Tag Archives: Food

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Austria (1A)

For those of you just joining, my travels around the world included many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Uzbekistan, Russia, China, Mongolia; Morocco, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Each year, I traveled to Germany to study German language for about a month. I continued to or traveled from China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam before finally returning home to San Francisco.

Many posts from these countries have been reposted since the advent of the COVID pandemic over the past four months since March under SILK ROAD ADVENTURES. Now, I am including European countries I visited as an extension to the Silk Road travels. These posts are compilations of multiple posts, so please beware: they are long!! You can find original posts by doing a search or looking in the monthly index.

I have condensed the photographs into slide shows, so be sure to click on the forward button to the right of each image to see more.

The Cultural Program at Vienna’s Goethe Institute

The Vienna Goethe Institute has an excellent cultural program, perhaps the best of any educational program I have joined. We started with a general city tour that gave us a good orientation to the center of town. Intriguing alleyways and amazing historic buildings are tucked behind major thoroughfares, so a guide is helpful to finding these hidden gems.

Fourteen students, most of whom are German language teachers, come from Ireland, China (Souzhou and Hangzhou), France, Belgium, England, Russia and Norway. I am the only American in the class and I am very happy that it turned out that way.

We have spent most of our time getting accustomed to the class environment. A full program of free guided tours of the city, museums, historic sights, and concerts are offered before and after classes. I am glad that I chose Vienna to study German! My only problem is that I am exhausted at the end of each day and have not had any time to sketch.

A word about my German C level class for my German language buddies. I don’t know how I did it but I was put in an advanced class. I figured the director got a promotion for enrolling more students in advanced levels. If nothing else, I got to experience what an advanced level class is like!

Accommodations, in true Viennese style, are generous and adequately stocked. You can see the view of the modern studio apartment below, that costs about $33 a day. It’s a great deal including the cultural program provided in the course.

Vienna

There aren’t as many tourists, thankfully, as in Lisbon. We were only spared for a short time in the morning until we hit the center of town at noon. The St. Stephan’s church was the crowning glory and has been completely renovated for googling eyes and ears. Concerts are held on a regular basis here for eager tourists who take in the musical history of famous composers like Mozart, Schubert and Mahler.

Vienna’s history is shrouded in the Hapsburg reign from about the 13th C.-1918. Thirty Years’ War, religious battles between Protestants and Catholics, Napoleon, and the plague set the backdrop for a violent past. Marriages between royal families in Europe sealed the Hapsburg rule for nearly 800 years, one of the longest standing regimes in history.

The main history of Vienna is focused near the Royal residences and the churches in the area. In addition, the Spanish Riding School where the famous Lippizaner Horses are trained, and the National Library with its fabulous collection, are located in the same vicinity.

An excellent introduction to three historic and beautiful churches on the second day was even more fascinating and helped us to understand the extent of power controlled by church and state. Austria was primarily Protestant in the countryside but Vienna was controlled by the Catholics and the royalty. The powerful relationship prevailed at the expense of the majority. It seemed to be another sad lesson to today’s world politics and the division between the haves and the have nots.

According to tradition, many of the Hapsburg family have buried parts of their bodies in three separate locations. Hearts in Budapest, innards and bones in two other locations in Vienna. The family followed this creepy ritual. The guide savored telling the English pun: “May the emperor rest in pieces”. You can read more about the Royal family’s whereabouts here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Crypt.

You would be completely missing out on Vienna if you only saw St. Stephan’s in the center of town, the Opera House, and Mariahilferstrasse, the main shopping street. Just like we scoff at tourists in San Francisco who only go to Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s not what locals do. However, the center of town is useful in getting one’s bearings for the rest of the city’s bright and newly minted cultural activities.

