Myths and Legends of China 09: Mountains & Lakes

The three places in today’s stories are real live places in China (and Taiwan) that people visit as modern day tourist attractions. Although, no one is visiting them just now, thanks Covid, there are a plethora of photographs, Wikipedia articles, and travel blogs about all of them. I didn’t get the chance to go to any landmarks myself, but I still think it’s cool that these traditional folk tales were inspired by stunning natural landscapes that still exist today.


The Goddess of Mt. Wu

The Immortal Maiden Yao Ji was Queen Mother Wang Mu’s twenty-third daughter. Not only did she grow up to be beautiful, but also kind-hearted. Wang Mu loved her especially dearly. Yao Ji’s natural disposition was vivacious, and she was never able to remain idle. Every day she would sneak out to go and play. Wang Mu had no way to catch her.

One day, Queen Mother Wang Mu came out to relieve her boredom and saw that Yao Ji looking right into the mortal world. Angrily she said, “Even if Heaven has tasked you to play, what are you looking at the mortal world for, that place can corrupt your eyes!” Yao Ji didn’t believe it, she pointed to a red-crowned crane and said, “That crane is pure white like jade, how could that corrupt my eyes? I want to be like that, to fly everywhere and finally see what the mortal world is like.”

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Wang Mu hastily tried to talk her out of it, saying, “The mortal world is a sea of bitterness without end, and you are a royal princess, a golden branch with jade leaves, you simply must not go no matter what!” Yao Ji didn’t listen, she simply sat atop her cloud looking down. She saw many people’s houses were just thatched cottages, their food vegetable husks, and their clothes were damaged and rotten cloth. With a sigh she said, “Oh, truly bitter!” Wang Mu heard this and smiled to herself, then she said, “Still, Heaven is good, we have exotic food without end, and unlimited fine silks and lace to wear…”, but the more Wang Mu talked, the more disgusted Yao Ji became, she resolved to go to the mortal world for a time!  Queen Mother Wang Mu defied her, and sent her instead to the Dragon Palace of the Eastern Sea.

The Dragon King of the Eastern Sea had a plan for Yao Ji from an earlier time, only at that time she was still young. Now she came as a guest, the Dragon King received her with special attention. He poured the wine himself, and said happily, “Beautiful maiden, our social position and economic status are in harmony, we are a match made in Heaven!” Yao Ji heard this and her face splotched red. She left the palace in less than the space of one breath, and simply went straight to the human world.

On the road, Yao Ji encountered many people fleeing trouble, leaning on beggars sticks and carrying worn out baskets, pulling along the elderly, carrying the young on their backs, and weeping endlessly. Yao Ji saw this and felt extremely sad. She just wanted to rush forward and ask what happened, so she failed to see the black clouds gathering in the sky. A fierce wind whistled by; twelve evil dragons were in the process of stirring up trouble. Yao Ji hurriedly started steering her rosy clouds. She approached the evil dragons and used sweet words and gracious language to persuade them to not work any more evil deeds. But the evil dragons paid no heed, going so far as to make even more of a ruckus. Yao Ji couldn’t take it anymore. She pulled a jade hairpin from her head, and brandished it at the twelve evil dragons. A ribbon of golden light flashed past, and the evil dragons all dropped dead.

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When Queen Mother Wang Mu found out that Yao Ji had gone to the human world and killed twelve dragon princes she became angry and resentful, however when she heard she was staying in the wild mountains, she also felt the pain of love and ordered her other twenty-two daughters to find Yao Ji and bring her back.

The twenty-two Immortal Maidens went down to the human world where they encountered many setbacks and finally found Yao Ji. They said to her, “Little Sister, our mother misses you day and night, with no thought for tea or rice, come back to Heaven with us.” “It isn’t that I heartlessly do not go back. Elder Sisters look, the common people are suffering hardship, how can I not care about that?” Yao Ji said this and at the same time pointed into the distance. There on the mountainside was a wild tiger in the middle of chasing a person, it overtook the person while they watched.

b6f64566dcc44579bf44103f162e93d0Elder Sister Cui Ping hurriedly caught up some silt and cast it out. The silt became dozens of arrows that shot the tiger down. Before long, at the foot of the mountain an old grandmother was climbing up, her complexion was pale and wan, she was weak and looked like she had a serious illness. Elder Sister Chao Yun immediately plucked out several hairs from her head, and cast them in front of her. The hairs changed into the reishi mushroom that grants miraculous recovery and saved the old woman’s life. Then, everyone heard a burst of work chanting, and turned their heads to look. In the river, passing by, was a boat floating on the water. The backs of the barge haulers pulling the boat were all almost bent to the ground, but the boat’s progress was still quite slow. Elder Sister Song Luan faced west and blew out a breath, the blow started a favorable sailing wind that pushed the boat forward. The barge haulers straightened up their backs and smiled. Everyone had just heaved a sigh of relief when suddenly they saw in a far off field a patch of dried up yellow, a drought had caused this severe damage, how would the farmers earn their daily living? The Immortal sisters thought and thought; they felt sad and cried. Their tears turned into rain that began to fall with a sound like hua-la-la. Very soon, the field had become a lush green.

When they had finished these things, the Immortal sisters had a contradiction in their hearts: their mother needed to be taken care of, but the common people also should receive blessing and protection, what to do? Finally, everyone made a unanimous decision, one half would return to Heaven, and the other half would remain in the human world. The eleven elder sisters who stayed behind plus Yao Ji blessed and protected the ordinary people of the human world day and night. Later, they transformed into the twelve mystical and beautiful peaks of Mt. Wu. Included among these, closely overlooking the Yangtze River, reaching through the clouds is the transformed Yao Jin Xian Nu Peak.

