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Archive for November, 2009

The Accidental Istanbullus

Stuffing ourselves silly with street food aside, we did a lot of waiting while in Istanbul this past September. Waiting for Syrian and Indian visas. Waiting for letters of reference from our native country consulates to furnish visa applications. Waiting for our laundry. Waiting for a pharmacy to scrounge up the inventory for our comically large order of malaria tablets to take with us to Africa.

There’s plenty in Istanbul to keep a tourist gainfully unemployed — The Blue Mosque, Haga Sofia, cruises on the Bosphurus, whirling dervishes… among countless other worthy distractions — but we had both already done a respectable chunk of those before. And after the break-neck pace of the last few stops in Eastern Europe, we quite relished the idea of dropping gear and allowing ourselves a gentle steep in whatever Istanbullus got up to during the quieter hours of the day.

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For a large part, this meant whiling away many langourous hours on tea and tavla (backgammon), be it at swish cafes in European-style neighbourhoods, or on low stools and tables in the peaceful backstreets around a mosque, hunched with our knees almost up to our shoulders, day and night alike. Babs was devastatingly good at the game — it took me until Goreme to start turning the tavla tables on him.

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Watching locals play provided much entertainment as well. Sometimes there’s money on the game, other times one’s reputation (often a more serious bet than all the lira in the world). Either way, it made for a lot of stylish dice throwing, triumphant tavla-piece-clacking, Turkish trash-talking and cursing, and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of shisha, ciggies and strong black sugary tea served in svelte glasses. I didn’t understand a word of the back and forth, but the body language of the players and their spectators was fantastic to watch.

A tip if you want to go shopping for, say, a Turkish carpet or lantern or other classic souvenir, and want a few minutes of undisturbed browsing before the traditional product parade begins: Find a store that has a tavla game raging on outside, and slip inside. It might just be one of those games where the owner decides he has more riding on the tavla board than you!

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Dessert in Istanbul also seemed to be an all-hours-of-the day affair, even though it was Ramadan at the time. At Olimpia Patisserie in Taksim we assembled a little sampler made from signature local ingredients: semolina, pistachios and pomegranates. I was especially amused by the nazar boncugu semolina cakes. The striking blue-eye design, found on all manner of trinkets all over Turkey, is to ward off the curse of the evil eye, believed to be caused by envious gazes. But surely this sugar syrup-soaked cake is more like to invoke envy than to nullify it?

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When our butts got numb sitting, we undulated through and around both the European and Asian sides of the city. We people-watched, went panning for gems in second-hand bookstores and book exchanges, and poked around and inside buildings that caught our eye.

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When each little bout of waiting was done, we’d lope over to wherever we needed to be using the city’s fascinating array of amazingly affordable public transport: metro, buses, commuter trains, trams, ferries, funiculars, and even cable cars. I loved the ferries for the scenery and fresh air, but the most-amusing-mode-of-transport award goes to the cable car. Through the cabin porthole the world takes on that hazy glow of photos from the 1970s.

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If you plan to be in Istanbul for a few days, then do as the locals do and buy an Akbil stored-value travel card. While you can buy tokens to get around, for whatever reason the different transport systems use different tokens that look similar enough to the naked eye, but have minute variations that get picked up and rejected at the turnstiles. You could, like us, end up with a few annoyingly odd tokens at the end of your sojourn, but I suppose as far as traffic-related accidents go, such a situation might attract a few envious gazes.

Olimpia Patisserie
Siraselvilar Caddesi 117
Taksim, Istanbul Turkey
+90 212 292 2342
(Additional branches at Ihlamudere Cd. 154, Besiktas, and Nujkuyusa Cd. 329, Baglarbasi)

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IMG 2659The other Accidental Istanbullu thing we did while waiting for our Indian visas in Istanbul this past September, was to take another little vacation from our vacation.

We decided to go with the smallest, most remote seaside village we could find in our Lonely Planet Guide within a 3-hr travel radius of Istanbul. Kiyikoy on the Black Sea Coast — population ~2,000 — with allegedly more fish, frogs and tortoises than people, and with nary a detail on Wiki Travel and Google Maps, sounded perfect.

