Day 52: Mongolia 5 (Herder Video, Guest Post, and Tips)

Mongolian Herder Video

Thoughts on Mongolia

Coming to Mongolia has been a philosophy class. What is “progress”? What is a “fulfilling life”? What should be the relationship of humans to the rest of the earth?

Thousands of years ago, much of the world was like present-day Mongolia: a few humans herding livestock from one location to another pursuing better pastures and decent weather. Then came the development of intensive agriculture; people stopped moving around and started living closer to each other. And we are now where we are.

Obviously, Mongolia is not thousands of years behind the rest of the world. But there ARE very few people, only 3 million living in an area the size of Western Europe. And as many as 30% of the population are still herders, living in “gers” that they move with the seasons. There are no fences. Their animals are allowed to roam and graze on lands naturally covered with native plants. Their livestock provide much of their food: meat and dairy. Their days are regulated by the hours of daylight, and their year is regulated by the seasons. The land and their animals provide life. This is their mantra.

All this is going to change. But Mongolia has a chance to do development right. It’s as if God is giving humans another chance – to not screw it all up this time round.

I don’t know what Mongolia is going to be like in 20 years. But as the population increases, there will be more constraints on the herding, nomadic way of life. Massive factory farms and open-pit mines already are fencing off areas from grazing.

A law that was passed a few years ago that entitled every adult Mongolian to 0.7 hectare of land will eventually have to end. Mongolians don’t write wills; the descendants decide among themselves how to divide up any inheritance. As Mongolians become wealthier and family members live further apart, lawyers are going to come into their own.

I like modern living. This past week in Mongolia has reinforced my appreciation of indoor plumbing, being able to eat foods other than meat and dairy, and security from wind, rain, bugs and wild animals. But there are other things I could do without.

If I had a chance to start human development all again, I would make choices. Mongolians have a chance to make theirs.

Gee Kin Chou, June 29, 2016

12 Tricks for Mongolian Ger Survival

I just realize that my posts have been pretty dry and humorless in the past few months. It’s hard to laugh with yourself unless you are reminded at times. Now that I have a traveling partner, we share the perspective on how we travel–the good, the bad, the fun, the pain. Laughter is the best medicine to get you through all situations.

Here are a few pointers for those contemplating a stay in a ger. There’s nothing like creating a list from real life experience.

  1. Duck your head when entering the low door opening. Oops, didn’t someone already warn me about that!?!
  2. Ask for extra blankets regardless of 90 degree weather in the daytime. Temperatures changes dramatically at night. ( hey, I thought I asked earlier?)
  3. Have the stove heated twice a day. Once before bedtime around 8 pm and once around 7 am before (thinking about it then is too late) you get up. The guide or staff will ask, but make sure it is customized to your waking and sleeping hours! It needs to be timed to when you are undressing and dressing. Notify staff or guide in advance if they don’t ask. This is your only option as there is no other thermostat in the room.(where ARE they?)
  4. Wear hiking boots , not just for hiking but for getting to the outdoor loos in knee high wet grass in the middle of the night and 6″ deep puddles during rain (Damn, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park?)
  5.  Use the futon or comforter as a sleeping bag and roll the edges around your body to eliminate air gaps (and bugs…or am I getting paranoid?)
  6. Use the long tongs for wood  from the stove for removing large black beetles from the sides of tent
  7. Do not be deterred by rain snow sleet or hail. Use garbage cans, trays, and water bottles during the time you are inside to catch any of the above that may inadvertently enter your ger.
  8. Fondle the felt when you first enter the ger. It will reassure you that you will be kept warm, away from most bugs except those that crawl under the gaps through the ground or fly in through the door or opening at the roof plastic. Don’t be disheartened by silly rodents that run over the tops of the ger roof or the moths that cluster outside the skylight plastic. They provide a sweet symphony to lull you to sleep. The felt also protects you from heat and inclement weather. (If you want to know what direction you are facing, the ger doors always face south.)
  9. Decide if you want light by leaving the door open or bugs flying around  the ger before bed. You get both if you leave the door open. Remember that if bugs have a hard time getting out if they manage to get in.
  10. Keep your voice down. If you hear others in the next ger, they can hear you.(Oops ! Have I been shouting? Remember whatever you say comes back to you in a round chamber)
  11. Avoid spending any brain power on the dung being used in the stove as the material contrary to common thought does not smell. If firewood is used, appreciate how far it has come to a neighborhood near you. The smell is only temporary as the stove will not be burning except when you are dressing. (unless you are crazy enough to come outside of the tourist season).
  12. Should you not find any hooks mounted in the walls, simply drape your clothing over any surface areas. Use the chair seats or backs, headboards or beds, and tables in the room. Avoid stuffing clothing between the cross slats in walls or structural ribs in the ceiling as they may cause the ger to collapse.

