Bye-bye Paris, hello Italy!

Let me blurt it right away:  I didn't like Paris.

I have never expected that I'd write these words - I have very fond memories of my previous trips to Paris, I spent in this city quite a bit of time, even lived there for sometime, as a student learning French.  The city used to be kind to me, and I was kind to the city.   But something has changed in the city, or something has changed in me.  This time me and Paris haven't fit each other as we used to.

If one expects that the reminder of this post will be the ksenophobic crap that has littered the entire World Wide Web, you'll be disappointed.  No, I haven't seen any evidence of Syrian refugies rampaging through the streets, while oppressed white Parisiens hide somewhere in the bomb shelters.  I suppose one can travel out of his way, to the specific troubled neighbourhoods, to find the material that feeds these ksenophobic stories.. but we haven't done such silly things.  We've kept our itinerary to the upscale neighbourhoods and major attractions, Latin Quarter, Saint-Germain, Notre-Dame, Louvre, Eiffel Tower, etc.. and in all these popular places, the business was 100% as usual...

So what is that I didn't like?  First of all, long lines.  Starting from the arrival to the Charles-de-Gaule, we've spent 1.5 to 2 hours waiting in the line for Immigration.  The mechanical voice habitually lied every 5-10 minutes that longer than usual lines are due to "heightened security concerns".  What a BS!  I know exactly why the line was barely moving - because out of about 20 security gates, only 3 to 4 were open at any given time.  Michelle has remarked that it was the longest line she's seen in her life... and perhaps this was the longest line in my experience as well.  While we were stranded in the motionless human sea, in front of the immigration gates, Zara had plenty of time to recall the efficiency of Dubai's Airport, and fantasise how wonderful it would be if Dubai's sheiks would extend their rule to France's flagship airport or perhaps the entire country, it was quite clear that French are not capable of running it well on their own.

This, btw, wasn't the only line where we've stayed longer than desired, it seems that most of our experiences in Paris involved some slow moving queue.  For example, on the evening of the same day when we arrived, we went to Moulin Rouge.  The ticket has warned that to get good seat on has to come 30 minutes before the show.  We did.  And show has started 1 hour later.  So what we did we do in these 1.5 hours?  We, together with at least a thousand of other people, were herded to a large barn-like structure, apparently a former movie theater, but now abandoned and dilapidated.  There we had to wait about 1.5 hours without food, toilets or entertainment.  The only difference from the airport was that here most people were nicely dressed, and many women wearing high heels.  By the time we all got to our seats, nobody had nice words for the administrators of ths venue.  While the show itself was good, it's the art of annpying people, which French have mastered to perfection!

Secondly, I didn't like French food!  Well, as far as I recall, finding quality food in France, other than pastries, has always been hit and miss, more of a miss, actually.  Now, with the help of Yelp's ratings, the luck was more on our side.  However we would have to pass quite a few establishments, to find one that had more positive reviews than curses.  And even there, the food be just ok, nothing special.  Besides, French food industry seems to have lower hygenic standards than most of the civilized word, definitely lower than in USA.  It was rather strange for us to observe food workers taking money and than handling food without plastic gloves.  And, of course, I can avoid mentioning, that sanitary standards of French toilets are about 100 years behind the rest of the Europe and most of Asia.  No matter how pretentious is the facade of French establishments, and how pricey is the menu, more likely than not, the toilets will be somewhere in the dangeon-like basement, and have a certain degree of disfunction.  It seems that French always treat their sanitary facilities as an afterthought - after everything else is built, someone realizes, "oh, we forgot about the toilet", so they'd squeeze it somewhere in the darkest corner, and because all the budget has been already spent, it will remain partially unfinished.  And if something breaks, or e.g. as toilet seat would gone missing... owners wouldn't even notice.

Our last meal, when leaving France through the same Charle De Gaule, has only reinforced the bad aftertaste - the food was bad, overpriced.. and there was the unavoidable long line to get even that.  As the ultimate insult, even the croissants weren't fresh!  I think that selling stale croissants in France should be punished by law as desecration of the flag.   Airport vendors have ultimatly destroyed whatever little was left of the French culinary prestige.

