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#rtw2012 – Copenhagen

This is one in a series of posts about my recent round-the-world (RTW) trip, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may wish to read them in order for context and background.

From Stockholm, I took a quick shuttle flight to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.  It’s quick and easy flight, landing in a silent airport. What a great innovation that is. The quiet is really nice. Given that a few months ago I was sitting right next to the flight gate and didn’t hear the (alleged) boarding announcement, I’m a big fan of silent airports.

The silent airport is followed by a clean, fast, efficient, robot-driven tram ride to the middle of town, emerging in Kongens Nytorv. Once again, riding this tram, I was reminded how poorly the US does on public transporation 😦

From there, I walked to my hotel, the Admiral Hotel right on the water. The hotel was nice, efficient, and friendly. It’s not in the top hotels I’ve ever visited, but not bad at all.

The walk from Kongens Nytorn to the hotel involves passing through the world famous Nyhavn, a canal-front area of the city, filled with bars and restaurants. Every single time I passed through it, all times of day and night, it was packed and had a great atmosphere. I really enjoyed spending time in this area.

I didn’t spend much time at the hotel, mostly walking around this beautiful, clean city. The round tower, Rundetårn, is a fun attraction. The famous hot dog stand next to it, DØP, definitely lives up to the hype, delivering one of the best hot dogs I’ve ever had.

The Strøget is probably the most famous pedestrian area in town, a long meandering street full of shops and restaurants. I walked up and down this street several times over my days in Copenhagen. It was always packed, probably thanks to the beautiful weather, and made for great people-watching.

It was this crowded all the time.

The standard unexpectedly-packed Italian restaurant.

Abercrombie, same all over the world.

As always on these trips, free wifi is a good find. This was one of the times where Foursquare came to the rescue, really showing its potential, since (sadly) ruined by the split into the Swarm and Foursquare apps. Ranting aside, I was walking down the street, when Foursquare alerted me to a tip left by a friend (thanks, Maia!) who had been there before, about a record store with free wifi.

I had to visit Tivoli Gardens, such an old and famous amusement park. It was lovely, and full of people. The rides are small and cute. It was impressive to see how efficiently the compact park grounds are used, especially compared to some far-larger parks I’d visited in the past. Definitely worth a visit even if you don’t want to ride any of the attractions.

It might be Danish, but it’s clear enough.

Really close to all the rides, including this mini roller-coaster.

Like, really really close 🙂

Let’s play “guess who’s the tourist!”

Got enough cotton candy there?

Well-hidden, packed beer garden row.

The back row of beer gardens in the park is also well-organized and well-placed. It was full, needless to say, adults taking a break from their kids, presumably.

Like most towns, Copenhagen has its share of funny business names. Maybe I was more observant in Copenhagen, but I stumbled upon a few entertaining places, shown below. Spicilicious? That Corner? Spunk? Earl the Pearl? 🙂

Not Boston’s Upper Crust.

Earl the Pearl?

Really?

The city hall was fine, nothing to write home about. I stopped in mainly to visit Jens Olsen’s World Clock, which was mildly cool, worth the visit.

1105 was not just my favorite cocktail bar in Copenhagen, it’s one of the top 10 I’ve ever visited. The Senor Hanzi was maybe the best single cocktail I had on my entire #rtw2012 trip.

Ruby was another good cocktail lounge. I liked their little window garden(s), where they plucked herbs to use when making the drinks.

The entrance to Ruby. Don’t ring the embassy…

One of several planters whose herbs are used in drinks.

Fugu (Freddy’s Unique Garden Union) was a bit hazy, as I didn’t get there until very late, though it was still packed. It’s safe to say Copenhagen has a rocking, world-class cocktail scene.

Leaving Fugu late at night.

Finally, Union, another speakeasy-style place, was decent. I don’t recall anything special about this place, besides the difficulty locating the right door, so it probably wasn’t amazing.

Ring the “Gold” bell for Union.

Brwpub, and its Brewfather beer, were an excellent mid-afternoon stop. They had a really nice snack menu and great service.

Running along the waterfront was great. I went for a morning run almost every day. Highly recommended, safe, wide, clean paths.

I watched the changing of the guard at the palace, and then went into Amalienborg (the palace complex) itself. It’s not big, but the tour ended up being fun because I ran into a grandfather teaching his granddaughter English, and he asked for my help. So we traded vocab, improving my Danish roughly 100x 🙂

Hey, finally some guards.

Seems like most churches are under construction when visited…

Nice modern architecture here and there.

I went clubbing a couple of nights night, covering the relatively famous Culture Box, the less famous Warehouse (now closed apparently), and Karel. All had great people, and people-watching

Culture Box.

Warehouse (during the day obviously).

Dress to party with … and new relationships.

The King’s Park, Kongens Have, is really nice. Like everything in this city, it’s clean and organized. There are plenty of quiet shaded corners. There’s a small old castle, now a museum, in the middle, Rosenborg Castle. It’s not the most outstanding castle I’ve ever seen, but it’s a quick tour, worth the stop for the armory alone.

Chillin’

I wish I had a clear, focused picture of this saddle.

Castle lineage.

Stairs out of the treasury.

Copenhagen has plenty of great food besides the street hot dogs mentioned above. I did manage to dine at noma, the world’s top-rated restaurant by at least a couple of publications for at least a couple of years. I thought it was excellent, but over-rated. In fact, it wasn’t even my favorite meal in the city. Having been to Alinea before, and the Fat Duck since, among other places, I don’t think noma is in the same category.

Fiskebaren was my favorite meal in Copenhagen, one of the best of my trip overall. A really fun evening tasting a variety of items in a great setting full of fun people. I also really enjoyed the open-faced small sandwiches at Aamann‘s, highly-recommended by locals. Summerbird is also worth a mention for their chocolate balls (flodbollen), which were amazing.

Outside Fiskebaren.

The botanical gardens were OK, not amazing, but a fun little tour. More fun was the pub run tour, offered by Copenhagen Running Tours, a fun group. The Jewish museum was surprisingly excellent, not big but fascinating and well-organized.

Overall, Copenhagen was a ton of fun, and I’d love to visit again. Everyone was friendly, everything was clean and organized, I really enjoyed it.

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#rtw2012 – Stockholm

This is one in a series of posts about my recent round-the-world (RTW) trip, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may wish to read them in order for context and background.

These posts tend to be detailed and you might find them boring. They’re mostly for myself, as a diary.If you prefer just the pictures, all the ones below (and more) are also on Facebook.

Arriving into Stockholm.

Amusing pictures at the airport.

I know those two!
From St. Petersburg I went to Stockholm, Sweden, my first visit to Scandinavia on this trip and in general. It’s a pretty quick flight, and a smooth easy train from Arlanda airport to downtown Stockholm. It’s also pretty fast: 205Km/h, or 120mph, but quiet and stable. The ride takes about 20  minutes, exactly as advertised. Why don’t we have trains like this?

Zoom zoom…

Clear signs everywhere make it easy to navigate.

Stockholm was a hotel town on my trip. I stayed at the Radisson Blu Royal Viking, right in the middle of the city, near Gamla Stan, the old town. The hotel was great: excellent service, spacious room, great amenities.

Hotel buffet breakfast from a higher floor.

Kettlebells in the hotel gym. And a sink?

It’s Sweden, after all. A gym must have a sauna, hot tub…

I neglected to use the hula hoops 🙂

Heart starter?

One of the first things I did was head out for a recon trip, starting with said old town / Gamla Stan. It was a gorgeous day, like most of my time in Stockholm. Warm long days full of sunlight, I couldn’t have asked for better weather.

Walking around Gamla Stan.

The changing of the guard in the palace at noon.

Looking across one of the many canals.

Add caption

Interesting tattoo on a busy main street.

But also many empty side streets.

Napoleonic cap?

Crossing the street on the southern side.

Lots of interesting buildings.

The royal palace complex (Kungliga Slottet) has a variety of buildings. I really liked the treasury (no pics allowed inside). While walking around the royal apartments, I ran into a local grandfather who was teaching his granddaughter English, using the museum as a vocab exercise — what a great idea! We walked around together for a while, and I helped with a couple of the tougher words 😉

Compound map. Note the English, again.

The guard was very friendly.

Awesome treasury. Sadly, no pictures allowed inside.

The various orders of chivalry were pretty cool, too.

One of the palace halls is where they hold the Nobel prize annual gala / reception. The Nobel museum is a short walk away in Gamla Stan, and that was my next destination.

Entrance to the Nobel museum.

Entering as a visitor is cheap. Entering as an honoree, priceless. Nice WiFi password, too.

I really enjoyed the Nobel museum. It’s not big, but it’s dense and rich with fascinating displays. Besides the picture and bio of every winner, they have a lot of research materials, such as original lab notebooks and pictures and such, all annotated with handwriting from the researchers. Really cool.

Game theory. Loved that movie.

The Penguin man.

Telomerase!

There’s a small cafe where I had a snack. Every chair is autographed by a previous prize winner, as I realized while reading about the cafe and having my snack. I flipped my chair around, only to find it was signed by an Israeli winner, Professor Dan Shechtman! Small world…

The bottom of my chair at the Nobel museum’s little cafe.

After the museum, I kept on walking south, through Gamla Stan and into an area called Sodermalm. I walked along Gotgatan, a big pedestrian shopping area, with many amusingly-named stores. There’s a subway station here called Skanstull, where I boarded the train (“T-bana”) to Fridhemsplan.

