Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Comparisons”

Vietnam – Day 2

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6 June 2017

I may well be unoriginal and repeat what I’ve said before, but I will say it again: what’s particularly nice about breakfasts in Asian hotels is that apart from the usual boring cheeses/sausages/croissants/toasts you can get stir-fried veggies, noodles, dim sum and even pho! Which is exactly what we did before heading down to the reception at 8 am, where our tour guide Phuoc was already waiting for us, ready for the Mekong Delta excursion.

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First of all, we took a two-hour drive in a comfortable SUV to the town of Cai Be in the Mekong Delta region. As we were driving out of Ho Chi Minh City, and also afterwards, I was thinking of my impressions about the surroundings. There are places which make you say “so beautiful that it takes my breath away”. This is not the case. The Vietnam, which we have seen so far, is best described by the epithet “charming”. And in many respects, it’s charming precisely by its imperfection, including chaos on the roads; assemblages of narrow buildings, sometimes shabby, not wider than a single window; street vendors on the sidewalks, and so on.

On the way, Phuoc was telling us how people live in country – about low salaries, about taxes and cases of tax evasion, about how, with the emergence of a free market economy, many are striving to own a business, even if a very small one, and that often all family members, including the elderly, need to work as it’s very difficult to make ends meet otherwise.

At some point, we started talking about dogs and the fact that in Northern Vietnam people still eat them despite the government’s attempts to ban this. In 1945, a terrible famine raged in the north of the country and it were dogs that helped many people survive (not by their own will though!), so some still believe that eating a dog brings good luck. At the same time, this doesn’t prevent the Vietnamese from treating the dog as a man’s best friend and even to welcome stray dogs in their shops or cafes – it turns out that dog barking somehow sounds similar to the Vietnamese word meaning wealth, so again it’s believed that dogs bring good luck, even without being eaten. As for cats, the situation is exactly the opposite, since their ‘meow’ is consonant with the word meaning poverty.

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On the way, we stopped to visit the “happy room” (that’s the euphemism used here for toilet, which is quite logical for travellers) in some interesting place, looking like either a garden or a restaurant. Through Phuoc’s efforts, the stop turned for us into something like a botanical lecture: she basically showed us every plant and explained how and for what purposes it’s used. We really got the impression that the Vietnamese eat almost any stems, leaves, fruits and roots (well, except for poisonous ones obviously), including banana tree stems, and literally every part of the lotus. Then, already back in the car, she showed us some books about tropical plants, flowers and fruits.

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Another fifteen minutes’ drive – and we arrived at Cai Be, where we had to get on a boat and continue the journey on it. The boat was big – like a sampan – enough for 10 people, but it was just for our mini-group. First, we headed off to see the famous fruit and vegetable floating market. The population in the Mekong Delta area is mainly engaged in farming, and growing fruit is a very profitable business. The local climate and fertile land definitely help. But as for rice, for example, growing it is not that financially rewarding – the market price of one tonne barely covers the labour costs of the workers involved in producing this very tonne. Coming back to our floating market, we were told that in the early morning there are particularly many boats selling goods, and by 10 am (which is the time when we arrived), mostly everything is already sold out with only a few boats remaining. That is, to enjoy the floating market in all its glory, we would have had to spend a night in Cai Be.

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Our first stop is a local village with several family businesses. Here, for example, they make coconut candy by boiling coconut milk with sugar and sometimes flavour additives like coffee and chocolate. Coconuts, by the way, are used very extensively here – pulp and milk are used for food, and the shell is used as fuel, for crafts or even for activated charcoal production.

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And here there’s clearly a rice business. A woman is making edible rice paper on a brazier. Not far away, rice alcohol is being produced and there are big jars of alcohol infused on bananas, lychees and even venomous snakes. Rice is also used for making pictures – every rice grain gets painted in the appropriate colour and used for the kind of mosaic as in one of the pictures below.

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And a little bit further they are making puffed rice, frying it on a hot pan with hot black sand. Further on, this rice is mixed with various additives – sugar, salt or ginger, and even pieces of pork or beef – and pressed into something similar to the rice cakes that we know.

I have to say, all these braziers and pans make me feel like in hell in this not-very-cool weather, I sweat a ton, but finally we are sat under fans for a cup of jasmine tea with different sweets made of banana, ginger, sesame and peanuts. Jasmine tea here is very special, much more fragrant than, say, in China or elsewhere. Phuoc explains this by a higher proportion of jasmine flowers relative to tea. Enjoying the tea, we look around and notice that they sell all sorts of things here – coconut oil, crafts made of coconut and other trees, some ointment with cobra venom and even the famous Tiger Balm, although not in the familiar little red tin.

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After the tea break, we again board the boat and drive on to the An Binh island, where we are supposed to enjoy fresh fruit and local music. Just as we take a step off the boat and onto the ground, we immediately feel knocked down by the smell of durian, and in a minute, we understand why: right in front of us there are durian trees, laden with large “fragrant” fruits.

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Fortunately, we aren’t offered any, instead on our plate we have pieces of ordinary watermelon, exotic but familiar pineapple and mango and quite unusual guava (something like feijoa and, as it turned out, closely related to it) and jackfruit (similar to durian, a bit smelly too, but, oddly enough, belongs to the mulberry family, and the pulp is bright orange, slippery and sugary-sweet, tasting like either melon or bubble-gum). At the same time, several performers entertain us with Vietnamese songs accompanied by guitar and some kind of folk instrument, and even with small performances.

The next item on our schedule is a ride on a traditional flat-bottomed rowing boat along a narrow canal. There are cork trees growing right in the water, which, according to Phuoc, protect the soil from erosion. Generally all the vegetation around is pretty luxuriant, often covered with unfamiliar fruits. Behind the plants one can see houses on stilts. Some of them look better – obviously, the owners are making good money by growing durians – and some are pretty shabby. And yet, as I already said above, there is a particular charm to all of this, especially when you pass by a house where a nice-looking middle-aged lady is sweeping her terrace to the sound of some Vietnamese song playing at full blast.

