Tag Archives: Architecture

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).

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #4: SAMARQAND, BOKHARA, AND KIVA

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Map of Uzbekistan. My route is Tashkent-Samarqand-Bokhara-Khiva-Tashkent
Samarkand

From Northwest China you can take the high-speed train from Dunhuang through Hami and on to Urumqi. From there, you can fly direct to Tashkent. My real Time travel comments are included below, along with newly added site descriptions.

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The first day of this segment has overwhelmed me with history, jogging my brain and challenging all of those connections between Alexander the Great, the Mongols, and Tamir. Some of you may know this better, but for me, it’s learning on the job.

Lets start with Tamir and work back. Tamir was from Samarqand and made a campaign to conquer India. His grandson was the scientist and developed an observatory and promoted a lot of concepts developed by the Arabs and and the Chinese. I now can connect the mythical opera “Turandot” to its history, where the Chinese iron princess met and fell in love with Timur’s son, Calef who sang “Nessun Dorma” to her.

When the Mongols struck in the 13th Century, they basically burned every town and village they encountered to the ground. Many of the relics predates this period, but the buildings are no longer standing. Alexander the Great conquered this area, but there is still some debate where and how long he ruled. He was physically here in the area with his army.

There are magnificent, UNESCO World Heritage sites completely restored but unnoticed. Only the curious and far-flung will seek out these treasures that defy architectural history. It’s shocking how little we in the Western world know about the treasures of the Non-Christian world. Islamic architecture had its interpretations of religion and certainly rivals the European and Asian counterparts in grandeur, functionality, and organization.

I trained myself to differentiate the three M’s: madrassah (an educational institution), mosque (for religious purposes), and the mausoleum (monuments to the prominent).Registan Square-Monument to Medieval Architecture

The most impressive buildings in Samarkand are the complex of educational institutions in Registan Square. The three separate buildings surround a courtyard and each included a library, classrooms and a place of worship (the “Mosque” is included in the madrassah complexes.)

The madrassahs were built in two different periods: the Ulugbek Madrassah, with the two towers, was completed in 1420 and the Sher-Dor and Tilla-Kori Madrassahs from around 1660. The two later buildings were intended to form a symmetrical triad of buildings, but the domes are not symmetrically placed. Architects during this period played alot with balancing symmetrical and asymmetrical elements. The visual site elements are much more interesting and challenging to deciper that way.

During that time, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Judaic religions parallel-played. Sayings in Arabic on the entries to the building welcome all religions but only believers. These were sacred places of education held in high regard, and the eight major faculties each had their own rooms. And believe it or not, in those days women were encouraged to learn in these institutions.

Extensive reconstruction of the tile work and buildings were made in the last few years to enhance its UNESCO classification. A bazaar that used to be in the courtyard has been relocated to preserve the structures.

The Shakhi Zinda Necropolis

The steps leading to a series of mausoleum complex helped to increase the drama and anticipation of peeking into each prominent family’s tribute to one of their dearly departed. Separate buildings align either side of the stepped pathway. While much more harmonious and magnificent, these buildings reminded me of mini-monuments I remember seeing in a Catholic Philippine graveyard, where families could spend the day while displaying the family’s wealth and prominence.

Needless to say, the architecture and mosaic work were intricately designed and worth marveling over the skill and craftsmanship.

Afro-Sayib Museum

You can read about the Sogdians, the original inhabitants that helped to form the Silk Road as traders, and the history of Samarkand here:

The museum was contained an original mural of the Silk Road traders who came from China through Sogdiana. This treasure is in the process of being further restored. It outlined the figures as a guide and was a moving display of travelers and traders plying the Silk Road.

Paper-Making
Bokhara

So what am I thinking? It’s hard to squeeze it out when (traveling solo) you can keep your thoughts to yourself, private and without judgment. Since we are social animals, we have the need to share and communicate, so here are a few of my thoughts:

Looking back, I regret not taking the History of Architecture class on Islamic Architecture. There are so many things to learn–not just the types of buildings (madrasah, mosque, and mausoleums) and their functions, but many of the basic universal design principles come from this part of the world: presence and soothing effect of water, gardens for life, and patterns for texture and interest.
On top of that, you get the confluence of all religions here–an encyclopedic understanding of Islamic, Judaic, Christian, and Buddhist principles, not to mention the sub-religions such as Sufi (remember the Whirling Dervishes), Zorastrian, Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sunni, Shi’ite, etc. need to be readily available for this type of travel.

