Trekking in Xingping, Guangxi


Due to circumstances, I often think back to more “innocent” times, such as when I used to travel in China. While I really don’t like the country’s government nor the direction the country has been heading in for the past five years, China does have a number of beautiful places. And sometimes the local people can be nice as well. Going to Guangxi was one of my best trips in China.

In 2016 when I was working in Hong Kong, I decided to go to Guangxi for Christmas that year. Guangxi’s karst mountains and rivers are some of China’s most famous and beautiful landscapes, and being right next to Guangdong, Guangxi was not far from Hong Kong. And thanks to a new high-speed train line, going to Guangxi was much faster than before.

My first stop was Xingping, a small village on the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo that also was where Yangshuo high-speed station was located. Xingping is not as well-known as those two places, but years earlier, I had come across an amazing photo of Guangxi and it was taken in Xingping. It was a welcome coincidence that a high-speed train station was built there. I arrived at night, found my hotel and checked in.

Being located right along the river and overlooked by several distinct karst peaks looming nearby, Xingping features fantastic scenery and is also a good staging point for boat rides or treks to other villages in the area. And not surprisingly, there was construction going on, no doubt intended to cope with a potential tourist boom. Like most Chinese cities and towns, the village even had an old pedestrian street that had been spruced up for visitors, but I found it underwhelming.

The next day, I found that the weather was horrible due to thick fog that was likely smog (yes, even in the countryside). I still decided to walk along the Li River to the location that is featured on China’s 20 yuan bill, about 15-20 minutes from Xingping.

I walked back into Xingping and decided to trek to another village, the even smaller Yucun (Fish Village) that supposedly had some very old buildings and lay to the south. Its biggest claim to fame was that it had been visited by Bill Clinton, as well as Hillary and Chelsea, during his state visit to China in 1998. Following directions from my hotel, I walked out of the village into the mountains behind it. I passed through a valley, briefly got lost at a fork, and had to backtrack a bit before finally seeing the river appear below me after two hours of trekking. I followed a road down to the river, where Yucun was located. As a secluded settlement that could only be reached by boat or on foot, Yucun was built in the 16th century, giving it over 500 years of history. When I arrived in the village, I was met by a local woman, who then nicely gave me a tour of the old houses in the village center, which featured some elegant wooden carvings as well as some Mao posters.

As I was in no mood to hike back to Xingping in foggy weather, the woman’s husband took me back by boat (which I paid for). Going down the Li River on a flat bottom bamboo raft, albeit with a motor, was a thrilling experience, though when we got near Xingping, the boatman told me to lay low otherwise he would have to pay a fee for carrying a tourist on board.

The next day was my last in Xingping and I hiked up Laozhai Hill, which overlooks the village and river. While over 300 meters, the hill is actually quite steep in some parts, but once on top, the views are splendid. After I came back down, I checked out of my hotel and took a bus to Yangshuo, the larger and more well-known travel hub of Guangxi.


Setting off on the hike to Yucun (Fish Village)
Continue reading “Trekking in Xingping, Guangxi”

A visit to Hiroshima

This Western Japanese city is world-famous as the target of the first-ever nuclear weapon used in history, an atomic bomb dropped by an American B-29 bomber on August 6, 1945 that killed over 70,000 people instantly. This sad history was the main reason I visited Hiroshima, which marks the tragedy with the A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park. However, the city is actually an attractive, bustling place with a bit of charm, so you can both pay respects to one of the worst military tragedies in history and have a pleasant urban trip.

The A-Bomb Dome is the hollowed, preserved shell of a building that was heavily damaged by the atomic bomb but still remained standing. Formerly the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the A-Bomb Dome is a distinctive icon of the city and retains a solemn dignity. It is smaller than I expected and fenced off, so one can only look at it from the outside.

Right across the river from the A-Bomb Dome is the Peace Memorial Park, which features the Peace Memorial Museum, a children’s memorial, and the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims. The Peace Memorial Museum is a somber place with artifacts and photographs of the city during the war and bombing. An exhibit of preserved children’s items and photographs of the dead owners is quite sad to take in.

