Wednesday, September 30, 2009
My flight to Uruguay passed through Dallas and Buenos Aires. For the Dallas to Buenos Aires leg, I flew business class thanks to my friend Ming who works for American Airlines. It was my first time traveling on business class internationally and I enjoyed the perks-- Bose noise-cancelling headphones, amenity kit, comforter, lie-flat seat, real cutlery and a three-course meal with unlimited free alcohol!
However, this feel-good moment did not last long as the plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Cancun due to electrical problems. Hence, everyone spent the night in Cancun (having to go through unnecessary immigration and customs) allowing the mechanics to fix the issue. Well, at least I fitted a little of my Central America trip into my itinerary!
The next morning, I found out that the flight landed in Cancun due to missing fire extinguishers! I cannot believe they couldn’t find a few fire extinguishers in the Cancun Airport and place them on the plane. Instead, they had to fly them in from Miami the next morning.
I am writing this in the Cancun Airport, about to board my flight to Buenos Aires. My expected landing time is around midnight and my flight to Montevideo isn’t until tomorrow at 12:15pm. Thus, that means a night at the Buenos Aires Airport! I’ll post what happens there later, but for now, since I still have free WiFi access, I am going to post this entry.
Friday, September 18, 2009
I am undecided as to where to visit next. What I do know is that it will be in the “new world”, either Central America or Uruguay.
It seemed that everything I experienced or saw in London, I would compare that to New York. For the most part, London always was the “winner” in my opinion. For example, the people here are quite polite, frequently saying “excuse me” or “sorry”. Furthermore, the streets are clean and the Tube (subway) is well-lit, modern and efficient. I generally felt extremely safe in London.
My London highlight was visiting all those museums. Yes, it’s amazing how everything else in London costs a fortune once it’s converted into dollars but the majority of museums are free. I spent more than 6 hours at the British Museum and I still felt rushed. I also enjoyed the National Portrait Gallery, with the likes of politicians, businesspeople, or artists. Lastly, at the Royal Observatory, I got to see the Prime Meridian and learn about longitude and timekeeping.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Helsinki, the capital of Finland, is the northernmost capital in continental Europe. The city, similar to the rest of Finland, is green and clean. I did the usual touristy activities, visiting the Cathedral, Uspensky Cathedral (Orthodox) and Senate Square. I even went to the local Hakaniemi Market and participated in a tour of the Finnish Parliament, observing its Functionalist décor.
I stayed with CouchSurfer Paavo in the outskirts of the city and this was definitely a highlight. He lives in Viikki, a new neighborhood showcasing the best of contemporary Finnish architecture. Most buildings there are constructed using a combination of wood, stone, bricks and glass. The use of glass enables natural lighting to shine inside and the building materials allow the structure to blend in to its surroundings, which is a forest. Inside, the insulation was perfect as it was quite warm, as if the heater was turned on. Notable structures include the new school with its solar panels and a wood-and-stone church. I am very glad I stayed in Viikki as this allowed me to savor the best of Nordic design; I must say one of the reasons for me visiting Finland was not its old town (which there isn’t one), but its futuristic architecture.
Another highlight in Finland was my experience in a Finnish sauna. The sauna is a Finnish institution where people relax and socialize. The sauna I was in was in a student apartment building. Lucky Finnish students! Next to the main room were the shower and cold rooms. I must admit the sauna was very hot, steamy and sweaty!
There were several things that impressed me about Finnish society. First, it is very law-abiding with most people waiting for the light to turn green before crossing the street. Second, despite the reputation of Finns being reserved and shy, most of them were very friendly when I needed help. Third, the government offers a plethora of social services for everyone. For example, I went inside City Hall and find brochures covering everything including the city budget, libraries, parks, schools and even a newcomer’s guide to Helsinki. I have always had a high opinion of Scandinavia as I heard that society there functions well. While my visit was brief, I had a glimpse of the good stuff and will surely be back!
I only had a few hours to explore Tallinn’s famous Medieval old town and it was not enough. Most of the old city walls and its towers were still intact. Many of the buildings were Medieval-style, with pointed roofs, and cellar doors. Besides its Gothic town hall and cathedrals, there were also several Orthodox churches, due to Russian occupation. My favorite part of the visit was climbing to upper town, or Toompea, and savoring the views of the lower old town.
