Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Art”

Vietnam – Day 6

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

10 June 2017

Yesterday we felt a bit disappointed that we were staying in this wonderful hotel with a swimming pool one night only, so even though today’s excursion was supposed to start at 9am, we were up at 6.30 already, to have time to enjoy both a lovely breakfast with lots of fruits by the pool, and the pool itself.

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So at 9am sharp we checked out from the hotel and went on a walking tour around the Old Town. We were there last night already, but under daylight the streets look totally different, not to mention that we had explanations this time.

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The Old Town is really beautiful, after all it’s included in the list of UNESCO’s cultural heritage for a reason – in fact it’s so beautiful that even the 38C heat and the scorching sun, under which we had to walk for two hours, didn’t spoil the impression the least bit.

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We walked into the Old Town through the Japanese bridge, which back in the days used to separate the Japanese quarter from the Chinese one. The bridge was built almost 400 years ago, and since then is being periodically renovated, especially during the rain and flood season, when the water level rises and floods it. The bridge, just like everything in the Old Town, is decorated with lanterns – white ones, which is perfectly normal for the Japanese, and which, according to Nam, used to cause the displeasure of the Chinese, who consider white to be the colour of mourning.

The Old Town consists of several streets adjoining the Thu Bon river, on the other side of which we can see much newer buildings, but also stylized as old to attract tourists.

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I guess, in the daytime, the streets we are walking around look even more beautiful than in the evening, as the architecture of buildings and pretty blossoming trees are better visible, plus it’s much less crowded, and the lanterns, although not lit, are still there.

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Our tickets included four attractions of choice, and Nam started with the Chua Ong Pagoda located in Chinatown and built in the XVII century.

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Next in our programme was a visit to one of the oldest family houses in Hoi An. The family still lives here, on the first floor. We were only shown only the ground floor, where the interior was decorated with elements of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese styles. For example, there was an interesting writing in Chinese characters, where each character was comprised of birds cut out of mother-of-pearl.

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Next, we visited a little performance with songs, traditional dances with pots and fans and a game like bingo, where everyone was given a card with different Vietnamese words, and the singer sang a song and picked out the sticks on which the words were written. We weren’t the lucky ones to win, but some lady got a small silk lantern.

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I’m not really mentioning another pagoda we visited, especially since I don’t even remember its name, but the Old Town tour ended with a visit to Central Market. The idea of a big food market is nothing unheard of, but the goods displayed are very exotic to us: there are tons and tons of tropical fruits, and a huge amount of unfamiliar herbs (I already mentioned how I had the impression that the Vietnamese eat everything that grows), and different types of hot pepper, and also something looking like a huge dining area with cooked foods.

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That marked the end of our Hoi An tour, and we headed back to Danang, because that is where the airport, from which we were later supposed to fly to Hanoi, was located. But our tireless guide still had plenty of energy, so he arranged two more photostops for us. The first one was on the beach, from where the Lady Buddha statue was distinctly visible. To be honest, a beach doesn’t make much sense unless you can swim and sunbathe there, but nevertheless we took a couple of photos.

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The second stop is by the Han river, because one of the main attractions in Danang, where our guide lives, by the way, is a dragon-shaped bridge across this river. And nearby there is a marble statue shaped like a fish with the head of a dragon, for which Danang is sometimes called the second Singapore. The origin of this strage creature is from the legend about the koi carp, which will turn into a dragon if it can climb up a waterfall. The sculpture depicts exactly this moment of transformation.

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But even that wasn’t it yet – there was still a museum visit awaiting us. It was the Museum of Cham Sculpture and, quite honestly, it was already superfluous, as we were too exhausted by the terrible heat. But we still made a whirlwind tour around the museum. The museum hosts sculptures and architecture elements of the Champa kingdom, which existed in the Middle Ages in Central Vietnam and where Hinduism was practiced. The French archaeologist Henri Parmentier discovered these artifacts in the early 20th century, and this museum was opened as a result in 1919, thanks to which, they are still intact, as many other Cham sculptures and temples were damaged during the Indochina and Vietnam wars.

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Completely exhausted, we headed to the Danang airport. Nam escorted us to the check-in desk and even checked us in for the flight. We also had lunch right at the airport.

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The flight was delayed by 20-30 minutes, but then again we didn’t have to hang around at the airport on the back end, since there is no passport control on domestic flights. In Hanoi, we were picked up by our new guide, Sunny, and headed to the hotel.

On the way from the airport you immediately notice that Hanoi is different. But I haven’t yet fully understood what exactly makes it different from Saigon, for instance. Perhaps, it’s the fact that the city is more modern, yet has more old buildings, and even the people look different – I mean, however ridiculous this may sound, they more look like urban residents. The façades of buildings are very narrow, like everywhere else in Vietnam, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned before, but here we actually asked Sunny about the reason, and he explained that in the old days there was a special tax directly related to the width of the façade.

Our hotel is located in the Old Quarter, apart from which Hanoi also have the New and the French Quarters. While we were waiting to check in, we were treated to some nice refreshments, as usual.

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In the evening we walked up to the lake, also in the Old Quarter, to get some food, but the walk turned out to be more stress than pleasure. The traffic in the streets is even crazier than in Ho Chi Minh City, and the sidewalks are mostly non-functional – they are packed with parked scooters, street vendors and street food stalls with low tables and stools next to them – so one has to walk on the road, constantly shying away from scooters. On the other hand, there was such a thick crowd in the pedestrian zone near the lake, that even in the absence of vehicles it wasn’t too much fun either.

One of our observations in Vietnam, by the way, is about the general cleanliness. I mean, the streets are often chaotic, the sidewalks are cluttered, there is street food everywhere – yet, despite all this, there is no dirt, stench, rot and filth. Everything gets cleaned. Even toilets, albeit sometimes very shabby, are always clean and not disgusting.

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Vietnam – Day 5

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

9 June 2017

The day has been very intense, but, to be honest, with the occasional feeling that everyone wants money from you. In Ho Chi Minh City this feeling wasn’t there and we even got the impression that Vietnam is a country not yet spoiled by tourism, because this industry is still developing here. But the further you move to more tourist places, the more this impression is dissipated.

I’ll come back to that, but first things first. In the morning, we checked out of our hotel in Hue and headed to see the imperial tombs nearby.

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Today we have a new guide, a young man named Nam, who seems very diligent. Right on the outskirts of the city, we saw a lot of aromatic sticks for temples being sold along the roadside, and he asked the driver to stop the car so that we could see how they are made. Of course, the seller immediately started actively persuading us to buy regular souvenirs…

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As I said, according to the programme, we had mausoleum visits planned, and the first one was the mausoleum of Tu Duc, who was the fourth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and the last emperor of independent Vietnam – his successors ruled the French colony already. The presence of the ruling dynasty was perfectly acceptable for the French, since it facilitated the governing of people, so they didn’t get rid of it.

The mausoleum was built when Tu Duc was still alive and is not just a tomb, but in fact a whole complex that functioned as the Emperor’s summer cottage until his death, and later became home to his numerous wives and concubines.

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By the way, despite the fact that Tu Duc had a hundred or two wives and concubines, he did’t leave any offsprings, so his nephew inherited the throne after him.

