Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Abbasi Hotel – a live-in museum

I’m attending a conference in Esfahan this week. The conference organisers have put me up in the Abbasi Hotel, which must be one of the most beautiful hotels that I have ever stayed in.

The hotel was built in the early 18th century, and then renovated in 1967. A brochure on the hotel that I picked up described it as a ‘live-in museum’ which I thought was quite an apt description given the incredible amount of artwork – all painted by hand – on the walls and ceilings of the rooms and the public areas.

The picture below is of my room. I don’t know whether every room in the hotel is painted like this, but if they are, it must have taken thousands of man-hours to complete.

The hotel is built around a central courtyard which is landscaped in the style of the ancient Persian gardens, and around sunset it was an absolute delight to sit out in the cool evening air having tea and listening to the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. The first picture below was taken during the late afternoon, and the second picture after dark from where I was sitting having tea - you can see the traditional glasses in which the tea is served on the table. (I’ve uploaded these at only 400 pixels wide as these two pictures were taken with a pocket camera and the quality isn’t that good).

The rest of the pictures below were taken in the public areas of the hotel (the reception, restaurants and meeting rooms). If you are in Esfahan, and even if you are not staying at the Abbasi Hotel, it is worth visiting for a meal just to see the beautiful architecture and artwork. I took these with my Nikon, so if you click on any picture, it will bring up a larger size to enable you to appreciate the intricacy of the artwork better.

Monday, May 19, 2008

US$5 for a cup of instant coffee

I had an espresso in the Esteghlal Hotel coffee shop after breakfast. It cost 32,000 rials (rather expensive for Iran I thought) but what surprised me more was that Nescafe was listed at 45,000 rials - the most expensive coffee on the menu. Who would want to pay US$5 for a cup of instant coffee?

It is strange how in some countries Nescafe manages to position itself as a premium product. I'd seen the same in Oman a few years ago.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mozaffary Gaz – a tasty nougat from Iran

I had dinner tonight in a restaurant called Narcissus in Tehran. It was on the northern side of the city and the building was like a large greenhouse constructed in the shape of a pyramid. I thought it was quite unusual architecture for Iran, which tends to stick to the more Islamic styles.

The meal was okay – nothing special but nothing bad – and after dinner we had tea in the garden outside, served by a couple of waiters in traditional dress.

With the tea they served some beautiful Iranian white nougat. It was soft and tasty with lots of fresh pistachio nuts in it. I was told it was called Mozaffary Gaz, which is made in Esfahan, so I made a note of the name so I could buy some when I go to Esfahan tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Macau – Las Vegas of the East

I’ve had meetings in Macau for the last couple of days. It is three and a half years since I have been here, and the place is almost unrecognisable. There are new bridges and ferry terminals, and so much of the sea between Taipa Island and Coloane Island has been reclaimed, that it is now one island (they have named the reclaimed land between the original islands as the ‘Cotai Strip’) – and there new casinos and megaresorts everywhere.

Macau now has the highest gambling turnover of anywhere in the world (it surpassed Las Vegas last year) and has the largest casino in the world (the Sands Macau).

We stayed at the Venetian on the Cotai Strip, which is the second largest building in the world. The shopping centre on the third floor is modelled after the canals of Venice. I usually find these sorts of places a bit tacky, but I have to say the Venetian has done it very well, and the way in which they have lit the ceilings to make it look like open sky was very clever (on close examination however, the sprinklers on the ceiling give the game away – but you have to look hard).

The picture below was taken from the shopping centre looking down into the casino:

Even on the Macau Peninsula – the older part of the city – there are more casinos springing up, the most impressive architecturally being the Grand Lisboa which has been constructed in the shape of a giant lotus flower.

The Grand Lisboa stands behind Macau’s original Lisboa Casino which looks rather small and tatty these days in comparison. I remember visiting the Lisboa many years ago and noticing all the Chinese prostitutes lined up between the gambling tables and the men’s toilets. I could never quite work out the significance of that, but they seem to have disappeared now.

I read somewhere that since the handover of Macau to China in 1999, the Triad gangsters that used to control prostitution in the territory had been run out of town, and that was also the reason why street violence had all but disappeared – the latter contributing to a significant upsurge in tourism (Macau now receives 25 million visitors a year – which is 50 times higher than its population).

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Incheon: World’s Best Airport – Huh!

My flight from Ulaanbaatar arrived at Incheon – which claims to be the World’s Best Airport – at 3.30 am. It looked a lot different to the many times I had been through in the day.