I don't want to have my entire travel note in such negative key, so here is something positive at theend: I loved Italy!
Actually, most of our vacation was through Italy, and some of the negative thoughts I have about Paris were amplified by the comparison with our wonderful Italian impressions.  Even the famous sights of Paris looked bleak and uninspiring after their Italian counterparts.  Everything was great in Italy - sights, food, weather, efficiency!  Forget Paris, now I have my new favorite country!

Утро в Шанхае

На часах уж скоро пять,
Я в Шанхай иду гулять...
Вообще 12-часовой перелет, и почти такая же разница во времени, обстоятельства малоприятные, однако в некоторых случаях, последствия могут оказаться полезными.  Именно благодаря этим обстоятельствам, выйдя на прогулку в 5 утра, я увидел Шанхай таким, каким не видел его никто, кроме, пожалуй, дворников, и особенно фанатичных физкультурников.

Прямо от моей гостиницы начиналась пешеходная Нанжинг Стрит - Шанхайский эквивалент Арбата, такая же длинная, но раза в три шире.  Я прошагал мимо ее шикарных витрин, наверное километра два, к Бунду - знаменитой Шанхайской набережной.  Навстречу изредка пробегали стайки бегунов, а какой-то особенно экстремальный физкультурник пятился по ней на четвереньках задом наперед.  На руках у него были белые перчатки - чтоб не испачкать ладошки.  Возможно излишняя предосторожность - улица сверкала чистотой, и перчатки, несмотря на пройденную дистанцию оставались белыми.


Пока дошел до набережной - немножко посветлело, и к бегунам присоединились запускатели воздушных змеев, танцоры с бумбоксами, и солидные мужчины прогуливающие мелких несерьезных собачек.
Оценив прославленную путеводителями архитектуру Бунда, и впитав в себя панораму ультра-современной части - Пудонга, находящегося на противоположном берегу реки Хуанпу, я направился в историческую часть города - базар сувениров и Ююан Гарден.

К этому времени посветлело, бегуны разбежались, и им на смену, вышли бадминтонисты и любители боевых искусств, если к тай-чи можно отнести к боевым искусствам.  Занимаются им в основном пожилые женщины, которые выглядят довольно безопасно.  Но когда они схватились мечи, я на всякий случай спрятался от них в соседнем Старбаксе. К тому же, какое же это утро без кофе?

После кофе, отправился в более традиционный китайский ресторан, ткнул пальцем в понравившийся пельмень и немножко подкрепился.
После физической пищи, настало время утолить духовный голод и я зашел в храм "городского бога".  Там я немножко удивился набожности молодых китайских бизнесменов.  Интересно, приношения в храме, в обмен на помощь вышестоящей инстанции в проведении сделок - является ли это древнейшей формой взятки?

После храма, прогулялся по садам Ююан, окольной дорогой вернулся к гостинице на центральной Пипл Сквере, зашел в Шанхайский музей, осмотрел коллекцию 3-х тысячелетних бронз, купил сувениры... и впереди оставался еще целый день!

Ссылка на фотки

你好 from Macau! (Nǐ hǎo from Four-in-One City)

Macau possibly is the most unusual city I’ve been to:  a Chinese  Las Vegas built by Portuguese.  And as if this mix wasn’t already too much,  there is also a theme park right in the city, which imitates the ancient Roman ruins, including a scaled down version of Colosseum.
This Roman park apparently hasn’t succeeded commercially, now the gates are open and the entry is free.  These ruins have lost some of the initial luster, in few laces the paint has peeled off, so now the ruins look a lot more authentic.
All this diversity is assembled in relatively small space, I walked for several hours without map, making turns on a whim, and somehow I’ve came upon all the major tourist attractions, including those that I initially haven’t been planning to visit.
Even though these diverse cultures i.e. Chinese and Portuguese have coexisted side by side for centuries, they haven’t blended in into a single mix, some streets are distinctively Asian and some are distinctively Portuguese.  The borders b/n patches of European and Asian culture are quite obvious, first of all it’s a different philosophy of city-planning.
The philosophy behind setup of Asian cities is squeezing as much square footage of buildings per available land, as current technology allows.  As for European approach, there is a lot more concern about aesthetics - European city planners allocate ample of space for plazas, parks, sculptures, and also make sure streets are wide enough to accommodate tree-lined with trees.  In the Chinese part of town I am not even sure whether sidewalks exist at all: if there do, they’re either completely blocked by vendor stalls that sell all sorts of food, or repurposed as parking for countless scooters.
It’s not to say that European streets are more interesting, they are prettier, but the mess and the energy of asian streets is what makes them more exciting.
I suppose Macau is not the most exciting Asian city, and not the prettiest European city, Las Vegas has a tad more glitter and real Colosseum is a lot more impressive than scaled down fake.  However I don’t know any other place where all these cultures will be within short walk from each each other.
And the best part - Macau also very close Hong Kong, perhaps an hour by ferry, so it’s a perfect escape from the boring shopping mall.  And if luck is on your side, you might also win a fortune in casino!
I wasn’t that lucky however, lost 200 patacas in roulette.  This is not much, but more than enough to pay back the casino for the free shuttle :)

