Saturday, December 06, 2008

Munich

I went to Munich last weekend to visit a friend. Here's the two-day tour.

On Saturday, we went to the center of town to see the Residenz. Right outside we saw the Theatinerkirche and Feldherrnhalle. The Residenz is a ginormous palace that housed Bavarian rulers from 1385 to 1918 (thanks Lonely Planet!). There are over 100 rooms open to the public. It's pretty ridiculous (and maze-like!) and we were tired of it way before we ran out of rooms to look at.

When we finally stumbled back out, we went to Marienplatz, the center of the Altstadt. Here's view of the Neues Rathaus from the Christmas market.


This being Germany in December, there was a Christmas market at the Residenz and another a few blocks away at Marienplatz. This one, however, was packed. Random aside: In Bonn, a Christmas market is called a Weihnachtsmarkt. In Munich, it's Christkindlmarkt.

We went to a late lunch at what Googling suggests was Weisses Brauhaus. They serve Schneider Bier (yum), and for what must be a very touristy place seemed remarkably German. We mostly wandered from Christmas market to Christmas market for the afternoon and had very yummy Indian food for dinner.

On Sunday, we had somewhat greater tourist aspirations. In the morning, we went to Nymphenburg. On the walk from the train, we saw this car and had to take a picture of it.


Schloss Nymphenburg is ginormous. Here's the front of the main building.


But turning around, you can see that the outer building (the yellow ones) are very very far away. Behind the main building, the grounds and gardens are also huge.


Unlike the Residenz, there are only something like 20 rooms to view. The most impressive is the first you see.



One of the most famous rooms currently houses the Gallery of Beauties, a collection of 36 portraits of women whom Ludwig I (1786-1868) considered beautiful. According to the sign in the room, the collection has always been open to the public (classy!) and includes portraits of a shoemaker's daughter and Lola Montez, Ludwig's mistress. There is an incredibly entertaining (but probably half apocryphal) bio of her in my friend's Lonely Planet.

In the afternoon, we went to Dachau. It's a 20 minute train ride from the center of town.

The gate:



Wall and guard tower:


One set of barracks has been reconstructed:




A museum has been installed in the maintenance building and in the back there are several churches and the crematorium.

After, we went back to Marienplatz and had some gl├╝hwein. It is remarkably good and good for keeping you warm even though you (and many, many others) are idiotically standing outside in the cold.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Jenolan Caves

I feel like I've been blogging about my trip to Australia forever. I'm just dragging myself over the finish line, which is why the posts have less and less text. But this is it: the final Australia post.

We took a day trip to the Jenolan Caves, a 90 minute bus ride from Katoomba.


All the caves require a tour. Some of the them are adventure caving, but with only time for one we did Lucas Cave, which has been open to tourists since the late 1800s. It has concrete paths and lighting. I think that the photo above is from the Cathedral Chamber, where they often have music concerts.

Lucas Cave is the most popular with tourists and may have the biggest chambers, but it is not the cave with the most impressive crystal formations. It is still very cool. And if you have the time and find yourself in Australia, I highly recommend going out to the Jenolan Caves (which just goes to show you that you should always take the advice of strangers).






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Katoomba

I was going to do one post about the Blue Mountains, but instead I'm going to split it up into two: one about Katoomba and the scenery and one about the Jenolan Caves.


The Blue Mountains is the mountainous region west of Sydney. Their blue tinge (not so apparent in these photos, but obvious in person), I've been told, is from the oil in Eucalytpus leaves. We stayed in Katoomba, a 2 hour train ride from Sydney and where you can see the Three Sisters (the rock formation in the photo above).

There's a bunch of nature walks along the cliffs (yes), down to the Three Sisters (yes) and into the valley (no). We sprang for the cable car ride across a portion of the valley and the funicular railway ride down to the valley floor.





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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sydney - In Which I Pet Some Animals

Way back in 2006, I wrote this on the blog: "One of my original goals for the blog was to take a lot of pictures of animals." This post probably makes up for any deficit in animal pictures in the past two years. In Sydney, Sean and I went to the zoo and the aquarium, but most of these pictures were taken at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where we got to pet some of the animals. I'm pretty sure the rest of the post makes me sound like an excitable 8 year old, but I'm willing to make that sacrifice to share the pictures with you guys.

Flying Foxes

A ton of flying foxes (which look like giant, 1 meter wingspan bats) live in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney. It's pretty creepy to walk under trees and trees full of resting flying foxes.




Wombats

Wombats are marsupials. But their pouches are backwards so they don't fill with dirt while digging. I think they're pretty cute. At Featherdale, all the wombat habitats had signs warning that wombats bite. They, however, don't have signs saying not to touch the wombats.




Platypuses

Somewhere in this pond, there is a platypus. We never saw it because, unfortunately, platypuses are very shy. We did eventually see a platypus at the aquarium, so I can confirm that platypuses are the coolest animal ever. Platypuses are monotremes -- mammals that lay eggs. They feed their young (known as puggles) milk but they don't have teats. And they're venomous.



