A Travellerspoint blog

Pandas in Chengdu

Chengdu, Sichuan October 29 - 31, 2008

rain 65 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

After almost a month of brown, dusty, deserty landscape, it's nice to finally see trees and green landscape. Chengdu was a pleasant surprise - cleaner and a lot more modern than the cities we've been seeing (besides Beijing).

Sichuan cuisine is also our favorite of all the different types of Chinese foods, yet another reason we were excited to be there. The food definitely did not disappoint. A stroll around the various food stalls around Wen Shuo Temple proved to be very rewarding for our stomach. The food is spicy, but in a way that one can still taste all the flavors as opposed to just being so hot it obliterates everything else. One of the best is the dumpling in hot chili oil... here's it's more soupy and flavorful than what you get in the US. There's not peanut butter in the sauce either... not sure why restaurants in NY think it's necessary to add it. Unfortunately Ashok was still recovering from Jiayuguan so we had to limit what we ate.

The Giant Pandas are from Sichuan so of course we paid a visit to the Panda Research Center. We got there early to see them eat breakfast. Apparently after that they pretty much just go back to sleep. Not a bad life. I know they can get mean but they just look so innocent & cuddly!
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The cutest things, though, were the baby Pandas. All the newborns are put into the nursery since they're still developing their senses and cannot do much, and when the workers plop them down into the playpen they just lay there and wiggle around looking just like the soft, plush stuffed animals you can buy (sorry photos were not allowed inside).

The other thing to do is to have tea in a tea house and people watch. It was drizzling the day we went to the park so there weren't too may people to watch. However, we did see this interesting activity in the park:
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This guy is getting his ears cleaned by one of the professional ear cleaners that walk around the park, while having tea and snacks, for less than $1.50! We were tempted, but didn't end up trying it.

It would've been nice to rest up in Chengdu for a few days but we had already booked tickets for Huang Shan so off we went after only a short stay.

Posted by jhongny 05:06 Archived in China Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

Continuing on the Silk Road – Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, and Xian

October 24 – 29, 2008

semi-overcast 70 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Without meaning to, our next few destinations are all related to the Silk Road. Dunhuang is another important city on the Silk Road, but it is most famous for the Mogao Grottoes, caves that contain elaborate Buddhist paintings and sculptures. It's a lot grander and more important historically than the Yungang Grottoes we saw in Datong because it has over 700 caves and contain artwork created over a millennium starting at 366AD.

To protect the artwork, the only way to see the caves is with a guide and the tour only includes 10 caves. The experience is slightly diminished since we couldn't wander through the caves at our leisure, but what we got to see were impressive enough. One of the more famous caves contains the world's 3rd largest Buddha figure, standing at over 34.5 meters high. Photos were not allowed inside so here I am outside of the cave. To give you an idea for the scale, the Buddha is the same height as the building behind me:
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Another famous cave is the library cave because it originally contained over 50,000 rare and original manuscripts dating as far back as 400AD. Interesting story: the manuscripts were discovered centuries after the Mogao caves fell into ruins and were almost covered up by the Gobi sand. Thinking he's doing a good thing, the guy who found the cave sold the manuscripts to raise money to restore the cave and build a 3-story exterior outside of the cave. Unfortunately for the Chinese, he sold the priceless manuscripts to foreigners for very little money so only about 8000 of the inferior manuscripts remain in China, and the rest are in various museums around the world.

After a night's rest to recoup from the bus ride and the long day, we moved on to our next stop on the Silk Road, JiaYuGuan. Dunhuang to JiaYuGuan is only(!) a 5-hour bus ride.... not too painful. JiaYuGuan is where the Great Wall ends. Having climbed the Great Wall in Beijing, it's pretty cool to climb the western end of it, some 2200 KM (1367 miles) away.
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Also, the fort at JiaYuGuan historically symbolizes the end of “civilized” China and the beginning of “barbaric” land. Exiled officials, scholars, etc., all leave through the West Gate into unprotected land. It was at the end of the day so the West Gate was already closed, but looking out through the crack it does look pretty barren and desolate.
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Our last top on the Silk Road tour is Xian. As the ancient capital of China, it marked the end (or beginning) of the Silk Road.
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Today, the main reason people come to Xian is to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. China's first emperor, Emperor Qin, built this army of 8000 life size terracotta warriors around 200BC as part of his mausoleum so that he has an army to protect him and to keep him in control in his afterlife. The most impressive part, I think, is that each face is unique. I always thought it's because they were real soldiers, but in reality (and the less gruesome truth) the workers based their models on real soldiers they saw around them.
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In general the food in these places were just ok. Being part of the west, the "specialty" dishes were Islamic food like mutton kebobs. However, they all paled in comparison to what we had in Kashgar. I was told that we should have the dumpling feast while in Xian, but Ashok was not feeling well after our meal in Jiayuguan the day before so unfortunately we had to skip it.