An unlikely combination…

Yes!

Taking it to the next level…

A casino?

Well-known record store.

I wonder what they sell?

Indeed, why Thai?

From there it’s a short walk to town hall, Stadshuset. The town hall itself is fairly small, not the most impressive building around. But it’s on the water and has a nice little sculpture park.

That evening was split between dinner at PA & Co, an amazing restaurant that I really loved, and hanging out with new friends at the F12 Terrace afterwards. PA had such a great menu, I wanted to go back every day to try out new things. The Kalix roe stood out as a local delicacy.

PA & Co dinner menu, (mostly) English version.

The aforementioned Kalix roe (orange pile at top left) with traditional local accompaniments.

Afterwards, the terrace at F12 had some great music, and a fun crowd. F12 also has a highly-rated restaurant for dinner, but I didn’t try it. On my way to the F12 restroom, I noticed a long line of girls waiting at a vending machine. Turns out it was a chewing tobacco machine. Weird, no?

F12’s restaurant, which I skipped.

F12’s terrace, upstairs, tent-covered section.

There was a long line of women for this machine. It’s tobacco, right? I’m not missing something?

I was pretty tired, so it ended up being a fairly early night, but a good introduction to Stockholm nonetheless. This turned out well as the following nights were late. On my way to PA & Co above, I walked by Stureplan, which looked promising, and indeed the next couple of evenings were centered there.

One of the most popular restaurants, naturally, is a TGI Friday’s?

East, in  Stureplan, has good sushi and better drinks.

1900 and Kaken, two good places under one roof.

The outdoors bar in the middle of Stureplan was hopping every night.

Waiting for the first subway train of the morning in a clean, organized, mobile fashion.

Curious tattoo choice.

Yes, that’s a McDonald’s (the one at Skanstull), packed at 5am.

Stockholm is a beautiful city. It’s a pleasure to walk around along the canals and side streets. But I thought it’d be nice to get in the water as well. Thankfully, one of the many meetup groups I joined for the trip, the Stockholm Sporty People, had a couple of good ideas.

One of them was canoe / kayak polo. I ended up playing with another group, but thanks to an introduction from an SPP meetup member. The game is what it sounds like, kayaking around and trying to hit the polo ball with your oar. I wasn’t a great player, but I didn’t flip over, and my team won, so everyone was happy 🙂

Walking to the kayak polo meetup spot by one canal. Somebody had to drive…

A bar / resto on the water in one of the canals.

Kayak polo has 5 players to a side, hence 10 kayaks.

For my mom 🙂

I also went for a couple of jogs around the islands. It’s amazing how quickly you can get into wooded terrain, feeling like you’re a long way out of the city, even though it’s only a mile or two.  The Rosendal palace and its gardens were a nice stop, mostly deserted and peaceful. The Vasa museum, nearby, has a recovered and restored Viking ship, and that was pretty interesting.

All good choices.

Looking for the “you are here” designation…

Another museum in the middle of the park.

The restored Viking ship.

Fun jogging paths feel like you’re far away from the city.

In the gardens of the Rosendal palace, there’s a cool greenhouse and shop.

Overall, Stockholm was great. I would gladly go back to explore more. I still have a lengthy list of restaurants, bars, and other places to visit.

Early morning at the train station, heading back to the airport.

Nice recruiting, Spotify.

#rtw2012 – St. Petersburg

This is one in a series of blog posts about my 2012 trip around the world, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may want to start at the beginning for context.

The way I set up my trip in Russia was two long weekends in Moscow, with the 5 days between them in St. Petersburg. I wanted to optimize for Moscow nightlife, and I’m glad I did it that way, although St. Petersburg can definitely hold its own in this area too. More on that below.

Sergei and I on the train.

I took the overnight “Red Arrow” train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. This was an adventure, highly recommended. It’s a fairly fancy train, comfortable, and a lot of fun. My cabin mate was a 55-60-year-old man named Sergei, who had a great attitude, amazing stories, and a capacity for vodka drinking far greater than my own.

I wouldn’t count on the train’s food service, though. You can get much better food for cheap from the train station stands and take it with you. That’s what I did. Sergei brought drinks 🙂

Riding in the back of Sergei’s car

Sergei was nice enough to have his driver drop me off at my AirBnb apartment. The latter, conveniently, was in the same set of buildings as the US consulate. It was cool the see the marines nearby, in Russia of all places.

First view of the Neva river. Nice wide sidewalks for jogging.

The garden.

As soon as I got there, I went out for a recon jog. The jogging path took me along the Summer Garden, Field of Mars, and of course the Neva river. All are beautiful, fun places that I visited multiple times at a slower pace later.

Fun ad near the Field of Mars (to the left of this pic.)

It was immediately evident why some call St. Petersburg “the Venice of the North.” There are canals everywhere, with bridges over them, and boats traveling around.

Tempting to jump aboard…

I continued to the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum, just to check out the queues. I had already bought a ticket online the day before, for the next day, so I wasn’t going in today. The queues were very long, as every guide book says. I don’t know why people don’t buy tickets online. This was one of the very few museums on my trip to which I dedicated a whole day in advance, and I was glad that I did.

Ticket queue for the Hermitage Museum. Buy a ticket online to bypass it.. 
Hermitage Museum directions.

The Winter Palace and museum buildings are impressive from the outside, but they blew my mind inside. The Hermitage might be the most impressive museum I’ve ever seen, or tied with the Louvre for that honor. Its collections would be incredible (top 5 in the world) even if they were housed in a dingy basement. The buildings themselves would be a top-tier attraction in most cities, even if they were empty. The combination of the contents with the buildings, how they’re arranged together, is mind-blowing.

Palace Square. The girls in uniforms are local tour guides.

I kept jogging through the Palace Square towards Nevskiy Prospekt, the main street. It’s a really fun town for walking, jogging, and biking — at least in the summer (I was there in July), when the sidewalks are clear, no ice anywhere. I jogged as far as Ploschad Vosstaniya, then back home to shower and change. It made for a nice refreshing loop.

Nevskiy Prospekt, the main street.

I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s going on 24 hours  a day.

OK, the Hermitage. It was an amazing museum, and would be my #1 stop when I come back to St. Petersburg, I think. There’s always more to see. They have entire rooms dedicating to specific artists, e.g. some of the European masters. So instead of just one Picasso painting, they’d have a room with a dozen or more. The collection is insane. It also extends to sculptures and other types of art.

My Hermitage museum ticket, with extra sticker for photography permit.

Lucky timing to visit a special exhibit from Santiago Calatrava.

My pics don’t do the ornate ceilings, floors, or surroundings justice.

So many masterpieces they are just crammed together..

The Raphael Loggias, NBD. Yes, that Raphael.

The original of that one…

Yes, I tried to pay with a credit card, just for kicks. Bank of America, no less.

Many millions of dollars in art.

The short dude with the wings is always Cupid

I have dozens of photos from the Hermitage. I won’t post them all here. If we’re Facebook friends, you can see them there.

Trips are better with locals. My St. Petersburg guide, Anna.

i was fortunate to have a local tour guide I’d met the previous evening. She was surprisingly informed, and it was nice to tour a museum not by myself during this trip. Thanks, Anna 🙂

By the Kunstkamera entrance. The “no pictures inside” rules are strictly enforced.

Another awesome museum in St. Petersburg is the Kunstkamera, and specifically the deformed “creatures” exhibit. This is gross, and makes the X-Files look tame, but it’s also fascinating to see.

Heyo fun church!

Entrance ticket!

Looks great at night, too.

Of the several excellent churches in St. Petersburg, my favorite was the Church of the Savior on Blood, which has several variations of that name. It’s a colorful church that you can tour, just a few steps off Nevskiy Prospekt. As I found out, it’s also near several bars and restaurants, a convenient location all around.

Bears outside the Admiralty.

The churches of St. Peter and St. Paul (part of a fortified complex that has little else to see), and St. Isaac’s, were both fun as well. One of them is right by the Admiralty, which was closed for renovations while I was there, but had a fun exhibit of standing bears outside the building.

Important people buried here.

Gorgeous mosaics.

the “baby Cazr” is buried there.

As with Moscow, St. Petersburg has many cultural attractions that are not religious. The Mariinskiy Theatre, for example, as well as many others.

Carmen, one of my favorite operas! Lucky timing.

The nightlife in St. Petersburg was fun. It didn’t feel quite as over-the-top as Moscow, but there still good drinks, good nightclubs, and good options at all hours of the day or night.

Is that an ad? Yes, it is.

Learning the different local beers.

Nevskiy Prospekt at 4:30am.

Solid drinks.

Shot flights? Shot flights.

Of the cocktail bars, I have a specific note to mention 22-13 here. It stuck out as having Eastern Standard-caliber drinks (one of my measuring sticks, a favorite Boston bar). But apparently it’s been bought by new ownership?

There are many bridges over the Neva river. They are closed (meaning cars can travel over them) most of the time. They have a set schedule of when they open to allow boats under them. They are also nicely lit up at night, so watching them open and close is a sort of tourist (and local) attraction. This typically happens in the middle of the night, so it’s a nice break between dinner / drinking / dancing / whatever you’re doing at that time. Here’s a schedule.