We weren’t disappointed.

We took a long metro ride to Istabul’s central bus station, then 2 buses on to Kiyikoy. True to the old adage that the journey counts for as much as the destination, we had some hair-raising entertainment(?) on our bus ride when our driver and a rival bus company driver got into a loud scuffle at one stop, got separated by their colleagues, then came storming back to each other, armed. I wasn’t keen on the odds, given our driver’s big stick was up against the other driver’s kitchen knife. Thankfully they got separated again, properly this time.

We got to Kiyikoy in the late afternoon, and used the rest of the daylight to soak up the view from our lovely cliff-side boutique abode, Hotel Endorfina.

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The next morning, we set out to walk around the little farming and fishing village nestled behind the old city walls. Sadly, there were quite a few of these gutted stone and wood houses below, as locals moved out into the “suburbs” dotted with more modern but far less charming concrete houses.

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A lovely unmistakeable perfume of food being smoked wafted through the air. We followed our noses into a little alleyway between 2 houses and found this coven of women cooking peppers, eggplant and claypot stews on a wheelbarrow full of coals. My enthusiastic gestures of “smells very good!” got the women to chuckle and beckon me closer for a better look.

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Onward to the water. We watched 2 boys take potshots at seagulls. I wondered if this Old Man of the Sea down below approved.

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Making our way down to the beach from the cliff, I heard a gentle cling-clanging chorus behind us. I turned to find a flock of sheep about to overtake us! Would these count as salt-marsh lambs, y’think?

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Their shepherd stopped for a few minutes to chat. Well. That is to say, from behind me he yelled “JAH-PAHN! JAH-PAHN! JAH-PAHN!” until I turned around and yelled back “SINGAPORE!”

He pulled up alongside, replied, “Ahhhh. Singah-puuur. Singah-puuuuur….uhn…”, and then moseyed on, possibly wondering where or what the hell Singapore was. We saw him again the next day, somewhere in the middle of the village, again with his flock. No hollering of nationalities this time, just a smile and wave to each other.

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We decided to join these buffalo in the river…

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…though in a paddleboat. Below, the view from a few kilometres upriver. The tortoises and frogs didn’t disappoint. We even saw a few jumping fish! Twas all very summertime, and the living is easy…

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IMG 2819All that exercise sent us prowling for lunch. I’m pretty sure the eatery we ended up at didn’t have a name. But it’s on Kiyikoy’s main street, peppered with leathery fishermen sipping tea and playing tavla, and run by this handsome gentlemen on the right. I had a good feeling about the place when the big burly guy who runs ATV tours at our hotel popped in, started bantering with the owner and poking about the tiny kitchen to see what was being made.

Hearty chicken kebab in fluffy turkish baguette aside, of special note was this corbasi (soup) below.

“Meat or lentil,” the owner asked in Turkish.

Meat.

“(something I couldn’t understand)?”

Uhm….

The owner points to his head, then to his gut.

Uhm???!!!…

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He then showed me a box of thin-sliced tripe.

Ahhhh.

I wasn’t quite in the mood for tripe, so I said the other thing, before fully realising he might have meant “brain”.

Luckily, it was just little flecks of meat. Maybe face or cheeks then. And a loose scattering of rice. And — a amazing little addition I’m going to start using creamy soups when I get home — a spoonful raw minced garlic. So stinky, but soooooo diabolically good.

I quite like this town.

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Moscow: (Food) Gawky Park

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Above: A replica of St Basil’s Cathedral made from grains, at the entrance of the uberposh Gastronom No. 1 Food Hall at the GUM luxury mall on Red Square (right across from Lenin’s tomb, poetically)

Top tip on traveling and eating in Moscow? Go when you have money. Preferably backed by commodity du jour, with a side order of a English Premier League football team. Or else do a massive amount of research beforehand on value-for-money local and street food haunts before showing up. Otherwise, it’s simply a metropolis of slick and expensive restaurants of every ilk of global cuisine. Very exciting for local and expat residents do doubt, but exhausting for a frugal foodie backpacker hoping to chance upon something cheap, cheerful, and core to the indigenous food scene.

