Category Archives: 2018

SILK ROAD Adventure #5B: Isfahani Style (Cont’d from Part A)

From the last post, our itinerary started in Tehran, then south to Shiraz. In this second half of travels to Iran, we are visiting Isfahan, then plying our way north to Yasd, Isfahan, and back to Tehran.

Isfahan

Isfahan represents one of the great architectural cities of the world, and now I know why. The magnificent scale of site planning, building design and decoration are fully integrated. Many of the civic buildings surround what used to be a polo field and display the pride and beauty of Persia. (Yes, Persia and Iran is used interchangeably).

In the 16th Century, the Safavids defeated the Ottomans. During this triumphant period, Shah Abbas developed this square, which is the largest in the world. Islamic art and architecture flourished with distinctive elements. The public Mosque with twin towers dominates one end of the square. The architect’s signature is written on a tile discreetly placed to the side of the building. It avoids the front face and competing with the orientation towards Mecca. If only all architects were as humble!

After designing and building the Mosque, which is now a UNESCO World heritage site, the architect went away and returned after six months. He managed to convince the king that he was waiting to see whether the massive structure, with all its solid stone, brick and tilework, would cause settlement. (Yeah, right!!)

Everyone was relieved that it hadn’t, and the architect could still get his tea in Isfahan. Maybe the architect and structural engineer for the Millennium Tower in San Francisco were taking their sabbaticals before they got the bad news.

To the side is the private mosque, known as the Shah’s mosque. Daylighting illuminates verses on walls. As the sun rotates and casts light on various exposures, appropriate poetry is spotlighted naturally. The inside of the dome is also decorated with flecks of gold to cleverly simulate a spotlit tromp l’oeil effect.

This is only a glimpse of the many beautiful buildings with intricate floral tilework and awe-inspiring domes that are signatory to Isfahani architecture. The Shah’s Palace contained a music room with deep cutouts that made you feel as if you were inside a gigantic violin. And the Entertainment Center for the Shah displayed beautiful period paintings. While depiction of human figures was not allowed, these paintings represented non-Muslims such as Georgians or Indians. Some faces on the paintings were later marred or removed.

Persians enjoy strolling in the world-famous gardens built on the desert oasis and along the Zayandeh River. Sadly, the river is dammed to provide water to Yasd and farmers in the desert and as a result it runs dry. The Khaju Bridge that originally spanned the river is used as a leisurely stroll for Isfahanians. Local singers gather under the bridge to spar with other talented folk opera afficinados.  Here’s a short video of one of the talented regulars:

While I normally focus on historic architecture and museum artwork, this trip has engaged me in taking more photos of people in the streets. I have not been shy about asking for posed photos of strangers, because they are universally handsome and graceful in their poses and demeanor. You can’t help but want to capture some of this spirit that delights visitors to Iran and endears you to the people.

Where We Didn’t Go

Apparently the hottest place on earth is in Iran. Fortunately, it wasn’t on the menu. We got the details from our guide as he drove us from Yasd to Isfahan. A year ago, he took a couple of people out to see sand towers that appear like high rises. He reported to the police before entering the desert and notified them that he and a tourist couple were entering the zone. If you go missing after an hour, they come to get you.

They each brought a bottle of water to drink. On arrival he began to feel faint and told the travelers that he had to leave right away. He found out afterwards that you need to drink water every few minutes in order to stay hydrated. Food shrivels once it hits high temperatures of 76 degrees C. (equivalent to 167 degrees!!)

Driving through in the car reduces some of the effect until you get out. Abdullah had the AC on but the wife insisted on having full effect of windows open. He tried not to think what would happen if his car broke down as he seldom saw anyone on the road returning.

The second time, he accompanied two male travelers who wanted to get their thrills as extreme sportsmen. Once they got in, they encountered a sandstorm, that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Fortunately, they were on the edge of it and after it blew past they were able to see what they wanted. They tried dripping water on the stones to watch how fast the water would be sucked dry. Others were frying eggs.

He has returned the second time to be ready to escort any of you for his third foray to a place that’s hot (literally) on the adventure trail. Sorry that this is only a second-hand story, but if you are interested in more, you can go to https://www.livescience.com/19700-hottest-place-earth.html for another great story about the Lut Desert in Iran.

