Sunday, January 29, 2012

Canopy Walk at FRIM

Today we went to FRIM, the Forestry Research Institue of Malaysia. It wasn't very far away, maybe 30 minutes from Mont Kiara where we are staying. It's a large area of jungle wilderness that attempts to preserve the natural jungle surrounding KL and promote awareness of the trees and other plants that are indigenous to this area.

That all being said, this would be just a nice humid walk in the jungle if it was not for a unique feature called the canopy walk. A series of narrow boards suspended between ropes and cables high above the jungle floor, it provides literally a bird's eye view of the environment.

As my faithful friends and blog visitors know, sometimes I am afraid of heights, but not always. An ill-advised walk at night on a railroad trestle over a river long ago in my college years left me paralyzed with fear. A back-packing trip through the Olympic Penninsula that involved many crossings of a creek over logs exasperated Lee to no end, since rather than use the logs I removed my hiking boots and waded through the icy water, dried my feet and put my shoes back on, only to repeat this action again, and again, and again.

But the bridge walk in Sydney Harbor was easy, even though it was very high up, because there were protected guard rails that I could hold on to. I had seen pictures of the canopy walk, and it looked like something I could do, and I was right.

The first part of this walk involved a short but steep walk up the mountainside to the start of the canopy walk. Quite a shock to the system after Hong Kong. We started by 10 am and it was a cloudy day, so it wasn't too hot yet, maybe 80F, but of course it was very humid, and we were soon drenched.

Once we arrived at the canopy walk, it was only a short climb up a ladder and there we were. For once words really don't do this experience justice, so just take a look:

There were 4 walkways. We had to keep ourselves spaced out along them.

On the platforms between each walkway only 4 people were allowed, so periodically we needed to wait until the people ahead of us moved .

We could see the city in the distance.

We were surrounded by the sounds of birds and other small animals, although we couldn't see them.

It was kind of scary, but in an exhilarating, good way.

It was a unique experience and I'm glad we went!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hong Kong and the Year of the Frozen Dragon

First of all let me just say, it's frigging COLD here! You all can laugh at me, frankly I'm laughing at myself. It's only 45F. But I forgot. 45 is unbelievably cold here. Most people's apartments don't have heat, and neither does our hotel room. I'm currently writing this in a Starbucks where it's nice and toasty, and crowded, because lots of people are looking for somewhere warm to hang out.

Part of the reason it feels so cold here is that it's also very damp. Like most places, when it gets cold here the humidity drops. But here that means that instead of having 99% humidity, it drops to 85%. And on top of that it's rainy as well. But as Lee said yesterday, you don't visit Hong Kong for the weather. And I'm very grateful that I can pull my puffy down coat out of my suitcase and look like just another Hong Konger,freezing to death in 45 degree weather.

Our hotel room is actually very nice. We are staying at the Bishop Lei once more, both for the price and the location. Bishop Lei. Right on Robinson Road in Midlevels, it's very close to where we used to live, so it feels like we are "home". It's not fancy, but it's clean and comfortable, and if you ask for a corner room, it's even somewhat roomy.

Actually this time we asked for their highest, nicest room, and ended up with the Bishop Lei equivalent of a penthouse! The room has two floors, a spiral staircase, a glassed in porch and a large bathroom. Even though there's no heat there is a plugin radiator that we can huddle around, thank God.

I need to pause for a minute here and describe how I flew to Hong Kong this time. I flew first class on Cathay Pacific, and paid half of what my business class seat cost when I came here in February. Some friends of ours told us about a pretty amazing website called www.alphaflightguru.com. If you want to fly business overseas (it's not for domestic or economy class tickets) and your flights are somewhat flexible they can probably find you a great deal. It doesn't always work, but this time it worked perfectly for me.

I know some of you travel so much for work or pleasure that you have accumulated zillions of miles, so maybe you've flown first class on an Asian airline before. I've flown business but not first, and let me tell you, it's a whole other level of pampering. My inner princess was nurtured and indulged to the max.

There were only 7 first class seats on my flight. Each seat was like a little cabin unto itself, with a large seat where two people could visit facing forward, and a third seat facing backwards. There are several large storage areas, including a little closet where you can hang up your coat. They give you a set of pj's and slippers from Shanghai Tang. There are 4 bathrooms, and a flight attendant for every two people, maybe more. For once in my life I didn't feel at all hesitant about pressing my little buzzer whenever I needed something.

