Jan 262013

I’ll finish the long-stretched and overdue travelogues with the last remaining one.

Had to participate in a meeting with chinese officials (regarding MeeGo privacy and security issues) in Beijing about a year ago.

Peking DuckWent into the meeting almost straight away from the flight. The local rush hours were utter killers, spent hours in a cab going both ways. The meeting itself was quite painless, would have appreciated something to drink, but that’s a minor complaint. Almost dozed off during the other presentations (mainly in chinese, and thus impossible to follow).

Ate Peking Duck on the first evening and the dish is worth all the accolades it gets. Succulent duck, exquisite sauce and crispy vegetables. Conveniently enough the restaurant was in the lobby of the hotel, so avoided venturing outside in a quite jetlagged state.

Took one day off before flying back home. And spent it all on a bus trip. Nominally the ride was about the Great Wall, but we saw plenty more (usually accompanied with a shopping opportunity). The wall was indeed impressive – despite the very cold day the section was quite packed with tourists.

Was quite disappointed on the flight out that apart from food and tea there wasn’t that much to take home in the airport (was expecting to buy a decent cookbook, but couldn’t locate a proper bookstore).

The Great Wall of China

Sep 042012

(In the slowly diminishing list of travelogues: a work trip).

Spent three days as a stand monkey in the Qt Developer Days last year.

Despite the slaying of Symbian and MeeGo, the interest on developing for the devices hadn’t dwindled.

Plenty of questions and answers, even more people looking for a SIM cutter, and as a bonus: really nifty doctors’ jackets.

App Doctoring in Qt Developer Days

Didn’t see much of München. The show was far outside the city limits, and spent only one short afternoon there (a couple of celebratory beers and a team dinner didn’t leave much time for rambling in the Bavarian capital).

Jul 152012

Astronomical clock in PragueAnother travel-related victim in the slow posting-times: a long autumn weekend in Prague.

First time in the city, and quite a pleasant break from the bleak finnish autumn indeed.

Did plenty of the mandatories:

  • Charles Bridge with its statues is impressive, and off-season even pickpockets seem to have disappeared.
  • Prague Castle, on the other hand, is less so. Big, yes, but not that unique in any way.
  • Czech beer is even better domestically. And there’s way more breweries and flavours than just Velko, Urquell and their kin.
  • Czech food is meaty and done with plenty of butter.
  • Czech waiters who know that you’re from Finland want to talk about ice hockey almost non-stop.
  • There’s absinthe for sale (or at least advertised) almost everywhere.
  • Kutna Hora’s Church of Bones is odd, and far more interesting than the same-y catacombs of Paris.
  • The jewish cemetery is impressive, the synagogues very much on the crowded side (after being closed for a couple of days before).
  • Golems are popular. Bought one. A fridge magnet, that is.
  • Franz Kafka is popular as well. Bought a full set of his novels and short stories. Probably could have got it cheaper from Amazon, but it felt appropriate.
  • Christmas decorations are sold no matter what the season.
  • The city is far less decrepit than Sofia.
  • Fewer american hipsters than expected.
  • Can’t remember the name of the hotel, but it had a really scary statue of a dog just outside our room.
  • Tančící dům, the dancing building, is not exactly a self-explanatory name. It looks more like an unexpected collapse.
  • Missed any of the defenestration sites. Oh well, there’s always the next time.

Church of bones in Kutna Hora

Dancing building in Prague

Charles Bridge in Prague

Jun 052012

Traffic sign in San FranciscoBeen very lazy reporting travel bits lately (where “lately” covers approximately last fourteen months).

Went to San Francisco last spring for the second and last MeeGo Conference. Of which the less said, the better. Such a bitter occasion. And probably the one where I’ve felt most out of place. Did survive the presentation without boos or rotten vegetable-treatmemnt. Did not have much of an audience, either.

Did things that you’re supposed to do in the city by the bay:

  • Was really jetlagged.
  • Saw Golden Gate from both sides of the bridge.
  • Visited Fisherman’s Wharf and shopped like a tourist does.
  • Ate plenty of seafood.
  • Drank plenty of Anchor Steam.
  • Was dismayed that there are no bookstores in the city (apart from City Lights).
  • Walked a lot.
  • Forgot how steep and common the hills are.
  • Rode a cable car.

Still one of my favorite cities, and I certainly hope to be back after a shorter interval than was between the two trips (six years and change).

(Yeah, I did publish a preamble of a day-by-day treatment, but that, unpredictably didn’t really go anywhere).