Above all, remember that Mongolians have been living in gers for centuries and the ger camps are providing you with this experience. They don’t need our advice on advancing civilization. They ruled it for over 200 years and have survival in their DNA.

(ed.note: please send us your comments! We appreciate any and all feedback on your impressions of our travels throughout Eurasia. Emails or comments here are appreciated and welcome!! Keep them coming so we can keep going! Thanks to all for those who have written during this journey.)

After today, our next venture will be in Eastern Russia, through Lake Irkutsk and Vladivostok by train, followed by Tokyo and the Nakasendo Highway. Stay tuned and travel with us.

A note to the newbies: This is my third, around-the-world, live (except for technical glitches), real time journey. As an architect, my interests are in Planning, Design, and Architecture professionally; archaeology, anthropology, art history, and travel generally; Silk Road history, opera, culture and food emotionally; and everything in between.

Days 50-51: Mongolia 4

We are in Day 5 of ger living. Despite its challenges, the variety of gers has allowed us to get a full flavor of ger living. Our last ger included a stay along one of the largest fresh-water lakes in Mongolia. While rudimentary, it gave us a feeling of staying at Lake Tahoe, Mongolian style.

The many incredible, pristine pastoral landscapes we encountered traveling off-road by Land Cruiser included frequent herds of sheep, goats, horses and cattle. These are free-range animals, owned by herders who live in nearby gers, and have no fences. The animals get rounded up at the end of the day and know who and where their friends and family are. We had a full court press of the domestic animal world with a few wild ones and migrating birds for flavor.

The Erdene Zuu Monastery was founded in 1586 and is the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The religion came from India and Tibet in the 12th Century. The grounds of the Monastery are preserved as a museum. The adjacent complex is a working temple. The temple was built over the palace built by Ugudei Khan, and materials were taken from the ruins.

The Kharkhorin Museum presented a fascinating series of maps showing the the history of Mongolia. If you are curious, please click on these to see more; if not, skip this section.

The Chinese Han Dynasty successfully fought back the Xiong Nu empire in Northwest China, and early portions of the Great Wall were built to deter the Xiong Nu from advancing further. (Remember Mu Lan? She was fighting the Xiong Nu!) You can read more about the ruins of the early Great Wall in my posts from Turpan in August 2013.

In the following series, you will learn more about the history of the great Chinggis Khan (1162-1227), one of his sons Ugudei Khan (1186-1241), and his grandson Kubilai (1215-1294). The maps attached are in some ways easier to read than the ones above, as they show the flow of conquests. Take a look at the arrows and dates on the maps and the extent of their conquests in the span of a century! The influence of the Mongols reached as far west as Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

In the same museum where early 8th Century Turkic memorials were preserved, a tomb for servants contained miniature figures similar to those found in Xian. They had Han Dynasty characteristics similar to the figures we enjoyed seeing in Dunhuang Museum in Northwest China. They had unique, expressive faces and lively gestures in their bodies. Apparently these were not created in a tomb for any noble, but were offerings by servants. The size of the figures, gold, and ceramic pieces were not large enough to represent those that were buried with those a leader.

Day 49: Mongolia 3

While we basked in the luxury of a “free range day” where we explored the wide open countryside at a leisurely pace, we still had time to take in another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Orkhon River Valley was a prime location for burials that grouped together large flat steles in round or rectangular shapes. Another spot showed exposed granite stones weathered over time with petroglyphs still evident.

The Land Cruiser allowed us to enjoy the off-road traveling comfortably. Otherwise, it would have been a Russian van that was just as sturdy but a rough ride. Along the way we encountered herds of free-range sheep, cattle, goats, and horses. Many birds also migrate to Mongolia over the summer and travel as far as South Africa.

The photos don’t do any justice to the huge 360 degree views that take your breath away. The clean air is also hard to swallow, especially after Beijing!

Look for next station after Ulaan Baatar: Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, Russia!

