Phoenix raised from ashes – Saint Petersburg

This was part 5 and the last blog of the Siberia train trip we took from June 25-July 9, 2016.  The original blog was published in TravelPod.  This is an “Encore” of the blog.  Hope you enjoy it.

A 4 hours train ride from Moscow brought us to the historical St. Petersburg – the former capital of the Russian Empire and the pride and glory of Russia.  During World War II, St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad) was under the German army siege for 900 days. From September 1941 through January 1944, one third (nearly 800,000 people) of the city population died.  Many of the palaces, churches and all the precious art works in those buildings were either destroyed or stolen.  Seeing these devastation images, one could hardly believe how much effort and funding the Russians spent restoring all these historical buildings and arts back to their original majestic glories.  We saw many before and after pictures detailing how each piece of architecture, paintings, walls and furniture was meticulously restored back to the original. When we saw all the the fantastic treasurers of St. Petersburg, we could not help but admire the courage and pride of the St Petersburg residents in bringing their beloved city back from the ashes of WWII.

We stayed at Hotel Rossi, a 18 century building right by the Fontanka River. The remodeled room was modern, comfortable, yet still retains its old time charm. I especially enjoyed swimming in the quaint and beautiful underground spa. The Hotel is a 10 minute walk to the Faberge museum that is devoted to the creative work of the great Russian jeweler Carl Fabergé. The Museum’s collection includes nine Imperial Easter eggs that were made to the order of the last two Romanov Tsars — the Emperors Alexander III and Nicolas II. In addition to these exquisite jewel eggs, there are other beautiful cloisonné art works done in the Faberge workshop. My favorite is a Orthodox icon of Madonna and Christ Child totally made with pearls, some of them smaller than a sesame seeds, just an incredible piece of art.

We met up with our Russian tour guide in the morning and started our Russian Cultural experience at Tsarskoye Selo (Catherine Palace) which was associated with two famous Empresses -Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine the Great. Elizabeth loved the gilded Baroque gold decoration while Catharine preferred more subdue Neo-classical style. From room to room, one can easily recognize the signature character of each empress. The most famous Amber Room was destroyed and stripped clean during WWII, but now it is restored backed to its previous glory with different hue of ambers completely covering the ceiling, walls and floor.

Next stop was the world famous Hermitage museum which, in addition to being a grand palace, it also has a great collection of 2500 paintings, 10,000 gems, silver and porcelain by Catherine the Great. In the evening, we returned to Catherine’s private theater to watch the classic Russian Swan Lake Ballet. Talk about living like a queen for a day!

Peterhof – the palace built by Peter the Great in 1717 was 30 km west of St, Petersburg. It’s magnificent landscape includes 150 water fountains, 4 cascades and many flower gardens. It has an amazing water system that requires no pumps . Water for the fountains is supplier by a gravity-fed water system, twenty-two kilometres long, naturally fitted in the natural slope of the terrain.

In the evening, we walked the central street enjoying the ambiance of the city. We had a dinner at a Russian Cafe, a sweet from a 100 year old bakery, watched a soap bubble man played and even spent some time petting cats in a cat cafe. No wonder St Petersburg is the most visited city in Russia.

We spent our last day visiting the Church on Spilled Blood – a church built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Over 16 tons of marbles, rhodonite, jasper and many different stones were used to produce the vivid colors of orthodox icons in mosaics that covered every square inch of the church from floor to ceiling. We have seen our shared of majestic churches and religious art works during our travels, but I would say that we have never seen anything quite like this one.

After our journey through Dr. Zhivago’s country, we admire the Russian people and their spectacular art works even though their government’s political view are often at odds with ours. We hope that more Americans will visit Russia and enjoy their history and culture like we did.

Gingkin Khans’s Kingdom

This was part 2 of the Siberia train trip we took from June 25-July 9, 2016.  The original blog was published in TravelPod.  This is an “Encore” of the blog.  Hope you enjoy it.