Crunched on time and budget, and let down by 2 distinctly budget-busting-but-ultimately-“meh” Georgian restaurants, we did the next best thing to console ourselves; a little food gawking.

Especially amusing were these signboards below at a fried chicken shop at Gorky Park, the city’s historic sprawling recreation centre and amusement park for locals.

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For a while I entertained the idea that the one place on this round-the-world sabbatical that might be appropriate to eat at Micky D’s would be at Moscow’s Red Square. The place was absolutely mobbed (I mean crowded, not necessarily occupied by local goombas). It was a case of Russian Breadlines: The Capitalist Remix. I decided that life was too short and there had to be a better use for my already too-few rubles.

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I noted with curiosity that there was a slew of sushi joints all over St Petersburg and Moscow. And peering at diners’ platters from the sidewalk, the sushi actually looked credible. You can kinda tell when a city is just starting to get into sushi but sushi chefs and local palettes haven’t been trained up yet. The rice looks dry and loose grains fall all over the platter. The maguro is an anaemic pink rather than a healthy deep maroon. And people are eating mostly plastic looking california rolls with crabsticks and neon pickles. But this was not the case in Moscow.

According to Peter, our guide in St Petersburg, sushi’s become quite the staple for urban Russia’s aspirational middle class over the last decade or so. Sushi has a great combination of a having designer look and exotic vibe, and apparently is especially popular among young Russian women looking to reduce their stodge intake.

So before camping out at Sheremetyevo Airport for the night to catch a early morning flight to Istanbul, we followed the lead of the locals and had sushi for dinner. We popped into Yakitoriya (a long list of branches throughout Moscow, and a delivery service to boot) where the sushi and ramen were credible for the price.

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Next time I come back here, if ever, I’ll follow my own advice. In the meantime, bring on Istanbul!

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A few quick glimpses from wandering around St Petersburg, Russia, in late August this year.

Statue of Peter the Great, immortalised in world literature by Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, an epic poem about man against the elements. Peter the First envisioned a new coastal capital for the Russian empire… built on a swamp…that would be frozen for a good chunk of the year. Apparently when his engineers told him that this swamp would be completely untenable for building for many months at a time, he said something to the effect of “Well you’d better work faster then”.

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Old men playing chess on Nevsky Prospect.

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Young men dancing in front of the Hermitage Museum. Other youths around them were practising stunt bike and skateboard tricks.

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A boy peers at the eternal flame memorial at Field of Mars for those who died in the Bolshevik Revolution. Right after I took this photo he spat into the flame and scampered away!

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On a bus along Nevsky Prospect.

Life never quite returned to normal for the aristocrats after the revolution, it seems. Nowadays they can be found at various tourist sites around town, posing for photos with visitors for a fee.

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Tallin Tales

Simply could not get enough of this camera-friendly Nordic sunshine while in Tallinn, Estonia, in late August! Thought to share a few of my favourite glimpses and nuggets about Tallin’s Old Town, some picked up from our walking tour with EstAdventures, some by meandering on our own.

Below, a sweeping view of Tallin Old Town’s roof tops and spires. Across the water, a 3-hour ferry ride away, lies Finland. Apparently the ferry doesn’t really need to take 3 hours, but it does so that it can maximise sales of (relatively) cheap booze to daytripping Finns!

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On 20th August 1991, Estonia declared (a local might say reclaimed) independence from the Soviet Union. Large boulders such as this one below were placed at major road intersections, set up to be obstacles to the tanks that Estonians feared would roll in from Moscow.

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Today, a gigantic and magnificently ornate Russian Orthodox church sits right across from the (pink) Estonian Parlianmentary building. Some locals view this as a spiteful reminder of Mother Russia’s influence given 1) Those who identify themselves as native Estonians are more likely to be Lutherans, who worship in spartan church halls; and 2) the Russian government — who is said to provide financial support for this church — spent so much of the Communist regime suppressing religion.

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An evocative outdoor theatre in Old Town.

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Evidently, what people did before they had Aunt Agony columns and blogs and Twitter as ranting platforms. I love the little detail of the 3D-effect of the painting on the door.