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Split the Mountain to Rescue the Mother

At the very top of the Western Peak of Mt. Hua there is a giant stone a hundred feet high that has been cut neatly into three parts. In the side of this giant stone is a 7 foot high, 300 pound Crescent Moon Iron Ax. Legend has it that this is the historic place where Chen Xiang split the mountain to rescue his mother. That giant stone is called “Ax Splitting Rock” and the axe is called “Mountain Opening Ax”.

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It is said that one year a scholar by the name of Liu Yan Chang went to Chang’an (the ancient city of Xi’an) to take the Imperial examinations. When he passed through Tong Guan (a county in Wei nan, Shan’xi) he climbed Mt. Hua to go sightseeing. He had heard that the goddess San Sheng Mu of the West Peak Temple was absolutely accurate, so he went into the temple to request a Qian bamboo stick to have his fortune told. He wanted to ask about his future prospects. However, that day San Sheng Mu just happened to be away from home attending a feast, and the boy watching the door did not dare to casually grant a Qian fortune stick. Liu Yan Chang even drew three Qian, but they were all blank and he became very angry. He took up his brush and wrote a poem on the wall of the temple reproaching San Sheng Mu.

When San Sheng Mu returned home, she saw the inscribed poem and became ashamed and angry. She found Liu Yan Chang and saw that his appearance was stately and grand, and immediately came to feel admiration towards him. She transformed into a mortal woman and came to Liu Yan Chang’s side. Liu Yan Chang also liked the dignified and elegant San Sheng Mu. The pair of lovers soon became parents. Not long after, Liu Yan Chang passed his exam and became eligible for the highest imperial civil service. San Sheng Mu gave him a son called Chen Xiang, and the whole family lived on blessed and happy.

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Time flew by, in the blink of an eye Chen Xiang was six years old. One day San Shang Mu’s elder brother Er Lang Shen Yang Jian found out that San Sheng Mu was living a mortal life, even going so far as to bear a son. He was furious. He sent out his spirit eagle to capture little Chen Xiang. Then, in a rage, Yang Jian found San Sheng Mu and yelled at her for having no shame, for violating the law of Heaven, and forced her to hand over her jeweled lotus lantern. The Jeweled Lotus Lantern was her Mountain Guardian Treasure, but in order to save Chen Xiang, San Sheng Mu had no choice but to give it over to Yang Jian.. After Yang Jian took the lantern, he released Chen Xiang, however he pushed San Sheng Mu down under the giant stone at the top of the Western Peak of Mt. Hua.

After nine years Chen Xiang had gradually grown up into a thoughtful young man. One day, his father explained what had happened to his mother. Chen Xiang heard this and was filled with grief and indignation, but at the same time was determined to go to Mt. Hua and rescue his mother.

At that time, one of the Eight Immortals, Lu Dongbin clutched his finger in contemplation, realized that Chen Xiang was going to Mt. Hua to rescue his mother, wanted to help him. He turned into a Daoist Priest and went to the foot of Mt. Hua. When Chen Xiang came to the base of the mountain he ran across the Daoist priest, explained his reason for coming, and asked about the road up the mountain. Lu Dongbin said, “If you go up the mountain like this, you cannot succeed. It would be better to first train with me.”

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Chen Xian honored Lu Dongbin as a teacher. Every day he rose early and went to bed late, practicing martial arts, and quickly became proficient in all eighteen styles of martial art. Lu Dongbin saw this and was very pleased, saying, “Very good! Your martial arts training is already complete, you can go up the mountain. The key to open the mountain is at your Uncle Yang Jian’s place. He has a dog and an eagle; they are very fierce. I will give you two small pills, the round one can subdue the spirit dog, and the long one can tame the spirit eagle. I hope you and your mother can be reunited soon.”

Chen Xiang took leave of his master, and carried an iron pestle up the mountain to find Yang Jian. When he got to the Gate of Heaven, he saw a bunch of Celestial Generals escorting a haughty and pure god. Chen Xiang knew that must be Yang Jian, he went firmly up to him and saluted, only to hear Yang Jian  sneer and say, “Heh heh, you really came!” saying this he raised a three pointed two edged knife and struck at Chen Xiang’s head. Chen Xiang raised the iron pestle and did his best to resist, there was a sound – ka-cha, and the knife snapped into two pieces. Yang Jian was angry and surprised, he let out a bellow and called forth Xiao Tian Quan, the Barking Celestial Dog. Xiao Tian Quan opened his bloody mouth wide like a sacrificial bowl, rose into the air and pounced. Chen Xiang tossed the round pill, Xiao Tian Quan swallowed it in one bite, and suddenly his jaw was tightly shut, it lay down on the ground in pain and began rolling around. Yang Jian then called forth the spirit eagle. The spirit eagle spread both wings, hid the sky and covered the earth, it spread its talons like knives and pounced. Chen Xiang tossed the long pill, the spirit eagle ate it in one bite, both wings froze in midair. Er Lang Shen saw that the spirit dog and spirit eagle had been defeated, he had no choice but to order the Heavenly Generals to fetch the key to open the mountain — a glittering, shining, crescent moon ax.

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Chen Xiang took the crescent moon ax and went up Mt. Hua calling loudly as he went, “Mother! Mother!” Chen Xiang called from the North Peak to the East Peak, he called from the East Peak to the South Peak, but from beginning to end he could not find her in those places, worried he cried out loud. A mountain spirit was moved by this, and said to him, “Oh filial child, your mother is in the West Peak.” Chen Xiang heard this and stopped crying, climbed the Western Peak as if he were flying, soaring into the air with each jump, raised the crescent moon ax high, and did his best to split the peak. There was a loud, earth shattering noise, the peak was split open, San Sheng Mu slowly came out.  Mother and son saw one another at last, they embraced one another excitedly and cried bitterly together.

Chen Xiang welcomed his mother back home and the family of three at last resumed their happy and blessed life together.

