Sunday, January 26, 2014

Light and color in the cold

Last week I had to go to Russia on a business trip. When I took this job, I knew Russia was in my territory and I might have to make a trip there. I told myself "avoid Russia in January and February". Well, apparently my self did not listen to me. I went to Moscow in January. It wasn't as bad as I expected but I also made a few tactical errors.
I arrived there around sunset. The clock is skewed in Russia. It doesn't get light until around 8 am but it stays light till 6 pm.

There is light everywhere. Christmas decorations are still up. There are giant Christmas trees in every square.

At first, all I did was go to work and back. I saw lots of lights and the inside of my hotel. As it turns out, my hotel is a historic building. In the 1950s or so, Stalin built 7 skyscrapers. They are called the Seven Sisters. My hotel is one of them. Two are hotels, two are apartment buildings, two are government offices and one is a university. I saw all seven of them but I didn't take photos of all. You will see a few today.

I was puzzled at the old world glory of the hotel lobby, and even of my hotel room. It was rather large by today's standards. The fittings were quite modern the only give away was the size. The lobby reminded me of hotels I had visited in my youth. Later, when I found out about the history of the building, all was explained.
This is the hotel lobby ceiling and below you are looking into the lobby bar and the elevators beyond.
That is the outside of the hotel. It is the smallest of the skyscrapers.
This is the Radisson. I passed it every day morning and evening. It is the second hotel.
This is the university: Moscow University.

I was able to do a little sight-seeing on the last day. I had brought a Bohus sweater with me for warmth, along with my down coat and two pairs of gloves and the hat. However, at the last minute I exchanged my warm Viajante for an alpaca scarf thinking that the shawl and the Bohus would be too much. Wrong! The Bohus did very well in keeping my body warm but the scarf was not wide enough to protect my cheeks. I also had stupidly left the hood of the coat back home. That would have done the trick too. With the wind blowing, the 9 degrees Fahrenheit (high temperature for the day) was definitely the winner. But I persevered and saw many of the major sites from outside. I didn't have time to visit museums or go inside the Kremlin.

St. Basil's looks exactly as it does in photos except for the snow. One of its chapels is dedicated to St. Basil. The cathedral itself is wrongly called St. Basil's but that is how everyone refers to it.

Lenin's tomb is in Red Square. Red Square itself is rather small compared to my imagination. I expected a much bigger square. I didn't go in to see Lenin's preserved body which is on display inside.
This is Red Square from one end, near St. Basil's. Lenin's tomb is in the far right of the picture bhind all the people. One of the advantages of visiting in winter is that there are only a few people around.
This photo is angled the other way. On the right is the GUM shopping mall, which is 120 years old. We'll go inside in a bit to warm up.
Here is a closer look at the far side of Red Square. The big tent on the right seems to be associated with some celebration but it wasn't clear what it was. On the far side is another cathedral.
GUM (pronounced Goom) is a maze of levels and walkways and bridges. It is full of very high end stores. The celing is all glass so it is light and airy inside.
This is one of the chandeliers from eye level on the second floor.
There used to be a fountain in the center which is being redone. So, for Christmas, they put up this structure covered in lights.
The Kremlin is a triangular island in the middle of the city. It contains a number of buildings, including the Armoury - which is a museum of Russian weaponry and state gifts and other pieces of art. I wasn't able to see it although it was on my short list of things to see. There are also two gorgeous churches in the Kremlin. The right hand side one is the Cathedral of the Annunciation where Russia's rulers were crowned. The other is the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael.

This is a view of the Kremlin from the other side. You can see the palace in the Kremlin as well as the Cathedral.
This is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It was torn down by the Soviet government (they put an outdoor swimming pool in its place) and was rebuilt in the 90's. But my guide said that it did not have the spirituality that comes from many prayers being said inside. She said it would take many years of prayer before the church would feel like a church. The Patriarch of the Church does conduct services here so it is just a matter of time.
In contrast, the monastery we visited next was a working monastery and had that aura of sanctity. There is a miracle-working icon here and Alexander Solzhenitzsyn is buried here. We visited his grave. As these are working churches, there are no photos of the glorious interiors or the iconography. When it is cold and dark outside for a large part of the year, one needs to fill the insides with color and beauty.
We finished our trip with a stop at Arbat street, a tourist shopping mecca. I needed to buy a fur hat for someone. There weren't too many tourists around and we found what we were looking for. But I was able to have a look at a traditional wooden house that was near by.
Stalin built a lot of very classical buildings. Many of them are still around and make Moscow very beautiful. They are a clear contrast to the concrete boxes of the later Soviet era.

