Sunday, May 25, 2014

Arm Chair Travel - Planning Tibet - First stop, Chengdu, China

We're flying into Chengdu, China before boarding the Qinghai-Tibet railway or the "Rocket to the Roof of the World" for Lhasa. 

The railway, an engineering miracle, is built on elevated bridges across the most delicate permafrost to prevent the train from warming the ground. Other parts are located on elevated mounds designed to protect the ground, keeping it cool and stable. Much of the line runs at altitudes as high as 13,000 feet. The sealed cars are designed to protect passengers from the rigors of high altitudes with amenities such as regulated oxygen level and UV filters on the glass to keep out the glare of the sun. 

We'll be on the train either from Chengdu or Xining to Lhasa. From Chendu it's 40+ hours while from Xining the trip is about 24 hours. 

"Rocket to the Roof of the World". Qinghai-Tibet Railway. 

Even though Chengdu is not on my bucket list, nor on Richard's, or Zuzu's or Debra's, we'll stay there for a couple of days to get over our jet lag before taking the train. While there, we'll plan a few easy excursions and look around the city of 11 million people.    

The big thing to see in Chengdu (besides the crowds) is the giant Panda Breeding Center where you can view the pandas and even hug them. Hugging them seems a bit much to me, but I gather it's a method for the center to raise money. You pay $330.00 donation, dress up in blue protective clothing, gloves and shoes covers and get up close and personal. The web site states that "if you're lucky a panda might sit in your lap." I don't think so. Not in mine. It bothered me to read the speculation that the show pandas may be lightly drugged to make them more tractable and appealing to the donor/huggers. 

We're visiting the center in August when we might see babies. There are always some in the nursery because pandas frequently have twins - actually about 50% of the time in captivity. I've read from a couple of sources that the twinning is due to artificial fertilization. 
The little babies are very fragile and born after only a 3 - 5 month gestation period. Compared to other mammals they seem to be born prematurely; they're blind and cannot move. They require nursing up to 14 times a day, 30 minutes at a time. The poor mothers can't cope with two babies with so much care required. In captivity, one is removed to a nursery while one stays nursing with the mom; they rotate the babies between the nursery and mom. It's not uncommon for a giant panda mother to go days or weeks without eating or drinking while they nurse. In the wild, if twinning occurs, the mother endures a "Sophie's choice" only in this case instead of a Nazi, Mother Nature forces her to pick. One is left to die - usually the weaker of the two. The babies are dependent for 18 months.

Seems odd to me that Pandas are solitary in the wild but seem to thrive in the sanctuaries in packs. 

The Sichuan Opera is on the "do not miss" list. "More talent show than opera" says Nigel Marven of T Travel. The make-up sounds extreme and coupled with soap bubbles, shadow shows and epic face changing, it should provide an interesting evening. 

On the streets, the sizzling stalls sell all things spicy - hot pots being the most popular. I don't know what I'm going to eat, but I know I'm not eating this. 

The thatched cottage of Dr. Du Fu, a famous and loved Chinese poet is another spot to visit. I read a dozen of the poem on line and rather liked them, even though I'm sure there's plenty of meaning lost in translation. The cottage is in a park-like setting which is well known for bird watching, a kind of bonus. 

Clearing Rain 
Du Fu

The sky's water has fallen, and autumn clouds are thin,
The western wind has blown ten thousand li.
This morning's scene is good and fine,
Long rain has not harmed the land.
The row of willows begins to show green,
The pear tree on the hill has little red flowers.
hujia pipe begins to play upstairs,
One goose flies high into the sky. 

The largest buddha in the world, at 420 feet, the Spring Temple Buddha is just outside Chengdu in Leshan. Taller than the huge one outside Kyoto (which we missed) and the monster in Burma, you can't help being a bit skeptical about these claims. Frequently you find out there's a base at the bottom built into the height or some kind of pole on the top which serves to make the structure a questionable record setter. I was going to stifle a yawn until I realized the little white things at the bottom of the photo were people. I have to admit, this is one very huge buddha.  

That's about it for Chengdu. Now I start planning a schedule for Lhasa. But first, after we get off the train, we spend another couple of days resting, adjusting to the altitude and hoping like heck the Diamox helps us all acclimate. 