Stopping only 1-2 days in each place is pretty tiring so we're looking forward to resting in the next city or two... or we may have to wait until we get to Thailand.

Posted by jhongny 00:15 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

The Wild Wild West of China – Xingjiang

Kashgar, Urumqi, and Turpan in Xingjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; October 18 – 23, 2008

sunny 55 °F
View Xinjiang & RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Here are the places mentioned on this blog:

From Beijing we flew all the way to Kashgar (aka Kashi), Xingjiang, on the western border of China (equivalent in distance to going from NY to LA). Kashgar was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road that linked trade between Europe, Central Asia, and China. Most of the population is made up of the Uighur minority group who has more in common with Central Asians than with the Chinese living to the east, in looks, religion, food, and lifestyle. In fact, many only speak Uighur and not Chinese. Walking around, I felt like we had left China and entered a different country.
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Apparently some of the locals feel the same way and want to be independent - there have been protests and violence in the past, though quickly cracked down by the central government. How many Uighurs really feel that way, and whether they are right or not, depends on who you talk to, the age of the person, and whether that person is Uighur or Han Chinese. That said, we didn't feel any of that tension as we walked around.

Kashgar is a very cool and interesting place. It's not as developed as other cities so one can still see the traditional Uighur way of life just by walking around. We went to the Sunday livestock market where people from villages around Kashgar bring their animals (cows, goats/sheep, donkeys, horses, camels) to sell.
There are also vendors selling other things on the outer part of the market. We had a guide (one of our hotel employees offered to be our guide for a fee) who explained things to us and translated for us. Being a city girl, I've never been in such close proximity to so many animals so it was definitely an experience. It's sad if you think about the fate of the animals, but at the same time it was fascinating to watch.
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Of course I also had to check out the eateries along the outer ring of the market... the way they hang the freshly cut lamb makes New York Chinatown look like child's play. It's definitely not a place for vegetarians or the weak of heart.
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Here's a man making another Uighur specialty dish - Laghman noodles (i.e. pulled noodles):
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Kashgar, in general, is a great place for foodies. The specialty here is Muslim food and were they good! The mutton kebobs were some of the best I've ever tasted; the lamb in the Pilaf (a rice dish similar in concept to Indian Pulao or Biriyani or Spanish Paella) was so tender it literally melted in your mouth; and the Samsas (baked mutton dumplings) were on the fatty side but really flavorful. They do like their mutton fat here so it is not a good place for my waistline to stay too long.
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I didn't know it but Kashgar (and Xingjiang in general) is known for its fruits as well: super big and sweet pomegranates from Kashgar, sweet and juicy grapes from Turpan, and melons from Hami, to name a few.

We took a day trip from Kashgar to Karakul Lake via the scenic Karakoram Highway, the highest mountain pass road in the world. The highway goes over the Khunjerab Pass, through glacial-peaked mountains and ends at the Pakistan border, but we didn't have enough time to go that far. Just as well since I already experienced some minor altitude sickness at Karakul Lake which is around 3500 meters high. The section we drove through to get to Karakul Lake was scenic enough with red-sandstone canyons, sand dunes, and views of glacial peaks in the distance.
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This is Kumtagh (White Sand Lake in Chinese) on the way to Karakul Lake. It's usually really windy but it was perfectly calm when we were there so you can see the reflections of the sand dunes in the lake.
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We weren't as lucky at Karakul Lake so this is the best reflection I got of the ice mountains ringing the lake.
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After Kashgar, the other cities in XingJiang were rather disappointing. Urumqi, the capital of Xingjiang, is a much bigger city than I expected especially being out here in the middle of nowhere, but it is just another big Chinese city. We made good use of our afternoon there and headed to the Xingjiang Museum where we saw a 8000 year old skull and 3800 year old mummies all preserved by the dry desert sand. That was pretty cool.

