Posted in Asia, Bangkok, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 2


19 March 2018

Today we had to get up very early to have breakfast and head to the Damnoen Saduak floating market at 7am. It’s a bit hard to assess how far the place really is from Bangkok, since today is Monday and the traffic is simply incredible, the roads are much more packed than yesterday, and we had to spend ages in traffic jams which were aggravated by the very long waiting time at traffic lights.

On the way to the floating market we stopped to see how oil and sugar are produced from coconut – something similar to what we’d already seen in Vietnam.


If I continue comparing with Vietnam, where the floating market didn’t quite meet our expectations, here it was the same. There were lots of boats, but most of them were carrying tourists, with only a couple boats here and there selling fruits and snacks.






So we didn’t get to see that iconic postcard view of the canal crammed with boats full of colourful flowers and fruits. Maybe, again, we’d had to be here at 5am for that. On the other hand, along the banks of the canal there was a whole flea market kind of thing, with souvenirs, handicrafts and other stuff, so the boatman kept stopping every minute at one shop or another to get us to buy something off his friends. One of the sellers introduced herself as his wife and, when she faced our languid refusal to buy anything despite her persistence, she asked us to at least give tips to her husband at the end of our ride. Floating by another shop, we saw a woman washing her plate and hands right in the canal, which raised serious doubts as to the compliance of the food sold at the market with sanitary norms. Which is why, having got off the boat and having arrived to a local coffee shop, as agreed in advance with Vanna, we got hot coffee rather than the much desired iced coffee – common sense suggested that the ice could have also been made from frozen canal water, who knows?


Another attraction at the market was the opportunity to take a picture with wild animals: sloths, loris and pythons. A thought flashed through my mind: maybe I should get a photo with a snake hanging around my neck? But I finally decided that I didn’t want to spend 200 baht (just under 7 USD) to support such a cruel business. Social responsibility, you know!


What also deserves a separate mention in this place is the toilet. It’s a whole single-storey building with enticing inscriptions and a car park, the interior reminds of pharmacy, there are snacks sold inside and even a wi-fi hotspot!


In short, we weren’t extremely impressed with the floating market, and we left for Bangkok well before 11am, which was our deadline in order to make it to our cooking class at 1.30pm. What cooking class? – you may ask. Well, actually the tour we chose is called ‘The Taste of Thailand’, so in addition to sightseeing and beach recreation, it also includes three cooking classes in different cities!

We were brought to the corner of some street in Bangkok and handed over to a guy, who assigned us to a group of 8 people and sent us off to the market nearby with his colleague – our current instructor.


At the market, there were already baskets and a set of vegetables prepared for us, and we had to take them with us. That is, the market trip was a mock one – in fact, there was only one stall still open at this time as the market as such operates very early in the morning. It was just that the instructor – a very funny guy – took the opportunity to show us some essential ingredients, indispensable in Thai cuisine. As he explained, for example, the mushrooms or beans used here are, of course, local varieties, but can easily be replaced with any other variety, as they are used not for the taste, but for the texture, just like most other vegetables. As for galangal (a close relative of ginger), Thai basil, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, though, they can’t be replaced even with closely related plants – it wouldn’t be Thai cuisine anymore. From this we concluded that it is unlikely that we would be able to hone our Thai chef skills in Baku: there’s no way we can find kaffir lime leaves there. He also pointed out the important difference between Thai and Indian curries – in Indian curries the flavour is created using dried herbs and spices, and in Thai curries – using fresh herbs and roots. For instance, ginger and turmeric are always used fresh, never dried and ground.

A funny episode – there was a very nice Colombian couple in the group with us, and right upfront the lady warned the instructor that she couldn’t stand onions or any related plants. The instructor joked that he would then pass onions off as cabbage, and so till the end of the class he continued referring to all kinds of onion-like plants as cabbage.


Having picked up our baskets with vegetables and herbs, we headed back to the cooking school and immediately got down to work. We had five dishes to cook: Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, green curry, spicy chicken salad and sticky rice with mango for dessert. Frankly speaking, we didn’t cook the last two ourselves, but rather simply observed the process. Our only contribution to the dessert was participation in making coconut milk from grated pulp, and the milk was then used for the soup and curry as well as for the dessert. We started actually doing something when we moved on to the Tom Yum soup.


