Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “History”

Vietnam – Day 7

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11 June 2017

Once again we’ve had a very intense day, and our legs are almost falling off. As usual, the morning started with a breakfast, a very varied and tasty one, like we’re already used to. At 9am, Sunny was waiting for us at the hotel reception for a tour of Hanoi.

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We were offered two museums to choose from: the History Museum or the Ethnology Museum, and we chose the latter, which turned out to be an excellent choice. What was especially good was that Sunny went with us and made very interesting comments about most of the exhibits.

The museum is dedicated to the culture and lifestyle of 54 different nationalities officially recognised in Vietnam, 86% of which are viets.

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Hmongs, for example, still have the custom of kidnapping brides. The kidnapped girl is brought to the house of the potential bridegroom, where she is locked in a room for three days, after which she is unlocked and free to leave. If she does, the rejected groom either switches to another “victim”, or kidnaps her again, but without the chance to leave this time. But in this case, she can demand a huge ransom for herself, whether it’s 300 or 3000 buffaloes, and if the groom can’t afford to pay that, his family becomes the laughingstock of the whole community.

The architect, who designed the museum building, was so impressed by the sight of a peasant on a bicycle loaded with hundreds of fishing baskets, that she bought the whole batch along with the bike itself.

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One of Vietnam’s major ethnic minorities are Tai people, akin to the Thai. A woman is very highly regarded and revered much more than a man in the Tai culture – there is even a house decoration, consisting of small bags, hanging on the window, according to the number of girls in the family.

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As for the roofs, these are decorated with such crossbred sticks as in the photo. A newly married couple would use the simplest version – the first on the right in the photo. When the wife becomes pregnant with the first child, the decoration changes to one like the first on the left, and then, when the child is born, like the second on the left. The house owners are free to do this themselves. But the remaining two decorations are awarded by the community, depending on this family’s contribution to the community life: the greater it is, the greater the chance to get more “antlered” sticks.

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The Yao people’s tradition obliges all boys to complete the male initiation ceremony when they are about 14, after which they are considered full-fledged men, are allowed to participate in community meetings etc. Without this ceremony, even a 50-year-old man has the status of a boy – and the rights of one too! By the way, it’s interesting how community is mentioned in connection with almost every ethnicity here.

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The second part of the museum is open-air, where we get the opportunity to see traditional houses of different nationalities. And, according to Sunny, these houses were brought from the respective regions, and not built specifically for the museum. In the Cham house, we feel a cognitive dissonance evoked by a TV set hanging on the wall, amid a simple and traditional interior. I understand that there is nothing strange about this, but on the other hand, Sunny himself, pointing to a picture of an ethnic minority representative in traditional clothes with an American T-shirt visible underneath them, tells us how surprising he finds it that when asked where they get such clothes, these people respond that they do it online. He also notes all the time that the state and society have done a lot to improve the lives of these isolated peoples, who have a very traditional lifestyle and who don’t always come into close contact with modern civilisation.

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A traditional house of the Viets must have an altar where the ancestors are worshipped. And the daughter-in-law of the family is not allowed to pray there, because she has her own ancestors. In one of the pantries, a collection of dolls made of some kind of light wood, perhaps cork, is collected – these are the dolls for traditional water puppet shows, one of which we were to see in the afternoon.

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The house belonging to the people of the Bahnar is the highest here, about 20 metres. It’s not a residential house, but a communal one – it should be the highest in a Bahnar village and no one has the right to build higher.

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And the longest house is that of the Ede people. I thought right away that it looked somewhat Indonesian, and almost immediately Sunny explained that the people are akin to the Indonesians. They also put the woman in the first place, which is why the most honourable places in the house, and the wider and more comfortable staircase are for women, and a woman’s breast is sculpted on the latter, so it’s pretty self-explanatory. Actually, the reason why the house is so long is because each daughter is entitled to a separate room, where she lives alone before her marriage, and with her husband thereafter. The sons all share a common room, as after marriage they will move into their wife’s house anyway.

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There is also a tomb, pertinent to the Giarai people, and it features figurines depicting all stages of a human life, placed around its perimeter.

