Thursday Through the Lens: Alexandria

Picture of buildings in Alexandria, Egypt

View of Alexandria, Egypt


Putting Together the Pieces of the Terracotta Army

It’s 2010, and I’m entering the site of the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China. I’ve heard of the warriors accidentally unearthed in the 1970s, but don’t know much about the story. History classes in school had always been scant on Asian happenings, and so I have little idea going in as to why a clay army was buried in the middle of a field.

The story begins in 246 BC, when a 13-year-old boy named Zheng inherited his father’s throne over the ancient Chinese state of Qin. At the time, China was divided into many warring kingdoms that fought one another for control. Zheng wasn’t content ruling just his slice of the pie, and as soon as he came of age he began to seize control of neighboring territories. By 221 BC, he had conquered and unified all of the warring states. He renamed himself Qin Shi Huang—the first emperor of China.

Like the Egyptian pharaohs, Qin was obsessed with immortality. He demanded the construction of a giant tomb complete with its own army to protect him in the afterlife. Upwards of 700,000 builders helped create Qin’s final resting place. His underground mausoleum would contain an entire cityscape, complete with a palace, parks, and replicas of the rivers and features of the land above it. Ancient records speak of the complex containing bronze mountains and streams made of flowing mercury (and, indeed, the land around the buried army has been found to have an unusually high concentration of mercury).

Despite its opulence—or perhaps, because of it—Qin’s tomb and its guardians quickly fell into disrepair. For millennia, the story of Qin’s great tomb was nothing more than a cautionary tale. It wasn’t until 1974 when the digging of a well happened to unearth a buried terracotta warrior that Qin’s tomb became solid fact. Eventually, thousands of life-sized figures were excavated, including chariots, horses, and soldiers. More yet are still waiting to be found, as is Qin’s actual tomb, which is presumed to be located somewhere nearby.

It is extremely crowded the day I visit (though likely no more than usual). The other tourists swell around me as I enter the first pit—the largest of three archeological digs on site. The pit appears to be covered in a giant airplane hangar, and the surging crowd crawls to a stop right at its entrance.

Picture of the first pit housing the Terracotta Army in Xian China

View of the terracotta warriors from pit #1 entrance

Ahead of me are rows and rows and rows of life-size terracotta men in marching formation. Sprinkled throughout the sprawling mass of men are terracotta horses, slightly smaller than life-size but no less impressive. Not all the men have been reassembled after their 2000 years underground, and I can see further back broken clay pieces. (This pile of shards is an apt metaphor of my knowledge of Chinese history.)

It really is staggering to see the figures in person. It is said that no two faces are the same, and as I focus my lens on the statues, my camera’s face-detection system is lighting up. Little blue boxes appear over every terracotta head on my camera screen. It’s a little unnerving.

Picture of the terracotta warriors in Xian, China

The soldiers – notice how the one in the middle is staring right at the camera

The scope of the army is difficult to comprehend, and I don’t stick around the first pit for very long. As I walk to the back of the building, I watch the eyes of the statues. Some have heads tilted to stare right back at me. Also unnerving.

But the most unnerving surprise comes when I have finished seeing the giant horses, chariots, and thousands of soldiers. At the end of the tour, in a sort of regrouping area, there is a giant warrior marionette puppet holding the hand of a girl puppet. The warrior is giving the little girl serious side eye.

Picture of a huge, puppet terracotta warrior holding the hand of a little girl puppet

Pictured: something deeply discomforting

This creepy scene was inexplicably brought to me by Johnson & Johnson. To this day I have no idea why.

All in all, it is wonderful to see the army in person, and now my understanding of ancient Chinese history is a tad more complete. That said, the scale of the site rapidly overwhelms me, and I don’t feel very connected to the place. Some warriors are often loaned out to museums throughout the world; I think it might be more impactful to see just one warrior, really take the time to inspect it up close and marvel at the detail, rather than have your eyes glaze over as you try to take in the sight of thousands.

This year, the only US museum that will get to host a showing of the warriors is in Indianapolis – if you’re in the Midwest, I recommend stopping by!

