#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.

Wow, has it really been two months since I posted here?

Apparently it has. That’s the longest I’ve gone without writing here since this blog started in 2004, I think. Wow.

Well, I’ve got a lot to share. It’s been a fun, busy summer, filled with sports, travel, food, and other adventures. I also want to finish blogging about my trip around the world last year (#rtw2012).

Time to get (re)started, I supposed. I’m going to try and write 2-3 times per week for the next few weeks to catch up.

Knowing all the stuff I want to write about is like a weight, a hassle, a bother in the back of my mind. It’ll be good to get it out.

Just so this post is not entirely devoid of content, here’s a video I’ve found motivating over the past year: Welcome to the Grind.

As with most of these videos, some pieces are cheesy, but some did connect, e.g.

Luck is the last dying wish of those who wanna believe that winning can happen by accident. Sweat, on the other hand, is for those who know it’s a choice.

Assorted recent book reviews, and maybe a couple of wines too

I noticed I’ve stockpiled a couple too many “write a brief book review” tasks in my to-do list, so this is an attempt at clearing them out. None of these are in-depth, but that’s OK, since if you care enough you’ll read the book (or a sample thereof).

Karin Muller‘s “Japanland: In Search of Wa” was fantastic. Every single chapter tells a wonderful story about the author’s year in Japan. One of the final stories is about how she undertook the famous Shikoku pilgrimage. The story of her received o-settai made me tear up a bit.
I’m a big John Rain fan, so when Barry Eisler came up with a new (relatively…) novel, “The Detachment,” I snapped it up. It sat unread in my Kindle app for a while, then I randomly noticed it on the beach a couple of weeks ago. Fast-forward about 24 hours later, and I greatly enjoyed the book. All the John Rain novels are a ton of fun, including this one.
I also read the related short story, “Paris is a Bitch,” also by Barry Eisler, and much of the same applies, although it all takes place in Paris, without the usual Tokyo shenanigans.
John Grisham‘s “Playing for Pizza” was the first non-detective, non-lawyer-type book I read from this famous author. It’s a well-written, fascinating story about a failed NFL quarterback moving to Italy to play, and adjusting to the local life.
Sara Gruen‘s “Water for Elephants” was interesting. I didn’t enjoy it as much as friends suggested I would. It’s an unusual book, and it’s well-written, but I just didn’t find it as engaging.
Alexander Maksik‘s “You Deserve Nothing,” on the other hand, was great. I don’t remember how I found out about this book, but I’m happy I read it.
I’m in the middle of the Singularity Series by William Hertling, and it’s amazing. There are three books: “Avogadro Corp,” “A.I. Apocalypse,” and coming soon, “The Last Firewall.” These books are incredible: fascinating, tight, well-written, wow. I found out about them from the Feld Thoughts blog, which is also recommended.
OK, that’s the last few weeks of books. While I’m clearing out my to-do list, maybe I’ll toss a couple of my fav recent wines on here.
Stag’s Leap “Hands of Time” from 2010 was surprisingly smooth and delicious. It’s not a wine they bottle on a regular basis, and so it’s extra-challenging to obtain, but if you see it, snag a case.
Maybe the most interesting wine I’ve had recently is an Alvarelhão, Forlorn Hope “Suspiro del Moro” 2012, from Silverspoons Vineyards. It’s an unusual grape, small production, especially outside its homeland. The winery also has several other unusual wines, exactly the kind in which I like to invest.
The Caymus Conundrum, from both 2010 and 2011, has been consistently excellent. A great wine with some raw bar or shellfish on a hot summer day. 
A great bottle for a Newport summer sunset.
My favorite rose of the sprint / summer so far is the Isola del Nuragi from Serra Lori. It’s a great balance of tasty and light. Perfect with some Island Creek Oysters, for example…
Whew, that feels good.

#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.


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!

#rtw2012 – Bangkok

This is one of a series of posts about my around-the-world trip in 2012, all collected under the #rtw2012 hashtag. You may wish to read the previous ones for background and context.

Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, was a fascinating place to visit. I over-use the word “awesome,” but Bangkok is awesome. I’m excited to go back there in the future, and I was excited to get out alive with only minor injuries to the body and spirit.

You (or at least I) watch movies like The Hangover Part 2 (a cinematic masterpiece!) and think it’s exaggerating the lawlessness, the crudeness, the rawness of the city. No, it’s not. In fact, it’s the opposite: Bangkok is all that and then some.

In the interest of full disclosure, this post contains more intentional omissions than most (maybe all) of my other posts about this trip. There is some sketchy stuff going on in this city, some unusual experiences that are not easy to find elsewhere. If you know me well enough that we hang out in person, just ask me, ideally over drinks, and I’ll gladly share some good stories.

Vertigo / Moon Bar at sunset. Solid drinks, good place to meet.

If you’re thinking prostitution or drugs, those are not it. Not my cup(s) of tea, never have been. Even if I were into prostitution, which I’m not, seeing teenage girls who are undoubtedly trafficked / abused in various ways is not an attractive thing. The streets are littered with them, and they are (or seem) desperate for business, but I found that to be very unappealing.

The airport in Bangkok was pleasant, clean, efficient. I had no issues flying in or out of the country, including immigration. Upon arrival, my driver picked me up by baggage claim, and one of his first questions was whether I’m Muslim. When I said no, he breathed a sigh of relief, and said that’s good, because “they all go ‘boom boom.'” That was an interesting welcome to the country.

I checked into the Majestic Grande hotel with no issues. It was a very nice hotel, I liked it. During my trip, my lodging split was roughly 1/3rd hotels, 1/3rd AirBnb apartments, and 1/3rd friends (or friends of friends), not counting Israel of course. Service at this hotel was excellent throughout my stay here.

