Advertisements
Tag Archives: history

Royal Russia – Day 2

5 Feb

Our second day in Saint Petersburg was completely dedicated to the Royals.  It started with a trip to Pushkin to visit the summer palaces and ended with a fine meal at Tsar.  Pushkin seems a bit like the Hamptons of Saint Pete…sans beach of course.  In addition to numerous Royal Palaces, modern-day Pushkin is full of summer houses belonging to Russia’s upper class.  Our first stop was Catherine’s Palace – nothing if not over-the-top.  Gilded…gilded…everywhere!

Although this palace was originally commissioned by Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great.  It was her daughter Elizabeth, who oversaw the completion of the palace in all its gleaming splendor.  Her specific request to architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli was to build –  “a palace with truly splendid ornaments, fit to be an abode for the ruler of a huge empire”.  And so he did…

In the Grand Ballroom of Catherine's Palace

It turned out that our decision to brave the freezing cold in order to visit Russia in the winter and fulfill our Dr. Zhivago fantasies had other perks…NO other tourists.  We ultimately had all of the Royal Palaces to ourselves.  I don’t think any of these pictures would have been possible in the summertime with wall to wall people.

The main staircase inside The Catherine Palace.  I think I tour guide did a nice job snapping this picture!

Before touring The Pavlovsk Palace, commissioned by Catherine II (i.e. Catherine the Great) for her son Paul, we decided to take a little sleigh ride in the beautiful and freshly fallen white snow!

To be honest…it was almost (okay it was) too cold for this frosty little ride.  But I knew that we could not come back from Russia and tell my Mama Jean (my 80-year-old grandmother who loves snow and all things Russian) that we did not take a “Troika” ride.

After Pavlovsk Palace, we toured The Alexander Palace, built by Catherine the Great for her favorite grandson, Alexander I.  Of course the Palace itself was quite grand, but it was the history of it that intrigued us most.  This palace eventually housed the last Tsar of Russia – Nicolas II, and it felt more like a home than any of the others.  My absolute favorite display case of all is pictured above – Romanov baby clothes.   They really put Baby Gap to shame.

At the end of a full day of trekking through palaces, we decided to treat ourselves to another meal of traditional Russian cuisine at Tsar.  More caviar…more vodka…and their delicious cherry dumplings!

Post dinner dancing at Tsar Restaurant

Stay tuned for Royal Russia – Day 3!

 

Advertisements

Xi’an, China

18 Dec

Dont' be fooled - these are not the "real" terra-cotta warriors. Although they may have worn oversized sunglasses.

I think it is fair to say that all of us hope to leave our mark on this earth.  Many do this by raising a family and carrying on their family name.  Artists and authors become immortal through their works.  Some offer endowments to their alma mater in order for a building that bears their name to be built.  Recently, I discovered one person in particular who left 2 incredible legacies behind: one above ground – The Great Wall – and one underground (and therefore less well-known) –  The Terra-cotta Soldiers of Xi’an. Known as the First Emperor in Chinese History  (or to me as one of the most arrogant men to ever walk the earth) Emperor QinShihuang decided to have his “people” craft an estimated 8,000 life-size warriors and horses to be buried along the perimeter wall of his tomb in order to protect his corpse in the afterlife.  A reasonable request, don’t you think?

Because Emperor Qin believed that life under the ground after death was a continuation of life on earth, he constructed (or rather had his people construct – over a 40 year period) a huge mausoleum for himself including 3 palaces and a resting hall with all the necessities of daily life, as if the emperor were still alive.  And although a grass-covered mound stands 76 meters high today (originally 115 meters high during its completion in 221 BC) and about 35 kilometers from the city of Xi’an, it wasn’t until 1974 that local farmers discovered large pottery fragments while digging for wells in search of water.  This discovery led to the revelation of 3 pits housing the emperor’s underground army spanning over 22,000 square meters.  It should be said that the farmer who discovered this amazing national treasure (often referred to as The 8th Wonder of the World) became the first Chinese millionaire!

The Warrior "Hospital" - Where restorations continue daily

After 5 years of government approved excavation, Emperor Qin’s Terra-cotta Museum opened to the public on October 1, 1979.  In the last 20 years, the terra-cotta museum has become the largest on-site museum in China, and it receives over 2 million tourists each year.  Upon entering the first pit of the museum, all of us (my mom included who was visiting us for the first time) became speechless.  Something very difficult for both Brett and Mom to do I might add!  The sheer magnitude of the soldiers is bewildering – but upon closer look, we realized that each soldier carries a different facial expression, its own unique hairstyle and stance.  These outstanding figures were not replicated in bulk, but created with time, care, and unprecedented precision.  Even more remarkable – each figure would have been 3 times its current size before cooking it in the kiln to achieve the finished product.

