A Travellerspoint blog

Thanksgiving in Eastern Europe

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So the travel blog has been on hiatus while I've been attending to more mundane things like Stats and Accounting. But, as we had the week off for Thanksgiving this year (something which apparently does not normally happen at Stern), my roommate Julie and I decided to take advantage of cheaper and shorter flights from New York to Europe (at least as compared to San Francisco).

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We started our trip off in the beautiful town of Prague. Upon arrival, and after a quick power nap, we braved the weather to get out and see the town. Despite the cold and rainy night we arrived to, it was quickly easy to see why so many people love this city. We crossed over the famous Charles Bridge and headed into the center of town. Just when we thought we could no longer take the rain - I saw off in the distance a mirage that appeared to say "HOT WINE". As we would later find out, hot, spiced wine is a regular winter treat in Prague and can easily be found at stands throughout the city - but coming upon that first stand unexpectedly was indeed a warm welcome to Prague!

Emboldened by the warm beverage, we were able to carry on to our intended destination - the U Fleku Beer Hall. Listed in "1000 Places to See Before You Die" (a great book by the way!) - U Fleku is supposedly Prague's oldest and most famous beer hall. Upon entering the hall, we found a place to sit in the middle of a long table and were quickly approached by waiters carrying steins of beer and small shot glasses of Becherovka, a national cinnamon tasting liquor that Julie declared tasted like Christmas. I likened the experience to Czech Dim Sum - if you so much as made eye contact with one of the tray bearing waiters he immediately deposited a drink on your table and made a mark on a little piece of paper which would eventually become your bill. Luckily, you can also order a hearty meal of Gulas and Dumplings to go with the drinks. The beer hall came complete with a brass oompah band and soon everyone around us was singing along - which is slightly ironic because I think the only Czech's in the hall were the ones working there. We quickly made friends with the Italians and Germans sitting around us, and were later joined by a Chinese couple who were studying in Sweden.

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The next day we had big plans to take the train to the town of Kunta Hora to see the famous Bone Church as well as the local silver mine. But, jet lag (and Becherovka) got the best of us, and we got off to a bit late of a start. We had been told the day before we could take an hour long train at nine or ten, so we correctly assumed that there was a train every hour or so. What we did not realize was that not all of the trains were express - not until we'd been on the 1 o'clock train for over an hour. Three hours and many, many local stops later, we arrived in Kunta Hora and made our way to the Bone Church just in time to watch them lock the front door. At that point, there was nothing we could do but head back to Prague (luckily this time on the express train!). However, the day was not completely lost as we met a fellow traveler on the way who recommended the restaurant at the Klub Architecture and we ended up having a fabulous dinner that night.

On day two in Prague, we made up for lost time and packed in as many sites as we could in a short winter day (the sun sets at 4:30!). Below you'll see some of the highlights from the Prague Castle and around the city itself. It is an amazing city - even the man hole covers are beautiful!

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I even got to try my hand with a crossbow. Needless to say, I wasn't very good.

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We were also lucky enough to stumble upon a lunch spot that was deep in the cellar below a monastery and thus named "Hell". It was a great meal - even if the candle lit meal for two in a cave wasn't exactly what two friends were looking for on our vacation! We also stumbled upon an old building adorned with the NYU flag, and later figured out that NYU has a campus in Prague (who knew?!). Ironically, the flag was hanging above the bar that the Germans took us to on our first night. (Please don't blame us for accidently going to a "Coyote Ugly" bar in Prague - it really sounded like they were saying "Kioti Bar". . .).

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That night we had another fabulous dinner (by candlelight nonetheless - Czechs are very good at conserving electricity) at the Blue Duck, which I highly recommend for anyone travelling to Prague.

Then it was off to Budapest! Julie's Austrian friend Martin joined us midway on the train ride into Hungary. Once again we arrived as the sun was setting, but managed to see a good deal of downtown and the river before the day of travelling caught up with us. The next morning we were up and off across the river to visit the famous Gellert Hotel and check out our first potential option for trying out the Hungarian version of Turkish baths. Then we made our way uphill to the former Royal Palace which is now the National Gallery, full of quite impressive art from Hungarians throughout the century. My personal favorite was our next stop, the Fisherman's Bastion which was a series of white stone towers and bridges that was somewhat reminiscent of Parque Guell in Barcelona.

