Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Language”

Hong Kong – Day 3

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2 December 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hong Kong – Day 2

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

1 December 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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Croatia – Day 8

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31 August 2012 – Friday

After the two tours we had had with the “Elite Travel” company, where we were picked up next to the “President” hotel, our impressions about this company and their work were quite good. And looks like we put an “evil eye” on them: our today’s trip to the Korčula island started with a hitch: the bus didn’t arrive. It turned out that the day before we had been forgotten to be included in the list. As a result, we were picked up by a separate minibus and delivered to the port of Gruž, where we eventually found our group and the guide. The guide (also named Ivana) initially seemed to us a bit rude (instead of apologising immediately, she attacked us – saying something like, come on, what’s your problem, you’ve been finally brought here after all!), and most importantly, uninteresting – she was literally falling asleep while making comments in English and German. She seemed more willing to speak German, by the way – generally I noticed a clear preference shown to German tourists here.

Another problem – among the group there was a family with a two-year-old toddler, for whom this long road, quite obviously, was way too long: in the good moments he was spinning like mad, while in the bad ones he was crying and throwing up. So, his presence added neither peace, nor fresh air to other passengers.

We climbed high into the mountains, again very close to the burning Bosnia. In the town of Slano we picked the last passengers. The location is called Slano (“salty”), because, starting almost from the first settlements, when salt used to be worth its weight in gold, it was mined here. Because of this salt, the Ottoman Empire’s caravan ways passed through these places.

This time the road was totally crazy. In some parts of it even looking down was scary, and at the same time it was hard to tear oneself away from the window – the view was unbelievably beautiful!

Virtually the entire foreseeable space around us was covered with vineyards. The plan was to visit one of them for wine tasting on our way back. Our guide told us that mainly red wine is produced here, and Postup is considered to be the best of all. Looking ahead, I can mention that Korčula is famous for its white wine, Pošip.

We were transported to Korčula on a small shuttle boat from Orebič (a very nice town, by the way), and got to observe how cars and even buses were transported on a large ferry.

In the town of Korčula we were to visit the Old Town, and the whole group was divided into English speakers and German speakers. The English speakers stayed with our gloomy, moody and sleepy guide, – and that was when she suddenly revived, and showed great artistry and a sense of humour.

First thing, she told us about the local “wind rose”. There is the north wind “bura”, which blows in winter and brings clear and sunny weather, although lowering the temperature to zero. There is a south wind called “jugo” or “siroc”, the locals’ least favourite: it blows from the Sahara in summer and brings dust, and, oddly enough, rain. The city walls are located so that this wind could penetrate the city as little as possible. Finally, the wind most preferred by the population is the western “mistral”, bringing cool air in summer. The city is open for this wind from the sea, and, as Ivana joked, this was the first air-conditioning system in the world.

On the city gates the name of the first Croatian King Tomislav is engraved, and above it there is the Venetian winged lion, as the city used to belong to the Venetian Republic for a long time. These lions usually have their attributes, or symbols, showing how easy or difficult it was to get into the town. If the lion has a closed book before it, it was hard, and if the book is open, it means that the Venetians were accepted almost with open arms.

We came to Korčula thinking of ​​Marco Polo, because we had heard that he was from here. However, it turned out that Venice claims to be his hometown as well, and also, his home as such does not exist – the assumed house is a ruin. As our guide indignantly mentioned, in communist times nobody really cared about history, and in the times of crisis the intention even was to sell it. Luckily, the town borrowed some money and bought the house out (currently the price of these ruins is half a million euros!), but that money wasn’t enough to restore the building and make a museum out of it, as planned. For the time being some enterprising and patriotic Korčulan opened a souvenir shop named after Marco Polo, and behind it, the Museum of Marco Polo, in a totally different place.

By the way, three things are cited as proof that Marco Polo was born here indeed: first, there is a De Polo family still living here to this day, while in Venice there are no families with such name. Secondly, there exists a register of baptisms of the 14th century, which mentions Marco de Polo. Of course, the great traveller lived in the 13th century, but because it was quite common to give children the names of their ancestors, this could well be some great-grandson of his. Well, and thirdly, the book written by Marco Polo’s cellmate brings his own words, saying that he saw the tower of his hometown Corcyra Melaina and sailed towards it. It is proved that this is how Korčula was called in the ancient times, and no other city, including Venice, has claims on this name. As there is only one tower in the town, the house of Marco Polo could be identified.

