A Travellerspoint blog

One Night in Beijing

To scale the Great Wall of China

After visiting India and the Taj Mahal, the next world famous destination I simply had to get off my bucket list has to be the Great Wall of China. And after procrastinating for so long, often disappointed by lack of interest from friends, I finally decided to take the plunge and fulfil my long awaiting desire to scale the Great Wall. And the best place to visit the Great Wall will be through the capital city of Beijing. This trip was made easier with the help of my colleagues from Beijing, who have given me a lot of pointers and even helped me to arrange for transport to visit the Great Wall. For that I am eternally grateful. Here's a big thank you especially to Zhu Xin and Fang Min.

Beijing city itself also consists of 3 other Unesco World Heritage sites which I also took this opportunity to explore. Armed with a sense of adventure and my ability to speak Mandarin, I finally set off for my first visit to China without joining any group tour. There were initial fears and uncertainty but as I soon found out, these were very much unfounded.

Beijing City
Being the capital city of China, it is not surprising to see Beijing being swamped by people. Beijing is well served by an extensive network of interconnecting subway lines (I counted 15 lines in all), buses and taxis, although road conditions and terrible traffic jams will push most people towards taking the train. Everything in Beijing is huge, even the airport is mega size and I was also a bit lost because of this. This was also one of few airports where I had to take a train to another part of the airport to claim my luggage. And it took me a while to figure out where the exit was. So imagine its size!

Mandarin is still the predominant spoken language. There are very little English signs. Road signs and subway train stations are decoded in hanyu pinyin but for those who know Chinese, you will find it a chore to read (as they can be long and cumbersome and sometimes makes no sense if you read too fast since they are joint together) and would rather just look at the Chinese characters. Even menu in fast food restaurants like McDonalds and KFC are in Chinese language. So for those who cannot read Chinese may have to resort to using pictures to order your food. I was told by my colleagues that with better standard of education young people can speak some English but I didn’t test it since I do not have a language issue. So language is definitely still a heavy barrier for non-Mandarin speakers.

Other than language problems for non-Mandarin speakers, Beijing is relatively safe. You can feel secured even if out walking late at night. This is a good training ground for those who want to go free and easy route but do not have the confidence to do so.

One thing I have to praise Beijing (or anywhere in China in general) is the way they run tourism. They make it very easy for tourists travelling on their own to reach major attractions which are all well connected by public transport. They also spent a lot of money doing restoration and building proper foot paths for easy walking. There are also attempts to create English explanations at various exhibits so that non-Chinese speakers can also understand the history and significance of each exhibit on display. If any negative points however, is that they are so good at what they do that you tend to have an inevitable sense of overly commercialization. Good example will be many side exhibits within a tourist attraction that requires additional entrance fees. Often, these 'extras' are the cream of the crop that one is here to see and missing it is as good as not coming to the attraction. Sometimes you can buy an all inclusive ticket, which costs a bit more; sometimes these are not available and additional tickets have to be purchased separately.

Subway
As mentioned earlier, Beijing is well served by an extensive interconnecting subway lines, inclusive train services to airport, although the journey can be long and incisive of spending time interchanging between stops. Every major area place of interest or tourist attraction is reachable by subway line and some stops are so close to each other that they can even be reached on foot. In fact it is so convenient to reach most places that this is one of few cities that you can brazenly walk around without holding a street map! Of course one still needs to have a general sense of direction and know exactly where to go before attempting to move around without a street map. Inside and outside train stations there are also good signage and maps of the local area (although not as extensive) that one can make reference to before reaching intended destination. And of course when in doubt, no matter which country you are in, always ask the locals!

The train rides are also cheap, at an average cost of RMB 4-5 per trip. Trains are also the best way to beat the road traffic jams. For convenience purposes, do get an stored-value IC card which can be purchased at the airport interchange. Otherwise train tickets will have to be purchased for every single ride, which will be a hassle. Unused amounts can be refunded (at selected stations only though) before one departs from Beijing.

However, with so many intersecting lines, it can get confusing and one has to know where the various train lines and interchanging stops are so as to better plan the travel route. To solve this problem, one can download the interactive Beijing subway line app. By just typing in the name of the station it will immediately zoom you to the location of the station, saving you the hassle of trying to figure out which station belongs to which line. The app I downloaded even have comments from other users which provided useful information on nearby attractions for each individual station and how to reach there! This app is definitely a must have for easy navigation purposes.

Security is tight at all train stations. For all stations all bags have to pass through an x-ray machine. This is part and parcel of life in modern Beijing. In high profile areas like Olympic village and Tiananmen Square, one even has to pass through a metal detector and is subjected to body search. Even water in bottles are subjected to tests and you may be asked to take a sip!

One thing about the Beijing subway line is that it is always crowded. For most times, there are no seats and one has to stand. Also distances between interchange can be long so you have to do a lot of walking. This is especially a problem if one is dragging luggage or carrying heavy items. Escalators are available inside stations but not necessary outside of the stations. So climbing stairs is inevitable

But overall the train service is fast, efficient and orderly. Plus it is cheap. Definitely a good way to move around

Main attractions

Great Wall of China (UNESCO)
The say 万里长城长又长 (The Great Wall is long and long). Built with the original intention to ward off Mongol invaders, the walls stretch up to over 8,000 km and cover at least 6 provinces and right into the desert. Hence it is virtually impossible for mere mortals like us to cover the entire stretch. Usually the most favored way to visit the Great Wall is a trip Beijing where several sections of the wall are open to the public. There are also many day tours on offer that depart from Beijing but beware of touts or deliberately planned journeys with shopping trips which will end up wasting your time should you sign up for one

For this trip, I covered both Badaling (八达岭) and Mutianyu (慕田峪) stretch of the Wall

Badaling (八达岭)
This is by far the easiest section of the Great Wall to go on your own without joining any pesky group tours. For directions, take subway Line 2 to Ji Shui Tan (积水潭). Exit from Exit A, turn left and continue walking. You should see a bus interchange on your left but this is not the one you should go to. Instead continue waling until you reach a cross junction, then cross the road to reach another interchange and take bus 877 express (one stop service to the wall). Buses run in morning at regular intervals. But be sure to be early to beat the crowds and also if you wish to spend more time at the Wall. Cost is RMB 6 (one way) by using IC card.

Badaling is by far the most famous stretch of the wall simply because of its easy access and gentle gradient. Unfortunately, as it is too easily reachable, this is also the most crowded, especially on weekends and public holidays. In order to save the queuing time and some money, it is suggested that one proceed to the great wall entrance by foot instead of taking cable car or the slide car. The distance to the main wall entrance by foot is actually not far at all. Just take a morning stroll and enjoy the scenery
Badaling Great Wall - crowded as compared to Mutianyu

Badaling Great Wall - crowded as compared to Mutianyu

Due to its popularity, the wall is extremely well preserved. Scaling it is also less strenuous as there are fewer slopes to navigate. Do start by walking towards the left side of the wall. As you walk further, the crowds get thinner which will then be a good time for photo opportunities. Eventually you will reach the end of the public access area where it is time to turn back.
Another view of Badaling Great wall - less crowded as you move away

Another view of Badaling Great wall - less crowded as you move away


The other stretch, on the right side is full of people. One can continue to walk as much as your legs can carry you and there are many side exits which allows visitors to exit and return to the main entrance

Mutianyu (慕田峪)
It is certainly less accessible than its more famous neighbor but certainly not impossible to reach. Thanks to my colleague, we had transport to pick us up all the way to the main site so I did not have a chance to try going on my own. There is quite a distance to walk from the base to the main entrance so it is advisable to take the internal bus (cost RMB 15 2-way)

Mutianyu Great Wall is definitely less crowded but more strenuous, due to its steeper gradient and numerous slopes. But if you are a photo person, this will be a better choice.
Mutianyu - less crowded

Mutianyu - less crowded


The walls here are also more ‘natural’ as compared to Badaling, which seems to be too artificially restored. I had a field day scaling the wall without having to bump into so many people. It was, in short a surreal experience. You can just stand there and marvel at this ancient structure where there seem to be no end in sight and wondering “Am I really here?” For resting points, the watchtowers in various sections serve as a natural cooling stop for people to escape from the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter (冬暖夏凉). However, it is sad to note that graffiti continues to be a problem and many areas of the wall have inscriptions on them by inconsiderate people.

To conclude, the Great Wall is really an amazing structure which seems to stretch no boundaries. To be able to step on it and then look as far as your vision allows that seems to have no end is something I will never forget. This is one structure that surely is not to be missed. it My personal favourite will be Mutinyu simply because it is less crowded and more in its natural form. But be prepared for a strenuous workout! Because there is a lot of walking involved, do wear comfortable shoes and clothing. And do not forget the camera!
Mutianyu Great Wall - very steep steps

Mutianyu Great Wall - very steep steps


There is of course other stretches of the wall that are for the more adventurous that one can hike for longer distances but for people like me, these two stretches are more than sufficient. After all, the wall is more than 8,000 km long!

Forbidden City (UNESCO)
Directions: To reach, take the train (line 1) to either Tiananmen East or Tiananmen West station. From there, just follow the mass crowd. It is impossible to miss it

This used to be the imperial palace of the Emperor and ordinary folks were banned from entering, hence the name ‘Forbidden City’. With the collapse of Imperial China, it has since been converted in to a museum and subsequently renamed the Palace Museum.
This is a big compound rich in history and will take at least half a day to explore. Do explore the architectural design of each building as well as the intricate carvings of each building. However, the Forbidden City is always crowded as a result of mass invasion of tourists, especially on weekends and holidays. My experience in the Forbidden City was hence not as pleasant as I hoped to be.

Forbidden City and its mass crowds

Forbidden City and its mass crowds

There are three important halls in the Forbidden City that one will see upon entrance. Once you enter the compound, you will see TaiHeDian (太和殿) or the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This is the most important of the 3 main halls where major ceremonies and occasions are held.
Behind TaiHeDian will be ZhongHeDian (中和殿) (Hall of Central Harmony), this served as a resting place for the emperor before he proceeded to TaiHeDian for major ceremonies and occasions.

Taihedian - One of the main Halls in Forbidden City

Taihedian - One of the main Halls in Forbidden City

Lastly will be BaoHeDian (保和殿)(Hall of Preserved Harmony) where it served as the venue for royal banquets.
These 3 halls are one of the grandest in the complex, with some of the most beautiful artwork, decorations and carvings that you can see. Unfortunately, the interior is out of bounds to visitors, although one can jostle with the mass crowds (if you can squeeze your way past them) for a photo opportunity.

The rest of the halls are smaller in size which mainly serve as residences for concubines and consorts which I will not go into details. Out of these, the one that came most to mind is YanXiGong (延喜宫) This was the only one where it was not red in colour (white) and as of today remains the only uncompleted structure

What I would now like to bring to the reader’s attention is the 2 additional paid exhibits located inside the compound which I feel is worth a visit. At least group tours are unlikely to visit them and this will be an excellent place to avoid mass crowds. Besides that there are some wonderful exhibits that are really worth seeing.

