About me, the traveler


Trip 1 - India, Nepal, and China

Trip 2 - Southeast Asia

Trip 3 - Mongolia to Eastern Europe

Trip 4 - Middle South America

Trip 5 - Southern Africa

Trip 6 - Scandinavia, the Baltics, and Greenland

Trip 7 - The Balkans

Trip 8 - Morocco and Southern Spain

Trip 9 - Western India

Trip 10 - Outer Indochina

Trip 11 - Ethiopia and Dubai

Trip 12 - Iceland

Trip 13 - Japan

Trip 14 - Caucasus

Trip 15 - Central & East Asia

Trip 16 - Inner Indochina and Japan

Tales From the Tour (a running travelogue)

Top-five lists

New York City excursions

Cheap East Coast bus alternatives


Top-Five Lists

My family once discussed the five most memorable meals we'd ever had in our travels; prompted by that, I bring you the five most memorable items that fit into each category below. These are not necessarily the best of each category; they're simply the items that stand out the most. Not all of them are from my travelogues - many are from other trips. They are presented in no particular order.

Five most memorable meals

Imperial Herbal Restaurant, Singapore The Imperial Herbal Restaurant is at the Metropole Hotel, near the Raffles. Each dish is designed to strengthen some part of the body. Here's the rundown of my meal:
  • Spicy ox tendon
  • Panax ginseng deer-penis wine (a strong wine that's good for the mind - a "Superman wine" according to my waitress)
  • Quick-fried emu with scallion and Chinese wolfberries
  • Double-boiled shark's-cartilage soup with Panax ginseng and Pilose antler (it's supposed to fortify vital energy, strengthen bones and tendons, regulate yin and yang, enhance work performance, stimulate the immune system, and retard the aging process)
  • Double-boiled hasma (snow frog's glands) with rock sugar (this dessert improves the functions of the lungs and the kidneys, maintains your youth, and improves your complexion)

I can't say I felt all that much stronger after the meal, but what a wonderful collection of textures and flavors! I did find the soup too sour for my liking, and I was hoping the dessert would be a little sweeter, but I had no regrets about this meal.

Simpson's on the Strand, London My parents took me and my brother here on New Year's Eve as we prepared to welcome 1987. I remember the atmosphere more than the taste of the food: a simple, elegant coziness (ahem, cosiness) in a quiet room. And then there were the signature dishes: roast beef and duck carved tableside. That's also where my father ordered a glass of port wine and gave me a sip; I hadn't yet developed a taste for regular wine, but the sweetness of port was very much to my liking.
Nordic Lodge, Charlestown, Rhode Island The Nordic Lodge (www.nordic-lodge.com) is known for its buffet; there's no menu. I was most interested in the seafood, primarily the lobsters and peel-and-eat shrimp, but there are also a prime-rib carving station, Italian and Chinese dishes, an assortment of fruits and vegetables, and an ice-cream-sundae station. Drinks are extra.

On my first trip there, with my family, I had five lobsters and saved room for the other stuff; on my second trip, I had seven lobsters, forgoing most of the rest of the buffet. All that food caught up with me by the end of the meal, and I let out some bizarre kind of yelp as my unprecedentedly full body tried to regulate its pressure, or something like that. On my third trip I evened out my selections a bit.

The brochure for the place says, "If you find us you'll like us." Indeed, it's not the easiest place to get to; it's at the end of a dirt track a few miles off the main highway in southern Rhode Island. The entrance to the dirt track (as of 1992) has this sign: "Hardly a driver is now alive who took this road at 55." Various other little poems along the track welcome you to the place.

In the late 1980s, the price was $28.95 - a pretty terrific deal for all-you-can-eat lobsters and other stuff. It's in the 40s now, but it's still worth it once in a while.