Restored Warriors in Pit 1

Honestly, I can’t even wrap my mind around it – but I suppose there was a bit more free time before television and Facebook.  It is estimated that over 2 million craftsmen worked to build the emperor’s tomb and the terra-cotta warriors. Sadly,  thousands of them were buried alive at the death of the emperor to keep the tomb a secret.

It is truly something one must see to believe.  I had seen a documentary on them before moving to China – but nothing but your own eyes can truly do them justice.

Small Terra-cotta Figures from Emperor Jingdi's Tomb

Xi’an was actually the original capital of China, and because of this it has a plethora of other historical treasures.  In fact, just a one hour drive from Emperor Qin’s tomb is the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi which houses over 50,000 doll-sized terra-cotta figures in a new “under-ground” museum which opened in 2006.  Known as the Hanyangling museum, this modern space creates a unique perspective with glass floors that allow you to literally walk over the remains.  While the life-size warriors of Emperor Qin’s tomb are mind-boggling because they represent his complete domination over the people, the figures of Jingdi’s tomb embody his way of thinking as an emperor of the people.  The 2 emperors had quite different regimes to say the least.

Laughing at the Large Wild Goose Pagoda

We also visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652 AD during the Teng Dynasty to hold Buddhist materials collected from India. Although, my mom opted out, Brett and I climbed to the top to check out the views of Xi’an.  Unfortunately for us, the visibility that day pretty much sucked.  If only we had thought it through before climbing the 7 stories of rickety and extremely uneven stairs…

Xi’an is a true treasure of China, and the residents take great pride in their city. I thoroughly enjoyed our time there, and I highly recommend it as a stop during any visit to China.   I am also incredibly thankful that we got to share the experience with my mom.  I mean look how cute she is dressed as a terra-cotta soldier!

Warrior? Or Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland?

The Egyptian Sahara

18 Oct

Al Tarfa Desert Lodge & Spa

Aware of the fact that Brett and I would want some down time in-between site seeing, I sought out a few opportunities beyond Cairo, Luxor, and Alexandria.  Frankly, I knew us well enough to know that eventually the masses of tourists would wear on us, and we would need a remote space to decompress.  It wasn’t until my intense research on traveling to Egypt began that I discovered where exactly this remote place would be…

During a basic Google search for “unique Egyptian resorts”, I came

Our Villa

across The Al Tarfa Desert Sanctuary – Egypt’s first eco-luxury lodge.  Images of the lodge instantly captivated me.  And when I showed them to Brett – he was equally excited.  Al Tarfa offered romance, history, natural beauty, and adventure in a truly exceptional setting.  I immediately booked us the Dar Hamza Sahara Suite (1 of 2 suites with a small private plunge pool) for 3 nights.

The Never Ending Road to Al Tarfa

Like many hidden treasures, Al Tarfa, located in the Egyptian Sahara – specifically the Dakhla Oasis, is not the easiest place to get to.  There is a local airport (but with our G5 in the shop that option was out) – so the next best thing was to take a car from Luxor.  Somehow in my blonde brain, I had convinced myself (and Brett) that the road trip would be about 3-3 1/2 hours.   In reality it was 6 1/2 – 7 hours.  Oops!  Good thing our driver was kind enough to stop at a convenience store for potato chips and diet cokes before leaving Luxor because I assure you that there were no Quik Trips or 7-Elevens in between.

One of the Many Checkpoint Guards

We began the journey around 7AM so we slept for he first couple of hours.  We woke up to the nothingness that is the Egyptian desert.  Miles of sand and road for as far as the eye can see.  The only stops we made were at the security checkpoints every 60 or so kilometers where we said hello in English to prove our nationality. Needless to say – it was very secure.  Honestly, I don’t think it has anything to do with security.  I think it has to do with safety.  It is so hot that if someone’s car broke down, somewhere within the 60-kilometer range, for more than an hour without water or air conditioning they would be in serious trouble.  I began to wonder about our decision to leave the land of civilization…

Pool at Al Tarfa

Just as I was losing steam, we began to see green (i.e. nearing the oasis).  Our driver assured us that we would be poolside in less than an hour.  He also offered us his sandwich (seeing that we had survived the 7 hour trip on chips alone), which I thought was incredibly sweet.  Obviously, we didn’t take his food – he still had to drive all the way back to Luxor after dropping us off!

