July 31, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 7: Astana architecture

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I'm going back to Astana today, and took a morning flight from Kyzylorda Korkyt Ata Airport.  As I waited at the gate to board my flight, I was kinda surprised to see two propeller biplanes parked on the tarmac.  Not something you see everyday...

There's a simple in-flight meal, with a sandwich, delicious passion fruit and nectarine yogurt, along with some knock-off goldfish cookies.

But I was much happier munching on my Lay's Shashlik (Шашлык) potato chips...

July 30, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 6: the long drive back to Kyzylorda

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After a long day at the North Aral Sea yesterday (the roundtrip took 8 hours), it was time to head back to "civilization" in Kyzylorda.  Thankfully I wasn't taking another train ride today, but had arranged for Serik to drive me the whole distance of 470 km (double that if you include his drive back).  Today I would be riding in comfort in a Mercedes C-Class - not that the Nissan 4WD yesterday wasn't comfortable.

Gulmira made sure I was well fed this morning, cooking me some pan-fried eggs with tomatoes.  I took it with bread and tea.

July 29, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 5: Aral Sea

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On my last trip to Kazakhstan back in 2008, there were two places I did not get to visit due to time constraints... and they later became itches that needed scratching.  One was Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the other was the Aral Sea.  I would manage to scratch both of them on this trip.

The Aral Sea is one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters in the world, thanks to the Soviets who decided to divert rivers feeding the lake to irrigate crops such as cotton - one of the most water-hungry crops that require between 8,000 - 20,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg.  So, after decades of being starved of water, the Aral Sea began shrinking in a vicious cycle.  As the remaining water evaporated, the salinity of the lake increased, and life in the lake began to disappear.  The Aral Sea is now a mere fraction of its former self.

When I made the decision to come to Baikonur, I realized that Aral is really not that far away.  So I made arrangements to extend my trip and spend an extra day touring the Aral Sea.  I wasn't gonna come to Kazakhstan a second time and leave without visiting the Aral Sea when I was gonna be within 250 km of it.

We left Hotel No. 1 at Site 2 in Baikonur Cosmodrome before 5 a.m., so that Stuart and I could be dropped off at Turyatam Station while some of the others were driven back to Kyzylorda.  We were booked on the 6:07 a.m. train from Tyuratam (Тюратам) to Aral Sea (АРАЛ МОРЕ).  While I couldn't read the electronic ticket I received as it was written in Cyrillic, I did manage to catch that the 4-hour train ride cost the staggering sum of 969 Tenge - roughly USD 3.  In the back of my mind, I had a suspicion that this wasn't gonna be a train ride I was gonna enjoy...

July 28, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 4: live Soyuz rocket launch

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Today's the day!  Scratching an itch and ticking an item off the non-existent bucket list by watching a live rocket launch at Baikonur!  It's gonna be an exciting day!  But first, some breakfast back at the canteen...

Fruit cake with raisins (кекс творожный с изюмом) - these were pretty dry and hard, but flavor-wise they were OK.

New day, new porridge. Today it seemed to be semolina porridge (каша из манной крупы), and the texture reminds me of liquefied polenta or grits, with a grainy texture on the tongue.

July 27, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 3: Baikonur city tour

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Got up early today to see the sight of camels wandering around our hotel.  That was unexpected.  Still no internet connection, and I'm getting little bits of messages coming in.  Very frustrating to be out of touch on a weekday.

Breakfast was at the canteen nearby.  We lined up cafeteria-style, and for the first time I truly experienced the "Russian department store" service I had always joked about...  There were very few items of food and drink on offer, and you took what came out of the kitchen... or left it.  My fellow traveler Kevin proffered: "You do have a choice, and the choice is not to eat."

July 26, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 2: Kyzylorda to Baikonur

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My morning was not spent walking around the city as planned, but in my hotel room at the Hilton Garden Inn Astana. I had some work to do, and despite being surprisingly hungry after a whole day of eating yesterday, I wasn’t interested in eating much this morning. Lunch at a decent restaurant wasn’t an option today since most don’t open till 12pm, and I was on my way to Astana Airport by then.