Golden Gate from the Marin side

Jan 012012

Full disclosure on cities where I slept during 2011:

  • Espoo, Finland *
  • Vantaa, Finland *
  • Ivalo, Finland
  • Nivala, Finland
  • Seinäjoki, Finland
  • Tallinn, Estonia
  • Berlin, Germany *
  • München, Germany
  • Prague, Czech Republic
  • Finksburg, MD
  • Washington, DC
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • New York, NY
  • San Francisco, CA

An asterisk denotes multiple stays.

Previous years’ lists: 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007.

Oct 032011

ex-KGB facility in Hotel ViruSpent two days in Tallinn in the waning days of summer holiday (which is to say that this is a long overdue entry).

Cruised over with the Viking XPRS, a mostly painless way of travel. Apart from the departure on the Helsinki end, when the lobbies were packed with hurried people lugging way too much taxfree beer for anybody’s comfort.

Stayed in Hotel Viru, almost next door to the Old Town. The hotel was worth its three stars, nothing out of the ordinary either way on the scale. Hotel Viru was built in the swinging seventies, and contained a KGB station on the top floor. Following the dissolution of the soviet union, the facility was abandoned and has now been turned into a museum. In addition to the museum of covert intelligence, the view over the city from the 22nd floor was worthwhile.

Ate a decent pizza at Dulcinella, and a very nice african dinner (at the appropriately named African Kitchen).

The best bar visited was Pôrgu, in the cellars of an old town house. They stocked quite a variety of estonian beers, which fortunately range quite far beyond the disappointing eurolagers of Saku and its kin. The highlight was a strong house ale from Saarenmaa.

Tallinn in the evening

Jun 062011

The recently published WWF report on Madagascar is a testament to the biodiversity of the island.

In a decade there have been more than 600 new species discovered (including no less than 41 mammals), but the island habitat is seriously threatened by development. The forests disappear at an alarming rate, probably dooming hundreds of other animals and plants to become extinct before they are described.

Thus, it is time for two resolutions – one easy, the other less so:

  • Madagascar needs to be visited, and visited properly, so that the jungles and critters get more than a tired once over in the Tananarive zoo.
  • I so need to pick up BBC Earth’s new series on the island on disc soonest.

(And yeah, the report itself is referred to in scores of pages, but is a bit hard to locate. The Norwegian instance of the organization provides the most easily accessed copy).

Jun 032011

Cable cars in San FranciscoIt’d indeed been seven years since the last visit to San Francisco (alleged to in the early days of this very blog).

Woke up early, real early. Though having gone to bed around eleven, the irreversible wakeup at 0420 actually did produce some five hours of effective sleep.

Went to breakfast at the first opportunity (very american, bacon included) and then had a more than reasonable delay in departing (sudden attack of the carbohydrates didn’t help).

So I didn’t get out of the hotel that early, and the Powell Street cable car to the Fisherman’s Wharf already had a long line. The cars came and went, and managed to snap a few good pictures of them at the plate. Got on perhaps the fifth one, and had a smooth ride all the way to the waterfront.

First stop was the Ghirardelli Square, had to stock up on the very traditional San Francisco chocolate. Had quite a bit of difficulty finding the entrance – quite an accomplishment on a building that is geared for absolutely one thing, a massive influx of tourists. Picked up half a dozen variants of the chocolate, a good start for a shopping trip.

Built up hunger on the Hyde Street Pier (though skipped the museum ships) and had my first ever meal at an In-N-Out Burger. The cheeseburger was quite OK, though not really worthy of the accolades.

The Wharf hadn’t changed much. Apart from my favorite gallery had gone AWOL (eventually discovered they are moving to a bigger location, but currently closed). Visited a couple of shirt stores, souvenir stores and the National Park Store on top Pier 39. The sealions are still present west of the Pier, lounging on the floating docks and filling the air with their barking.

Instead of taking the historical tram (F line is run with ancient cars that each looks different) back to Embarcadero, decided to walk back.

Looped via the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. Hadn’t been inside on previous visits. The views were nice, but nothing spectacular.

Visited the only remaining bookstore along the way back. San Francisco has lost Borders (the gigantic one on Union Square), Stacey’s and Barnes & Noble – leaving the City Lights as the only one I could find. The organization was less haphazard than ten years back, and picked up my first Robert Goddard mystery novel and a couple of other books.

Record stores seemed to be an endangered species as well. Virgin Megastore on Market looked like it’s been shuttered for a long while, and I was out and about too early for Rasputin Music as well.

