Tag Archives: Maps

Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum, New York City, and the Grassi Museum, Leipzig

Having visited many fine museums throughout the world and being an avid student of art history, I enjoy venturing beyond the usual Eurocentric and Asian collections to investigate Islamic Art. I also like to pair my interest in art with world history and Silk Road civilizations. I am currently reading The Silk Roads, A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan. It was recommended to us by Oxford scholar Craig Clunis. It turns traditional thinking about world history on its head and is a fascinating read.

My quest for understanding the Silk Road was initiated a few years ago during my first world journey in 2014 through Northwest China and the relatively untouristic path from Dunhuang through Turfan and Urumqi to Uzbekistan (See World Travels 2014 Page). My current personal research on Iran at the opposite end of my initial travels on the Silk Road  (originally named Seidene Strasse by a German academic) will hopefully culminate in a trip to Persia in the near future.

I couldn’t resist a stop at the Metropolitan Museum’s expanded and comprehensive collection of Near Eastern Artwork.  I two-timed the Michelangelo exhibit, the primary purpose of my visit,  that I saw with my sister in New York last month. The section includes an entire room with a soothing trickling water fountain and narrowly proportioned, elegant tracery windows made to simulate a traditional courtyard. Selected items in the collection are below, some with captions (but not all) .

As a design major in my undergraduate days at UC Berkeley, I learned Western calligraphy styles, such as Carolingian, Uncial, and Gothic. I couldn’t help but want to master the Islamic calligraphic style that now suddenly appeared so beautiful and balanced to me. Of course, learning how to read it would be part of the goal, a simple feat…

My earliest curiosity over the wide stretches between Asia and Europe came from specific designs of “Oriental” carpets, such as Bokhara, Tabriz, Caucasian, and Isfahan. I had no idea what they meant. Lo and behold, the places where they were made exist, or once did.  It was exciting for me to discover that Bokhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan were also UNESCO world heritage sites.

Below are a representative collection of carpets in the Near East Gallery at the MET. The weavers of the Anhalt Medallion carpet (2nd from the left below) followed a paper cartoon in creating the design.  The carpet is derived from the Anhalt prince of Dessau, whose ancestors may have acquired it through military campaigns against the Ottoman Turks in the late 17th C.

Porcelain was a coveted item from China. In addition to silk, these goods pwere transported along what became the Silk Road. The Sogdian traders based in Samarkand were the kings of the highway, and were adept at managing, bargaining and anticipating desirable goods along the route. In turn, cobalt and copper were brought from the Near to the Far. The beautiful calligraphy and inscription to the bowl below reads “Planning before work protects you from regret; good luck and well being”.

There were only a few sculptural ceramics but I particularly liked the whimsical and creative “bird woman” shown below.

I’m including a few of the beautiful floral-themed beauties that I discovered at the Grassi Museum in Leipzig (descriptions are in German) below, to compare with those from the MET.

The featured map above also comes from the Grassi. I could stare at maps like these forever, to contemplate and realize how little we know about the vast array of significant dots between Europe and Asia. You can’t really study the Silk Road without knowing the key place names that put them in time and order!

Days 5-8: Dizzyin’ D.C.

The number of museums (all free) in Washington D.C. is staggering, and deciding which ones to visit is a daunting challenge. We decided to each pick one today–and a few off the beaten path. We had already covered the most popular ones in the past with our kids–the National Gallery, the Smithsonian, the National Air and Space.


First, we headed to the U.S.Holocaust Museum. The featured photo above shows the five-story high atrium of the museum. Photos of Jewish families who perished in the Holocaust were displayed there.  The chain of events leading to the holocaust were many and complex, to say the least.  False evidence blamed the Jews for killing Christ.

Around 1525, Martin Luther initially embraced them. He later turned against them when they refused to convert to Protestantism. It wasn’t until 1994 when the Lutheran church acknowledged Luther’s anti-Semitism.

We primarily think of the Jews from Germany and Austria being sent to camps and killed there. Even more Jewish people from Romania, Poland, Russia and Lithuania were killed. Many were forced to live in ghettos segregating them from mainstream society. However, most Jews living in Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary were spared.