Kunst Historisches Museum

This huge repository for the Italian and Flemish masters is an incredible collection of European art. The slide show includes the following in order of appearance below (but not chronicalogically): Breughel, Vermeer, Durer, Raphael, and Rembrandt

If you were wondering where all the artifacts from early Mediterranean civilizations had gone, you could probably find many of them here, like those in the “mummy” room:

Of course, no visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum would be complete without a visit to the cafe for Viennese coffee and Apfelstrudel.

The Museum Quartier

The Museum Quartier, tucked behind the Volks Theater, was an eye opener and inspiration for a visitor to this historic city. It’s alive with young people enjoying the balmy summer evening, amidst theater, dance, art, spontaneous outdoor performers, and of course, food establishments galore.

Originally a series of small villages, the district has been tranformed into a string of happening event spaces. Outdoor dining seems to be the order of the day. What’s amazing is that these are primarily locals enjoying their new-found urban spaces, with perhaps a dose of savvy tourists to keep the economy thriving.

Leopold Museum

My last-minute museum fix was to the Leopold Museum. Leopold was a private philanthropist who decided to collect art after he saw the collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and became a patron of the arts.

I was swept away by the entire collection. The “Modern” section told the story of the Vienna Werkstatt. Architects, artists, literary figures, and designers all gathered together to form the “Vienna Werkstatt”, that preceded the Bauhaus. Here are some of the exquisite design pieces from the period around 1900, in the Jugendstil:

Primarily led by Klimt, the group seceeded from the conservative Vienna Kunsthaus. The group then later became fragmented and Klimt and others left the Secessionists. He was also embroiled with the University of Vienna’s administration over the paintings, “Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence“.

We read and discussed this argument in our German class. Klimt was criticizing his benefactors. The faculty considered the nude figures pornographic and removed them from the ceiling where they were located.

This would not be so earth-shaking today, as many artists push their boundaries. Names like Ai-Wei-Wei came up. It was interesting to note, that while most of the European students were familiar with his name, none of the Chinese students knew of him.

You can read more about the Leopold Museum collection here: https://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/museum/museum-history.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele was an artist unbeknownst to me. He donated his collection to the Museum, so it may explain his prominence here.

I was drawn to the graphic nature of his work, powerful compositions, and emotional content. Being an aspiring artist, I studied his choice of color, figure drawing skill, and architectural themes intently. If you are interested you can read more about him here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egon_Schiele

Miscellaneous Pieces

Salzburg Music Festival

You may remember the Salzburg Music Festival from the film, “the Sound of Music”, where the Von Trapp Family made their debut. This weekend escape served as a finale of sorts for my travels. The ultimate purpose was to see “Adriana Lecouvreur” starring Anna Netrebko, Yuri Eyvazov (her husband), and Anita Rachvelishvili.

These are superstars in their prime in the opera world. I don’t know if there ever will be such a dynamic combination of singers performing such a highly dramatic opera.

The story takes place in 1730 and is about a theater actress, who became involved in a three-way triangle. There are many twists and turns about actresses playing their roles so well that they forget about their own lives and vulnerabilities.

This was Anna Netrebko’s greatest artistic challenge, not only as a singer but as an actress. You could only imagine what she is feeling after her own marital tribulations, on top of singing to her current spouse!!

Anna Netrebko, who did not respond to immediate audience approval at the end, was just recovering from her own performance. She was so immersed in the role, that she had forgotten that she was only performing! I could see how audience applause nearly destroyed the moment she was feeling. To jolt her out of one intense emotion of dying over spurned love (she won the battle but lost the war), the instant accolades were at first irrelevant. I could only imagine that feeling as it took some time for me to recover myself (from the performance, not spurned love!)

Earlier in the morning. I attended a Mozart concert. It was the usual Mozart fare offered by the Mozarteum Orchestra (who coincidentally played “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Salzburg Festival.

I flashed back to one of my favorite movies, “Amadeus”. This came up in our class and was dismissed as “Hollywood”, implying that it wasn’t an authentic interpretation of Mozart. I defended the industry by indicating that the film launched the career of Milos Forman, a Czech.

