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Flying Iceland Air from Denver, Colorado, USA to Frankfurt Germany

Looking for the lowest priced fare from Denver to Germany this summer, I decided to give Iceland Air a try. At less than $700 one-way, the price was half that of one-way tickets on the major airlines.

The Germany flight makes a stop-over in Reykjavik Iceland for a quick plane change. In addition to a low fare, flying them was a good excuse to land in a country where I had never been before.

As it turned out, both the flight itself and the airline were great. The flight between Denver and Reykjavik was just six hours (short by international standards). The second flight to Frankfurt DE was only 3.5 hours more. Stretching the legs for an hour in Reykjavik was actually a welcomed break. The seats are soft leather and the airline blankets are soft and fluffy.

The planes were very clean and comfortable. They even moved me into an emergency exit row seat on the first flight, then allowed me to move to that row on the second flight, after I asked. United and Lufthansa will not do that because passengers must pay for the privilege of sitting in these exit rows.

My only “complaint” was that they don’t mention on their website (or perhaps it was because I was not looking for it) that there are no free food or drinks (other than water, coke, tea, etc.) included in the price of the ticket. You must buy your meal and alcohol beverages on the plane or bring the food with you. Had I known that, I would have brought a sandwich from Colorado. Next time, I will know.

Even buying the food was reasonably priced, however, as I got a ham/cheese on baguette … with a small tube of “Pringles” for €7. Little wines were €5 each… so the entire “meal” cost me €17… That’s not bad… but I still would have preferred to bring my own food. I’ll do that next time.

They also charge for headphones. I thought I would use my own, but for some reason they didn’t work on the plane… The flight attendant ending up giving me a pair for free (another “plus” on the scorecard.)

The phones they gave me are comfortable “in ear” models and come in a little zipper case… So I’ll save them to use again. There was a wide range of movies, TV, documentaries, music, etc. from which to choose. (Once you have headphones, the entertainment is free.)

A guy sitting in my same row on the first flight was on his way to Paris for the wedding of a friend. He was spending 3 days in Reykjavik before flying on to Paris. According to him, the airline allows passengers to spend up to a week in Reykjavik before continuing their journeys, at no extra charge. He didn’t know for sure, however, if this is the airline’s normal policy or if it was a special promotion. That’s something worth checking out for the future. What better way to explore an interesting city at no extra charge (excluding food/lodging, of course)?

Iceland reminds me very much of Alaska with its heavy overcast skies and a very cool temperatures. I think it was only 7C or so outside when we walked across the tarmac to the plane.

Like Alaska, Reykjavik has long summer nights. In fact, the sun did not entirely set as we flew there. Instead, there was a long beautiful “red sunset/dawn” outside the aircraft windows as we approached Reykjavik. I’ve seen this type of sky many times in Alaska. It was pleasantly deja-vu-ish to see it again.

They do stamp your passport when you arrive in Iceland… so now I can officially say I have been to Iceland!

I would highly recommend this airline for anyone looking for a reasonable fare from certain US cities to Europe. The price is good, the service excellent, and the adventure factor is there too.

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The beautiful “red sunset/dawn” outside the aircraft windows as we approached Reykjavik.

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The heavy low-lying clouds and cool temperatures are very “Alaska-esk”.

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There is a good reason most people were wearing coats. Although it was 17 July, it was only about 7 C outside.

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The authorities in Reykjavik stamp your passport even if it just to switch planes, proving you have been to Iceland.

The authorities in Reykjavik stamp your passport even if you are just switching planes, proving you have been to Iceland.

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Sandstorm sends air quality index in Xi’an to 5 times the “Hazardous” level

Yesterday (Friday, 8 March, 2013) was very warm at 30C here in Xi’an. (That’s 86 F for the metrically challenged among you.) It was sunny and nice… But today is really horrible.

I just checked the “air quality index” for Xi’an. … Anything over 300 is rated as “hazardous” … Xi’an is currently at 1532! The temperature dropped by at least 10C from the yesterday.

The picture was taken at 4:00 p.m. … normally the “sunniest” part of the day.

The sand and dirt was so think, it blocked out the sun.

The sand and dirt was so think, it blocked out the sun.

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Now I know why I notified my boss yesterday I won’t be returning for a third year.

As it turned out, it was a dust/sand storm. I see Beijing (900 km / 560 mi away) also got hit. If there was any warning of the storms approach, I certainly didn’t see it. … I only saw this “after the fact” on the China News Daily website. Apparently the warning was issued on Friday: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013-03/09/content_16293305.htm

It really was quite amazing to see.

