Category Archives: 2015

Day 77-78: Art is Everywhere in Santa Fe

On an early morning walk, I was amazed at the amount of abundant sculpture and outdoor art in this small, aesthetic town. Landscaping, architectural elements, and artwork were integrated to give a deep sense and appreciation of the arts.

Throughout residential and commercial neighborhoods, you can find extensive use of the old adobe mud brick and plaster walls. They provide a consistent look and a unique quality to Santa Fe. The sense of time and place are established by this pattern. Newer walls surrounding buildings have a timeless quality, with updated elastomeric coatings that expand and contract with extreme weather conditions.

The wealth of galleries and museums are easily accessible within the city. The Georgia O’Keefe museum was just around the corner from our hotel. Although I am not a fan of her work, I learned to appreciate the life of O’Keefe and the meaning behind her work. She led an avant-garde lifestyle with her husband and photographer Albert Stieglitz in New York before settling in New Mexico.

My favorite piece from the museum was a cubist sculpture by Max Weber entitled: Figure in Rotation (1948)
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Later in the day we visited a collection of museums and galleries. The new Museum Hill area housed the Museum of International Folk Arts, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, and the Anthropology Laboratory. It is only a couple of miles from the Plaza and accessible by bus.

We visited a couple of galleries along the Canyon Road area. I was trying to track down an old friend from school who is now a famous jewelry designer in New Mexico. We were able to find a gallery that exhibited her work and were impressed with the quality of the pieces using precious stones in modern settings. You can read about her in Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gail_Bird_and_Yazzie_Johnson

The next day, we visited Bandelier National Monument, where some of the Ancestral Pueblo Indians settled. Known as Frijoles Creek and Canyon, this area along the Rio Grande leads to the Alcove House, where we climbed up 140′ by ladder to see the cave dwellings. The pink rock is composed of volcanic ash that formed into a crumbly rock known as tuff. This material creates pits and can be carved into larger openings.

Day 76: Chicago to Santa Fe, NM and the Amtrak vs. TME Report


After setting off from Chicago late in the afternoon, we enjoyed an idylllic train ride plying the Midwest from Illinois through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. We passed the Mighty Mississippi and wheat fields to enjoy a peaceful sunset.

On arrival, we had a look around the city and enjoyed a sunset the following evening from our hotel roof deck. See view above.

Preliminary Evaluation of the Amtrak vs. Trans-Siberian Express (TSE)

As for the evaluation between Amtrak and the Trans-Siberian Express (TSE) a la Trans-Mongolian Express portion (TME), here’s my interim report below.

If you recall, on Day 71 I established a self-inflicted competition between the American Amtrak system and the Trans-Siberian Express (TSE). You may be confused when I refer to the Trans-Mongolian Express (TME). The TME is a significant portion of the TSE, and differs only in the start point. the TSE begins in Vladivostok on the eastern coast of Russia. The TME begins in Beijing and traverses through Mongolia to Moscow, where both the TSE and TME meet. See map below.

Transsiberianmap

If you are not particularly interested in either, skip this post as it will be a bit long-winded, self-admittedly, and only for those die-hard train afficinados.

Here are comments based on the original criteria I established:

1. On Time Record

So far, the two long haul trips we have taken on Amtrak (Philadelphia to Chicago, Chicago to Santa Fe (Lamy), NM) have been on time or early, and the shorter legs through New England have been on time or slightly delayed. Trains on the TME were either on time or early, but we were not able to verify the arrivals or departures due to fuzzy time zone changes (!!)

2. Comfort (Bed strength, ability to rock a baby to sleep and keep them there; access to lights, camera, action; no annoying overhead PA system used at free will for the comfort of the system and not the passenger; and good padding and ergonomics for blogging)

Beds on Amtrak are comfortable, non-formed foam pads over two seats pushed together in the roomettes, with an overhead bunk that does not allow you to sit up straight. One passenger complained about the pillows and beds being too flat, but seating ergonomics and padding seem fine in both systems. Beds on Amtrak are in the direction of travel, whereas the TME beds were perpendicular to the direction of travel. Not sure either makes much difference in terms of rockability, but the Amtrak trains definitely sway more at the top due to the double-height cars. Most of the sleepers were on the upper level so more passengers would experience the sway, so I’d give Amtrak a negative point for this.

