A Travellerspoint blog

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!

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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!

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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)

Jiangnan Tour

semi-overcast 15 °C

Time to get away on a break and this time I picked Jiangnan (江南) tour since my father has not been to this part of China. Actually I am only interested in Nanking and Hangzhou but am open to exploring other neighbouring cities in the area. This tour also comprises Shanghai, Suzhou and Wuxi and with a seven day schedule, I expected it to be another hectic tour.

Shanghai (上海)

I had actually been to Shanghai back in 2004 for a job assignment and had the change to go to The Bund and Peach Hotel for some jazz music. This tour would allow me to re-visit this place again with more stops on the itinerary.
Shanghai, the Pearl of the Orient, is one of the economic powerhouses in Asia. With a rich history of foreign influence and diverse culture (I’ll skip the history part), Shanghai is a city encompassing old European influence and modern infrastructure, with more Europeans visiting this part of China than other Chinese cities. In fact in many ways, I find myself stepping back into Singapore as there are many parallels between the 2 cities, not least the many, many tall buildings around me! Not surprising since Singapore has been compared to the likes of Hong Kong and Shanghai. And for the rest of this write-up, you will often see me compare various parts of Shanghai to Singapore as they are so alike. Traffic was quite bad and we were often caught in the jam. If I had time to stay longer, I will definitely take time to explore more of it rich European influence
Our first stop was Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC), Shanghai’s tallest building housing an observation deck which gives one a paranormal view of the city from 100 stories up. I am actually not a big fan, having skipped previous opportunities to observe similar skyview when in KL (Petronas Towers), Taipei (Taipei 101) and Tokyo (Tokyo Tower). But since this was part of the itinerary and free, so why not? The view up there was certainly nice but after a while you tend to get bored. I still prefer the skyview back in Singapore when I had the chance to see it for free when visiting both DBS and DNB banks. However, it would be magnificent to see the skyview if I had a powerful pair of binoculars, especially at night. But I do applaud the attraction management for trying to create a space-like atmosphere, to give one the impression that we are being warped through space to another dimension, from the time we step into the lift to the short walk up to the 100-storey observation deck.
Then we went to AP Plaza. Basically this is an air con bazaar. But we went a bit too early and most shops were still closed. Most of the shops sell clothes and nothing there really interested us. And we were constantly approached by touts to go to the back alley and buy fake bags and watches. It was something that I had experienced in my previous Shanghai trip but definitely I was not oing to do it this time round. At least not without a local to watch my back! We also saw 2 aspiring Li Nas hitting tennis balls against the wall. Just to show without proper facilities, the Chinese can innovate to achieve their dreams. The Science and Technology was also located next door, which was crowded with people, mainly teenagers.
Next stop was Cheng Huang Temple (城隍庙). Reminds me of Singapore’s Rochor Centre. I spotted Yu Yuan (豫园), one of the recommended must visit attractions in my Shanghai app. It was a courtyard cum garden and we spend the next hour roaming. There were a mix of locals and foreigners, mostly interested in taking photos.
The second leg of our Shanghai tour took place upon our return from HangZhou. Our first stop was QiBao Street (七宝老街). This was a street market with mostly locals and was we had a good time trawling through the stalls doing some street shopping. Unfortunately most of the items on sale did not suit us and there is only so much food our stomach can store! I still prefer Thailand when it comes to street market shopping though.
We then watched the ERA show (http://www.era-shanghai.com/era/en/). This was a highly recommended show from various internet sources, inclusive Trip Advisor and I was certainly not going to miss it when the opportunity presented itself. The show certainly did not disappoint. Often at times I was astounded by the scary stunts especially during the Wheel of Life segment where performers ran like a mouse through the a giant rotating wheel while trying to perform stunts like juggling and rope skipping. At times, there were many near misses and everybody had their hearts in their mouths, anticipating that something would go wrong. It was that scary. The other segment that touched me was the Forever performance whereby a young couple performed incredible feats using 2 ribbons suspended in midair. A lot of trust and practice was required to get this stunt going right and it was touching to see the young man and lady placing so much faith and their lives in each other’ hands as any mishaps would be fatal.
The rest of the Shanghai trip consists of The Bund, one of the iconic attractions in Shanghai. It reminds me too much of Shenton Way / Clark Quey area and also of Hong Kong’s The Peak. There were many people on the Bund, mainly to take photos and enjoying the building structure across the river. But if I had more time, I would definitely have explored the rich European-influenced architectural buildings around the area. Xing Tain Di (新天地 reminds too much of China Square, with people mingling around for coffee, finger food and catch up with friends. I noted that the price there is not cheap. Madam Tussand museum was certainly one of the highlights of this Shanghai tour. I am sure this museum needs further introduction and everybody had a field day taking photos with celebrities, alit with wax figures. Celebrities include Hollywood A-listers, Asian stars, Chinese celebrities, political leaders and leading sports people. Surprisingly, the most popular celebrity turns out to be Obama! I guess people like men with power! Nanking Street is just beside the shopping centre where Madam Tussand museum is located. The street liken to Singapore’s Orchard road. It is long and we had no time to cover it in its entirety but all we saw were people and more people. But like most parts of Shanghai, the items on sale either did not suit us or were too expensive.