Tidbits from this week in Xi’an

Here are just a few odds-n-end shots from Xi’an this week. (Today is Friday, 8 March, 2013)

Springtime has arrived early. Yesterday the temperature was 28C (82.4 F for the metrically challenged). The blooming trees on campus are getting their flowers and some of the trees are greening up as well.

The willow trees have already turned green here in Xi'an. Yes... That's my bike "Shelia" in the photo.

The willow trees have already turned green here in Xi’an. Yes… That’s my bike “Sheila” in the photo.

Here's a little more inclusive shot of the willow trees with the Jiaotong University sports hall in the background.

Here’s a little more inclusive shot of the willow trees with the Jiaotong University sports hall in the background.

I don't know the name of this tree (will find out later)... but the white flowers are beautiful and BIG.

I don’t know the name of this tree (will find out later)… but the white flowers are beautiful and BIG. That’s part of the music school in the background (which sits directly in front of the foreign language school where I work.)

The white blossoms are 10-12 cm in diameter... Very pretty!

The white blossoms are 10-12 cm in diameter… Very pretty!

These smaller pink flowers on some of the trees in the park near the sports hall are also nice. They are about 5 cm in diameter.

These smaller pink flowers on some of the trees in the park near the sports hall are also nice. They are about 5 cm in diameter.

Switching gears now… Here are a couple of meals I had this week…

I bought this meal in the employee cafeteria yesterday... All of this food cost only 5.5 RMB... That's just €0.68 ($0.88). Such a deal!

I bought this meal in the employee cafeteria yesterday… All of this food cost only 5.5 RMB… That’s just €0.68 ($0.88). Such a deal!

My friend and coworker Ksenia (Russian teacher) cooked home-made Russian borsch for several of us last Saturday night. I’m working on a youTube video which I will post in a few days… but for now here are a couple of quick pix.

We had a great time, eating Russian food and singing Russian traditional songs. Thanks Ksenia!

Ksenia is second from the right. On her left is her friend Nina from Russia. On her right is my friend Li Li. On (our) left is Marie, one of the French teachers.

Ksenia is second from the right. On her left is her friend Nina from Russia. On her right is my friend Li Li. On (our) left is Marie, one of the French teachers.

Ksenia cooked fresh Russian borsch and also served Russian sausage, Russian cheese, and gave out some Russian chocolates she had just recently brought back from Vladivostok, Russia. We shared some French and Chinese wines and Chinese beer. Great!

Ksenia cooked fresh Russian borsch and also served Russian sausage, Russian cheese, and gave out some Russian chocolates she had just recently brought back from Vladivostok, Russia. We shared some French and Chinese wines and Chinese beer. Great!

Again… I’ll finish my youTube video on Kesnia’s borsch party in a few days.

Until then… Happy Springtime!

Pigeon head soup anyone?

Ok… Just a very short post today. My friend 张丽 (aka: Zhang Li, aka: Li Li, aka: Joly) invited me to the restaurant where she works today. Like so many good restaurants in Xi’an, the menu resembles a large photo album. I’m especially fond of the many cold salads and hot veggie dishes.

I’m not overly fond of the meat dishes. The fish is often a variety we seldom eat in the west (such as carp) and is riddled with bones. And the chicken… Well, let’s just say most of my expat friends simply refer to it as “Chain Saw Chicken”. (You get the picture.)

But this item on the menu takes the prize for today. It’s called “Heat Soup” but in reality is “Pigeon Head Soup”.

Anthony Bourdain (the Kitchen Confidential guy) would be turning over in his grave about now, were he already dead, accusing me of being just another squeamish American who is afraid to try any food outside our cultural comfort zone. … But I’m not you, Anthony… ok?

The bottom line is that I passed on the soup.

(Click once on a photo for a larger view… click a second time for a full-sized view.)

Pigeon heads... They're not just for breakfast anymore.

Pigeon heads… They’re not just for breakfast anymore.

That’s all for today!

A day with Meng and Sebastian… walking through Xi’an China’s Muslim Quarter and tea tasting along the old city wall.

Last week my newlywed friends Sebastian and Meng (English name Mona) joined me for a day exploring the Muslim Quarter followed by some tea tasting near the old city wall South Gate in Xi’an, China. The Muslim Quarter (Most famously, “Muslim Street”) is located next to the city center’s Bell Tower which itself is smack in the middle of the 16 km circumference old city wall in Xi’an. (It’s China’s oldest intact city wall.)

We began our adventure strolling past the many shops in the Muslim Quarter.

(Click once on a photo for a larger view… click a second time for a full-sized view.)

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Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Mona and Sebastian found a shop where they could buy some nuts as gifts for the Chinese New Year.

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Mona wanted to visit a “hole in the wall bakery” that is a local favorite, so we found the unassuming looking entryway a couple of streets away…

Entry into the alley where the bakery is located. Walk though the open doorway, turn right at the back wall, turn left at the next wall... and the bakery is at the far end on your right.

