Golkonda Fort

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After many years of really wanting to visit India, I finally made it last week for a very short business trip to Hyderabad. Fortunately, I had one day to explore the city before heading out. Even more fortunately, Saurabh, one of my colleagues from our team in Hyderabad, graciously agreed to show me around his city.

Apparently, the key site everyone sees in Hyderabad is Golkonda Fort. This was really a fortified city built starting in the 13th century by a Muslim kingdom. The kingdom was apparently wealthy, with diamond mines in the area; the Hope Diamond came from mines in this region.

The site is pretty impressive still with a keep/palace on the top of the hill and a large village below. The outer wall encompasses a large area where some 40,000 people lived. The engineering was impressive as well. Hand claps at the gates can be heard at the keep on the top of the hill almost a kilometer away, facilitating communication. Water was pumped up throughout the complex, and there were several large covered cisterns to provide water during a siege. They also managed the airflow to keep cool breezes moving throughout the fort. Even in its current degraded condition, the fort is pretty amazing and worth checking out.

The keep from the village below.
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The village as seen from the keep:
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The ornate carvings at the front gate:
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The barracks area:
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Beautiful alcoves in the village:
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Beautiful LongQing Xia

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Last week, the senior leaders on my team at work and I went offsite for two days to discuss our future plans. After staying for an evening at the lovely Commune by the Great Wall (super cool resort -- worth checking out their site), we went to Longqing Xia for some "hiking" (really a ton of stair-climbing). This lovely gorge is about fifty miles north of Beijing, past the Great Wall at Badaling. The mountains rise up almost straight up from a beautiful (and clean!) lake formed by a big dam.

Green water lake with brown cliffs rising almost straight up out of the water.

For some reason I still don't understand, instead of taking the gondolas halfway up the mountain before starting our climb to the top, we elected to hike up from the bottom. You can see how far the gondolas go up here.
Gondolas go over the water and up a between two cliffs. The water and boats are below.

We just kept climbing up and up the stairs. I was dying most of the time. Not only was I really out of shape, but I was also carrying a big camera bag full of gear including my big 70-200 2.8L lens. Still the view at the top was worth it.
Beautiful mountains covered in trees

Here's are me and my colleagues at the top.
Team photo with seventeen people, mountains in the back.

As you may be able to tell from the photos, we had a beautiful day for our outing. It was a little warm but not bad for Beijing, and the air quality was good since we were outside of the city. My only regret was not getting a chance to take a boat ride down the lake. I hope to go back soon to do that with my family.

Longqing is also the home to a winter ice festival (like a mini-version of the one in Harbin). We went to this festival last winter (although I was too lazy to blog about it then...)

Crab Heaven on Whidbey Island!

Last week we rented a house in Holmes Harbor on Whidbey Island with our friends Barbi and Kellie for a few days of crabbing, sunshine, and general laziness. Our friends Nori, Stacy, and Jarrett (and Stacy's dad) from Beijing came out too for a bit since the were in Seattle as well.

The house was part of an eighteen acre holly farm (yes, Christmas holly needs farms too), appropriately named Holly Hills Farm. It was really a lovely place on a quiet harbor. They have three houses for rent there - a larger, modern place (which we had), a mid-sized farm house, and a smaller farm house. Our place was well outfitted with everything you could want -- great kitchen with every manner of tool/pot/pan, grill, propane boiler (for all those crabs!), washer/dryer, fluffy towels, etc.

Here's the house from the water side:
A two story brown house in front of a row of trees and a rocky beach.

Here's the view down from the house toward their dock:
A downhill view of a dock with a red shed on it.

Barbi brought her 19' speedboat and crab traps along. We soon found a good spot and were hauling in tons of crabs. We probably pulled up 200 over the course of four days, keeping about fifty (there are size/gender restrictions plus daily limits -- fortunately, we had several licenses so we could get a lot of crabs. The beach was also full of lovely, easily-dug clams as well as mussels, although we bought mussels since the store-bought ones are cleaner and not stuck together.

Michael (10) driving out to check out traps:
Michael (smiling) driving the speedboat, seen from his front.

A pot full of yummy crabs -- turkey legs are awesome bait! They are cheap, last all day, and crabs can't resist.
A box trap full of about twenty crabs.