There are more stops at night on Amtrak due to the higher population along the route, so it may appear to be slightly more disruptive at night. However, the train starts and stops are smoother on Amtrak compared with the Chinese bump-and-grind at each stop. The Chinese trains did not appear to have any or much cushioning between cars so they slammed into each other when the trains departed or arrived at each station.

Lighting and controls were sufficient on both systems so no particular comments. In contrast, the use of the PA system was notable on Amtrak. The dining car made repeated comments about availability, MIA’s, and hours of operation; there were none on the Chinese cars (perhaps because there were so few or no passengers! or the multiple languages spoken by passenger on the train would render the effort fruitless). We did take a Chinese train on a different trip last year that piped overly loud and annoying announcements and music on their PA system. At one point, the speakers were disconnected (i.e. ripped out) to our car by a passenger and it seemed to take care of the problem.

3. Service (attentive staff, no back talk or attitude–i.e. Courteous; visible but not obtrusive; professional but not hollow friendly delivery of information)

As you know, we found the service on the Chinese trains to be very good, but that’s because we spoke Chinese. I am not sure foreigners would find the staff as friendly. Surprisingly, the Amtrak staff have been generally friendly and attentive. They must have improved their customer service training since we took the trains a generation ago. There are still vestiges of the long-timer staff person here and there who crack canned jokes every now and then, or a raspy voice yelling out instructions by someone who cumulatively earned the distinctive voice quality. Overall, both appear to be genuine in intent and concern.

4. Cleanliness (no spit on counters; toilet paper unfailingly in supply; Windows you can see through; stainless upholstery and carpets)

Well, can’t say I went looking, so I didn’t find any gross evidence in either system. In general, the toilets in the Chinese trains were not well attended, but in defense of the system, we were only 2 of 3 passengers in our car. There were four toilets available in one Amtrak sleeper car for some 24 rooms; only one toilet and one washroom per car on the Chinese train. You can do the math.

Toilet supplies were plentiful on Amtrak, nada on the Chinese trains. Bring your own.

Windows were a little soiled on Amtrak. Hard to see through some windows on Chinese cars.

Upholstery on Chinese cars were old but clean; no carpeting in rooms.
I noticed a few stains on the blankets of the Amtrak, and maybe on the carpeting. The concierge announced that shoes are required on all Amtrak trains.

5. Food (real food; reasonable prices; no cheap shots using lots of salt and sugar; no bar codes on wrapping; cold beer; wine list; nuking; no plastic, polystyrene, or jewel boxes)

Food to date on Amtrak was decent, and better than I remembered. When you book a sleeper you get free meals. Dinner options included salmon fillet, steak, chicken, or pasta. The only disappointing aspect were the frozen vegetables.


Hard to compare the food from the Russian dining car. The food appeared to be freshly cut and prepared, and although small portions, the food was fresh, tasty and healthy. Gee Kin’s vote for the staff’s home-cooked pasta and meat buns unfortunately do not qualify for this evaluation of customer-consumed food. Interestingly, I asked Sean, our Amtrak attendant, what he did for food. He immediately remarked that the food on the train was unhealthy for service staff. Assuming that they ate it frequently, the food would take a toll on your weight and BMI. The food is included in their benefits, but he mentioned that he beats it over to Whole Foods whenever he gets in to Seattle. Staff stock up on their own food but are not allowed to bring anything requiring refrigeration. That poses some limitations, but he said they work around it (wink, wink). Occasionally the house chefs make family meals for the staff and they really appreciate it.

I am copying and pasting the earlier post comments for convenience and adding any additional notes or changes.

