public. There are no banners, hoardings welcoming teams anywhere in Delhi (South Africa and West Indies are probably based in Delhi right now), all I see are some ESPN Star Sports world cup hoardings outside their office HQ in Gurgaon and Stumpy (the mascot) countdown watches at some malls. While the world cup is all over the media, it could for all practical purposes be taking place anywhere else in the world rather than the cities we live in. I recently travelled from Delhi to Ahmedabad, both host cities, and was surprised at the lack of any world cup posters welcoming the 15000 odd travelling coming over to India for the Cup or merchandise in airport shops.

I can’t think of a more backward looking organization than the BCCI to be at the forefront of internationally administering a sport on the basis of their financial muscle. However, in spite of all these challenges we, the people, would continue to throng the stadiums to be pushed around (if you are luck, lathi charged if you are not) by the police at all venues and spend the entire day packed in like sardines in stadiums having dirty bathrooms, unhygienic food and water. It is this irrational support that makes the India fan the creature he is who then vents out all his frustration by burning down the stadiums when India lose a la Kolkata 1996.

The lucky Indian flag I bought in South Africa before the India vs England (Yuvi 6 sixes!!) game in Durban, that was my constant companion as I watched India take out South Africa, Australia and Pakistan to win the T20 World Cup, has been packed along with my lucky Indian jersey (the old light blue one) as I travel to Dhaka tomorrow. I don’t know if we will end up yet again (1987, 1996) as the (semi-finalist) bridesmaid at a home world cup or if we will go one better than 2003, but I do know that it will be a roller coaster 6 weeks that I plan to make the most of.

PS: Just saw this article on rediff about the absence of the buzz i spoke about in Delhi, Mumbai

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Doing the W and flying in the wind

After a 3 segment, 13 hour flight from Rio we arrived in Punta Arenas on Christmas morning. We landed at the airport at about 430am and the first thing we did before venturing out of the airport was bring the woollens out. For the uninitiated, Punta Arenas is the southern most city in Chile situated on the Strait of Magellan (yes the one we read about in geography classes way back in the hazy past) and the only other large habitable city to its South is Ushuaia in Argentinian Patagonia. Both Punta Arenas and Ushuaia are used as bases for tourist expeditions to Antarctica by sea (1-2 week cruises) or by air (2day/1night packages for approx US$2000/person).

I had heard a lot about the Patagonian wind especially the intensity during the summers but the first experience quite literally hits you. Our plan was to move to Puerto Natales, the gateway to the Torres del Paine National Park, which is about 3 hours by bus north of Punta Arenas. According to Lonely Planet buses stop at the airport on the way to Puerto Natales so there was no need to go to into the city of Punta Arenas. However at the airport we found no signs of the bus and after a few enquiries figured out that the next bus from the airport for Puerto Natales was at 830am. With approx 3.5 hours we and a bunch of other people shared cabs to the city and spread out looking for information about buses. There is no central bus terminal in Punta Arenas, buses leave from the offices of the bus companies spread around the city. While the city is not large, the central area is spread around an area of 10 blocks by 10 blocks which we figured was a pain to walk around with our rucksacks especially in the strong wind that was blowing around town.

While Pooja suggested getting into a hotel to wait out time till the next bus for escaping from the wind, I suggested stopping at the central square, which was surrounded by nice thick trees that I hoped would provide reasonable cover from the wind. As usual situations where I make a strong stand have a habit of blowing up right in my face and within 2 minutes of sitting in the central square we figured out that the trees were no help against the wind. Tail between my legs (till the next time I took a stand that is), we moved to the comfortable lobby of Hotel Cabo de Hornos and wolfed down a lovely buffet. Being early on Christmas morning the restaurant was empty and the staff was extremely helpful in guiding us about the timings of the bus to Puerto Natales.
The 8am bus run by Pullman by full and we took the next bus at 9am run by Bus Sur (CLP 4000/person, about US$8) which dropped us in Puerto Natales at noon. We stayed at Hostal Lili Patagonicos which was my favourite hostel along with Elefante Rosa in Buenos Aires. It had nice cosy rooms for CLP 18,000 (US$36/night) with wi-fi, TV having quite a few English channels and the yummiest comforters imaginable that just made you want to curl up in bed and not get out. Lili Patagonicos also had an attached travel agency from where you could book bus tickets to Torres Del Paine National Park and other day trips such as the boat ride to Serrano & Balmaceda glaciers, Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina etc. Ivan, one of the owners, was extremely helpful and guided us on some of the trails that we should do and how we should structure the days.
The Towers

