Dec 012018
 


So, despite having been to every country, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the “quality” of my China trips. My first trip was back in 2005, for one night in each direction in Beijing in transit to North Korea. It was enough to walk around Tienamen Square a bit, have dinner, but not really that in-depth.

Then, the next year, back when you could still get a border zone visa on arrival, I took a daytrip from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. This was a lot more memorable, because I remember lots of rural tourists who’d probably never seen a westerner before, and they all walked to take pictures with me (and touch my arms and legs). Yet, I feel bad saying I’ve been to China without having been to Shanghai. Finally…a chance to fix that!

I would fly to Shanghai for five days for work, and then because it was majorly cheaper, take the train down to Beijing for a night before flying home. Domestic train ride and seeing Shanghai. Much better! I’ll cover the flights in another post, but here’s my random stream of consciousness from my nearly one week in China:

Landed late afternoon around 5pm, and first task was to find my way to my hotel. Just kidding, since I still had another 7-8 hours to go before bed, first task was to grab a Starbucks at the airport and THEN grab a cab. Into the cab, and immediately…Houston we have a problem. Driver speaks not a word of English, and getting him to the hotel was not going to be easy. Fortunately, google maps had chinese characters on it, and that was enough to make it work. Whew.

Checked in and had about an hour to freshen up before heading out to meet clients for a kickoff dinner. I normally don’t like cutting things this short, but due to a cold I couldn’t fly earlier, so had to make due. Since Uber is no longer in China I fired up the DiDi Taxi app, and no problem at all they soon had me at the Oriental Pearl Tower for dinner.

At the top….this is a oh hell no place if you’re not good with heights. Yup, those are glass floors….

One more shot from the bottom after dinner. I should also mention that finding the way to the top wasn’t easy, especially because the clients had booked tables for like 100 people, meaning they had pre-paid, meaning I somehow had to explain to the staff at the lifts (when I finally found them) why it was ok to take me up without a ticket. Finally managed, and all was sorted.

All was sorted…except for DiDi Taxi. See, DiDi isn’t good with foreign credit cards. Nor is it good with cash. Nor can you sign up for any of the other forms of payments without a Chinese mobile number or credit card. I learned very quickly that China has a lot of great technology and apps, however, as a non-resident many of them are virtually impossible to use. I may have been to every country, but there are still some places in the world that aren’t “easy” to get around!

Subway back to hotel, passed out, and got up super early the next morning and had a nice workout in the hotel gym before heading down to breakfast…which was an amazing plate of dim sum. I was definitely going to enjoy as much as possible during my time here! This is probably a good place to say I was thrilled with the JW Marriott Tomorrow Square in Shanghai, and the hotel was exceptional in every way. Great location, great staff, great lounge for happy hour in the evening, everything about it was top notch. I’ll definitely stay here again on my next visit!

My clients were way out in the suburbs, but rather than stay somewhere with nothing to do I decided to stay in the city. This involved riding the subway about 10-12 stops (no train changes) and then a short five minute taxi ride. I actually enjoyed this, because it was a chance to get to see a bit more of the city and have a “commuter” experience, so that was kind of awesome.

That night I had free, so with a bit of googling I found Jackie’s Beer Nest which was an amazing craft beer bar. The place was absolutely tiny, maybe 300 square feet / 35 square meters max, and three of the walls were lined with taps:

View of Shanghai from hotel breakfast….gotta love those blue skies!

Client’s campus was also absolutely gorgeous! Where’s that terrible Chinese air you hear so much about?

Best thing I found in Shanghai? Starbucks Reserve Roastery…coffee heaven!

Mmmmm syphon coffee. Yeah, at over $10 for one coffee it wasn’t cheap, but it was oh so delicious!

Amazing pastry selection. There were actually four different bars with food and coffee to choose from. The place was absolutely huge!

I believe this was either been storage, or the actual roastery…yes, they roast their own beans in the store!

Walking around at night, I came across some strange ballroom dance party in the woods in the middle of the city:

See, ballroom dancing in the woods:

One of the cool things about actually googling and finding places for dinner in a city as big as Shanghai is that it got me to take the metro to several different neighbourhoods and see several different parts of the city…so that was very cool!

