Georgian Military Road – Mountain’s Calling

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The road that took me from Tbilisi to Kazbergi followed an old connection used by invaders and traders to the kingdom of Georgia for eons. Till late 18th century, with Russian firmly ankled in Georgia as protectorate of the country east side while the west was still under the Persian empire (Iran)’s suzerain, they started to enhance the known path that linked Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, Russia. Over the course of 70 years, they would build a miracle in the Russian empire that time – spending 4 millions euro of then money to construct a straight north-south road cutting across the Caucasus mountain range, stretching over 200km with sprawling tunnels at 2000m above the sea level. It’s heavily used during its construction to aid a number of military actions by the Empire, and so it is named Georgian Military Road.

We set off fresh in the morning from Tbilisi with a new driver, this one with very good English and full of stories. We headed north to Mtskheta direction. I heard this old capital was really charming and hard to miss, especially to see the precious relics of St Nino’s grapevine cross. I missed it. That’s me traveling without a very good plan as you might have noticed by now. Just north of Mtskheta, we entered the Georgian Military Road. The road is crowded and winding. As Georgians said hey didn’t produce many good drivers, I glued my eyes to the road as we ascended. 40’ outside of Tbilisi and you started seeing mountains and mountains, all so lush in the midst of summer.

IMG_4922We passed Zhinvali dam and it instantly reminded me of the Vietnamese’s Hoa Binh Hydropower Dam. The massive Agragvi river was stopped and tamed to served mankind. During the low season, you could still see the roof of the old village church. As we followed the  road up, we reached Ananuri fort, a beautiful Orthodox Church reaching out and overlooking the reservoir. It’s certainly one of the famous attractions on this road. Here I thought I saw some cat-woman! A beautiful alone Russian in her lycra suits is climbing up the watch tower. A few more followed suit.

A little more up hill, we passed just another “tourist attraction” where the Black and White Agragvi merged. Once upon a time, there were 2 beautiful sisters, one with white hair and one with black hair. They both fell in love for one man. The lucky chap thought carefully himself and chose the white hair sister. The other sister, heart-broken, took her life to the east branch of the river. The river cried over her death and turned black. Knowing her sister’s death, the white hair lady sobbed, running to the west branch of the river and let herself in. The river cried and turn white. Then on, the 2 branches of Agravi River kept their color till they met. They would go side by side for a while before fully merging into each other. Somehow on the day that I visited, the 2 sisters intertwined fairly early and all I can see is a grayish fiery river.  You can google it to see some impressive scene.

IMG_5043By then, I started getting more interest in some friendly companies along the road than the scenary itself. Moo Moo, beeee beee. Cutest craps on the road that couldn’t be bother about our presence (I meant big fast car). Then something appeared – the half-moon shape cast in-situ Russian tunnels. These tunnel are for used in winter when the main road are covered in snow and ice. Before we reached the highest point of the road -almost 2400 m above sea level Jvari pass – there is another massive tourist attraction that I was told to stop and see. The Friendship Monument, build in the late 80s to commemorate 200 years Russia – Georgian ‘friendship’, filled with mosaic-style propaganda painting of the history between the 2 countries. It covered a nice square where the best view of the valley can be attained. I was convinced to fly over the valley so I took my breath and  jumped off the hill…. On a paraglide. As we glided up and down the hill-side, I saw lots of mountains, a too perfect looking pond with turquoise color water, roads, tunnels, people, etc. We glided down and  waved at the Ukraine competitor paragliding company. At the end, I was glad it only lasted like 20’.

My driver woke me up as we passed Jvari and headed down to Gudauri, the famous ski resort of the country. European has started to go to Gudauri for skiing – imagine Alp – like conditions and Georgian price. I’d go back here for skiing. Maybe take a helicopter ride to save the 3 hour drive. We kept heading north and north and north and finally reach Stepantsminda, the trekking centre! Think of it like Kathmandu for those who wanted to see the Himalaya, this place is for people who wanted to scale Mount Kazbek, 5,047m above sea level, a mere 3,300m ascend from Stepantminsda. The town was busy at mid-day as day trippers like me made our lunch stop before checking out the area. I opted for the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, a rustic looking boutique hotel on top of the hill which apparently served very very good khachapuri. The hotel is gorgeous (I’d stay here next time) and has the unblock view of Gergetti Trinity Church with Mount Kazbek at its background. It has an indoor heated pools and all room facing mountain. Top notch Georgian and international wine and well, very good food. The view is to die for! I thought maybe I wouldn’t need to get on those mad old Lady car to get up to the Church in the afternoon, this view (with a glass of wine) was sufficiently good. After 2 glasses of wine and to avoid all hells break loose too early in the day, I climbed on a ,million year-old Lada machine and climbed 500m off-road to the church. I recalled the mirror of its were broken and one door was broken. We saw people pushing a car on the way. We saw some fiery muddy river flushing down (Flash flood danger!!!!!!). It was steamy hot inside but I dare not open the window. Dirt and mud splattered to the window as I held über tight to the side handle to avoid banging my head to the roof. At some point, it was so steep I couldn’t see the road. And yet, moo moo cows were wondering around laughing at us humans. All these, in addition to 75$, saved me from at least an hour and a half treacherous trek up.

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Gergetti Church is middle left – tiny!

The church, built in 14th century (its bell tower built later), was tiny and as beautiful as any Eastern Orthodox churches I have seen in this country, much older though. Adorned cupola, Nicholas-Cage-like St Nino with her make-shift cross, St George on his horse slaying a dragon/serpent with his long spear.

I sat there for a little, taking in the blaring sun and feeling humble to Mother Nature.

Batumi by the Black Sea

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Batumi wasn’t in my initial rough plan. I wanted to spend some quality time in Tbilisi and surrounding area and then leave enough time to go all the way to Svaneti, the highest habitat in the world.

