Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 2

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

04 February 2019

Today’s weather clearly demonstrated that February is February, and yesterday was just a gift to mark our arrival. Today was pretty windy, with almost no sun, and, according to the forecast, this is not going to be the worst day of our stay.

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We had a Bosphorus cruise planned for today, and at 8am we were picked up by a minibus. Apparently in order to prepare us for a boat ride, the minibus hurled us from side to side, rushing down narrow streets, past countless (for some reason!) shops selling lighting fixtures.

There were six of us in the group – a couple from Southeast Asia, two Indians, and us – the Azerbaijanis. The first item on our agenda was Misir Carsisi – or Spice Bazaar, aka Egyptian Bazaar, with beautiful gilded passages, tons and tons of spices, nuts, Turkish delights, gold and silver! We entered this kingdom of Middle-Eastern goods with a firm intention to just look around. But resourceful sellers immediately involved us in a “round dance” of offers, treats, promises of discounts, and we changed our determination to not but anything – anyway, we didn’t end up making any completely impulsive purchases: we bought sweets, spices, a cezve and silver jewelry. What contributed most to our purchases was, first of all, our understanding of Turkish (which allowed the sellers to elaborate extensively on the quality of their goods) and secondly, the fact that we accidentally came across our fellow countrywoman at one of the shops – she seemed to be either the administrator or the owner.

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Having left all our purchases in the minibus, with the kind consent of our guide, we transferred to the cruise boat, where there were a couple of other tourist groups apart from ours, but overall the boat was far from being full – apparently, it’s a low season now.

Yesterday the concierge at our hotel was trying to convince us to sign up for another cruise in the afternoon, scaring us with the usual morning fog, which would prevent us from seeing much. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. I mean, some fog was present indeed, but firstly, it didn’t really bother us, and besides, it didn’t dissipate in the afternoon either.

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The cruise starts at the Kabatas ferry port, and first goes along the European part of the city, past such attractions as the Dolmabahce Palace, the Rumeli Fortress and the Ciragan Palace, converted into a Kempinski hotel – the most expensive one in Istanbul. We made nice photos, but cannot really say that our delight went through the roof. By the way, we were accompanied by seagulls during the whole of our journey, however, compared to those at Galata Tower yesterday, these ones seemed smaller.

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What looked more interesting was the Asian part, which we sailed along when the ship turned around from the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. And here, even more than the actual sights of interest, including the Anadolu fortress, the Beylerbeyi Palace, the Kucuksu pavilion, we enjoyed the coastline, strewn with variegated mansions. Their unique location with direct Bosphorus views makes them the most expensive real estate in Turkey, with prices reaching up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

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This morning we still had no exact plans for the afternoon: we had a thought to dedicate the day entirely to water travel and visit the Princes’ Islands. It was the weather that finally discouraged us. The Princes’ Islands are mostly good for walking around – there isn’t even any transport there, besides horse carts. Therefore, we changed our minds in favour of the Dolmabahce Palace, and we took an Uber there, which didn’t go perfectly well. He dropped us off near some beautiful (but locked!) palace gates and rushed off into the sunset. The street looked deserted, in particular, we didn’t see any crowds of tourists storming the palace.

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To our luck, literally the only passer-by, whom we naturally addressed, knew exactly where the palace entrance was (it turned out that we had just been dropped off in the wrong place) and kindly showed us the way. By the way, she herself turned out not to be local, but an Afghan living in the USA and working here just temporarily.

The location of the palace is simply amazing – the sultans did know a thing or two about choosing the perfect place. The carved fences and the garden gates overlook the Bosphorus. One can imagine the pleasure of walking in this garden!

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Dolmabahce is not the old residence of the sultans (which we aren’t going to see till tomorrow), but a 19th-century building, reflecting all of the contemporary European trends, which is especially noticeable in the furniture. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited inside the palace, and although not all visitors were quite law-abiding, we decided to comply.

