|Calum Tsang's Journal
Postcards from at Home and Abroad
I've moved the blog over to a new address http://www.siobhanandcalum.com
Thank you Oscar for running such a reliable and useful service these past years!
( Aug 21 2014, 01:09:09 AM EDT )
Somewhere in my house is a copy of the UTS Class of 1995 graduation video, a tape (and DVD copy, provided by Michelle Chan) of high school student highlights meant as some sort of future time capsule. While some of the things promised never came true, the editors of this tape thought it would be prescient to record some of the major news events of our time in secondary school. During that time, the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventually the Iron Curtain, communism and the former Soviet Union came about. I watched a lot of that, and didn't understand really what was going on back then. If you had to draw a soundtrack to it, 90's one hit wonder Jesus Jones' Right Here, Right Now probably is a fitting accompaniment. Like my self involved classmates, who loved to introspectively deduce meaning from song lyrics--we were really watching history unfold.
Today we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, about half an hour out of Krakow. Over seven hundred years old, the mine is no longer in major operation, though a few hundred miners continue up keep and mine out a small amount of salt. Polish salt these days comes from the Baltic Sea, but previously, it was mechanically mined from the ground, hundreds of feet below.
The mine today is a UNESCO World Heritage site, apparently one of the first set approved. As the tour guide joked, there are now more guides than miners, but the facility is still very much a real mine: We walked down 54 flights of stairs, then thousands of steps between caverns which had been cut out over the last few centuries. In some of them were works of art--some by sculptors, but most of them created by miners themselves in off hours.
After the mine, we gathered our bags and walked back across the Stare Miasto to the train station. In a bit of panic, due to construction at the station, Krakow Glowny, had us running across the station to find the way to the correct platform. We made it to the train with seconds to spare, getting on just as the train began to move out of the station. A three hour train ride across the middle of Poland took us into Warsaw, the largest city and the end of our travels.
Today, we took a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. I took a few photos, but to be honest, I thought it would be better just to experience the visit on its own.
On our return, we visited Wawel Castle, on a hill near our hotel at one end of the Stare Miasto central core. Inside the castle walls, a group of students were queued, waiting around a statue of Pope John Paul II, or Jan Pawel as he's referred to here, to go into the main Cathedral for a service. The Castle is an unusual mix of styles and textures, which makes for a curious outline of different peaks, towers and outcroppings.
( Sep 26 2013, 06:02:16 PM EDT )
Leaving Wroclaw, we see the wide lush fields of corn growing outside then city, covered in a dense layer of morning fog. It is hard to say goodbye to our first Polish city visit, but today we are going by bus to Krakow, a larger city, further south and east. The ride on the new and clean Link-Bus is efficient and reasonably priced and a few hours later, we are coming into Krakow with billboards and large big box stores in view. I've long suspected European cities in fact have an outer layer which tourists never see, which is filled with Ikeas and Carrefours, and this confirms it.
( Sep 26 2013, 05:24:45 PM EDT )
Siobhan and I eventually made it to Ostrow Tumski, the oldest part of the city in town at the suggestion of John's parents. The Cathedral Island is accessed through a few bridges, some festooned now with love locks that visitors and residents alike attach. While we were there, a bride and groom were being photographed attaching a padlock in celebration. As the sounds from a saxphone player drew us into the island towards the cathedral, we enjoyed the combination of narrow streets, river and trees. The island also features a beautiful garden space with water features which we walked through.
The cathedral is a beautiful gothic design, very different than the Russian churches we've seen the previous week.
Our day ended with a river cruise. It turns out Wroclaw is intersected by a number of rivers and canals. As we headed out of the city centre, we saw the lush green foiliage of old neighbourhoods, flanked with trees and parks. It was wonderful to get such an introduction to this wonderful town, but also to see good friends again.
Today we went to Peterhof Palace, a summer palace complex outside of the city center. Built by Peter the Great, it has a huge garden compound which features hundreds of water fountains. To get there, we took the Metro then changed to a small minibus. The front grounds have carefully pruned trees which form an rectangular shroud similar to the summer palace in Vienna. Some were formed into covered walkways, their leaves turning in the early autumn. In the lower gardens, an incredible hill side display of golden statues, marble, and fountains are built on terraced steps down to a channel to the ocean.
