Sunday, July 7, 2013

Siena, Italy

Last Visited: 1999

Bella Siena!

Siena is an ancient village in the heart of the hills of Tuscany, with an amazing medieval fortress, a glorious cathedral with green and white bands of marble, and a large piazza in the centre of town where they run the legendary Palio di Siena horse race around the piazza every summer.

We arrived in Siena about 9pm in the evening after spending the day exploring Firenzé (Florence), most notably the Uffizzi Gallery and the Tomb of the Medicis. Siena was only about 70 km, or 50 miles, from Firenzé so it was the logical place to spend the night before our long drive to Rome the next day, where we were due to fly out on the next leg of our journey.

As we passed through the village, we spotted signs pointing toward a bed and breakfast, so we followed them to a large villa in a private setting among the hills. Fortunately they had a vacant room, and we had a good night’s sleep. The next morning I discovered that our room had a small balcony overlooking the grounds of the villa, which were covered in flowering bushes and trees in a very rustic setting.

We set out that morning to explore Siena, but our first priority was to go to a bank and get some cash. The magnetic stripe on our bank card had worn out (imagine that) and the last place it had worked was in Venice. I called our bank, told them we were in the middle of Italy and the card was worn out, and they told us to simply go to any bank and they would give us cash, as it was linked to a Mastercard. Only it turned out not to be so simple when in a medieval village!

We found the narrow high street (or main street) where all the banks were located together, and walked into the foyer of the first one. Once in the foyer there was a group of security doors that were like small booths – only one person could walk into the booth at a time, a door closed behind you, and then … nothing. The door behind me opened again. Hmmm. I stepped back out, and my wife tried. The same thing happened to her. Then a man leaving the bank pointed to my pockets, indicating that I should take everything metal out of my pockets and put it in a locker on the wall. Okay, we did this, and tried once more. Again, the inner doors didn't open. We could see the staff of the bank on the other side of the door, gesturing for us to go away. They had deliberately locked the security doors, and even a local who tried to pass through was locked out until we left.

Okay. So we left, but now we knew the routine. We entered the foyer of the next bank, took everything metal out of our pockets and put them in a locker, and magically passed through the set of security doors without any problem. Now we were in the bank, and approached the two tellers. They were serving other customers, so we stood waiting our turn. No, they said, we could not stand there. I looked at them quizzically, and they pointed to the chairs against the wall and said we must sit down. So we did. When it was our turn, we explained to them that the magnetic stripe on the bank card was worn out, and Mastercard had told us they could give us some money. No, they said, go outside and use the automatic teller machine. I said it won’t work in the ATM because the magnetic stripe is worn out, but they could use the credit card numbers on the card to give us a cash advance. They refused point blank and sent us away. We didn't even try at the next bank down the road. Thank goodness we had other credit cards we could use.

The funny thing is that when arrived at the next destination of our journey, Jerusalem (see posting below), and went to a bank, the only security the bank had was a guard with an Uzzi, and from a desk in the middle of the floor they gladly gave us as much money as we wanted from our worn out Mastercard.

Anyway, we were highly amused by the Italian banking system, and decided not to let it get us down.

We drove to the city centre, parked the car and visited the amazing Duomo di Siena Cathedral, built in the 1200s with green and white bands of marble, then wandered through the narrow streets to the piazza.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the Fortezza Medicea, an imposing fortress on a hill, built in 1561 by the Spanish-allied Duke of Florence after his triumphant defeat of the republic of Siena. A flat-topped rectangular structure with walls about 10 meters (35 feet) high, each corner has elaborate spear-shaped bastions designed to give line-of-fire protection to each exposed wall. We wandered up to the top and found a quiet restaurant on top of the fortress, and next to the restaurant was an open doorway that led down into the bowels of the fortress. Naturally we went in, and found ourselves inside an enormous former dungeon that was now filled with hundreds of racks and tens of thousands of bottles of wine. The central passage and the dungeon cells were packed with row after row after row of wine racks. It was very tempting to dust off a couple of bottles and take them with us, but we resisted temptation and found a door which led through the outer wall and back to the car park.

View of the Fortezza Medicea, Siena

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bologna, Italy

Last Visited: 1999

Bologna with a Tryst

Bologna is a large industrial city in north-central Italy. After spending a day exploring Venice (not nearly enough time, I know, but we were on a tight schedule) we jumped in our car and headed for Bologna, a distance of about 150 km (or 95 miles). It was only about a 2 hour drive, but we arrived in Bologna approaching midnight.

We drove through the outskirts of town, looking for a Pensioné, which is a European name for a cheap hotel. Americans and Australians might use the word motel, but a Pensioné is somewhat different, as it is a proper hotel structure, not simply a bunch of rooms clustered around a car park.

I saw a café that was open, and dashed inside and approached the old men gathered at a table sipping espresso and asked in very poor Italian “Excusé signori, Pensioné por favore?” The old men looked up from their coffee, smiled, and pointed to the next street and gestured to turn left and said “twenty kilometres”. I thanked them and went back to the car and followed their directions, supposing that they meant two kilometres.

The road led up through the darkness into the hills above the city. After several kilometres we passed a large hotel with buses and cars in a vast parking lot. Was this what they meant? No, we decided to keep going. A few kilometres more, and we passed a large restaurant on the edge of the hill, built on stilts overlooking the valley below. It was bustling with lights and customers and music and laughter. Still we kept going. Then on the side of the road we spied through the darkness a small white two-story building with no signs, but with a single star painted on the wall. This was the Pensioné we had been looking for.

I pulled into the parking lot in the back and went inside to ask if they had any rooms available, but had to wait while another couple were checking out … it seemed odd they had no luggage. They finished, and I asked for a room. The clerk asked for how long – one hour, two hours? I said all night, and he said okay, gave me a key, and we moved into the room. The room was immaculate, newly renovated, had a nice comfortable bed, a shower, and a bidet. The toilet was down the hall. It slowly dawned to me that this Pensioné was of a special sort – the kind intended for lovers enjoying a tryst. No wonder the old men smiled when they gave me directions!