The beers in this bar weren’t quite as good, but was nice to see China is actually turning out some respectable craft beers of its own now. I’d tap that…

The Radisson Hotel…with a UFO like thing on top!

Back to Jackie’s Beer Nest another night. Apparently, on your second visit, you’re family, and he just points you to the glasses and tells you to serve yourself. Tell him how many you had at the end of the night (everything is the same price) and that’s it. What a cool laid-back neighbourhood place. Good thing I don’t live near here or I’d get in trouble!

I may have gone back to Starbucks one final time before leaving Shanghai. This is just one small corner of the place!

Took the metro to the train station, since it was on the same line as my hotel, and it was super easy. I have to say, Shanghai was set up really easily to get around on public transit. Despite never being there before, and spending most of my time working, I really felt like it was easy to figure everything out.

The train station? Well, it was just a little busy:

There was, however, a business class lounge. I think there were actually several, but this was the one near my gate.

Gate 1B – queuing to board. So, many, people…until I found where business class boarded from. That was a bit better.

Walked to the end of the train to get a picture. Cooooool!

My business class seat. Strangely, you have economy class, first class, and business class. Business class is actually higher than first class. Don’t try and figure it out.

Super roomy, with only 11 seats in the whole car. A 1×1 row in the back, and then three 2×1 rows. You can’t buy tickets online, but I used China DIY Travel to buy my tickets, and they were super helpful and professional. Very, very highly recommend them!

Some green tee and mango ice cream as we get underway and roll out of the station. The tea was free, but you had to pay like $4 for the ice cream.

About two hours into the 4.5 hour ride, they actually came by with lunch! That was unexpected. I got the “beef” which was reasonable for what was clearly a microwave meal.

Arrival in Beijing, there was a rather long queue for a taxi, but once I got one shockingly this driver spoke just enough English to know how to get to my hotel, the Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing. Walking around Beijing a bit after arrival. Well that’s an interesting display in the streets…

While walking around, Fitbit decided to reward me with the “Great Wall badge” for walking 5,500 miles since getting my FitBit. What’s the odds that I would reach this in China!

The next day, my flight didn’t leave until late afternoon, and since it was walkable from my hotel, I decided to go to what was billed as a more local place to get Peking Roast Duck before heading back. Siji Minfu was easy to find based on the large number of people outside…even at 11am! I only had to wait about 30 minutes for a table, however, so it worked out well! I think they found it really strange I was eating alone (I guess that’s not a common thing to do?)

Caramelized durian pudding to start while waiting for my duck.  This was absolutely delicious!

The condiments came soon, and the helpful waitress was great and showed me how they were meant to be used.

Soon out came my duck, which was carved up near the table. Yup, go big or go home, no half duck for me (which was an option) I was going to polish the whole thing off.

My duck, all carved up and ready to devour:

Just in time to head back to the hotel, check out, and head to the airport by subway which was pretty easy to figure out. Overall, I was pretty happy with this hotel, it was in a great walkable area, and maybe the only downside is that the walk to the subway was pretty long. The hotel also felt super crowded, but overall, the quality was great.

Unfortunately, my hotel was about a mile from the subway, so I took a cab to the subway, and then enjoyed the ride to the airport. Beijing’s air wasn’t nearly as good as Shanghai’s and it was actually bit difficult to breathe on my last day there:

So that about wraps up the week in China! Next up, I’ll post about the flights roundtrip on United, and then…I have a trip to Africa to post as well.  Want to knock this out in the next 10 days before I head out for almost a full month of travel that will include Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Kaliningrad, and Berlin!

Sep 182018
 


As I mentioned in a few previous posts I always felt a little guilty when I finished every country that my experiences in Mexico City had been pretty much limited to border regions.

Then, this spring came my first trip to Mexico City for work. Then another trip to Mexico City for work. Then an overnight on an Aeromexico ticket on the way to Chile. Now, it was just August and it was time for my fourth trip this year to Mexico City! I had a couple of very packed days of meetings with clients, but opted to spend the weekend as well so I could dig a little bit deeper. A couple fun shots from the “business portion” of the trip though.