Dinner turned out to be a simple and quick affair. Ventured out to a chilled evening in shorts and decided to grab something in the immediate neighbourhood instead of acquiring a west coast flu. The something turned out to be a triplet from Taco Bell, Seven Eleven and a liquor store. The last one of the list is the only worthwhile one, as the two Acme ales were a pleasant discovery indeed.

The ~20k steps took their toll, and after trying in vain to stay awake to the sixth episode of Game of Thrones, gave it up around ten o’clock, destined to wake up way too early again, on the first day of the actual conference.

San Francisco, view from Telegraph Hill

May 292011

Emptied the car at the conference hotel (Regency Hyatt), and went exploring beyond the Golden Gate bridge.

The western shore was a whole new region, and the views on the Pacific Ocean were postcard-worthy. The green bits were lush green, the blue bits had plenty of wave action and the clear skies crowned the day.

Pacific coast

PearlHad lunch in Stinson Beach, at the Parkside Cafe. The meal was noteworthy for two things: the Lagunitas brews accompanying the dishes, and a surprise appearance of a pearl in an oyster. The pearl, maybe seven millimeters across and dim white in color was an unexpected addition in the gratinated oysters. Fortunately it was discovered without being chewed. The staff were at first spooked by its appearance (dreading a costly dental renovation), but claimed that this pearl was the first one found in the decades the place had been operating.

The water was cold, and the warnings for currents and sharks (great whites in less than six feet of water) had deterred most of the visitors, who were not in the mood for swimming.

The slice of chocolate cake for dessert was murderously big, and started lulling me to sleep in the backseat. The chill air at the Golden Gate lookout around sunset was cold enough to wake up for the mandatory photographs.

Golden Gate

May 292011

Spent last week at the MeeGo Conference in San Francisco.

As this was my first visit to the city in seven years, I had high expectations of seeing more than the conference hotel. Good intentions notwithstanding, I didn’t get that much free time, and as such reporting the week’s activities shouldn’t take nearly as long as the east coast trip did.

Going to San FranciscoFlew to San Francisco on Lufthansa, through Frankfurt. The wakeup call was truly inhuman at 0414, and combined by the belated departure of the plane, insulting to punctuality.

Had an apron landing in FRA. That, the long bus cruise to the terminal and the very short transfer meant that lines had to be cut on the way to the gate. Made it, and so did the luggage.

The flight was on the brand new Airbus A380 plane, a double-decker on its whole wide body. Had no glimpse on the upper deck, but the conditions in the steerage were not bad at all. The plane was indeed new, the route had been open for only ten days before our departure. The new plane smell had gone, but otherwise the interiors were in pristine condition.

The seats were pleasantly wide, and even more important factor was the amount of legroom. Even when the occupant of the previous row lowered his seat as far back as it goes, it was nowhere near as threatening a move as on a tightly packed 747. The plane was full, and unfortunately didn’t get an aisle seat for the first time in a good while. The row assignation of the title wasn’t bad either – the second to last row was adequately supplied with food and drink throughout the flight.

Food quality was good as well, with lunch (teriyaki chicken) even being in excellent category. That was an important asset, as the tight connection in Frankfurt meant that no nuts or other self-provided snacks were available.

The per-seat screens were quite disappointing. Image quality was low, the touch interaction clearly in need of an UX re-work and the audio predictably unusable. Hence confined myself to reading as the main source of entertainment.

Arrival in SFO was on the smooth side. Going through INS took 45 minutes, and the yellow monster suitcase popped up on the carousel when I finally made it through.

Our brave group of four had an MB SUV for the duration of the conference. Sadly, the advertised capacity turned out to be bogus. The suitcase Tetris in the rental car center took an unexpectedly long time before a usable configuration was reached.

The original plan of heading out to Napa or southwards were thus abandoned in favor of first dropping the luggage at the hotel.

Airbus A380

May 202011

StreetlightsThe late April East Coast trip in an easily consumable form:

  • Days on the road: eleven.
  • States visited: seven (DC, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey).
  • Steps walked: in Maryland: not many, in the other cities: between 15 and 24 thousand steps.
  • Photographs taken: 1312 (+ a couple with the N900).
  • Books bought: Nine.
  • Cookbooks bought: Three.
  • Dvds bought: Two in the US, a handful more in HMV on the backward swing.
  • T-shirts acquired: Eight (seven bought, one donated).
  • Shorts bought: Two (neither perfect, both very good though).
  • Geocaches found: Five.
  • Gowalla stamps: 161 (of which featured 30 stamps).
  • Foursquare checkins: 72 (I’m not that prolific with Foursquare, it seems) .
  • Local beers sampled:27.
  • Seafood eaten: Almost daily.
  • Sushi eaten: None at all.
  • Pandas seen: Two.
  • Countrymen encountered: none unplanned.
  • Nights spent in properly wide beds: Three (in DC).
  • Nights spent in rock hard beds: One.
  • Playoff mood: Quickly deteriorating.
  • Tips forgotten: A couple.
  • New York attitude experienced: very little.
  • Money in the wallet at exit: less than a buck (discounting the collectibles, obviously).
  • Coming back: For sure.
  • Could I live there: In Maryland: probably not, in the cities: quite likely.
May 202011

The trip back was pleasantly uneventful.

