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4 Hours in 40 Days! Kolkata to Hong Kong via Belgrade

Jul 28, 2021

So today I complete a distance of 4 hours in 40 days!

Yes, you read it right – it took me 40 days literally to complete a journey that takes around 4 hours by flight – from Kolkata, India to Hong Kong! And truly speaking it was not at all like the epic “Around the World in 80 days” story.

Before you come to any conclusions, this is not about cribbing but sharing my experiences, both tough & the pleasant ones, hoping it helps someone out there!

The outward travel had to be made due to medical urgency in family in Kolkata, India in end of March 2021, which did not end well and while my wife could take her flight just back in time before travellers from India got banned due to spike in Covid cases in India, my travails begun.

The Darkness:

On landing in India, the first thing I did was to take my first dose of vaccine (since my better half said I will need to spend considerable time in hospital for my mother-in-law & it was a right decision). However, she passed away in a couple of days and with no idea whether mixing vaccines (two different vaccines in two different countries) was okay, I decided to complete my second dose due at the end of April and fly back. Wifey dear, already had her second dose (she had reached earlier) and took the flight on April 09th, to Hong Kong. The flights, as at that time, between India & Hong Kong had been once in 10-15 days.

As my luck would have it, mid-April, just weeks before my second dose, Hong Kong authorities banned flights & travellers from India due to spike in Covid-19 cases. This started my research of finding ways to reach back to my family – initially I was able to identify 2-3 countries that I could use for transit and the cost of travel would be within my budget. And as days went by, even the neighbouring & nearby countries put ban on travel from India. The doors started closing fast! Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Middle-Eastern countries, Thailand – you name it & they had closed within days of each other!

The Light & the cloud:

It was the beginning of May and I finally find one small but beautiful country that was still allowing travellers from India (with certain restrictions). My second dose of vaccine which was supposed to have been over by end-April, was pushed back to mid-May due to change in vaccination policy in India. I start conversations with resorts in Maldives, find out about flight connections to Maldives from India and onwards to Hong Kong after the wash period of 22 days (I was keeping an extra day in hand in my calculations). Everything seemed to fall in place – resort finalised, flight details finalised and my second dose date finalised! I even get to hold a quarantine hotel booking in Hong Kong pretty easily.

I inform my wife and daughter and we all are happy! That called for a virtual party in the evening!

May 13th, my date for second vaccine dose, to send email to the resort to confirm the booking, to book my flights to Maldives & onward home after washout. I am asking and taking requests to carry back necessary stuff for my family & friends back in Hong Kong. Placing orders so that they reach me in time to pack!

I get my vaccine by 2:00PM, reach home by 3:00PM – have late lunch and sit on my laptop. First mail sent to the resort in Maldives to confirm my booking. Next just to verify some details, I open up the “Visit Maldives” with the tag line “The Sunny Side of Life” – yes, it would be sunny, and I had already ordered a pair of swimming shorts, some SPF creams, a cap.

There’s an announcement – All travellers from India (and some other countries) will NOT be allowed to enter this island country with immediate effect until further notice! I read it the second time, then third & then fourth….. I cannot believe. It is just not possible! I have taken my vaccine, I have sent mail to the resort, I am holding a hotel for quarantining in Hong Kong… it is not possible… how can they!

As reality sets in, the sunny side of life is getting covered in the darkness of thick clouds!

Every cloud has a silver lining & then also some have cloud burst:

Two days later as weather turns gloomy (literally) in Kolkata, my mood is on a downward swing. As my hopes of reuniting with my daughter, who’s 17th birthday I physically missed a day before, diminishes, a short query on the FB page of Hong Kong Quarantine Support Group leads to something unusual for me.

Suddenly there are DM’s to me from different parts of India by fellow travellers wanting to go back to their homes and families in Hong Kong. There are some stuck for over a year to some for a month. With renewed interest to help each other, I sit with an open map in front of me – open up the embassy sites of different countries for their visa regulations – and of course what are their travel policies related to situations.

Only way seemed was to back track to other side of the globe and then fly half the world to be back home. It was already the first week of June – so without waiting further, I contact the Russian embassy, get my documents in order and apply for the Russian visa. So does three other co-travellers – none of us had ever met earlier and in fact I have till date not been able to meet any except one. But we had constantly been in touch – helping each other out – there was an unwritten camaraderie amongst us. All wanting to be back in Hong Kong.

The Cloud Burst:

The day before I got my visa for Russia – I had been able to secure a seat on one of the 3 flights a week to Moscow, got a confirmed hotel in Hong Kong for my quarantine (and this was tough as many students and families seemed to be travelling back from parts of the U.S.A, U.K and Europe for their summer holidays).