Koalas

All but the last picture is from Featherdale, where, yes, I got to pet a koala. They look fat, but it's all fluff. The last picture, with the baby koala is from the zoo.







Wallabies and Kangaroos

The first picture is of a wallaby and the others of kangaroos, I think. We also got to pet the wallabies and kangaroos.





Emus

Another option to interact with the kangaroos was to buy a ice cream cone and fill it with kangaroo chow and feed them. This, however, was risky because everytime you tried, an emu would show up and peck the cone out of your hand and eat it.



Echidnas

Echidnas are also monotremes.




Other (Still Awesome) Animals

Dingoes are prettier than I expected.


That's a 4 meter long crocodile.


A cassowary.


Featherdale had a lot of albino animals. This is an albino peacock.


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Puppies!

Puppycam live-feed. A whole herd of them.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Sydney

I've been lazy and actually put off blogging about Sydney, but this is the first of three posts about Australia. I'll talk about the city in this post, devote a post to the cool animals, and one to the Blue Mountains.

Now the question everyone wants an answer to is "how did you like Sydney?" And I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea: I liked Sydney. But I traveled for more than 24 hours from Germany all the way to the Southern hemisphere. I guess I was hoping -- admittedly totally naively -- for a more unique experience. As it turns out, Sydney is San Francisco with better weather and funny accents and where they drive on the wrong side of the road. There's a pretty bay with a bridge, a big Chinatown, lots of hills, and everything is unreasonably expensive.

Here are a few pictures that Sean took of the Sydney Opera House and the city:




Pretty huh? But, in real life, the Opera House is surprisingly small and not so gleamingly white (the roof is not smooth but constructed with lots of little tiles).

Okay, enough of the complaints. It's a pretty city to walk around, it's got a lot of cool neighborhoods, and (I hear, I wasn't there in summer) some nice beaches. There's a ton of backpackers (I stayed in a 7 story hostel one night) and half of them are German. It also has awesome wildlife -- but I'll save that for my next post.

Instead, let's talk about the important stuff: food. There are two things you can get in Sydney that you can't get in Germany (but, yeah, you could find them in CA).

Bubble Tea

Bubble tea is a Taiwanese thing which has spread to the U.S., other parts of Asia, and Australia. If somehow you're unfamiliar with it: it's typically black tea sweetened with milk (usually evaporated or maybe condensed) and with chewy translucent balls of pearl tapioca on the bottom. You drink it through a straw thick enough to fit the pearls. I like it cold, but it can be ordered hot or cold. I'm also craving it right now.

Sean and I spotted a bubble tea place in Chinatown while walking around. Drinks in hand, we walked up the street where we'd seen some benches in a mall. After finishing the tea, we figured we might as well wander through the mall where we just happened upon the sign for this:

Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fung is dumpling heaven. Busloads of Japanese tourists constantly mob the original restaurant in Taipei. I'm sure I waited an hour for a table there and I think the bookstore next door survives solely on overflow business. There are now more than two dozen locations in Asia. There 's one near L.A. and the newest location opened in Sydney, Australia in May. Although there were a lot of people waiting, Din Tai Fung has dealing with crowds down to a science. When we asked for a table, they handed us a menu, an order form and a pencil. We ordered. When we got a table (we shared a big table with a lot of smaller groups) the food came promptly. It's also not a particularly expensive or fancy place.

The thing to get are the steamed pork dumplings -- xiao long bao. Put a xiao long bao on a soup spoon. Use your chopsticks to poke a hole in the very thin but chewy skin (the key component that makes these dumplings better than all the dumplings you've ever had) and let some steam escape (you don't want to burn your mouth). Soup will probably start to seep out of the hole. If you're so inclined, you can slurp it a little bit. Finally, eat the dumpling. Delicious.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Singapore

I flew through Singapore both on the way to and on the way back from Sydney, and I spent one night and one day in Singapore on the way back to Germany. Here are a couple of my impressions about the place.

Changi Airport

Changi Airport is a pretty nice place to be stuck for a few hours: free internet terminals everywhere, 24-hour restaurants, a lot of shopping, lots of TVs (with speakers in the seats), a mini-movie theater constantly playing something, and a hotel in each terminal so you don't even have to go past security to crash for the night. I spent some time in the butterfly garden: it's that kind of place. The banks of public telephones seemed to be monopolized by little old Chinese ladies speaking in heavily accented English (which seemed a little odd -- why not Chinese?). One of these women came over and sat next to me in the waiting area before our flight to Sydney. She said two things that I remember: 1.) it's worth it to pay more and take Singapore Air and 2.) go see the caves if you're going out to the Blue Mountains in Australia. On both counts, she was right.