Not being satisfied with my own answer. I googled “Amadeus”. You can read more about the film here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amadeus_(film)

It led to further searches about the producer, Saul Zaentz, who turned out to be from the Bay Area and a former agent for Credence Clearwater Revival.

The fascinating life story of the producer was interwoven with a legal case with John Fogerty of the CCR. It even went to the Supreme Court! You can read about it here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Zaentz

Europe vs. America

As for differences between Europeans and Americans, awareness of the environment is one of the biggest contrasts to me. Europeans are more advanced in using public transportation and relying less on cars. They seem to live more modestly within their means, and are less focussed on themselves. I can still recall eavesdropped conversations between bratty entitled Americans that would make you regret being American.

On the other hand, the European food markets demand perfect quality produce. An article in the NY Times last year reported on food waste in Europe. It was evident here, pristine and among the most beautiful, even in run of the mill supermarkets. Perhaps their denial of GMO’s has to do with the cost, supply and demand.

Institutionalized Ethnic Food

The Currywurst in Germany started the downhill spiral, and now every immigrant dreams about his or her own ethnic take-away. Yesterday I bought my Japanese-style chicken teriyaki and rice from a hawker, who spoke in broken English but actually was Chinese. The fast food the vender was selling gave a mixed message—sell processed ethnic food that is predictable and a reasonable facsimile of food imagined from 50 years ago. Don’t worry about authenticity.

It wasn’t cheap—10 Euros. I can rationalize the overhead needed by families to make up for sacrifices in education, income and risk to reestablish in a new country. Perhaps gradually, authentic ethnic food will be appreciated as customers become more sophisticated.

This material was excerpted from two posts in July, 2019.

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Switzerland

(Note: Apologies for this lengthy post, a compilation of three earlier ones.)

As part of the European extension to the Silk Road, we are revisiting a trip to Switzerland taken in 2015, at a time when life was COVID-free. Zurich, Basel, and Sierre were the highlights. It took awhile to decipher the dual French-German place names, but eventually it was fun guessing on top of a heavy Swiss-German dialect.

Zurich’s Riches

A street parade was taking place, and there were floods of tourists, mostly young, clad in costumes and wigs, and ready to tackle hundreds of music venues spread throughout the city. Many of the party-goers appeared to be from within Europe–Italians, Dutch, and Eastern Europeans.

A curious contingent of Asians were in one of the small squares with yellow T-shirts promoting democracy. I thought that was a bit strange but learned afterwards that they were Malaysian students and residents, protesting against their prime minister and demanding for his resignation. He apparently was dictatorial and had mis-managed funds. Another group in yellow T-shirts were just getting out ahead of the parade and entertaining tourists on the street.

Switzerland is frightfully expensive, so I am staying on the outskirts of town. The location feels like the South Peninsula, with many new internet and bio-tech firms concentrated in the area among spanking new housing. I noticed that the housing includes heavy metal louvers over each window as a standard. (even on my hotel window). It definitely helps provide shading from the strong sun as well as good riot protection if ever needed.

There was also a playroom in this new housing development. American architects have studied ideal housing in Europe consistently, yet I still do not see this level of integration for children in public or private housing in the U.S. It would be perfect if housing can incorporate activities for seniors such as a mutual support system for day care within the same development. Time to consider this approach and how we can get it to happen.

My do-it-yourself city tour of Zurich on Saturday morning had me breaking a sweat by 2pm–it was well over 90 degrees. At the end of the day, I had to beat it to the supermarket before it closed on Sunday. Americans look like a bunch of workaholics who can’t get their lives together to avoid food shopping on Sundays. Or else we just eat so much we run out of food every day.

Valais (Wallis)
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The next few days, I traveled by train through the beautiful countryside from Brunnen on the shore of the Vierwaldstättersee near Lucerne to the French speaking area of Valais near Sion.