As I did in most destinations during this trip, I immediately went in search of some pickup sports, particularly soccer. It’s a great way to meet people, as I wrote in detail earlier. (That post is now among my top 3 most-read posts ever.)

While I did find and play some soccer that evening, there was also a game of sepak takraw in the same park, so I tried my hand at that. I suck at it, not surprisingly, only having played once before. But the guys were impressive to watch anyhow. At least until a monsoon rain started, sending us all back to the BTS SkyTrain.

The back side of this park is where we played sepak takraw.

Bangkok offers many modes of transportation. I tried them all, on purpose. The BTS SkyTrain is a very good option, but it only serves big main streets. The buses are awful, crowded, stuck in traffic the whole time. If you can walk long distances, that’s a decent option, although pollution makes it less appealing. The tuk-tuks are not much better, since they are open (so, pollution…) and subject to traffic.

Riding the BTS SkyTrain to Siam station.
Riding on the back of a tuk-tuk in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

My favorite mode of transportation ended up being the most efficient one, but also most dangerous — surprising, right? Motorcycle taxis.

I kept hiring motorcycle taxis, most of which appeared to be driven by unlicensed teenagers. It was a thrill riding in the back as they weaved in an out of traffic, sometimes getting so close to vehicles that they pushed off them with one arm to maneuver. Yes, you read that right.

Here are a couple of videos shot from the back of a motorcycle, one in rush hour traffic, and one coming back to my hotel around 7am, near sunrise.

These are both jittery as I shot them one-handed with my iPhone, which I was trying to balance on the driver’s helmet as he was weaving around traffic. Sorry about that. Still, they’re fun 😉

The food in Bangkok was amazing. I ate almost exclusively street food, and it was among the best food I’ve ever had, anywhere, Thai or not. It was all very cheap, freshly made, well-spiced, and delicious. There is some kind of food cart literally every 10-20 feet throughout the main areas of the city, often staffed by some old lady who doesn’t speak English.

Yes, these are piles of insects at a street food stance. Delicious.

My MO at these carts is simple: look around for a crowded one, observe, and when I see someone ordering something I like, point at it and say “same same” (or the local equivalent). It seems to work reasonably well all around the globe. I also make sure they make it fresh, as they do have pre-made dishes in Styrofoam containers available, but I don’t want those.

All-you-can-eat sushi + shabu (not seen) for ~$10! Great deal.

Some of the food, like the insects above, is not for the faint of heart. I greatly enjoyed it. I didn’t get sick at all, not once during the trip, maybe because I’ve been eating strange and unusual foods for many years now.

Amusing name, very good restaurant.

I did have one meal at a fancy restaurant in Bangkok: Eat Me, a nice and excellent restaurant, was very good. It was a good chance to hang out with Kelsey and YBot, good people both.

The temples and palace(s) were amazing, well worth the visit. My favorite was the temple of the Emerald Buddha, but the entire palace complex was mesmerizing. I spent almost a whole day there, despite the heat and humidity, a lot longer than I expected.

At the palace complex.

Inside the room with the emerald Buddha.

The reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) and temple of dawn (Wat Arun) were also worth a visit.

View from the top of the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun).

The reclining buddha is huge.

In Bangkok, as in nearly every stop on my trip, I volunteered to help some locals in need. This time I spent most of a day with an organization called In Search of Sanuk, under the chaperoning of the amazing Prae Vashudara, who proved to be an excellent local guide. We bought and delivered groceries, food, and supplies to local immigrants who are having various troubles. We spent the afternoon with them at their housing (a generous word…), hearing their stories and seeing how we could help. It was great.

Walking around Nana Plaza at 4am.

A lot of people talk about Bangkok’s famous nightlife. It is indeed raucous, entertaining, and eye-opening, in both good and bad ways. There are really no holds barred here, very few (if any) laws observed, and the message is very clearly that you can buy whatever you want, often for very cheap.

Sirocco. Yeah.

Although I definitely walked around the famous places like Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza, the thing that I liked the most were Bangkok’s rooftop bars, loungers, and restaurants.

Blue Sky at the Sofitel, a good place to meet a fellow kitesurfer 😉 Hi Signe!

This city absolutely dominates this category, more than any place I’ve ever been, far better than New York City, Tokyo, or other similar-scale cities. Between Vertigo / Moon Bar, Sirocco, Red Sky, Blue Sky, Nest, and more, it’s a dominating trend, and it rocks. I wish I had more nights to enjoy more of these spots.

Red Sky. It looks even better at sunset in real life.

All of them had solid drinks (not cheap), good service, and a great ambiance. I met great people, saw glorious sunsets, and just enjoyed the atmosphere. This is what I miss the most about Bangkok. Except the food. Maybe.

The Nest off Sukhomvit Soi 11.

Khaosan Road is a world-famous destination, too. I spent an evening there with some friends from the previous night, and also met up with Rania, who turned out to be a superstar in multiple ways. These few days in Bangkok will probably lead to some multi-year friendships.

I did not go to the country-side, nor to other cities like Chiang Mai, nor to the islands like Phuket and Ko Samui. All of those are on the list for future trips. I’d love to see more of Thailand, but this trip was about big cities, history, culture, and nightlife.

I did go to Lumpini (sometimes spelled Lumpinee) stadium for some Muay Thai kickboxing. There are a couple of ways to get a ringside seat, and I chose the more athletic approach, which paid off big time in getting to know some of the wrestlers and their coaches. I shot a couple of videos and had a great time watching the fights, the rituals, the spectators as much as the fighters.

Up close and personal at Lumpini stadium.