One of our stops was in the atrium. Ivana showed us, where the mayor and his secretary would seat and how they would collect the citizens’ complaints, literally portraying and mimicking each of them.

In front of the atrium was the doctor’s house. Doctors used to be lured from Venice, the bait being this very house. The doctor could live there with his family as long as he remained in the service of the city of Korčula.

We made good use of our free time – at least, I got a chance to take a quick dip in the sea, right in the city, among boats – even there it was very clean. I deliberately found a deep place, as it was impossible to get into the water in the shallow part because of the large slippery rocks.

On the way back we were taken to a huge winery belonging to the Matuško family. This family produces 500,000 litres of product annually, 90% of which is red wine, and the remaining 10% is comprised of white wine, dessert wine, schnapps and olive oil. They have huge cellars, completely cluttered with enormous barrels.

The first wine we tried was Plavac Mali. The name generally belongs to a grape variety, grown in the continental climate, in places where there is enough water, but not so much sun. 4—5 kg of grapes can be collected from one plant. The wine turns dry and light (only 12.2%), and is only drunk young.

The next wine was Dingač, made from the same grapes variety, but grown in Mediterranean climate: a little water and a lot of sun, and the sunlight comes from three sources: direct, reflected from the sea and reflected from stones. As a result, no more than one kilogramme of grapes is collected from each plant; the wine turns more robust, almost black (14.5%), and is preserved for several years.

The next drink to try was the sweet dessert wine called Prošek. It can be maintained for many years: according to tradition, when a child is born in a family, a barrel of Prošek is made, and it can only be opened at this child’s wedding. Personally, I found it it too sweet. And finally there was a 40% grappa and a 25% cherry brandy, made from this very grappa.

We then had a short stop in the town of Ston. There, too, there is the old town and a fortress, but we didn’t get to see them.

Croatia – Day 3

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26 August 2012 – Sunday

Today we went to the city centre again – not just randomly, like the day before, but on an Old City walking tour. Yesterday, while watching tourists walking on the city walls under the burning sun, I personally felt their pain, already sadly imagining myself in their ranks. The reality was far more enjoyable: we met our guide Ivana – a very nice girl with a bandaged leg – and within a group of 8 people we walked around the Old City in a “derated mode”, trying to avoid direct sunlight and even sitting down every now and then. The tour lasted two hours, during which we learned a lot of interesting things about Dubrovnik.

So, Dubrovnik once used to be an independent republic, known as Ragusa in Latin. The republic was democratic (albeit conditionally, as the right to vote belonged only to male noblemen). The city had a rector, who was elected for a 30-day period during which he had no right to leave the palace, where he lived alone, without family. Apparently, this was done to ensure that he did not have any outside influences and cared only about the government’s interest.

The Republic had very strict rules and laws, concerning even the construction of buildings. Thus, the buildings had to look pretty much the same – no one was allowed to show off their wealth, at least outwardly. The windows of neighbouring houses were not to be facing each other, as everyone had the right for privacy. Nobody could build their house even a foot or two ahead of others; the punishment for violation of the law was indeed very strict: the house would be demolished, and its owner would face a penalty charge AND go to jail.

Foreigners were allowed to stay in the city only during the day – at night they were expelled, and the city gates were locked. The only exception was made for the Jewish quarter, due to the extreme utility of its inhabitants to the city. But this quarter too was locked at night on both sides, so formally it was kind of outside of the city. When Dubrovnikers were blamed for the fact that they were cherishing the infidels, the very diplomatic city authorities replied that the Republic often had to deal with other infidels – the Ottoman Empire – so it was better to have these infidels communicate between each other. By the way, this quarter has the second oldest synagogue in Europe, the first one being in Prague.

In general, it must be said that the mercantile Dubrovnik had always managed to juggle between its main enemies: the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire. Its motto was “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” (meaning something like “Liberty can’t be sold for all the gold in the world”), yet the authorities spared no expense for buying this liberty – that is, they paid off their enemies.