My next flight to Hong Kong wasn’t until 8.30 am so I headed to the Transit Hotel on the departures level to get some sleep for four hours. According to the hotel’s brochure, the rate was US$60 per six-hour block – a bit expensive as I would only be using it for four hours, but I needed the sleep. There were 11 people queuing at the reception desk, and only one receptionist handling all the bookings. She was having some problems with a woman and her son at the head of the queue as the woman was insisting that her son stay in the same room as her. I could hear the receptionist saying “It’s against the rules madam, your son has to have a separate room.” I have no idea what the problem was (her son looked to be about 12 or 13) and they took about 20 minutes to sort the issue out (it was resolved by her taking two rooms) and by the time I got to the head of the queue, nearly an hour had elapsed. I asked for a room and the receptionist said: “That will be $120 thank you sir”. I said I only wanted one six-hour block, but she said I could only book a minimum of 12 hours after 6.00 pm. There was only time left for three hours sleep, so I decided it wasn’t worth paying $120 – I would take a nap in a chair somewhere.

I think it’s pretty weak when an airport transit hotel advertises rooms for six hours and then says the minimum you can book is 12 hours. I would have expected better at the so-called World’s Best Airport.

On my way to the departure gate at about 7.30 am, I took another shot of the airport from the same place as the 3.30 am picture above.

What a difference four hours makes.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The hassles of shooting with shutter lag

We were invited to another dinner tonight. This one was in the nearby Bayangol Hotel. I didn’t realise there would be show with the dinner, so I cursed that I didn’t bring my Nikon camera with me (I should have learnt my lesson from last night). But I had my little Sony Cybershot in my pocket as usual, so I was able to take a few shots of the performances.

A lot of other people had pocket cameras too, but I don’t expect many of their photographs would have come out because they were using flash. The hall was too big to use flash (people don’t seem to realise that flash only extends 4-5 metres on these little cameras – and then they wonder why the foreground looks like it has been lit up by lightning and the background is all black), so I turned the flash off and let the camera select the best exposure setting that it could given the low light.

With the flash turned off, the camera would have been selecting a high ISO (making it very noisy) and a slow shutter speed (which meant that most of my shots were blurry, except for those where I was able to hold the camera very still). But the biggest problem I had was with the shutter lag. The Cybershot has a very long shutter lag, which meant that if I was shooting a dance, from the time I depressed the shutter button to when the camera took the shot, the dancers had invariably turned around and all I was getting was pictures of their backsides!

I did manage to set up one good shot as the dancers were turning (I depressed the shutter button as they had their backs towards me) but just as the camera took the photograph, a guy leaned across in front of my table to grab one of the bottles of wine that were sitting in front of me (see picture below). I could have wrung his neck because this would otherwise have been the best shot I had.

It was a great show with traditional dancing, traditional and modern music, a fashion parade and acrobatics. The fashion parade had many of the guys in the audience drooling over the models in the show – they were all very tall and very beautiful.

Although I couldn’t get any technically good shots using just the pocket camera, one that did sort of accidentally turn out quite well – because of the slow shutter speed – was the one below of the tsam dance which is performed to drive away evil spirits. One of the dancers worked himself into such a frenzy that all the camera captured was a blur of movement.

The tsam dance features large ornate (and scary) masks which are worn by the dancers to represent various characters which are supposed to look so frightening that they will scare away the evil spirits (I suspect any young children watching this dance would have nightmares afterwards).

The tsam dance was banned in Mongolia during the communist era, but it is now a regular component of cultural performances.

(I’ve only uploaded these photos at 400 pixels wide because of the poor technical quality, so if you click on the photos in this post, you won’t see a larger version like you will with most of my other posts)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Ulaanbaatar – world’s coldest capital city

Yesterday was a beautiful spring day in Ulaanbaatar – bright and sunny, and clear blue skies for most of the day. But when I woke up this morning I saw that Ulaanbaatar is living up to its reputation of unpredictable weather - it was snowing.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world – in fact it is the only one with an average annual temperature below freezing point. It has long cold winters when the temperature during the day rarely gets above 15 below zero, and at night drops to 30 below zero – and sometimes even down to 40 below. It has short warm summers – although it rarely gets much above 20 degrees. At this time of the year I was told it is pot luck as to whether the day will be cold or warm – but I was surprised at how much the temperature had plummeted overnight.

As I drove between meetings I was amused to see quite a few young women walking in the snow in leather boots, mini-skirts and summer blouses with bare arms – it seems they had already changed into their summer gear and weren’t ready to go back into the closet and dig out their winter clothes again. Or maybe they are so used to the cold, a day hovering around zero is a warm one for them.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Ulaanbaatar – city on the move

It was dark when I arrived in Ulaanbaatar last night, so it wasn’t until this morning that I was able to see much of the city. What a change there has been since I was last here four years ago. I have often told people that Ulaanbaatar is more like a laid back country town than a capital city – but all that is changing. There are so many new cars on the roads in Ulaanbaatar these days, causing traffic jams everywhere – something that I don’t remember four years ago – and lots of new high rise buildings going up in the centre of the city.