The Sufis had a major center here and while they professed to not ever promote religion for material gain, they were highly intellectual and sought to purge themselves of all materialism. They strived to reach the point of connection with God analogous to becoming a drop of water sprayed into the ocean, as my guide informed me. At that point of annihilation, they become one with God.
All the battles, campaigns and failed attempts are enough to remind you how interconnected the world has been. The winners and losers needed to visit the Dresden Military History Museum to be reminded that everyone loses in war. Keeping track of the huge expanse of time is disorienting, so I am concentrating on three periods to keep myself straight: Alexander the Great, around 300 AD; the Mongol Invasions that swept through and destroyed everything in its path around the 12-13th Centuries, and the Timur Reign around 1400. That is helping me to put events and building design in perspective.
I am satisfying my curiosity, and if anything it has raised a huge list of further reading and to-do lists. If anyone is interested or knows something about any of the above, let’s talk!
On money changing: no need to count your Soums( the local currency, called that for a reason); the locals will automatically calculate it for you in USD. If you don’t trust them do the math: (1 Soum=0.00043USD). I had to bring a briefcase in the local currency to pay for lunch today.

Dinner Bill


Weather is manageable, but need all of the following before stepping out of the hotel:
A. Sunscreen 50 count, thanks to good German biotechnology. I hate the stuff as Gee Kin will attest on my behalf, but it’s needed for the scorching heat that hit over 100 deg. F. Midday).
B. Shawl for mosque but also needed for Early and late evening Mistral-like breezes)
C. Sunhat for low angle sun in early morning
D. Sunglasses
E. Umbrella for unshaded walks–despite my black umbrella not to be found elsewhere on the street, it was a lifesaver. Needed to contend with gusty winds.
F. Lots of band aids for blisters, again compliments to the German supply system.
G. Map
Once I was prepared, fumbling around with all of this paraphernalia was the next challenge. Had to think hard to avoid a Bridget Jones moment.
oh, and of course I had to take pictures on top of it all!
The people of Bokhara are known to be warm and friendly. Best of all, everyone has black hair! No bleached hair in sight. Girls like wearing their hair long, straight, and shiny or tied up in buns. The young women look very svelt and have beautiful dark eyes. Seeing swarms of students in uniform at their first day of school on Tuesday after the National Holiday reminded me what Russians brought to this country: education for all.

As for languages, if you speak a second language, it’s probably Russki. English was for the Colonials, remember?
Food service: when ordering a pizza, step back. They will roll it out, let the yeast rise, and fire up the oven. It’s fresh, you just gotta wait.

Samanids Mausoleum

This tiny gem of a building was built at the end of the Ninth Century as a crypt to the Samani family. Islam did not allow later monuments to be built over Muslim tombs, but the caliph at the time made a special exception to the rule so others followed suit. Fired brickwork was just introduced to the building industry so the designer went wild experimenting with different methods of shape and form.

Kiva

Kiva is an ancient fortress city surrounded by walls that is now part of the open air State Historical Archaeological museum. About 300 families live there to promote local crafts. One of the more intriguing experiences was a group of tourists from the Ferghana Valley near the narrow passage between Uzbekistan an Tajikistan. They still wore their traditional dress and are a Persian tribe distinct from local residents in Uzbekistan.

Uzbeki Food

Very refreshingly simple but tasty would be my description of Uzbeki food. As the bread basket of Europe, Uzbekistan grows fruits and vegetables in a Mediterranean climate similar to California’s Central Valley. The Tashkent Market was one of the largest in the world.

After my travels to Uzbekistan, I discovered an Uzbeki restaurant perched on the outskirts of New York City. I couldn’t resist going and even enticed world traveler and NYC resident David Craig to follow our find in Brooklyn. It is probably the only Uzbeki restaurant in the U.S. He and his family agreed it was unique and delicious! You can find his guest review of the restaurant here:

ihttps://travelswithmyselfandothers.com/2017/02/27/cafe-lily-uzbeki-korean-crossover/

Rail Travel between Cities

Rail travel is really ramping up, with deluxe and tourist level accommodations along the route of the Silk Road

There were far more sights visited, but too numerous to include in this post. If you are interested in exploring this wonderful country, please by all means get in touch with me for details.

This post is revised and culled from Uzbekistan travels in 2014.

We’ll be moving onto the highight of the Silk Road, Iran next.

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!

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.

Year of the Rat

The Lunar New Year brings renewed energy to the onset of a sluggish winter. Here are a few reminders from a friend about the origin of various Chinese myths and legends: https://chinesenewyear.net/myths/. To inspire you, look for the red pockets and panties.

Over the weekend, I hosted a San Francisco Sketchers event. A tidy corps of sketchers drew for two hours straight in the atrium at the Sandler Neursciences Center at UCSF. The architectural curves and angles provided plenty of challenges. You could barely hear a pin drop during the entire time!