There were chilling graphic depictions of the camps. The arrival of American troops helped to document the horrors before evidence was destroyed. More than half of those who were liberated died within two weeks of being freed. They were already too sick to survive or were unable to digest the food they consumed.

While very sad and sobering, the museum presented an important lesson in history. Similar events could take place again.  This museum teaches us the social, political, and economic circumstances behind such heinous acts and the chain of events that caused the Holocaust. You can learn more about the museum here: https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/museum-exhibitions/permanent.

In the afternoon, we made our way to the Native American Museum. While the museum is housed in an impressive building, it didn’t reduce the weight of the subject and its history. The many tribes and unions between nations were systematically ignored and destroyed.

The many treaties that were created between the Native Americans and the U.S. were constantly violated, despite initial good intentions. The map below shows how Americans pushed the Native Americans westward further and further from their homelands, while new settlers expanded into these territories.

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Non-native Population Expansion, 1820 (Dark Red), 1850 (Rust), and 1890 (Yellow)

We welcomed the slow walk back to the hotel to ponder our thoughts from the day’s deep and sobering educational experiences.

Days 7-8: The NMAAHC, Capitol Hill, and the Museum for Women in the Arts

Many of the newer Washington D.C. attractions like the National Museum of African-American History require advanced tickets. I was glad I knew ahead of time, or I would have been disappointed. The stunning new building was designed by David Adjaye and is clad in filigree bronze screen panels.

After being guided down to the lower floor where slavery, civil war, and segregation topics were covered, we began our long difficult journey tracing and understanding the roots of African-American history.

Everyone was very quiet and pensive as we shared the tragic stories of Africans from mostly Central and Coastal West Africa being captured by Portuguese, Dutch, British, French and Danish slave traders. By around 1800, the importation of foreign slaves was banned. Rhode Island slave traders developed and dominated a thriving domestic trade.

Less than half of the captured Africans survived the journey to the Coast or the horrific slave ships. While approximately 500,000 slaves were brought to the States, a total of around 12 million slaves were captured in Africa and sold in the New World. The largest proportion were sent to the Caribbean or to Brazil.

As families were split up and sold, the humiliating auction blocks were used to showcase the black slaves. They were split up from families and loved ones, mothers from their babies. Both sides of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War used the issue of slavery as a strategy to rally supporters to their side. The British and Americans offered freedom to those slaves who fought in the Revolutionary Wars, and the North and the South also made promises to African Americans that often were not kept.

After slavery, it was difficult for African-Americans to survive the post-Civil war era. Many prominent leaders and heroes were featured, and there were many historic events and landmark decisions. Segregation displaced slavery and became another racist era.

The museum was split into the history and dark past on lower levels, and modern culture on upper levels. The NMAAHC offered insight and understanding of the arduous path of not only African-Americans, but the shared path of all Americans. You can read more about the museum’s collections here:  https://nmaahc.si.edu

The combination of these museums left a powerful imprint on my understanding and perspective of oppressed people in America. It seems more pertinent for all of us to learn about the history and development of oppression as race and religion become major issues in our current society.

The stretches between sights and buildings along the Washington Mall and Capitol Hill are far and wide, so good shoes and good planning are essential for surviving D.C. The Washington Metro provided some relief in getting between points, but the distances by foot are intimidating, even to veteran walkers like us. Thanks to L’Enfant and his grandiose French city planning scheme, the wide boulevards and diminished human scale do seem to put people in their places.

Well, the verdict is in. Yes, Washington D.C. is a pretty awesome place. I couldn’t help but compare the time lapse walking between buildings with that of Versailles. We got our royal injection thanks to L’Enfant. And I’m not sure whether the Kremlin and Red Square came first or we did (around 1800), but I’m guessing that National Mall beats Moscow’s in area. While we’re at it, it might be worth comparing Beijing’s Tian An Men Square and Forbidden City.  A research project for another day.

