June 28, 2008

Heavenly Fragrance

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Last night I got together with a couple of friends to pay a visit to one of Hong Kong's top Chinese restaurants, Tien Heung Lau (天香樓). This is a very old establishment specializing in Hangzhou cuisine, which is kinda similar to Shanghainese cuisine. I had always known that this place was famously expensive, especially for anything related to hairy crab (大閘蟹), and I relished at the opportunity to finally give it a try.

We started with a pitcher of their aged Shaoxing wine, which has been warmed up. A lot has been written about the quality this vino, but it really is very good and has a very long finish. The fragrance of the wine also lingers in your mouth...

The cold appetizers we started with were vegetarian goose (素鵝) and soy-marinated duck (醬鴨). The vegetarian goose, made from tofu skin, was delicious. The meat of the duck was nice, but too salty for my liking.

The first dish to arrive was a plate of freshwater shrimps stir-fried with Longjing tea leaves (龍井蝦仁). As is typical of traditional Jiangsu and Zhejiang cuisine, the chef uses very small freshwater shrimps, removes the shells, and coats them with a small amount of corn starch. The result is a plate of shrimps with very, very tender flesh. While the shrimps were fresh, the flavoring was just a tad too salty, so that it masks the flavor of the tea. Short of actually chewing on the tea leaves, I couldn't really detect the subtle fragrance of the tea. I'm a bit disappointed here, as much has been written about this dish in cyberspace.

We also order the deep-fried freshwater eel (爆鱔背), with a garlic brown sauce that was a bit sweet. Delicious stuff, and the crunchy eel goes down very well with the Shaoxing. I probably could have used a second order of this...

The dish I looked forward to the most was the smoked yellow croaker(煙薰黃魚). This is a fish that is very difficult to find, and it is a childhood favorite of mine. Mom used to make it at home and it's a dish that you pretty much only see it in upscale restaurants serving Shanghainese/Hangzhou/Zhejiang cuisine. Anyway, it has been years since I had a nice experience with this fish, and I LOOOOVED what I had here last night. The smoky fragrance of the fish arrived even before the plate hit the table. The skin of the fish was so full of flavor, and the flesh was so soft and tender. Unbelievable! While mom never smoked the fish at home, just having this dish brought back a lot of memories. I could return to this restaurant just to have the fish.

After finishing the fish, I dug into the plate of stir-fried young hairy crab (毛豆炒六月黃). These are not fully-grown hairy crabs, but the size is reasonable. Fried in the usual sweet, dark sauce with the beans. Pretty tasty but honestly this is something that can be had in other restaurants.

The other highly-anticipated dish was the stir-fried hairy crab roe with noodles (蟹粉撈麵). I was a bit surprised at the noodles being used, since they were a bit wider than I expected and were more yellow - not exactly typical Shanghainese. But the crab roe was very delicious, and having it over the noodles was definitely the way to go. I'm sure it will go well with rice, too, but the texture of the noodles just go so well with the grease... I think as long as you have the right ingredients (you can buy boxes of frozen hairy crab roe from most Shanghainese restaurants in town), you can make this at home. So I'm going to try my hand at this in the fall.

For veggie, everyone seems to order the same dish with the salted pork (鹹肉塌窩菜). I am genuinely surprised to see this dish in the middle of summer, as I know that 塌窩菜 is a winter vegetable. But it is something that I love and only find in certain restaurants, so it's great that I am having it. Later on I discover that the restaurant buys large quantities of the stuff in winter, store it and serves it year round, removing the leaves on the outer rim which may not be in the best condition. So you end up paying a premium for having the vegetable out of season, but at least you will be assured of the high quality of the ingredients.

For dessert, the restaurant always serves the glutinous rice balls in fruity fermented rice soup (什果酒釀丸子). It's not bad, and hey, it's free! Nothing's ever cheap at this place so you take the free stuff while you can get it.

Was this meal everything that I had hoped it to be? Almost. The yellow fish was by far my favorite, and the biggest reason to return in the future. I will need another occasion to try out the braised fatty pork (東坡肉), and this will probably be in the fall when hairy crab is in season. Let's see how much they will charge for the crab then...

June 22, 2008

Birthday celebration

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Today is my birhday, and every 19 years the birthday falls on the same day in both the Gregorian calendar as well as the lunar calendar. Similarly, it seems like the last time I spent my birthday with my parents was ages ago.

Dinner tonight was at a restaurant outside of Taipei called Da Shan Wu Jia (大山無價). I found out about this restaurant from my colleague Ben sent me a link to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, where the reporter had visited the restaurant and compared to the famed Tetsuya in Sydney. I was naturally curious since Tetsuya is often touted as one of the best restaurants in the world, so I was determined to spend my birthday here.

The restaurant is in Xindian (新店) so it's about a 45-minute drive from our house. When we arrived at 7pm, the small parking lot was already full. People in Taiwan do eat their dinner early... The restaurant only has a total of around 14 tables, 7 each on the ground floor and 1 level above. The decoration of the space is fairly simple - even a bit zen-like - with tatami floors and simple bamboo screens hanging from the ceiling to create a semi-private space for each table.

There is no menu here. Everyone gets the same 14-course menu and the only change to be made is to substitute a beef course for people who don't eat sashimi. It soon became apparent that the kitchen prefers to send out the same course to all the tables at around the same time, so as we arrived a little later than the others, our first few courses arrived in fairly quick succession.

We started with a small cube of red wine jelly, acting as amuse bouche. This slides easily into the mouth like an oyster, and tastes like the homemade wine that mom used to make when I was a kid.

We were then served a peanut tofu topped with wolfberry (枸杞), pinenuts, a dab of wasabi and served with bamboo shoot on the side. The tofu was kinda interesting, and the summer bamboo shoot was nice and sweet.

The waitress poured some burdock (牛蒡) soup from a cast iron pot into small cups with a single poached scallop, garnished with waterlilly and sweet corn, with a sprinkle of paprika. The scallop was fresh and tender, and the thick burdock soup was pretty yummy. The burdock was cooked and then put into a blender to produce the brown liquid.

The glass container in front of us was filled with sashimi of maguro, amaebi and sake on top. Underneath the fish was a salad of asparagus, red and yellow capsicum, cucumber, lily bulb, lettuce and strips of calamari. The restaurant provided some vinegar for the salad which was very refreshing.

A small shot glass of black plum vinegar came to clear our palate. Very nice, almost like the ubiquitous Japanese umeshu (梅酒).

A small serving of poached fatty pork with scallions, cucumber and topped with fermented red bean paste (紅粬) was also delicious. The pork was naturally tender because of the fat, and the red bean paste was a healthy addition.

The soup that was served next was a traditional dish from the area called Yilan gaozha (宜蘭高渣). What looks like tofu in the middle was actually made from mushroom and chicken stock (高湯), then deep-fried on the outside. The puree of 5 green vegetables include spinach and celery. Very interesting indeed.

