Heading Home (via Dubai)

August 14th, 2017 No comments

With our bags all packed it was a pretty slow paced morning for us. One last breakfast, one last music video session, and we were set for a check-out at noon. Kuniko had asked if we could get a ride to the airport, and they said that for 30 Georgian Lari they could arrange it. We agreed and the deal was made. This time when we brought our suitcase downstairs to leave, the driver was waiting for us. To our pleasant surprise, it was the same giant guy who had picked us up on the train platform.

While he took the suitcase and Kuniko did the paperwork for checking out, an older gentleman who was apparently the owner of the hotel poured another few shots of cha-cha as a farewell drink. Once more into the breach, but I figured it would make the wait for the airplane go a little smoother and said sure, why not? The owner told us in broken English how happy he was that we enjoyed our stay, and through his daughter(?) at the counter encouraged us to leave a good review for the hotel online. We were looking for how to pay for the driver, and the timing and the way the owner said it strongly implied that they were willing to forgo the driver fee if we wrote the nice review. It was hard to clearly understand, but we left things like that, and went outside to get in the old Mercedes Benz once again.

The driver was just as speedy as I remembered, and he seemed to have the habit of driving down the middle of two lanes, preferring not to commit to any one particular lane and keeping his options open. I wondered how many car accidents he has had in his driving career.

We turned right on George W. Bush Street and headed straight out to the airport. The guy was very nice and so I prepared a small tip of 5 Georgian Lari for being so helpful. We arrived at the airport, he took out the suitcase and I handed over the tip. He looked at the amount and said “Thirty! Thirty!” The light dawned, and I realized what happened. The original fee for the ride wasn’t actually included in our bill, and there was no discount for giving a good review. We just need to pay the driver. I was a little embarrassed as I handed over the 30 lari because I didn’t have an additional 5 lari bill to cover the original tip, just large bills. Oops! He didn’t seem to mind, though, and waved to us as he sped off.

So now we were back at the airport, and we went inside to check the departures board and see where to check in. We had arrived three hours before our flight, but when we looked up at the board it said our flight was departing in just 15 minutes. Next to that it said “GO TO GATE”.

What the hell? I double checked the flight number and it was correct. Oh crap! Kuniko and I both felt that icy cold feeling of sheer panic. Did we have the wrong information? Did TripIt fail us again? We rushed to the check in counters, but none of them were marked with our airline, FlyDubai. As cold sweat appeared on my forehead we rushed to the airline window, but there were no FlyDubai staff inside. We couldn’t go to the gate with our suitcase, so we didn’t know what we could do. I took the suitcase and tried to find an English-speaking staff that could help walking around the lobby. Kuniko went upstairs in an attempt to talk her way past the gate staff and get to the departure gate so that she could maybe hold the flight. Minutes were ticking away here and I couldn’t help thinking how it would suck to miss our flight and subsequently miss the next one from Dubai to Osaka.

I ran back to the FlyDubai window and asked a staff member from another airline if they could help, but they just shook their heads and pointed at the empty FlyDubai desk. I found a passing pilot but he just shrugged at me and kept walking.

Suddenly, when I was out of ideas, a guy wearing a FlyDubai uniform walked in and sat down at the desk. I rushed to him, and asked him about the flight to Dubai and how we could get to the gate ASAP.

I may have been a bit shrill.

He answered calmly that the flight was on schedule and to just check the monitors. Soon we would be able to check in.

I told him that we had just checked the monitors and they said to go to the gate immediately because the flight was leaving soon.

“Oh,” he said. “Did they forget to reset the departure information? That happens sometimes. I’ll call the department and have them set it up correctly.”

I confirmed with him that we were in fact still two and a half hours before departure, and that the information we saw on the official airport departure screen was incorrect.

I breathed a massive sigh of relief, and soon saw Kuniko coming downstairs looking for me. We found that the check-in counters opened up soon after, and we were able to check-in without a problem for the regularly scheduled flight.

What a shocker. We knew that things worked a little differently out here, and we weren’t in some major metropolis airport, but at least you can get the departure times correct for the flight on the official board, right? Maybe we were asking for too much.

Anyway, after that rush of adrenaline we made a beeline for the nearest airport bar and had a cold beer and a sandwich to settle down. The sandwich was simple and forgettable, but the beer hit the spot. After that it was just a matter of walking around killing time before the flight. We bought some chocolate in a duty free shop, and waited behind some old ladies who didn’t speak any of the languages that the staff spoke. The prices of the items were in Euros but they wanted to pay using some other currency, and the old ladies tried negotiating using gestures to get all the things they wanted, even though they didn’t have enough cash. I think working at an international airport duty free cash register would be pretty stressful.

We had a very uneventful flight to Dubai, back across Iran, and landed just as the sun was setting. The view of Dubai from the plane was interesting – buildings surrounded by sand and long open highways stretching off to nowhere. We couldn’t see any famous landmarks coming in, however.

Since we had been to Dubai on the way to Georgia we easily navigated the airport and found our way to the metro station, and then took the train back to the Burj Khalifa. Previously everything was closed because we were there so early in the morning, but this time everything was open. We could walk all the way from the train station to the Dubai Mall in air conditioned comfort thanks to a long elevated walkway. It was a long way to walk, but much more comfortable than the way we did it last time.

The Dubai Mall is apparently the second largest mall in the world based on land area, so obviously we didn’t see it all during our limited time visiting. Our primary targets were getting a suitably cheesy keychain ornament of the Burj Khalifa to hang from our Christmas tree, and to eat some Lebanese food from the food court. We accomplished both of these almost right away. The keychain was easy to pick up at the official souvenir shop, and we had a felafel and a chicken Shawarma wrap once again. Both were delicious.

The mall was quite beautiful (for a mall), and well designed. It was a true cross-section of all kinds of people, with shieks and burqa-wearing women everywhere, but also Asians, Europeans and Africans too. It was a great place to people watch.

We did a little more shopping, and then went outside to watch the fountain show – a huge water area and a fountain and light show every 30 minutes under the Burj Khalifa itself. Just like Las Vegas, except much hotter.

Finally, we made the long trip back to the airport, and then went to our gate to get ready for the flight to Osaka. We had some beers, ate a little more airport food, and then sleepily boarded our flight at about 2 am local time. That gave us a chance to sleep on Emirates for most of the return flight to Osaka, and we arrived in the evening on Monday night. Kuniko was ready to go to work the next day, but as it turned out she had the day off.

We weren’t too tired after the trip, thanks to the couple days of relaxation in Tbilisi before our return. It was another great trip for us. Definitely more difficult than other trips and we had some moments of panic, but it is things like that which make for the best stories and memories. Can’t wait for the next trip!

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A Perfect Day in Georgia

August 12th, 2017 No comments

When you are traveling there are always high points and low points during any given day. Maybe there was a bad taxi ride one day that balances out the great pics you took earlier that morning. Perhaps one delicious meal saves an otherwise boring day of travel and waiting around.

So we were a little amazed to have what we would consider a perfect day on the last full day of our trip.

We were still on the relaxation pattern, starting with a nice slow breakfast at our hotel while watching great bad music videos. My appetite was back and I was more hungry than I have been the entire trip, and I meant to take advantage and eat as much good food as we could before our return.

We started with a quest to eat pelmeni. Pelmeni is really a Russian dish, tiny dumplings served with some sort of sour cream or cream sauce. We ate a lot during our trip to Russia, but it seemed fitting to have at least one Russian dish while we were this close to Russia. Kuniko had remembered seeing someone eating pelmeni at a restaurant we had passed the previous day, and so we set out to find it.

For the first time the whole trip, we found what we were looking the first time we tried, and it was open. Pelmeni was on the menu, and we also ordered some grilled chicken with a sour honey sauce, two cold beers, and two glasses of Mukuzani red wine. The pelmeni was served in a little different style, in a small pot with bread baked over the top like a little hat, but the flavor was great and it went well with the red wine.

We sat outside and watched the tourists passing by, and it seemed to us like there were even more tourists in town during the weekday than we had seen during our weekend here. Afterwards we walked back to the hotel with a slight buzz to pack for our departure the next day and also wait out the heat of the afternoon.

Next stop was searching out some more khinkali – it seemed like that would be a great last dinner in Georgia. Kuniko had researched an interesting place and we walked along the opposite side of Shota Rustaveli Avenue, past the beautifully painted Opera House, and then down some steps to Duqani Lagidze 2 (I don’t know where 1 is). The place was again in the basement, and designed in a modern style that seemed playful and a little feminine. We ordered a plate of ten khinkali, a bowl of chicken stew, and some bread, and also had a couple of glasses of local beer called “Black Lion” that were pretty good. We ate the khinkali using only our fingers, holding each one by the nipple and eating around them until we finished. Five little nibbled nipples were remaining on each of our plates when we finished. The soup was really good too – salty and rich and perfect to dip into with the homemade bread that came with it. These khinkali were our favorite of the trip, and we were rubbing our contented stomachs with happiness as we left the restaurant.

To wrap everything up it seemed like we should go drink some wine, and we ended up back at g.Vino on our favorite street. This time there weren’t any outdoor tables available when we arrived, so we set up in the warmly decorated interior and ordered some glasses of red wine, and a plate full of local cheeses and honey. The atmosphere inside was comfortable and I felt like I could come there every night for a glass of wine – exploring Georgian wines at a slow pace sounded like a lot of fun.

At last we figured it was time to head back and get some rest. We ended on a very good note with the wines – they were delicious, and we couldn’t have been happier with all the food we ate on our last day. I’m glad my appetite finally came back to join our holiday.

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Taking it Easy in Tbilisi

August 11th, 2017 No comments

After the long ride on the train it was nice to sleep late in a comfortable hotel room. It felt luxurious to lounge until sunlight hit the curtains, and to take a long, slow shower after that.

We went downstairs for breakfast, and we were directed to the breakfast area behind the lobby. There was a small buffet set up with a good mix of European and Georgian breakfast foods. The most surprising thing was a big bottle of cha-cha on the table with some small glasses nearby. Apparently some people liked to get their morning started with a bang.