On one of the side streets we saw the Church of St. Roch – the patron saint of plague patients. There is an interesting story associated with it: once children used to play some football-like game just outside of the church and kept pounding the ball against its walls. At some point the priest had enough of it, so he scribbled a curse on the wall saying “May peace be with you. Remember of death, those playing the ball”. The children scribbled a response – something like “We want to play – and so we will!”

On one of the staircases Ivana asked us if we could figure out why the balustrade was solid up to a certain height. Our version was that it was done in care of children, so that they didn’t fall out. The reality was nothing like that. Noble ladies, climbing the stairs on their way to the nearby Dominican church, of course, had to lift their skirts, revealing their ankles. The architecture of the staircase did not allow loitering young men to stare at them from below.

The old town is associated with many contrarieties, for example, in 1806 Napoleon deceived the authorities of Dubrovnik, asking to give him permission to just pass through the city to hit Montenegrins – the Russian allies. The authorities trustfully opened the gates for the French emperor and… the city was seized. Napoleon even built a fort atop of Mount Srđ. However, these fortifications built by an invader, saved Dubrovnik during the war for independence in 1991. By the way, during this war, Dubrovnik was besieged for real: from the sea it was blocked by the Montenegrin Navy, and from the land it was bombed by Serbs, who also cut off all communications. People, believing that the Old City was a safe place (as bombing historical objects is prohibited by international military law) rushed under the protection of its walls. However, as Ivana told us with indignation, it was bombed in the first place.

But finally there was peace, and as previously, Dubrovnik is respected among Croatian cities. If someone says, “I’m from The City”, this means that they are from Dubrovnik. The rest find this pretty annoying, but nevertheless they have also become used to calling Dubrovnik “The City”.

At the end of the tour Ivana told us a touching story about the local “Romeo and Juliet” – Silvana from the Roman settlement and Dubravko from the Slavic one. As it always happens with lovers from warring clans, they perished. Interestingly, the names of both, each in their own language, are related to the word “forest”, and the name of Dubrovnik itself is derived from the word “dub”, meaning  “oak”.

Left on our own, we walked along the main shopping street, but didn’t find anything decent in terms of good value for money. Tourist shops, no more than that. We wanted to have lunch in the Old City, but somehow ended up in the same terrace restaurant on the Pile Square, as yesterday.

After lunch we went back to the hotel, and as intended, swam in the sea, right until a tangible wind got up, bringing some rubbish to our pristine shores. From the evening impressions it’s worth mentioning an awfully brazen cat in the restaurant: it was not actually begging for food, but rather demanding it discontentedly, wagging its tail menacingly and sharpening its claws on our chairs no less threateningly. Fortunately, one of us didn’t like his Caesar salad, so virtually all of the chicken went to the impertinent animal.

The evening ended with a pleasant walk along the sea, so on the whole the day hasn’t been lived in vain.

Paris, je t’aime – Day 7

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27 March, 2010

The day turned out very… German! In the sense that wherever I went, I mostly kept hearing German speech around, while it hadn’t been the case previuosly.

In the morning I felt like visiting The Centre Georges Pompidou. I took the metro to Les Halles, walked out of the station and… stood agape. First, the weather was so nice and pleasant! Second, my eye was caught by the very beautiful Saint-Eustache church, around which everything was blooming with white and pink flowers. And third, I saw a black cat. Then – another one at a distance, and one more a little further. These were live cats, not figurines, as I initially thought: they were moving their heads and ears, licking and grooming, although sitting in the same place all the time. But when a fourth cat, also black, jumped down from somewhere above, I thought I was going crazy!

Generally, the place – Forum des Halles – was unimaginably beautiful! All the greenery, flowering trees, fountains, bridges and crossings, and the sky with white puffy clouds looked absolutely fantastic (okay, the sky did turn grey at some points, but I really don’t know how come all my pictures seem to capture only these moments)!

After a bit of a walk around the place, I found the Centre Pompidou, but for some reason decided against going in. Instead, as I was feeling like walking even more, I took the tube to the Luxembourg Gardens.

On the way, a guy with some papers came up to me and started shilling for something, but I cut him short: «J’comprends pas!» – I told him cheerfully. The guy made ​​another attempt: «Español?» – «Non!» – I replied. «English?» – Again: «Non!». Looks like this simple trick was the best I could think of – the guy just shrugged and walked away.