Firstly, the view from my client’s offices of Santa Fe – hard to believe this business/industrial district is almost brand spanking new:

Apparently, it was the season for Chiles en Nogada, or chilis with nuts. A rather different dish served COLD of a chili served stuffed with ground meat and then covered in a nut sauce and pomegranate made to look like the mexican flag. Wasn’t exactly my cup on tea, and unfortunately despite drinking some mezcal to kill any bugs I think this is what did the slow number on my stomach:

A rather unusual sculpture/statue outside the restaurant. Weird, but I have to say I liked it:

After meetings out in Santa Fe, I took a taxi late Friday night into the city so I could spend the whole day Saturday walking around and exploring. Firstly, the weather was gorgeous. Mid 70s, no humidity, and sunny skies. Unfortunately, I got a bit of a food-borne bug, so was feeling pretty sketchy the whole day. Fortunately, I felt just well enough to walk around, and walk I did. Nearly 15 miles during the duration of the day, and I ended up seeing a lot of great sights thanks to some recommendations for friends. I’ll let the photos tell the story.

The Torre Reforma, an office building. I love the unusual architecture:

The other side of the Torre Reforma, taken later in the day. I just find the building really cool:

Continuing my walk from my hotel, and praying that my innards would hold up at least for the stops between venues/sights with baños, I encountered something I definitely didn’t expect to find. The Mexico-Azerbaijan Friendship Park…complete with a large statue of Azerbaijan:

Back side of the monument….

Finally, after a bit over a mile of walking, I made it to the National Museum of Anthropology. Thankful to have not had any…”incidents” along the way, I was greeted out front by a fun group of dancers:

Let me get my one critique of the museum out of the way first. The place is huge. Super huge. No way you can see it all in one day huge. It’s divided into different “halls” around a courtyard by time period and civilization, but beyond telling you what is where, you really have no idea where to start looking for the featured pieces if you’re limited on time. Having a bit of a short attention span for museums, and wanting to see as much of the city as possible, I really wanted to hit the highlights. Thanks to around 30 minutes on google, I managed to find them.

Oh, and since I highlighted my one critique, I should also highlight the biggest unexpected positive: the museum was free today as a “gift” from the new government to the people of Mexico. No, it’s not really that expensive anyways, but it was a nice unexpected bonus, and the place was super crowded.

A Mexica (otherwise known as the Aztecs) death complex sculpture. Something about this one I really enjoyed:

Another Aztec carvin:

The giant Aztec “calendar stone” – I had to wait nearly 15 minutes for a group of people to all take their turn taking their selfie in front of it…so of course I couldn’t resist doing the same. The picture doesn’t show the sheer magnitude of the thing, which was 3.5 meters in diameter!

Statue of Xotchipilli, Aztec God of Art and Games…who by the look on his face enjoyed playing games while totally stoned out of his mind:

Montezuma’s headdress, made of quetzal feathers…although there is significant doubt that it’s the “real deal:”

Jade necklace and mask of Pakal the First, a Mayan ruler…that doesn’t exactly look terribly comfortable.

Overall, I super enjoyed this museum, and spent nearly three hours exploring it, which is probably a record for me in a museum. Normally my attention span is gone well before that time, so combine that with being ill this museum is a definite must-see when you’re in Mexico City.

After re-fuelling with caffeine and carrot cake at Starbucks outside the museum (don’t judge….anyone who’s had stomach issues knows that if you find something that sounds good, eat it!) I continued my walk into the park Bosque de Chapultepec which was right across the road. I always find local birds really interesting:

It was beautiful weather, and lots of folks were out on the lake in paddleboats:

After that I walked up, and up, and up, and up, and considered bailing since I wasn’t feeling great, but at the top finally made it to Chapultepec Castle and the National Museum fo History. I was museum-ed out for the day so just wandered the grounds for a bit and took in the sights. I’ll definitely come back to check it out in-depth another time though.