We boarded a private train at Beijing station at mid-night and rode through the Gobi Desert. This part of Gobi was more dry land than sand desert.  We saw many mud houses in small villages along the way.  We arrived at Ulan Bater – the Capital of Mongolia – on the afternoon of the 2nd day. Here we met our Russian tour guide Valerie and transferred to the Tsar’s Gold Train – our home for the next 10 days.

Mongolia had a long history with China, Mongol warrior were both admired and feared by Chinese. After all, the Great Wall was built against the raids of these “barbarian” from the North. The Wall did not stop the descendants of Genghis Kahn to invade China and established the dynasty of “Yuan” which ruled China for about 100 years (1271-1368). Although many Chinese still consider Mongolia as part of China, the Mongol people has a very different view point.  They are not happy that part of their land is the “Inner Mongolia” Province in China.  It is an insult to call them “Outer Mongolia” (as many Chinese do). I was told that Mongolia is a democratic country and the people are very proud of their heritage.   A small country sandwiched between Russia and China,  Mongolia struggled to keep their independence.  Their ancient script has been modernized to Cyrillic which is similar to the Russian alphabet and China is their major (80%) trading partner.

We toured Ulan Bater – a fairly modern city with several ancient Buddhist temples.  1/3 of Mongolians are still nomadic and live in their traditional Ger tending their animals. We spent a night inside a Ger in Gorkhi-Tereji national park. The Ger is a tent made of wool panels supported by wooden posts. Two experienced person can set it up or take it down in less than an hour. In the center of the Ger is a steel stove to keep the spacious room warm. However, instead of an outhouse, we enjoyed the luxury of a modern toilet and shower facility near by. We took nice long walks to check out the animals, climbed a steep hill to admire the wild flowers in the meadow. We also visited a local nomadic family, tasting their home made cheese, sweets and delicious yogurt.

A mini demonstration of wrestling, Mongolia throat singing (check out the video), traditional dance, archery and horse racing were arranged for us. The master archer was the 2005 national champion and he strike the target 6/6 times over the distance of 65 meter.  The horse racing were done by young boys 5-12 years old riding bareback. These are all traditional skills Mongolians still treasure even now.  We reboarded the train and headed toward the Russia broader.


Emperor’s Resort

This was part 1 of the Siberia train trip we took from June 25-July 9, 2016.  The original blog was published in TravelPod.  This is an “Encore” of the blog.  Hope you enjoy it.

Many people travel to Russia by plane, or more popularly in recent years, by cruise ship. We, however, decided to make this trip with a more adventurous route by riding the worlds longest rail line, the Trans Siberia Rail (5000 miles) from Beijing to Moscow.

Our journey started at Beijing where my good friend Shiqiu welcomed us with a meal of delicious noodles (an old Beijing Tradition). We visited with her family and old friends who used to study at Mizzou. Her granddaughter Yi-Yi still remember some English words that she learned while staying with us in Columbia two years ago. Since Ray and I visited Beijing many times before, Shiqiu suggested that we take a trip to Chengde, 300 km north east of Beijing in Hebei Province, to visit the Qing dynasty emperor’s summer mountain resort.

The Mountain Resort (避暑山庄) was built between 1703-1792 during the peak period of two famous Qing emperors- Kongxi and Qianlong. The resort is divided into three regions – the mountain, the lake and the plain. Puning (universal Peace) Temple has the worlds largest wooden Buddha with thousands of small Buddha sculptures all surrounding it. This place is being remodeled for the first time in 200 years which definitely made it difficult to take good pictures

The imperial temples were built purposely in the architectural styles of the ethnic minorities to foster relations with the different groups and helped to safeguard the Mountain Resort.  The small Potala Palace is a smaller model of the original one in Lhasa, Tibet.   The Tablet of all temple names were written in 4 languages (Chinese, Mongolia, Manchuria and Tibetan).  The biggest temple building was named “All religions were one” highlighting the emperors’ effort to be respectful for the other groups’ religions. The 62 hectors of manmade landscape of the Mountain Resort perfectly integrates with its natural environment and harmoniously layout in the practice of the traditional Chinese geomantic fengshui.