 Acetazolamide (Diamox®) is a medication that forces the kidneys to excrete bicarbonate, the base form of carbon dioxide; this re-acidifies the blood, balancing the effects of the hyperventilation that occurs at altitude in an attempt to get oxygen. This re-acidification acts as a respiratory stimulant, particularly at night, reducing or eliminating the periodic breathing pattern common at altitude. Its net effect is to accelerate acclimatization. Acetazolamide isn't a magic bullet, cure of AMS is not immediate. It makes a process that might normally take about 24-48 hours speed up to about 12-24 hours. 

Acetazolamide is a sulfonamide medication, and persons allergic to sulfa medicines should not take it. Common side effects include numbness, tingling, or vibrating sensations in hands, feet, and lips. Also, taste alterations, and ringing in the ears. These go away when the medicine is stopped. Since acetazolamide works by forcing a bicarbonate diuresis, you will urinate more on this medication. Uncommon side effects include nausea and headache. A few trekkers have had extreme visual blurring after taking only one or two doses of acetazolamide; fortunately they recovered their normal vision in several days once the medicine was discontinued.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mystery Japanese Catalog Item

On the Shinkansen bullet train riding to Tokyo, I looked at the catalog in the seat pocket and saw this interesting item for sale.

It looks like a party favor/noise maker, but apparently has some kind of medical application? The man is sweating profusely while blowing on it and the woman seems to be holding her diaphragm. I can't find an American equivalent on line and wonder what it's for? Our Vietnamese friend Diep talks about having "bad air" in the body. Could this be a way to get rid of it? About $37.00.

In Japan, at the Daikokya Inn, we were served a lovely understated but perfect dessert - a small slice of grapefruit gel. Not firm, but barely jelled, served at room temperature. The gel was full of grapefruit vesicles (technical term for the little pieces inside) which added a great deal to the texture. 
Still immersed in all thing Japanese, we recently watched "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi", a documentary about the famous sushi maker, Jiro Ono, who presides over a Michelin 3 star sushi bar, Sukiyabshi, in Tokyo. At 85, he still works everyday and strives to improve his sushi. 
The seats are highly prized and with only 12 stools you have to reserve months in advance. Jiro is, to say the least, a perfectionist. Watching this film inspired me to work on a recipe for that Japanese grapefruit jel to see if I can match it. The take-away from the film is to focus on one thing and do it as well as you can. 

Speaking of doing your best, here's a painting by our little cousin Rowan, age almost-3, entitled, "Shark jumping over boat in Ocean".

And still speaking of doing your best, we hiked in Japan with Zuzu at 4' 11" and Dave at 6' 6". Guess which one was in the front of the pack all the time?

Friday, May 09, 2014

Sepia Saturday 227: Down the rabbit hole...

Our theme photograph dates from around 1884 and is part of the National Library of Ireland stream on Flickr Commons. It's entitled "Young England's Floral Alphabet" and features sisters, Edith and Ethel Dillon who were around 6 and 4 years of age.  
Why didn't anyone tell these serious looking sisters to say "Cheese"?

You wouldn’t have had to worry so much about this cheesiness in the Victorian era (1837-1901). During this period, etiquette and beauty standards were much different than they are today. In Victorian times, a small, tightly controlled mouth was considered beautiful. In fact, photographers during this era elicited the desired portrait expression by having their subjects “say prunes”. Smiles during this time were only typically captured on children, peasants, and drunks. One of the most common culprits blamed for the neutral expressions on subjects during the Victorian era is the long exposure time for photographs to be taken. (From

Long exposure or not, these two little girls would probably have smiled if they'd heard Michael Jackson's song "ABC" playing for them while they were learning their alphabet. 

From Wikipedia:

ABC is a 1970 number-one hit song by The Jackson 5. It was written with the same design as "I Want You Back", and was first heard on American Bandstand (on the ABC network) in February 1970. "ABC" knocked The Beatles' song "Let It Be" out of the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970 and was also number one on the soul singles chart for four weeks.