Above the bar counter was a TV playing Georgian music videos, and between the music and the low budget production I was enthralled. I could have watched those all day, but we had other things we wanted to do. We ate big at breakfast, since we hadn’t really eaten much the previous evening.

This was the tail end of our trip, and during our previous stay in Tbilisi we had covered all the sightseeing that we wanted to do. These last two days were just for relaxation, eating whatever we wanted, and to decompress and enjoy some slow time. With a totally open schedule and a great hotel it was an easy couple of days.

Since we were in Tbilisi we wanted to take another crack at finding really good “authentic” khinkali. After researching the internet we went back out to try and find the restaurant that we couldn’t find on our first day at the beginning of the trip, Pasanauri. According to Google and some reviews they were still in business, so we would just have to search harder.

After doing some supermarket shopping at a “Smart Super”, we found Pasanauri, but unfortunately they didn’t open till 1 pm. We had about an hour to kill, so we went to a cafe with seating outside on the sidewalk, and we ordered a couple glasses of local white wine to help pass the time. The glasses arrived and they were filled to the brim – we ordered a glass and received almost half a bottle. We’d have to be careful here.

While we worked on our wine a couple of young guys wearing hip-hop clothes and crooked hats came and sat at the tables. The waiter didn’t look happy and kept commenting to them, and eventually we figured out that they were waiting to smoke water pipes inside the restaurant. We saw so many bars with water pipes set up outside – it must be an Arabian thing.

Finally it was time for Pasanauri. By the time we got into the restaurant it was our fourth attempt to eat there, so I felt a little satisfaction as we sat in a booth and ordered up two kinds of khinkali – cheese filled and traditional. The place was very popular and it took about half an hour for the food to come, but it was worth the wait. I can’t say I was a big fan of the cheese khinkali – most cheese in Georgia was pretty salty – but the regular ones were great. We were getting better at eating them with just our hands, too.

Completely stuffed we went back to the hotel to take a break from the oncoming heat, taking naps, writing in the journal, and making shopping lists for last minute souvenirs. These breaks were essential to keep up our stamina in the heat.

In the evening we went back to our favorite street to try another cafe. At first we went to a place that advertised a free wine tasting, and they led us underground to their muggy, humid cellar. The guy who poured for us wasn’t as confident with his English and just poured fast and furiously through four wines. We thanked him and moved on – the vibe of the place wasn’t quite what we were looking for for dinner.

However, down the street we found a better restaurant. The name of the place was “Alcoholic”, which seemed a good fit for us, and there we had some wine while sitting outside in the cooling evening. Kuniko ordered some khachapuri and a beef stew, and I did my best to help. To be honest I was still full from our khinkali feast and couldn’t do the dinner justice, but Kuniko stepped up and really powered through. The khachapuri was a different style than what we had last time, and I think we both preferred this version without the buttery egg and the dry bread edges. The stew was perfectly flavored and had big chunks of rich tender beef. I’m sure it would be a popular dish in winter as well.

We took a slow stroll back to our hotel, stopping at a convenience store for a little light shopping to stock our hotel fridge with water and yogurt. Thanks to all our experience previously walking around Tbilisi it was easy to find our way without a map. We were feeling more and more like locals. We went to bed planning a similarly light schedule for the next day.

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Last Day in Yerevan, Train to Tbilisi

August 10th, 2017 No comments

We got up pretty early in the morning and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the hotel dining area. The breakfast buffet was a nice simple one, with eggs, yogurt, fried buckwheat, sausages, fruits in a sweet sauce (that was meant to be combined with the yogurt) and plenty of kinds of juice. Unfortunately the coffee there was a bit watery, but if that was our biggest complaint we were doing OK. The nice thing about the dining area was that there were two concrete balconies outside with tables, so we could sit out there and enjoy a view of the city from the 7th floor before the sun came out and really heated things up.

Afterwards we hit the town for some sightseeing and shopping. We saw the Blue Mosque (at least the back of it – the front entrance was closed that early), and then we walked across town to see the impressive Saint Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral. The streets were empty, the temperature was cool, and once again we were happy to be able to take advantage of an early wake up time.

Since this was our last day in Yerevan we did some shopping at several shops, including the surprisingly big Yerevan City grocery store that was just a few minutes’ walk from out hotel. We got lots of little candies to give out to our students, some water for the train ride back later on, and some snacks for the train since there was no food for sale on board. I had a little scare when the cashier almost didn’t accept one of my bills which had a slight tear, but later another cashier accepted it so everything was OK.

On the way back from the supermarket we passed a young woman playing with a new puppy – the puppy was off the leash and pouncing on the lady playfully. As we walked by the puppy decided Kuniko would be fun to pounce on, and that kind of freaked her out a little. For some reason on this trip the dogs were attracted to us. Even after we turned the corner the puppy came running after us, and we had to stop so that the lady could collect her little dog and take it home.

Despite feeling better I wasn’t at 100% yet, so we figured we’d spend the rest of the morning resting in our room, using the air conditioner (and the clean toilet) as much as possible before we checked out. We stayed until the last minute, checked out at noon, and then stashed our bag at the hotel and went outside to find a shady place to relax. We had three and a half hours to kill before the train departed, but we are really good at killing time and relaxing when we need to.

Our strategy was to first go to a sidewalk cafe, sit in the shade of some trees, and have something cold. I started with a frappe, Kuniko had a milkshake, and again they were both pretty watery. I refrained from eating the ice, just in case. Later I had a cold beer and that turned out to be the better choice on a hot day. While we enjoyed drinking outside little kids played in the fountains, and apparently this is a perfectly normal thing to do during summer. They came prepared with swimsuits and goggles and jumped into the fountains like they were public swimming pools. I felt like joining them but didn’t want to cause an international incident.

We spent almost two hours relaxing, drinking and talking about all kinds of topics, and then decided to go look for a deck of cards for the long train ride back. At a nearby toy store I asked if they had some, and the clerk passed me a deck. My first impression was that it was quite thin, but I didn’t think much of it, and the price was less than a dollar so who cares? Later we discovered that the deck had only 36 cards, and they were in Russian so they were a little hard to understand. All the face cards were there, but some of the number cards were missing. Some kind of Russian card game? Who knows…

Since the train station was only five or ten minutes away by taxi we weren’t in any rush to get to the station. The station itself was pretty short on shopping and waiting areas – it was really just a platform. We killed our time in town, and then finally wandered back to our hotel to pick up our suitcase around 2:45. We asked the hotel to call us a taxi, and they said that it would be out in front of the hotel in five to seven minutes. We went down to the lobby, and the hotel lobby staff stepped outside and waited alongside us.

A few taxis were visible driving by, but apparently they were from a different company than the one the hotel had called, so we patiently waited. There was still 35-40 minutes before the train left, so no problem.

Ten minutes pass, and then fifteen. No more taxis pass our hotel but in the distance on the main street we can see them occasionally driving by. The hotel staff calls the taxi company again and promises that it will be here in 3-4 minutes maximum. He guarantees this and for fun I set the timer on my phone. We are starting to feel a little stressed. If we somehow miss the train there is no other train until two days later. There are no flights between Yerevan and Tbilisi, and we would have to take a primitive minibus ride for six hours between the two cities. I didn’t want to think about the condition of the bathrooms that we would encounter on a long shared minibus ride through the hot desert on the way. I much preferred to catch the train we had tickets for.

It was now twenty minutes to departure and we were officially concerned. Long past the four minutes that the guy guaranteed. Down the street a taxi came our way, but the staff said it wasn’t the company that they had ordered from. Too bad, dude – I hailed it. The taxi driver stopped and looked a little confused as we tried to explain that we wanted to go to the train station. Picture two panicked people playing charades and acting out “choo-choo train”. Kuniko found a picture of the map on her phone, and finally it worked. The hotel staff had a stern conversation with the taxi driver as I loaded our suitcase in the back, and then he apologized for the long wait. We said goodbye, and hit the road.

And as soon as we turned the corner, we saw the problem. There was apparently some big road construction project and traffic was at a standstill. Lanes of cars waited in the hot sun to get past a closed lane between us and the train station. 15 minutes until our train rolled out of the station.

Deep breaths! I thought of the ending of every season of Amazing Race as teams rode a taxi to the finish line – maybe this is a tiny bit like how they feel. We inched forward, and the taxi driver seemed to sense the tension in the air and he aggressively pushed past some cars and cut off others to get priority.

Suddenly we passed the construction, and then it was a wide open street. The taxi driver hit the gas, and we made it to the station with ten minutes to spare. I paid him (with a little extra for the speedy delivery) and then scrambled after Kuniko who was running ahead to identify our train platform. Luckily our train was right in front of us, and we rushed to the correct car and boarded. Hooray!

There was some confusion as we arrived at our cabin and found an old Russian guy sitting inside. In my mind I had thought that we had reserved a private cabin for the return trip, but later upon reviewing my emails the travel agent hadn’t been able to book a private one and so we had to share with our Russian friend. He didn’t speak a word of English, so we worked out through gestures which beds were ours, and then we stashed our suitcase and settled in to wait for departure.

It was hot in the train car! There was no air conditioning, and as the metal cars sat in the sun the temperature was rising inside. I was flushed and sweaty from the panicked scramble and stressful taxi ride, combined with the hot air in the cabin. I drank water, used our tickets as a fan, and soaked up as much sweat as my towel could take. Eventually we got underway, and just sitting down and relaxing was enough to cool my body down. I think everyone in our cabin was amazed how much sweat a human body could produce.

As soon as we left the staff walked by and closed all the open windows on the side of the train, and wouldn’t allow anyone to open them. I was hoping for some fresh air blowing through the train car, but no luck. Kuniko had heard that maybe it had something to do with passing so close to the border with Turkey, since Turkey and Armenia don’t have a very good relationship. Unfortunately this cost me a chance to take a nice picture of snow-topped Mt. Ararat as we went past. I should have got my picture through the dirty windows on my way to Yerevan.