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Of course a visit to Budapest wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Gerbeaud coffeehouse for one of their famous desserts - which was the perfect way to recoup from a day of site seeing. That night we had another great dinner at the "For Sale" Pub, where Julie was able to add her NYU Stern Business card to the countless memorabilia tacked to the wall. As we had heard, the food in Budapest was fabulous.

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Our final full day in Budapest was Thanksgiving, and Julie and I decided to give the Turkish baths a try (get it, turkey, Thanksgiving . . .??). We opted for the Szechenyi Baths in Varosliget (Budapest's Central Park). After paying our entrance fee and changing into our suits (for those who were wondering, they weren't THAT kind of baths) we braved the steam baths outside (mind you, it was freezing outside!). Once you got across the courtyard and into the bath it was quite pleasant, and the people watching was definitely interesting. While there were quite a few tourists, the baths are really frequented most regularly by local Hungarians, many of who think the baths are a good cure for rheumatism and other ailments. There were a lot of old men in speedos - one group even had several games of chess going around chess boards that were built into the baths! It was a nice way to spend the afternoon, and when we left we were conveniently close enough to the famous Gundel Restaurant to stop by for a drink. The restaurant itself wasn't open yet, but they sent us around the corner to their wine cellar. Once again, we had a candlelit table in a cave - but it didn't matter because we also had the most charming and entertaining waiter "Gary" to keep us company. "Gary" (which is how he introduced himself, though he told us his name in Hungarian was something that sounded like "Gare Gare") was so much fun that we decided that this was where we should have our Thanksgiving dinner. There was only one problem - Martin was back in the hotel. Soon enough the entire wait staff was involved in helping us try to call the hotel so that we could tell Martin to come meet us. But, for all their good help, it turned out that the number they had looked up for our hotel was off by one digit (which we figured out later) and we couldn't get through. By that time we were committed to having dinner there, so we got in a taxi, went clear across town, got Martin, and came all the way back. It was worth it - we had another great meal, and Gary continued to entertain us all night. It wasn't turkey and stuffing - but it was close (I had a famous local dish of grilled goose liver that was ridiculously rich - but also came with a side of "chestnut souflfe" that tasted a lot like stuffing).

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The next morning, we bid goodbye to Martin, had our last meal in Budapest (yes, if you haven't figured it out already, pretty much all we did was eat!) and headed back to New York. And now, I am once again faced with reality - finals are looming and I really need to start looking for a summer internship - but it was a great trip!

Posted by jme75 14:52 Comments (1)

And That's All She Wrote

It was love at first site. I knew as we came across the bridge from the airport and caught a glimpse of Hong Kong that it would steal my heart. I was not disappointed (if only I had such luck with men!). Maybe it was the fact that it was the first time I'd seen blue sky since I left Singapore, but something about the city captivated me. I had a distinct feeling that at some point in my life, I would live in Hong Kong. For the time being, I had to settle for three days.

Hong Kong is made up of an island, a peninsula, and what supposedly has been ranked as the third most beautiful harbour in the world (after San Francisco and Sydney - though I'd say its a pretty even tie between the three). Both sides of the harbour are hilly and green - though parts of some of the hills have been cut away and used as landfill to add additional shoreline (much like San Francisco).

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Each side of the harbour is lined with shiny new skyscrapers, many designed by world class architects like I.M. Pei and Cesar Pelli. At night the buildings are lit up like Christmas trees, and at 8pm each night there is a laser show. I tried to get pictures from the boat our first night - but for some reason couldn't get the camera to take a focussed shot. I do however kind of like this one that I took from my hotel room - as you can tell from the reflection!

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Our first night we took a boat to a nearby fishing community where local restaurants were displaying their catch. Every kind of imaginable seafood was available (and some you might not imagine) - and we got to pick out our dinner for the night. Ironically, I'm writing this blog entry with the tv on mute, and just looked up to see a headline that said "US Bans Chinese Seafood" - apparantly because of contamination. Lovely. Either way, it tasted great at the time.