(a) 珍宝馆 (Treasure Gallery)
This is where bulk of the imperial treasures is stored, although it is said most of the treasures have been relocated to Taiwan’s National Museum during the battle between Nationalists and Communists. But still there are enough imperial artifacts worth seeing. Alongside with the navigational guide this is where laymen like me can really enjoy the exhibits with description and history of most items explained automatically as you move along via the navigational guide.
But the highlight is still to see the Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁). This is a beauty by itself. Do take some nice pictures.
Nine Dragon Screen

Nine Dragon Screen

(b) 钟表馆 (Hall of Clocks and Watches)
This is one of my favorite exhibits in the Forbidden City. With the Qing Emperor’s obsession for clocks, it is not surprising to see an elaborate collection of clocks (I didn’t see any watches though) in this museum. Watch making influences comes from both internally (such as Suzhou and Guangzhou) and European influence (Swiss, French and English just to name a few). In modern days I don’t think one will ever see such overly elaborate clocks with each and every item carved by master clock makers. There are even timing where museum staff will set the clocks ticking and let visitors see how the clocks work, although I missed this part. Definitely worth a visit.
A section of clocks on display

A section of clocks on display

Tips for visit: Be sure to grab a navigational guide, which is available various languages. It not only serves as a map to guide visitors through the maze of the compound, it also provides commentary at various points of interest. Especially inside the Treasure Gallery and the Hall of Clocks and Watches, it also provides description of various items on display. Unfortunately, as it works by GPS tracking technology, some of the commentary is so long that one has to stay put and not move away otherwise the commentary will be lost if the GPS fails to pick up the signal.

Note: Please bring along passport. I noted the ticket seller entering personal particulars of visitors into the system when purchasing a ticket. Also the Forbidden City is closed on Mondays except for public holidays and summer holidays of July and August. And of course avoid coming on weekends and major holidays. Your experience will be ruin by mass crowds

Summer Palace (UNESCO)
Directions: Take subway line 4, get off at BeiGongMen (北宫门) and exit from Exit D. Afterwards, turn left and continue walking until you reach the entrance

The Summer Palace is the favourite haunt of Empress Dowager Cixi. Much of it was elaborately built after the destruction of the Old Summer Palace and the style and layout heavily influenced by the whims and fancies of the Empress Dowager. There is also a big lake surrounding it. This is another huge compound which can easily take hours to explore. Like the Forbidden City, it is also very crowded, although you can still find quiet spots to enjoy some peace and calm.

Do buy the full ticket which will give you access to all the gardens and palaces in the compound. Otherwise one will find through access being blocked or additional entrance fees have to be paid in order to further access the compound.
paranormic shot from top of 佛香阁

paranormic shot from top of 佛香阁

Below are some of the notable compounds
(a) 德和圆 (DeHe Yuan)–This is a theatre complex where the Empress Dowager, a big theatre fan, gets her fix by watching actors perform in plays and shows
(b) 文昌院 (WenChangYuan)– It is a museum whereby various artifacts belonging to the Palace and Empress Dowager are displayed. The highlight is a first generation motor car given by Yuan Shi Kai as a gift to the Empress Dowager. And the Empress was certainly impressed as this was the first time she had a transport not powered by the leg muscles of horses!
(c) 佛香阁 (FoXiangGe)– This is where most offerings and prayers are held. This is also where one can get a paranormic view of the entire Summer Palace complex

佛香阁 - One of the main structures in Summer Palace

佛香阁 - One of the main structures in Summer Palace

(d) 排云殿 (PaiYunDian)– Not far from FoXiangGe is the location whereby the extravagant birthday celebrations of the Empress Dowager are being held. In this complex you still can see the elaborate birthday presents received by Cixi herself. However, most of these are under lock and key so visitors can only peer at it through a window.
(e) 苏州街 (SuZhouJie)– This is a Venice-style street, with a pile of shophouses encircling a mini canal. Most of the shops are in still in operation and sell various souvenirs and food to tourists
(f) 谐 趣园 (XieQuYuan)– This is a big garden with a mini lake in between. Very peaceful and serene. There are also black swans imported from Australia moving in the lake

Parks
Beijing has many parks which are worth dropping by if one has the time. Do incorporate some of them into the itinerary to get a slice of local life. I myself have also visited 3 of them

YuanMingYuan (圆明园)
Directions: Take subway line 4 to圆明园 (YuanMingYuan) is it actually not far from the Summer Palace and a visit can be incorporated after a visit to the Summer Palace.

Ruins of YuanMingYuan - humiliating reminder of Imperial China defeat

Ruins of YuanMingYuan - humiliating reminder of Imperial China defeat


This is the location of the Old Summer Palace, constructed with European architectural influences, which has since been converted into a park. The park is big mainly due to a huge lake in the middle which forces people to go round it instead of cutting across. The highlight is to see the ruins of YuanMingYuan, a humiliating reminder of Imperial China history where British and French forces invaded the palace, looted and burnt the place down. I understand it is still being used by the Chinese Government as part of National Education.

Beihai (北海)Park
This is another big park favoured by locals, the highlight being a big white stupa located in the middle of the park. There is also a Nine Dragon Screen although I did not get to see it.

TianTan (天坛)Park (UNESCO)
This is a park worth visiting by itself. On the exterior, locals congregate to dance, play badminton, sing, play cards and other social activities. It reminds me of People’s Park in Cheng Du.

For visitors like us, the must-go place will be the QiNianDian (祈年殿)(Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest), a UNESCO World Heritage building (note that additional entrance fees payable otherwise get the all-inclusive ticket). It is a circular temple structure and as the name suggests, used by the Emperor to pray for good harvest in one of the most important and elaborate ceremonies of the calendar year. This building was constructed entirely of wood without a nail used and is a great beauty by itself. You will never get tired of seeing it and has be to one of the representation of Beijing. There are also exhibits showcasing the history and purpose of the hall, including how ceremonies are being conducted.
祈年殿 - Masterpiece of a structure

祈年殿 - Masterpiece of a structure

Shopping Streets
There are several places of interest for the shopping die-hards and I have been to 4 of them.

Dongdan 东单
This is the more glitzy, higher- end mall very much like Tokyo’s Ginza, Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele or Singapore’s Orchard Road. This is where most shopping malls congregate and higher-end and branded stuff sold. Rather expensive and definitely not suitable for people looking for a bargain.

Qianmen 前门
This is a more subtle pedestrian street located close to TianAnMen Square. At nights it can get rather crowded. This is a good place to shop for souvenirs and snacks. For foodies, there is a food street where diners can have their pick of local cuisines and affordable prices. Unfortunately most menus are in Chinese. This is also where Madam Tussaud Beijing is located.

Wangfujing 王府井
This is a cross between Dongdan and Qianmen. There are big shopping malls and shops along this pedestrian street. It leans more towards the higher end scale. I only visited it once and decided not to return again as there seems to be nothing interesting to entice me.

NanLuoGu Xiang 南罗鼓巷
Not sure if you will call this a shopping belt but I have indicated it here. This is a place where you can catch Beijing Hutong (side alleys with low buildings), a rare side nowadays with the rapid industrialization of the city resulting in high rise buildings popping up everywhere. People still live here so visitors are reminded not to encroach of the privacy of residents. Along the entire stretch you can find shops selling all sorts of stuff. This is also a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of Beijing city life, enjoy some peace and and just sit down relax and enjoy a cuppa.
南罗鼓巷

南罗鼓巷

Other Places of Interest

Tiananmen Square
Due to the significance of this Square, security, as expected is extremely tight. One not only has to go through the usual x-ray machine scan but also metal detector, body pat downs and even water test (to make sure you are not carrying explosive liquids, I presume).

For those who do no not know the background or history of this place will just feel that this is just a big parade square and nothing much. At no place can you find any mention of the significance of this square and definitely nothing that suggested the protests that took place here in 1989 and ended with the June 4 incident (not going to dwell too much on this. One can always research online to find out more if one is interested). You will get to see lots of people strolling around and especially going to the section where 2 sentry stand guard over the raised flag of China. At the background is the entrance to the Forbidden City with a big portrait of Chairman Mao overlooking the Square. I was there in time to witness the changing of guards (simple ceremony) but did not mange to catch the flag lowering ceremony.

Tiananmen Square - with big flag of China in background

Tiananmen Square - with big flag of China in background

Nearby will be the China National museum as well as the mausoleum of Chairman Mao

YongheGong (雍和宫) / Confucius Temple
This is a Lama temple, said to be the biggest in Beijing. It is divided into 5 sections where devotees can offer their prayers to Buddha. The highlight will be the 4-storey tall Buddha statue made of sandlewood (said to be a Guinness records for tallest sandlewood statue) right at the end of the temple. Usually I try not to take pictures of Buddhist figurines in temples; this time I succumb to my desires to log down this memory.

Nearby YongHeGong is the Confucius Temple, showcasing the teachings and philosophies of this great teacher. To say this is a temple is not entirely correct is Confucianism is more of a philosophy than a religion; besides there are no statues placed in a temple like environment for people to pray. Besides that there are also exhibits showcasing the spread of Confucianism and how this influenced other East Asian and even Western philosophy teachings. It is interesting so do drop by if one has the time.

Bird’s Nest stadium
The stage of the 2008 Olympics. Do go there to see the stadium lightings at night. It is beautiful. For those who are interested to step into the stadium, you will have to make your way there in the day. Besides the stadium, there is also a park like atmosphere where visitors can relax and stroll around. There is also a shopping mall nearby, although I did not visit it due to time constrains.

Finally it was time to wrap up my 6 day visit. Because of its safety and ease of travel, I certainly do not mind coming back again. And of course to scale the Great Wall again on another day. For my next trip I definitely will also want to cover the neighbouring municipality of Tianjin, which I did not go this time due to insufficient research. That will be another write-up for another day.

For now, I leave Beijing with found memories. To take a pun from Bobby Chan's song of same name "One Night in Beijing, I left a lot of memories behind".

Posted by acerchuan 02:39 Archived in China Comments (0)

San Siro Magic

My First Trip to Europe

all seasons in one day 10 °C

Europe has always been one of the places that I wanted to go since I started work. Unfortunate due to lack of money, followed by lack of time and then lack of interest from friends, I had been postponing this trip year after year. That was until one fine day when of my old classmates sent me a message asking if I was interested to go to Italy and Switzerland. Even though Italy was not my first choice and I would also prefer to cover Germany as part of this trip, I simply could not turn down this proposal! But in the end due to work commitments (can’t take so many days leave) and the freezing cold, I chose to skip Switzerland and settled for a 12-day coverage of Italy.

For this trip, we chose to go by the following route.
Milan=> Venice=> Pisa=> Cinque Terra=> Florence=> Rome=> Pompeii=> Milan

Venice (Venizia)
After months of planning and painfully waiting for time to tick by, the day finally came! We took an SQ direct flight and after 13-hours of half-sleep, eating and movie marathon, we finally reached Milan. Our first stop for the trip was Venice. From Milan Central train Station, it took us about 2hrs 30 min by train to reach Venice St Lucia station. Venice really lived up to its name as a beautiful city with its own unique charm that other water cities that have tried to emulate its concept simply cannot replicate. The first sight that greeted us was crowds of tourists enjoying the surroundings. It is a walking city totally devoid of cars so the only way to travel around is either by foot or by boat. However, we needed to luger our baggage around while looking for our hotel (a common occurrence amongst tourists in Venice as I soon found out) and it took us a good 30 minutes of getting lost, asking around, backtracking and feeling our way around while dragging our luggage around before we found it. But once settled down and freshened up, we finally had time to slowly immerse ourselves into this beautiful city.