I had two highlights in Tallinn. First, I enjoyed visiting the Gustavus Adolfus Gymnasium Museum, which has displays chronicling the history of Estonia’s oldest continuously functioning school. The school was founded by the Swedes in 1631. What made the visit enjoyable was that the curator took time to explain to me the history of the school. Being the only tourist in the museum, I felt special to receive that kind of attention.
My second highlight was observing the modern architecture of Tallinn. The new apartment buildings are simple, chic and somewhat Nordic (though others may disagree). I think the most aesthetic cities are those that are able to blend in the historical and contemporary architecture, creating a mosaic of eye-pleasing structures.
It seems that the further north I traveled, the more polite were the drivers. I was very surprised to observe that drivers yield to pedestrians at zebra crossings in the Baltics (especially in Estonia). I was equally impressed with the widespread adoption of technology in Estonia, from free Wifi all over the city to ID cards that can be used to vote online. By the way, it turns out that Skype was developed by Estonians!
My five-day visit to the Baltics has come to an end and I will definitely be back in this region! (Possibly coupling this next trip with visits to Belarus and Russia to see the contrast.) The region contains hospitable people, scenic nature, quaint towns, clean air and a Nordic lifestyle. While the region still has a bit of societal corruption (e.g., giving doctors gifts) inherited from the Soviet era, it seems that the rest of society has broken free from its past, embraced the West and is growing by leaps and bounds. The only visible remnants of Soviet occupation are the apartment block buildings and some of the buses and trams.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Riga has the largest old town in the Baltics. The one observation that surprised me the most was the quantity and quality of Art Nouveau buildings in the city. In fact, Riga is the Art Nouveau capital of Europe and an architectural open-air museum. It seems everywhere, not just in the old town, are buildings of aesthetic interest. These range from the Art Nouveau embassies, to the Soviet-style Academy of Science and to the Gothic St Peter’s Church. My favorite building is the House of Blackheads, a Medieval-style guild hall.
I was equally impressed with the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. This museum details the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Latvia from 1940-1991. I learned quite a bit about Latvia’s history and suffering through the exhibits and artifacts. This was a nation of occupants and I am glad that it is now prospering.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
My favorite part of the visit was simply wandering down the narrow alleys and exploring the courtyards and churches. Vilnius has a mixture of Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical churches, with the bulk of them being Catholic and some being Orthodox Christian.
I also climbed up Gedominas Hill, which contains the remains of the Upper Castle and has a superb view of the old town. Furthermore, I enjoyed Vilnius University, with its Baroque courtyards.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Trakai is a beautiful little town with multicolored wooden homes. Add several lakes to its surroundings and one has got a heavenly ambience. The highlight of the visit was seeing the Island Castle. Inside, the courtyards surrounded by stone and brick buildings were impressive.
Warsaw is famous for its restored old town with castle. The city suffered massive destruction during WWII and hence all the restoration. Old Town Square, with its multicolored buildings with designs, was the most impressive area.
My highlight, though, had to be visiting two festivals, the Jewish Festival and the Multicultural Festival. Cser Joanna brought me to both of them, and I felt like a local for once. At the Jewish Festival, we listened to live Klemzer music, ate palmiers and challah. The festival was located in the Jewish quarter, a run-down neighborhood of 19th century brown buildings with courtyards. The Multicultural Festival, on the other hand, was located in the Bohemian quarter of Praga. There, we watched a Samba parade and listened to Balkan music. Several countries/regions has booths displaying food, arts and performances. One of my favorite displays was the Vietnamese music puppet show.
My last European overnight trip was a bus from Warsaw to Vilnius, Lithuania. The bus was very comfortable, with a bathroom on board. The bus even arrived 30 minutes early!
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Poland is the use of the Latin alphabet! More conspicuous around the city are its Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture as this area was ruled by the Polish and Austrian-Hungarian empires. There were so many churches that it was hard to keep track (and so many weddings on the particular Saturday I was there). My favorite was St Severus Church, with its fountain of mineral-rich water and sculptures of bishops in its surrounding park. Moreover, many of the buildings are named “John Paul II”, after the pope who used to live in the Krakow area.
My favorite building though, has to be the Collegium Maius, founded in 1400 as part of Jagiellonska University, Central Europe’s second oldest. The Gothic courtyard with its old library was especially aesthetically pleasing.
Krakow also contains Wawel hill, the seat of royal power, overlooking Krakow. On top of the hill are Wawel Cathedral and Castle. The cathedral has a distinct architecture, composed of red bricks, gray stones, green spires and a golden dome. The castle has a three-storey Renaissance courtyard with some frescoes remaining.
