Asia

Country no. 49 on my World Karaoke Tour: avoiding the wrath of Genghis Khan in Mongolia

Me in front of the equestrian statue of Genghis Khan, about 34 miles outside of Ulaanbaatar.

Not every mass-murderer gets an international airport named after him. But Genghis Khan wasn’t a run-of-the-mill genocidal dictator. He was a larger-than-life figure whose massive empire was the precursor to modern-day Mongolia, and who’s therefore regarded by Mongolians as kind of a founding father of their country and accorded commensurate respect. The fact that tens of millions of people died as a direct result of his commands – some as casualties in wars that were fought in his name, and some being outright murdered in extermination campaigns that he initiated – doesn’t detract from the esteem in which he’s held in Mongolia today.

In June 2017, I visited Mongolia’s capital, Ulanabaatar, as well as a couple of areas outside the city. As well, I sought to make Mongolia the 49th country on my World Karaoke Tour, after singing in Nepal and Bhutan during the preceding week and a half. Here’s the story of how my visit went.

Background: a little bit about Genghis Khan

Initially, it must be noted that Genghis Khan – or Chinggis Khaan, as Mongolians refer to him – was not the actual name of the medieval warlord who led the Mongol hordes; that moniker is an honorific meaning “Supreme Ruler.” When he entered this world in 1162, his birth name was Temujin. Although, I have to admit that “Temujin” doesn’t sound nearly as badass as Genghis Khan. šŸ™‚

Regardless of what you call him, Genghis has his defenders and was admittedly a complicated figure. In recent years, some historians have attempted to rehabilitate his image, seeking to contextualize the massive body count that resulted from his policies. For example, this video hails him as a unifier of rival clans. It also asserts that many of the cities that Genghis destroyed only met that fate when they rebelled after surrendering to him – as if their refusal to meekly submit to a warlord’s conquest could justify such wholesale slaughter. As you might have guessed, I don’t go along with the revisionist whitewashing of Genghis’s legacy. In my view, notwithstanding the purported justifications for his conduct, Genghis ranks on a short list of the most brutal and murderous people in history. And that doesn’t even include the melee he incited in a southern California shopping mall in the late 20th century. šŸ™‚

Yet in May 2017, to enter Mongolia, I flew into an airport that proudly bears his name. I mean, what’s next? Pol Pot International Airport in Cambodia? Josef Stalin International Airport in Russia? Adolf Hitler International Airport in Germany? Vlad the Impaler International Airport in Romania?

The airport that serves as the main gateway to Mongolia is named after one of history’s most prolific mass-murderers.

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Countries no. 47 and 48 on my World Karaoke Tour: H-Bomb in the Himalayas, in Nepal and Bhutan

Me in front of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro district, Bhutan.

I sang “Katmandu” in Kathmandu. And I’m excited to be able to say that. However, of the pair of songs that share the name of the city, I kind of wish I’d gone with the other one.

So how did I come to find myself in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital? Well, I was alighting there on my way to Bhutan, during an excursion to Asia in May 2017. Kathmandu is merely one of several cities from which you can fly to Bhutan’s international airport, which is in the town of Paro; but if Kathmandu is your point of departure, your flight path will include a segment during which you can enjoy a view of Mount Everest from above. So I availed myself of that flight option, reasoning that it might be the only time I would ever glimpse Everest from any altitude.

Monkeying around in Nepal

Now, Kathmandu itself is not the easiest of metropolises to reach — at least if you’re coming from North America. My itinerary was as follows: from my home base of New York City I flew to Beijing (which I had visited, and karaoked in, about a year earlier), and then after a couple of days there I proceeded to Bangkok. From Bangkok, I winged my way to Kathmandu.

A scene adjacent to the tarmac at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport.

Prior to my arrival, my preconceived vision of Kathmandu was of an exotic and mystical city, although admittedly I knew little about the place. When I got there, I found the streets to be dirty and dusty, and the traffic chaotic. I wasn’t a fan. Maybe I didn’t give Kathmandu enough of a chance; I’m not saying I wouldn’t return there if the opportunity arose. But it didn’t make a stellar first impression on me.