My flight was routed through Vancouver, and left New York at 10pm. I decided it was best if I tried to stay awake until we left Vancouver. This would start to put me on Hong Kong time. It worked pretty well. I ate dinner, watched a couple of movies....when we left Vancouver I went into the bathroom to change into my pajamas. When I came back out my cabin had been transformed into an ingenious little bed, with a quilt that covered the seat and had openings for the seatbelt so that it didn't hinder you. It was very nice and comfortable and I was able to go right to sleep. Unfortunately I only slept for around 3 hours. I ended up getting up for awhile and having a snack. Then my flight attendant brought me some camomile tea with honey and I fell asleep again for awhile.

One of the nicest things about this experience was getting to eat whenever I wanted. And when it was time to get up and change back into my clothes, when I returned my bed had been magically transformed back into a cabin again.

Okay, back to Hong Kong. So far we haven't done a whole lot, but then we don't need to in Hong Kong. I landed here Saturday morning. Lee had arrived from Sri Lanka on Friday, so as soon as I got myself cleaned up we headed straight to Maxims for dim sum. We ate all our favorite dumplings, with egg tarts and black sesame jello for dessert. Then we headed to Causeway Bay and Victoria Park, so that I could show Lee the huge Chinese New Year Fair they have there every year.

This fair is like a combination midway and flower market. Click here for a link to my first visit, back in 2007. All kind of silly junk with lucky symbols for the New Year can be had. Dragon puppets, stuffed animals, tshirts, costumes were everywhere. I was definitely tempted by a red plush and satin dragon hood with matching claws and feet. I've seen people wearing the bright red hoods with dragon heads on top in the street, so I would have fit right in, but I resisted. However I did buy Harper a Chinese coat, perfect for her Halloween costume next year.

We ate dinner that first night at a Dutch restaurant called The Orange Tree. It was close to our hotel, the food is good, and I could get to bed by 9, which was important, since jet lag was definitely getting the better of me.

On Sunday we devoted ourselves to some serious eating. We went to Nha Trang for lunch and our favorite Indian Restaurant for dinner. The Indian Restaurant had moved, but we knew that they were moving from our last visit in August, otherwise we might have freaked out. The cute thing was the owner was standing outside the old entrance, keeping a lookout for any of their loyal customers that might not have heard about their new location yet. He had a silk scarf wrapped a round his head to ward off the chill, which made him look like he was trying to go incognito. But we were very glad to see him, and he was happy to escort us personally to their new location, right around the corner from their old place.

Their new restaurant is very nice. It even has an elevator and a bit of a view. It is larger and it no longer feels like you are eating in someone's living room. And the food is just as delicious as always.

On Monday we were in for a special treat. My old Cantonese teacher, Sandy saw on Facebook that I was in Hong Kong and got in touch. We made plans to meet for a dim sum lunch in Central. We went to Super Star Seafood restaurant on Wyndham. It was so great to see Sandy and catch up on what she has been doing. She still teaches Cantonese and Mandarin, and she does a lot of traveling too, all over Asia and Europe.

It's always so much fun to go out to eat with Sandy because she takes us to places that Gueilos never get to visit. She's the one that took me to the scary dim sum place and introduced me to the delights of congee.

This place had good dim sum, and with Sandy there we tried some new things, including a yellow bun with custard inside. She showed us how to eat it so that you wouldn't burn your mouth on the custard (tear it open first). This restaurant had dumplings in the shape of animals. We bought some cows and they were so cute we couldn't eat them, so Sandy took them home to her niece and nephew instead.

On Monday we had reservations at Spoon, a 2 star Michellin restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong Island. Our initial thought was that this was the night of the fireworks, but for some reason Hong Kong does their fireworks on Tuesday, even though the Mainland does theirs on Monday night. I was momentarily disappointed but then realized we'd get to see the light show anyway.

We discovered a bigger problem when we got in the taxi to take us over to Kowloon. The Chinese New Year parade was Monday night and it went right by the Intercontinental. The roads leading to the hotel were all blocked and there was no way for the taxi to get us directly to the hotel.

Normally this would be no big deal, but I was all dressed up, wearing a nice dress and high heels. I could walk in them, but it wasn't going to be fun.

We took the Star Ferry, thinking that might involve less walking, since the MTR doesn't go very close to the Intercontinental. This would have worked pretty well if it hadn't been for all the blocked off streets. We grimly pushed our way through the throngs, even catching a glimpse of a very cool dragon at the beginning of the parade, but we kept having to backtrack and change our route. By the time we finally sat ate our table overlooking the water, I was very glad to just sit.