And perhaps not surprisingly, Krakow has a Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. The city is also near two concentration campus, Auschwitz and Birkenau (which I did not have time to visit but will go next time). Kazimierz, similar to the Jewish quarter in Prague, has its fair share of synagogues and a cemetery. It is now a tourist neighborhood filled with restaurants, bars and cafes.
A side note is that the ticket-buying process at train stations is quite intriguing. First of all, one lines up (and boy the lines are always long!). However, one needs to navigate to the correct window (domestic, international and others) of which are signed only in Cyrillic. Each window has different operating hours with 1-hour lunch breaks and several 10-minute “technology” breaks, meaning that one could wait quite a while to buy a train ticket.
Lviv is a city that has both Polish and Austrian-Hungarian influences in its culture and architecture.
Similar to Brasov, I did not expect to see such “Western” architecture there. Many of these buildings were run down, which gave the city an authentic feel. I enjoyed wandering down the cobbled-stone streets and admiring Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical churches and buildings. One favorite building of mine is the 13th century Armenian Church, which is quite different from the rest inside. There were few tourists there, which made the trip even more real. Moreover, similar to other Eastern European cities I have visited, I appreciated the many trees and parks in the city.
The only negative aspect of my stay in Lviv and in Ukraine was the weather. It rained during the 3 days I was in the Ukraine. Each day, it rained throughout the day and the sky was overcast. I didn’t expect the weather to change so quickly for the worse once September began. I also observed plenty of yellow leaves. I can imagine how gloomy, cold and miserable winters in the Ukraine can be!
Once again, I decided to take an overnight train, this time from Lviv to Krakow, Poland. Looking at the map, I thought the trip could be completed in 4 hours, but was told 10 hours. I soon realized why as we were stuck at the two borders for 5 hours and 40 minutes, a record for me! (This even beats the 3-hour plus delay I experienced in Skopje, Macedonia.)
At the Ukrainian side of the border, the immigration officer tried to find something wrong with my passport by saying that my additional visa pages in the middle of the passport looked suspicious. (I guess they wanted to find something wrong with someone and since everyone else on the bus was either Ukrainian or Russian, I was the obvious target.) However, I held my ground and told him it was officially placed there by U.S. immigration authorities. After a few more minutes of trip detail interrogation, he stamped my passport and let me go.
On the Polish side, we waited even longer. This was because the immigration officers had to scrutinize the visas and invitations of the Ukrainians and Russians. I wonder how it is the other way around, let’s say, if a Westerner entered Russia. After the lengthy immigration process, everyone had to leave the bus with all of his or her luggage. The bus was searched and our bags were inspected. I wonder if this is something that occurs on the border between Schengen and non-Schengen countries. Thus, even with the extra bus journey time buffered in for the border crossing, the bus arrived at Krakow almost 2 hours late!
One last comment is that I am starting to realize the benefits of the EU for travelers. Besides the common currency that saves both time and money, lack of border controls saves a lot of time. As a frequent traveler, I cannot wait till the entire continent is in the EU and when the entire world is visa-free (my lifelong wish!).
I have now been traveling for 4 months continuously and want to take the time to reflect. I am at the stage where I am exhausted from the constant sightseeing, rushing to the train/bus station and sitting on long rides. I am looking forward to my week back in San Diego, where I can lead a “normal” life.
I want to take the time to thank everyone who has helped me along the way, for this trip could have never happened without everyone‘s support. They include my friends back in the U.S. who have collected my mail, stored my stuff and assisted me with errands. They of course include all the new CouchSurfing friends I have met along the way, who have so graciously opened their homes for me to stay, educated me about their countries and cultures and helped me with directions and language. And surprisingly, these “guardian angels” include strangers who trusted a foreigner like myself and “lent me a hand” when I was lost.
Some examples of people who have assisted me along the way include (by no means a complete list):
Roma and Victor from Ukraine who helped me navigate through the language (including Cyrillic) in order to obtain my bus and train tickets
Hill from the Netherlands who utilized his Russian to help me buy a train ticket in Moldova that would not cross through Trandniester (where I could have possibly been detained)
The Moldovan woman on the train from Chisinau, Moldova to Kiev, Ukraine who kindly offered me some of her baked chicken and hard boiled eggs
Stefan from Romania who informed me of interesting sights to see in Moldova and more importantly, hitched a ride for me from the Moldovan countryside to Chisinau so that I would not miss my train that night
A woman in Chisinau who guided me to my host’s place and even called him for me
The girl in Chisinau who spent 15 minutes asking around, trying to help me figure out the bus schedule to some villages
Anda, who took me to Autogara 2, a remote bus station in Brasov, Romania. I would have never found this place on my own
Nikolay, who took me to the remote train station in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. Again, I would have never found this place on my own
Bahadir, who took care of me in Istanbul while I was sick with travelers’ diarrhea
This trip, more than anything, has strongly encouraged me to “pay it forward” by helping anyone (whether they ask for it or not) when I get back to my “normal” life. I also want to pursue philanthropy, as there is no better satisfaction in life than helping those need it the most.