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Other highlights included a tram ride up to the top of Victoria Peak which had stunning views of the city. My father and I also took a helicoptor tour of Hong Kong Island and the harbour which was really cool (Uncle Mark, I finally got a picture of the boats for you!). This last part of our trip wasn't as jam packed with activities as the other cities, so we had a lot of time to walk around and explore the city on our own, which is always my favorite way to get to know a place. Finally, before I left on Wednesday, I had lunch with Anthony, another one of my future Stern classmates.

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All in all - it was an amazing trip. My parents and I didn't kill eachother. In fact, I think its even safe to say we enjoyed travelling together. And the only thing that went wrong was the disappearance of my camera in Phnom Penh. This was my first trip to Asia, but it definitely won't be my last.

Now I'm back to reality in San Francisco - preparing for the move to New York (so if anyone reading this would like to buy my car or rent me an apartment - please let me know!). Thanks to everyone who's read this blog and provided commentary along the way - I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

If you haven't gotten enough photos already - you can check out the rest at the following links. Be forewarned, I've editted out a bunch, but its still a lot of pictures.

Thailand http://www.kodakgallery.com/ShareLandingSignin.jsp?Uc=10a0xodr.8i2oxho7&Uy=141nud&Upost_signin=Slideshow.jsp%3Fmode%3Dfromshare&Ux=0&UV=261736060545_392511500503

Cambodia http://www.kodakgallery.com/ShareLandingSignin.jsp?Uc=10a0xodr.3jpmbj13&Uy=felpge&Upost_signin=Slideshow.jsp%3Fmode%3Dfromshare&Ux=0

China http://www.kodakgallery.com/ShareLandingSignin.jsp?Uc=10a0xodr.5relqz3r&Uy=-42uk9i&Upost_signin=Slideshow.jsp%3Fmode%3Dfromshare&Ux=0

Posted by jme75 22:52 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

No Olympics for Me

I'm glad I'm not an Olympic athlete. Not that anyone doubted that I was - but if I were, the Beijing skyline would worry me. They say they will have the pollution cleared up by August 08 - but its hard to believe that's possible. That said, despite the brown skyline the whole time we were there, Beijing is a fascinating city.

Our first night in Beijing we had dinner at Chef Dong's, which is famous for Peking/Beijing duck. We had every part of the duck - including the brain, which, yes, I tried. I didn't love the brain - but the rest of the bird was fabulous (how could something with that much fat not be?!). We also had dinner with Qiang, who will be in my class this fall at Stern. It was great to meet a fellow classmate, and get his perspective on Beijing and China, having lived his whole life there.

The following morning we visited the Forbidden City - all 9999.5 rooms of it. Ok, we didn't see them all - but we did see quite a few. The palace is as majestic and ornate as its name suggests - but unfortunately I can't post any pictures because I left the camera battery in the hotel that morning. We bought a disposable camera, so eventually we'll have those shots - but for now, you'll have to use your imagination.

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One of the best parts of Beijing was the meeting we had with Madame Zhang Hanzhi at her home. Madame Zhang is Chairman Mao's former interpeter and English teacher. For four years she met with Mao every Sunday for conversation (and we suspect perhaps more. . .), until one day he told her that he would be too busy to see her for a while - something had happened in the Party that he would need to attend to. That "something" turned out to be the Cultural Revolution. She didn't see him for many years, as she, like most of China suffered through the Revolution, but according to Madame Zhang she continued to write Mao letters during this period, criticizing what he was doing to the country. While this would have gotten most people killed - he remained in touch with her over the years, and eventually she came back to work for him. In the end, she was there for some of his most historic visits with foreign leaders such as Nixon and Kissenger.

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We also paid a visit to the Temple of Heaven, which was very impressive - but perhaps more insteresting was the surrounding park. As most Chinese retire between the age of 50-60, there is a large number of "seniors" who congregate in the park each day. Throughout the park there were literally hundreds and hundreds of people engaging in every possible activity - from group excercise, ballroom dancing and opera singing, to card playing and practicing caligraphy with water on the pavement. It was really interesting to see everyone out and socializing, and apparantly having a great time!