Dining options at the domestic terminal of Astana Airport were pretty damn limited. I didn’t have a lot of time, and wasn’t gonna bother checking out the Creperie de Paris. There didn’t seem to be a local option, so I found myself at Burger and Pasta, ordering two croissants and a juice. Gotta be honest and say that the croissants exceeded my expectations.

The flight to Kyzylorda took 1½ hours, and after 3 flights on Air Astana in 2 days, I’ve gotten used to passengers clapping upon successful landing by the pilot. Kyzylorda Korkyt Ata Airport reminds me of the dinky airports in remote parts of Asia – with a simple building, only one gate, and no luggage conveyer belt. We had to wait outside the room until the staff unloaded the luggage, then everyone rushed to grab their bags. I didn’t see my luggage in the pile, and was about to try to report missing/stolen luggage until my guide spotted it near the entrance. My guess is that one of the locals tried to steal it but couldn’t get pass the staff at the door checking luggage tags.

July 25, 2017

Back to Kazakhstan day 1: horse meat in two capitals

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When I embarked on my trip to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia back in 2008, I was able to spend only 4 days in Kazakhstan.  As a result there were a couple of destinations that I had to pass up - including the new capital Astana.  I had managed to hit both of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites listed at the time - my priority on that trip - so I left the country with a small dose of regret about not reaching the sites in the western end of the vast country.

Two months ago my caviar supplier connected me with his friend in Moscow, offering a unique opportunity to travel to Baikonur and watch the Russians launch a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  The mission would carry 3 astronauts to the International Space Station.  This was one of the places I didn't get to visit 9 years ago, and it turns out to be an itch I really had to scratch.  Despite being turned down by every single friend I asked to join me - pretty much all because of scheduling conflicts - I decided to bite the bullet and make the trek on my own.  I would be joined by other visitors for the tour.

Initially I had found a very cheap ticket to Astana, routing myself through Beijing and flying Air China the whole way.  The Beijing - Astana route is new for Air China, which may explain the low cost of the airfare.  A few days ago, I began to get worried about potential delays at Beijing Capital International Airport.  Aside from the usual air traffic control, summer is the season for thunderstorms, and I was hearing horror stories about massive delays.  The 5½-hour layover I had scheduled began to look insufficient.  After struggling with the decision for a few days, I decided to cancel my original flights and booked myself on Air Astana - flying direct to Kazakhstan and bypassing Beijing (or any other city in China) altogether.  The ticket was much more expensive - more than double the cost of my original ticket - but I could not afford to miss my connecting flight in Beijing for any reason.

My 6-hour flight from Hong Kong to Almaty was uneventful.  Hong Kong was sunny with blue skies, and there were no weather or air traffic delays coming out of Almaty.  I was unfortunately seated right over the wing, so I wasn't able to take any decent pictures.  Nine years on, the inflight entertainment system on Air Astana was pretty good - high-res touch screens showing a good mix of international as well as local/Russian programs.  I listened to two albums by Dilnaz Akhmadieva - who is apparently still a figure on the Kazakh pop scene after all these years. I also watched The Diamond Sword - a movie about the first Kazakh khans who were descended from Genghis Khan.  There was also the option of watching re-runs of House M.D. dubbed in Russian, but I chose to stick with the original English dialog...

After landing at Almaty Airport and going through immigration, I moved to the departure level upstairs for my 3-hour layover.  This is a modest-sized airport and there weren't many shops and restaurants, so I wasn't able to buy new shoes to replace the ones falling apart around my feet.  I guess I would have to wait till Astana...

July 14, 2017

The king in the hood on Bastille Day

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The King made another visit to Hong Kong, and the old gang was once again rounded up to catch up with him.  With BM being put on a special diet and unable to join us, the task of picking a restaurant was kinda thrust back on my shoulders.

We asked the King what he preferred, and when the response came back as "casual Western", I casually suggested my go-to place for something like this - The Man in White T-Shirt's Neighborhood.  As a result of having booked this dinner sometime last week, I decided to pass up the opportunity to come here on Wednesday on the rare oppotunity when The Man in White T-Shirt had occasion to cook for Chef Alain Ducasse...  Quel dommage!