Great views of the city, however, from the castle grounds up on a high hill:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. See, believe me, lots of problems:

The Altar de la Patria in Chapultepec Park:

I was running a bit shorter on time than I realized, and it was already around 3pm at this time, and I still had one more sight I really wanted to try and squeeze in. I had hoped to take the metro down to the Trotsky Museum, but since I was short on time I took an Uber since it was only like $6. Unfortunately, due to traffic, it still took like 45 minutes to get there (Mexico City can have absolutely terrible traffico) but I still made it with an hour to spare. I loved the entrance of the museum:

Trotsky’s grave:

The Casa de Trotsky – his house – where he lived in exile after being expelled from the Soviet Union. As a student of Soviet history, I found this museum super interesting:

Trotsky’s office, where he worked while in exile, until dying by a pick-axe to the head:

Gotta have a selfie with Trotsky’s grave!

After the museum, I took the nice mile or so stroll to the metro, where I stopped in a mall next to the metro stop for a small snack before boarding the train back towards my hotel. One thing I found really interesting – and somewhat depressing – is that part of the platform in the Mexico City subway is blocked off for women and children only. Interesting, because I applaud them for taking this step to protect people, depressing because it indicates that men are poorly enough behaved that women need to be protected.

Another shot of barriers in another station, along with what the trains look like:

I had to giggle, because it turned out my hotel was apparently right across the street from a string of gay bars, and being Saturday night they were absolutely swarming with 20-somethings. I felt old. But you have to love a place named “The Gayta Pussy Bar” Hah!

After a bit of exploring, I decided to hop back on the metro and check out a bar called The Beer Company. It was about 30 minutes and a short walk away by metro, and being a gorgeous evening I enjoyed a few beers on the patio. The place wasn’t at all crowded, but had that nice neighbourhood bar feel…and the complete lack of English spoken only made it feel more fun.

While “checking in” the new beers in the Untappd App I saw that there was apparently a tap takeover going on at another bar in the city, and despite being tired and worn out I had to check it out. I headed over to Tasting Room which had not only some incredibly funky alien decor (I finally figured out the mysteries of Easter Island):

…but also had an amazing draft list. This place was a gem in Mexico City, and I’ll definitely be back here for drinks the next time I’m in Mexico City.

By this point, I was absolutely exhausted, and really impressed just how much I managed to see for a day when I was seriously not feeling well.

With that, it was time to fly off the next morning for a few days in Minnesota with family for my birthday on the way back to DC…and to get a bit of rest before beginning an incredibly busy travel period – even by my standards!  Post to come on that in the coming days before I head off on probably my craziest two months of travel ever!

Oct 032017
 



Landed at Domodedovo, immigration was a snap: “you are visiting a lot this year, what is the reason?” me: “our countries are great friends now.” him: “why do you speak such good russian” me: “I”m sure you speak even better english my friend.” …and that was that. Foreshadowing, but amusing…..

Was originally going to grab an Uber into the city given it was already late, but just in case there was traffic, and because I think the Moscow Metro is one of the best tourist sites in the world, I decided to hop the AeroExpress train. Arrived in the station with two minutes until the next train, quickly got my ticket, and settled into a completely empty business class car. Put in the earbuds, and hit shuffle, and my iPhone spits out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” The irony was absolutely delicious. I had the feeling this was going to be a great end to the trip.

Train, metro, and a 10 minute walk, and soon I was at my hotel. About five years ago, I stayed at the Sheraton on my first visit back to Moscow since the late 1980s, and had a fantastic experience. Since then, I’ve been staying at the St. Regis which is much better located, has an amazing breakfast, but is a but stuffy for my taste overall. This time, the Sheraton was an absolute bargain at barely 7,000 rubles, so I couldn’t say no.

Upgraded to a very nice one bedroom suite with way more room than I needed, and promptly proceeded to pass out given it was like 4am in Australia, where my body clock was still set to. Woke up in the morning, grabbed a quick bite in the executive lounge (where I was the only person there – guess there’s not much business travel in August) and headed out for a walk. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but decided to just head out and wander. Rain was in the forecast, so we’ll see how far I get.

Down Tverskaya Ul. towards Red Square, statue of Mayakovsky in front of the Tchakovsky Concert Hall:

It was cool out for mid-August (barely 10 degrees) but still lots of people out enjoying the swings in front of the concert hall:

Kept walking and walking, and soon I was at Red Square. I think. I’ve never seen Red Square like this before. Set up for a giant military tattoo, the whole square was full of booths selling things, and parade stands for the night’s show. I debated getting tickets, and it would have probably been a fascinating show, but I just wasn’t in the mood for what was being billed as a four hour extravaganza.