Pros of the Trans Mongolian Express:
1. Decent food in the Russian dining car at reasonable price
2. Service in the sleeping car was very good and attentive by the two attendants assigned to our car (even though we and one other woman were the only passengers in the car after Ulan Bator!)
3. The compartment was tidy and toilet at the end of the car was adequate.


Cons for the Trans Mongolian Express (TME)
1. The tracks are not universal in Mongolia thereby requiring wheels to be changed on every car going between China and Russia through Mongolia
2. The trains do not have Internet access
3. The schedule and arrival times at any station were a mystery due to fluctuating time zones

Pros for Amtrak trains
1. The trains are very comfortable
2. The trains have Internet access (10/7 correction: none on the long hauls!!)
3. The information for time, stops and scenic opportunities is helpful (10/7 update: excellent handouts available at every seat)


Cons for Amtrak
1. Service staff are surly (10/7 update: I would delete this comment that was based on historical experience)
2. Stations are antiquated (10.7 update: true, but they have installed First and Business Class lounges with internet access that overnight passengers can use)
3. Seating is not reserved (10/7 update: all seats are reserved on the long-hauls)

This report includes two long hauls:
1. Washington DC to Chicago on the Capitol Ltd.;
2. Chicago to Santa Fe, New Mexico on the Southwest Chief;

The last report will include the third and final leg:
Santa Fe to Los Angeles (continuation of the Southwest Chief), then the Coast Starlight train from LA to San Francisco.

Day 75: Chicago Architectural Biennale

The Chicago Cultural Center (formerly the Chicago Public Library) is currently hosting the Architectural Biennale. Modeled after the Venice Biennale for art, it showcases creative architectural ideas and structures submitted by many countries. Programs will continue throughout the season until the end of the year. I would highly encourage anyone interested in architecture to visit Chicago this year.

A free noontime concert enticed me to spend an hour at one of the magnificent exhibition rooms that house one of the most beautiful domes in the world.

The Biennale hosted many interesting exhibitions, but one we specifically went to see was on workplace design. See the model of different ways to sit, stand, and work in the cutouts and the video screen shot below:

And the lobby area utilized flexible lighting that could be height adjusted with weights, and flexible drop in workspaces for visitors.
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Before embarking on our journey from Chicago to Santa Fe, I was able to catch a final glimpse of the Chagall’s “Four Seasons” Murals at the Chase Tower Plaza:

Day 74: Chicago (Wright House and River Cruise)

Our visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright House and Studio in Oak Park, Ill.:

The Chicago Architectural Foundation sponsors an excellent tour by river cruise of buildings from various eras, including Modern, Post-Modern, Neo-Classical, and Moderne:

Day 73: Chicago Art Institute and Millenium Park

Yesterday was spent at the Art Institute of Chicago, admiring the extensive Impressionist Collection. Among them:

Here are a few of my favorite pieces: Tang Dynasty expressive figurines and exquisite Northern Sung glazed pottery pieces:

And an architectural exhibition by David Adjaye and Associates, London

Views of the Millenium Park and City:

Second City Curtain Call:
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Day 72: Frilly Philly to Cheeky Chicago

Most visitors to the US would not normally include Philadelphia on their list of must-sees, but Americans would find that Philadelphia is representative of what would be considered an all-American city. Its early history certainly rivals that of Boston, the industrial golden age was built there, and it has deep connections to the 60’s era of rock and roll.

The weather over the weekend didn’t help the gray color of the city, but a strange injection of pink showed up in unsuspecting places. First it appeared in the fountain at City Square, then later.

As I meandered over towards Chinatown, I discovered how universally consistent the food, services and physical environment were to those elements in other Chinatowns around the world. Perhaps the similarities were more so in American-style Chinatowns because of their vintage, but they also appeared in latter-day Chinatowns in other cities like London, Sydney, Auckland, and Zurich. The money spent in Chinatown gets recycled a number of times before discharging out into the rest of the world, so there are social, economic and political spinoffs to keeping purchases within the community. It also keeps prices dirt cheap and affordable. Maybe this contributes to the common look and feel of each community.

