Tag Archives: Sights

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE 1: MONGOLIA, THE START OF THE TRAIL

POP-UP ZOOM MEETING!! If you are interested in joining a Zoom Party to share a conversation on Mongolia with me and a fellow Mongolian Traveler on Sunday, July 5, at 8:45am (PST), send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com by 6:00pm today, July 4th (PST) and I will send you the meeting invite!!

Mongolia is not technically on the Silk Road, except it was indicated on one of the Silk Road Maps connecting to Karkourum, the capital city of Genghis Khan’s empire. We revisit the sites previewed in the video last week with the magnificent expanses of land, the natural living, and fascinating history.

You might find some of the order of information a bit confusing, as I am cutting and pasting several days’ travel into one posting. On top of that, I am going backwards in some instances so the general direction is eastward! These trips may have been taken in reverse order, so please ignore references to Days. In any event, the Polo brothers did alot of traipsing backwards and forwards with Marco and two Franciscan friars to meet Kublai Khan, so I don’t feel so bad about giving you misleading directions.

Mongolian Herder Family

The afternoon we spent with a Mongolian herder family was alive with activity, including milking cows and horses (for mare’s milk), corralling animals, racing with boys, tasting fermented mare’s milk and curd dessert, and playing with the family’s newborn baby.

The family included an award-winning horse racer (30 years old), his wife (29 years old), his two boys (8 and 6), and the newborn (1 month old).

Yurt Living

We experienced five days of ger living. Despite its challenges, the variety of gers has allowed us to get a full flavor of what it’s like to live in a ger. 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 itinerary through Central Mongolia was on and off-road, to ger camps without internet access. It was both a blessing and a curse.

Erdene Zuu Monastery

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

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 2014.

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.

A little background on the vast country of Mongolia. It is a flat, diamond shaped country the size of Western Europe. It is sandwiched between Russia and China and therefore must maintain good relations with these giants.

The growing season is only four months during the summer, and the entire country is shrouded in snow in the winter. Its harsh environment requires the mere 3 million people to rely heavily on family, community and each other. The limited good weather impacts all development, repairs and activity to a very short season.

Why come to Mongolia? Here are three reasons: to learn about the past, present, and future. The history of Genghis Khan, the first ruler who united the tribes, is a fascinating one. His descendants, including Kublai Khan continued to rule during the Mongolian Dynasty for two hundred years, from 1200-1400.

Most of the expansionist period was during the first fifty years, when the grandsons who were posted to the outer reasons conquered as far west as Hungary and beyond. 1 in 200 men in the world have the DNA directly attributed to this prolific ruler Genghis and his descendants.

Following the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty that ruled most of Eurasia and China, the Ming defeated the Yuan at their capital in Beijing, and then the Manchurians (Ching Dynasty) ruled over China and Mongolia. With Russian help, Mongolia defeated the Ching Dynasty and became an independent country in 1921.

The second reason for coming to Mongolia is the environment. Mongolia, unlike China today, is still a pristine and pure environment. Nothing can be more contrasted than flying from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar (the correct spelling). The pollution and stifling heat of Beijing disappears and the crystal clear skies and bright sun of Mongolia appear. Ecotourism is being promoted here today and the Mongolians are very proud of their country. They know that the world is their oyster and they have every intention of protecting it.

The future is the third reason. Mongolia has huge mineral resources. Mining is one of its biggest industries, and tourism is growing despite its short season. With such a small population, Mongolia’s GDP has been growing at a rate of 10-15% over the past several years, twice the pace of China. While Mongolia is still considered a basically agricultural, nomadic land, it will experience phenomenal change.

Many people are still nomadic herdsmen, and they still live in the traditional ger, or round huts. They are constructed of wooden supports, felt padded walls, and can be easily assembled. A pot belly stove in the middle heats the room, and all the basics of living are contained within the ger: cooking, eating, sitting, sleeping, and storing. Oops, except for the toilet.

Everything has been hunky-dory in the ger camps where we have been staying for the past few days (we’re in No. 2 of 5). Toilets in the first ger were banked below the dining hall, not unlike those you would find at the UC Blue and Gold Camp in Pinecrest, CA. The second ger ratcheted up the ante to an outhouse, with a tastefully decorated Mongolian tent over the pair for easy identification. You could use the sawdust at free will. I was getting into the flow, with one minor detail. It rained this morning.