Weddings were abound today at Peterhof as we walked the grounds, with brides and grooms plus their associated wedding parties posing for photographs on a bright, if a bit overcast, Saturday afternoon. A number of trick fountains were setup for kids and families--an attendant positioned off to the side triggers them to spray unsuspecting visitors. Images from years past on display out front show they must be a historical favourite of St. Petersburg families.
( Sep 23 2013, 12:14:40 PM EDT )
Despite one overnight train in France where I slept like a baby, so far most of my sleeper experiences have turned out to be bad. I love trains and railways, so the attraction of watching a six axled, Co-Co configuration Soviet era elecric locomotive pull a consist of sleeper cars into Yaroslavl's main train station is very much a highlight. Sometimes, it turns out for the better: In Egypt, also with Russian motive power, the overnight sleeper from Cairo to Aswan kept me awake, allowing me to snap photos of station keepers and experience solitary midnight exchanges of newspapers and materiel. But last night's trip from Yaroslavl to St. Petersburg unfortunately was very rough for me.
Even relatively empty rooms were impressive, as evidenced by the above gallery in construction.
We also got to try Russian pies at the suggestion of the local guide, where I got to try kulebyáka, or coulibiac, a pastry filled with salmon and egg. I had actually wanted to try making it at home last year, whenever we bought a large piece of salmon from Costco. From Costco to St. Petersburg, I remain, sadly sick.
Rostov, has, according to the quietly wise bus driver, a fantastic Kremlin, even better than the one in Moscow, in his opinion. This morning we went to go see it--and it did not disappoint. Walking in, we climbed to the walls, which afforded us a nice walk around the outer perimeter of this castle. The domes here are a beautiful slate blue, which picks up colours from the generally overcast sky. The whole time in Russia, save last night, was generally cloudy, rainy and overcast, which makes for bad photos, but I'm not complaining--I like the cooler temperature.
Yaroslavl, unlike Rostov, is a much larger place and does not have a Kremlin: Made of wood, it burnt down. Wooden objects here are carefully strung with lightning probes to presumably attract strikes. What it does have is a new church, the Assumption Cathedral, opened in 2010. Built within the last twenty years at a cost of a hundred million dollars, financed by a wealthy benefactor. It is strange to walk into such a massive structure built with modern materials in a traditional style. Our feet echoed on the marble floors, perfectly clean after only a few years of use. The beautiful gilded altar shines with a brilliance unlike some of the faded items in other churches. Out front, the church is bracketed in view by two monuments to men and women in World War II.
On a tour with a local guide earlier in the day in Yaroslavl, I saw one of the few elements of the former Soviet Union, an administration building built in 1982, on a city center with markings for public assemblies, musical performances, sports events, and car shows, the latter thrown in as probably a more modern use of it. I couldn't figure out if the markings were half courts for basket ball or for military reviews.
One of the quirky museums in Yaroslavl was the private museum of Music and Time, essentially a house hold of collected objects including clocks, music boxes and bells, all of one man, an illusionist named John Mostoslavsky. Apparently Russia's first private museum, what I loved about this little attraction was that the guide demonstrated several objects and allow us to try some of them. Old gramophones were played, their tinny recordings set free in motion; I got to actually sit down and try a harmonium, an organ which requires pumping a bellows with your feet as you play.
( Sep 22 2013, 02:17:05 AM EDT )
A note about breakfast here in Russia. As with most European countries, there are meats and cheeses-- plenty of them. However, there are also blini, thin pancakes, which often come with sour cream or preserves. You can eat them in a savoury pairing with meat or even caviar, but for breafkast usually it's something sweet.
This morning we took a short walk into Suzdal's market center, conviently located near our hotel. Like a shopping plaza, it too has a row of shops flanking one side, complete with cell phone stores, a toy store, and a pharmacy. The center on the other hand, is a cobble stone affair, where you'd normally think parking goes, and is apparently where farmers used to come and sell their wares. Old women line the side of the market, selling home made pickles and preserves or items grown in their gardens. The produce is unusual for us: Curious mushroooms of different types, berries of colours and shapes that are unfamiliar. We wonder what these ladies think of the history they've seen in their lives as they've likely seen Russia change in the past sixty years.
The convent has two sets of spires with a tower in its courtyard. From the bells of the tower, a cacophony of notes play into the town.