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We also went to the Peking Opera Academy, which is a high school for potential future opera stars. Unlike the Western operas that we are used to - the Chinese style is much more active and includes a great deal of dance as well as kung fu style battle scenes. We were able to watch students practicing for all different aspects of the performance, but most impressive was the training required for the men who play the generals and other warriors in the fight scenes. I've tried to capture some of them in the pictures below - but they really don't do justice to the balance of strength, coordination and acting that goes in to each scene.

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Finally, our trip to Beijing would not have been complete without a visit to the great wall. We were lucky enough to be joined by David Spindler, an American living in Beijing who happens to be the only dedicated researcher of the Great Wall in the world. David has been living in Beijing on and off for the past 13 years, and five years ago left a job at McKinsey and a legal degree to spend all his time researching the great wall. To date, he has put in over 600 days of field reasearch walking the wall itself. When he's not in the field, he is visiting one of the 15 libraries in the world where he can read actual Ming dynasty texts and learn more about the wall. You couldn't find a better guide. CBS is currently working on a story on David and the Great Wall, and wanted to get some footage of him leading a tour on the wall - which meant that we had a camera man with us for part of the way. So if you ever happen to be flipping channels and come across a segment on the Great Wall - look for me in the background!

The wall itself is unbelievable - and hard to describe. Maybe the pictures will help. . .otherwise, you might just have to visit in person.

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On our way back to town we also visited the Sacred Way. Originally created by yet another Emperor hoping to ensure that he would be appropriately accompanied on his way to heaven, the Sacred Way is a beautiful pathway with statues of animals and ancient advisors to guide the way. It was an appropriate exit to Beijing and all of its wonders.

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And now we're in Hong Kong, where I fell in love. . .

Posted by jme75 07:40 Comments (1)

Xian

We started our tour of Xian at the Yangling museum which contains relics from the Han dynasty. The emperor basically recreated his entire life in miniature to be buried in his tomb with him for the afterlife. This particular emperor, though known for being ruthless, thought it was cruel and wasteful to make all the figures lifesize - so they are all about knee high. When they finally discovered and began to excavate the area around his tomb, they found an entire army of warriors (all anatomically correct - except their arms were made of wood, so that they could be dressed in silk robes - and the wood and the silk has rotted away), a collection of animals that would have put Noah to shame, and of course, a plethora of concubines (but for good measure, some of the real ones were buried with him as well - alive).

Across the road they have built a newer museum, directly above the excavation site. Plates of glass cover the trenches and you can walk across them and see down into the tomb (my mother was not a fan of that feature). Hungry from our tomb raiding, we went on to have lunch at a typical dumpling house where we were served 18 kinds of dumplings. I'm not sure if I should be proud or embarrassed to admit that I tried all 18!

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That afternoon we went to visit a mosque in the center of town. I didn't realize until this trip that China actually has a pretty significant Muslim population, with 80,000 in Xian alone. We were lucky enough to be able to meet the Iman of the mosque, who shared with us stories of how he protected the mosque from being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution by spinning tales for the Red Guard. The mosque itself was quite impressive as it was built like a Chinese pagoda but with arabic inscriptions and designs throughout the building. Like everyone we have met - as soon as my father said he was from Houston, the Iman responded "Oh - Houston Rockets - Yao Ming"!

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The best part of Xian however - and the reason most tourists now come to the town, was the Terra Cotta Warriors themselves. The Qin predescesor to the Han dynasty also had a tomb built for his eventual death, and made sure that he would go into the afterlife well prepared. However, he had all of the statues made lifesize. In 1974 local farmers were digging a well when they began to pull up pieces of the statues. Archeaologists came in and began to excavate the plot, where they found somewhere around 8000 warriors. Only about 1000 have been uncovered so far, because as they brushed away the dirt they watched the paint on the statues curl up and peel away. Twelve years ago they decided to halt the excavation until they could develop a technology to protect the original paint, and have been working with German archeologists to design a chemical that can be sprayed on the warriors as soon as they are uncovered. In the meantime, it is still possible to visit the 1000+ warriors that are in various stages of restoration. They are truly stunning - with incredible attention to detail. The emperor spent 37 years working on his tomb - using 3/4 of a million workers to construct it. My father keeps asking when we're going to start working on his tomb. However, this particular emperor only lived until 51 - so I have pointed out to my father that at the age of 62, he is too old for a tomb.