All we had to do was cut up the vegetables (tomatoes, green onions, mushrooms and chili peppers – I boldly took two), prep the “flavour ingredients”: lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves – these are the three ingredients that actually create that distinct Tom Yum flavour and that are not supposed to be eaten, by the way; all the rest can be replaced if necessary – and then put everything in our individual wok, and add fish sauce, chili paste and lime juice to taste. The fish sauce, which we first came across in Vietnam, features in absolutely every dish here, apart from sweets. It replaces salt and enhances the flavours, being a natural source of sodium glutamate. While we were cooking, the instructor was walking around, adding water and coconut milk, then adding shrimps. Generally, I noticed that we were only trusted with processing vegetables and greens, while all the meat was provided already prepped and added straight to our woks.




Once we cooked and happily consumed our own Tom Yum soup portions, it was time to cook the Pad Thai. The instructor had pre-soaked the rice noodles in cold water, so we just had to cut up the tofu and leeks and return to our woks, already washed and seasoned with soybean oil for us. First of all we fried off some crushed garlic with tofu and spices (fish sauce, coconut sugar, chili flakes, ground peanuts and something like pickled radish). Then we broke an egg into the wok and gave it a quick fry too. Finally, in went the noodles, leeks and soybean sprouts. The instructor told us that in Thailand no one cooks Pad Thai at home, and this is exclusively street food. Interestingly, some type of sugar is added to almost any dish here.



By the way, at some point the instructor told us that almost everyone in Thailand knows about Azerbaijan, due a lot of Thai players in our volleyball clubs, and since volleyball is the only team sports which Thais are good at, this fact is widely known. Good to know, as we were quite surprised that hearing about us being from Azerbaijan, no one here makes a puzzled face and asks what on Earth it is, like we’re used to.

After Pad Thai we tasted the spicy chicken salad prepared for us by the instructor, as mentioned, using onions, boiled minced chicken, chilis, ground roast rice and of course seasoned with fish sauce. And then we had to cook green curry. The instructor prepared the curry paste himself, explaining in the meantime that no one does it at home and everyone buys readily made paste. He mixed a lot of ingredients in the mortar – coriander and cumin seeds, the “holy trinity” (if you remember, that’s lemongrass, lime leaves and galangal), red and green chili peppers, turmeric root, garlic and something else, and then we took turns to mash it all with a pestle. Then, one last time, we returned to our woks, where coconut milk and chicken slices were already added for us, and cooked that with Thai eggplant, basil and finger root ginger with the addition of fish sauce, sugar and curry paste.



At the very end we were served our dessert – a slightly salty sticky rice mass (yes, salt is added to desserts and not to savoury dishes here – for the latter this mission is given to fish sauce!) with fresh mango. We really liked the class overall: we acquired new skills, plus it was fun and tasty!


For the evening we had a ladyboy cabaret show planned. It sounds a bit dubious, I understand, but there was absolutely nothing bawdy there. Just normal singing and dancing, the performance was pretty good: they were portraying Beyoncé and Marilyn Monroe, acting scenes in Chinese and Korean style, and for some reason dancing to “Hava Nagila”. If you don’t know they are ladyboys, you could totally take them for women.


By the way, the show wasn’t included in our tour programme, therefore, even though Vanna kindly arranged tickets for us, even with a discount, we had to take a taxi ourselves. The cabaret is on the Asiatic embankment – it’s a very pleasant place with a ferris wheel, restaurants, shops and a night food market. We went for little walk after the show, and the street food looked very tempting to us, but firstly, we were still full after the cooking class, and secondly, we are still slightly apprehensive about street food.






Posted in Asia, English, Hanoi, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 7


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.


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.




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.


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.



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





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.


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.



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.



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.



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.




Posted in Asia, English, Hanoi, Hoi An, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 6


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.









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



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.



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.


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.




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.



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.



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.


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.


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.

20170610_174603 (1)

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.