After dropping off our suitcases in the room, we decided to venture back down the hill to the bustling restaurant we passed a few kilometres back. It was now 12:30am, but the restaurant was still going strong and happily seated us at a table and took our order of gnocchi carbonara, spaghetti marinara, garlic bread and a bottle of Chianti. As we were ordering, the owner of the restaurant approached and asked where we were from. I told him we were from Australia, and when the meals came out they were decorated with small Italian and Australian flags on toothpicks. It was a lovely gesture. When we finished, he brought us a couple of shot glasses of grappa and we toasted Australia and Italy with him.

We had a very peaceful night sleep in our little Pensioné in the hills, and the next morning took a brief drive through Bologna before setting out for the city of Firenzé (known as Florence in the English speaking world). Sadly, we didn’t get to see much of Bologna, but we had a memorable experience.

Language in Italy

Of course the language is Italian, but many people are bi-lingual and it is not uncommon to find people who speak limited English. As with anywhere in Europe, if you make an effort to speak their language, they will try to meet you halfway.

Currency in Italy

The currency in Italy is the Euro. Italian Lira was phased out in 1999 when the European Monetary Union was established.

Transportation to Bologna

Italy has an excellent rail network, with a high-speed 300 km/h (185 mph) TAV (Treno Alta Velocita) train line connecting Bologna to Firenzé and Rome to the south and Milan to the north, and a 250 km/h (155 mph) link to Venice.

Italy also has an excellent road network, and we found it no problem to drive the length and breadth of Italy. The views can be spectacular as you go through a tunnel and come out the other side onto a very high bridge over a gorge then plunge into another tunnel, then another bridge followed by another tunnel. Amazing engineering!

Food and Water

As you can expect, the food in Italy is excellent, and tap water is safe to drink in all the big cities. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jerusalem

Last visited: July 1999

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

Jerusalem must be the most hostile city on earth other than an active war zone. The cradle of three of the world's great religions seems to seethe with centuries of pent-up anger and distrust. 

I'm sure there are those who have gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem who would say otherwise, but they would have travelled en-mass with escorted tour groups and stayed in religious nirvana without actually experiencing the living, breathing, palpable and infectious hostility of the Holy City.

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on a pleasant July afternoon and were met by friends who drove us to their apartment in Jerusalem to stay with them for a few days. They lived in Gilo, a new Israeli suburb which I did not realise at the time was in occupied Palestinian territory south of Jerusalem. The apartments look nice from the outside, and are clad in the ubiquitous pale limestone with which all buildings in Jerusalem must be faced by municipal law, however, from the inside it was apparent that the apartments were cheaply built from cinder blocks and drywall.

Gilo is on a hill, and across the road from their apartment was a deep wadi, or dry valley, which I hazarded into while outside having a smoke. The contours of the valley were terraced as far as the eye could see, from the bottom to the top, and on these terraces there were sparse olive trees struggling to grow in the dry climate and poor soil. As I wandered the terraces, my mind was filled with wondering just how many centuries or millennia ago the valley had been terraced and when the first olive trees were planted. On the opposite hillside, about a mile (1 1/2 km) away, there was another big group of buildings which I presumed were also Israeli. It all seemed very peaceful, until I turned to go back and saw an Israeli military jeep drive past bristling with soldiers carrying automatic weapons. At first I expected them to stop and ask what I was doing, but they paid no attention to me and seemed to drive past every hour.

About two months after we returned home, we heard in the news that there were Palestinian rocket attacks on Gilo. We called our friends to make sure they were alright, and I was shocked to learn that the buildings on the opposite hillside were Palestinian apartment buildings and they had fired rockets across the very valley in which I had been wandering around into the very apartments in which we had stayed. Fortunately, our friends had recently moved to another part of Jerusalem and were not affected.

But I still shake my head to realise I was wandering around in no-man's land completely oblivious to the dangers.

The next day our friend called a taxi and we went into the city to visit a bank, as the magnetic stripe on our bank card was worn out and we needed to get some cash. My wife sat in back with our friend, whom she hadn't seen in years, and they were trying to catch up with each other. I sat up front next to the driver, and asked him to turn his radio down as it was blaring away and the ladies were trying to talk. The driver ignored me, so I asked him again to turn down the radio. "No speak English," he muttered. So I reached over and turned down the radio. He slapped my hand away and yelled, "Don't touch my radio!" Ahhh ... so he does speak English. He stopped at a traffic light, rolled down his window and yelled at the top of his voice in Hebrew to another taxi driver stopped alongside. When the light changed, he turned his radio back up, louder this time, and I remonstrated with him that the ladies were trying to talk in the back. "It's my taxi," he said. I told him I was paying for his taxi and I would like him to turn it off. The argument became very heated, and he pulled the taxi over and I thought we were going to get into a fight. Just then our friend in the back said "Here we are!" and paid the driver and the two ladies jumped out of the taxi, completely oblivious to the argument I was having with the driver. Like I said, the hostility is infectious.

At the doors of the large central bank there were two security guards carrying Uzis. We went inside, and there was a queue of people at the cashier counters, and another queue of queue-jumpers trying to push their way in. Our friend bypassed them all, went right to a cashier and asked a question, and we were directed to a desk sitting in the middle of the lobby. At the desk we explained our situation to the clerk, showed her the worn-out bank card, and she said no problem and asked how much money we needed and in what currencies. She filled out a piece of paper, we signed it, then she opened an unlocked drawer and pulled out a pile of money and counted it out for us. At a desk in the middle of the bank!

What to see in Jerusalem

Jerusalem and Israel are full of history and many places to see and explore. I can only describe those we visited.

The Old City of Jerusalem

After taking us to the bank, our friend took a taxi home, leaving my wife and I to explore. We crossed the road and walked along the fortress walls surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem, and entered via the Jaffa Gate. I was awestruck, walking inside a city that was founded 1000 years before Christ and rebuilt many times since. Just inside the Jaffa Gate is a tower and building called David's Citadel, and I marvelled that I should have the opportunity to walk inside and up onto the walls and ramparts. Never did I imagine that one day I should be in this place.