Turpan, another important Silk Road City, had many famous sites in addition to the grapes, but all of them were either way over-hyped or too contrived (the traditional Uighur village felt more like a show, complete with entrance fees, a parking lot for tourists, and gift/snack shops in the village). The one good place was the Jiaohe ruins which was established around 2nd century AD. It's one of the world's largest, oldest, and best preserved ancient cities. We practically had the place to ourselves and were able to really appreciate the place.
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At least with Turpan, I can now say that I've been to the 2nd lowest place in the world (Dead Sea is the lowest).

Oh, and we had an amazing mutton dish at this restaurant around the corner from our hotel:
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Another reason to regret going to Turpan is that we were forced to take a sleeper bus to our next destination, Dunhuang, because the train tickets were sold out. Instead of seats there are bunk beds lined up in rows. Typical of the Chinese, they crammed as many beds in there as possible, not leaving much room in the aisles or any room for a toilet on the bus.
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The couple in the picture is this Slovenian couple we met on the bus.

As if that's not enough, they actually oversold the beds so there was one more person in the aisle next to Ashok so I think he got elbowed a couple of times during the night. Despite the smell and the questionable bedding (we brought our own sheets), the 13-hour bus ride wouldn't have been that bad if it wasn't also freezing. We stretched our jackets as much as possible to cover up. Really should have brought sleeping bags for this trip. Needless to say, we didn't sleep much and were so happy when the ride was over.

One last funny picture: it's fairly common, especially in smaller towns and in the countryside, to put babies in these open bottom pants. Just hold the kid over the toilet (or by the roadside)... no need for diapers. Very environmentally friendly!
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A note for those thinking about going to Xinjiang: I highly recommend going to Kashgar, especially before it becomes more touristy as they are planning to open an international terminal. Here's the phone number of our driver to Karakul Lake. He's really really nice (and honest) and took good care of us, and even translated for Ashok when he was taking pictures. He only speaks Chinese so either use the hotel as interpreter or do a lot of charades:
Kashi Tiao-Er 13119980657

Posted by jhongny 00:13 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (7)

Trans-Mongolian Railway to China

Datong & Beijing, China, October 10-18,2008

sunny 65 °F
View Xinjiang & RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

The Trans-Mongolian Railway connects Ulaan Baatar to Beijing, China, and is what most people take as part of the Trans-Siberian Train trip. Instead of going straight to Beijing, we decided to stop in Datong first since it was one of places on my list. We book the deluxe class (i.e. we had the compartment to ourselves) which was good given the amount of luggage we have. It was great! In addition to the bunk beds, we had a little seating area and a shower (we didn't try it out). The decor is a little outdated, but clean, and an upgrade after Mongolia. The train conductor took care of us and made sure we had plenty of hot water for tea & stuff.
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The 24-hour ride flew by pretty fast. Even the 4 hour border crossing into China was interesting watching them lift up the train cars to change out the wheels (the China and Mongolian train tracks are different widths). Train travel is definitely the way to go if you have the time and the money for the soft sleeper compartments. There's more space to move around, and so much more relaxing....

The main attractions in Datong are the Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes. For us, there was the added bonus of relaxing in our 4-star hotel (for $50!). To have a real bathroom and be able to take a nice long hot shower without having to worry about not touching anything around you! :)
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The hanging monastery is not really hanging, but built onto the face of a cliff so it looks like it's hanging precariously. It's pretty impressive considering it's over 1500 years old!
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The Yungang Grottoes are a series of caves that have Buddhist carvings from around 500AD, constructed under the patronage of the royalty. The best preserved ones have the statues and paintings all over the cave and are quite impressive.
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One of them has a large Buddha that is over 17 meters tall. Check out the size of the hands vs the tourists standing in front of it.
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It is hard not to run into tour groups in China as we are finding out (more on Chinese tour groups later), but we managed to get into a couple of caves that are not on the typical route. Whereas the popular caves are impressive and give you an idea for what the caves were like in their heyday, the unrestored caves were much more peaceful and solemn.
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We were excited to be in China for the food, especially after 10 days of similar mutton dishes. We were told that the 2 specialty dishes in Datong are Dao-Shao-Mien (knife-cut-noodles), and rabbit head (!). We decided to pass on the rabbit heads. The noodles, on the other hand, were really good. The most popular toppings are pork or beef stew, but the noodles themselves have a lot of flavor and good texture. There's also a very popular appetizer/side dish which is cold soybean jelly mixed with lots of chili and hot oil (I know my description doesn't sound appetizing but it was good!). It's so slippery that it really tests ones chopsticks skills. Our driver took us to a place in the town near the Hanging Monastery that apparently makes the best jelly noodles. It doesn't look like much of a place but the food was yummy.
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I always thought I'm pretty adventurous in food, but after being in China just a couple of days I realized I am not at all. In this northern town I also saw camel meat, mule meat, and even dog meat on the menu (didn't try any of it)! We would've stayed in this town longer to rest up, but we left because the food (that we can eat) besides the noodles were just so-so. Besides, we still have the rest of China to see.