Posted in Asia, English, Singapore

Singapore – Day 5


28 November 2013

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

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

Siloso Beach


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


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

Universal Studios

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

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

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

Universal Studios

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

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

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

Universal Studios

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

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

Lang Lang

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

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

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 5


24 March 2012, Saturday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Asia, Beijing, China

Trip to China – Beijing – Day 2


21 March 2012, Wednesday

In the morning we had to struggle to open our eyes, our bodies were swollen and bloated, and, barely able to move, we went down to have breakfast. And this was a somewhat new experience: all the Western hotels where we had happened to stay previously offered pretty much similar breakfasts, with slight deviations. Here in Beijing, though, we found almost none of the usual cheeses and sausages (the only sausage available was made of mushrooms!). Instead, there were a number of hot soups and congees, and other hot Chinese dishes – chicken, noodles with vegetables, rice, etc. The breakfast was complemented by tropical fruits, mainly familiar to us (grapefruit, pineapple, and kiwi) except for the rather tasteless dragon fruit.

We decided to start our acquaintance with Beijing from the Temple of Heaven, and we think, we did the right thing. We paid 10 yuans (just over 1.5 USD or 1 AZN) for a ten-minute taxi ride – so cheap! – and there we were in the vast temple complex. Here it immediately became obvious how Beijing outdid the good old Europe in terms of audio guides – the one we got was fully automatic, showing the map of the complex along with our current location, marking in red the places we had missed and talking about the part of the park where we were at the moment.

The Temple of Heaven did of course impress us a lot with its grandeur, the mastery of its architects and its typical “Chineseness”. But no less impressive seemed the Chinese themselves. Here and there, all over the huge territory of the park, there were people singing, dancing and practicing tai chi in groups, playing badminton and another game, unknown to us, which consisted of tossing a feather ball to each other. Passers-by, not participating in these mass events, were also having fun – for example, we saw an elderly Chinese gentleman with a hat and cane dancing as he walked by. Generally, old people looked very active here – another white-bearded old man took a few dance steps around a singing woman, someone else was stretching and doing exercise.

Our audio guide told us about the sacrifice ceremony, the animals driven to slaughter through the so-called “gates of hell”, about the symbolism in architecture and the repeatability of the number 9. The three-tiered altar was very impressive; they say that the voice of the emperor, as he stood in a circular area in the middle, was amplified a hundred times and sounded like it was coming from Heaven. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to test this effect.

In one of the alleys we suddenly heard Azerbaijani speech – how surprising that almost the first non-Chinese that we came across here were our compatriots.

Of course it was impossible to walk the entire park, especially that some parts of it, such as the rosary, were quite irrelevant in early spring. Overjoyed at the cheapness, we were intending to take a taxi back to the hotel. But as we stood at the park entrance, quite lost, looking for a taxi stand, a moto-rickshaw appeared out of nowhere. This promised to be an exotic experience, so we thought, why not? We asked the guy how much it would cost and he showed three fingers. We tried to clarify: “Thirty?” He nodded in accordance. What we didn’t do – very stupid of us! – was ask him to show the amount in written. We asked him to take us to the Tiananmen Square, and off we went happily. Everyone in the streets were staring at us, and as for other rickshaw drivers, they were eyeing ours enviously. Encouraged by those looks, our driver suggested to drive us through the hutongs (authentic narrow alleys), but we were sensible enough to refuse. Finally the rickshaw stopped and the guy vaguely waved his hand in a certain direction, which was supposed to mean that Tiananmen was somewhere there. We handed the driver 30 yuans, and that’s when he made it clear that he was intending to receive not 30 yuans, but actually ten times more, he even pulled out some badge as confirmation. What could we do? Outraged, we reached for centesimal banknotes. What the guy said afterwards really took the biscuit – 300 yuans was meant to be the price per passenger, you see. This was far too much already, so we refused loudly and angrily, and left. The driver shouted after us: “Give me at least a hundred!”, but we remained hard as stone. It’s no joke paying almost 50 USD for a fifteen-minute ride, and, in any case he must have gone home praising the heavens for having sent him such gullible dupes. Well, at least that was a lesson for us.