We then wandered through the alleys and lane ways of the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter until we reached the Western Wall Plaza, where Israeli security had set up check points and metal detectors we had to pass through before we could approach the Wailing Wall, which is all that remains of the Jewish temple site. We were then segregated - men to the left, women to a smaller area at the right. I was handed a paper yarmulke to place on the crown of my head, and I reverently walked to the wall and placed both my hands on the enormous limestone blocks that had been hewn by hand thousands of years ago. There were slips of papers bearing prayers that were stuffed into crevices, Orthodox Jews rocking back and forth as they prayed, and men kissing the stones. To the far left there was a doorway to a small room along the wall with copies of religious books, and grates in the floor along the wall where you could peer down 50 feet to see the bottom foundation stones of the wall. It was amazing.

I met my wife back in the plaza, and we noticed an Arabic bazaar off to the left and wandered down. There for sale were all kinds of goods, cloth, souvenirs - and even knives. This seemed very odd, as there was no metal detector between this souk in the Muslim Quarter and the Wailing Wall - but only between the Jewish Quarter and the Wailing Wall. We wandered further into the Muslim Quarter and saw the Dome of the Rock mosque through an open gate. We approached the gate, hoping to go in, but were turned away by a man who told us it was time for prayers, which didn't seem right as there were no mullahs calling for prayer. I took it to mean we were not welcome. As we ventured further, the lane way became narrower and there were now ancient houses on either side, and people were shutting their windows and doors as they saw my wife and I approach. Then a boy of about 12 years old came out and said, "I'll show you all the holy places, then you can pay me." I shook my head no, but my wife said yes, and the boy led us further into the Muslim Quarter and pointed to a corner and said, "This is where Jesus prayed," then pointed to a window and said, "This is where Jesus slept," and so on. I didn't believe a word of it. After five minutes the boy said, "Pay me now." I said no. He insisted and my wife insisted, so I gave him a few shekels.

We continued forward through the maze of the Muslim Quarter until we found the Flower Gate (also called Herod's Gate) to leave the Old City and return back into modern Jerusalem. We soon realised we were in a Muslim area and attracting a lot of hostile stares and angry looks, and walked as quickly as we could back down to the Israeli area, where we caught a taxi back to our friends home in Gilo.

The Dead Sea area

Our friends had an acquaintance who drove a tour van, and we engaged him to take us out for the day, under strict instructions that I only wanted to see historic sites, and not religious sites. He drove us through the fortified checkpoint out of Jerusalem and down into the Dead Sea valley, past Jericho and farms to the rocky site of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in a cave in 1947. Today there is a visitor's centre below the caves, and an excavation of the ancient settlement.

From Qumran at the north end of the Dead Sea, we drove to Masada at the south end, a distance of about 35 miles (55 km). Masada was a Roman fortress built 1300 feet (400 m) high up on a desert plateau overlooking the valley below the Dead Sea. Today there is a cable car to take visitors to the top, but when we visited there was only an ancient walkway snaking up the cliff face. As we approached the top, we were stunned when we were shown a huge underground cave that had been carved as a cistern and was completely full of rain water. On top of the plateau there was a stone wall surrounding the edge, and many non-descript ruins, but then we were taken to Herod's Palace and bath houses on the far end, overlooking a chasm. There we could see the remains of Roman tiled floors and wall frescoes dating back to the time of Christ. It was hugely impressive. In 66 AD, a large group of Jewish rebels took control of Masada and its food stores and water supplies and fought off the Romans for seven years, until in 73 AD the Roman Legions constructed an earthwork ramp from an opposite plateau. When the Romans had finished their ramp, 960 Jewish rebels and their families committed mass suicide rather than be captured.

After visiting Masada, we then drove down to a bathing beach on the Dead Sea. Our guide told us that everyone he brings there to bathe always ends up falling asleep on the drive back to Jerusalem. I told him there was no way that was going to happen to me - there was too much to see during the drive. We went to the Ein Gedi beach where there were change rooms to put on our swimsuits, then walked across the hot, hard crystallised salts and waded into the Dead Sea. I only got as far as thigh-deep in the water, when the buoyancy lifted me off my feet and onto my back. I don't swim, I don't even float, but on the Dead Sea I could easily do the backstroke for hours. What a relaxing feeling! Everything was calm and peaceful for about 1/2 an hour until my wife panicked - she was trying to stand up to walk back to shore, but couldn't get her feet under her. I too struggled to stand up, then helped her out of the water, and we went back to the change rooms, showered and dressed and got back into the van for the drive home - and I promptly fell asleep (much to my chagrin).

Language in Israel

The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic, although English and Russian are also widely spoken.

Currency in Israel

The currency of Israel is the Shekel. At the time of writing, US$1 is equal to about 3.5 shekels.

Transportation in Israel

In addition to bus lines, Israel has an extensive passenger rail network that will take you from Ben Gurion Airport to Jerusalem and many other cities. For more information, click here.

For information about flying into and out of Israel, I highly recommend you read about Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Shanghai

Last visited: June 2004

Wonderful Shanghai

If asked whether I would recommend visiting Beijing or Shanghai, I would instantly say Shanghai. Whereas Beijing has undergone massive transformation into a new, modern metropolis, Shanghai still has an undercurrent of older charms that have not yet been bulldozed. If you only want to climb the Great Wall of China and see the Forbidden City, then by all means go to Beijing and tick those boxes. But if you want to visit a living, breathing Chinese city with some sense of heritage, go to Shanghai.

When you fly in, you'll arrive at Shanghai Pudong airport, which is new and modern, built in 1999. The interior is spacious and airy, and security and customs officers are friendly. Its located about 30km from the city centre, on the newly developed Pudong peninsula across the Huangpo River from the city of Shanghai.

In 2004, the world's first commercial high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) train began operating from the airport to Shanghai. As you leave the airport baggage area, you will be hounded by taxi drivers who want to take you to the city at a premium price, and they will tell you "No trains, all finished" or "Maglev is not operating today". Don't believe them. Follow the signs and take the escalator to the maglev train for the ride of your life - travelling 430 kilometers per hour (270 mph)! across the countryside. Unfortunately the trip is too short - its only 8 minutes to Longyang Road Metro Station, where you can transfer to an underground train on Metro Line 7 to the Shanghai city centre.