But while Hiroshima continues to bear testament to this tragic event, it has long overcome it and is the economic and commercial hub of the Chūgoku region, the southernmost part of the main Japanese island of Honshu. Hiroshima has a laidback feel to it, symbolized by its ubiquitous trams which are the city’s main form of public transit. Mountains to the north of the city and rivers running through it give Hiroshima a distinct natural attractiveness.

It has a massive indoor shopping arcade called Hondori Street which runs for about half a kilometer. While it is very spacious, cavernous even, most of the shops are chain food or clothing stores so it wasn’t too interesting for me. I was lucky enough to catch a raucous but orderly fan parade for the city’s baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp, who had just won their conference at that time.

Hiroshima Carp baseball fan parade

As with most Japanese cities, Hiroshima has its own castle, as well as the beautiful Shukkeien garden.

Hiroshima Castle, also known as the Carp Castle due to the area near it, is an attractive, compact 5-story castle surrounded by a large moat and located inside a tree-filled compound. Originally built in the late 16th century, the castle was destroyed by the atomic bomb so what exists now is a rebuilt version. The black-roofed castle features distinctive brown wooden panelling on each of its levels, with historical exhibits about Hiroshima and the castle inside.

Within the castle grounds are a shrine and the stone ruins of the Imperial Army headquarters during the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, which was destroyed by the atomic bomb.

Shukkeien Garden is a smallish wonderland that recreates Japan’s various landscapes such as mountains, valleys, lakes, and forest. Built in 1620, the garden features a large central pond with huge carp, bamboo groves, a mini rice field, and even a small hill. There are also a few tea houses around the garden which feature tea ceremonies at certain times of the year, and a teashop where you can enjoy tea anytime.

Even here in the garden, there is an Atomic Bomb Memorial Monument where 65 remains of atomic bombing victims were found buried in the park in 1987. The remains were then placed in the A-Bomb Memorial Tower at the Peace Memorial Park.

Shukkeien itself means “shrunken garden” in Japanese but its beauty and elegance is anything but small.

I also went to the City Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located on a small hill called Hijiyama Park, but its main exhibition was closed for renovation so I didn’t bother going in.

Another good reason to stay in Hiroshima is to visit the shrine island of Miyajima or Itsukushima, where the famous “floating” torii gate in the sea is located. Getting there is a short train ride of about one hour and a very short ferry ride of about 15 minutes.
One of Hiroshima’s many trams Continue reading “A visit to Hiroshima”

An introduction to Trinidad


While I’m in Taiwan, one of the safest places to be during this pandemic, I can’t help thinking of Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean country where I grew up. Just like Taiwan, Trinidad is also doing OK in containing the coronavirus with only 154 cases (with a population of 1.4 million).

Now, first, as an oil-rich country, Trinidad and Tobago is different from most other Caribbean countries and does not rely on tourism. The economy and society as a whole are not built around tourism and there are no all-inclusive resorts. The much smaller island of Tobago has lovely beaches and coral reefs and does indeed have a tourism economy. The country was a British colony up until independence in 1962, but the British had seized Trinidad in 1797 from the Spanish who governed it from 1498 after Christopher Columbus came to the island.

Trinidad is beautiful, hilly and green, but it lacks spectacular mountains or large lakes. What it has instead are the world’s largest natural asphalt deposit- the Pitch Lake, and one of the world’s largest urban savannahs smack in the middle of its capital.

The Pitch Lake is not a lake, but an asphalt-filled basin from which the material is extracted to pave roads and runways in Trinidad and all over the world including the US and China. Asphalt, also known as bitumen, is a type of petroleum and the Pitch Lake is estimated to contain 10 million tons of asphalt. The Pitch Lake was “discovered” by British explorer and soldier Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595 who used the pitch to caulk his ships.

The Pitch Lake might not look like much, but you can walk all over the large black “lake” on the hard surface and even swim in some parts where there are shallow pools of water. There are also parts that are muddy where you can dip a stick into it and collect the viscous asphalt. The lake has been mined for asphalt since 1867 and is still being mined by facilities next to it. It has been called the “eight wonder of the world” though I suspect mainly by Trinidadians.