Traveling a la traveler

One girl I’ve met during this trip took offense when I called her a tourist.  She proudly puffed her lips, and said  - I am a traveler!  And indeed, I should have known better, there is a huge difference.

Tourists are people who live regular lives and travel during short breaks. Travelers, are those for whom the travel is their regular life, although sometimes they take breaks from it to do other things, i.e. work to finance their future travel.

I think that all of them, regardless of age, are extraordinary people, from whom I personally have something to learn.  I like that all of them are happy people, and I like their inventiveness and resourcefulness - after all they all have found some way to break free from the grip of 9-5 schedule, something that the rest of us has yet to figure out.

Obviously I am a tourist, but I like to imagine myself being a traveler, and when I am on the road pretend being one and try to blend-in.  I'd say that social interactions with travelers are always one of the highlights of my trips.  I suspect that for many of the travelers, social interaction with other like-minded people is the main objective of their travels.  My longest trip was quite short by travelers’ standard, at most 2.5-3 months, and even within this short time frame, by the end I started experiencing weariness from sight-seeing… I can imagine that after 6, 9 or 12 months of travel, this effect of attraction-weariness is only getting stronger.  So I guess to move on they need either great stamina, or a very strong curiosity drive, or in the process of travel they find other things to enjoy, besides the sightseeing.

Then, travel, is a good opportunity for me to refresh my English... which I hardly ever use in USA, because everybody around me speaks Russian :)
And also an opportunity to brush up my French - wherever you go, you can always find French people, alongside with representatives of most other European countries.  Here in New Zealand, rather unusually, more than half of all backpackers are German.  And a quarter are Dutch…  which is not unusual, this small nation certainly has a travel gene.  There are so few of Dutch in total, but so many are traveling all over the world, that I am wondering whether any  are left in home to mind the house?   There are also Brits, and Swedes, Swiss and Australians, and many others.  But Americans are conspicuously missing from this travel manifest - very few of Americans travel.  I have met some, perhaps 1 American per half-dozen Dutch… Striking contrast of numbers, considering the ratio of total population b/n these two countries.

The best place for social interactions traditionally is a kitchen.  These kitchens are found in hostels, for obvious reasons travelers can’t stay in expensive hotels - this would have shortened their travels by many months, turning them into tourists.
I personally have love & hate relationship with hostels.  On one hand I think hostels are awesome invention, because without them backpackers would go extinct.   I also love the return to the atmosphere of the college dorm…  I just don’t like the dorm part, I think this side of hostels is evil.  By stacking more beds in the room they manage to extract more money per sq foot than 5-star mega-hotels.
In other words I think that hostels overcharge poor students, and that’s not cool.
Fortunately, the dorm part is usually optional, most hostels have private rooms, which sometime are comparable to rooms in hotels.  But it’s a lottery, sometimes you’ll end up in the nicest boutique hotel with perks like sauna, movie theater, free bike rental, etc.  and you room will have a private bathroom, balcony and superior view of the mountains… or you can end up in the crappiest place you can imagine, but worse.  There is no way to predict what you’ll get, both the nicest and the crappiest place might charge approximately same price and have comparable user-satisfaction ratings…  So it’s always worthwhile to ask receptionist to see the room, before committing your money.  However if your are booking in advance, you are taking a chance.  Well, isn’t meeting the unexpected is yet another reason to travel?