Alternatively, you can take the Shanghai Metro Line 2 from Pudong airport to Longyang Road Metro Station, then transfer to Metro Line 7 to the city centre. Its cheap - about 3 RMB - but not as exciting and it takes an hour to get there.

Peace Hotel Shanghai - photo © Michael Bouy
The Peace Hotel - photo © Michael Bouy
We stayed at the Shanghai Peace Hotel, said to be one of the most famous hotels in the world. It overlooks the Bund, or promenade, along the massive Huangpo River, looking toward the new city of Pudong on the other side. The Peace Hotel was built in 1926 by Victor Sassoon (grandfather of Vidal Sassoon) and has hosted numerous heads of state, including Bill Clinton. It is the location where Stephen Spielberg filmed portions of "Empire of the Sun" and Eugene O'Niell finished one of his plays. It is home to a famous jazz band, who Clinton joined with his saxophone, although we found the musicians were all very old men who had seen better days. When we were there in 2004 it was very affordable, but still luxurious, with original teak wood panelling throughout the rooms, but has since been redeveloped and is now the upper-class Fairmont Peace Hotel and has lost some of the old-world charm.

From the rooftop terrace of the Peace Hotel, you can look across The Bund and the Huangpo River to the new suburb of Pudong, built within the last 15 years on what was formerly farmland. The most striking building is the Pearl of the Orient TV tower with two huge orbs on a skewer, and below it is the Shanghai Exhibition Centre with two orbs of the earth on either side.

The Huanpo River is very wide (about 750 meters / yards) and big transport ships and long lines of barges traverse up and down the river to the interior of China. 

To travel from the Peace Hotel to Pudong and the Exhibition Centre, take the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel under the river. It has tiny carriages that will hold about 10 people standing, and has different flashing lights as you travel under the river. Its only a 2 minute walk from hotel to the tunnel, then 2 minutes from the tunnel to the Conference Centre, and cost about $6 each way. There is also an underground metro train that would only cost 50 cents, but its a 20 minute walk each direction, and a taxi will take about 45 minutes and cost the same.

I explored Pudong, and found my way to the remains of a farming village which was being demolished to be paved over with skyscrapers and huge roads. Given a choice, it is definitely better to stay on the Shanghai side of the river where there are still plenty of old charms. The air pollution is quite bad, and combined with heat of 33C (90F) and humidity of about 70%, you are sweating and feeling dirty all day, so make sure you carry a water bottle when you go exploring. Fortunately there is a huge shopping mall in Pudong where you can cool down and have a bite to eat before continuing your explorations.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai
Nanjing Road
The Peace Hotel is at the river end of Nanjing Road, the focal point of Shanghai. It is now a pedestrian mall which runs for 2 km (1.5 miles) and is lit up at night like Las Vegas. After sunset, it seems that all the Chinese people in China emerge and parade up and down The Bund or Nanjing Road and ride brightly lit sightseeing boats up and down the river.

Our first day out exploring the city of Shanghai, we started off with breakfast at a small restaurant that served only Japanese food, though we didn't realise it until we sat down and communicated our order by pointing at pictures. Nothing like eel and rice for breakfast.

The streets of Shanghai are lined with many buildings which were built during the colonial period of the late 1800s and early 1900s, such as the British clock tower on the edge of the Shanghai city gardens, juxtaposed with new skyscrapers towering behind it.

One day I shopped at an alleyway market off Nanjing Road for gifts to take home, where I haggled mercilously with the traders for silk scarves, robes and other assorted items. The locals don't normally speak English, so when you are interested in an item, they type the price on a calculator and show it to you. Then you shake your head and offer 25% of their price by typing it on the calculator. Then they make another offer, and you negotiate. Usually you arrive at about 50% of their original asking price. NEVER agree to the first price offered!

Food and drink in Shanghai

Sure, you'll find western food outlets like Taco Bell and Starbucks, but why would you go there when the best authentic Chinese food is available!

Our first night in Shanghai, we ate dinner at the Peace Hotel restaurant with a window view overlooking The Bund and the Huangpo River. Dinner was absolutely perfect with delicious local Chinese cuisine (what else would you expect?). 

Another night we went down a side street off the Nanjing Road to find a restaurant outside the tourist traps. There we chose a bustling little restaurant with boxes of fresh fish on ice sitting outside. The place was packed with locals, and we were given a small table in the hallway next to the slop bucket. Hmmm. Okay, it was the only table available, so it must be good. They managed to find us an English language menu, and we ordered some of the most superb food ever.

Another day, after shopping ourselves silly, we set out to find a restaurant that was described in a guidebook. The restaurant is a converted Russian Orthodox church, and so we set out on foot to find it. According to the maps, it wasn't very far. So we walked ... and walked ... and walked ... we found it about 1 1/2 hours later. No sooner did we sit down inside the restaurant than it began raining cats and dogs. Thank heavens we found it!

According to the guidebook, there was a banner of Chairman Mao hanging inside the cupola of the church, next to icons and stained glass windows. I went upstairs to see it, but the banner wasn't there. We spoke to the restaurant owner - he had removed the Mao banner only 2 weeks earlier. The owner was Portuguese, so the food was very European and delicious. We were the only ones there and waited a couple of hours for the rain to stop and the workers from the local embassies to come in.

Transportation in Shanghai

The Shanghai metro, with both underground and overground rail, is one of the most extensive in the world and will get you nearly anywhere. It is very popular and busy, and can sometimes be overwhelming with crowds. Whenever we wanted to get somewhere, we went to the local metro station ticket office, pointed to the location on the map, and invariably the fare was only 3 RMB (50 cents) although it can be more if you are going a long distance. We then pointed to the platforms and asked which one, and the ticket operator would point out which platform to go to.

Taxis were also reasonably priced, but again we had to show them on a map where we wanted to go as they do not speak English. Make sure you have a map with both English and Mandarin.

Language in Shanghai

While the official language nationwide is Mandarin, the local native language is Shanghainese, a dialect of Wu Chinese, which is unintelligible to Mandarin speakers. Most locals know both languages.