It was a long, slow ride back to Georgia. The train initially passed through desert, and since the terrain was less than interesting I spent my time on the bottom bunk writing this journal and drinking water to rehydrate. Kuniko moved up to the top bunk and slept on and off for most of the trip. The Russian guy came and went, sometimes walking up and down the train car, sometimes making calls on a gold plated flip phone. At some point I ate some of our snacks – lemon cakes that we had bought in the supermarket – and offered them to the Russian guy. He smiled and shook his head and held his stomach, and I got the impression that he had recently eaten.

After a while I laid back myself and tried to get some rest. The rocking of the train really does wonders to put you to sleep, and I dozed off at some point.

I woke up suddenly, and the Russian guy was holding a knife in front of my face.

There was only a moment of panic before I realized that he was cutting up a tomato on the table positioned right next to my head, but since he was standing up in the aisle between our seats the knife was right there. He looked down and saw I had woken up, and smiled at me and offered me a freshly cut tomato wedge. I smiled back, shook my head and held my stomach. It was a nice gesture of him, though.

Since I probably couldn’t fall back asleep after being surprised by the knife, I decided instead to listen to some music and enjoy the scenery. While I had slept the landscape had changed from dry desert to lush green fields. There were some beautiful grassy hillsides, some cattle roaming out on green pasture, and we crossed over a river or two. We occasionally went though a tunnel plunging the cabin in darkness, and I could see why so many murder mysteries are set on trains.

Watching the scenery go by was a relaxing way to travel – it is something you don’t get so much when you take an airplane. I enjoyed the train trip, and it turned out to be a highlight of the trip for both us. I hope someday we’ll have a chance to do a long train trip again.

In the late evening we approached the border. Kuniko moved down to share my bunk, and we waited patiently for the passport inspection. Georgia wasn’t so strict about visas for Americans and Japanese, so it was a smooth crossing for both of us. One passing border agent saw Kuniko lying on the bed with me and ordered us to stand up, and for Kuniko to open her bag. We complied, and then he flipped up our bunk to check for stowaways hidden underneath. I’m happy to report that nobody was under our bunk, and he let us lay back down. Still, he only checked our bunk, so maybe there was something unusual about a Japanese lady curled up on a bed that set off a warning flag for him.

Finally, after a nine hour train ride we pulled into Tbilisi just after midnight. Our Russian roommate was continuing on the train to the resort town of Batumi, and he gave us a cheerful wave as we said goodbye. I’ll never forget you, knife-wielding Russian guy!

Since we were arriving so late Kuniko had arranged with our hotel through email to pick us up on the platform. From the darkness emerged a giant of a man holding a tiny paper sign with Kuniko’s name on it. He motioned for us to follow, and then walked up the big stone steps to the overpass and the exit of the train station. I lugged our heavy suitcase all the way up the steps, and it was cute when the big guy turned to me soon after and offered to take my bag. Good timing!

Outside he pointed at his old Mercedes Benz that was parked near the exit, and we loaded the suitcase and watched as the car almost didn’t start. Finally we got going, and after a pretty speedy drive through town arrived at our hotel. The driver escorted us inside, where a young lady looking a little sleepy checked us in. While Kuniko did the paperwork the driver urged us to have a shot of cha-cha as a welcome drink. I took him up on it, and he explained that the only way to drink it was as a shot. Knowing I had a bed within a few meters of my current location I went ahead and did the shot. The cha-cha was like lighter fluid… nasty stuff. He offered another one, but I begged off and we said goodnight. The hotel room was decorated in an interesting style – kind of Elizabethan style, with an undercurrent of Arabia. It was very clean with a beautiful bathroom and shower, so I was very satisfied.

Since Kuniko had slept most of the train ride she was not ready to sleep, and so she stayed up watching YouTube videos and snacking on our leftovers in our bag. I crashed right out – it was a long day for me.

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Armenian Brandy, An Evening in Yerevan

August 9th, 2017 No comments

We were a day behind schedule thanks to my fever and we were eager to get started seeing what we wanted to see. I was still a little weak so we decided to spring for a cab ride to the brandy distillery in town. It was a short walk from the hotel to the edge of the city square, and there were plenty of taxis waiting for business there.

We caught a ride in one taxi, and the driver was great. He was so proud of his city, and happy that there were some tourists like us that came to explore it. He told us all about the Armenian diaspora, and was obviously happy to promote his city and culture to some people from other countries. Sometimes his English was a little hard to catch but the fact that he was trying to talk with us more than made up for it.

The ride to Ararat Distillery was just a few minutes, but we could feel the oppressive heat outside. We paid our cheerful driver, got out and walked quickly to the entrance to look around and maybe do a tasting. Inside at reception they explained that tours were by appointment only, but as luck would have it there was an English–language tour being held that day at 3:30 pm. We signed up for it, and then hit the road.

I was feeling much stronger so we left on foot, and attempted to walk to another distillery nearby, called NOY. We could see the distillery, but the roads were set up in such a way that it took a long time for pedestrians to reach it. When we finally did, we discovered that it wasn’t open yet. Rather than wait around in the hot sun, we decided to head home and rest under our apartment’s air conditioners.

The design of the city of Yerevan was interesting – the interior with most of the sightseeing spots has many open squares, parks and restaurants and seems designed with the pedestrian in mind. It is a very large part of the center of the city, covered with trees and fountains and makes it really pleasant to get around. Luckily our hotel was centrally located in the center of it all. However, once you left that area on foot, it became a lot more difficult. There were not many pedestrian crosswalks, and like Russia you had to look for underpasses hidden underground to cross the street. The outside of Yerevan was built for car traffic.

Back in our hotel we drank lots of water, took a nap, stayed cool in the air conditioning, and got ready to go out and drink brandy. Around 3 pm we caught another taxi and repeated the exercise, arriving in time for our tour soon after.

The Ararat distillery is in a distinctive building that really stands out on the Yerevan skyline. Inside there are shelves of brandy bottles on display, and even a security guard and security gate to make sure nobody steals anything. The smell of the evaporating brandy being aged inside the building was everywhere, and it looked like they had invested a lot in the decoration and interior of the reception area. Nice place!

We paid for our tour and the post-tour tasting, and after converting the cost of the “premium” tasting in my head I realized it was a great deal. The tour lasted about an hour, and the tour guide reminded me a lot of the tour guides back at Benziger Winery – probably tired of saying the same thing over and over for laughs. But it was informative, just not quite as stylish as the Hennessy tour was. There was a barrel of brandy reserved for each presidential visitor that had personally visited the distillery, that they were welcome to claim at any time. I noticed that Putin had visited twice. In fact, they said that they exported 90% of their brandy to Russia. I had no idea that the Russians had that kind of interest.

There was also a “peace barrel” of brandy representing the cease fire and peace accord that was arranged between the countries of that area. There was a flag representing each country involved, and they promised to open the barrel once it was completely peaceful between all of them. As the barrel was still closed tight I guess there was still some room for diplomacy.

My favorite feature was a locked “security” door with some fancy LED lights that led the way to “paradise” – the location of the oldest and most valuable brandies. I doubted that the door was more than just a plastic facade, but I liked the stagecraft in setting it up as part of the tour.

While we walked through as a group, there was a smaller group of four people walking behind us, talking in big (foreign) voices, and causing our tour guide to yell at them to be quiet, please. They walked through our tour while the guide was speaking, and they honestly had a pretty rank smell about them. They looked at all of us with a bit of contempt, and the tour guides and staff clearly returned the dirty looks. What was going on here? Later they joined the tasting so they must have paid but clearly there was some tension in the air.

The tasting was conducted after the tour in a special tasting room that was nicely arranged so that you could sit and savor the brandies. We had three brandies to try, their standard brandy (aged 7 years), another one that was our personal favorite (aged 20 years), and finally a third that was blended with various ages and supposedly their high end brandy. There was also a little paper cup of dark chocolate prepared. The guide explained how to drink brandy (no ice, warm it first, look at the legs) and then let us get started.

We enjoyed the tasting, mainly because we have really been enjoying Cognac since our visit to Fabien in Cognac and the tour of Hennessy that he arranged for us. Now we drink Hennessy Cognac quite often, especially since it is really cheap in Japan.

The brandy here was good, quite good really, and we were very satisfied with the quality. I’m certain that in a blind tasting we might even prefer it to Hennessy VSOP. We particularly liked the 20 year old blend – delicious.

Across from me a solo visitor was tasting the brandies. Not tasting really, more like drinking. She went through the brandies in a matter of minutes. At one point I asked her to take some photos of Kuniko and I together, and she took the photos without a word or a smile. She tossed back the last brandy and left soon after. Wow!

Later we checked the prices of the brandies both at the distillery and at stores around Yerevan. The cost was extraordinary – between four to eight times the cost of comparable Cognac in Japan. We originally thought about buying a souvenir bottle and bringing it home, but it turns out they export to Japan and it would be easier enough to buy it there. However, the cost difference was still way too high – it was delicious but not eight times more delicious.

Considering our weakened condition we left some brandy in our glasses as we moved on, something we would never do in Japan. From there we were able to catch a taxi back to the city center to see about getting some dinner. The taxi almost t-boned a car that suddenly crossed in front of us against a stop light, and that was our brush with death for the day. Our taxi driver gave the offending driver a dirty look and then continued on to our restaurant.

The restaurant was called Dolmama, which according to our research was a good balance of upscale and traditional Armenian food. The building was a pretty old European style, with tall ceilings, modern interior design and a homey feel in the dining room. The staff were especially friendly, with lots of smiles and helpful recommendations from the wine list. We ordered dolma, kofte, and manti for dinner. It was a little less than we usually order, but since I was still recovering from my stomach problems we thought it best to take it easy. The food was quite good, a little spicy, and much healthier than all the cheesy bread we ate back in Tbilisi. Also I was impressed with the red wine we had. We came to Armenia concentrating on the brandy, but the wine was quite good, too.

After dinner we decided to walk around the center of Yerevan. The heat had subsided and we could walk the streets comfortably. Yerevan had a really nice feel to it. We didn’t see any beggars, the sidewalks were fully developed and every intersection had a crosswalk with a signal. These were some of the things we noticed after walking around Tbilisi for the past few days, where crossing the road could sometimes feel a little risky.