So, amid the thousands of tourists (mainly Chinese) I went into GUM. I’ve seriously never seen so many tourists in Moscow before. Is this an August thing, or a 2017 thing?

Clearly, someone in GUM was smoking some good stuff, because they had filled one of the fountains with melons as an art display. Uhhhh….sure? I like to think I have a pretty good window into the Russian national psyche, but this was beyond even my understanding…as is most modern art, to be fair.

Best part of GUM: the obligatory 50 ruble pistachio ice cream cone! Enjoyed outside, where it had gotten quite a bit warmer, in front of the Kazan Cathedral.

Walking off the jetlag was feeling great, so I kept going, until I got to Lubyanka. Lots of people were taking pics of this car, so I had to too. Felix would be rolling over in his grave at this ostentatious display of capitalism.

Felix is watching…

Meanwhile, the local Mexican restaurant across the street was trying to win over customers…this isn’t your grandfather’s Lubyanka anymore!

Right about this point I was tired…so I grabbed a Starbucks. As I exited, the skies began to get super dark and it was only about 2:30, so I decided to google “what to do in Moscow on a rainy day.” Remember how I mentioned above that I love the metro? Well, one of the first things that came up was a self-guided walking tour of the metro. Sold!

I’m going to do this up front and plug Moscow360’s self-guided metro tour. Go to their site. Click on the ads. I’ve been to Moscow dozens of times now, and this is seriously some of the best tourist advice I’ve gotten. Lots of history about the stations and the country, and a great introduction to the city. You must see it! No, I’m not affiliated with them at all, but they put out a damn fine tour!

So, since you can read all about it on their site, just the highlights.

Ploschad Revolutsii Station. Note the hammer and sickle, the years 1917 and 1947. This was the starting station of the tour…yes, this is the ticket hall. Imagine that in DC or New York!

What makes this station notable is the 76 bronze statues, in four sets of 19, of various professions of the “new Soviet Man.” If you know anything about Russians, they are super superstitious. All sorts of things, like having to touch certain objects they pass every day for good luck. We’ll come back to that in a second.

An athlete:

A student of some sort:

This guy? Well you might notice the bronze on his leg is a big rubbed off. It’s obviously been polished more evenly lately, but in the past supposedly his…well-endowed statue used to be noticeably touched over and over in the same place. I’ll let you guys why people were touching him, but given superstition, chances are it had something to do with either fertility or….bringing the magic back.

Moving onto Kurskaya Station, which was one of the first place there were designated capitalist busking stations set up. This band “C-Jam” was’s pretty unusual, but not bad!

Leaving Kurskaya station, the words to the Soviet National Anthem were inscribed in the rotunda. However, a while back under Comrade Kruschev, there was a verse erased from the anthem because…it mentioned Stalin. That meant it got erased from this rotunda as well…until Mr. Putin put it back a couple years ago. Basically translates to Stalin raising up the great deeds of the motherland.

Large sword on the wall of Kurskaya Station:

Wow, this hall in Kurskaya Station looks like it needs a statue…

Oh, look what used to be there. Another example of de-Stalinization.

Next up: Komsomolskaya Station. Look at the ornate ceilings – this could be a museum!

Comrade Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle and the end of the station:

Lenin mosaic on the ceiling….however, this didn’t used to be Lenin…it featured Stalin 50 years ago as well.

Super Soviet athletic…”woman.” Look at those biceps! Notice anyone missing from the reviewing stands of the Kremlin? Yup, Stalin used to be looking down on her…

Trampling out Nazis…

One more shot of Komsomolskaya, seriously, it felt more like a museum than a metro station.

Next station: Novoslobodskaya. I remember back on my first visit to Moscow in high school in the late 1980s, my classmates and I used to love riding the metro and imitating the announcer’s voice. “Be careful! Doors closing! Next station….” it used to always draw grins from Muscovites, one of those rare moments of sunshine in Soviet times.