The train from Datong to Beijing was comfortable, but not as nice as the other train. We shared a compartment with 2 other people – one older man from Beijing and a middle-aged man from Shanghai. It was interesting to hear them contradict each other on almost everything, from where we should visit to current government policies.

Since we've been to Beijing before, we skipped all the typical tourist sights. We did revisit Tiananmen Square and made our way out to the new Olympic Stadium, the Bird's Nest. Apparently all the Beijing tour groups have the same idea because that area was packed with people. Can't imagine what the area was like during the Olympic Games.
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The Chinese really went all out with the Olympics, and are still milking it as we still see Olympics related signs and commercials everywhere. This is just the entrance to the subway station at the Olympic Park.
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Finally, if you're still interested in seeing more, here's the outdoor market in Datong and a woman trying to load 3 huge bags of potatoes onto her bike. Not sure how she planned on riding it home.
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Photos are a bit quirky to upload right now, but I will have more of China soon....

Posted by jhongny 00:05 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (3)

Amazing Mongolia!

October 2 - 10, 2008

all seasons in one day 50 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Mongolia was an amazing experience! I've read a lot about the Gobi Desert, so of course we couldn't come to Mongolia and not see it. The majority of our 6-day road trip was spent driving through various landscapes. Most of the it were wide open plains where you can see all the way to the horizon, but then some rock formations or mountains would pop up seemingly out of nowhere, and then beyond the mountains, more open space. The terrain was constantly changing so the drive was not monotonous. Here are some pics (that's our seemingly indestructible Russian-made van in the pic):
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The weather changes on a whim as well. During the day it's sunny and warm, but once the sun is gone the temperature drops down to about 20 degrees (felt colder with the wind). One afternoon we were caught in a hail storm. You can see so far out that we saw the storm clouds way ahead but our driver was not able to outrun the storm.
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(Rainbow in the desert, after the hail storm. We spent the night in those gers.)

However, it's the remoteness of the place that makes this an unique experience. For most of the time, our driver and us would be the only 3 people around for as far as the eye can see, and probably even beyond that. There are parts of the midwest or the southwest where one can get that feeling. The difference is that here, there are no nicely paved highways with clearly marked signs telling you how far till the next town or gas stop. Here, there are just dirt tracks on the ground and no one around except for an occasional ger (round Mongolian tent that locals live in).
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I'm not sure how our driver knows which track to follow. Sometimes he'll suddenly go off the tracks for a while and then pick up another track out of nowhere. This is they typical road we were traveling on (there are only a few paved roads in the entire country).
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Once, to cut across the mountain range, our driver actually used the riverbed as the road:
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We did see quite a few animals: eagles, gazelles, and foxes, in addition to the more common sights of horses, goats, and camels lazily grazing in the field. Here's a Mongolian cowboy herding his horses:
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By far the most memorable part is the Khongoryn Els (sand dunes). It's a strip of sand that stretches as far as the eye can see in either direction, with the mountain range right behind it. The dunes look exactly like what one would imagine them to be:
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We had a lot of fun climbing the dunes and playing in the sand:
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We also spent one night at the Bayanzag region where dinosaur bones have been fossilized by the desert sand. There's nothing marked, so you have to rely on the a local guide to see them. It seems like there are lots of small fossils scattered around, each location carefully guarded by the person who discovered it. Our guide was the ger owner who took us to a carefully camouflaged location on a small hill nearby. He then carefully removed some rocks and dirt, and then folded back a plastic cover to reveal a fossilized jaw. Of course our skeptical side wonders whether or not it's really dinosaur fossils, or just some random animal. Either way, it's still pretty cool to see.
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Traveling in Mongolia, on the other hand, is not for the faint-hearted. Driving on those dirt tracks is like going off-roading, or even off-off roading, imagine 4-8 hours of that each day. The gers we stayed in have no electricity or running water. The toilet is an outhouse with a deep hole and 2 planks of wood to stand on, or you can be like the Mongolians and use the great outdoors. Not to gross everyone out but we didn't get to shower except for one night when we stayed in a small town where you can pay at a public bath house to shower.