A pretty trio of grilled prawns were laid out in front of us, with grilled eggplant, green beans and pumpkin on the side. There was no additional flavoring added to the prawns, letting the fresh and sweet flesh of the crustacean speak for itself.

Iced glasses of lavender vinegar came for some more palate cleansing. Very refreshing.

A bowl of mushroom gomoku rice was laid in front of me. Healthy, nice, delicious and came with a thin slice of karasumi (烏魚子) on top.

Finally we had a large bowl of waterlily chicken soup (蓮花雞湯). There was a large waterlily flower floating on top, with bamboo shoots, lotus seeds, ginko nuts and chunks of tapioca roots inside. Very delicious, but this is a huge bowl of soup! Coming at the end of a meal with lots of other liquids, we find ourselves able to finish only half the soup and having to pack up the rest.

We now have fruits and the dessert, mashed sweet taro in a soup with longan (龍眼) and candied kumquat (金橘). We chose to pack this up also and enjoyed it later at home, when we weren't so full.

This being my birthday, of course I had to open a bottle of wine from my vintage. I brought a bottle of 1970 Mouton-Rothschild, my last bottle from the lot of 6 purchased some years ago. It was never a fantastic wine, but I do love the artwork on the label from Marc Chagall, with the trademark blue. The nose was classic Mouton, with lead pencil, smoke, pain grille and brett in addition to the red fruits. We did not decant the wine. We drank about half the bottle at the restaurant, and really enjoyed it. The remaining half of the bottle was finished at home, where the sediment got into the glasses and detracted somewhat from our enjoyment. Nevertheless, I was happy to drink this special wine.

I have to say that the meal was very, very enjoyable. There were no fancy techniques involved in creating the dishes, but the cuisine was creative nevertheless. The ingredients were all fresh, and moreover they were geared towards promoting and improving one's health - 養生 in Chinese parlance. I am not sure if it does compare with Tetsuya in Sydney, as I have never been. Probably not, but that doesn't matter. What matters was that I was able to have a great time with the parents with good food and wine, and all for the incredible cost of NTD 1,100 per person... I would have a very hard time finding something of similar quality at 2x the price in Hong Kong... So I will look forward to returning here, or visiting its sister establishment on 陽明山.

June 20, 2008

Silk Road III Day 12: Adios, Almaty!

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Our last day in Almaty and also in Central Asia. We decide to take it easier and ask Baghad to pick us up from the hotel at 12 noon. We would sleep in a bit, and go out for a bit of last minute shopping. When we asked Baghad about where we could buy some souvenir T-shirts - the same ones we saw on Kok-Tobe that he advised us to buy somewhere else in town - he didn't seem to know.

We go back to Zhibek Zholy and hit TsUM, the big department store in town. In contrast to Ramstor that is around the corner from us, this place seems to be more old-style department store than the newer types of shopping mall. We go straight to the top floor and find many different counters selling anything from cheezy souvenirs to gaudy chandeliers and porcelain dinner ware. After visiting a few different counters and bargaining them down to the same price, we eventually all find the T-shirts that we want. These have the petroglyph designs that we would see later today at Tamgaly, so they seem a bit better than your average touristy T-shirt. Stan also manage to pick up a mace made of leather and horn, which drew some laughter from us. Eric - ever looking for that elusive pot - manage to pick up a small one in silver, and didn't even have to pay over USD 1,000!

We quickly grab a bite of salads and bread at Kafe Keruen, an open-air establishment also mentioned in LP, and do a bit of people watching. There are some very interesting characters that one can run into here in Central Asia.  I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a guy wearing a black fishnet T-shirt...

After checking out just after 12pm (oh, and I finally took a hot shower this morning), we ride west with our luggage toward Karabastau and visit the Tamgaly Petroglyphs. Once again the roads are bumpy, and it is clear that neither the driver nor Baghdad have been there before, and do not know exactly how to get there. Nevermind. After about 3 hours, we finally reach the checkpoint and meet two lonely guys who are stationed there. They live in a nearby village and the area is pretty desolate. One of them accompanied us and showed us around to the major groups of rocks.

Tamgaly is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These rock carvings, some of which date back to the Bronze Age 3-4,000 years ago, are scattered across this area and number around 5,000. Most of them are in the form of animals such as horses, goats and cows, but many are also of people. It's interesting how these carvings reflect in the sunlight. We also have a chance to look at a few burial sights for people in those times. The graves seem small to us, because in those days people were buried in the fetal position instead of being laid out flat.

We leave the area around 5pm after spending a little more than one hour here. Baghdad and the driver are eager to send us to the airport, even though our flight is at 11pm. After about a 3-hour drive we arrive at Almaty Airport, 3 hours before our flight. This is probably the earliest I have ever reached any airport for flight departure. It was so early that the check-in counter wasn't even open.

We drag our luggage to one of the cafes at the airport, and order a few dishes for dinner. I have my last chance to enjoy my favorite besbarmak here, although unsurprisingly, the dish isn't as good as the ones we've had over the last few days. We also ordered some sausages, sauteed vegetables, and a tomato-based soup with meat that is reminiscent of Hungarian goulash.

After checking-in and dumping our luggage, there was still plenty of time to kill. I stroll into Caviar Palace, the shop specializing in exporting caviar. The export of caviar from Kazakhstan seemed to be controlled, and the customs officials actually asked me whether I was bringing any honey or caviar out of the country. I wasn't thinking about it, but now that there is a shop here selling the stuff, I decided to go and take a look.

Kazakhstan is one of 5 countries bordering the Caspian Sea and therefore a significant producer of caviar from sturgeon. The shop was selling beluga and sevruga in jars and tins of various sizes. While I am not up to date on my caviar pricing, I had a hunch that what they were asking for was reasonable. Effectively beluga would cost around USD 200 per 100g, and sevruga would be around USD 150 for the same weight. After thinking a little I whipped out my credit card and spent about USD 1,000 on caviar. I figured that I could do a lot worse back in Asia or elsewhere.

I have a window seat in cattle class, and I'm not seated next to anyone with smelly feet. Hurray! Time to say Adios! to Central Asia, and get some precious sleep on the flight back to Seoul...

June 19, 2008

Silk Road III Day 11: Charyn Canyon

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Another early morning. Today's destination is Charyn Canyon, east of Almaty and about 3-4 hours by car. Having showered the night before, I get up to wash my hair. No hot water. @#$%&*!! This is a hotel that charges USD 200 a night, and NO HOT WATER?! The last time I stayed in a hotel without hot water, I was on a remote island in Indonesia and I paid USD 20! It's a good thing we argued with the travel agent, and made him swallow the USD 140 difference he wanted to charge us for booking the stupid Hotel Eurasia (instead of Kazzhol Hotel as we originally wanted).

We set off on the road. Almaty is actually quite a beautiful city. As we first leave the city limits, the view back towards the city was pretty stunning. You have green fields (or yellow wheat fields) in the foreground, and luscious, rolling green hills beyond, and finally you see tall, snow-capped jagged peaks in the background. With the Alatau Mountains - part of the Central Tian Shan Mountains - south of the city, you can see snow on some of the peaks even in the summer.

