Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saturday, December 31, 2011

it's over finally

Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
A long and both mentally and physically painful 365 days! A lonely, disappointing and angry year. Eyes saw wonders never seen before, only to end up with pains never before experienced. $20K later only brought constant back pain. It started with 4 problems and ended with them unresolved, and one even increased its intensity. So glad it's finally over!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday, November 27, 2011

HippoRodeo RIP

Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
you have been a good companion and oh so many memories. We went everywhere. From your very trip to the Grand Canyon to the slopes of Lake Tahoe where you were Ruby Red dunked by Tomasso. From Kings Canyon to Yosemite and numerous trips to SoCal. After I've bathed you, you shined with pride and looked so gorgeous. Your simplicity was what attracted me to you when I first saw you. We've been together for so long, longer than any other I've had. Been created for rugged mountain terrain, you nevertheless struggled to get up M&P's driveway. But I didnt mind. In your old age, you started to fail but it's only because I havent taken care of you properly. Now I so regret it. I've enjoyed driving you so much and I am already missing you. So farewell my dear old companion. In your eternal absence, remember the Hippo who although neglected to keep up with your maintenance nonetheless she held you dear to her heart. HippoRodeo, the Hippo will remember you always.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A dent in the universe

Posted by Hippobean at 11:00 PM 0 comments
"you wanna sell sugar water or come with me and change the world?" he once asked the MBA CEO. And I always remember this line. "Jobs died" was the first thing Greg said when he boarded the bus. We were in Samarkand. The day was hot and beautiful and I couldnt believe the man who created Apple was gone. Later in Almaty, we walked by an iStore and saw the Jobs memorial with notes and apples. I was still at Apple when he came back to Apple. Not did he "changed the world" at Apple, he "changed the world" by creating the iProducts. He was not an easy man to work with. His vision was far beyond our limited comprehension. He could be ruthless and relentless. But he was great. He made a dent in the universe and the universe will never be the same without him.

jobs n apple

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Five Stans - she's done it!

Posted by Hippobean at 11:49 PM 0 comments
It was unusual and very nice of the Ak Keme hotel to provide us breakfast at 4am. But I still could only have bread and tea. This tummy bug just wont leave me alone. Jonathan was there to see us off. He's the best tour leader I've had. Although Janko from Patagonia was excellent too. At the Manas airport, a guard with a riffle stood in front of the terminal entrance and checked every one before allowing them to enter. One more time going through metal detector and x-raying our luggage. At the passport control again another round of metal detector and x-ray. Then one more time before entering the gate. The Hippo must be emitting radiation by now. The monitors at the waiting area didnt display any info. There was no gate number on the gate. In fact it seemed there was only 1 gate. Then someone got up from his seat and approached the counter and suddenly everyone jammed the gate and boarding commenced. Back at SVO, we had 4 hours layover. Memories came back as we've all been there before. I walked the entire terminal F and D to kill time and to see it since I didnt spent much time there during the first time. Others were pretty sick of it because they've spent 10 hours there on their way to start the trip. We all ate the TGIF, the only American joint and the only place that accepted US dollars. When I ordered french fries, the perrrky Russian girl asked me in perfect English what sauce I wanted. Huh? It took a few seconds for me to realize what she meant. Ketchup of course. Everything tasted very authentic TGIF! The 10 hrs to JFK was this time without rowdy babies. I had the same seat as on the flight coming over. A couple sat between me and Mike on the front row. Sylvia was on the right and Judy and Karel on the left. So this time I had people to chat with. I even saw X-Men First Class again. The food again wasnt bad and I was finally able to nibble something. JFK was rainy and we had to wait at the tarmak for half an hour for an available gate. I only had a little over an hour to go through passport control and get my luggage and then custom and race to the Delta terminal. My luggage turned up and I was pleased that through all the flights it didnt get lost. It was raining when I stepped out of terminal 2 and ran to the Delta terminal. By the time I reached my gate, it was already boarding. I was totally knackered being up for over 24 hours now. The final flight home was totally uncomfortable. Couldnt read, couldnt sleep. So very freaking tired of flying by now. Should have stayed overnight at NYC and have dinner with the Goose or something. Finally during the last 10 minutes of the flight, I played the onboard trivia and noticed this person on seat 22F who kept winning. Not matter how fast I entered my answer, he got it correctly first. I've looked around but could not see 22F. Ah well. Then familiar lights appeared below, the San Mateo bridge, cars on 101. And this meant home!


It took many months of planning, many weeks worrying, hassle to get all the visas, a long tiresome journey to get there, long layovers, through roomie problems, tour leader switching, long waits at the border crossings, too many internal flights, hotel room fixtures that didnt work, tummy aches, but at the end, all was worth it, for the sights I've been seen wow'd me beyond my expectations, and travel companions that had character and energy, some annoyed me to the point of laughter, others so sweet it made me believe there's still hope in humanity. The border crossings, the soviet style hotels, an educational experience.

Each Stan has its own peculiar character, history, and speciality and yet the culture is not that much different, having similar costumes, food and music. Uzbek had the most Silk Road cities. Turmen had the most beautiful traditonal costumes and hats. Tajis people are the most beautiful looking. Kazak had stunning mountains. And Kyrgyz had the most serene lake resort. What appeared at first to be strange because of their geographical boundaries, it had a reason. Stalin drew the lines for his own reasons. Wanted to punish the Tajis, he gave Bukhara and Samarkand to the Uzbek causing a whole bunch of Tajis to trap in a different country. Thus the result was, like says:

Border Bemusement: Turn your brain into scrambled eggs by pondering this...

In the Fergana Valley, the borders of Central Asian nations are the most confusing in the world.

Parts of Tajikistan are north, south, east and west of Kyrgyzstan
Parts of Tajikistan are north, south, east and west of Uzbekistan
Parts of Uzbekistan are north, south, east and west of Tajikistan
Parts of Uzbekistan are north, south, east and west of Kyrgyzstan
Parts of Kyrgyzstan are north, south, east and west of Uzbekistan
Parts of Kyrgyzstan are north, south, east and west of Tajikistan

If you go, don't forget your multiple-entry visas and a good compass -- or better yet, Ferganaboutit!

This was probably one of the best trips I've ever taken. The Persian Islamic architecture was a wonder I didnt expect. The camaradies of the group was great. There was energy in the group and we got along and bonded quite well. We had a few characters in the group which actually made the trip interesting, unforgetable and fun. I remember each one of them well. The variety of sites was superb. Refreshing historic Islamic architecture mingled with new soviet block apartments, gorgeous ceramics with competing designs, and then sublime mountains. The food was good, the soups I just couldnt get enough of.

So the travel bug is still on and next the Caucasus, to finish the last leg of the Silk Road!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Last day in the Stans

Posted by Hippobean at 10:04 PM 0 comments
Woke up extra early this morning to explore the resort. I walked down to the beach and being low season there was no crowds on the shore. The beach was clean and the pier had built-in picnic tables on both sides. I thought it was designed very well and imagined how people can enjoy them during summer. The water was tranquil, transparent and clean. I looked back at the Tien Shan serving as a backdrop to the numerous wooden cabins in the resort. The day was fine, sky blue, not a cloud but a bit cold. What a wonderful relaxing place, without the maddening summer crowds. I wandered around the resort complex, saw cabins of different sizes, designs and color, a giant swimming pool, community halls and dinning rooms, and almost got lost in the immensity. Quite impressive with this resort. I wouldnt mind spending summer here, swim in the lake and relax in this quiet setting.

On our way back to Bishkek, we stopped at the Shamsy Valley to see the Burana Tower and the nearby Bal-bals, small statues for the dead. They're scattered in a wide area sorta like the Moais in Easter Island but much much smaller in size and not impressive. I've climbed up to the tower, not so much for the view, but because this was the last tower of the trip and my last climb. I've missed climbing the pylon at Ak Saray because after climbing the Islam Khodja minaret in Khiva, my poor legs hurt for 2 days straight, specially the right one with the bad knee. Greg, of course, climbed every minaret we've seen, including the one of the Ulugbek Madrasa at the Registan. If I've known we could do that, I would have climbed it too.