Connaught Room, Ashford Castle, Cong, Ireland It's perhaps no coincidence that one of the best meals I've ever had was at the best hotel I've ever slept in (www.ashford.ie). The Connaught Room has just seven tables, beautiful paintings, fine crystal, and picture-perfect sunset views. The head waiter attends to the diners with a calm, soothing voice and a friendly attitude. The menu's Irish entrees have continental overtones. I had an excellent lamb dish, and the cheese plate was a fine conclusion.

Here's an example of Irish hospitality: Jackets are required for men, and I'd forgotten to bring mine, so I asked Tommy, who rents out clothing from a store in Dublin (as it so happens he's also a tailor for the Ashford Castle uniforms), whether I could rent a jacket for a week. He gave me one to use, and he didn't even charge me for it or ask for my address (or a deposit) in case I didn't return it. Of course I paid him anyway, but I found this gesture most impressive.

Mirage, Revere, Massachusetts Like most Russian nightclub-restaurants, Mirage is best with a large group. I first went there with my high-school Russian club, and while we weren't old enough to indulge on vodka, we did sample around 80 of the best appetizers one could wish for: cold cuts, salads, and - best of all - cold smoked and marinated fish. Then it was on to the meat entrees, and in between was dancing accompanied by a live band.

I returned with my parents, girlfriend, and college roommate for my 21st birthday, and after getting lost (something about having to go over the same bridge twice - you'll figure it out when you visit), we enjoyed a smaller version of much the same meal. This time we did have a bottle of vodka, which we didn't finish - and they sent the rest of the bottle home with us in a doggie bag.

Five most memorable places of accommodation

Ashford Castle, Cong, Ireland "Excellence since 1228" proclaims its Web site, and my girlfriend, Kimberly, and I couldn't resist trying it out: certainly the best IR£284 hotel room I ever stayed in. (You can go in the winter for about €200.)

Renting a car is the best way to see Ireland, and, weary from trekking around the Cliffs of Moher, we headed for Cong. At first we sped past the large iron gates that lead to Ashford Castle's grounds, but when we returned, the guard checked us in and opened the gates for us to enter. It was then a good five-minute drive alongside brilliant-green hills, past a lake, and over a bridge until we arrived at the parking lot.

Through a richly decorated lobby exuding the sweet aroma of seven centuries of tobacco use, and up a regal-looking winding staircase, we found our room, which had an excellent view of the outdoor fountain. Ashford has all sorts of outdoor activities, and while we couldn't quite overcome the ethical ramifications of trying falconry, we took a pleasant walk through pristinely laid-out gardens and along a woodsy trail, after which we played tennis for a while before heading to the sauna.

Dinner at the Connaught Room (see Most Memorable Meal #4) was preceded by a drink in the Prince of Wales Cocktail Bar and followed by a couple of hours in the downstairs piano bar, where Kimberly performed "If I Had the Nerve to Tell You."

Blue Train, Cape Town to Pretoria, South Africa Just as plush as my room at Ashford Castle, room 23 of the Blue Train (www.bluetrain.co.za) was a welcome respite from the mosquito nets, peeling paint, and common bathrooms I'd been accustomed to in African guest houses. Every time I left the room, my butler (who oversaw the foor rooms in my car - call her on the train phone!) came in to wash out my water glass, empty the trash, or whatever - and I never saw her do it. When I returned from dinner, the armchairs had been put away and an exceptionally comfortable bed awaited me. And the shower was the only one I had in Africa with a constant temperature and decent water pressure.

That's just the room - more about the trip below.

Windamere Hotel, Darjeeling, India Perched on top of a mountain in northeastern India, Darjeeling isn't the easiest place to get to: It's a couple of hours' ride from either the airport or the main train line, or - if it's running - you can take the miniature railway, which covers the 88-kilometer trip in about eight hours. But with a cool climate and the sweet smell of tea plantations, Darjeeling is definitely worth the trip.

And the Windamere is an excellent, affordable place to stay. My room cost US$80, which included three full meals. See the travelogue for the full description.