Novoslobodskaya was one of the last stations finished under Stalin, and oddly enough, looks the most like a church with all the stained glass. Ironic as Stalin destroyed 2/3 of the churches in Russia at the time….

Mother, son, and the…..holy doves?

…oh, wait, this was the original stained glass. Stalin-approved. Supposedly, the lady was supposed to originally have three kids as well, but they were running behind schedule. Fearing Stalin would show up any minute and it would be unfinished, they rushed it to completion with one kid. Plus, what ideal hard-working Soviet woman would have all that time to be making three babies?

Next up is Byelorusskaya Station (Belarus Station.) Look at those hard-working soviet belarussian women!

Monument to Byelorussian partisans who fended of the Nazis in World War II:

Final station on the tour was Mayakovskaya. This station was somewhat lighter and a bit airy feeling, with great artwork on the ceiling:

Paratrooper:

Despite being light and airy, it again felt like a museum:

Exit elevators in Mayakovskaya Station. This is one of the deepest stations in the system, Stalin used to deliver New Years addresses to the people from here in World War Two. Also, note the huge steel blast doors designed to seal off the station in case of bombardment. The metro stations often served as bomb shelters during the war, and can still serve that function:

After heading back to the hotel, grabbing a light dinner, I headed off to my favourite craft beer bar in Moscow for some great drinks. I’ve posted about it here before so won’t go into too much detail, but Rule Taproom is a great place…as long as you don’t mind feeling slightly old. The selection of tap handles alone is fantastic:

With that, it was time to get some sleep before getting up and catching the train onwards to Leningrad…I mean St. Petersburg! Does it count as a new city if you haven’t been there since it changed names?

Jul 112015
 

Heading back to Pyongyang from Kaesong and the DMZ, we stopped at the Arch of Reunification for photos. It was built in 2001, and has two women (one representing North Korea, one South Korea) unifying in the middle of the aptly named Reunification Highway:

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Our next stop was the Juche Tower. Juche is the name given to the ideology promoted by Kim Il-Sung of self-reliance. It’s considered by many North Koreans to be Kim Il-Sung’s great contribution to international philosophy…so of course it needs its own tower to commemorate it! It contains 25,550 blocks, one for each day of Kim Il-Sung’s life. Did I mention yet that the North Koreans kind of hit you over the head with symbolism? Standing 560 feet tall, the Juche Tower is also (coincidentally? NOT!) just a couple of feet taller than the Washington Monument, which it was supposedly modeled on. You can also see the Workers’ Party Monument near the base:

dprk-1236-B-juche tower

We were allowed to go up the tower to the observation deck, just below the flame. Hazy view of Pyongyang:

dprk-1239-B-pyongyang skyline

Juche Tower and the Workers’ Party Monument:

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The Juche Tower and Workers Party Monument – three figures, one with a hammer (representing a worker), one with a writing brush (representing the working class intellectual), and one with a sickle (representing the peasant/farmer):

dprk-1281-A-juche tower

The next morning began to the Monument to Party founding. Again, the hammer, sickle, and writing brush:

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Nearby propaganda to the Great Leader:

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Next up was Mansudae, featuring a 20 meter high statue of Kim Il Sung. Notice the flowers at the base. You are not required, but it is expected, that you buy flowers from a nearby vendor and place them at the base and bow deeply in respect. Also worth nothing, all photos of the statue must contain the entire statue. No cutting off the head or body…and yes, your guides will check. Guess they haven’t heard about photoshop later on! It’s important to note that after Kim Jong-Il died in 2011, a statue of him was placed next to his father, but back when I visited in 2005 only Kim Il-Sung was hanging out:

dprk-1323-B-mansudae hill

Nearby is the Socialist Revolution Monument. It’s over 60 feet high, and the figures are nearly 15 feet each:

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Next stop was the Korean War Museum. Our guides actually seemed a bit nervous about this, because it was the first time they would be taking Americans through the museum. They quickly warmed up, however, and took great delight in telling us all the ways they had defeated America. The museum’s tour guide pointing something out to us:

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Describing all the great victories of North Korea:

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Yak-18 aircraft from the war, with a new and improved museum-worthy paintjob:

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Painting of the great General Kim Il Sung directing the war:

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Outside the window of the museum was able to get this shot of the Ryugyong Hotel. We were strictly told no pictures were allowed of it, probably because it was started and never completed…supposedly because they found major architectural mistakes that made it unsafe to inhabit. Rumour is it could collapse at any time…other rumours say they just ran out of money. In 2008 construction actually started up again, and in 2011 they finally finished the exterior, but it still isn’t open. In 2012 the international Kempinski chain announced the hotel would finally open, but it never did…

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At the entrance to the North Korean Film Studios…notice the movie camera next to the Great Leader:

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Supposedly it was a great honour that I got to pose with this famous actor making a film about China:

dprk-1401-B-jason actor

Next up was a ride on the Pyongyang Metro. Surprisingly, we weren’t too restricted with photos, but we were only allowed to ride from one station to the next station a stop away. A map of the system:

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Entering the station and headed down the escalator:

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Entering the platform area, where the train was conveniently waiting for us, but no passengers really were, except for a few which had been creatively staged:

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Mural in the station:

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Station attendant, to escort us onto our train:

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Our group (the only people in the station) standing around taking photos, while our train conveniently waited for us:

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Inside the train car, with the Dear Leader and Great Leader watching over us:

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Our exit station, one stop away, which actually had many more North Koreans in it…guess they hadn’t had time to completely stage this one or something:

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Exit from the metro station:

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Next stop was the USS Pueblo, a US Navy ship captured by North Korea in 1968, which they now proudly show off to tourists. A member of the North Korean navy was our guide:

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Entering the ship:

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Communications room:

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Bullet hole in the ship:

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On the way to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung we stopped, and I made a point to be inspired by local propaganda:

dprk-1536-B-propaganda jason

Next up was the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, significantly upgraded and now a museum. There were actually many “real” North Koreans visiting, as well as school groups. None dared get anywhere near us, however:

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Final stop of the afternoon was the Pyongyang Childrens’ Palace. Every city more or less has a childrens’ palace, but the one in Pyongyang is the showcase for the nation:

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Children in a dance class, watched over by their leaders:

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Surprisingly impressive aquatic centre:

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Accordion class?

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Drawing/painting class:

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Embroidery class:

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Traditional Korean instruments. Based on the uniforms, this was clearly a performance for the tourists:

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Lastly, we were taken to a karate class:

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Unfortunately, this was all the pics I got because the rest were lost on the deleted memory card. We were taken to a childrens’ orchestra performance that seemed to go on forever, and finally to a last night celebration dinner at a duck restaurant. I remember our guides being super excited about this, because it was known to be one of the best restaurants in North Korea. Unfortunately, I found it barely edible because the duck was almost all skin and fat, and almost no meat. I can understand this being a big deal in a society where meat of any sort was rare, but by this point in the trip we were largely living on beer and bread. It raised the question of if this was the “best” North Korea had to offer to the first American tourists, you had to wonder just how hard the average citizen had it.

After dinner, we were taken to the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is bigger than our hotel and sits on an island in the middle of a river…so they can put the drawbridge up at night and strand you on the island. Quite surprising this wasn’t chosen for the Americans. It had a casino, nail salon, and supposedly bowling alley, but we weren’t allowed to use any of them. Instead, we were allowed to sit in the cafe in the lobby and drink imported Heinekens. Hah!

Eventually off to bed, just in time to fly out the next morning. It had been a whirlwind trip, but still amazed how much we were allowed to see!

Dec 122013
 

I’ll be up front here: I’m not going to do Istanbul justice. I’m not going to even pretend to. I landed at 9a, having been up since 1a Istanbul time, and I was pretty tired. My main goal was to rest up in between stops, maybe see a few things, and have some good Turkish food. I did alright all things considered!

Finally out of the hotel around 11:30 after I got checked in and re-caffeinated, and it was off to the old town. The hotel suggested I walk about 10-15 minutes to the nearest tram stop, and then take the tram all the way. Awesome call, because it allowed for seeing some of the city along the way.

Got to the old town, wandered a bit, and soon was coming up to the Blue Mosque.  Outside, is an obelisk:

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The outside of the Blue Mosque:

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