Once smiling, the girls might have been inspired to take off their high buttoned shoes and dance a little to Michael's song. If you google shoe buttons, you'll run into this interesting tidbit about "the Shoe Button Complex" from this essay about Education Reform.
Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, his long-time partner at Berkshire-Hathaway, also had a connection to shoe buttons. Munger’s grandfather had managed to corner the market on shoe buttons back around 1900. The grandfather exercised a virtual monopoly over their production and sale. Emboldened by his business acumen, the old man grew to believe that he not only knew more than anyone about shoe buttons but that he knew more than anyone about anything—and he preached and proclaimed at length on such. Munger and Buffett named the syndrome the Shoe Button Complex, and they encountered it frequently in their dealings with successful business practitioners. Now Buffett struggled assiduously to avoid developing the Shoe Button Complex. As one of the richest persons in the world, the temptation to succumb would surely have been great. He was careful to restrict his actions and speaking to what he called his Circle of Competence. He recognized that there were a limited number of things he could know well, and he did not presume to act as though he was expert of those things lying outside the Circle.

And so goes Sepia Saturday. Spiraling completely out of my Circle of Competence I've "gone down the rabbit hole" husband's term for the phenomenon of spending hours googling around from subject to subject. How he asks, can you begin with a photo of two little girls and end up with Warren Buffet???
Good question? Instead, I'll veer sharply back to the theme by ending with a photo of sister and myself as children. She would read to me as I was learning my own ABC's. I miss her. 

 Take a look at other's similar trips here: Sepia Saturday

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Book of Mormon excursion

Once you get to our age, everything and everyone seems to be younger than you. Richard had a birthday on Tuesday and we decided to attempt to find things to do that are older than we are - where we post-date our surroundings.

We started out with dinner at the Musso and Frank Grill, established 1919 - "some place to eat". We both love going back in time for an evening. Even though the waiters are ancient and the management hasn't changed a thing on the interior, the clientele is pretty hip. There was a table full of "Book of Mormon" cast members eating next to us along with an Elvis impersonator - only in Hollywood. Richard enjoyed his sweetbreads, something you don't see too often on menus. We laughed at the '30's menu posted in the back lobby on which a caviar sandwich cost $.75; and in those carefree days before we knew about cholesterol, you could enjoy a glass of pure cream (?) for $.25.
"Glass pure cream"
Full Menu
After dinner, we checked into the Villa Delle Stelle, owned by Dudley Moore's widosw; a collection of bungalows built in the 20's for actors (primarily Buster Keaton) from Columbia Studios. You can walk to Hollywood Blvd. easily from here and the bungalows are a different experience from the hotels in the area. Construction is on-going on a huge property one block over and the neighborhood is somewhat chaotic as a result. It's pretty seedy around there, but with a big new "W" hotel and upgraded construction afoot, the tone will change. 

Great kitchen painting
Front doors
We saw the Book of Mormon at the Pantages Theatre which opened in 1930. Even though the theatre is antique, the audience was pretty much a generation X group. The show is great - ultra high energy and very funny and irreverent. I was surprised by the amount of dress-up we saw; lots of young men in suits and the pretty girls in those high, high heels. As the whole theatre was busy taking selfies, we joined in. I guess they're supposed to be terrible; if that's the objective we succeeded.  

Selfie featuring all our neck wrinkles

Getting ready for the Book of Mormon
After the show, we visited the legendary Frolic Room next door. Connected to the theatre by a secret staircase, it was a speak-easy circa 1930, where cast members could enjoy an illegal alcoholic beverage during prohibition. The bouncer at the door seemed glad to see us and gave a big welcome. Bar of all bars, the juke box was blaring inside and the stools were filled with characters of all kinds and descriptions. We made a short walk through it and decided against staying. When we left I don't think the bouncer was surprised. "Frolicking" is pretty much off our radar screen now. 
The good old Frolic Room

The next morning, we drove over to Du-par's on Ventura Blvd., established in 1938 and enjoyed Richard's favorite buttermilk pancakes, short stack, served with equal sized pitchers of melted butter and syrup. The pancakes are still as good as ever and the interior of the restaurant is pretty well unchanged, but the current executive chef is from Wolfgang Puck's Granita as are the restaurant's consultants. I hope they keep the core items untouched if they plan any major changes. 
A man and his pancakes
You can't finish even a short stack
Our excursion ended up with a deviation from the theme of "older than us" with a visit to the youngest member of our family, baby cousin Liam, established in January 2014. I wonder what he'll do when he's say, 70 years old, in 2084?
Calm and collected at 3 months, Liam is a dream baby. 

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Hiroshige Wood Cuts

My final post on the Nakasendo Walk.