Speaking of water and lack thereof, here’s a picture of the water bottle we recently purchased. Being a Muslim country, Iran does not allow liquor to be drunk or sold. This plastic bottle is shaped like a flask of liquor, or even worse, it makes me think of some toxic lighter fluid or cleaning alcohol. Its shape can’t be understood, but it seems to make sense for grasping (or gasping) purposes. Maybe drinking from cases of these will be part of the desert ritual as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner searches for those precious drops.

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Only 2 days left of blissful travel in a clean country with exceptionally kind and handsome people with a deep sense of their history and humanity.

Here’s a bonus video of delightful young, uninhibited girls playing in the evening. They capture the spirit of a safe and secure life. This was taken in a shopping area around 10pm at night. I feel far safer here than any country I have ever visited.

(This post was created on April 18, 2018 and edited April 22,2018.

Kool in Kashan

Midway between Tehran and Isfahan lies Kashan. One of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Fin Garden highlights traditional Persian landscape design with fountains, channels and reflecting pools. These design principles trace back to the 6th Century and Cyrus the Great.

Local tourists love to visit these parks. On a particularly busy “weekend” Friday, the sites were crowded but the feeling was festive. Persians are courteous and never pushy, so it always seems like you are part of the public experience, not against it. Each person, including you, is entertainment material.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where large divans or platforms shaped like a huge sofa surrounded by a low back/barricade offered guests an alternative to traditional tables. The design defined a semi-private space, where groups or families could sit cross legged, enjoy the food, but not miss out on the activity outside their spaces.

The nearby town housed merchants who became wealthy from the textiles, carpets and tile produced in the area. Door knockers on a pair of entry doors differentiated men from women arriving by the sound of the knock. That was a pretty ingenious communication device!

The local bath house was an important community space and lavish design details encouraged members to use the club’s facilities!

I couldn’t help but to continue a few of my forays into people pictures. I was starting to get really comfortable doing this, again because the faces of the individuals are so engaging and CALM. Young girls may be a bit giddy, but overall everyone whose pictures I took were inviting, elegant and never intimidated or negative.

Below, here’s a video of the adorable little girl shown above:

(This post was created on April 20, 2018)

Iranic Irony in Tehran Terroir

Iran can be considered as a country of contradictions. We certainly experienced many of them, but certainly not without challenging our own values and assumptions about what it means to be a citizen of the world, of one’s country, and about human beings and their treatment towards each other.

Iran currently produces no wine. But like wine, the struggle to survive, the endurance, and the flavor come from the people. As mentioned in earlier posts, the most remarkable takeaway was the unique character of Iranians. They are proud. They are animated. And they are a kind and gentle people.

Everywhere we visited, people were not only good to us, but good to each other. There is a high value on the family. In the streets of Tehran and elsewhere, there’s no jostling, little noise, and a graceful poise.

Naturally, as travelers in a foreign country, we notice the aspects that are different from what we consider normal in our own countries. But being in Iran has had a profound effect on how we think about human interaction.

Maybe it’s because life is tougher in many ways, and there’s so much misunderstanding about the country.  But there appears to be a genuine friendliness that is inherent in Iranians. Hospitality is in the DNA of every Iranian. There is an elegant flow in body language, facial expressions, and greetings to one another.

The newest gesture we learned is placing your hand over your heart to express many words:  “I’m thankful”, “I’m sorry”, “I feel for you“, “I’m happy that you’re happy”. It was an unfamiliar gesture of hand to heart.  We tried it out and found that it was a quite natural act to put your hand over your heart, especially meaningful between strangers.  We hope we won’t lose this stress-reducing contribution to the world. Our guide taught us. After studying his natural behavior, we wanted to do it too. These habits could certainly be considered by others, where the “in your face mentality” is the new normal.

The Iranian’s sense of history is profound. Had it not been for the depth of it and my obvious ignorance, I probably would not have ventured here. Indeed, it’s all here, in its raw, all-inspiring splendor. From the earliest settlements around 2,000 BC that predated the Greek and Roman civilizations to the latest shopping mall outside Tehran (complete with fast food outlets sans American chains), Iran is country that is proud of its history. It is one that has had to become self-sufficient. It is stifled by political, cultural and economic events.

This is a country of very handsome people. We stare at their faces, and see the lines of character and beauty that appear from nowhere. My imaginary pen draws each face, each feature, with love and affection. Clothing shrouds the natural beauty of the women, so exceptionally high value is placed on their facial features and how they manage them.