There are two types of tickets: including and excluding a visit to the harem. Of course, the first type is preferable: in fact, the harem is much more interesting and luxurious than the rest of the palace, and better reflects the actual life of the sultan’s family. Along standard apartments of sultan’s wives, consisting of a bedroom, a living room and a bathroom (with a squat toilet, as everywhere in the palace!), there are also the luxurious and extensive apartments of Valide Sultan, the reigning sultan’s mother. The latter include a prayer room, a large reception room, a private room, and a spacious bedroom. Even the sultan’s own apartments in the harem are superior in luxury and decoration to his apartments in the official part of the palace.

The latter, of course, has beautifully furnished rooms, but the one that can be considered truly exclusive is the main hall with an incredibly painted domed ceiling. There are also two display rooms: the first one contains tableware and kitchenware, and the second one has medals, weapons, household and leisure items.

It’s interesting to note that after the fall of the monarchy, Atatürk chose Dolmabahce as his residence, and this is where he died – in one of the rooms (a very simple and modest one) of the former harem. This room is also open to visitors, and the bed in it is covered with a blanket representing the Turkish flag.

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We stayed in Dolmabahce almost until its closing time. From here we were supposed to go for dinner, to a fish restaurant, booked in advance, in the Cihangir area. And this suddenly turned into a whole adventure. We hadn’t ordered a taxi in advance, and tried to hail one in the street, but the cars were going in the opposite direction and the taxi driver refused to pick us. Google showed that the restaurant was relatively close, literally a 22-minute walk.

What Google didn’t show, however, is that we would have to climb countless stairs a good deal of the way. Possibly, I would even say most certainly, there should exist a longer way without stairs – I mean, cars do get there somehow! – but we, naively and recklessly, not realising how much we would have to climb, went up the stairs. It was a breathtaking experiment! The stairs were quite steep and chipped, some parts of the way had no handrails, occasionally a stair was interrupted by a sewer manhole. Afraid to look back and feel dizzy, we climbed up and up, like cats, who can climb only up trees, out of fear. Speaking of cats, their appearance was the pinnacle of the whole climb. Five of them simultaneously ditched their food bowls (apparently, kindly provided by residents of the houses located along the stairs) and rushed at our feet. They were meowing loudly and rubbing against us, a couple of cats even smacked each other, fighting for the right to get in our way, and then followed us for a long time. I struggle to imagine what that was. In that situation, they totally seemed like messengers from hell, but perhaps the poor animals were just trying to welcome us and cheer us up. They only left us at the very last part of the staircase. Alas, there are no photos of the cats – it was not the right moment to take pictures, you know.

After we successfully overcame this “hurdle”, we still had to meander a bit more more around the streets going up and down, but this felt more tolerable. We entered the restaurant totally exhausted. But then we were rewarded with a magnificent view of the city from the 8th floor, delicious fish, and excellent service.

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Posted in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand – Day 1

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

18 March 2018

Off we go to another Asian trip, with the same travel agency that organized our Vietnam tour – this time we are in Thailand! After the virtually sleepless overnight flight from Abu Dhabi (toddlers on board are an absolute evil!) we arrived in Bangkok at about 7am, found our way out of the enormous airport pretty quickly and met our guide – an elderly lady named Vanna.

Later she told us that she used to work for a large logistics company, and when she retired at 57, she entered the university and became a tour guide, so as not to sit around. She also learned to swim and play tennis at the age of 40 and driving a car at 45. We found her very nice, positive, full of energy and helpful.

First of all, we were taken to our hotel. Of course, on our way we kept staring around and comparing everything with the last Asian cities we had seen – that’s Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Bangkok looks (and indeed, is) much more developed in terms of infrastructure and economy. It’s a very green city, with lots of tropical vegetation and flowers.

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In the hotel we were offered breakfast right away, and it was quite good, but as we understood, unlike in Vietnam, here three stars mean exactly three stars, and you don’t get an abundance of all kinds of fruits, dim sums, sushi rolls and whatever else your soul may desire.

Then we were given 40 minutes to get ready, and right after that we went on a city tour. What immediately caught my eye were photographs of the late king, deceased two years ago, all around the city. Vanna said that he was not just a king for them, but almost like a father, as he cared a lot about the people. For a whole year after his death, the entire nation wore black and white as a sign of mourning – not because they were forced to, but voluntarily.