I decided to take at 17.5-hour train ride from Chisinau to Kiev because of two reasons. First, there are several bus stations in Chisinau, making it confusing to know which one to depart from. Second, this train did not pass through Transdniester, the “independent” part of Moldova in the east. I had heard that the border guards there harass travelers and thus was keen to bypass that area.
On the train (which was 45 minutes late), we waited 3 hours at the border. One reason explaining the slowness of Ukrainian trains are the long (up to 20 minutes) pauses whenever it arrives at a station. However, that did not matter too much as even the cheapest class, platzkarnty had fold-down beds, complete with pillows, sheets and blankets.
One intriguing aspect of Ukrainian life that I observed several times on the train are the sellers who get on the train and sell all types of goods. Examples include food, magazines and sweets. Furthermore, the Moldovan woman who slept on the bed next to mine offered me an egg and some chicken. Do they share food only in developing countries? I don’t think this would have occurred in the West.
Kiev itself is full of Orthodox churches and monasteries in various colors and shades. Examples include St Sofia Cathedral, St Michael’s Monastery and St Andrew’s Church. The city also has few English speakers and all signs are in Cyrillic, making this one of my toughest destinations.
One interesting part of the city is the metro, with its long escalator to reach the platforms and its Soviet-style décor.
Persuaded by two friendly Romanian tourists, I decided to follow them to Curchi, which has a monastic complex. It turned out that the monastery was under renovation and quite small. Besides the nearby hills and farmland, there was nothing else to see.
However, the bus journey to and from Curchi made up for the lackluster monastery. I felt like I was in Asia as the ride was bumpy and crowded. By crowded, I mean that the corridor was packed with people like sardines in a can! On the way back, I had to hitch a ride as the bus was late and I had a train to catch.
My first experience with Chisinau was similar to that in Bucharest--stray dogs. In fact, I almost did not enter CouchSurfer Serghei’s apartment due to several barking dogs in the driveway.
Chisinau contradicts the image of Moldova. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, but one would never guess so when strolling through the center of Chisinau. There, every street is lined with trees. The main strip, Blvd. Stefan de Mare, is lined with grand neoclassical and Soviet-style buildings, including Government House, Parliament House, Presidential Palace, Opera & Ballet Theatre and its Arc de Triomphe. Luxury cars, such as Mercedes and BMW, are all over the city.
I visited Chisinau on National Language Day, a public holiday to celebrate the Romanian language. A huge stage with performances was set up in front of Government House, across from the Arc de Triomphe and Cathedral Park. Vendors nearby were selling popcorn, crepes, doner kebab and pastries. There were so many people that I felt the entire country was there!
Brasov, like the whole region of Transylvania, has a German feel to it. That is because the Habsburgs used to rule the region. Thus, the town abounds with red-roof buildings, central courtyards and reminded me of Central Europe.
I had two highlights while in Brasov. The first was walking down Strada Sforii, the narrowest street in Eastern Europe. My second highlight was hiking up Tampa Hill, with its Hollywood-like “Brasov” sign on top. The summit of Tampa provided us with sweeping views of the mountains and both the old and new areas of Brasov. I will especially remember the old city walls that surrounds the old town.
I took an overnight bus to Chisinau, Moldova that night. I was the only person neither from Romania nor from Moldova. The interesting aspect about this trip is that it took forever for the Romanian authorities to allow the Moldovans to leave Romania, which I found ironic. The bus surprisingly arrived 20 minutes early, at 4:40am. Given the fact that it was still dark when I arrived, I decided to wait until dawn to walk to my host’s apartment. Waiting 1.5 hours in the chilly night was worth it, as barely anyone speaks English in Chisinau and there are sometimes more stray dogs that there are people!