Within a very short duration of time, we were hooked on Iran. It wasn’t expected. It’s definitely not what the media world tells us. After a short overnight layover in  St. Goarhausen ( in second home Germany) and a few days in Manhattan, we have come back to recover our thoughts and perspective on Iran. Like our own, a country like Iran is full of contradictions. We wish the people well and a hopeful future.

Below are a couple of galleries of people and places that capture our fanstastic experience:

Iran can be considered as a country of contradictions. We certainly experienced many of them, but certainly not without challenging our own values and assumptions about what it means to be a citizen of the world, of one’s country, and about human beings and their treatment towards each other.

Iran currently produces no wine. But like wine, the struggle to survive, the endurance, and the flavor come from the people. As mentioned in earlier posts, the most remarkable takeaway was the unique character of Iranians. They are proud. They are animated. And they are a kind and gentle people.

Everywhere we visited, people were not only good to us, but good to each other. There is a high value on the family. In the streets of Tehran and elsewhere, there’s no jostling, little noise, and a graceful poise.

Naturally, as travelers in a foreign country, we notice the aspects that are different from what we consider normal in our own countries. But being in Iran has had a profound effect on how we think about human interaction.

Maybe it’s because life is tougher in many ways, and there’s so much misunderstanding about the country.  But there appears to be a genuine friendliness that is inherent in Iranians. Hospitality is in the DNA of every Iranian. There is an elegant flow in body language, facial expressions, and greetings to one another.

The newest gesture we learned is placing your hand over your heart to express many words:  “I’m thankful”, “I’m sorry”, “I feel for you“, “I’m happy that you’re happy”. It was an unfamiliar gesture of hand to heart.  We tried it out and found that it was a quite natural act to put your hand over your heart, especially meaningful between strangers.  We hope we won’t lose this stress-reducing contribution to the world. Our guide taught us. After studying his natural behavior, we wanted to do it too. These habits could certainly be considered by others, where the “in your face mentality” is the new normal.

The Iranian’s sense of history is profound. Had it not been for the depth of it and my obvious ignorance, I probably would not have ventured here. Indeed, it’s all here, in its raw, all-inspiring splendor. From the earliest settlements around 2,000 BC that predated the Greek and Roman civilizations to the latest shopping mall outside Tehran (complete with fast food outlets sans American chains), Iran is country that is proud of its history. It is one that has had to become self-sufficient. It is stifled by political, cultural and economic events.

This is a country of very handsome people. We stare at their faces, and see the lines of character and beauty that appear from nowhere. My imaginary pen draws each face, each feature, with love and affection. Clothing shrouds the natural beauty of the women, so exceptionally high value is placed on their facial features and how they manage them.

Within a very short duration of time, we were hooked on Iran. It wasn’t expected. It’s definitely not what the media world tells us. After a short overnight layover in  St. Goarhausen ( in second home Germany) and a few days in Manhattan, we have come back to recover our thoughts and perspective on Iran. Like our own, a country like Iran is full of contradictions. We wish the people well and a hopeful future.

Below are a couple of galleries of people and places that capture our fanstastic experience:

Swivel-Chair Pop-Up: Join us for a Zoom Party with Sara Ishikawa, former UC Berkeley Professor of Architecture, and Peter Basmajian, AIA, of Richards Basmajian, Hong Kong, for a crazy, 40-year delayed world catchup— with Iran as the backdrop—on Saturday, August 7, 8pm (PST). Send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com and I will send you the link!

CORRECTION: THE DATE IS SATURDAY, AUGUST 8, AT 8PM!

Silk Road Adventure #5A: TEHRAN, Shiraz, AND PERSEPOLIS

If you were traveling along the ancient Silk Road from Samarkand or Bokhara to Istanbul, you would undoubted stop in Tehran, Iran.

Our itinerary, in case you missed it on the map and on the World Travels 2018 page of https://travelswithmyselfandothers.com, started with our guide in Tehran, then south to Shiraz. From there, we plied our way north by car with our guide through Yasd to Isfahan, and back to Tehran. There is so much to see! I am splitting the adventure into two parts for this Silk Road series. This is the first part (A), to be followed by the wrap-up (Part B) of Iran in the next post.

