November 09, 2005
Just because we could, we caught a train to Vienna. We were only there for a day and a half. But we explored the old town center and the famous black church and amused ourselves with trying to remember German, which is very similar to Austrian.
From Vienna we took a boat down the Danube to Bratislava (Slovak Republic). We ended up carrying our backpacks around for hours looking for a hostel. When we finally found a room for the three of us it was outrageously priced. We took one look at the room and fell down laughing. Three twin beds sat disheveled on the floor of this tiny room, it was dirty and dingy. We decided that there was only one thing to do. Go to the bars. And so we did. We all took shots of Absinthe, a green liquor made from wormwood. It's illegal in most countries (including the US) because its alcohol content is so high. The three of us raised our glasses and swallowed...our throats burned, our eyes turned red and we were all coughing...that was easily the strongest stuff I've ever tasted!
The black church in Vienna
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Leaving Krakow, we made a mistake. In an effort to conserve funds we bought second class train tickets to Prague, Czech Republic. It was a 9-hour overnight trip. The three of us, backpacks in tow, climbed onto the train at 11PM. We found our way to our reserved car. What did we find in our tiny compartment? FIVE big, sweaty, stinky Italian men. Some cruel twist of fate had squeezed us into this 8-seater compartment with these guys. Needless to say, none of us slept much. The 3AM border crossing was a piece of cake, and we arrived in Prague at 6AM tired and dirty.
Our luck changed in Prague, however and we easily found a cute 1 bedroom apartment to rent for 3 days.
Prague is a beautiful city. I would not recommend visiting in August. There were throngs of other tourists. Never fear, we did not let that deter us. We still had quite an adventure exploring this little piece of Bohemia. We spent a day at the castle. Mom and I took our leave of Jim once or twice to do some shopping. We saw a marionette performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni...and I must say that if you are going to sit through an opera, this is a more palatable way to do it!
We indulged in plenty of Czech beer, music (lots of polkas!) and food!
Here I must mention my excitement at visiting a part of what used to be Bohemia. When I was a child and would come home from school with an assignment to find out my nationality, I would ask my mother and she would reply; from my side you are 1/4 German, 1/8 French and 1/8 Polish. My father would reply; we are Bohemian! For some reason my teachers always frowned at that answer. At long last I was visiting my ancestors homeland!
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From St. Petersburg we made our way to Warsaw. All three of us were struck by the beauty of Warsaw, the old town square is surrounded by multicolored historic buildings, art vendors and musicians are everywhere. We spent much time walking the cobblestone streets and sitting in cafes. We also found our way to the place of the ghetto uprising and followed a series of plaques and monuments commemorating the brave men and women who fought back during WWII.
We took the train north, to the town of Gdansk and the coast of the Baltic Sea.
From there we returned to Warsaw and said goodbye to Mary.
Two days later, my mom, Terri flew into Warsaw from the US. We swept her away to Krakow. From there we spent one day walking around Auschwitz. It was a somber day. Despite the crowds of people there, we could feel what had happened there.
We also got a chance to explore the Wieliczka salt mines. The mines are unbelievably extensive and intricate. There is even a huge underground chapel, with an alter, statues and chandeliers all made from salt!
August 12, 2005
For our visit to St. Petersburg we had an ace up our sleeve: We had friends living there! Sally, and her husband Mike had just taken up residence in the city last May after Mike won a scholarship to do graduate work in Economics at a University there. They proved to be excellent hosts.
Our first day in the city we made a bee-line to the Hermitage, the former home of the Tsars, which now holds one of the most spectacular collections of art in the world. We had a three hour guided tour including everything from DaVinci, and Monet to the famous Faberge eggs and the Tsarina's jewels.
The next day Sally and Mike joined us for a trip to Peter the Great's Peterhoff (the former summer residence of the tsars). When Peter the Great saw Versailles he vowed to create something even more spectacular. After a short boat ride we arrived at the palace. The gardens were enormous and the fountains spectacular. The most impressive factoid about the fountains is that they run entirely without pumps, they use gravity to move the water. The detail in the sculpture work is intricate, every sculpture, railing and awning was well thought-out and delicately crafted.
Our last night in town we attended a ballet performance of Romeo and Juliette in the Marinski theater. It was breathtaking. I was sitting on the edge of my seat for the entire performance, the orchestra was enchanting, and the fluidity of the dancers was mesmerizing.
August 05, 2005
MOSCOW - So what a change to go from the far east to the doorstep of Europe!
After watching the world roll by our window for nearly a week it was finally time to engage the world again. Although we were admittedly a little frightened to leave our safe cocoon of comfort we were soon navigating our way to our hotel via the Moscow subway.