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A car train took us through a deep tunnel in the mountains and emerged into the spectacular views of the valley. Also known as Wallis in German, Valais is a serious wine growing region with a patchwork of vineyards etching the south-facing sides of the valley and with flatter terraces facing the north side. It was in the middle of the Autumn harvest, and the vineyards provided a lush green carpet for the eyes and infinite pleasure for the palette.

I spent a much appreciated day “at home” at my friend’s house built with 2′ thick haybale walls for natural insulation. No air conditioning or heating is required inside, and it is built like a bunker to withstand any natural or man-made disasters.

The next day, I met Marie, who was working in the French speaking area. Marie’s friend was visiting from Der Wolf in Belgium, so the three of us went to the medieval castle on the hilltop in Sion. Afterwards, we had a delicious late lunch al fresco at Restaurant L’Enclos de Valère. At the end of the afternoon, I took the bus back to Sierre, then halfway up the hill near the resort area of Montana to Helena and Hans’ home.

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Later that evening, Hans, Helena and I drove two hours by car to Gstaad, to attend a performance by world-famous opera diva Cecilia Bartolli. The tiny church was maxxed out for two hundred guests. Cecilia sang some beautiful music by Vivaldi and others. It was performed by I Barocchisti, an orchestra specializing in baroque music and original instruments from that period.

Basel, a Center for Architecture

On a day trip from Lucerne, Helena and I took the architectural tour of the city. Many of the buildings were designed by Swiss architects Herzog and Meuron. Basel has bragging rights to a number of world-famous architects, including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Tadao Ando and another of their own native sons, Mario Botta.

Both Botta and Herzog and De Meuron designed museums in San Francisco. They are known in Switzerland for many other building types. Many of the buildings featured on the architectural guide housed biotech companies such as Roche and Novartis. American architects may have become known in Europe by partnering with biotech firms to create research hubs in this area.

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The vertical extension of the Basel Museum of Culture was designed by Herzog and De Meuron. The textural pattern of hexagons reflected the irregular shape of the plaza facing the museum. They were in both convex and concave shapes. The gently swaying giant hanging plants at the entrance reminded me of the seaweed forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The De Young Museum in San Francisco, also designed by Herzog and De Meuron, is one of my favorite buildings. The mottled effect of the exterior copper panels cast on the inside of the building imitates the light coming through trees in Golden Gate Park. The huge canopy at the entrance also reminds visitors of the deep shadows in the park. I love this firm’s bold conceptual thinking and superior design execution that makes them one of the world’s most eminent and respected architects.

The Basel museum featured an exhibit on opium that sparked a lively conversation with Helena. My grandfather had died in China in 1925 from an addiction to this deadly plant. The museum collection included the history of opium, plant production, and implements used for taking opium. A section featured famous figures influenced by opium. I was surprised to find Lin Biao mentioned–of my relatives!

The saddest part was that opium was grown in India, transported to China, and then sold illegally to force free trade in China. It caused two wars, between 1839-42 and from 1856-60. The exhibition was very thought-provoking and a moving educational experience for me.

Swiss Raclette
Swiss Cheese, Salad, and Potato for Raclette
Swiss Cheese, Salad, and Potato for Raclette

Our final evening was topped by the famous Swiss specialty “Raclette”, a fondue-like dish of Swiss cheese toasted with onion and spices on a grill, then spread with a miniature wooden scraper onto the top of sliced potatoes.

Next Week: We’re on to Austria, the land of Viennese Coffee, Waltzes, and Freud. Don’t forget to let me know how you are finding these visits to European cities–a bit off the beaten Silk Road track but nevertheless the eventual drivers and benefactors of intercontinental trade between Asia and Europe!

EUROPEAN SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Italy (#1B)

Venice, along with many other Italian cities, are rethinking their tourist program and how they often inundate and devastate their environments. It’s a very tough call-between economic vitality and sustainability for its residents. Italy’s attempt to address these major issues was evident in our trip to Matera (last week’s post), where the local authority is trying to convert an overlooked, crumbling historic area to zero impact tourism.