I also had a surprise at Siam Ocean World: they let you dive with sharks in the tank. That was a lot of fun, although not quite as adrenaline-inducing as my past open water dives with similar sharks.

And now, we dive with sharks!

Overall, Bangkok was fantastic. I’m very happy with the memories, experiences, and friends gained. I look forward to visiting Bangkok again, and seeing more of Thailand, in the future. If you’re an experiential, adventure-seeking traveler, Bangkok should be high on your list.

Trip report: one-day winter Presidential Traverse, January 2013

This blog post is a detailed accounting of a hike Alissa and I did this past Saturday, January 12th 2013.

Up Valley Way near the Madison Hut.

We did the Presidential Traverse, a fairly well-known hike that encompasses climbing up and down all the mountains named after US presidents in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. You should read the brief Wikipedia background if you haven’t.

For some background, here’s a good Backpacker Magazine article (“A winter traverse of the Presidential Range is the most coveted–and riskiest–mountaineering feat in the Northeast.”and another good one from the AMC Outdoors magazine (“Attempting a Presidential traverse in winter is like playing Russian roulette with the weather.”)

Sunset near Mount Eisenhower.

You might have noticed those two articles are from 2008 and 2006, respectively. That’s kind of old in our internet age. This is because very few people attempt a winter Presi. The rest of this article contains more details, but this is a dangerous hike. It’s long, strenuous, subject to intense weather, and thus requiring serious gear, real outdoor orientation / route-finding / navigation skills, and a high level of fitness. Please don’t read this and try it unless you’re very sure of what you’re doing.

Unless you’re a hiker, you might find this overly verbose and/or boring. I am writing it because when we did our research, we found very few (less than a handful) trip reports for doing this hike in the winter, and especially in one day. The (very) few folks who do this hike at all seem to do it in a couple of nights, sometimes one night, but hardly ever in a day. Hopefully this will be useful to similarly-aggressive hikers 😉

If you’re a reader of this blog, this blog post might seem familiar. Alissa and I did the same traverse, also in one day, but in the late summer / early fall, and I wrote a trip report for that. It’s obviously much safer and easier (in some ways, not all…) during a warm summer day, with many other hikers around.

Alissa has her own great blog, and she’s written up her own account of our hike, with considerably more humor than mine 🙂

Alissa tagging another summit. Hat off, no weather concerns, ice tools fastened. (That’s my ice axe in the snow.)

As Wikipedia notes: “Consequently, those wishing to tackle a Presidential Traverse in winter must be exceptionally fit, experienced in winter mountaineering and compass orientation techniques, very familiar with the terrain, and have high quality winter gear. Lacking any one of these puts one in serious peril of requiring expensive and hazardous rescue, even death.”

That said, if you can do it, the rewards are awesome. The views are spectacular, assuming you get any clear windows. We had a total whiteout on the initial couple of ascents, and then a nice clear afternoon before the early sunset. There may well be no one else on the trails, at all, much less the summits, so you get all the quiet and solitude you want. The surface mixtures presents really fun crampon / microspike / snowshoe / boot challenges. And the overall feeling is great, but you already know that if you’re even contemplating this hike,

OK, on to some details.

We did the “classic” traverse route, going north to south, starting at the Appalachia trailhead and ending  at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch. Not many people do this traverse in any season, but when they do, this is the common route. Most do this in 2-4 nights, depending on their level of fitness. We wanted to do it “Alpine-style,” meaning we had to go fast and light. As people say, “in the mountains, speed IS safety.” This can be very counter-intuitive, until you grok the meaning of “objective risks.”

We got started later than our summer Presi, both because we wanted to get an extra hour of sleep (we only had about 4 hours anyways, due to late arrival and Boston-area road traffic on a Friday evening…), because we knew we’d be doing bunch of hiking by headlamp anyhow, and because we knew the weather would be warming up a bit as the day went on. Our official start time was 5:42am.

Near Edmands col.

We took the Valley Way trail from Appalachia to the Madison Hut, a gain of more than 3,000 vertical feet over a little more than 3 miles. The route was nicely snow-packed, and we made it to the hut a little before 8am, a good pace. Sunrise was not much of a sight, because a dense wet fog was covering everything, so we couldn’t see much. We actually didn’t see the big hut building until we were about 30 yards from it 🙂

We tagged Mount Madison’s summit about 20 minutes later, in a quick scramble up from the hut. The winds were gusting to about 50mph, well higher than forecast, and continuing the wet whiteout conditions. Nonetheless, we’re both used to strong winds in the Whites, and this was a fairly easy ascent.

Yours truly ascending up Mount Madison in a whiteout.

We did drop our packs at the Hut (outside obviously, since like all huts, this was is closed and locked down), but just for speed. This way we could practically almost jog up and down Madison’s summit cone.

By the way, for the curious: neither Alissa nor I use hiking poles, since we have decent balance and go faster without them, but YMMV. Some people really like them, but I’ve found my balance and speed improved once I stopped using them.

We cam down from the summit, had a snack, put on the packs, and set out towards Mount Adams. We both prefer the Star Lake trail to the Gulfside trail at this point, even though (or maybe because…) Star Lake is more exposed and challenging. In the summer, this trail yields amazing views, but in the winter whiteout conditions, the views were about the same everywhere.

A summer view of the top of the Star Lake “trail,” whose scrambles we love but others don’t, by Pixel.

Mount Adams had chest-deep snow everywhere, and while Alissa scampered gracefully, for me this was the hardest ascent of the day. We made it up at 9:20am, about an hour after Madison, which is about the same pace as our summer Presi, i.e. reasonably fast.

We continued down the Gulfside trail, i.e. traversing Mount Adams, to Thunderpoint Junction. We made it to the junction side quickly, in less than 30 minutes, despite the continuing whiteout. Here, however, was the one place where we got a little lost.