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Not counting the Vietnamese song, there is a peaceful silence around, broken only by the splash of water under the oars and by boats occasionally passing by.

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Meanwhile, the helmsman on our sampan is already waiting with young coconuts for us. Once again, so far we are very impressed with our tour, everything seems to be arranged at the highest level! And so, sipping refreshing coconut water, we headed back to the island, moored and walked to an eco-tourism complex with an orchard, where we were served lunch. The lunch was home-cooked and pretty tasty, consisting of fish that had to be wrapped with vegetables in rice paper and dipped into fish sauce, deep-fried spring rolls, grilled shrimps, vegetable soup (we liked it the least) and pork with rice. Fish sauce, I must say, is an extremely smelly substance, but it tastes a lot better than it smells. Phuoc said that the Vietnamese fish sauce is much better than the Thai one, because it is made of anchovies, while in Thailand it’s made of mackerel.

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We washed it all down with Vietnamese coffee, stronger than many varieties of coffee, but less strong than Turkish coffee. That’s when Phuoc told us that the tradition of drinking coffee is a French colonial heritage, as well as colonial architecture and baguettes, and this, in her opinion apparently shared by many Vietnamese, exhausts the list of positive effects of colonisation, absolutely not offsetting the complete plundering of royal treasures.

We also starting talking about the Vietnam War – how Saigon was much more developed, more or less in step with Singapore and Hong Kong, and then, destroyed by the war and the communist regime, fell hopelessly behind – and about relations with China, which are much better than in the 80s, but, according to Phuoc, quite dangerous and could potentially lead to the occupation of Vietnam by China.

Actually, we went into these lengthy conversations for one simple reason: while we were having lunch (luckily, under a canopy), a heavy downpour started. I have to say that we’d been lucky with the rain from the very beginning – all weather websites I know were forecasting it right in the morning and for the whole day. And it only started when we’d already finished sightseeing.

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After lunch, the only thing left was a boat ride to the town of Vinh Long, where our driver should have already been waiting for us. The rain kept pouring. Fortunately, the boat also had a canopy (unlike the flat rowing boat we were on literally a couple of hours ago), but at some point a wind broke out forcing us to put on raincoats so as not to get wet. Because of the rain, we didn’t stop at the Vinh Long market, and headed straight to the pier. As there were only a few metres remaining to the pier, the waves became so strong, making the boat reel so much that I seriously feared that it would scoop up water and capsize. But thank God, it didn’t, and we drove off back to Ho Chi Minh City. The rain was pouring non-stop throughout the whole two-and-a-half-hour drive, but not as intensely as before.

Today we decided to have dinner at the Ngon restaurant, recommended by Phuoc, which turned out to be a good choice. The restaurant is a ten minute walk from our hotel and is located in that fancier area we didn’t reach yesterday. The interior is very pretty with palm trees everywhere. The menu has several sections: Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, and of course we went for the latter – aren’t we in Vietnam after all? I had bun bo hue (spicy beef soup with rice vermicelli and greens – more precisely, it is the chili pepper served separately that makes it spicy), chicken thighs barbecue and for dessert, something like banana cake with coconut milk – not sweet at all, which I really liked. Generally, I’m enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine and finding it somewhat less intrusive compared to, say, Chinese (which I like as well but tend to have had enough of soon) – mainly because dishes taste precisely like their ingredients and all sorts of sauces and spices are served separately: you can add/dip/sprinkle if you want, but you don’t have to. It all cost us twice as much as yesterday’s dinner (almost 30 USD) – it’s a fancy restaurant after all, but we also ate a lot more.

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Georgia – Day 2

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27 December 2014

We dedicated our second day to a tour of Tbilisi. First of all, we were taken to the Turtle lake which is located in the posh Vake district. The lake is called like that for a very obvious reason – there are small turtles on its shores. The lake was coated with a thin layer of ice, and the park impressed us with its clean pine air and the sources thereof.

Yesterday we thought that Tbilisi was pretty small, but when we were taken to see it from one of the highest points today, so that not only the old part, but also the new districts were visible, it turned out that the sizes are much larger and the city, extended in length, lies in the cleft between the mountains. In short, the size of the city could be seen well, but the details could not really be made out – it was very foggy. On the way to this lookout point we saw a very original building of the 112 rescue service in the form of a flying saucer.

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One of the planned visits was the Pantheon – the burial place of famous Georgian figures of culture, science and politics – situated on the slopes of Mount Mtatsminda. More precisely, it was our guide who told us about the Pantheon, as we only knew about the graves of Griboyedov and his wife, Nina Chavchavadze. It turns out that these very graves initiated the Pantheon. We came as close as we could by car, and then had to walk, making pretty steep climbs. The guide was encouraging us by showing the place of destination. From this high point, we looked at Tbilisi again, from a different perspective now, and suddenly it turned out that the grave of Griboyedov was just behind us. The grave had a very touching monument to a weeping woman clinging to a cross, and a no less touching famous inscription: “Your spirit and achievements will be remembered forever. Why still does my love outlive you?” With regard to the Pantheon itself, I found all the graves interesting, even though I had only known the names of Stalin’s mother, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Nodar Dumbadze.

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After such a spiritual visit we moved on to a purely prosaic activity – food consumption, for the purpose of which we were taken to the Agmashenebeli avenue (former Plekhanov street). By the way, I really liked the avenue, even more than the Rustaveli ave. I can’t now recall the name of the small restaurant we went to, but the interior was purely Georgian, with antique items, such as cameras and phonographs, and reproductions of Pirosmani’s paintings on the walls (we ate our khachapuris right next to the famous “Feast of Five Princes”).

If yesterday we visited ancient churches and temples, today, having driven us through a quarter that was very reminiscent of the Kubinka and generally the area of Teze Bazar in Baku, Zviad brought us to a modern temple, visible from almost any point of Tbilisi – Tsminda Sameba, the Holy Trinity Cathedral. It occupies a large area, around which you can still see construction works, like columns being built and stone carving works going on.