Yesterday, for example, I ended up spending night in the worst accommodation I have yet seen in New Zealand, or possibly anywhere.  I spent considerable amount of time cursing the travel agent on whose advise I got into this hole, and lamenting my own gullibility. Today I escaped from the dungeon and checked in into hostel next door, which happened to be one of the nicest place I’ve been to during the trip.  I have an awesome bright 5th floor room, with private bathroom, nice city view from my window, and for even better view, hostel has rooftop terrace with a hot tub.  As soon as I finish this note, I am going to jump into the hot tub, and spend the rest of the evening soaking under the stars, enjoying the panoramic view of the city.

Toponymy as the cause of civil wars

A famous philosopher Wittgenstein has once declared that “philosophy is simply a byproduct of misunderstanding language”.  It seems to me that large number of political conflicts, and eventually wars, are byproduct of giving geographical and political entities poorly chosen names.

To illustrate the point, in a discussion started by my recent post someone has made an argument, why is it unreasonable for Ukraine to require that her citizens speak Ukranian?  And the argument sort of made sense at the time, until I realized that it’s actually makes no sense at all.  I.e. if the country was re-named to “Malorossia”  (Small Russia), which is another historical name of this region, would everybody be required to speak Small Russian?

Relationship between the name of the country and the language spoken within is entirely coincidental.  People do not speak American in USA, nor do they speak Canadian in Canada, nor Switz in in Switzerland, etc.  Brazilian is not spoken in Brazil, nor Peruvian in Peru, nor Chinese in China, as a matter of fact.  Most people in China speak Mandarin.

Name of the country is just a label - it carries no meaning, just like brand label on the package of serial, it doesn’t tell you anything about the content.

Unfortunately, many people can’t see past brand labels, and therefore it’s a grave mistake to name multinational country after one of the living there etnicities.  It instantly elevates one ethnicity over all others and sets the stage for all future ethnic conflicts for as long as this misnamed country will exist.

So, my contribution du jour to the political science is the suggestion that country names should not match nor even resemble names of neither nationalities, nor even words from any existing language.  To avoid incidental matches with existing words, each country name should include at least one digit and one capital letter.  This will prevent countless ethnic conflicts, civil wars and military interventions - the dream would come true!

Auckland reflections

After emerging from commercial frenzy of Hong Kong, visiting Auckland feels almost like coming back home. Indeed, I think this city is very similar to Seattle. The main difference is that Auckland is warmer, so palms have replaced firs. Also, there are fewer Starbucks (obviously), more Asian people on he streets... and everybody drives on wrong side of the street. That’s about it, everything else feels and looks very similar.

Another striking similarity is that both cities offer great views of nearby perfectly shaped volcanoes. The cone of Mt.Rainier is seen from Seattle, the cone of Mt.Rangitoto from Auckland. Mt.Rainier is taller, but Auckland, not to be outdone has some 40+ smaller volcanoes right within it’s city limits.

After consulting few guidebooks I decided that the best way to see the city, would be to leave it, i.e. take a short ferry ride across the bay to sleepy suburb Devonport for best view of the skyline. In Devonport I climbed the largest hill… and asked the only other person at the top to take a photo of me with Auckland on the background. This person happened to be a Russian immigrant from Moscow, and we had a friendly chat. While looking at the ocean and beaches down below I asked him the most important question that was on the tip of my tongue: “when is the swimming season?”. And he surprised me by saying “right now”. I was somewhat skeptical, because I could see no people on the beaches, but he assured me that he was swimming earlier in the morning, and directed me to the best swimming beach. And I had awesomely refreshing dip, all by myself. It was so surprising to see perfect beach with only few people… it just shows that New Zealand is ridiculously under-populated country!

Other things I liked in Auckland were excellent Memorial Museum, view from Auckland tower, and also gigantic trees of unknown kind, thick as sequoias at the base, but then splitting to countless near-horizontal branches.

Overall, Auckland is a nice city, but not one I’ll miss too much. I am looking toward moving on to bigger adventures!

More photos:

A travel tip: don’t buy ticket to Auckland tower observation desk, instead make a reservation to the restaurant on top (there are actually two restaurants, one is casual another is fancy). With the reservation to restaurant you can go to observation desk for free. Then I’d actually advise to make use of reservation - the food is as good as the views :)
I always try to time my visit to such spots to start shortly before the sunset. That way I can enjoy the view in 3 different lights: daylight, sunset, and night view of the city.

