Posted in Europe, Ischia, Italy

Adventures of the Azeris in Italy – Ischia Porto


All this sightseeing is nice and interesting, but who said one shouldn’t be shopping when abroad? We’d been thinking for ages how to do it, and were first planning to travel to Naples, but then realised it would take us two hours to get there and two more to get back, especially that the opening time of the shops wasn’t very clear. Due to summertime many places here are closed from 1pm till 4pm, working a little in the morning and till midnight in the evening. And besides, August is the month of holidays, culminating on August 15 , the holiday of Ferragosto, which is an ancient pagan festival of the sun and harvest , adapted in Christianity as a day dedicated to the Madonna. Therefore, the working hours of shops (if at all? ) were under big question.

As a result we compromised . We had already mentioned that in general shopping in Sant’Angelo is virtually inexistent, so we were taken to Ischia Porto, the “capital” of the island. We were told that under the order of Mussolini each Italian city should have its own Via Roma, that is the street of Rome – usually it is the main street with all the shops concentrated on it. Ischia Porto is no exception . We arrived there at 6pm, and the street was crowded . However, we saw very little brand shops as such – most of them, just like in Sant’Angelo, contained a hodgepodge of several items by various brands. Still, after walking along the street till 10pm, each of us ended up with some new clothes .

The taxi driver, which was supposed to take us back to our hotel, told us that the price was not negotiable, but would rather be calculated based on the meter. We were pleased with the idea of not having to pay 40 euros this time. Well, indeed, we didn’t have to – the meter counted 60! We tried to argue, but the driver’s reply was that this was the night fare. Why 11pm had to be considered as night already – is an altogether different question, but arguing any further was simply pointless.

Posted in Europe, France, Paris

Paris, je t’aime – Day 2


22 March, 2010

It was a long and rich day full of impressions! It began at 9 am, when we left the hotel after the breakfast. The original plan to go to the Louvre was dropped immediately, because the weather was delightful and promised to stay delightful all day, so spending a day indoors would have been a sin!

And so we walked to the quay of the Seine, and decided to go to the Champs Elysees from there, but this plan was soon changed as well, and we headed to the Eiffel Tower.

The road to the tower was not much impressive, but something strange happened there. Some dodgy-looking guy rushed towards us with a gold ring, asking if it was ours. After he learned that it wasn’t, he began actively trying to foist it on us, pointing at its countersign and insisting it was genuine. And then he began to beg for money to buy a sandwich and a Coke. When we asked a completely fair question on why he wouldn’t take the ring instead and sell it, he said that he was a Baptist. Somehow he managed to wheedle 4 euros out of us (yes, I always knew that the word “DUPE!” was written in large letters on my forehead). As for the ring, we decided to throw it out of harm’s way, as the whole story seemed too suspicious. Thinking back now, I realise that there wasn’t need to worry too much – the ring, according to its weight, was not gold at all, and most probably this is a common scam.

Then we walked to the Eiffel Tower without any incidents. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the chance to go up, as the queue was unbelievable and we didn’t want to waste time standing in it. Especially that there were a lot of gypsy beggars scurrying around, soldiers with weapons, and more dodgy guys selling Eiffel Tower figurines and trying to palm them off on us. However, at some point they suddenly started off to run somewhere simultaneously! Most likely, they were running from the police, but my mom’s comment really made me laugh: “Where are they running? Did anyone tell them that more dupes had arrived?”

The Eiffel Tower itself made me want to take an infinite number of pictures of it. And the sight of this beauty was simply breathtaking. However, if you look closer, the tower doesn’t have any special beauty. By essence, it is a pretty ugly construction. So, I think that its beauty is a purely psychological phenomenon – it is the main symbol of Paris, one of the world’s major attractions, so our eyes are used to considering it beautiful.