I really enjoyed the Jardin de Luxembourg. Again, largely because of the weather – it turned out that it majorly affects your impressions about a particular place. From time to time it was drizzling, but despite this it was bright and sunny, and beautiful white pillow-like clouds were sailing across the sky. Among the rich greenery, here and there, there were sculptures of various French queens – starting from the canonized Clotilde, Bathilde and Mathilde up to Mary Queen of Scots and Marie de’ Médici. I couldn’t find Marguerite de Valois or Catherine de’ Medici though – not sure whether it was me not searching properly, or for some unknown reason they are not represented there at all.

Around noon, I deigned to dine at the brasserie “Le Luco” on Boulevard St.-Michel. I had duck fillet in pepper sauce, and crème brûlée for dessert.

After fortifying myself with nice food, I walked to the Montparnasse Tower, in order to head up its viewing platform – I had heard that the queues there were much shorter than to the Eiffel Tower, plus you would get a view of the Eiffel Tower as well. So, together with other tourists, I took the lift to the 56th floor, the whole outer wall of which was basically one large window providing excellent panoramic view of the whole Paris. There I also came across a Russian tourist group of a very impressive size: apparently they had just arrived, as the tour guide, who, by the way, was telling very interesting stories, kept repeating: “This I will show/tell you tomorrow/the day after tomorrow/later”.

From the 56th floor, I got to the last one, the 59th, where the viewing platform was. Great view, it’s just a pity that the Champs Elysees were far away – I really wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of the Place de l’Étoile to make sure that the place really looks like a star.

Then I went back to the hotel, where I somehow managed to twist my ankle (right in the hotel room, wearing ordinary slippers and not killing stiletto heels as one might have thought!), so didn’t go anywhere in the evening. My ankle hurt so badly that I was struggling to walk the distance from my bed to the bathroom! So I called my Azeri friend, who had twisted her ankle a week before, and she brought some gel, which made me feel better. We stayed in all evening, listening to music, eating sandwiches, chatting and laughing.

Paris, je t’aime – Day 5

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25 March, 2010

This day didn’t go without stupidities as well, and I must say, I’m incredibly exhausted! We started the day with a visit to the Hôtel des Invalides, intending to see Napoleon’s tomb. The turnstiles in the metro weren’t working: «Ça marche pas!» – happily exclaimed a guy walking by. So we took a free ride and got to Les Invalides.

We bought our tickets, and first popped in the Army Museum, located in the same place. It’s really surprising to see how patriotic the French are and how much they respect and love their history. Unlike back home, where with each new form of government the old one is anathematised, everything is renamed, all monuments are demolished. Here they appreciate everything, starting from the Gauls, all the Louis’, the Emperor Napoleon, all their republics… And also it looks like they are a very warlike nation – no surprise they are represented by Gallic roosters. Everything seems steeped with wars; the whole city is full of historic sites dedicated to various victories and battles.

What I liked the most in the museum were the figures of French soldiers of different eras, especially the ancient ones: Gauls, Normans, Carolingians, Merovingians …

We didn’t want to spend too much time in the museum – after all, we are not extremely excited about arms. So off we went, right to the Dome church, where the Napoleon’s tomb was. It was cold there (just like it should be in a crypt), and right in the centre was the magnificent tomb of Napoleon. In principle, the reverent attitude of Parisians to Napoleon is quite understandable – he constructed a lot of streets, built houses, including the Hôtel des Invalides for disabled veterans.

It felt relatively warm outside, after the cold church, but it was raining. It was the first time it rained here since our arrival. As I was intending to have frog legs for lunch, we went to the Latin Quarter and found the same restaurant (Auberge de Saint-Sévérin) on the Rue Saint-Sévérin.

By the way, we took the RER, and not the metro, to get there. It was more convenient, as we would have to make two changes on the metro. But we entered the metro station first and then changed to the RER station. And we had to spend an extra ticket there, so as they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch (i.e., the non-functional turnstile in the morning).

Coming back to the frog legs, I quite liked them – they tasted somewhat like poultry, although a little bit dry and insipid. I also liked fish with sauce – after all, who, if not the French, knows how to prepare excellent sauces? Of course, they are all excellent! What I liked the most about this whole situation was the fact such a wonderful three-course meal with wine for two cost us only 40 euros including tip. And the restaurant had a beautiful cat!