Notes: I actually climbed Mt. Hua on my 2012 visit to China, but I climbed the Eastern Peak because we wanted to stay the night a the peak and watch the sunrise as is the custom. I say climbed because we did spend about 7-8 hours walking up the endless stairs (no switchbacks here), but only after we took the bus up to the gondola. People in better shape than me climb the whole thing! No matter which peak you visit, it’s a stunning experience and I highly recommend it if you’re going to be in the Xi’an area. This was one of my lovely views.IMG_3109


The Legend of Sun and Moon Lake

In the jewel island of Taiwan, there is a beautiful scenic lake called Sun and Moon Lake. Beside the lake are two towering mountains, one is called Mt. Da Jian, and one is called Mt. Shui She. This is the origin of these names and a beautiful story about them.

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A very long time ago, there lived in a large lake, two evil dragons, a male and a female. One day, at noon, when the sun arrived in the sky over the lake, male dragon suddenly leapt up and in one gulp he swallowed the sun into his belly. At night when the moon rose into the sky, the female dragon also flew up and swallowed the moon into her belly. This pair of evil dragons swam to and swam fro in the lake, sometimes swallowing the sun and moon down and sometimes spitting them back out, playing by batting them around. It was as if they were in the middle of a performance, a pair of dragons with trick pearls. They only pursued their own pleasure. They didn’t consider that because the human world had no sun or moon, everywhere was dark. The threes all wilted, birds in the branches no longer sang, nearly ripe sugar cane dried out, cows and sheep couldn’t find grass to eat and nearly all starved to death. Days became unbearable, and the people all cried out in a wailing sigh.

In the village there were a pair of clever and courageous young people – Elder Brother Da Jian and Elder Sister Shui She, they saw this state of affairs and their hearts were filled with worry. They pledged to seize and return the sun and moon. But how could they fight the evil dragons? Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She arrived outside of the evil dragon’s cliff cave dwelling, and eavesdropped on the two dragons’ conversation. Actually the things that they were most afraid of were the golden ax and golden scissors buried at the foot of Mt. Ali

Having found a way to subdue the evil dragons, Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She climbed mountains and waded rivers, and arrived at the base of Mt. Ali. With no thought for tiredness they dug and dug until they couldn’t tell how long they dug. A crack in the rock finally showed a ribbon of golden light, they dug again a bit more down, and sure enough they dug out the golden hatchet and golden scissors buried under the mountain.

Carrying these treasures and full of confidence they returned to the side of the big lake. The two evil dragons were in the middle of playing by swallowing and spitting up the sun and moon. Brother Da Jian dashed forward bravely with no personal concern and jumped down into the lake, brandishing the golden axe and chopping fiercely at the evil dragons. Suddenly he chopped the male dragon’s head right off. Sister Shui She saw a timely opportunity, raised the golden scissors in both hands and ka-cha, sheared off the female dragon’s head.

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Both dragons were dead; however, the sun and moon were immersed at the bottom of the lake. Brother Da Jian tore down the male dragon’s eyeball and swallowed it; Sister Shui She swallowed female dragon’s eye; and both people instantly turned into giants. Brother Da Jian dredged the sun up from the lake bed, and Sister Shui She pulled up a palm tree from the lakeside propping it upward, and pushed the sun back up to the sky. The sun was once again joyfully hanging high in the blue sky. All living things also glowed with vitality; the people cheered and frolicked with joy. After the sun set behind the mountain, Sister Shui She dredged up the moon from the lake bed, and Brother Da Jian used the palm tree again to push the moon back into the sky. The gentle radiance of the moon once more spilled fully across the earth. The people were extremely happy. They wanted to show their appreciation for Brother Da Jian and Sister Shui She, but it was discovered the two had already transformed into two majestic mountains.

The people arrived at the lakeside where the sun and moon were previously swallowed, they found that the island in the center of the lake had divided it into two halves: one half was like a round sun, and the other half was like a crescent moon, so they named the lake Sun and Moon Lake. In order to commemorate the selfless devotion of Elder Brother Da Jian and Elder Sister Shui She, they named the two mountains separately as Mt. Da Jian and Mr. Shui She.

Notes: I didn’t go to Sun Moon Lake on my 2019 visit to Taiwan. It is a very popular destination, but I was worried it was just going to be a crowded tour group and I also had limited time. I don’t regret my choices, but I may go to the lake if I ever get to go back to Taichung. I was curious about the shape and the mountains so I did some Google Mapping. I found the Shuishe mountain and the trailhead is quite near the lake, but I can’t pin down where Dajian Mountain is (the only one I found was much farther north near Taipei?). I’m not really sold on the idea that the lake looks like a sun and moon. The island is super tiny, I almost missed it because I didn’t zoom in enough on the map! This helpful satellite view from a Chinese source shows us where the sun (right) and moon (left) “shapes” of the lake are, with the line running through the small island of Lalu (拉魯島).

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Amsterdam: Cheese, Gin & Canals

I chose to do Amsterdam as a day trip from Den Haag. I looked at rooms in Amsterdam, and even the possibility of renting a flat for longer, but the city is just so insanely expensive, I couldn’t justify it. I left Den Haag as early as I could in order to cram as much Amsterdam as possible into one day. I enjoyed the canals, and the beautiful architecture while walking around.  My top priority was the Van Gogh museum (posted elsewhere), but I also enjoyed a cheese tasting class, and a tour of the Bols distillery where I learned the true meaning of Dutch courage, and a nice stroll along the canals.


Landmark Photos

Right outside the Van Gogh museum is the main entrance to the far more famous Rijksmuseum (which I did not have time for on this trip), as well as the “I Amsterdam” sign that EVERYONE needs a selfie with, and a rather large sculpture of an astronaut floating over a nice shallow pool where everyone was playing and splashing on the hot summer day. I don’t have a story because I didn’t try to fight the crowds to climb the letters, but I thought you’d like to see the photos anyway.