Imagine the scene for dressing (everything was set in place in advance the night before inside the ger), with even an umbrella. Contending with Mother Nature in order to let Mother Nature contend with you was a challenge. In the end, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. You just felt all thumbs and big toes in the execution. When in Rome, do as the Romans, as they say. The steamed towels looked good enough to eat!

But I digress. Back to Mongolia. The first afternoon of our private tour was devoted to the National History Museum in the middle of Ulaan Baatar. The museum traced the beginnings in the Fourth Century BC to the present day. Photographs are not allowed there or during the performance of traditional Mongolian singers and dancers. The main display I wanted to capture was the map of the conquests by Genghis Khan and his grandsons. They occurred over a very short time span of fifty years, and mostly in a ten year period between 1215-1225.

In the morning of Day 2, we visited the largest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. Mongolia is 98% Buddhist, so the religion plays an important part in daily life as well as its history. Buddhism came to Mongolia via the Tibetan monks. Today’s monks come from all over the country to study and chant at this monastery.

Later in the morning, we left the capital city to visit a shaman. Shamanism, or contact with the spirits through a medium, is also practiced in Mongolia. If an individual wanted to send a message to the gods, he or she went to a shaman. The shaman did not give advice but only transferred the information back and forth.

IMG_3561 3

This shaman explained to us that she was “struck” by both a desire and calling only after being confronted a number of times. After her husband died and she was sick, she eventually consented. She very patiently and proudly explained her roots and the people she served.

Her room was laden with offerings to the gods and spirits, both good and bad. Offerings included cheese, curd, dried nuts, fruits and dishes of food. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the answer to a question I had in mind. Her next appointment was already waiting and time ran out.

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.

In the afternoon the driver and our guide took us on and off road in search of the Przewalski horses. They run wild and are the ancestor to today’s domesticated horses. They are shorter, stockier and more muscular than the Arabian horses we are accustomed to seeing. They are named after the Russian who discovered them and helped to return them to their native land. They were an endangered species, but due to good management, they can now be allowed to proliferate in a protected environment. It felt a little bit like whale watching, but we were able to find a pack of six in the distance.

The vast green virgin landscape stretches literally for miles and as far as the eye can see. Occasionally there are pigs, and sheep dotted throughout the landscape. The herdsmen know where their herds are located and round them up at the end of the day. They are branded and the larger animals are used for milk and transportation.

The next day, the landscape suddenly rose in elevation, with mountains in the background to nearly 4,000 meters (12,000 ft!). Eventually a sandy desert mixed with small grass emerged. There are many small, Gobi-like deserts throughout Mongolia, and we headed for one of them. The camels that reside here are two-humped, and can carry up to 800 lbs. They can travel without water for a month and without food for up to two months. (See featured photo above)

The distances between sites are vast in this huge country, and few roads are sealed. It takes nearly three hours to travel 100 miles, due to hazardous pits in the road or sandy roads. We were surprised that the driver only had to refuel once in the three days we were driving. While we weren’t used to sitting in the car for such long hours, we were grateful that the Land Cruiser was very sturdy and capable of handling bumps, muddy pits, and stream crossings.

The Orkhorn Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Today’s drive took three hours off-road to a beautiful valley known as the Orkhorn Valley. Rain and inclement weather has deterred our camel and horse back riding, but we have been able to see the beautiful lush green, unspoiled countryside in its natural state.

While we basked in the luxury of a “free range day” where we explored the wide open countryside at a leisurely pace, we still had time to take in another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Orkhon River Valley was a prime location for burials that grouped together large flat steles in round or rectangular shapes. Another spot showed exposed granite stones weathered over time with petroglyphs still evident.

The Land Cruiser allowed us to enjoy the off-road traveling comfortably. Otherwise, it would have been a Russian van that was just as sturdy but a rough ride. Along the way we encountered herds of free-range sheep, cattle, goats, and horses. Many birds also migrate to Mongolia over the summer and travel as far as South Africa.

The photos don’t do any justice to the huge 360 degree views that take your breath away. The clean air is also hard to swallow, especially after Beijing!

Here’s last week’s video that was posted about Mongolia. It captures a day with the herder family, irresistible 360 degree views, and some of the incredible landscape and sights we experienced.

from travelswithmyselfandothers MONGOLIA, JULY 2016

Postscript: Thoughts on Mongolia

Coming to Mongolia has been a philosophy class. What is “progress”? What is a “fulfilling life”? What should be the relationship of humans to the rest of the earth?