We were planning to do some shopping after lunch, but once outside we realised that the rain had stopped, the clouds had parted and the weather was gorgeous. So we played it by ear and walked along the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

The boulevard was lively and cheerful, especially in such weather. We even were able to do a bit of shopping and bought a pair of shoes each. As the Sorbonne was supposed to be very close, we decided to take a look at it. However, as I tried asking various people the question «C’est où, la Sorbonne?», one man replied «I don’t speak French!», another woman looked puzzled and misunderstanding, and only the third Madame explained how to get there. So much for Paris, with the alleged impossibility to address to people in English, and their desire to respond only in French. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that you get “responded in French,” even when you ask nothing. For example, the old woman in Montmartre yesterday. Or today, when we turned off the Boulevard Saint-Michel to the no less cheerful Boulevard Saint-Germain, discussing how far away the  Saint Germain des Près metro station was from here, we were approached by an elderly man who said: «Le métro Saint Germain des Près, c ‘est là-bas! », and pointed in the opposite direction of our movement.

And by the way, we were interested in the metro for a particular reason. When I walked with my friend in these neighbourhoods the other day, we wanted to go to the Café Ladurée, serving fantastic sweets (according to my friend!). The cafe was closed then, but in a shop window next door, I spotted a gorgeous red evening gown. And now, I wanted to find that very boutique. We went round and round the narrow streets, and were just about to give up (as our feet were already pounding with pain!), when we noticed the Café Ladurée, and next to it – the shop we’d been searching for. We rang the doorbell, went in and asked how much it cost… Deux mille-something (€2000+) … Yeah, dream on, Leila!

On the way back we nearly got stuck in the metro – suddenly the train stopped in the tunnel, the lights went out, and the driver said something very fast – in fact, so fast that I didn’t understand a single word. But luckily it didn’t take longer than ten minutes.

In the evening once again I met with my friend and his friends and colleagues at the La Cordonnerie pub on Réaumur-Sébastopol.

Paris, je t’aime – Day 1

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

Since I’m not travelling anywhere right now, I decided to dig out some of my old writings. Unfortunately, the photos aren’t as good as the ones in my posts about China – I didn’t have a very good camera back then, and my photography skills were much worse than now too. Voilà:

21 March, 2010

Here is the city of dreams – Paris, ladies and gentlemen! It starts with the Charles de Gaulles airport, with its moderately “jemenfoutiste” (something like “I-don’t-give-a-damn-ist”) staff, who don’t bother doing any unnecessary inspections.

The road from the airport is quite far from dreams, and so is the 18th district, through which we have to drive: dusty worn signs, dirty buildings…

It doesn’t take too long to get to the centre, or, more precisely, the Grand Hôtel du Palais Royal, where we will be staying. The staff here speaks English pretty willingly, thus saving me from unnecessary embarrassment – I am still somewhat scared to speak French.

But right after that, in a restaurant, I have no other choice than to do so. And I realise that I am understood – which is really good! Waiters in Paris restaurants (so far, on the particular example of the Les Fontaines de Saint Honoré restaurant) are totally unlike their, say, London colleagues – they are more fun, more bustling and more relaxed at the same time. So, cheerfully, bustlingly and relaxedly, they served us the famous French onion soup. The whole idea of an onion soup arouses scepticism among some people, but in fact it is something incredible… A thick rich broth + pieces of bread floating in it + melted cheese = something delicious and amazing. Yum!

We were taken for Spanish, and when we explained that we actually came from the former Soviet Union, for some reason all the waiters came into enthusiasm and even said: “Spasibo!”

After lunch we went out to scout the territory. It turned out that the Louvre was literally a few steps away from our hotel.

I was feeling quite stunned by the fact that everyone around was speaking French! I find it hard to break the mental barrier and start speaking it too yet. On the other hand, when I do, I see that it’s considered absolutely normal. That is, the French perceive foreigners speaking French to them as a totally natural thing.