Also in Yerevan they had paid a lot of attention to central squares, open spaces for people to gather, and lots of artistic statues and art installations. It wasn’t nearly as touristy as Tbilisi, and it felt like we were surrounded by locals most of the time.

One of the highlights was seeing the Cascade Monument, to the northwest of town. It reminded me of something sort of Roman, with steps all the way down from the side of the hill. We skipped climbing it because of the weather, but had we been there in another season I’m sure we would have enjoyed the steps (and calorie burn).

We strolled around the center of town for a while until it became dark, and then headed to the main square to see the fountain show that was supposed to start at 8 pm. For some reason it wasn’t running at the time, so we sat down to wait and people watch. I was surprised how many people there were out relaxing together, and it struck me again how nice these centralized places were for actual human-to-human communication and interaction. People laughed together, played with their kids, and the whole thing felt like a special event. For us it was very special, but for most everyone else this was just a regular summer night.

While waiting we noticed a cloud of smoke and the strong smell of barbecue at some point. It turned out there was some kind of fire down the street coming from a restaurant. We never saw flames, but plenty of smoke. Suddenly it stopped, however, and I guess everything was under control. I had little cinders in my eyes during the rest of the night, so I think it was a bigger fire than we knew at the time.

The fountains were running sometime after 9 pm, and it was impressive to see what they were doing with water technology these days. They shot up high in the air to music, with lots of colored LED lights to accent the dramatic points. The music was traditional and popular Armenian songs which evidently meant a lot to the audience but not much to us. It was a great show, and it went on for almost two hours. At some point we got tired and walked down the square to a long promenade lined with cafes and more fountains, and drank cold beer outside while watching people stroll by now and then. It was nice to sip beer and listen to the music from the central square off in the background.

I was glad to be back in the land of the living and I was feeling better by the hour. The only after-effects of the fever that I noticed were a reduced appetite, and it seemed like I was quicker to break out in a sweat when out in the heat. I understand that both are side effects of heat exhaustion, and so we both promised to be more careful about heat exposure for the rest of the trip. This was the middle of a heat wave in summer, after all.

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Arriving in Armenia

August 8th, 2017 No comments

The city of Tbilisi is not so far from the border to Armenia. This was good news because we knew we’d have to be awake when the train crossed the border so as to pass the immigration inspection. The system was actually pretty easy. A stop or two before the border a crew of Georgian immigration officials get on the train and ride along checking and stamping passports. Then, at the the border they get off and are replaced by Armenian immigration officials who do much the same thing. Unless you come from certain countries.

Armenia and the USA have a pretty solid relationship and so I could stay in my cabin and the officers would come to me and stamp my passport. Other countries need to have a visa or buy one as they cross the border. At the border the guards escort people who need to buy a visa to a special building, where they wait in line, pay for the visa, and then can go back to the train.

Kuniko was thinking ahead and bought a visa online before our trip, so as to make things easy. Unfortunately not many Japanese people travel these rails, and they still wanted to inspect the visa (and Kuniko) outside the train car to fully understand the situation. That meant she had to get up around midnight and join the queue of “visa on arrival” passengers outside. I sat inside the cabin and wondered vaguely what would happen if she was somehow refused entry. Should I jump off the train? Charge the border calling her name?

Luckily the question was moot because she came back pretty quickly, and we could sit back and relax and try to get some sleep.

Sleeping on the train was fun. Sometimes we moved, sometimes the train stopped for a long time. Nobody came to take the extra beds but we didn’t sleep completely comfortably because we didn’t know if someone would show up or not. We had a tiny blanket and a good sized pillow, and we were pretty comfortable overall.

One of the water bottles that we had bought at the station sprung a leak at the very bottom, so we had to hold the bottle upside down to prevent water from spilling all over, and it turned out to be a little tricky to drink water from the bottle without getting wet. It was a little game to keep us occupied while we traveled through the night.

Unfortunately for me I had to run to the toilet now and then to take care of the churning in my stomach. The toilet wasn’t clean and beautiful, but it wasn’t a pit either. Luckily there weren’t many people running to the restroom throughout the night, and there was plenty of toilet paper. Still, not ideal for me – I had some kind of stomach bug.

We woke up early with the sun just starting to rise out the window. The view of the desert outside of Yerevan was absolutely beautiful. On the other side of the train to the southwest was a brilliant view of Mt. Ararat, shining with snow on the peak even during summer time. It was on the side of the train where the windows didn’t open, so I figured I’d wait and take a picture on the return trip – but this turned out to be a bad strategy, which I’ll explain later.

Something about waking up on a moving train to a new day really struck a chord with me. Maybe I have been reading a lot of Paul Theroux lately and that has influenced me, but I really enjoyed it. If I could just have a hot cup of coffee the moment would have been perfect.

So the train slowly rolled into Yerevan, and we could disembark there and get our bearings. I felt a little dirty and a little tired, but facing a new city in the morning is really the best. Coming into a new city late at night and searching for a hotel can be stressful, but here we had plenty of time to figure things out in the light of day.

We started by hitting up a taxi driver outside the station. In contrast to the taxi drivers back at Tbilisi airport, the drivers here seemed much more relaxed. We asked an older guy about a ride to the city center and he said “no English”, but a younger guy came up and was willing to work things out by gesture and phone. I liked his attitude; he knew he’d have more work on this fare but potentially more income.

We showed him the hotel on the map, but he didn’t quite get it exactly. Instead he saw that we had the phone number, so he called the hotel and spoke with them directly and got directions. Then he waved us to the taxi. Kuniko pressed him to find out how much it was to get there (since nobody was using meters) and he held up four fingers. I asked him about changing money, and he used gestures to indicate that first he’d take us to the money changer, then to the hotel. Perfect.

The money changer was quite close in fact, and the taxi driver parked across the street in a temporary parking spot, and then indicated that he’d come with me inside to help with the exchange. We started to cross the street but another taxi pulled up behind and started honking at our taxi to move. Our poor driver went back, and waved me to continue on to change money. Inside I changed the money, and the taxi driver came back just as I finished and made sure that I had exchanged to small enough bills to pay the driver correctly – good idea!

We went back out and got back into the relocated cab, and the driver took off down the road. It wasn’t far to the center of town, and when we got close the taxi driver again called the hotel and zeroed in on the correct address. Soon enough he brought us to the doorstep, and we got out and paid. I paid 4+1 as a tip, and the driver seemed satisfied. I liked his style and he certainly earned his extra money.

We went inside the hotel, and announced ourselves at the desk, at around 8 am in the morning. The initial plan was to park our suitcase here, go out and do sightseeing in the morning, and finally come back in the afternoon and do check-in at the normal time. Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling very good, still sweating even though it really wasn’t that hot, and I thought going out might be a bad idea. The hotel staff were apologetic that the room was occupied and we couldn’t do an early check-in, but they said that we could use their bathrooms and showers to freshen up, and that they had a common room where we could spend time and relax while waiting for check-in. I jumped at the chance to use a clean toilet and to take a shower, and then we went into the common room to rest.

The room was pretty nice – a big clean room full of cushions, beanbags and pillows, with two PCs, a TV and DVD player, and most importantly an air conditioner. We laid back and rested here, and Kuniko was nice enough to go buy me some more water and a bottle of Coke – which my Hungarian doctor had recommended last year to recover my strength quickly.

We spent more than four hours here, and I sometimes drifted off to sleep, sometimes Kuniko napped in there too. I know the room wasn’t really intended for people to sleep in, but we made it into an emergency bedroom. Sometimes people would step inside, but few people stayed long, especially with the two sleeping corpses in there.

At some point we were half asleep and two little kids came into the room with their father. The father set them up on one of the PCs, and they started playing a loud game involving pop music and a lot of clicking. I was in a common room so I couldn’t really complain, but the dad must have been desperate to entertain his kids and miss the two exhausted people laying down in the corner. At some point I got my tired body up and went out to the front desk to see what was going on with our room.

Apparently the staff had taken pity on us, and they said that we could get into our room in 10-15 minutes. Hooray – almost two hours before the official check-in time. I told Kuniko the good news, and then we got organized and soon enough we were being led to the elevator by the hotel staff. He said that although we had reserved a standard room he was upgrading us to a full sized apartment, and that was good news, too. I was dead on my feet as we got out of the elevator, and after letting us into the room, the staff beat a hasty retreat and left us there. Privacy at last!

The apartment was really nice – a bedroom, a living room, a big refrigerator and kitchen, even a clothes washer. We didn’t really look around much before jumping into the inviting bed. I got under the covers still sweating and feeling the chills setting in, and I knew that I was in for a rough patch. After that I crashed out, and then it was only brief moments of consciousness for the next 24 hours. But at least we were in our own place behind locked doors with a clean toilet that worked.

Kuniko wasn’t in great shape either, but she was better off than me. At some point she went out to buy supplies: chicken soup, water, Powerade, and a dinner of dolma for her. I remember sometimes I woke up and she was watching k-pop videos, other times she was asleep. I lost track of time and just slept and slept, and sometime during the night my fever broke and I was just thirsty and sleepy.

The next morning I slept late, and Kuniko went out and did some preliminary sight-seeing without me, taking pictures and exploring Yerevan. I woke up and made some chicken soup, and the salty broth was like the nectar of the gods. After a few swallows of that, I was feeling much better. At some point we decided to go get some breakfast in the hotel dining area, and I started eating solid foods again. My appetite wasn’t completely back, but I could see I was on the road to recovery. Kuniko was also feeling better, so it was good news all around.

We’re not sure exactly what happened, but our best guess is that our extended exposure to the heat wave kind of lowered our natural resistance, combined with maybe some weird bacteria from some food or the ice from my lemonade in Tbilisi – everything worked against me and forced a 24 hour recovery on my body, like it or not. After this, we were more careful to stay out of the heat and to stick to air conditioning in the afternoons.

So it was time to do a little exploring of Yerevan together. And we wanted to start with the brandy.

