El Gringo Máximo en México

I’ve been lucky enough to explore much of the world, but the Americas south of the United States have long remained a blank for me. I’ve nibbled at the edges — Bermuda, the Bahamas, a long-ago day trip to Tijuana — but until recently the closest I’d been to Latin America was a week in Puerto Rico, a not-quite-country which oscillates between being a Spanish-flavored piece of the US and and a US-flavored piece of Latin America.

But recently I finally had the chance to pay a quick visit on the company time to the real Mexico, namely Mexico City (Ciudad de México, aka CDMX; formerly known as the Distrito Federal or D.F.). Here are a few impressions from a maximal gringo.

Climate

Quick, imagine what Mexico looks like. Odds are you’re thinking a stretch of broiling sandy desert, where the inhabitants spend most of their time in hammocks suspended between two saguaro cacti, taking siestas with oversized sombreros covering their faces.

Well, turns out Mexico City is completely unlike this. It’s located high up in the altiplano in the mountains of Central Mexico, so I knew it was going to be cooler than, say, Texas, but being more accustomed the bone-dry highlands of Australia, I did not expect it to be soggy, wet and humid. So much so that, when the departure of my incoming flight from Houston was delayed, it arrived smack in the middle of a rollicking thunderstorm and we ended up having to divert to Veracruz on the hot, muggy, tropical coast instead. I soon found out that at least this time of year, these evening thunderstorms were a daily event and not a day of my visit passed without rain.

The result is that the city is lush and green, with large trees, green grass and moss creeping up stones. Mornings were cool (15 C), afternoons warm (25 C), although the 2,250m altitude amps up the strength of the sunshine.  I kept having unexpected flashbacks of Bangkok: in addition to being distinctly humid, both cities have pockets of wealth and quite a lot of poverty, but also a healthy, growing middle class, supporting a lively mix of street vendors, markets, hip little cafes and boutiques.  The World Bank agrees, as on a GDP (PPP) per capita basis, the two countries are almost at par.

Getting Around

Mexico City is enormous and lacks an identifiable downtown: being highly earthquake-prone, skyscrapers are few and far between.  I was staying the leafy but untouristy residential neighborhood of Anzures, which was convenient to the office, but nowhere near a metro station.  Ubers in CDMX are easy to catch and cheap, but they’re a pretty crappy way to experience a city.   ¿Qué hacer?

An easy orange answer was parked right outside my hotel: Mobike!  Turns out everybody’s favorite Chinese bike share company had just launched in CDMX, and while the allowed usage zone was limited to a few posh districts, my hotel, the office and many sights were in it.   While my monthly Sydney pass was no good, single rides were just 10 pesos a pop; pricy by local standards, particularly compared to the 50 peso monthly pass, but still a steal at around 70 Aussie cents each.  The city being by and large flat as a pancake, bikes are a very popular way to get around, with copious bike lanes and, much to my pleasant surprise, a large chunk of the Paseo de la Reforma was cordoned off for bikes & pedestrians only on Sundays.  ¡Perfecto!

To get to the Centro Historico, though, I ditched the bike and tried out the Mexico City Metro.  Still using very distinctive signage and coloring developed in the 1960s, when 40% of Mexicans were illiterate, the subway has a very retro feel to it, with paper boletos purchased from humans behind taquilla counters, although there is now a smart card option.  The trains are also best described as functional, with tunnel fumes gusting in through the open windows (there’s no aircon) and a whole lotta shaking going on despite the rubber tyres, with drivers accelerating and braking hard at every station.  Still, while it may not be luxurious, it’s a vital service and second only to New York in size in the Americas, with 12 lines criss-crossing the city and more passengers than London or Paris.

The Metro has a bit of a sketchy reputation, and I can see why.  Station entrances were often hard to spot, there were often dimly lit inside, and the trains themselves had endless processions of merchants, entertainers and beggars squeezing through the crowds, hawking everything from Silly Putty to mobile accessories and slips with Bible quotations.  But there also were plenty of whimsical touches, with staircases turned into piano keys and rather brutalist artworks here and there, and I can’t say I ever felt threatened — either in the Metro or anywhere else in CDMX, for that matter.

My biggest regret of this trip: not having the time to visit the Metro Museum in Mixcoac.  Have a read of Craig Moore’s trip report if you’re keen to learn more about this underappreciated system.