Our Favorite Lunch Sport at Al Tarfa

We arrived at the Al Tarfa Lodge Lobby Villa around 2PM where we were greeted with cold towels and a freshly squeezed lime cocktail of sorts.  Awww – I knew instantly that the long trip had been worth it.  While the bellhops took the bags to our villa, we bee-lined it to the restaurant for a real meal – and what a meal it was.  Al Tarfa is an all-inclusive resort (well everything but Moet & Chandon – which they tell you up front) and the food they serve is unlike any “all-inclusive food” I have ever eaten.  It is fantastic!  I think Brett and I gained a collective 8 pounds (no need to be specific on how the 8 pounds was divided).  The cuisine, prepared by locals, is primarily Egyptian Saharan fare.  In addition to dining at the main restaurant, the resort sets-up different and exclusive spots (in incredibly charming and romantic ways I might add) throughout the property for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We never ate a meal in the same place, and every meal melted in our mouths.

Old Village of Qasr

After that first lunch – the trip blurs a little bit.  I have found that this happens when I am truly relaxed.  What I do know is that our experience here was full of once in a lifetime memories.  In addition to food and drinks, the “all-inclusive” package includes private daily excursions.  With the owner of the resort, Wael, as our wonderful guide, we toured the old Islamic City of Qasr during our first excursion.  The mud brick homes built continuously seem to go on forever.  We strolled through the open areas and listened as he explained the way of life for the people who built this fascinating string of homes.  As an interior design major – I was amazed at the genius of their window placement to provide the most beautiful yet practical light.  Even 21st Century contractors can’t get that right!  At one point we turned a corner to find a table and 3 chairs with 3 glasses of chilled sparkling water.  Of course, Wael had arranged this – but it felt magical.  The 3 of us sat and chatted for a while about all things Saharan.

Amazing Natural Light at Qasr

He also shared with us that other than Robert de Niro and his family, we are the only other Americans who have stayed at Al Tarfa.  So…I guess this means that we are in the “circle of trust”.

Our Waiter at the Dunes

The remainder of our stay included many more delicious meals by candlelight, sun filled days by the pool, a small glimpse of death on a horseback ride involving 2 male horses and 1 filly in heat, and the most authentic Sex and the City moment I have ever had.  On our last night, we took a jeep excursion to the Dakhla Dune Park for sunset.  With absolutely no guidelines, our driver sped through the hills of sand just like “The Lawrence of Samantha’s L*@#A” in Abu Dhabi.  After 15 minutes of cruising along, we topped one of the giant dunes to find a Saharan waiter standing under a large yellow and white striped umbrella equipped with 2 chairs and a fully stocked bar. Although we were not greeted with giant bags of designer clothes (like in the movie) – to me – it was perfect!  The word that comes to mind is dreamy.  That is what it was. Plain and simple.  As the sun fell and the moon rose, we talked and toasted with our bare feet in the sand.  And then, as we realized that the “things” flying above us were not birds, but were in fact giant bats – we jumped in the jeep and headed back for dinner.  Even with the bloodsuckers swooping around, it was one of

Check Out the Reflection in Brett's Sunglasses

the best moments ever!

Sunset at the Dunes. FASHION: Silk Crepe Accordion Pleat One Shoulder Dress. Tailored Made in China.

TRAVEL TIPS:  It is still very hot there in September.  The peak season starts in December when the temperature drops.  If you can’t handle the heat – wait to go until then.  Also, if you make it a couple’s trip or go with a bigger group, you can charter a plane (from Cairo or Luxor) for a reasonable price.  The resort can arrange this for you.  Keep in mind that while this is a true luxury resort, it is also somewhat of an adventure.  If you want crisp white linens and caviar – then this might not be the place for you.  If you want a one of a kind experience in a desert chic environment – then this is it!  For more information visit:  http://www.altarfalodge.com/

Up Next: Sharm el Sheikh

Up – Up – and Away!

15 Oct

Just After Take-Off

The plan for our second day in Luxor was to visit the Valley of the Kings and Queens.  You can’t really come to Egypt without seeing King Tut’s tomb, right?  But before we got up close and personal with the “boy king’s” burial digs, we decided to get a bird’s eye view via balloon.

Neither of us had ever been on a hot air balloon ride so we decided that there was no better way than to try a sunrise ride over the Nile.  It was spectacular!  You truly feel like you are floating.  Gliding through the sky in that tiny basket, I hadn’t a care in the world.

Firing Up the Balloon

Surprisingly though, my favorite part was not at the highest part of the journey (which was obviously beautiful) – but at the end during our landing.  The area surrounding the Nile in Luxor is almost all farm land – primarily sugar cane. Because the balloon pilot has to be very careful to not land in a spot that could hurt or destroy any crop, we cruised over the fields gently grazing the tops of the sugar cane for about 10 minutes.  It was so incredibly peaceful.  When we did finally land we were greeted by a “balloon team” with a truck to take the balloon, and a van to take us back to the “drop-off” spot.  But of course, we squeezed in some time for a little singing and dancing first!