Thousands of years ago, much of the world was like present-day Mongolia: a few humans herding livestock from one location to another pursuing better pastures and decent weather. Then came the development of intensive agriculture; people stopped moving around and started living closer to each other. And we are now where we are.

Obviously, Mongolia is not thousands of years behind the rest of the world. But there ARE very few people, only 3 million living in an area the size of Western Europe. And as many as 30% of the population are still herders, living in “gers” that they move with the seasons. There are no fences. Their animals are allowed to roam and graze on lands naturally covered with native plants. Their livestock provide much of their food: meat and dairy. Their days are regulated by the hours of daylight, and their year is regulated by the seasons. The land and their animals provide life. This is their mantra.

All this is going to change. But Mongolia has a chance to do development right. It’s as if God is giving humans another chance – to not screw it all up this time round.

I don’t know what Mongolia is going to be like in 20 years. But as the population increases, there will be more constraints on the herding, nomadic way of life. Massive factory farms and open-pit mines already are fencing off areas from grazing.

A law that was passed a few years ago that entitled every adult Mongolian to 0.7 hectare of land will eventually have to end. Mongolians don’t write wills; the descendants decide among themselves how to divide up any inheritance. As Mongolians become wealthier and family members live further apart, lawyers are going to come into their own.

I like modern living. This past week in Mongolia has reinforced my appreciation of indoor plumbing, being able to eat foods other than meat and dairy, and security from wind, rain, bugs and wild animals. But there are other things I could do without.

If I had a chance to start human development all again, I would make choices. Mongolians have a chance to make theirs.

Gee Kin Chou, June 29, 2016

12 Tricks for Mongolian Ger Survival

I just realize that my posts have been pretty dry and humorless in the past few months. It’s hard to laugh with yourself unless you are reminded at times. Now that I have a traveling partner, we share the perspective on how we travel–the good, the bad, the fun, the pain. Laughter is the best medicine to get you through all situations.

Here are a few pointers for those contemplating a stay in a ger. There’s nothing like creating a list from real life experience.

  1. Duck your head when entering the low door opening. Oops, didn’t someone already warn me about that!?!
  2. Ask for extra blankets regardless of 90 degree weather in the daytime. Temperatures changes dramatically at night. ( hey, I thought I asked earlier?)
  3. Have the stove heated twice a day. Once before bedtime around 8 pm and once around 7 am before (thinking about it then is too late) you get up. The guide or staff will ask, but make sure it is customized to your waking and sleeping hours! It needs to be timed to when you are undressing and dressing. Notify staff or guide in advance if they don’t ask. This is your only option as there is no other thermostat in the room.(where ARE they?)
  4. Wear hiking boots , not just for hiking but for getting to the outdoor loos in knee high wet grass in the middle of the night and 6″ deep puddles during rain (Damn, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park?)
  5.  Use the futon or comforter as a sleeping bag and roll the edges around your body to eliminate air gaps (and bugs…or am I getting paranoid?)
  6. Use the long tongs for wood  from the stove for removing large black beetles from the sides of tent
  7. Do not be deterred by rain snow sleet or hail. Use garbage cans, trays, and water bottles during the time you are inside to catch any of the above that may inadvertently enter your ger.
  8. Fondle the felt when you first enter the ger. It will reassure you that you will be kept warm, away from most bugs except those that crawl under the gaps through the ground or fly in through the door or opening at the roof plastic. Don’t be disheartened by silly rodents that run over the tops of the ger roof or the moths that cluster outside the skylight plastic. They provide a sweet symphony to lull you to sleep. The felt also protects you from heat and inclement weather. (If you want to know what direction you are facing, the ger doors always face south.)
  9. Decide if you want light by leaving the door open or bugs flying around  the ger before bed. You get both if you leave the door open. Remember that if bugs have a hard time getting out if they manage to get in.
  10. Keep your voice down. If you hear others in the next ger, they can hear you.(Oops ! Have I been shouting? Remember whatever you say comes back to you in a round chamber)
  11. Avoid spending any brain power on the dung being used in the stove as the material contrary to common thought does not smell. If firewood is used, appreciate how far it has come to a neighborhood near you. The smell is only temporary as the stove will not be burning except when you are dressing. (unless you are crazy enough to come outside of the tourist season).
  12. Should you not find any hooks mounted in the walls, simply drape your clothing over any surface areas. Use the chair seats or backs, headboards or beds, and tables in the room. Avoid stuffing clothing between the cross slats in walls or structural ribs in the ceiling as they may cause the ger to collapse.