After about 3 hours, we reach the access checkpoint. The driver gets out and greets the guard, who sits inside a standard cargo container that is now his post. From here on it's gravelly terrain, and we crawl at the pace of 20km/h for another half-hour. We finally reach the edge of the canyon.

It's a very pretty sight. No, it does not compare to the Grand Canyon. But it doesn't matter, it's still pretty enough. After snapping a few shots on the edges, we carefully descend down to the canyon floor, and begin our long walk northeast. In this direction, we are actually descending in terms of altitude, and this makes the walk a bit easier.

I constantly pause and snap pictures in all directions, loving the bright, royal blue sky that contrasts so well with the red rocks. For the most part, the sky was pure blue - no clouds at all in the sky. This section is aptly named the Valley of Castles, as there are indeed a number of formations which resemble remnants of castles built on ledges.

After a while we reached the end of our trek and come to the present Charyn River. Since I was wearing my swimming trunks, I was determined to dip into the river for a bit of refreshment. As I was just getting my feet wet, I realized that the water of the river was actually freezing cold! I couldn't stand having my toes in the water for more than 30 seconds, and quickly step back out onto the banks. After a bit more thought, I decided to step back into the river, eventually wading so that the water was halfway up my thigh and just getting the bottom of my trunks wet. I discovered that I could dig my toes into the warm sand at the bottom of the river. This was actually very nice, and I was able to treat my feet (and toes) to a nice sauna session. The water was flowing along the river at a very fast pace, and judging by the temperature, this must be the melted snow that has come down from the peaks of the Alatau Mountains.

Now for the tough task of walking back (and climbing up)! We actually trek back past our original point of descent, so that we reach a path up the cliff with railings that we can grab onto while climbing. By the time we reached our van - and totally out of breath at this point - we had ascended around 250m in altitude starting from the banks of the Charyn River.

We stop at the Chilik village for lunch. We down bottles of Russian and Kazakh beer for refreshment, and chow on laghman that is Uygur-style and very similar to the ones I have had in Xinjiang. Keeping in mind that the Charyn Canyon is less than 100km from the border with China, this would seem to make sense. The noodles here are handmade (拉麵) and chewy, while chilli powder has been added to the topping to make it spicy. We also enjoy mutton and onion served on a hot plate, again with chilli powder sprinkled on top.

We return to the hotel late in the afternoon. After a brief rest, we decide to venture out and see the city. At the suggestion of Lonely Planet as well as the Air Astana inflight magazine, we head to Coffeedelia on Qabanbay Batyr (intersection with Furmanov). This is clearly THE place to come for coffee in Almaty - a trendy setting with a large outdoor section where youngsters come to see and be seen. We found a staff who spoke pretty good English and helped us with our order, and the desserts here are definitely delish. I had an excellent key lime pie. However, we never hooked up to the free WiFi connection that was mentioned in guidebooks.

Enough of looking at cute girls and passersby. It was time for dinner. We head to Zheti Qazyna, another venue mentioned in LP. This was a very impressive establishment. In fact it is three separate restaurants - with a European fine dining section (plush velvet chairs and all), a Chinese-Japanese section in an open courtyard, and a section for Central Asian cuisine. You can order items from all three parts and mix it up.

Determined to give wine another try, I order another bottle of Georgian red. This time I asked the waiter to show me a bottle that is fermented dry, and we chose a bottle of 2004 Teliani Valley Teliani. This is actually 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and even though the wine is a bit on the young side, it was a reasonable bottle of wine that was accepted by international palates like ours. And the price of USD 70 seemed a bit more reasonable.

Speaking of wine, the restaurant actually had a pretty impressive wine list. Aside from the usual suspects of Champagne, Bordeaux, Opus One...etc, I saw several vintages of Sassicaia as well as some Brunellos and Barolos. The two most expensive listings were the 1988 Petrus and the 1994 Petrus, with the latter going for USD 6,000. Given the London bonded broking price of GBP 650 per bottle, I thought that the restaurant price was quite reasonable given its rather remote location. The price of the '88 was an even more reasonable USD 4,000 or so, given that it costs GBP 700+ lying in bond.

We order up a storm here. A plate of mixed meats serves us beef, horse meat, horse meat sausage and mutton. Bowls of beef brisket in clear broth with noodles - Chinese 清湯牛腩麵 with dill sprinkled on top? Pretty yummy. A bowl of beef ravioli/dumplings in tomato-based soup was also popular. Then we had the most delicious besbarmak, and two orders of very, very yummy lamb chops grilled with spices and garlic. Wow!

I was determined to buy some CDs of local musicians on our last night in Almaty, so we walk through the Zhibek Zholy pedestrian street and find ourselves in Meloman - a bookstore/cafe/CD/movies/electronics boutique. I found a couple of CDs from Dilnaz Akhmadiyeva, a pretty and famous female singer profiled in the Air Astana inflight magazine. I also pick up a couple of other gems, and I am satisfied.

We hop into a taxi and head back to the hotel to crash. Still having problems with hot water. And the bathroom stinks of you-know-what. Four-star hotel my ass...

June 18, 2008

Silk Road III Day 10: Arrival in Almaty

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Early morning departure to Shimkent airport for our flight to Almaty on Air Astana. As expected, we arrive at the airport waaaay too early, and with check-in pretty much a snap, we found ourselves to plenty of time to kill. I sat at the "Beer Port" and ordered up a cup of Lavazza coffee - USD 4, pretty fancy for a dinky airport - and a couple of piroshkis.

Upon arrival at Almaty airport - where we finally got off the plane using an air bridge - we were picked up by the guide and driver. Our guide Baghdad (yes that is his name) is a 60 something gentleman. Not quite what we expected, but according to him there aren't many young people who like the tourism business.

As it was too early to check into our hotel, we started with a bit of sightseeing. As we drove through the streets of Almaty, it was easy to see that people in this town were very well-off. Instead of the Russian Ladas and Daewoos we saw in Uzbekistan, the streets were overrun with Mercedes, BMWs, Lexus, Toyotas...although curiously, most people don't seem to keep their cars clean regardless of how fancy they are.

We started with the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments, an interesting wooden building housing - what else - lots of musical instruments. We quickly enter Panfilov Park, named after the 28 heroes led by General Panfilov who defended a village outside Moscow with grenades during WWII. The park is dominated by a large memorial and - you guessed it - an eternal flame. I snap some pictures, and move towards the Zenkov Cathedral. This is a very pretty Russian Orthodox cathedral, built entirely of wood and held together with wooden nails. There are many beautiful icons inside, and not surprisingly, very very bling. Baghdad, who is Muslim, does not join us inside.