Our arrival in Moscow by train also marked another fun occasion: We were to be joined by my mother, Mary, for two weeks. So the next day we again took the subway to one of Moscow's 5 airports to meet her. From there we made by taxi to our gigantic soviet era hotel the Rossiya. This place was truly a gargantuan at 2900 rooms, but the location could not be beat with Red Square just outside our window.
We all got a thrill to be actually walking in Red Square - a place none of us would have ever dreamed we'd be visiting only 15 years ago. It was not impressive in size, but the sense of history was palpable: On one side the famous St. Basil's cathedral erected during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, on another the looming red walls of the Kremlin and the tomb of Vladimir Lenin.
The next day we passed though those mysterious Kremlin walls. Despite its association with the atheist Soviet regime the Kremlin is home to many religious buildings, including "Cathedral Square," with three major eastern orthodox churches within spitting distance of each other. We opted to get a guide to show us around and so we were whizzed around by the enthusiastic Alla who crammed our heads full of factoids and anecdotes about the place.
We finished our visit with a stop at the Armory - which we had to have Alla bribe our way into, don't ask (apparently this type of thing is SOP in Russia). The armory houses a huge collection of Tsarist era booty: Extravagent gowns worn by Catherine the Great et all, Coronation Carriages with enough gold to blind you if you look at them directly, scepters, crowns, gold, swords, gold, silver and more gold. Perhaps the most interesting were the elaborate fabregie eggs used as gifts - one of which opened with a button on top to reveal a model of the trans-siberia train cast in gold. People just don't give gifts like that anymore!
To continue the train thing we spent part of our last day touring the Moscow Metro ( the name of their subway system). Not your average tourist destination? You bet, but this is not your average subway system. One of the intersting things about the subway here is that it every few of the 12 seperate lines was built during a different soviet leader's regime with a corresponding difference in style - often a dramatic difference. Most unique and impressive are the lines built by Stalin. As part of his grand show he made sure the lines would impress vistors with the "prosperity of the Soviet Republic."
Impressive they are - with imported marble, gold fixtures, glittering chandiliers and towering mosaics these stations are like underground palaces. They run deep below the city as well; sometimes as far down as 200 meters (over 600 ft) because the subway doubled as bomb shelters.
We said farewell to Moscow with a boat trip down the Moscow river, taking in many of its important buildings along the way.
August 02, 2005
Ahhh, the Trans-Siberian, or more accurately the Trans-Mongolian. We climbed aboard at 7:30 AM on July 27th and the train pulled out of Beijing station exactly 10 minutes later, right on schedule. We had booked a first-class, two-bed berth, meaning that we had our own private little compartment.
We had learned about this train trip months earlier while reading a great travel book called A Fortune Teller Told Me. I was cautiously curious about the train trip. I had never been on a train for more than an hour or two and we were looking at being on a train for six days straight!
And so began our trip in car number nine compartment number three. Most of our neighbors were tourists like us who intended to remain on the train from Beijing to Moscow. There were 4 Japanese men in their 60's on a two week vacation, a Finish couple who were moving back to Finland after having lived in China for 2 years, a Scottish traveler, two people who had been teaching English in Japan and were returning to the UK...etc.
The first day took us through the mountains north of Beijing and under two different sections of the great wall. We enjoyed free meals from the Chinese dining car for lunch and dinner, so we did not have to break into our seemingly immense bags of groceries that we had brought for the 6 day trip.
Around 10 PM we arrived at the Mongolian border. We were a tiny bit nervous because we had not gotten a visa for Mongolia. We had found conflicting information regarding whether or not we needed one...and had decided against spending another day at an embassy and in turn risked being turned back to China. We got lucky, no questions were asked, the officials climbed onto the train, took our passports, stamped them, and we were on our way. Not long after we had a 1 hour stop to change the wheels of the train. Long ago when the tracks were built, they made the tracks in China a different gague (10 cm. different!) than those in Russia and Mongolia (to protect their borders). The process was very involved and quite impressive. They lifted the entire train up about 10 feet after disconnecting the wheel beds rolled them out and rolled in the new wheels. There were a few unsuspecting passengers who got stuck on the train during this noisy process, they were sticking their heads out of the windows to see what was going on.
I awoke the next morning and looked out of the window at a seemingly endless sand-scape. We were in the middle of the Gobi desert. As the day passed, I dug deeper into the new Harry Potter book (which Jim was quasi-patiently waiting for me to finish) and watched as we passed from the desert into beautiful mountains. The Mongolians are nomadic peoples and most who live outside the capital city of Ulan Bator live in large tents called yurts. The hills were spotted with herds of cattle, goats, and yurts. At one point I glanced up from my book to see a Mongolian cowboy riding atop a camel and waving at our passing train. Before I could reach for the camera, he was gone.
Late that night we arrived at the Russian border. This was a long, drawn out process of about 4 hours. Our cabins were searched (presumably for stow-aways...I have no idea why anyone would want to sneak into Russia) by a stone-faced border official and after numerous pieces of paper were reviewed, filled out, and stamped we were on our way.