Last 5 for the Next 5

I’ve been playing a thought game a lot recently. Say five years from now, I get overwhelmingly emersed in work, or family, or just life in general, and I never leave the USA again. If I only have five years of international travel left, what do I most want to see? What are my last five for the next five?

Hopefully I’ll still be exploring the world for many more decades, but I thought for posterity’s sake I’d still record my last-five-for-the-next-five answers. Some of these are personal and some obvious, but they are—in no particular order—the five faraway places I most want to visit in the next five years. Drumroll, please!

1. Galápagos Islands

Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, this Ecuadorian archipelago is best known for its wildlife. Here there are giant tortoises, flamingos, sea lions, penguins, whales, and more. Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835, and he, too, was captivated by the many different species. His experience with the finches in particular helped inform his theory of evolution. I want to see the birds that were instrumental in forming the basis of modern science, as well as the sandy beaches, lush vegetation, and volcanic mountains of their various homes.

2. Slovenia & Croatia

My maternal grandmother hails from this area, and I am naturally interested in seeing the homeland. But beyond that, the northern Balkans region looks to be achingly beautiful. In Slovenia, I most want to see the clear blue waters at Lake Bled; the raging underground rivers at Škocjan Caves; 700-year-old Predjama Castle; and Old Vine, the oldest grape-vine in the world. Croatia has Dubrovnik, with its old city walls and seaside views (it is also the stand-in for Kings Landing on Game of Thrones); the Istrian peninsula, known for its olive groves and hilltop villages; and the roaring waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes. The only problem would be deciding where to start!

3. New Zealand

Middle-earth and Flight of the Conchords. Need I say more?

4. Tanzania

The biggest drive for me here is the Serengeti. I want to feel the ground tremble as elephants plod passed, see a cheetah peeking through the grassy plains, or stare up at the Milky Way on a warm, clear night. After the Serengeti, I’d move on to see Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park. The adventure would be capped by relaxing on Zanzibar’s white beaches with a ginger beer in hand before visiting the historic Stone Town.

5. Guilin, China

I have been obsessed with Guilin’s scenery for about as long as I can remember. The narrow, jagged cliffs along the Li River look as though they belong on an alien world, and every picture I see causes a lump of excitement, of longing, to form in my throat. I want to see that! My God, how I want to see that. And I almost did when I was in China in 2010, until the flight there was delayed due to inclement weather. We waited in the airport for hours, not knowing that a major storm had settled over Guilin and was currently flooding the province. Eventually, we had to continue our Chinese tour sans Guilin. It has been my white whale ever since.

What are your five for the next five? Anything I’ve included here that you wouldn’t recommend? Why? Let me know in the comments!

Tuesday Tip: St. Paul’s Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the highlights of any London trip. Designed by Christopher Wren after the original structure was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666, the current cathedral is immediately recognizable due to its impressive crown-like dome.

Touring the inside of the church will set you back £16.50. There is a much more remarkable way to see the famous structure, however, and it won’t cost you a penny: attend Evensong.

Evensong is an evening worship service. It is completely free and open to the public. On weekdays it starts around 5 PM, and if you get there early enough you may be selected to sit in the Quire, or the clergy seats. You will tread where few people are ever allowed to set foot and sit on benches dating to the 17th century. You can glimpse the soaring ceilings and marvel at the intricate wood work of the clergy stalls while a beautiful choir sings beside you. Best of all, you’ll have an experience that virtually no tourist–or even local Londoner–has known.

No matter how you visit, note that photography is not permitted inside the church. Please also remember that St. Paul’s is a working place of worship.

Southern Virginia’s Hidden History

The cliffs peel back after a heavy rain, revealing shells that have not been warmed by sunlight in at least five million years. A shard of pottery washes ashore. Thrust into the kiln centuries ago, it was last felt by human hands around the time that John Hancock scratched his name across the Declaration of Independence. The nearby Historic Triangle may grab the press, but a hidden microcosm of American history sits just across Virginia’s James River at Chippokes Plantation State Park.