The town of Yuryev-Polskiy seems pretty small. The central axis appears to be a supermarket, taxi stand and small vegetable stand. We had lunch in a restaurant basement which had inexpensive lunches of salad with mayonnaise, borscht and pancakes.
Outside, locals pulled up in all manner of vehicles from Ladas to Lexuses, and picked up items from the mini market and visited the vegetable seller, who had a table of watermelons from the Baltic for fifty cents a pound. One was cut in half with plastic wrap draped over for us to inspect. In the back of the stand were perhaps another hundred watermelons as well as a truck filled with purple potatoes.
Our final stop was the town of Rostov, situated on a lake. The sun, for the first time this trip, came out, casting a warm ambient glow on the water and the golden domes of the Kremlin here, still in the distance.
Siobhan and I walked out and spent some more time along the water. The sun was beautiful and glorious.
( Sep 19 2013, 03:20:03 AM EDT ) Permalink Comments 
The cathedrals of Russia are different than those of other countries. Unlike Gothic churches which feature vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses, with large open spaces for congregation, all the cathedrals here seem smaller and more intimate. In some cases almost a third is partitioned off with a wall of religious paintings. Also, large columns feel drawn down from the ceiling, putting up load bearing posts at regular intervals on the main floor plan. Where a long unobstructed path would be for a center aisle, sight lines are obscured but for all the most important people, presumably royalty, tzars and the like. These buildings appear more to be as private altars or collections of religious icons than for a larger audience.
Suzdal is a small village a few hours out of Moscow, first mentioned in the ninth century. As the guide explained, because it had no rail line, it seemed to have been spared by war, leaving it with over thirty church spires. These spires, some brick, some wooden, some coloured, some not, poke out of the landscape of trees and fields periodically. As a fertile area for agriculture, tourism is now growing in the area, where previously thirty hotels have now expanded to a hundred for tourists to come visit.
A little bit out of town, sits a monastery which also has a cathedral in a similar design. Inside, unfortunately, all the artwork has been removed, leaving paintings alone on the stone walls. A group of monks, or locals dressed like monks, performed in four part harmony for tourists coming in, their voices brilliantly echoing in the tall stone ceiling. Outside, a carillon tower in a separate structure played on the hour, its bells sounding into the hills around the village.
We walked out into town for dinner, where most entrees appeared to be served with potatoes and a coleslaw of cabbage and carrots.
( Sep 18 2013, 02:16:12 AM EDT ) Permalink Comments 
This morning Siobhan and I took the Moscow Metro to see some of the more interesting stations on the system. The subway here is extensive, having used it several times during the past few days. Some say it is the cleanest in the world, but I'm not sure I agree: While it is certainly not smelly or in disrepair, it does seem old. I would put the Washington DC metro far above, for the sole fact it has carpet. Dirt aside, many of the Metro stations are in fact quite pretty, with interesting historic figures like revolutionary heroes as statues or vaulted ceilings with marble and chandeliers. I wasn't sure quite what to expect, thinking of old photos which depicted the Moscow subway as an opulent ballroom which happened to have trains passing by, but ultimately thousands of people do have to travel through it daily, so it can't be that delicate.
The Novodevichy Convent was our first stop today, a cloister of buildings kept by nuns in the middle of modern Moscow. On the premises are a group of cathedrals topped by delightful onion domes. The domes are gilded, and even on this cloudy morning, they shimmered majestically.
Alongside the convent was a beautiful park and lake which features a walking path, flanked by trees overhanging onto the water. On the path is a sculpture of ducklings being led by their mother, apparently a gift of First Lady Barbara Bush.
The second stop of the day was the Kremlin. When people think the Kremlin, they think of the political entity, sort of like saying the White House, as the administration. In fact, the Kremlin itself is a walled city, or citadel of cathedrals, ringed by red brick, which happens to include the official residence of the President.
The insides of these cathedrals are gilded and laid with hundreds of painting or icons of Christianity. One of them was literally wall to wall covered with golden paintings, a square box with such displays. Another carried tombs of Russian tsars.
The greatest highlight of the Kremlin, however, was the Armoury. This building held treasures given to the Tsars, including silverware and gold, armour, horse carriages and most important Faberge eggs. These detailed jeweled sculptures were ordered by the elite of Russia and were really quite spectacular. After years of referencing them as punch lines in my jokes, it as nice to finally see them in real life.