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Tbilisi to Yerevan

August 7th, 2017 No comments

We decided to get up early today and climb up the mountain to the fortress before the heat and the tourists could make the trip unbearable. It turned out to be a good idea.

We started by following the backstreets alongside the mountain ridge. Thankfully for the past couple of days we had covered a lot of this territory before, and it was easy to navigate, even without a map. Along the way we passed some stray dogs walking around, evidently raiding the trash cans and taking advantage of this time when few humans walked the streets. A couple of the dogs seemed to be following us, and that made Kuniko pretty nervous. Dogs aren’t really her thing, especially big ones. Wild ones running around, definitely not her thing.

We continued on toward the mountain, and the dogs casually followed us. There were three with us, and they looked at us in a friendly way, wagging their tails and assuming that we knew what we were doing and where we were going. We found some steps leading up the mountain and started climbing them. It was a steep pathway up, and I figured the dogs would lose interest once they had to do some serious climbing, but I was wrong. They seemed to be really enjoying it. A couple of times they would run ahead down the wrong street and I thought we’d seen the last of them, but they would quickly backtrack and catch up with us. I noticed that each dog had a digital tag in their ear, so somebody was keeping track of them.

That was how we proceeded all the way up to the giant statue of the Mother of Georgia. Gradually Kuniko got used to the big dogs with us, and I kind of enjoyed it. I knew that sooner or later we’d have to lose them somewhere, but for the hike it was nice to have the company. We passed several churches on the way up the hill, and the views from the fortress of the sun rising of Tbilisi were excellent. Near the top of the hill we turned a corner and three younger guys were walking the opposite direction as us on the hiking path, and they looked nervous when they saw our escort of three street dogs. I thought maybe the dogs would transfer to them, but no luck.

Once we finished at the top of the mountain we did a long descent down to the center of town. We were both feeling like it might be nice to have a cup of real coffee, so we decided to go into a little cafe with a big sign that said “I [heart] Tbilisi” out front. We timed it just right so the dogs were looking the other way when we walked in, and we got a table and hoped the dogs would move on while we were inside. As it turned out, they apparently got bored and disappeared.

After some coffee and a restroom break we headed back to the hotel for a short nap. The next stage was a big one – we walked from the hotel all the way to a restaurant I wanted to try for lunch. It turned out to be a much longer trip than I had planned because the streets were not exactly direct. We got caught in the heat as well, and almost didn’t find the restaurant. Luckily thanks to a distinctive paint job we opened the right door and found Shavi Lomi.

I had heard about this restaurant after reading an article in the New York Times about how the culinary scene in Tbilisi has started to mature. The Times offered up a few restaurants to illustrate their point, but the one that started the whole trend was Shavi Lomi. They reluctantly accepted us as customers, we sat inside in the shade, and ordered some cold beers. I was feeling pretty overheated and it was nice to rest for a while.

We ate a variety of dishes from their menu – all a little unusual, light and natural. All the foods were organic and interesting – it was probably the healthiest food we had eaten so far on the trip. As we slowly cooled off over time I felt a little stomachache, probably due to just walking in the heat. This was a harbinger of bad things to come.

But the rest of our time at Shavi Lomi was a pleasure, and the staff were very friendly after initially being a bit standoffish. We finished our meal, and took a long time over a light dessert before heading to our next destination. Not far away there was a restaurant that I wanted to try for dinner that night, and we figured to walk over there and make a reservation.

The walk wasn’t too far, maybe twenty minutes or so, but it was in the peak of the heat. When we walked in the sun you could feel the sun cooking your skin, and we kept drinking lots of water to stay hydrated. Still, it was oppressive. We learned later that we were in the middle of a heatwave in Europe so serious that they named it “Lucifer”.

We arrived at the restaurant, Barbarestan, and made a reservation for six pm. Since we had some time to kill we walked nearby to check out the metro station that we would use later to get back to the hotel, and then we went to a small cafe to escape the heat outdoors. We ordered lemonades and I was so hot that I went through the lemonade and started eating the ice remaining in the glass. This might have been a big mistake.

After staying in the cafe for a while we were looking for a change of scene. We decided to walk over to a nearby park and we sat outside under the shade of some big trees and watched customers come and go into a ping pong parlor across the way. I was pretty tired out by then and sweating profusely, so we kept drinking water and I laid down on the bench with my sweaty head in Kuniko’s lap to rest. I was getting a little worried about how I felt.

Finally it was time to head over to the restaurant for dinner. We were given a nice table downstairs in the humid basement, and despite the shade and the strong air conditioning I was sweating pretty hard – but I really wanted to enjoy this meal.

The restaurant itself was decorated in a unique style – frilly, mismatched and slightly abstract. The service staff were a little on the stuffy side, not so friendly, but I had heard that if Michelin ever decided to award some stars in this city, they would probably start with this place. Since I wasn’t feeling great we ordered just an appetizer and one main dish, but the waiter assured us that we should order two mains to have enough food. I wasn’t so sure but we followed his directions.

When the food arrived, it was really good. We started with an appetizer of satsivini of zucchini, and then we had pieces of roast rabbit wrapped in bacon, and grilled breast of duck. My appetite kind of left me because of how I was feeling, and I was still sweating like crazy and drinking lots of water. Unfortunately we had to leave some food behind on our plates, and I could feel the palpable sense of contempt from our server when he took away our plates. I felt pretty bad about it, too – nobody was more disappointed than me that I couldn’t eat more here. As the restaurant filled it other tables ordered piles and piles of food and I couldn’t imagine being hungry ever again. What a bummer!

We felt that retreat was the best option, so we settled up and moved out. I hope that someday in the future I can return to Barbarestan to get my revenge and eat a full meal’s worth.

From there we went back to the metro station, caught an extremely high speed escalator down into the depth of the station into what looked like the train stations we encountered in Moscow. The trains were very Russian as well, but it arrived promptly and took us a few stops to our hotel. We gathered our suitcase and then went out and caught a taxi to the train station for our overnight train to Armenia.

The taxi ride was worth mentioning – they all were. If there was any time that I was scared or worried about my safety it was while riding in a taxi in Georgia and Armenia. The drivers were extremely aggressive and didn’t hesitate to cut off others and plow into intersections without looking. Who needs a roller coaster thrill ride when taxis are everywhere.

He dropped us off at the very modern and unusual train station in central Tbilisi, and we dragged our suitcase inside and started to look around. The whole building apparently was built by Samsung, and it was filled with electronics and appliance stores that sold only Korean equipment. It seemed like a bold investment strategy on the part of the Korean companies, and I wondered where else they have tried this. Despite the modern station, the train system and the train platforms themselves were pretty archaic and out of date. We bought some waters at a nearby stand and then settled in to wait. We were at the station a couple hours early, but our train ended up being nine minutes late. I was happy to have the downtime to rest up and try to give my body a break.

When the arrival time was approaching we took our suitcase down some dark cement stairs onto a dark platform, and waited patiently. There were no indicators of car position so we just kind of stood in the middle of the platform and got ready to run whichever way our car would be. As it turned out, when the train came in our car was the last one, and we took off down the platform bumping our suitcase over broken cement and gravel laying around. This was not Tokyo station.

We found the last car, in the dark without any lights. Passengers were milling around outside, smoking and stretching their legs before the train left Tbilisi. One kind of big guy wearing a baggy white T-shirt was carrying a flashlight, and so we recognized him as the closest thing to an authority in this situation. He examined our tickets, asked each of us our nationality, checked Kuniko’s visa, and then let us on. We found our cabin, with four beds inside. We were assigned the bottom two according to our ticket, and it was unclear whether another two passengers would get on later and take the top two beds.

Maybe because of the uncertainty we were pretty excited. We put away our stuff, kicked off our shoes, and enjoyed the feeling as the train shuffled away from the station and started the nine hour journey to Yerevan, Armenia.

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Tbilisi Day Two

August 6th, 2017 No comments

Thanks to a very comfortable bed we slept in longer than usual, and then enjoyed a slow morning. A long shower, clean clothes, and a hotel breakfast to start with. Our hotel included breakfast and it was waiting for us at one of three tables in the lobby. The entire “hotel” only had three rooms, and there was one other resident eating breakfast when we came in. We said hello and then worked on a pretty standard hotel breakfast of wieners, cheese, ham, boiled eggs, bread, jam, yogurt, coffee and juice. The other hotel guest wrapped up and checked out while we were still eating – the staff used a smartphone to translate her questions into English for him to understand – the power of technology!

We got organized and then set out to see a little more of Tbilisi. We walked down Kite Abkhazi Street through old town Tbilisi for starters. The cobblestone streets were lined with tourist shops, wine stores, cheese and candy shops, and money exchange places. I even saw a strip club along the way. The street was pretty touristy, even with the beautiful trees and churches as a background. We found our way to St. Sioni Cathedral, and since it was Sunday there were a lot of people inside and outside praying. Speakers were set up outside the cathedral so that people could hear the services.

From there we traveled a little to the northeast and found the Peace Bridge, a very modern pedestrian bridge over the Mtkvari River. The river flowed right through town, although there wasn’t a lot of space available to sit and relax while gazing at the river. It was quite scenic, and from the bridge we could see the big fortress on the hillside overlooking the city. That was our destination at some point, but we didn’t feel like hurrying up to it right away.

On the other side of the river sat Rike Park, which at this time of day was empty and a little lonely. There were some unusual objects there: a giant cement piano, a large outdoor chess set, and some interesting architecture as well. It seemed like the park was built long ago to attract families for tourism, but most things were closed or abandoned. Still operating was a ropeway that took passengers up the mountain to the fortress, but we were a little early to catch a ride.

We walked up some steps and then continued to the northeast, walking and enjoying the blue skies, until we reached the dramatic Holy Trinity Church, capped with a gold dome and serving as a counterpoint to the fortress on the opposite side of the river. As we approached there were beggars already positioned on either side of the back entrance that we used. The beggars didn’t speak English but they wailed in sorrow as we walked by with hands outstretched. One beggar woman was quite overweight, so apparently the begging is pretty good in this area.