The most famous building is the Palace of Parliament, the world’s second largest building in surface area after the Pentagon. I joined a tour of the building, which only covered less than 3% of it! This gargantuan structure was built starting in the 1984 in a neo-classical style with Romanian features. Inside, gigantic halls with ornate chandeliers, colorful carpets and decorous curtains adorned the area. The palace also has a great view of Boulevard Unirii, Bucharest’s “Champs Elysees”, with small fountains lining the middle of the avenue.
Another highlight was my visit to the Village Museum, an open-air place with churches and homes from different areas of Romania. There were homes with straw roofs and those with wooden roofs. There were wooden churches and windmills. The complex also contained a good number of farm buildings: stables, mills, crushers.
The town is filled with 19th century wooden homes built in the Bulgarian National Revival style. The scenery around town is extremely picturesque as many of these buildings are on a hill and appear as if they are stacked on top of one another. Add a river and a fortress and you have got a picture-perfect town.
In fact, I was surprised to learn that Veliko Tarnovo was the first capital of Bulgaria back in the 12th century. The czar at that time ruled in the still intact Tsarevets Fortress, which has spectacular views of Veliko Tarnovo.
I took an overnight train that day to Bucharest, Romania. As usual, it was at least a 2-hour wait at the border, making a simple journey into a complicated one (the train ended up to be 1 hour late). However, there were few people on board and I got to lie down. I also had a good chat with Ross, a British traveler who has been to several former Soviet republics before and was heading to Transdniester, a separatist region in Moldova.
The city contains a wealth of religious history, as evidenced by its synagogue, Catholic church, mosque and numerous Orthodox churches. My favorites include the Russian Church with its gold domes and green and white walls; and Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral, the symbol of Sofia. This latter structure reminded me of a layered caked, as it appeared as a series of domes stacked on top of one another.
One intriguing phenomenon is the large number of McDonald’s (including McDrive’s) in the city center. Furthermore, there was a fair number of Dunkin’ Donuts. Lastly, pizza is a popular fast food here and believe it or not, it is the American thick-crust variety that is loved!
Istanbul, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, is a bustling city. My favorite image of the city consists of fishermen on the various bridges, surrounded by the Bosphorus, Golden Horn and mosques. My favorite sightseeing location is Topkapi Palace, especially its harem (private quarters). There, elaborate wooden doors with Arabic script above them connected rooms to courtyards. Many of these rooms contained walls filled with the blue Iznik tiles. Topkapi Palace is a massive work of art, its many buildings and pavilions blend harmoniously with the inner gardens and the Bosphorus.
Another enjoyable part of visiting Istanbul was tasting its cuisine. Unfortunately, due to my illness, I did not participate fully in this endeavor, but nevertheless I got to sample the basics. These included chicken doner kebab, pide (Turkish pizza), borek (flaky pastry with ground beef), baklava and milk pudding.
On my last day in Istanbul, I took an overnight bus to Sofia, Bulgaria. I was told the departure time would be 9pm, but a staff member clarified to me that it was 9pm departure from a satellite bus station and actually 10pm departure from the main bus station. In fact, the bus company really tested my patience as the actual departure was 11pm! On the way, of course the bus stopped several times. However, the interesting aspect about these stops is that they were at shopping/restaurant complexes owned by the bus company. Pretty business savvy, eh?
One more point to note. When crossing into Bulgaria, the immigration officer asked me if I had enough money for my stay in Bulgaria. Since when did Bulgaria start becoming a country for illegal immigration?
I spent my first day in the town of Goreme, which is in the center of the tourist region. When I arrived at dawn, there were dozens of hot air balloons floating in the air. After admiring the landscape, I proceeded to the Goreme Open-Air Museum, which has all of the cave churches in the area. The cave churches dated from the 11th century and contained Byzantine frescoes on the walls and ceilings. Many contained columns and domes inside.
I spent the second day on a group tour of Cappadocia. Highlights include panoramic view of the fairytale chimneys, caves and rock formations of Goreme and of Pigeon Valley. We also visited more caves in the Selime Monastery and hiked along a river and amongst the mountains in the Ihlara Valley.
By far my favorite visit ,though ,was the one to Derinkuyu, the region’s largest underground city. This complex is 55 meters deep with 8 stories and could have held a maximum of 2,000 people. The place contained a kitchen, church, school, well and meeting places. The construction of ventilation shafts and rocks to block enemies was well thought out.
I took an overnight bus to Istanbul on my second day in Cappadocia. The bus was crowded and almost every woman had a headscarf on, indicative of the more conservative rural Turkey. As usual, there were numerous 20-minute stops, which caused the arrival to be 1 hour late.