Above all, remember that Mongolians have been living in gers for centuries and the ger camps are providing you with this experience. They don’t need our advice on advancing civilization. They ruled it for over 200 years and have survival in their DNA.

from Travels with Myself and Others, June 2016

ADVENTURE 2 will be in Beijing, China, Kublai Khan’s great conquest, and a stop in the direction of the Great Silk Road.

A note to the newbies: This was part of my third, around-the-world, live (except for technical glitches), real time journey. As an architect, my interests are in Planning, Design, and Architecture professionally; archaeology, anthropology, and art history, Silk Road history, opera, culture and food emotionally; UNESCO-focused, independent travel; and everything in between.

A REPOST FROM 2016 WORLD TRAVELS: Day 59: Vladivostok, Russia

Here are some first views of Vladivostok coming from the north by train on arrival at sunset the night before:

Dinner at Three Brothers across from the hotel, complete with live American jazz music for $30 for both of us with wine

Evening Entertainment: Portugal vs. Wales with Rinaldo scoring 1 of 2 goals

IMG_4475

If you were visiting Vladivostok for the first time like we were, you could start an early morning walk at the Friday morning Central food market:

You can take a minibus to the new Mariinskiy Opera and Ballet Theatre. It is hosting the first International Piano Competition at the end of this month. I predict that it will be a great draw for concerts, ballet and opera in the future. You might consider taking a trip to attend this magnificent new venue and the emerging new productions and stars that will perform here!

After that, you can catch a bus back to the city and stop at the Lookout Point over the new Golden Bridge completed in 2012. Does the design look familiar to you?

IMG_4541

Later in the day, get your cultural brains in gear and visit the Primorie Art Gallery. When we attended, it was showing an exhibition of Russian Art from 1700-1900. We were intrigued with the very personal touches of each painting, that may have reflected or imitated more famous Western paintings of the same era. Sargent, Picasso, and Matisse came to mind.

There were also a number of startling paintings that represented new subjects seldom seen in paintings of the same era. Chinese or Muslim figures were represented in historical settings that required more context and explanation. Unfortunately, all paintings were titled in Russian or limited English.

At the end of the day, kick back and have dinner at the Three Brothers for evening meal. This was our return visit from the night before. The outdoor dining was perfect for the cool balmy weather of Vladivostok. The city is very similar to San Francisco, with hills, coastal fog, city views everywhere, and a lively ambience. We’re in love with this city of 2 Million!! This city is destined to be a big tourist destination in the next 10 years, so come soon.

Turkey Wrap

Sadly, our weeklong foray into the dazzling Blue Aegean coast of Turkey has come to an end. Daughter Melissa‘s quest for the freshest, most creative food did not disappoint. I came for the connoiseur’s ride.

Turkish 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 one of Turkey‘s finest features.

Emphasis on Ephesus

Our visit to the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey 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 Melissa’s 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 local locanta.

Izmir Locanta
Izmir Bazaar Favorite among locals

This is where the locals dine 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 secured!


Stewed Eggplant
Ephesus

The short 40 minute drive from Izmir to Bodrum 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!

Day 45-48: Vienna Schnitzel

Vienna is very deceptive. At first glance, you see alot of well-built, sterile looking buildings that have been well maintained and proud of it. Street sweepers are a common sight so you have to skirt around them more often than you expect. But the endless rows of buildings, ornate details, heavy duty hardware and deluxe glazing make the city seem drab.

By Day Four (today) of my two week stay here, my opinion is reversed. The unbefore-seen 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.

You would be completely missing out on Vienna if you only saw St. Stephan’s in the center of town, the Opera House (on summer break), 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 the current menu. If you inadvertently end up there anyway, the center of town is only used to get one’s bearing for the rest of the city’s bright and newly minted cultural activities.

The Cultural Program

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 you almost require a guide to find these hidden gems.

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.

The Class

There are 14 students, most of whom are German language teachers. They 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.

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 must get a promotion for enrolling more students in advanced levels. We’ll see if he gets his promo after he gets the report on retention.

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.

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.

More later as the class progresses.

Day 30-33: A Looka at 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.