We then had to walk quite a lot until we reached the Tiananmen Square, but probably it wasn’t possible to drive up closer than we did.  The area was indeed enormous but we didn’t experience such a delight as we did in the morning. The Square looks modern, with all the trappings of communism; their flag gives ground to ours in Baku in terms of size. Yet, we took photos against the portrait of the Great Helmsman, and, as it was already lunchtime, decided to go have a bite to eat somewhere.

The Peking Duck in a restaurant specialising in roast duck, had very little in common with what is usually served in our restaurants: it was crispy, fatty, soft, with authentic relishes (half of which are persistently ignored by restaurants in Baku and, as far as I remember, at least in London as well).

After having a rest in the hotel we headed to the Lao She Teahouse to watch the tea ceremony and other performances. And boy, was that fascinating! We arrived early to pick up our pre-booked tickets, and had time to view something like an exhibition on the first floor, where everything was about tea – tea-things, different varieties of the drink, etc, – and also models of different ancient Chinese facilities: hairdressing salon, pharmacy, confectionery and several types of teahouses.  They were all very well made, with charming figures of people.

We went up the staircase with carved gilded railings, into the main performance hall. The pictures of famous public figures from different countries, who ever attended the teahouse, all over the walls made us feel important. We had bought the tickets for the first row and were sharing a table for six with locals. Generally, most of the visitors in this packed hall were Chinese (just as pretty much everywhere else), except maybe us and a French couple at the next table.

The tickets included tea and snacks (sunflower seeds, peanuts, candied medlars on a stick, traditional sweet biscuits and some kind of a mucous rice porridge with pumpkin chunks). At this time of year they serve jasmine tea, and that’s how it looks like: the cup is filled to one-third with tea leaves, with boiling water poured over them. From time to time waiters come with kettles and refill the cup with hot water. It’s really surprising that despite being constantly diluted, not only doesn’t the tea lose its taste but it actually becomes better and better. Now that’s what I call real Chinese tea – and the dyed crap we are used to drinking can’t hold a candle to it.

Back to the main part, i.e. the performance. Despite the fact that it was in Chinese only, hence all the dialogues were incomprehensible to us, we still enjoyed it big time. It started with the tea ceremony, demonstrated by a graceful lady in a spring green dress. Then another lady with a strong voice performed a song to a drum beat, executing traditional Chinese roulades, unfamiliar to our ears. She was then replaced on the stage by two sound imitators – their performance was at least understandable: whistle of a train, clattering of a horse’s hooves, hooting of a steamer, chirping of birds.

The tea ceremony

The next act was the long-awaited Peking opera. In fact, we had first wanted to see a separate performance but our thoughtful hotel staff had talked us out of it, and that was the right thing to do – we would probably have hardly been able to endure a full opera performance. But the ten-minute piece we saw really impressed us. A sly-looking lively girl led another girl, looking shy and timid, onto the stage, helped her into her seat and started describing the beauty of flowers and seasons to her. The interlinear translation of the songs into English was provided on a monitor on the wall, which cannot be said about the dialogues. Therefore, it remained unclear, why the silent shy girl was rising from her chair from time to time, making a few steps towards the energetic songstress and then sitting back down.

Beijing opera

After the opera piece came another tea ceremony, with extremely long-nosed teapots: two guys and a girl showed a remarkable coherence of actions. Then, three acrobat ladies spun some plates on poles. Of course, we had seen plate spinning performances before, demonstrated by touring Chinese circus, but it should be recognised that the skills of these three girls were just amazing. As for the comedians, which were performing next, we couldn’t fully appreciate them for obvious reasons, but the local audience did have a good laugh. However, we quite liked the quartet, which played five instruments, each musician playing two simultaneously (I’ll let the readers guess how this can be possible, or check out the photo below).

And finally, a sample of Sichuan opera, with very quick, almost instant, change of masks. Quite a short, but a very impressive performance.

Sichuan opera

As a result, it was a very vivid and memorable show. As we found out that the teahouse was on the same street as our hotel, we decided to walk back. The journey was slightly spoiled by the fact that the underground passage was closed due to the late hour, because of which we had to make a detour. But the weather was so pleasant that this didn’t cause any particular annoyance.