The first item of our programme was the Grand Palace – a complex of buildings, with temples and pavilions, built in the 18th century. There is a strict dress code on the premises: knees and shoulders must be covered. Given the thirty-plus degree heat, it doesn’t feel extremely nice but is not fatal. What spoils the impression a bit are crowds and crowds of people, mostly Chinese. I wrote this phrase – and felt deja vu, remembering how I had written the exact same thing about the Forbidden City in Beijing. Here as well, 99% of the tourists seem to be Chinese, Vanna said that it gets this crowded all year round, and even worse so during the Chinese New Year.

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The highlight of the palace complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (or Wat Phra Kaew), where taking photos was not allowed. The Emerald Buddha is actually made from a solid block of jade (as for emerald, it’s not even suitable for carving), his clothing varies depending on the season, which there are three of in Bangkok (winter, summer and rainy season), and it is the king himself who “dresses” the Buddha. In general, the statue is quite small, only 66 cm, and according to a legend, was found in the 15th century in Chiang Rai among the ruins of some pagoda, then transported to Chiang Mai (we are going to see both cities, but at that time they did not belong to Thailand) and to a bunch of other places, before finally making it to Bangkok. The figurine is highly revered in Thailand and even considered the Palladium of the Kingdom, which is said to stand for as long as the Emerald Buddha is in Thailand.

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Vanna keeps drawing our attention to elements of the architecture, as we are examining various stupas and pavilions. Everything is made by hand, whether it’s ceiling paintings or porcelain shard mosaic work.

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Some buildings are purely in Thai style – this is evident both from the shape of the roofs and the abundance of gold in the finish. Others are in Cambodian style, with more pointed domes and without gold, although also with a very rich finish. There is even a model of the Cambodian Angkor Wat temple.

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One group of buildings includes a newer palace built in European style in the 19th century – after a European trip, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) wanted to demonstrate that in Thailand (or actually, Siam back in the days), which unlike its neighbours in Indochina and thanks to Chulalongkorn’s politics, wasn’t anybody’s colony, they could build at the same level as in Europe.

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At the exit from the Grand Palace, we saw numerous wall paintings from Indian mythology – in general, Indian influence is largely felt here, even Buddhism seems to be in its Indian form, not Chinese like in Vietnam.

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After the Grand Palace we took a boat across the river to the Temple of Dawn (or Wat Arun). Here we saw Buddhist monks, some of whom were young boys – probably novices – having lunch. They are allowed to eat only twice a day and only before noon, and also women aren’t allowed to touch them.

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The dome of the temple is in the Cambodian style and also decorated with porcelain shards. Vanna said that back in the days the royal court ordered porcelain tableware from China, and far from everything survived on the way, so this is how the broken crockery was utilised.

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Today’s last stop, not included in our tour programme, but suggested by Vanna, was a visit to a gem factory to purchase jewelry. We bought silver jewelry – gold was either too expensive, or too inconspicuous.

On the way to our hotel, we popped into a restaurant nearby and tasted the local versions of the famous tom yum soup and green curry. Delicious but spicy! And then, after a hearty lunch and a sleepless night, we immediately went to bed and slept for 2-3 hours, until it was time to get ready for the dinner cruise on the Chao Praya River. Vanna and the driver were already waiting for us, and we drove right to the pier.

There were quite lot of people on the cruise boat, but fortunately we had a table on the open upper deck, and not on the closed bottom one (although, perhaps, this wasn’t sheer luck, but rather what our ticket included). The cruise was very pleasant – there were small kerosene lamps burning on the tables, the buffet dinner was delicious, we passed by the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, which we had seen before and which were now magnificently illuminated, and in the meantime we were entertained by the cultural programme: the singer was singing famous languid ballads (including ones in Chinese – probably also famous, just not to us), and then we say a mini ladyboy cabaret show.

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Posted in Asia, English, Halong, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 9

13 June 2017

I did manage to get up very early: when I woke up, it wasn’t even 5am and the sky was already brightening. Alas, I couldn’t photograph the phenomenal sunrise – firstly, because it was quite ordinary and not as stunningly beautiful as I had expected, and secondly, once I took my camera, which had stayed the whole night in an air-conditioned cabin, out in such a humid environment, it immediately got water condensed on it and it took a very long time to wipe the lens and the mirror.