A blazing pot full of crabby goodness:
A huge pot on a massive, lit propane burner -- outdoors, of course!

The day's bounty (actually, just part of it...) We wound up eating crab a million ways -- boiled crab, crab fried rice, black bean crab, crab roll, crab omelets, crab cocktail, cold cracked crab, and more. We also had oysters (with whisky and one of this year's Oyster Wine Content winners), hyper fresh and ripe berries of all descriptions, black cod kasuzuke, fresh corn, and mussels and clams. It was absolutely incredible. By the second or third day, though, Michael declared a crab moratorium for himself.

A plate heaped with boiled crab halves and a bowl full of clams and mussels.

In addition to crabbing and being lazy, the kids fished a bit. Stacy's dad is an avid fisherman and taught the kids how to bottom fish for dogfish -- little sharks:
A 2.5 foot dogfish shark on the dock.

Andrew (13) hooked into two of the dogfish, but since we weren't using steel leaders, both cut the line as they approached the dock. I can't say that I'm disappointed that we didn't land it. I wasn't sure I wanted to mess with unhooking the things.
Andrew fishing from the dock with his pole signficantly bent as he reels in a dogfish.

We also just played in the water a bunch (OK, the kids did -- it was pretty cold...)
Andrew in a round intertube in the water, holding an oar over his head in triumph.

It was really a perfect way to spend a few days. We highly recommend Holly Hills Farm and hope to go there again next summer.

World's Best Vacation Ever: Pulau Pangkil Kecil

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Back in March as part of our trip to Singapore, we spent a few days with some friends on a private island in Indonesia. (Yes, I realize I'm more than a little late with this post.) It was probably the best vacation we ever took.

The island is called Pulau Pangkil Kecil; it's a tiny island about a half mile long near Singapore. It's owned by a wealthy guy in Hong Kong who has done a fantastic job building out the island, outfitting it with rustic but luxurious driftwood buildings and training a very attentive and professional staff. The island is available for vacation rentals where you basically get the whole island to yourself and your family/friends. There are enough bungalows for forty people to comfortably stay on the island; it was especially roomy with just seven of us plus the staff on the island.

The island has electricity and water but no real internet access and barely even mobile phone coverage; it was kind of a treat, really, to not be connected for a few days. We spent the time playing the tidepools, swimming in the lovely pool, snorkeling, kayaking, sailing, reading, napping, playing board games, and getting massages (at our request, they brought a masseuse to the island who stayed the whole time and was basically on call for us.) Oh, and of course, we ate. Well. A lot. The cook was fantastic, preparing amazingly great Indonesian and Malaysian food -- curries, seafood, and other treats.

Another treat was stargazing; since the other islands nearby had very little or no people, there was virtually no light pollution. We could see zillions of stars; we even saw the Milky Way quite clearly. I'm pretty sure it was the first time the kids had ever seen the Milky Way.

I can't recommend this place enough and am dying to go back.

Michael (9) in front of the main building. This is where we ate and hung out a lot.
Michael standing in front of a two story thatched roof building with open sides.

The inside of the main building. You can see the open bar and coolers on the left and bunch of tiny, amazingly delicious bananas hanging in the middle. The "floor" of the building is all white sand.
Interior of the main building

This is the biggest of the bungalows. It's the only one with the bathroom inside; the others have a nice bathroom next to the house.
Big bungalow, up on stilts.

Here's a shot of the inside of the bungalow. Tropical/rustic but comfy and clean. The mosquito netting was necessary. Bugs were maybe the only bad thing about the island.
Shot of the inside of the bungalow. Big mosquito netting tent over the bed.

At night they built huge bonfires on the beach for us. We roasted the marshmallows we brought over them. You can see the kids sitting near the fire (they're about as close as they could get -- it was a big fire.)
Kids sitting near the huge fire on the beach.

Here's Andrew (12) near their iconic tent/table on the beach.
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On the other end of the island they have  beautiful freshwater swimming pool, tucked behind the rocks. You walk through a passage in the rocks to get to the pool.
Passageway under two huge boulders. 

Gorgeous swimming pool.

They also arranged fishing trips for us. We used hand reels to catch reef fish for dinner.
Andrew with a catch. 