Dancing with the Balloon Clean-Up Crew. FASHION: DVF Silk Chiffon Wrap Dress

TRAVEL TIP:  Currently, Luxor is the only city in Egypt that offers hot air balloon rides.  Our hotel recommended Viking Air and so would I.  The trip begins around 7AM and the 45 minutes or so ride takes you over the Nile, the Temple of Hatshepsut (the only female to rule Egypt as a Pharaoh), and the Valley of the Kings and Queens.

Brett on the Throne at Habu Temple

Our tour guide met us at the balloon drop-off spot, and we began our day of sightseeing from there. Sites for that day included: The Valley of the Kings & King Tut’s Tomb, Valley of the Queens, Habu Temple, Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple, and the Tombs of Nobles.  Once again – our brains almost exploded with the amount of information we tried to retain.

I am going to touch on the highlights and the most surprising details.  Certainly, I assumed that King Tut Ankh Amun’s Tomb would be the most memorable part of the day – and while it fascinated me that it had been discovered completely in tact just 88 years ago, a few of the underrated sites interested me the most.  The Habu Temple (or the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III) was far less crowded than many of the other tourist spots.  Perhaps I enjoyed it more because we were able to get up close and personal with the well preserved and brightly colored hieroglyphics, perhaps it was the sheer amount of carvings and stories (75,350 square feet of decoration) but more than likely it was the opportunity to take a photo of Brett pretending to pee in the “toilet” of the Royal Palace Remains on the southeastern side of the temple.

Brett Pretending to Pee in the Royal W.C.

Okay – it probably wasn’t the best representation of American Tourists…but what do you expect from a small town boy from Ohio and a small town girl from Kentucky? Sometimes your roots just take the wheel.

I also really enjoyed the Tombs of the Nobles.  Honestly, we almost scrapped going to see these because of the heat and the fact that we could hear the pool calling our names.  But I am so glad that we didn’t. Of course the tombs are much smaller than those of the royals, but the captivating drawings on the walls depict the everyday lives of real Egyptians or at least the details that the Pharaohs approved. Nobles had to get the “okay” from the ruler at the time.  Talk about the original “Big Brother”.

The last fun fact that I would like to share involves a great love story of Ancient Egypt between Ramses II and his first wife, Queen Nefertari.  Known as the favorite and most beautiful of his 8 wives, her tomb (created by Ramses II) is the most spectacular tomb in the Valley of the Queens.

Trying to Survive the Heat at Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple

Unfortunately, the tomb has been closed to the public since 2003.  But like everything in Egypt…it has a price. Apparently, with the right connections and the right amount of Egyptian Pounds (of which we had neither) you can gain entrance to this sacred tomb.  Another option is to take a trip to Abu Simbel in Southern Egypt to see the temple that Ramses II built in her honor.  There you will find a statue of her – equal in size to the statue of Ramses II (typically queens only came up to the knees of their king). Nefertari made quite a mark in Egyptian history by becoming the only queen to be named a living goddess.  However, this story does have a bit of a disturbing side – because Ramses II lived into his 90’s, Nefertari died many years before him.  It is said that after her death, he married their daughter because she looked so much like his cherished queen.  But let’s be honest, it is also likely that Queen Nefertari was Ramses II sister or half sister. Apparently, that is just the way these Pharaohs liked to roll.

TRAVEL TIP:  I felt that 2 nights in Luxor allowed us an appropriate amount of time to see all of the sites.  I also think that the Sofitel at the Winter Palace is by far the best hotel option.  Be sure to book a room in the original part of the palace.  They are the nicest and the most unique rooms.  Also, the french restaurant, 1886, located in the hotel is delicious (please note that coat and tie are required for men).

http://www.concierge.com/travelguide/luxor/hotels/2842

Gliding Over The Valley of the Kings

Up next:  Al Tarfa Desert Oasis

Luxor or Bust

13 Oct

View from Winter Palace Hotel

After 4 adventurous days in Cairo we hopped on a quick flight (1 hour) and landed in Luxor before lunch time.  Many tourists opt for the cruise down the Nile from Cairo to Luxor – but after seeing the size (very big and crowded) of many of the “cruise boats”, I definitely think that we made the right decision.