Incidentally, although Nepal contains some of the highest points on the planet (such as Everest — which straddles Nepal’s border with Tibet — as well as other portions of the Himalayan range), Kathmandu is situated in a valley called Nepal Mandala, and its elevation is a relatively pedestrian 4,600 or so feet. So I didn’t need to carry an oxygen mask around with me in Kathmandu. šŸ™‚ Nor did I need to worry about falling prey to the altitude sickness that I succumbed to in Cusco, Peru in 2013. Continue reading

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Country no. 46 on my World Karaoke Tour: everything is bigger in Dubai

This is a cheesy souvenir photo I purchased on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa. It was taken in front of a green screen, and the background was then superimposed.

Rising over one-half mile into the Dubai sky, the Burj Khalifa is currently the world’s tallest building, a superlative it’s claimed since 2008. (Sources disagree on the precise extent of the Burj Khalifa’s verticality; depending on which website you ask, its height is either 2,717 feet or 2,722 feet. Regardless, it’s fair to say that this particular edifice is damn tall.) At this writing, an even more skyscraping building, imaginatively dubbed The Tower, is under construction across town in Dubai, and is slated to be finished in 2020. The elevation at which The Tower will top out has not yet been determined, but is expected to exceed that of the Burj Khalifa. Both the Burj Khalifa and The Tower, however, will be dwarfed by the Jeddah Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — also on target for completion in 2020 — which is planned to ultimately soar to 3,307 feet above ground level. That’s a full kilometer!

While Dubai stands to lose the distinction of possessing the loftiest man-made structure on the planet, it will remain an embarrassment of riches for urban architecture geeks like me. In recent decades the city’s skyline has experienced explosive growth, to the point where Dubai now ranks third among all world cities in number of skyscrapers (defined as buildings at least 150 meters, or 490 feet, in height); as of this writing, Dubai boasts no fewer than 173 skyscrapers. (The two cities with even more skyscrapers than Dubai are Hong Kong and New York City.)

Architecture: new and old

A pair of stratospheric erections (Get your mind out of the gutter; I’m using the word “erection” as a synonym for “building”)

Obviously, the Burj Khalifa is — for now — the signature landmark not just of Dubai, but of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the nation to which that city belongs. Soaring above the many other skyscrapers of Dubai (at least until The Tower surpasses it), the Burj Khalifa is visible from points throughout the sprawling metropolis. Continue reading

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Country no. 45 on my World Karaoke Tour: increasing my Q-rating in Qatar

On Doha’s waterfront stands this statue of of Orry Oryx, a mascot who was created for the 2016 Asian Games (which were held in Doha). An oryx is a type of antelope.

What’s the correct way to pronounce “Qatar”? Prior to my brief visit to that tiny nation on the Arabian peninsula, I’d been under the impression that the proper pronunciation was something approximating “Cutter.” But when I was aboard my Qatar Airways flight from Amman, Jordan to Doha, Qatar in January 2017, the narrator of the safety video that was played before takeoff pronounced the name of the airline as “Kah-TAHR Airways” — thus creating an uncertainty in my mind. So I chatted up a couple of the flight attendants to discuss this issue. Those FA’s, residents of the nation in question, agreed with their employer’s video and told me that they too recite the name of their homeland as “Kah-TAHR.” While internet research reveals a continued divide on this issue (see, for example, the results of this google search), I’ve adopted the pronunciation adhered to by Qatar’s flag airline — and by actual Qataris who work for that carrier.