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Interestingly, no one knows where exactly Tu Duc is buried in the mausoleum – it would seem logical that if there is a tomb, then that’s where he should be buried, but Nam explained to us that the emperor was clever and, considering the amount of treasures to be buried with him, he ordered to dig numerous tunnels under the territory of the mausoleum and bury him in one of them, so that no one knew where exactly. Nowadays, although with modern technologies determining the exact location wouldn’t be much of a problem, the government specifically decided not to do so.

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Our itinerary assumed that next we would go see the tomb of his grandfather – the very Minh Mang that I already mentioned in connection with traditional medicine. But Nam pointed out that even though the standard programme includes this mausoleum because of its convenient location, it is too similar to the first one, and, perhaps, we would find it more interesting if we went to see something different. So, he suggested another mausoleum instead, located slightly further – that of Khai Ding, the 12th and the penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, who ruled in the early 20th century. We agreed.

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This mausoleum was indeed completely different – the architecture contained mixed elements of both traditional Oriental and European styles. The territory was quite small in comparison with the previous complex, which had pavilions, gardens and a lake, but the mausoleum took 11 years to build, whereas the previous one took only three.

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This is not surprising at all, because the tomb itself is truly luxurious: the walls are decorated with various types of ceramics – local Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese – and the ceilings are painted with 99 dragons, in such way that you can’t track the beginning and end of each.

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So, the buildings are impressive, I could totally have walked around here for a long time if it hadn’t been for the unbearable heat, which made me want to get back into the car as quickly as possible.

It’s time to say goodbye to Hue and move on, heading to to Hoi An, where we should spend the night. But on the way to Hoi An there is still much to see!

The road started climbing up the mountains, and the places around were becoming more and more picturesque. We stopped every now and then to take pictures, then had a short comfort stop in some roadside cafe, which was part of a family business for production of oysters and pearls – right here, across the road, there was a large shallow lake where the molluscs were bred.

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There is actually a tunnel through the mountain, but we drove over the Hai Van Pass instead to enjoy the picturesque views of the green slopes and the sea.
At the summit of the pass we made a photo-stop yet again, as there are some ruins that used to be a French fortress, and later an American bunker.

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The road from Hue to Danang, where we are going, takes two hours. We don’t stop in Danang itself, but Nam told us that the city is quite new, industrial, and has a large seaport – back in the days, the port was located in Hoi An, where we are heading eventually, but the French transferred it right here.

Actually, back when we were booking our tour, we made a special request to visit Danang, as we wanted to see the statue of Lady Buddha. That is why we were taken to the Son Tra mountain, also known as the Monkey Mountain, where this statue is located. Besides the statue, there is a whole complex with carved gates and the Linh Ung pagoda.

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The pagoda is quite new, built in 2010, and the statue is even newer. I must say, Lady Buddha is very impressive, and no wonder: it is 70 metres high, made of a single piece of marble and can be seen from a long distance, almost 35km. It’s facing the bay, since it is supposed to protect sailors – it resonates with the Chinese goddess Tin Hau, perhaps the idea is even inspired by her. I was generally surprised by the idea of a female Buddha, but Nam explained that even though Buddha is a man in Indian Buddhism, in the Chinese version of Buddhism, under the influence of which this temple complex was built, there is also a female Buddha for balance (like yin and yang).

Apart from Lady Buddha, there is also a small Laughing Buddha statue nearby, which is said to bring good luck if you rub his belly. We stand in front of him to take a picture of Lady Buddha, and suddenly we hear loud sounds from the pond, resembling a dog barking, which turn out to be toads croaking!

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Nam suggested that we have lunch in Danang on our way to the statue, but we were anxious that it might rain like it did yesterday in the pagoda of the Heavenly Lady and ruin the sightseeing experience that we’d been looking forward to from the very beginning, so we preferred to see Lady Buddha first, while the weather was still good (albeit very hot) and have lunch later when we get to Hoi An.

Along the coastline all the way from Danang to Hoi An we saw a huge number of hotels and fancy five-star beach resorts, but even more than the already existing ones were still under construction – clearly, tourism is developing extensively in this region and in the future Danang intends to compete with the resorts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

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On the way, we made another stop, although our stomachs were already dreaming about food, at a marble factory, which there are quite a few of in Vietnam, and they showed us how marble statues were made. Looking at the statues themselves was actually more interesting than observing the production process: there were smaller replicas of the Lady Buddha statue, other Buddha statues, various animals and mythical creatures, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary (10% of the Vietnamese population are Catholics). At the factory we were also very actively solicited to buy souvenirs, but we didn’t like the little figurines that much and the big statues would obviously be quite problematic to buy.

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Thank goodness, there were now only a few kilometres separating us from our desired lunch, and finally we stopped at some roadside restaurant. First, for some reason, we had pretty low expectations of the restaurant – probably, because it was located right next to the noisy highway and, since the owner was apparently working in the kitchen by himself, the service wasn’t too prompt – but then we were served delicious salads and grilled fish, and also treated with orange slices and chewing gum when we asked for the bill, so our opinion of the restaurant made a complete U-turn.

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What Nam told us about Hoi An was that it is an old trading city, where the big seaport was located between the 16th and the 18th. Trade with China, Japan and European countries was conducted through the port, which is why there were many Chinese and Japanese living here.

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The city is famous for silk production, so we made yet another stop, this time at a silk factory. Here we saw all the stages of silk production – first some gross white worms swarming among mulberry leaves, then the cocoons, and then the thread and the finished fabric. Right at the factory, there is also a store selling ready-made fabrics and clothes and you can also order something from a tailor and get it ready the next, or even the same day. Generally in Hoi An, as we noticed, many ateliers provide similar services.

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Finally, we got to the Little Hoian Central hotel, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise for us. The hotel is a three-star one, but cannot even be compared, for example, with London three-star hotels, where you get a tiny room and a rather meagre breakfast – this one has an outdoor pool and a spa, the room is huge, with a balcony, and the interior is in the typical Asian Colonial style of the 19th century: even the phone and the plumbing are stylised.

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Since we were extremely tired, the pool and the spa came in really handy: first we washed off all the fatigue in the pleasant water, and then once again went for a wonderful massage.

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We had the evening free, so we made a sortie to the Old Town. One of Hoi An’s features is silk lanterns, and the whole Old Town is decorated with them, which makes it look particularly cool in the evening. The Old Town is only accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, and boy is it great to finally relax from these chaotic scurrying scooters everywhere! The zone is clearly very touristy, and there are mostly shops selling souvenirs, silk clothes and lanterns. The crowd is very thick, there are lots of foreign tourists, and even more local ones: it’s summer now, children have holidays, so many families travel around the country.

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There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants, and we decide to have dinner in one of them, attracted by the nice view of its outdoor seating area among bamboos. It was a good choice – we ordered grilled fish again, and mine was wrapped in banana leaves and incredibly tasty. Plus we were entertained by lovely music: there is an international choir competition happening now in Hoi An, and the performance took place right in the street near our restaurant.

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Singapore – Day 5

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28 November 2013

The day turned out very diverse in content which ranged quite impressively from the Universal Studios amusement park to a classical concert. But – one thing at a time.