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.

We were in Italy for a wedding over the weekend. On Elba Island to be exact. 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:

I’m off to Faro, Portugal for a week filled with art and sketching. Am traveling via Florence and Paris as stopovers. Stay tuned…

Day 26-29: Armenian Rhapsody

The Haghartsin Monastery and Churches range from the 10th-13th Centuries, and are a fascinating example of early medieval/late Byzantine architecture. The heavy basalt walls protected the churches from earthquakes, but a considerable amount of renovation and restoration work was still needed.

The thick walls supported small chapels with heavy domes made of stone. Nevertheless, the simplicity of the structures provided a timeless quality and soothing relief to the 90+ degree weather. The main church is dedicated to St. Gregory. You can read more about it here: https://www.advantour.com/armenia/tavush/agartsin-monastery.htm

Along Lake Sevan, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, the Sevanarank Monastery was built in 874. It’s surprising to find these early examples of Christian architecture that never made it into the art history lectures. Our Eurocentric focus has neglected the early beginnings of ecumenical architecture.

I am now customizing my own studies of architectural history and history. By visiting the trans-Caucasus countries, I realize how little we have learned about these countries and the significant roles they played during the “Dark Ages” in feudal and medieval Europe. We could have been learning about what was developing in other parts of the world, especially where it was not “dark”.

Want people?

Followers have noted that my photos are strangely absent of people. I’m not sure whether it is a blessing or a curse, but I do tend to avoid inadvertent passers-by to preserve my architectural shots. It takes some patience but basically a stealth-bomber approach as soon as the coast is clear. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get distracted by interesting people who are the subject matter themselves. And don’t be misled. There are plenty of tourists wandering around everywhere, so I may in fact be distorting the scene. The good news: we have run into very few Americans along our route.

Groups of Tourists descend from the Cascade Monument, Yerevan, Armenia

Food for Thought

With a bit of effort, delicious healthy food such as vegetable plates with presentation flair are inexpensive and available.

Cafesjian Center for the Arts

As part of the “Cascade”, an outdoor stairway system that ascends halfway up a steep hill in the middle of the city, an art museum is located adjacent to the escalator system serving the stairs. Sculpture is placed in layers as one moves along the escalators and views artwork at an enjoyable pace. The Cascade Monument was erected to commemorate the 2780th anniversary of the founding of Yerevan with an equal number of stairs.

Genocide Museum, Yerevan, Armenia

No visit would be complete without learning about the Armenian Genocide in 1915-20. An estim 600,000 and 1.5 million people were systemmatically killed by Turks in three phases: first by forcing men into labor groups without means of survival; next, by decapitating intellectuals and leaders of Armenia; and third, by rounding up women and children and sending them into the desert. The Turkish government has yet to acknowledge its responsibility in causing so many deaths.

All Armenians (3 million) and the Armenian diaspora (approx. 8 million) know about this tragedy. Funds for public and private projects such as the Cafesjian Center are sponsored by Armenians living outside of Armenia to help support the country today.

Armenia was the first countries to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Unless you majored in Religion or Theological Studies, you probably would not be familiar with the numerous stories fron the Old and New Testament quoted when visiting the early Armenian Christian churches. They helped to shed light on the activities of about 1100 years between the 3rd C CE and the 13th C. CE of devout Christian belief and that continues today.

Coincidentally, Gregory “the Illuminator” had a lot to do with the designating of sites or inspiring a number of them.

The Holy See of Armenia was the residence of the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a monastery, and cathedral. It contained a museum in which the hierarchical aspects of the Catholica, archbishop and bishop, such as vestments, decorative items and tapestries were preserved. One of the most interesting was a reliquary covered by a piece of petrified wood purported to be from Noah’s ark.

Zvartnots Cathedral

What appeared from a distance to look like a version of Stonehenge, the ruins of this round cathedral served as the holy see, until an earthquake collapsed the stone dome above it. Only the arches and columns remain, as well as remains of the dormitories for monks and communal spaces.

Geghard Monastery

This UNESCO listed monastery and church complex was started in the 3rd C CE and was partly carved into the mountain. Many small caves behind the monastery were used by the monks for individual meditation.

We’re very sad to leave this part of the world behind. The wealth of UNESCO world sites speak for its significance in the development of mankind and societies. Politics reign above all and challenge our knowledge of these misunderstood countries. While we were only able to digest a few statistics and a small portion of its legacy, we are inspired to pursue further studies about the Caucasus.