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Apparently, the plan of our guide consisted of alternating spiritual visits with pure entertainment – undoubtedly the cableway to the Narikala forthress at the same Mount Mtatsminda was part of the latter. It is not at all scary here – unlike the one I took to the Great Wall in China, where you literally float over the abyss, risking dropping your shoes there (while also afraid to drop yourself!). Here you just sit in a closed cabin for 5-6 people and peacefully look at the Kura and its banks underneath. We didn’t get to see the fortress, but had the opportunity to be photographed with a falcon, and then descended to the Europe Square using the same cableway. We saw a few people dressed as Santa Clauses riding bicycles, and also something that made me really emotional – street vendors of roasted peanuts and sunflower seeds, which are measured with a large or a small faceted glass and then sold in paper cornets: where are the days when we had the exact same thing in Baku?..

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Both today and yesterday we saw a lot of purely Tbilisian houses, clinging on the steep cliffs over the Kura, with a lot of balconies. Today we also went into one of the old quarters. Here we found the famous sulfur baths, which we could sense even from afar for the very specific smell of hydrogen sulphide. We walked up to a waterfall in a narrow crevice.

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Ever since yesterday we really wanted to buy churchkhela – the traditional sausage-shaped candy made of grape must with nuts, but Zviad had told us not to buy it not just anywhere but in trusted places, and so he took us to one. The tiny convenience store seemed to have a whole market squeezed in it: they had meat, and cheese, and pickles, and a variety of fruit-vegetables, and well, of course, the coveted churchkhela. Unluckily, we had to wait for the sales assistant of this particular department for quite a while – it turned out that he had been queueing at a supermarket nearby to buy a box of champagne.

Towards the end of the day we went up the Mtatsminda for the third time, this time by a cable car. The first stop was near the pantheon we’d already seen, and the second one led us to a large park, with lots of swings and carousels, with New Year’s songs coming from the speakers, with a house with upturned balconies – as if it was standing upside down. And again I was wrapped in nostalgia – the Baku Boulevard in the days of my childhood looked exactly like this, even the benches were similar. But it’s not that I’m trying to say that anything around looks old and shabby, straight from those times – the park is exactly maintained like this, just as the buildings are restored, as I said before.

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Overflowing with impressions, we ended the day in the khinkali restaurant right near the hotel, where we tried different kinds of khinkali: with meat, mushrooms, cheese – and were very pleased. Thus, our stay in Tbilisi was brief, but very impressive.

Georgia – Day 1

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27 December 2014

We arrived last night, and found Zviad, the guide meeting us, very easily, so logistic-wise everything went really smoothly. The smooth start actually began at the passport control, where each of us was handed a bottle of Saperavi wine – turns out, they are given out to all foreigners entering the country, isn’t that surprising? Zviad drove us a bit around the night Tbilisi, which immediately aroused nostalgia – the non-central streets seemed very similar to the Baku of my childhood. We got particularly excited when shown the river Kura and then the Avlabari neighbourhood, and started quoting the Khanuma movie.

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It was decided that on the first day we would make a sortie out of Tbilisi and leave the city sightseeing for the second one. The weather promised to be nice (and honestly fulfilled the promise), even though it was quite chilly near the Jvari (meaning ‘cross’) monastery where we headed first, and the puddles were flecked with ice. The monastery is located atop a rocky mountain, from which one can see the Mtskheta town and also exactly what was described in Lermontov’s poem ‘The Novice’ (‘Mtsyri’): “…where soundingly together flow Aragva and Kura – the place, where, like two sisters, they embrace…”, i.e. where the blue Aragvi merges with the yellow Kura, and the line separating these waters is very clearly noticeable. The reason why the monastery is called the Holy Cross monastery is not because it has the shape of a cross, as one might expect, but because it was here where St. Nino of Georgia, a female evangelist, erected a cross. The legend says that this very cross lies in the foundation of the monastery.

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We drove off along Aragvi, on the Georgian Military Highway, to see the ancient fortress of Ananuri. The places around were very picturesque, even though it’s not the best season now – in autumn or spring it must look absolutely spectacular! On our way we took pictures of the Zhinvali reservoir from various angles. It’s also very beautiful, but that’s somewhat overshadowed by the fact that to create this beauty (which of course has practical use too!) three villages had to be flooded. We visited one of the churches in the castle complex, while the other one was closed. Zviad told us that once all the walls in the first church were painted with frescoes, but then during the stay of a Russian garrison in the fortress, they were all covered with a thick layer of lime. Relatively recently a small area was cleared and a really impressive fresco of St. George was discovered. I climbed to the top of the tower, which was quite difficult and scary, considering the narrow passages and steep, broken stairs. But I got the chance to look out of a loophole, although it was so narrow that I couldn’t really see much.

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From here we drove back to Mtskheta and stopped in the old part of the city. In general, as we noted, it is peculiar to Georgia that most of the ancient and old buildings are restored in their original form. Therefore, all the houses are colorful, neat, with traditional Georgian balconies and look very good. There are little shops selling souvenirs, wine, churchkhela (Georgian sweet “sausages” made of fruit and nuts) with sellers strongly beckoning tourists to drink with them all along the road to the Cathedral of Mtskheta. Our guide even argued with someone, reproaching him for trying to “recapture” his guests.

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The Cathedral of Mtskheta, or Svetitskhoveli (translated as “the life-giving pillar”) is a patriarchal cathedral with the seat of the Patriarch standing right in the centre thereof. It’s a burial place of the last kings of Georgia and various princes, including a few from the Mukhrani branch of the famous Bagrationi dynasty. The Cathedral is one of the three main cathedral in country, symbolising the central Georgia, or the Kartli region. The Alaverdi temple in Kakheti, respectively, represents the east of Georgia and the Bagrat temple in Kutaisi represents the west. Even in Soviet times, it was common among the youth of Tbilisi to wed in Svetitskhoveli, so every spring after Easter endless wedding processions stretched from Tbilisi.