When you travel in Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain (POS), it’s hard to miss the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant field that is over 2 miles (3.5 km) in length and also doubles as a “roundabout.” The savannah, as it’s often called by locals, contains football and rugby fields, cricket pitches, a garden, and the main performance stage used during Trinidad’s annual Carnival.

As a student, my commute to school used to involve going around this savannah, where I’d take these views for granted. 

It also used to host horse-racing in my childhood though the racetrack was later moved to another location. The savannah itself is pleasant, but there’s a lot of things to see around it. On the north are the main zoo and botanical gardens, to the south is downtown POS, and facing the savannah on the west face are the “Magnificent Seven.”

These are seven grand colonial buildings and mansions that were built in European, Indian and Moorish styles during the early 20th century. Ranging from a stately German Renaissance school building with a towering clock tower to a Moorish all-white building to a small castle to elegant French-style wooden mansions, the seven are each distinct and boast unique styles and features.

Several of them are in active use – Queen’s Royal College, one of the country’s top secondary schools; the Catholic Archbishop’s official residence; and White House, the office of the Prime Minister.

Stollmeyer’s Castle is Trinidad’s only castle though it is more like a mini-castle as it was intended to replicate a wing of Scotland’s Balmoral Castle. Stollmeyer’s Castle and the three French-colonial-style mansions are listed as heritage sites. Unfortunately, none of these buildings are open to the public, which is a pity since I think it would good for people to be able to visit these  buildings. Some of the mansions are being renovated and aren’t in the best of shape.

Near the savannah is Trinidad and Tobago’s National Museum and Art Gallery. It is not very big, reflecting the country’s small size, but it is housed in a handsome 19th-century two-story building. The art gallery is probably better than the national museum, which is a bit sparse.

The museum is on the first floor, covering the Spanish colonial era which began in 1498 after Christopher Colombus’ arrival, followed by the British colonial period from 1797, and then independence in 1962. Not to be left out are the Amerindians (local indigenous people who are sadly almost extinct) whose presence is acknowledged with some artifacts. There is also a room dedicated to Trinidad’s oil industry with some machinery and photos.

On the second floor is the art gallery, which is more vivid. There are several beautiful paintings, including a room filled with 19th-century landscape paintings by Michael-Jean Cazabon, Trinidad’s most well-known painter.

Trinidad does have some fine beaches, especially along its north and east coasts which face the Atlantic. The most well-known is Maracas in the north, but last time when I went back, I visited Manzanilla in the east. The area is especially well-known for its plentiful coconut trees that provide a perfect tropical backdrop.

If you were to visit Trinidad, there would be much more to see. A trip to Tobago, which is only 83 kilometers away, would be recommended as well as visits to beaches, the Caroni Swamp (home of the scarlet ibis, Trinidad’s national bird), waterfalls, and birdwatching sanctuaries in the forest. In terms of culture, you can enjoy a mix of cuisine with Indian, African, Chinese and Western influences (my personal favorite is Trinidadian Indian). The population is also mainly ethnic Indian and black, with a substantial mixed population and small but noticeable ethnic Chinese, white and Syrian/Lebanese communities.




Queen’s Royal College


The Archbishop’s official residence



Art gallery in the second floor of the National Museum and Art Gallery

Great books about continents and regions

While flight “travel bubbles” and corridors between specific countries are starting to be set up, I don’t think this is the right time for most people to be traveling yet. Even if your own country is safe and has contained the coronavirus, and your destination has done the same, the whole process in going to airports and being on a plane for hours still has some risks. Of course, I do miss travel a lot, and if it wasn’t for the pandemic, I’d probably be doing a bit of that now. But I can only content myself with virtual and literary travel.

As a follow-up to my post on the best books about entire countries, here’s a list of great books about regions and continents that I’ve read. I do enjoy these kinds of books for their epic scale and the variety of countries and places they cover. If any of you have any suggestions, feel free to let me know.