So we walked from the Louvre to the Paris Opera (which we didn’t recognise at once – it looked like the Paris Opera, but the deceptive inscription read “Académie Nationale de Musique”), and then turned to the Boulevard des Capucines. This is a very busy street, with endless bistros, cafes and restaurants, with a smooth and imperceptible transition into the Boulevard des Italiens.

On our way back we dropped in a drugstore to buy some water and toothpaste. I couldn’t find toothpaste immediately, but just as I wanted to “show off” my language skills and ask “Est-ce que vous avez du dentifrice?”, I immediately noticed it.

In the evening, after a good nap, I met with an Azeri friend and we made the same route once again, ending up in the Bistro Romain on the Boulevard des Capucines. My friend strongly advised me to try carpaccio – thinly cut slices of raw beef or salmon, with some sauce. Surprisingly, I liked it.

And of course, I should mention the wine served everywhere – it is magnificent! It has none of the bitterness we are accustomed to, it is full of fruity aroma, in fact it has a “bouquet”, as wine experts call it.

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 5

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30 March 2012, Friday

It was the first time in Hong Kong when we had to get up very early, as we were supposed to be picked up from a different hotel, the Excelsior, to join the tour group travelling to the Lantau Island. We knew roughly where it was (behind the Sogo department store, i.e. not far from our regular tram stop), but in cases like this it’s always better to allow yourself extra time for clarification, and so we did. As a result, everything went smoothly and we joined our group. We were passed from hand to hand several times: at the first stop we were separated from those going to the New Territories, then, as Lantau is restricted to traffic and only permit-holders may drive there (including buses and taxis), we had to change the bus as soon as we reached the island.

We drove over the same long bridges, as on the first day on our way from the airport, but this time we were told their names (Tsing Ma, Ting Kau and Kap Shui Mun). These bridges are for transport only, walking or cycling is not allowed. At our first stop we were given the opportunity not only to admire the view of these bridges, but also to get a closer look at bauhinia flowers, one of the main symbols of Hong Kong, as we were brought to a bauhinia garden.

Tsing Ma Bridge

There we parted with our nice guide named Ivy and were passed to another one – a lean, thin-faced guy. When I say “we”, I actually mean ten adults and one little boy – the son of a relatively young couple from the USA. Besides them, there were also an elderly couple from the USA, wearing identical vests; another elderly lady, also American; an Australian guy in shorts, who attracted attention by the fact that he had forgotten his ticket and was only able to say “Oops!” (nevertheless, he still was admitted to the trip, as the guides had their own lists of participants), and also a couple from Mainland China, speaking Mandarin only.

Despite the fact that the tour guide told us his English was way better than his Mandarin (just a reminder: the mother tongue of the local Chinese is Cantonese, which is very different from Standard Chinese), his intonations in both languages were absolutely the same and rather monotonous, so every time he was switching to Mandarin for the Chinese couple, we felt afraid that we stopped understanding him.

Our next stop was the Upper Cheung Sha beach. Finally we tried – with our hands and feet – the water of the South China Sea. The guide told us that the swimming season would open in three days (i.e. 1 April) – when we would no longer be in Hong Kong. In general, we were told that the time at which we arrived was the most favourable, as both in winter and in summer the humidity is too high, heavy fog makes it hard to see anything and quite often there are rains and even typhoons. The area permitted for swimming was very small and well-fenced, mostly out of fear of sharks, although they hadn’t been seen around for a long time.

The next item on the agenda was visiting the Tai O fishing village, to which we drove through amazingly beautiful mountains. Interestingly, the general view seemed somewhat in common with landscapes of Norway, which we had seen six months before, like the northern and southern variations of the same thing.

The Tai O village was a sharp contrast to Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, boutiques and luxury brands. People here live mainly in squalid, rusted shacks on stilts. A boat was moored near each shack, and it seemed that such a boat is the most valuable property of its owner, as their engines were mostly of pretty decent brands: Yamaha, etc.

We were taken on a boat ride along these shanties, and then – to a fish market that sold local specialties: dried seafood and shrimp paste. The place stunk to the high heaven! Well, fresh fish smelled ok, but dried fish… This “aroma” then haunted me through the rest of the day – every smell reminded me of it, even that of flowers! Otherwise, the market was indeed interesting and unusual. There were oysters, sea stars, urchins, seahorses, even a huge dried shark. Dried fish of some species was extremely expensive: a bunch of four cost 58,000 HKD (around 7,500 USD or 5,800 AZN).