Day 48: Mongolia 2

This will be short. We spent the afternoon with a Mongolian herder family. It was alive with activity, including milking cows and horses (for mare’s milk), corralling animals, racing with boys, tasting fermented mare’s milk and curd dessert, and playing with the family’s newborn baby.

The family included an award-winning horse racer (30 years old), his wife (29 years old), his two boys (8 and 6), and the newborn (1 month old)

Our capable guide could milk the cows and horses and had many other talents, but we were thoroughly impressed when she could milk cows and horses without any difficulty! Our driver could wrestle and win races against 5 boys all at once!

Days 45-47: Mongolia 1

After the last posting on Beijing, I didn’t realize that leaving Ulaan Baatar was going to cap access to the internet for awhile. Therefore, you are receiving a rather long, delayed post. The itinerary through Central Mongolia was on and off-road, to ger camps without internet access. It was both a blessing and a curse.

But more importantly, a little background on the vast country of Mongolia. It is a flat, diamond shaped country the size of Western Europe. It is sandwiched between Russia and China and therefore must maintain good relations with these giants.

The growing season is only four months during the summer, and the entire country is shrouded in snow in the winter. Its harsh environment requires the mere 3 million people to rely heavily on family, community and each other. The limited good weather impacts all development, repairs and activity to a very short season.

Why come to Mongolia? Here are three reasons: to learn about the past, present, and future. The history of Genghis Khan, the first ruler who united the tribes, is a fascinating one. His descendants, including Kublai Khan continued to rule during the Mongolian Dynasty for two hundred years, from 1200-1400. Most of the expansionist period was during the first fifty years, when the grandsons who were posted to the outer reasons conquered as far west as Hungary and beyond. 1 in 200 men in the world have the DNA directly attributed to this prolific ruler Genghis and his descendants.

Following the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty that ruled most of Eurasia and China, the Ming defeated the Yuan at their capital in Beijing, and then the Manchurians (Ching Dynasty) ruled over China and Mongolia. With Russian help, Mongolia defeated the Ching Dynasty and became an independent country in 1921.

The second reason for coming to Mongolia is the environment. Mongolia, unlike China today, is still a pristine and pure environment. Nothing can be more contrasted than flying from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar (the correct spelling). The pollution and stifling heat of Beijing disappears and the crystal clear skies and bright sun of Mongolia appear. Ecotourism is being promoted here today and the Mongolians are very proud of their country. They know that the world is their oyster and they have every intention of protecting it.

The future is the third reason. Mongolia has huge mineral resources. Mining is one of its biggest industries, and tourism is growing despite its short season. With such a small population, Mongolia’s GDP has been growing at a rate of 10-15% over the past several years, twice the pace of China. While Mongolia is still considered a basically agricultural, nomadic land, it will experience phenomenal change.

Many people are still nomadic herdsmen, and they still live in the traditional ger, or round huts. They are constructed of wooden supports, felt padded walls, and can be easily assembled. A pot belly stove in the middle heats the room, and all the basics of living are contained within the ger: cooking, eating, sitting, sleeping, and storing. Oops, except for the toilet.

Everything has been hunky-dory in the ger camps where we have been staying for the past few days (we’re in No. 2 of 5). Toilets in the first ger were banked below the dining hall, not unlike those you would find at the UC Blue and Gold Camp in Pinecrest, CA. The second ger ratcheted up the ante to an outhouse, with a tastefully decorated Mongolian tent over the pair for easy identification. You could use the sawdust at free will. I was getting into the flow, with one minor detail. It rained this morning.

Imagine the scene for dressing (everything was set in place in advance the night before inside the ger), with even an umbrella. Contending with Mother Nature in order to let Mother Nature contend with you was a challenge. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. You just felt all thumbs and big toes in the execution. When in Rome, do as the Romans, as they say.

But I digress. Back to Mongolia. The first afternoon of our private tour was devoted to the National History Museum in the middle of Ulaan Baatar. The museum traced the beginnings in the Fourth Century BC to the present day. Photographs are not allowed there or during the performance of traditional Mongolian singers and dancers. The main display I wanted to capture was the map of the conquests by Genghis Khan and his grandsons. They occurred over a very short time span of fifty years, and mostly in a ten year period between 1215-1225.

In the morning of Day 2, we visited the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Mongolia is 98% Buddhist, so the religion plays an important part in daily life as well as its history. Buddhism came to Mongolia via the Tibetan monks. Today’s monks come from all over the country to study and chant at this monastery.