Speaking

My rusty high school español got a pretty good workout on this trip, and I was glad I had hit the Duolingo pretty hard for the previous three months or so.  Fortunately, while full-on Mexican Spanish is famously fast and slurred even Spanish standards, everybody I met was quite willing to switch to speed-limited Gringo Spanish for my benefit.

I was also a little surprised that virtually everybody assumed I could speak Spanish, despite being a two-meter-tall blond quite clearly outside the generally rather broad spectrum of Mexican appearances; quite the contrast to most of Asia, where nobody even tries to speak the local lingo with me.  What’s more, quite a few people actually had more than passable English, although I’ll admit my sample set was rather biased towards the leafy neighborhoods where I was staying.

History

I had one free day in CDMX before getting down to work, so I started it with a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, which must surely rank among the greatest museums in the world. An average gringo like me has learned in history class about Mexico’s pre-Columbian rulers the Aztecs and the Maya (although they’re likely to mix them up with the Incas of Peru), but this single large building covers not just the big two, but the Olmecs, the Toltecs, the Mixtecs and many more. Nevertheless, there’s a clear thread connecting them all: blood. Or, rather, unfathomable amounts of hardcore gore of the kind that would be rejected as a horror movie plot for being too gruesome and implausible.

Consider this: the Great Temple (Templo Mayor) of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexica tribe of Aztecs that is the predecessor to today’s Mexico City, was consecrated with the ritual sacrifice of several thousand captives every time it was expanded when a new king took power, or when there was a festival, or when a war was won, or whenever any other convenient excuse presented itself. And by ritual sacrifice, I mean strapping the victim down to an chac-mool altar, carving their still-beating hearts out with an obsidian knife, smearing the blood on the statues of the gods, then throwing the corpse down the stairs to be eaten. Meanwhile, the victim’s head would be skillfully flayed and mounted on the skull rack (tzompantli), with the main one (there were several) in Tenochtitlan (only one of many cities) having the capacity for 36,000 skulls. This was just temporary storage, mind you, once they had dried out properly the skulls were removed, decorated and passed around as handy decorative knick-knacks.

The museum consists basically of variations on this theme. Here’s Coatlicue, who wears a dress of live serpents and necklace of human hearts, hands, and skulls. Here’s a ball court where teams played pelota maya, which was kind of like volleyball, only you can’t use your hands and the losing team is sacrificed to the gods. Here’s the rain god Tlaloc, who was worshipped by sacrificing children, who first had to endure torture so their tears would moisten the earth.  And on and on, for thousands of years!

In case all this seems too abstract when presented in the dramatically lit but carefully cordoned off confines of the museum, or you doubt the florid accounts of the conquistadors who are our primary source of written evidence for Aztec/Mexica life, you can also go visit the actual ruins of the Templo Mayor, lurking right behind Zócalo Square in the heart of CDMX. The final incarnation of the temple was largely razed by the Spaniards, but as it was built like a Russian matryoshka doll with each version simply built on top of the other, some of the older parts remain. The chac-mool sacrifice altars, the stairs the victims were thrown down, the skull racks, it’s all there… including a particularly lovely hall where nobles practiced the art of auto-sacrifice, purposely bleeding their ears, tongues, genitals etc. This blood was collected and mixed with amaranth seeds to create an idol of Huitzilopochtli, which was ceremoniously eaten every year during the feast of Panquetzaliztli, with the accompaniment of (what else?) copious human sacrifice.  Delicious!

Food

Congealed human blood idols aside, I have long been a huge, tragic fan of Mexican food, the tragedy being that my chosen abodes for the last 16 years (Singapore and Australia) are both laughably terrible places to find any of it. It’s saying something that the arrival of Guzman y Gomez, a semi-decent burrito chain founded by a distinctly non-Mexican former hedge fund trader from New York, was a highlight of my culinary calendar.

