Mokrice Castle in Slovenia with Friends

Once we finished our work in  Obrezje, Slovenia my colleagues and I had dinner at the Mokrice Castle. The dinner had been arranged specially for us by our colleague, Mojca. We nearly had the entire castle to ourselves, and we had the close attention of our host. The dinner included a full flight of wines, a several course meal, and a walking tour of the castle – including the wine cellar – before we came back and finished. The pictures are from our friend, Nina, who had the good sense to bring her camera – unlike me! Erin, Gary and Nina will be among a group traveling to Washington state in April for our project. I am challenged now to plan an evening as memorable as this one was!

International Travel: Stamps in My Passport

Stamps_in_a_passportPart of the work that took me to Vienna in November 2008 included a road trip with some of my colleagues to Obrezje, Slovenia. Obrezje is on the border between Slovenia and Croatia, and in less than a day, we made several trips across the border crossings between the two countries. This is where I learned something that will likely make my European friends laugh: when you cross at a land border, the stamp has a little car on it!  See Obrezje, on top on the left? Hey, I live in a big country, and I’m pretty sure the only way I’ve crossed its borders has been by airplane – see stamp in lower right. I have lots of little airplanes in my passport, not so many little cars! Of course, as much as I enjoy traveling to these amazing places, my favorite stamp is that oval one in the upper right hand corner!

Three Simple Observations from Vienna, Mongolia, and Romania

First, from Romania: savor a perfect experience.  if it’s truly perfect, like my first trip to the “Bla” (Swedish for blue) Lounge in the Bucharest Radisson, there’s no way the second trip can meet the same standard. It may be good, even really good, but probably not perfect. You may encounter a particularly young waiter who doesn’t understand that it’s bad form to deliver the bill before the food and drink have been presented.

Second, also from Romania but more from Mongolia: a city is far more welcoming once you walk the streets and find a cafe where you manage, despite having no local language skills, to order a soul-refreshing bowl of soup. (Ok, I had to confess to Oana, so the cafe turned out in this case to be the bistro at the Hilton. I didn’t know that when I went in!) 

Third, from Vienna: a city where you know virtually no one may seem foreign and somewhat unwelcoming before you get a chance to walk the streets. But there is nothing more lonely than knowing that somewhere, within a few foreign blocks, your friends and colleagues are enjoying a lovely meal – waiting for you – and you are unable to find them, call them, or walk another step.

Reflections at the Bar

More from the Radisson SAS in Bucharest, Romania. This is quickly becoming one of my all time favorite hotels. And bar!

View Reflections at the bar

The picture on the left is looking up through the atrium past the mobile light sculpture. On the right is looking down past the snowball candle holder to see the same view reflected in the glass on the table.

“Dinner” was a sweet, simple, perfect indulgence. It started with a cocktail (“Bla 44”) I will have to describe later. Suffice to say for now, it was delicious and I had to think twice about ordering a third – I didn’t! I ordered chicken and pork satay that was served with peanut sauce in a martini glass. It was a perfect small dish for an evening that didn’t want or need a big meal. I finished off with “pralines” which had nothing to do with pecans and was simply a plate of chocolates, and a plate of chocolate coated, freshly made marshmallows. Oh my goodness!

Radisson SAS Bucharest, Romania: Beautiful Hotel

What a lovely surprise when you wake up in a hotel after checking in late the day before to discover you are surrounded by beautiful architecture and interesting art and sculpture. Here are a few pix. One is looking up through the atrium where there is a hanging sculpture. One is looking down the atrium from the sixth floor to the lounge; another looks across the atrium to the floors below – I liked the pattern. The last one shows use of lights in the panels on each  floor.

View Radisson SAS Hotel Bucharest Romania

What I don’t have pictures of (yet!) are the steaming outdoor pools (the temperature here is about freezing give or take a few degrees) or the floor in the bar which has jets of water shooting out across under the surface, with the bar constructed of material that makes it look like it’s made of ice.  Really, it was quite a lovely surprise to come down for breakfast and see some of these details that I  had not taken in when I first arrived.

Rooms with a View – Bucharest, Romania

100_2036Here I am in Romania for a week of meetings. The city looked interesting from what I could tell on the drive in from the airport – bright lights and holiday decorations among the stately and historic buildings. I got a short guided tour from my kind logistics person, Oana. Oana had accompanied a class to the US for training; it’s nice to have continuity of friendship from the delegations who come to the US that we meet again when we travel into the countries where we’ll be working. So, kind Oana arranged for me to stay at the Radisson downtown. I haven’t seen much of it from the outside, but as before, here is the view from the room. Sweet church across the street, and you can look past older buildings to see the sunrise reflected off a shiny new building and construction cranes waiting for work to begin. I just saw someone walking into the church, pulling his winter hat off as he crossed under the arched doorway. Nice thought that this is where a person would start their day.

Mongolia: Rooms with a View

Aside from two nights sleeping on the train between Ulaan Baatar and Zamiin Uud, we stayed at three hotels while we were on travel in Mongolia. By tradition, I captured the view from the windows of each of these – here they are.

View from my room at the Chinggis KhaanFirst is the view from the Chinggis Khaan Hotel in Ulaan Baatar. As our “base” between trips to the countryside, the Chinggis Khaan quickly began to feel like our home away from home. It was great having a  place to get a hot shower, reliable phone service, access to the internet, and be able to stock up on food from the Sky Department Store in back.

After training in Ulaan Baatar, we traveled to Sukhbaatar in the north countryside. The group grabbed the best accommodations in two hotels within sight of each other. I stayed at the “Flower” Hotel. Here’s what it looked like on the outside, and the view from my first room. 100_1685 100_1686

100_1589The first room I took had three beds – I had dropped all my stuff before we decided to split up and seek out the best rooms in each of the two hotels. When the owners realized that we weren’t using all the beds, they asked if I could move into the single at the end of the hall so they could rent out the room to guests who could use all three beds.

The single was a considerable upgrade – with a bedroom, a sitting room (left below), and a private bathroom, complete with toilet, shower, and water heater! As much as I would have liked a hot shower, I opted against turning on the water heater. We had already had one power outage and the electrical outlet for the water heater was in the shower, across from the shower head.

Helping me get settled in was an adorable Mongolian girl of seven or eight who kept looking at me with kindness and patience despite my not being able to understand even the simplest thing she was saying. The view looked out the side of the hotel, in the direction of the hotel (orange building with the red roof) where Melody and Theresa stayed. By the way, I should probably do a color correction on the shot of the sitting room. The wall paper was lilac, and the drapes were a much brighter shade of lavender than they look in the picture.

Sitting room in Flower Hotel, SukhbaatarView from the single room in the hotel in Sukhbaatar

We returned from the north to UB, spent the night at the Chinggis Khaan, and then took the train to Zamiin Uud. Where it was gray and overcast in Sukhbaatar, it was clear and sunny in Zamiin Uud. But colder! Here is the hotel where we stayed (left below), and the view out the window (right below). Hotel in Zamiin UudView from Zamiin Uud hotel window

 

 

 

 

 

The view out the window posed interesting contrasts. Across the courtyard to the back of the hotel was a nice building with a substantial brick fence (left), next to which some of the residents routinely burned their garbage in an open fire (right).

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The rooms in the hotel were pretty nice – they were quite large, had beds with mattresses, with private bathrooms including showers. Melody’s room even had a refrigerator. I indulged in a shampoo and a REALLY quick scrub and rinse one day. Just because there were private bathrooms with showers didn’t mean there was hot water!

On finishing at Zamiin Uud, we took the train back to UB and indulged in showers – with hot water – before getting up early to get to the airport and head home. There’s no place like home!

Cruel Dream

So, we got in this morning on the train from Zamiin Uud to Ulaan Baatar. With the training now behind us, this trip was much more relaxed and enjoyable than the trip into the countryside a few days ago. It was good too, knowing better what to expect. After a celebratory toast with some amazing strawberry “adult beverage” called “Xuxu”, we settled in for the ride home. By the way, we were lucky – apparently it is not allowed to enjoy “adult beverages” on the train, as we were sternly lectured by a policeman who walked the length of the train and found us celebrating. We escaped a fine or confiscation!  Phew! My bad!

Theresa had a hard time of the trip, as her allergies bloomed into a full-bore sore throat. The rest of us had an easier time of it. The only difficult note for me was waking up from a dream at about 5 am. I dreamt that I was home sleeping in my own bed. It was very disorienting to wake up and realize I was still on the train! Well, we get on the plane tomorrow morning to come home, and then I will be sleeping in my own bed!

On the train from Ulaan Baatar to Zamiin Uud

We left Ulaan Baatar on Wednesday afternoon for an overnight trip to our next training location in Zamiin Uud to the southwest. On the left is the train station in Ulaan Baatar, and on the right are Melody, Theresa, Tseegil, and Mogy waiting for our train to come.

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The accommodations on board were surprisingly comfortable. Our keepers (thank you, Bob and Elena!) had reserved two whole compartments for us so that we didn’t have to share the limited space with random travelers. Once on the train, we saw young Mongolians in full modern jeans and boots, followed by Buddhist monks, and ancient Mongolians in the heavy felt robes of the herdsmen with their characteristic hats. You could opt for buying clean linens (thank you, Melody!) and each compartment had four pillows and amazingly heavy  wool blankets. So once we settled in, we were quite cozy!

We had a minor moveable feast in our two compartments from groceries bought at the Sky Department Store and from the shops at the train station. We had bought food because our predecessors had told us there was nothing to eat on board. That turned out not to be true in any case! A train attendant made her way the length of the train several times with meals and goodies for sale.

Theresa taught us a card game called “Spit” that managed to cross cultural language barriers readily. We played a small tournament that was won convincingly by our colleague Nyamdavaa who was on the same train. Here are pix. If they’re blurry it’s because we were moving so fast! Here is Theresa (hidden behind Tseegil) playing Nyamdavaa (left) and then Tseegil and Nyamadavaa (right).

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100_1726While we were playing, Mogy was getting caught up on the news.

Not long after this, we all settled in for the night, rolling in to Zamiin Uud bright and early Thursday morning. We have just three more days of training and then HOME!