Later in the morning, we left the capital city to visit a shaman. Shamanism, or contact with the spirits through a medium, is also practiced in Mongolia. If an individual wanted to send a message to the gods, he or she went to a shaman. The shaman did not give advice but only transferred the information back and forth.

IMG_3561 3

This shaman explained to us that she was “struck” by both a desire and calling only after being confronted a number of times. After her husband died and she was sick, she eventually consented. She very patiently and proudly explained her roots and the people she served.

Her room was laden with offerings to the gods and spirits, both good and bad. Offerings included cheese, curd, dried nuts, fruits and dishes of food. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the answer to a question I had in mind. Her next appointment was already waiting and time ran out.

In the afternoon the driver and our guide took us on and off road in search of the Przewalski horses. They run wild and are the ancestor to today’s domesticated horses. They are shorter, stockier and more muscular than the Arabian horses we are accustomed to seeing. They are named after the Russian who discovered them and helped to return them to their native land. They were an endangered species, but due to good management, they can now be allowed to proliferate in a protected environment. It felt a little bit like whale watching, but we were able to find a pack of six in the distance.

The vast green virgin landscape stretches literally for miles and as far as the eye can see. Occasionally there are pigs, and sheep dotted throughout the landscape. The herdsmen know where their herds are located and round them up at the end of the day. They are branded and the larger animals are used for milk and transportation.

The next day, the landscape suddenly rose in elevation, with mountains in the background to nearly 4,000 meters (12,000 ft!). Eventually a sandy desert mixed with small grass emerged. There are many small, Gobi-like deserts throughout Mongolia, and we headed for one of them. The camels that reside here are two-humped, and can carry up to 800 lbs. They can travel without water for a month and without food for up to two months. (See featured photo above)

The distances between sites are vast in this huge country, and few roads are sealed. It takes nearly three hours to travel 100 miles, due to hazardous pits in the road or sandy roads. We were surprised that the driver only had to refuel once in the three days we were driving. While we weren’t used to sitting in the car for such long hours, we were grateful that the Land Cruiser was very sturdy and capable of handling bumps, muddy pits, and stream crossings.

Today’s drive took three hours off-road to a beautiful valley known as the Orkhorn Valley. Rain and inclement weather has deterred our camel and horse back riding, but we have been able to see the beautiful lush green, unspoiled countryside in its natural state.

(Ed note: Apologies for delays and disjointed editing in post. Limited or unpredictable access to internet make posting a challenge! It was quite refreshing to be off the grid, were it not for my anxiety about posting. I finally decided to let it go, so hope you will understand and appreciate how some of the rest of the world lives. Gee Kin did catch one of the monks using his smart phone under his sleeves at the temple. He was playing chess. One of the daughters we met with the herder family confessed that she missed the internet in town. It’s a changing world….)

Days 42-44: Beijing Bites

I went out looking for water and accidentally found this pedestrianized area around the corner from the hotel. It’s in Wangfujing and just next to the Imperial Palace in Central Beijing.  (You can click on photo for captions).

Above, see the variety of food from street vendors.

Below, the vendors where I bought items to sample and the food repackaged for dining at the hotel apartment (chestnuts, sticky rice in Coconut, Tripe, and refried mini-pork buns).

The next day, I took an afternoon stroll in the neighborhood at the “Forbidden City”, or Imperial Palace. Having been here multiple times, I could finally absorb and appreciate its grandness and scale. From the outer to the inner courtyards, each progressive complex of buildings paced you from the formal to more intimate parts of imperial life.

Details and interiors of the latter half of the Imperial Palace are below. I did my best to allow the hoards of tourists from deterring my own personal enjoyment. It did flash across my mind, however, about the last encounter with the floods at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg last year. I couldn’t excuse the cruise ships for unloading here this time. I gave way to the primarily Chinese tourists who may have come from the outer reaches to finally see the centuries of human capital used to build the empire, or maybe like me, were just taking a stroll around the block.

In the evening, we made our obligatory stop to the Peking Duck Restaurant, again, only steps from the hotel on Wangfujing:

After Dresden as a pit stop, Beijing was a rallying point to meet husband Gee Kin and travel partner for the rest of the trip.  We leave for Ulan Bator (Mongolia) on Friday morning, so the highlight of the second half of this 80 day adventure is about to begin.