After viewing the tower on all four sides and at least a dozen of photos made, we decided to take a bus tour around the city, taking advantage of the good weather (quite unusually, it didn’t start raining with wind, as it always happens when I get in an open-topped tour bus!). And this, I must say, was a very good idea. Such tours should always be taken at the very beginning of one’s stay in a city – it allows to understand its structure and logic, and at the same time to determine the places that you want to visit later. Especially that there are always places that you generally do find interesting, but seeing them from the bus is just enough, and in the future you don’t have to spend time on visiting them. For example, the Place de la Concorde, which we drove through so many times that we definitely didn’t want to visit it separately.

We got off near the Notre Dame Cathedral, looking for a place to eat, but for some reason couldn’t find anything other than sandwiches and croque-monsieurs. So we had to get on the bus once again and head to the Galeries Lafayette.

This area is somewhat like the City of London, where the majority of people are wearing suits and there are lots of banks around – Commerzbank, BNP Paribas, etc. We managed to find a restaurant here.

Looking through the menu, I came across a dish called «Rôti de chapon aux cèpes avec Gratin Dauphinois», and became interested, because I had previously heard of Gratin Dauphinois being a very tasty potato dish. I had no clue what “chapon” was, though, so I asked the waiter. He replied that it was “le coq”, and mimed the process of castration. By the way, the poor cockerel tasted quite good, and the Gratin Dauphinois was absolutely fabulous!

After lunch, replete and happy, we continued our tour bus, to go back to Notre Dame de Paris and get inside. As there was still plenty of time before the 6 pm mass, which we very much wanted to attend, we decided to get off near the Eiffel Tower once again and have a cup of coffee in one of the outdoor cafes.

Then we caught another bus and headed directly to Notre Dame de Paris. On the way, I made a few observations. First, it is the love of the French for their flag. It seems to be everywhere: not only over every state institution, but also over all billboards.

Secondly, it is the huge number of motorcycles on the roads, I’ve never seen that many before! And most importantly, they tend to rush at a crazy speed!

And third, I noticed that the names of shops, cafes and hotels are directly dependent on the location. For example, they are all called “Madeleine” in the neighbourhood of the Madeleine Church, or “Notre Dame” in the area of Notre Dame de Paris.

Speaking about the Notre Dame Cathedral, initially, we were prepared to stand in a long queue for an 8-euro ticket. As we approached the tail of the queue, we noticed a sign, saying that there was no point in joining the queue, as that was it for the day. We got very upset, but then decided to ask how to get to the mass, and found out that the entrance was through the church, and it was free! Frankly, I didn’t understand what these guys in the queue were planning to pay 8 euros for, because inside, we were able to view everything free of charge. Actually, “free” is a bit of an overstatement, as we had to spend money on candles, and metal medals “for luck”, and the entrance to the treasury of the church, and the donation after the mass.

The treasury was well worth the three euros paid for it – it had amazingly beautiful goblets, finger rings, busts of various archbishops, as well as objects of unknown purpose, probably just for decoration.

We highly enjoyed the mass itself too. The service started with vespers at 17.45, followed by the mass at 18.15. Everyone was given sheets of paper with the lyrics of hymns and psalms in Latin and French. Since, wishing to see everything well, we sat in one of the front rows, we had to sing along with everyone. But it all sounded truly divine! The next part mostly consisted of preaching and talking about the biblical Susanna and the two elders, occasionally interrupted by chants such as «Kyrie Eleison».

Generally, looking at all this, I come to the conclusion that if I was a believer, I’d certainly be a Catholic. Because only Catholic churches, services and rituals make me feel awe, albeit minimal. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that I would be able to listen to stories of Susanna, the elders, and others like them with sincere reverence.

Leaving 2 euros as a donation, we left the cathedral just in time to catch the last tour bus, which dropped us off at the Grand Opera, from which we had to walk to our hotel. Once near the Boulevard des Capucines, we decided to have dinner somewhere. Seeing «Le Grand Café des Capucines», I got quite excited about oysters in the menu exposed in front of the cafe, but my mom flatly refused to try them. For the sake of revenge, I suggested Pizza Hut, where the pizza was very, very mediocre.

Posted in Asia, China, Hong Kong

Trip to China – Hong Kong – Day 4


29 March 2012, Thursday

In the morning, as our moods revived after the previous night’s episode of depression, we decided to act at our own risk and choose the route ourselves, using maps, Google and common sense.

