Shin Yi sees the world

Guten Tag from Berlin!
Date: Feb. 01, 2006

Wie Geht’s? I am currently in Berlin and enjoying it very much. I’m staying in a hostel in former East Berlin.

This is my first time in Germany and I am happy to get the opportunity to practice my German. All these years I’ve spent learning the language and now, finally, I can test my skills! I’m far from fluent in German, but I still managed to chitchat with the locals.

Berlin is an historically complex and fascinating city. There is a lot of modern architecture juxtaposed with older buildings from the 1700s and 1800s, though World War II destroyed many of them.

I visited the Deutsche Reichstag (Parliament) and its glass-mirror dome, the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial – with 2711 concrete pillars – the Potsdamer Platz with the modern Sony Centre, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum.

Unfortunately, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was on tour, so I couldn’t attend one of their performances. I did, however, attend a chamber music concert at the Berlin State Opera House performed by a local Berlin Quintet.

The venue was marvelous. It had elaborate chandeliers and everything a grand 17th-century Opera House should.

That same day, there was a special event called “Lange Nacht der Museen” (Long night of the museums) and all 80 or so museums and galleries in Berlin stayed open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

I love art, so this was heaven for me. By the end of it, I had visited five museums and my eyes were sore.

Berlin has wonderful museums. Galleries of Rembrandts, Botticellis, French Impressionists; the collections here are world-class.

I have toured more than 10 since arriving. The Pergamon Museum has an extensive collection of Greek, Babylonian and Islamic artifacts, all collected before Second World War.

And of course there is the Berlin Wall. It is actually made up of two walls with a wide corridor in between known as ‘The Death Strip’.

The wall is pretty much torn down now and whatever is still standing is mostly graffiti-covered. A section was preserved to make ‘canvases’ for artists to paint on – the Eastside Gallery – but even this was mostly vandalized.

I am told that the Berlin government has begun turning the Berlin Wall into a green corridor for pedestrians and cyclists.

Berlin – actually, Germany as a whole – seems to be using its history as an educational tool for future generations.

I wish those arrogant Australians who were rioting at the Sydney beaches in Dec. 2005 would learn from Germany’s past about racism and “false patriotism” and stop dragging Australia’s reputation down the toilet.

When in Berlin, do as the locals do. So, I have been eating my fair share of Bratwurst and Currywurst. But as I don’t eat much meat, the German diet isn’t my favourite.

And of course, I had to taste the local German beer at a typical pub. I tried Berlin Weisse, a special local beer that is green and red. Strange to look at, but tasty.

Smoking indoors in restaurants and pubs is still allowed here, so my one venture into a German pub will be my last because I cannot stand cigarette smoke.

Well, there is still plenty more to see and do here but unfortunately today is my last day in Berlin. My next stop is Vienna .

Love, SYS

Grus Gott from Vienna!
Date: Feb. 06, 2006

I am now in Vienna and enjoying my time in continental Europe. The weather here is just as cold as Berlin, and I’ve been visiting the many museums and imperial palaces to keep out of the cold.

The city centre of Vienna is beautiful. It is anchored around the Stephan Dom Cathedral. The entire inner city is an UNESCO site.

I visited the Hofburg (the winter residence of the Austrian Hasburg royal family). The tour included the royal silverware, pottery, candelabra and linen collections. Royalty definitely knows how to enjoy life.

There was crockery and cutlery for every dish and occasion made from fine porcelains and precious metals. The highlight was the gold and silver Grand Vemeer service which consists of 4500 pieces (place setting for 140 people) and weighs 1,100 kg!

Museums in Vienna are great but expensive. Austria’s most famous painter is Gustav Klimt.

However, five of Klimt’s paintings were stolen during the Nazis’ regime. These paintings – worth 250 million Euros – are to be returned to their rightful owners.

There was a big debate as to whether the Austrian government should pay 250 million Euros to buy them so they could remain in Austria. But the government chose not to pay.

I was lucky enough to see these paintings on their last day of display here in Vienna.

The year 2006 is the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The Austrians have mastered the art of Mozart commercialization. Not only can one buy Mozart chocolates, one can also buy Mozart perfume, Mozart playing cards and Mozart mouse pads.

Of course, when traveling to Vienna, one must hear classical music.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was on tour, so I resorted to opera performances instead.

I saw the Mozart opera, Die Zauberflote , (The Magic Flute), which is my favourite opera. My ticket only cost two Euros, which is unbelievably cheap, though the seat was not in the best viewing area.

I had to stand the entire time, but I didn’t mind. I stood in the aisle and got a wonderful, unobstructed view.

Not satisfied with only one opera, I went a second time to see the Beethoven opera, Fidelio, in the Grand Staatsoper (State Opera House).

This opera house is considered one of the best and oldest in the world and it was a fanstastic venue.

I caught up with Clemens and Viktoria, a lovely Austrian couple I met in Peru. They were extremely hospitable and they took me to eat my first Wiener Schnitzel, Sacher Torte (Viennese chocolate cake) and Manner waffle biscuits. We also visited Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia .

Vienna and Bratislava are the world’s closest capital cities; they are only 57km apart. The drive to the country was refreshing and we got to see some wildlife, namely herons, eagles and pheasants.

My time on Continental Europe is coming to an end. I am leaving Vienna on Wednesday and I’m headed to Cairo, Egypt . Hopefully, it will be warmer there!

Love, SYS

Salaam from Cairo!
Date: Feb. 12, 2006

I am currently in Cairo and I am so happy to be here. This is my first time on the African continent.

I have met up with my friend Dale from Australia. We will be going on a tour tomorrow for the next 14 days.

We got to Cairo two days before the tour and decided to explore the city ourselves.

Our first day, we took a taxi to visit three historical pyramid sites outside of Giza.

First stop was a papyrus shop where we were forced to spend money! Not physically forced but psychologically coerced, so that’s how I ended up with two papyrus paintings.

Later, we visited Saqqara and the Stepped Pyramid. This was the first pyramid ever built. It is 62 m high and was built in 2665 BC in six tiers.

Egyptians hadn’t perfected it. Some 65 years later, the pyramid engineers went back to improve it. Then we visited the old city of Memphis.

This used to be the grand capital of Lower and Upper Egypt, built by Ramses. It has now been reduced to farmlands and some apartment-housing.

What a shame that this great ancient city was not preserved.

Finally, we visited Dahshur – the red pyramid. This is the first smooth-faced pyramid built, in 2605 BC.

We were able to actually go into this pyramid. We scrambled down a steep ramp, 60 m into the heart of the pyramid and saw three narrow chambers.

The humidity, stale air and claustrophobia set in so we scrambled back up the steep ramp. It was scary and we were glad to be back outside breathing fresh air. After all of this, our taxi broke down in the middle of the road.

Today, I visited the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Everyone who comes to Egypt comes here.

The Sphinx – with its broken nose – is just like I thought it would be, except its head is smaller. But wow! It is amazing!

Unfortunately, there is nothing to stop the weathering and erosion of the limestone blocks and thus, history is turning to dust and getting blown away by the desert wind.

Other than the pyramids, we went to the famous Egyptian Museum, visited the Coptic Christian churches, the Citadel (built on a hill, so it gave us a great panoramic views of the city) and the Khan al-Khalili bazaar.

The bazaar consists of many narrow alleys filled with shops. Of course, these shops catered to tourists and sold all kinds of souvenirs, as well as jewelry and typical Egyptian products. Taking in the sights of the bazaar was definitely a feast for the eyes.While in Cairo, we mostly took taxis and the subway to get around. The traffic here is just chaos.

Notions of lanes do not exist here. It’s pretty much squeezing your car into any possible space you can find on the road and anyone with theloudest horn goes first.

The subway, on the other hand, is very clean and efficient. It is definitely the cleanest subway I have ever seen in my life.

Egypt is the first Islamic country I traveled to and it is an eye-opener for me to see firsthand the different roles, status and treatment of men and women.

Ninety per cent of the people I see in the streets in Cairo are men.

There are actually two trains on the subway that are for women only.

No amount of reading about the culture could have softened this culture shock, but I respect the Islamic religion In Cairo, it is up to each woman to decide whether she wears the head scarf or burkha .

I would say about 95 per cent of women I saw cover their hair. Cairo is more modern and liberal than outside the city.

Tomorrow I’ll visit the oasis and Bedouins and then onto Spain.

Love, SYS

Hola Barcelona and Madrid!
Date: March 8, 2006

This is my first time in Spain and I hope that it won’t be my last. I learned some basic Spanish while in South America and I’m excited to be able to use my Spanish again. First stop, Barcelona.

Barcelona is an absolutely beautiful city. I praised Chicago and Berlin for their architecture but now that I have seen Barcelona, I must say this is even nicer.

The city is divided into different quarters; I am staying in the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gothic).

This quarter is the oldest part of town. It has narrow windy streets, old gothic buildings from the 14th and the 15th centuries and some churches, including the Barcelona Basilica, scattered within its maze.

It is a great area to wander around and get lost in. The Gothic Quarter is bordered by Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla.

One of the reasons Barcelona’s architecture is so amazing is the late 19th and early 20th century modernism and ‘Art Nouvea u’ architecture spearheaded by Antonio Gaudi.

I spent a whole day just visiting Gaudi’s work and it was certainly worthwhile. Gaudi’s master of geometry has created amazing shapes and structures.

I first visited Parc Guell, where he created the infamous ceramic lizard that became the emblem of Barcelona. Then I went to see his Sagrada Familia temple, the most unconventional church ever designed. This project began in 1882.

Gaudi spent over 40 years on it until his untimely death in 1926 – before it was finished.

In fact, it is still being built today. The guide book says that it is scheduled to be completed in 2026, but even this is unlikely to occur.

His inspiration for Sagrada Familia was his natural instincts. He designed columns like tree trunks, turrets like flowers and walls like beehives.

This nature theme is present in all his works. In fact, Sagrada Familia looks like elfen palaces from the Lord of the Rings. That’s how magical it looks.

Another one of Gaudi’s works is the apartment block La Pedrera (Casa Milla). This building was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1984.

Its walls and facades are non-weight bearing and thus, he could be extremely creative and stylish with them.

There are no straight lines in this building; even the walls and stair railings are undulating. Another one of his creations is Casa Batllo. This building has smooth curvebalconies that look like skulls and bone-like beams. Still, the building is not creepy.

With its colourful blue mosaic outside, it is beautiful. Structurally, aesthetically and functionally, Gaudi’s buildings are outstanding. He has turned architecture into a canvas for his creativity and talent.

I also visited the 1992 Barcelona Olympic station and was surprised to see how small it actually was.

I did take a day trip out of Barcelona to visit the Montserrat Monastery.

This monastery, inhabited by Benedictine monks, is perched on a mountain side with a jagged summit. Montserrat means “serrated mountain” in English.

By the time I arrived at the Basilica, mass was being held. It was held in Spanish, Latin and Catalan and I had no idea what was being said. Like all good Catholics, I queued up after mass with the pilgrims to file past and touch the sacred Black Virgin of Montserrat statue.

I took the funicular up to the top and walked back down to the Monastery. It was an easy walk with great views.

When in Spain, do as the Spaniards do. So, I have been eating lots of Spanish food. Paella is definitely my favourite.

Tapas are ok, but they are just little dishes, so I need to eat many of them to get full!

Second stop, Madrid. I took the train from Barcelona and arrived at Madrid’s Atocha railway station. This was the station that was bombed back on March 11, 2005. The police presence was strong. It’s close to the one-year anniversary of the bombing and I guess emotions are running strong.

In Madrid, I saw Flamenco dancing and ate more Spanish food. Unfortunately, there are no bull-fights in March, or I would have attended one. Madrid has what’s called the Art Triangle.

It is made up of three big museums: Museo del Prado, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.

I spent a total of 12 hours in these three museums and overdosed on Picasso, Miro, Dali, Velazquez and Goya. I have had very little exposure to Spanish painters in the past but my favourite would have to be Francisco Goya. Miro, Dali and Picasso are a bit too abstract for me. I like to know what I am looking at when I view art.

I have to talk about the use of mobile phones inside museums. Why do people constantly need to send text messages while at the museum? Shouldn’t they be enjoying the artwork instead of communicating with the outside world? The beeps from the cellphones are infuriating.

Well, at least most people were not talking on their phones, but there was the rare idiot who did.

Other than museums, I visited Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid).

This place’s interior design is Roccoco style gone mad. Extravagant and with a high concentration of marble, tapestry, silk and velvet wall coverings, crystal chandeliers, bronze and porcelain furnishing. Enough to generate a visual overload.

This palace is flashier than the royal residences I’ve visited in Vienna, Versailles and Windsor.

I visited Toledo, a city 71km out of Madrid , perched atop a hill. It was the capital of the Spanish Court until Felipe II moved it to Madrid in 1563.

Toledo is a labyrinth of narrow, windy cobble-stoned streets. There were a few occasions I had to press myself flat against the buildings to avoid getting run over.

That’s how narrow the streets are. It has a checkered history of Roman, Moorish and Jewish settlements; churches, synagogues and mosques have coexisted peacefully since as far back as 1085.

A note of advice to those thinking about visiting Madrid: be very careful with your wallets and bags. Pick-pocketing is very common here. A gang of three girls were walking behind me, pretending to be tourists and they managed to open my backpack with the intention of stealing.

Luckily I sensed them pulling on my bag and avoided the theft!

Well, I am off to Russia tomorrow. Back to the winter cold after a month of warmth in Egypt and Spain .

Love, SYS

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