Established in 1619 as a farm for Jamestown, America’s first successful English settlement, Chippokes offers a rarely visited view of bygone Virginia. Here you can catch a peak of Algonquin homeland while walking the many acres of a 400-year-old working farm. There is the plantation house to tour, a forestry museum to visit, and an English-style garden to explore. The state park also has hiking trails, kayaking routes, and places to picnic.

When I arrive with two friends on a sunny spring day, however, I am completely unaware of Chippokes’ comparatively modern history. What I’ve instead come for are the fossils. Millions of years ago in the Miocene era, much of Virginia and Maryland were under water. Prehistoric marine animals called this area their home, and we’re hoping to find a fossilized remnant of them.

I’ve given the park a call that morning to confirm there will be fossils. When I ask if we can keep what we find, the confused park ranger tells me that so long as we don’t discover an entire prehistoric animal, we can keep it. If we find an intact dolphin skeleton or something, though, the paleontologists are going to want it. We might find a whole animal? Holy crap! We’re giddy.

It’s the weekend, and yet Chippokes is nearly devoid of visitors. We easily find parking and make our way to the James River. In a few minutes, we and a handful of other fossil hunters are along the river’s sandy beach. It doesn’t take long before we find what we’re looking for: a recent rain has stripped off the outermost layer of the modest cliffs along the river, revealing hundreds, thousands, of prehistoric shells.

Picture of Miocene-era fossils found in the cliffs at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

Deposit of Miocene-era fossils, sticking out of the cliffs along the river

We can’t walk but a few feet without tripping over fossils that have not seen the light of day in millions of years. We pick up shells, carry them for a few yards, and then switch those out for better specimens. My friends find a complete clam shell—top and bottom—while I am drawn to fossilized barnacles. What we are most hoping to find, though, are sharks teeth.

Another group of fossil hunters gives us a tip that teeth tend to collect along a sandy outcrop farther down the beach. They tell us they once found a tooth as large as a man’s hand. We’re psyched and traipse down the sand. We search and search, but the only things we find are more million-years-old shells—how blasé we’ve become.

Picture of the beach along the James River at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

Down the river

One run-in with a small water snake later, we give up on this part of the beach and hike down to the other side. Along the way we pass a herd (gaggle? pride?) of sand crabs, who scurry away as soon as they hear our footsteps, and a giant brown snake whose memory will haunt me until the day I die.

At the other end of the beach, we find more excellent shells but sadly, no teeth. Finally we call it a day.

Picture of fossils and other items found along the James River at Chippokes State Park in Virginia

My catch: ancient shells, fossilized barnacles, a piece of metal (naturally occurring, I think), and a chunk of brick.

I am pleased with our discoveries but also secretly heartbroken. We make plans to return and continue our quest for the elusive megalodon.

However, the time to visit these important treasures is fading. Southern Virginia is critically threatened by climate change, and Chippokes may soon be lost to rising tides. If you get the chance to visit Chippokes, don’t wait! There really is something for everyone—camping, historical homes, river walks, and, of course, fossils.

But if you find a shark’s tooth, that bad boy better go in the mail for me.

Seeing Chengdu’s Giant Pandas

I was a bit nervous to see our 28-day China tour included a visit to Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center. I dislike the idea of zoos, and I have heard many a horror story about Asian zoos in particular. The day we visit the pandas I’m skeptical but cautiously excited to see animals in their natural habitat.

The Panda Research Base is in a misty forest just outside of Chengdu, Sichuan province. The center is dedicated to environmental protection, and the site completely awes me with its animal-focused design. Signs caution visitors not to speak above a whisper, not to use flash photography, and not to smoke anywhere on the premise. I think of the absolute din found at DC’s National Zoo and am impressed that such care has been taken to ensure the pandas have peace.

Picture of mother panda and her cub at Chengdu's Panda Research Center

Mother and cub – this looks zoo-y, but there’s actually a small forest to the left

I am also beyond relieved to see the panda enclosures are not concrete cells, but rather giant expanses of forest in which pandas can hide, climb trees, and forage for food. Streams run through some of the sections, while dens of rocks and plants have been built to give the animals privacy. In several areas, we see no animals at all, as the pandas have acres of land to roam and forest in which to hide.