Impression of Moscow – Revised

This was part 4 of the Siberia train trip we took from June 25-July 9, 2016.  The original blog was published in TravelPod.  This is an “Encore” of the blog.  Hope you enjoy it.

All the years we looked at Moscow with disdain and fear, so it was quite a surprise to see how beautiful this city is under a sunny blue sky. The historical red square is full of magnificent buildings with colorful dome tops. Restoration efforts are everywhere from art galleries to Orthodox churches.  The traffic was madding in Moscow because of all the repairing of streets and construction going on in preparation for the 2018 European Soccer Cup.  In the outskirts of the city modern high rises soared with unique architecture designs.  Shopping malls full of internationally known name brand stores (here capitalism definitely overshadowed communism). Russian people have experienced plenty of hardships under various political regimes but they are very resilient. The Russians we met told us that life has improved from the very difficult period of 1990s after the breakup of the USSR. The embargo in 2014 after Putin’s takeover of the Crimea, however, has impacted the lives of many Russian citizens.

The Kremlin was only a small fortress in 1147.  In the XVI century, the Moscow Kremlin acquired its present-day look under Ivan III.  The Red Square, a 1600 ft long plaza was full of tourists. It is surrounded by museums, Cathedrals, Lenin’s Mausoleum and the famous department store GUM. The twisted onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral (1552), of course, is the most recognizable building in the square.  We stayed two extra days in Moscow after the rail trip ended and went back to the Red Square in the evening when the whole place took on a enchanted quality under the night sky. Russian families with children, along with tourists, walked around taking pictures,eating ice creams and enjoying the evening.

We venture out to visit Izmaylovo Crafts Market which is about 7 km away from our hotel .  Since we were forewarned about the unreliability of taxi drivers in Moscow, we decided to try Uber.  I have the app on my iphone but never used it before.  Within 3 minutes after entering our pick up and destination location, one driver came up, took us to Izmaylovo and the fee (about $4) was charged directly to my credit card.  No mess, no worry even though we could only communicate with our driver with a smile and “Spasiba “, (thank you in Russian).  It was so easy we used Uber 4 more times while in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  What a convenient way to get around in a foreign country.  I am a firm believer of Uber now.

Izmaylovo was another surprise with its unique and intricate ethnic buildings from various regions of Russia.  We found many craft booths, along with flea markets and excellent food stalls.  We spent a very pleasant afternoon in this cultural place.

We met our local tour guide and she took us to Novodevichy Convent.  This convent was founded by a Tsar in 1524 and was known as the convent for ladies of noble birth. Today there are still about 30 nuns and priests residing inside the Convent.   Behind the Convent is a cemetery where many famous Russians were buried.  In addition to politicians like Yeltsin and Brezhnev, generals and astronauts, many painters, dancers, opera singers, musicians, actors and writers are also buried in this national cemetery which shows a very high regards for art and artists in Russia.

We took the world famous Moscow subway back to hotel.  It was opened in 1935 and each station has a different theme and unique decorations.  However, all station names and announcement were in Russian (no English in sight) which could make it difficult for foreign tourists to use the subway without a translator.

Our last morning in Moscow was spent at Tretyakov Gallery.  The gallery was founded by Moscow merchant Pavel Tretyakov who collected over 2000 paintings by Russian artists between 1832-1898.  He donated all the paintings, along with his home to the city.  These paintings opened a unique window to Russian’s daily life in the 19th century.  It also included paintings of famous writers like Leo Tolstoy and Pushkin.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a river cruise and we saw many sunbathers and bicyclists along the banks of the Moscow River.  In the evening, we took in the visually stunning National Dance Show “Kostroma”.  The program showcased many Russian folklores in fantastic costumes and exquisite dance routines.  We enjoyed our experience in Moscow and our impression of this city changed dramatically after seeing this very interesting place.

The Big Apple


This is part 1 of an “Encore” blog of my trip to New York in Aug 29-Sept. 8, 2015.  The original blog was published on TravelPod.  Hope you enjoy it.

