Sunday, December 29, 2013

Breakfast in Beijing - First Glimpses of China

After flying through the night amidst mostly Chinese whose constant chatter made sleep hopeless, I dropped into the comfortable bed at the Fairmont with a serious headache and finally fell into a blissful coma.  In the morning, after not having seen much through the foggy or more correctly smoggy ride from the airport, we were eager to explore the place where we seemed to have arrived at in a dream.

Under a hot, grey, cottony sky, we embarked on our first journey in this astonishing land.  Right across from our five-star hotel, lanes, jutting into the main street, were jammed with  improvised, shabby-looking outdoor stands where proprietors cooked breakfast for Beijingers emerging from the nearby subway on the way to work.



Cooks prepared delicious looking egg sandwiches, sesame dumplings, meats on sticks and other easy to-take-away style food.



Young Chinese grabbed bytes on the way to modern office buildings that loomed above what appeared to be remnants of China past both the old hutongs from the 13th  century  and drab, low-story housing complexes with window air-conditioning units from the Communist-era of the 50s and 60s,.  


Taking a full tour of the immediate surroundings which was in the business district of Beijing, we came across a  so-called entertainment district and encountered our first example of "Chinglish," funny, weirdly written English, on a sign.


The contrasts between the old, the new, the poor, the rich, the west, the east were thrown together in this short walk in a hodgepodge that made clear the stark reality of Chinese ambiguity.  We watched as mingled traffic of dogs, people, carts, autos and buses navigated the cross streets without much guidance still managing for the most part to avoid collisions.  We marveled at modern, clean subways with an amazingly seamless security system, and the landslide of new construction wherever we looked.


While we gaped at all we were seeing, Beijingers gaped at us. When we finally arrived at a dim sum restaurant (Din Tai Fung in the Sun King Place mall) for our late breakfast, the waiters and other patrons stared openly at us as we devoured mini dumplings and amazing vegetables.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Planning Italy -- By Rail

It started with the Eurorail passes which were easy enough to order online.  We purchased them through Eurail, they came in the mail, and were filed away.  Then with further research, we learned you would also need a reservation on high speed trains, and since we we wanted to travel from Rome to Florence on one, we started looking at ways to reserve.  That's when it became interesting.   Here were the instructions on the Eurail website:

You can make reservations at larger train stations in Europe, including ones with a Eurail aid office. Just show your Eurail pass at the ticket office and explain which train(s) you want to reserve.

In Italy, you can also make reservations at the ‘Self-service’ machines to avoid queues, including stations in Bari, Bologna, Florence, Genova, Milano, Naples, Pisa, Rome, Turin and Venice. On these machines, select the train you want to use and then click on the 'Global Pass' button (see example screenshot). You can pay the reservation fee by cash or credit card.


Being as anal as I am, I wanted to make the reservations ahead and spotted the tab on the Eurail site for on-line reservations.  From there, the following was noted:


How to make online reservations

Reservations can be made on the Trenitalia website. If you want to receive an invoice of your order you'll have to register before making your reservations. If receiving an invoice isn't necessary, you can start right away.

Follow these steps to make your reservations:
1 Enter your departure city and city of arrival.
2 Choose your preferred train connection and click Select


I challenge you to find the word "reservations" on this website.  I did figure out what to do, but I could never recreate it for you, and since it didn't work for me anyway, I will tell you what I did do, and what I would suggest doing.  I went to a US-based company, Rail Europe, which has a slick easy-to-use website.  But this process was far from clean.  The problem I first incurred when trying to order reservations for the train I wanted to use was that it wasn't there.  It was there for earlier dates but not for the date 3 months hence that I wanted.   Why?  Because the "schedule" wasn't ready yet.  After emailing Rail Europe they agreed to notify me when the reservations could be ordered.  But even after they were available, I still got a message from their website after making a payment that the order was in progress, and I would be contacted when reservations were available.  After many emails and a phone call or two I learned that the schedules were being loaded, but for the trains I wanted to schedule they hadn't been as yet.  

The above problem ultimately was resolved and I received the reservations suddenly in the mail.  Hallelujah!  Then as I finalized plans for the trip, there was learning about the validation process for the Eurorail pass before getting on the train.  Prior to using your pass, you must have it validated at the train station.  The problem is that if your train is an early one that means you have to arrive very early to have the pass validated before finding your train and getting on.  According to Rick Steves you can do it a day before, but that could be problematic too -- allowing time in your itinerary for this as well as the confusion of validating before the day of your trip.  