Days 40-41: Keeping Clean at the Hygiene Museum

After all the racy operas and design porn I’ve been posting, I’m not sure how to outdo myself and keep things clean. A trip to the Hygiene Museum in Dresden today, however, sent my senses to the cleaners. It seems that ditching the art world for science isn’t such a bad venture, at least for an afternoon.

I was enraptured with a series of well-presented exhibitions that included sex (well, sort of), the brain (neuroscience and scanning techniques), health, DNA, and lots of peripherals about the history of science education in the DDR and Germany. The Hygiene Museum was famous for the “first transparent man”, where you could see all the innerds reproduced through clear plastic. All of the above were a fascinating foray out of the world of art and architecture and into the other end of the spectrum.

While I consider myself decently informed on technology but low on science, this experiment in seeing how the other half of the world lives (into science and out of art) was pretty promising. I can truthfully thank the Dresden Hygiene Museum for this exposure. I have to confess that neither the Exploratorium nor the Lawrence Hall of Science in the Bay Area did it for me. My kids loved both, but my ADD never allowed me to concentrate on anything. I think that this visit has changed my perspective on science museums.

Other than a few NOVA episodes or a Long Form broadcast on how a tongue disease kept someone from from being able to speak (my daughter forced me to listen to the episode during our drive from Berlin to Amsterdam in January), I confess that I zone out on scientific explanations of the world.

Two seminal experiences on this trip have changed my attitude, thankfully. One was the Naturkundes Museum in Berlin (the Natural History Museum), where I finally learned how the earth’s crust functions, and today’s post, the Hygiene Museum. Maybe it’s the aura of being in Germany that has worked wonders on my appreciation of science. Whatever it is, it’s working!

The Hygiene Museum has a somewhat checkered history. I gathered that from the first introduction poster that tactfully explained how all subject matter was voluntary or approved to the extent possible.  No knowing pain or agony was inflicted on the part of subjects used in research experiments. I took this as a moment of truth and trusted the claim, at least for now.

That having been said, the history of the museum itself featured prominently in displays. The museum either presented research from or collaborated with other institutions (like the Max Planck Institute or Deutsches History Museum in Berlin) to develop displays. I found these very curious as the information was apt to talk about its past, frank, and very unique from the way Americans would present information.

Here are a few examples:

Photos Above, top to bottom, left to right:
1. Display on Food and input from visitors on what they think should be done to improve healthy eating habits
2. Effect of MacDonalds on humanity and the iconic image of Ronald MacDonald
3. Overall Display
4. World Map of Life Expectancies in Selected Countries: Germany, US, Canada are high, but not the highest. Can you guess the country with the highest life expectancy? The lowest? Some of the statistics are surprising.
5. An explanation of PET technology: you can slide the red bar horizontally in each image to see the slices in the brain scans (if you’re like me, you always wanted to manipulate these images but never could do it unless you found a museum like this one).

Displays below are about childbirth and delivery:

1. top left: birthing chair, that was popular in the 19th century. It was portable and used by midwives who carried the chair to their patients, who delivered at home; or families owned a chair that was handed down within generations in the family. It was not until the latter half of the 20th C. that the prone position in hospitals became a more accepted way of delivery. The stool was used by the woman delivering as a counterbalance. Now, the chair is coming back, using gravity as the assistant to natural delivery. (ed. note: why didn’t I know this??)

2. video of a baby going through the birth canal (ed note: why didn’t I see this before??)

3. The different stages of a baby going through the birth canal as the cervix dilates (ed. note: why didn’t I know or see this before??? Do you know how many women have gone through this without a visual image of what happens??)

The displays below will not format into a gallery for some reason. Perhaps it’s just as well. See explanations below or in captions.


1. This first cartoon character that everyone knew in the DDR was used to keep all kids clean and healthy. The character made sure that all kids did not run around with snotty noses and carried out unclean or unhealthy practices. By time kids got reprimanded by this character, they got the picture pretty fast. It was a form of social control and clean living habits. The character was abandoned after reunification.

2. The windflower was used to help children who were dying of a terminal illness and their families. It was a form of hospice used at the Charity Hospital in Berlin. It helped children and their families understand the nature of dying and death, and to accept the inevitable. I thought this was a very thoughtful way of raising the issue and showing how hospice programs help. The four pictures are by a 10-year old boy who drew pictures about his younger sister dying from a disease.

3. and 4: these two pictures show how the human body was idolized and idealized since classical times and the text that went with the display.