Occasionally, a local family would paddle by the island.
Traditional Indonesian row boat with two people

The staff was lovely, super attentive, and all-around awesome!
Seven lovely staff ladies in red polos and khaki shorts

Here's the sad view as we left the island. This boat took us back to a bigger Indonesian island. We then took a 30 minute bus ride (nice air conditioned private coach) across that island to a larger ferry back to Singapore. All told it takes about two hours to get to the island from Singapore.
Big launch near the beach.

Shots of Diverse Singapore

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Singapore is at the crossroads of many cultures. Aside from it's recent history as a British colony, S'pore is between Malaysia and Indonesia; they've also had huge populations of Chinese and Indians. In addition to the national cultures, I think most of the major world religions are represented in force. In many ways, Singapore is proof to me that people can actually get along. Anyway, here some random snaps I took around the island that illustrate the richness of the culture.

A sign with all four official languages of Singapore: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil.
Danger - Keep out! in four languages

Sultan Mosque
Sultan Mosque as seen through a neighborhood

Older building around Arab Street.
Colorful colonial buildings 

Shop sign in Arab Street
Sign in English and Arabic

Dressmaker services near Arab Street
Three colorful dresses on dummies

Outdoor, seaside dining at East Shore.
Outdoor tables lit by neon signs in Chinese

Store sign in Little India
Painted Hindi sign

Frieze on Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India
Frieze on Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

Menu board showing Indian fish head curry, a local favorite.
Photo of fish head curry, surrounded by other curries.

Insanely Great Food: Singaporean Hawker Stalls

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A few weeks ago my family and another family went down to Singapore and Indonesia for Spring Break. Michelle and I went to Singapore for our honeymoon many, many years ago. Singapore is one of the best places I've ever eaten in the world thanks to their diverse culture and high standards. Everyone I've ever met from Singapore was a foodie. That said, among the embarrassment of riches in Singapore, since our honeymoon we've both dreamed about the quintessential Singaporean local dining experience: hawker stalls.

These are food centers, like a food court but standalone instead of in a shopping mall (althought there are awesome food courts in Singapore too like Food Republic.) There are dozens of stalls cooking a range of food that mirrors Singapore's diversity: chili crab, pepper crab, satays, grilled seafood, curries, roti, shaved ice, ramen, Chinese vegetables, and more. Other stalls have beers, awesome limeade drinks, and other drinks. Each table has a number on it. You choose a table and then go from shop to shop ordering and leaving your table number. They'll deliver the food, which is when you pay.

Newton Circus is probably the best known and most popular among tourists; it's convenient and very good (and nice on pleasant evenings since they have outdoor seating). However, we really preferred the more local Chomp Chomp. Aside from the obviously awesome name, the food was better and the scene less touristy/pushy. Many, many thanks to our friend Meng who recommended Chomp Chomp and other fantastic places to eat.

The entrance to Chomp Chomp.
Sign of Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Singapore

The scene at Chomp Chomp:
The scene at Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Singapore 

A master at work grilling chicken wings over a wood coal fire; he's using the fan to help control the heat.
Master grilling chicken wings, holding a fan.

Grilled (huge) prawns
Huge grilled prawns split open, with small whole limes.

The most awesome pork and beef satays as they're meant to be: hot, bite-sized, and in quantity.
Plate of skewered pork and beef satays.

This was perhaps the consensus favorite: grilled skate wing covered in sambal sauce (kind of a chili sauce). The bowl of heavenly goodness to the left is peanut sauce for dredging satays though. My mouth is watering as I write this.
Grilled skate wing covered in deep red sambal sauce.

The other thing we really all loved was chili crab, with a side of fried rolls for sopping up every drop of the mind-blowing sauce. Unfortunately, I couldn't hold myself back long enough to take a photo before diving into the messy, spicy treat. Chinese vegetables stir-fried with sambal sauce were also ridiculously good.

Hawker stalls are local food at its best -- inexpensive, a reflection of the society and land, and just plain awesome.

SIN and Gluttony

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I'll be immersing myself in the delights of SIN for the next few days. Singapore, that is...

Michelle and I spent part of our honeymoon here sixteen years ago, but we haven't been back since. Now we're back with the kids and some friends.

It's easily one of the best places to eat in the world since it's the crossroads of so many cultures. I can't wait to get started; we have a bunch of recommendations from friends already (more appreciated!)