I wondered where the Chinese get the recipes for old standbys like dim sum, egg tarts and Ho fun? Internet?? A Master Martin Yan chef who qualifies and certifies chefs for consistencies and maintains an archive of secret recipes? An underground triad network of chefs who kung-fu chops you off the list if you are non-compliant to the recipes honed since the Sung Dynasty?

I found this question very intriguing and mysterious. Maybe there was some giant alien spaceship distribution point near that town in New Mexico that delivers the stuff from outer space or the shopkeepers secretly 3-D print the food at Kinko’s for Chinese dim sum subscribers.

While I was eating my comfort breakfast of shrimp noodle and rice congee with pork and 1000-year old egg, a young 30-something Asian male entered into the fluorescent pink dim sum shop. He was meeting a middle-aged man in a suit. He ordered an Avocado smoothee that the shopkeeper behind the counter repeated: “Avocado?” “Yeh. Smoothee.”

I eavesdropped. The smoothee drinker was advising an older man on how to get a life insurance broker’s license. He explained that, with a license, you can advise people on Obamacare and rake a $50 service charge. They carry on their conversation about details, percentages and commissions.

Later that day, we initiated our first major overnight adventure on Amtrak from Philadelphia to Chicago. Here are a few starter shots. Watch for the USA-Russia cross-country train competition ahead.

Scenery along the way:

The train:

Day 71: An Unscientific Analysis of Two Land Voyages

Today I am launching my first official competition between the Trans-Siberian Express (We took the Chinese-run portion of the Trans-Mongolian Express using TSE tracks from Bejing to Moscow at the end of July and the beginning of August–see posts if you missed them) and the American Amtrak system.

I consulted with my hubby and travel partner on the TME what criteria I should use. His response was
1. Food
2. Food
3. Food.

In my attempt to be neutral (ala Swiss) and to avoid any international incidents between Russia/China and the USA, I decided to establish more traditional criteria for judging each system’s merits:

1. On Time Record (TME evaluation will be based on flickering Memory)
2. Comfort (Bed strength, ability to rock a baby to sleep and keep them there; access to lights, camera, action; no annoying overhead PA system used at free will for the comfort of the system and not the passenger; and good padding and ergonomics for blogging.
3. Service (attentive staff, no back talk or attitude–i.e. Courteous; visible but not obtrusive; professional but not hollow friendly delivery of information)
4. Cleanliness(no spit on counters; toilet paper unfailingly in supply; Windows you can see through; stainless upholstery and carpets)
5. Food (real food; reasonable prices; no cheap shots using lots of salt and sugar; no bar codes on wrapping; cold beer; wine list; nuking; no plastic, polystyrene, or jewel boxes)

Gee Kin reluctantly added the first criteria for time after he realized his credibility and reputation were at stake. By then, I had already prepared my testing lab for forensic evidence.

To date, the qualitative analysis will incorporate the following:

Pros of the Trans Mongolian Express:
1. Decent food in the Russian dining car at reasonable price
2. Service in the sleeping car was very good and attentive by the two attendants assigned to our car (even though we and one other woman were the only passengers in the car after Ulan Bator!)
3. The compartment was tidy and toilet at the end of the car was adequate.

Cons for the Trans Mongolian Express (TME)
1. The tracks are not universal in Mongolia thereby requiring wheels to be changed on every car going between China and Russia through Mongolia
2. The trains do not have Internet access
3. The schedule and arrival times at any station were a mystery due to fluctuating time zones

Pros for Amtrak trains
1. The trains are very comfortable
2. The trains have Internet access
3. The information for time, stops and scenic opportunities is helpful

Cons for Amtrak
1. Service staff are surly
2. Stations are antiquated
3. Seating is not reserved

Here are a couple of pictures comparing the station interiors for starters.