Since the day before we had spent very limited time on Sentosa, we decided to repeat the visit right in the morning, and started again from the beach, and from the same one. We had kind of got used to it somehow, but the beach attendant must have been having a senior moment: he asked us literally all the same set of questions as yesterday: where we were from, whether we spoke Russian, what kind of country Azerbaijan was and whether it was close to Kazakhstan.

Siloso Beach

Sentosa

Even though the attendant caused a puzzled laughter with his repetition, the sunny weather which also replicated that of the previous day, was accepted with joy. The water was unpleasantly different though: tons of algae had been brought by the wind, and there was also something stinging in the water.

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We hesitated a lot whether to visit the Universal Studios after all, or not. Having googled it thoroughly, we found out that it was basically nothing more than just an amusement park, and I personally am not a big fan of those. Nevertheless, we still decided to go and take a look – a very expensive look, I have to say.

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As a result, we, limited in time (due to the concert in the evening!) visited only three of the attractions. The first one was a complacent and almost childlike Sesame Street ride. The second one could have been the Transformers, but we noticed just in time that the ride included rotation and tipping upside down, which I absolutely can’t tolerate – and escaped.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

The one we found tempting was the attraction themed on the ‘Mummy’ and ancient Egypt. And that’s where our adventure began! First of all, it turned out that we were not allowed to take anything inside – so everything, including bags, had to be locked in a locker. We accidentally shut the first one, even before we had time to read how to set a passcode for it, and had to call the attendant and ask him to open the locker, promising to show our passports as soon as the bags containing them would be removed from there. We then put our belongings in another locker, properly following the guidance. There was a sign saying that the first 45 minutes were free of charge, and we recklessly trusted the digital clock showing 15 minutes waiting time in the queue – so we didn’t take any money with us, especially that we didn’t even have pockets to put it in. And there we went, right into this hallway, imitating an Egyptian temple, where we got stuck in an endless queue in a totally dark corridor, which took nearly an hour. The ride itself was very short. We expected something absolutely scary, but it was rather fun, despite the dizzying turns forward, backward, up and down, as well as the roars and spits of fire of the Egyptian priests. When we finally got to our locker, we couldn’t open it again – the free time had expired, and all our money was locked inside – so we had to call the attendant for help once more.

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And the third attraction was simply a little 4D cartoon about Shrek with shaking, water splashing and some hairy stuff, supposed to represent spiders, touching our legs.

Of course, we were ‘felled’ by the Egyptian attraction – if it hadn’t been for the hour-long standing, we could have caught another attraction. And all we had time for was having lunch at a Chinese bistro on Hollywood street right at the Universal Studios. At least we were precisely on schedule.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

And finally the long-awaited concert! It opened with Lyadov’s ‘Enchanted Lake’, but the word “enchanted” can be also applied to our overall impressions of the concert. It was truly an awesome event! Actually, it was a concert of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, considered the best in Asia, directed by Lan Shui. And Lang Lang – a phenomenal, brilliant pianist – was taking part in it, playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It’s difficult to find words to describe the amazing impressions that his performance left on us. I was literally taken away, even being aware that if a piece of music as difficult to grasp as this one, had been played by someone else, it could have just seemed to me a set of random sounds and nothing special. Lang Lang’s virtuosity, power and dexterity are striking, and you just can’t imagine how anyone possibly can perform this piece at all. We were seated so that his face could be seen, so we had the opportunity to observe the infinite palette of his emotions.

Taking pictures and videos was prohibited (that’s how the lockers theme was continued – we had to lock our cameras in one before the concert), but when Lang Lang gave an encore, I, like some others, contrived to take a few pictures with my phone. Talking about the encore – the public went so wild that, despite all his efforts to simply take a bow and leave, he had to stay and play an intermezzo by Manuel Ponce and a waltz by Chopin.

Lang Lang

At first I thought that Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which was to be played in the second part, was just an unnecessary appendage to the great genius Lang Lang. But in this case there was another genius – actually Tchaikovsky himself, with a very good performance of the orchestra and Lan Shui’s conducting.

Overall, I enjoyed the concert so much that even having to wait an hour for a taxi, which wasn’t extremely pleasant, didn’t spoil the great mood.

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – day 3

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

We still had a half more day in Rome. Our company had to split as part of it vigorously decided to go shopping. The other part, including me as well, didn’t mind shopping either, but somehow felt the urgent need to verify our own honesty by putting our hands into the Mouth of Truth. Here we were particularly lucky: a whole cavalcade of Japanese tourists arrived in several buses exactly AFTER us and formed a hopelessly long queue, while we reached the Bocca della Verità pretty quickly. It was only allowed to take one picture per person. Having confirmed that our hands remained intact, we left this place without visiting the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin – we weren’t really up for it. We tried to find a taxi to catch up with our shopping companions, but there was none anywhere in sight, so we willy-nilly had to go back to the tour bus stop and spend ages (at least, 25 minutes or so!) waiting for the bus under the scorching sun.

The Mouth of Truth

Between this stop and the one leading to Via Corso with lots of shops, there was a trap awaiting us: the Vatican with its non-visited Sistine Chapel. We looked at each other: “Shall we get off here?” – “Yeah, let’s get off. As for the shopping, the hell with it!”

At the Vatican we were delighted by the virtual absence of a queue. Little did we know then, and only later we could appreciate the full extent of our mistake – this time people were entering the Basilica the proper way: through the Museum and the Sistine Chapel, which is completely the opposite side.

And then we met either a fairy godmother or a snake temptress who was persistently inviting us to join a private tour to the Museum, which would allow us to skip the queue, as there was no way to get into the Chapel other than via the Museum. But the tour was to take at least two hours of pure time (i.e. without all the preparation) and by the time it ended we were already supposed to be on our way to the airport. So we basically decided to waste our money: pay the full price, and then skip not only the queue, but also the Museum itself with this 1000+ chambers.

Our Italian-American guide apparently took after his Italian father in being extremely talkative – he eagerly explained us every single step we would have to make, starting from the purchase of the tickets. For us, however, his every word felt like a sharp knife, as it was stealing our precious time. Somewhere in the middle of his speech he was joined by a compassionate Italian lady, who tediously explained us that there was absolutely no way their company could charge us half price for the tour, even though we were going to skip the Museum. Although we hadn’t even asked for anything like this, we had to nod understandingly.

Eventually, we have our tickets in hand, our guide bids us farewell and starts his tour for the others – and off we rush through the museum chambers, full of sculptures, tapestries, maps, mosaics, etc. We only manage to catch a glimpse of this and that on the run, lingering for literally a second in front of anything particularly eye-catching. Very beautiful indeed, but terribly stuffy and packed with people – by and large we would hardly be able to survive a two-hour tour anyway!

The Vatican Museum

 

The Vatican Museum

And the Chapel is still quite far, we accelerate and accelerate…  Finally, swathed in shawls once again (it’s also a holy place!) we enter the Chapel. Michelangelo’s paintings on the walls and ceiling are utterly amazing, it is a pity, though, that we can’t appreciate all the details – the unpleasant surprise is that it is so crowded that there isn’t even room to sneeze, therefore no chance to walk around and look. By the way, taking photos in the Chapel is not allowed, but I managed to sneakily take one or two – it is quite blurry, but at least you get the idea.