Interior and exterior of Ger:
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The only source of heat in the gers is a wood burning stove which gets lit up once in the evening around dinner time so all the heat is gone by the time we went to bed. We had brought winter clothes but hadn't planned to sleep in gers for more than 1 night, and also understandably assumed that there would be heat at night. So, at night we'd put on all our layers plus the sleeping bags the guest house loaned us and still be frozen by the morning.
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At one place our ger didn't have a stove in it, so the family let us sleep in their ger with them. That was quite interesting. While we were all bundled up, the family slept in tank tops and shorts. Guess it's all what you're used to. We also drank shots of vodka with some of the families, and tried horse meat (tastes like beef, a little tougher).

Even with all the discomfort, the experience was well worth it. In addition to everything else, the stars were amazing at night. The entire sky was lit up because there's no light or anything else to block the view. We also got to meet some cool travelers from all over the world: Brits, Swedes, Korean, Irish, Czech, Dutch American, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Mexican, Australian.. some of whom we may meet up later in our travels.

All in all, this was definitely one of the most memorable trips of our lives.

Posted by jhongny 21:12 Archived in Mongolia Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (2)

Taking a break between travels

New York, New Jersey, and Los Angeles September 4 - 30, 2008

sunny 60 °F
View RTW Trip - Part I & RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Here's the main reason we went back to the US for a few weeks:

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Our nephew, Ronak Sinha-Chaudhuri, was born on September 8.

So I'm not a biased aunt, here's our little French niece, Valentine, who was born on September 4 to my cousin Christine and her husband Eric (too bad we couldn't get our tickets to work out for a stop in Paris to see her in person):
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It was definitely nice to have a break from being constantly on the go and having to watch out for all your belongings. It was also great to get a chance to see family both in New Jersey and Los Angeles as well as to catch up with friends and attend our friend, Maura's, wedding. Not to mention the yummy home cooked Indian food, sushi, and Daisy May's BBQ. And to sleep on our oh so comfortable bed! I really missed that bed after months of hard/sagging mattresses and rough sheets.

We were busier than expected getting Visas for the next phase of the trip. Before you know it, it was time to say good-bye again. It's weird to think we'll be gone for almost 8 months, but this is the leg of the trip we're really excited about, especially about the food. :)

Leaving for Mongolia from Newark airport:
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Posted by jhongny 21:02 Archived in USA Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Back to Where We Started: Prague, Czech Republic

August 31- Sept 4, 2008

sunny 72 °F
View RTW Trip - Part I & RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

From Berlin we took the train to Prague... btw, German trains are awesome! They are new, clean, and very comfortable. I wish all the trains we took were this good. Second time around in Prague was a much better experience. The weather cooperated and except for an afternoon shower (during our walking tour of Prague), it was sunny and nice.

Here are some of the places we got to besides the main tourist attractions: the Czech Cubism art museum, the dancing building in New Town, Letna Park, etc.

This is the Dancing building in the newer part of Prague (picture the curved building is the woman leaning against the man, the straight building)
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Stairway at the House of Black Madonna where the Czech Cubism Museum is located
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The Grand Orient Cafe in the same building... a nice place to get away from the tourist crowds
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The John Lennon Imagine Wall
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People started to write graffiti on the wall when John Lennon died. The communist government would white wash the walls everyday, but people would fill up the wall again at night. It was a way for people to express their desire for freedom and democracy. Pretty cool story.

We even got a day trip to Karlstejn Castle, a small fairy-tale like castle. It's not a big castle and the town is very small as well so it was a nice leisurely day trip.
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View of valley from the castle
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Funny sign at the castle right before the entrance
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4 short days in Prague and then back to the US for a few weeks before the next phase of our trip. I can't believe the first 2 months is almost over. At least there's still 7 more months of travel ahead of us, otherwise I'd b really depressed.

Posted by jhongny 20:36 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Berlin, Germany

August 27 – 31, 2008

sunny 75 °F
View RTW Trip - Part I on jhongny's travel map.