 

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Cheese Tasting

Dutch Gouda cheese is famous. Well, cheese famous anyway. I am a cheese-a-holic, and gouda is at very least in my top 10 favorites. I couldn’t visit the home of gouda without doing a cheese tasting. I managed to find something that was a little bit more than just a taste however when I stumbled on to Reypanaer. I signed up for a cheese tasting CLASS.

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This was no mere cheese taste, it was truly a learning experience. The woman instructing us reminded me of Minerva McGonagall if she were Dutch instead of Scottish. We were given a paper to record our impressions of each of the cheeses, and we were taught to recognize common notes in cheese like “wood”, “grass”, “caramel”, “alcohol”, “salt”, “butter”, “cream”, “vanilla”, and “nutty”.

Each cheese was paired with an appropriate wine or port to enhance the experience. Our teacher had us examine the color first, while she would tell us about the cheese itself. When we sliced, we were told to slice thinly, not because the shop was being stingy with samples, but because thin slices of cheese allow you to taste the more complex flavors more fully (we were allowed as many slices as we liked until it was time to move on to the next flavor, but really they were so rich I couldn’t eat much and didn’t feel like I needed to). Next we were asked to smell the cheese and think about what kind of smells we got. Finally we were allowed to taste it and asked to think about both flavor and consistency as we took our notes.

When everyone had tasted and jotted down some basic impressions, we talked about what we had experienced and our teacher guided us toward a better understanding of the complex flavor experiences of each cheese. I think a lot of the people in the room just wanted to eat cheese and drink wine, but I very much enjoyed the classroom environment and the chance to learn more about the traditions of Dutch cheese making. I think the informative instruction enhanced my experience of the flavors and textures of the cheeses by making me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was perceiving it.

Our first cheese was a chèvre affiné, a 4 month aged cheese made from goats milk. My mother thinks she hates goat cheese because she’s never eaten this. It was not the most amazing cheese I’ve ever eaten, but I could eat it regularly with a side of sliced fruit and not be sad. It had notes of butter, grass, and bread. The color was almost pure white, and the texture was quite smooth while still being firm.

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The next cheese was a chèvre gris, a 10 month old goat cheese with notes of hay, caramel, and bread. The color was nearly identical, but the texture was more crumbly and there was some presence of salt crystals (as cheese ages, salt crystals form in the cheese, no extra salt is added, this is a natural process as the moisture slowly evaporates over time). The flavor was strong enough that I would choose to eat this in moderation, or as a meal finisher with some nuts.

From here we moved back to cow’s milk cheeses in the Gouda family.

Taste #3 was a 6 month old Gouda the color of a fall harvest full moon. It was very creamy and highly munchable. Another great option for a finger food platter or a sandwich cheese.  Taste #4 was the Reypanear 1 year aged Gouda. It was recorded in my notes as “zomg spicy zingy full on wow”. It was amazing how much another 6 months on the shelf could change the flavor of the cheese. Salt crystals were beginning to form, the texture was a little dryer and the flavor was a million miles higher.

If I thought taste #4 was amazing, my tongue was not prepared for taste #5, a 2 year aged Gouda from the Reypanear fromagerie. I really believe my taste buds died and went to heaven and reincarnated back into my mouth. I recorded the color as “smokey topaz”, the smell as “caramel, alcohol, chocolate, nuts, and vanilla”, the taste as “all the flavors on a magical journey”, and my overall impression as “could eat it forever”. It’s strong, with a crumbly texture and visible salt crystals, and it is one of the most amazing things I’ve put in my face.

And lest you think I was just getting a cheese high and every taste was better and better, I did come back from the edge of ecstasy on the last cheese of the class: #6, the 3 year old Gouda. I still enjoyed it very much, but it was far more sharp with almost a citrusy overtone, and something I would only eat occasionally. While everything else was served with wine or port, this was appropriately served with scotch whiskey.

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Not all Gouda are produced alike. Please don’t read my reviews and get some random 2 year gouda and then get mad when it doesn’t change your life. Like most foods, the quality of ingredients count for a lot, and in the case of aged foods, the environment has a big impact.

Reypanaer uses as much grass fed cows milk as they can to get the best tasting milk. Much like Cantillon, Reypanaer allows the curds to rest in trays and collect unique wild microbes from the environment that will be crucial to the flavor of the finished cheese. In addition, their cheese is aged in old-fashioned warehouses where the only controls for temperature and humidity are opening and closing various doors around the space. The warehouse itself is considered a micro-climate because of it’s long tradition of aging cheeses and the accumulation of special bacteria, fungi and molds that add to the flavor of these naturally aged cheeses.

Cheaper, mass produced cheeses use sterilized climate controlled rooms to age the cheese and get a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get a consistent product. The old fashioned techniques at Reypanaer are labor intensive since cheeses must be checked regularly during the aging process and the warehouse environment must be carefully balanced by humans instead of machines. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using a factory produced cheese on your sandwich, but the difference in quality and gustatory experience is so significant that I must recommend to every cheese lover to try such a traditionally made cheese at least once in your life. Take my word, I’m officially an expert in cheese tasting 😉

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I got a steep discount by purchasing my Reypanaer and Bols tour tickets together, anb after the cheese class, I took a nice walk to clear my head and my palate. On the way, I passed an enormous and imposing building that I thought must surely have been some kind of castle or government building, but it turned out to be a shopping mall… Europe has too much extra architecture!

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Bols

Ever wonder where the expression “Dutch Courage” comes from? Well, I found out at the Bols Distillery.  Upon presenting my ticket at the main counter, I was given an audio guide, a little vial of liquid, and a token.

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This tour was totally self guided and I could play, pause, skip or repeat portions of the pre-recorded audio guide as I wanted. The first room was a timeline history of the distillery and the evolution of their product over time.