So I was tickled pink to get a chance to visit Mexico and eat actual Mexican food, and I did my best to devour everything in sight.  Huaraches (literally “sandals”, because that’s what they look like, smeared with beans and salsa), sopes (small, thick tacos), pozole soup (“these days we use pork, but traditionally the Aztecs used human flesh!”, a colleague informed me slightly too cheerily), sopa azteca (tortilla soup), cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork in achiote sauce)…

Yet the culinary highlight, in fact one of the most sublime dishes I’ve had anywhere, was chile en nogada at Angelopolitano.  I had tried this before (in Singapore, unpromisingly) and been somewhat non-plussed by a squishy stuffed pepper covered in grainy, cold walnut sauce.  Originating from the nearby city of Pueblo, they’re a rare, somewhat expensive delicacy in Mexico, and Angelopolitano, a place that’s very serious about poblano food, only serves them in pomegranate season between August and September.  The walnut sauce was smooth this time, studded with pomegranate seeds and still served cold, but it was the filling that made it sing: panochera apples, pera de leche pears, criollo peaches, minced meat and a complex mix of spices, all washed down with a shot of tequila.  Incredible.

The intended highlight was scheduled for Tuesday night, when I had managed to secure a seat for the taco degustation at Pujol, which is arguably the most famous restaurant in Mexico: think el Bulli, only with Mexican ingredients.  Alas, the plan went, ahem, down the toilet when, on Monday night, I contracted violent food poisoning, aka Moctezuma’s revenge.

I’m still not entirely clear what hit me, although odds are it was something in that pretty flower-like taco platter above.   Both restaurants I went to on Monday were really popular, so the food certainly wasn’t sitting around, although tacos al pastor, the porky Mexican version of doner kebab (bottom right taco), is somewhat notorious even among Mexicans for causing attacks of la turista.   I also wasn’t as careful as I should have been about fresh herbs and vegetables, which Mexican food uses with abandon even though tap water in CDMX is not safe to drink; in retrospect, piling raw lettuce into my lunch pozole was asking for trouble.  Or maybe it was something as innocuous as the fresh salsa accompanying the tacos.

Regardless of the cause, the end effect was that I spent the next two days unable to do much more than tap away at my laptop or ingest anything more electrolyte drinks and the occasional banana.  Fortunately loperamide worked its magic and I was able to survive the 24-hour flight odyssey back to Sydney, although I had to give the rather spiffy-looking Polaris lounge restaurant in Houston a miss.

So adiós, Mexico, I hardly knew ye.  I’d like to say I’ll be back soon, but that’s pretty unlikely — however, this did definitely kick my long-incubated first visit to South America (Chile, Peru, Argentina, Brazil…!) a few notches up the bucket list.

 

 

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From Siberia to Tibet: China as a Tourist

So how is traveling around the less visited parts of China when you’re a tall, blond, distinctly non-Chinese-speaking alien?

Language

I have to state up front that my experience of China is likely pretty different from that of the average foreign visitor, since I’m reasonably fluent in Japanese and that gives a huge leg up for parsing Chinese: I can’t read larger chunks of text because the grammar is too different, but I can generally manage maps, simple websites and signage.  However, my spoken Chinese is terrible and my comprehension isn’t much better.

Nevertheless, I was positively surprised by the amount of English signage present.  Sometimes there was clearly a government edict at work — for example, every single shop in the villages near the Mutianyu Great Wall has English signs, just in case a tourist has a sudden urgent to acquire construction supplies or wholesale quantities of fertilizer — and equally often it was clearly run through an online translation tool, occasionally with hilarious results.  A large part of the “English” signage was actually just pinyin phonetics, so those Chinese who struggle with hanzi can still spell out SHE HUI ZHU YI and connect the red billboard with a hammer and sickle to socialism — but as a useful side effect, this meant that most trains, subways, buses etc were signposted in friendly Roman letters.

By comparison, English speakers were definitely on thinner ground.  We ran into a few in odd places, like a young Didi (Chinese Uber) driver in Xining, but when it came time to request a late checkout at one of Xining’s top hotels, the bellboy spoke more English than the three ladies behind the counter combined, and I still had to trot out my pidgin Mandarin.  Border crossings and security checkpoints were also invariably quick & wordless affairs, since staff vocabulary didn’t seem to extend much beyond “passport” and “ticket”.

Would we ever really have been in trouble without knowing Chinese?  No, but any scraps you can pick up beforehand will certainly helped.

Civility

China — and I’m referring specifically to the People’s Republic here — gets a pretty bad rep for being tourist-hostile, and if you read the Stay safe section on Wikivoyage it’s easy to come away expecting that your children will be kidnapped and/or run over while you’re choking on toxic air and sold overpriced tea by attractive but starving art students.