We happened upon a kyrgyz polo match the local called Kok Bearu. Instead of hitting th e ball, the riders dragged a goat carcass. Most of us went to see it and take photos. I didnt much care to see a bunch of people on horses dragging around a dead animal.

Back at the capital, our local guide took us to shop at the Russian Zum department store. Every time I stepped into one of these, it reminded me of the old department stores in Hong Kong. The first floor sold nothing but electronics and it was buzzing with people. The top floor only sold souvenirs and they didnt barter. As a result I only got 1 tshirt for the lucky fellow at home.

Back to the same hotel Ak Keme for the last day of the trip. I was given the same room and memories of that bad night surfaced and I almost asked for another room.

We dined at the Captain Nemo restaurant and had perch wrapped and cooked in foil. Not too bad. Jonathan surprised Fran by giving her a bathday card signed by all of us, and a local hand embroidered bag and the carpet he was lugging around all through the trip. We now know who he bought it for. Fran wasnt totally surprised but looked quite happy tho.

Tomorrow wake-up time is 3:30am with a 4:30 departure. Not looking forward to the longggggggg flight home. Trip was over. But what a trip it was! My eyes were very content to have feasted on so much magnificent sights!

burana tower

Burana Tower photos

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pristine waters, marvelous mountains, Lake Issyk Kul

Posted by Hippobean at 11:57 PM 0 comments
Morning drive to Lake Issyk Kul. We've stopped at the town of TokMok to a supermarket to gather material for a picnic lunch. I spotted colored toilet paper and bought a pack of green and orange ones. Greg made fun of my toilet paper faddish. What, he and his 1 hat a city thing, so what if mine was toilet paper? The entire group thought I was strange, and well, the Hippo is. About mid-way to our destination, we stopped on top of the mountains pass for our picnic lunch. The scenery was barren rocks and the wind simply howled, so I remained in the bus to eat my miserable lunch of bread and juice. My stomach still wasnt feeling too well after last night fiasco. This morning having my tea and bread for breakfast, Bryde came over to my table and told me they did bring out last night's cake but he didnt see any with my initials on it. After a long drive through pretty spectacular mountain roads and canyons and brownish/beige rocks, we finally make it to the highest lake in Central Asia. The scenery was spectacularly serene and except for a few developments by the shore, it was almost completely unspoiled and pristine. Although some of the group didnt like it (what, you expect Lake Tahoe?), I liked it for it was still pretty true to nature, no glass high rises with neon lights that lined up the shores. Much like lake Prespa in Macedonia. The bit more crowded shores were almost like Ohrid.

Our lakeside resort the Raduga was simply a paradise as compared to the lousy hotels we had so far. It was right in front of the shore, with the mountains as backdrop. The individual rooms were tiny but there were 2 separate temp controls, one for the room floor and another for the bathroom floor. Everything was spanky clean and new, including the very white and fluffy towels. I simply loved staying in the room because it was so warm. The only thing that didnt work was the bedside table lamp with power chord that had square prongs but the wall outlet had round holes! Go figure this one out!

Neither the petroglyphs nor the local museum were very impressive. But the boat ride on the lake was a marvelous way to end the day. It was cold but nevertheless I've enjoyed it tremendously. Jonathan played bartender and poured us vodka, brandy, coke and juice and even brought us cookies. We had the entire boat for ourselves. The sun was setting and simultaneously on the opposite end of the lake the full moon rose. The Tien Shan in between and the lake water transparent and quite clean. And I've realized this was the last day of the trip, and what a magnificent way to end a trip. I sat on the boat admiring the setting sun and the rising moon, listening to the sound of water lapping against the boat, and the glorious mountains, and reminiscing all the sites I've seen on this trip, and I was a happy camper.

lake issyk kul

Lake Issyk kul photos

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, no orgasm

Posted by Hippobean at 11:23 PM 0 comments
One last border crossing this morning. The fastest ever. No hassle whatsoever. It only took us 35 minutes. A record time. Locals still cut in our line but our Kyrgyz guide gathered all our passports and it only took 15 minutes and the entire group crossed over. On our way to the border we spotted Bactrian camels. An entire caravan of them! I've seen many camels in my travels but never one with 2 humps. What a treat! They lined up in front of the Tien Shan mountains as if to pose for us. Jonathan took a picture of us lined up to take pictures of the Bactrians all lined up for us to photograph. It was funny! And what a glorious sight!

Bishkek is a nice city but after all the impressive Islamic architecture of Uzbek, nothing here can wow me. We did see the last remaining statue of Lenin in Central Asia. And the mountains were still glorious as in Almaty.

Our hotel Ak Keme was old and wasnt clean and the souvenir shop tiny with nothing worth buying, but the internet was free. However, my room had a balcony with a sublime view of the Tien Shan. We dined at the hotel because Jonathan said they had a cake here last time that was orgasmic, and it was there too at breakfast the following morning. We had chicken that was very tasty and so was the mushroom soup. However, the cake they brought us wasnt the one that made everyone in the last group euphoric. I said 'no orgasm this time' and Jonathan said 'maybe it has a headache' and that caused us to laugh, rolling on the floor. I edged my initials on the 'frigid' cake that they gave us, to see if I could see it in tomorrow's breakfast. Later that night the chicken and mushroom soup all came out, and I had a terrible night being sick. Now the bacteria was in full bloom and from now on I abstained from eating properly.


Bishkek photos

Monday, October 10, 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

Kazakhstan, sublime mountains

Posted by Hippobean at 9:16 PM 0 comments
Woke up this morning with no remnants of the cramps. Even though, I had just a lite breakfast of tea and bread. We walked across the street from our hotel to start our sightseeing. The Zhenkov's Cathedral rival St Basil's, but if you ask me, I found neither beautiful. Colorful and lego-like, but not impressive to me. A little further down was the War Memorial with a very ugly very soviet black monument of the soldiers bursting out of a USSR map. It's one of the ugliest monuments I've seen. I looked and looked but still couldnt tell it's the map of the USSR. Then we went up to the famous ice skating rink at the Medeo Canyon mountain and I hiked up all the stairs (once you scaled the first visible stairs, there were 2 more flights of stairs) only to found nothing worth seeing on top. We drove to the top of the Green mountain, the highest in Almaty, in order to take the Kök-Töbe cable car back down. Then the rest of the day was free. After the Islamic architecture and historic Silk Road cities of Uzbek and Turmen, sightseeing did seem to go downhill. Either I was already tired of traveling, or the sights deteriorated, I pretty much lost interest in sightseeing in Almaty. Even Jonathan confessed it was hard to find something interesting to see or do in Almaty. Almaty is a big modern city, with lots of up-scale designer stores. But we were hungry of souvenirs. The hotel told us to go to the pedestrian only shopping street and the Russian Zum department store which top floor sold only souvenirs. We couldnt find the pedestrian only shopping street. We did find the pedestrian only street but there were only a few cafes and no souvenir stores. The Zum sold only cheap trash. We were very disappointed with Almaty shopping. In the end I bought some good stuff at the souvenir shop at the hotel. The only other consolation was our hotel room had a fantastic view of the snow covered Tien Shan mountains, and at dusk while the top of the mountains turned pink and orange, a full moon rose. Kazakhstan is the biggest and richest of all the 5 stans, having natural gas and oil. And it offers great mountains and beautiful wild lives and scenery. However, Almaty offered nothing compared to the other Stans cities we've been.