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As you might guess from the photo, the history starts in 1575 when the Bols family started making flavor infused liquor with cardamom, orange and cumin. In 1664, the family started producing Genever, a kind of distilled spirit made of “long fermented rye, wheat, and corn”. By 1700, Bols became a major shareholder in the Dutch East India trading company, giving them access to so many spices from around the world, and leading to the development of more than 300 unique flavors, as well as untold post-colonial damage to the cultures that originally grew those spices. It’s still weird to me how proud the Dutch are of their role in that part of history…

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In the 1800’s they got really good at making a totally unique version of Genever with a proprietary distilling technique and the addition of a secret recipe of botanicals – mostly juniper berry, but also anise, ginger, hops and angelica (an herb described as “earthy, herbal, and reminiscent of wormwood, so no I don’t know what that tastes like either). Later that century they began to also age the Genever in oak barrels. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers would drink Genever before battle to steady their nerves and it became known as “Dutch Courage”. When the war was over, they missed the beverage and English Gin was born. Although the original Bols recipe was discontinued for a while, it was resurrected in 2008, so you can still taste it today.

The next room was filled with a display of tiny delft pottery houses. The Dutch Royal Airline (KLM) gives out these collectible and limited edition bottles to their first class passengers since the early 1950s.

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Once the history and art lessons were past, the museum took a decidedly sensory turn. Instructions on the wall as well as in the audio file told me to enter one of the small experience rooms and to keep my flask at hand. It was time to use the little bottle of liquid I’d received at the beginning of the tour. I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Alice holding a “drink me” bottle, but I figured if it wasn’t safe, then it wouldn’t be legal either. Once in the room I was given a countdown and told to consume the whole bottle’s contents (it was a large swallow, nothing crazy) when the counter reached zero. With trepidation and a leap of faith, I did as instructed and was rocked to my core with a whole body multi-sensory experience. 

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As soon as the timer hit zero, the experience began. I slugged my liquid and the whole room erupted in sound, light and vibration. The vial was not alcohol, but pure flavor. It started berry fruity, went on a trip through spicy, and finished with citrus and mint. As I was tasting these intense flavors, my eyes were treated to a series of colors, my ears were regaled with changing sounds, and my body tingled from the vibrations of the floor coming up through the soles of my feet. It was like someone just flipped the ON switch for all my senses at once.

And lest the sense of smell feel neglected (though that liquid was so strong, I’m pretty sure it came up my sinuses anyway), the next room on the tour was a rainbow smelling room. The Bols Distillery was starting to seem less like a museum and more like an alcoholic version of the Wonka factory! More than 30 smells were ranged on the wall, and by squeezing the bulb, a puff of scented air would come forth. The bottles were labeled by number, and the name of each flavor was revealed if you lifted the number. It was fun to play sniff and seek, trying to guess each one of the Bols flavors as I went, and it also gave me a good idea of which ones I liked the best, so I could choose my cocktail later on.

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The final display room got into more details about the ways in which infused liquor is made. I’ve actually had the chance to play with making my own infusions with fruit, spices, and vodka, so I knew a little, but it was a very thorough display. There were jars of spices and fruit peels on display, as well as a mad scientists laboratory worth of glass jars, copper pipes, and mysterious floating things.

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You can see “maceration” and “percolation” in this photo because the main goal of this display was to show the ways that flavor is extracted from fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and turned into delicious drinks. Maceration is just soaking your stuff in the alcohol (this is what I did at home). Percolation is basically how coffee is made, you drip the liquid through the ingredient. And because no mad scientist lab would be complete without a big red button…

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Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything sinister. Once the tour shenanigans were over, I was released out into the Bols cocktail bar where I was able to redeem my token for one free cocktail. I ordered the Spring Amour, a lavender colored, floral, lemony drink. I had been intrigued by the fragrance of the Parfait Amour in the smelling room, and this drink seemed to be a good mix: 40ml original Genever, 15 ml Parfait Amour, 30ml lemon juice, and 10ml simple syrup, with a sprig of fresh mint. I chose the Parfait Amour based solely on my olfactory experience on the tour, but later I found this description, “a beautiful dark purple liqueur flavored with flower petals and vanilla, together with orange peel and almonds. The Parfait Amour liqueur flavor is centuries old and probably one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Bols liqueurs.” I chose well.

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Walking Around Amsterdam

After my Bols tour, I tried to walk to the antiques area but it was all closed up by the time I got there. It really is amazing how much of Europe closes up at 6pm. When I read about the quaint area of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, the blogger I read recommended going in the evening to see the shops lit up, but I think they must have gone in the winter when the sunset / street light time is before closing rather than 3 hours after it. Summer days are looooong. 

I had also planned to do a walk from Nieuwe Spiegelstraat through the Red Light District on my way to the train station but I was pretty wiped out from heat, walking, and day drinking. I looked at a lot of restaurant menus before I managed to find a place to eat for less than 15€. Amsterdam is, as I may have mentioned before, insanely expensive. I wasn’t looking for a fancy meal, just a simple sandwich and beer! In the end, I was very happy with my choice. I tried a local specialty of ossenworst, an Amsterdam local raw beef sausage. It’s beef spiced with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and lightly smoked. OM NOM NOM.

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After dinner, I walked through what should have been the Red Light District according to my maps, and while I did see more ads for clubs and sex shows and smelled a lot more pot fumes, I was either on the wrong street or it was too early. I’ve heard it only comes alive after sunset and during the summer dark is not until around 11pm. At 7-8 in the evening, I didn’t see anything risque. I did find China Town and closed Buddhist temple, and took plenty of photos of the beautiful Amsterdam canals before returning to the train that would eventually get me back to my Airbnb in Den Haag.

 

 

 

 

Back in the USSR? This time with a visa!

I am falling right behind on my goal of 1 blog post a week. In a desperate effort to get moving, I went and found the most complete draft on file, also the only one I wrote AFTER vacation instead of quick notes on a bus this summer. Maybe there’s a reason Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote such long novels. I was also inspired toward verbosity by my brief visit to mother Russia and I have had to split up the story into 2 parts. In part one: explore the bureaucracy of communism, the truth behind the soviet stereotypes, and an encounter at the Metropol Hotel.


