Travelling Leila

My impressions about the places I visit

Archive for the tag “Politics”

Vietnam – Day 3

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7 June 2017

Today’s Ho Chi Minh City tour was supposed to happen yesterday, but as the presidential Reunification Palace, which was one of the items on our list, was closed yesterday for a government event, the travel agency had to slightly amend our schedule.

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It was actually at this palace that our tour began this morning. Before the war there was the South Vietnamese Independence Palace here, however, it was a different building, a 19th-century one in the French colonial style. During the war, that one was bombed, so a new, more modern palace was built in its place later, becoming a symbol of the unified Vietnam.

Generally, there was a lot of history today and in the first half of the day it was mainly contemporary history. So, standing next to this tank, which is a replica of the exact North Vietnamese tanks that rammed the Palace gate in 1975 and actually marked the end of the Vietnam war and the victory of the North, Phuoc gave us a brief overview of Vietnamese history since the First Indochina War against the French colonialists, which began in 1946, followed by the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War of 1955-1975.

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The palace itself has maybe a few dozens of rooms and halls, but only three are currently used for government events. Some of the rest are only demonstrated as a museum, and I don’t even know what they do with the others. The basement, for example, used to be a bunker, and is now closed for reconstruction.

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Next, we stopped at the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon , built by the French, obviously, and also located directly opposite the Post Office building, which is another place of interest. There isn’t particularly much to tell about either, especially that we didn’t spend a lot of time there, just walked in, looked around and left.

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What followed next felt kind of like bitter medicine – unpalatable but useful. It was the War Remnants Museum, which, by the way, before the restoration of diplomatic relations with the USA used to be called Exhibition House for US Crimes. It’s a rather eerie place exhibiting military equipment, war photos (including those of the Songmi massacre and the victims of napalm and white phosphorus bombs), a guillotine, the replica of a South Vietnamese jail for political prisoners, and – most horrible of all! – photographs of victims of Agent Orange (a toxic chemical, repeatedly spread by Americans in Vietnam) with birth defects and mutations. And not only local people had children born with defects, so did also American soldiers after returning home. In Vietnam, there are still a lot of disabled people who are victims of those chemical attacks: we saw some of them both at the Notre Dame Cathedral, asking for alms, and at the museum itself, producing various crafts for sale – unfortunately, the state doesn’t have enough money to support them, so they have to find means to survive on their own.

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It was all very sad and made me think a lot – mostly about the fact that history doesn’t teach people anything at all, especially in the light of the most recent political events in the world… Now of course, the inscriptions under the exhibits in the War Remnants Museum are characterised by political propaganda, in particular, the northerners are only mentioned as “patriot soldiers” and the South Vietnamese government is called a puppet. We so didn’t expect such evaluative language in the seemingly narrative description of military events, that when we saw a table listing the number of troops from various states, among which the South Vietnamese Puppet was mentioned, we asked ourselves whether the word ‘puppet’ actually meant something different in military jargon, because we simply couldn’t believe that it was meant in its most direct sense.

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We decided to grab food in a coffee shop right at the museum, and had banh mi –
traditional Vietnamese baguettes (French heritage, as I mentioned before) with chicken, tasting like ordinary doner kebab .

After contemporary history we plunged into more ancient one, also much more positive and entertaining: we went to the privately-owned FITO Museum of traditional Vietnamese medicine. The interior was very interesting, in the traditional Vietnamese style of the 19th century, although the building itself is new.

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We got to see an introductory video and then a nice lady showed us the exhibits – there was a huge number of antique dishes, medicinal substances (herbs, minerals, mushrooms etc.), tables listing medicinal plants, half-decayed medical treatises by ancient doctors, written in Chinese characters, etc. We were offered to try on traditional clothes of Vietnamese doctors and pose for a photo behind a pharmacy counter. And also, some of the medicines are mentioned in connection with the emperor Minh Mang, although I can’t remember whether he made them himself or had them invented specially for him. But what’s noteworthy is that the emperor had 500 wives and could visit 5 of them in one night!

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By the way, I didn’t mention Chinese characters just randomly. In fact they were used in Vietnam up until early 20th century, when the French colonial government imposed a switch to a romanised alphabet. In this alphabet, the standard five vowels (or six, if “y” is also considered as one) come with all sorts of diacritical marks: not only are there twelve vowels in Vietnamese, but each one can also be pronounced with six different tones, changing the meaning of the word.

Phuoc tells us all this in the car on the way to the local Chinatown. There are about a million Chinese in Vietnam, many of which don’t even speak Chinese anymore. In Ho Chi Minh City they mainly own wholesale stores. In Chinatown we visited the Thien Hau temple of the Chinese sea goddess. By the way, I’ve already been to another temple dedicated to her in Hong Kong. Among other information about Chinese traditional beliefs, Phuoc told us about the 12-year cycle of the Eastern calendar – in particular that previously before a wedding the bride’s and groom’s horoscope signs used to be checked for compatibility, but nowadays clever couples come up with ways to avoid incompatibility, such as arranging the marriage ceremony at midnight instead of midday, or walking into the house for the first time through the back door instead of the front door.