Our meal, was very, very nice. Lee chose 3 courses, foie gras, duck, and a salad. I had the 7 course tasting menu, and enjoyed every single one. For dessert Lee got a chocolate soufflé that was just amazing. I was so stuffed, but I kept stealing bites from him anyway.

When it came time to leave we discovered that the roads were still blocked. There was nothing we could do, except sit in the lobby of the hotel with other disgruntled patrons until the roads finally opened. It was almost midnight by the time we got back to our hotel, way past our normal bedtime!

Tuesday was our last day in Hong Kong. Around noon we headed to Airport Express and decided to see if we could get a table at the Tasty Congee restaurant above the airport check-in counters. This is the place Sandy took me to that exposed me to the delights of congee, and I was happy to be able to finally share it with Lee.

We were able to get a table with only a 30 minute wait. It was packed as usual, and we were the only Westerners there. We decided to try the fish congee, plus a beef noodle dish and we were not disappointed. Congee is such an interesting food. It's basically rice porridge, but when flavored with fish, onion and ginger it turns into something way better than a breakfast cereal. I know Asians eat it for breakfast, but that doesn't appeal to me. I'll eat it for any other meal, however!

Well it's time to finish this up and get it posted to my blog. I'm hanging out in Lee's apartment in KL now, and the contrast couldn't be more pronounced. The temps are in the 90's, the sky is blue, with puffy white clouds, and we're back in the land of ethnic diversity and grocery stores that sell alcohol and pork as if they were slightly illegal. I'm ready to enjoy the heat and sunny skies for a couple of weeks, until it's time to head back to winter.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Russian Cuisine Walking Tour




Last weekend I went on a Russian Cuisine Walking Tour in Boston. The towns of Brighton and Brookline right outside of Boston have a large Russian population that has grown by leaps and bounds since the fall of the Soviet Union in the 90’s. Always curious about the culture of my new environment, I thought this tour would be something fun to do while Lee was in Asia.

I can’t say that I’m crazy about the little Russian food that I’ve been exposed to. My impression of Russian food involves a lot of starch and carbs, and vodka. I won’t say this tour entirely disabused me of that perception. There are definitely a lot of starches involved in Russian food, but after this tour I can say they are pretty yummy starches. And they definitely stick to your ribs! I was thoroughly stuffed by the end of the tour.

We met at the Whole Foods store on Washington St. in Brighton. I was a little late and missed the introduction to the tour, because I once again got lost trying to take the Storrow Dr. exit off of I-93. This is getting to be a bit of a joke, since it seems that every time I try to go this way I manage to take the wrong turn. At least I am becoming familiar enough with Boston that I knew the general direction that I wanted to go and managed to get there eventually, although I know I went out of my way, since at one point I ended up down by the Public Garden.  Mind you, this is WITH a gps. Hell at this point I’m not sure that I might not do better without a gps! Oh well.

I did get there in time to find the tour and enjoy our first sampling of Russian Food, which was, what else, Lox with cream cheese on rye bread. Now why this was Russian food and not Jewish food beats me unless the Russians stole if from the Jews, or vice versa.

We also got to sample Kefir, the fermented milk drink, which I had no idea was Russian either. I thought it was Turkish, or maybe Hippy food. The last time I had tried Kefir was back in the 70’s and I have to say it has improved since then. Yuri, our tour guide, said that the Kefir sold in the US is sweetened to cater to American tastes. Maybe that was it.



Our next stop was a Russian grocery store called Babushka Deli. Lots of very Russian food could be found in this store. Yuri told us that many Russians will do all of their shopping at the same little grocery store. Much of the food labels were in Russian, the deli case held lots of Russian delicacies, and piles of rye bread were available for sale.



Here we were able to try blini with caviar and a Georgian bread stuffed with cheese. We had red caviar because the black stuff is currently over-fished and very expensive. I loved this food sample. The blini are basically crepes, light and sweet. The caviar was salty and the combination was delish! I didn’t like the Georgian bread as much. The pastry itself was pretty heavy, and the cheese was stinky! I still ate it all though, so it can’t have been too bad.

Next we took a walk, crossing the line from Brighton into Brookline. We stopped into a restaurant called The Fireplace. Here we were seated at a table and invited to sample Russian vodka. Yuri told us the brand, but I forget. In my limited vodka experience I thought it was pretty tasty. We were given pickle and butter sandwiches, and taught the proper way to drink vodka and eat pickles. First, you blow air out through your teeth, sharply. Then, you take a sip (or slug) or vodka. Then you bring the open-faced sandwich up to your nose and inhale the pickles, and then take a bite. Chew and swallow your pickle sandwich bite and repeat. It did make the pickles taste really good. I guess I should stop and smell the pickles more often!