PS. The photo with the sculptural casts of the human body also show a chair. These stadium chairs were available in large supply for anyone going through the museum who wanted to listen to audio guides and needed to sit while doing so. What a great idea!! I loved it and took advantage of this free service. (ed. note: why don’t they have this in other museums all over the world??)

5. A display showing the development of teeth in human development, from childhood to old age. Children’s teeth are already poised for discharge, to be filled in by permanent teeth already formed or forming above their baby teeth (ed. note: Why didn’t I know or see this before??)

6. A typical poster display explaining the different common diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and hepatitus (ed note: why didn’t I know this or see this before??)

There were many other interesting displays that I haven’t included, such as a transparent model of the human body, how the reproductive system works, and a really good explanation of death and dying. There were also excellent displays about health and healthy eating. These were too numerous to cover, but the bottom line is…get to a place where you can see these types of displays to educate yourself, and if you are lucky enough, come here to the Hygiene Museum in Dresden.

Not all displays are translated in English, but there are enough cues to inspire a neophyte like me and to make it a fascinating and inspirational experience. You can read more about this delightful museum here:

A final gasp in my Dresden pit stop before leaving Europe was a lovely opera at the Semperoper, “Liebestrank”. Little did I know that this translation was for the delightful Donizetti comedy, “Elixir of Love”! It was a stellar production, and in typical German fashion, the audience clapped politely. The performers deserved a lot more than they got (not even the raucous foot stomping). Maybe the nudity was missing, but the audience did stay awake (see the featured photo at the top for proof: they clapped).

Alas, to all: I am leaving Germany and all the wonderful experiences I have had in the past month behind. My next venture will be a big change from 24 degree warm weather with frisches Luft and no sunscreen in Dresden to 30 degree heat, humidity, and pollution in Beijing. I have no idea about the connectivity…so don’t be surprised if I go AWOL for awhile. Some of you may remember this from past trips through China. Until then…hang tight, and read my lips….

Day 39: Bauhaus in Dessau, A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The trip to the Bauhaus in Dessau was one of my all-time favorites. This is what brought me to architecture and design! The words and pictures may not express what led me to lifelong learning about these topics, but I hope you will be able to decipher what has been my passion developed from the Bauhaus approach.

The Bauhaus began in 1926, when Walter Gropius started a school for integration of art, design, craftsmanship, and industrial production. He hired faculty such as Moholy-Nagy, Klee, and Feininger to teach students design principles that brought all of these components together. As artists and craftsmen themselves, they attempted to synthesize form and function. They even taught students how to breathe deeply, and to eat healthy! Unfortunately, the Bauhaus was short lived. It was terminated in 1933 after having been moved from Weimar to Dessau in 1926.

There is too much to talk about here, so I will allow the photos to speak for themselves. I also want to get these fresh impressions to you right away. Architects will recognize the precedents established by this workshop from nearly 100 years ago. The designs are still alive and timeless. All the details, down to the mechanisms for operating windows, the insets of door knobs to receive the rounded handles, storage units, and the perfectly cast concrete floors are exquisite.

The various wings of the building group work areas, school, common areas, dorm rooms, and faculty offices. Rooms were very generously proportioned, but devoid of details. That doesn’t mean that details weren’t taken into consideration. Every visual element was carefully controlled, down to the furniture design, lighting, and hardware. All the modern examples you see today stem from this seminal group’s design teachings. I loved the performing arts center Marcel Breuer prototype chairs. They were functional, with flip seats, beautiful, and very comfortable!!

On a separate tour, the faculty houses were presented. They have been renovated after destruction during WWII and in phases during the Sixties and Nineties. Houses viewed included the Walter Gropius House, the Moholy-Nagy house, the Schlemmer House, and the Kandinsky/Klee house.

See more of the faculty houses below. In the Klee house, he added his own personality and colors on different walls of each room, and also added gold trim to doors and window frames.

You can read more about the Bauhaus here: There are some slight variations with dates. I have based mine on the information provided by the German guide (that’s not to say I got them right!) There are a triplicate of sites for the Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau and Berlin. You can read about the other museum visits in earlier posts for Weimar (in May this year) and in Berlin. If you have questions about the information provided in my blog, please check on line sources for further information.

Days 37-38: 48 Hours in Berlin

For the next two to three days, I am indulging in completely free and independent personal pleasures. After a month of military-style training and discipline during  my German class, I am free from academic obligations. I am racing around to the last few spots that I missed on my own, then the final 24 hours will be a day trip to Dessau. I’ll be visiting the historic Bauhaus Workshop, School and Houses there, and I will make a separate post for that.