It was a Saturday late afternoon that the courier arrived with my passport stamped with the visa. The relief – cannot be explained. Late evening, as had been scrolling through the news, something caught my eyes – Covid cases in Russia had spiked by nearly 57% over the past 2-3 days…. yes, over past 2-3 days. The daily cases suddenly were averaging at 10K plus as against just 6.5K 3 days back. This was not a good sign. Russia was already categorised under Group B by Hong Kong, and if by the time I completed my 22 days of washout & things go from bad to worse, I would be back to square one!

I hated everyone – I hated Covid – I hated lockdowns!

Sunday morning I decide to find alternate destination – and quickly enough (helped with some previous research and conversations), I zero in on Belgrade, Serbia. The only option to reach there at the moment seemed to transit via Frankfurt, Germany and while I write emails to German consulate to understand the transit rules, I booked myself a ticket on Lufthansa, reroute the Moscow-Hong Kong to Belgrade-Hong Kong, and a hotel in Belgrade. And cancel my India to Moscow ticket – a blunder(!) at that point.

On Monday afternoon I hear from German consulate directing me to check their website for transit rules – not sure why they couldn’t clearly state the requirements of transit rules for Indian passport holder – after spending couple of hours scanning through their pages, I come to understand that I will NOT be allowed to transit Germany! And here I am with a self-cancelled flight to Moscow – and no availability till the start of next month – July! I so wanted to hit/kick myself hard. All set to travel in a week and I just destroyed my chances. And it started pouring in Kolkata – straight for the next two days! My gloomy life made even more gloomier!

Sky clears up & rainbows appear:

With quarantine hotel booked in Hong Kong from 14th July, I was desperate to find another way to start my travel as planned on or before 20th June (which meant I can reunite with my daughter and wife end of July). As the sky cleared up in Kolkata, I came across another European country that was allowing travellers from India and like a rainbow after rains, Indian passport holders were not required to have a pre-approved visa, no quarantine and the cost of travel matched almost as with Russia. AND I stumble across a flight that I can board from Kolkata & with shortest connection time arrive in Belgrade, no need to use any additional domestic flights/trains to take this flight.

I call the airline to understand if they were flying outbound passengers from India, but the call centre is of no help. I check some flight movement sites and they show operations on certain days of the week – almost regular. My wife contacts an old friend from the airline, and she helps confirm that they were operating however taking passengers on outbound also depended on the adhoc permission by the Indian government. I just book my tickets – for the third time to leave India! (and know that I might not be allowed to board if the authorities do not approve permission for that particular flight).

Journey through the clouds:

I reach around 6 hours early for the flight just so that I have enough time to show and clarify my documents. For those not aware, to fly outbound from India, you need to have a return ticket back to India or one-way ticket with valid residential/work permit for your destination country (and Serbia was not my destination but transit country) – I did have Hong Kong ID and an onward ticket to Hong Kong but 23 days after I arrive in Serbia – I had lot of explanation to do.

At the airline counter, I was one of the first passenger and by the time I finished, 50 others had already received their boarding passes (travelling to different destinations). With my ammunition of documents starting with the RT-PCR report (which Serbia said has to be done within 48 hours of arriving in the country instead of 48/72 hours prior departure, which is standard for majority), the multiple tickets, hotel bookings in both Serbia & Hong Kong, the links and printouts of Serbia visa rules etc. etc., I was able to get my boarding pass nearly 45 minutes after.

Next destination was immigration counter, where I anticipated more grilling. Seemed like I was the first one to take Serbia route to Hong Kong from Kolkata, India (by this time came to know of at least 2 more Hong Kong bound Indians who reached Serbia in past few days but from different airport in India). Surprisingly my immigration officer was aware of Serbia visa rules and stamped after simply checking my ticket to Hong Kong and the ID. He seemed more surprised that someone would be travelling the opposite direction to reach home – he was empathetic.

YES – I have completed the first round! I got my boarding pass & cleared immigrations! Though it was very late in Hong Kong, I call up my wife to give her the good news and later again once I board!

The flight is delayed by over 40 minutes and my connection in Doha was of 55 minutes – my travel fate was hanging by thread – what if I miss connection as there was only single direct flight to Belgrade and any other transit connection might mean I would need transit visa. (thankfully I had booked 2 extra days at Belgrade, 1 by choice and other because of flight connection). Guess the luck Gods started taking care of me – I land in Doha just 10 minutes late and am rushed through security and boarding gate by an efficient customer service officer and I make it to the Belgrade flight just in time!

A pleasant surprise & new friends:

Belgrade was a pleasant surprise for me and for the other 4 Indians that I met there (all on their way back to Hong Kong). Happy to say they are now friends!

An old charming city with charming and beautiful people – first impression of Belgrade.

A city and country with so much history and so much pain but today all living peacefully and happy – second impression.