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Suzhou (苏州)

Suzhou is an up and coming city, with well developed infrastructure thanks to extensive development via the Suzhou Industrial Park. I was impressed by the city but help can’t stop thinking the infrastructure is heavily influenced by Singapore ideas.
We covered Wang Shi Garden (网师园), a UNESCO world heritage site, which the locals are proud of. This structure showcases a typical house and the garden built by the wealthy during the Song dynasty to showcase their wealth and status. You can see the painstaking effort and attention to details that the wealthy Chinese put into building this house For once I enjoyed the guided tour as the guide explained in detail the meaning and story behind each structure and decoration. Had I gone alone, I think I would not have appreciated this attraction as much.
We then covered Hanshan Temple (寒山寺), said to be a famous temple in whole of China. It is said that this temple holds important ceremonies and is especially famous for its bell strikes especially during mid authum and new year periods.
We also covered Li Gong Di (李公堤), a food and beverage cum recreational location located along JinJi lake. This is a good area to come for relaxation after work.

Sha Jia Bang (沙家浜)

One the way to Wuxi from Suzhou, we dropped by Sha Jia Bang. This is a part of Chinese history familiar to most mainland Chinese due to several shows and operas on it but it is unknown to most Chinese outside of China. It depicts of the battle against the Japanese where some of the defenders chose this spot to recuperate. The reeds around the area proved to be good hiding cover from the Japanese and we were taken on a boat ride to enjoy the view and spot the reeds. It currently serves as one of revolutionary education centre and in fact we happened to catch school children dressed in army uniform touring the site. There was also a show with special pyrotechnics on the battle between the revolutionary forces and the Japanese invaders. There was a museum that we did not manage to visit but you can’t help but feel this is a place to serve as an indirect propaganda to glorify the communist regime.

Wuxi (无锡)

In ancient times, Wuxi was the place of battle between Wu & Yue and sets the scene for the story between Xi Shi (西施) and Fan Li (范蠡). We visited the Li Lake Garden (蠡湖) (small park which did not leave a lasting impression) There were people selling kites but that day was not a good day to fly kites due to lack of wind. Disappointingly, we did not visit Tai Lake. The next day, we visited the Romance of 3 kingdoms film location site, which has since been turned into a tourist attraction. China’s CCTV constructed this site to film the epic Romance TV series. We caught 2 locations the back palace (后宫) where we were in luck to catch a filming in progress and the stage scene for battle of Red Cliff. There was also a performance, mainly to show the horsemanship skills of the riders. There were many other areas which we did not cover due to the rushing nature of tour groups so I really didn’t feel like I had visited the attraction long enough to enjoy it.
I noted that there was also a Water Margin film set which I did not visit. Disappointing again.