Venice is built around an island connected by footpaths and waterway. So the best way to immerse yourself into the city is to spend one full day there and then taking slow and leisurely walks through town. As mentioned earlier, the city itself does not have cars so there is no need to watch your back for traffic. Everybody moved at a slow pace while enjoying the surroundings and there were even many walking their dogs. But the footpaths are a little bit uneven so it is quite a challenge not to mention tiring if you need to drag your luggage across town.

Venice

Venice

After a good night’s rest, we were blessed with cool weather in our full day in Venice. We decided to take a slow leisurely walk through town instead of the water bus to bask in the sights of this city. Along the way we passed many small shops selling food and souvenirs. Along the way we also covered the Rialto Bridge, one of the features of Venice. But our main objective was to cover St Mark’s Square (inclusive St Marco Basilica & St Mark’s Bell Tower), the largest square in the city. This was a beauty in itself. What I like about it was the laid-back activities in the square with people taking pictures, strolling around and enjoying their cuppa around the many coffee houses. Adding to its charm are the flock of pigeons flying around in which many tourists were more than happy to mingle with while getting that special photo. We then took a slow broadwalk alongside the canal and turned back halfway for lunch.

St Mark's Square, Venice

St Mark's Square, Venice

With time to spare we decided to cover Doge’s Palace. This was another place worth visiting despite the steep admission price. Doge’s Palace was where the city’s public offices, courtrooms, prisons, the Doge’s apartments, stables, armouries, and other facilities were located and now also serves as a museum. I was struck by the beauty of various murals and frescos on the walls and ceiling of the building and could only stare in amazement, with some even as big and as three stories high. It must have taken a lot of man-hours to complete the various master pieces. I had no regrets coming in and would recommend it as part of the trip

The last activity of the day was to take a gondola ride (cost: Euro 80 for a 30-min ride with maximum of 6 passengers per gondola) through the canal to enjoy the rustic sight of the city by waterway. Unfortunately the sky began to turn dark by the time we boarded the gondola but still the experience was unique. This was also where I realised residents of this town had to literally take the boat to reach their door steps! The journey took us back to Rialto Bridge where we reluctantly disembarked and made our way back to the hotel. Along the way, we stopped by for our first gelato of the trip.

Gondolo Ride - Approching Rialto Bridge

Gondolo Ride - Approching Rialto Bridge

The following day the weather turned cold and foggy, perhaps describing our feelings as we reluctantly bade farewell to this charming town with a unique experience

Things to Note:
Unlike other Italian cities, Venice is quite small and so very easy to navigate. Still it does not do harm to carry a map.

There are two train stations in Venice. Remember to stay in the island (train station St Lucia). There is where the beauty lies. Although room rates in the mainland (train station Mestre) is cheaper, this will mean having to shuttle between two islands which I feel will defeat the purpose to embracing this romantic city.

Pisa
Next stop for the trip was Pisa. Mentioning Pisa and only one thing springs to mind – the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

From Venice we took a train to Florence. There are regular trains that run from Florence to Pisa so we grabbed an open ticket on arrival at Florence train station and only had to wait for less than 20 minutes for the connecting train.

The route to from Pisa Central train station to the Leaning Tower is pretty straightforward and takes roughly 30 minutes by foot. Along the way we walked passed a canal as well as their shopping belt.

Besides the Leaning Tower, there are also two other important but often overlooked attractions – the Duomo and the Bapistary. Together these are known as the “Square of Miracles” But often tourists just come for a day trip and stop by for the Leaning Tower and bypassing the other two attractions. The situation is made worse as the Duomo and the Bapistary require an admission ticket to enter, although one can still take pictures on the outside. Admission to the Leaning Tower is free unless you decide a scale to the top, which will require a hefty admission ticket. As I am aware only 40 people can be at the top of the tower at any one time so waiting time can be long during peak periods.

The Square of Miracles, inclusive Leaning Tower

The Square of Miracles, inclusive Leaning Tower

But the main purpose to visit Pisa is actually to just take a photo shot at this unique structure. Backed by trick photography, you can see all kinds of stunts in the photographs, including lifting, pushing, hugging and kissing the tower. Even aunties from China do it!

At night, we came out for coffee and to stroll down the shopping belt. At the last minute we decided to make our way back to the tower for a night photo. However along the way the streets were at times deserted and at times filled with various characters. We swiftly completed our task and quickly returned to the main shopping belt. However, by that time we reached the shopping area it was almost 8.30 pm and we were surprised that this area which was so active just an hour ago, was closed and deserted! Definitely not one for the faint hearted.

Unfortunately that is it for Pisa. So there is no necessity to stay in Pisa unless you want to visit our next stop, Cinque Terra

Cinque Terra
I have to admit before this trip, I have never heard of Cinque Terra. After doing some research, I only know it consists of 5 inter connecting villages and is touted as a must-visit place in Italy for some scenic photos.

The nearest city to Cinque Terra is from Pisa (approximately 40 min train ride). There are also trains from Florence but the journey is longer. As this is a small village, most people make a day trip and do not stay overnight. The room rates there can also be expensive and being a small village there is basically nothing to do when nightfall descends.

From Pisa, we took a train to La Spezia Central station. At one of the office counters located at the station, we bought an admission ticket to enter Cinque Terra (admission tickets include train tickets in the village). This village consists of 5 towns – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterossa. We started our trip by taking the village train directly to the last stop of Monterossa.

Village of Monterosso

Village of Monterosso

At Monterossa, we witnessed the most extraordinary picture postcard view of the coastline with the cliffs that you can ever imagine. In fact “picture postcard” does not do justice to what your eyes serve you. You just have to be there to witness for yourself the serene beauty of the coastline. We spent quite a bit of time there before taking a hike to the next village of Vernazza. The journey took approximately 2.5hr and along the way we managed to catch more picture postcard scenery.
Village of Vernazza, from a trekking angle

Village of Vernazza, from a trekking angle


By the time we reached Vernazza, it was close to 1pm and after a longer than expected lunch break we missed the train departing from Vernazza. We then spent the remaining time in Vernazza, taking more coastline pictures before boarding the next scheduled train back to La Spezia Central for our return train to Pisa.

My take? The view is really unique and is not something you can see in other parts of Italy

Things to Note.
As this is a small village, trains between villages run at approximately 1-hour intervals. Estimated train arrival schedules are available from the ticket office so be sure to get them for better time management purposes.

Due to travelling time from Pisa and more waiting at La Spezia station (as trains run at 1hr intervals), we only have about 6 hours to spend in the villages which we felt did not give us sufficient time to cover more ground. So be sure to get a later return ticket back to Pisa or Florence but the trade off is it gets dark rather early during winter season so one has to get the balance right as there are no scenic views at night.

To trek or not to trek? That is a question the group has to decide. Other that the start of the track there is a substantial amount of upslope movement in the first 30 minutes, the path from Monterossa to Vernazza is actually pretty lean and straightforward and along the way you get to enjoy some scenic views that no train ride can give you. Along the way you can also meet fellow trekkers from different countries which gives extra motivation and encouragement to continue on. But then of course walking takes time and you might end up covering maximum 3 of 5 villages.
Trains of course will be faster and at one hour intervals, one will have more than sufficient time to cover all 5 villages.

As for me I will pick hiking any day simply because of the coastline view that you can only see from hiking. But at the back of my mind, the curiosity in me will keep wondering what does the other 3 villages look like? Did I miss spotting unique that can only be found in these 3 villages?

Definitely do not trek if it rains and ground gets to slippery or if it gets too dark. Personal safety always comes first

Florence (Firenze)
Before the start of our trip I was already lamenting that we should have allocated one more day to Florence. But as things trued out, we have already settled our train and hotel arrangements and so we had to make the best of our single day in Florence.

From Pisa we took a train to Florence. Once again after spinning around and asking for directions, we managed to locate our hotel and once luggage down, off we went to spend the rest of this precious day.

We walked back to the train station to catch Bus 12 to Pizzale Michelangelo. From there our plan was to trek back slowly to the main city and visiting attractions which were all within walking distance of each other. After about 45 minutes of bus ride and spinning through town, we reached our intended destination. This stop gives us a panoramic view of Florence city, with the most stand out feature being the Florence Duomo.
Paranormic view of Florence, with the Duomo prominently standing out

Paranormic view of Florence, with the Duomo prominently standing out

We then had our first gelato (which I would regret later) for the day and slowly walked towards Ponte Vecchio, enjoying the sights of buildings along the way. This is a stone bridge with shops, mainly goldsmith shops, located on both sides of the bridge with some scenic views. Ponto Vecchio

Ponto Vecchio

There was a hive of activities with many tourists strolling around. Since we had no intention of buying jewelry, we did not stay long and instead made our way to Palazzo Vecchio, the main town hall of Florence. Along the way we passed by some mouth-watering gelato (hence my regret) and some awesome pizza shops. We settled at one of those ready-made pizza shops for lunch where one big slice is enough to fill you to the brim.

The famed Uffizi gallery is next and it touted at one of the must-visit galleries in Italy. So this became our second museum / gallery visit of the trip. Inside you will find some wonderful art works and busts. As we were no art experts and the number of paintings overwhelming, we just walked through the gallery while trying to spot the more famous ones. Amongst them I saw the famed portraits of the Duke & Duchess of Urbino. You may not know what it is but once you see the painting below I am sure it will ring a bell.
Potrait of Duke & Duchess of Urbino, Uffizi Gallery

Potrait of Duke & Duchess of Urbino, Uffizi Gallery

Before this trip we already made a pact to spend some time stilling down in a corner, idling and drinking coffee and observing the crowds going on their daily business so this was exactly what we did next. The atmosphere was relaxing as people made their way through town with buskers performing on the streets. This is sure a life of pleasure. If only we could do this every day!

The last stop of the day was the Cathedral Di Santa Maria del Fiore, otherwise known as the Florence Duomo. The exterior itself is already a beauty so we were all the more curious to visit the inside. Entrance to the Duomo is free unless you intent to ascend to the top. This church itself is huge and I mean really mega. I don’t think I will ever see one that is so huge back home. The most prominent feature must be the big dome that we spotted during our earlier visit to Pizzale Michelangelo. Inside you can see some impressive carvings and murals, a common feature in Italian churches. At the basement there is a souvenir shop as well as a paid museum. Because we did not have much time left we decided to skip visiting the museum.

Florence Dumom, up close

Florence Dumom, up close

Things to Note:
Florence is a bit different from other Italian cities in the sense that it does not have its own metro system. So be sure to do your homework and know exactly the bus number you want to take beforehand to prevent time wasting. Another feature different from back home is that you do not pay for the bus fare when you board the bus. All tickets must be bought beforehand from at any tabachi stores (there is one in the train station). As with other cities, the fee is flat for any distance travelled within the allocated 90 minutes. Time starts ticking once you validate your ticket on the machine located inside the bus that you are taking.