Now it’s fair to say that if it’s personal space you’re after, most of China is the wrong place to be: in a city like Beijing, with twice the population of New York, you’re going to get a lot of crowds and the occasional sharp elbow.  Interestingly, most of these belonged to the elderly, who were either taking their Confucian mores of mandatory respect for the aged seriously, or had honed their queue-cutting skills fighting for scraps of cabbage during the Great Leap Forward.  Overall, though, most queues were kinda-sorta respected (heavy security presence must help), people mostly waited for others to get off the subway before barging on themselves, and even train stations felt more like busy airports than the crush of desperate humanity that is an Indian train station’s waiting room or ticket office.  And while there are a few places like Beijing’s Silk Alley (now just a shopping mall) and that drinks shop atop the Mutianyu Great Wall that will happily fleece foreigners for every last yuan they’ve got, if you pick your own places, you’ll pay what the locals do: we never paid more than printed on the menu or otherwise agreed.

We did run into a couple of power-tripping bureaucrats, most memorably an attendant on our Beijing-Xi’an trian, who completely flipped out over my dad’s effrontery in using the bottom bunk in our 4-bunk cabin when his ticket said top bunk — never mind that we had purchased all four seats.  A friendly English-speaking lady from a nearby cabin was roped in to help translate, and after much foot-stomping and gnashing of teeth the attendant admitted defeat when we pointed out that this was a non-stop train, so it was physically impossible for anybody else to board en route and claim that bunk.

Toilets in China are also worth a mention, since the country has a reputation for unutterably grim facilities.  We found a few at some of the less visited Tibetan monasteries, but as a rule they were generally modern, tolerably clean and generally a cut above Russia or Mongolia.   You will, however, need to learn to squat and carry your own toilet paper, since Western-style thrones are few and far between and TP is a national treasure only grudgingly doled out once authorities have scrutinized your schnozzle.

One final component of the China experience is security, surveillance and bureaucracy, but that’s a topic large enough to deserve its own blog post.  (Coming soon.)

Internet

Speaking of security and surveillance, one of the more annoying parts of travel in China is the Great Firewall, which keeps getting higher and tighter: virtually all name-brand Western services (Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google Maps, Wikipedia, Reddit, Instagram etc) are now inaccessible.  I had prepared by setting up ExpressVPN in advance, and it worked fine when on wifi, but when roaming on my Australian SIM, the connection was censored and throttled to be hopelessly slow, making using the VPN nearly impossible.

In the end I bought a China Unicom prepaid SIM, which was several orders of magnitude faster and well worth the investment, but Western services remained glitchy.  For example, on Google Maps, local data is not just spotty and out of date, but places were often hundreds of meters in the wrong direction, and even if you could use WhatsApp, nobody you meet could.  So the only way to go is to dip your toe into the local ecosystem.

  • WeChat/QQ (微信 Weixin) is the local juggernaut and the de facto choice of messaging.  It also has the very popular WeChat Pay (微信支付 Weixin Zhifu) payment system, which has recently started accepting non-Chinese credit cards, but registration is complicated and apparently the rules vary continually.  When I signed up, I needed a Chinese number and a local trusted user to verify me, but no Chinese ID or bank account; others report being required to provide one or both of these though.  It’s also important to download the mainland China version of the app directly off weixin.qq.com, not the overseas version from App Store/Play Store.
  • Baidu Maps (百度地图 Baidu Ditu) is the local equivalent of Google Maps.  In addition to being Chinese-only, the UI is pretty busy and takes some getting used to, but place search and directions for driving, public transport and walking are all pretty good.  (Weird quirk: travel times for bus were systematically inflated by 30-60 min.)
  • Ctrip (携程旅行 Xiéchéng Lǚxíng) is your best source for long-distance travel information, including detailed train schedules.
  • Mobike (摩拜 Móbài) is great for booking some of the ride share bikes littering the streets of China’s larger cities.  Rides start from Y1 a pop and the same app & credit works fine in Australia too.