The bridge lit up on a rainy night.

Watching the bridge open up, letting boats go under it.

I was apparently there during a busy wedding season, as there were bridal parties taking pictures everywhere.

St. Petersburg’s underground train / metro system is well-known for its very deep and pretty stations. I made sure to use the subway a couple of times, and it was fun. It was easier to find your way around compared to Moscow’s subway, because the signs had some English on them.

Descending into the deep subway station.

English on the signs!

On some of them, anyways.

Overall, St. Petersburg struck me as a beautiful city. It was clean and welcoming, friendly. It was easy to navigate, and gorgeous to walk around. I’d love to go back there in the future.

And sometimes, late at night, you run into a random group of women on horseback on the main street of the city. Why? Not clear. I’m surprised they were staying on the horses at that point.

I took the “Sapsan” (Falcon) high-speed train back to Moscow. Onto the next city.

Re-plums FTW.

#rtw2012 – Moscow

This is one of a series of blog posts about my round-the-world trip in 2012, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may wish to read the first couple of background posts for context.

After a great few days in Istanbul, I flew on to Israel to hang out with my family. That was a lot of fun, as always, and I might blog about it later. But after that, I went to Moscow. Russia had long been on my “top 5 places to visit” list, so I was excited to swing by for the first time.

Landing in Moscow, it immediately felt unwelcome. This feeling would permeate the entire city, which is kind of bizarre. There is very little English signage, even at the standard international airport spots.

One of the few international signs at the airport.

Thankfully, I had amazing hosts in Moscow, Anna and her husband Dima. They made my visit to the city so much better. And the city itself has a ton to offer. More on both below. But my initial impression was “whoa! This is going to be interesting.” A uniquely “visitors not welcome here” feeling.

Also worth noting before I get into details: Moscow was the first city of the trip for which I still have all my pictures, not just a few low-resolution captures from Foursquare. To find out how / why I lost many pictures, see rtw2012 – Photography. Or if you want to just see pictures, here’s the Facebook album.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=124984

From the airport I took the subway, for the first of many times, to meet my host Anna. I had to change lines once and it was in the middle of rush hour. It was crowded, everybody moving fast. I love that rush, especially in a new city where I’ve never been before.

To the metro…

What station is this?

Nice train station.

There are no English signs in the subway, almost at all. So I had to improve my Russian reading, or at least trans-literation, skills, on the fly. It’s actually not that hard, thankfully.

One of the first signs I saw coming out of the metro was for a Tiesto show, and that was followed closely by an Armin van Buuren show. I was curious to hear some local DJ talent, as well. It later turned out they were pretty good.

I met up with Anna, and we walked to her apartment. She very graciously let me stay there while I was in Moscow, and it’s a beautiful apartment in a great location. Thanks for the connection, T.

After showering and changing, we went out to dinner. The open-air restaurant / bar / lounge is part of a little complex, a few places, in a former candy factory, I think? Some kind of manufacturing plant, anyways, which makes for a cool vibe. The weather was perfect, and the crowd was fascinating to watch. The thing at this place is that you pick your (meat), and they grill it for you, with various sides, Russian-style. It was delicious.

One of many impressive Moscow structures, from a taxi.
We swung by some sort of bike rally near Moscow State University, on the way to a nearby lookout.

From there we went to Strelka, a well-known bar not far away. It was a good bar with great music, setting the theme for Moscow.

Shudder.

The next day I walked around many of Moscow’s central, historical buildings. Walking past the Lubyanka was a thrill, having read so many books that mention it directly or in passing.

A little morning refreshment on my walk.

Walking around Red Square is just impressive. I’d read so much about it, but seeing it in person is something else. It’s huge and foreboding, like it’s designed to intimidate. There were many people out and about in the perfect afternoon weather. Everything seemed spotlessly clean, unlike some of the side streets and alleys — par for the course in a large town.

Hats for sale in Red Square.

Available for pictures, individually or together…

St. Basil’s cathedral, the famous dome seen in many pictures, was cool. There was (luckily) not a long line to see Lenin’s mausoleum, and I also got an unexpected treat from Formula 1 visiting town for a day or two, drawing a large crowd for a demo race.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

I stopped by the GUM mall on a friend’s recommendation. I didn’t do a lot of shopping on this trip in general, but this mall was very cool. It reminded me of Milano’s covered shopping arcades.

Inside the GUM mall / department store.
Watching F1’s “Moscow City Racing” behind Red Square. You can see one car there…

It was fun to walk around the classic main streets of Moscow, such as Tverskaya and Petrovka. I checked out the Bolshoi theatre, but did not go to a show. From there I made my way to Pushkin’s square, and back home along the “bulvar” (ring road).

Not random at all. At least it’s in English too.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near Red Square.
An accidental selfie in Pushkinskaya square.

I’ve only read about this place in about 50 spy novels: the Hotel Metropol.

The Kremlin itself was fascinating. It took a while to get tickets, but walking around once inside was cool. i didn’t do all my research, so I didn’t realize it was actually numerous buildings, churches, and other things to check out.

Kremlin ticket offices.
Inside the Kremlin.

My, that’s a big cannon you’ve got there. (That’s the Tsar Cannon.)

I don’t think I’m supposed to take pictures in here.

She was singing and praying.

The gardens around Red Square are very nice, too. Some people were dancing, others just walking around. They are really clean and well-kept, and everything was blossoming. (This is in July…)

Russia’s “hero cities” (Soviet names) by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Peeps be dancing in the square.

Nice haircut, little kid 😉

I also went to the Tretyakov Gallery, and it was good, but nothing compared to the Winter Palace / Hermitage museum I visited in St. Petersburg the next week (subject of the next blog post in this series.)

An interesting couple.

Time to go in to this restaurant and improve my Russian…

Petrovka street has a bunch of fancy shops…

Like this Christian Louboutin store.

Oligarch much? Compensate much?
Denis Simachev‘s store / bar / restaurant was cool.
Sunny afternoon.

Anna and I grabbed dinner at a Soviet “traditional style” restaurant near the Lubyanka, and it was delicious. I really liked the Russian country dark bread, especially fresh and hot. Overall, the food is fairly simple, earthy, and much of it (sadly) is fried. As in several other countries, McDonald’s was a popular destination for many locals, although I did not swing by.

Some typical Russian food.

Love that bread.
Yup, a Starbucks. Nope, I didn’t stop inside.

Moscow nightlife deserves a chapter of its own, really. I loved the clubbing scene here. A lot of people complain about “feis kontrol” (pronounced “face control”), perhaps rightfully, but the system is pretty easy to work, and similar to other picky parts of the world. It’s easier as a foreigner, actually.

No one complains about the “local” women. After a night or two, when I saw any non-blonde woman, I started to think she was wearing a wig just to stand out.

You know it’s a good night when you give your phone to someone to take a pic of you, and they take pics of random people.

Nice ceiling. It changed colors, too.
Many vodkas.

Ever hear a Russian remix of “Call Me Maybe?” 
The legendary “Night Flight” — doesn’t look like much from the outside…

Layered shots, again.

Why are some of us having shots with a straw?

A 5D show?!?

Pacha Moscow is inside that little alley.

I’m not going to elaborate on the Moscow nightclubs here, but if you see me in person, ask for stories. They’re solid. Krysha Myra, Fabrique, Propaganda, Night Flight, they’re legendary places for a reason.

With pickles on the side? Sure.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and selection of craft cocktails in Moscow. There was plenty of vodka everywhere, obviously, but also a variety of other interesting options. City Space‘s “molecular mixology” stood out, and their “Nano Maria” was amazing.

Even though it was July, not the holidays, some buildings were lit up at night.

How late (or early…) must you be at Red Square to capture it with no visitors? Very.

Sunrise in Red Square, ~5am.

One final attraction worth visiting in Moscow is a tiny museum, but a fascinating one, is the official Gulag History museum. You have to go through a small archway on the fancy Tverskaya street, past a fake barbed wire fence and guard towers, made to look like the entrance to a Gulag camp. It’s really cool inside, featuring many photographs in all their versions, “official” and real, edited and otherwise, chronicling media manipulation, and of course the gulags themselves. Highly recommended.

Soon enough, it was time for me to board the classic “Red Arrow” train on an overnight ride to St. Petersburg. Moscow was a blast. Even though it initially felt unwelcoming, I can see myself coming back.

Caught one brief rain shower — had to run to the metro. At least I wasn’t wearing heels, unlike my tour guide…
Looks like the right train.

More great books from this summer and fall

I’ve enjoyed reading a handful of awesome books the last couple of months. The sci-fi ones, in particular, have been greatly enjoyable. I wrote up some books from earlier this year back in June, and this is the next batch.

In fact, I’ve read 3-4 of my top 10 sci-fi books ever during the past couple of months. Wool, Ready Player One, The Forever War, and The Player of Games, all were outstanding.

The entire Wool series / Silo saga by Hugh Howey is excellent. There are 9 books in total, collected into 3 books (Wool, Shift, and Dust in the omnibus editions), all flowing together smoothly. What an amazingly-creative piece of work, a scary possible view of the future.

Ready Player One, by Ernert Cline, was so good that I read it twice, back to back. It also features a scary view of a future where everyone is plugged in to the “Oasis,” a world-wide massive virtual reality game, neglecting their real lives. There are heroes and villains there, naturally, and a battle to control the game, and thus life itself.

