Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Silk road – UzbekistanKazakhstan – , Moscow, Russia August, 2013
After breakfast our new little group of 3 plus Dima our intrepid leader drove to Ugam Chatkal National Park not far from Tashkent.  We took a tram up to the top of the trail and walked for almost 6 hours through beautiful fields, up and down rocky paths and over some very difficult trails.  We stopped for lunch partway through the day by a lovely river where we soaked our feet and had bread, cheese, hot tea and snickers bars for energy.  We finally (!!) arrived back at the hotel near the tram where we took showers and relaxed a bit before enjoying a delicious dinner overlooking the meadow.  I had lamb and pork kebabs, beet/carrot/cabbage/potato salad and some very juicy watermelon slices for dessert.  We drove back to Tashkent where we had to leave one of our travelers as her visa had the wrong date for entering Kazakhstan.  She had to fly back to Kyrgyzstan and meet us later in Samara, Russia…We had to get two visas for this part of the trip, i.e. Kazakhstan and Russian, both of which were very expensive.

We boarded the train to Kazakhstan very late and slept the night on the train.  The next afternoon they served us some delicious plov (rice pilaf with carrots) and I had taken some biscuits and cheese from the hotel in Tashkent which served nicely for dinner.  The scenery was rather boring which made for a long trip… Arrived in Amalsk, Kazakhstan late in the evening and transferred to a homestay, a large home with several bedrooms let out to travelers.  I took a hot shower and slept pretty well although it was veryyy hot.

In the morning our “hostess” served us hard cooked eggs and fruit and a guide came by and took us to the ship museum where we saw photos of how the Aral sea use to be when it was filled with water and fish.  Walked to the square – rather small as it is a very small little town and then to the market where fresh bread, fruits, vegetables, etc. were sold.  We picked up a melon for tomorrow when we would go to the Aral Sea.  In the evening our “hostess” prepared a traditional stew.  She cooked some meat until tender, made some fresh pasta sheets and cooked some onions and potatoes.  Everything was layered up on a platter and we ate outside where it was cooler.

In the morning after an early breakfast of delicious pancakes filled with homemade apricot jam we left with a guide to the Aral Sea.
The Aral Sea was once a lake lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  Formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world it has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by the Soviet irrigation projects.  The region’s once prosperous fishing industry had been essentially destroyed and the Aral Sea region became heavily polluted.  In 2005 a dam project was completed and, as a result, the water level in the lake has risen, salinity has dropped and fish have started to appear again – all great news.

When we arrived at what is left of the sea we waded in a bit and the water was quite warm and the area was very beautiful.  We sat on an old, overturned boat and ate our fresh melon which was delicious.  Afterwards, we walked over to where some fishing boats were tied up and it looked like they had caught a few fish after all.  They had put out their nets the night before and were gathering in their catch.  One of the fishermen offered to take us for a boat ride and it was delightful.  On our drive back we stopped at some old rusted abandoned ships left when the sea had dried up and took some pictures of camels resting underneath the boats in the shade.  Our “hostess” cooked a nice “farewell” fresh fish dinner for us that night with lots of potatoes – simple but quite tasty.

At 9 p.m. we took the overnight train to Samara, Russia.  In the morning we bought some warm fried potato pies and hard cooked eggs for breakfast.  The scenery changed a bit becoming more lush as we neared Russia.  We had a 40 minute stop and got off the train to stretch our legs and to buy some chicken pies for dinner and about 11 p.m. we arrived in Samara and settled in to our hotel.
Samara is a leading industrial center in the Volga region and known for the production of aerospace launch vehicles.

In the morning we were ALL together again for breakfast.  We took a lovely two hour ferry ride along the Volga River which is the longest river in Europe and across to the village of Shiryaevo where a guide met us.  We toured some deep caves and then visited the Repin Museum where the famous Russian artist Ilya Repin lived for two years and created some very famous paintings, one of which (“Barge Haulers on the Volga”) I saw later in the Russian museum in St. Petersburg!!!  Some of the reproductions of his paintings are in the museum.  As it was his 100th birthday celebration there was a wonderful show outside the museum with Russian performers singing, playing Russian musical instruments and dancing traditional dances in costume.   It started to rain so we found a little restaurant nearby and shared some delicious plov (what else!!!), and cucumber, tomato salad until the rain stopped.  We had planned to take a walk but it was too muddy so we took the fast boat back to the “mainland”. 