Sistine Chapel

Still, we anyway felt great satisfaction by the Chapel itself and the fact that we had chosen contemplation thereof over meaningless shopping.

We were lucky to find a taxi right next to St. Peter’s square, and as a result we reached our hotel even before our companions.

Then we headed to the airport where our flight was delayed by about an hour. The transfer in Naples worked perfectly: a minivan took us to the port, where the driver got us tickets for the boat, and on our arrival to Ischia we were picked up by another minivan with a frail elderly driver, who nevertheless famously placed our luggage on the car rooftop.

We had been perceiving Ischia as some kind of a small town – it turned out to be a large island. The minivan drove us for about an hour in the dark until it dropped us at the start of the pedestrian zone of Sant’Angelo, where it took us ten more minutes to drag our suitcases to the hotel.

 

Croatia – Day 7

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

30 August 2012 – Thursday

Today, by contrast, was a very active day: we took the long-awaited trip to Montenegro. The mountain forest road, which took us quite long to drive through until the border, was indeed beautiful, but the day was extremely hazy. At first we thought it was fog, but then it turned out that it was the smoke from forest fires in Bosnia. We were told that the situation was really critical there, so a few sections of Croatian firefighters were sent for help.

In general, our guide Petra told us a lot of things, mostly about Croatia, though. For example, we learned that the Lokrum island (very close to Dubrovnik), famous for its parks and entertainment,  had been cursed. A very soon death is believed to await anyone who stays there overnight. The superstitious Dubrovnikers still believe in this, so every day the last, eight o’clock boat to the city is fully packed with people hurrying to leave the island.

We also learned that  Dubrovnikers do not like to rent housing, but tend to buy it instead – so they feel safer. In this case, they have to take mortgage loans for 30-40 years because of very high cost of real estate.

Driving further up in the mountains, we saw three islands from up high: Mrkan (St. Martin), Bobara (St. Barbara) and Supetar (St. Peter’s). In the 14th century, first quarantines in history were located on them, and all those traveling to Dubrovnik (then Ragusa) were required to spend 40 days there, hence the name (from the Italian word “quaranta” – “forty”). Owing to this, plague spread very little in Dubrovnik.

Driving past Konovle, we heard about the fertility of these lands. Here exists a kind of black market for vegetables here: there are women working on the fields, referred to as “our ladies”, who can be called any time and asked to deliver fresh vegetables, which they will do the same day (or, the latest, the next morning), bypassing shops and markets.

We got slightly anxious, approaching the Montenegrin border, and took out our passports and insurance documents in advance. But everything went smoothly and no one got into the bus to check anything – Petra sorted everything out by herself.

Generally, the difference between Croatia and Montenegro can be noticed immediately: Montenegro seems poorer, the houses are more dilapidated, there are lots of signs in Cyrillic script (they use both Latin and Cyrillic scripts here) and in Russian too.

The official currency is euro, even though Montenegro is not part of the EU and not going to be one in the foreseeable future. There is an explanation. This area is located at the junction of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, which results in frequent earthquakes. After one of such earthquakes in the second half of the XX century, Montenegro had to borrow money from Germany for rehabilitation and reconstruction. When in the 80’s Yugoslavia suffered an economic crisis and, therefore, a high inflation, Montenegro, in order to pay off the debt in German marks, asked for permission to make them their local currency. After Germany switched to euro, so did Montenegro. However, the government does not have the right to print money, it still gets it from Germany.

In general, we were told that the highlanders and the seaside residents were like two different nations. The highlanders used to lead an austere life, and very often, especially during the Second World War, when a family was left without men, some women had to take on the role of head of the family. These women, called “virdžina” (i.e. “virgin”), dressed like men, carried weapons, talked about themselves in the masculine, were always in the company of men, and only performed men’s duties around the house. Nowadays this tradition has practically disappeared. As for the seaside residents, they, in particular Kotorians, used to be were very educated (education was received by both young men and women, even from common families) and looked down upon the highlanders.

When the Boka Kotorska (Kotor Bay) eventually  appeared in sight, we were really disappointed: in the haze it looked like a decal, devoid of any colors, moreover, the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see almost anything. We were taken to a place which was supposed to have a magnificent view and where we could take photos of the Kotor Bay. But there wasn’t much to take pictures of.

And so, sad and disappointed, we drove to a place called Risan, famous for its Roman mosaics. There are the remains of an ancient Roman villa, which has fragments of these mosaics on the floor.

Near the town of Perast we boarded a boat and headed to a small man-made island called Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks) with a church of the same name. The origin of the island is rather interesting. For some reason, the Catholics in this area did not have their own church. But once, as legend says, a fisherman found an icon on a rock right in the middle of the Bay. This was considered to be a sign from God, so since then fishermen would throw more and more rocks one on another, after returning from each successful journey and also sank their old ships, loaded with stones.  That is how the island was built.  The tradition to throw rocks still exists – every year, on the day when the icon was found, local people throw more rocks. The church looks very nice inside, with many beautiful canvas by a famous local painter Tripo Kokolja. The altar is made of several kinds of marble, the most rare and expensive of which was exchanged for silver on a  kilogram per kilogram basis.

As we were driving down towards Kotor, Petra told us of some humorous stereotypes which people of the former Yugoslavia have about each other. Thus, the stereotypes are that the Croats are very good singers, but also are too arrogant, the Bosniacs have great sense of humour, but are not particularly bright (sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone – these are not my words, but those of a Croat lady after all!), and the Montenegrins are very lazy. There is even a joke about a competition on who can lie on the road for the longest time. After 24 hours, the competition had to be stopped because the three participating Montenegrins were still lying there with no intention of getting up in the near future. We were shown a card with ten funny Montenegrin Commandments:

In Kotor we were passed to a Russian guide (a lady named Katya, from St. Petersburg, living here for seven years). Very quickly, she walked us around the Old City, as we only had two hours of free time, including a guided tour and lunch. The Kotor city walls are located high in the mountains, and we didn’t get to climb up there. The Old City has plenty of churches and monasteries, the first music school in the Balkans, the first theatre (now it has been sold to become a hotel, so there is no theatre in Kotor anymore). There are both Catholic and Orthodox churches here, but the Catholic ones are more in number – as there are more Catholics here, although generally the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox. In tough times, many churches had a Catholic and an Orthodox altar at the same time, i.e. were open for both confessions.

Along with other memorable places, our attention was brought to the Pima Palace on the Flour Square. Head of the Pima family used to be one of the largest grain traders here.

Interestingly, in contrast to Dubrovnik, the buildings here are necessarily located at an angle to each other – it was believed that locating them in a row would bring bad luck.

The Kotorians are most proud of the fact that they never were under the Ottoman Empire, even though in their history they used to be subordinate to Venice, were occupied by a Napoleon’s general and by Italian fascists (for two months). On this occasion, we heard a story how Jesus Christ appeared to a girl named Katarina from a mountain village and told her that in two hundred years, the Turks would attack Kotor. The girl didn’t hesitate to come down from the mountains with her mother to warn the Kotorians about the danger. The latter immediately started building a wall to protect their land, succeeded in this and, when the the Turks did attack, they managed to parry the enemy’s strike. Katarina herself had become a nun. In appreciation, her relics were later transferred to the Church of St. Clara, right here, so that the saint would continue to defend the citizens.