Finally it is time to check into the Hotel Eurasia, located in a very plain building and looks more like a hotel-in-a-shopping center than vice versa. The lobby was filled with Indian merchants, and we were totally disappointed when we entered our rooms. The room decor was bland, but everything was cheap Chinese furniture, including the entire bathroom (there was only a shower stall, no tub). Nothing about this hotel room can justify its price tag of over USD 200 a night.

We are hungry, so we head to Sherbet, a fancy restaurant just around the corner from the hotel. This turns out to be a great choice. We sat in a booth and started to order up some delicious local dishes. Yes, we ordered up the usual selection of salads (including a delicious dish of fried cauliflower and mushrooms), and of course there was the obligatory beer. But we're in Almaty, so of course one should order up freshly blended apple juice. They were pretty delicious green apples, but at USD 8 a glass it's pretty much 5-star hotel pricing!

For main course we had three very traditional Kazakh plates. First there was kuurdak - a stew of beef, liver and other offal, potato and onions. This was actually pretty good. Then there was the national dish of besmarmak, which was by far my favorite. Chunks of mutton, beef, horsemeat, karta (horsemeat sausage) and onions on top of flat squares of pasta that resemble papardelle, all served with meat broth. It would be a dish that I relish for the next few days. Finally, we have the Kazakh version of plov, again served with karta and mutton. It was all pretty delicious, and this definitely is a place that is worth going back to.

To get the full view of Almaty, we rode the Kok-Tobe cable car up to the top of the hill. In addition to the nice view of the city as well as all the hillside villas, there is also a park with a small zoo. We take a stroll around, and ride the minibus back down the hill instead of paying another USD 7 for the cable car. Almaty rests against the mountains, and the city is built on sloped terrain where the southern side of town can be as much as 300m higher in altitude than the north.

After resting a bit at the hotel, we take a stroll around the hotel in search of a Russian restaurant. When the tip from our hotel front desk didn't work, we walk past the Presidential Palace, the Respublika Alanghy and find ourselves at the InterContinental Hotel. After determining that they didn't have a local or Russian restaurant within the hotel, we received kind assistance from the concierge and got ourselves a map as well as the name of a Russian fine dining establishment.

The restaurant was a few blocks away, but as it was nice and cool, I didn't mind walking before dinner. We finally did manage to find Borodino on Shevchenko Street, one of the streets with street cars. The decor looked nice from the outside so we had no hesitation in going in. We were seated in the bar section, since the restaurant section did not look open this evening.

I must say I did a rather poor job of ordering. In addition to a bit of salad and a platter of mixed meats, the only good dish I ordered was a bowl of mutton and pork ravioli. The herring, beet and cucumber salad was not to everyone's liking. And the two orders of rack of lamb were both done normal Western-style, with rosemary and all. Pretty lame. I knew I should have ordered the chicken Kiev and the beef Stroganoff...

The worst thing is that for a Russian restaurant, they didn't even have any Russian beer! We ended up with Belgian beer instead, and ordered a bottle of red wine from Georgia. Not knowing anything about Georgian wine - and unable to read and understand the wine list anyway - I ended up with a bottle of 2005 Marani red that was semi-sweet. Not exactly to our liking, and we struggled to finish the bottle only because it cost USD 80.

We leave the restaurant and try to get taxi back to the hotel. While we waited, I took a look at the cars parked in front of restaurant. Nothing but S-Class Mercedes, Lexus and Mercedes SUVs. Across the street, I see a stylish sports car but don't recognize the shape. It's certainly not a Porsche, Ferrari or Maserati. What could it be? Then I recognized the racing decal on the side of the car and read the lettering: Ford GT. I am impressed. For a car with such a small production, someone must have paid pretty big bucks to get one imported into the middle of nowhere...

We quickly discover that anyone with a car in Almaty could be a taxi driver. We flag one down and negotiate a fare back to the hotel. Very tired...

June 17, 2008

Silk Road III Day 9: crossing into Kazakhstan

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Checked out of the hotel this morning, and hopped into the van to go to the border crossing at Chernyaevka. This is one of only two land border crossings between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and is about 30 minutes by car from Tashkent.

After being dropped off, we dragged our luggage to the checkpoint. It was 8:30am but there were already lots of locals swarming around. There were two lines leading up to the counters, and we decided to line up at one of them. There were tons of people pushing and shoving around us, and a lot of locals simply chose not to line up and bypass us. The scene was honestly pretty chaotic. In the end, we had to shove our passports through the window opening and in the face of the officials in order to get their attenion. The locals were doing the same and we needed to make sure that they don't cut in front of us.

After getting our passports examined, we dragged our luggage to the building further ahead, only to find that this was actually the real immigration checkpoint! Once again we line up, and try to fight off the local who seem to just squeeze past us without having to be in line. Anyway, as we were blocking the traffic for locals, the immigration officials decided to process us relatively quickly, and finally we surrendered our customs forms and successfully exited Uzbekistan!

As I walked towards the area where some people had gathered, I saw a blonde woman talking to Stan and Eric. This was Anna, our tour guide on the Kazakh side. We quickly filled out the immigration form and lined up at the counters. The process seemed a lot smoother here as there were multiple counters (instead of 1 or 2 on the Uzbek side), and they were using passport scanners and computers! Quite an improvement over the other side...

One hour after we got off the van on the Uzbek side, we were finally through immigration and had entered Kazakhstan! We leave the checkpoint and look for the van. For some reason, the van wasn't parked anywhere near the border gates, and we had to drag our heavy luggage a long way. I was pretty frustrated at Anna and didn't understand why she couldn't have asked the driver to come closer to pick us up. In the middle of all this, I decided to take a picture of the Kazakh side of the border to remember this experience.

We still have a long day ahead of us, so we drive through Shymkent towards Turkistan. The differences between the two countries were immediately apparent to us. The roads on the Kazakh side were nice and smooth; the landscape was the beautiful steppes, which Central Asia (and Kazakhstan in particular) was famous for; there were white clouds contrasting against the blue sky; the horses seemed larger, healthier and their coats shone in the sun. Everything just seemed better on the Kazakh side compared to the Uzbekistan that we had seen over the last week.

We stop for lunch after a couple of hours in the middle of nowhere. Initially the restaurant appear to be out of food and closed, then Anna managed to convince them to serve us. Aside from the usual salad, and having them slice up the melon we had brought from Uzbekistan, the main event here was deep-fried fish. We hadn't had fish or any seafood in a while, since Uzbekistan is a double-landlocked country - meaning there are at least 2 countries between it and the ocean in any direction. Kazakhstan is a bit better but still landlocked. The fish here was of the freshwater kind...Anna couldn't quite explain what exactly it was, and we weren't able to determine from its chopped up remains... It was a welcome treat, although they did add a lot of salt to it (probably to make it go better with the draft beer that they were serving us).

Our first stop of the day was the Otrar Museum. We had a English-speaking guide showing us around, and at the end he asked us to sign the guestbook since we were the first visitors from Taiwan. Well...apparently a Taiwanese woman had just beat us to it 1 week earlier, but since she was in a group of French tourists her nationality was not known to the guide.