Cairns were hard to find in the snow and fog, but we saw snowshoe tracks, so we followed them a bit. Within 0.1-0.2 miles, we both realized we were off trail. This is where it pays to know the surrounding environment well, and to have some route-finding skills.

A fallen USFS trail sign near Edmands Col. What kind of wind would it take to rip this out (16″ iron base supports??)

After a quick discussion and map + compass consultation, we decided to follow the ravine line towards Mount Jefferson, our next summit, knowing we’d find Edmands Col that way and get back on the Gulfside trail, just because of the geography of the immediate area. Sure enough, after another ~0.2 miles hiking southwest along the ravine line, we picked up a cairn and the trail, always a re-assuring thing.

We passed Edmands Col and ascended Mount Jefferson, one of my favorite summits. Even in the summer, you often have this summit to yourself, with its gorgeous views. I don’t know why it’s overlooked. Needless to say, on this winter day, we didn’t see anyone even remotely around, but that was pretty much true for the whole hike.

We tagged Mount Jefferson at 11:45am, a bit more than two hours after Adams, partially due to losing our way a bit, and partially because it’s a long slog. In the summer we were able to jog much of this part, but not this time.

On our way to Jefferson. Those are trees buried in snow, and Alissa is warm enough to take off her hat…

Fun fact: In doing Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Washington in sequence, you climb the three highest mountains in the northeast US, right after each other.

From Jefferson we continued towards Mount Washington on the Gulfside trail. You pass Mount Clay, a relatively minor peak but still part of the range. This was a good mental checkpoint for me, because you know the biggest climb is ahead (Mount Washington), but you have a good gauge on your physical fitness, having done three serious summits and several thousand feet up and down already.

Me ascending past Mount Washington’s Cog Railway.

The good news is that I was feeling strong, and getting stronger, at this point. Alissa is pretty much always strong, though we kept checking in with each other at regular intervals, making sure we agreed on the current bailout route if that was needed.

Near Mount Washington is where we saw the only other group of hikers that day. There were six of them, all in snowshoes. Apparently they were trying for a traverse, too, but we were passing them quickly even though they started more than two hours ahead of us. They had already decided to bail out after Mount Washington when we got to them.

Mount Washington summit in the early afternoon.

I’m pretty sure our relative ascent speed in our crampons and no poles, compared to their snowshoes and poles, did not help motivate them to go on. I think they made the right decision to bail out, though, and applaud them for not having summit fever.

Our ascent of Washington was quick and uneventful. By this time the weather had cleared up somewhat. I was on the summit the previous weekend in much tougher conditions, with a bigger group, so this part felt easy. And to my surprise, I found that the more I climbed, the stronger I felt.

One of the snowshoers took the only picture of us together during the hike.

We tagged Washington’s summit just after 2pm, a little after the time I’d gotten there the previous weekend just doing Lion’s Head up from Pinkham Notch, and about 2 hours and 20 minutes after Mount Jefferson.

Another Mount Washington Summit view.

After a quick obligatory picture break at the summit, we kept moving, not even stopping to eat. I knew I wanted to check out the emergency refuge in the Lakes of the Clouds hut, so we’d get a snack there, and change socks.

We were able to hustle down the ~1-mile distance to the hut, and find the refuge. We got to the hut at 3pm, about 45 minutes after leaving Mount Washington.

Never been alone at the Lakes of the Clouds hut. Gorgeous afternoon views.

My socks were wet, a bad thing, although my feet were feeling fine. Nonetheless, I changed into my spare liner socks, spare outer socks, and put on new toe warmers, just to be safe. This worked, and I’m glad I carried these extras, as I always do in the winter. We took about 20-30 minutes here to do the above, plus eat, drink, re-hydrate, assess how we were feeling, etc. We both agreed, easily, that we can finish out the traverse, so we set out.

Looking back north towards Mount Washington from the Lakes of the Clouds hut.

Mount Monroe, the next peak, is one of my favorites. It’s a relatively easy and short ascent, at least if you’re in decent shape, and the views are stunning. You often get great views looking back north towards Washington. We also had the sunset and its highlights on the southern Presidentials which were still ahead of us. We reached Mount Monroe at 4:15pm, with the sun close to setting.

Moving south towards Franklin.

From there we continued to Mount Franklin, not technically required for the Presi, but an extra peak we bagged in the summer, and so we tagged it this time as well. The views were still stunning, with the sun right behind the enormous cairn at the top of Mount Eisenhower, the next Presi-required peak. We tagged Mount Franklin at 5pm, around the time we turned on our headlamps.

From the summer, I remember the slog between Franklin and Eisenhower being long and annoying, but maybe it’s because I stopped a couple of times to help other hikers, including splinting someone’s ankle. Yay Wilderness First Responder training!

This time, however, hiking at night by headlamp, all by ourselves with no one for miles around, it was a great time. We made it to the summit of Franklin by 5:45pm, so we were moving really fast, especially considering the length of the hike to this point. We both enjoyed looking at the stars come out, and we could see the lights from the Bretton Woods ski resort nearby, a gorgeous clear night.

This passage near Mount Jefferson reminded me of the Hinterstoisser Traverse. Thank god it’s not.

The hike from Eisenhower to Pierce is pretty easy, and much of it is at the very top of the tree line. We reached Mount Pierce around 6:30pm, and stopped for a while, turned off our headlamps to look at the stars. It was perfectly quiet and still, no one else around, and plenty of shooting stars. A moment like that is pretty hard to find.

From Mount Pierce we chose not to do the detour to Webster, which is not named after a president and adds a very boring couple of miles to the trip. I personally felt like Mother Nature had graced us with amazing weather for ~6 hours, after the morning whiteout, and I didn’t feel like pushing our luck more than needed.