The cab ride to Newark was longer than expected, and the ukrainian driver kept on talking throughout the journey. The journey first through the Lincoln tunnel and then beside Hudson River brought up an unexpected view of New York.

Newark airport turned out to be a bit provincial and undergoing repairs.

Had a dinner at the usually reliable Sam Adams brewhouse. The beer was almost undrinkable (mental note: Cherry variant is terrible), the service glacially slow and as the crowning glory the cashiers went offline when I tried to pay. Fortunately had just enough cash to cover the meal.

The twin flights (flew through Heathrow) were painless, though full. A small consolation was the upgrade to economy extra – had to pay extra for a heavy suitcase, and got upgraded on account of that.

The shops in London were surprisingly modest in covering the upcoming royal wedding – I’d have expected a lot more junk for sale.

The native american art had clearly piqued the interest of TSA – the suitcase had been opened and the items inspected, as evidenced by admissions of the fact and plenty of official tape with which the wrapper had been fixed.

New York from the Jersey side

May 202011

Jam in HarlemHarlem isn’t what it used to be.

In 1994 on my first visit to New York, the tourist bus driver stated that he isn’t going there on account of having been shot at the previous day. One and a half decades later the neighbourhood turned out to be pleasant and nice to walk around in.

This was indeed the first visit above the northern border of Central Park, and into Harlem proper.

Took the subway to the 125th street station, and walked eastward from there.

Apart from a certain very limited grunginess, ubiquitous street vendors, and a larger number of people just lounging around, the Harlem we saw wasn’t really that different from the other non-downtown areas.

Walked past the Apollo Theatre – where, it seems, most of the black cultural icons, once performed.

Ate at Sylvia’s – soul food said the advertisements, and soul food we got. The second chunk of catfish of the trip and a nicely chilled bottle of Sugar Hill, golden ale of Harlem.

Harlem street view

May 202011

Blue Smoke's ribs samplerIn addition to the Eataly, I’d earmarked another restaurant for a visit based on an article in GQ.

Blue Smoke is a multi-region barbecue restaurant.

They don’t constrain themselves to only one variant of barbecuing, but offer dishes and sauces from Kansas City, South Carolina, Texas and other gastronomically distinct regions.

The crispy chili cruster calamari was a good starter, but nothing truly special. The cephalopods were appropriately fresh, but the crust was not that spicy. The roasted lemon slice on top was an unexpected sight that fit the dish very well.

The main course, on the other hand, was anything but commonplace. Selected the ribs-sampler, which was indeed packed with products from three different regions. Spare ribs were juicy with thick and sweet Kansas-style sauce, the babyback ribs were definitely drier and packed a chili-infused punch, but the unexpected star of the show was the lone cow rib done Texas-style – salt/pepper/smoke were an awesome combination of taste on the biggest bone on the plate.

Compared to the ribs cavalcade, Minna’s beef brisket seemed almost pedestrian. But appearances were once again deceiving – the slow cooked beef was an impressive dish on its own, and the mashed potatoes/onions-side played with the meat perfectly.

Blue Smoke’s take on Key Lime Pie was sadly imperfect, it was served a few degrees too cold and stiff, and the thick crust didn’t really improve matters.

Hence, it was time to experiment with a second round of desserts. Liquid ones, since there was no room for anything else. Both the blood orange margarita and the Clooney Cobbler (fronting rosemary) settled the huge meal down well, and were a perfect capstone for the final dinner in New York.

The restaurant’s shop had run out of the Kansas City style sauce, so the only things that we came out with were a can of their dry rub and a block of chili chocolate.

Key Lime Pie

May 202011

Central Park WestWalked to the edge of the park at the 110th street but elected to take the subway south a couple of stops. The northern regions of the park are mountainous, and wasn’t in the mood of any serious hiking after the hefty-ish lunch.

The subway stop of the Museum of Natural History is below the building for instant access. Was a wee bit pressed for time, so we didn’t drop in, but walked over to the park.