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We spent around two hours in total in the museum, and as I already said, absolutely didn’t regret our choice, as the visit was very interesting and informative. From there we headed to the Temple of Literature, which was founded as early as in the 11th century and which had the first university of Vietnam in its territory.

There is a tiger depicted on one side of the gate and a dragon on the other, and Sunny explained that any place with these two animals present on the gates (the tiger should be descending from above and the dragon is together with a koi carp) is somehow connected to science and education.

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The temple has been destroyed several times, including during the Indochina War, so almost everything that we see here was reconstructed. As for the residential premises for students, for example, these don’t even exist any longer. Only one of the original buildings remains, and it’s also depicted on a 100,000-dong bill.

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The best students used to get selected for prestigious government jobs, with their names immortalised on special stone steles. For that the students had to pass difficult exams, some of which took years to prepare for, and the examinations were conducted in several stages, the last one being assessed by the emperor himself.

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The temple is dedicated to Confucius, hence his statue here. But apart from him there are others, for example, on the upper floor there are statues of the monarchs who contributed the most to the development of the imperial academy.
Sunny explained the difference between a temple and ta pagoda, but I still can’t say that it’s crystal clear to me. It seems like a pagoda is an exclusively Buddhist place for worshipping only, whereas a temple can also be Confucian, like this one, or for worshiping real people or even one’s own ancestors, and can be used not only for worship, but also for meditation or even community gatherings.

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After a lunch break, which consisted of the freshest spring rolls with prawns and pineapple and delicious beef noodles, we moved to the French Quarter. Here, of course, you mostly see colonial buildings rather than the narrow houses attached to one another, as in other places.

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We were brought here to see the house where Ho Chi Minh lived, and walking across a fenced square with a flag, we see his mausoleum. The mausoleum is open for visits in the mornings several days a week, and we were offered to come here this morning, but we would have had to queue for a couple of hours, as it is Sunday, so we refused. Sunny told us that in Vietnam, especially in the south, there is a very ambiguous attitude towards Ho Chi Minh, but he personally respects him and believes that he has done a lot for the people.

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Next, we went to the botanical garden nearby, where the house museum is located, but first we saw a luxurious presidential palace in colonial style, which was built by the French, with tax money. Later, the palace was painted in a much brighter tone of yellow than what would have been appropriate for a French colonial building: the palace was to be seen among all this rich vegetation, and besides, the yellow colour symbolizes the power and the emperor in Vietnam, just like in China.

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Nowadays this palace is used very rarely and for very special occasions, yet during Ho Chi Minh’s times it was used quite extensively. However, Ho Chi Minh refused to live there, choosing a more modest one-story yellow house right next to it instead. Through its windows we could see his dining room, study and bedroom, all with very modest decor.

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According to Sunny, the leader only spent four years in this house, as it had a very bad feng shui location. After that, he moved to a wooden stilted house – located pretty much next door and which I somehow didn’t take a picture of – and lived here for eleven years until his death. By the way, he lived alone, and officially didn’t have any children, although he was married, but Sunny claims that he has an illegitimate son who still lives in Hanoi and who the government still refuses to officially recognise as Ho Chi Minh’s son.

There is yet another attraction in this garden, a much more ancient one that has nothing to do with Ho Chi Minh: it is a pagoda standing on a single pillar in the middle of a lotus pond and built in the XI century. There are only two pagodas like that in the world, the second one being in Thailand. In fact, later, when viewing the photos I’d taken, I got a strong feeling of déjà vu, as if I had already seen this pagoda, and then I remembered how a very long time ago I had seen a book with the works of the Russian artist Ilya Glazunov, with a sketch of this very pagoda.

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The last place, where we reached by walking, was some kind of temple, not identified by Google, with a pretty crude interior design. On the walls there are images of scary-looking people, and Sunny said that people come to this temple to appease infernal sinners, so that those don’t try to spoil their lives out of envy. This is done very generously: with fruits, ChocoPie’s and even chicken and beer. We can hear loud chants from the next room.

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We then got in the car again and drove back to the Old Quarter, where we walked right up to the Hoan Kiem Lake.

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We already came here yesterday, but as I wrote, didn’t enjoy it too much, having to push through the impassable crowd. Today, there were much less people, and besides Sunny took us to the Ngoc Son temple, located right on the lake. Once again we saw the same kind of tiger and dragon on the gates, indicating something related to education.