The Holy Trinity Church was the biggest of many churches throughout Tbilisi. I didn’t expect religion to be such a big part of the landscape here, but just about everywhere you looked you could find a church nearby. From the hillside we could see pretty far to the next range of mountains, and the clear sky made it a great spot to enjoy a scenic view.

As we walked around we could feel the heat building. The weather forecast said temperatures would reach 39 C / 102 F that day, and we were starting to sweat walking around in all that heat. Remembering to hydrate was key, and we stopped to buy some cherry juice from a tiny supermarket as we walked back down the hill.

Near the touristy old town street we found a quiet little backstreet, Erekle II St., that was lined with quaint little cafes, restaurants and wine bars. It wasn’t quite as blatantly touristy as the other part of town and the atmosphere looked nice for a sit down and some lunch. This area turned out to be our go-to location because of the proximity to our hotel, a particular wine bar that was quite good, and of course the English menus which made ordering easier.

We stopped at one place, and sat under the shade at a table lined with tiles. The staff (kind of reluctantly) brought a menu to us and we ordered a couple of cold beers to start. Near us some cats basked in the sun waiting for some patrons to offer food. We ordered for ourselves (not the cats) and got a big plate of khinkali. These were much larger than the ones we had previously, and therefore more challenging to eat. Khinkali are supposed to be eaten by holding the nub (or nipple) at the top, flipping it over and holding it like an ice cream cone. From this position you should try to break into the dumpling, which has plenty of very hot delicious soup inside along with the meat and spices. After you slurp out the soup then you go to work on all the meat inside. All this is to be done without a fork, or at least that is what we read online, but I spotted a few people using a fork now and then. We did a pretty good job of learning through repetition, and by the time we left Tbilisi I think we were eating them like professionals.

We also tucked into a khachapuri that arrived in a slightly different style than we’ve had before. It was folded like a pide from Turkey, but it was filled with cheese and had butter and an egg yolk on top. Serious cholesterol here, but we’re on vacation so no worries.

After a leisurely lunch we walked up the street and tried a wine shop that offered tasting called Vinomania. We went in just to look at all the different varieties of wine for sale, but the staff offered to let us taste if we felt inclined. Believe it or not, we felt so inclined.

The staff was a younger guy who clearly loved wine. He knew all about each type, he explained the wines in English for us, and he just kept pouring. He was pouring for us, but he kept opening his favorite wines to let us try. It was getting out of hand how many wines he was opening, and I felt like we could probably spend the rest of the day there. One wine in particular he opened and it was a very unusual white wine. This one didn’t have any exposure to clay pots, but the grape aroma came across more as a lime flavor, without the sourness. This would be a worthy successor to Vinho Verde in my opinion, but the bottle was priced a little high for everyday drinking. Lots of great wines here, and it was nice to drink all we wanted on the house. I hope the guy didn’t get fired for opening up all those bottles for us.

Wine is not the only alcohol on the menu in Tbilisi. We were also able to taste a glass of the local booze, called cha-cha. It is a distilled alcohol similar to grappa, but with a more rough aftertaste. Similar to drinking some kind of fuel. I’m sure with just the small taste we had we shaved a few months off our lifespan. Not my thing, cha-cha, but we saw it everywhere.

Suitably liquored up, we wandered down the road in search of someplace to eat some lower calorie fare. We found that at a nice little restaurant called Azarphesha. It was decorated beautifully with carpets, wine bottles and the ceiling arrayed with a multitude of wine glasses. The restaurant was empty when we came through around 2 pm. They didn’t mind serving us a small meal and some wine, so we settled in to try some more food from Georgia. Here we had fried eggplant wrapped around melted cheese and bacon, and also a nice salad of tomatoes, cucumber, and spicy chili peppers with parsley, cilantro, and an oil and vinegar dressing. We enjoyed some local wine with our light snack, and then headed on back to our hotel to escape the rising heat and take a break.

A few hours later we were ready for more culinary adventure, and that led us to Racha, a locals kind of place that we had found recommended on the internet. It was also a bit hard to find – it seemed like most places in Tbilisi didn’t quite match up with their internet listings. We did it the old fashioned way, and found the place by poking around.

Once again the restaurant was located in the basement of the building. It was full of old guys drinking cha-cha together and kissing each other’s cheeks. The worn out menus luckily had English, and the ordering system was a little different. First I got up from my table and went to a matronly lady who was apparently the owner. She took my order, asked me about drinks, and then waved me away. Later a waitress delivered our cold beers, and then after that she brought our food out individually. Finally we paid the matron and cut the waitress out of the process. I almost screwed everything up when I didn’t have any small bills – I think they sent one of the cooks to go make change.

The food at Racha was good – homestyle and delicious. We had a plate of fried mushrooms (long ones, with flavor sort of like shimeji mushrooms), a small bowl of beans (pretty close to Mexican pintos, with slightly different herbs) and some grilled chicken (off a skewer and covered in onions). We ordered a small amount knowing that we could always come back, and I think it was the right move. This was a real blue-collar sort of place, and it would be fun to explore the menu even more.

With the sun setting the temperature was starting to drop, so we walked around town taking pictures and exercising our legs in an attempt to balance the calorie count. In the end we found ourselves back on Erekle St, this time at g. Vino, a stylish wine bar, sitting outside and enjoying the cool evening. We ate a big plate of melon salad with a small plate of local cheeses, and sipped beer and wine while watching people walk by. Up the street a terrible band played, and everything kind of came together to cap off a nice evening.

Out of curiosity we walked again across the Peace Bridge, since there were a lot of people headed that way. As we crossed the bridge a small boat sailed underneath with a DJ and a whole nightclub on board – people were dancing on the boat as it glided by. On the other side of the bridge people had gathered to watch a fountain that was putting on a show with LED lights and water jets flying around to music. This was the same park that seemed quiet and abandoned this morning, now it was like the whole town was there. We walked around enjoying the carnival-like atmosphere, and as we headed back across the bridge there were even some fireworks over the fortress on the hill. It must have been some sort of holiday – our timing was good, I guess.

From there we wandered back to our hotel to head to bed. It turned out to be a pretty busy day but we kept it at a nice pace and managed to stay out of most of the summer heat.

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Exploring Tbilisi

August 5th, 2017 No comments

Getting from the airport to central Tbilisi was kind of a microcosm of our experience in the city.

After changing some money into local currency (Georgian lari) we walked outside to find hundreds of shady-looking men standing around hoping to give us a ride into town. We had already decided to find the bus and use it, because we figured it would be easier to prevent being ripped off by the taxi drivers. And the taxi drivers looked pretty suspicious. They spoke to us under their breath while looking around (for competitors? Police?). We found the bus parked nearby and the person who we thought was the driver confirmed it was the right bus. We got on board, and the payment system was a little electronic box that accepted coins in exchange for a ticket. I realized we were in trouble because we had only received paper money from the exchange place. The bus driver (who really turned out to be the bus “manager”) gestured to go change our money inside the airport, but suddenly a nice man stepped up and paid for our ticket, and walked away before we could properly thank him.

We held the ticket but nobody checked or took it, and I think it was just for one person, not for both of us, but who knows? We went along with it, and soon enough the bus was underway.

This happened a lot in Georgia – we were initially confused or worried about something, but some nice person would come along and help us out, and then later we’d wonder why the situation had to be confusing in the first place. This is what we were bracing ourselves for before the trip, so we were ready and open-minded about how things worked out. And luckily, they always worked out.

The bus left the airport and strangely drove on the shoulder of the main road, picking up people along the way. Our big suitcase got in the way now and then but nobody seemed to mind much. We enjoyed the view as we went. The countryside between the airport and the city was rural but occasionally there would be bigger buildings – we even saw a Carrefour shopping mall. As we got closer to the city center the buildings and architecture became more European than Soviet and I was happy to see the streets lined with trees and plenty of sidewalks and parks. It looked like a nice city to enjoy on foot.

The bus dropped us off at Freedom Square, a dramatic automobile roundabout around a tall pillar with a gold angelic statue perched on top. It was getting hot, so we were looking forward to checking into our hotel and cleaning up – I was going on 24 hours without a shower and experiencing the combined summers of East Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe all in one day wasn’t helping my personal aroma. We had the address to the hotel, but it was remarkably hard to find. I asked at several other hotels, but they seemed reluctant to tell me the information we needed. We walked back and forth along the street for about 30 minutes before we finally gave up and called our hotel. The lady said she’d be right out to meet us, and then she was there. She was a slightly older blonde woman with a nice smile and she led us down a parking garage ramp and past a poster of a sexy woman advertising something and then past a building guard and into what seemed like a regular apartment building. After an elevator ride to the fourth floor, we were led into a little foyer that served as a hotel lobby. We had arrived.

We have had this situation happen before (since we live in the age of AirBnB) and what seems like an actual hotel on Booking.com turns out to be a converted home or apartment. I don’t mind staying in these kinds of places, and they are usually pretty nice, but I at least like to know beforehand what we are getting into.

The lady checked us in, led us behind her desk into a quite large hotel room that was very clean and well-designed, and I was happy to see that they had the air conditioner running already. Later on when we settled into the room over the next few days we discovered that the bed was one of the most comfortable we’ve ever slept in, and the location was perfect for exploring the town. But our first impression was not positive because of the confusion about the kind of place it was.

After cleaning up it was time to go out and look for something to eat. The thing we wanted to eat most was khinkali, a giant dumpling made fist-sized and filled with a combination of herbs, beef and pork. This was “the dish” to try in Tbilisi, and since we are crazy about dim sum and gyoza back home we were eager to get started. Our first destination was a restaurant called Pasanauri that was famed for their khinkali. It wasn’t a long walk from our hotel, and it gave us a chance to stretch our legs a little and look around the city.

We enjoyed the walk, avoiding the sunny parts by strolling under trees, and taking in the scenery. I had expected more of an old Soviet kind of feeling from the city, but instead we were getting an old European feeling, combined with a sort of brusque manner from the locals. People walked without smiling, they seemed serious about their business and they didn’t seem to be too happy on the whole. There were a few beggars on the street but they weren’t very aggressive about it. Still, these were just our first impressions and our feelings about the city evolved over our time there.