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And finally, we visited a lacquer factory. Initially, the technique, like much else, as we have already found out, was brought by the French, but then local craftsmen mastered the skill so much that they pretty much took it to the next level. This work is manual, and very laborious and complex. First, a black wooden board is prepared – which of course should be absolutely smooth – then a picture is drawn on it, then either a part is cut out of mother-of-pearl along the outline of the pattern and stuck to the board, or the contour of the picture is filled with pieces of egg shell (which can even be completely crushed) or paint, and then the painting is covered with fifteen layers of lacquer made of lacquer tree sap, and each layer must fully dry before the next one can be applied. Unfortunately, taking pictures at the factory wasn’t allowed, otherwise it would be very interesting to capture the process of creating lacquerware.

This was the end of the Saigon part of our tour, and we said goodbye to Phuoc. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and we decided to find an electronics store to buy additional memory cards for our cameras. I must say, the walk was rather stupid: the store which Phuoc had noted for us on the city map didn’t have the card I needed, and the sellers gave us the address of another store, which we spent ages looking for and as a result found out that it was quite close to our hotel. Had we known that in advance, we wouldn’t even have had to drag ourselves that far in this humid heat. We were quite lucky today that there was no rain at all, but the flip side of that is this sticky heat, as the rain would have refreshed the air.

We continued walking until we reached the Barbecue Garden restaurant, which we chose for today’s dinner. The restaurant is open-air, mostly attended by foreigners, and has a very interesting concept: the barbecue ingredients are served raw, which you then have to grill yourself over the gas burner located right in the centre of your table. Once again we really liked everything and the prices were shockingly low: only 32 dollars for two for snacks, barbecue, side dishes, fruit juice, beer and dessert!

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And after dinner we decided to finally walk up to the river, taking advantage of the dry weather. We reached the river and walked along the embankment, but couldn’t locate that beautiful skyline with illuminated buildings which we’d seen on some postcard. We slightly got used to the traffic, but it still feels stressful for me – I guess, after this in Baku I’ll be able to cross roads with my eyes closed. At some point, we wanted to cross a wide avenue along the embankment, and spent at least five minutes in front of the zebra crossing, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to step into this uninterrupted stream of traffic, before some local girl – thanks to her! – rushed to our help and literally took us across the road, like old grannies!

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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 7

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30 August 2012 – Thursday

Today, by contrast, was a very active day: we took the long-awaited trip to Montenegro. The mountain forest road, which took us quite long to drive through until the border, was indeed beautiful, but the day was extremely hazy. At first we thought it was fog, but then it turned out that it was the smoke from forest fires in Bosnia. We were told that the situation was really critical there, so a few sections of Croatian firefighters were sent for help.

In general, our guide Petra told us a lot of things, mostly about Croatia, though. For example, we learned that the Lokrum island (very close to Dubrovnik), famous for its parks and entertainment,  had been cursed. A very soon death is believed to await anyone who stays there overnight. The superstitious Dubrovnikers still believe in this, so every day the last, eight o’clock boat to the city is fully packed with people hurrying to leave the island.

We also learned that  Dubrovnikers do not like to rent housing, but tend to buy it instead – so they feel safer. In this case, they have to take mortgage loans for 30-40 years because of very high cost of real estate.

Driving further up in the mountains, we saw three islands from up high: Mrkan (St. Martin), Bobara (St. Barbara) and Supetar (St. Peter’s). In the 14th century, first quarantines in history were located on them, and all those traveling to Dubrovnik (then Ragusa) were required to spend 40 days there, hence the name (from the Italian word “quaranta” – “forty”). Owing to this, plague spread very little in Dubrovnik.

Driving past Konovle, we heard about the fertility of these lands. Here exists a kind of black market for vegetables here: there are women working on the fields, referred to as “our ladies”, who can be called any time and asked to deliver fresh vegetables, which they will do the same day (or, the latest, the next morning), bypassing shops and markets.

We got slightly anxious, approaching the Montenegrin border, and took out our passports and insurance documents in advance. But everything went smoothly and no one got into the bus to check anything – Petra sorted everything out by herself.

Generally, the difference between Croatia and Montenegro can be noticed immediately: Montenegro seems poorer, the houses are more dilapidated, there are lots of signs in Cyrillic script (they use both Latin and Cyrillic scripts here) and in Russian too.

The official currency is euro, even though Montenegro is not part of the EU and not going to be one in the foreseeable future. There is an explanation. This area is located at the junction of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, which results in frequent earthquakes. After one of such earthquakes in the second half of the XX century, Montenegro had to borrow money from Germany for rehabilitation and reconstruction. When in the 80’s Yugoslavia suffered an economic crisis and, therefore, a high inflation, Montenegro, in order to pay off the debt in German marks, asked for permission to make them their local currency. After Germany switched to euro, so did Montenegro. However, the government does not have the right to print money, it still gets it from Germany.