Nanking (南京)

Naking is a city rich in history. It serves as the capital city of China for several dynasties even as recent as the KMT period but is now the state capital of Jiangsu province. Also known as the stone city, because of its the excellent craftsmanship, Naking is also the scene where the terrible massacre , otherwise known as the Rape of Nanking took place during the Japanese invasion of 1937. Due to its important role played in China’s history, this was one of stops that greatly interested me.
The first impression of Nanking was that it gave me the feel of the 1930s. Modern buildings were in construction like most parts of China but it still managed to retain its charm. It is not as crowded as Shanghai. The city walls surrounding the city, which were built during the Ming Dynasty to stop foreign invaders, were retained as part of its historical charm
The first stop is Fu Zi Street (夫子街), where is basically a street bazaar. There is of course a temple but unfortunately we had to pay an entrance fee (commercialization again) hence we did not go in.
The next day we visited 2 attractions, the Naking Yangtze River Bridge and Nanking Massacre memorial. The Nanking Bridge, a project that the Chinese are very proud of, depicts the struggles and determination of the Communist period. It took the Chinese years, countless lives and without the help of foreign expertise and technology to construct the impossible. It may look old and unassuming as it nonchalantly went about serving its function of providing a link between 2 parts of the Yangtze River by car and rail, without fuss. But it captured the pride and spirit of the Communist period to do the impossible, no matter the price. There an exhibit with a small-scale model explaining the history of the bridge. We were also shown the room where Chairman Mao once stood when he visited the Nanking Bridge. There is even a seat where Chairman Mao once sat but according to the guide, it has since been replaced due to wear and tear
The Nanking Massacre is one of the exhibits where I was looking forward to. It serves as a memorial to the tens and thousands of victims slain by the Japanese during the fateful period of 1937. There is an excavation site with photos and a memorial but nothing horrifying to despite those terrible years, unlike the Tho Slang Museum and Killing Fields of Cambodia. It is a simple, clean place with few exhibits and out of respect there are few noises but the symbolic creation of the memorial site is to remind people to never forget what happened during those terrible years as well as act as a symbol of peace in future generations

HangZhou (杭州)

HangZhou is one of those romantic cities I have been looking forward to. It is made famous by natural scenic beauty of West Lake as well the famous poet and governor Su DongPo.
On first impression, it is a peaceful and tranquil city, But with commercialization and ‘foreign invasion’, with tourism set to play an important role in the city’s economy, expect the peace to be shattered very soon. Thus it is best to visit the city soon before commercial dollars invades the peace and quiet.
First stop is the famed West Lake (西湖) Actually the area is quite big but due to tour group policy, we only managed to visit a fraction of it. This is one aspect of joining a tour group that I absolutely hated. We were taken to the Su Causeway and took a boat ride around West Lake. The West Lake is peaceful and tranquil but not the spectacular type to set the wows going. We also visited the Lover’s Bridge where the scene of the famous romantic tragic love story Liang ShanBo and Zhu YinTai. I think if I had more time to explore the West Lake, I would perhaps have appreciated it more. And this area sure looks like an excellent spot for jogging and relaxation activities. But unfortunately I did not have time to go jogging around the West Lake! That would have really served up my day!
With some spare time at night, we paid a visit to the city centre. Things were sure quiet at night. Some shops were open but most sell stuff that do not interest us and there were few customers roaming around. Most people I saw were gathered around in restaurants and fast food joints for food and chit chat session.
We also watched the West Lake show (西湖之夜). Compulsory show according to the guide. It was interesting but not as spectacular as the ERA show.

Xi Tang (西塘)

This is a waterside village very much the floating markets of Thailand we visited en route from HangZhou to Shanghai. We took a boat ride round the village I loved the peace and tranquility of the area. Again due to tour constrains, we basically ran through the attractions, which is a bit disappointing as I would have liked to spend more time there, slowing walking through, enjoying the scenery and checking out the various items on sale.