Stay tuned for interim reports after the three upcoming long haul, overnight trips across the USA:
1. Washington DC to Chicago on the Capitol Ltd.;
2. Chicago to Santa Fe, New Mexico on the Southwest Chief;
3. Santa Fe to Los Angeles (continuation of the Southwest Chief), then the Coast Starlight train from LA to San Francisco.

The results will be a cliffhanger and won’t be finalized til after the end of my 80 days around the world, so stay tuned!

Day 69-70: Philadelphia’s Grand Museums

Today we started at the Barnes Foundation Collection. Barnes was a wealthy patron of the arts and kept his artwork in very specific positions in his mansion. When he died in 1951, he intended the artwork kept in his home to be available to the public. However, after many legal battles, the Foundation succeeded at moving the collection. The new building, designed by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, was opened in 2012. You can read about the history here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barnes_Foundation

While I was unable to take photographs of the paintings on display, my notes included the following features:

All the modern impressionists and classical painters were represented, with a wealth of Renoirs, Cezannes, and Matisses.

I made a point to learn about new painters whose names I did not previously recognize. I chose Jules Pascin, an American and Bulgarian painter. Another was Chaim Soutine, a Russian who was active in France between 1893-1943. One of my favorites was of a young pastry chef. Barnes bought over 50 of Soutine’s works. John Kane, whose work Barnes seemed to favor, was an American who painted lovely American scenes.

Barnes accumulated so many paintings that he was able to display work by painters influenced by earlier painters side by side. He intentionally placed these works adjacent to each other. It was very challenging to view the art as you were required to consider why the paintings were juxtaposed to each other.  A main piece was placed in the center of a wall flanked by other smaller similar pieces. Greater variety was created by placing portraits adjacent to landscapes to vary the scale and context, so your mind is actively bouncing back and forth between these paintings as well as painting styles.

In addition to variety in scale, content, and size, unrelated pieces such as an artist’s work from other parts of the world were interspersed throughout the collection. I found the small naive New Mexico panel paintings by Jose Aragon (1796-1862) an interesting contrast to those of much more sophisticated European artists. Chinese paintings from the Ching Dynasty were also injected over other Western paintings. The usual overload of styles from the same artist or period was broken by this approach. It was a clever way to provide relief and maintain interest.

Furnishings and decorative arts were also placed under or over paintings. Barnes claimed that a hinge was as worthy of being appreciated as a work of art as a major painting. Initially you are aghast at the display of so many items on one wall, but eventually you realize that the density and intensity has a purpose and meaning to it.

In the afternoon, we took a tour of the Surrealist collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that included pieces from Dali, Man Ray, and Picasso. The Surrealists moved from the Cubists’ physical description of space and added psychological interpretations. They attempted to depict dreams and drew from ideas posed by Freud and Jung.

At the tail end of the day, I made my way to see the Asian art collection that Gee Kin and I saw over 30 years ago on our first visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I remembered the incredible Ming Scholars’ Room and the Japanese Teahouse, which are shown below. At that time, I had not appreciated the wonderful Tang musicians, horsemen, and camel figures in the collection. I first saw them along the Silk Road in Dunhuang last year (see 2014 posts in September, 2014). I enjoyed returning to this venerable institution a second time to discover these ancient treasures.

Text for French Courtyard in featured image above:
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After traveling from Philadelphia to Washinton DC, are about to embark on our first overnight journey. We won’t be stopping in DC except to transfer to the Capitol Ltd. to Chicago. Stay tuned for a big itinerary and lots of fun ahead!

Day 66-68: Very Vermonty

After a ride Upstate on the Ethan Allen Express from Penn Station to Albany, NY, my college roommate and I rented a car and drove east toward Middlebury, Vt to go “leaf-peeping”. The only ominous problem was that this year’s weather affected the Fall foliage. Much of the greenery along the Hudson River appeared to be damaged and dried from the unusual summer heat.

