All posts by VickieVictoria

Intrepid traveler. Architect and appreciator of design, art, language, opera, history, and anthropology.

Silk Road Adventure 2: Beijing Bites

POP-UP ZOOM MEETING!! If you are interested in joining a Zoom Party to share a conversation on Beijing with me and a former Beijing resident on Sunday, July 12, at 10:00am (PST), cut and paste the link here:

https://us04web.zoom.us/j/79590185140?pwd=Y0g3Vm5NYTk4TlBrNW80S3FxcFZIdz09

Depending on when you were traveling from Ulan Baator, Mongolia to join the Silk Road in Northwest China, you would probably travel via Beijing. We assume that you would take the train connection from the Trans-Siberian Express through Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, Russia, to the border at Ulan Ude, and then on to Beijing, unless, of course, you are flying.

From there, you would take a high speed rail train to the Northwest gateway to the Silk Road. If you were a Chinese citizen, you would probably opt to fly. Locals can fly internally at deep discounts over the next six months, and some travel agents even offer packages with unlimited travel! With many, many beautiful and breath-taking scenic spots in China, it all sounds very tempting. Unless, of course, you are unqualified to be in China and have a few other hesitations. 

So here are the Beijing posts from previous trips in 2016 and 2017, again in reverse order, to simulate travels on the Silk Road. Technically, Beijing, like Mongolia, is not on the official route. The map shows the important connection that probably led Marco Polo to travel from Kharkourum, the capital of Genghis Khan, to grandson Kublai and his new digs in Beijing.

Regardless, it is a key starting point for any travel in China, so we will take the map for its worth and include Beijing as a starting point.

Some of you may not find food in Beijing as appetizing these days after the COVID-19 pandemic started in a food market in Wuhan, but it would be odd to NOT focus on food when in China. This city visit was pretty much a pit stop, so we didn’t organize any official tourist spots.

Pedestrian Street

I went out looking for water and accidentally found this pedestrianized area around the corner from the hotel where we stayed. 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 sell their specialties, and we picked up food for dining at the hotel apartment (chestnuts, sticky rice in Coconut, Tripe, and refried mini-pork buns).

Imperial Palace

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.

Four Hour Dinner

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

Four Hour Lunch
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Today was visiting Day with Gee Kin’s former professor in Hydraulic Engineering at Tsinghua University. We spent a leisurely day with him and his wife, who is also a professor in Water Resource Engineering. Gee Kin spent a year at Miyun Dam outside of Beijing in 1976 with his professor and other students. They were repairing the massive dam that was damaged by the Tangshan earthquake and that supports Beijing’s population.

The Tsinghua campus is now a bustle of activity and has the energy and flow of Stanford. Google-type buses were everywhere, and students, researchers, post-docs all sped by with focused purpose.

We had an elaborate lunch of Peking Duck, pickled web’s feet, chestnuts and Shanghai cabbage, whole steamed fish, braised pork belly, dry-fried bamboo shoots and green beans, and numerous fruits and sweet desserts.

Beijing Underground

We trained ourselves to use the new Metro Subway and took several lines each way to become fully versed in one of the largest systems in the world. It was built in only in less than 10 years and is indicative of China’s focus on their infrastructure systems. This is a huge achievement for the country.

More importantly, we observed how kind people were to one another. Passengers were always courteous and apt to get up for elderly people or women with young children. There was no need to provoke a response. It made me proud to be among the Chinese people (the ethnic pride thing in me kicks in!) and I was surprised at these small acts of human kindness within such a massive population. I wondered how often that happened on SF Muni or BART.

Window and Food Shopping–an Integrated Experience

We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying our neighborhood, where there are many traditional and creative shops to bend the mind (and the pocketbook!). This area has always hosted clever shops, and this new version is only an extension of the past.

We stayed in the Northern Hutong District (Gulouyuan) of Beijing in one of the hotels preserving the traditional courtyard style residences.