Batumi is a casino and resort town, once an important port by the Black Sea. The city has risen to be the 2nd biggest city in the country in the last few year, surpassing old capital Kutaisi. I heard Batumi was lively and the ocean breath will ease the humidity and heat in the midst of summer. So still with much reluctance, I took the very modern train from Tbilisi to Batumi and arrived in a place that looked and felt like Vung Tau of Vietnam 5 hours later. Big crowded city filled with Russian tourists, incomplete road works, millions ongoing hotels and casino projects, messy traffic and that smell, the particular smell when you are so closed to the sea yet have so much concrete in your centre. It is the mix of salty wind and sun-dried fresh fish, of vehicle fumes and people, of sweat and food. I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw that much.

I got to my airbnb with not much difficulty with the help of a taxi driver. The apartment block is just next to the coming Courtyard Marriott hotel, the next tallest building in Batumi. By the time I figured out the location of the lift, I saw a big crowd cramming in front of the lift doors. Apparently they were broken. So I took the stair to the 3rd floor (thank god! It’d be hell if it’s on the 6th floor like in Tbilisi!). My host’s cleaner’s husband was waiting for me at the small studio with a glimpse of Black Sea from a far. I would be here for 2 nights, with a slight regret.

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Street art by Gagosh, a famous artist

I rushed back to the cable car station to catch the 5pm walking tour (similar to the one I took in Tbilisi). There were a much smaller group and we took a stroll around the city centre. The city centre consisted of a number of areas based on the ethnicity of the residents – the Turkish town, the Armenian town, The European town. You know you can smell a Turkish town! The same smell I was overwhelmed with in Istanbul a few years back. Rows and rows of kebabs and Turkish grilled sausages, men with big bellies and little curly hairs, ladies with their stern faces and aprons arounds their waists. We visited an old bath house where the renovation was on-going, like any part of this town. We walked pass the Italian square where you could see incredible mosaic works from Venice, a beautiful astronomical clock and lines of average but fancy Italian restaurant are around.

Then here it is the open secret of this city – the European square where European style building lined up the street and surrounded a spacious bazaar. Our tour guide told us most of these building are only occupied on the first floor, the 2nd and 3rd floor are all vacant and no-one would use them. The youngster here are illegally using some of the empty buildings are underground party at night. So the story goes … During his reign, Mikheil Sakashvili (Misha) gathered his comrades and collected ideas from all the great nations with a fantasy to build an European city in Batumi. So he built this square and all the building arounds. He also built a massive skyscraper for the Technology Institute. When he lost power, the communism mindset of Georgians didn’t want to associate with him anymore, so they abandoned his buildings. I saw Raffles Hotel, The Metropole Hanoi Legend, The Shangri-la in those beautiful building. Misha even got closed to Donald Trump and guess what, there is a Trump Tower in the water front, closest to the statue of Ali and Nino (of which I wasn’t so impressed). Misha started the building with Trump intention to invest in Batumi. They stopped it when he went on exile, then started off again in god speed when Trump ran for office 2 years ago. The building is completed but unfortunately Trump, after his inauguration, wanted nothing to do with Georgia. So the government sold the building to a hotel group, who underestimated the cost of turning it into a hotel. Years after years, it’s currently the tallest building in Batumi and it is empty

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Neptune’s ladies

We also passed the national theatre which is under renovation (yes the whole city is under renovation!) and was introduced to the Neptune Fountain – an Italian-inspired fountain (with many goddesses around the feet of Neptune, they all holding out their full breasts and water would come out of their tits. I have seen this before at a small drinking fountain in Amalfi. Misha built this. He was known for his love for lust.

The statue of Ilia Chavchavadze, a writer and a political figure in a noble family was also nearby. He was known to flag the national movement in late 19th century and Misha has used his figure to spearhead the rose revolution in 2003, which led to his presidential election the year after.

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Georgian’s Cola

At the end of the tour we got to try something i really like – Georgian “coca cola”. Its flavoured soda water. Georgian put syrup of different flavour in their sweet soda and it reminded me of the sparkling water I love as a kid in Vietnam. It’s sweet and gasy, but not too much. When i first drank the real sparkling water I thought it’s yuck! the shop we got our soda has been in business since the first day of this beverage. By now you can guess whose idea that led to this national drink. Of course, Misha!

I woke up the next day bracing myself to check out the city myself so I walked along the beach to the famous breakfast place for a nice pancake plate. Then the fish market, which including me walking on an under construction bridge and sidewalk. Odd! The market was small and full of fish :)). I got a lift back to the city centre on my way back. I decided to myself people of Georgia is the main attraction in Batumi, so lovely. Then I head to the beach, THE BEACH! it’s my kind of beach, full of round pebbles. It’s like having a gentle massage without having it. The water looked rather uninvitingly black, even when the sun was out. An unapologetic color of black!

At the end, I was glad my time in Batumi was over. It’s towards the end of my trip so my physical tiredness and certainly some emotional matters arisen didn’t make a high note for me to leave Batumi.

But would I come back to Batumi?

I doubt so.

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Tbilisi charms

One of 4 famous women statues near Tamada

I came to Tbilisi at the end of July when it’s hottest and most humid. I felt the stickiness the moment I landed, at 3am. Irakli, a friend’s friend’s friend and a travel operator, greeted my blurry self at the arrival hall and sorted a few important things for me – phone and money. I had introduced myself as a seasoned traveller to him as I contacted him prior to the trip, though after seeing me just leave my passport at the telephone counter, he might have a second thought.

Will waited at the airbnb (the most beautifully done airbnb I have been to!), lugged my suitcase 5 floors up and made sure I could see myself to bed before leaving the house.

I went to bed that night thinking what a wonderful land it was here!

Irakli suggested a packed itinerary formy 3 days in the city but judging my exhaustion, i skipped Mtskheta (“mit-s-khe-ta”) and Gori. In my view, including a few day trips, you would need like at least 5 days in Tbilisi. The city is big, beautiful and full of stories.