The park was at its best. Lush, sunny and not really crowded.

I’d been in the park a couple of times, but the routes are many, and saw plenty of altogether new locations.

Walked back to the subway after seeing a genuinely good standup comedian, plenty of horse-drawn buggies, the overcrowded Apple Store and inquisitive squirrels.

Central Park Lake

May 192011

Ethiopian lunchFinally discovered a trustworthy, not very busy and pleasant bagel shop. Times Square Bagel was just a couple of blocks away from the hotel, and their selection of bagels and topping was large enough without resorting to bogus exotics. As a bonus, they stock Pom-juice, finally got to taste what the raved about pomegranate product is like (very strong in taste, would mix very well with soda water).

Lunch was Ethiopian style, up on the west side. Washa offered food in the traditional style, served on a soft bread that was also used as an utensil. Quite messy, a bit spicy and altogether nice experience. As an unexpected bonus the restaurant stocked bona fide Ethiopian beer, with a simple, lopsided label (of which I completely forgot to take pictures).

May 192011

Rock of AgesSaw the second rock’n'roll musical of the year.

Rock of Ages had the same recipe as Muskettisoturit – a thin story used as an excuse for plenty of eighties hair metal.

Helen Hayes theatre took the hedonism aspect somewhat seriously, the push to buy more beer and bring it to the seats was almost constant (sadly reflected in the long bathroom lines during the intermission).

The theatre looked initially formidably busy, but the humongous queue turned out to be that of the next door establishment – they were playing American Idiot, obviously to a very large crowd.

Bonus points for getting David Coverdale to do the introductory speech. A speech that managed to abuse both bluetooth earplugs and Def Leppard within thirty seconds of each other.

Times SquareThe play itself was nothing short of great, and broke the fourth wall almost constantly. The plot played with conventions of the genre and era, and this intertextuality was explicitly explained to the audience.

Song selection was a bit softer than on Muskettisoturit, the females on stage clearly followed the same school of clothing and the climax was appropriately over the top.

Ended up buying the soundtrack on cd.

The walk through the Times Square proved that it doesn’t really get less busy on Sundays – the shops and streets were still packed. Shopping damages were minimal – couldn’t resist one more t-shirt.

May 182011

Sunday morning was sunny and warm, just the kind of conditions appropriate for crossing the East River on Brooklyn Bridge.

Began with a semi-spontaneous breakfast with a bunch of Minna’s relatives, who we discovered a couple of blocks away. The first proper bagel breakfast of the trip, with only 50% too much cream cheese on the bread.

Took the subway train south, first to the South Street Seaport, where we aimed to score tickets for a Broadway show and avoid the crowds that plague the Times Square booth. The selection for Sunday night wasn’t very wide, but one of the interesting musicals, Rock of Ages, still had seats. Walked past the construction site of Freedom Tower, the building is impressively large already.

Visited the Abercrombie & Fitch store – less noisy and crowded than the shop on Fifth Avenue, but still an almost claustrophobic experience. After buyting the second piece of native american art, it was time for a breather. The second Heartland Brewery visited offered good beer and somewhat indifferent service. The already forgotten nearby mexican restaurant takes the first place in misplaced chutzpah – we were chased away from their empty (and huge) patio on the off chance that it would be filled up by brunchers. Never mind the late hour and total lack of interest shown.

Brooklyn Bridge

Arrival in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Bridge was undergoing repairs, and for quite a chunk of the distance the walkways were narrower than usual. On a hot Sunday that created quite tight quarters occasionally. The view in both directions was expectedly gorgeous, and the bright blue skies complemented the scenery nicely. The bridge seemed to be very popular amongst orthodox jews, families upon families of black-clad folks were walking in both directions.

Upon landing in Brooklyn, elected to go left and visited DUMBO neighbourhood. It’s a strange mix of rapid gentrification (high end chocolate shops, restaurants) and waterside warehouses just waiting to be torn down.

Waited for a long while for the water taxi back to Manhattan, but one never arrived. The line to the neighboring Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory never got any shorter while waiting – the business was plainly booming on the warm day. The trundle to back to the closest subway station was longer than expected, and boringly enough the train took a tunnel across the river, so we missed the bridge view.

Dim SumWalked through Chinatown in search for a decent (and quick-ish) dinner. Found one at Dim Sum Go Go, where the list was long, the dishes plentiful and variable, Tsingtaos cold and service quick.

The same cannot be said of the first cab hailed on the street. Getting one took a long time – on account of many things, like suboptimal location, difficulty in determining which taxis are free and so on.