Apparently it rained in June, then very little over the summer. The leaves depend on cold weather to turn color. We started seeing just a tinge of color here and there, but were not too hopeful that we would see much in the next couple of days. Instead, we resolved to enjoy the casual air, windy roads, and 55mph highways.

We stopped in an apple farm along the way, had a long leisurely lunch at the “Lobby” with Otter Creek as our view, and then strolled over to visit the glamourous Middlebury College indoor track.

All along the way, I was reminded of the history of this area. “Last of the Mohicans”, buildings with ca. 1800 etched in stone, white clapboard houses, and picture-perfect Lutheran churches are abound.

I was struck by the resemblance in parts of Germany to New England. The early 19th and 20th C. signature church steeples in the small towns dotted throughout Germany were contemporary to those built in the US. It’s amazing to think that these areas were just getting their footing at the same time Goethe and Schiller were in full tilt in Weimar. It helps me to appreciate and relate to a book I am currently reading, “Two Boston Brahmins in Goethe’s Germany”.

Only a faint blur of red dusting the wooded hills were visible around the ski resort of Killington. Instead of a gondola ride up the 4162 elevation, I opted for a rickety chair lift in this ski town. It was half the price for half the height, and probably half the time, so it appeared to be a sound if not minimal investment to me.

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A late morning breakfast was jump-started by champagne cocktail, quiche, ravioli and finished with a delicious bacon and egg muffin sandwich cushioned with a sweet potato bed, in that order.

The next day, we left Killington to explore the Scenic Roads from Killington along Route 4 East to Woodstock, Vt. and South along Route 100 through the heart of Vermont to Wilmington. The leaves were most impressive along the Green Mountain National Forest.

We made a stop at the Shackleton Thomas Woodworking and Pottery Store, where they made hand crafted furniture and stoneware. Each item was lovingly produced in an atelier that carried on many traditional techniques.

Tomorrow we will be traveling from Albany, NY to Philadelphia, PA by Amtrak through NYC. We have ordered tickets the following day for the Barnes Foundation Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so art lovers, get ready!!

Day 64-65: New York City, New York (Turandot and Anna Bolena)

Three opera performances in a row may sound ridiculous, but my weekend in New York was virtually spent at Lincoln Center doing just that. When you start to recognize the cleaning staff and where the women’s bathroom lines are non-existent during intermissions, it’s time to get a life. Nevertheless, I indulged myself and got my opera fix good enough for a year.
imageTurandot’s staging was monumental and an “only at the Met” extravaganza. The cryptic story refers to the son of Timur and Samarkand, where the Sogdians ruled. The mythical princes, land and story must have been based on Central Asian history and the Silk Route trade that I discovered in modern-day Uzbekistan last year. (See 2014 posts on Samarkand). Learning this small piece of information helped me to connect and appreciate the historical setting for the opera.

Unfortunately, most of the production still felt unable to reconcile the fairy-talish Chinoiserie and stilted Chinese operatic dance movements with historical perspective. Despite many Asian attendees in the audience, I wondered if they were any better able to accept the strange mix. I wished I had seen Zhang Yi-Mou’s production of this opera in Beijing. The famous Chinese director utilized a cast of thousands and staged it in the Bird’s Nest Stadium
a few years ago.

The story is based on the princess demanding her suitors to answer three riddles to win her. If they didn’t, they got the QCECK (sound effect, with an abrupt horizontal hand Slash at the neck). I may need to dig further into the opera’s history and Puccini later to find a decent answer to my own riddle.


Photos, above: curtain calls for Turandot crew

Earlier in the day, I saw Anne Boleyn. Although the first half was a bit dull and heavy, the second half made up for it with a gripping unfolding of events and thrilling arias. Sandra Radvonovsky as Anne Boleyn and Jamie Barton as Jane Seymour were captivating together. See the curtain call below.
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Last but not least, a visit to a New York institution: the local bagel shop. Lox and cream cheese on an everything bagel…perfecto!!
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