The weather turned sunny again and we strolled along the sandy beach along the river and back to the hotel.  Later we walked to a cozy brewery for dinner…

In the morning I walked down to the Volga river before breakfast.  About 10:30 we walked to the Stalin Bunker built during WWII for Stalin and his “men” seventeen floors down with oxygen, water and food at the ready if Hitler were to attack Moscow.  A guide explained that it was built in nine months by a team of 800 engineers and 2900 workers but, interestingly enough, was never used.  We wandered around the old city taking pictures of old houses, interesting doors, people, etc. and then had lunch at a cute little restaurant.  Dima and I shared a potato/herring/beet salad and cheese pancakes which I am getting addicted to!!!  I stopped by the beautiful Iversky Women’s Monastery founded in 1850 but there was no one available to give me a tour.  Overnight train to Moscow!!!

We arrived in the morning and took the metro to the hotel.  The metro stations are really beautiful and so convenient to use.  We stayed at the Cosmos Hotel which was really enormous and fairly centrally located.  As we hadn’t had breakfast as yet Dima took us to an adorable café near the exhibition center and I had Greek salad and some delicious cheese filled pancakes. 

We took the metro to the Red Square where we met our guide and she took us through several churches and cathedrals within the Kremlin.  We walked to the Kutafya tower, up the ramp and through the Kremlin walls beneath the Trinity Gate Tower.  We started in the church of the Twelve Apostles with its five domes and wonderful collection of icons, on to the Assumption Cathedral with five golden helmet domes, the burial place of most of the Russian Orthodox churches.  Inside is a tent-roofed wooden throne made in 1551 for Ivan the Terrible.  Nearby is the Ivan the Terrible Bell Tower, the Kremlin’s tallest structure and a Moscow landmark visible from 30 km away.  Beside the bell tower is the Tsar Bell, the world’s biggest bell.  Sadly, this 202 ton giant never rang.  North of the bell tower is the Tsar Cannon, cast in 1586 for Fyodor I, whose portrait is on the barrel.  It was never shot.  On to the Archangel Cathedral dedicated to Archangel Michael, guardian of Moscow’s princes where Ivan the Terrible and his sons are buried.   Finally, the Annunication Cathedral containing the celebrated icons of master painter Theophanes the Greek.  Afterwards we spent about two hours in the fascinating Armoury with it opulent collection of treasures accumulated over centuries by the Russian state and Church.  There were renowned eggs made from precious metals and jewels by Faberge, royal regalia containing the joint coronation throne of boy tsars Peter the Great and his half-brother, Ivan V, coaches and dresses and crowns worn by Elizabeth and Catherine the great, etc. There was so much to see it was exhausting!!!  Dima met us afterwards and we walked to a “typical” cafeteria where the locals ate dinner.  I chose spinach pancake/kasha/cabbage and cucumber salad and an almond paste cornet (mandelhornchen) which I remember loving when I lived in Germany.  We wandered the walking street before returning to the hotel…

In the morning we visited Lenin’s tomb in Red Square.   Lenin died in 1924 and pathologist Abrikosov had embalmed the body soon after Lenin’s death and he was first placed in a wooden coffin.  However, in 1929 it was determined possible to preserve the body much longer than usual and the next year a new Mausoleum of marble and granite was completed to house the newly embalmed Lenin.  More than 10 million people visited Lenin’s tomb between 1924 and 1972.  Afterwards we walked into the enormous GUM shopping mall with its beautiful glass dome, filled with cafes, restaurants and shops selling fashionable brand names.  On to St. Basil’s Cathedral built from 1555 – 61 and shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky.  Inside is a labyrinth of narrow vaulted corridors and walls covered with breathtaking murals.

With the afternoon free, I walked across the Moscow river to the Tretyakov gallery considered the foremost depository of Russian fine art in the world.  It is filled with paintings, portraits of famous Russians, sculptures and drawings.  Lunch around the corner at a little outdoor café of crepes filled with cheese and an espresso before strolling along the river to Gorky Park.  The park has lots of interesting outdoor sculptures and is a pleasant place to sit and relax.

Later in the early evening we all met at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guards and then set off for dinner.  Dima chose a cozy restaurant for us where we dined in the cellar and there were some great minstrels playing as we shared potato pancakes, pickled mushrooms, several salads.  One of the travelers picked up the tab for all which was a really nice gesture for our last night together – how time does fly!

