Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Our New House (this isn't about our summer trip...)

Emily has just asked me to update our blog with a non-travel topic: Our New House! I'll get back to our trans-siberian trip in a couple of days.

For those of you who haven't heard, we moved over the summer. While we enjoyed living on campus last year, we were excited to move out and get our own place (with our own furniture, our own car, and our own dog). We're happy to report that Rudy is now living with us in our brand new village house.

Here's our building:
We live in the village area of "Lam Tsuen" in the "Tai Po" district of the New Territories (Hong Kong's hinterland, about 10 kilometers from the Chinese border). Here's a map showing where our village is. In the picture above, our house is on the top floor, on the right half of the building. We also have the rooftop, which I (Brad) am working to turn into a garden area (it's a big space, as you can see, so it's taking me awhile to buy enough plants to fill it):
And here's our front balcony (that's a lemon tree I bought, which we're hoping yields a few lemons this year!) You can't see from the photo, but our washing machine lives out there on our front balcony. It's the standard place to keep your washer in HK villages (in fact it's the only place where we have hook-ups for our washer):
...and the inside of the house. Here's our living room (with our new couch - the only decent couch we've ever owned!) Also, you'll notice that we have curtains in all the rooms of the house. We had those custom-made in Shenzhen, China (quite cheaply). And I'd like to report that I (Brad) picked out the material and general design of all the curtains ALL BY MYSELF. What do you think?
And another angle of our living room (which is also our dining room):
As you can see, our kitchen is open (which is very rare for Hong Kong). Here's 2 pictures of our kitchen:
And our large (for hong kong) bathroom. Yes, we only have 1. In our 3 bedroom house. Welcome to Hong Kong.
Here's our "master bedroom." It's tiny. There's not even enough space for night stands on both sides of the bed. But, it does have 2 windows, which is about all that sets it apart from the rest of our bedrooms:
Here's our spare bedroom. It's too small to get a good shot of the whole room, but there's a double-sized bunk bed in there. (this is the normal hong kong way of dealing with small space) Anyone want to come and stay with us? You'll feel like you're at summer camp as you sleep in your bunk bed!
We didn't get any pictures of our "closet room" as we call it. It's our third bedroom, and is about the same size as the bunk bed room (above). But, we've decided to turn it into a walk-in closet. It's actually kind of nice because Hong Kong bedrooms don't generally have closets. So, we put a couple of wardrobes into our third bedroom and it's become our closet!

We also didn't get any pictures of our car (above is a photo I got off the internet. it looks just like ours, only ours is a right-hand drive). We bought a 1999 Mazda from one of the teachers who just left our school. It's a bit of a clunker, but it was very cheap and is very good on gas. That's important, because the price of gasoline in hong kong is about $8.50 US per gallon. This is why so few people in hong kong own cars (there are about 500,000 licensed cars in HK, and over 7 million people living in the city) We carpool with another family when we drive to school, and they help us out with gas money. It's expensive, but we save a lot of money on rent by living so far from school, so it kind of evens out (and we love the freedom of car ownership). It's the first car we've owned in about 5 years, so we feel a bit like high school kids who've just gotten their drivers' licenses.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Moscow: Jumping-off Point for the Trans-Siberian!

We left St. Petersburg for Moscow in the afternoon of our third day in Russia. Traditionally, this has been an overnight journey (in fact, for most Russians, it still is). For us, however, the 400 mile trip took about 4.5 hours. That's because we took Russia's brand new "Sapsan" high speed train. Russians we met seemed pretty excited about this train, and on board there were all sorts of "Sapsan" branded souveniers for sale. We weren't interested in any of the goods for sale, although Emily snatched up a few "Sapsan" barf bags. You can never have too many of those in your purse.

I (Brad) had been looking forward to Moscow for a long time. I remembered looking at my world map as a kid and wondering at the immensity of the big red section labeled "USSR." (I was just as nerdy back then as I am now - I had maps all over the walls of my bedroom as a little kid). To me, entering Moscow still seemed like penetrating the heart of the country that Reagan once referred to as the "Evil Empire."
We stayed in a small hotel about 15 minutes' walk from Red Square, and unlike St. Petersburg, we really made use of the Moscow Metro (subway) system. It was a bit confusing initially, as all of the signage is in Russian (and some stops aren't even labeled!). We found that the easiest way around this obstacle was learning the Cyrillic alphabet. I am proud to announce that I can now read Russian... although for the most part, the words that I sound out just sound like gibberish to me.
The Metro in Moscow is beautiful, with each station uniquely decorated. The stations doubled as bomb shelters in WWII and the years following, so the escalators are surprisingly deep.