A place to enjoy with your family and friends; have a drink, a nice leisurely dinner in the open with lovely people all around you

Beautiful place! – overall impression

I was worried about spending the 24 days in this unknown place but as moving out and about was free with no restrictions (not even masks when outdoors), the city grew up on me. Going for long walks in the streets of old BEOGRAD – yes, it’s Beograd (Beo means White and Grad means City – the “White City”) or the exploring the Kalemegdan Park and centuries old Beograd Fortress, never felt intimidated. It was a welcoming city.

Beograd is also where the five of us met for the first time – Indians bound for Hong Kong doing a washout in the White City. All from different back grounds, different reasons of travel, from different cities, different age groups but with one common destination. It was a quick bonding amongst us. They were the ones who made my days zoom by. We would each be looking forward to meeting in the evenings for drinks and dinner and lots of silly jokes and ohhh no shopping! – pure fun; walking around to absorb the sights and sounds of the place (with day temperatures going past 32-33 degrees we moved out only in evenings). With sun setting only after 8.30-8.40PM, we would have enough daylight to roam around in the evenings.

One of them, a music aficionado found out about this street Cetinjska where you can enjoy beautiful live (pre-dominantly) local music while I guided them to Skadarlija, the old Bohemian quarters with authentic Serbian cuisine restaurants lined up on both sides of this walking street. Another booked a Turtle boat ride on River Sava and the Danube for an evening taking us around Beograd and Zemun, the old city. Two other, one from Kolkata, a real witty chap and other from Delhi, a “happy go lucky type”, made our days and evenings funny! Each one, pleasantly surprised by the place, of which we had not much idea, but forced to come in to, was excited on what do we find next. A Picasso & Van Gogh at the National Museum with other precious collections, the Tesla Coil at Nikola Tesla Museum, Temple of St. Sava, St. Marks Church – Beograd had enough offer for arts, culture & architecturally inclined. The numerous Splavs (floating river clubs) on the banks of River Sava, the open-air restaurants and the patio pubs across the city made sure you do not go thirsty or hungry or without a bit of music!

Guys – you know who you are and it’s time for drink & planning our next trip 🙂

A cycle tour around Novi Beograd opened our eyes on what the country had gone through during the World War – fair ground converted by Germans into concentration camps (Sajmište concentration camp) and the suffering of the locals during the World War; the historical Hotel Yugoslavia and the Grand Casino behind it – the damaged buildings from NATO bombings as recently as 1999 in old Beograd  – this city, one of the oldest continuously inhabited European city and it’s people have gone through so much pain and suffering but look at them today – people are happy.

Bogdan, our very young local cycle tour guide said something that made sense “it’s better to be happy than be sad, so move on instead of reminiscing of past pains and sufferings and sulking at all; remember your history but move on! so we love to party and party big”. 

Speaking of the friendly locals, this story will not be complete without mentioning Alexandria – a nice lady waiting on us at Restoran Taverna near Republic Square: have seen very few hard working like her at that age and always with a smile and always with a time for little chat and recommend the best dishes of the day! It became my most frequented place for dinner.  And then there were Sandra, Aleksander, Bobby, Tamara, Filip besides many others at the hotel I called home for 24 days. Ever happy to help and courteous.

It was Nikola, a local young travel entrepreneur and our expert on Serbia who drew us the picture of not only the history of Serbia but of the Balkans – what it had been and what it is now. It was for him, we got insights on past and present of the country with so much history that you generally do not get from the books or the internet!

The Clouds clear:

Looking two weeks back, while waiting at Nikola Tesla Beograd Airport on 13th July morning for my RT-PCR test result before flying back home to Hong Kong, I was thinking how did the time fly by? I was so very tensed and stressed even before starting my journey just over 3 weeks back; and a week prior to that I had absolutely no idea when I would be reuniting with my wife and daughter and now, here I am – at Belgrade airport on the last leg of my journey!

There was so much research, so many conversations with people I have never met (will never meet might be); papers with dates and flights; stress & anger, frustration with myself and the governments of the world – it seemed I was that spider which is trying to build it’s web and then falls again and again and has to restart again and again! So many plans, so many calls……

I had been reading about people getting frustrated while at mandatory quarantine in Hong Kong after landing here (21 days or 14 days for some and only 7 for lucky few) – I was surprised at myself when I realised I had already completed a week of quarantine in that small hotel room with no space to walk properly or move without banging on to the television or the chair and yet there was not a trace of irritation or frustration in me. I was simply looking forward to July 28th, to hug my daughter and wifey dear after 4 long months!

Guess when you have gone through so much uncertainty over past few months, being confined in a room for last 14 days but can see the sun shining beyond the clouds that are clearing up, makes you want to live and let live!

I started my travel on 19th June 2021 from Kolkata to Hong Kong, (an air distance of approx. 2650 Kms & 3 Hours 45 minutes of actual flying time) and reached my home to my family on 28th July 2021 after covering approx. air distance of 17,200 Kms using the route Kolkata – Doha(transit) – Belgrade – Doha(transit) – Hong Kong and actual flying time of 24 hrs 30 mins.