Original Posts: 6/20/16 and 8/6/15

Next Stop: Look for the Silk Road Adventure 3 on Northwest China in the next week or two! Send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com if you want a notification!

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE 1: MONGOLIA, THE START OF THE TRAIL

POP-UP ZOOM MEETING!! If you are interested in joining a Zoom Party to share a conversation on Mongolia with me and a fellow Mongolian Traveler on Sunday, July 5, at 8:45am (PST), send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com by 6:00pm today, July 4th (PST) and I will send you the meeting invite!!

Mongolia is not technically on the Silk Road, except it was indicated on one of the Silk Road Maps connecting to Karkourum, the capital city of Genghis Khan’s empire. We revisit the sites previewed in the video last week with the magnificent expanses of land, the natural living, and fascinating history.

You might find some of the order of information a bit confusing, as I am cutting and pasting several days’ travel into one posting. On top of that, I am going backwards in some instances so the general direction is eastward! These trips may have been taken in reverse order, so please ignore references to Days. In any event, the Polo brothers did alot of traipsing backwards and forwards with Marco and two Franciscan friars to meet Kublai Khan, so I don’t feel so bad about giving you misleading directions.

Mongolian Herder Family

The afternoon we spent with a Mongolian herder family 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).

Yurt Living

We experienced five days of ger living. Despite its challenges, the variety of gers has allowed us to get a full flavor of what it’s like to live in a ger. 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 itinerary through Central Mongolia was on and off-road, to ger camps without internet access. It was both a blessing and a curse.

Erdene Zuu Monastery

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

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 2014.

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.

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. The steamed towels looked good enough to eat!

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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Orkhorn Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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.

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!

Here’s last week’s video that was posted about Mongolia. It captures a day with the herder family, irresistible 360 degree views, and some of the incredible landscape and sights we experienced.

from travelswithmyselfandothers MONGOLIA, JULY 2016

Postscript: 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.

from Travels with Myself and Others, June 2016

ADVENTURE 2 will be in Beijing, China, Kublai Khan’s great conquest, and a stop in the direction of the Great Silk Road.

A note to the newbies: This was part of 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, and art history, Silk Road history, opera, culture and food emotionally; UNESCO-focused, independent travel; and everything in between.

Upcoming Travel Series: Silk Road 2020

Based on last month’s post of Vladivostok, Russia, I have decided to create a new series based on my earlier world travels. Since 2014, I have traveled every summer around the world, ranging in time from 60-80 days. They were glorious events, going in either direction eastward or westwards in one direction from San Francisco and back.

You can read the summaries of each year’s trips in the header tabs above. But for this curated series, I plan to repost selected travels following the Old Silk Road. These travels were not necessarily taken within one year or in successive order. For instance, trips to Iran and Uzbekistan were taken separately, but I will piece the links together for you in a logical travel path.

Here’s a preview video of the first post on Mongolia (theoretically an extension of the traditional Silk Road). Refer to the second map below.

I am hoping that you will savor and enjoy the seldom-traveled UNESCO World Heritage spots that I pursued independently. Some trips were arranged through a travel company but were always personalized with no other participants. My husband and I traveled together, or sometimes I traveled alone. All trips were more than safe, fascinating and laden with a lifetime of memories and educational value.

For those new to my blog, I focus on architecture, planning, interior design professionally, and culturally on anthropology, art history, and a healthy dose (sometimes obsessively when available) on opera and music. Europe and Asia have been my primary destinations, but the areas that glue these two continents together have been the anchors for my recent travels.

I hope you will enjoy the revisits and hopefully they will feel as immediate as the original posts. Please let me know your thoughts, and I hope the reposts will be fresh and inspiring for your future travels–whether real time or or in your imagination!

Look for future posts on Mongolia, China, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Turkey, with a few side trips to the Caucasus, Morocco, and Germany!! I plan to post every week or two by early Sunday, PST (Pacific Standard Time). Below are a selection of Silk Road Maps from various points in time for dreaming, the start of any trip….