On my first late afternoon, I rode the ever-going-down escalator to the metro system completed by the Soviet in 1959. As it turned out many other tunnels were built during this time, including some that are used as wine cellars nowadays. The train is fast, cheap and clean.  As I emerged at the Liberty Square and strolled down the street in search for khinkali – soup dumplings, a stable of Gruzia cuisine, I stumbled across the weekend flea market over the Dry Bridge park. Art works, tapestry, fake antique, real antique, communism artifact, crafts, tamada horns, etc.  Many things and noone tried to sell – how wonderful! I found my khinkali, ordered 10 and finished all with a pint of beer. Khinkali s similar to xiao long bao but with thicker skin, like a momo- juicy, tasty & can be spicy. I didn’t eat the knobs as they were just boiled flours and chunky. Later I found out that the correct way as you needed to leave the knobs as proof of how many you had eaten, esp in khinkali eating contest.

By 4.30pm, I joined sa walking tour following Kate’s guide , an American girl who used to go to Georgia during her exchange term in Russia and decided to come back. In countries like Georgia where the economy is starting to bloom 20 years after war-torn period and especially with Georgia currently petitioning to join the EU, English study is in its high and so is the demand for English teacher. I would imagine in a few years traveling to Georgia will be so much easier when more people can converse with you in English. Currently I found it a little like traveling in China where quite some efforts are needed when out on the street. The Georgian language sounds like rough Russian, looks like Arabic (to me), has  33 letters in their dominant Alphabets (there are more!), and have things that are so confusing like mama means dad and dada means mum. It has its own writing system, one of the 14 in the world.

Kate took us through different parts of the city based on the religions. Apparently Georgian is the 2nd most religious country in the world just behind Thailand, biasedly as young Georgian want to appear good.  I saw some beautiful orthodox churches, a Catholic Church, the famous “tamada” statue as well as the big cathedral. Water fountains are everywhere seeing delicious water, people are nice, fruit vendors serve yummy figs and mangos and peaches. I ate Churchella for the first time and I couldn’t stop. By 5.30pm, only an hour into the tour, I had myself a takeaway mojito while the other  pouring into a watering hole bakery. Really? In that heat?  I would save khachapuri – “Georgian pizza”, flat bread with lots of cheese and served super hot with a raw egg on top for dinner. Little did I know then I would not have dinner!

The majority of Georgian practiced Orthodox Christianity and their saints are Saint George and Saint Nino. It is the tradition to name your first-born son George/Gorgi/ Jorgi/ etc. There are many of them! Saint Nino, when she flew over to Georgia long time ago to spread Christianity, she arrived realizing she forgot something, something quite important. The cross! What a thoughtful woman she was! So to fix this, she took 2 branches of grapevines and tied them with her hair. That’s why the painting show a slightly curve/crooked cross. And Nino definitely looks like Nicholas Cage! During the Soviet Union time, as no religions are allowed, all the churches were used as army barrack or storage. Need not to say as Georgian is famous for not being very careful with fire, many of the existing architecture were rather new compared to its rich history due to fire and rebuilt. The country, in deed, boasts a constantly changing scene during the course of its history.

Georgia, or Gruzia, had been under attack or occupy by the Mongolians & the Ottoman for a long time for its strategic location before taking longterm friendship with the Russian bear for  200 years, 70 years of that was under the communist ruler. In fact, Stalin was from  the mountain area Gori of Georgia and this is the one part in the country (possibly the world) where people worship him. After the collapse of Soviet Union, for 12 years, the country was torn with political coupes, regional conflict and corruption till 2004 when Mikheil Shakashvili (“Misha”) came to power as the 3rd president of the Republic with a pro-western government. He ran a national hero government, cleaning the public sectors, building the whole nation infrastructure, putting Georgia on the map with the world, imported good ideas (and bad ideas), mimicking the world (some were rather bad copies), etc until he lost power in 2013. Pretty much he built the nation, so well that even in the midst of the post presidency legal allegation of embezzlement, he was appointed as Governor of Odessa (Ukraine) after his time as a lecture in the US to avoid being extradited back to Georgia for trials. Most young Georgian are not in favor of Misha  reasoning that he had put the country back by hindering democracy. I thought he was pretty cool, a bit like Mr Dung of Vietnam who is known as dead corrupted but has pushed for so much of economic reforms in Vietnam during his terms as our Prime Minister including brokering the major trade deals between Vietnam and the US. I understood the anger, however, where would this country be right now without  him. Then I learnt he also made some stupid copy-cat decision to build some random craps that are now empty and unused in Batumi, the Black Sea resort city. That made him a laughing-stock.

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From Peach Bridge to Presidential Palace

When I drove into the city the night before, Irakli pointed out 2 rather futuristic looking architecture, all glass and curvy structure – the Ministry of Internal Affair (Police) and the Presidential place – symbolizing the transparency of the new regime . The buildings were designed by a famous Italian designer. As we walked, we crossed the Peace Bridge, another glass and steel structure,  I asked Kate if this was by the same Architect. Bingo! The bridge was built after the surge by Russian army to the city in 2008, while we were all watching the Beijing Olympics. It’s illuminated by many LED lights cross the Kura river, looking at the fort, some famous historic church as well as the statue of the first King of Georgia. To the right of the fort, which was renamed by the Mongolians in 13th century when they took Georgia to Narikala, literally meant “Little Fortress” (of course they laughed!), Karlis Deda, mother of Georgia, stands high guarding her country, a sword on her right hand and a glass of wine on the other. Over the last 1560 years and till forever, she would defend her country fearlessly with her sword but if you come as friend, she will host you generously.