Close on its heels I read The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks, which was also superb. It’s one of several books that take place in the same world, Banks’s “Culture” series, but the only one of those I’ve personally read so far.

Just yesterday I finished Joe Haldeman‘s classic novel, The Forever War. Wow, what an excellent book. I literally couldn’t put it down on the train / subway, and while walking around. It’s not a new book, but it was one of the few Hugo + Nebula joint award winners that I hadn’t read. The parallels to Heinlein‘s classic Starship Troopers are so clear, but the books play off each other perfectly.  And it turns out the author is a professor of creative writing at MIT!

Killing Pablo, by Mark Bowden, was a fascinating book as well. It led to a late night reading about Pablo Escobar and other drug figures on Wikipedia. Very detailed but not repetitive, and does a great job of expanding the Colombian context to Pablo’s life.

Lee Child‘s Never Go Back and High Heat, both Jack Reacher novels, were predictably good beach reads. Simple, but entertaining to read and fast-paced.

These are the best books I’ve read the couple of months — there have been a couple of duds, too, but that’s for another day.

#rtw2012 – Istanbul

This is one of a series of blog posts about my round-the-world trip in 2012, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may wish to read the first couple of background posts for context.

From India (details here) I flew on to Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey. I absolutely loved Istanbul and I hope to spend much more time there in the future. In some ways, it was the opposite of India: I basically went to Istanbul to visit my friend Seda and see a couple of buildings, but ended up loving the city, extending my stay, and being positively surprised in many ways.

Arriving at Ataturk airport in Istanbul.

The first thing that stuck out is how clean Istanbul is compared to Delhi and the other cities I visited in India. Everything was relatively organized, neat, and well laid-out. If you’ve ever been to Istanbul, you might be surprised at hearing this, but it’s all relative 🙂

Transportation from the airport downtown was easy, via the Havatas bus, which takes you right to the middle of town, Taksim Square. (This is the square that has recently been in the news due to various protests and fights.)

The first thing I ate in Istanbul was one of the famous small spicy burgers in Taksim. There are many street vendors who sell them, and it’s basically a slightly spicy marinara-type sauce on a little lamb or beef burger, a pretty solid street snack.

Exploring Taksim Square shortly after I arrived. The kebabs will come later.

My apartment, obtained via Airbnb, was a few blocks away from Taksim Square, right in the middle of town, in a great little neighborhood called Cihangir. I met my fantastic hostess, Isil, who showed me around the apartment, pointed out nearby places to eat and shop, and made me feel at home. Thanks, Isil! My “home street” in Istanbul had a view of the Bosphorus at the end, down a fun slope that I ended up walking (and running) several times.

My home street in Istanbul with the Bosphorus in the background.

I didn’t stay at the apartment long, though. I did a quick grocery shopping trip mainly for Red Bull and Efes Pilsen beer, then went out to the world-famous Istiklal Caddesi. It’s an impressive street on par with almost any boulevard from fancier cities such as Paris or Milano. It’s filled with life and energy, lots of fun shops, food stands, and more. I enjoyed walking around the whole stretch and noting places to visit later.

Wondering around Istiklala Caddesi on a gorgeous summer afternoon.

At the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi is a famous old medieval tower, the Galata Tower. I climbed to the top for a gorgeous 360-degree view of Istanbul on a perfectly-sunny summer afternoon. This was a great welcome to the city. The site of the Sultanahmet area with its many mosques is really impressive, one of the best I’ve ever seen.

From the top of Galata Tower, looking back towards my apartment.

After wondering around a bit more, it was time to head back home to shower and change before dinner with my friend. Which brings me to another positive surprise about Istanbul: there is plenty of world-class food here, and not just the Turkish variety.

We had dinner at X Restaurant in an area called Sishane, right by the Galata Tower actually. (So I ended up walking from the Tower to the apartment, changing etc, then walking back a nearly identical route to dinner… But I didn’t mind at all, as it’s a beautiful and fascinating walk.) The restaurant competes with the Tower for its views, and makes for a fantastic sunset viewing location.

Sunset from X Restaurant

Dinner was a very long and fun affair, as I hadn’t seen my friend in person for several years. After that, we went to 360 Istanbul, a club / lounge / bar nearby, which also has great views of the city, although it was dark by now. The place was packed and had some great music playing.

I didn’t stay long, knowing I had a full “classic tourist” day ahead of me, and wanting some sleep. But Istanbul sure made an amazing first impression!

The next day started with a morning run around Cihangir before taking the little tram from Findikli to Sultanahmet, the old city area which features many of the classic attractions. The tram, continuing a theme, was clean, fast, well-labeled, well-organized, and a pleasure to ride.

Taking the tram to Sultanahmet.

I went to the “Blue Mosque” first, properly known as the Sultan Ahmed mosque. Wow, what an impressive structure! There was a service going on when I arrived, but it didn’t take long to finish, and I walked around the mosque grounds meanwhile. I thought this building was one of a couple in Istanbul that were actually more impressive than the Taj Mahal in India, to my surprise and delight. They are also far more user-friendly, easier and more fun to visit.

Walking around the Blue Mosque courtyard while waiting for service to end.

From there I went to “Hagia Sophia,” or “Ayasofia” as it’s often called locally, including on some maps and signs. Although the line here appeared long at first, it moved quickly and efficiently. Yes, another positive surprise. Sensing a theme?

Hagia Sophia may be the most impressive building I’ve ever seen. My jaw dropped when I walked inside, and stayed that way for a while. The decorations and architecture are nothing short of amazing. The best part is the blend of different styles from all the different purposes the building has served over the thousands of years it’s been around. The audio tour was well worth it here because of the explanations.

Inside Hagia Sophia. None of my pictures do this place justice.

After that, I walked outside to the nearby Basilica Cistern. This is an underground structure for storing water (duh…) that’s since been nicely decorated and adorned with sculptures, lights, and more. It’s a fun quick visit. Sadly my iPhone camera is not good enough to take pictures in the relative darkness of the cistern. The whole place feels like you’re in a Tomb Raider video game.

Inside the Basilica Cistern.

The Sultanahmet area (and much of Istanbul) has many vendors selling roasted chestnuts and similar street snacks. I grabbed a bag of chestnuts, making a milestone in the process, my first complete conversation in Turkish without resorting to English. The chestnuts were not as good as that milestone feeling 😉

From there I walked through the big green Gulhane Park to the Topkapi Palace, another major historical attraction. The concentration of history and related artifacts in Istanbul is pretty ridiculous, in a good way.

Walking through Gulhane Park to Topkapi Palace.

The Topkapi Palace was impressive for its sprawl, its location, and its treasures. The armory requires a separate (relatively costly) entrance ticket, but it’s well worth it. I tried taking pictures in there, but the older Turkish matron staffers were not only quick to yell at me, but also very adept at deleting pictures off an iPhone. You read that right 🙂 A 60+-year-old Turkish grandmother asked for my phone and deftly deleted pictures I took inside the treasury. Whoa.

Topkapi Palace entrance ticket.

I also paid the small extra amount require to enter the Harem section of the Palace. This was mildly interesting, but not nearly as good as the treasure. Just walking around the Palace grounds and seeing the views of Istanbul on a sunny afternoon was worth the price of admission, though.

The door to one of the rooms in the Topkapi Palace.

After this I hopped back on the tram towards my apartment, going a couple of extra stops to reach the Dolmabahce Palace on recommendation from another traveling friend. Thanks, Leigh, for the good call on this! I made it just in time to catch the last guided tour of the day, which was good, because they don’t let you independently walk around — you must be on a guided tour.

Approaching Dolmabahce Palace late afternoon, just in time.

From Dolmabahce it was a nice walk home to shower and change for the evening. The neighborhood of Cihangir really grew on me, with some familiar faces on the street nodding to say hi.

The evening started with sunset drinks at 5.Kat, which literally means “5th floor,” a restaurant / bar near my apartment. They too had a gorgeous view, and really solid drinks. From there I went to a local friend’s house. He works at the IFC (part of the World Bank group) in Istanbul, and was hosting a BBQ for a few friends. I met a few more locals, all of whom were super-friendly, continuing the trend about this city.

Around 9:30pm we took a taxi to dinner, since our reservations were at 10pm. There was a lot of traffic in the last half mile before our dinner club, a preview of things to come. (This traffic is common at night in this area, a district called Ortakoy, as I learned later.)

We went to Reina, one of a few Istanbul summer “superclubs,” which means it’s a big complex where you can have dinner, drinks, dance, even breakfast if you so want. They (and their crowds) stay up and all open all night, although things (e.g. furniture) shifts around. It’s actually really cool, efficient, and prevents a number of hassles around moving from one venue to another. If you’re curious, here’s more background on this type of club.

Reina (the club’s own photo.)

Reina was awesome. We had a group of about 10-12 people for dinner (At Kosebasi, delicious), and everyone stayed for drinking and dancing the whole night. The place was packed, the crowd providing great people-watching, the music solid (lots of good Turkish pop remixes), just a great night. I didn’t get any good photos thanks to their lighting, so I’ll just use a couple of their photos to illustrate. It really does look and feel like that.

Reina view from the DJ booth — this is the club’s photo, not mine.

The crowd definitely got into the dancing, not just standing around watching each other. While the DJs weren’t on par with other stops on my trip, they were reasonably competent.