By the way, her descent from the mountains was no big deal – we were informed that some inhabitants of the mountain village Njeguši do it every day when delivering products to Kotor.

Driving out of Kotor, we saw a beautiful town on the other side of the bay (the fog had already cleared a little) – either Muo or Prčanj, where we weren’t taken. There was no time left for bathing either, although there were beaches here and there.

On the way back we were told that during the previous tour a few days before, the car queue on the border was seven kilometres! The most thorough shakedowns are usually undergone by those with Albanian and Kosovar passports – this road is actually a drug “Silk Road”. Recently the guards caught a couple in a car with German plates, transporting drugs for the sum of 10 million euros. But this time we were lucky, there was only one bus ahead of us, from Ukraine, which took quite a long time to check though.

Paris, je t’aime – Day 4

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24 March, 2010

Another busy day began, finally, with visiting the Louvre. We walked into the courtyard and right up to the glass pyramid, which is maybe even more famous than the Louvre itself thanks to The Da Vinci Code, and got inside.

We bought our tickets and decided to see the Venus de Milo first of all. We spent quite some time looking for it, but in the meantime had the opportunity to view other Greek and Roman sculptures. I have to mention that we recognised the Venus from afar – by the great number of people around it.

That’s when we realised that it was a good idea to find the Mona Lisa immediately, while it was still pretty early, because later there would be an incredible pandemonium around it; and after that take our time and see some less popular paintings. And it paid off – there was already an impressive crowd gathering around the Mona Lisa by the time we found it, and later we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere close to it. As one Russian guy said to another: “In a crowd like this you can’t really find the hidden meaning behind this painting!” But judging by the photos that I made, the meaning was hidden in the bald head of a man, which was reflected in the painting’s glass 😀

After enjoying La Gioconda for a while, we took our time to see some Italian, and then Spanish paintings (and the latter, we enjoyed the most). In the end we went upstairs to see the Dutch School representatives.

I would say, the optimal time spent in the Louvre should be no less than three days. And spending the whole day there, I believe, would be too tedious, and impressions would get all mixed up. As for a half-day visit, you can either gallop around the museum and not really see anything, or, as we did, choose beforehand what you most want to see, and devote your time to it. By the way, I was impressed by the large number of Russian tourists in the Louvre.

As we were done with the Louvre, we went to Monmartre. Mom was grumbling about the need to climb to the Sacrè-Cœur Basilica, but it was totally worth it, because the stairs were really beautiful, and the view on the city from there was magnificent. Plus, I have to admit that we hadn’t been able to find the funicular. Even despite the fact that, while we were standing near the metro station on Place Pigalle, feeling lost and staring at the map, an elderly lady came up to us and offered her help, and when we asked her how to get to the Sacrè-Cœur, she replied that there was “un petit bus” somewhere around (obviously, she meant the funicular), which accepted normal tickets for public transport and it was better to use it, otherwise there were too “beaucoup d’escaliers”.

Generally, Monmartre is an amazing place! Narrow cobbled streets, a huge number of cafes, street artists, a fabulous view of Paris … By the way, Montmartre is part of that very 18th district, which I didn’t like on the way from the airport. I found the Sacrè-Cœur a lot more beautiful than the Notre-Dame on the outside.

In the evening I met my Azeri friend once again and we went to the Latin Quarter to have dinner. It is also a very interesting and colourful place. Narrow streets are packed with endless restaurants – French, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Korean, in other words, anything you may wish; in front of each there is necessarily a tout, trying to persuade passers-by that their restaurant is definitely worth visiting immediately. After we already had dinner, I found that one of the restaurants on the Saint-Sévérin street served fried frog legs. So tomorrow I will come here again!

Paris, je t’aime – Day 2

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22 March, 2010

It was a long and rich day full of impressions! It began at 9 am, when we left the hotel after the breakfast. The original plan to go to the Louvre was dropped immediately, because the weather was delightful and promised to stay delightful all day, so spending a day indoors would have been a sin!

And so we walked to the quay of the Seine, and decided to go to the Champs Elysees from there, but this plan was soon changed as well, and we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

The road to the tower was not much impressive, but something strange happened there. Some dodgy-looking guy rushed towards us with a gold ring, asking if it was ours. After he learned that it wasn’t, he began actively trying to foist it on us, pointing at its countersign and insisting it was genuine. And then he began to beg for money to buy a sandwich and a Coke. When we asked a completely fair question on why he wouldn’t take the ring instead and sell it, he said that he was a Baptist. Somehow he managed to wheedle 4 euros out of us (yes, I always knew that the word “DUPE!” was written in large letters on my forehead). As for the ring, we decided to throw it out of harm’s way, as the whole story seemed too suspicious. Thinking back now, I realise that there wasn’t need to worry too much – the ring, according to its weight, was not gold at all, and most probably this is a common scam.

Then we walked to the Eiffel Tower without any incidents. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to go up, as the queue was unbelievable and we didn’t want to waste time standing in it. Especially that there were a lot of gypsy beggars scurrying around, soldiers with weapons, and more dodgy guys selling Eiffel Tower figurines and trying to palm them off on us. However, at some point they suddenly started off to run somewhere simultaneously! Most likely, they were running from the police, but my mom’s comment really made me laugh: “Where are they running? Did anyone tell them that more dupes had arrived?”

The Eiffel Tower itself made me want to take an infinite number of pictures of it. And the sight of this beauty was simply breathtaking. However, if you look closer, the tower doesn’t have any special beauty. By essence, it is a pretty ugly construction. So, I think that its beauty is a purely psychological phenomenon – it is the main symbol of Paris, one of the world’s major attractions, so our eyes are used to considering it beautiful.

After viewing the tower on all four sides and at least a dozen of photos made, we decided to take a bus tour around the city, taking advantage of the good weather (quite unusually, it didn’t start raining with wind, as it always happens when I get in an open-topped tour bus!). And this, I must say, was a very good idea. Such tours should always be taken at the very beginning of one’s stay in a city – it allows to understand its structure and logic, and at the same time to determine the places that you want to visit later. Especially that there are always places that you generally do find interesting, but seeing them from the bus is just enough, and in the future you don’t have to spend time on visiting them. For example, the Place de la Concorde, which we drove through so many times that we definitely didn’t want to visit it separately.

We got off near the Notre Dame Cathedral, looking for a place to eat, but for some reason couldn’t find anything other than sandwiches and croque-monsieurs. So we had to get on the bus once again and head to the Galeries Lafayette.

This area is somewhat like the City of London, where the majority of people are wearing suits and there are lots of banks around – Commerzbank, BNP Paribas, etc. We managed to find a restaurant here.

Looking through the menu, I came across a dish called «Rôti de chapon aux cèpes avec Gratin Dauphinois», and became interested, because I had previously heard of Gratin Dauphinois being a very tasty potato dish. I had no clue what “chapon” was, though, so I asked the waiter. He replied that it was “le coq”, and mimed the process of castration. By the way, the poor cockerel tasted quite good, and the Gratin Dauphinois was absolutely fabulous!