From the Kremlin you can see some of the other sights in Moscow. One of them is this cathedral, rebuilt after the Soviet era.
After our visit to the Kremlin, we stopped back into the GUM department store at the side of Red Square. Upstairs there is a stolovaya, or cafeteria, that has been recreated in a somewhat cheeky retro style. On the cafeteria line, we tried a number of foods, including pickled cabbage over fried fish, cherry strudel, blintzes with beef and sour cream, carrot and apple salad, mushroom in cream sauce with melted cheese, and chicken kiev with goulash cabbage.
I had kiessel, a strange current and jelly drink. It felt like the leftovers of pressing and juicing Siobhan's berry drink. What I noticed was an emphasis on cheaper ingredients prepared in unusual ways, and a very systematic pricing driven by ingredient cost such that everything had a price. Want sour cream? That's an extra 35 rubles, for example.
The price for this meal? About twenty dollars. The cafeteria seemed quite popular. I can only wish for more of these in Canada.
The last stop for the evening was outside Red Square. Unfortunately the rain from yesterday worsened, and the scaffolding still had not been cleared. As a result my best photo of St. Basil's Cathedral was shot using a 70-200mm wedged between fencing from across the square. Despite the rain, Siobhan could tell I was having a great time.
( Sep 17 2013, 04:21:30 AM EDT )
There's a moment in modern travel where you descend from the sky, after temporarily piercing through the cloud deck, that you suddenly see a new foreign country appear in front of you. Almost immediately I try to discern some sort of trait or character from the land floating by below--is it sandy or green, populated or barren, a patchwork or solid? On approach into Moscow, Russia, I again tried to answer this question, is is the Russia of Western lore, grey and nondescript? In fact, no, it is a country of lush greens, punctuated by small groups of houses, at least on the way into this airport. It's perhaps a silly question, since the world's largest country is more than just the few miles before the runway at Sheremetyevo.
Our trip to China last year brought a view of a similarly huge country, in the midst of change to sophisticated nation replete with maglev trains and an Apple Store. After years of reading about the former Soviet Union, portrayed from our media and perspective as a foreign and obtuse land, I wanted to see Russia, what kind of place indeed it is today, even through the filter of a guided tour.
On the way to dinner, we walked past the former KGB headquarters, the Lubyanka building, onwards to a meal at a delightful restaurant which served items such as Olivier Salad and borscht. Despite warnings Russian food would be terrible, in fact, our dinner was incredibly good. I'm glad we were encouraged to go there.( Sep 15 2013, 11:35:13 PM EDT ) Permalink Comments 
Canon EOS5DMkII/EF 24-70 f2.8L at 62mm f2.8 1/6th sec
ISO1600. City Museum, St. Louis, Missouri.
( Jun 04 2013, 01:28:01 AM EDT ) Permalink Comments 
Canon EOS5DMkII/EF 24-70 f2.8L at 60mm f22 1/3rd sec ISO50. Bear Run, Pennsylvania.
Two things I noticed about Fallingwater immediately: First, the cantilevered ceiling of the main living room is still deflecting, despite a multi million dollar repair effort to straighten the characteristic straight planes. Wright did not trust the engineering consultancy hired by the owner, and there is some mystery as to whether or not the contractors installed extra reinforcement beyond what Wright specified. Either way, today, there are steel cables in tension to keep the floors straight, and the sag on the largest is very noticeable. Second, you're not allowed to take pictures from key spots, including inside the building or from the lower part of the waterfall, looking up towards the structure. That said, visiting Fallingwater and experiencing the harmonious integration of architecture with site and landscape, was a great experience. The structure gives the impression of being at one with nature, almost as if a treehouse nestled in the forest and perched above the water. The Frank Lloyd Wright buildings we've seen, including the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo later in this trip or the Robie House we saw in Chicago are by no means populist--they are the retreats of the rich and elite of their time, built for very specific uses and individuals, but nonetheless, they represent the emergence of modern American architecture.
I had planned for our trip to Fallingwater by taking the usual set of lenses, but bringing along an old tripod too. My goal was to capture the water moving, which I've seen on landscape photos, by using sticks to enable an extra long exposure past what could be hand held without blur. I probably could have used a ND or circ PL to cut down the amount of light even more--the day started off cloudy which was great, but towards noon when the tour was finished, the sun came out.
( May 27 2013, 11:55:14 PM EDT ) Permalink Comments