After breakfast I transferred to my new hotel Maxima Panorma and walked DIRECTLY into the hotel from the metro – so veryy convenient.  Next I visited the Novodevichy convent and cemetery founded in 1524 as a haven for wayward wives, sisters and daughters.  Peter the great deposed his half-sister Sofia and confined her to this convent for life along with his first wife!!!   There are several interesting buildings inside the convent walls, the oldest and most dominant of which is the white Smolensk Cathedral filled with beautiful frescoes and icons from the time of Boris Godunov.  Adjacent to the convent the Novedvichy Cemetery is among Moscow’s most prestigious resting places – a veritable “who’s who” of Russian politics and culture.  It is beautifully laid out and quite pleasant to wander among the tombstones.

I had planned to visit the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum but was told there were only replicas of fine art inside.  So, I visited the Museum of Private Collections next door instead and there was a fabulous exhibition of 19 and 20th century European art.  I was determined to have lunch (even though it would be a late one!!) at the elegant Café Pushkin (www.cafe-pushkin.ru) set in a lovely 19th century building with a different atmosphere on each floor, including a richly decorated library.  I “dined” downstairs by the window and had the most delicious (and most expensive!) slightly warm cheese stuffed pancakes yet, this time served with hot fruit – yum!!!  I wandered on down the lovely little tree-lined Tverskoy street and stepped into Nedalny Vostok Restaurant which I had heard was excellent.  It looked wonderful so I decided to come back later for dinner.

Although the famous Bolshoi theatre, a landmark of Moscow and Russia, was closed for the season I wanted to see it anyway so walked down Tverskaya Street, one of the main shopping streets in Moscow to have a look. I did return to Nedalny Vostok which was a cozy wood lined “café” with fresh fish, fruits and vegetables on display as well as an open kitchen.  There were three stations serving different cuisines, i.e. Japanese, Chinese and Fusion.  The Australian chef was not there so I tried to explain that I was a chef from California and just wanted to try a few dishes.  They were soo very nice.  They sat me down at a nice table, gave me a menu and then brought me first a crab salad, followed by delicious crunchy spicy shrimp with crisp noodles and finally a perfectly cooked filet of fresh fish with an olive, tomato and red onion sauce.  When I tried to pay they said it was complimentary and thanks for coming!!!  I couldn’t believe my good fortune – a perfect ending to my stay in Moscow as that was my very last night…

In the morning I walked around my new neighborhood before having a wonderful breakfast at the hotel.  I took along some croissants and cheese for my train ride to St. Petersburg and easily found my way to the train station, thanks to the wonderful directions given to me by Dima.  I took the express train which only took 4 hours, had a lovely window seat and thoroughly enjoyed travelling through villages, seeing the lovely countryside and watching the Russian people going through their daily lives...  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Chocolate Almond Cake
½ lb. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, cut into pieces
8 large eggs, separated
1-1/4C sugar
3/4C toasted almonds
1 Tbsp. amaretto or water

sifted powdered sugar
1/2C cream beaten with sugar and vanilla to taste

Preheat oven to 325F.  Butter a 10-inch spring form pan and line with parchment paper.  Butter the paper.  Grind the almonds with two tablespoons of the sugar and set aside.  Melt the chocolate and butter in a pan set over simmering water until melted.  Let cool slightly.  Beat yolks and ¾ cup sugar until thick.  Add the chocolate mixture and liqueur to the yolk mixture.

Beat the whites until soft peaks form.  Add remaining sugar and beat until almost stiff peaks.  Fold nut mixture and whites, alternately, into the chocolate mixture.  Turn the batter into the prepared pan and bake until firm around the edges – about 55 minutes. Let cool.  Run a knife around the edges of the cake pan to let the cake fall evenly.  Remove the sides of the pan and let cool.

Transfer cake to a serving platter off the parchment, dust with sifted powdered sugar, slice and serve with whipped cream.

MAKES:  8 – 10 servings

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Goat cheese topped with warm apricot, cherry and chili chutney
8 oz. log goat cheese

2-1/2C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1-1/2C apple cider vinegar
1-1/2C sugar
1C chopped roasted, peeled poblano chilies
1/2C dried sweet cherries
1/2C chopped red onion
1 cinnamon stick (3 inches)
1-1/2 tsp. mustard seeds
½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. Italian parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
Italian parsley sprigs (garnish)


Combine all ingredients except Italian parsley leaves in a 3-quart pan and bring to a boil.  Turn heat to medium, partially cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture thickens – about 20 minutes.  Uncover and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated – about 5 minutes more.  Let cool, discard cinnamon stick and stir in Italian parsley leaves.