Puccini’s Lucca

Lucca is one of those uniquely protected walled cities, that tells you to go away. Unless you’re inside, of course. It took a bit of battling to get in, with a car (restricted) to an albergo with private parking privileges. You are acutely aware of harming the environment when you drive a car in this remarkable city. We were thrilled at how we were able to drive through one-lane paths and found out later…with a whopping huge parking ticket. (I am learning to read Italian now).

Everyone moves at a slower pace, tourists and residents alike. Bikes have their place, although scooters are allowed. You wish life could be this way in your part of the world. Everything seems magical–the ice cream shops, the antiquaries, the magnificently preserved churches. Maybe it wasn’t Disney who spread gold dust here, but he must have visited and discovered the qualities that gave him ideas for his magic kingdom.

Elba Island, Napoleon’s Island Exile

We were on Elba Island for a wedding, the purpose of our trip to Italy. After connecting flights in Paris from Yerevan, Armenia, we spent a couple of days in a luxurious villa as our base. Getting to and from the island was another story, but we made it to the wedding in plenty of time.

We treated ourselves to dinner at the hotel’s well appointed facilities, including the original villa’s main house. Needless to say, food here as in everywhere in Italy is a major undertaking and form of entertainment. Here are just a few dishes that refreshingly attacked our palettes:

As mentioned earlier, this European Series is an extension of the Silk Road Adventures. As we ply through Central Asia via Uzbekistan, Iran, the Caucasus, and Turkey from China, I decided to include European as part of the string of countries beyond the Silk Road. I did not travel them in this order, but they have been reordered so you can get a sense of the huge breadth of cultures along the route. These countries made use of and benefitted enormously from the ancient route of the Silk Road.

We are heading over the Alps toward Switzerland and Austria next, as if we were traveling overland. I hope you follow and enjoy this route as we head deep into the German-speaking countries and my favorites.

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Italy (#1A)

Marco Polo’s father and brother set off from Italy in 1260 on their first adventure through the massive conjoined continents of Europe and Asia most likely along the Silk Road, then a common highway overland. They traveled through Bokhara, one of my Silk Road stops described earlier. Later, on return to Italy, they organized a second trip with Nicolo’s son, Marco.

The second trip took a different course through Persia to join Kublai Khan’s court in Beijing. Marco Polo was gone from Italy for 26 years, and when he returned, he was barely recognizable or believed to be Marco Polo himself. His clothes were worn and tattered, and he barely could speak his native language.

Before March 17 this year, we were able to go to Italy much easier without having to devote half a lifetime to getting there. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long as Marco did! While the COVID-19 Pandemic still rests heavily on our minds, these reposts hopefully inspire us to look to future travels and savor the past.

In early 2019, we took advantage of Pastry Chef/daughter Melissa’s winter work break and hit the food scene in Italy. We stayed in the Testaccio neighborhood in Rome as our base and traveled to Matera and Naples from there. Here are two posts in case you missed it last year, condensed into one.

Sassi di Matera Hill Town

An inexpensive flight to Bari at the heel of Italy enabled us to visit Matera in a dawn-to-dusk trip. After a one-hour drive from Bari, we reached Sassi, two ancient hill towns straddling a deep valley. This UNESCO area was designated a major destination in 2019, to showcase sustainable tourism and environmental protection of treasured and not-to-be forgotten settlements.

A World UNESCO site dedicated to restoring hill towns with little or no environmental impact

Elena Ferrante’s Napoli

Famous Pizza and the Opera House drove us to Naples, but we couldn’t help but think about the stories written by Elena Ferrante in her four book series about scrappy Neapolitan life. (She has a new book out!)

We stopped at the Archaeological Museum, one of the country’s top sites holding treasures from Ercolano and Pompeii. Porn was thriving in Pompeii, as witnessed in this museum, along with other artifacts that are no longer available at the sites. Between the museum and a Nutcracker at the historic Teatro di San Carlo, the local food won hands down. (See below)

Famous Pizzeria da Attilio, Napoli: Pure, straight, and to the Oven

High Renaissance Rome

The food and the architecture are self-explanatory, right?!?