Karaoke and sightseeing in Doha

Regardless of the right way to orally identify the world’s only country whose English name begins with the letter “Q,” I spent a couple of nights in that country — and specifically in its capital city of Doha — during the first week of this year. It was a brief pass-through, shamelessly tacked on to my itinerary in the hopes that I could add another country to my World Karaoke Tour. šŸ™‚ Israel had become country no. 44 on that tour in the waning days of 2016; and after I failed to find karaoke during an otherwise spectacular sojourn in Jordan, it was my aspiration that Kah-TAHR or Cutter (as you prefer) would earn the distinction of becoming the 45th country in which I’d karaoked. Continue reading

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I was jonesing to see Petra. Indiana Jonesing, that is.

Me in front of the Monastery (Al-Deir) at Petra.

Prelude: the day and night before

The longest ride

On the first day of 2017, a taxi ferried me from Jordan’s capital city of Amman to Petra. You may wonder why I’d arranged for a taxi to cover the approximately 150 mile driving distance between Amman and Petra, when an inexpensive bus serves the same route. Well, the only bus between the two cities that runs in the Petra-bound direction departs from Amman daily at 6:30 a.m. I’m so not a morning person, and waking up sufficiently early to catch a bus at 6:30 in the morning was a non-starter for me — particularly given that the night prior to my departure for Petra was New Year’s Eve, and I’d been up fairly late ringing in the new 12-month period. So I’d said ixnay to the bus and decided instead to embark on the longest taxi ride of my life. It wasn’t bad, though; I was treated to some pretty scenery along the way, and my taxi had free wi-fi! What could have been an at-times monotonous ride flew by with the help of my constant Facebooking and Instagramming. šŸ™‚ Moreover, I became excited as we began to pass a series of road signs that marked the diminishing distance to my destination.

This sign informed me that only 20 kilometres now separated me from Petra!

Before I knew it, I was checking in to my hotel in Wadi Musa, a town nearby to the Petra archaeological site. Most of the area hotels are in Wadi Musa. Continue reading

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Country no. 44 on my World Karaoke Tour: this year in Jerusalem!

I’m not sure why it took me so long to finally make it to Israel. Although I’m an atheist, I was raised Jewish, and the “land of milk and honey” is therefore my ancestral homeland. Plus, the country is a bonanza for a history buff like me. Some of the earliest civilisations in the world arose in areas that are now encompassed within Israel’s borders.

Jerusalem, the capital city, is renowned as one of the most beautiful metropolises in the world (and when I visited, Jerusalem didn’t disappoint in that regard). It also played significant roles in the formation of three major world religions, and is still regarded as sacred by those religions’ adherents. Anyway, I visited Israel for the first time in my life in December 2016. When I did, and the expectations that I’d formed over several decades were matched to reality, I was impressed by my experience.

Singing in Jerusalem

The historical and cultural aspects of my initial sojourn in Israel will be covered in a future post, as they deserve a fuller discussion. But we all know what’s most important for this blog when I’m reminiscing about a destination. šŸ™‚ When I landed at Ben Gurion International Airport, I looked forward to adding Israel to my World Karaoke Tour. Just about a month earlier, Hungary had become the 43rd country in which I’d karaoked; and now I was eager to increase that country count once again! Continue reading

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A 2,200-year-old stone army and more: a brief visit to Xi’an, China

20160527_132453-01Maybe you can’t take it with you, but Qin Shi Huang (QSH) sure tried. The first emperor of a unified China, QSH directed the construction of thousands of terracotta warriors, assembled to protect him in the afterlife. This stone army — consisting of not only soldiers but also horses and even chariots — was interred with him in a vast necropolis when he departed from the mortal world in 210 or 209 B.C.

Eventually the burial site was lost to history, and it remained no more than the stuff of legend for over two millennia. Then, in 1974, QSH’s terracotta protection force was serendipitously discovered by a group of farmers who were digging for a well in what is today the city of Xi’an. The archaeological site has become a museum complex where you can explore some of the massive pits that have been unearthed, and view the terracotta fighting units arrayed therein.