img_4704At last we crossed River Kura again and headed back to the old quarter, exploring what I really wanted to see – Abanotubani  the Bath District (yes street names in Tbilisi are extremely long!). There are a handful of them in Tbilisi, extracting sulfur hot water from the Abanotubani gorge into private bath houses, from basics to luxury, with a scrubbing lady at your service for a little extra. In the past, bath houses are where rich women socialize and also a match making place. I opted for Gulo’s thermal bath at Kate’s recommendation . I went in, booked my slot and with the 30’ waiting I asked if I could go to get a bottle of wine to drink in side. “Girl you know how to do this” – the old lady owner commented. I rushed out to Divino, certainly met my Italian friends who agreed the tour was way too long, Jorgi, and a Nortre Dame alumni as you know from my wine post. About 3 hour later, I did stumble back to the bathhouse. The lady had a good laugh. After chilling in my tub for about 20, my scrubbing lady came. Being manhandled by a chubby Georgian grandma with very short command like Stand up, Arms up, Lie down, tummy on the stone, etc and her gruesome scrubbing skills with her oddly scented soap was weird as hell, but I was clean and smooth and I loved it! Somehow in that state of mind, I made my way back to the Liberty square, having had a kebab for supper and paid 5 Lari for a cab home.

The next morning ride to Kakheti wasn’t good and after the wine and chacha tasting I returned to the old quarter for some Khinkali. I thought my hangover from the night before had rolled over on my drunkeness that nothing would help me but the big version of Xiao Long Bao.

 

Have you ever been to Nepal?

“Why do you always have to go to some jungle doggy weird country? What are you going to do there for 17 days girl? Counting rocks?”

“Daddy, counting mountains indeed.”

I started preparing this note 3 days before my departure from Nepal and to be honest, I couldn’t wait to leave the country. It was not that terrible, yet my heart resisted the love for this land.  Part of the reason could be traced back to the strikes from 21st to 28th May, mainly in Kathmandu and some other politically sensitive towns across the country. They just need a constitution!

The nature of Nepal oozes the mightiness of the so-called “roof of the world”, the gorgeousness of summer lush all over the valleys and hasn’t said yet, the unpredictability. I was in Nepal late May early June, which was the pre-monsoon season, so the big question of whether I was lucky enough, as I often as a lovely traveller, to sight any mountain. It’s all up to him, up in the air. We, Alex and I, drove all the way up to Nagarkot praying that from that 2000m altitude and with a very bright sky, we’d see a bit of Everest. Well, our advice is you have to be very very focused and quiet *they call it CALM in kungfu!* to see it!. Besides that 2000Rps effort, I did see some mountains.

Leaving the boring Chitwan with all its elephants, tigers, rhinos, deers, peacocks, kingfishers and crocodiles, after a couple of attempts, driving through a fierce forest rain, we made it to the other side of the mountains. The sky was clear and blue and that’s when I first sighted a snow-capped mountain. It was a little blurred and not so breath taking but hey, I saw it! Travel mood was back but Kathmandu was just like a death city, the look of which was exactly what I always saw on tv about some cities that had just undergone major bombings. It was empty, quiet and doubtful. And well, that’s why I took that ripped-off taxi ride back to my hotel.

Our fail attempt with Nargakot and the Himalayas quite let me down. Just as the café boy told me on the first day in Kathmandu “yeah, it’s very cloudy and it rains like everyday. The season is coming. We sell lots of coffee these days”. After Alex left for Tibet, I caught a bus to Pokhara hoping to see the famous Annapurnas. I saw something on the way that I thought were Everest and Nuptse. But everyone said that was impossible so whatever, they were beautiful!

After 3 days ambushing in Pokhara, doing nothing but reading and watching movie, a bit of paddling and cycling, I sighted the vigorous range with its renowned Fishtail peak, scaled at over 7000m above sea level. I had seen so many photos of the whole Pokhara Valley leaning to the Annapurnas, layering Phewa Lake, roads, houses, hills, etc. but seeing them all by my own eyes, terrific! It made me feel like people there, they just walked and then disappeared forever into the mystery of all the holy mountains.

That’s about mountains. Nepal has another name “the Land of Conflicts”. Different people of different religions and belief are finding their places in that country.  You can see a lot of chaitya (small stupa) with symbols of both Buddha and Hindu gods/goddesses. The Maoist and the Hindu have tensely reaches some peace agreement in 2008 after the decision to demolish the monarchy and painful loss of 13,000 people in the nonsense riot in 2006. The King of Nepal, he worshipped Kumari the Living Goddess, a young girl with 36 particular characteristics chosen from some goldsmith and silversmith clans. But the thing is Nepal, every Durbar Square will have one Living Goddess living in her bahal (2-story newar house built around a courtyard). The most famous one is of course the one in Kathmandu Durbar Square that I have got the chance to see her after half an hour sending request and waiting. That girl is 6 years old, from a Buddhist family yet living in a Hindu house and being a Hindu goddess. How harmonic it is!

It’s very funny when I saw Srijana’s ID. She was born in 2046! Yes, they use Buddhist calendar in Nepal.

I did learn a lot about Hindu religion in Nepal, starting from my visit to Pashupatinath, the Hindu “mecca”. Hindu people are cremated when they die. The only people that get buried to the ground are holy men/women who are believed that have devoted all their souls to others. You can choose to be holy person once you find your master and commit to live a holy life. That’s pretty abstract! Next to the main temple in Pashupatinath, the side that’s adjacent to the river is a dying house. Peole are brought there when they are very weak as the death must be cremated within a day. After that people wrap the bodies in yellow cloth, bring them down to the river, wash their faces with holy water from the temple… One more thing, women when they die, their spirits are much stronger than that of men; hence it took longer to cremate women’s bodies.

Interesting? Sort of haha. But all time favourite site is still Boudhanath, the biggest stupa with it famous Buddha eyes. It’s huge!