Almaty photos

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sunday, October 09, 2011

3 Stans in 1 day

Posted by Hippobean at 11:42 PM 0 comments
Someone said the Lenin's statue was still here in Khujand. Most other ex-soviet cities had taken down Lenin's statues since they'd acquired independence. So we drove to see the monument. To our surprise, the statue wasnt of Lenin. Huh, where did it go and whose statue was it? Finally our young local guide told us they moved Lenin's statue to the museum and put up this one of Timur-Malik. The murals at the monument had very beautiful mosaic. I didnt want to leave Tajikistan yet. I havent seen much of the country. Have to come back some other time. We did our 1 hour drive on smooth roads again to the border of Uzbek. Getting out of Tajis was of course again no hassle. But this time we had to fill out 3 Uzbek custom forms. Two to enter the country. Must be identical. And 1 to exit and must declare less money than the first two. And this was it. This was the last time we'd have to fill out those blasted bloody forms! We had to wait at the Uzbek passport control for the agent was having a coffee break. When he came back on duty, the computer broke down and they had to bring in another terminal. Meanwhile, the locals were cutting in like mad. So we formed a human wall to block them out. Once back in Uzbek, we drove to Tashkent for a bit more sightseeing. Ottabek took us to take a 1 station ride on the metro because someone mentioned their metro stations were nicely decorated like the ones in Moscow. I didnt find the station terribly attractive. Then we walked by the Romanov's summer residence. Didnt know they had a residence here. Then we went to the airport to have our dinner. Who would know the food at the airport restaurant was so good. However, soon after I finished eating, my tummy started to cramp and the runs started. Early on the trip, one by one of us got struck down by a mysterious tummy bacteria. Every morning someone announced they're sick. It could be the local bad salty water, but I was careful not eat anything uncooked and we even used bottle water to brush our teeth. I took 2 imodiums but I was miserable on the short flight to Kazakhstan. I even timed the cramps. It comes in every 10 minutes or so, in 3 waves. I doubled over every time they came. I've never experienced anything like it. They were sharp and painful. But at least this time we flew on a jet plane, our flight being international. Once in Almaty, the weather got a lot colder. Our very pretty blonde slavic looking local guide was there to meet us. So in 1 day we went to Tajis to Uzbek to Kazak. 3 stans in 1 day! As soon as we arrived at the hotel Otrar, I went to the bathroom in my room and spent a good half hour at the toilet. The bathroom was very small but it had a heated rack, and it made the room warm and cozy. Jonathan brought me some electrolyte pills. Like he said, after the Silk Road cities, everything was downhill from now on.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Tajikistan - glorious mountains and beautiful people

Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
The border to Tajikistan at Penjikent was closed. So we drove the 4 hours from Samarkand to Khujand, Tajikistan's second largest city instead. I was disappointed because I really did want to go to Penjikent, so I could catch a glimpse of the Pamirs and the Fann mountains. That's the reason why I chose this tour which it covered the 5 Stans. Most other tours did not cover Tajikistan. Besides, Penjikent had more interesting archaeological sites, once a fortified city with a palace, temples, markets and houses decorated with paintings with clay statues of ancient gods, and itself a Silk Road city. But Khujand offered a different experience. It's the entrance to the Fergana Valley, which went also into Uzbekistan. The Uzbek roads were very bumpy. Again we did the custom forms formality and at the border tons of locals cut in line, and we were simply sick of it and this time we've told them loudly to not cut in our line, even though they of course didnt understand a word we said. But once crossed the no-man's land into Tajis border, our local guy, a very young and good looking kid was waiting for us and we got our stamp with no fuzz at all. I had wanted a visa, like the one we got from Turkmen but there was no visa on our passports, even though we paid $100 each ahead of time for our group visa.

There was only 2 very small 14 persons van to take us on the hour drive to the other side of the mountains where Khujand was situated. Good thing we only brought an overnight bag. There was no room for our big luggage. The Tajis road were new, smooth, fast, and not bumpy at all. Our vans raced each other on the road. The view of the mountains, though not tall and not the Pamirs, were very soothing and after 2 weeks in the desert towns, I welcomed the view of the mountains. The local guide spoke good English. I was told 90% of the Tajis population was under 20. But the country is the poorest in the Stans, and had just gotten over a very terrible civil war. Tourism is flourishing but they're still learning it and need more time to get it together.

However our hotel the Grand Khujand was brand new, the rooms were ginormous, the bathroom had color toilet paper and camay bar soap and rain showers. For the first time I saw Al Jazeera on TV. It had the best and most covered news. I spent all evening watching it. I wish we could get it at home.

We visited the regional museum which was in a building built like a fortress, just across from our hotel. The basement had fake artifacts of Persepolis, even with a fake lamasu! Not much else was in this tiny museum. The best part of Khujand was their bazaar. The building had a very nicely decorated portal like an Islamic mosque or madrasa It's big and very authentic. The bottom floor had all food and produce. The upstairs which circled the place, had all kinds of shops, clothing, articles for every day use, shoes, jewelry. We went mad there and again the stores reminded me of the ones at my hometown. The façade of the bazaar had nicely decorated persian islamic tiles. It's located on one end of the central square and although it was late in the afternoon, it was buzzing with people and activity. On the other end of the square, was the city mosque, and next to it, the Sheik Muslihiddin's Masoleum. We werent allowed to go inside the mosque, so we just hanged out by the entrance and peeked in to see how it was decorated. Not as grand as the other we've seen but nicely done. Tajis were very friendly and beautiful looking. They kept coming to talk to and take pictures with us. The mountains here although not very tall, were gorgeous. Khujand is a beautiful town with beautiful people.

For dinner we ate at a local place that offered us their version of steak - a hamburger paddy again. The store next to the hotel had color toilet paper and I wanted to buy some to take home for Mom but they didnt take dollars and we didnt have any somonis since we're only there for less than a day.

I've spent the evening watching Al Jazeera on the flat screen TV in my hotel room. I simply loved their news coverage. I wish we could spend more time there because the city was interesting, the people beautiful and the hotel was very nice. And oh finally mountains all around, except they're not the Pamirs.

khujand mosque

Khujand photos

Friday, October 07, 2011

Friday, October 07, 2011

"My Strength is in Justice"

Posted by Hippobean at 11:30 PM 0 comments
Should have checked the shower yesterday because just as I've expected they didnt fix it. They simply put the showerhead back on and of course when I turned the water on, the showerhead shot right out. Finally had to drag the maintenance guy up to my room. He first took the showerhead off from another room and replaced my shower with it. Everything finally was working properly, and I just wondered which poor soul ended up with the room with my broken showerhead.

Everything in Samarkand was about Timur. "My Strength is in Justice" were his Words.

Today we visitied the mausoleum of Timur, the Gur-Emir with the beautiful azure dome sitting on an octahedral building, simple and beautiful to the naked eye. In the crypt, there's his tomb, covered with a block of greenish-blac stone, nephrite or jade, and the tombs of some of his sons and grandson the famous Mirzo Ulugbek. Honoring his teacher Sayyid Baraka, there's also a tomb for him, a much bigger one in a lighter stone color. The tour ended at the Bibi-khanym mosque at the end of the shopping avenue. Since I've already did the shopping the day before and didnt care much for bazar, I've joined Peter to see the Jewish quarter. Following his Lonely Planet guide, we found the set of nondescript white doors on an alley off the shopping Avenue. I've expected a Star of David or something on the door but nothing. Once crossed the threshold, it was a completely different world. Very narrow cobblestoned streets going in every direction. Very old houses on both sides but the doors were new and nicely adorned. Not many cars or people, and it was very quiet. None of the hassle and bussle of the tourists like from outside the white doors. We found a rundown mosque. At one alley, a man washing a car told us to leave by crossing his arms into an X. A little girl told us to turn left. We followed her direction, not knowing what she meant. We came upon the synagogue. A big star of David and a menorah above the old wooden doors. Inside a man (a rabbi?) proudly gave us a tour of the place showing us ancient Torahs and books with Ifrit (hebrew) on one side and russi (russian) on the other. Finally he put his hands on our heads and gave us a blessing and then pointed to the glass with money inside and said 'dollars'.