At the opposite end of the National Monument, above are just a few grand dames on Capitol Hill: the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

Above are one of three perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress; and Cupcakes?!? (click on image to see captions and to increase scale)

Below: interior of ornate Italian Renaissance style Library of Congress. Almost stands up to or equal with the Library in Vienna. (To see the Vienna Library, search posting from Day 27 of 2015, dated Aug. 21)

A very understated but worthwhile visit to the Women’s Museum yielded some gems: a Frieda Kahlo Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky, and friend Hung Liu’s noble portraits of women who were prostitutes. Gee Kin had trouble identifying five famous women artists, but managed to come up with these and Annie Liebowitz. Sure enough, she had a photo of Dolly Parton proudly on display.

There were numerous other interesting works there, but I felt sad that these great artists (including Berte Morisot and Mary Cassatt whose works were represented) and others (I didn’t see any Georgia O’Keefe) had to find a cause to be celebrated on their own and could not be integrated with the mainstream art world. Can you name five living women artists?

To top off the day at Momofuku DC: Honey Crisp with Arugula, Kimchee, and Maple Sugar; Skate Wing, and Chinese Broccoli with Cashews. Highly recommended.

Apologies for the long post.  Combined posts will reduce the load on your Inbox!

Day 53-54: One Degree of Engagement (Lake Baikal, Russia)

Looking back at our week in Mongolia, it has been exhilarating and life-changing. I try to think of similar experiences, and although the trip we took to Montana came to mind, it seemed to be a far cry in comparison. Imagine Montana being the size of the US with the same density of population and that would give you an impression of what Mongolia is like.

I am attaching the Wikipedia reference for those who are curious: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongolia. In this quick search, I learned that Mongolia is in fact the most sparsely populated country in the world. It’s no wonder that we felt the impact (or lack thereof) of human habitation on the planet here. We wondered if this wasn’t a good place to start if you wanted to live on the moon.

The low density means that people who live in Mongolia depend on each other. Gee Kin explained some of the details in the last post. For me, it was a reassuring vote for humanity. You learn to trust and rely on those around you. Just like the herder family in the video, you do everything for each other. We had a beautiful day and authentic experience with the herder family and our guides.

I am reposting the video from yesterday for those of you were unable to view it. I inserted the punchline in the back, so hope you will enjoy this revised version.

And…just to close out a few stray thoughts on Mongolia, here is a copy of the map of the Mongol Empire, showing Genghis Khan and Family’s Conquests in a few fell swoops:

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Onward to Irkutsk, Russia

Our 18 month Russian visas from last year made it easy to take another trip into Russia this year. We hadn’t really planned on it, but coming to Mongolia made it irresistible to continue through Russia east to Vladivostok. We came north first by train from Ulaan Bataar (see spiffy Mongolian train above), then in a few days will be heading to the East Coast to on the last leg of the Trans-Siberian Express.

We heard that there were 19th Century wooden buildings in Irkutsk, so went towards an area for dinner that reminded me of Cannery Row in Monterey or Jack London Square in Oakland. It was an easy walk on a Saturday afternoon and many locals were heading in the same direction toward the mall.

We found a pretty decent restaurant with equal flair to any Bay Area restaurant:

Dinner with wine was only $40.00!

Listvaynka Village, Lake Baikal

Our main adventure the following day headed us in the direction of Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest (about a mile deep) fresh water lake in the world. After gawking at the seaside crowd, we had pilaf and smoked fish for lunch in Listvaynka Village. It was refreshingly cool and a little bit of Sausalito in Eastern Russia.

The Sunday Weekend market in Lake Baikal featured smoked fish.

The bus back to Irkutsk put is in front of the city’s Sunday Market. It was very similar to the huge market that I saw two years ago in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan produces much of the fresh vegetables and fruits for Russia, Mongolia, and other Central Asian and Asian countries.

On the way to Lake Baikal, about an hour outside Irkutsk, we met two Canadian travelers. They were a sturdy pair–active seniors who were working as educators in Doha and traveling throughout the world. In case you were wondering what’s happened to baby boomers, they are out of the woodwork and into the world again. Maybe not on the $5 a day like we did in the late 60’s, but resilient as ever.