Tehran

With all my worldly possessions-and a precious visa to visit in tow, husband Gee Kin and I have just arrived in Tehran, the capital of Iran. We left behind the globalized world of Starbucks, KFC and Macdonalds, to one with brewed tea, fast food chicken legs roasting on an open fire, and lamb kebabs with bread made with pebbles for dimples. We passed tantalizing corner stores filled with pistachios and dry fruits that you buy to take to a friend’s house. Hospitality means alot here, and we can already feel it in the air.

Our hypothetical Silk Road route started westwards from the outer reaches of Mongolia and Beijing, China, past the outpost of Turpan in Northwest China through Samarqand, Bokhara and Khiva ( today’s Uzbekistan). But in actuality, I took this segments was undertaken in 2018 separate from this route. Here is the post.

Having just completed a marathon flight in 19 hours (San Francisco-Washington DC-Vienna-Tehran, I was glad to hit the end of the day with a hearty meal of lamb stew macerated at the table and mixed into a tomato based soup, with chicken and lab kebobs, saffron rice, yoghurt dressing, a vinegar-based eggplant sauce on the side, and bread.

After a few days of jet lag, weather changes, and internet hell, we resparked our curiosity and thirst for the unknown. We visited museums, mosques, and even a madrassah, but no mausoleums yet. The last three m’s defined Islamic architecture during my visit to Uzbekistan, but each building type was not fulfilled until we saw Hafez’ tomb or “mausoleum” in Shiraz.

At the Golestan Palace in Tehran, a World Heritage Site, the pre-Pahlavi royalty (within the last 150 years) displayed their wealth and were over-the-top ornate. Most of the public rooms including the ceilings were covered with intricate mirror mosaics and made you feel like you were inside the Hope Diamond.

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Interior with Mirrored Ceilings
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The exteriors demonstrated the integration of gardens and fountains that are
famous in Iranian architecture and design, as well as the intricate mosaic work and marble carving on doors and walls.

The National Museum of Iran contained some of the most precious relics of the ancient world. The statue of Darius I (Xerxes I, from which an opera is based!)  and a panel from the Achaemenid Period in Persepolis are shown below. For those interested, you can scale up the text included in the adjacent photos.

The bazaars in both Tehran and Shiraz contained endless boutiques in a Walmart-sized atmosphere with limited and inexpensive goods from copperware to aromatic spices.

Shiraz

We bonded with our local guide from Shiraz after he passionately described Iran’s native son and poet, Hafez. His elegant poems are beloved by all Iranians and transcend cultures. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Goethe were known to quote his poetry. It was enough for me to determine to read some when I get home.

As we stood in the garden of the tomb of Hafez, Abdullah, our guide, explained that Shiraz is known for its wine, women, and roses. Many of us will recognize the famous wine namesake that comes from this region.

In the evening light, Abdullah pointed out the abundance of young couples strolling in the park, with flowers intoxicating the warm breezes. Knowing a little or a lot about the poetry of Hafez is enough to start amiable conversations and the start of a promising relationship, Abdullah surmises (maybe from experience?)

While Abdullah waxed poetic, we observed that families were out selfying just like any other society, enjoying a delicious evening, and lingering among crowds of friendly visitors.

There seems to be tremendous respect for fellow humans in Iran. So far, we have found the urban environment remarkably quiet. We stayed on busy streets in two cities on and found the traffic unusually quiet. Being highly sensitive to noise, I am finding the calm, lack of noise shattering to my ears.

People glide about the streets, smiling at one another with eyes and lips, and salaam each other without exception. I’m not sure our guide has coopted us, but we sense the immense pride and confidence in the people.

Persepolis

Just outside of Shiraz, on a wide open plain, lies the ceremonial center of Darius. Before him, Cyrus the Great created and led an impressive empire. The wooden ceilings of buildings and both palaces of Darius and his son built around 518 BC were later razed to the ground by Alexander the Great (around 330 BC), but the massive stone structures with priceless carvings remain.

After just having seen the great empires of Rome, Greece, Inca at Macchu Picchu and Aztec in Teotihuacan, it’s hard not to be impressed by the volume and quality of artwork in situ at Persepolis. We could not believe how much of its splendor is still present for the whole world to appreciate.

Were it not from my earliest art history lessons on ancient civilizations and curiosity on its context and meaning, I would not have made this trip.

Everything begins to fall into place, as the pieces of the puzzle assemble. My scant preparation for this trip, thanks to Francopan’s Silk Roads, a New History of the World, captures the whirlwind tour through the rise and fall of Eurasian civilizations. Iran, and more fondly, Persia by the same name, stands prominently at the helm of the Silk Road.