Transport

It’s difficult to overstate just how much investment China has put into planes, trains and roads over the past decades, or how much pent up demand this has unlocked.  For example, we took the CRH bullet train from Xi’an to Xining, fully expecting this recently opened line from a 2nd-tier city to a 3rd-tier city to be a white elephant, but no — the train was packed to the last seat. Xi’an has sprouted 3 lines and 91 km of metro in the past 7 years, all of it packed, and Beijing is still catching up after opening 22 lines covering 608 km.  Train stations like Beijing West are not enormous (just) because the government likes massive buildings, but because they have to be: the 34-platform, 60-million-pax-per-year Xi’an North is by some measures the largest in Asia, with a central concourse that puts most stadiums to shame, and it was still difficult to find a seat.  Even Lhasa airport was bursting at the seams.  The only empty Chinese transport hub during the entire trip was the shiny new international wing of Chongqing Jiangbei Airport, but I suspect we were there just at the wrong time during the afternoon lull, since CKG too has seen 1,000% (yes, three zeroes) international passenger growth since 2009.

Food

In short, the food in China was amazing, if often a bit hit and miss since we were traveling without much local advice and mostly choosing places by convenience.  The learning curve for “real” Chinese food can be steep though, so here’s a trek up the scale.

Crowd-pleasers abounded in Beijing: the justly famous Peking Duck (Xiheyaju
羲和雅居 was among the best meals of the trip) and the less famous but no less tasty zhajiangmian (炸醬麵) aka Chinese spaghetti bolognese.  Roubing (肉餅) meat pies are also widely available, although the precise origin of the meat may be a mystery at times.

Mildly more adventurous or surprising were the many Muslim eateries of Xining, serving up a constellation of noodles.  Even with basic knowledge of hanzi and Google Translate, you never quite knew what you’d get, but rarely were we disappointed.  One Chinese innovation that will take the West by storm sooner or later is the conveyor-belt hotpot: take a personal mini pot, select a broth and dipping sauces, then pick what you like from the parade going past you and pay for what you ate.  Magic!  And if you put too much chilli in your sauce, cool down with some yogurt (酸奶 suānnǎi), which is sold everywhere on the streets.  And if all else fails, head to a hotel breakfast buffet and eat an cute animal-shaped steamed bun.

At the more challenging end of the spectrum were Yunnanese cuisine, which appears to consist mostly of mushrooms and unusual veggies; the enormous gelatinous niangpi (酿皮) noodles of Qinghai served with bread-like steamed gluten dipped in chilli, the Chinese trucker favorite of “big plate chicken” (大盘鸡 dàpánjī), basically a stew of chicken, potato and lots of chilli, and the Chongqing classic xiǎomiàn (小面), the deceptively named “small noodles” that pack a big numbing-hot mala punch.

And oh, if you’re reading this and thinking “that’s nothing, once in Shenzhen I ate…”, go chew on this previous blog entry for a while.

<<< Lhasa and Tibet | Hong Kong and Macau >>>

 

From Siberia to Tibet: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

As the rest of our group lived in Helsinki, their starting point was set, but for me, setting off from Sydney, this would have added a week or two to an already ambitiously long itinerary.  The eventual solution was that I would skip the initial leg of the trip and fly down to meet them at Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, “only” 15 hours flight time from Sydney.

I landed at sunset into pelting rain at the cavernous and chaotic Beijing Capital Airport, where I waited for an hour for the sole officer to stamp boarding passes at the transit desk and caught a few hours of shut-eye at the stupidly expensive transit hotel.  Shortly after 5 AM, I boarded a lime green S7 (f.k.a Siberia Airlines) Airbus A320 for the two-hour hop to Irkutsk, flying over the same route we would spend the next week crossing by land.  Alas, Mongolia was covered in cloud and I caught only a fleeting glimpse of Lake Baikal as we approached Irkutsk.

Thanks to some optimal bus jockeying, I was literally the first person in line at Russian immigration, where my visa and passport were carefully scrutinized.   Much typing ensured, but a few minutes later they were stamped and handed back, without a single word said during the entire transaction.  Ёлки зелёные, I was in Siberia!