All my friends know that I am a big fan of Broadway musicals.  When I read that the famous Chinese Opera Singer Zhang Huo Ding (张火丁)was coming to Lincoln Center to perform the Beijing Opera’s,  “the Legend of the White Snake”, it didn’t take a lot of persuasion to get me to the Big Apple.  I was very lucky that my good friend Frances agreed to accompany me on this trip.  Frances loves Chinese language and cultural and just like me, enjoys the shows and ethnic foods.  We plan to take our time walking around different parts of New York and sample street food and various ethnic delicacies like a true New Yorker.

We know that the best way to explore NY is by foot and public transportation. We each bought a seven day unlimited usage Metro card for $31 which was essential and a valuable purchase. We used it for both subway and bus rides. NY subway is old, smelly and dirty but it runs 24/7 and 365 days and can get you almost anywhere in NY. Manhattan is an island about 14 miles long and 2 mile wide and is divided into grids – Avenues are going South to North and the numbered streets going East to West. Time Square, where all the tourists gathered, is at 5th Ave and 42 Street. Once you understand the layout of NY, it is easy to explore even for a directional challenged person like me.

I found Hotel 3 West Club from on 51st Street and 5th Ave because of its location and reasonable price (for Manhattan standard). I didn’t realize how good the location is until we checked in. The hotel is half a block from 5 th Ave. close to Saint Patrick church and across street from the Radio City Music Hall. We can walk to Rockefeller Plaza in 5 minutes and Time Square in 10. The hotel is quite, clean, and old fashion. We found out that this hotel belongs to the Women’s National Republican Club. We did see a few conservative and well dressed ladies in the lobby but they didn’t ask us to join the club so I guess I will return to this hotel when we visit NY next time. Another great find is the little deli next door called Simple Foods. We can get a good hot breakfast or a bagel with cream cheese and lox plus a good cup of coffee for $5. I doubted that we could have found any better deals than this.

One of our goals in NY is to see a Broadway Musical Show. We were very luck to find 40% discount tickets for 2015 Tony Award Winner “Fun Home” the first day we arrived there. The show was in the Circle in the Square Theater. The performances of the young actors/actresses almost surpassed the adults. It is quite a different type of show and we enjoyed it very much.

There are many different type of NY Passes one can purchase online with big discounts on activities, museums and tours. We purchased the “Smart Decision” 3 activities pass for $72 and found it a good deal. One of the activities we selected was the Harlem Cultural walk. Our tour guide Reggae Reg is a Hip Pop singer, the Captain of the band called Crash Crew with several records under his belt. Reggae took us first to a Hip Pop Revolution photo exhibition in The Museum of The City of New York. Hip pop culture originated on the streets of NY City in the 1970s. The four elements of Hip pop incorporate Deejaying (turntables), Emceeing (rapping), Breaking (dance) and Graffiti Art. We walked pass the Wall of Graffiti into Spanish Harlem area. Reggae told us even with its bad reputation, Harlem now is one of the safest communities in NY. There was a lot of gentrification going on and a very diverse population bustling around. I was glad to see many community gardens among the housing projects. Harlem is a historical place, Malcolm X, ML King, the Apollo Theater, Milton jazz club and many Baptist churches. Every block has some significant building and stories. We ended our tour with a lunch in a local favorite soul food restaurant called Jacob. Its buffet offers authentic soul and Caribbean dishes. At $5.99 per pound, it was good not only for the soul and stomach but also the wallet. After a long day of walking, we took it easy and enjoyed an evening cruise in NY Harbor. The  NY landscape was illuminated brilliantly against the night sky.  Lady Liberty’s torch was shining in the calm sea. The  NY evening was enchanting and peaceful.