Rome (Roma)
A visit to Italy can never be completed without a stopover in the ancient Rome. It is a modern city with centuries old monuments built around it. Travellers can easily assess these sights either by foot or by the Metro.

I will cover this section through the places we visit

Vatican City
Directions: Take the metro to Ottaviano stop. From there just follow the crowd. It is about a 10 minutes walk to the Vatican

The home of the Pope and the holy city for Catholics, this is one of the stops that visitors must go. Due to a special event at St Peter’s Basilica, we actually had to split our visit into two days. Our first stop was the Vatican museum and Sistein Chapel. Do note that the entrance to the museum is well outside of the Vatican City, a good 10 minutes walk from Vatican City itself.
Vatican City paranomic shot

Vatican City paranomic shot


If Dugo’s palace was a prelude, this was certainly the centerpiece of attraction. Besides artifacts, we were amazed by beautiful murals after murals in an endless stream of impressive artworks. Only god knows the time and effort spent to painstakingly create these masterpieces. There were so many that visitors like us simply do not have the time to examine each piece of work one by one and can only stare in amazement as we moved along. In fact there were so many that I did not take any photos – memory card does not have enough space!

The last stop of the tour was a visit to the Sistein Chapel, home of the Pope. It’s a small chapel by Roman standards but never the less, we were once again amazed by each and individual masterpieces created by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the chapel. To think of it now, this was really a remarkable feat to do this bent over backwards, painting everything in detail on the ceiling for almost 4 years that only a genius can do it. Noted that photographs are strictly not allowed, although I managed to sneak one and was warned for my efforts. The task of the day was to spot The Creation of Adam, one of the most famous frescos in the world. We just managed to spot it, amongst the many frescos on the ceiling.

Still overwhelmed by what we saw, we then went back to the Vatican City but found a huge crowd converging for a special event. Unable to make our way in and with two more days still in Rome, we decided to come back to visit St Peter’s Basilica on another day.

On a separate day, we returned to the Vatican City to visit the St Peter’s Basilica. Security was extremely tight especially In light of recent Paris attack and we had to be searched and pass through a metal detector and bags subject to x-ray machine scanning. I had a hard time clearing the security because of the many metalic objects found on my body (camera, coins, belt, pouch bag). Some were even ordered to take off their shoes. On a day where the crowds were sparse, it still took us a good 30 minutes to get through. If Florence Duomo was huge, this would be a giant. We wandered around, looking at the building architecture, the murals and the various carvings on the wall. There were also groups of devotees carrying the cross into the church for prayers. After exiting the church, we also managed to spot the Swiss Guards.

Thing to note:
Being a sacred religious place, dress code must be strictly observed. The safest will be shirt and pants / skirts above knee length and definitely no singlet and slippers. Anyway being winter season, nobody in their right mind will go walking around in singlets and slippers.

As mentioned, security is extremely tight when visiting St Peter’s Basilica. So to minimize inconvenience, it would be good to carry the bare essentials for the visit. Ditch the haversack if possible in order to bypass the x-ray machine and hence faster clearance.

There are many guided tours available on the internet. If you want to know more, it will be good to sign for one. Otherwise, just read up from the internet before you go to have a better understanding. As for the promise of express queue promised by vaious tour groups, it is not really necessary during off season.

Lastly it will be good to check if there are any events in the Vatican on the day of your intended trip. Just like the first time when we went, the Vatican was closed earlier than usual for a special event so we had to come back another day. But if you have only one day to spare than you might miss it if you are unable to enter the Basilica, which i feel will be a real pity.

Spanish steps / Trevi Fountain
Directions: Take the Metro to Spagna stop for the Spanish steps, From there proceed by foot to Tervi Fountain. To visit Tervi fountain by Metro, alighting at Barberini stop will be nearer

Both are within walking distance of each other. The Spanish Steps was unfortunately under renovation so we just took a photo and moved on.
As for the Trevi fountain we were lucky that it was open after renovations one month before our trip. I have to say it is one of the iconic landmarks of Rome and most times it is crowded. With patience and some maneuvering, it is possible to get close to the fountain to get that ideal photo. In fact we went there 3 times and I took pictures of it both in day and night. On a quiet day I think I can just sit somewhere nearby and look at it and still won’t get bored. Great place to come.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

Colosseum / Roma Forum
Directions: There is a dedicated Metro stop – Colosseo. Very easy to find.

I am sure the Colosseum needs no further introduction. The scene of many great battles purely for sport, this was a place where many men faced the ultimate fight, either amongst themselves or against beasts. Most were unwilling fighters (slaves or condemned prisoners), few put their names forward in search of fame and fortune. I stood there trying to imagine what the scene would be with crowds cheering and blood spilling on the arena. One thing that I was surprised was that the battle arena was not on an even ground, I was thinking how on earth do these warriors stand on the arena, on such an uneven surface with so many potholes and still kept their balance. This was so much different from the movie “Gladiator”.

This is the battleground

This is the battleground

It was only upon further exploration that I got the answer. Actually the gaps were meant to serve as traps On battle days the potholes would be filled with sand or covered with plank like structures for the unsuspecting warriors to enter. Then through a pulley like system, animals and beasts would be released from below onto the arena in a fight for survival. Blood sport at its cruelest

View of Colossum from outside

View of Colossum from outside

Like the most attractions, guided tours are available.

As for the Forum, it is just beside the colosseum and having purchased a two-in-one ticket, we decided to go. This was the center of ancient Roman life with important government buildings and daily activities conducted. What now remains are ruins of structures that used to stand in this place. The place is rather huge and it would take about 2 hours by foot to cover everything

Roma Patheneon
Directions: Take metro Barberini stop and proceed by foot

Already into the 8th day of our trip, we entered into what is known as the tour fatigue stage. Having already seen quite a number of churches, we were also suffering from church fatigue. But the Roma Patheneon was an important architectural structure that we needed to cover. Originally built as a temple, it now serves as a church and is one of the best preserved ancient Roman structures still around. The things that I remembered most was the supporting pillars outside the church and the 43m high dome with sunlight shining through the hole at the top. Amazing view.

Castel Sant'Angelo
With most attractions on our planned itinerary covered and time to spare, we flipped our map and found that the Castel Sant'Angelo was prominently marked as an attraction. Before this we did not read up on it and certainly had no plans to visit it and later on I also found that most tour groups did not cover it. But being prominently marked and within a walking distance, we felt we have to give it a go. And my, was it worth the effort! Do go if you like castles.

Originally built as a mausoleum, it was then used as a fortress and castle and now is now open as a tourist attraction housing a small museum of impressive ancient armory. Besides the impressive armory collection, including shields, swords, guns and armour, we also slowly made our way to the top of the castle where we were treated to a paranormal view of Rome city. Impressive! Along the way, we also saw castle defensive positions like high walls, windows where fire arrows and boulders could be hurled at advancing enemies. We also saw a catapult and boulders on display.
Another prominent icon to note is the bronze statue of the Michael the Archangle perched on top of the castle. It serves as a standout symbol of the castle and has been destroyed various stages before its present stage.

Castel Sant Agelo

Castel Sant Agelo

Pompeii
Directions: The nearest major city is Naples. From Napoli Central train station, take the local train under the Circumvesuviana line towards Sorrento and alight at Pompeii Scavi. Like Cinque Terra, trains run at regular intervals so be sure to get the train timetable from the station before departure to plan the timing of your return trip.

Pompeii needs no further introduction. Immortalized by the great volcanic eruption at Mount Vesuvius, the disaster buried the city under ash and soot and preserving the city in pristine condition. Unlike ancient ruins in other parts of the world where what’s left are usually pillars and half buildings, we can actually see the find details of ancient life, observing how people go about in their daily lives. It is a big excavation site which will require at least 4 hours of walking time in order to cover the majority of sites that are open to public.

My favorite will be the Amphitheatre, which certainly reminds me of a football stadium. Inside there are photos of excavation sites as we as mummified bodies of the dead, although till now I am still not sure if the bodies are real bodies or sculptures.

As with other sites in Italy, options are available for guided tours. This is one site where guided option will be an excellent choice. Another option is to rent an audio guide. Try to get your hands on a map otherwise you will be clueless as to what you are visiting and can only second guess. But things are improving with more signage coming up although these are still insufficient if you want to understand more. Otherwise, just read up and watch you tube before you go!

There are also sister sites along the Napoli-Sorrento train line including Ercolano Scavi (otherwise known as Herculaneum which is smaller but said to be more well preserved than Pompeii) and Oplonti Scavi. It is a big task to cover all sites in one day so a multiple-day admission ticket covering all sites can be purchased from the ticket office should one wishes to see more. However, as we only allocated one day to Pompeii, we had to ditch visiting Herculaneum, which was a pity.

Well preserved ruins of Pompeii

Well preserved ruins of Pompeii

Milan
The last city stop of the tour was Milan, the fashion city and home of the famed Milan Duomo. Like Rome, we had to scour for our apartment (quite easy to find actually if you know the direction).

We then had to rush to Santa Maria delle Grazie, having booked a 4.45pm viewing of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

We arrived very early, having been afraid to miss the show of a lifetime. It was hard to get the tickets (only available online and must be booked well in advance as they are limited and sold out fast), which made this viewing session even more precious.

The church itself was simple enough and not as elaborate or big like the rest we seen so far. It was the treasures inside that made it so unique and attained its status as an UNESCO World Heritage site. We waited in line, feeling excited like kids going for their first movie. I then learnt that to preserve the painting, admission is subject to 15 minute blocks for a maximum of 25 patrons per visit (That is why tickets are hard to get). Photography is allowed although no flash. I then jokingly told my friend even if left with last 3 shots, I had to take a photo and willing to forgo taking pictures for the rest of the trip. As luck would have it, I was cursed by own word as my memory card ran out of space so I had to painfully delete by photos from old trips (lucky those have already been transferred to my computer) in double quick time before we entered the viewing gallery.

Then came the grand show. It was strange because this is the first time I visited an "art gallery" with only two paintings. There was another one at the other end of the wall but most people did not spend much time looking at it. It was an overwhelming experience to see this famed painting live and I felt so privileged and honored to do so. I then spend the rest of the precious 15 minutes taking photos from different angles and lighting, using both camera and phone and hoping to catch the one best shot out of so many. Unfortunately as flash photography was not allowed, the end product was not really that ideal. But still this was an unique experience. I should think this will be one of the most photographed single artifacts for any of my overseas trip!

The Last Supper

The Last Supper

A trip to Italy can never be completed without a visit to one of its main football stadiums. World Cup champion four times, the most recent in 2006, Italy has always been one of the powerhouses of world football. However, after the “Calciopoli” scandal in 2006, Italian club football has never quite reached the dizzy heights it achieved in the 1990s, where teams regularly sweeping the major European trophies. But still never underestimate the power of Italian soccer and the fans' passionate love for the beautiful game.

I picked San Siro stadium as this was the only viable one in my itinerary. Rome does not have stadium tours, Florence schedule was too packed and I did not visit Turin. This was also one which combined a museum with a stadium tour. With my touring entourage not interested in football (they went to Como instead but bad luck would hit as there was a worker’s strike that day which disabled all train services), I went on it alone.