It’s a mistake not to mention the presence of kama sutra in every single aspect of life in Nepal. Little bronze toys I bought for Andy, tiny kama sutra books, the whole section in any book stores… and of course the many carvings on the external facades of any Hindu temples, especially Shiva temple due to the story of Kali, Shiva’s devil consort.

I was really impressed with Nepalese architecture, most of which were Newar, a very similar form of Tibetan houses. They are all famous for the gorgeous wood carving facades, both external and internal. A very typical example is the Kumari Bahal in Kathmandu Durbar Square. The porch and windows were all brought into great details with typical Nepalese features. Another similar architectural icon is the 50-window palace in Bhaktapur Durbar Square. It was such a pity that I did not had the chance to enter that complex. To make up for it, Alex and I did climb up to Nyatapola Madir, the tallest in Nepal, standing 30m from the ground. In Bhaktapur, you can also sight the amazing peacock windows in Natatraya Square. Patan Durbar Square is quite similar and taking my lesson of paying 15$ for the entrance to Bhaktapur Durbar Square, I walked around and entered the Patan one from a small path instead of using the main entrance. Only two things to be noticed is the abc temple and the “Abode nine thousand Buddhas” terracotta temple not so far from the main square. No wonder Lily, a Californian girl I met while queuing for the visa, said her aunt, after 30 years in Nepal, wanted to build a Nepalese house in the States!

Another thing to be impressed is the school uniforms. Every single school here provides uniforms to its pupils as well as school buses. You can see colorful European style uniforms overwhelming all the streets and old van full of kids honking everywhere in the morning. And kids there go to school everyday, including Sunday!

I really don’t have a lot of travel tips for you all this time for some reasons- 1) My tips would be so outdated when you finally make up your mind to go there; 2) I went to Nepal solely for a holiday, which exactly meant I might, at some point, do nothing at all, except for reading, sleeping, eating and watching movies; 3) I don’t think I will get back there anytime soon and Nepal, frankly, has been pretty disappointed.

But well, I still have to give thought about the people I have met there. Some were really nice. Some were not so. Some were just jerks!

I gave Nepalese girls a hard 10 for their beauty, kindness and sweetness.  Nasreen and Srijana are two great friends of mine, helping me out with lots of stuff and trust me, it is really fun talking to and hanging out with a Nepalese girl.  Nasreen is an MBA student and she owns a shop near Chetrapati. I met her when I was looking for a local tailor to make my kuta salwar. She took me to her relatives and I got my whole set made in 2 days. Amazing! Srijana is an English teacher and an actress. She is gorgeous. I saw her falling asleep on the bus up to Kirtipur. She took me to her house, treated me with cold Sprite *if you ever know how specious it was under the 38C hotness! * and lychees and showed me around her village. She also let me try buffalo momos, Nepalese rice wine and pura nari, some popping stuffed with curry potatoes… She told me to go back there for her wedding and I should go with my husband. That is actually difficult!

We, by that I mean me and a couple of friends, did get some not so good experience with Nepalese guys. What do you think about a tour guide who repeatedly asked you out for a walk at night along the river? What do you think about a guy who volunteered to show you around Pashupatinath and accidentally touched you some times? What do you think of a taxi driver who said, “Well if you go to my hotel, then we can be good friend”? And what do you think about a hotel manager who tried his luck on every female solo travelers and acted rudely when he knew that we found out what he was doing? I may sound really harsh on them but hello, we are also not some ATM machines and did we look like we needed some local flings? “Cowboys” are everywhere now you know it! I was not in good mood in Nepal so I just say it out loud that those kinds of experience just left a really bad taste in my mouth. Show us some dignity!

Andy told me I was awesome after 2 lemon ice tea and my stories from Korea to Burma to Nepal. The truth is I can make friend everywhere I go :D. I met captain Oskar from Lund in Chitwan. He has spent 2 years sailing from Canada to Sydney and he was making his last destination before heading home for his birthday, which was accidentally Sweden National Day. I met Lamont, an IT guy from US Embassy in Kathmandu who does have created a very nice “Lamont special” *It’s a cocktail*. I met Swee and Sunjoo in Pokhara where we shared a dorm and suffered the worst hotel manager in the world. Swee is from Malaysia, just did Everest Base Camp. She is a professional traveller and she hates Singapore. Sunjoo is a Korean movie-maker but believe me she is nothing Korean, including her love for piercings and her “2 cigarettes per day. Only 2!”! I went out with Melanie, Freddy, Nard and Rachel in Pokhara. We went to watch a silent Champion League Final, yes silent because we couldn’t find the way to connect the TV to the speaker. It was funny! I met Manoz, a singer. And to my surprise, on my last night in Kathmandu and also at Lamont’s farewell party, I was introduced to a Lonely Planet blogger, Daniel the Lucifer. He did talk me into that kind of career and it sounded so free and so great!

Now you know everything, tell me your summer stories.

Kate

Burma- to “the land of floating time”

Sunset in Bagan, from Shwesandaw

2 weeks ago, rumors said that I was no longer a student. I marked it with a week in Burma.

It’s almost never a question any more about who I am going with but I’m happy to see all the “have a great time”, “safe and sound”, etc on my facebook before any of my trips. This time I broke the pattern- I went with my sister and two of her friends. It was fun indeed. And thanks for them and all the sunrise-sunset madness, a week after Burma, I am still SLEEPY. The views were breath-taking and really worth the effort but even though I loved them so much I don’t think I can afford any of 4am wake-up calls in the next few months.

I arrived in Yangon with a great excitement collected from LonelyPlanet guidebook and that much of exhaustion and sleep-deprivation accumulated from a week before when I was up all night not preparing for my last exam but dreaming that I would miss it. The airport is spacious and the custom went really well. There were two officers at each counter- one manually checked my passport and visa *I’m pretty sure she doubted the girl in the visa photo was not me!* and one typed the details into a black computer screen. No hassle, no difficulty!