As we drove out of Tai O, we started climbing the mountains again. We already knew that there were 268 stairs leading to the statue of Buddha which we were heading to (known as the biggest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world, as among the standing Buddhas there are bigger ones, e.g. somewhere near Shanghai), and were mentally prepared for this. A cable car way exists as well, but it was closed for maintenance.

Well, what can I say about the statue – the Tian Tan Buddha was of course majestic. On his breast there is a left-facing swastika – the symbol of the eternal cycle of the universe. We were taken into the halls beneath the statue, but there wasn’t anything really interesting, apart from bracelets and rosaries for sale and some calligraphic paintings.

We didn’t have to walk down the previously mentioned 268 steps to get to the Po Lin monastery, which the Buddha statue actually overlooks, as we were taken there by bus. This monastery was much bigger and busier than the one we saw the day before. In its courtyard there were statues of twelve divine generals, representing the twelve-year cycle, as well as time of day. On his hat each general had the animal symbolising the respective year.

For the second time we experienced this strange feeling at the monastery: we came here just to stare around, while for many people around this was a serious visit to their gods. The Chinese couple from our group, for example, were actively praying and burning joss sticks.

The tour included lunch at the monastery, completely vegetarian, just as the day before, but a bit more upper class.

We drove back the same way we had come. Unlike the chatty Beijing guide, this one kept silent all the way back and even seemed to be asleep. After being dropped off at the Excelsior, we popped in the World Trade Centre, did a bit of shopping and thoroughly looked around. A very nice shopping centre, clean, spacious, with relatively few people and without anyone chasing you with their goods.

We had dinner in the Michelin starred Golden Valley restaurant, serving Guangdong (Cantonese) and Sichuan (Szechuan) food, right in our hotel. Inspired by visiting a fishing village, we finally tried the shark fin soup. It was really good. At the next table we noticed a group of locals, literally cooking something in a simmering pot in front of them: they placed slices of meat, some fresh herbs and other products in the pot, and then took them out and ate them. The waiter explained that this was a hot pot dish, and that there was a selection of ingredients and sauces for the eaters to choose from.

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 2

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27 March 2012, Tuesday

First of all, we should praise ourselves. And Hong Kong too. The first ones (i.e. us!) were able to find our bearings all the time, figured out where and how to go, purchased Octopus cards which are used for payment in all public transport in Hong Kong (and some shops as well). No more taxis from now on, long live the public transport! The second one, that is Hong Kong itself, provided an opportunity to understand everything, being a very user-friendly city: the streets, the transportation – everything is clear and more or less available, unlike Beijing, where standing on one side of a very wide street, you might have no clue how to get to the other side. Hong Kong’s streets are narrow, often literally a gap between skyscrapers. Usually there are overground crossings in areas with heavy traffic.

So, after breakfast (which was way more modest than in the luxury Beijing hotel), we, as decided the day before, headed to the nearest tour bus stop. We took a tram; trams here, as everything in Hong Kong, had grown in height and not in length: they are short and double-decker.

The bus took so long to arrive, that we got quite anxious whether we were standing in the right place. But just at the moment when we went to clarify this with a staff member of the Sogo department store, in front of which we had been waiting, the long-awaited bus appeared in the distance. Interestingly enough, the tickets were only sold near the Victoria Peak tram station, meaning that should we have decided to get off earlier, we would have ridden for free.

The road to Victoria Peak, which had been open to the public in late 19th century, was extremely steep and we rode at a crazy angle! We were literally pressed into the seat backs. The funicular is not only an attraction for tourists, but also public transportation for residents of the upper levels of the island. In fact, it was originally created in order to stimulate building development of the mountain.

As we got off the tram, we immediately found ourselves in a mall, where we had to climb quite a few escalators in order to get to the lookout. But it was totally worth it: the view from the Sky Terrace was just divine! The Victoria Harbour was picturesque to the utmost; and the concrete jungle, framing it, looked very harmonious next to the lush and curly greenery on the slopes.