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End Tour

To conclude, due to joining of a group tour, I had a sense of unfulfilled accomplishment during this trip as we made our way to the airport for home. If only we had more time to explore some the places like West Lake, Xi Tang and the film studio! If I were to come back I would sure like to have more time to explore Wuxi and Hangzhou

Posted by acerchuan 06:35 Archived in China Comments (0)

Wow! Hyderabad

Trip to Hyderabad

20 °C

I was given the change to travel to our Hyderabad office and took this change to visit some local attractions, These are the few places where I have been to. Although this is not the magical Taj Mahal that i have been looking forward to, but a trip there is on the agenda and will will write about it if i get there

Charminar (and adjacent Mecca Masjit)
Surely one of the icons of Hyderabad. This is one of the must visit places. This structure was built as a prayer against the plague. The structure is a magnificent piece of Hyderabad architectural and one can just stand there staring at it, mesmerized by its beauty. However, the building has been desecrated by graffiti although it is not as bad as situation at Qutub Shahi tombs. Commercialization means the structure is located right smacked in the middle of the road. Around Charminar is a buzz of trading activates selling souvenirs for visitors.
Across the street is Mecca Masjit, the oldest mosque in the city. This is another structure worth visiting. However, beware of pesky touts.

Lumbini Park
One of the parks that I would recommend visiting. The visit is not so for the park but as a stop to travel by boat to Hussain Lake for a view of a giant Buddha statue. There are rides for both adults and kids to enjoy. This is also a nice place to just find a place to relax and enjoy the scenery.
Bags are strictly not allowed and have to be deposited at the enterance. That is the only annoying part.

Qutub Shahi Tombs
Also known as the Seven tombs, these are elaborate tombs built during the Qutbshahi dynasty. The beauty of the tombs here do match the charm of and beauty of Charminar but for one big flaw – they are in really poor condition due to wear and tear as well as vandalism (lots of graffiti on the walls). It is really a sorry sight to see such grand structures in decline due to neglect, human desecration and poor restoration works. I really hope something can be done otherwise it is only a matter of time before irrevocable damage to the structures will force them to be torn down, alongside a significant part of this area’s history.

Goldonda Fort
This is a large fortress which is another highlight of Hyderabad. There is a lot of walking to do, so do wear a pair of comfortable shoes and spend at least 2 hours exploring. In fact I went there twice as I ran out of time to explore the fort in depth during my first visit. There are guides eagerly offering their services so do hire one if you want to know more of the area’s history. This is also an area where many locals will come to spend time relaxing. Outside there are shops selling souvenirs and food.

Nehru Zoo
One of the places that a visitor can plan to go if there is spare time. Houses a large collection of animals that will keep visitors occupied. Highlight being an elderly resident tortoise and white tigers. There are also a large collection of birds if one likes feathered friends. There is also a sarafi park where wild animals roam.

Birla Mandir Temple
This is located in a uphill location so it is pretty tricky to reach by car. But it still worth to visit. The white temple is very well maintained and squeaky clean with some wonderful carvings. Sadly, no cameras are allowed inside – it would have been magnificent if I could have taken some pictures of the interior. Also like most temples and mosques, no shoes are allowed so do go early before the floor becomes burning hot and the crowd gathers.

Shilpa Ramam
This is a art and craft cum leisure park. There are several shops selling handicraft items and paintings. Locals also come here to relax, have a picnic and just hang out. Especially a favorite hangout for courting couplesThe area I really enjoy is the sculpture park with some impressive works. There is also a night bazaar.

Shopping

Hydrabard is not really a place for tourist shopping.

For the shopping crazy, there are a few shopping malls in Hyderabad area I have explored that are listed below. Hovever, I can’t help but comment that India seems to sell nothing but clothes 4 of 5 shops sells clothes and the ratio is up to 9 in 10 if you include shoes, bags and accessories.