This is a lovely tea/coffee shop that has been in existence for decades. I couldn't get a photo of the inside or even of the whole outside. But you can see how these unique buildings stand out in an urban jungle.
One of the original residences from before the Bolshevik Revolution that has survived. There are a few of these scattered around that show how lovely the city was in those days - with estates and graceful buildings.
And last but not least, the Russian White House and another of the Seven Sisters. The Russian White House is a government office. It used to house the State Duma.
I worked on a Bonsai shawl with my Blackberry to Raspberry handspun gradient on the trip. I found some beads in my stash that are just perfect for the colors in the gradient. I am getting to the end of the violet section now, which is a little further that when this photo was taken. I've had to add repeats so I will use all the yarn.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Subway systems and a couple of extras

Our second day in Tokyo did not start all that well. We had done well navigating the Tokyo subway system coming in from the airport and then getting to the bus terminal where the Mt. Fuji tour started. On day 2, we were going to the Skytree, which has replaced Tokyo Tower as the communications tower and tallest structure in Tokyo. We did not realize that Tokyo has multiple subway operators and passes on one system are not valid on another. We had bought a Tokyo Metro one-day pass. We went to the station we had used the previous two days as it was a straight shot to the Skytree on that line. 

Wrong! We couldn't get into that system with our passes. I then remembered that we had another station right next to the hotel. Looking at the subway map, it looked as if the Ginza line went through it. The Ginza line also went to the Skytree. I proudly led the way there. But there weren't any directions to the Ginza line. We asked a very nice gentleman who was walking in. He tried to explain the situation to us but we didn't understand him. So he just said "Follow me" and took us to the information booth. The polite attendant there told us that this station didn't service the Ginza line and gave us directions to get to Ginza station, where we could get the train we wanted. We could have gone directly there! But we had to learn the hard way that just because a line goes through a station on the map, it doesn't mean you can get that line there. That is an artifact of map drawing.

The locals use a transit card that just deducts the fare as you use the subway, regardless of which operator runs that subway line. But it wasn't worth it for us to get one of those for the two days we were there. This transit card can be used in many cities, which makes it even more useful.

Third time was the charm for our visit to Skytree. We enjoyed the Skytree and the lovely refreshing ginger lemonade we got after. We found people in Tokyo to be very helpful and many understood English. The directions on the subway system are all available in English. Announcements are also made in English.

We also used the subway system in Kyoto. Kyoto has a very simple system. Kyoto is laid out like Xi'an, which was called Chang'an when the Japanese Imperial capital (Kyoto) used it as a model. The subways in both places are just a cross. They don't cover the entire city and buses need to be used to get where you want to go.

We wanted to go to Nara on our first day in Kyoto. Nara has some beautiful temples. I asked the hotel's front desk clerk to help us figure out when and where to get the train to Nara. He very carefully explained to us that if we took the 9:21 am subway train, it would go directly to Nara. I took his instructions and went back to my room to search the internet for this mysterious subway train that would take us all the way to another city. I couldn't find anything that told me it was possible. Anyway, as it worked out, we got to the subway station a little before 9:21 am. I thought we'd wait and see what happened. Lo and behold, the next train said it was going to Nara. So we got on it - we had already bought tickets to Nara - and it went there! A-m-a-z-i-n-g.