My Junior High school classmates hosted a lunch for me in a Chinese restaurant in NJ. Five of us took the bus from the Port Authority bus terminal to NJ to meet with the rest of the group. What a surprise to see my 8th and 9th grade science teacher Ms. Liu and her husband there. I told Teacher Liu she was the reason why I had chosen Chemistry as a career. After half a century, It is nice finally able to thank her in person how much I appreciated her teaching. Teacher Liu and her husband gave each of us a framed calligraphy with the characters of our names inserted in beautiful phrases. What a thoughtful and unique gift. We will always treasure this present. Our classmate Lee May, who started the Ai-Ban Yahoo group, unfortunately lost her courageous struggle with breast cancer in July. Her good friend Dr. Lin came to our luncheon and shared the last moment of Lee May’s life with us. Our classmates and Lee May’s friends got together and donated a bench in her name to the Botanic Garden on Rutgers University campus. She will always be remembered in our hearts and memories. At night, we took the Subway to Greenwich village, meandering in Washington Square Park, mingling with students from NY University, enjoyed a moon cake from a Chinese bakery and had a wonderful salad and duck burger at a popular restaurant called Bareburgers. What a fun day in NY!

Onboard Tsar’s Gold Train

This was part 3 of the trip taken from June 25-July 9, 2016.  The original blog was published in TravelPod.  This is an “Encore” of the blog.  Hope you enjoy it.

My image of Siberia was from the movies ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Dr. Zhivago” – a vast empty land where political prisoners were sent to perform hard labor in this inhospitable land. But the notion of traveling the world’s longest railway (5753 miles) in the comfort of “luxury cottages” appealed to our sense of adventure. We switched from the Chinese train to the Tsar’s Gold train at the border town of Erlian, China. The “Zarengold” Trans-Siberian Rail trip is operated by a German Company but staffed with a Russian crew. This private charter train has 21 cars including 14 passenger, 4 dinning, 1 staff, 1 luggage and engine cars. Each car has two bathroom and one shower. Our cabin in the “classic” category has two beds with one desk in front of a window, not too big but adequate and fairly comfortable. We traveled on this train for 11 days with two overnight breaks – one night at a Ger in Ulan Bater and another night in a hotel in Irkutsk. 9 nights on a train was the longest rail travel for most of us. It is different from a cruise ship because it has less space to move around and needs good balance to walk through the length of many cars. The meals were decent and included many traditional Russian dishes. We tasted Vodka and caviar. Lucky for us, professor Michael Wilcox from Utah was onboard and gave us several very good lectures on Russian history.

We met people on the train from all over the globe.  Majority of them came from Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Germany.  There was a group of Americans from Utah (Mormons paying tribute to the Old Believers in the Orthodox Church).  In our English speaking group, we had Aussies, Brits, Canadians,Israelis and Singaporeans. There were only 5 American. 3 from California and Ray and I.

Siberia covers 13.1. million square kilometers, approximately 77% of Russia total territory or 10% of planet Earths land surface. It has extremely cold climate in the winter (average low is in the -40 degree C range) but in the summer the temperature can be in the 60s. The soil is poor and dry. The active layer is less than a meter deep. That is why we didn’t see bigs tree in Siberia, most of them are shrubs, birch and pine.

Siberia was inhabited by indigenous people as early as 300,000 years ago. Nomadic tribes such as Huns, Mongols and Manchus frequently fought battles in the southern part of Siberia. Russia emperors started to settle this area in the 13th century. We went through 8 time zones and gained hours as we headed west. We didn’t see many big agricultural fields except patches of potatoes . Most houses along the route are wooden structure showing signs of hard life there. Western Siberia is swampy and boggy, lots of mosquitos and bugs that made people’s life tortuous. This area, however, is rich in minerals and forest products. The Gold rush of the 1850s made it the wild wild East just like the wild West in the States.

The train averaged about 100 km an hour so it was not a fast train. We made several stops along the way. Ulan Uda, Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Kazan before reaching Moscow. Traveling through Siberia (plus a 500 page book “The Conquest of a Continent” Ray studied through out the trip) gave us an insight of the history, people and life in Siberia.The train made a special trip along the Circum-Baikal route which runs along the shore of the Southern extremity of the Lake Baikal. This track was constructed in 1896-1900 and was quite an engineering achievement. There were 39 tunnels and 86 km of retaining walls built to link the “Golden Buckle on the steel belt of Russia”