The artwork at Persepolis chronicles the peaceful arrival and acceptance of the local inhabitants to the new ruler. Darius followed shortly after Cyrus (within 40 years), and while not a direct descendant, they were related. Although the local Medians were conquered by Cyrus and the Archimineads, he managed a peaceful settlement and was respected for his accomplishments as a capable ruler. Darius culminated the dynastic rule with his grandiose and impressive complex at Persepolis.

Within the ceremonial entrance and grand reception areas are magnificent stone reliefs of warriors supporting the king on his throne. Rows of roundheaded conquerees alternating with the conquerors proceed to meet the king, hand in hand. Offerings from 23 nations include food, treasures and animals from surrounding areas and those as far as India.

Other friezes demonstrate the high quality of craftsmanship that preceded the Greek and Roman periods revered in history. In a splendid exemplary frieze, a bull and cow signify the end and beginning of the new year.

The symbolic meanings of birds, rings and flowers stem from the ancient monotheistic Zoroastrian and Mithras religions. They did not have a concept of God as a human, but that he lies within each of us.

Individually the symbolism of the characters presented are less significant than the collective splendor of the human mind that is left behind for all of us living creatures today to ponder.

(This post was created on April 17, 2018 and edited April 22, 2018).

WRING OUT THE OLD

Before the year closes out, I wanted to combine a number of videos and photos that I collected during this year’s travels. The selection includes a life-changing trip to Iran, first-timers to Korea and Hungary, and regular mainstays in Germany, Austria and China.

These travels entailed detailed planning and visits to friends and family. While most of the visits were with those who follow or are aware of my intrepid travels, fresh new friends taught me bout the hardships and endurance needed to survive the complicated political and economic world we live in. Shared laughter helped to offset an arduous year and to renew hope for the future.

I hope you will enjoy this quirky video. I’ve culled material from travels this past year, based on Barbara Streisand’s moving song, “Imagine/What a Wonderful World”, from her album “Walls”. Let’s hope that we can resist building walls and find ways to build trust and friendship instead.

Here’s the video:

The video includes clips from Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan, Yasd, and Tehran in Iran, as well as a few from Seoul, Korea. There are clips from my month-long sojourn at the Goethe Institute in Munich, Germany. Featured friends include Lisa from New York City, Alberto and Miki from Crema/Elba/San Diego (our fellow travelers to Hungary and Austria), Helena from Lucerne/Wallins in Switzerland, and former student Xiao Lin and his wife Susan, who live in Guangzhou.

If you are interested in reading more about Iran, you can find the blog posts from April 2018.

I’m still debating about whether I will extend the blog into 2019. Traveling to Italy with daughter Melissa starting on New Year’s Day may help to inspire me to continue, so stay tuned if you are interested. We are also planning to go to the Caucasus in April (can you guess which three countries?)

Have an overwhelmingly, delightfully unexpected, fruitful, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

“A Kiss for the Whole World”

A delightful concert with the San Francisco Symphony playing Beethoven’s Ninth was a moving and timely experience. The full chorus sang the final Fourth Movement blasting the message from Schiller’s Ode to Joy in English: “Give a Kiss to the Whole World!” It was a much needed reminder of our dependency on each other.

During Intermission, the highlighted dome of the City Hall was gracefully poised behind and traffic crawling outside the Symphony Hall. Symphony goers were reflected in the windows as the two scenes melded into one.

KCET, a broadcast television station from Los Angeles, featured Mr. Jiu’s Restaurant on the Migrant Kitchen. Daughter Melissa works there as pastry chef in San Francisco’s Chinatown and was featured in it along with Brandon Jiu, the owner of the restaurant.  This was a pretty decent coverage explaining what drives young chefs into what they do, why they do it, where they go, and where they come from. I hope you will have time to watch the entire show posted here:

https://www.kcet.org/shows/the-migrant-kitchen/episodes/mister-jius-chinatown?utm_source=twitter

You can also watch it on KCET at the following times this weekend and after:

SundayDec2 9:00 AM PT
KCETLINK
SundayDec2 4:00 PM PT
KCET-HD
TuesdayDec4 10:00 PM PT
KCET-HD

I have been sketching and drawing around the city, at various cafes and venues. Sometimes I join SF Sketchers, other times alone, wherever I happen to be catching some java. It’s great art therapy and a way to engage with humanity.