We found out way too late that there's a 7am train from Krakow getting into Berlin at 5pm which would've been a much better experience. Instead, we had another 12-hour-long bus ride that got us in at 2am. It's never a good thing to arrive into a new city late at night. This time the movies on the bus were voiced over by a guy in a monotoned voice... the same guy and th same voice for the ENTIRE movie. The movies were all Martin Lawrence films like Big Mama's House 2 so imagine for yourself what that sounds like. I wish I had a video camera to share the experience.

It was a huge hassle to get the keys to the apartment at 2am, but at least the apartment was nice. In fact, it is by far the nicest place we stayed in during our 2 months in Eastern Europe. The apartment owner, and the website we booked it through, was another matter.

I've been saying this a lot but, I can't believe we're in Berlin! It's another one of those places that I've heard a lot about, but had no plans to visit. Even on this trip it was a last minute decision. I'm glad we came, as Berlin was one of our favorite cities on this trip. It's got great architecture – a mix of beautiful old buildings with sleek, modern ones that look like models in architect offices, and is a nice change of scenery to all the old towns:

One of the Bundestag (Parliament) buildings
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Reichstag building, the seat of parliament
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Hauptbahnhof, the main train station in Berlin
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The famous Brandenburg Gate
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Potsdamer Platz at dusk
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We rented bikes one day and explored the city (highly recommended). The flat terrain makes it easy to ride around, and there are lots of different areas to explore: hip galleries, trendy shops, laid back bars, government buildings, museums, and a Turkish neighborhood with great food.

Over the past couple of years, urban beaches have become very popular in major European cities such as Paris, Budapest, and Berlin. Here are a couple by Hauptbahnhof (main train station), one of which had a sand sculpture competition:
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This is the winning sculpture... I think because the subject matter is global warming:
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It was also really cool to see the remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, etc., which I've heard so much about.
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It made me realize how little I paid attention to world events when I was younger (not something I'm proud of). For example, I always thought the border between East and West Germany cut through Berlin which is why the Berlin Wall was built to separate East and West Berlin. In fact, West Berlin was actually located inside East Germany, and the Berlin Wall surrounded all of West Berlin. So to get from West Berlin to the rest of West Germany, you had to cross East Germany or fly. The outdoor exhibit by Checkpoint Charlie was really good and tied everything we saw in Eastern Europe together. The only reason this area of democracy existed inside a communist country was because the Allies were adamant about protecting it, and they did it thru diplomacy, not brute force. It also highlighted how complicated foreign relations can be, that it's not as simple as good guys vs. bad guys.

Jean & Ashok in front of parts of the wall (Ashok in front of the famous "The Kiss")
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On our last day in Berlin we found out about an event called the “Long Night of Museums”, where a 15 Euro pass gives you access to all the museums plus free rides on the buses & metros from 4pm-2am. It sounds like a lot of time but when you consider the amount of time it takes to get through a museum exhibit it's actually not that long. We went for quantity over quality and hit 5 museums in total. Some of the highlights were: the new garden that was unveiled at the Jewish museum, the DDR museum which shows the typical lives of people who lived in East Germany, and my favorite, the Bauhaus Museum of Design. In fact, I have decided that I like Art Deco. A lot.

Photos of the garden at the Jewish Museum
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Finally, here's a funny picture of a store:
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Apprently there are quite a few of these Schmuck stores... has something to do with gold & silver.

Posted by jhongny 20:32 Archived in Germany Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Auschwitz, Poland

August 24, 2008

semi-overcast 65 °F
View RTW Trip - Part I on jhongny's travel map.

The visit to Auschwitz can only be described as chilling. Those that have been there know what I mean. I had seen pictures of what happened at concentration camps so I know how cruel the Nazis were, but what surprised me was how much effort they took to track every thing that was done to each person when they intended to kill all of them anyway. Even the smallest punishments were documented. The other thing that shows how sick the Nazis were was how much thought was put into designing a place to make the process of killing people as efficient as possible. The 2nd, and bigger, of the compounds around Auschwitz is a HUGE complex with the infamous railroad tracks leading right into it so they can send the people directly to the gas chamber. The insanity of the Nazis in thinking that they can actually exterminate a race and to actually build a place specifically for that purpose!

There were many disturbing and shocking exhibits, and the one that I think is most disturbing is the one where there is a window running the length of the room, and on the other side of the window you see the floor piled with human hair that was shaved off of the dead people after they've been gassed. There's even an example of how the Nazis use the human hair to weave into textile which were then used to make various things (sacks, carpet, etc.). Just writing about it is giving me goose bumps. Sadly there were many similar rooms each filled with articles taken from the Jews that were killed: glasses, shoes, suitcases, etc.