This map starts in Beijing and transcends the traditional route through Samarkand and Bukhara in today’s Uzbekistan.
This one shows the same route, with the extension from Karakorum in Mongolia (the capital of Genghis Khan’s empire, to Isfahan and Tehran in Iran

In this version, the western edges of the Silk Road are displayed, with multiple routes through S. Russia, the Caucasus to Greece and from Samarkand to Turkey

“Fear Dims Even the Sunlight”

John Howard Griffin, from Black Like Me

It’s been a dark and unsettling couple of weeks. I wanted to express my feelings but needed some time to think more about the events generated by the murder of George Floyd and the widespread protests about racism throughout the world.

Talking about Race

Today, the National Museum of African American History provided me with guidance and support. In its web portal, “Talking about Race”, it gives a helpful suggestion: start by reflecting on what race means to you. I thought back to what I read in high school, and a book that shook me into awareness. Black Like Me by John Griffin was a powerful account of a journalist who posed as an African American and wrote about his experience.

While the book may be dated now, it was an anchor in my first remembrance of the existence of racism. It effectively raised the disparity between black and white America. Empathy can be an important bridge to understanding what it is like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. In some ways, the book was more genuine and heartfelt than assertions from those who have immediately jumped on the bandwagon today.

Nevertheless, I am more encouraged by the worldwide movement. From middle America to London, Paris and Hamburg, major anti-racist protests taken place. It has helped me to validate what I have experienced in traveling throughout the world.

“Talking about Race” on the NMAAHC website is below:

https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race#

It’s important to share thoughts about recent events with friends and family in a safe and trusting environment. Like politics, racism is a deep and complicated topic, and there are no-fly zones with those who clearly do not share the same views. Here are a couple of other timely pieces forwarded from my daughters: a long article by James Baldwin in the New Yorker (Note: you may need a subscription to the New Yorker to access the article):

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind

and a long conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates on why he is hopeful below:

https://www.vox.com/2020/6/5/21279530/ta-nehisi-coates-ezra-klein-show-george-floyd-police-brutality-trump-biden

While these sources may only provide limited views, they helped me to understand how Black lives Matter. Kaepernick was one of my heros since he took his knee nearly four years ago against police brutality. Since then, he has been busy training Black students at Know your Rights camps and committed to raising awareness. You can see the press release below of that eventful day:

https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2020/06/04/why-did-colin-kaepernick-take-a-knee-the-lasting-legacy-of-protest/

I was heartened by the world response to raising racial issues to help make the world more accountable and responsive. Let’s hope we can solve both our social problems successfully in conjunction with the COVID epidemic.

Eighty Days around the House

Instead of eighty days around the world, it looks like eighty days around the house this year! Have you noticed that the light quality coming through each window is different during various times of the day? If not, you must not have windows that face each cardinal direction. Take a moment and look out each window.

Everyone seems to be posting retrospectives and looking back in time during the pandemic. It’s motivating me to go through the many past trips that I could share. Even if they aren’t real time, you might find them interesting. I guess I will have to change my tag line from “real time” to “virtual”.

Look for videos and posts from Uzbekistan (2014); Northwest China (2014); Macchu Picchu (2017); Easter Island (2017); Iran (2018), and the Caucasus (2019). And by all means, let me know if you have any requests.

Russian Odyssey

The Corona Virus and its Shelter in Place requirements in California have kept me on my toes creatively, to plan each day at a time and to fill it with learning and entertainment. For one of my favorite activities, I combine both opera streaming with sketching..

The daily operas presented by the New York Metropolitan Opera (go to metopera.org) provide an anchor, so in addition to listening to wonderful music, I can study and record performers’ faces that hold long enough for a sketch. In the case of opera, it’s pretty easy once they launch into a famous aria. But I can’t say that I can follow the story at the same time!

In addition to opera sketching, there are plenty of live zoom sketching events. I follow those sponsored by SF Sketchers, so we have sketched each other from our homes using 3, 5 and 8 minute sketches. Down and dirty, but lots of fun and we engage.