They can do a mean Ritz Carlton on demand as easily as a backpacker’s hostel–for a few days, at least. I like to think of myself as being able to do both, but I tend to be more of a middle-of-the-roader. Our trip to Mongolia, on the other hand, was certainly a safari of sorts, but with fewer wild animals.

Our new-found friends told us a story about someone they met in Mongolia who was on a Guinness Book of Records pursuit for the most number of countries visited in the shortest amount of time. The 27-year old female traveler had already been to 130 of the 196 countries and is taking three years to complete the task. She spent most of her time obtaining visas and on the internet and had company endorsements.

I calculated that it would take about five days per country. At the minimum, all she had to do was to record the GPS point at the airport on her phone and get a visa stamp. I’m sure that she is doing more than that, but regardless, what a journey! It captured my imagination. I decided that I had met her through one degree of separation.

Days 50-51: Mongolia 4

We are in Day 5 of ger living. Despite its challenges, the variety of gers has allowed us to get a full flavor of ger living. Our last ger included a stay along one of the largest fresh-water lakes in Mongolia. While rudimentary, it gave us a feeling of staying at Lake Tahoe, Mongolian style.

The many incredible, pristine pastoral landscapes we encountered traveling off-road by Land Cruiser included frequent herds of sheep, goats, horses and cattle. These are free-range animals, owned by herders who live in nearby gers, and have no fences. The animals get rounded up at the end of the day and know who and where their friends and family are. We had a full court press of the domestic animal world with a few wild ones and migrating birds for flavor.

The Erdene Zuu Monastery was founded in 1586 and is the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. The religion came from India and Tibet in the 12th Century. The grounds of the Monastery are preserved as a museum. The adjacent complex is a working temple. The temple was built over the palace built by Ugudei Khan, and materials were taken from the ruins.

The Kharkhorin Museum presented a fascinating series of maps showing the the history of Mongolia. If you are curious, please click on these to see more; if not, skip this section.

The Chinese Han Dynasty successfully fought back the Xiong Nu empire in Northwest China, and early portions of the Great Wall were built to deter the Xiong Nu from advancing further. (Remember Mu Lan? She was fighting the Xiong Nu!) You can read more about the ruins of the early Great Wall in my posts from Turpan in August 2013.

In the following series, you will learn more about the history of the great Chinggis Khan (1162-1227), one of his sons Ugudei Khan (1186-1241), and his grandson Kubilai (1215-1294). The maps attached are in some ways easier to read than the ones above, as they show the flow of conquests. Take a look at the arrows and dates on the maps and the extent of their conquests in the span of a century! The influence of the Mongols reached as far west as Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

In the same museum where early 8th Century Turkic memorials were preserved, a tomb for servants contained miniature figures similar to those found in Xian. They had Han Dynasty characteristics similar to the figures we enjoyed seeing in Dunhuang Museum in Northwest China. They had unique, expressive faces and lively gestures in their bodies. Apparently these were not created in a tomb for any noble, but were offerings by servants. The size of the figures, gold, and ceramic pieces were not large enough to represent those that were buried with those a leader.

Days 42-44: Beijing Bites

I went out looking for water and accidentally found this pedestrianized area around the corner from the hotel. 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 where I bought items to sample and the food repackaged for dining at the hotel apartment (chestnuts, sticky rice in Coconut, Tripe, and refried mini-pork buns).

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.

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

After Dresden as a pit stop, Beijing was a rallying point to meet husband Gee Kin and travel partner for the rest of the trip.  We leave for Ulan Bator (Mongolia) on Friday morning, so the highlight of the second half of this 80 day adventure is about to begin.

Days 27-29: Deutsches Reichstag and Pergamon Museum

Our day began with a tour of the Reichstag Building. Angela Merkel meets regularly with the German Parliament here. Designed by Norman Foster, the building contained many symbolic elements: the preserved inscriptions by Russian soldiers who arrived on May 5, 1945; the cases of each Parliament member including Hitler, Himmler, and Angela Merkel; and a non-denominational meditation room that is used by members of Parliament before major discussions or decisions. Models of the building and the city helped to orient us.