Hours 1-24: Berlin Free Day 1

The Berlin Biennale has been in full swing this month. To catch up, I made a pilgrimage to Fasanenstrasse, a small, elegant street near the Zoological Gardens and Uhlanstrasse Station. A few of the galleries promoted in the Art Forum “picks” are located here, including the Galerie Kornfeld, that was showing “The End of Flags” by Hubert Scheibl.

The Bucholz Gallery, where Melissa and I visited in January, presented the work of Wolfgang Tillmans. He was born in Remscheid in 1968. His work covered photographs of his studio and the accumulation of paper.

Not particularly inspiring, but I found the gallery itself much more exciting. It is a historic, protected building with beautiful Art Nouveau tendrils on the ceiling, panels over doorways, and in the carved oak staircase in the vestibule.

Contrasted with the stark white walls, it was easy to appreciate the delicacy and the artistry in the original building decoration. Contrary to my altbau where I am staying, this is what I would consider a classy version. There are also some really elegant auction houses and galleries promoting collector books and Asian antiques, gorgeous art nouveau jewelry and beautiful period silver by Georg Jensen and Henry Van de Velde.

After walking down the street and looking for a memorial plaque for Essad Bey or Nussibaum, I was very happy to discover it directly across the street from the Cafe for Literature and the adjacent Museum for Kathe Kollwitz. The Berlin literati must have hung out in this neighborhood. It felt like the Montparnasse area of Paris, except more compact.


Essad Bey was a journalist who was both Jewish by birth and Muslim by election. He had a fascinating life history that is chronicled in the New York Times bestseller by Tom Reiss, “The Orientalist”. I was surprised that my German teacher had read the book when I told him it was my favorite book . Some of you have heard from me already about how much I loved this book.

Born in Lake Baku, where one of the first oil discoveries was made, Bey lived an early riches to rags life. His family escaped after the Bolshevik Revolution to Turkey, then Paris, and eventually he was educated in Germany.  He became a journalist, was writing histories of Hitler and Mussolini, fell out of grace, and then died a tragic death. It’s a fascinating book where fiction and reality are often obscured.

Later in the morning, I walked about a mile east to KDW, Berlin’s version of Harrods or Galeries Lafayette. The top floor is devoted to gourmet food, with stations that offer a variety of seafood, meat, and a host of regional specialties. Up until now, I haven’t put much (or any) focus on eating. This was my opportunity to catch up.

The cases proudly presented cheese, sausages, and brot (bread). I looked for anything unique from the other gourmet food halls, but could only find wiener schnitzel and kartoffel stations. If you are into German food, you can get the gourmet version here. I succumbed to the bratwurst, senf (mustard) and sauerkraut, just as a show of loyalty. While this wasn’t exactly a pilgrimage to the annals of gourmet dining, I could still enjoy the German culinary ernestness. I bought a sample of Niederegger’s marzipan from Lubeck after hearing about it in my German class.

Hour 25-48: Berlin Free Day 2

The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin was high on my list of places to visit. The exterior was odd, with the north-facing skylights a prominent feature of the design of the building. Thankfully,  a new museum is underway. After 883 international entries, a Spanish architect won the competition and beat out an American. You can see the entries, if you are interested, here:

The existing exhibition still contained all of my favorite things: design philosophy and principles from inception to reality; creative thinking; and highest quality craftsmanship. I was thoroughly engrossed and listened to every post on the audio guide (not a small feat, especially since it was in the afternoon!). Again, it reinforced my passion and dedication to good design.

The Ninth Annual Berlin Biennale, as mentioned earlier, is underway this summer. In addition to the KW Center for Contemporary Art, the main anchor is at the Academy for Art, just inside the Brandenburg Gate. The exhibition in combination with the interior of the building was crazy beautiful and disgustingly fascinating. I couldn’t decide which photos to include, so here is a mix-match of both exhibits and building features (renovated by Beynisch Architects from Stuttgart in 2005):

Click on the photos above for captions.  You can also increase the images by clicking on the series.

The terrace featured a virtual reality presentation. I stood in line for the 3-4 minute scene that was pretty entertaining and worthwhile. The scene showed the view from the top of Brandenburg Gate, fogged up, then dove to an underwater sequence. The person in the lower left photo is bending over to look through the viewer underwater.