In another sketching event yesterday, we took a gondola tour of Venice and stopped along the way to sketch at a couple of spots. It triggered fond memories of traveling. I had already reduced my plans to travel this year and had made no bookings for the summer. Since all international travel is off the books for now, I wasn’t stranded with cancellations.

Nevertheless, it’s still disappointing to realize that there is no end in sight to being able to visit different parts of the world in the foreseeable future. In lieu of travel I have reduced my carbon footprint by traveling via books. Currently I am reading “Sasha’s Dance”, a cultural history of Russia, in conjunction with “Anna Karenina”, a Tolstoy masterpiece. They are wonderful to read together by weaving both front and back stories.

After having nostalgic thoughts about Russia, I went back to watch a video I made of Vladivostok. These videos remind me of the the coastal city’s austerity. The video below is the quick version.

For those of you interested in the long version, I am reposting what I wrote on Day 59 on Vladivostok. It was part of my 80-day world trip in 2016. For this portion, we traveled from Beijing to Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Express eastwards to the coast, then flew from Vladivostok to Tokyo. Look on the next post.

P.S. In the image featured above, I did the “everything” activity yesterday, by combining food and opera on a blustery Saturday evening. I made handmade chicken and spinach pasta with homemade pasta sauce, then plopped down to enjoy “L’Elixir d’Amore with Pretty Yende, Michael Polenzani and a glass of wine. Wish you were here!

A REPOST FROM 2016 WORLD TRAVELS: Day 59: Vladivostok, Russia

Here are some first views of Vladivostok coming from the north by train on arrival at sunset the night before:

Dinner at Three Brothers across from the hotel, complete with live American jazz music for $30 for both of us with wine

Evening Entertainment: Portugal vs. Wales with Rinaldo scoring 1 of 2 goals

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If you were visiting Vladivostok for the first time like we were, you could start an early morning walk at the Friday morning Central food market:

You can take a minibus to the new Mariinskiy Opera and Ballet Theatre. It is hosting the first International Piano Competition at the end of this month. I predict that it will be a great draw for concerts, ballet and opera in the future. You might consider taking a trip to attend this magnificent new venue and the emerging new productions and stars that will perform here!

After that, you can catch a bus back to the city and stop at the Lookout Point over the new Golden Bridge completed in 2012. Does the design look familiar to you?

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Later in the day, get your cultural brains in gear and visit the Primorie Art Gallery. When we attended, it was showing an exhibition of Russian Art from 1700-1900. We were intrigued with the very personal touches of each painting, that may have reflected or imitated more famous Western paintings of the same era. Sargent, Picasso, and Matisse came to mind.

There were also a number of startling paintings that represented new subjects seldom seen in paintings of the same era. Chinese or Muslim figures were represented in historical settings that required more context and explanation. Unfortunately, all paintings were titled in Russian or limited English.

At the end of the day, kick back and have dinner at the Three Brothers for evening meal. This was our return visit from the night before. The outdoor dining was perfect for the cool balmy weather of Vladivostok. The city is very similar to San Francisco, with hills, coastal fog, city views everywhere, and a lively ambience. We’re in love with this city of 2 Million!! This city is destined to be a big tourist destination in the next 10 years, so come soon.

MOM AND APPLE PIE

Restricted in traveling this year, I have been focusing my time with research on my mother’s life. As today is Mother’s Day, it seems appropriate to pause and take stock of my discoveries and revelations.

As a Chinese immigrant, my mother, Oy Lum, was in many ways the typical story of a hard-working woman who managed to raise a family of five girls single-handed, on a factory worker’s intermittent wages. My father was institutionalized, and like many Chinese men in the early 20th Century in San Francisco, was unable to find sufficient work to maintain a living.