P.S. The story above was already written, when it got an unexpected extension. Today I was about to leave Auckland, my plan was to spend the last few days in New Zealand on the beaches in the country's North, area know as the Bay of Islands. In accordance with this plan, at 8am I was already on the bus… while city was in the middle of a major storm. The gusts of rain and wind were breaking branches, I was drenched after 15 seconds of running from nearest cover to the bus, few people who tried to use umbrellas were quickly overpowered by wind and had to give up… Over the entire city sirens of fire engines were roaring…. The tour guide on the bus has told us that entire New Zealand is covered by the storm, including the place where we were going. He told us that storm is expected to last for few days, that all water-related activities will be cancelled… and offered us the option to change our plans and drive us back to our respective accommodations…. This seemed like a reasonable suggestion at the time… Even though Auckland has by now has exhausted it’s entertainment potential, why drive somewhere 4 hours to became stuck in even less exciting village? So I got off the bus, and arranged my stay for the next few days in the city. Some people decided to stay on the bus for a variety of reasons, and the bus has left. Then, few hours later… the rain has stopped, the wind has stopped, the sun has came out, and the city has instantly dried up! I feel very stupid for giving up to panic… but on other hand some locals suggested that storm can come back and flood the roads up in the North, holding me up there longer than necessary and causing me to miss my flight back home…. Also, forecasts from the North claim that it’s still raining there. So, at this point I am full of doubts whether I have made right decision or not. With the speed at which weather is changing, nothing seems to be certain…. The only certainty is that now I am facing several very boring days in Auckland. I’d probably spend this time catching up on work, sorting out my photos, and possibly writing up few more travel notes about my other New Zealand experiences.

Поговорим за Украину

Отдам дань захлестнувшей Интернет политике, и расскажу личную историю про Украину.... Не собственно политики ради, а чтоб не канула в Лету поучительная история, не надо забывать ее героев!

Дело было давно, Советский Союз сыграл со мной последнюю злую шутку - сам сыграв в ящик. Сожалений, собственно о почившем, у меня не было, но, увы, вместе с исчезновением страны, моя краснокожая книжеца - советский паспорт, потеряла свою волшебную силу, превратилась в бесполезную бумажку. Жить без паспорта в Америке можно, но скучно - как в вольере. Внутри кормят, но в лес гулять не пускают, ну т.е. путешествовать нельзя. А мне путешествовать страсть как хотелось! Почитал я Интернет, и выяснил что после распада СССР, стал я оказывается подданым доселе неизвестной мне страны - Украины, но не автоматически, а нужно написать челобитную лично Президенту Украины, тогда еще Кучме.. кажется. Много их поменялось - всех не упомнишь. Согласно мудрым законам Украины, заявления о выдаче гражданства рассматривает лично Президент... поэтому если вы пытаетесь вспомнить что полезного сделали Украинские Президенты для страны - даже не пытайтесь, на полезную работу у них просто не было времени, целый день, с утра до ночи рассматривают заявления.

И чтоб облегчить свою нелегкую долю, назначают Президенты на дипломатическую службу консулов, роль которых чинить подающим заявления всякие препятствия. И в этом деле, устраивании препятствий, консулы весьма преуспели. Какую головную боль они людям устраивают - это тема для отдельной истории, я в очередях в консулате много насмотрелся. Помню, в один из дней, ни у одного человека из стоящих в очереди документы не приняли, ни по какому вопросу. Всех из-за каких-то придирок обратно домой отправили... а некоторые, кстати, издалека приехали. В худших традициях Советского Союза все в этом консулате делается через жопу... один раз даже несуществующий праздник Первого Мая решили отметить... забыв предупредить приехавших людей что консулат уйдет на демонстрацию. Вообщем процесс подачи документов на гражданство затянулся у меня на много месяцев, и неисчислимое количество часов проведенных в очередях. За это время, я разумеется проникся к работникам консулата чуством глубокой неутоленной ненависти, которая частично и совершенно непроизвольно расспространилась и на государство представителями которого эти гниды являлись.