St. Peter’s Baldacchino by Bernini and Michelangelo’s Dome,
in the most magnificent interior space in the world

Grand opera is closed during the Christmas season, but we were able to catch holiday favorites Swan Lake Ballet in Rome, and the Nutcracker in Naples at the local opera houses.

Delightful Swan Lake Ballet at the Opera Theater of Rome
First Night in Rome with Daughter Melissa at Trappazino, Rome

Next week we will continue this European Series, linking Europe to the transcontinental Silk Road from Asia. It’s a compilation of travels with myself and others from the last six years. I hope you will enjoy revisiting these treasured moments with me! There will be another post on Lucca and Elba in the next post, followed by trips to German-speaking countries. Don’t forget to send your thoughts and comments!

Two posts are consolidated here and were originally posted in January 2019.

Silk Road Adventure #7: Turkey

Turkey may seem like the end of the line for the Silk Road, but it certainly was a crossroads between the Near East and Europe. Traders probably traveled from city to city along the route, rather than along the entire length of the Silk Road. The Turkic people came from the steppes of Central Asia and settled in this part of the world after traveling westwards, so their links eastwards were often refreshed and renewed.

We came to Istanbul twice, and stayed in a great Air BNB near the Pedestrian shopping street, Istikal Caddesi, where we could find plenty of restaurants. One of our favorites was a simple schwerma fast food hangout. We knew something was afoot when we saw savvy Asians making their way to this establishment, toting the insider guide “Istanbul Eats”.

For the price of a Macdonald’s burger, you could get freshly grilled meet, chopped to fit each bite in your mouth perfectly, with sensations of cabbage and lettuce lightly sprinkled with spiced sauce and evenly distributed into a grilled pocket. Perfect taste and texture to delight the tongue and the palette!

The food is so delicious and inspiring that it overshadows tourist attractions like the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia. Each meal is a discovery of familiar foods cooked with alot of creative flair. The Baklava may seem too sweet, but when it is made with fresh honey it does not have the dry intensive sugary taste as much as it is a saucy complement to the fresh flaky pastry and nuts.

One evening, we indulged in a performance of whirling dervishes that at first seemed a bit touristy but it was totally fascinating. The ancient Sufi religion promoted this form of spiritual cleansing and aspires those to reach the ultimate. You can read more about them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufi_whirling

Cappodocia

Cappodocia was so captivating that I came here twice. A UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of the country and a couple hours’ flight from Istanbul, Cappodocia has some of the most unique and bizarre land formations anywhere in the world. The fairy tale cave dwellings have been occupied since early Christian times when believers fled the cities to be able to worship and escape persecution. They lived in the tufa cave dwellings and prayed in the mountain hideaways.

We discovered from our trip to Georgia that Nino was born in Cappodocia around 320, so the secret churches we first saw in Goreme suddenly became relevant and inspiring. You can read further about her here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nino. You can see the entire area in a hot air balloon, providing you are willing to get up at 5am in the morning and brave the traffic jam of baskets.

Goreme is the small town that is used as the base camp for travelers to this area. It includes an outdoor national park that houses many of the cave dwellings. Hotels are in the park so you can wander around the neighborhood easily yourself.

We stayed in the boutique cave hotels Kolubek, or Butterfly Hotel. The tufa rooms have pitched roofs and other buildings are built of stone organically around the sloping hillsides. You can’t help but wonder in the back of your mind whether the dust particles from the tufa might affect your lungs, but it was still worth the short-term risk.

The food in the hotel was delightful–a refreshing spread of fruit, nuts, cheese, bread and vegetables. We were inspired to take a cooking class in town. The hotel helped us to arrange a guide to take us shopping before joining a mature woman, who taught us how to prepare a Turkish meal in her own home. We then ate the food that we prepared with her for lunch and invited the guides to join us.