Singapore Air

It's a seven and a half hour flight from Singapore to Sydney. On the way to Sydney, the plane was a brand new A380. While I've started to get used to video-on-demand systems with the little TV screens on the back of the seats, this was by far the nicest with the largest selection (I watched more TV than I've seen since last Christmas). And I'm guessing it was an 8-inch screen; it had ports for you to plug in your peripherals because clearly you weren't going to do better than their screen unless you pulled out your MacBook. Here's a photo of it.

By the way, Singapore Airlines has the most attractive flight attendants that I've seen outside of the movies. I'm guessing it's because Singapore has less stringent laws against gender discrimination. Evidently, the flight attendants are some sort of brand strategy.

Night Safari

The only thing I knew I was going to do in Singapore was go to the Night Safari. I had no idea what expect other than I would go to the zoo at night. How would I see the animals? Night vision goggles? Sadly, no, there are just lights. Dim, similar to really bright moonlight lights, but still just lights. When I first got there, I was very skeptical that it was going to be worth the time and money. There was a Disney-sized line for a tram ride and, when I struck out on the walking paths, lots of very, very loud children. At the first couple of exhibits, it seemed like less like you got to see the animals as they really behaved at night and more like they had just convinced the animals to lie listlessly right under the lights. But the Night Safari won me over. You get much closer to the animals than at most zoos, the fishing cat actually seemed interested in fishing, and the sugar glider was so fast you mostly saw the branches bent as he jumped on them. The zoo mostly focused on animals from Asia; some of the cutest were the otters and the bat-eared foxes. The highlight actually turned out to be that damned tram ride. There's one section where there are no walking paths -- probably because there's also no real barriers between and animals and the road. "And up on the left you'll see four tapirs walking along the road. Please do not touch them." They were certainly close enough to touch and, indeed, just meandering down the road. Totally awesome.


Little India

I stayed in Little India, which was decorated for Deepavali:


The Little India neighborhood was basically what you'd expect. Lots and lot of people on the street at night, on the street, squeezing past cars, shopping at the open air stands. Lots of Indian men (a mustache was de rigueur and I saw few women for some reason) with only a smattering of Chinese faces and the odd backpacker -- for some reason, Little India is full of backpacker hostels. This is the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple:



Orchard Road

How to beat the heat in a tropical country. Singapore is at 1 degree North, and Taipei is at 23 N. So my advice is probably good for 30-37C (I really don't know what you're supposed to do when it's hotter than that). 1.) You cannot hope to ignore the heat; you must embrace the heat. Yes, you're basically swimming through air. Clear your mind and wait for that moment of zen when you and heat become one. 2.) Whatever pace you want to walk at, stick with it. Do not slow down or speed up no matter what. 3.) Keeping hydrated is good, but, in this heat, you really need cold fluids. A cold milk tea is going to be more refreshing than the air temperature bottle of water you've been carrying all day. 4.) There are neighborhoods in Taipei where the AC blasting out of every storefront means that you'll never really feel the heat. This is not true in Singapore. However, 7-Eleven is still your savior. It's cold in there . By the way, in Taiwan and Japan, eating at 7-Eleven is totally a valid choice. I was hoping the same was true in Singapore, but the selection seemed limited to instant noodles. Sad.

I took the subway to look around the city (very convenient, and the automated ticket (prox cards!) machines were very easy to use: there's a map of the transit system, push the image of the stop you want to go to, put in money, done.)

I went to Orchard Road, which I'd gathered was the main shopping area. It didn't seem as packed full of shopping as I'd expected, but maybe that was because every other building was under construction.

You know you're in a tropical country when the trees are growing trees:


By the way, this was taken at the entrance of some sort of park. Given the guards at the front and the sign down the street which -- from glancing at the stick figures from across the street -- definitely suggested that anyone jumping the fence would be shot, I'd say it was some sort of government thing.

I stopped for lunch at Takashimaya (my mom would be so proud, there's nothing she likes better than a Japanese department store with a food court). Here's a bunch of people bathed in the glow of the mall directory:


Durian is a popular South Asian fruit. It smells like rotten something and has the same consistency.


Durian desserts!



Chinatown

I also went to Chinatown. I took this picture outside the Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore's oldest Hindu temple. They have cow statues on the outside wall!



The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum is new (completed in 1997, if I remember correctly).



Most importantly, it's right next to Chinatown Complex, which has a huge food court. Doing a thorough tour of the food court, I was a little put off by the tables and tables of old Chinese men getting drunk on Carlsberg beer (why Carlsberg is the beer of Singapore, I don't know). But I found a stand with a couple making homemade xiao long bao. It was 5SGD for 10. Maybe not quite as good as Din Tai Fung, but close and very cheap. (I don't know what this photo is supposed to illustrate.)


They were selling these little, pale yellow mangoes everywhere. Sean tells me they have them in Hawaii, but I've never seen them in Chicago or Germany. The skin peels off in one big strip and it's juicier than the juiciest peach (no long fibers getting stuck in your teeth) with a mild flavor.

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