Three parties sit in the chambers: the CDU (majority), the SPD, and the Green Party. Other representatives of committees attend the sessions, and the public inside the chambers is able to comment on discussions or decisions. Angela-Baby sits at the very front behind the table for four members. The seating is generally open and does not designate fixed locations for Parliament members.


This was my second opportunity to photograph the impressive dome of the Reichstag. It has a historic display at the base, a view of the city, and a circular path to the top. Our guide explained to us that the building was 80% efficient for energy purposes, but the ventilation system had not performed as expected. Our last visit was proof that the dome can be an oven. It was stifling inside and we felt like we were being cooked in a George Forman grill!

It was much more climate-friendly this time.  Overall, the building provided necessary and significant symbolic features that help visitors to capture their understanding and appreciation of the new German parliamentary process.

The Pergamon Museum featured two major installations: the Ishtar Gate and the Hellenistic Facade. The Ishtar Gate is a reconstruction of the original approach in Babylon. The older, worn tiles are original, but the brighter blue ceramic tiles are reproductions. The scale of the original approach and beautiful animal reliefs were impressive.

Since the museum is under construction, many of the artifacts were not available. The museum focuses on ancient history.

Days 22-24: Bauhaus Precedents and German History after WWII

The sponsored tours and activities at the Goethe Institute this week were varied and intense.

First, an architectural tour led us outside the city, and to Mexicoplatz, where precedents to Early Modern and Bauhaus styles were still visible. Dr. Carola Veit, who also led two previous architecturally-oriented tours (Potsdamer Platz and the Street Art in Kreuzberg), was our guide. Known as Zehlendorf, this area became a wealthy residential community when Germany’s nouveau riche industrialists built large country houses in the area. Streets and areas were named after cities or countries in South America.

Muthesius studied philosophy and traveled extensively in Asia and Europe. A country house by Muthesius borrowed from the English style that combined garden with building. Designed for entertaining clients, the house included a large dining area, a music room, a separate room for women to drink tea after dinner, and one for men to play cards and smoke. A large catering kitchen was separated from the house to reduce smell and accommodate deliveries. The family’s quarter were located on the floor above the rooms used for guests. (see photo collection below, upper right)

This was one of the first houses developed in Germany utilizing the concept of “form follows function”.  Very little external decoration was used as a departure from previously built homes. Many of the former houses borrowed from many styles and were eclectic in nature. As the industrial class emerged and artists became more prominent, the new design approach respected and encouraged more radical new ideas in architecture.  He was also involved in the design of Hellerau, a garden city outside Dresden. You can read more about Muthesius in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Muthesius and my posting on Hellerau from August 2013.

The project in a forested setting shown in the photo at the lower left was developed between 1926-1932 and was known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. In the 20’s after the first World War, families were very poor and suffered from lack of housing. Bruno Taut attempted to develop decent multi-family housing for families with social and drug problems. Rooms were small, but units had bathrooms, kitchen, and good natural light. The garden was in the back of the development away from the street. All ground floor units had access to the garden, and upper units had individual balconies. Bright “parrot” colors were applied on exterior facades. (see photo below, lower right)

Bruno Taut and his younger brother Max collaborated on projects together and were among the first of the early Modern architects in Berlin. They also married sisters! He went to Moscow in 1932, lived in Japan for awhile, then emigrated to Turkey where he died in 1938.

Two houses nearby were developed by Mies van der Rohe. (Photos above, upper left and bottom left). A wealthy family hired Mies to build a Prussian style house. Mies struggled with the client’s request, but was able to finesse the design by expanding the windows.  In his second house, he made a stronger connection between the outer garden and the interior space. In addition to creating large windows, he added an exhibition space for the client’s art collection and reduced the floor to floor height. Today, the complex is a school for handicapped children.


The next evening, I attended a lecture that covered German History after World War II. I can’t say that I understood everything in German, but the handouts summarized three periods: from 1945-1948; 1949-1958; and 1961-1972. In the first phase after the war, the international powers divided and dominated geographic areas of Germany and Berlin. In the second phase, the Stalin and the Soviets controlled East Germany and East Berlin; and in the last phase the Khruschov-Kennedy era, the Warsaw Pact led to the building of the Berlin Wall.