Ismir and Ephesus on the Western Coast

Our visit to the ancient city of Ephesus in January, 2020 required an overnight stay in Izmir. Although we had a chance to get acclimated, we immediately took to the streets in search of lunch. Thanks to Pastry Chef and Daughter Melissa, her intrepid search for the tastiest food in any country and her Googling skills, we traipsed through the town’s nearby grand bazaar and after numerous twists and turns, tracked down a renowned locanta populated by Turkish locals.

Izmir Locanta
Izmir Bazaar Favorite among locals

Locals dine regularly here on some of the heartiest meals made with the freshest ingredients. We savored the sardine soup recommended by the gentleman sitting across from us. It’s one of those diners where you point to the big vats of steaming concoctions or decorated casseroles in order to get your meal put in front of you quickly!


Stewed Eggplant
Ephesus

The short 40 minute drive from Izmir to Ephesus jolted us into realizing how ancient the land in which we were traveling is. From biblical figures like John the Baptist, Mother Mary, and their pilgrim followers, to the largest civilization outside of Rome at its peak, it was hard not to be impressed by the significance and grandeur of Ephesus.

Once inhabited by 250,000, Ephesus is a UNESCO world heritage site and was carefully restored and brought to life. It is a relatively late-bake on the list, as its discovery is fairly recent and only a fraction of it has been uncovered.

The library at Ephesus

Highlights include the odeon, a theatre; an amphitheater, an agora, terrace houses, and a library. You can download Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app for free and use it as you walk the site. All the details of what we saw were based on his excellent instructions. I highly recommend trying it out, and he certainly covers the major features. This fascinating site was once a thriving port city before the Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Goths each had their go at destroying it!

We decided to hire a car for a day to get from Izmir to Ephesus and Ephesus to Bodrum, our final destination. The only catch was making certain that we could call the driver after he dropped us off at the carpark at the top of the entrance to Ephesus. He was to meet us at the bottom of the hill at the exit 90 minutes later. Minor details: he had our bags in the boot!!

We needed a backup just in case we could not find the driver. After a bit of cell phone finagling, conversations with hotel personnel, and a lot of good faith—we managed. Where we spent on the driver, we saved on time and the cost of a tour and guide. Just a reminder on how you can travel the way you want, with just a few creative tricks and determination to be a traveler and not a tourist.

Boviera

Known as “Boviera”, sparkling Aegean resort towns along the Western Turkish coast include Bodrum. It’s off-peak and chilly presently, but well worth the quiet solitude and even threats of rain to avoid the throngs of English-speaking tourists.

As close as you can get to the creatures being served at your table before they are caught!
Anchovies, artichokes with pineapple, cheese and walnuts, and squash in yogurt

Note: due to traveling light and leaving my Macbook at home for this brief trip, I am using my Iphone to compose and post photos. The capabilities are limited, but I hope you will still enjoy the material the same as regular posts!

More Turkish Food! Food! Glorious Food!

Delicate bits of chopped morsels are packed with texture, flavor, and color to delight the senses. You swear you could eat like this every day, convinced of the variety and healthy ingredients.

Dolmas, eggplant spread with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds, and artichoke with mustard sauce
Bodrum to Izmir

The four hour public bus from to Izmir to Bodrum followed the coast, was a safe and comfortable trip, and cost us each a hefty $6. In true Turkish hospitality, they even served tea and cookies! We gazed at the stark countryside, lit by the low winter sun behind turbulent clouds, as olive and tangerine groves slid past.

View of Mountains and farmland from bus
Bizim Lokanta

On arrival back in Izmir, we couldn‘t resist returning to the lokanta in the Bazaar where we had eaten earlier in the week.

Tongue soup, bulgar with fava beans, and cabbage rolls with thick, creamy yogurt
Kudos on two walls of this vest-pocket diner were self-explanatory
Bazaar Fun
It‘s a Wrap!
(Meatless) Kale and Cheese Wraps for a pittance

It‘s always bittersweet leaving a country, especially after such a short visit. But the food focus, imperial demands, abundance of land, and Mediterranean climate requires one to succumb to Turkey‘s finest features.