When I made my first voyage to China in May 2016, an excursion to Xi’an was on the agenda, principally so that I could view the terracotta army — although Xi’an is actually a city of nearly 9 million inhabitants that offers a variety of attractions. Because I was there for one main reason, I hadn’t alotted much time for the city, and consequently I didn’t see very much of Xi’an’s other points of interest. Here’a an account of my activities during my two night stay. Continue reading

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Country no. 42 on my World Karaoke Tour: singing inside the Axis of Evil in North Korea

selfie2016 marks the quarter-century anniversary of my taking up karaoke. On my birthday in March 1991 I sang karaoke for the first time; and during the ensuing summer I first began to embrace karaoke as a passion. You can read more here about how I got started as a karaokeist. Never during those formative days of my obsession did I imagine that I’d embarked on a journey that would one day culminate in my performing karaoke in North Korea.

And yet, although my singing appearance in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, which is what North Korea officially calls itself) was 25 years in the making, I almost blew it. Things worked out in the end, but I’ll never know just how close I came to screwing up my chance to sing in North Korea. This post discusses how my stupid mistake put my long-anticipated trip to North Korea in jeopardy; then it covers what happened when I finally got the chance to sing inside a totalitarian state.

Prologue: I don’t want this plane to land

June 4, 2016
About 2:15 pm Standard Time of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

As Air Koryo flight 752 from Beijing made its final approach to Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, I grabbed my daypack from under the seat in front of me. Anticipating my passage through immigration, I wanted to gather together all the documents that I’d need to present upon entering the airport: my passport, my entry visa, and the three landing cards I’d filled out during the flight. As the first step, I unzipped the compartment in the front of my daypack in which I always carry my passport when Iā€™m in transit.

The passport wasn’t in there. Continue reading

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Taipei unplugged: highlights of my stay in the Taiwanese capital

small Taiwan mapMy introduction to Taipei in late May to early June of 2016 was memorable in part because I sang in a karaoke taxi in that city — thereby making Taiwan the 41st country on my World Karaoke Tour. But I wasn’t only there to sing. A city of some 2.7 million inhabitants — the capital and largest city of the island nation of Taiwan — beckoned me to explore it!

My sojourn in Taipei came in the midst of a vacation during which I checked off two bucket list items (the Great Wall of China, and the Terracotta Army in the Chinese city of Xi’an), and which culminated in my tour of North Korea, a country rarely visited by Westerners. It would have been easy for Taipei to be overshadowed by such high-profile destinations. Nevertheless, Taipei left just as much of an impression on me as any of my other stops in East Asia this past spring. Moreover, as you’ll see, my visit to Taipei lasted slightly longer than planned, although the circumstances that extended my time on Taiwanese soil weren’t necessarily a positive highlight. šŸ™‚

Taipei 101: a skyscraper like no other

As an architecture geek who’s enamoured of supertall skyscrapers (“supertall” being a classification that applies to edifices at least 300 metres, or 984 feet, in height), one attraction that I particularly looked forward to checking out while in town was the Taipei 101 building. Indeed, I even chose a hotel across the street from it. Taipei 101 didn’t let me down.

Getting to know the building

Opened to the public on the last day of 2004, Taipei 101 stands 1,474 feet tall at its roof, and 1,671 feet tall at the tip of its spire. From the time of its completion until 2009, it was the tallest building in the world; that title was wrested from it by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which I’ll be seeing in person in early 2017. šŸ™‚ As for Taipei 101, its distinctive profile has been likened to a series of Chinese food takeaway boxes, piled one on top of another; it’s also evocative of multiple levels of that most traditional of Asian architectural genres, the pagoda. Further contributing to its unique appearance is its green hue. Incidentally, its name derives rather prosaically from the fact that it rises 101 floors above ground. (It also has five subterranean levels, which house a parking garage.)

My very first first daytime activity after arriving in Taipei was an ascension to Taipei 101’s observatories. It boasts indoor observation decks on the 88th and 89th floors, and an outdoor observation platform on the 91st floor. That outdoor observatory encircles the building at an altitude of 1,285 feet — the second-highest alfresco viewing platform of any skyscraper in the world. Continue reading

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Country no. 41 on my World Karaoke Tour: hello again, Taiwan!