Кстати, основная причина по которой пришлось много стоять в очередях, в том что официальный телефон "для справок", приведенный на вэбсайте Нью Йоркского консулате - это фикция, по этому номеру никто никогда не отвечает. Если не верите, сами попробыйте позвонить. На самом деле есть другой, секретный номер, по которому таки-да можно получить информацию. Мне этот секретный номер одна добрая тетка из консулата подсказала, надоело наверное меня лично видеть. Так что, справедливости ради, должен признать что не все кто на дипломатической работе гниды... я этой доброй тетке очень признателен, после того как у меня появился секретный номер, дело пошло быстрее. И в один из светлых дней, я наконец удостоился аудиенции лично с консулом.. или тогда он еще был замом... короче оказался я наконец в вожделенном кабинете, где кто-то наконец мог решить судьбу моего заявления, передавать его г-ну Президенту на рассмотрение или нет. И состоялся у меня в этом кабинете приблизительно такой разговор, который на самом деле происходил на Украинском языке, на котором до самостийности в Одессе говорило только радио. То что беседа происходила на украинском языке немаловажно для последующего развития событий, но мне, увы, придется изложить текст в вольном переводе. Писать по-украински я не умею, за свою жизнь написал только несколько строчек, собственно только само заявление Президенту о гражданстве, т.к. с каких-то пор украинские президенты разучились читать заявления по-русски.

Итак, в вольном переводе, разговор состоялся такой:

- А какже ты можешь стать гражданином Украины если ты не говоришь по-украински?

Однако, я, человек граммотный, за месяцы стояния в очередях я досконально изучил предмет и зазубрил его наизусть. И ответил я точной цитатой из украинского закона о гражданстве:

- В законе сказано: "Умовами прийняття до громадянства України є володіння державною мовою або її розуміння в обсязі, достатньому для спілкування" (т.е. получение гражданства требует знание гос языка (Украинского) в обьеме достаточном для общения)
- Ну вот! - сказал консул
- Ну вот, - сказал я, - мы же с вами спилкуем!

И вопрос был решен положительно...

Ну вот, дорогие мои мало-информированные друзья, те из вас которые с пеной у рта доказывают что русско-говорящих на Украине не дискриминируют, я как одессит, с вас просто смеюсь. Меня, коренного одессита, из-за родного языка чуть было гражданства не лишили. Tак что, дорогие мои, как говорили у нас в Одессе, избавляйтесь от своих иллюзий, пока трамваи ходят, и не пудрите мне мозги! И другим тоже не пудрите!

P.S. Кстати, через некоторое время, снова возникла у меня необходимость пообщаться с консулатом - продлить истекающий паспорт. Тут надо сделать маленькое лингвистическое отступление, по-моему опыту в пост-советском пространстве, будь то Россия, Украина или какой нибудь еще Абсурдистан, слово "услуга" зачастую означает "доставление максимального количества неудобств". В полной мере это относится и к консульским услугам. Согласно правилам консулата для получения нового паспорта, проситель должен приехать в консулат дважды, один раз чтоб лично подать документы, второй раз чтоб лично получить паспорт. Про наличие почты в консулатах ничего не знают. Так как консулаты находятся не в каждом городе, то разумеется большего неудобства для иногородних граждан придумать было нельзя. Эти правила выдачи документов не основаны ни на каком украинском законе - этот маразм придуман лично консулами, одним из которых, кстати по-прежнему является мой старый знакомый. И на самом деле, вовсе это не маразм, и я сейчас объясню почему... Есть в городе Атланта, в котором консулата собственно нет, одна контора, которая оформит паспорт по-почте, сэкономив вам 4 длительных междугородних перелета. Контора сделает вам пасспорт в обход как самодурских правил консулата, так и в обход некоторых украинских законов. И возьмет она за свои услуги около $700... и как вы думаете, кому идет большая часть этих денег? И есть ли у получателей этой мзды какой либо стимул облегчить легальный процесс получения паспорта?

What are you looking at?

There is a bit of philosophy in this post… human brain has an amazing ability to ignore information that it’s not ready to accept.  I can see it everyday in the political reposts on Facebook, where each and every person, on either side of the aisle, consistently ignores all and any information and opinions that are inconsistent with his or her pre-existing opinion.

But enough politics, something really extraordinary has happened during my flight from Queenstown to Auckland, but I was so busy looking for something else, that I've almost missed it.