We spent 26th Dec – 29th Dec hiking in the Torres del Paine National Park. The park gets its name from the Towers that are the most well known sight of the park. Other than the towers, the distinctly shaped peak called Los Cuernos and the panorama around it form another well known photographic landmark. The park has received a lot of publicity from travel aficionados over the past few years, due to its presence on the “things to do before you die” list for an increasingly large number of people it is extremely busy year round in spite of the inhospitable climate in Patagonia so do make your reservations well in advance especially in the summers.

People visiting have the option of doing the “W Circuit” or the “Full Circuit” (also known as the “O circuit”). Most people end up hiking the W circuit given the better infrastructure. If you are interested in hiking the full circuit it is important to have your own equipment as the only accommodation is in camp grounds. The W involves hiking approx 50km over a 5-6 day period. While that might sound scary, it is possible to create itineraries that are tailored to an individual’s fitness levels by blending hiking with bus & ferry travel. The adjoining map shows the W trail, the ferry options and the roads that allow hikers to create tailored itineraries. We hiked approximately 23km over 4 days and were pleasantly surprised that we ended up with so much time to laze around and enjoy the mountain panoramas at all of our stops. I actually think we undersold ourselves and could have done this circuit in either 3 days or included another 6-7kms to hike in another part of the park. 
W Map

There are hotels, hostels and refugios spaced within the circuit and the typical days hiking is from one rest stop to another. We stayed for 3 nights within the park in refugios which cost us US$80 per person per night including full board. The price increases by another US$10/person if you want sheet and linen. We decided to be kind to the environment and travelled with our sleeping bags. Private rooms in the hostels should cost approx US$120 per person per night including full board and hotels vary anywhere between US$250/night to US$1000/night. We spent 1 night in Hosteria Torres Norte and 2 nights at Hostal Chileno. As part of the full board the hostals give you the option of choosing a packed lunch (while hiking) or a hot lunch that is served in the hostal restaurant. The packed lunch is extremely good if you are hiking extensively with lots of fruit, juices, energy bars and sandwiches.

Wind Warnings, ignore at own risk

Two aspects should be kept in mind while planning the hikes. Since the hike is from one hostel to another, you end up carrying your stuff so pack light. We left our rucksacks at Lili Patagonicos (it’s a free service that’s provided by all hotels in Puerto Natales) and hiked the park with smaller backpacks carrying enough clothes to last us the 4 days. The packed lunch also adds to the weight. The second thing is the wind. On a bad day the wind can blow the entire day and is strong enough for small stones to start flying around. We were reasonably lucky with the wind that the stone flying phase happened just once and that too briefly on the first day. The effect of the wind also got somewhat accentuated with the backpack and sleeping bag acting as sails and it is quite a struggle not to get blown off course. For those at a reasonable fitness level (read more than mine!!) 6km-8km/day is a breeze. The days are quite long during the summers (sunrise at 515am and sunset after 11pm) so leaving after breakfast you can typically cover 6-8km by 2-3pm and have the rest of the day to read, drink and make merry.

Los Cuernos in the background
 We did a fairly easy 4km hike away from the W circuit to a view point overlooking Los Cuernos on Day 1. After taking the early morning bus 730am bus (CLP 15,000/US$30 per person return) from Puerto Natales, we reached Laguna Amarga, which is the entry point into the national park at about 9am. The bus waited for us while we paid the cost of entrance (CLP 15,000/US$30 per person). We got off at the next stop called Pudeto at around 1030 am. Pudeto is also one of the embarkation points for the ferry ride on Lago Pehoe that can take you directly to Refugio Paine Grande.

Wind spray in the lake

This is one of the short cuts that enables you to see the entire park without having to hike the 50km around the W. Our hike started with a short uphill trek to reach the Salto Grande waterfall and then a level hike for the next 2 odd kms walking alongside Lago Nordenskjold before it ended on the lookout point over Los Cuernos. The wind was stiff and we had to take shelter twice, once from the spray that was blown from the lake and the other when the pebbles starting flying. We got back just in time to catch the bus on its return loop from Pudeto back to Laguna Amarga from where the connecting bus to the Hosteria Las Torres was waiting for us. We reached the hostel at about 330 and spent the rest of the day reading, sleeping and playing TT.