Sinai Desert, base of Mount Sinai, Egypt Apart from Bedouins and sheep, there wasn't much around when my father and I and the other few people in our tour group settled down to sleep under the cool night sky of Egypt. Our driver had left, and except for a flashlight or two, there was nothing electronic in the vicinity. (No doubt someone had a mobile phone. But let me keep the ambience, OK?) My father summed it up pretty succinctly: "The W.C. is over there, right?" he asked our guide, pointing to the general area behind a hill. No tents were necessary: just a sleeping bag. At 3:30 in the morning we awoke and began the trek up Mount Sinai for the sunrise.
Attic room at the Panzio Blanco, Sopron, Hungary I needed to be close to the train station, so I checked out the Panzio Bianco, a block away. Only the attic room was available, and while I didn't really fancy the idea of climbing a ladder to get to my room, the price was right: 900 forint, or about US$4. Once inside, I found other surprises: The walls sloped; the toilet was not in a separate room but rather behind a curtain; the bed was simply a futon on the floor; the light switch was a piece of string; and various odds and ends filled the room.

Five most memorable rides

Blue Train, Cape Town to Pretoria, South Africa After checking out the Blue Train's Web site, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take the trip. The only day I could make the trip - 5 December 2001 - had been sold out, so I'd put my name on the waiting list. Three days after the September 2001 terror attacks in New York, my reservation was honored; no doubt some people had canceled their trips. The wait turned out to benefit me: Because of the dramatic decline in the value of the rand, the cost of the trip to me had gone from US$1000 to just under US$900. That may seem steep for a 26-hour train trip, but all meals, drinks, and snacks are included, and all are splendid.

Checking in for the Blue Train in the late morning, I entered a VIP room, where hors d'oeuvres are available. The train came, and my butler showed me to my room (see above), where a fruit plate and bottled water awaited me. The TV screen showed a personalized welcome message.

Lunch and dinner were served in the dining car, in two seatings (I opted for the latter seating), served on beautiful china and crystal and accompanied by South African wines. In between, I spent much time in the observatory car, the last car: It has windows on three sides, offering excellent views. Another car, the club car, has a large screen showing the view ahead from the front of the train; this view is simulcast on one of the TV channels in the private rooms.

In the mid-afternoon, we stopped for an hour at Matjiesfontein, a small town with a historic inn and an interesting museum filled with someone's personal collection. After dinner, I joined other travelers in the club car, singing Irish folk songs (was I back at Ashford?).

The train arrived in Pretoria 40 minutes late, but I had no reason to complain!

Trans-Mongolian Railway, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, to Moscow, Russia I found it surprisingly rewarding to watch the scenery segue from the Mongolian desert to the lush Lake Baikal area to the woods of Siberia to the towns, and finally cities, of western Russia during the four-day ride. I was blessed with having friendly compartment-mates (it helped that I speak Russian, as did they), and I was lucky to be one door over from three travelers from English-speaking countries. See the travelogue for the full story.
Bus, Lhasa, Tibet, to Golmud, China This is certainly among the most boring and uncomfortable rides in the world. My trip took 34 hours, but it can take much longer if the bus breaks down. It was a sleeper bus, but the ride was too bumpy for me to sleep. So what did I do? Read the full story.
Train, Hohhot to Beijing, China Not content with an excruciating 34-hour bus ride, I continued my newfound asceticism in the noisy, soft-seat car of this overnight train. I didn't sleep here either. Not being a professional expectorater like my fellow passengers, I had to find other things to do.
Miniature railway, New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, India Five hours on this train, at about 11 kilometers per hour, got me halfway up the mountain. A slow ride indeed, but gorgeous.