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The lake is home to a rare kind of turtles, and the name Hoan Kiem literally translates as the Lake of the Returned Sword – according to a legend, General Le Loi received a magic sword that helped him repel the Chinese attack, and then a golden turtle surfaced from the lake and took the sword back, deciding that the General no longer needed it and had to return it.

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The Ngoc Son temple itself is dedicated to the hero Tranh, who defeated the Mongols in the 13th century, preventing them from seizing the country. Sunny said that there are three historical figures who are considered the “fathers” of the Vietnamese people: the emperor Lac Long Quan, believed to be the ancestor of all the Vietnamese; the aforementioned hero Tranh and, of course, Ho Chi Minh.

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After the temple visit we had about 45 minutes of free time, which we spent walking along the lake and watching the locals.

And then we went to see a water puppet show. The idea of a water puppet theatre is that the actors hide behind a screen, knee-deep in water, and control the puppets with long bamboo rods, which can’t be seen under the water. Obviously, the culture of such performances originated in rice fields. We were shown a dozen of acts, including separate dances of a dragon, a phoenix and a unicorn, and then one featuring all three plus a turtle (these four animals are considered sacred in Vietnam and are symbolic: the dragon for power, the unicorn that looks pretty strange and doesn’t even have a horn – for peaceful life, the phoenix for beauty, and the turtle for longevity), scenes showing peasants growing rice or repelling a fox trying to steal a duck from them, Le Loi returning the sword to the turtle, etc. The whole performance was accompanied by national instruments and singing, very interesting.

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After the performance, we said goodbye to Sunny and went to have dinner at the Ngon Villa restaurant, where you can pay 360,000 dong, or about 15 USD and choose anything from the menu in any quantities (out of dishes marked with one and two asterisks – for those marked with three we’d have had to pay 580,000). So we tried meat and chicken cooked in different ways, a jellyfish salad (which we didn’t like), baked oysters, clams, snails (didn’t like them either) and a dessert of coffee jelly with coconut milk. Unbelievable, but this was our most expensive meal in Vietnam so far.

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Vietnam – Day 6

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

10 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vietnam – Day 5

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

9 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vietnam – Day 4

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

8 June 2017

As I wrote yesterday, the Ho Chi Minh part of our trip is over, and this morning we said goodbye to this lovely city. At about 9am we were picked up from the hotel by the travel agency’s driver and carefully delivered to the domestic airport terminal, from which we flew to the city of Hue in central Vietnam, the former capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen dynasty until 1945.

The flight only lasted an hour, and there wasn’t even passport control at the Hue airport – so we basically left the plane, collected our luggage and headed straight to the exit where our today’s guide Lan was already waiting for us.

While still on our way, we already noticed that Hue looked quite different from Saigon – in terms of both vegetation and buildings.

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Since it was lunch time and we were already massively hungry, before going to the hotel we were taken straight to a restaurant. The restaurant reminded us of the “Istirahet” in Baku for some reason, even the smell was remotely similar. However, this initial impression vanished quickly, especially when we were seated at a balcony and served a menu with local Central Vietnamese dishes. It seemed that the food tasted differently from that of the southern region, even the spring rolls weren’t quite the same, but again everything was delicious.

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Our hotel is located right in the heart of the tourist district, on a small street with many restaurants and bars. The room is bigger than in the Ho Chi Minh City, plus there is a balcony with a superb view over the Fragrant River, and complimentary fruits in the room (bananas, rambutans and some other unidentified fruit).

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In the hotel, we literally just had time to change our clothes, since we were supposed to go on an excursion with Lan. We headed straight to the Imperial Citadel, which is a huge palace complex with at least a hundred different structures (including a theatre, a library, a meditation pavilion etc.) and was built in the early 19th century in just 27 years.

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Inside the Citadel was the Imperial City, consisting of several blocks, and the Purple Forbidden City, which served as the residence of the last ruling Nguyen dynasty that existed throughout the colonial era and ended in 1945 with the outbreak of the First Indochina War. As a result of this war and the subsequent Vietnam War, the complex was badly damaged by bombing and today it only consists of the remnants of former luxury. The destroyed buildings are being slowly rebuilt, while the complex in its original grandeur can be admired on either a model or the video animation.