Original Color at Karnak Temple

The hospitality in Cairo was outstanding, and Luxor proved to be no different.  In fact, as we were checking in for our flight in Cairo, the gentleman behind us asked if we were the Hutchinson party. Coincidentally (and lucky for us) he turned out to be the general manager of our hotel, The Sofitel Winter Palace, returning to Luxor after visiting his family in New York.  We chatted with him for just a bit, and then before we knew it, he was on the phone with the hotel upgrading our room, confirming our airport pick-up, and discussing our agenda with the concierge.  That is what I call seamless service!

Karnak Temple

After a the short flight and a stop at baggage claim, we were in route to the hotel.  It took about 2 seconds to see the drastic difference between Cairo and Luxor.  Of the 80 or so million Egyptians, 18 million of them live in Cairo. Because of this, many of the other cities (including Luxor) are relatively small and offer much more in natural beauty.

We chose the Winter Palace (now operated by Sofitel) not only because of its fantastic location on the Nile, but also because of its history.  Built in 1886 as King Farouk’s winter palace, the interiors are regal and over the top.  Not to mention…it is the hotel in which Princess Di stayed during her time in Luxor.  A blonde can pretend, right?

Brett Gazing at a Karnak Column

Following a quick lunch by the pool, we met our tour guide in the lobby to set out for the Karnak and Luxor Temples.  As a “wanna be” Egyptologist, I had previously downloaded everything Apple TV had to offer on Ancient Egypt – including shows dedicated to these specific temples.  The History Channel series provided the most comprehensive information; however, nothing prepares you for the grandeur of the temples’ remains.

The Temple of Karnak is the largest temple complex built by man. It is comprised of many different structures commissioned by a number of Pharaohs spanning over almost 2000 years.  But if  I am totally honest, the more stories our tour guide shared with us, the more I felt like I was walking through the inspiration for the very first Soap Opera.  The hieroglyphic covered walls, granite obelisks, and massive columns tell tales more dramatic and complicated than any scandal of All My Children’s Erica Kane.  Seriously though – it is an architectural work of art and the colors that have remained after thousands of years blew this blonde’s mind.

Avenue of Sphinxes

From Karnak we took a short ride to the Luxor Temple.  As we drove our guide discussed the excavations currently underway to expose and restore the Avenue of the Sphinxes,  a path that once connected these two very famous structures.

TIP: If your plan to visit Luxor is not set in stone – it might be worth waiting until this extraordinary restoration is complete.

The Luxor Temple, just steps aways from the Nile, is majestic – but even more remarkable is the religious history  inside.  An Islamic mosque stands on top of the pharaonic temple and Roman paintings

Roman Christian Paintings in the Luxor Temple

with Christian themes are painted in an inner chamber.  Another fun fact about the temple – the missing obelisk (once part of pair added by Ramsis II) now stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. So to be fair…I am taking Brett to Paris for his birthday next month to see it!

Dancing on the Felucca

With brains about to explode with new knowledge, we walked back to the hotel (just a  couple blocks from the

More Dancing.... FASHION: Zara Orange Cotton Cardigan with Chartreuse Silk and Silver Sequined Shift Dress by MM Couture

Luxor Temple) picked up a basket of wine, and headed to the river for a felucca ride.  This ride confirmed the seemingly obvious differences between the banks of the Nile in Cairo vs. Luxor. Cairo offers massive hotels and big business while Luxor offers water buffalo, sugar cane fields, and gorgeous sunsets.  We dined, we drank, and we danced.

How Cute Are These Water Buffalo?

Next Up:  Valley of the Kings & Queens

“Obama’s Mosque”

8 Oct

Entrance to The Hanging Church

On our 3rd day in Cairo, our wonderful tour guide, Jasmine, took us to a variety of historical religious sites.  Although every place we visited was educational and intriguing -for me, as a Christian, the Hanging Church, St. Sergius Church, and the Coptic Museum were the most moving.

The Hanging Church, given its name due to its suspended nave above the ruins of a Babylon fortress first built by the Persians in the 6th century B.C., houses some of the oldest Christian icons.  The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and its most cherished icon is a painting of Mary and Baby Jesus dated 18 A.D.  In a 5 minute span, we were able to witness an abundance of different races of Christians light candles and pray for forgiveness or for loved ones under this very sacred image.  As a small town girl who grew up in an all caucasian Methodist Church, I was touched and grateful.

After lighting a few candles, we listened to Jasmine tell us about a 24 million Egyptian Pound restoration project spearheaded by their Muslim President Mubarak.  I thought to myself…with all of the anger and fear that many Americans hold in their hearts toward the Islamic religion – why has this very positive news not been mentioned?