We move on a bit further to the ruins of Otrar. Otrar has the historical distinction of having slaughtered the first trade delegation sent by the Mongols, thereby incurring the wrath of Genghis Khan and triggering his decision to invade Central Asia, wiping out pretty much everything in the path of his army of 200,000. Not much is left here, and due to time constraint we did not linger for very long.

It's another 2-hour drive to Turkistan, where we visit today's highlight - the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi - one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kazakhstan. Though it remains unfinished, the mausoleum is an important example of Timurid architecture, and is significant in that it is the resting place of the famed Sufi teacher. Both the teacher and his daughter are buried within the compound.

We also pass by the rose garden outside. I am sure at one time (perhaps a few weeks earlier) the garden would have looked truly beautiful with all the blooming roses of various colors. Unfortunately, today most of them looked wilted as a result of the extreme heat in these parts. No matter how well you irrigate, flowers just can't take 45C heat for very long...

We take the long drive back to Shimkent, and again we are stopped by the police on the way. On our first day in Kazakhstan, we get the first taste of police corruption... The cops just try to use every excuse to impose a fine on our driver, failing which he apparently said: "Can't you just give me something?!" Oh well. It is Kazakhstan, after all.

Arriving into Shimkent, we get our first look at a reasonably-sized Kazakh city (population just under 1 million). As in the Uzbek cities we visited, the city is very green with lots of trees lining the streets. But we pass by a number of large, bright electronic screens showing all sorts of advertisements. Now this is something we never saw in Uzbekistan, and it takes a certain level of prosperity for people to afford these things.

Hotel Sapar is actually a converted apartment building. There are two apartments per floor, and each is a 2-bedroom suite with a large living room and kitchen. Furniture is a bit dated but the place is clean. After spending a few nights in regular hotel rooms, we are unaccustomed to this sudden increase of space! We end up having dinner in the restaurant downstairs at a pretty late hour, and order up the usual salads including a mix of rice, corn, potato and veggies that was quite yummy. We also get an order each of beef and mutton, and for the first time in recent memory I find the taste of the mutton fat to be a little beyond my threshold. But I am not going to complain at 10pm... I'm just happy that I can stay in and not have to venture outside in search for food.

June 16, 2008

Silk Road III Day 8: the long drive to Khiva

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Got up bright and early this morning, and left Bukhara at 7am for the long, 8-hour drive to Khiva. The roads were again in terrible condition, and it really did take us a long time to reach our destination. We entered the city gates around 3pm.

The main event today was to visit Ichan Kala - the walled city that was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety. After a quick lunch break, we started by visiting the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. This is a tomb for Khiva's most famous poet, philospher and (!) wrestler. The interior of the main chamber here is absolutely stunning. The interesting aspect here is that in Khiva, the beautiful ceramic tiles were not fixed to the walls using cement, but attached by driving a nail through the center of each tile.

We pass by the Islom-Hoja Medressa and the Islom-Hoja Minaret, the tallest in Khiva. I am still thinking about climbing it to get a good view of the city...so we don't go in just yet. Next stop would be the Juma Mosque with over 200 wooden columns which serve to support the roof. Some of these columns were the original ones dating back over 1,000 years. Naturally, the newer columns have decorative carvings which are much more elaborate. Outside the mosque stands the Juma Minaret, but I have another minaret to climb later...

The Tosh-Hovli Palace has its main draw in the Harem, where the aivans are ricly decorated both in terms of woodwork as well as the tiling. The aivan of the Khan (as opposed to those of his wives) was distinguished by its additional height and grandeur. We pass by the Alloquli Khan Medressa, with its pretty facade but we do not go in.

Our final sight of the day is the west gate of the city, and we climb up to the Oq Shihbobo bastion of the Kuhna Ark. This is a good vantage point for a view of all Itchan Kala, and I take the chance to snap few pictures, including those of the Kalta Minor Minaret that was never completed. I am sufficiently tired at this point, and give up on the idea of climbing the Islom-Hoja Minaret.

We decide to sit outside in the courtyard of a family with whom we had stored our luggage, and while away the next couple of hours drinking and snacking on bread, almonds and mulberry jam. Around 9pm, our replacement driver showed up (the original driver had to drive another 8 hours back to Bukhara immediately after we got here...). We make our way to Urgench to catch our late flight back to Tashkent.

After arriving at the Dedeman Silk Road Hotel, we quickly wash up and head to bed. We will need all the energy we can muster as tomorrow will be another long day, including our land border crossing to Kazakhstan!

June 15, 2008

Silk Road III Day 7: Bukhara sights

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This morning we were meant to go to the bazaar and visit the animal market. This is something that I had seen in Kashgar, and I wanted to have another chance to see people trading sheep and cattle, and perhaps even camels.

But first, I make a quick stop at the Bolo-Hauz Mosque, the place where the emir used to worship. They used to roll out carpet from the gates of the Ark so that the emir could walk to worship with the common people. The woodwork here is really nice.

On the way to the bazaar we pass by the Ismail Samani Mausoleum. The architecture here is pretty unique, and as it was covered with sand at the time of Genghis Khan's invasion, it was spared from destruction.

We run into a little girl who was dressed up and just looooved to be photographed. She was very cute and tried to strike up simple conversation with me in English, and her English was pretty good for her age!

Batir led us on a bit of a hike through people selling various types of used junk, in the search for the "animal bazaar". Evenually we realized that what he meant was the place where people were selling pets, such as rabbits, ducks, chickens...etc. This was a far cry from what we had expected to see, and we were a bit frustrated by the time we were wasting.  We headed back to the covered part of the Kolkhozny Bazaar, where I picked up some more fruits such as melons, apricots and peaches. All were very juicy and yummy.

On our way back to the van, we passed by the Chasma Ayub mausoleum. A spring exists here which locals come to drink from for his magical properties. Legend has it that Job struck his staff on the ground and out came the spring. That Job really does get around, since I remember visiting somewhere in Oman where his presence was also found...

Last stop of the morning was the Ark, the royal citadel dating from the 5th century where the emirs lived. We can still see the throne that the emir used to sit in to watch the procession in front of the gates. We visited the museums inside to get a bit more color on the history and culture of the region.

We are back at Lyabi-Hauz for lunch, this time sitting inside an air-conditioned room. We order up some plov, which was pretty good although not as good as what we had in Samarkand. We also had some beef meatball and chicken shashlik. Of course, no lunch is complete without Sarbast beer...

After a break to avoid the midday sun, we retrace some of our route yesterday and visit the sights around the hotel. First stop was the Abdul Aziz Khan Medressa, which is undergoing some restoration. Across the road was the Ulugbek Medressa, the oldest of the three so-named and predates the one at the Registan Square in Samarkand.  We wander off to the Maghoki-Attar Mosque, reputed to be the oldest surviving mosque in Central Asia, with a beautiful portal dating from the Middle Ages. It is now a carpet museum.