Sun Yat-sen

What surprised me was that my mother had attended the equivalent of a women’s junior college in her late teens. This girls’ school was founded in 1862 by one of her ancestors, when women were unable to become educated. Sun Yat Sen, China’s father of the democratic revolution in 1911, valued women’s education, and he would have supported the progressive school. The story “Butterfly Lovers”, was about a woman who played “Yentl” in order to go to school.

Unfortunately, most attendees were unable to apply their knowledge to any direct purpose. There were no jobs for women in those days. The school didn’t have the political and economic forces of a Radcliffe or Vassar College to help. Students were ahead of their times but for what my mother ended up doing in America, an education seemed hardly purposeful. Nevertheless, my mother quietly conveyed the importance of education. She was the opposite of a “helicopter” parent or “Tiger Mom” these days. Yes, she did encourage us, but her primary focus was on our well-being and not in micro-managing our lives. 

My quest for understanding my mother comes from the many stories she told me as a child about China. It was definitely perplexing. My cryptic training came from opera films she took me to see in San Francisco. When I asked her if she lived like the characters in the classic opera stories, she nodded emphatically. And yes, I took her literally. She and her family wore the costumes, moved in stilted fashion, and sang in screechy voices. Nevertheless, I loved them as they remind me of her.

Many years later, when I led my mother to visit her village for the first time in over 40 years, she was somewhat unmoved by its rural appearance. She simply surveilled the environment and agreed, yes, it hadn’t changed much. Outwardly, her life in the U.S. didn’t seem to have much effect on her either. Whether in limited English or in a dialect of Cantonese, she was a woman of few words.

In the end, my mother is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California. It’s a timeless, picture-perfect cemetery that once forbade Chinese and dogs from being interred there. Despite options to return to China or being buried next to my father at the Chinese cemetery in Colma, she plotted meticulously and chose her crypt location in Oakland. After 98 years, this was not only her final home, but it spoke volumes on where she saw herself in peace and tranquility.

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter! With Shelter in Place heading into Week 3, Easter 2020 may be a more significant and memorable holiday than in the past.

Cameron Carpenter

In case you are looking for a little sparkle for your Easter, try this: https://youtu.be/d5O8cHI-vPY

If opera is not your thing, maybe organ music is?!? Cameron Carpenter is one of my favorite musicians. We saw him in Bamberg a few years ago to many accolades and a standing ovation from a stiff German crowd, then here at the San Francisco Symphony playing the score to the movie Battleship Potenko. He is a brilliant, creative dancer as well as classical and contemporary organist.

Cameron is good inspiration for us. Since all the talk is about what not to do with your hands, watching this clip of his performance might give you ideas what you CAN do with them. And your feet too!

Shelter in Place–Week 3 and Gavin Newsom

Three weeks ago, we were happily prepared to shelter in place when Governor Newsom mandated the requirement on March 18. The San Francisco Bay Area was one of the first to implement this restriction outside of Asia to contain the spread of the deadly corona virus. It was a novelty for the first two weeks.

Depending on when you start counting and entering into the lockdown, many Bay Area residents are beginning to feel more apprehensive. How long will this last? Is it really effective? Are we going to be living like this the rest of our lives?

Thankfully, in California with Gavin Newsome as our governor, we finally have some true leadership and direction. You can see the latest interview with Anderson Cooper here:

Meanwhile, what’s it like here at home in San Francisco? The days drift by for me with sketching, gardening, meditating and reading. In lieu of 6 hours on an IPhone, cooking is a productive time-killer. I finally tapped into those greasy cookbooks on the shelf near the kitchen and roasted pork belly with a Peruvian recipe last night. I also retrieved an easy, comforting flourless chocolate cookie recipe that I made at the beginning of lockdown. I even shared it on a recipe chain letter and sent it to a friend who ran out of flour and wanted to make a chocolate birthday cake.