Instead, we booked it down Crawford Path to the AMC Highland Center. That’s still a non-trivial hike, more than 3 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation drop, but we booked it, feeling strong, and ready to jog out the rest of the way. We reached the AMC Highland Center in the dark, roughly 14 hours after we started the hike, 2 hours slower than our summier Presi pace.

Unparalleled views in the afternoon, just before sunset, near Mount Eisenhower.

All in all., this was one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, maybe the best (up with the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu.) The physical and mental challenges are equal, and both are immense. You should definitely do a summer Presi, and feel like you’ve got that covered reasonably easily, before even thinking about a winter attempt.

In terms of gear, it’s the same principle as always: layers, insulation, no cotton (all moisture-wicking synthetics or SmartWool), have spares you can change into, and adjust by listening to your body. Don’t get wet, because whatever’s wet will freeze, and then you’re in trouble. You should be warm while moving, and then put on an extra layer while resting.

Near Mount Monroe.

We didn’t rest often, drinking water on the go from our CamelPaks, and eating small bars and snacks pretty much every hour or so. I had a number of Clif’s Shot Bloks bars, a couple of Kit Kat bars, a couple of Red Bull energy drinks, some salami and cheese, and some of Alissa’s Chex Mix. It’s actually not a lot of food, given that we spent several thousand calories each on the hike, easily.

I did drink all 5 liters of water I brought with me. This is bad, and it means I should have brought more water. Alissa had plenty of spare water, since she apparently never drinks 🙂 So I drank most of hers as well, and ended up hydrating just fine.

I had my big bomber Mountain Hardwear parka in my pack, but never used it. Alyssa used hers briefly on Mount Madison, but then didn’t use it again the rest of the way. That’s partially because we both kept moving all the time, and also because we’re used to the weather, and because the afternoon was relatively calm in terms of winds.

Tagging Mount Pierce, our last summit of the day.

I wore an expedition-weight base layer, insulating shell pants, a winter running zipup, and my light rain shell all day, along with a thermal beanie, liner socks, and thick mountaineering socks, liner gloves, and mitts. That’s it. I had a balaclava but never used it. Same with my extra top layer, my parka, and my goggles.

I had the ice axe in my hands pretty much the whole time, but more out of habit than need. I only used it a couple of times in icy spots.

Panorama shot near sunset. Love this one.

I’m happy to add more material to this post if readers have questions. Just post them in the comments below.

Finally, but most importantly, some thanks: to Alissa, the best hiking partner one could hope for, always strong, fast, encouraging, and happy. To Ron, who offered to pick us up from any trail head we wanted in the White Mountains and be our bailout. To Hua (my friend) and Hugh (Alissa’s dad), our safety watchers from home.

Climb on 😉

2012 rocked. What’s up for 2013?

2012 was a great year. I have neither the time nor the intention to write lengthy summary post, but the year brought much good.

I believe 2013 will continue in much the same way.
I stopped working at HubSpot and started at Happier, two great (but very different) companies, and I’m excited about that.

I took a trip around the world. I’m still blogging about that, only about 20% done. During that trip, as well as before and after, I’ve met many new friends. Some through sports, e.g. the amazing November Project tribe, some through other activities, some through mutual friends.

I got a little bit more fit, a little stronger, a little faster, though much progress remains to be had on that front. In the process, I learned more about my body, re-discovered both yoga and football (soccer), and built up skills in other sports, some more obscure than others.

I learned about myself as a person, had a bunch of time for reflection, and crossed a few items off my “bucket list,” while adding a few others.

I’m very lucky, and I appreciate it. No complaints here.

So what’s up for 2013?

Happier will be a big focus. We want to launch our product to the public, and continue iterating on it quickly, learning from our users and their feedback. The indications of progress here are pretty obvious and many are available to the public: releases, users, active users, etc.

I have a couple of trips planned, as usual to visit my family in Israel, but also a couple of adventures. More on those as they get closer or get done. The next one is actually this coming Saturday, to Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

I will volunteer a bit more, at least once a month, every month. I did some in 2012, including on my trip, but only recently did I find a good source of volunteering activities around me that is online, updated near-real-time, and provides diverse opportunities without consuming a lot of setup time.

I will become a better swimmer. I think I’ll hire a coach for a few sessions and see how that goes. I need to get faster in the water for some of the longer distance triathlons on my mind. I’d love to do the half ironman swim in 40 minutes.

I will watch at least one random TED talk every week. Each one is very good, and I want to shake out my talk selection bias.

There will be more. But I’d rather have 3-4 concrete resolutions with accompanying metrics, and stick to them, than a whole hodgepodge of stuff.

Have a great 2013, everyone!

#rtw2012 – Hong Kong

This is one in a series of posts about my round-the-world (RTW) trip this past summer. They are all collected under the #rtw2012 label. You might want to read chronologically for background / context.

Like the other city-specific posts, this one is very long and detailed. It’s more of an online diary for me, than anything else. You might find it overly verbose, boring, etc 😉

Like the other destinations on this trip, Hong Kong had been on my “bucket list” for years. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the Bruce Lee and other martial arts connections, maybe the food, not sure. But it fit neatly within the trip itinerary, and I was excited to visit.

Arrival in Hong Kong (HKG).

The flight over was short and uneventful. Once again, All Nippon Airways (ANA) came through with great service, timely flights, modern comfortable planes, and great lounges.

I stayed in an Airbnb apartment, my first one of many on this trip. It was located on Peel Street in SoHo, right in the middle of the more modern “Central” part of Hong Kong. (“Central” is not just a geographic indication, but also the name of a district in town, which is a bit confusing at first.)