Eric and Stan did a bit more shopping for souvenirs, and we ended up at the Kalon Mosque. It is a beautiful structure, with an octagonal lectern in the courtyard. After walking around the halls, I decide to pay 4,500 Sum for the privilege of climbing up to the top of the Kalon Minaret. I am really glad I did, because the view was spectacular. We had a full view of the old town through which we wandered yesterday. We can also see our hotel next door, plus the Ark and other monuments nearby. And I took lots of pictures of the Mir-i-Arab Medressa across the square, which is still a working medressa and therefore no tourists are allowed to enter. It has two beautiful blue domes. Later on I learned that in the old days, executions were carried out here by hurling the prisoners from the top of the minaret onto the square below. Pretty gruesome, but I must admit that it seems convenient...

It is now sundown, and I decide to go back to the Ark to photograph the outer walls as well as the main gate with the warm light. I did manage the catch the last bits of the warm light, but it would have been better to show up half an hour earlier...

We had a bit of a tough time finding a place for dinner. We walked around the area of Lyabi-Hauz but found no restaurants which looked appetizing. The Russified Korean restaurant, Kochevnik, was not open. It would have been quite an experience to see how Korean cuisine was adapted to local tastes!

In the end we got a tip to go to Caravan, which is in the new town. The two main dishes we ordered were different types of beef jiz - one looking like a normal plate of beef, but the other was stir-fried with sesame and looked downright Chinese! And the funny thing is, it did taste Chinese as the sauce was definitely made of soy sauce. The food was pretty good here, and we continued to drink more Baltika...

After dinner, I once again took my tripod out and photographed the Kalon Mosque, Kalon Minaret and Mir-i-Arab Medressa. The blue domes of the Medressa are particularly striking, and the almost-full moon in the backdrop against the minaret also made for a good picture. As the lights of the Mosque were turned off at 11:30pm, I packed up my gear and went back to the hotel to crash. It's gonna be a really long day tomorrow.

June 14, 2008

Silk Road III Day 6: wandering in Bukhara

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Woke up early this morning and walked to the Registan Square by myself. The streets were pretty empty, with some people going to work early. The sun wasn't very high yet at this time, so it was pretty comfortable. I chit-chat a bit with the lone guard at the square, who was disappointed that I had already climbed up the minaret since this deprives him of the extra 4,000 Sum...

We are driving to Bukhara today. There is not much to see en route except the remains of one caravansari and sardoba, the supply stops of ancient caravans. Just before arriving in Bukhara, we make a quick stop and snap some pictures of the Vabkent Minaret. This is a very pretty minaret, one of a series built along the route of the caravans and used as lighthouses in ancient times.

Time for lunch again! We stop at Ismoil on the outer edges of town and sat out in the garden. Starting with the usual assortment of salads, we also had quail eggs for a change. When we saw the staff lift out a batch of roast lamb from the oven, we immediately decided to order up some. It was dry and crispy on the outside - very yummy and satiated our appetite for lamb. Afterwards we each had a little roast quail, and more quail eggs. For fruits we decided to go into the garden and pick apricots from the trees. They were not as ripe and sweet as the ones we bought from the market, but were still very delicious.

After checking into Hotel Zargaron right next to the Kalon Mosque, we went on a walking tour in the old town. Our hotel location was quite ideal, since it was smack in the middle of old town and within walking distance to basically everything. We walked through all three of the covered bazaars in the area - Taqi-Zargaron (jewellers), Taqi-Sarrafon (money changers) and Taqi-Telpak Furushon (cap makers). We even went inside a hammom to take a look, but decided that none of us could bear getting a massage inside a steam bath in this weather.

We took our time strolling through the narrow alleys of the old town, visiting the Jewish quarter with its synagogue, and examining the construction methods used by the locals. It's actually very interesting to be able to walk around in residential neighborhoods in an old city. We pass by Char Minar, with its four blue-domed minarets which symbolized the four daughters of the original builder.

We go back to the hotel for a quick shower and a break to drink some beer. We have finally lined up three cans in the Russian Baltika range - Nos. 3, 7 and 9. We do a taste test... No. 9 has the highest alcohol content at 8%, while No. 7 was probably the winner in terms of taste.

We stroll to Lyabi-Hauz and have dinner by the pool. Menu was pretty limited - in fact they didn't have any - so we ordered some beef and chicken. Apparently there are more Tajiks in Bukhara and they are not big on mutton! Unbelievable! The food was so-so but the shurpa was good, and came in individual ceramic pots. We call an early night and prepare for a full day tomorrow.

June 13, 2008

Silk Road III Day 5: The bumpy road to Shakhrisabz

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Today we head to Shakhrisabz for the birthplace of Timur. At the statue of Timur in the center of town, we run into a few couples who were getting married. Apparently the marriage registry is just next door, and all the newlyweds will walk around the monuments and take pictures and video. The bride’s gown, which apparently cost anywhere from USD 200 to 1,000 a day to rent, were pretty hideous and remind me of something from 30 years ago.

Next to the square is the remains of Timur’s Ak-Saray Palace, of which not much is left. We make our way to Kok-Gumbaz Mosque, still a working mosque with gypsy women sitting on its front steps and asking the faithful for money. The courtyard houses a number of very old and beautiful trees, and we see many old local gentlemen coming for their noon prayer.

In quick succession we also visit the mausoleums of Sheik Shamseddin Kulyal and Gumbaz Saidon next door. A hop and a skip away are the Tomb of Jehangir - Timur's eldest and favorite son - as well as Timur’s Crypt which he built for himself so that he could be buried near Jehangir. Ultimately he could not be buried according to his wishes, and ended up in Guri Amir in Samarkand instead.

After a quick lunch of shee, mantay and some more mutton (of course!) we head back to Samarkand on the very poor roads by which we came. It's very clear to me that all the vans of the travel agencies will have poor suspension after having been on these types of roads for a while.

Our final stop of the day would be the Shah-I-Zinda and the Avenue of Mausoleums. Here we walk through a street lined with dazzling mausoleums on both sides. Shadi-Mulk Oko Mausoleum was simply dazzling inside, and it was even highlighted with spotlights inside. This was built by Timur for one of his wives.  After seeing a few more beautiful mausoleums, we come to the inner sanctum and find the Tomb of Kusam ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed who was credited with bringing Islam into the region.

We also walk around in the cemetary of Afrosiab, and get an introduction to Soviet-style tombstones with the person's image etched onto black granite. We see many couples buried together, and some tombstones have one side left empty while one spouse waits for his/her partner to join them in the after life.

After another break to freshen up, we walk a few steps to the Restaurant Astoria for dinner. This is not a cafe or chaikhana - there was nice silverware and cystal glasses on the table - so we expected the bill to be a bit higher. The food was supposedly a mix of local and Russian, but frankly it was just OK.

Aside from a small selection of salads we chose, there was also a dish with chopped calves' liver, beef and onions. Interestingly this tastes very similar to the Milanese version of calves' liver which I had at Cipriani's in Hong Kong. There was also a chicken dish with a tomato-based sauce - not very interesting. The worst is that they don't even serve Russian beer! We made do with a bottle of vodka instead...