Life on the way back was not so smooth. I figured out how to buy tickets back to Kyoto with the help of the station attendant. The train we took turned out to be run by another private operator. Occasionally their trains go through the subway system. We were told we would have to change to the subway at a specific station, which was fine. However, our train stopped before that and everyone got out. We just followed because we had no idea what was going on. The other passengers got on a train on the opposite platform and so did we. My impression was that there was something wrong with the train. But then there was another announcement and all the Kyoto passengers from our train got off. So did we. We lined up on the platform on the same side as our original train and waited. And waited a bit more. A train came by but it didn't stop, so we didn't get on. Then another one came and stopped and the doors opened. I asked a railway attendant if this would go to Kyoto and he said yes. So we got on.

We did get back to Kyoto but not to the subway system. Since this was a private operator, it went to their train station, which was not the same train station as the Japan Rail (JR) train station where we arrived from Tokyo. Hmm... what to do? We figured out the way to the subway but then suddenly we couldn't find any more directions. This has happened to me before. It means a sign is missing or I missed a sign. I was about to go back looking for the last sign when I spotted a tourist information center. A-ha! They could tell me where the subway station was. [By the way, the private operator refunded the subway ticket money for us with no questions asked as we left their station].

I went in and showed the lady where our hotel was and asked her how to get to the subway station. She explained that we couldn't get there from here. There had been an accident on the subway line and that was why we had all the confusion of ending up in another station. She showed me how to take a bus to near the hotel. But I am a bit suspicious of buses because it isn't easy to figure out where to get off. They have too many stops. So we decided just to take a cab back to the hotel. For three of us, in many cases a cab was no more expensive, and sometimes less expensive than 3 subway tickets.

The next day, we went out with a local friend, who explained that there are many rail systems in Japan owned and run by private operators. Kyoto has a couple of subway lines that fall into this category. We took one of them the next day along with buses. Our friend also introduced us to the concept of buying bus tickets in bulk - 20 at a time - so you can just hand one to the bus driver instead of paying him cash. Convenience stores and newspaper vendors sell them in Kyoto. Way to make the public transit easier and faster to use!

We also extensively used the subway in Seoul. Seoul also has subways run by different companies but all of them use the same tickets and passes. We didn't get a pass because we couldn't buy them in the machines. We bought single journey tickets. In Seoul, these tickets have a 500 won deposit. After you are done using them, you go to a machine and turn in the ticket to get your deposit back. The reason for this is the type of ticket used.
The Japanese subway systems use small card tickets that are cheap to produce. You feed them into the ticket machine and it either spits it back out if it is still valid, or eats it if it is used up. In Shanghai and Beijing, the tickets are cards with a chip in them. The single use tickets are also retained by the machine after they are used up. They are reused again and again. Subway passes require an additional cost of 20 RMB above what you actually put on the pass for use. These passes can be used without feeding them into the machine. I keep mine in my wallet and just lay the wallet on the reader. You don't even have to take it out of the wallet.

The Seoul tickets are like my subway pass. You just lay them on the reader. So they have a deposit on them as they are expensive to produce. And the machines don't have a slot to feed the card in. The deposit ensures that you turn the card back for reuse. I thought it was a good idea.

I am fascinated by the different subway systems in different countries and how they work. I hope you also find this sort of information interesting. I am going to do some more posts like this that are on a theme that goes across the entire trip.

I went on a short trip to Singapore this week. My only visits outside of work and the hotel were in the evening and night. This is the river in the evening on our way to dinner.
Night view on the way back from dinner.
Going up in the elevator in my hotel, which was very futuristic.
Views out the window of my room.

And lastly, another FO. I needed to knit a cap for an upcoming business trip to a VERY COLD PLACE. I don't own a cap so I had to make one. I used some leftover Alpaca Sox from the infamous brioche lace scarf and finished it today.
The pattern is Sixty Cables with a different top. I decided to do a 6-point decrease instead of the drastic decreaes in the original pattern which caused gathering at the top.
Back to plotting my next travel knitting project. The cap served very well on the way to and from Singapore.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Four hundredth post!

I cannot believe that this is my 400th post! I was editing the last post and suddenly realized that it was my 399th one. Wow! what a long journey it has been.
Today's post is not about travel. It is about an FO. I finally finished Viajante! It is so lovely to wear that I haven't taken it off except when I went out. It is the perfect shawl to wear around the house in the winter because it doesn't fall off.
It can be worn as a triangular shawl and it is extremely warm as it is a double layer of fabric in this mode.