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The little lighthouse above the sign for the Maritime Museum.

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A few steps from the Maritime Museum, a boy wearning a gas mask (I have no idea why) sits on the memorial that marks the tragic sinking of the passenger ferry “Estonia” in 1994 while enroute between Tallinn and Stockholm.

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This little al fresco set up of an Italian restaurant took my breath away — to the extent that I took a photo of this rather than the leg of jamon on display in the window! I don’t know much about design, but I really do like the look of the wooden wine crates being used as flower pots.

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Doesn’t the lovely light against the medieval walls make you want to go?

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“So what was it like to be a university student here right when the Communist Government was falling from power?” I asked Peter, founder of Peter’s Walking Tours in St Petersburg, Russia. As luck would have it, Peter was our guide on our accidentally private tour this late August morning.

Given Peter and I both studied film in university (him in St Petersburg smack at the start of the historic early 1990s) and then later both did stints as newspaper journalists, we had plenty to banter about besides the sights.

My favourite part of chat was over salmon and green onion & egg pie at Stolle, which serves fabulous sweet and savoury pies unique to St Petersburg, stemming from the city’s pre WWI history of hosting many an academic German expat in its university district, one of the main areas of our walking tour. The pie crusts below look like brick, but actually taste and feel like brioche.

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Peter responded that among he and his friends here in St Petersburg at least, politics wasn’t actually their first concern at the time. Rather, it was how to access food.

Under communist rule, all food transport, distribution and sales networks throughout the Soviet Union had been controlled by the central government. So while there was food still being grown and stored out in say, the ‘Stans, there was no functioning system to move the food to cities, let alone price it. A market system eventually filled the gap, clearly, said Peter, but it didn’t just pop up overnight. And during that awful vacuum, people were quite hungry and afraid indeed.

A living lesson in the fragility of food security.

But those dark days had a lighter side, it seems. International aid organizations soon parachuted into town, and distributed food on the university campus. But by this time, everyone in the city also had food ration coupons… including vodka coupons! So each week, after coupons were issued, Peter and friends — with their campus food aid socked away — would run around town looking for teetotalling old biddies to trade in their food coupons for the old women’s vodka coupons.

“That was a fantastic time!” said Peter with a smile, amused at his own nostalgia.

Another highlight of the walking tour for me a stroll through Andreevsky Market Place (located close to Andreevsky Cathedral on Vasileostrovkaya Island), where nary a tourist (except us) was in sight.

We stop at an Uzbek bakery for meat donuts. Yes indeedy. Meat donuts. While Babs and Peter deal through the retail window, I pop my head in through the back door to get this shot of their tandoori-esque oven.

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We bite into the donut, and decide we have to get ourselves out into the ‘Stans at some point. One of the bakers smiles and waves at me through the door, and then hollers “I love you!”

I’m going to assume that’s simply all the English he knows.

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A melon stall run by a guy I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. I can’t decide if telling him “nice melons” will make his smile or piss him off. On the right, some kind of sour cherry, apparently, but I couldn’t get the exact name of it. Please enlighten me if you know what these are called!

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Caviar for the proletariat. Red caviar is usually from salmon and trout. I developed quite a taste for these paired with blinis (Russian crepes) during our time in Russia. Couldn’t afford the black (sturgeon) variety.

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While wandering around Tallinn, Estonia, in late August this year, we stumbled onto the town’s flower festival, right under Tallin Old Town’s much photographed towers. Delightfully, this year’s theme centred on edible plants, so I thought to share some of my favourite sights from the day.

All these shots were taken on my tiny but trusty Canon Ixus 65; the close-ups using digital macro mode. I was quite pleased with the results — a testament to Nordic sunshine!

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Someday I’m going to try this at home: a curly parsley hedgerow.

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Lil Miss Sunshine wins the popularity contest.

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I think these are dandelions, but I’d never seen this bulbous kind before. I’m looking forward to learning how to better use them in salads and tea, when I have a kitchen again.

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Not sure what this is, but thought the fractal patterns were cool.

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Saved my favourite for last — I’ve never seen purple cabbage look so glamourous!

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