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Instead of the anticipated three hours we spent five on the road, by the end of which we were absolutely starving. We wanted to taste some proper Georgian cuisine, and on our return to Tbilisi we were taken to a restaurant called “Zakhar Zakharich”. The food there was really delicious. Our menu consisted of the kharcho soup, Imeretian khachapuri (cheese pie), aubergines with walnuts, ojakhuri (roasted pork with potatoes and onions), shkmeruli (fried chicken with lots of garlic) and jigar (liver) on the grid. As for the wine, we had red Saperavi in pitchers. In short, we had a great treat and only paid 127 GEL for four of us, which makes about 70 USD , or 54 AZN.

The only thing we could do after that was taking a two-hour nap. In the evening, we walked along the holiday-decorated Rustaveli Avenue, which was right around the corner from our hotel. It was beautiful, but in many ways reminded of Baku – potholes here and there, lots of construction, cars on the sidewalks, cigarette smoke everywhere – as most of the population seems to smoke. However, the walk was still nice.

Hong Kong – Day 5

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4 December 2013

Today we made a particularly good choice, visiting the Chi Lin Nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian Garden.

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It’s hard even to imagine such beauty, peace and tranquillity as in this garden, which is essentially an amazingly harmonious composition of water, rocks and trees, and also traditional Chinese pagodas, bridges and pavilions. As for the skyscrapers in the background, not only don’t they seem to disturb this harmony, but they actually emphasise it in a rather unique way.

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Overall, the garden is somewhat oval-shaped, and each turn of the track uncovers a new charming scene, e.g. giant banyan trees, or exquisite bridges over a pond with large colourful fish, or a waterfall with a water mill. And there you are, walking and admiring it all, accompanied by the low-pitch, vibrant, ’nasal’ sounds of guqin, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, which feels like the most appropriate accompaniment in this place.

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There are some lotus ponds right in front of the monastery. The petals move gently under the light breeze, and you feel like you could spend hours and hours just looking at them – at least, you somehow begin to understand Asians who find pleasure in the long contemplation of beauty. Neither taking pictures, nor even talking is allowed in the monastery, even in the public section (the other section, where the monks actually live, is closed to public altogether). There are sanctuaries on both sides, while in the centre there is a magnificent gilded statue of Buddha Sakyamuni. The monastery is also filled with music, not guqin sounds any longer though, but the chants of the monks. Even though we have nothing to do with Buddhism, still a sense of the sanctity of the place was definitely present.

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As we returned to the Nan Lian Garden, we decided to try the tea ceremony there. The tea house has a couple of requirements: first of all you have to remove your shoes, leave them outside and put on the slippers provided, and also to switch off your mobile phone and put your camera away, as taking photos and videos is prohibited. The order has to be at least one portion per person. And a portion in this case is not one cup but rather 6 grammes of dry tea, which can be brewed in a small teapot six times. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – before talking about brewing I have to mention that there is actually a high degree of self-service here – you fill the iron kettle yourself and put it on the stove to boil, then you call the waitress. She brings you teaware and dry tea leaves, explaining how to brew them. It is actually a whole science (or should I say art?) in itself: you first rinse and fill the teapot with boiling water (the teaware stands on a grid with a drain underneath it). Then you pour the same water into a jug and cups, which thus get rinsed as well. You carefully add the tea to the tiny teapot, fill it with boiling water up to the top, then immediately pour it away – this is how the tea leaves also get rinsed. Now comes the final part: you fill the teapot with boiling water once again, keep it there for just a few seconds, and then pour the tea into the jug (so that it doesn’t get any stronger), from which it can be poured into cups.

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It’s worth emphasising that these six grams is a lot for such a small teapot, way more than the portions we are used to. The tea that we had is called Da Hong Pao, which grows high in the mountains and is considered one of the most expensive teas in the world.

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Our lunch that day was quite unusual too – it was vegetarian, as it is always the case with monastery restaurants, with a very high content of various types of mushrooms.

In the evening we went to Lan Kwai Fong yet again. Even though it was only Wednesday and not Friday, the place was way more crowded and fun than during our last visit – which in fact is quite logical. The last time we were here was Sunday, when pretty obviously very few people are keen on drinking and hanging out late before a Monday. And on a weekday, of course, many people want to relax and chill out after a hard day at work – this is exactly why we saw such a considerable number of ‘white collars’ there.

Hong Kong – Day 4

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3 December 2013

Today was the Big Shopping day. From travel blogging perspective, it may not be the most exciting event ever, but since we’re all human and nothing human is alien to us, it’s still worth touching this topic.

All guidebooks scream that Hong Kong is a great place for shopping, primarily due to the free trade regime. So people flock here from all over the world. In particular, I doubt that anywhere in the world one can find as many jewellery stores as there are here, and none of them stays empty and clientless. Literally on every corner in the central areas there is a Chow Tai Fook store, with slightly less stores of the competing Luk Fook and Chow Sang Sang chains.

If Singapore created the impression that the main idea was to feed as much people as possible, so there were all kinds of eateries pretty much at every turn, it looks like Hong Kong’s ‘task’ is, of course, selling as many goods as possible, so almost at every step you come across malls, shops, stores, outlets etc.

We ended up heading to Harbour City, which is one of the biggest malls. It’s probably that we didn’t have much time to understand how it was all structured there, but we were left with a feeling of randomness – for example, in comparison with Westfield in London. There everything is crystal clear with high fashion brands being concentrated in one section and more democratic brands in a totally different one. Here everything is mixed, and the logic of locating the stores remained totally unclear to us. All the stores were very nicely decorated (Christmas is coming up!) and Christmas songs sounded everywhere, most of which, though, with the exception of the famous Jingle Bells, seemed too schmaltzy and cloying.

One of the must-do things planned for this trip was having a proper dim sum lunch, and we found that the best place to do so was Tim Ho Wan – it is a chain of restaurants, looking more like small eateries, but with a Michelin star, and by the way, being the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. At lunchtime there are always lots of people queuing outside. Everyone gets an order sheet with their number in the queue, so while waiting they could decide what they are getting and tick off those items. When seats become available, the waiters shout out the numbers – not necessarily in order, but rather depending on how many seats there are – in Cantonese, but if they see any non-Chinese among the people waiting, it can be repeated in English too.