But it can also be worn over the neck and this is the mode that I love. It just stays put.
If you want your arms free, you can just toss the triangle point over one shoulder. It can also hang down out of the way.
As a reminder, since this has been so long in the knitting, it was knit out of fingering weight mink yarn that I bought here in China in the summer. You can see the details of the yarn and its purchase here.
I started with 500 gms of yarn and I have 4 left. I could probably have knitted a couple of rounds more but I knew I needed a loose bind-off. I didn't want to either get stressed out because I was running close to the end or run out and have to unknit back. The actual bind off took me over 2 hours as I had hundreds of sts on the needles - maybe even a thousand or more. So unknitting a round was not something I wanted to do. I have done it on partial rounds because I messed up the pattern, so I knew I didn't want to do it for an entire round.
I am very happy with this project. It was a lot of knitting but most of it was easy. The only problem was that it became rather bulky travel knitting as it grew. Oh well.
And now onward with more posts coming up! This week was very busy at work and I didn't have time to write. I hope to write some more posts this week. Thank you for traveling this road with me!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Mt. Fuji

Our first full day in Japan was spent in a bus tour to Mt. Fuji and Hakone - a resort up in the mountains. Normally the bus would take us to the 5th station on Mt. Fuji - about half way up the mountain and the highest spot reachable by vehicle. But it had snowed the day before and the road was closed from the first station onward. Darn!
We started late because the bus tour apparently waits for all passengers to arrive. This meant we arrived at Mt. Fuji a bit later than anticipated. The sun was higher in the sky and that makes the shadows flatten out and it is harder to take good photos. But Mt. Fuji was beautiful all covered in fresh snow and we did get some lovely shots from Hakone later.

Mt. Fuji from the visitor's center.
Being Christmas Day, we were treated to carols by a hand-bell group at the visitor's center. You saw the photo of the handbell ringers in the Christmas post.

From the first station with a sunburst.
We also saw Mt. Fuji later in the day from Hakone-en after we had taken a boat trip on Lake Ashi and gone up to the top of a mountain via cable-car. The light was a lot better then as it was late afternoon.
As you can see, Mt. Fuji is just beautiful in every light.
However, there is an amusement park on the way to Mt. Fuji and I got a good photo of the mountain with the amusement park rides in the foreground. I love the juxtaposition of new and old, nature and man.
More on Lake Ashi and the cable car later.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Christmas in Japan and Korea

We went to Japan and Korea at Christmas time. It was interesting seeing the decorations in the stores and the hotels. Japan does not celebrate Christmas but that doesn't stop stores from trying to convince people to buy gifts. We spent very little time in the stores. One interesting store was the Japanese stationary company Itoya. There were some fascinating envelopes for giving people cash or checks as gifts. They appeared to be decorated with quilling and other paper crafting.
Our hotel was near the intersection where Cartier and Bulgari battled for glitz and glitter.
Bulgari building by day
Bulgari building by night

Street decorations in the Main Street of Ginza

A live cello player in a store window in Ginza.
Tree in the lobby of the hotel where we had lunch on our Mt. Fuji trip.

We went to Mt. Fuji on Christmas Day and were treated to Christmas carols by a group of hand bell ringers
Korea has a lot of Christians. I think it is the majority religion in Korea although I am not sure if there are more Buddhists or more Christians. We also got to Korea around New Year's Eve so some of the Christmas decorations were being taken down.
Tree in the plaza at N Seoul tower
Tree being taken down in the plaza of N Seoul Tower
A very unusual tree in the plaza of N Seoul tower. This is a close-up of one of the set below. I'll tell you more about it when I discuss that part of the trip.
I am going to try and do this with themes rather than a diary because it is too overwhelming to try and capture all the information I want to share in a day-by-day account. So there will be some text only posts where I try to share some interesting tidbits and some photo heavy posts on the things we saw. Let's see how this works out. I am hoping to get some shorter, more frequent posts out to cover the information more quickly than in the past.