At the end, we were rewarded by sharing each other’s sketches.

And here were my contributions:

Reflections on Iran (An Excerpt from Dec. 2018)

In light of this week’s tragic events over Iran, I felt compelled to share a video I produced at the end of 2018. It captures my current thoughts and feelings about Iran (in conjunction with other countries visited that year). My heart goes out to the Iranian people and their uncertain future.

Here’s the video:

(The notes below are an edited version from the original post, “Wring out the Old”, from December, 2018.)

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.

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.

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.

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

Templemania in Guangdong

For many foreigners who do not share buildings dedicated to one’s lineage, going to a Chinese family temple would be a dull experience. On this trip, we discovered a repository of family history that not only answered many questions, but we developed a quest for more knowledge of one’s origins.

In China, ancestral family temples provided the heart and soul of each community. They gave special significance to family members with a common last name. Family histories and genealogy were stored in these cultural institutions and offered missing information.

We visited the Chou, Lum and Fong Family Ancestral Temples in Guangdong and Zhongshan, where our parents’ native villages were located.

Chou Family Temple

Chou Family Ancestral Temple

The Chou Family Temple, originally in Punyu outside of Guangzhou, was a spiffy display of the achievements of its clan members. It was well-endowed, orderly and refined. Judging by its size, educational content, and tidiness, there was plenty of support from both local and overseas sources.

Here are more slides of the temple gardens and architecture (click to the right to advance): A poster room showed the first Overseas Chinese who migrated to New Zealand among other illustrious clan members.

Lum Family Temple

The Lum Family Temple in Antang was simple, modest, and a bit neglected. There seemed to be little interest in reviving its religious function. Perhaps due to generations of scholars and civil examination administrators, there was less outward display of wealth.

Lum Family Ancestral Temple

See previous post for additional photos of the Lum Family temple.

We also collected big manuals of family history. The “juk po” contains the genealogy beyond 24 generations. Most of these histories recorded began with the earliest patriarch who settled in a locality.

Many Northern Chinese migrated south prior to, during, and after the Mongol Invasions of Genghis Khan. We discovered some awesome dates as early as 1017!!

Newly Renovated Fong Family Ancestral Temple

Unlike the solemn and serious nature of the Chou and Lum Ancestral visits, we had a completely unique experience visiting the The Fong Family Ancestral Temple. The Fong clan pulled out all the stops for a lively inauguration of its newly renovated complex..

We were invited to join a sit-down dinner banquet serving over 1200 guests. Acrobats, dancers and a pop singer provided home-grown entertainment in the large playground outside the temple. Activities throughout the day included a lion dance commemorating the inauguration and honoring the ancestors.

The traditional nine-course menu included duck, chicken, fish, prawns, and abalone in the shell. The string of roast pigs first served to the gods were later carved and served to we lowly mortals in attendance.

It was a raw and bawdy but authentic affair. We were able to witness history with the entire community, and gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of our family roots.

Visiting three ancestral temples simultaneously may seem like cultural overload. But by visiting these ancestral shrines in a row, I could fully appreciate the importance of these facilities that served past generations of Chinese and will serve future ones as well.

Inauguration of Fong Family Ancestral Temple Complex Renovation

Note: I apologize if videos are not viewable on your device. Posting graphic material in WordPress from China has been a challenge! I will try updating them after I return to the U.S. next week. Check back then if you are interested.

Searching for (Lotus) Roots: Village Visits

House in Bamboo Garden

The Chou Family village home in the once-rural area of Punyu is now consumed by the urban demands of Guangzhou. Located in the Bamboo Garden Village in Bai Yun near the Guangzhou airport, the stately home was originally built in the middle of rice paddies. Through the maze of six to seven-story buildings haphazardly built in the 80’s and 90’s, the narrow alleyways lead to this peaceful oasis.

The house is the oldest remaining home in the village. A few remaining pieces of furniture shown above survived the past. The family residence remains unoccupied, but hopefully its redeeming features will support new life and purpose.

An Tang Village

A search for the Lum Family house in An Tang Village proved to be more challenging. The house no longer exists, but finding the precise location was also elusive. The search demands people, place, and time. Rickety 80’s and 90’s adhoc housing sprinkled throughout the village similar to that found in Bamboo Garden obscure landmarks. Being in a more rural setting, the An Tang Village contained more traditional village houses. This could be related to funding, demand and proximity to an urban area.

We located the home of my mother’s uncle. Adjacent to it was a 20’s era clinic. It reminded me of the contemporary style of Sun Yat Sen’s Residence in Hong Kong. Athough unoccupied, it appears to be a historic building ripe for attention and TLC.