Andrey told me to not miss Registan at night because it's lite. So I've asked Ottabek to take us there after dinner. Jonathan said they had very cheesy Sound and Light shows at night. We first went to see Timur's Mausoleum at night. It was gorgeously lite up. Then we went to the Registan. The cheese show was going on and it was in Japanese! If you think the Sound and Light shows at Giza and Karnak were cheesy, this one topped them all! The place was poorly lite and flat out comical to be in Uzbekistan to see the Sound and Light show at the Registan in Japanese!

gur emir mausoleum

Samarkand photos

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Magnificent Samarkand

Posted by Hippobean at 10:00 PM 0 comments
The bathroom at the Regal Palace hotel was spacious and the fixtures looked almost new. but dont let that deceive you because the shower door didnt go all the way down to the shower floor and the water shot out from under the door and flooded the bathroom soaking the footmat. I was standing in ankle deep water shampooing my hair when the shower head fell off. soapy and dripping, I ran to announce my misfortune to the reception. they let me finish my shower in another guest room. I've made sure to tell them to fix the shower. so much for brand new hotels.

Today we first visited the Historical museum. There were so many ancient ceramics on display and I took a picture of each piece. Glorious ceramic heaven. So many wonderful ancient artifacts, a museum wonder. It's one of the best museums I've visited.

The day was gorgeous, the sky blue and the morning cool when we visited Ulugbek's Observatory. All that remained of the observatory was the stone rail that curved upwards where the telescope rolled, and stairs going down to the chamber. Didnt know Timur's grandson was an astronomer/philosopher/mathematician.

The site in Samarkand that blew me away was the Shahi-Zida necropolis. What a magnificent place in a magnificent location on the slope of the Afrasiab hill. You entered through the southern portal and up the staircase into a narrow passage where the Timur mausoleums with uniquely painted portals one after another flanked both sides of the passage. Then the passage opened up to a wider area where the Central Group of mausoleums appeared and it ended in the Northern Group, and upon the hill a modern cemetery, with highly decorated and well maintained tombs. Some members of the group said it was more beautiful than Ricoleta. Mmm. Couldnt really agree.

Next finally we reached the Registan. Judy said that was the 'wow' factor for her. But I wasnt totally impressed. 3 madrasas formed the square (registan = sandy place) and there were rows of benches in front of the square for spectators as the square itself was roped off and one needed to pay to get in. While the rest of the group went to a restaurant across from the square for lunch, some of us went ahead to admire the place. It's really not as big as I've imagined. Maybe because by now I had quite enough of the Persian Islamic architecture, with the same colors on the same arches, over and over throughout the trip, the Registan, probably the highlight of the entire trip, wasnt too impressive to me. I've enjoyed smaller scaled Khiva and Bukhara so much more. Nonetheless sitting there on a bench with a full view of the entire ensemble was quite a nice way to take it all in. After visiting the Registan's Madrasas, we were finally given free time to shop. The pedestrian only shopping avenue was just a block from the Registran. Modern shops lined both sides of the modern wide avenue. Every shop was the same, offered the same souvenirs. Only the prices were different because it depended on how much you could barter. Soon all of us were carrying plastic bags filled with tshirts, scarves and other goodies. The avenue ended at the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and behind it the bazar. For the rest of our free time, we sat on the benches and compared shopping notes in the presence of the 3 imposing monuments of the infamous silk road city, the world renowned Samarkand.

Dinner was at a local house on the edge of town, whose owner opened up his house to feed the tourists. We had the famous Plov which wasnt too good. Rice with 2 big pieces of meat and carrots, and how could that be their famous dish? The salads were exquisite but the house wine was poor. The dinning hall is an open room with a canopy, and the night was cold and we were freezing. and therefore couldnt really enjoy the meal.

the registan

Samarkand photos

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane

Posted by Hippobean at 10:30 PM 0 comments
We departed early for Shahrisabz, the birthplace of Tamerlane. Just outside the Bukhara old town, we made an inpromptus stop to see Chor Minor, a tiny mosque with 4 minarets (chor = 4 minor = minaret). very unique. "dont tell the other group" said Jonathan. I really didnt understand why they're trying to keep the 2 groups apart. we're always running into the other group anyway. at the hotels, at the restaurants, at sightseeing, at the airports, at border crossing. what was the point of keeping us separate. we've already made friends with some of the other group.

Shahrisabz was vibrant with lots of weddings going on in front of the Ak-Saray, Timur's winter palace. The brides' gowns were ostentatious, bizzare, outrageously flamboyant, almost comical. The palace ruins still showed decorated walls and the 2 remaining pylons were very tall and impressive. The portal which once stood had inscriptions that could be read clearly kilometers away. Later we visited Timur's crypt with his stamp in arabic on the wall, but he wasnt buried there. He was buried in Gur-Emir in Samarkand instead. We will visit his burial when we get to Samarkand. He built the mausoleums at Dorus-Siadat for his family and the Kok-Gumbaz Mosque and Mausoleums complex had the most beautiful dome. The setting was among green trees and very beautiful and serene. I've enjoyed this mosque very much.

260+Km would take us about 4 hours to get to Samarkand. Uzbek roads were notoriously bad. bumpy and slow. The desert roads lived up to their fame. dusty, potholes filled and the going was slow. again we've made some stops along the way to pee in the bushes. Diesel was scarce in town,so we've been told, and so our bus stopped at several gas stations to ask for fuel. most were empty. finally at the edge of town we struck black gold. the fuel pumps displays were rotary. so ancient not even the Hippo hadnt seen one before. finally we've entered the city, the third silk road city. big metropolis, sprawling city, much bigger than Bukhara. But the tap water was just as salty and the climate just as dry. our hotel was right next to the airport. fairly new with full resort amenities. We've discovered a huge gym with every kind of exercise machines, hers and his sauna and jacuzzi, and they're building a gihugic indoors swimming pool in a separate building, complete with turkish and thai baths. luckily my room did not face the airport tower but the back garden, with full sight of the gym and swimming pool complex. it was quiet back there except for very rare occasional aircraft noise. The room was big with a long balcony. The lamp on the bedside table didnt have any on/off switch, so to turn it on one needed to plug in the power cable. to turn it off, one had to pull the power chord. Very strange. The bed was huge, duvet thick and wonderful pillows. Not bad for a 3 nights stay. Oh the souvenir shop at the hotel was the best so far.

Dinner was at the only Italian restaurant, the Bella Italia. i didnt like the idea of having Italian in Central Asia. I came here to experience the local cuisine. I've always thought you couldnt go wrong with Italian. My spaghetti bolognese came with hardly any sauce. the pasta was local noodles. the meat was again ground meat. there was no taste at all. perhaps I should have ordered the pizza instead which they said it was reasonably OK. the only other choice was the veggie penne which too came with a minimum of tomato sauce. however, the local red wine was out of this world good. we put some in my spaghetti to give it some sauce and flavor. and also in the chocolate ice cream (it was white). except for the wine, definitely not a place I'd recommend or ever go back to.

At one of the stops this morning, we've discovered fruit flavor cigarrettes. so i bought some in green apple flavor. itonly cost 2 dollars so I couldnt pass it up. so tonight, at my balcony, I've smoked the local ciggie. I was dizzy after a few puffs. it wasnt strong at all. but the artificial flavor made me queasy. so much for smoking!

Kok-Gumbaz mosque

Shahrisabz photos

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Stunning Bukhara and a mighty sandstorm

Posted by Hippobean at 11:00 PM 0 comments
A long drive through the deserts of Turmenistan. The rolling hills and scattered vegetation were quite pretty. We had to make a stop to pee in the bushes. Crossing the pontoon bridge this morning to get to the Uzbek border we had to close the curtains in our bus. We're not supposed to look around or take any pictures. Hmm. There were 4KM we had to walk across with our luggage. I had no problem with that. A minivan was there but only took us half way across. The rest we had to drag our luggage in the sun. Re-entering Uzbek again took some time. Again we had to fill out the Uzbek custom forms declaring how much money we're taking into the country. Same drill. Getting a bit tired of it by now.