I first dropped by the merchandise store where the 2 great city rivals – Inter Milan and AC Milan share. It was not cheap with a replica jersey costing Euro 120. I then went for the museum tour which displayed trophies and memorabilia for both teams, including signed jerseys, player cards, past press cuttings, photographs, Challenge cups and gifts exchanges with opposing teams. The most memorable one must be to see the busts of the fabulous 3, Rudd Gulit, Frank Rijkarrd and Marco van Basten. Also on display was the plaque commemorating the 2007 Champion League final between AC Milan and Liverpool, with AC Milan winning 2-1 on the night for their 7th continental title. This is one museum where I went through every single artifact on display in detail!

The Fab 3-Gulit, Van Bastern and Rikkard

The Fab 3-Gulit, Van Bastern and Rikkard

Next was the stadium tour where we were allowed a peek in the dressing room. During the tour I also met several passionate AC Milan fans from Indonesia. AC Milan’s look futuristic with cushioned lay back chairs surrounding a club logo with reminded me of players going for an inter-galactic, Star Trek like meeting! Inter’s look more ordinary, with benches for players.

Then I finally went to the stadium proper. Unfortunately, the pitch was under maintenance so I was not allowed to step on it. Despite that, I still had a field day taking pictures around the stadium and this was also the first time I get to see the famous grass growing technology which was so often mentioned in newspapers back home. This was where artificial lighting, arrange in racks, was shone on the grass to stimulate the growth of grass.

Then it was time to go as I bade farewell to this famous stadium. The only thing now missing is to attend an actual match!

Before my stopover at the San Siro stadium, I went to the Da Vinci Art and Science Museum. It is actually more like a science centre and nothing much on the great man itself. But it does provide interesting information on everyday science information like energy needs, trash collection, everyday packaging, food supply and global warming issues. It is a good break from the conventional churches and art galleries that we see so often during this trip. This is also a good place to stimulate the young mind's interest in science.

Directions: Take Milan metro red line to S Amborgio. Noted that the main ‘entrance’ is actually the exit. The entrance is actually located at an obscure corner. Ask around and you will find it.

The last stop of the day is Mlian Duomo, which also borders Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milan’s main shopping belt. The Grand Old Dame is a sure beauty itself. It reminds me of the Taj Mahal and is definately the standout representation of Milan. Security was tight, like the Vatican. Inside was another grand structure but perhaps because of church fatigue, we just moved along. Noted tickets have to be purchased before you join the queue. And no metal or glass bottles allowed. The lady in front of me was refused entry because she carried a metal water bottle!

Milan Duomo, with the beautiful night sky

Milan Duomo, with the beautiful night sky

The visit to Milan Duomo can never be completed without ascending to the top. Visitors have the option to take the stairs or the elevator (costs a bit more by elevator). This is where you get to see some magnificent architectural works up close and personal as well as some elaborate carvings. Not forgetting a paranormal view from the top of the duomo. A definite must.

Extraordinary view from top of Milan Duomo

Extraordinary view from top of Milan Duomo

As for Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, it is a girl’s paradise (and a guy’s worst nightmare). Milan is well known as one of the fashion capital of the world and short of going to the outlets, this is where you can find all your LVs, Gucci, Prada, Versace, all rolled into one location. As it was Christmas season, there were also many other pushcart stalls selling food and Christmas stuff alongside the Duomo walking path. It was a great festive occasion and we were so glad to be part of it. To get away from the crowds, shoppers can also choose to go further down and away from the main shopping belt. Just follow the direction of the tram line and you can still find an amazing array of shops.

We also covered the La Scala Opera house, a place where all classical music and opera lovers must go. During, non performance, it also doubled up as a small museum, mainly with portraits of famous composers and opera singers. We also had a chance to step inside a box seat without paying for the box seat price and were lucky enough to catch an orchestra preparing themselves during rehearsal.

On the last night of our trip, we went to the canal near our apartment. It was packed with festive activities as we took a slow walk and immersed ourselves into the Christmas spirit.

With this, our 12 days tour concluded and it was time to pack our bags and feelings to return home.

Notes:
Milan is a much easier city to navigate than Rome with its clearer signage. Also with trams travelling all over the city, it makes every part of the city easily connectable. All attractions mentioned above can be easily be reached by Metro. Single ticket, costs $1.50, valid for 90 minutes from first use. A 24-hour ticket can be purchased from any Metro or Tabacchi shop at Euro $4.50 (note the urban fare limit though. Some stops not covered although most tourists will not go there anyway). Two day pass cost about 8 Euros (can’t remember the exact price)

Here are my thoughts on this beautiful country

Language
Surprisingly, most Italians speak at least some basic English. They are also willing to reply in English. I had initially thought they are unwilling to speak English even if they can do so. Also some English words are similar sounding to Italian so some words you can second guess their meaning. I finally understand why Italian managers like Claudio Ranerie and Fabio Capello who ply their trade in the English football are able to hold press conferences in decent English a matter of months. Most restaurants we visit also have menu in Italian and English. So language is never an issue in Italy as long as you understand your ABCs

Traffic & Directions / Cars
Italy is a pedestrian’s dream. Most walking streets only have the occasional car. Traffic lights and zebra crossings are plenty. Also drivers are slow and they will give way to pedestrians, unlike in China or India where cars do not give way and it is the pedestrian that has to give way!

As for directions, it is compulsory to carry a map and make sure the Group has someone who can read maps and has a good sense of direction. Even this does not help though as signage can be sparse and maps not as detailed so sometimes asking locals for directions is also necessary. Most locals we meet are willing to assist.

Another observation is that Italians love their hatchbacks and small cars. We saw so many on the roads. Not sure why. Maybe someone can enlighten me?

As for inter-city train journeys, it is pretty straightforward. Just make sure you locate the correct platform (information can be gathered from the departure schedule, similar to the ones you check for airplane departure), followed by the correct coach number (note trains have repetitive seat numbers but differentiated by different coach numbers). There are occasional delays but overall, the train departure timing is accurate. So do not come rushing in at the last minute. And it is good to arrive at least 15 minutes before departure since different train stations have different layouts so you need to know where the platforms are located at each individual station. Lastly do not ever throw away your train ticket until you alight from the train as these are subject to checks by the train master. But after one experience, you will be an expert in taking trains!

Food
Pizza, sandwiches, pasta and spaghetti is the staple diet. Don’t expect to find rice. In cities like Florence it is possible to find Chinese food given the large Chinese community (expensive though). And we also find a lot of Japanese restaurant so you can go to one if you miss Asian food.

Definitely worth trying is gelato. Back home, I hardly try them but in Italy they are plenty and they are all appetizing. Even thought the weather is cold, it is irresistible to have one once per day. A small cone costs about $1.50 to $3 with some shops offering two to three scoops so be sure to hunt around before buying
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Geleto in Florence

Geleto in Florence

And of course who can forget cheap wine! It is a pity my Group does not drink so we didn’t buy any. Just make sure not to get a hangover before the next day’s travelling schedule.

Lastly who can resist cheap chocolates? I myself also bought at least 10 bars during the trip!

It is noted in some café or bar, do note you are levied a cover charge for using a table. It ranges from $1 to $3 per person. That is why in some cafe or bar you find a lot of standing customers drinking coffee or having a sandwich and the tables empty!

Graffiti
Being a country that produces so many master artists with some of the greatest masterpieces of the world, Italy is a country that can really draw. Graffiti, or street art, seems to be prevalent and the authorities are pretty relaxed about this. Some can be really nice while others can be an eyesore or attributed to vandalism. And interestingly, trains are also not spared. I wonder how SMRT will feel about this?

Posted by acerchuan 01:47 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Shanxi - The little jewel of China

all seasons in one day 10 °C

Before I start, I have to mention 山西 (Shanxi) is not to be confused with another major province of China 陕西(Shan’an’xi), both of which have similar sounding names but offering vastly different experiences . Although I went to the desired destination but it was embarrassing to get their names mixed up. Shan'an'xi (陕西) is where X’ian, home of the Terracotta Warriors and that will be another story for another trip. Meantime, let’s focus onSahnXi (山西).

This province, located in the northern part of China, is not a well known tourist hotspot (at least not yet). But there are some jewels in this region including 3x UNESCO World Heritage sites. Its provincial capital Taiyuan, is about 550km and a 6 hours bus ride from Bejjing, For flights, it is connected to most major Chinese cities. Excluding Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau (I’ll leave out the politics), the only international route flying into this city is from Seoul and Singapore (with a stopover in Hainan island).

I discovered this place by accident. I was actually mulling going to X’ian when my friend told me of this “Hanging Monastery”. A search on the web showed some awesome pictures and my mind was made up. However, this destination was so unknown as compared to other parts of China that few major travel agencies marketed it aggressively. And our trip was almost curtailed due to lack of tour participants. In fact the number of passengers flying from Singapore to Taiyuan was so pathetic (I counted about 30 – 50 people) that without a stopover in Hainan to pick-up passengers, the airline would have probably scrapped this route for profitability reasons.

Food
Buns and noodles are a staple diet for people living n the north of China. Few people eat rice so this is one aspect we were not really used to it. Vinegar is also a big part of their diet – it is like us having chill as a supplement to our meals. In fact vinegar is such an integral part of life that part of our tour itinerary includes a factory visit to the vinegar yard. I always love the taste of vinegar with eating fish soup during wedding receptions. This trip plus the factory visit certainly made me re-energize my love for vinegar! I also realize there are a lot of red dates in this area, although our guide did not mention this area is a major production for red dates. Due to its landlocked area with little rainfall and no major rivers, seafood is also not common.

Land
Shanxi province is basically a landlocked dry area with little rainfall. Hence farming is not common in this part of China. The soil is basically hard rock which makes it even more unsuitable for farming. It is is a province with beautiful mountains along the routes which makes you marvel at its beauty. Because of the mountains, you sometimes have to admire at the tunneling skills of the Chinese as they bore through the mountains which to link up two cities by road and make traveeling relatively fuss free and fast. I also noted concrete walls were placed on side of the mountains, probably to prevent landslides from soil erosion. The weather contrast can be big during end winter / early spring, cooling in the morning with temperatures rising during afternoon. I do think the cold is bearable although a lot of people complain they are cold!