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Many people think of dim sum as a variety of dumplings, while in reality it is not just dumplings, but rather a general assortment of small snacks to be consumed together with pu er tea. Originally it was part of the tea ceremony in southern China, and this traditional tea drinking, or “yum cha”, took place in tea houses in the morning. Now “yum cha” has moved to special dim sum restaurants, like Tim Ho Wan, and not necessarily happens in the morning, but still mostly before mid-afternoon.

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We absolutely loved everything we ordered, which included prawn dumplings (har gow), rice noodle rolls (cheong fun) with Cantonese BBQ pork (char siu), steamed egg cake, medlar & osmanthus jelly. We ate until we were totally full, and it cost only HK $ 112 for two (which makes U.S. $14-15 or 11-12 AZN).

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Hong Kong – Day 3

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2 December 2013

Today we went on with the bus tour which continued on the Kowloon peninsula. I found it less interesting than the island – lots of skyscrapers and shops, the streets mostly looked quite the same. Generally, it would have even been better to find a hotel on the island instead, it is way more picturesque than the peninsula which basically has only shopping and restaurants, and also the Avenue of Stars on the promenade, where we walked prior to the bus ride. The first time, I mean last year, it had been more fun – at least, seeing the handprints of local stars for the second time seemed less exciting now, however I still found the Bruce Lee statue impressive.

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During the bus tour, as usual, we were listening to the audio guide, and again heard the familiar information about the Black Christmas, when on 25 December 1941 the Hong Kong authorities had ignominiously surrendered to the Japanese; and how the Chinese emperor had mastered Kowloon and why this area with eight dragon-like hills was called the peninsula of Nine Dragons. But there was also an unfamiliar piece of information which I found quite interesting: one can hardly find any rats in Hong Kong nowadays, but in the late 19th century the city was literally flooded with lots of them. When some Japanese doctor proved the correlation between the spread of plague and the presence of rats, the city authorities took drastic measures and announced a reward of 2, and later 5 cents per caught rat. All went well at first, but then the reward had to be cancelled, for some particularly enterprising citizens started importing thousands of rats from China!

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The highlight of the day was meeting my teacher of Cantonese, which I learn over Skype. It’s always great when you have the opportunity to talk to someone local during a trip – it was fascinating to ask her questions about the Chinese language, and how text messages are typed in Chinese (she said there were dozens of ways: for example, her cousins, who can only read, but not write characters, use an app where you input romanised text, and it suggests all possible character options, out of which you need to find and select the appropriate one; while she herself prefers the app where you handwrite each character on the touchscreen, and the app recognises them and translates into printed text – the trick here is to follow the correct stroke order), and to hear from her that the income tax is very low in Hong Kong, however, there is no state pension at all. By the way, despite being 35, my teacher looks 23-25 at most.

She took us to the Maritime Museum, which had an exhibition of John Thomson’s photoworks, depicting Hong Kong and Coastal China of the 19th century. The technique of creating these photographs was shown right there: the wet collodion photographic process he had been using was already somewhat more advanced than the daguerreotype process, but still as far as the moon from being any similar to the modern process. It was rather complicated and time consuming, so it’s really amazing how Thomson managed to obtain photographs of such high quality. Personally, I liked the most those portraying people, some of which had been obviously posing very diligently and thus had ‘frozen’ faces, while the facial expressions of some others were vivid and natural, creating real genre pictures.

The rest of the museum expositions were stationary, and demonstrated the history of local seafaring and shipbuilding, piracy and maritime trade from ancient times to the present. Even we, being generally quite far from maritime affairs, found it very interesting.

We finished off the day with a night tour of Hong Kong and the laser show. Hong Kong is remarkably bright at night, and the famous neon signs are not the only contributors to this – the walls of most skyscrapers basically turn into huge glowing panels. As for the laser show, it didn’t impress us any more than the last time we had seen it, even though the air was way cleaner and the rays should have been more noticeable.

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Hong Kong – Day 2

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1 December 2013

First of all, we wanted to refresh our impressions of the city, the best way to do which, as everyone knows, is to take a hop on – hop off bus tour. Today we started the ride with the Hong Kong island (because the weather was absolutely fabulous and particularly suitable for visiting the Victoria peak), driving around it, all the way to the Aberdeen village. It’s quite interesting how human memory is designed: had I been asked to describe the island, I would have probably not been able to tell anything sensible. But when I saw it all again with my own eyes, everything looked totally familiar: I seemed to recognise every skyscraper, the racetrack in Happy Valley, the concave building in Repulse Bay, the beaches, and even the bus stop near Stanley Market. Totally felt like being back home after a long trip.

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In the Aberdeen village we did a sampan ride, of course, and then had lunch at the Jumbo floating restaurant, with a bit of an adventure. As the sampan boatman dropped us off at the restaurant entrance, he instructed us to wave at him with our Big Bus tour maps and wait right there to be picked up after we finished the lunch. But when we actually tried to do it, it turned out there was no one to wave at. We got a bit worried. Then we saw a private sampan approaching us and its driver eloquently rubbing his fingers, which clearly suggested that he was ready to take us anywhere for a certain payment. This wasn’t part of our plan though – we had already paid for the tour, which did already include a sampan ride. Having refused to join the guy, we decided to take the big sampan, apparently belonging to the restaurant, although it would hardly have brought us to the right bus stop. And that was exactly the moment when “our” sampan appeared in sight, so we happily waved at him, as instructed. The boatman shouted something and passed by. My modest knowledge of Cantonese allowed to infer that we were asked to wait, this speculation was reinforced by the fact that there was not a single empty seat in the boat. My Cantonese didn’t fail me: in five minutes the same sampan picked us up.

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Right from the start, my plan was to get to the Victoria Peak at dusk, so that I could make loads of pictures of the city in daylight, twilight and night lighting. In the morning, we thought this was an unrealistic target, as we would get there in 2-3 hours maximum. But the queue for the peak tram was so incredibly long (which was, actually, not that surprising on a Sunday), that it was past 5pm already when we finally got to the Sky Terrace.