Airports Are Ugly

I have flown through the Moscow SVO airport before. It’s not especially exciting, but their primary state run airline is dirt cheap so I find myself having layovers lasting on average 3-4 hours there. This time I had a 20 hour layover on the return flight. I can’t imagine many airports I would willingly spend 20 hours inside. As Douglas Adams once famously wrote, “There is a reason why no language on earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Since the first time I read this I have had the singular experience to be in some of the best and worst airports in the world, and I can say with certainty that the Moscow International Airport is not a place to linger.

There are few places you can sleep inside the airport, like hourly rental sleeping pods, or even the airport’s very own hotel (the one Snowden hid out in). I looked into these and discovered that the prices are almost as much as the plane tickets. Even if you’re willing to camp out on the crowded and uncomfortable airport seats, there is no way to get WiFi unless you have a Russian phone number, so be prepared to be both uncomfortable and bored. In order to take advantage of any less expensive hotel (or WiFi) option, you have leave the airport, but unless you are from a very narrow list of close Russian allied countries, you can’t leave the airport without a visa. And you can’t get a visa at the door, you have to apply for and pay for that visa well in advance of your arrival.

You Need a Visa To Get In

Tourist visas to Russia require a letter of invitation. These are usually arranged by tour guides which seems like a giant scam, but that’s a whole other rant. Transit visas can bypass the letter requirement if you have proof of your ongoing flight. The transit visa can be used for up to 3 days if you’re flying and 10 if you are travelling by train.

Thus, my trip to Moscow actually started in June with the Russian Consulate in Busan, South Korea. Since they weren’t open on my day off, I got up very early in the morning on a Friday and bused into Busan to file my paperwork. I was able to fill out and download the application online and print it at my office, however the application took several hours to fill out because in addition to all the normal information, they wanted the exact dates of all my international travel for the last 10 years. They also wanted complete information on all my secondary education, and on my parents, and to know if I had any education whatsoever about nuclear weapons (I do!). I felt like I was filling out a background check for the CIA.

I nervously handed over the painstakingly researched application form and paid the 100$ fee, hoping that nothing would disqualify me from going and returned to my home to wait a week for the results. I shouldn’t have been worried. Communism loves bureaucracy and to make people jump the hoops and I have become an expert form filler. A week later I made the trek back to the consulate and my passport was returned to me with a shiny new 1 day visa inside. I booked a hostel and an airport shuttle and more or less forgot about it for 2 months.

Midnight Arrival

When I landed in Moscow, it was just after midnight and amid a flood of Chinese tourists, but it didn’t actually take all that long to go through customs and immigration. Since I was technically on a layover with a connecting flight, I had checked one bag through and was only carrying my day pack and a basic change of clothes with me. My visa was scrutinized intensely. This guy busted out a jeweler’s lens to stare at it in minute detail. Eventually, finding nothing wrong, they allowed me to pass out of the international terminal and onto Russian soil.

There is an oddity about the Moscow airport in that the WiFi requires you to give a phone number where they will send you a code to log on. It’s “free WiFi” but you can’t access it if you don’t have a Russian phone number. It’s frustrated me every time I’ve flown through, and I’ve never been able to get it to work. Really, it’s free if you’re Russian, but it’s a taunting WiFi dream to international travelers. Knowing this, while still in Norway, I had downloaded the offline version of the Moscow map in Google maps (which is a lie), and the Russian language on Google translate (which I never actually used) as well as information about my hostel, just in case.

I got some money changed to Rubles, and I found my driver. If my flight had landed during the day, I might have tried out the public transit, but at midnight thirty I was happy to see a man holding a sign with my name on it and ready to take me directly to the hostel, even if the ride did cost more than the room. It was a long and empty ride through Moscow. I’m not sure if it was just the late hour but the roads were empty. And they were huge! City roads, with business and sidewalks, not like highways, just roads that were 10 lanes across, 5 lanes in each direction. I stared at them wondering how people crossed the roads on foot and even more if these behemoths aided in the flow of traffic. Do enough people in Moscow own cars for this to be actually useful or is it just for show?

Hostile Hostel?

Checking into the hostel was another long rigmarole of paperwork: fill this out, sign this, make a copy of my passport and visa, etc. I chose a cheapish hostel thinking since I only was going to get maybe 6 hours of sleep, I didn’t need much but I also carefully selected one that was highly rated with plenty of good reviews and a location that would make it easy to get to Red Square in the morning.

One day… the lesson is going to stick. When travelling in less affluent countries: spend the money on a private room! The hostel bed was around 10$ and a private room would have been about 30$. It’s a big difference and at the time I was thinking about every little penny because I wanted to keep my budget down and Moscow was already costing me 100$ just for stepping out of the airport. I had spent a single night in Paris in a dorm and slept pretty well, but that was Paris.

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The hostel itself did not live up to my expectations based on ratings and photos. Looking back I can see those are real photos, but they were clearly taken when the interiors were brand new or at least recently deep cleaned. In reality the place was much more dark, dank, cramped and dirty than the photos represent. Even by the light of day. Now, I’m not saying it was a shithole… it did meet my minimum standards of clean and the staff were very polite in a cold sort of way, but I did not rest well.

Like many hostels in Europe, I was expected to make my own bed. The staff do not consider it their responsibility to put sheets on the bed, nor to remove them. I struggled with this as it was almost 1am and I had a top bunk and everyone else was asleep, so I couldn’t turn on the light. Also, the bedroom door seemed to have no lock at all. The bathrooms were very tiny and when you’re sharing a single bathroom with all the other women in a large hostel, that’s a challenge.  One of my roomies snored so loudly that it made my bed actually vibrate. I could feel her snores. I put in earplugs, headphones, and squashed pillows, blankets and towels around my ears to no avail. When I got up to get dressed, there was no place private to do so.