Economy
As farming is not common, most people trade. In fact one of the earliest banking industries can be traced to Pinyao county. As mentioned earlier, vinegar is a staple diet of Shanxi people, so it is not surprising to find Shanxi being a major producer for China’s vinegar needs. Beside vinegar, Shanxi is also a major producer for coal in Datong County

Now onto the juicy parts of the tour

Qiao Residence (桥家大院)
First stop of the trip is to Qiao residence. As the name suggests, this is the home of a self made millionaire merchant, Qiao Gui Fa (乔贵发), built in the 18th century but maintained in pristine condition. Basically we saw how today’s CEO’s equivalent ate, slept, relaxed back in those days. Shades of Suzhou’s Wang Xi Garden but minus the garden. This was also the site where various movies chose as set location. Interestingly the Qiao family is a business family (none are court officials, according to family decree) but few of present day descendants are still doing business (most are acadamics and doctors)

Pinyao Old City (平遥古城) (UNESCO WHS)
Next stop was a two hour bus ride to neighbouring Pinyao County, for a visit to Pinyao Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is not the first “Old City” that I have visited in China but this was certainly one that left a deep impression. Unlike Lijjiang Old city, which has been modified for modern needs (I still remember the whole stretch of beer drinking bars and loud music pubs), Pinyao Old City still manages to maintain its old charm. I certainly hope this will be the case for years to come

Pinyao Old Town

Pinyao Old Town

The city is literally surrounded by four walls with a 6km by 6km radius with architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties built in a tortoise like structure for good fengshui purpose. At present moment it is itself a self sufficient township, with people still residing here. At first look it can be intimidating as we waltzed through side alleys after side alleys on the way to the hotel which caused great directional confusion. But after a while you realize that most visitors will not wander off to the side streets and will just stay on the main streets so this became less of a worry
Perhaps being the off season, the crowds were thin at best which makes wandering through the streets a breeze. Like many other Chinese old towns, shops sold items of all kinds that you can think of. We even had time to go for a foot massage. It was unfortunate that my travelling companions were not keen to explore further otherwise I would have completed my trek from the South wall to the North wall.
The local guide brought us to YaMen, one of the main attractions. If Qiao Residence reflects how a 18th century business lived, this was the equivalent of the residence cum working environment of a court official. In ancient times, due to its economic significance, Pingyao county was governed by a higher ranking court official (五品官) as compared to other counties. The most eye catching items on display must surely be the torture devices on display, which were used to extract convictions (both guilty and innocent) from prisoners. It reminded me of the movie “满清十大酷刑“。 Gross!!! It was also interesting to note that there is a “civil court” used to settle domestic and non-criminal disputes.
Next stop was RiShengChang (日升昌). This was the equivalent of today’s bank and is now reduced to a exhibit as compared to its heyday, with a few figurines behind the teller. There are also a records room and an accountant room. However, due to the ravages of war, this bank no longer exists.
Outside of the city walls lies a vibrant town. Stepping outside, you realised as if as if you have been warped to another dimension. Sadly, I only got to know of it when the bus left the four walls. Sigh. No chance to explore it.

Hong Dong Big Locus Tree(洪洞 大櫆树)
This is a tourist site that commemorates the mass migration periods during the late 1300s to early 1400s in a bid to spread out the over population situation in Shanxi.
As a result of mass migration, it is said that a portion of Chinese ancestral roots can be traced right back to Shanxi province. Hence it is also the site where people pay homage to their ancestors especially during Qing Ming festival.

Hukou Waterfall (壶口瀑布)
This is the second largest waterfall and China located in Linfen city. Actually it doesn’t look like a waterfall in the sense that you do not witness water falling from a height then hitting the base. Instead what you witness is water narrowing through a gorge before violently smashing into a stone pond below. It is great to watch while you marvel at nature’s beauty but I would not put it in the ‘spectacular’ category. Shades of the Leaping Tiger Gorge in Yunnan.

Hukou Waterfall. Watch the firece waterflow

Hukou Waterfall. Watch the firece waterflow

To make money, the tourism authorities created a Dragon Hole (龙洞) to allow curious visitors to view this nature show from the base of the waterfall. We basically had to trek down a small stairway, wrapped our feet to knee level with plastic bag provided then literally walk right into the waterfall a get a closer look from base, It was a definitely a different feel to view the waterfall from another angle and for curious visitors like me, it was refreshing.

Hukou Waterfall. View from the base

Hukou Waterfall. View from the base

The rest of Hukou town looks like a dead city, unfortunately. Other than the waterfall, there are no other attractions. There are some comfortable hotels and shops mainly selling food but not a place to entice tourists to stay for long.

Jin Ancesral Hall (晋祠)
This is an ancient temple structure located in Taiyuan built around the AD 400s and subsequently expended and beautified in subsequent dynasties. If features some ancient Chinese architecture. Do come if you are a building structure buff, especially one interested in ancient Chinese architecture

Mount Wutai (五台山)(UNESCO WHS)
This is one of China four sacred Buddhists Mountains. For the truly devoted, it may be worth staying for 3 days to a week visiting the temples and doing meditation. But for day trip visitors, we only covered the 3 main attractions显通寺 (the biggest temple in Mount wutai), 菩萨顶, 塔院寺.
The biggest memory I have, besides viewing the temples and offering my prayers, is perhaps the 108 steps we took to desent from top of Xian Tong Temple and to see the miracle photograph of a smoke rising like a Buddha when the placed was being bombed during WWII
Along the way to this attraction and subsequent descent toward Hengshan, one gets to enjoy some beautiful mountain scenes. These may not the snow capped like mountains I witnessed en route Huang Long during my Jui Zhai Gou trip but still they were a were beauty to watch.

Hengshan Hanging Monestary (恒山悬空寺)
This was what I had been looking forward to since Day 1. After seeing the pictures on the internet, I knew I had to see it for myself first hand. It certainly did not disappoint.
Sometimes you really have to admire at the skills of to builders to be able to build something right smacked in the middle of the mountain 90m above ground without the use of modern heavy lifting equipment. The structure is made entire of wood of wood with no nails. The monastery encompasses the 3 main schools of thoughts – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucian.
Nowadays the monastery is unoccupied and serves as a tourist attraction. We were fortunate that this is the off season so the place is not crowded so we have plenty of time and space to explore the mid air structure and find hotspots for photos without having to deal with the notorious unruly huge crowds.
Hanging Monastery - Shot from the base. Amazing structure

Hanging Monastery - Shot from the base. Amazing structure

Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁)
This screen depicts ancient Chinese screen carvings. However, there is nothing much on display other than this. Just a few photo shots and we are off.

Yungang Grottoes (云冈石窟)(UNESCO WHS)
I have to admit I am absolutely guilty of mis-reading this wonderful attraction. The only thing from the travel brochure I remembered is that it is a UNESCO World heritage site. After visiting this attraction I thanked my lucky stars for having a chance to visit this attraction before time runs out and nature’s wrath takes over.
I have to admit I did not know the meaning of “grottoes” (an artificial cavernlike recess or structure) before this. So when I entered this attraction I thought this would be another temple-like attraction. It was when we were brought to the grottoes that our jaws fell gapingly open. These were some of the most magnificent Buddha carvings that I can ever remember. According to records, there are more than 51,000 statues and carvings on display. These were constructed as a way to honour and glorify Buddhism. However, due to the ravages of nature, it is sad to note that some of these magnificent carvings, mostly of sandstone, have already been decimated beyond repair. Some carvings and statues have already lost their saline features due to natural wear and tear while others have been destroyed due to poor protection and preservation works. Restoration is not entirely possible as it would bring further damage to the carvings.

Yungang - Photo taken outside the Grottoes

Yungang - Photo taken outside the Grottoes

The rich carvings can be compared to those found at Angkor Wat but definitely in much more prestine conditions.
It is sad to note that photography is strictly prohibited inside the first few grottoes where some of the best carvings are found. So the only way to truly appreciate this is to make a personal trip down. We were however, allowed to photograph some of the grottoes outside of the first few.
If you only have time to visit only one attraction, this will be it. I would even rank it above my initial favourite, the Xuan Kong Hanging Monastery. And please come before the ravages of nature continues to erode these beauties until such time when everything is destroyed beyond repair and nothing can be seen

Yungang- Beautiful giant Buddha statue

Yungang- Beautiful giant Buddha statue

For more information, do visit this link
http://tour.yungang.org/en/

Shanxi Museum (山西博物馆)
As an added incentive, we were brought to the local museum. Given only 60 minutes, we practically raced through the exhibits like the Amazing Race and did not really had time to enjoy it. It was such a waste as the museum contained some interesting artifacts, from coins to porcelain, paintings, jade and a section devoted to Buddhism. I would really love to go again and spend one whole day there to go through the exhibits slowly

Shanxi Coal Museum
The trip also encompasses a trip to Shanxi coal museum, to understand more of the science and history behind coal production. This was refreshing as I had never visited a coal museum before. This museum trip also included a simulated tram ride inside the coal mine shaft as well as a feel of what is it like to be inside a mine shaft (actually it feels more like a broadwalk than being in the mine shaft ). The trip ended with a display of murals (unrelated to the coal mine theme)

Shopping
Everybody’s favorite pastime. We were brought to Liuxiang shopping district. This is the busiest and most happening place to be for local shopping needs selling everything from bags, shoes clothes and food from shops to bazzars. As expected of China, expect most things to be cheap imitations for items in the bazzar. It is interesting but like most parts of China, the things on sale don’t really suit us.
I rather stick to Bangkok for my shopping fix.

Tour friends
I seldom write about this in my previous entries but I think I will jot them down this time. Joining us or this trip included the Ang family, with their 5 sisters, Richard, husband of one of the sisters, who brought us so much laughter and especially to 88-year old Senior Ang, whose energy and fitness levels will put people half his age to shame.
There is also Shirley, the accountant turned teacher, who shared many of her travelling experiences with me, from Sri Lanka to Europe, the USA and South Africa. How I wish I could have travelled so much like her.
There is also the Koh family and Janet, the devoted Buddhist. And lastly the forgetful Vincent, a lecturer at of the polys.

Thanks to everybody for a wonderful trip

Posted by acerchuan 08:49 Archived in China Comments (0)

The Midas Taj

Trip to India's Golden Triangle - Dehli, Agra and Jaipur

sunny 27 °C

India – taking about it always reminds me of the Taj Mahal. I have always been fascinated by it and it has always been my dream to see it first-hand myself one day. After my recent trip to Hyderabad and learning more about this incredible country, its people and culture (India is really not as bad as some people perceived it to be, really), it gave me the confidence to finally strike out and visit one of my dream destinations.

I had learnt from my colleagues that people usually cover the ‘Golden Triangle’ regions of Dehli, Agra (where Taj is located) and Jaipur. 3 cities offering visitors different insights of India – learning about the history of the great man Mahatma Gandhi in Dehli, finally seeing first-hand the majestic Taj Mahal in Agra and the beauty and splendour of Ambre fort in Jaipur, Having found a friend who was willing to go India (always good to have a friend to look out for each other on such trips), I tried to find a local tour but ended up disappointed as most local tour agencies still do not cover India as it is still not considered a popular travel destination. I ended up searching online and after some comparisons I picked a local Indian tour agent (there are actually plenty online) providing land tours. Hence I paid the deposit and hoped everything turns our fine!

This trip would also encompass visiting 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites at one go. Incredible India!

International flights usually end up in Delhi so this was where we started our adventure. We were met by a local representative and our designated driver who would bring us around for the rest of our journey.

In Delhi we covered the destinations listed below:

Parliament House District
This is where you get to see some impressive buildings, with a touch of both Indian culture and British colonial influence. This is where the Government operates so understandably security is tight, cars are allowed limited access. However, visitors are given a free reign to roam around and taking pictures. The guards, who are used to seeing curious visitors, do not really bother you unless you try to do something funny or try to enter restricted access area
This is also where Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President's residence) is located. However, the place is heavily guarded and locked down by an iron gate and visitors can only see it from far and take pictures.