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We spent about an hour there, it was a bit cold, but at least I took as many photos as I possibly could. The sight of Hong Kong from this high point was truly gorgeous. The viewpoint was jam-packed with people, and pushing my way to the best picture spots was not easy, but the view of the city was so much worth it! The jagged teeth of illuminated skyscrapers, the magnificent Victoria Harbour, the peak itself, covered with dense vegetation – all of this made up an unforgettable sight, even the second time around. Another tedious queue – for the return tram trip this time – in the freezing celestial cold, and we got down to the relatively warm sea level.

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In the evening we were still feeling energetic enough to try out the Hong Kong nightlife. We hit the Lan Kwai Fong area, where most of the drinking and clubbing is concentrated. Overall we liked it – the prices were reasonable (really low during the happy hour, which was long enough, right up to 10 pm), and the place was lively, crowded and fun. And then we returned to Kowloon.

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Food in Singapore (bonus post)

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If you have read my previous posts about Singapore, you might remember that I was mentioning the idea to write a separate gastronomic one, where I would describe the stuff I’d been eating during the trip (and other stuff which I had only seen but not necessarily eaten). Those who enjoy food as much as I do will hopefully appreciate.

So, on our first day in Singapore we ended up at the Paragon shopping mall, which, as pretty much everywhere here, had an extensive food court. It seemed logical to actually start the acquaintance with the food in Singapore with a Singaporean cuisine restaurant. There was one here – the Grandma’s restaurant was proudly proclaiming its authenticity.

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The Singaporean cuisine is represented by a large variety of dishes of different origins, which is not a bit surprising given such a diverse ethnic composition of the population. The whole concept of the “Singaporean cuisine” is a kind of mix of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian cuisines, with influences from other Asian and even European cuisines.

The very first thing I ordered was fried red snapper, which I really like – and it was indeed delicious!

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But what I probably like the most was a Chinese (namely Hokkien and Teochew) fried snack called mini ngo hiang – that was spicy minced chicken meat wrapped in very thin beancurd skin.

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In the next photo there are two Malaysian dishes: nasi lemak on the left and curry laksa on the right. The former, consisting of coconut rice, chicken curry, anchovies sambal (a type of sauce), hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers and achar (pickled vegetables), was very nice. The latter – basically a curry noodle soup with prawns, chicken and tau pok (deep-fried tofu) – was pretty decent too, but started to cloy quite quickly.

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Another dish that was either Indonesian or Malay was beef rendang, made from meat chunks stewed in coconut milk and some spices.

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And here is a rather interesting drink called Grandson’s Favourite, made with almond soy milk, grass jelly and palm sugar.

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The next day, if you remember, we were exploring Chinatown; therefore, we had lunch right there, in a Chinese restaurant, of course. It wasn’t entirely clear how the restaurant was called, but Google now suggests that it’s Chinatown Shanghai Kitchen. We ordered a hell lot of food, and it was all excellent.

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Here is the good old sweet and sour pork, which is popular throughout the world and, by the way, as far as I know, belongs to Cantonese rather than Shanghainese cuisine:

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This is some quite ordinary roast duck, not the famous Peking one, and not even the slightly less well-known Cantonese one, but nevertheless very tender and tasty.

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And this one is sizzling beef with ginger and onion, also very tender and spicy:

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Chili crab is yet another must-try Singaporean dish, along with laksa and nasi lemak, that we had the day before. It tasted pretty good, although not particularly to die for, was moderately spicy, and very messy to eat: no matter how hard you try to keep it neat, you’ll still end up eating with your hands and getting yourself all dirty.

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In addition to all this meaty-fishy food, we also got a variety of side dishes, such as these noodles with vegetables and some spongy mushrooms, which looked more like pieces of bread:

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Or this asparagus with snow peas and bean sprouts:

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This is sautéed kai-lan, or Chinese broccoli, except that it doesn’t look much like the broccoli we’re used to. I’d never heard of this vegetable previously, but during this Asian trip it definitely became one of my favourite.

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And one more side dish – sautéed Chinese vegetables (pak choi and some mushrooms).

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Later the same day, we discovered the huge food court of the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mall, where we were hiding from a heavy downpour. My companions decided to go for tea and cake only, while I, not being a big fan of the latter, opted for a proper meal. After a long indecisive walk along the various food booths, I stopped at the Korean one and got a BBQ set consisting of a seaweed soup, spicy BBQ chicken, rice, fried dried anchovies and cabbage kimchi (that is spicy pickled cabbage). Honestly, I wasn’t wild with delight – whether because I wasn’t too hungry or simply this combination of flavours was not my thing.

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Other booths, as I already mentioned in this post, offered a huge variety of cuisines, mainly Asian ones – this one had Singapore’s local delicacies:

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Yong Tau Foo is a Chinese Hakka dish, which originally used to be a soup with tofu stuffed with meat or fish (hence the name), and now can contain lots of various other stuff like meat or fish balls, seafood, vegetables, crab sticks, mushrooms, and in fact doesn’t even have to be a soup, it can be eaten as a dry dish as well.

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Bak kut teh is a Chinese soup made of pork ribs with various additional ingredients; the name literally means “meat bone tea”. Despite the fact that the dish is of Chinese origin, it is mostly common in Malaysia and Singapore, where it was brought in the 19th century by Chinese workers of Hokkien and Teochew origins.

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As far as I understand, Chinatown Beef Noodle is a chain, serving, obviously, different sorts and varieties of beef noodles.

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One of the elements of Cantonese cuisine is the rotisserie style called siu mei, which includes different meats (pork, chicken, goose, duck) and is very popular in Hong Kong.

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Here you can get Singapore-style fried noodles with various ingredients.

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Nasi Padang is basically steamed rice served with all kinds of meat and vegetable dishes, comes from the city of Padang in Indonesia.

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Ajisen Ramen is a Japanese fast-food chain, serving, as the name implies, different kinds of ramen soup (wheat noodles in broth, with all sorts of toppings).