After lunch, replete and happy, we continued our tour bus, to go back to Notre Dame de Paris and get inside. As there was still plenty of time before the 6 pm mass, which we very much wanted to attend, we decided to get off near the Eiffel Tower once again and have a cup of coffee in one of the outdoor cafes.

Then we caught another bus and headed directly to Notre Dame de Paris. On the way, I made a few observations. First, it is the love of the French for their flag. It seems to be everywhere: not only over every state institution, but also over all billboards.

Secondly, it is the huge number of motorcycles on the roads, I’ve never seen that many before! And most importantly, they tend to rush at a crazy speed!

And third, I noticed that the names of shops, cafes and hotels are directly dependent on the location. For example, they are all called “Madeleine” in the neighbourhood of the Madeleine Church, or “Notre Dame” in the area of Notre Dame de Paris.

Speaking about the Notre Dame Cathedral, initially, we were prepared to stand in a long queue for an 8-euro ticket. As we approached the tail of the queue, we noticed a sign, saying that there was no point in joining the queue, as that was it for the day. We got very upset, but then decided to ask how to get to the mass, and found out that the entrance was through the church, and it was free! Frankly, I didn’t understand what these guys in the queue were planning to pay 8 euros for, because inside, we were able to view everything free of charge. Actually, “free” is a bit of an overstatement, as we had to spend money on candles, and metal medals “for luck”, and the entrance to the treasury of the church, and the donation after the mass.

The treasury was well worth the three euros paid for it – it had amazingly beautiful goblets, finger rings, busts of various archbishops, as well as objects of unknown purpose, probably just for decoration.

We highly enjoyed the mass itself too. The service started with vespers at 17.45, followed by the mass at 18.15. Everyone was given sheets of paper with the lyrics of hymns and psalms in Latin and French. Since, wishing to see everything well, we sat in one of the front rows, we had to sing along with everyone. But it all sounded truly divine! The next part mostly consisted of preaching and talking about the biblical Susanna and the two elders, occasionally interrupted by chants such as «Kyrie Eleison».

Generally, looking at all this, I come to the conclusion that if I was a believer, I’d certainly be a Catholic. Because only Catholic churches, services and rituals make me feel awe, albeit minimal. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that I would be able to listen to stories of Susanna, the elders, and others like them with sincere reverence.

Leaving 2 euros as a donation, we left the cathedral just in time to catch the last tour bus, which dropped us off at the Grand Opera, from which we had to walk to our hotel. Once near the Boulevard des Capucines, we decided to have dinner somewhere. Seeing «Le Grand Café des Capucines», I got quite excited about oysters in the menu exposed in front of the cafe, but my mom flatly refused to try them. For the sake of revenge, I suggested Pizza Hut, where the pizza was very, very mediocre.

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 6

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25 March 2012, Sunday

The day turned out to be quite authentic. In the morning we met our guide (an official one, of course) and went on a hutong tour. By the way, what is really good about tours here is that usually it’s not just a trip to one place, but rather to several different places, very cleverly connected so, that there is a good balance of walking, riding and climbing.

Likewise, this hutong tour started with two towers, facing each other – the Bell and Drum Towers. Thank goodness, we only had to climb one of them, the Drum Tower. Both towers were built during the Ming dynasty and were used to alert people of the time, every two hours.

In order to get to the hall with the drums, we had to climb sixty very steep stairs, and then nine more. Apart from drums exhibited here, there were also ancient devices used in the past to determine the time, so that servants would know when to hit the drums. The operating principle of most devices was based on the burning of incense, which was calibrated so that it took a set amount of time to burn.

At half past nine four guys and a girl arrived and demonstrated a drum performance. The girl was hitting the largest drum. And the drums, I have to mention, were nothing like those you would typically see on the stage: each one was of the size of a huge barrel, or even two. So, no surprise that the whole city heard them back in those days.

The guide showed us all parts of Beijing from the balcony. It was really interesting to look down on the places we had already seen: the Beihai Park, the Olympic Village, the Forbidden City.

From the Drum Tower we moved to the Bell Tower, but luckily the visit was limited to the ground floor, where we participated in a tea ceremony – not a theatrical one, as in the Lao She teahouse, but with detailed explanations and tasting of different varieties of tea. We were taught how to brew the tea, how to hold the cup with three fingers and how to drink the the tea, sticking out the ring finger and the pinky finger. Interestingly, in some countries the latter was once considered a bourgeois affectation and was highly ridiculed. Here, though, the two fingers sticking out symbolised the tail of a phoenix, which, in its turn was the symbol of the Empress. So this gesture was only made by women. Men also used to hold the cup with three fingers, but tucked the remaining two in – this gesture symbolised the dragon, i.e. the Emperor. We got to taste five different varieties of tea: oolong with ginseng, jasmine tea, pu-erh (in tiles), black tea with lychee and rose flowers, and fruit tea. It would have been a sin to leave this tea kingdom without buying some real Chinese tea, so we purchased two packs – one oolong and one jasmine.

From here we walked to the Shichahai quarter, which, as our guide explained, is a favourite places of Beijingers, with plenty of restaurants, bars and shops. The place is very picturesque, located on the bank of the Shichahai lake. We learned that “hai” meant “lake”, therefore “Beihai” meant “Northern lake”. Then it dawned on us that “Beijing” started with “bei” by no accident, and that is how we figured out that “Beijing” simply meant “Northern capital” (a fact, which probably everyone else knows anyway!)

The journey continued on a rickshaw, which this time was part of the official tour but which we still had to tip.

First we visited an exemplary Beijing family. Often people live in hutongs for generations. Clearly, senior representatives of families enjoy living here, while junior ones – not so much.

Right at the courtyard entrance we stumbled upon a wall. The guide explained that, just as high thresholds, such walls were believed to prevent evil spirits from entering the house. A typical courtyard was surrounded by four houses, and, together with them, used to represent the five basic elements of the Universe. The main and the most prestigious house was the one on the north, under the sign of Water – that’s where the parents lived. The house on the east represented the Wood element and belonged to the sons – the support of the family. The western house was associated with the Metal (Gold) element and was inhabited by the daughters. In the southern house, under the sign of Fire, lived the servants. And finally, the yard itself represented the fifth element – the Earth.

In addition to that, the guide drew our attention to the obligatory presence of trees in the yard. The 人 character means “a man”, and if a man is surrounded by a wall on four sides, it makes 囚, which means “a prisoner”. In order not to create such an unpleasant analogy, trees (木) were planted in the yard, but necessarily more than one, because the 困 character means “difficulty” – something that clearly wasn’t desired by the residents.

Speaking of characters, I should mention that the Chinese are fond of pasting the “fú” (福) character, which means “good fortune”, on doors, windows and walls. Moreover, they often paste it upside down. This is based on a wordplay: the word “dào” in Chinese means both “inverted” (倒) and “to arrive” (到). So, “Fú dào” at the same time means “Fú upside down” and “Fortune arrives”.