I especially liked the stations with over-the-top communist decor. Here are a few great proletariat warriors we found sculpted in bronze along the wall of one station:
Russia in general is not easily navigable for the independent tourist. As mentioned earlier, signage is almost exclusively in Russian, and very few people speak English. In St. Petersburg, our hostess at our B&B helped us navigate the city. In Moscow, we had something even better: our own private Russian-speaking tour guide (who worked for free!). Brian Felix, the husband of Emily's old college roommate, was working at a camp and conference center in Moscow for the summer. He majored in Russian in college, and was a godsend to us as we navigated the city. We had only met Brian once before, and we really enjoyed getting to know him a little better during our time in Moscow. (here's their blog if you want to learn more about Brian & Wendy)

Here's Brian enjoying a bottle of "Kvas" (the fizzy non-alcoholic fermented bread drink that seems to be everywhere in Russia):
Brian not only helped us out with linguistic difficulties, but he also showed us some parts of the city we'd otherwise never have seen. Like this place:

It's called the "All Russian Exhibition Center." It's a park on the outskirts of Moscow built in Soviet times to celebrate the many facets of Russian society. There are something like 80 pavilions, each dedicated to a different element of Soviet life. There's a pavilion for the space industry, another for meat packers, one for energy, and pavilions for each of the former Soviet Republics. Here's a video of Brian explaining the place:

I especially loved the art and architecture. There were dozens of statues, all in that wonderful communist-propaganda art style (you know what I mean - lots of pictures of burly, stoic looking peasants, gazing confidently into the workers' paradise of the not-too-distant-future):
We wandered around the park for several hours, ate some street food, and generally enjoyed people-watching.

At one point, an impromptu water fight broke out:

As we were about to leave, Brian directed our attention to what he had found to be Moscow's latest and trendiest pastime... Rollerblading:

The next day, Emily and I saw the more touristy areas of Moscow.

We visited the Kremlin and stood in line to see Lenin's dead body (he looks a bit waxy, but not bad overall considering that he died about 90 years ago).
Look at the size of that bell inside the Kremlin!

Emily's commentary on the Kremlin Gardens:

We visited a very sobering museum (which doesn't show up in many tourist guidebooks): the Gulag Museum. It was quite sad to see the conditions in which so many people perished (over 20 million died, yet neither of us remembered learning about it in our High School history class). We've all seen so many movies and read so many books about the holocaust, yet roughly 3 times as many people had died in Russian gulags and neither of us had heard much about it.

Our 4-night trans-siberian train was scheduled to leave at midnight at the end of our third day in Moscow. We decided to spend our last afternoon stocking up on souvenirs at a market that we had read about in Lonely Planet. It was pretty far from the city center which meant that with fewer tourists stopping by, prices had not been driven up as high as elsewhere in Moscow.
Here's Emily in front of her favorite store (give you one guess what they were selling):
As many of you know, Emily LOVES pottery. She's not much of a shopper (she's the money saver in our family), but when she sees pottery, she goes bonkers. When she began to buy worrying quantities of heavy (and fragile) pottery, I reminded her of how far we still had to travel (and how heavy all that stuff would be). She assured me that she would carry every piece of pottery home by herself. She made good on that promise, and not one piece broke on the way home!

Overall, we both enjoyed Moscow, although we were exhausted from walking by the end of 3 days in the city. We were both shocked by the prices in Moscow (Starbucks charged over $8US for a latte), and we wound up eating in cafeteria-style restaurants (thanks for the tip, Brian!) and McDonald's a lot. For our last night's meal in Moscow, we splurged and visited a Georgian restaurant. We ordered "Wareniky" (Brad's favorite dish since childhood), and decided that Mom Christensen still makes it better than the restaurateurs of Moscow.

That night, we went to the train station to board our train to Irkutsk. We'll write all about that in the next post, but I thought we'd include a photo of the departures board at the station that announced our train. It was train number 2, bound for Vladivostok:
See how easy the Cyrillic alphabet is to read?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Videos of Estonia & St. Petersburg

It's a bit difficult to post on our blog when we only have internet at work. I (Brad) have mostly been doing our posting in pieces (during lunch, after school, etc). Also, I haven't been very organized about bringing in all of our memory cards from the summer (to upload photos and video to the blog). So, I'm just now getting around to uploading videos from our trip. The four below are (in my opinion) the best moments of our visits to Estonia & St. Petersburg. They're pretty short, so I hope it's not too difficult for anyone to load them.

If you only watch one, make it "The Singing Waiters" (at the bottom)!

This was the view from our boat as we sailed from Stockholm (on our way to Estonia). The islands around Stockholm were a beautiful backdrop as we ate our "gourmet" meal (smoked salmon, strawberries, and chocolate profiteroles):

Here's a video of the Old City in Estonia, taken from the top of the steeple of the Lutheran church:

And here's one of "the rabbit" in St. Pete. There's a local superstition that if you can toss a coin onto the rabbit's lap (and have it stay), your wish will come true! There was a guy sitting under the bridge collecting all the coins that bounced off the rabbit. I think he was more likely than the rest of us to have his dreams come true:

And another one of the restaurant ("Sadko") that we ate at by the conservatory in St. Petersburg. This restaurant hires conservatory students (singers) to wait tables. While we were eating, our waiter put down his tray and joined his co-workers to sing for about 5 minutes:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

St. Petersburg: our introduction to Russia

After spending 1 night in Tallinn, we walked around the old city for most of the day, eventually making our way to the port at around 6pm. I (Brad) was a little worried about this ferry, as I had booked it through a very sketchy website without much English on it. Our "Ticket" was actually just a printout of my login information from their website. I half expected to be turned away from the boat. As is nearly always the case, I was over-anxious, and we checked in without a problem.