In the afternoon, just before sunset we visited the Chor Bakr Necropolis. Very creepy place. We witnessed a group of colorfully dressed Bukhara girls rehearsing their dance. Here in Bukhara, the dresses were considered the most beautiful in the country.

Later we drove to our soviet style hotel inside the old town, surrounded by ancient monuments. Again, we had to haul our luggage because the old town was pedestrian only. Vendors lined the streets with their goods to sell. The soviet hotel was lousy but my room window opened up to the ancient Trading Domes, filled with dust. We had stretchy sandpaper for toilet paper. Reminded me of the cheap toilet paper from some old European towns. When you tore out a piece, it broke into pieces. The duvet smelled like dirty clothes.

I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. The water was shut off. A little later the power went out. But by 6am everything came back.

The Abdullaziz Khan Madrasa around the corner from our hotel was the most colorful. It's so beautiful it blew the Hippo away. Inside, we were able to see some of the cells of the students. They were quaint and cozy with 2 stories. Even the walls were decorated. Vendors everywhere selling souvenirs, hats, scarves and the ceramic was the most beautiful. I had planned to return in the afternoon to shop. The old city of Bukhara lived up to its name. The monuments were ancient and beautiful.

We were debating on whether to do the afternoon sightseeing or just go shopping. We were not given enough free time to shop on this tour, and we were all itching to spend our dollars on local souvenirs which were so beautiful and unique.

We had lunch (fantastic local soup again) by the pool at the Lyabi-Hauz in front of the madrasa. I had planned to return later to check out the ensemble. However, walking back to the hotel, we've noticed a dark cloud in the sky. We thought it meant rain but I smelled dust. Minutes later we barely made it back to the hotel when the sandstorm hit with full force. Later other members of the group came back filled with a fine layer of sand. Every time the hotel doors were open, wind and sand blew in. Through the glass doors we could see the brown dust blowing and the shops were closing and vendors pulling their stuff off the streets. So we simply waited at the hotel lobby and the Hippo asked the classic million dollar unanswerable question "How long will the storm last?". Jonathan simply laughed at me. Peter said he wanted to go to the carpet store next door. It's just right next door to the hotel so I've decided to cover my head and venture out with him. I did find a 3X5 carpet that I liked, but the price was way too high and no amount of bartering would reduce to an amount I could afford. So I ended not buying but went to shop for scarves and ceramic instead in the few stores that were still open. The Abdullaziz Madrasa doors were closed. So there was no chance of going back there to buy the stuff I've seen in the morning. I was covered by sand by the time I came back to the hotel. At least I was able to purchase a few ceramic plates and scarves. I had my room window shut but the storm blew it wide open and my room was covered with fine sand. Ah well, we're in the desert after all.

miri arab mosque

Bukhara photos

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Silk Road Oasis city of Merv

Posted by Hippobean at 10:09 PM 0 comments
This morning we flew to Mary. We landed at the tailwind of a sand storm which completely covered the city in a haze. It was windy and sandy when we visited the Silk Road oasis city of Merv. Here the great Kiz Kala palace architecture was so unique and different with its vertical corrugated columns, I havent seen anything like it before. Everyone agreed this was the best archaeological site in Turkmenistan.

Later we drove to our soviet style hotel just outside of the city of Mary. Everything inside the room looked new and the room was enormous, with a full sitting area with sofas. However, the bed was still hard as a rock although the pillows this time were a little thicker. The bathroom too was enormous but the sink was small and the toilet literally sat on top of a throne. I had to climb up to this thing to shit. I saw a rechargeable flashlight on the desk and wonder if the electricity was unreliable here. I was lucky that everything worked in my room. Others the the group werent so lucky. Greg's room had electricity on one side of the room only, while others didnt have any at all. There's a sign in the room that said "Do not to use a white towel for the shoes we have a special sponge if you clean the white towel you must to pay for shit."

We chose to dine in the yurts at the back of the hotel, only there for tourists of course. The food wasnt any good nor enough and it was rather uncomfortable to sit with our legs crossed. But it was an experience.

the registan

Merv photos

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Ashgabat, city of white and gold

Posted by Hippobean at 11:49 PM 0 comments
Ashgabat was a big city with long wide boulevards and look much more modern than Tashkent. But soviet style again of course. oh and the apartment buildings were no longer the soviet cement blocks. Instead, they're artificial marble, standalone buildings that has 10 or more stories, with about 20 or more units each. Each was different in design but all were marble white with some color trims. Like their old soviet counterparts, they stood in a row, one after another, lined up. But they were gorgeous to look at. Their white superficial beauty blew the Hippo away. The Turkmenbashi's picture and statue were everywhere. An entire wing at the historical museum was dedicated to him. The president riding a horse, the president having a BBQ, the president playing golf, I just about had enough of seeing his face everywhere and I've only been there for 1 day.

I've wanted to know what the designs on the turkmen flag were. At the carpet museum, I've learned they represented the 5 distinct carpet designs from the 5 regions of the country. Here men and women wore their local hats and they were better looking than the ones in Uzbek. So I bought one too. The girl at the carpet museum wore hers with hair covering the sides and put in place with a pin. She was young, very good looking and looked very turkmen wearing that hat and the traditional costume. I found the turkmen girls the prettiest in all the stans. And I rather like their flag design and color and so during lunch time at the Russian bazaar I bought a turkmen flag. We had this gyro sandwich in flat bread that was so good.

The Independence Park had statues of the Turkmen heroes (omg so many of them statues) and the park was so big, again, it blew the Hippo away. Marble apartments were all around the park. This city is ginormous and everything the Turkmenbashi built was built to impress. The Hippo is shallow so I liked this city a lot. Unlike Uzbek, water is plentiful here, having the Kopet-Dag mountains, there were many fountains and golden statues. Ashgabat is indeed a city of white and gold.


Ashgabat photos

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday, September 30, 2011

Border crossing to Turkmenistan

Posted by Hippobean at 9:45 PM 0 comments
The morning was cool and the sky was clear. I was reluctant to leave Khiva. I wished we could spend more time in the walled city. As we dragged our luggage through the ancient streets once more, I looked at the monuments one last time. One last look at the city walls from outside the city and Khiva disappeared from the view.

Border crossing took the whole morning in the sun and heat. Last night we had to count our money and fill out the custom form again. For departure we needed to fill out only 1 form. We needed to make sure we declared less money than we did when we've entered the country. Leaving Uzbek passport control averaged about 10 min per person. That's fast for their record. Relatively hassle free. Then crossed over to no-man's land we had to wait and wait and wait for the Turkmen agent to put the visa on our passports. Soviet style of course. And today the embassy even waived our visa fee. So after 3 hours of waiting, we didnt have to pay the $69 to get in to Turkmenistan, and we got our Turkmen visa glued to our passport page and it was well worth the wait because the visa looked like a turkmen carpet!

After an hour of drive we arrived at the Kunya Urgench, capital of the once powerful Khorezm Kingdom in the 6th century, and explored the archaeological site. The monuments were scattered in a wide area and not impressive. The fading sunlight did not add color to the brown edifices. We dined at the UZBoy hotel and had vegetable soup that was thick and tasted like lentil. I much prefer the light broth with thin noodles. But the lentil soup was nevertheless quite good. just not what I would call veggie soup.

Later that evening, we boarded the Turkmenistan airlines and flew to Ashgabat. A short flight but I got the window seat and this rather big Turkmen who was stuck in the middle seat, took off his shoe and crossed his left leg and pointed his foot in my direction. Any minute I would tell him to put his shoe on back on except I was sure he didnt understand english.