Once we arrived at the location that my map indicated we could not find the restaurant. We walked around and around, but the place was either renamed, moved, or we had bad information. We gave up after a while and chose a place at random nearby that advertised khinkali and khachapuri (a cheesy flatbread) prominently outside. We went inside, took a seat, and the owner come out and gave us big menus to look at. We ordered khinkali, and he shook his head and said he was out. We ordered khachapuri and he said the same thing. “I only have felafel,” he said, and tried to get us to order that. What’s the point of the big menu if you only have one thing? It felt wrong to come all this way and then have felafel for our first meal in Georgia, so we decided to leave and try somewhere else.

So we walked to a different neighborhood, ordered some very cold beer and some khinkali, sat outside in the shade, and finally ate some local food. The khinkali were good, not as big as I remembered, but the cold beer made everything all right.

For a more formal dinner we walked just down the block to a place called Vino Underground. It was literally underground, in the humid basement of the building serving as a wine cellar and restaurant at the same time. We liked the somewhat dark atmosphere, and we ordered two wine tastings (four wines each) and also some food to go along with it. There were two young women running the place, and the food they served was very natural and surprisingly salty – I didn’t expect everything to be as salty as it was. The served us some bruschetta, some local cheeses, and eggplant wrapped vegetables that were quite nice.

The wines were the main event, and they were as delicious as they were unique. The whites they served were called “amber” wines, with the amber color coming from the clay pots they are fermented and stored in. The flavors of the grapes themselves were completely different from anything I had ever tried, and the flinty taste of the clay pots added a nice undertone to the flavor. The reds that we tried were all quite different in style, and one that I had really knocked my socks off. It was bold, well-rounded and fruit forward, like a Zinfandel but without a big oaky structure to support the fruit. Most of the wines were unpronounceable to us, and the bottles that they showed us were not exported, so these were truly tastes for that moment only. It was an educational tasting.

After our dinner and wine we were feeling pretty happy and since the sun was setting it was cool enough to walk around a bit more. We headed across town to check out a smaller Carrefour supermarket to get some souvenir ideas for later and to stock our hotel fridge. We had a little ice cream on the walk back to our hotel, and then finally we ran out of gas and decided to retire. I was certainly looking forward to sleeping in a horizontal position for the first time in a long time. It was a great start to our time in Tbilisi.

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Day 1 – Flights to Dubai and Tbilisi

August 4th, 2017 No comments

Recently Turkish Airlines stopped direct flights from Osaka Airport on Friday nights, which used to be a great way to work a regular day, get on a plane, sleep, and wake up in Europe on Saturday morning ready to sightsee. Fortunately, we found that Emirates Airlines has a similar flight, departing for Dubai on Friday night at 11:25 pm. Lucky for us!

I worked a regular workday on Friday, watching the weather and the train system to make sure that nothing would interfere with our plan to go to the airport. After work I went straight home, changed clothes, turned off all the automated systems in our home, wrapped our toilet in Saran Wrap, and then dragged our suitcase off to the station. It was very hot and humid, and my clothes were pretty sweaty by the time I got onto the air conditioned train to Kobe. I met up with Kuniko at the station, and she had already bought bus tickets to the airport and had also gotten a couple of cold beers for the hour long ride to the airport. A cold beer on a sweaty Friday night just before a long vacation is a very delicious beer indeed.

Once we arrived at the airport we were surprised to find that check-in was available, and luckily they checked our bag all the way to Tbilisi, which would make our life easier in Dubai, and free us up for more convenient sightseeing during our layover. After checking in we went to find some dinner at one of the restaurants in Kansai airport, but at 9 pm shops were already starting to close. It was a little surprising to go into each restaurant and be told that there was no food available even though we were in a busy airport, but I guess Japan goes to sleep early. We managed to get some sushi as a last order in a restaurant, and then finally walked out to the gate to sit around and wait for the flight.

It was our first time on Emirates Airlines, and I was pleasantly surprised. The design and lighting of the plane was suitably exotic, and they played Arabian pop music when we were boarding to make things even more interesting. The crew was truly international – they boasted that they had crew from eight different countries and they spoke sixteen different languages between them. Very impressive. The food was quite good as well, even though we were eating “dinner” at around 2 am Japan time. I got a lot of sleep on the flight, and the darkened cabin even had tiny LED “stars” in the ceiling to create a nice sleeping atmosphere. We arrived in Dubai after about nine hours, at around 5 am local time.

Dubai’s airport was huge. It is hard to describe the scale of the airport, and later we found that we were only in one of the three terminals. They used buses to move people around between areas, and when we were walking we were walking a lot. I enjoyed the glitz and polish of the airport – it felt a little like a Las Vegas casino with all the flashy gold and jewels everywhere. Still tasteful, but right on the border of gaudy.

Since we had about five hours to kill we figured we’d head out to do some sightseeing. Immigration and customs were cursory and soon we found ourselves looking for transportation to Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. The metro system was closed until 8 am because it was Saturday, so we used a taxi. The driver knew exactly what we had in mind and drove us through the dark city for about twenty minutes until we arrived at the park surrounding the tower.

As soon as we stepped out of the air conditioned taxi we realized it was hot! My camera lens fogged right up, and the humidity was oppressive. I couldn’t believe that this was the temperature even this early in the morning. We just came from a muggy summer in Japan, so we were not overwhelmed. Still, I could feel that we were in the desert of the Middle East and not in Asia anymore.

The tower itself was as impressive as it should have been, and we took endless pictures of it, around it, and in front of it. There weren’t many people around so it was easy to cross streets and look around as much as we liked. The area around the tower was under serious construction, and later we found that most of Dubai is under the same conditions. They continue to build huge buildings and develop their infrastructure, hoping to vitalize their city before their oil runs out in 2029.

After exploring the neighborhood around the tower we walked underneath the pedestrian walkway (that was closed due to the early hour) until we reached the metro station. We waited there for about half an hour until the first train arrived, and then we headed off to Old Dubai.

On the train we could start to see some of the social stratification in the United Arab Emirates. There seemed to be a worker class, mainly in construction, and they looked Indian or Sri Lankan. The women tended to stay separate from unknown men and some train compartments were separated into women only areas, even within the same train car. Kuniko got a lot of attention (not sure if it was because she is Asian or because she is a woman), but I don’t think we felt like it was unsafe at any time. Mainly it was interesting for us to see a completely new culture. The trains themselves were very modern, made in Japan (by my company’s competitors) and operated without any staff from a central location.

Once we arrived at Old Dubai, we felt much more comfortable. This area of town was lined with shops, restaurants, and apartments. The social class was a little lower than downtown, and it looked like a comfortable and more fun place to spend time. We walked through on our way to a sightseeing spot in Kuniko’s guidebook, but it turned out to be a bit of a bust. Too touristy, not very authentic, and anyway mostly closed due to the early hour. We enjoyed just walking through the neighborhood. I think we’d be happy to spend more time there eating and looking around.

We took the train back to the airport, and mistakenly arrived at Terminal 3, when in fact our flight was leaving from Terminal 2. The staff explained that there was no free way to get from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2, and our only option was a taxi. We went back out to the taxi line and were assigned a luxury black taxi, and we could hear the disappointment in the driver’s voice when we said we were only going to Terminal 2. Still, it took a long time to get there, and again we could feel just how big the Dubai airport was. The taxi ride turned out to be expensive and used up the last of our dirham that we had prepared for the short visit. Inside Terminal 2 we had a little more time to kill so we went for some coffees at a Costa Coffee cafe. We ordered a Shawarma wrap to go along with it and we were pleasantly surprised how good it was. Kind of a middle eastern burrito, we hoped to have more on our return to the United Arab Emirates at the end of our trip.

The flight from Dubai to Tbilisi is only three and a half hours, flying straight over the Iranian desert and Tehran. We flew on a low-cost carrier called “Fly Dubai”, and since it was an LCC we had very low expectations. We ate and drank before boarding, and just napped and slept during the flight. We’ve had some experience with LCCs before, but apparently nobody else on the plane did.

I had never seen so many people ordering food and drink, complaining about this and that, and generally causing all kinds of problems for the rather stressed-looking staff. I imagine the job turnover at this company is pretty high. But soon enough we were descending on Tbilisi, and people could see the light at the end of the tunnel and stopped complaining so much.

We got off the plane, walked through a slightly dark airport, and then went through customs easily. We were relieved to see that our suitcase had made the trip along with us. We walked right through customs and were ready to get started with our vacation in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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A More Advanced Trip

August 4th, 2017 No comments

For our summer trip this year we kicked up the difficulty a couple notches. This time we were heading out to a part of the world that is not exactly on the beaten path, but certainly not a backwoods. A few years ago when staying in Moscow we had the opportunity to eat in a Georgian restaurant, and we were very happy with what we ate and drank. The wines were excellent, not all sweet like I had imagined, and the food was delicious: full of nuts, berries, eggplants and cheeses that came together nicely into a light but delicious meal that went perfectly with the wine.

Since that time, we had been hoping to visit Georgia ourselves, and to tag onto the trip a visit to Armenia, to try out Armenian brandy and learn more about that country.

So we spent a lot of time planning, and we set our expectations low, considering the infrastructure and standard of living would probably be less than what we are used to when traveling through Western Europe.

As it turned out it was a challenging trip, but also one of the more rewarding trips that we have taken. We saw a lot of new things, I became a little more comfortable around people wearing burqas, and we saw some parts of the world that were quite different from anything we’d seen before.

So let’s get down to it. Day by day, starting with our departure from Japan on August 4th, 2017.

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The In Between

August 2nd, 2017 No comments

A couple weeks ago we made a trip to San Diego, to help my parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. We had a great time with them, enjoying the cool weather, the beach atmosphere, and the guest appearances by various friends and relatives.

As usual we spent a lot of time eating during the trip, and we really focused on two things that are hard to find in Japan: Mexican food and BBQ. Luckily it was easy to find both around San Diego, and we'll have great memories (and photos) to flashback to all the good eating we did.