For anyone with plans to travel to China in the near future, I highly recommend a pilgrammage to Xian. I've tried to upload a video below of some of the statues that are mid-restoration that we were able to go in and see up close. If clicking on the image below doesn't work, you might be able to go to this URL to see them: http://grouper.com/video/MediaDetails.aspx?id=1918707&vt=1. Otherwise, the pictures below will have to suffice.

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Posted by jme75 03:08 Archived in China Comments (0)

Lunch with the Simon Cowell of China

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Shanghai was a bit of a whirlwind, but we managed to see and do quite a bit. I got in on Saturday in time to go out for dinner and drinks with several friends who were either living in or visiting Shanghai. It was a great opportunity to see some of the Shanghai nightlife and reminded me a bit of my younger days in Santiago when I was able to stay out until all hours of the night! I did make it to three bars/clubs - which I thought was pretty impressive for someone my age.

I was up early Sunday morning to meet my father who had been travelling in China for a week already as part of a group of business and NGO leaders who were meeting with Chinese leaders. That morning we had a great tour of the city and made a visit to the Urban Planning Museum. The museum has a full model of the central part of Shanghai - and gives you an idea of the massiveness of the city. Twenty years ago 50% of the world's cranes were in Shanghai (now they're all in Dubai) - and everywhere you turn there is a shiny new skyscraper. Today the city is home to 16 million people.

The highlight of the day however was lunch at the home of author Namu (and of course the arrival of my mother, who had been stranded in Tokyo overnight). Namu is of the Muosuo minority group, a matrilineal culture that has no concept of marriage. Women are the dominant group and from the age of 13 onwards they can take as many lovers as they wish - children address all men as uncles. It sounds great to me, but at the age of 13 Namu ran away from her village and eventually made her way to Shanghai where she won a full scholarship to the music conservatory. She has since gone on to become a celebrated folk singer and author (I highly recommend her book "Leaving Mother Lake"). But now, Namu is also a judge on Super Boy, an American Idol inspired singing competition that has a following of over 4 million. Apparantly Namu is quite outspoken on the show - ala Simon Cowell on the American version - and as she tells it has been heavily criticized and attacked for her role on the show. Her native Muosuo aren't too happy with her portrayal of their people either. Either way, she is quite a character and has great stories which she shared with us as she prepared a home cooked lunch of traditional dishes from her community (those of you from Houston will appreciate that on her mantle she had a thank you note from another group of visitors - which turned out to be students from Kinkaid!).

After lunch we had a tour of the Shanghai Museum, followed by an over the top dinner at the hot new fusion restaurant Jade on 36 (we all agreed it was the kind of place you only go once, but was fun to try and the views were spectacular). The next day we visited the charming canal town of Zhujiajiao. Similar to several of the stops I made in both Thailand and Cambodia - Zhujiajiao is a small community which has been built up around a network of canals. We visited the day before a holiday, and everywhere we went women were preparing special treats of sticky rice and pork wrapped in banana leaves. This is a 2500 year old tradition, which dates back to the suicide of a local leader who killed himself by jumping in the river. He was very loved by the community, and so they threw similar bundles of food into the river, so that the fish would eat the rice instead of their beloved friend.

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Finally that night we saw an amazing performance of the Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe. It was a fantastic show of strength, balance and guts as the performers contorted their bodies and flung themselves through the air in ways you wouldn't think possible. I had read in the paper that day that Cirque de Soleil was coming to town, but there was speculation that people would not be impressed with their show after having grown up around these kinds of acrobats. I think its fair to say that Cirque de Soleil might as well pack up and go home.

Speaking of home, its hard to believe that I only have a little over a week left of my trip. We are actually in Xian now, but that deserves its own entry, so it will have to wait. I did want to share however that I have just returned to my room from dinner and have found a small gift that was left with my turndown service - though I'll have to say I'm a bit perplexed by its contents. The container is a pretty little embroidered travel kit - and inside I have found a small bottle of nail polish remover, a terry cloth head band, nylon stocking footies, and a maxipad. Any ideas what that means?!

Posted by jme75 05:57 Archived in China Comments (0)

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