02_0063_6X8DFinding a place where you can sing karaoke in public, in front of a live audience, is surprisingly difficult in much of Asia. On that continent, it’s far more common to come across establishments with private rooms that people rent by the hour with their friends or business associates — and where they sing only to their companions. During my recent visits to China and Taiwan, such “private room” facilities — known as “KTV” clubs — proved ubiquitous in those destinations. In contrast, in both of those countries, I couldn’t find a single venue that provides the opportunity to perform karaoke in public. This proved to be the case even in extremely populous cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

In an upcoming post, I’ll address how I got around that difficulty in mainland China. In Taiwan, however, the solution proved particularly exciting: I sang in a karaoke-equipped taxi! Doing that had special meaning for me because I have a history of karaokeing in taxicabs — and that history even includes a connection to Taiwan. So let me back up a little bit and share the backstory.

Prologue: singing on the road in my nation’s capital

Flash back to November 2011. During that month, I spent an afternoon as a passenger in a taxicab operated by Filipino expat Joel Laguidao in Washington, DC. That taxi was outfitted with karaoke equipment, which I made full use of as Joel drove my friend and me around the city of Washington. The full story of how that ride came about is recounted in this blog post, which also includes links to videos from that ride. Suffice it to say that I didn’t stumble by accident upon Mr. Laguidao’s karaoke cab; I tracked him down after having sought for years to experience the thrill of karaokeing in a moving vehicle. Continue reading

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Ten things I’m looking forward to in 2016 (and a couple more that I’m hoping for)

42762094_sI think it’s fair to say that any year when you undergo heart surgery is a rough one. By that standard, 2015 was challenging for me. Not that the year was without its magical moments; seeing Angkor Wat and Mount Rushmore in person were certainly bucket list experiences, and after I recovered from my operation I increased the number of countries on my World Karaoke Tour to 39 by singing in Rome.

On a non-travel-related note, in July I moved to a new apartment — still in Manhattan, but in a much better building, with far superior management to the slumlords who own the apartment that I vacated, and in a nicer neighbourhood. My new residence provides me with more pleasant surroundings — a big plus, since on the vast majority of my days I’m not off globetrotting, but am hanging out in my home base of New York City where I work full-time as a lawyer.

Me at Mount Rushmore in July 2015.

Me at Mount Rushmore in July 2015.

So with my surgery 110 days in the past, 2015 is ending on a high note for me; and as the world prepares to begin using its 2016 calendars, I have heaps of exciting plans for the year ahead. Here are the things that I’m most looking forward to in the upcoming 366 days (remember, ’16 is a leap year!):

1. Charleston, South Carolina for New Year’s

Tomorrow I’ll be flying to Charleston, South Carolina; it’ll be my first-ever visit to this city in the southern U.S. that I’ve long sought to experience. In 2014, readers of Conde Naste Traveler magazine voted Charleston the no. 1 city in the U.S. to visit, and the no. 2 city in the world to visit. I look forward to finding out firsthand why Charleston makes such a spectacular impression on its visitors. While in town, I’ll be taking in historical sights as well as reconnecting with some old friends who reside in the area. And Charleston is where I’ll be ringing in the new year. Because this is a karaoke travel blog, I feel obligated to mention one more aspect of what’s in store for my sojourn in Charleston: either in the last days of 2015 or the very beginning of 2016, South Carolina will become the 21st U.S. state in which I’ve sung karaoke! (Technically, my tally will then stand at 20 U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, which lacks statehood status. But I’m trying to keep things simple here. šŸ™‚ )

Stock photo of some historic homes in Charleston, South Carolina.

Stock photo of some historic homes in Charleston, South Carolina — the city in which I’m going to start 2016!