Egyptian Ankh

From the Hanging Church we walked to the Coptic Museum.  I highly recommend visiting this spot.  It only takes about an hour to tour and the building itself is quite striking.  I was fascinated by the mix of religions as they gradually transformed – the Egyptian Ankh into the Christian Cross, as well as, Christian scenes incorporating Egyptian Gods.  The museum holds the history of the way religion evolved.  The treasure I was most excited to see was the Nag Hammadi Manuscripts – early copies of Christian writings including the Gospel of Thomas (a gospel not included in the Bible).

Stairs Leading to Where The Holy Family Rested

The final Christian site we visited was the Church of Saint Sergius.  Honestly, this 4th century church itself is not all that spectacular.  Of course it has many precious icons and a beautiful pulpit, but the main attraction is a tiny staircase that leads down to a dark cave where the Holy Family – Mary and Joseph once rested with Baby Jesus after their journey into Egypt.  Realizing that I could be standing on the exact same ground where Jesus was once kept was a truly remarkable experience.  To think of all of the history in between then and now – all of the wars fought in His name…I was moved and so was Brett.  It was a very sweet moment to share with him.

Standing Inside The Sultan Hassan/Obama Mosque. FASHION: Black H&M tank, White Zara Cardigan, and Lavender and Taupe Linen Hoop Skirt. Tailor Made in China.

From St. Sergius Church we took a car to see our first mosque.  This leads me to the title of today’s blog.  As we drove, Jasmine began to tell us about our next stop…”Obama’s Mosque”.  With my manners flying out the window – I abruptly interrupted her to ask, “What…Obama..not our Obama (meaning the USA’s) right?”  “Of course your Obabma”, she responded with a big smile.  It was apparent to me at that moment that Obama’s visit to Egypt in June of 2009 had a very profound influence on many Egyptian Muslims.  So profound that they are willing to refer to one of the major monuments of the Islamic world by a different name.  The true name is The Mosque of Sultan Hassan, commissioned by its namesake in 1356 A.D.  It seemed unbelievable to me that a country so proud of its heritage would so quickly refer to 664 year old sacred structure by a different name.  I began to think that perhaps this story was for our benefit – perhaps it is their way of showing respect and appreciation for President Obama’s visit and for his words of peace and concern for the non-extremist Muslims (which make up the majority of the religion).  But in truth, referring to a mosque by the President of the United States name is probably the last thing that many Americans want to hear.  I recently read a survey taken in late July of this year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that 1 in 5 Americans already believe that President Obama is a Muslim.  It made me wonder what the percentage might be if every American was able to see how President Obama is perceived in a Muslim country?

The Hanging Church

The recent uproar over the mosque at Ground Zero, the burning of Qur’ans in Florida, the protests, and even the Saturday Night Live spoofs suggest that this battle between Muslims and Christians is a tragic and never ending cycle.  But for me, a life long Christian, sitting in the Sultan Hassan/Obama Mosque was a very peaceful experience.  Jasmine and I reflected on the many stories that we had both been taught as children – the story of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, and even of Jesus.  I couldn’t help but feel a little sad that even with so many similarities: morality, prayer, and love of others – we continue to fight and harbor anger toward one another because of the extremists of both religions.  It is exactly was God would not want us to do.

After leaving the mosque, I reflected on the entire day.  It was wonderful – yet completely mentally exhausting.  I learned so much – about tolerance and compassion – and at the same time my faith was completely rejuvenated.

TRAVEL TIP: While it is not necessary for Western women to cover their heads inside mosques and churches, all women should cover their shoulders and arms.  I would advise against shorts or short skirts.  I took light cotton cardigans and wraps with me everywhere we went and used them when necessary.

The Last Wonder Standing

4 Oct

FASHION: Red Silk Chiffon Gown with Brushed Gold Sequin Trim. Purchased at Alien Street Market in Beijing.

The Great Pyramids of Giza will take your breath away…for many reasons.  The obvious reasons:  they are huge, they are beyond old, and one’s brain cannot even begin to understand the complexity of their construction.  In addition, it is remarkable to see how close they are to the massive city of Cairo.  Movies and pictures have always led me to believe that these enormous structures are located in the middle of nowhere; however, this could not be any less true.  But I suppose the way in which I was least expecting for the pyramids to take my breath away was in the literal sense – but that they did.

Walking by Khufu with Jasmine

Our day of touring began at 7AM.   Our guide for the next 2 days, Jasmine Amin(who is fantastic!) met us at the hotel and we immediately took off towards the pyramids in order to be there for the opening of Khufu (the largest of the 3 and the only one open for public entry on that day).  I highly recommend booking a private tour guide and car.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Noha, the concierge working with us at the Four Seasons First Residence, selected our guide.  We were able to design a tour based on the exact sites we wanted to see, and the hotel provided a picnic basket so that we would not get hungry during the full day of site seeing.