After the Fireplace we went over to another Russian Grocery store called The Russian Village. Here we were introduced to Kvas, a fermented drink, and shown some Russian beer, although we didn’t get to taste either one. That was okay with me since I was getting pretty stuffed.



We quickly headed down a few doors to another little restaurant called Vernissage. This place was uniquely Russian and catered to a Russian clientele that like to have a place to hang out and party. Yuri said that Russians don’t like to just go out to eat. They think an evening is incomplete unless it involves hours of eating, dancing, singing and of course, drinking. We didn’t do any dancing or singing here, but we did get to sample Russian dumplings. They were excellent, small fragrant dumplings made of pork and a tasty liquid, with sour cream for dipping. They would have made a good addition to anyone’s dim sum menu.



Finally we crossed the street to a little European bakery called Athan’s and had a sampling of éclairs for dessert. No, éclairs aren’t Russian, but apparently except for candy Russia stole most of their desserts from France, so it was traditional, none-the-less.

I waddled up the hill to get back to my car in the late afternoon darkness. I was beyond stuffed, but satisfied. I had a good time and got to sample a bit of another culture that was different and yet strangely familiar too. My dad’s family has Russian roots and I kept thinking about him during the afternoon when he would occasionally have a cultural fit and decide to drink some tea in a glass. And I practiced the Russian toast that Yuri had taught us – Za zdorovie! To your health!


Monday, January 9, 2012

Mid-Winter Musings

Yesterday morning I went for a run around the lake. I’ve recently learned that Arlington Pond has a very interesting history. It’s one of the few artificial lakes around here. It was created as part of an effort to increase the power available to the textile mills in Lawrence. So on the other side of the lake there is a Mill Pond Road, an Arlington Mill Road. As I jogged along I tried to imagine what this area looked like back in the early 1900’s, when Arlington Pond was a rural vacation destination, dotted with small cabins or “camps” as they are known up here. It’s really not that hard to imagine, since quite a few of those cabins remain here and there, in various states of disrepair. It’s one of the things that makes Arlington Pond so fascinating.  It’s such a strange combination of tackiness, wild beauty, and opulence. Do we live in a charming New England village? A wild spot of natural beauty?  A hard-scrabble Yankee blue-color enclave? Well, yes.

It was cold, but there was no wind, and it was sunny. About three miles into the run I heard a loud flapping noise overhead and watched in amazement as a hawk landed on a tree branch directly above me. I almost fell over, looking up at such a large bird from a unique perspective. Above the perched hawk other hawks glided in the warming air currents. The simple beauty of the sight made me smile.

Farther on another seemingly beautiful sight left me with mixed feelings. As a college student in Missouri I fell in love with AmericanBittersweet. When we first moved to New England over two years ago I was thrilled to find bittersweet growing prolifically everywhere I turned. But my classes at the New England Wildflower Center have made me a wiser plant-lover. I have discovered that bittersweet is a very destructive invasive plant in this area, that grows as a vine and kills the other plants and trees it twines itself around. Now when I see bittersweet growing I also see the dying tree it is growing upon. But I still think that its orange and red berries are so beautiful. It’s like some crazy candy bar that I know is bad for me, but I still want it. I’m bittersweet-conflicted I guess!

At around mile four I heard a loud knocking sound off to my right. I looked into the trees, hoping to spot a woodpecker, and I did. It was a pileated woodpecker. I still find them thrilling to see. They are so large and striking. They seem much more common now than they were back in Missouri in the 70’s. But they are still uncommon and another piece of natural beauty that makes me glad I live here.

Toward the end of the run, crossing the little bridge close to our house, I could see flocks of mallards huddling in the small pools of water where the lake has still not frozen completely. This is such a strange winter. It has been warm, unseasonably warm, with no snow to speak of since the freak snow storm we had around Halloween. I have been startled, however, that people are starting to go out on the lake, skating and playing impromptu games of hockey. There was even a snow mobile out there yesterday. I know most people are very careful and test the ice before the venture out, but it still surprised me. The lows have been in the 20’s now for a couple of weeks, but the highs have frequently been in the 40’s during the day, with even an occasional 50 degree day. I guess it must be the days and hours below freezing that count. I’m still not about to take my snow shoes and go out there though; not until the snow mobiles are all over the lake and the ice fisherman are out. Surely eventually winter will arrive. We can’t go a whole season without some snow! I'm not ready to experience a winter like the last one any time soon, but a little snow would be nice.

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