Hyderabad Central – This is basically a one stop single owner mall, very much like your OG or SOGO. Basically if you are looking for clothing and related items, this will be a good one stop shop. Unfortunately if you are not into clothes, there is nothing much here. There is also a good food court as well as a supermarket to cater to day to day needs.
Inorbit – this will be what I call one of the more decent malls in town. In it you have everything under one roof to satisfy to different needs. There is also a giant hypermart – the only one I can find in town. The third storey has an assortment of foods from your everyday fast food to local and Chinese food. There is a also a cinema to keep movie goers happy and a small amusement park to keep the little ones occupied.

IMAX – As the word suggests, this is a mall more suited for movie goers. I have not tried the 3D effects yet but basically you are there for only one purpose. So if you do not plan to catch a movie, you can skip it. Another major drawback – bags are strictly not allowed in this mall and have to be deposited at the security post before entry. IMAX is also a within walking distance to Lumpini Park.

City Centre Mall – More of a clothing and related accessories mall. The only thing I like is that it is not so crowded. The only 2 places I will go here is the foodcourt for a drink (price here is cheaper than other malls) and the Crossworld bookshop.

GVK One – Within walking distance from City Centre Mall. This is one mall to rival Inorbit except for one major drawback – it does not have a hypermart. There is a spa (price not cheap though) as well as a 15-min 4D (feels more like a 3D theater) movie theatre. This is also where hard Rock café is located.

Some notes for India trip

Brings lots of small change of Rs 10. Along the way they will come in useful when giving tips, paying for parking (driver expects you to pay) and auto rickshaw. You could be ripped off if you have no small change.

For those who are not used to walking barefoot, wear comfortable socks. Upon entry to locations like temples and mosques, they expect you to take off your shoes. Especially at Birla Mandir temple where the floor could be scorching hot.
Footing in certain parts of India could be slippery, especially when climbing Golcondor Fort. So be careful and make sure your soles are slip free. The last thing you want is to slip and fall on some nasty ground.

I noted that bags are frowned upon in most location. Probably due to the fear of hidden bombs, which is still a concern in India. So if possible, do not carry bags around. If really necessary, leave them in the car when visiting the tourist spots. Otherwise make sure no valuables are in the bag should you be required to deposit bags at the counter. Expected to be asked for tips in tourist spots when doing so, especially if you are a non-indian

Bring water. Weather is hot, especially at Golcondor fort

Touts and guides and widespread. Actually they are harmless, they just want some money. So be wary and make your own judgment when paying them to ward off their advances should you require their services, whether willingly or unwillingly

Traffic may not be as chaotic as I expected but still we need to look out for traffic. Horns are a constant menace and may prove to be an irritation.
Weather is good all year round. Is can be cooling towards the end of the year but there is no harm to bring an umbrella along wherever you go.

Posted by acerchuan 06:04 Archived in India Comments (0)

Unique Bangkok Experience

A different view of outskirts of Bangkok

sunny 25 °C

Bangkok – land of a thousand smiles. Actually this is not the first time I am going to Bangkok but it has been a few years since I last went there. I had thought this would be the usual Bangkok trip, with shopping, eating and massage as the main objectives. And I had thought I would have nothing to write in the blog. But thanks to my local Thai colleague, I was brought to places where I had never been before and few tourists would venture to. A search in the website also barely had a mention of these locations. In that I really enjoyed this encounter.

The agenda was pretty simple – eat, shop, trip to nearby Ayutthaya, followed by more eating and shopping. But my colleague told me she would bring me to some other places to the outskirts of Bangkok which would show us a different view from the eating and shopping activities.

So I’ll skip the usual normality – Sukhumvit, Siam Square, Pratunam, MBK, Central World, Terminal 21 etc – these are the normal, boring touristy areas that one can find in any guidebook or website. I’ll start with our original target, the ancient capital of Siam – Ayutthaya. Ever since I was introduced to this place, it had always been a wish to go there to see another ancient ruin site. The journey is about 1.5 hour bus ride from Bangkok. Initially I had wanted to join a cruise tour followed by a unique biking experience. But in the end the tour package we picked did not offer that, which was a slight disappointment to me. Instead we were whisked away in a 30-seater bus (mass tourism again) with a return cruise trip via Chao Phray river. We went to 3 locations (4 actually plus a temple which I can’t remember the name), namely the palace at Bang Pa In, the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya and Wat Lokayasutha, which I will touch on below.