Right around sunrise, I left the club with my good college friend, for a sunrise hookah session at a tiny local place way up in the hills, in a neighborhood called Bebek, “baby.” It was a pretty amazing moment as we saw the sun rise over the Bosphorus and heard the muezzin call for morning prayer at the same time, after a night of dancing and drinking. Sadly, picture-wise, all I have is this one picture from the back of a taxi, which I have no idea why I took 😉

What was I thinking?

After a few-hour-long nap, I woke up and made my way on foot to the famous Grand Bazaar. I stopped for doner kebab on the way, practically a required Istanbul experience. It definitely hit the spot after the previous night 😉

Street food rule of thumb: if a place is crowded with locals, eat there.

The Grand Bazaar was really cool. The hawkers are very aggressive, particularly with people who look like tourists. Thankfully, since I dressed much more like locals and wasn’t carrying a big camera or guidebook / map around (thanks, iPhone!), I didn’t look like a tourist, so I didn’t get approached. Nonetheless, the entire dynamic is the same across the world, and always fun to watch.

Entering the Grand Bazaar.

I walked around the Bazaar a bit, including a coffee pit stop at the famous Sark Kahvesi. Right outside the bazaar is the Nur-u-osmaniyeh mosque, an attractive quiet little place that was interesting to visit. Following my friend’s advice, I also swung by a couple of “Han”-type buildings, 2-story warehouses with courtyards inside, part of the Bazaar.

Inside the Grand Bazaar.

After this I walked back to the old city Sultanahmet section, this time to locate the Ayasofia Hamam. It’s a Turkish bathhosue (“hamam”) named after the famous Hagia Sophia / Ayasofia building. Although it’s expensive, it was highly recommended, and I did want to try one Turkish bath while I was in Turkey. This was a very old hamam (15th century), recently extravagantly restored and modernized, exactly my type of place.

The entrance to the hamam can be easy to miss.

This was totally worth it for the experience. I won’t go into a lot of details, but one warning: the teenagers who essentially beat you up with towels are aggressive. It’s like they’re out to prove something…

From there, it was back home for a bit. I showered, changed, and took a taxi to the same Ortakoy district, for dinner and drinks at one of Reina’s main competitors, a place just down the road called Sortie. A group of us met through ASmallWorld (a sort of semi-private social network at the time, although now it has changed its model) and had a great dinner together. Fantastic folks from around the world. Hi Shrik, Ebru, Hande, Pixie!

Sortie looks a lot like Reina.

I didn’t want to stay up until sunrise for a second night in a row, but somehow we ended up dancing and hanging out until almost 4am. I was not surprised by now to see a traffic jam outside the Ortakoy clubs at 4am.

Hailing a cab at 4am in Ortakoy. Not my hand: the global rule of girls being more effective here applies.

After a relatively good night’s sleep, I woke up and went for a run. The run was stopped short, though, when I saw a pickup basketball game across the street.

Time to play!

After that (and a shower), I walked down to the waterfront, across the Galata bridge with its fisherman, and to the ferry to the Asian side, Kadikoy. That was a nice walk and a very nice ferry ride.

Not a bad background for fishing 🙂

This side of Istanbul feels more residential, and has many small cafes and restaurant. It was fun to walk around and check it out, if only for variety.

One of the people I met at night the previous dinner mentioned an awesome party happening tonight at 360 Istanbul East, another outpost of the 360 club mentioned above. It was their summer rooftop pool party, an event that seemed worth attending, so I did. (Her help was practically required to get in the door, so that worked well. Thanks, Figen!)

360 Istanbul East summer rooftop pool party.

That party turned out awesome. Adam Clay, a vocalist who sometimes does work for David Guetta and others, was there to accompany the DJ, and the sunset view of Istanbul was perfect. The pool was full and well-used, well-set-up for the party.

From there it was a quick taxi ride to Bagdat Caddesi to meet a friend for dinner and drinks. We had a nice quiet evening, my last one in Istanbul, pretty chill.

Boarding the bus to the airport.

And, finally, the next morning a nice walk around Taksim, around my neighborhood in Cihangir which started feeling like home, another quick efficient bus ride to the airport, and it was time to fly home to Tel Aviv for a bit.

One final tactical note: the business lounge at this airport was one of the best I’ve ever seen, featuring a pool table, a library, a movie cinema, and more. It was all done up and built out in an Ottoman palace style, really well done, clean and spacious, with tons of amazing food. Best lounge ever.

A small part of the Ottoman palace-style business lounge at the Istanbul airport.

And one final strategic note: I was blown away by Istanbul. People often ask what my favorite stop was on this trip (or ever), and that’s a really hard (maybe impossible) question. But Istanbul was unquestionably the biggest positive surprise of the trip. I can’t wait to go back.

Time to fly home.

#rtw2012 – India

This is one in a series of posts about my recent round-the-world (RTW) trip, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may wish to read them in order for context and background.


This one is about my time India, which was spent mostly in Delhi, the capital, but also featured a trip to Agra for the Taj Mahal. Those are detailed below.

The story starts months before I got to India, when I needed to get my visa. It was by far the most painful and cumbersome visa process of my entire trip, or any other trip I’ve ever taken. The entire thing is outsourced by the Indian government to a private firm, Travisa, which does not make it easy. Pro tips in lieu of a long story: use Internet Explorer (yes, it still exists apparently…) on their web site, have many paper copies of everything, and be ready to spend a solid full day or two working to get this visa.
Eventually, though, you get there…


The (new) Delhi airport is not bad. It’s tiny, but clean and air-conditioned.

India is the only place on my trip that I left NOT wanting more. It’s a huge, diverse country, and I only saw a tiny chunk of it. Most people I met, especially my Apache Software Foundation friend Avdesh Yadav, were friendly and great hosts. I imagine other parts of the country are beautiful, offer many experiences, and have about a billion other gracious hosts. In other words, I’m giving India the benefit of the doubt, but I’m still not in a rush to get back.

I flew in on Thai Airways, another good flight on that airline. A driver met me at the airport, courtesy of my Delhi hotel. He was a cool dude, fairly young, walking in a big rush. There was a nice “welcome to India” moment where he just stepped over a couple of people who had just fallen on the sidewalk at the airport, bags and all, without helping them. I paused to help them up, and he pulled me by the arm to move on.


There’s a rickshaw on the left, and another on the right…

This was a precursor to his driving, which was pleasantly brisk. At some point we passed between two rickshaws on the “highway,” prompting me to ask whether the passing lane was on the left or the right. He laughed, saying “This is India, no driving rules.”

The temperature was a balmy 110 degrees F (43.3 degrees C) when I arrived, and the highs for the week I spent in India were all about the same. The entire time was smoggy and humid. I last saw blue skies before starting our plane descent into Delhi, and only saw them again on the flight out of the country.


Refreshing.

Eventually we made it to my hotel in Connaught Place, in the middle of the city. I checked in, which was handled professionally and quickly, took a long shower, and grabbed a nice lunch at the hotel restaurant.

It’s worth noting all the food I had in India was delicious. I ate some at restaurants, and some on the street, against everyone’s advice. I never got “Delhi Belly” or anything like that. Maybe it’s because I’ve been eating strange stuff all over the world for years, maybe it’s because I carefully watched to see what many locals were getting freshly-made, and got the same, or maybe I just got lucky.

I was still pretty tired from the many Bankgkok shenanigans, so after lunch I watched a couple of episodes of The Wire (thanks again, E ;)), and took a long nap. I met a friend for drinks at Q’Ba, a nearby bar, which claims to be among the top 50 in the world. It’s a decent place, but I can probably think of 50 bars I like better in NYC alone.


Not bad, but way over-rated.

The next day was one of the best in Delhi. I signed up (in advance) for a Delhi “Heritage Walk” in the Chandni Chowk area. These are small group walking tours led by a local guide. To my surprise, I was the only non-local, and one of only two non-native, people on the tour. (The other being an expat who’s there for years.) Our guide, Chhavi Sharma, an archeologist, was excellent. This walk is highly-recommended.


We were to meet at the “Red Temple”, properly named the Sri Digambri Jain Lal mandir. I had read about the Delhi metro, and wanted to try it out. (One of my themes during the trip was to try every common local mode of transportation, e.g. rickshaws and such, where possible.) It’s one of the newest and most modern infrastructures in India.

Waiting for the train at Rajiv Chowk.

In a classic “welcome to India” moment, the token vending machines in this new train system, in a central station (Rajiv Chowk), at rush hour, were all out of service. After standing in line for a while with a lot of other people, I bought a “SmartCard” from an employee, and that got me on. The train ride itself was pretty good, actually. It won’t be confused with Tokyo, but it’s not awful.

The tour had us walking along and around the entire Chandi Chowk area, with several stops, some mentioned in my (iPhone app) guidebook, and some that I would not have found by myself. The street and surrounding markets gradually got more and more crowded as the morning went on.

The main street of Chandi Chowk. Peeps sleep on and around the street like that all over the place.

The Jama Masjid mosque was impressive. The “guards” at the entrance, who looked like ordinary criminals to me, were trying to charge a lot of money (relatively) for slippers (since one has to take one’s shoes off to walk around a mosque, and it was the usual 110 degrees, on a baking hot floor surface…)

Ablution fountain at Fatehpuri Masjid.