We spent a few hours in Ena at a very fine museum where we saw a special show of Hiroshige wood cuts. Hiroshige drew 47 of the 69 post towns on the Nakasendo Way. This is Magome, one of the towns we enjoyed. Hiroshige's prints inspired many people to visit the post towns. In this period, the only way private citizens could travel using the official roads was for the purpose of pilgrimage. Everyone with itchy feet became, by necessity, a pilgrim. In all the Hiroshige wood cuts where people are pictured, they have something important they're carrying - a palenque for transporting a person, a pack on their backs containing documents, goods to trade or food.

And like pilgrims of yore, you can see my husband has thought his back pack contents through carefully and included his one absolute bottom-line essential, The New Yorker. You never want to get too far out of touch with civilization. My apologies to Hiroshige but don't you think Richard, with a few wardrobe adjustments could blend into the scene? 

Saturday, May 03, 2014


Bear bell you ring on the trail.
Dave, 6' 6" and Zuzu, 4'11"
It was hard to keep a straight face when we first donned the kimonos. I felt like we were trying out for the Mikado every night. At each inn, we'd be assigned our rooms and immediately change into the K outfit with slippers (except for Dave). In the cities, Kyoto and Tokyo, they gave us either pj's or a night shirt to wear. If you're going to Japan, don't pack sleep wear! At most of the places we stayed, there was a soaking tub or an onsen available or there was a deep soaking tub in the room. Wonderful plumbing all over Japan. Rarely sat on an unheated toilet seat; all the faucets had temperature controls, even out in the country. Never saw anything dirty, no trash anywhere and there were few trash cans provided. You are expected to take your trash home with you and dispose of it properly yourself. And everyone does it!

Note the woman second from left. She has her sleeves tied up. I wondered how the Japanese women managed to work as we found managing the table - passing dishes, pouring drinks etc., difficult with the sleeves hanging. The solution is to hold back the sleeve of the working hand with the free hand, which is okay for eating a meal, but I wondered how they did any real work.

I included the last four pictures to show off our various kimonos. Sitting on the floor was a challenge for many of us but we muddled through, changing position every few minutes to keep the circulation going.

Here's a link to a Google+ photo site where our guide Yoshei posted his photos in which he caught most of our highlights. Another example of the attention to detail the Walk Japan company provided. 

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Sepia Saturday #226: A Long White Dress

My mother looks so stiff in her formal gown. She loved dressing up but hated social occasions. I know she'd have a drink before attending one of those "do's" as she called them. It was the only time I saw her abuse alcohol or more aptly use alcohol as a crutch. Most of her drinking was of the companion variety. My Dad loved his whiskey but he rarely drank alone: Mother was always on duty as the designated listener while Dad, whiskey fueled, Black Cat cigarette burning down between his fingers, ranted on about politics or recounted highlights of his war, the great war, WW1. If for some reason Mother wasn't around, my sister or me got the dreaded "ear" duty and had to sit quietly while Dad held forth. Like everyone else, I'd give a King's ransom now to listen to those stories but back then for a squirmy, cooped-up 10 year old, listening was Hell.

Here's my sister with her friends in formal dress ready for a prom of some kind. My mother sewed Eilleen's long dress and the whole household was draped in pieces of brocade and clouds of chiffon or netting as she got the sewing done. She sewed beautifully, much of it by hand, fitting the darts perfectly and matching the pattern pieces. For a year or so, during her single days, she worked for a tailor and learned a lot about "assembling a garment" as our home ec teachers used to say. I learned to sew both from her and at school but was never good at it. Our first sewing project was an apron and some kind of hat, on which we embroidered our names. By the time mine was done, the seams had been ripped out and re-done so many times, the apron was in tatters and the embroidered hat was grimy from handling, as I sewed and re-sewed the cursed thing. The funky starched hat was a relic from the past, even in the 50's. It reminded me of a waitress hat that Lucille Ball might wear, pinned in the hair. Thinking back I shudder with loathing for the thing and remember hating bringing it to class to compare with the other girls who did a pretty good job of the embroidery. 

With all that misery in my past coming from creating a hat, you wouldn't think I'd find this hat store and hat making school in Kyoto very interesting. But I thought the hats were wonderful and stood for a long time, admiring them through the window! And the idea of hat school, I thought CAPtivating! Forgive me, I couldn't help that.  Hat makers call themselves "Millinery Artists" - what a great title. I couldn't find a link for this school on-line so if you're interested in attending, you'll have to go to Kyoto, like I did. What a great excuse!

Clap your cymbals together and dance over to Sepia Saturday where the stories flow.