Bottom line.  If you plan to travel by train, and plan to use a Eurorail pass, make sure to get your reservations, and then make sure you allow time to have your pass validated.  Also I realize as I laughed over the extraordinary process involved with just getting on a train that I needed to lighten up and just accept the bureaucracy of it all and work with it.   It will all fall in place -- at least I hope.  Next chapter on this topic will be using the trains in Italy.  I will let you know how the whole process works out.  




Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Taking the Road Less Travelled to the Hanging Houses of Cuenca, Spain


When planning our three some week venture into Spain, I had pretty much decided that Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, and Barcelona were the musts, but all the while, even though it was off path, a journey to Cuenca persistently pushed its way back into my travel plan.  I do not regret that this off-guidebook destination... dismissed by some of the major savants of travel as too far from the main sightseeing priorities.. clung steadfast to our itinerary.


I researched the journey to Cuenca ad nauseum.. concerned that it might take our auto-based trip off on desolate roads far from civilization -- yeah yeah, I know -- using google earth et al to explore the terrain long before our rental car began the five-hour trip through the rugged, rusty-colored land of central Spain from Granada to Cuenca. No matter,  I just had to see the houses that had clung desparately to the edge of a cliff for over 500 years.


Cuenca like much of Spain retains the mysterious blend of Moorish and Christian stemming from its history of conquests.   When the Moors conquered Spain they spotted a limestone ridge between the Jucar and Huecar rivers and built a fortress-town from which to control the vast area known as the Kura de Kunka ), in the center of the caliphate of C√≥rdoba -- in Spanish, Cuenca was born.  In the era of the crusades (12th century), a Christian town was built over the Moorish one spreading  down from the crest of the hill.  As the population expanded, the fortified upper town became dominated by Cuenca's churches and convents. The famous World Heritage Casas Colgados (Hanging Houses) are but a few remaining of hundreds of cliff-hugging dwellings built in the 15th century. These were originally part of a palace that later served as the city's town hall. 



Our plan with respect to Cuenca, in addition to seeing the famous houses, was to tick off another goal of the trip - to stay at many of the paradores of Spain ( a topic for another post).  So our journey after rolling through the oddly manicured lands immediately outside of Cuenca's more modern section took up us the winding road to the Parador of Cuenca.  This Parador noted as one of the best in Spain is in the former convent of San Pablo overlooking the Hoz del Huecar gorge with its sheer walls and luxuriant vegetation. The open courtyard, cloistered hallway that surrounds it, former chapel (obviously identified because of the religious paintings) now the hotel bar all added to the historic charm of the hotel.  While accomodations were modest, they were pleasant and comfortable enough, and we loved lingering at the tiny bar sipping Spanish wine with tapas as we chatted with the bartender and gazing at the overwhelming views of the ancient casas clinging precipitously to the edge of a natural wonder. 


While seeing first hand this amazing World Heritage site is enough of a reason to visit Cuenca, you can also wander into the old town of Cuenca (if you stay at the Parador -- you can get there across the iron-fortified stone bridge that crosses the gorge or take the road and get there by car.)  Once across the gorge you can visit the Muiseo de Arte Abstracto housed in one of the casas.  For the non-vertically challenged there is also a restaurant, Meson Casas Colgadas, next to the museum with vistas of the gorge.



Getting there: A fairly new AVE high-speed rail train connetcs Madrid – Atocha station and Cuenca – Fernando Zobel station, providing travellers with frequent  everyday accessibilit, reducing the journey to only 50 minutes. RENFE also operates a non high-speed service that gets to Cuenca  in 3 hours from Madrid. Auto Res, a bus operator, links Madrid to Cuenca with a 2 hour or 2:30 hour trip duration. The A-40 motorway, connects the city with the A-3 at Tarancon, 82 km away from Madrid.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

There is Something I Love About Ducks Worldwide

There is something I just love about ducks. Maybe its their resiliency. Maybe its their discipline. Maybe its their ability to work together. Or maybe its just that they are so darn cute.. like in the video below... Caught in the gusty wind of a hurricane blowing on shore in Atlantic City yesterday, check out how these little fellows deal with it, and resume their lives as nature has taught them.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Astonishing Vineyards of Lavaux -- a World Heritage Site on Lake Geneva in Switzerland

On route from Geneva to eastern Switzerland, .....

The Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, run for miles along the south shores of Lake Geneva from the Chateau de Chillon to  outskirts of Lausanne and cover the lower foothills of the mountainside between villages and lake. Evidence, according to the World Heritage website, points to the vines being grown during  Roman times, and present vine terraces can be traced back to the 11th century, when Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries dominated the area.
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