And just to add, it’s been exactly 7 months that 3 of us (my daughter, wife & me) have REUNITED!

And as our tagline says “Travel is the best educator”!

(C) All photos/images and the article/blog in this page are owned by Arijit Bhakta

and to all experiencing this similar situation – stay strong, stay healthy and this too shall pass!!

29 Replies to “4 Hours in 40 Days! Kolkata to Hong Kong via Belgrade”

  1. Very well written Arijit. The pictures are apt. It was truly quiet an adventure that was scary, stressful but at the same time pleasant and memorable. We don’t get these kind of chances often in life, looks like you got one and made best use of it. Very happy to see your happy face reuniting with daughter and wife.

    1. Yes Shantanu,
      These are what you truly call “once in a lifetime” experience.
      You guys had been part of my support system during this journey!
      Cheers to all of us!

  2. Toton- hugs! I am actually bereft of words! This is a new world today that is providing us with new and unique experiences. Much love

    1. Absolutely agree Ratna. The world has changed drastically over the past 18 months and continues to do so at a faster pace!
      It’s imperative that we all embrace it & enjoy the experience.

  3. A very interesting write up. The tag line in the end is most apt 👌🏼
    I’ve learnt so many things from this experience.
    Happy home coming !!

  4. Such touching words!! Felt the pain and pleasure with your magical words dear Arijit!! Such an effortless beautiful write up!! Must say, in spite of all the worries and hassles, you have treasured the moments!
    Much love!!

    1. Thank you Bipasha.
      Was seeing if I can write anything like you do!
      Yes, all good moments need to be treasured and learn from the not so good ones. Together they create the experience.

  5. The write up is so beautiful Arijit. It felt I was experiencing your pain & your pleasure with you. Kudos

  6. Very well written! My goodness what an mind blowing experience! It takes a lot of will power to endure such a journey and come out smiling on the other end! Jiyo mere yaar tusi great ho!

  7. So beautifully you had penned down your moments of anxiety, concern, despair with a silver lining of hope and enjoying every bit of what best we can make out of the opportunity. Instead of cribbing we can make it work as an opportunity! Very well articulated Arijit! The wait of 7months was too much! The smiling faces in the picture was worth it at last! Stay happy guys. Lots of love

    1. Thank you Shubhra!
      Yes, you got it right – rather than cribbing, complaining about something, we can all “at least” give it a shot to see we can convert into opportunity.
      And it does feel awesome to be back together as a family!

  8. Extremely well written Arijit. It was so lucidly represented that one could actually travel and experience all your pains as well as happiness while reading it. For you a big thumbs up for your ” never give up ” attitude. You actually epitomised the saying ” Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn “. On the personal front could come to enjoy Belgrade about which had just heard but never experienced before. Glad that at the end of the road you are back with your family. Enjoy !!

    1. As I mentioned in the blog, I really felt like that proverbial spider which keeps on falling & rising to complete its web during the course of this journey. I just hope to be able to plan & complete my next trip (whenever that might be), more easily 🙂
      However, this entire experience will forever be etched in my memory.

      Stay safe, stay healthy!

  9. Wonderfully penned Arijit capturing every emotion that you experienced during the ordeal lasting for 40 days. Well, as they say “Sabr ka fal mitha hota hai”, soak in the sweetness of re-uniting with your family now.

    Will look forward to reading a more detailed Travelodge on Belgrade , of which my knowledge is limited. I am sure you this beautiful historic city will shortly find its way in the travel itineraries of Ihina Ventures.
    Take care and stay safe friend,till we meet next.

    1. Thank you Sarbari for your encouraging comments.
      Yes, it feels sweet to be back with family. AND of course, details on Belgrade & Serbia as will follow soon!
      Stay healthy!

  10. Very well written Ari.
    Your patience is commendable and your positive attitude is inspiring. Thxxx for sharing your experiences.

  11. Arijit, I was truly mesmerized while reading your travelogue. Loved every bit of it…I could feel the pain & the angst that you had to go through…you are a strong man, dude….any other person like me would have cracked under so much stress…

    Hats off to your patience…

    1. Thank you Saurav.
      I guess all of us are strong within, for some, it just needs that nudge to bring us out of our shell.

  12. Arijit, loved reading your travelogue….I could feel the anguish that you have gone through for this long period of time…

    Wonderfully written…loved your style

    Under such trying situation anyone else would’ve cracked up…Kudos to you, for your patience.

    We met up last during your vaccination day, but who knew that your journey back home will be so agonising.

    Keep writing, friend….you have flair for it.

    1. Thank you Saurav.
      Yes, true that – who knew the journey back home would be so eventful:-) and I was supposed to confirm my bookings to Maldives same evening!

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