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Jia Xiang Sarawak Kuching Kolo Mee is yet another chain that specialises in Kolo Mee (a dish of egg noodles with pork, originating from the Sarawak state in Malaysia).

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Continuing the topic of noodle soups, another variation thereof is ban mian, a dish common in Hokkien- and Hakka-speaking areas (in particular, the Fujian province in China, Singapore and Malaysia).

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This looks like the Malay cuisine booth, although I wasn’t able to identify any of the dishes on the signboards.

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The Indian cuisine booth:

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I believe everyone is familiar with the concept of dim sum, as this invention of Cantonese cuisine is widespread worldwide. For those who are not – these are light snacks, served in small plates or bamboo steamers. There exists a great variety of dim sum choices: all sorts of dumplings you can even think of, buns with various fillings, fried chicken legs (the so-called “phoenix claws”), pork ribs, meatballs, even congee, and many, many more.

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Judging by the dishes represented here, this booth also serves dim sum, and not only shrimp dumplings, as the name suggests, but also other kinds of dumplings, as well as the aforementioned chicken legs, egg custard buns, etc.

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And here is Japanese food and, as seen in the picture, many of the dishes are served in traditional bento boxes with multiple compartments.

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More noodles – and they are prepared right here, before your very eyes.

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Philippine cuisine is the least known to me out of all the mentioned above, I would have loved to try it, but didn’t have the opportunity this time.

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The next day I felt the urgent desire to have some Chinese dumplings, so half of us headed to Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain restaurant specializing in xiaolongbao (steamed dumplings).

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As it is often the case in dim sum and dumpling restaurants, you are handed the menu with a pen, and you can mark off what you want and in what quantities.

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Tea and shredded ginger are served immediately and free of charge.

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We ordered vegetable and pork wonton soup (wontons are a variety of dumplings, wrapped in very thin dough), some rice and my favourite kai-lan, stir-fried Hong Kong-style, with special oyster sauce.

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And then came the dumplings. Minimum portion was 6 pieces, so even though we wanted to try as much as possible, due to the lack of spare stomachs, we had to limit ourselves to two types only. These are chicken dumplings:

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And these are shrimp and pork dumplings, called shao mai (or siu mai in Cantonese pronunciation – and that is how they are best known, due to the already mentioned worldwide popularity of dim sum).

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The next day, we found this eatery on the Sentosa Island:

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The place is pretty small, and the menu, although not extremely abundant, is somehow very diverse in terms of the number of cuisines represented.

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So our selection was quite diverse as well – we, already missing familiar food, started with a mushroom soup and a plain vegetable salad.

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Indian dum biryani is a dish of rice with meat (in this case – chicken) and/or vegetables and spices, a spicy one, as one would expect from Indian cuisine, though in moderation.

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Gong bao chicken is also spicy, and, as one would expect from Szechuan cuisine, not in moderation. Szechuan cuisine is generally characterised by extensive use of pepper – in particular, the combination of dried chili with Szechuan peppercorn (which in fact is not quite pepper, but rather husks of the zanthoxylum plant) creates that sensation of numbing heat, which is a distinguishing feature of this cuisine.

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Another meal we had on Sentosa Island was in Hollywood China Bistro in Universal Studios amusement park.

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This time we weren’t really up for new exotic dishes so we ordered the familiar stuff. For example, sweet corn soup with egg:

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Here is quite an ordinary dish with a not-so-ordinary name: braised ee fu noodles with mushrooms. Ee fu, also known as yi mein is a Cantonese egg noodles variety made from wheat flour.

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Lemon chicken is quite a famous dish, served more often in Chinese restaurants around the world, than in China itself.

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And this is Cantonese roast duck, with a fragrant sauce – one type of siu mei, which I mentioned above.

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All of this was accompanied by wonderful jasmine tea.

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If you remember, we were spending the first half of the next day at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, therefore, we had lunch right in the Ginger Garden, at the Halia restaurant, whose name actually means “ginger” in Malay. From noon to 2pm they serve a set menu of two or three courses to choose from. The portions are quite small, but delicious and generously seasoned with ginger, just as one might expect.

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Here’s what their starters are like (out of those we tried): these are pieces of home-cured salmon, cucumber and kipfler potato with some rye croutons and English mustard:

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And this is a salad of heirloom tomato, watermelon and goat cheese with black olives and balsamic vinegar.

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The soup of the day was pumpkin soup:

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And then, the main courses arrived: grilled fillet of barramundi fish with local organic mushrooms and Chinese roast duck consommé. The waiter pours the consommé into the bowl from a small pitcher, right at the table.

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One more main – roasted corn fed chicken breast with carrot puree, potato mille-feuille and Brussels sprouts.

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Quite unexpectedly, I really loved the desserts, perhaps even more than the starters and mains. The ginger nougat parfait with caramelised pineapple and spiced pineapple sauce was simply amazing!

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And this is coconut panna cotta with mango, passion fruit, mint and lychee granita.

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But that wasn’t it for our gastronomic adventures that day. After lunch we headed to the Gardens by the Bay, where we stayed right until dinner. The dinner, which we had nearby, at the Majestic Bay seafood restaurant, turned out great. Right near the entrance there stood a few big tanks with live seafood.

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We went for the set menu consisting of small portions of several courses, so as to try more different food. The first thing to be served was the snack combo: soft shell crab with lemon buttermilk sauce, some kind of crisps and Japanese scallops with pickled cucumber, grapes and Kyoto dressing.

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The next course was chicken soup with cordyceps (at that time we had no idea what it was, thank goodness – but having googled it later I discovered that it was parasitic fungi!), con poy (dried scallops) and Chinese ham. The soup tasted quite unusually.

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Then came wok-fried pork ribs with espresso sauce – yummy!

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It was followed by stewed 10 heads abalone (familiar to us from our last Hong Kong trip), with tofu and my old friend kai-lan. Generally, abalone tastes quite nice, although I wouldn’t include it among my favourite food.

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Next we had some stewed Boston lobster with bee hoon (South-East Asian rice noodles). The lobster was very good, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy the noodles much.