We stopped our choice on the Ten Thousand Buddhas (Man Fat Sze) Monastery, situated in the New Territories. They are located on the mainland, north of Kowloon, and are not included in the bus tour routes. We were about to cross the entire Hong Kong from south to north.

First thing, we provided ourselves things to do for the next day, entrusting ourselves to the same company we had been touring around the city with so far (Big Bus Tours), and booked a day trip to the Lantau Island.

We took the MTR from the Central station and had to make two changes before we got to the point of our destination – the Sha Tin area, where the monastery is located.

A journey on the tube is always a good opportunity for observing the locals and drawing conclusions. Thus, we noticed that the local Chinese consumed much less garlic than Beijingers, or, in any case, clearly concealed it. As you enter any public place in Beijing you almost suffocate with its “delicate fragrance”, but here you don’t really feel anything.

What also draws attention is the technophilia of Hong Kongers – everyone in the tube is busy with their phones, iPads, readers, PSP’s and other gadgets of the latest models. To the credit of the locals it should be mentioned that a young man gave his seat to me.

At Sha Tin there was a bit of a hitch: we thought that the monastery was one of the tourists’ favourite places and we would see a lot of signs which would easily lead us to the right place. But no! We looked around, walked along a street, which seemed to be the only one (it was very broad, much broader than in the city centre), following the crowd coming out of the tube. Only then did it dawn on us that it was quite unlikely for such a broad modern street to lead to a Buddhist monastery.

After asking a couple of people in the street, we realised that we should go back to the station and make a second attempt.

It turned out that there was a trail, which we hadn’t noticed the first time, leading to the monastery.  As we walked a bit, we came up to gates with a univocal sign, notifying that the steps before us were in fact the road to the monastery. The number of steps was simply enormous, but the road itself was quite amusing: on both sides there were thousands of gilded statues of Buddha, standing, sitting in different poses, with different facial expressions. Right at the beginning of the road we were snapped up by two Buddhist monks who mumbled something, pressed some rosaries to our foreheads, put some bracelets on our wrists and clearly hinted that they would like to receive some alms. There was nowhere to escape, and each of us had to part with hundred Hong Kong dollars.  As we walked substantially further, we noticed a sign warning that real monks wouldn’t beg, so, they said, beware of fake monks. Something felt a bit hypocritical about this sign; as if it were impossible to put it right at the entrance!

Once again I should mention that climbing all the way up to the monastery was really uneasy. But even if I make this statement for the third time, still, this would be much easier to write about than to actually overcome. We did it though!

Interestingly enough, on the territory of the monastery itself we didn’t notice even a single monk – neither a real, nor a fake one. There were, however, cleaners, polishing the statues with rags; waterers, and other staff. By the way, it has to be mentioned that all the captions under the statues were made exclusively in Chinese, and only two boxes of ginseng ficus were neatly signed in English, from which one can conclude that this place is mainly visited by Chinese Buddhists and English-speaking botanists 🙂

Inside the temple taking photos is not allowed. One could think that the Ten Thousand Buddhas are only those statues on both sides of the road. In fact, they are right in this temple: each wall has numerous rows (we counted 31) with small statues of Buddha.

In the yard there were statues of different deities, a high pagoda and incense burners. Actually, there were quite few tourists; the majority of the visitors were believers who had come to pray. They burned incense sticks, made wishes and read some books.

Apart from spiritual food, physical food was also present there, although purely vegetarian. Right there, in the yard, was an eatery, where just for 48 HKD you would be served a tremendous portion of whatever you had ordered (soup, for example, wasn’t served in bowls, but rather in basins!). Chicken, fish and lamb appeared in the menu, but all with the “veggie” prefix, meaning they were probably made of soy. As for vegetables and mushrooms, they were real, of course. And everything was delicious!

Well, needless to say, that the way back was much easier, as we were walking down the hill. Overall, we spent an hour to get there, two hours in the monastery, and a bit more than an hour to get back.

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.