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Traversing the entire continent of Africa from South Africa to Egypt, Paul Theroux provides his trademark cantankerous but insightful takes on a memorable voyage that goes through countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganada. Theroux is quite critical of the level of development in Africa, especially the continent’s cities, and of foreign aid, which he thinks is useless and exploitative.

Island People by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

As the region where I grew up in, you’d think the Caribbean is a place I’m very familiar with. Actually, while I know a bit about most of the islands, I haven’t been to any of them other than Trinidad and Tobago, where I grew up.
Island People is a fascinating book which highlights the Caribbean’s complexity, diversity and tragedy contained in the mix of island countries. Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Trinidad are certainly covered, as well as the smaller islands like Barbados, Dominica and Antigua. Taking a more sociological and anthropological approach as opposed to traveling, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro produces a superb book that takes you on a memorable journey across the Caribbean.

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux

You might be able to tell I’m a Paul Theroux fan, but even if I wasn’t, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star would still make the list. The book covers Theroux’s epic journey in the mid-2000s by train and boat across Europe and all of Asia. At least a dozen countries are featured, including India, Japan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. For the latter, a savage decade-long civil war was raging while Theroux was there. Theroux met with several famous writers during this journey, including Orhan Pamuk in Turkey, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami in Japan. Astonishingly, this was actually the second time he had taken such a trip, with the first having been done in 1973, for which he wrote The Great Railway Bazaar.

Ottoman Odyssey by Alev Scott

Journeying across the former lands of the Ottoman Empire, Alev Scott aimed to explore the empire’s lingering presence. As she traveled through the Balkans, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, and Armenia as well as Turkey itself, she discovers a mixed heritage in which tensions against Turkey (which succeeded the Ottoman Empire) still linger in some places while language and customs ensure some common bond.

Blood and Silk by Michael Vatikiotis

Southeast Asia is famous for travel, but this book is about anything but that. Blood and Silk is a look at the region’s conflicts, tensions, and politics, especially on how its elites manage to retain power. Rather than beaches and backpacking, this book provides a fascinating look into dynasties, feudalism, and conflicts.

Coronavirus-beating countries

Times are tough for a lot of people in different ways. Some of us may be under lockdown, some of us may be experiencing health or financial issues and some might be worried about the future. Hopefully nobody reading this has gotten the coronavirus (COVID-19) but I guess you may know somebody who has.
The harsh reality is that the coronavirus is still surging in some regions like the Americas and South Asia, but a few countries are beating or containing the coronavirus so there is some good news.

Here’s a list of the countries I’ve visited or lived in which are beating or containing the coronavirus.
As I haven’t been to Australia or New Zealand, neither are on this list but they have both done a very good job in containing their respective coronavirus outbreaks. Japan and South Korea were also under consideration, but they are still seeing a steady number of new daily cases and both have had small clusters happening recently.

Taiwan
Fuzhoushan, Taipei
Taiwan has done such a good job that it’s been able to keep schools, businesses, and offices open during this whole pandemic. With just 446 cases (most of which were “imported,” meaning the patients were infected while abroad) and 7 deaths, Taiwan, with a population of almost 24 million, has been able to prevent being swamped.

Vietnam

Vietnam is actually the runaway leader by statistics because its cases total 349 and its deaths are a big fat 0 (zero!).That’s impressive, and doubly so when you consider the country’s population is over 97 million. Now, there is a caveat which is that Vietnam is a Communist country that censors the media and internet, so the reported numbers cannot be trusted 100 percent. However, experts seem to agree that even if the numbers are being under-reported, the fudging is not by much and the outbreak is pretty much under control.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is undergoing dark times (see “national security law”) but at least it’s been able to contain its coronavirus outbreak. Currently, its cases are 1,129 while deaths are only 5. It’s a very good result considering it’s a densely-packed city-state of over 7 million.

Thailand

Thailand would have been expected to have been very vulnerable given its proximity to China and the sheer number of Chinese tourists it gets, but somehow the country not only dodged a massive outbreak but it managed to control the moderate outbreak it experienced. Though the country of almost 70 million people went into serious lockdown, which included a curfew, it has started relaxing restrictions. Thailand’s cases number 3,147 with 58 deaths.