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I must say, the Imperial City reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing, but I liked it a little more, most likely because of the opulent vegetation all around.

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Besides individual pavilions and palaces, there are several gates that survived the bombing, and Lan explained to us that each had been intended for certain people: some were exclusively for the emperor, others for women, others for mandarins of a certain rank, and so on.

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We also got to see the Palace of Supreme Harmony, which was used as a throne room for memorable celebrations. It was very impressive, but unfortunately taking pictures was not allowed.

Then we went to the Imperial Museum, which, as I understood, also belonged to the palace complex, but maybe not, because walking there took quite some time. In the museum, we had to put some ridiculous shoe covers on top of our shoes, and we were the only visitors. Once again, they requested no photography, which was such a pity, since there were a lot of interesting artefacts: lacquered furniture, dishes, jewellery, clothes, and even a set for some traditional board game.

As we were walking from the museum to the car, it started to rain, and on the way to our next destination – the Thien Mu Pagoda – the light rain turned into a heavy downpour, and we had to visit the pagoda under it.

Therefore, unfortunately, the visit turned out to be too brief. The Thien Mu Pagoda, or Heavenly Lady Pagoda, is the oldest in Hue and was built in 1601. In front of the main gate there is a seven-storied tower, constructed some two hundred years later. We did not get in the pagoda, probably because of the rain, or because it was already about 6 pm – and in fact, according to Lan, there was a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni inside, which would have been really interesting to see.

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We then got on a boat to get from the pagoda to the city centre on the opposite side of the river, and this trip was not the most pleasant. Actually, even back in Ho Chi Minh City our guide Phuoc had explained to us that the tipping culture is very important in Vietnam and a dollar or two should be given practically to everyone – waiters, drivers, porters – of course, if you’re happy with the service. So pretty obviously we were intending to leave a tip to the boatwoman. But during the trip she began to show us souvenirs arranged on the boat for sale – various pictures, postcards and bookmarks – doing it very insistently, literally demanding us to buy them, which, in truth, didn’t seem quite nice. When we refused, she didn’t even help us get off the boat, therefore we didn’t leave any tip…

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But this little incident was very quickly forgotten when we returned to the hotel and decided to take advantage of the 50% discount on spa services that was offered. We were seated in the lobby of the spa, served some tea and showed a list of services to choose from. Both of us went for one-hour full body aroma-massage, and… oh goodness, it was amazing, such a wonderful relaxing massage from head to toe!

After that, we again felt surge of energy and went for a walk along our tourist street in search of a restaurant, and then a bar or pub. We found the restaurant at once – I’d actually noticed it earlier when we were driving somewhere – it was La Carambole, positioning itself as a French-Vietnamese restaurant. And indeed, the menu had both French and local Hue dishes. Since we still haven’t had enough of Vietnamese food, we can’t yet understand how one could want a cheese platter, for example, but as for fried rice and grilled meat with lemongrass and chili – they are always welcome!

Among other things, there are quite a few hotels and hostels on our streen, and one of the latter had a buzzing bar downstairs, where we saw big company, mostly dressed in the same shirts with bananas (which were hung right in the clothes shop across the road, there might have been some promotion like “buy 20 – get 1 free”), and some guys walked around in sun dresses or pareos with a bikini top 🙂

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Generally, it seemed that there were more tourists in Hue than in Ho Chi Minh City. On the other hand, the latter also has its own backpacker area, where we hadn’t been in the evening, soit’s quite possible that we don’t have the full picture.

Vietnam – Day 2

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

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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Vietnam – Day 1

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

5 June 2017

Our Vietnamese trip began last night, when we left Baku for Doha and from the latter, after a 2-hour connection, flew straight to Ho Chi Minh city. The flight, albeit a long one, felt okay, in many respects due to being an overnight one: we literally got on, sat down, went to sleep, woke up – and suddenly it was already brunch time with just two hours remaining.