One of the more interesting graphics from the lecture showed wagon trains of Germans evacuating Poland and Baltic States after the war.

The very next morning we were offered a follow-up tour of the lecture. “On the Tracks of the National Socialists”, we made stops at the Holocaust Memorial, the site of Hitler’s bunker, and a huge government building built in the 60’s. It was a perfect way to bring perspective on the previous night’s facts.

Standing at the Brandenburg Gate, our guide introduced the development of the Nationalist movement. Albrecht Speer, the Chief Architect and Art Minister for the Nazis, had visions for a new German state. Designated as Germania, this massive new complex in Berlin would become the center of the world. A palace bigger than Versailles was planned there just next to the Brandenburg Gate. 180,000 people could fit inside the building for events.

This massive scheme was never built. Because Berlin was so heavily bombed, many of the new buildings were not built until after reunification in the 90’s. Some buildings look older because they duplicated the original buildings.

The Holocaust Memorial shown above was designed in 1980s by Peter Eisenman, an American architect. The exterior memorial is abstract in honoring the 6 Million Jews who died. Below the memorial, there are four rooms in the museum: one is empty for reflection; the second one is dedicated to the history of the Jewish people; the third one has names of each person who died with his or her biography; and fourth one has a map of places where Jews were deported. The museum serves as an important resource and research center.

Nearby, we stood over a parking lot where Hitler lived his last days in a bunker below. The movie “Marriage of Eva Braun” depicted the grim experience. He had married his secretary only a month before. Goebbels and his family were also in this bunker. Determined to have his children die as Nazis, he gave them cyanide pills before he and his wife killed themselves.

Because Hitler burned to death in the bunker after he committed suicide, no remains were found. Even his teeth were apparently missing. Our guide gave us a few thoughts on the Hitler’s whereabouts. There were a number of conspiracy theories. One was that he fled to Argentina. Another theory was that the Russians, who operated a major center in Magdeburg, took his remains there or buried them in the river. Of course neither theory has been proven.

The history of Berlin is very complicated. In order to help me navigate around the city and understand the physical location of the Berlin Wall, I purchased a postcard of the borderline between East and West. At a granular scale, it is very confusing and intriguing, what parts were where.

You can see that the wall circles around Mitte, the heart of the city. I live just at the edge of the line identified as Number 2 on the postcard. Bernauer Street is where a park is located to commemorate the wall. Communities and neighborhoods that were divided by the wall show a noticeable difference in the architecture, quality, and development stage. Large tracts of land are either left abandoned, waiting for development, or they have already been developed. It really keeps one guessing what happened and curious about both the history and the future.

And if the past few days didn’t have enough activity, here’s one for the opera lovers: the curtain call for the Magic Flute at the Deutsche Oper, another Goethe Institute sponsored event.

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(In Banner above: Topography of Terror, a display about the Stasi. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topography_of_Terror)

(Note: Apologies for the length and delay of this post. There may be a few factual errors that are being checked for accuracy).

Post updated: 6/7/16

COMING SOON! Third Annual Trip Around the World 2016

Get ready for another fun-filled cultural trip around the world in 72 days, about to begin in one month!


This year’s travels will be a combination of my two world trips in 2014 and 2015 (see summaries above).  I will be heading  eastward from San Francisco to Germany for the annual Dresden Music Festival in May (my fourth year in a row!). The photo above is the completely rebuilt center of the city in Dresden, known as the “Florence of the Elbe”.  After that, it’s back to Berlin to attend a  one month, intermediate level language course at the Goethe Institute.

The second leg of the trip will be another long-distance train ride. I will meet my husband Gee Kin in Beijing to take the Trans-Mongolian train to Ulan Bator, where we launch a one-week visit to Mongolia. After a stop in Irkutsk along Lake Baikal, we plan to continue last year’s trail of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the eastward direction to the final coastal destination at Vladivostok.

The last segment of the trip will take place in Japan. From Tokyo, we will head west to visit Kusatsu Hot Springs, Nagano, Matsumoto Castle, and a walking trail known as the Nakasendo Highway, an ancient route built more than 400 years ago that connected Edo to Kyoto.