Yangon was really hot and humid. After checking in Okinawa Guesthouse, I used the last bit of encouragement for a walking tour around the city. It took me exactly one hour of sweaty walk under the cloudless summer sky of over 35*C to get back to my room and 2 cans of Redbull to give me just enough energy to … sleep. That was a very good 2 hour sleep until numerous banging sound became audible to my ears. That’s my family’s way to wake me up. 22 years and that’s the only effective way though.

“Burma is a strange country. At first you may not put a lot of expectation into your trip yet at the end, it is a high chance that you wish all the flights are delayed or some sudden tornado just sweeps through the country or any wicked reasons you can think of so that you can prolong your time in Burma.

People call Burma the Golden Land. For me, I love to call it the realm of floating time because here at the same time exists things that belong to the 80s  of Vietnam and things that perhaps in the next 10-20 years we will never achieve. Blended in the life and the moral code of social behaviors there, I have never had the slightest idea of time and space.”

                                                                                                           -By Mashi Milu-

She said about Hanoi of the 80s. In my opinion, it should be Saigon of the 50s-60s because it pretty much gives you a very sense of freedom and stability. I don’t talk about wealthy because they are simply not, however, they are happy with their days passing by, with the little money they makes and with the talks they have with perfect strangers. We met hostel owners who could speak perfect English and Japanese at Pyinsa Rupa Guesthouse, tour guide who had an amazingly cool American accent, kids who tried to sell postcards yet ended up taking us to their houses for free thanakha– a local facial cream that can be used any time, drivers who happily stopped in the middle of nowhere just for us to take photos with a cherry blossom tree and secretly hung up a string of orchids in the truck, horse cart drivers who cared more about us than his horse- his livestock, or some amazing boat owner who accommodated four sleeping machine for an hour of a supposed-to-be boat trip. They love to talk. They love to make friends. They love that we love their country. Perhaps it comes from the very fact that almost all Burmese are Buddhist and they have that religiously warm-hearted embracing sharing spirit engraved in their hearts and their minds. We saw a lot of small little huts along the roads where people kept drinking water for pedestrians and wandering monks and it’s hardly true but if you see a mango tree full of fruit, just ask, they will give you everything they have. We saw families chilling out in Shwedagon at night and many others taking a nap in any pagodas we visited. Burmese people are just worry-free, no matter they have to stop half way to spit their chewing betel or not!

Out itinerary in Burma  was quite packed but thanks to the slow life motion there, we felt like we have spent double the time with those lovely people. Yangon- (Golden Rock)- Bagan-Mandalay-Inle Lake- Yangon. With endless hours on horse cart, trucks, minivan, intercity buses, boats, bare foot… we made it through the very heart of the country, and hopefully the people as well.

Most of the things you will see in Burma are pagodas and pagodas. There are like millions of them. The biggest, Shwedagon, stands proudly and fabulously in Yangon. The busiest, Sule Paya, stops all the traffic at the most crowded crosse road of the capital and of short distance to our favorite 999 Shan Noodle and a nameless tea shop that served amazing home-brew milk tea and led by its funny powerful 12-year-old-or-something captain. After that is the city of bagan, home to more than 10000 pagodas/temples, down to about 2000 now, which was built up in a week. We had a great time chasing the sunrise-sunset fame there and thanks to our driver, a lot of stories underneath revealed. People told that the biggest temple, Dhammayangyi, was built as the King Narathu’s atonement for his sin of assinating his father and his brother for the throne. It was built from laid bricks WITHOUT any mortar. For any two adjacent bricks that the King could slide his sword in the building worker would be sentenced to death. Not long before the completion, the King was killed and the temple was never be finished. Another interesting story is about another unfinished temple in Migun, Mandalay. It would be a mighty 150m temple when finished. Yet the King died halfway and after his death, a major earthquake struck the temple by halves. Fate! There are also an array of pagodas, temples and monasteries in Mandalay and Inle Lake as well. Among that I was much impressed by Kuthodaw in Mandalay for it 781 stupas, Phaung Daw Oo pagoda for its 5 funny golden buddhas, and of course the coolNga Phe Kyaung Monastery- Jumping Cat Monastery, in Inle Lake where I was amazed at an old celebrity cat and a number of Louis Vuiton advertisements photographed at the Lake.

To be honest, though I admired all the pagodas there, I couldn’t remember their names and as I am not quite religious, I’d opt to tell you a bit of some unusual things that we did and  about the people I met.

We met and re-united with lots of travelers in Burma. A group of Thai monks who taught us that monks were not to make direct contacts with women– The scene was that one of our ladies exchanged her email with a young monk and what she did was to put her piece of paper on the ground for the monk to pick it up. Those devotees have much less restrictions in Vietnam!  A lot of Japanese and a lot of Vietnamese as well. Our favorite traveler names Tanaka from Hokkaido who has very funny face and gesture . He is taking a gap year to tour around Africa and Asia. We “networked” over  a bottle of palm juice, 2 papayas, a bunch of roasted peanuts and numerous beer.

I had a weird conversation with a female monk while waiting for the ladies on U Bein Bridge, Mandalay. She is in her mid 30s and very beautiful, which is not so strange for Burmese monks, both female and male. Being asked her why she chose this life, she answered me in a sad but still voice – “I used to run after what I thought was my destiny. It’s so vibrant a life back to those days. Yet when it turned out not, I have nowhere to turn back. So I devote myself to Buddha. How about you?”. I told her a bit of my little story saying “I’m taking a rest”. She smiled “You are waiting. It’s ok but don’t wait too long”. A couple of day after that conversation, another person said the same line to me “don’t wait too long.” That night, Bin Laden was killed, taking much of our attention and the two bankers’ worry on the hiking of US$ exchange rate. I was thinking about India.