My Russian colleagues had been uniformly horrified at the idea of voluntarily visiting a provincial Siberian town like Irkutsk, which last made headlines in 2016 when 76 people died from drinking methanol-laced bath lotion.  My initial impressions did not do much to dispel this: the dark and gloomy Soviet-era airport lurking inside the baby blue building perched just off Ulitsa Sovetskaya, hailing a Yandex ride in a beat-up car driven by a chain-smoker missing most of his teeth, the early morning drive through deserted roads of rotting wooden houses, Vladimir Ilyich saluting his eponymous street…  it all reminded me too much of the gnarlier bits of Tallinn immediately after liberation in the early 1990s.

Fortunately, we had chosen our digs well in the positively posh 130 Kvartala Disneyland-esque wonderland of new timber buildings kitted out with boutiques, restaurants and hotels including our base Marussia, which managed to pull off the unlikely feat of being a pleasant, modern boutique hotel built in what’s essentially a log cabin.

First order of business was to cleanse ourselves of the dusts of Europe and Oceania by performing a triple rite of purification at Polyana:

  1. Searing steam in the banya (Russian sauna), heated by a wood-fired stove behind a brick wall.
  2. Ritual flagellation with a well-soaked venik, or oak broom — the sign prohibits entry into the banya without one!
  3. Baptism in the waters of the Angara River, glacial even in midsummer.

Over the coming days a more rounded picture of Irkutsk fell in to place.  Some parts were booming, some parts were falling apart, some parts were modern, some were straight from 1970, and like everywhere most people were just muddling through.  Some people spoke English, most didn’t but were friendly anyway, and while knowing rudimentary Russian was helpful, particularly for reading Cyrillic, I don’t think we would ever have been in real trouble even without it.   All in all, though, it seemed a city on the mend after some pretty rough years, profiting off the China trade and increasingly popular with Asian tourists.   Well worth a visit.

Food in Irkutsk was a highlight, and Sval in Listvyanka was among the best meals of the whole trip: the famed Baikal omul tasted like an oversized herring to me, but muksun grilled over charcoal was amazing.   In addition to the obligatory Russian rassolnik and pelmeny washed down with vodka, we feasted on Buryat pozy and khuushuur dumplings (a foretaste of both Mongolia and Tibet), shashlik kebabs and lavosh flatbread from the Caucasus, unpronouncable Georgian walnut-paste salads and red wines, and even the odd attempt at modern fusion like a rather delicious concoction of creamy Russian ice cream, berries and cedar nuts (orekhi).  The last of these were ubiquitous and sold by street vendors in packs of up to a kilo.

The Taltsy open-air museum, 50 km from Irkutsk, was a worthwhile excursion, with displays ranging from the rather miserable huts and sky coffins of the native Evenki to the mighty ostrog fortresses of Siberia.  It was surprisingly lively too, with shops and costumed performers, and not too many tour buses even on a weekend.

But true to my words to the doubtful Russian visa officer, the main reason I and most other Trans-Siberian travellers came to Irkutsk is to see Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world, located a leisurely hydrofoil cruise or hair-raising minibus ride away.   While Irkutsk in July basked in temperatures pushing 30°C, on our first visit the pebbly lakeshore 70 km away was barely 15°C and shrouded in chilly mist, to the point that even Siberian sunbathers hesitated to take their togs off.   It was hard to imagine what it’s like here in the depths of winter, and on our return we got a faint taste of Baikal’s famously fearsome storms (waves 4.5m high are apparently not uncommon) when a sudden squall blew through Irkutsk and left us stranded at the bus station, with trams stalled (“energia nyet”) and half a meter of muddy water sloshing through the streets.

Unsurprisingly, very few people actually live on the shores of the lake.  Port Baikal, the terminus of the Circum-Baikal spur line, is an unattractive rusty boat graveyard, while Listvyanka at the end of the road is a strip of hotels, rental cottages and souvenir shops.  Our second day trip took us by hydrofoil to Bolshiye Koty, where visitors are greeted by a festering pile of trash next to the jetty and entertainment consisted of drinking instant coffee out of plastic cups in a rickety shack while watching the village lunatic speed up and down the dirt road on a clapped-out motorbike.

Yet the amazing thing was that, five minutes from the pier, you were alone in a pine forest with no sound except the incessant chirping of crickets.   Lake Baikal was before us, silent, clear with shades of blue rarely seen outside the tropics, unfathomably deep and majestic.  We walked some distance along the trail, had a picnic of cabbage pie, pickled carrot and warm beer, and remembered what it felt like to be somewhere where there are no obligatory attractions to see or things to do.