When we do see pandas, it is because the center’s staff has placed bamboo treats close to the visitor walkway. With no one speaking above a whisper and no glass separating us, we can hear the crunch and tear of bamboo, the little noises the adolescent pandas make to one another. I feel as though I am peeking into their home.

Picture of pandas eating bamboo at Chengdu's Panda Research Base

Juvenile pandas munching on bamboo

The Panda Research Base is truly a sanctuary, not a zoo. Rather than cater toward visitor amusement, it caters to the animals. I feel so much better when we leave, no longer fearing for these pandas. I can’t help but wonder, though, of the animals loaned out by the center to zoos around the world. They may have a peaceful sanctuary in Chengdu, but what exists for them in other countries? The forests of Chengdu is their natural home. I dislike the idea of trading them like commodities, of the stress of travel and the anxiety of a new location that is not a sanctuary like in Chengdu. My hope is that one day all pandas (all wild animals, really) can live out their lives in their natural habitat, where they truly belong.

Have you seen the pandas at Chengdu? What did you think?

Finding Fare at Belvedere Square

I’m probably the last person in Maryland to eat at Atwater’s. The bakery has locations throughout the Baltimore region, and it just received a reader’s award from Baltimore Magazine. I’ve been close to its Belvedere Square location multiple times, but I’m usually immediately taken in by the deliciousness at nearby Egyptian Pizza (they have koshari! but that’s a blog post for another day) or pints at Ryan’s Daughter. I figure it’s time to give the famous Atwater’s a shot.

It’s not even noon yet on a Saturday, and the Belvedere Square Marketis already hopping. I walk through crowds of people to look over Atwater’s offerings of the day. I imagine their food options are overwhelming for most people. For a vegan, though, I find selection to be limited. The daily menu has only salads and a gazpacho. I want something heartier. It’s pretty disappointing, although honestly it’s my own fault as Atwater’s is mostly known for their soups. I could get one of their vegetarian sandwiches and hold all the non-vegan parts (cheese, spreads, etc.), but I don’t feel as though that will be an accurate representation of the food’s quality. And so I end up not actually eating at Atwater’s.

I find a different stall, Neopol, in the market area. Its display case is loaded with fish and other meats, but it is also selling a smoked-tofu salad and raw kale. It’s typical vegan fare, but slightly better than Atwater’s salads and surprising to exist at all at a place specializing in smoked meats. I’m also a sucker for anything smoked. I’m told the tofu might have honey in it, so those who don’t want to take the chance will find their options even more limited. I risk it.

Picture of smoked-tofu salad at Neopol's in Belvedere Square Market in Baltimore

The spicy, smoky tofu

The tofu tastes of warm hickory and is loaded with black pepper. There are slivers of red and yellow pepper and onion, but the flavor is overwhelmingly smoke and spice. I don’t taste honey at all. Frankly, I’m initially more concerned there’s something meaty lending its juices to the smoky taste, but then I realize it’s just liquid smoke. The tofu is nice and firm, and it is steeped in warm flavors. Unlike some places that don’t know what to do with tofu, here the cubes aren’t just raw, slimy protein that have been dumped into the platter at the last second. It tastes good and quickly fills me up. Again, for a place selling smoked meats, the tasty tofu is a happy surprise. But if there really is honey in it, I hope Neopol considers dropping that ingredient. It adds nothing to the dish, as far as I can tell, and cuts out customers who abstain from the animal-produced item.

Picture of raw kale salad from Neopol's in Belvedere Square Market, Baltimore

The raw kale salad

The raw kale has an initial citrus flavor. I take a bite of something that I think is lemon and find out it is a giant hunk of ginger. Now all I taste in the spicy root; it’s not unpleasant but it does overwhelm the rest of the dish. The kale itself is pretty tender and easy to chew. I can’t taste it all now, though. I end up not finishing the side dish, more because of the filling tofu than the overwhelming ginger.