Although I was considering throwing in the towel at the end of this year, I may continue for a bit into 2019. I am planning a trip to Rome for a quickie in early January, so look for a post coming from there soon!

Smell the Roses and Imagine

This month’s Fall colors on the North Side of Page Street in San Francisco are not the usual East Coast array of autumn leaves, but of late blooming vine flowers. You can still detect a floral scent as you meander down the street. I was traversing the city during my usual 5-mile jaunt from home to the CBD (central business district), but was surprised by the concentration of flowering vines framing beautiful Victorians along the way. They were lovingly nurtured by early morning light.

I also caught the aftermath of Halloween decorations that were clever and irresistible. How does anyone have the time and ingenuity to devote to such eccentricity? They were definitely enjoyable from an audience perspective.

These settings seemed to carry over to the Dia de las Meurtes, or Day of the Dead celebrated in the Latin-X World. It reminded me of the animated movie, “Coco” that introduced the positive significance of this holiday. The San Francisco symphony paid tribute to its members with puppet-sized effigies above the staircase (see featured photo above), when we heard Ray Chen, the violinist,  perform “Lalo” in a tribute to Hispanic culture.

The Crissy Field area on the north shore of San Francisco provides leisurely strolls along the Marina. It has been upgraded to include better landscaping, defined paths and killer views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city skyline. This walk easily gives the Hi-line in New York City a run for its money!

A few student sketches from my figure-drawing class show examples of foreshortening, gestures, and use of pencil, ink and charcoal:

If you are stressed about recent events or the upcoming election, here’s a great inspirational song from Barbara Streisand:

Apologies for my month-long absence. While due in part to technical difficulties (upgrading software, offloading movie files, and conversions for posting photos), I am debating about terminating my blog at the end of this year.

In 2019,  I will continue traveling and plan to return to Germany to study German. We may visit Armenia, Azerbaijian, and Georgia, in the same style as our travel to Iran earlier this year (See April 2018), and I may do another week of sketching in Portugal with Diane Olivier in June. Stay tuned, and as always, let me know your thoughts!

Global Climate Action Summit and Opera in the Park

The Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) 2018 was launched this weekend in San Francisco. The urban sketching group I belong to, San Francisco Urban Sketchers, is actively participating by sketching attendees and interviewing them for personal statements about their thoughts on climate change.

As co-chair of the GCAS, Governor Jerry Brown helped to launch California’s commitment and up to 90 cities throughout the world are joining hands to bring greater awareness to global climate change. Michael Bloomberg from New York City is also bringing attention to the cause and John Kerry has been invited to speak this week. Numerous events are planned throughout the week in San Francisco and other cities throughout the world.

For those interested in reading about this further, here’s the link to GSAC: https://globalclimateactionsummit.org

I had not realized the intensity of the effort by organizers and participants. First it started with a march from the Ferry Building to Civic Center. The afternoon was filled with information booths, spontaneous conversations, and networking. I saw Sierra Club, Grandmothers for Future Generations, and Native American groups joining in a peaceful demonstration. The day was friendly, inspiring, and perfect for getting out and getting active.

Fellow sketcher Karen made an eye-catching sign about the Emperor’s New Clothes, while other marchers dressed up and dressed down. Thanks to my figure drawing class, nothing was startling to me.

Our job as sketchers was to tell each individual’s story. We asked them why they came, what types of global warming they experienced, and what they were doing personally to help reduce global warming. We worked in pairs, taking turns interviewing and sketching. Our preparations and training the week before paid off, thanks to SF Sketchers organizer Laurie Wigham.

It was especially nerve-wracking for me as a new sketcher to sketch and color quickly (5-10 minutes all-in), nail the contours and features of the individual accurately, and stay calm while friends of the model watched intently! It was not unlike being a portrait artist in a tourist area. If you ever wondered what it was like, try it some time. I now know how difficult it is, but it was still fun pretending to be a professional for an afternoon!

Opera in the Park, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Our Sunday was graced with the San Francisco’s Opera In the Park. It is a free annual event to kick off the new opera season. Sketch buddy Karen was already staking out a couple of picnic blankets early in the day for the free event, so I was lucky enough to join her and company for the afternoon.

It was an unusually windless, warm but not hot, rare perfect day in San Francisco. We lolled to my favorite music from Cavallera Rusticana, the Drinking Song from La Traviata, and O Sole Mio by three soon-to-be famous operatic tenors. I even managed to sketch in between (See header above).