Preheat oven to 350F.  Place goat cheese in a glass dish and heat 5 minutes until just warm.  Transfer goat cheese to a platter and spoon some of the chutney on top.  Surround with crackers and garnish with Italian parsley sprigs.
MAKES:  8 – 10 servings

Friday, November 1, 2013

Silk Road – Uzbekistan – July/August 2013
Our intrepid group flew from Bishtek, Kyrgzstan to Tashkent, Uzbekistan to continue the rest of the silk road journey.  Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan and the largest city in central asia.  It gained its independence from Russia in 1991 and is noted for its tree lined streets and numerous fountains.  We stayed at the elegant Hotel Uzbekistan which was centrally located and close to the metro station.  The metro stations are very modern with beautiful Islamic themes.  We took a walk to the square nearby looking for a restaurant but it was late so there wasn’t much available.

In the morning I took a walk across the street to the enormous Amir Timur statute (he was a famous or perhaps infamous conqueror) before enjoying a delicious breakfast of spicy chickpeas, little rolls with cream cheese, eggs, cucumbers, etc. etc.  Our guide met us afterwards for a walking tour of Tashkent before it got too hot.  Most days it was about 110F!!!  We walked to the Independence Square to see the crying mother statue, constructed in 1999 to honor the 400,000 uzbek soldiers who died in WWII.  We also changed money which resulted in large packets of Uzebek som (2600 to $1).  Most of the notes were 100 som so it took wads of money to buy anything.  On to the Chorsu Bazaar filled with fruits, vegetables, warm breads, clothes, etc. and then into the old city with its mud brick houses.  We finally arrived at the Khast Imam square which contains a complex of mosques, the mausoleum of St. Kaffal Shaski, etc.  The buildings have been artfully restored with their turquoise domes and beautiful tile facades. 

Later in the afternoon my roommate and I walked to the Uzbek state museum of fine arts which had many beautiful examples of suzani embroidery.  Lunch at a little Mediterranean restaurant and then a metro ride to see the 1230 foot high TV tower (the eighth highest in the world).  Dinner was a little chicken potato pie and tea…

Early breakfast and then a 4 hour train ride to Samarkand, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.  Our hotel was in the old section near the bazaar.  Jolie took us on an orientation walk past the Registan, an enormous plaza with turquoise domed buildings all around – it used to be a meeting place along the silk road where goods were exchanged and travelers stayed.  Samarkand sat in a central position on the silk road between China and the West and in 1221 it was destroyed by Genghis Khan.  Timur (Tamerlane) made it his capital in 1370 and his grandson Ulugbek ruled until 1449.  Many of the buildings were also destroyed in the 18th century from earthquakes but most have been restored by UNESCO.  Lunch on one of the little streets – tomato/cucumber/onion salad and rice pilaf with carrots.  A few of us continued on to Tashkent Street, the main street in town to shop and then stopped for coffee and soft serve ice cream at a little outdoor café.  Inside was a very eclectic shop with unique art.  I bought a “belt” embroidered with little white buttons that I liked and then we wandered around the bazaar where they sold all sorts of nut candy and nougat, fruits, vegetables, etc. 

Once it cooled down a bit in the evening a guide took us to the Gur-E-Amir (Persian for “Tomb of the King”) Mausoleum where Timur, two sons and two grandsons lie beneath this beautifully restored building.  It is famous for its simplicity of construction crowned by a bright blue fluted dome.  Afterwards we stopped for dinner nearby.

In the morning I took a walk to the Registan and leisurely wandered around.  Our guide met us after breakfast and we walked through the farmer’s market to Bibi-Khanym Mosque, once one of the Islamic world’s biggest mosques.  It has slowly crumbled over the years and partially collapsed in the 1897 earthquake.  The interior courtyard contains an enormous marble Quran stand.  Legend says that Bibi, Timur’s Chinese wife ordered the mosque built while he was away.  Her own compact 14th century mausoleum across the street is rather drab in comparison.  On to Shah-I-Zinda, a stunning avenue of mausoleums which contain some of the richest tilework in the muslim world.  The name which means tomb of the living king, refers to its original holiest shrine – the grave of Kusam-Ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the prophet Mohammed.  Next we visited the Registan, an ensemble of three majestic, tiled madrasahs (Islamic schools).  It was medieval Samarkand’s commercial center and the plaza was probably a wall to wall bazaar.  The three great edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved madrasahs; anything older having been destroyed by Genghis Khan.  Afterwards I returned to the restaurant where we had dinner last night and shared rice pilaf with our intrepid guide.  We picked up a watermelon and shared it with some of the other travelers later for “dinner”.