Now we're back in Japan, and wrapping up the work week before we head off to our next trip. On Friday night we'll head out to the Kansai airport to catch an overnight flight to Dubai, and after a brief stay in the hot desert of the United Arab Emirates we'll move on to the Republic of Georgia. Hopefully Putin won't be annexing while we're there.

Our summer trip last year was great, so it'll be tough to top it this year. The area we'll be visiting is a little off the beaten path, especially for Japanese people (no guidebooks for these countries in Japanese). It will be interesting to see if we have as much fun away from the more mainstream holiday locations this time.

I'll post some pics and a recap of the trip once we get back!

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Summer Break (#1)

July 12th, 2017 No comments

Summer is officially here, with plenty of hot, humid days and nights full of air conditioning and occasional sweat storms.  Summer is the biggest challenge for me living in Japan, and our usual strategy for dealing with it is to simply leave for a little while.

My company has two holidays in the summer months.  The first is next week, the so-called “power saving holiday”.  This is a holiday given to the employees of various factories around the Kansai area.  The factories voluntarily shut down on a rotational basis to help reduce power consumption during the hot summers.  Our factory shuts down from Monday to Wednesday, and it is an easy choice to take two more holidays on my own and get nine consecutive days off.

As luck would have it, my power saving holiday is very close to my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, so we’ll be headed to San Diego to help them celebrate the big event.  It should be a low key celebration, with just some time with family and no big day trips or huge parties.  The media have not been notified. 

It’ll be nice to be back in San Diego, and Kuniko and I have made a short list of things we’d like to do beyond spending time with the family.  We are hoping to go to Las Quatros Milpas for some authentic Mexican food, and if possible a trip to Hodad’s would hit the spot.  That’s about it – most of the time will be spent chilling with the family.

Once we get back from the trip we have just two weeks before we are off on another one, so we’ve been doing some planning and preparation for the next trip, too.  Hopefully it’ll be cooler in the Caucuses than it has been in East Asia so far this year.

Anyway, next stop is San Diego for some family time.  I’ll post pics and and a recap when we get back!

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Busan, South Korea

June 21st, 2017 No comments

Last weekend we did a quick trip to Busan to eat, drink, and break up our routine.  We accomplished all of the above, and learned a little about another part of Korea in the process.

We took just an hour flight over the Sea of Japan on Jin Air, a low-cost carrier out of Korea that we had never tried before.  They were pretty casual – the flight attendants wore golf shirts and tight jeans – but the price was right and we were completely satisfied.  

Once we arrived at Busan airport, it was an easy transfer to the train and subway systems, and there was no need for a car.  It is nice traveling in Asia and not having to worry about fighting traffic.  

One thing we noticed right away is that there wasn’t very much English around.  In Seoul there is a lot of English – signs, menus,  train schedules, everything.  Although it wasn’t completely absent, there was a sharp drop in the number of English words that we saw.  Everything was in Hangul, and since I have only been studying it for a couple of weeks it took a long time to read everything.  Even after reading it, I didn’t know very much Korean vocabulary, so it wasn’t that helpful.  Luckily the little  it of Korean that we did know was enough when combined with English keywords.  At one place we even were able to use Japanese to order, which was a first for our travels.

Our primary goal of the trip was to eat lots of delicious food, and we got right down to it.  Kuniko had spent a long time researching the most interesting foods and restaurants to try, and she had programmed everything into her smartphone so she guided us around the city effortlessly from one gourmet stop to the next.  

We had lots of great food and it would take too long to describe all of it, but some of our favorite dishes were the “mandu”, the Korean version of gyoza.  We had three different versions, all delicious.  One version was made up of tiny bite-sized dumplings that were boiled and splashed with sesame oil, and another were giant sized dumplings, about half the size of my fist, with perfectly balanced flavor.  The last version were more traditionally sized, but they were filled with glass noodles instead of meat, and some vegetables and spices to liven them up. All of them were great, and I think I liked the mandu the best of the trip.  

We also had a lot of noodles this trip.  The clear glass noodles seemed to be the most popular, although we saw other kinds as well.  We had our noodles mainly cold to fit the warm weather outside.  I was a little surprised that the noodles weren’t as spicy or garlicky as I had expected – but we were always able to add our own spices to liven them up even more.  One shopkeeper grew frustrated watching Kuniko stirring the noodles and took the bowl back from her, took it aside, and stirred it “correctly” for us.  She tasted a noodle from our bowl to make sure it was good, and then gave it back to us.  

Our last meal of Saturday night was outside at a food stand that was set up along a busy street.  The street was lined with food stands like these, with comfortable seats around the outside and a stainless steel bar to lean on while you ate.  The weather was perfect for outdoor dining, and watching people walk by while enjoying a bottle of Soju.   

There were two cooks at our food stand, but one of them spoke Japanese and we were able to order various foods.  We had fried egg, egg with sausage, pork and kimchi stir-fry, and a little plate of fruit “on the house”. We also ordered some octopus at the end of the meal, and we were surprised when the entire octopus arrived steamed at our table.  The staff gave me a pair of scissors and a plastic glove, and told me to get to work cutting it up.   I did my best, and left the head behind, knowing that was where all the yucky stuff lay in wait.  With the octopus came two different dipping sauces, and we really liked one made simply with sesame oil, garlic, and lots of salt.  

After a while the staff noticed that I hadn’t cut up the head so she walked over and started cutting it.  Just as she did she must have hit a pocket of octopus brains under pressure, and it sprayed a significant amount of goo onto her own blouse.  I was glad I hadn’t done it myself!

We over-ordered a little bit, but I think we just didn’t understand how much food was in each dish.  The portion size was quite large, and there was no warning from the staff that maybe we wouldn’t be able to finish everything.  Of course, we had been eating all day before arriving so maybe that had something to do with it.  We finally had to give up. The staff gave us a little grief for leaving a few pieces of octopus behind (especially since one staff was wearing a lot of our octopus innards on her shirt), but we settled up and left.  They overcharged us quite a bit (perhaps to cover the blouse cleaning bill?) but we were happy with the experience and dragged ourselves to our hotel to sleep off the big day.

A very impressive feature of Busan is its beaches.  We visited two, one larger and more famous, another smaller and more picturesque.  Both had clean white sand, plenty of space for everyone, and clear, clean water.  It was something I didn’t expect, and therefore was a pleasant surprise.  We walked around the beaches taking pictures and enjoying the fresh air for a long time.  One beach had a compressed air hose system set up to blow off the sand from your feet instead of using a water shower.  Very nice idea!

We also spent time walking through the street markets of Busan. There are some big “official” markets, filled with every sort of local meat, vegetable, tofu, fish cake, and spice that you could imagine.  Near our hotel was one that I thought was quite large, at least six square city blocks, but later we found another that made up almost an entire town, with shops focusing on clothes, seafood, and toys for kids.  Outside of these big markets were small stands set up just about anywhere on the street, and operated by entrepreneurs who were looking to make a quick buck.  The idea of selling stuff on the street was big in Busan, and it seemed like everyone was doing it.  

On the second day we walked through a huge fish market, and enjoyed seeing all the different sorts of fish on display.  Despite being an enormous market we could kind of understand that there was a limited selection of fish – and different shops were selling the same kinds of things.  I didn’t understand how you could have ten shops in a row selling the same dried fish for the same prices, but here they were.  Mysterious!

Our last meal in Busan was at a grilled meat restaurant. It took a while to find one since we were in the neighborhood of the fish market and most people came there to eat fish, not beef.  Eventually we found one, and had a really nice brunch of rib meat grilled with garlic and then wrapped in lettuce with spicy vegetables and ssamjan. The staff at the restaurant stayed at our table most of the time and cooked and distributed our food.  She was an older lady who knew that we didn’t understand her but didn’t seem to mind.  An old guy suddenly came into the restaurant with an empty cup and tried to get us to give him beer, but our helpful lady chased him away. With crab soup, and bowl of cold noodles in sweet and spicy sauce, and two big cold beers, we were in heaven.

We headed off to the airport afterwards, but due to some kind of technical misunderstanding with our reservation we had an extra couple of hours at the airport to kill.  Of course, we continued to eat and drink.  We had a cream puff stuffed with ice cream and sprinkled with green tea powder, a shaved ice dessert with mango, apple and cheesecake on top of ice and ice cream with condensed milk over the top, and we even sat outside on a patio on the rooftop and drank cold beer to kill some time.  The airport was great for hanging out and doing nothing, and soon enough it was time to catch our flight.

The whole trip was great, and just what we needed to refresh ourselves a little bit the rest of June and most of July.  I don’t know if we’ll be back soon, but Busan was just what we needed at just the right time.

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The Midpoint

June 16th, 2017 No comments

This time of year is usually pretty quiet for us.  We are working through a long stretch without any long holidays, and I sometimes feel a little burned out with my schedule of classes and endless stream of students.  There are ten weeks without any special holidays between early May and mid-July, and they can sometimes feel like a slog.

To avoid the sloggy feeling, we scheduled various events on the weekends to keep things fresh.  We hit a couple of beer festivals with Yoshi and Mamiko.  We have gone out for dinner at some restaurants and held cooking parties at home trying to make the dinner of our dreams.  

This coming weekend is the midpoint of the slog, so we’ve scheduled a weekend trip to Busan, South Korea.  We originally had hoped to head to Taiwan during this weekend, but we came across some dirt cheap tickets to Busan and we had to jump.  It’ll be our first time to the city, and our goals are strictly gastronomical. 

I don’t think there is a lot of culinary variety between Busan and Seoul, but we’ll keep our eyes open and we’ll be trying everything we can.  I’ll try to remember to take a picture of it before we scarf it down!

Once we get back we’ll be on the other side of the hump and then we’ve got plenty more upcoming travel.  We will be heading to California in July, then in August to Georgia, Armenia, and Dubai.  Finally we booked our winter trip and we’ll spend 10 days in Egypt in December and January. 

Lots of good things to look forward to lately.  Can’t wait to document all this when we get back! 

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