June 12, 2008

Silk Road III Day 4: The majesty of Samarkand

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First site of the day was the Guri Amir Mausoleum, where Timur was buried along with some of his sons including Ulugbek. This was just a short walk from the hotel. The main chamber was richly decorated in exquisite, glittering detail befitting the great ruler and his descendants. and the green jade (Timur’s ) and marble markers lie in their places in the middle. Next to the main markers lies a separate marker with a tall, thin tree trunk hanging a bunch of horse hair over the marble. Apparently this is the way that graves were marked in the open field in ancient times. There was already a marker on the spot when this mausoleum was built by Timur for his offspring, so they simply incorporated it in the design.

We encountered a group of Uzbek women who wanted to take pictures with us, since we were so foreign and therefore a curiosity to them. After a round of photos inside the mausoleum, we found ourselves back in the action in the courtyard outside. The people are truly friendly, but now we are starting to feel like zoo animals that people are always curious about…

Now we come to the highlight of the Uzbekistan portion – Registan Square. The place is grand and made up of three medressas on the east, west and north sides of the square. These buildings have survived numerous earthquakes, and have gone through some restoration. The Ulugbek Medressa, the oldest of the three, has a leaning minaret which one can climb up (for a fee, of course). It is unfortunately a bit scary, because it is presenting leaning to one side as a result of an earthquake years ago, although it has been “reinforced” by Soviet engineers.

Once you enter the medressa, you find that all the rooms have basically been turned into souvenir shops. We will see this time and again when visiting medressas which are no longer in operation – the enterprising locals have rented the space to profit from tourism.

Moving to the Tilla-Kari Medressa, it is immediately apparent why it was named the Gold-Covered Medressa. The mosque glitters in blue and gold, with the flat ceiling having been painted in such a way that it appears to be a curved dome. It's very, very bling, but I like it. The last of the trio, the Sher Dor Medressa, isn't as interesting and is completely plain inside.

We break for lunch, and we are taken to a really nice restaurant for the dish that I've been dying for - plov. I didn't take down the name of the restaurant, but the food was really delicious - possibly the best meal we had in Uzbekistan. We started with a number of small salads, which were brought to us stacked on a large tray. We picked a few of them, such as deep fried cauliflower and fried eggplant. This was accompanied by the best non we had on this trip, which looks like a giant bagel without the hole. We also got more shashlik - minced lamb, chunks of lamb, and even beef wrapped around lamb fat (a great invention, I must say).

But the piece de resistance was the plov. This is a dish mainly served at lunch, and resembles the 抓飯 of the Uygurs that I had in Xinjiang. Our guide Batir ordered four portions, and it came on a huge plate. The rice glistened with all the oil used in the frying process, and it was topped with generous portions of lamb in addition to the chopped carrots, gourd/squash and raisins. I just couldn't resist having several portions of this in spite of a full stomach... It was just awesome!

After lunch we head to Siob Bazaar for some shopping and sightseeing. It was colorful as one would expect, selling a variety of fruits, vegetables, snacks as well as other knick knacks. We bought a load of red and yellow cherries, two types of apricots, plums and a big watermelon. We had these over the next few days, and with the exception of the watermelon (due to this being only the start of the season) everything was ultra-ripe and sweet. There are principally two reasons – the fruits get plenty of sun so the sugar level is high, and the farmers only pick the fruits after they have ripened fully, expecting to sell them quickly.

The heat becomes unbearable, and we head back to the hotel to cool off. Later in the afternoon we head to the unimpressive Ulugbek Observatory, where we see the remains of the curved track of the quadrant built by Ulugbek to look at the stars. We also pay a visit to the Afrosiab Museum, located next to the ancient ruins of Afrosiab – ancient Samarkand. Among the ruins we see two young men herding sheep, and get a glimpse of the famous fat-bottomed sheep for the first time. I do have to say that the bottoms are indeed very big and fat…

We head back to the bazaar and enter Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built by the Chinese wife of Timur. It has fallen into disrepair, but I went inside despite warnings from Batir. Back in the garden outside, I pick up a couple of white mulberries that had fallen onto the grass. These were incredibly sweet. I must admit I had never seen white mulberries, and the sight of these on the green grass seemed pretty.

One last stop for the day – back to the Registan for sunset pictures. I pay the guard 4,000 Sum for the privilege of climbing the leaning minaret of the Ulugbek Madressa, for the best view in Samarkand. The climb to the top was steep and tough, considering that I’m lugging my bag full of camera gear. After stopping a couple of times to catch my breath, I reach the top and wiggle the top half of my torso above the small opening. It’s an interesting perspective and I’m glad I did it, but it’s not a spectacular view that you get.

For dinner we head to Karimbek, the Samarkand branch of Bek. This time we tried different soups. Shurpa came with sliced beef with potato and tomato, very much like my mom’s version of borscht with a clear broth. The other soup had thin noodles in a chicken broth, and this was pretty good. We had our first taste of jiz, which was the Uzbek way of stir-frying chopped meat. We also had visitors from the next table. They were going off to work in Seoul and wanted to celebrate, and insisted that we drink some vodka with them...

After dinner I went back to the Registan and Guri Amir Mausoleum with my tripod for more photos…since these monuments are lit up at night. After a very long day, I finally get back to my room just before midnight.

June 11, 2008

Silk Road III Day 3: Tashket to Samarkand

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First stop of the day was the Crying Mother Monument, with an eternal flame to commemorate the Uzbek soldiers lost to WWII. The pretty niches on both sides of the flame are separated by individual Uzbek regions, with the names of soldiers from each region inscribed on giant metallic books. The layout of the place, especially the carved wood structures on both sides, was very nicely done.

The Independence Square lies adjacent and is connected. It’s a vast, green area with fountains and yet another monument – a mother holding a child. The pedestal is where the statue of Lenin used to stand, since the square used to be Lenin Square during the Soviet era. Flanking the square are the new Senate building as well as the Ministry of Finance. We leave the square via its front gate, and enter into the Tashkent Metro system.

The Tashkent Metro system has some very beautiful stations. I would dare say that they don’t necessarily lose out to the some of the best stations of the Paris Metro. Out of the four stations which we saw, three had very striking interiors, even though the passenger turnstiles (probably dating from 1977 to 1982, when these two lines were built) were a bit Spartan and dated. These were the Mustaqillik Maydoni (Independence Square), Alisher Navoi (named after the great literary figure) and the Kosmonavtlar (decorated with murals of famous Soviet Kosmonauts).  After we exit the Metro, we paid a short visit to the Museum of Applied Arts, with fine samples of local arts and crafts displayed in a beautiful house.