It’s a little over $9 for a helping of raw kale, the tasty tofu, and homemade cardamom lemonade. (The lemonade is very refreshing and not too sweet, but I can’t find the cardamom. Maybe I don’t know what cardamom tastes like.) I didn’t notice at the time, but Neopol also sells a vegetarian plate that appears to be entirely vegan (unless the tofu really does have honey): smoked hummus, tofu, olives, and seasonal vegetables. That sounds delicious, and I hope it’s still available the next time I go to Belvedere.

The tables are filled with people sipping wine and mimosas. I am pretentiously typing away on my laptop and see another lone individual on his computer. We give each other knowing nods. It’s a sunny, warm day; not humid and with a gentle breeze. I’m lucky to have snagged a spot outside, though I think I’m stealing it from Atwater’s. Whoops.

So, I guess I’m still the only person in Maryland who hasn’t tried Atwater’s. Maybe next time, if I can be lured away from the promise of smoked hummus and olives. Mmm. Don’t hold your breath.

Top 5 Drinkeries in Northwest DC

Washington, DC, is positively busting with bars and pubs. There are so many from which to choose, in fact, that it can be difficult to weed through the masses. The following establishments are close enough to the usual sightseeing haunts to be accessible for visitors, but are far enough away not to be overrun by tourists. Try one out the next time you’re in town for a more-authentic DC experience!

1. L’Enfant Café
2000 18th St NW; Red Line, Dupont Circle

If the metal replica of the Eiffel Tower on its roof doesn’t lure you in, L’Enfant Café’s quaint outdoor seating will. The French-style bistro owns prime real estate on the corner of Florida and 18th, and underneath its patio umbrellas is the perfect place to watch DC’s comings and goings. The menu offers a range of both Provençal and northern fare; however, those who abstain from animal products will not find much beyond pommes frites. Perhaps more appealing are the beer selection—which includes mostly European ales—and wine list—which draws heavily from France. Prices are fairly standard for the area and certainly more reasonable than Paris.

2. Fox and Hounds
1537 17th St NW; Red Line, Dupont Circle

This dive-y bar fills up quickly on weekday afternoons as DC’s federal workforce swarms to its doors. Get there early enough, though, and you’ll be able to take advantage of the unbeatable happy hour discounts: For four bucks, the bartender will fill a water glass with rail alcohol of your choosing and hand you a small, glass bottle of your mixer. You control the potency; you control your hangover. The grub is good, too, with next-door restaurant Trio supplying the food. Sit outside and watch the people, or stay inside to watch the game. Either way, just be sure to take it easy on those mixed drinks – they sneak up fast!

3. Russia House
1800 Connecticut Ave NW; Red Line, Dupont Circle

All manner of Russian stereotypes can be found within this elegant townhouse just down the block from the Dupont Hilton. There’s the moody lounge itself: lushly appointed with dark wood and red fabric, heavy drapes blocking out the sunlight. There’s the food: the menu boasting borsch, blinis, and $100+ caviar (vegans will be completely left in the dust). And then there’s the vodka. The vodka listing is its own booklet, including every possible type of the clear alcohol. Try potato vodka from Poland or wheat vodka from Ukraine. Feel better about yourself with an organic or gluten-free sample, or splurge on an unusual flavor like Rye Bread, Chipotle, or Salted Caramel. If straight vodka’s not your thing, you can also have any vodka made into a mixed drink. Regular prices are on the high side (shots averaging about $10 a pop), so shoot for happy hour to save yourself a few bucks.

4. Vapiano
1800 M St NW; Red Line, Farragut North

Vapiano is a German chain, and its M Street location is surrounded by office buildings and parking garages. Despite this, it is one of the best places to eat and drink in northwest DC. Upon entering, each customer is handed a meal card with which to ring up food and drinks during the evening. (At the end of the meal, simply hand back the card at the cash register and pay—as everyone will have his or her own card, there are no separate checks and no pesky tasks like splitting up the bill.) To the right, sleek counters and chalk menus tempt customers with soul food, Italian-style: antipasti, hearty pizzas, and fresh pasta. Everything is made to order, and the innumerous possible ingredient combinations mean everyone will find something to enjoy. The lounge offers a wide selection of wines and spirits and a few happy hour deals. There is ample seating inside and out; that said, it is a favorite among the suit-clad Washingtonians who work in this area and it is best to get there early.