The Grand Turkmen hotel (Four Seasons) was rather nice with a good souvenir shop, a business center that was locked and internet wasnt free, and a casino. But the bed was like a rock and the pillow flat as a sheet of paper. However, the room balcony offered a fine view of the city that had neon lights at night.

the kunya urgench

Kunya Urgench photos

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Khiva - most beautiful Silk road city

Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
When I woke up this morning, i pulled open the curtains in my hotel room window, and saw the tallest minerat in Khiva. A single lonely girl walked on the square right in front of my window in the morning twilight, adjusting her headscarf. It's a picture perfect for the national geographic magazine or in the discovery channel. This was my moment of introduction to Khiva. When I remember to take my camera out for a picture, she had already gone into one of the alleys. No other soul was present and I just didnt know the hotel was right there on the square, as we came in very late last night. Later, my eyes feasted on all the monuments of this most beautiful ancient silk road city. I've never imagined they could be so beautiful. Every tile painted in a different color and design, no inch left empty.

The walled city was filled with cobblestoned streets, narrow and ancient. Merchants with their stalls set up lined every street, a souvenir shopping heaven. Colorful silk scarves, fur hats, carved wooden goods, hand paintings, and beautifully painted ceramics, designs I've havent seen before, more beautiful than the greek ones. But I've abstained from buying since I still had 3 more weeks of travel.

For lunch we had the local soup again at a tea house courtyard just steps from our hotel. It was a clear broth with 2 small meatballs that were outrageously tasty, veggies and thin noodles. Although it was just lukewarm, it was very good.

Later in the day, I've walked outside of the walls for a while and noticed they werent too high but very thick. The view from the outside was just as impressive as from the inside. I've climbed the tallest minaret but was disappointed at the view from the top. i thought i was able to see the entire city enclave but the walls did not enclosed the entire city. Next I climbed to the roof of the Akshi Bobo Bastion inside the Kunya Ark citadel around 5pm when the French group had just left. there was my second moment at Khiva. The sun was setting and it was peaceful and I was there alone, admiring the full view of the entire city. That was the best way to see Khiva. I could see all major monuments from this vantage point and I'm loving this town. khiva was one of the most beautiful cities I've visited. sort of like walking the old town in Jerusalem. I lack words to describe the beauty of this place. So just see my pictures.

However the water in this desert oasis was so salty the soap didnt lather. We needed to use bottle water to blush our teeth. And the climate was so dry no amount of moisturizer could keep our skins from drying up. I didnt expect it to be so dry.

Our hotel Malika is located right in the center of the old town, right in front of the Islam Khodja Minaret. It's a small quaint hotel with only a handful of rooms, but the location couldnt be better. The rooms were good size with good furniture, the beds were comfy, the duvet thick and the pillows nice and plump. Everything in the bathroom worked except the toilets didnt flush well. The breakfast though could be better.

We had our evening meal at the outdoor restaurant of our hotel surrounded by ancient monuments. The night was cool and the ambience was fantastic. Felt like we were back in time on the Silk road. The soup again is out of this world, just like Mom makes it. We had a pasta dish with tomato sauce that was so tasty, I've stolen Karel's portion since she wasnt eating. Then we had watermelon and melons for dessert. The Uzbek melons were the sweetest I've ever had. Andrey told me about them before I left "make sure to sample the melons". Bazil surprised us with musicians playing local music. None of us really cared for it and we even found it comical, as they werent exactly singing but more like acting, talking and gesturing. I'm sure Uzbek music was a lot better than that.

After dinner, Greg went out to catch Khiva at night. I didnt know why I didnt remember to do that. Later I envied his photos of Khiva at night with all the monuments lite up.


Khiva photos

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
This morning breakfast was wonderful. Omelettes on order accompanied by the smooth melody of an harp.

The old town of Tashkent was my first sight of Moslem architecture, mausoleums, mosques, madrasas and square. Blue tile at every corner. blue domes every time you look up at the sky. sky reaching minarets. And the Hippo was awed. "These are new. Wait till you see the real old ones." the more seasoned travelers in the group told me. And so I couldnt wait to get to Bukhara and Samarkand. But the oldest koran, brought by Timur, was on display in the mosque museum here. Photos were not allowed, but all the same to me, since I prefer Hebrew writing than Arabic.

The big bazar inside a spacecraft shaped building was a small treat. the aroma of the spices just hits you when you walk in. dried fruit, loads and loads of spices, produce of every kind, but not really my kind of thing. One cant take spices and produce home as souvenirs. but asian bazars are fun to browse through. they remind me of my childhood in southeast asia. We had a late lunch/early dinner at the Caravan restaurant, raved by the group who stayed in another hotel (their hotel was far from town center, and since they arrived 2 days early, they've explored town and discovered the wondeful Caravan restaurant, which was just around the corner from their hotel). Pumpkin, potato and minced meat dumplings, dill soup. Their rice which contained meat, some nuts and raisins, much resembled the moorish chicken rice, was simply out of this world. never had food so simple and so delicious.

The evening flight to Urgench was a nightmare. Although the airport was brand new, just opened 3 days ago, and every inch in western style and clean, the uzbek airline was jet assisted propellers (huh?), and it took over 2 hours to cover a little over 1000Km. One propeller plane after another, all lined up on the tarmak, and busload of people kept arriving and dropping passengers, and propeller planes take off one after another, in perfect order, just like in a perfectly drilled soviet army. About half way through the flight, the heat came on and we were heated alive. I was sitting next to the right wing and the propellers were very very loud, but the flight was not rocky.

The flight was 1 hour late and we're arrived Urgench in the dark. One member of the group lost her luggage. Arriving at Khiva, I've noticed the ancient Silk Road oasis mud walls. Imposing. A bit haunting in the dark of the night. Since no cars were allowed inside the city walls, we had to carry our luggage on cobblestone roads to our hotel Malika, situated in the middle of town, surrounded by ancient historical monuments. The hotel was quaint, small and pretty. Too tired to check out the hotel, I crashed, leaving the adventure for the next day.

Khast Iman

Tashkent photos

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Central Asia

Posted by Hippobean at 11:59 PM 0 comments
As it turned out, that bloody family with the 2 noise kids and the uzbek dressed woman and the 2 young men were also in the same flight to Tashkent. They probably stayed at SVO for 10 hrs while I was out enjoying the russian capital with C. The airbus to Tashkent was old, dirty with stinky toilets. And they showed this horrible soviet movie with Uzbeks wearing the traditional costumes singing. but the food was good. I couldnt wait to get out of that plane, have my visa stamped, and get my luggage and get to that hotel bed. I was at the verge of collapsing of fatigue. but the line through passport control was long, without order and things moved at snail pace. people just kept cutting in the line. i was praying for my luggage to show up and when a small red suitcase with a green handle drag itself out on the carousel, alleluia! now I have clothes to change and my own soap and shampoo. nobody told us we needed to fill out custom forms. everyone was scrambling to find a form. and we needed to fill out 2. so he guy at the custom counter sent me back to fill out another form. uzbek people are very kind. even not knowing our language, they've tried to help us with the forms because there werent any forms in english. my pickup was there, then finally we made it to the hotel and i just crashed. by then it was already 6:30am!