For local people who received a secondary education before 1949 or after 1990, there is a high prevalence of English fluency. Everywhere we went in Shanghai, the signs were posted both in Chinese and English, so it was rather easy to get around. A couple of times we were stopped by girls in school uniforms who bowed and said, "Welcome to Shanghai!"

Currency in China

The currency in China is called Yuan Renminbi (RMB). At the time of writing, US$1 was equal to about 6 RMB.

What to see in Shanghai

The Shanghai Museum of art and history has one of the best collections of Chinese historical artifacts in the world. It is jaw-dropping to see jade art that is 20,000 years old.

I went in search of the Old City - an area of about 3 acres that contains almost the last of the buildings that were constructed before the 1900s. It is now a tourist district filled with shops and restaurants. As I explored the Old City, I was befriended by a thin man with glasses, slightly crossed eyes and greying hair who spoke almost perfect English, Mr Lee.

At first I thought he was going to go through the whole spiel of trying to sell me a watch, a pen, a wallet, some postcards ... but no, he just wanted to practice his English. So I asked him to take a photo of me, and then enquired where was a good place to eat lunch.

Mr Lee took me to a restaurant with no English menus. He read the items out to me, and I selected what I wanted, and invited him to join me. We started with salt pork soup (good for the heat), then had Sechuan beef and rice, with green tea. Delicious!

As we ate lunch, I learned that Mr Lee was manager of a pearl store. Hmmm ... maybe he did want to sell me something! He invited me to his store in the old city to see him open oysters and remove the pearls, which I did. 

They were very large, flat, freshwater oysters, about the size of a dessert plate. He asked me to guess how many pearls would be inside the oyster - from 10 to 50 pearls. I guessed 15. The oyster contained 20 pearls, some perfect in shape, some very oblong and rough, all of different colors. He gave me some of the rough pearls from my oyster as a souvenir. I then asked to look at different pearl necklaces, and as his prices were very reasonable (better than those on Nanjing Road) , I selected a couple of necklaces as gifts to take home.

That night, we went back to the Old City. The buildings were silhouetted with lights and it was quite beautiful. A young girl persuaded us to go see some paintings done by her school, and we followed her upstairs into one of the buildings where we found hundreds of watercolors for sale, made by her fellow students and teachers. The girl looked about 12 years old, but said she was 16. She was very clever and persuasive, but we managed to avoid buying anything.

Zig Zag Bridge, Shanghai Old City - photo © Michael Bouy
Zig Zag Bridge, Shanghai Old City - photo © Michael Bouy
Also at the Old City is the YuYuan Garden, which was built during the reign of Ming Emporer Jiajing in 1559 as a private garden by an administrator of Sichuan Province. The entrance to YuYuan Garden is on the left side of a zig-zag bridge in the Old City. It is filled with many pagodas, ponds, walls and walkways.

Another day we took a train, then a taxi, to visit the Buddhist Temple of Longhua, which was built in 200 AD. Our method of communicating where we wanted to go was to show the train ticket agent, or the taxi driver, our map and point to the location. They would scratch their head and pronounce the name in Chinese and we would point to the map again and try to pronounce the name, then they would get us where we wanted to go.

There is a huge wooden pagoda tower in front of Longhua Temple that was built nearly 1900 years ago. Just outside the gates of Longhua Temple is a statue of 100 golden Buddhas. Two magnificent gate lions stand in front of Longhua Temple. They were carved more than 2000 years ago and are said to be of a design that is rare. 

Longhua Temple has several large, ornate pagodas, each housing giant golden statues of various gods. When you buy your ticket to enter the grounds of Longhua Temple, they also give you a huge bundle of incense to offer to the gods as you pray to the statues. The correct way to do it is to stand in the middle of the square, hold the bundle of incense in both hands, and bow as you turn to each of the gods in each of the pagodas. After praying, put the incense in the giant metal urn standing in the centre of the square.

At the far end of Longhua Temple grounds there is a fantastic restaurant with wonderful cuisine (Chinese food, of course) and air conditioning, which was perfect on a hot, humid day. We ordered a couple of vegetarian dishes which melted in our mouths. 

After leaving Longhua Temple, we took an escalator up to a modern pagoda-style pedestrian walkway which crosses over the busy road to a small shopping centre.

We then hailed a taxi and had him drive us to the area which was in colonial times known as the French Concession where we found a couple of narrow streets lined with dozens of stalls selling antiques and mementos of Chairman Mao Tse Tung. This is the best place to do souvenir shopping. There were copies of Mao's little red book of quotations, Mao badges, Mao statues ... and lots of old teapots and bowls and everything you can imagine. Again, the sellers will type the price on the calculator. DO NOT accept the first price. Offer them 25% and haggle until you get the price to about 50% of what they originally asked.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dhaka, Bangladesh

Last visited: March 2012

Do you dare to go to Dhaka?

Dhaka is not for the faint-hearted or the casual tourist. Even a person with the strongest stomach and an iron constitution can be brought down. 

You must have an invitation to visit Bangladesh either as a tourist or on business, and must submit the invitation with your visa application. Visas are required for visitors from all but a handful of countries (click for details). 

We visited on the invitation of the BRAC centre in Dhaka, and booked at the nearby Hotel de Crystal Crown which was recommended to us because of proximity, quality of food, and reasonable price. The accommodation was perhaps 3 stars, but much more affordable than the western hotels in Dhaka which are extremely expensive. Accommodation included breakfast, the room was adequate, staff were courteous and attentive, and the dinner menu was limited but delicious. Mosquitoes were a problem, as there are lakes surrounding the area and staff came into the room each night to spray it with mosquito killer, which was rather noxious. 

Each morning a cleaning man serviced the room, washing the tiled floors on his hands and knees. On speaking with him, I learned that he and his family lived in the stilt houses I saw perched over a black, smelly lake and he gets there in a small boat which is paddled by one of the locals and carried about 10 people at a time. I tipped him about 100 Taka a day (little more than $1) and he was very grateful as it was approximately half of his daily wage.

As you go through Dhaka, you will see hundreds of power lines draping and looping from pole to pole and building to building. Whenever someone wants a power line, they just run their own. As a result, the electricity goes out several times a day, and many businesses (and all good hotels) have their own generators that kick in automatically. Power outages were a normal occurrence when shopping or going to a museum, so people just pull out their mobile phone and use it for a light to get around.