This amazing location was even better because this is a penthouse apartment, with a balcony and great views. My hostess, Inge, was very kind and friendly, a fellow yogi, and spoke English very well. I’m glad I stayed here and not in the one of the very expensive hotels.

Airbnb picture from Inge, not mine. View from the balcony.

The apartment is steps away from the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators, one of the wonders of Hong Kong I’d long wanted to see. Those escalators were fascinating, convenient, fun to ride, even entertaining. I like how their directions are changed during the day to accommodate the dominant traffic pattern by the time of day.

The Central-Mid-Levels escalators in the middle of the day.

On the first day in Hong Kong, after checking in to the apartment, I took the escalators all the way up, and then walked up Victoria Peak as high as I could go.

On the way to the top, I stumbled upon a nice little park among the skyscrapers, featuring a small football (soccer) pitch. As I’ve written before, basketball and football pickup games were a big source of meeting locals during my trip. Although this pitch was empty, I came back to it later during the trip and had fun playing with locals.

Unusual height and view from the Conduit Service Road playground. Those are 100+-story buildings.

In Hong Kong, however, I ended up playing pickup basketball almost every day. There are a couple of big parks that always had running games while I was there. This was a lot of fun and a great way to meet locals. It was also decent exercise, especially since the temperature was in the 90s (F) and the weather was humid my whole time there.

The main park where I played most often in Hong Kong.

Another game a couple of days later.

Victoria Peak is world-famous, of course. It’s been featured in many movies and such. I went to watch sunset there, to see all the buildings light up. The show is even better in person, naturally — quite dazzling. I stayed there a while and shot a video, which I’ve since lost ;(

The start of sunset from Victoria Peak.

A few friends sent back near-identical photos and videos, which brought big smiles to my first. There’s something very cool about being far away from home, and knowing a friend was standing at your very spot not long ago.

Public transportation in Hong Kong was excellent. I took the MTR several times, the ferries a couple of times as well, including once to Macau (the subject of a separate upcoming blog post), and the buses once or twice mostly to see the sights. The MTR trains run often, clean, fast, easy to navigate, no complaints at all. I took a taxi once, I think, and that was fine too.

MTR to Kowloon.

I tried to walk through most of the well-known areas on foot a lot. I covered big chunks of Kowloon (City and Tong), Tsim Tsa Shui, Sheung Wan, Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Sham Shui Po, Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei, Jordan, and Admiralty. It was a good amount of walking (10-20km per day) in the aforementioned heat and humidity, which was nice exercise, but I still didn’t see as much as I wanted to.

A special shout-out here to David, author of the great Randomwire blog. I’ve been reading his blog for years, and went back through his archives while planning my Hong Kong trip. David also graciously agreed to meet while I was in Hong Kong.

Sheung Wan (IIRC) from the top back seat on a semi-sketch bus.

I really liked the busy crowded atmosphere on the Kowloon side, especially around Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei. Mong Kok has the highest population density in the world, and I’m not sure I’d want to live there (as opposed to Central or the Mid Levels), but it was a blast to visit.

Walking around Causeway Bay, IIRC.

The street are at least as interesting at night as they are during the day. I stopped by the Temple Street night market, of course. I expected it to be busy and crowded, which it was. But I didn’t quite expect how much it would look like every Hollywood director’s vision of “Chinatown.”

The Temple Street night market.

I actually had one of my best meals in Hong Kong, which generally had amazing, excellent, fresh, cheap street food, right around the Temple Street night market. There was a street corner with 3-4 establishments (a loose word, since it was mostly plastic chairs on the sidewalk…) serving fresh spicy crabs. As in so fresh they were still swimming there in big boxes, and you could pick which one(s) you wanted to eat. Delicious!

The spicy crab place is to the right. Not a great pic, but the only one I had left of this area ;(

There is great food all over Hong Kong. I mostly ate on the street, with a couple of exceptions for famous tea houses and dimsum. OpenRice was a fantastic resource, as were local friends.

Tim Ho Wan in Mong Kok was my favorite dimsum place, and the best dimsum I’ve ever had, not surprisingly. Apparently since I was there earlier this year, they have received their first Michelin star, making it possibly the cheapest average cost restaurant to have such an award?

I also went to some random places, just walking around and see what’s packed with locals. For example, there was a place down the street from me (on one of the “elevator” streets, not Peel itself), where everyone seemed to be having this, so I got it as well:

Simple home-made pork dumpings in a chili-garlic broth with hand-pulled noodles. Yum!

On the way to one dimsum restaurant, I noticed an interesting sign. It appeared to offer a haircut and a massage in the same place. This was intriguing because (a) WTF?, (b) I needed a haircut, and (c) offering haircuts hopefully meant it was a normal massage place, and not one where everyone wanted to provide you with a “happy ending.”

These signs for foot massage and reflexology are everywhere, but not often combined with hair salons.

So I went inside, and sure enough, you can get a nice foot massage while getting your hair cut. That was pretty awesome 🙂 After much tallying and re-calculating of costs, since no one there spoke English well, the bill came to $8 US (that’s not a typo: eight dollars US, Hong Kong can be cheap for some things…).

Of course, Hong Kong has a lengthy and fascinating history, with much heritage. Among the most interesting places I visited were the Giant Buddha at the Po Lin Monastery, which requires a lengthy fascinating cable car approach, and the Man Mo temple on Hollywood Road near my apartment.

“The Crystal Cabin” is the upgraded ($5 more) cable car ride to the Giant Buddha. It has a glass bottom…
On the cable car to the Giant Buddha, which you can see at 11 o’clock.