The hostel included WiFi, which did work well, yay, and a free “breakfast”. In the morning I discovered this meant a choice of two sugar cereals, luke-warm milk, watery coffee, and packets of what I really think were yogurt powder. I couldn’t read the Russian labels and I didn’t try to eat it, but they were packets filled with what felt like a powder with pictures of bowls of yogurt and fruit on the front. And somehow this breakfast is rated 7.7 on Booking.com. In fairness, that is the lowest internal rating and every other criteria is rated 8.4 or higher. I don’t know what your life has to be like for this to be a 7.7/10 breakfast, but I never want to live it.
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Just, please, if you see me talking about booking a hostel dorm in a developing country or a current/previous communist country STOP ME. I’m not trying to be a snob, but sleeping properly is so important to my well-being and my ability to enjoy waking activities and I just can’t sleep properly in those conditions. I envy the people who can.

Metro Mishaps

Despite these setbacks and the severe lack of sleep, I was still determined to make the most of my day in Moscow. I had a detailed and timed itinerary that I hoped would allow me to see everything I wanted to before it was time to go back to the airport. The first thing I discovered is that the Google Map of Moscow isn’t great, and the offline function doesn’t really do anything. Here’s a pretty building I found while searching for the metro.

20180821_091840It took me ages to find the Metro station that was meant to be a 5 minute walk from my hostel in part because Google, and in other part because the Metro stations in Moscow don’t have any helpful signs with pictures or symbols to identify them. Maybe they say the name of the station on the outside, but I was looking for a big “M” or an icon of a subway train which has been a constant in every other metro system I’ve used. This is actually the logo for the Moscow metro and it was not on any of the buildings or any signs nearby.Image result for moscow metro

When I finally realized that the big square beige building was the metro station, I had walked past it at least 7 times because I thought it was a government building like a post office or police station. It was much easier every other time because at least they all look the same. Of course I didn’t take a picture at the time, and now looking at stock photos of the building I see that it clearly has a big red M on top and a sign out front, so I can’t explain why it eluded me so. I blame sleep deprivation.

Once I found the entrance, I was happy to learn that the metro system itself is actually very easy to use, and cheap too. Rather than go through the hassle of buying a ticket for every trip, I just bought a 24hr pass for about 3$ US. That’s a whole day pass for less than the cost of a single trip in most EU countries, by the way, and goes a long way to explaining the powdered yogurt situation.

On top of its ease of use and affordability, the Moscow metro is famous for it’s unique and beautiful (on the inside) metro stations . At some point in the soviet era, it was a gift to the people to make each public transit station a work of public art. No one could visit them all in one day, but I tried to get some pictures inside the ones I did use. They are very very Soviet, but amazing works of art nonetheless.

Red Square Obscured

When I emerged from the station at Red Square I was instantly lost. I had expected the world’s largest public square to be visible from the metro station that shared it’s name, silly me. I adopted the time honored method of picking a direction and watching where my GPS dot went on the map. The first landmarks I ran across were actually the Metropol Hotel and the Statue of Marx. I recognized them from my plans as places I had intended to go later in the day, but it did help orient me to find Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral which was the top of my list for the day.

20180821_100129Sadly, I still don’t know what Red Square looks like, since there were about a million white tents set up and a large area blocked off and converted into a stadium for an upcoming festival. I walked slowly and perused the kiosks selling a narrow but colorful array of Russian souvenirs. I didn’t stop to buy, however because it looked mostly mass produced.

I also walked past the line to Lenin’s tomb, where he is preserved and laid out in a rather grotesque honorarium. Entrance to the monument is free, but there is no way to reserve an entry time, so people queue for hours for a chance to gawk at the dead body. I told myself it would be interesting if the line was short enough, but by the time I arrived around 10am, it was already all the way down the block and didn’t seem to be moving very fast.

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Tourist Stuff

St. Basil’s did not disappoint. It was crowded as heck, but it is a fun building. Everyone has seen at least one picture of the iconic colorful onion turrets and it was definitely a treat to see it in person. I wandered around trying to find the best angle for a photo, but since large swaths of the surrounding area were blocked off for the upcoming festival, it was a little challenging.

20180821_101349It’s possible to go inside for a fee, but online reviews all agreed that the cool part is on the outside. Bonus, there was a marching band practicing in the temporary stadium field nearby, so I got to watch a little bit of counter-marching through the fence and experience some serious cognitive dissonance as they played the 1812 Overture (for non-Americans, that’s because it’s a staple of our own Independence Day celebrations).

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Checking the clock, I realized it was time to head over to the gardens and try to find the entrance to the Kremlin. Only, because the entire breadth of Red Square was fenced off with a giant temporary stadium and lots of souvenir booths, I couldn’t follow my pre-planned route and Google maps was turning out to be f*ing useless. Once more I adopted the “pick a direction and walk” method, which resulted in me walking nearly all the way around the Kremlin, which is not a small building. In the middle of my walk, the sky went from a bit overcast to “wrath of Neptune”.

I always have my travel umbrella but it would not have withstood the torrential downpour that issued forth from the skies. Lucky me, at that precise moment, I happened to be passing under the only cover for several blocks in either direction, a bit of scaffolding along one corner of the Kremlin’s outer wall. Even standing under the scaffold with my back to the wall, I could feel the spray from the force of the rain around me. I sat there as other pedestrians scurried to the shelter and wondered if my plans to explore outdoors would be totally rained out, and what I could possibly do instead with no working internet. But before I could even really start to work it out, the rain slowed to a drizzle and I felt confident in resuming my walk armed with my little umbrella.

When I did reach the entrance, I found another huge line for the people who already had tickets, and I continued on through the gardens in search of the ticket office.

What’s With All These Lines?