A resident of the house sat us under a portrait of Mao (this was happening in the eastern house, adapted for visitors) and, in fluent English, told us about life in such a house and showed her father’s paintings, made in traditional Chinese style.

Before leaving, we saw other members of her family: her father and her son. The cute two-year-old boy was shy at first, and refused to pose for us when we wanted to take a picture, but then took a fancy to us, escorted us to the door and even said “See you later” in English.

Next, we made a walk through the hutong. In fact, the word “hutong” is of Mongolian origin, meaning “water well”. During the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty each such quarter had a water well, hence the name. Nowadays the term “hutong” refers to these narrow, or sometimes, very narrow alleys.

Like everything in China, the front door design of each house was strictly regulated by the social status of its residents. If the house belonged to a military official, there were two round stones at the entry, decorated with various ornaments, standing on their edges, one on each side. Square or rectangular stones, on the other hand, indicated that a civil official lived in the house. The number of hexagonal wooden beams above the door jambs also depended on the social status of the owner. Twelve beams was the maximum, which was only attributable to the Emperor. Severe punishment or even execution expected those who dared to break this rule (as well as using other privileges of the Emperor: yellow colour, dragon as a symbol, constructing two-tier roofs). Then the number of beams decreased with decreasing social status – so a commoner would content with just two.

We already mentioned the meaning of four cardinal points in the design of Chinese courtyards. About the city as a whole we were told that east was for the wealthy, west for the noble, north for the poor and south for the lowly.

We came back from the hutong and had lunch, after which we visited our last place in Beijing – the Hongqiao Pearl Market, where we had great fun! In order to get to chic, certified pearl jewellery on the fourth floor, one would have to survive three seething and boiling floors full of low-quality Chinese goods (the ones we have oodles of as well). Escalators were located in different places, just as in any other large shopping centre, but in, say, “Marks and Spencer” it’s quite hard to imagine noisy sellers chasing you, grabbing you by the hand and shouting: “What is your last price?”. And this arrangement of escalators made it totally impossible to avoid them.

We had been warned that bargaining was absolutely necessary in China, but we couldn’t even imagine that people haggled so passionately and fervently here. The mall was packed with foreigners, who, apparently, had also been briefed on the rules of shopping in China. Here and there we observed many funny scenes, such as a resentful buyer walking away, a seller running after him, ready to make any concessions just to palm off his fake “Dolce and Gabbana”. A sales girl caught our conversation and cried out in broken Russian: “Come buy a scarf, why don’t you want a scarf?” We left without any scarves, though.

And finally, we had a very, very tasty dinner at the same Japanese restaurant, albeit with more modest portions.

Of course we didn’t get the chance to see everything we wanted to – for example, the Summer Palace, the China Ethnic Museum, the Lama Temple… But still, we spent five useful and fabulous days, full of impressions, in Beijing. Let’s see what Hong Kong is going to be like…

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 5

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24 March 2012, Saturday

Today we visited the Beijing Zoo.  As we had scheduled the Kung Fu show for the evening, we decided not to spend more than 3-4 hours at the zoo. Therefore, we acted on the same principle as once at the Louvre, where, first thing, we had checked out the Mona Lisa and then viewed whatever we had time for. In this case, first of all we headed for the giant pandas. It should be mentioned that all the “Mona Lisas” of the local “Louvre” were sleeping like logs during our visit!

Signs of at least some activity were only shown by the very first panda we saw. It was calmly eating bamboo leaves, but then again, having completed its meal, it lay down to sleep. But anyway, those big cute animals looked very sweet!

The same thing was observed of the small (red) pandas: only one of them was eating something, while the others were sound asleep, sprawled in the branches.

Actually, the entire zoo seemed like a big Land of Nod. The wolves were asleep, the bears were asleep, the jaguar was asleep… However, the lion and the tiger didn’t let us down. Apparently, the usual desire of all cats to show off played its role. While other animals tried to hide from spectators in the most inaccessible corners, the lion and the tiger, on the contrary, specially lay down on the most prominent places and struck majestic poses. We managed to take a photo of the lion while it was stretching!

Of course, the zoo was very busy; after all, it was a Saturday. We finally saw a lot of Chinese children (there are not too many of them on the streets). They were all chubby and rosy-cheeked, very cute!  It was a big surprise to see a lot of girls. Clearly, the desire to give birth only to boys, resulting from restriction on the number of children, has significantly decreased, at least in the capital. Perhaps, this is the consequence of the prohibition to determine the sex of the child before birth. At times we saw rare couples with two children (probably, well-off people), but never with three.

By the way, – that’s already another story – we also never saw any foreign guides. In Europe, a French-speaking group of tourists, for instance, would have a native francophone guide, the same about the speakers of other languages. In China, though, it seems like for any language requirement there is a corresponding Chinese person available. Even the text for the audio guide in Russian, mentioned earlier, was clearly recorded by a Chinese woman. Another point is that, all the TV channels, whether they are in Russian or French, are in fact Chinese, show news about China and the TV presenters too are Chinese! For example, a thin Chinese guy with glasses, giving the spiel in fluent Arabic from the screen, made an indelible impression.

The zoo was, indeed, huge, but we decided to leave out other animals, such as giraffes, anteaters, elephants, as we had seen them many times before, and they were not among our most favourites. The same can be said about the aquarium – only a few months before we had seen a very beautiful one in Bergen, Norway.

We got to eat something quite late, because most restaurants here serve food strictly at certain hours and are closed all the other time. So, if you feel hungry, say, between two and five o’clock in the afternoon, you can hardly find anywhere to eat. As a result, we combined lunch and dinner. And that was a good idea! We tried out the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. Not being quite sure what was what in the menu, we selected Teppanyaki course which was a set meal. We even thought that it was surprisingly expensive (300 RMB), but as it was our penultimate day in Beijing, we decided to still go for it.

And – oh my God! – it turned out to be an eight-course meal!!! The waitress just kept bringing and bringing plates, bowls and salad-dishes. From the menu description it wasn’t really clear that we would get that much: appetisers (salmon roe, a snail and some sort of jelly), a salad, miso soup, a fish dish, a beef dish, a rice bowl, grilled vegetables and fruit! Even when the waitress had already served all our food, we winced every time she appeared in sight with another tray, and sighed with relief when she passed by. And it was impossible not to eat everything – the food was incredibly delicious, perhaps the best of all we had eaten here. Our noble diet plans must have come to nothing after such a nosh-up. And the prices seemed not so high after all – where in Baku could one have such an abundance of delicious food for just 38 AZN (appox. 48 USD)?

In the evening, as already mentioned, we familiarised ourselves with Chinese martial arts, i.e. watched “The Legend of Kung Fu” at the Red Theatre. We had very good seats in the ninth row, numbers one and two – not at the edge, as one would expect, but right in the middle. Odd numbers were counted to the left of number one, and even numbers to the right of number two. Most of the spectators were foreigners, and the performance was in English with Chinese subtitles on the screen (while the Buddhist mantra “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ” didn’t require translation). Although one would think that a performance like this should be particularly interesting for men, and despite the imposing price of tickets for our row, the man sitting next to me slept through the whole performance.