This might be considered a consolidation trip, to revisit and capture some of the highlights that were missed or overlooked from the past two years. I will have more time to reflect and explore German and Russian cultures, and to compare them with the Mongolian and Japanese. I hope you will enjoy traveling along with me to cities like Dresden, Berlin, Beijing, Ulan Bator, Irkutsk, Vladivostok, Nagano, and Tokyo, as much as I will enjoy sharing them with you! BONSAI!!!


Bay Area Travelswithmyselfandothers

Being back in San Francisco encourages me to continue my frequent walks throughout the city. Being situated in the southwest quadrant of the city, we can easily go in any direction–the city is merely 7 miles wide in any direction as the crow flies–and hit a water’s edge. The 7×7=49 square miles makes it easy to conquer the city by car, bus, bicycle, or walking. Whenever I can, my choice of transportation is on foot. I can accomplish a 3-5 mile walk in less than 2 hours.

Admittedly, it takes a bit of clever navigation to avoid the daunting hills of San Francisco! Tourists have been often thwarted by the steep elevations and unforgiving fog banks in California summers. Clad in bermuda shorts, tourists shiver as they study their maps. Plan views show short stretches between Fisherman’s Wharf and Downtown. In reality, going through Nob Hill requires a hefty hike in elevation of 400 feet! And that’s with a few bumps and bruises along the way, as the elevation rises and falls. It’s no wonder that tourists are stunned not only by the beauty of San Francisco, but its harsh climate and terrain as well.

For local city dwellers, I learned that there are more than the seven traditional hills in San Francisco. Here is a link to a description of the 53 reported hills if you are curious: http://sfgazetteer.com/how-many-hills-in-san-francisco.html

As a locavore, I enjoy exploring the streets of San Francisco and comparing them to the many scenes of cities I have visited throughout the world (for some reason, Prague comes to mind first). Since last October’s Halloween festivities (see Hallo Halloween from October 30, 2015 posting), I am realizing that San Franciscans LOVE decorating their Victorians and sweet homes. There is definitely pride in a little city that CAN. The more I walk, the more I notice the sweet, sensitive little details that make this city sparkle. Here are two random samples from this month’s holidays:

In addition to Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year’s (Feb. 8 this year), San Francisco hosted the 50th Superbowl. Not being an avid sports fan, I failed to capture any photos of the carnival-like atmosphere downtown. It did preoccupy the city and drive it crazy for three weeks, so there was alot going on this month. Americans love celebrating holidays, and now it seems to extend beyond Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Aside from local city walks, husband Gee Kin and I continue to take urban walks throughout the Bay Area. After accomplishing various routes from San Francisco to Napa, Oakland to San Jose, and San Jose to San Francisco, we are now finding extensions beyond. We mapped out a route in the past couple of weeks from Petaluma to Santa Rosa. You can see the route screen shots here:

I originally planned to stay overnight at the Hampton Inn. In the past, I linked each day’s 8-12 mile walk between hotel rest points. I discovered that you can do the same with public transit points. As long as you are linked to connections back to home base, you can string transit points to each other, and easily pick up where you last left off and by paying attention to transit schedules.

Each leg was accomplished on a separate weekend day. We took Golden Gate Transit to each point of departure to link the route, so each walk was an easy day trip. The beginning and/or end of each walk was capped by a visit to a local, perhaps newly discovered restaurant as a reward! We discovered the Naked Pig in Santa Rosa, a roadside diner with all naturally produced ingredients.

The featured photo shows another weekend walk out the door and across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. We topped our trip with a visit to Scoma’s for mussels, fries, and pink sparkling.

Next time you get good weather, think about walking out your door to a restaurant you’ve been dying to try. And don’t forget to smell the roses along the way. Let me know what you do!!

PS. Plans are underway for this summer’s travelswithmyselfandothers. Hint: Oh No! The TSE and GI AGAIN??!!

We are now able to link our Bay Area walks physically from Santa Rosa to Los Gatos. If you are interested in doing it too, see http://www.crazyladywalks.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Here are comments based on the original criteria I established:

1. On Time Record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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