If you’ve been following me during my sojourn in Munich this summer, do you detect any difference in style and culture between the SF Opera audience and the one in Munich?!?

Day 47-48: Last Gasp for Gangnam Style

After introducing ourselves to what is “Gangnam style”, we celebrated our last evening in the hot spot of Seoul. As Korea’s answer to New York’s Times Square or Ginza in Tokyo, Gangnam literally stands for a mundane name: South of the River. It wasn’t surprising as Koreans follow the Chinese directional terms faithfully. More stylishly, I suppose you could call it South City, as in Chicago, or the counterpart to the “East Bay” in SF Bay Area’s Oakland.

The restaurants and dining options are endless. The bright neon lights mesmerize one’s ability to think and make decisions clearly. We ended up at, of all places, in 98 degree weather in a Korean barbecue. The vents worked great and the food was memorable, but we couldn’t keep the sweat from dripping down our backs in an air-conditioned environment. The coals from the grill at the tables were efficiently removed by an assistant and quickly delivered back to the ambient temperature outdoors.

We felt like were were cooking ourselves. That is, not making food, but cooking our bodies. Eating and drenching is not exactly a compatible nor relaxing experience. Most of the food service personnel around Seoul are from Dongbei or Northern China. They come as itinerant workers or have been long time residents of Korea. We could communicate with them and surprisingly, use more Chinese on this trip than we expected.

Earlier, our daytime expedition outside the city and into Jeonju Hanok Village and into the countryside required a 2.5 hour bus ride south. The hilly landscape, absent of animals that we could see, is highly utilized with rice paddies or laden with ramshackle structures. Korea is not a beautiful country, but it is practical and efficient. Aesthetics are extraneous and overhead lines and blight come from necessity.

As part of the UNESCO Creative World Cities Network, the ancient town is also designated as an international “slow city”. The town contained a cluster of historic residences, a royal portrait gallery, and an odd church that is a mixture of Byzantine and Catholic religions.

Sadly, my world trip for 2018 has reached its final destination and conclusion. I hope you have enjoyed my travels as much as I have enjoyed sharing them with you. They included two new desinations, Hungary and Korea. Both countries are similar in some ways. They are less traveled but worth seeing and learning about. Their people have endured many hardships and misunderstandings, both in perception and reality. I hope you will be inspired to seek beyond your comfort levels and allow your curiosity to direct your next travels.

Go Gangnam!!

Day 45-46: Seoul Food and Not so So-So Seoul

Korean Cooking School

Our cooking class surpassed all other activities in Seoul.  I heartily recommend the experience of learning how to cook Seoul food. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in the culture. We met our guides at the metro station, then headed to the local market. It was a lively, tidy, well-managed environment, with plenty of new discoveries.

The abundance of root vegetables told us that Koreans were kept alive in a harsh, cold environment by these necessities. The chile for spice, garlic for health, freshly made 100% sesame oil for lubrication, and full sides of pork for protein were readily available. And of course, fish from the sea, a few dried lizards, and agave were among the specialties for variety and comic relief.

Our cooking class, taught by a capable local Korean chefin (as they would say in Germany), introduced glass noodles, bulgogi meat, Korean pancake, kimchee vegetable soup, and stir fried vegetable flavored with kimchee to our Asian group hailing from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hawaii, San Jose, and San Francisco. We bonded by working in two teams to dice, slice, and prepare the food per our capable guide’s instructions.

And the final result:

The Royal Shrine, National Museum and  Bukchon Hanok Ancient Village

In the blazing saddles heat the day before, we visited the Royal Shrine and the National Museum in the historic center of Seoul. The crowds were decked out in their rented Korean costumes, to take selfies of themselves and each other. I tried my best to avoid the indulgent ones, so here are a few that were caught off-guard before taking photos of themselves or causing selfie-blight.

The UNESCO world sites surprised us, as many of the Chinese characters were recognizable. Korean culture borrowed from the Chinese language, Confucian education and ancient Chinese customs, like Buddhist rites and feng shui.

Many of the cultural elements of combining nature, architecture, and design are similar to those in Chinese culture. Calligraphy, scroll painting, and ancestral worship are also borrowed from the Chinese.

The ancient Bukchon Hanok village reflected the Japanese hill towns, with well-made wood frame gentry housing, wood details, heavy ceramic tile roofs, and integrated landscaping.