India Gate
This monument has been built as a memorial for the Indian soldiers who died in World War I. There is also a fire ("eternal flame") burning for all fallen Indian soldiers and guarded in arms by soldiers. This reminds me of the guards stationed at Taiwan’s Marthy’s Shrine, although they did not stand as still as their Taiwanese counterparts. Our local guide told us names of fallen soldiers were also inscribed on the memorial.

Red Fort (UNESCO)
This was the first of the seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. On our first visit, we did not go into the fort – having been told ‘all forts look the same so don’t waste your time’. Instead we were cajoled to go for an expensive trishaw ride around the area which would cover the outer reaches of the Fort as well as the famed Jama Masjid. This ride gave us a different insight into the everyday life of people in Delhi as we weaved through a weekend market and several back alleys, a place I most definitely would not explore on foot.
Red Fort

Red Fort


We made our return to Red Fort on the last day of our journey, having shaken off our guide and accepting the grumblings of our driver for making this return trip. Red Fort is an icon of Dehli and is one of the most magnificent ancient buildings of Delhi which was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1638 as his ruling palace. Once you visit it, it is easy to understand why it is one of Dehli’s top attractions. In a way the fort does looks similar to the other forts we visited but it also has its own uniqueness. A place most definitely worth stopping by.

Gandhi Smriti and Raj Ghat
Gandhi Smriti is the site of Mahatma Gandhi's martyrdom and literally traces the final moments of his life, with wooden footprints placed along the path showing the final moments where Gandi left for his evening prayers to the moment he was assassinated. It has been converted into a mini museum, with newspaper reports and artefacts celebrating the life of the great man as well as covering India’s fight for independence. After visiting, it gave me a greater understanding of Gandhi and I decided to read more of him upon my return home
Raj Ghat is a peaceful garden where the remains of this great man is located

Huyamun’s Tomb (UNESCO)
Built in the mid 16th century by Haji Begum, senior wife of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, to house his remains. If this was a precursor to Taj Mahaj, then I was certainly very excited after this visit. The structure and shape looked shades similar to Taj Mahal. The highlight of this site was the main tomb itself – awesome. When see from an angle, one can see the symmetrical balance of this building – almost like seeing a mirror image itself. An incredible piece of ancient architecture
Humayun's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb

Qutub Minar (UNESCO)
The third of Dehli’s UNESCO world Heritage sites, this site houses structures dating from the Slave Dynasty (1206-1290) with the 72.5 m high Victory Pillar as it standout point. It was built as a victory stand of a Muslim King Kutub-ud-din-Aibak. The site reminds me of the ancient ruins I have seen at Ayutthaya and my friend also said they were similar to those in Turkey. Not surprising since Indian influence was stong in many of these areas which certainly helped in influencing ancient building designs

Rajiv Chowk
This is as close as you can get to a decent shopping experience. These are white, British style 2-storey building divided by blocks and sell everything from food to fashion. It was a nice place to unwind and take in the sights of office people making their way around after work. We spotted shoe shiners too, a trade that has since died off in Singapore. There was even a boy who grabbed my mango drink! That’s India for you.

Next stop is Agra, the home to the star of this entire trip

Agra Fort (UNESCO)
Situated on the banks of Yamuna river, north west of the Taj Mahal, this majestic fort was started by the Emperor Akbar and it developed as a stronghold of the Mughal Empire. From a vantage point, we also got a glimpse of the great Taj. We later learnt this was the spot where the great Shah Jahan spent the last years of his life staring across at the great Taj. What a privilege! As this is still an important fort, only about 20% is open to the public, with the rest being controlled by the Indian army. It would have been great if we can explore the whole fort.

Taj Mahal (UNESCO)
This has to be the hightlight of the tour, Meaning “Crown Palace” Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1648 by order of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal,.

Taj 1

Taj 1

I have to say no matter how many pictures or videos you have seen before, it is a a totally different experience to see it firsthand yourself. Once you enter the complex you will be star struck and would be mesmerized by its white stupendous beauty. I was at a total loss for words and could only stare at it in amazement and mumbling “magnificent beauty”. Like Hymayun’s tomb earlier, this was also a symmetrical structure with all 4 sides looking equal, built from the finest materials and best craftsman one could find at that time. I don’t think I have ever taken so many pictures of one single structure. Even though this is only one main structure, its beauty is legendary and one could just stand there and admire it for hours.
Of course this was also the chance to get up close and personal with the Taj. A chance most defiantly not to be missed. We were finally on the Taj itself! We explored the carvings closer and even caressed the beauty itself.
We then waited for evening hoping to catch another view of the Taj in sunset but the sunlight did not cast enough light for a beauty evening shot. Never the less I did manage to snap some photos with silhouette background

Taj 2

Taj 2

Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb
Also known as the Baby Taj, it was built by Empress Nur Jehan for her father, Ghias-ud-Din Beg, the Chief Minister of Emperor Jahangir. It was a similar design to Taj Mahai but of a smaller scale. There was less crowd here and we spent some time taking some nice pictures.

Mehtab Bagh
This was a garden situated at the backside of the Taj. This was another great angle to get a different view of Taj, away from the crowd. Even though we were quite a distance from the Taj, it was still captivating to see the grand old dame and you just don’t get tired of it, even from a distance. Due to a rush of time and the intense heat, we did not spend time exploring the garden, which consisted quite a number of flora and fauna.

Fatehpur Sikri (UNESCO)
En route to Jaipur, we dropped by yet another fort. This was the Imperial city of the Mughal dynasty. Here, with the help of our guide we had a greater understanding of how the ancient royalty lived. We caught of glimpse of their court room, bedroom, sauna, toilet tec. It was interesting and we spent a few hours exploring but once again the intense heat was a killer.

Next stop, Jaipur

Ambre Fort
This has to be the highlight of Jaipur. Like previous forts that we visited, this was a Fort-palace of the Kachchwaha clan from 1600-1727. The fort was located on a hill top and we took an elephant ride up. Actually it didn’t feel like an elephant ride since we sat on a seat placed on the back of the elephant instead of directly on the elephant. It is quite similar to Fatehpur Sikri except that the scenery was nicer since we were perched on top of the hill and we got to see a lake and a bird’s eye view of the surrounding structures below. I have to say the top view scenery was worth a thousand pictures.
ambre Fort

ambre Fort

Jaigarh fort
Further up Ambre fort lie Jaigarh Fort. Said to be undefeated in battles, this fort has considerable less visitors as compared to Ambre fort. The big selling point is the giant cannon named Jaivana. Legend said that it was only fired once, during a test and was so powerful that is not used again! On a higher elevation than Ambre fort, the view below was also spectacular. However the weather was once again a killer as we struggled to keep cool and hydrated.

Jantar Mantar (UNESCO)
This was the largest of five astronomical observatories build by Maharaja Jai Singh during the period 1727-1734 in north India. For astronomy buffs, this would be a must visit places. It was amazing how the ancients had the know-how and knowledge to build such devices and some of the geometric equipment are still useable and accurate.

Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds)
Built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Singh as part of City Palace. It was an extension of the Zenana (women) chamber. It's purpose was to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen. There are five stories which visitors can ascend to the top to get a street view of Jaipur.

Albert Hall
A museum with quite a lot of artefacts to see and explore, for those interested in ancient India.

Galwh Bagh (aka The Monkey Temple)
On the outskirts of Jaipur, this was a temple filled with monkeys and a special detour has to be made. Just be on your guard should the monkeys decide to turn aggressive and take away your stuff. It was very interesting to see so many monkeys roaming freely in the compound. We even saw baby monkeys but we steered clear of them and took pictures from a distance just in case the mother decided we were a threat and decided to attack us. We were mindful not to bring food in the event we were being harassed

Lakshmi Narayan Temple
With some spare time, we dropped by this Hindu temple. It was a beautiful white marble structure with considerable number of devotees since it was after work. There were also some shops at the base of the temple selling souvenirs.

Observations about india

Tips
Tipping is quite predominant. Since salary is not high, everywhere we went we would be asked for tips from the shoe keeper at temples to hotels and guides and especially in restaurants. So just get ready lots of small change for distribution.

Driving
Driving is not for the faint hearted. Basically on the road there is no right or wrong, it is a matter of who is the more aggressive driver to be able to force your way to get what you want. Honking is constant and can be a menace. Sometimes it genuinely serves as a warning; most times it is to assert one’s aggressiveness to get what you want. Surprisingly the locals are cool about it and will not react with aggression towards the honking and lane cutting. For me to drive in this manner back who would definitely invite challenges,, shouting matches and fistfights. Traffic light are not reliable as drivers tend to beat red lights. Drivers, however do not speed at intersections so it is up to the pedestrian to aggressively cross the road; surprisingly most will slow down and give way. Interestingly, I noted lots of lorries having this sign at the back of their vehicle – “Please honk me”. On second thoughts, this was a sign of safety since lorries are big have bigger blind spots so honking would serve to warn them of impending dangers . Another interesting note is licence plate numbers being written on pieces of paper and pasted on the plate location. There were even cases where there was no licence plate numbers! That’s India for you. In a nutshell, the mighty is always right

Food
The staple diet is roti and curry. I noted the roti is harder and drier than similar versions back home and the curry not as spicy as South India. I don’t really enjoy the food there and craved for rice. Vegetarian meals are common in India. For meat eaters, you can hardly find beef, fish and pork and more of chicken and mutton. Food may not be very hygienic or your body may suffer reactions so anti diarrhoea medicine is a must

Animals
It’s an urban zoo out there. Animals are revered in India and are commonly found by the roadside everywhere we go. More often you can see docile cows, buffalos, birds, goats, dogs and the occasional camel, donkey and horse. But I can’t remember seeing any cats! And in certain temples and attractions, you can also see monkeys. And of course, elephants (and lots of elephant shit), on Jaipur. Interesting observations for animal lovers

Shopping
Just 3 words – forget about it. You will be better off going to Bangkok to satisfy your shopping craving. Malls are not common and those we found sell stuff we can easily find back home. Unless you are interested to buy silk and gemstones (beware of getting scammed). So just enjoy the sight and sound and do your shopping back home.

Conclusion
It was an incredible and certainly memorable journey. And who can forget about the memorable Taj Mahal!

Posted by acerchuan 08:37 Archived in India Comments (0)

Impressions of Lijiang and Shangri-la

Magical trip to see the wonders of Nature

semi-overcast 25 °C

Never expected to be back in China so fast so soon after my recent Jiangnan trip. This time it was at the last minute invitation of a friend. It was basically a toss-up between Lijiang and Guilin. We did consider Myanmar but it was out for now as visa required (too last minute to apply) but definitely I this would be a future destination next time. We ended up almost picking Macau / Zhuhai having run out of suitable tour packages on offer from various agencies but not for the fact that we finally found this Lijiang package on our last call that suited our schedules. I always had a soft spot for Lijiang after I saw the beautiful pictures on Facebook that my friend took and always wanted to make a trip to see its beauty with my own eyes so in a way it was me who had a great influence on our eventual choice!

The trip took us to Yunnan province and covered Dali (大理), Lijiang (丽江) and Shangri-la (香格里拉). We skipped Kunming as this would mean another extra 2 days of travelling which was both tiring and schedule tight.