Five most memorable surprises

Candlelit restaurant with no electricity becomes a disco, Kharkhorin, Mongolia Walking down Kharkhorin's main street, three other travelers and I hunted for a restaurant. Given that the town's electricity had been turned off, we were lucky to find a place serving food at all. But what happened when the electricity came back on?
Border authorities deny me passage for not having a visa, Konotop, Ukraine The Ukrainian consulate said I didn't need a visa, but Mrs. Shrill, the border official, claimed otherwise.
Getting from Pavelets Station, Moscow, to the suburb of Gorki Leninskiye In the tenth grade, I spent a month in Moscow on a student exchange program. Our leader encouraged the American students to take trips to see nearby attractions, and so Amy and I perused the guidebooks and came up with a day trip to Gorki Leninskiye, Lenin's suburban estate, which had been turned into a museum. The place was about 32 kilometers from Moscow.

We weren't sure we were actually allowed to go there, as at that time visitors to Moscow weren't supposed to leave the city limits unless permission was expressly stated on their visas. But from what we could surmise, Gorki Leninskiye was allowed.

Excited, we got on the commuter train at Pavelets Station. This train indicated that it ran on the line that went to Gorki Leninskiye, from where we'd take a bus from the train station to the museum.

About halfway to our destination, however, the train stopped at Biryulevo. It turned out that this train only went that far; we'd have to take another train an hour later to resume the journey.

An hour at Biryulevo? This was a tiny town with a cluster of uninteresting houses and vast plains of...mud. Everywhere we walked there was mud, and it was raining, so there was continuously more mud.

We eventually made it to Gorki Leninskiye station. None of the buses matched the number indicated in our guidebook, but we found one bus that indicated a stop at the museum.

The bus's fare box had a slot where money was to be inserted; then you were supposed to turn a handle until your ticket emerged. I put my money in and turned the handle, and by the time I realized what I was looking at, five or six tickets had come out.

The bus took us past practically every house in the suburb, picking up elderly women (the median age of the town's population was something like 75), and then it took a detour to a supermarket. There the bus waited for the women to do their shopping, before it dropped them all off again in the reverse order in which they'd boarded.

And then, finally, the bus stopped at the museum. The trip itself had made the excursion worth while, but the museum was also interesting, with lots of Lenin's office paraphernalia and attractive gardens. We left the museum and waited another hour or so for the return trip to the station. Getting back to Pavelets Station on the train was easy: All trains went to Moscow!

Con artist attempts a scam, Agra, India Did the boy at the restaurant really just want to take me on his motorcycle for a chess game, or did his friend have other plans?
Three cow-sized somethings are found to be buffalo, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania In the Serengeti a few days earlier, I'd been woken up several times a night by the sound of lions around our campsite. I'd been reassured that the lions weren't likely to attack, but I'd been warned not to stray from the tent at night, and the sound was enough that I became rather freaked out whenever I perceived any nearby animals after dark.

At Ngorongoro Crater, a Spanish traveler in my tour group, Kino, had the tent next to mine. Just as we zipped up our tents for the night, he said, in Spanish, "There's something outside your tent."

"What is it?"

"I don't know. Something the size of a cow."

"A cow?"

"Yes. There are three."

Kino went to sleep.

I was able to sleep a few minutes later, but at around 4:30 in the morning, I heard a chomping sound: Something was eating the grass immediately outside my tent. My thoughts first turned to the two grapefruits inside my backpack: One of my guides had said that wild pigs can smell fruit and tear tents open. However, a wild pig was probably a lot less dangerous than a leopard or hyena or cheetah. Then my thoughts turned to the story I'd heard from another tour-group member, whose cousin had been mauled by a buffalo. I thought about the fact that the campsite was probably being patrolled by rangers who would scare off or shoot any dangerous creature, but I wasn't really sure the rangers were there. And at some point I probably thought about whether my life insurance covered my being eaten by a wild animal.

There was a lot of thinking to be done, for I certainly couldn't sleep with all that chomping going on. "Go away," I said. I have no idea why I said that.

Eventually the sun rose, and there was no sign of a cow-sized something. But after breakfast, Kino reported that we had had quite a variety of visitors that night: buffalo and elephants. That chomping thing had been a buffalo!