Anorak bonus album: Trams in Irkutsk

Next morning, we continued towards Mongolia.

<<< Preamble & Paperwork | Life on a Train >>>

Erratically Hellenic: Epeisodion β

My first night in Athens, I set off on a quixotic quest for a quintessentially Greek food: souvlaki. I do this more often than I should, fixating on something that I think should be representative of local cuisine and usually finding out after hours of searching that, in fact, it’s out of season or, worse yet, totally out of fashion. My hotel was on the edge of Exarcheia, the district best known as the home of the Athens Polytechnion, a famous hotbed of student anarchism and, indeed, riot police and communist graffiti are still to this day a major feature — so you’d think cheap, greasy fare like souvlaki should sell well. But as I walked around and around, I found little ouzeris, English pubs, not a few pizza places, a large number of cafes, countless pastry shops and even a lost-looking organic juice stall — but absolutely zero souvlatzidikos. Eventually, I conceded defeat and had my dinner at Goody’s, an ubiquitous (and pretty tasty) Greek fast food chain that at least offered a decent horiatiki salata and a “Pita Pita” sandwich, which, as it turns out, was souvlaki in all but name.

So what is souvlaki, anyway? It’s a word of confused meaning, as even in Greece, it can mean either lamb meat grilled on a skewer, or grilled pork wrapped in pita bread (aka gyros, and almost but not quite the same as doner kebab). “Pita”, incidentally, is another of those words that means something entirely different in Greek than in the rest of the world. Quite frankly, I’m still not sure what it means, except that it seems to cover everything except those flat pocket things. The “pita” used to wrap a souvlaki is indeed flat, but a bit puffy and entirely unpocketed; the “pita” of a spanakopita (spinach and cheese pastry) is deep-fried and flaky; and the “pita” of a milopita at McDonalds is exactly identical to McD’s apple pies, a mysterious combination of starch, grease and scalding innards.

A few days later, having gathered some souvlaki scuttlebutt, I ventured down to Monastiraki and its famous trio of souvlaki joints: Thanasis, Savvas and Bairaktaris. A mecca of pork they may be, but these days Mitropoleos street is smack dab in the heart of tourist central, and the evil threesome have figured out how to maximize their profits: if you sit down and take a look at the menu, souvlaki portions start at an outrageous 9 euros, and they all involve platters with salad and french fries. Not listed on the menu, but needless to say far more popular among the Greeks, is the real souvlaki which has to be ordered as a “souvlaki sandwich”: they’re made on the fly, served in a greasy wrap of paper for take away only, and cost a far more reasonable 1,70 euros a shot. Tzatzikilicious!

One thing that really surprised me was the pastry shop phenomenon. Every day on my way from work, I walked south one block and east two blocks from the Metro station to my hotel. Within these six city blocks of possible routes there were, without exaggeration, at least 20 places to load up on pastries: at least a dozen cafes with big pastry shelves, half a dozen dedicated pastry shops with just a little heated-up counter, and few old guys sitting on the street with tables piled high with sesame rings. I sampled one almost every day, never choosing the same place or same thing twice, and while they all pretty much looked the same from the outside the variation in tastes and textures was astounding. I even found out that it’s possible to screw up spanakopita: one chain cafe offered terrible triangles with sour, vinegary mash inside, while the independent little shop that made its own used precisely the same ingredients and managed to make the feta, spinach and crumbly crust dance in perfect harmony.

Greek salad (horiatiki) Moussaka

Probably the best meal of my trip, though, was at a little restaurant on Hydra. The island is inundated by tourists and all the restaurants there cater squarely to them — for example, nearly all the much-advertised seafood is in fact imported frozen from far away — so, not being in the mood to chew on defrosted kalamari, I picked a small joint that had Greek diners and reasonably priced non-fish meals, and opted for a moussaka and Greek salad. And, well, damn. Half an egglant reduced to a pulpy mess on the inside, a layer of mince and tomato, a drizzle of cheese… I’m drooling as I write this! And the salad, too, was simplicity itself: a bed of cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, onion and kalamata olives, a single big chunk of feta, a sprinkle of oregano and (very) generous slathering of olive oil on top. No wonder every Greek seems to walk around with a spare tire…