We took a boat ride on Lake Baikal – the world’s oldest and deepest (5000 ft deep) fresh water lake. It’s coast line measures 1300 miles and contains 20% of the world’s fresh water. Over 300 streams and rivers flow into Lake Baikal but only the Angara river flows out. We didn’t get to see the world’s only fresh water seal but did taste the local famous Omul fish which was delicious. Some of the brave passengers took a dip in the lake (water temperature at 7 degree C) and earned a certificate and a free glass of Vodka. A Siberian picnic was served by the shore and a musician played beautiful local songs on an accordion. We got off the train and spent a day in the town of Irkutsk – the Paris of Siberia. We saw many wooden houses with intricate patterns which was very popular in this region. We saw the brightly painted Epiphany Cathedral and the status of Alexander III who was instrumental in building the Trans Siberia Railroad. We even enjoyed a concert in a home of an 1800s exile whose wife, with the help of her wealthy relatives built a beautiful home that used to host mini musical concerts. Our Hotel in Irkutsk had a wonderful view of the Angara River. The weather was a pleasant 68 degree. – perfect weather to walk around and explore.

In Kazan, one our fellow travelers from England accidentally found her husband at the Cauldron wedding chapel.  Her husband was on a Classic car rally driving 13,000 km from the Great Wall to Paris.  They were not able to communicate much due to the poor connection of cell phones. What a surprise when they saw each other and we all got invited to view the 110 classic cars in the rally.  That was quite a treat!

For one of the off the train dinners we went to a summer home (Dacha) about 30 minutes from town. The family has a large yard filled with magnificent gardens and a small barn for their goats and chickens. All the dishes served were produce from her garden. The cabbage salad was the best I had ever eaten. The cucumber, the tomatoes all were fresh and packed with flavor. The vegetable soup were topped with home made sour cream, the potatoes and meat balls were cooked with herbs and the spicy mustard (ray’s favorite) were also made by the family. During the meal, our guide Valeri showed us how Russian made vodka toasts to families, to friends and dinner guests. It was the best meal we had on the trip.

The People We Met

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One unique features of all OAT trips is the opportunity to interact with locals.  On  our way from Kenya to Tanzania we stopped at a roadside shop and met Jane – a woman wedging a personal war against female genitalia mutilation.  She said that  girls as young as 9 was cut in a very painful procedure and would never experience  joy for sex.  It is illegal in Kenya now but some Maasai villages are still doing it.  She was outcasted from her own family and village but established a boarding school for young women she rescued and taught to make and sell crafts to support themselves.

In “A day in the life of a Maasai village” program, we met a very progressive chief Joseph.  After completed his education as a teacher, he retuned home to built schools and improve the life of the villagers.  We learned how to milk goats, built fire from wooden sticks, using cow dung to plaster walls.  We also had frank conversations with village women about marriage, child rearing and their dreams in life.   When asked to name one item that most impact their life after interactions with outsiders like us, one lady looked at us and said ‘Everyone of you is educated!’

OAT supports a Maasai village school which we visited.   The school has classes from kindergarten through 6th grades.  Most of the children are from nearby villages, their parents would pay for the uniforms if they could afford, otherwise the government and donors like OAT travelers would help out.  We all brought pencils, crayons, books, world maps and games for the students.   The students entertained us with song and dances.  I shared a book about Columbia, Missouri with one of the 6th grade girl and encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a science teacher.

We stopped at the luscious garden of Coffee Lodge at Arusha, Tanzania for lunch.    The lunch was great but the visit to Shanga workshop in the lodge was quite an eye opener.  This is a special place that employee people with disabilities.  They make beads, glassware, fabric arts, metal sculptures using all recycled materials.  Their motto is “KINDNESS IS A LANGUAGE BLIND PEOPLE SEE AND DEAF PEOPLE HEAR”.  We met some very friendly workers proudly show off their products.   Shanga now is a very popular destination for tourists.

Along the way, we came upon a community watering post.  Majority of the households in this area still need to get their water from the water station.  They carry huge bucket on their head or if they are fortunate, a cart.  Most of the houses are huts made with mud.  The small rooms, usually with bare essentials like bed and mosquitoes net, are shared by the family.  However, one entrepreneur couple set up a shop to sell beer made in their home.