World's Best Ramen: Ramen Jirou

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While I was in Tokyo this week, my colleague, friend, and ramen fiend K1 (his name is actually Keiichiro, but since ichiro means one in Japanese, he goes by "K1") took a few of us to his absolute favorite ramen place -- Ramen Jirou.

As it turns out, this shop has a cult-like following among the Japanese. Ramen Jirou is completely different from other ramen places I've been like Ippudo or Kyushu Jangara (some purists don't even consider it to be ramen.) People have compared the place to the restaurant of "Soup Nazi" fame. To begin with, the branch we went to kind of dirty, more like something I'd expect in Beijing, not Tokyo.

There's nothing to order besides ramen -- no gyoza and if you want something to drink besides water, you can buy it from the machine outside. There are only a few seats, and often a half-hour line. You sit when a seat opens up -- no waiting for enough room for your party.

There's only one basic menu choice -- a super-rich pork-based soup with thick and dense noodles (vs. the thin ramen noodles or lighter udon noodels), a few slices of pork, and a pile of cabbage and bean spouts mounded on top. It has none of the classic ramen toppings, no egg, no menma (pickled bamboo shoots), no cod roe. It's not a really visually attractive bowl frankly -- kind of monochromatic and slopped in vs. the carefully composed look of most Japanese food. The only choices are whether you want a big or small bowl with extra meat or not. You buy a chit from a machine that specifies your preference. I ordered a small bowl with a normal amount of noodles and meat. It was 600 yen, a little over USD$6.00.

When the chef hands you the bowl, you specify whether you want garlic, vegetables, more pork fat, and additional soy sauce (K1 says it's too salty with additional soy sauce). You have to order in a specific way, like ordering a latte at Starbucks, or you will be met with derision. (I had to memorize the order in Japanese before I sat down; naturally I had it with everything except the additional soy sauce. You say "yasai, niniku, abura" for "vegetable, garlic, fat") Once the bowl arrives, you eat silently, seemingly as fast as you can. Once complete, you put the bowl on the upper counter, wipe off the counter, and leave quickly.

OMG -- it was fantastic and unlike anything I had ever had. The soup was amazingly rich and tasty with blobs of pork fat suspended in the soup. The noodles were dense and chewy, the meat tender, and the veggies added enough crunch and variety to balance the thing out. A few shakes of white pepper kicked it up even a little more. I slurped up my bowl in a few minutes with a huge grin on my face. There's nothing subtle about it. Just pure porky goodness.

K1 has described the various stages of Ramen Jirou addiction. Early on, other ramens taste wimpy. Apparently at the last stage (the one he's in), you can't think of anything else. He dreams of Jirou incessantly and goes there first whenever he lands in Japan. It's not just K1. There are a lot of write-ups on Ramen Jirou including an NPR story, a CNN article, a Guardian UK article declaring it one of the 50 best things to eat in the world, and more.

I'm fast on my way toward Ramen Jirou addition too.

Some pix:

The line outside Ramen Jirou. All of the official branches have this yellow awning sign.
The line outside Ramen Jirou (the yellow sign).

The scene inside as I look longingly from outside. There are a few few seats at the L-shaped counter and two people working inside.
 Patrons seated at the counter.

This is the machine you order from. The row on top are the small bowls, the lower row is the large bowl. The choice on the right is extra meat.
Vending machine where you order Ramen Jirou.

The master at work. He kind of just slops everything into the bowls. You can see the sliced pork at the bottom.
Ramen Jirou master preparing bowls of love.

The bowl of happiness. It doesn't look like much, but damn, it's good.
Ramen Jirou bowl.

RIP: Motoyama Milk Bar

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As I mentioned in a post a long time ago, my family and I love the Motoyama Milk Bar in the Roppongi Hills mall in Tokyo. Since I'm in Tokyo right now, I thought I'd stop by for a lovely coffee milk and to bring some of their luscious caramels back to my loving family (who would love me a lot more if I brought back Motoyama caramels, I assure you.)

Imagine my surprise when I saw it was closed. Out of business. Kaput. The sign  on the left basically said, "Thanks. Really thanks. We closed on January 17. If you have questions, call this number xxx."

The shuttered entrance to the Motoyama Milk Bar in Tokyo.

Goodbye, MMB! I will always remember your flan, those cute little milk jars, and your cute waitresses...