Tigerair flies direct from Singapore to Lijiang (that’s the beauty of Singapore, with flights to uncommon destinations) although the flight do not seem regular so do check schedules. I usually don’t pay attention to window seat scenery but this is one journey whereby window seat is highly recommended. Due to high mountainous area, one gets a magnificent view of the mountains and some spectacular greenery view just before landing. Also because of this the pilot has to skillfully maneuver the plane to avoid crashing into the mountains. It was both exciting and trilling plane ride. I was very encouraged by the good start and hoped this was a prelude of more good scenery to come.

Dali (大理)
We landed in Lijiang airport in the hot summer heat. The temperature was no different as compared back home but due to higher altitude, the ultra violet rays were stronger. We proceeded to take a 5 hour bus ride to Dali. Along the treacherous road, we passed by mountains and more mountains, taking into view the scenery along the way.

Dali city itself is not heavily populated, which is one thing I like. However, due to tour schedules, we only covered Dali Old Town and Chong Shen Temple. I sure would like to have more time to cover more areas!

Dali Old Town (大理古镇)
Having been to various parts of China, I noted that old towns are a common theme in various cities. Dali is no exception. These are basically old structures and towns refitted and renovated for commercial tourism. Along the streets you can buy local produce, food and basically just about anything local. There are even a few bars and cafes where one can just rest their feet and enjoy a cuppa. The human traffic wasn’t heavy also which gave us time to walk slowly and just enjoy the journey without have to fight through congested crowds. There are a few spots for photo buffs most notably at the main entrance where the bright lights illuming the city entrance makes it a wonder spot for a memorable picture.

The next day we went to Chong Shen temple (崇审寺). The most noticeable landmark is the 3 pagodas standing which is said to serve as a symbol of blessing to this city. What is unique about the temple is that it encompasses various aspects of Buddhist and Taoist teachings with influence by local beliefs in different temple location三, showing acceptance to different practices and beliefs. This would be a good ‘museum’ if one wishes to understand both Buddhist and Taoist beliefs. The area is rather huge so to really explore the place by foot in full could take at least 3 quarter days.

We then proceeded to Er Hai (洱海). It is actually not a sea but a large lake. The locals depend on it for their livelihoods by fishing. We took a boat ride out to the lake and enjoyed the breeze and lake view. There was also a ‘demonstration’ on how the locals use birds which can dive into the lake to catch fish. Turns out this was only for show as I noticed the fish was already dead when the bird scooped it out from the water. I also heard the birds had their necks constricted to prevent them from swallowing the fish in whole. Sad but true.

It is a pity we missed Cang San (仓山). We did pass by it but did not get a chance to explore it.

Lijiang (丽江)
We then proceeded back to Lijiang. The city itself is more congested than Dali with more mainland Chinese from other parts of China gathering here to do business plus Lijiang itself is already a well known tourist spot.

We once again proceeded to another old town (丽江古城). We actually also made a return trip to the old town on one of our free nights to cover the unexplored parts of the town. Unlike Dali Old Town, commercialization and tourist dollars has caused it to lose the sort of special luster that such old towns deserve. Besides food and local produce, there was a stretch being allocated for pub street where beer was served and loud music was played at night. I can imagine the forefathers of this old town must be turning in their graves if they found out that their beloved town has turned into such a place!

Some common items on sale include precious metals and stones, especially silver and jade. Advisable not to buy these are we are no experts in such stuff and can easily be conned. The locally recommended food is Xian Hua Bing (鲜花饼). Besides this another unique item on ‘sale’ is drums. If one does not wish to buy them, one can spend some time to learn some skills from the shop owners. Or buy a CD. And there is this common one song that everybody keeps playing that is still ringing in my head! It is heartening to see so many people still dedicated to music.

Another area worth mentioning is Wan Gu Lou (万古楼). This was a place where one gets a paranormal view of Lijiang town. The guide actually tried to dissuade us from going as he said the route to the top was tough and was exhausting (no pain no gain). Ended up only 3 of us insisted on going and we were rewarded with a magnificent view from the top! Actually he exaggerated the difficulty of the journey. Sure we had to walk upslope and took steps but was not a difficult walk since there was no time constrain. And we almost missed the view because of his words if not for our insistence!

DSC00348.jpg

On return to Lijiang from Shangri-la, we visited Hei Long Tan (黑龙潭). Actually I didn’t plan to log this down if not for what I felt was some of the best photo shots taken during the entire trip at this location – beats even Shi Ka mountain shots. Well, the curse of the Group tour as we left barely 15 minutes after reaching the park. If only we had more time!

hei_long_tan_1.jpg

Guan Fang Hotel (官方旅店)
Usually I don’t talk about hotels but this is one unique experience that I simply have to mention. Due to Lijiang’s geographic location at higher altitudes, high rise buildings are rare. The hotel we stayed is spread out over a large land area built in a chalet style format. The individual blocks are 3-stories tall and occupy about 5 rooms per block. On the ground floor is a living room with a large sofa and a big plasma TV where people can gather round in comfort to chit chat and drink tea, just like being at home. This sure beats having a gathering in the confined space of a cramped hotel room. What’s so unique about this hotel is that there is a dedicated housekeeper / butler to serve each individual block. The housekeeper even prepares breakfast for everybody, giving one the feel of being at home away from home. It is styled something like Taiwan’s Min-Su (民宿) concept.

The first housekeeper we met was a cute young girl who was very dedicated and attentive to details. The second one we met on our return stay was the more shy and reserved type. Overall, I loved this concept and really enjoyed my stay there. One minus point is that some of the items in the room are old but still it does not devalue the experience. Also if only there were more facilities like a swimming pool or a gym just like a chalet! Think I am asking for too much!

This is definitely a good location to wind down, do nothing and just relax.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山)
This was one of the most anticipated attractions of this tour. However, it turned out to be a letdown due to cloudy weather.

The journey started off well enough. During the bus ride we continued to enjoy the scene of majestic mountains. Our first stop was to catch the mega show “Impression of Lijiang”, which we were almost late. It was an impressive act with hundreds of cast dancing away. However, the show was constantly interrupted by the entry of late spectators and continued until the 45 minute mark of the 70 minute show. This proved to be a huge source of irritation as our efforts to enjoy the show were distracted constantly. Sad but this is the way the show organizers wanted to milk more money by admitting more spectators even as the show was well and truly underway.

After lunch we continued our journey to two key attractions. First stop was the Yak ranch against the backdrop of the Jade Snow Mountain. Unfortunately, the weather was not perfect and we could only see the bottom half of the mountain, with the top part being blocked by clouds. We then walked one big round around the ranch hoping for better weather as time passed but the clouds did not break, which was a big disappointment.

We then went to Lan Yue Gu (蓝月谷), a huge lake with shades of green and blue colored water. From far the lake looks magnificent but on closer look, I would only give it a 6.5 of 10. Perhaps my bar has been raised sigificantly after the lakes I witnessed in Jiu Zhai Gou (九寨沟)during my Sichuan trip.

I was left slightly disappointed when we left and hoped for better scenery in the remaining attractions yet to be visited in the next 2 days.

Shangri-La(香格里拉)

Shangri-La is primary a Tibetan-influenced town located approximately 3,200m above see level. For those who envision the utopian land with lush mountains and endless greenery grassland associated with the mystical land would surely be bitterly disappointed. Originally known as Zhong Dian County it was then referred as Shangri la, I suspect, for commercial reasons. The city is as much a Chinese city as other parts of China, albeit on a 10 times smaller scale. Although primarily a Tibetan influenced area, this county is as commercial and modern as other Chinese city. Just the presence of a cinema showing latest Hollywood blockbuster movies and KFC tells you as much. Interestingly, Shangri-la chain of hotels is also set to build a hotel on their namesake territory!

We covered the Old town overlooking a monastery. Incidentally this was the location where the fire burned down the houses recently but by some miracle the monastery escaped unscathed. After settling down in our hotel, we proceeded to watch a local dance performance having thought there was no activity at night. How wrong we were! Along the way we saw the glittering streets and even locals dancing away in the park, just like what we witnessed in Chengdu’s People’s Park and Cambodia’s Sisowath Quey. Had I known before hand this was quite a modern Chinese city I might have instead spent the night wandering the streets and clocking my KFC! But still no regrets on watching the dance show. It was worth it and time well spent.

One thing to note on oxygen canister. We were told to buy one for insurance sake in case of breathing difficulties. Actually I felt no difficulty at high altitude but as different bodies react differently to high altitudes, it was better to get one if not for a peace of mind.

Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡)B
Before we reached Shangri-la, we visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This was a river with fierce flowing water. I cannot find words to described what I have seen。One has to be there to witness it yourself to appreciate what I have seen. Breathtaking is the best word I could think of. At least at this moment of my life, this was the most impressive fierce flowing river (hence the name of the gorge) that I have seen. There were 2 view points, one from the top and the other closer to the edge and both offered different angles. Due to higher altitude, we were told to take out time to descent to the base and even slower to ascend from the base and for those who found it tough, not to continue the journey to the bottom. Or alternatively there were human carriages, for a fee f course. And I can say the ascend back to the top was tough as I panted and puffed my way hauling myself back up! I think I should work on my fitness again! I certainly enjoyed the view and finally found my money’s worth.

Shi Ka Mountain (石卡雪山)
After the euphoric of Tiger Leaping Gorge came the next highlight of the tour and the most challenging - to ascend 4,400m above sea level to the top of the Shi Ka Mountain attraction. I hoped for good weather unlike the experience back in Jade Dragon Mountain.

The journey was broken into 2 sections – ascend to the second base camp via cable car and if one felt fine, then to ascend again by cable car to the summit. Due to different people’s reaction to high altitude, safety was always emphasized and those who could not continue were asked not to ascend to the top. And of course to breathe from the oxygen canister purchased constantly.

Getting into the cable car was a funny experience; one car could take 8 people and for those with slow reaction would find it slow to get on the car leaving the last man scrambling into the car! Along both rides we took in some nice scenic shots.

Once we reached the top, it was an exciting experience. Due to summer weather, it was not as cold but still a minimum jacket was necessary. I was once again disappointed by the thick clouds overhanging us which reduced visibility and hence we could not see far. Then just as mysteriously, as if an answer to my prayers, the winds began to slow and the clouds started to break, giving us some spectacular view of the Snow Mountains, albeit mountains without the snow. I stood there not quite mouth open yet (still does not beat what I have seen on route to Hung Long in Sichuan Province) but still you have to marvel at Mother Nature’s beauty. I wanted to stay and just stare afar to enjoy this unique and rare experience. But as time ran out and the group slowly made their descent, I reluctantly followed. A truly sad moment.

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Onto the second base camp and everybody literally had a field day taking photos of the greenery fields with azalea flower, against the backdrop of the mountains. Some were even being harnessed by hungry wild boars! When time was up everybody reluctantly left.

Shu He Old Town (束和古镇)
This is another old town located in another part of Lijiang. Unlike Lijing Old Town, it is not as congested and we had a good walk inside and enjoying the slower pace in life. Items on sale are similar to Lijing old town minus the bars and loud music. I just hope commercial dollars does not invade and ruin it soon.

It was finally time to leave for home and we brought back good memoires. Although it may not be as spectacular as what I had expected, still it was a wonderful trip.

Posted by acerchuan 09:59 Archived in China Comments (0)

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