From the outside, the ship looked about the same as any of the others we had traveled on thus far. It wasn't until we got onboard that we got our first clue as to the sorry state of this "cruise-ferry." I had done a bit of reading ahead of time on the subject of the "Princess Anastasia" (our boat). Although it had started life as a Scandinavian cruiseliner, it had changed hands a number of times over the last couple decades, ultimately becoming a "mini-cruise" ship (it made a weekly circuit between St. Petersburg, Stockholm, and Tallinn).

Most of our fellow passengers were middle-class Russians who were on holiday. They had come with all the usual accoutrements that we've come to expect from Russian tourists: tiny bathing suits (I'm talking about the men here), gold necklaces (again, talking about the men), and a hearty appetite for alcohol. Our cruise ship was organized with such tourists in mind, and featured all of the amenities that tourists of the former Soviet Bloc could ask for: a casino, a discotheque, several bars, plenty of deck space for sun-bathing, and a "gentlemen's club" (whose name was both shocking and hilarious - I don't dare repeat it here).
We had come prepared with a self-catered dinner and breakfast, and spent the first hours of the journey on the top deck (amid scantily clad, chain-smoking Russians who were working on their tans). We enjoyed a lovely meal very similar to that on the Swedish ferry: more smoked salmon, accompanied by some delicious Estonian produce (the strawberries were especially delicious - we ate at least a half kilo between us).

We arrived at St. Petersburg at 8AM the following day, and discovered the joys of entering a country through a little-used border crossing. We only waited in line about 15 minutes to get our passports stamped (although they scrutinized our visas for quite awhile - they were a little suspicious about them having been issued in Hong Kong). Our B&B in St. Pete had sent a car to pick us up at the ferry, and by 9AM, we were already at our hotel.
Of all the hotels we stayed in on this trip (there were 10 in total), the B&B in St. Petersburg was Emily's favorite. I think that the proprietor "Natalia" was to thank for this. She was a lovely woman (we guessed she was in her mid-40's or early 50's) who had worked as an Engineer in Minsk before emigrating to Texas after the fall of the Soviet Union. She had learned excellent English, and become a US citizen before moving back to St. Pete to start the B&B we were staying in. Natalia made St. Pete for us. She suggested wonderful restaurants, gave us great tourist tips, and cooked us delightful breakfasts (we especially enjoyed the farmer-cheese fritters with jam and sour cream!). Our only regret: we never took any pictures of her or the B&B.
The Neva River in St. Petersburg
We saw this car carrying a couple to their wedding.

Although St. Pete has a great subway system, we never used it. Natalia gave us a great map and showed us how to walk to all the sights. We must have walked about 8-10 miles a day during the 2 days we were in St. Petersburg. Here's some of what we saw:
The cathedral inside of the "St. Peter & Paul Fortress." It was very beautiful inside, but more of a mausoleum than a church (it was made to hold the remains of members of the royal family, and "common" people weren't allowed to worship there - how shocking that the communists resented the state religion of the Tsars).
The prison inside the fortress. Emily is doing her best to empathize with the prisoners of the tsarist era.
The halls of the prison: many famous Russian revolutionaries (and other "troublemakers") were imprisoned here, including Fyodor Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky.

We stopped by "The Hermitage" museum (housed in the old Tsarist "Winter Palace"). It was a lovely palace, filled with gilt chandeliers and some of the most beautiful inlaid floors we'd ever seen. (We visited one of the world's great art museums, and the most memorable element was the floors. What does that say about our level of sophistication?)
We stopped by the "Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood." (in the background in the photo below). It's very similar to St. Basil's cathedral in Moscow, although not as old.

Thanks to Natalia's suggestions, we ate some great Russian food in St. Petersburg. Throughout our trip, we did our best to take pictures of the foods we ate along the way (thanks for the suggestion, Kalina!). Here's what we had to eat at a restaurant called "The Idiot" (named for the Dostoevsky novel of the same name):

These are "Pelmeni," which are basically just dumplings (in this case stuffed with mushrooms). We discovered that Russians eat a lot of sour cream, potatoes, mushrooms, and dill.
Emily had some potatoes stuffed with mushrooms and covered in...(you guessed it) sour cream!

We've decided that we like homestays and B&B's for the "insider's" perspective it gives you on a city. In St. Pete, our hostess not only suggested great restaurants and helpful tourist tips, but she also narrated the city for us. Here's an example:
These locks were attached to bridges all over the city. We noticed that most were engraved with dates and the names of couples. Natalia explained to us that it is a tradition in St. Petersburg on the day of your wedding to attach a lock to a bridge with the name of you and your spouse (fun twist on the English expression "tie the knot"). We thought it would be fun to attach a lock to one of the bridges here in Hong Kong (although I'm sure we'd get fined for violating some littering law)!

No questions for you this week. If you would like to comment, we'd love to hear from you!