We chose to stay in Sky Lake resort for a night in Inle Lake. We said we wanted a good rest and treatment. However, surprisingly, as far as we loved the big mirror lake and its cool hazy air, we still couldn’t stand the quietness and tranquility of the resort. So we ran around like some crazy “people-deprived” mosquitoes asking the staff if there were any other people. To break the boredom, we borrowed a boat and paddling around the resort,swimming a bit in that shallow water and of course, making a lot of noise and damages.The staff loved us. I bet it has been really bored for them there with all the oldy tour groups. We also had a short trip to the nearby village where we walked all the way along an U-Bein-style bridge and the scene, as the matter of fact,  stopped many of our heart beats.

Back to Yangon, I spent the last night on my own as the girls had left for Hanoi. So I hung out with some travelers at Okinawa. Nathan, the first American I met there, was on some missionary trip sponsored by UN and his church to buy some thousands of cows and ducks. he told me his amazing 17-year love story with his wife, his first love. Born in Japan, he said “My first language is Japanese. I went to Japanese school. All my friends are Japanese. English, I’m still learning.” When asking what his favorite part of US was, he confidently said “Wherever my wife is. Currently South Carolina.”  A French guy ended  his 7-year relationship with his first love 2 years ago when he set off from Paris. And my neighbor Tim, an Englishman, technically Scot, a SOAS graduate just ended his year of teaching English in Korea and on his Asian tour. That is a guy who reads, who loves classic movies, esp 1950s Japanese movies and who is very much fond of Japanese and Balinese wives. I have no love story to tell but I was happy that love was still all around. Over our many beer, I am amazed at how I enjoyed the talks on politics, poverty, revolution and all sort.

I left Yangon the next day spending my last kiat for a margarita at the airport and again hearing people say “You look like Burmese”.

Much thanked. Much loved. Much missed.

With Love,

Kate

P.S: I was tagged along my friends’ notes as well so feel free to browse their notes.

The ondol of life

whenever and wherever you need ondol

To balance the many times I dipped my fingers in the hot spicy saucy plate of Korean reddish street food, there are the many times I’ve cherished the way a country has made its young eager visitors so much pleasure and surprise when it comes to a good sleeping experience.

It was late February when we visited Korea and I could feel the spring had touched the kimchi land through the way people dressed, or just we were so blessed to stay right in a youthful happening neighborhood. Young hearts, young minds, less cloths! It was not a surprise for me, as at least they still did coats, not as almighty as the British girls I once awed with lots of admires on some fun nights in Leeds. Legs. Legs. Legs. Just another normal scence. The guys were right. It’s a “wow” to show your slim tally legs in Europe, yet it’s slutty to show your cleavage there.  And the opposite situation was on show in Asia. Why? Coz what the point of carrying coal to Newcastle? We all have our own strength ladies.

I talked spring yet I love to feel that winter still lingered a bit longer in any touches of life. We didn’t have to pretend a lot indeed because simply it was freezing. I can recall anytime how we burst into laughter and relief when we first touched on a Korean famous ondol/gudeul . It originally is the underfloor heating system using hot water running in pipes to heat up during winter, the system that is similar to the old water-heating pad in Europe.  Yes everywhere was just so warm. It soothed our tired and freezed feet. It heated up the evening mood. “I don’t mind sleeping on the floor”, said sleepy Ollie. Dear neither did I. I felt both strange and happy again to be able to put on my all-time favourite indoor winter clothes- singlet and shorts. I was not afraid of the cold. I was all warmed top-to-toe.

Koreans are the kind of very thoughtful and smart people to the fact that they bring their ondol everywhere. Seats on metro. Portable sleeping mat. Even the shabby-looking wooden benches in Kwang Jang market offer to warm up the a** while more and more soju and toppoki are serving the hungry tummies. However, there is one thing to warn about the benches. Please so not wear short skirt or mini shorts with tight or thin-fabric pants when all you want is to glue to those seats and enjoy your food. I lost my count on the times we had to stand up and let the cold air cool off our sitting part before carefully sit down again. It’s really hot hahaha. The ondol also goes straight to the bathroom. I used to dream of using the magic toilet once advertised on TV when I was a kid and now so fulfilled I was. A young friend of mine told me that his most fearful moments during winter were going to the loo and taking a shower. Too many layers to be stripped off and too cold to be naked at some parts. Well don’t you dare to tell the Koreans that as they have everything to cater your needs. The magic toilet was heated and installed with all sort of “water entertainment” for you. Hot or cold, shower and bulk… My friend Lan told me it took her quite some time to learn to use it.

From the bathroom to the sauna, there is just a walk. Well westerners often say that Asians keeps so many rules and norms on social dressing-up but here in the sauna at some point, the westerners become more Asian than the Asians themselves. In a Turkish bath in Budapest, there were topless and lots of swimsuits. Here in the middle of a so-called conservative East, I didn’t see a sight of cloth!  Yet a lot of tough scratchy gloves. For that I’m young and well-adapted, it took me more than 5 minutes to calm me down at the scene. The British took it with ease and enjoyment but I have to say it my dear French statue a real hard time. I had no doubt why the British made it all over the world back to their glorious days :D. However it proves our eastern strength when the night dragged us all the fomentation room. Well the British can go up till the bath, yet a hard wooden floor really put an end to their empire. I am, indeed, good!

Sleeping in a basement studio is another experience that I missed. It was not really a basement as when you are in, only half of you is considered under the ground floor. Some steps down, my friend’s studio does have a run-down look and a non-Korean humid atmosphere. Big enough for a girl to live her life and of course it has ondol!

In a Korean modern house, there is one thing that remains as much as the same as in the past- the women’s roles. Only one night in Soo’s house and I really could sense how much love and warmth a woman could bring to a house. We, youngsters from all over the world with the thankful hearts, were pampered again, not by our mums. A late night tea, a morning wake-up and a home-cook breakfast kept us feel home again. Lots of hugs for farewell made us torn of going away. Is it that one and only power that a woman has to strengthen the family root? Or is a woman the real ondol of the family after the door shuts? Has someone destined us women to be life bringers?