A plethora of opera livestreams continue. All the major houses sponsor their own versions. I have followed Metopera loyally. During Wagner Week 2, I combined sketching with the music. Here are a few of the die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdammerung characters:

Meanwhile, idle time passes quickly by looking out the window:

The San Francisco Chronicle

We started following the San Francisco Chronicle, our local newspaper, again so we could get updated statistics on local media about the corona virus. But I still follow Deutsche Welle for reliable world news. Willie Brown, our former San Francisco mayor, wrote about a couple of jokes in his column:

I still haven’t decided where to go for Easter — the living room or the bedroom.

Classified ad: Single man with toilet paper seeks woman with hand sanitizer for good clean fun.

And from the man: it’s better 6 feet apart than 6 feet under.

Easter Flashback

Addendum: Here’s a link to my posting from Easter Island in 2017: https://travelswithmyselfandothers.com/2017/10/15/day-9-10-easter-island-moai/

Fun and Games While Sequestered

If I were a carpenter…I could build the addition to our house in the backyard. And if I were a musician, I could post my daily performances like Igor (see igor-levit.de on twitter). I’d practice every day anyway, so why not share those wasted moments?

Unfortunately, since I am neither, I have to find my own diversions. I am spending an inordinate amount of time watching live stream opera performances. It’s easy to find distractions to multi-task during these long seances. I even reverted to sketching opera singers. They are perfect material since they are often standing in one position for a period of time long enough to be captured on paper.

I discovered this earlier while watching the Biden/Sanders debate (Featured image above). Politicians making their pitch at the podium is another excellent venue to stalk portrait figures. Naturally live and in 3-D is ideal but given our sequestered circumstances, who’s counting?!?

My last few posts have been focused on opera. Here is one last hurrah: if you are still groping around for livestreams, here is the ultimate, comprehensive list, compliments of operawire.com:

A Comprehensive List of All Opera Companies Offering Free Streaming Services Right Now

It will at least help you to imagine being in one of the many great opera houses in the world! The list should last you for quite awhile.

Just for some comic relief, I started some pilates exercises on line. Here’s one I am trying if you are interested: https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/ss/slideshow-15-pilates-moves. We follow the active exercises with a 20-minute meditation.

And here are a few photos from this week of daughters quarantined at an undisclosed location:

Be sure to share what you are doing during this unprecedented time in our lives! Are you eating and cooking? Taking naps? Writing a book?!? Would love to hear from you!!

More Opera Livestream Diversions

As of yesterday, six Bay Area Counties are requiring a “Shelter in Place”. No non-essential travel or activities outside the home, possibly until July! That puts further impetus on our staying indoors and remaining calm.

Some of you have expressed an interest in the opera live-streams cropping up in the past few days. Here are a few additional opera websites offering performances online:

https://operawire.com/staatsoper-unter-den-linden-announces-streaming-program-through-mid-april/.

You can watch the Marriage of Figaro here:

https://www.staatsoper-stuttgart.de/spielplan/oper-trotz-corona/

For those of you curious about opera, it’s a perfect way to introduce yourselves to the form. You can download the libretto online to translate each opera and follow along.

These websites have had livestream offerings in the past, but they have not been widely used in the U.S. They are perfectly poised to share their excellent repertoires.

The links may be imperfect, as the websites may require you to download their apps, create an account, or sign up for a temporary membership. After all, if it’s free! You may need to invest some effort, patience and ingenuity. It’s worth the bother.

To get right to the source of real time updates, I recommend going directly to Operawire.com or on twitter for schedules and updates. Here an excerpt from the twitter feed:

  • @MetOpera Nightly Streams
  • @WrStaatsoper Daily Streams
  • @Rof_Pesaro Streams
  • @TeatroRegio di Torino Streams
  • @teatromassimo di Palermo

Let’s get creative and make the most of an unpredictable, uncontrollable situation. Under these dire circumstances, I have convinced myself that virtual travel can be a substitute for physical travel. Thanks to the internet, we can explore the world in different ways from what we have been doing in the past.

A few more suggestions I have followed: make a family emergency plan for your family. Call a different friend everyday to renew an old relationship worn by too much attention to electronic media! Get inspired! We can get through this together!!