Lunch break is at the restaurant Bek, where we have our first of many sticks of shashlik. There were some salads of tomato and cucumber, which is apparently what tourists usually get when they ask for salads. We also had nice bowls of shee - a tomato-based soup with lamb meatballs - which reminded me of Hungarian goulash since it was served with a bit of yogurt or sour cream on top. The various lamb shashlik were pretty good, but somehow not great.

After the hearty meal, we head to the Barakhon Medressa. This has been turned into a series of little shops. After making a quick round and deciding not to buy anything, we took a quick look at Timur’s Quran. According to legend, this was one of the 6 original copies of the Quran which were made after Mohammed’s death, and the only surviving copy – making it the oldest Quran in the world. It was large and the pages were made from animal skin, and one of the pages has the blood stains from Ulugbek as he was beheaded while reading the Quran.

We needed to get to Samarkand for the next leg of the tour, so we hopped in the van and went on the highway for the next 4 ½ hours. The landscape was pretty boring for most of the trip – flat and rural with only a little hint of basic industries. We discussed the resemblance of the area to the landscape portrayed in the Mad Max series of movies. But at least Mad Max got to speed around on good, paved roads. I cannot say the same for some section of the road we were on.

As the people become more prosperous, the traditional houses with mud bricks and flat mud roofs gradually get replaced by housing with corrugated asbestos roofing. Did anyone ever tell these guys about the long-term health effects of asbestos?  Guess not... As we got close to Samarkand and entered the mountain ranges, the landscape changed and became a bit more interesting. 

We checked into the Hotel President, a modern-looking place that is one of the best in town. Again, rooms were clean and the bathroom here was even better than the one at Dedeman Silk Road.

We went out for dinner, and ended up in a restaurant with an open courtyard. We tried out other staples of the Central Asia diet, such as laghman (noodles with tomato-based soup with meat) and mantay (dumplings with onions and minced lamb). Both are dishes which I’ve had in Xinjiang, and I especially enjoyed the mantay. Of course there were more sticks of shashlik.

The highlight tonight was a visit from people at the next table. They insisted on saying hello and came to sit with us, trying to communicate through our guide Batir. They were very, very friendly and stayed for quite a while. We would have similar experiences over the next few days.

June 10, 2008

Silk Road III Day 2: Flying to Tashkent

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Got up this morning and went out to check out the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Seoul. After arriving at Changdeokgong Palace (昌德宮), I realized that I had to join a scheduled tour, and the next available one (in Chinese) was an hour away.

I quickly hop into a taxi and asked the driver to head to Jongmyo Shrine (宗廟), even though it looked adjacent to the Palace. The driver drove around the block and dropped me off at the entrance. As I walked through the small park towards the gate, I realized that the ticketing counters were all shuttered. Jongmyo doesn't open on Tuesdays! Arrrgh!!!!! I had no choice but to drag my sorry ass back to Changdeokgong Palace in time for the tour.

At first glance, Changdeokgong Palace was nothing special to someone who had lots of exposure to Chinese and Japanese palaces and shrines. The architecture was relatively simple, and not particularly ornate. However, the beauty of this palace was in its layout and its beautiful gardens. As the palace is quite old, there were plenty of old trees on the grounds. It reminded me of a stroll through Meiji Shrine (明治神宮) or the temples at Nikko (日光). At the end of the tour, we passed a cypress tree that was around 750 years old. That's not something you find in a capital city very often...

Went back to the hotel and decided to have sangyetang (篸雞湯) for lunch. Couldn't find a nice little hole-in-the-wall around the Westin, so I ended up on top of Lotte Department Store...it's just sangyetang and pretty much the same at most places.

After checking in for my flight at Incheon Airport, my friends and I decided to have a little bit to eat before boarding. Yes, I am still stuffed from the sangyetang, but I felt like having a bowl of kalbitang from Byeok-Je (碧帝). The soup was clear and really nice with spring onions, but the beef...well, what was attached to the bones was nice. But the loose strands were a bit overcooked. However, I still really enjoyed the soup.

Now about the 7-hour flight from Seoul to Tashkent... I had decided to be cheap and fly Economy instead of Business, even though the premium for Business Class was only 100% more than Economy, or roughly USD 1,300 extra. I began to regret my decision the minute I sat down in my cattle-class seat.

On my left was a gentleman (I hardly think he qualifies for this description) of Central Asian descent. Despite wearing some nice cologne, his body odor was clearly detectable. He chose to invade my space with his arms and legs, having decided that his seat was too small for him. On top of it all, he took his shoes off and soon I began to enjoy an odor not unlike some of the strong cheeses I've encountered. It got to be unbearable pretty quickly, and as we were taking off, I decided to put my baseball cap over my face to insulate myself from the air around me. I am seriously considering upgrading myself to Business for the return leg. Fortunately, the nice Korean flight attendant found me a seat nearer the front of the plane, and I finally could breathe again.

All was well for the remainder of the flight. The service was excellent, with Ms. Kim continuously bringing water to rehydrate me. The plane, an A330-300, was relatively new and fitted with AVOD entertainment system in all seats. Time passes quickly when you have movies, TV shows...etc to watch.

After touching down at Tashkent airport, I noticed that the small terminal building didn't have any planes parked at any of the gates. In fact I thought I only saw one other plane parked on the tarmac. Nevermind.

We go through the inefficient and not-so-foreigner-friendly system of passport control (didn't know which lines were for locals or foreigners, no one at the visa counter for about 1 hour...), and collected our bags. Lined up at customs while every bag went through a scanner and the officer checked to ensure our forms were filled correctly. We finally all passed through customs and met up with our local guide Batir 1 1/2 hours after landing (I think some of the passengers were still waiting for their luggage at this time). A short ride later we arrived at our hotel, a very clean-looking Dedeman Silk Road Tashkent.

June 9, 2008

Silk Road III Day 1: Seoul Stopover

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Today I embarked on my long-awaited trip to Central Asia with a few friends. We are flying from Taipei, with an overnight in Seoul since we are flying Asiana Airlines. The flight was short and relatively smooth, and we were picked up by the driver for my friends' colleague.

We went to dinner first, at a nice Korean restaurant in the mall attached to the 63 Building. I was really looking forward to this meal, as I haven't had good Korean beef for more than 2 years.

Honestly, the beef was disappointing. The sirloin that they brought out didn't look very fresh, as the color was starting to darken and wasn't bright red as it should be. And the waitress overcooked the beef (maybe to cover up the fact that the beef wasn't fresh) so the pieces were tough and chewy.

The other problem was that the grill they used was a hybrid. They used real charcoal, but there was a fan mechanism to increase/decrease the airflow to control the temperature. At one point the temperature was so high that as a bit of fat dripped onto the charcoal, flames shot out over the grill. That should have never happened.  Anyway, the kalbi ws not bad, and the side dishes were delicious. I enjoyed a very nice bowl of cold noodles (冷麵), and a very, very ripe persimmon that was totally delish.

After checking into the hotel, walked around Myong Dong (明洞) and found some of the worst-tasting donuts I've had in recent memory at the New York Donut Plant. This really wasn't my day in terms of dining...


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