In general, we were told that the highlanders and the seaside residents were like two different nations. The highlanders used to lead an austere life, and very often, especially during the Second World War, when a family was left without men, some women had to take on the role of head of the family. These women, called “virdžina” (i.e. “virgin”), dressed like men, carried weapons, talked about themselves in the masculine, were always in the company of men, and only performed men’s duties around the house. Nowadays this tradition has practically disappeared. As for the seaside residents, they, in particular Kotorians, used to be were very educated (education was received by both young men and women, even from common families) and looked down upon the highlanders.

When the Boka Kotorska (Kotor Bay) eventually  appeared in sight, we were really disappointed: in the haze it looked like a decal, devoid of any colors, moreover, the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see almost anything. We were taken to a place which was supposed to have a magnificent view and where we could take photos of the Kotor Bay. But there wasn’t much to take pictures of.

And so, sad and disappointed, we drove to a place called Risan, famous for its Roman mosaics. There are the remains of an ancient Roman villa, which has fragments of these mosaics on the floor.

Near the town of Perast we boarded a boat and headed to a small man-made island called Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks) with a church of the same name. The origin of the island is rather interesting. For some reason, the Catholics in this area did not have their own church. But once, as legend says, a fisherman found an icon on a rock right in the middle of the Bay. This was considered to be a sign from God, so since then fishermen would throw more and more rocks one on another, after returning from each successful journey and also sank their old ships, loaded with stones.  That is how the island was built.  The tradition to throw rocks still exists – every year, on the day when the icon was found, local people throw more rocks. The church looks very nice inside, with many beautiful canvas by a famous local painter Tripo Kokolja. The altar is made of several kinds of marble, the most rare and expensive of which was exchanged for silver on a  kilogram per kilogram basis.

As we were driving down towards Kotor, Petra told us of some humorous stereotypes which people of the former Yugoslavia have about each other. Thus, the stereotypes are that the Croats are very good singers, but also are too arrogant, the Bosniacs have great sense of humour, but are not particularly bright (sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone – these are not my words, but those of a Croat lady after all!), and the Montenegrins are very lazy. There is even a joke about a competition on who can lie on the road for the longest time. After 24 hours, the competition had to be stopped because the three participating Montenegrins were still lying there with no intention of getting up in the near future. We were shown a card with ten funny Montenegrin Commandments:

In Kotor we were passed to a Russian guide (a lady named Katya, from St. Petersburg, living here for seven years). Very quickly, she walked us around the Old City, as we only had two hours of free time, including a guided tour and lunch. The Kotor city walls are located high in the mountains, and we didn’t get to climb up there. The Old City has plenty of churches and monasteries, the first music school in the Balkans, the first theatre (now it has been sold to become a hotel, so there is no theatre in Kotor anymore). There are both Catholic and Orthodox churches here, but the Catholic ones are more in number – as there are more Catholics here, although generally the majority of Montenegrins are Orthodox. In tough times, many churches had a Catholic and an Orthodox altar at the same time, i.e. were open for both confessions.

Along with other memorable places, our attention was brought to the Pima Palace on the Flour Square. Head of the Pima family used to be one of the largest grain traders here.

Interestingly, in contrast to Dubrovnik, the buildings here are necessarily located at an angle to each other – it was believed that locating them in a row would bring bad luck.

The Kotorians are most proud of the fact that they never were under the Ottoman Empire, even though in their history they used to be subordinate to Venice, were occupied by a Napoleon’s general and by Italian fascists (for two months). On this occasion, we heard a story how Jesus Christ appeared to a girl named Katarina from a mountain village and told her that in two hundred years, the Turks would attack Kotor. The girl didn’t hesitate to come down from the mountains with her mother to warn the Kotorians about the danger. The latter immediately started building a wall to protect their land, succeeded in this and, when the the Turks did attack, they managed to parry the enemy’s strike. Katarina herself had become a nun. In appreciation, her relics were later transferred to the Church of St. Clara, right here, so that the saint would continue to defend the citizens.

By the way, her descent from the mountains was no big deal – we were informed that some inhabitants of the mountain village Njeguši do it every day when delivering products to Kotor.

Driving out of Kotor, we saw a beautiful town on the other side of the bay (the fog had already cleared a little) – either Muo or Prčanj, where we weren’t taken. There was no time left for bathing either, although there were beaches here and there.

On the way back we were told that during the previous tour a few days before, the car queue on the border was seven kilometres! The most thorough shakedowns are usually undergone by those with Albanian and Kosovar passports – this road is actually a drug “Silk Road”. Recently the guards caught a couple in a car with German plates, transporting drugs for the sum of 10 million euros. But this time we were lucky, there was only one bus ahead of us, from Ukraine, which took quite a long time to check though.

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.

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.

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