Although Jama Masjid is better known, I actually liked Fatehpuri Masjid better. It’s smaller, calmer, more intricate in some ways. I also enjoyed the spice market with its view, and some of the hidden residences and temples which are set back a few blocks from the street, accessed through shadowy (and shady) little alleys. Although it’s crowded, it felt safe.

That’s us walking through one of the back streets towards a semi-hidden temple. Guide Chhavi is front right. One of this group is not like the others…

One of the cool things about the guided walk was that I was the only person not living in India among our entire group. Almost everyone there were native locals looking to learn more about their culture and heritage, which I appreciate. You can see that in the above picture.

At this point I was hungry for a snack, and there are numerous stands on the streets around the mosque. I grabbed some kulfi, thereby violating just about every piece of advice my international travel + disease doctor gave me before the trip. Street-side, semi-frozen, liquid-based food in Old Delhi? It was delicious, and had no negative side effects.

After this it was time to walk all the way back east along Chandi Chowk, exploring a bit by myself, heading towards the famous Red Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, seat of the Mughal Empire. I was looking forward to this, and it was kind of disappointing.

First of all, you have to walk a solid kilometer or two from the end of Chandi Chowk, the main approach point, where all the taxis, rickshaws, and buses drop people off, to the actual entrance of the Red Fort. Why not place them more conveniently? Especially on blistering hot days, such as this one, I thought this might be a hindrance to less fit people. And indeed, many locals and visitors alike were sort of sitting by the side of the walking approach road, just in the sand (no benches or anything…), looking about to pass out.

Welcome to India, visitors! Please pay 25x the local entry fee.

The Red Fort itself is OK. It’s not amazing. I see its historical value, but it’s not well-maintained. In fact, and this was another “classic” India moment, I saw local teenagers taking stones off the walls of some of the internal structures. At first I thought I was imagining this, but upon closer approach, I was right. So I notified a guard (who was not nearby at all, in fact I had to search hard for one), who just shrugged and said it was normal. It doesn’t seem “normal” to me to be actively destroying a World Heritage site…

The one area where guards were vigilant was a shaded staircase, which was pleasantly cool at ~90 degrees (compared to the 110-degree surroundings), and where some older visitors were trying to sit down for a moment of rest in the shade. No, no, no! Over there the guards make sure to keep everyone moving, not enjoying the shade, much less sitting down. Such an unwelcoming venue.

One last thing about this big, central tourist attraction: no water (or drinks of any kind) for sale at al. If you want some cheap fake jewelry, there are plenty of options. But water? Not so much.

I was again hungry at this point, and pretty done with the Red Fort, so I started to make my way back out the long, winding access road. As I got close to the main road at Chandi Chowk, we were stopped, everyone. Soldiers blocked off the access, keeping us standing outside in the heat. Why? No one knew. Great.

McAloo Tikki? Hmm. Didn’t try it. Wanted street food.

I still don’t know why, but we waited there about 45 minutes in mid-day heat. I never saw sirens or police or a motorcade, which was my initial guess, e.g. some politician visiting by. Oh well. I took a rickshaw back to my hotel, not feeling like riding the metro again that day.

I met Avdhesh for lunch at a local Punjabi-style restaurant, Pind Baluchi. It was packed with locals, always a great sign, and the food was delicious. Most of my meals in India were excellent.

Lunch at Pind Baluchi.

After that, it was time to chill out for a bit before my next adventure, an attempt to see the sunset at Ashkardam.  I say “attempt” because I was told by the rickshaw driver it might be a bit crowded, and I should get there early. So I did, which was a good thing.

There were huge lines queuing up outside, which I thought was for security, but no. The temple does not allow any electronics inside, so we all had to check our cell phones. This was a bit scary for me, as it was my main device for communicating and navigating during the trip. But that piece turned out fine: just an hour or so in line…

Approaching Ashkardam temple (having taken the metro here).

The Ashkardam temple is beautiful. With the sunset’s golden light, it looks like something out of a Disney movie. But is it worth the hours spent waiting in line? I’m not sure. Is it peaceful with everyone running around? Not really.

The next day, I planned to go to Agra for the Taj Mahal. And I planned to do it by train, so I bought a ticket in advance, having researched the train options, train stations, and particularly train travel classes. There are all sorts of stories about Indian trains and their nightmares, but I wasn’t particularly daunted.

Train ticket from Delhi to Agra

I was wrong. Although the trains are nowhere as crowded as I thought, not nearly as crowded as Tokyo’s or some of the Hong Kong trains I took, they are simply filthy, nasty. All the street food I had was fine, but looking at the train and sitting inside for a few minutes, I got a bad feeling, got up, and left.

My train boarding at the station.

I called the hotel to arrange for a private driver to Agra (and back) the next day. Once they confirmed that, I went to the Qutub Minar, another major historical complex in Delhi. That proved to be perhaps the most positively surprising one of the trip, quite relaxing and peaceful. Walking around there and reading about its history was a nice contrast to the hectic nastiness of the train station.

A plane flying over the Qutub Minar.

From the Qutub Minar, I went to the last major religious complex I wanted to visit in Delhi itself, the Baha’i Lotus Temple. This place was awesome. It’s a beautiful, soaring structure, with nice gardens around it. But more importantly, it has a calm to it, and a welcoming feeling. It was nice to feel, not just read about, that central Baha’i tenet.

Lotus Temple — way better professional photos available online.

Right outside the temple, I had some amazing street-side roti from an old lady. I wish I could have that same roti right now. I think she was mostly there for the construction workers on a project nearby, since they were the only customers beside me. I took the metro back to Rajiv Chowk, by now used to the SmartCard and the metro signage.

Dinner was early-ish at Circa 1193, back near the Qutub Minar. Really nice view from the outdoor terrace, decent food. I was excited for the next day, a trip to Agra for the Taj Mahal.

The next morning my driver Vinay picked me up for Agra. He was a very cool guy, we chatted most of the way there. We started early enough (6am on the road) that we did not encounter much Delhi traffic, and quickly got on the NH2 “highway” to Agra. I put “highway” in quotes because it’s tiny, poorly paved in sections, nearly always full of trucks and other objects, including people and cows crossing…

During this trip to Agra I called my little sister to wish her a happy birthday. Why is this blog-worthy? Because it was my single personal phone conversation with my family during the entire trip.

When we got into Agra, we met up with a certified local guide (extortion, but cheap as such, so not worth arguing), who took me into the Taj Mahal. It’s all that and a bag of chips, no doubt. Absolutely worth visiting. Far better maintained and guarded than the Red Fort or any other tourist attractions I visited in India.

Again, all sorts of better pro shots and posters available online.

It was pretty sparse while I was there in terms of people. Maybe it was the time of year, or the heat, I’m not sure. And most visitors were local to India, although there were definitely others from all over the world.

The Taj Mahal is smaller than I expected, but it’s immaculate and gorgeous. I went everywhere, including the minor sites, and it still only took about an hour. Afterwards I invited driver Vinay to lunch, so we had some Kum Aloo Kashmiri in a local restaurant he chose, before heading back to Delhi.

A couple of observations from the drive: Faridabad is apparently always busy with truck traffic, trucks often have stickers on them saying “blow horn,” and “use dipper at night,” which means to use high beams at night. Why are high beams called “dippers?” Not sure.

Delhi newspaper before the London Olympics…

I was craving coffee, so I bought a local newspaper and went to a coffeehouse recommended by Vinay. The coffee was awful, but it was interesting to read the newspaper.

I went back to Q’Ba (above) to watch the NBA Finals game, and then it was time to pack things up for my airport transfer. The airport process itself was painful as expected, because the entrance guards require a printed (on paper) itinerary, no digital substitutes (e.g. looking at the email on my phone) accepted. Oy.

There was one redeeming quality: the Turkish Airlines (shared with other airlines) business lounge at Delhi’s international terminal is awesome. It’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. And I was there alone at 5am, so it was super-quiet and peaceful, a change from everything else in India.

The airport lounge.

Overall, India is a fascinating huge country, and I only saw a tiny chunk of it for a short time. There are a lot of places I haven’t seen, like the entire countryside, Mumbai, the other big cities, the tech sectors and such, Kashmir, and lots more. Almost everyone I met was very nice. Maybe I’ll come back one day…

Next stop, Istanbul!

Quantopian and project Zipline

Quantopian is a Boston-based software startup that happens to employ three good friends of mine. Their product is an engine with a very user-friendly interface to developing, testing, and iterating on stock trading algorithms, as part of an active community of fellow traders. Here’s a 30-second overview video:

Naturally, when their product became publicly-available, I wanted to try it out. Trading has always been an area of mild interest to me, not so much that I got obsessed with it, but interesting. That said, I thought to myself I’d try it out in order to help my friends with (hopefully) useful feedback.

To my surprise, I found the product more addictive than I expected. Being able to think of trading algorithms, implement them quickly using only a web browser, and then have them run against 10 years worth of stock data to see how they’d perform — that’s pretty amazing. And it’s all done in minutes.

If you have any interest in trading at all, or just want to play to see the user experience, you should check it out.

But then the company did something even cooler. They decided to open-source the engine itself, called Zipline, because part of their (excellent) manifesto is to make this sort of tool available and accessible to everyone, not just traders at big fancy hedge funds or investment houses.

The Zipline readme file has all the information you need to use it, get the code, etc. It’s pretty impressive stuff.