One of the main business districts is Golshan Avenue, which has two large intersections - Gulshan-1 on the south end, and Gulshan-2 on the north end - about a kilometer (3500 feet) apart. Between the two there are numerous small shopping centres - both low-end and top-end - as well as banks, restaurants, and a supermarket. At Gulshan-1 there is a very busy produce market which is worth visiting. Walking along, you will be greeted by people sticking their hands out asking for money - usually children, old women, and women with babies. Give a few Taka if you want, but don't feel compelled - you can shake your head no and keep walking and eventually they will stop following you. You will also find vendors squeezing and selling sugar cane juice or orange juice along the road. Be warned - it is served in a communal glass from which everyone drinks.

Bangladesh has three main seasons: the monsoon or wet season from late May to early October; the cold season from mid-October to the end of February; and the hot season from mid-March to mid-May. We were there in March, when the roads were dry and dusty. The kerbs along the road are very high, about 6 inches, presumably to carry away the rain during the monsoons. The road surfaces are actually in very good condition - better than British roads - but the footpaths are a shambles.

The lakes around the Golshan district are black and foul smelling, but you'll seeing kids playing in the water and women washing their clothes in it and shacks built on stilts over the water and people commuting across it. 

Food and drink in Dhaka

Only bottled water is safe to drink in Bangladesh. Make sure your restaurant only serves you with bottled water.

Bangladesh is a Muslim country, so you will not find beer or wine in restaurants or most hotels. As a special treat, we hired a rickshaw to take us from our hotel in the Golshan-1 district up to the Westin Hotel at Golshan-2 so we could have a beer. Neither my wife nor I are very big, but we barely squeezed into the back seat. The tiny little man had to stand on his pedals for the power to give us a ride through the maze of back streets and was thrilled when I paid him 40 Taka (about 50 cents), showing his bounty to everyone, who then stuck out their hands asking me for money. The Westin Hotel is very posh and expensive, and two beers set us back about $20, but they did provide us with complementary nibbles.

I was very pleased to find an A&W Rootbeer restaurant near the Golshan-1 intersection. It served authentic American diner food and rootbeer in icy cold A&W glasses. Another time we tried a pizza restaurant called Bella Italia, which was also good.

However, the day before we were to leave, I made the mistake of having lunch at the cafe in front of the Washington Hotel on Golshan Avenue. Within a couple of hours I was alternating between sitting and kneeling at the toilet for the rest of the night. The next morning the manager of the Hotel de Crystal Crown took me to the doctor, who prescribed a 10-day course of very powerful tablets to treat amoebic dysentery. It took about 3 weeks for my bowels to return to normal (what a relief!).

Transportation in Dhaka

Traffic in Dhaka can be chaotic and crazy at best, congested and dangerous at worst. The streets of Dhaka are crowded with cars that don't stay in their lanes and drive on whatever side of the road they please. Hundreds of little motorised rickshaws zip in and out, and there are tens of thousands of bicycle rickshaws, some ridiculously overladen with goods. Huge iron-sided buses covered in scrapes and dents compete with brightly painted and decorated heavy trucks (lorries) to push their way through traffic. Everyone beeps their horn every few seconds to let other drivers know they are there. What a cacophony of chaos.

Needless to say, it is not recommended that you rent a car and drive yourself around, and trains and buses are best left for the locals (unless you are a backpacker seeking adventure). Your hotel will gladly pick you up from the airport, and can arrange drivers for where ever you need to go.

Driving from the airport to the Hotel de Crystal Crown, a distance of scarcely 6 miles (10 km), in the hotel shuttle bus took more than 1 hour in the rain and darkness (there are very few street lights) fighting traffic which jostled for space on the badly congested roads. By the end of the journey, I was glad I was not behind the wheel.

Language in Bangladesh

Bengali, or Bangla, is the official language of Bangladesh and is the most predominantly spoken. English is taught in higher education and is used as the common second language among the middle and upper classes.

Currency in Bangladesh

The currency in Bangladesh is the Taka, or TK. At the time of writing, US$1 was equal to 80 TK.

What to see in Dhaka

The manager of our hotel organised a driver and tour guide to take us out for a day to see some of the sights, including:

Jatiyo Smriti Soudho - the National Martyrs Memorial in Savar, 35 miles north of Dhaka. This was a long drive out of the city and through the countryside to reach their Independence Park, which happened to be closed to the public on the day we visited because the next day was their Independence Day and only dignitaries were allowed. The roads to the park were decorated with dozens of temporary bamboo arches covered with multi-coloured cloth and pictures in honour of Independence Day. But the public is not allowed in the independence park on Independence Day. Go figure. The tour guide told us the monument is the "Bangladesh Statue of Liberty". Even though the park was closed, we were thronged by people staring at us and children and old women begging for money. The driver gave them small notes of 5 Taka (about 5 cents) to keep them from bothering us.

Sadarghat Boat Terminal - photo © Michael Bouy
Sadarghat Boat Terminal  - photo © Michael Bouy
Sadarghat Boat Terminal on the Chittagong River, where hundreds of large ferry boats tie up and come and go all day. The captain of one of the boats allowed us on board to explore, and they are spacious and seem comfortable, with cabins for first class passengers, rows of seats for second class, and benches for third class. The river, however, was black, smelly and rank with pollution and sewage.

Ahsan Manzil - also called the Pink Palace - is just a short distance up river from the boat terminal. It was built in the 1860s by the Nawab (or prince) of Dhaka during the British Colonial Period. It is now a museum, but is in poor condition. There was a power blackout when we were there, so we struggled to see many of the exhibits, and had to use mobile phones as flashlights. The grounds are beautiful and lead down to the river, but are spoilt by the smell of the river, and are surrounded by high-rise slums. The site was closed for lunch when we arrived, so we parked in front and waited. Local men walking past stopped and stared at me standing outside, then noticed my wife in the car and started gathering around to look at her. It was rather uncomfortable, but thank goodness the gates soon opened and we went inside.