We visited a small town at the foothill of Great Rift Valley.   With irrigation, this area is quite fertile and agricultural.  We went to local market, purchased ingredients and went to a local coffee farmer’s home.   This family has a small coffee farm, process and hand roast their own coffee and it was one of the best coffee I tasted on this trip.  I bought two bags of them to take home.  The hostess then prepared lunch using the ingredients we bought at the market.  She rolled a stick in her palm to mix the polenta and it worked as good as an electrical beater.  She also has a log hanging under her eaves, it has a mteal plate with holes nailed on it.  It turns out to be a beehive.  How creative!

Near Karatu region, we had the rare opportunity to visit several tribes.  Hadzabe is hunter/gatherer and live a primitive nomadic life.  They speak with a clicking sounds  like bush people.  The government tried to settle them in housing with access to medical care and education.  Within six months they all left and went back to their traditional life style.  We also met tribes specialized in wood carving.   Their intricate ebony sculptures are exhibited in galleries and popular in stores.   Another tribe melt scrape metals over hot coal to make tools, arrows and jewelry.   Some beautifully jeweled Datoga ladies welcomed us to their hut and showed us how to grind corns using stones.

These encounters with local people was indeed enjoyable discovery and leaning experiences.  Although all of us come from very different backgrounds,  smiling faces always bridge the gap and bring people together.



Treasures of Tanzania

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Tanzania is famous for its vast wilderness area, 25% of the country is designated as park land and conservation areas.  We visited Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti National Parks.  Each park has its own characters and distinctive landscapes.

Tarangire, with a river flow right through it, has dense vegetation of acacia and a variety of unique trees.  Huge baobab, with its thick trunk and upward clawing branches, is a favorite of elephants, they like to bore holes in it to get to the tender, moist center.  During the dry season in October, large number of wildebeest, zebras showed up in Tarangire in search of water.  We stayed at Tarangire Simba Lodge where a water hole in front of the lodge attracted many wild animals including a big family of elephants.  What a luxury to be able to observe wildlife sitting at the lodge’s platform.

Lake Manyara Park, situated between the high ridges of the Great Rift Valley is dominated by the lake that brimming with thousands of birds.  We also caught a glance of a ‘tree-climbing’ lion.   In this park we found large troops of  baboons, buffalo, and hippos.  Two new animals for me – banded mongoose and black backed jackal were fansnating and very cute.

The Ngorongoro Crater formed 3 million years ago during a volcanic eruption.  In 1974, a team of scientist discovered the earliest human form (dubbed as Lucy) nearby.  A museum now is being built to display this important part of human history.  The geology of the crater floor makes it a great place to spot the ‘Big Five’ –  elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard and we saw them all!

Serengeti – ‘Endless Plains’ in Maasai language – spans 12,000 sq. mi.  What makes it so unique was how active the animals were.  The  migrating wildebeest and zebra walking in single file that stretches miles long.  Any movement nearby would spook them running frantically through the plain and river.  I have never heard of Zebra making noises before and was surprised to hear them barking like dogs.  We saw a lioness dragging her newly killed zebra to the shade;  a comical looking warthog marched toward a lounging leopard, challenge her authority (the leopard just ignore him).  A group of Marabou Stork, spreading  their 7 feet wings to cool off, giraffe stretch their neck to pick leaf from the treetop.  There was a magnificent male Impala herding his large group of females away from potential young bucks and  Kirk’s Dik Dik (the smallest antelope) darted around under bushes.  At the visitor centers, we found the Rock Hyrax (looks just like a very tamed big rat) snuggled under our picnic table.  Who can believe  that this little creature actually is the closest living relative to the elephant!   The hippos piled on top of each other in a pretty smelly slimy pool while two alligators sun themselves nearby.  All of these wildlife in their natural environment made the long bumpy landcover ride and dusty road all worthwhile.  After a full day’s game drive, we then relaxed in the sunset over a tranquil Serengeti plain – now that is paradise !