Since we decided to take the second seating on this busy Friday night, we needed to meet somewhere else for drinks before dinner.  Out of the few suggestions I threw out, La Cabane Wine Bistro was chosen.  So I knew I would start the evening with some bong water...

2015 Tony Bornard Le Chardo Gai - pretty ripe on palate, with some acidity at the same time. Flinty, slightly pungent from sulfur.

July 10, 2017

Quintessentially Hong Kong part 3: noisy and chaotic

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During dinner last night, the Foodalist asked us where she should go for dim sum while in Hong Kong.  While the usual suspects such as Lung King Heen (龍景軒), Fook Lam Moon (福臨門), Spring Moon (嘉麟樓) and the like were discussed, some of us felt that a trip to Lin Heung Tea House (蓮香樓) would make for a more interesting story for her - even though the food wouldn't be comparable to the other places.

As it turns out, my old friend Sheets - whose family owns Lin Heung - meets with his family for dim sum on Mondays.  So while still at dinner, I asked him whether it would be alright for me to barge in on his family lunch and bring along a friend.  Sheets didn't mind, as he's invited me for lunch in the past.  So that was good news for the Foodalist.

But a few seconds later, I realized that I wasn't bringing just one guest.  There were 6 people at the table who wanted to come to lunch - including Chef Alain Ducasse!  This was a little tricky... as it would definitely be a huge imposition on the Yiens.  After a little bit of back and forth with Sheets, I finally got clearance to bring the 4 visitors to lunch.  We would be a little cozy but Sheets assured me that they'll manage.

July 9, 2017

Master and protégé Tasting

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A friend was coming to town from France and wanted to meet up for a meal.  We were looking for more unique experiences for her when I suggested that we try booking my favorite private kitchen.  She also suggested the possibility of having Chef Alain Ducasse join us, and this made for a very interesting proposition.  Having been unable to secure the chef of my favorite private kitchen for this evening, the Great One suggested that we take our guests to Tasting Court (天一閣) instead.  At this point we roped in The Man in White T-Shirt to help with the arrangements - which seemed perfectly fitting since he had once worked for the legendary French chef.

So as it turns out, out of our party of 8 only Hello Kitty and myself were strangers to Monsieur Ducasse.  I cracked a joke about the two of us being the nobodies who were just tagging along, but it was pretty much the truth.  And Hello Kitty finally got her chance to go to Tasting Court after their relocation.

It's been some time since my first and only visit to the restaurant, and I was glad to have the opportunity to try a few of my favorites from last time, and get an introduction to new favorites.

Abalone and eburna areolata Sichuan style (蜀香鮑魚拌東風螺) - pretty nice.  The textures of both abalone and babylonia were nice, and there was just enough spice to get the tongue tingling.

July 8, 2017

A brand new Tasting

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A few weeks ago I received a very kind invitation from the PR team at the City of Dreams, inviting me to lunch at The Tasting Room at the Crown Towers.  There has been a change of chefs recently, and Fabrice Vulin - formerly of Caprice in Hong Kong - has now taken residence there.  The PR team was very accommodating and agreed to arrange lunch on a weekend on account of my day job.  This time around, though, it was poor Carmen who had to sit and keep me company throughout our long lunch...

The sommelier wheeled over his Champagne trolley to start us with a flute of bubbly.  Can't complain about that!

Henriot Brut Souverain, en magnum - yeasty and mineral, at first a little sharp on the nose.  Softened up in the glass.

July 5, 2017

Deep-fried Seventh

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Our friend from Seoul is back in town, so The Great One and I arranged for another dinner at a Cantonese restaurant at her request - this time at Seventh Son (家全七福).  One can never go wrong coming here, and there's no pressure to order expensive dishes here - unlike a few other places around town.

Crispy pork belly (脆皮燒腩仔) - our Korean friend's colleague had this at lunch and apparently wanted more - because he only got to eat one piece.  Have to say that this was pretty good - with a good amount of fat underneath the crunchy crackling.


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