Specifically, I had a window seat on this flight, and I was looking down at the land below, trying to find and recognize places through which I’ve recently travelled by land.   This has not worked at all, because during the entire flight, all land as far as eye could see was covered clouds.  Only in few spots there were few smallish holes through which I could sort of see unidentifiable chunks of some glacier-covered peaks.

So I was a bit frustrated, occupied by thought that New Zealand appears a lot more cloudy than Seattle, so for the sake of variety, for the next trip I should pick a sunnier destination.

The clouds however were beautiful, and so was the full Moon above them.  I snapped few photos, looked at resulting images, that were pathetically inadequate, regretted for a moment that my camera doesn’t have right lenses to capture the beauty of the moon Moon in all details, and then re-focused on getting a drink from air hostess.  After a while I looked through the window again, it was all same clouds… but something weird has happened to the Moon, wasn’t it full just recently?  No, I must have been mistaken, Moon shape can’t change in few minutes, now it’s clearly missing a chunk…  Few more minutes, I looked out again, and it seems that now Moon is missing a bigger chunk… and has weird shape.  Have I seen such shape before?  Is Moon supposed to look like that?  I’ve started to recall what do I know about phases of Moon, and this wasn’t much…  Then I thought “I wonder if this is what lunar eclipse might look like”, and tried to recall what do I know about lunar eclipses - and again, this wasn’t a lot… And soon enough this line thought sort of broke and melted away, because my focus was distracted by air hostess giving out cheese and crackers.

Little did I know… until next day on FB newsfeed I accidentally saw photos of lunar eclipse as seen from Australia…  Only then it dawned on me what I’ve seen.  With both New Zealand islands completely covered by clouds, my window seat on the Moon side of the plane was one of the very few best seats for one of the greatest natural shows…  yet I was too busy looking for land to pay full attention to what was happening in the sky. Almost missed the whole thing, except for few scenes.  And few amateurish photos that I managed to snap, really do not not do justice to what it really looked like.  But you can still see the change in moon shape



Shopless in Hong Kong


All went right and nothing wrong,
I have landed in Hong Kong
Among skyscrapers and palm trees
And ten million Chinese

I came up with these lines in Hong Kong airport, while waiting for the bus that would take me to city.  After spending few days in Hong Kong, I can add few more observations.

Hong Kong has beautiful, very distinct skyline, but in my opinion it’s the only distinction it has to offer.  If you have been in any large Asian city, or perhaps New York’s Chinatown, you can surely imagine the busy markets…   So Hong Kong is the ultra modern version of such Chinatown, that has infinitely expanded in all directions, horizontallly and vertically, got cleaned up, got the sparkling shops, instead of primitive stalls, and while retaining the spirit of commerce, it has lost all the exotic smells and flavors.  In other words, Hong Kong, might have been an exotic and exciting destination in the past, but now it's  just an endless sterile shopping mall.

I had difficulty orienting myself in the city: each block looks just like another, the assembly of shops repeats over and over again: each block has several money-exchange places, several Citibank ATMs, several ATMs from other banks, several shops that sell jewelry and watches, and for variety, few other shops  -  of the kind that you can see in any other large city.

Oftentimes there are no street names, usually there are no numbers on the buildings, and every flat surface is plastered with thousands of ads in Chinese, finding useful information in this kaleidoscope of signs is like looking for a needle in a haystack, I’ve spent more than 30 minutes walking up and down the block where my hotel supposedly was located, before I finally found the small sign pointing to the entrance.  I walked under this sign at least 10 times without noticing it among at least 10 other signs hanging above same entrance.  Finally the additional challenge in finding your way is that very few locals speak English, despite the fact that until very recently this city was part of British Empire.  Those locals who do speak English would typically try to sell you either fake Rolex or massage…  This Rolex infatuation, is peculiar, you walk down the street with hundreds of watch and jewelry shops, and in addition to that, there also thousands of men in suits, one every few meters, that also try to sell you Rolexes, and only Rolexes, nothing else, total lack of variety and imagination.  It seems that top ambition of typical Hong Konger is to learn broken English, sell many fake Rolexes, and, perhaps, eventually,  buy a Rolex for himself.