The picture below was taken from the window of my room in the Corporate Hotel which is just behind the National Drama Theatre (the salmon and white building in the lower left) not far from Sukhbaatar Square.

I also noticed a new golden Buddha statue had been erected on the south side of the city overlooking the more upmarket residential areas (and there was a lot of construction going on there too):

And someone had etched a large portrait – I think it is of Chinggis Khaan - into the hillside a little further to the east overlooking one of the commercial areas:

There is also a new Irish Pub on the other side of the National Drama Theatre - which had an excellent western restaurant attached to it, as well as an espresso coffee shop – and I discovered a really good Italian restaurant called Dolce Vita right across the road from my hotel. Ulaanbaatar seems to be a city on the move these days.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Good news for Hong Kong coffee lovers

Back to the airport for my flight to Seoul and Ulaanbaatar, I had a coffee at one of the Pacific Coffee shops near the check-in counters. When traveling out of Hong Kong, I always have a coffee before going through passport control, because once through on the other side there is nothing but Starbucks – or so I thought.

Today when I was walking to my departure gate I noticed that Starbucks had been replaced by a variety of other coffee chains – and good ones at that – like Segafredo near gate 2, Pacific Coffee near gate 28 and Illy near gate 30. That was as far as I got, so I don’t know whether there were any Starbucks left between there and gate 71, or whether the airport management had thrown them all out in response to complaints from travelers about not being able to get a decent cup of coffee on the airside of immigration.

Even if those are the only three new ones, that’s great news for coffee lovers, as they now have a good choice of coffee places to choose from.

Colourful oxides and complex carbon chains

I had to overnight in Hong Kong last night on my way to Mongolia. The weather was fine when I touched down and I noticed parked at the end of one of the runways were four jumbo jets belonging to Oasis Airways which went bankrupt last week after racking up losses of a billion Hong Kong dollars (about US$130 million).

I thought it somewhat ironic that Oasis was voted the World’s Best New Airline last year.

It would have been convenient to stay at the airport, but as the Regal airport hotel was quite expensive (I’d stayed there once before and it wasn’t good value for money), I had booked a hotel in Kowloon for the night. The clerk at hotel check-in desk told me that it was my “lucky night” as they were putting me into a harbour view room for the night. (I’d only booked a standard room, so I guess they must have been overbooked).

It was getting dark by the time I got up to the room, so I left it until the morning before I drew back the curtains. When I did, this is all I could see:

When I had landed yesterday, I had commented to the person sitting next to me that the air was better than I had seen it for a long time in Hong Kong – but I had spoken too soon. Hong Kong’s air pollution seems to be going from bad to worse – although I’ve experienced much worse in other parts of China. Reading the local papers whenever I pass through Hong Kong, I am not sure who is to blame. It was never like this ten years ago. Some reports blame it on the increasing traffic and the coal-fired power stations in Hong Kong, whilst others blame it on the factories in the Pearl River delta and the other industrial regions of Guangdong Province. But even those who blame it on Guangdong’s factories are quick to point out that many of those are owned by wealthy Hong Kong businessmen.

According to National Geographic News, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report published last year claims that air pollution triggers diseases that kill 656,000 Chinese citizens every year – an alarming figure despite China’s large population.

The WHO report identified the most damaging air pollutants as sulphur dioxide, particulates, ozone and nitrogen oxide. The report said that China accounts for about one third of the global total of these pollutants.

I recall reading several stories last year about an exodus of expatriates from Hong Kong – moving to the cleaner air of Singapore (although that isn’t much better when the wind blows the smoke across from the illegal slash-and-burn clearing of forests in Indonesia around the third quarter of the year). I certainly wouldn’t want to live in Hong Kong these days.

By the time I had breakfast and set out for the airport, the air had cleared quite a bit (as can be seen from the photograph below) but I was surprised when the taxi driver said to me “what a beautiful fine day it was.”

If the above is a Hong Kong taxi driver’s version of a “beautiful fine day,” then I guess he hasn’t been out of Hong Kong for a while to remember what a clear blue sky looks like. Perhaps it’s an indication that after a while people get so used to polluted air, that any day that is not like a pea-soup fog day classifies as a fine day.

PS added 31 May: I read a post by Donald Morrison in the IHT Globespotters Travel Blog a few days ago describing China’s air as “thick with oxides of many colours and complex carbon chains as yet unclassified.” I thought that was such an insightful description, I changed the title of this post, borrowing some of those words (I’d previously titled this post “Hong Kong’s disappearing harbour views” which wasn’t anywhere near as clever).