The Best of Kenya

Shuzhen and I flew from NY to Nairobi, the Capital and the largest city in Kenya.   We met our OAT (Oversea Adventure Travel) leader Adan and the other 7 members in our group.  All 9 of us are great fans of wildlife and all very excited about this tour.  We spent a short time in the Nairobi National Museum learning the history and the cultural of Kenya but the skeleton of a ‘big tuskers’ with her long tusks reached the ground was especially impressive.  Unfortunately there are less than 30 of these creatures alive in the world.   We then visited David Sheldrick Wildlife trust for orphaned elephants. Most of the babies were rescued from the wild when they lost their mothers.   They were bottle fed and had to be taught how to roll in mud and blow dust on themselves.  We also visited the Conservation Center for the endangered Rothschild giraffe – their numbers plummet in recent years due to habitats lost. Those giraffes learned to take foods from the visitors even directly from their mouth.   The last place we visited was the home and museum of Karen Blixen – the author of ‘Out of Africa’ . In addition to many books she wrote, she was also a very accomplished painter.

We left Nairobi and headed to Lake Nakuru National Park.  Kenya’s two lane highways is very crowded and chaotic.  The road filled bumper to bumper with loaded trucks   making their ways to Mombasa harbor.  Cars passing them from both left and right sides.  Luckily we had very experienced drivers to get us to the park safely.

For game drives, our group were divided into two Land rovers with pop-up tops.  The roads were bumpy and dusty but the sighting of wildebeests, zebras, elephants, baboons and all different kinds of antelopes got everyone jumping on their seats and clicking nonstop.  Both black and white rhinos are on the endangered species list but Lake Nakuru, with a commendable conservation effort, has seen the increase of  their populations.  We then drove through the Great Rift Valley toward Amboseli Park which is in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro (the tallest mountain in Africa) .  This park shelters over 400 species of birds.  Between Adan’s vast knowledge and Regina’s Wildlife of East Africa book, I was able to learn the names of many beautiful birds.  Even the starlings (called Superb for a reason) came in with florencent blue and green feathers.  Some of my favorites are Helmeted Guineafowl,  Grey-crowned Crane, Bee-eaters and Malachite Kingfisher. What a paradise for bird lovers!

In the evening we stayed in “tent” lodges where the rooms are spacious and mosquito net covers the bed.  The solar heated outdoor shower was a favorite for all travelers (only a giraffe is tall enough to peek over the tall walls).  The dinners usually were chicken/beef/lamp cooked in mild Indian spices along with vegetables, salads, rice and potato.  Sometimes we had fish.  The staff were always very attentive and pleasant. What an enjoyable way to explore East Africa with comfort!







Missouri Gems

Columbia was one of the prime spots to watch the total solar eclipse on August 21.   An old friend Vivian from Milwaukee came to visit us for this once in a lifetime event.   During her stay, we took her around and found out that, with all the international trips we do, we sometimes forget that there are interesting and beautiful spots right in our own backyard.  We visited the Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, MO (a small town 30 miles from Columbia) .   In 1946,  Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech which put Fulton on the map.   The Westminster College has hosted many US Presidents and world leaders.  It is a must see if you ever come through this part of country.

During the Labor Day weekend, the Missouri Botanic Garden hosted a Japanese Festival, featuring the 14 acre Japanese Garden – the largest one in North America .  My garden friends and I drove to St. Louis for the day.   It was a gorgeous sunny and  cool September day.   The festival has many programs but with the limited time, we were only able to attend a few including a visit to the Japanese tea house.  There were also many young people dressed up as ‘animes’ (animated character) chasing Pokémon all over the garden.  This sure was  a different and unique visit of the MBG.

I learned about the Prairie Garden Trust from my yoga teacher   It is a 600 acre prairie in New Bloomfield (just 10 miles from Fulton) set aside by Domke family.  Since 1970s, they planted many native plants and built a visitor center.  The PGT has many ponds and trails to explore.   With the wild flowers blooming and butterflies fluttering, it is one of the secret gems of Missouri most people never heard about it.   Here is their website   You just have to send them an email if you want to visit this lovely place.

Here is the link to my google album where you can see a collection of photos of these magic places in my neighborhood.  Enjoy!