By 8AM we were standing at the base of Khufu.  Jasmine had already purchased our entry tickets, and we began the short climb to the entrance of this great tomb.  We had no idea what was in store.  Khufu was constructed over a 20-year period around 2560 BC as a tomb for its namesake, Pharaoh Khufu, and it remained the tallest man-made structure for over 3800 years!

Being Dressed Like a Local by a Local

Standing on The Great Pyramid of Khufu

As you can see in the picture below, the limestone blocks used  to build it are almost as tall as me.  I strongly suggest arriving early.  Only 300 visitors are allowed inside each day – once at 8AM and once at 1PM.  Of course it is cooler at 8AM, but even more importantly it is less crowded.  In this scenario, I believe that the crowd would overwhelm me more than the heat.  As you enter the hallway to the tomb, the ceiling height drops to about 3.5 feet and you begin to climb up a steep wooden ramp.  It is dark and you start to feel a bit claustrophobic – but any discomfort is overcompensated by the fact that you are climbing inside one of the Great Pyramids.  I couldn’t help but feel a little bit like Indiana Jones (albeit an Indiana Jones wearing a long red dress which I realize looked completely impractical – but in fact was incredibly comfortable and effortless!) When we arrived at the top and entered the room holding the carsophaugus (basically a granite casket) the heat and lack of air during the climb had winded me, but I recovered almost instantly as I stood in amazement.  The room, made of perfectly assembled dark granite stones was unbelievably dark, cool, and quiet.  The voices of the 10 or so tourists inside echoed in the tiny space.  Other than the tall ceilings, the room felt very ordinary.  There were no traces of golden treasures or ancient drawings.  In fact the only treasure ever discovered inside the Khufu Pyramid was a tiny ivory statue of the Pharaoh Khufu (now located at the Egyptian Museum). A flashlight revealed a small cutout (about 6″ wide) that opened to what appeared to be a very long corridor yet to be explored. It excited me to think that perhaps those naughty tomb robbers from centuries ago had been unsuccessful in stealing all of treasures left for Khufu’s afterlife  –  yet to be discovered even today.  After sneaking a quick kiss in the corner, we decided to begin our descent before it became too crowded.  I must admit that the climb down was a little more stressful…there was a 6 month old baby involved (note to self: 6 month olds are terrified of really dark and really hot cave like spaces that once held a dead body) as well as a couple well into their 70’s – possibly even their 80’s (more power to them but I was terrified of a broken hip situation).

We reconnected with Jasmine after exciting the pyramid where we were introduced to the photographer that the hotel found for us to take pictures for a couple of hours as we toured the rest of the area.  I am actually thrilled that we booked this.  The cost was less than $250 USD (including the pictures of which there were over 300) and it took all the stress of asking our guide or other tourists to capture the most amazing photo of all time with our “small enough to fit into any size handbag” digital camera.  (I am including many of the photographers images in this entry.)

In Front of Khufu's Boat

In addition to the 3 great pyramids, this site is home to the Sphinx as well as a Boat Museum which houses an amazingly intact wooden boat of the Pharaoh Khufu.  We toured the museum to learn the story of how the boat was

discovered only decades ago and how it was restored to its current state before taking a fantastic camel ride over to see the Sphinx.

The camels are kissing too!

In front of the Step Pyramid

After a full morning of learning, our brains took a small rest during the 30 minute drive to Saqqara to see the very first Egyptian pyramid – The Step Pyramid built for the Pharaoh Djoser.  While it was fascinating to see the predecessor to the other 138 pyramids found in Egypt, it was a bit heartbreaking to learn that the Egyptian government is funding a project to create an entirely new facade for this structure.  I mean…I am all for restorations and improvements, but when this project is finished, the original and remaining portion of this 4600+ year old masterpiece will be completely hidden.  To me – it is such a loss.

Rubbing the Fertility God's Belly

From Saqqara, we made a quick stop to learn the process of creating papyrus (the first type of paper created by Egyptians) before traveling to see the ruins of Memphis, a former capital city.  Memphis is the home to many amazing statues and remains as part of an open air museum.

Here we are rubbing the belly of the god of fertility.  Mona and Donna – don’t get too excited just yet!

Finger in Fertility God's Belly Button

After a long day of touring, we made one final stop to a jewelry store specializing in Egyptian style gold jewelry.  While this of course helped my energy level to pick up…I got the picnic basket out to help Brett’s!  We had a beautiful Cartouche made in 18K yellow gold with my name in Eyptian on one side and Brett’s on the other.  We felt a bit like junior high kids buying matching identity bracelets…but we didn’t care!  It was fun.