5. Cleveland Park Bar and Grill
3421 Connecticut Ave NW; Red Line, Cleveland Park

At first blush, Cleveland Park Bar and Grill appears to be nothing more than a large sports bar, its walls lined with television screens broadcasting numerous games. That’s because the real action is on the roof: Head through the bar to the fairly hidden staircase at its back. Once you climb to the top, you’ll enjoy great views and a more-relaxed crowd while still partaking in a wide range of beers at reasonable prices. The menu isn’t terribly extensive, but the restricted eater should be able to find one or two options. And, like most DC places, there is a happy hour, although those looking for discounted imports will be disappointed. Get there as early as you can to secure a seat, and then sip on your drink as you watch night fall on the city.

What’s your favorite DC drinkery?

Marooned in Mykonos

Picture of one of the Cyclades islands seen while on the ferry from Athens to Mykonos

The passing Cyclades

The Cyclades are a barren place. I’m on a slow ferry from Athens to Mykonos, and I’m struck by the lifelessness of the jagged chunks of rock we pass. The happy white-and-blue buildings only seem to highlight the blackness of the land below.

Mykonos’ harbor is less active than I expected, a few small fishing vessels darting out to sea, a flock of pelicans searching the beach for snacks. A row of large windmills overlooks the harbor, the blades turning at a leisurely island pace.

Picture of the harbor at Mykonos, Greece

Mykonos harbor

Picture of pelicans and fishing boats along the harbor at Mykonos, Greece

Along the harbor

It’s off season for the holiday hotspot. My friends and I are staying across the island on Paradise Beach, normally an alcohol-infused party destination, but now the area is completely dead. Our room costs €100 less a night than high-season prices, and we have the beach almost completely to ourselves. The only downside is that we’re stuck taking taxis or the infrequent bus between the beach and the town, Chora. There are endless fields of rocks and lizards on the dusty road to Chora, but not much else.

In the town, it’s almost all locals, and many shops are closed for the season. Some townspeople are taking advantage of the tourist lull to repaint their houses and businesses the brilliant white so indicative of Greek architecture.

Picture of the white buildings and walkways along Mykonos, Greece

In Chora

One white wall has been vandalized by thin, black words: “You lika da Greek?”

The beach bar is closed, so we try to find some drinks in town to take back. A corner grocer is stocked with giant, used water bottles that some clever person has refilled with homemade wine. There are two options: white or red. Why not? We get one of each.

We crack into the wine back at the beach. It’s…not good, but we press on regardless. That night, we sit next to the water and stare at the stars while locals hold a party lit by torch light at the other end of the beach. It is so good to just relax.

Picture of Paradise Beach in Mykonos, Greece

On the beach

The next day we go swimming in the warm, blue sea. Several yards out there is a coral shelf that I sit on while my friends continue to swim. The waves knock me around against the breaker, and I enjoyed letting the water sweep me forward and back again. It’s not until later that I notice the coral has scratched the hell out of my thighs and wrists. Soon, giant, painful welts have risen all over my body. (I’m sure you’re disappointed, but I didn’t take a picture of the fiendish things.) When I take a shower, the pelting water against my skin brings tears to my eyes.

Back in town, I try to explain to a pharmacist what has happened, but he doesn’t speak English. (And, to my infinite shame, I don’t speak Greek.) I show him the red bumps on my wrist. His eyes widen as he immediately hands me a tube of hydrocortisone. The bumpy return ride to the beach is excruciating as the seat bangs against the back of my thighs. When I am finally able to coat my skin with cream, I almost cry in relief. (The stinging will eventually go down, but the patchy redness will not fade for more than six months. I find out much later that the culprit was fire coral, which is not coral at all but rather a relative of jellyfish. Beware the coral shelf at Paradise!)

We are all disappointed when our time at Mykonos comes to an end. Despite new lesions and the lingering effects of bathtub wine, the island undoubtedly was the highlight of the trip.

You lika da Greek?” I guess I do.