Interestingly, few steps sideways from this incessant shopping frenzy, there is the nicest Kowloon park - with ponds, flamingoes, and hardly any people at all…  It just so bizarre that out of 10 million Chinese swarming nearby, there are so many who sell Rolexes and so few who would rather relax in the park and watch flamingoes.

But enough about shopping, I mentioned that Hong Kong has great skyline, and sure it does.  And the best place to observer it, is from the top of Viktoria Peak.  All tour books that I’ve consulted, either conspire or just steal from each other, asserting that the best way to get to the top is by taking ancient cable tram…  This is an outrageous lie - this tram ride is not spectacular at all doesn’t add anything positive to the experience….  But it takes away cash from your pocket and lot’s of valuable time, I’ve spent probably at least an hour waiting in line with thousands of other cheated tourists.   In reality, the best way to get to the top is by taking regular city bus, that stops at the top of the peak…  And then the best way to get down is to walk down pretty path with many interesting views.  Even better, one can combine visiting top attraction with intense exercise, by walking up this path, all the way to the top of the Peak.  Some people do it.   A lot less intense exercise would be to walk around the top of the Peak - this is very easy flat hike, on paved path, which will offer you 360 vistas of the entire island.  Despite awesomeness and easiness of this hike, it’s not mentioned in tour books, and as a result it’s very uncrowded.  Or  is it because this hike is free?  I’d not apply cliches of “best hidden secret” or “off beaten path”, because "uncrowded" in Hong Kong means that there were still hundreds of people who walked this path, and the path is well marked - hardly a "hidden secret".  However "hundreds" is comparatively few, compared to many thousands who've visited Victoria Peak that day, and all packed together… in yet another shopping mall, built right next to the top stop of the tram.

Here are some photos:

Unpredictable Wellington!

Lady and Gentlemen, I've found my favorite city!  Sorry, San Francisco, move over!
Actually Wellington reminds me SF, it's also a multi-level city on the hills, built around ocean bay.  It also has the feel of the mythical Liss and Zurbagan - fans of Alexander Grin would know what I mean.  The streets go up and down, different levels sometimes are connected by maze of pedestrian-only ladders, streets cross at random angles...  It seems that city was built without any plan at all... but somehow every single building fell into the right place.  Two neighboring houses can be built 100 years apart,  one can be a victorian mansion, and next to it could be an ultra-modern condo,  but they would complement each other, and neither would feel out of place.

Unlike other cities that enforce uniformity of style, Wellington seems to enforce individuality, none of Wellington's buildings is like another - each one is building is unique, there are no repetitions.
Of course  I can't say that Wellington is the most beautiful city in the world, you can't compare it with the royal grandness St.Petersburg or Vienna, but what I like about Wellington that it is just so...
unpredictable!  It's very enjoyable to walk around without map, and at every turn there is some sort of surprise, something totally unexpected, something that makes me reach for the camera.  It's either an interesting building, or a beautiful ocean view, or open ice-skating rink under hot sun, or helicopter taking off, or maybe surprising sculpture... i.e. of a giant shoe, or a full-size Martian from Herbert Wells "War of the Worlds", or just a huge wall of awesome graffiti.  

If there is anything wrong about Wellington is that the ocean is too cold, at least in April. There is an awesome beach right next to the city center, but despite hot weather few people who were swimming were all wearing wetsuits.  One brave girl ventured in without one, but after few strokes turned back.

Another drawback is that I might be allergic to something growing there, I don't feel sick at all, but since I've came here few days ago, my nose misbehaves... In few days I'll be visiting glacier on South Island, if what I have is indeed an allergy, then cold mountain air should clear my passages.

The central Wellington is not too large, in my first day I've covered most major attractions, including Mt.Victoria and Te Papa - the main New Zealand museum, which is as awesome and unpredictable as the city itself.  The entry is free - surprise! Internet free!  Views  from huge glass windows - free!  Chocolate mousse cake in the cafe.... well, this wasn't free, I paid my dues.  One of the many unusual attractions in the museum was earthquake room.  You enter, and, surprise! It starts shaking!
Some people were clever enough to bring laptops to museum and pretended to work... while sipping coffee and enjoying panoramic view of the harbor.   Seemed like a good idea to me, maybe that's where I'll write up my next note.