Trinidad and Tobago

My country is really small (population 1.4 million) and not in a busy part of the world, being at the southernmost point of the Caribbean. However, it also had to go into lockdown after getting a few cases, as the authorities took no chances. It has emerged from lockdown, and has just 123 cases and 8 deaths.

Cambodia

Cambodia has managed to limit the coronavirus outbreak to just 129 cases and zero deaths, which is really good considering the country (16.7 million) is very much a developing nation and does not have a strong health system. This is another country that has aroused suspicions of under-counting, but the general view is that its success is genuine.

Macau

This tiny region (like HK, it’s a Chinese Special Administrative Region) has been one of the best in having only 45 cases and zero deaths despite being located next to China. It helps that it’s very small and has a population of just 650,000 but it still deserves a lot of credit.

Malaysia
Penang, Malaysia
Malaysia experienced a serious outbreak early on, after it held a religious event that saw over 12,000 people gather in March, but it went into lockdown and seems to have weathered the storm now after cases surged into the thousands. With new daily cases now numbering in the low double-digits, the country of 32.3 million is emerging from lockdown and has 8,556 cases and 121 deaths.

Ottoman Odyssey- book review

If it wasn’t for the fact that Turkish authorities decided to ban the author from reentering the country due to her political journalism, the idea for writing about the former Ottoman Empire would not have come to fruition. So it is thanks to Turkey’s sensitive regime that Alev Scott wrote Ottoman Odyssey – Travels through a Lost Empire, a fascinating and somber account of the lingering heritage of the Ottoman Empire in its former territories.

Scott, a half-Turkish Cypriot and half-British reporter, had lived in Turkey for several years before suddenly finding out she was barred from the country after being refused entry from Greece. Originally intending to write about the social legacy of the empire within Turkey, she decided to broaden her scope to the wider empire. The book features people and places from Turkey to Greece to the Balkans to Israel and Lebanon.

The Ottoman Empire ruled modern-day Turkey as well as most of the Balkans, the Middle East and Egypt, which meant it encompassed Asia, Africa and Europe. While dominated by the Turks who were predominately Muslim, the empire had a cosmopolitan nature with multiple ethnicities and religions. It is sad that modern-day Turkey is far less multicultural than it was in the 19th-century, when significant Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities thrived in Istanbul. The 20th century upheavals such as the 1919-1922 war between Greece and Turkey, which resulted in both countries exchanging their respective Muslim and Orthodox minorities, ended this cosmopolitan nature.

For these minorities, displacement and exile became the norm, which the book covers in abundance. From Turkish Greeks living on the Greek isle of Lesbos just miles from the Turkish coast, looking on at their former homes whilst not being able to go back to live there is a daily experience. On divided Cyprus, locals from the Turkish and Greek-speaking sides talk about having more in common with their fellow Cypriots than their fellow ethnic and linguistic kin from the mainland.

But in general Ottoman rule has a mixed legacy across the region, especially among its former Christian subjects in Greece, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslav republics, and not least of all, Armenia. After all, the Armenia genocide was carried out during the end of the empire by Turkish troops, as well as Kurds, amid a general unraveling. While still hotly disputed by Turkey, who refuse to acknowledge the genocide, the Armenians suffered the terrible loss of over a million people that still haunts them today.

Scott visits Armenia, though she has to keep her Turkish heritage (her Turkish Cypriot mother) a secret, and tell people she is from England (which indeed she is). She visits the capital’s Genocide Museum where she realizes the full horrors of what happened to the Armenians, and leaves shaken by the experience.

Scott also travels to the Levant, the southern reaches of the former empire, specifically Israel and Lebanon. There, she weaves through the complex religious and sectarian makeup of those countries, much of which stems from Ottoman times. There are visits to Jerusalem, the stronghold of the Druze in Lebanon, and even a former Islamic State enclave in Lebanon near the Syrian border.

Ottoman Odyssey is a poignant, sorrowful and entrancing book that does well to highlight the lingering traces of a once grand empire across its former lands.