Our highlight was the Korean version of the Changing of the Guard. The bottom line of the spirit of Seoul: borrowing from ancient Chinese culture wasn’t such a bad idea, blaring horns included. Koreans added alot of color and style that the Chinese missed.

Day 43-44: Soul-Searching in Seoul

The first idea we had after checking into the hotel in Seoul, Korea, was to look for Gangnam style entertainment or Kpop. I’m not a true fan, so I wouldn’t know the difference between the two.  Other than flicking back and forth between Kpop stations and PBS every now and then, I don’t really follow Korean trends. Upon realizing that we were headed to an unfamiliar territory for the first time, we discussed what we could do in Korea for five days that would be different from other parts of the world.

We brainstormed over what is quintessentially Korean. We decided to dispense with the  usual museums, historic sites, and cultural events for the time being. We concurred that Korean entertainment should be our primary endeavor, especially since today was our only Saturday night in Seoul.  So KPOP here we come!!

Under advice from the hotel manager, we headed over to Hongik University. It’s the hub of the twenty-something crowd. Streets were strewn with throngs of kids intently watching lip syncing street dancers. It was a very orderly and satisfied crowd.

Here’s a pretty good real-time clip of some KPop performers:

And a future Kpop performer:

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Since this is our first exposure to Korea and Koreans, we are looking for the differences between the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures. So far we are very impressed by the civility, safety, and straightforwardness of the Korean people. There were no electric bikes or scooters along the pathways to stress your pedestrian skills, so it was calmer. We were able to get around by subway to most of our destinations, far and wide.

In the morning we headed to the fish market. We indulged in picking our own fresh, live crab, clams, abalone, and scallops for lunch. The market is extensive, with several floors for wholesale and retail sales as well as a line of independent restaurants that cook the food you choose. I couldn’t help but think about Anthony Bourdain’s love of fish markets and street food from places like this all over the world, and how he made them respectable.

A few specialties shown above included stingrays and sea urchins.

At the end of the day we headed over to the Dongdaemon area for dinner. I’m not sure just yet what is the soul of Seoul, but a soothing cafe with live music is everywhere and definitely part of the soul of Seoul that doesn’t exist in San Francisco.

Day 41-42: The GF Line

Chinese Opera Museum, Foshan

Among the hidden treasures in Foshan where we are staying in China, is the Chinese Opera Museum. I was coming to Guangzhou to do some research on Chinese opera, so I was delighted to find an entire complex devoted to my research! Below are only a few of the highlights that I poured over.

On an evening walk to dinner, we found another treasure. A huge temple complex was on the other side of our development.

Zumiao Temple, Foshan (1796)

Outside, the temple was teeming with retirees playing cards, mahjong and go under the lush green trees that provide shade and shelter for the day’s activities. A large stone turtle with a snake on its back was accompanied by a host of live turtles stacked back to back on the wooden dock of the pond.

The GF Line stands for Guangzhou-Foshan, one of the new mass transit extensions within the massive Guangzhou Pearl River Delta. Guangzhou is now a city of 13 million. Including Foshan to the west and Zhongshan to the South, Guangzhou is one of the largest conurbations on the planet.

Ling Nan Tian Di District

We are staying in Ling Nan Tian Di, a brand new development in Foshan. Our good friend, professional musician and Chinese opera performer Sherlyn Chew invited us to stay at her apartment in this burgeoning new area. Foshan is known for its Shiwan pottery, but the new development is as sophisticated as Xin Tian Di in Shanghai. High rise residential development, office towers, and a major shopping district are combined into a lively mixed use development.

Here’s a gallery of the renovated traditional village development for tourists:

The Tian Di district in Foshan is developed by Shui On, a single, large Hong Kong developer. In comparison, the San Kai village development in Zhongshan (shown in previous post) is a much more small scale, ad-hoc enterprise. Renovations are left up to each business owner-developer. The area feels more like an artsy live-work district with cafes and bars like what you would find in Oakland or Berlin’s industrial districts.

Food

Below, a somewhat repeat-performance of the dishes from Zhongshan (by choice): Steamed crystal prawns, shaved bitter melon with pork slices and gingko nuts, and roasted goose. The bowed tofu strips topped the braised pork belly underneath. I love the delicate Cantonese style of flavors, that are clean and unadulterated. If it is too salty,  it isn’t true Cantonese cooking.