On to the Ancient World….EGYPT!

30 Sep

For so many years I dreamed to be gazing at the Great Pyramids on the day that I kissed 29 good-bye.  I can’t believe this dream came true!  As I write all the details about this 2 week adventure, I want to be absolutely sure to include as many travel tips as possible.  While there is quite of bit of info on trips and tours to Egypt online, I found most of it to be basic and somewhat vague.  I hope that my insights will be helpful, informative, and fun at the same time! (Please note: I am planning to do about 1 dozen posts on Egypt alone)

The journey started on a direct red-eye flight from Beijing to Cairo on Egypt Air (a Star Alliance Member).  Currently, there is only one direct flight a week out of Beijing.  It is 10 hours.  With stops it can be over 16 – so be sure to book early on the direct.  I should also add that Egypt Air is a dry airline.  Obviously this is not the end of the world…but let’s be honest, this blonde would have enjoyed a champagne toast to celebrate our departure!

After 10 hours at 30,000 feet, we touched down in the land of the pharaohs.  It was 7AM Cairo time.  Getting through customs was fairly easy.  US Citizens do need a visa; however, it can be purchased upon arrival for about $15.  You can pay in US dollars or visit an ATM and pay in Egyptian Pounds.  For all of the Beijing readers with a Union Pay Chinese Bank Card – there are very few ATM’s that work…if any.  We actually used our cards from the States the entire time.

A car service from the hotel met us at baggage claim, and we arrived at the hotel in about 30 minutes.  I strongly recommend booking a car service.  It was nice not to have to think too much after a such a long flight.  Upon arrival to our hotel, The Four Seasons at the First Residence, we were greeted with warmth and excitement.  Noha, the concierge who organized our stay, was particularly helpful.  In fact, she created an itinerary for us that exceeded all expectations!

http://www.fourseasons.com/cairofr/

After a quick rest in our huge suite overlooking the Nile (birthday upgrade courtesy of the hotel) including showers, a cheese plate, and a bottle of bubbly; we headed out to the most famous souk in Cairo.  Khan El-Khalily bazaar contains every treasure imaginable. Some are lovely and some are completely tragic.  Perhaps the world would be a more beautiful place if everyone owned a life size, gold leaf statue of an awkwardly anatomically correct King Tut – but I seriously doubt it.  Even in the sea of very aggressive salesmen pushing their wares from overstocked booths, Brett and I were able to find a few very special shops with years of history.  There are 2 places in particular that I would love to share.

1:  Zaki F. Boutros Jewellers

TEL: +20 5904153

As you can see in the picture, this shop was filled from top to bottom with sterling silver and gold.  Rest assured that every piece is guaranteed with the Egyptian government stamp – and it does not look like Indian silver.  We found 2 beautiful Mint Julep(esque) cups for about half the price you pay for English silver, and they engraved Egypt 2010 on the bottom for us in about 15 minutes. During our wait they told us the history of the shop and served us hot mint tea (their specialty).

2:  Venus Palace Perfumes

5. Khan El-Khalily, Cairo, Egypt

TEL: +20 932625

Egypt has been producing pure scented oils for thousands of years.  They offer hundreds of different scents and blends, and the fact that they are so proud of their craft makes the buying experience delightful.  The shop owner goes into great depth of the effects of each scent – the home remedies, the cures, and the aphrodisiac qualities.  It was perfect timing for us – as we had just run out of Jo Malone bath oils.  Even more perfect – these were 1/10 of the price!  We selected 3: Attar of Roses (similar to Agent Provocateur…my favorite), Sandal Wood (a lovely fall and winter fragrance), and Ramsis (popular for lighting a certain fire…).

My experience with haggling all over Beijing definitely paid off.  While other tourists (from non-haggling countries) seemed overwhelmed and flustered, I practiced my perfected technique to just “walk away” from the vendor until he chased me down to give me the price I requested.  60% of the time – it works every time.  Just like Brian Fantana’s (Paul Rudd) Sex Panther Cologne in Anchor Man.

The souk, minus the more modern and tacky souvenir shops peppered throughout, was like stepping back in time.  There were a handful of hundred year old coffee shops, sheesha smoking corners packed with men in long robes, and a number of other Egyptian men asking Brett, “How many camels for your woman?”  I would be lying if I said that I didn’t like it – and I would really be lying if I said that I didn’t love it when he simply replied, “All the camels in the desert!”  Just so long as he didn’t mean all the wild camels…of which there are none.

Stay tuned for more…

%d bloggers like this: