An official banquet

An official banquet in China is quite an experience. There is the round table with its Lazy Susan which is slowly loaded with more food than you think you can eat. The featured photo shows a small selection of a banquet. There is the amazing sweet and sour Mandarin fish; amazing for its knife work, the way the fish seems to grow quills as it is cooked. The duck-shaped dish above it contains slices of Peking duck, served with chapatis (yes, that is a more appropriate translation than pancake) and plum sauce. You can also see a wonderful mushroom called black fungus and an interesting dish of pork lung in chili sauce.

Niece Mbili looked at the photo of the menu (above) and asked “Which ones did you order?” She was blown off her feet when I explained that you don’t choose. Everything on the menu eventually arrives at the table, the dinner continues for several hours, and a lot of baijiu drunk during the dinner. I rather like the sweet pumpkin stuffing that you get in China.

Advertisements

Turkish Street Furniture

You might not be surprised by Istanbul’s charm. A little square between buildings in Fatih with a swing and a teeter-totter makes a decent playground for the neighbourhood’s children. A few benches are scattered around for parents who are too tired to stand. And someone has painted a cheerful canary on the blue wall of one of the buildings which encloses the area. Charming? Sure. Surprising? No.

But in Galatasaray, two dolphins rearing up on their tails holding telephones in their plastic bellies is a touch of whimsy that one does not anticipate. We’d watched dolphins fishing in the Golden Horn. Here, a kilometer or two away, a telephone company had decided to use them as a symbol. Nice thinking.

Between the two, in the Eminönü district, a tap at the German fountain still works. Tourists and locals drink the water it dispenses. There is no sign saying which sultan had it placed here, but supplying potable water to citizens was a task that the Roman empire took very seriously, where in its first capital, or in the successor capital, Constantinople. We asked the locals about the tap water. They do not recommend it to tourists, but they drink it themselves. So we followed their example now and then, without getting into trouble.

On our drive through the town of Selçuk we saw an avenue lined with lions. This was quite surprising, and I hopped off the car to take a quick photo. I haven’t come across a description of this before, nor an explanation. Is it recent? Not recent enough for it to be made of concrete poured into moulds. The columns were made of stone. Sometime, somewhere I suppose I will eventually find the history of these lions standing on two paws.

Seats and water fountains are probably as ancient as the very notion of a city. Telephones have had their day, and phone booths are now quaint reminders of the twentieth century. It was comforting to walk by the Halic and see a line of ATMs waiting patiently. I didn’t have to use them, but after spending a week wandering through Anatolia, it was nice to be reminded that one was back in a city.

A giraffe is a giraffe. Is it?

Until yesterday I knew that a giraffe is a long-necked mammal with brown patches of fur on white, which walked gracefully through east African savannas, delicately picking leaves off the tops of trees. Now, while idly surfing for information on giraffes online, I find that there are more species of giraffes than I could hope to see in one trip. Web sites called Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Giraffe Worlds list out the four main species of giraffes: the northern, the southern, the Masai and the Reticulated. IUCN, meanwhile counts only one species, but concedes that these four are subspecies, each deserving of individual conservation effort. When I tried to access original literature on giraffes I was stunned to find how little they have been studied.

The Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) ranges over large parts of Kenya and Tanzania, with an isolated population in Zambia. Even with the intense conservation effort that Kenya and Tanzania are known for, the population of the Masai giraffe has halved over the last decades, and now stands at about 35,000 individuals. This year it has been moved from a classification of Vulnerable to Endangered. It is such a pity that the tallest animal on earth, the 6 meter high adult Masai giraffe, is in danger of becoming extinct.

The reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) can be found in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia (and probably inside Somalia as well). Most counts place their population at about 15,000. This has also been moved into the class of endangered species.

Distribution of giraffe species

The northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) has extremely fragmented habitat, and therefore has been reclassified this year as Critically Endangered. The northern giraffe contains populations called the Nubian, Kordofan and West African giraffes. The Nubian giraffe can be seen in north-western Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda. The Kordofan giraffe can be seen in Central African Republic, Chad, and Cameroon. To see the West African giraffe you need to travel to the extreme west of Niger. This population has only about 600 individuals left. Some add the Rothschild’s giraffe, from the Baringo area of Kenya, as a separate population to this species. This can be seen in the breeding center in Nairobi.

The southern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa) has two sub-populations: the Angolan and South African. Fortunately, the conservation effort for this species has paid off, and both populations are on the increase. I understand that this holds out hope for giraffe conservation across the continent, although populations like the West African and Rothschild’s giraffes will have to pass through a really narrow genetic bottleneck. I understand that giraffes evolved in the Miocene era, about when apes were diverging from monkeys, and so evolved along with us in the East African Rift Valley geography which is our ur-homeland.

For a mere traveler like me, Kenya seems to be the most giraffe-diverse country. One should be able to see the Masai, reticulated, Rothschild’s, and Nubian giraffes in this one country.

Korea in Shanghai

I’d given myself half a day in Shanghai, because it is such a lovely city to walk around in. I decided to have lunch somewhere in Xintiandi. As I walked out of the metro station I saw something which was not there four years ago when I came here to look at shikumen houses: a whole new lane opened to tourists (featured photo). It can’t be too easy to live in such a place, with thousands of tourists tripping in and out. When I take a photo in such a place I make a mental bow towards the family altar of the household which might be inconvenienced.

I noticed a fairly long queue of people standing quietly in front of door number 4. The door was firmly shut, but the reason was clear from the plaque next to it. This small building was where the Korean Government was in exile during the years when Korea was under Japanese occupation. For me it was a little bit of unknown history, but clearly not to the Korean tourists who were going to wait another half an hour for the museum to open.

Nine years after the Japanese invasion of Korea, a democratic constitution was adopted by the provisional government, then in exile in Shanghai, in April 1919 CE. It took as its main purpose the nurturing of an independence movement in occupied Korea. This government had to shift to Chongqing after the fall of Shanghai in 1937. Eventually three years after Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 (exactly 74 years ago today), the provisional government dissolved itself. The first president of the Republic of Korea was Syngman Rhee, who was also the first president of the provisional government.

I would have liked to see the museum, but I did not have too much time to finish my lunch before getting back to the airport. I’ll probably come through Shanghai again, so I resolved to come back to see this museum in the future. Right now I had a photo of the neighbourhood and the stone lined door which is the literal meaning of shikumen. I took a last photo and left.

The rift where man was born

While planning a visit to the East African savanna, I thought I would read up on how old this landscape was. This led me down an exciting path of discovery through articles which connected geology, weather, and human evolution, and told me about how much more there is to see than just the Big Five. In the featured map you can see a long valley down the center of Ethiopia, ending somewhere a little south of Nairobi. Equally visible is a line of lakes along the border of Uganda and Tanzania. These are the eastern and western East African Rift Valleys.

45 million years ago, soon after India crashed into the still forming Eurasian continent, a massive plume of magma welled up from deep inside the earth near where Djibouti is today. This cracked the continential plate of Africa into three: the present day Arabian plate, and the still separating Somalian and Nubian plates. Signs of this immense geological change are visible in the creation of the Gulf of Aden, and the 30 million years old lava fields and highlands of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In geological time, this is not long before the split between monkeys and apes (hominoids). It is now believed that the geographical changes due to this initial rifting may have cause climate changes that favoured the rise of the hominoids.

The magma plume later created two bubbles below the African plate and pushed up the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia (clearly visible in the map). About 7-10 million years ago, the heated rocks of the African continental plate began separating out, with the Nubian plate pulling west and the Somalian plate moving eastward. The land between them subsided, and the Walls of Africa rose up 3 to 4 kilometers high. The high walls blocked off wet air from the oceans, changing the climate locally, and converting forests to grasslands. This is also the time at which the split between apes and humans (hominin) took place.

Darwin thought that modern humans had arisen in the grasslands of Africa. The discovery of hominin fossils along the rift valley seemed to agree with this theory. But modern thinking is that the savanna of the rift valley and hominins evolved together as a response to geology and weather. Humans evolved in this land, and then left to settle in far corners of the world. When I go to see the annual migration in the Serengeti, or to look at the dormant volcano called Mount Kilimanjaro, or even to taste the wine grown high in Kenya’s rift valley, I will be a migrant’s child come back to marvel at the homeland that his ancestors left.

Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.

Down to a sunless sea

Constantine founded the new capital of the Roman Empire in a promontory jutting into the Bosphorus because it could be defended so easily. Draw an iron chain across the Bosphorus and you deny ships access by sea. Build a defensive wall at the western end of the promontory, and you deny access by land. This was impeccable military logic, and it was a thousand years before an enemy could enter the city.

The lack of drinking water did not trouble Roman engineers, who were experts at building networks of the gently sloping aqueducts which would bring water to a city through a system powered only by gravity. While rebuilding Constantine’s city two centuries later, Justinian built huge underground reservoirs to store water even if an enemy could break the aqueducts. The immense cistern (it can store 800 million liters of water) had a water filtration system, and remained in use until late Ottoman times.

We walked across from Sultanahmet square, stood in a short queue, and then walked down the damp and slippery steps to the bottom of the cistern. Fortunately there is anti-skid bump tiling, and railings on the steps. In the past you could take boats through the cistern, but that more romantic custom stopped in 1985. The two Medusa head columns have become minor wishing wells, as you can see from these photos. The vaulted roofs, the dim lights, the occasional sculpted “hen’s eye” columns, all make this piece of Roman engineering a very photogenic place. So it is not a surprise that several movies have been shot here.

Kabab for lunch

I love to read the general instructions in guide books when I plan to visit a new country. One of the big tips I got before we traveled to Turkey (and one which I forgot until I reached Istanbul) was simple: a kebap restaurant is usually not a take away. The Family and I like to sit down for lunch, even if it is a quick lunch. When we looked for quick bites for lunch and found kebap shops, I finally remembered this piece of information. We loved these kababs, flavourful and low in salt. A typical lunch would be çöp sis kebap or Adana kebap for me, and a tavuk sis kebap for The Family. Often this would come with a salad and bulgur rice on the side, and a basket of nan.

The little shop that you see in the photo above is a typical little kebap shop off Istiklal Caddesi. It was a one man show. The guy whom you see in the pictures ran the shop, We were the only customer in the afternoon, and we took one of the tables downstairs. The man grilled the kebaps after we ordered, and heated up the nan. We could see him do a quick barbecue of the tomato before serving it to us. We loved the food, and liked the service, but we were certain that we were unlikely to come back here. There are many equally charming and good shops scattered around Istanbul. We ate at a new place for lunch every day, and did not regret trying any of them.

Istiklal Caddesi and its art

Istiklal Caddesi. This was the name which I would always think of as essential to Istanbul before I came here. Topkapi palace, Hagia Sophia, the Sulemaniye Mosque, were also-rans in my imagination. My imagination was full of what Nerval, Gautier, and Pamuk had written about Freedom Street. When I first climbed up from the Cihangir district to Istiklal Caddesi, it was everything that I’d hoped for: elegant shops and cafes as well as the charming decay of one of the world’s oldest global cities.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The street is full of elegant buildings slowly decaying, brought alive today by the vibrant street art that you see in the slideshow above. It was dead at noon on a Monday, and came alive slowly as the day progressed. Istanbul is a party town, and this area is not a bad place to be in.

Aimless wandering

Between spells of rain, we walked aimlessly through the streets of the Eminönü and Fatih districts of Istanbul. Only Rome may come close in the juxtaposition of many different styles of architecture spanning a couple of millennia. Only Kolkata comes close in terms of the astoundingly capable sweet shops at every corner. Nothing matches Istanbul in how laid back businesses are. During a brief rainstorm, when a large number of people rushed into cafes, the service shut down until people left. In other cities cafes might make a windfall (really!) profit serving coffee to cold and damp people.

There are parts of Istanbul where people on the streets are so relaxed and friendly that you are reminded of Porto. Other parts are lined with carpet shops where you might not want to stop to chat with every friendly shopkeeper (although we enjoyed the chat every time we stopped). I have a very small bucket list of places which I want to go back to, and Istanbul is on it.