The monastery is located on Lantau island, on the Ngong Ping peninsula, and the full name for the cable car is the Ngong Ping 360. It was a fantastic experience which I highly recommend. It was also nice to get out of the city for a bit.

3 buddhas at the Po Lin monastery, representing the past, present, and future lives.

Both are beautiful, peaceful, calm, relaxing temples. The Giant Buddha is, indeed, giant. You can see in this picture, taken from the cable car, that it’s a sizable chunk of the hill on which it sits. I wish more of my pictures from this part of the trip survived Apple’s Photostream issue.

The Man Mo temple I accidentally visited at the perfect time of day in terms of lighting. It was breath-taking, and my photography unfortunately cannot do it justice, even if I had all the photos. Look at this Flickr search for some inspiration, if you wish.

The Man Mo temple entrance. This pic is mine…

A much better photo, from Fion N. on Flickr:

Man Mo Temple
Another historical site that I really wanted to visit is the Kowloon Walled City. If you haven’t heard about this place, you should read the Wikipedia article. Now it is a nice park, and a museum commemorating the city, and a part of the old central building. It was fun to visit, and I spotted a good pickup basketball run nearby, but I kind of wish the city still existed.

Kowloon Walled City museum.
Pickup basketball at the park near the Kowloon Walled City museum.

If you’ve seen the movie Bloodsport, the tournament (“kumite“) takes place inside the Kowloon Walled City. Here’s the movie scene where they go in for the first time:

By the way, if you want to surprise me with a fun git, the “City of Darkness” photo book about the Kowloon Walled City has been on my Amazon wishlist for a while. Just sayin’…

Finally, Hong Kong also has decent nightlife. I can’t share all the stories here, naturally, but I had a blast. A couple of nights stand out.

Street art in Lan Kwai Fong.

I met up with a fellow Apache Software Foundation member, Lars Eilebrecht, who happened to be in Hong Kong at the same time. He knew some locals, and a few of us hung out over a long night in Lan Kwai Fong. This was conveniently close to my apartment. Thanks for organizing, Lars! I don’t remember every single detail from that night, but it was a blast.

One of the group stops earlier in the evening. Bjorn (guy in white) doesn’t yet have lipstick marks.

One of the fun things about LKF is that there are many small bars / restaurants. I think the above is at Latitude 22, one such establishment. They tend to over-fill, and so the crowd spills outside, with their drinks, to the streets. People walk around and have a good time, in a very positive atmosphere. It felt very safe, to me at least.

Someone in our group suggested starting the night with B52 shots (plural…), one of my fav shots, but not something usually offered up by others. That turned out to be a foreshadowing for the evening.

That’s a B52 she’s holding. I wonder what I said right before this pic was taken?

Armani / Prive later at night. Note the movie playing on the TV.

Later at night, Armani / Prive was pretty hopping. Fun bartenders and servers, IIRC.

Even later at night, we stopped by a place called Club Feather Boa, although judging by my only picture at that establishment, we would have had fun anywhere at this point.

At Club Feather Boa

On another night, I ventured out of Lan Kwai Fong towards the higher skyscrapers, some of which have loungers / bars / clubs near the top. The views were great, but in terms of rooftop loungers, Bangkok (the next major blog post in this series) has everyone beat.

Nonetheless, Ozone (the highest bar in the world, they claim), Sugar, Sevva, and M Bar were all worth the trip. Ozone in particular stood out for the combination of view and service. The outdoor deck at Sugar was badass as well.

Lily and Bloom was my favorite cocktail bar. They take their craft seriously.

From Sevva, just happened to catch the moon between clouds.
Hazy night from M Bar.
View from Ozone. Not my pic, we didn’t have that clear a night 😦 From Kew’s Daily Good Thing.

Another couple of notable places to close out the bars I visited in Hong Kong: PURE and RED, owned by the same people I think, were always packed when I walked by, so I dropped in. They are beautiful places, but nothing unusual.

The entrance to PURE.

Although Hong Kong has amazing shopping, I didn’t do much, since I was traveling light with a backpack. I did visit the Apple store just to check it out (exact same as in the US, no surprise), and I did score a couple of cool t-shirts at Paper Tee, a noted original designer.

The Apple store in an elevated area.

I stayed in Hong Kong 4 nights, which was a good amount of time in the city. I could see myself coming back to this great city and exploring further afield, as well as inside the city, a lot more.

From The Atlantic’s “Hong Kong, the City Without Ground” article.

A lot of people get confused in Hong Kong’s overways, underways, subways, whatever you call them. The entire pedestrian walkway system is very 3-D, which I actually greatly enjoyed. Maybe the geek in me enjoys discovering efficient paths? If you haven’t read The Atlantic’s “Hong Kong, the City Without Ground” article, it’s highly recommended.

I joined several Hong Kong meetup groups, but one stands out: The Hong Kong Eclectic Movie Night folks were friendly, welcoming, and interesting. We got together at 9pm in Lan Kwai Fong to watch THX1138, and that was the beginning of another entertaining evening.

At Hong Kong airport, about to port flight TG601 to Bangkok.

Next up, Bangkok 😉

Guchi’s Midnight Ramen, yoga, Art of Flight

Another collection of quickies from the past couple of weeks.


I’ve been enjoying yoga a lot more than in the past. I’m leaning more towards the straight-up Vinyasa Flow classes, as opposed to those with hip hop or other fast music.

The music is fun and useful if you want distraction (e.g. when I run, I almost always listen to music), so the same class feels harder without music, but I like it that way.

At the same time, I do really like black light yoga. The effects of the light make the class much more visually interesting.

A shout-out + thank you here to Ame, Goldie, Brenna, Caitlyn, and Sarah, my fave teachers so far.