Sunrise on day 2
Day 2 was an uphill 4.4km hike from Hosteria Las Torres to Hostel Chileno. After the first km the trail become quite steep and we had to huff and puff our way uphill. The overall scenery was nothing spectacular but the location of Hostel Chileno is absolutely amazing. It is right alongside the stream in a narrow valley surrounded on all sides snow covered mountains rising steeply. We started from Las Torres at about 930am and we at the hostel by 1pm in time for lunch.

Outside Hostel Chileno
Hostel Chileno is the closest hostel to the Mirador Las Torres, the viewpoint over the towers that give the national park its name. Most guidebooks recommend going up to the mirador in time for sunrise when the tower turn deep red. The best place to stay to observe the towers at sunrise is Campamento Torres from where the mirador is a steep 45min-1hour hike. The camping ground is about 4km from Hostel Chileno, but the only challenge is that you need to have your own camping equipment to stay there. If you don’t, then to get to the Mirador by sunrise you need to leave Hostel Chileno at about 230am. We left at about 315am and could not make it up to the mirador by sunrise. The pace was slower considering that it was pitch dark and we were walking with a torch as our only light source. We met this Canadian-Ukrainian girl called Yana at Hostel Chileno who had worked as a software engineer in Canada for 4 years saving money and was now travelling the world. She had already spent 1.5 years in South America and planned to travel to Africa and then Asia for another 1.5 years before getting back to Canada. Yana was part of our traveling party in the middle of the night hoping to get up to the Mirador by sunrise.

The first hour was a relatively easy climb except for the darkness and the small streams that we had to go through on the trail. It was quite slippery around these treams and Yana did her ankle around one of these streams about an hour into the hike. However she bravely carried on and made it to the top half an hour before us which was partly due to the fitness she had built up hiking over the past 18 months and partly due to my habit of taking guide books too literally. Our mis-adventure started just before the last part of the climb up from Campamento Torres to the Mirador. We came off the trail into the camp looking for a rest room while Yana carried up on the trail. Rather than walk the 200m or so back to the trail we saw signs posted within the camp pointing towards the trail. Following those signs we lost the trail and ended up at the bottom of a hill made completely of boulders that looked to be going up in the general direction of the mirador. Since the lonely planet had mentioned that the last half an hour was a “knee popping scramble up boulders” I was quite adamant that we were on the right track. The absence of any people or the orange trail markings was an obvious inconvenience that i chose to ignore and rather than go back more than 500m I decided to believe that we were on the right track. We spent close to 45minutes climbing boulders after boulders, including some that were clearly not stable in their position, and could have started quite a land slide. The story of the Czech backpacker, who in 2005 burnt 7% of the national park as a stove fire and the Patagonian wind conspired to create a raging fire that went out of control, was fresh in my mind. With each unstable step the diplomatic face off between the Indian and Chilean government to control the actions of irresponsible travellers causing land slides began to take on an air or inevitability.
In 45minutes, we climbed up from an altitude of approx 490m to 675m (according to the altimeter on my watch) one boulder at a time but we at least had the sense to walk in the general direction of where the trail was and finally merged into proper trail. It took us a further 30 min to get to the top and were met by a cheerful Yana on her way down while we were still 15 min from the Mirador. By this time it was nice and bright but the towers were still a sight to behold.
The journey back was uneventful and we were back in Hostel Chileno before 10am after covering 9 odd km. We could have gone back to Puerto Natales on the same day but we had budgeted for an extra day for bad weather and just chilled out the rest of the day drinking wine and reading up on Ambani and Sons by the river.

Day 4 was a 1.5 hour downhill hike back to Hostel Las Torres from where we got on the bus back to Puerto Natales. While waiting for the bus we came across 2 guys who looked Indian. To confirm their nationality without having to resort to asking them, we played “Sheila ki Jawani” on full volume on our Galaxy tab and the speed at which their heads turned to try and find the source for Sheila in the middle of Chile had to be seen to be believed :)