Photos were not allowed inside the buildings. In any case, being there made enough of an impression that I don't need pictures to remind me of it (and truthfully, I'm not sure I want pictures to remind me of it). I did take a picture of the front gate just for this blog. The words above the gate says “work brings freedom”. How ironic... and sick.
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Posted by jhongny 10:00 Archived in Poland Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Krakow, Poland

Thursday, August 21 - Tuesday, August 26, 2008

sunny 70 °F
View RTW Trip - Part I on jhongny's travel map.

Based on a few things we heard, we decided to skip Warsaw and head straight to Krakow, the ancient capital of Poland. The overnight bus ride from Vilnius to Krakow was our longest yet – 12 hours! While it's still Eurolines, the bus was just slightly inferior to the ones running between the Baltic countries. And forget wi-fi. Instead, we got to watch Flight Plan in Russian (by the way, one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time).

We found an apartment rental site and got a studio apartment for around $85 per night – a lot cheaper than staying in hotels and also a lot less than what we were paying in Croatia and Montenegro but so much nicer. Our studio (Apartment Violet) was nicely decorated and had all the modern amenities, including a dishwasher and a washing machine! It's nice when you're on the road to have a place that feels more like a home. And the washing machine came in handy as we were in need of doing laundry. After this place we're sold on the apartment rental concept. We only wish we had found out about this earlier.
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Enough of the mundane details. After a short nap we headed out to check out old town. You'd think after 3 old towns in a row we'd get tired of them, but Krakow is different yet again. Krakow was spared during the two World Wars so much of the old buildings remain. It is very touristy, but the main market square is huge so it's a lot of fun just to people watch.
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There was a cultural celebration in the main square with folk dancing, etc. At one point I thought the performance was over as the dancers walked off the stage. One of the men came towards me and extended his hand, and I took it thinking he wanted to shake hands with me. It turned out the danders were pulling people out of the audience to be their dance partners, so I got dragged on stage to dance in front of the crowd! I didn't do too poorly... my sandals only slipped off once.
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And what's a festival without traditional food. Here are some vendors selling traditional Polish food. Yummm!
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(Josh this picture is for you)

Before WWII, Krakow had one of the largest Jewish neighborhoods, so we walked around the old Jewish neighborhood, Kazimierz. It's now developing into a trendy part of town with bars and restaurants and outdoor concerts, etc. There is also a ghetto across the river where the Jews were forced to move to from Kazimierz, Padgorze. When the Germans came, they built a wall around a section of Padgorze and forced all the Jews to live within that area. Today only a small part of the wall remains, an there is also a memorial in one of the squares, but it's definitely off the tourist route and there were only a few signs pointing out the sights. Schindler's factory (as in the movie Schindler's list) is a short distance from this area and the Jews that worked there and were saved by Schindler live in Padgorze. We didn't have map of the neighborhood, so it took us a while to find the wall and the factory. It's still a working factory, but you can't see much because there's a lot of construction around it as they were renovating the museum.
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Continuing on this communist theme that we've picked up unintentionally (and also because we were a bit tired of old towns and wanted to see something different), we headed to another part of Krakow called Nova Huta (aka Nowa Huta). Nova Huta was built during the communist era by the Soviets as a model of Social Realist upban planning. In other words, it was supposed to be THE model communist community - a “perfectly” planned community where even the number of schools and other services (post office, markets, etc) were calculated exactly to match the population. It's a great example of how Soviet communism may sound good in theory but is so impractical: this community was built for workers, so they also built a steel factory for the workers to have a place to work, except that there are no iron ore, the raw material needed to make steel anywhere near Krakow.

The buildings are so blocky and blah that it was a bit depressing to walk through. I have no pictures to show because I didn't even feel like taking pictures. There is one church that was interesting – in defiance to the communists, this church was built to look like Noah's Arc fell on top of the Communist designed church (use your imagination).

Sadly, the uniform, block buildings remind me of some planned developments today I've seen in various countries... and those were not planned by the communists!

We stayed in Krakow for a total of 5 days, including a day trip to Auschwitz. In hind sight 4 days would have been perfect, but we made use of the extra time by taking it easy. Besides, we were really loving having a nice, homey place to go back to at night.

Posted by jhongny 09:58 Archived in Poland Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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