In general, everything went pretty smoothly, even though getting the visa took ages. First, we had to fill out a long form asking about everything one could possibly ask about, including religion and information about family members. Then we handed the documents to the officer and were asked to wait. And wait. And wait again. In total, the waiting time was less than an hour, but it felt like eternity.

We were anxious that the travel agency representatives wouldn’t wait for us, but obviously they were aware of the speed of the visa issuing process, so of course, our fears were groundless – we were greeted by a nice lady called Phuoc, picked up by an air-conditioned car and taken to the travel agency office to settle the outstanding payment balance. On the way, she showed us some flashcards with basic phrases in Vietnamese and told us about the history of Ho Chi Minh city and how it was only in the 1970’s when it was called so, because its previous name, Saigon, was too reminiscent of the Vietnam war. By the way, the name Saigon, as per Phuoc, is the modified form of the old Khmer “Prey Nokor” (yes, yes, don’t be surprised!), which used to be the name of the city in its pre-Vietnamese (i.e. Cambodian) times.

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The office turned out to be a small room with a couple of computers, piled with boxes and smelling of mothballs for some reason, where we were warmly welcomed, served iced tea, handed an ancient Nokia with a local sim-card to stay in touch with them, and, of course, charged the outstanding payment. Overall, for the time being, it feels like the agency is taking good care of us!

Then we were brought to the Lavender Boutique Hotel, where they left us – nothing is planned for today and we have the evening free. So after freshening up, we went out to explore the surroundings and get some dinner. The moment we stepped out into the street, we felt like in a bath – the air temperature is about 30 degrees Celsius and it’s very humid. The vegetation around is quite tropical with lots of greenery, palm trees, etc.

Walking around proves to be very, very difficult. Firstly, one must take into account the crazy traffic: most people here don’t drive a car, but a scooter, which there are lots and lots of. And if car-owners at least follow some traffic rules – that is, stop at the red light and before zebra crossings – you can’t expect the same from motorcyclists, so you have to manoeuvre between them literally risking your life! They even drive on sidewalks! Secondly, the sidewalks themselves are tiled pretty badly – chicken soup to our Bakuvian souls! – and are very uneven. And thirdly, the sidewalks, which aren’t very wide anyway, are clogged up with all sort of things: parked motorcycles, low stools with people sitting on them, street food and fruit stalls. And very specific scents are exuded both by the food and the fruit, as among the latter, durian dominates confidently with its unique smell, and it is at every corner!

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Among all this unglamorous disorder, we discover a nice-looking restaurant, where, as we can see through the window, most customers are Vietnamese but there are some foreigners too, which we perceive as a good sign: the place is, therefore, not very touristy, but still foreigner-friendly. We tried local beer, some drink made of aloe vera with chia seeds and rice noodles with pork, cucumbers, peanuts and something else, and everything was tasty. And it all cost us less than 15 USD for two!

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After dinner we tried to walk to the Saigon River, which was supposed to be nearby, but had to give up as a terrible shower started pouring and didn’t stop for a good half an hour. Our Singapore raincoats, which we’d prudently taken with us, came in handy, but didn’t help much – we still had to wait under canopies every time the rain intensified (that is every 5 minutes), until we finally got our feet so wet that we decided to turn back, almost making it to a fancier-looking area than ours. The people here are obviously accustomed to downpours, especially since now it’s the rainy season – everyone has raincoats, huge umbrellas, even scooters are covered with waterproof covers. While waiting, by the way, we walked into a shopping centre selling clothes, which even smelled of cheap clothes – not a sight that can surprise us, who had seen the Baku street markets in underground passages.

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So here are my first impressions of the city: very colourful, much poorer than the previously seen Asian cities (such as Singapore or Hong Kong or Shanghai), scooters swarming all around and everywhere smells of durian.

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Georgia – Day 2

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

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

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

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 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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Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Amalfi Coast

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

The “cool” guy despising group tours seems to have jinxed us. At first everything went very normal: the bus punctually picked us up at 5.15am, while it was still dark, collected other participants of the Amalfi Coast tour from their hotels and delivered all of us to Ischia Porto, where we boarded a ferry. In Naples we were met by a tour guide with a Baltic accent, and got on another bus.