I worked with them a little bit on how and where to open-source it, license choice, and more. But the main dude behind it is Thomas Wiecki, who presented Zipline at the recent PyData conference in New York City. (Here is the conference talk description and his slides, for the curious.)

Pydata12 upload from twiecki

To me, when a young company that’s not yet figured out its entire scalable business model does something like this, it says a lot about the company’s character. They’re giving back to the community, they really want to live up to their manifesto, and they know where to focus.

Nicely done, Quantopian. I’m happy to have helped with this project.

#rtw2012 – Tokyo

This is one of a series of posts about my round-the-world (RTW) trip in 2012, all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You may want to read the earlier posts for background and context.

Tokyo, of course, is the capital of Japan. As a fan of Japanese culture, food, traditions, it has been on my “bucket list” for years. It’s probably fair to say Tokyo was the single most desired destination on my trip. Or, put another way, if I couldn’t do this trip and had to just pick one place, Tokyo would have been it.

This is going to be a long, very detailed post. It’s mostly acting as my personal diary, although obviously if you’re going to Tokyo soon, you may find it useful. It’s part stream-of-consciousness and part chronological in listing some of the activities I enjoyed.

A few meta observations to start with.

The city is HUGE. It’s hard to over-state this. I did some research in advance, as I always do, and you hear facts or figures, e.g. Tokyo has more residents than all of Canada combined. It makes you go “wow,” or at least I did. But you don’t realize the size of it until you’re there in person.

I’d been to other big cities, e.g. Beijing and Shanghai, and obviously New York City, LA, and other big US cities. Tokyo felt bigger than all of them, easily. It’s dense, and so high-energy, both human and synthetic (the lights…)

My flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) was excellent.

The Tokyo subway is amazing. Like the rest of the city, it’s super-clean. I got the feeling one could easily have surgery or give birth on any random sidewalk or subway station, and it’d be fine. The trains are fast, run on time, have plenty of space, and are usually packed. I had a couple of fun encounters with the famed “people pushers.”

It’s a mystery to me why the trains stop after midnight-1am or so, and resume at 5-6am or so. Why? It facilitates some fun clubbing, where a lot of people have to stay out (or feel that way) until the first train if they miss the last one. More on that later.

Entering the area where I stayed, Kabukicho, in the afternoon.

The food is so, so good. I love Japanese food and eat it often anyways. It’s not surprising that I had the best sushi I’ve ever had in Tokyo (in fact, all top 3 or so sushi meals of my life were here), but also the ramen, yakitori, and other Japanese specialties.

OMFG ramen (chashumen to be more specific) at a street-side stand with sararimen.

Navigation at the neighborhood level (e.g. Shinjuku vs Shibuya) is easy, whether you do it by subway or other means. Navigation at the street level gets much harder, as many have written before. I think once you grok the block addressing system, though, which can be done on the plane ride, it becomes much easier. This was a great post on the topic.

Taxis are expensive but also mostly not necessary. I only a couple in my week there, mostly because I had to get somewhere in a rush and the subway was closed for the night. I did a lot of subway + walking, and it turned out great. It’s also a feast for the eyes and nose. (That turned out to be a theme for southeast Asia in general, not just Tokyo.)

Alone in the back of a taxi going from a club to the Tsukiji fish market around 3:30am.

I stayed in Kabukicho, a somewhat-notorious neighborhood of Tokyo contained within the big, bustling Shinjuku district. Kabukicho is sometimes known as “sleepless town” and it’s famous for its nightlife. This was to become a theme for my trip, somewhat, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. You do need to be able to navigate in Tokyo, in Japanese, at night, probably having had some drinks, in order to do well there. It was a struggle the first night or two, but I adjusted quickly.

The nearest subway station to my hotel: Higashi-Shinjuku.

The flight was very good. I’m a fan of All Nippon Airways (ANA), as well as the other Asian-based airlines. Their standard of service just seems way higher than American or most European airlines.

The arrival in Tokyo is a bit dizzying, kind of like in the movie Lost in Translation, which I watched on the plane. It’s a good movie, by the way, even if you’re not going to Tokyo.

I lost most of my pictures from Tokyo, unfortunately, thanks to the Apple Photostream incident 😦 I have the ones from my Foursquare checkins (look for #rtw2012 #Tokyo in my Foursquare history if you’re really curious), and a few other selected ones that I texted friends.

View from the observatory on top of one of the city government buildings.

I went to a few key mainstream tourist sites, and enjoyed them. This is not the place to write about Japanese history, customs, and traditions, but it’s always been a fascinating topic to me. The Kaminarimon (“thunder gate”) leading to the Senso-ji temple, and that whole complex, was fun.

Kaminarimon (“thunder gate”)

Senso-ji temple.

The Imperial gardens were impressive in their calm and quiet, too. The Tokyo National Museum has many amazing artifacts. The Meiji Jingo shrine was peaceful. The views from the tall observatories were impressive. (I went to the government ones, the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and that big mall building in Roppongi.)

The temple cleansing ritual involves dipping, washing, bowing, clapping…

I also really enjoyed a few attractions off the beaten path, at least a little bit: the Japanese swordsmanship museum was incredible, and both the Kokugikan (sumo) and Kodokan (judo) are the respective world headquarters for their sports, with unparalleled tradition and history.

Murals of rikishi (sumo wrestlers) outside the Kokugikan.

For example, if you’re a sumo geek like me, this is the ultimate place to dig deep. They had an exhibition of yokozuna knots explaining the difference between the Unryu and Shiranui styles for the ropes, which was awesome.

The Kodokan, like Mecca for Judo.

The Japanese sword museum, officially the Society of Preservation of Sword Art in Japan or something like that, stands out from the crowd. It’s out of the way, in a residential area, looks small and is small, but every item on display is a gem. A couple of Japan’s nationally-recognized “national treasures” are on display here. I thought a couple of the swords here were more impressive than the two of the “five swords under Heaven” on display at the Tokyo National Museum. Unfortunately pictures were not allowed here, and the old Japanese man keeping watch enforced this with vigilance.

A katana by Masamune from the Tokyo National Museum, via Wikipedia. Not my pic, no pics were allowed…
A short blade from the Japanese sword museum. That’s all part of the metal — amazing.

Another highlight for me was a visit to Kokonoe beya, a sumo “stable” that is run by my favorite rikishi (wrestler) of all time, Chiyonofuji. Like a number of Japanese attractions, this place looks quite ordinary from the outside, a plain residential building. And like a few others, it does not allow pictures inside. I respected that, since getting a visit here is hard enough as it is, and I don’t want to ruin it for others in the future.

Nice flowers right outside the building. This should help you find the spot if needed.

Maps are a funny topic in Japan. Almost every business has a web site with directions, usually in Japanese, and a map. Except that the maps are not using a standard common system, such as Google Maps. They tend to be stylized drawings not to scale or reference, so they’re hard to use, often confusing. But all you need to do is get to the right block or nearby, and then walk around for a minute or two.

Here is a typical example, from the web site for Sukiabashi Jiro, a 3-Michelin-Star sushi restaurant located in a train station underground, with both an address and a map on the decent web site:

Think you could find it/

And for reference, once you get to the location indicated on the map, you need to go down under the building towards the train station. This is the best and nearest entrance. See the sign? It’s not there. On purpose. This is common.

An entrance to this Ginza subway station which is also the closest to Jiro and Birdland. 

Thankfully the whole time I was in Tokyo, the weather was warm and nice, easy to walk around.

Some food highlights…

My friend Pier, who happens to be the CTO of Gilt Groupe Japan, was kind enough to show me their office, hang out, and go to dinner at the very nice Hibiki izakaya in Ginza, where we had a wonderful meal full of little treats that are hard to describe and even harder to find outside Japan.

Can you guess what those are?

I wanted to go to Sukiabashi Jiro, the underground 3-Michelin-star sushi bar, since I saw the Anthony Bourdain documentary on it. It’s short, you can watch it below. Then the movie “Jiro dreams of sushi” came out and it became even more famous, but I still wanted to go.

How was it? The sushi was incredible. It was the best sushi I’d had in my life up to that point, and I’m not prone to superlatives. (Someone should text-mine this blog for superlatives, it’d make a decent programming interview exercise.)

The atmosphere was less compelling than I’d expect from such a famous place, though. The whole experience felt rushed. The sushi etiquette, that I don’t have trouble with. I stick to fairly traditional Japanese sushi etiquette even in Japan, although I don’t correct friends who have looser habits. It was more of a rush and an attitude towards an obviously-not-Japanese guest. (I was there with an Asian-looking but not Japanese friend. She speaks a little Japanese, but not fluently, and they could obviously tell…)

I’m still happy I went, of course. “Value” is a very relative question, and Tokyo is a very expensive city, so I’m not really considering that topic here. But the experience was unique and the sushi mind-blowingly-good.

I knew Jiro is hard to find, so I went on a recon trip the first time I was in Ginza. I noticed a yakitori joint across the hall in the same underground subway station corridor, and I was hungry, so I stopped by for a snack without even checking the name. It turns out I was lucky: the place was Bird Land, the first yakitori joint to get its own Michelin star, and it was indeed delicious. (Plus I was there right around opening time. Apparently the line to get in gets epic around dinner time.)