The Chinese conductors took good care of us. They kept our big metal thermos filled with boiling hot water, which we used to make most of our meals. We enjoyed just about every variety of noodle bowl that is sold in China, tons of green tea, and various other food-like products that you can pour boiling water on to make edible.
Siberia was beautiful. The land was green and lush, wooden houses with immense gardens dotted the countryside. Early afternoon on day three we arrived at Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world. For 7 hours our train cruised next to the lake. It seemed that all along the waterfront people were camping, swimming and sunbathing.
As we stopped at the station at Novisbrisk, many of us climbed off of the train and onto the platform with the conductors telling us that we only had 10 minutes until leaving. Many of the Chinese and Mongolians on the train also piled off. In their arms they carried large bundles of clothes (jeans mostly) and in seconds they were surrounded by locals wanting to get a deal on the cheep clothes. We were surrounded by Russian women selling fresh fruit and vegetables from their gardens. We got cucumbers, tomatoes, pickles, raspberries and some cheese and fresh bread to make ourselves a gourmet lunch (well...gourmet for the train).
Days four and five passed much too quickly. I finished Harry Potter and Jim dug in, we celebrated our fellow passenger Matt's birthday with Russian vodka and champagne, took lots of photos of the train, learned about Finland and watched the world go by.
The end of the ride ended abruptly at 2 in the afternoon at the Moscow station. We all filed off of the train uncertainly and lingered in the station together before Jim and I took our leave and headed for the metro.
(Jae, even though the majority of people smoke in China and Russia, the smoke on the train wasn't invasive in our car. Most people smoked in the dining car and in the 2nd class cars.)
Celebrating Matt's birthday in the Russian dining car.
July 25, 2005
We've gotten a little behind on entries here in China because the internet connections are pretty slow...and we've been doing some traveling outside of cities....(we hope to fill in the gaps in the next couple of weeks)
We leave the morning of the 27th (July) from Beijing and head to Moscow. We are taking the trans-siberian railroad. We'll be on the train for 6 days straight, watching the world go by....
We arrive Moscow August 1st. Jim's mom, Mary will be meeting us in Moscow the next day. We're both so excited to see family!!! It's been a long time!
July 20, 2005
Lisa and I left Beijing seperately: She caught a flight to Chengdu to take some Qi Gong classes and I boarded an overnight train to Xi'an the next day.
Chinese trains are very clean and efficient for the most part and I settled in to my 16 hour journety happily. Before long I had met some english-speaking chinese travellers and was passing the hours in friendly conversation. I tried, however badly, to practice and learn some chinese from them, but thankfullly they had a much firmer handle on my mother tongue than I had could hope to have on theirs.
I arrrived in Xi'an, the ancient capital of China, in the early morning and found accomodation in a dormitory not far from the station. I spent the day poking around the city. Despite its rich history I found that, much like the rest of China, the city seemed eager to shed its old shell and run headlong into the 21st century. New 5 star hotels and nameless office buildings were being errected somewhat haphazardly and threatening to crowd out the ancient wall that still surrounds the old part of the city.
Still, from my vantage on a bicycle (hired for about $1 per day) I was able to zoom around several of the citiy's interesting neighborhoods, including the Muslim quarter where I spent some time snacking on some delicious food at the numerous store-front kitchens.
The real attraction of Xi'an lies outside the city proper however at the amazing army of terocotta warriors and I paid them a visit the next day. It really is an entire army of life-sized ceramic warrors built as part of the emperor's burial entourage in 300 BC. The soldiers lie almost 2km from the actual tomb and the army was only discovered in the 1970's when some local farmers were sinking a well in the area.
Today the area is a national treasure, proclaimed by some as the "8th wonder of the ancient world," and protected by a stadium-like enclosure. Despite the hype though they are still an impressive site.
From Xi'An I took another overnight train to Chengdu in the Sichuan Province in southwest china. This time I was accompanied by a canadian and his korean girlfriend I had met. That night we went out to sample the local dining sensation "hot pot." The center of the table is a boilding pot of water, oil and spices in which you cook your selection of food. There is a chinese saying that China is the place for food and Sichuan is the place for flavor. Flavor in this instance apparently means spicy because even a lot of the locals seemed to be suffering from the intensity of the hot pot.
I stayed another two days in Chengdu mainly so that I could visit the excellent Panda reasearch center just outside the city. Any chance to an an exotic animal like this continues to be a major high on this trip.
On my last day I went to the local people's park that afternoon hoping to spend afew quiet hours over a cup of tea and a book. Instead I found a mob of locals singing and dancing and I was drawn in. I met a local man named Damon (his "english" name anyway) and we talked for a while about movies. Before I knew it we were singing "Eidlweiss" karoke-style in front of the crowd and a few dancing couples! Although I was mostly drowned out by the music and my co-star the locals seemed to get a real kick out of this foreigner. I had to be careful though as they take their karoke very seriously in this country.