Hope you all have a good night in Korea.

Kate

 

 

Korean TED!

my fav

It has been a week since my last post and I know that it’s time for the next one. Well, to be honest I’m little disappointed with the interview this morning when people asked me all the same old same old questions that might actually be not so old them coz they just asked me those 2 days ago. C’mon people be creative! Here I am, a lil sad and bored and need someone to talk to and my little particular someone is just accidentally NOT ONLINE. Nice.

And of course I’m not here to tell you about a TED talk in Korea. I’m saying TALK-EAT-DRINK!

In Korea we talked, we listened to people talking, we sang, we had quite a few drinks and well we ate. There’re just way too many things that you can do with your mouth!!!!!!

Firstly, if you want to visit Korea, do it right away. The reason is the Koreans who can speak English, they do it fantastically and yay, there are not so many of them. So here’s the scene- You walk down to the busy street in a lazy afternoon. You stop. You look around. Nothing familiar. Nothing even close to what you are looking for. Gotcha! “hello, can you please show me the way to blah blah blah?” – “난 그게 뭔지 모르겠어요. 저는 Google 번역에서 찾았다!”.  Then you point at your map and show the person the place you want to get to. And right away, you are hand in hand with a Korean stranger who is literally taking you to wherever you want to go. Or if he’s in a hurry, he will speak some cute Korean and get someone who can speak English to help you. How nice! In our first night in Korea, we were struggling following the direction to our hostel while some people just stopped by and helped us without us asking them. All the trying-to-figure-it-out and phone calls they made for us were just like the very first sips of love for the country.

We were such an attraction. Everyone looked at us. Everyone took photos with us. Everyone talked to us, even the guy from Jeju-do we met for about 10 minutes on the metro in Busan, not the mention the whole group of students who just bought us so many soju in Daejeon. That’s crazy.

with cute Korean girls in Gyeongbukgung

And Korean talks well when they are drunk. We kept talking on and on about the lady at the hostel office. In the frustration of finding the hostel, we made it to the office, which was the whole world from the hostel to get a map to get there. Greeting us was a small lady in a black long-sleeve shirt, just short enough for me to notify her black rocky lace skirt. Watch out people, 40 –something lady, with the ignition of some soju *we found out a moment later when we got in*, can definitely turn into a chic. I love her fashion. It’s so WILD! And she not only gave us a map but also a whole story of any single corner that appeared in that map. And Ollie got his first hug in Korea oh so adorable you were Pfleger 😀

It may be a tradition to drink every meal in Korea. Anytime will do. And the guys were just in love. That’s such a relief after the alcohol diet in Singapore. After all the drinks you will be very very exhausted and you just moan the whole way “C’mon soju and beer go so well together. And it’s tender. Then what is this headache?????”. That’s my line!

oh that embarrassing night!

Noraebang is another job for your mouth. It’s nothing new but karaoke. Yet you got free ice-cream and that’s how I love Korea. It’s cold and it’s sweet.  Coldstones and baskin Robins rock!

The thing with Korean cuisine is that if you don’t know it, you’re tricked at the first time because before you even order anything, there have already a lot of something in front of you. Kimchi. More kimchi. And more kimchi. Insects. Sweet potatoes. Peas. Some thin fish cakes. Even pancake. Calm down and wait for the main dish! In my last note I did mention my favourite snack with its lux version in Busan and its amazing seafood bbq, so skip it, I’ll tell you more about my other favourite and some Vietnamese-like food.

side dishes

There are so many Korean BBQ restaurants now in Hanoi and really now I know why people still feel so hot with the fever from the kimchi land. It’s just so good! We got BBQ with lean pork and beef, simple and fulfilled. Grill your meat and some mushroom, place them in a fresh lectuce, add some shredded carrot, some pickle or just kimchi, roll it up, dip in in and go your way. It goes more than just a dish. And when you’re tired with meat, bean sprout or kimchi jigae is served, maybe some rice to balance. All  will be well digested with one or two beer and soju.

Toppoki. How many of you know it? I know it. I have an obsession with that reddish spicy mysterious street food every now and then I see a group of high school girls screaming after their classes when they see the magic stall. My first and my best toppoki was by Sam last semester. My second and my third toppoki came only 30 minutes away from each other, right the first meal in Seoul. It is, basically and wholefully, rice cake cooked in chilli sauce. Serious! What the fuss about it! Yeah it’s chewy and it’s kinda hot but something is just wrong with toppoki love. So I chose not to, even with the cheesy toppoki pizza we had in Daejeon. So chic!

toppoki

Korean people keep a very nice habit of cooking rice. They add in a lot of little nuts inside and cook together. It’s so tasty and exciting to eat rice because at some point you “wow, they put it in here”.

My all time favourite are bibimbap and kimchi jigae, the latter I will make it together with haemul pajeon and kimchijeon real soon. Bibimbap is mixed rice with vegetable, meat, sesame oil and chilli sauce. We did bibimbap on hot stone in quite a nice restaurant near Gwangnammun station. It was raining and it’s freezingly cold. We was shivering and wet. The bibimbap appeared at the table sounding the most joyful as rice was getting fried in a lil oil and sauce on the hot stone. Next to that was a bowl of smoky bean sprout soup. Imagine how pleased we were in that place. I didn’t need anything else.

Korean eats dog meat. Korean eats insect (the one in the life cycle of a butterfly). Korea eats sundae (Pig intestines stuffed with noodles, livers, lungs, …). Korea drinks soju. Korean drinks maekgolli (the extract liquid from brewed rice which is 80% similar to “ruou nep” of Vietnam). HOW VIETNAMESE KOREANS ARE!

Bottom line for you hungry traveller: Gwang Jang market for Seoul delights!