Yoga has been a great way to learn more about my body, and it’s definitely been helping my balance, agility, and flexibility. I still mostly suck at it, but I’m improving, and enjoying.

Oh, and I have a neon-green yoga mat, which turns out to be a highly-entertaining accessory to carry on your back around the Back Bay.

Guchi’s Midnight Ramen:

This was my #1 foodie popup to attend, but it’s a little bit of a challenge to get into. Nonetheless, with the help of a good friend, I managed to snag a ticket to yesterday’s GMR brunch.

It was one of the best foodie events I’ve been to, in Boston or anywhere, for a number of reasons. The food was delicious. There wasn’t a ton of it, just proper portions for appetizer, entree (ramen of course, uni and miso mazemen to be specific), and dessert. This is really nice because they usually over-feed you at these events, which never feels good afterwards.

The ramen was among the best I’ve had, including in Tokyo.

The other factor which made it an outstanding event was the company. It was mostly local tech people and entrepreneurs. I knew many of them already, met a couple of fun new ones, and the conversation was easy + flowing the whole time.

From left: James Psota, Chef Guchi, yours truly..

Thank you to Jennifer Lum, Drew Volpe, and Boaz Sender for organizing, Bocoup Loft for hosting, and Guchi and Tracy Chang for feeding us.

The Art of Flight:

Went to the 3D IMAX showing of the Red Bull film when it was in town a couple of weeks ago, had a blast 🙂 Mouth agape much of the time, and again a great crowd as one might expect. Just about as many “holy s*#$!” moments as Further, making those the two top snowboarding films of the year for me.

(Watch in HD full screen, not on this blog…)

Finally, totally unrelated and not worth reading: a BlogDash verification link.


Before reading this post, think about something that made you happier today. Maybe it was a good experience, good food, a funny joke from a friend or colleague, a decent workout, some positive surprise in the mail, or something else…

Did that make you smile? I hope so. Do you do the above enough? Probably not. Most people don’t.

I’ve joined an awesome software startup called Happier as their chief technology officer (CTO). This blog posts explains why and how it came about.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the end of my previous job, and then I went on a trip around the world. The trip afforded me some time for reflection.

During the trip, I decided I’d move to Israel afterwards, in order to spend more time with my family. The plan was to come back to Boston, help a few companies as a consultant while I rent out my place here, find a place in Israel (Tel Aviv specifically), handle the logistics, and move by the end of 2012.

Literally a couple of days before getting on the plane to Israel for October, a month dedicated to working with a couple of candidate companies I really liked, as well as finding an apartment, I was introduced to Happier’s co-founder and CEO, Nataly Kogan.

The introducer, a mutual friend, knew I was heading for Israel. The introduction was more about me helping Nataly / Happier find other developers. When I clicked on the web site and started reading about the company, my jaw dropped.

Hooking our UPS delivery person, Mark, up with a t-shirt.

It is exactly the kind of company I’d been looking for, and gave up on finding in Boston.

I wanted to work on something consumer-facing, not B2B like the last job.

I wanted something I myself would use, as would my friends and family, in order to have a more emotional connection to the product.

But I also wanted it to have a huge addressable market, measured in billions of people, so not something that would appeal *only* to my family and close friends.

I wanted something where the mobile user experience is either the entire user experience or at least the main one, because mobile tech has changed our lives more than anything else in the past several years.

But most importantly, I wanted something with a purpose beyond making money. I want to make the world a slightly better place somehow. I’m still a pragmatic capitalist, don’t get me wrong. And I volunteer and do other “pay it forward” activities on a regular basis. But I would love for my job to somehow improve people’s lives.

With Happier, that’s all present. It’s a purpose-driven startup based on a lot of scientific research into human psychology and related behaviors. We all have things that make us happier, and most of us don’t do enough of them. Can this product help? Can we put more smiles on more people’s faces? I’d love to try.

If you know me back from grad school days, you know I geek out on organizational and behavioral psychology, ever since I got into Dan Ariely and Tal Ben Shahar‘s work, Nudge, and related research. All of these play a role in this company.

If you only know me more recently, you know I’m an experiential person, seeking adventures, experiences, adrenaline, and actively pursuing my own happiness. Not only that, but I generally encourage, recruit, and push my friends + colleagues to do the same.

Nataly and I clicked right away. We were finishing each other’s sentences the first time we met. We both overuse the word “awesome.”

Halloween “Happier Hour,” soon to be an open-to-the-public event.

Even better, I love the rest of the founding team too. Colin, Ian, Sarah, and Andrew are all great. My good friend Parker has been helping us out, too, and I’ve worked with him before. I love the loft-style office, which is in the Fort Point area of Boston, near South Station.

I enjoyed talking with the main investors, and share their mindset / approach to the business. It’s been a pleasure working with everyone since I got back from my October trip to Israel.

I’m happy to be working on a West Coast-style startup here in Boston. The city has many strengths, but not a lot of this type of company. Bostonians and our investors often demand an obvious and quick-ish path to revenue, which is a perfectly good, valid, and legitimate business (or investment) approach. I’d love to see a few more “pie in the sky” companies in town, though.

What about my family? As always, they are fully understanding, supportive, and generally amazing. I’ll continue to spend time with them during trips to Israel.

Like all startups, Happier carries a high degree of risk, but that doesn’t bother me at all. I have faith.

I’m excited to be working with this team towards our vision, which will be spelled out everywhere in more detail as we crank towards an app you can grab from the App Store.

Until then, if you want a preview via our beta program, let me know.

One last thing: I chatted about the company with, and got valuable feedback, from several friends in the Boston area, some of whom happen to be among the best, and busiest, business, technology, and product people / investors in the world. Thanks, everyone, for your help.

What makes you happier?