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And last, but not least, we were served the dessert: essence of mango puree in a whole young coconut (i. e. with soft meat) and a glutinous rice dumpling with fresh cream stuffing. Both were delicious.

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And finally, we had our last meal in Singapore right at the airport, before the flight to Hong Kong, in the Peach Garden Noodle House.

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First of all, I ordered my long-time favourite Szechuan-style hot and sour soup.

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The main course was noodles with roast pork, and broth served separately. The broth had to be poured onto the noodles to turn them into a soup, which I didn’t do – that would be way too many soups for me.

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Hainanese chicken rice is one more dish, considered Singapore’s national (even though it derived, of course, from the cuisine of the Hainan island in China). This dish is served with chicken broth, pounded ginger, dark soy sauce and chili garlic sauce. Overall, it wasn’t bad, but a bit too greasy for my taste.

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Singapore – Day 7 / Hong Kong

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30 November 2013

The trip to the chic and luxury Singapore ended not very luxuriously in Little India. First, we were intending to have lunch right there too, in order to join the Indian spirit, just as we had been joining the Chinese spirit in Chinatown; however the spirit didn’t please us that much, for it was very smelly! We really had the impression that the city government of Singapore had just given up on this part of town and provided people the opportunity to live in a familiar environment: very colourful, moderately dirty and ragged.

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Besides, there was a lot of construction going on around; maybe in the near future Little India too would be transformed to match the other parts of the magnificent Singapore. Quite frankly, we didn’t have the desire to eat here, so we eventually decided to have lunch at Changi Airport.

Even though our flight was delayed by an hour, we made it safely to Hong Kong on a small JetStar plane. The air temperature here is far from tropical, yet, by our standards, if it can get up to 20°C (or even slightly above), you wouldn’t really wear a down parka. By Chinese standards, though, it’s exactly the right time for those – that is why Hong Kong is dressed very diversely: foreigners walk around in almost beach style clothing, and the locals wear warm winter jackets and boots.

While during our last visit we were staying on Hong Kong Island, this time we booked a hotel on the busy Nathan Road on the Kowloon Peninsula.

Singapore – Day 6

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29 November 2013

Today we switched from fauna to flora, starting the day with a visit to the Botanic Gardens. They are huge here in Singapore, splendid and fragrant – a real riot of tropical greenery. The reason why they are called “gardens” and not “garden” is that in fact there are several themed gardens gathered in one place: the Fragrant Garden, Healing Garden, Ginger Garden, a few others, and – the crown of all – the National Orchid Garden. The territory between those gardens is actually park as well, with ponds, swans, and so on.

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

National Orchid Garden

We started off very briskly, stopping next to each plant, but then our fervour and enthusiasm somehow began to diminish. The sun was beating down, even though there was a black cloud looming in the sky and mercifully hiding the sun behind it from time to time. For some reason, in the Healing Garden we were attacked and cruelly stung by all sorts of insects – seemed like they had been healed there and were now full of energy.

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Botanic Gardens

Once again, for the umpteenth time in Singapore, it started raining just as we entered a restaurant to have lunch, as if the rain had been waiting for us to take shelter under the roof. The restaurant, which was obviously right inside the Gardens, was called Halia, meaning “ginger” in Malay, so, as one may guess, this spice was present in abundance in all the meals. The portions were strikingly small, but delicious. On leaving the restaurant, which we did after it stopped raining, we were provided with free raincoats, which we didn’t have the chance to make use of.

Having taken a liking to plants, we left the natural gardens just to head to artificial ones – the famous gardens at Marina Bay, with large conservatories. We feared that we would have an overdose of the monotonous tropical flora, but these gardens had a very different spirit. The conservatories, which could be accessed via a quite peculiar viaduct, were very interesting in design, looking like giant blooming bouquets or trees.

Gardens at Marina Bay

Gardens at Marina Bay

Gardens at Marina Bay

Gardens at Marina Bay

We visited only two of the conservatories: the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest (a term for a very humid tropical montane forest). The first one contained a variety of roses, geraniums and other flowers and, for whatever reason, vegetables of giant sizes, such as aubergines, peppers, cabbage and tomatoes.

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

At the Flower Dome

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

The second one was designed as basically a mountain, with diverse vegetation on its slopes, and it was so moist there that the air was filled with drizzle. Atop the mountain there was a little garden called the Lost World, which could be accessed by lift, and there was a circular path descending to different levels from that garden. The last thing to see before exiting was a video with gloomy forecasts that by 2100 the temperature on Earth would rise by an average of 5 degrees, which would result in all sorts of disasters, such as the extinction of many species of animals and plants, reduction of the amount of drinking water, spread of diseases – although it ended with a reassurance that all this could be avoided.

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest

What’s not a problem in Singapore (well, not that anything at all is a problem here!) is that everything is constructed and designed very conveniently and user-friendly. Places to eat can be found literally everywhere. Wherever you go, whether it’s a garden, a mall, a museum or a theatre, you can be sure that you won’t stay hungry. So, quite naturally, we found where to have dinner just as we exited the Gardens and turner around the corner. It was a Chinese restaurant, mainly seafood oriented, and, to spare ourselves from difficult choices, we decided to go for a set meal, where we were continuously served small portions of different dishes to sample, which seemed to be the right decision, as everything was delicious.

Singapore Flyer - view from Gardens on the Bay

Singapore Flyer - view from Gardens on the Bay

Since it was our last full day in Singapore, we definitely felt the urge to go see the famous Raffles hotel and taste its signature cocktail, the Singapore Sling. The colonial style hotel, of course, claims to be chic. It’s a white-stone building, with a courtyard and a shopping arcade full of fashion boutiques. The hotel is certainly impressive, but not drop dead impressive. A small detail: in the glamorous Long Bar, where most of the guests buy this very cocktail, on each table there is a basket filled with unshelled peanuts. Guests throw the shells right on the floor, and if they leave them on their tables by mistake, the waiters whisk them to the floor when clearing the table after them. As a result, the entire floor is littered with those shells.

Raffles Hotel

Raffles HotelSingapore Sling

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