The hotel room was small as well as the single bed. The bathroom, european style, tiny and it of course flooded after I showered. Breakfast was very good though. Plenty of fruit, eggs and crepe like pancake with meat. Good coffee. Tried to go for a walk after breakfast and a shower, but there was nothing interesting close to the hotel. At noon, everyone checked out and sat out in the lobby to wait for the transfer to the Dedeman hotel. We've waited for 2 hours and were ready to mutiny when Bazil, our tour leader, finally arrived, apologetically. Something about being stuck in Istanbul, arriving late, blah blah blah . First sign of many more disorganization and caos to come. The room at the Dedeman was nice with a wonderful bathroom. Some of us ventured out to see the square with Timur's statue and the nearby bazar. Fruit and produce, some spices and lots of dried fruit and bread. Their bread is round, ginormous and very very tasty. The bazar not entirely too interesting. Late in the day, perhaps the merchants not too keen on selling. Dinner at a nearby Russian restaurant that had well, not too Russian food, but the food was excellent. Good clear noodle soup, meat dumplings, lamb and chicken and plenty of salad. The Dedeman hotel was much better. The rooms were small but the bed was big and comfy, the duvet thick and the pillows adequate. The bathroom was the best part. Clean and big and everything worked and it didnt flood. The hotel offered free internet to guests. Except for the hickup waiting for the hotel transfer, not a bad start. Cant wait to see what else Uzbek has to offer.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

Soviet Style Airport and Capital

Posted by Hippobean at 9:43 PM 0 comments
The 9 hrs flight was stuck between 2 noisy rowdy kids, their parents and 1 uzbek dressed woman. Even though i had the front row with plenty of leg room, they were on either side of me and not a moment of peace and quiet. First time with Aeroflot and it actually wasnt too bad. The female flight attendant uniforms were elegant and the food and service were good. And no problem at passport control. Out in the arrival area, I've started to walk and heard 'Hippo' and C was there as promised. We took the electric train and then the metro to Red Square. Moscow metro stations were very deep. The walls and ceilings were decorated nicely. Too many metro lines going in every direction. We had to ask many times to find the one we needed to go on to. I was right that I couldnt have managed it on my own. The Russian capital didnt impressed me too much. Red Square wasnt as big as I've imagined. St Basil wasnt as colorful as I've seen in pictures. But nonetheless I got an exhilirating moment when I've realized I was finally in Russia! The sentimental Romanovs, the romantic Dr Zhivago, the heart tugging Tchaikovsky's melodies! It was very cold. There was no time to take any tours in the Kremlin. I've wandered alone in Red Square while C went to a sushi place in the GUM State Department mall for internet access. She needed to find a place to spend the night. The mall was modern and the shops all upscale. There were many Asian tourists but nobody was buying anything. We both fell asleep on the train on our way back to SVO. It's been a long day for both of us. Old soviet style Terminal F was confusing. No indication on where to go in to board the planes. One needed to go through 3 checkpoints: 1 to get in to the airport, one to get in to check-in, and 1 final time to get to the gate. Once I found my gate, there was no place to sit, and for the first time, I saw central asians. When boarding was announced, there was no order, no line, everyone just rushed in. Welcome to soviet style ...

st basil's

Moscow pictures

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The 5 Stans hurdles

Posted by Hippobean at 9:42 PM 0 comments
I dont remember exactly when I've decided to do the 5 Stans. And the hurdles were many. First the 3 visas I've found out after booking the tour that I needed to get on my own. The 3 countries no longer accepted tour agencies to get the visas, I was told, and I was pissed. Luckily L's friend suggested a visa agency that had a nice website. I've downloaded the online forms, created all the entry fields in Acrobat, and filled them out on my Mac. And so began the month long wait and worry. Both Uzbek and Kyrgys took extra days but Kazak only took 2 days. And the visa was the cheapest. The next hurdle was the Aeroflot flight with 10 hrs layover in Moscow. Stay at the soviet style airport or venture alone out to see Moscow? I didnt think I could manage seeing the city on my own since my Cyrillic was so non-existing. Massive online research didnt yield a better or cheaper flight schedule. It proved to be difficult to travel to the Stans on a smooth painless timetable. First C said she could travel with me to Moscow. Then they wanted her to be in St Petersburg instead. Finally she said she could overnight train to Moscow and meet me at SVO. Then there were the logistics of how to get to town from the airport. Online reviews didnt recommend driving since the Moscow traffic was legendary. But with C's fluent Russian, we could take the train and then metro to the center of town. Next hurdle was to get the Russian transit visa. It cost the same as the regular one, but a transit visa didnt need a letter of invitation (what's with these soviet places that needed a letter of invitation to their country?), only a short letter specifying the purpose of the visit. To my amazement, their SF embassy website had detailed and clear instructions on how to fill out the visa application. I did a dummy one and then printed it out for a test. what the heck is a patronymic name? Next I drove to their beautiful embassy up on Russian Hill on Green st. There was no clear line for the counter. One needed to find out who's last and wait for that person to finish. I've learned this thanks to the visa agent who was there to get visas for his clients. Asian looking but spoke Russian. Most likely from one of the Stans! My turn came and the Russian agent took some time to read my letter, and then made a phone call. I've heard him said 'niet, niet' and I began to worry. Then he told me to wait as he needed to wait for a return call. Then finally he took my papers and gave me a receipt for my money order. On my way back, my car overheated and broke down. But exactly 7 days later, I've returned and got my transit visa. No need to wait in line if you've come for pickup. This I've also learned at the Russian embassy. I was impressed with their procedure. Painless, smooth and easy. With visa hurdles overcome, the next ones were regarding luggage. 1 transatlantic with 10 hrs layover and 4 internal flights, will my luggage get lost? Will Moscow let me in with the transit visa? Will C be there to meet me? Will my airport-hotel transfer at Tashkent be there at 3AM to pick me up?

And so, I was ready for the adventure ...

At JFK, Sep 25 - tavelling solo could be lonesome. I used to excel in solo travel, darting from 1 place to the next, figuring out all the paths and navigating through obstacles. Flashes of loneliness sneaked in as I sat at JFK terminal 1 eating my overpriced airport prosciutto sandwich. But then again there were always moments of contentment like reading a good book on the plane. the afternoon was cloudy, forecast 60% rain but no rain fell today. just dark clouds. 78 degrees F. at sfo, we had to change planes and gate due to a malfunction on the delta plane. and I worried my luggage would not make it to the new plane. a big bunch of hasidic jews on the flight. interesting fellows. they spoke with pure american accents and speech but their curly hair, beards and clothing were totally alien. they were travelling onwards to Kiev. all wailing at the gate. so like at the wailing wall. they were rude, most traveling for the first time, unfamiliar with aircraft boarding procedures. rowdy. and so the adventure begins.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


Posted by Hippobean at 9:53 PM 1 comments

Feel I'm coming back to Massachusetts ...

So i was channel surfing and the Bee Gees One Night Only at the MGM Grand in Vegas was playing again on KQED. When they played Massachusetts, it brought me back to my night drive from Logan to Norwich, Vermont. My first drive through the New England states. As I was leaving Boston, I was singing Massachusetts to myself.

Somethings telling me I must go home ...

The melody carried me from heavy rush hour traffic in Boston, out to the unlite and empty freeways, from I93 into New Hampshire, to I89 past Lebanon, into HI-120 through Hanover, and finally crossing the river on HI-10 into Vermont to Norwich. That night was magical.

And the lights all went out in massachusetts ...

The freeways, once outside of the greater Boston area, were lonely, magically quiet and dark. For hours I drove through empty highways at 90 MPH. As my headlights shone through the pitch black New England air, Massachusetts was my only company.

Talk about the life in Massachusetts
Speak about the people I have seen
And Massachusetts is one place I have seen

New England felt like a whole different country.

I remember the historical colonial Norwich Inn where I stayed. The building was on a quiet and dark residential street. The original Inn built in 1797 served as a stagecoach tavern for New England travelers. The victorian building was ancient, the floorboards squeaked when you're walked on them, the staircase to each floor was in a different location in the building. I was given a corner room on the top floor (the first picture on the website shows the colonial building. My room was the top left corner one) with a 4 poster bed. The bathroom was quaint colonial style and their soap was very creamy. I remember watching the US Open Tennis men semi-final at night on TV, lying in bed with all the lights out, munching on Indian food.