Ischia Porto

I must say that Naples hadn’t made much of an impression when we arrived from Rome, but, as we drove through it, Lena the tour guide spoke of it with great passion. She was telling us about its status of the capital of the kingdom, its magnificent palaces neighbouring with sunless narrow streets with colourful linens hanging on the balconies, just like in the movie La Ciociara.

We drove out of Naples, past Pompeii and Herculaneum. Here we were told that everything around was pretty much sitting on a powder keg – there are lots of extinct and dormant volcanoes, and also the active Vesuvius. It erupts every 60-70 years, and the last time was just 69 years ago. Thus, on the one hand, the next eruption is anticipated with fear, but on the other, it is awaited, because the longer the interval between two eruptions, the more destructive disaster it turns into – for example, the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD occurred after 300 years of inactivity. However, people continue to settle right at the foot of the volcano with careless perseverance: the climate is too favourable and the soil too fertile for these places to be left. Officially construction within a radius of a few kilometers from Mount Vesuvius is prohibited. But people here seem to live with the if-you-mustn’t-but-want-to-do-it-then-you-can-do-it principle – especially that the law does not permit to destroy the buildings, even at the stage of one wall built only, and only makes the owners pay a fine of 20-30k euros.

Heading to Sorrento

At this point already we noticed that the traffic was very slow on our side of the road, we were basically in a traffic jam. But Lena suggested that this was due to tomorrow’s holiday of Ferragosto and had to do with everyone flocking to the resort coast. The reality was much worse: and we had the chance to fully appreciate it, as well as the “evil eye” of the New Russian, when we entered a two-kilometre tunnel. Here the column of vehicles literally froze, although the opposite lane was absolutely empty. We spent exactly an hour and a half in this tunnel, and the whole way from Naples to Sorrento took us a good four hours, while it barely should have taken 90 minutes. The people in the bus got extremely frustrated, the most radical ones were demanding to turn around, get on the opposite lane, return to Naples and get the money back, but this was absolutely impossible, because there was no opportunity to turn around, and besides large buses are allowed to move in only one direction along this coast. The most impatient ones left the bus at the exit of the tunnel, as the situation outside was no better, and walked around to stretch their legs.

Our tour guide talked to the Carabinieri driving past us, and found out that a terrible fatal accident had happened somewhere ahead and a funeral car was already heading there. Why it took almost two hours for the Carabinieri to get close to the scene remained a big question to us. And anyway, even to us (not quite knowing the intricacies of the case, of course) it seemed pretty logical that the traffic in the tunnel should have somehow been regulated in order to avoid such a disheartening and unsafe congestion in it.

It seemed that the whole tour went awry. However, the situation was saved: Lena promptly got in touch with their “headquarters ” and agreed that we would be allowed to board a different ferry at a different, nearer port an hour later than initially planned, which therefore allowed us to save an hour, and then one more – by cancelling the set lunch planned originally and giving the tourists an opportunity to eat on the go during town walks. And finally, exhausted, but happy, we returned arrived in Sorrento. What can I say, it is indeed a very beautiful town. We were told that it had been visited by Gorky (again!), Feodor Chaliapin, Sylvester Shchedrin. Everything here is all about lemons and olives – lemons reach monstrous proportions (up to two kilograms) and have a distinctive flavour, the whole town smells of them! The mountains slopes are covered with olive trees, with rows stretched underneath them. We were told that the olives for the best first press oil must be collected directly from the tree and not from the ground, which is virtually impossible to do manually on steep slopes – and that’s where those nets come in handy!

Sorrento

Sorrento

Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast are considered traditional wedding places for couples from all over the world. We saw an English wedding, with guests walking on the streets and taking photos.

The views here are just so breathtakingly beautiful, in the truest sense of the word! In general, a drive on the mountain serpentine feels, to put it mildly, quite exciting. The bus is driving on a narrow ledge along the cliff, at a height of up to 300 metres above sea level. The road, however, had not always been there – it was constructed by Mussolini. Prior to that, people used to walk on foot or ride donkeys on the mountain paths.

Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast

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Despite the fact that these places are declared heaven on earth (it’s even said that righteous Amalfians will return home after death), life is not that comfortable there. Of course, it probably is for Sophia Loren or Gina Lollobrigida, who own luxury villas along the coast, as we were shown, with helipads and elevators that can take them right down to the beach. For ordinary mortals, though, every simple thing turns into a difficult issue – they have to walk a hell lot of steps (and I mean that – really a lot!) every time they want to go to the beach or to work. If you ask someone where they live, they will tell you the number of the step rather than the street name! And imagine them having to do something more serious, such as painting the house! That’s what they do in this case: a van brings a couple of donkeys to the closest possible place, where the specially trained animals get loaded with buckets of paint and rush up the stairs.

Rock Looking Like Virgin Mary with Flowers

Amalfi Coast

We didn’t get to visit the very beautiful town of Positano, although we did fully appreciate the view over it from the observation deck: pink, white and yellow houses, literally built into the rocks. Very picturesque, but it looked even more inaccessible and impractical.

Positano

Positano

Positano

Positano

Positano

Another town where we didn’t stop either – Praiano – is less well known than Positano. It is interesting that the traditional Christmas nativity scene includes the model of the town itself. This is the ending point of the Christmas procession on December 25, carrying a miniature figuring of Christ the child. We drove past this model and had the chance to take a look.

Amalfi, despite being so celebrated, looked to us like one more replica of the previously seen towns. It is famous for the majestic Cathedral of St. Andrew, where the relics of the aforementioned saint lie. Lena was persistently urging us to see them but honestly we weren’t too enthusiastic about this idea, even though the cathedral was really very beautiful from the outside.

Amalfi

Amalfi

Speaking of holy relics: it appears that in the Middle Ages they were extremely fashionable and prestigious to have in any city, so they were then subject to barter in the best case and theft in the worst. The relics of St. Andrew appeared in Amalfi as a result of the latter actually. Sometimes they would steal not only whole relics, but also parts of them. Robbed monks were ashamed to admit being so careless, therefore, they would replace the missing parts with fake ones (surprisingly, these fake relics still went on working wonders!), and as a result, a saint could end up having three or four arms or legs.

Thus, the walking tour around Amalfi did not satisfy us, but the boat trip along its coast was very pleasant, allowing us to see all these magnificent mountains, bays, hotels and villas from the sea. We sailed in the direction of Maiori, Minori and Ravello, where our bus arrived to pick us up. By the way, on top of all the transportation troubles we had had, the bus somehow managed to hit a parked car when manoeuvring to enter yet another busy tunnel, so while we were happily enjoying our sea trip, the driver had to deal with the frustrated owner of that car.

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Ravello is a small town located even higher up the cliff. We didn’t go up there, and only saw it from aside, while listening to our guide’s comments about Wagner festivals that are held there and are so popular that tickets must be booked almost a year in advance.

The town of Ravello is also a proud owner of relics – this time those of Saint Panteleimont, and every year on the day of his execution the Saint, as if to demonstrate his full consent to be in this place, arranges a miracle – liquefaction of his blood. A similar miracle, but with even more rapid boiling of the blood, is arranged by Saint Januarius, the patron of Naples. It is very important for Neapolitans, as a pattern has been traced: if the blood liquefies duly, the Vesuvius does not erupt during this year and any other ills also bypass Naples. Therefore, on this day – namely September 19 – all Neapolitans are very nervous and can’t wait for the coveted event. To guarantee it happening for sure, the oldest old ladies are sat in the first row in the cathedral (who are jokingly referred to as the “relatives of Saint Januarius” for their age), and start praying to the saint. Then, if the miracle is delayed, they switch to exhortations – gently at first, then more and more angrily until they literally end up swearing. Instead of taking offense, the Saint, either stimulated by, or scared of such attitude finally performs the long-awaited miracle!

The last town of the Amalfi coast was Vetri Sul Mare, and rounding the hill, we saw the city of Salerno in the distance and hurried back to Naples, to get to the port. On the way back, Lena told us that the Neapolitans were very superstitious , believed in destiny and tried to find signs in any event for the game of bingo . In every house there is a booklet that translates any unusual event into the language of numbers. Lena said half-jokingly, half-seriously, that upon returning home she would check that little book and find out which numbers corresponded to a traffic congestion, a corpse on the road and other events that happened to us today, and then place bets on these numbers.

Vietri Sul Mare

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