We had lunch at the peak, at the Bubba Gump Shrimp & Co restaurant. It is a nice seafood restaurant from an American chain, with average prices. The way of calling the waiter is really interesting: there is a two-sided sign board on the table. If you don’t need anything, you turn it to its blue side, which says: “Run, Forrest, run!” If you need the waiter though, you turn it over to the red side, saying: “Stop, Forrest, stop!”

After a ride through the Hong Kong island (the name, by the way, originates from the Cantonese “Hēunggóng”, which means “Fragrant Harbour”), which is the historical centre of the former British colony, we took the Star Ferry to the Kowloon peninsula. Its name means “nine dragons”.

One of the main attractions in Kowloon is the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, or more precisely, the Avenue of Stars, like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but, obviously, related to Hong Kong cinema. Among a myriad of names, completely unfamiliar to us, there were also the names of internationally famous actors, such as Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, and of course, the two biggest local stars – Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. The latter also has a monument in his honour, which is really an object of pilgrimage for Chinese (and other) tourists.

Speaking of Chinese tourists, we had been told that the Chinese liked to be photographed with the Europeans, but in Beijing no one had expressed the desire to take a picture with us. Here though, right on the Promenade, a whole family – apparently, tourists from some Chinese province – approached us and asked to take photos with us, which they then did one by one.

We toured around Kowloon twice: in the day and evening. During the daytime it looked a bit inferior to the island, despite some memorable sites, such as the Peninsula Hotel, where during the Second World War, just after several days of fighting, the British signed the surrender to Japan; or the International Commerce Centre, which is the tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong (by the way, Hong Kong has the most high-rises in the world, almost twice as many as New York does). In contrast to the fashionable boutiques of the island, the peninsula is famous for its more democratic markets: the Ladies’ Market, Temple Street Night Market, Flower Market, Bird Market, etc.

However, at night the streets of Kowloon are brilliantly lit by colourful neon lights – especially areas like Nathan Road and Mong Kok – and look absolutely safe (the crime rate in Hong Kong is really very low).

After the night tour around Kowloon we came back to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, where a laser show is demonstrated every night at 8pm. Honestly, we expected something more from it, and when the green laser beams started appearing in the sky, we kept waiting for the real show to begin. But that was it, as it turned out – not too impressive (later note: the light show on Maiden Tower walls in Baku during Eurovision Song Contest 2012 week was way more spectacular). But I took some photos of the harbour.

On the way back we easily found the right tube station (or MTR station, as it is called here), then the right tram stop, and after the 12-hour “sortie”, safely returned to our Emperor (Happy Valley) hotel.

A few general observations: the local language, that is, Cantonese, is quite different from Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, which is the official language in China and Taiwan. As for Hong Kong, it has two official languages: English and Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese, which makes, in fact, three). For example, tube announcements are made in all three, and pretty soon we got the hang of aurally distinguishing Cantonese from Mandarin.

The writing is also different. Here they use older, traditional characters, which look more complicated, with lots of strokes and dots. In Mainland China, though, as well as in Singapore and Malaysia, simplified characters are used. They were introduced in the middle of 20th century, to increase the literacy of the population.

Watching the locals, you sometimes feel like you see the English in Chinese guise. They queue sedately (something which the Chinese don’t tend to do generally), obey traffic rules, stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left. All the service staff in all public places speak English, schoolchildren solve math problems for homework in English (we saw this in Starbucks; they were speaking Chinese among themselves, though).

In general, having arrived in Hong Kong, we clearly felt the difference between the communist and capitalist China. Not that in Beijing they flaunt their communist slogans, prohibitions and restrictions – it all seems veiled. But you still have the feeling that the tiger is holding out its paw, even though with hidden claws, over everything around: controlled Internet, controlled television, guides necessarily referring to happy life with universal equality in the People’s China, Mao’s portraits, five-star symbols, and even endless barrages on the streets constantly remind of it. In Hong Kong you see democracy in full bloom. No wonder that in 1997, when Margaret Thatcher returned Hong Kong to China after a 99-year lease  in accordance with the agreement, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers hastily emigrated to the West, terrified by the “charms” of the communist “paradise”. However, Hong Kong practically doesn’t feel its implications so far, because, as well as Macau, it has the status of a Special Administrative Region and will retain its internal system for 50 years. What Hong Kongers will do after the 50-year period expires, is a big question.

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 6

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25 March 2012, Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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