The evening was topped off with a final opera. The Deutsche Oper unveiled a new production of the “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” by Mozart. If you remember what a rogue and rock star Mozart was in his day (drinking, women, and wild living), this production really conveyed that. They brought the days of Mozart to contemporary status, complete with nudity, sniffing cocaine, and searching for home (a la ET).

Initially, I didn’t want to go, as I had seen an old video of this opera. It was very hoaky and racist. One of the opera students in the GI had seen a preview of the preview and recommended it to me. She emphasized that it had been updated and was worth seeing. She was right, but there were still a few questionable moments in the opera left over from Mozart that were hard to accept or eradicate.

The bare naked bodies were less surprising to me, as “Tristan und Isolde” earlier had unveiled their own version of nudity. I’m not sure it’s becoming a trend for opera, but I wondered how the old ladies at the opera took these scenes in. They didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows, from what I could decipher. Everyone, including me, stayed WIDE AWAKE. If that’s one way to get a more alert audience, it definitely worked.

The story line is simple–a group of young people get captured by an extra terrestrial and are sent to a far away land. They try to find their way back. In the mean time, they are living a fast and senseless life with sex, drugs and videotapes. They search for a way back. It was a great production, very hip, and very well received. Look for this updated opera with fantastic music and even a few “Queen of the Night” arias sprinkled in for extra amusement.

Note: look for the curtain call with the scantily clad girls–some of them only put on underwear in the final scene!!

Days 35-36: People and Dinosaurs

It’s nearly half-way through my third world-wind trip. By Day 42, I will be heading to Beijing, to the other side of the great Eurasian continent. I’ll be meeting “mein Mann” Gee Kin there, where we will gather our senses for our flight to Ulan Bator (Mongolia). After a week-long private tour there, we’ll complete our Trans-Siberian Express train trip from last year. We’ll go from Ulan Bator to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, then over to Vladivostok to the East Coast of Russia. Our last stop will be Japan, but more about that later.

After a month in Berlin, I haven’t mentioned the many individuals and connections I have made during my stay here. The Goethe Institute has been my anchor. Students in my class came from Israel, Iraq, Sweden, Mexico, Hong Kong, and the U.S. Two of the American students are budding opera students, so it has been fun learning more about their world of opera that is so different from being in the audience. Other friends I have made included two German language teachers from India and Finland; two gentlemen from New Zealand; and another pair of Ph.D students, one from Sardinia in Architecture and one from Tennessee in German History.

Attending nearly every extra-curricular activity has given me the opportunity to chat with a combination of these individuals as well as others. The common question everyone asks is “why are you learning German?”. Most are learning for their current or future job prospects, but few have my intentions. I tell everyone I am learning to increase my understanding of opera.

Most people find that puzzling, but if you are an opera junkie like I am, some of the best translations of opera are subtitles in German! Reading dual supertitles in German and English at the Deutsche Opera put me in rhapsody. I get the chance to follow what is being sung (also keeps me awake) and get a German language course at the same time!

Coming to Germany for the past five years to see opera and hear music reinforce my interest in learning the language. In addition to a real, primary purpose to keep my brain exercised, I am investing in a much deeper appreciation of the culture through speaking, reading and writing. I am definitely going to continue this affair and make learning German a life-long pursuit.

For my GI (that’s Goethe Institute, not Gastro-Intestinal) friends, snippits of typical exercises we did every day are below. We shuffled the tags around in groups until they lined up.

The Institute’s last and final activity to Deutsche Welle was cancelled due to illness. I love watching the broadcasts in the US, so I was very disappointed. I made alternative plans to visit the Natural History Museum, where the Guinness Book of Records’ largest dinosaur resides. I wouldn’t have gone there, had I not been introduced to the dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum in New York City. Ross (David Schwimmer) from “Friends” played a paleontologist, and that always amused me.

The museum turned out to be a thrill. I didn’t realize that the tall head of the Brachiosaurus could only allow it to eat leaves from the canopies of trees. Dinosaurs lumbered around town due to their huge size and weight. It took a huge bio-engineering effort to move, nourish, and keep alive such a large mechanism.

Other dinosaurs in the same display could only eat things near the ground because they could not lift their heads very high. Their tails were needed as counter-weights for their elongated, skinny heads! You can read more about the Brachiosaurus and what they ate in the text below, for those interested.