Lalbagh Fort in old Dhaka is well worth a visit. It was built in the 1600s during the Moghul Empire. To get there you have to weave your way through the crowded, narrow streets of the old city filled with thousands of rickshaws and pedestrians, going only a couple of miles an hour. Then you pass through the walls of the fort into a large landscaped park filled with historic buildings. Many locals come here to walk and picnic on the lawns. As everywhere, the locals stared at us (mostly fascinated with a white woman), and some of the local women and men were brave enough to stop and talk and others asked to take her photo.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Chicago

Last visited: November 1992

Memories of Chicago

I visited Chicago in 1992 when I was marketing manager for a small manufacturing company and was sent to investigate whether an annual convention and exhibition held there was conducive for growing our business.

I flew into Chicago O'Hare Airport about 11pm at night, collected a rental car and a map, then proceeded to drive through the rain into the heart of this vast, dark city. The company had a policy of only spending a maximum of $80 for a hotel per night, and after much difficulty the secretary had managed to find and book me a room. I located the street, I believe it was on Wabash Avenue in an area called the Loop, and felt that I was in a scene from a movie, the street lined with old brown brick high rise buildings with the pylons of an elevated train line running down the middle of the road. One of these brown brick buildings bore the name of my designated hotel.

It was now after midnight, but I went inside and was pleased to find there was still a night clerk on duty. I was dubious about the quality of my accommodation and asked to see the room before I checked in. "Certainly," he replied, "I'll show you our best room," and took me to a rackety elevator which shook as it ascended to the fourth floor. He opened the door and flicked on the lights and to my mind's eye I saw cockroaches scurrying away with the shadows across the linoleum floor. Linoleum. Just then the elevated train rumbled past the window and the building shuddered, and I told the tired clerk I would look elsewhere.

Back in my rental car I looked up the hotel where the conference was being held and found my way to the Fairmont. The hotel was a vast, glowing edifice, and I went in and showed the registration desk my conference attendance confirmation and asked if they had a room for the night. Fortunately they had vacancies but wanted $160 per night, a price which I knew would get me in trouble, so I insisted on the conference rate of $120 per night. They demurred, saying I hadn't booked. I told them I was aware of that, but I am attending the conference at their hotel and they offered delegates the price of $120 per night, and I would expect them to honour the offer. Eventually they complied and gave me a room which was slightly worn, but certainly much better than the roach hotel.

The next morning I awoke and opened the curtains to find a dazzling view across the park to Lake Michigan, and was more than pleased with my decision to seek a change of hotels. I called my boss to tell him where I was staying and how they could reach me, my experience at the roach hotel and that I had negotiated an excellent price for a decent room. Mr Spjute was indignant. "I've stayed at the hotel we booked for you - its not that bad!" I told him I didn't feel safe there.

After a light breakfast, I decided to venture out and explore before going to the conference. Having heard of the high crime and dangers of Chicago streets, I removed all valuables - my watch, wallet, everything except my room key - and ventured out. There was a lot of traffic, but it seemed the streets were devoid of people. There were no crowds on the sidewalks as I expected, no packs of office workers waiting to cross intersections - in fact, there were virtually no pedestrians at all, except me. There were high rises and skyscrapers and traffic, but none of the hustle and bustle that I had anticipated.

Disappointed, I walked through the November cold back to the hotel and went to the conference and exhibition to see what I could see. After registering as an attendee I wandered the trade show floor, looked at items of interest and curiosity, picked up the odd piece of candy or trinket given away by exhibitors to take home as presents for my kids, then began to feel unusually claustrophobic. The air was hot and stuffy, the crowds were huge, and with a sense of growing unease I elbowed my way out and went back to my room.

After a bit of rest and recuperation, I mulled over my options for the evening. A friend in the music business had suggested that while in Chicago I should visit the Kingston Mines blues club, so about 7pm I went downstairs and asked the doorman to hail me a cab. 

The taxi drove me through a run-down, dilapidated area and dropped me off in front of an old warehouse with a plywood door secured by a chain and lock. It was closed, and it was dark, and I was on my own. I saw a convenience store down the street - the only building visible with lights on, and walked down and bought a pack of Camel unfiltered cigarettes. Not that I was a smoker, but wanted to look street-savvy. I asked him what time the Kingston Mines opened and he told me 8pm - still more than half an hour away. So I stood in the light in front of the store and smoked my cigarettes until I saw someone removing the lock and chain from the door of the club, and wandered down.

It was indeed a warehouse inside, with picnic tables running all the way back, a long bar down the middle, and on the other side of the bar another arrangement of more picnic tables. I sat down and smoked, had a beer, and watched as the musicians set up their equipment at the front of the room and warmed up. Slowly more people came in and the music started playing. A group of three lovely ladies joined me at my table and we smoked and chatted and kept beat with the music with our heads and our bodies swaying. After an hour, the band took a break and the audience got up en masse and walked to the other side of the bar. I was rather puzzled, but dutifully followed the three lovelies to find that another blues band was set up on another stage on the other side and began playing the most wonderful music.

After changing sides a couple more times, the three lovelies said they had to go. I walked outside with them and asked if I could join them in their car. "Not tonight," said the woman with wavy red hair I was eyeing (a Rebecca Brookes lookalike before Rebecca Brookes was anybody), "but meet me at such and such restaurant on Michigan Avenue for lunch tomorrow." I flagged down a taxi and went back to my hotel, looking forward to my lunch date.

The next day I had another look at the trade show and conference and concluded it was not appropriate for our little specialised machine company, then looked up the address of the restaurant in the phone book and set out on foot for my lunch date. Again there were virtually no pedestrians. I walked across a drawbridge over the Chicago River, past the Wrigley Building, and found the restaurant. I went inside, had a look around, and couldn't see my date. It was just going on noon. So I stood in the small outdoor courtyard and smoked my Camels and waited. And waited. I walked back through the restaurant. Perhaps she was there and I didn't recognise her because of the darkness and the smoke and the drinks the night before. Perhaps she forgot. Perhaps she had only said to meet her for lunch as a polite way of getting rid of me. Regardless, I was now feeling like a loser and the only solution was to walk away.

Crossing the city once again, I ventured into a shopping centre, and there I discovered where all the pedestrians were - underground! There was a maze of underground corridors, shops and arcades which people used to get around the city during the winter months, and I was the only fool to walk the streets of the Windy City.