Day 23-25: Georgia on My Mind

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 development 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.

Day 20-22: On the Trail of the Silk Road

Tracing the steps along the Silk Road– Samarkand, Bokhara, Isfahan–the namesakes of Oriental carpets–has formed the basis for my travels through Central Asia. Throughout Azerbaijan, the trail of the ancient route is evident, as traders plied the same track we are traveling, between Dagestan (part of Russia) and Iran.

We traveled through the baby Caucasus mountains northwesterly towards Georgia. Because of border disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, neither jurisdiction will allow direct access across their border. Tourists must transit through “neutral” Georgia to the other country. What’s bad for Armenia and Azerbaijan is good for Georgia.

Silk Road Caravansary

Similar to those in Iran and Uzbekistan, the caravansaries were stopping points for traders along the Silk Road. Camels were housed on the lower floor and provided heat for travelers who lived above. The central water fountain was used for cooling the space and was connected to the ventilation system. Traders could set up instant pop-ups to sell and barter their wares, before moving onto the next station.

In the nearby town of Lahij, local items made of wool, herbs, and copperware are sold similar to those traded along the Silk Road in the 5th Century.

Petroglyphs, Gobustan National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)

from the Neolithic period, these petroglyphs may not be as elegant as those in Alta Mira or Lascaux, but the 6,000 petroglyphs in this area certainly were evidence of man’s need to communicate. Animals being hunted, a focus on females for child bearing and men hunting were typical images carved into the sandstone rocks where they lived.. I was excited by the chance to see these markings by our ancient artists, carved en plein air in a spectacular setting.

Yanardag Mountains

For several hundred years, natural gas burned openly and continuously in the Yanardag Mountains. It’s not surprising that religious rites sprung from man’s early encounter with these unexplainable phenomenon. In the town of Surakhany, the Ateshgah Temple was used for fire worshippers. Zorastrians and HIndus travel from India to visit the temple. You can read more about it below.

This temple reminded us of our first introduction to the Zorastrian religion in Iran (Thus Spake Zarasthustra!) as well as the Fire Temple in Yasd.

Juma Mosque

Considered the largest mosque in Azerbaijan, its sandstone walls were a contrast to the blue mosaic decorations more commonly used in mosques I visited in Iran and Uzbekistan. The mosque was rebuilt after earthquakes and fire damaged the building.

Miscellany

Day 19: Baku, Azerbaijan

City Sights

We headed to the high point of the city for an overview of the city skyline. At -28m below sea level, it is inperceptible that the area was covered by water, then receded multiple times in the past. The Caspian is called a sea for this reason–that the salt water from what was once part of the ocean differentiates it from from a fresh-water lake.

The Martyr’s shrine commemorates the 200 fallen rebels who led the second revolution in 1990. While being freed from Soviet rule and becoming independent, this was not the first attempt. Azerbaijan was established as a nation in 1920 as told by the Ali and Nino story I mentioned in the last post. Its success was short-lived however. The Russians came back and dominated the country for another 70 years before they relinquished power.

The Flaming Towers are Baku’s latest hotel, office, and condominium high rises that proudly display the city’s oil wealth and future. The capital of Azerbaijan was moved to Baku in the 12th century to this prominent peninsula on the west side of the Caspian Sea.

Shirvan Shah’s Palace and Museum

Architecture Inside Baku’s Old City Walls

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old City in Baku has renovated its historic buildings for public view.

Miniature Book Museum

Founded by an Azerbaijani woman, this museum contains over 8,000 volumes of miniature reproductions from books collected throughout the world, including Western, eastern, and local literature. This museum is cited in the Guiness Book of Records!

Baku’s Friendly People

Heydar Aliyev Center by Zaha Hadid

This new building designed by Zaha Hadid, the world-famous Iraqi architect, has won numerous international accolades for its sweeping bold design. The museum displays Azeri culture and commemorates Azerbaijan’s former president, Heydar Aliyev.

Hadid created a vision and inspiration for the next generation of architects. Its womby curves and vast proportions offers a three-dimensional fly-through in real time. From the exterior, the building looks like a huge beached whale.

Museum Collection and Interior Details

Art Doll Collection

I couldn’t help but become fixated not only by the historic costumes and expressive faces of the dolls in this collection, but also by the exquisite, life-like hand gestures.