Continue reading

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Country no. 38 on my World Karaoke Tour: I was a Seoul man in South Korea

IMG_20150109_174838At the tail end of my 2 1/2 week excursion to East Asia, I ended up spending two nights in the South Korean capital of Seoul before catching my Korean Air flight back to New York. Earlier in the trip, Thailand and Singapore had already become the latest additions to my World Karaoke Tour; and while my intervening time in Cambodia had been disappointingly bereft of karaoke, I hoped that in Seoul I could finally increase the count of countries in which I’ve sung to 38.

Despite Seoul’s sprawling size (it’s a city of some 10 million people), I had difficulty finding a venue that met my requirement of allowing me to sing in public before an audience, as opposed to to the “private room” style of karaoke that’s so prevalent in that part of the world. (Private-room karaoke in South Korea is called noraebang, and is an insanely popular form of entertainment there.)

Happily, I did find one Western-style establishment that provides the opportunity to sing in public on a stage; and one is all that I needed. šŸ™‚ Continue reading

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Cambodia: spiders and snakes but no karaoke for me in Siem Reap

anchored at AngkorAfter adding Thailand and Singapore to my World Karaoke Tour, I aimed to make Cambodia the 38th country in which I’ve done karaoke. What had motivated me to go to Cambodia — and specifically, to the city of Siem Reap — was the chance to see a bucket list attraction, the Angkor Wat Temple. Things didn’t quite go according to plan. By the time I left Siem Reap, I had failed to sing karaoke; and although I made it to Angkor Wat, that temple has not been crossed off my bucket list, for reasons that I’ll explain.

No singing in Siem Reap

The main nightlife thoroughfare in downtown Siem Reap is Pub Street. As its name implies, that avenue is lined with pubs, as well as restaurants. The area also abounds with vendors hawking street food. And one end of Pub Street intersects with the night market, a strip of stores that offer a wide variety of souvenirs.

Pub Street in Siem Reap.

Pub Street in Siem Reap.

Perhaps the most unusual street food peddlers (compared to what I’d encountered in prior travels) operated a cart whose culinary offerings included tarantulas and fried snakes. Continue reading

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 59: people taking selfies at Angkor Wat

During the past week, I participated in a personality interview via Skype which served as the third round of the audition process for a nationally televised quiz show. I’ll let you know if things go any further with that. (And yes, during that interview, I name-checked this blog, as well as mentioning my World Karaoke Tour.) šŸ™‚

Anyway, this week’s featured image comes from my recent visit to the Angkor archaeological site near Siem Reap, Cambodia — and, specifically, from the Angkor Wat temple that is so identified with Cambodia that it appears on the national flag. The temple’s towers — one central tower, rising to a height of 213 feet, surrounded by four shorter towers — form a distinctive and recognizable profile. Visitors enjoy documenting their pilgrimages to the site:

document

(And yes, I realize that the photos being taken as depicted above aren’t true “selfies,” as they’re being taken by persons other than the subjects. But I did see plenty of people using the now-ubiquitous selfie sticks in front of the temple.)

The temple was built in the 12th century. The city of Angkor of which it was a part was the capital of the Khmer empire and at its peak may have boasted more than a million inhabitants; indeed, it is claimed that Angkor was the largest city in the world prior to the Industrial Revolution. Today, that former megalopolis, and the copious ruins that it contains, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Is Angkor Wat on your bucket list?

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H-Bomb’s Sunday photo, week 58: the White Temple in Thailand

I just enjoyed a satisfying couple of days attending the New York Times Travel Show. But it’s that time of week where I share an image from one of my voyages outside of New York City.

This week’s featured photo comes from Chiang Rai, Thailand. The Wat Rong Khun (known informally as the White Temple), was built in the style of a Buddhist temple, by an eccentric Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, in 1997. Actually I shouldn’t say “built” in the past tense; new buildings and bizarre artworks continue to sprout on the site. The focal point of the property is the temple (also known as the ubosot) that’s painted in white and covered with fragments of glass.

white temple edited

This photo was taken during my visit to Thailand in December 2014.

Would you like to visit the White Temple?

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