Bang Pa In Palace – Also known as the Summer Palace, the ground are open to the public to visit and enjoy and still occasionally use by the royals for special events or for entertaining guests. Although hundreds of years old, the palace is touched with a class of modern feel thanks to the restoration efforts of King Chulalongkorn. Among the highlights include a big lake, the throne hall with nice furniture decorations (unfortunately, no pictures allowed), a big watch tower, a Chinese styled palace, memorial for Queen Sunanda (inclusive of a poem composed by King Chulalongkorn) and a lover’s lane.

Ancient ruins of Ayutthaya – This was the highlight of any Ayutthaya tour. There were no spectacular structures unlike Angkor Wat. Most of it was remains of buildings and structures enclosed in an open space. Having visited many temples, ancient structures and ruins, this was not really a place to set the mouths gaping wide. But still this was an interesting place worth visiting. The highlight must surely be the Buddha head miraculously growing right smacked in the middle of a tree. Whether you believe it or not, it is said that the Buddha head gave the tree the strength to grow. To really believe it, you have to see it yourself. That was the only site that set the wows going.

Wat Lokayasutha – Also known as the Sleeping Buddha, this was the site where the statue of a giant reclining Buddha lies. The statue is about 30 foot long and basically everybody had a field day taking photos.

After the half day tour, it was back to Bangkok. We chose to go back by a river cruise, lunch included. The cruise along Chao Phray River, was in essence a normal boat cruise. Maybe my expectations were too high after my Halong trip but there was nothing really spectacular along the way to leave me with a deep impression. Well, it is another experience after all and you won’t know what you are in for unless you try it.

Looking forward to the next day, my Thai colleague met us at Chatuchat market. I had actually been there before but that was donkey years ago but I certainly did not mind going there again. But to my surprise, she skipped it altogether and brought us out of town, to Ko Kret. I tried to google for it afterwards but the only thing I could find was a section under Wikitravel. Both Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor did not pick this place up. This is basically a small man-made island accessible by boat along Chao Phray River, located in the province of Nontjaburi. This is a place locals go to, with few tourists so forget about speaking English or English language signs. Had it not been for my colleague, I don’t think I would have dared go due to the distance and language difficulty. The island was filled with locals making their way round a bazaar as well as several temples located on the island. This was certainly a refreshing experience and the trip can be covered on foot in 1 hour. What strikes me most is how low-lying the island was – in fact several areas of the island were covered with water. Even in our place where we had lunch, we had never felt so close to the river. A foot higher and we would be swimming with the sharks! The other thing worth mentioning is the pottery centre where one can get to see some nice handicraft work and if one has the time, can also pay a small fee for a crash course in pottery.

After this we headed for another previously unheard of location – Ampawa floating market. The journey took about 1 hour by car from Bangkok. This is an area where we can find more foreign tourists and is featured in Trip Advisor. The market is open only on weekends. Before reaching Ampawan, my colleague brought me to a Buddhist temple where I had the chance to offer some prayers and blessings. This was a temple unlike any temple as the ‘temple’ was located inside a tree.

Back to the main attraction and we had a great time walking around the floating market and mingling with tourists and locals alike. There were lots of activities and items on offer, from food to souvenirs and everyday items. One can also choose to buy food from the boats located along the market and choose to take a boat ride round the market. Or one can just simply do nothing, choose a place to sit down with a cuppa and just enjoy he sight and sounds of activities around. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I certainly enjoyed every minute of it. If only I had more time!

It was then time to leave and back to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Thailand does really surprise with new unexplored places and I look forward to coming back again to another part of Thailand where few tourists venture. Think it is time to brush up my Thai language!

P.S; I certainly hope the political situation will stabilize and peace can return to Bangkok soon.

Posted by acerchuan 21:08 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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