I went back to the hotel, and concluded it was time to go home. It was a five-day conference, but after only a couple of days I was ready to leave. I paid my bill, collected my rental car, drove up Lower Wacker Drive (which looks and sounds exactly as it is depicted in the movie "The Blues Brothers") and caught an early flight home.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kuala Lumpur

Last visited: November 2012

Beautiful Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers at night - photo © Michael Bouy
Petronas Twin Towers at night - photo © Michael Bouy
Kuala Lumpur is a strikingly modern city that would be comfortable for both the novice and seasoned traveller. KLCC (or Kuala Lumpur City Centre) is the district surrounding the Petronas Twin Towers, and features a beautiful parkland, playground, wading pool, shopping centre, convention centre, hotels and residences.

The convention centre features an aquarium and an underground walkway to the Suria KLCC shopping centre. From the convention centre main entry you can go up to an elevated air conditioned walkway which takes you above the roads and across the city to the main shopping and dining district at Bukit Bintang.

At the foot of the Twin Towers is the enormous Suria KLCC shopping centre. A train station on the bottom floor at the north-east end will take you anywhere in the city, including the Central Market or out to the Batu Caves in the suburbs.

The Batu Caves were memorable. As you approach the stairs, there are big stone barrells where you are supposed to throw down a coconut to see what your luck will be for the coming year. If the coconut splits open and shows the inside, then your luck will be bright like the inside of the coconut. If the coconut does not split, then your luck will be dark like the husk of the coconut. There are various pagodas decorated with little pot-bellied bearded men and hundreds of statues of the elephant god Ganesh. Climbing the stairs, we encountered macaque monkeys - one adult was eating crisps from a Pringles can, while a juvenile was smashing a can of Sprite on the step until it burst, then he lapped it up. Apparently they steal these from the hands and bags of passing tourists - a friend of ours had an apple snatched from her bag by a monkey.

Food and drink in Kuala Lumpur

You will find every kind of food in Kuala Lumpur, from traditional Malay dishes, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French, Italian, etc. Fast food includes KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, TGI Fridays and Kenny Rogers Fried Chicken.

Tap water is pure, clean and safe to drink in Kuala Lumpur City Centre. 

Most restaurants serve alcohol, unless they are Halal (adhering to Islamic tradition). You can buy wine and beer at shops, but it is rather expensive. Avoid buying low-cost spirits, such as vodka, whiskey, gin or brandy, which have been watered down and had ethanol added. If you are going to buy spirits, only buy reputable international labels, which are sold at a premium price.

We stayed at the Traders Hotel in KLCC, which is attached to the conference centre, and found that restaurant prices at our hotel were very competitive with restaurant prices elsewhere in the city. The hotel was fantastic and included an enormous buffet breakfast each morning, as well as internet access, rooftop pool, and a brilliant view of the Petronas Towers.

Transportation in Kuala Lumpur

Taxis

There are two types of taxis: red taxis are your normal price, blue taxis are "executive" taxis which charge double the price. However, a red taxi is not necessarily cheaper. We took a red taxi from the Central Market to the National Museum - it was a long 20 minute drive and cost about 20RM ($7). We returned from the National Museum to the Central Market in a blue taxi and were surprised to find it was actually only a five minute drive and only cost 15RM ($5). Caveat emptor.

Roads and Freeways

Beautiful freeways, clean roads, quality pavement, and proper adherance to traffic rules make it easy to get around. Just watch for motorbikes and motorcycles, which weave in and out and ignore lights and pedestrians.

From the Airport

KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) is an hour south of KLCC by freeway. After clearing immigration and customs, you will see booths for Airport Taxis. Go there, tell them what hotel you are staying at, and they will sell you a taxi ticket for a flat fee, around 75 RM ($25). Much cheaper than hiring a taxi outside, which can cost you double that.

Alternatively, you can take the KLIA Ekspres (express) train from the airport direct to Kuala Lumpur Sentral (central) station for 35RM ($12), then get a taxi from there to your hotel.

KL Sentral Station - photo © Michael Bouy
KL Sentral Station - photo © Michael Bouy

Rail

Kuala Lumpur has three commuter rail lines, a light rail system, and a monorail (click for details). The cost is minimal - around 3 RM (US$1) per trip, and they will get you nearly anywhere in the surrounding Klang Valley.

The commuter rail lines are modern, clean and fully automated - there are no drivers! They can get very busy and you often have to stand.

Language in Kuala Lumpur

Both Malay and English are taught in all the schools, so if you can speak English you will have no trouble anywhere in the city.

Currency in Malaysia

The currency in Malaysia is the Ringgit. On their price labels it is shown as RM. At the time of writing, US$1 was equal to 3 RM.

What to see in Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves - photo © Michael Bouy
Batu Caves - photo © Michael Bouy
  • Petronas Twin Towers - at 451.9 m (1,483 ft) they were they tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. At the ticket office under the lobby you can buy tickets to visit the skybridge at the 41st floor between the towers as well as the 86th floor viewing platform. Note that it is closed to visitors on Mondays.
     
  • Batu Caves - natural limestone caves turned into Hindu shrines with a 43 m (140 ft) tall golden statue in front - worth seeing if you are fit enough to climb the 272 concrete steps. To get there, catch the train to the Batu Caves station, or ask a hotel concierge to book a tour bus.
      
  • Royal Selangor Pewter Factory - where you will get a guided tour of their museum, factory floor, and get to try your hand at hand-decorating a pewter mug. To get there, take a taxi or ask a hotel concierge to book a tour bus.
      
  • Central Market - this is the place to go for souvenirs of every kind, and for some good food. To get there, catch the train to Pasar Seni.
     
  • Museum of Islamic Art - a beautiful building filled with beautiful objects, including ancient gilded Korans, swords, kris knives, fabrics and other fascinating items. To get there, take a train to KL Sentral station and walk toward the National Mosque, which is across the street from the museum.
     
  • National Museum - currently undergoing renovations, but still worth seeing to get a sense of Malaysian history and culture. To get there, take a taxi or ask a hotel concierge to book a tour bus.