Entry into the alley where the bakery is located. Walk though the open doorway, turn right at the back wall, turn left at the next wall… and the bakery is at the far end on your right.

Almost there... It's the small doorway on the right under the yellow sign...

Almost there… It’s the small doorway on the right under the yellow sign… Let’s sneak up those stairs a bit to see if we can sneak a peak inside before we enter…

Ok... Starting up the stairs now... I think I might be able to peak through the window if I go a bit farther...

Ok… Starting up the stairs now… I think I might be able to peak through the window if I go a bit farther…

I can see the smiles on peoples' faces and hear the lively chatter inside. The room is obviously tiny, yet I hear 20 or 30 voices. (I must admit I feel like a bit of a voyeur at this point.)

The smiles on peoples’ faces and hear the lively chatter inside are impossible to miss. The room is obviously tiny, yet I hear 20 or 30 cheerful voices. (I must admit I feel like a bit of a voyeur at this point.)

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Ah… So that’s what the hubbub is all about… Sweet treats popular with the locals, especially for the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations a week away.

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So Mona and Sebastian made their purchases after which we made our escape back down the winding corridor. (See video)

We got back out on the street and decided to pick up a few more types of nuts and dried fruit…

So we head on down the street where Mona stops to pick up a few peanuts....

We head on down the street where Mona stops to pick up a few peanuts….

We decided to skip the ram's head and various other unidentifiable internal parts. (I've always wondered what the Chinese do with the good cuts of meat, as the unsavory ones are all I ever see.)

We decided to skip the ram’s head and various other unidentifiable internal parts. (I’ve always wondered what the Chinese do with the good cuts of meat, as the unsavory ones are all I ever see.)

The nuts and dried fruit are great, however. Here Mona cuts a deal on some dried kiwi. Yum!

The nuts and dried fruit are great, however. Here Mona cuts a deal on some dried kiwi. Yum!

Luckily we were there on a weekday, so it wasn't (ahem) crowded. Seriously though, it would have been much worse on a weekend.

Luckily we were there on a weekday, so it wasn’t (ahem) crowded. Seriously though, it would have been much worse on a weekend.

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We strolled on down the street. By then Meng and Sebastian were beginning to get hungry, so we looked for a good place for some soup. There were many from which to choose.

We strolled on down the street. By then Meng and Sebastian were beginning to get hungry, so we looked for a good place for some soup. There were many from which to choose.

This place looked interesting but was way too crowded.

This place looked interesting but was way too crowded.

Ah... This looks more like it... But let's keep going a little farther...

Ah… This looks more like it… But let’s keep going a little farther…

Finally we found a little soup shop a short distance from the main crowd… Here we enjoy some traditional Muslim soup.

(See video)

(In case you couldn’t read it in the video, I was pointing out that all trikes, motorcycles and motor scooters in the inner city must be battery powered. No gasoline models allowed.)

Back into the bedlam...

Back into the din…

We decided to head out of the Muslim Quarter so took a narrow street leading back to the Drum Tower. That was somewhat of a mistake, as the street was clearly too narrow to accommodate the hordes of people, carts, and electric motorcycles trying to occupy the same space at the same time… The video demonstrates that point…

Can you spot the guy with the bump on the back of his head… and the middle aged woman who has a little bunny logo on the front of her coat? (For some reason, many Chinese women seem to feel “cutesie” never goes out of style, even when it is no longer age appropriate.)

We survived the overcrowded street, finding this side street which lead us back to the Great Mosque.

We survived the overcrowded street, finding this side street which lead us back to the Great Mosque.

We then made our way past the Great Mosque, out of Muslim Street and into the circular tunnel lying beneath the Bell Tower. Emerging on the other side, we walked east to a big book store where we browsed the racks for about thirty minutes.

Eager to get on to the tea shop, we left the bookstore and traveled through a tourist market (catering more to Chinese nationals than to foreigners), before finally arriving at the tea shop. The shop sits just inside the South Gate of the old city wall.

At last... Arrival at the tea shop!

At last… Arrival at the tea shop!

Mona and Sebastian are first inside.

Mona and Sebastian are first inside.

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Our hostess greets us and starts preparing various teas for us to sample.

The first pour of the hot water onto the tea is considered too bitter to drink... so it is used to wash the cups.

The first pour of the hot water onto the tea is considered too bitter to drink… so it is used to wash the cups.