I remember in Lebanon, Jerry took us for a short hike in a low hill just minutes of walk from the Vicinity office, and afterwards we went to pick apples at an orchard nearby. We did it all in about an hour during our lunch time. I remember that sunny autumn afternoon sitting outside in the industrial park next to the office, slowly looking all around to absorb the tranquility of the New England air. Everywhere was green, flat with rolling hills. As far as the eye could see.

I remember visiting Hanover where Darthmouth college sat at the end of the main downtown street. It only had 1 cinema, 1 chinese restaurant, 1 indian restaurant, 1 local bar which blasted music all evening, and a few stores. All this constituted downtown Hanover.

I remember my morning drive from the Norwich Inn on the Vermont side to the Vicinity office in Lebanon NH took less than 10 minutes. The morning rush hour freeways were empty, bright and free, the air in that early autumn morning crisp and pure.

When I finally left and returned back to Boston, my heart already ached for the small town flavor. And now, everytime I hear Massachusetts, it reminds me of that magical night drive through the 3 states, the colonial Inn, the gentle pace of life, the crisp cool air, and the vast expanse of the small states, on the other side of this magnificent country, so different from the west coast, and yet part of the same union. One day I will go back ...

I will remember Massachusetts ...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday, July 17, 2011

10Km all the way!

Posted by Hippobean at 6:13 PM 0 comments
In past years the Hippo had to bail at around the 7Km mark, but this year she did the entire 10Km, since she's exceeded her goal by $425, thanks to Paul, Lek, Maria, Henry, Karen, Olivia, Joanie, Angus, Tom, Tim and Vincent's generous donations. My company raised a total of $1200. The day started out cloudy but not too cold and without fog, a rarity in Golden Gate Park. The sun came out after a while and it was a warm gorgeous day. Team AD walked with KMEL music and gorged on the free snacks (oranges, popsicles, fruit and granola bars, and chips) at each checkpoint along the route. Google got the best tshirts (as always) and one big Brazilian family was decked out in bright yellow tshirts featuring each member of the Simpsons, and wearing Minnie Mouse ears. The crazy Stanford band was playing well, crazy as usual. All this took a little over 3 hours. It was a fun day.

Team AD

Team AD in action


Brazilian Simpsons - Marge and Homer

Starting Line video [avi-2.9M]

Crazy Stanford Band [avi-5.6M]

Monday, July 04, 2011

Monday, July 04, 2011

Independence Day Party

Posted by Hippobean at 11:00 PM 0 comments
Some pictures of the 4th of July at Casa O'Racca

Party food

Flower at Casa O'Racca backyard


Hippo all over Lambee

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

summer downpour

Posted by Hippobean at 9:17 PM 0 comments
It smelled tropical and it came straight down. I miss this kind of summer downpour. A rarity in CA. How much I've enjoyed it is beyond simple words. Last I was under it, was in NYC in 2007. Rain in CA was never without wind or cold. On June 28th, 2011, it came down in sheets, like the summer rains we had at home. It was warm and wet. I drove under it, listening to its tapping on the HippoRodeo's sunroof. Big drops. Incessant. I've walked under it and felt glorious and happy. Oh, how I miss the summer rain.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Saturday, June 18, 2011

karen's 40th

Posted by Hippobean at 9:52 PM 0 comments
I cant even remember the Hippo's 40th. Hm, she was unemployed, broke with a smashed up car, and living at home with no internet access. So I guess her 40th came and went and now forgotten. K's was celebrated among friends and family in their home in Watsonville, big, new and decorated with gorgeous up-scale furniture. Particularly the pictures on the wall, Sandeman, and a painting of D's late dog, in B&W, so real. The kitchen had a center island covered in granite. All stainless steel. K showed us the wedding photos and her gown was spectacular. Really wished I've attended it. D's coral aquarium was well tended and he displayed it with pride. The in-laws were there and they all got along so fine. "Are you from MBARI too?" they asked. Gosh, I've known K&D for 10 years now, and much had changed in their lives. Better job positions, both homeowners and now married. Happy bathday K! At 40, you're still very young ... compared to the rest of us!

Party Pictures

Monday, May 30, 2011

Monday, May 30, 2011

a day at the zoo with Brian

Posted by Hippobean at 8:22 PM 0 comments
Mike kept slapping his thigh, laughing his heart out watching the hippo being watered by a fire hose, held with both hands by the keeper. That was almost 20 years ago and that was how long since I last visited the SF zoo. Erik sent me the link to SF Gate announcing the 8th birthday of the new hippo at the zoo. So naturally the Hippo went to visit new hippo, named after Brian Wilson of the SF Giants. The zoo had expanded, almost doubled its size, with a bigger parking lot that charged $10 and a new entrance on the Great Highway side. It was a brilliant sunny day, warm but windy. Inside the zoo 2 new places to eat and new souvenir shops. The elephants were moved out. There was a complete skeleton of a californian seal. The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) was asleep and so was the baby anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) (shhh, do not make noise, baby anteater is sleeping!) The Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus) were very ugly. The polar bear (Ursus maritimus horriblis) played with a surfboard in the pool, while the grizzlies (Ursus arctos) lounged in the sun away from the spectators. The gorillas (gorilla gorilla gorilla) proudly played with their youngling, a happy content family, looking at us as if we were the ones in captivity. The Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) looked exactly like its cartoon cousin in the Lion King. The lemurs (Eulemur) were all, well, ugly. Zoo visitors were excited about the penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus), but they were magellanic, the poor ugly cousins (to the Kings of course), not very colorful, and short little things. The otters (Lutra canadensis) were playful with each other. Storks everywhere but didnt bring the Hippo any babies. And the kids all ran to see the Nile hippo (Hippopotamus amphibious), who, as usual, was not doing much except floating on the corner of the pool, occasionally spurting water from his tiny wiggling ears. But upon the Hippo's arrival, Brian did raise his head to acknowledge her presence. She had to be content with only a brief moment with him. Too many kids wanted to see the hippo. He lowered his head to continue his slumber. Sometimes I think it's quite boring being a hippo. They dont do much.

Since the day was so fine, a rarity in the city, we took the Great Highway to Ocean beach, and stopped to take a look at the ruins of the once thermal baths. Louie was closed due to new management. The Cliff House was busy but H went ahead to procure us a table so we could have a drink before dinner and to rest our tired legs. On the terrace A took Hippo inside the booth to see the images of the Camera Obscura. I was amazed! 360 of the area, the images were crystal clear, reflected on a circular surface, showing the ocean with sparkling water. I took a video of the entire rotation. Never knew this thing was so amazing!

Dinner was at Town in San Carlos, my old stomping ground. Petrale sole with mashed potatos and broccollini as usual. The food was good but the atmosphere was, as usual, loud. Nonetheless, one of Hippo's favorite restaurants. Sometimes I wish I still lived there.

See zoo images

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Serb, 2011 Australian Open Champion

Posted by Hippobean at 5:17 PM 0 comments
I had so wanted Novak to win! As per 4 times a year, I made an extraordinary effort to wake up extra early to watch the tennis grand slams live. This year I had to stay up really late. Kim won the women's on Saturday and I was really happy. It was a nerve raking match to watch her make unforced errors, and I jumped out of the sofa in cheers when she slammed the ball right on the line. And that's why I love tennis. Things could change so rapidly, one would never know who would win until the very end. So I did it again for the men. I was so sleepy that I could hardly keep my eyes open. Anticipating a long 5 setters, I got munchies ready and ate and ate. The match started off well, however after losing the first set, Andy seemed dazed. All he did was to push the ball back. It has been many long years since a Scot won a grand slam, in a game that they themselves had invented. But tennis champions mean not only possessing powerful damaging weapons, but most importantly, a tough mind. The mental game is so much more important than the physical skills in a tennis match. I was only disappointed Rafa was injured. But Novak deserves to win this time. Click on the image below to see the match images that Hippo shot.


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