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The captain of the ship was also up, doing yoga at the upper deck, and at 6am he started the tai chi class. At first I didn’t like it at all, because we were given rather heavy wooden sticks and started stretching using those, which neither me nor my lower back appreciated much. I really liked the actual tai chi exercises though, but they took only five or ten minutes out of the whole half-an-hour session.

After breakfast there was one more motor boat trip planned for us. This time we went to a cave called the Surprise Cave.

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The reason it’s called so is because it’s very spacious, which you don’t expect at all looking at the island from the outside.

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The cave, in fact, consists of several “rooms”, and is not just a wild spot where you can walk anywhere and climb the rocks, no, it is fully equipped for tourists. There are man-made stairs, lighting – with the illumination being multicolored and very well thought out – and identification signage, so quite obviously, the entrance isn’t free, but the ticket is already included in our cruise.

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Luckily, it was very cool in the cave, as the weather outside is again very stuffy and humid. I have to say, I found the cave absolutely amazing and not only because of the size. I’d never seen anything like it in my life, it’s incredible to discover such places. Just look at those stalactites and stalagmites of freakish shapes, or patterns on the rocks, looking like a dragon or a heart!

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Upon returning to the ship, we only had to check out, have brunch and disembark on the shore.

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We were back in the office of the cruise company, where we had to spend an hour waiting for our minibus. And that was the exact moment when we felt all the power of our luck, for literally the very minute when we sat down in the waiting room, an incredible downpour started and didn’t stop for the whole hour that we were waiting. Moreover, later in Hanoi we were told that yesterday, when we were not there, there was a heavy storm with rain and that today it had just moved to Halong, to the extent that some cruises got canceled altogether. Just imagine that if our cruise was only a day later, we might have not even got to the place which was the main reason why we actually organised this Vietnam trip!

The road to Hanoi took the same four hours and again was not particularly interesting, except for the fact that at some point our Peruvian fellow passenger snapped at the driver, saying that he was carrying 8 people and not potatoe,s so he had 8 lives in his hands and it wouldn’t hurt to drive more carefully. I’m not sure if the driver was actually doing any dangerous maneuvers, but one thing I know was that I didn’t manage to sleep in the back seat, as every time I was falling asleep and my mind began drifting away, the minibus jumped and I immediately was wide awake.

In Hanoi, we checked in at the same hotel, only now we were upgraded to a better room free of charge – a much larger one and with a nice view from the window.

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Even though it was only 4pm, we felt too lazy to go out, especially after we saw how crazy the Hanoi traffic was on that day. Especially that we had a visit from the travel agency representative who we had corresponded with when booking the tour and who came to meet us personally, thank us and give us lacquered boxes as gifts. Of course, we warmly thanked her too, both for the gifts, and for the wonderful organisation of the tour, since not only was it very interesting and educating, but also everything went without a hitch: we were always met and seen off perfectly on time and were very well taken care of.

Since today was our last night in Vietnam, we decided not to economise on ourselves at all, but to splash out on a massage in the hotel spa, which was twice as expensive as our previous massages (those had discount offers) and dinner in a high-end restaurant at the hotel as well.

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The massage was indeed of a little higher class than in Hue and in Hoi An: even though tea had been served there as well, and in Hoi An we had also been offered to choose a fragrance oil for massage, but here we had our feet washed in some cinnamon decoction before the procedure (plus the tea came with biscuits! 🙂 )

Dinner also was a very pleasant experience, not only with the meal being great (it included a pomelo, prawn and squid salad, beef stewed in coconut milk and served right in a coconut shell, baked Hanoi fish, passion fruit cake and creme brulee with flambéed banana), but also the service being excellent and friendly.

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Service in Vietnam is generally excellent – only once we sat down to have coffee in some fancy café in Hanoi, and were completely ignored by the waiters so had to indignantly leave without ordering, but that is more likely an exception, and besides all TripAdvisor reviews about this place mention the awful service. As for all other places – whether hotels, spas, restaurants or means of transport – everyone is very friendly, knows their work well and many are very eager to do more than they should. Perhaps this is somehow related to the fact that the country has a very developed tipping culture: the salaries of staff are usually very low making them really count on tips from customers.