I boarded an early bus the next morning to head deeper into the south west part of the Sichuan province on the border with Tibet. Although the area today is technically part of the Sichuan province it was once known as Kham - part of what was formerly the seperate state of Tibet. Indeed the elevation, mountain scenery and local culture is all evocative of a Tibetan postcard.
Originally I had intended on doing some trekking in this area, but time and weather were not on my side. I was delayed by rain and had to take more time to acclimatize than I had planned. Instead Lisa rejoined me and we took a wild bus ride to Litang - a wild cowboy town on a high (4100m) grassland. We loved it here - Maybe it was the little restaurant we found with the very excitable and delightable chef, Mr. Zhan. Or perhaps it was the wild west atmosphere with long-haired teens driving their tassled motorcycles, or the serenity and friendliness of the nearby Tibetian Lamasary where I met "mini-monk." Whatever the case we were charmed and if we didn't have a train to catch back up in Beijing we surely could have been tempted to stay.
The chance for tremendous hiking alone is enough to put this area on our list of "must return someday" places.
Jim and "mini-monk"
July 17, 2005
From our hostel WAY outside of Beijing we headed north to the section of the great wall at Mutianu. It is supposedly about 2 hours north of the city. However, our driver didn't seem to know how to get there. As we pulled off of the road to ask for directions for the 5th time, Jim pulled out our Mandarin phrase book and began reading out sentences in Chinese to the driver, who is either really good at ignoring insults, or had absolutly no idea what Jim was saying. He would repetedly say random things from the phrasebook, for example: "Is this taxi ride free?", "To the Great wall, if you don't mind!", and I have not menstruated in six weeks."...mind you, this was all in Chinese...or some approximation of the language. Our driver did not show any hint of comprehension as we rolled in laughter.
After a scenic tour of the countryside we arrived at THE WALL. We decided that in 35 degree (C) heat we were going to be tough and climb up the mountain to get to the wall, unlike the locals and most other westerners who were riding up in a gondola. After a hot and humid hike we found ourselves standing atop of the great expanse of human construction. The air out in the mountains was a bit lighter and patches of blue sky could be seen through puffy white clouds (unlike in the city, where the haze barely allows you to see to the end of the block). It seemed that every way we looked we could see a part of the wall snaking around a peak or winding through a valley. The extent of this wall is, well, rediculous.
We ended up spending almost 4 hours walking on top of the wall, in the hot sun, with hundreds of other tourist. Much of the portion of the wall we were allowed to walk on, had undergone massive reconstruction. At one point we walked up to the furthest point that had been refurbished and peered beyond at the pile of crumbling rocks, overgrown grasses and mosses. This is what most of the hundreds of miles of this great wall of protection have come down to, piles of crumbling rock.
July 16, 2005
Beijing: The undisputed center of the Chinese world. A city with as much history, complexity and appetite for change as China itself.
We were on the outside - quite literally.
While Beijing may not be China's largest city in terms of population it certainly makes up for it by being spread out. The city is laid out in a series of concentric "ring roads" that circle the city a few kilometers apart. An expat we met said there are now at least 12 of these roads. The hostel we had booked in advance turned out to be on one of these outer ring roads.
Ever positive about our lot we decided that this meant we got to have the experience of taking the local transport - mainly buses and a basic subway system. We set out that first morning and packed onto a bus - literally packed onto it - if you ever doubt those figures about China's vast population then take public transport there, that's where they all are! Then we squuezed into a subway train. Almost two hours later we were in the heart of Beijing, and indeed China: Tianamen Square.
Emerging into the heat and haze of Tianamen Square the first thing that strikes you is its immensity - the plaza alone is over 3km long. The buildings themsleves are huge as well, with the "Hall of the People" covering about half the length of the plaza. All told the square is home to several important buildings all stamped with the tell-tale soviet architecture of square columns and concrete.
Suddenly two young chinese children were running towards us:
"Because you are so cool we want to have our picture with you"
And so it came to pass that I posed with these two enthusiastic kids for a photo. Lisa apparently was only cool enough to take the picture - a fact that she took gracefully.
We spent another day in Beijing exploring the Forbidden city - so called because as the Emperor's Palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties it was completely off limits to the general public. One noticeable fact about the Forbidden City today - especially if you visit on a weekend like we did - it is definetly not forbidden anymore.
We had to fight the hordes to get views of the amazing architecture and ornate rooms here. Despite that, and the fact that much of the palace is being renovated in anticipation of the 2008 summer olympics to be helfd in Beijing, we enjoyed a few hours perusing the sites. Our time here was made easier because we got self-guided audio tours (in english!) and were able to be pleasantly detatched from those around us.