My pictures from Birdland are lost, and (like Jiro across the hallway) the low cell phone reception hampered my checkin.  But I had the same chef’s omakase menu that most people order, and this Sydney foodies blog post captures it quite well, with nice pics.

Negima yakitori at Birdland from the Sydney foodies blog.

Tokyo has 16 restaurants with 3 Michelin stars, which is a fairly shocking total. That’s out of 32 in the whole country of Japan, which, by the way, is more such restaurants than France 🙂 For another comparison, NYC has 7 such restaurants, although I personally think a couple are questionable choices based on my experience there (Eleven Madison Park and Chef’s Table), and one (Momofuku Ko) that should make it soon.

I went to another such restaurant, also a sushi-ya, called Sushi Saito. Like Jiro, Saito is a traditionalist, and like Jiro, the restaurant is a tiny bar with 7 seats that’s hard to find. And like most times when eating sushi for the first time somewhere new, I get the omakase. But that’s where the similarities end, because the experience at Saito was better than Jiro. The sushi quality was equivalent, i.e. incredible, but the service, friendliness, experience, and atmosphere were all much better.

Chef Saito from Sushi Saito. Photograph from Kang at London Eater, a great blog.

I wish I had my pictures from these places. The London Eater blog just had a very good post on Sushi Saito, including a number of pictures, all of which are better than mine. It’s highly recommended reading. What he says about the Tokyo fish being fuller, whole-r, better cut, tastier somehow, is very true.

I also had some sushi at 6am, after clubbing. I love how it’s available always and everywhere. Such a healthy alternative to other typical post-clubbing foods. More on that in the nightlife section below.

6am chirashi FTW.

My overall favorite meal in Tokyo, the overall best sushi I’ve had, was at Sushi Dai inside the Tsukiji fish market, around 5:30am one day, after getting in to watch the live auctions. Much has been written about this market, and visiting it, by many people. It was an amazing experience even without the meal.

Inside Tsukiji at sunrise. Them forklifts move fast!

You have to get there in the very early morning, before sunrise, if you want to have a chance to get into the market itself for the live fish auctions. In recent years the market has been in various states of closed to foreigners and visitors, but this year they are allowing a very small (~20-30 folks) supervised group of people in. For some people this is an early wakeup, but I was coming from a nightclub, so it was actually quite easy.

Once inside, you’re led around by a guide who’s very strict about staying within a small path. This is a Good Thing since small forklifts are buzzing around really fast, and people are swinging sharp hooks into and out of big fish all over the place. There are crawling creatures, wetness, and other assorted fun items all over the place. I really enjoyed it.

Inside the market during the live tuna auctions. Each of those fish is worth a lot of money.

The auctions themselves were interesting, with much inspecting of tuna, yelling, and some laughing.

After the tour I went to Sushi Dai. It was around 5:30am and there was already a line, but it was pretty short for us, about 20 minutes. By 7am, when the auctions and wholesaling is largely done, and the market opens to the wider public, the line often goes around the block, and you have to wait for 2-3 hours, or more.

This toro (fatty tuna) made me cry. Best piece of fish I’ve ever had. 

A number of people have written about Sushi Dai, and I can’t add much beyond what they’ve written, plus they have better pictures, so you may as well read these posts if you’re curious: EdEdition, Epicurious Deb, My Food Sirens, and many more.

I had a number of additional small meals, just at random street-side noodle and ramen joints. Pretty much all of them were great. I learned how to operate the vending machines where you pick what you want based on pictures (so helpful), get a ticket stub, and give that to the chef behind the bar. Easy, efficient system.

Another aspect of Tokyo that’s worth coverage is its nightlife. It’s reasonably well-known as one of the most interesting nightlife scenes in the world. I was lucky to have a friend as a local nightlife guide for part of the time, Tiffany Rossdale. She was (and is) awesome in many ways, and she also introduced me to other cool folks like Christi. Thanks 😉

Tiffany DJing at ageHa, another Tokyo superclub.

One place I’d wanted to visit for a while is Womb, the underground nightclub that’s always on the various “best of” lists, e.g. DJ Magazine’s Top 100 clubs in the world or M Theory’s top 10 list. It was indeed all that and a bag of chips. Excellent sound and lighting systems, very friendly crowd, hard-to-find entrance (sensing a theme here?), lots of fun.

View of the floor at Womb from the VIP area upstairs.

If you haven’t seen the movie Babel, it’s not bad. One of the characters is a deaf woman in Tokyo, and in one scene she trips on E and goes to a nightclub. The club is Womb and it’s a routine night there…

I also got a chance to visit Le Baron (fancy, a little more snooty crowd, but beautiful, very colorful), Vortex (some good salsa music, surprisingly), Rigoletto in Roppongi (good food), R2 in Roppongi (fun crowd), and more.

Hanging at the bar at R2. Very friendly crowd.

I also walked a lot during the day, not just at night. One fascinating district is Akihabara, home of many electronics stores as well as maid cafes. I went to both, and both were fascinating, the latter being mostly just awkward.

The “information” display at a big Akihabara electronics store
On the way up to a Maid Cafe, stopped to watch this kid play a localized Dance Dance Revolution type of game. He kept getting perfect scores on the highest difficulty level. Impressive…

I walked around Harajuku to see the goth kids and other teenagers in fun outfits. That was entertaining.

I figured the long line is for some hip clothing store, but no. Brunch at a very American “eggs n’ things.”

While in Harajuku, I window-shopped in Takeshita-dori and nearby areas, although I wasn’t in a buying mode for much of the trip, traveling light with a backpack. “The Filth and the Fury” did have some nice stuff, though.

Overall, I loved the shopping style in Tokyo. It has a nice edge that we don’t often find in the US, although it’s similar to Israel.

Shopping in Takeshita-dori often means being part of a human tidal wave.

Aside: while research this area for specific shops, I stumbled upon several good sites, like ShiftEast, which are worth following in and of themselves.

After walking past countless Pachinko parlors, I figured I should try one out, “when in Rome…” and all. I obviously don’t know how to play the game well, but with a bit of help from Google and a nearby local, I figured it out. Not my cup of tea, and I was late to dinner anyways, but it was an interesting experience, a little bit of sensory overload, and a couple of sketchy Yakuza-type characters standing around, but overall a safe atmosphere.

I went in here for about 30 minutes, then had to leave. No rush to return.

Finally, a couple of interesting experiences outside the normal tourist realm. These may not be as easy to replicate for other visitors to Tokyo, but they were two of my personal highlights, bucket list items, and delivered some adrenaline.

I’ve already written about how I played pickup football (soccer) in every destination as a way to exercise and meet locals. After watching the movie Pelada, and seeing The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, I really wanted to find the rooftop pitch depicted in both these movies. It’s not easy to find, because it’s not marked (on purpose) and can only be accessed by one elevator of many inside a nondescript department store in Shibuya.


This description
, from the Pelada blog, of the rooftop soccer pitch, is spot-on.

My teammates, right before I went on the field again.

I found it after some searching, and joined a couple of games around sunset. Then the team went out for drinks, as often happened during my trip, and they connected me with folks for my next bucket list item, also related to the above movie: drifting.

This I can’t write much about, since the folks are already persecuted enough. But if you’re curious about the topic and can spend a night around the Ooifuto port area, ideally with a local escort, do.

Although I spent most of my time staying in Kabukicho as noted above, I did stay at the Park Hyatt for a little bit. This is the movie from the Lost in Translation movie mentioned above, too. I enjoyed their restaurant and bars.

View from one of the hotel bars.

Sadly, it was time to say goodbye to Tokyo. I had a blast, though, and I can’t wait to go back for more.

Aside: I was originally thinking of also visiting Kyoto during this trip, but I had so much fun in Tokyo, I didn’t want to leave. Next time…

Nice goodbye sign at Narita airport.

Two quick restaurant reviews: Yakitori Zai and OAK

A couple of places from this past week that I need to get off my blogging queue before getting on a plane to Israel for most of the rest of the month.

OAK Long Bar and Kitchen is the latest incarnation of The Oak Room at the Copley Fairmont hotel. I like the redesign of the space. It feels younger, hipper, more fun, but it’s still fundamentally a gorgeous big room with some nice old architectural touches. Overall, a good balance.

IMG_5052
LBK board and the (finished) scallop crudo appetizer.

IMG_5053
Clambake.

We had a clambake and the LBK board, a charcuterie and cheese board. Both were very good. The ambiance and atmosphere were very good. The noise level was a little high but no big deal. The only really strange thing was the service. Our waitress was older (60ish it appeared), hard of hearing, and gruff. My friend had been to the redone OAK once before, and she said she had a different server that time, but with the same qualities / characteristics. I wonder why that is.

All in all, a good time, and I can definitely see myself going back there.

Then at Yakitori Zai, in the South End, I also had a great time. We ordered a variety of yakitori (skewered meats and vegetables, grilled in a particular Japanese manner), some recommended by the server, and some that are yakitori staples to compare apples-to-apples.

IMG_5071
L->R: chicken thighs, chicken “oysters,” black cod.

The chicken thigh skewers with Japanese scallions were delicious, as were the black cod (unusual), and the grilled shishito peppers with bonito flakes. We  had some good sake to go along with the food, and it’s a nice small romantic place. It felt pretty authentic to me, and it was packed, most of the other diners appearing Asian, a good sign at an Asian restaurant.