Entire books have been written on tea culture and the proper way to serve tea, so there is no way to cover that here. Having said that, here are a few of the most basic of rules:

  • Tea (including the leaves) is meant to be seen as well as tasted and smelled… so no self respecting Chinese person would consider making tea with a tea bag.
  • Unlike in the west where we pour hot water onto the tea once, then throw away the leaves, in China the “first pour” is considered too bitter to drink. For that reason, the tea from the first brewing is used only to wash the cups. Some people believe that the subsequent pours (2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.) all have their own unique qualities. They laugh a little at Westerners who throw away the tea leaves after the first brewing.
  • Drinking tea is as much about the ritual and the companionship as it is the tea itself. Don’t be in any rush. Take your time and savor it and each others company.
Nice shot of your hand, there, Sebastian! :-)

Nice shot of your hand, there, Sebastian! 🙂

One of my favourite teas... an oolong with flower petals mixed in.

One of my favourite teas… an oolong with flower petals mixed in.

Let’s take a little look at the video…

Treasures in hand, Mona and Sebastian exit the shop...

Treasures in hand, Mona and Sebastian exit the shop…

With the city wall directly to our left, we decided to walk though it for the shortest route home.We could have taken the bus but it was too beautiful of  a a day for that.

With the city wall directly to our left, we decided to walk though it for the shortest route home.
We could have taken the bus but it was too beautiful of a a day for that.

Just on the other side of the wall, we stopped for one last photo before walking home.

Just on the other side of the wall, we stopped for one last photo before walking home.
The red decorations on the wall are for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration.

One last thanks to Meng and Sebastian for the great day! 新年快樂!!!

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An èrhú (Chinese violin) in Xi’an, China – 2 January, 2013

I have just a short post for you today…

While trading guitar tunes with the owner of a small music shop in Xi’an, China, an èrhú player came by and showed off his chops. He has amazing technique, including a killer vibrato. It was a treat to sit only 3 feet away and observe how the instrument is played.

An èrhú (Chinese violin) player in Xi'an, China - 2 January, 2013

An èrhú (Chinese violin) player in Xi’an, China – 2 January, 2013

Here’s what the instrument looks like. Notice it has only two strings. They are tuned in harmony to each other then played together (think of two-string sets on a 12 string guitar).

Chinese èrhú

That’s all for today!

More Xi’an Street Food in Winter

Just as I promised, here are more shots of the street food vendors near my apartment here in Xi’an, China. I love interacting with the locals and trying my best to speak Chinese. Somehow despite my laughable language skills, the vendors seem to understand me well enough to take my order.

Steam pours off of the food cart as customers eagerly await their orders.

Steam pours off of the food cart as customers eagerly await their orders.

One of my favorite sandwiches comes from this woman's cart. It's a steamed bun folded over a fried egg, marinated chicken strips (also flash fried), a spicy sauce, and lettuce. The woman who owns the cart knows me but was still a little camera shy in this photo.

One of my favorite sandwiches comes from this woman’s cart. It’s a steamed bun folded over a fried egg, marinated chicken strips (also flash fried), a spicy sauce, and lettuce.
The woman who owns the cart knows me but was still a little camera shy in this photo.

More steaming goodness...

More steaming goodness…

I'll try this veggie and skewered meat stand next time.

I’ll try this veggie and skewered meat stand next time.

I go to this stand fairly often. They make fresh veggie (think pesto) stuffed dumplings right on the spot, them boil them immediately after they are hand formed.

I go to this stand fairly often. They make fresh veggie (think pesto) stuffed dumplings right on the spot, then boil them immediately after they are hand formed.

Here the guy doing the cooking (the son in the family, I believe) drops my order of 30 dumplings into boiling water.

Here the guy doing the cooking (the son in the family, I believe) drops my order of 30 dumplings into boiling water.

My 30 fat little dumplings are happily cooking away.

My 30 fat little dumplings are happily cooking away.

My dumplings come out of the water and into a bowl... Next they are covered by some spicy broth.One of the first phrases I learned in Chinese is "Wǒ bù yào wèijīng.", which means, "I don't want any MSG." That's an important phrase to know or your food is often doused in the "stuff".

My dumplings come out of the water and into a bowl… Next they are covered by some spicy broth.
One of the first phrases I learned in Chinese was “Wǒ bù yào wèijīng.”, which means, “I don’t want any MSG.” That’s an important phrase to know or your food is often doused in the “stuff”.

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And here you have it! The dumpling stand was only a 3 or 4 minute walk back to my flat where jumped into my little treasures.Actually, there were too many to eat all at one sitting, so I saved some for lunch the next day. The wine is a Chinese Cabernet… Not outstanding but palatable.Total cost for the meal? Only US$1.44 for the dumplings and US$4.50 for the wine. 

In case you are wondering, no… the “Americanized” Chinese food you get in the US or Europe is nothing like authentic food here. I’ll miss this when I eventually leave China.

Until next time!