I know there is a stereotype about lines in Russia. Or at least there was when I grew up in the cold war in America. We were told about how people had to just stand in long lines for hours to get bread, or sometimes not even knowing what was being passed out at the head of the line or if there would still be any by the time you got to the front of the line. They were communism horror stories told to show us how terrible the USSR was and how great America and capitalism were by contrast. I know it was propaganda, but I’m not sure it was untrue. I had already seen the huge line for Lenin’s tomb, but I knew that was a free event, and no way to buy tickets in advance.

Looking at the line to buy tickets to stand in the line to get in at the Kremiln was just insane. I freely admit that I ignored my note to myself in my calendar to book those tickets online in advance. Everything else in Europe I booked before I even left Korea, but Russia only takes reservations for the Kremlin 2 weeks in advance. While I was in Sweden. I made a note to do it, and I saw the note, and I ignored the note. My own fault. However, looking at the lines, I am not sure I would have made it through the “advance ticket line” even with enough time to really see anything.

I am a bit sad I didn’t get to see the Kremlin and especially the museum with the historical art and artifacts of pre-communist Russia. However, if I do make it back to Moscow, I will dedicate a whole day to the Kremiln alone, knowing what I know now.

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Fun With Costumes

Instead of sulking about it, I decided to move on and see what other fun things I could find. I was not disappointed. Shortly past the ticket office, the scenery livens up and I found some more public gardens, statues, fountains, and a quite charming pair of street entertainers dressed up in “historical” costumes and posing with tourists for tips. They made me smile and so I probably gave them more money than I should have, even though it was less than they asked for.

Continuing on I managed to find a slightly more accurate historical costume depiction where it seemed like a professional group was showing off the history of Russia and perhaps it’s trade partners with booths showing different herbs and spices, old astronomical tools and charts, paints and dyes, and other medieval type crafts and pursuits. It was all in Russian, though, so I wasn’t able to glean much from the informative talks the costumed historians were giving to the other folks in the park.

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Thwarted at Every Turn

After a quick gander at the statue of Karl Marx and the Bolshoi ballet because I was standing right there,

 
I headed up to the Metropol Hotel to see what I could find in the way of a fancy lunch. I had found a few places on line that seemed to indicate there was a high tea available, and while the website of the hotel still had it displayed in some places, the actual “high tea” page was not working. Still, I had seen the restaurant menu and knew it would be ok even if I just had lunch.

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The very first thing I saw was a bunch of construction and a sign saying the restaurant was CLOSED for repairs and upgrades. My optimism and adventurousness was wearing thin at the edges around now. So far, all of the things I’d set out to do with my very limited time in Moscow had either been harder than expected or totally impossible. I was also VERY hungry since the last meal I ate was a deli sandwich I got in Oslo the night before. I am not counting the bowl of sugar coated flakes at the hostel as a “meal”.

Clinging to the very last shreds of my “lets have a good time anyway” thoughts, I found the main entrance to the hotel to see if they were serving anything anywhere because I really didn’t know what else to do or where else I could go for a much needed lunch.

Although the staff at the hotel bar had no idea what tea ceremony I was talking about, (even though it’s on their website!) they were happy to seat me at a comfy chair in the lobby and bring me a menu. I ordered a “Stranger in Moscow” to drink, and salmon blinis for lunch.

The WiFi Is a Lie

When I went to explore the WiFi options, I discovered that the special nature of the Moscow airport WiFi was actually the rule of thumb for all Russian WiFi. I asked the staff if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant.

The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number. So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi, well, they are both right and wrong. The WiFi is free, but you can’t use it without that SIM + Russian phone number. If I had known, I would have made the SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!

This obstacle was suddenly one straw too many in a morning full of them and I slowly began to leak from the eyes. I try really hard not to sink into despair or self pity when things don’t go my way on a trip, but everyone has a wall, and it gets closer with things like lack of sleep and low blood sugar, both of which I was suffering from at the time. It’s likely that I would have recovered after a some food and a rest, but that day I didn’t have to do it alone. A very kind fellow solo-female traveler sitting one chair over asked if I was ok and invited me to join her. She let me vent a little about my morning and then we quickly moved on to talking about our travels and experiences.

Lunch is Saved!

It did so much to lift my spirits and we chatted all through a leisurely lunch. The blinis were nice, a little sweeter than I was expecting for a seafood pairing, but not really much different from crepes.. maybe a little more oily? but not unpleasantly so. Out of curiosity I looked up the difference, and it’s yeast. Blinis have it, crepes don’t. The smoked salmon was delicious, and even though I had eaten lots of it in Sweden, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Plus it was served with sour cream and salmon caviar so there was a nice blend of textures and flavors.20180821_122655

The Stranger in Moscow was a vodka drink made with Campari, ginger, and blackberry syrup. The presentation was stunning. The drink was quite different from the cocktails I have had before. It was more bitter than sweet which is usually a good thing for me and I attribute that to a healthy portion of the Campari, but there was a slight “cough syrup” aftertaste that I associate with Jagermeister or almost any cherry liquor. My best guess is that the type of blackberry syrup they used carried that flavor, which many people find appealing in drinks. It was also served with a tiny bowl of dark chocolate chips which made an excellent compliment to the drink. Quite a unique cocktail experience overall.

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My lunch companion told me about the book “Gentleman in Moscow” which is set in the Metropol Hotel and I am now on the wait list to check that out of the library. In case you’re curious, a standard room at the Metropol runs close to 150$ US/night, but my drink and lunch were a much more reasonable yet still high for Russia $27 US together. I still wish I could have found that tea ceremony, but I am happy with the experience I had, especially with company to make it better.


Here’s a little slideshow with more photos from the first half of my day in Moscow. Please pardon the lack of music. I’ve been using YouTube Editor, and recently it’s decided to delete everything good and useful from it’s online service and I haven’t found a replacement yet. Stay tuned for part 2 where I go “off the beaten path”.