In the morning after breakfast of some freshly baked flatbread and homemade jam we drove to Shakhrisaby, the birth place of Tamerlane.  We arrived at our home stay and divided up into the available rooms.  Even though it was verry hot we walked to the bazaar, stopping for some soft serve ice cream along the way.  Later in the afternoon we visited the Ak-saray palace built by Tamerlane and took 20 years to finish and a large statue of him as well.  Today only the entrance portals still stand in fine mosaic but even so it is very impressive in ruins.  There was a very old ferris wheel nearby which we rode on verrryyy slowllly…

About 6 p.m. our hostess began preparing “plov” (rice pilaf with carrots) in the courtyard using a cauldron placed over a wood fired stove.  We all took turns stirring the vegetables, adding the rice, etc. and finally covering the pot to let it simmer for 30 minutes.  It was delicious!!  She had added several whole heads of garlic which she squeezed into the rice for extra flavor.

In the morning we walked to Timor’s tomb and the tomb of his favorite son before heading to Bukhara, which was a part of the Persian Empire for a long time, about 5 hours away.  Walked across the street for a delicious lunch of lamb kebabs and cabbage/carrot/cucumber salad and then wandered around the city.  Walking tour later in the afternoon started in Lyab-I Hauz, a plaza built around a pond in 1620 where there is great bronze statue of Hoja Nasuddin “wise fool”.  On the east side is the Nadir Divanbegi Madrasha, built as a caravanserai and on the west side is Nadir Divanbegi Khanaka, a lodging house both with beautiful tile facades.  Walked through gates and passed by many other mosques and beautiful buildings, some of which now sell rugs and handicrafts inside.  The tour ended at the jewelry bazaar and after picking up an ice cream for dinner I turned in for the night.

In the morning we walked to the Kalon Minaret, almost 150 feet high with 14 ornamental bands – all different.  It was known as the Tower of Death, as for centuries criminals were executed by being hurled off the top.  On to the Kalon Mosque which is said to hold 10,000 people.  Its roof looks flat but actually consists of 288 domes. 

We also visited the Ark, a royal town within a town.  It was initially built and occupied around the 5th century AD and many times constructed and many times destroyed.  In 1920 it was greatly damaged by the Bolsheviks which left a large part of the structure in ruins.  It is now a museum with a vast reception and coronation court, open air royal stables, robes worn by the emir, etc.

Later in the afternoon I stopped by the carpet museum located in the very old Magok-I Attari mosque.  Inside were some fine examples of Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazkh, etc. rugs and pocket bags which drape over horses’ backs.  The Fine Arts Museum was also very interesting with many fine paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries.  Finally, I decided to seek out the Jewish Cemetery and did actually find it!!  After walking through the domed building topped with a star of David, I found the cemetery filled with very old tombs – so old that they looked just like stones.  Farther away were the more recent ones all rather jumbled together…In the evening we saw a cultural show in one of the Madrashas but it was rather lame and the dinner included was so bad that after the show I walked back to the restaurant where we had had the delicious lamb kebabs and had dinner there!!  Walked around the pond one last time as we would be leaving for Tashkent in the morning….

The train to Tashkent took all day and we arrived in time to shower and say good-bye to some of our fellow travelers.  The remainder of us had dinner at a nearby Russian restaurant to prepare us for the next part of our adventure.  As it was Rick’s birthday our guide had brought a delicious cake for us to share.  That evening and for the remainder of the trip I had a room to myself!!!  Heaven!!!

The next day was a free day and I took the metro to the applied Arts Museum set in an old residential house.  There were some beautiful jewelry, old wall hangings, fabric paintings, etc.  I stopped by the bazaar again so I could really take my time wandering through the spice and vegetable sections and then back through the old city and the area where our guide had taken us before.  This time I could spend as long as I wanted savoring the beauty of the Madrashas covered in mosaics topped by elegant domes, etc. 

In the evening we met our new guide Dima who is from St. Petersburg and he would be leading us through Kazahkstan to Moscow.  There are only four of us (including Dima) continuing on and we had dinner together at Sim Sim where there was live music and great food.  We shared Greek salad, beet and cabbage salad, bread, pork, lamb and beef kebabs, eggplant/mushroom kebabs which was really fun.  And so the adventure continues….