Posted in Asia, English, Halong, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 8

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

12 June 2017

Yesterday’s excursion was the last one with a guide, but the Vietnam tour continues. At 7.30am we were picked up from our hotel by a minibus – and off we drove to Halong, where we were supposed to take a cruise around the bay

The drive from Hanoi to Halong took about four hours, including a stop halfway. There wasn’t anything remarkable on the way, and there were seven of us in the minibus: a Vietnamese lady, a company of three Colombians and one Peruvian, and us, obviously. Finally we arrived on the Tuan Chau island, looking like a proper resort, with an aquapark – and merged into a large crowd of people awaiting the ship. At first we were unpleasantly surprised, as we’d been told that the cruise was designed for a rather small number people (44 guests max), but then it turned out that all these people were actually waiting for three different ships.

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As a result, we boarded ours with our fellow minibus riders and a few more couples, families and companies. As a welcome, we were offered some juice, instructed on safety and itinerary, placed in cabins and served lunch.

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Halong Bay is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, if not the most. We are surrounded by lots of limestone cliffs and islands covered with greenery, jade-green sea, cruise ships and small fishing and trading boats.

After all the excursion rush on previous days it felt so blissful to just lie in a chaise longue under the sun on the upper deck.

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But in any case, we didn’t get to lie for long – in about an hour, everyone was offered to get on one of the two small motor boats that were traveling behind our ship in tow. We were first taken to some sort of cove, fenced off by rocks from the rest of the bay, with an entrance through a small grotto. There were actually two options to get into the cove through the grotto: either on a bamboo boat with a group of people and a local boatman, or in a kayak, paddling yourself.

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At first, although the idea of ​​kayaking seemed pretty tempting, we were somehow feeling scared – neither of us had ever tried before – and were more inclined toward the bamboo boat. But once on the spot, when we heard that the staff were happy to watch our cameras, we changed our minds.

First, when we just were seated in a kayak, given a paddle each and pushed away from the pier, we felt a bit lost and couldn’t figure out how to paddle, clumsily navigated our way into the grotto, crashed into another kayak, hit the wall, hit a stalactite – and then we finally figured things out and learned to properly paddle, turn and navigate the boat. It felt great, especially that we learned a new skill, even though paddling was pretty difficult – too bad we were only given 25 minutes. By the way, on the rock above the grotto we found an inscription saying “Lesozavodsk 1962”, I wonder how and why it even got there!

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The next stop of the motor boat was the Ti Top Island with a beach. But apart from the beach, there was also an observation deck, right at the top. Of course, I totally had to go there, and that is when I realised that all the time I’d spent on the StairMaster machine in the gym had not been wasted: I managed the 400-something stairs leading to the deck surprisingly easily, while many others struggled and had to settle for an intermediate viewing platform halfway.

Even though, having made it to the top in this humid stuffiness, I was absolutely drenched in sweat, but the full view of the bay which I got to see, was more than worth it. Such incredible beauty, it’s not for nothing that Halong Bay is named one of the seven wonders of nature!

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The descent on the way back, seemed harder and scarier, I must say, but the refreshing sea down below seemed like a reward!

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Kudos to the cruise organisers, who provided for everything: we were given beach towels; then as we stepped off the motor boat back onto our ship we had our feet washed with a hose; the dirty towels were then spread on the floor to make sure we didn’t slip or wet the floor.

After that, they announced the happy hour and gave us some time to relax on the upper deck with a nice tropical cocktail.

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But we didn’t have time to get bored, since a master class on making fried spring rolls started very soon. It didn’t require too much effort from our side actualy: all we had to do was to wrap the prepared stuffing, consisting of rice vermicelli, white and spring onions, minced pork, two kinds of mushrooms, carrots, raw eggs and spices, into rice paper. The rolls were then deep-fried in soybean oil for us, and we tried them, dipping them into fish sauce (that stinky one).

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That wasn’t our only meal for the evening, and dinner was served pretty soon. After the dinner, there was see some French film about Indochina and squid fishing planned – but we weren’t too keen on the former and completely forgot about the latter, going to bed at 9pm instead, because we have major plans for tomorrow: wake up at least at 6am for a taichi class, and preferably even earlier, to catch the sunrise.

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