As this Silk Road Series draws to a close, look for the Fall Series, which will feature Italy, Germany, and the U.K. in the final paths of the Silk Road! Let me know your thoughts and comments about both series!

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #6B: Georgia

Sandwiched between Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Russian Federation lies the country of Georgia. We nearly crossed the entire country in a day trip east to west, stopping in a couple of significant Georgian Orthodox churches and towns along the way.

Gelati Academy

Built by King David the Builder in the 12th Century, this UNESCO protected pilgrimage site served as a scientific and spiritual life in Georgia. The church has been rebuilt with private funds after the earthquake.

Mtskheta Cathedral

The robe of Christ is purported to be buried here, after a Jewish monk purchased the garment and brought it to Georgia. Many pilgrims come here to worship and consider this 12th Century Cathedral a sacred place. The impressive Byzantine frescoes told the story of Jesus and his disciples on the walls of the main apse. The Mtskheta religious buildings are designated a UNESCO world heritage site.

Kudaishi Market

Sandwiched between a visit to the local food market, we were able to stop along the highway to try Georgian homemade bread and cheese. Earlier, we tasted wine in the famous Georgian wine at Khareba Winery in the massive valley that bisects the country.

Soviet era mural outside the market

Our car slammed its brakes to stop in time for bread and cheese being sold along the highway. Bread stuck on the sides of concrete ovens took about 15 minutes to cook. Wheels of fresh sheep’s cheese were wrapped in plastic bags ready for purchase. Our second roadside stop was another version brushed with honey and egg before it was covered with an old coat and blanket and cooked.

Georgian Dishes may leave the culinary skills behind flowery English descriptions. Our order for “Mushrooms in Clay Pan” was….mushrooms in clay pan. Fruit plates are….fruit plates. No inflated language necessary.

Master Cooking Class in Tbilisi

Our master cooking class at the Tabla Restaurant introduced us to a few classic Georgian dishes that we had already tried. Starters with walnut paste rolled in red pepper and eggplant were supplemented by walnut paste patties mixed with beet leaves, leeks, and spinach

Architecture and the Streets of Tbilisi

The huge time expanse transcends everthing from the 4th C. BC to the present-day, so many buildings appear to be dilapidated, neglected, or poorly maintained. There are a healthy addition of modern buldings that are flamboyant and daring to contrast with the crumbling old ones.

It didn’t help that there was a major earthquake of about 7.0 in 2003, leaving many of the cracked brick structures in the Old City crumbling and in dire need of attention. Owners and their descendants hold out for the big hotel developer to make them an offer to make them rich for the rest of their lives. In the mean time, the neighborhood suffers with blight and tenants who continue to risk their lives for cheap rent.

With over 1 million people, Tbilisi is home to nearly one quarter of the country’s population of 4 million people. There’s much work to be done to develop the city, and I remind myself not to expect all the conveniences and solutions of more well-developed countries.

We are able to see the country before major developments take over. And yes, there are still many evident flaws and cracks in the system such as broken sidewalks, collapsed structures, and traffic accidents. The Georgians have suffered from failed and impovershed governments.

Georgia has been bombarded with invasions and systemmatic loss of its borders at the whim of leaders inside and outside the country. It is a small country that has been used as a political football for its neighbors. The capital city of Tbilisi has been sacked 27 times since it was moved from Mtskheti. Despite that, its people look to its future and hope that Georgia can soon join the EU and NATO. You can read more about this fascinating country in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia.

Addendum: We had been hearing about the active protests against the government after the Chairman of Georgia’s Parliament allowed a Russian MP to sit in his seat and deliver a message in Russian. Georgians were protesting the government for succumbing to Russian influence.

originally posted 6/25/19

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!

Russian Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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