The plot was rather simple: it was the story of a boy who entered the monastery to study martial arts, about his life, temptations and achieving the highest level of enlightenment. But the performance was very impressive and colourful, combining elements of ballet, pantomime, circus and opera. The actors did an amazing job, sometimes it even was impossible to distinguish imitation from real Kung Fu skills: the main character lay on swords, broke metal bars over his head, smashed bricks over his chest. So what was it – a sham, an illusion, or did we see a true master of Kung Fu in front of us?

The Chinese wouldn’t have been Chinese, if they hadn’t demonstrated their exceptional get-up-and-go. Apart from selling souvenirs with logos of the performance at the foyer, they also organised an opportunity to take photos with the artists for 20 RMB. We were among those who went for this opportunity – while had it been free of charge, we probably wouldn’t even have thought of doing so!

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 4

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23 March 2012, Friday

Today was the Great Wall day, which had been planned from our very first day in Beijing. We woke up bright and early, and at 7.30 am were all ready, as instructed beforehand. But unfortunately, the other tour participants were not as punctual, so we didn’t hit the road before 8 am.

Our hotel staff had advised us to choose the tour to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, together with a part of the Sacred Way. Later we found out that the programme also included visits to jade and silk factories. Our guide was a small nimble lady of indeterminate age, named Hui Liang (Melanie for foreigners), who definitely earned her bread honestly and conscientiously – during the day we learned a lot more information about China than in all the previous time.

For example, while our coach was heading to the Sacred Way, we learned that the tombs of the Ming dynasty, to which the Way actually led, were located so far outside the city in accordance with feng shui requirements. As the Dragon used to be the symbol of the Emperor, all buildings associated with the Chinese ruler were constructed so that they lied along the so-called “dragon line”, where the Forbidden City symbolised the dragon’s head and the Ming Tombs were his tail. We also learned a lot of details about the mutual harmony of yin and yang, e.g. that in addition to well-known pairs like the Sun and the Moon; the earth and the sky; male and female, even fruits are divided into those related to yin (watermelon, pear) and those related to yang (lychee, orange), and it is not recommended to eat too much fruit of either category, it’s better to strike a balance.

The part of the Sacred Way, which we saw, was, of course, interesting, but not really stunning. It represented a cobbled alley, lined with tall trees, with stone statues on both sides. Dourly towering officials and generals were followed by animals: elephants, camels, lions and mythical sons of the Dragon. In accordance with yin and yang principles each pair of standing animals had a corresponding pair of the same animals, seated.

We walked two and a half kilometres along the alley, right up to our coach, which was already waiting for us on the other side. This time, our talkative guide Melanie regaled us with stories about the famous Chinese jade. In fact, there are two kinds of jade. One of them, the nephrite jade, also known as “soft jade” is used primarily for carving handicrafts. The other variety – “hard jade” or jadeite – is rarer, and therefore, more expensive, so it is used for jewellery. Jade is also referred to as “living stone”, as it changes colour over time, depending on the temperature of the human body. Raw stones, potentially containing jade, can be the subject of gambling (called “gambling stones”), for even a trained eye can hardly detect whether an ordinary-looking grey stone conceals the precious mineral inside.

Right at the Long Di jade factory entrance, stood a stunning huge solid piece of jade, representing a mountain with finest carved openwork in the form of trees, flowers and pagodas. The composition had different colours: green, wine-red, yellow – all of which formed part of the jade block’s natural play of colours, so skilfully used by the carvers. It’s worth noting that the handicrafts at the factory were much more beautiful than those we had seen the day before in the imperial treasury, and the articles were sold for far less than in shops and, of course, hotels.

Among various figurines, we saw a lot of “cabbage”. The name of this vegetable in Chinese (báicài 白菜) sounds similar to “cái” (財) which means “wealth” or “money”, so figurines in the form of cabbage are believed to bring prosperity to the house, if properly located (the leaves should point to doors or windows, and the roots should point inside the house, otherwise financial fortune will smile upon your neighbours instead). By the way, another charm that brings wealth to its owner is one of the Dragon’s sons named Pi Xiu, the figurine of which we didn’t hesitate to buy. We were told that in China every self-respecting businessman possesses one, and in Las Vegas those with a Pi Xiu in their pocket aren’t allowed in casinos.

At the factory we were taught to distinguish real jade from fake jade:  if you hold it up to the light, you would see something like swirling clouds in a real piece of jade, while the fake one would either look totally homogenous or have air bubbles. To tell the quality of the jade it’s enough to strike it with a piece of agate and listen to the sound it makes: the higher the pitch, the higher the quality of the mineral.

We had lunch at a huge restaurant right at the factory. Apart from our group, there were at least a thousand people dining simultaneously, without exaggeration. We hadn’t had the chance to talk to any of our fellow travellers in the morning, but during lunch we met those of them we were sharing the table with. It was a couple from Australia and a brother and sister from Turkey. Another couple, sitting at the other table, was from Brazil, and the rest (a company of three) remained unfamiliar to us.

After the meal we drove and drove to the mountains, towards Mutianyu. The road would probably look much more beautiful in summer, with leaves on the trees. Upon arriving, Melanie told us that we would have to go up to the Wall by cable car. So we did, and, I have to say, riding in an open-top shaky cabin at a height of twenty metres was quite scary!

It should be mentioned that the information desk staff at our hotel hadn’t deceived us when recommending this tour: the Mutianyu section of the Wall was not too crowded (unlike the Badaling section, which is the closest one to Beijing), and the view was just spectacular. Walking the Wall basically meant constantly going up and down the stairs, most of which were not very steep, although there were some difficult sections. Here and there, all along the way, there were enterprising local merchants, attacking tourists even more intrusively than on the ground, sometimes just to chat and with the obligatory question: “Where are you from?” The same question was sometimes asked by other tourists too, though, for example, a Burmese guy – and when he heard the word “Azerbaijan”, he cheerfully told us that he had lived in Baku for four years and worked for BP’s ACG project. It felt quite funny to meet a colleague on the Great Wall of China!

If it hadn’t been for the strong wind, which spoiled the journey a little bit, we would have walked even more. We went back by cable car as well (although there was some kind of a wheel sled too), and this time we felt calmer and jumped off the seats with greater agility.

After visiting the Great Wall, we were already full of impressions. But that was not the end yet, and we drove to the Dong Wu silk factory through the Olympic Village. On our way, Melanie provided us with another batch of background information. Well, of course, we did have some general knowledge about silkworm larvae, cocoons and silk production. What we didn’t know was that in China (and nowhere else) there exist unique and very rare double cocoons, containing two worms. Such cocoons are unsuitable for yarn reeling and, consequently, for silk fabric production (as the two threads are bound together), but they can be stretched. These cocoons are used as fillers for pillows and blankets, which are extremely hygienic, warm in winter and cool in summer. First, the cocoons are put in boiling water, cut open, and the worms, which have completed their “work”, are thrown away (later they might end up at the Donghuamen snack market, fried and skewered!). Each cocoon is then stretched first over a small frame, then over a larger one, and, finally, four workers stretch it into a large square of the desired size. One cocoon can be stretched into a layer for a queen size blanket! A blanket usually contains about fifty layers.

On the whole, it was an excellent day – very interesting, very informative, and not too tiring!

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