The series of Ancestral Temples made the village visit worthwhile. In addition to the artwork that preserves the legacy of the Lum Family, local street murals scattered throughout the village provided inspiration for its residents.

Foodie Heaven

One could never escape a stay in Guangzhou without being first confronted, then blown away by the exquisite simplicity of flavors and unadulterated freshness of ingredients. The consistency of quality is truly remarkable. Restaurants compete for business. Reputation is everything. Now add innovation and creativity to rival any five-star presentation.

In one restaurant, a huge automated lazy susan brings the food to you. Similar to the sushi boat concept, you barely have to “lift a finger” to get the food to your plate!

Transit Nightmare

Despite the herculean feat of moving teaming masses of humanity, public transit in Guangzhou is still a frightening, mesmerizing, and astounding experience. High speed trains get you from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and other remote areas in less than an hour, buses interconnect to desired locations, and the internet provides information and easy ticket orders.

Nevertheless, the human experience is overwhelming. The length of the new Guangzhou South Railway Station is .6km and it takes nearly 5 minutes to transverse it! (See https://www.railway-technology.com/projects/newguangzhou/

Having worked on the HK Mass Transit Railway when its first line was under construction, I am at a loss at how to improve this situation. This development addresses mankind’s needs and for the time being, it is about as good as it gets.

Teeming humanity
The new Guangzhou South Railway Station is the length of 6 football fields

Day 53-56: Ravishing, Vanishing Vienna Woulds

Okay, this is going to be a fast landing. I am uploading a cache of pictures from this week’s class tours: the Friedhof, or Cemetery outside Vienna, where many prominent and famous people of Vienna are buried; the Insider’s Walking Tour of Vienna in the oldest area from the Middle Ages; and the collections from the Decorative Art Museum

Vienna Central Cemetery (Wiener Zentralfriedhof)

Established in 1874, this cemetery reminded me of the one in Montparnasse, Paris. The loess soil in the outskirts of town was considered a better site for interment, especially after the cemetery had to be moved a couple of times. The first location inside the walls of the original city was bulging at the seams before long, so districts outside the city walls began to create cemeteries for specific ethnic and religious groups.

With so many people dying from the plague and pestilence in the 13th C, plots became scarce. Dogs were digging up the bones of those who had been laid in shallow graves and reintroducing body parts and diseases into areas occupied by those still alive. Soon these local cemeteries became too crowded.

This time the cemetery was centralized. Cemeteries from individual churches were combined, but it created new challenges. Being nearly an hour outside the city, it was difficult for relatives to attend to their dearly departed. Administrators found clever ways to encourage people to buy and maintain plots in the new location.

They provided a grand church for services, leased and subleased unused plots, and offered a park-like setting with a cafe to enhance visits. There were strict rules to maintain supply and demand. A “Famous Composers” section with the remains of famous composers like Beethoven, Johann Strauss, Brahms and Mozart was created to attract tourists. The wealthy built artistic monuments and used expensive materials to flaunt their prestige and wealth.

It’s a pretty good guess that one of the Hapsburgs had a hand in creating nearly every institution in Vienna, and this cemetery is no exception.

Decorative Arts Museum (Museum für Angewandte Kunst)

The applied arts museum offers an extensive collection of Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau era furniture, household items, and special exhibitions..

Names like Biedermeier, Jugendstil, and Thonet–remind me of the not insignificant role of Austrian design. The Vienna Werkstatt reflected early European modern design. It was was influenced by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement in England.

Back Streets of Vienna

I had dismissed Vienna as being pretty dry and uneventful until this week. The class outings picked up the pace and delivered pretty juicy stories about the history of Vienna. In three prior visits, I was completely unaware of the medieval section of the city. After starting at the edge of the old harbor to the Donau, we wound our way through crooked alleys and a labyrinthine course, passing many exclusive cafes, shops and historic businesses. We emerged by the end of the tour at the doorstep to St. Stephan’s Church in the heart of town.

The Greek Orthodox Church in the area was a reminder of the waves of immigrants who had populated Vienna and contributed to its growth and success.

A C Level Class for a C Level Student

Hey, I’m happy just to participate, as hubby Gee Kin would say. Here are a few parting pictures of our group, that included an Italian priest, three Chinese German language teachers, an Irish German teacher, a Belgian EU administrator, a Norwegian statistics consultant, and me.

This post is likely to be the second to last post for the trip. I am getting ready for the wrap in Salzburg, Austria this weekend. Look for it and let me know what you think of this year’s travels with myself and others!